The cylinders squeaked as the rose-colored casket was lowered into the grave. A mound of dirt turning into mud due to the downpour waited to be shoveled back into the hole. Four sparse flower arrangements stood around the battered tent, which was doing its best to keep the rain off the single row of metal chairs beneath. Only one of those chairs was occupied. Lucia Harlow Ball sat alone, her eyes painfully dry as she stared at the scene in front of her.
Vera Ball slowly disappeared into the earth. The minister had given a quick speech about ashes and dust and the afterlife. There was no long, drawn-out sermon. No mourners to heed the call of the clergy to make things right with God before it was too late. No one holding Lucy’s hand or offering words of condolence. No limo driving Lucy to and from a lavish funeral home where family members brought meat trays and baked goods. No one waiting at home to do the same.
There could have been a huge crowd had Lucy allowed it, but she couldn’t bring herself to listen to strangers offering empty words while deep inside Lucy was dying. She would rather suffer alone than have to listen to people laugh as they told stories about her mother. Because they would laugh. Vera had been the type of woman to bring a smile to everyone she came in contact with. She was the good-natured, quiet person who never met a stranger. It wasn’t how Vera would have wanted it, but she knew Lucy. She left instructions for her obituary to come out after she’d been buried so Lucy didn’t have to deal with the crowds.
Lucy hadn’t shed a tear. Not when she got the call. Not when she sat in a stuffy room with a greasy man in a too-small suit who tried to upsell her mother’s funeral arrangements. Not when she numbly pointed to the pink, metal box her mother’s body would reside in for eternity. Not when the minister patted her on the arm and told her to call if she needed anything. Not when the last shovel of mud landed with a “plop” on top of the grave. Not as she made her way in the rain to the only car in the parking lot.
As she drove the twenty miles to the house she grew up in, Lucy shivered from the cold. Or maybe it was the loneliness. Lucy had taken her last living relative for granted. Having lost her father almost four years before, she should have realized how fleeting life really was, even for someone like her. Just because she and her father were special, it didn’t guarantee them a long life, even though that’s exactly what she’d been promised. If only her mother had been like them, maybe she would have dodged the cancer. Or at least have been able to beat it.
Instead of studying molecular biology and genetics at MIT, Lucy should have gone into medicine. She should have tried to understand how the disease that stole her mother wove its way into a body, latching on with a finality for some people. Research had come a long way, but not far enough. Instead of studying the hows and whys she was different from others, she should have focused on a cure to save her mother. But that hadn’t been the dream. Not her dream, but her father’s. They couldn’t change what they were any more than a person could change the color of the skin they’d been born with.
Lucius Ball was a brilliant scientist, and he raised Lucy in his likeness. Her mother encouraged her to be whatever she wanted, even if that wasn’t what Lucius wanted. But her father had ingrained in her the need to continue his research for as long as she could remember. Her father was gone, so if Lucy decided to drop out of MIT and change career paths, he would never know it.
The house was eerily quiet when Lucy closed the front door behind her. When her parents were alive, the house had been filled with soft tones. Lucius would get excited when he made a discovery, but his joy had been celebrated with a low chuckle at best. Vera had been a meek though lively woman, never raising her voice. Lucy couldn’t remember a time her mother had been angry. She always had a smile for both Lucy and her father. Vera had taken Lucius’s death hard, and when the cancer invaded her body, she only fought it long enough for Lucy to grow into an adult. It was like the day Lucy turned twenty-one, her mother decided her job was done, and she gave up fighting. She refused treatment, saying she was ready to look death in the face and embrace it. Lucy had known the day would come when she would walk into her home alone, but it still seemed like a bad dream.
Instead of dropping out of school and staying with her mother in the three-story, stone house nestled between lush trees and a pristine lake on twenty acres, Lucy had continued with her classes at Vera’s insistence. When Vera could no longer care for herself, hospice had been called in, and she died peacefully in her sleep.
Lucy had already closed the door to her parents’ bedroom, putting off the inevitable. Normally, she would have grabbed a glass of wine and enjoyed the view from the back deck. The rain made that impossible, so Lucy changed out of her black funeral attire into sweats and a long-sleeve tee. She still opted for the wine to dull some of the ache in her chest as she wandered around the place she’d called home for the last twenty-one years.
Finding herself in her father’s study, Lucy placed herself between the worn, leather chair and the antique mahogany desk. The contents of her parents’ safe deposit box waited on the desktop, hidden within a cardboard banker’s box. Her father’s attorney had met Lucy at the bank the day after she arrived home from college, handing over the secrets Lucius had hidden away from prying eyes. The house, the cars, the bank accounts, all of it was now Lucy’s, but she’d give it all back for one more day with her sweet mother.
The box had remained on the desk, untouched. With the burden of burying her mother, Lucy hadn’t had the time nor the energy to dig into what she figured would be her father’s journals he’d written every time he made a new discovery. She had been there more often than not when he jotted down notations and theories. Her home had been her sanctuary growing up, but it had also been her prison. Instead of having sleepovers with friends, Lucy’s time had been spent learning from her father. She didn’t begrudge him, though. Her parents had given her a life most kids only got a glimpse of in the movies.
Not only had Lucius been brilliant in the laboratory, he’d been a whiz at investing. At least, she assumed that was how he’d amassed his fortune. So now, at twenty-one, Lucy had more money than the gods. Fat lotta good that did her, though. Lucy didn’t want the money. Didn’t need the status it brought. She wanted her simple life back. Going to school. Studying hard. Going on a date once every few months when she got tired of saying no. Visiting her mother on breaks and spending every waking moment catching up.
Lucy took a sip of wine before lifting the lid off the cardboard box. Peering inside, she was surprised when she didn’t find her father’s papers. Not on top, at least. There, waiting for her, was an envelope with her name written across the front. She didn’t recognize the handwriting. Whatever was waiting inside couldn’t hurt her any more than losing her mother. Instead of reaching for the letter opener, Lucy ripped the seal with her index finger, cutting her skin as a result. As she sucked the appendage into her mouth to staunch the blood, Lucy used her other hand to remove the contents. As she processed what she was reading, her finger fell from her mouth, and Lucy sat down hard in the chair behind her.
For the first time since she’d received the call about her mother, Lucy cried.