The scene was already pretty somber as Jake arrived in the neat, tidy little graveyard just outside the town of Heather Springs. His black suit was, as always, impeccably ironed and wrinkle-free. But this time he’d taken particular care to look his extra best. He thought he owed it to this great woman.
Mrs. Regina Whitmore had been a highly respected woman, the widow of the old millionaire Archibald Whitmore, equally respected and known for having built and run half of Heather Springs back in the day. Old Archibald and his wife had not only been the beating heart of the town, they’d always shown genuine care for the local inhabitants. They’d been deeply involved in virtually every philanthropic cause the town had. And both had been very well loved.
Old Archibald had passed away a decade earlier already, and Regina had carried on with his humanitarian work since then. Well into her sixties she’d still been very active and dynamic, always seen in the field in the projects themselves. She was still living off of the income from the Whitmore Trust, keeping her living standard well below the income and every year spending the rest on the schools, the hospital, activities for the youth, keeping the elderly company and keeping them fed.
When Jake got the news of her death two days ago, he couldn’t believe it. Nobody could believe it, to be fair. She seemed almost invincible, immortal. She’d twice defeated cancer, the skin cancer in her 20s that had put an end to her modeling career and the breast cancer she’d suffered through in her 50s. She’d broken a leg while visiting one of her projects, and rather than stay home, insisted on going to visit and help out as best she could despite being in a wheelchair. Life had thrown everything at her and always somehow missed, to the point where it seemed as though death itself had given her up as a lost cause.
And yet there it was, written elegantly but unassumingly on a simple piece of cream-colored card still in Jake’s desk drawer: Regina Whitmore, the darling of Heather Springs, was gone. As he surveyed the guests in the graveyard he recognized several notable figures from around town, and a few he didn’t know yet. He did the usual rounds, going from person to person exchanging condolences and words of comfort. Regina Whitmore’s only daughter and next of kin Bella was there too of course. She’d been widely acclaimed for years as Heather Springs’ most eligible bachelorette and had turned into the town’s most eligible spinster. She was now 47 but still very beautiful and distinguished, and just as dedicated as her parents to the causes they’d supported for so long. As he approached her, Jake remembered the fun he, she and some of their friends used to have, so many years ago.
Jake talked to Bella for several minutes, exchanging the usual pleasantries – insofar as one might call them that at a funeral. Her face was covered by a black veil that only just let one distinguish her fine features, but was dark enough in the shade of the hat she wore to not let one quite distinguish her emotion. Of course, this didn’t matter, everybody showed her the greatest deference and respect. She had her mother’s looks, having inherited almost nothing of her father’s more angular traits.
After the introductions and condolences, and once everyone had arrived, the ceremony took place. It was appropriately simple and subdued. Indeed, the Whitmores, despite their huge fortune, had never been the type to flaunt it, and the funeral was in the same tone. The priest recited the prayers, then the sealed casket was delicately lowered into the hole, as if the staff were still careful to respect the great woman one final time. One burial worker even apologized to her under his breath for letting the coffin snag a pebble on the way down, as if this were an insult to its inhabitant.
After the ceremony the surprisingly small group retired to the shade of a nearby tree where some drinks and snacks were served. The place was so peaceful. The sunshine lit up the neat graveyard, shining brightly from the more recent tombstones and more brightly still from the newest one. The air was still and warm and smelled vaguely of almonds because of the nearby grove. A couple of birds were chirping on the branches of the tree. Jake couldn’t help but think they’d truly done Regina justice with her burial place.
He picked up a drink and a snack and began talking to the others again, in a subdued voice. In time he became aware of a headache. Thinking he’d been in the sun for too long, he went back to the table for a drink of water and surprised himself by stumbling a bit on the way. His head started feeling heavy and his orientation faltered. His heart began beating a wild tattoo against his chest. He stumbled again, and this time fell to his knees. Another one of the attendees helped him up, but also began to stumble.
Jake then heard retching behind him and turned around. Two people were kneeling, throwing up right onto the lawn. Three more had already collapsed. He himself was too focused on trying to maintain his balance and composure in order to start to intervene and help. His mind could only reach one conclusion: food poisoning. The snacks must have gone bad. Meanwhile the almond-smelling air became overwhelming.
Looking around, he noticed something alarming: those people he’d seen collapse hadn’t gotten back up, and more had joined them on the ground. He himself was finding it more and more difficult to stay up. The one who had helped him back up had collapsed at the foot of the tree, and Jake was propping himself up on his shoulder. The man was unconscious, his suit soiled by the recently rejected contents of his stomach. The sight and smell of this seemed to trigger an intense, overwhelming nausea in Jake too at this point, and he dropped his companion’s shoulder to pray to the ground for deliverance for his stomach.
During a brief lull in the vomiting, Jake looked up and saw something strange. Bella was taking her hat and veil off, looking not distraught and bereft but stoic and determined. During the next lull he noticed more wrinkles on her face than he’d expected. The grief must be getting to her. One more retch later and he was barely able to pay attention any more. Another few seconds and he too lay still on the grass.
Meanwhile, Regina Whitmore surveyed her achievement with a savage feeling of triumph. Finally. Merely a week earlier, when she’d returned to her mansion to find her daughter hanging in her bedroom with a note at her feet, Regina had lost it. She’d been utterly devastated. After cutting Bella down and effortlessly carrying her to her bed in an adrenaline-fueled rush, she’d desperately tried to reanimate her. As she gave no sign of life Regina continued her efforts, now getting angry with her daughter for keeping her waiting. She even resorted to slapping Bella hard around the face in a vain effort to wake her up. This scared her. She’d never been a violent person, this just wasn’t her. Terrified, she pulled back from her daughter’s body and took in the whole scene. Bella was dead. Regina began sobbing, then went back to resuscitate her daughter, pleading with her to wake up. Then the emotions and the crying became so taxing she collapsed to the floor and just sobbed there.
When she’d been able to calm down a bit, she just lay there sniffling, and caught sight of the note again. Having suddenly lost a lot of her usual mobility, she crawled laboriously to it, picked it up and propped herself up against the dresser to read it. It was folded and had the words “Good-bye and sorry” scrawled on it.
She unfolded the note and began to read it, hoping to find out why this had happened. As she progressed in the note, her jaw dropped. Something about how some guy Jake and his friends had abused her decades previously, and she’d never gotten over it despite always keeping a stiff upper lip. Regina was stunned. This wasn’t possible. She read on. Bella told how she’d gotten pregnant from this, but aborted months later during a trip abroad. She’d never wanted to tell Regina or Archibald about it. Bella went on to say that this whole situation had eaten her up inside ever since, leading her never to marry or have children of her own out of sheer mistrust of everyone. And the weight of the guilt and shame of these events, compounded by her recent professional failures – she’d just been laid off – had become too much to bear.
Regina read through the last paragraph of the note in tears, which fell onto the paper and already started to blur the ink. But they were no longer tears of grief. She found herself overwhelmed with such a feeling of anger, of uncontainable rage toward the world, toward the town, toward the people, but more specifically toward those men, once foolhardy and headstrong boys, who had done this to her daughter. And she hatched her plan.
Now, sitting alone among the fallen bodies, a savage smile of revenge on her face, she realized it still wasn’t enough. She’d lost her baby to these people. She’d wanted to have her revenge on them, thinking it was the right thing to do. The right thing for the town, for the family, for herself and her feelings. But it had done nothing. She didn’t feel any better. She was still livid and desperate. She knew nothing would help her feel any better. As the ambulance sirens started to get nearer, already too late to help, she got up and moved to the snack table. She’d spiked everything with cyanide, just to be sure. And now she would relieve herself of the grief in turn.
She contemplated the muffins, the sandwiches, the drinks, etc, and settled on a cherry cupcake. She picked it up, went back to sit in her chair and bit into it, savoring every last bite. By the time the EMTs arrived on the scene she too was one of the fallen.
Inspiration: I wrote this story from the following writing prompt:
A funeral is held and the guests arrive, only to discover that there’s no one dead… yet.