The casket lids remained closed for the funeral.
Margot had seen beneath them. Just once, that morning, four hours before the guests were expected to arrive. The mortuary owner had led her into a cool, dusty viewing room behind the funeral home, where two heavy caskets had been positioned below the sole window.
Margot blinked furiously. Her eyes were dry, but her throat felt rough, as though she’d tried to swallow gravel. She fixed her gaze on her clenched hands as she willed her stuttering heart to calm. There had been no question of whether her parents’ funeral could include a viewing.
Around her, old pews creaked. A lot of people had shown up. More than she’d anticipated. She’d found a seat about halfway back in the dim, cold church and sat surrounded by an ocean of black-wrapped strangers.
Ahead, past the rows of gently shifting heads, the two caskets had been positioned on the raised platform. A pastor with a soft, well-creased face stood behind the lectern and read from loose pages of handwritten script. He talked about how the Lord was taking his children home. How they would be missed by all, how we might not understand why loved ones had been taken so suddenly but that it was not for us to know.
He wasn’t telling her any of the things that really mattered. The last time Margot had seen her parents, she’d been eight, and she remembered none of it. She was desperate for the gentle-voiced pastor to tell her about her only family. Whether they laughed often. Whether they’d had tempers. How often they visited their friends.
Even what they’d looked like.
What they looked like before death at least.
There were no photos on the caskets, just wreaths filled with carnations and roses and hydrangeas, ghastly bright in the dim room, held in beds of ferns and placed on the sealed lids as though necessary to distract from what was beneath.
Under the stream of gentle platitudes, Margot was left grasping for any hint of what kind of people her parents might have been.
A lot of guests had shown up. They were liked in town, then. Or at least, they were entrenched enough that acquaintances felt obligated to attend.
The caskets—bought as part of a funeral plan years before—were solid and carefully crafted, but their design was simple. They looked expensive but not gaudy.
The pastor paused and looked up from his notes. There was something in his eyes. Margot frowned as she tried to read the expression. Some kind of…distress? The pupils, hidden behind thin-rimmed glasses, were more constricted than the dull light should have caused. They seemed to flicker, staring into the audience without actually seeing, as though some unpleasant idea gnawed through his mind, drawing his focus.
Did he see what they looked like too?
He cleared his throat, his long fingers resting on the loose papers. “Would anyone like to say a word?”
Margot waited. The pastor’s speech, although handwritten, had been hollow. But a close friend or a neighbor would have stories to tell. Fond memories, even bittersweet ones, that might give Margot some small taste of who they had been during life.
The silence pulled onward, and onward, and onward, until her skin crawled from it. No one stood. The heads around her were bowed, eyes averted.
Why? So many people came. Someone must have known them. Even if they weren’t well liked—even if they’d been bitter and irritable—surely someone would want to put in a word.
Margot swallowed again and felt her throat ache. Speeches were most often given by family. That meant her. But she had nothing to offer. Hugh and Maria Hull had been as much strangers to her as the nameless faces filling the church.
The silence ached in her bones. In that moment, it seemed to Margot that the guests were even holding their breath. The pastor cleared his throat. “Let us pray.”
She bowed her head, but her mind was racing.
The funeral was tearless. The mourners had maintained a somber mood throughout, and no one had brought children or babies into the hall. Every face she’d been able to glimpse had been respectfully attentive to the service.
But no one cried.
Again, she realized, that duty should have fallen to her first. She was the daughter after all. Her throat ached with dust and stress, but tears were impossible, even if she’d wanted them.
“Amen,” the pastor said, and the word was echoed back in soft murmurs from every corner of the chilled stone chamber.
As she lifted her head, Margot felt eyes on her. She turned. Two rows back and on the opposite side of the church, a man stared at her.
Dull-gray eyes, half-hidden beneath heavy brows, caught flashes of muted light through the nearest stained-glass window. She could barely see his lips behind the salt-and-pepper beard. Shaggy hair had been combed away from his face and clung to the back of his neck. He’d dressed in dark colors, like everyone else in the room, but his clothes were the least formal there: a faded button-up shirt with a dull pattern of crisscrossing lines and navy blue jeans that were so dark they might as well have been black. Margot had the impression that he might not have owned a suit, and this outfit was the closest he could manage from his wardrobe.
The stranger didn’t look away when she met his eyes. Nor did he smile or nod; he simply stared. His expression was impossible to read. Margot’s skin crawled as she turned back to face the caskets.
A woman—the pastor’s wife, Margot thought—climbed the steps to the platform. Curtains had been concealed at the edges of the stage. She pulled them in, one side at a time, the thick red fabric rattling its runners as it moved. Heavy shadows fell over the smooth wood caskets as the first side was closed. Then the second side was pulled in, tugged to where the two met in the floor’s center, fully hiding the back half of the stage. And that, Margot understood, would likely be the last time she ever saw her parents.
The pastor braced his hands on the lectern and released a long, slow breath. “The Palmers have arranged for refreshments in the hall and would like to invite all present to join them there. Thank you.”
A soft murmur rose from those gathered—not exactly conversation, but a mingling of sighs and single-word acknowledgments. Bags and jackets rustled as the guests stood and flooded into the aisles. Margot, feeling caught, rose as well. Bodies bumped her sides and back. The swell pressed her along the church’s length, and she only managed to break free at the doors.
When she looked behind herself, the church was empty. Even the pastor and his wife had left through a side exit. In the distance, the dark red curtains seemed to absorb the growing shadows. A wall of crimson, cutting her off from the last of her family.
Cold wind caught at Margot’s jacket, and she pulled it tighter around her chest. A spit of rain, funneled under the doorway’s arch, hit just below her eye. She swiped it aside with the back of her hand.
The guests moved away in loose clusters. Some stomped feet, a few others pulled out umbrellas in defense against the steel-gray sky and its threatening rain. Indistinguishable conversations rose.
There was a new emotion around the guests. Not joy—they were still maintaining the softly muted reverence that accompanied a funeral—but some kind of tension had eased.
Relief. Margot ran her tongue across chapped and cold lips. The guests were grateful to be away from the church. Away from the caskets. She was struck with the sudden idea that no one had volunteered to give a speech because not a single one of them wanted to stand any nearer to the bodies.
A marquee tent stood a little way from the church in an empty patch of field between the ancient stone building and the wall dividing them from the dirt road. It hadn’t been a recent construction; the canvas walls were faded and stained with age, and one of the posts listed. The mourners moved toward it in clumps of twos and threes, and Margot realized this was likely the “hall” the pastor had said would offer refreshments. The church was too small to hold a milling congregation after Sunday services, and the building was too historic to build an extension, so the cloth tent served as a gathering point.
Margot raised her shoulders to hold the coat’s collar closer to her throat as she followed, her shoes leaving imprints in the damp ground. She felt faintly lost. There had been so little time to do anything—prepare anything—that she’d mostly flown on the idea that she would figure everything out when she arrived at Leafell. Now she was here, and she felt more painfully untethered than she ever had in her life.
The call from a lawyer had come just two days before. He’d said he was contacting her to share some unfortunate news. Her parents were dead. He didn’t know the full details, but he’d been told they had passed of heart attacks. The funeral was already paid for, and a close family acquaintance was making arrangements for the service, so she wouldn’t need to do anything at that time.
Margot, still reeling, had leaned one shoulder against her kitchen wall as the call continued. He explained that her parents’ sudden deaths had left Margot the sole recipient of their estate. That included their family home. The home she had supposedly grown up in—the home she couldn’t even remember. And the family business: Gallows Hill Winery.
The funeral had been scheduled for Wednesday, leaving Margot with just enough time to pack her cases before getting into her car for the two-day drive across the country, stopping at whichever motels had vacancy signs out front and eating at whatever fast-food places didn’t require detours.
She’d managed to arrive that morning with just a few hours to spare and had gone to the funeral home first. The director hadn’t seemed surprised. If anything, she had the impression that he’d been waiting for her. And he’d taken her to the back room for the only viewing of her parents that would be allowed.
“We did the best that we could, but…”
Her breath caught in her lungs. She quickened her pace, lifting her chin to catch some of the ice-laced wind to cool her suddenly burning skin.
She’d been so focused on making it to the funeral in time that she hadn’t given much thought to what would happen after. There would be loose threads to tie up, but she didn’t even know what they were yet. She’d been bequeathed their home and their business, but they wouldn’t actually be hers until the estate had been settled. She wasn’t sure if she would be allowed to stay in the house until then. If she wasn’t, her options were limited to retracing her journey across the country to return home or somehow pulling together the money to stay in a motel.
Someone close to her parents had arranged their funeral. A Mr. Kent, the lawyer had said. He hadn’t been able to give her any contact details. He hadn’t given her much at all except a location and a time for the service.
The marquee’s canvas sides quivered in the wind, creating a flapping sound that nearly drowned out the conversations beyond. Margot hesitated for a heartbeat, then ducked her head and stepped through the opening.
Inside was warmer than she’d expected. Standing heaters had been erected, and they not only took the bite out of the air but cast a soft golden glow across the space. Folding tables stood along one of the walls. The legs dug into the soft dirt, and paper tablecloths rustled as the crowd brushed past them. Platters of sandwiches and cakes cluttered the surfaces.
Closer to the door, another folding table held thermoses filled with boiling water beside bowls of tea bags and jugs of milk. Margot took up a paper cup, added a spoonful of instant coffee, and filled it. The acrid odor promised it would be bitter, but she didn’t care. She was just grateful to hold something warm.
The subdued tones from the church had almost fully dissipated. Chatter flooded from every direction. Many groups stood near the standing heaters, shuffling as they tried to get feeling back into their limbs.
They all knew each other well. Leafell was a small town.
A woman, eyes trained on Margot, covered her mouth as she whispered something to her companion. A man nudged his friend and nodded toward her. They knew who she was, Margot realized. It must be obvious. She would be the only person there who wasn’t from town.
Maybe, like the funeral director, they had been waiting for her.
Her mouth was dry. She couldn’t bring herself to meet the curious glances but pushed through the gathered, searching for a corner that might offer somewhere quiet to stand.
A dense group had collected near the tent’s back wall. Margot had assumed it was another food table, but as she drew nearer, she realized it bore stacks of plastic wineglasses. A man and a woman were behind the table, uncorking bottles and pouring generous measures to those who had clustered around them.
Of course. My parents owned a small winery. It makes sense to have wine at the reception.
The bottles were dark, which let the stark-white label stand out. The logo was simple: a tree’s silhouette, leafless, its dead branches twisting into unfathomable and arcane shapes. Below that, in a formal serif font: Gallows Hill Winery.
That logo touched something at the back of Margot’s mind. A memory. Or perhaps the impression of a memory. Maybe even a dream. Dark and dead branches, enormous, twisting, writhing—
She turned away from the table, her heart racing as she tried to catch a hold of it, a fleeting memory from the first eight years of her life. It flowed away from her like water between her fingertips, and the harder she tried to hold on, the faster it vanished.
A cold, bony hand landed on her forearm. Fingers dug in. Any noise Margot might have wanted to make died in her squeezing throat.
The woman before Margot had to be at least eighty. She barely came up to Margot’s midchest. Her skin was an unsettling white and heavily creased, and Margot had the impression of bleached, crumpled crepe paper. Long, white hair had been plaited and then pinned into a knot behind her head. The only respite from the white came from her green eyes, blurred with cataracts, and the loosely layered black clothes.
“I’m so very sorry.” The hand on Margot’s forearm was so translucent that blue veins were visible as they pulsed beneath. The grip tightened a fraction. “You’re the daughter, aren’t you?”
She struggled to smile. “Ah, yes.”
“Ooh.” She made a faint shushing noise. “Poor thing. I am so sorry.”
I am so sorry. Those were common enough words at a funeral, but something about the way she said them made Margot’s skin crawl. As though it wasn’t just a platitude. As though she was apologizing. “What…”
“I should have been there that Friday.” A rasping, coughing noise caught in her throat. The woman closed her eyes and leaned nearer. “Should have. But I was sick. Pneumonia, yes? Couldn’t get out of bed. Couldn’t be there. And now…”
Margot’s pulse beat hard, a tempo that pushed until she thought her very veins would burst.
“Such an awful thing,” the woman murmured, and the coughs returned, deep, slow, and rasping, like a saw drawn through dry wood. She struggled to speak through them. “They weren’t perfect people but they didn’t deserve that.”
“Do you…” Margot’s voice cracked. She was acutely aware of the bodies around her. The glances. The whispers. The pressing heat of a hundred strangers crowded inside the tent. “How did they die?”
The woman lifted her head. Her eyes were narrowed and, beneath the cataracts, sharp. One hand came up and pressed against Margot’s cheek. The flesh was cold. Clammy.
“Be careful,” the woman said. Her final words were drowned inside the gasping, wheezing breathlessness. “Be safe.”
She turned and vanished into the milling crowd, leaving Margot abruptly lost in her wake.
No more. The tent’s heaters had been a relief when she’d first entered, but the packed bodies were turning the space oppressively warm. The flapping tent wall beat its tune without pause. The scents of coffee and churned earth and wine burned her nose as they flooded down to her lungs. She needed to get out.
Margot pressed through the crowd, acutely aware of the way people’s eyes followed her when they thought she wouldn’t notice. The space was packed, and the gaps between black-clad mourners claustrophobically narrow. Someone behind Margot laughed, the sound jarring.
She dropped the half-full cup of coffee into a bin. The exit was close. Margot fixed her sight on the slice of natural light between the tent’s loose door flaps. Bitingly cold air wormed across her skin as she drew near.
A man moved in to block her path. Margot pulled up short, feeling a sting of shock as she recognized him. He’d mussed his shaggy gray hair out of the damp, combed arrangement she’d seen in the church. He stepped toward her, and Margot noticed a slight limp.
“Hello, Margot.” His voice, like his clothes, was rough at the edge—slightly cracked, slightly gravelly. His head tilted as his gray eyes searched hers. “It’s good you made it in time.”
Margot’s palms were damp. She felt exposed under his quiet scrutiny. Someone bumped her shoulder as they passed. Someone else near the tent’s back wall laughed again, the sound a little too loud, a little too urgent.
“Hope it was okay.” The man’s wide shoulders shifted in a brief shrug. His voice was soft and nearly swallowed under the rapid conversations around them. “I’m not good at…planning things. The Palmers helped with a lot of it.”
“Oh.” Margot took a sharp breath, reassessing him. Pieces clicked into place. “Mr…Kent?”
“Kant,” he said.
“Sorry. Mr. Kant.”
“Just Kant is fine.” He blinked slowly. “I suppose you’d want to see the home.”
My parents’ home. My home now, I guess. As foreign as that idea sounds. “I… Yeah, I would.”
He glanced toward the tent entrance. “You’re ready to leave.” It was a statement more than a question, but Margot still nodded. “You have a car?”
“Then follow me. I’ll show you the way.”