There it was again… that gnawing emptiness inside of her. That hunger for something she didn't even have a name for. It started out like it always did. Somewhere in the middle of a perfect moment. Her father and Thomas laughing over something they'd heard in town. Something that was immensely funny to them, but just not something she had any reference for.
The meal, perfect. The restaurant, perfect. The everything… perfect. Except for her.
Sitting there in the warmth of the candlelight she was lost. Awash with something dark that seemed as though it was trying to crawl right out of her skin and scream her frustrations, but she couldn't seem to find the voice she needed. Not then.
Not even when Thomas knelt down and asked her to marry him.
He detailed all the advantages for her, as though she didn't understand them for herself. His family, their influence, the money, the security, the way she'd be cared for as her parents had always hoped. The way she'd bring honor to both families and make him the happiest man in the world.
Yet, in her heart she knew the problem with that wonderful list. It was the way she wanted to be happy.
Oh, it was entirely selfish, she couldn't block out the knowledge of it. She knew. She knew how empty she was inside and how much grief she'd bring to his life if she didn't make peace with her feelings.
Her mother's room was empty. That's the way it always felt. Pristine. Delicate. Refined. So very, very empty of life. Her father had kept it that way since the funeral. He'd tucked every corner and closed every drawer himself as if he was still hoping she'd come back.
Just like she did.
Now, as she closed the door behind her, she hoped for silence and that the brandy her father had consumed was enough that he wouldn't hear her through the wall. Wouldn't hear her bend down and kneel before the large canopied bed and lean her cheek against the soft eyelet cover and breathe.
Breathe until it felt like the sound roared in the emptiness and crashed back down on her shoulders until she collapsed against the hard frame of the bed, the backs of her fingers tickled by the edges of fabric. She cried, silent shoulder-shaking sobs that curled her middle up until her knees tucked beneath her chin and her hands reached out for support, tips bumping into wood that shouldn't be there.
Her eyes flew open and like a child she leaned the side of her face down on the floor and peered beneath the sway of fabric and caught site of a box. Plain wood in a room of elegance. It didn't fit in that room, but then again, neither did she.
It took some effort to pull it out, the weight was considerable but the harder it was to bring it out into the light, the more she wanted it… the more she needed to see inside it. What could it be?
A wedding picture, very different from the one on the mantle. One with the man that had been her first husband. A picture of him in a uniform, grey where her father's had been blue. She'd known that her mama had been married before her daddy, knew that the man she was looking at was someone she'd never known.
The journal beneath the pictures drew her attention worn leather instead of the soft silk lined books that her mother had always written in.
The pages old, brittle, the quality poor. Who had she been? Who was she really?
She read her mother's history in reverse. Started with the last entry. Dated nearly a year before her birth and held the bittersweet sorrow of goodbye and the calm shattering news that she was marrying again to a man she respected and admired, but didn't love.
It was the truth, something she'd always sensed, but had prayed she was wrong. Her mother's calm regard to everything about her father. The gentle way she touched him when it was seemly, but not in excess.
Further back to the heartbreak of failure. The impending loss of everything she had tried to build with her husband… her first husband. The need to find someone to protect the farm… to give her a life that didn't cut her to the quick and leave her bleeding with pain and exhaustion. The War of Northern Aggression had been hard on Virginia, but reading her mother's words it filled her mind with stark images that left her weak and blinking back tears.
She'd wanted to stay where they'd wanted to build a life… wanted to stay where she buried her husband and the child she'd born him.
A brother she'd never known she'd had. A child that had never seen his third birthday thanks to hunger and sickness.
She knew she should put it down. Knew she should put it away and leave her mother's memory the shining light it had always been, but that emptiness inside of her wanted more. Needed to know more about this stranger looking out from the pages.
A paper, tucked in between pages, yellowed and crumpled with age like the rest of the leaves it spoke in a foreign tongue, opened the idea that another relative had been lost to her… a man named Lou. A man that had cried over the loss of a job. The paper decried the end of the Pony Express. The paper told him thanks for a job well done; but that the world wasn't just done with him… it was done with the men that had carried mail across the west.
She'd read some about it in school, heard the stories of Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody who rode through hordes of savage Indians to bring the light of information to the vast plains and dirty towns that dotted the way west of St. Joseph.
The mystery died on her tongue moments later as she read her mother's entry the night before her wedding. Knew that Lou had died to give Louise a chance at having a happy life. Lou sacrificed himself so that a love, fragile as life was back then, could withstand the oncoming war and possible separation.
It wasn't real. It wasn't possible.
Her mother. Head of the ladies auxiliary. Leader of the church's charity committee. She had once lived the life of a man.
The rest of the words swam before her eyes, moments… lines swimming up high enough to peer through the tears to be seen. Had come face to face with the man that had taken her innocence… had buried too many friends, said goodbye to too many good people.
Had ridden like a man, wild across the prairie alongside those same men that seemed only a figment of the imagination.
They had been real. They had known her mother… much more than she had ever known her… Who was she? How could she not have known?
Then, near to the beginning of the book, a mention that threatened to rip apart her world entirely. Rip it apart and show her how little she'd understood the matron that held so many in the palm of her hand. There had been times when the dampening weather or the threat of emotion would well up inside of Louise Atherton and her hand would draw up, a subtle gesture that perhaps her father had never noticed. Fingertips would trace a line across her ribs through fine fabric and corset alike. The same line over and over throughout the years and the shadow of pain would flicker over her features.
A bullet. Her mother had been shot. A man that died by the hand of one of the other riders had shot her mother and rather than lay back in bed, she'd gone right back out to do her job. It really wasn't so much that her mother had ended her life as a different person. She'd just become someone so controlled that the woman speaking through the carefully drawn words in this book seemed like someone else entirely.
Seemed so wild and free…
Seemed to be so much like the woman that stared back at her through the years and she knew… she knew she wasn't alone… hadn't been alone.
Hadn't failed the woman that cuddled her close when she cried, or brushed a kiss on her cheek when she thought her daughter deep in sleep. She'd become the woman her mother had been… should have remained if life had been fair.
The letter sat on her father's desk, the ring that Thomas had given her to consider sitting before it on the smooth leather blotter her father loved so much. It was a fitting close to the chapter she'd begun when she'd pulled out the box of treasures beneath her mother's bed and as she turned to leave the room she caught the flash of her reflection in the mirror.
Stepping back she tilted her head to the side and looked past the high brow and rounded face that came from her father and looked into the eyes that now sparkled with resolution and not the glitter of tears. She felt her mother's presence in the room for the first time in nearly a year and felt the weight that bent her shoulders lift and give her room to leave.
And she did.
Prompt from Lisa L: