Rose Season stood at the threshold of her sister’s bedroom and silently watched the shadows of an oncoming storm stretch like plum-colored talons across the empty bed. A great gust of icy wind from Lake Michigan howled at the windows.
“Merry,” she whispered with longing. Rose resisted the urge to open the window and call out to her in the vast darkness. Merry’s presence was palpable tonight. Rose had read somewhere that the spirit lingered for three days after death. Merry had been dead for four. Did she tarry to be sure her last request was honored?
Her last request. Why had she agreed to it? Rose asked herself, wringing her hands. The request was crazy, intrusive, maybe even hurtful. No one would ever go along with it. What would her sisters do when they read Merry’s letter? Especially Jilly. She’d never spoken of that time, not once in over twenty-five years. It was as though it had never happened. She’ll be furious, Rose worried. But secrets in families always had a way of coming out in the end, didn’t they?
The hall clock chimed the hour. Rose tilted her head, thinking to herself that she should be calling Merry for dinner now, telling her to wash up. A pang of loneliness howled through her like the wind outside. She wandered into Merry’s dresser, the dainty vanity table and the silver-plated brush, comb and mirror set. Strawberry-blond hairs still clung to the bristles. Across the room, she bent to pick up the ratty red-haired baby doll lying in the center of the pristine four-poster bed. How Merry had loved the baby doll. Spring, she’d called it, and never once in twenty-six years slept without it. Rose brought the doll to her cheek, catching Merry’s scent still lingering in the fabric. Then, with a loving pat, she placed the doll back on the bed, careful to prop it against the pillow. Rose’s hands felt uncomfortably idle. She smoothed the wrinkles from the comforter with agitated strokes, then moved to the bedside stand to straighten the lace doily, adjust the pleated lampshade and line up the many small bottles of prescriptions drugs that she was so familiar with. She couldn’t part with anything of Merry’s yet, not even these medicines.
Without Merry to take care of, she felt so useless and detached in the old house, like the shell of a cicada clinging worthlessly to the bark. She needed work to keep her going, some focus to draw her attention from her mourning. With a discipline that was the backbone of her nature, Rose walked swiftly from the gloomy bedroom to the wide, curving staircase of the old Victorian that had been her home since she was born.
The walls along the stairs were covered with dozens of photographs of the Season sisters at various moments of glory and achievement in their lives. For comfort, she glanced at the familiar photographs, treasuring the faces captured in them: Jilly, Birdie, Rose and Merry. The Four Seasons, their father had called them. The largest number of photographs were of Jilly and Birdie, the eldest two. There were fewer pictures of Rose, and hardly any of Merry, the baby. She longed for her sisters; it had been nearly ten years since they had all been together. How sad that it took a funeral to bring them together again.
Who would arrive home first, she wondered. Birdie was extremely busy with her medical practice in Wisconsin, but Jilly had the farthest to come—all the way from France.
Rose paused at a framed 1978 Paris Vogue magazine cover that showcased a young Jillian at twenty-one years of age, looking sex-kittenish in a fabulous pink gown that clashed in a chic way with her vibrant red hair. It was her first cover. Rose studied her eldest sister’s full red lips pursed in an innocent pout, her deep-set eyes of emerald-green and the come-hither pose exposing one long, shimmering leg that seemed to go on forever. She couldn’t imagine herself ever standing in front of so many people, in the glare of the lights, while men snapped her photograph. For that matter, Rose couldn’t imagine ever looking so seductive or desirable.
Jilly was born at 12:01 a.m. on November 1, 1955. All Souls’ Day. Mother always told of how she’d squeezed herself shut because she didn’t want a child of hers born on Halloween. Who knew what nickname father would have chosen then? Their father, William, claimed it was a family tradition to play with their unusual last name. After all, he was nicknamed Bill Season. But their mother, Ann, a petite beauty with a will of iron, swore no child of hers was going to be tagged for life with a name people laughed at. As a compromise, Ann Season gave her daughters strong, sensible names, allowing their father full rein with the nicknames. Thus for his first daughter, Jillian, born in a Chicago autumn, he thought himself clever to name her “Jilly Season.”
Moving down the stairs, Rose perused the large collection of photographs of Beatrice. Jilly liked to be first, but in most things Birdie came through for the prize. “The early bird catches the worm,” their father used to say with a wink of pride at his second daughter. Birdie was his favorite, everyone knew that. Jilly would tease her and say Birdie was the son he never had. She was a tall, broadshouldered girl with a powerful intellect and an even more powerful, competitive spirit. Even the name “Birdie” seemed to mock her tomboyish body.
Bill Season had chosen the nickname because she was borth in early summer and was insatiable, howling for more food like a hungry bird in the nest. And she’d certainly caught the worms, Rose thought as her gaze wandered over the photographs. The first was Birdie at sixteen, beaming into the camera, dripping wet and clutching an enormous silver trophy for the state championship swimming team. She’d been the captain, of course. And there were more photographs, of Birdie as class valedictorian, of Birdie winning trophies for swimming, lacrosse and the science fair. Birdie receiving a diploma from medical school. Birdie dazzling in white lace and tulle smiling at her handsome groom, Dennis, the biggest trophy of all.
There were fewer pictures of herself, the third child. This section of wall seemed almost barren when compared to Birdie’s. Rose felt the usual flush of embarrassment that the scarcity of photographs was an accurate—if pitiful—statement about her life. It was all very well that Jilly was a famous model, on magazine covers all over Europe, and that Birdie was a successful doctor, wife and mother. But what about her own life? There was neither a photograph of her graduating from college, nor a picture of a radiant Rose on her wedding day. Her mile marker was a high school graduation photograph that showed a thin, shy girl looking much like she did today.
Rose’s hair was a paler, washed-out version of the Season red that her father playfully called “pumpkin” and her mother optimistically called “strawberry blond.” She still wore it in the same long, straight style of high school and her body was every bit as lean and shapeless as it had been then. “Sticks,” the other children had called her. In all the pictures, her eyes were the dominant feature. Enormous hazel eyes with brows and lashes so pale they were seemingly not there. They peered out from her pale face, large and wary, like a cat’s when poised to leap away.
Rose was born in the dog days of August when her mother’s roses were blooming. Thus she was called Rose, the only one of the four Season girls without a nickname. Rose was a fine, plain name, her father had always said. And it suited her, she thought with a sigh of resignation.
As with most families, the baby had the fewest photographs. Which was too bad, she thought, since Merry was arguably the most beautiful of all the Season girls. Their parents had been older when they married and had had children late. Thus, their father liked to say that Merry was his last hurrah. The fourth Season. Meredith was born in December, a season ripe with nickname potential, but Bill had settled on “Merry” because she was such a cheerful baby. Rose traced a finger across a picture of a precocious, impish Merry at two years of age. The pictures stopped then.
Rose turned her head away from the photographs, closing her mind from the memory, and wandered from room to room, feeling that edginess that comes when one is aimlessly looking for something to do. Each of the twelve rooms of the Victorian was immaculate, a savory dinner was waiting in the oven and flowers were beautifully arranged in the bedrooms. She turned on the television, then as quickly flicked it off again. She picked up a book and settled into a comfortable chair, but no sooner had she read a paragraph than her mind wandered again. She closed the book in defeat and laid her head back against the chair. With a heavy sign, she reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a pale blue envelope.
She’d carried this letter in her pocket all day wondering whether to burn it or send it to the family lawyer. The moment of decision had come; the funeral was tomorrow. Rose closed her eyes and recalled how Merry’s pink tongue had worked her lip as she’d struggled with the letter, wanting it to be her best. Merry couldn’t have comprehended how those brief sentences, written in her childlike script, would send thundering repercussions in her sisters’ minds and hearts—as it had hers when she read them.
She looked down at the envelope in hand and was moved to tears by the sight of the address painstakingly written in Merry’s handwriting, encircled by a big heart: To Jilly, Birdie and Rose.
She would give the letter to the lawyer, Rose decided. It was the right thing to do. Merry needed her—trusted her—to deliver it. This time she would not fail her.