Authors: Kimberly Malone
All Rights Reserved
. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
“That’s weird,” Silas says, reading over my shoulder. “Why’s your name got a question mark? Like, what, the guy wasn’t sure you’d be here?”
I look back out to the street. The car’s long gone, but its image sears my eyes. The man seemed more than familiar: the dark features of his face, the hulking way he walked. Even his handwriting looks like something I've seen before: jagged and abrupt, like every letter is a stab.
“Whatever,” I tell Silas, and tear the paper into shreds, right down the middle of my name. I put them into his suit jacket. "I've got bigger things to worry about."
We look around the cemetery together, a summer breeze hitting us square in our faces. I see a headstone that says "Beloved mother." I'm glad no one pressured me to order one like that; Mom's says, simply, "Anna St. James," then her birth and death dates. Short and simple, if not that sweet.
To my surprise—though not Silas’s, who keeps saying, “Woodwork,” in my ear whenever one of the guests is particularly kind—Aunt Jane has arranged a reception. The caterers are already set up in my backyard when we arrive.
“Whoa.” My jaw drops when I see the spread: shrimp cocktails, shortbread cookies, a carving station with roast beef. The hors d'oeuvres are probably the nicest selection I’ve ever seen.
“Aunt Jane,” I tell her, half-scolding, “you didn’t have to do this. You shouldn’t have. Like, seriously.”
“Nonsense,” she says, and spears a thick slice of roast beef onto her plate, filled with buttered rolls. “It’s been so long since I visited—I kind of owed it to her, don’t you think?” She takes a bite, her voice muffled with bread. “Besides, there’s really no better therapy than food.”
I force a smile at the sight of all this therapy; my appetite, which hasn’t been great the last few days to begin with, is totally sapped since my mystery run-in at the cemetery. “Well,” I tell her, “thank you. It means a lot to me. I didn’t even think of holding a reception. I…I didn’t even think that many people would come to the funeral, to tell the truth.”
“Your mother left quite the legacy, Erin Caitlin,” Aunt Jane drawls. She takes a long sip of wine from the plastic flute in her other hand. “She reached a lot of people.”
There’s a blush coming to my cheeks. “I didn’t know.”
“Neither did she.” For a moment, Aunt Jane gets a faraway look in her eye. “I suppose none of us can really know what kind of mark we’re leaving,” she says quietly. “At least, not till we’re already gone.”
We’re both still for a moment, staring at the crowd. Suddenly, Aunt Jane whisks herself away towards someone she knows, and I’m alone.
Your mother left quite the legacy…. She reached a lot of people.
I shake the thought out of my head. No, not her. Not the Anna St. James that I knew.
The Anna St. James that I knew got knocked up by a guy she knew was a scumbag, who left before the first sonogram. She let the television raise me. She brought a revolving door of sleazy boyfriends into our apartments. For most of my seventh grade year, she didn’t even bother with an apartment: we lived in her car. Even now, on really cold nights, I remember how it felt, shivering so much in that backseat that I couldn’t drift off.
I knew the woman who drank more wine and grain than water, pretending no one noticed. Who forgot to get me food or do my laundry, sending me to school hungry and dirty. Who didn’t teach me about puberty, leaving the job to my school nurse, when I showed up in the clinic with stained clothes and tears streaming down my face.
Whoever these people knew, she must have died a long time ago. The day I was born.
“Are you drunk?”
Silas looks concerned, not angry, as he takes the wine glass from my hand. “Just a little,” I confess. “I’m sorry.”
He sits beside me on my mom’s bed, hugging my shoulders. “No need to apologize. It’s been a long day.”
“And it’s still not over,” I sigh. I grab his wrist and check his watch: 2:30. “The will reading is soon. Is everyone gone?”
“A few stragglers left,” he answers, getting up and pacing to Mom’s bureau. He picks up a photo—me, as a baby—smiles, and sets it back down. “Your mom was a wonderful woman, from what I’ve heard today.”
I grab the bottle of wine I’ve been drinking, the one I found in Mom’s closet, and take a long gulp. “Yeah? News to me.”
Silas raises an eyebrow at me. “How do you mean?”
“I mean,” I say, slowly, wiping my mouth, “that my mom was a really shitty mom.”
Sitting beside me again, Silas takes the bottle away and sets it on the floor. He’s suddenly very serious. “Parents make mistakes, Erin,” he whispers. “They’re only human.”
I shake my head at him. He doesn’t understand. How could he?
We sit there for a little while, listening to Aunt Jane’s voice sweeping through the house, bidding mourners goodbye. Silas helps me hide my drinking evidence when her heels start clicking up the staircase.
“Erin Caitlin?” She pokes her head into the room, then enters. “The lawyer just called—he asked if we could meet at his office at 3:30 instead of 3:00. Is that all right?”
I shrug. “I don’t have any other plans today, if that’s what you mean.”
She laughs, like I’ve said something witty. Her voice trails as she scans the room, striding from photo to photo on every surface. “Your mom sure loved photos,” she says, smiling. “This one is my favorite.” She holds up the photo Silas looked at earlier. “Did she ever tell you about it?”
I shake my head. It’s not a special picture—I’m a chubby five-month-old, in this hideous green dress with Christmas tree appliques along the border. Behind me is one of those Sears Portrait Studio backdrops, a snowy field with Rudolph galloping behind me. My smile is mostly spit.
“It was Christmas Eve, and Annie had this terrible fever. I offered to take you for your picture appointment, but she refused to stay home—it was your first Christmas, after all.” Aunt Jane sits on the other side of me. Mom’s brass bed-frame creaks under the weight of all three of us, shaking a little. “So I begged and begged her, I said, ‘Annie, just let me drive you, at least,’ and she finally agreed. “There she was, wrapped up in two coats and shivering and sniffling, but never letting on because she didn’t want you crying for your picture. And then, when it was over, I told her, ‘All right, Annie, let me take you home and make you some soup, I’ll watch Erin tonight,’ and she refused to leave. Not until you sat on Santa’s lap. Of course, you cried the entire time that man was holding you, but….” She laughs. “Oh, goodness, your mother. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her that sick, but I’d definitely never seen her so happy.”
Aunt Jane passes me the photo. I hold it in both hands and try to imagine her story in real-life, one I apparently witnessed but can’t remember.
“Let’s get on out of this room,” she says. “Too many memories for me today.”
The lawyer, Kyle Meegan, has a dark, cozy office. I sink into one of the four leather armchairs facing his desk, while Aunt Jane and Pierce, Mom’s favorite cousin, take the other two. In the hallway, I hear Silas making small talk with Pierce’s twelve-year-old son. Aunt Jane passes me a tissue, and pretend to dab my eyes.
“Thank you all for coming,” the lawyer says. He clears his throat, slips on some thick glasses, and holds up a sheaf of paper. “Anna’s will is brief, but very specific. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything explained after I read through.” He looks at the papers and clears his throat again. I wonder if he’s got a cold, or if it’s a pathological thing.
“‘I, Anna Michelle St. James,’” he reads, “‘being of sound and disposing mind, and not actuated by duress, menace, fraud, mistake….’”
I let myself zone out a little while Mr. Meegan goes through his legal spiel. These are his words, not my mom’s.
Then, I hear my name.
“‘Being unmarried, I hereby leave any of my remaining estate to my only child, Erin St. James, excluding the bequeathments made in this document. If, at the time of my death, Erin is under eighteen years of age, my sister—Elizabeth Jane St. James, will serve as the executor of my estate in Erin’s place, and her legal guardian.’ Erin, you’re…twenty-one, yes?”
“Almost,” I mutter. Aunt Jane reaches for my hand and squeezes it, like I should be excited. Instead, I slump into my chair and shut my eyes.
An entire house I can’t afford, filled with memories of my mother I’m not sure I want, and a bank account that, for all I know, contains nothing. Fantastic.
“‘To my sister, Elizabeth Jane St. James, I bequeath my collection of porcelain thimbles, our grandmother’s dining room table, and our childhood photo albums, barring Erin does not wish to keep them.’”
Everyone looks at me. I shake my head.
“We’ll hammer out specifics later,” Mr. Meegan assures me, and continues. “‘To my cousin, Pierce Gregory Redmont, I bequeath my copy of our family tree, as well as our grandfather’s pocket watch, both located in the fire safe beneath my bed.’” He looks at me. “I’ve got instructions to give you the combination, Erin, so you can disperse the items.”
I nod dutifully, my mind still on the house.
“‘Finally, I bequeath my car, a 1999 Ford Tempo, to its first owner…Gordon Lyle Williams, if he survives me, and if the car is still in my possession at my time of death.’”
“What?” Jane sputters. “That no-good, dirty cheater? No, no, no—I’m sorry, Mr. Meegan, but that’s got to be a mistake.” She slaps her hands onto the desk. “Annie and Gordon broke up years ago.”
The lawyer clears his throat again, recoiling a little. “I’m sorry, Ms. St. James. Anna might not have updated her will when they ended the relationship, but the law is the law: if Mr. Williams is still alive…this will dictates that the automobile is now his.” He scans the room behind us, like he somehow missed an entire person. “Is Mr. Williams here today?”
“He hasn’t had the balls to show up in years,” Aunt Jane spits, “like I said.” She looks at me. “Isn’t that right, Erin?”
But I can’t answer. It’s all I can do to keep breathing, to keep sitting here like nothing’s wrong. Inside my chest, my heart thunders away.
I hadn’t imagined it. That was him at the cemetery, making his getaway in the same car he purchased after selling Mom his Tempo. That was how they'd met: a simple for-sale ad in the paper.
Suddenly, I feel like I’m going to be sick. As soon as Meegan finishes reading, I excuse myself and burst into the hallway, stumbling blindly for a bathroom. I’m not even sure the one I find is for women, but I don’t care. I drop to my knees in a stall and throw up till I’m empty. My midday wine stains the toilet bowl.
There are hands rubbing my back, and at first, I flinch. “It’s just me,” Silas whispers. He helps me stand. “You all right?”
“No.” My honesty surprises me. “Mom made me the executor for her estate.”
“Oh.” Silas is confused. “Jane told me there wasn’t much to disperse—just some stuff to her, your mom’s cousin, and some guy named Gordon, right?”
Hearing his name again makes me retch, but I stifle it and push my way out of the stall.
“Erin, what’s wrong?” Silas massages my shoulders while I try to freshen up at the sink. “You can tell me.”
I don’t answer right away, taking a minute to rinse my mouth. I mop the remains of my makeup away with a paper towel, then look at Silas in the mirror. A fluorescent light on the fritz blinks, shadowing his face for just a second.
“Gordon was my mom’s fiancé,” I tell him. My words hit the floor like lead. “He…” And I’m so close to telling him, my lips form the truth. My lungs are filled with air to propel it out. My eyes are already filling with tears.
But I can’t do it. I’ve kept the truth locked up for so long, I’m afraid to let it free again. Nothing good came of it before. Nothing good will come of it now.
“He’s not a good guy,” I finish. It’s such an understatement, I can’t stand to see Silas nod. He has no idea how far it is from what I almost said, what I want so badly to tell him, but just can’t.
“I’ll help you deal with him,” he says sweetly, and kisses my forehead. He takes both of my hands in his and kisses me again, then moves his mouth to mine. For a few beautiful moments, I forget I’m in a bathroom in my mom’s lawyer’s office, at the reading of her will. I forget I was just sick with shock. I forget all about Gordon Williams.