Hi everyone! This is my second attempt at some original fiction. Some of you may be following my other story Stockholm at the moment, which I have to say is proving very popular - THANK YOU!! Don't worry, I haven't given up on that story at all but I just felt the urge to write this and here we are! I do hope you like it and please leave a review because there is nothing more inspiring than knowing what your readers think!
Cambridge – Massachusetts
July 16th 2007
I didn't think I had ever shaken hands with so many people I didn't know in my entire life. It wasn't even just handshakes either. It was kisses too. Kisses on one cheek, both cheeks, air kisses…by the end of it, I felt like a used napkin. I had also never been apologised to so many times in my life before, by people who hadn't even done anything wrong. Why was it, that at funerals, everyone apologised as though there was something they could have done to prevent your sad loss? I had never really thought about it before, but I was thinking about it now.
The kitchen was a disaster area, plates and cups piled in the sink just waiting for someone to take charge and clean them. Food lay haphazardly strewn over every surface. Leftovers, half-eaten, not eaten at all…the only place for it all to go was in the trash. I asked myself again whose brilliant idea it had been to have the funeral tea at my parents' house as opposed to one of the many hotels in the area more than adequately able to cater for this sort of event.
As I stood at the sink, surveying the carnage, I looked out of the window across the garden at my niece and nephew running around together. They were shrieking and laughing and generally enjoying the warm summer afternoon, their dark attire the only indication that they were here for a solemn occasion and not simply for a play date.
"Honey, you don't have to do that now."
I turned and saw my father standing in the doorway and I immediately noticed how tired he looked. How old. I wondered if it had been a gradual process or whether he had simply woken up this morning looking ten years older than he had yesterday. I smiled wanly. "Someone has to."
"We can do it together later," he insisted.
I smiled again, thinking back to the days when that had been our thing. My friends had never understood why I liked washing dishes so much but it was because that was the special time that my father and I spent together, when he would ask me about my day at school and I would ask him to tell me about all the interesting cases he had had that day. It was a time I cherished, unlike my sister who had found Dad's questions about her day annoying. "Just like old times," I said.
He came and stood beside me at the window, watching his grandchildren. "Louise and Kevin are going to stay until Saturday."
"I thought Kevin had to be back at work tomorrow?" I said, looking down at the dishes again and wondering where the hell to even start. "The way he was talking yesterday you'd think the entire company would ground to a halt without him."
"I think Louise made it clear that she wasn't leaving and that it might help him ingratiate himself with me if he were to stay too." I looked at him and saw a twinkle in his eyes, one that had been missing for the last few days. "I guess he agreed with her."
I laughed, "You really should stop giving him such a hard time, you know. It isn't fair."
"But it's fun." We both laughed and it felt as though it was the first time in months that I had allowed myself to do it.
"Well I'm glad someone finds today amusing." We both turned to see my sister Louise standing in the doorway holding yet more dirty plates. Her eyes were red, indicating that she had been crying again. It was funny how someone who had spent so many years moaning about and fighting with her mother could be so traumatised by her death.
"I'll take those," I said, moving towards her and taking them from her. "Dad says you and Kevin are staying until Saturday."
"Is there a problem with that?"
I looked up and met her steely gaze. "No, I was just passing a comment."
"We can't all have big important jobs that take us all over the country, Megan," she said, her tone acidic. "Some of us need to be here to deal with what's important."
I could feel myself getting angry and about to break the rule I had steadfastly made for myself when I had got here about not fighting with my sister. "I have been here," I retaliated.
"Yeah, sure," she replied, "and we all know that it's only because there wasn't something more important for you to do." Before I could reply, she swept back out of the kitchen to where the last few remaining guests were still clustered in the living room.
"I can't believe…!" I fumed, stopping only when I felt my father put his hands on my shoulders.
"Don't fight with your sister," he said in that calm voice he had always used whenever tempers had flared in years gone by. "You both need each other and it's not what your mother would have wanted."
He was right. It wasn't what my mother would have wanted and I thought back, with guilt and regret, at the many hundreds of times she had needed to referee fights between Louise and I over the years, all because we weren't the close, tight-knit sisters that we should have been. I turned to face him and saw the pain in his eyes. "I'm so sorry, Daddy," I said, feeling tears threaten.
"Hey, come on now," he pulled me into his bear-like embrace and, suddenly, I was twelve years old again. "It's a hard time for all of us right now." I buried my face into his chest and drank in the familiar smell of his cologne. I remembered lying in bed at night when he would come home late and come into my room to kiss me goodnight and I could smell it then. It was comforting.
I pulled away and looked up at him. "I can stay if you want me to," I offered. "I can call work and tell them…" he shook his head. "But Louise is right, you need me here."
"What I need is some peace," he said ruefully. "Some time to get used to the fact that your mother isn't coming back. Now I'm going to have enough trouble trying to keep my temper with Kevin without you and Louise fighting all week. Go back home." I hesitated. "I mean it," he persisted. "Go and save someone's business. It's what you do best after all."
I nodded, more for his benefit than for mine. The irony wasn't lost on me. I was an expert at saving other people's businesses, other people's families and yet, I couldn't even seem to save my own.
Topeka – Kansas
July 18th 2007
I didn't think I had ever been so angry in my entire life. I mean, I had been angry before, who hadn't? But I was pretty sure I had never been this angry before. It was one of those moments when you're so angry that you're rendered literally speechless. I was more angry than I had been when Laurie had bought the truck we couldn't afford, or when Cecile had gotten a bad report card, and that was saying something.
It was strange how the roles were reversed. I was sitting at the kitchen table I had sat at for most of my life while my mother fluttered nervously around the kitchen making dinner, knowing that she had done something I wouldn't like and therefore refusing to meet my gaze. It reminded me so much of my own childhood in reverse.
"I don't see what you're making such a fuss about," she said, bending to put a roast chicken in the oven. "It's not a big deal."
"Not a big deal?" I echoed. "Mom, it's like being slapped in the face! It's like turning around and telling me that everything I have done over the last few years to this place has all been for nothing!"
"No it isn't," she said, waving her hand dismissively at me.
"When did you and Dad come up with this brilliant idea anyway?" I demanded, balling my fists on the table in front of me.
"We've been thinking about it for a while."
"And you didn't think to mention it to me before now?"
"You had other things on your mind, Jack," she said.
"This is my home and my business too," I raged, getting to my feet. "You gave me the controlling interest. You had no right…"
"We had every right!" she said, turning to me, her own eyes flashing angrily in a way I hadn't seen for years. "What did you expect us to do while you shut yourself away in that house? Did you think that we would just let this place go under while you came to terms with what happened?"
I stepped back, physically shocked by her words. She and Dad had never been anything but supportive since it happened and this was the first time I had seen her like this. The first time she had given any indication that my all-consuming grief hadn't be natural.
"Your father and I built this business up from nothing before you even showed the slightest interest in it," she continued. "When you were still planning to go away to law school, remember those days?" I nodded silently. "We were happy when you decided to stay here and ecstatic when you and Laurie wanted to take over from us but now…" she sighed.
"Now things are different," I finished for her.
"Yes, yes they are," she nodded. "I think it's wonderful that you feel able to get back into the way of things and pick up where you left off but…but it's been nearly eight months and things…well things were going downhill even before she died."
I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat, the one that formed every time I thought about Laurie. I had come a long way in the last eight months, we all had, but the pain was always there and I was beginning to wonder if it would ever go away.
"And Cecile's getting older," she continued, "and if she wants to go away to school one day…"
"She's twelve," I interrupted. "We're not at that stage yet." In reality, I didn't want to think about the day my daughter would fly the nest leaving me nothing but memories. I moved and sat back down at the table, pressing my thumbs against my eye sockets until I could see red dots dancing in my vision. "How much is all this going to cost anyway?"
"There's an upfront fee of $400…"
"Four hundred bucks?!" I leapt to my feet again. "Are you insane?! You're talking about how much money we're losing and you're willing to give away four hundred bucks on some…some company that might not even be able to help us?!"
"Your father and I had discussed this," she said, in a tone that indicated the conversation was coming to an end. "But we didn't want to make the final decision until we had spoken to you. Once the money is transferred, the company sends a representative down here to see what the problems are and how best they think they can fix them."
"And screw even more money out of us for the privilege?" I said sarcastically.
"If you have a better idea of how best to pay our mounting bills then, by all means, let's hear it," she said, "but I want to do this and so does your father."
"Then why bother even asking me?" I asked, getting to my feet again. "Seeing as my opinion doesn't really matter anyway." Before she could reply, I pushed open the back door and stepped out into the hazy afternoon sunshine. Taking a deep breath, I looked out across the acres of land that had been in our family for years, watching the horses trotting around the corral and the cattle grazing in one of the far fields. I loved this place, always had, always would, but it had lost something for me in those last eight months, something I knew I could never get back as long as I lived.
A horn beeped and I turned to see my dad's truck pull into the yard. Cecile opened the passenger door and jumped out, pulling her schoolbag after her. I marvelled, as I always did, about how much she looked like Laurie. Her auburn hair, pulled back in a boyish ponytail, dazzled in the sunshine and as she walked over to me, I could see the same freckles that her mother had had and remembered long afternoons in bed counting them.
"Hey Dad," she greeted me, shielding her eyes from the sun.
"Hey," I replied, "how was school?"
"Boring. What's for dinner?"
"Why don't you go in and ask your Grandma?" Without further ado, she pushed open the door and hurried inside. I turned back to where my dad was getting out of the driver's seat. "Dad."
"Jack," he looked at me curiously. "Did your mother mention…?"
"Yeah," I nodded. "She did."
"And I think the idea sucks. But hey, it's your business right? Who am I to disagree?" I turned in the direction of the well worn track away from the main house that would take me down a small hill and around a corner to the house Laurie and I had built fifteen years ago. It had been my hiding place these last eight months, the place I had felt safe, surrounded by her memory. It was the place I needed to be now.
Los Angeles – California
July 19th 2007
It was always strange coming back to LA, though it had been my home for the last five years. After the cool green of Cambridge, it was a shock to the system to step off the plane and meet the dry heat. But, after a few hours, I was acclimatised again and, back in my spacious apartment, I felt I could finally breathe.
Louise and I had spoken very little after our brief fight in the kitchen. Once all the guests had left, Dad and I had cleaned up, restoring the kitchen to the calm order that my mother had always prided herself on maintaining. It had been a strange sensation, knowing that she would never again cook for me, that I would never hear her singing from the back yard, that I would never be able to share stories with her again. Even in the last stages of her illness, she had been so active, so much a part of our lives. I had spoken to her about so many things and I had wanted to hold onto that for as long as possible. It would always haunt me that I hadn't been there the morning that she died because of work. Louise knew how I felt and seemed to delight in pressing that particular button.
When I had got home, I had gone to bed for a few hours, drained by all the activity and the fact that I had barely slept in days. When I woke, I checked my messages, most of which were fairly unimportant. The last one was from Mark, my boss, telling me he had an exciting new project for me and he was looking forward to briefing me.
Mark was one of those guys so enthusiastic about his job that it was hard not to kill him. Every day he was upbeat, perky and annoyingly optimistic. Born the son of a welder in Detroit, he had rescued his first business aged eighteen and had gone on to build an empire out of it. As I drove downtown, I wondered what the new project was. The last one I had completed had involved a whale-watching company in Nova Scotia. Two months spent freezing my ass off wrapped up in a thick jacket, scarf, hat, gloves and boots had not been my idea of fun and I only hoped this assignment, whatever it was, was in a warm climate.
Richmond Limited was located in a glass fronted building in the centre of town, a fairly impressive location a far cry from the one room dump Mark had started in twenty years earlier. It projected the right image of success which was, after all, what our clients wanted. I walked in through the marble entrance way and took the elevator to the twelfth floor where my office was. When I walked in, I was startled to see a huge bouquet of flowers on my desk; pinks and yellows and greens all mixed together.
"Wow," I said to myself.
"Isn't it amazing?!" I turned to see my assistant Vicky hovering behind me. "They arrived this morning. Is there a card?"
"Like you haven't looked already," I replied, walking around the desk and finding the tell-tale white envelope tucked amongst the foliage.
"I swear I didn't read it," she said, holding up her hands.
I opened the envelope and pulled out a small card. To my favourite executive. Welcome back. Mark.
"Who's it from?" she asked practically dancing with excitement.
"Mark," I replied.
Her face fell, "Mark? Jeez, I thought maybe you had a secret lover you hadn't told me about."
"Hardly. You know everything about my life." It was a sad fact, but although I could help run people's business, I could barely run my own personal life. If it wasn't for Vicky, some days I wouldn't have clean underwear.
Vicky giggled, "Speaking of Mark, he told me to tell you he wants to see you in his office the second you get in." She turned to leave and then turned back. "Oh, I'm sorry, how was your mother's funeral?"
What was the word to use I wondered? There were so many different ways to describe it. I settled on the one that said the least. "It was fine."
"Good," she said, before walking back to her own desk.
I smoothed down my skirt, lifted a pad and a pen and made my down the hallway to Mark's palatial office at the far end. Completely surrounded by glass, it offered an amazing view of the city. I couldn't help wondering, every time I walked in, if it would be mine one day.
"Megan!" he greeted me after I knocked and stepped in. "It's so good to have you back." He came forward and kissed me. "How are you?"
"Fine," I said again, "Glad to be back. Thank you for the flowers by the way."
"You're welcome, you're welcome," he said waving me into a seat. "I hope you're back reinvigorated and ready for a new challenge."
He made it sound as though I had been on vacation, not compassionate leave. "Yes," I said brightly. "I'm looking forward to hearing about it.
He pulled a file out from a drawer and passed it to me. I opened it and flicked through the paperwork inside. "It's a small family run business in Topeka, Kansas," he explained. "Your speciality." I could tell he was thinking about the whales. "It's a working ranch which has a business element and a vacation element to it. Basically, it operates as a working business in terms of the buying and selling of livestock, feed that sort of thing, but it also offers ranching vacations for families. It's run primarily by Ben and Martha Preston and their son Jack."
"Things haven't been going well," I observed, casting an eye over the financial figures provided. Over the last few months the profits had literally been draining away.
"It's a shame," Mark said, "it's been running for over thirty years but in the economic climate and what with bigger and better things on offer…" he trailed off. "I understand that there's been some personal problems too within the family. A death or something like that. But I'm confident that with your personality and expertise you'll be able to turn it around."
I took a deep breath and closed the file. "When do you want me to leave?"
"As soon as," he replied. "The initial fee was paid yesterday so I would get down there as soon as you can. Just the usual. Two weeks to see what you think, report back and we'll take it from there."
"Ok," I got to my feet. "Can do."
"I know you can, Megan," he replied flashing me a smile, "and let's just say, if you do, there's a promotion and a hefty salary increase waiting for you."
I left Mark's office with mixed feelings. A promotion and a salary increase would be nice, who wouldn't want that? But I was starting to feel as though my work was taking over all other aspects of my life. Hell, I thought to myself as I returned to my own office, what life?