It was a cold September day when I returned home to my sixth-floor apartment after a long day at work, only to find a letter waiting at my door.
The letter was from my brother Charles, who, though five years my junior, had always seemed older—smarter, more controlling, more demanding—than I. I knew it was serious because Charles was a man of habit: he always called on the phone to deliver news, excepting when the news was very serious, in which case, for whatever reason, he always sent a letter. In a short and brusque fashion, he informed me that the mother we shared was dying, and I should come very soon to see her.
It was a shock to actually be told. You see, I'd always assumed that when my mother began the throes of death, Charles, ever the lawyer, would quietly, secretly put all her affairs in order, before I had a chance to mess around with them, before telling me anything about it. Charles was like that: he was always right, and everyone else was always wrong, and everyone else was always getting in his way.
But the message was there, and the message was—ostensibly—from Charles himself. So I went. The drive was two hours long; I listened to the radio as I went, humming along to songs I knew only in patches. Through winding back roads and over hills and under valleys, I followed the trail that led to the home of my childhood. I wondered on many things, but chiefly I wondered if my sister Lizzie would be there. I was Carolyn, and then five years later Charles came, and two years later Lizzie; that was the birth order of our family. But Lizzie had always been the black sheep, so badly-behaved that Mother had disowned her years and years ago—oh, it was hard to remember, but I think she would've only been eighteen or nineteen at the time. After that, she had gone away somewhere and God only knows what happened to her. But would she come back now, after all these years? Had she forgiven, forgotten? More to the point, had Mother?
Mother's estate was large and sprawling, with a two-minute drive through the outskirts of the property—an unkempt bramble of wood and brush—necessary before you would reach the house where she still lived and where her three children had been raised. I'd like to say the property was intimately familiar to me—after all, I'd spent the first nineteen years of my life there—but I'd never been a woman of the outdoors, and as a child I had spent most of my time in the house. So the jungle that was my mother's property was as unfamiliar to me as the surface of the moon, in truth. I knew it was worth a lot of money, being as vast as it was, and as nicely located; nowadays, rich people would empty their pockets to be able to get out of the city and into an isolated property where no one could bother them, and if they wanted that, then this was the place—a twenty-minute drive away from any town of good size. And even the overgrown brush—unattended for at least twenty years, since my father had died and my mother had stopped paying attention to anything but her own private world—might appeal to a wealthy family, as a privacy screen of sorts. Optimistically, that is.
The house itself was large, brick, had six bedrooms, four baths, a living room the size of my own apartment, and several other rooms in which Mother—who had basically become a hoarder after losing her husband—housed all her precious items. Pulling up to the house in my car whose wheels crunched against the gravel of the driveway, I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, a sort of pull of the heart. I'd not seen the house for…oh, it must have been six years. Six years during which I'd kept telling myself I'd go see Mother soon, and never had. And now she was dying. "Dying"—that was the only word Charles had used; not sick or with cancer or suffering from pneumonia, but just dying. That could mean anything. Was she struck with some illness, or was she just old? Personally I was betting on the former. God knows Mother was a stubborn old thing; she'd never let anything as simple as old age be the end of her.
As I left the car and went to the porch, I heard a creak and saw the old rocking-chair Mother had sat on years ago, swaying back and forth in the autumn wind. I hadn't expected anyone to be waiting at the door for me, but someone was—I saw a flash of movement at the window, and then the old paint-chipped door creaked open and Charles's wife Monica was smiling up at me. Her smiles had always seemed false to me, but nonetheless, I returned the favor.
"Why, hello, Carolyn! Come on in! How are you?"
I demurred—fine, thank you, all that small-talk stuff—as she led me into the house.
"Charles will be back in a minute. He said he had to run some errands."
"Oh—that's strange. I never knew him to run errands."
She smiled a little. "Yes, well, people change when they've got families. They grow up. He runs errands left and right now."
I would never have said this to anyone, but I had never been too shocked by the fact that Monica had had an awful time bearing her three children—such an awful time, in fact, that the last birth had left her unable to have any more. I remember seeing her heavily pregnant with her second child—a son, Lucas; he'd be nine or ten now—and being shocked at the sight, at the idea that such a small frame could carry so much weight. She was so tiny and delicate, pale and frail; I would even say she was sickly-looking. Her dark brown hair was the only color in her, and her voice was soft as a cloud, and perpetually hoarse. But she moved as easily and gracefully as a dancer, and I'd never seen her with a cold, or even heard her mention catching a sickness. It was just the way she looked that made me fear for her, not any concrete fact. Monica was as healthy as a horse, in truth. Her brain, perhaps, was a little anemic, and I'd never seen an inkling in her that suggested she cared about anyone but herself, but certainly her body was hale and healthy.
We sat down in the living room together and made more small talk while we waited for Charles. Monica was awfully good at small talk, but not at much else; I'd always found her to be a bit of an airhead, in truth.
Charles arrived in due course; I heard the squeak of the door opening and shutting behind him. Then his footsteps approached, smart business shoes tapping against the floor as he stalked to the living room.
There he was, staring down at me. He'd never been handsome, but he wasn't ugly, either, and it seemed to me that he'd improved with age. At forty-four or so, he was still decent-looking, with not a speck of gray in his brown hair yet. Of course he wore a sharp business suit—that was all he ever wore. "Carolyn. I saw your car."
He had no groceries in his hands, and he hadn't had any time to put them down, which meant he'd never had any. What kind of errand had he been on?
"Hello, Charles," I said.
He gave me an irritable hand gesture—his version of a hello. "I'm glad you're here. Mother's in a bad way; I doubt she'll make it to Christmas. God, she might not even make it to next week."
"Where is she? Can I see her?"
"Of course. She's upstairs. I've got a nurse with her."
"A nurse?" I exclaimed. "It's that bad?" For some reason, the reality hadn't hit me until now.
"Yes, for God's sake. Did you think I was exaggerating? She's dying, Carolyn. She won't make it to Christmas. Which is in five weeks."
"All right; you don't have to snap. I want to see her."
"Fine." And he led me upstairs, Monica trailing behind us.
"It was two weeks ago when I first came," Charles told me as we went. "Mother called me, told me she needed me to drive her to a doctor's appointment. Of course I asked her why she couldn't just get one of those charitable organizations to drive her, but she told me she thought it was serious and she wanted me with her. In any case, the doctor told her she had a growth in her brain. A cancerous sort of thing—you can't operate on it, and all it does is grow. Add that to her poor respiration and general bad health and, of course, the fact that she's eighty-two, and it's no wonder she's the way she is now. She wanted to be at home until the very end, you see; that's why I hired the nurse. She's unconscious most of the time, and the rest of the time she's sick as a dog and can't even remember her own name. It came on very quickly; two weeks ago she was fine, and a week after that she was walking into walls, and it was two days ago that she became—well, like this. You'll see. In any case, Monica and I have been staying here since a week ago and we'll stay here till the end. Monica's sister is looking after the boys."
We were upstairs and at a door now—but it was the wrong door; it was a dark mahogany door. "This is Dad's room," I pointed out.
"Yes. She wanted to stay in it. It was her choice. I didn't understand it either, myself, but—well, that's just the way she wanted to be."
He opened the door and there was Mother. She was lying on the bed covered with blankets, and looked so much smaller than I remembered, so frail, with a feeding tube in her arm running up to a bag on a hook, and in an instant all the guilt that had accumulated over the years I hadn't visited caught up with me and choked me into tears. Oh, she was breathing so slowly, I noticed as I approached her. One breath every ten seconds, maybe not even that much. I leaned over her, tears spilling over my eyes, and took her cold hand in my own. "Mother, it's Carolyn. I'm here with you."
It was only then that I noticed the woman sitting in a chair next to the bed. She was maybe thirty-five, brown-haired, sturdily-framed but not fat, and wore the kind of white uniform you'd expect a nurse to wear. "Are you the nurse?" I asked.
Charles answered for her. "That's Agley Lee-Sharp. She's the nurse, yes."
She had kind eyes—that was the defining feature of her, how kind her eyes looked. "I'm pleased to meet you," she said in a pleasant voice.
"Pleased to meet you as well."
I looked back down at Mother, at her pitted old face and her slow breaths and her tight-shut eyes. She'd seen a lot of years, a lot of wear. I should have been here with her. I truly, really should have. I said as much to her, through a tear-strained voice, hoping she could hear me.
After only a minute I felt Charles's hand on my shoulder—rough, though he probably didn't mean to be. "We should go, Carolyn."
I turned on him, incredulous. "Why? We've only just arrived."
"I never stay with her for too long—it seems to cause her stress. And neither should you. Come on. We'll come back and see her later."
"But—look at her, she's so sick," I said helplessly. "Shouldn't someone be with her?"
"Agley's with her. Come on, let's go." And with his insistent hand still on my shoulder, I did leave, but not before casting a final glance back at my poor mother, laid out on the bed like a funeral viewing. She looked half-dead already.
When we were downstairs, I asked Charles about Agley: her credentials, what she was like.
"She's good, she's good. Works for a company that sends nurses round to live with people who are dying. She's the best nurse Mother's had in years, I'll tell you that much."
"Wait. She's had more than one nurse?"
He frowned at me. "Yes. She's in her eighties, you know. Very fragile. Four years ago she fell down and broke her hip. She's had a succession of nurses since then, but they all ended up leaving for one reason or the other—family problems or whatever it might be. She disliked having them, you know. I insisted upon it—said it was for her own good, of course—but she wouldn't hear it. She felt it ruined her independence, made her feel like a child. She discharged the last one four months ago and insisted upon living alone." He snorted. "Fat lot of good it did her, too."
"I didn't know she broke her hip. Why didn't anyone call me?"
He looked surprised. "Well, I thought she would've called you. After the fact, I mean."
"No, why didn't you?"
"I didn't feel it was necessary at the time."
"Why not? I'm her daughter. A broken hip isn't small potatoes."
"And I'm her son," he said firmly, "and I felt it was best for her welfare not to have the entire family descending around her and swarming like flies around a corpse. Besides, she didn't want it either—she didn't want anyone called, not just you. She didn't want to make a fuss."
I frowned at him, but kept my silence. When Charles thinks he's right, there is absolutely no sense in arguing with him.
"In any case," he said, "this is definitely the last of her. It's a brain tumor, like I said. Inoperable. You don't just recover from that kind of thing, especially not at her age. I wouldn't have called you if it weren't the most serious situation imaginable."
Oh, I couldn't help arguing against that. "I am her daughter, Charles. You don't get exclusive only-child rights just because you're her power of attorney. You should call me when she's got a bad toothache, for crying out loud! I want to know about these things."
Grimly, he said, "There's no point in arguing about it now."
I opened my mouth—about to ask why not—when it came to me: there were to be no more toothaches, no more broken hips to call about. This was it.
I shut up and nodded, mouth pressed into a thin line.
"Good. Now let's go downstairs—Monica will probably have tea ready for us."
A day after my arrival, Charles and I and Monica were sitting in the living room together in the early afternoon. Charles sat on the couch at the corner near the window and sipped some tea, looking nervous and weary as he usually did, as if something inevitable and horrible was going to come to pass that only he knew of. I, myself, sat on the flower-printed chair close to the grandfather clock in the opposite corner, and drank coffee, out of a chipped old mug that had once been our father's favorite. Monica drank nothing—she didn't believe in drink other than water, as she'd told me at least a hundred times. Whether this meant she denied its existence or only denied its merits, I didn't know. I also didn't know why she sat in the wide window rather than on the couch with her husband. She rested on some piled-up cushions, her legs drawn in to her chest, looking like a child with her tiny bird-like frame and innocent face.
We hadn't said a word for too long—you could cut the silence in the room with a knife. Finally I cleared my throat and voiced an idea I'd had in my head for a while. "We need to take a look at Mother's will—clear things up. Just so we know where everyone in the family stands with their inheritance and all."
Charles glared at me. "Absolutely not. It can't be done."
He had no cause to already be so vehement—I'd barely said a word. "Why on earth not? You said it yourself, her affairs need to be put in order."
"Put in order, yes. Trampled, no. I'm not going through her will now. For heaven's sake, Carolyn, she's not even in her grave yet, much less cold in it."
"Just to make sure there aren't any mistakes—"
"No," he said firmly, and that was undoubtedly the end of it.
Personally, I couldn't see what the fuss was about it. I said so to him. "Mother's not dead, true, but nonetheless we need to be prepared for the eventuality."
"Don't you think I know that?" He rubbed his temples, looking weary. "I just want to show her the slightest bit of respect while she's still alive."
"For God's sake, this isn't about respect—"
"Oh, but it is. More than you know. More than you understand, actually. I'm not going to discuss this with you, Carolyn. This is a matter for after her death."
But later, I went into Mother's old room and found her living will in the one place I'd always known her to hide it in—not safe in a bank or in a file folder in some lawyer's office somewhere, but in a safe little cranny in the corner of her clothes closet.
Mother had never trusted lawyers, nor bankers, nor even, fully, any of her children—especially not sneaking, prowling Lizzie, who'd once stolen Mother's best jewels to wear to a party down in Burnworth, certainly not the kind of ritzy neighborhood you're expected to wear jewels in; God knows Lizzie only stole those jewels to spite Mother, and just because she could. No, the only person Mother trusted implicitly and doubtlessly was herself, and that's why I knew where her will would be. She had never had any idea that I knew where she kept her most important documents—I'd found the secret compartment long ago as a child during a game of hide-and-seek—and I wanted to keep it that way. So, quietly and sneakily like my sister Lizzie had been, I crept into the secret space and slipped the dusty papers under my arm, quiet as a church mouse.
The will was written in Mother's own hand—and I was surprised at the quality of the handwriting: shaky and barely decipherable, a sure sign she'd written this will fairly recently, though it was dusty as an old basement. In that same shaky handwriting, it willed the house and all its contents to Charles "because he'll know what to do with it"; the monetary inheritance to me "because she needs it"; and anything left behind in storage lockers to Lizzie "because I don't feel right about cutting her out".
I put the document down on the table, thinking. I had the money. According to this will, I and I alone had the money. Charles wouldn't like that. He had always assumed the money would be equally divided between him and me—not including Lizzie, of course, since both of us had assumed she'd be ignored in the will. What would Charles do with a house, anyway? He already had two, one in Toronto and one in London, not counting his multiple cabins at picturesque places like Stoney Lake. It was the money he'd always wanted, the money and maybe a few of the antiques, which, of course, he could sell for more money. Even though God knew, being a lawyer who charged no less than three hundred an hour, he had enough already.
Oh, but of course he'd never sell the antiques, or anything else he'd inherited. He'd feel bitter, he'd wallow in his bitterness about it, but I knew he could never bring himself to sell the house nor anything in it. That was another one of his strange, unshakable "morals"—bizarre, for a bloodsucking lawyer for whom nothing mattered but dollars. If Mother had left him the house, he would not sell it. He'd feel bitter about keeping it, but he'd keep it. He would go on and on about keeping the house "in the family", and perhaps give it to one of his children someday. That was one of the qualities of Charles you could always count on: if he inherited something big, like a house, he couldn't bring himself to sell it. I remembered once, when an uncle had died and bequeathed his car—a brand new Porsche, worth hundreds of thousands—to his nephew. Charles didn't like the car, thought it was ugly as a cow and nowhere near as useful, but he kept it. "Wouldn't be right to sell it," he kept muttering whenever I brought up the subject. "He gave it to me, after all." It rotted in his garage for a decade before he finally sold it, at a fraction of the price he could've got for it ten years back.
I decided not to tell him about the will. Back it went into its cubby, and I mentioned not a word of it to my brother.
The next day, I was up in Mother's room, defying Charles's orders by sitting with her for as long as I wanted. It didn't seem to be causing her stress; in fact, it was the opposite—she seemed somehow calmer with my presence; her breathing was more naturally paced, and her face had more color in it.
I spoke to Mother for a while, spoke to her about everything—the weather, current events, anything at all that came to my mind. The nurse Agley sat in her chair beside the bed, face buried in a newspaper, no doubt pretending not to listen. Finally, I had exhausted my conversation with Mother and decided to start one with Agley instead.
"Agley is your first name?" I asked her.
She looked up from over her newspaper. "Yes."
"It's kind of an odd name. Is it a family name?"
"Good guess. It was my mother's maiden surname—she wanted to keep it alive."
"Hmm. I had a cousin who did the same thing; named her son Mayberry."
Agley let out a chortle. "Mayberry. Poor boy."
"So where are you from?"
"Way up north. Thunder Bay area."
"That's a long way. What brought you down here?"
"Your brother," she said. "I'm a nurse-on-call; I go wherever the company tells me to go."
"So you go all sorts of places, wherever you're told to go, and you live there for a while? It must be hard on your family."
She shrugged. "I'm a family of one, miss. It doesn't bother me. I just hope my apartment's there when I come back."
She changed the subject abruptly. "Charles mentioned you had another sister—Elizabeth?"
"Lizzie's what we always called her. Most everyone, that is." I was surprised at the idea that Charles had mentioned Lizzie—he tended never to talk about her, and to turn his mouth into a very, very thin line whenever anyone dared to mention her. I think he was ashamed of her—ashamed of her bad behavior, of the way people talked about her, of how he considered her a disgrace to the family.
"Will she be joining us, miss?"
"Oh—Lizzie? God, no." I laughed, an uncomfortable sound. "I don't even know where she is, or how to call her."
"Your brother does." She leaned towards me conspiratorially, even though she was on the opposite side of the bed. "I heard him arguing—excuse me, miss; I shouldn't be gossiping—"
"Oh, please do gossip," I encouraged, wanting to hear more.
"All right. I heard him arguing with his wife. She wanted to call Eliz—Lizzie, and he was completely against it. I suppose he must have her number, but he doesn't want to use it. But I suppose one of you will call her eventually, before your mother dies—won't you, miss?"
I laughed again. "I hope not. She'd only foul everything up. I don't think either of us would dare to call her over here. She's a loose cannon, you see; a time bomb."
Agley frowned. "It seems to me that she should be called. If her mother's dying and all."
"It—no. No, no. Lizzie isn't the kind of person who would make this situation easier in any way. She's mean and unpredictable."
"It's the right thing to do, miss. To let her know about it. To let her see her mother one last time. Don't you agree?"
"I doubt Lizzie would even want to see Mother one last time. They hate each other."
I could see an idea forming in Agley's mind, and I knew it had to be stopped. "Please don't call her, Agley. If Charles doesn't, you shouldn't. Please don't get any ideas into your head."
"It's the right thing to do, I think." But Agley sat back and nodded. "I'll listen to you, miss, but I do think calling her is the right thing to do."
I sat back as well, breathing an internal sigh. "Good. Thank you."
But I wasn't entirely convinced that Agley was truly in agreement with me, and, of course, I was right to be worried.
Two days later, a knock sounded at the door. Monica was downstairs with the laundry and Charles was upstairs with Mother, so the task fell to me to answer the knock, though I was sure it'd end up being one of Charles's business partners or something like that. But when I answered the door, that wasn't the case at all.
There was a woman outside the door—a woman with a frowning face, wearing a formfitting white dress that showed off the curves of her impressively toned body. "Carolyn?" she said, in the low musical voice that I recognized quicker than I would've my own mother's. I knew her better by her voice than by her face, which had changed so much over all these years. It was my only sister.
Lizzie had grown taller, it seemed, from the last time I'd seen her. Her hair was longer, too, and wild around her shoulders, unable to be tamed by the elastic she'd put it in, from which it flared out like a fan. Far from the beautiful chestnut brown it had been back then, it was now streaked through with gray, and her face followed the pattern, being mapped with wrinkles and laugh lines. For some reason it was incredibly hard to see Lizzie looking old—mostly because she'd always seemed to be the youngest and most vital person I knew, and if Lizzie was old, I—her sister; seven years her senior—had to be old as well. Lizzie couldn't grow old; in my little world, it was only right that she should always be eighteen.
She gave me a look that could have killed one of the immortal gods of Olympus, simply felled him where he stood. "So why am I here?"
"I don't know," I stammered, caught on the spot. "I—I didn't send for you."
"Well, of course you didn't," she snapped, perhaps irritated by my stupidity; she pushed past me into the house and took a possessive look around, as if she owned the place. "Somebody called Agley summoned me, said it was urgent."
Damn that Agley; I told her not to do it! Too late, I realized I had spoken aloud.
Lizzie whirled towards me. "Pardon me?"
"I mean—I didn't want you to come, Liz," I admitted helplessly, still caught in the doorway between outside and inside. "Charles didn't, either. And more than that, we thought you wouldn't want to come."
"Quit evading the subject. Why am I here, exactly?"
Hadn't Agley told her? Why not? "It's Mother. She's dying."
Hands on her hips, she stared me down. "Why should I care about that? The old hag disowned me. It doesn't matter to me whether she lives or dies or becomes a spy for the Russians or whatever she wants to do. Do you really mean to tell me that's why I'm here?"
Despite myself, I was annoyed by her callous talk; it seemed that even after twenty-five years, Lizzie hadn't grown up. "Yes, Liz, that's why you're here. Your mother is dying. And now you're here, whether any of us like it or not, so you should do your part in helping get her affairs in order."
She let out a bark of a laugh. "Me, help with her affairs? What for? It's not as if the witch left me anything."
I scowled at her, and couldn't help myself from letting out the secret that I knew. "Yes, Lizzie, she did. She left you everything in the storage lockers. Everything."
Shock passed over Lizzie's face for a split second before it turned again to its sour default setting. "Yes, and so what? She's left me a couple of ancient, dirty old trunks full of old photographs I don't want to look at. And I suppose you and Charles get all the money and the house and everything."
"That's beside the point. Maybe you'd have got more of the share if you hadn't been such a brat to Mother," I said crossly.
"I was a brat?" She laughed incredulously. "All I did was dye my hair black! And she acted like I'd summoned a demon or something! Called me all these horrible words, drove me out of her house. I dyed my hair, Carolyn. Imagine what she'd have done if I had, oh, I don't know, got a tattoo or something. I might not even be alive today to speak of it."
"I—" I began, but she cut me off.
"And it's not as if any of you stuck up for me, either! When Mother was screaming at me, where were you and Charles? Up in your rooms, pretending you couldn't hear. Day after day after day. God, it's no wonder I ran away."
"You didn't run away; you were kicked out."
"That only proves my point! The woman kicked me out of her house and disowned me for dyeing my hair!"
Suddenly I was tired, tired into my bones, of having this conversation. "That was the last straw in a series of upsets, and you know it," I said wearily.
I heard footsteps creaking down the stairs, and suddenly Charles was in the room. He looked from Lizzie to me to Lizzie again, and his face turned a variety of colors, from red to purple to tomato-red again. "You invited her here?" he sputtered, as if each word was like cyanide in his mouth.
"I didn't—Agley did. And if I'd known, I would have stopped it right away."
"Thanks for the warm welcome," laughed Lizzie contemptuously. "You two are fantastic at rolling out the welcome wagon. My brother, my sister—ha!"
"I heard angry voices," said Charles, "so I came down. How long have you been here—thirty seconds? And already you're in a fight. You can't even stay out of a fight with your own flesh and blood for thirty seconds, Elizabeth. Do you see why I didn't roll out the welcome wagon for you? You're a poison."
Elizabeth—he'd never called her anything else; Charles didn't believe in nicknames. The name seemed to set her off, though it wasn't that she responded to. "I'm a poison?" she exclaimed, taking a step towards him. "It's you and your stupid wife who are toxic. Where is she, anyway? What's her name again? Mariah, Marcia, Marsha?"
"Monica," he said.
"Monica. That's right. Where the hell is Monica, anyway? At home raising your brood?"
"She's downstairs," I warned, at the same time Charles said, "That's none of your business."
It was me Lizzie listened to. "Downstairs? Really? Maybe I'll go say hello."
"No," Charles snapped.
"Why? Afraid I might scare her off?"
"Elizabeth, you are leaving. Now."
"But I've only just arrived!" she exclaimed, mock-surprised.
"You'll ruin everything—probably bring about Mother's death months before it should rightfully happen. Please just get out."
"I've just been told," she said, "that Mother left me some of her inheritance after all. Now that I know that, I'm not leaving 'til I get my share."
Charles's eyes widened to the size of saucer plates. "What?"
I kept my lips sealed; I wasn't going to get myself in trouble unless Lizzie did it for me.
I didn't have to wait long. "Carolyn's just told me," she said. "Yes, I know, I'm shocked too—God knows the old witch didn't have any call to leave me anything. But apparently I've got everything in the old storage lockers, and I'm going to have my due. Do you hear that, Charles? I know you're likely to pull out some legal clause to take away my inheritance, and I'm not letting that happen. I'm staying until I've got my stuff, and then I'm gone."
Charles turned to me as stiffly as if he was impaled on a pole. "You told her what?"
"I found Mother's will," I admitted. "And I read it."
"You couldn't have found—I've got Mother's will!"
"And I've got the real one. You know she always hides her most valuable stuff, Charles. Well, I know where it's hidden."
I interrupted Charles's stammered epithets. "Lizzie, won't you come in? I mean, in. We can sit down and talk a bit." It was a peace offering—I didn't want to fight with her anymore.
She gave me a look. "I don't want to talk with you any more than I want to be locked in a safe with a rattlesnake." But she did follow me into the living room, and she did sit down with me on the couch—though we sat as far away from each other as possible, at awkward angles.
Charles didn't follow us, though I hadn't expected him to. "I'm sorry about him," I told her. "He's really taking this awfully well, you know. He didn't have a heart attack or anything."
She snorted. "Knowing Charles, he's probably collapsed already and we just aren't there to see it."
"So—" I said after a moment of silence. "How have you been?"
She shook her head. "We both know you're just asking about me because you're curious to know if I'm homeless on the street working as a prostitute yet. So why don't you ask your real question?"
It was completely true. In the back of my mind, I had always expected Lizzie to fail, to burn out miserably and end up in some terrible place doing some terrible thing just to stay alive. It was horrible, but it was true. I let out a deep sigh and asked the question. "Are you homeless in the street working as a prostitute yet?"
"As a matter of fact, no. I'm a social worker. I specialize in working with teenagers."
I was surprised at the answer, but my surprise faded as I thought about it. It was really a perfect fit. Lizzie would know where a troubled young adult was coming from—she had been one herself for so long. It was only right.
"That's good," I said after a moment. "Good money, I imagine."
She snorted again. "Enough to keep me alive, I suppose. You'd think my pay would increase with seniority, but no."
"Any kids?" It was just a courtesy question, a space-filler—I thought I already knew the answer.
"I have a daughter. Tracey."
That, too, was a surprise. Lizzie had always spoken about how much she absolutely hated children and wished they didn't exist and would never have any of her own as long as she lived, so help her God. Now she had a daughter? Life was a story with many twists and turns.
She must've seen it in my face. "Tracey was an accident," she said bluntly. "I know you likely think I'd be a horrible mother, but truth is, I don't think I've done half bad, considering the circumstances. She's twenty-three, now, and she's going for a doctor. How bad a mother could I be, if my kid's a doctor?"
So she'd had the child when she was only twenty. I imagined Lizzie, only a little older than when last I'd seen her, still a child herself, and finding out she was going to have a baby. It was all but impossible to imagine. I decided not to ask about the father.
"Married? Boyfriend?" I asked.
"No. I never really got the chance."
"I didn't either," I admitted. "I suppose I was never interested, and now it's too late."
"Why should it be too late? Because you're old? There are plenty of lonely old men out there looking for a hot catch like you." The sarcasm in her voice was absolutely biting; I'd forgotten how mean Lizzie could be.
I decided, for no reason at all, to forgive her and change the subject. "Where do you live now?"
"I won't tell you," she said flatly, bluntly. "I don't want you checking up on me."
I almost began to protest, but decided against it. If Lizzie wasn't going to tell me, then she wasn't going to tell me, and there was no point in starting an argument about it.
Things were awkward for a moment more, until finally Lizzie said, "This—"
But she didn't get a chance to finish. Charles stalked in, evidently having recovered from his shock. "Elizabeth, I've just looked over Mother's will and there is nothing about you in it. Nothing at all."
"There is," I said, taking Lizzie's side. "I read it myself."
"I mean in her real will, her legitimate will—not some old nonsense you found in the back of a closet," said Charles with a sort of defensive dignity. "That thing doesn't count."
"What are we—children on a playground?" This from Lizzie, who was giving Charles the most contemptuous look you can imagine. "That doesn't count. So immature of you, Charles. I always thought you were the most adult of us."
"Charles, the will does count," I said, but gently, trying to be the peacemaker. "Why shouldn't it? She wrote it, and signed it in her own hand. It makes her intentions perfectly clear."
"Yes, but it's not legal," he insisted. "It's not certified, verified. Why, it could be anyone's handwriting—it could be yours."
Something came to mind, and I couldn't help myself from speaking it. "I imagine, if everything had been left to you in that will, you'd be the first one defending its legitimacy," I said quietly.
His eyes narrowed. "What are you insinuating about me, Carolyn?"
"I'm not insinuating anything. I'm just saying that you and Lizzie, your little feud—it may be what ultimately ruins Mother's last wishes. Since you and Lizzie have your past, you'll work your hands to the bone trying to make sure Mother's final will is never legitimized. I think you should put aside any past prejudices and simply handle Mother's wishes as she wanted them done. For heaven's sake, the woman is dying; it's the least you can do to respect her in her last days."
A smug Lizzie gave Charles a curt nod. "Hear that? That's the truest truth you'll hear all day."
Charles looked up to heaven. "My God, is this what it's come to? Both of my sisters turned against me? Even you, Carolyn?"
"I wouldn't be against you if I didn't think this was the right thing to do," I said. "This goes beyond any problem you have with Lizzie."
Something set Charles off, and he began raving, glaring at Lizzie. "Last time I saw that woman, she was nothing more than an irresponsible, drug-abusing brat—"
"—who outright despised her whole family and was practically abusive to Mother—"
"—and who was incapable of keeping her head, much less a steady job! Why should she receive any of Mother's hard-earned possessions? Why? Justify it to me, Carolyn! After everything she's done, why?"
I fixed on him a cool, cool gaze. "Because Mother said so. That's why."
He stared at me for a moment, breathing heavily, red-faced. Then he turned on his heel and stalked from the room.
Lizzie turned to me with a smirk on her face, seeming barely frazzled. "Well, he's just like I remember, isn't he? Stiff as a post and with just the same amount of brains."
But I wasn't in the mood for that kind of talk. Abruptly I was entirely done with the conversation. I got up and left without a word, just as Lizzie often had done to me.
Soon after, I went to see Agley. As usual, she was sitting at Mother's bedside, flipping through a magazine. She barely even glanced up at me as I entered the room.
"So it's you, Miss Black. I heard a commotion downstairs—fussing and fighting. Any trouble?"
"Agley," I said, "you called Lizzie."
"Yes, I did."
"I asked you not to—and for good reason! She's only trouble. She's only ever been trouble. God, why couldn't you listen to me about just this one thing?"
She glanced up at me again, eyes peering out from over her magazine. "She's your kin, miss. I felt it was only right to do something about it."
"It's a private family matter, Agley! If we wanted Lizzie here, we'd have called her."
"It's not about the wanting so much as the needing. I thought she had a right to know about her own mother's dying."
"You don't get to decide that," I said wearily, not wanting to start a fight with 'the best nurse Mother's had in years,' but still quite annoyed by what she'd done. "It's the family's call to make, not yours."
"I'm sorry, miss," she said. "I won't do it again."
"Well, I'm sure you won't—we don't have any more siblings to call." I laughed a tiny, weary bit, despite myself.
Apparently, Agley didn't find it as humorous as I did. With a stone face she said, "I know you might let me go because of this, but I felt it was the right thing to do, miss."
The thought hadn't crossed my mind. "I don't plan on that. I just—I just want you to know that you've likely fouled everything up beyond repair. Lizzie isn't the type of person who should be involved with delicate family matters like this. But now that she's here…" I sighed deeply. "It can't be helped."
Later, I got into an argument with Monica. It wasn't a big argument—neither of us became so petty as to raise our voices—and it wasn't over anything important. Monica had accidentally let a black sock into the laundry and darkened all my whites, but that was just an annoyance; the real cause of the argument was the fact that Monica had noticed the problem and failed to fix it in time.
"You should've stopped the washer and pulled the sock out—"
"Oh, dear, Carolyn, why would I do that?"
I was a bit miffed. "My whites. They're all ruined."
"You can't just stop the washer," she said, affronted, as if it was an offense to nature itself to even suggest such a thing. "It has to go until it's done."
"That's not true," I insisted. "You can stop whenever you feel like it."
She reeled back—only the tiniest bit; barely noticeable—as if I'd given her a (small, imperceptible) shove. "No, you can't. It'd be anarchy."
I stared at her for a moment, unable to form a logical response to such a statement. Finally I gave her my best low-watt smile, which I hoped would diffuse the tension a little, and said jokingly, "It's laundry, Monica. Not the fabric of society."
"You can't just stop the laundry," Monica said firmly. "You can't. I've never done it. My mother never did it."
I made a mental note that I should plan to have a laundry-stopping display in front of Monica in the future. "Yes, you can. It's not a big deal."
"Not a big deal—doesn't it break the washer?"
"…No. It doesn't."
"It doesn't make it so you have to put your clothes back in again and start over with more water and soap and waste your time?"
"No," I said through gritted teeth, "it starts up again where it stopped." I was all but unable to believe I was explaining this to a grown woman.
"Well, I never heard tell of such a thing before," Monica declared. I think she was trying to sound diplomatic, but Lord knows I knew she didn't believe me—for whatever reason. Perhaps her laundry beliefs were too deeply ingrained in her brain to be shaken off now.
What an utterly airheaded woman. I had never really liked Monica, and this incident—although small—cemented my belief that she had nothing in her head but clouds. God only knew why Charles, a lawyer who valued nothing more than intelligence, had married her. However, I wouldn't let on that I disliked her so. I put on a fake smile and said, "Well, it's true. Maybe sometime you should try it."
A week following my arrival, I received a telephone call. It was my boss, Ronald, a stout and red-faced man. I imagine that even if you'd never seen Ronald in your life, if you heard his voice on a telephone call, you'd be able to guess what he looked like. There are some people who are that way. Before I had left home, I'd informed Ronald I would be gone for a while, and he had grudgingly agreed to it, but God only knew how far his patience would stretch.
"Ms. Black," he said, "you've been gone for a week."
"Mother isn't dead yet," I said calmly, though inside I was panicking. Obviously, his patience wasn't going to stretch very far. "I'm going to be here until she dies, and for a little while afterward, to make arrangements."
"I see," he said. "And do you have a guess of how long that'll be?"
I didn't. Mother's condition hadn't improved or worsened even the tiniest bit since I'd been here. "Perhaps a month," I lied.
"A month," he said. The disapproval in his voice practically seeped through the receiver and slapped me in the face. "That's quite a while, Ms. Black. I hope I don't find myself needing to replace you."
It likely wasn't a threat; Ronald wasn't the type of man who made threats. He probably really did hope he wouldn't have to replace me. I was a hard worker, and I'd been with the same company—Watson Insurance, Ltd—for the past fourteen years. However, I imagined that being gone for months probably wouldn't help my case. Even for a respected worker like me, who'd been with the company for so long, there are limits.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't plan for this. But, you know, no one knows exactly when she'll pass, and I want to be here when it happens. It makes me feel better to be here, you understand. And I imagine if she were conscious it would make her feel better too."
"Perhaps you can sleep there," he suggested, "and commute to work."
Fat chance—work was a three-hour drive away. "I'll consider it," I said.
He harrumphed. "Yes, well, consider it. I look forward to seeing you back here someday, Ms. Black. Goodbye." And the phone disconnected with a click and a hum.
I stared at the humming phone in my hand for a while, lost in my thoughts. The call had jarred me, awoken me to the reality of the situation. God only knew when Mother would finally die, but I couldn't put my life and my career on hold forever to wait for the event. I had a job to consider. Friends—well, work friends, anyway. When Charles had called me, he made it sound like Mother was on death's door, but now that I was here, I didn't believe that was the truth. It seemed to me that she was simply very ill.
I made up my mind. If Mother didn't worsen in the next week, then it certainly wasn't vitally necessary for me to be here. In a week I would go home, back to my job and my life. I'd visit every few days, just to make sure. And when Mother was really at death's door, Charles could call me. Perhaps he—the rich lawyer, with two houses and three cottages and two cabins and worth at least four million dollars and making 300 an hour with basically only the snap of his fingers—could afford to leave his entire life behind just to sit downstairs and wait for the woman upstairs to pass away, but I couldn't.
It wasn't that Mother wasn't important to me. She was very much so, in fact. She was dear to me, and had been since I was a child. She had never been cruel to me, or even cross at me, that I remembered. I recalled fondly the times when we would play card games together or dominoes, the times when we would watch television and laugh and laugh. I had loved her more than anyone, once. But all that had faded away in my college years, when I had moved far away, and never got around to returning. I hadn't seen Mother now in about six years, and during that time, and all the time before, during which I'd seen her only sporadically, she'd faded in my mind until she was little more than a fond memory. Oh, certainly I was very sad to see her die, but I wasn't devastated. I would mourn for a few days, cry at the funeral, and then I would return to my life and move on. I had done the very same thing when my father—who'd always been very distant and unfamiliar to me, by the way—had passed twenty years ago.
I began to ponder on my own connections to my family, and realized I was lucky to not have anyone I really, really loved. To be perfectly honest I'd never really, really loved anyone, or had the kind of intensely strong connection that comes with a kindred spirit, a best friend or a beloved sister. I'd liked people—there had been a time, in our teen years, when I'd liked Lizzie very much, and we'd had a relationship that could almost have been called friendship—but I don't know if I'd ever really loved, with that fierce passion that drives you to want to protect and preserve and help and soothe the object of affection. Maybe I was incapable of really loving people. In any case I was lucky, I told myself. Whoever you love you lose, to death or disease or long-distance or indifference. I hadn't ever felt the real searing, tearing pain that rends your life apart when you lose someone who was the whole world to you, and, if I was lucky enough, I never would.
"Carolyn? What are you doing?"
I looked up, and there was Charles, standing a few feet away with a frown on his face. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I am—why wouldn't I be?"
"You've been sitting there holding the telephone for an eternity, staring off into space. What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothing. I was just lost in thought."
"Well, stop it. You'd better come upstairs—something's the matter with Mother."
Upstairs I went, and I found a commotion inside Mother's room—or, at least, what passed for a commotion in that quiet household. Mother was jerking back and forth on the bed while Agley silently worked around her, doing various things—turning her on her side; putting a pillow under her head. "It's a seizure," said Agley when she saw us standing in the door. "One of you please call for an ambulance, just in case—I've got to stay with her."
Charles went for the phone, while I remained in the room, staring at the scene—my mother with eyes wide open yet seeing nothing, jerking and jerking and jerking, perhaps in pain, and yet I felt nothing. All I could think was: what an irony. I was just thinking of how I needed Mother to hurry up and die so I could return to my job, and now, here she is, perhaps dying before my eyes.
Lizzie came up, as well, having been summoned by Charles. "What's the matter? Is it a seizure?"
"Well, I wouldn't worry too much," said Lizzie, too calmly. "That's normal for someone like her. Ancient as the Tower of Babel and with a brain tumor to boot—it's no wonder she's jerking like a chicken with its head cut off. She'll be fine. Charles is down there calling for an ambulance, you know—I tried to tell him it wasn't necessary, but he's not a big fan of listening."
"It's just a precaution," said Agley, holding Mother still with her gentle-yet-firm hands. "This is the first seizure she's had. It's better to make sure."
Lizzie made a dismissive noise, but didn't protest.
The ambulance came, wailing, and took Mother away to a hospital. For some godforsaken reason, only Monica went in the ambulance with her—Monica, who'd likely exchanged no more than ten words with Mother over the years. Charles and Lizzie and I stood outside on the front porch, none of us wearing clothes appropriate for the winter-chilled wind that buffeted us, and watched the ambulance wail away into the jungle-like brush of the property. "One of us should've went with her," I said.
Charles shook his head. "No—it would've been a bad idea."
He didn't answer me.
Lizzie snorted. "He's right, Carolyn. Going with her would just crowd those paramedics, stop them from doing their jobs. It's bad enough Maria went with them, but she's tiny as a bird anyway, so I guess she wouldn't bother them too much."
"Monica," I automatically corrected.
"Yes, whatever. In any case, there's no point in going with her."
"For once, I agree with you," said Charles, and went back inside the house.
"She could die," I said loudly to my brother's retreating back. "She could die today—she could be dead right now—and we wouldn't be with her. Isn't that the reason why we're at this house right now? To be with her when she goes?"
He turned around, looking exasperated. "For heaven's sake. You should follow the ambulance in your car, then, if it's such a big deal to you."
My eyes widened. "Charles! I don't understand. Why are you acting so bloody casual about this?"
"The doctor warned me," he said, "that seizures would happen. He said they would become commonplace. Personally, I'm of the opinion that calling an ambulance to take her to the hospital is an overreaction. Monica will call when it's all over, and then we can go and pick her up—until then, there's no point in going."
"But what about Mother? How will she get home?"
He laughed bitterly. "What did you think, that she'd ride home in the backseat of my car? Mother will have to be brought home in an ambulance. She's all but comatose, Carolyn."
Something was the matter with him. I didn't know what, but something had changed. It seemed to me like he was nursing some sort of wound. Was he frightened of hospitals; did he have a history with seizures that I was unaware of?
Either way, I decided to let it go. I demurred, nodding my head, and Charles, satiated, went into the house. When he was gone, I cast a glance at my car, sitting in the driveway, and briefly entertained the idea of following the ambulance to St. Paul's Hospital twenty minutes away. I knew Charles was probably right, as usual, but God knew I didn't like the idea of airheaded Monica being the only one to sit by my mother in the hospital.
Lizzie saw the idea forming in my eyes. "Go if you want," she said, "but there's no point. She won't die today, and she's not conscious enough to appreciate the fact that you're with her."
The idea dissipated like a fog. Lizzie was right. I didn't have the feeling that Mother would die today—and I was, truly, one of those people who believed that when your loved ones are about to pass, you just know it will happen. It would be a waste of time to go.
So instead, I stayed.
It turned out my intuition was correct: it was only four hours later when an ambulance cruised into the driveway again, carrying both Mother and Monica. Two paramedics helped carry Mother up the stairs on a stretcher and set her on the bed, looking as peaceful as if she were only sleeping. I was informed that the seizure had ended on its own only ten minutes after her arrival at the hospital, and, given her current situation—bedridden with a brain tumor—there was little more that the doctors felt was necessary to do for Mother, other than observing her for a few hours. I was given instructions, for if a seizure happened again and for some reason Agley wasn't there to help. And I was also informed, in no uncertain terms, that an ambulance would not be necessary in the event of another seizure. Not for someone in Mother's situation.
Later that night, Agley asked me to sit with Mother for a few minutes while she was in the shower. I sat down on a wooden white-painted chair that Father's father had carved many, many decades ago, and stared down at the woman who had once gave birth to me.
I took her hand, and, very briefly, her eyes opened.
"Caro?" she said, her nickname for me, in a voice as rough as sandpaper.
"Yes. It's me."
But her eyes suddenly were shut again, and I didn't know whether or not I had dreamed the whole thing.
The next day I went out to the porch and sat down—though it was a winter day, with an annoyingly slicing wind coming in from the east, and I'd no idea why I wanted to do it. For some reason it felt oddly comforting to sit in Mother's old rocking-chair, the one she used to think so fondly of. For hours she'd sit out here, not reading or doing crosswords or anything, just resting and watching time go by. I used to be jealous of her—for I wasn't the type of person who could just sit and watch nothing. My brain could never stop going, and if I was resting, I had to have the TV on, or a puzzle in front of me, or something to do, or else I'd get fidgety. But Mother always had this peace about her when she sat in her old rocking-chair, as if it protected her from the hardships of the world. As if, when she was sitting there and slowly swaying back and forth and watching nothing happen in front of her, she was safer than anytime else.
A cat went by on the gravel of the driveway, an ugly, mangy orange thing with scarcely more than its ribs to protect it from the cold. I wondered if it could be a descendant of Lois and Ted, two of Mother's cats who had escaped the house and gone to God knows where and never been seen again when I was only about thirteen. Mother had always acquired cats in pairs. There was Lois and Ted, and then there was Cain and Abel, and then there was… oh, I couldn't remember. The last pair had been bought long after I'd moved away, and I wasn't sure I'd ever even learned their names. The poor, half-starved cat on the driveway stopped, sat, and looked at me with calmly, disdainfully blinking green eyes, as if it cared for nothing around it. I blinked back at him, once, twice. I had always found that cats enjoy it when you blink at them. Poor, hungry thing. I should buy it some food. Yes, I resolved, I'll buy some food for the poor thing and leave it outside.
A chill wind picked up, freezing me to the bone. I shivered and pulled my jacket tighter around me. Suddenly, I couldn't remember what on earth I was doing out here in the cold, and promptly I got up and went inside, out of the freezing wind.
Charles was sitting on the couch in the living room, reading a magazine about fishing or trapping or some other sort of manly thing. I almost chuckled at the sight of it. When we were children, Father would often take us out into the woods surrounding the house to hunt, as he'd done with his own father at that age. And Father was always more impressed with Lizzie's manliness than Charles's—for it was young Lizzie who would eagerly skin rabbits that we trapped in the woods, or gut fish we'd catch in the nearby river, while Charles, even at thirteen or fourteen, was too repulsed to even look. In some ways, Lizzie was Father's favorite child, the fiery and unafraid son he'd wanted to have, while Charles was a disappointment. Sometimes I wondered if Charles had been so utterly bookish and practical from such a young age because he was making up for the qualities he lacked, the qualities that Father really wanted to see in him.
Charles glanced up at me. "What's so funny?"
Had I been chuckling, smiling? I hadn't even noticed. "You, reading a magazine like that."
He gave me a frown. "Why shouldn't I?"
"Remember when we were kids? When Dad used to take us into the woods and you'd squeal like a little girl at the sight of a skinned rabbit?"
The frown grew deeper, into something approaching a scowl, and he looked back down at the manly magazine. "I don't remember that. Besides, I'm an adult now, as you know. I go out into the woods on camping trips and hunt with my friends all the time."
Somehow I doubted this, but I decided to let it go. I sat down on the couch beside him, basking in the sunlight that streamed through the window. It was a terribly cold day, but at least it was a sunny one. "How is Mother?"
He shrugged, not looking up from his magazine. "You should go up and check on her yourself."
"I've already been with her today. I sat with her for fifteen minutes."
He gave a small, amused chortle. "Fifteen whole minutes? Why, you're practically Mother Teresa."
I gave him an incredulous glare. "Charles, you told me on the very first day I arrived here that I shouldn't sit with Mother too long because it causes her stress."
"I did? Well, I'm sure I didn't mean it."
"You—you're the one person in this family who always means just what he says. What's the matter with you?"
He sighed deeply, set the magazine down on his lap, and looked at me. "Carolyn, I wasn't going to tell you this, but your presence has really seemed to help her."
"What? She's had a seizure since I got here."
"No, really. She was looking much worse before you came. She was pale as death, she breathed so irregularly, and Agley said her heartbeat was either a mile a minute or barely there at all. Now that you're here, all that has gone away. Sometimes I go in to see her, right after you sit with her, and it's amazing how well she looks."
"So—you think I'm helping her?"
He sighed again. "Yes, and that's what's bothering me."
"Don't you understand? Before you arrived, I didn't dare sit with her too long, because it seemed she got worse and worse for every minute I was there with her, talking to her. Even going in silently and just sitting with her quietly didn't help. That's why I told you not to stay too long. I thought it was people who caused her stress. But… no. It's just me."
I swallowed hard, unsure of what to say in the face of this confession. "I—I didn't know. I'm sorry."
He harrumphed and picked up his magazine again. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I'm just a little hurt, that's all."
"She loves you, you know," I blurted, unable to keep the words from leaving my mouth, wanting to comfort him, even in this clumsy way. "She said it again and again, and I know she meant it. She never said a bad word about you to me, or to anyone. There's no reason why she shouldn't be happy to have you with her."
"But still," said Charles, "she isn't."
Mother had another seizure the very next day. This time, none of us called for an ambulance. Instead, I sat with her, holding her hand, while Agley turned her on her side and put a spoon in her mouth to prevent her from biting her tongue. The event subsided after only a few minutes, and everything was at rest again. Lizzie stood at the door the whole time, watching. Not doing anything. Just watching. While holding Mother's hand as she jerked and jerked, I turned to look at my sister and saw the blank look on her face. I could've sworn I saw a bit of satisfaction there, too. Annoyance coursed through me like a hot wave.
When it was all over, I left the room, pushing past Lizzie. I heard her voice call after me: "Excuse you."
I whirled around. "Why didn't you help? Couldn't you bring yourself to maybe sit by her? Maybe even to hold her hand? Why would you just stand there and watch like some kind of sadist?"
Her mouth opened wide. "A sadist?"
"That's what I said," I said angrily. "A sadist."
"I'm not a sadist, Carolyn. Quit flinging accusations at me. I'm here, aren't I?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't care. I wouldn't have been watching if I didn't want to help. It's just that you and the nurse were already there, and I didn't want to get in your way. If you had needed my help, asked for it, I would've given it to you."
Abruptly my anger faded away, replaced with something hollow and empty, sort of like a bitter disappointment. I let out a breath. "I'm sorry, Liz. It's just—this whole thing—"
"Yes," she said unexpectedly, "I know."
Later, I found myself sitting with my sister, watching television. We hadn't done this in so long—just sat together, like regular sisters do—that I couldn't even remember the last time. I had always tried to avoid Lizzie when we were young, at least ever since she reached her teen years and turned into a wild hellion who couldn't be tamed or trusted. But now, we sat together in perfect peace, just watching television, basking in the glow of the TV in the dark room, and in the glow of just being together. It was nicer than I'd ever thought spending time with Lizzie could be.
But, since it was Lizzie, the peace did not last long.
I was no stranger to Lizzie's verbal abuse of Mother, and, in my teen years, I had grown quite used to it. The abuses weren't nearly as bad when Mother was actually in the room—Lizzie was no coward, but she was sly, and knew she would be punished if Mother heard such words. But whenever Mother was out of the room, it started, and didn't let up. I would sit uncomfortably and pretend not to hear while Lizzie let out a few scathing words about the mother we shared, about some quarrel they'd had that week. Mother and Lizzie always quarreled, about everything—about Lizzie's friends, about her clothes, her hair, her life. Like I said, I grew used to it, so used to it that it was like background noise to me, a vague humming that I didn't have to pay attention to. But today was twenty-five years after I had last heard the extent of Lizzie's meanness against Mother, and, as it turned out, my tolerance had failed over the years.
It started out so innocently. Lizzie turned to me and said, "So, who got what?"
"What do you mean?"
"In the will. Who got what?"
"Oh—well, I got the money, and Charles got the house, and you got everything else."
"Hmm," she said. "Do I get everything in the house?"
"No. That goes to Charles as well. I imagine you only get the stuff in the old storage lockers"
She made a noise of resigned disapproval. "So I get the last dregs of the stuff no one ever wanted, huh? That's nice. I just hope there are some antiques tossed into the mix; otherwise this whole trip will've been a waste." She huffed a sigh, pulled a pack of cigarettes out of some hidden pocket, lit one up and took a puff. "But still, I want whatever I've got coming to me. If she's left me something, I'll damn well take it, valuable or no."
I wrinkled my nose as the smoke reached my end of the couch and curled around me like a hungry mouth and prying fingers. "Oh, Liz, I wish you wouldn't smoke. You know it bothers me."
She raised an eyebrow and took another puff. "Yeah? Well, I'm sorry, but I can't help it. I need a smoke every now and then. Want me to go outside?"
It was a challenge, always with Lizzie it was a challenge: would I be weak enough to ask her to leave, or would I put up with the choking smoke and pass her test? With a resigned sigh, I said, "I suppose it'll be alright, just this one time. But don't smoke around Mother. It'll just exacerbate her illness."
She smirked—honest to God, I saw the smirk on her face. How could I have ever thought she'd changed? "Exacerbate," she mimicked.
I didn't rise to the bait.
She was silent for a moment, a miracle, and then—"But you know the old witch won't mind now, Carolyn. She's dead as a doornail already."
There it was. She couldn't be a nice person for one day, for one hour at a time, without going into palpitations, it seemed. "Do you have to call her a witch? She's dying. Can't you at least try to be civil?"
She bitterly smiled. "Civil. How civil was that woman capable of being to me, I wonder? Poor little teenage me couldn't even dye my hair around this household without getting the fires of hell unleashed on me. God, I think she was the most uptight person I've ever known in my life. Charles is a close second."
"For God's sake, Lizzie!" I exclaimed, my patience already worn away. "You can't even shut your mouth now that our mother is upstairs taking her last breaths. What good will it do? Tell me, Liz—what good will it do?"
She shook her head. "Oh, Caro. You're such a pleasant little thing. You can't accept that I'll never make peace with Mother, can you?"
"No, I can't. You're right. I can't accept that a woman your age isn't mature enough to make peace with her dying old mother. I thought you said you cared, Lizzie. Earlier you said you wouldn't be here if you didn't care."
Her laugh was a horribly unhumorous sound. "I do care, Lizzie. I can't help myself about that. I do still care about the old woman. But I wish I didn't. The part of me that gives a hoot about my mother is an old, shriveled, half-dead, tiny piece of me that sooner rather than later won't be there at all. It's involuntary."
"Be reasonable! She raised you, she fed you, she put up with you for much longer than I'd have been able to. For crying out loud, let's admit it—you didn't make life any easier on her. You were at least half the problem. If only you'd been—"
"What? What are you going to say? If only I'd been what, then she would have loved me? If I'd been pretty, charming, smart? If I'd been like you?"
From the tone of her voice now, I could tell I'd inadvertently opened up a can of worms I hadn't even known existed. I gulped and decided to back up. "No, that's not it. If you'd at least tried to be nice to her and to understand her. You never did try, Liz. That's all."
She stared at me. "Do you remember when I was about fourteen and I got my ears pierced?"
Oh, no, not this again. "Let's not—"
She interrupted. "No, I want you to hear this again, just in case it isn't stuck in your head good enough. I went out and came back with my ears pierced, and I was so proud, and so happy. I was only fourteen years old. And what did dear old Mom do? She screamed! She yelled! She was horrified beyond all reason that I'd dared get two holes poked into my earlobes—my earlobes, my property. She screeched and screeched. I remember you were nearby, but you never said anything. I was grounded for two months over it. Such a silly little thing to be grounded over. It wasn't that I'd done it, but that I'd done it without her permission that pissed her off.
"And after that, everything I did was the most horrifying thing she'd ever seen in her life. Every little mistake I made was the end of the world. After that, everything changed. And finally I got sick and tired of it. I started to do things just to piss her off, because she was going to be pissed off anyway no matter what I tried to do to please her, so I might as well have some fun with it. I made friends I knew she wouldn't like, I wore clothes that made her faint, and so on. There was no point in even trying to be good. She had a vendetta against me."
I'd heard this story before. And I'd hear it again, certainly, if ever I was within earshot of Lizzie in the future. She was very fond of the story; she felt, I assume, that it justified her hatred of Mother. Somehow, I thought the story was a little skewed. When Lizzie said the word vendetta, it seemed so dramatic that I couldn't help but roll my eyes a bit. And she saw.
"See, this is why I don't communicate with you people! You don't take me seriously; you never have. I'm just the bad child of the family to you, and that's all I'll ever be. There's no point." And she got up and walked away.
I scowled and threw my arms up in the air, signifying defeat. How stupid had I been to think I could have peace with Lizzie? Lizzie had peace with no one.
But later, I heard a muffled noise in a spare bedroom as I passed it on the way to my own. I opened the door, and there was Lizzie's crouched form against the bed, shrouded in darkness. She turned her face towards me, and as it was illuminated in the light from the hallway, I saw that she was flushed, face streaked with tears.
"Lizzie, what is it?"
"It's not you," she said. "I—I was just thinking about Mom."
"Do you—do you want to talk about it?"
"I did love her," said Lizzie in a strained voice, and her face flushed further, as though she were mortified to admit such a thing to me. "It just wasn't meant to be between us. I think I might've been born into the wrong family. I always wanted to do crazy things—dye my hair, and see violent movies, and go out with the wrong crowd. She would've preferred it better if I'd been a girl like you, I think, Carolyn. You were always so well-behaved and kind, always doing just what she asked of you to do. I lied, earlier. It wasn't her fault. It was all mine. I loved Mom—it's just… I wasn't the right daughter for her."
Lizzie had never admitted such an intimate thing to me, and frankly I was so shocked at the admission that I was struck dumb for a few moments, unsure of what to say. But before I could say anything, Lizzie waved her hand at me, as if to shoo me away. "I wish I hadn't said all that. It's—it's just stupid. Go away. Please."
I obeyed, and shut the door behind me.
In the afternoon of the next day, I was walking down the upstairs hall, hair wet from a recent shower, when I heard singing. Curious, I followed the sound to its source and found a scene I'd never thought I'd see in my life: Monica, sitting beside Mother, holding her hand and gently rocking back and forth as she sang. Her voice—oh, it was like a bird's, high and sweet and without a flaw.
Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so—
She stopped as soon as she noticed me, and looked up, like a deer in the headlights. Then she smiled, the most brilliant, honest smile I'd ever seen on her face. I noticed a few tears shining on her cheeks.
I was gobsmacked.
"What's the matter?"
"I just—what are you doing?" I didn't mean it in any kind of mean or assertive way—I was honestly, nakedly curious.
Her eyebrows arched in surprise. "Well, I'm just singing to her. Like I do every day at three o'clock."
"I hadn't noticed," I said dazedly. Monica—airheaded Monica who didn't even understand how to work the laundry washer—singing to my mother, and crying?
"I—oh, dear, have I upset you?" she asked worriedly, dropping my mother's hand like a hot potato. "Do you want me to stop?"
"No! No. I've got no problem with it. I just… didn't know you…" …were capable of such a thing. "…could sing so well."
"I don't think I'm that good," she demurred. "But I think it makes her feel better, and that's what counts—look, she's even smiling."
I looked. It was true: Mother's lips were raised slightly in a way that could, if one was so optimistically inclined, be interpreted as a smile of sorts.
"It makes me so sad," said Monica suddenly. "This whole thing. Charles is so torn up about it, but he certainly won't let anyone see, not even me. He tries to hide it, but I know him too well. It makes me sad to watch him try and hold it all in for everyone else's sake. And then, looking at this poor old lady—lying here, having her brain eaten up piece by piece, dying so slowly. Sometimes I wonder if she's in pain." Another tear rolled down her cheek. "And I get so emotional when I sing. And it all sort of added up, and—"
She laughed, a sort of choking sound, and quickly wiped the tears from her face. "Oh, you don't think I'm an idiot, do I? Sitting here and singing and crying like this?"
I, barely able to stop my mouth from gaping open, no doubt looked like more of an idiot than Monica ever had. "No," I managed.
"I wish I knew something other than those stupid children's songs, but they're all that will come to mind. Someday I'd like to learn a really nice song and sing that to her."
"That was nice enough," I said, and meant it. "It was beautiful. And it's obviously doing her good. Please, by all means, continue—don't let me stop you."
For the rest of the day, I could think of nothing else. My opinion of Monica had imploded, utterly changed, been flipped on its head, and my feelings toward her were certainly ten times warmer than they had been. In fact, by all the evidence, the 'airheaded' Monica was a better child to Mother than any of us were.
It made me feel like dirt, to be perfectly honest.
The next day I got Charles to help me bring up Mother's old gramophone to her room, and I played some of her favorite records. Waltzes and peppy show tunes and classical records and a low husky voice played over sultry jazz and, of course, Monica's own voice. I couldn't believe it had never occurred to me before that music might cheer her up, even though she might not be able to hear it. And sure enough, it worked like a charm, like a key in a lock. Mother—unconscious, dying Mother—smiled like a jester, smiled like a flower in bloom. Charles watched, with a hesitant smile on his face. Even Lizzie came to the door and watched, and eventually came all the way in, smiling and clapping and even dancing a little—music was always the one thing that could get to Lizzie more effectively than anyone who loved her could. And for a time—for a brief, blessed time—things were almost good.
My hopes grew to astronomical highs—that she might open her eyes; that she might even recover; might even live for a few years more. But, of course, life always gets in the way of such fantasies.
Over the next few days, we continued playing music, and though it looked like it was an enormous help, it wasn't really. Eventually Mother was having two seizures per day. And then three.
Lizzie and Charles and I agreed upon a reluctant truce and sat in the living room together, with the television on in the background, exchanging stories.
"Do you remember the time you fell off your bike and Mom fainted at the sight of your broken arm?"
"Do you remember that day we all went out for a picnic, and it rained buckets?"
"Do you remember when Charles trapped a rabbit for the first time and almost threw up?"
"Do you remember?"
History, it seemed, was the only thing that bonded us three.
Weeks passed. I had nightmares about Ronald phoning me up just to tell me I was fired, but it never happened.
Mother grew worse in increments, in stages so slow that I could barely tell they were happening at all. Her seizures grew worse, steadily more violent. I would gently push open her eye only to find her sclera was blooming with burst blood. One day she was cold as ice, the next, hot as a furnace. She wasn't awake, but tears still slipped from her eyes, sometimes with a red tint to them.
On a Tuesday, I went outside and found the cat I'd resolved to put food out for, lying dead a few feet from the porch. I imagined the poor thing dragging itself to the house, determined to use its last ounces of strength to make me feel guilty for forgetting to feed it.
We received a call from Monica's sister Catherine: one of the boys had appendicitis. Monica immediately left to be with him, and I almost begged her not to go. Mother was so enamoured with her voice; it was like a medicine, a good natural medicine to her. Monica was not the cure, but she was the only treatment we knew.
My fears came to pass: as soon as Monica's daily singing ceased, Mother grew worse. We still played music for her on the gramophone, but it was nowhere near as helpful. Perhaps there was a certain purity to hearing a live voice right beside you that couldn't be achieved from a recorded song.
It progressed to four seizures a day, then five. One seizure was so violent that Mother's feeding tube was ripped from her. And then, after that, every seizure was violent enough to do so. Mother looked like an addict, there were so many needle marks in her arm.
"We can't go on like this," I told Charles one day. "We simply can't."
"What do you mean?"
"Something has to be done."
"What do you mean, Carolyn? Speak plainly."
"I—I don't know. I hate watching this. She's suffering, and there's no point to it."
He knew what I meant almost immediately, even before I knew it myself, or could admit it to myself. "No, absolutely not. She wouldn't want it, and, in any case, it would destroy our lives."
"It doesn't matter," I said quietly after a moment. "Who would know? We could just take the feeding tube out—"
"For God's sake, she doesn't have to suffer like this."
"She didn't want it done, Carolyn. Am I the only person around here who is willing to respect my mother's wishes?"
"Did she say to you, in those exact words, that she didn't want it done?" I demanded, staring him straight in the eye.
"Yes," he stubbornly insisted. "She did. She knew we might do it, and she told me not to. She was terrified of death, you know that."
Yes, I did know that. I'd always known it. Mother made it no secret. Whenever the topic would arise in the room, she'd leave. Whenever confronted with any evidence of her own mortality, she'd balk, as if unable to handle the weight of the idea that she would one day, like the rest of us, pass.
"She doesn't care now," I said, inwardly cursing the tears that were pooling in my eyes. "She's practically dead already."
"Practically," he said. "Not literally."
And that was the end of it.
I never dared bring up the subject with Lizzie, because some deep dark part of me was secretly afraid that Lizzie would get an idea in her head and, in the dead of night, do the deed herself.
In the end, Charles finally agreed to discuss the will I'd found in the closet.
"What? You get all the money? Carolyn!"
"I'm sorry, Charles. I'll give some of it to you, I swear. But you can sell the house, can't you?"
"What on earth would I want a house for?" he demanded, almost to himself, as if he hadn't heard my suggestion. "I already have two houses. I don't need a house. Christ, why didn't she give me the money and you the house?"
"You know I have even less use for a house than you do. I've got my apartment."
Again, it was like he hadn't heard me. "I suppose if you'd got the house, you'd have nothing to do with it. But the money—what the hell are you going to do with the money? I've got three kids to send to college."
"You've already got money," I pointed out.
"You always need more money, Carolyn," he said as if I were a child. "That's what life is. Money and money and more money."
"That money could buy me something nice," I said. "Some nice clothes to wear, a better car. It would make things much easier for me."
"Your job is well-paying, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, but I'm not rich. Do you know how much money it is, by any chance?"
"That you'll inherit? Well, I'd estimate it's somewhere around, hmm…" I could see all the little gears turning in his brain as he evaluated, adding savings accounts to stocks to all other kinds of financial bits and bobs Mother had squirreled away. "Two million, I'd imagine."
"Two million!" I almost fell out of my chair.
"Hush, now, don't squeal. In financial terms, that really isn't a great deal."
"God, Charles, it is to me!"
"It'll be gone before you know it," he warned.
"Not if I'm smart. And I am smart."
"Hmm," he said, as if he doubted me.
"Don't you hmm me. I'm serious, Charles. I'll invest it and use it only when I need it."
He frowned. "It sounds like you're trying to convince me of something. You've already got the money, remember."
"I'm not trying to convince you of anything."
"Yes, well." He picked up the scrawled paper of the will once again and squinted at it, as if he could find some hidden meaning within the almost-indecipherable squiggly lines. "There's the matter of Lizzie."
"What about her?" I said suspiciously. Tread with caution here. Reluctant peace treaty aside, there was still enough bad blood between Lizzie and Charles to fill an Olympic swimming pool. An old wound festered between them, deep and infected, and full of harsh words and shadowed incidents I'd not been privy to and likely would never know.
"I don't want her to get the storage lockers," said Charles with authority, as if this were the final word on the subject. "I simply can't abide the idea. I'd rather go with the official will than this one."
"What does the official will say?"
"It splits the money between you and I, leaves the house and the storage lockers to my management, and affords nothing to Lizzie." He nodded his head once, satisfied with the justice of it.
"Is that really fair, though? Mother wrote that second will because she wanted to change her mind. I think we should respect that."
He snorted. "Respect what, the ramblings of a senile, elderly woman? Oh, no," he said hastily, when he noticed the expression on my face, "I don't mean to be rude at all. I'm sorry I said that. It's just that—well—I'm right, and you know it. Mother wasn't in her right mind when she wrote that other will—you can see it in the writing; look at how illegible it is. That isn't the will we should pay attention to."
I searched his face. "What do you really want, Charles? I can see it; there's no sense in hiding it. You want something. This isn't just about Mother's wishes. There's something in those lockers you want to keep away from Lizzie."
"Don't be foolish—"
"But I'm not, am I?"
He stared at me for a hair's breadth of a moment, then heavily sighed and seemed to sink down into himself as though his soul had shrunk. "No, for God's sake, you're not. You're too smart for your own good."
"Not smart. I just know you too well."
His lips pressed together into a very, very thin line. "Well, I might as well air out the dirty laundry now, shouldn't I? It's nothing sinister, don't you worry. It's not even greed. My motivation is a respect for the woman who gave birth to me—something Lizzie will never understand.
"In those storage lockers, it's not all junk. I happen to know that there are a great deal of valuables in there. Old jewellery, watches, fine china, vases a hundred years old, grandfather clocks even older than that and still ticking, that kind of thing. There's one thing in particular: a golden candelabra; you remember the one—it used to hang above the dining room table, remember? Yes, well, it's been in the family since eighteen sixty-seven, and Mother was incredibly fond of it. You know that, and I know that, and Lizzie knows that. In fact, Mother was fond of everything in there. You know how she was—she loved old things, things with a history.
"That candelabra is worth over three thousand dollars in today's money, and the other things are almost as priceless. Now, you and I both know what'll likely happen to all those valuables if Lizzie gets her oily hands—I'm sorry. If Lizzie gets them, you know what'll happen. They'll be sold, or smashed, or tossed in some rubbish pile somewhere. I don't want that to happen."
He finished his mini-soliloquy with a slightly heaving chest, as if he'd wasted all his breath on such an epic speech, and looked to me with a gaze that demanded approval, that demanded an acknowledgement and a blessing of his opinions. I, however, was not so easily swayed. "I'm not entirely sure," I said, unimpressed, "that your motivations are that simple."
"What do you mean?"
"I think you've still got a grudge against Lizzie for God-knows-what happened between you two twenty-five years ago, and that's why you don't want her to get her inheritance."
Charles gaped at me. "For God's sake, it's not that simple. How childish do you think I am?"
I shook my head. "I don't think you're childish, Charles. I just think you're succumbing to a childish emotion."
He scowled at me, brows furrowed, two slashes between his eyes as deep as the parting of the Red Sea. "I thought you'd be capable of being reasonable, Carolyn," he said, voice layered with disapproval.
"I am being reasonable. I think we should respect Mother's last wishes, and I think that's the end of it. That's just my personal opinion. Of course, in the end, you're her power of attorney, and you make the decisions, but now at least you know my thoughts about it."
"I don't want a schism in this family," he declared. "I don't want to do anything without us agreeing upon it."
"Does us include Lizzie?"
"On the periphery," he said, as if that explained anything. "Besides, what's the use in trying to come to an agreement with her? She's about as agreeable as a rattlesnake."
There it is, I can see it: the scar of old wounds, peeking up from under a carefully-maintained surface of propriety.
"In any case," Charles went on, "you aren't being reasonable. Didn't you hear what I said? If Lizzie becomes the owner of all those valuables, they'll more than likely go straight into the trash. Is that what you want? We're talking about Mother's valuables, Carolyn." As if I'd forgotten and needed to be reminded.
"It's black and white to me, Charles. Mother wanted Lizzie to get the valuables. Do you think Mother didn't know what Lizzie would do with them? Mother knew Lizzie better than any of us. If Mother gave the storage lockers—and everything in them—to Lizzie, then she either trusted her to care for the stuff, or didn't care what happens to it. In any case, I believe it's only right that we should listen to her final words about it."
I was lying a bit. It wasn't black and white to me; I was simply tired of arguing and even thinking about it. All this stuff about the will had worn me down to the bones.
Charles, with narrowed eyes, looked away from me. "Never mind, Carolyn. I should've known discussing this with you wouldn't lead anywhere. I'll follow the second will, if that's really what you want."
Charles, agreeing to do something just because I wanted it? I didn't believe it for a second. But I nodded, I smiled, I enjoyed this artificial peace, and I pretended to forget the whole thing.
One brisk and sunny day, Lizzie and I walked the grounds of the house, reminiscing. Of course, I had been an indoor girl through and through and had little to reminisce about, but Lizzie had spent her childhood years traipsing all throughout the gardens and the vast woods that made up our backyard, and every place held a memory in store for her.
I was a plain-fashioned woman, and I only wore simple slacks and a short jacket. Lizzie, however, seemed to enjoy being dressed to the nines—a habit I didn't recall her having in her girlhood. Today it was a fur scarf (whether it was real mink or fake, I wasn't fancy enough to tell) paired with a long black jacket. Underneath, I had seen earlier, was a short plum-purple dress that hugged her body like a second skin, and blue tights. A strange outfit, since there was no one around to see her. She was, I surmised, trying very hard to appear younger and richer than she was. I remembered how the Lizzie I had known, the younger Lizzie, had scoffed at Mother's attempts to turn her into a fashionable lady, and rebuffed them quick as anything. Isn't it funny how things turn out?
She pointed at things: a tree, a boulder, a barely-perceptible divot in the overgrown grass. "There's where I took Chet that first night. Oh, Mom was mad about that—and I made damn sure she found out, believe you me." "And there—that's where me and Lisa had our fight. Right next to that bush. I took all my friends over here, you see, and Mom never would've found out if I hadn't taunted her about it." "There's where Dad fell down with his heart attack. Right there. I found him myself."
I, myself, had little to say, but finally there was a spot we reached which held a memory for me: a large, dark stone in the ground, which had been there since before I was born and, as my father had once told me, before his grandfather was even born.
I've never gazed as fondly upon a stone as I did upon that one, that day. "My God, I'd almost forgotten," I said.
"What?" Lizzie gave me a raised-eyebrow look. "What scandalous activities took place here in the life of young Carolyn?"
"Dad told me a story here," I said, remembering, "when I was very young. He sat me down and told me this epic about…oh, about dinosaurs and prehistoric things. It's nothing but a memory of a memory, now. But it stuck with me, you know, when I was a girl, and every time I saw that rock, I would remember it."
"Very interesting," said Lizzie in a voice that could turn the Nile dry, and she walked away, continuing to talk about her own life, not bothering to check if I was still with her.
But I waited for a moment, letting Lizzie yammer on to herself, and looked at the rock, lost in my own thoughts. My father had not exactly been the most personable man, and my memory of the strange, distant story was one of the only ones I had of a time when he and I had personally been together. In fact, my whole childhood had been spent in distance to my parents: Father, who was always too busy or too annoyed; Mother, who I loved, but who had never seemed like a real person to me. When I was a young woman, and preparing to leave the house of my childhood, I remember a moment when it had struck me like a freight train that I didn't really know my parents at all.
I still entertained some wild fantasies about Mother, in these last days: how she might awaken at the pressure of my hand on hers, how she might smile and laugh and say, "I'm cured!" as she got up and danced a jig on the bed. God be praised, I'd settle for just hearing her say my name, for just being able to really see her a final time.
But of course, it never happened. Three point five weeks after my arrival at the house, Mother passed away in her sleep. No one was by her side; even Agley had gone to bed. That was the part that bothered me the most, I think—the fact that no one was with her. It only seemed right that someone should've been with her to hold her hand as she went. And, if it had been immediately obvious that she was about to pass, someone would certainly have been there with her, we all would've—but nothing had changed; everything was still the same. Everything was fine, and then everything still was fine, and then—gone.
We called a priest to say a blessing over Mother's body. Three days later, the funeral was held. One of us—I can't recall which—had suggested that Mother should be buried in the vast backyard of the house, but the other two spoke sense, reminding each other that Mother was the kind of person who'd think it scandalous to be buried anywhere but a graveyard. And so, in a graveyard she was buried.
Charles and Lizzie had spent the three days since Mother's death doing nothing but fighting, getting into terrible screaming matches with one another about every little thing: the color and quantity of flowers; the type of coffin Mother should be buried in, oak or pine or modern stone; the number of guests who should be invited. Frankly, at this point I was entirely sick and tired of everyone and everything, and the only thing I wanted to do was go home and sleep and do my mourning in private. But of course, that was not the thing to do. I still had two more tasks left to me: Mother's funeral, and then the execution of the will. And then all this awful business would be over and I'd be free to go home. Finally.
I didn't cry. It wasn't a stoic, keeping-strong-for-the-family kind of gesture, like Charles's forced lack of tears was; it was just the fact that no tears would come to my eyes. After the burial, we all went to a local church for brunch. I mingled with family members, aunts and cousins who I hadn't seen in decades or, in some cases, never at all. Mother had had three sisters and two brothers, and they had all had multiple successions of spouses, and hordes of children who all looked and acted so alike that I could never tell them apart from one another. Mother's eldest sister, Patsy, was nonetheless ten years her junior, and I knew her the least of them all. All I knew of her, in fact, was that she was incredibly rich, and that she had had four husbands, all of them younger than she, and two children with each. All three of them that were still living came to the funeral for some godforsaken hellish reason, and predictably they ended up in a verbal slam of a fight that very nearly turned into a brawl.
I was so utterly annoyed and infuriated—those idiot, testosterone-filled jackasses couldn't even respect a dead woman enough to stay out of a fight at her funeral—that I went into the bathroom to compose myself. After a moment I heard the door open, and someone very gently knocked on the door of the stall where I sat. "Carolyn? Are you quite all right?" It was one of my aunts—Clarice, perhaps, or Nora.
"I'm fine," I called. "Please don't leave on my account."
Her voice, syrupy with sympathy: "Oh, poor dear; it's all right, you can cry if you want to. Don't be embarrassed."
I wasn't crying, not even a drop, and that was more embarrassing by far than if I'd been weeping buckets. "I'm fine, Nora," I said firmly—the name was a guess, one that I hoped dearly was right. "Really, I'm perfectly fine."
"I'm Doreen," she said, with a hint of offense in her tone.
"Oh, well, whoever you are." I was very nearly past caring about propriety; my patience was thin as a whisper. Honest to God, I hadn't even known Mother had a sister called Doreen.
Doreen huffed a little and left; I could hear the door swinging shut behind her, and with its opening came the brief hinted sound of an argument. Lizzie and Charles—presumably, situated right outside the restroom—were at it again. God only knew what they were fighting about now. Oh, I was sorely tempted to stay in this bathroom for the rest of the day, until everyone had gone away, like a child hiding from her searching parents.
The door burst open again. "Carolyn? You in here?"
Lizzie. The last person I wanted to see. Childishly, I pulled up my legs so that my entire body was resting on the toilet seat, so she couldn't tell by my feet that I was there.
Of course, she still could. She looked through the crack between the door and the partition, and then pushed at the locked stall door. "Carolyn, what're you doing in there?" She answered her own question: "Needed an escape from the family, I guess."
"Please leave me alone." I was surprised at the sudden surge of animalistic defense I felt inside me, the absolute need to be left alone to nurse my wounds.
Lizzie, to her credit, seemed to understand. Charles or anyone else would've continued to pry, but she didn't. Without another word, she left.
Only God knows why it happened then, but it was only then that the entire force of grief dared to surge within me, and hot tears spilled down my cheeks. Mother was gone. Mother was in the earth, buried forever. It hadn't seemed real to me until now—it had seemed like a television show or a movie, when I watched Mother being lowered carefully into the ground in her silk-lined mahogany coffin, when I watched the dirt being shoveled on top, burying her for good. Surely she must still be alive in there, clawing to get out, screaming at the top of her lungs, because there was no way my mother could truly be dead—she was a constant force in my life, a stability, and always would be. It was impossible, the idea that she could possibly be erased from existence, snuffed out by something as simple and faraway and mythical as death, relegated in an instant to the realm of memory. It couldn't possibly be true. It couldn't.
And there I was, sitting in a bathroom stall, as foolish as the slow-witted tortoise or an idiotically happy dog who doesn't and will never understand that death is coming for it. Six years I'd stayed away from my mother, pretending I'd visit her next week—no, the week after—no, it wouldn't work out then; perhaps next month. I was stupid, stupid. Snuffed out like a candle flame, she was, quicker than thought, it seemed. That was the problem with us idiotic people who take our family for granted. There was always more and more time, infinite time—until there wasn't.
It seemed like only a minute later when I heard the door being slammed open, and an urgent voice calling: "Carolyn?"
"Yes," I said, not wanting to give myself away, but sure that if I didn't, there would be hell to pay.
"Oh, thank goodness. I've been looking for you everywhere." Charles sounded annoyed.
"Why do you care where I am?" I snapped, wiping tears away from my face and thanking God he couldn't see them. "Go back to your little brunch party."
I could hear the surprise in his voice. "Carolyn, the funeral's been over for an hour. It's time to go home."
It couldn't possibly be over—why, it seemed I'd only been in the stall crying for ten minutes.
His voice grew impatient. "Come on. We'd better leave." Thank goodness, I heard the door slap shut behind him as he left.
I wiped the rest of the wetness from my face and left the stall, staring at myself in the mirror. My face, by some small mercy, wasn't red—I wasn't the type of woman to cry, and I was also lucky enough to not be the type of woman whose face turned red or blotchy when she did cry. With all the tears wiped clean, and my features corralled into carefully perfect neutrality, I looked like a rational human being again.
I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but, by this point, I was so utterly tired of everything—all the fighting, all the stuff about the will, everything. So it was a source of no little disappointment to me when my brother and sister began bickering the very instant they stepped back inside Mother's house again. And the bickering didn't stop, not even once Charles decided, once and for all, that the official will to be used would be the one I'd found in the closet. It was awfully diplomatic of him, I thought, but apparently it wasn't good enough for Lizzie.
"Oh, I'm sure. You say that, but what if you're planning to do something else behind my back? I want to be there for the entire process. I want to be sure I'm getting my due."
Charles, exasperated beyond belief: "For God's sake, Lizzie. I'm done with this entire argument. You'll get your due, all right. I'm not against it anymore. You'll get everything in those stupid lockers, guaranteed."
But that night at nine, I noticed Charles slip out the front door when no one was watching, and heard his car quietly put-put-put away. He returned four hours later, trying to look as if he weren't satisfied.
"Where were you?" I asked him.
"Nowhere special. I just took a drive."
Charles didn't do anything at all unless there was a reason or a method to it, and so I didn't believe him for a second. But, as usual, I put on a smile and pretended I did, and then waited to see what would come of it.
The second will was read and treated like an official one, at Charles's insistence. The money was transferred to my account—a shocking moment, for me; I'd never had so much money in my life—while the house became Charles's property to do with as he pleased. That left only one issue: Lizzie's storage lockers.
We took the half-hour-long drive to some little town near Haliburton, and there was the storage facility. Mother was very fond of keeping things in a storage facility—in her own words, "Things you've got no room to keep, but don't want to get rid of." Her house, in fact, was positively Spartan, and I'd described it more than once as half-empty. She had plenty of room for all this stuff; secretly, I wondered if she was paranoid that thieves would steal it.
Mother had once kept eight separate lockers in the same location. Now, there were only three. Charles, Lizzie and I, an unlikely threesome, opened the first and stared into it, as if we could memorize its contents. Just a few boxes strewn about, caked in dust.
Lizzie knelt over the boxes, one by one, and opened them, surveying her inheritance, her mother's legacy to her. "Nothing… nothing… nothing. It's all junk. Old plastic lamps and stuff."
The next locker was the very same thing. I could see the frustration growing in Lizzie's eyes, in the downcast corners of her mouth. "I hope the old witch left me something half-decent," was all she said. Neither Charles nor I commented on her language—it didn't seem to matter now.
The third locker was practically a treasure trove compared to the first two. Inside lay—covered in layers of dust, like the boxes had been—a white vase, intricately painted with blue lines, and still holding an ancient, mummified flower; a set of fine china, carefully boxed away; silverware in a glass case; a set of small porcelain dogs with enormous brown eyes.
Both my and Charles's eyes swept the room looking for the mythical golden candelabra: mine out of curiosity, Charles's out of something different—perhaps hunger, or perhaps a desire to pretend like he was in the dark about its location. But there was nothing there, no gold shine or giant, twisted form covered by a sheet. In fact, other than those items I've mentioned, there were absolutely no treasures awaiting us—at least, not to the level we'd come to expect.
I already suspected what Charles had done—suspected it by the four-hour-long absence he'd taken the night before, by the smug look I'd seen glimmering in his eyes. But Lizzie, it seemed, was in the dark at the moment. She straightened and looked around the room once more. "Where's all the good stuff? I know there was more than this here. I'm certain of it." She kicked a box, in which there was nothing but an old, coffee-stained set of lace doilies. "I don't want this junk, that's for sure."
"Well, what do you know of it?" Charles said, a little too calm. "You haven't seen Mother or these lockers for twenty-five years, and besides, God only knows what she could've done with it—you know how mad she went after Father died. Well, then again, maybe you don't."
Something in his tone must've alerted Lizzie, must've raised her suspicions like the instincts of an animal, for her eyes narrowed, the green glowing from their slits like a predator's. "Why so jovial, Charlie?"
"Jovial? I hardly think I'm jovial—my mother's just died."
"You've done your crying," she said, eyes still as narrow as a cat's, "and now you're back to your scheming. I can see it in you. What've you done with my inheritance?"
"I haven't done a blessed thing with your inheritance," said Charles, glowering at her with a scowl that, to his credit, at least looked half-real. "Look around—everything's all dusty. No one's been in here for decades. Stop throwing wild accusations around, for heaven's sake, Lizzie."
"You have. You've done something. I know it; I can feel it. And I certainly know that there must've been much more in here than this junk. Mother wouldn't have kept only junk in here; she was a collector of antiquities." She spoke these last few words with such spite, as if they burned her mouth on the way out. "I know you've done something."
"How could I have? Oh, but I'm tired of this. Let's just get in the car and go. You can come back and collect what you want on your own time—it's all yours, after all." And with that scowl still on his face, he stalked out of the locker and away, leaving me and my sister alone together.
She turned on me, now. "Do you know anything about this, Carolyn? If you do, you'd better tell me now. I'll know if you're lying. I'm not an idiot."
I never even toyed with the idea of telling her what I'd seen, what I suspected. The lie flowed from my mouth as easily as a confession of love would have. "No, I don't know anything."
I don't know if she believed me or not. She stared at me for a moment, appraising me, and then without another word she left, following Charles. She didn't take anything—not the good silverware, not the dishes, not the vase with its ancient flower or the adorable tiny dogs. I doubted whether she'd even wanted any of the stuff in the first place, more than she wanted the satisfaction of knowing something that had once been Mother's was now hers to do with as she pleased, or the satisfaction of having something of Mother's that Charles didn't want her to have, and the pleasure of knowing he didn't like it one bit. Now, all that pleasure was gone for her, and I imagined it stung her pride like a nest of wasps.
I myself stayed for a moment more, looking around. It was an impulsive move if I've ever made one—I've still got no idea why I did it—but I picked up the box of lace doilies and left with it. God knew Lizzie wouldn't care, or shouldn't, anyway. And besides, I could use them, if I could get the stains out of them.
As soon as we arrived home, Lizzie packed her few things, got in her car and left without a word of goodbye to any of us. That was her way, Lizzie's—she didn't like goodbyes. A few hours later, I saw Charles ripping a page of his address book to shreds and rinsing the bits of paper down the sink. I wouldn't be shocked if that page was the page of L's.
To be honest, I haven't seen or heard from Lizzie since. Nor have I ever happened to meet her daughter, my niece, Tracey the doctor. I suppose it's just as well, anyway. Better never to meet her than to meet her and find out she's a spitting copy of her mother.
I went upstairs to pack my own things, and, as I walked by one of the spare bedrooms, I noticed Agley packing hers.
She glanced up at me. "Yes, of course. I've no reason to stay here, miss."
I'd almost forgotten the only reason she was ever here was Mother. "Yes, of course. Safe trip home."
"Thank you, miss; you as well."
I started away, only to hear Agley's voice calling me back. "Miss!"
She looked hesitant, troubled, and I wasn't sure if she knew there was a pair of underwear clutched in her hands. "Miss, I—I wanted to say I'm sorry. For calling your sister, I mean. I'm truly sorry."
My brow furrowed. Why should she be sorry now? "It's perfectly all right, Agley."
"No, it isn't. There was really no point to it, was there? She truly is a troublemaker." Agley laughed, a sad sound. "Nothing but fire flows through those veins, I think. Fire and misery."
That was an awfully dramatic way of saying Lizzie was trouble, but no matter—I would accept the apology nonetheless. "That's really all right, Agley. It's over and done with now."
She nodded, and I nodded, and we both said perfectly civil goodbyes to each other. I never saw her again, either.
Mother was dead, the will was executed, and everything was over and done with. I was very ready to leave. Four full weeks after first arriving, I stood at the door, bag packed and resting on the floor, and shared an awkward hug with my brother Charles. Things had been stormy, in patches, but now they were peaceable all around; there was no point in anything else.
"It's going to be a bad day for weather," he warned as we drew away from each other. "Temperatures of minus ten, and there's supposed to be freezing rain later. Are you sure you don't want an extra blanket?"
I couldn't concentrate on his words. For some reason, all I could look at was his hair. It was streaked with gray—salt-and-pepper, they'd say in the fashionable lingo of the day—and made him look like a much older man than I was prepared for him to be. It had once been such a nice shade of brown, like mine and Lizzie's had been. Once upon a time, we'd been young.
The moment passed and I came back to myself, shaking my head and smiling at him. "No thanks; I think I'll be alright."
"Well, if you're sure."
We exchanged goodbyes, and I drove away. The house grew smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror as I went, and as I drew further away, it became covered with vegetation, the jungle of our unkempt forest-like lawn overtaking it. I had the strangest feeling—not of nostalgia, not of mourning, but of a strange mix of the two, as if I'd suddenly become aware of how utterly inexorable the passage of time is, how utterly insignificant this moment was.
I returned home, briefly wondering, like Agley had, if my apartment would still be there waiting for me after so long. Thank God, it was, and it was all in perfect order. The landlord welcomed me back with perfect kindness—kindness more than likely based on the fact that I'd paid two months' rent to him before I left. I entered my home and felt, for only a moment, like a stranger in it. But the feeling passed, like all feelings do, and I settled into life again.
I returned to work, and, like I had at home, I felt like a stranger there for a moment. But again, the feeling passed, and I settled back into old routines, letting the flow of time encompass me once again. The events of my mother's death, and the four weeks I had spent preparing for it, became nothing but a blip in the background of memory. Time passed around me like water around a stone in a river, and I rested, like most people in the world do, on the comfortably wrong belief that always exists in the back of the mind, the belief that I was immortal, that life was too routine for death to find me again.
That is, until a cold September day two years later when I returned home to my apartment only to find another letter waiting at my door.