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Authors: Rett MacPherson

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BOOK: Thicker than Water
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Well, there was one good thing about the fight with Rudy and the disastrous news of my mother-in-law's impending visit. I had forgotten about that blasted postcard.

THE NEW KASSEL GAZETTE

The News You Might Miss

by Eleanore Murdoch

It's Strawberry Time! This is the time of year when people come from miles around to trample our lawns, defile our bathrooms, and write graffiti on the bridge. But that's all right. We make more than enough money to clean it all up and have some left over. And we won't see this much traffic again until the Pickin' and Grinnin' Festival. So everybody be nice to those tourists!

The New Kassel school marching band is holding a car wash next Sunday to raise money for their new band uniforms. I've seen the cars in this town. Some of you haven't washed your cars in a month. Or since last fall. So put your money to good use, and you won't be so ashamed when you drive around town!

Also, there's a meeting at the historical society this Wednesday. We'll be voting on officers. I feel a change blowing in the wind.

Until next time,

Eleanore

Three

I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn't wake myself up. Sylvia was standing in the kitchen of the Gaheimer House steeping her tea, as I had seen her do a thousand and one times. Her silvery-white hair hung down loose to the backs of her knees. In life, she had always worn her hair in two braids wrapped around her head. In her casket, however, in death, her hair had been down long, brushed until it shined and lying elegantly over one shoulder.

I know, because I had been the one to style it.

She would probably hate me for that. Somewhere up in heaven or wherever it was that she now resided, she was ticked off because I sent her into the afterworld with her hair down. It wouldn't be the first time she was angry with me. But it would definitely be the last.

In my dream she turned around and smiled at me. A smile. I was definitely dreaming. She took my hand in hers. “There's much to be done,” she said. Her hand was warm to the touch; her smile denoted a certain understanding. I stood riveted, unable to move away from her.

Somewhere in the distance I heard my name being called. I glanced over my shoulder to find all of my family standing behind me, except my mother, who was sitting in her wheelchair. And the more I looked, the more people I saw. Half the town was there, crammed into the hall with the soda machine. “Torie, come on,” my mother said. They all nodded their heads and beckoned to me.
Yes, come with us
.

“There is much to be done,” Sylvia repeated. When I turned back to look at her, the teacup fell to the floor and splashed tea all over my legs. Sylvia's grip on my hand tightened.

“Torie, as your mother, I'm telling you to come with us!” My mother's voice rang out like a warning bell, but I couldn't move. I couldn't take my eyes off of Sylvia's ancient and cracked face.

“So much left undone,” Sylvia said.

“Why me?” I asked. “Why did you leave everything to me? Why?”

“Torie, let's go!” I heard my mother's voice, demanding and parental.

Suddenly Sylvia's grip grew too tight. Those warm fingers turned to ice. Soft and smooth skin turned rough and purple. My fingers ached. My bones were being crushed.

Then I heard a voice behind me. An irritatingly nasal, singsongy voice. The type of voice that had the perpetual effect of nails on a chalkboard. “Oh, for crying out loud, Torie. Quit being such a ninny and get over here where your family needs you.”

It was the voice of my mother-in-law.

Sylvia's face looked confused for a moment. Clearly she had not expected to have her thunder stolen from her. I turned around to see Mrs. O'Shea, a thin, wiry little woman, with nearly white hair and vacant gray eyes. The devil's spawn. The woman responsible for all my ulcers and nearly every panic attack I've ever had. She shoved her way forward through the crowd of people. Both hands were on her hips, and her body language spoke volumes of irritation.

“I knew he shouldn't have married you. I raised him to be a good Catholic boy. He was going to be a lawyer. He was going to go to Harvard. And then
you
came along and ruined everything. Now get your butt over here. He needs you now. You will not abandon your family. Come on, what are you waiting for? Huh? Eat too much fudge for Christmas? Middle age making you lazy? Good God, girl, when was the last time you dyed your hair?”

“All right!” I said. “I'm coming. Just shut up! Please.”

“Torie, Torie. Wake up.”

“Just shut up! Please.”

“Torie, it's me, Rudy. Wake up.”

I was awake. Somehow I had managed to bring myself out of my nightmare only to plop myself smack dab in the middle of reality. I wasn't sure which was worse. I stared up at Rudy's brown eyes and for a brief moment was happy to see him. Then I remembered that he'd told his mother she could stay
in our house
for a month. “Get away from me,” I said.

“You were having a dream,” he said.

“A nightmare,” I said. “Your mother was the star.”

“Still angry, huh?”

I pushed the blankets off of me, a little surprised to see that it was daylight. I had slept in my clothes. Hadn't even brushed my teeth the night before. I had fallen asleep exactly as I had dropped onto the bed after my argument with Rudy. “Still angry? Rudy, you'll be lucky if I'm ever nice to you again.”

“It's not that bad,” he began.

I held up my hand. “I don't want to talk about this. Not now, not later, not ever. Don't speak to me.”

To give him credit, Rudy really did look as though I'd struck him. Which was exactly what I had wanted. If I had to be miserable because his mother was here, then he'd have to be miserable, too. It was his fault, after all.

I locked myself in the bathroom and took a shower. When I was finished and dressed, Rudy was gone. The kids were downstairs watching cartoons, waiting for breakfast, which I made for them. After an hour of overseeing everybody getting dressed, groomed, and out the door, I dropped Rachel off at band camp and went to the Gaheimer House with Mary and Matthew.

I still couldn't quite shake the cloud of the dream, though. I half expected to find dried tea on the floor of the kitchen. Of course, there wasn't any. I gave the kids some paper to shred—yes, that really does keep them busy—and got myself a Dr Pepper. I took a big, cold drink and was happy that there was still something in life that was exactly as it should be. If all else went crazy, at least there was some solace in the fact that Dr Pepper would never change.

Now, if some corporate schmuck decides to change Dr Pepper, well, I won't be responsible for my actions.

An hour later I had decided that if Sylvia appeared in my office alive and well, I'd kill her. The woman had kept every receipt since 1920. She'd kept every warranty, every manual to every appliance. It was as if it were a matter of national security that she know how to properly work a toaster that was made in 1958, even though she'd had two upgrades since then—and kept their manuals as well. I had three huge boxes of receipts and stuff to shred and then toss, and I hadn't even made a dent in the majority of the paperwork in this house.

“Oh, Matthew, honey. Don't eat the paper,” I said.

My two-year-old looked up at me with a surprised expression, as if he didn't understand what I was saying. “I know it's tough when you find out you shouldn't eat things that obviously taste good,” I said. He gave me a toothy grin and shrieked.

“Mom,” Mary asked, “why did Sylvia die?”

“Because she was old,” I said.

“Are you old?”

“Not that old,” I said. “Older than you.”

“Oh, that's a relief,” she sighed.

Obviously she had been worried about me kicking the bucket.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Why does Grandma O hate you?”

I shrugged. “She's a very … Oh, I don't want to talk about it.”

“I think it's funny when she rolls her eyes at you,” she said.

“Really,” I said. “Well, I'm glad you can find something to be happy about.”

“She smells good,” Mary said.

“Yes, she does,” I said. There. I said something nice about her.

“Mom?”

“What?”

“Can I have a cat?”

“No.”

There was a knock at the door, interrupting our usual routine of questions and answers. The Gaheimer House had been closed for tours until further notice. There was a sign on the front window that said so. Most of the townspeople would come to the back door, so I was confused as I headed through the hall and the elaborately decorated front sitting room in which the marble floors were dusty. Sylvia would kill me if she knew that. Maybe that was what she was trying to tell me in the dream. I needed to mop and shine the floors.

I opened the door to find Deputy Edwin Duran standing there looking at me with his piercing blue eyes. In high school he had been the quarterback for Meyersville, another small town about five miles south of New Kassel. “Hey, how are you?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” he said. I opened the door wider for him to enter and he did, removing his hat as he crossed the threshold. “Sorry it's taken me so long.”

I was confused. I didn't remember asking him for any favors recently. “What are you talking about?”

It was his turn to look equally confused. “Oh, well, I assumed Sylvia had told you.”

“How can she tell me anything? She's dead.”

“I mean, before she died. Or in her will or instructions or something.” His expression owed as much to surprise as it did embarrassment.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” I said.

“The house,” he said and leaned in as if somebody might overhear. “My house.”

“What about it?”

“Sylvia owned the title,” he said. “I told her, oh, the night before she died that I would bring the rent check by, and it just slipped my mind. Here.”

Deputy Duran handed me a check for two months' worth of rent. At least I assumed it was two months' worth, because it was a rather large sum and in the comment line he'd written “for June and July.”

“Oh,” I said.

“So I guess I just pay you now, right?”

“Right,” I said.

Oh, jeez. It hadn't really registered that I was a landlady now, too. It made sense. All those houses Sylvia owned and left to me had people living in them. It takes me a while sometimes, but eventually I catch on.

“You seem surprised,” he said.

“Well, I haven't gotten around to grasping the fact that I'm a landlady,” I said.

“That's okay.”

“Do you need anything? Faucets working okay?”

He smiled. “Everything's fine.”

“You need a paint job or something?”

“I don't need anything,” he said.

“Gosh, I don't even know when your rent is due,” I said.

“It's due the first,” he said. “Sylvia was so distracted that night when I talked to her. She usually wrote it down when somebody was late on the rent, and the day they'd pay her, so she could keep track. I guess she just forgot to write it down.”

Not that I would have understood her notes. “Distracted?” I asked.

“Yeah, that's the whole reason I was out here. I got called out.”

“You mean Sylvia dialed 911?”

“No, she just called me direct. She did that every now and then. You know, I did a lot of favors for her. All the time, in fact. That night she called and said she had heard a prowler.”

“A prowler?”

“Yeah, she was concerned that her security system wasn't working right,” he said. “But I checked everything out. Even the video. It all seemed to be in working order.”

The surveillance cameras had temporarily slipped my mind. Sylvia had them installed about a year ago. I'd often wondered why she hadn't done it sooner. Not only did the Gaheimer House hold a veritable fortune in antiques, but Sylvia also had lived here. Maybe before then she'd never felt the need, since her sister, Wilma, had lived here, too. Security in numbers. At any rate, the cameras only watched the outside of the house. Nothing inside.

“So anyway, I checked the video and the alarms, and everything seemed fine. She still seemed distracted, though. But I guess when you're that old and worth that much money…”

His voice trailed off, and he shuffled his feet. Money. Now I was worth
that much money
. It made him uncomfortable. Rudy and I had been his equals just a few weeks ago, and even though I hadn't changed one iota, he assumed I had.

“All she said was she heard a prowler?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “One thing was strange, though.”

“What's that?”

“By the time I got back to the station in Wisteria, she had called again. That time she spoke to Miller and said she wanted to talk to one of us the next day. The next day she was dead.” He shrugged.

I said nothing.

“You know, she was an old battle-ax, but when I dislocated my shoulder that one time and was off from work, she let my rent slide for three months and told me not to worry about paying her,” he said. “And when Leigh lost the last baby, she sent flowers.”

“Well, that was nice,” I said.

“Yeah, but she sent them before we'd told anybody. How'd she know that kinda stuff?”

“I don't know,” I said. “She had spies everywhere.”

“I believe it,” he said. “All right, well, I'm off to work. Got the day shift today.”

“All right,” I said. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will,” he said.

I shut the door and stared at the check in my hand. A thousand bucks. And the mortgage on his little two-bedroom bungalow was paid off. I went from never knowing how I was going to pay all the bills to suddenly having more money than I knew what to do with. Everybody in town knew it, too.

BOOK: Thicker than Water
5.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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