I sat next to the fireplace, escaping the cold of winter, and flipped through my grandma’s photo album, pawing at old photos of my dad as a baby and my favorite, the one of my uncle throwing his stretch Armstrong into this very same fireplace. Our families always seem so much simpler when were younger don’t they? The aunt that acts goofy, the cousin who always smells a little bit like a skunk at thanksgiving, and grandma and grandpa whispering to each other in the corner. It all seems so innocent and normal until you realize that your aunt isn’t funny, she’s a struggling alcoholic. Cousin Jake doesn’t just smell like a skunk, the marijuana was a gateway and he got locked away for heroin possession and that’s why he wasn’t there last year. And grandma and grandpa are on the verge of a divorce and have been for ten years. The truth comes out eventually, always leaving a bitter taste in our mouths. Now that you’re older you can see it for what it is and it’s a little disappointing coming to these gatherings. That’s how I see it anyway, well, until my grandma died, and the secrets started spilling out. I sit here, watching my father, red-faced, bellow insults at his brother as my aunt drags her two kids around by the arm, screaming that everybody is being too loud. Let me start from the beginning.
Three years ago my grandma brought my mother and me on a girl’s trip to Barbados. It sounds luxurious and wonderful doesn’t it, maybe even a little bit too generous? Every night she left me and mom in the villa when she would slip into a red sequin dress and find her way to a bar. At that time, I learned of the pending divorce from my mother. She explained that since her and grandpa were on the rocks, she was probably trying to get attention from another man, but boy how wrong we were. I couldn’t care less how my grandma whored herself out or how she got money for a Caribbean vacation. I spent five days lounging by the beach, crisping my skin to a lobster red, and eating cou-cou. Had I known the trouble my grandma was getting our family into I would have stopped her, or at least went with her on her nightly excursions so I had a better idea of what we were up against.
My father throws a glass bottle in the fire and shouts about how he delt with the funeral alone, he paid off their house, he has managed their legal finances for eight years, how my uncle has one responsibility now that my grandma left to him and he’s failing. My uncle argues that my father is only in it for the money and that the inheritance should be his because he kept her in his life, free of charge. Why didn’t my grandpa take control of the finances you ask? When my grandma passed, he gave up. Literally gave up on life. He didn’t kill himself, he just stopped…everything. Stopped feeding himself, stopped dressing himself, stopped helping my dad manage him and my grandma’s money. They threw him in a home almost immediately. This argument wasn’t even about the real inheritance anyway, the one my grandpa would get, it was about my grandma's plethora of bank accounts, both in the US and off-shore. You may have guessed by now, but my grandmas was embezzling money. Not only that, she was laundering money. If you didn’t think it could get worse, it was money from all the drugs she was slinging.
The white sands near our villa felt like lava on my feet. Grandma stood knee-deep in the ocean, taking deep breaths of the salty air. She had bought a new swimsuit, a bikini. You would think for her withering age of seventy-five, seeing her in a bikini would be frightening, but it wasn’t. She had a better body than my mom who was in her forties.
“Tia, baby, come here.” My grandma had said in her low, raspy voice.
I dusted the sand off my bum and joined her and her gold-adorned bikini in the water. She put her cold hand around my burnt arm and squeezed me tightly.
“Your ma doesn’t have the balls. When you’re old enough, I got a whole world out here I want to show you.” She patted my back making me wince.
“Like what grandma?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.” She brushed her hand, letting me know she was done with the conversation. I slunk back to the spot where I had been laying. I dusted off my sandy towel and laid back down. Had I known what she meant at the time, I probably would have told her she misunderstands me. Sure, I came off as a hard ass around my grandma, but I’m softer than my mom.
My uncle is upstairs now, stomping and cursing at my grandma’s desk. We’ve gotten three letters in the past month, demanding the three million dollars she owes “us”. Whoever “us” is. The most recent letter says they’ll start picking the family off one by one and that the money needs to be deposited by the first of next month. They don’t know my grandma died, and there’s no way to tell them because we don’t know who they are. I look to my mom whose chewing on her fingers near the Christmas tree. I watch her as she picks nervously at the bow of the gift she’s brought for me. I don’t know how or why my parents went Christmas shopping. I wonder if they did it before the letters came. I can’t fathom how we all thought we could sit around a dinner table picking at turkey, expecting not to think about our lives are being threatened. I walked slowly over to my mother, worried too much movement would startle her away.
“Ma?” I ask.
Her big doe eyes flicker across my face as she wipes a tear away. I crouch down next to her and she pulls me into a warm, loving hug. We’re not huggers, but it feels nice.
“Brandon is going to get us all killed.” She whispers.
“What control does uncle have over the money?”
“It. He has the bank accounts. She left all that information to him but he wants to keep it. Your father heard him talking about buying a cruise ship and sending Sammy to Harvard.”
“Sammy is in prison and uncle has plenty of money to buy a yacht, isn’t that enough? He needs more? He’s risking our family for the off chance that he can escape whoever the hell this is?” My mother just nods. I suddenly wish it was ten years ago and I didn’t know anything. I wanted so badly to get older so I could have a say in decisions. I wanted to get older so I could understand adult talk and all those conversations where the adults said, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” I used to sit and try to write them down so when I was an adult, I could ask what they all meant. Now? I don’t want to know.
“If we make it out of this alive, I don’t think we’ll have much of a family left.” My mom choked through a sob. Although my uncle Brandon is an asshole, I know my mom still loves him. She’s one of those church-going, bible-thumping, don’t-say-hate type. They always hold onto love for too long.
The creaking of the villa door woke me. I could see the silhouette of my grandma slipping into the room with a large bag. The light of the moon caught on her sequins like little disco balls. I tried to close my eyes as thin as possible without shutting them completely. She dropped the bag on the floor and came to my bedside, whispering my name. She kissed me on the head and I stirred, pretending it disrupted my sleep. I pulled the blankets over so I could peek without being seen as she retreated to the chair, flicking on the small tableside lamp. I laid for an hour, watching her count stacks of cash. Right then I should have asked questions. I think she was ready to share this secret with someone. If I had just been more eager to be a part of this maybe she would have left me with the bank account information and I could pay whoever this was back. I could save our family. But that night I laid in silence and didn’t say a word. I never told my mom. I knew it was important, but I kept my mouth shut.
Since mom and dad packed the SUV with gifts that sat under the glowing green tree, I had to take my little Toyota. I couldn’t stand the screaming anymore. I had to get out and go anywhere. Nothing was open on Christmas eve in our town except for the gas station. My friend Raoul would be working. I could buy a pack of cigarettes like I sometimes did. It was the best thing I could think to do to keep from stressing myself grey. I started the grumbling engine and zoomed away from the house as quickly as possible. When I got to the gas station, a light snow began to drift from the sky. Through the glow of the canopy lights the snow looked magical. I stepped from my car and gazed up to the dusty sky. Inside the gas station Raoul waved cheerfully at me, much too cheerful for the circumstances. I tossed a twenty on the counter and he handed me my favorite menthol cigarettes, knowing better than to ID me.
Sitting in the airport, waiting for my grandma to finish up at the giftshop, mom slid into the seat next to me. She was golden brown and beaming from the five days we spent in Barbados. She patted my hand gently and thanked me for being such a good girl. She was well within her right to praise me. I was fourteen at the time and a menace at home. I treated her like absolute shit. When my grandma came out of the gift shop, she held up a gaudy, poor-quality t-shirt. She was a grandma again. She wasn’t a vixen in a red dress or a mysterious woman with a scary amount of cash. She was an old woman who gardens and yells at her husband for burning the eggs during breakfast.
I inhale the cigarette smoke and let it out, allowing it to mix with my hot breath. A large, black SUV pulls into the lot slowly. I lower my cigarette down to my side, attempting to hide it from any adults who may know me. Not that I know any with SUV’s with tinted windows. Three men get out, one does inside, one stands near the vehicle, and one comes around the side of the building to my car. I don’t have time to think before I see the glisten of metal in his hand. He is holding a gun. I drop the cigarette to the ground and back away slowly towards my car.
“Don’t.” He demanded, a deep scratchy voice leaving his throat.
I gulp hard like I’m in a cartoon and tears brim my eyes. I know in my gut this has something to do with my grandma. That this has to do with the money.
“I thought we had a month…?” I ask with a quivering voice. He shakes his head and steps closer to me, finger resting over the trigger.
“I said you have a month to pay. Not that you have a month before we start taking you guys out. You’ll make a nice point that we aren’t playing about this money situation.” He holds the gun up, steady as it levels with my eyes.
“My uncle!” I blurt accidentally. I know Brandon would take it seriously if they killed me. I know he would pay them. But it wasn’t fair for me to die, “My uncle isn’t letting us pay you. If he allows my dad to take over the money, our family can pay you. My grandmas dead. We didn’t know money was owed. I wouldn’t kill me. She has guys of her own. They know a lot more about you guys than you think they do. Convince my uncle. Killing me will only get you in trouble.” I’m bluffing harder than I ever thought I could. His brows press together as he slowly lowers the gun.
“Where’s that little bastard camped out?” He asks with a snakelike hiss in his voice.
“My grandma's house. It’s 13-“
“I’m well aware of the location of the house.” He says, spinning on his heel and turning back towards the car. It gives me a chill that he knows where the house is. There is a quick honk before the SUV speeds away through the fluffy snow.
I stand, frozen in the parking lot for twenty minutes after he left. I make sure Raoul is okay before speeding back to the house. As I crest the hill I see three police cruisers with flashing lights, an ambulance with its lights off, and a fire truck. I rush through the crowd of emergency service vehicles, shouting that my family is inside. My mother comes out, sobbing in the arms of an officer. He pulls me to the side where my mom throws herself into my arms.
“It’s your father.” She wails, “And Brandon.” My heart rate spikes as my mind goes to the worst. I’m right. My father and uncle have been killed. The officer sounds deeply concerned but said he needs some information from me. I have real tears, sure, but I pad it with “I need some time to process this before I start answering questions.” The officer tells me they were sniped through the large bow window in the Livingroom and I know who exactly did it. Why they killed my father is beyond me. It’s my fault that he’s dead. Him and my uncle. I should have taken the bullet for them. The world feels like it’s crashing in on me. I want so badly to get justice for my family, to tell the cops everything. But I have a feeling that no amount of witness protection program could save us from these guys. We needed to pay them. End of story. If I told my mom about anything, she would tell them. I know it. This will have to be my secret. I hope the cameras at the gas station didn’t pick up the thug holding a gun to me. Maybe my grandmas was right. Maybe she saw some vile secrecy in me. A secrecy that could hold strong even as I sobbed through the death of my father. One thing is for sure, those bastards are getting paid and when I’m old enough to take control of the bank accounts, I need to tie up all these loose ends and make sure my family is never involved in any laundering ever again. We’re white picket, not American crime.