“...And to my favorite person in the world, my granddaughter, Aster Lynne Browning, I bequeath my home and all of its contents…” The elderly lawyer in a brown suit with a blue bow tie reads. I’m staring at his white stubble in contrast to his leathery wrinkled skin letting the words sink in.
The other family members in the room, donned in black, assembled here as vultures often do to pick over what is left, motivated by greed and gluttony, to see what more it is that they can get from our now dead matriarch, slowly either turn to look at me or side eye me. I sit a little taller in my seat and collect my breath.
I had left this town damn near twenty years ago. I hadn’t looked back. I hadn’t come back. But every Sunday she would call me to check on me. Until two years ago, we would talk for an hour or two while we had coffee in the morning. But I never came back. She never asked me to come back, either. Until now.
After a long silence, I just nod my head that I understand what it is I got. I got the bulk of it. Nobody else hardly got a thing. My mother got the wedding rings. My uncles and my cousins, they got not a thing. I got the estate and all that goes with it.
The vultures that were here to pick over her remains and came up empty handed murmur their last insults and dismay as they file out. The old man lawyer hands me the keys and I walk out after signing papers I didn’t bother to read.
“Aster, I need to tell you somethings about the house…” I don’t hear him, or pay attention.
Twenty years is a long time. A very long time. So much has happened.
I haven’t driven the waterfront drive that leads to her estate in two decades. I was a different person then.
Nothing in this town has changed. The same old family run businesses line the street facing the shore.
The same large and cumbersome family estates face eastward looking at the lake. “Fresh water ocean,” as my wife once referred to it, the one time I showed her on a map where it is I’m from. And it’s true. The lakes here are so big you can’t see the other side. If you could see the other side, you would be looking at Canada.
I slow as I know my turn is coming up. I see the weeping willow tree swaying in the breeze, it’s long tendrils brushing the grass beneath. As a child, it was my escape to hide under it’s long branches and disappear into the pages of a book. Living other lives that were not my own. Lives that gave me hope that didn’t exist in my reality.
The winding driveway, flanked by two giant stone lions, is no longer smooth, it’s lined with cracks where weeds have forced their way up and through. As I pull in, I notice one of the lions is chipped and missing an ear. The lawn is not an endless sea of green, and is now brown and patchy.
I park my car and look at the porch- sagging with paint peeling. The once grand columns are bowing under the weight of disrepair and neglect.
How did she let it go like this? Why? And where was I? How is this mine now and I let it go without being there for her?
I open the large French doors to the foyer. Mirrors and furniture draped with sheets make eerie shapes in the murky afternoon light dappling through tattered drapes. Dust motes hang in stale air.
I am met with the ghosts of my pasts in the silence that surrounds me.
I throw open the drapes and start opening the windows to allow light and fresh air in. To exorcize the staleness of my memories. The yelling. The insults. The fighting. The last time I saw my own father.
The hardwood floors are warping, and they creak under my feet as I walk from room to room.
The kitchen, once staffed by a full time chef, is coated in grime. Flies coat the surface of the long counter. Maggots spill forth from a forgotten trash can filled with rot.
The flies scatter, flying and buzzing in a cloud of black as I rush to the sink to empty the contents of my stomach into the sink.
I’m sweating and I can’t breath. I’m being choked by the memories, the ghosts, the rot, the death, my past, my present, and the weight of a once great name from a once great family. It’s all on me. This house is my legacy in so many ways.
I drag myself out of the kitchen and up the grand staircase. The staircase is lit by large windows that look out over the lake and the now busy road that separates the estate from the lake. When the estate was built, the road only saw sporadic traffic, but now it’s a major thoroughfare connecting the suburb to the downtown area. But that downtown area is dead and decaying now, too. Just like my family lineage and this home.
As I climb the stairs and look out at the traffic and the lake behind it, I wonder how many other homes in this neighborhood are wasting away. I go into my grandmother’s room. It faces west and the heavy curtains are sealed tight. The room is blacked out.
I fumble for my cell phone so I can use the flashlight on it, only to find out that my phone is dead. I feel my way through the room. It smells like urine and copper and something else below that, earthy like old leaves. My foot steps in something wet, and I am resisting the urge to vomit again.
My hip hits a hard piece of furniture and rattles whatever it is resting in and on it, causing a melodious crystalline sound, like chimes in the wind. I presume it was her vanity table, which always had a collection of atomizers arrayed on it, with other delicate glass bottles containing her expensive cosmetics. She was a vain one…
Just a few more steps to my left I presume, will take me to the window which faces west. West, the direction I fled more than twenty years ago. West, where I long to be back.
I throw back the curtain once I feel its velvety heaviness under my fingertips and pull it back. The glass is broken, a branch pokes through the window pain. In the dim light fighting to make its way through the shaded window, I look at the room that housed a once great matriarch. One that withered inside her own head and spent her last years locked away- thinking her long gone glory days were still here and now.
The bed is stripped bare, but the closet is still full. Her atomizers, though a few are now toppled over from the run in with my hip, are still lined up. Chanel was her favorite. That would be the least full one. I hear the faint dripping of the faucet. Her jewelry box on the corner. The key in the top drawer. I pull open the drawer and they key was there as it always had been. I put the key in my pocket and pick up the box, holding it to my chest.
I hear footsteps making their way down the hallway.
I freeze and back against the wall. I hold my breath and do my best to still myself.
The footsteps fall closer yet. I close my eyes, reverting back to a childhood belief that if I close my eyes, maybe I can be invisible to whoever it is I don’t want to see. They won’t see me. Just close my eyes tight.
It’s the sound of a man’s footfall. Heavy. The shoes sound like dress shoes, not work boots. But definitely a male. I listen as they come closer.
A crow calls loudly. It must be in the branches near the broken window. It sounds like it’s in the room with me. But it is the sound of the footsteps I’m focusing on.
This house was always occupied by someone. As long as I had ever known it to exist. Housekeepers, groundskeepers, a chef, a driver who doubled as a butler. Grandmother and Grandfather. Grandfather’s family before that. I never belonged here in my heart. My father told me that much, too. But Grandmother, thought otherwise. So for a while, I lived within these walls, too. But it’s been empty now for two years. No staff. It’s occupants either long gone, or dead, or written out.
“Aster?” A deep voice calls out as the footfalls sound just outside the door of the bedroom.
My breath hitches. Jon, my realtor friend. I exhale and respond. “I’m in here.”
“This place has great bones, but the amount someone is going to have to pay to repair this place… I don’t know.”
“Tear it down. Sell the land.” I push away from the wall, walk down the hallway, down the stairs, and back out the door.
I don’t look back. Not any more. Okay, I do look back one last time. In the rearview mirror as I pull away.