It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. Alex looked up at the large colonial style house as she walked towards it, her feet crunching on the gravel. She was trying to walk slowly across the driveway, because she didn’t want to come back to this house. Not now. Not ever.
Ever since she had gotten the letter that her grandmother, May Anne Dawson, had sadly passed of heart failure and left her entire estate to Alexa Dawson, she had wanted to curl up in her favorite yellow blanket and barricade herself in her apartment.
But here she was, standing in front of Dawson Manor in Hayfield, Arkansas. The house loomed over her. It seemed to say, Come on in! I’ve got plenty of secrets to share!
Alex was not drawn in by this. Not in the slightest. She didn’t want this house. She didn’t want this legacy. She didn’t want these secrets.
She rummaged around her pocket for the key. It was an old skeleton key, darkened with age and wear. She heard the key slide into place, and the lock clicked open when she turned the key.
Alex took a deep breath, grasped the handle, and pushed the door open. Immediately, the smell of her grandmother's jasmine perfume filled her nostrils.
Something shifted in the corner. Something was moving. Alex froze, petrified by fear.
Then, a skinny gray cat popped out from behind a cabinet.
“Why, hello, there.” She told the cat. “How long have you been here?”
The cat meowed and butted its head against Alex’s leg.
Alex knelt down to the cat’s level. “Hmmm...what to call you.” She thought for a moment, before asking, “How about Puff?”
The cat stared up at her with wide blue eyes and meowed. Alex took it as an agreement.
“So, do you have any food? Do I need to feed you?”
Puff didn’t answer, because Puff couldn’t talk, of course.
Alex made her way to the kitchen, Puff in tow. She found some cans of cat food in the cupboard for Puff. She opened the lid, and the smell of the food overpowered the jasmine scent, if only for a moment.
Puff licked their chops hungrily as Alex poured the food into one of her grandmothers nice china bowls. She set it on the floor with a clink. Puff immediately set on it like a buzzard on roadkill.
While Puff ate, Alex walked up the stairs, her hand tracing the banister. She remembered the last time she was in this house. She had slid down the banister, then gotten pulled away from this timeless world.
She counted the steps, just like she had done when she was a little girl. Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. Finally, she reached a hallway. She robotically went to the third door on the right and pushed it open.
Her room was exactly as she’d left it twenty-four years ago. The bed was still unmade from the morning she’d left. Clothes, ones she hadn’t had time to pack, lay folded in the open drawers.
Alex sat down on the bed and picked up Bunny, a faded old stuffed animal that was (shocker) a bunny. Alex rubbed Bunny’s ear, just like she used to do whenever she was thinking.
It was the morning of April 2nd, 1996. Alex had woken up to Grandmother being cheerful. She had made Alex’s favorite breakfast, biscuits and gravy. Grandmother made it just how Alex liked it, with just enough salt and milk.
But, soon their perfect morning was ruined. Alex’s mom burst through the elegant walnut doors, saying how Grandmother had stolen her child from her, et cetera. Grandmother had protested, saying how Alex had just appeared on her doorstep one day, like an orphan, with a note taped to her little blanket that said, This is your granddaughter Alexa. Please take care of her.
Then, Alex’s real mom had told her to go to her room and pack. She had five minutes.
When she had come down five minutes later, Grandmother had buried her in a hug, her sweet jasmine smell gathering over Alex like a cloud.
“If you ever need to get away,” she had whispered. “Come here.”
Then she had pushed Alex away. Said goodbye for the last time.
Alex had gotten in the car with her mother that day, wondering her own history. She was only six years old, but what had happened before she went to live with Grandmother? Where had she been before?
That day, Alex’s mom, whose name she didn’t even know, dropped her off in the custody of foster care. Her childhood had consisted of change, no constant home. In her teenage years, she had been diagnosed with depression. Alex had always believed that no one wanted her. Except Grandmother, but she didn’t know where Alex was. Otherwise, she would have adopted her. She was sure of it.
When Alex turned eighteen, she had moved to San Francisco, California to become a seismologist. The work was fun, sometimes, and it paid well. She had run out of steam by then. There was no use in wondering about your past. Focus on the future.
But inheriting this house was like picking at a scab. One you were told not to pick at. And you’ve tried, you’ve really tried, but sometimes you have to. Alex’s scab was coming off, unearthing memories that she hadn’t thought about in so long.
She could taste Grandmother’s apple pie again. She wanted some. Alex walked down to the kitchen, and began rummaging through drawers, looking for the recipe.
She pulled open the third drawer, and found a large brown leather book.
Ah, she thought. Here it is. A recipe book.
She set it down on the table, then took a seat in one of the plush chairs.
She opened the book, and if she hadn’t been sitting, Alex would have fallen down.
Tucked inside the book was a sheet of paper. It was folded up, and in warbly old lady handwriting, was a single word.
With shaking fingers, she unfolded the paper.
By the time you read this, I will be dead and this house will be yours. But for now, you deserve to know what happened.
I did find you on my doorstep. You had your name, and I knew you were my grandchild. You were a Dawson.
I never had the best relationship with your mother. We fought, all the time, and when I found you...I guess I believed she had changed. She wanted to heal our broken bonds.
So I raised you for six years. Those were some of the best years of my life.
But then she came and took you away, and God knows what she did with you. I don’t know if you stayed with her, or if you got fostered out, or what. I didn’t know how the letter about inheriting Dawson Manor would reach you. I figured I had a good lawyer, and he would be able to track you down.
So, here it is. Dawson Manor is yours. Along with that cat. Her name is Doris, but you can rename her something else if you want. She’s your cat.
And this book is a photo album. I have me as a little girl, your mother as a little girl, and of course, you as a little girl. I hope you enjoy it.
Sending love always,
By the time Alex had finished reading, tears were running down her face. Grandmother had left this photo album for her?
She decided she better take a look through the photo album. She turned the page, and there was, unmistakably, Grandmother as a little girl, probably about six years old. She was swimming in a large, green lake that she assumed was Hayfield Reservoir, just a little bit down the road.
The next page was still Grandmother, but older, at about thirteen years old. She sat with a friend, sharing an ice cream.
The next page was a person Alex almost didn’t recognize. But she saw Grandmother's nose, and her own eyes. This person was her mother.
Her mother had long, dark brown hair, unlike Grandmother and Alex. Grandmother had light gold hair, not quite blonde, not quite brown, either, before she had gone gray. Alex’s hair was the same. Her eyes were the same as Alex’s, green flecked with brown and orange. In the photo, her skin was tanner than Alex’s had ever been. She looked happy. It was a better memory of her mother than the one she currently had, scrunch-faced and angry.
In the photo she looked to be at least twelve years old, but shorter than the average twelve year old. She looked to be about four feet, five inches tall.
In the next image, it was Alex’s mother again. She looked to be about eighteen, and not much taller. She was with a boy this time, and from their body language in the photo, Alex could tell they were close.
Alex noticed the photo was bulkier than the others. She reached around the plastic film and pulled out a folded envelope with the address of Dawson Manor on the outside, and a postmark from 1978.
She opened the envelope, and pulled out the letter inside.
I’m doing well in Nashville. I met this guy, and I really think he’s the one. His name is Alex. He’s a singer, just like me. We met at an open mike, and we immediately hit it off. He took me out for a date last night, and I think it went well.
Anyway, how are you? Are you finally seeing how boring the Manor is? Seeing why I left, because I couldn’t be suffocated inside that stuffy old house anymore. Are you finally understanding how it is, now that I’m gone?
Anyway, have a good day, I guess,
Anna. That was her mother’s name. Anna Dawson.
“Anna Dawson. Mom.” She said, to see how the words felt in her mouth.
And Alex? She had been named after a guy her mom had dated for a while?
She returned the letter to its envelope. Then she turned the page, and found another letter, postmarked 1979.
I have good news! Me and Alex are getting married! Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll be able to make it to the wedding, because it’s tomorrow. By the time you read this, I will be married! Of course, I’m keeping my maiden name. I don’t know why, though. I just am. Alex’s last name is Smith, which is even more boring than Dawson.
Alex was Anna’s husband? That must have meant…
Alex was a junior?
Nashville Alex was Alex’s father? Her head almost exploded from what she was figuring out.
And her mom? Her mom was unfathomably terrible to Grandmother, and Alex was sure of it.
The next letter, postmarked 1980, read,
I’m not going to admit that maybe you were right about Alex. I’m not going to say he left, either. And I’m certainly not going to say I’m pregnant.
Alex was shocked. That's why she never heard anything about her father. He had left before she was born.
That's why her mother was always so bitter. She must have seen Alex Sr. when she looked at Alex. She was ashamed. She was embarrassed. She was loathsome.
Alex kept turning the pages, looking at the photos, but not really processing what she saw.
She would smile at some, soaking in their nostalgia. She reached the end of the album. Alex almost didn’t see the sticky note on the back.
It said call her with a phone number.
Alex almost dropped the album.
Call her? She thought.
Then, Alex decided, what’s the harm?
And she dialed the number.
“Hi, is this Anna Dawson?”
“May I ask who wants to know?”
Alex took a shaky breath. “My name is Alex Dawson. I’m your daughter.”
“Alex? Is that...really you?”
“Yeah. I…” Alex almost told her how she had found the number, with the photo album and letters, then decided against it. “I found your number while cleaning out Dawson Manor.”
“God, how old are you now?”
“I’m thirty, now.”
“Wow. How time flies.” Anna chuckled. “You said you were at the Manor?”
“Okay. Stay there. I’m going to start driving down now, from Nashville.”
“Okay, I’ll see you in a few hours, then, hon. I love you.”
“I love you.”
Alex hung up.
Alex tapped her foot nervously. The house was quiet and eerie, and there was not a sound other than Puff’s collar jingling.
Then, Alex heard gravel crunching as a car pulled into the driveway. She sprung up as if she were on a loaded spring.
Alex ran to the door. She flung it open.
Standing there was her short, dark haired mother, Anna Dawson.
They flung into eachothers arms and cried, and Anna said something inaudible. But that didn’t matter.
Alex had a cat named Puff, a photo album, and her mother. And that was all that mattered.