You stand with your finger pressed to the doorbell.
At first, no one answers. The temptation to turn away, to leave it for tomorrow, for never, is almost overpowering. Sweat breaks across the back of your neck. Your stomach turns over.
But then you hear a voice. Come in, they say. Now you must step inside.
You want to kill her. She did this to you.
But she is already dead.
Thanks to the aunt who always showed up at Christmas dinners and Easter lunches, dressed like Audrey Hepburn at one of her glam parties, with a dirty martini balanced precariously in a black-gloved hand and a long cigarette poised in the other.
Well. Audrey Hepburn if she was pushing seventy-five with sun shriveled skin that sagged beneath her chin and crumpled like an old carpet in her cleavage. You know you’re being mean. Judgemental. Maybe it’s the lighting. Maybe she looks better in the daylight. Or the photos. Not everyone is photogenic, after all. They can’t be blamed.
Is it any wonder she died in the middle of a Christmas party, in a dark corner amidst all the smoke and noise and scratchy, oblivious Tony Bennet, died dozing on the armchair, the cigarette still in her careless hand and someone shouted, for God’s sake aunt Emma, you’re burning the chair!
It seemed strangely fitting that she would die in exactly the way that you met her. In a party. As if she never belonged anywhere else.
Aunt Emma, yes, that was her name. Now you can’t forget it even if you want to.
Nearly everyone at the party was at the funeral. No one cried. Everyone drank. It seemed to be just another party, but a party that was missing the guest of honor. Like she just decided not to turn up but people stuck around anyway for the hors d'oeuvres.
You felt less emotion than you anticipated. She was just That Woman no one seemed to know anything about, who always greeted you with a smoky kiss that barely missed your mouth. Francis darling, she called you, in a sophisticated drawl like Lula Mae used for the transient men in her apartment.
Now you resume your life. Everything is normal. You get up in the morning at six and eat egg on toast as you read the news. You wash your dishes, a plate and fork for one. You drive to work. You sit at a desk. You don’t talk to anyone--that’s not who you are. No one expects you to. You listen with surprisingly meager curiosity to your co-workers conversations. Did you hear that Skylar got implants? How was the movie last night? Are you still mad at me?
You fly below the radar. You eat a sandwich alone in the breakroom. You sit somewhere in the middle of the conference table at meetings. No one asks for your opinion. You don’t give it. You do your job. No one complains. It’s fine.
It’s simple. Effortless. It’s a life for one. You’ve gotten used to it.
But now a photo of the infamous Christmas party pops up on Facebook--it’s been exactly one year. It’s a group photo someone posted before anyone had died--you’re tagged somewhere in the background. Yes, there. You can see the reflection of your glasses. You’re slouching, holding a beer. You don’t look happy or annoyed to be in the photo. You don’t look like anything.
And there. There in the corner is aunt Emma, who was caught in between a blink. You begin to wonder if she was called into the photo or if she, like you, just happened to be standing around.
And then you begin to wonder if she, like you, had only been invited to the party out of courtesy. Because you’re a friend of a friend. Because you’re available. Because you never have anything else going on.
You’re struck by this strange revelation of commonality. You and aunt Emma never were the honored guests of well...maybe anything. Never the best friend, the best man, the Birthday girl. You are a tolerated presence. A polite insertion. Mild mannered background noise.
You are a filler.
You stare at the photo again. You wonder if aunt Emma knew this all along. You wonder if you have. You wonder if ‘fillers’ ever know they are ‘fillers’.
You realize it is lunchtime but you’re not hungry, even though it’s the usual hour for lunch break. You close the web page and find a new email in your inbox.
Emma’s Will, the subject reads. You go still. The email is from your father, who you rarely talk to because you never have much of anything to talk to each other about.
As you read the email you can tell your father did not write it. To whomever this may concern, it says. It is a forwarded email from an attorney.
You did not even know up until now that aunt Emma is your father’s elder sister. You did not even know that aunt Emma owned a fashion startup but you suppose it makes sense. You discover she has no children and four divorced husbands (all dead) and quite a shocking net worth. You have to read the number several times to comprehend it. What is more shocking is that she has left it all to you, Francis darling.
You sit in your chair for so long the cleaning crew comes into the office with the vacuum cleaner. It is six in the evening. Everyone has left. There is only you.
You have read the email so many times you have memorized it. You drive home but you barely register getting in and out of the car. You don’t remember taking your shoes off. You sit in your kitchen in the dark and you can hear the tap dripping.
Tomorrow you must begin the process of collecting aunt Emma’s fortune. The email specifies it will be deposited into your account by the end of the month. But not before you complete a series of tasks.
You know you will not sleep tonight, even with the pills you are accustomed to. Even with your favorite show on.
You wonder if this aunt Emma knew you better than she let on, or if it was a wild guess. Maybe she had been stalking you for years, taking you apart, studying you. But now you are flattering yourself. No, it must be random. She picked a nephew’s name out of a hat. There are several to choose from. Nieces, too.
But this set of tasks feels strangely tailored to you and you alone.
You feel uncomfortable sitting in the dark now. You feel as though you are being watched.
You tell yourself you are being ridiculous.
You take a shower to calm down. But once you are towelling off you realize you forgot to shampoo.
As predicted, you do not sleep. You lie in bed wondering how you will pull it off. How you will track down and talk to everyone from the funeral. How you will go to their house and sit on their sofas. How you will have to answer the So how do I know you again? question. The Emma who? question. How you will have to find the one person--out of fifty seven people--who truly knew aunt Emma best.
You will have to discover who was Emma’s closest friend.
Because of aunt Emma, thanks to aunt Emma, you will now have to talk to people. You cannot decide if she is being humorous or wicked. Maybe both. You do not know her well enough to establish an opinion.
But one thing is for certain. Somehow, even after death, she knows exactly how to make you suffer.