By Elisa Stone Leahy
There were only three of them in the backyard, but it was cramped and crowded. It defied physics how cramped it felt, Rain thought. Perhaps it was because they were sharing it with approximately two million mosquitoes. More likely, she decided, it was because the smell of manure on Uncle Roy’s mud boots and Ms. Watson’s cheap perfume mingled into an oppressive cloud that weighed down the air around them. The backyard was only the size of a large bathroom, or a garden shed, but on this end-of-summer day it seemed to have shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. Unbidden, Rain’s mind flooded with the image of Meemaw’s wrinkled hands slowly labeling each laminated stamp in her precious book. Japan postage, 100y bird stamp, 1980. The lettering had gotten shaky in the past year, no matter how careful Meemaw had been. U.S. Postage, International Red Cross, 3 Cent, 1952. Forty years she’d collected them. Meemaw had written to people all around the world, just so they would write back. Each envelope bought its passage across the oceans to Youngstown, Ohio, with a little square piece of that far-off place stuck in the corner. By the end, Rain had to write for her, but Meemaw still dictated. Her grandmother had always known what she wanted to say.
Rain squeezed her eyelids shut, her fingers wrapping tightly around the plastic container in her hands. She took a long breath before she opened them again and looked back at the house. Everything Meemaw had ever owned was boxed up inside, behind the discolored siding and yellowed curtains. Uncle Conner had been interested in the stamps for all of two minutes, which was how long it took for him to check the going rate of each one on Ebay, declare none of them “financially viable,” and shove the book into a box of old albums and loose recipe cards.
As if the thought had conjured him, the engine of Uncle Conner’s Mazda Miata hummed up the driveway. In the worn folding chair, Uncle Roy startled awake. He rubbed his eyes, readjusted his tattered baseball cap and leaned back to peer through the chain link fence.
“Dang fool car,” he muttered at the convertible.
Rain didn’t respond. In fact, other than the required words of greeting when they first arrived, neither Rain, Uncle Roy nor Ms. Watson had spoken. Uncle Conner stepped from the vehicle, flipped his key fob into his palm and smiled at them like a politician.
“Hello, hello,” he called cheerfully, swinging the squeaking gate open. It snapped shut behind him, catching the back of his khaki pants as he entered.
“Shit,” he muttered, stumbling. He recovered quickly and grinned. “Rainfall,” Conner said, in the way of someone who had spent a long drive practicing an unfamiliar name, “Good to see you.”
“Just Rain is fine, Uncle Conner,” she tried to say, but he was already looking away. Towards the house.
“Is that the inspector’s car in the driveway?” he asked.
“Yeah, I let him in.” Rain’s voice was even quieter than usual. Conner had that effect on her.
“Good, good,” he said, teeth flashing. All smiles and sunshine.
Rain clutched the box closer to her chest.
“Gonna ruin yer seats,” Roy said. He had his baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.
Conner looked from him to the Mazda and then at the patchy clouds. He laughed.
“Ms. Watson,” he said with a stiff nod to the plump woman who stood patiently to the side. “So glad you could make it.” There were daggers in those words.
Rain swallowed, wishing she could step away. The backyard felt even smaller now with Uncle Conner’s presence spilling all over.
“Laurel’s instructions were clear,” Ms. Watson said mildly. “All three heirs must be present and her legal representative, myself, must bear witness.”
Conner opened his mouth, and Rain tensed remembering his words at the hospital. I’m a good enough lawyer for the mayor. Why aren’t I a good enough lawyer for my own mother? Rain looked at the placid face of Ms. Watson, wondering if he would call her a “hack attorney” again.
The front screen door banged open before Conner could speak and a man with a clipboard stepped into the driveway. Conner’s smile sharpened and he swung open the gate, hurrying over to the man. Rain’s chest loosened as he left the backyard. Through the buzz of cicadas, their words were a murmur. Then Uncle Conner’s voice rose, words breaking through in loud bursts.
“Termites?—treatment—dry rot—how pervasive?”
Rain ran her tongue around her mouth, feeling the stud click against her teeth. She could have told him about the dry rot, if he’d asked. Rain had been living with Meemaw for four years now. She had been the one to mask up each spring and cover the crawl space with white puffs of diatomaceous earth to fend off the termites for “a wee bit longer.” But dry rot wasn’t something you could DIY, she’d explained to her grandmother. Fixing that would cost—
All three of them turned to look at Conner as he shouted the number. Rain could make out a bulging vein on his clean-shaven neck. “That’s more than this shithole is worth with the land!” He kicked the wheel of the inspector’s Kia.
Rain turned away. The voices rose behind her, and Rain wished desperately that she could plug her ears to drown out the sound. But her sweaty hands were still clenched around the plastic box. The “Secure-Lock Airline Safe Temporary Cremation Urn” to be exact. Rain’s throat felt thick and lumpy.
“It’s a cedar,” Roy said.
Rain blinked, focusing on the dusty shape of her uncle in the stained overalls and scruffy beard. He’d brought his own lawn chair, unfolding it as soon as he’d arrived and settling down with an obnoxiously loud sigh. Now he was peering at her from under the brim of his Browns hat as if expecting a response. Rain looked at the sapling next to him. It sat in an orange plastic bucket, it’s needles bristling and green.
“Cedar,” Roy repeated.
Rain licked her lips, running her tongue stud against her teeth again. “Oh,” she said. He kept staring at her expectantly, so she blurted out, “I’m allergic.”
Roy tilted his head back. He swiped the hat off his head, ran a hand back and forth over his graying hair and squinted at her. “To trees?” he asked. It sounded like he was asking if she had a pet narwhal or if she enjoyed ketchup on her ice cream.
Rain nodded. “Most of them. But cedar especially.” He kept staring at her and she added, “it only bothers me in the spring. And just the pollen. I can, like, still touch the bark. And stuff.” She felt her face heat up. Which was a feat since she was already sweating. Her cotton candy-colored hair was clinging to her neck like a needy child.
The gate screeched as Conner pulled it open, bursting back into the yard like a storm cloud. It snapped shut behind him again and Conner yelped as it hit his legs. He swore, his hand running along the fabric of his pants to check for tears. Rain hoped there was a large one, right at the center seam.
“It’s gone to shambles,” Conner said, waving his cell phone toward the house. “She never should have been allowed to live out here alone!” He took a step toward Ms. Watson. “You didn’t tell us that when you read the will.”
“She wasn’t,” Roy drawled, scratching his knee through a hole in his overalls.
Conner froze and his brow furrowed.
Roy said, “Ma wasn’t alone.”
His meaning sunk in like the smell of baking bread on Sundays and Rain almost smiled.
Conner did not. He let out a huff and turned to Ms. Watson. “Hell, Ma probably knew this place was a money trap when she set this whole thing up.”
Rain shot a look at Conner, sharp as a knife. It cut through the thick July air like butter. But she couldn’t meet his eyes. She ended up glaring down at his shoes, shiny and pointy and all wrong in this place.
His cell rang. Conner glanced at it, tapped the screen and brushed a mosquito from his arm. Then he pointed at Ms. Watson. “This whole thing is a joke. You stand there and watch us all plant a tree just so we can share this godforsaken patch of nothing!” He barked out a laugh. “Listen.” His voice took on an oily flavor. “All the heirs are here. We have the tree.” He flicked a hand toward the orange bucket. “Let’s go ahead and sign the paper. I’m sure my brother and my niece have important things to do.” His nose wrinkled slightly as he said this.
The round-faced attorney tipped her face to the sky and watched the clouds as she quoted, “my land and all my possessions contained on it shall be equally distributed between those of my heirs that have participated in the planting of my memorial tree, signified by their signatures after my cremains have been—”
“Bah!” snapped Conner. He slapped a hand to his neck. It left behind the smudged black of a crushed insect and a smear of blood. “Didn’t you hear what I said? This place is worthless! Split three ways? That means we each pay a third of the cost to fix it. That’s if we even keep this shithole.” Conner’s cell rang again. He looked down at it, batting away another mosquito before ignoring the call. He went on, “Best to sell it. If anyone would even want this junkheap.”
At the word ‘sell,’ Rain’s entire body turned to ice. She grasped for something to say.
“We’re planting on this land,” Uncle Roy said slowly. He put out a rough hand and cupped the sapling’s bright needles. The tenderness of the gesture brought tears to Rain’s eyes.
Conner snorted. “I don’t know how to plant a tree,” he said. “What do I look like, an arborist?” He attempted a laugh. “I’d probably kill it.”
“It’s Meemaw’s memorial tree,” Rain whispered.
Conner cocked his head, as if a blade of grass had just spoken.
“No one would want this mosquito-infested dump anyway,” he muttered, swatting at his arm. The armpits of his polo shirt were wet with sweat.
“Ticks,” said Roy.
“What?” Conner snapped.
“There’s ticks too,” Roy said. He held up a black speck between pinched fingers. “Check yer shins. Lyme disease ain’t no joke.”
Conner’s eyes widened.
It began to rain.
Conner fumbled at the Mazda key fob in his pocket, pressing buttons. But he was too far away to put the top down. Conner’s watery blue eyes went from the tree in the orange bucket to Ms. Watson’s briefcase. A distant rumble sounded. Conner’s cell rang again. He cursed, turned around one time, cursed again and said, “That’s it.”
Conner swung open the gate. “You can have it!” he called over his shoulder as he raced toward his car. “She was a miserly old bat who threw away her money on scraps!”
Scraps, thought Rain, watching her uncle raise his phone to his ear. Did he mean the land? The stamps? Or me, whispered a voice in her head.
The sleek black top of the car curved up to protect Uncle Conner’s bleached hair from the raindrops. As the Mazda pulled out and hummed away, the air seemed to breathe a long, satisfied sigh.
Roy grunted. “You know why it’s a cedar?”
Rain blinked raindrops from her eyes and shook her head. The summer drizzle was already letting up.
Her uncle stood with loud groan and stretched, arching his back. He gave himself a shake, like a cat waking from a nap, and walked to the spot of the yard that Meemaw had indicated in her will—the bird bath.
“You never knew Pops,” Roy said as he grasped the edges of the stone birdbath with his weathered hands and rolled it to the side. “Yer mama was just a wee thing when he died.” Rain flushed at the mention of her mother, but Roy kept talking. “I was old enough though. I remember him telling this story plenty.” Roy ambled back over to the fence, where he’d dropped some shovels on the ground. He lifted one and pointed the handle at Rain. “Pops was in the navy. He wrote his sweetheart to wait for him. Letter came all the way from Leb-non. You’d have thought it was the moon the way Ma talked bout it. Leb-non.”
Roy said Lebanon like it was just two syllables. Leb. Non. He was still pointing the handle of the shovel at her and Rain realized she was meant to take it. She set down the “Secure-Lock Airline Safe Temporary Cremation Urn” carefully on a patch of clover. She wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans, tucked a sticky strand of pink hair behind her ear, and took the shovel.
“So, I guess she did wait for him?” Rain asked.
Roy chuckled, picking up another shovel. “Yep. Kept that letter too. Envelope and all. Stamp had a little upside-down cedar tree on it.” The bird bath had left a circular hollow in the ground. Roy kicked a rock out of the circle with the toe of his mud boot.
“Upside-down?” Rain asked. “Like, a misprint?” Meemaw had told her about misprints. Stamps printed wrong, the old ones especially, could be incredibly valuable. She always felt a bit envious of that, the way stamps turned mistakes into treasures.
“Yep, that’s it. Misprint.” Roy drove the tip of the shovel into the earth. “Conner started pestering her to sell it aways back. But Ma wouldn’t give. Finally got sick ‘n tired of him and donated it to some historical thingamajig. He never got over that.” Roy turned and spat in the dirt behind him.
Rain dug in silence for a moment. Meemaw hadn’t told her about any of that. Her mom hadn’t been on good terms with her family, and when she passed and Rain ended up at Meemaw’s, it had taken them both awhile to find their footing. There was so much she’d never learned about her grandmother.
“Conner’s an asshole,” Roy said, as casually as someone might say ‘sure is hot out.’ “He shouldn’t’ve said that. Bout the old homestead,” Roy said, jerking his bearded chin toward the house.
Rain shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. She’s not there.”
Roy wiped a hand across his brow and looked at Rain. His eyes were so blue. Bluer than the sky or cornflowers. Like Rain’s eyes. Under the farm dirt, the battered cap and the wild beard, she’d never noticed them before. She’d never really talked much to either of her uncles, not until this all happened.
“I want to say,” Roy said, his drawl slowing down to get each word just right. “I’m glad she had you. Did me good, knowing you were here with her.”
Rain swallowed hard, looking down at the dirt.
“Me too,” she whispered. She meant that she was glad to have Meemaw, glad to have a place like this, despite the dry rot and the termites and overdue bills and the nails that poked up in the floor boards and caught at her socks. “Glad to have her, I mean,” she said, not sure how to put words to the home that had been Meemaw.
Roy nodded and leaned on his shovel. “Was she still talkin bout all them far-off places?”
Peru postage, green llama stamp, 1985. Azerbaijan postage, Anniversary edition, 2001. Rain gave a small smile and lifted her shovel again. “Yeah.”
Thunk. The metal tip hit something. Rain tapped the blade at the spot. It made a hollow sound. Roy leaned in, scraping the dirt away with the point of his shovel. It was a plastic box, faded and caked in dirt. Roy grasped the edge and wiggled it, pulling free a small, square Tupperware. He brushed it off and pried open the lid.
Inside, protected in a Ziplock bag and sealed between two panes of hard plastic, was an envelope. The paper was yellowed with age and the writing faded. But the stamp in the corner with the upside-down cedar tree was unmistakable.
“That’s professionally graded, museum-quality plastic,” Ms. Watson said.
Rain jumped. She’d forgotten the attorney was still here. “Laurel wanted to make sure it didn’t lose value before you sold it. She’s even got a buyer lined up for you.” The attorney smiled and patted her briefcase. “I assure you, with the numbers on this offer, you won’t need to worry about dry rot.”
Roy let out a low whistle. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. Then a grin split his whiskered face. “Ma, you sly dog.”
Ms. Watson held onto the Tupperware while Roy and Rain lifted the cedar sapling from the bucket. They nestled it into the hole. Rain took the plastic urn, unlocked it and sprinkled Meemaw’s cremains around the roots. Before she could empty it all, Roy put out a hand.
“Know what,” he said thoughtfully. “I could look after the homestead for awhile. Iffin you wanted to travel some, what with your new inheritance.” He jerked his chin at the urn. “Maybe take her along.”
Rain looked down. There was still a good amount of powdery ashes left in the bottom. Japan. Peru. Azerbaijan. Lebanon. Rain smiled up at Uncle Roy.
“It says it’s ‘Airline Safe,’” she said, locking the urn.
There were only three of them in the backyard as Rain and Roy patted down the dirt around the cedar tree, but the space around them felt full, like a family gathered at a table. Like a swarm of love. Like the opposite of alone.