At 7:55 a.m., Donovan pressed “15” and the elevator door slid shut. The elevator machinery jerked clumsily. He felt his stomach float as the elevator began its ascent. Fluorescent light beamed from overhead. His diamond cuff links refracted light in blues and greens upon the metal elevator walls. The elevator rumbled and climbed. Donovan could see his unmistakably large nose in the metal reflection.
Two weeks ago, Donavan received an unexpected phone call. It was surprising for three reasons. First, his cell number changed weekly and routed to a burner phone—only his personal assistant, Rachel, had his current number and only authorized persons were able to reach him. Donovan still didn’t fully understand how the mystery caller got his number, but that wasn’t even the weirdest part. Second, the caller offered Donovan $10,000 if he met the caller in Duluth, Minnesota at 8:00 a.m. on June 5 on the top floor of the Lake Superior Hotel. “Wire the money and I’ll be there,” Donovan said. He hung up, thinking it was some kind of joke. Third, and the oddest part of it all, the money actually arrived a few minutes later.
The grumbling elevator reminded him of how, twenty years ago, he was slumming it as a political science undergrad student. He could barely pay his bills then, but now things were different. Nowadays, $10,000 for a half day’s commitment was a pay cut, if anything. But back then, he worked two jobs and studied full time. He donated blood. He donated plasma. One time he even donated semen, but that got a little weird--the intake nurse had handed him a donor cup and copy of Hustler magazine when he checked in.
Donovan had more money than sense. Yes, this venture to the top floor of the Lake Superior Hotel was less about money and more about unraveling a mystery, this curious game. Deep down, he hoped it was some kind of surprise party for him, but his birthday was in September.
The elevator pinged and the door opened. Construction debris peppered the elevator egress. The entire floor was incomplete, just concrete support pillars and steel beams. A circle of chairs lay in the center of the empty level. Sawdust speckled Donovan’s Armani shoes.
“Ah, Mr. Arrington,” a voice said from beyond view. “So glad you could join us.”
“Please, call me Donovan,” Donovan said, echoing through the empty space.
A lanky young man, probably in his late teens, appeared from around one of the concrete pillars. He was a hipster. He wore a vest sweater with a button down Oxford shirt, dark jeans, and had a surprisingly full and well kept beard.
“My name is Alexander. Thank you for coming, Donovan,” he said.
“You’re welcome, Alexander. What can I do for you?” Donovan said.
“Please, have a seat. The others will be here shortly,” Alexander said. “Care for some tea?”
“Yes, I’ll have—”
“Earl Grey with a twist of lemon,” Alexander said.
“Of course,” Donovan said. He walked to the chairs in the center of the room and sat down.
As Alexander brought Donovan the cup of tea, the elevator pinged. Two young women and one young man walked out of the elevator. Alexander hugged each of them. As they walked to the circle of chairs, Donovan first thought the four of them were two couples in some iteration. He couldn't tell who was with whom, though. But as they walked closer, Donovan could see an unmistakable familial resemblance between the four of them.
“Family? Cousins?” Donovan asked Alexander.
“Siblings,” Emily said. “Well, half-siblings actually.”
Donovan stood and shook Emily’s hand. He also greeted Stewart and Alice with a nod.
Donovan figured this was probably some kind of secret estate consultation. Maybe these half-siblings had a grandparent that was dying and they all were getting cut out of the will or something like that. Quibbling "issue," as children are called in legal parlance, were about as common as eating oatmeal for breakfast.
Stewart, Alice, Emily, and Alexander huddled out of earshot and spoke lowly. Then, the elevator pinged again. Seven more people arrived this time. The group exchanged greetings and hugs. One of the new arrivals entered the room with elbow crutches, the kind of crutches one would use if she had endured a lifetime of disability. “Emma!” the rest said and hugged her.
As the eleven approached Donovan, he arose from his seat. “Shall we begin?” Donovan said. He spoke in an authoritative, professional tone. The eleven each took a seat in the circle. Emma sat last and placed her elbow crutches below her chair.
“So, tell me, how can I help you?” Donovan asked.
The eleven giggled. Donovan could hear from their collective snicker that they were all related somehow. They all laughed the same.
“You haven’t figured it out yet?” Alexander said.
Donovan flipped his left cufflink back and forth. A single bead of sweat ran down Donovan’s brow.
“I’m an estate lawyer, not a mind reader,” Donovan said.
“Mr. Arrington, um, I mean, Donovan, sir, it’s nice to meet you,” Emma said. Tears welled in Emma’s eyes. Fred, seated next to Emma, put his arm around Emma and embraced her. Fred was teary eyed, too.
“What is this?” Donovan said. He stood up.
“It’s OK,” Alexander said. “We’re all OK with you, with this, with us. We just wanted to meet you.”
“OK, but . . .” Donovan stalled.
“Donovan, you are our father,” Alexander said.
A zing like a bolt of lightning traveled up Donovan’s spine. He knew the resemblance he had previously seen in the eleven because he saw that same nose in the mirror every morning. He knew it was true but didn’t know how. He sunk into his seat.
“How?” Donovan said.
“We’re in vitro kids,” Cassidy said. “You were the sperm donor for us.”
“But eleven of you?” Donovan said.
“Oh, there’s more,” Emma said. “We’re just the ones who wanted to meet you.”
“I . . . I’ll refund your money,” Donovan said. “Here, here’s $1,000 in cash and I’ll reverse the wire.” Donovan reached into his inner pocket and pulled out his billfold.
“No,” Emma said. “This isn’t about money.”
“I . . . I . . . I don’t understand. I’ll create a trust for you all. Yes. All of you. Whatever you need, I’ll give you,” Donovan said. His hands were shaking.
“Well, we won’t stop you,” Alice said. The eleven snickered again, all with the same laugh.
Donovan stood and opened his arms. The eleven, with Emma joining last, all stood and embraced him. “I’m sorry,” Donovan said.
“Don’t be,” Emma said.
Donovan pulled out his phone. “Rachel, I need eleven million dollars from our operating account to be held in trust,” he said. “I’ll explain later.” He hung up.
Donovan took two steps toward the elevator and turned. “I’ll be in touch,” he said. A tear rolled down his face. He walked to the elevator, pressed “1” and descended.
The eleven sat in the circle in silence. From the fifteenth floor, they heard Donovan’s limo depart.
Emma stood up and pranced to the window. She didn’t need her crutches and bounded as if she had never even needed crutches. She removed her prosthetic nose. Alexander removed his beard and the rest removed their cosmetic prostheses. They laughed, but each laughed differently this time.
“What a sucker,” Emma said.