I dozed, peacefully drooling on the notes from my philosophy class when the phone began its merciless shriek. My heart stopped. Notes, pens, and phone scattered across the floor in my shocked and befuddled response.
Groggy, I rifled through the refuse until the lighted face of the phone gleamed from under the bed. Grabbing it, I cursed the caller. The ID announced, “Carol.”
“Who the hell is Carol and why is she calling at—” I checked the time in the upper left corner of the phone “—four p.m.?” I rubbed the grit from my eyes and checked the ID again. Oh, that Carol. I wonder what she wants.
Cousins and the only children of twin mothers and abusive fathers, we called whenever we needed support. Her father, murdered outside a saloon near the rail yard and mine a miserable drunk, we spent many hours commiserating about how we hated our families.
“Ed. Did I wake you?”
“No. I was reviewing my philosophy notes.”
“You were asleep. Sorry, but I need to talk to you.”
She sounded agitated, upset. “Okay.” She’d gotten a call from some lawyer about the estate of our recluse Aunt Zoe. “Estate?” I didn’t’ know the stingy old bag. No one did. “Why you? Why not one of her sisters?”
“They hate each other as much as they hate Aunt Zoe.” Zoe was the elder of the three and they hadn’t spoken to each other in years. “The lawyer said Aunt Zoe named me as executor of her will.”
“Wow!” I drilled my left eye with the knuckle of my index finger. “Did you know her?” Jerk, what a stupid question.
“Yeah. Sure. We’re best friends. No!”
“Sorry. I’m not awake yet. How can I help.”
“Thanks. I knew I could depend on you.”
I chuckled. “I’m all you’ve got.”
“You don’t know the half of it. So, the lawyer told me she has a storage unit with all her belongings, and we need to sort through them.”
“Oh, God. Was she a hoarder? I can see it now, digging through mounds of useless crap, rat dung, and spoiled food. Better get us some hazmat suits.”
Carol barked a sudden laugh. “You watch too much TV.”
“Not with the classes I’m taking. Just an overactive imagination from being sequestered in this room.”
“Well, here’s your break. Can you meet me out at the U-Haul on Tate Street Saturday, say, about ten a.m.?”
“That’s awfully early.”
“You can handle it. I want to get through this quickly. I’ll treat you to lunch.”
“I’ll be there. Saturday, ten a.m.”
I set the phone down and sat cross-legged on the bed, rubbing my eyes. Although neither of us lived at home, our weird, dysfunctional family dynamics haunted us at every turn. Three sisters who hated each other and seldom spoke. The older sister, Zoe, a recluse, and the others are trapped in undesirable situations. My parents hated each other and should’ve divorced years ago but couldn’t figure out how. Carol’s father dead and the killer still unknown, her mother was angry at everyone and everything, but unable to figure out why. We had temporary hope and happiness when we connected. Zoe? I’d never met her. I’d heard she was caustic and could squeeze a nickel until it squealed.
Saturday rolled around and I overslept my alarm. After wolfing down some toast, I grabbed two lattes from Starbucks and parked outside the storage unit. Relieved that I didn’t see her car, I slumped back in the seat. One of the building’s hallway doors opened, and Carol sauntered up to the driver’s window. I opened it about an inch.
“No. I’m five minutes early.”
“I got here fifteen minutes ago. You’re late.”
“Cut me some slack. I got you a latte.”
“Oh! How sweet. I wish you were my brother.”
“Am I forgiven? Even though my clock said I was early?”
“Yeah. Let’s get this done. Thanks for coming.”
“You know I meant it when I said, ‘I’m all you’ve got’.”
“Yeah. I thought of that too,” she sipped her latte, muttering, “. . . so strange . . . and they’re sisters.”
“Well, let’s do this.”
She held up the pinky finger of her left hand as I got out of the car. “Together?”
“What? We’re back in grade school?”
“C’mon. Best friends. Secret pact.” She waved her pinky.
I hooked hers with my left pinky. “Always.”
Our secret pact, as unique as the port-wine-colored birthmarks tracing the length of our joined fingers, a sign we told all our classmates that made us special with secret powers and, when joined together, unbeatable. A stupid kids’ game that became our trademark and kept us close.
I followed Carol down a long hall of articulated doors. She stopped at one of the middle units, pulling a key from her pocket and stuck it in the pad lock.
“It still bothers me,” I mused.
She held the lock but didn’t turn the key. “What?”
“Why would someone you never knew, make you executor of her will?”
She grinned. “My reaction to sorting through the old bag’s hoard was bad, but you should’ve heard mom’s. She gave the lawyer hell and hung up on him. How’d your mom react?”
I gave my shoulders a lift and squeezed my face with an exaggerated frown. “Beats the hell out of me. If you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known.”
She pinched her lips together and shook her head. “Family dynamics. She must’ve really been pissed at our mothers.” The padlock snapped open. “Ah, you ready for the big reveal?”
The door rolled up. We stood there with our mouths open.
“You’re kidding?” Carole shifted to one foot, tapped the toe of the other, and curled her fists against her hips. Every exhale snapped from her lips with a soft puff.
I cracked up. “You certainly needed help.”
We stood in the doorway of the mid-sized locker, me snickering and Carol puffing, and stared at two steamer trunks standing on end in the middle of the otherwise empty unit. No hoard; no clutter; nothing but those two steamer trunks.
Carole glanced at me from the corner of her eye and told me to shut up. Then she patted her hands together. “Well, you take one trunk and I’ll take the other and we’ll get out of here in half the time.”
“Whatever floats your boat. We still on for lunch?”
“You and your appetite.”
And with that, we strolled up to the trunks and opened them. Years of memories spilled out in a flood of photos and letters and toys. We stood there in stunned silence.
“What is this?” The overwhelming sight numbed me. How do we sort this out? Where do we begin? “Well—” I dropped to my knees “—I guess we start diggin’”
Carol nodded blankly and followed my lead. Together, we sifted through the life of this discarded person, someone we knew nothing about, awed at what we touched, held, and read. Out of this confused detritus of an enigma’s life, blossomed a persona of love and caring that eluded everyone who thought they knew her. In this kaleidoscope of wonder we buried ourselves until I stretched and glanced at my watch.
“God almighty, we’ve been sitting here for almost six hours! It’s a quarter to three.”
Carol sat back and crossed her legs, holding what appeared to be a letter. “Hey,” her voice broke, and large tears began to roll down her face, “you got to read this.” She held it out to me. The paper shook in her hand.
A large knot twisted in my stomach. For an instant, I stared at her swaying hand. I didn’t want to read whatever was written on that page, but an urge somewhere deep inside forced me to take it. At first, I only saw Carol’s eyes and the strange, frightening focus they held, but then the words, written in a graceful script, sucked the breath from my lungs and left me gasping. My hand flopped in my lap; my arm weakened by the weight of the message. I stared at the trunk’s latch, gathering my thoughts, and fighting to still my pounding heart. I turned to Carol as a new wave of tears crested in her eyes.
“You’re . . . you’re my sister?”
She answered with a rapid nod and hid her quivering lips behind her hands.
“My God. But why? How?” I waved my hand toward the contents of the open trunk. “I think this is starting to make sense.” I pushed aside the clutter, digging toward the bottom corner and stopped. I pulled out a birth certificate—mine—and held it up with two fingers like it was radioactive. She held a similar one up to me. “The certificates list Zoe as our mother but no father.” Deflating thoughts of illegitimacy flooded my mind, stopped by Carol’s words.
“Read the second page of the letter,” she said, her voice thinning.
Bile-laced fear lashed the back of my throat, but the sour taste receded, overwhelmed by my need to know.
The muscles in my throat swelled. I couldn’t read the words for the blurring in my eyes. Blinking, a wet saltiness spilled into my mouth. I looked at Carol, my fading words pushed across my lips in whisps.
“He . . . he . . . he raped her.”
“Twice! The bastard raped her twice!” Carol threw her arms around my neck. “I’m glad the son of a bitch is dead. I could kiss whoever killed him.”
We relished the comfort of each other’s arms and, finally, withdrew, sitting back and inhaling languid breaths, drained of emotion and strength.
I wiped my face with my shirt sleeve and gazed at Carol. “Well—” I chuckled, “—sis, what now?”
She leaned her head back and took a deep breath, puffing out her cheeks and blowing the air toward the ceiling. Then her head slumped against her chest. “I don’t know . . . bro.” The metal walls of the unit rattled with shrieks of laughter.
I slanted my head toward her. “But . . . I mean, he was your . . . sorry. I mean, our father raped our mother.”
“Well, until now we knew him as my father.” She chuckled. “What a fucking shock. But, I mean, did our mothers know? Is that why we ended up with her surrogate twin sisters?”
“I don’t know and to tell you the truth, I don’t care. I’ve wondered why I never felt a connection to my parents. Now I know. They aren’t my parents.”
“Here’s the clincher.” I pulled a photo of Zoe from the pile. She must’ve been around twenty. I handed it to Carol. “She was quite a knockout. No wonder your dad couldn’t keep his hands off her.”
“Take a look at her pinky.”
Carol brought the photo closer, then studied her own pinky and then mine. “Same birthmark.” A dark sadness pained me, and my eyes blurred. Carol brushed a tear from my cheek. “I know what you’re thinking. I would’ve liked to have known her, too.”
We wrapped our arms around each other and pulled each other close like the lost brother and sister we were.
I kissed her cheek. “Thanks, sis, I needed that.”
“Uh huh.” She took the letter and reread the second page. “What’d you make of this last paragraph?”
“I didn’t get that far.” She handed it back and I read it a half-dozen times. “‘Remove the tape from the anchor.’” I glanced at the trunks and the piles surrounding us. “I don’t know. These trunks must be a hundred years old. I don’t have a . . .” I stopped, staring at the interior of my trunk, then Carol’s. Scenes of the early nineteen hundreds decorated the interior linings. Famous destinations adorned the lining of her trunk and famous cruise liners adorned mine. “Wait a minute.” I emptied my trunk and scrutinized the lining. The Titanic sat at anchor in one corner. I shined the light from my phone and a five- or six-inch piece of clear tape, starting at the Titanic’s anchor chain, gleamed. I pulled the tape, revealing a tear in the fabric behind it. As I peeled the fabric back, Carol squeezed closer, peering over my shoulder. I heard her breath stop. Beneath the fabric was a thin brown envelope and another photo. I glanced up at her.
“Let’s see’m, damn it!”
I pulled the photo out.
Carol gasped. “This was taken at the Roadhouse, where my dad was murdered.”
I brought the photo closer and squinted at the two figures at the bar. “Shit! Those two at the bar are our dads.”
“Yeah, and by the looks, yours is about to punch mine.”
“He really looks pissed.” I flipped it over. “It’s dated.”
Carol snatched the photo from my hand and choked a soft gulp. “Jesus! That’s the night he was killed.”
I’m sure my face reflected her look of confusion. Like is it possible? Did my dad murder yours? She tilted her head and squeezed the tip of her tongue between her lips. She must’ve read my mind.
“It’s possible. But why?” she murmured.
I gave her a half-hearted shrug. “I don’t know. Jealousy?” I sensed my eyes suddenly widening as the idea sunk in. “Crap! Were they fighting over Zoe? Did my dad have designs on her, too?”
“Only one way to find out . . . ask him.” Carol jumped to her feet, but I grabbed her arm before she could leave.
“Wait.” I held up the brown envelope. “We haven’t opened this yet.” She knelt as I tore the envelope’s flap and removed two sheets of paper. “I don’t think we need to ask.” I waved one in front of her nose. “This is a sworn deposition.” Carol took it and read it. “Everything we need to know is there. How your dad raped her and threatened her and . . . that my dad didn’t kill him.”
“I don’t understand. Why did she wait? Why didn’t she go to the police?”
“Who knows. She’s gone.” I rubbed the stubble on my cheek. “But I have a theory.”
I shook my head. A warm flood of satisfaction swept over me. “Nope. He was always a suspect, and she knew he was in a miserable marriage. Hell, I was there. I saw it. Obviously, he didn’t know she knew . . . whatever it was she knew, but then maybe she got more satisfaction out of watching him wallow in his own personal hell. Drinking his life away. Broke. Living with a woman who hated him. I know mom wouldn’t leave him because she wanted him to be miserable. Maybe she knew, too. He wouldn’t get a divorce because all sorts of shit would come out about him.”
“Wow. You got to be angry to wait that long.”
“Holy crap!” My mouth dropped.
I held up the second sheet. “This is her will.” Carol sat up. “Did you know she was married?” She shook her head. “Thirty-five years! Her husband died six years ago, which explains your choice as executor, I guess.”
“Well! What’s in the will?”
My saliva turned to sand. I shoved the paper toward her. The more she read, the wider her eyes became. She slapped the palm of her hand over her mouth.
“Is that a dollar sign with five zeros behind it?”
My head bowed toward her in two, quick, stunned nods.
Carol broke into a hysterical laugh. “She left everything to us!”
“Where did she get it!”
“Who cares? If that ain’t revenge—”
I turned a sober look her way. “What now?”
It took her a long moment to contain her laughter. Then it sank in. “Get a lawyer?”
“That’s a good start.” I clasped my hands around hers. “We’ve learned a lot today. Good things about you and me. I just hope her will, what she gave us, won’t come between us.”
She smiled. “Never. Let’s talk options with the lawyer and” she surveilled the residue of Zoe’s secret life, “come back and clean this up later. I don’t think I can handle anymore revelations.”
“No truer words were spoken. How about pizza and a pitcher of beer?”
“I’m ready.” She pulled the padlock key from her pocket. “I’ll lock up and meet you outside.”
“Oh.” I stopped and picked up a small envelope and handed it to her. “This was clipped to the back of the will. It’s addressed to you.”
“Me?” She turned it over in her hand.
“Take your time. I’ll wait outside.”
Carol rolled the door closed and locked the padlock. She put the key in her pocket, opened the envelope, and removed a photo. Her breath hung in her throat. She dropped it like it burned her fingers and stumbled toward the exit, but then turned, ran back, and snatched it from the floor.
She stared at it, mumbling, “That’s me—at the Roadhouse.” She shot quick glances up and down the hallway and collapsed against the wall, rubbing the back of her hand across her lips. Closing her eyes for a moment, she rolled her head from side to side and then read the notations on the back of the photo. Dated the night her father died, the sweat ran down her neck in rivulets and her flesh turned cold. Below the date, eight words, penned in Zoe’s graceful script, closed the door to her enigmatic life.
“‘I know you killed him. He deserved it.’”