Joe Krebs and I stared at one another like two small dogs issuing a half-hearted challenge over an old ham bone buried too long in the mud. Neither of us could win, but it was a way to pass the time. I caught Scotty DeLuca cutting his eyes over at the clock, as if its sweeping second hand wouldn’t be within two Mississippis of where he left it last time he looked. Monica Scott twirled her hair with her non-dominant hand while struggling to muster the will to move a pencil with the other. Yricka Gaines yawned, closed her composition book slowly, and laid her pencil off to one side, straightening it until it aligned perfectly with the top of the top of the desk. As if to test her knowledge of physics, she cocked her head to one side, reached out with thumb and forefinger, and gave the pencil a sudden spin. It flew right off the desk and clattered to the floor at Jimmy Hanson’s feet. His eyes never left the page in front of him as he kicked it away with a slight grunt of irritation. Did I just imagine the smile, equally slight, from under that sullen brow, half hidden beneath a parted curtain of auburn hair?
It was my turn to look towards the clock and fidget with my pen.
At long, long last, the bell rang. I wonder if any of the students realized that their teacher did not enjoy test days any more than they did? The still silence, punctuated by the occasional cough or grating of chair legs on linoleum as bored butts shifted to give a cheek or an elbow a rest, was hardly the highlight of my morning. I couldn’t even read a trashy novel to pass the time; it would shatter the illusion that I was watching them like a hawk, lest one of them allow their eyes to stray to their neighbor’s blue book. In reality, the rare cheater among them had only to look to the graffiti so artfully scribbled on their denim-clad thighs, or surreptitiously glance at the temporary tattoos they’d inked on the insides of their wrists and palms, as if my generation hadn’t thought that one up. Fortunately, such miscreants were not common here at Cliffside High. These were good kids, for the most part.
I loved them all. I remembered when I loved teaching, and as the bell zapped me from my reverie, I realized it was a distant memory. Now, I only stayed as if I were saving my charges from an even more boring fate wrapped up in blue-haired meanness or a youthful dependence on pre-packaged lesson plans and half-assed experiments with cutting edge teaching methods. These kids didn’t have cutting edge needs; they had hungry little sponges for brains that sometimes reeked of the weirder parts of YouTube, like stale dishwater. My job was to wring out the muck and drop them into the bright, sudsy world of books and lively discussions.
And mercilessly strained metaphors. I was fully engaged in that task.
“Language and Literature” was a tepid hybrid of two courses the Ancient Once called “English” and “Literature,” respectively. In their heyday, they were given double the time and resources; the current version was now innovatively smushed into a brief 50 minutes a day and the district-mandated textbook was a colorful and wholly inadequate introduction to hackneyed classics and basic rules of grammar. I didn’t blame the kids for hating everything about it; they were as bored with it as I was. I gathered up my things and left with the class. It was lunch time for them, coffee in the teachers’ lounge for me. I toyed with the idea of taking up smoking again, but let the thought pass just as quickly as it came.
“Janie, there was a call for you.” The department secretary, Lydia Armitage, extended her hand in a sharp, horizontal salute and handed me a tiny pink Post-It flag marked, “While You Were Out.” She clicked her heels as she executed a snappy, 180 degree turn and strode to the door between the lounge and the office. I read her impeccable scrawl: “Meet at Sawyers, Bailey, and Krebs today. Two o’clock. Don’t forget, this time.” Who said I’d forgotten, last time?
“Lydia,” I called out. “I’m leaving early. Get Don to cover bus duty, please.”
I supposed I’d put off meeting with Gran’s lawyers as long as I could. I knew, in my head, that she had died, but as long as her will went unread, I could imagine that it was all just a horrible mistake. Gran had died as she lived, adventurously. No one was quite sure where, but her houseboat had come unmoored in the Florida Keys during a freak storm, and vanished in the area they call “The Bermuda Triangle.” I liked to think she’d found the Lost Continent of Atlantis, reunited with Grandpa, and was now sipping Jamaican rum punch somewhere tropical and warm. The more mundane truth was that the Coast Guard had found bits of her boat, a small waterproof safe designed to float, and several life vests, including a purple one emblazoned with her name in gold lettering, near Vieques. With that as evidence, she was declared legally dead. They had not searched long for a body, but there was no one who believed that an eighty-seven year old woman could survive the squall in the Atlantic’s rough and icy water. Even I had to admit it was unlikely, despite knowing Gran to be a strong and enthusiastic swimmer and an avid surfer into her mid-seventies.
At least she hadn’t died in bed. Gran would’ve hated for anyone to pity her as an old invalid.
I checked in with Ms. Jones, the receptionist at Sawyers, Bailey, and Krebs. She directed me to a small conference room and brought me coffee and cookies. I recognized the cookies from Lacey Flowers’ Bakery, and nodded thanks. You don’t turn down Lacey Flowers’ homemade chocolate chunk and black walnut cookies – not if you’re sane and know what’s good for you. The coffee was strong and black. “Would you like me to bring you some cream and sugar?” asked Ms. Jones.
I knew James Gordon Krebs from parent-teacher conferences. Darienne Sawyers and I had gone to high school together; I’d have voted her most likely to leave this one-horse town without a backward glance, but here she was, heading up our largest law firm. Which is to say she had an office on Main Street and very little competition. Beau Bailey had been Gran’s favorite; he was the lawyer she chose to draft her will. I was, apparently, the sole beneficiary and executor of her estate. I knew nothing about being executor of anything. Gran was the only family I’d ever known. I wished fleetingly for a sister, or for my mother to come back from the dead, if only to deal with all the fiduciary complexities of death. I didn’t want this responsibility. I wasn’t particularly eager for any “inheritance,” either. I’d have preferred for Gran to hop out of the law firm’s broom closet and yell, “Punked ya, kid! Oh, the look on your face!”
Gran had a wicked sense of humor, but she was never mean. There’d be no jumping out of broom closets. Or airplanes. Or houseboats. Ever again. I knew, then, that her laughter was what I would miss most.
Beau Bailey opened the door to the conference room and greeted me warmly. “Jane.” He smiled and shook my hand, reaching for my chair and nodding for me to sit. I could see why Gran liked him.
“Jane, I’ll be brief. As I mentioned when we spoke on the phone, you are the sole beneficiary of your grandmother’s will. She did not have any debts to settle, so there’s very little that you need to do as executor of her will. She did have one unusual directive…”
“Oh?” I thought back to some of the games we’d played when I was a child, and I sensed that “unusual” might be an understatement. “Do tell.”
Beau nodded, and began to read aloud: “Janie, I always intended to take you to Farnsworth Manor one day. It was handed down from your Grandfather’s side of the family, and there just never did seem to be a good time for us to go. You know what they say about ‘good intentions.’” At that, I cracked a smile.
Beau continued reading the will. As it turned out, Farnsworth Manor was located on a promontory the locals called “Satan’s Finger,” overlooking a roiling chasm at the base of the rock into which the tide poured and from which it spewed in a great fountain twice daily – a phenomenon that had been dubbed “The Devil’s Cauldron.” Apparently the road to Hell was paved with good intentions, after all, and even from beyond the grave, Gran and I could still share a laugh.
The Manor had stood empty for thirty years. As a single mom with a little girl to care for, Gran had moved to a charming, cheerful little town and found a job. Technically, she didn’t need the money. Grandpa had left her well-off, but it wasn’t in her nature to be idle, even if she was rich. She had an example to set, now, too. There would be no Cinderella fantasies for her girl; Gran would raise her daughter to be strong-minded, strong-willed, and fiercely independent. Gran had envisioned her daughter as President – or maybe a judge on the Supreme Court. My mother had other plans. She wanted to be a pilot. Or maybe a storm chaser. An astronaut, perhaps.
Gran thought that the cliffside manor house was simply too gloomy to be good for an energetic, growing girl. Her first visit to the house had raised goosebumps on the nape of her neck. She had grown to love it, but it was no place for a boisterous, happy child. Children needed sunshine and a community noisy with other children.
“It’s just the sort of place for you to write your novel, Janie. I know you’ll come to love it, as I did.” Beau paused in his reading. “Now comes the hard part.”
“Just spit it out.” I knew there had to be a catch.
“You must make a choice, Janie: Live in the manor for a year, and you will inherit the house, the grounds, and an annuity of $30,000 a year. Or sell the house, take a lump sum payment in cash, and try to forget about the last adventure we’ll never have together.”
“What’s the house worth?” I asked. Even asking the question felt like a betrayal; I felt it the moment the words left my lips.
“About $1.7 million,” said Beau. He tried to hide his disappointment, but I saw it flicker in his eyes like a guttering candle flame. “I have to be honest, though. I’m not sure $30,000 a year is enough to make it livable.”
I studied Beau’s expression. He’d never make it as a trial lawyer in the big city; he was too easy to read. “She really hoped I’d live there a while, didn’t she?”
“Any idea why it mattered to her?”
“Not a clue.” Beau stared at me with the best lack of expression he could muster. It wasn’t good.
“A HINT?” I pleaded.
He shook his head. “Not until you decide.”
Unlike the hapless heroines of the gothic romance novels I used to devour when Gran was done reading them, I was neither penniless nor without prospects. I would have to give notice at work and finish out the semester. I couldn’t just leave the kids at the mercy of a substitute indefinitely. I had a lease to break.
Gran had never asked for much. If this meant something to her, how could I ignore that?
Gran had made provisions for the house to remain unsold for the period of three years, so that I would not have to simply drop everything and run off to live an inconvenient fantasy. Because no matter how they tell it in the novels, putting your real life on hold for a year is a damned nuisance. I considered saying no.
Thirty thousand dollars and a house in the middle of nowhere – correction, perched on the tip of Satan’s Finger, poised to stir The Devil’s Cauldron – would not last as long as it did a hundred years ago. And there was no brooding, dark-haired lord of the manor waiting to sweep me off my feet (no doubt after getting on my last nerve and causing me to think he’d murder me in my sleep). If I said no, then according to Gran’s will I would get a nice chunk of cash and break her heart. She didn’t actually write “break my heart,” but I knew Gran and I knew she wouldn’t have made it sound like an irresistibly spooky dare from one of our favorite books if it hadn’t been important to her. And so I sighed. “Fine. I’ll…go live in the creepy house.” One last adventure. I could survive anything for a year.
Live-blogging a novel is sort of the equivalent of karaoke for writers. Only the courageous, drunk, or daring ever try it. I’m not drunk.
I’m off to a late start, due to some intense shoulder pain – and yes, I’m getting it checked out this week. I was tempted not to mention it at all – part of my “no excuses” policy when it comes to NaNoWriMo, but I’m worried, and if it comes down to a choice between working or NaNoNoveling, work wins. If it comes down to a choice between rest or losing mobility, rest wins. I can’t type fast enough to out-type this one, and that scares me a little.
But my other motto is “Suck it up, Buttercup!” so here we go!
You’ll find this link at the top and bottom of subsequent chapters – it’s a dynamically generated Table of Contents, so it will get longer as the story grows! I’d hate for anyone to jump into Chapter Ten, first, then get lost finding their way through the story.