All of it became mine that day: the hefty trust fund, my mother’s red SUV, and my stepfather’s ancestral estate isolated amidst the caverns of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was embarking on a 500-mile journey to make solo use of all three. As long as I remained in Boston, I would continue to live my life backward—dwelling on the past and longing for the parents and sister who were dead. Buried. Gone. There was no way I could have known that by turning away from death I would be running into it.
Th day seemed like the perfect time to launch my escape. Th rising sun shot beguiling streaks of crimson through the divisions of the massive brown- stones on Boston’s Beacon Hill, teasing away any threat of “Red sky at morn- ing, sailor take warning.”
In the stillness of the morning, I heard a house door latch, then a husky voice grumble. “Ouch ... ouch ... dang!”
My cousin, Michael, barefoot and clad only in gym trunks and a T-shirt, pranced between stones as he hurried up the steep three-block incline toward me. He was carrying travel snacks, but what I hoped he was bringing me was reassurance of our individual escapes.
“Grace, go! Go! Go! Click your heels and get the Sam Hill out of Oz before she changes her mind!”
Though Michael’s words echoed my resolve, I laughed. He was four inches taller and eight years older, but a million times more sociable and often reminded me of an oversized little boy.
“Auck, Dorothy.” He reached my car, glanced back toward our house, and handed me a zip-locked bag stuffed with trail mix. “You’re too late. You’ll never get to Kansas now.”
I turned to see the subject of his wicked witch allusion exit through the over- sized front door of our ivy-covered brownstone and begin her march up the side- walk with Uncle Phil dawdling behind. Aunt Tish wasn’t toting a flying broom, but she was storming along, face scowling, hands fisted.
Michael grinned. “I guess she’s saving the flying monkeys for me.”
“Maybe. She wasn’t very happy about you leaving tonight for Chile. You sure you’re tough enough to stand up to her?” I elbowed him, knowing he wouldn’t feel the jab. Despite his baby face and wire-rimmed glasses, he had the abs of a bodybuilder.
“No problem. She can’t control me anymore. It’s you who better leave quickly.” “I’m going. Don’t worry about that.” I tossed the trail mix on the back seat. From the front, my dog, Tramp, watched it land and turned back to the front window,more excited about going somewhere than the goodies. He barked twice.
Let’s go. “Good. It will be two years before you’ll get another chance,” Michael warned in a whisper. “I won’t be here this summer to save you like I have before.” “Which is exactly why I’m leaving today. Thanks for coming home to see me off.
She’s not that bad you know.” Maybe voicing such hope would make it so.
Eyes wide, he said, “What? She’s an unstable, soul-sucking—” “Shush.” I stifled laughter. “She’ll hear you.”
He sobered and leaned against my car, crossing his arms. “You’re sure about this?” “The trip? Of course.”
He shook his head. “Th house. It sounds … weird. Like Norman Bates lives there.”
I looked at him, startled. Michael was generally carefree and titillated by the unknown. He loved the notion that people held secrets within themselves.
“That’s crazy,” I affirmed, lest his uncharacteristic concern unnerve me. “Is it? Jack was so close-mouthed about the place.”
“Michael, stop it! It’s only a house. Jack was there three years ago. How bad could it be?”
“Remember. I’m only a phone call away. You have to live there what— three months?”
“That’s what the will says. Then it’s mine to do what I want. Including selling it. And, of course, that’s exactly what Aunt Tish expects me to do.”
“We’ll work that out later. Stick with this charade that you’re fixing it for your senior project, then selling it and moving back to Boston. By the end of summer, my new company will transfer me back to the states, and you can live with me. Just don’t come back here.”
“I know, I know.”
“And keep Tramp close by.”
I shook my head to indicate his concern was unnecessary. But inside, I couldn’t help but wonder if Tramp would be able to stop all threats that I might encounter.
* * *
After stopping to assess her own vehicle and bark orders at my Uncle Phil to take it to the car wash, Aunt Tish reached us. As her eyes scanned my car, Uncle Phil plodded up behind.
Beside me, Michael murmured, “Shoulda’ tied garlic around our necks,” then he donned a Cheshire grin and bellowed, “Good morning, Mother dearest.”
“Nice of you to grace us with your company, darling,” Aunt Tish clucked with saccharin sarcasm and crossed her arms. Her face was stern, her eyes leveled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to sleep your way through the day until your fl leaves.”
“Got in late, Mom.”
She arched a skeptical brow. “If you’re turning right around and leaving for that ridiculous job in Chile, why did you even bother coming home? You could have been working at MacGruder’s, you know. They are the most prestigious firm in Boston.”
“Yeah, Mom, I know.”
“Th certainly would have paid better. Must be nice to have no concerns about money.”
“I haven’t cost you a cent since I turned twenty-one. And if you’re so worried about money, why do you live in this pretentious place? How can you afford it anyway?” He clicked his thumb and middle finger. “Oh, that’s right. You used Grace’s education fund.”
She exhaled into a pout. “You kids are so disrespectful. Why do you do these things to me? Haven’t I suffered enough?”
“Here we go.” Michael rubbed his forehead.
“And look at you. Go put on some clothes. What will the neighbors think?” Her eyes darted to the windows of the lofty brownstones shadowing the street.
“Yeah, Mom. Th ’ll probably think I feed nails to little children since I don’t wear shoes.” He turned his back to her and smiled at me, then withdrew to the back of the car and shook my bike as though to make sure it was tethered securely. I could see his grin from the corner of my eye.
“We’ll talk later about you arriving home one day just to leave the next.”
She turned to me, swapping irritation with sadness as easily as if she’d replaced a straw hat with a ball cap. Wiping at invisible tears, she sniffled and brushed back a lock of frizzled hair, causing her peace sign earrings to sway to and fro. With characteristic dramatic flourish, she took one of my hands and pressed an object into my palm.
“Your keys. Why your mother insisted you keep this atrocious gas-guzzler, I’ll never know. I never did understand her.”
I wrapped my fingers around the keys, feeling the shape of independence. “Thank you.”
It was expected of me to treat this as a heart-rending gesture on her part, even though she had readily agreed to the trip because she wanted the house to be sold as quickly as possible, thereby placing more money into my accounts, to which she had access.
Aunt Tish pouted. “You selfish kids are breaking my heart with these trips.” I kept quiet. Best not to acknowledge her fabricated sadness or her varnished insult.
Receiving no response from her selfish kids, she turned to my uncle. “Philip, I must be crazy. I’m going to be thrown in jail for letting a 16-year-old live by herself ... in some creepy house in a … a … redneck wilderness.”
From the back of the car, Michael groaned. “Aunt Tish––” I began.
Uncle Phil cleared his throat and stood tall, looking for a moment more like the commanding professor he was when teaching Chaucer at Boston College than the ventriloquist’s dummy he played at home for his formidable wife. “Tish, she’ll be fi It’s only for the summer.”
“But it’s so far away from Beacon Hill and civilized society, for bloody sake,” she responded stiffly. “She won’t be around our kind. Those people are so provin- cial. What will my friends think? And that house ...”
Uncle Phil sighed. “The house is fine. The management company said so.” “Yeah, Mom,” Michael scolded from his retreat, “just because the place is old doesn’t make it creepy. Heck, our house is old.”
Uncle Phil shot his son a quelling look. “Jack loved the place. He spent a lot of time there. It must be in good shape. And if it’s not, then Grace will fi it up. Th ’s the whole point of this trip anyway.” He frowned.
“Besides, by the time you were six- teen, you had already been arrested for disturbing the peace and indecent exposure.” “Oh gawd, Pops.” Michael cringed and reached up to rub his temples. “Too
Uncle Phil continued. “You already set up a bank account for her. She has a credit card. She’s got everything she needs. If anyone can take care of herself, it’s Grace.” “Yeah, Mom,” Michael chimed from behind the car. “Crimeny, she’s been taking care of you for the past three years.”
Aunt Tish pushed her tangled hair behind her ears and huffed. “Fine. Obvi- ously no one cares what I think. Just go, Grace. But stay out of trouble. I don’t want any calls from the police.”
I mouthed a “thank you,” to Uncle Phil, shoved my backpack on the heap of boxes lining my back seat, and shut the door. Tramp sat waiting on the passenger seat. On the fl , my cat Chubbs crouched in his carrier, obviously annoyed. On the con- sole sat an envelope containing $5,000 in cash, covered with road maps graphing my way from Massachusetts to West Virginia.
“Aunt Tish, I’ll be fine.” I pulled her into a sideways embrace as I rounded to the driver’s side and opened the door. She was my only aunt and despite her opinions of me, I wanted to believe her capable of feeling genuine concern. “I promise to call every day.”
“Be careful. If something goes wrong, it’s a reflection on me.” As she pulled away, she flicked at my hair. “And for pity’s sake, Grace, do something with that ridiculous hair while you’re there.”
I ignored her. “Remember your dentist appointment tomorrow. I left a note on the fridge.”
She waved that away with a Yes, yes, I know all this dismissal, but I knew she would forget.
Then, because I felt it was expected of me, I looked back toward the house and lied, “I’ll miss this place.”
I voiced some inane comment about what I’d miss, but my thoughts were on the excitement of being me, rather than a dead couple’s orphaned child or Tish Rosenburg’s ungrateful niece.
The goodbyes complete, I climbed into my car and pulled away. I could see Michael standing behind my aunt and uncle, fl his arms in a dramatic don’t- stop-keep-going wave.
“Call your Grandma Sadie, she’s not doing so well,” was the last thing I heard Aunt Tish bark as I descended the hill and rounded the corner onto Beacon Street, took a final glance at Boston Common, and headed toward I-95 South.
The trip underway, I exhaled deeply. I’d loved to have driven into the future without looking back, to have fast-forwarded to summer’s end when Michael and I could plant roots somewhere together. But, there was no shortcut to that time, and I felt dread press in on me as if each accumulated mile were adding a hole to the safety net I hadn’t yet hung in place.