An excerpt from A Ghost on Cozy Mountain

A GHOST ON COZY MOUNTAIN

by Pamela Grandstaff

Chapter One

 

Blythe Buffington was sitting at the kitchen table in her mother’s house, holding one of her family’s heirloom china teacups full of Earl Grey tea, when her daughter entered the kitchen.

“Good morning!” Paige said with such loud false cheer that Blythe winced.

Paige was dressed in a gray sweatshirt with “Brooklyn” printed on it, black leggings, and black clogs so wide they looked like cartoon mouse feet. Her unwashed long blonde hair was twisted up into a messy knot on the top of her head, and she was fair skinned but had gray shadows under her blue eyes. She brought with her into the room the faintest whiff of unwashed armpits and cigarette smoke.

“Good morning,” Blythe said.

Blythe said it in the same way in which she greeted lesser secretaries as she passed by on the way to the elevator that would convey her to the upper, executive floor of her husband’s law practice; that is to say, perfunctorily, as if she were acknowledging the social niceties with as little actual effort as possible.

It was performative. It communicated, ‘I am greeting you because it is the socially required thing to do, not because I am glad to see you or even wish to know you. I smile without showing my teeth so you will know that although I couldn’t care less if you lived or died, I mean you no harm as long as you show me the deference to which I am due.’

It worked with lesser secretaries, lowly associates, and most paralegals if they weren’t sleeping with any of the senior partners. If they were sleeping with one of the partners, she wasn’t required to smile at all, and could even smirk without fear of reprisal. What could they do or say? They were never going to become husbands or wives, for goodness’ sake. No one could afford a divorce these days. Who cared what they thought?

“I heard you come in,” her daughter said. “It was so late that I knew you’d just want to go to bed, so I didn’t come out.”

“Where are you sleeping?” Blythe asked.

Her daughter was fiddling with the espresso machine and waved a hand back toward Blythe.

“I kind of turned the south wing into my domicile,” she said. “It gets the best light in the morning.”

Paige noisily ground some coffee beans and then tipped the grounds into the portafilter.

“How long do you plan to stay?” Blythe asked and was rewarded with a brief pause in the tamping process.

“I don’t really know,” Paige said, and then turned toward her mother. “Is that a problem?”

Blythe shrugged and raised her eyebrows to express how little she cared what Paige did or didn’t do.

“Levi’s on tour this summer,” Paige said as she attached the portafilter into the group head of the machine and tightened it.

The machine dripped espresso into a heavy, oversized pottery cup; the sloppily glazed clay was brown like mud. From the fridge, Paige took watery skim milk, poured it into a metal pitcher, noisily frothed it, and then poured it on top of the steaming espresso.

Holding her cup with both hands, she then turned and leaned back against the counter, as if pausing before leaving. Paige obviously had no intention of sitting down to join her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in almost a year, to whom she never communicated unless absolutely necessary, and then only when she needed money.

“He told me,” Blythe said.

“I didn’t know you two kept in touch,” Paige said and frowned with concern.

“He calls to ask for money,” Blythe said. “I sent it for a while, but now I’ve stopped.”

Paige seemed to take in this information, roll it around in her pea-sized brain, and then dismiss it. She rolled her eyes, not caring that Blythe saw. It was infuriating. How dare such a lowly secretary have the temerity to treat her with such casual contempt?

She quickly reminded herself this was her actual daughter. If Paige had been a secretary, she would have been fired long ago.

“Where is he going next?” Blythe asked.

“It’s not settled,” her daughter said. “If the tour goes well this summer, they may add dates.”

“What about you?” Blythe asked and attempted to leave all evidence of harsh judgment out of the words. It was difficult, but she tried.

“I’m still trying to decide,” Paige said. “There’s a pottery program in Austin that looks tempting. I’ve been personally invited by the director based on my gallery show in Asheville. Of course, there’s always the chance Levi will want me with him.”

She said the last bit with a sigh as if it were an imposition and not the dearest wish of her heart. To her mother, it was a shameful admission of weakness. Blythe felt the contempt rise in her chest and battled with it. Of course, she was still expecting Levi to call. Paige was always expecting Levi to call. That was the main reason she never settled down in one place or to one thing.

Another more dominant reason was that she was a spoiled brat.

Blythe took a deep breath but then held it in, unwilling to let go of her anger. Luckily, Paige prattled on as if she hadn’t noticed the ominous stillness. Blythe exhaled slowly but held on to her displeasure, which, along with disappointment, made up the whole of her emotional relationship with her daughter.

Honestly, Blythe thought, this was all Paige’s father’s fault; one could easily detect his shoddy molecules slouching up and down the twisted ladders of the poorly glazed, mud-colored helix of Paige’s DNA.

“You should see the work I’m doing now,” Paige said. “The director of the program in Austin says it’s the most original work he’s seen in years.”

Blythe thought the director in Austin was probably a middle-aged alcoholic who wanted Paige to do her most original work between the sheets. It had happened before.

“I look forward to seeing it,” Blythe said.

Her daughter hesitated then, so Blythe knew whatever followed would be irritating.

“I kind of took over the garage,” Paige said, not looking her mother in the eye. “It’s a mess, so I’ll need to clean it up before you go out there.”

“Where did you put Mother’s car?” Blythe asked.

“It’s in there,” Paige said with a shrug. “I covered it with a tarp so it wouldn’t get dirty.”

Blythe stretched out her neck to each side, inhaled deeply, and then slowly let that intake of air escape.

“I haven’t hurt her precious car,” Paige said as she recognized this particular sigh for the warning it was. “Not that she’ll ever drive it again, anyway.”

“It’s a vintage car, worth quite a bit,” Blythe said. “We should take care of it.”

Paige rolled her eyes again.

“It’s fine,” she said with a pout.

“When does the Austin program start?” Blythe asked in what she hoped was an off-hand manner.

“Next month,” Paige said. “I need to let them know by the end of the week because I’m his first choice. If I don’t take it, they’ll have to let someone else have my spot; I guess some people need more time to plan.”

With a sharp intake of breath, Blythe reached the tipping point of self-control. It wasn’t always Paige’s stupidity that pushed her mother over the edge; sometimes, it was the small, petty evidence of her blatant disregard for others. Blythe herself blatantly disregarded almost everyone, but she resented seeing it done by her daughter, whom she felt had not earned the right.

“Some people have responsibilities they take seriously,” Blythe said. “Some people don’t have generous trust funds left to them by their grandparents; trust funds with dividends being squandered through a lack of impulse control instead of being invested for the future.”

“Mother,” Paige said, “don’t.”

By bowing her shoulders and crossing her arms, Paige braced herself for the next blow.

“What will you do,” Blythe asked, “when you’re no longer pretty? When you’re no longer the first choice of professors, program directors, and gallery owners? When Levi’s preferred traveling companions are half your age? When you find yourself at a time in life when one might hope merit or loyalty still mattered, only to find out they never did. Not for you, not for any woman.”

“You’re talking about yourself now,” Paige said. “Not me.”

“Mine is a cautionary tale, that’s true,” Blythe said. “Your problem is you lack the intellectual capacity to learn any valuable lesson from my mistakes.”

“Will you sell the house?” Paige asked, desperately trying to change the subject.

“What do you mean?” Blythe asked, even though she knew.

“When Grandmother goes,” Paige said.

She gestured toward the north wing of the house, and then looked at her mother as if she were an idiot. Blythe didn’t put up with that kind of look from anyone, no matter how senior a partner or how self-important their spouse.

“Dig her grave, why don’t you?” Blythe said.

“Well, she’s not going to get better,” Paige said.

Paige’s face flushed a deep red. Like her mother, she often justified her own bad behavior by blaming others for being too sensitive when she was just telling the truth. But also like her mother, she could still be the tiniest bit ashamed.

“When my mother dies,” Blythe said, “I will do with this house as I see fit, and it will have nothing to do with you.”

“I’m an heir,” Paige said. “I should get part of the money.”

“It’s left to me, completely,” Blythe said, in as icy of a tone as she could produce, a sound that would have terrified lower secretaries.

“But that’s not fair,” Paige whined, and Blythe could clearly see the petulant child she had been, and unfortunately, still was.

“Life, my darling, has already spoiled you so badly that receiving anything less than exactly what you want still has the power to shock you,” Blythe said. “Think of all the opportunities you’ve squandered. You could have attended any university on earth. You could have launched a hundred businesses with the money you’ve wasted. And there are others, believe it or not, who would have deeply appreciated a mere fraction of the opportunities you’ve thrown away.”

“I want to set up my own studio,” Paige said. “In Asheville or Austin, someplace more progressive than this. Somewhere artists are actually encouraged and rewarded for creating art.”

“You have a generous trust,” Blythe said. ‘You receive quarterly dividends.”

“But I don’t want to encumber it,” Paige said.

“For when you inevitably fail?” Blythe said and knew at once by her daughter’s flinch that she had hit the mark. “Or when you get bored? Or when Levi calls?”

It was too easy.

“You never support me in what I want to do,” Paige said. “You always think the worst.”

“Because you so often prove my point.”

“I hate you.”

“Join the club,” Blythe said.

If she had been smoking a cigarette, Blythe would have ground it out at this point, on the delicate china saucer under her great-grandmother’s porcelain cup. What else could one do that demonstrated as much finality as that gesture?

“I wish you were dead!” Paige shrieked.

Paige flung her large cappuccino cup over Blythe’s head to the far wall, where it met the plaster with a heavy thunk, fell to the slate-tiled floor, and cracked in two. The hot liquid spattered the table in front of Blythe, but the cup did more damage to the wall than to her demeanor.

Blythe wiped a bit of foam off her cheek and sighed, a deep intake of breath followed by an exhalation full of disappointment and resignation. A weaponized sigh. A slow-motion slap. Meanwhile, Paige’s face screwed up in preparation for a crying fit.

“Your work is as clumsy and unattractive as your childish tantrums,” Blythe said. “You don’t have enough talent to create something delicate enough to shatter.”

Paige gave in to her tears, wailing like a much younger child.

The door swung open, and a timid voice said, “Excuse me, ma’am?”

It was the night nurse, a lovely young woman, eyes wide with trepidation.

“Yes,” Blythe said. “What is it?”

She immediately regretted her tone, so she stood up and faced the young woman.

“I’m sorry for all the noise,” Blythe said. “I was just having a rather heated discussion with my daughter, who seems to be operating under the mistaken impression that she has a right to anything that’s mine.”

To indicate sincerity, Blythe gave the woman a smile that showed her teeth, just a little, and raised her cheeks so that they crowded her eyes. I will not harm you, this smile said. I am a nice person.

“Your mother has passed, ma’am,” the nurse said. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

 

 

While Paige ran crying to her rooms in the south wing, Blythe followed the nurse to the northeast parlor, where her mother’s body lay in a mobile hospital bed. The nurse immediately began tidying up the room.

“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” Blythe said.

The look the nurse gave her was so full of compassion–or maybe it was a pity, and Blythe had lost the ability to tell the difference–that it almost broke through her steely reserve and caused an authentic human reaction like weeping, like the wailing and rending of garments.

Almost.

“I know your family, ma’am,” the nurse said. “Emma Prescott is my mama’s cousin.”

Blythe searched the young woman’s face for any likeness to Emma. Her deep brown eyes, golden brown skin, and shiny black hair displayed the glowing vitality of youth, but Blythe couldn’t see Emma in her features. Then she smiled, and Blythe saw the dimples. Those were Emma’s dimples.

“So, you know more about my family than most,” Blythe said.

“I know my Aunt Emma will be glad to see you,” the young woman said. “She’s always telling us about the orneriness you two got up to.”

The nurse’s smile cracked Blythe’s resolve not to feel anything, or if she felt anything, not to show it. Blythe’s intention was always to give away nothing, but her affection for Emma was still alive, albeit hiding deep inside.

“I look forward to catching up with her,” was all she said.

Blythe sat down at her mother’s bedside and took up her slender, pale, veiny hand, the finger joints knobby from arthritis. Blythe's own hands were just as delicate, pale, and veiny, and she knew they would someday look just like this. How horrible that would be.

She noted the coolness that had set in since she’d held her mother’s hand earlier that morning. Her mother had not been fully conscious for a few days, during which Blythe had scrambled to rearrange her volunteering and social calendar to fit in this visit. Now there would be no death bed profession of love or regret, no confession of guilt, and no acknowledgment of any harm done. Her mother was gone.

Blythe wondered if she had arrived a week earlier would she have learned the answers to all the questions she had, issues which were central to her dread of coming home. Normally, she would have done almost anything to keep from remembering her past, facing the truth about her family, or acknowledging the complicit part she had played in keeping their secrets. It was what kept her away, what kept her sane.

The nurse removed the IV and electrodes, straightened the bedclothes, and combed her mother’s hair. She looked more like her mother now, and less like some disheveled nursing home occupant. Elizabeth Blandingham Buffington would have demanded to be treated with a level of deference and respect usually reserved for royalty, reverence she believed was equally deserved by the Queen of Cozy Mountain.

Such a small person. Such a little, delicate body to have held so much life, so much strength, so many passionately, tenaciously held opinions. Her mother had mastered this town’s vicious class competition using only her pretty features and an innate genius for social maneuvering. And her daddy’s money, of course. Lots of that.

Blythe had loved her and thought she had been loved in return. She had always tried to live up to her mother’s expectations, and she had done well in her own right in large part because that was what her mother wanted. Demanded. In return, she had her mother’s approval and her discreet commiseration over how poorly Paige had turned out. For that, they both blamed Paige’s father, a youthful indiscretion of Blythe’s that had been quickly tidied up and tucked away, only to continue to haunt them through Paige’s continual moronic fecklessness.

Yes, Blythe had loved her vain, pretentious mother, and had the grace to admit (if only to herself) that she had turned out a lot like her. They had grown apart only because Blythe’s second husband was so busy building a career in Boston, from where they rarely visited. The farther away Blythe got from Cozy Mountain, and the more time that passed, the less she could countenance a visit back to the scenes of her youthful folly and betrayal.

Blythe had been essential to Stanford’s career. The social standing automatically achieved through their marriage, buttressed by her family’s money, was inextricably wound up with his remarkable professional success. Stanford had always had the intelligence, cunning, and drive to succeed; he just didn’t have enough cash or connections. Blythe had been looking for a way out of Cozy Mountain, and the handsome and charming Stanford was her ticket.

It had been an ideal match for the better part of three decades, and then suddenly it wasn’t. Blythe, who despised being the last to know anything, who thought all along that it was she who had the upper hand in their relationship, had been gutted to find herself made a fool. Again.

Just as her mother had been.

Returning from her brief reverie, Blythe became aware that the nurse had come to stand behind her, had put a hand on her shoulder. Blythe turned halfway to look up at the smiling, kind face, and the woman removed her hand.

“It was an honor to take care of your mother,” the nurse said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to know her when she was more herself.”

Blythe wondered, then, about Emma’s family relationships, possibly as fraught as her own.

“She would have loved you,” Blythe said. “She loved kind, pretty people.”

The nurse smiled again, pleased at the compliment. Blythe had embellished the truth (her mother only tolerated poor people when they displayed proper manners and quietly did as they were told) but mostly had just wanted to see those dimples again. They reminded her of how much she missed Emma, even if she wasn’t necessarily looking forward to seeing her again.

Blythe put her hand on the woman’s arm, which was warm and firm with the strength and vitality of the young. She found she wanted to warn her, to give her some sage advice, but about what? Life was cruel to everyone eventually, and then continually. You can know that and still not be prepared for how cruel.

A cloud passed over the young woman’s face.

“I need to tell you about the jewelry,” she said.

“What about it?” Blythe asked.

“The other two nurses, on the other shifts, wanted me to tell you about it,” she said. “So, you wouldn’t think one of us did it.”

Blythe felt her mask of reserve slip back into its place, and the young woman took a step back. Blythe attempted a smile of reassurance, but it was no substitute for patience; she had extraordinarily little to begin with, and now she was out of it.

The young woman gestured to her mother’s body.

“Her pretty rings …” she said, and then her voice faltered, and she cleared her throat.

Blythe glanced at her mother’s hands.

“Ah,” she said, and then turned back to the nurse.

“My daughter, of course,” Blythe said and stood up.

“We don’t know,” the nurse said. “They were there one day and gone the next. Me and the other ladies made a report to our supervisor. They wouldn’t have, and I wouldn’t have …”

Blythe stood up, tugged down her shirttail, conformed her posture to her full height, and looked down her nose at the nurse in her best, I-am-the-wife-of-the-most-senior-partner way.

Blythe smiled with her lips covering her teeth, a smile that said, ‘I am being kind to you, but don’t push me.’

“I’m sure of that,” Blythe said. “Don’t give it another thought.”

“Okay,” the young woman said. “We just thought you ought to know.”

“Let me get my purse,” Blythe said and walked past the nurse out into the central hall.

She had left her handbag on the round ebony-inlaid mahogany table that graced the center of the two-story circular foyer.

“You don’t have to pay me,” the nurse said. “We aren’t allowed to take tips.”

“Nonsense,” Blythe said and fished around in her handbag for her wallet.

She found it, but all the paper money was gone.

She looked toward the south wing.

“I don’t seem to have any cash at the moment,” she said. “And I’m sorry about that; I would like to have done something extra for you, for all the nurses. I’ll make sure something gets to you. Through Emma, perhaps.”

The young woman was pulling on her cardigan and looking toward the door, seeming anxious to make her escape.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said. “We don’t expect it.”

“Well, anyway,” Blythe said and went ahead of the woman to open the door to the vestibule, and then the outer door.

“The hospice doctor is on his way, to make it official,” the nurse said, hesitating at the threshold. “I can stay if you want.”

“No need,” Blythe said.

They stepped out onto the porch.

“It’s chillier than I expected,” Blythe said.

“Spring doesn’t know what it’s about here,” the nurse said, and then paused at the edge of the porch, as if she wanted to say something else, no doubt something kind.

“You tell Emma I said to come by soon,” Blythe said.

The nurse left with a wave, but Blythe didn’t watch her go.

Instead, she turned her attention to the east, up to Cozy Mountain, where the rose-colored brick façade of the grand resort was slowly being revealed by the sun rising over its shoulder.

To Blythe, it seemed as if the building held out its long brick wings like arms, as if to say, looking over the valley, “All mine.”

Its central clock tower rose to great heights, the better to watch over the town, searching like a lighthouse beam for any tiny bit of dinginess (or scandal) that might threaten its existence. The better to root it out or sort it out as fast as possible.

It was always the best thing for everyone, really.

Blythe wanted a cigarette for the second time that morning and realized with surprise that she hadn’t smoked in over twenty years. Maybe she’d start again. What was the point of trying to preserve herself when she had long ago attained the highest peak of attractiveness and was now careening down the other side toward knobby fingers and a hospital bed?

She went back inside and found Paige standing in the doorway to the south wing.

“Did Sherrilyn leave?” she asked.

“Was that her name?” Blythe said. “I couldn’t remember.”

“Snob,” Paige said, the accusation plain in her voice, the smirk of condescension on her face before she turned and went back to her lair.

Blythe opened her mouth to protest that it had been late when she arrived, that she had been shocked at the difference in her mother’s appearance, how old and frail she had become in just a few months. The night nurse had introduced herself, had said her full name, but Blythe had not bothered to remember it, had let it go in one ear and out the other, just as if this young woman had been a temp covering the reception desk, not worthy of remembrance.

She could admit only to herself that it had been plain old class prejudice; she had been steeped in that bitter brew from birth. Her daughter just knew a soft spot in which to stick the knife—a chip off the old block, no doubt.

Vicious.

 

 

Emma arrived just as the men from the funeral home were about to put the gurney holding Blythe’s mother’s body into the hearse. A Cozy Mountain Resort guide led his walking tour across the street to give Blythe some semblance of privacy. Despite the guide’s best intentions, the tourists all stopped and gawked from across the way.

Out of the corner of her eye, Blythe saw someone get out of a car that had just parked at the curb, in one of the spots clearly marked “residents only.”

Blythe watched the men roll the gurney into the back of the long black station wagon, close the tailgate, and get in the car. As they drove away, Blythe turned, and there stood Emma, watching it go.

They stood apart and regarded each other, and in that way that life had of proving the truth of a cliché, time seemed to stand still.

Then they embraced, but Blythe made it brief.

“Maybe I should have waited for you,” Blythe said.

“No need,” Emma said. “Your mother and I were never close.”

“That was her fault,” Blythe said. “Not yours.”

Emma shrugged.

“Water under the bridge,” Emma said. “How are you?”

Emma.

 Her eyes were such a dark brown that you almost couldn’t see where the irises ended, and the pupils began. There was a familiar sprinkling of brown freckles across her nose, cheekbones, and the warm golden-brown skin of her arms. The only signs of aging were a few wrinkle lines near her eyes and mouth. She was wearing her dark hair in a mass of springy curls, something she would never have done back in high school when having straight hair was the style required by everyone in their peer group. Now there were some warm copper highlights. The natural style suited her, and if her figure was a bit fuller, well, that softness suited her as well.

Emma was wearing a soft linen shift dress under a cotton cardigan, all in shades of chambray blue, with navy espadrilles on her feet. Her handbag was a woven wicker tote with wooden handles. She looked comfortable in herself, with herself, and Blythe, who was continually monitoring her own appearance, and comparing it to those she competed against (as if the right outfit could actually wound her competition), envied that.

Blythe could barely stand to maintain eye contact with Emma, so kind and compassionate was her expression. It felt to Blythe as if Emma saw into her soul, and unlike everyone else, found something worth loving still alive in there; a vulnerability Blythe hadn’t been able to hunt down, the better to drive it out and kill it without hesitation.

“Look at your hair!” Blythe said, and Emma’s face flushed. “I mean, I love it. I just haven’t seen it like that since you were a little girl.”

“It’s a lot easier than what my mother used to do to it,” Emma said.

“Well, it suits you,” Blythe said.

“I asked how you are,” Emma said. “You didn’t answer me.”

“Come in,” Blythe said. “I’m freezing out here.”

“Air conditioning has thinned your blood,” Emma said.

“No doubt,” Blythe said.

 

 

Blythe did not act as the hostess for Emma in this house. Emma made the coffee while Blythe searched the pantry for something to eat. She settled on crackers to go along with some cheese she found in the fridge.

“I haven’t been to the grocery store,” Blythe said. “I only arrived late last night.”

“The deli trays will be forthcoming,” Emma said. “By dinner time, you’ll have more food than you can eat.”

“Perhaps you and your niece will join me for dinner,” Blythe said. “I met Sherilyn, a lovely girl.”

“It’s Sheryl Lynn,” Emma said. “She said you wanted to tip her.”

“I’m sorry,” Blythe said. “I hope I didn’t offend her.”

“You didn’t.”

“I’m completely cognizant of the fact that I can be rude without realizing it,” Blythe said. “And you know what a snob I was raised to be, but it’s never personal.”

“We have thick skins in our family,” Emma said. “It comes in handy when you grow up here.”

“But you came back,” Blythe said.

“This is my home,” Emma said with a raised eyebrow. “My family is here.”

“Your mother’s family, you mean,” Blythe said.

“I mean all of my family,” Emma said.

“We won’t go into that now,” Blythe said.

“If it’s up to you, we won’t go into that ever,” Emma said, but she was smiling.

“I’m sorry,” Blythe said.

“You keep apologizing, but none of it was your fault,” Emma said.

She turned to face Blythe, then waited until she made eye contact.

“We’re all right, Blythe Elizabeth. You know that.”

“I could have visited more,” Blythe said.

“I could have come to see you,” Emma said.

Blythe sighed.

“Paige is here,” she said.

“Oh Lord,” Emma said. “How long is she staying?”

“Not for long,” Blythe said. “Once the will is read, and she is disappointed by her bequest, she’ll be off.”

“I heard she ruined your mother’s garage,” Emma said. “Almost burned it down with that kiln thing she built.”

“I haven’t been out there to look,” Blythe said. “I don’t want to see it.”

“Time enough for that,” Emma said. “I’ll help you clean it up enough to sell.”

“I don’t know if I will sell,” Blythe said.

Emma looked surprised.

“You’re not thinking of staying …” she said.

The doorbell rang, and Blythe slumped in her chair, groaning.

“I’ll get it,” Emma said. “You sit there, drink your coffee, and get yourself together. I’ve got some time before I have to go to work.”

Blythe was grateful to let Emma take over. There was no one in her life whom she trusted more. Not her husband. Once, maybe, but not now. No one else in her life would presume to tell her what she should do. Blythe had made sure of that.

Considering how poorly Emma and her mother had been treated by the Buffington family, it was a miracle she would still speak to Blythe. They had been best friends as young children, parted by Blythe’s parents as teenagers, and then went to separate colleges, also arranged by the Buffingtons. Over the years, Blythe had made the barest of efforts to keep in touch, yet there Emma always was when she needed her, still willing to be her friend, as if no time had passed. When Blythe looked back over her life, Emma was the only person she could think of who didn’t want anything from her but friendship. Blythe had lived long enough to know how rare that was.

 

 

A man’s voice could be heard in the foyer, and Blythe, hoping it didn’t belong to either her current or ex-husband, went out to meet her fate. She was relieved to find it was attorney Jed Kruger.

“I need to talk to you about your mother’s estate,” he said. “I’m the executor, as you know, and there are things we need to discuss.”

“I’m off to work,” Emma said. “I’ll check in tomorrow. Call me if you need anything.”

She kissed Blythe on the cheek, a real kiss, and then squeezed her upper arm before she left. Blythe felt warmed and heartened by the gesture and was embarrassed to find tears in her eyes. She quickly blinked them back with a sniff and told the concerned-looking Jed, “allergies.”

Paige emerged from the south parlor, outfitted for a run. When she saw Jed, she stopped.

“Do I need to stay for this?” she asked him.

“No,” he said. “This just concerns your mother.”

Paige seemed to hesitate, no doubt trying to decide whether to insist or not. Ultimately her weak, conflict-adverse nature won out, and she left the house.

“Do you mind sitting in the kitchen?” Blythe asked him. “I was just having coffee, and I would be glad to offer you a cup.”

Jed thanked her and followed her into the kitchen, where he placed his briefcase on the kitchen table and opened it before he sat down.

“First of all,” he said. “Condolences from my partner and myself. Ernest would have conveyed his personally, but he had a tee time with the governor, and he didn’t feel he could cancel. You understand.”

“Of course,” Blythe said as she poured him some coffee. “It’s a beautiful day for it.”

She sat down across from him and waited while he fumbled with files, dropped documents out of them, and then spent what felt like an inordinate amount of time resorting things. Blythe was reminded again of what an amateur show his law firm was and attempted to keep her patience.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve always had butterfingers.”

He laughed as an encouragement for Blythe to laugh, but she only smiled tightly.

“So,” he said. “I’ll read the will after the service, which will be?”

Blythe shook her head and shrugged.

“In a few days, I expect,” she said. “Honestly, I haven’t even thought about it.”

“Here is a list of her wishes as far as the service and obituary go,” he said as he handed her an envelope.

Blythe opened it, withdrew the two pages folded inside, and gave them a cursory glance before setting them aside.

“I’ll have to get back to you,” she said.

“Please let me know as soon as it’s scheduled,” he said. “I’ll read it at a time which is most convenient to you, and then I’ll follow up with formal letters.”

“Can you tell me if anything has changed since the last will she signed?”

“Not a thing,” he said. “You know what your mother’s intentions were; those still stand.”

“Good,” she said. “I’d like to make some changes to my own will, and I want to sign off on the new version as soon as possible.”

“Of course,” Jed said. “Your family members have been clients of our firm for a long time, and we are glad to serve your legal needs, especially considering your husband is an attorney of such stature.”

“I don’t want my husband involved,” Blythe said. “That’s why I keep my will and trust management with your firm.”

“Well, we appreciate the honor,” he said. “I’ve got a copy of your will here if I can find it. I brought it just in case you wanted to review it. Oh, yes, here it is. I’ll just get a pad out and write down the changes you want.”

Jed dropped the file, and papers slid in every direction on the slate floor. Then, after he picked up and sorted out all the pages, he couldn’t get his pen to write. With a deep sigh, Blythe retrieved a pen from a kitchen drawer and handed it to him.

She looked through the latest version of her will and told him what changes she wanted, including page and paragraph numbers, in an attempt to help him get it right. Jed wrote illegibly on his legal pad, and Blythe had little faith he would get any of it right. Her last will had left most of her money to two different charities on whose boards she served, and she left those plans in place. There had also been a generous bequest to Stan, which she now canceled, and replaced him with a third charity on whose board she wished to serve, thinking this would smooth the way. Paige would inherit the balance of Blythe’s trust, to be combined with her own, and there was nothing Blythe could do about that–the family trusts were all set up that way.

“The last change I want to make concerns this house,” Blythe said. “I know Mother left it to me completely, and I have decided not to leave it to Paige.”

“That is a big change,” Jed said. “Are you planning to sell it?”

“I might,” she said. “I want you to write it so that if I don’t sell it before my death, it goes to my new beneficiary, but if I sell it before I die, the bequest is replaced by $500,000.00.”

“Certainly,” he said.

“Good,” she said. “I don’t want either my husband or my daughter to get their hands on this house.”

“You aren’t … worried about anything, are you?” Jed asked.

“No,” Blythe said. “Just vindictive.”

 

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