The Celluloid Files: 1
As promised, dear readers, here begins our tale of:
The Celluloid Files: A Serial Story
Meadowhaven, a quiet, sleepy town buried in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, has a reputation for, well, nothing, really. Once upon a time, it was the vacation spot of choice for movie stars, directors, and the common man looking to rub elbows with the not-so-common. Today, it’s more of a wallow for those who can’t let go of past glory. Therein lay my problem.
My aunt, Nora Pingree, lived in Meadowhaven my whole life. I grew up hearing stories about its lights and bustle, about romantic scandals and lives filled with adventure the way some kids get subjected their grandfathers’ war stories. Don’t get me wrong; I ate the tales up like any adoring kid who loved and admired the teller. But one thing I’ve learned about life is that no matter how bright and shiny something seems one day, it eventually fades like a pair of perfect jeans left too long in the sun.
I hadn’t thought of Meadowhaven for nearly ten years, which was about how long it had been since Aunt Nora had come for a visit. Then I received a phone call that, looking back on it, changed everything. Changed it, and pinned Meadowhaven as the center of my lackluster world.
“Hello?” I said into the phone as I dug a pair of old heels from my closet. I was on my way to meet a friend, and assumed the caller was the same-said friend, telling me she was going to be late. I didn’t bother glancing at the number because nobody else ever called.
“Annika?” The woman on the other end sounded familiar but I couldn’t immediately place her voice. “This is Agatha Mellion. I don’t know if you remember me…” I didn’t. “…but I used to travel with your aunt.”
It took me a minute, mostly because I was immersed in the search for the elusive shoe, but then it clicked in a cobwebby corner of my brain. A tall woman, brown hair. Assertive but with a kind smile, even if it didn’t go very deep. “Aggie? I remember you. My aunt’s friend, right?”
I don’t remember what I thought. Probably something to do with surprise visits or a birthday reunion or something. My mom used to get calls like that, totally out of the blue. That’s the kind of woman my aunt was – out of the blue. Whatever I thought, I was more annoyed that I was now running late than concerned anything might be wrong.
“That’s correct. I’m calling on Nora’s behalf, actually. I represent her estate, and I have important information for you. Are you busy?”
“Actually, I was just about to meet someone.” The only thought in my head – beyond how much crap I was going to take from my friend for being late – was, “Aunt Nora has an estate?”
“It’s highly important, regarding your aunt’s will.”
That’s when I stopped and actually heard what she was saying. My shoes were on, my purse sat waiting beside the front door, but I lowered myself onto my bed. It felt like the heater had turned on full blast. “Her will? Did something happen to her?”
“No one told you?” I shook my head and the phone with it. Thankfully, Aggie accurately interpreted my silence and continued. “Nora was involved in a car accident several weeks ago. She passed away at the scene.”
I felt hollow. I may not have seen my aunt for nearly a decade, but that didn’t ease the shock. The one unassailable point of my family life was that there always existed a chance Nora might drop by for a visit. Just because she never made it to my apartment didn’t mean she never would. That her RV wouldn’t be parked outside my building any time I stepped outside. Until now.
“I’m so sorry, Annika,” Aggie said, sounding on the verge of tears herself. “If I’d known that, I would have done this differently.”
“My family doesn’t talk,” I managed to say. That’s always what I say. It’s a lot easier, not to mention less melodramatic, than to declare myself the Prodigal Daughter, practically disowned and at risk of never even receiving one of my mom’s mass-mailed Christmas cards again. It was a long story, and unlike Aunt Nora, I didn’t do stories. At least not personal ones.
“I have noticed that before,” Aggie said, with the forthrightness I remembered from childhood. “I thought certainly, given the circumstances…Well, that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that your aunt cared about you a great deal. She told me her only regret was not being closer to you and your sister.”
This time I nodded with the phone. My throat seemed to have swollen shut to block my capacity for speech.
“I understand if you don’t want to discuss this now. I can call back in a few days, when you’ve had a chance to breathe.” For some reason, that only heightened my need to cry.
Instead of sobbing uncontrollably, I coughed the feeling down and found my voice enough to say, “No, I’d rather have it all at once.” I figured it would be like ripping off a band-aid. Why leak information little by little when I could be done immediately and never have to think about it again unless I wanted to?
I heard her take a deep breath. “If that’s what you prefer. Nora made me the executor of her estate, as I said, and the majority of her will pertains to you. She named you her primary heir.”
Maybe that’s a thrilling prospect to some people, grief of loss aside. To me, it didn’t mean much. “So, what, I own the store now?”
“If you choose to file the necessary paperwork and go through appropriate channels, yes. You may also dissolve it if you wish. But the store is only a small percent of what she’s bequeathed to you.”
“What else could she possibly have to leave me? Did she have expensive family heirlooms or something?”
“She left you all of her property, with the request that you inspect it personally before you decide what to do with it, including the house, the boat, and the motorhome. And there’s her investment portfolio and various accounts.”
That might have sounded like a lot, but all of it, minus the accounts, was at least as old as I was. “So I need to come down there and sort through everything?”
“When you’re ready, yes.”
Like the injured idiot I was, I said, “I’ll let you know.” Then I hung up, switched the phone to silent, and went out to dinner.
It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning with a headache that was more sob than alcohol – though I’d had plenty of both – that I heard the rest of what she needed to tell me. I had to guzzle a tall glass of orange juice and pick at a bowl of marshmallowy cereal for ten minutes before I found the courage to listen to the voice mail she left me.
“There was one other thing,” Aggie said, her voice hollowed out by a bad connection. “I know Nora liked her secrets, so I’m sure you have no idea what it is you’ve actually inherited. There are a few stipulations and requirements involved, but should you follow your aunt’s wishes, in a year’s time you’ll inherit close to two million dollars.” She left me her contact information, but I didn’t hear any of it. Only quick reflexes kept my phone from ending up covered in milk and Captain Sucrose.
So here I found myself, sitting in the comfort of my air conditioned SUV, staring at the same sign that emblazoned the town’s pitiful website.
MEADOWHAVEN: Where the Screen Comes to Life!
Personally, I thought it sounded more like the setting of a horror movie than the quaint tourist village it purported itself to be. I blamed that thought for why I couldn’t seem to take my foot off the brake.
A single, short siren blared at me. I glanced in the rearview mirror and winced at the spinning blue and red lights. Barely to town and I had already drawn the wrong kind of attention.
I rolled down my window as the cop stepped up alongside me.
“Everything all right here, ma’am?” he asked. His voice was hard, full of clipped tones and speed. He kept his reflective sunglasses on, staring at me in a soulless way that made me feel like the Terminator had just asked me if I was Sarah Connor. Physically, he may have been a shadow to Arnie’s enormity, but it didn’t matter. The shirt he wore too tightly over his bulletproof vest made it clear he worked out. A lot.
“Everything’s fine, officer,” I said, painting on my best smile. “I was trying to remember directions.” So it was a lie; how did I explain feeling too much foreboding to enter his town?
Leather creaked as he shifted his weight. His hand was on his gun. That seemed more than a little overcautious to me, and only increased my sense of off-ness. “New to Meadowhaven?” he barked.
I nodded. That seemed obvious.
“What’s your business here?”
“I’m settling my aunt’s affairs. She lived on Sunset Street. Could you direct–” I didn’t get a chance to finish.
“Nora’s niece? I’ll give you an escort. Follow me.” Without another word, he left me staring dumbly at the trees along the road. I hadn’t seen a single car besides the cop for fifteen minutes. An escort seemed unnecessary. But who argues with the Terminator?
The cop kept his lights on and pulled around me. I followed him straight down the center of town. Beyond the haze of rising embarrassment, I took note of quaint store fronts, old-fashioned ball-shaped street lamps, and pockets of people who all waved at the cop car as it passed. I slouched down in my seat until we turned onto the second side street and left the pedestrians behind. We made three more turns onto a gently sloping hill of Victorian homes. Unlike a lot of Victorians I had seen elsewhere in the West, these looked like they had been here longer than ten years. Their porches leaned like little old men who couldn’t quite stand to their full height anymore. Shutters drooped. Most were in need of several coats of paint and more highlights than a California surfer boy wannabe.
The Terminator stopped in front of a house I recognized from photographs. Photos that hadn’t done it justice. Yellows and blues weren’t soft baby pastels. In reality, the house glowed like a canary sunning itself in a robin’s nest. Lacy woodwork wasn’t simply cut, it seemed spun under eaves and traceries by a legion of wooden spiders. No other lawn on the street was as green, and no other yard boasted such a riot of flowers. Ivy climbed trellises, rosebushes hummed with fat bees, and blue, purple, and magenta irises shot skyward like jeweled scepters.
A lump came to my throat as I took it all in. Aunt Nora obviously loved and cared for her home more than I had cared about anything, ever. I would never see her weed around the flowers, fill the bird feeders swinging from a solitary elm, or sip her tea from the pretty little bench on the porch.
Officer Terminator waved me into the dirt space beside the house that apparently served as a driveway. I found it odd Aunt Nora’s RV wasn’t parked there. She lived out of it half the year, and I assumed it stood nearby the other half, just in case whimsy took her and she needed to run off to Niagara Falls for a week.
I felt more than awkward getting out of my SUV. My clothes were rumpled from long hours of driving. My legs ached, in dire need of a stretch. No doubt my eyes were red and puffy from short bouts of crying along the way, and I didn’t even want to think about my hair. I couldn’t just leave a cop standing there waiting for me, though. Rudeness aside, I really just wanted him to quit staring at me.
“Thanks for the escort,” I said, tugging my blouse into a better, still-rumpled position over my hips.
“All in a day’s work, ma’am.” He saluted me with two fingers to his temple. I expected more discourse – on my aunt’s passing, my presence in town, the town itself. Instead, Officer Terminator climbed back into his car like he was hoisting himself into a saddle. He left me standing there without another word.
At least he took his inhuman, cyborg stare with him when he went. That was something, right?
I took a deep breath, closed my car door, and stepped up to complete my duties as clueless, baffled, rumpled heir-apparent.
Tune in next week to keep reading!