The Celluloid Files: 2
(Miss the first installment? Jump back now!)
It didn’t occur to me until I tried the door that I didn’t have keys. This seemed the kind of town where people kept spares under the doormat or tucked inside a corner of the eaves, but I came up empty. There wasn’t even one stashed under the ugly grinning frog statue beside the porch steps. I was about to grab my cell when a red sedan pulled into the space vacated by the squad car. I hung back, one hand on the porch rail and one foot on the first step.
A tall woman, made taller by three-inch heels, flowed from the driver’s seat in an impeccable blue suit that went charmingly with her graying brown hair. When she pushed petite, square sunglasses up to keep her hair out of her eyes, I recognized her. She was certainly older than the last time I’d seen her, with a face of tiny smile lines in all the flattering places. She waved and I returned the gesture.
“Perfect timing, Ms. Mellion,” I called across the small lawn, trying to be casual yet professional at the same time.
“Please, Annika. You’ve always called me Aggie in the past. I see no reason to start with last names now. I certainly don’t need to feel older than I am.” She smiled when she said it, which actually peeled years from her rounded features.
We discussed my drive as she joined me on the porch. Then she produced four sets of keys. “I can’t ever keep these straight,” she said, her mouth bowing on one side. “Nora refused to get rid of ones she didn’t use anymore.” She pointed at a key with a leather head binding. “That one’s to the ’63 Studebaker she had when we were in college.”
“I didn’t know she went to college. What was her major?” It occurred to me I didn’t know much of anything about my aunt, except what I knew from her visits. Niece guilt dragged at my shoulders.
Aggie laughed – a gentle, warm sort of sound a little like the bees buzzing in the rose bushes. “What wasn’t? Oh, here it is.” She held up a key of what looked like polished brass but was otherwise like every other house key I’d ever seen. She unlocked the door and held it open for me.
I stepped into the house that was now mine with a creak of polished floorboards. The air smelled faintly of bread, as if Aunt Nora had been baking the day before. Bread and cinnamon, with a faint trace of something I couldn’t place. Immediately ahead of me sat a steep staircase done in pale wood washed white along the railings. To the left of it ran a long, narrow hallway with a handful of doors leading from it. The tiny foyer held a coat rack behind the door and a short sideboard with an elegant mirror tucked into an alcove on my left. There were no coats on the rack – not surprising for this time of year – but it sported one of the loudest hats I ever had the misfortune to look upon. It looked like it belonged in Gone With the Wind, full of frills and ribbons and wide enough to keep the sun from ever touching a single spot of the wearer’s skin.
Aggie followed me in and dropped all the keys on the sideboard. “I tidied up a little, but otherwise everything is just as she left it,” she said, sounding like her throat was as tight as mine felt. She, however, managed to keep talking. “I imagine you want to get freshened up after your trip. We can talk afterward.”
“Actually,” I said, snagging the ruffled cuff of her blouse before she could escape, “I’d rather get to the details first. My head is kind of spinning and I’d like to make sense of some part of this, if you have the time.”
“You want to know how you get two million dollars,” she said, nodding. “So would I, were I in your shoes. Let’s go into the parlor.” That was number two on my list of questions. Number one was how my aunt had acquired such a huge sum of money without anyone in the family knowing about it. I figured it could wait for a more appropriate time, though.
My aunt’s house had a parlor. A real, honest-to-goodness parlor. It wasn’t very large, more like a small bedroom than something I would consider entertaining guests in, but it was beautiful. Aunt Nora had decorated with period-specific antiques. I knew enough about Victoriana to appreciate the overly flowery settee and the fainting couch facing it. A silver tea service decorated a low coffee table between them, glinting happily in the sunlight streaming through lace curtains. We sat on the settee, which felt more like sitting on a pillow than the hard lump I expected.
Aggie turned one of the dainty china cups on the tray so its handle lay parallel to its companions. “Did Nora ever tell you much about Meadowhaven?”
“Sure,” I said, shrugging. It did nothing to dislodge the guilt. “She told us all stories. How Cary Grant loved to eat at the diner and Danny Kaye danced the night away at the dance hall. We always thought she embellished a little.”
“A little.” Aggie smiled again. This time, sadness crowded the corners of her mouth. “She loved a good story, your aunt. But I meant more modern tales. Perhaps how much the town meant to her?”
I shook my head. “Never anything specific. At least not that I can remember.” I was again reminded of how little attention I paid during my aunt’s visits. Teenagers aren’t known for their attention spans, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done her a great injustice and would now be sent to the corner of hell reserved for horrible nieces. “Anyone listening to her could tell how much she loved it here, though.”
“She did love it. More than it deserves, really.” She sighed. “As her attorney, I am legally bound to follow her instructions. As her friend, I can tell you that she wanted you to have this house – and her estate – more than anything.” Upon seeing the skepticism I couldn’t keep off my face, she nodded and continued, “Yes, it would have been more convincing had she simply left it to you. But as you said, she loved Meadowhaven.” She methodically turned all the cups and the teapot so they faced the other direction.
“What, do I have to share the money with the town? It’s not a big deal, Aggie. One million is more than enough for a girl like me.” I was trying to be funny, but my brain kept telling me to shut up. I didn’t really want the money. I mean, I did – it’s impossible to turn down a monumental sum with the capacity to completely alter the course of one’s life. I would be stupid to refuse it. No, more than stupid. I would be the walking equivalent of an amoeba. Yet there I was, uncomfortable with the idea of taking any money from my aunt, especially now that she was gone.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. Well, if that’s what you choose to do with it. There are many other ways, I’m sure, to carry out the stipulations. And there are still the vehicles and physical assets to consider.” She was babbling, her dark eyes trained on the tea service as her hands continually turned a teacup.
I put one of my hands on hers, stilling her. I didn’t know what it was like to have someone care so much about me, at least not that they let me see. But I could recognize the loss. I’d felt it enough times, after all. “You were her best friend, Aggie. I know it’s important for you to do things like she wanted them done. She trusted you to do it, too, or she wouldn’t have made you the executor of her will.”
There were tears in her eyes when she finally looked at me. “That’s exactly why she left it to you. You’ll know what to do with it.”
I didn’t argue, even though every little voice in my head demanded it. “What did she want me to do with the money?” This idea lightened my heart. If I could do something to earn the money, or use it for a greater purpose, that I could get behind.
“It’s up to you. The stipulations are about how you qualify for it, not about the method you use to do so.”
I smiled at her in what I hoped was a reassuring way that didn’t exude impatience. “What did she want me to do to qualify, then?”
“Nora never felt she could help the town. She didn’t know how. None of us do. I don’t know if you noticed on your way in, but it’s falling apart. Our glory days passed while Nora and I explored the world. The twinkle has gone out of our town and Nora’s greatest wish was to see it returned to its former brilliance.”
“I didn’t notice.” It was true; I had been too busy worrying about the Terminator to actively see the town around me.
“That’s what she wants you to do. She wants you to spend the next year helping the town and its folk to recreate themselves.”
That seemed simultaneously a monumental task and easy as pie. After all, what can’t a couple million dollars do? I didn’t know anything about revitalizing a business let alone a person, but I was sure I could find out. “Who judges if I’ve managed it?”
Aggie took a deep breath and shook out the ruffles at her neck. “I do. It’s a complicated system she left and I don’t know that I could explain it properly.”
“Seems kind of important.” I picked at a raised seam on the settee. “Are there goal posts I’m supposed to hit or something?”
“Your aunt wasn’t the most concrete person. I’ll know it when I see it. That’s the best I can offer you.”
I’ve always hated answers like that; my mother used them all the time. They required trust in the speaker and faith they had your best interest at heart. I wasn’t rich in either anymore. A long, torrid story lay behind that particular state of affairs, one I tried hard never to think about. The vague answer nevertheless sparked off feelings I’d tried hard to bury for years.
I did my best to shove them back in their dark corner of my psyche and said, “So I’m supposed to find a way to make Meadowhaven a place ‘where the screen comes to life’ again, but I have to do it without knowing what qualifies?”
“And you can’t give me any more help than that?”
“I can offer my opinion as you go, but no. Not really anything more.” Aggie frowned, her smile lines shifting to make her seem even more concerned than she might have been. Not that I doubted her sincerity either in wanting to help or our mutual frustration. It was just something I noticed. I notice things like that a lot, ways in which people can manipulate others without trying. It’s the part of myself I hate the most – it makes getting close to people more difficult than it should be.
“So, in your opinion, would starting with the store be a good thing?” I had no idea what sort of business Aunt Nora’s store did on a yearly basis. I always assumed it kept her comfortable and able to take trips whenever she felt like it. No store in such a tiny town, no matter how amazing, could rack up two million dollars in personal wealth.
Aggie shook her head. “You should certainly appraise the store to see if you want to keep it or if you’d prefer to sell it, perhaps to one of your new neighbors. I know Ivy would like to keep it open.” As an afterthought, she added, “That’s Nora’s assistant, Ivy Ambrosia. She’s worked at the store for years.”
“I’ll stop by soon, then.” I quickly considered and threw away about a dozen ideas to refit the store. Nothing seemed plausible. “I guess I need to see the town to really figure it out, don’t I?”
“That,” Aggie said, finally brightening, “is an excellent idea.”
She left me documentation from the will, both for my newly accepted quest as well as my new ownership papers. It took me about an hour of reading after she left to develop a headache and, soon afterward, a rumbling stomach. Part of Aggie’s housecleaning included cleaning out the fridge and freezer. Likely a good thing for spoilage issues, but it left me with nothing to scrounge. One thing I did know about Aunt Nora: she was part of the all-natural breed that grew up before “organic” was a thing. She always insisted on cooking as much from scratch as possible. For me, that meant there wasn’t much of anything in the cupboards, either.
It appeared I was going to have to venture into town sooner than anticipated.
First, I needed a shower. I lugged all of my suitcases inside, which didn’t exactly help my head. The shower, on the other hand, worked wonders. Despite the vintage decor, Aunt Nora had spared nothing in the bathroom. The tub was a pristine, claw-footed monster big enough to fit four people with varying levels of comfort. And my goodness, but it was comfortable! Heaven could be outfitted with nothing better.
Once I was clean, I donned a lightweight top and skirt with a pair of strappy sandals and went out in search of food.