Sarah, Returned--Chapter Two (A Steemit Original Novel)
I step off the stairs and into a wall of people. My God. Matt said a lot of people came, but this is crazy. The funeral was small and purposefully private; only me, Matt, Karen, and a handful of Grandma’s closest friends attended. That was Grandma's idea. Ever the planner, she committed every detail of what she wanted her final arrangements to be to paper long before either Matt or I were born. Her instructions were even notarized; Grandma left nothing to chance.
Even the larger, more boisterous celebration of life now going on was part of her design. Following her orders, Matt and I made this event an open house for the whole community, and I think the entire town may actually be here. People fill every nook and cranny of the downstairs rooms, with stragglers spilling out onto the front porch and the back deck. Each guest from the tiniest baby to the most withered and stooped elderly dame or gentleman is impeccably dressed, as if they are coming to pay their respects to a celebrity. In a way, I guess they are. Elizabeth Sarah Otis Morgan was a name everyone in Dover recognized, either through her charitable work, her involvement in various lineage and historical societies, her church, the community choir she so loved, or just out and about in the community. She made herself highly visible in the decades before dementia overtook her.
I suspect some of our guests may be here to merely to sample the free catered food, or to get a look inside the historic Morgan mansion. That's not surprising. However, there are genuinely sad faces, and even tears, on far more people than the obvious curiosity seekers. Matt was right: Grandma did have a lot of friends, far more than either of us ever knew.
Is it weird that the vast majority of them are complete strangers to me? I've lived in this house for 13 years, and see only two, maybe three faces I recognize. Grandma was not a recluse; I remember her going to all kinds of social events when I was little. Every now and then, she brought me along, which was fun for a little girl. Mostly, though, she went to her events alone, and never brought anyone back to the house with her.
Not the house. My house. It’s my house now. Well, mine and Matt’s. Such a weird thought. It will take some getting used to.
It’s a shame the weather isn’t warmer, or we could have had this whole event in the spacious back yard. Giving people access to the pool and hot tub would have been fun, and everyone wouldn't be squeezed into the house like a giant can of sardines. Unfortunately, April is still pretty chilly in New Hampshire, leaving us with little choice but to host it inside.
Outside, I could have slipped away from Karen with ease, losing myself in the crowd. Inside, I have few options to avoid her without it being obvious I'm hiding. As we step into the sea of mourners, I'm pushed shoulder to shoulder with her, with no clear path to move away. That's just super. Now, I feel like her hostage.
Thanks to the open floor plan, she can monitor wherever I go down here, except the bathroom. But, if there wasn't a crowd, I wouldn't be forced to stand at her side. My first inclination is to turn around and go back upstairs, but I know if I do, she will follow. She will start up her "You're mentally unstable, Sarah," act again, laying it on thick for Matt's benefit. Matt is so wrapped around her finger, he might allow himself to believe her. At least, he might begin to have doubts about my sanity. I can't allow it. While outsiders might ignore Karen's accusations toward me, they will listen to Matt. He's known me my whole life. If he says I'm unstable and need to be evaluated, people will listen. The people of Dover, my friends and acquaintances I've known forever will start wondering if he's right. The entire town might turn against me. I can't let that happen.
So, I’m stuck here for the time being. At least I’m dressed for it. I never changed out of the formal outfit I wore to the funeral. Karen’s presence in the house wound me up, and I didn't feel secure taking it off in favor of more comfortable clothing. It’s a good thing, because everyone here looks like they’re going to a gala at the White House. Oh yes, Dover’s glitterati have come out in force, along with the common folk, all dressed in their finest.
I fit right in, which I wouldn't if I'd changed into a sweatshirt and leggings like I wanted to. I'm a fan of casual, comfortable clothing, and definitely not the dress-up type. My outfit isn't so stiff as to be unbearable, which is a blessing considering my current circumstances. The dress I've got on is ankle-length black cotton, with long sleeves and a scooped neck; Matt got it for me for Christmas two years ago. I've accented it with black hose, black low-heeled dress shoes with closed toes, Grandma’s diamond drop earrings, and a gold chain necklace with a single square cut diamond pendant. I look suitably dressy without overdoing it, like some of the people here. And, the all-black look is perfect for this event. I mean, I know it’s traditional for the family to wear black at these things, but because everyone else here besides Matt and Karen are wearing at least some color, my relatively muted, elegant look allows me to blend into the background. This pleases me, because I’m really not in the mood for idle chit chat with people I don’t know.
At least I took off the black knit sweater when I got home, as the crush of people in my house is generating quite a bit of heat. Any coolness coming in through the two open doors is being absorbed by the crowd long before it reaches me. I may have to push up my sleeves pretty soon, unless I can maneuver my way toward one of those doors. I doubt it will happen. Karen has me in her clutches and she knows it; she won't allow me to get more than arm’s length from her side for the rest of the day, unless some sort of miracle occurs.
A few heads turn as I establish myself in the crowd. Eyes light up in recognition. Super. Here they come. The well-wishers. I brace myself, an ache forming in the pit of my stomach as another wave of longing to return to my room washes over me. They start walking toward me, jostling through the crowd to get a chance to speak to Elizabeth Morgan’s only granddaughter.
Soon, I find myself shaking hands, thanking strange faces for coming to pay their respects to my grandmother, listening politely as people I couldn’t pick out of a lineup tell me how they remember holding me or playing with me when I was a baby, and how proud Grandma was to show me off to her friends. I actually do appreciate them being here, but it’s taxing. Karen's presence mere inches from my side makes it more so.
I eventually manage to sidle away from the stairs and lean against the closest wall. In a bit of good luck, my new perch happens to be right by one of the catering tables. A young man of about my age, maybe a few years older, and wearing a crisp, white uniform, dutifully serves up plates of hand-sliced pies and cakes to anyone who approaches. If they ask for it, he puts a dollop of whipped cream on their treat, a handful of fresh berries, or both. Excellent. At least I'll get fed, and with the emotional stress I’m under, having a handy supply of sugar and chocolate nearby may be what gets me through this thing.
Karen is sticking by my side like she’s superglued there, and where Karen goes, so does Matt. Therefore, the three of us are now holding court at the dessert table. Standing side by side against the white plaster wall, we make a natural receiving line on the way to the sweets. Every spare inch of furniture was long-since claimed before I came downstairs, and I silently thank God I’m wearing comfortable shoes, because it looks like I’ll be standing in them for a while.
I'm positive Matt is happy with this arrangement. To him, it looks like his intended bride and I are finally becoming close; he’s been pushing for a sisterly relationship between Karen and me since he introduced us. I almost feel bad for him, knowing it's never going to happen. Almost. Karen's close presence is currently making a difficult situation positively unbearable to me. I want a fly swatter to swat her away, or better, a crowbar to pry her off my shoulder, where she's taken up residence.
I briefly imagine breaking her legs with a baseball bat so she can’t follow me anymore, and a small smile flickers across my lips. I’d never do something like that, of course, but seeing it happen in a daydream is cathartic.
The afternoon passes in a blur of shaking hands, hugging, and thanking strangers for coming. Guests continue to flit in and out of my house for most of the day and well into the evening. So much for Matt thinking it wouldn't go on for more than an hour or two. Some guests stop by briefly, offer their condolences, and leave. Others spy people they know and break off into groups scattered about the adjoining living and family rooms, separated only by an open walkway. These are the ones who stay all day, lost deep in conversation with their friends. I’m glad Matt and I sprang for the best caterer in town, Lady Godiva’s Fine Foods and Entertaining, as they came ready to feed an army. Refills of the tables are required numerous times. Over the course of the afternoon, the main course and side dish tables are re-loaded at least three times, the snack table, with its loose fruits, vegetables, cheese, crackers, and olives, is replenished twice, and the dessert table is magically piled high with cake, pie, eclairs, brownies, and cookies a full four times. I don’t even know how many gallons of tea, water, and sparkling cider are used up and re-filled once more. The dessert table is the most popular, and people come and go again and again, taking small china plates and cups back to their talkative groups for more sustenance.
Matt is standing closest to the table, with Karen between us, and if it weren’t for him, I might have collapsed from hunger at several points, because Karen apparently established an unspoken rule that none of us were to eat while entertaining. Matt didn't get the memo, and he knows what I like, so whenever I need a bite, I lean forward, catch his eyes, and nod expectantly toward the table. A plate of something sugary and delicious magically appears in my hands soon after. Karen is making a point of looking straight ahead whenever Matt's eyes are on her, so he never notices her disapproval each time he does it. I'm the one who is treated to her sharp glare whenever I lift a snack to my lips. It's actually kind of fun, taunting her this way. Each plate of dessert that lands in my hands, I count as a victory over tyranny.
By six in the evening, we’ve been at this for about five hours, and I’m exhausted. As a natural introvert, being around large groups of people for long periods of time drains my energy; I need my “alone” time to recharge. It’s not that I’m shy. I’m just super sensitive to the energy of others. If a crowd is too big, which this one is, it drains me. Karen’s close proximity, and the awful, negative vibes radiating off her, do not help. As the guests blessedly begin to dwindle from dozens to just a handful of lingerers, I gradually put more of my weight against the wall to keep myself upright. Matt is getting tired, too, and he's a committed extrovert. If Matt is wearing out, then it really has been a trying day. If Karen still thinks Matt and I are cleaning the house after everyone leaves, she is sadly mistaken. Tomorrow, yes, certainly. Today? No way. I'm drawing another metaphorical line in the sand on this issue.
Honestly, what can she do? It’s half my house, and I’m a legal adult. She can't force me to clean if I don't want to. I don’t care what kind of scene she makes. I'm sticking to my guns on this, whether Matt gives in to her or not. It isn't crazy or unreasonable to leave a mess out for a little while after a day like this one. Anyone would agree with me. On this, at least, I'm safe. If she wants the house cleaned so badly, she can do it herself. As long as I say no in front of Matt, and do it with sweetness, she’s got nothing.
As the last few guests finally clear out, I gear up for the cleaning conversation. It occurs to me I better set my phone to record it, just in case. In fact, I should probably record any conversation I ever have with Karen, public or private, from now on. Evidence is a wonderful thing.
As I’m imagining how the showdown with Karen about cleaning might go, an elderly man, probably in his mid-80’s, walks up to me out of nowhere and takes both my hands in his before he even says hello.
“Oh!” I gasp, surprised at the unexpected touch. I look down at his hands, one eye still on Karen, and note that they are remarkably unwrinkled, the fingers straight and strong, not gnarled with arthritis like many men his age, and there are no age spots, either. He even has a tan, which is surprising, since we’re barely into spring. This man is old, but his hands, at least, have aged astoundingly well.
“Sarah, my sweet child,” he says, his voice low and smooth, carrying natural power without having to be loud. “It is so good to see you again.” He means it. He's also gazing at me lovingly, like I'm a long-lost relative. That’s so strange. No one I met today acted like they truly knew me, despite the innumerable "I held you as a baby" stories I listened to this afternoon. This man is different. I examine him more closely, Karen still in my peripheral vision, trying to jog my memory. Do I know him? I can't say for sure. Something about him seems familiar, but I can't put my finger on it yet.
Let’s see. His hair is white, but full and almost lush, without a single hint of a receding hairline. The rest of his skin is as spotless as his hands, and he stands tall and ramrod straight, not stooped over like so many of the elderly visitors who came earlier. He carries no cane and doesn’t shake, so he’s not feeble. If it weren’t for a mild sprinkling of wrinkles around his eyes, he would look like a 30-year-old whose hair has gone prematurely white. Even his wide green eyes sparkle with the bright light of youth. It’s actually a bit unnerving.
As I study him (and he graciously lets me), I become aware of a tugging sensation in the back of my subconscious, telling me to pay attention. So, I do. Never ignore your subconscious. It's your personal guide to the world, and it always steers you in the right direction.
“Do I know you, sir?” I ask with respect, continuing to allow him to hold my hands. Matt and Karen are talking to Grandma’s minister and his wife now, so not paying attention to this tall, elegant gentleman in front of me.
“Oh, my darling,” he laughs, sounding for all the world like he just walked off a college campus without seven or eight decades separating him from graduation, “I wouldn’t expect you to remember me. It’s been too long. But, I know you and Matt quite well. In fact, I was there when each of you were born. I’m your great-uncle Jacob, your Grandpa Morgan’s brother.”
Okay. Mind officially blown. Surely this can't be right. Grandpa Morgan died before I was born, when Matt was only five. If he had a brother who was still alive, you’d think Grandma would have mentioned it. If he's telling the truth, why didn't she tell us? Why did he never come to visit when we were little? Was he at the joint funeral for my parents and Matt’s? Does Matt remember him? How long has it been since he’s seen either of us? And, what about Grandma's frequent assertions that Matt and I had no other living relatives besides her? Was that a product of the dementia? Maybe he really is my great-uncle and Grandma just forgot him. So many questions.
I must look thoroughly dumbfounded, because my supposed Great-Uncle Jacob smiles at me with genuine affection. “I know what you’re thinking, Sarah. I didn’t abandon you or your grandmother. Quite the opposite. She requested I stay away after she took you and Matt into this house after your parents died. What happened to them was so tragic, how they all died together on that trip to Colombia. I told them mudslides were common in the summer, and to be careful, but they wanted that jungle adventure so much. I never forgot you and Matt. I even sent cards and gifts for your birthdays and each Christmas over the years. Lizzie never gave them to you, did she?”
Lizzie. My grandmother’s nickname. Short for Elizabeth. I haven’t heard anyone refer to her that way since my parents were alive. It’s what my mother called her.
“No, she didn’t,” I say, shaking my head, bewildered. “I’m sorry.” I’ve got to get Matt’s eyes on this man, to know if he’s for real. If he's who he says, Matt will remember him.
“Oh, no need to apologize." He waves a hand, indicating it's nothing that should concern me. "I knew it was a long shot that she would give you anything I sent, and I was positive she would never tell you about me, but I wanted to at least try. Trying was the right thing to do. Lizzie had class enough to not return those gifts to me, at least. I’ll give the old girl that. Probably donated them to charity, knowing her. They weren’t fancy gifts, just little trinkets to let you know your great-uncle remembered and loved you. I know you two already had everything you needed.”
“Maybe she was concerned he would try to lay claim to your inheritance," a familiar voice hisses.
Of course. Karen. Naturally, she would take interest in a handsome, elderly stranger giving me so much attention. She abandons Matt to the preacher, sidling up so close to me our shoulders are touching. It chills me right through to the bone. The women is pure evil, I swear.
“Shut up,” I snap at her as quietly as I can manage. The last thing I want is for her to offend Jacob. He actually could be a long-lost relative. With so few left, I don’t want her rudeness to send him stomping away in a huff, never to return.
“It’s okay,” he says gently, patting me on the shoulder with one hand, while continuing to hold both of mine with the other. “It’s a natural assumption. Your grandmother was a wealthy woman, and I haven’t been around in 15 years. Well, except for your parents’ funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable for her to wonder. This is Matt’s fiancée, Karen, I take it?”
“Yes, it is,” Karen says coldly. She crosses her arms over her chest, the defensive body language unmistakable. “If you’re not here for the money, then why come at all, after all this time?”
“I’m quite comfortable on my own, I assure you,” he says, addressing both Karen and me. “I’ve got plenty of money. I don’t need Lizzie’s. It was hers and hers alone. Not even my late brother could lay claim to it without her consent. She brought most of it to the marriage, and the two of them built it from there, under her management. And now, Sarah, it belongs to you and Matt, as it should.”
“Then why are you here?” Karen demands, acting for all the world like she’s a security guard and I’m a dangerous criminal who might escape with a newfound accomplice. And, where is Matt? I want him here to identify Jacob for me, and be a buffer between me and his betrothed.
Oh, great. He’s wandered off to the back door with the minister. Perfect. The one time all day he leaves our side, and this is the moment he chooses.
“As I said, Lizzie wouldn’t let me come before,” Jacob says, a shadow of sadness crossing his face. “Now, I can. Believe me, I have no agenda. I just wanted to let you know I exist, that I never forgot you, always thought about you, and always loved you. Still do. Also, I had to offer my condolences. I know how much you two must have loved your grandmother. She was a tough old bird, and we never saw eye to eye once the entire time we knew each other, but I always respected her. Lizzie was a force of nature.”
“She certainly was,” I agree, smiling, happy to get a word in before Karen can insult him again. “Thank you for coming. If you don’t mind my asking, do you have any other family? Matt and I were under the impression we had no more relatives left. We’re both only children, our mothers were only children, and our dads were brothers who died together. Everyone else was supposed to have passed on when we were little, or before we were born. Your appearance is a surprise, to say the least. If there is any more family out there, I’d love to know.”
“Why?” Karen growls, a world of menace dripping from that one word. “It would only be more people to try to take a piece of your inheritance.”
“Like you?” I bite back before I can stop myself. Karen’s eyes fly wide, but Jacob answers before she can issue another threat about psychiatric evaluation. She'd probably cite paranoia this time.
“My wife died a couple of years ago, your Great-Aunt Rebecca. Ah, she was the true love of my life, a real gem of a woman. I wish you could have met her. Matt did a few times, but I don’t know if he remembers. I have a son, Christopher, who lives in California, and he has a son and daughter of his own, both about your age. They live out there with him and their mother, but they come to visit me sometimes. I talk to them on the phone almost every day.”
“So, we have three cousins?” I gasp, excitement creeping into my voice in spite of myself. The idea of other relatives is thrilling. It means Matt and I aren’t the last of our kind. It’s wonderful. I mean, no one wants to be the last of their kind. And now, we're not.
“You do,” he says, eyes twinkling. “I hope you can meet them one day. They know all about you, but it’s not quite the same as meeting in person, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” I agree, and make a silent wish that we can all have a real family reunion soon, here or in California. It doesn’t matter where. I just want to meet my secret relatives. “It’s great to know, though. Why didn't Grandma want you to contact us? You seem perfectly lovely.”
I hope I’m not being rude, but it’s kind of an important question. Grandma was amazing, the most gentle, loving, accepting person I ever knew. What could have possibly happened to make her keep the only remaining branch of our family away from us?
“I’d be interested in that piece of knowledge myself,” Karen mumbles, staring daggers at him. “Although, I can guess.”
I roll my eyes. Jacob sees it. Could Karen be any ruder?
Jacob stares at Karen a long moment, sizing her up. It only takes him a second. I see it in his dazzling green eyes the moment he gets what she's up to.
Thank you. Finally, it's not just my word against hers.
Jacob sighs heavily and holds my hands a little bit tighter. “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I was never entirely sure. Lizzie was a private lady, as you know. Didn’t talk about herself much. To this day, I still have no idea how she and my brother met. I asked him a few times, and he always said Lizzie wanted to keep it between them. More special that way, he said. After your parents died, she wanted to pretend everything before her marriage never happened, like she just popped up fully formed out of the earth at that precise moment, ready to raise you and Matt. My wife, son, and I were the only people left who knew anything about her from when she was single, and I’m the only one who actually met her before the wedding. I guess even knowing what little we did was knowing too much. She said it was safer for you and Matt if we stayed away. What could we do but respect her wishes? She had legal guardianship over both of you.”
Safer? That’s an odd choice of word. Was Grandma in the mob or something? Was Jacob?
“Didn’t you ever ask her why?" I ask. "What made her think you coming around would be dangerous for Matt and me? We were never in any danger here, as far as I know. Our childhoods were safe and as normal as they could be for two orphans.”
“I always wondered where she got her money,” Karen mutters under her breath. “I told you it had to be something illegal. He probably knows. Maybe he was even in on it. It wouldn't surprise me.”
“Oh, of course I asked her,” Jacob continues, pointedly ignoring Karen. “You and Matt are my brother’s grandchildren. I wanted to maintain a relationship with you. All she would ever say on the matter was that there were things you and Matt shouldn’t know, and she was concerned I might let something slip in front of you. Ha! As if I knew anything to tell. Lizzie assured me it was nothing against me and my family, but insisted we stay away and not contact you. The woman even threatened me with a restraining order if I went against her wishes. Can you imagine?”
Actually, no, I can’t imagine at all. What secrets was Grandma hiding? Kids don’t think to ask questions about a person’s past; they believe the world started when they were born. As a child, it never once occurred to me to ask Grandma anything about herself. I simply knew what I knew, and that was enough for me. As I grew up, I continued to not think about it. She was just Grandma. I should have asked. People love talking about their childhoods when they get older. Well, most people. Would Grandma have told me anything if I’d asked her? I’m starting to wonder.
There’s something else about Jacob’s story I don’t understand.
“Wait,” I say, letting him continue to hold my hands. He hasn’t let them go since he walked up to me. He’s so eager to make contact, I can’t bear to pull away, even if he is a stranger to me. “Grandma began to get dementia when I was 12. She continued to live here for the next six years, but Matt took over guardianship for me just after he graduated college, when he was 22. Why didn’t you contact us then, when she was no longer our guardian? Why wait until now? You could have come forward as soon as I was made Matt's ward.”
"No, I couldn't," Jacob insists, his voice gentle and soft, like he's trying to avoid startling a deer in the woods.
"I told you. Lizzie wouldn't let me."
"But, how could she object, after Matt took over? She stopped talking. Grandma never said another word after I turned 13. All she did before going into assisted living was sit in her favorite chair and stare into space. I don't understand any of this."
Jacob sighs, a flicker of sadness crossing his fine features for the briefest of moments. There is something he doesn't want to say.
I need to know what's going on. "Whatever it is, I can take it, I promise. Please tell me."
"It's not easy..." he begins.
"Of course it isn't, since it's all lies," Karen interjects.
"Shut up." My voice is louder than I intend it to be, but I need answers, and the Evil Queen isn't helping me get them. "Please," I beg Jacob. "I have to know. I deserve to know."
Jacob gives me a long look, and nods, deciding. "You are correct. You deserve to know. All right, Sarah. I'll tell you. Until recently, Lizzie was in the habit of making regular calls to me, reminding me to stay away from you and Matt."
He may as well have been speaking ancient Sumerian. "Calling you? No, that's impossible. Grandma couldn't remember...."
“Sarah, I hate to tell you this," Jacob continues, "but Lizzie did not have dementia. She never did.”
The world drops out from under me, and I sink to my knees, still holding Jacob’s strong, tanned hands.