“I want you to take this.”
William sat in the armchair beside Sylvie’s bed. He’d helped her from her wheelchair and pulled the curtains closed to block the glare of the setting sun. Her room was filled with knick knacks and trinkets she’d brought with her from home. Some of the paintings he remembered from his childhood lined her walls. The crocheted bedspread he used to lie on while they played Gin Rummy was now folded at her feet.
“What is it?” he asked, as she pushed an envelope into his hand.
“It’s the deed to our property,” Sylvie said. “I never married. My brother died in the war so young, and your grandmother is gone. Since your mother remarried, you are the last Auerbach, William. The home, the land, and everything on it is yours.”
Earlier that day they had attended William’s grandmother’s funeral. The affair had been small. William sat between his mother and Sylvie. His mother was even more distant now than she had been when he was younger. When he entered the funeral parlor, she stood and gave him a formal hug, kissed his cheek, and told him how much she missed him. The words sounded hollow in William’s ears.
As a boy, William never questioned why he was sent to the country each summer. His mother told him it was for his own good, to get fresh air and spend time with the only family they had. He never knew his father. He later learned that his mother’s “mistake” with a married man was the reason for the underlying tension between his mother and grandmother. He was the result of that mistake, the living, breathing reminder of his mother’s folly. As he grew, William began to wonder if the reason his mother sent him away was so that, for three months each year, she didn’t have to live with the consequences of her mistake.
She was now married to a man William remembered seeing fleetingly in his home as a boy. She had always introduced him as her “friend” Jacob. “Jacob’s just here to help with a leak in the bathroom,” she had told him, or “Jacob was kind enough to check my car engine when my light came on.” Once William moved to college, though, Jacob was no longer just a friend. Jacob and his mother were married within months. At least she had the decency to wait, he thought bitterly at the time.
Soon after they married in a small civil ceremony, William began receiving postcards from all over the world. “Dear William. Hope this finds you well. Jacob and I went on safari this week. Seeing the giraffes and elephants and yes, even lions, is truly breathtaking. Not the same as seeing them in a zoo. The landscape here is majestic. Africa is quite beautiful. How are your studies? Love, Mother.” Her distance and apparent relief to be free of him planted a seed of resentment that continued to grow in him over the years.
His mother did not shed a single tear as the casket was closed. But Sylvie was weak from crying. “My sister,” she cried into her handkerchief. “What will I do without you?” William stayed with her all afternoon, concerned, long after the casket had been placed in the ground and the few guests had said their goodbyes. Wheeling her back to his car, she looked up at him and said in a hoarse voice, “My boy, you are so good to me. You mean everything to me.”
“And you mean everything to me,” he said as he helped her into the car. He meant it. On their way home, he kept glancing at her. “Can I get you anything?” he asked.
“I want a milkshake,” she said.
“With your blood sugar, do you think that’s a good idea?” William asked.
“Oh, come now,” Sylvie scoffed. “I’ve lived a century. I think I’m entitled to a milkshake on this hot day.”
Laughing, William drove through McDonald’s and bought two strawberry milkshakes. When they returned to the home, he pushed her chair to a shady spot underneath a Blackgum tree and they sat in companionable silence, sipping from their straws as their plastic cups turned soft in the heat and perspired in their hands. Finally, Sylvie reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “It’s been a long day,” she said, staring at the grounds. “I think I’ll retire early.” Now, with her head against her pillow, she seemed every bit her age. She turned to him again and raised her arm to hand him the envelope.
William stared at the deed. The cellophane window on the front of the envelope crinkled as he turned it in his hands. “I can’t accept this,” he said, trying to hand it back.
“Nonsense,” Sylvie said. “I’ll be gone soon, and I want to know that the land is in good hands. Perhaps you and Serena can move there together and start a family. I’d love to see your children one day, William, if I live long enough.”
William didn’t have the heart to tell her that he and Serena were no longer together. He swallowed over a lump in his throat as he realized her dreams for him would never come to pass. Sylvie tried to sit up, nodding at her dresser. “There’s more,” she said. William put a hand on her shoulder to stop her from getting up.
“What do you need?” he asked.
“There’s more, in the dresser. There’s an envelope in there. I want you to take it out.”
William moved to the dresser and opened the top drawer. A scent he would always associate with his aunt wafted to his nose, the smell of Chanel no. 5, baby powder, and an underlying scent of mothballs. Lying atop one of her colorful scarves was a larger manila envelope. He lifted it and turned to her.
“Yes,” she whispered. “That was mailed to me last month when your grandmother was taken to the hospital. She’d had a contractor out to look at the old ruined house on our property. She told me she intended to have it torn down once and for all. In the envelope are some items the contractor found when he was investigating the burnt remains of the house. I thought you should have it.”
There was a knowing look in her eye.
William swallowed and looked away. Did she know he had explored that house so many years ago? He tucked the envelopes under his arm and walked back to her side. “Rest now, Auntie,” he stood, leaning over her to kiss the parchment skin of her forehead.
“She never told him,” Sylvie whispered.
“What?” William asked, straightening to gaze down at her. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was shallow. She seemed lost in some distant memory.
“Elizabeth never told Philip she was pregnant. She didn’t tell anyone. Only me. She confided in me that she was having a baby, and if it was a girl, she would name her Rose, like the flower. The poor soul never had a chance to live.”
Sylvie turned her head and began to snore.
William couldn’t move. He stared at the wall, his mind reeling. Rose, Rose. The name echoed in his ears. He closed his eyes and swallowed. He saw the fluttering wall of curtains. He heard her laughter. He felt the arousal that always accompanied the memories, memories he had convinced himself weren’t real.
Come here. Bring me the baby.
His heart racing, William ran from the room.
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.