“Trisha! Where is my next appointment?” Andrew called through the wall to his secretary.
A stocky woman with a purple streak in her cropped hair appeared in the doorway. “The Smith sisters just arrived.”
“Then where are they?” Andrew was a stickler for starting appointments on time.
“They’re getting out of the car.” She pulled her sweater tighter across her body and readjusted her fingerless gloves.
He checked his watch. “What’s taking them so long?”
Trisha cleared her throat. “You do remember how old they are, right? They don’t move very fast anymore.”
“Hrumph. Then they should’ve left earlier.” Andrew flipped the sand timer he’d inherited from his father over and slammed it down on his desk. “They have five minutes. If they’re not here in five minutes, you’ll have to reschedule them.”
Trisha shook her head and returned to the lobby.
Andrew was not looking forward to meeting with the Smith sisters. They were loud, slow, and smelled like mothballs. But they had been his first clients when he opened his accounting business, and back then he’d been grateful for any client he could get.
He watched the sand fall through the glass neck and thought he was off the hook, but as the last grains slipped through to the base of the timer, Trisha reappeared in the doorway with the Smith sisters close behind.
“Why, Sister, it’s as cold as a meat locker in here!” Sadie said as she and her sister Susie tottered arm in arm into Andrew’s small office.
Andrew did not feel like talking about his thermostat; he heard enough about that from Trisha.
“How can I help you, ladies?”
“Well,” Susie Smith said in a voice loud enough to be heard on the international space station, “we were thinking about donating our Buick to the local public radio station, don’t cha know…”
“You were thinking about it, Sister.”
“What’s that?” Susie leaned closer to Sadie.
“YOU were thinking about it, sweet Sister, not me.”
“Yes, I was thinking about it.” Susie faced Andrew. “Not now, mind you. When I stop driving in a few years. The young woman at the radio station said over the phone during the pledge drive last week that the donation would be tax-deductible, and my dear sister and I wanted to know if that was true.”
The old spinsters stared at Andrew with pasty, hooded eyes. The smell of mothballs overpowered him. Did they bathe in them?
“Yes, it’s true. Automobile contributions are tax deductible.”
Was this really what they wanted an appointment for? Why didn’t they just call instead of taking up so much of his time?
Sadie swiveled her head to the side and leaned in toward Andrew. “Eh, what did you say, young man?”
“YES, IT’S TRUE!” he yelled.
Sadie nodded her head and said to Susie, “Well then, I apologize. You were right, Sister.”
The two women rehooked elbows and turned to leave. “Was there anything else I could help you with today?” he asked to their backs, but Sadie and Susie Smith walked right out the door without another word. They really were as deaf as bedposts.
Andrew rubbed his temples and got back to his paperwork. He needed to finish the payroll for Grant Hembree, a local rancher, by noon.
Just as he pulled up the spreadsheet on his computer, Trisha poked her head in. “Beverly’s here to see you.”
It wasn’t that Andrew disliked Dr. Beverly True. Beverly had been the one who diagnosed his mother with liver disease and was very kind during the long months that followed. And she’d been a good client ever since. But she always stuck her nose in his business. Especially around the holidays.
Beverly strode into the room. “Hey, Trisha, what’s up with the big sweater? Is the heat broken?”
Trisha cut her eyes at Andrew. “You’ll have to ask the boss,” she said in a pinched voice as she withdrew from the room.
“What’s that about?” Beverly asked in melodious contralto as she sat on the edge of his desk. He hoped the desk could hold her. She was a big woman. Not fat, but tall and sturdy. Heck, she even dwarfed him, and he was six feet tall.
“Trisha wants to work in a sauna and I prefer to be more frugal, that’s all.” Andrew put his pen down and leaned back in his chair. “So, what can I do for you, Beverly?” he asked, although he knew exactly why she was there.
“I came by to remind you about Thanksgiving dinner. You never RSVPd to my email. You know Thanksgiving is in two days, right?”
“Thanks for the invitation, but I can’t make it,” Andrew said as he lightly propped the tips of his fingertips together.
“You never make it.”
“Have you had any more panic attacks?”
He sat up straighter. “No.”
“You seem a little tense. Your jaw is strung tighter than a piano string.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said through clenched teeth.
Beverly reached into her handbag and pulled out a small pad of paper. She took the pen off his desk and scribbled a few words on the pad, then tore off the top sheet and handed it to him.
“I’ve been your GP for several years now, and I think this prescription will help you get through the holidays.”
Andrew studied the paper. “Is this a joke?”
Beverly stood and cast a long shadow across his desk. “No.”
“What does this mean, yoga three times a week?”
“I don’t know why, but you get crankier than usual every year when the holidays roll around. Then last year you had those panic attacks. Yoga is a great way to deal with stress, which you obviously have an abundance of this time of year.”
“I’m not stressed!” he bellowed.
Beverly lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
“Can’t you just give me a pill or something?”
Beverly dropped the pen back on his desk. “Nope. You need to get out once and awhile. All work and no play makes Andrew the accountant a grumpy guy. I’ve written the address of the local yoga studio on the script there. Mary, the owner, is a great teacher. No excuses, you hear?”
A yoga studio on Main Street? Andrew must have driven past it a thousand times. Why had he never noticed it before? He tossed the paper on his desk.
Beverly went to the door. “I’ll save you a plate Thursday just in case you change your mind. And don’t forget about the drop-in Christmas Eve.”
After Beverly left, Andrew looked at the piece of paper on his desk. Yoga. She had to be kidding.
He woke up his computer screen and began working on the Hembree payroll, but almost immediately heard multiple voices wafting in from the lobby. Who were they and why were they laughing?
Trisha slipped back into his office.
“What is it now?” Andrew asked.
“There are a couple of women here to see you.”
Trisha rubbed her hands together, then huffed on them. “Why don’t you ask them yourself?” she asked as she disappeared.
Saucy, that one was. His father had been right when he said it was hard to find good help.
Two women entered, and he did a double-take. They were carbon copies of each other, except for their auburn hairstyles.
“Hi!” the one with curly hair said. “I’m Lori, and this is my sister, Dori.” She gestured to the other woman. “I can’t believe what a small world it is, running into Beverly True like that.”
“You know Beverly?” he asked in spite of himself.
Dori, the one with straight hair and a colorful scarf around her neck said, “I’ve rented her carriage house for years. Isn’t that something to run into her here?”
“I see,” Andrew said as he looked at his watch. “Well, I’m busy, so could you come to the point?”
Dori’s expression sobered. “Certainly. My sister opened a no-kill cat shelter several years ago, and we’re asking local business people for donations so we can expand the shelter. The shelter has provided a safe harbor for hundreds of unwanted and abandoned cats and kittens through the years, and we’ve been able to eventually find furrever homes for most of them, but as our program has expanded, we’ve outgrown our space and…”
“I don’t like cats,” Andrew interrupted.
“Excuse me?” Dori asked.
“I. Don’t. Like. Cats.”
Dori and Lori exchanged glances. “I see,” Lori said. “Maybe, in the holiday spirit, you would consider a small donation…”
“I wouldn’t be able to feed myself if I gave to everyone that walked through that door expecting free money. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Oh, well, in that case, sorry to have bothered you,” Dori said as they left.
Who did they think they were barging into his business asking for money? And for what? Cats?
Just then Trisha returned. “Could I ask you something, Mr. Bennett?”
He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I suppose you want Friday off in addition to Thursday.”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Trisha said as she rubbed her knuckles together. “It’s just that Teny has a doctor’s appointment in Kent and we never know how long they’re going to last…”
What was it with Trisha’s kid? She was always going to the doctor.
“All right,” he said begrudgingly. “You can make up the time by coming in early every day next week.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bennett.”
“Now, no more disruptions.”
Trisha gave him a quick nod then left him alone.
When he got back to the payroll, his hands became clammy and it wasn’t long before his heart started pounding in his ears. No, he couldn’t be having an anxiety attack, not now. He had too much work to do.
He rubbed his temples, but the attack intensified. Waves of nausea bubbled up in his throat, and it felt like his heart might beat its way out of his chest. His eyes darted around the room, then settled on the piece of paper on the desk that Beverly had given him. For some reason, as soon as he saw that piece of paper, the grip around his midsection loosened and the pounding in his ears subsided.
What happened? Coincidence, that’s all. Just a coincidence.
Andrew folded the paper, stuffed it deep into his pocket, then returned to his spreadsheet.
By the time Andrew parked his old Volvo beside the gardener’s cottage after work, the sky hovered ominously like a gloomy blanket. While searching for his key, a strange, jittery light near the main house caught his attention.
“What now?” he grumbled.
As he neared the front entrance of the main house, several silhouettes morphed into boys holding flashlights.
“What are you doing here?” he said, not even trying to hide the harshness in his voice.
One of the boys held out a box with mitten’d hands. “We’re boy scouts. Would you like to buy some popcorn? We’re raising money for our spring camping trip.”
What? Was everybody and their mother looking for a handout?
“I don’t like popcorn. Now, if you don’t mind…”
Another boy spoke up. “We also have beef jerky, trail mix, candy bars…”
“I don’t want to buy anything. If you want to go camping and can’t afford it, you should get an after school job to pay for it.”
“But mister, I’m only nine,” the smallest of the boys said, his breath making little puffs of white clouds in the air.
“Then your parents should get an extra job delivering pizza.”
“My mom already works three jobs,” a pudgy boy said.
Andrew’s ears got hot. “Just…just get off my property!” he yelled as he clenched his fists.
The boys scurried off.
Could he not get through one day, not one lousy day, without being asked to give, give, give?
When he got back to the gardener’s cottage, he set his briefcase on the bench inside the door, then took a small can from one of the cabinets in the kitchen.
He popped the tab, peeled the lid off, then dumped the stinky contents onto a tin pie plate. Once he made it out the back door, he squinted toward the property line. It didn’t take long before two luminescent eyes appeared at the edge of the woods.
Andrew took several steps toward the eyes, but they retreated.
“Don’t know why I even mess with you,” he muttered as he set the plate down.
He’d been feeding the animal he called “Cat” since early summer and was still no closer to being able to pet it than he was the first day he heard tiny mews coming from the edge of the woods.
Andrew ate a can of chicken noodle soup, then pulled his cards out of the desk by the bedroom door. Practicing card tricks usually calmed him down, but that night he was more wound up than usual.
Was he still upset about the Smith sisters being late for their appointment that morning? Or that everyone who came in contact with him that day wanted something from him?
Well, Beverly didn’t want anything from him, exactly. But how dare she barge into his office and “prescribe” yoga classes when he hadn’t even sought her professional advice?
He took the piece of paper she gave him out of his pocket and tossed it in the trash. Yoga, smoga. He didn’t need any of that new-age gobbledygook.
After he retrieved the empty pie plate from the backyard, he washed up, took his contacts out, and settled in bed. It wasn’t long before he drifted into an uneasy sleep…
What is that gosh-awful noise?
A loud knock echoes through my brain. Who could it be at this hour?
I stumble to the door, but when I reach for the doorknob I find myself in the foyer of the main house, not the cottage. What’s going on? How did I get here?
Another loud knock ricochets between my ears.
I open the door, then rub my eyes when I see who’s standing on the front stoop. I blink several times. No. It can’t be him. But there he is.
“Good evening, Son.”
The man looks like my father, or rather like a worn-out version of him, very pale with dark circles under his eyes. But I know it can’t be him because my father is dead. Has been for many years.
“Mister, I don’t know who you are or what game you’re playing, but you need to leave.”
I slam the door, but when I turn around the man is now standing in the foyer. The hair on the back of my neck tingles as the house temperature dramatically drops.
“Looks like nothing has changed around here,” he says as he peers into the parlor.
“Look,” I say to the strange man who has disturbed my sleep. “I don’t know who you are or what you want from me, but if you plan on robbing me, you should know I will prosecute you to the fullest extent…”
“Prosecute? Son, I’m here to help you, not steal from you.”
I rub my eyes again. The man does look like my father, with sandy hair that forms a deep widow’s peak and the chin dimple I inherited.
“My father is dead. Now get out of here, whoever you are, and let me be.”
“So, why don’t you live in the main house?” the man asks me as he spreads his arms wide open.
“Because my father made it abundantly clear I was to make my own way. He even wrote me out of his will,” I say as a sour taste bubbles around the corners of my mouth.
The man chuckles. “I should have known your mother would leave you everything anyway. That woman was as stubborn as the day is long, rest her soul.”
A fire lights in my belly. “You leave my mother out of this…this whatever it is.”
“Now, hold on there, Son. I loved that woman the best I knew how. She and I just differed on how to raise you, that’s all.”
“Best as I recall, you chose to let others raise me,” I say as I feel my spine stiffen. Why am I even talking to this imposter?
“I admit that sending you to boarding school was my idea. Thought it would be good for you to grow up away from all the wealth. Wealth does strange things to a man.”
“You did all right.” I try to swallow the bitter taste in my mouth, but it lingers.
“No, I didn’t. I was selfish. I can say that now that I’m dead. At the time, I didn’t want to part with a red penny of your mother’s money. I’m afraid I passed that part of my personality on to you, Son. And I’m here to make amends so I can finally join your dear mother on the other side of the pearly gates.”
“What do you mean join her?”
“I’ve been paying penance since I left the earth. My final assignment is to help the one I hurt most. My son.”
I close my eyes. When I open them, I will be back in my bed and all this nonsense will be over.
But when I open my eyes, the man claiming to be my father is still there, except now we’re standing in front of his desk in his study on the second floor. The study I was banished from as a child for being too loud and distracting.
“How did you do that?” I demand.
“I’ve been granted certain…perks, shall we say, until you change your ways.”
“Change my ways?! What’s wrong with my ways?”
“Son, I obviously wasn’t a good example for you. It took dying to open my eyes to how rotten I’d become. I clung to your mother’s fortune as if my life depended on it. I never gave to charity or helped my fellow man. I couldn’t even enjoy the good things life can offer because I wasn’t willing to part with a dime. I became old before my time and died a premature death from the stress of micromanaging your mother’s inheritance.”
“What does this have to do with me? I’m just trying to do what you, um, what my father always wanted me to do…to make my own fortune.”
“It’s not too late for you to avoid my fate, Son. I know now that monetary fortunes are not all they’re cracked up to be, especially if they prevent you from living a full life. All you have to do to be truly fortunate is come to terms with your past and realize the past does not define you, notice what’s going on around you in the present and do what you can to make the world a better place, and learn that the future is malleable based on the choices you make today. Remember, you have the power to change not only your own life, but that of those around you.”
This man is offering much different advice than my father did when he was alive. My father taught me that people would take advantage of you, use you, try to steal from you, and that you had to protect what was yours and hold on to what you made no matter what.
As if he read my thoughts, the man says, “I know I’m singing a different tune than I did when I was alive, but I’ve seen it, Andrew. I’ve seen men change, and it’s a beautiful thing. I had to change the hard way, after death, but you have an opportunity to make a difference while still on the earth. I hope you take it.”
I blink and the man is gone. I run down the stairs and when I fling the door open I almost fall into an open pit of fire…
Andrew sat up straight in bed, his heart racing and sweat pouring down his back. What just happened?
His throat was parched, so he got out of bed and stumbled to the kitchen for a glass of water. His hands shook as he put the glass under the faucet.
What a dream. It was a dream, right? But why would he dream of his father after all this time? And what was that nonsense about the past, present, and future? He’d never heard his father speak philosophically.
Maybe Beverly was right about the panic attacks. What if he was now having them in his sleep?
On the way back to bed he almost tripped over the trash can. He paused, then retrieved the piece of paper Beverly gave him earlier that day. He put it on the counter by the coffeemaker and went back to bed.