“I’m not promising you ‘Happily Ever After’,” Mason informed me as he busied himself sorting through the charred remains of Neely’s house. I glanced around to see if my parents were within earshot. We could have been speaking telepathically, but in the past week Mason had learned that the sound of his voice was a more effective method of persuading me to do whatever it was he had in mind. He had the deep, mesmerizing voice of a guitar-playing country singer, and it worked wonders on me. “But I’m not leaving here without you. If you won’t come with me now, I’ll stay until you’re ready.”
He didn’t say another word, and I clammed up. I’d always said I’d never be with a man who offered up ultimatums, but somehow, this didn’t seem like an ultimatum. It seemed more like a promise. It scared the hell out of me. He took himself around the corner where I couldn’t see him.
I kept my eyes on the debris I was dealing with. I sorted through books and photos all covered with soot and ash. Some went into the basket beside me to be taken to my house. Some went into the trash bin on the other side of me. Every once in a while, a young helper would come along to relieve me of my burden and set an empty basket beside me.
This was my mess now. The will had been read. Neely had left nearly everything to me, including the house that now stood in charred ruins. I was the beneficiary of her life insurance, and it was no small amount of money. All of her jewelry was to go to her mother, if we could find it. The house had stood behind yellow tape far too long. The reality was that it had probably been looted, despite posted “No Trespassing” signs. A crew had come along and removed some of the structure, for safety’s sake. Much of the house still stood, but the entire neighborhood had been saturated by the smell of smoke.
Neely’s mother, June, approached me. I rose from my crouched position to greet her with a hug. She’d been hugging me all week. She held onto me, and I knew that she felt she was holding onto Neely when she did this. She had seen me grow up alongside her daughter. She was the other mom I could turn to when my own mother wasn’t available or agreeable. She saw me as the other daughter in her life. She was a woman I held dear in my heart. I didn’t want her to be in this kind of pain.
She didn’t like the paper mask over my nose and mouth. She wanted to see my face, so I removed it temporarily while we spoke.
“Did you find the jewelry?” I asked her, though I already knew she had. She was projecting her thoughts more clearly today than she had been since the explosion. She nodded, smiled meekly and fixed a strand of my hair that had fallen out of place. She was thinking that I had lost weight and wondering who Mason was and was I going to keep all of Neely’s art or sell it to the highest bidder? She wanted to invite me over for lunch, but not dinner because Jack, Neely’s father would be home then, and he was pissed off that Neely had left everything to me, not to them.
I couldn’t change what Neely had done, and I wasn’t going to try. I knew her reasons, and I was willing to defend them to her father, if it came to that.
From the corner of my eye, I spotted a man with a camera and a press pass approaching. My mother quickly intervened. I blocked her out as well as the photographer. She understood I’d had as much as I could stand of the media lately. She sent the man on his way. June ignored them completely.
“I think we’ll sell the jewelry,” she told me. I nodded in agreement. That’s exactly what Neely had expected her to do. She was going to be surprised that it was worth far more than Neely had left to me, with the added bonus of not having to deal with insurance reps and lawyers on a daily basis. “But I think I’ll keep the macaroni necklace she made me in first grade.”
She shuffled her feet over the mess, leaving tracks while picking up soot. She shouldn’t have worn those nice shoes, but she had guessed I wouldn’t ask her to stay and help if she were dressed too nicely.
“I’ll come by the house tomorrow and drop off some of these things,” I told her simply because her thoughts were already wandering away. She was shielding herself against the pain of dealing with her daughter’s death. “Let me deal with this mess. You have plenty to do.”
“I love you, Mia,” she told me as she took my hand. We walked together toward her car.
“I know you do, June. I love you, too.”
I put her in the car, and she was gone. I watched her drive out of sight. How nice it would be to be able to do that. I wished I was her. I wished I could get in the car and just drive away.
I turned back toward the mess to see Mason reappearing from his hiding spot with a large push broom in his hands. My eyes met his.
Okay, I’ll go with you, I told him. Just as soon as we get all this settled.
Where do you want to go? He asked and then quickly volunteered, I have a house in Alaska. He pushed an image into my mind of a secluded cabin somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. A few trees stood behind it, some outbuildings stood behind those. There didn’t appear to be neighbors close by.
Perfect, I told him. Then I put on my mask and got back to work.