October 20, 2015 Thursday 5:00 pm
Grace is in a cab, arriving home in the late afternoon. She pays the driver in cash since her cards aren’t working. She looks around the neighborhood and observes that things look different. Walking down the driveway, she notices that the gardens have been well-tended and that the patio furniture is stacked away for the season. She checks the garage to make sure her car is there. Then, she unlocks the door and goes into her house.
The kitchen furniture is gone, and as she walks through the house and up the stairs, she sees that all the rooms are empty and her belongings are missing. She starts to panic but sits down to relax. Eventually she calms down and decides to go for a walk to get some air and to find something to eat. When she nears the shops, she instead goes into the flower shop and purchases a small bouquet. She rides the bus to the cemetery.
In the mausoleum, she finds Cora’s nameplate and puts the flowers in a small vase, thinking to herself that she has never experienced a loss this deep and that she should stop feeling so selfish. After saying goodbye to Cora, she finds a bench to sit on for a few minutes. Suddenly, her cell phone rings and it’s Connor, one of the partners from Cora’s law firm. When she asks why her house is empty, he tells her that she in fact signed over both her house and Cora’s condo when he visited her in prison to make arrangements for Cora’s funeral. Grace hadn’t read the document carefully and wasn’t aware of this. She knows there is nothing she can do.
When she asks Connor about Cora, about how Cora never would’ve committed suicide, his attitude changes slightly and he tells Grace how much they miss Cora. She believes him and is at least assured of the fact that Cora’s firm wasn’t responsible for what had happened to them. The email to a friend of hers from her firm was pinged as undeliverable so she’s at a dead end in her investigation already.
She emails Connor that she is staying at her house for a few weeks and is having the heat and electric turned on. She plans to sleep on a quilt in her room and then tomorrow have some furniture delivered.
“Miss, I think we’re almost there,” I had dozed off in the back seat of the cab with my head against the window. I sat up and looked at my phone. It was almost 5:00. It had taken me longer to get home that I thought it would. The driver turned onto my street and then slowed to look for house numbers.
“The light green one just ahead,” I told him.
As we pulled into the driveway his GPS bleeped and he switched it off. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t tip him very much. I was paying in cash since my debit card wasn’t working. I needed to call the bank tomorrow. I waved politely as he backed out of my driveway and I just stood still for a minute trying to focus my hazy thoughts and to put this day and all of these feelings into some kind of perspective. There was a dull ache in my head. My emotions were unsettled and I wasn’t sure if the reasons for this disconcertedness were elusive or completely obvious. For starters, I hadn’t eaten all day and I needed a good night’s sleep in my own bed. Maybe it was the stress of being back in town but disconnected from everything familiar, released from prison but locked out of my old life. Or it could be because everything looked so different than it did just a few years ago. The trees along the walkway were taller. Here and there a house had been resided and the landscapes redesigned. I guessed that probably indicated which of the neighbors had moved away. There was no one around but I had an uneasy feeling that I was intruding, that I needed to get away from the glaring front windows of the surrounding houses.
“Seriously need to lighten up,” I told myself, trying to dismiss the confusion.
I turned and walked toward the garage at the end of the driveway, picking up the empty bins along the way. Setting them near the door, I wiped the dust from one of the windows to make sure my car was still there. Whether it would start is another matter, I thought. Turning back toward the house, I saw that the patio furniture had been neatly stacked and secured with a tarp. The yard looked well-tended, as it should, I thought, since the lawn service had probably been paid a small fortune to keep the gardens from growing wild. Must be a cold winter season on the way because the leaves of the sugar maple were already raked up. Everything seemed in place.
Ok, I told myself, quit stalling. As I walked up the flagstone steps, I reminded myself that I’d known this was going to be difficult. My reflection in the window of the glass-enclosed porch – the cropped hair, a small leather handbag strapped across a plain white blouse – contrasted sharply with the memory of the person I was when this used to be home, before I’d lost everything in a sudden and terrifying free-fall. I knew that I wasn’t that woman anymore and never could be again. Wasn’t sure I wanted to be, I thought, somewhat darkly. I opened the outer porch door and it creaked loudly on it’s hinges, probably needed replacing, and my stomach lurched violently at the thought of one of the neighbors calling the police. Quickly unlocking both the handle and the deadbolt of the inner door, I walked through the foyer into the kitchen.
The first thing I noticed was that the table and chairs were missing. Setting my bag down on the floor, I opened the cupboards and the refrigerator, empty and clean. Walking past the bathroom with its curtainless window, I looked around at the cavernous living room and empty book shelves. With a slow panic beginning to rise, I climbed the stairs – the carpet runner had been removed – and cautiously looked into each room. There were no pictures on the walls, no clothes in my closet. All of my furniture and belongings were gone.
What the hell. Suppressing the anxiety with a deep breath, I cupped some water in my hand from the bathroom sink, took a sip, and wiped my hands on my jeans. I stood perfectly still for a minute, my eyes shifting slightly out of focus, and then walked into my bedroom overlooking the gardens in the small back yard. I slid down the wall and sat looking out the window at the clear late-October sky. I needed to just stay calm and think. This would pass in a minute or two as long as I slowed my thinking and didn’t do anything impulsive.
At times when I get most anxious, and despite the adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream, I’d feel incongruously drowsy. I was calm now and I decided to go for a walk, to get some fresh air and to find a deli. I looped my purse over my head, put my sunglasses on, and locked the door behind me.
The cafe in the village was about a fifteen minute walk, but as I neared the row of busy shops, I suddenly had a better idea. I opened the door to the flower shop and I was greeted by a blast of cool, fragrant air and a cheery “hello” from the owner, a usually quick-witted older woman who I was hoping wouldn’t recognize me. I used to stop in quite often when we’d kick in to buy flowers for occasions at work. The trial made front page news four years ago but if she remembered anything about it, she kindly didn’t let on. I chose an arrangement from the cooler and – with a slightly panicked feeling – paid in cash.
I rode the bus to the cemetery with a small vase of bright sunflowers and autumn daisies on my lap. I hadn’t planned on visiting Cora’s grave today but I was sorely feeling her absence. The judge hadn’t allowed me to go to her funeral so I hadn’t been able to properly say goodbye. I wished she were here now. I wanted to talk with her about everything that was happening, to feel the reassuring strength of her presence. I knew perfectly well how selfish I was being. Weak, scared even. As difficult as all of these changes have been for me, Cora had lost her life. I thought back to a conversation I’d had with Lily a few weeks ago, when they’d told me I was being paroled. She said that this mix of uncertainty and fear meant that I was not only accepting the reality of what had happened, I was ready to face the difficult challenge of uncovering the truth about what was behind all of it. I clung to that advice, the point-of-view that I wasn’t in fact as helpless as I felt. The reality was, I had a dangerous and powerful enemy out there and I had no idea where they were or why they had targeted me. I tried to keep my thoughts as calm and methodical as Cora’s would’ve been. I wondered again if I was still in danger. What if sending those emails had been a bad idea? I couldn’t know for sure without knowing who it was that set me up. And I had to know. I couldn’t just leave town, leave everything behind and start over someplace where no one knew me. I had a life that I’d worked for. I didn’t deserve to lose it all. This was the one thing, the only thing that I was completely certain of … I had to find out who destroyed our lives and why. No matter what it took.
I walked alone along the peace-filled, shadowed path to where they told me they’d gathered to put her to rest. The mausoleum was a two-story building constructed of smooth, light-brown marble and stainless-steel doors. Everything about the place was clean and bright. The quiet interior was illuminated by the evening light filtering through cut-glass windows near the ceiling.
I easily found Cora among the rows of names and date ranges. One-by-one I removed the flowers from the bouquet I’d brought with me, arranging them neatly in the small metal vase. The firm must have arranged for this since not all of the nameplates had one. I placed my hand on the cool marble wall and I tried to put my sadness away, thinking instead about what a wonderful mother Cora had been and how lucky I was because of that. I was thankful that she had been such a steadfast, encouraging influence in my life. She had been an only child and her parents passed away a long time ago. It had always been just her and me. She had provided a solid home base so that I’d have the confidence to go after what I wanted – for my own sake, not to satisfy her ambitions. As my legal problems progressed from the arrest to conviction to sentencing, I could tell that there were times when her heart was breaking. She continually projected herself as level-headed and practical, though, strategizing like a lawyer while consoling like a mother. Up to the end, she was keeping me informed on what the investigator was telling her and also about what was going on at her firm, whether she’d be able to stay on as a partner or if it was time to establish her own client base and work independently.
I’d never experienced a loss this deep and my mind was starting to play tricks. I found myself trying to comprehend where she was right now – at home, in her kitchen making dinner? Could all of this simply be a mistake? Had she traveled to a work conference and she’d call tonight with her return flight information? When my mind finally settled on the reality that her body was right here in front of me…but her soul? Well, isn’t that the most elusive human mystery of all? I told myself that I wasn’t necessarily being daft, selfish or self-centered. It was just that Cora and I had been so close and her presence was such an essential part of my core being that I was having a difficult time grasping the fact that she no longer existed within this space and time.
The coolness of the room soon began to feel cold. I rested my cheek against the metal plate for a minute and chocked back an urge to cry. I found a bench beneath an expanse of oak branches, and I sat for a minute listening to the wind. I said a prayer for Cora, and one for me, to find some peace of mind and a safe, sensible way forward.
I suddenly realized how tired I was. That led to the practical thought that there was no heat or electricity at my house and no way to cook dinner. I had to find out what happened to all my stuff. Cora’s condo was a ten-minute bus ride from here so I decided to try that next.
Then, the phone chirped. A call was coming in but I knew it wasn’t Lila. She wouldn’t be able to call this late. It was local. I hadn’t given anyone else this number.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“It’s Connor, Grace. I’m calling about your email.” Connor had worked with Cora for over twenty years at the firm. He was the one who visited me at prison with paperwork about her funeral arrangements. I’d emailed him an hour ago but I couldn’t even guess how he had tracked down this number.
“Yes. Hello. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.” I suddenly wasn’t sure how much I should tell him. He probably knew I was in town so I decided to say as little as possible. “I’m reaching out because I was at my house this morning. I know you guys were maintaining the gardens so I thought you might know why the house is empty. Where my belongings are?”
“Oh. I see. I thought you’d been informed,” he sounded disingenuously surprised. “The contents of both your house and Cora’s condo have been relocated to a storage unit. The one on North Street? Pending the sale of both properties.”
“What are you talking about ‘sale of both properties’? I didn’t authorize the sale of anything. When did this happen?” I suddenly realized what he was about to say and I felt like vomiting.
“Well, you gave us the permission to not only sell both properties but to utilize the funds to pay us back for the investigation into your arrest and conviction. We advised you three years ago, at the time of Cora’s death, and I presented you with the paperwork myself. Witnessed you signing it?” He paused to let this sink in. “Are you saying you don’t remember signing paperwork that day?
“Connor, of course I remember. That was for the arrangements for Cora’s funeral, though. I never gave you permission to confiscate our homes. You don’t have my permission to sell anything.”
“I’m sorry, Grace,” he didn’t sound the least bit sorry, “We have your signature on the document and it’s completely legal. We incurred the cost of the year-long investigation,” he pretended to be reading from a paper on his desk, “as well as landscaping expenses, community fees on Cora’s condo, movers to pack up both locations and finally, monthly payments on the storage units,” he paused again, “I know you were a little overwhelmed that day but, in fact, I did indicate the precise paragraphs that you should read closely. My directions were unmistakable. I could send you a transcript of our conversation.”
Of course he could. “A little overwhelmed? Connor, that was the lowest point of my life. And how could you do this to Cora? You worked with her for two decades. You’re completely taking advantage of my situation,” I tried to sound angry instead of scared. “You can’t do this.”
“It’s done, Grace. You could have a lawyer challenge us on this, but it would be a waste of your time.” And money, she knew he was implying, since he knew she didn’t have any now. “The firm has been using her condo for office space. The guard at the gate will let you in and the locks haven’t been changed. An intern is there and he’ll give you copies of everything you need and information about the storage unit where your furniture is. And Grace, the firm will continue to pay those fees until you get settled in somewhere.”
This wasn’t at all what I thought would happen. My email this morning was intended to open a line of communication so I could eventually broach the subject of Cora’s death. I realized now that the firm had screwed me over. They knew Cora had spent most of her savings on the lawyer that argued my case. Since the investigation hadn’t gone our way, it only made sense that they’d try to offset their financial loss and distance themselves from us personally.
Burned or not, I needed information. I had to confront him about her. To make sure that the firm was only protecting itself after-the-fact. That they didn’t target us to begin with.
“Connor. The real reason I’m in touch with you today is to talk to you about the circumstances of Cora’s death,” I stopped for a minute to breathe. He didn’t say anything. “You know as well as I do that she didn’t kill herself. Cora would never commit suicide. Aren’t you wondering how any of this could have happened in the first place?”
He didn’t reply right away. When he did, his tone had changed. Implacable but slightly more human. She could tell he was telling the truth for once, “We all wondered about that, Grace. Cora was a real source of guidance around here. She was such a part of the fabric of this place that we didn’t realize how important she was to us until she was gone. Everything changed here. We miss her terribly. I know that probably isn’t a consolation and I’m sorry for the way this is going for you but the investigator that worked your case has been doing business with us for years. There’s no reason for us to doubt his findings. I’m not saying that we believe you’re guilty, I’m just saying you’re going to have a difficult time re-establishing your credibility in the legal sector. I’m sorry. I truly am.”
I couldn’t trust my voice not to shake so I stayed quiet.
“Grace, I’m going to let you go. The only thing we could conclude was that the outcome of your trial was so devastating for her that she couldn’t make it through alone. She always did sort of keep to herself, so we assumed there were just things we never knew about her. I’m so sorry. Really. Best of luck.” The line disconnected.
The bus stop was out the front entrance of the cemetery and down a block. I immediately started walking in that direction, hoping that I could at least appear self-assured, even if it was just to distract myself from my worsening circumstances. When I signed the paperwork authorizing the firm to arrange Cora’s funeral, I’d inadvertently signed over both our homes to them. It was a cheap trick, taking advantage of me at that point in time, but that’s what lawyers do. That’s usually what they’re hired to do. I couldn’t afford to fight them on this. The one assurance I had from talking with Connor was that I believed him about the way they felt about Cora. I knew they didn’t have her killed and that they weren’t responsible for getting me sent to prison.
Another dead end, though, was that the email I’d sent to my friend from work pinged back as undeliverable. I wasn’t surprised. He had also been hired at the firm right out of law school, but unlike me, he hadn’t survived the transition from ideological law student to being a practicing lawyer in the real world. He had probably changed careers and moved back to the mid-west where he was originally from. I’m not sure what information I thought he’d be able to provide, anyway, so I decided not to pursue it further. The biggest roadblock in all of this was that Connor was probably right about the investigator they’d hired. If there was anything to find, he would’ve found it. He had updated Cora on a daily basis and I knew she trusted him too.
It was insensitive of Connor not to consider how I’d feel seeing Cora’s home turned into an office. Especially knowing that she’d died there. I emailed him again, this time telling him unequivocally that I’d be staying at my house for a few weeks and I was having the heat and electric switched on, and could he please have the intern forward the paperwork to that address in the morning. As for tonight, there was a quilt in the trunk of my car and I could at least sleep in my own room. Tomorrow, I’d go to the storage unit and have some furniture delivered.