I skipped up the steps in my tennis whites, rubbing a towel over my hair. I admired the statues as I climbed. I made a point of it. Not by Michelangelo, one of those other guys. Marble men in robes, relaxed, looked out to sea. They should have been in a museum, gawked at by tourists squeezing every drop of culture from two weeks’ paid vacation. But here they were, and all they had was me. I tried to read up on them. I had the time, but it was all a maze of popes and patrons and people being run out of Florence. None of that made sense of their sad smiles.
I missed the focus of competition, at least when I won. Which, modesty aside, was often. The grinding stress and hours of training, no. But I can’t complain. I had a good run, made it to Wimbledon center court. I lost that one, but still… And after? All I wanted was peace and quiet. A chance to catch up on the idle hours of youth that I’d sacrificed on the altar of competitive sports.
I poured a lime soda, effervescent and biting. I gazed out at the curve of the Pacific sparkling in the sunlight, the churning surf below the bluffs. A contrail inched across the cloudless blue, businessmen headed to China. I envied them their sense of purpose. I was glad to have quit the all-consuming gods of tennis, but there was some part of my competitive soul that would not be satisfied by peace and quiet. That yearned for something worth striving for. Something that would lift me up into the sky.
A breeze blew the smell of salt up from the beach and cooled the sweat on my temples. One step at a time. I had found peace, more or less. There is a snake in every paradise.
* * *
I was toweling off when my wife, Millie, walked into the bathroom.
She looked me over, hand on her hip. A royal blue cashmere top hugged her curves. She turned to the mirror and brushed her thick brown hair. “Reliving past glory?”
“Trying to keep in shape. Just because I’m retired, I don’t have to become a slug.”
“See that you don’t.” She eyed me again as she walked out to the bedroom. “I’d jump you, but Jason’s here.”
“The lawyer. For Mother.”
I pulled on my shorts and a linen Henley. “Millie, this is wrong—”
“That old gargoyle will be dead in a week. The sooner I get power of attorney, the better.” Millie looked herself over in the closet mirror. She turned in profile, and smoothed her skirt.
“It should be up to her,” I said.
“Her? All she wants is to hurt me and you. You know the horror I—”
“Winthrop is her son.” I fastened my belt. “It’s her money. If she wants to leave him—”
“Who is where? Off fucking Brazilian starlets. While I’ve been stuck here, dealing with…” she waved her arm toward the wall as if warding off a swam of gnats.
The old woman hardly needed much care. “How are you stuck here? You could leave the same as him. You’d get her money anyway. You chose to stay. That was big of you. God knows she hasn’t made it easy. Give yourself credit.”
Millie blinked and cocked her head. “Stop being pathetic.” She left.
I didn’t understand why she put up with her mother. I didn’t understand why she was so set on ruining her brother. But if your partner goes wide, you have to cover. I followed.
* * *
Her name was Beatrice, but Millie had called her “the gargoyle” for so long I half expected someone else whenever I heard her real name.
Millie entered with a man in a grey suit with pale blue pinstripes. He wore tortoiseshell glasses.
“Mother,” she called.
I slouched by a desk. My part came later, but I wanted to see how this played out, in case Millie needed cheering. I touched a Madonna and child, wood, two feet high, from Medieval France. The sculptor had lived in squalor, scratching fleas through filthy rags, but he created an enameled face that glowed with youth, love, and a premonition of terrible sadness.
Beatrice swept into the room, back straight and head high. Ignoring everyone, she made for her high-back wooden chair, all leather and baroque carving, swiped from some monastery in Spain. It was too upright to be comfortable, but it suited her. Once seated, she looked around.
Millie approached with the man in the grey suit. Beatrice extended a bony hand.
He shook it, revealing a slim gold watch, and bowed slightly. “Jason Petite. Very pleased to meet you.”
“You’ll die at seventy-four,” Beatrice said. She had teased grey hair, her own, and the startled smile of the serial face lifter. Her makeup, as always, was flawless.
“I beg your pardon?” He frowned politely.
Beatrice spoke loudly and slowly. “You will die when you are seventy-four years old.” She turned to Millie. “Is he simple?”
“No, Mother, he’s a lawyer.”
“A lawyer?” Beatrice peered at him. “What’s he doing here?”
“He has papers for you to sign.”
Beatrice looked from one to the other. She withdrew her hand and touched her diamond choker. “Winthrop’s coming.”
“Mother, we’ve been over this already. Just sign the power of attorney. It will make things so much easier for all of us when—”
“I won’t die until Tuesday. Just drop off the papers.” She waved a manicured finger toward the desk. “I’ll look at them later.”
The lawyer cleared his throat. “Perhaps if—”
“Jason is busy,” Millie interrupted. “He has many important clients. He was kind to come on short notice.”
Beatrice leaned back as far as she could in her chair. “You just want to spirit it all away before Winthrop gets here.” She raised her eyebrows. Her grin, amplified by her surgeries, was garish, like a cartoon cat with a plan.
Millie stepped toward her mother. She leaned on the armrests. “That sybaritic parasite doesn’t deserve a dime. You’ve pampered him long enough. I’m sure he’s got enough socked away to drink himself to death. That’s all he needs.”
“That’s my girl,” Beatrice said. “But you’re wrong. He won’t die until he’s eighty-three.”
Millie waved her hand toward the lawyer. Her eyes stayed locked on her mother. Jason fumbled with his briefcase and drew out a document on a clipboard. He pulled a thin pen from his jacket.
Millie shoved the pen at her mother and pointed to the signature line. “If you leave Winthrop a penny, so help me, I’ll have Jason tie his inheritance up in lawsuits so vicious and protracted they will make Jarndyce v. Jarndyce feel like a quickie.”
Jason smiled, serene, confident. I recognized that smile. The mental game is so important.
“I built an empire, dear. You will squander it.” Beatrice signed.
Millie and the lawyer moved over to the desk and volleyed documents back and forth, muttering. Millie signed furiously. I sauntered across the room.
Beatrice peered at me. “You will die when you are—”
“Fifty-three. I know.” My guts twisted. In all the years she’d been doing this to me, it never got easier. I retired from competitive sports at thirty, married Millie two years later. That was nine years ago. I had a dozen left. About the same amount of time I’d spent on the circuit.
“You’re taking it very calmly.”
“You’ve told me before.” I breathed in slowly.
Her eyes probed my face. “I’d be pissed.”
“That never stopped me.” She stared into my eyes, as if trying to find rage there.
I looked away. “What happens to all this art?”
Beatrice shrugged. “She’ll sell it.” She looked over at the Madonna and child. “I liked the hunt. There wasn’t much I couldn’t buy, but this took effort—I spent a month in soggy Belgium, flattering a wine-soaked baron for that. Without the struggle it’s just some woman with a baby.”
I knew what I wanted. The time for peace and quiet was over. I needed a purpose, and now I knew what it was. We broken toys need to stick together. “Give me your collection.”
She gazed at me. Her fingers fluttered. “Whatever for?”
‘I’m the only one who appreciates it. It should all be in a museum. Where others can—”
“The public?” Beatrice dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. “Anyway, it’s too late.”
“What do you have on Millie?” I asked.
Beatrice touched her choker. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Millie and the lawyer were done. She bounced over, beaming. “Mother, thank you.”
“I’ll see you out.” I motioned the lawyer toward the lobby.
* * *
“What’s wrong with her?” Jason asked. “She seems spry enough.”
I pondered the question.
“She’s really convinced she’ll die Tuesday?” He laughed.
I should have laughed along, but I was still unsettled, and I never liked smug. I made a point of looking around the mansion.
“What?” Jason saw my expression. “You can’t believe that… seriously?” He snorted.
We passed a painting of a woman in a straw hat. “CEO of a multinational chemical conglomerate died with his family in a helicopter crash, back six, seven years ago. A tragic and unforeseen accident. The week before the accident Beatrice bet against the company’s stock, and it tanked. She loaded up on their competitors, and those stocks soared.” I pointed to the painting. “She bought that to celebrate.”
Jason looked thoughtful. He shook his head. “That makes no sense. Causality or something.”
“It’s a Manet,” I said.
He flinched as if the painting might bite.
Once your opponent is off balance, keep hammering. I pointed out more treasures as we walked to the door. They cried out to be seen, and like I said, all they had was me. It felt good to share. “…the only one in private hands. She was first to the estate; the viscount’s body was still warm. She offered what seemed like a fortune before the appraiser could get there.”
The lawyer blinked, his mouth open.
I ushered him out the front door. “Nice to meet you, Jason, I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
He paled. His eyes darted from the Bentley to the statues to the impossibly blue sea. “She never misses?”
I shook my head.
He swallowed. “What… what number did she say, that I…”
“You don’t want to know.” I smiled and closed the door. I’m not a complete monster.
* * *
“Why do you care if Winthrop gets money? There’s plenty.”
“Come away from the edge,” Millie said. “You make me nervous.”
I moved over to her. I took her hands in mine, and waltzed to the rhythm of the surf. She smiled. It always surprises me how quickly she surrenders to my lead when we dance. As if there had once been a softer woman there who had been sacrificed, as I had sacrificed my youth, and this echo was all that was left of her.
“Winthrop believes himself some financial wizard,” she said. “Playing the market, stocks and bonds. Something he and the old gargoyle had in common.”
I spun her around me. “That’s sweet, bonding over stocks.”
“He doesn’t have a clue. She only makes money because she knows what’s going to happen. He doesn’t even know that. If he gets his hands on some of this fortune, he’ll bet it all on some beefsteak mine, and wake up in a few months wondering what happened. Then he’ll crawl back to me. I can keep giving him more until it’s all gone, or at some point I say no. I’m going to say no now.” She broke off the dance and poured herself a glass of wine.
I shook my head. “This isn’t about protecting the money. There are ways of doing that. You want to see him suffer. Why?”
Millie looked out to sea. The sun was behind a band of clouds, rays shooting down into the sea, like B-movie special effects. “He would get Mother to tell him. First my pets, then my friends. He’d wheedle it out of her. Then he’d use it against me, for fun. Even if he didn’t know, he’d pretend.”
“Siblings torment each other,” I said. “It’s childish. You can’t carry that stuff forever.”
“Daddy died when I was twelve. The only person in my life who gave a shit about me. Winthrop told me a year before. Daddy must have known, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask him. If I didn’t say anything, maybe it wouldn’t happen. Maybe she was wrong. I prayed for her to be wrong. Do you have any idea what it felt like, looking at him, thinking six months, three months, one week…” She hugged herself.
Beatrice’s foresight had chewed up the old lady so bad she couldn’t help but spread the pain.
“She must have told him. He was his father too. It must have been as painful for—”
“He didn’t have to tell me.”
“If he hadn’t, your mother would have. She would have waited for just the right time. Like she did to him.”
Millie threw her glass at the nearest statue and stormed into the house.
The sun sunk below the clouds, lighting it in streaks of orange, red, and purple. The underside of the cloud was in sharp relief; it looked textured, like a cosmic quilt. Far out to sea, a thin band of blue bisected the red sun. I held my breath, hoping for the green flash. The last of the sun disappeared below the horizon. Not tonight.
Millie reappeared. “Winthrop is here.”
* * *
“If it isn’t the prodigal fucking son.” Millie crossed her arms.
“Sister!” Winthrop bounced into the house. He pulled up out of her reach and mimed holding her shoulders and planting a kiss on her cheeks. “Kissee, kissee.” He looked like a bantamweight weaving before an opponent.
“You’re too late. She signed over power of attorney. You’ll never see a dime.”
“Speaking of which, do not take stock tips from Renaldo. He was positive Adidas was going to tank. I shorted that stock up to my cufflinks, absolutely lost my shirt.” He ran a hand through his side-swept hair. “Dubai is getting absolutely trashed, nobody goes there anymore. Paris is such a tart; she had three stories in the Burj K. Men, women, and what-evers. But—” he cocked his head to the side, and made a moue. “—first things first.” He swept into the living room. “Mother, I’m home.”
I was curious. I followed.
“Oh, Winthrop, it is so good to see you.” Beatrice perched on her chair.
“You old bat. Not dead yet?”
“Of course not. Tuesday. You knew that.” She patted his patchy beard.
Winthrop bent down to kiss her. “Don’t let me keep you. I just popped in to say bye-bye, and to find out what arrangements—”
“But Winthrop, there aren’t any arrangements. She has my money, every penny.”
“Now Mother, ha ha and all that, but I don’t have time to—”
“It’s no joke, I assure you. It’s better this way. Otherwise she will tie it all up in lawyers. It will be a nightmare, and they will make off with it all in the end.”
Winthrop opened his mouth, shut it, and then tried again. “You put some aside, offshore, for your little Winnie? To build myself a portfolio?”
Beatrice shook her head. She smiled. “Now, dear. You have a very good head on your shoulders. It’s really past time you used it. Make something of yourself.”
Winthrop recoiled. He ran his hand through his hair. “Nothing? She has it all?”
Beatrice looked regretful. “I know it’s hard now, but in a few years, you’ll feel better about yourself.”
“You set me up. Now I have to go begging to that shrew? She hates me, you know that. You saw to that.”
“I don’t think that will do you any good, do you?”
Winthrop put his hands over his face. He dropped them, as if hoping the scene would be different when he opened his eyes. It wasn’t. “You did this to me. What am I supposed to do?”
Beatrice reached under her chair and pulled out a scrapbook. It was pink and gilded, with an ornate leather frame on the front worked around a picture of herself smiling garishly. “I made you a little something to remember me by.”
“A scrapbook?” Winthrop’s voice was so high it squeaked. “You made me a scrapbook?”
Beatrice smiled, and folded her hands in her lap. “It might help. Look at it when you’ve calmed down.”
“Why would I want to be reminded of you?” Winthrop stared at his mother. “I have to talk to Millie.” He stormed out of the room.
Beatrice’s mouth drooped. I felt sorry for her.
* * *
“Don’t even try.” Millie swung her legs on a stool at the kitchen bar, savoring a tulip glass of something dark. She didn’t turn around.
Winthrop dropped Beatrice’s scrapbook on the sideboard. He approached Millie slowly. “We’re not going to be friends. But even you don’t want me to just wander off and starve to death.”
“Eighty-three. She called it. Sad but true. If I could hurry it up…” She shrugged.
“But what am I to do?”
“Maybe one of your friends will give you a job.”
“My friends? I could never ask them for something like a job.”
“Then you have no friends.”
“Neither do you, even with all your money. Ace here is the only person you could pay to put up with you.” He turned toward me. “Impressive self-control.”
I didn’t want to miss this conversation, but I didn’t want to be the subject of it, either. I wandered toward the door. I picked up Beatrice’s scrapbook, and as a compromise, decided to disappear into it. Not that I had much interest in pictures.
“I was curious what you’d try. Insults hadn’t occurred to me. Interesting.” Millie took a sip and half-closed her eyes.
“Be reasonable. You don’t like me and I don’t like you. The fastest way to get me out of your hair is just give me my share of the money.”
There were no pictures in the book. There were no drawings or ribbons or borders. No color at all. There was a note in Beatrice’s crabbed hand. “Winnie, dearest, I’ve shown you how to use this. Rotate your brokers, not too much with any one. Mix in some bad trades. Don’t get noticed.” Then there were names. Each one followed by a date. Hundreds of them. Politicians, athletes, celebrities, business moguls. Their name, then the day of their death.
Millie swung around. “Reasonable? Where have you been? The last ten years while I’ve been stuck here putting up with that old gargoyle’s shit, taking care of her, being the dutiful daughter. What have you been doing?”
“Dutiful daughter? Do you think she doesn’t see through your act? She made you. She knows you better than you do. At least I don’t pretend to suck up to her.”
I turned the page. More names, more dates. Page after page.
“Such refreshing candor. No doubt it can support you.”
“I’ll contest the will.”
Millie poured another splash of dark liquor into her glass. “Be my guest. The old gargoyle’s entire estate is probably worth…” she tilted her head “…twenty thousand dollars. Some dresses and shoes.”
I scanned the list of dates. They were all in the future, some decades from now. With a start I realized that many of them were after I’d be dead. I found one just a few months out. Stewart Blankenship.
“Where’s the rest of it?” Winthrop blinked. He started to sound desperate.
“Poof,” Millie spread her fingers in a mimicked explosion. “Vanished. The money, the house, the jewels, the art. All gone. Across the big wide ocean where you’ll never find them.”
I checked the name on my phone. Mr. Blankenship was the CEO of First Credit Corp. Even I’d heard of them.
“You can’t afford a lawyer. I can. Scads of them. Anyone who takes your case will be bankrupt before they get their hand on my knee.”
First Credit Corp traded under the ticker symbol FICC. The stock was doing well. Peak after peak. “Mr. Blankenship’s inspired leadership.” No mention of health problems. In just a few months, First Credit Corp will have some tragic news to report. FICC will take a dive, and everyone will be shocked. Except me. If I bet everything I owned against the stock, I’d make a fortune.
“I’ll go to the press.”
Millie laughed. “There’s a sob story: evil sister deprives indolent socialite of cocaine.”
I put away my phone. The old woman had taken care of both of her children. As long as Millie didn’t know about this.
“I know people who can drag your name through the dirt. All I have to do is ask.”
“I don’t care what people think of me. I don’t have to.”
Winthrop didn’t know about the scrapbook yet, either. If I just shut it and walked to my room…
“I’ll tell them about mother. What she did. Trading stocks on privileged information. That’s securities fraud.”
“You’ll tell them she made trades based on foreseeing their deaths? Evil sister deprives indolent psycho socialite of cocaine.”
I leafed through the book again. In a year I could be rich. In two I could own my own Caribbean island. One without snakes. But I didn’t want an island. I wanted the art.
“Just give me enough to stake myself. I’ll make the rest trading.”
“When have you ever made a dime playing the market? You don’t have a clue.”
“Give me my money!”
The room went slow and quiet. I watched the ball float up, the racket sweep back. Game time.
* * *
Beatrice sat in her chair, cheek in hand, listening to the voices in the kitchen. She raised her head when she saw me. “That doesn’t belong to you, dear.”
“Winthrop’s distracted. I’m keeping it safe.”
“What do you want?” Both hands were back on the armrests.
“A copier would be a good start.”
“What if I scream?”
I held up the scrapbook. “Millie would get this.”
There was a shout from the kitchen. Glass shattered.
“She doesn’t care about Winthrop. This is all for my benefit. I should pay attention.” Beatrice gazed back at the kitchen door.
“What do you have on her?”
“I told you, I don’t know—”
I pointed to a painting. An expressionist steam train, all billows of smoke and speed. “You’ve built a fabulous collection.”
I looked at Beatrice. “It should be in a museum. I’d like that. I’ll be the—what do you call them—curator.”
Millie shouted a string of obscenities.
Beatrice rolled her eyes. “Talk to your wife. It’s all hers now.”
“I’ll need leverage. To convince Millie to let me have the art. What do you have on her?”
“This is getting tedious. I signed over everything. You were there.”
I shook my head. “You wouldn’t leave yourself helpless, not even for a few days. I’ve wondered. Why did she stick around? It wasn’t love or duty. She always knew she’d get the money. I figured it was some mother-daughter dynamic, unknowable to mortal man. But there is nothing between you but power and hate.”
More shouting, more glass shattering. Winthrop was certainly game.
“I should give her this.” I held up the scrapbook. “Love, honor, and obey, like I promised.”
Beatrice settled back against her chair. She looked at me with a appraising smile. “It would be nice, to think of all this together forever. Or at least another twelve years.”
In the kitchen Winthrop folded. He shouted and slammed the door. His Ferrari roared and spun off into the night.
“You’ll make sure Winthrop gets that?” Beatrice pointed at the scrapbook.
“Sure. Why not?”
Millie entered the room. Her tulip glass sloshed, half full. She steadied herself against the door jamb. “That was wonderful.” She sipped. She looked from me to Beatrice. “What were you two gabbing about?”
“We were just reminiscing.” Beatrice said. “Past loves. What was his name? That boy you were fond of. In college. Bill, wasn’t it?”
Millie stood ramrod straight. She glanced at me. “Mother—”
“No future in it. Not that he wasn’t nice, but he didn’t have long to live. Just a few months. I let her know, nicely, not to make long-term plans.”
Millie shook. She dropped her glass and advanced on Beatrice. “That’s enough! Shut up!”
“Why? It was a tragic accident. Everyone said so. Showing off for Millie on the balcony railing. People make such a fuss over dying. Hiding it, as if it were something shameful. If it was out in the open, we’d all feel much better.”
Millie veered over and sat on the edge of the desk. She looked nauseous.
I didn’t understand what she was doing to Millie, but she was doing it on purpose. “You never made anyone feel better. Knowing made you into a monster. You use it as a weapon.”
Beatrice smiled at me. “Your lifespan just is. Like your height or your bust. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But people drive themselves crazy about those things as well.”
Millie put her hands over her face. “Please stop.”
“Another thing that just is. Teenagers need to prove their mothers wrong. It’s part of growing up, I suppose. She hated my gift. She wanted so badly not to believe me.”
Millie turned to me. “Get out. I don’t want you here.”
Beatrice raised her voice. “He must stay. He needs to understand.”
Millie leaned toward me, her eyes pleading. I shook my head.
Beatrice relaxed. “She could wait patiently to see if someone outlived my prediction, of course, but no one ever does. Millie was never a patient child. It must have been hell, waiting all these years.”
“It’s over now. Almost over.” Millie took a deep breath.
“But if they died a day or two early, well, I would be just as wrong. She could arrange that. What’s a couple of days?” Beatrice laughed. “Bill survived the fall, of course. A miracle. And died two days later in hospital. Just as I said he would. I am always right.”
“Just a few more days.” Millie closed her eyes. She hugged herself.
Beatrice focused on Millie, as if to gauge the effect of her words. “Clearly, something was up. He was in the pink of health. I hired an investigator, very discreet. He watched what happened, took pictures, wrote a report. Millie lured Bill up on the balcony, and gave him just the teensiest shove.”
Millie dropped her arms to her sides. She turned to me. Her mouth trembled. Agony swam in her eyes. “It didn’t matter to Bill. It was just two days. If I hadn’t… pushed him, he would have been hit by a truck, or… but if I could prove her wrong, if I could break her spell, maybe nobody else would have to die on her command, like Daddy did.”
Beatrice scoffed. “My command? That’s like me commanding you to be a brunette. I just see. I cause nothing. I’m not a murderer.”
“Who knows about this report?” I asked.
“Millie and I. And now you.” Her eyes never left her daughter. She wet her lips.
I turned to her. “I don’t care. You’re my wife. Let the dead bury the dead.”
“And in a few days, Bill’s parents, and that nice inspector Peterson at the FBI. I sent them copies.”
Millie jerked as if shot.
“It didn’t seem right, letting them live a lie. But I didn’t want Millie in jail while I was alive. I needed her.” She sat up, leaned slightly forward.
“You let me think I would be rich and free.” Millie grabbed the wooden Madonna, stepped toward her mother. “Fourteen years I’ve waited for next Tuesday.” Her voice was hoarse.
Beatrice sighed. She didn’t look scared, she looked relieved. As if she had just succeeded at some very important and delicate task. “I thought it might be Winthrop, but he doesn’t have the balls. I couldn’t bear the thought of some perfect stranger doing me in.”
“You won’t live until Tuesday.” Millie slammed the wooden Madonna against her mother’s head. The chair toppled. Beatrice spilled onto the ground. Millie leapt on her. She smashed the statue into Beatrice’s face, grunting. Over and over.
I snapped out of my shock. Millie’s arm rose and fell, crunching bone. I dove, knocked her off her mother. The bloody statue spun across the floor. Beatrice groaned. I couldn’t save Millie or Beatrice. But I would not let myself be implicated, not with the art in my grasp. I pinned my wife to the ground and dialed 911.
Tony Parker has lived in Beirut, Rome, London, and Prague. He currently lives in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest. He studied fiction with James Thayer at the University of Washington, who stressed the value of scene, character, and conflict. He has been published with Literally Stories.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Scrapbook”:
We tell authors who submit relationship pieces to us that we only publish those that bring us something different and unexpected. Otherwise, we’ll politely decline them. Tony Parker’s story initially caught our attention because of his spot-on dialogue and wonderful character interactions.
When you have quirky, three-dimensional characters, sibling rivalry, Beatrice’s unusual “gift” and sprinkle in a bit of mystery, along with superb writing that stands out because it doesn’t get in the way of the story, the result is a recipe for a successful and very different kind of relationship story
And did you notice all those excellent bits of foreshadowing and the smooth transitions? Note as well the near absence of dialogue tags, which are largely unnecessary when a story is properly written. This is a story worth re-reading and studying for the author’s writing technique alone.