An Unexpected Gift
A Short Story by B. B. Wright
Two months had passed since Tom’s death and, like a leech, the numbed emptiness Sylvia felt continued to suck out purposefulness from her life; while the humdrum of her daily life had become imprisoned within a brew of forlorn desperation and debilitating remorse. Life’s self-scripted past echoed its hallowed naked emptiness and negative untruths while it subversively gained unheralded success and, unwontedly, supplanted what should have been the bright promise that adheres to a day’s sunshine with the unlit, windowless cellar of a cloud-filled soul that stumbled about looking for its light.
Two days from what would have been their 10th wedding anniversary, she knew this happenstance meeting with Thackeray, their family lawyer, would have profound impact. There were practicalities that had to be addressed surrounding Tom’s will. But with those practicalities came finality; Tom’s finality; their finality. They were practicalities for the moment she felt a need to shun. Now that there was a strong likelihood that those smothering practicalities were about to invade, she steeled her mind to push back. She needed more time. Time to preserve memories of Tom and her and to keep them fresh a little longer before time’s kneading and transformative nature stole them and unceremoniously dropped them into its evolving mystic dream-scape.
Recognizing that it was pointless for her to hide from Thackeray, she took in a deep breath and marched down the beach to where he was helping Pepper dislodge something from between the rocks.
“Pepper! Get over here!” She commanded, pointing down to her side.
Thackeray was a very lean and tall individual who always had a sullen look pasted on his long, hollowed-cheeked face and a sneering smile that easily discouraged open friendliness. Known as a ‘bit of a snore,’ his colleagues nicknamed him ‘Sealy’ because of his ability to put the courtroom to sleep during dissertation.
Thackeray pulled down his toque tightly over his ears and pushed up his high-back collar as he turned to meet Sylvia. “I’m pleased that Pepper had the foresight to finally bring us together,” he called out, reproachfully.
“Your point is taken, Thackeray,” Sylvia said coldly, coming to a full stop a few feet away and snapping her fingers to get Pepper’s attention. “Get over here!”
“Sylvia? You…did get my calls?”
Pursing her lips, she glanced up at him as she attached the leash to Pepper’s harness and straightening up she let out a long exasperated sigh. “Time, Thackeray! I need time! Surely, you of all people understand that. Susan’s been gone—How long?—a year…a year and a half?”
Susan was Thackeray’s late wife.
“Actually, it’s been almost three years,” he quietly replied, looking away.
When his attention finally returned to her, there was earnestness in his expression and in his voice.
“Sylvia, we must talk.”She stared at him in silence.“I don’t mean here…at my office.”
Sylvia shook her head and began to walk away ignoring Pepper’s resistant tugs on the leash.
“Sylvia! At least let us set a time!” he implored, picking up his pace but choosing to remain a short distance behind her.
Stopping, she turned to face him and said: “What can be so urgent about a mundane will? Damn you! Can’t you let me grieve a little longer?”
“His will is by no means mundane, Sylvia,” he retorted. He cleared his throat. “As you know, the month before Tom’s death he added an addendum to his will.”
“I…I…didn’t…” She could feel her shoulders sag from his unexpected revelation.
“Oh…he told me…I thought…hmm… You and Pepper finish your walk. After you’ve taken him home, drop by my office. Say, two o’clock?” He mustered up his best empathetic smile before continuing: “An hour should give you enough time, don’t you think, Sylvia?”
His closely set eyes mounted on either side of his beak-like nose stared intensely at her as might a hawk relishing his prey. “Well?”
Sylvia stared at him in dismay and slowly shook her head. “You haven’t heard a damn word I’ve said…I need more time to…”
“Three, then… There, it’s done,” he insisted, ignoring her entreaty.
No longer a moot point from his perspective, Thackeray tipped his head and said “Goodbye” and abruptly headed off in the direction of his office on Slaughter Circle.
Slaughter Circle was home to a cluster of high-end office towers at the far end of the Park on the other side of Sykes Street and running perpendicular to it. His office was in the tallest of five office towers closest to the main street.
Dumbstruck and transfixed in place, Sylvia watched as Thackeray’s beanpole of a figure quickly diminished to no more than a dot in the distance.
Fifteen minutes before the appointed time for her meeting with Thackeray, Sylvia—as per usual—bypassed the elevator and began to ascend the back stairs to his fifth floor office.
The stairwell was encased in glass on three sides with each section providing a different view that blended seamlessly into the next; one section contained a portion of the Town of Milsburg; the next section highlighted the rough hewn beauty of the surrounding landscape; while the last section contained the awesome expanse of Georgian Bay sandwiched between the carved out rocky shore and distant skyline.
In the past she would have raced to the fifth floor, like she and Tom often did; but, today she found it a tough slog. It wasn’t that she was incapable of a faster pace; it was that her heart wasn’t into it.
Since it was a weekend, the building and stairwell were vacant and, as a result, it afforded her a degree of quietude for reflection before meeting with Thackeray. As she looked out onto the panoramic view from the third floor landing, she began to revisit the possibilities for Tom’s decision to change his will when she was distracted by the intrusion of a metal door slamming shut on one of the landings above her and someone sobbing.
Though the vista beyond the windows redirected her attention like a magnet, it could not dispel the growing discomfort over her meeting with Thackeray and what the changes to Tom’s will would mean. But, as quickly as those concerns arose they just as quickly dissolved because of her trust in Tom and their inviolable love for each other. It was as if he had whispered into her ear: “Everything will be okay, Sylvia. Don’t worry.”
Taking in a deep breath and slowly letting it out, she refocused her attention on the surrounding landscape and felt uplifted by its renewed clarity and freshness; a consciousness that had eluded her since Tom’s death.
The intrusion of the unmistakable echo of high heels quickly descending the steel staircase tarnished this moment for Sylvia. Pursing her lips, she leaned against the rail and, folding her arms across her chest, awaited the unwelcome interloper.
A young woman in black skinny jeans and red pumps and who was not older than twenty came into view. Her dark brown hair was crimped pomp and tightly locked in braids which flared out copper-like feathers on the end. A tattoo on her neck peeked out from her white cowl cold shoulder top. In her arms she carried her coat and a legal sized folder.
Preoccupied and oblivious to Sylvia’s presence, she walked into her almost knocking her down, dropping both folder and jacket in the encounter. “Are you alright? I really didn’t see you there. I’m really sorry,” she said scrambling to pick up her folder and coat and warding off assistance from Sylvia. Her thick black upper eye-liner and dots on the lower lash-line had coalesced to give the appearance of raccoon eyes.
Sylvia had barely said “I’m alright” when the girl preempted further discussion by descending the next flight of stairs.
From the smudged makeup, Sylvia was certain that that was the person she had heard sobbing earlier and, as she watched her disappear below the next landing, she could not help feeling that there was a familiarity about her but, no matter how hard she tried, she was unable to put a finger on it.
Well at least she said she was sorry, Sylvia begrudgingly thought.
When she heard the first floor door open and close, Sylvia shrugged in resignation with the current unlikelihood of recalling the girl’s name or the how, when, where, and why of an earlier meeting—another priority ill-afforded at the moment—and continued on to her meeting with Thackeray.
“Sylvia? Sylvia?! Are you listening?!”
“Huh? Oh…my mind must have drifted elsewhere. I’m sorry Thackeray.”
Her cheeks flushed from embarrassment, Sylvia shifted uncomfortably in the green leather chair opposite him trying to regain her composure. Tilting slightly forward she picked up the gold coin that Thackeray had pushed across his desk to her and began to examine it. Uncertain of what to say next, she returned it to his desk and looked at him quizzically:
“Um…what’s that coin… have to do with Tom’s will?”
“A lot,” he replied. And for a long moment he looked at her long and hard. “You really didn’t hear a thing I said?” He sat back in his chair and folded his hands together. “What if I were to tell you that that coin you were just holding may be worth a million dollars. Ah! Now, I finally have your attention.”
“Surely, you can’t be serious?!”
“I’m very serious.” Sitting forward, he rested his elbows on his desk and planted his chin on the hand over fist platform formed by his hands. “Tom found a whole cache of uncirculated mint condition coins a month before he died. He found them on the trail on your property. You know: the one that leads into the woods and down to the shoreline.”
“That may have been more my fault than his.” He stood up and walked over to the window behind his chair and looked out. “Tom thought that they were probably worthless. Fake. And, quite frankly, so did I.” He turned to face her. “I mean, what are the odds of going for a walk along a path you’ve used for years and finding a can poking out of the ground that’s a treasure trove of gold coins? Come to think of it…I guess pretty good odds,” he chuckled with a shrug. Regaining his seat, he rocked back and forth a couple of times before continuing. “Tom knew his time was short. That’s why he made that change to his will just in case the coins had value. He swore me to secrecy until we heard back from the Canadian Numismatic Association. Unfortunately, I didn’t notify them until a week or two after Tom’s death.”
“So they’ve been appraised?”
He nodded: “They have.”
“Earlier you said that Tom had found ‘a whole cache’ of coins?”
He cleared his throat, coughed and said: “There are exactly 1427 coins with an estimated worth of 10 million dollars.”
Speechless and dumbfounded, Sylvia’s lower jaw dropped leaving a gaping hole normally occupied by her full lips.
“Would you like a glass of water, Sylvia? Or…maybe something stronger?”
“Wa…water will do… just fine, Thackeray.”
He left the room and quickly returned with a glass of water and carefully placed it into her hands before returning to his chair.
Silence reigned between them until Sylvia finished the water and placed the glass on his desk.
“Now, you’re not to worry about your share of those coins. I’ll take care of that.” Adjusting his reading glasses, Thackeray turned to the next page in Tom’s will and perused it before looking up at her over the rim of his glasses. “Sylvia?” He bit on his lower lip before continuing. “Are you okay?” She nodded. “Um…He did include another change that I’m about to read out. It will be disconcerting to say the least.”
“I’m still trying to get my head around those coins,” she chortled. “I doubt that there could possibly be anything more unsettling.” Smiling at him, she said jokingly: “So go ahead, Thackeray, and give it your best shot.”
And give his best shot he did.
An hour later, head slung low, Sylvia walked up the walkway to her house and onto the porch. She was devastated by what Thackeray revealed. She could hear Pepper barking excitedly on the other side of the door as she put her key into the lock.
A girl’s voice called out from the shadows on the porch: “Mrs Canfield?”
Startled, Sylvia spun to confront her. “Who are you?! Step out so I can see you!”
When she stepped into the glow of the porch light, Sylvia immediately recognized her as the person in the stairwell.
Sylvia drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “It’s been awhile since you last saw Pepper.”
“It has. I remember the day you first came to visit him.”
“Your… dad… planned that carefully.”
“I didn’t know who he was until today.”
“Come in and get reacquainted with Pepper. We have much to talk about.”