Pausing before the set of bronzed gates, Trent slid his thumbs along his backpack’s straps. Beyond the bars, a ten-story apartment complex rose. Plants hung off balconies, gauze curtains draped windows, and a trim jungle of tropical foliage colored the sandy landscape.
A boulder of a man stepped from the security booth alongside the gate. “Can I help you?”
Shuffling back, Trent put distance between himself and the armed guard. The taller brute’s graying hair countered the slabs buttoned beneath a navy-blue uniform and cobalt eyes shooting through the bars like icicles.
Trent fumbled in his jean’s pocket for the tattered envelope. He held the addressed side, the one matching the complex, to the scowling guard. “I’m here to see Mr. Carver.”
The lines crossing the guard’s forehead smoothed. Looping his hands at the belt already burdened with a walkie-talkie and holster, he smirked. “You’re a little late, kid.”
The airport delays socked Trent’s gut as he stared at the envelope’s aged penmanship. “What do you mean?”
“Everyone’s been looking to talk with him. So many Mr. Carver’s not seeing anyone anymore.”
“I read about that,” said Trent. Smoothing a wrinkle on the envelope, he felt the letter inside, the one he needed to deliver before it was too late. He stilled his hands and lifted his chin. “This is different.”
The guard crossed his arms, biceps bulging like runner’s thighs. “How so?”
“I’m supposed to mention Marie Stapleton.”
The guard’s smirk faded. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Trent.” Trent gulped to clear his throat. “Trent Stapleton. I’m Marie’s grandson.”
Half a dozen cars zoomed passed before the guard extended his hand through the bars, his fingers expectant.
Trent clutched the envelope. “I want it back.”
“You’ll get it back.”
With a nod at the promise, Trent handed over the letter. The guard held the envelope by the edges, head bowed over the address as he reentered his booth.
Hovering by the gate, Trent listened to the lift of a receiver, the punch of buttons, the quiet murmur of a polite greeting.
“I know, sir.” The guard’s voice had softened with deference. “He’s got a letter from Marie Stapleton. Says he’s her grandson, Trent.”
After a sequence of “Yes” and “No” the phone clattered into its cradle.
Hearing the guard return, Trent raked his hands through his shoulder-length waves and straightened the lapels of his dress shirt. Through the bars, he reclaimed the letter the guard offered.
“Head straight down the walkway,” said the guard, thrusting a trunk-sized finger at the apartment building’s main doors. “Go through the lobby to the first set of elevators. You know the apartment?”
Trent glanced at the cursive on the envelope, the number clear and flowing. “I do.”
“I’ll let them know you’re coming. Straight there and straight back, kid.”
A buzz raced through the gate and the hydraulics pulled the right side inward. Trent sidestepped through, the letter in hand, and hustled along the sandstone walkway. The slam of the closing gate and the watch of the guard kept him moving through the shade of palm trees, past the lily pond gurgling to an outside swimming pool, and a view of the adjoining marina and Pacific, each golden beneath the setting sun.
The doors of the apartment building buzzed for him before he could reach for the handle. Pushing them open, Trent entered and flinched when another guard appeared behind a steely desk. Her mouth formed a no-nonsense moue as she pointed a glazed fingertip at the elevators.
“Thanks,” said Trent, his voice bouncing off the polished hallway.
Stepping briskly to the elevators, Trent discovered the up button already aglow. He shifted from foot to foot while waiting for the hush of gears to bring down the lift, and eyed the cameras tucked in the lobby’s corners. Spying his warped reflection in the black domes, he scrubbed non-existent grime from the chin he shaved clean before leaving the motel.
The elevator opened before he could dust off his jeans or rub the tips of his hiking boots against his calves.
The lift awaited him with an opened maw and Trent found his feet heavy. Peering at the envelope, he traced over the delicate letters, the faint blue of the ink, the ghost of the hand holding the pen lying atop his own. Inside his backpack, the tag with identical penmanship dangled from the wrapped package his father had given him along with the letter, his hands still shaking from the funeral, from handshakes with consolers, from the weight of the coffin.
A sense of responsibility spurred him and Trent stopped the elevator door as it began to close. In the mirrored interior, he saw the heritage of two generations in the outturn of his ears, the cleft of his chin, the slope of his eyes, and the threads of red in his sandy hair. Photographs of his parents, of his grandmother Marie, hanging on apartment walls hovered alongside his face.
With them watching on, Trent entered the lift.
Like the up button, the penthouse floor had already been selected, the only one illuminated beneath the card slot. Back in the lobby, the guard stood at her desk, her eyes on him, her hand hovering over a phone or security alarm.
Trent managed a wobbling smile and saluted her with the envelope. Her stiff stance never wavered, but the closing doors put her out of sight. The elevator rose and gravity tugged, but before he could start counting floors, the lift stopped again. One ding preceded the doors splitting wide.
They opened into a dim foyer flanked by windows showing the ocean and coastline as far as the eye could see.
“You say you’re Marie’s?” asked a gravelly voice from a shadowed living room.
Trent peered into the gloom. When his eyes adjusted, rattan screens and furniture sat silhouetted against the dusk. A figure occupied one chair, the round peak of a head visible along with the bend of a crossed knee.
Clearing his throat, Trent faced the other man, the one he hoped was Carver, his boots squeaking on foyer’s bamboo tiles. “Yes, sir.”
“You know how many have used that line?”
Trent rubbed the envelope. “No, sir.”
A clink in crystal accompanied an amused grunt.”Been a while though.” The speaker sipped from a tumbler with iced liquor and beckoned with a free finger.
Trent padded forward, wincing at each creak in the floor, and then the silence when his boots hit carpet.
“Have a seat,” said Carver, motioning with the glass at a facing chair.
Slipping off his backpack, Trent perched on the velvet cushion. He placed the bag at his feet, a glass table burdened by a tray of filled carafes an island floating in between the seats.
In the opposing chair, beige cushions embraced a bald man, ears sprouting from the sides of his face. Pitted eyes stared out above a hawkish nose, their dark brown polished stone. Emerald-green parrots floated on his unbuttoned aloha shirt, revealing a wrinkled tee shirt and sunken frame.
“No thank you, sir.”
“Sir, bah.” He brought the drink to his thin lips and sipped. With a hiss, he followed the glass he lowered to his armrest. “My name’s Owen.”
“So it is.” He uncurled his index finger and pointed. “You say you’re Trent Stapleton.”
“And you’re here to what?” Owen’s eyes narrowed. “Ask for the account like everyone else?”
“Then you’ve come to pay your respects to an old man.” He swirled his glass, making the ice clink. “To weasel your way into my will.”
Owen stilled his drink. The sun danced in the crystal’s facets when he titled forward. Placing his glass on the table, Owen leaned his elbows on the knees of his khakis and intertwined his fingers. “Why are you here, boy?”
“I’ve come to give you something.”
Chuckling, Owen slouched into the chair’s grooves. “You’ve come to give something to the man with the bottomless bank account? To the one who can buy anything?”
Trent collected his backpack to his lap. “Yes.”
“I’m not sure what you’re playing at, boy, but at least you’re different.” Owen braced his head in his hand. “What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
Owen’s laugh quieted. “You’ve brought me something and you don’t know what it is?”
“It’s not from me.” Trent unzipped his bag and fished out the package. The dark green wrapping paper crackled in his hand, the tag with Marie’s writing flapped.
“Who’s it from?”
“My grandmother I think.” Placing his bag down, Trent set the package on the table “My dad told me you needed to have it—” He gulped and glanced up.
“Before I died?”
“No. After she did. He brought this out of my grandmother’s safety deposit box after the funeral along with this.” The envelope fluttered in a gust through an opened window as he held it over the table.
Owen reached for the letter but as a breeze bent it back, he fetched his drink instead. “I can’t.” He downed the tumbler’s contents. “That was part of the deal.”
Trent balanced the letter on the box. “Part of what deal?”
“A man doesn’t get a bank account that doesn’t empty without some repercussions, boy.”
“I just thought you were really wealthy. You know, invested right and all that.”
Owen pitched glass back onto the table, the crystal scraping. “Did you ever meet your grandmother?”
“That explains it.”
Trent stiffened while Owen inspected him. The older man lingered on the same inherited traits, the ears, the chin, the hair. His subsequent grunt carried annoyed satisfaction and Owen uncapped one of the carafes.
“She was a strong woman, your grandmother.” He poured and talked to the drowning ice. “She promised never to tell anyone what I saw that night, what I did. Seems she held true to that.”
“Can you tell me?”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter now.” He finished pouring and didn’t replace the stopper. “I made a deal. A stupid, thoughtless, greedy, childish bargain I thought would set me up for life.” Cupping the crystal, Owen stared at the liquor.
“We’d gone driving out into the desert, ended up on some reservation. We set up our camp, pitched the tent, made our fire. Marie even managed to make dessert in my cast iron pan. Brownies with walnuts.” A faint smile curled his lips, softening the tough leather of his skin. The ice clinked, drawing him from his thoughts. “A man appeared that night after—”
Looking up, Owen snickered. “I suppose you’re old enough.”
After a sip, he slouched into the cushions. “Your grandmother and I had some relations despite her family’s objections to her fraternizing with a poor fellow from the other side of the tracks. We’d fallen asleep but sometime in the night I woke. I sensed someone outside. Without waking her, I tugged on my pants, grabbed one of my shoes, and went to defend us. Turned out I was the one to lose.”
Trent scrubbed through his hair. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t.” Owen stared out the window. “A man stood outside our tent, solid as you’re sitting before me now. The world stopped, leaving he and I the only things moving, the only things living. He offered me a drink, said it would give me anything I wanted. I glanced into the tent, at Marie, sleeping like an angel, and could think of one thing: money. With a bottomless bank account, no one could stand between us. I could have Marie. I could give her everything she might ever want. We wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again.” He dropped his gaze to his glass. “I drank before I thought twice, never realizing the price I’d be paying.”
Owen balanced the crystal on his knee. “In the morning I told her everything, told her what the man had promised, that we could be together. She didn’t believe me until we reached the bank and we checked my account. I’d never seen so many zeros.” He chuckled without mirth. “We were so happy. We went back to my studio and that’s where it first happened, where I learned what I’d given up.”
Trent shifted in his seat, the whicker crackling like the embers igniting in Owen’s gaze, each shining with pain and loss.
“I couldn’t receive anything anymore. I could buy things sure, but accepting presents, gifts, a simple hug?” He circled the glass, melting the ice. “No more. They were like opposing magnets to me. It started pushing everyone away, except those looking for my money of course. Marie was never one of those. We were going to be married you see. I’d bought the engagement ring before our trip, before the deal, saved and scraped for months. But I couldn’t accept anything from her anymore, not her body, her love, the ring she might have put on my finger, and trust me we tried.” He licked the foul memory off his teeth. “Nothing worked.”
Owen shrugged. “We fought. She left. I did too, to search out that man, to undo what I’d done but the deserts were empty, empty as the rest of my life.”
“It’s pathetic.” Owen swept with his glass, indicating the plush lounge chairs on the balcony, the dining room with china place settings, the baby grand tucked into the corner. “It’s left me alone, with all this useless crap and folks like you, sniffing at my heels, waiting for me to decide what to do with all this tainted money and then keel over.”
Trent bristled. “I didn’t come for your money, Mr. Carver.” He plucked the envelope. “I came because my grandmother asked me to.”
The sarcastic twist on Owen’s face eased and his focus settled on the letter, the package. “Will you open it for me?”
“Haven’t you been listening, boy?”
Trent raised his hands in apology and scooted to the table’s edge. He untied the knot without breaking the ribbon and kept himself from ripping or tearing the wrapping paper as he might have on Christmases or birthdays past. His care unveiled a small box made of ochre stone, petroglyphs carved on each side.
“She didn’t.” Owen shifted to his seat’s lip and abandoned his drink on the table.
Trent looked up, his hands frozen.
“Go on,” snapped Owen.
With his fingertips, Trent lifted the lid off the base. A vial lay inside, resting on a faded piece of linen. Taking out the vial, he retrieved the scrap. It billowed out into a handkerchief, YOUR FREEDOM stitched across the center.
A glisten wet Owen’s eyes and, with a shaky hand, he reached for the handkerchief. A breeze caught the cloth and it bunched, taking the linen safely away from his touch. Retreating into his chair, Owen muttered curses under his breath.
“Maybe this is different.” Trent reached for the vial again but Owen snatched his wrist, holding him at bay.
Owen let him go, but Trent kept still when he then sent his fingers toward the tube. Breath ceased in the older man’s chest and the room quieted. The furniture, ocean waves, even the parrots on his shirt seemed to hush.
When his first finger touched the vial, Owen exhaled, the penthouse deflating along with him. With eager fingers, he plucked the tube and cradled it in his palm, the rolling fluid slapping against the glass.
“Mr. Carver, wait,” said Trent as the older man popped the stopper. “You can’t just drink that. How do you know what’s it going to do to you?”
“Nothing’s worse that what I’ve been through already.” He watched the liquid slosh. “I lost the love of my life, had to abandon my son, and spent the last sixty years trying to fill the hole in my heart with purchases, with places, with things.” He raised the vial in toast. “Even if this poison’s me, it’ll be better than another day of this crap.”
Trent sat riveted as Owen tipped the contents down his throat, swallowed, and curled in on himself. A tremor wracked his body so hard the parrots seemed to fly. Trent had his phone in his hand, thumb over the nine when the shivering stopped.
“No, don’t.” Owen slumped, his chest heaving, his baldhead coated in sweat.
Darting from his chair, Trent knelt at his side. “Mr. Carver?” He touched the older man’s slick forearm. “Owen?”
Owen resurfaced from whatever trauma he’d endured, his cheeks bunching in a smile. “I think she did it.”
The tremulous grin warmed Owen’s pallid features and Trent turned with him to the handkerchief. Owen’s veined hand inched toward it. The winds died and the bunched cloth never twitched. It crumpled instead in Owen’s grasp and caught his tears when he brought the hand-stitched scrap to his face.
“Thank you, Marie.”
Linen smothered his whisper but Trent felt sure his gratitude would be heard six feet under and three thousand miles away.
With the handkerchief in hand, Owen slipped off the chair. Trent grabbed a pillow and laid the limp man on the carpet. Owen gazed at him and his body sagged. Even the stiffness in his skin relaxed.
“The will’s already made you know.”
“Don’t worry about your will, Mr. Carver. I’m going to call a doctor.”
Trent reached for his phone again but Owen caught his shift front and Trent couldn’t fight the fierce tug pulling him to the older man’s face. “It all goes to Marie’s son…our son.”
“Sure,” said Trent, “whatever you like Mr. Carver.”
“Stupid boy.” A haunted laugh flew from Owen’s darkening lips. “Mine understood.”
Trent held his tongue against asking who, against hearing the truth he’d suspected when he’d first seen Owen’s face and heard his father’s request. The old man looked past him anyway, his thoughts somewhere else. Staring at the ceiling, the tension leaked from Owen’s every muscle, his eyes fluttered closed, and his face froze with a pleased and eternal grin.