SILENT ALL THESE YEARS: A Novel (Excerpt Chapters 1-3)
T. A. Massa
SILENT ALL THESE YEARS: A Novel
Copyright ©2018 by T.A. Massa.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published: T.A. Massa 2018
Editing: Editing by C. Marie
Cover Design and Formatting: Mallory Rock of Rock Solid Book Design (www.RockSolidBookDesign.com)
All Rights Reserved.
I wake, my eyes flying open, and I jolt upright, bracing myself with my hands behind me. It’s pitch black and I can’t remember where I am. I’m not at home. This isn’t my bed. I’m shaking and trying to catch my breath.
“Nathan! Nathan!” I scream.
Panic surges throughout my body as I try to breathe air into my lungs. I lunge toward the nightstand, knocking over the iHome clock system, and remember the hotel.
I’m at the hotel.
I hear my pill bottle clang to the floor as I grow more and more anxious. Fumbling for the lamp, my fingers finally click the tiny button and light fills the room. I see the bottle lying on the rug in between the bed and the nightstand.
My knees hit the floor first, and only when my fingers touch the plastic do I finally suck in a huge breath of air. Still shaking, I dry-swallow my Xanax and crawl back into the hotel bed.
Breathe Melanie! Breathe, I tell myself over and over. It’s just your nightmare.
Small shakes continue to move through my chest, down my arms, to my feet. I cradle my stomach, protecting it from the punch of grief as it squeezes my insides. Images of Nathan dying in my arms play over and over in my mind as tears fall from my eyes. Waiting, I claw at the cold sheets.
A few quiet minutes.
That’s all it takes for the Xanax to flow through my system, bringing with it numbness and illusions of calm.
And this is my morning.
Every morning the same for the last three years.
The same nightmare. The same panic attack. The same drug.
The unfamiliar hotel bed begins to feel comfortable again. The soft down comforter of a luxury hotel, the fluffy feather pillow soft under my head.
Sunrays annoyingly peek through the thick curtains, shining in my eyes, and I cringe because morning is already here, sure my alarm will start beeping at any second.
Another day, and unfortunately, this day is different.
Dread fills me as the present creeps back in. Rolling to the other side of the king size bed, I feel for the crinkle of papers tucked safely under three oversized pillows. I’m disappointed when my fingers feel the envelope.
It’s still there. It’s still real.
With Xanax-induced courage, I reopen the packet containing the document that is making the pit of my stomach feel sour and heavy. I reread the same section, willing it to be different this time.
The section that clearly states I, Melanie Stewart, have been awarded fifty percent of Roger Andrews’ estate. I flip the packet closed and reread the first page.
The Last Will and Testament of Roger Andrews.
A FedEx courier—a boy no older than twenty—delivered the package to my office less than a week ago. Staring blindly at my PC, I heard the tapping of fingers on my cubicle wall.
“Are you Melanie Stewart?” he asked loudly, not bothering to remove the headphones dangling from his ears.
“Yes,” I said nervously.
“Sign here.” And then he was gone, off to deliver more packages to more unsuspecting people.
Scared to rip into it, I crumpled the envelope into my bag, hiding it until I was safe at home.
When I first read that name, I had no idea who Roger Andrews was. How could this man be leaving me anything at all? I convinced myself it had to be a mistake.
But then it hit me.
The name was buried deep in my subconscious, and the realization of who he was almost knocked me over. I could hear the key unlocking the deadbolts I’d latched on those memories in my mind.
Roger Andrews was a businessman from Dallas, Texas. He was the father of Kathy and Laura Andrews. Kathy Andrews, who was my mom’s old boss from when she used to work at the wax museum. The same Kathy Andrews who was lethally poisoned twenty-eight years ago.
Yes, Roger Andrews was Kathy’s father, survived only by his grandson, Jake Andrews, Kathy’s son.
But why in the hell would the father of Kathy Andrews, my mom’s old boss, be leaving me fifty percent of his estate? I’ve never even met Roger Andrews, or anyone else in the Andrews family.
Not that I remember anyway.
And it’s that question that has me stuck in this hotel bed, afraid to move.
The executor of Roger Andrews’ will, an attorney named Mr. Peterson, suggested we meet in Dallas to hash out the details, promising me an all-expense-paid weekend if I drove in from Austin.
So I did, leaving behind my safe apartment, my safe routine, my familiarity that keeps my anxiety under control.
After going to war with myself for another twenty minutes, trying to convince myself I can do this on my own, I’m able to get out of bed and dress in my usual post-Nathan ensemble: flats, leggings, a sweater, and a top knot. Maybe I should dress nicer for such an occasion, but I wouldn’t know, and I don’t care to impress anyone—the only person worth impressing is dead.
The thought of him sends me reeling back to the down comforter, sobbing with my whole body. My grief is something fierce.
Nathan and I were in love.
And not the kind of love you stumble upon. Not the kind of love you’re just content with.
It was the kind of love that finds you when you’re fourteen, a love that, the minute it hits you, it takes your breath away and you only feel this love now and nothing else.
You wonder how your life ever existed before this love. You can’t function without the other person.
They are etched into your soul. Your thoughts, your actions, your life is theirs forever now.
That was the kind of love I had with Nathan. Twenty years of love, a love that didn’t even need a marriage.
But there was going to be one.
And now, nothing.
Just a meeting with some attorney about some inheritance from some man I don’t even know. Rage mixed with self-pity consumes me. Nathan isn’t here to go to the meeting with me. He isn’t here to tell me it’s going to be fine. He isn’t here to hold my hand and comfort me or give me strength, his positivity fueling my steps.
He isn’t here to help reassure me that just because my mom’s boss Kathy was poisoned, that doesn’t mean my mom was poisoned too.
And just because my mom died mysteriously while she, too, worked at the wax museum, that doesn’t mean Roger Andrews put me in his will because he was guilty of leaving me motherless.
Mr. Peterson thankfully sent a car to escort me to his office. All that was required of me was to meet the driver outside the front of the hotel then ride passenger to my destination. Little did Mr. Peterson know, if he hadn’t provided the driver, I wouldn’t have agreed to come; the fear of driving in an unknown city, finding a parking spot, and arriving on time would leave me paralyzed.
Now, standing outside the metallic skyscraper, I watch as the revolving door spins. Men and women rush in, and just as quickly, a new set rushes out.
In, out. In, out.
More in, more out.
They’re all on their phones, having important conversations, carrying life or death messages. Their purpose clear, guiding their every step. I watch them and wonder if any of them are grieving, if any of them are as scared as I am.
Even the revolving door makes me nervous. Step inside too slow and the edge will knock me back out, too fast and I will surely plummet into an accompanying passenger.
You can do this Melanie. Just breathe.
I close my eyes and inhale. If only Nathan were here with me. If he were here, I wouldn’t be scared at all. We wouldn’t hesitate entering the building, feeling ready for anything that should happen.
I chicken out and decide to take the normal side door as to not risk the potential dangers of the rotating one, and I disappear as the magnificent foyer swallows me up. More people rush past me, giving me dirty looks, for surely I am inconveniencing them by standing still as they rush about. I finally see elevators and remember my instructions: to take the first elevator to floor thirteen.
As the doors open, I see the gray metal door marked Peterson & Sons Law Firm and take a moment to congratulate myself on making it this far—by myself, without panicking or leaving.
I let myself in and am greeted by a millennial receptionist whose style would make any fashion blogger take notice. My insecurity builds as I’m reminded I was barely able to dress this morning. Her outlined cat eyes look me up and down like I just crawled off last season’s rack. I attempt to smooth my fly-aways as she speaks.
“I’m presuming you’re Melanie Stewart? Mr. Peterson will be meeting you in his office, right this way please.”
I follow the receptionist in her three-inch, red-soled heels to the end of a long hallway.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I manage a “thank you” as she opens a door, leading me into the grand office of Mr. Peterson.
“Mr. Peterson will be right in. Please, have a seat.”
Finding two studded leather chairs, I choose one and sit, crossing my legs at the ankles. My eyes dart around the room, scanning every detail in seconds, analyzing my surroundings. Creating an escape plan in case there are bad men lurking in the shadows.
I’m facing an extremely large mahogany desk that takes up the entire back wall of windows, the only thing on its surface a small closed laptop. The credenza behind the desk is just as large and bare. A small family photo sits in a presumably real silver frame: a real-housewife, four young boys, no Mr. Peterson. The matte cream walls display patterns of modern artwork in rows. They’re probably famous paintings, but I wouldn’t know.
Fidgeting, my breath becomes shorter as my heart begins to pound in my chest. My fingers start to tingle. Time begins to stand still. My self-awareness is intensified.
Breathe Melanie. Breathe!
The sound of a door opening then footsteps behind me jars me back to my chair. I turn around eagerly, expecting to see the attorney.
But that isn’t who enters.
No, this is not Mr. Peterson. It’s a man, about my age.
When he sees me, he stops.
He’s not smiling. He’s not moving. He just stops.
He’s staring at my face like he’s seen a ghost. I’m staring at his face, and my insecurity about my appearance resurfaces for a second time. This man is striking.
He gently closes the door and when he hears it click, his tan loafers move toward the open leather chair next to mine.
Remaining still, I cross my ankles tighter, and I wait as he takes his seat. His presence is suffocating, sucking the air straight from the room.
Once seated, he tilts his head my direction, extends his hand, and says with arrogant confidence, “Jake Andrews.”
Heat warms my neck and cheeks, which are probably bright red by now. I put my small hand in his and grip firmly, like my Aunt Carol taught me, and reply, “Melanie Stewart.”
I can tell he’s not surprised because of the way he smirks. His big brown eyes remain fixed on my face, and I feel like he’s drinking me in one slow sip at a time.
He knows who I am.
My lack of preparedness for this meeting starts to mock me, picking at my vulnerability. If I had been smarter, I would have already assumed that perhaps the surviving grandson of Roger Andrews would also be at this meeting—the grandson, Jake Andrews, who was also mentioned in the will as inheriting the other fifty percent of Roger’s estate.
We are both here. We are both going to discuss our inheritance at the same time, and Jake Andrews is smarter than me because he knew I was going to be here.
He has the advantage.
As Jake and I wait for Mr. Peterson to arrive, I steal glances of him out of the corner of my eye. His suit definitely costs more than I pay each month in rent for my apartment. His hair is dark, shaggy but purposefully styled. He has a strong jaw, light skin, medium build.
Continuing to fidget, I look down at my hands and see I’m twirling my invisible rings: Nathan’s engagement ring and my mom’s opal ring. They’re no longer there, but my muscle memory twirls them just the same. I jump slightly at the sound of the door opening again as Mr. Peterson enters his office.
I still my mind, blocking Jake out, and focus on why we’re here: to discuss why Roger Andrews left me fifty percent of his estate.
Jake stands then strides toward Mr. Peterson, and they embrace.
“John, good to see you,” Jake says, his voice genuine.
Mr. Peterson towers over Jake by at least a foot. His large frame distracts from his balding head, barely visible as he looks down at us other humans.
He turns my direction, offering me a look of pity and acknowledgment. I stand and try to hold my head high, despite my appearance and suffering.
“And you must be Melanie. Thank you for coming all this way today.” His voice is deep and directive. “Jake had to drive in from Austin as well. I won’t take much of your time. Please, Jake, Melanie, be seated.”
We both retake our seats. Jake holds his hands together, elbows on his knees, and looks straight ahead. I re-cross my ankles and sit up straight, eyes on Mr. Peterson, ready.
He clears his throat then pulls a file from a drawer in his desk. Opening the packet, I can see the familiar lettering stamped across the front.
The Last Will and Testament of Roger Andrews.
The large desk begins to spin to the left, and I close my eyes. The anxiety in my stomach is strangling me, squeezing my organs until they will surely explode.
Don’t panic Melanie, not here.
“Jake, with the passing of your Aunt Laura, you are Roger’s last living relative—well, unless you count your grandmother but her dementia renders her incapable of making any sound decisions. Her trust is in place for her care until…well, until she passes.”
Jake nods for Mr. Peterson to continue. Begging my body to listen to my brain, I slowly inhale oxygen into my lungs.
“Therefore, Roger designated you as the primary beneficiary, which means you will receive fifty percent of his total estate.”
Jake shifts his gaze to the ground. His jaw is tightening, the veins in his neck beginning to bulge.
Mr. Peterson clears his throat and looks at the document once more.
“Melanie, I’m sure you read the section entitling Jake to fifty percent that also lists you at the same percentage.”
I nod. “Yes sir.” My voice cracks. Jake snaps his head my direction. The expression on his face would likely send anyone running for her life.
It’s absolute rage.
My heart rate speeding up, I focus my attention on the large man behind the desk, the man who could provide me the most protection, if needed.
“Melanie, the splitting up of the estate into two equal parts came as quite a shock. I called you both here to see if I can clear up any confusion on why Roger—I mean, Mr. Andrews, made his decision.”
Reaching into another drawer tucked in the large mahogany desk, he pulls out a sealed envelope.
“This letter is addressed to you both. I was under strict instructions to read this letter in both of your company following Roger’s death.”
Fumbling with the tiny envelope in his large hands, he pulls out a single piece of paper, seeming so tiny and fragile, the weight of the words giving the paper its meaning for existence. I can tell it’s handwritten.
When Jake sees the letter, he leaps from his chair. “John! What does that letter say?” He looks over at me, frantic, and then back at Mr. Peterson, running his hands through his hair and resting them there, atop his head.
“Please, just remain calm Jake. Let’s read it together. Please sit.”
Jake, pacing, glares at Mr. Peterson, seeming to challenge this huge man. I wonder if Jake will let him continue, or if he is considering grabbing the letter and running. Seconds pass, and Jake apparently decides to let him read the letter, retaking his seat next to mine as if someone forcefully sat him down, like a mother would do to a misbehaving toddler.
Mr. Peterson clears his throat and reads.
To Jake and Melanie,
If you are hearing these words, my life here on Earth is over. While my earthly gains are quite substantial, no wealth has more meaning to me than my family. Jake, you made my life richer than you’ll ever know. I love you as if you were my own son, and I will miss you terribly.
No life is free of regret. Even at my death, my heart remains heavy that a dear employee of my daughters’ company, Marilyn Stewart, mysteriously died at the regretful age of twenty-three. The tragic loss of Marilyn brought despair to so many, and it wore on my heart for much of my life. It is with deep sorrow that I wish for her daughter, Melanie, to be cared for after my passing. I am leaving her the other half of my estate to possibly relieve her burden, and if it is of no use to her, then perhaps the decision will be of some use to myself.
Yours with love,
Water seeps into my eyes at the mention of my mom. My heart tightens. As Mr. Peterson reads the last line, more air is sucked from the room.
Jake stands, beginning to pace again. Mr. Peterson notices Jake but disregards his behavior and looks at me instead. “Melanie, do you understand what this is saying?”
I want to laugh, and not a funny, ha-ha laugh, but a hysterical crazy person laugh, because that’s how I feel on the inside.
Kathy, my mom’s boss, was poisoned. Now, years later, her father feels bad my mom also died, so he is leaving me half of his estate, to what? Relieve my burden?
No, this was my fear.
This is why my stomach was in knots when I received the news of the inheritance.
I feel like I’m being paid off.
Where is Nathan? If only he were here, he would unequivocally know what to say, always so quick at reading people and situations.
Then there’s me, one who needs hours to process data, twisting and turning information until finally I can form a sentence, and then maybe, if I’m lucky, communicate it out loud. Hours later, my epiphany moment will emerge, and I will think, Why didn’t I ask that? or I should have said this, the moment for any impact lost forever inside my overactive brain.
“Melanie.” Mr. Peterson’s deep voice forces my eyes to refocus on his face.
I try to speak as everyone is waiting for me to say something…to say anything!
“I really don’t understand. I’m s-sorry,” I stutter. “Yes, my mom worked for Kathy, but that was years ago. Yes, she died, and as far as anyone knows, she got sick. He doesn’t need to leave me any money. I’m fine. I…I don’t understand…” Shaking my head, I begin to fidget again, twirling my invisible rings.
From the far corner of the room, Jake suddenly appears and stops directly in front of my chair. Hands outreached to the sides, he begins to shout. “YOU don’t understand? You! I don’t understand!” He faces Mr. Peterson. “John, this can’t be right. I am not giving this person—this person who isn’t even in our family, who I don’t even know anymore—any money, and definitely not half!”
Jake is losing his composure, and he’s starting to scare me. His body towers over mine as I sit in my chair. I feel like a small insignificant ant the way he is looking down on me.
Maybe if I close my eyes, I will turn into an ant, casually crawl out of this room, and hide in the wall, where no one will ever find me again.
“Mr. Peterson, Jake is right,” I plead. “This is ridiculous. I don’t need any money. I don’t understand. I can’t accept this. Thank you for your time but…I decline.” I stand from my chair as tall and straight as I can. The furniture begins to spin, but I blink and stop the motion, cussing at my backbone to do its job.
Jake steps closer to me, finger pointed, shouting louder.
“You decline? You don’t decline ten million dollars Melanie! Who the hell do you think you are?”
“What’s it to you!” I shout back, trying not to let him see me start to tremble. “You just said I don’t deserve the money anyway. I agree! I don’t want it!” I turn to Mr. Peterson. “This is nonsense.”
“Jake, I need you to calm down.” Mr. Peterson stands behind his desk, speaking firmly, and thankfully, Jake listens, turning his back to me and walking toward the windows. “Melanie, your mother obviously made a very strong impression on Roger. When he wrote this letter, he told me he felt responsible for her in some way—maybe because she worked for Kathy when she got sick, maybe because they never ruled out foul play—and then with Kathy’s murder… Look, he wanted to leave you with something, and the law is the law. You have to accept the money. You can do with it as you wish, but once Jake liquefies the assets, the money is yours.”
Covering my mouth, I slowly sit back down in my leather chair before the spinning wins and I pass out.
Ten million dollars.
I don’t want a payoff.
Why would Roger Andrews feel responsible for me?
Dread floods my heart.
Somewhere, deep inside my buried past, I always suspected there was foul play involved in my mother’s death.
Jake, regaining some of his composure, walks back over to his chair and sits too, sighing loudly. “John, what do I do now?”
“We can discuss that in steps Jake. Let’s wait and meet later for dinner. We can figure this out together. Miss Stewart, you are free to leave. I will be in touch with a proper dollar estimate soon and will see to it that the monies are transferred to you.”
I gladly stand to leave, thankful I’ve been properly dismissed.
Bending down, I reach for my handbag, and as I look up, I catch Jake’s eyes. He’s watching me, his jaw clenched, his eyes squinted.
I can only imagine what he thinks of me. I hate that I’ve caused him more grief.
His voice low, Jake attempts an explanation. “Melanie, please excuse my shouting. I just lost my grandfather, and all of this is a shock to me.”
I’m not sure if he’s sincere or not.
Mustering up my confidence, I snag my handbag and stand tall over him.
“This is a shock to me as well Mr. Andrews.”
Not giving either man a second glance, I bolt toward the office door. All I can think of is how quickly I can get back to my hotel, back into my sweats, and under my covers to cry.
I see him. He is sitting across from me, smiling. He’s always smiling, that beautiful charming grin that stole my heart when I was fourteen. He’s reenacting a funny story and he’s warming my heart. I can feel it heat up inside me, beating for him. The candlelight illuminates his skin with a soft glow. His hand, full of life, reaches for mine. I laugh at what he’s said, gesturing with my arms, causing my hand to bump my tall glass, spilling my red wine over the white linen. The expensive wine spreads, red on white, going everywhere, and he laughs. I always spill my wine, and he thinks it’s funny, endearing.
Then dinner is over and it’s time to go. I twirl the new ring on my left finger and feel complete knowing I will be his bride. My black silk gown is soft on my legs as we leave the restaurant. We are alone in the universe. This is our time. Nathan guides me with his hand on the small of my back, our energy sparking down my legs.
But it’s dark, and I can’t find the car. I’ve had too much wine, and I can’t find the car. I begin to worry, but then I see his face. Nathan is still smiling. He’s got the keys, he knows where the car is. There is no need to worry.
But then his face changes.
There is something behind me.
I turn, freeze.
There is a man—he wants something. I scream at Nathan, “Just give it to him, just do what he says! Don’t fight! Don’t fight!”
And then I’m soaking wet, holding Nathan’s dead weight on the unforgiving ground, gravel and dirt caking on my legs, my black dress changing to dark burgundy, spreading like the cabernet on the white linen.
And he’s not smiling anymore.
Screaming for Nathan, I plunge off the bed, landing on the carpet, almost knocking over the floor lamp. “Nathan! Nathan no! Don’t die!” I’m sweating, crying, barely able to catch my breath. Fear clutches hold of every muscle in my body.
My nightmare. Again, my nightmare.
I quickly scan the small room and then remember I am back at the hotel. The blackout curtains are pulled tight, but the afternoon light shines in around the edges. My suitcase is in the corner, my shoes by the chair.
Once I returned from the meeting with Mr. Peterson and Jake, I dove straight for the king size bed, and after crying for at least an hour, I fell asleep, desperately trying to process the events of the morning. I should have known I would have another nightmare. For me, sleep brings nightmares, and being in hotels always reminds me of Nathan.
I regain control of my anxiety faster this time, the morning Xanax still lingering in my system. Falling back into the bed, I wrap myself in the cool sheets and ache for my lost love as my breathing slows.
Nathan had this thing about hotels. It wasn’t enough for him to travel to a new destination, sightseeing and restaurant hopping. No, to Nathan, the hotel was just as important—or even more important—than the destination itself, but it didn’t stop there. Once he chose the perfect hotel—which was no easy feat—he would make sure he had the very best room, with the best view, the best access to the elevator, the best balcony.
Often times he could talk his way into a free upgrade and surprise me with an extravagant suite. Charming the clerk with his brilliant smile, explaining to her that it was our anniversary, although it rarely was.
Nathan loved to spoil me with only the best. He was fortunate growing up in a family that was well off and could afford things like vacations and restaurants.
I was not so fortunate.
Nathan often told me he loved watching my face light up as I experienced things for the first time. In a sense, he got to relive everything for the first time through me, rediscovering the brilliance in life.
Of course, I didn’t mind at all.
One of our favorite things to do in hotel rooms was to pull the blackout curtains tight, making it seem like the middle of the night even if it was one in the afternoon. We would lie in our king size bed and order room service and pay-per-view and not even care what time of day it was, getting lost in each other with no outside disturbances. It was like being in a casino with no clocks or windows, and we’d completely lose track of time.
With my curtains still pulled tight, my thoughts jump from Nathan to this morning’s meeting at the attorney’s office. My mind wracked, I mull over and over again the money, my situation, Jake Andrews. Something about that man made me feel…something, and after not feeling anything but tormenting grief for three years, I didn’t know what to do with a new emotion.
A text on my cell startles me. Grabbing my iPhone from the nightstand, I see it’s only my Aunt Carol.
Hello dear. I’m eager to see you tomorrow and hear about your meeting.
I rub my swollen eyes and reread the text about five times, thinking of a reply.
Aunt Carol raised me by default when my mom died when I was only three years old. With no other family to take me in, I guess she didn’t have a choice. I think she learned to love me over the years, but not maternally like my own mom. She never married, and she worked a lot. She was formal and strict, and she expected me to take care of myself. We never talked much. I guess that’s why when I met Nathan at fourteen, I finally learned to smile.
I have no idea how she will react to the inheritance money. I’ve nonchalantly asked her questions about my mom and her death throughout the years, and I always get the same response: “It’s in the past dear. Nothing can come of it now.” I suppose telling her I’ve been offered ten million dollars might make her want to bring back the past.
She and my mom did not have money growing up. Her parents raised them in a double-wide trailer, a home of love nonetheless, but money was never there. Aunt Carol would tell me that my mom had silly dreams of becoming rich and offering me all the opportunities she never had.
Aunt Carol was content with her accounting job and a small two-bedroom townhome. She saved money, but didn’t need money to be happy. Growing up with her, I never had expensive things or went to expensive places. We didn’t vacation or buy anything unnecessary. Nathan showed me a new life, one I always believed my mom would’ve wanted for me.
I text Aunt Carol: I’m excited to see you too. I’ll call on my way tomorrow, checkout is at 11:00.
I hit send and curl back into my covers. Friday is all mine.
What would Nathan do if he were here with me?
Answering my own question, I order room service with a mimosa and a glass of chardonnay then run a hot bubble bath. After soaking it up in my mini spa, I order a fifteen-dollar pay-per-view comedy and veg out in my bathrobe.
Nathan would be very proud. I can almost see him watching me with his big grin on his face, tempting me to smile back, applauding my spontaneity.
By the time five o’clock arrives, I am bored to tears and getting restless. Being still doesn’t work for someone like me. My mind creates chaos, torturous memories flashing, self-consciousness beating blow after blow to my confidence, creating a depressed state, opening the doors for panic to creep.
Food—my go-to anxiety relief.
Grabbing my jeggings, flats, and a tunic, I blow-out my dry hair then add some mascara to hopefully take some of the attention away from the redness in my eyes. The W Hotel in Dallas has a fantastic restaurant bar, and it’s not often I get a day off work—or leave Austin, for that matter. Who am I kidding? I never even leave my apartment anymore.
Maybe I need this.
Pausing in the entryway, I glance at my appearance in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, put there purposely to judge how you look before entering the outside world. I’m not horrible to look at, but I think maybe I try to be sometimes. A pretty face can be distracting.
I was beautiful to Nathan. He was a leg guy, which is probably why he loved me so much. At 5’8”, I’m mostly legs, and I couldn’t gain a pound if I tried. My Aunt Carol says I am my mother reincarnated. Aunt Carol is 5’4” and complains that she got their father’s body.
Before I can change my mind, I stuff my keycard in my handbag, suck in air for courage, and then go down to the bar.
I’ve managed to sneak into a private corner booth overlooking the lights of downtown Dallas. Luckily the restaurant is fairly empty except for the couple at the bar, who I’ve been studying. I’m pretty sure the man in the suit is on a business trip and the cute little brunette flaunting her chest is not his wife, seeing as she has no wedding ring and his gold band is hard to miss.
After enjoying half the appetizer menu and a couple more chardonnays, I’m starting to feel better about the day—not about the events of the day, but that I had the strength to come here and do all this on my own. Here I am, a thirty-five-year-old woman who can’t even handle a meeting by herself, but then again, my life isn’t exactly where I thought it would be.
I imagined by thirty-five, Nathan and I would be married, maybe have a son or daughter, living in our new house.
We would stay up all night planning and discussing our dreams. There was no rush for us. We lived every second to its fullest, cherishing each moment together and in love.
On my twenty-first birthday, we went into downtown Austin and got matching tattoos. We got the Chinese symbol for dream, mine on my lower back, his on his ankle.
Our dreams were everything to us, to me.
And just like that, our dreams were crushed in mere seconds.
Now at thirty-five, I’m a crappy assistant who is alone, grieving, and not going anywhere.
Three years I’ve been in limbo, searching for my lost love and lost life, praying it will reappear like magic. Then today my whole world is rudely disrupted by the past I had forgotten, a past that isn’t mine, a past that belongs to a three-year-old little girl and a twenty-three-year-old mother whose life was cut short.
I’ve always thought about looking into my mom’s past, but it was so long ago; where would I even start? It’s like my Aunt Carol always told me: it’s in the past.
But what about now? Now it’s no longer in the past collecting dust, being forgotten.
It’s in my present, a present that is empty of any hopes and dreams.
And I can’t ignore the big question here: why did Roger Andrews feel the need to leave me ten million dollars?
I keep thinking of it as a payoff, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe he has no idea what happened to my mom and just feels sorry for me. Maybe it is as Mr. Peterson said: Roger had a connection to Marilyn, and in some way felt responsible for her.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone told me my mom had a lasting effect on people. Aunt Carol always told me how amazing everyone thought Marilyn was.
Maybe Roger fell under her spell like everyone else supposedly did. Then when she died, he felt responsible in some way.
It doesn’t make sense though. Why leave me money upon his death? Why not see to it that I was taken care of my whole life?
As I take my last sip of chardonnay, the lights twinkling over Dallas, blurred from the water in my eyes, I make a decision. I won’t accept the money until I know why Roger left it to me, and if that means learning more about the death of my mom—or even her boss Kathy’s murder—then so be it. What do I have to lose at this point in my life? I have to try.
This is what I am thinking, holding back waves of apprehension, questioning my whole thought process, when I feel a presence approaching me, and then a voice: “I’d offer to buy you a drink, but after today, I think you can afford to buy your own.”
I turn, look up, and realize I’ve been caught, discovered in my secret booth overlooking the city where I was solving all my life problems.
It’s Jake Andrews.
It dawns on me that he’s probably staying at the W too. Why didn’t I consider that? It feels like an eternity passes by, and then he begins to laugh. He looks different, no longer in a suit, instead wearing whitewashed jeans and a white button-up, more casual, more relaxed. Maybe he’s been drinking too?
Laughing again faintly, he says, “Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I saw you sitting here by yourself and…I don’t know, I feel like I should buy you a drink after the way I acted this morning.”
He stands tall, not budging, eyeing me, asking me.
I’m not sure why—maybe it’s the wine, maybe I’m lonely, maybe I’m curious—but I say, “It’s fine, sorry.” I look down at my empty glass. “I guess I could have one more.”
Jake is in the seat opposite mine. We’ve been served another round and are in the midst of an awkward Where do you start? silence. Using my liquid courage, I break the ice.
“I’m sorry for your loss—I should have said that earlier today.”
He smirks with an oomph, pulling his attention from the night sky to my eyes. “Thanks. My grandfather and I were close. I thought he would live forever.”
Our eyes continue to lock, and it’s me who looks away first. Why do I feel so intimidated by this man?
“Melanie Stewart, in the flesh.” His eyes move casually from my face down to my chest and then back up, drinking me in again, as he did at the meeting.
“I was wondering if I would ever see you again.”
A five-second delay and then my mind catches up with what he just said. “Again? I’m sorry, have we met? I think I would remember.”
He laughs at my obvious shock. It’s not an endearing laugh, however, because his smile is tight, his jaw clenched, almost as if he’s holding back anger.
“No, I guess you wouldn’t remember. You were young—hell, we both were.” He sips his whiskey on the rocks, pauses to calculate, and then continues. “You were three, I was five. At the museum—my mom brought me up there and we hung out.”
He waits for my response eagerly, his intense eyes searching through my thoughts.
Turning keys, I open as many memory vaults as I can, clicking and clanking in my brain.
I remember nothing of Jake Andrews.
I picture what little I know of the wax museum, a dramatic two-story red and gold building right off the highway. Mostly I see a wax Michael Jackson. He’s dressed in blue and has a white glove. I remember going behind a single door and seeing offices and important people working. My mom worked back there in a big office of her own.
A feeling of being afraid begins to spread as I dive deeper into my memories. Wax exhibits flash before me, images of death and destruction—decapitated heads, blood, victims. I quiver as I envision glass eyes staring down at me from above.
When goose bumps break out all over my arms, I halt the images and quiet the fear. I try to be gentle with Jake. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember much about the museum or when I was little with my mom. I don’t know if I blocked it out or if I forgot because I was so young. I guess I can say nice to see you again?” My lips give a hint of a smile.
“Yeah, it was a long time ago. I guess I’m not surprised.”
Somehow I feel my lack of recollection has let him down, so I explain further.
“Jake, I don’t know a whole lot about the circumstances back then. Like I said, I was really young. My aunt never told me much about what happened there. Everything I’ve learned has mostly been from old newspapers. Today was…well, weird.” I start fidgeting, twirling my invisible rings.
Jake looks away, back out at the night sky. “Weird is right,” he says. Another pause, another sip of whiskey.
Then, without warning, he abruptly places his elbows on the table, links his fingers, and stares straight into my eyes. His whole demeanor changes in seconds. Seeing he has me on my toes, my eyes widely attentive, he begins.
“So Melanie, why don’t you tell me about yourself, because I can’t figure you out. I’d say you’re a bitch by the way you come off, but something tells me you’re just pretending to keep people away.”
Speechless, my jaw drops, and warmth lights up my cheeks. Confused about how to respond, I grab my wine and gulp, desperately searching for some sort of response.
Without faltering, Jake continues his interrogation. “What do you like to do? Where do you live? I see you drink good wine, so you must’ve learned that somewhere other than your trailer park mother. A man, I suppose? Did someone show you a good time Melanie?”
“What the hell Jake,” I blurt out without thinking, slamming down my wine. I begin to stand and he laughs loudly then grabs my wrist, pulling to keep me sitting down.
“Oh come on, chill out.” Laughing still, a huge boyish grin spreads across his face. “I was just trying to get you to let your guard down. You’re too uptight. At least now you’re showing some emotion. Go on, chew me out, let’s hear it.”
He drops my wrist and moves his hand in a circular motion, bowing his head, seeming to welcome my rebuttal to his insane insults.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” My voice comes out in a whisper of outrage. “You’re the one who wanted to buy me a drink for being an ass earlier, and now you’re offending me and my mom. Go to hell!” The warmth in my cheeks burns into a fire now, and I’m sure my skin is just as red.
He laughs again. He’s enjoying this game.
“Okay, okay.” He puts his hands up to surrender. “If you stop pretending to be a bitch, I promise I won’t offend you anymore.” Hesitating again, his face relaxes, and his eyes intensify, glossing over. Almost dreamily he says, “You really grew up into a beautiful woman Melanie. You may not remember much about that time in your life, but I find it hard to forget.”
There are so many emotions surging through my body right now, I can’t keep up. One thing I know for sure: I’m outta here.
Staring right back at him, I chose my words carefully. “Jake, I drink good wine because life is too short for bad wine, and yes, a man did show me a good time. He was a wonderful man who didn’t need to call me names and insult me or members of my family to get me to open up.” I chug my last drop of chardonnay, slam the glass down, and stand. “And I’m not pretending to be a bitch—I am one.”
I leave him sitting at the booth and haul ass out of that bar.
Adrenaline rushes my system, stimulating every nerve. I haven’t felt this alive in years—wine buzz, fast heartbeat, hands shaking, and not from my anxiety.
Proud and pissed, I make my way to the empty elevator and manage to push number ten. A smile emerges as I congratulate myself on my personal victory, relishing my bravery and my uncommon quick thinking.
Just as the elevator doors are closing, my smile is replaced with disbelief. Jake appears, hurling himself through the opening, and the doors close immediately after him.
In one swift movement he pushes number twenty and lunges toward me, pushing me back against the wall with his hands on either side of my face. Pinning me in so I can’t move.
His body is solid stone, demanding my full attention. His face is so close to mine I can feel his breath on my lips when he speaks.
“Melanie Stewart, don’t ever walk away from me again. I wasn’t through talking to you.”
He holds me there, inhaling long desperate breaths, waiting for me to say something, waiting for me to grant him permission. His eyes are hungry and needy. I can feel his heart beating wildly in his chest.
My lips part slightly and he takes his chance, pressing his lips firmly to mine. Not giving me time to decide. Not giving me time to change my mind.
Or do anything but feel.
His lips, his hands—all I feel is Jake.
As he kisses me, I fall farther away from reality, forgetting everything.
As his tongue caresses mine, I forget the insults.
As he pulls my leg around his waist, I forget the money.
As he thrusts me against the elevator wall, I forget my mom’s death.
And as he carries me down a hotel hallway to a closed door, I forget Nathan.
In all my years, I have never seen two sisters go at it like Laura and Kathy Andrews. Those two fight like the stray cats in the back alley behind my apartment. Carol and I have gotten into spats over the years, normal sisterly arguments, but nothing like those two.
I feel sorry for Kathy, bless her heart; that Laura is something else.
Just this morning, she made a big scene at our Monday managers meeting. Everyone sat, sleepy eyed, clinging to Kathy’s morning brew of Maxwell House for dear life, and here comes Miss Laura: electric blue pumps, Farah Faucet perm, barging through the door, ready for a fight with her dear sister. As Kathy was attempting to explain the new procedure for the gift shop inventory, Laura interrupted her midsentence to ask why she wouldn’t consider listening to the offer made for the museum.
“But Kathy,” she whined, stomping her foot much like Melanie does when she can’t watch Sesame Street, “they have a lot to offer us. Money, Kathy—more money!”
Sipping my coffee, I watched, wondering how in the world Kathy could possibly turn this situation into something less embarrassing. Sarah, the gift shop manager, kept her eyes straight down at the table in her usual stay-out-of-it way, while Paul, the concession manager, eyed Laura up and down, up and down, as if her tantrum was the sexiest darn thing he’d ever seen—much as he’s been eying me up and down ever since I started working here three months ago.
I guess I understand; Laura has the looks of the two sisters: tall, slender frame, large up top and small in the middle. With all her money, she uses it to look put together, never having a chipped nail or a flat perm. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy her wardrobe. All of us girls at the museum gossip about the size of her closet and what must be in it. Sarah told me last week that she overheard someone saying Laura has twenty-five pairs of cowboy boots. It didn’t surprise me one bit as I glanced down at my one old pair, faded and worn.
“Kathy! Are you even listening to me?” Laura continued on. It was all Kathy could do not to cry in front of us employees. I’m not sure anyone else noticed, but I know Kathy, and I could see the water forming behind her green eyes, her nose turning red, a grimace forming on her small mouth. How is she supposed to run this museum, to look professional, with a sister like Laura Andrews always barging in?
Thank goodness Roger was there to put an end to Laura’s carrying on. After giving Kathy a fair chance to intervene and seeing that she was stuck with nowhere to go, Roger came to her rescue. In his calm, fatherly voice, he said, “Now Laura, there is a time and a place hon, and this here ain’t neither.”
There is only one person who can stop Laura dead in her tracks, and that’s her daddy. Well, really it’s her daddy and his money. Shocked, Laura twisted on the heel of her pumps and spotted Roger, holding his coffee with a gotcha smirk, in the back corner of the conference room. Laura’s face turned as red as an apple. It was obvious she hadn’t known her daddy was there. Roger doesn’t usually attend our manager meetings, but this morning he was in town from Dallas and came to check in on things.
“Sorry Da…Daddy.” Laura straightened up so fast Roger might as well have been hanging hundreds from his Wranglers. “I was just tryin’ to get Sis to listen, and she won’t ever listen to me.”
“Well darlin’, it’s nice to see you show up for some work today. Why don’t you have a seat and listen in on how things are goin’ ’round here.”
The first time I met Roger Andrews, all I could think of was my own daddy. They’d be about the same age, if he were still here, that is. Roger’s cowboy hat is always intact, his mustache trimmed, belt buckle shiny, Wrangler jeans pressed, and of course the black boots, always shined and proper. Roger has his way of being stern and gentle at the same time. Oh, and you can tell how much he loves his little girls. His eyes hold a sparkle for those two, much like I’m sure mine do when I look at my darling Melanie.
Roger took to me right away—not in a romantic way, thankfully, but in a fatherly, protective way. I was grateful because, while he’s not the owner of the museum anymore, his opinion definitely makes a difference in my career. I needed him to like me, to support me, and he did right from the start. Kathy hasn’t told me, but I’m pretty sure it’s Roger I have to thank for my promotion to front office manager. One morning while I was pouring my coffee in the break room, I overheard him tell Kathy, “That Marilyn has untapped potential Kat. You need to get her on up to management—we could use a brain like hers ’round here.”
I beamed with pride hearing those sweet words, the affirmation of working hard and someone like Roger Andrews, a successful businessman, noticing. Roger is the most successful man I’ve ever known. Kathy told me once he owns most of Grand Prairie and some of Dallas too. That’s why he let his daughters have his cherished family wax museum—he got too busy to run it any longer.
Kathy, being the oldest—and the smarter one, if you ask anybody—got the majority stake in the company. She runs the museum from top to bottom.
Kathy and I first met during my interview and my nerves got the better of me that day. I could barely remember my name, much less answer any of her questions. I thought I was doomed to work at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket for the rest of my life, but then she asked me why I wanted to work at some old museum, why I wanted to come in every day and pass out tickets to customers. I looked her dead in the eyes, sat up straight as a door like Carol taught me, crossed my ankles tight, and said, “Kathy, I love this museum.” She gasped, and I could tell she was pleased with my answer. I watched as her whole attitude change in an instant, a glimmer forming in her eyes as she dropped her notepad and leaned forward, placing her hands on her lap.
With a smile, she said, “Tell me why.”
From that moment on, Kathy and I were reading from the same page. I told her how I’ve been coming to this museum since I was little girl, how the golden arches and columns out front intrigued me from the first time I saw them riding in the car with my mama down the Interstate. I saw the deep red paint and the bold gold lettering across the second story and asked her immediately, “Can we go there, Mama? What is that place?”
I begged and begged until she finally took me.
I told Kathy how fascinated I was with the wax figures, how I love that they’re a frozen moment in history, down to the smallest details, like the perfect shape of James Dean’s eyebrows, the hot pink shade of Dolly Parton’s fingernails, Michael Jackson’s royal blue sequin military jacket with gold-fringed shoulder pads and sash—and of course, his one white glove.
But it’s not just that.
There is so much more.
It’s the other, less obvious things about the wax, like how each person has their own texture, how Marilyn Monroe’s cheeks are smooth like butter while Jesus’ hands are bumpy and scarred.
“How is it possible,” I asked Kathy, “when all of the figures are molded from the same wax, that they can feel different?”
“It’s art,” she replied with a dreamy daze in her eyes. “It’s art and it’s history, Marilyn.”
Kathy hired me there on the spot, and since then we’ve grown closer and closer each day we’ve worked together, especially now that I report straight to her as the office manager. Our morning talks over coffee have become one of my favorite parts of the day. She is a mentor to me in so many ways.
It turns out we have a lot more in common than I knew. She is also a single mother, and her son, Jake, is close to Melanie’s age. We both share the same tug at our hearts being away from our babies while at work. Kathy’s expressed more than once how hard it is to leave Jake at his private school, like last week when he cried the whole car ride to Dallas then clung to her leg in his classroom for twenty minutes. Kathy was so embarrassed.
For me, it’s the mornings that are the hardest, waking up to my baby girl’s chubby cheeks and darling angel face as she sleeps so peacefully next to me, dreaming of kittens and rainbows, feeling all of my love. When I wake her then listen to her whine when I leave her, I remember, if I’m going to make a better life for us, I have to get out of that bed. I have to leave her and try my hardest every day.
I see the same drive for a better life in Kathy. Kathy isn’t like her sister Laura.
Not entirely anyway.
Kathy also grew up with money. She and Laura share the same love for designer everything and perfect hair. Kathy’s perm isn’t as tall as Laura’s, but she’d never have a hair out of place.
That said, Kathy is sweeter, kinder than Laura. She’s a mother, and her motherly side shows in how she cares about her employees, how she cares about her museum.
She has passion.
She has goals.
She’s responsible, a hard worker, and I know one thing for certain: Kathy would do anything to protect what she loves.
Anything at all.
SILENT ALL THESE YEARS: A Novel is a Standalone Fiction Mystery Suspense Novel
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Silent All These Years: A Novel by T. A. Massa releases September 13th!
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