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While Rupert paced in the parking lot, a cool spring breeze went down the back of his neck and made him shiver. Or was the shiver from having to go into the boss’s office? He had issues with male authority figures, or so his last work-ordered therapist had told him.

Rupert ran most of the tree-trimming crews for the electric company. His 6-foot 4-inch frame held almost 260 pounds. The red beard and no-nonsense attitude completed the full-on lumberjack look. He stretched out to his full height when he entered his boss’s office.

“I know it’s the busy season, but I need to go home for a week,” Rupert told his boss.

“Not sure I’ve heard you talk about home before. How long has it been since you were home?”

Rupert twisted his scraggly beard, knowing how much the boss hated it when he did. “I haven’t been home in a decade, or is it two?” He thought for a minute, “Seventeen years. That’s how long.”

“Where is home exactly?”

“Buzzard’s Breath, Wyoming.”

“Umm… sounds like paradise.

“Well, a famous football player is from there,” Rupert replied.

“Tell, him hello, but don’t be longer than a week. So, what’s the urgent need after all these years?”

“Dead mother.”

“Oh my God, Rupert, take all the time you need. Were you two close?”

“No. And I’ll be back in a week, don’t worry.”

His two-year-old Chevy Silverado hummed down the road as Merle Haggard ballads played on the CD player. Buzzard’s Breath, Wyoming, ha! He’d been smiling about that for half the trip. After five hours of flat boring prairies for as far as he could see after leaving Rapid City, South Dakota, he pulled into Billings, Montana.

A tank of fuel, two hot dogs, a bag of chips, a big bottle of water, and Rupert was back on the road. Another thirty minutes up Route 3 to Broadview.

The drive hadn’t changed much over the years. Acres per head of cattle rather than head per acre. To the casual observer, the landscape was serene. The quiet landscape belied the rough and tumble area—and people.

He pulled into the drive and parked in front of the porch, letting out long whistle as he stared. “Jee-sus, I thought the place was run down when I left.”

Rupert phoned the lawyer handling the estate and confirmed that he’d be at his office the next morning.

The wind yanked the truck door out of his hand and slammed it shut. “God damn wind. All the God damn time.” The porch steps creaked and groaned under his feet. “What the hell? A lock?”

There was a padlock and hasp on the front door. The door was never locked when he lived there. There still wasn’t even a lock in the door frame.

“Well, it’s my house now,” he said, as he splintered the door and frame with his foot. Rupert walked into the living room. Same sad couch, end table, and coffee table. The overstuffed chair was gone and a dinky 32-inch LED television hung on the wall, complete with a myriad of cables like octopus arms dangling down.

Three kitchen cabinets had doors missing. The linoleum was worn through to the plywood subfloor under one chair at the table. A second dinky television was sitting on the dry sink at one end of the kitchen, viewable from the table. So, at least I know where she spent her time.

His mother’s bedroom on the first floor was unchanged, right down to the pictures of his half-sister all over the walls to the double wedding ring quilt on the queen-sized bed. A glance into the bathroom showed towels and who knows what else wadded on the floor. Probably hadn’t been cleaned in two presidential administrations. How can people live like this?

The same stairs creaked that he remembered, plus a few more. The bedroom on the right had been his. He opened the door and stepped in. It was exactly as he left it seventeen years ago. Aquaman comic book on the unmade bed and the pile of dirty clothes on the floor in front of the closet. Unbelievable.

The other bedroom belonged to his sister… well, his half-sister. Now this is weird. Stuffed dolls arranged in rows like an audience to photographs of her on the dresser. School awards surrounded the corker board covered with yellowed newspaper clippings of her school successes during her brief life. The room had been made to look like a shrine to her.

Nope, nothing he needed or wanted in the house. He’d make another pass through tomorrow after making arrangements with the funeral home for cremation.

Rupert called the Adams Hotel in Lavina, about a 15-minute drive. It was an historic hotel for some reason, and he had always wanted to stay there, but never had. Besides, there were no hotels in Broadview. With a population of almost 200 people, Lavina was the hub of the area. Broadview people always thought Lavina people were snobs.

#

He passed the Homestead Grill on Route 3 on the way to Lavina. But it had always been called “The Dive Bar.” It was a biker bar, and generally not known for its food, or for anything legal, so that was out for supper.

The room was pricier than he thought it should be, but clean and neat. He asked the clerk at the hotel desk for a recommendation for a place to eat. The clerk pointed to a shabby-looking café across the street and said, “You’ll want to eat there. Mabel closes at six sharp. Other options are a short drive and a distant second for a meal.”

Rupert nodded his thanks. “I think that’ll do. Is the chicken fried steak any good?”

“Best around, hands down. That’s what I have.”

Rupert sauntered across the empty street and entered the Cozy Café. Though shabby on the outside, the inside was impeccable. The red and white checkered tablecloths were precisely aligned with salt and pepper shakers exactly in the center. He could almost see his reflection in the tiled floor.

“Sit anywhere?” Rupert called to the empty room.

“Yup, grab any table, I’ll be right there.”

Rupert sat at a table by the window. He backpedaled through his years in the area and the memories, searching for a good one.

The sound of the coffee cup placed on the table shook him out of his thoughts. “Just made the coffee, so it doesn’t get any fresher.” He looked up to see an older woman with ‘Mabel’ on her shirt. She carried the gray hair and matronly figure well. Mabel looked like everyone’s mother. Well, everyone’s except his.

“Thanks. I like a place that brings coffee without asking.”

She smiled. “I’m Mabel. You’re not from around here, are you?”

He returned her smile. “Nope. Buzzard’s Breath, Wyoming.”

She put the coffee pot on the table and stared at him. “Cut the crap. I’m a life-long Steelers fan and I watched that Monday night football game in ’74 when Jack Lambert introduced himself as being from Buzzard’s Breath, Wyoming. He duped the entire broadcast crew. The only person he didn’t make look stupid was Howard Cosell, because he was already stupid.”

Rupert looked down at the tablecloth.

“So, where you from, young man?”

“Huntley, just east of Billings, but I moved away long ago and am just passing through.” He lied.

“There, was that so hard?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Polite, too. I like that; your momma raised you proper.”

He looked down at the table.

Mabel pulled out a chair and sat across from him. Rupert took a sip of his coffee because he didn’t know what else to do.

“Lived here all my life. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to just be ‘passing through’ somewhere.”

Rupert put the coffee cup down. “Truth be known, a cousin said a place might be coming up for sale down in Broadview. He called it the ‘Old Chaney place.’ It’s right on Route 3.”

Mabel cocked her head and looked away in thought. “Yes, that’s probably right. Crazy Anne Chaney died a few days ago. My cousin lives up the road from her. If you ask me, she died twenty years ago. The place is a total wreck, at least it is from the road view.”

“Died twenty years ago?”

“Yeah, her husband died, she got remarried, the new husband never liked her kid, a boy; she had a girl with the new fella. Not that uncommon of a story around here.”

Rupert leaned forward. “But what do you mean, she died twenty years ago?”

“Oh, the daughter died in the house. The little girl was her whole life. It was like she forgot she even had a son.” Mabel looked away for a few seconds. “Anyway, she stopped caring or living after the girl died. Then the husband died, then the son left, though she may not have even noticed.”

He tried not to look too interested. “That’s tragic.”

“Oh, yeah, my sister’s boy is a plumber and had to go in to fix the toilet and said her bedroom had hundreds of pictures of the little girl in it. Not one of the boy. Really creeped him out. There’s worse stories than that around.”

“Worse than that?” Asked Rupert.

“Enough of this nonsense. You came in to eat; I’ll get a menu.”

“No need. How about chicken fried steak?”

“Coming up with an order of fries.” With that, Mabel disappeared.

Wow. A synopsis of my early life in a couple sentences.

The meal was excellent. He left a generous tip and returned to the hotel where he stared at the ceiling for hours before he went to sleep, processing Mabel’s information.

#

He walked into the offices of Gilbert & Son in Broadview at 8 am sharp the next day. Seth Gilbert was standing in the lobby and greeted him. “Right on time.”

“It’s a virtue,” Rupert replied.

“Come on into the back-conference room, Mr. Chaney. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”

Rupert waved his offer off and followed the long lanky man to the back of the building.

“I have everything all laid out. It’s pretty simple, what with an uncontested will and limited assets.”

“I figured,” said Rupert as he scanned the piles of paper. “I didn’t know she had a will.”

“She did. From long ago. Everything goes to you.”

“And you can handle everything? How did you find me?”

“Yes, our firm will handle the probate, tax filing, and state requirements upon a death. And it wasn’t easy finding you.”

Rupert signed some forms and asked, “I assume you can take care of the cremation arrangements and interment with the funeral home, too?”

“We can. Not common, but we can.”

“Then please do. Burial plot?”

“As stated in the will, next to her daughter, Emily.”

“Kinda figured that. I’ve signed everything here. I assume I’m done now, and should something come up, it could be handled electronically, right?”

“That’s correct,” the lawyer answered. “You’ll get a check for what remains of her assets after taxes and fees are paid.”

“I’m heading out to the house and will leave town when I’m done.” Rupert shook the lawyer’s hand and left the office.

The front door was swinging in the wind as Rupert pulled up to the house. The image fit his memory of living there.

He went upstairs to his old bedroom and sat on the bed, trying to conjure up good memories, but none appeared. He stood and walked to the closet and reached to the way back of the top shelf. Yup, the stash of Playboy magazines was still there.

Rupert sat back on the bed and closed his eyes. Suddenly he was back in the house, twenty-five years ago. His stepfather yelling at Emily, Mom and his stepfather yelling at each other, him sitting on the bed, knees up, rocking back and forth. Just waiting for the crash, the front door slamming, and a truck spewing gravel and spinning tires on the way out.

Then the quiet. Mom and Emily would be in her room for hours. What did Mabel just say… “the new husband never liked her kid, a boy…” Isn’t that the truth. Just once, Mom could have stood up or cared for me. Maybe not ignored me all the time. Emily’s room was made into a shrine, mine still had laundry on the floor.

Just before his seventeenth birthday, Rupert came home to find his mother sitting at the foot of the stairs holding eight-year-old Emily in her arms and wailing. The child was dead. For how long, who knew? With her head at a 90-degree angle, it was from a broken neck. When the paramedics arrived, it took two of them to get her to release the child.

His mother was sedated for most of the next week while his stepfather made the funeral arrangements. Three weeks later, his stepfather hit a tree going 110 miles per hour in his truck. The tree was the sole survivor, but just barely.

Rupert glanced around. Nope, nothing worth remembering here. He looked at the pile of clothes in front of the closet. Gas-station greasy pants and a Mobil logo on the shirt. Just where he left them the day after his eighteenth birthday. His beat-up truck was paid for, his big birthday bonus and all the money he had in the world was in his pocket, and he left without saying goodbye. I wonder if she even noticed.

One step into Emily’s room was enough. Nothing worth remembering there either.

There was nothing in the kitchen and living room he wanted. In fact, there was nothing in these rooms that said he had even existed. By then it was 4 pm and Rupert realized he hadn’t had lunch. I’ll tackle Mother’s bedroom tomorrow. I’d hate to miss Mabel’s chicken fried steak.

#

Rupert showered in his hotel room and walked across to Mabel’s Cozy Café for supper. He entered to the chime of the bell and heard, “Be right with you.”

He sat at the same table as before and smiled as she came around the counter with a coffee pot and an empty cup.

“It’s you again, hon.”

“Yup, Mabel, couldn’t stay away from your chicken fried steak. Doesn’t anyone else eat here?”

“Well, not often for supper. Here’s your coffee to start. How’d the Chaney place look on the inside?”

Rupert put his coffee cup down. “Excuse me?”

“Some local boys were talking over lunch that they saw a truck with South Dakota plates in the yard. I told them it was all right, you were looking at the place. I might have saved you some trouble with that.”

“Um, thanks?”

“Listen, this Golden Valley District is a small area. Everybody knows everyone’s business. Most all of it funnels through here. No secrets. You need to remember that.”

He shook his head. “Yes, ma’am.”

Mabel returned with his plate and Rupert pushed the opposite chair out from under the table and he motioned toward it.

Mabel sat down and asked, “What’d you find at the Chaney place?”

Rupert put his fork down. “You were right about all the photos of the little girl. They were there and it was kinda creepy.”

Mabel nodded, taking it all in.

“I don’t want to deal with ghosts. What happened in the house?”

Mabel leaned back, clearly in her glory. “The girl was killed in the house. Everyone said it was after a huge argument with dad. Everyone was afraid of him except that little girl. She’d stand toe to toe with him and protect her mother. At least that’s what everyone said.”

“How’d she die?”

“Said it was a fall down the stairs, but I know the sheriff had his doubts. Not a month later, the father was dead, too.”

Rupert sat upright. “Did Anne kill him?”

“No way. He drove into a tree.”

Rupert blinked. “An accident?”

Mabel’s eyes twinkled. “The way I figure it, he killed the little girl, felt remorse later, and killed himself because he couldn’t live with it. The mother became mental. Never could come to grips with losing her daughter.”

“What about the son?”

“Who knows? She never wanted him, and everyone felt sorry for the kid because she paid no attention to him before the girl was born and less than that after she was born. He finally up and left. Everyone thought it was the best for him.”

“I see,” Rupert said.

“Yeah, Crazy Anne never recovered. Just withered away on the outside because the inside was already gone. You still gonna buy the place?”

“I don’t think so, Mabel. It seems to have bad vibes, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do.” Mabel rose and left Rupert to his meal.

The next morning, Rupert was at the house to deal with his mother’s bedroom. He sat on the bed and looked around. Not one photograph of me. This isn’t going to be hard. He picked up a boot box full of paperwork and took it to the kitchen table. Two letters amongst the paperwork. Hand delivered letters without stamps or a postmark. Okay, let’s see where this leads. He took the top one out of the envelope and proceeded to read it.

Dear Anne,

I can’t imagine what you are going through with the death of Emily. I know she was your precious. Remember, she was my daughter, too. I want you to know what really happened and hope that you bear no ill will toward me.

As you know, Emily and I were at odds a lot. She was a precocious child who did not respect authority. If you hadn’t been so lenient with her, you, too, would have seen this. I told both of you that it would get her into trouble one day.

She told me you were at the neighbors when I came home. Immediately, we started arguing in her room, as per usual. She followed me out into the hall and started to mock me. It was more than I could take. I struck her and in doing so, I knocked her down the stairs. Her neck was obviously broken. I raced out of the house and left you to find Emily at the bottom of the stairs, dead. It was another cowardly act for which I am sorry.

I had to make the funeral arrangements and deal with the well-wishers. I can no longer live with what I did. It has been nearly three weeks since she died, and I can’t bear my pain. I know you never wanted Rupert, but try paying some attention to him, he’s a good kid. He could use some guidance. Soon, he’ll be all you have left. As I said, I can no longer bear my pain or this burden.

Randolph

Rupert read the letter over again.

So his stepfather killed his half-sister in a fit of rage, then killed himself. I see why Mom never brought this to light, it would benefit no one and would not bring Emily back. It might have cancelled the insurance payout as well. She had a burden as well as him.

The next letter had “Anne” written on the envelope. He opened it and read.

Dear Anne,

You told me you were pregnant and I’m sorry about that, but it isn’t all my fault. I’m not good father or husband material, so it is best we don’t see each other anymore. You mentioned about getting an abortion, but I urge you not to do so. I won’t ever pester you for father rights, so don’t worry about it. I won’t be in the picture, so don’t worry.

Sam

Rupert shook his head. Family from Hell. He stood up, returned the letters, put the box back in the bedroom, and left the building.

He drove back to the hotel and packed up. At the desk, he asked, “Is there a fire station nearby?”

The clerk said, “You almost passed it when you walked to Mabel’s.” He pointed out the window. “See?”

“Yup, would’ve bit me if it was a snake. Thanks.”

Rupert walked over to the fire station and asked someone polishing a truck if he could talk to the chief.

“That’s me. What can I do for you?”

“My friend is a firefighter and they use buildings to practice on. I have one I want to get rid of. Interested?”

The Chief didn’t bat an eye. “Local?”

“Broadview. The Old Chaney Place.”

“We’re supposed to do a county-wide burn and rescue exercise, but we don’t have a building. I drive by that place regular. It’ll do just fine.”

Rupert nodded. “One condition.”

“And that is…?”

“When you are done, it is burned to the ground. All contents are burned, nothing is saved. Dozer fills the cellar hole with the remaining rubble.”

“That we can do. What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t, but here’s a lawyer’s card. I’ll call him and he can assure you everything is on the up and up.”

The chief took the card, cracked a little grin, and looked at Rupert. “I will call him.”

“I expect you to.” He stuck out his hand and the chief shook it.

Rupert drove away and dialed the lawyer. “A fire chief is going to call you. He’s going to burn the house down in a training exercise. Please give him permission. And sell the land and donate the proceeds to a local charity of your choice, or deed them the land to make a park or sell it or do whatever they want with it.”

“You sure about this?”

“Absolutely. And do it soon.”

“How about Golden Valley Food Bank? I’m a board member.”

“Perfect,” Rupert replied.

“With that kind of generosity, I’ll do the legal work pro bono.”

“Perfect.” At least some good will come out of that place.

Rupert put the Waylon CD on and headed back to Rapid City.

THE END

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