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His Sweetest Song by Victoria H. Smith (1)

 

Chapter One

 

Alicia

 

I slid my hat off as I crossed the threshold of the large home, the sun terribly high today on my way from the train station. The trip had been long and my feet felt it, my heels clicking atop hardwood floors. The floorboards creaked like an old oak tree’s branches, the smell of the room reminiscent of that same great oak. I imagined the smell on the train ride over here. I imagined many things. A soft huff came from behind me and I turned, the real estate agent finally joining me. She hadn’t been as fast despite my heels.

“It’s truly something, isn’t it?” she asked, a layer of sweat beaded on her upper lip. She had a bleached mustache there, a nice woman, but didn’t overly care about her outward appearance. There was nothing wrong with that, but quite different from what I was used to. The people of Chicagoland put value in different things.

My own done-up tresses pinned behind my head, I smiled at her, removing the wide-rimmed, black hat that sat pertly on top of my head. I often had my hair pulled back for a day at the office and that remained consistent today. The style was clean and flawless despite the heat here in Kansas and my makeup, I was sure, not far from pristine. I took a lot of care in that, again working in an office mostly dominated by men. They always looked for a chink in one’s armor in my day to day but I never gave it to them, especially being a woman of color on top of that. My skin was the most pigmented in the office with its bronze glow and that went for both male and female.

Saddling up beside me, the woman who accompanied me on my journey today breathed hard. Dragging my single bag behind her, she stopped it in the center of the living room where I stood. The stout woman, known as Marilyn Williams, insisted on helping me with my bag today. Though, I told her I could manage. I only had the one, but I guess being my real estate agent, she felt the need to assist me in whatever way she could and had been since she picked me up in her Ford Escort at the train station.

Smiling at me, Marilyn smoothed out her pleated skirt pulled up well above her waist.

“We’ve kept up the place real nice for you,” she said, gazing up at the framed photos and decorated touches of an elder. The home had a feel I remembered vividly, despite not visiting in years.

If I was being specific it’d been around seventeen years since I’d been in my aunt’s home and because it had been so long I didn’t recall much of the faded wallpaper and unfinished runners directly above. The carpet too, felt foreign under my feet as well as the woman who smiled amongst many faces on the decorated walls. I knew this woman to be my aunt, her silvery locks framing around a face only slightly deeper than mine.

Reaching out, I touched the frame of the photo behind an upholstered couch, the woman beautiful and classic just as my mother had been. They had the same eyes, brown and hypnotic like from a sweet dream. Naturally pink lips and high cheekbones, they could play the sisters on an aged sitcom, both women just as cheery and pleasant to be around. I remembered my aunt’s spirit because it’d been just as similar to my mom’s before I lost her. God, that had been so long ago.

Leaning back to my heels, I released the memory on the wall, seeing my aunt Josephine like a jolt to my childhood brain. I only spent a few summers here and so young, the memories hadn’t been much for lasting. I’d only been eleven the last time I came here, twenty-eight now.

Maneuvering around, I took in the rest of the room, the walls the most decorated out of everything with its polished sconces and floral elements. The house really was in good condition. If not very similar to the last time I’d witnessed it.

I ran my fingers over the upholstered sofa, the bump and groove of the fibers rough against my skin.

“Lovely, right?” My real estate agent said, watching me study the sofa.

“Devine,” came from my lips, as my fingers returned to my black hat. It coordinated with my high-waisted shorts and five-inch heels. I may have overdressed for today, but I wasn’t sure in fact how exactly I should dress for something like this.

I mean, how was one supposed to dress to accept an inheritance?

When I’d gotten the call last week about my aunt’s home, I’d been more than shocked. I hadn’t seen my aunt or her home in so long, and in the end, I guess she’d left it all to me.

I sat on the arm of the sofa, still in shock by it all. The place really was managed well. No dust donned the coffee table and the piano in the corner, from what I could see, layered nothing but age across its black and white keys. My aunt Jo’s little world had been locked in time, a sea of old rugs and vintage lamps of a distant memory.

Marilyn took her seat as well, more formally on the recliner in the corner.

“You must be tired,” she asked, lacing her fingers across her wide bosom. “How far is it from Chicago to here again?”

“Just long enough to annoy,” I joked, the travel from Northern Illinois to the remote city of Mayfield, Kansas, took over seven hours. My body ached and fatigued from the trip, I pulled off both heels and set them in front of the sofa, my feet singing at the feel of carpet underneath them.

I’d only taken the train because I didn’t own a car. I both worked and lived in downtown Chicago. As a corporate lawyer, I didn’t see the point in investing in a vehicle. When I needed to get somewhere beyond the use of the metro I simply used one of the practice’s cars, my comings and goings usually work-related anyway.

Marilyn’s laughter at my joke had been overly inflated, a bit too much, but remained consistent with how she and her husband had been since she first made contact with me. I guess it’d been quite a feat for them to find me. My aunt had lived here by herself for many years and didn’t keep up much with anyone outside of the small town she lived in. I guess that had something to do with my mom. She was my aunt’s only sister, the two each other’s only family. I’d heard stories of my grandparents, how they hailed from the South. They passed when my aunt and mom were very young and their travels headed them upstate. I guess they’d been free spirits from what my mom told me.

Mom…

My only link to this place and how I missed her. She died after my last summer here, sickle cell disease.

I assumed that’s why it had been my last summer.

Mom had literally been my only tie to this place and, well, I supposed after she’d gone my father saw no purpose in bringing me back. My dad was a business man from the Chicago world as well.

I laughed a little with Marilyn, but there’d been no reason to draw it out. Like so many people I found myself around in my job, she was basically being pleasant for a purpose. She had intentions as my real estate agent and was humoring me.

She stood up signaling the end of her laughter. “Well, I’ll leave you to it then to look around. I don’t want to hover. You can do what you wish now that you’re here. This is your home now.”

My home… so weird since I’d spent so little of my life here. I appreciated what she said, though. I preferred her not to linger as well. I may have been able to deal with false niceties in my day to day, but I tried to avoid it if it could be helped.

Standing to the rug, I shook her hand.

“Do you know the name of a nice hotel in town?” I questioned before she left, pulling out my phone. “I was going to call a cab after I was done and—”

“Oh, you won’t be staying here?” she asked, frowning. My words seemed to surprise her.

I held my hat in front of me. “I wasn’t planning on it.”

Actually, I wasn’t planning on staying here or in this town very long at all. I had a job to go back to, a life, and after I got everything with the house and my aunt’s property squared away, I was going to go back to it.

Without answering me, Marilyn waggled her little hips. I followed her into the home’s kitchen, which could only be described as quaint with a touch of country. My aunt even had an old cuckoo clock, the tic and tock running above a big kitchen sink. Marilyn went over to it and turned a knob. The pipes hummed around us for a second, but then a rush of water fell into the wide basin.

She smiled. “You have running water and everything here, a market up the street if you’re hungry to fill the fridge. The power is on in the whole house.”

With a squeak she turned off the faucet.

“Fresh linens, too,” she continued. “But if you’d really like to stay somewhere else there’s a nice bed and breakfast in town, hot food in the morning and—”

“Internet?” I really wanted to get some work in while I was here, my laptop in my bag.

Marilyn laughed. “There should be some there yes. I’ll write the address down, as well as the local cab company. But really, you shouldn’t need to use that. Everything is pretty much within walking distance here.”

That usually came with a town so small the property line from its welcome sign to its end didn’t stretch much farther than that of the home I grew up in, in upstate Illinois. My father’s house resided in the country on acres and I recalled the sign into this town stating the population wasn’t more than a few hundred people.

I took Marilyn’s information for both the BNB and the cab without question. With the shoes I wore and the ones in my bag, anything longer than a few dozen steps would need assistance. Especially considering the entire property was surrounded in gravel, not pavement. Even the roads had been rocks on the way up here.

After thanking Marilyn for the information, she bid me farewell with promises that her husband would be in contact with more information surrounding my aunt’s estate. He was apparently my aunt’s estate planner and wanted to meet with me personally to go over the details regarding the extent of my aunt’s property.

There doesn’t seem like much to go over, though, I thought, my steps taking me inward. My aunt had been a very modest woman and my strides around the home only reiterated that.

She had no clutter, the walls simply decorated and the floors only that of a rug here and there. This was the exact opposite of how my grandmother had been, my dad’s mother. She kept every little thing myself and my half siblings had given to her. My dad remarried a few years after my mom died, so I wasn’t without family, noise. There had always been people and there had always been things in my life, my dad and my stepmom, Sandra, very generous people.

But I guess when there was no one to give to, receive from, one didn’t have much, did they?

My aunt didn’t have many pictures, mostly vintage paintings like one might pick up from a secondhand store. They each displayed personal taste but lacked something. The place felt more like a display at a home furnishings store than a home and I wondered if Marilyn and her “upkeep” had something to do with that. She said they’d cleaned for my aunt, dusted and everything.

It all made me quite sad really. I hoped by looking at my aunt’s things I might connect with her a little more. I couldn’t really feel anything in this place. I couldn’t feel her or who she was really at all.

I wandered the home looking for anything of her and I found myself looking through a window in the kitchen. She had a shed out back so I decided to explore a little. Marilyn welcomed me to.

Grabbing my heels, I slipped them on before heading outside. I left my hat inside so the sun hit my sew-in like a sauna, my brown locks pinned to my head absorbing heat.

Guess I won’t be out here long…

But I did want to go look. If anything, I intended for my trip here to result in some kind of keepsake I could take back to the city with me. I wanted something of the woman who allowed me to stay here a few summers as a child. Everything else would obviously be auctioned of course, and the house going on the market. I had no use for or the means to care for something of this caliber. Especially considering how far away I lived. I could manage a thing here or there, though, and I went in search of it, my steps taking me down a back porch.

The entire house was surrounded in gravel, but beyond that were trees of oak and green. She had a canopy of wilderness over her property and I ventured out into it, my heels bracing the rocks. My steps careful, I made it to the shed all right, but the sight of a lock had me cursing internally.

It hit with a thud against the shed when I let go of it and I put my hands on my hips, disappointed by what really wasn’t out here. My aunt really had very little, just some furnishings and a large house, a quiet house.

Lowering my head, I decided to go back inside. It was hot. I was tired and really just wanted to put my feet up at the BNB. I had my phone in my hand to call a cab when my sight latched onto something back by the house.

The hard crunches of gravel hitting the underside of my Louboutin heels sounded in the air with each step I made and I dipped, finding something spherical and pink behind some prairie grass under the porch. Moving the blades of grass around, I picked up a rubber ball, a child’s toy with pink and white stripes.

This is unusual.

The ball looked abandoned. Like it hadn’t been handled in a while, but it wasn’t old, the colors not faded.

The shelter of the porch must have protected it.

I brought it inside, but only because it happened to be in my hand.

After quickly observing the toy and now myself after handling it, I put the ball down on a table in the hall, then went in search of a bathroom to wash my hands. I wanted to see the rest of the home anyway, so my search provided the completion of two goals today.

Hitting the stairwell, I discovered what I sought rather quickly when I made it up to the top, but not because I happened to have good navigator skills.

The man on his knees in the bathroom… my aunt’s bathroom, couldn’t have been here when Marilyn and I arrived.

I feel like I would have noticed.

A lift of his arm and a sharp and unpleasant sound reverberated across the bathroom, a tool in his hand hitting a pipe under the bathroom sink. The noise had been the very sound that summoned me to him in the first place, the man following up with several small hits. He went to whack the pipe again, but my very audible and very necessary, “Hey!” caused whatever tool he had in his hand to dance in the air with hesitation.

Strands of ruffled deep-brown hair cut the air when he turned his head, and when he pushed out from under the sink, I saw his face.

A jawline scruff with dark hair matched that atop his head, the few gray stands sprinkled throughout telling of age I supposed, but I found that hard to believe. He didn’t look that much older than me, maybe a few years or so.

He grew to full size when he got up from his knees and the fact that a man was in here… that I was by myself with him settled on me.

A set of broad shoulders took up much of the tiny bathroom and his wide chest rose and fell from behind a dirty white t-shirt. He had that same dirt on his hands, his fingers wrapped around what I now saw to be a wrench.

“You must be the niece,” he said, pulling a rag from the back pocket of well-worn jeans. He rubbed his dirty hands with it and I only shook my head. I was glad he knew who I was.

Because I had no idea about him.

I put my hands on my hips, shocked that this man was casually wiping his hands down in front of me when he was clearly trespassing.

“And you are?”

Like he only realized himself that he’d left that part out, he pocketed the rag, then put his hand out. His palm was still dirty of course. I mean, how clean could one get their hands with that of a simple rag? The thing had been dirty to begin with.

“Sorry,” he said, then took the proper action by washing his hands in the sink, a bar of soap there. After using the air to quick dry, he returned his hand to me, but by then the whole “introductions thing” seemed pointless. He’d made me wait and, well, had been kinda rude from the jump.

He closed his hand, taking a step back.

“I’m Gray,” he said. “Short for Grayden. I, uh was working on your aunt’s sink.”

That I could see, eyeing around him, but what I didn’t know was why and he didn’t tell, watching me.

His hands came together. “I didn’t mean to barge in, but I wasn’t sure what day you’d be here so um…”

He paused for a second, ruffling around those dark locks on his head. Like I said, he couldn’t have been much older than me. Possibly a half a decade at best, but he did have that gray, not unlike his name. He had age around his eyes as well and I noticed when he narrowed them the irises were a soft blue.

“You just get here um…?”

“Alicia,” I said, since it seemed that’s what he’d been looking for. I gazed around and he watched me while I toured the little space of the bathroom he didn’t take up. He had tools everywhere, a mess everywhere and none of it made sense. If Marilyn was having a handyman come over today she should have told me so I wouldn’t be surprised at his presence.

He took a step behind me as I’d turned my back.

“Sorry about the mess—”

“I’m sorry,” I started, turning around. “But did Marilyn send you? She never mentioned someone coming by today to fix things in the house.”

“And Marilyn would be?”

“My realtor?” I told him, looking up at the mass of him. He was quite tall.

I stood my ground. “She brought me here today and didn’t mention a handyman. She actually said the house was well cared for.”

Gray nodded with the words and when he came toward me I stiffened. He just said he had no idea who Marilyn was, which meant he was an intruder.

I blinked, as he gained. “What are you—”

The flush of a toilet sounded when he pulled the handle, his wide frame reaching around me.

“Well your realtor’s idea of well cared for is your toilet slow flushing,” he said, standing upright. A whoosh of oak scent thickened in the air around me, the smell combined with the faint smell of cotton, his t-shirt.

Soft blue eyes flicked right and I followed the direction.

Dipping my head, I noted the toilet had flushed just fine.

He navigated around me, causing me to do a small dance in the bathroom when he took my place and turned on the faucet of the sink he’d just been under.

“And your water coming out brown,” he said, the droplets slow at first, but then full stream. Clear water came in a steady current and I watched until he moved. “That was until I fixed it,” he finished. After splashing his hands under the stream and turning the water off, he rubbed his hands on his rag again.

“Neither was working properly until I did.”

An air of smugness I gathered from his tone, but I didn’t comment on it. If he did what he said, I supposed that was good.

And he was staring at me again, a long and well-observant peer like he was taking me in…

As well as sizing me up a little.

I squared my shoulders. “I suppose you want something for it? Your trouble?”

Dark eyebrows shot up. He pushed the rag behind himself, back into his pocket, and when he leaned back on the sink, he crossed an ankle over the other.

“What I did with the toilet was a temporary fix,” he said, moving on the conversation like I’d said nothing about money, nothing at all.

Bending down, he picked up the back of the toilet and repositioned it.

“The toilet will back up,” he said. “It will fail, so you’re going to have to get someone out here to take care of it soon, as well as look at the motor on your fridge. It’s crap and will eventually be the reason your food spoils if you let it. I told your aunt about this and a few other problems many times but—”

“My aunt?” That’d been the first and only thing really to get my attention.

He knew my aunt? He… knew her? What did he know?

There went that gaze again, sharp and intense in his stare and when he kicked a leg off the other, he stood to full height.

“Yes,” he said, then dipped, picking up his tools. I could only watch, stare as the man went about his actions and gathered his things like it was nothing. Like this was routine for him and he’d done this before.

Maybe he had.

His final item of retrieval had been a pencil, which he pushed behind his ear.

His toolbox hit his hip when he lowered his shoulders.

“You’ll take care of all this, right?” he asked, his eyes narrowing. “Get someone in here soon? I’d hate to see this place fall apart.”

I could only nod, on autopilot by what he said and the tone in which he’d stated it.

He’d sounded so serious.

After he got that from me, that single solitary movement of acknowledgement, his gaze parted from mine. He looked away and then up like he was taking it all in, absorbing it. Without a goodbye or I guess even a hello, he left my side. He asked for nothing from me when he went down the hall, not for the sink, toilet, the advice, or anything. He simply walked away, the top of his head disappearing down the stairwell.

The front door clicked shut not long after.

 

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