This story is by Cathy Ryan and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Furious, Nate cranked back and swung his eight-pound sledgehammer with his best batting form. Wham! The hammerhead connected precisely at the inside corner of the oak dresser. The sound echoed in the bedroom. The wood shattered. Nate wore proper safety ear muffs, goggles, and gloves. He was a safety-conscious engineer.
He’d already destroyed the dresser drawers, one by one and pitched the broken bits out the open bedroom window. They’d sailed into a clattering pile inside a blue dumpster parked below. The waste infuriated Nate and fury lent strength to his every blow.
He pulled back the hammer and struck again. Wham! This blow hit the lower joint and the side broke free of the dresser top.
This was well-made furniture, solid wood, no particle board here. Nate could have sold every piece at a flea market, made an easy couple hundred bucks. But, no. Wham!
Mary Cooper had said she wanted everything in her bedroom destroyed after she died. Every single item was to be broken into small pieces, pitched out her bedroom window, and hauled to the dump. And it had to be done by a family member. That’s what her will said. Nothing was to leave this room whole. Not one item.
Nate needed money, badly. His whole family knew that – which is how he got this job. Nate was related by marriage, through his wife.
He started wrecking the opposite corner. Wham!
None of this was fair. Engineers weren’t supposed to be laid off. But he had been. While he searched for work, he took a teaching gig at the community college. But the semester was done now and that income had stopped. He’d taken up flea-marketing and clearing houses, anything he could find to earn some money while he hunted for work. Now, here he was, smashing furniture to buy a week’s groceries. It wasn’t fair. Wham!
Fury lent strength to his every blow.
Suddenly, Nate realized how angry he was. He stopped. “Take it easy, man.” He set his hammer down and sat on the end of the bed. He was afraid of letting his family down, that was all. Anger was easier than fear, so he got angry. It was an old habit he was trying to break. “Lord, help me trust you to open a door,” he said.
They’d be okay, he reminded himself, he and his wife, his son and daughter, and one more on the way. Insurance was a pisser, but they had money saved and he had an interview tomorrow. He’d flip burgers if that didn’t pan out. Some door would open soon. He hoped.
Mary Cooper, the woman who had lived here, had been a recluse. Her neighbors barely knew her. She wrote a suicide note, then killed herself using delphiniums from her own garden. She had early Alzheimer’s, she wrote, and didn’t want to become a burden. She left her will with the suicide note addressed to her brother Randy. He had hired Nate.
Randy had explained the job to Nate earlier that morning. “If you find any papers, put them there.” He pointed to a tall cardboard box by the window. “Mary said every paper was to be burned, not thrown out.” Newspaper clippings, family photographs, and invitations nearly filled the box.
“Looks like you kept in touch,” Nate said.
Randy scoffed. “Not really. We didn’t even know where Mary lived until the police called to say she’d died.”
He told about growing up with Mary. “She was the oldest, six years older than our sister Carol; eight years older than me. She was like a second mother. I remember her dressing me for kindergarten. Hell, she taught me to read. We were still kids when she married a wine merchant and moved overseas. That was in the late sixties. We never saw Mary again, not once. And then she stopped writing. We thought we’d done something wrong.
“People came to the house and talked to our parents. They said Mary’s husband had died and they were looking for her. It was something about the wine business, they said. They came back from time to time over the years, but we didn’t know where Mary was. Carol grew up and left home, and then I did.
“After a few more years, Mary contacted Carol, just a card with a Post Office Box number that changed from year to year. She told us not to tell anyone the number and we never did. We’d send family pictures or invitations. What you see there.” He waved at the ‘burn box.’
“Each time we contacted her, a card with a couple hundred-dollar-bills would come in the mail. They came from different towns all over the country.
“Mary never came, though, not to anything. She only sent money. Broke Carol’s heart at first. Then she got so mad she said she wouldn’t speak to Mary again if she did show up.”
“I’ll leave you to break this up,” Randy had said. “I’ll be back at five.” He left then.
Nate went back to work. He used a Sawzall to cut down the dresser tops. He reminded himself as the blade cut through the hard oak, It’s just a job. None of this is mine.
Sawdust clung to the sweat on his arms and face. He was grateful for the breeze that blew through the open door and out the window.
Once the dresser was done, Nate turned to the tall chest. One by one, he pulled out drawers, demolished them, and threw the bits out the window.
The top drawers were gone when he spotted a brown, document-sized envelope duct-taped inside the cabinet. He pried the tape loose.
More stuff for the burn box? He started to rip it open. Should I wait for Randy? “No.”
There were two pages, foolscap, hand-written by Mary Cooper in a close script. He read. She said she was a spy, both she and her husband. Not only spies, double agents, sowing false intelligence, “against insane governments bent on blowing the world apart,” she wrote. After her husband was killed, both governments hunted her because of things she knew.
Nate lowered the pages. Or she was crazy. “One or the other.”
Either way, this explained why Mary had avoided her family. She was trying to protect them. Randy needed to know this. Carol, too. Mary loved her family all along and proved it the only way she could. This letter would bring tremendous healing to her family.
Nate read the second page. Mary said they were paid in diamonds. She’d fled with a fortune in loose stones after her husband died. She’d sold them one by one to live on. That, too, was why she was being hunted, she said. They wanted the diamonds back.
The letter was dated after her diagnosis. This was why she wanted everything here destroyed by a family member. She wanted them to find her letter, to know she loved them, and to keep her secret.
Nate’s heart began to pound. If this was true, if the diamonds still existed, then this was the answer to his prayer, the open door he needed.
With renewed fervor, he pulled the remaining drawers, examined their undersides and the cabinet behind them. He smashed every piece and hurled them through the window, then attacked the mattress and box-spring with a utility knife. He sifted through batting and shoved it out, too. Finally, the room was empty except for two lamps. No diamonds. The woman was crazy. Disappointment crushed him.
He lifted a lamp. It was a candlestick style. No place to hide anything there. He shook it. Nothing rattled. He tossed the shade out the window, unscrewed the bulb, unscrewed the base, and ripped the cord out. A corrugated paper tube wrapped the cord. Inside the paper was a silk bag. Nate eased the drawstring open. Diamonds.
Big as his wife’s engagement ring and that had cost him a fortune. If these are real-.
He glanced at his watch. Randy would be here soon. Nate closed the bedroom door, locked it, and dismantled the second lamp. He shook out another roll of corrugated paper and inside was a second bag, larger than the first. Hands shaking now, he pitched the lamp out. Should he tell Randy? How important was it, really, that they knew the truth? Mary was dead now.
Whose open door was this?
He eyed the ‘burn box.’ He could hide the letter there. Randy wouldn’t find it, would he? Maybe.
Tires crunched on the driveway. Randy was here.
Think of her family.
Nate unlocked the door and handed the letter to Randy.
Tears welled as he read. “Is this true?” he said.
“Must be,” Nate said and handed him a silk bag.
Randy stirred the stones then gave one to Nate. “Secret?”
They shook on it and walked toward the door.
Nate limped slightly from the bag tucked inside his shoe.