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I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the loss of a loved one, even if you know it’s coming. My father was bedridden with pancreatic cancer for the last six months of his life and still I was devastated when he passed away. He died in the middle of the night, and I still regret the fact that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye to him.
“This is for you.” Larry, my father’s lawyer, handed me two boxes and frowned. Larry Renee had been a godsend to me, dealing with the hospital administration and taking care of my father’s funeral arrangements. “Are you going to be okay, Bianca?”
“I’ll be fine.” I nodded, taking the boxes.
“Your dad wanted to leave you something, but the medical expenses . . .” His voice trailed off and he shrugged.
“It’s okay. I’ve got two hands and two legs. I can work. Professors don’t make a lot of money, but I’ll survive. Even if I have to take a tenure-track job in Missouri.”
“Have you been offered one there?” he asked hopefully.
“No, but I’m not looking yet. I still have to get my PhD to be considered for a faculty position at a university. I could go the community college route, I suppose. Or I could pretend I have one. I wouldn’t be the first. Did you ever see that movie Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead?”
“Sorry, what?” He frowned.
“Oh, it’s a movie about a girl who pretends she has a college degree and—”
“Bianca, you know that you can always stay with my wife and me if you’re feeling stressed. Your father and I knew each other for a long time and I want you to know you can count on me.” I could see from the expression on his face that my little aside had him seriously confused.
“I’ll be fine. Thank you, Uncle Larry.”
“Your father was upset he couldn’t leave you any money,” he said, bringing up the awkward subject of money. “I just don’t understand it. He had so many inventions.” He made a face and looked me in the eyes, searching for something that I knew nothing about.
“I guess he just wasn’t good with money.”
“I suppose.” He sighed. “He stopped coming to me after your mother died. He never got over her car accident.” He paused and looked up at me with a worried expression. “He was so upset. He had all kinds of crazy theories.”
“No, he never got over her accident, but at least he’s with her in heaven.” I offered him a weak smile, hoping he would just leave. I wanted to be alone now with my grief and the boxes.
“He blamed himself, you know,” he continued and shook his head. “I told him he couldn’t have known your mother would lose control of the car.” His eyes peered into mine and there was an odd light in them I hadn’t seen before. I shivered slightly at his intensity, not understanding why he was starting to look like a rookie CIA agent.
“Yeah, it wasn’t his fault.”
“He was supposed to meet her and drive her home.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.” Why was he going on about my mother’s death? This was not the time for him to be rubbing salt into my wounds. Yes, both my parents were now dead. Yes, I was alone.
“That’s why he carried so much guilt. He thought she’d still be alive if he had just left work earlier and met her like he was supposed to.”
“He never told me that.” I sighed, beginning to understand why my father had always walked around with a slight air of regret.
“There was much he kept to himself. Way too much,” Larry said, and took a deep breath, his eyebrows furrowed as he stared ahead of him. “But I should go. I have a conference call in thirty minutes. Call me if you need anything.”
“I will.” I nodded and gave him a quick hug. “Thanks.” As he walked out of my apartment, I sat down on the couch and stared at the two boxes in front of me. They were fairly old and battered. I was scared that a cockroach would run out of one of the boxes when I opened it. My body trembled in restrained grief as I sat and tried to ignore the desire to cry. I was all by myself now. Not that there hadn’t been other times that I’d felt all alone. My father had been pretty distant when I was growing up, not because he didn’t love me but because he was consumed with grief over my mother’s death. He hadn’t been a bad father, but he hadn’t been everything I’d needed.
I think he realized in his last days that he hadn’t been the best father he could have been. I’d seen the regret and pain in his eyes as I desperately begged him not to leave me.
“Stop it, Bianca,” I muttered to myself and jumped up off of the couch. I was not going to let myself dwell on my father’s death. It wouldn’t help. Not at all. I stared at the boxes for a few more seconds and then went to my bedroom. I couldn’t deal with them now. I needed to think about something else for a few hours. I walked around my apartment, quickly checking to make sure all the windows were closed, and then made sure the front door was double-locked as I always did. I collapsed on my bed and closed my eyes and tried to think about something happy, but no thoughts would come. Thankfully, sleep found me within minutes and I was able to escape the numbness of my brain.
* * *
“You can do this, Bianca.” I shook my damp hair and toweled it dry as I walked into my living room the next morning. I felt refreshed after a solid ten hours of sleep and a cold shower. I could hear my phone beeping with messages. I knew that my best friend, Rosie, was worried about me. I’d rarely spoken to her since my father had gotten sick. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her and our friendship, but I was naturally more of a solitary person, especially when emotional events were happening. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up learning to fend for yourself.
The brown boxes beckoned to me from the coffee table. They didn’t seem so full of death and depression by the light of the day. I turned on the TV and listened to the arguing ladies of The View as I bravely lifted the closest box by its side. I stepped back quickly in case a cockroach or mouse came running out. My heart was beating rapidly and I could feel a sense of excitement in my bones. What could my father have left me? Did he have a secret stash of money that he’d never told anyone about? Or maybe he had hidden away lots of family photographs from when I was younger. My curiosity couldn’t wait any longer and I pulled the other side of the box open to reveal—a pile of papers. I stared into the box in disappointment. Picking up a yellow form at the top of the pile, I started to read aloud: “The Director of the United States Patent & Trademark Office has received an application for a patent for a new and useful invention. The title and description of the invention are enclosed. The requirements of law have been complied with, and it has been determined that a patent on the invention shall be granted under the law . . . blah, blah, blah.” I stopped reading and put the paper back in the box with a sigh. Boring. I quickly opened the other box and again took a step back to avoid any nasty little bugs that might have been waiting to escape. When the coast was clear, I peered inside, and this time my heart stopped. There was an envelope on top of a small box and some more papers, and this envelope was made out to me.
My dad had left me a letter! I grabbed it eagerly, opening it carefully so that the envelope and letter weren’t ripped. I sat down on the couch again to read.
My Dearest Bianca,
My darling daughter, as I lie here writing this letter, there are so many things I wish I could go back and change.
First, let me apologize to you. I spent too many years carrying around my grief at your mother’s death, and there were many times I didn’t fully appreciate how alive we both still were.
Your mother meant the world to me and I see her living on in you. She would be so proud of the historian you’ve become. Stay inquisitive and beautiful, my darling. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t able to leave you anything in my will. I wasted my life and there are many things I wish I had told you before today.
There’s one thing I think you should know, one thing I’ve agonized over telling you. I don’t think your mother’s car crash was an accident. As I’ve gone through my papers and recalled various conversations from the days before her death, it occurs to me that there may have been people who wanted to see me incapacitated. People who knew that your mother’s death would change everything.
My darling, I may not be able to leave you riches in the bank, but go through the papers in the box and you might find the truth. The truth will provide for you and your children and bring justice for your mother’s death. Writing this letter and knowing how strong you are is giving me great solace in the sadness of my last days. All I ask is that you be careful of who you trust. Friends can be foes and foes can be friends. Remember that I love you and I’m sorry.
Fight on like your beloved Mary, Queen of Scots.
All my love,
I read the letter three times in a row and then dropped it onto my lap in shock. I could barely understand what my father had written. He thought Mom been murdered? How could that be? Who would want my father incapacitated, and who was ruthless enough to kill an innocent woman to do it? And why had he mentioned Mary, Queen of Scots? True, I was a historian, but my real passion was old movies, not Elizabethan England.
I knew that Queen Mary had been executed by Queen Elizabeth because Mary had claimed she was the legitimate sovereign and of England and Elizabeth had seen her as a threat to the throne. Had someone seen my mother as a threat or—if the name was my father’s way of issuing a cryptic warning—did someone see me as a threat? I closed my eyes and tried to calm my thoughts. Oh, how I wished that I was able to talk to my father now! I was angry at him for not giving me more information. I looked into the boxes again and sighed. There was so much paperwork to go through. It was a daunting task, especially because I didn’t know what I was looking for. However, I was a historian—I knew how to research and I knew how to look for clues. My studies required me to make assumptions and draw conclusions from facts and patterns that I saw in my research. This would be no different.
I thought back to the lateral thinking games my father and I would play when I was younger. He always wanted me to be aware that word choices were clues, even if they didn’t appear so at first. There were many reasons why people couldn’t say what they wanted to say and you had to look beyond the words, he always told me. Many people talk in code and he often liked to test me in that way. I knew that the last sentence of his letter had to be a clue. “Fight on like your beloved Mary, Queen of Scots” meant something deeper. I just had to figure out what.
In fact, I needed to figure out what was going on with everything. What did his whole letter mean? Who would have had my mother killed? Once I came up with some answers, I could decide what to do next. I stared at the papers in the box and sighed again. It was going to be a long day.