“You’re kidding me.”
I stared across the little living room at the sour-faced, shriveled old man sitting on the couch, my uncle’s will held in his claw-like little hands. I heard his words bouncing around in my head, but they still didn’t make sense.
“I assure you, Miss Tate, I’m not joking,” the lawyer repeated stiffly, regarding me with a combination of annoyance and patient disgust. “As I said, the will stipulates that you will be left five million dollars, if you finish what your uncle started.”
“But Uncle Ryan…” I trailed off, trying to make sense of it all. “Where did he even get five million dollars from? He worked up until he died! My parents told me that he could barely afford to keep his house, that he’d have lost it if it wasn’t for my helping him with the rent!”
I gestured around at the house in question, small and strangely silent without its owner. The lawyer didn’t bother looking around. He probably saw lots of houses as he visited his clients, I guessed.
After another few seconds, the man stood up, folding up the will and tucking it into a little leather briefcase. “Finish what he started, Miss Tate. The house, however, is meant for another; I expect you’ll be out of here by the end of the day.”
I just stared after the lawyer as he let himself out of the house. My uncle’s house. My uncle, who was well-meaning but bumbling, who never had a real goal in his life. He stumbled into his job, bought this house on a whim, took me in under the guise of charity but admitted to my parents that he needed my rent money to afford the mortgage.
Now, he was dead, and my inheritance sat on the coffee table in front of me.
Slowly, my fingers trembling, I reached forward and popped the tabs on either side of the briefcase. The lawyer brought two, but he only departed with one. I raised the lid, staring at the stacks of green paper carefully laid out inside.
A briefcase can’t hold five million dollars, apparently. The lawyer informed me that this was just the first half a million, as a deposit. As my work continued, he read from the will, I’d receive the rest of the five million.
After staring at the bills for another few minutes, I slumped back on the couch. Finish what he’d started. What in the world could that mean?
Just as I’d told the lawyer, my uncle’s words didn’t make sense. He didn’t even have any hobbies! He worked, he came home, he sat on his couch and read cheap little paperback novels. He hadn’t shown any sign of wealth, hadn’t given any indication that he had a mission.
The only thing he’d ever done for anyone else… I paused, lifting my head slightly.
He’d taken me in.
I hadn’t thought of it as charity at the time, but I’m not sure that I would have accepted charity. My parents offered me the opportunity to return to my old room, but I didn’t want to move back in with them. That would be too close to admitting that I’d truly failed in my career plans, that all my ambitions came to nothing.
Even though my uncle demanded rent, I chose to move in with him. “Paying rent helps keep you from feeling like you’ve failed,” he told me once. I didn’t care for his words at the time, but I later realized the truth behind them.
And he’d asked me about my plans for the future, I recalled. Several times, as I sat at the living room, my head in my hands as I tried to figure out how my goals all fell apart, he’d come in, offer tentative advice. It often proved helpful, although I rarely believe it to be so at the time.
“Finish what he started,” the lawyer had said. Was he talking about… me?
My eyes drifted back down to the briefcase. How could I use five million dollars? It was too much to consider, so I dropped the number. Five hundred thousand. The contents of the briefcase.
I could go back and finish my degree. I’d left school halfway through my third year, joining the workforce in a booming economy. The economy soon flipped on me, however, depositing me back in my hometown with no job and no college degree to help me find another.
And then what?
I could move somewhere, pursue work that I really wanted to do. My uncle sometimes spoke with admiration about the paperbacks he read, about how every good author needed a good editor and publisher.
What if I helped bring more stories to life?
I wished, suddenly and strongly, that the man was still alive. I wished desperately that Uncle Ryan would walk in through the little house’s front door, a new stack of books in hand, his tired eyes softening a little as they looked at me. Uncle Ryan, who never married, never had children of his own, never managed to break out of his loner’s existence.
Uncle Ryan, who left five million dollars to his only niece.
I reached out and pushed the briefcase back shut. I stared at it for another minute, and then stood up and headed for the kitchen. I made myself a sandwich, retrieved my laptop, returned back to the living room.
The sandwich plate went on top of the briefcase, the computer on my lap. I pulled up the web browser.
“How to resume a college degree,” I typed in.