?Right this way, Mr. Wheeler.? The soft voice of the legal assistant pulling Isaac from private thoughts as he sat in a comfortable leather chair in the lobby of a law firm.
Slate gray eyes lingered on the gold embossed letters pronouncing the name of the firm. Wheeler, Dixon & Wheeler. ?Jus call me Isaac.? Softly spoken as he stood and twisted his flat cap with his hands, a little pent up energy bubbling to the surface. He didn?t like being called Mr. Wheeler. Such a moniker had never fit well on Isaac, like trying to walk in a shoe that was three sizes too small. Uncomfortable. Impractical.
?Very well Isaac.? The woman smiled as she gestured for him to follow her. ?You been here before?? She asked while glancing back over a shoulder. He was obviously family but she couldn?t place the face or name.
?Long time ago.? Isaac answered. ?My father didn?t have any partners then.? Eyes drifting to the different pictures which hung along the wall.
?I?m so sorry. I didn?t realize Jonathan had another?? Her voice trailed off; the silence beginning to drift and spin into an awkward moment.
?Son?? Isaac asked before offering a defusing half smile. ?Like I said?haven?t been home in a long while.? That slow drawl and easy manner smoothing the potentially uncomfortable ripples that might result from her remark. ?No need ta be, ma?am. Me and him?? Isaac paused as shoulders lifted in a shrug. ?We weren?t real close any more. ?I didn?t even know he passed till I got a call from Mr. Dixon.?
?Well?? An awkward pause. ?It?s good we found you then. The will is ready to be probated.? She answered with a little smile for his easy going acceptance of her mistake while sidestepping what was obviously a personal matter within the family. She recovered quickly as she wiped away a strand of blonde hair from her fair face.
She cleared her throat when he did not immediately respond, not sure what to entirely make of the man since he was not particularly verbal. This Wheeler was polite enough, but oddly restrained; she was caught somewhere between the lulling cadence of that dogwood drawl and the sharp intensity of that steel gaze; as if he were seeing right through her. She found the contrast a bit confusing and unnerving. He didn?t quite fit in any of the boxes of her mind and so she was itching to move him along. ?Mr. Wheeler?Derrick?his office is just down there.? She pointed and quickly excused herself. ?He?s just finishing something up. Again, we?re very sorry for your loss.?
?Thank you.? Spoken somewhat woodenly before clearing his throat and bringing the assistant back with a question. ?Excuse me?has there been anyone?? Isaac paused and noted that quiet white noise so typical of an office setting. ?Nevermind.? With no sounds of yelling or screaming than he was sure Josie had yet to arrive.
The door to Derrick?s office was open and Isaac let himself into a richly ornate environment. It felt foreign, from another time. Bookshelves lined with uniform volumes stood along one wall while several decorations and expensive souvenirs from global travel sat on the shelves in front of them. Isaac noted the desk was massive, forcing whoever sat opposite his brother to sit a distance away while undoubtedly ensconcing his brother in a seat of power.
Isaac got the sense that everything in the room had been purposefully placed to ensure that his brother looked superior in all ways. He ran fingertips along the back of an expensive leather chair, brass rivets holding it together in smart little rows along the seams. He stood for a moment, seeing the various pictures of Derrick?s family, his parents and sister on his desk. He paused as he lifted one silver framed photo from the desk and turned it in his hand to look at it. It was a family picture; Derrick looked about fifteen which would have placed Isaac around seventeen. He wasn?t in the photo?didn?t even know it?d been taken. They looked quite the family?big smiles while his sister had kept her lips closed. She?d had braces then, Isaac remembered?so self-conscious in a family which demanded perfection that she hadn?t even wanted to smile.
?Well color me surprised?I didn?t think you?d show.? Derrick?s voice boomed from the doorway as he strutted into his office. ?How was the trip?? Derrick trailed off as he took in Isaac?s appearance, his washed out blue eyes drifting over the wrinkles in his brother?s jacket, the dirt beneath the fingernails ??from wherever it is you came from??
?Felt wrong not to.? Isaac answered while casting his younger brother beneath the shadow of those thunderstorm grays. He hadn?t changed much since Isaac last saw him?maybe a little pinker around the nose and cheeks, a little fuller in the midsection. Too much hard liquor. Probably had the taste for it just like their father. Isaac?s mind briefly drifted back through time, the night he skipped town and how Derrick had helped Isaac pack up a single bag. Isaac had his little brother swear not to say anything till sunrise by promising he could have his entire baseball card collection. They?d been the best of friends then.
?So you hoping to get some money, then?? Derrick asked, a flicker of paranoia flickering within those pale blue eyes.
?Nah.? Isaac drawled. ?Your inheritance is safe, Derrick.? Isaac continued as Derrick walked behind the desk, seemingly ignoring Isaac?s answer, to readjust the picture Isaac had picked up. Perfection.
It took a moment for Isaac?s admission to land upon his brother?s ears. ?Then?? Derrick gave a forced chuckle as if it were obvious everyone was coming to the reading for the same reason. ?Then why the hell are you here??
?Someone asked me to come.? Isaac spoke while shifting his eyes to the various things which decorated and dominated his brother?s office. He didn?t dare mention Josie?s name and put a match to this powder keg. Isaac didn?t care about the will; he wouldn?t have even been here if not for Josie?s message and he wouldn?t allow her to face the jackals alone.
?Yeah?that must have been Dixon?s sentimentality cause, to be honest, I don?t think you?re mentioned in the will.?
Isaac felt an annoyed tick begin along the line of his jaw as Derrick once again assumed he?d come for the will. ?I ain?t here for his damn money, Derrick.? That drawl that was usually slow as molasses taking on the sharpness of one his knives as he hurled the words at his brother.
Derrick chuckled as Isaac?s hackles rose. ?If I had a dollar for every time I heard somebody say something like that at a reading I?d be a rich man.? Derrick gave a shake of his head as he adjusted his red and white striped tie. ?Go ahead and sit down, Isaac. Mama and Susannah will be here in a little bit.?
?Well hopefully all your dreams?ll be reality after today, Derrick.? Isaac answered smartly as hands squeezed into fists within his pockets. He was already feeling caged in. That low buzz of artificial light already bringing on the dull ache of discomfort behind his eyes.
The uncomfortable silence was punctuated by the ticking of an old stand up grandfather clock in the corner of the office, its metronome tick-tock creating a predictable rhythm to the silence. ?Guess you were too busy sword swallowing or whatever with that carnival to come to the funeral??
?Carnival is shut down for the winter.? Not bothering to correct his brother as to the fact that he threw knives on stage. It wouldn?t have mattered; Derrick had a knack for only remembering things which were important to Derrick. ?Sides?I doubt I?d have been invited anyway.? Placing that unsettling gaze of gray on his brother. He could almost hear Derrick?s thoughts swing from one vine of paranoia to the next.
?A little advice?? Rhetorically asked without giving Isaac a chance to answer. It was something their father had done constantly and still grated on Isaac?s nerves; threatened to snuff out that little fraternal ember. ?Don?t go round mentioning that to too many people. Folks round here--they never understood why you just took off.?
?Just another Wheeler family secret then.? Isaac answered, his tone as dry as tinder. Truth being that he didn?t really care for the opinion of others. It?d driven his parents crazy. Down here gossip was as strong an export as cotton or peaches and family names and pride still went a long way in the Deep South. Wasn?t too long ago that such things were worth killing and dying for.
?Woulda been nice for Mama.? Derrick answered while still maintaining that relaxed and reclined posture. ?Course you?ve never cared much for this family have you??
?Mm. Lotsa things woulda been nice I?m sure.? Isaac spoke with certain vagueness, leaning forward to move a small model train back and forth with just an index finger along Derrick?s desk. ?Far as carin goes?? Isaac paused to lift shoulders in a shrug. ?I think even you can admit the compassion trait missed almost all the Wheelers.?
All but one.
For a moment his mind drifted back to the night he?d heard a terrible fight break out between his mother and father. He?d told Derrick to stay put and crept downstairs amidst the singing sounds of cicadas to listen with an ear pressed to the parlor door. He heard his mother ranting at his father about some other woman?about a daughter he had in France. He?d heard the clinking of ice in his father?s scotch glass in the silence of such a revelation and then his father?s booming voice.
He?d been maybe nine or ten that night?the night he?d learned about Josie. He must have made a noise since his father had yanked the door open so fast Isaac fell back on the floor in surprise. He realized later he?d merely been a convenient target to project their emotions upon. Maybe things would?ve been different if he hadn?t told Derrick to stay in his bed. If they?d learned about their father?s weaknesses together. Isaac finally let the train engine come to a stop, ignoring the little tickle to let go. Turning the other cheek just made it easier to get bloody.
The clock continued to tick its way through that silence again. Counting the seconds as years? worth of dislike and resentment flowed into the gulf between the brothers. Whatever little ember of brotherly love which might have existed between the two had been snuffed out years ago by the pile of ash which was the carefully protected Wheeler family dysfunction.
?Is that it?? Derrick finally spoke, daring to lift his eyes to his older brother?s again. Derrick tried desperately to regain the leading role in the conversation. He?d never divined how easily Isaac could seize that power, how unnerving he really was. ?You always were an odd duck Isaac?no one ever understood why you left. Least of all me.? If Derrick caught the veiled reference to Josie as the one Wheeler with compassion he gave no indication. It was always all about Derrick anyway.
And there it was?a certain admission though Derrick would never concede the point. Truth of the matter was that Isaac had agonized about leaving his brother behind. But Derrick was the softer of the two then and he wouldn?t have been able to handle it. The train engine was moving again, pulled off its little track to tap against the picture frame Isaac had been holding earlier, nudging it closer to his brother with each tap. ?You wanna know the truth, Derrick? I almost??
?Well some things never change.? A feminine voice broke through what seemed to be the beginnings of another Wheeler brother brawl. ?For a second there I thought the two of you were back in the yard fightin over who was picking a smaller switch.? Susannah Wheeler smiled her mother?s smile at her two brothers, thin and unamused.
?Susannah.? Isaac greeted, grateful for the break in tension while Derrick just shook his head in exasperation. Isaac had never been one for pretense, for saying one thing while meaning another. He?d choked on enough hypocrisy growing up to fill two life times.
?Long time no see big brother.? Susannah answered, a sly look coupled to her Cheshire cat smile. She?d always been the instigator growing up. She had an eye for manipulation and being the only girl and the youngest to boot meant her fingers were crowded with a multitude of people wrapped around them.
?Mama?ll be along in a minute. Feel good to be home again, big brother?? Susannah asked with a knowing look on her face. Thinly veiled amusement at Isaac?s rigid discomfort as she weaved through several chairs set up in Derrick?s office for the reading. A baby viper in training waiting for the right time to strike, she?d learned well at her Mother?s side. She paused to lean up to give Isaac a kiss on the cheek.
?S?just fine Susannah.? Answered as he lowered to receive the kiss. She had never done a thing without clearly defined intent. She?d left not too long after Isaac. Some design school up north though whereas Isaac had wanted out, Susannah had just wanted the checks to come in the mail.
?You were never a good liar, Isaac.? Susannah smiled. ?No amount of time?s ever going to change that either.?
?I guess I jus? never acquired your charm for it, Susannah.? Isaac drawled, negotiating this nest of resentment with a practiced ease. Wasn?t too different at the carnival?everyone with their own loyalties and curiosities, always prying into other people?s lives. But there was a certain sheen of sadness hidden behind that gray curtain. There was a time when Susannah had cared for nothing more than chasing dandelions and drawing out her imagination in Crayola?s waxy rainbows. There?d been a certain kindred quality between the two growing up. Isaac protective of his sister?both of them so clearly needing to find a way out. Isaac?s had been permanent. Susannah had never been able to break free of that finer things kind of need.
?Mm?? Susannah chuckled at her brother?s response. ?True. But then again, you never had to. You weren?t around when things got bad.?
?What?s true Susannah?? Caroline Wheeler?s voice sounding from the door as she came into the office.
Isaac turned, those thunderstorm colored eyes roaming across the space to see his mother. She was older, obviously, but still carried herself with the style of a southern matriarch. She?d kept up with the style, fashioned herself into a woman who had managed to hang onto the echoes of youthful beauty.
?Mama.? Isaac answered her question with the name he?d always called her. Old habits.
?So the prodigal son returns. Would've been nice if you had shown for the funeral. What brings you back now?? Caroline spoke without turning to face her eldest son. Her eldest son who?d never quite lived up to lofty standards, and, in failing to do so, made it impossible for her to forgive.
?What?s true Susannah?? His mother asked again as she and Susannah found their place in similar chairs alongside Isaac?s. ?That your brother abandoned his family and his place in it for a dirty tent and a rail car carnival?? Such a thing, when she?d heard about it through the rumor mill, had mortified her for days. How could she ever show her face at brunch at the country club again? Reputations had to be kept, couldn?t let the gossip mongers sink their teeth into the family. Pretenses were kept so pride could reign over destroyed hearts.
Isaac remained still, unsure of how the manic-depressive, Jekyll-Hyde cycle of his mother would continue to play itself out. Like a prey animal when it knew a predator was hunting it, Isaac did not move for fear of drawing his mother?s attention. It?d been the same when he was a child?slinking just out of his mother?s view when she was drinking heavily because his father was away on business and the whole house knew what happened when Daddy was away on business.
"Like I was tellin? Derrick, Mama?I came back cause I was asked to.? Eyes and words leaving a smarting and silent Susannah to move back to his mother. ?I said good bye a long time ago.?
?Oh I know you did. With all the bluster of a buck with his first set of horns.? Caroline spoke with such venom, took pleasure in seeing Isaac wince at the mention of the buck. He?d been a constant source of embarrassment for the family. Working in some carnival, wasting the potential that she had tried to mold and forcing her to come up with story after story to explain his absence while at brunch with her society friends or at church.
?Mrs. Wheeler--so good to see you.? Royce Dixon?s gravelly voice sounded from behind as he walked in with a stack of paper tucked beneath one arm and unknowingly kept Isaac from the wolves. ?Susannah?Derrick?? Making the rounds of greetings until his eyes fell upon Isaac. ?Hello son?it?s been a long time. Too long.? A certain gentleness there that spoke of many known secrets.
?Mr. Dixon.? Isaac said, partially standing to shake the elderly man?s hand while gently clutching his wrist with the other. ?It has been. How?s Sophia?? Inquiring about his daughter. Isaac had taken her to the senior prom years ago.
?She?s good?she?s very good. Married and living up in Atlanta.? Royce answered with a grandfatherly smile for Isaac. ?Shall we?? Turning to the rest of the family.
?Yes.? Caroline said curtly while tugging down at her skirt. She was still rankled by Isaac?s words for when he had left it meant that her influence had lessened on her other two children and that was something she?d never forgive her eldest for.
Royce gladly took Derrick?s offered chair as the second born son moved around the desk to sit on Isaac?s other side, placing him in the middle. It took a moment for the elder Royce to settle himself, spotted fingers tugged at the edges of his tweed coat before moving to adjust the glasses which covered cloudy eyes though they still carried a spark of keen intelligence despite their advanced age.
?Well?we all know why we?re here. Jonathan was a good friend and partner. I remember like yesterday when we began this firm out of nothing but a few boxes and an office in a strip mall. Jonathan?s passing was as sudden as it was sad. I think it should remind us all how precious life is?and how suddenly it can be taken away.? Royce?s eyes lingered on Isaac for a moment longer.
?The last will and testimony of Jonathan Wheeler.? Royce began; he read the words slowly while holding the paper with both hands. ?This was recently redone?dated and notarized just last week.?
?What?? Susannah and Derrick asked simultaneously.
?There must be some mistake.? Caroline said as Royce looked up from the paper, bald pate shining as the sun slowly set behind him. ?Jonathan and I last discussed our wills several years ago.?
?It would seem he had other plans, Caroline. I?ve always been his executor, but this is just as surprising to me as you, I assure you.? An easy lie as his eyes briefly flicked to Isaac again. ?It was properly notarized and signed, lodged with the court and everything. He must have done this alone.?
?Whatever.? A wave of Caroline?s heavily ringed hand. ?Go on, please.?
Royce cleared his throat and adjusted his bow tie before he found his place in the will. ?I, Jonathan Wheeler, of sound body and mind, do hereby establish my last will and testament. To my beloved wife whom I have forever loved, honored and cherished, I leave our family home, its contents and the family lands to be cared for by her until a time of her choosing.?
Caroline nodded regally as Royce read her part of the will. Isaac noted she even took the part about being beloved and cherished in stride. Maybe all the affairs didn?t matter as long as she was number one, his wife in public if not in private?
?To my daughter, Susannah, I leave enough funds, to be supervised by the executor, to finish her schooling in New York and then establish a two year account not to exceed one hundred thousand dollars a year. After said two years, I give Susannah full rights and ownership of the apartment in Atlanta, Georgia.?
?To my son, Derrick, I gladly leave you the firm, to be supervised by Royce Dixon as senior partner until he or other such qualified individuals deem you ready to take full, senior partnership rights. In addition I also leave the beach house on Tybee Island and its contents to Derrick.?
Isaac silently watched as the will was read, his father?s ill-gotten gains divvied up between wife and children. Watched as Derrick?s face split into a proud grin at hearing he would someday get the firm and the beach house, watched as his sister?s face hardened at only being given free schooling and a total of two hundred thousand dollars along with a downtown apartment.
?To my first born and treasured son, Isaac.? Royce read while opening a second folder. ?I leave to you and you alone, my legacy so that it might become your future. The future you were always meant, but never knew, to have.? Royce paused as he pulled a sealed envelope from the folder and leaned across the desk to hand it to Isaac. ?I also leave the contents of this sealed envelope to you as well. Gone may you have been, but you were never forgotten.?
Isaac pushed back into his chair, a grip so strong upon the arms that knuckles flashed with bone whiteness. He recoiled from that offered letter as if the envelope was poisoned, so much so that he forced Royce to set it down on the edge of the desk. Just when he had felt so much relief?so much freedom. How like his father to play one last trick on him. And to do it from the grave where it would be permanent, impossible to undo or forget. His legacy? That was the last thing Isaac could ever want in a hundred lifetimes. It threatened to swallow him, to drag him down to the deepest blackness of despair and loathing. He finally grabbed at the envelope, shoved it in a pocket so it would be out of sight. He would burn it.
?What?s in the letter?? Derrick asked, as shocked as the rest at his father?s kind words for Isaac. He had been acutely aware his father had said no such things about him.
?That is for Isaac to disclose, if he wishes.? Royce said, a certain sadness tinging his words as he watched Isaac?s reactions. He of all people knew the burden that had been placed on Isaac both before and now. Knew of his relationship with his father?had seen the elder Wheeler struggle with it for years. But Royce also knew better than anyone save Jonathan the importance of Isaac taking up that legacy.
?And?? Royce paused as he turned back to the will. ?Hmm?? He glanced up and looked around the room. ?The will mentions a Josette Wheeler. Is she a family member as well?? Royce expressed genuine ignorance as to the identity of Josie. Some secrets were kept even from him and the others.
?Excuse me?? Caroline asked, her voice frosted with the iciest of chills.
?You?re kidding?? Derrick asked with a disbelieving look across Isaac to his mother and sister.
?Or lying.? Susannah added, still smarting over the smallest share of the will. She hadn?t even stopped to think about what Isaac had gotten. Not to mention that Josie had been a threat to the carefully constructed world of Princess Susannah.
?Yes?? Royce said, taken aback by the reaction. ?It says here, to Josette Wheeler, my Josie...a man may seek absolution for many sins, however when it came time to confess mine, I would apologize for all of them save one. I have loved you from the moment you entered this world and it is to you who I leave the remainder of my estate to.?
?Oh I do not think so. She is not part of this family Royce. Erase that?tear it up. I don?t care what you have to do but that little bastard will not inherit from my family.? His mother hissed, fists threatening to rip her designer purse in two as those words stabbed at her.
There was a quiet clearing of one?s throat behind them, everyone turning around while Royce looked up from the desk to see an alabaster skinned brunette standing nervously in the door. Before she could say anything Caroline Wheeler was screeching like a banshee let loose within the office.
?No?no?NO! How dare you. How dare you come here. You product of a ****ing whore. How dare you call yourself a Wheeler??
?Mrs. Wheeler?? Royce said, flabbergasted as he stood behind the desk.
?Oh you played him just right didn?t you? Got all of our money because he ****** your little whore of a mother! Oh how like you Jonathan?one last joke from beyond the grave and it?s in the form of this little strumpet??
Isaac was shocked by his mother?s sudden outburst, the echoes of it spilling down the halls to make a very private matter a very public disaster. Already heads were lifting from desks and turning in the direction of the office. Isaac tried to reach out to grab his mother, the southern matriarch transforming like some monster at the end of a fairy tale. Caroline wrenched herself free to stand up and wheel around on Josie.
?You will get nothing. Do you hear me? Noth?ing!?
Everyone was standing now, Susannah and Derrick coalescing behind their mother, their faces displaying the rage and shame their mother?s words gave voice to.
?You got some nerve showing up here.? Derrick said with an almost lethal calm as he stepped towards Josie.
Josie recoiled back into the hall, flushed and embarrassed and repelled by the tone in Derrick?s voice. The cold hatred washed over her like ice water and she soon bumped into the wall behind her, sending a picture frame askew before she looked left and right as she noticed the eyes of the entire firm on her.
?Please?I?I?? Josie stammered. ?I was just told to be here?I didn?t mean to. He was my Father.? Spoken through a sheen of tears before they were wiped away abruptly.
Caroline laughed and practically spit out her next words. "He was you and your Mother's meal ticket. Nothing more. You are a blight on this family?s name. That?s all you are. You?re a ******* cancer??
?And like a cancer, you need to be cut out.? Derrick?s voice was dangerously low as he closed his hand around Josette?s arm hard enough to bruise, wanting nothing more but to quite literally throw her out of his Father?s firm onto the street where her kind of trash belonged.
Isaac reacted then, hearing his mother call her a cancer and then his brother saying so callously that she should be cut out. He didn?t know if they knew about her condition?he didn?t care. Something just broke within him at hearing them talk about her like that. And when asked about it later he?d honestly say he had no memory. Isaac surged forward, collided into his brother while the momentum sent both Wheeler brothers crashing into the book shelves.
Derrick was bigger, thicker than Isaac but he had no chance against the decade plus rage which fueled Isaac in that particular moment. Isaac grabbed him by that four hundred dollar tie and broke his jaw with a single closed fisted slug. They?d gotten into rows in the past but nothing could compare to the amount of violence Isaac was bent on delivering.
Derrick slumped down to the ground as Isaac hit him again for good measure. Josie screamed Isaac?s name and Caroline screamed for Derrick?s safety while Susannah, the closest, stood in detached, numbed silence.
Isaac pulled the switchblade he always carried from a pocket. ?Those?ll be the last words spilled from your lyin?, lawyer mouth.? Isaac squeezed Derrick?s jaw that he had broken so hard if only to be able to make it easier for him to cut out the tongue out.
Josie moved forward as if approaching a wounded animal in a rage and closed her hand around Isaac?s arm, her tone eerily calm though she was still trembling and clearly shaken. ?Isaac don?t. I couldn?t bear it if they locked you up again. Please. For me??
Isaac was still in a haze of rage, but Josie?s hand seemed to pierce through the worst of it enough to clear his vision. He breathed deeply, the blade held inches from his brother?s face before he squeezed his jaw painfully to wrench it to the side so he faced Josie. ?Take a good long look Derrick. I want you to remember that face. Because the only reason you?re still breathin? is because our sister asked me to stop.?
He folded the blade closed and dropped it in his pocket as he righted himself again. He looked around at the aftermath of the brawl. Royce stood in silent shock as he stared back at Isaac,
?Are you happy now Isaac? Are you happy that you came back to ruin us just one more time?? Caroline asked as Isaac unclenched his fist?it ached with the pain of several broken bones.
Isaac ignored his mother?s taunts. He?d grown immune to them over the years. He brushed by her, instead, to gently collect Josie with surprising tenderness.
?C?mon now?? Taking her and holding her against him. ?Ain?t nothin? worth stayin? here for.?