A breeze blew in from the window, but I sweated bullets. I glanced at the grandfather clock in the hallway, somehow ticking at double speed. Ticking that matched the rhythm of my heartbeat. Raelyn would be home from school in two hours, and I couldn’t fathom the lies I’d have to create if she saw the briefcase.
This must be a mistake. I blew out a deep breath and slid my hand over the leather, clicking the latch open—again.
Who the hell left all this cash on our porch? Why?
Bear lifted his head from his paw and whined in his corner of the kitchen as I paced. Even the dog’s calm energy couldn’t soothe my racing nerves. The old wooden floors creaked with every step of my boot, and I rubbed my beard—something my father always did.
Maybe the sum won’t be a big deal. Problem solved. My hands shook as I reached inside and thumbed through the stacks of bills—all hundreds. There had to be over $100,000 neatly bundled inside the briefcase. I stepped back.
A piece of paper caught on my dinged-up wedding ring and fluttered to the floor. I couldn’t hold back a groan when I crouched down. All those hours at the construction site did damage to my thirty-seven-year-old body. I grabbed the note, accidentally smearing oil on the corner. Still trembling, I squinted at the messy handwriting:
Hide it. Don’t tell anyone. Stay safe.
No signature. Where did it come from? Something deep in my gut fired a warning, but I pushed it away. I shut down the option that this might be connected to Joanna’s old job, and instead stroked the cool metal of my compass.
Maybe the money was a joke from my poker buddies, and the bills were counterfeit. There was only one way to find out. I slammed the briefcase shut, locked it, and held it tightly. Bear bolted upright when I grabbed my keys and raced after my wide steps past the garden, the tire swing, and line of oak trees. His paws kicked gravel up just before barking at the side of my truck.
“You can’t go with me, boy.”
Another loud bark soared through the country air as he wagged his tail. The mailman drove by and waved, as usual. I fought every urge to hide the briefcase behind my back, but I couldn’t raise unnecessary suspicion.
“Hey, Norbert! Busy Monday?” A tingling sensation crawled up my skin.
“Same as always.” The same mailman who gifted lollipops to Raelyn as a child now threw a dog treat out his window to Bear. He gestured to the briefcase. “Job interview? I thought you loved the hardware store.”
I swallowed hard, not used to lying. “My dad keeps his meds in here.”
“Tell Vincent I say hello,” he said, smiling and tipping his cowboy hat. “Oh, and that young lady of yours is too smart. I’m sick of delivering all these college pamphlets and brochures to y’all.”
I forced a smile and ran a hand through my hair, the oil between my fingers greasing the thick locks. Maybe if I kept the money, she could go to whatever college she wanted.
Norbert waited for a John Deere tractor to snail by, before pulling away. Dust rose from his tires and clouded the bright February day. Bear barked again.
My temples started throbbing at the thought of the damage this briefcase could cause. I tossed my toolbox and fishing lines into the back and sighed. “Okay, boy. Get in.”
I shook my head as he swooped in gracefully and kicked the passenger door with my boot to close it. Maybe some extra cash could get us some new trucks, though. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard.
Raelyn would be home at 2:45. My heart rate sped up as I pushed hard on the accelerator.
The smell of manure wafted through the broken air conditioner vents, so I rolled down the window. A chaos of golden fur blinded me for a split-second as Bear circled and stuck his nose out the window. I would’ve normally patted his head, but that meant I’d have to pry my white knuckles loose from their death grip on the steering wheel.
My foot jittered frantically, and I sat up straighter as we drove by the police station. Officer Sam Smith exited the side door and nodded as I rolled by, but I pretended not to see. Glancing at my hunting rifle on the floor gave me just an ounce of relief, but that disappeared as fast as it came when his squad car pulled up beside me at a red light. The tightness in my chest grew more constricted. I leaned forward and hit the dashboard, hoping some radio station could block out the eerie silence invading my security.
Chris Stapleton rang loud and clear for just a few beats before turning into a jumbling mess.
“Crap!” I fumbled for the volume knob.
The light turned green and Officer Smith sped away without a second glance. Thank God. It didn’t matter that I used to play baseball with him in middle school, he’d arrest me at the drop of a hat if he saw the briefcase.
My turn signal mocked the tension coiled in my stomach with a happy, click click click as I pulled into the bank’s parking lot. My arm felt like a sack of potatoes as I reached down for the briefcase. I gulped hard and took off my blue plaid shirt, laying it over the briefcase like a blanket. No one at the bank would think twice about my oil-stained t-shirt. When I stepped out of my Chevy, the cool air turned my freckled forearms into a goose-bumped landmine, ready to explode.
“Come on, Bear.” I focused on Bear’s easy breathing. If my dog wasn’t worried, I shouldn’t be.
He bounded out, tongue sagging, and trotted to the bank’s door. Bear must be smarter than me, because he sat down and looked at me, like he understood what was going on.
I opened the door, and the top of my hair brushed against the bell, making it ding. Three employees I’d known since kindergarten glanced up and smiled. The clock on the wall mocked me. Maybe Raelyn would have her photography club and stay late after school.
Out the window, four cardinals landed atop my truck, guarding what was hidden inside. I loosened my clenched jaw and marched toward the manager.
“Hey, Darla, do you have a minute?”
“William! Thank you for fixing my mom’s gutter.”
“Oh, no problem. Tell her thanks again for those brownies.” I patted my stomach out of habit, but could hear the strain in my voice.
“Bear, what trouble has William gotten into?” Her brows crinkled as she motioned us into her office.
I followed her in and leaned against the wall. Unfortunately, she had five clocks on her wall. They all showed a different setting in the background, a mountain, a river, a desert, a rainforest, and a snow covered pines. I couldn’t take my eyes off the desert themed clock, as if it were calling my name.
Darla closed the door behind her with a click. “What’s up, William?”
She sat at her desk, and a lock of blond hair fell in front of her blue eyes. Her eyes didn’t compare to Joanna’s.
She pointed to an extra chair but I shook my head and leaned against the wall. “No, I’ll stand. I’m full of dirt.”
“William, you’ve always been full of dirt. Go ahead and sit.”
Her long pink nails tapped the desk like a command, and the chair cushions let out a groan as I sat down. Bear followed her command as well.
When I caught Darla scanning my upper arms, my cheeks flushed. “Well, I needed to ask y’all a question.”
She bit her lip slightly. Damn, I wasn’t expecting that. It had been too long since—
“William, what do you need?”
She reached over and laid her soft hand on my forearm. The paleness of her skin looked off compared to when Joanna had made the same movement. But that was so long ago.
I withdrew my hand. “Right, so, um, what would you do if…”
Bear jumped, placing both paws on Darla’s office window and barked at my truck. She pushed him down and snapped, pointing to the floor and making my pup follow her command immediately.
My brow raised. “Impressive.”
Darla lifted her chin and moved to the edge of her chair. “What were you saying?”
I rubbed my hands together. “If I… if you… found something…” I cringed and scrunched my nose. “Well…”
Darla tilted her head and laughed. “William, did you join the dumpster divers last weekend and find a treasure?”
“No, no. Listen, I need to report or file or…” I dropped my head in my hands. She’d only call the cops if I tried to donate or deposit a hundred grand.
A knock rapped on the door, saving me. “Darla? I heard you had Mr. Bell in here?”
She stood. “Yes, come in.”
A new employee rushed in. “I actually just received an urgent notice about Mr. Bell’s account.”
I straightened in my chair, my hand palming the compass swinging from my belt loop. Darla must’ve sensed my shift because her eyes narrowed, “What is the notice?”
“A large sum had been automatically transferred to his account from a Mrs. Joanna Bell.”
My heart stopped, and I lunged forward so quickly. The leg of the chair snapped in half, sending me flat to my butt. I hit the carpet hard and Bear lunged to my face, licking my cheeks.
“Stop it, Bear!” I jumped to my feet and stared at the man. “What did you just say?”
He stepped back against the wall, intimidated by my harsh tone “There is a specific option in some wills. It’s called a Deceased Account and says when someone dies, a sum of money can be withheld and released to a designated person on a specific date. Mrs. Joa—”
I pointed in his face. “Don’t say her name.”
He glanced at Darla before continuing. “Today an account under her name released a sum to you. Here, there’s a note.”
I couldn’t tell if the room was spinning, but held out my hand, anyway.
The man spoke slowly. “It’s electronic, sir.” He moved to the other side of Darla’s desk and fumbled with the mouse. After a few clicks, he turned the monitor. “See?”
I wanted to look as much as I didn’t want to look. The screen showed:
Mrs. Joanna Bell ———— Mr. William Bell
I sucked in a breath, trapping it inside. Bear knew just as well as I did that something was wrong. His furry eyebrows see-sawed up and down the same way questions were bouncing around in my mind, but I read her note underneath.
“My Dear William,
What am I supposed to say? If you’re reading… I just hope it wasn’t cancer. How am I supposed to know what words you need to hear from me? How am I supposed to comfort you if I’m not there? I’m sorry for keeping a secret, but this money is from my journalism award. I saved it for Raelyn’s college tuition. If I’m not there to drop her off at her dorm breaks my heart. You’ll do a good job. You always have. Love you… even from this side.”
My hand went to my forehead to cover a tear trickling down. It had been almost ten years since she had died, but this wasn’t the first message from beyond her grave. Joanna couldn’t have received that much money from an award. It didn’t make sense. Letting Darla know about the extra money in the briefcase would be too suspicious now. Darla, the man, and Bear were all staring at me when I looked up.
I cleared my throat. “Well, okay, then. Do I sign something?”
Darla hesitated. “So you didn’t know about this?”
My hand found my beard again, rubbing my chin. “No, but Joanna was always full of surprises.”
The man eyed me and clicked a few buttons. “Here, we just need your electronic signature.”
I leaned over and tapped my initials into the keyboard just as Bear barked again. Out the window, a group of teen boys were jumping in the bed of my truck.
“Hey!” My loud shout made Darla hop. “Sorry, I need to go.” I sprinted out of the room with Bear on my heels and out the door.
The suffocation of early pollen immediately attacked my nostrils as a gust of wind blew through town.
“Get off my truck!”
They laughed, hooted, hollered, and dispersed faster than a group of ants being targeted by a kid’s sneaker. When I scooted into the driver’s seat, my shirt still laid over the bulk on the floor. The realization that we had $300,000 more than yesterday sliced into my core.
I kept it together during the fast drive home, but the moment I rolled back into our gravel driveway, my phone’s alarm sent me into a frenzy—2:00. My daily reminder to tell my father to take his meds. I didn’t even send him a text but whipped the briefcase from the floor and raced out of my truck through the yard, past the farmhouse and into the back barn. The scent of wood and lumber rushed my senses, but I couldn’t focus on my projects.
“Where can I hide this, Bear?”
He circled three times and grabbed a baseball from his bin of toys in the corner.
“Not right now, boy.” I jumped over the canoe blocking my path and scrambled up the ladder to the loft.
All of Raelyn’s childhood, I’d forbidden her from the loft. Hiding the money here would have to do until I came up with a better solution. At the top, I moved toward a door camouflaged in the back corner. I took a key from my keychain and inserted it. Dust rose and made me cough, and I had to push hard to move inside the small space. A large canvas picture of Joanna standing with other women in the desert haunted me. Her eyes pierced my soul as if trying to communicate some secret message.
Joanna never realized that I already knew the truth. I knew what she had tried to hide from me, I knew from the very beginning. But I never had the chance to ask her why.
I slid the crates full of cobwebs to the side and stormed to Joanna’s other items. Raelyn would hate me if she knew what was up here and what I kept from her. Too much time had passed now to come clean. From behind the canvas picture, I pried out a tiny key wedged in the frame. I hated whoever cursed us with this briefcase for making me relive through what laid buried up here.
So many memories came back. Our wedding photo album sat, full of dust, but I didn’t want to reminisce in those joyful days.
Ghosts in white flickered in the beam of light that danced in the shadows on the barn’s walls. No, this was a terrible place to hide the money. If I ever truly needed cash for an emergency, I never wanted to have to come up here again. The past was done. Forgotten. Over.
But something sparkling caught my eye. I reached down. A spike of wood caught my hand, slicing a cut. Wincing, I pulled away, sucked the blood from my skin and spat it onto the wooden beams.
The unfamiliar red sparkle flashed again. Slowly, I inched my hand through Joanna’s possessions and gripped what felt like a small box. Beautiful red jewels that outlined a compass on the white box. What is this? What’s inside?
“Pa?” Raelyn’s angelic voice rang from the farmhouse. It couldn’t be 2:45 already. I shoved all the items away. There was no time to lock the door, so I rammed my shoulder into it, hoping it would stay closed, then climbed down. I jogged past Bear, asleep in a pile of hay. A streak of warmth soaked into my cheeks as I ran through the yard, shoving the box in my back pocket.
Wait! I stopped in my tracks. The briefcase! I swiveled on my heels back to the barn.
“Pa?” The screen door screeched, and I knew she was right behind me. I turned again, hoping my face didn’t look flustered.
“Why aren’t you at work?” She stuck out her hip with sass.
“I was. I forgot to pack a lunch so I came home midday.”
Her long brown hair whipped in all directions from the wind. “But it’s not lunchtime. You didn’t go back?” She hugged a journal close to her chest.
“No, the mailman, a bank. Nevermind. Well, um, what do you want for dinner?”
Raelyn’s amber eyes shone brightly in the afternoon sun. “You went fishing yesterday, right?”
I shoved my fingers in my pocket, not knowing how to talk to her ever since she turned into a teen. “Well, yup. Caught some salmon.”
“Okay, I’ll cook that.” Her thick eyebrow raised, studying me.
I turned away quickly, but realized the box would stick out from my pocket too so I faced her again. Maybe I could tell her about the box and we could open it together. We’d finally have something to share again, a project to bond over.
The gray clouds blocked the sun, sending a shiver up my spine. “Yes, hun.”
“Why are you all red?”
I twisted my boot in the clay. “Just working, hun. You know.” I pointed to the log pile.
She scrunched her pointy nose and yelled, “Bear! Bear, come!”
A flash of gold whizzed by and tornadoed around her heels as they walked inside. After hearing music blare from her open bedroom window, I trudged to the barn. Each step buried me deeper into the earth with the weight of the lies stacked upon lies. I can’t ever tell her. It’s too late now.
Back in the barn, the briefcase was on the ground, so I grabbed a pile of lumber and carried it over to the workbench. The loud buzz of the table saw thrummed in my ears as little flicks sprayed the air. I nailed together a wooden rectangle box—12 in x 4 in x 6 in and attached it to the bottom of my work bench. It camouflaged right in.
My gaze darted in all directions as I reopened the briefcase. I held my breath and shoved the cash into the makeshift spot. Raelyn wouldn’t find it there. I sealed it and stepped back to survey my work. Perfect.
A cardinal sang from the nearby birdhouse Raelyn had built, and I twisted the metal of my wedding ring, wishing it didn’t have such a hold on me. Yesterday I was ready to take it off, let go and move on. But then the briefcase and bank account ruined those plans.
The briefcase needed to disappear. I kicked several logs off the woodpile and started a fire. I sighed at the comforting smell of burning leaves. I threw the leather briefcase into the middle and watched the leather peel away. Embers sparked. Visions swirled of a fire on the other side of the world. A fire I couldn’t control, that would always plague my heart.
“Pa?” I jerked alert.
A pen stuck out of her messy chestnut hair. “Can I borrow ten dollars?”
She couldn’t know anything had changed. “What for, hun?”
“There’s this animal shelter project I want to donate to.”
He scratched his beard. “I’ll think about it.”
The only sound was the flames crackling.
“Nevermind, I’ll use my paycheck from the library.” The door squeaked close just as I dropped my head. She was disappointed—again.
Why had everything changed when she turned thirteen? My baby girl never wanted to play board games or hike or fish or camp together anymore.
The door squealed again and Raelyn walked out with a glass full of water in one hand and a blueberry muffin in another.
“You look thirsty.” She handed them over and smiled, that grin melted my heart.
A chuckle escaped my lips. “Aren’t we eating dinner soon?”
“No, it’s only 3:15.”
“Oh, right.” The freezing water iced its way down my throat, When I bit into the soft muffin, it crumbled to pieces.
Bear licked them up like a vacuum, and I leaned against the woodpile while eating on the rest.
“Pa, what’s that thing in your pocket? You always make holes in your jeans. That…” she pointed, “is one reason why.”
“Just a tool from the store.” More lies.
Raelyn shifted her weight and crossed her arms, as if expecting something from me, then eventually dropped her chin. “Okay, I’m gonna go do homework.”
I wiped my fingers on my jeans and nodded. “Okay, hun.”
She frowned and left me again.
I stared into the flames, seeing another world through the orange. A world without regret, loss, sorrow or confusion. A world that didn’t exist. Money couldn’t bring Joanna back. And it couldn’t change the lies we had both kept. The lie I continued to keep.
I readjusted my position, reminding me of the box rubbing against the woodpile. In the barn, I tried every tool to pry it open. There was no keyhole, no opening, and barely a seam in the side. When I shook it, something small seemed to flap, like paper rolling or knocking against the side. Fatigue washed over me from the day’s events. I’ll open this tomorrow.
As the sun dropped lower behind the mountain, darkness devoured our yard. Faint purples probably painted the sky, but I stared into those dying flames for hours, wondering what life would’ve been like, if only…
A shock of lightning struck the darkening sky as Officer Smith’s squad car rolled into our gravel drive. How long had I sat outside?
He’s here to arrest me.
But I burned the briefcase to a crisp, and the money was hidden.
Thunder boomed and rain splattered down, pelting the clay like bullets. I jogged to the porch covering and looked down to meet the brown eyes of Officer Smith.
He twisted the sheriff’s badge on his uniform and craned his neck up. “How’s it going, William?”
“Same as always.” I could feel his stare, but I locked my focus on the rain pinging off Raelyn’s truck windshield.
He shifted his weight and looked behind where music drenched the walls as much as the rain drenched the yard. “I heard from folks in town that you skipped work today. Sick?”
Another loud rumble above made the sheriff glance up, just enough so I could see cracker remnants in his mustache. “Anything unusual happen today?” His broad shoulders creased his uniform when he shifted.
“Hi, there!” Raelyn’s sweet voice rang clear over the splashing of rain into puddles. “Come on inside, you two. You’ll get soaked.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Officer Smith treated Raelyn like a grown woman, the lady of the house. Something about that just wasn’t right. She had just gotten her driver’s license. Hell, Officer Smith probably would write her a traffic ticket soon.
Inside smelled of fresh salmon, and the sizzle sound on the oven hissed louder. Bear stayed on Raelyn’s heels, begging the entire time she set the table.
A third plate clattered against the wood, and an extra set of silverware clinked together. I met Officer Smith’s eyes, and he immediately challenged back. What does he want?
The leg scratched against the hardwood and Officer Smith dominated his chair. He cracked his knuckles and leaned back, giving me a full view of his gun. The news played silently on our tv in the back corner, until Raelyn turned down her music.
Raelyn didn’t skip a beat, but chopped our two fish evenly into three portions. “Did you see that report?” She pointed to the tv.
The news video showed a Black teenager with her parents in a fancy house with granite countertops and giant windows.
The girl’s long braids swung through the air, and her charm bracelet jingled with each gesture. “So this drug dealer man told me to bring a briefcase to a train station…” Half her words cut off because she moved so dramatically the microphone didn’t pick up the girl’s story.
At the word briefcase I walked toward the tv and blocked Raelyn’s view from the tv, and turned down the volume.
The girl continued, “Then I crashed his car, and he soared through the windshield epic-movie style. There was glass and blood everywhere! I swear!”
Her mom patted her back. “We are looking for any leads on the identity of a white man, six foot, three, two hundred pounds, bald with a blonde beard, and green eyes. And if anyone recognizes this car, please call Walsh Law.” The mother held up a picture to the camera. “The plates were removed, but it has a North Carolina sticker.”
I didn’t know the man or the car, but I definitely had a gut feeling it was the same briefcase.
“William?” Officer Smith’s strong hand clamped my shoulder, and I jumped. “What are you watching?” I flipped off the tv fast.
“Nothing.” I cleared my throat without meaning to. “Go ahead and have my portion, Sam. I’m not hungry anymore.” My gaze flickered out the window to the barn where the light was still on over my workbench.
He pushed out a fake laugh. “You haven’t called me Sam since little league.”
I side stepped him. “Hun, maybe you can wrap up Officer Smith’s portions to go. He’s a busy man.”
“Okay, Pa.” She gobbled up the rest of hers and flicked a piece to Bear who chomped it mid-air.
I could feel Sam’s hawk-like stare on me as I turned, exposing my back to a man who didn’t trust me. I shut the door behind me and turned the lock. He’d come knocking any second now. But there had to be a good place to hide this box—just in case.
Joanna’s journalism article and awards were on the walls, a rare piece left I hadn’t sold or donated. I rushed over to the desk, swiped out the box from my pocket and tossed it into a drawer full of office supplies.
A soft swish came from the drawer and Officer Smith knocked. “William? Are you sure everything’s okay?” The handle rattled.
“Why did you come over today?” I asked.
The handle turned frantically. “William, open the door.”
“One second.” The barely audible swish sound happened again. I looked down to see the marble box had opened and fell over and opened. The contents spilled out of the box.
I pulled out the piece of paper, unfolded it, and scanned over the words. My heart slammed against my ribcage like a stampede, and a dizziness took over. Seeing what laid inside confirmed everything I had already known.
I was right.