“Which brings me to the next point. I’m not sure you’re familiar with the rules but…” He hesitates before squaring his shoulders like he’s going into battle. “You’ll have to go through the HOA board approval process for the paint colors you choose before we can actually begin the painting. Could take up to a month to get approval, I’d imagine. So best to start that sooner rather than later.”
“Seriously?” I demand when I can finally see past the murderous red haze currently blanketing my vision.
And I have to admit, points to Mikey for not even wincing when it came out sounding more like a shriek than a word. Probably because he knows I’m not mad at him—he seems like a really lovely guy—but this entire situation is enough to make a good woman go bad in the anti–Hallmark movie kind of way.
“Does no one in this godforsaken suburb have anything better to do than get up in everyone else’s business? I mean, really? Is there no PTA for these people to terrorize?”
Mikey chuckles, an adorable dimple appearing in his left cheek. “Personally, I like the violet shutters. And after seeing the rest of the house, I’d say the neighbors should count themselves lucky they aren’t hot-pink zebra stripes.”
I bust out laughing, exactly as he no doubt intended.
“Part of me wishes they were.” Visions of my grumpy neighbor’s face bright red with the vapors when he spots my zebra-striped shutters make me giggle.
“Me too. I mean, if you’re going to rack up the violations, you might as well do it for a good cause, right?” He grins engagingly.
“Damn straight.” I think about the kitchen drawer full of violation letters I discovered last night, and the amusement slides away as quickly as it came. “So do you have an estimate on how much all this will cost? And a timeline for getting at least the outside done?”
Some of those violation letters are third or fourth notices. I haven’t taken the time to read most of them yet, but I’m nearly certain that means I’m on an even more truncated timetable here than the six months the probate lawyer talked about.
“First, let me say I’ll take ten percent off the top, since you’re a friend of Angie’s.”
I almost tell him that I’m not exactly a friend of Angie’s—or anyone’s for that matter—but the truth is my sad, gasping bank account and I both need every bit of a discount we can get.
“Thank you,” I tell him, even though it rankles that I need favors when Karl and his girl toy are living it up in Manhattan in my condo, at least according to his Instagram account—otherwise known as Karl’s Midlife Crisis—in full color. “I appreciate it.”
“Of course. Anything I can do to help, I’m here for. Angie’s my favorite sister-in-law, after all.”
“Favorite?” We start walking toward the garage door. “How many do you have?”
“Just one. But she’s still my favorite.” It’s a corny line—completely ridiculous and also completely endearing. Just like the rest of him.
Okay, maybe I can pretend I never heard that awful voicemail greeting. Not that I’m thinking about how h-o-t the contractor is, but snap judgments aren’t exactly the best, either.
“I’ve got a crew finishing up a job a couple of streets over. They should be done next week. I was going to give the guys some days off, but I can get them over here instead. We can knock almost everything out in a few weeks—the porch will take the longest but still only a couple of weeks.” He gives me another encouraging smile. “As far as the cost, I’ll send you a detailed bid later, so you can decide what you want to work on and when. But I’d give a rough estimate of $25,000 in repairs.”
As the blood drains from my cheeks, he steers me out of the kitchen and to a nearby couch, and we both sink down onto the floral fabric.
“Now, before you panic, I think the damage caused by the fallen tree might be covered by your homeowner’s policy, and that’s half the expense. If you can provide me with your aunt’s insurance carrier, I can make a preauthorization request, see what we can get covered. It’s a long shot but worth a try.”
“That would be amazing,” I say, already doing mental math, trying to figure out just how far I can stretch my meager savings. The exterior is going to cost a pretty penny, but if homeowner’s insurance covers half, maybe it’s doable? Not really. And that leaves almost nothing for the interior. “What about the rest of the house?”
“The rest of the house?” He shakes his head. “To be honest, from what I can tell, most of the interior is in pretty good shape. But I won’t be able to give you a real, comprehensive answer until you start clearing away the junk. There’s so much upstairs that some of the rooms are practically impossible to get into.”
He isn’t trying to be rude or confrontational, but his words still sting. Mostly because I know he’s right but also because I had no idea Aunt Maggie had gotten this bad. Sure, everyone in the family knew she was eccentric, but this level of hoarding is a mental-health issue. Guilt works like battery acid on my insides. Of all the people in our tiny family, I should have realized something was going on.
I always thought it was charming the way she gathered up the unopened fortune cookie papers “for souvenirs” after our monthly lunch or how she always asked for the cork from our bottle of wine after girls’ night. I didn’t know it was just more stuff she felt compelled to save.
How could I not have known? More, how could I not have asked? Or visited? She always said she wanted to meet in the city because it was exciting, and I agreed with her. The last thing I wanted to do was come back to the burbs or, more honestly, back to my parents’ criticism.
All of which adds up to it being twenty years since I was here last. Two decades when my favorite person in the whole world kept hoarding and hoarding and hoarding. She never made it to reality-TV bad—the downstairs is mostly clean except for the closets, drawers, and cabinets—but, like Mikey said, the upstairs bedrooms are piled with junk, junk, and more junk.
Knowing this was happening only an hour train ride from my place in the city makes me a shitty niece. More, it makes me a shitty person who took the path of least resistance because it was easier, made fewer waves, and deep down the idea of even a little confrontation makes my bones turn to liquid.
“If you want me to be able to give you a solid estimate on what needs to be done inside, I’d suggest getting a dumpster. You can have one delivered to your driveway, and you can add to it as you sort through each room. When you’re done, I’m happy to come back and take a look.”
“How much does a dumpster cost?” I ask, because even though I hate the idea of throwing away stuff that meant something to Aunt Maggie, I know I can’t live here like this.