Thad clears his throat and pulls my attention back to him.

“I assure you, Margaret left you the house in Huckleberry Hills,” Thad says again, handing over an envelope with my name written on the outside. “The property is valued at just over $850,000 with a remaining mortgage of $413,000. Of course, there are currently a substantial number of violations against the homeowners’ association bylaws, and you’ll need to pay the inheritance tax on the property within six months, which totals roughly $127,500. But the house is most assuredly yours, Mallory.”

Again, words making sense on their own but just a jumble of gobbledygook when strung together. I take the envelope, and the sight of Aunt Maggie’s handwriting, with its flowing curlicue flourishes, makes my chest tighten.

“There’s nothing stopping her from selling it?” Dad asks, the sucked-on-a-lemon expression lessening with each word.

Thad shakes his head. “Not at all. In fact, it’s a great way to satisfy the inheritance-tax burden.”

“Well then, that settles that.” Dad stands up and turns to look straight at me. “You can sell it and, even after paying the taxes, you’ll have plenty left to get yourself back on track. Great, Thad, we appreciate your time.”

I clasp the envelope tighter in my hands, wrinkling the perfect, smooth pink surface before realizing what I’m doing and loosening my grip. But I don’t move. I stay right there in my seat as the flicker of something that feels a lot like defiance warms my belly.

Maybe it’s the power of Aunt Maggie’s words in my hand, but for one of the very few times in my life, I don’t want to do what it takes to make sure everyone else around me is comfortable.

Maybe it’s because of our last conversation, the one where I visited her in the active-living facility and told her, and no one else, about how Karl had changed the locks on the condo and left my packed suitcases with the doorman. I was no longer needed. Dismissed.

I thought she’d be disappointed in me, but I should have known better. Aunt Maggie just shrugged and said another door would open, just wait and see. Well, and that Karl is a dinglebutt who never deserved me.

Leave it to Aunt Maggie to mean a literal door—and then give me the keys to it. Am I really going to discard her gift for something better, like I was discarded?

Mom must sense a rare intransigence in me because, instead of getting up and going to my father’s side, she sets her tea down and looks at me. “Imagine how a personal makeover will have Karl thinking about you again and the idea of what you bring to the marriage beyond a financial boost.”

“If only I had a prized dairy cow blue ribbon to go along with it.” The words come out before I can think better of them.

By the power of Aunt Maggie’s ghost or something.

Okay, fine, I’m not exactly dressing to impress lately. Sure, if someone doesn’t know me, they might think that I work at a yoga studio for the potato-chip and true-crime-podcast addicted. I showered. I remembered to put on deodorant and to brush my teeth. I used the time hiding in the bathroom to fix my ponytail that went all wonky. But that’s the full extent of my give-a-shit-about-appearances efforts.

“Mallory,” Dad says in that tone he uses on me anytime I even consider stepping out of his very narrow lines of what’s considered proper. “I do not appreciate your sarcasm.” He looks over at the other man. “I apologize, Thad.”

I eat the words bubbling up inside me, the ones that Aunt Maggie would have let fly without a second thought—old habits, old dogs, and all that.

Thad shoots me an indulgent smile. “No worries. These readings can often be trying.” He nods at the paper in my hands. “Your aunt’s will is clear; you must read the letter first before deciding to do anything with the house. So you go ahead and do that while I buzz Grace to come in and take notes for the realtor we use in these situations. I believe there’s been some interest in that area by a local developer looking to take out the older homes in these grand neighborhoods and building new.”

Dad and Thad go into their usual back-and-forth while my mom stares out the window, her hands clasped in her lap and her legs crossed at the ankles.

Alone in a room full of people, I open the envelope and pull out the single sheet of paper. The forceful, broad strokes of Aunt Maggie’s handwriting make me smile despite it all.

Dear Mallory,

Don’t feel bad you didn’t know I was about to kick the bucket when you visited last. This life—what a ride! I would change nothing. Now, don’t listen to your dad. My nephew was never a risk-taker like we are. Let’s show everyone you’ve still got some fight left in you.

I miss you and love you right back. Always.


Aunt Maggie

P.S. The house could use a little love, but I promise, it’ll love you right back if you let it.

A tightness in my lungs has me holding my breath as the tears pool. Damn it. She knew I’d cave to the people in my life. Like I always do. Like I was raised to do.

I shouldn’t be surprised.

Leaving me the house isn’t just an act of kindness; it’s also a dare. The fact of the matter is that I’m not brave like Aunt Maggie or confident or a risk-taker, like she said. I always do what I’m told. The one and only time I did something no one expected was when I demanded a divorce from Karl. And then I lost everything.

Each night this week, I slept under the pink canopy of my childhood bed, shame wrapped around me like a suffocating blanket at the certainty that my still-rebellious seventeen-year-old self would have been aghast at the worn-out doormat I’d become. When did it happen? What decision sent me down this path? How did I turn into the woman who teen me wouldn’t recognize?

This isn’t the life I was supposed to have.

The office door opens, and Thad’s assistant walks in.

“There you are, Grace,” Thad says. “Can you please get Ethan Restor to swing by this afternoon? We’ll need to start the paperwork to get the Huckleberry Hills property on the market. Warn him it’s in rough shape, but the location makes it desirable.”

There’s more back-and-forth, but it all becomes background noise. No one asks me what I want to do. I am dismissed—again—while they just push forward with their own plans. Just like Karl and my dad and every person who has taken one look at me and thought a woman approaching middle-age has no value.

My chest tightens.

“No,” I say, the single word coming out as shaky as a cup of Jell-O in a dinosaur park.

Everyone stops talking and turns to look at me. I don’t move. I’m not sure I could if I wanted to. Meanwhile, my heart has gone into overdrive, making the blood rush through my body like a racehorse doped up on meth.