“SO WAS your aunt loaded or something?”
“Not really—at least, I don’t think so.”
“Then why the big-deal reading-of-the-will production? It’s like the beginning of a Scooby Doo episode. Like, every Scooby Doo episode ever.”
“Beats me,” Cam replied as he stabbed at his salade niçoise. “I got an e-mail from her lawyer, and he said I needed to come to his office about the will.”
“Maybe she left you a box of priceless treasures—or a painting with eyes that follow you around the room. Or a creepy old mansion with a scowling groundskeeper who would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”
Cam fixed his friend with a withering look. “Ari, I swear, you can turn the most boring stuff into the most crazy stuff.”
“It’s kind of my superpower,” Ari replied modestly and went back to stuffing most of a pastrami sandwich into his mouth.
“I don’t know how you can eat that,” Cam chided.
“Watch and learn, buddy, watch and learn.” Ari laughed maniacally and crammed in another huge bite.
“What I should have said is, I don’t know how you can eat that every other day and still weigh under three hundred pounds.”
Ari shrugged and continued chewing happily. “Metabolism,” he said, after he’d swallowed another tremendous gobbet of pastrami sandwich. “From all the working out, you know.”
“That’s what you’re calling giving blow jobs now? Working out?”
Ari squinted at him mockingly. “First, hell yeah it’s a workout, if you’re doing it right. Second, just because you’re not getting any doesn’t mean you have to be bitter about those of us who are. Third, fuck off.” Ari grinned and took another bite.
Cam rolled his eyes and went back to poking at his salad.
“MR. NORTH, so good to see you. Please, have a seat.” The attorney, having shaken Cam’s hand, walked back around his desk and sat down.
“Thanks,” Cam replied, not knowing what else to say. He looked at the leather folio on the lawyer’s desk, embossed with the full name of the woman he knew as Aunt Hilda.
“Let me say first that I am sorry for your loss,” the lawyer said in grave tones. “I know that your aunt was the last surviving member of your immediate family. That must be difficult for you.”
Cam nodded. “Thank you. It was a shock when I found out she had died, but that was months ago. I’m a little more used to the idea now.”
The attorney nodded sympathetically, though with the slightly exaggerated mournfulness of a professional who is often present at moments of heightened emotions but knows better than to actually acknowledge them. Then to business. “I would have had you here sooner, but your aunt’s instructions were quite clear. Today is the day she required that we have this conversation.”
“Is that normal?” Cam asked. “I didn’t go through this when my parents were killed, but I was only six then.”
“No, it’s unusual. Even for my clientele, who tend to be somewhat… eccentric. But she was quite clear, so here we are.” He opened the portfolio in front of him. “Your Aunt Hildegard Cameron settled the entirety of her estate on you, Mr. North. As she never married, had no siblings aside from your grandmother, and died without issue, I trust this doesn’t surprise you.”
Cam shook his head. He wasn’t sure what the appropriate reaction should be to such an announcement, so he simply waited for more.
“The estate consists of a house and place of business on the island of Farlough. She mentions in this document that both should be familiar to you.”
Cam nodded. “I spent every summer there after my parents died. Until I turned eighteen.” He looked down at the desk. “I haven’t been back.”
The attorney nodded as if he knew the precise mix of guilt and regret that Cam was feeling. “Well, as to the particulars of the estate. The house and the business, Hilda’s Tea Garden, are your property now, freehold in perpetuity. There are no outstanding mortgages or liens, and the business has a quite respectable account at the bank on the island. Your aunt also had a personal account with a substantial balance.” He passed a sheet across the desk.
Cam looked at the columns of tidy figures, overwhelmed by the details of the various accounts and balances. He closed his eyes.
“BUT, MY darling boy, why?” his aunt had asked, at the end of what he had already decided would be his final summer on the island.
“All of my friends get together during the summers and travel and do things,” Cam had replied. “I’ll be going to college next year, so next summer is the last chance I’ll have to spend time with my friends.”
His aunt nodded, sadness in her eyes. “I see.”
“Plus, I turn eighteen next year, so I’ll be able to make my own decisions, and I’ll have the money that my parents left me.”
“Cam, you don’t think I’ve ever tried to keep you from—”
“No, Aunt Hilda, I know you’ve done everything right. It’s just… it’s just time for me to make my own way.”
She looked him up and down appraisingly. Then she smiled. “You are your mother’s son.” She kissed him on the cheek. “You’d better get along, or the ferry will leave without you.”
“Thank you, Aunt Hilda,” he said as he threw his arms around her—at seventeen he was a full head taller than she was.
“I love you, my dear boy. Now go and make your way. And remember that you always have a home here.”
He waved and even—when no one was looking—blew her a kiss from the deck of the ferry.
That was the last time he saw her.
“MR. NORTH?” the attorney asked, and not for the first time, judging from the look on his face.
Cam shook off his recollection. “Yes?”
“I was saying that in addition to the home and business, your aunt left you specific instructions. Would you like to hear the terms now?”
“Yes—in order to complete the transfer of the Farlough properties, there is one condition you must meet.”
“What is that?”
“You are to go to Farlough on the day of the autumnal equinox. There, in the house, you will find a letter from her. You are to read this letter, at which point the properties will become yours.”
Cam frowned. “And if I don’t?”
“Then the house and business are to be distributed to others.”
“Others? Who are the others?”
“I really can’t say, Mr. North. There is a contingent addendum to the will to be opened only should you fail to fulfill her terms. If you return to my office the letter she has left you in the house, then I will complete the transfer to you.”
Cam ran it all through in his head. “So as long as I go to the island, read a letter, and bring it back to you, I inherit her estate. But if I don’t, then it goes to someone else?”
The lawyer nodded. “That’s precisely the situation, Mr. North.”
Cam studied the desktop.
“You do not have to decide immediately, Mr. North. The autumnal equinox, by my calendar, is two weeks away.”
Cam rose from his seat. “Thank you, sir,” he said.
“If I may be of further service….”
The sole heir of Hildegard Cameron of the island of Farlough nodded and walked out of the attorney’s office.
“SO, YOU gonna do it?” Ari asked between bites of pastrami.
“I don’t know,” Cam replied.
“It’s already been a week—you pretty much have to decide now, buddy.”
Cam hadn’t touched his salad, but he set his fork down and looked out the window. “I’d have to quit my job.”
“Just to run out to an island and back? Seriously? How long can that take?”
“It’s Farlough. It’s kind of an ordeal to get there. And get back.”
“Somewhere in Europe, right?”
“What the hell does that mean? How can a place be sort of in Europe?” Ari was puzzled enough to put down the pastrami. That was a first.
“Farlough is in the North Sea. Like in the middle of the North Sea.”
“Sorry, geographically challenged,” Ari replied, waving his hands in a decidedly noncomprehending way.
“The North Sea is east of England, west of Denmark, and south of Norway. And Farlough is smack dab in the center, just about two hundred miles from anything. If you need a definition of ‘the middle of nowhere,’ Farlough will do just fine.”
“Okay, so you fly in, grab the letter, fly back out, and spend a nice weekend in London before coming back with your riches.”
“You don’t fly to Farlough,” Cam replied with a mirthless chuckle.
“What? What does that mean?”
“There’s no airport. There isn’t enough level ground on the island for a landing strip, and the people there don’t want one anyway.”
“So how do you get there?”
“On a ferry from Aberdeen. In Scotland? Takes about twelve hours.”
“Okay, so you fly to London, then up to Aber-whatever, take the ferry over, grab the letter, take the next ferry back, and boom—done. Long weekend.”
“The ferry runs only once a week. By the time I got to her house, found the letter, and did whatever hokeypokey it tells me to do, I’d be stuck for a week.”
“They don’t want people going to this island, do they?” Ari muttered.
“Here’s the irony—the main industry is tourism.”
Ari’s mouth fell open. “What—for people who find prison tours too exciting? How is stranding yourself on a desert island a vacation?”
“No, it’s not like that,” Cam said, surprising himself by taking up a defense of Farlough. “The island is really beautiful—at least in the summer. I’ve never seen it the rest of the year, but I guess it gets pretty cold in the winter. The tourists only come during summer. It’s kind of like a living history museum—no cars, no flashy signs or anything. People go to get away from the ‘modern world’ or whatever.” Suddenly it sounded less like the kind of place he wanted to defend.
Ari squinted at his friend. “Why does anyone want to do that?”
“Beats the hell out of me. I used to go crazy every summer—never got to do the stuff that my friends would spend their summer doing, like playing Nintendo for twelve hours straight or seeing movies or, you know, having fun.”
“Let’s cut to the chase, Cam. Do you need the money?”
Cam was shocked that Ari would be so blunt, but upon reflection he had to admit it was a fair question. “Honestly, the money wouldn’t hurt. My parents left me a good chunk of change when they cashed out, and my aunt handled it while I was a kid. Actually, I think she paid all my expenses and let my parents’ money grow. When I turned eighteen, I came into the money, and it’s how I paid for college. And my apartment. And endless lunches for my lazy friends.”
“Thanks, by the way,” Ari said, taking another bite.
“You’re welcome. But the money is just about gone, and the job I’ve been slaving away at for the past year doesn’t pay me enough to maintain my current lifestyle—and that includes my entourage.”
“Ouch,” Ari replied, putting down his sandwich. “So if you opened your wallet, would moths fly out like in a cartoon?”
“It’s not quite that bad. I have some set aside for contingencies, and a savings account that would keep me going for a few months if the job went away tomorrow. But that’s my dilemma—if I go claim my aunt’s estate, I basically have to give up my job, because I haven’t been there long enough to have two weeks of vacation time saved up. If I don’t go, I keep my job, but that’s all I’ll have.”
Ari closed one eye, tipped his head to one side, and made the “hmm-hmm-hmm” noise that meant to Cam he was about to make a ruling. He waited patiently.
“Not worth it. Don’t go.”
“You worked really hard to get this job. You like it, even if your boss bugs the crap out of you sometimes. If you quit and then found out that your aunt left you a falling-down house on an island that no one wants to go to anymore, then you’ll be poor and out of a job. How much would that suck?”
Cam nodded. “You’re right. It would be really stupid to go off chasing after something I left behind a dozen years ago. But we’re going to have to take a vow of poverty soon, buddy. This gravy train is coming to the end of the line.”
“I’m not giving up pastrami. If I have to sell my body on the streets, I will.”
“How can you sell what every gay man in the city already knows he can get for free?”
IT WAS well after midnight when Cam unlocked the door to his small apartment on an upper floor of a middle-class building in a low-rent neighborhood. As he locked the door behind him, his phone buzzed. It was a text from one of Cam’s coworkers.
Seen the e-mail? As he didn’t have his work e-mail sent to his phone, he hadn’t seen any e-mail at all since the end of the workday more than five hours ago. He flipped open his laptop and scanned his in-box. It was full, which was unusual enough, but almost all of the messages had been sent within the last two hours. He scanned down the endlessly scrolling list of messages, all with the same subject line. Finally he reached the ur-message that started all of the replies.
To: All Employees
From: Allinda Maxell, Publisher
It is with a heavy heart that I take keyboard in hand to write to you this evening. You have all contributed tirelessly to the success of this publication, and I want to thank you for giving so freely of your time and effort—I have truly been inspired by your dedication to your craft.
As you all know, we face a difficult economic climate, and our enterprise is not immune to the vicissitudes of the market. I was informed today that one of our major funders has pulled out, leaving us with a severely unbalanced balance sheet. We must, therefore, take immediate action to preserve the business. That action, unfortunately, involves the immediate termination of all editorial, graphic, creative, content, and janitorial talent. If you have received this e-mail directly, then yours is one of the jobs that has been eliminated, with immediate effect.
Your severance checks, in a perfect world, would be dispatched immediately. However, in the world we actually inhabit, they do not exist.
I wish you the very best in your future endeavors.
Cam stared at the e-mail, willing it not to say what it clearly said. He had worked at the publication for nearly a year—almost long enough to earn vacation time, but not quite. He enjoyed his job as a search engine optimization strategist, and it paid well enough for him to have a decent apartment that he rarely saw the inside of. But as he stood and looked around the spartan studio, he saw very little that held any emotional meaning for him. He had always believed that his lack of interest in sentimental possessions was a result of his parents having died when he was young, leaving him without a home in the world; their will had specified that he was to attend the exclusive boarding school he had been accepted to in the months before their accident, and that he would spend summers with his only other relation, Aunt Hilda. All he had known growing up, then, was a bed in a drafty dormitory and his aunt’s house on the island of Farlough. Neither was a real home—and, as he turned slowly in place and took in the panorama of his apartment, he realized he hadn’t made himself one here either.
He pulled out his phone and dialed without looking at the screen.
“Hey, Cam, what’s up?”
“Ari, you want my apartment?”
“My apartment. Do you want to live in it?”
Ari was silent for a moment. “Are you asking me to move in with you?” He spoke slowly, in the manner one might employ to give directions to a cab driver with a questionable grasp of English.
“No, I’m asking if you want to live here instead of me.”
“You know I love that place. But where are you going to live?”
“Don’t know at the moment. Just need a change. My job evaporated today, so there’s no reason for me to come back here.”
“Shit, man—I’m sorry.”
“Thanks, but I think I’m already over it. I’m just going to pack up some stuff, do my week on the island, come back for the inheritance, and then… well, I don’t know what then. Maybe I’ll move someplace warm. I don’t know.”
“Look, Cam, you’ve had a rough day. Don’t go making all kinda big changes at once. Take it slow.”
“No, I think I’m going to embrace my nonexistent impulsive side and just chuck it all. Do you want the apartment?”
“Hell yeah. But if you come back in a week and want it back, that’s fine. I’ll just keep it for you.”
“I’m not coming back. That much I know. But I will stop by and tell you where I’m going, and if you want to come along, that’d be fine too.”
“Cam, is that a proposal?” Ari’s voice was full of mischief.
“Yeah, no. But I’ll leave a trail of pastrami behind me as I go so you can follow along later if you want.”
“You’re the best friend a man could have.” Ari paused for a moment. “Cam, are you sure you’re okay?”
“No. But I am sure this is what I need to do.”
“That’s good enough for me. Good luck, buddy.”
“Thanks, Ari. I appreciate it. I’ll see you when I’m back.”
Cam clicked off the phone and put it on the nightstand
. He brushed his teeth and collapsed into bed.
In the morning he pulled out his luggage, a fine leather case Aunt Hilda had purchased for his first trip to Farlough, and began to fill it with the clothes that he would need for a week. Once he was finished with that task, his closet was empty—he really only had about a ten-day run of clothes, enough to get him through two weeks of work. There were a few odds and ends for working out, a few more for hanging out, and that was about it. It all fit into his suitcase with room to spare.
He looked around the apartment again, conscious of that extra space in the case and painfully aware of how little he had to fill it with. He picked up a picture of his parents in a battered frame that was the only decoration next to his bed. In it went. He walked through the studio once more and stopped to gaze out the only window that overlooked anything more interesting than another apartment’s window. He could see a bit of the city, and he shook his head, more aware than ever that he had never really fit here—hadn’t really fit anywhere—and that leaving for another life in another place was his best option. Maybe he would try San Francisco. Maybe Mexico.
On the windowsill, amid the dust about which he scolded himself weekly, was a small pink stone, polished smooth except for a sheer edge on one side. He picked it up, felt the surface that was more familiar to him than his own hand, and put it in his pocket. Then he turned off the lights, and behind him he shut the door on his apartment, on his life in this city.
He was going to Farlough.