The sky that day had the same mopey gray as the walls of Annie’s shabby apartment. Annie stared out of the window from the desk in her living room, sipping slowly on a cup of coffee, a pen held in her free hand.
The hardest part was trying to decide what to write to her sister after five years with no contact. In truth, in hadn’t been Annie’s idea at all to send the letter. She’d been cleaning one several pictures in Sophia’s mansion of a home. Sophia was telling her some story about that day, the trouble her brother, Christopher, had gone through to hire to a photographer, only for his kids to throw tantrums the day the pictures were to be taken.
“What about your sister, dear? Have you written to her lately?” Sophia had asked when she finished her story.
“No, I haven’t,” Annie said, with a shrug.
“Perhaps you could this weekend, during your days off? There’s not much I wouldn’t give to still be able to write to Christopher you know. But he’s been gone for five years.
Sophia, of course, hadn’t made the comment to make Annie feel guilty, but that was exactly what had happened. That night, Annie had sat down at her kitchen table, determined to write a reconciling letter to Meredith. Two days later, she’d still only written four lines. Finally, she rolled the paper up in her right hand, privately deciding that Meredith would have to be the one to rekindle their relationship.
Annie didn’t think she’d ever been happier to return to Sophia’s house than after those two vacation days. The mansion was still and quiet as Annie walked in and went about her normal routine, noting that Sophia was absent from her usual seat in the living room, where she waited for Annie to arrive every morning. Annie presumed that she must have been lying in with some illness, and went about her daily routine without fuss.
Around noon, though, Annie began to suspect that something was wrong. On a normal day, Sophia would have wandered into the kitchen and asked Annie what she would be cooking for lunch. Annie stood in the cramped pantry, staring down packages of noodles and cans of broth on the shelf in front of her, waiting to hear the gentle thud of Sophia’s footsteps coming down the stairs. When, after a few moments, she didn’t come down, Annie set herself to the task of making soup for Sophia’s lunch. She ladled some onto of Sophia’s china bowls, and set it on a tray with a dish of crackers.
“Miss Baldare?” Annie called as she carried the tray upstairs to the master bedroom. “Miss Sophia?” She asked the silent hallway, staring at the closed door, the tray of food held carefully with both hands. “I’m going to come in, ma’am. I’ve got your lunch ready.” When it was clear that Sophia wasn’t going to answer, Annie tentatively opened the door.
The curtains were drawn over both windows, giving the room an eerie red glow. Annie stared down next to Sophia’s outline on the bed, and called out to her: “Miss Baldare, wake up. It’s noon and you really should eat something.” She sat the tray down on Sophia’s bedside table and went to open a curtain, letting the midday light flood the room. “Perhaps this will help,” she said as she reached to open the second curtain.
“Miss Sophia?” she asked softly, her eyes grazing Sophia’s outline on the bed. She could just see the top of her head, the pale glow reflecting the gentle sunlight. “Sophia?” She sat down on the edge of the bed, placed a hand on the old woman’s shoulder, and gave her a gentle shake. “You’re freezing!” She said, pulling her hand back. “Miss, is everything okay?” Finally, she reached up, pulled back the sheets, and let out a gasp that grew quickly into a shriek.
Annie would never quite be able to say what got her through that afternoon. She’d retreated to the living room, which was the only room with a telephone, and called for paramedics, who pronounced Sophia Baldare dead on the scene, saying that she’d likely been dead for several hours, if not a few days. Not entirely sure what she was supposed to do, Annie wandered from room to room, occasionally wiping at one of Sophia’s trinkets or portraits with her limp feather duster. When she’d exhausted herself, she sat in the kitchen with a glass of wine, letting the hours pass without movement.
No matter where she went, Annie couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. It was as if the ghost of her late mistress was with her, following her through the house. Too tired to bother returning to her empty apartment, Annie finally retreated upstairs, intent on settling herself in the bedroom that Sophia had arranged specifically for her. She found herself staring at the open door to Sophia’s bedroom. It was as if a cold wind has passed through her. Her fingers fumbled with the key as she locked the door of the room She stood there for a moment, staring at the closed door, until she ran to her room, and locked the door against the rest of the house.
It was the voices in the drawing room downstairs that woke her the next morning. She sat straight up on the bed, trying to determine whether she was imaging the torrent of sound through the house. She grabbed the umbrella from her closet, and crept downstairs, holding it as if it were a baseball bat.
“Who called you?” The first voice, a gruff masculine tone, asked.
“The funeral home,” a second, higher, voice replied. “They called me a few hours ago, told me that she’s gone.”
“I think she is. But there’s a car in front of the garage that I don’t recognize. Couldn’t be that horrid maid, could it?”
“I don’t see why she’d still be here. She likely stole a few of auntie’s trinkets before she left.”
‘Horrid maid, huh?’ Annie thought as she tiptoed to the doorway of the drawing room and peered in. A young man stood in a suit, his back facing towards Annie, speaking to a woman who sat in Sophia’s favorite chair. Even if Annie hadn’t known the woman from earlier meetings, she’d have recognized Sophia’s features on her soft face. Lucy Vernon’s long ponytail was the same shade of brown as her aunt’s had once been, and she shared Sophia’s face shape and eyebrows. Annie supposed, then, that the man who stood with his back towards the door must have been Lucy’s brother, Peter Baldare.
“Peter,” Lucy said, sitting straighter in her seat and staring through the doorway at Annie, “look! It’s the maid.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” Peter asked turning to look at Annie. As he spoke, thick tobacco smoke wafted over Annie, and she noticed the lit pipe he held in one hand. Sophia would’ve hated him smoking in her house.
“I’ve been here since yesterday morning,” Annie said, glancing around the room. A few of Sophia’s things had already disappeared from their usual shelves; Annie cringed.
“Then you must have been here when they found the body,” Peter said, then taking a long inhale from the pipe.
“I was,” Annie said, neglecting to mention that she was the one who had found Sophia. “I had planned to call you this morning, but I glad you’ve come.” In truth, Annie had planned to wait as long as she could before she called Christopher Baldare’s greedy children. Annie had met Christopher some years before he passed, before Lucy and Peter had married. Even then, Annie couldn’t understand how he’d raised such heartless children.
“Right,” Peter said, glancing her over. “Well, your services will no longer be needed here. Please gather your things and leave.”
“Sir?” Annie asked, feeling heat in her face. “I’ve been working here for sixteen years. If there is anything to be done in preparation for Madame Baldare’s funeral, I would like to help.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Lucy cut in. “As Sophia’s only living relatives, we’re perfectly capable of arranging her funeral ourselves.”
“Okay,” Annie finally said, trying to keep her voice in check. “Well, Madame Baldare kept her documents quite well hidden. I wish you the best of luck in finding everything. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble looking for her will.”
“Her will?” Peter asked. “If you know where she kept her will, you have to tell us.”
“I could,” Annie said, “I could probably help you find a few of her things. But for me to do that, you’ll have to let me stay on a little longer.
“Very well then,” Lucy said, with a nod to her brother. “You can stay until we’ve put our aunt to rest. After that you will have to find work somewhere else.”
Annie stayed at the house for the next few days, searching through Sophia’s study for her will, or anything other document that could be of use. In other rooms of the house, Peter and Lucy searched through Sophia’s most prized possession, taking any trinkets that seemed valuable. Annie resolved to search through Sophia’s filing cabinets without any interference from Sophia’s relative.
A few days after Sophia’s funeral Annie found the will. It was jammed at the bottom of a locked drawer in Sophia’s office.
“She found it!” Lucy announced before Annie had even had a chance to look at it. Lucy snatched the will out of Annie’s hand, and Annie could hear her calling for Peter as she walked down the hall.
The two sat huddled in the drawing room of the house for several hours, staring over the will, and giving Annie nasty looks whenever she walked near the room.
“What is the meaning of this?” Peter asked, looking up at Annie when she entered the drawing room with bucket of cleaner and a rag.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” Annie said, barely paying attention to him as she scrubbed the dusk off the walls, and wiped the portraits.
“You’ve done something to Aunt Sophia’s will,” Peter said, holding up the paper. “You must have.”
“I assure you, I didn’t even know where the will was. I certainly never tampered with it.”
“Then can you explain to me why our aunt would’ve left the majority of her estate to you?” Lucy asked, standing up so that Annie noticed her for the first time. Her eyes were wet, and her cheeks were bright red in her passion.
“What?” Annie took the paper out of Peter’s hand and stared down at it, her eyes searching the page. It wasn’t long, Annie noticed. Sophia had left money for various charities, many of which she’d been giving to for the past several days. The last line of the will left the remainder of her estate to Annabelle Hoffman. It took Annie a moment to register her legal name written on the will. “Oh my God.”
“We’ll be calling our lawyer in the morning,” Peter said, his jaw tight as he spoke. “We’ll fix this.”
Peter and Lucy spent most of the afternoon in the drawing room, muttering to each other as they glanced over Sophia’s will. Annie was happy to leave them to it; she sat in her bedroom of the house, staring out of the window. She daydreamed of Sophia, of the afternoons they’d spent together while Annie took Sophia’s laundry from the clothesline outside. Sophia hadn’t ever mentioned that Annie might have a place in her will.
It was a loud bang, one that shook the lamp on the nightstand, that called her out of the day dream. Convinced that someone was breaking into the house, forgetting completely about Lucy and Peter, Annie ran downstairs. Peter stood at the door of the forbidden room, huffing as if he’d exerted some great energy.
“Do you know where Aunt Sophia kept the key?” He asked Annie breathlessly.
“I’m not sure,” Annie said truthfully, watching as Peter tried to break the door down. “Madame Baldare would not have appreciated you trying to break in, though. She asked me never to go in there.”
“She asked you never to go in there,” Peter retorted, giving Annie a cold stare. “Whatever. If I can’t get in there tonight, I’ll bring an axe tomorrow.”
“Madame Baldare wouldn’t have want—.”
“Don’t you dare tell me what my aunt would’ve wanted.” Annie could feel the flecks of spit land on her face like raindrops as Peter growled. “We’re her only surviving family. You’re just the help.”
Annie spent the evening in her room, waiting there until she could see the headlights of their cars leaving the driveway. What Peter said was true, she knew. She was just the help, even with the years she’d spent caring for Sophia and caring for her home. Sophia would’ve been so heartbroken to see her only remaining kin foraging for her scraps. It was no good, Sophia thought. It wasn’t doing any good for her to be in the house, watching as Peter and Lucy tore the place apart.
She laid awake in bed for what felt like an hour before deciding that she wouldn’t be getting any sleep. She wandered around the house for a little while before deciding to go back to Sophia’s room. No one had entered since the night Sophia died, and Annie didn’t know that she wanted to go in. Still, she thought, it would be good for her to take one last look before she left, and Sophia’s kin ransacked the house.
Her fingers shaking as they had when she locked the room the night of Sophia’s death, Annie fumbled with the key, and finally the door swung open. A soft light illuminated the room through the open windows. Sophia remembered opening them that day, hoping the light would wake Sophia. Annie felt the mattress sink beneath her as she sat down, and took one last look around the room. She opened one drawer, which was full of random objects. Annie let her hand drift through the rubble until she grasped something cold and small. She pulled her hand out to find a small silver key; it looked like the other house keys, though Annie knew she’d never seen this one before.
Annie ran around the house for a while trying the key on the chest in the corner of Sophia’s room, the lone back door, and the basement door, none of which had ever been locked when Annie worked for Sophia, with no luck. The sun was beginning to glimmer over the skyline when Annie decided to try the lock on the forbidden door. She stood there for a moment, sweat running down her forehead as she debated. Sophia had told her to stay out of this room. But Sophia was gone. And Peter would break in anyway if he had the chance.
Finally, she turned the key, and the door opened with a soft creak, as if it’d been some years since anyone had been in there. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling in the corners of the room, and Annie could barely make out the baby blue wallpaper beneath the layers of dust.
There was wooden crib painted with peeling white paint against one wall. Next to it sat a dark brown rocking chair, the one from Sophia’s favorite portrait, with a leather-bound picture album sitting on the seat. Annie picked up the album carefully, and sat down slowly in the rocking chair, completely forgetting about the dust. The first page announced that the book had been presented to Sophia Baldare in 1941 by her fiancé, Jeremy Tanner.
Annie barely recognized Sophia in the first picture of the album. She stood next to a man in a military uniform, in a dark dress, with her hair in long ringlets. The back of the picture announced that it was taken the day before Jeremy’s deployment. There were only a few pictures of them together in that album. Annie counted five before she came across a plain piece of paper that announced the birth of Andrew Tanner. The next picture showed Sophia sitting in the rocking chair, holding a baby in her arms. After two more pictures of the baby there were two official looking forms. The first was a letter, written to Sophia, informing her of the death of Jeremy Tanner. The second was a death certificate, detailing the time and place of Andrew Tanner’s passing. The next picture was dated almost twelve years later, a black and white photo of the toddler Lucy sitting next to baby Peter.
Annie saw her tears stain the second death notice before she even realized she was crying. Sixteen years she’d worked for Sophia Baldare, and not once had Sophia told her about the family she’d once had. She’d always thought Sophia’s existence was as lonely as hers, holed up in her drafty house, with only her unpleasant kin for company.
Her own future, she'd always thought, would one day be much the same as Sophia's. Meredith would collect her valuables, rummaging through her apartment in the same way that Peter and Lucy carelessly picked through Sophia's most treasured possessions. Except now, they were different. Annie's entire life was a feather duster, and her friend's secrets, with no experiences she could really call her own. Whatever her niece and nephew did with her things, at least Sophia had actually lived.