A tidal wave of body odor overwhelmed Frank’s nose. Along with that tsunami came creaks and groans from the now-overloaded folding chair next to his. Frank instinctively tried to move away, but couldn’t, since his hip was already in contact with Dad’s on the other side. There was no place else to sit. The small conference room was already filled beyond any fire code capacity. Out of the corner of his eye, Frank saw the smelly newcomer was a twenty-something, like him. He couldn’t imagine anything else they might have in common. It got worse. His new seat mate turned toward him. A wheeze resolved itself into communication.
“Have you heard who’s getting the old witch’s gold?”
Frank couldn’t remember ever meeting this supposed relative, but after having his own identification scrutinized closely at the door supposed he must be a family member. They even made Mom stay outside the room. At the moment, Frank considered she got the best of the situation. The question, though, called for a response.
“I’d bet the chosen one is up front in one of the soft chairs, cousin. That’s unless you’re the one, and just messing with me.”
That earned Frank a grin from him, exposing blackened stubs where teeth should have been. He shook his head emphatically.
“I remember that stupid birthday interview. The old lady looked at some file, glanced at my teeth, and told me that my hockey ambitions far exceeded my skill. Then she threw me out. How did she ever know that I played hockey? We live in Ontario! You got the same treatment, I guess.”
“It all sounds familiar,” Frank replied, wondering whether he was talking about Ontario, California or Ontario in Canada.
Somebody sat down next to the bozo, and the conversation went that direction. The offense to his nose didn’t go anywhere. Dad leaned against the wall, ignoring everyone and everything. Frank scrunched his shoulders to get some small amount of room. All he could do now was to wait for the attorney to read Grandma Charlotte’s will. Frank wished he could be somewhere, anywhere else. It wasn’t the first time he’d felt that way. The bozo cousin bringing up the interview brought his experience back, in three dimensions and surround sound. This was different, though. He wasn’t simply remembering it. It was more of an out-of-body experience, watching it for the first time.
Mom and Dad were in the front seat, with him sitting behind them. “I get to do what I want on my birthday,” his younger self whined. “That’s what you’ve always said.” He immediately added, “…and only what I want.”
His father scowled. “It’s called the ‘Do it or you’re out of the will’ family tradition.” Then, Dad added with a smirk the younger Frank missed, “Assuming there’s anything to give.”
Frank was amazed he saw things now that he hadn’t seen originally. It all felt like the real deal, though.
“Now dear,” Mom said, pinching her husband’s arm. “You know your mother wouldn’t do that. You’ve been a good son all these years.”
“Anyway, it’s a spooky old house. I hate it,” came the continuing protest from the whiny little snot his parents called Franky. Frank observed with amusement that he really didn’t know when to shut up when he was that age. He wondered in passing if he was any wiser now.
“You’re talking about where your father was raised, dear,” his mother responded, trying to keep things at least a little bit peaceful.
“Well, everybody says she’s a witch.”
“Hey, kid,” his father growled. “That’s my mother and the house where I grew up. You will have this interview with Grandma Charlotte. I had that interview. Every single relative does it on their sixteenth birthday. Nobody ever passed that interview. My parents know what people are thinking. My Dad had it right up until he died. Your Grandma still has it. They just glance at people and know. I don’t know how they do it. They never told me. Maybe you’ll be the one she’ll tell.”
“What about there being all kinds of money and treasure hidden around the house?”
“It’s all … um, bologna,” his father replied. “There was some kind of family business. They were in it for as long as I can remember. Nobody said what the business might be. I don’t know if the business even exists any more. They never sold anything, saw anyone, or got any money. Well, that’s not quite right. They did see people sometimes. People showed up at odd times. They never stayed long, and I never heard what they talked about. Some of the cars had Federal license plates. Nothing ever came in the mail that I know of.”
Frank recalled his train of thought at the time. It sounded like a spy story, but imagining Grandma Charlotte as a spy was more of a stretch than thinking she was a witch. Finding out this was an interview disturbed Frank even more, especially with his father admitting nobody passed it. Interviews only went with applying for jobs, or entering college. He hadn’t done any of those things. It must be about this mysterious business.
“We’re here,” his father announced. Frank watched his younger self stare with sudden dread at the great pile of Victorian wood and brick. His grandparents had always lived there. Grandpa Armand died a long time ago. Grandma Charlotte was who he’d always associated with the badly cracked sidewalk and flaking paint, where there was any. If there were piles of money, wouldn’t they use a little to fix the place? Charles and Melissa walked their son up to the front door, with Frank fidgeting the whole way, hoping beyond hope nobody was home. That hope was in vain. Grandma Charlotte answered the door swiftly.
“Mother,” his father announced, somewhat stiffly. “It is good to see you. This is your grandson’s sixteenth birthday.”
“I am delighted. Francois, you are becoming quite a man.” Then she looked at his parents. “Charles. Melissa. Might I speak with Francois privately?”
Dad nodded in submission. “Certainly, Mother.”
Frank went unwillingly into the old house, seething at being called ‘Francois.’ He hated the name. It was on his birth certificate. That didn’t mean it was his name. He was Frank. Being called Franky got him mad, too, but his parents insisted on calling him that, even in public. It was so humiliating. In spite of living across town, they only rarely visited his Grandma Charlotte. She was nice to him when they came, but the visits never felt like family, or even social in nature. Everyone went to the parlor, and only there. They always left sooner rather than later. This time was something new, as Grandma led the way past the parlor and library, into what seemed the heart of darkness. She opened a creaking door, terrifying Frank. The mysterious place was nothing more than a small office. Once there, Grandma Charlotte’s entire demeanor abruptly changed from grandmother to businesswoman. She even walked faster.
“Okay,” she began, “you don’t like being called Francois. It’s your name, so get used to it. You’ll hear worse. Sit there, please,” pointing to an overstuffed leather chair facing a large wooden desk. He sat, realizing she’d known what he had been thinking. Grandma Charlotte went around and sat behind the desk. On it was a file that looked as though it might have come out of King Tut’s tomb. She looked at him, and then read some things in the file.
Finally, she looked back at him. “How this has gone for everyone else, including your father is like this. At this point I always say, ‘You’re not the one. I’m so sorry.’ To you, however, I have to say you are the one. Yes, you’re the one, all right.”