OPPORTUNITY SQUANDERED AND TRUST MISPLACED are dreadful schoolmarms. Neida Graham shrunk under their reprimands the moment the taxi stopped in front of her childhood home. Hopewell’s gabled roof pierced the late afternoon sky and cast the dormer windows into angled shadows like two reproving eyes.
“You’ve been away far too long,” the house seemed to nag. And as if the abode wagged a reprimanding finger at her, it breathed in life and flogged her conscience, satisfaction sieving through the holes in the broken staircase—its weed-infested lawns, empty porch, and rusted and sagging fixtures, settling in a frumpy huff.
Well, she was here now. Mr. Warren had expressed the urgency of the situation, and she hadn’t slept a moment in thirty-two hours just to get to Gran before it was too late. That stood for something, didn’t it? Besides, she wasn’t to blame for her father spiriting her away from the place and her life here as a child.
She pushed her way outside the taxi and shook her head at the neglect of this once-grand estate. Such disrepair might have appeared out of place except for the fifteen-foot-high, leaf-strewn, Native American mound that rose from the backyard beyond the balustrade. The Adena and Hopewell cultures had built hundreds of thousands of these pre-Columbian tumuli throughout what was now the United States and Canada, and for almost thirty years, the uniqueness of this particular hill had attached a primeval thread to Neida’s heart. She had always intended to return home, regardless of her grandmother’s summons. Just not yet, and not under these circumstances.
The taxi driver retrieved her two small bags and plopped them on the top step. Neida hustled to where he stood and handed him his fee plus a little extra. He frowned at the offering in his hand, then whirled around the vehicle, hopped into the taxi, and peeled out down the drive. She gave him little notice as the front door opened and a man appeared on the porch—no doubt, her grandmother’s lawyer, Mr. Warren.
The man picked up her bags, one under his arm and the other dangling from his bony hand. He motioned her up the stairs. “Your grandmother is waiting, Ms. Graham. As I said on the phone, we have little time. I’ll show you to her room.”
He guided Neida across the threshold. Light from several sconces pointed ocher triangles toward the oaken stairwell, spiraling down like a grand twister from the second floor. She hurried up the staircase after the man, although no one needed to show her the way or which room to enter. Still vivid in her mind, her father, in a contemptuous rage, had dragged her from Gran’s bedroom and down the stairwell when she was just six years old. Such emotion against a woman who had shown her kindness and love had incited confusion in her young heart, and every detail of that time and place still lodged deep in the recesses of her brain.
Mr. Warren stopped at the familiar paneled door and set the bags near the wall. He peered down at her with a shrug of eyebrows. “Althea asked that I wait here. She’ll speak to you alone first.”
The weathered handle squeaked as he opened the door, and the ancient hinges protested. On cue, a nurse sitting in a bentwood rocker in the corner rose and breezed past them. Mr. Warren nodded, and Neida bit her lip and tiptoed inside. She barely noticed the door closing behind her.
For over two decades, the memory of Gran’s image had lingered as a pleasant dream—the woman’s smile, her kind eyes, her mahogany-colored braid, and even her robust body that had squeezed love into Neida each time they were together. Sadness had seemed to lurk in her eyes, the remnant of some deep-seated mystery that Neida had been too young to understand. And now, here, on cloud pillows, Althea Graham lay pale and withered. Her hair, a tangled web of gray, splayed across the embroidered silk. As if the woman sensed herself a spectacle, she fluttered open her paper-like lids and squinted up in confusion.
Neida managed a smile and rushed to the side of the bed. “It’s me, Gran. I’m here.”
Recognition transformed the woman’s features. “Oneida Woodward Graham, about time you came home, young lady.”
Her friends called her Neida now, but Gran’s use of her full given name sounded right somehow, as though the things that mattered most never changed.
“Come closer, child. Let me look at you.”
Neida obeyed, bent to look into Gran’s blue eyes that communed a silent language of love.
The old woman’s shaking fingers brushed Neida’s cheek and touched the end of her French braid that had swung forward over her shoulder. “You’ve grown into a beauty,” she said. “Your grandfather will be pleased, but why didn’t you come back to us sooner?” Her breath came harder now, her voice weaker.
Neida hesitated. “I’m sorry. Papa said …” What should she tell her? That Gran’s own son had sworn to everyone his parents were dead?
Her grandmother’s mouth puckered, flattened into a smile. “Written me off, has he?”
“Papa’s gone now, Gran, Mama too. They died in a traffic accident out of San Francisco this year. A reckless, drunk driver …” The words caught, trailed to a whisper.
The old woman’s forehead shriveled into a network of lines. “I am sorry, dear one, for both of us. Though why didn’t you come back to us then? Your grandfather and I have waited far too long for your return.”
Grandfather Graham had gone missing years before she was born; that much Mr. Warren had reminded her over the phone. Yet, her grandmother made it sound as though he still lived, as though if she’d turn around, he’d walk through the bedroom door.
“I didn’t even know you were alive, Gran. Not until your lawyer called me yesterday.”
Her grandmother’s chin quivered. She sank further into the pillow and closed her eyes. Several seconds passed before she opened them again, so long that Neida jumped when she spoke.
“Grudges are poisonous bedfellows. We’re all vulnerable to their infestation, I suppose. But there’s no point in sleeping with them, Oneida. They’ll only taint you and bring you to do things you wished you hadn’t. Your father refused to accept that. Never even made an effort to understand.”
“What happened, Gran? Why did Papa take me away from Hopewell and you?”
“That tale takes too much energy to tell. What matters is the Good Lord preserved me until you could come back to claim what’s rightfully yours. This house, this land, is your legacy, Oneida. A trust …” Her eyes opened saucer-like to emphasize the last two words, narrowed as she finished her thought, “and I’m leaving everything to you, in your care.” She groped for Neida’s hand. “Promise me, right now, that you’ll accept what your father could not.”
Gran’s puzzling words, the way she clutched her hand, pierced Neida’s heart. She couldn’t refuse her.
“Promise me … use my money … find the sacred stone box and bring it back. The relic is the key to a past you and the world must respect and acknowledge. Not for fame or glory. Or to pad one’s ego. But for honor and regard of those who have paved the way before us. Edward never understood such things, and it’s why someone murdered him.”
“Murdered?” In the abbreviated stories her father had revealed about Grandfather Graham, he had never shared with her such a portentous scenario. Nor had Mr. Warren mentioned it in any of his conversations with her.
Gran struggled to lift her shoulders toward Neida and, with a last gush of emotion, pleaded, “Remember … remember, you are The Awaited One, the blood of He Who Watches. Please honor and reveal the ancient truths.” She shuddered and collapsed into the pillow. By increments, her grasp lessened until all pressure dwindled to nothing.
“Gran? Gran!” Neida gasped and fought back the grief rising inside her. Why had her father deprived her of this woman her entire life?
As though she had witnessed the scene through the wall, the nurse bustled into the room. Her shoes squeaked across the floorboards as she passed to the bed. She delivered a consoling nod, checked for a pulse, then closed Gran’s eyes and placed the woman’s shriveled hands inside the covers. John Warren watched Neida from the doorway, then turned to look at Gran. His face sagged with the tenderness of a long, now severed, association.
Confused, betrayed—cheated—Neida escaped the bedside for the window. A large orange moon had risen over the crest in the short time since her arrival, and it bathed an eerie glow over the ruin behind Hopewell. How could a glorious beacon ignite the horizon just as fate snuffed out her grandmother’s light forever? Its audacity angered her and urged hot tears to slip down her cheeks.
Movement near the hill startled her. She blinked and pawed at the moisture in her eyes, focusing just east of the mound toward the base of the trees. A blurred figment took shape, a form as real as her grandmother lying on the bed behind her—a stooped, old man. He stared up at her, then leaned back his head and bayed at the moon. The sound penetrated all barriers, vibrated through her core.
She shrieked alarm and turned to the nurse and John Warren, their wide eyes questioning. By the time Neida turned back to the window, the man’s somber tune silenced, and, like magnified tunnel vision, his gaze pierced hers, seemed to chop the distance in half, sent a shiver up her spine.
The nurse rushed around the bed, John Warren joining her, but before they reached Neida’s side, time seemed to suspend. For in the interlude, the stranger nodded at her and, like some ghostly presence, drifted between the trees and vanished from view.
The apparition outside Gran’s window haunted Neida for some time. She was emotional. Gran’s death, her plea, and the assertion that someone had murdered Grandfather Graham had all provided powerful catalysts to impact her imagination. The moon had arced high above the mound before the medical unit finished removing her grandmother’s remains. Neighbors and Gran’s pastor milled about the house while she just watched the plot unfold in perplexing layers of twists and turns. Mr. Warren coaxed her downstairs to a corner of the parlor and settled her around a small antique table under the muted glow of a Tiffany lamp. He asked everyone to clear the room, then pulled out a document from his briefcase and began his rendition of her grandmother’s wishes.
His recitation jumbled inside her head. Constant impressions of Gran in her bed, the life-worn creases of the old woman’s face, even the sense of her words, swelled and added to Neida’s stupor.
“Miss Oneida, do you understand what I’m saying?”
The lawyer’s question jolted her, and she focused on his gaunt features. “I’m sorry. My grandmother’s left me something?”
“I said you’re an heiress to millions of dollars.”
She frowned at him. His disclosure only deepened the upheaval making the pulse at the base of her neck throb.
“I’m what?” she asked a hint of amusement in her voice.
“You’re a wealthy, young woman. Your great grandfather turned his father’s logging business into an empire after the depression. He sold the company just before your great grandmother passed before him, so he left the fortune to Althea when he died in 1959. Since your grandmother named you as her successor, everything is yours now.”
Neida blinked at such a ridiculous fabrication. “But how can that be possible?”
“Well,” said Mr. Warren, pushing his glasses up his thin nose, “no one else is left to leave this to, Miss Oneida. You do realize your grandmother was an only child. After your Grandfather Graham failed to come back from his excavation in Ohio, your father grew to hate her. So, she made few concessions for her son. You say he’s gone on anyway. Who’s left to contest her wishes? I assure you everything is yours.”
“But there must be someone else in the family.”
He shook his head, a sadness reflected through his spectacles. “Your grandmother left explicit instructions. You’re the only beneficiary.”
The walls closed in. Mr. Warren’s exposé created too many choices, impossible alternatives. They required her to change her well-oiled mechanism of routine affairs. She replayed Gran’s last words and Mr. Warren’s declaration over in her head. An anthropology professor’s stint at an obscure Bay Area university faded under such an endowment. She loved her vocation, had written several books on the Ohlone culture, yet somehow her degree and knowledge, in the few minutes of hearing the details of her Gran’s trust, dwindled to nothing extraordinary. In all honesty, she yearned for more excitement in her life than teaching students who took her classes just to satisfy a science credit. She swiveled toward the lawyer and crossed her arms.
“But Mr. Warren, why does Gran expect me to give up my life and take up a search? I’ve built a career for myself. I can’t just uproot and leave California on a moment’s whim.”
Mr. Warren leaned in. His eyes crowned over his spectacles in matter-of-fact pointedness. “The fact is you’ll have plenty of money to do whatever you wish. She only wanted what’s best for you.”
“What’s best for me?” Traipsing around the country to search for a stone box that got her grandfather killed sounded like a fantasy to her, or danger if it were true. And Gran had called her such a bizarre name, The Awaited One, the blood of He Who Watches. She didn’t even know what that meant. “I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but was Gran in her right mind?”
Mr. Warren recoiled. “Your grandmother was in perfect mental form, I assure you.”
She considered his adamant response. Gran’s struggle to lift off the pillow, the way her exertion and whispered utterance pumped life into those tarnished, blue eyes had spoken volumes. And because every syllable, every inflection in Gran’s voice, resounded inside her with clarity, she had to agree with his assessment.
Neida rubbed her temples. “I have no idea what to do next.”
Mr. Warren threw the trust into his briefcase and sighed. “Althea did love you enough to hunt you down and give you everything she owned. I don’t quite understand your confusion.”
Neida winced. “You’re right. This is an incredible legacy, and I should be more mindful of Gran’s generosity. I guess I do have some time off. It won’t hurt me to look into Gran’s request. But she should have left me a little bit more instruct—”
A howl outside shattered her gripe. She whisked to the window, pulled back the curtain, and scoured the dark void for the source. “Who is that man, and why is he making that racket?”
Mr. Warren’s eyebrows jutted inward. “What man? It’s just a stray wolf calling for its mate.” He closed his briefcase with a click and maneuvered it off the table. He came to her and patted her arm. “I’ll expect you at the bank on Friday morning at 11:00. Don’t be late.”
Neida nodded, followed the lawyer from the parlor to the door, and watched him walk down the steps to his car. A wolf? No, I saw a man howling outside Gran’s window. She searched the line of trees along the property for the individual, but he wasn’t there. The baying wafted to her from some distant forest pocket, and though softer, held the same lamenting resonance as before. Who was the strange man, and what did he want? Neida at least owed her grandmother the courtesy of investigating and, with a bit of luck, finding the relic she had implored her to return home.