No one ever buzzed the intercom at Mom’s dress shop except Funk, the Fed Ex hunk, and that was only on Thursdays. Every week, he dropped off fabric, and every week Mom greeted him with an airy laugh and a smile traced in Hello Sailor lipstick.
So when the intercom buzzed on a Monday morning, Mom and I glanced at each other over the breakfast table. We were still in our flat above the shop, where I was scarfing down cereal while Mom splashed coffee in her mug of morning sugar.
“Is it already time to open?” She frowned. “Or did my sign for summer hours fall down again?”
“You still have thirty minutes,” I said, checking my phone. “And your sign keeps falling because you used Bubble Yum to hold it up.”
“Shouldn’t you be going somewhere?” she asked, tapping me on the nose with her spoon.
“The museum,” I said. “But not until ten.”
“Good.” She took a sip from her mug. “Then you can change out of those not-on-your-life jeans while I answer the door.”
The intercom buzzed again, and she punched the speaker button. “Be right there!”
I glanced down. “What’s wrong with my jeans?” One of Mom’s designer friends had just given them to me for my thirteenth birthday.
“They’re shredded, Tori.” Mom slipped a robe on over her nightgown. “It looks like you threw them in the wash with a wolverine.”
I pointed my spoon at her. “Hey, at least I do laundry.”
“And I feed and shelter you,” she said, opening the dishwasher. “I’ll bet that’s Sophia downstairs, wanting to see her new wedding dress plans.”
Mom grabbed a manila folder from the plate rack.
“You really need to get that thing fixed,” I said, nodding at the machine. “Or buy a new one.”
“What are you talking about? It makes a great office utility and
keeps my files lemony fresh.” She pulled out a few sketches. “Besides, dishwashers are expensive.”
“Since when have you ever worried about money?” I asked, placing my cereal box in the pantry so that it lined up with all the others. “And if you are, is buying new fabric every week really a good idea?”
Mom kissed my forehead. “That’s not something you need to think about. I’ll be right back,” she said, waving her sketches.
“Pants, Mom!” I called after her. “People like it when you greet them wearing pants!”
“It’s fine!” she shouted. “Sophia and I go way, way—”
Her voice stopped midsentence, followed by silence. After a couple of minutes, I poked my head out the door.
I could hear her airy laugh, then the closing of the shop door. A moment later, she screeched and charged up the stairs.
“It was Funk! And he saw me in this!” She pointed at her robe. “And these!” She pointed at her pale, unpainted lips.
“Um . . . the natural look is in?” I suggested. “And you can’t spell ‘wardrobe’ without ‘robe’—”
“Ah, forget it,” said Mom, fanning herself with a puffy square envelope. “This just means I have to answer the door in a ball gown next time.”
I nodded. “Glad you didn’t take it to a crazy place.” I took the envelope from her. “What’d you get?”
“Not sure,” she said. “Something from Massachusetts.”
I opened it and slid out a folded letter and plastic DVD case with the words MURIEL ARCHIBALD’S LAST WILL & TESTAMENT on it.
“Who’s Muriel Archibald?” I asked while Mom read the letter.
“Your dad’s great-aunt who . . . apparently passed away last week,” said Mom, wrinkling her forehead. “I’m surprised it took so long.”
“Wow,” I said. “So, obviously, you were close?”
Mom made a face. “Don’t get smart. She was old and mean and disliked by everyone in the family. She hasn’t even attended the last five reunions, so I just assumed . . .” Mom shrugged.
“Well, she was nice enough to leave you something in her will,” I pointed out.
“We’ll see about that.” Mom slid the disc into her laptop. “Are you sure you don’t remember her? You would’ve been eight last time you met.”
A leathery-faced woman with sunken eyes appeared on-screen.
“Gah!” I took a step back. “I’d definitely remember that . . . I mean her.”
Mom tilted her head to one side. “Believe it or not, she used to be beautiful.”
“In the same way a hairless cat is beautiful?” I asked.
Great-Aunt Muriel shifted in her armchair, leaning toward the camera. A thick rope of pearls hung around her neck and swung heavily from side to side.
“Hello, nincompoops,” said Great-Aunt Muriel in a deep, commanding voice. “If you’re viewing this, then you’ve managed to outlive me. What a pity.”
Mom and I glanced at one another.
“No doubt you’re all celebrating and wondering how much money you’ll receive,” continued Great-Aunt Muriel. “The answer is: nothing. I’ve given the entire fortune to charity.”
“Well, that’s nice,” I said. “Which—”
Mom shook her head. “Wait for it . . . .”
“Charity, my polo pony, was the only one who didn’t bore me with the drama of her life.”
Mom gestured at the screen. “There it is.”
I looked at her. “She left all her money . . . to a horse.”
“But Charity cannot appreciate the grounds of my estate nor its proper manor in the proper manner.” Great-Aunt Muriel frowned and spoke to someone off camera. “That sentence was appallingly cute. Are there any more of these gems I should be aware of?”
Then, looking back at the camera, “Obviously, Charity has no need for the estate, so I’m forced to give it to one of you.
Since I loathe you all equally, it won’t be easy to choose,” she said. “Therefore, the recipient will be decided by a test—”
Mom paused the DVD. “Enough of that. You need to get changed, Tori.”
“Wait, what’s the test?” I demanded. “I’m great at tests!”
Most kids feared pop quizzes, but not me. I even had a special pen strictly for taking them. I used to have two, but my cousin Dylan stole one, hoping it would make him smarter through osmosis. Then he got expelled for hiding in the school’s walk-in freezer and eating a week’s worth of ice cream sandwiches. Now he lives in Texas.
I’d say his pen theory didn’t work.
“Tori, I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to be the kind of test you can study for,” said Mom.
“We don’t know that yet,” I said. “That estate could be ours. Especially if I’m up against someone like Dylan the Dumbfounded.”
“We don’t need all that land or a manor,” said Mom, walking toward my bedroom. “My business is here, not in Upper Snootyville.”
“Well, even if we didn’t live in the manor, we could sell it,” I said, following her. “And use the money to buy a new dishwasher. Or make improvements to the shop. Like the fitting room.”
“I told you we’re fine with money.” Mom opened my dresser,
pawing through the neatly folded jeans until she found a pair she approved of. “And what’s wrong with the fitting room?” she asked, handing them to me.
I laid the jeans on the bed and set to organizing my dresser drawer. “The lighting makes people look pasty, the mirrors make them look flabby, the carpet has tearstains from women who think they’re pasty and flabby, plus the door doesn’t close unless I’m there to hold it shut.”
“You did say you wanted to be involved at the shop,” Mom mused as she pushed the drawer closed.
I rolled my eyes and switched pants. “With inventory or window displays! And I’m glad you focused on the important part of that sentence.” I opened my top drawer for a pair of socks and instead found a slip of paper. “?‘IOU some clean socks’?” I put down the note and looked at Mom. “Seriously? I had three pairs in here. When did you become a six-legged circus freak?”
She flashed me a sheepish grin. “Whoops! Sorry! I got chocolate syrup on one pair and had to use another pair to clean up milk I spilled. I was making chocolate milk, you see.”
“I never would’ve guessed,” I said. “Where’s the third pair?”
Mom lifted one of her feet and pointed to it.
I squinted and leaned closer. “Did you draw faces—”
Mom quickly lowered her leg. “Hey! Why don’t you go play the rest of the video and tell me what it says? If it’s something easy, we’ll do it.”
“It may mean changing out of your robe,” I told her. “Are you sure you can handle it?”
I returned to the kitchen, where Great-Aunt Muriel’s image was scowling, as if she knew she’d been put on pause and didn’t like it.
“Sorry,” I told the image. “You were saying?”
I pressed the play button, and the video backtracked a beat.
“. . . recipient will be decided by a test of wit and will. Archibald Manor was built during the colonial era, and I want the owner to appreciate it for all its majesty during simpler times. Therefore, interested parties will live in the same environment as our ancestors. This means no modern technology, such as electronics, automobiles, or grocery stores. Living purely off the land.”
I shrugged. That didn’t sound bad.
“For two weeks.”
I grimaced. That sounded bad.
“In addition, you will face daily challenges to test your abilities,” Great-Aunt Muriel continued. “The winner will be the person who has accrued the highest points and managed
not to die from hunger or be eaten by other contestants.” A phone number began flashing on the screen. “If interested, contact my lawyer—”
“A lawyer? You can turn that off now,” said Mom from the doorway. “We’re definitely not interested. And you have to finish getting ready.”
“Don’t make me use my Bossy Mom voice,” she warned. “You know how old it makes me feel.”
“Fine,” I huffed, getting up from the table and heading to my room.
Ten minutes later, my purse dangling off one shoulder, I peeked into the kitchen. Mom wasn’t there, but her laptop was. The door leading down to the shop was ajar.
I sped-crept across the hall and pushed the disc eject button on Mom’s laptop.
Nothing came out.
“BOO!” Mom popped up in front of me, and I yelped, stumbling back several feet. She took one look at my terrified expression and broke into a fit of laughter.
“What . . .” I glanced back at the shop door, which hadn’t budged an inch. “Where did you . . . ?”
“In . . . the . . . pantry!” said Mom between giggles. She
pointed to our tiny cupboard, filled with food and just enough space to conceal one marginally insane mother. “I nearly suffocated, but it was worth it!”
“You know I hate being scared!” I huffed, and stomped downstairs.
“Have a nice day, darling!” she called after me.
I fumed and vowed revenge as my feet hit the sidewalk, but in all honesty, Mom was a pretty cool parent. Except when she was borrowing my socks, like today. Or once, when she packed me a sack lunch consisting of half a ham and two raw eggs. “I thought they were hard-boiled!” she’d said. “And your school said you needed protein.”
She’d been raising me alone ever since my dad had died when I was a toddler. He’d been a navy pilot, and they’d met at the local base where Mom had worked altering uniforms.
Did I miss him? I think more than anything I missed the idea of him, of being a complete family. The reunions Mom spoke of only involved Dad’s relatives. Mom had been on her own since she hit eighteen.
I stopped in front of a brownstone to wait for a girl with freckles across her nose and wavy brown hair like mine.
“You look troubled,” she said by way of greeting. My cousin, Angel, flicked a braided strand of hair behind her shoulder.
The feathers tied to the end twisted on the breeze, and I was tempted to ask if she’d plucked them from a bird herself. Angel and her parents were survivalist hippie types.
“Did a package come to your house this morning?” I asked.
“With a message from beyond the grave?” she replied with a mystical waggling of fingers.
I smiled. “Yeah, Great-Aunt Muriel’s video will. Are you and your parents competing for the estate?”
She nodded. “Living the way nature intended is what we’re all about. If man and beast—”
I cleared my throat. “We’re a block from your house now. You can drop the act.”
“Thank God.” Angel tugged the feathers out of her hair and crammed them in her pocket. When she pulled her hand back out, she was clutching a lipstick and dangly earrings.
“I don’t know where my mom got those feathers, but there was bird poop on my windowsill this morning.” She slid on the earrings. “My guess? The former owner was expressing some rage.”
We paused for a moment so she could apply lipstick in the reflection of a car window.
“You know you don’t have to go along with everything they want,” I told her, pulling a stray feather from her hair. I tried
to flick it away, but it stuck to my fingers no matter how hard I shook them.
“Honey hair spray,” said Angel, blushing. “Dad thinks it’s better for the environment.”
Angel’s dad, my uncle Deke, was a chemist. Her mom, my aunt Zoe, was an accountant. It’s anyone’s guess how they turned out to be ultrahippies.
“I know I don’t have to humor them,” said Angel, “but I’d rather hide the lipstick than get a lecture on chemicals. The last thing I need is another one of my dad’s homemade butter-and-berry lip glosses.”
“That actually sounds delicious,” I said.
Angel curled her lip. “When it gets hot out it smells like my face is cooking. People call me Angel Food Face.”
I fought back a smile. “Do you want some perfume?”
“Yes, please,” she said, putting the lipstick back in her pocket.
I spritzed the air and she sashayed through it. I followed her, and we switched to a normal stride as we continued toward the museum.
“You’re lucky we wear the same scent,” I said. “And that your folks are clueless enough to believe you smell like that from walking beside me.”
“Hey!” She punched my shoulder. “My parents aren’t clueless. We’re going to win the contest, you know.”
“So, you really are going to compete?” I asked. “What would your parents do with a place like that if they won? Turn it into a butter-and-berry-lip-gloss factory?”
“Sell it,” said Angel. “And use the money for a backpacking adventure across the U.S.” She forced a smile. “We’re all very excited to sleep in the dirt. Wheee.”
I snorted. “If you’re lucky, it’ll rain and you can get a free mud bath. Most spas charge a ton for that!”
Angel wrinkled her nose. “What are you guys going to do if you win?” she asked. “Not that you stand a chance against us,” she added with a wink.
“You don’t have to worry about that. We’re not competing.”
“What?!” Angel stopped and turned to face me. “You have to. I can’t rough it alone!”
“You don’t need to convince me,” I said. “My mom’s the one saying no. She doesn’t think we need the money.”
Suddenly, Angel made a weird sound in her throat and stepped back.
“What?” I asked as she started walking again. I hurried to keep pace with her.
“Nothing,” she said, coughing. “I just . . . ate a bee. It must have smelled my honey hair spray.” She laughed nervously and swatted the air around her.
I gave her a look. “Angel.”
She sighed. “Look, my mom is your mom’s accountant, right? Well, according to her, Aunt Jill is in the red. Deeper red than this lipstick.” She pointed at her mouth.
My heart dropped into my stomach.
Angel leaned closer. “Red is the bad—”
“I know it’s the bad color!” I snapped. Mom had just finished telling me we were fine—twice. “Does my mom know?”
Angel gave me an exasperated look. “No, we’re waiting to announce it at Christmas. Yes she knows!”
I shook my head. “How can we be losing money? I know she gets paid well. I’ve personally filed her invoices in the fork holder.”
Angel gave me a weird look.
“I mean, yeah, she buys too much fabric in hopes that Funk will propose when he delivers it,” I continued, “but—”
“It’s not fabric expenses,” Angel interrupted. “If I was eavesdropping correctly, Aunt Jill is paying a ton to have her shop where it is.”
I glanced at the busy street around us and the people driving past in professional business attire. My mom sold couture dresses for special events. These weren’t the people she catered to. But they were what made the shop’s neighborhood so expensive.
“Then I’ll have to talk to her tonight,” I said, “and convince her to compete.”
Angel raised an eyebrow and made another sound in her throat.
“If you don’t stop that,” I said, “I will find a bee and force-feed it to you. What now?”
“How much of the video did you watch?” she asked. “You only have until noon to confirm your entry.”
I suddenly felt light-headed. “What?” I stopped and took a step toward home. But it wouldn’t do any good to go back. Mom would still say no.
Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes.
“Not sure if you’re meditating,” said Angel, “but at least move your arms so the pigeons don’t come to roost.”
“I’m not meditating. I’m remembering.”
I reached into my purse and pulled out my cell phone.
“You’re not calling your mom, are you?” Angel shifted from foot to foot. “Because she’s going to find out I told, and—”
“No, I’m not calling my mom,” I said, dialing. “I’m calling Great-Aunt Muriel’s lawyer.”
If Mom wasn’t going to look out for our little family, it was up to me.