Caroline sat on the davenport in her crowded sitting room. Around her people talked in hushed voices, occasionally casting glances of pity at her. She sat alone even though they were there to mourn with her. Mrs. Otterbourne came into the room and held out a cup and saucer.
“Here, Caroline,” she offered quietly. “Are you sure I can’t get you something to eat?”
“No,” Caroline shook her head and ignored the cup. “I’ve lost my appetite.”
“At least take the coffee, dear,” Mrs. Otterbourne took the seat next to her and the davenport sunk with her weight. Caroline accepted the coffee and took a sip to placate the older woman.
“They keep looking at me and whispering,” Caroline murmured sourly.
“It’s only the way he went, dear,” Mrs. Otterbourne patted Caroline’s knee as she spoke. “The circumstances. They wonder if he was really ruined and how badly. It could have been any of them.” Caroline scoffed as she set the cup and saucer down with a clatter. She picked up her pocket book and pulled out a cigarette. Without hesitation she lit up. The crowd’s eyes stuck to her as she inhaled and blow out a plume of smoke. They had never seen her smoke before.
“But it wasn’t them, was it? It was Homer. The one time good, old, dependable Homer surprised me…” Caroline’s voice died down as her eyes glazed over. She thought about how concerned she had been that her roast had dried out. She was hovering around the meat when she heard the front door open and shut. She stuck her head out of the kitchen and chimed that dinner would be on the table within minutes. Homer nodded and said he needed to step into his office for a moment before dinner.
Caroline returned to hastily stirring her gravy when she heard it. POP. Her back instantly straightened, the hair on the back of her neck raised. She hadn’t heard that sound in years. She dashed out of the kitchen to Homer’s study. In her panic, she fumbled with the doorknob and when she finally got the door open she didn’t even scream. She hadn’t taken a breath since the gunshot. Homer was in his desk chair, his head thrown back, mouth agape. The blood and brain matter splattered across the portrait of Woodrow Wilson behind the desk.
Caroline shook, but it wasn’t Homer she was thinking about. It was Margot. The blood. There was so much blood. The thud of the revolver as it fell from Homer’s limp grip to the rug made Caroline jump and brought her back to the moment. She rushed out of the room and gulped the air as her mind buzzed. She smelled smoke and dashed back to the kitchen. The gravy was burning to the sides of the saucepan. She grabbed a towel to carefully move the pan to the sink and turned off the gas. Standing there in the middle of the smoky kitchen with a husband missing a good portion of his skull in the other room, Caroline recognized that her hope for a normal life was officially smothered. As always her luck had run out. She hung her head and cried.
“Caroline,” Mrs. Otterbourne gave her a nudge. Caroline turned her head slowly.
“Yes?” The old woman pointed at the cigarette, the ash of which had grown long.
“Oh,” Caroline commented as she serenely tapped it into the cup of coffee. When she continued, her voice was slow and hollow, “I didn’t even know he had a gun.” Mrs. Otterbourne shook her head sympathetically.
“Mrs. Birkenbauer?” A man in a brown suit with round spectacles said nervously. Lundgren swept across the room and put himself between them.
“Excuse me, but I am Mr. Birkenbauer’s lawyer and executor of estate. Can’t this matter wait until another time?” Lundgren said in a forceful whisper. The man squinted up at him and pushed his glasses up his nose.
“I’m afraid not. I need to speak with Mrs. Birkenbauer today,” the man said.
“It’s fine, Lundgren, shall we go into the um…” she was going to say study, but remembered again the scene of Homer’s demise, “the other room,” Caroline finished.
“As you wish, ma’am.” Lundgren held out a hand to help her out of her seat. The room had fallen quiet as they watched Caroline cross the room to the study. Their morbid curiosity had their attention as they desired just a peak into the room. She opened to door and paused. A sigh of relief escaped as she saw the portrait gone, the mess cleaned up.
Lundgren seemed uncomfortable as he entered the room. His eyes still darted around looking for the evidence of what occurred. The man in the brown suit was oblivious. He went to the desk and opened his briefcase. He pulled out several papers as Caroline shut the door on the curious onlookers. Lundgren pulled out his reading glasses and started paging through the documents that were procured. Caroline sat in a chair uninterested. The man turned to address her.
“Mrs. Birkenbauer, I’m not sure how to say this…”
“Just spit it out,” Caroline growled. Lundgren cast a glance at her. Something about her had changed. There was an extra edge to her voice that he had never heard before.
“Well, I work for the bank and it seems Mr. Birkenbauer made some investments recently and used his assets as collateral.” The little man paused.
“Get on with it,” Lundgren warned.
“Due to the recent failings of his investments, the bank is now planning to take possession of the assets immediately.”
“Immediately?” Lundgren exclaimed. The man in the brown suit winced.
Caroline rubbed her forehead. “Lundgren, what is he talking about?” The lawyer sighed.
“It appears the bank now owns everything including the house.”
“We will give you a grace period, of course. We don’t want to cause any undo hardship.”
“How long of a grace period?” Lundgren asked.
“Two days,” the man said sheepishly.
“Two days!” Lundgren barked. Caroline got to her feet and in front of the men tossed her cigarette onto the rug and crushed it into the fibers with her shoe.
“Thank you for your concern!” she sneered. She went to the door and threw it open to the curious crowd. “Get out all of you!” she bellowed at them. The jaws of the room dropped in unison. “I mean it! Out!” The people started to slowly come to life and jostle towards the foyer.
“I said get out you bunch of fucking vultures!” Caroline screamed. She turned to the office and jab a finger at the man in the brown suit. “And you…you little rat. Coming here on the day of my husband’s funeral to kick me out of my home! Why don’t you take your two days and shove ‘em up your ass!” The last of Caroline’s social graces had fallen away and she was once again a hardened gun moll. The man picked up his briefcase and scurried past her. Lundgren let the papers fall carelessly back to the desktop.
“I’m sorry, Caroline. I didn’t know Homer had done this, but it’s all here,” he turned to see her still standing in the doorway. Her eyes cast down to the floor. He crossed the room, but she didn’t look up. “Do you have family you can go to?”
Caroline put the back of her hand to her mouth as tears started to spring up in her eyes. She gave a noncommittal shake and nod of her head.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” Lundgren added. Caroline waved him out of the room. The lawyer herded the last of the guests out the front door. Caroline sunk to the floor as the sobs over came her. She couldn’t stop the tears from falling.