Sarah fought through ragged surges of emotion as she explained why she blamed herself for her grandfather's death. Periodically she dabbed her tears away with a sheet of toilet paper she tore from a roll in one of the desk drawers. The old wooden office desk seemed to impart some of its authority to her. Instead of a youngster playing in daddy's office she'd become a young adult engaging a burden beyond her scant years.
“It was that damn Yankee piece of trash.” She said this in low, quiet voice, as if to herself, but she looked from one of her guests to the other as she spoke.
Blow wondered if he should point out he was born and raised in Leicester but he remembered Salzwedel was from Maryland. The two men shot quick glances at each other, which Sarah apparently noticed. She gave them a weak smile and rotated her head gently a couple of times.
“That old gun, the musket. That's what Gramps always called it. A damn Yankee piece of trash. He really hated Yankees. I mean he really really hated them.”
“That's very interesting, Sarah.” This was her teacher. “Do you know why?”
“He never said, Mr. Salzwedel. He never would talk about it. I don't know.”
“So what happened with the musket? How did--”
She cut him off with a high-pitched gush of self-reproach. “He died of a broken heart, and it was my fault! Don't you see? I put all that shit on the Internet. I was proud of that thing, that part my ancestor played in history. I thought Gramps would understand and maybe be proud, too. How stupid of me! I thought if we could sell it and get enough money or something—maybe it could be like a tourist attraction—Gramps could keep the store. But I ruined it. I ruined it all, and now Gramps is dead and the damn Yankees'll buy his store and tear it down and put up some fucking gas station or something. I'm sorry. Oh, God, how could I be so STUPID?”
As if answering her, the dog started barking again. Sarah lurched back in the swivel chair. “Oh, God, Mickey! I forgot to feed him.” She jumped to her feet and darted over to the crib, grabbed a bag of dog food from a shelf behind it and was out the door without another word.
Embarrassed and apologetic when she returned, she stopped at the office door and offered to get drinks. Both men declined. She went to one of the coolers near the front of the store and returned with bottle of iced tea. She continued her explanation, starting out calmer but shaky. Blow felt uncomfortable for her when her words occasionally triggered associations that carried her into volatile territory. But she plowed on ahead despite moments when emotions ganged up and bullied her voice to the edge of coherence.
The store had been losing money ever since what she said her grandfather called “the damn recession”. Her grandfather thought it would be a temporary slowdown, but costs kept rising and profits kept declining.
“Gramps was a soft touch. He let a lot of his regular customers keep a tab, and usually they paid up by the end of the month. But people were getting laid off and getting their hours cut and the price of crabs went down and all that. So a lot of customers--most of them are good people—couldn't pay Gramps like they did. Some of them even stopped coming because they were ashamed.
“Then one day, about a year or so ago, these guys stopped in and told Gramps they wanted to buy his store and a could acres next to it. They said Marvin—Mr. West, he owns that land next to the store—agreed to sell his land if Gramps would sell the store. They said they were from Baltimore with some big company that puts up gas stations and Chicken Lickens all over. When they said that, that they wanted to put a Chicken Licken where his store is, he ran 'em out. Threatened to sic Mickey on 'em.
“I never seen Gramps that mad before as when he was telling us about it. He said they were damn Yankees, and he could smell a Yankee a mile away and he would never sell his store to a Yankee.” She paused, drank some tea and stared at the bottle in her hand before setting it down. She looked up at Blow and Salzwedel then. “I seen him madder only one time after that. It was when he found out I put that stuff about Great-Great-Grampa's gun and all on blog, and I tried to argue with him that if he sold that stuff or displayed it in the store he could maybe save the store. He gave me a look I'll never forget as long as I live. I was afraid he was going to hit me.” She dropped her eyes, voice grew small. “That was three weeks ago. He never spoke to me again after that.”
Blow braced himself for another emotional breakdown, but Sarah sat quietly, staring at the desktop. Nobody had asked yet how her grandfather had died. Blow feared he might have taken his own life. Before he or Salzwedel could raise that subject, Sarah volunteered the information, as she understood it.
“He hardly ate anything either. Just kept losing weight and looking older and older. Tuesday morning when Mom went in to check on him, when he wasn't up for breakfast, he...he was dead. Mom said he died of a broken heart.” She looked up, and Blow saw a wave of terrible grief visit her face, but no tears. She seemed as depleted as her description of her grandfather.
Salzwedel made a couple of attempts to suggest that she was not to blame, that her grandfather was under a lot of stress, that she shouldn't feel guilt. She shook her head violently, but said no more.
Blow succeeded in changing the subject by mentioning the need to secure the historic artifacts. Sarah responded by opening a drawer and pulling out a cardboard box. She handed it across the desk to Blow.
“Everything's in here. Please take good care of these, Mr. Stone. I've never trusted a lawyer before, but I feel like I can trust you.”
Blow smiled, fighting back an impulse to laugh.
“They'll be in my safe, Sarah. Do you mind if I make copies? These documents are over three-hundred years old and I would think they're rather fragile. They should be handled as little as possible. I'd like to read what's in here, but it would be better if I read a copy and not the original.” She nodded. Then came the musket. Was that in the store, as well?
“No Mr. Stone, it's still at the house, in the attic. I didn't want to move it in the daytime. I'll get it down tonight.”