The acorn dropped a few feet, hit a branch, and then tumbled down onto the roof of the car below with a plop. Inside the car, the two girls jumped before laughing nervously at their own skittishness. Nora swept her jet black bangs from her eyes and, with a hint of skepticism, said, “I don’t know, this seems pretty risky considering it came from Pinky.”
Claire rolled her eyes in exasperation and inhaled deeply to compose herself. “He’s got no reason to lie to me,” she said, “besides, like I told you, all his uncle’s know about it too.” Both girls turned and looked out of the passenger window to the large plantation-style house set back from the road.
The red-dirt driveway leading up to the stately manor could easily be confused for a rural side-street if not for the large, swooping iron gate in front of Nora’s car. The gate wasn’t closed, but it wasn’t open either; instead, hanging there ambiguously between either terminus as though it were unsure if you were welcomed within or not.
Outside the car, it was a clear, warm spring morning, and the house sat framed between a pale blue sky and the verdant live oak trees that flanked either side of its broad front porch, the tall Roman columns towering two-stories high.
Nora leaned back into the seat and asked, “and the money is down in the cellar? You’re absolutely certain?” She knew better than to blindly follow Claire—they’d been best friends since the 3rd grade—but the story, if true, was worth considering. Claire just nodded without taking her eyes away from the house in the distance.
Nora could feel herself slowly giving in to the idea; she had already been having daydreams about what she would do with the money if Pinky’s story was true. Still, she wanted to go over everything one more time—secretly hoping that she wouldn’t hear anything that might make her back out. “Okay, please,” she said, “one more time from the beginning; so you and Pinky were at The Rail. He was drunk…”
Claire cut her off with a quick turn of her head—her long, claret-colored red hair swishing through the air. She clenched her jaw once quickly and said, “Fine, one more time—and he wasn’t drunk.” She shot Nora a sharp glance and leaned back in her seat. “Last weekend, when you left me at The Rail, Pinky offered to give me a ride home,” she began.
On the weekend in question, Claire had been in the middle of another of her infamous all-night drinking binges when her friend—and ride home—had wanted to leave. Nora had never seen much sense in arguing with a drunk—and even less in arguing with a drunk Claire—so she had left her there and gone home. “Anyway…,” Nora said waving her hands in a peddling motion to move her past the still-sore subject before Claire got angry all over again.
“Anyway, when we drove by here,” Claire said, jerking her thumb towards the house, “Pinky started telling me about the stories his uncles used to tell each other when they all got together to cook out and drink. Pinky said that the old man that lived here, Mr. Pellman, hid all of his cash somewhere down in the cellar. I guess the old man’s father lost all their money back in ’29 when the market crashed, and after seeing what that shit did to him, he didn’t trust banks to hold it. His father eventually made everything back, but it took him his entire life. Anyway, like father like son, and the Pellman fortune is just sitting down in the cellar.”
Outside, another acorn landed on the roof of the car, though this time neither girl jumped. Claire continued, “Pinky said that Mr. Pellman paid for everything that he bought with cash: clothes; cars; everything. I guess him and his wife only had one kid, but he died in the war. Then, a few months ago, the old man died—heart attack or something—and now it’s just his widow in there.”
“Pinky says they didn’t have any other family and hardly no one ever goes up there except for the market boy when he brings groceries.” She paused and looked up to the house before continuing, “and now all that money is just sitting down there in the cellar while she does needlework by the window.”
“Does she really do needlework?” Nora asked with a confused look. The idea of an old woman knitting by the window suddenly seemed very funny to her, and an unwanted smile began to creep over her lips.
“How the hell do I know?” Claire said in frustration before adding, “Whatever she’s doing in there, it can’t require that much money. Besides, she could die tomorrow and no one would ever know that money is down there. It’s actually better for us to get it out of there—what if they tear the house down?”
Nora didn’t think they would tear such a beautiful house down, but she didn’t want to say so. Instead, she said, “but how did Pinky’s uncles hear about it? Who told them?” She knew she was risking Claire’s wrath by having to explain every little detail, but something still seemed off with the whole story. A car drove past them as they sat parked on the side of the road, slowing down briefly as it went by on the narrow road before speeding back up and disappearing around a bend.
Claire’s answer came out more subdued than Nora was expecting, and she said, “years ago, one of his uncles did some plumbing work at the house. Over time, the old man and Pinky’s uncle got friendly and I guess it came up. Pinky says he grew up hearing stories about the Pellmans all the time,” she said, and then added, “the house too—I guess it’s a special house or something.”
Claire’s story was the same as the preceding versions, and afterwards Nora had to admit to herself that it did seem possible: some people don’t use banks; some old people don’t have any family; and all old people die.
“And your plan is for us to pretend to be doing a college paper on senior-citizen residents of Monroe County?” Nora asked, squinting skeptically at Claire. For Nora, this part of the plan was the most important. She was a terrible liar, and the slightest probing from the old widow would cause her to come unstitched like a skirt hem.
“Exactly,” Claire replied chipperly, “all I need you to do is keep the old bag distracted while I slip down to the cellar and find it.” She absentmindedly twirled her red hair around a finger as she studied the house from inside the car.A thought suddenly came to Nora and she said, “wait—how are we going to get out of there with the money? We can’t just walk out carrying her life savings in our arms.” Nora had never seen a large sum of money before—except on television—and she had no idea how much, if any, was in the cellar, but it seemed like a practical concern.
“I already thought of that too,” Claire said with a smirk, “I’ll just find a way to hide it outside of the house, then—at night when it’s dark—we’ll sneak back here and get it.” She beamed with a look of satisfaction at having thought of such a detailed plan. Claire had surprised everybody—herself included— by simply graduating high school, and “detailed thinking” wasn’t her strongest personality trait.
“Suppose you can’t get it outside, then what?” Nora asked. She had already decided she would go along with her friend, but only because she didn’t expect Claire to get further than the front porch. If the Pellmans were as reclusive as people said they were, then the way she saw it, Claire was nothing short of delusional for thinking the widow was going to let them wander around her house.
Claire squinted and tilted her head to the side insultingly, “It’s one old woman, Nora. I think the two of us can figure that part out if it comes to that; it’s not exactly Fort Knox,” she said. She glanced at the house before turning back to Nora, “so what’s it going to be? You in or out? I can just get Lucy to come do it with me…”
“No,” Nora said quickly, “I just want to be sure we’ve thought of everything, is all. I don’t want to get in there and have her bust us.” The other, unspoken, reason was that Lucy didn’t deserve any of the money, if it was there. Why Claire even continued to talk to the slow-witted girl was beyond Nora. Other people said it was because Lucy was the only person who could make Claire look smart, but Nora wondered if there wasn’t something more to it.
Claire smiled victoriously, “so you’re in?” she asked.
Nora just nodded slowly, an unconfidently weak smile on her lips.
“Okay then,” Claire said, “let’s go.” Without further discussion, she hopped out of the car and walked over to the half-open gate. Leaning into the heavy metal bars, she managed to swing the gate until it was completely open. She stood by the metal gate post looking at Nora behind the steering wheel and then waved her hand in an arching come here motion.
Nora started the car and pulled onto the dirt driveway. Little red dust puffed from under the tires as she stopped next to Claire. “Going my way?” she said, laughing at their old inside joke.
Claire laughed aloud, “as a matter of fact I am, pretty lady,” she said, and skipped playfully to the passenger door. A moment later they were creeping down the long drive beneath the watchful gaze of the sentinel pine trees that lined the dirt strip. As the antebellum mansion drew closer, the girls craned their necks up at the windshield to take in the entire view.
Nora followed the driveway as it formed a big loop—a stone birdbath bubbling at the center of the oval—in front of the porch. She stopped the car in front of the house and a large cloud of red dust swept past the car, carried on the breeze. In the silence within the car, Nora heard a tapping and it took her a second to realize that she was the source—her fingers nervously thumping up and down on the steering wheel.
“Relax,” Claire said, looking up at the imposing white edifice. “Besides, what’s the worst that can happen?” she asked rhetorically before opening her door and stepping out.