Evelyn wanted to throw the coffee in his face.

    As if reading her mind, the man flinched. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Peerbaugh," he said. "I feel really bad."

    Evelyn looked at the life insurance check in her hand. $10,000. After paying the funeral expenses, there
    would be little left. "It's not your fault."

    The man fidgeted in his chair, the china cup balanced precariously on his thigh. He looked down at Peppers
    the cat nervously, as she rubbed against the lower part of his leg.

    Evelyn put a hand near the floor, "Come here, kitty." Peppers accepted the invitation and performed a
    graceful arc, finishing it against Evelyn's right ankle. She was rewarded with a scratch behind the ears.

    "Perhaps your husband had other policies?" the man said. "People often have policies from more than one
    insurance company."

    Evelyn shook her head. After the shock of Aaron's car accident  a month ago, she'd gone through the drawer
    that held all their important papers and had only found the one effective policy—effective being the key
    word. There were other policies—one for $250,000 and one for $50,000—but both had been cashed in and
    Evelyn had no idea where the money had gone. Unbelievable. Now, this insurance check, combined with
    their minuscule bank accounts was it.

    Why hadn't Aaron confided in her about their financial situation? Their lifestyle had been comfortable but not
    lavish. He had offered no clue they were struggling.

    And she hadn't asked.

    Why hadn't she asked?

    Of course, for Evelyn to have known the extent of their troubles meant that Aaron would have had to admit
    them, and that was a whole new cake to cut. Aaron had worn a cloak of confidence like a king wearing a
    royal robe. Whatever life had to offer, he could handle it.

    Ha! Who was left to handle it now?

    Aaron had been as impractical as Waterford crystal at a picnic. Evelyn doubted he had ever allowed himself
    to consider the possibility of death. He was always high on dreams and low on common sense. If it hadn't
    been for Evelyn's insistence that they hold onto the Peerbaugh family home that had been in his family since
    1900, Aaron would have uprooted the three of them multiple times.  They'd have left Carson Creek and ended
    up in Seattle or Tampa on some get-rich scheme that would have left them living in a rented trailer with a
    telephone line strung over the branches of the nearest tree. Holding fast to the house had been one of the
    few times Evelyn had taken a stand—

    "Mrs. Peerbaugh?"

    She blinked her memories away. "Mmm?"

    "If there's anything I can do . . ."

    She set her cup on the coffee table that separated them. A plate of cookies lay untouched, but she realized
    it was too late to offer them again. And the way the man shifted in his seat and avoided her eyes told her he
    wanted to leave ASAP. Even though she didn't mind his company, there was no reason to make him
    uncomfortable any longer. It wasn't his fault her inheritance was so pitiful, and she was sure he had better
    things to do than to sit around comforting a widow about her husband's lack of foresight.

    She stood, signaling the end to their meeting. "Well, Mr. . . ." She felt herself blush. She'd forgotten his name.

    "Walker. Jim Walker."

    She moved toward the door . "Yes, Mr. Walker. Thanks for coming by. I really appreciate your visit—and the
    check."

    He raised a surprised eyebrow as if he didn't believe her last statement, wisely held the platitudes to a
    minimum, and left.

    Evelyn leaned against the closed door and listened as his footsteps traveled down the porch steps and onto
    the stepping stone walk. A car door. An engine. Then silence. Utter, complete silence except for the ticking
    of the mantel clock counting down the seconds that were left in her life.

    The silence became a vacuum that sucked away all her energy. She let the solidity of the door guide her to
    the floor. Her challis skirt got hung up on a knee, revealing her slip. She moved to pull it primly down, but
    when she realized there was no one around to see, let it be. That would take getting used to, having no one
    around.

    The tears began to flow uncontrollably; sobs she never expected. Thoughts of her life began to unfold like a
    book being opened . . . She'd lived a pleasant, respectable life, enjoyed good friends, and reared an
    independent son. Now, in her golden years, was this all she had to show? This was it? Decades of humdrum,
    monotonous existence coupled with financial struggle?

    She sniffed loudly and used her skirt to wipe her face. Then, without warning, she spoke aloud, "God, if
    You're out there . . . help! Tell me what I'm supposed to do next."

    With effort, she took a deep breath, but the air entered in ragged pieces. Why did she feel so worn out?
    She used to be full of energy, and yet now, as a widow, her strength vacillated between the frenzy of a
    worker ant and a bug squashed beneath someone's foot. As if sensing her mood, Peppers nudged her face into
    Evelyn's calf. Evelyn picked her up and let the Calico find her favorite position on Evelyn's shoulder; like a
    baby going to be burped. Peppers' purring resonated against Evelyn's chest like the comforting sound of
    cicadas on a summer evening.

    Balancing Peppers with one hand, Evelyn drew the check front and center and stared at it. Add another zero
    and it would have been doable. What had Aaron been thinking?

    Yet she couldn't blame it all on him. Hadn't she let him be irresponsible? Maybe if she'd been another type of
    person she could have told him, "Enough, Aaron! Quit going after the quick money, the big break, and settle
    for a better, steady job that can provide for your family."

    But she hadn't said that. She couldn't count the number of times she'd sat across from him as he'd explained
    his latest big idea. He had been just successful enough to keep up their hopes that the big break was soon to
    come; that his invention-ideas would solve their problems. He'd taken such pleasure in his schemes; his
    projects. High hopes that were never realized. His failures stemmed from two problems. He had a penchant
    for being one step behind in his inventions (they'd first seen Velcro in a store the same week Aaron had shown
    her his prototype for a similar product). Plus, he had a habit of not finishing what he started before moving
    on to the next project. Add the two qualities together and you got nothing done. Nothing accomplished.

    But Evelyn hadn't held her tongue because she was a lady, or superior. She'd held back and had let Aaron do
    his thing because she was a coward. She hated confrontation and avoided it at all cost. Go along to get along.
    Aaron used to become angry at her for saying, "I don't care".

    "Don't you care about anything, Evelyn?"

    It's not that she didn't care, but she often found decisions daunting and figured it was much safer—and easier—
    if she let someone else make the choice. Besides, most of the time it made the other person happy and that
    was always a good thing.

    Peppers squirmed and Evelyn let her go. Then she carefully balanced the check on one knee and sent it flying
    with a powerful flick of her finger. It didn't fly very long but slid to the floor by the stairs, nudging a
    defenseless dust bunny. Would a larger check have floated longer? Garbage to garbage, dust to dust.

    She wasn't without assets. The front hall of the Peerbaugh home loomed before her, the oak staircase a
    massive Victorian sculpture, its faded flowered runner held in place by brass rods that would cost a fortune
    to duplicate. Solid brass light fixtures and doorknobs, lovely antiques. The entry table was crowned by a
    carved mirror and held an azalea plant from the funeral, an anniversary clock they'd received on their
    thirtieth, and a pink Depression-glass dish forever empty of Aaron's keys and loose change.

    Or was it empty?

    Evelyn pushed herself to her feet, suddenly desperate to see if the dish held a souvenir of her husband's last
    days.  For a whole month she'd walked past but never noticed.  But there it was:  a quarter, two dimes, and
    three pennies spotting the glass. She reached to grab them, then withdrew her hand. The array of coins was
    a still-life composition, each coin placed just so to give an air of haphazard to its art. She would not move
    them. Those coins would remain in that dish, undisturbed, until further notice. They were her legacy.

    Which left the grand total of her inheritance at $10,000.48.

    Suddenly, a new thought: What about their son Russell? Where was his inheritance?

    An answer loomed. Emotionally spent and physically weary but with new purpose, Evelyn staggered up the
    stairs to her bedroom and opened the top drawer of Aaron's dresser. She pawed through a haphazard array of
    paper scraps, pens, and newspaper clippings.

    There it is!

    Her hand closed around the Peerbaugh family pocket watch, a valuable and coveted possession—even if it no
    longer worked. This would be Russell's.

    It was better than nothing...(continued)


                                               Copyright Nancy Moser and Vonette Bright 2003
                                                               
Excerpt from The Sister Circle