Secrets at the Dry Cleaners
Annalee James opened the door to the Sunny Day Dry Cleaners and felt the wind nearly take it from her hands.
“Damn it,” she cursed, her dark brown bob whipping around her head, the strands dancing in the air like energetic sprites.
“I’ve been meaning to fix that,” Desi called as Annalee fought to pull the door closed against the wind.
“Seems like I’ve heard that for the past, what, twenty years now?”
“I don’t know. How old were you twenty years ago?”
Annalee moved the hair away from her eyes and tucked it behind both ears. Her cheeks were pink with cold and she shivered as she stood inside the small lobby. He knew exactly how old she’d been. “Hmmm…,” she said, tilting her head. “One. I was one year old.”
Desmond smiled as his wife, Helena, walked in from the back room and moved behind him. “Ah, yes. You tried to eat the candle off the cake if I recall.”
“And it was still burning when she tried to grab for it,” Helena added.
“Always ready to take charge before the world was ready.” Desi evened up a stack of invoices by tapping them against the counter. “So, the door hasn’t been broken for twenty years,” he tapped the invoices again. “It’s only been sixteen.”
“Only sixteen?” Annalee asked. “That’s a lot of years. One would think you’d have found a few minutes to fix it in that time.”
“It’s fine when there are no tornado like winds blowing around outside. On any normal day, I forget it’s broken.”
“It got pulled back on its hinges during that horrible, horrible storm back in 1996,” Helena recalled, walking around the counter into the main part of the store.
Annalee blinked. “Oh,” she breathed.
It snowed a lot in Dove Creek. Storms weren’t unusual, but there had been something different about the big one back in 1996.
Desi cleared his throat and Helena stopped a few feet away from Annalee.
“I’m sorry,” the older woman said. “It looks like something’s blowing in and your momma’s been on my mind since your birthday last week …” She shook her head, her voice trailing off.
Annalee’s parents had gone out to dinner and a movie on that fateful night sixteen years before. The storm was just blowing in. They’d thought about cancelling, but reasoned that they’d be home way before the weather gods really started their party. They’d come upstairs to say goodbye to Annalee before they left. She’d been putting a puzzle together with Desi while Helena cooked supper for the three of them downstairs. There had been hugs and kisses and wishes for sweet dreams. There had been nothing extraordinary about their farewell. Perhaps there would have been had any of them known that was the last time they’d see each other.
“Is that all you’re wearing?” Helena exclaimed, changing the subject and shaking Annalee from her memories. Annalee blinked and realized Helena was standing right in front of her now, her warm hands on both of Annalee’s arms. The woman was smiling, but she was looking unhappy and apologetic. The subject of her parents always came up at this time of the year, but they normally didn’t talk about how the two of them had died. Someone needed to fix that damn door, Annalee decided.
“Um, well, yeah, I guess.” She looked down at her attire. She had to admit, the jeans with the ragged holes in the knees and the long-sleeved t-shirt weren’t exactly what one would call cold weather wear, but the sun had been shining when she got up this morning, and even the meteorologists had been taken surprise by that nasty wind.
Desmond shook his graying head. “What, you think she’s hiding more clothes somewhere?” he asked with a forced smile.
“Hush up, old man,” Helena warned her husband before she tipped Annalee’s chin toward her and gave her a motherly look. “It’s cold out there. You need some common sense, girl,” she told her.
“Sure,” Annalee agreed. “But I’d rather have coffee instead.”
Desmond’s laugh made both women turn to look at him. “I happen to be using all my common sense at the moment, but I do have some extra coffee if you’d like a cup.”
“Of course,” Annalee cried. “What in the hell are you waiting for?”
“And while he takes care of that,” Helena said, moving back behind the counter again. “I have a coat back here you can wear home.”
Fortified by the coffee, Annalee stepped outside and back into the weather. The sky above her head looked ominous and the wind continued to blow. The long, woolen coat Helena had given her was quite a bit too big for her frame, but she was a lot warmer buttoned up inside its protection.
She pulled the collar of the coat up to protect her face and shoved her hands in the pockets. She smelled something strangely familiar in the fabric as the wind helped push her in the direction of her apartment.
What was that? She buried her face even deeper into the neckline of the coat. Something about it brought back memories of her dad. She sniffed again. Cologne? Was this her father’s coat?
Another big gust of wind blew so hard it pushed her a couple of steps sideways.
Had Helena kept Dad’s coat? Why would she give it to Annalee now?
She dug her hands even deeper into the pockets. Her fingers grazed against something hard on the right side. She fumbled with the object for a moment before pulling it out. She opened her fingers to find a key resting on her palm.
The voice had been faint against the sound of the blowing wind. She looked up and saw Drew, his blond hair pushed back and his eyes squinted against the weather.
“Hi,” she yelled back.
“Storm’s coming. Want a ride home?”
She put her hand back in her pocket and gave him a nod. “Yeah,” she said, feeling his hand wrap around her arm as the two of them made their way to his truck. “A ride sounds good.”
Once the two of them were tucked into the cab of Drew’s truck, Annalee pulled the key out again. He started the engine and the rush of air that came from the vents was chilly. She shivered as she turned the key over in her hand.
“What’cha got?” Drew asked.
“It’s a key,” she told him. “It’s got Dove Creek Bank engraved on it.”
Drew leaned over and took the key from her hand. “That’s for a safety deposit box,” he said after a few seconds. He put it back on her palm and found her eyes. He smiled, then gave her whole body a quick scan. “What’s up with the coat?” he asked. “You couldn’t find a smaller size?”
“Helena gave it to me,” she told her friend. “Funny thing is, I think it might be my dad’s.”
“Really?” Drew looked surprised.
Annalee sniffed and stared down at the key in her hand. “Yeah,” she said. “Which means this key might be his, too.”
Drew held the door open and Annalee hurried out of the wind. She’d been inside Dove Creek Bank a million times or more. She’d run errands with her parents as a child, and then with Desi and Helena once they’d become her legal guardians. The bank had always been a routine stop. She had an account there, herself, but she’d never had a reason to rent a safety deposit box.
“Not the teller line,” Drew told her. “Let’s go talk to one of the managers.”
After a short wait, the two of them were called and ushered into an office where they were asked to sit down.
“What can I help you with today?”
The gold name plate on the woman’s desk informed them that she was Ms. Holstead. Annalee presented her with the key and a tentative smile.
“Can you tell me if this belongs to one of your safety deposit boxes?”
Ms. Holstead took it and gave it a cursory glance. “It does,” she said. “Did you find this?”
Annalee nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, let’s just see who it belongs to. I’m sure whoever lost it will be very happy to learn it’s been returned.”
Annalee glanced over at Drew while Ms. Holstead clicked away at her keyboard. She plugged a few numbers that were engraved on the key into the computer then awaited the results.
“You really think that’s your dad’s coat?”
She turned her head and pressed one of the lapels against her face. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent that was buried inside the black wool.
“I couldn’t swear to it,” she said, her eyes opening. “But it smells just like I remember him smelling.”
“This key belongs to Ryan and Rebecca James,” Ms. Holstead announced.
“Well,” Drew said with a nod. “I guess that’s one question answered.”
Annalee watched as Ms. Holstead used the key to unlock the large box sitting in front of her. The woman lifted the lid and pulled it back, revealing several items inside.
“Just let me know when you’re finished, Miss James,” she said.
Annalee gave her a nod, never taking her eyes off the box.
When several minutes passed and Annalee still hadn’t moved, Drew quietly cleared his throat. “You want me to do it?”
Again, she nodded.
Drew reached in and pulled a folder off the top of the stack. He opened it and found a letter. Flipping the single sheet over, he glanced at the signature. “It’s from your mom,” he said.
“I’ll read it later.”
Drew lifted a large book out of the box and placed it on the counter. Annalee reached over and tentatively opened it, realizing it was a photo album. Her bracelet from the hospital was displayed on one of the pages, along with her newborn portrait. She’d looked kind of squished, and her hair had been several shades darker than it was now.
“There’s cash in here, Anna,” Drew said. “A lot of it.”
He was right. There were bundles of cash lining the better part of the box. Annalee wasn’t sure how many, but she knew she’d never seen that much money in one place before.
“What’s that?” She asked, her eyes catching on what looked like newspaper articles. When she pulled them out the box, she realized that’s exactly what they were, and that each one of them was a story about her parents. There were two from the bigger city papers; a brief recount of each of their lives, then a paragraph about the car accident that had killed them. She found copies of their obituaries, and there were printed memorials from the double funeral that had been held a few days after their deaths, along with a pressed rose that had rested upon her mother’s casket.
“Didn’t Ms. Holstead say I was the only other person besides my parents with access to this box?”
Drew was reading one of the clippings. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “That’s what I heard.”
Annalee flipped another page of the photo album. There were pictures of her eating her first solid foods, crawling, taking her first steps. There were photos of her in Halloween costumes, birthdays one, two, three … She turned more and more pages.
There was Kindergarten, then Thanksgiving. There couldn’t be much more, she thought. She’d been five the year her parents died. The accident had happened right before Christmas.
But there was more. First grade and through elementary school. All her class pictures were there, neatly arranged. Middle school was accounted for. That horrible first dance she’d gone to, and the ribbons she’d earned from swim team.
“Let me see that letter,” Annalee said, flipping pages a little more quickly.
There she was at her high school prom, wearing the dress Helena had sewn for her, her hair all up in an elaborate French twist with wispy curls hanging down by her face. Her graduation ceremony, and the party held in her honor afterward. Each page was journaled in beautiful, flowing script. Annalee was sure she’d seen the handwriting before. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, but she knew she hadn’t seen it often.
She took the letter Drew handed her and laid it upon the scrapbook. The same person had written both the letter and the notes next to all the photographs.
“This has your name on it.”
Annalee looked up and saw that Drew was holding an envelope. She took it from his hands, pulling from it a birthday card. “Happy twenty- one, daughter,” she read aloud.
Drew’s brow furrowed. “Daughter?”
Annalee opened the card and saw the same handwriting below the printed poem. Beneath it was another scrawl, this one a bit heavier handed. It read: “Love you, Anna”. Below that was the name “Dad”.
The realization slowly dawned on her. It had all been carefully planned out—Helena giving her the coat with the key in the pocket, her discovery of the safety deposit box and what had been hidden inside.
“You want me to take you back to the dry cleaners?” Drew asked.
Annalee looked up and gave him a nod. “I do. I think it’s about time I learn why my parents faked their own deaths, and why Desi and Helena have been keeping their secret for the past sixteen years.”