"I need to leave a little early, Ma. You okay to close?"
Caroline West removed the last tray of biscuits from the oven and placed them on the cooling rack. Today was her birthday – sixty-six years old going on ninety – and she was spending it the same way she had spent every other day except Sunday for the past thirty-two years. What happened? She was supposed to be retired or at least semi-retired by now.
"Fine, Tommy. Go."
"I'm getting fifty from the register. I'll leave an IOU for Sterling so she won't freak. Happy birthday, Ma."
Caroline slumped into a chair beside the oven. Fifteen years since Ted had dropped dead from a heart attack, not ten feet from where she sat. He had been the brains behind Mama's Biscuits, handling the finances and daily operations of the restaurant. She had been the one who put the business on the map with customers lined up out the door waiting for her signature biscuits that were the size of hamburger buns, yet somehow lighter than a souffle.
A ten-minute nap, that's all. Then I'll clean the kitchen, clear the tables, and balance the register. I can damp mop the front in the morning. It's my birthday. Whoopee.
The long term plan had been for Tommy to go to college, get a business degree, and come back home to take over the restaurant. Tommy had other ideas, most of which involved cars, girls, and beer. Ted had tried to be patient, but it had been too much for him. When Caroline's husband died, Tommy had still been living at home, a twenty-seven-year-old man with no money, job, or prospects. Sterling was finishing her senior year at college and had pushed her mother to kick Tommy out. Caroline had finally agreed but softened the blow by giving her son a job at the restaurant. That had been a mistake. Tommy was now forty-two years old, still single, still broke, still tied to his mother's apron strings.
Her head dropped to her chest. A final thought drifted through her sleep-fogged mind.
Did I turn off the oven?
Sterling West stared in disbelief at the executor of her mother's estate. The attorney had finished reading the terms of the will. Caroline West had left her home, personal bank accounts, and a hundred thousand dollar life insurance policy to Tommy. Her brother had left the office wearing an insufferable smirk on his face. Caroline inherited full ownership of Mama's Biscuits, a business that was now a scorched pile of rubble.
It wasn't all bad news. The restaurant was heavily insured and she had already met with the claims adjuster. A check for the full amount of the loss was in the mail and, with some luck, Mama's Biscuits could re-open in a few months. Except nobody else could make the biscuits. Caroline West refused to share her recipe or let anyone else do the baking and risk tarnishing the brand and reputation she had built over the years.
Tommy was waiting outside the lawyer's office.
"Tough luck, Sterling. That's the way it goes sometimes."
Sterling fired a backhand to the side of her brother's head and watched him stagger.
"Hey! What the..."
"Try a little respect, asshole. You killed Dad. Now you've killed Mom. Congratulations."
"Now, wait a minute."
"No, you wait a minute. You're a loser, Tommy. Mom and Dad both tried to prop you up, but there's nothing to prop up, is there. There's nothing to you, nothing at all. You'll go through your inheritance in a year. Then you'll either try to borrow against the equity in the house or sell it. After that, you're looking at welfare and maybe eviction. Your future has already started, brother, and it's all downhill from here."
She watched him step closer and ball his fists.
"I ought to..."
"Go home and count your blood money, Tommy. That's what you ought to do."
Sterling watched him go. She thought about the extra key to her apartment she had given her mother years ago. No reason to take chances. Tommy was a loose cannon. She would call a locksmith as soon as she got home.
"Sterling, I'm glad I caught you. I wanted to be sure Tommy was gone. Your mother added a codicil to her will a few months ago. These belong to you now."
The lawyer handed her two boxes. She opened the smaller one first. Tears blurred her vision. Sterling covered her face and sobbed.
"I'm sorry. It's just..."
"I know. Caroline loved and trusted you, Sterling."
She opened the second box. It was filled with stacks of paper.
"I don't understand."
"Look closer. These are all the IOUs your brother has written over the last twelve years. They're signed by Tommy and your mother. This constitutes a business contract. You own the business now."
"Twelve years...God, he must owe the restaurant thousands."
"Fourteen thousand three hundred and fifty dollars."
The money would be welcome. The insurance check covered the business, but this could be distributed to the restaurant staff to help cushion the blow of unemployment.
"I'd like to hire you to enforce the contract. I'm sorry, I have to ask, but..."
"No charge, Sterling. I'm not a Tommy West fan. What he's done is unconscionable. I'll draft a letter calling in the debt and messenger it over to your brother today."
She spent the rest of the afternoon scheduling the locksmith, writing final paychecks to her employees and notifying vendors to stop deliveries to the restaurant. She was fixing a light supper when she heard a vehicle out front come to a screaming stop. A door slammed. Tommy was coming up the front walk.
Please don't have Mom's key. Please don't have Mom's key.
The pounding shook the door in its frame. Sterling waited to see if her brother would try to kick it in. She took out her phone and dialed.
"Let me in, Sterling! Mom leaves me some money and you can't stand it, can't wait to pick my pocket. Well, too bad, I won't pay you a dime."
"That's fine, Tommy. I'll talk to my attorney to see if we should sue you for breach of contract or just notify the IRS that you have unreported income for the past twelve years. They can decide whether to hit you with back taxes, penalties, and interest or pursue a criminal case of tax fraud."
"This isn't over."
"Go away, Tommy. Don't make me call the cops."
Sterling watched him stomp back to his truck, gun the engine and peel away from the curb. She looked at the sandwich on the counter and put it in the refrigerator. No reason to eat when you've lost your appetite.
A crime show was on television. The bad guys were attaching a bomb to the underside of someone's car. She turned off the program and went to bed.
Life was good and getting better. Tommy had seen the wisdom of paying off his debt, and the restaurant employees were forever grateful for Sterling's generosity. She had considered charging her brother interest but had decided not to push it. No reason to poke the bear. Tommy had disappeared from her life. Sterling didn't want to do anything to change that.
Mama's Biscuits, like the proverbial phoenix, was rising from the ashes. The new construction was nearly finished. Kitchen equipment, tables, booths, and inventory were waiting in the warehouse. Sterling had contacted her staff to share the good news. Most had already found new jobs. All of them were coming back. It felt like a homecoming.
Sterling's phone rang. She looked at the number and considered letting it go to voice mail.
Get it over with.
"Thanks to you, I'm selling the house. I'll be out this afternoon. If you want any of your old stuff that's still here you can come get it. Otherwise, it goes in the trash."
"I'll be there. Anything else?"
"I hear you're re-opening the restaurant. Gonna dig Mom up to bake the biscuits?"
"Oh, that's right, I forgot to tell you, Mom left me her recipe. I've already tried it. Looks like I inherited her talent."
Sterling basked in the silence on the other end of the line.
"You owe me, Sterling."
"You got that backwards, bud."
The dial tone buzzed in her ear. Sterling noted the time and reached for her car keys. Ten minutes later she pulled up to her mom's house. Tommy's truck was gone.
He could have parked on the next street. Maybe he's waiting inside to kill me.
Her hands trembled as she walked up to the house. Clammy sweat broke out on her arms. Sterling reached for her mom's house key and the small canister of pepper spray she kept in her purse. She swung the door open hard and fast, hoping to knock Tommy off balance.
The house was empty. Sterling went upstairs and collected her high school yearbook and a few other items from her bedroom. She started to leave and then hesitated. It had been a while since she had spent time in her childhood home. Lots of memories, mostly good ones.
She wandered through the rooms. Little had changed in the years she'd been away. Tommy, to his credit, had kept the place in decent shape. It would make a great home for a family. Sterling took a final lingering look and closed the door.
Mama's Biscuits was back, and so were the crowds. Sterling was a nervous wreck. She pulled another tray of biscuits from the oven and set them on the cooling rack. A server came through the kitchen door. Sterling grabbed her.
"What are they saying? Are they as good as Mom's?"
The server pretended to think it over.
"A few customers are saying that."
Sterling sagged against the counter. Not bad, but she had hoped for better.
"Most of them think they're better. That includes the food editor for the Daily Press. At this rate, we're going to need more staff or a second location."
She slid the next tray of biscuits into the oven and wiped her eyes. It felt good to be a worthy successor to her mother.
Tommy had called a few weeks earlier to let her know he'd sold the house. He'd sounded disappointed when she didn't react to the news. He was moving away, maybe to the west coast, looking for a fresh start. Whatever. Sterling was just glad they were finally done with each other.
The day ended and Sterling drove home. She unlocked the front door and took a moment to gaze around the familiar surroundings. Someday the sound of children's laughter would fill the house.
Sterling climbed the stairs and walked down the hall to her bedroom. It was good to be home.