by Jeremy Dearth

"Retired couple on social security.
Light Maintenance in return for
free rent and utilities."

Charity Desmond quickly re-read the ad in the much folded newspaper and looked over at her husband, Alvin. His wrinkled, deeply tanned hands were tense on the steering wheel of their old Ford. A rush of fondness for the old man she had lived with for so long ran though her mind. It wasn't his fault they were in such desperate straights any morethan it was hers. She wished he'd stop blaming himself. Her work worn fingers traced the words in the ad. Maybe this was the answer to their prayers.

True, they were getting on in years, but they were still strong and able to do just about anything they wanted. She wondered what type of people put the ad in the paper. Probably someone rich who needed care. Well, she and Al could do that. Heaven knows they'd been taking care of people and things for most of their lives.

"Are we almost there, Pa?" she asked.

"Seems so," he answered in his usual quiet voice.

Charity looked out at the rolling countryside. Not many houses but it was pretty country. The leaves were just beginning to turn and colors of red and gold blanketed the trees.

"See there," Al said pointing to a charming country inn on the left side of the road. "The drive is supposed to be just two roads past the inn."

Charity reached up and smoothed her hair. She silently wished she'd had the money for a rinse before coming. Oh well, she shrugged, they'll just have to take me the way I am.

Al slowed the car and it made a wheezing noise that alarmed Charity. "What's the matter with this old rat trap?" she asked.

Al chuckled. "Nothing Ma, just getting gold like we are."

"Humph," Charity replied.

Charity wiped her sweaty palms on her yellow pants suit as Al turned into the long driveway. The brilliantly colored oaks were so thick it was impossible to see their destination as the drive curved into the distance. She stuffed the newspaper in her purse and sat up straight.

Al glanced at her rigid form with a slight smile on his face. Hope they don't want the driveway shoveled by hand, he thought as they traveled nearly half a mile with no sign of a house.

"There it is," Charity said, catching a glimpse of a large wooden structure through the trees.

The driveway curved around in front of the large house and was lined with dead flower beds waiting cleaning out for the winter. After getting out of the car they stood silently together looking up a the seemingly deserted house. Al reached out and took her hand.

"I have a good feeling about this," he said softly. "It's going to work out fine."

She smiled and nodded.

The wooden steps were faded and worn but seemed sturdy enough. The
wrap-around veranda was impressive and Charity could imagine sitting out there on a cool spring evening. The windows were intact but hadn't seen a wash cloth in years.

"They certainly do need some maintenance around here," Charity whispered.

Al lifted the heavy brass knocker and let it drop with a loud bang on the wooden door. They waited. Al knocked again. Out of the corner of her eye Charity saw the lace curtain on the side window drop back in place and knew they had been inspected. She inwardly smiled. They could hear the sounds of locks being pulled and the door opened a few inches.

One large, watery blue eye peeked out at them through the crack in the door. Charity caught a glimpse of a bald pink head with tufts of white hair sprouting out in odd places. Suddenly the door opened all the way and Charity took a step backward. The owner of the watery eye and bald head stood before them dressed in an ancient tuxedo and wearing blue sneakers. He was short for a man, not more than five feet tall,
Charity guessed, but he stood straight and tall, seemingly to overcome this small defect. He could have been anywhere from sixty to ninety, it was impossible to tell.

"Come in, come in," he motioned with his hands which Charity noticed were covered with graying gloves with holes in the ends of each finger.

Al and Charity stepped gingerly into the foyer of the house and followed the odd man into a shabby parlor. Charity quickly glanced around the room. It was shabby and dusty to be sure, but most of the furniture looked to be antiques. The room even smelled dusty and Charity instantly longed to open the windows and let in some light and air.

"Sit, sit," he said pointing to a large brocade settee.

Did this man say everything twice, Charity wondered as she sat. She clutched her purse in her lap and waited for him to speak.

"Name's Bresdon Beaumont here," he spoke in an amazingly strong voice for one so frail.

"Al and Charity Desmond," Al said reaching up to shake his hand.

Bresdon Beaumont waved off Al's offered hand and went on speaking. With a different person it might have appeared rude but with him it didn't seem so.

"Lately, brother and I seem to be neglecting the chores."

Al nodded. That was an understatement to be sure.

"Are you two Yankees?"

Al and Charity looked at each other questioningly.

"Of course you must be," Bresdon said. "Brother and I are from Atlanta, of course that was a long time ago." As he spoke his eyes took on a dreamy look as if remembering past days.

"When can you start working for brother and me?" he asked quickly, taking Al and Charity by surprise.

"Immediately," Al said without hesitation.

Bresdon smiled and clasped his hands together. "I'd take you to meet brother but I'm afraid I've misplaced him this morning. Can't find him anywhere."

Later, Al and Charity stood in the middle of a small but cozy room in the tiny cottage they had been assigned by Bresdon Beaumont. They had carried their suitcases and the rest of their belongings that had been squeezed into the Ford into the house.

"It's a lovely cottage," Charity said softly.

"Sure is," Al agreed, carrying the suitcases to the bedroom.

Charity followed him into the room. It was small but pleasant. A large window with ruffled yellow curtains stood on the far wall and Charity could see the wide expanse of grass and trees in the distance.

"I hope we haven't made a mistake," she said slowly.

"Don't fret, of course we haven't. He seems a strange old duck but harmless I'm sure," Al laughed. "I wonder where the brother is? I suppose in a house that big you could misplace somebody."

Charity laughed. Al could always see the humor in any situation. She wished she could.

It didn't take long to get unpacked and put away their things. Charity was pleased to see the cottage had a kitchen that seemed to have everything they'd need. While the big house was full of antiques and aging relics from another time, the cottage had modern appliances and furniture.

They were told they didn't have to begin work that afternoon but Charity was anxious to get started. She dressed in a serviceable housedress and put a scarf over her hair. The cottage was a short distance from the main house and she walked briskly down the path. As she passed the front windows she saw the lace curtain drop. Was the strange old man peeking out at her again? She assumed the kitchen would have a service entranceso she made her way around the side looking for a door.

Fortunately the door was unlocked but she hesitated before entering. They weren't expecting her this afternoon. Would they object to her walking in unannounced? We'll just have to see, she thought and entered. The door opened on a long tiled hallway with numerous doors off to each side. An overhead light burned brightly for which Charity was grateful. The hallway would have been quite dark without it. She peeked into the siderooms and discovered them to be pantries, empty and dusty. One small room contained a huge tub and an ancient washer with a top wringer Charity hadn't seen since she was a girl. Finally, at the end of the hall, Charity found the kitchen. She was pleasantly surprised tofind a modern stove and refrigerator and even more amazing, a huge, obviously expensive microwave oven. What a contradiction in terms this house contained. Someone had madea half-hearted attempt at keeping the kitchen clean but it could use a lot more work.

Charity began rummaging through cabinets to see what supplies were available. An hour or two passed quickly what with scrubbing and washing the walls, floors and appliances. Charity was seated a the long table with a note pad in front of her making a list of things that would be needed for the house. The food supply was meager and a bit strange. The two brothers must live on nothing but peanut butter and celery. The sizablerefrigerator held an almost empty container of milk that had long ago reached it expirationdate. The freezer was empty except for the icemaker which had made its quota and spilled over into the food compartment.

The list had grown to three pages when she heard a sound behind her. Turning around slowly she was surprised to see her new employer standing behind her chair, grinning.

She noticed he had taken off his gloves when he suddenly popped his thumb into his mouth and began sucking. Good heavens, she thought, what have we gotten ourselves into?

"Mr. Desmond," she began. "I know you said we didn't need to start until tomorrow but I wanted to see what needed to be done."

He continued to suck his thumb and absently pat her on the head.

Charity was flustered and a bit embarrassed. What else could she say? She ducked her head from under his patting hand and stood. She picked up the list and backed a few steps away from him. He popped the thumb out of his mouth and began doing an awkward tap dance. He belongs in a loony bin, Charity thought.

A door behind her opened and she turned at the sound. She was incredulous. Another man, an exact copy, black tuxedo, blue sneakers. They were twins.

"I see you've met brother," laughed the latest brother to the room.

"Yes," Charity managed to say.

"Don't mind him, I should have told you he's a bit balmy." It was evidently the original Mr. Beaufort speaking.

Charity didn't know if it would be polite to agree so she said nothing.

"Brandon, go play with your lizards," Bresdon spoke waving at his brother with one gloved hand. "This lady is here to take care of us, don't bother her with your dancing."

"It's quite all right," Charity stammered. "I was just surprised to see him. I thought he was you."

"Easy mistake to make dear lady, except he's balmy and I'm not."

"Yes, I can see that."

Brandon stopped dancing and a sulky look came over his face. He turned and left the room.

"Does he speak?" Charity asked.

"When he feels like it," came the reply.

Charity nodded. She wondered what Al would think of brother. It suddenly occurred to her that he had told his brother to go play with his lizards. Good Lord, did they keep them in the house?

"I've made a list of some of the things we need," Charity began. "If you'd tell me what you and your brother like to eat, I can plan a menu for you to look over."

"Quite right, quite right," Bresdon spoke. He fished in the pocket of his tuxedo and pulled out a wad of money Charity thought could feed an army for a month. he peeled off five bills and handed them to her.

"Here, dear lady, run out and do some shopping. Brother and I will eat anything you put in front of us. I must confess I am a bit tired of peanut butter so try not to serve it more than once a day."

He turned on his heel and with a slight bow, left the room. Charity stared at the money in her hand. It was five one hundred dollar bills. She tucked the money in the pocket of her dress and looked over the room again, her mind whirlling with confusion and maybe a bit of concern. She'd had no dealings with eccentrics like the brothers and wondered if she were up to the task of taking care of them. She hoped Brandon was as harmless as he appeared to be. Lizards, she thought and shivered at the idea.

Shopping was certainly more fun when you had a pocket full of money, Charity concluded as she drove back to the estate with the Ford bursting with bundles and packages. She'd bought a few staples for the cottage and hoped Bresden wouldn't mind. Al had only laughed when she told him of her encounter with the other brother. Somehow she thought he'd be a little leery of the situation, but not Al.

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity for Charity. As for Al, he spent the majority of his days in the yard, raking and cleaning, preparing the grounds for the long winter. The brothers were true to their word and ate voraciously of anything she served. Bresdon was flowing with gratitude for all she did. When the front parlor was aired, polished and sparkling with cleanliness he handed her one of his endless hundred dollar
bills and told her it was just a tiny tip for being so clean. She tried to give it back but he was insistent. She offered to take his tuxedo to the cleaners and he bubbled with happiness and took her to his room where his huge closet held twenty identical tuxedos, all in ill repair and desperate for a dry-cleaning. He handed her two hundred dollar bills and said he thought that would be enough for the cleaning bill and she should keep the
change for herself. While the one-hour cleaners were doing their herculean job she had her hair rinsed and set. She felt like herself again and went back and fixed the brothers a huge roast beef dinner. She found another bill under Bresdon's plate after he left the table. She wondered where the endless supply of money came from. They never went to the bank, they never left the house. It just wasn't safe for so much money to be kept at home.

She saw little of the balmy brother except for meals but Bresdon seemed to be underfoot most of the time. Sometimes she wondered if they switched places and she was seeing Brandon, not Bresdon. She guessed it really didn't matter.

After two weeks of hard work things settled down to a normal routine. Charity entered the big house at seven, prepared breakfast and went about her cleaning chores. Al had finished the majority of the ground work and was now repairing loose shingles and shutters. Sometimes Charity could hear him whistling as he worked outside on the veranda. It warmed her heart. She hadn't heard him whistle with happiness for a long time.

It was a briskly cold autumn day, the kind that makes you think of snow, when Bresdon entered the cavernous library she was attempting to clean. Al had gone to the hardware store and wouldn't be back for hours with the list of things he had to buy. She glanced at Bresdon inquisitively as he followed her from table to bookcase while she dusted. "Can I get you something?" she asked.

"No, no, I'm quite fine," he answered. She noticed he'd put on a thick wool sweater over his usual tuxedo.

She was pulling down the musty books one at a time when he spoke again.

"I like you Charity," he started.

"I'm glad," she said. "Al and I are very happy here."

"I think it's time you met father."

"Father?" Charity stopped dusting.

"Come with me," he said and left the room.

Charity was confused and more than a little frightened. There wasn't anyone else in the house except for brother. Had this brother finally flipped his wig too? She followed the echoing footsteps to the kitchen where he was pulling the bolts and unlocking the hasp that held a door closed. A door she had been told never to open that led to a wine cellar. Was father down there all this time? Once the locks were free Bresdon motioned to her.

"Come on, come on."

She walked slowly to where he stood.

"I'll go first," he said. "The steps are steep and I know them well."

At least he wasn't going to push her down the steps, she thought. Bresdon
rummaged for a switch on the wall and took hold of the railing. He started down with Charity following. She was surprised to see no dirt or cobwebs as one would expect in an unused stairway.

At the bottom of the stairs Charity looked down the expanse of the wine cellar. While the stairway had been kept clean, the aging bottles on the many racks had never been touched and were covered with a thick layer of dirt. She'd never seen the brothers take a drop of alcohol. Bresdon walked to the far wall of the cellar and she followed. He
pushed one of the many bottles into its niche and waited. A door that Charity hadn't even seen opened silently on well-oiled hinges. Bresdon turned to her.

"Father doesn't know we're coming," he whispered.

She nodded.

"Surprise, surprise," he said loudly and walked into the hidden room.
Charity's heart was beating wildly and she clutched her sweater around her chest.
She wanted nothing more than to turn and run back up the stairs to the safety of the kitchen.

There were numerous small lamps lit in different areas of the room. As she stepped in behind Bresdon she stumbled over a cardboard box. She looked down and saw that it was over-flowing with money. She was so astonished at the sight she didn't notice that Bresdon had walked further into the room. She jumped at the sound of his voice.

"Come, come, meet father, just for a few minutes. Then we can leave."
She walked over to the corner where Bresdon stood and took a deep breath. There was father all right, or what remained of him. Fortunately for Charity she had never been particularly squeamish and the sight before her was rather revolting but not worth a scream or a faint.

"He's dead," she whispered.

"Of course he's dead, do you think we'd keep him down here if he wasn't?" Bresdon asked.

The corpse had been laid out carefully and with tenderness, hands folded neatly over its chest. Flesh had long since disappeared leaving a yellowing skeleton dressed in a familiar dusty tuxedo. Blue sneakers held foot bones in place beneath the pant legs. The withered remains of a flower lay in its hands. Charity couldn't imagine how long he'd been there.

"Why?" she asked.

Bresdon looked fondly at his dead father. "He made us promise a long time ago. A promise to father was something we took very seriously." He paused. "I hope you aren't thinking of telling anyone."

"No," Charity whispered. "I suppose it's against some law or another but it really doesn't matter to me." She could hardly believe she was saying such a thing.

Bresdon smiled happily and touched her arm. "I knew you were going to be the right one."

"The right one for what?" she asked.

"The right one to share our secret, of course."

"Of course."

Bresdon turned and picked a few bills from one of the boxes. He handed them to Charity. "Here, father wants to give you a treat."

Charity took the money without thinking and stuffed it in her pocket. She followed Bresdon out of "Father's" room and up the stairs. Bresdon closed and locked the door firmly.

Charity walked to one of the kitchen chairs and sat down.

"I know it's a bit of a shock, seeing father like that. He looked much better when he was alive."

"I'm sure," Charity mumbled.

"Father enjoys giving little money treats to people he's fond of and I can tell he likes you."

Money treats, Charity thought. There's enough treats down there to last a lifetime and then some.

"Maybe you better not tell Al yet. I doubt he's ready to meet Father," Bresdon continued.

Charity nodded her head in agreement. Al didn't need to know. The money treats could save them, all the unpaid bills, the care for Janice in the home. Poor Janice, she'd never be normal and she needed all that expensive care. The money treats would help so much. The money from selling the farm had gone to the hospital, there was nothing left.
So what if the loony brothers kept their dead father in the wine cellar. They weren't hurting anyone.

"I won't tell Al about father," Charity said softly. "I won't tell anyone."

"Fine, fine," Bresdon laughed. "We'll feel so much better with someone else to help take care of him."

Charity rose from the table. Bresdon reached over and handed her another hundred dollar bill. She took it automatically.

"I think I'd like to lie down for a while, is that all right?" she asked.

"Of course, of course, do as you wish," Bresdon smiled.

Charity walked to the back door and reached for her coat.

"I'm so pleased you're one of the family now," Bresdon said as he walked out of the room. "One of these days, you can meet Mother."