The tires of the SUV crunched over the gravel as pulled into the curved driveway. Callie put it into park and shut the engine off, her eyes of walnut brown peering out the windshield in wonder. She hopped out of the driver’s seat, the closing of the door echoing in the eerie stillness of the afternoon.
“Finally.” Callie thought to herself. “Here you are, right in front of me.” A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she gazed up at the old brick schoolhouse on the hill. It was everything she imagined it to be with an arched entrance, multi-paned windows trimmed in white and a little bell tower complete with a bronze bell. The steps leading up to the door were made of granite, solid and sure under her feet. She took a deep breath, and reached for the door. She couldn’t wait to get inside!
“You made it!” A man’s voice exclaimed as Callie stepped into the front hall, her feet soundless on the dark hardwood floor. She bit her lip anxiously as an older gentleman tottered towards her, his cane making a thumping sound with each movement forward.
“Call me Alan.” He said in his shaky voice, “We’re related after all.”
Callie’s nervousness began to fade. She wasn’t sure what to expect from her mother’s estranged brother. She had not known of his existence until just a few short months ago. “That’s what I’m told.”
Alan nodded, “You look like Mae-Belle.” He waved his arm around the wide foyer, “She ever tell you much about Hilltop?”
“A little.” Callie was loathe to share with her Uncle that she virtually nothing about this property or the family that had established it.
“She hated it.” Alan stated. “Couldn’t wait to get out of here and out there in the real world, as she called it.” He shook his head, “Doesn’t matter now, she’s gone so Hilltop belongs to you.”
Callie followed him from the all into a larger room that had been renovated into a spacious living area. A dark suede couch and chair were set up facing a large brick fireplace. Various scenery photos had been framed and hung up tastefully around the room, and heavy drapes had been pulled back to allow sunlight to flood in through three tall windows. “It’s beautiful”
“This was the commons room when it was an operating school.” Alan gestured to the fireplace, “It was a private school, of course, quite fancy in its day.”
“And your family… I mean ‘our’ family ran it?” Callie still had trouble remembering that this was part of her heritage. Her mother had never spoken of Hilltop or her brother in all the years of Callie’s upbringing in the mountains of Colorado. When Mae-Belle had the skiing accident, it caused brain damage and Mae-Belle had reverted to her sixteen year old self. She thought Callie was her best friend, Sue Randolph and she talked in length of Hilltop and her adventures with her family in mid-Missouri. Until that time, Callie had thought her mother was her only family.
“Your Great Grandfather Malcom established it.” Alan said with a sniff, “He made his fortune in the shipping industry along the Missouri river and retired here. He opened the school as a good will gesture to the community and it flourished.”
“Why did it close?” Callie asked curiously as she started down another hall to see where the bedrooms might be.
“Your mother left.” Alan’s words caused Callie to stop and turn in surprise.
“The school closed because Mama left here?” She shook her head, “That doesn’t make much sense.”
Alan looked at her for a long moment, “What exactly did she tell you about the family, Callie?”
Callie flushed and glanced down at her hands, “Honestly, she never told me… not really. All I know is the ramblings of a sick woman.”
“There was a scandal.” Alan said abruptly, no pity showing in his face for the pain that Callie had surely suffered. “Your mother got mixed up with one of the professors. There was a big investigation, the professor was fired, your mother ran away and the school’s reputation never recovered.” He said like he was reading it off of a cue card, no feeling, just a simple recitation. He lifted his cane towards the hall, “Down that way is a music room, and a library. Up on the second floor are the bedrooms, just three of them but they all have their own bathroom.” The subject change was abrupt and obvious. He appeared to lose all of his energy and he turned and moved slowly towards the front door.
Callie recovered from her stunned stance and made a move towards him, “Wait… “ she reached him and offered a supportive arm for him to lean on. “What am I supposed to do?”
Alan looked at her with a soft sad smile, “I think it’s time for you to start your new life, Callie.”