by Jill Hand
You want to know what happens after you die? It’s simple: your relatives will fight over your stuff.
It’s sad but true. While your poor old lifeless body is being pumped full of chemical preservatives and dolled up with powder and rouge, to be put on show at the funeral home, like a stuffed trout at the taxidermy exhibit at the county fair, your worldly possessions – your vintage wines and fine art and luxury automobiles if you were rich, or the canned goods and toiletries in your squalid Section 8 apartment if you were poor – all become plunder. No matter what you leave behind, whether it’s a collection of Star Wars action figures or an original Rembrandt, when you cross over the River Jordan, your family will fight over it like feral dogs squabbling over a rotting deer carcass, sometimes with unexpected results.
Witness what happened following the demise of a man named Thomas. He died at the age of eighty-six, having lived a full life, during which he amassed a not-inconsiderable fortune and fathered three children. Thomas’ children disliked each other, as siblings often do, but not enough to get ugly about it. Their dislike took the form of ignoring each other’s existence as much as possible.
Thomas left a will in which his real estate holdings and investments were divided equally among his three children. At that point one would think they’d bury the hatchet and come together, mutually mourning the good old man.
In that case, one would be wrong.
Thomas’ daughter, Carol, was notified of his death shortly after he expired in the hospital, since her name was the one he put down as next of kin on the admission form when he tottered in, complaining of feeling a little under the weather. Carol was sixty, a grandma, a member of the choir at the First Methodist Church, and a steely-eyed tough customer. She had no intention of informing her brothers, John and Peter, that their father was dead. Let them find out for themselves!
Carol climbed into her Mercedes SUV and set off for her late father’s house, intent on snagging the pick of his belongings: his stamp collection, his sterling silver flatware, the Spode dinner service, the baseball cards he’d collected since he was a boy. She would help herself to the best items and leave the rest for her brothers. Let them deal with the contests of his refrigerator and the dirty dishes in the sink and all the assorted unguents and clutter of an ailing old man!
She smiled viciously as she drove, unaware that she’d made a gaffe by posting on Facebook that her father had, as she put it, “passed peacefully into eternal slumber this morning, with me, his loving daughter, by his side.”
Carol had been nowhere near the hospital when her father cashed in his chips, but her Facebook friends wouldn’t know that. What she didn’t realize was that her brothers kept track of her doings by monitoring her activity on social media, like Cold War soldiers tuning in to the radio broadcasts of the other side from their respective missile silos.
John lived twenty minutes from their father’s home in The Ridings, an upscale subdivision in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As soon as he read his sister’s Facebook post he tore out the door and hopped in his truck. He shifted into gear and was on the road, burning rubber in his haste to get there before Carol, who had a much longer drive, living as she did in central New Jersey.
John made it to his father’s house before Peter. He started in by gathering some of the smaller valuables and placing them in cardboard boxes. He was on a ladder in the living room, attempting to remove a large, framed William Hogarth print hanging above the fireplace when he heard a vehicle pull up outside, the tires rattling through the bluestone gravel in the driveway.
“Shit!” John hissed, struggling to lift the heavy picture off the wall. He was a tall man, round about the middle. The tufts of sandy hair above his ears wobbled comically as he struggled to unhook the wire on the back of the picture frame from the nail over which it was draped.
The door swung open and his brother Peter, small, neat, and dour-looking, strode in.
Hands on the hips of his neatly pressed chinos, Peter shot a look of utter loathing at his brother balanced on the ladder. “I should have known you’d be here. Get down off that ladder and give me that picture. It’s mine. Dad wanted me to have it. He wanted me to have all his Hogarth prints, Gin Lane and Beer Street, A Rake’s Progress, the Shakespeare series, all of them. Hand it over.”
“Fuck off, Pete. Dad said nothing of the sort. I’m supposed to get the Hogarth prints. He told me so when he and I were in London that time. You can have…” John cast his eyes desperately around the room, trying to spot something to offer in exchange. “That little roll-top desk of Grammy’s over there. You can have that. It’s a nice antique. It has parquet work all up the legs. It’s got to be worth some money.”
Peter seized the sides of the ladder and gave it a violent shake. “Grammy’s desk is a piece of junk and you know it. Give me that picture, you asshole.”
Shaking a ladder with a two-hundred-pound man on it was a bad move. It toppled backward, John still clutching the picture, which came loose from its nail. The glass in the frame shattered, causing a wickedly sharp triangular shard to lodge in John’s neck. Blood from a severed artery sprayed in an extravagant scarlet fountain as he gurgled and flailed.
Peter wasn’t having any better time of it. The falling ladder whacked him on the shoulder, making him stagger. His temple struck the corner of the mantelpiece with a sound like a branch snapping. He was dead before he hit the floor.
John died shortly afterwards, exsanguinated and pale as a sack of flour. That left only Carol to inherit the entirety of their father’s fortune, as she’d long dreamed of doing. However, she didn’t enter the house and take in what would be (to her) the pleasing sight of her brothers’ lifeless bodies.
Instead, upon seeing John’s pickup truck in the driveway, with Peter’s BMW parked behind it, Carol spat out a word that would have shocked her friends in the church choir if they’d heard it coming from her lips. They’d beat her to it, damn them.
She considered her options, eyes narrowed, her sensibly short nails drumming on the steering wheel. Then she parked down the street and sneaked up to the house. Avoiding the gravel driveway in case the crunching sound of her footsteps gave away her presence, she tiptoed through the grass at its verge, toward the three-car garage behind the house. Her driving moccasins made no sound as she crept to the door at the side and opened it.
Like many old people, Thomas had a fear of some kind of unspecified but nonetheless terrible disaster striking. In preparation, he had stashed fifty thousand dollars in cash and a green felt bag heavy with gold coins in a box on a shelf in the garage. The box formerly contained ant poison. The bold yellow and black label on the front attested to that fact. He’d proudly showed Carol his secret emergency stash, saying that no thief would want to steal a box of ant poison.
But Thomas, like a lot of people approaching their ninth decade, had become muddled in his thinking. He got it into his head that thieves would indeed want to take a box of ant poison, perhaps to kill their enemies with, the poison being deadly and fast-acting. The warning label on the box advised contacting Poison Control immediately if it were accidentally ingested.
Unable to sleep one night due to worrying about it, the old man went out to the garage and removed the box, replacing it with an identical one that really did contain ant poison. Then he put the money and coins in mason jars and buried them in the yard, chuckling at his cleverness.
Carol had no idea what her father had done. She went over to the shelf and stuck her hand in the box with ANT POISON on the front. Imagine her puzzlement when instead of encountering piles of neatly wrapped bills her fingers sank into a gritty substance! The box tipped over, dumping a torrent of bitter-tasting granules into her upturned face.
She coughed and sputtered, wheezing as she inhaled clouds of the toxic yellow stuff. Her purse with her cell phone in it fell to the cement floor, unnoticed, as she hacked and gasped. Soon, she too, was dead.
That was the end of Thomas’ three children, killed by greed and sibling rivalry. It wasn’t as spectacular as the deaths of Roderick and Madeline Usher, but it had a certain Gothic feeling about it that Poe would have approved of.
About the Author
Jill Hand is a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her work has appeared in more than thirty publications and in many anthologies, including Urban Temples of Cthulhu, Miskatonic Dreams, Mrs Rochester’s Attic, Hellfire Crossroads 6, and others.
You can find more of her work at her Amazon Author Page here.