As far as most members of the Marchmont extended family were concerned, Aunt Mathilde had never existed.
The saga of the Aunt who never was began when Rachelle, aged twenty-three, received a call from the family lawyer. A kindly old man who’d served the Marchmonts for decades, Jean-Luc was a dear friend, but he’d never exactly had cause to call the youngest of the Marchmont cousins - nor had Rachelle ever done anything warranting such a call. She was, after all, utterly unremarkable.
These sorts of things never happened to Rachelle and she couldn’t help but be intrigued. And thus began the intrigue.
She thought, at first, that Jean-Luc meant to call her sister, a PhD, or her brother, the designated family disappointment. But he assured her that he did not: it was Rachelle Marchmont alone who was meant to receive the call and the inheritance which it concerned.
“Inheritance?” Rachelle had asked, incredulous. No one in her family had died in years. Yes, Jean-Luc had reassured her. Inheritance.
Twenty thousand dollars.
Twenty thousand dollars which would hardly make a dent in Rachelle’s debt, but which nevertheless would’ve taken months to recoup as a barista until she could find some more profitable way to use her Bachelor of Science in psychology.
Twenty thousand dollars from a woman whom Rachelle had never heard of, and whom neither her parents nor any of her dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins had heard of, either.
Nevertheless, Rachelle chose to see the benefit of this unusual arrangement: after all, she was receiving free money, and she wasn’t about to question its origins when security had been so elusive since her college graduation. Her hands shook as she held the check; her heart leapt along with the balance of her bank account when she deposited it, and it was difficult to feel anything but gratitude towards the mysterious woman who’d made it possible. It was too easy, and far too good to be true, but Rachelle was too relieved to be swayed by the healthy dose of cynicism with which her family - ever-involved, ever-intrusive - regarded the circumstances of her inheritance.
“It’s probably a scam,” said Grand-mere Hélène, the family matriarch, whose fear of identity theft was well-known.
“What if that money is being used to track you?” asked her father, whose favorite inflammatory topic of conversation was the perfidy of “those blasted government spies” whom he was convinced were watching him through his family’s electronics (he, of course, refused to own a cell phone) and their “surveillance state.”
“You don’t know who that money is really coming from,” her sister Thérèse warned.
None of these arguments had any effect on Rachelle, though. Not when this was the break she’d been desperate for since graduation. Not when, for once in her unremarkable life, something had gone so spectacularly right that no one was even willing to believe that it might’ve happened to someone so utterly ordinary. Most of the money, of course, needed to go towards her student loan debts, but she wasn’t above a few small extravagances: she restocked her favorite gel pens, the ones she could never find room in her budget for; she replaced the falling-apart slip-ons she wore to work; she ordered Mediterranean takeout, and paid extra to have it delivered to her apartment. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to splurge with her limited funds; flush with cash for the first time in her adult life, Rachelle felt rather more invincible than she should have.
She didn’t have the sense to be skeptical when Jean-Luc called her back into his office.
Secretly, she hoped for more money. Instead she received a black, leather-bound notebook, barely the size of her hand, filled with writing. Its previous owner - Rachelle could only assume that it had been ‘Aunt’ Mathilde’s - wrote soft, rounded letters, schoolteacher-like, without hard edges. Rachelle waited until she reached her apartment to read, then sat and opened the journal to its first page.
I did not think it wise to ask that this book be given to you until you’d had time to be softened to the idea of me by my money, which I understand you badly need. No matter - I can wait. One can always wait when one is supposed to be dead. But it is time that you knew why you have received this inheritance.
My name is not Marchmont.
I am not your aunt, and you are not my niece.
This money is not mine. Dozens of people are hunting for it; they would never think to seek it in the hands of a twenty-three-year-old washout with no criminal record, no notoriety, nothing of value to give to any investigation. See to it that they don’t.
I am not real.
I am not dead, but I will be.
And this is my last confession.
A knock sounded at her door as if someone had cued it.
Without a moment to think or to continue reading, Rachelle shoved through her bedroom door, locked it behind her, and crammed herself into the tiny corner closet. She shifted the shirts and sweaters around her face to obscure her figure and listened, in the dark, to the sound of her own racing heartbeat, then the sounds of the apartment.
She heard pounding, first, then the front door falling off its hinges, then heavy bootsteps, then muffled voices, and she clutched the notebook to her chest. And she saw it all: a woman without prospects in desperate need of rescue from her own unremarkability; a life-changing phone call; a tiny notebook delivered hours too late.
A perfect human shield.
She clutched the clothing closer to muffle the sound of her heartbeat and waited.