"I remember when my grandfather built it," she said. "That was what? Twenty-seven years ago? I think I was four or five at the time."
"Your grandfather built all of this?" I asked.
"Yes. Him and"—she gestured at a roof on our left—"Jeanette Carrell, too. Over there"—she gestured at a small shack erected on a cement slab near the trees overlooking Carrell's roof—"they also built a shed. There are lawn mowers, shovels, axes; all kinds of stuff in there that neighbors can use. You can't see it from here, but there's also a brick fire ring. They did that, as well. The fire ring is on Jeanette's property, all of the rest of this belonged to my grandfather. Everyone calls it the Circle."
"You get to the point, McKenzie. I like that. Yes, 'belonged.' What happened was, my grandfather bought the lot where his house sits now, I don't know, fifty-some years ago? Shoreview wasn't even incorporated until 1957 and hardly anyone lived out here back in those days; only about five thousand people. It was all open fields, which was why my grandfather moved here. He said it was like living in the country. There was his house and J. C.'s and Ruth Krider's and that was about it. In the early nineties, this was, like, two decades or more after grandfather had moved here, they started to get serious about developing the place. One of the developers who was active back then, a guy named Charles Sainsbury who built a house—do you see the roof over there with the charcoal-colored tiles?"
"That's his place," Sara said. "Anyway, one day he was chatting with my grandfather and J. C.—she had just moved in with her husband; moved into the house where she lives now—and he was telling them about his grand plan to develop the neighborhood, this neighborhood. I think he even had a name for it, for his development, only I don't remember what it was. Shoreview something. Instead of being impressed, though, my grandfather and J. C., they're like, oh no. So they got together without telling Sainsbury—my grandfather had done very well for himself. His name is Carson Vaneps. He was a bigwig at General Mills. You know Bugles, the corn chip shaped like a horn? That was him.
"Anyway, he and J. C. bought the entire hill. Grandfather bought about four-fifths of it and Jeanette the other fifth. The thing is, though, and this is important—Sainsbury didn't seem to care. Not at the time, anyway. Back then there was plenty of other property around here that he could work with, not like today, when there's a serious shortage of affordable housing and places to build it. So everybody remained friends. I mean, Sainsbury and his family spent as much time in the Circle, enjoying the gazebo and fire ring, as anyone. My grandfather made sure that everyone who lived around it was welcome.
J. C. did, too. It was like a private park. Families would hold picnics. One family—the Westermeyers—actually held a small wedding reception right here in the gazebo. Kids would play here; camp out, even. We have a book club that gathers around the fire ring. During the height of COVID, neighbors would congregate in the gazebo, sitting six feet apart, you know? People sang songs. It was wonderful.
"Then about eight months ago, right after the snow started melting, neighbors found surveyors on the hill who claimed they were charting property lines. That's when we found out that my grandfather had sold the rights to the Circle to Charles Sainsbury's company. Everyone was appalled. They went to my grandfather and asked him about it, but he claimed he didn't sell the property; he didn't know what they were talking about. Only Sainsbury's son, William, had a signed contract that said he did. That pretty much confirmed what some of us in the family had suspected but ignored for a long time, that Granddad was having memory issues. My parents brought him in and had him tested and yeah, he had Alzheimer's. So, now we're in court fighting the contract, citing diminished capacity, arguing that Granddad was not of sound mind when he signed. Well, not 'we' exactly. The contract—it's actually a pretty lucrative deal the lawyer said, and half the family would be happy to see the court enforce it if it meant they'd get a cut when Granddad passes."
Sara sighed deeply and covered her face with her hands. For a moment, I thought she might begin weeping; only she resisted the impulse. After a moment, she uncovered her face and took a long pull of her wine.
"Which brings me to the favor," Sara said. "As angry as my family was, as Grandfather was when it was explained to him what happened, Jeanette Carrell was even angrier. I mean, she gave new definition to the word furious. At one point, Sainsbury came up on the hill to explain himself; J. C. wouldn't even let him speak. She just blew up at him. It was one of those moments like on TV comedies when mothers used their hands to cover the ears of their children. She threatened to kill him in front of a lot of witnesses. She threatened a lot of things. That was in April, the middle of April. Then Sainsbury disappeared. Two weeks later, they found his body buried in a shallow grave on J. C.'s property. They arrested her for murder. And here we are."
"The favor?" I asked.
"Help her," Sara said. "Help J. C. She didn't do it, McKenzie. I know she didn't. She's one of the kindest, most generous people I've ever known. She was always looking out for me when I was a little girl, looking out for all the little girls; one of the few people who spoke to us like we were adults. Who told us things we needed to know, mostly about men. One of the few people today who seem to understand how difficult it is for me to take care of my grandfather. I'm happy to do it; please don't get me wrong, McKenzie. I love my grandfather. It's so hard, though.