Saturday, May 13, 2017
Ogilve’s Funeral Home, Berryville, Illinois
“What can I say about Agnes Eleanor Billingsworth Harper? With her passing, Berryville has lost one of its most beloved and colorful residents.”
Pastor Quinling’s words replayed in Amy Murphy’s head like a broken record as she sat next to her grandaunt’s open casket while friends and neighbors filed past her paying their final respects. Agnes’s froth of steel-gray hair rested peacefully on a white satin pillow, her small pale hands clasped on her chest. Beneath the casket’s bottom lid, thirteen small porcelain urns had been carefully nestled in with Agnes, each bearing a name and dates; Frederick, 1952-1968; Roger, 1970-1981, Bernard, 1982-1999, and so on. All male tabbies, their cremated remains joined Agnes now, as per her instructions. Agnes’s last cat, William, slipped away two weeks before Agnes did. Amy made the sad discovery after coming home from her job at the Weekly Review, Berryville’s local newspaper. She found the old tabby curled peacefully on one of Agnes’s crocheted jackets Amy had left on the arm of a chair. Now William joined Agnes and his brethren, and Amy was truly alone.
Agnes had been an avid quilter, and Amy had draped several of Agnes’s masterpieces on folding chairs for the mourners to view. While an instrumental version of Abide With Me played sweetly through the funeral home’s sound system, Amy watched as Agnes’s neighbor, Helen Barstow and Mara Sanchez, the sweet home care nurse who had so lovingly tended to Agnes for two years, admired a Baltimore Album quilt in hushed tones. Helen’s nine-year-old son Joey trailed behind her, looking bored. Mara jostled a restless sixteen-month-old Jimmy on her hip as she and Helen moved on to the last quilt Agnes completed; a crazy quilt embellished with ribbons, lace, buttons and a plethora of miscellaneous items. The crazy quilt had been Agnes’s last finished piece, the only quilt she created after her husband Ned’s passing.
The hushed atmosphere was shattered when Helen gasped, pointing at a scrap of blue velvet festooned with embroidered flowers and a cream-colored ribbon bow. At the same time, Mara clapped her hand over her own gaping mouth, her eyes widening. Startled, Amy rose from her seat to see what was wrong.
“Helen, Mara, is everything ok?” It seemed odd that she, the bereaved, would ask someone else this question.
“That’s a bow off one of the diner’s menus,” Helen Barstow exclaimed, still pointing at the tiny house-shaped charm.
“And that yellow yarn that looks like a swaddled baby,” Mara Sanchez added, indicating a block of green corduroy with what indeed resembled a swaddled infant made from yellow yarn. “I swear that’s the same yarn I used to make booties for--” the young mother’s breath caught and she hugged the squirming Jimmy tighter until he complained loudly.
Amy was suddenly aware of others gathering around the displayed crazy quilt. Even men, who hadn’t as yet joined the women in admiring the quilts, began to scrutinize the quilt. Aided by his grandson Douglas, eighty-four-year-old Harvey Dilwood peered at a particular block made of red flannel.
“That’s my tie tack!” The old man insisted. “Look Doug, doesn’t that say ‘Korean War Veteran?’”
“It does, Grandpa.”
In her bereaved state, Amy hadn’t examined the quilts very closely. Having been around them most of her life, she had taken them for granted. Now she too stepped to examine the crazy quilt. When she did, light glinted off a tiny pair of scales.
“That’s my pendant,” Amy breathed, her hand going to her throat where the little charm once hung. She was a Libra, and the charm had been a gift from her late parents.
The assembled group of mourners exchanged glances. Then they all started talking at once. It seemed that everyone had a connection to some embellishment found on the quilt, and they all had a story to tell.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Distant sirens sent a flock of blackbirds soaring into the morning sky while neighborhood dogs barked in alarm. Two police cruisers, a firetruck and an ambulance sped past her house on Applewood Drive, jarring the sleepy community from its accustomed sleepiness.
Amy Murphy had been sitting at her kitchen table, glaring at her blog’s homepage, idly sliding the gold scales charm along its chain around her neck. She habitually nibbled on the delicate gold chain whenever she experienced writer’s block, and some of the links were showing damage. Her blog, Murphy’s Musings, had fifty-two followers, and Amy’s hope was that her literary and journalistic skills would get noticed by a large newspaper. Her dream job was working for the Chicago Tribune, but most days such a high aspiration seemed beyond her dreams. I’m destined to live in sleepy, boring Berryville, where the most exciting news stories I have to write about are the high school basketball scores, she thought glumly.
As the sirens grew closer, Amy dropped the pendant and snatched a notebook and pen from the kitchen counter. Clad in an oversized t-shirt and denim cutoffs, she ran barefoot down the cracked sidewalk etched with crooked hopscotch grids written in colorful chalkHer first excited thought was, Finally! Some actual news to report! But that thought was quickly squelched with one of dread, hoping no harm had come to any of her neighbors.
Amy found the emergency vehicles parked two blocks from her house, neighbors gathering, muttering anxiously as police set up orange cones. At least three bystanders were recording the scene on their cell phones.
Officer Bill Drinski was escorting an agitated Harvey Dilwood across the street while maintaining a firm grip on his German shepherd’s leash. The five-year-old dog sported his own police badge on his halter vest, the name Kaiser in yellow block letters glaring from the black Kevlar. A silver-plated handcuff key dangled from a jump ring stitched onto the dog’s vest. Several years before, the Berryville PD switched to plastic zip ties, and the little key served only as ornamentation now.
Harvey Dilwood was Bill’s grandfather, a Berryville native with a network of broken blood vessels webbing his round, florid face. Known for his erratic paranoia, Harvey’s light brown eyes glittered with anxiety.
Bomb techs rolled out Berryville PD’s only robot, a Foster-Miller Talon Mayor Ian Jennings insisted the town needed. Amy had written about the acquisition three years before. Bought second-hand from an Army surplus store, the Explosive Ordinance Disposal apparatus reminded Amy of an armored praying mantis.
“What’s going on?” Amy demanded, slipping the pen from the notebook’s wire spine.
“Someone’s left a bomb on my porch!” Harvey shrieked before Officer Drinski could reply. “Terrorists have come to Berryville!”
Alarmed, Amy scribbled the date and the word BOMB! as the EOD robot was deployed. It rolled off a ramp and whirred into action, crossing the street headed for Dilwood’s front porch.
“I doubt terrorists have come to Berryville, Grandpa,” Bill Drinski commented calmly while the bomb tech worked the controls. “We’ll just take a look to be on the safe side.” He regarded Amy and her notebook briefly before returning to the view screen. “Don’t count on a news story just yet, Amy.”
Both Berryville natives, Amy remembered when Bill’s eyes were full of mirth and laughter. They had even dated in high school. But after Bill’s identical twin, Doug, caused an accident that took the lives of Amy’s parents and Bill and Doug’s own mother, Harvey’s daughter Janice, Bill became morose and somber. In one nightmarish night, Amy was orphaned with only her widowed grand aunt Agnes her remaining kin. Devastated by the loss of his daughter, Harvey disowned Doug, who was sentenced to ten years in Joliet for three counts of involuntary vehicular manslaughter. Bill went on to the police academy, establishing himself as a respected member of the community. Now, when Amy looked at Bill, she saw Doug, and her stomach always clenched in a disconcerting way whenever she was in his presence.
“I was just leaving for the diner with next week’s schedule when Harvey came pounding on my door,” Helen Barstow told Bill, resting her shaking hands on her seven-year-old son Joey’s small shoulders. “I could see the package from my window so I got Joey and called 911,” she concluded, holding up her cell phone. Joey seemed oblivious to the excitement, focusing his attention on the K-9 officer.
“Mommy, I want to pet Kaiser.”
“Later, Joey,” Helen scolded. “Kaiser’s working.”
Amy hastily scribbled down notes, deciding she would blog about the incident the moment she got home.
She watched with the others as the EOD robot’s tracks maneuvered the front steps of Harvey Dilwood’s Craftsman bungalow with surprising agility. The elderly Dilwood continued to chatter about how he’d found the suspicious package on his porch when he went to retrieve the morning paper. Upon discovering the object covered in a brown paper grocery sack, Harvey slammed his front door shut. Fleeing out his back door, he scurried to Helen’s house. A single mother who managed Finnegan’s Diner, Helen cleaned Harvey’s house twice a week. Harvey and Joey shared a companionable bond, with Harvey taking Joey fishing when the child felt well enough. Joey was a pale, quiet boy whose brown eyes dominated his thin face. Diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia when he was four, Joey was currently in remission, but still remained frail and sickly.
“I’m a veteran, you know,” Harvey declared as the Talon approached the small package. “I’ve had a secret clearance since 1950. That’s probably why they’ve targeted me!” Amy knew Harvey watched Focus News religiously, which fueled his paranoia that soulless criminals lurked in even the nicest neighborhoods nowadays.
“I doubt any terrorist organization is targeting Korean War vets, Grandpa,” Bill replied calmly. “We’re not detecting anything suspicious. It appears to be harmless--”
“For heaven’s sake!” a shrill voice cried. “What are the police doing here?”
The crowd turned in unison to see Agnes Harper heading toward them with a disparaging scowl on her face. Amy thought she heard a collective groan behind her as she pinched her nose shut against Agnes’s overpowering reek of Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew. Amy heard little Joey mutter a quiet “oh oh”. Even Kaiser let out a disconcerting whine.
“Ma’am, please get behind the barricade,” Bill instructed looking up from the view screen.
Amy watched as Agnes ignored the officer’s plea and glared up at Harvey beneath her yellow crocheted hat. It matched her knee-length crocheted lace coat. In summer, Agnes wore her crocheted ensembles, insisting they protected her skin from the sun’s damaging rays. The only things uglier than Agnes’s yellow ensemble were the seven others in her closet. Besides yellow, there was red, blue and green; three lighter garments like the one she was wearing now and four more in a heavy worsted weight yarn. By seven every morning, Agnes was dressed and made up for the day. That included the triple strand of pearls at her throat, a slash of red lipstick that missed the outer edge of her lips by two millimeters and the penciled-in eyebrows that reached her hairline. Amy was well aware of Agnes’s reputation as a meddling eccentric, and ran out from the barricade to meet her aunt.
“Aunt Agnes!” Amy hissed excitedly, reaching for the old woman’s arm. “Someone left a suspicious package on Harvey’s porch.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Agnes demanded. Turning her blue-gray eyes on Harvey, she scowled with disdain. “This lovely morning is being disturbed on account of you?”
“Aunt Agnes, please don’t start--”
“We have a malfunction,” Amy heard the bomb tech announce.
Quickly Amy stepped closer and peered over Bill’s shoulder at the view screen. The EOD’s elbow extended its two-pronged gripper, seizing the brown paper bag. It rotated, and inexplicably began smashing the package against the porch’s brick column. The paper tore, and brown and white bits of something were scattered all over Harvey’s porch and front lawn.
“It looks like…I can’t tell?” Bill said, scrutinizing the view screen while maintaining a steady grip on Kaiser’s leash. With a look of exasperation, he muttered, “Oh for f--” Shooting a quick glance at Agnes, he stopped. “Wallace,” he barked to an officer in a bomb suit, “check it out.”
The officer’s suit resembled that of a beekeeper’s crossed with an astronaut’s as he lumbered awkwardly across the street and up Harvey’s steps. An anticipatory hush fell over the crowd as the young bomb tech tentatively examined the scattered debris on the porch. Amy caught her breath as he bent down, then held up something in one hand for all to see. Facing the others behind the barricade, he took off his helmeted mask and called, “It’s bread, sir.”
In one almost tangible motion, the crowd pivoted to look at Agnes Harper. She in turn continued to glare at Harvey Dilwood.
“It’s all right, folks,” Bill said, raising his arms to the crowd. “You can all go home.” Then he turned to Agnes.
“Mrs. Harper,” He asked in a voice edged with irritation. “Can you explain what just happened?”
“I certainly can,” she replied, her gaze still locked with Harvey’s. “It was a loaf of sourdough bread meant as a peace offering to this—this nitwit!”
“A peace offering?” Echoed Harvey. “The day I accept a peace offering from you is the day I vote Democrat!”
“Aunt Agnes, let’s go home and I’ll make you some tea--”
Agnes stood her ground, looking righteously indignant. Her face colored beneath the pancake makeup she always wore and her blue-gray eyes blazed like a gas flame.
“I left it there earlier this morning. I knocked and set it where you couldn’t miss it,” Agnes explained, returning Harvey’s scowl with one of her own.
“Well I never heard a knock,” Harvey insisted.
“That’s because you’re deaf as a fence post!”
“Ring the doorbell, woman! I can hear that!”
“That doorbell’s so loud it disturbs the whole neighborhood!”
“Not as much as these damn sirens!”
Amy groaned. Agnes and Harvey had been neighbors for sixty years and maintained a longstanding dislike for each other. Harvey and Agnes’s late husband, Ned, had owned an auto shop, HarWood Auto. After a misunderstanding Amy had never been privy to, the partnership dissolved and after Ned passed away, bad blood still flowed between Agnes and Harvey. Over the years, Agnes’s cats always seemed to bypass other neighbors’ gardens and claimed Harvey’s flower beds for their own litter boxes. Harvey even set out box traps, catching the trespassing felines and threatening to send them to the Humane Society. Agnes’s current male tabby, William, was a well-known kleptomaniac, who brought home a variety of found objects. Amy envisioned the Longaberger basket underneath the end table in Agnes’s sitting room, brimming with discarded shoelaces, clothespins, playing cards and anything else William could carry away in his jaws.
Bill stepped between the elderly pair, facing Harvey and breaking their eye contact. In the same controlled voice, Bill put a hand Harvey’s shoulder.
“That’s enough, Grandpa. No damage done. You can go home and read your paper now.”
“Mommy, can I pet Kaiser now?” Joey whined.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Helen Barstow asked, rubbing Joey’s small shoulders.
“Who’s going to clean up that mess on my porch?” Harvey demanded.
“Grandpa, if you go home right now, I’ll clean it up myself,” Bill promised, reining in an excited Kaiser. “Everybody, go on home.”
Harvey looked appeased, and gave Agnes a last scornful look before heading back to his house. Only after Harvey ambled across the street did Bill turn to Amy and Agnes.
“I better go clean that up. Have a good morning, Mrs. Harper, Amy.” Bill turned an obliging look at Joey. “Hey, Joe, how about you watch Kaiser for me while I clean up that mess over there?”
The little boy’s face blossomed into a joyous smile. “Thanks, Bill!” he said accepting the dog’s lead. When the dog drew near enough and sat on his haunches, Joey wrapped his arms around Kaiser’s brown and black neck with glee.
Amy slipped the pen back in the notebook’s spine as Bill deposited his four-legged partner into boy’s custody before following Harvey across the street. Bill Drinski was a confusing enigma to her. In high school, she and Bill had dated, as had Helen and Doug. The twins were a popular, fun-loving pair before the accident. After Doug was sentenced to prison, Bill went from gregarious to misanthropic overnight. Glimpses of the old Bill were rare, and his kindness toward young Joey was an example.
I should be thankful it was nothing, Amy thought. But part of her had relished the anticipation of having something newsworthy to report. So much for an interesting story.
She turned to her aunt and wasn’t surprised to see Agnes had closed her eyes while shaking her head slowly in disapproval. Agnes often exhibited this behavior when she was frustrated. If Agnes really wanted to show her disapproval, she would also hum.
“Aunt Agnes,” Amy said, the adrenaline rush replaced by frustration, “Let me walk you home and I’ll make you some tea.”
“I’ve already had my tea,” the old woman retorted, opening her eyes. “Or I would have, had all this commotion not disturbed my breakfast. Now I’ll go home to a cold pot.”
“I’ll make you a fresh one.”
Agnes’s color returned to normal and she appeared mollified. “All right,” she agreed, taking Amy’s arm. “Can you believe that old fool? Getting the whole town up in such a state!”
“Why didn’t you put the bread in a clear plastic bag so he could see what it was?”
Agnes’s Revlon-coated lips formed an exasperated smirk. “You know sourdough dough has to be stored in brown paper or the crust will get soggy.”
Agnes’s small stucco house was Berryville’s biggest eyesore. Painted a dull salmon with brown comma-shaped accents painted randomly on all four sides, it was affectionately called The Peanut House. When Amy was a child, she loved to visit Aunt Agnes and Uncle Ned. Gypsum sand twinkled in the sunlight, adding to the odd structure’s whimsical air. Young Amy pretended the odd-looking house was a magical place built by elves. Then Uncle Ned died and Amy’s parents were killed in the accident eight years earlier. Amy inherited her parents’ house upon their deaths, and for adult Amy, the Peanut House lost its magic. When the ugly little house came into view, a bittersweet ache squeezed Amy’s heart. Tears welled in her eyes as she and Agnes walked up the sunken flagstones. Then Agnes’s shrill voice cut into Amy’s thoughts like a knife.
“I’m getting too old to bake anymore anyway, but I have a whole crock of sourdough starter I can’t let go to waste. Will you take it home with you?”
Amy didn’t bake. She barely cooked. Most of her meals were eaten at Finnegan’s Diner.
“Aunt Agnes, I don’t think I want--”
“Just remember to store the baked loaves in brown paper bags,” Agnes said as Amy held the front door open for her. “Never plastic. Plastic makes the crust soggy.”
“That’s all of it, Grandpa,” Bill said, emptying a crumb-filled dust pan into a plastic trash bag. “Now you can enjoy your newspaper in peace.”
“Agnes Harper is a menace to society,” Harvey grumbled, tucking the folded newspaper under one arm. “I oughta file a complaint--”
Bill glanced quickly at Kaiser, who was having his massive neck scratched by Joey. “Grandpa, Mrs. Harper didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, it was a nice gesture.”
Harvey snorted derisively. “Nice gesture my big toe! That woman needs to stay on her side of the street, or better yet move to a retirement home.”
Reasoning with his grandfather was obviously not going to be productive, and Bill had other duties to tend to that morning. “If there isn’t anything else, I’ll be on my way.”
Before he could make his exit, a film of sadness and regret clouded Harvey’s eyes. Bill steeled himself for the inevitable question while at the same time imploring the old man not to ask it aloud.
“You ever visit your brother, Billy?”
Harvey smiled wistfully. “Was always so hard to tell you two apart. Who would have guessed your lives would have taken such different turns?”
It made Bill uneasy discussing Doug. He tried not to think of his brother who had spent the last seven years in prison for three cases of vehicular homicide. But every time he looked in the mirror, he saw Doug’s face too, and the memory of that tragic night would revisit him like a tormenting demon.
“I have to go Grandpa. Enjoy the rest of your morning and I’ll see you after my shift is over. I’ll take you to Finnegan’s for supper.”
Harvey nodded and turned to enter his house. “All right, Billy. Sorry for the fuss this morning, but that woman is--”
“—A menace,” Bill finished. “I know. Everything’s all right now. ‘Bye, Grandpa.”
With his grandfather pacified, Bill descended the porch steps and crossed the street. He gave Joey an appreciative look as he took Kaiser’s lead from the boy.
“Thanks, buddy,” he said, ruffling Joey’s dark hair. It was just starting to grow back after the child’s last round of chemo.
“Look, Bill,” Joey said, pointing to the small key o Kaiser’s vest. “Kaiser’s key’s loose. It might fall off.”
“You’re right, Joe,” Bill agreed, examining the key. “I’ll have to see about fixing that.” Over the boy’s head he met Helen’s sad eyes. “What’s the special tonight at Finnegan’s? I told Grandpa I’d take him out to eat later.”
He detected the glimmer of tears in Helen’s eyes. “Chicken and dumplings,” she replied.
“Sounds good. Keep that back booth open for us.” To Joey, he said, “See you later, pal.”
“ ‘bye, Bill. Thanks for letting me watch Kaiser for you.”
As mother and son retreated across the street, Bill turned to the officers and bomb techs who were clustered around the defective robot, obviously trying to determine the cause of the malfunction.
“Piece of crap robot,” Wallace muttered as Bill approached them. “Jennings is gonna be pissed when he hears about this.”
“I don’t predict we’ll get any sort of refund,” another officer remarked.
Image was everything to Mayor Jennings, and he wondered how Amy was going to present the situation in the paper. Even if she did write about the incident, gossip would spread faster. Hell, he was certain someone had already posted a video on Facebook. He gave Kaiser a two-handed scratch behind the ears while the bomb squad loaded the EOD onto a ramp.
“Well, let’s call this in as a false alarm and be glad of it,” Bill said, coiling Kaiser’s lead around his hand. “Come on, Kaiser.”
As the dog leapt into the cruiser, the threads attaching the jump ring came loose and the key fell unnoticed onto the street.
Bill looked up at the cluster of blackbirds which had returned to the powerlines suspended over Applewood Drive. Somehow he sensed this was going to be a long day.
“Mara wants Wednesday off, and Jill has Thursday afternoon off…”
“Mommy, can I go over to Harvey’s and show him my Angry Birds Star Wars game?”
Helen’s head throbbed as she looked up from the Excel grid on her laptop screen. Next to the laptop was one of the diner’s menus. This morning’s excitement caused her to be late finishing next week’s schedule. She forced a smile when she saw Joey’s usually-pale face flush with anticipatory excitement. He held up his own iPhone (with all the parental controls set, of course). He only used it to play games on, but there were a few numbers programed into it; Helen’s, the diner’s, 911, and Harvey’s.
“ ‘May I,’” Helen corrected. “And no, you didn’t finish your breakfast.”
Joey pouted. “I wasn’t hungry.”
Helen massaged her temples, willing the pounding to subside. Did Joey’s lack of appetite mean the cancer had returned? This fear lurked in the back of her mind like a hideous monster.
“I was eating, but then Harvey knocked on the door now my cereal’s all soggy anyway,” Joey explained.
Helen glanced at the abandoned cereal bowl at the end of the kitchen table, a fleet of Cheerios floating in a sea of whole milk. Her eyes wandered to the clock on the microwave. It was almost nine.
“It’s too early to go over to Harvey’s.”
“ I’ll take you with me to the diner and you can play your game there until I’m done. Then maybe you can go visit Harvey.”
Crestfallen didn’t even begin to describe the look on her son’s face, but Helen was determined not to spoil him. To his credit, Joey didn’t pull the sick child card. He hated to be treated any differently because of his leukemia, but secretly Helen wished she could indulge his every whim. She never knew how much time her child had, and she didn’t want it to be overly peppered with regulations and restraint.
She reached for her keys as the printer spat out the new schedule. Retrieving the laminated menu, she made a note to have the old menus replaced; the cream-colored grosgrain ribbon bow glued to the front of this one was coming off. “C’mon, honey,” she said, noting goosebumps on his thin bare arms. “Take your jacket.”
Looking defeated, Joey hung his head and grabbed his jacket from the back of a kitchen chair.
“You’re always at the diner.” He muttered.
Helen’s heart ached whenever he looked so disappointed.
As she closed and locked the door behind them, the loose ribbon dropped to the ground and was quickly obscured by a hydrangea bush.
I’m doing the best I can, she reminded herself. Everything I do, I do for Joey.
Mara Sanchez glanced at the clock on the diner’s wall as she delivered a plate of bacon and eggs to a bald man in a flannel shirt. It’s six-thirty in the evening in Afghanistan right now, she thought with a bittersweet ache in her heart. Her husband Carlos, a mechanic in the Army, was off-duty on Saturdays and Mara willed herself to stay awake until their Skype date. She worked until ten. Then she would close up the diner, drop the nightly deposit into the bank’s depository and cry while Carlos’s two-dimensional image begged her to cheer up because crying wasn’t good for the baby.
He’d only been deployed three months earlier, but it seemed like an eternity since he had held her in his arms. A month later, the pink plus sign on a test stick determined she was pregnant, and she cried giving him the news. His handsome, clean-shaven face and lit up like a Christmas tree and they cried together.
Keeping as busy as she could was Mara’s chosen method of combating loneliness. Besides working at the diner on weekends and weekday evenings, she was an in-home caregiver Monday through Friday from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon for Agnes Harper. She prepared Agnes’s breakfast and lunch and did light housekeeping. After lunch they often sat together and talked while Mara knitted and Agnes quilted.
The cowbell above the door jangled and Mara smiled as Helen and little Joey entered the little diner.
“Good morning, Mara,” Helen said, tucking a strand of brown hair behind one ear. She held a menu and a spreadsheet in one hand. “I have next week’s schedule up. I hope your doctor’s appointment goes well Wednesday.”
Mara’s full lips stretched into a shy smile. “Thank you Helen.”
“Joey, go sit in that booth and I’ll bring you a glass of milk,” Helen instructed the boy.
“Can I have pop instead?”
Mara observed the exchange with wistful amusement. Her hand went instinctively to her still-flat abdomen. Soon, she thought happily, that will be me telling my child they can’t have pop. She met Helen’s hazel eyes and saw that they were twinkling knowingly. “Have your ankles started to swell yet?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. Did I hear sirens earlier?”
Helen dismissed the question with an eye roll. “Thankfully it was nothing. Alice Harper left a package on Harvey Dilwood’s porch and he mistook it for a bomb. Turned out to be a loaf of bread.”
Mara felt a giggle bubble up in her throat. It burst forth, bringing a chuckle from Helen’s lips. “That sounds like something Agnes would do,” Mara commented, her fondness for her elderly charge softening her voice.
Helen nodded in apparent agreement. “I just wanted to bring over next week’s schedule. I’ll be in later and if you get too tired, you can leave early.”
“I’ll be fine,” Mara assured her. “Let me get Joey his glass of milk before you go.”
“Thanks.” Helen glanced at the menu in her hand. “Oh I knew that bow would come off,” she sighed as Mara stepped behind the counter for a glass and a pitcher of milk. “That’s another thing. All these old menus are falling apart. I need to get some new ones made up.”
“Here you go, Joey,” Mara said, delivering the milk. “Helen, do you want me to work on the new menus?”
Helen smiled gratefully. “ I know you like to keep busy, but you do more than your share, Mara. I’ll print them up, hopefully by the end of the month.”
Mara grabbed a coffee pot and topped off an elderly man’s cup. She was feeling unusually energized this morning. Her long black braid swung with every step she took. Replacing the pot on its warmer she glanced at Joey, a milk mustache staining his upper lip as he played some game on his iPhone.
“How has Joey been feeling?”
Helen’s eyes drifted toward her son and she sighed. “He’s been feeling okay lately, but anytime he complains about feeling tired or gets a bruise or something, I get afraid the cancer’s come back.”
How would I deal with a terminally ill child? Mara thought. She knew Joey was in remission for the time being, but that always sounded to Mara like the leukemia was still in his body, lurking, ready to reemerge at any time.
The cowbell jangled again and a middle-aged couple strode in, taking a booth near the door. Helen patted Mara’s arm. “I’ll let you get back to work. See you in a bit.” To Joey, “Finish your milk, honey. Time to go.”
“See you later, Helen. ‘Bye, Joey.”
Filling two glasses with ice water, Mara smiled warmly as she walked toward the newly-arrived customers, but not without glancing again at the clock.
It’s six-forty-five in the evening in Afghanistan, she thought.