Freddie would pick her up that day. He’d drive straight from the airport, smile his greetings, wheel her out the door, and off they would go to Winnipeg.
Be cold there. Sure would. But Mrs. Millar was used to that. Grew up in Ontario, knew what winter meant.
She’d better hurry. Not one of those mornings she could take her time, make herself a cup of orange pekoe and munch cinnamon toast. Her boy would be waiting, and he was impatient.
She should water the plants, wouldn’t be back for a while, maybe never. Freddie and Miriam might set her up in a room at their house. They’d probably prepared a place already, for a surprise. They’d hinted as much last week on the telephone. They’d asked her favorite color and how mobile she was these days. Hopefully they hadn’t stuck her on the second floor. She couldn’t manage that.
The old woman glanced furtively at the clock: nine thirty already. She must get going. She had work to do: water the plants, get dressed, and pack up the last of her clothes. And find her handbag. Where had it gotten to now? Things kept disappearing.
She wheeled awkwardly down the narrow hallway. Everything she did was difficult these days and she tired easily: needed to have a nap, just like a baby. She got angry just thinking about it. But tired or not, today she had no time to rest.
Mrs. Millar inspected the two withered plants on the dusty corner table, poking her bony finger into the stiff soil. The plants were in bad shape; someone should water them. Not her worry for long. Soon Freddie would arrive. What did she care about dead plants, dirty dishes, and soiled clothes? She’d be with Freddie—her ‘A’ student.
What should she take? Winnipeg in February would be bitterly cold. She’d need something warm. She wheeled toward the bedroom, struggling to avoid the tangle of discarded clothes near the door.
She pulled open the top drawer of the bureau. It was empty; all her underwear had been taken. It had been there ready—clean and folded—yesterday. They must have come during the night.
Last week, it had been her teeth. She had complained to Freddie, but as usual he sided with them. She’d considered phoning the police again, but they were downright rude.
How could she go on a trip without underwear? What if she were in an accident? What if she were caught short? Better forget it and get out of here. If she weren’t ready when Freddie arrived, he’d be furious.
“Mother, for goodness sakes, let’s go. I’ll be late for the concert.”
But she’d needed her blue hat, the one with the silk band. It looked so fine. Just the thing for her son’s concert. For his first solo concert, she must look her best.
“Mother, stop dithering, come.”
What a boy. Always in a hurry. This time she’d be ready, smiling expectantly with her coat on and her purse and suitcase at hand.
“Freddie,” she would cry joyfully, tears spilling down her wrinkled cheeks as they did now.
Not her fault, “poor plumbing,” as Freddie put it.
“I’m all ready.” She’d nod proudly.
“Got your purse, your suitcase, your coat? Good girl.”
She knew he’d make a final check of the apartment. He didn’t trust her to look after anything anymore.
“Did you turn off the stove? Water the plants?”
Even though she had, he’d go back, look about.
“You left the windows open, it’ll freeze in here.”
It must have been the other tenants, she thought, but didn’t say anything. Her son got angry when she mentioned them.
The mantle clock stuck. Mrs. Millar listened tensely, counting: eight, nine, ten. Her son would be here any minute now. She must hurry.
She wheeled into the hall and yanked at her winter coat swinging high in the closet. The heavy woolen coat pounced down, crushing her frail bones against the chair. She struggled to escape the suffocating weight, her arms flailing to break free. Finally, a desperate head emerged. Angered by the rough cloth and her feebleness, she pulled the coat around her shoulders.
She noticed the mailbox stuffed with flyers. What were they about? “Resident,” she read hesitantly on one address label. It was from a hardware store. Why would she want hardware?
Hearing the jingle of keys in her coat pocket, she pulled them out and tossed them toward the cluttered hall table. They clanged onto the floor, but she wouldn’t need them for a while anyway. Not living in Winnipeg. And she didn’t want to give the landlord an excuse to come in. The time he pretended her toilet had overflown, her pillbox went missing. The sneaky old bugger always hung around whispering to the lady who brought her lunch. Whispering, always whispering.
Freddie tried to excuse them. “If you’d turn on your contraption, you could hear.”
What nonsense. There was nothing wrong with her hearing. She could hear the mice in the walls at night. You need good ears to hear mice.
She gave the apartment a final check. She’d decided not to leave her suitcase in the hall in case someone came by and tried to grab it. It contained all her valuables: the red china vase her mother gave her when she left home, the picture of Freddie in the silver frame, her swimming trophy, and even her father’s war metals. She’d want them all with her in Winnipeg. Make the place homier.
Hiding her purse under her coat, she opened the door, wheeled into the hall, then turned her chair and leaned forward to yank the door shut. The building shuddered, then fell silent.
She was all ready. Freddie would be pleased. And it wasn’t even 10:15. She moved along the hall, the wheels tangling in the small mat in front of old Mr. Watson’s door. He’d left the stupid thing there just to trip her, just like he played the clarinet half the night to drive her mad.
She turned her chair toward the door, hung over the side and struggled to set the brake. Sighing, the old woman sank her withered frame into the huge coat. Ensconced in the hot nest, she dozed off contently.
Liquid. Hot liquid pouring between her thighs like the time her water broke. Someone was pouring water on her, burning her legs. She shifted in her sleep.
“Freddie, Freddie,” she sighed. Wouldn’t they have a good time, like the old days.
“You’re a terrific swimmer, Mom. Where’d you learn to swim like that?”
As if she hadn’t been a champion at his age; she’d won the award for the whole school, for the whole district. Went to the competition in Toronto and came in second. She would have come in first except for the cramp.
The two of them at the lake all those summers, swimming and sunning. Laughing as the water twinkled and the days oozed out like yellow oil paint squeezed from a silver tube. The two of them, and Bruce, of course, but he didn’t count. Stayed back at the cottage, couldn’t stand the cold water and terrified of the bloodsuckers. It only needed a little salt and a tug to pull them off.
All summer, stretched out like salmon in the smokehouse, the hot sun burning down on them, swelling their blood: languid, stupefied. And then rousing up, Freddie first.
“Back to the water,” he’d cry and dive off the dock, a porpoise slowly arching through the air, cutting the water, descending forever. And she right after him, still young, still with a flat, boyish body, tripping down the wooden dock. Then poised, she’d sail fearlessly into the shockingly chilled water.
“Race you to the other side,” he’d shout.
She’d take the challenge, her heart bursting with the effort, ’til finally they reached the shore and crawled onto the beach like the first prehensile creatures, stretched to dry on the burning sand.
He should be here by now. Maybe it was snowing and the weather had held him up. It was still winter after all. Was that scratching sound him? No, it was just a key turning in the front lock. Mrs. Watson? Frumpy old Mrs. Watson. What did she want? Always trying to sell those plastic dishes.
“Going somewhere, Mrs. Millar?” she said as she sailed by.
“My son Freddie’s taking me to Winnipeg.”
She sank back into her warm, damp cocoon, drifting to sleep, then jerking awake to the click of the door, the shuffle of feet in the hall. Freddie? Heart thumping. Was it Freddie? No. Others. Strangers. Coming and going. Why wouldn’t they stay put?
Drifting and dozing. The click of the door. Freddie? Was it Freddie? No, not yet. Not yet. She shrank back into her moist nest. Not yet.
And then she sensed them around her—their presence on all sides. Saw their enormous bleached faces, suspended before her, leaning into her, and leering. She snapped her eyes closed, withdrawing into her woolen cave.
“What’s she doing out here?”
“What a stench.”
“She was here at two when I took the dog out.”
“I saw her earlier than that.”
The chair shook. The frail woman squeezed her arm grips until her knuckles hurt. If she kept her eyes closed, they couldn’t get in at her. Hidden in her cave, she was barricaded against the white, pudgy maggots trying to squeeze through the cracks. No light. Keep the light out.
Sharp claws rattled her, whipping her head back. Her bones trembled.
“Mrs. Millar, why are you out here?”
“She can’t hear you.”
“She can hear if she wants to.”
“Maybe she’s locked out.”
Voices calling, badgering, fingers poking. A hand fumbled in her lap, touched her thigh.
“Christ, she’s soaking.”
“Can’t you smell it?”
“She probably left the keys in the apartment again. She should be in a home.”
“I’ll get Dick, he has a master key.”
“Mrs. Millar, what are you waiting for?”
Voices piling on voices, creaking and croaking, discordant bells clanging in her ears.
“Mrs. Millar, what are you waiting for?”
Louder, insistent voices, hands pulling at her, squeezing her arms.
“My son,” she snapped, lifting her head and carefully unlocking her eyes, willing Freddie to appear to rescue her from the snapping dogs. “My son is coming to take me to Winnipeg.”
“It’s seven thirty p.m., Mrs. Millar.”
“My son is coming.”
“It’s too late. He’s not coming today.”
“My son is coming,” she chanted, firm as the church.
“Let’s get her out of here. I’ve got friends coming over.”
“Your son’s not coming today, Mrs. Millar.”
“I wish to hell he was.”
“Here’s Dick, Mrs. Millar. He’ll take you back to your apartment.”
The earth whirled, her chair jerked along the dark hall.
“Isn’t the social worker supposed to see to her?”
“She won’t let the girl in.”
“I’ll phone the company,” Dick offered.
The door clicked shut. Silence. Cautiously the old woman raised her stiff eyelids and peered through the shadows at the familiar clutter of mail on the floor, then turned to acknowledge the dusty photograph of Freddie on the phone table. They had shoved her back into her apartment.
So he hadn’t come. Not today. Maybe it was the 12th he was coming and today was the something else. Maybe it was the 11th. She couldn’t remember. He would come tomorrow for sure. She’d get up early so as not to keep him waiting.
“Mrs. Millar, someone is here to see you.”
He had come. She wheeled quickly toward the door, then stopped and smirked. Ulysses had tricked the Cyclops, but no one could trick her.
“Is that you, Freddie?” she called. She’d know his voice.
“No, Mrs. Millar, it’s Kathy from the agency. Let me in.”
“Just a minute, dear,” she cooed, leaning forward and quietly slipping the four dead bolts closed.
Tomorrow, she’d have to start early to avoid them. Get cleaned up and ready to go before nine. But tonight, she’d celebrate. She was starving.
She wheeled to the kitchen, kicking at the dirty clothes they’d left in the hall, and gobbled down six cookies from the open package on the counter. Against doctor’s orders. She chuckled.
“Mrs. Millar,” a strange voice called, then an impatient buzz at the door, followed by loud banging. They were trying to break her door down. The wolf got the three little pigs, but huff as he would, he wouldn’t get her.
“Never leave you alone,” she sighed and clicked off her hearing aid.
“I’m not as helpless as they think,” she chucked, swigging orange juice straight from the bottle. Not such a bad day, after all.
~ Melodie Corrigall
Originally published at: http://mousetalespress.com/current_issue_corrigall2.html