Authors: Lesley A. Diehl
Tags: #General Fiction
“Thanks. Bedrooms upstairs?” asked Mary Jane. She began to tug, roll, and lift the suitcase up the front staircase.
Meanwhile Jeremy let Hester slip out of his arms, and she ran for the couch, jumped onto it, settled down on the middle cushion and, with disdain in her opalescent green eyes, stared at Kaitlin. Cats always had that look, Kaitlin assured herself, and turned her attention to Mary Jane.
Mary Jane had managed to get her bag up the stairs with Jeremy helping by shoving it from the steps below. She returned from a tour of the bedrooms.
“So I’ll take this teeny little front bedroom and give Jeremy the back one where he’ll have room for his collection,” Mary Jane yelled down the stairs. Kaitlin climbed the stairs, her attention still distracted by thoughts of cat fur and claw marks on the couch.
“Now, I assume there’s a pizza place in town,” said Mary Jane. “Do they deliver or would you like Jeremy to take the bike?”
Kaitlin joined her in the bedroom. “You don’t understand,” she said. She explained to Mary Jane about the ambulance, the geese, and Dr. Baldo, and the man in Leda’s house. “Something odd was going on there. I just know it. I should have done something.”
“Let’s go then,” said Mary Jane. She grabbed a red shawl with gold fringe out of her oversized luggage. “Jeremy, we need you.”
“Maybe he shouldn’t come,” said Kaitlin.
“Who better to round up a pack of angry fowl?” asked Mary Jane. “Oh, I guess you wouldn’t know, but Jeremy is an expert.”
“Like a bird whisperer?” asked Kaitlin. “I could use help in that department.”
Mary Jane put a long, frosted pink nail to her lips and thought for a moment. “Exactly,” she said. There was excitement in her voice. “You’re pretty insightful, aren’t you?”
She conceded it was possible her children’s books gave her some empathy with the animal world, with the exception of birds.
“Geese?” said Jeremy. The three of them rushed down the sidewalk and made the turn toward Leda’s street.
When they rounded the corner, the streetlights shone on the flock of retreating geese waddling their way slowly back up the hill toward their home. They honked and hissed as if reviewing their evening’s adventure. Kaitlin, Mary Jane, and Jeremy could make out the ghostly white face of Dr. Baldo through the windshield of his car.
Mary Jane put out her arms to stop the other two. “I’ll take care of this,” she said.
She knocked on the driver’s side window. “You can come out now. They’re gone. Sorry we didn’t get here sooner.”
He opened the driver’s door and emerged with hesitation from his car, then shook his fist at the retreating fowl. The gander slowed, and for a moment, it looked as if the bird would renew the attack, but the male gave a satisfied shake of his tail feathers and padded on.
“Some woman on a bicycle provoked them and led them right to me. I didn’t get a good look at her face,” he said, “but she must have had something against me to rile up a flock of animals and then encourage them to attack.”
Kaitlin was about to admit she was the woman, but Mary Jane put her hand on Kaitlin’s arm and interrupted the “I’m-the-one-and-I’m-sorry” speech she was about to give.
“I thought I heard an ambulance just a few minutes ago,” said Mary Jane.
“Yes. It was dear Mrs. Pippel. I’m afraid there was nothing we could do for her.”
“We?” asked Kaitlin.
“The EMTs and I,” said the doctor.
“Who called the ambulance?” asked Kaitlin.
“I did,” said Baldo. “I had just arrived at her house to take her to dinner. I heard a noise as I was about to knock and, when I entered the house, I found her at the foot of her stairs. It was too late.”
The old doctor was dressed in a black suit, the same one, Kaitlin swore, he’d worn all the years he practiced in the town. Now it hung on his once robust frame, and his wrists peeked out from the cuffs like skeletal arms attached to long, boney fingers. The doctor appeared to be ill or under some kind of strain. His voice shook when he spoke and his eyes darted back and forth in their sockets as if he expected someone to step out from behind a tree and shout “boo!”
Kaitlin was about to ask Dr. Baldo about the man she saw in Leda’s house, but Mary Jane, as if reading her mind, stopped her again.
“Well, if you’re okay, we’ll just move along.”
“How did you know I was here?” he asked. There was suspicion in his voice.
“I told you. We heard the ambulance and came running, but not fast enough, I guess,” said Mary Jane. She smiled at him, but, when Kaitlin looked into her eyes, there was no humor there.
“And you are?” he asked.
“Oh, sorry. These are my, uh, my cousins, Mary Jane and Jeremy, her son.”
He nodded and turned his attention toward the hood of his car.
“It’s ruined, ruined. Goose shit and scratches. I’ll have to have it repainted.”
“Goose spit,” said Jeremy. “Don’t forget the goose spit. It’ll eat through the paint. When they don’t like something, geese spit.”
Kaitlin wondered about this. She’d never heard of geese spitting caustic saliva, but she said nothing. Now that Dr. Baldo was all right, she wanted to get home to sort out the issue of uninvited house guests.
“I’m glad everything is fine,” she said.
“It’s fine, except for my car,” Baldo said.
“And for poor Mrs. Pippel,” said Mary Jane.
“Yes, yes. Except for Leda.” Baldo flapped his hand in dismissal, turned, and got into his car. They watched him pull away from the curb and drive off in the direction of the hospital.
“He didn’t seem all that upset about his date’s unusual death, did he? He should have called the police,” said Mary Jane. Her hands rested on her shapely hips, her gaze following Baldo’s car. “I don’t much care for your village doctor.”
Kaitlin felt she should come to his defense. “He’s been here forever. I know he was Leda’s doctor, and he’s the county medical examiner. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.”
“I’m not,” said Mary Jane. She took Jeremy’s hand and they started to walk back the way they had come.
“What do you think, honey?” she asked Jeremy.
What an inappropriate question for a child, Kaitlin thought, but Jeremy replied in a serious voice, “There was a reason why the geese attacked him.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Kaitlin, “They attacked me first.”
“I don’t think so. I think they rushed down the hill to get to him, and you got in the way,” said Jeremy.
Kaitlin looked in surprise at the young boy. “Really?”
“Really,” insisted Mary Jane.
“Just what kind of work did you say you did?” She directed her question to Mary Jane, but Jeremy replied to it.
“We told you. We’re companions. Heavenly companions.”
Kaitlin stopped walking and tried to envision what he meant.
“Angels,” he said. “Guardian angels.”
The three of them continued down the sidewalk, Kaitlin trailing behind, her brain muddled by Jeremy’s pronouncement. She must have misheard him, she told herself.
Once in the house, Mary Jane sprinted up the stairs toward the “teeny” front bedroom she had selected earlier. Kaitlin remained standing in the downstairs foyer looking up the staircase. Her mouth hung open. She wanted to say something, but words, over which she once had mastery, wouldn’t come. Mary Jane leaned on the railing and smiled down at her.
“So?” managed Kaitlin.
“So…” began Mary Jane.
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, thought Kaitlin.
She’s going to explain everything and once she does, I can throw them out and get back to my writing.
“Is there a pool hall in town?” Mary Jane asked.
What? Maybe she’d misheard both of them. This time she’d check. “Pool hall? You want to know about a pool hall?” Mary Jane nodded.
The woman must be a lunatic, thought Kaitlin. Her first impulse was to yell at her, but instead she took a deep breath and forced herself to remain calm. She’d had some experience dealing with delusional people, so she knew enough to go slowly.
“Okay, yes, there is one. Kenny’s House of Billiards.” She stretched her lips across her teeth and turned the corners of her mouth upwards in the imitation of a genuine smile. “But let’s forget about the pool thing. Look, Mary Jane, you really don’t want to move in here with me.” She used her best mental health voice.
“Don’t tell me you’re worried about Jeremy’s pets. He’ll keep them in his room or in cages in the kitchen. They won’t be any problem. I asked your mother and she said you weren’t allergic.”
Mary Jane crooked her finger at Kaitlin. “C’mon up,” she said, as if the house were hers.
Kaitlin mounted the stairs with reluctance. This conversation was going nowhere.
Mary Jane opened her cavernous suitcase and began pulling out her clothes. “You can help me unpack. It’ll calm you down after your confrontation with those geese and that horrible Dr. Baldy.”
“Baldo. And he’s just a little eccentric, that’s all.”
Mary Jane made a “tsk, tsk” sound of disbelief as she hung the articles in the closet. Kaitlin noted that everything she pulled out of her bag was frothy or swirly or velvety or stretchy. And in primary colors. The visual overload made her dizzy, but she leaned against the door opening in what she hoped was a posture of casualness and tried reason once more.
“You see, I’m a writer. I write children’s books and right now I’m having a little trouble…”
“A writer! Yes, we know. We do. Your mother said you were working on something big. Well, we’ll be quiet as church mice then so you can get some work done.” She smiled her big smile and hummed softly as she straightened the hangers.
“Uh, about that angels’ thing Jeremy said. He’s got some imagination, doesn’t he?”
“Oh, he’s imaginative all right. Don’t you just love kids like that?”
“You’re not really angels. Right?”
Mary Jane sat down and patted the bed. When Kaitlin joined her there, Mary Jane put her arm around Kaitlin’s shoulder and pulled her close. Surprisingly, it felt good, comforting, like when she was a child and her mother hugged away her bad feelings.
“What do you want me to say?” Mary Jane asked. “I don’t want to lie to you, but I don’t know what I can tell you that you’ll find believable.”
“Just tell me the truth,” said Kaitlin. She leaned into Mary Jane’s embrace and her body felt like it was thawing, warming after a long day out in the winter cold.
“Well, then. No big thing, but we are angels, you know.”
Kaitlin jerked herself upright and moved away from Mary Jane. “No big thing! It is a big thing. You just march in here and say you’re angels. What am I to make of that?”
“What do you want to make of it?” asked Mary Jane. Her voice was gentle.
“And quit doing that.”
“I ask you something, and you answer me with a question. It’s making me crazy.”
“At the risk of your mental health, what do you want to know?”
“Where are your wings?” asked Kaitlin. Icy sarcasm penetrated her tone.
“Now you’re just poking fun,” Mary Jane said. Her smile was gone, replaced by a look of sadness. Kaitlin felt a stab of shame, knowing she’d put it there.
“Look, I’m sorry, but this is new to me. I’ve never met an angel before.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Okay, I don’t know if I met an angel before.”
Mary Jane seemed to take Kaitlin’s uncertainty as a signal to fill her in on angel lore.
“See, we’re not regular angels. No wings or such. We’re guardian angels. We take care of people, hence the name of our association, Heavenly Companions, Inc.”
“You don’t think we’re some rinky dink backwoods group do you?”
She was doing it again, asking a question to answer a question. Kaitlin sighed. How long would it take until she got the real story out of this woman? Angels indeed. She hoped she wouldn’t be pursuing this avenue of exploration all month, because she didn’t have all month.
She didn’t even have tonight. A horrifying thought crossed her mind.
What if they stayed the entire summer?
“How long do you plan on staying here?” she asked.
“Something could come up any day if there’s an emergency, but we’re hard to place, you know. Jeremy and I work together and then there’s his animal thing, so the committee has to take into account our special circumstances.”
Back to her original premise. The woman clearly was mad, kind of a nice and pleasant crazy, but she belonged in a hospital, not in the front bedroom.
Kaitlin’s head was spinning. Maybe if she laid down for a short nap, she might think clearer when she got up.
“You look exhausted, dear. After that goose thing and all. How about a nap? Just the thing. We can talk later. I’ll help get Jeremy settled, then I’ll send him for take-out and we can have a little chat over food.”
She never said anything about a nap to Mary Jane.
Was the woman reading her mind?
Kaitlin nodded numbly and headed for her room, stepping gingerly around Hester who sat in the middle of the hallway cleaning her face.
Half an hour later, she still couldn’t get to sleep, so she dialed her mother. She didn’t want to alert Arlene to what her two visitors claimed as their profession for fear Arlene would think writer’s block had taken away her reason. Instead she tried to pry more information about the two out of Arlene.
“I don’t remember Aunt Mary or Cousin Mary or whoever she was. What’s her relationship to Mary Jane and Jeremy?”
“Darling Kaitlin, leave the poor thing alone. She’s out of work and has no place to live. You’re having a rough time too. I’d think you could be a little more sympathetic.”
Why would no one reply to her questions?
“Mom, I don’t think they’re all they pretend to be.”
Or was it, they pretend to be something they’re not?
“Met anyone new in town?” asked her mother, changing the subject.
Kaitlin knew what her mother was asking. “There are no available men in Aldensville.”
“There’s your old boyfriend. What was his name? Hank? Or Harold?”
“Hiram. Mom, I just got burned by my husband leaving me for another woman. I need some healing time. Time alone, just me and my computer. No visitors and no men!” She slammed down the receiver and sat up.