Disclaimer : Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings : Sex and love between women
Feedback : Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author's Note : Written by special request... from my Mom. Yes, my mother requested a story. She'll get a slightly edited version of it. ~g~
Copyright © 2012Geonn Cannon
The cab waited in front of Rita's home as she rattled the doorknob and then carried her bags down the front walk. She paused on the sidewalk to take a final look at the place before she put her bags in the trunk and got into the backseat behind the driver. She gave the address of her destination and the cab pulled away from the curb. She toyed with the belt of her coat, sat up straight in the seat, and refused to look back at the house. Joan wouldn't have wanted her to look back, to linger. This was always the plan. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, waiting until they turned the first corner before she let it out and let herself relax.
It wasn't a long ride to Aurora Gardens, and the cabbie didn't attempt to make conversation. Aurora was officially an assisted living center, but as far as Rita was concerned, that was just another word for nursing home. The building was shaped like a horseshoe hugging the circular drive. The cab parked in front of the main portico, where two staff members were waiting with plastic smiles. She had called ahead to ask about someone being present to carry in her luggage, so she expected them. What wasn't expected was the nurse who was also standing by. She was young and blonde, dressed in a purple scrub top and pants. She opened the door for Rita when the cab came to a stop.
The nurse smiled wider. "Welcome to Aurora Gardens. I'm Alicia, this is Dave and Doug." Rita eyed the aides as they took her bags from the back of the cab; they seemed competent enough. She took money out of her clutch and paid the driver before she tuned back in to what Alicia was saying. "--enjoy your time here, I thought I would take the time to show you around a little."
"I got the tour already when I signed myself up for this place."
Alicia's smile wavered. "Well, yes. But I thought a more personal--"
"I'd really just like to go to my room." To the men, she said, "If you insist on carrying those, be careful with them."
"Yes. Well." Alicia cleared her throat and made a subtle gesture for the men to take the bags inside. "At least allow me to escort you to your room."
Rita made a non-committal gesture and followed the men. Alicia walked beside her and the four of them entered the building through two sets of sliding glass doors.
The foyer of the home was disguised to look like the lobby of a posh hotel. The entrance was flanked by a wide seating area with plush furniture and a television set. A few residents were watching television, and one man was twisted on the couch to look out the window. He didn't acknowledge the new arrival. A nurse was helping one woman with the crossword puzzle.
She was happy to see no one was shuffling around in their pajamas and slippers, and everyone seemed to have full control of their facilities. She admitted she had bias against places like this, nurtured by horror stories on Dateline and the late news, but the tour had put her mind at ease. Now that she was officially a resident, she expected to see all the cracks and warts of the place she had overlooked when she was free to leave.
There was a front desk in the center of the main room, currently empty, and she could see wide double doors behind the desk that led to a dining room on the right and what seemed to be a rec room on the left. Rita followed Alicia and the men with her bags to the right, down a hallway of doors. Her room was at the corner where the building turned to form the northern wing, and Alicia clicked on the lights as they entered.
"Here we are. Home sweet home."
Rita stood in the doorway and scanned the room with a critical eye. Pale peach wallpaper was fine, and the afternoon sun was shining through one of the windows to illuminate the living space. She had her own bathroom and kitchen and, to the back of the living room, she could see a door leading into the bedroom. She had a loveseat and an armchair arranged around a coffee table, and a TV stood in the corner away from the window where the sun wouldn't glare on the screen. Generic paintings of waterscapes decorated the walls. Doug and Dave were waiting to be told what to do with the bags.
"They can just leave those in front of the couch."
Alicia motioned for them to do so, and the men left the room. Alicia waited until they were gone before she smiled again. "Is there anything else we can do for you, Mrs. Musgrove?"
"No. I just want to get acclimated."
"I understand. If you need anything at all, we're just a phone call away. M'kay? It's wonderful to have you here."
Alicia left, and Rita closed the door behind her. "Now how do you know that? You just met me. I might be the worst thing that's ever happened to this place." She sighed heavily and took off her scarf and closed her eyes. "I'm not being cynical. I just can't stand useless people spouting useless platitudes. She could have said she was looking forward to getting to know me, or she hoped this would be a good fit. But no, it's already wonderful to have me."
She could almost see Joan's long-suffering smile as she went into the living room. Her living room. She took off her jacket and folded it over her arm as she looked for a place to hang it. She found hooks on the wall next to the door and put it there. The room was quiet, but a different kind of quiet than the kind that assaulted her at home. This silence fit the room. At home, the silence was an absence.
Rita unzipped her bag and flipped it open. Lying on top of her clothes was the last thing she'd packed, so she wouldn't have to stay in the house a minute longer without it on display. She took it out and made her first order of business to assign it a place. She looked around and finally decided on a credenza next to the window as an appropriate place of honor.
A gilded frame surrounded the black and white photo. It showed a tall, blonde woman in a black sweater and an ankle-length floral gown standing next to a waist-high stone wall. Her hair was cut short and curled to her cheeks, and she was squinting at the camera as if daring the photographer to actually take the shot. Her right arm was slightly lifted with the hand flat to the ground.
Rita met Joan Ivey on the campus of UW when she was thirty and Joan had just turned twenty-five. It was the very start of the sixties, before anyone knew Dallas had a schoolbook depository and the Beatles were still getting their act together. Joan was engaged to be married to a professor, and Rita was visiting the campus for work. It was a windy day, and they collided with each other outside of a small café.
Afterward, Joan would say the wind blew them into each other. She claimed fate had gotten them close and nature had made sure they crossed paths. Joan said a lot of things like that, and it drove Rita crazy. Joan liked to argue fate versus happenstance, whereas Rita was content to accept that sometimes things just happened. Whether they worked out or not was up to the individual.
She credited Joan with making it work in their case. Not fate or some cosmic puppeteer. Certainly Rita hadn't fought hard enough to make things work. The credit for everything good that happened went entirely to Joan.
"Well, here we are." She looked around the room. "Not a lot of room for your puzzle table." She caught herself and pressed her lips together. "Guess that doesn't really matter."
Rita went back to the suitcase and began unpacking for her new life.
After unpacking, Rita remade the bed with her own sheets and blanket. She stretched out on top of the bedding, feet crossed at the ankles and her fingers laced on her stomach. She remembered pulling all-nighters, and now she needed naps just to get through the day. The light coming through the bedroom window was just about perfect, and she watched as it moved along the wall. She wasn't trying to fall asleep. She just wanted to rest her eyes. But soon she was back in the past, reliving the moment when Joan arrived on her front step.
"I ended things. With Alan. I ended it."
"I never asked you to do that."
Joan rolled her eyes and a tear fell free. "Maybe it's not about you, Rita."
She woke startled, unsure of where she was for the first few seconds. The room had become significantly darker, and she pushed herself up to lean against the headboard. She could hear music in the next room. She felt exhausted, more tired than she'd been before her impromptu nap, but she forced herself up. It was almost six. She planned to get dinner, come back to put her room into a bit more order, and then call it a night. She found her shoes and toured the room briefly before going to the dining room.
The picture of Joan caught the sunset light coming in through the window, and she turned it slightly so the glare wasn't reflected. She sighed and looked down at herself. What was the dress code in this place? She was pretty sure no one would show up for dinner in their pajamas, but did she have to dress to the nines? She decided a sweater and slacks would be more than fine and left her room. She hesitated with a hand on the doorknob before she fell in behind a man in a wheelchair heading the same direction she was going.
Her house was gone. Sold to a couple moving in from Illinois. They were getting ready to start a family, and Joan would have been happy to know the spare room would finally get used for a nursery. Her car was also gone, sold to a sixteen year old who was almost certain to crash it within the next few months. She only wished she could be there to see it; she hated the beast. It deserved to die a slow death in the dump's car crusher.
Joan's clothes were at Goodwill. That hurt. The idea of a stranger wearing that yellow sweater with the wide neck that always slid off her shoulder... no one could make that look as good as Joan did.
"You look a little lost in thought."
Rita was startled by the closeness of the voice. The man who had spoken was standing a few feet in front of her, not in her personal space but not quite at a comfortable distance. He was about her height or a bit shorter, with snow-white hair and a mustache that looked like the bristles of a fireplace broom. His shirt was button-down and he wore a red bowtie. His right hand gripped the head of a cane and, when she continued walking, he fell into step beside her.
"Richard Tomlinson. I've been here about four years. Could offer some advice if you were up for it."
"Rita Musgrove. And thanks, but I think I'll be fine." She forced a smile. Richard let her go first when they got their food, and she could tell he was following her when she went in search of her seat. She sat down and didn't object when he took the seat across from her. He sighed and arranged his food in front of him, then placed a napkin in his lap.
"So what's your crime?" She raised an eyebrow and he chuckled. "You know, the reason for your incarceration with the rest of the inmates here. Me, I fell and broke my hip. Couldn't really navigate the stairs in my house. Never noticed how many of the damn things there were before I couldn't climb them. So I let my daughter have the house and I moved here. You?"
"My wife died." Dinner was a hearty beef stew, and she sipped it to test how hot it was. It needed a little cooling. "We were together fifty-three years. When she went into the hospital I realized that there was no way I could live in our house without her. So I got rid of it and put myself in here until... well, until whenever."
Richard had stared at her throughout the story. Finally he blinked and looked down at his stew. "Well. I can't say I expected that. How are you... coping? I assume she passed recently."
"Her suffering ended recently. But we've been saying goodbye. For a while." She sipped her tea to give herself a moment. "I'm fine now. I've made my peace with her passing."
He nodded. "I'm sorry to have been so casual about it."
Rita waved him off and began eating her soup. He did as well, and they ate in a certain companionable silence for a few minutes. She appreciated the company; she was so used to having another person across the table from her that she knew it would have seemed odd to be by herself.
She looked around the room at the other people enjoying their dinner. A few of them had nurses tending to them, but others were indistinguishable from a couple out for a nice dinner. "So you called us inmates. Hopefully that's just your way of being cute."
"Oh, sure. The staff can be as helpful or as invisible as you want them to be. I prefer to think of them as household staff, doing the things I never cared to do when I had my own house. It's liberating to just sit back and let someone else take care of things."
Rita pressed her lips together. "I don't know how well I'll adjust to that. I like doing chores."
"Well, you can just replace them with something else. Something you enjoy. Do you have any hobbies?"
"Reading? Knitting? Roller-skating? Juggling knives?"
Rita allowed him a small smile for that one. "Never quite got the hang of knife juggling. I suppose I like to read."
"They have a lending library here. Not a huge selection, but enough to keep you busy for a while, depending on how fast you can read. They have activities and we're free to come and go as we please. I finally caved and came here because of my hip, but I almost wish I'd moved in sooner."
Rita wasn't entirely convinced, but she was mollified.
"So what do you like to do, Ms. Musgrove?"
"It's Mrs. Musgrove." She pursed her lips and considered for a moment before she spoke again. "I like jigsaw puzzles."
Richard raised his eyebrows and clapped his hands together. "Well, you're in luck. They have a table set up in the rec room. I don't think there's one currently going, so why don't we go stake a claim on it after dinner?"
"Oh, I prefer to do puzzles on my own. At least for a while." Until she got used to not having Joan around to help her, she added mentally. "No offense."
"None taken." He tapped his finger on the edge of the table and stared at her for a moment, then smiled. "It can be hard, can't it? Learning to do things alone after so long."
"Yep." She picked up her glass and took a long sip. When she put it down, she sighed and met Richard's gaze. "Don't really have much of a choice, do I?"
The puzzle took up most of the living room table. Joan was on the edge of the couch, her lean body angled forward as she examined the piece pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Rita watched her from the living room doorway, barefoot and dressed in her nightgown. Joan examined the shape of the piece, and the jagged interior edge of the scene unfolding itself before her. She worried her bottom lip with her teeth and then smiled as she match the small design in her hand with the image. She carefully placed the piece and pushed it in with the pad of her thumb. Once it was taken care of, she looked at Rita, revealing she'd been aware of her scrutiny the whole time.
"Small victories. That's all a puzzle is. 500 small victories."
"Followed by a big one." She walked closer so she could see how much of the puzzle was done. It was a painting of the Seattle coastline, done in an exaggerated, cartoon style. Rita rubbed Joan's shoulder. "Come to bed. It's late."
"A few more pieces."
Rita walked to the couch and leaned back, resting her hand on Joan's lower back. She knew that she tended to get stiff from her awkward puzzle-position, and she began to knead the tight muscles with sure strokes of her fingers. She untucked Joan's shirt and slipped her hand underneath, and soon Joan was almost purring.
"You're not playing fair."
"Who said love was fair?" Rita ran her fingers down Joan's spine and stood up. "If you want the full treatment, you'll have to come upstairs."
Though Rita left the living room first, Joan almost beat her to the bedroom.
Rita snapped out of the memory and shook her head, angry at herself for being distracted by something as innocuous as the coffee table in her new home. It was too small for the sort of puzzle Joan preferred. She liked big, ornate puzzles that took her two weeks to complete. It was the one thing she specified when they went shopping for new furniture for their new house: the table had to be big .
She left the overhead light off and turned on the lamp next to the couch. She sat down and stared at the empty rectangle of wood. She didn't know what she was going to put on the coffee table; that was where the puzzles went, and if Joan finished one puzzle the table had to stay clear so she could start the next one.
Rita sighed and considered turning on the TV. Even if she did want to watch something, it had been so long since she'd paid attention to it that she didn't know what was worth her time. She doubted Carol Burnett was still on the air. The radio might be worth a shot. There were always oldies stations, and stations that played instrumental music and classical music. She stood and went to the radio, bending down to plug it in.
Buddy Holly started singing 'Oh, Boy!', and Rita stared at the front of the machine as if she suspected it was playing a trick on her.
"I don't dance."
"You dance. You were just waiting to be asked by the right person." Joan kept her hand out. She looked as if she was willing to stay there all night. "It's not even a slow song."
Rita looked past Joan at the other people in the diner. The people who would, if she gave in, would soon be staring at them in equal parts confusion and disapproval.
"Will you sit back down and finish your dinner?"
"I will. After the song." She followed Rita's gaze, smiled, and folded her hands in a 'come on' gesture. "With me standing here like this, people are gonna start staring anyway."
Rita put down her napkin and reluctantly took Joan's hand. She was pulled to her feet and Joan led her into the space between the booths and the counter. As soon as they were in position, Buddy Holly stopped singing. Rita tensed as the next record flipped onto the jukebox, and the Platters began singing 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.'
"You're stuck now, Miss Musgrove. You shouldn't have fought so long."
"Nope. I shouldn't have." She rubbed her forehead. Buddy Holly had stopped singing during her reverie, but instead of another song he was replaced with a disc-jockey's banter. Rita walked to the couch and sat down. She stared at the window at the rapidly dimming day. There was a tall lamppost about thirty yards away from her window, and it cast just the right amount of light on her room.
Joan loved music. And dancing. Rita smiled as she thought of how many times she'd come home to find Joan already there, swaying to record music or something on the radio or, more often than not, her own humming. It took a few months before Rita was comfortable taking Joan into her arms even in private. By the time they'd been together a few years, Rita was the one pulling Joan out of her seat for a quick spin. Sinatra sang so often in their house that the neighbors probably thought he was renting the back room.
Rita slipped off her shoes. "One more spin around the living room before bed?" She chuckled at herself so she wouldn't hear the silence in place of Joan's response. She rested her head on her fist, and closed her eyes as a new song started playing.
The rec room stretched from the front of the building to the back, with windows at both ends. The doors on either side of the room were all standing open, making it feel like a ballroom. Rita stood in the south entrance and watched the people within. Like Richard said, everyone did their own thing and they were left to their own devices. After far too much hesitation and consideration, she went inside. As Richard said, there was a large table under one of the windows that looked to be set up for puzzles.
The puzzles themselves were stacked on a bookshelf. Strips of masking tape on the corners of the box warned which ones were missing pieces, which Rita appreciated. She expected to find puzzles of kittens, puppies... the sort of elementary school crap that wasn't likely to offend or challenge anyone. She was pleasantly surprised: hot air balloons aloft on a crystal blue sky, bees on a honeycomb, nature scenes. The one that intrigued her the most was a round puzzle that made up a satellite image of the Earth. The cover of the box showed North and South America, with part of Africa and Europe at the side.
She carried Earth to the table and sat down, removing the lid from the box as reverently as Joan would have. According to the tape on this box, there weren't any pieces missing. She ran her palm over the sea of tessellated shapes, turning them over so they were all showing part of the image. Joan had said this was the most important part of doing a puzzle. Just spilling them onto the table and randomly snapping pieces together was sloppy. Why not just play with Lincoln logs?
"There's a logic to it. You have to figure out the puzzle before you can put it back together."
A few of the pieces were already combined, and she broke them apart. Joan's rule again: leaving them connected was cheating, on however small a scale.
She pushed the box toward the window and took out a few pieces of the puzzle. She spread them out and added more to the pile. She found the edges and separated them.
"Starting with the edges isn't cheating?" She took a drag off her cigarette and rested it on the ashtray.
"No. That's part of the logic. It's the way in. If you tried to just start randomly matching pieces you would never get started. The first clue is always right in front of you. The border is what gets you on your way."
The border on this puzzle was curved. She wondered what Joan would have thought about that. Through the window, she had a great view of the parking lot. The staff parked near the northern end of the building, and visitors parked wherever they pleased. When she'd first toured the place, she was told the residents could keep their cars either on-site or at a special storage building the center kept in the city.
A part of her mind tried to hold onto the lie that this was just a place she was staying. Like the hotel in Madrid where she and Joan went on their not-honeymoon or the no-name fleabags she stayed when she was on a road trip for her work. Aurora Gardens wasn't a temporary place to lay her head, it was home now.
"Good luck with that."
Rita didn't look up at Richard. "You have a bad habit of sneaking up on people."
"Yeah, I've been told that. I thought having the cane would help, but apparently I'm just naturally quiet. I didn't want to disturb you."
"There are two chairs." She gestured at the one across from her. "Sit if you want."
Richard stepped into view and lowered himself into the seat with a groan. He looked at the pieces spread out across the table but made no move to lend a hand. She appreciated that.
"Just so you know, if you don't finish this in one sitting, other people might take it up for you."
She nodded. "That's pretty much what I thought. Just as long as they don't try to join me while I'm working on it."
"Duly noted, ma'am." He smirked and looked around the room at the others. "Met any of the other inmates?"
"Why do you call them that?"
He shrugged. "I don't like residents. They're not patients. Inmates has a, uh... ring to it, I guess. So have you? Met any?"
Rita shook her head. "You're more than enough."
"I don't know whether to be flattered or insulted."
"Six of one, half-dozen of the other." She reached for her cigarette and folded her fingers into her palm when she realized it wouldn't be there. She hadn't smoked since the eighties. She only stopped because Joan hated the smell and didn't want to lose Rita to lung cancer. With her top two reasons for not smoking eliminated, why not start up again?
"Old habits?" Richard said. "I got a lifetime of 'em."
She picked up a piece and examined the shapes on it. The western coast of Africa, she thought, and placed it in the approximate part of the map. She already had a decent-sized curve of the planet's northern hemisphere. Richard looked at the picture on the top of the box. "Lots of blue and green. And white clouds."
"Might make it kind of hard."
"Reets, what the hell is the point of doing an easy puzzle?"
She smiled at Joan's voice in her head. "That's the point, Mr. Tomlinson."
He chuckled and twisted the look out the window. She looked as well and saw what had caught his eye: an orange and silver PT Cruiser with green stripes on the driver's side had just eased itself into an empty parking spot near the front entrance. It was an ugly vehicle, the sort of thing she expected to see Donald Duck driving in a Disney cartoon. The driver was a tall, slender kid with thick brown hair that fell over his right eye. He wore a set of scrubs like the nurses and orderlies she'd seen around, and he checked his cell phone once he was out of the car. He shut the door, leaned against the side of the vehicle, and waited.
"What's he waiting on?" Rita asked.
"His shift to start. He's got a good... forty-two seconds before he's officially on duty."
Rita glanced at him and saw that his sour expression matched his tone. "You know him?"
"Mitchell. Mitchell something." He waved his hand to show it didn't matter. "He's a punk. Lazy, shiftless, doesn't know why the world doesn't just hand him everything he wants on a silver platter."
"Hmph." She turned her attention back to the puzzle. She wasn't very concerned about lazy people unless they directly affected her life. She placed another piece of the puzzle.
Richard mistook her disinterest for concern. "Don't worry. He's just a janitor, and he's the exception, not the rule. Most of the people are here because they want to be. They're good folks."
Rita simply nodded. She didn't want to further the conversation and hoped he would take the hint and fall silent. To her surprise, he did just that. He didn't try to help her with the puzzle, either, for which she was grateful. By the time she got tired of it, she had most of the northern hemisphere and a good section of South America finished. She leaned back in her chair and looked around the room. "What time do they start serving lunch in this place?"
"Breakfast stops at nine-thirty, they'll serve lunch after that."
"Come on, then. Don't look so surprised. You're good company."
"I hardly said a word."
"That's what makes you such good company." She motioned for him to follow her and left the puzzle behind.
On the way to the dining room, they passed Mitchell Something the orderly. If he noticed or cared that Rita was new, he didn't show it. Richard leaned heavily on his cane as they walked. She turned back to watch Janitor Mitchell go into one of the supply rooms.
"Why doesn't he just quit if he's so unhappy here? Gotta be a better paying job out there."
"In this job market? I wouldn't be so sure. Besides, it's a steady paycheck without a whole lot of commitment involved."
Rita made a noise of irritation and followed Richard into the dining room. "I have very little tolerance for useless people."
Joan whispered in her mind again: "Ooo, I know that tone. Are you going to make him go away?"
Richard turned to look at her. "What's that?"
"Nothing. I wasn't talking to you." She almost explained, then decided she didn't want to tell him everything. But he smiled and nodded slowly as he continued across the dining room.
"I still talk to my wife, too. It'll be good. The four of us will eat together, and we can have our own conversations while you and I ignore each other."
Rita laughed, and she could hear Joan laughing, too. "This one's going to give you a run for your money, Reets. Looks like I shouldn't have worried about leaving you unsupervised after all."
Rita shook her head and followed Richard to get their food. It had been a long time since she'd had an honest-to-goodness friend; Joan filled that role well enough for her. Now there was a chance of having her first new friend in decades, and she was surprised to discover the thought didn't terrify her.
Richard left her alone in the lending library after lunch. Rita wasn't hopeful, but the first shelf she examined had a handful of titles she recognized. She found a shelf mostly dedicated to romance novels, including authors like Sharon Sala and Nora Roberts. She chose one of the Sharon Sala books and carried it to an armchair as she read the summary on the back. She sat down and flipped open to the first page. An hour later when she was still reading, she decided to sign the book out and take it back to her room.
She started on the couch, sitting with her back turned to the end table so the lamplight fell onto the page. The position reminded her of how she used to sit and read while Joan worked on her puzzle. They were both retired, and their evenings were either quiet or played out to a soundtrack of classic rock on the radio.
Sometimes Joan sang along under her breath, and Rita would close her book on her thumb to listen. Most people who sang along to the radio were irritating, tuneless crooners who ruined everyone else's enjoyment. Joan, on the other hand, added beautiful harmonies that Rita had never realized the original songs were lacking. When she was alone and heard the songs on the radio, they always sounded unfinished without Joan.
The sky darkened prematurely, and Rita looked toward the window as the first fat droplets of rain splashed against the glass. It didn't take long before the splatters were replaced by long, streaking rivers as the rain began falling in full force.
"I have to find the key!"
Joan pressed against Rita's back, trying to join her under the eaves of the house. They were trying to get in the side door, because Rita had sworn she'd left it unlocked, but apparently her memory was faulty. That side of the house didn't have gutters, so the rain cascaded off the roof and poured directly into the wide collar of Joan's blouse. She shrieked, and Rita stepped to one side and ushered her into the warmth of the kitchen.
"Stay right there. Let me get you a towel."
Joan either nodded or suffered an extremely exaggerated shudder. Either way she didn't move as Rita went into the laundry room and pulled a large white towel from the top of the stack of clean laundry. She fluffed it and carried it back to where Joan waited, wrapping it around her shoulders and pushing the ends up into Joan's short blonde hair. She rubbed vigorously and Joan bowed her head to make sure Rita could reach it all.
Standing this close to her, it was hard for Rita not to notice the best parts of Joan's face. She had high, arching eyebrows that matched the light blonde of her hair, and an aristocratic nose that would have looked big on any other face. Her eyes were so large that they were almost round, and they crowded the bridge of her nose in a way that, again, wouldn't have worked on another woman's face.
She was dressed for a nice walk through the neighborhood, her lightweight peasant blouse and red slacks were no match for the sudden storm. She was soaked to the skin, and her skin had erupted in goosebumps.
Joan looked down at the floor. "We're dripping all over your tile."
"So?" Rita tucked the towel around Joan's neck. "I might have some clothes you can borrow until these get dry. Let me go look?"
Joan nodded and Rita pulled herself away. Their talk had been harder than she expected. After a friendship that blossomed into flirtation, and after the flirtation had turned into something more serious for them both. Joan had pulled away to "think things over" and, when she returned, she'd broken off her engagement. She insisted the decision was hers alone, and she didn't expect anything from Rita in return. Rita still felt responsible. She wasn't ready to take that step. It was a dangerous step and it meant so many big decisions had to be made. She didn't want to upset the applecart.
She quickly changed out of her wet clothes, leaving them on the bathroom floor and hastily pulling on a sleeveless dress. She found a blouse that was too big for her and a skirt that could be let out a little for Joan's hips. She draped the clothes over her arm and carried them out into the front room.
There was an iron heating vent in the floor between the kitchen and the living room, and Joan was kneeling next to it. Her clothes were stretched out over the grate, looking like a woman made of ice had melted there. Joan was wrapped in her towel, her arms and shoulders bare. When she looked up, her knees were tight against her chest and it was very easy for Rita to imagine her naked. She swallowed a lump in her throat and looked down at the clothes in her hands.
"I think these will fit you."
Joan stood and crossed the living room to take the clothes. She folded them against her chest and then stood still, as if unsure what she should do.
"I can change in the bathroom."
"Sure." She put her hand on Joan's arm and kept her from moving. Joan looked down at Rita's fingers, which looked dark against her skin. "Would you have left him if I wasn't in your life?"
Joan took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Her eyelashes were like soot against her skin. Finally she opened her eyes again and looked at Rita.
"If I didn't know you, the reasons I left him would have been easier to ignore."
Rita didn't think. She cupped Joan's face and leaned in. Joan was barefoot so she didn't have to stretch, and their lips met. It was cautious at first, and Rita started to pull back almost immediately. She kept her eyes open so she saw when Joan's closed. Joan leaned into her, and Rita allowed her lips to be parted with a soft touch of Joan's tongue.
It was this moment they had been unknowingly debating about during their walk. They had danced around the subject, using hypothetical situations and euphemisms. Rita had been glad Joan wouldn't be blunt because it helped her deny that they were really talking about becoming lovers. Joan was willing, but Rita was more terrified than she'd ever been in her life.
Denial stopped being an option when the kiss became more passionate.
Joan was the one who ended the kiss. She turned her head and brushed her cheek against Rita's, and she sounded like she was struggling for every breath.
"We ought to stop." She slid her arms around the clothes Rita was holding like a suit of armor and pulled them to her chest. "The bathroom?"
Rita let Joan pull away from her and felt like a flag pole being rocked by the breeze. She felt alone and uprooted. The bathroom light came on behind her, and Rita could see her shadow mingling with Joan in the square of light that fell on the floor.
"Do you love me?"
Joan stood in the bathroom doorway, but Rita couldn't bring herself to turn around and face her. It had taken all the strength she had just to say the words.
"For a long time," Joan said.
The bathroom door closed then, and Rita was left alone in the dark living room. She crossed her arms over her chest and closed her eyes as the rain drummed on the roof overhead.
Rita lay on the couch, the book closed and forgotten on her chest. She was crying, but she wasn't even sure if they were tears of sadness for Joan or happiness at the memory she'd been reliving. She wiped them with the back of her hand, inhaled sharply, and adjusted her shoulders so that her head lay more comfortable on the arm of the couch.
"We don't have to."
"You might not have to. I do."
They were sitting on the couch, Rita's legs tucked under her and her body turned to face Joan. She ran her forefinger down the placket of Joan's shirt. The collar was scooped, showing off a good portion of her shoulders and upper chest. She wore a floor-length denim skirt and she was barefoot. Rita wore trousers, as she usually did when she was home, and a button-down blouse. Her hair, thick and black was gathered in a bulky ponytail that reached the middle of her back. Joan's fingers were in it.
"A long time ago, I made peace with the fact I would never fulfill this... want. Then you came along and the want became a need. I need to be with you, Joan."
Joan took a deep breath and released Rita's hair. "Then be with me."
They kissed, and Rita gave herself over to the emotion of the moment. Joan ran her fingers through Rita's hair once it was free. Rita flattened her hand on Joan's chest and pushed gently, following her down. She shifted her weight, and Joan lifted her feet off the floor to stretch out on the cushions as Rita settled on top of her. They kissed, taking the time to get accustomed to the feel of being pressed against each other. Rita found she didn't need much time at all to get used to it, but she took a little longer than was necessary anyway.
Joan's eyes were wide open when Rita looked at her again. Joan touched the highest button of Rita's shirt and swallowed hard.
"Don't hold it against me if I do this wrong."
"Same goes. Do you want to go in the bedroom?"
Joan nodded. Rita sat up and took Joan by the hand, guiding her through the hall to the bedroom. They left the door open, the light from the living room bright enough to see by.
She and Joan stood a few inches apart, just enough distance so they could see one another but still touch. "Can you undress yourself? I don't think I can..."
"Sure." Joan's voice was barely more than a whisper, but it was loud enough. She started at the collar and undid the three buttons of her shirt. The two halves hung open enough that Rita could see the edges of Joan's brassiere. She wet her lips with a quick swipe of her tongue. Joan smiled and put her hands behind her back. The move made her back arch, and her breasts strained against the material of her blouse as she undid the buttons on the back of her dress. She put her hands on her hips and bent forward to guide the material down her thighs.
Then it fell, and Joan took a step back. While Rita was still getting used to the site of her bare legs, Joan pulled her shirt over her head and dropped it. Her hair was tossed by the removal of her shirt and a wave of it fell over her eye.
"You're beautiful, Joan."
She saw Joan's throat move, recognized the anxiety in her eyes. She unbuttoned her blouse and left it hanging open as she unfastened her belt. She shrugged out of the shirt, dropped it on top of Joan's, and then stepped forward. She took Joan's hand and put it on her stomach. Joan's fingers curled around the waistband of Rita's pants and they both held their breath.
"Take 'em off."
The button came loose, and Joan crouched to pull the pants down. Rita stepped out of the legs and Joan wrapped her arms around her waist. She pressed her head into the hollow of Rita's hip and hugged her tightly.
"I know I'm doing it wrong. I just want to hold you."
Rita stroked her hair. "That doesn't have to be wrong. Move to the bed."
Joan released Rita and stood. They crossed the room together and Rita pulled back the blankets before she climbed onto the mattress. Joan joined her, and they embraced before Rita pulled the blanket back up. She felt Joan's legs against hers and shivered, closing her eyes as Joan kissed her again. It was getting easier, and she was almost able to think while Joan was kissing her now.
One step at a time. She undid the hooks of Joan's bra. Their tongues touched, and Joan whimpered helplessly. She shrugged her shoulders forward and Rita pulled the bra down. She let Joan take off her bra, breaking the kiss to give quiet instructions on how to undo the hooks. Joan chuckled nervously, and Rita kissed her cheek.
"You're doing fine, darling." She looked down and traced the curve of Joan's breast with two fingers. Her nipples were small and pink, and Rita circled them with the tip of her index finger. Joan sucked a breath through her teeth and arched her back, lifting her chin. Rita kissed the column of her throat and Joan made a sound of distress in her throat.
"Are you okay?"
"For the first time since I met you," Joan whispered. "I'm finally relaxed."
"Don't fall asleep on me." Rita brushed her lips along Joan's collarbone.
Joan purred and stroked her fingers down Joan's back. "Not a chance. But go slow. Okay?"
"We can take all night."
Joan's voice caught, and Rita was surprised to hear her sobbing.
"What did I do? Joan? Tell me, please. I'm sorry."
Joan shook her head. "It's not you. It's relief." She kissed Rita desperately. "I've wanted this for so long and I never even realized."
Rita held her until the tears dried up, whispering in her ear while Joan's tears dripped onto her breasts. When the sobs finally quieted, Joan lifted her head and brushed her lips casually across Rita's. Rita parted her lips and their tongues met, and Joan became a woman possessed. Rita found herself flat on her back, her fingers digging into Joan's hips as Joan settled on top of her. Rita pressed her head into the pillow and stared up at Joan, whose face was now veiled by hanging blonde hair. She was hesitating, frozen, and Rita slowly realized what she needed.
She stroked Joan's arms and spoke in a confident voice. "Make love to me, Joan."
"You tell me if I'm doing something wrong." Joan put her hands on the mattress underneath Rita's arms and began to thrust against her. Rita put her hands on Joan's hips and slid them down, under the flimsy barrier of Joan's underwear. Her fingers dug into the soft skin and her eyes rolled back in her head as she pulled Joan to her.
Joan kissed her chin, and Rita came. She shuddered underneath Joan, who held her as steady as possible until she stopped shaking.
"Did I do that to you?" Joan whispered, her voice soft but so loud against Rita's ear.
"That was all you, sweetheart." She brushed her lips over Joan's neck and shoulder. Joan shuddered and tightened her grip. "Can we take a second before I return the favor?"
"Oh. No. It's okay. I came."
Rita smiled. "Well, round two then."
Rita pushed Joan up and looked into her eyes. Hair was stuck to the sweat on Joan's forehead, and Rita pushed it away with a sweep of her palm.
"I said all night. I meant all night."
Joan shuddered and gasped. "Oh. Okay, then..."
Rita let the tears flow, rolling down her cheeks and onto the couch. The rain had passed, and the last beams of the sun broke through the storm clouds beacons. The metaphysical part of her brain offered the theory that Joan had overheard her memory and was looking down on her. She crossed her arms over her chest and rolled onto her side. It was still early, but an early night sounded like the perfect cure for the pain in her chest.
With any luck, she would have more dreams.
The next day was sunny enough that Rita took a walk of the grounds. Walking paths curled and crisscrossed the entire grounds, weaving toward the building and then back toward the woods before winding back. The center was on a hill, and Rita could see she was going to get a lot of exercise just following these paths. She passed her room and peered through the window, surprised how much of it she could see with just a glimpse. She was going to have to invest in some curtains.
She'd seen that Aurora Gardens was a beautiful place when she first visited, but there was a difference between touring a place and looking at it once you knew you'd be there for a long time. There were benches set at various intervals along the walking path, and after half an hour she was grateful for them. She sat and looked back toward the building. She could see the parking lot from where she was, and the silver-orange PT Cruiser monstrosity parked near the front door. Her mind wandered thinking about what sort of person would drive such a thing.
She saw Richard coming well in advance, and considered moving before he reached her. She had an inkling that was why he'd chosen the path he was on, so she could move if she so desired. That consideration was the main reason she was still in the same place when he finally made it to the bench. He sighed, leaned heavily on his cane, and gestured at the bench next to her. "You mind? I could use a breather?"
"It's for everyone, I assume."
He smiled and lowered himself with a grunt of exertion. He rubbed his right thigh and looked out over the grounds.
"It really is a nice place. Quiet. People leave you to your own devices." He considered that for a moment. "Present company excluded, of course."
Rita pursed her lips to prevent a smile from being born. "Well, when I'm sick of you, you'll know."
"I appreciate the warning. I'm a retired high school guidance counselor, so I have a habit of trying to get people to talk. How about you? You never said what you did for a living."
She shook her head. "No, I didn't."
Richard stared at her for a moment, waiting for her to continue. When it became clear she wasn't, he just nodded and looked away again.
"No one's touched your puzzle, by the way. I went through there before I came out for my walk."
Looking for me? Rita thought. She was surprised she wasn't offended or irritated by the idea. It had been a long time since she'd made a new friend.
"Maybe I'll head down there and work on it a little."
Richard nodded and she pushed up off the bench. She walked a few steps before she realized he wasn't following, and she turned to see what was holding him up. His cane was standing upright between his feet, both hands resting on the handle. He looked up when he saw her stop and he smiled.
"Are you coming?"
His brow wrinkled. "I'm on a walk. Did you... think I had come looking for you?" He smiled in a way that Rita wish she found less charming. "I suppose I can cut my walk short--"
"No, don't. I just... don't do me any favors, Tomlinson. I'll see you when I see you." She started walking again and heard Joan laughing in her mind. "Shut up, you."
That just made the laughter louder.
Joan didn't shut up until Rita got back to the building. She considered going to the rec room to work on the puzzle as she'd said, but first she wanted to stop by her room and take a post-walk nap. She was distracted as she walked down the corridor, coming back to reality only when she spotted movement out of the corner of her eye. Mitchell Something, the janitor and owner of the silver-orange car, had just shut and locked the room of a private room. His hand was resting on the knob and he seemed frozen when he realized she had seen him.
"Something get spilled?" she asked.
"Yeah. Nothing too bad."
Rita nodded and kept walking. Mitchell walked in the opposite direction, toward the front of the building. Rita gave him a good head start before she turned on her heel and went back to the room he'd been sneaking out of. There was a small placard next to the door that identified the room as Brent Pepper's. She knocked, waited, then knocked again. "Mr. Pepper?"
She concocted a lie before she knocked again. I went to college with a Brent Pepper, I was just seeing if it might be the same one. When she finally decided the room was empty, she tried the knob and found it was indeed locked. That didn't necessarily mean he wasn't home, and not answering the door could just mean he was hard of hearing. But at the moment, it was looking more likely that Mr. Pepper wasn't home.
So what had the janitor been doing in his private rooms?
Rita considered her own room, her bed, and her nap. She sighed and walked back to the front desk. Alicia, the woman who had greeted Rita upon her arrival at Aurora Gardens, was there typing on a keyboard. She smiled when Rita appeared at the desk.
"Mrs. Musgrove. Has everything been to your liking?"
"It's been just fine. I--"
"I notice you've been hanging around with Mr. Tomlinson. He's quite a raconteur, isn't he?"
"Uh. He's great. I--"
"If there's anything at all you need--"
Rita decided to interrupt her for a change. "I was curious about janitorial services. If I needed someone to tidy up my rooms while I'm out, is it possible to arrange that?"
Alicia made a face that told Rita she was falling back on the rules. "Well, we prefer to have the resident present whenever someone's in their private rooms. You understand that, I'm sure."
"Sure, of course. Thank you."
"Of course. Was there something you needed taken care of?"
Rita shook her head and backed away from the desk. "Just for future reference. Thanks, Alicia." She walked back toward her room, eyeing Brent Pepper's door as she passed it. Just because having the resident there was policy didn't mean it was followed every single time. Still, she was a little wary of the thought of having someone sneak into her room when she wasn't around.
She let herself in and did a quick search of the place to see if anything appeared amiss. She found nothing, but then began wondering if that meant there was nothing to be found or just that she hadn't noticed it. If only she could task Joan with guarding the room when she wasn't in it. "What good is being haunted if the ghost can't even spy for you?"
Sorry, baby. I never could take my eyes off you.
Rita opened the drawer under the television set and withdrew a large Sharpie. She tapped the end of it against her palm, considering whether she was being wise or ridiculous before she picked up a framed picture of Joan. She turned it over and wrote "Musgrove" across the bottom of the frame in small letters that would nonetheless prove ownership. She put the picture back down and went to the next item.
Rita finished the coast of Africa. The Americas were mostly complete, and now she had to tackle the wide spread of the Atlantic Ocean. Richard was sitting across from her still considering the conversation they were having. "I don't think anything's gone missing from my room, either. You really saw Mitchell coming out of Brent's room?"
Rita nodded. Richard and Brent were apparently friends, so Rita had him ask if Brent had requested any janitorial work. Brent said no, but he also said that he wasn't missing anything.
"Maybe he's just going into rooms he knows will be empty so he can grab a few winks. Brent went out shopping with that group that goes every Wednesday. Mitchell knew the room would be empty and no one would bother him."
"That could be right, but I'm not betting on it. The look on his face when I caught him, that wasn't the look of someone who was going to get reprimanded for a nap."
Richard shrugged. "Trespassing. These rooms are our property. If he went in without permission, that's the same as breaking and entering. He could get charged."
Rita rubbed her bottom lip with her thumb as she examined the puzzle. She placed another piece and hoped Richard was right. If it was something as innocent as someone sneaking naps where he wasn't supposed to, then she could just tell someone and get him kicked out. Of course, she wanted to have proof that he was really sneaking into people's rooms.
Richard seemed to read her thoughts. "How are we going to catch him in the act? We can't exactly follow around an employee and wait to see if he goes into someone's room uninvited."
"He was in Brent's room during the shopping trip?" Richard nodded. "What's the next big group outing?"
"The library. They go tomorrow morning."
"About how many?"
"It depends. Some weeks it's just one or two, but sometimes as many as eight. They take the van most weeks."
Rita had seen the van parked in the very last spot in the parking lot; it was white and large enough to sit nine people, plus the driver. If every seat was filled, that meant there were nine rooms Mitchell could possibly use for his unofficial break.
"We won't watch him. We'll just watch the rooms. What time does the library trip leave?"
"Meet me out front at eight forty-five." A piece of Greenland's coastline completed the island. "Hopefully there won't be a lot of people going and we can cover them all."
Richard raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. "Why not. Sounds like more fun than canasta."
The rain stayed south of them, but a gossamer fog lingered over the parking lot. Rita dried off the bench just outside the building's main entrance, folding the towel as a cushion before she sat down. An employee left the building a few seconds behind her, wishing her a good morning as he walked across the parking lot to the white van. He got behind the wheel and drove it across the parking lot, leaving it idling in front of the doors. The van had only been in place for a few minutes when Richard joined her.
"Sorry. They had extra banana nut muffins at breakfast and I couldn't resist." He was cradling the muffins, wrapped in a handkerchief, against his stomach. He held it out to her and she took it gratefully. She had skipped breakfast due to nerves about missing the library van, but now she was famished. He politely allowed her to have the handkerchief to protect herself from falling crumbs.
Richard nodded toward the van. "He been sitting there long?"
"Just got here."
The door opened and another resident came out. Her hair was actually silver rather than white, and she wore a yellow poncho with the hood up over her head as she walked quickly from the door to the van. She had three thick hardcover books hugged to her chest. Once she was on board, Richard leaned toward Rita and lowered his voice.
"Carolyn Logan. Not surprised; she can read a book a day."
As he was speaking, another resident exited the building. He had a cane in one hand, and a plastic bag of paperbacks in the other. He moved slowly, and the van driver came out to help. Richard started eating his muffin and watched the fog inch across the wet pavement.
"Jimmy Birch. Don't know him too well."
The van continued idling until Rita's watch read two minutes past nine. Finally he put the van in gear and pulled out of the drive. Richard watched it go while chewing on the last bit of his muffin. "Well, that's lucky. Looks like we each only have one room to check on."
"But?" Rita said. "Do you know where their rooms are or not?"
Richard nodded. "They're not too far from each other, but..." He rubbed his mustache with his index finger. "Well, they're in a corridor. There's no real reason for us to be sitting around watching them. Mitchell sees us lurking, he's not going to risk going inside."
Rita considered the problem. She spotted the start of the walking trail and remembered her own walk. "Their rooms... can you find them from the outside?"
"Can you tell which windows are theirs?"
Richard looked down the side of the building. "Probably."
It would have to do. Rita stood up and said, "Come on. Show me where Carolyn Logan's room is, and then you can go find Jimmy's."
"And do what? Just cup my hands and look through the window until Mitchell shows up?"
"Just act like you're on a walk if anyone sees you. The benches are close enough that you can walk from one to the other all day without letting the room out of your sight for long."
Richard sighed. "Were you a cop?"
Rita frowned. "Why?"
"Because if you were, you might have some friends on the force who can smooth things out if I get arrested for peeping."
Rita chuckled. "Not a cop."
"Okay. The old 'Grandpa Got Confused' alibi. Works for me." He brushed off the crumbs from his muffin. Rita still had half of hers left, so she wrapped it in Richard's handkerchief and offered it back to him. He shook his head, indicating she could keep it until she was finished, and then he escorted Rita to the walking path. He was taller than her and had a longer stride, but she managed to keep up without forcing him to slow down.
Richard muttered under his breath, sometimes pausing to look back toward the building's entrance. Whether it was to orient himself with the layout or to make sure they weren't being watched, Rita didn't know. He stopped at the corner and closed his eyes. He held his hand up, thumb extended, and said, "Okay... one, two... the third window there should be Carolyn Logan's room. Yes. Positive."
"Okay. And you can find Jimmy Birch's room?"
He nodded. "Holler if you need any help, okay?"
"Yeah." She watched him go and then stealthily approached the window he'd indicated. The curtains were drawn, but she could still see through the crack into a darkened sitting room. She wished there was something to identify the owner, but there were no large banners declaring CAROLYN'S PLACE to set her mind at ease. She cupped her hands against the glass and looked for any clues, but it was just a regular room.
The hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end, and she backed away from the window before she was caught. She moved back across the wet grass to the sidewalk and tried to look nonchalant as she strolled toward the nearest bench. She sat down and carefully finished her muffin. When it was gone, she folded it and tucked it into her sweater pocket so she could return it to Richard when they met up again.
She smoothed her palms over her trousers and kept Carolyn Logan's window visible in her periphery. She remembered Richard asking if she had been a cop before retiring and imagined Joan's reaction.
Rita Musgrave, at law!
"That would be a lawyer."
Then Officer Rita Musgrave. Step out of the car, ma'am. I'll have to frisk you to make sure you're not dangerous.
Rita laughed, hooked her finger over her top lip, and looked to make sure no one had overheard her. She sighed and looked down at her other hand with a smile.
She wondered if Joan would eventually become quiet, if the ghost would ever truly leave her. A part of her hoped it would. A bigger part of her was terrified of the silence that would follow. She decided not to think about the end so she could enjoy it while it lasted. The sidewalk was empty in both directions, so she stood to make her slow trek to the other bench.
Rita was almost directly in front of Carolyn Logan's room when the light came on.
She nearly stopped walking, but decided that would be noticeable if Mitchell happened to peek out the curtains. She kept on, breathing steadily and trying to see into the room without turning her head toward the building.
When she felt safe to turn around, she did so and walked across the grass to walk next to the building. If anyone came along the sidewalk now, she would be hard-pressed to explain herself. She reached into her pocket, withdrew Richard's handkerchief, and tossed it. It landed against the building, not far from Carolyn Logan's window, and Rita couldn't resist a smile as she bent down next to it.
With one hand on the wall, she pinched the handkerchief between two fingers of her other hand. Instead of picking it up, she looked into the window.
Mitchell Something was standing at the desk with his back to the window. She felt a surge of victory but resisted the urge to smile; he definitely wasn't sleeping. The overcast weather made the light perfect for a quick nap, but he'd turned on the light so he could snoop. There were pages laid out on top of the desk, and he was skimming one of them. As she watched, he put the paper down, took out a phone, and began typing.
Even if she couldn't read the words, she recognized the format of the pages he was reading: he was copying information from Carolyn Logan's bank statements.
Rita backed away from the window and looked in the direction Richard had gone. He was most likely walking back and forth, watching an empty room, but Rita felt it was more important to catch Mitchell Something in the act. She backed away from the window and hurried back to the sidewalk. Her top speed was hardly what it had once been, but she felt she made good time back to the front of the building.
Alicia was again at the front desk. Rita didn't give her a chance for pleasantries. "I need to know where Carolyn Logan's room is. Right now."
"Ah... Ms. Logan isn't here right now. If it can wait--"
"I need to know where her room is because she's not here right now. Can you get into the room?"
Alicia frowned, although her expression made it look more similar to a pout. "In case of an emergency..."
"This is an emergency, trust me." She looked toward the rec room. "Get a couple of orderlies. Strong ones. We might need muscle."
"Muscle! Mrs. Musgrove, this is--"
Rita was already on the move. She didn't need to know the exact number, since she had a basic idea and the placards would point her in the right direction. Alicia called out to her but she didn't slow down. When she looked back, Alicia was hurrying after her with a key-ring in her hands. Two orderlies were also running out of the rec room in hot pursuit. She scanned the names as she ran, almost overshooting Carolyn Logan's. She stopped, out of breath from her exertion as she turned to watch Alicia and the orderlies catch up.
"This is highly irregular, Mrs. Musgrove!"
Rita was out of breath, so she pointed at the crack under the door. The light was on. Alicia's irritation turned into confusion, and she stepped forward to knock on the door. There was no answer and, after a moment, she searched for the appropriate key on the ring. She opened the door and the orderlies stepped inside. There was a scuffle, and one of the orderlies said, "Warren!" and they heard a crash. Alicia looked at Rita, took a step toward the door, and then looked back toward the front desk.
Before she could decide whether to stay or flee, the door swung open. The largest of the two orderlies came out with Mitchell (whose last name was apparently Warren) in an arm lock.
"What is going on, Donnie?" Alicia said.
Donnie, the large orderly, said, "Caught him trying to stuff Ms. Logan's banking information back into her desk drawer."
"I caught him coming out of Brent Pepper's room the other day as well," Rita said. "Who knows who else he's done this to?"
"We'll know soon enough," Alicia said. The smaller orderly came out of the room, cupping his jaw with one hand. "Are you okay, Jake?"
"I will be." He glared at Mitchell.
"Go back up to the front desk and call the police. Donnie, sit on him until they show up."
Donnie nodded. Rita wasn't sure if he was going to take the "sit" order literally, but she was pretty sure Mitchell didn't stand a chance of getting away. Alicia watched until they were out of sight and then turned to look at Rita.
"I won't ask how you knew what he was doing, but I'm glad you came to me. I hope you won't hold this incident against our establishment."
Rita shook her head. "No... now that he's gone, I think I'll finally be able to settle in." She cleared her throat and thought about poor Richard, pacing outside in the cold while everything went down. "One more thing, um. Do you know where Jimmy Birch's room is?"
Mitchell Warren was arrested on seven counts of identity theft. The police were confident that there were more victims, it was just a matter of digging through all the evidence. The management of Aurora Gardens officially thanked Rita for her help, and the newspaper came to interview her. She was reluctant to agree to the interview, but Richard talked her into it during one of their walks around the property.
"You just know it's going to be some ridiculous 'Granny Fights Back' headline."
"Would that be so bad?" Richard said. "Folks like Mitchell oughta know they can't victimize us just because we're older than them."
So Rita shook hands with the local police chief, got her picture in the paper, and was a bit of a reluctant celebrity for a while around Aurora Gardens. The victims of Mitchell's thieving, in particular, went out of their way to thank her for what she'd done.
It was the last article about her so-called heroism that revealed the truth to Richard. He had almost skimmed over it when he realized the information he'd been gifted with: Rita Musgrove was described as a retired traveling salesperson. She could see the cat-ate-a-canary look on his face as he sat across from her, the puzzle nearly completed on the table between them. Earth was almost filled in, save for a few blank, undiscovered continents in the center of the ocean. She placed a piece before she met his eye.
"So... not a cop."
Rita shook her head. "I never said I was a cop."
"Traveling saleswoman. I never would have pegged you for that. I figured if you weren't a cop, maybe something on a federal level."
"Nope. I went across the Pacific Northwest selling watches."
"Watches?" Richard laughed. "I can see you doing a lot of things, but selling watches is... not one of the top ten."
Rita said, "I was pretty good at convincing people to buy watches when they insisted they didn't need one."
Richard pointed at her. "Now that I can see."
He folded his hands on the table and watched as she placed the last few pieces of the puzzle. Rita remembered watching Joan during this point in the puzzle process. With only a handful of empty spots and pieces left, placement became easier. Her hand moved quickly, one piece placed and then a second and then a third. When she was down to one piece, she paused and looked at the last spot.
Joan leaned away from the table. Rita, who had been reading, glanced at the puzzle and then at the piece in Joan's hand. It was the only piece left, and there was a perfectly-shaped hole in the middle of the picture.
"Do you need a hint?"
Joan glared at her and then held out the piece. "You do it."
"What? It's your puzzle."
Joan met Rita's gaze without blinking. "You completed everything else in my life. Why not this?"
Rita brought Joan's hand to her lips and kissed the fingers, then she reverently took the piece. She put it over the empty spot and, with her thumb, pressed it into place. The fit was, naturally, perfect. She smoothed her hand over the finished image and slipped her arm around Joan's waist.
"So what's next?"
"The next one. And the next one, and the next one."
Richard looked at the last piece and the last space. He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
They placed the last piece together. The puzzle took up most of the space on the small TV tray that covered Joan's legs. Joan's hands were shaking as she rested her palm on the picture, her fingers splayed over the finished image. Rita was crying and trying to hide it by kissing Joan's hair.
"You did it. One last puzzle."
"Huzzah," Joan said. Her voice was impossibly weak. "I think..." She coughed, and Rita rubbed her back until the fit passed. Joan sipped her water and wet her lips. "I think you'll have to do the next one on your own, baby."
"I don't think I can finish one all by myself."
Joan smiled. "Well. As long as you try."
"I'll try." She kissed Joan's forehead. "For you, I'll try."
She tossed the piece back into the box. Richard frowned and leaned back from the table as she began breaking up the picture for the next person to put it back together.
"It's symbolic," Rita said. She didn't feel like explaining the whole thing to him.
Richard, to his credit, didn't seem to want an explanation. He helped her break it up, then put the lid back on the box. He sighed and looked past her at the bookshelf. "What do you say? Want to start a new one?"
"Sure. Whatever you pick will be fine."
"You don't care?"
Rita shrugged. "The next one is whichever one is next. And then the next one, and the next one." She smiled and Richard took the box away. She looked out into the parking lot, her hands folded on the table as she waited to see what puzzle Richard would bring her next. Whatever it was, she would work on it as long as she could. Maybe one day she would even be able to finish one by herself. Maybe.
Until then, there were worse places she could have been, and much worse company she could be keeping. For the moment, she was content. Given the circumstances, that was plenty.
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