Dorthea slipped between the sheets then arranged the pair of pillows behind her and settled against them. She reached over to the lamp sitting on a small table beside the head of her bed and tilted the lampshade to allow more light to fall across the bed. Then she retrieved the magazine she had placed on the table before her bath.
The magazine was one of the few luxuries Dorthea permitted herself, saving just enough from her weekly paychecks to cover the cost of the subscription. Being intensely interested in history, she felt the magazine's articles substituted for the education she might have received had she been able to afford college—a, now, long abandoned dream. Opening the monthly publication to its first article, she snuggled against the pillows and began to read.
Kimberly turned the key in the door's lock then twisted the knob and pushed the door open. She gasped when she spied a shadowy figure inside the dark apartment. Her hand shot out reaching for the light switch on the wall beside the door, her fingers fumbling about as they sought the elusive switch. “My god,” she exclaimed when the room exploded with light to reveal Dorthea on the opposite side of the room leaning against a window frame. “You scared the pants off me,” she said pushing the door shut, her chest heaving as her fear subsided. “Damn, I thought you were a ghost. It'll take my heart a month to recover from this.”
“Sorry,” Dorthea murmured without moving. “How was your date?”
“Okay. What are you doing in the dark anyway?” Kimberly asked as she locked the door. Tossing her purse onto the couch, she made her way across the room. “Something interesting outside? I was just out there and I didn't see anything that would make me want to stand in the dark.” Receiving no response, she twisted her body to look into her roommate's face. She was instantly concerned when she saw the distant look in her roommate's eyes. “What's wrong?” she asked, tenderly placing a hand on Dorthea's shoulder. “You're cold. How long have you been standing here?”
Dorthea turned away from the window. “I don't know. Couple of hours, I guess.”
“Honey, what's wrong?”
Dorthea attempted a reassuring smile. “Just thinking. I notice Robert didn't walk you to the door.”
“No. I asked him not to.”
“He didn't propose?”
Kimberly laughed. “Only you would phrase that as a question.”
“I said I needed some time to think about it.”
“Let me guess… It doesn't feel right?”
“Yeah,” Kimberly answered dolefully. “If you're really okay, I think I'll go to bed.”
“Um… Actually, I was… No, it's okay. Go on.”
Kimberly looked quizzically at her friend. “Why were you standing here in the dark? You looked like you were a million miles away.”
“I think I was.” Dorthea held up the magazine clutched in her hand. “I was hoping you'd read this.”
Kimberly had never seen Dorthea so seemingly disorientated and, even though she wasn't sure she could keep her eyes open much longer, she was willing to try if she could discover the reason behind the look of consternation on her friend's face. “Okay,” she said removing the magazine from Dorthea's fingers.
Dorthea waited until Kimberly started to read then she moved toward the kitchen. “I'll make some coffee.”
Minutes later, Dorthea walked out of the kitchen carrying two cups of steaming coffee to find Kimberly had moved to the couch where she sat reading. As she walked across the living room, Kimberly closed the magazine then tossed it onto the coffee table. “Finished?” she asked handing her a cup before joining her on the couch.
“Yes. One useful skill the training at work has given me— speed reading. But I'm not sure why you wanted me to read it. What does a tornado fifty years ago have to do with you?” She accepted the offered cup and raised it to her lips as she waited for Dorthea sit down and provide an explanation.
“The little girl…”
While Kimberly sipped coffee, her memory replayed the story she had just read. “The one that disappeared from the hospital?” Dorthea nodded. “What about her?”
“I think…” Dorthea fidgeted for a moment then she set her cup down on the coffee table before pulling her legs up under her. She twisted on the cushion to face Kimberly. “I think I may be that little girl.”
Startled by the surprising declaration, Kimberly almost dropped her coffee cup. “What?!” Kimberly blurted out as coffee sloshed over the cup's rim and spilled over her hand. “Damn, that's hot,” she exclaimed. She immediately slammed the cup down onto the coffee table then looked around for something to wipe the burning liquid off her tender skin.
“Get in the kitchen and run cold water on that before it burns,” Dorthea instructed, jumping to her feet. She hurried after Kimberly who was running for the kitchen.
Her hands full, Dorthea used her hip to shut the refrigerator door. “Here, let me see,” she said as she moved to the sink where Kimberly was bent over with her hand underneath the faucet. Straightening, Kimberly held her hand out to be examined. Using a clean dish cloth, Dorthea gently patted it dry. “It's a little red but it doesn't look like it burned. “This should help,” she said placing a wet wash cloth over the hand then she balanced a bag of ice on top of it. She carefully wrapped the towel around hand and ice bag.
“Thanks. That feels good.”
“Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.”
“It just wasn't what I was expecting you to say,” Kimberly said as she put her uninjured hand atop the towel and ice to hold it place.
“What were you expecting?”
Kimberly turned so she could lean back against the edge of the sink. “Who knows? But that definitely wasn't it. Care to explain yourself?”
“Sure. But, first, let me clean up the mess you made out there.”
“I know.” Dorthea pulled a fresh towel from a drawer. After soaking it in cold water, she wrung the excess liquid out then walked out of the kitchen. She returned in a few minutes carrying Kimberly's cup. Placing the towel and cup in the sink, she opened a cupboard and removed a clean cup which she filled from the pot on the stove. “Come on. Let's finish our coffee while I explain.” Kimberly followed her out of the kitchen.
When they were again settled on the couch, Dorthea continued. “The tornado struck fifty years ago. The little girl was four years old. I'm fifty-four.”
“So am I. That doesn't make me that girl. What makes you think it makes you her?”
“This.” Dorthea stretched her right leg out on the cushion between them. She pointed to her ankle. “Look.”
Kimberly looked. They were difficult to distinguish from the surrounding skin but she could make out the matching scars on opposite sides of the joint. The scars were ragged as if the skin had been ripped open and then repaired with little concern for appearance. “So? You're fifty-four and you have scars. So could a thousand other women. I have a few myself.”
Dorthea sighed, pulling her leg back. She absently rubbed the damaged skin. “When I read about that girl, I felt something. Something deep inside me. I'm not sure how to explain it. I just felt like that,” she pointed to the magazine, “was my story.”
Kimberly stood up. “It's been a long night. I need more coffee if you expect me to wrap my mind around this.” She disappeared into the kitchen. When she reappeared she was awkwardly holding the coffee pot in her good hand while she struggled to hold the towel wrapped around her other in place with her forearm. A hot pad dangled from her mouth. She dropped the pad onto the coffee table then placed the pot on top of it. “Thanks,” she said when Dorthea took control of the pot and refilled their cups. “Okay,” she said resettling on the couch. “You are the same age as the girl and you have scars that could have been made by the type of injury she suffered.” She took a sip of coffee. “But you grew up here, in Rapid Falls. The tornado was down south in Cedarwood. Did Dragon Lady ever mention you had survived a tornado? Or that you had ever lived there?”
“No. But, then, she's never told me anything about my past. To be honest, I don't even know for sure that she's my aunt.”
“What? Why wouldn't she be your aunt? I've got to tell you, girl, you are not making much sense.”
Dorthea struggled to find the right words to explain herself. “Let me start from the beginning. Here's what I know. Nothing. I know nothing. I don't know who my parents are. In fact, other than Auntie Faye, I haven't a clue about any of my family. I don't know if I have any brothers or sisters. Or other aunts. Or uncles; or grandparents. I don't know where I was born. I don't know what happened to my parents. I don't know why I was raised by my aunt. I simply don't know.”
“She never told you.”
“But you asked her?”
“So many times I lost count.”
“What did she say?”
“That I should be thankful I had a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. After a while, I just stopped asking. But I never stopped wondering. Who am I? Not Dorthea Sanborn— I know who that is. But who am I ,” Dorthea jabbed a fisted hand against her chest over her heart. “Who is the lost person inside of me?”
“I never knew you felt this way,” Kimberly said quietly. “I mean, I knew you always wanted to know who your parents were. But you never told me you hurt so much.”
“You had your own problems,” Dorthea answered, just as quietly.
The women sat in silence for several minutes.
“I'm going to go see my aunt,” Dorthea finally said. “I'm going to ask her again. And this time, I'm going to demand the truth.”
“What if she won't tell you?”
“I won't take no for an answer. I have to know.”
Kimberly glanced at the window. She could see the darkness of the night was being chased away by the rising sun. “We better get to bed. We'll need some sleep before we face Dragon Lady.”
Dorthea looked at Kimberly whose words had surprisingly brought a smile to her face. “Thanks.”
Kimberly shrugged. “Hate to think of you facing her alone.”
“No. Thank you for believing.”
“I'm not sure I do. I mean, you being that girl. But I do think you have a right to know, if that's what you want.” Dorthea nodded. “But… Well, all I'm going to say is you better be prepared.”
“For anything. What she tells you, if she tells you, may not be what you want to hear.”
“I don't understand.”
Kimberly unwrapped the towel from her hand then placed it and the icepack on the carpeted floor. Then she scooted over to sit beside Dorthea and took her hands into her own. “I know you've always had the dream of a house with a picket fence and a loving mother and father. But not everyone has that. As rotten as it was to spend your childhood with Dragon Lady, it wasn't as bad as what some kids live with.”
Dorthea chuckled. “I think I'm old enough to know that real life isn't always like an episode of Leave It To Beaver .”
“I know you are. But it can still hurt to find out your folks aren't the Cleavers.”
Dorthea sucked in a deep breath then released it slowly as she nodded. “Okay. Point taken.”
“Good. Let's get some sleep before we go see Dragon Lady.”
Dorthea looked at her watch as the bus pulled away from the curb. “It's almost two,” she told Kimberly. “I hope she isn't sleeping.”
“If she is, we'll wake her up.”
“You would, wouldn't you?” Kimberly grinned and nodded. Dorthea groaned. “Come on,” she said, tugging her smirking friend toward the steps leading from the sidewalk up to the landing at the entrance of the nursing home. “I know you don't like her, but can you try to be nice.”
Climbing the steps, Kimberly studied the decrepit building. “This place is creepy. No wonder Dragon Lady likes it.”
Kimberly pulled the glass entry door open. “I'll be good,” she said then followed Dorthea inside.
A rather stout woman dressed in a nurse's uniform, its seams bulging, looked up when the women entered the lobby. “Goodness, we weren't expecting you today.” She was sitting behind a counter that formed a large circle in the middle of the room.
The counter was four feet high and shielded a second wider work counter a foot lower. In the center of the circle was a cabinet, also four feet high and also circular shaped. The cabinet was split into two levels; the top consisted of individual cubbies for the three-ring notebooks containing the medical records and personal information of each resident. The lower section was divided into large compartments where other supplies were stored behind locking doors. Several wheeled chairs and stools were haphazardly scattered about the area, ready for use when needed.
“We don't get many visitors this late in the day.”
Dorthea walked up to the counter to stand opposite the nurse who had made no attempt to stand. “I wasn't expecting this either, Helen.” She picked a pen out of a plastic container resting in a hole drilled into the counter's surface and wrote her name in the guest book. “Something came up that I need to talk to my aunt about.” Dorthea replaced the pen. “Do you know if she's awake?”
“She was last time I made my rounds.” Helen glanced up at the wall clock hanging over the lobby door. “But that was almost an hour ago. If you wanted her awake, you should have called. I can't be keeping them up if there's no reason to. I've got plenty to be doing without worrying about unexpected visitations.”
Dorthea ignored the complaint. “How is she today?”
“Same as always. Did you sign both of you in?” Helen asked, eyeing Kimberly who was waiting near the beginning of the hallway that led to the residents' rooms. Dorthea nodded. “You know how Mr. Galing is. Wants all visitors signed in. That way we know who comes and when.” Her eyes darted again to where Kimberly stood. “And who the trouble-makers are.”
“We won't bother you anymore,” Dorthea said as she turned away from the counter. Letting the nurse return to the paperback book slipped under a pile of papers while she had signed the guest book.
“Witch,” Kimberly muttered under her breath when Dorthea joined her.
“Stop it,” Dorthea hissed.
“Hasn't checked on her for an hour,” Kimberly continued, unheeding the warning. “Probably hasn't lifted her fat butt off that chair for…” Dorthea had taken a few steps down the hall when she spun around so quickly Kimberly almost plowed into her. “Hey, watch it.”
Dorthea planted her feet, refusing to give ground as her friend tried to move past her. “Kim, please. I'm having a hard enough time as it is. Can you please just can the comments? For today? For me?”
Kimberly hung her head. “Sorry,” she whispered.
“I know Helen is as lazy as they come and she has the personality of a—”
“Stuffed cat?” Kim smirked.
Dorthea shook her head. “Probably… but I'm not real sure if stuff cats have personalities.”
“My point, exactly.”
“I really don't need any more problems today. It's going to be hard enough to talk to Aunt Faye about this. I don't need Nurse Ratched getting into one of her I'm going to make your life miserable moods, like the last time you were here.”
“That wasn't my fault.”
“You told her to get off her fat ass and earn her paycheck.”
“She refused to check on that woman in the room next to your aunt's. The way the poor lady was groaning, I thought for sure she was dying.”
“I know. Okay, we agree she's a pain in the butt but she's not the only nurse here. And the other ones are really nice. Anyway, please, don't piss her off today.” Kim nodded. “Good. Come on.”
Dorthea waited impatiently. She was sitting in the room's only chair while Kimberly had been relegated to stand on the opposite side of the room in the space between the bed and the dressing bureau. They were waiting for Faye to finish with the magazine she insisted she was reading when they had barged into her room.
Kimberly studied Faye, recognizing none of Dorthea in her aunt's features. While Faye had been a short woman even before arthritis had bent her spine, Dorthea stood just shy of six feet. Faye's auburn hair, once thick and curly, had thinned over the years and now streaks of silver highlighted the patches that remained. Dorthea had sandy blonde hair that refused to hold a curl no matter how much time was spent in curlers. Faye's face was oval with deep green eyes, a roman nose, and a mouth formed of tightly drawn lips that rarely smiled. Dorthea's face was round with soft, sky blue eyes, a button nose and a full mouth that seemed more comfortable smiling than not.
Faye suddenly tossed the magazine aside. “Well, what is it? Since you won't leave me in peace, tell me what you want.”
“I have some questions,” Dorthea said softly. “And I would very much like for you to answer them.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Questions about my past. About who I am.”
Faye glared at Dorthea. “We've been through those. I told you—”
“I know what you said before,” Dorthea injected, keeping her voice calm. “But I want the truth this time.”
“Are you saying I lied to you—”
“I'm saying I want you to tell me what you know.”
Faye grunted and reached for the discarded magazine. “Already did.” Kimberly snatched the magazine off the bed. “Give that to me.”
Kimberly tossed the magazine onto the dressing bureau. “No,” she said, punching her fists into the mattress and bending at the waist to glare into Faye's eyes. “Not until you hear her out. Not until you tell her what she needs to know.”
Faye turned to Dorthea. “I don't want her here.”
Dorthea bit her lower lip. She looked at Kimberly who had straightened back up and was leaning against the wall. She appeared relaxed but she noticed her jaws were clinched and her eyes gazed back at her, a mixture of determination and doubt clouding them. She turned to her aunt. “She stays.”
Faye glowered but said nothing as she fell back against her pillows, her eyes darting from Dorthea to Kimberly and back.
“Who am I? Who were parents? Why are you the one who raised me? What happened?” The questions tumbled out of her, stopping only when she felt a gentle hand placed on her shoulder.
“Give her a chance to answer.”
Dorthea looked up to find Kimberly had somehow walked around the bed without her noticing.
Faye watched the exchange with disinterest. “Seems a woman your age should know your name by now.”
“I know my name,” Dorthea replied. “At least, I know the name you gave me.”
“Didn't give you nothin'. It's the name you came to me with.”
“I came to you… From where?”
“It was a long time ago. It don't matter anymore.”
“It matters to me.”
Faye looked at Dorthea. Then she shifted her gaze up to Kimberly. Then she squirmed down under the covers and rolled onto her side, leaving them to stare at her back. “Happened long time ago. I don't remember,” she said before pulling the blanket over her head.
Dorthea sat for several minutes then she slowly pushed herself up from the chair. “I'm going to find out, Auntie Faye,” she said in a voice barely loud enough to be heard. “I don't know how but I'm going to find out.”
Return to the Academy