A Valentine for the Family
My thanks to Emeka, Mary and the members of the Bardic Circle, as well as to Steph for the invitation.
Written for the Academy of Bards Valentine Invitational 2008
All mail is gratefully received and answered at Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
You could always count on Joan in a crisis. She’d heard that all her life.
Her ability to analyse and sort through options in seconds made her a remarkable diagnostician. Her coolness when presented with horrific trauma made her an eminent surgeon.
Why couldn’t she call on that woman now? She could barely control her breathing, her rage, her hands clenching and unclenching in an attempt to restrain the trembling.
What was she going to do? She knew what Samantha would say, she knew exactly what her always merciful heart would want, and she fought with the part of herself that was all-consuming screaming fury, to honour that implicit directive.
First things, first. She had to concentrate. Focus on turning on the taps, to wash her hands as professionally as she’d done a thousand times before. Try to ignore for just a moment the whispering wheezing in the other room, as she carefully rinsed the blood from her wrists and watched it swirl down the drain. She needed time, time to think, to stop the strategy that was gleefully and maliciously settling in some remote recess of her mind.
Wiping her hands carefully, remembering to keep the towel and the evidence it represented, she moved out of the bathroom and leaned heavily against the hallway wall. There was hardly any evidence of the struggle except for the shattered picture frame lying on the floor. Stooping over, she cautiously slid the photograph out from under the splintered fragments of glass, and turned it over, knowing what she would see.
In memory, the colours glistened and changed as the light of her mind played upon it. The moment had been frozen fifteen seconds after Robert had set the timer on the camera. He’d rushed back to his place just in time to raise his glass in the toast. Frozen in that moment, she could see herself and Sam, relaxed and smiling amid the decorations and presents. The two young children caught waving their arms while their middle-aged parents also lifted wine glasses. In the centre, Robert as the bearded, jolly fat man in front of the fire, cards on the mantle, with the glinting ornaments on the tree just out of focus off to the side, the smiles of all, the photo was a romanticized Family at Christmas with or without the specific caption.
On the back, Robert’s cramped pharmacist’s handwriting read; Here I am with my new family at Gram’s, only two weeks after Ma’s funeral made me feel like an orphan. Who would have thunk it? I must be the luckiest man in the world, aren’t I?
Her breathing was once again rising with her fury and any attempt at rational thought was broken when Sam spoke clearly for the first time. Still lying in a foetal position on the floor, drool leaking from the paralysed portion of her face. She was whispering, “I’m a…useless. Sick. Old woman.”
And Joan’s eyes became shards of ice.
Valentine’s Day, 2008
Dr. Benjamin Cummins opened his eyes to a sight that never failed to send tendrils of pleasure through his body; his wife’s face, her eyes open, just inches away from his.
“Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Groaning in mock displeasure, Mary lifted her upper body so that he could slide his arm under her to allow them both to wrap their nude bodies in familiar and so comfortable positions. The groan changed to something sounding far more pleasurable. There were a few light and very sensual kisses as her leg slid along his, when she stilled, and pulled her hand up from under the blankets to push his chin away firmly.
“I am getting my Anniversary wish, aren’t I?”
“Wish?” Ben almost choked on the word. “You’re calling that a wish, now?”
“We are GOING to your Aunts’ for Valentine’s Day and celebrating our anniversaries together! Just like our first date, our wedding and every year since then and that is NOT negotiable!” his wife had insisted at nearly the top of her lungs. “ I may have to accept that you’re not going to tell me why you two aren’t talking. Though how…” Mary threw her hands in the air. “This is the woman who RAISED you when your mother died, inspired you to be a doctor! And Sam? Sam has loved you and me, and been virtually a grandmother to our children for all their lives! And for some reason you can’t tell me, you’ve walked out on them in the middle of the worst crisis of their lives? You’ve asked me to trust you, and God Above knows I do. But you are NOT breaking your promise to our children!”
“It’s just that sometimes, your wishes can sound quite a lot like orders.”
A finger was wagged against his face. “Don’t start.”
There was a noise outside that meant the children were about, so they both rose to put on dressing gowns. Knowing that he sounded more like the children, Ben still could not resist mentioning, “I did arrange to take the day off to go over and help.”
“Poor Baby. But when I bring the kids over after work, there better be a turkey browning and if not love, at least civility in the air.”
“Understood. Best behaviour. Though I can’t believe we’re having turkey for Valentine’s Day.”
“The only reason you got away with avoiding the Aunts throughout all of Christmas was by promising the kids they would have a proper turkey dinner at the Great Aunts’ as soon as Sam was well enough. Now that Joan says Sam is up and around, you,” and there was a slight mellowing in her tone, “get that cute butt down to the store and pick up the turkey.”
“And our… private celebration? We haven’t even exchanged cards.”
“They are going to Bobby’s house for the evening. Right now, the most romantic thing you could do for me, is to make the kids’ breakfast so I can have a nice soak in the tub.”
“So we’re still having both anniversaries this year. The Aunts and our own.”
There was another exchange of hugs. “Of course.”
As they broke apart, there was a pensive expression on Ben’s face. Mary touched his cheek and asked, “What’s wrong?”
He sighed and tried to frame the question. “Nothing big. Just my conscience.” He tried to smile away her concerns, but he knew it wasn’t going to be passed off. “I’ve been thinking with all that’s happened, do you ever wonder, maybe even regret…”
“What, marrying you?”
Ben nodded. “Yeah. Trading your family for this one. Like Sam had to.”
“Because we both married into,” she made quotation hooks in the air with her fingers, “Abomination Central?”
Mary sighed. “We both know the answer. Sam is a good woman by any standards except her daughter’s. If her daughter had any brains, much less a heart, she would’ve been proud of her instead of rejecting her. As for my parents, I still attend services, our children go to church, regardless of their father’s quaint disbeliefs.” They exchanged another smile. “They wouldn’t accept any compromise. We were married in a church and if my parents didn’t want to attend, or have any other contact with us, or their own grandchildren, since then, then that’s their choice. Their loss. Not Sam’s or mine. They decided they loved Leviticus more than they did us. That’s on their head. I have nothing to regret, and neither does Sam.”
“But the whole Robert thing. It was because she wanted blood family.”
“You don’t resent her for that, do you?” Mary asked.
“No, just that, I’ve been thinking about family after all that’s gone on.”
Mary seemed to decide this was enough serious talk. She hugged her husband saying, “You’re a doctor, you did all your thinking in college so you wouldn’t have to now.”
He pulled back and made a mock attempt to strangle her that quickly shifted back into the hug. Over her shoulder he muttered something.
“What?” she asked.
“Funny you should mention it, but I think Leviticus was actually written by a woman.”
“Not another one of these conversations?” she pleaded towards the sky.
“No, I’m absolutely serious. Maybe some old guys came along after and added some things to make it more compatible with their kinks, but seriously, what does it sound like to you? This is good for you, this is bad for you. You should eat this, don’t eat that. Snakes and crawly things are evil, leave menstruating women alone.”
He swung his wife about while she patiently murmured, “Uh huh.”
“I mean it. Probably the whole putting to death a man lying with another was just an excuse for killing guys on general principle. Except this way, you got to knock off two at a time.”
She pulled back to look into his face to see if he was finished. “You mean you, as in we women, right??”
She sighed heavily. “I haven’t been the calming influence in your life that I’d hoped to be, have I?”
They shared a long kiss before Ben broke it first and opened the door. Mary added, “You’ll be good, right?”
Ben gave her a half smile and said, “One of these days I’ll tell you what happened, I promise.”
“It’s okay. I do trust you. And to answer your question, no. I have no regrets and I know Sam would agree. Whatever we lost, we gained twice over. This is a real family and we’re all stronger for it.”
“I thought so, but… I’m very happy to know you don’t have any doubts.”
Once the door was closed, Mary’s smile left her face and she muttered under her breath, “Joan? Just what the hell did you do?”
Joan Cummins was dreaming of sunshine. She’d escaped into the past, feeling every sensation more vividly than anything her reality of the last months had provided. There was the cool February breeze, the stark winter sun so bright it was blinding, and beside her, Samantha, walking together towards that very first Valentine’s Day, 35 years before. They seemed so very young, and so very unaware of how young.
They were arguing, as usual, their voices carrying no further than the cloister walls in the heart of Cambridge.
Sam was once again that fresh young American divorcee on a scholarship; still hurting from what she thought was the temporary loss of her daughter to her former husband. Protected from knowing that she’d never see her child again outside of a courtroom.
Joan was once more in her twenties, the year before her beloved sister’s death.
Just two students, two young women, who had finally accepted that they had met the love of their lives.
Even in this dream state, Joan knew that it was the day before their first Valentine’s together, and Sam had decided that it would also be their first proper date. And having decided that, everything else was to be Joan’s responsibility.
“Why,” Joan was asking, “is it my responsibility to do the Valentine thing? We’re both female. Who decided it was my job to make you feel all sweet and feminine? Why don’t you have to do anything?”
Her smaller American companion smirked up at her. “Because I’m the femme in this relationship, asshole.”
“Reeeea-lly, and the ladylike way you speak is proof of that?”
Sam shrugged casually, “Ask anyone.” her words tumbled out lightly. “I’m the sweet, loving, oh so feminine girly one. You’re the dominating big, faux-masculine, dark and dangerous bitch figure in my life. So get your act together by the 14th, or don’t expect any nuttin’ on the 15th.”
Joan pursed her lips. “For some odd reason, I don’t feel all that dominant right now. Possibly it could be, yes, the fact that you’re ordering me around? As always!”
“Well, there you go. I have to explain everything to you, don’t I? This is what we call,” and Sam paused to speak carefully and slowly as you would to a not-very-smart child, and certainly not to the brightest surgical resident the college had seen in a decade, “feminine wiles. See, I was only able to order you around by withholding sex. That’s what us women do. Ask anyone.”
“I am just as feminine, and I have just as many wiles as you do.”
“Uh huh,” Sam said sceptically.
“Ask anyone, you said?” She quickly scanned the quad and sighted a freshman loaded with texts heading in their direction. Smiling what she thought was her most disarming and beguiling smile, she moved to intercept.
“Hey there, sweetie!”
The target was peering over his books and seeing only a six-foot figure in a black leather jacket towering over him. He stuttered, “I don’t have much money! Please don’t hurt me.”
At her companion’s giggle, Joan turned back to the victim, who was clearly terrified
“Please, I have a wife and children,” he babbled. “Well, not any children, but I’d really like to someday!”
Joan sighed and pointed off in the distance.
Her victim was elated to do so. Her companion looked up at her frustrated face and said guilessly, “think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”
Safe in this peaceful place and with no desire to leave it, Joan pulled her lover closer before drifting off again.
Ben cautiously opened the bathroom door only to find that his youngest was still waiting for him in the hallway. Jennifer stood with her arms crossed and chin thrust pugnaciously forward, a convincing posture that Ben assumed his daughter must have practiced for far too many hours in front of a mirror.
Ben wiped the last of the toothpaste foam from his mouth and tried to address his youngest in a reasonable tone. “Jennifer? Remember what I told you? You have to actually ask the question before you get an answer.”
Jennifer only crossed her arms more firmly and waited for her conveniently nearby brother Liam to ‘interpret’ for her. It was a game they’d worked out when Liam realised that four-year-old Jennifer could ‘ask’ questions Liam couldn’t
Oldest sibling Liam was trying to appear uninvolved while leaning on the wall by the stairwell. Unlike his fireplug of a younger sister, eight-year-old Liam was beginning to show signs of the lankiness that was the standard frame for the Cummins men. “I think she’s worried.” Liam helpfully translated.
“Is she really?” Ben sighed and got down on his knees. “What are you worried about?” When there was no response, Ben held back another sigh and looked up to Liam.
“I think she’s worried that you’re going to cancel Valentine’s Day like you cancelled Christmas.” Liam supplied.
He stayed on his knees but rolled his eyes upwards to Liam. “I didn’t cancel Christmas. We had a very nice Christmas. We just didn’t have dinner at Great Aunt Joan’s.”
Liam blurted out, “Or New Years.”
Ben closed his eyes to calm himself. “You know that Auntie Sam wasn’t well. And anyways you can’t cancel Valentine’s Day, its not…It’s just…” What was he supposed to say, ‘Boys, your Great-Aunt has done something so terrible, that...’
Interrupting his thoughts, Liam asked shyly, “This is all to do with Uncle Robert, and what he did, isn’t it?”
Jennifer spoke for the first time. “That Bathstard.”
Ben’s youngest was suddenly trying to swallow her face as her father carefully placed his large hand on Jennifer’s shoulder. “You know,” Ben stated coldly, “that we don’t wash mouths out with soap in this house. But your mother and I might reconsider it if we hear that word from you again. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Dad,” was quietly echoed by both children.
“I know you were disappointed about not having any holidays with your Aunts. But this is Valentines Day and this family ALWAYS celebrate our anniversaries on Valentine’s Day together. If we can. We’re family. And you know what that means. But you have to promise to be good, especially around Auntie Sam, when your Mother brings you over later.”
As he headed for the bedroom to finish getting dressed, he heard Liam say, “We’re always good!”
“Uh huh,” was his grunted response as he shut the bedroom door on them, but his mind was already on other things. ‘Goddam Joan!’ he thought. ‘and Goddam that Bastard!’
Still savouring her dreams, Joan had decided that she was never going to move from the safety of the bed. Yes, she was aware that there were Things To Do, but the years of personal discipline were losing the argument made by the warm bed and her lover’s body nestled against her. So she ignored the niggling worries for a while. She eased her eyelids open, smiling sleepily at the sight of her lover’s head nestled under her chin against her breast. Yes, possibly some, perhaps a majority of the population might be appalled at the sight of the two antiques naked and entwined, but Joan was smiling as she drew her lover more tightly to her and gently kissed the greying hair.
It was, as she often thought, like squeezing some sort of sponge that released sensual calm with each loving hug.
She was contentedly letting her eyes drift slowly closed again when the thought that had awakened her rang out. Valentine’s Day!! Bloody February 14th! FAMILY coming! Things To Be Done. NOW!
There was a groaning protest from her partner as she began to gently withdraw her arm from under her lover’s shoulders. Until her eyes fell upon the clock on the nightstand. It was set and she could see it was just about to go off. She might just have enough time to reach up and… Noooooo!
The horrible shrilling blasted any last hopes of a peaceful withdrawal and she was forced to pull herself roughly from beneath her lover’s shoulders.
In desperation, her left hand flailed out, hoping to strike the clock a killing blow, but instead it skittered across the night table and landed, still clanging away, on the floor. Her heart hammering with shock and regret, she turned to her lover to reassure her and recognised a graver concern.
Sam’s distressed and unfocused eyes fumbled about the room, and half words spilled from the swollen mouth. “Wha? I have to… what?” Trembling hands rose to brush at her face, but Joan had already moved to hold them. Trying to keep the fear from her voice, she spoke soothingly, although a chill had spread through her body. “It’s alright,” she murmured. “There’s nothing to do. Go back to sleep. I’ll wake you in a little while.” The bleary eyes seemed to focus, but the fear and trembling continued. Finally the alarm died out as Joan made comforting noises although at a slightly less agitated level. Joan found that she was able to breathe again, and Sam’s eyes fluttered shut and her head rested again on the pillow. ‘What if she needs to go back to sleeping alone? No. She’s fine. She’s getting better every day. She’s getting better and better each day.’ Joan repeated the mantra to herself.
Taking a deep breath, she carefully eased her legs over the side of the bed. Her creaking joints made snapping noises like matchsticks as she leaned over to pick up the clock and replace it on the nightstand. She looked over her shoulder once more at her sleeping companion, and took one more long breath, releasing a few shivers. Closing her eyes, she rolled her shoulders, working the joints down along her still slender but aged frame. She opened her eyes and found herself framed in the mirror across the room. The lined, angular face in the mirror gave her a sad smile and she cupped her sagging breasts, remembering when they hadn’t needed any support.
So many lifetimes ago. Not that Sam seemed to mind now. You see droopy and saggy. I see a design improvement for improved skin contact. The face in the mirror grinned at the memory and she reached for her nightgown on the newly installed double hooks on the back of the door.
Newly installed, as since Sam’s attack (‘Strokes run in our family’, Robert’s voice repeated to her. ‘That Bastard’ she automatically added) and her return to their home, she’d turned the study into a bedroom so Sam wouldn’t have to worry about stairs. Then more months until she felt that Sam was emotionally ready to share a bed with her. Thank God, they’d a downstairs bathroom. Thank God things were getting back to normal. Only Monday’s competency hearing was left to deal with, with that same God’s help, they would be ready.
‘What first?’ Joan asked herself as she made her way to the bathroom through the lonely study. Sam’s book reviews and awards decorated the room, and sheaves of blank paper lay beside them the too tidy roll top desk and PC. Another reminder of all the months she’d struggled to find coherence in Sam’s vague mutterings and fought panic that all those unborn stories might have died inside that beloved head.
‘Only time for a shower, because Ben will be here in a bit. Thank God he’s still too mad to show up early, but just mad enough to be exactly on time. Mad, but still Family.’
She was brushing out the tangles in her long grey mane when the doorbell rang. She pulled open the window and called down, “minute!”
“A perfect winter’s day,” thought Benjamin as he walked through the slight snowdrifts to the familiar doorway, the blue paint reflecting the blinding sun. As he waited, a pickup with two small American flags at the rear, skidded for a moment along the road, until the tires caught on the gravel mixed in the ice and the driver gunned his engine as if to leave the scene of his embarrassment. Ben noted that despite the snow, he could still see the scar left in the lawn where the ‘FOR SALE’ sign had once been.
“What you call paying half the expenses, Joan,” Robert had shaken his head at her lack of understanding, “ was clearly rent. Or else why would the house be in my grandmother’s name after all these years? Now that she’s living with me, I have a responsibility to rationalise her finances by selling it. You’ll have at least a month, so there’s no real hurry. Yet.”
Ben instinctively reached into his pocket for his set of keys, before remembering that they were somewhere in his office desk. Unused since the confrontation with Joan three months before. So he continued to wait uncomfortably, swallowing phlegm and wishing he knew what he was going to do or say. The 25-pound frozen turkey wasn’t getting any warmer in the cold air and it wasn’t the only awkward weight he was shifting. He tried the doorbell again, straining to hear if it had sounded inside when he heard Joan call out from somewhere upstairs, “MINUTE!”
Had she said ‘a minute’, he knew that he could count exactly sixty seconds before the door opened. ‘Minute’ was a less exact measurement in Joan-speak, and it was at least five of them before the door began to rattle as the locks were disengaged. It swung open revealing his Aunt’s formal and stern visage framed by slightly damp straggling hair.
They stood like that, on either side of the doorstep for a moment. Stiffly, waiting for the other to speak first. The shadow of Robert (that bastard,) hung between them.
Joan was dressed in casual clothes, blue shirt and jeans. His more conventional suit and tie made him feel even more out of place.
Finally she spoke. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
The ritual completed, she demanded, “Well, are you coming in?”
He shrugged. “Of course.”
Once he was inside she said, “It’s good to…” She paused awkwardly and began again. “Thank you for coming.”
He responded as formally. “Mary and the kids, are …concerned. You know… I don’t know what to say to them. They don’t understand, you know, why we’re not talking. So Mary insisted, that it would be a good idea if I come over. Early. To help out.”
There was a hint of her old humour around her mouth as she queried, “Insisted, did she?”
The turkey in his arms worked as a reasonable excuse for them to evade their usual greeting hugs and he simply squeezed by her and into the foyer.
There was an uncertain, fragile look that he was not used to seeing on his usually assertive aunt’s face. He shook off his heavy coat and looked up the stairway towards the bedrooms. “She’ll be glad to see you,” was her only response and she took the coat from him to hang up in the closet.
Ben looked at Joan quizzically. “Sam’s fine,” she muttered and continued in an uncharacteristically talkative manner. “She’s almost ready to go back to cooking, but a roast… I just thought it would be nice if I tried for a change. I mean, how hard can it be?”
Memories of past culinary catastrophes flitted through both their minds and his mouth split into a sceptical grin. “Famous last words. But I brought help.” He tilted his head towards the meat thermometer protruding from his upper jacket pocket. “It could save all our lives.”
A year ago she would have skewered him verbally in retaliation but she let the moment pass and let him lead her to the kitchen.
“How long will it take to cook?” she asked, glaring at the bird on the counter as if it was a personal insult.
“If you have Sam’s old cook book, we can do a basic stuffing and have it in the oven in half an hour. I told Mary to come over for about five. It should be ready by six if we start now. That okay?”
She indicated a flour-creased volume on the table. “I don’t really need your help, you know. I have been cooking all the meals for these past few months.”
Ben ignored her and looked about the familiar surroundings. It was fully stocked country kitchen with gleaming brass pots hanging from racks near the six-burner gas stove. Other than to build the shelving for the various slicers, dicers or books, he knew Joan had seldom been in the room at all until this crisis.
He found he had to laugh. “I can’t decide what is harder to believe. That you’re going to try to make a turkey dinner now, or that you never learned to cook. How did you survive before you met her?”
There was a glimmer of their old familiarity in her frosty reply. “Baked beans on toast is a fine, balanced meal.”
Ben snorted and examined the monster bird on the counter.
“I assume you have,” and he raised his fingers to tick off the items, “Bread? Onions, celery, bouillon cubes, poultry seasoning of some kind?”
“Yes, I have been shopping before. I can follow instructions.”
“Really?” he asked guilessly.
“Really. Though I don’t for the life of me understand why the chicken bouillon. It is a bloody turkey, after all.”
“Yours not to reason why. What veggies have you got?”
“Potatoes to roast, Carrots for colour, and Brussels sprouts for me.”
‘Was it getting warmer or at least less frosty in here?’ he thought as he rolled up his sleeves. “I’m glad you know they’re for you, because if they get anywhere NEAR my plate…”
There was a long pause as they both heard the echoes of a warmer time, before Robert had come into their lives. “I wish…” There was a sigh. “I really wish we could, that this had never happened, you know?”
“I know,” she admitted.
“Several people asked about you, at the hospital.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That you wanted a break, patients were wondering if you were too old, got tired of the chief resident hinting you should have retired… lots of lies.”
“More lies, you mean.”
“Joan, they want you back. They need you. Your retirement penalised you, but your patients shouldn’t have had to…”
“Don’t you dare backtrack, now, Benjamin Cummings. You were right. I had to retire. There are rules.”
“It wasn’t the rules.”
“No! What set me off, ” Ben struggled to find the words, “you were my mentor. All of my values, they come from you. That you could do this? You needed counselling, you still do. This isn’t something you could have done in your right mind.”
Joan’s expression hardened. “And who would look after Sam?”
“That’s what stopped me from going to the police then. I should have gone to the police when you told me. When you finally realised what you’d done.”
“I knew what I’d done.”
“No, you didn’t. You couldn’t have. You had a breakdown, Joan.”
“You didn’t see those tapes…” she muttered again.
“No, I didn’t,” he cut in. “No one did. You destroyed them.”
“…of those women,” she continued. “Of…of Sam…”
“What he made them do, what he did,”
“So you became Vengeance…”
“…with a great big sword. No jury. No judge.”
“You. Didn’t. See. What he did. Caressing himself. While watching them. On tape! Forcing them to repeat, over and over, I’m a useless sick old…”
Their shouting had made them deaf to the kitchen door being wedged open by a Zimmer frame, but they were shocked into silence by the pale frightened face that appeared over it. Joan’s hand flew to her mouth to stop the terrible words from continuing, while Ben moved quickly to open the door entirely and try to awkwardly hug Sam. Over her shoulder, he looked to Joan who shrugged. Had she heard? But he was grateful to see her walking, even with a frame.
If Joan had been his mentor, Sam had been his sustenance. To see her in the judge’s chambers after the stroke, drooling, mumbling and in a wheelchair, had shook foundations that he had assumed were solid after 10 years of hospital practice. When the court had ruled for custody of Sam in Robert’s favour, as her closest relative, Ben had not even known he was crying until Joan, stoic even at that moment, had given him a handkerchief.
Robert, had come over to them, his normally cheerful face doleful. “I’m sorry, sincerely sorry that it came to this. I am sorry if your Aunt feels upset. But you hafta agree, that it is best that she be with her blood family, don’t you?”
Ben’s hug was clumsy and uncomfortable. Sam weakly pushed away from him and he let her go. Joan intervened and suggested, “Ben, why don’t you and Sam sit down in the living room.” With one last worried glance at Joan, he followed Sam. His trained eyes also followed her, judging the strength of her movements, noting that her left hand rested, more than gripped, the handle of the frame. She positioned herself in front of the couch, and he fought the urge to help her, happy to see that she did not drop onto the couch, but eased into it.
The unusual quiet from his usually verbose adopted aunt unnerved him. He broke the silence by asking, “Can I get you anything?”
Sam raised her head, focussed for a moment before smiling wanly. “I’m sorry, Ben. It’s good to see you, but… some coffee. Please.” He patted her hand and took his frustrations to the kitchen where Joan had one hand inside a turkey, and the other covered in stuffing.
Joan removed her hands and turned to the sink to wash them off, but that activity, which he had watched her do so often in her professional capacity, was not something Ben needed to see at that minute. He moved passed her, murmuring, “I can do it.” He plugged in the kettle and set up the drip with a new filter and fresh grounds in silence. While waiting for the water to boil he found he had to ask, “I thought you said she was fine.”
Joan did not look at him. “She is. Better every day. She’s doing… really great. Almost her old self.”
Disbelieving, Ben asked the important question. “Will she be ready for Monday?”
Sam’s assets were technically in the care of the state conservators in the absence of Robert, and she was scheduled to go before a judge after the weekend to prove or disprove her ability to take charge of her own affairs again.
“No problem.” There was a pause before she asked quietly, “Will you be there?”
Ben’s answer was firm. “Unless you have another doctor, of course I’ll be there.”
“I only hire the best,” she said.
She’d always hired the best but despite her lawyer’s advice, Joan would not accept the court’s decision. According to state law, Guardianship could be revoked only if the Guardian was a ‘Person whose conduct was notoriously bad; Or a Person asserting a claim adverse to the proposed ward or the ward's property, real or personal.’
So, of course, she’d hired the best detective. A quiet, unassuming local who’d charged them almost as much as the lawyers. But whose report had stunned even the expectant Joan.
Surprising, as Joan had always raised him to be careful what you wished for.
They had sat in Ben’s home office in leatherette chairs looking expectantly towards the man on the other side of the desk. He handed them two folders but before either could open them, he had cleared his throat nervously before cautiously beginning. “I think I should give you a summation of what you’re about to read and give you an idea of what evidence can be used and what can’t.
“Basically, this is one very big piece of shit you’ve all stepped in.”
They had sat still, completely aghast, as he gave them the summary.
Robert had been a Guardian before. Four times at least, and not including his mother and Sam.
Always the same pattern. Elderly women with no family, whose closest friend was her young, charming pharmacist. Each had had a preliminary stroke, and after a search for a family member, Robert had stepped in for a limited guardianship. Then there’d been a signing of full Power of Attorney, and they’d have another stroke, this time completely incapacitating them. During this time, he’d clean out the estate. Then, they’d die.
The detective smiled mirthlessly. “Be buried nicely though, people were always impressed by the nice send-off.”
Ben finally spoke. “How could no one have spotted this?” He could hear the raw fear and anger in the trembling of his words.
“Benjamin…” Joan tried to calm him.
The detective shrugged. “The courts aren’t set up to spot it, that’s all. They don’t do searches for multiple guardianships several years apart. And there were no families to question anything. Besides, he was a respected member of the community doing a favour for an old lady. And who else was going to get the money? Why not the nice young man who looked after her when no one else would?”
“And if anyone had questioned anything, that would have meant getting involved,” Ben spat out.
Another shrug. Another nervous cough. “There’s something… worse.”
“What could be worse? Sam is in the hands of a serial killer for profit!”
“I want you to understand this hasn’t been corroborated. There is no evidence other than one person’s statement, and that wasn’t considered credible at the time.”
They both waited.
“Mr. Gartner would hire carers during the week while he was at work. There’s nothing unusual about the fact that they were not always, well, they were usually young women, immigrants, with few skills. This one lady was, in fact, possibly retarded. Slightly. So when she made a report to the local social services it wasn’t… well, pursued. Even if it had, full guardianship means that the Guardian assumes the rights of the ward. They can even refuse medical treatment or examinations, you see.”
Joan finally lost her patience. “What are you going on about?”
“The carer reported, that while she was bathing one of Robert Gartner’s wards… that she noticed what she called, well… severe vaginal bruising.”
Seconds later it seemed, they were outside and he was calling out to Joan’s back, “You’re not going where I think you’re going, are you? Because you can’t go there, Joan! WE need the police and we need our lawyer to file!”
She’d called back. “You get that started. I’m just going to think.”
She’d taken the car and he’d been stuck waiting for Mary to return to watch the kids. When he’d arrived at Robert’s house, the flashing lights of the police cars had welcomed him.
The kettle whistled and Ben poured the boiling water into the sieve.
“She doing any writing? Going for walks? Talked to her publisher at least? Getting up before noon?” His voice rose with each question.
“She will. Don’t judge her so quickly. She’s… she woke up badly, and then I let her sleep in. Give her a chance. Go back in and talk to her. You’ll see.” He added sugar and cream to the coffee and with misgivings was about to return to the sitting room when the phone rang.
Ben stared at the extension by the stove and waited for Joan to answer it, but she continued to concentrate on the small script in the recipe sheet.
“Umm, Joan?” He gave a nod towards the ringing telephone.
She didn’t look up from the page. “We’re screening the calls with the message machine. We‘re being targeted by salespeople.”
“I think Sam answered the phone a few times last month, when she wasn’t… wasn’t having a good day. And when the bastards heard the slurred speech, they must have flagged us as targets. Started sending us all sorts of crap. Put our address and number on some lists, sold them, I don’t know. All I know is that…” the message machine snapped on and the ringing stopped “ is that I can guarantee no one will leave a message.” To confirm what she’d said, the machine beeped once, and then shut itself off.
Shaking his head, Ben left Joan to rejoin Sam. He was further shaken to find she’d fallen asleep on the couch, her mouth slightly open. He placed the cup on the table in front of her and gently patted her shoulder. She awoke as if from a great distance, her eyes taking time to focus. When they fell on him, she smiled as though seeing him for the first time, and though he hoped his face was not showing his concern, his heart fell.
“Ben!” Sam reached up to hold his hand to draw him down beside her. Before he could become comfortable, she leaned over and whispered in his ear.
“Can Joan hear us?”
Bewildered, he shook his head.
“I’ve been waiting for you to be here. I need you to go upstairs. Please. While she’s busy. Go up. Take a look.”
Paranoia was a common in dementia, but it was also a basic training rule to reduce stress in its victims by going along with a non-threatening delusion. Nevertheless, it was with some sadness that he nodded and after a look to the kitchen, slowly climbed the familiar stairway. Less than a minute later, he was back down the stairs, barging into the kitchen, his face flushed.
“Where’s all the upstairs furniture?” he demanded.
Joan continued to drape bacon over the turkey. “Around. Different places.”
Ben’s thermostat blew. “You sold it?? Most of it wasn’t yours! It was Sam’s! If the conservator finds out you’ve been selling her assets without their approval do you know what could happen? You won’t just lose custody, you could go to jail! Are you crazy?”
For once Joan faced Ben directly, her blue eyes forcing him to take a step back. “Do not use that tone in this house, Benjamin. Sit. Down.”
In an act of rebellion that harked back to
his youth, he remained standing. Joan shrugged and remained standing as well.
“You are allowed one rant per lifetime, and I only gave you that one because
you were right. I did have to retire. But that was not carte blanche to raise
your voice in this house.”
Once he was seated, she began, “Firstly, I only pawned it.”
Ben raised his hands in frustration and began to say “that isn’t the…” but she cut him off.
“Do you have any idea what I spent on the detectives to find the dirt on Robert? We had already cleared out my accounts for the lawyers in the custody hearings. I ran up every card I had to pay the bills once I wasn’t working.”
“You could have asked me!”
Joan snorted. “Really? When was that? You’d already called me worse names than a thief, so when the bills started coming in for the physiotherapy, what was I supposed to do? Stop it?”
“You know they wouldn’t let me list her on my insurance. For the same reason I couldn’t get custody, because we’re only housemates in this state. And her teacher’s union group fobbed me off. ‘Delays in processing’. ‘She needs more time for assessment’. I know how the system works, I used to be a part of it, remember? And she needed therapy, now, if not yesterday. So I went private. Seventy dollars an hour. Ten hours a week. You saw the condition that bastard left her in. She needed therapy AND then the counselling and there wasn’t any money left so…”
“But you could go to jail. Her kid will put her into State care and there’d be no private physio or counselling!”
“I’m gambling, alright? On her. Just as I did when I packed us up and moved here. I’ve never, never regretted betting on her.” There were atypical tears forming in her eyes.
“I’m here now. I can write a cheque for whatever you need, get the furniture back before anyone…”
“You paid your share with the lawyers. And that’s Mary’s money too, not just yours. And Jennifer’s, and Liam’s.
“No. I’m writing a check. Mary and the kids will agree. I should have been here, I should have…”
“Ben, it’s Thursday, the hearing is Monday and if we lose, Social Services are here on Tuesday. There isn’t enough time to get it all back in time. If we lose on Monday…” She closed her eyes briefly. “It’s too late. We’re betting on her. We have to win on Monday.”
He’d begun to lift the crime scene tape that already circled Robert’s house but had been stopped by an officer. The police would not allow him to enter. Only after checking his ID would they tell him that they’d responded to a call from Joan who was now at the hospital with Sam. She’d told them she’d found Sam lying in a foetal position. In a puddle of urine on the floor. There had been signs of sexual abuse.
Otherwise, she’d said, the house had been empty. Clear signs of hurried packing. It seemed probable that Robert had heard about their detective and had run. They had an All Points Bulletin out for him.
Four months later, the police were still reporting that there was still no trace of him.
Joan had been questioned, but when presented with the theory of a slim, older woman assaulting and then removing the body of a 300 plus pound younger man, they’d abandoned it. They were now stating that they had reason to believe that Robert had purchased an extensive false identity. His photo and warrants had been spread around the world. They had no leads but were still hopeful.
As far as Ben knew, Sam was unaware of anything beyond the official police report. and now, to his great despair, she seemed little improved after months of rehab.
The phone rang, cutting off whatever he might have said.
“If you’re so sure it’s just telemarketing, why do you let it ring?” Ben asked in frustration. The phone cut off in mid-peal. They both looked at each other and were nearly caught in the doorway in their haste to get into the living room.
Sam had edged her frame closer to the phone and already had the receiver by her ear. For a moment there was a somewhat confused expression on her face, which distressed Ben and he moved towards the phone to take it from her. Joan grasped his shoulder, restraining him from moving. She’d already identified the look on Sam’s face. Identified it as something she had wished, craved, yearned to see. Sam under creative enchantment.
“Hello?” Sam’s voice was filtered through an unfamiliar quaver, and Ben glanced at Joan in increasing worry but the older woman’s grip only grew tighter. “Vacuum service?” Sam queried. The voice at the other end babbled for some time. “You would come here, and help me with my vacuuming?” The voice attempted to explain. “How very, very kind of you. What is your name, young man?” Joan stifled a chuckle, and even Ben realised that Sam had never patronised anyone as ‘young man’ before. Ben still appeared nervous, but Joan patted the position beside her on the couch to indicate he should relax and enjoy the show. Unsure, but willing to suspend disbelief, he joined her on the couch.
Sam continued her old woman’s twitter. “It would be so nice if you could, so nice just to have anyone come by. You know, as you grow older…” There was a sound from the telephone speaker that tried to interrupt the flow, but the thin voice sailed on regardless. “…people just don’t call on one as they once did. I remember when people would drop off calling cards,” (at this Joan snickered. Calling cards were at least two generations before either of them had been born. Ben seemed to realise this and stared at his adopted Aunt with growing delight.) “The servants would collect them on this lovely silver tray. I’m not sure where that tray went, probably Elsie got it, sold it for her morphine. She was such a card. I remember one time…”
There was a much stronger attempt at the other end to get the conversation on track. “Oh yes. Cleaning. Do you do windows? It’s so hard for me to reach… oh, just the floors? Are you sure? You sound like a strong young man, perhaps if you came by we could have some tea? I know! I have some biscuits that I made just last year and I’m sure the jelly is fine if we clear off the top skin… …No? I wouldn’t think of having you in without a proper tea. In fact, do you have a place to stay? There’s an extra bedroom here that no one has used since Edwin died. Such a sweet man Edwin. I was so shocked when they found out he was responsible for all those fires. I had to go to court, and do you what the judge said to me?”
Joan seemed quite impressed with the determination of the man on the other end of this call. Again there was a bleat of frustration. “Any time would be fine, dear. I haven’t had any guests since that awful man came from the SPCA. All of my cats are perfectly happy and just because my heart is large enough to look after a few more than the silly laws allow, they made the most awful ruckus. They asked me to put newspapers down to catch the little droppings and then became upset when I kept putting them over the messes. And Jemima’s latest litter was so large and of course they weren’t housebroken, and at least a dozen are too old to go outside at all, but I can’t help loving them. It would be so helpful if you would help the vacuuming, but first we’d have to find out how far down underneath it all the carpet actually is…hello? Hello?”
Sam hung up the phone to her audience’s applause. She attempted to bow but she overbalanced herself and Ben rushed over to give her support that turned into a crushing hug. He lowered her to the couch and she reached up the brush the tears on his cheek.
“You silly, boy, are those for me?” Sam said softly.
He shook his head and wiped away more tears. “You damndable woman. Do you know how scared you had me? I thought…”
Joan stood up from the couch, her expression showing none of what Ben knew had to be tremendous relief. “I TOLD you she was alright.” With an imperious sweep, she returned to the kitchen.
“Old fraud,” Sam grumbled lightly.
Ben laughed. “She’s in there wiping her own eyes, isn’t she?” They both chuckled before happily resumed their hug.
“Whoa!” Sam gushed as they broke apart. “I don’t mean to worry you, but that took a lot out of me. So please don’t panic if I think I’d like to rest again before your little monsters arrive?”
He rose to help her, but she waved him away. “As you saw, we’re paying some sadist good pawnbroker’s money to make me walk from room to room. Don’t help when I get to do it for free.” His anxiety level rose for a moment when she had difficulty rising and he saw the weakness of her left side again, but was assuaged when she said as if nothing had changed, “Happy Valentine’s Day, my little bunny.”
And he replied as always, “Happy Anniversary, Auntie Sammie.”
It took almost five minutes before she reached the doorway to the study. The kitchen door opened and a clearly frustrated Joan demanded, “Alright. I give up. Where do you hide the bloody turkey baster?”
Sam continued her snail’s pace but threw back, “I thought we agreed to talk it over with Ben before we had a child?”
“Laugh it up, Blondie,” Joan retorted. “After I finish roasting this bird by myself, I won’t need a cook around here anymore.”
Ben tensed slightly at the insult, but Sam wasn’t fazed. “The baster is in the drawer under the oven mitts.” Sam paused and added, “See. You still need me, if only to call 911 for the survivors later on. Unless you splurge for a HOME stomach pump.”
The kitchen door slammed as Sam pressed onward, smiling happily. “That’s the first time she’s insulted me in months, you know that? I was getting a bit worried.”
As they passed through the study, it seemed as though Sam was being drawn towards the desktop, but her upbeat mood evaporated and it showed. Ben followed her eyes to the keyboard, and then down to her useless left hand. “The mind is the important thing, Sam. The rest is ingenuity, time, and money if you have it.”
“Robert didn’t clean me out as well, did he?”
“No, he just spent the income, didn’t touch the capital.” Unspoken were the words, ‘he was planning on inheriting that…’
Ben had to ask, “How much…”
“Do I remember?” She smiled an exhausted smile. “I’ve lost a few things. A few I hope to get back. Some I hope I never remember. I have a few nightmares still.”
“So do we all. What does your therapist say about that?”
“She’s a sweetheart. She just lets me talk and talk and that’s heaven for me, you know. And… she tells me she’s happy with my progress. She says I shouldn’t feel any guilt.”
“Guilt? What could you…?”
“Because it was my fault.”
“All of this, this disaster of Robert. I asked you to welcome him. And you did. For me.”
“Shhhhhhh. You really are tired. We were happy for you.”
“I‘m so sorry, Ben.”
“What could you be sorry for?”
“I had a family. Right here. But I thought… I was greedy. It wasn’t fair to you and I want to apologise. If ever you felt I was, too eager, to find blood kin, that it made you or the children feel any less important…”
“No…Though, I’ll admit it’s nice to hear you say that.”
Sam smiled. “Honest, good.”
“But I told you, we were happy for you.”
And they had been. They had welcomed Robert, never seen this jovial tubby pharmacist as a threat. They’d welcomed him as part of Sam’s life that she had thought lost forever. Sam’s daughter Sarah, would never accept that her mother was now living in her childhood home with another woman. Her church and her loyalties drove her to cut off all contact with Sam. So after Sarah’s unexpected death, Joan and Ben’s family had been delighted that Sam’s grandchild seemed prepared to reconcile. They had welcomed the young man into their homes and been pleased with what they’d found. Been charmed by his concern for his grandmother, and thought nothing of his invitation to her to stay with him for a visit.
Then came the phone call from him that Sam was in the hospital. A severe stroke.
“You and your family have always been so good…”
“Now stop that. There’s not my family when you’re talking. This is your family, you know that! We’ve, we’ve never been anything but normal. Your daughter was the one, Mary’s parents were the strange ones. They were given a choice between you and their God, and what was it her Pastor told her?”
“That her love for me was the devil’s way of tempting them to forgive the sin.”
“We’ve been over this. Your husband was a bastard who filled her mind with crap, and when you came back from England with Joan and I, it was shock to her.”
“What about you? You were a little boy.”
“It was different for her. You were her mother. Her heterosexual, maybe even asexual, mother. She didn’t know Joan. Me, I’d met you, seen how wonderful you were. And as for shock… My Aunt, who’d treated me like a recruit from the SAS from the day she became my guardian, who loved Britain and hated anything American, who loved her job, was suddenly asking me for permission to quit and move to the US of A? The fact it was to be with another woman was waaaaay down on my list of shocks.”
Sam chuckled at that.
“Now, as one of your doctors, I prescribe one hour of rest. No more. Then get yourself dressed, no assistance, okay? Your pantsuit is sort sleeved, so no asking for help. Then you might need a rest after that, so take another 30 minutes in your chair before coming out.”
“Ja vohl! Though I did think I’d been out for years.”
He gazed into her face, luxuriating in the pleasure of having her with them once more, before turning to leave. Behind him, he heard her call out, “And Ben. Don’t unplug the phone. This whole sales people thing has been my only entertainment. I may want to play with someone again.”
“Not until after you rest.”
“Meany. Well, for the sake of the children, go down there and help her in the kitchen.”
When he pushed open the kitchen door, Joan parodied a game show display model and gestured dramatically towards the stove.
A thought struck him and he looked about the counters before asking. “Joan. What did you do with the innards?”
Joan looked puzzled. “Which?
“The little paper bags with the livers and stuff?”
Joan’s expression of confidence slipped badly. “There weren’t any?”
“Oh, Christ. Pull the turkey out! We have to take out the bags of innards.”
Twenty minutes later, with the turkey restuffed, they were both holding their hands in ice water, when Ben opened up the conversation.
“Now I’m starting to wonder how many bags of gauze you left in your patients.”
“ Funny. How was I supposed to know? That’s what you were here for.”
“So it’s my fault now.”
“If the patient wasn’t already dead, I’d definitely be naming you in the peer review.” They both chuckled. Ben took Joan’s hand in his.
“You know I love you, but you’re going to have to tell Sam sometime. And we need to talk to a lawyer.”
“You said you’d wait until Sam’s finances were settled.”
“This isn’t about Sam now.”
“I don’t need a lawyer. We both know that as soon as I took the towel with me, tried to evade punishment, I showed that I was aware of right and wrong and was legally responsible for my actions.”
“Your actions are what prove you were not acting in a sane or reasonable manner.”
Joan snorted. “So I go to a shrink? And say what? I’d have to confess to the therapist and doctor patient privilege wouldn’t cover a crime. We might as well go straight to the police.”
“You didn’t kill him, it was self-defence. That’s not the problem.”
“Can’t you understand? I thought you loved her too?”
“How can you… Of course, I love her. I get angry, and I hate. Does that make you happy?”
“Then you know why I did it.”
“No, I don’t. There are lines. And don’t tell me you did it for her. If that was true, you’d have told her, and you won’t. Because you know how she’d feel. How she’d look at you.”
“Like you are now.”
“I will always love you, Joan.”
There was silence again except for the wind against the windows. “Why didn’t we guess? We should have known, we should have found some way to examine her in court. We should have wondered how he knew so much about the laws of Guardianship,” Ben said.
“I thought about it at the time, but I assumed he knew from looking after his mother.”
“What I don’t understand is why your detective was able to find out that he’d been the Guardian of all those customers, but no one in the conservators office picked up on it.”
“Bureaucracy. He counted on that. Plus, two of his victims were in other states.”
“I still don’t understand, the police spent two hours with you. You had motive, there must have been crime scene evidence. I mean, the little old lady act couldn’t have fooled them.”
“Robert was at least 22 stone. I weigh less than half that. Unless I had an accomplice, there was simply no way that I could have overpowered him in their eyes. You had an alibi, Sam was unable to help. And even if they got over that hurdle, how in heaven’s name was I supposed to have moved the body?”
Mary was getting the kids dressed for going out when Liam asked, “Jennifer wants to know again, why we haven’t been to see them?”
“You know all this,” she replied patiently, pulling on Jennifer’s boots.
“No, I mean the part about Uncle Robert. Couldn’t you tell he was bad?”
Mary thought for a while. “Well, he was very good at fooling people. He did it a lot. To a lot of people.”
“And then Aunt Sam had her stroke.”
“And Uncle Robert got a lawyer to say Aunt Sam had to stay with him.”
“See, you do know all this,” Mary said.
“But Aunt Joan was upset, so she got a lawyer. And they lost, even though they cost tons and tons and tons of money…”
“Because he was her grandson, and not just a housemate.” Mary explained.
This is what clearly puzzled Liam. “But they aren’t just housemates. You and Dad aren’t just housemates.”
Mary sighed. “We’ve talked about this too. There are some old laws, laws in this state and a few others, which will be changed, which say that that’s all they can be. In fact, if Aunt Sam said anything else, she could even lose her teacher’s job and her pension.”
“That’s not right,” Liam’s sense of justice was developing as fast as his legs.
“Nope,” Mary agreed, as she chose a scarf for Jennifer from the coat rack.
“So Uncle Rob started stealing Aunt Sammie’s money and was going to steal the house too, right? But he didn’t know that Aunt Joan had already figured out that he was evil,” Liam said. “So he ran away when Aunt Joan found out?”
“That’s what the police say,” said Mary
“And now Auntie Sam and Auntie Joan are back together, why isn’t Auntie Sam better?”
“You see, Uncle Robert kept Aunt Sam locked up in that house of his and told everybody that she was too sick to have exercises or speech therapy that would make her better. That she might have another stroke if she did. That made her even sicker. And so now, Auntie Sam has had to make up for all that time. It can take a lot of hard work to make the muscles work again. So I don’t know how much like her old self Auntie Sam will be. You have to be prepared for that, okay?”
“So why do we have to go to Bobby’s house tonight instead of staying with them like always?”
“Well, we have wait for Auntie Sam to get even better.”
“How long?” Liam’s patience was not as developed.
“Auntie Sam’s still sick?” Now dressed to go out, Jennifer felt free to contribute.
“Well,” Mary searched for an analogy. “Remember how you watched the tomato plant grow this year? First, there was the…?”
“Sprout.” Liam answered.
“Yeah, and then the…”
“BIG Leaves!” Jennifer added.
“Then, came the…” Mary waited.
“Yup. Then the…?”
“Little bitty Green Tomatoes!”
“And if you wait more…?”
“BIG RED Tomatoes!” Jennifer beat Liam this time, and giggled.
“Well, your Auntie Sam is like that. You remember you saw her in the wheelchair and she could hardly talk? Okay, now she’s got a pushing frame and she slurs a bit. Next time you visit, I bet she’ll have an octopus cane.”
“A REAL OCTOPUS?” Liam asked.
“No, it’s got a bunch of little legs on the bottom. Then she’ll have a little cane, and then she’ll be walking bout as good as new. THEN, you can stay for days and days and days. Okay?”
As both kids ran out to the car, Mary wiped the imaginary sweat off her forehead, and placed another debit in her husbands ‘You Owe Me’ column.
The sun was low in the sky when they heard movement upstairs, and Ben checked the turkey and basted it once more before going to greet Sam. Joan stayed in the kitchen, pensively looking at the stove, her mind obviously elsewhere.
“So, are you okay?” Ben asked Sam.
“Getting there. I told you, I have the sweetest girl who makes me talk about what happened and it’s getting sorted.”
“We all, we all wish…”
“I remember some of what all went on. It wasn’t only whatever he gave me that caused the stroke. There were a lot of other drugs he gave me. I remember you crying, that was at the hearing, I’m guessing?”
“You don’t have to talk about it…”
“That’s your Aunt talking. I do need to know, and she won’t tell me. Keeps putting me off.”
“Then maybe I shouldn’t…”
“Why do you think she’s put us together like this? She trusts you.”
Ben tensed and tried to look away. “I don’t know how much you know.”
Sam drew his eyes to hers. “I know she’s hiding a burden from me. That she was tortured by Robert as much as I was.”
Ben didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.
“I also know, “Sam continued, “that she may hide behind that hard façade, but she would never take a life. For all the anger she carries, I’ve never known her to do an evil act.”
Ben swallowed before asking the next question. “What if she has? And what if it was for you?”
“You mean will I call the police?” Sam seemed amused at the thought.
“No. But will you tell her to?”
“If it will ease her soul? Maybe. But I’d rather she let herself heal, as I’m healing. With love. With her. With this family.”
“Family,” Ben muttered.
“The bigger question is, Ben, will you let her do that?”
That was the question, wasn’t it. “I don’t know. We were waiting until you were well enough…”
“Then you better decide. You know, whatever happens, we will stand behind you, and we all will stand behind Joan. Whatever she’s done or whatever you decide. There’ll be no conflict. We can do that, you know. We’ve been through too much, to not keep our principles.”
Ben nodded. “Okay. Are you ready for Monday?”
Sam’s mood and posture loosened immediately. “Are they really likely to ask who the first Postmaster General was? Because Joan’s been coaching me. If they ask who the president is, I’m not sure I’ll answer. I think I’d be a lot happier if I didn’t know.”
“Alright. Who was the first postmaster?”
Sam mimicked pressing a buzzer. “Ben Franklin!”
“How old are you?”
Another press of the imaginary button. “Sixty-one. My birthday is coming up soon, February 16th.”
“Where is your home?”
With quiet sincerity, Sam answered, “With my family.”
Mary’s car finally pulled up outside and Joan was calling to them to get ready for the invasion, and the family was together again.
Hours later, the turkey had been long devoured and now all were bloated. Mary and Sam were playing cards with the kids and Joan and Ben were clearing and washing up.
She was facing the wall and he spoke only to her back. “Mary’s going to take the kids to their friends for the night. I told her I was going to visit a patient and catch up afterwards.”
Her shoulders tightened for a moment and then she turned to pull a foil bag out of the fridge. Ben glanced at it, knowing immediately what it was.
“Guilt?” he asked quietly.
“No,” Joan replied sternly. “But…”
“I know. Family.”
He went into the living room and kissed each of the card players before putting his coat on. As he did so, the telephone rang.
Sam asked quietly, “Shall I get that?” Several delighted heads nodded.
Leaving was forgotten, as Ben watched his beloved adopted aunt clear her throat dramatically before lifting the receiver. She listened carefully before blasting out with a voice that nearly knocked Liam off of his chair.
“How am I today? HOW AM I TODAY? You insignificant FOOL! You have no idea what you have done, DO YOU??? I do not NEED your foolish long distance rates! You have INTERRUPTED THE RITE OF SUMMONING OF THE UNCONQUERABLE BAAL!!”
Around her Mary and the kids had collapsed on the floor, tears running from his wife’s eyes. And Sam wasn’t done.
“And now you must SUFFER!!! I will send the force of the VENGEANCE GOD through these wires to REACH your puny HEART and CRUSH IT!!!!”
As he was just closing the door, he glanced back to see Sam staring bemusedly at the receiver before saying mildly, “he seems to have disconnected.”
It was a longish drive and he thought of their last kitchen conversation before everyone had arrived.
“So how did you fool the police?”
“I didn’t lie. The door was unlocked as I said. Sam was the way I described. Except Robert was still there. He was all packed up and ready to go. His fake ID was already in his wallet. Driver’s license, passport, even comprehensive health coverage. But he wanted one last thrill before he left. He was watching the tapes, the ones I told you about. There was a syringe beside him…”
“You said it was self-defence!” Ben interrupted.
“ It was self-defence. He turned around, grabbed the syringe, planning to use it on me. But I’m still pretty wiry and I’ve kept up my self-defence. He was a fat little bastard with his pants around his legs. And, if there’s one thing I do know how to do, I damn well know how to administer a shot. Even when the patient is struggling. Even then, he nearly got me.”
“Then why not call the police?”
“You know why. I couldn’t… At that moment, it seemed so clear. That it wasn’t right. What he’d done to her. It wasn’t enough.”
“So, how DID you get him out of the house?”
“I drove him. He knew what he’d been shot with. It was made up for Sam, to finish her off before he left. So he was as eager to get to the hospital as I was to get Sam there.
“I took her in and he waited in the car. He must have assumed that he could trust me to do the right thing. And as far as I’m concerned, I did.”
“So his little cocktail of drug hadn’t taken effect?”
“No, but he was already partly paralysed. Whatever he’s put in the syringe, he wasn’t capable of telling me. I doubt if there was any antidote by that time anyway.
“Tell me, please, that you still checked to see if he could be treated afterwards.”
She went to her old desk and pulled out a file.
“Take a look and check the time and date. I got him into the CT scan as fast as possible. There was no chance of recovery.”
While he was looking over the report, she added, “Whatever was in that cocktail he’d been using all those years to produce strokes, this version was extra potent. It would have killed Sam. There was little left of his mind.”
The home was darkened and quiet as he pulled into the lot. The few family members that had visited for the holiday had mostly gone now and there were only a few staff on duty. He stopped by one of his regular patients to chat before taking a back stairwell and making his way to a room at the end of the corridor.
“But that wasn’t enough.”
“I made up a chart in his fake name and fake insurance and logged him in. And then I went back to Sam.”
“You subjected a healthy man to every form of chemo and radiation therapy the hospital had to offer.”
“Not really. I let our medical system do all that. And no one ever double checked or did a biopsy.”
“And your oath? To do no harm?”
“He’s lucky that’s all that I did. He’s lucky he’s not chained in the basement, that I didn’t rape him again and again. That I didn’t…” Joan rubbed her nose, collecting herself. “There was no family listed, no one visited. The hospital took him into its maw and swallowed him up.”
A television was blaring inside, and the sound seemed to strike him as he opened the door.
“Happy Valentine’s Day.”
The aged figure didn’t look up, merely continued to rock back and forth within the seat, muttering under his breath. After three months of intensive therapy, and even some experimental procedures, the teeth and hair were gone. The weight was below 150 pounds and the sagging flesh simply looked like age-ravaged skin.
Ben opened his case and brought out the foil-covered bag. “I think there’s turkey and some dressing. Yup, and veg with lots of gravy. And I think it’s still warm.”
After laying out the utensils, he placed a cushion behind the trembling bony frame and moved him closer to the table. Ben expertly nudged a spoonful of potato and gravy under the upper gums and into the drooling mouth.
There was a slow swallow and an idiot’s grin as his reward. The mumbling became clearer and Ben felt a chill run along his body, as he finally understood the words. Understood that Robert might have had a visitor during his long torturous stay in the hospital. Words that must have been drilled into him again and again, into whatever was left of his mind. Until he believed it.
Ben’s mind rejected the evidence. He was going to ignore it. Possibly Robert was just repeating what he’d told all the others. This was Valentine’s Day, and he knew the best gift he could give his family. He was not putting the people he loved through any more pain.
Robert repeated the words again. “I’m a useless, sick, old man.”
“But still family,” Ben said, lifting another spoonful.