The Memory Keeper, p.25Lisa Stowe
Cody held the phone between her ear and her shoulder, the handset growing hot as if her mother’s words filled it to boiling. Her head throbbed and exhaustion burned her eyes. All she wanted was some way to end a day that seemed like infinity.
After leaving Matt at the café, she had reluctantly returned to Florence’s, an interloper in a family drama. Rachel opened the door wearing a baggy sweatshirt that said ‘Miners Go Deep’ and equally baggy men’s boxers. The ragamuffin clothes reminded Cody of an old flannel nightgown she wore when she was sick. Comfort clothes for rough days.
“I think I should find a hotel room,” she said, hovering in the doorway as rain splattered the steep roof and used the eaves to give her a shower.
Rachel caught her arm and tugged her into the doorway. “You’re letting the heat out.”
And that had been the only thing Rachel said, other than to report there was no change in Jess’s condition. It was almost ten, and the night was a wet black blanket plastered against the windows. Florence slept soundly in her room, and Rachel had left the door open. Cody glanced in to see a night light glinting off something that moved in the windows. She’d paused for a moment until she’d recognized bells. Rachel had strung bells on all the windows. From her vantage point in the kitchen where she worked at the stove, she would either hear Florence at the windows, or see her if she left the room. Cody continued on to the room she used the night before, finding the bells unaccountably sad.
In the room, Cody slipped off her damp shoes and stood there wondering how best to stay out of the way and not intrude. The phone reminded her that May wanted a call, so she dialed and settled on the bed, hoping for a brief conversation. That was fifteen minutes ago.
“None of your friends impressed me today. Of course it’s horrible that poor police woman got shot, but you haven’t made good choices about who you spend your time with here. Are you listening?”
“Yes, mom,” Cody said. “It’s just been a very long day and I’m completely exhausted.”
“And that’s a direct result of the friends you’ve chosen. You could do so much better. You should look into those pen pals that are everywhere these days.”
“Pen pals?” Cody sank lower on the bed and closed her eyes.
“Pen pals,” May reiterated. “On the computer. Like the singles groups they used to have, where people get together and do fun things. The advantage of doing that on the computer is no one has to see what someone looks like. They get to know your personality first. You have a wonderful personality. And you can have those friendships without having to leave your room.”
A year ago, a month ago, even two weeks ago, Cody would have taken the underlying meaning in May’s words for truth and planted it deep. But now an odd sort of chill iced over that once fertile soil in her soul.
“And you have quite a way with words, mom.”
“Thank you,” May said. “I’m pleased you realize that. The ability to communicate has always been one of my gifts.”
“I’m going to bed,” Cody said, giving up. “I’m too wiped out to talk anymore. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“What time? You can come by and pick me up for breakfast. You know how my blood sugar is always low in the morning.”
“Good night mom,” Cody said, promising nothing, giving nothing, apologizing for nothing.
She sagged back against the pillows and rubbed her temples. Scenes played against her mind, images of her life in stark, unforgiving black and white. Everything she had done was a direct result of what her mother wanted. Years trying to please May, millions of words sinking into her heart as if they were sacred gems. That treasure horde was starting to look very tarnished.
Kelly had joked with her, smiled at her, touched her shoulder, and expected nothing in return. Matt and Rachel, Jess and Rivers, all of them spent time in her company and acted like it wasn’t that bad. She thought they might be growing into friends. So where was the truth? Did it come from the mother who had raised her, or did it come from strangers who had so recently walked into her life? And if she wasn’t who her mother said she was, then who was she?
Her thoughts drifted back to Bounty Track and the image of Nate and Kelly in death. She doubted the police would ever catch the person. How could they, when there were no witnesses, and no convenient clues left behind? Jake and his temper made him suspect. But the man in camouflage was the only person she’d been scared by. That right there should count for something. Well, unless Keith was included. He was scary in his own intimidating way. Her thoughts circled until they melded into nothing.
Cody must have fallen asleep because when the phone rang, the sound startled her upright and the house held that deep silence that crept into rooms in the wee hours of darkness. She instinctively reached for the phone before realizing it wasn’t her house. It quit after the second ring and she stood on shaky knees. The bedside clock said it was three in the morning. No one called at that time unless it was bad news.
An overwhelming fear for Jess cascaded through her so that her heart raced ahead of the avalanche of adrenaline. She stumbled to the door and caught the doorjamb as a light in the kitchen came on and something crashed to the floor.
When there was no answer, Cody went down the hall. Rachel stood by the table, one foot on a chair as she tied her boot laces. Pieces of a glass were scattered on the floor around her.
“What is it?” Cody asked.
Rachel reached for a coat hanging on a chair back and tried to pull it on, then glanced at it and realized it was Cody’s. She dropped it.
“Where’s my coat? I need my coat.”
“Rachel,” Cody said again, louder. “What’s going on?”
“The museum is on fire. I have to go. I don’t know how bad it is. I need to get down there, see if I can save anything. Where’s my coat?”
“Right here,” Cody said, lifting it off a hook by the door. “I’ll drive you.”
“No!” Rachel caught Cody’s arms. “You have to stay here!”
“I think you’re too upset to drive.”
“I need you to stay with Granny. Thank god you’re here. Can you watch her for me?”
“Of course. But are you sure--”
“Yes, yes. I can drive. Where are my keys?”
A frantic search ended when Rachel pulled open the freezer and plucked out frosty keys.
“The freezer?” Cody asked as she opened the door for Rachel.
“Granny,” Rachel said. “Who knows why.”
Rachel ducked out into the darkness, quickly plummeting down the steps and out of sight. Cody stood in the damp and chilly air until she heard the Jeep start up, and then closed the door and stared at it, wondering what else she could do. She walked to Florence’s bedroom door and the night light showed the elderly woman sleeping soundly with the knuckle of her forefinger in her mouth. Cody stepped in to pull the blankets up more snugly and then went back into the kitchen.
Something tickled her cheek as she stood in the middle of the room and she brushed at it. A soft curl wove around her finger and she jerked her hand away. How long had it been since she’d cropped her hair? Obviously too long if the curls were getting visible. She needed to find scissors before her mother started in with her comments on frizzy hair.
Cody filled a tea kettle at the sink and put it on the stove, lighting the burner. Rachel would want something warm when she came back. As the water heated, Cody went back to the bedroom and replaced her nightgown with discarded jeans and the gray tee shirt from the day before. They’d do until she could shower later.
Back in the kitchen, Cody sat at the table, fidgeted, stood, and walked to the sink. There was nothing to see out of the window but her reflection, out of place. She shivered, chilled, as if her blood moved slowly with the night. Her eyes watered with sleep tears and she brushed them away as the kettle whistled. She grabbed it off the burner before it could become frantic and then stood there hol
Rachel had left a scattered pile of papers on an end table, along with a pen and notebook. It looked like she had still been up working when the call came in as a mug of coffee next to the papers was still warm. Cody straightened the pile, picked up a few pages from the floor, and weighted them down with the mug.
She crossed the room and sank onto the edge of an armchair thinking about how much history was here. How many conversations and secret dreams had passed through these rooms? The hushed sleepiness of the place settled around her and she imagined what a stark contrast it must be compared to outside, where a building that was filled with even more history burned.
“I don’t know you,” Florence said from the doorway.
Cody jumped, sucking in air and almost slipping off the edge of the chair. She stumbled to her feet, seeing the way fear and confusion spread vulnerability across the wrinkles of Florence’s face.
“She’s not here,” Cody said, and the shakiness in her voice was mirrored in Florence’s hands as she held them up, palms out as if to keep Cody back.
“Who are you? What are you doing sitting in Papa’s chair?”
“Waiting for them,” Cody said quickly. “They asked me to stay here so you wouldn’t be alone.”
Florence backed away. “I don’t know you,” she said again.
“It’s alright Florence, really,” Cody said, and stepped forward.
“Stay away!” Florence’s voice rose and she stepped back again, tripping over the door jamb and grabbing the fame.
“Florence, it’s okay, really,” Cody said, starting forward and then stepping back when Florence reacted by flinching away as if to run.
How did a person calm someone when words didn’t make sense? Cody turned away from Florence and walked to the window, hoping she looked non-threatening.
“Sure has been raining a lot lately,” she said, watching Florence’s reflection as she had watched her own earlier.
Florence wasn’t coming closer, but she was no longer backing away, and her hands were at her side, her head tilted slightly as if listening to something Cody couldn’t hear.
“And I’m surprised how cold it is already.”
“Tamaracks,” Florence said, almost as a question.
Cody waited, frozen in place as if movement would break the spell.
“They’re gold early this year,” Florence continued. “Early winter.”
“Think it will be worse than normal?”
“Oh yes. That boy will be cold unless the woman I’m not supposed to talk to gives him a coat.”
Cody’s heart clenched and she turned away from reflections. “Charles?”
“Charles, yes. Mama says that woman helps him. Papa says she helps all men, and he laughed so loud. Mama smacked him with her stirring spoon.”
“Have you talked to Charles?”
“Hello. I said hello. I wanted to ask him why that woman only helps men, but he couldn’t talk to me. His mother smacked him and it wasn’t a nice smack like Mama did. Do you know nice smacks?”
“I think so.”
“I’ve never had mean smacks. Papa told Mama he wanted to smack the mayor. I don’t think that would be a nice smack. Father says the mayor is a right bastard." Florence whispered the last word and looked quickly around the room. “I’m not supposed to say that word.”
“I imagine not,” Cody said, and smiled at the child Florence had once been. She felt dampness on her cheeks and knew this time it wasn’t just sleeplessness watering her eyes. She wiped the tears away quickly, but Florence stepped closer.
“Are you crying, dear? What’s the matter?" Her voice was calm and, without warning, in the right place and time.
“Just loss,” Cody said quietly.
“We lose so much,” Florence agreed, looking out the window where fall aged into winter with the dawn. “So much.”
The front door opened, admitting cold air scented with an astringent mix of wet earth and smoke. Rachel shut the door behind her and leaned against it. Soot streaked her skin, striped her face, darkened her hair. Dirt or ash had sunk into the calluses of her hands, and her shirt had marks where she had wiped her fingers.
“Rachel?” Florence asked timidly.
“Yeah, Granny, it’s me.”
“I’ve been having a wonderful visit with your mother.”
“That’s just great.” Rachel put a hand over her eyes and slid down the door until she sat on the floor, knees up. “How about going back to bed?”
“Certainly,” Florence said, and without another word left them.
Cody watched to make sure Florence went into her room, and then came back to Rachel.
“How bad is it?”
“I doubt anything will be salvageable,” Rachel said, and coughed. “God, the smoke was terrible. I don’t know what did more damage, the fire, the smoke, or the water from putting it out.”
“Do you know what started it?”
“No idea, but the fire marshal was on his way." Rachel dropped her forehead to her knees and wrapped her arms around her legs.
“Do you want some tea? I have water that’s hot." Cody shifted, wanting to go to Rachel but afraid of getting too close and intruding.
“Tea,” Rachel said, raising her head. “Fu-”
“Rachel!” Florence said loudly from her bedroom. “I don’t think so!”
Rachel laughed briefly, and ended it with more coughing. “Shit. Even when she’s completely nuts she’s still with it enough to not let me use that word. Yeah Cody, I guess I’ll take that tea.”
“Is there insurance on the museum?”
“For all the good it’s going to do. Insurance won’t replace things that aren’t made anymore, or documented memories from people long dead.”
Cody took the kettle from the wood stove and poured water over a tea bag in a heavy mug. She handed it to Rachel, unsettled by her calmness. Rather than appearing like someone who was handling the situation, the calmness seemed like veneer.
Rachel blew across the tea and then sipped it. She rested her head back against the door and looked around the room, studying each thing as if retelling a well-loved story. Cody sank onto the edge of a chair and clasped her hands between her knees.
“I’m going to lose my job now,” Rachel said. “No museum, no need for a curator or docent.”
“But they’ll need someone to salvage stuff, or to start finding things again won’t they?” Cody asked.
Rachel shrugged. “No job, no income, no way to take care of Granny." She put a hand down to the floor and heaved upward as if gravity fought her. Once upright she took another sip of tea and then flung the mug across the room where it shattered against the kitchen door jamb.
Cody jumped up. “Rachel,” she began.
“What? Please don’t tell me we can fix this, that everything will be okay. Just what the hell am I supposed to do now? I can’t leave her alone, and now I can’t hire someone to stay with her. Think anyone’s going to give me a job if I have to bring her to work with me every day? Come on Cody, give me some words of wisdom here because I sure as hell don’t have any of my own!”
“You’re asking me for words of wisdom?” Cody said, realizing her voice had risen to match Rachel’s. “Me, who can’t escape her mother, who can’t stand up for herself, who can’t even talk to people without feeling like a failure? I don’t have any! All I was going to say is that you don’t have to deal with this alone.”
“God, what a cliché." Rachel slumped onto the sofa. “What exactly does that mean, anyway? Yeah, sure, I have friends, but do you think any of them will pay for a caretaker? Or will pay my bills, or give me a job?”
Cody’s breath caught on a sudden flicker of anger. “You know, I think I like you better when you keep your mouth shut. Lately when
Rachel stared at Cody, silent, and Cody cringed as she realized what she had done.
“Rachel, I’m sorry…”
“Shit! Don’t you dare apologize!" Rachel ran her fingers through her soot streaked hair. “I don’t agree with you, and I don’t think your rosy opinion of people in this town is accurate. Right now it feels like my only choice is tossing Granny to the state wolves and letting her be put in some home for nuts. And that breaks my heart. But, damn girl, whether I agree with you or not, you’re developing some balls.”
“I just got angry, and I shouldn’t have,” Cody said as warmth washed across her cheeks.
“Oh yeah you should have. You didn’t solve anything but you said what was on your mind." Rachel pushed up from the couch and palmed her wet cheeks, spreading more soot. “I’m heading for the shower and to try and get a few hours of sleep.”
Cody watched Rachel leave the room, her shoulders slumped in either fatigue or depression or both. She bent to pick up the pieces of mug, stacking them carefully in her hand. Rachel was right. She had said exactly what was on her mind, without thinking it through first and without worrying about what someone might feel.
And it had felt good.
The Memory Keeper by Lisa Stowe / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on40 votes