I stepped into the hallway and listened. A moment later, the light taps I’d thought I’d imagined sounded again on the front door’s carved glass. I checked my watch, but the plastic hands hadn’t quite reached twelve and three.
“Early as always.”
Darting paint cans and torn strips of wallpaper, I passed into the kitchen. After switching on the kettle, I headed to the door, assembling what order I could out of my ponytail and spattered sweatshirt.
Glass facets warped the figure standing on the stoop, blurring the details of a hat perched on gray hair and the glint of buttons adorning an overcoat. She shuffled back when I unfastened the slide lock and bolt, and then opened the door wide.
“I didn’t expect you until—”
Blue eyes blinked up at me from an almost familiar face framed by a fuzzy pink cloche my mother would have loved. With her shoulders hunched, pudgy body held snug, the stranger smiled, her sheepishness softening laugh lines and crow’s-feet.
“I’m sorry to bother you, dear, but I noticed the for sale sign.” She gestured with a limp wrist at the telltale marker plunged into the front yard, and then clutched her steamer-trunk of a purse to a sunken chest. “Are you the seller?”
Closing the door slightly, I filled the gap, wary the IRS or some unknown housing authority had come to inspect my Victorian burden. “I am.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?” Her cheeks bunched as the elderly woman beamed. “Have you lived here long?”
I swallowed saying unfortunately and settled instead for tact. “All my life.”
“You don’t say.” She tilted as if to peer beyond me then returned, her grin rebounding. “May I look around? I used to live here a long time ago.”
I glanced behind me at the warped floorboards and chipped molding, the bared walls and hollow rooms. “I’m afraid there’s not much to see.”
“Oh, I don’t mind.” She chuckled and scanned the wraparound porch and white banisters I’d touched up the weekend before. “You should have seen it in my day. I’m amazed it’s still standing after being stuffed to the brim.”
“Stuffed?” I leaned onto the doorframe. “Stuffed with what?”
She cocked her head and her eyes lost a bit of their gleam. “You don’t know?”
“I don’t know what?”
She lowered her gaze, her confused furrows cast at the splintered wood I hadn’t yet sanded smooth. “I thought for sure whoever owned the house would know.”
She covered her mouth with a quaking hand and I found myself wanting to wrap her up as tightly as her pale-pink coat. I wanted to let her know everything would be fine, to somehow remember what she thought I knew, to bring back the sparkle in her eye, the beam to her elderly lips. Reminding myself she was a stranger, possibly a demented one, I settled on the next best thing politeness allowed.
Stepping back, I held the door open. “Why don’t you come in and tell me about it?”
Her attention drifted to me and the entrance I’d been blockading, her grin a shadow of its former glow. “You’re too kind, dear.”
She shuffled across the threshold, pantyhose rustling. Her fat-heeled shoes thumped with each prudent step, their echo applauding down the hall.
Shutting the door, I left the bolts undone, and followed her as she tottered deeper into my house.
“We had pictures here, dear, pictures of all of us.” She trickled arthritic fingers along the wall where I’d plastered holes from a photographic landscape. Ours had been black and white shots of distant hills, mountains, rivers, and shores, but this elderly woman greeted each empty spot as if finding a new friend.
“All of whom, ma’am?”
I don’t know if she hadn’t heard me or simply didn’t want to answer. She tramped through the next doorway without another word, at least not one to me.
“And here’s the kitchen.”
Traipsing across the tiles I’d scrubbed, the elderly woman braced herself on the porcelain sink no longer piled with my dirty dishes. Her fingers squeezed the sink’s lip as she faced the windows bared from flowered curtains.
“We had a garden in the back. Onions and herbs. Tomatoes and squash. Oh, all the vegetables you could want in the good years.” Her shoulders sagged under what I assumed to be the weight of memories of less lush times.
The thought of her worrisome past nagged at me as I clicked off the kettle and came to her side. The brick patio laid before my time peeked out among weeds and overgrowth, and although I could envision it with tended rows, I couldn’t imagine these gardeners she implied.
“Who did you live here with, ma’am?”
She swallowed and blinked as if holding back tears. “Would you take me upstairs, dear?”
Denying her seemed unusually cruel despite the wobbly banister and the not-so-level treads. I offered my arm and hoped she had insurance. “This way, ma’am.”
She looped her arm through mine. “Thank you, dear.”
We ascended and each step creaked as they always did. The banister groaned in support of the elderly woman’s weight put held. Visions, though, of her slipping, falling, and breaking her hip or neck spun through my mind. She managed, however, and with a determined face and blood-stopping clasp on my arm, we reached the second floor. Holding her hand to her heaving chest, she skimmed over the slatted walls.
“What happened to the wallpaper?”
“My parents tore it off and paneled it over.”
She traced the grain with arched fingers. “I used to love the roses.”
The faded flowers streaked out from distant memory in shades of yellow and pink. My mother’s argument against the peeling paper and the old-fashioned style had broken into my father’s wallet, and cast the roses away. I imagined most houses this age had suffered the same pruning and shaking my head at the coincidence, I padded after the elderly woman as she navigated the corridor.
“This one.” She pointed at what had been my bedroom. “Yes, this is the one.”
Laying a hand on the jamb, she stood at the threshold, looking inside and into a past she seemed to be reliving with every strained breath.
I glanced around the hallway for a chair to offer so she could rest, but only the radiator grill remained. The sea-green curtains over the round window, the paisley runner, the narrow side tables with Mom’s picture frames and knickknacks had all been boxed and hauled away.
Within my old bedroom, the scrapes from when I’d moved my bed to view the street, the fresher spot on the turquoise wall where my dresser had stood, the flakes where tape had held up posters spoke in evidence of my youth. Bared bulbs dangled from the ceiling since I’d removed the shade marked with glow-in-the-dark stars.
The elderly woman, however, floated into the barren space, marring my reminiscences of childhood and a wishful adolescence. She stopped by the wall opposite the window, where I’d dumped my book bags and stripped out of my uniform, leaving both in a wrinkle-inducing lump my mother would chastised me for later.
“Here.” Her lips trembled and she brought a hand to her mouth while her flushed features drained.
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
She nodded but didn’t look up from her trance with the hardwood.
A ring of the doorbell interrupted my step to her side. Leaning into the hallway, I shouted down the stairs, “It’s open!”
The front door creaked, the quiet rattle of the glass joining the sturdy stomp of my mother’s steps. “Hannah?”
Knowing she’d find out soon enough, I returned to the elderly woman. She hadn’t moved an inch.
I tiptoed close, wary of startling her into a heart attack or surprising her from the musings she’d entered. She flailed a hand as I neared, grabbing hold of my arm with the same blood-throttling grip.
“I had her right here.”
She quivered when she swiveled to me, her grasp unrelenting. “My daughter.”
Relinquishing her hold, the elderly woman clutched her purse and pivoted back to the spot on the floor.
“We each had a bed, the dozen of us hidden away until our times came.” She started plodding around the room, her words dribbling. I wasn’t sure she spoke to me, or the air, or the ghosts she walked among but couldn’t bring myself to interrupt.
“We’d grown up here. Our minds freed with books. Our bodies fatted like the garden’s squash. We’d shared our fears, our secrets, our hopes, our nightmares. We’d held each others’ hands when the first signs came, stayed close through each contraction, dried one another’s tears when the nurses took our babies away.”
She closed her eyes, her downturned face wetting with quiet streaks. “They’d said it was for our own good and none of us had the strength to argue.”
I glanced at the door where my mother arrived, her wrinkled face young compared to the little old lady weeping over her lost daughter, her pain-filled past. Without looking away from the elderly woman, my mother tipped back the brim of her hat to better peruse the scene.
“What is going on?”
“I’m not really sure,” I whispered. My mother gave me an exasperated look and I shrugged. “She said she lived here.”
Crossing her arms bunched my mother’s favorite mint-green coat, but she assumed the patronizing tone she’d perfected when surrounded by these same walls. “No one lived in this house for years before we bought it.”
“Yes…I know…dear,” the elderly woman stifled her weeping, “the home had been shut down.” She dug into her purse as she rambled. “I’d been one of the last, but I remember reading about it in the paper. Good riddance I’d thought, good riddance to it all.” She fetched a handkerchief and tended her features.
Once composed she looked over at us. My mother gasped and grabbed my arm with an all too familiar grip.
I helped her steady as the two stared at one another in their pink versus green ensembles.
My mother tugged me close, her voice hoarse. “Who is this, Hannah?”
“My name is Ethel Crane.” The elderly woman squeezed her handkerchief in her clawed hand. “What’s yours, dear?”
My mother’s grip tightened. “Rebecca Duchard.”
“Rebecca.” A sour grin spread on Ethel’s face. “I’d wanted it to be Rebecca.”
“Wanted what to be Rebecca?”
“Her name,” Ethel’s shoulders curved, “my daughter’s name.”
My mother’s mouth hung open. Although she stood still, I felt a quiver in the hand she’d used to capture my arm. With the other, I shook her shoulder, hoping to break her free. “Mom? Mom what’s wrong?”
She released me as her head shook on the spindle of her neck. “I…I never knew my mother, Hannah.”
I looked from her to Ethel and back again. I then did a double take of their stylish hats and coats, the bright blue eyes locked with one another, each sharp and clear. They shared the same rounded cheeks and too-small noses, the graying curls pinned around attached lobes.
“Isn’t that funny.”
They turned to me with eerie unison. “What’s funny?”
“The two of you. You look like—” The word family stalled on my tongue.
Despite clearing my throat, I couldn’t bring myself to say it, to give life to the idea, one reaching through the decades to tie complete strangers together, and shake the foundations of those who’d known each other from the womb.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I felt chilled and wished for the coat I’d left downstairs. “I guess it’s not so funny after all.”