I languished in the bath longer than I probably should have. My muscles aching more than I cared to admit as I recalled my ordeal from the previous evening. I might have allowed myself to be lolled back into a welcome sleep had I not been so frightened. I was more scared than I cared to admit. I stretched the taunt of my calves as I bathed, wincing at the burning ache of each thigh. I scrubbed my skin diligently, trying to distract myself from the fact that I just knew someone meant to frighten me…or worse. For all they knew, I could have taken refuge in the old shack, too horrified to leave until morning. I would have been frozen to death before the sun rose and any footsteps from my assailant covered by a swift, drifting snowfall. For reasons unaware, I was sure someone was out to get me.
I surveyed the bedroom as I dried my hair, taking note of Vanessa’s empty bed with a pang. If only I knew where she might be, we could leave this dreary house together. I’d only been ‘home’ for a few days and already I felt an overwhelming need to leave. I could not tell if my foreboding originated from intuition or fear, but I longed miserably for the girls’ dormitory at the college I’d left behind. I’d packed my bags and waved goodbye to the bright, tree-lined campus in such good spirits, looking forward to my time with Vanessa and hoping to rekindle the childhood relationship I once had with my family.
Yet, so far I’d spent my time reading outdated romance novels and talking to Shadow. In less than a week, I’d grown lonely for companionship. Grandma seemed always to be busy, and though I’d been asked to the farmhouse to help care for Grandpa Wayne, as of yet my efforts had been declined. It seemed Aunt Helen wished to be his only caretaker. I rubbed my eyes with my hands, wondering why I’d even been asked to rejoin the family for the winter. The cold, quiet, creaking farmhouse was a demure comparison to the upbeat chaos of the dorm where I’d spent the last two years of my life. I missed the carefree laughter of my fellow classmates, the buzzing halls of each building. I felt heartsick for those busy classrooms, row upon row full of happy girls eager to learn, spilling details of their love lives across geography books and greasy cafeteria food.
I took a moment to rearrange my stationary on the vintage roll-top desk and promised myself I’d find the time to write some letters to old friends tonight. I’d never been particularly close to most of the girls at school, being studious as I was and working my way through college. But I did consider my old roommate, Mary, a friend I could depend on. Actually, if I could find my old datebook amongst the disarray of my unpacked luggage, I meant to give her a call. Perhaps I’d ring her after dinner when I knew she’d be finished with classes for the day. I smiled as I quickly dressed in a pink pantsuit and brushed my hair, it would be wonderful to hear a familiar, friendly voice!
Although I was lonely and scared, I could not leave just yet. Rather they needed me as nurse maid or not, I resolved to be there for Grandpa Wayne. And besides, perhaps Greg and I would become friends. If nothing else, I had a day on the town to look forward to tomorrow. I hadn’t seen downtown Avalon since I was a child. I was excited to see what new businesses had sprung up, if any. I was also thirsty for a good coffee shop and was sure Greg would treat me to one. I could also stop by the unemployment agency and see what job opportunities were available.
My stomach was growling for some of Libby’s home-cooked food as I latched my favorite earrings and gave my lips a delicate stoke of gloss. I didn’t have a clock in my room but felt sure it must be well past afternoon. I rushed out the door, afraid there’d be nothing left of breakfast if I didn’t hurry. But as I made my way to the stairs, something odd struck me.
In all the time I’d spent in Grandpa Waynes room, feeding him lunch or reading to him from his favorite books, I’d never taken notice of any medical tools. Sure, there were boxes of bed linen, medications, and supplies for his breathing treatments. But as I wracked my brain, I came to the swift conclusion that I had never recalled as much as a blood pressure cuff or stethoscope. Aunt Helen was administering Grandpa Wayne’s medication and keeping him well-fed and comfortable, but was she keeping a record of his vitals? Was she informed enough to know if his condition might be worsening? And if she wasn’t, what would happen if he suddenly took a turn for the worse and no one noticed until it was too late?
Exasperated, but guided by a sense of loyalty and the personal competency of my vocation, I retraced my footsteps to the lonely bedroom. I quickly grabbed my nurse case from the closet where I’d placed it for safekeeping. Not only were the tools expensive, but I recalled how delicately and carefully I’d cleaned and packed my beloved tools. As I made plans to rejoin the family here, I was sure I’d be spending a majority of my time nursing Grandpa Wayne back to health. How wrong I’d been! One thing was for sure, though, I intended to give Grandpa a thorough check-up and to begin a record of his vitals.
He was sleeping peacefully as I eased into the dim-lit bedroom. The room was almost stifling, not unlike the heavy stench of hospital and sickness. Grandpa Wayne seemed to be resting easily as I lifted his wrist and timed his pulse to the ancient alarm clock that sat on his nightstand. He roused a bit at the uncomfortable squeeze of the blood pressure cuff, but seemed to be sedated, probably from his night-time medication regiment. I was sure it must have include a sleeping aid. Everything seemed stable for now, and I gently brushed his forehead with my hand to make sure no fever was present. I wondered if he’d eaten this morning, then dismissed my concern when I saw the half-eaten plate on his breakfast tray. Knowing how difficult it was for Helen to get around with a cane, I smoothed out Grandpas blanket and grabbed the tray.
As I headed for the door, something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Actually, had I not been looking down at the breakfast tray in my hand, I would not have noticed how out of place the house shoes were in the corner of Grandpa’s room. For all purposes, the shoes appeared to belong to Grandpa. They were old-fashioned and embroidered in a light blue design. And the oddest thing was the muddy water that had gathered around them. There was no mistake that the shoes had been recently worn outside. The muddy water had once been a frozen mix of dirt and snow. I bent to inspect the shoes, noting that the water was about room temperature now. Obviously, they had been worn hours earlier, maybe even yesterday. I froze in fear, wondering if they’d been worn last night. Grandpa was in no condition to go outside, he couldn’t even make it downstairs! Who would wear his slippers, and why?
I couldn’t get the thought out of my head as I replaced my nurse bag and headed down the stairs. Everyone in these parts wore boots when venturing outdoors. In fact, there were several pairs of muddy boots sitting on a hearth rug right by the front door. It made absolutely no sense to me that someone would be wearing Grandpa’s house shoes. Even if someone had for some reason worn them, there was no logic in the idea that they would bypass their winter boots and wear a pair of slippers out into the deep snow during mid-winter. This was a mystery that made no sense to me. Yet, I felt it played some vital role in the events of the previous night. I didn’t know yet where the soiled shoes fit in with the eerie events that had plagued me since my first night here, but I wondered if they could be related somehow.
“Nonsense,” I told myself as I shook my head. “The quiet must be getting to me. Anyone could put on a pair of old house shoes and absent-mindedly wear them outside into the snow. Especially Grandma, forgetful in her old age.”
I kept telling myself that as I trudged down the stairs and into the kitchen, breakfast tray perched in my right-hand. Carrying the tray like that reminded me of the homely little cafe I worked at right up until graduation. I never thought I’d look back fondly on the bustle of that tiny mom and pop restaurant, the mess of the milkshake machine, the itchy little red plaid apron all the waitresses had to wear. I’d spent almost every evening there for the past two years. Miss Whittle, the owner, had begged me to stay in the pouty, angry way she had of making one feel guilty. She’d sat me down, asked me why I would want to return to a family who’d all but pushed me from their lives for the last ten years. She had warned me against returning to Hollow Wind, saying I would only feel like an outsider, warning me that things change. And now, more than ever, I was beginning to wonder if perhaps her words hadn’t been an omen.