She checked all the windows and doors, white paint cracking into spider veins. She made sure that the heavy, lace curtains were drawn tight. No lights. She couldn’t chance it. She knew they were after her, and that this was the only safe place. She floated through the dim living room, careful not to make any noise – feet soft on the spotted carpet.
They had been thorough, she’d give them that. They’d erased it all. Aside from the occasional splash of color, or a blurry face, or a snapshot that exploded and faded like a firecracker, there was nothing but the vague sense that there should be something. Some kind of memory…not just this grey, clutching anxiety.
She looked at herself in the broken mirror which hung on an unhinged closet door. Thin, white hair. She wore an old faded, floral dress and a grey sweater. She seemed small, almost non-existent. They had taken it all from her, and she’d done the only thing she could – closed herself away in this hidden place so they couldn’t take any more.
What was her name? She couldn’t remember. She could hear the echoes of it…distant shouts, but she couldn’t make them out. The same was true for everything. Friends? Lovers? Jobs? Enemies? Places she had been? She could sense the outlines of all these things, but couldn’t fill in the blank spaces. She let her head sink to her chest and began to cry.
The house? She didn’t recognize any of the furnishings. She was frightened by it. Taken aback by old, skirted lamps. Startled by books left open…convinced they hadn’t been there moments before. It made no sense. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was a ghost house, barren, but comforting.
The knock at the door was like a gunshot. One single, sharp rap. She froze in place. She closed her eyes tightly and saw fireworks in the darkness. The knock was familiar, but she didn’t know why.
“Eloise, you open up now, hear? I done brought some things for you.”
Eloise? Her hands began to tremble. She had known that name, but it wasn’t hers.
“Eloise, it’s cold out here, hon, I’m gonna let myself in, okay?”
She stood quickly and crossed the arid room. She felt terror rising in her. She didn’t know what to do. She squeezed into the space between two bookcases and tried to slow her breathing. She heard the jangling of keys and then the creeping rasp of metal on metal as she watched the deadbolt turn.
The door opened and brought with it a shaft of deafening sunshine. She could see the outline of a woman, and she covered her eyes. The voice was soft, kind. It added to the panic.
“Now, Eloise…you got nothing to be afraid of. It’s just me, Norma. Norma Betts. I’ve lived next door for forty years.”
She opened her eyes and saw a woman her age, but plump, squeezed into a navy blue dress, white belt, ankles unfolding over her white pumps.
“Oh, my. Eloise, honey. Don’t be afraid. You have to listen to me and believe me. My name is Norma. You and I have been friends for a long, long time. We raised our kids together. We…”
The woman choked on her words and a tear drifted slowly out of one eye. Then she righted herself, shaking herself courageous, like a bird drying its wings.
The name was like a slap to the face. There was a moment of recognition. Gone..
“Ellie, sit down, hon…just sit a spell…that’s right. I know you don’t remember, but my name is Norma Betts and we have been friends a long time. We’ve been visitin’ every day for as long as I can remember. I was here yesterday. I brought you some pound cake. You ate the whole thing in one bite.”
The plump woman chuckled.
“No, you’re right. I reckon it’s not funny. Sometimes you laugh so as not to cry, hon. Look what I found.”
The woman opened her bag and pulled out an old wooden picture frame. She handed it over gently. It held a news clipping with a picture of a young man in uniform. He was smiling a mischievous grin and leaning casually on the wing of an old airplane, cigarette hanging from his lip.
“Ellie, that’s Allen…do you see?”
She ran her fingers over the glass and looked into the handsome face. She felt uncomfortable, like she was suddenly nude. She knew that she should know this man. She looked into the wet eyes of the other woman, who was crying steadily now.
“Ellie, that’s okay, hon. That is just OKAY. You just don’t worry a bit. You sit here and relax, and I’ll make us some tea.”
She heard water running. Then she heard the stove ignite. Then the clunk of the phone as it was lifted off the cradle.
“Dr. Johnson, please. He is? You just tell him that this is Norma Betts, and he told me to call when I had to, and I do believe it’s time. Tell him as soon as you can.”
The phone made the same sound as it was set back; this time she couldn’t help but think that it sounded like a cell door clanging shut. She began to shake. She dropped the frame and the glass shattered. She froze.
“Ellie, dear, you just don’t fret about nothing. We’ll just sit and rest a spell.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder…warm. She looked up into the plump face, streaked with mascara. She knew.
“Nor…Norma. I’d be lying if I said I remembered you. And I sure am sorry I don’t. But I think I do understand. Yes, I believe I understand. I think I owe you quite a bit of thanks.”
The two women sat silently and drank their tea until it was cold; then there was another knock at the door, but neither moved to answer it.