Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Chapter Thirty: Signals

When they got to Mina’s, the house was dark and quiet. Compass felt an unpleasant jolt of déjà vu.

“Do you suppose she’s run off to Europe again?” asked Mark.

“Would that be a bad thing?” asked Compass.

Apart from the times he had to shift gears, Mark had been holding her hand for the entire drive, his thumb rubbing the side of her index finger. When they first got into the car, Compass had that jittery expectant feeling of a new relationship unexpectedly blossoming in the dung pile of her life. Now the jitters had turned to something less pleasant. They pulled up along the curb opposite the house, and Mark killed the engine. They sat for a moment, girding loins, gathering courage, milking the last drops out of the joy of fifteen minutes ago, when they were leaning against the car in the driving rain. Just then the light in the attic came on.

“I wonder what-” Compass began, but she stopped when the light flipped off again. Then it flipped on again. Then off. Then on. Then on and off a few more times, quickly.

“It’s a signal,” said Mark, and he jumped out of the car. In the back seat, he had a pair of baseball bats, and he handed one to Compass.

“You’re a baseball player?” That bat was brand new and felt lethally solid in her hands.

“Boy scout. Always prepared, you know. I bought these a few weeks ago, just in case.”

They walked up to the house, cautious, the rain still coming down hard but covering the noise of their footsteps on the gravel path to the front door.

“It could be a trap,” Compass whispered, wiping rain from her glasses with one wet finger.

Mark grinned at her. “You’ve always wanted to say that, right?”

Compass thought about if for about a half-second. “No, not really.”

The light in the attic flashed on and off again a couple more times. Compass took a deep breath and, while Mark raised his bat, gently pushed open the front door.

Inside the house it was dark and silent. As they tiptoed in, the rain came down even harder, sheeting off the windows and making the house darker still, despite the windows. They moved as quietly as they could, bats at the ready, shoulders bumping with their reluctance to make the other person go first.

It was slow going, Mark being the boy scout and checking every room, every closet, under tables and behind curtains. When they had thoroughly investigated the entire downstairs, they stood for a moment in the living room. Whoever was in the house, they were upstairs.

A sudden flash of lightening illuminated the figure of a woman on the stairs. Another flash, and the woman was gone.

“Jesus!” Mark jumped back.

The figure of the woman was burned onto Compass’s retina. She was beckoning to them. Compass dropped her bat and raced up the stairs, shouting to Mark behind her.

“It’s OK! It’s Sophie! My mother’s hurt. Call 9-1-1.”

Compass found her in the hallway upstairs. She was unconscious but still alive. There was no smell of alcohol, so this wasn’t her usual Saturday unconsciousness but something far more sinister.

While Compass fetched a pillow and a blanket to keep her mother warm, Mark did a quick check of the rest of the house, turning on lights as he went. Despite clearly being shaken by the woman on the stairs, he gamely checked the attic and returned, white-faced.

“There’s no one up there.”

“Not no one,” she reminded him.

She’d straightened out her mother’s limbs as best she could and covered her with a blanket. If Mina hadn’t been lying on the floor in the hallway, she would have looked almost normal. But Compass had been shocked at how thin and frail her mother’s body felt under her hands. Her breathing was ragged but consistent, her color pale but not deathly.

“I’ll wait outside for the ambulance,” said Mark. Already they could hear the faint whine of approaching sirens.

Mark took all the warmth with him. Compass knelt in the hallway, her butt on her heels, her arms wrapped around her in the chill house. She tried not to look down at her mother, tried not to plant the picture of her mother, unconscious on the hallway floor, in her brain forever. But when she closed her eyes, the images were worse: her mind insisted on showing her what it would look like if one of the EMTs pulled the blanket up over her mother’s face; that final, immutable gesture of death, that exact second when hope ends and despair begins.

Compass rocked back and forth on her heels, willing the sirens closer. She’d never before felt so entirely helpless. Then suddenly she felt a warmth like a blanket dropped around her shoulders. And in that last quiet moment before the EMTs arrived and took over, the house started to sing.

When they first arrived at the hospital, a very young, very pretty nurse came darting out from behind her desk. “Is that Mina? Oh, no!” The nurse was so clearly distraught that Compass quickly checked to make sure she was accompanying the right gurney. But it was definitely Mina lying there.

“She’s such a lovely lady!” gushed the pretty nurse, tears in her eyes and tugging on Compass’s arm. According to her pin, either the nurse was named Linda or her left breast was. “The last time she was here, she told me that I was like the daughter she never had. Oh, I do hope she’s all right. How do you know her?”

“I’m the daughter she had,” Compass said, relieved when Linda let go of her arm. She smiled at the girl to let her know it was OK, but received only an icy stare in return.

People in white and blue carried her mother away. They had seen Mina before, knew her name, had records and information Compass could only guess at. An oncologist, not Mina’s regular doctor but someone who insisted on being called Gary, said things that Compass barely registered in all the furor. For ever after she would remember Gary as a vague, blurry face and a voice like an adult from a Charlie Brown special.

Mina was very ill, they told her. Needed a great deal of care, special treatments. Compass nodded at everyone, hoped that nodding was what was expected of her. Her jaw felt frozen and the warm blanket feeling she’d had disappeared as soon as she left Mina’s house.

The one thing that cut through all the confusion was the uptight man with the glasses and the fussy hair. “No money.” Apparently Mina had run through her insurance premiums, had exhausted her savings, had maxed out her credit cards. She could stay until she was stable, but then she had to go away. And she’d better be stable by tomorrow.

Mark wasn’t allowed in the ambulance, so he had come after her in his car. He’d gotten separated from the ambulance, gone to the wrong hospital, had problems parking his car when he got to the right one. His bicycle was on top of his car, meaning he couldn’t park in the parking garage, so he’d circled around forever, trying to find a place to park on Capital Hill. He was breathless and apologetic when he finally arrived. Compass didn’t care. She was so glad to see him, she was surprised the force of her relief didn’t knock him down.

She spilled the whole sorry story of her mother and the money. Mina had nowhere to go. She couldn’t go back home unless Compass was there all the time to take care of her, and that just wasn’t possible. Compass had a job, and with Oliver on the loose, it was better for her to stay in her own apartment, her secret bolthole.

“Call your grandparents.”

It made perfect sense. Mina could stay with them, at least until Compass found a way to get more money. There must be other bugs in the house – loaded ones – which would tide Mina over until they sorted out what to do with the emerald.

Compass called her grandparents who assured her they’d be on the next ferry. They would stay in Seattle tonight, then take Mina home with them in the morning. Mina would be furious, but it was the only solution anyone could come up with.

“Maybe Linda would like to take her?” Compass mumbled to herself at one point.

The first night of their burdgeoning relationship was spent in desperately uncomfortable chairs in the mint-green, antiseptic hallway of a local hospital. Smells of formaldehyde and bleach and desperation wafted down the hallways as they sat in silence, holding hands between the chairs.

“I’m sorry,” Compass said at one point.

“It’s OK,” Mark replied, some time later, and he squeezed her fingers gently.

Nothing much else happened, as Ray Bradbury once wrote, all the rest of that night.


NuclearToast said...

Sophie on the stairs gave me a chill! I wonder why she'd try so hard to help such a horrible woman? And what exactly happened to Mina?

Ash said...

Sophie on the stairs made my heart race! Spooky! I can’t wait to find out what happened to Mina. Please don’t make us wait long!

Total LOL moments:
“According to her pin, either the nurse was named Linda or her left breast was.”
“I’m the daughter she had,”