For the next five weeks, enjoy chapters from my first novel The Forget-Me-Nots, published in 2016.
Hope they’re finished by two o’clock, Katrina thought.
Her temples throbbed to the musical rapid-fire coming from Aunt Minnie and her baby-grand piano.
“Miss?” One of the movers held the farm clock’s winding key. Katrina reached out, the weight of the key sinking into her palm.
She guided the delicate clock hands to their proper position. Her fingers brushed over the wrought-iron Roman numerals before she rested her hand against the square, wooden face.
Slipping the key into one of the sockets, she turned to resistance, and then repeated the wind with the other socket. She held her breath even as she grasped the pendulum’s stem. The music’s tempo slowed into a lilting cadence. She exhaled and released her hold setting its swing in motion. The clock’s steady tick synced with Aunt Minnie’s downbeat.
“Miss, do we have this placed right?”
The decorator, an immaculately dressed woman in her mid-fifties, squinted at Katrina over half-glasses. She indicated the maple-wood tea cart with the sterling silver tea set. Aunt Minnie’s King James Bible lay on a blue gingham place mat at the precise angle Katrina remembered it being only a few hours before at the lake house.
“Yes,” she stammered. “How do you manage to get everything set up just as it was?”
“Photographs, mostly,” said the decorator, flashing a camera’s digital screen so near Katrina’s face that she leaned into the tea cart. “I snapped these at the house before coming here. We pride ourselves in setting up everything exactly as our patrons are used to having them. It’s important especially to those with memory issues like your great-aunt. Alzheimer’s, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yes. Thank you for your attention to detail. I doubt I would have thought of all this.”
The woman peered over her glasses again, scanning Katrina from head-to-toe. Katrina tugged the bottom of her sweatshirt lower over the waistband of her ripped jeans.
“It’s my pleasure, dear.”
As the decorator turned back to her work, Katrina maneuvered her way around shifting furniture and moving men. She reached the walnut, baby-grand piano in the main room’s northwest corner and peered over Aunt Minnie’s shoulder to read the composer and title.
Chopin. “Préludes, Opus 28: Number 7 in A Major. Andantino.”
She closed her eyes, repeating everything down to opus, number, and tempo. Aunt Minnie had created this version of “Name that Tune” after Katrina’s accident to help her grand-niece strengthen her short-term memory. Uncle Rainor and Katrina used to play until Aunt Minnie’s arthritis begged her to stop. Gradually, Aunt Minnie’s Alzheimer’s onset caused more and more lapses between games. Then, Uncle Rainor died. Closing her eyes tighter, Katrina re-determined to challenge herself if for no other reason than to keep three memories alive.
The prelude ended. A brief pause and another song began without a page turn. Opening her eyes, Katrina discovered her great-aunt focused, not on the music, but out the window on the blazing red leaves of a sugar maple.
She lifted the music book and flipped the yellowed, dog-eared pages. Blanking on the note names she sensed she used to know, she followed their tracks until the running sixteenths lead her to “Impromptu Number 1 in A-Flat Major, Opus 29.” She placed the music back on the piano.
Just in case.
Not long after the movers and the decorator left, the farm clock bonged twice. Aunt Minnie stopped mid-measure.
“Oh, dear! Where am I?” she said, swiveling around on the piano bench.
“It’s all right, Aunt Minnie. I’m here,” said Katrina, emerging from the kitchen with a tea tray.
“Who is that?”
“Katrina? Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“I’m 30 years old, Aunt Minnie.”
“Well, you need to start dressing better, dear,” she said, taking in her grand-niece’s shoddy apparel. “What time is it?”
Soon Katrina sipped peppermint tea while Aunt Minnie’s Earl Grey continued steeping. Her rheumy hazel eyes fastened again on the red maple tree in front of The Refuge’s circle drive.
“Rainor planted that tree. Do you remember?”
“That’s not the tree Uncle Rainor planted, Aunt Minnie. We’re not at the lake. We talked about this.”
“Talked about what?”
“Moving you into The Refuge.”
“The assisted living residence.”
“The old folks’ home?” Aunt Minnie never shouted. But, when her great-aunt’s mouth formed a rigid straight line, Katrina knew she must tread slowly as if walking a tight rope.
“You can make all your own meals if you like. You can come and go as you please. But, if,” she paused, “you do need help, you just need to phone down to the main office or push the button on the wall in the bathroom. It’s precautionary, really.”
“Precautionary, eh? Where was Ray when this decision was being made?”
“Signing the papers,” said Katrina, setting down her teacup with a determined clatter.
“I was losing my mind.”
“No sense having elephants in the room, dear. Although they would certainly fair better than I am in the memory department.”
They sat in silence for several minutes, staring at their cooling tea and watching the wind blow leaves from the sugar maple.
“I wonder how long it will take?” said Aunt Minnie.
“From now until then? From this minute until the minute I see the face of God.”
“I don’t like to think about it.”
She chuckled into her tea cup. “Why ever not?”
“Why? Do you want to die?”
“It’s not about dying.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s about so much more. It’s about…”
A taut tone twanged from the clock.
Aunt Minnie blinked. “Katrina? What a nice surprise! When did you arrive here?”
“A while ago,” she said, adjusting with the memory shift. “You were playing Chopin. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Aren’t you sweet? Do you like my new place? Your uncle Ray arranged all of this before he died. Isn’t it lovely? More tea?”
“Sure. But, you sit. I’ll pour.”
Katrina wondered what it was about the tea that made her tired. Peppermint should be invigorating even if the tea was herbal and caffeine-free. She slumped deeper into the high-back chair and tapped her feet on the ottoman to stay awake. A stop at a coffeehouse drive-thru for a mocha was a must before she drove back to the city.
“Did I ever tell you about my wedding?” Aunt Minnie bobbed her tea bag, sending dribbles over the cup’s edge.
“Of course,” said Katrina, sitting up straighter. She suddenly felt guilty for blaming the tea for her fatigue. “I’d love to hear about it again.”
“We married May 10, 1944. Your great-uncle was being shipped to Galveston, so we wanted to marry right away. We had only been dating a short time. People met and married so quickly in those days. Good, bad, or otherwise I’m not sure. But, no one expected to come back from the fighting. My mother was so adamantly against our marriage. I was accompanying for an accomplished violinist in the area in the evenings and weekends. Mother was certain I could have a professional career. But, not if I married some country bumpkin from Minnesota! I stood my ground, said I wanted a home and a husband, not a career. From then on, I rarely ever went home. In fact, I didn’t, except for my parents’ funerals. Poor Daddy. He just waved and blew a kiss the day I left. I’m sure he just wanted me to be happy, which meant better to be gone and married than at home any longer. I’m sure that made it harder on him, poor dear. Anyway, Rainor and I married at a Justice of the Peace. I walked down the aisle to Bach’s ‘Air Sul G’ and carried forget-me-nots. We left the next morning for Texas.”
“I thought it was Brahms’ ‘Lullaby.’”
“I thought you walked down the aisle to Brahms’ ‘Lullaby.’”
“No, Bach’s ‘Air Sul G.’”
“Okay. You carried forget-me-nots?”
“Yes. Whose story is this, young lady?”
“I thought you said lilacs before.”
The clock bonged three times.
As Katrina prepared to leave, the receptionist called to her from the main office.
“Ms. Wade, would you mind coming over here a minute?”
Katrina approached the desk, noting the nameplate. Carol Cromberg grinned up at her with large, coffee-stained, bucked teeth as she stowed her crocheting in her desk’s bottom drawer.
“Mr. Hammond will want to meet with you to go over our services and make sure we’re meeting your great-aunt’s needs. I’ve got some papers here for you to sign regarding her medications. I do need you to look them over before you leave, and I have these pamphlets here for you to peruse over the weekend. What time would you be available on Monday?”
Carol checked the schedule book on her desk. “That’ll be fine. He’d have met with you earlier today, but he didn’t want to disturb you as you’re settling your aunt. He asked me to make sure to catch you in case you’ve got any questions.”
“No, no questions. Someone will call if anyone has questions for me?”
“Oh, you betcha. The movers did a good job getting all of her things in just the right place, then?”
“Aren’t they great? It makes the process so much easier. Well, I’ll let you go. See you on Monday at one o’clock. Don’t worry now. Mr. H. told me he’ll be keeping a special eye on your great-aunt.”
As if on cue, Carol’s desk phone rang.
“Just a minute,” she said, winking at Katrina as she raised the receiver to her ear. “This is Carol. Hi, Edith. Wait, wait. Slow down. She did what now? Oh, dear. Goodness sakes. Okay, okay. Yep, I guess I’ll have to. Okay.” She glanced sidelong at Katrina and mouthed sorry. “She is. Yep, right next to me. I’ll send her up and call Mr. H.” Carol pressed the receiver to the phone cradle and sighed before turning to Katrina. “It’s Minnie.”
“What?” asked Katrina, swallowing the bile burning in her throat.
“Well, nothing happened.”
“I mean something happened, but not too bad.”
“I better call Mr. H. You go on up and see for yourself.”
When Katrina entered Aunt Minnie’s apartment for the second time that day, she smelled an odd aroma of burning soap. A woman, she assumed was Edith, crouched in front of the oven. Blue liquid dripped from the open oven door onto the linoleum. Unsorted sodden clothes ballooned from the oven’s interior like over-leavened dough. Edith gave Katrina a wan smile and looked toward where Aunt Minnie paced the main room, wringing her hands.
By the time Katrina got Aunt Minnie settled in a chair listening to Chopin, helped Edith rinse and sort Aunt Minnie’s clothes for proper laundering, and finished wiping out the self-cleaning oven of dishwasher soap, a knock sounded at the door.
Red-faced from frustration and hovering over the oven, she flung the door open and asked, “Which one of your special eyes were you keeping on my great-aunt, Mr. Hammond?”
“It’s nice to see you again, too, Katrina.”
She thought about correcting him, telling him she had never seen nor met him before that moment. Telling him off by saying she could care less if she had never met him, that Aunt Minnie would be better off anywhere but The Refuge. When he pushed past her and approached Aunt Minnie, Katrina stiffened ready to defend her great-aunt. Then, Aric Hammond surprised her.
He bent his six-foot frame and placed a hand on each armrest to maintain direct eye-contact with Aunt Minnie. His geometric-patterned neutral-toned tie dangled like the farm clock’s pendulum as he asked if she remembered him. She clearly did not, so he moved on to ask how she liked her new place. Katrina sensed nothing about Aric Hammond was unordered from the look of his pressed slate-gray Van Heusen button-down to his pleated dress slacks to his shined Florsheim shoes. His ease erased Aunt Minnie’s agitation and drew out her great-aunt’s infectious giggle.
Whether she or Aunt Minnie remembered Aric Hammond or not, he knew them. At the very least, he knew how to make Katrina smile.
Copyright © 2016 Penny J. Johnson. All rights reserved.
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