After her collapse at Christmas dinner, Mom called Aunt Ellen every day to check on her. One afternoon, there was no answer. “She knows I call at two o’clock.” Mom let the phone ring for several minutes.
“Maybe she’s asleep and can’t hear it,” I suggested.
“Maybe.” But Mom was not convinced. “I’ll try again later.”
“She could have gone out.”
“In this weather?” She pointed to the rain falling outside and shook her head. “I can’t stand here and do nothing. Get your coat.”
Mom drove slowly because the windows fogged up. The rain turned to sleet. Pedestrians shielded their faces from the ice crystals. “If it gets any darker, the street lights will turn on,” I said.
On her front porch, I pressed the bell. It echoed in the upstairs hall. Cupping my hands around my face, I looked through the front door window. The stairs rose straight up into the darkness on the second floor. Mom opened the door with her key. “Aunt Ellen, you’ve got company.”
Mom shook her hair free from a crust of ice. She turned on the wall sconces before climbing the stairs. “Remind your father to replace those bulbs.” I looked up at the dusty fixtures shaped like flowers. Two light bulbs had burned out. Strands of cobwebs drifted in the currents of air.
“You’re probably right and she’s fallen asleep.” She took off her coat. “Aunt Ellen?” She crossed to the bedroom. Empty, the bed unmade. A card table stood by the window where Aunt Ellen read her mail with a magnifying glass. Mom checked the bathroom and then looked in the hall closet. “Her winter coat’s gone!” She backed away from the closet.
“Where did she go?” I didn’t know what else to say.
Mom didn’t answer. She passed me on her way to the kitchen where she found a bowl with leftovers from the soup she’d brought the day before. “At least she’s eaten something.” Standing by the window, she frowned, unable to decide where to look next. A plow thundered down the street, rehearsing for the storm predicted tonight. The rain and sleet sprayed in an arc. “What do I do now?” Mom massaged her forehead. Her indecision worried me.
In the silence, we heard water dripping from the kitchen faucet. “Mark, shut off the water.”
I walked to the sink. Freezing air from the pantry wrapped around my ankles. “She’s in the attic!”
“The attic?” Mom looked up in surprise. “She’s been told not to go up there.”
In the pantry, the attic door was open revealing the metal stairs. “Aunt Ellen!” Mom’s voice was sharp with exasperation.
“She can’t hear us. She’s in the room at the end of the hall.”
“You’ve been up there with her?”
“Only once.” I avoided her eyes.
Mom started up the circular stairs but stopped. “I hate these open stairs.” She climbed a few more steps. She closed her eyes, gripping the handrail. “I can’t do it.”
“I’ll go up.” I wanted to show her I wasn’t afraid.
Mom backed down the stairs. The tremor in her hands caused her rings to clatter against the railing. “Be careful. Don’t startle her.”
Climbing the steps, I shivered from the cold. I turned on the light switch. The empty hallway sprang out of the darkness. “We’ll be right down.” The white walls were cold against my fingers.
The floor creaked as I walked toward the open door at the end of the hall. Some rain fell through the open skylight. Sleet crackled against the roof. Wearing her winter coat, Aunt Ellen sat hunched in the rocking chair, her face turned from the door.
Hearing me, she turned her head. I bent over to speak when her eyes focused on me and her hand reached up to grip my wrist. She’s going to call me Walter.
But she didn’t. She only smiled, closed her eyes, and turned her head away.
From the bottom of the stairs, Mom called, “Is she there? Is she all right?”
Prying her fingers from my arm, I backed away, afraid that seeing me had been too great a shock. I ran down the corridor toward the stairs.
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