Here's the rest of the story.
Biting his lower lip, he regains his poise. He apologizes for his “hay fever” and continues:
“…the perils of spring. And like Mildred, whose life was only beginning to bloom…”
Annabelle clouds out the canned, memorized sermon. All she can think of is the waiting pirogues, hopefully some paska; she loves that sweet egg bread. A feast awaits twenty-one steps down the right hallway. Her stomach rumbles at the nearness, a low growl. A young man, pointy beard and skinny face, sitting several spaces away from her frowns at her. She waves away his concern with a silk-gloved hand. A sheen on the fingertips, a few missing sparkles about the wrist, the gloves are old.
She’ll wait until almost everyone is out, the last ten or so. The sympathy lineup will be long and most likely there will be those that can’t wait to eat. Annabelle intends to eat and leave as soon as she can, but she’ll have to mingle with mostly overweight people who are the first at the table. She’ll stand out like a poodle in a dog sled. If she dawdles, the crowd at the door will bunch up. She decides to wait, then befriend one of the two older ladies she can see in the row to her left. Their identical grey buns suggest sisters. The bent posture indicates they are close to her age.
Possible scenarios of conversation occupy her mind until her musing is interrupted when the crowd rises. Annabelle stands, arranges her hat while strains of Pachelbel’s Canon in D descend from overhead speakers. The sound of people moving, the slight whispers mean the end. Reception room next. Two staff wheeling a brass-railed, linen-draped, urn-bearing trolley lead the family towards the wide doors that have been opened by other staff. The only one she recognizes is the older man pushing the cart. While waiting for the end of the procession she ponders how they can keep such a somber face when the ashes of their attention are encased in a hand-carved wooden dog.
Shrugging her wee shoulders, noticing the crowd is turned away from her, she sticks her tongue out at the urn as it passes the last seats and blows a soft blat. The boy directly in front of her hears the odd disturbance and turns to her with a grin. He probably thinks the old gal farted. Dad - pointy chin and aged skinny face - tugs at the lad’s jacket to follow the crowd. In the congestion the few that are happy to bump into each other, possibly only at funerals, offer polite, low laughter. The tail end of the mourners clutters the hallway, then breaks up. The Grey Buns are alone. Likely from one of the seniors' homes that Ripkoph owns, Annabelle thinks, possibly managed by Matilda once. Annabelle catches up to them eleven steps from the door.
“Such a sad thing isn’t it. I knew Mathilda…”
Fifteen minutes later they’re in the archway leading to the family. Three men, seven women, all in black. They’re bussed and hugged. They’re busy shaking hands. A commotion near the photo display causes the flow to stall. The lady closest to the easel, which is covered with photos of Mildred and Frou Frou, is being helped into a chair. Likely the mother. Her low moan silences the crowd. The lineup gathers closer to see what is happening. A stout younger version of Mildred moves from the receiving line and comforts the woman. One of the older men in the family steps in to greet the visitors. The buzz resumes.
Annabelle ignores the Bun named Joan who is telling them about her gout and wishes they would hurry. She eyes the tables of food to her left, and her shrunken stomach gurgles, demanding attention. She smells the paprika. She sees a rotund gentleman spooning a gob of sour cream onto something on his plate. Coffee and tea urns stand directly across, the sweets are on a table to the left. Ten or twelve people are filling their paper plates. Seeing that the family are all occupied, she darts for the nearest eatables. She reaches to pick up a plate at the head of the table when a hand the size of a baseball mitt cups her frail shoulder. The voice is deep, respectfully low, almost a whisper:
“The sisters would like to talk to you, madam.”
With hand paused near the stack, she feels a moment of fright, of panic. Where did he come from? Should she run? If she was wearing her black dress she would, but this damn grey one is much too tight. Gripping her small clutch in both hands to stop them from shaking, she turns her head to stare at the largest white shirt she has ever seen. The knot of the somber burgundy tie is at eye level. The man’s girth shades her from the line-up, no one sees her blush. Holding her hat, she raises her head to stare at the messenger. It’s a big head, forget the neck. Pudgy features round out an unexceptional face, except the eyes. Hazel, green dominant. Nothing mean in there. Annabelle feels such relief she faints.
Opening her eyes several minutes later, she is staring up at three blurry figures. Something wet and cold is on her forehead. She is lying on what smells like old leather, feels stiff like a couch. A heavy lace-and-tasseled throw covers her lower body. Her vision focuses the same time the soundtrack in her head clears...
“… Oh, the poor dear, is she okay?”
“…maybe we should call 911?”
“…no, look, she’s alright, she just fainted, heart and lungs are fine, you checked them Suzie? Here, let’s get her sitting up.”
The sisters materialize. Laurie-Ann has one hand under Annabelle’s shoulder, the other under her arm. Suzie shifts Annabelle's legs to the floor keeping the cover intact. Cynthia reaches over to lift Annabelle's other arm. Together, they prop Annabelle up. Her delicate body gently quakes. Two cushions appear at her side, a gentle hand arranges her retro hat, drops the burgundy clutch on her lap and rubs her upper arm. Laurie-Ann bends to look in her eyes.
“Relax, Annabelle, we mean you no harm.” Annabelle drops her gaze. Her voice is weak voice.
“How... how do you know my name?”
Suzie tows an overstuffed office chair to the couch and sits down. Cynthia and Laurie-Ann join her, one on each side of Annabelle. Annabelle looks up at each one. They look so much alike it’s uncanny. Laurie-Ann says:
“We know a little about you, Annabelle. It appears you know a lot of people who pass away. Quite a bit more than normal. We’re seeing a pattern.”
On her left, Cynthia touches Annabelle’s knee and says:
“It’s always at the end of the month.”
Suzie leans forward and says:
“It’s easy to see that you are hungry.”
Annabelle begins to sob. Holding her face in her gloved hands, she hangs her head. Sobs turn to snivels as the sisters remain silent, waiting for Annabelle to regain her composure. Laurie-Ann hands her several Kleenex from the box on the end table. She dabs at her eyes and with head still bowed, she says:
“Wilbur…that was my husband’s name…was an adorable, sweet, sweet man, but he was a gambler, always chasing the big one. We never saved any money but he made sure our bills were always paid, put food on the table, paid our rent but would spend the extra on the horses. He would win enough to keep the temptation strong. He was too proud to have me work so I never had a pension and with only my old age security and a small widow’s allowance, I just can’t make ends meet…”
Annabelle pauses. The sisters coo and pat her on the knee all talking at once.
“There, there dear…”
“It’s a shame…”
Laurie-Ann stands abruptly, and Annabelle feels nervous seeing the creased forehead of the oldest sister. She cringes when Laurie-Anne says:
“This has got to stop.”
Pointing at her younger sister, she says:
“Cynthia, you know what to do. Suzie, go get Tony.”
Annabelle is alone on the couch, Kleenex bunched in her hands. Watching the flurry of activity, she worries that they may be calling the police even though they seem concerned. She is thinking of how she might escape when all three sisters are back, accompanied by the huge man that brought her to the office. Laurie-Ann says:
‘C’mon, Annabelle, you’re going with Tony here.”
Shaking lightly, Annabelle resigns herself to her fate and stands weakly in front of the sisters and watches the one named Cynthia hand a piece of paper to the man they call Tony. Laurie-Ann steps closer to Annabelle:
“Tony knows what to do because we already discussed this with him. If my information is correct, the pension checks come around the 26th of each month. You go with him, Annabelle. He’s going to take you home. But first he’s going to cash the check Cynthia gave him and you two can go grocery shopping. He’ll do this on the 22nd of each month until you no longer need it.”
Annabelle’s eyes go wide in astonishment at this announcement. She’s not sure what to say. This act of kindness causes water to pool on her lower eyelids. She tries not to blink; she’s tired of shedding tears and feeling sorry for herself. Trying to find the right words, she shakes her head.
“No…no I couldn’t do that. It’s not right and you don’t have to look after an old lady that can’t take care of herself.”
Certain that she would accept their gift, the sisters are at a loss for words, even Laurie-Ann who seldom remains quiet. Tony on the other hand makes a suggestion.
“I thought you ladies were looking for a greeter for Monday and Tuesday mornings now that Hazel has moved to Ontario?”
The sister’s look at the big man and they are all smiling. They look in question to Annabelle.
Head high, chin out, pride back in place, Annabelle appears to think a moment, but not long.
“Yes, I’d like that.”
Thanks for dropping by The Scribbler. If you enjoyed this short story, there are more available in SHORTS Vol. 1, 2 & 3 available at amazon.com (Or see the right sidebar, or check on Novels above for more details.)
Next week on the Scribbler you will be able to meet Author Jason Hamilton of Dieppe, New Brunswick
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