Hope Chest

The key hadn’t been on Georgia’s ring yesterday, but she found it there now. She held it up to be sure she recognized it—the antique brass key to her cedar hope chest. Lost for years. But how did it get on her ring?

She narrowed her eyes, suspecting the orderlies. The staff at Pine Acres Independent Living were helpful, tidy, and efficient. They seemed to organize while Georgia wasn’t looking. Like the Brownies of folklore. Though they were sometimes so quick about it that her crossword books got re-shelved before she’d finished all the puzzles.

No matter. Having the key back was a gift, even if an orderly had entered without knocking. She stood, mindfully as the occupational therapist had instructed, to reopen the box of whatever wedding gifts remained unused after 57 years.

She opened the narrow linen closet door and lifted her heirloom quilt from the chest’s lid. She brushed about six years’ worth of dust from it—six years since she and Benjamin had moved in here together. Four years by herself. But they key had been gone long before they’d come to Pine Acres. She fitted it into the lock and turned. The antique mechanism clicked and Georgia lifted the lid.

There were a few unused doilies and linens, set aside so she would have one unstained piece from each woman who’d made them. The doily from her godmother. The linen napkin made by her grandma. One unbroken china dish set aside from the wedding set.

Then something caught her eye. There in the corner, a dainty silver chain. She lifted it and gasped, her heart raced in an unsettling, arrhythmic cadence. It was the locket from Benjamin—also lost for years. She straightened to catch her breath.

Georgia did not want to be alone in her room with her disturbing heartbeat. She dropped the silver locket on Benjamin’s empty pillow and started for the cafeteria to find company.  As she left her apartment, she grabbed the ‘fall button’ necklace that she didn’t usually take along. Breathing hard, walked down the hallway, past all the cutesy mailboxes, welcome mats, and other various ornaments the residents placed in front of their apartment doors. She passed the coffee kiosk with its chipper sign: Welcome to the beverage station! Without pausing to roll her eyes at it she turned the corner and scanned the cafeteria for a friend.

No Margaret, no Lois, and no Tom, either. The room was mostly empty. It was 9:30 after all. Breakfast long over and too early for even the earliest luncher. A woman and a man occupied one table at the far corner of the room. The woman waved at Georgia, who squinted to see who it was. Sally Henfield. Oh no. But it was too late to back politely away now. Georgia trudged forward and took a seat at the table beside “Carl,” Sally’s quote unquote “husband.”

“You’ve got the shine about you,” said Sally immediately with no introductory chit chat.

“I don’t follow,” said Georgia.

“Sometimes lost things find their way back. And I can tell when a person is drawing their lost things back to them.”

Georgia’s mouth went dry.

“How did you know?”

“Ever since I drew Carl back to my side, I’ve been able to see things other people miss.”

Sally patted the hand of the vague-expressioned man beside her and beamed. Both Sally and the man had glassy eyes with faraway stares. Georgia shook her head, refusing Sally’s words. “Carl” had moved into Pine Acres six months ago, obviously suffering from dementia. His name was really Tony Parker, but Sally, herself of dubious cognizance, had insisted Tony was in fact her late husband Carl returned after a ten year stint in the afterlife. Tony hadn’t argued and answered to all names—including Carl. The pair seemed happy, but they weren’t Georgia’s kind of crowd.

Then Sally turned a suddenly keen stare on Georgia.

“Georgia, you’ll find another lost treasure back at your room. Then who knows?”

Georgia’s heart pounded, the arrhythmic beat disrupted her normally decorous and predictable pulse. It felt like her heart was running terrified from pursuit, tripping occasionally on the way.

“No one believes Carl and me,” said Sally. “But look.”

Sally reached into her purse and pulled out a pocket book. She opened it to a photograph of herself as a young woman standing with a man—a man who looked plausibly, though not certainly like a young Tony.

“You see,” said Sally, “it’s simpler for folks to assume we’re senile. We don’t mind because we’re happy. But I can tell when people start pulling the strings that tie them to what’s been long lost. It’s usually when life’s lost its savor, but they’re not done living yet. Are you tired of early breakfasts and crossword puzzles, Georgia?”

And suddenly as it came, Sally’s facial clarity faded and Tony/Carl snoozed audibly at the table, head lolling a touch. Georgia stood and walked back to her room, this time holding the safety railings on the walls and clutching the fall button necklace.

She stepped inside her room and sank to her bed. She looked at the locket on the pillow where she’d left it in her hurry out of the room. She opened it to the picture of Benjamin and her heart steadied its rhythm. The panic gave way to an ache. Maybe she was just tired.

His smile was shy. His eyebrows bushy. She and Benjamin had grown together over their married life in deep, unseen ways, like neighboring trees. On the surface, they looked like separate beings. Close, but distinct. But underground their roots had entwined until they lived as one system. When Benjamin was cut away, Georgia’s roots still curled around his, trying to draw in sustenance with decaying vestiges. She only appeared to be wholly alive.

A meow lifted Georgia’s attention. A ginger cat pranced at the sliding glass door to her back patio. It looked like Grumby, her favorite cat from her childhood.

“No pets allowed,” she told the cat through the door. But it continued prancing, and kneading the ground with big, white paws. It nudged her flowerpots to claim them and trilled Grumby’s familiar half-purr, half-meow.

Georgia opened the door to go outside, but the cat dashed in and jumped on her bed. Georgia sat beside it and petted it. The cat didn’t simply resemble Grumby, it looked and acted like Grumby. It was impossible.

“Grumby?” said Georgia. The cat slowly blinked his green eyes at her, the universal cat signal for comfort and affection. Georgia would know those green eyes anywhere. This was Grumby somehow. Drawing lost things back … echoed Sally’s promise. The ache in her chest gave way to a dreadful hope.

She spent the rest of the day petting the cat and looking at photo albums of Benjamin. She ate some packets of oatmeal from her pantry for lunch and dinner because she felt too fluttery to go the cafeteria. Predictably, an orderly popped in for a welfare check—which he cleverly disguised as an unscheduled towel and linen service visit. Georgia mused that it must have worried the staff when she wasn’t doing her crossword puzzles in the game lounge at 1 PM as usual. It surprised her that she’d become so predictable.

She found sleep elusive that night. She stared at the empty pillow on the queen-sized bed and petted Grumby. Anticipation and stray thoughts kept her twitching awake each time she dozed. When sleep finally did overtake her, she dreamt of green shoots sprouting from a stump. She felt pulled toward something indescribable, but she pulled back. No, you come to me, she said firmly to the pulling force, but a gentle tension seemed to snap. The pull fell instantly slack. Her dreams were suddenly saturated with the feeling that she had missed something.

Georgia awoke to meowing, which startled her. A ginger cat was asking to be let outside. For a moment she wondered why there was a cat, but then she remembered—Grumby. But this was just an orange cat. She let it out as requested and turned back into her apartment to find Grumby.

A few confused minutes passed as she searched. Then she realized that yesterday’s Grumby had been this morning’s strange, orange cat. She looked at the empty side of the bed. The empty pillow had an indentation. But of course, the cat could have slept there. And that could be why. She felt oddly healthy. She stood quickly, trying to induce the frightening heart rhythm, but her heartbeat was steady. The feeling of having missed something lingered from her dream.

“Good morning, ma’am.”

Georgia jumped. A young orderly with a blonde ponytail had snuck into her room. Georgia’s heart should be in spasms, but the beat was even.

“More towels?” Georgia asked, dryly.

“Yes ma’am,” said the woman. “And I brought you the newest crossword puzzles.” The woman handed Georgia a crisp booklet. Its cover read: Pass the Time Puzzles. Georgia swallowed hard.

“This month’s issue looks tougher than last month’s,” the staff lady said.

“Not to worry,” said Georgia gripping the booklet. “I have lots of time.”

2 Comments

  • Debra Jackson says:

    The idea of drawing what is lost back is pure magic. I was truly touched by your description of Benjamin and Georgia’s deep relationship. Benjamin may not have come back, but the key and the cat helped her to enjoy her memories of him. Sometimes we need to take time and honor our past, feel the emotions wash over us and gain the ability to enjoy our present. Good job Emily!

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