Carolyn Steele Agosta
Get Me Out of Here
Get Me Out of Here
Episode 7 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
The Juniper Row Conference, as it came to be known, was held after-hours at The Dining Room. Rona and her husband, Gary, set out a tasting menu of items being considered for next week’s Riviera Night – salad niçoise, tarte Tropezzienne, courgettes facie a la brousse – and all of the neighbors on Juniper Row attended, with the notable exception of Jake (“gone over to the enemy”, Nance said bitterly). Also in attendance was Drew Wilkes, with the unwelcome news that Antonia had requested he begin taking applications for a new tenant for Robert’s empty cottage.
“I told you, didn’t I?” Nance demanded. “One by one, she’s gonna kick us out and jack up the rents and turn this whole street into some horrible elitist enclave with a gated entry. Any moment now, the place with be crawling with the nouveau riche and their expensive cars and all-night parties, like over on Island Pointe.”
“I hardly think so,” Amy said, trying to change the tone. “These are small homes here. Island Pointe is all mansions and a golf course and country club.”
“I raised the question of getting permission from Vonna,” Drew said, “and Antonia said I’d get it once I brought in any serious prospects. She did instruct me to raise the rent considerably.”
“Has anyone seen Vonna? I mean, actually seen her? Talked to her?” Dee asked.
Nobody had, not with Antonia keeping guard. “Every time I go over, I find myself turning around and walking back home,” Amy said. “Like I’ve been mesmerized.”
“There’s a home health nurse,” Nance said. “She says Vonna is doing great and when I told her Antonia won’t let any of us see her, she seemed surprised and then when I said I thought Antonia was deliberately keeping us from seeing her, she said she’d suggest it next time, and then when I approached her again, she acted like she didn’t remember. So I think Antonia’s doing a number on her. Big time.”
“Go as a group,” Gina said. She was a forty-year-old woman, lean and mean, with long dark hair and a splash of tiny freckles on her olive-skinned face. “Are there any more of those tart things left? I haven’t eaten in centuries.” She pushed her way past Rona and heaped up a plate of goodies. “Honestly, I’ve been here less than a minute and already my brain’s being damaged by how lame you guys are. Storm the place for cryin’ out loud, if you’re so worried. As a group. Antonia can’t voodoo the whole lot of us at once.” She shoved a large tart into her mouth and looked at everyone expectantly.
After a momentary surprised silence, they all began nodding their heads and agreeing. “We really need to,” Rona said. “We’re all tenants – and friends – of Vonna. We owe it her to make sure she’s okay.”
“Okay! So, here’s what I say – we go over tomorrow evening, about 7 o’clock,” Nance rubbed her hands together and glanced around. “Amy, Dee and Drew and I will go to the front door, And Ryan, you and Gina and Rona and Gary go to the back door. And when Antonia opens whichever door, we grab her, tie her to a chair with some duct tape and blindfold her right away. And then we get Vonna the heck outta Dodge and bring her someplace safe that Antonia will never think of, like maybe Drew’s store, and – ”
“Okay, for starters, luv, you’re officially not in charge, got it?” Ryan stood and flexed his shoulder muscles. “We’re not goin’ in guns blazin’ and all. You wanna get arrested? We’ll just go over as a group and politely ask for a nice sit-down, you know, very civilized. Go when the nurse is there, so Antonia will be forced to answer the door.”
“But what if Antonia gives us the big wham-o?”
“Avoid eye contact! We’ve got to be reasonable here.”
Nance clearly wasn’t happy. “What about Jake?” she asked. “We need to keep him out of the way, the little squid.”
“I’ll do that,” Gina said, carefully scraping the brie and pesto bowl clean with a final bit of baguette. She popped the tidbit into her mouth, chewed and swallowed. Seeing everyone staring at her, she said, “What? You think Antonia’s the only one with feminine wiles?” She struck a pose, as if to say Isn’t it obvioius? and chugged the last of her rosé. “Just tell me when,” she added. “Thanks for the snack!” and she left.
As they watched her go, Dee just shook her head and smiled. “The woman has style,” she said. “You gotta admit.”
“No I don't," Nance flatly announced. "The nurse comes again on Tuesday, usually around 4 in the afternoon. Be there or be square. But seriously, be there.” She sat gnawing on a Twizzler while the others began to clean up. “It’s gonna take all of us.”
“I do think it’s a good idea to post someone at the back door,” Dee said. “Be prepared for any contingency.” She remembered the banging noises at the barn that time. Seriously, she thought, any contingency. “Let’s come up with a specific plan.”
Rona’s husband Gary would keep watch for the nurse’s red Kia to turn onto Juniper Row. He’d send out a group text to all the tenants and Drew. Then Nance would approach the farmhouse as soon as she saw the nurse go in, and the others would join her, one by one, so that Antonia would be distracted by having a knock on the door every few seconds. Ryan and Dee would go around to the back, just in case. Gina would be at Jake’s to keep him out of the way.
Once they were all inside, if Vonna wasn’t immediately in view, they’d ask the nurse to bring her out. If Antonia made any fuss, they’d very calmly explain their concerns to the nurse, avoiding eye contact with Antonia herself.
Once they could see and talk to Vonna themselves, they felt confident she would be able to state what she wanted, that she’d feel safe enough to say so, if she wanted Antonia to leave. “And we definitely need her to leave,” Nance insisted. “Good golly, Miss Molly, have you seen the number of boxes being delivered by Amazon and UPS and the post office? Antonia must be going through Vonna’s money like water. Who knows what she’s up to?! Probably emptying out the bank accounts and running up the credit cards.”
“And if Vonna seems too weak to talk to us, then what?” Dee asked. “Just carry her off? We need a backup plan.”
“I’ve got a backup plan, alright,” Nance said. “I’ll back Antonia up right out the back door, and if I have to, I’ll lock her in that barn. And burn it down and piss on the ashes.”
“Yeah, okay, Sweet’eart,” Ryan said. “I think it’s time we all ’ad a nice cuppa. Rona? Can we get some tea, maybe?”
“Don’t you dare hot-beverage me,” Nance shouted. “I mean business!”
The first snag was that Nance was stuck in her bathroom, due to the unfortunate decision the previous evening to have a second piece of cheesecake. And a third. “I was uptight, thinking about today!” she protested later when everyone turned on her. “I wasn’t expecting that kind of shit-storm!”
Rona ended up being the one to ring the doorbell first. “I brought Vonna some roasted cauliflower and kale soup,” she said, carefully keeping her gaze on the lower part of Antonia’s face, and not her eyes. Holding the wrapped tureen in both hands, she managed to wedge one foot in the door and Antonia reluctantly had to give way.
Once inside, Rona glanced around for Vonna, but got distracted. The interior of the farmhouse was transformed. “Oh, this is lovely,” she gasped. “Amazing! I didn’t know this room could look so pretty!”
The home health nurse stepped forward at that point, beaming. “That’s what I always say,” she said, gesturing at the gracious room. “This girl has worked wonders. Wonders! I just can’t get over it. Every time I come, it’s even better!”
Antonia’s smile was more of a tight grimace, but she took the dish from Rona’s hands and carried it away to the kitchen.
Rona took the opportunity to ask the nurse about Vonna.
“Well, I just got here. Haven’t seen her yet.” The nurse turned and headed for the open bedroom door. “Miss Vonna? How you doin’ today?”
Antonia returned immediately, just in time for the second ring of the doorbell. Amy stood there, bearing a lovely potted plant. “Oh, hi,” she said, breezily pushing her way in. “This is for Vonna. How is she doing?” She, too, kept her gaze averted.
Then the back doorbell chimed. Antonia made an exasperated sigh and angrily went to get it. Ryan, of course, casually carrying a stepladder and a bag of packaged lightbulbs. “’Ere to check on Miss Vonna’s lights, like I do every month.” Ryan was not a very good actor, but it didn’t really matter. At this point, Antonia seemed as irritated as if he’d shown up with a carton full of assholes. When Dee and Drew also walked in the back door, she gave up all semblance of manners and exclaimed, “What is this? An invasion? What do you folks think you’re doing?!”
“We want to see Vonna for ourselves!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Antonia shook her head, but then went into Vonna’s bedroom and a moment later, Vonna came out. She moved slowly and unsteadily, head down, focused on what was directly in front of her. She used a walker and her feet shuffled in small, uncertain steps. It was clear that she had lost weight and muscle. She was tiny. Wizened.
“Miss Vonna?” Rona said, slowly. “How are you?”
Vonna’s gaze slowly came up to meet them, and a couple of them gasped. It was as if she’d aged twenty years. Her face was pale and lined, and her beautiful blue eyes as faded as old jeans. Her usual expression of alert sympathy and kindness was replaced by an old woman’s querulousness. She clearly didn’t recognize them. Didn’t recognize them and didn’t appreciate their presence. She quivered all over and then an expression of absolute terror entered her eyes and she screamed.
No one had expected this. Not in their wildest conjectures. The first person to react was the nurse, who immediately became all-business. “Okay, now you all have to leave. She is not feeling well.” Vonna began to whimper and Antonia steered her back to the bedroom while the nurse began herding the rest of them out onto the front porch. “I know you meant well, but sometimes people with dementia have hallucinations. Please, go home and let her rest. When you come back, call first, and only one at a time.” Despite their protests, she firmly pushed them all out the door. They milled around on the front porch and at that inopportune moment, Nance came huffing and puffing up to them.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” she said, trying to see past them to the front door. “What happened? What are you doing out there?”
“That was the most piercing scream I ever heard,” Amy said, her voice quavering, when the group of them had reassembled in Ryan and Amy’s living room. When Nance learned they’d been thrown out of the house, she had to be forcibly restrained and perp-walked by Ryan across the road into his cottage. “Awful. Like a steam whistle going off right next to my ear.”
“Like a howler monkey. Like ten howler monkeys,” Gary said.
“Like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Dee added. When everyone stopped to look at her, she said, shrugging, “I like old horror movies.”
“So you just left? When Vonna needed you so much?” Nance tried to get up from her seat again and Ryan just shot her a look. She sat back down.
“You weren’t there,” Rona said, her hands visibly shaking. “You didn’t hear it, didn’t see it. Vonna was terrified. Of us.” Gary, standing next to her, put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “My god, it was awful. I left because it was the only way she’d calm down.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“So, now what?” Amy asked. “Maybe it is dementia.”
“No way.” Dee’s voice was decisive. “Absolutely not. Antonia’s done something. I’m sure of it. I got a look at her face as we were leaving, and that damned girl was smiling. More than smiling. She was gleeful.”
Pretty much all hell broke loose after that, with everyone jumping in and giving their own two cents’ worth of conjecture and advice and concern. After a few minutes, by dint of raising his voice (even above Nance’s), Drew got their attention.
“Look, I think we all know we’re dealing with a situation here that goes far beyond elder care.” He paused, obviously looking for the right words, and finally said, “I’ve never told this to anyone before, but . . . once . . . I’m pretty sure Vonna caused me to hallucinate. And that hallucination seemed pretty damned real in the moment. It terrified me. And we didn’t even have eye contact at the time.” He paused to let that sink in. “I guess we’ve all experienced Vonna being . . . persuasive. But this was different. So if . . . well, I’m guessing . . . if somehow Vonna’s powers have been transmitted to Antonia, then God knows what she’s capable of doing.”
This brought on another silence. And then, one by one, they each began mentioning different times they’d felt Vonna’s powers. And what the consequences had been. It was like a group of alcoholics confessing their rock-bottom moments, and even more sobering. Nance pretty much took first prize when she admitted that Vonna had once put her under for three days. “Not that I blame her. I kinda pushed her into it.” Nance’s eyes became dreamy for a second. “And it was pretty damned fantastic.”
All eight cellphones pinged at once, a group text from Gina. What’s happening? Gary texted back that she should come over to Ryan and Amy’s house, and a moment later, she appeared.
“So, how did it go?” she asked brightly.
Dee briefly filled her in. “Are you kidding?” Gina gasped. “Do I seriously have to listen to this? I sacrificed my body for this whole group screw-up?” She stared at everyone furiously, and then suddenly mellowed. “Although I gotta admit, Jake wasn’t half bad. No technique, of course, but lots of enthusiasm. Anyone else hungry? I could really go for some empañadas.”
Nance wanted to go home after that, but Dee convinced her to stay. “We have to do something. Antonia has virtually made a prisoner of Vonna, and who knows how much mental torture she’s putting her through?”
“Yeah, well, you got any ideas? ’Coz I’m flat out. And this one,” Nance said, eyeing Gina, “gets on my wick.”
“Oh, blow me,” Gina sweetly replied.
Nance came roaring out of her chair before anyone could stop her and head-butted Gina right into the fireplace. The two women snarled and clawed at each other, the andirons falling over with a crash. Ryan and Drew tried to pull them loose, while Rona cried out for them to stop, and the others tried to get out of the way. In the middle of the action, Nance suddenly came to a screeching halt, stood upright, and said, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I know exactly what we should do.”
“I’ll tell you what you can do,” Gina yelled and Ryan had to pick her up and set her in a corner. Breathing hard, he looked back over his shoulder at Nance.
“We’ll call her father! Antonia’s father!” Shaking herself all over, like a dog, Nance delicately pushed Drew aside and glanced around at everyone.
“I thought he didn’t want to be involved,” Dee ventured.
“He doesn’t! That’s the point! And he wouldn’t want his daughter to be involved!” Nance’s face glowed like one who has seen the Light. “Vonna always said he hated her Gift. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it and didn’t want her to tell Antonia about it. He’ll have a conniption fit!” She sat down in her chair, folded her hands, and gazed benevolently at the group.
They all slowly began to take their seats again, mulling over this idea. Ryan, with a wary glance at Gina, stepped back a few paces. Gina frowned, but she didn’t do anything. After a minute, she said, “Seriously? No one’s hungry? I could eat a Chevy.”
Nance held up one finger. She pulled out her cell phone and made a call. “Oliver?” she said, “this is Nance Winslow. Vonna’s neighbor. Yes, yes, I know. I just thought I should tell you that Antonia’s here, taking care of Vonna. . . yes, I know . . . well, she’s decided to stay and actually lives here now. I believe she even quit her job . . . well, I guess you’d have to ask her . . . yes . . . hello? Hello?” She ended the call and beamed at everyone. “Now we just sit back and watch the fireworks. I’m hungry now.” She turned to Gina and said, “I’ll see your empañadas and raise you a mojito at Miguel’s, if you like. I’ll even treat. I feel like celebrating.”
Nance wasn’t kidding when she said she’d just sit back and watch the fireworks. She even invited Gina to join her. After eating, they parked themselves on Nance’s front porch, more mojitos at the ready, and found they shared a passionate interest in the South Korean TV show, Hospital Playlist. They had gotten into a whole discussion about one of the actors, Yoo Yeon-Seok, and other roles he’d played, when a Chevy Tahoe pulled up in Vonna’s driveway. “I keep thinking, I want one of those,” Gina said, “but they’re so damned expensive.” A middle-aged man got out and went to the door. “Big guy,” she observed. “Massive. I always think, I want one of those, too.” He pounded on the door until it shook in its frame. “Or maybe not.”
She and Nance instinctively took hold of their chair arms. This was getting good. The home health nurse had left hours ago. When no one answered the door, the man left the porch and marched around back. He didn’t bother to cast a look at the women across the street, and Nance quickly sent a group text and let the others know what was happening. Most of them were working, but Dee showed up a few minutes later. Nance asked if she wanted a mojito, but she declined. She did take a Twizzler. After a moment of chewing, Dee asked, “Any sign of Jake? Ya think he’s figured it out yet?”
“Doubt it,” Gina replied. “Probably still sleeping. I made him go twice.” She kept her eyes glued to the farmhouse. “I thought we’d see some kind of light show by now.”
Dee glanced at Nance, and grinned. Gina was definitely growing on her.
The action, when it happened, was extremely anti-climactic. Antonia and her father came out on the front porch, the father pushing Vonna in a wheelchair. The man glared across the street at the women gathered there, and left Vonna just sitting by herself, Then, he took his daughter by the arm, and steered her down the steps into his car. Antonia was completely docile. She didn’t look up, just sat in the passenger seat as they drove away. “Let’s go get her,” Nance said, and they cautiously approached the farmhouse. Vonna sat passively in the wheelchair, her head down, her hands in her lap.
“Vonna?” Nance said softly. “Are you okay?”
Vonna raised her head and stared at her friends. She looked like a rag doll, so inert, so lifeless. Then, her pale blue eyes seemed to focus and she said, “Nance. Oh, Nance, get me out of here.”
It didn’t take long for them to transfer her to Nance’s house, and bring over some supplies – clothes, medicines, the walker, some food (although Gina did purloin several slices of lemon poppyseed poundcake for herself), and Vonna’s purse and keys.
Vonna didn’t want to talk about it. “I just want to sleep,” she said. “I’m so tired.” As Dee and Gina went to ready the guest room, she suddenly took Nance’s arm in a surprisingly strong grip. “Oh, Nance,” she whispered. “I never knew. Oliver has powers. Stronger than mine. He’s had them all along. I never knew.”
Ryan decided it was no longer necessary to do a security walk each evening. Antonia was gone, and Vonna was safely at Nance’s house. So, nobody noticed when the flickering blue lights began again in Vonna’s attic. Nor the fact that they’d been joined by flickering orange lights. Nobody noticed at all.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
To read Parts 1-6 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions, go here. To read my blog posts and other stories, go here. Or to learn about my books, go here.
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