Price to Pay
Episode 6 of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions
During the following week, Ryan took over the evening walks past Vonna’s, and Jake did the morning ones. Neither of them encountered any strange happenings or signs of trespass. Nance continued to visit Vonna every day, staying for hours, just talking about almost anything but with no discernible response. Ryan and Amy were deeply involved in their latest composition and recordings, and things gradually returned to almost-normal.
Near the end of March, Nance dropped by to tell them the latest news. “They want to move her to a nursing home. She’s still unconscious, but not on life support other than nutrition. The doctors are trying to get someone named medical guardian, and I said I was willing, but it all has to go through the court system. It’s so frustrating!”
“I imagine they have to be really careful in cases like this,” Amy said, putting an arm around Nance’s shoulders. “You hear about terrible situations where the patient is put into the care of someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart.”
“Yeah, but that’s not me!” Nance shook Amy’s arm off. “That girl, Antonia, the fourth cousin three times removed or whatever, she’s applying for guardianship too. And I don’t trust her at all.”
“She just . . . she’s too perfect. And strange. Perfectly strange. Vonna was crazy about her after only spending a couple of days together. She’s probably plotting right now to get Vonna home and then put a pillow over her face and inherit all the properties. You better start packing. She’ll kick us all out quick as the Dickens and start using these places as Air BnBs. She’d make a lot more money that way.”
“Nance, you don’t really know her at all, you’re just inventing this.” Amy put on her no-nonsense voice and steered Nance over to one of the kitchen chairs. “Now, sit down, let me make you some coffee, and we’ll just talk it over.”
“No!” Nance looked like she was about to burst into tears. “Giving me a hot beverage – that’s what Vonna always does! I’m won’t be hot-beveraged into submission. I’m going to fight tooth and nail. I’ve been Vonna’s best friend for ten years, and I know what she’d want in this situation. I’m the one who’s been going over there every day. I’m the one who keeps talking to her. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of Antonia all this while.” She elbowed her way past Ryan and left, slamming the door behind her.
He and Amy just looked at each other. There wasn’t much they could do. They hadn’t really even met Antonia, beyond a quick introduction the night she was at The Dining Room, and Ryan’s run-in with her at Vonna’s place. She might be a bit unusual, but that didn’t make her dangerous – and she was, after all, Vonna’s family. “It’s a hard situation,” Amy said, shaking her head. “I do trust that Nance really cares about Vonna, but you know how she is. Gets an idea about something and heads off running, no matter how skewed the original thought is.”
She would know, Ryan thought. Amy knew all the neighbors pretty well. She was the outgoing type, whereas he was more likely to just keep his head down and go about his business. Amy was friendly with all of them, even crabby old Gina, and she was the one who planned the annual Juniper Row End-of-Summer Cookout and Lake Party, when they all gathered for burgers, wine and beer, music and final dips in the lake before the weather turned cool. Amy organized it and Ryan just provided the muscle, hauling out all the tables and chairs, setting up umbrellas, manning the barbecue grill. Now that he thought of it, he only saw their neighbors under the best of circumstances, when they were full of the good cheer brought about by plentiful food and drink. He didn’t really know how any of them handled a problem, other than the fact that Nance could be counted on to flap about like a chicken without a head at the slightest provocation. He tried to take her accusations with a grain of salt.
He and Jake were still doing a patrol each morning and evening, to make sure there was nothing going on at Vonna’s, but they had stopped reporting in to each other, since there was nothing to report. So he was surprised to see Jake’s pickup truck parked in front of the farmhouse on Thursday afternoon. They’d just come home from a rehearsal of the Sibelius Symphony #5, a piece that could be very exhausting for everyone, but especially the violin section. Tempers had flared at one point, and he felt concern for the performance tomorrow night. Neither he nor Amy spoke on the ride home, they were both too tired. However, at the sight of Jake’s truck in Vonna’s drive, they looked at each other and silently agreed to check it out.
The truck was backed up to Vonna’s porch steps, the tailgate down, and there were a couple of pieces of furniture in the truck bed and cartons on the porch. Jake was nowhere to be seen, but after a moment, he came out, talking over his shoulder to someone. “Oh, hey!” he said with a smile when he noticed Ryan and Amy. “Just in time to help me with this dresser!” He nodded at an old chest of drawers in the truck. Before Ryan could ask any questions, the girl – Antonia – came out the front door.
“Hello,” she said, running her eyes over him and Amy. She said nothing further, just stood there in that odd way she had, arms tight at her sides.
“Antonia’s moving in,” Jake obligingly explained. “So she can take care of Vonna when she comes home.”
“Is she coming home? That’s good news!” Amy asked. “Does Nance know?”
“She’s not coming home yet,” Antonia said, in her soft voice. “But I hope it will be soon. And when she does, she’ll need assistance.” She turned and picked up one of the cartons and disappeared back inside.
“What are you doin’, mate?” Ryan asked Jake in a low voice. “Does Vonna want her to move in? Is Vonna even conscious yet?”
“I don’t know,” Jake replied. “But I couldn’t just let Antonia do this all by herself, could I?” He seemed his usual simpleton self, cheerful and completely oblivious to anything except a pretty girl. “Here. Help me with this.” He lifted one side of the dresser and obviously expected Ryan to grab the other end.
Ryan threw Amy a look of incredulity and she said, “Wait, Jake. Let’s think this over. This might even be considered trespassing.”
Jake just stared at Amy as if she were insane. “She can’t carry this by herself, it’s too heavy. If you’re not going to help, Ryan, at least get out of my way.” He leveraged the dresser to the edge of the pickup bed and jumped down, preparing to lift the damn thing down himself. Ryan moved to stop him and Jake ferociously turned on him. “Get hell out of my way!” he snarled and gave Ryan a shove. Ryan shoved him back.
“Whoa! Stop!” Amy cried. “Just everybody calm down!”
“Yes, stop!” Antonia’s voice, soft as it was, was immediately obeyed by Jake. He stepped back and dropped his hands. She came down the steps toward them. “There’s no need for arguing. I’m going to stay here for now. I’ve been at a motel, but I can’t afford to keep that up. Now, you can help me, or you can leave. But I will be here to take care of Vonna.” She turned to Ryan, and placed a placating hand on his arm. “Please, can’t you help Jake? Just with the dresser and the mattress and box springs? We have to take them to the second floor. He and I can do all the rest ourselves.”
Ryan blinked. “Alright, just those,” he replied. To Amy’s obvious astonishment, he quietly helped Jake carry in those items, and then took his wife’s arm and walked her home.
“My gosh, why did you help?” she asked as they walked away.
“Seemed better than fightin’ Jake,” he replied, feeling a bit dazed at the turn of events. “Never seen him so fired up. It just seemed right, in the moment.” He didn’t tell her the other reason. The way there was something so compelling about that girl’s eyes. She reminded him of Vonna, but not in a good way.
Vonna lay flat on her back, on a white raft in the middle of an immense blue-gray sea. The waters were calm at the moment, for which she was grateful. She didn’t like when the waves rose and tossed her from side to side, or even flipped her over on her stomach like a hamburger on a grill. She had trained herself not to flinch whenever the captain poked his telescope in her eye. So rude. And speaking of rude, it was rude of Nance to keep endlessly talking in her ear. About Switzerland and Luxembourg and the Arby’s chicken cordon bleu sandwich. It was exhausting and all Vonna wanted to do was lie on the raft in calm waters and sleep.
To sleep. Perchance to dream. She must be dreaming, she thought. Why else would her mother keep appearing and disappearing? And her grandmother. The two of them whispering to each other so that she couldn’t hear more than a word or two. They’d speak her name – Vonna! – sharply, and then go back to low murmurs, the way they always did, discussing things, discussing her, making plans and predictions. Sorting and ordering her life. Sometimes she heard gulls crying in sharp metallic pings and beeps.
She faded away into memories of her youth. Her teen years. Dance classes with Miss Taylor, up on her toes, raising her arms. All she wanted, all she thought about was ballet – the music, the movements, stretching and extending. Learning what her body could do and how she could manage to fit in with all the other girls, blending into one movement, one line.
Vonna! She heard again the sound of her mother’s voice, sharp and demanding. Time to get your head out of the clouds. You will never make it into that world. You’re not good enough. And Vonna had stopped. She had to accept that her mother’s words were right. She wasn’t good enough. She’d never make it into the ballerina’s world. Except, Vonna told herself now, in this moment on the raft, how do you know? You stopped trying. You lost all faith in yourself. Because of your mother’s words. All of Mother’s words, words, words.
She struggled to open her eyes. Kept thinking she had, only to realize they were still closed. Until a new voice entered her head, a gentle voice, one she recognized and yet didn’t. Vonna, the voice said. Wake up. Open your eyes.
So she did.
A face loomed above her, young, pretty. No, beautiful. Thick, wavy honey-colored hair, green eyes. Lovely. Antonia? No, prettier. “Look at me,” the woman said. “Look at me.”
Vonna drew a deep, sharp breath. Oh, my lord! She tried to speak, but her mouth was so dry. Why was she here? What place was this? And why did Antonia look so different? What had happened? She couldn’t remember anything.
Antonia leaned closer. “You’re okay,” she said, in a gentle voice. “You’re just fine. You just need to rest.” She gently brushed back a lock of Vonna’s hair and intensified her gaze. “Understand? You just need to rest. For a long, long time.”
The home healthcare nurse found this new job pretty easy. She came in three days a week, checked the patient’s vital signs, looked to make sure there were no bedsores starting, and then worked with the full-time caregiver to bathe the old woman. Soon, she wouldn’t be needed, which was too bad. She liked the patient, who was soft-spoken and sleepy and undemanding. She liked the caregiver, Antonia, too, with her gentle voice and beautiful eyes. And she liked the old-fashioned farmhouse, which was gradually being fixed up between each visit. Originally, the rooms were dark, with heavy window dressings that kept the light out. Now, it was beginning to feel so much brighter and cleaner and more welcoming. Little touches were making it more cheerful – green plants, pretty lightweight curtains, hand-painted designs on the walls and doors.
“It’s becoming like a fairy cottage,” she said one day to the caregiver, Antonia. “I just love it! And Miss Vonna seems to be doing so well. Her color is better. Pretty soon, I hope, she’ll take more interest in her surroundings. Be sure to get her outside, if you can, on the sunnier days. Or at least near a window where fresh air can get in.”
“I will,” Antonia promised. “I like to be outdoors myself. You have a good day, now.”
As she left, the nurse found herself wishing that everyone had such a good caregiver when they needed one. The world would be a better place.
Vonna was more aware of her surroundings than the nurse realized. Antonia had made a real difference in the house. Vonna liked the flowers and sunshine and the healthful broths and homemade bread. She enjoyed the feel of fresh clean sheets on the bed and the sight of pretty, flickering candles placed all around in the evenings. She enjoyed looking at Antonia too, so graceful and delicate, almost ethereal. If this was the result of handing on The Gift, she could live with it, even if it had left her with no energy to do much more than just sit and watch.
Except. . .
Except there were still large gaps in her thoughts. Periods of time which passed and she had no memory of them. None of her friends had come to visit during the two weeks she’d been home. Once, and only once, Antonia had placed a meal before her which seemed a very Rona-like concoction which made Vonna wonder if it had been delivered from The Dining Room. Not that Vonna expected Rona to keep them fed, but if she had dropped off a dish, why hadn’t she come inside to say hello?
She was beginning to get some of her strength back. Her legs didn’t feel quite so shaky when she got out of bed in the morning. Her arms didn’t tremble as much when she brushed out her long hair. One of these days soon, she thought, she’d make it out to the front porch, to sit a while and survey the scene. Check up on her neighbors, her friends. Maybe today. Vonna glanced around for the aluminum walker that she was supposed to use to move from place to place. It was put out of reach, as usual. Antonia always said that she didn’t want Vonna to use it without supervision, but that left her with no independence and, while she didn’t want The Gift back, she wasn’t prepared to just hand over all her freedom. She appreciated Antonia’s care, she really did, but it was time to begin to care for herself.
Antonia was in the kitchen at the moment, humming to herself as she chopped vegetables for lunch. Vonna managed to turn her wheelchair so she could push it backwards with her feet, the easiest way to move it. She had to reach behind her to pull open the front door and was about to maneuver the chair into the doorway when Antonia came into the living room. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“I just wanted some fresh air,” Vonna replied, eyeing the big chopping knife in Antonia’s hand. “Thought I’d sit out on the porch.”
“I’ve told you before, many times. Wait until I can help.” Antonia’s arms went straight down and tightly to her sides. “You’re not ready yet to go without me.” She walked over and stared down into Vonna’s eyes. “You’re not strong enough yet. Always wait until I can help you.” She laid down the knife and pulled the wheelchair back into the center of the room, facing the TV. “Here. I’ll put on HGTV for you. You enjoy those shows.”
Vonna wanted to weep. She now understood what was going on. Why there were lapses in her memories of the past two weeks. She’d watch the damned HGTV show and forget this last moment of clarity. Never able to use The Gift on herself, she was now its victim. Antonia was becoming very good at using its strengths. Very good indeed.
There is a price to pay for everything, Vonna thought before she faded away again, and a consequence to all our decisions. Sometimes very unintended.
For Jake, the past couple of weeks had been like Heaven on Earth. Antonia walked into his life and he could barely remember how he’d lived before then. He’d shown her his place with a certain amount of trepidation. Not every woman could or would respect how much work he did, building all kinds of LEGO structures – some exactly as designed in the factory, and others of his own creation – but Antonia really seemed interested in his set-up, and the way he’d been able to make a decent living for the past five years, just on his social media accounts, videos, advertisers and online store. Usually, no one except other LEGO fans would take him seriously.
“You need more space, though,” she told him. “You could really expand if you had more square footage.”
He knew that. He’d played with the idea of renting some warehouse space, but worried about just how secure it would be. “If anyone ever got in,” he said, “they could do a lot of damage. I’ve seen it happen before. I feel better knowing that everything is under my roof.”
“What about the barn?” she asked. “If Vonna would agree to it, would you like to use that space? It’s just sitting empty.” She faced him squarely. “Help me clean it out and it’s yours to use.”
A surge of energy ran through him. She was interested, really interested. He pushed away thoughts of how spooky the barn had been that day with Ryan and Dee. Probably all in his imagination anyway, and greedy ideas of vast new displays ran through his head.
He went over to look at the space with her. Once they’d pushed the doors wide open, and unshuttered the windows, he began to feel optimistic. Certainly plenty of space. Add some shelving and tables from IKEA, and it would be a good workable arrangement. He’d have to figure out how to heat and cool the place, but it did already have water and power. Antonia stood in the middle of the floor, her eyes closed and head back. Taking in the vibes, he guessed. She was like that. Kind of spiritual. When she opened her eyes, she said, “Let’s go up to the loft and open the big doors up there. Let the air flow through. This place needs a good big draft of fresh air.”
Up there, the air felt murky. Stale. They pushed open the hayloft doors and he looked down to the yard below, feeling a bit dizzy. Antonia walked to a far, dark corner. “Come here,” she said. “Help me with this.”
It was an old humpbacked trunk, pushed deep into the shadows. For some reason, Jake felt queasy as he approached it. “We have to take this down to the house,” she said, and although he didn’t enjoy the idea of maneuvering the heavy trunk down a spindly ladder, he agreed to help. Honestly, he’d have gone to the moon for her.
Getting the trunk down the ladder was even more difficult than he had expected. Whatever was inside kept sliding around and shifting the weight. Once there was a loud bang and he almost dropped the damn thing in surprise. For a moment, he’d have sworn something was alive in there. “It’s fine,” Antonia said as their eyes met. “Nothing in there is breakable.” That wasn’t exactly what he worried about, but he felt more confident after she spoke.
Together, they managed to get it out of the barn, into the house, and all the way up to the attic. Jake remembered then about the erratic bluish lights Ryan had once seen, but there wasn’t anything in the attic to explain them. A big old wardrobe in one corner, an ancient rocking chair with a quilt thrown over it, dried bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling. The contents of the trunk thumped once more as they stepped away from it, and Antonia took his arm and led him downstairs. “Thanks so much,” she said. “You don’t know how I appreciate this.”
Ever hopeful, Jake moved closer so they could kiss, but she turned her face so that he only brushed her cheek. She had let him kiss her once. Only once, but it left him longing for more.
“Let me know when you’re ready to move your LEGO over to the barn,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. Her scent was so delicate and yet completely erotic. He wanted to wrap his arms around her narrow waist and press his lips to her throat, but she had already stepped back. Another time, he thought. We’re getting closer every day.
“You’re such a helpful guy,” she murmured, raising her gaze to his. “You help me so much and don’t expect anything in return. Thank you. Don’t forget, you’re going to pay me rent for using the barn. Just between us.”
“Yes,” he said, blinking. “Sure. Whatever you say. You know I’d do anything for you.”
“I know,” Antonia replied, with a gentle smile. “I’m counting on you, Jake. I know you won’t let me down.”
by Carolyn Steele Agosta
To read the previous 5 episodes of Strangely Satisfying Obsessions, go here. To read my blog posts and other short stories, go here. And to learn about my books, go here. Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment or sign up for a free subscription.