Darling heard the back door open. And close. The clock on her bedside table read 1:50. Pulling the covers over her head, she sighed, slid into the warmth of her bed and went back to sleep. She knew who had left the house and why and with what, well, not exactly with what, but she knew he had found something worth taking and taken it, disappointing her once again.
In the morning she rose slowly, soaked in a hot bath, dressed in one of her colorful gowns, and went downstairs to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and rearrange her thoughts. She did not know the name of the young man she had invited to stay in her guest room. He had called himself ‘Chet Gray’ which did not sound like a real name.
While she was sitting at the table Nola drifted in, poured herself a cup of coffee, and leaned against the counter.
"So what did this one steal?"
"I don't know, dear. Maybe he left early to go apply for a job?"
"At two in the morning? Get real. All right, Darling, I'll take a quick look around and then I need to catch my bus."
"Don't make yourself late for work," Darling said to the empty kitchen. Nola had already set down her cup and Darling could hear her hurrying through the house.
Some worked out, some didn't.
Like many of her Mudflat neighbors, Darling volunteered at the Neighborhood Center, a place that provided free meals for the needy and a day care nursery for working moms. She liked visiting with the seniors and the homeless who turned up at the Center.
Madeline, the Center’s manager, was fond of telling her, "You have style, Darling. You cheer people up and that is a real talent."
The style hadn't been an accident. Darling's mother, Lovely Morland, had named her Jane and she had gone through childhood disliking her plain name. She had inherited a bit of magic from Lovely that she seldom used. She would have preferred a fancy name. Then she married a man named Smith and that made her plain Jane Smith. His name was the least of his shortcomings.
After the divorce, her mother said, "You might as well have your name changed back to Jane Morland."
Instead, Jane Smith had a brilliant idea. As long as she was changing her name, why not pick something unplain? And so she had her name changed to Darling Memory. Next she changed her style, starting with dyeing her hair and trying different types of clothing and adding colorful jewelry until she felt unique, a vision in swirling chiffon dresses and scarves. Her hair color changed to fit the season or her mood. By the time she reached fifty she knew exactly who she was.
She was the Center's cheerer upper.
Her mother had said, "You are the Center's biggest sucker," but she had long since given up trying to please her mother.
Instead she pleased herself by cheering the needy and bringing them home when that was what was most needed. They stayed for a day or a week or a month, whatever they wanted, and many did well, like twenty year old Nola who had now found a good job and was planning to move to an apartment of her own on the first of next month.
Others were drifters who drifted in and out and she never saw them again.
A few were dishonest. She had long since replaced her missing wedding silverware with stainless steel.
Her only concession to her mother was to add a bolt to the inside of her bedroom door.
"I'm off," Nola called, then reappeared in the kitchen and set Darling's purse on the table. "Darling, you left your purse on the couch again. At least he didn't take your billfold or your credit card but he did take the cash." Nola put a ten dollar bill on the table next to the purse. "Here, in case you need cash today."
"Oh but, dear! I can't take your money!"
"Sure, you can. It's a down payment on the loan."
Darling had loaned Nola the money to pay the required month in advance on her new apartment and was not worried. The Nolas always paid her back when they could. What was wrong was the few who stole things, not that Darling minded so much for herself, but she resented the need to accept money from the Nolas. Between what she had inherited from her father and the income she made from her piano students, she could usually manage nicely.
While her morning student fumbled with the piano keys, and she stood watching and occasionally did a small spell that caused the correct key to play rather than the one he was hitting, she made a decision. "Tony, dear, our time is up."
Eight year old Tony gave a sigh of relief, remembered to give Darling the envelope from his mother, and dashed out into the sunshine. He was not the only one who sighed with relief. Darling stashed the check in her dresser drawer to keep until she had time to go to the bank, combed her blue hair, tucked her purse under her arm and walked down the street to her friend Nicotiana's house where she was invited in for tea.
Like Darling, Nicotiana had a variety of magic skills. None of her spells were especially strong, but they were reliable.
"So you see," Darling explained, "I do need my doors warded and that isn't something I have ever been able to do."
Nicotiana was as well organized as Darling was disorganized. She poured tea into a china cup while Darling glanced around the room. Everything was in place, books shelved, tables dusted, windows washed. No one ever entered except by invitation and Nicotiana was known to be extremely fussy about who she invited in.
"Ah. Wards. Darling, you invite these people in. Wards won't help. Besides, I can tell from my wards who has been in my house but I can't make wards strong enough to keep anyone out."
"What I need is some sort of ward to stop the occasional one who wants to steal from me."
Nicotiana was a tall woman who wore tailored clothes to match her tailored mind. She arranged lovely funerals at the mortuary and helped the bereaved through the complicated decisions. Customers appreciated her. But her kindness was on the surface and born of good manners. There was nothing soft about her. It would never occur to her to take in the homeless.
She didn't waste breath telling Darling to stop inviting strangers into her life. Instead she offered to walk back to Darling's house with her and decide what could be done.
As they entered, Darling pushed aside a stack of newspapers in the front hall that she had been meaning to carry out to the recycling bin, dropped her coat over a chair and tossed her purse on the sofa where it landed on top of the cat. The cat jumped and dashed across the room and down the hall.
"Oh, dear, sorry, puss, poor puss," Darling crooned. She would fix something special for its supper tonight.
When she turned back toward Nicotiana, Darling saw her friend standing by the open door pressing her palms along the door frame.
"What do you think?"
"Hmm. there is no way to ward your entry, Darling. You have invited in so many strangers, a ward would never hold."
Darling unwound a chiffon scarf from around her neck and dropped it on the coffee table where it draped across a half empty wine glass, left there from the previous evening. Nicotiana rushed past her and caught the glass before it tipped over.
"If someone steals cash, I suppose that means he needs it more than I do."
"Keep up that attitude and you will someday freeze to death in an empty alley."
"Now you sound like my mother."
Nicotiana made a face at her. "You should listen to your mother. Oh never mind, come on, let me see the room where this person stayed last night."
Darling kicked off her shoes, left them where they fell, and led Nicotiana upstairs. There were four bedrooms in her house, hers, the one Nola was using, the one where last night's guest had stayed, and an unused room across the hall. She waved her hand toward the third one.
Nicotiana looked through the fourth doorway. The room was crowded with boxes of last year's Christmas ornaments, boxes of discards, stacks of magazines, piles of laundry. Somewhere under it all was a bed.
"Not that one. This one," Darling said.
"Oh. At least your thief was neat."
Darling hadn't noticed. Glancing into the room, she saw that the bed in the third room was made up. "My goodness. That Nola! She must have changed the sheets this morning before she went off to work. I'm going to miss that girl."
Nicotiana ran her palms along the door frame. Then she stepped back and gazed at the wood and nodded.
"It is possible this door frame can be warded, but this is your house and the warding has to come through you."
"How will it work?"
"Once you tell a guest he can go in the room, you have invited him, so that's that. He can enter. But we can ward against exit. He can't come out of the room until you say so. Well, actually, he can, but he won't like it and you will hear him and he won't have a chance to steal from you and sneak out."
Darling tilted her head to one side and fluffed her blue hair with her fingertips and smiled up at her friend. "Explain the spell, please?"
"If he tries to sneak out in the middle of the night thinking he can rob you and run, as soon as he reaches the door he will be rained on by sharp little prickles that feel like electric shocks. Not strong. They won't injure him. I can't make a ward that strong. But with the surprise, they will shock him enough that he will scream. I don't know what he will do after that. He can always run on through the ward. I think if he does, he will keep right on running down the stairs and out the front door. It seems unlikely he would stop to look for loot. Come on, let's try it. Repeat after me."
Darling had almost as much magic as Nicotiana, but in different fields. Although she learned the spell in minutes, it took her half an hour to make it work.
"Your mother is so much better at spells than either of us," Nicotiana said. "Can she do warding?"
"If she could, she would ward her doors against me."
"Oh, she wouldn't!"
"I stop by regularly to visit and she serves me tea and then tells me it's time for me to leave."
Nicotiana seldom laughed. This time she did. She glanced through the open door of the room across the hall and she laughed. When Darling asked what was funny, Nicotiana's face returned to its usual solemn expression. Only her neatly combed dark hair gave her away, bouncing into a messy swirl.
"You could avoid the need for wards if you stopped inviting strangers into your house."
Sometimes Darling housed as many as six strangers, everything from teenagers to the elderly, and once a family of seven stayed for a month, sleeping on the living room floor.
Sometimes her house was empty. Thinking of the empty times, she said, "My life would be so dull."
After Nicotiana left, Darling gave two more music lessons, walked to the grocery store and bought more than she had intended, carried home the heavy sack, and collapsed on the couch. She considered going to the Center. She would find someone to talk to, probably someone who needed cheering, and possibly she would find someone who needed housing for a while. With Nola moving out, her life would once again consist of listening to beginner piano students. They were all dears, of course, and she adored them, but she suspected most of them were tone deaf or they could not possibly play so badly. When they weren't around she needed company.
She sat up and muttered to herself, "I am a people person." When she stood her feet ached. She lay down again. "Later," she decided and fell asleep.
The ringing of the doorbell woke her. Opening her eyes, she was surprised to find the room dark. She stumbled to the front door, opened it, and was even more surprised to find her mother standing on the porch, a small overnight bag in one hand and a cane in the other.
Lovely Morland was a sweet looking woman, everyone said so, with permed white haired and always dressed neatly. She had a weak heart and moved slowly, which in no way prevented her from doing whatever needed doing, including nagging her daughter. She pushed past Darling into the dark hall and set her overnight bag on the floor.
"Why are there no lights? Did you forget to pay your electric bill again?"
Darling reached over and flipped on a switch.
Lovely went past her into the front room and circled it, turning on the lamps. She stopped when her foot bumped the shoes in the middle of the room. Using her cane, she pushed them under the coffee table. As she picked up Darling's scarf and purse and coat, and walked slowly back toward her daughter, she muttered a string of complaints about the condition of the room.
Darling was so startled to see her mother, who never came to Darling's house, she waited for a break in the complaints before saying, "What are you doing here, Mother?"
Lovely hung Darling's coat in the closet, put the purse on the shelf, and looped the scarf over a hook before closing the closet door. "The painter finished the front hall this afternoon and it wasn't until I went upstairs after supper that I realized the smell was throughout the house. I can't sleep at home tonight."
Remembering that Nola had cleaned the guest room, which would give Lovely nothing to fuss about, Darling said, "Come in the kitchen while I make my supper, Mother."
"You haven't eaten yet? What have you been doing? There's a light on in there." Lovely swung her cane up to point toward the kitchen.
To Darling's relief, when she walked into the kitchen she saw Nola at the stove, stirring something in the skillet that smelled delicious. "When did you get home?"
Nola grinned at her. "Hi, sleepyhead, supper's almost ready. Oh, hello, Mrs. Morland. Let me set a place for you."
Lovely smiled at the girl. And at the neat kitchen, with the table set and the counters washed. "No thank you, dear, I have had supper. A cup of tea would be nice, if it's not too much trouble."
Having Nola in the room changed everything. Supper was pleasant, with no more complaints, and afterwards they went to the living room and watched Lovely's favorite shows on the television.
At ten, Lovely said, "If you could get my bag for me, I believe I will go to bed now."
Nola picked up the overnight bag in the front hall and then tucked her hand under Lovely's elbow to help her up the stairs. Darling stood at the bottom of the stairs, using the opportunity to take a deep breath. She heard Nola chatting away with Lovely, heard her say, "I'll put your bag in your room."
"No, don't do that, dear. Put it in the bathroom. I'll go in there to change. I have my toothbrush and pills and everything I need in that bag. Oh, you are such a help. Thank you so much. My goodness, this bathroom is sparkling clean. How nice."
"Call if you need anything," Nola said and skipped back down the stairs. As she passed Darling in the hall, she winked and did a thumbs up.
Darling decided she would survive this unusual visit after all, with Nola's help.
When she woke the next morning she remembered that this was her morning to assist the nurse at the Center and then she had two music students coming for lessons in the afternoon. She took a quick shower, dressed, hurried downstairs and found the kitchen empty but the coffee pot percolating. Glancing at her watch she realized Nola had already left to catch her bus. She herself was due at the Center right now. There was no time for coffee or anything else. She turned off the pot, searched for her shoes in the front room, found them under a table, found her purse and coat in the hall closet, and hurried out of the house, chiffon scarves swirling around her.
There were three worried looking seniors waiting outside the nurse's closed office door, plus a young mother with a crying baby. Darling tossed her coat over the stair rail and went to work visiting with each of them, so that when the nurse came out for them, one by one, they were smiling, even the baby. And then more people arrived.
When Darling finally turned and saw there was no one left in the hall but herself, she hurried into the cafeteria. The breakfast had been cleared away from the serving counter. Volunteers were cleaning and getting ready for lunch.
She knew them all and they knew her. One of them brought her a cup of coffee and a sweet roll from the kitchen. It wasn't until she sank into a chair that she realized how much her feet hurt.
Madeline, the Center's director, pulled out the chair next to her. "You look bushed! We had quite a crowd today, didn't we?"
"I'm fine," Darling said and kept a smile on her face even though her feet ached. "How nice you look! I love that sweater. The color suits you."
Madeline smiled. "Thank you, dear. How's your mother doing? I keep meaning to phone her."
Darling's face went blank. She sat with her mouth hanging open and stared at Madeline until Madeline said, "Is something wrong?"
All Darling could manage to say was, "Oh my God!" She jumped up and ran out of the cafeteria, in a flurry of chiffon, and through the hall and out the front door.
"Darling! Your purse, you forgot your purse! And your coat!" Madeline called. Darling heard her but could not turn back. She knew Madeline would keep her things for her. Aching feet or not, she ran all the way home, stumbling occasionally, pausing to catch her breath, and then running again. She dashed up the steps and across her front porch and fell against the door and fumbled with the knob, her vision blurred with tears of exhaustion.
"Mother!" she shouted as she ran up the stairs and into the guest room.
The room was empty.
Darling sank onto the bed and stared at every corner. The bed was neatly made up. There was no sign of her mother's overnight bag or cane or anything else. The only explanation was that the warding on the door must not have worked.
When her heart stopped pounding and her breathing returned to normal, she circled through the house, terrified she would find her mother collapsed on a floor. She could not imagine her mother walking through a barrage of electric shocks, but if she had, could it have stopped her weak heart? Darling searched every room. When she found no sign of Lovely, she knew the spell Nicotiana had taught her had failed. Or possibly because Lovely was her mother, the spell recognized them as related and had no more effect than it would have had on Darling. Nicotiana had said something like that.
Exhausted, Darling kicked off her shoes and climbed back up the stairs. She had a couple of hours before her piano students would arrive. If she could lie down on her bed for an hour, there would still be time to fix a sandwich for lunch.
Sprawled on her bed, she thought about all the terrible things that might have happened if the warding spell had worked. She could have killed her own mother.
True, she and Lovely did not have the best of relationships and there were times when she lost patience with Lovely's criticisms, but none of that mattered. Lovely would never do anything to hurt her and yet she had been so careless, forgetting her mother was in the guest room, she could have killed her own mother.
She got up slowly, checked herself in her dressing table mirror, ran a comb through her blue hair, brushed away tear streaks from her face, straightened her dress and added a purple scarf to the two blue ones around her neck. Purple always cheered her.
What she needed was lunch. She hadn't had a thing, other than that first sip of coffee at the Center. She had left the pastry untouched on the plate when she ran from the building. She would feel better after she had something to eat.
Walking slowly across the room, she started out her bedroom door.
Sparks attacked her, fiery red sparks shooting at her from every angle.
Darling screamed. The sparks hit her like electric shocks, pop, pop, over and over. She ran back to her bed and collapsed on it. Unbelieving. How could this be happening?
Was this the effect of the spell Nicotiana had taught her? But she had set that spell on the guest room door. Surely it couldn't spread to all the doors, could it?
As she lay there staring up at the ceiling, a thousand jumbled thoughts raced through her mind until she finally reached the answer.
This story appeared in the Rock's Dogs collection of short stories featuring Mudflat residents. Return to Home Page (link at the top of this page) for the list of July AXP giveaways, July specials, etc.