By Karen Adkins
Sylvia stretched and wriggled her toes, still pleasantly aware of wearing slippers at ten a.m. Retirement agreed with her. Being home agreed with her. She took another sip of coffee and looked happily around the kitchen. After years of re-modeling and re-decorating, everything was exactly the way she wanted it.
Recalling the junk she had thrown away, she wished every irritation could be disposed of as easily. She had in mind a particularly nettlesome one: her neighbor Agnes Braxton.
Agnes was an annoying woman who always scheduled noisy outdoor projects for the break of day, often on Saturdays and, almost psychically, on her neighbor’s days off. Also, she conducted one sprawling, ongoing garage sale from April to December.
Agnes would wrap up business early in the evenings so she could get what she dubbed her “beauty sleep.” Her calls complaining about Harry’s barking, other sounds and bright lights could be expected shortly after eight o’clock.
For once Agnes’ early-to-bed habit was about to benefit, rather than disturb, her neighbor.
Walking Harry, a wire-haired terrier, Sylvia checked to see if Agnes’s lights were out. All but one. She always left the light in the bathroom turned on “so burglars will think someone’s awake.”
By eleven-thirty, the surrounding homes would be dark, despite Mrs. Braxton’s complaints of late-night parties. At midnight, Sylvia slipped out her freshly oiled side door, crept close along her juniper bushes, then darted across her neighbor’s yard and onto the front porch. Patches of ice still remained there.
Sylvia planned to turn the woman’s front porch into a skating rink and cause one of those accidents she had read about so often. She laid a section of her garden soaker-hose over the porch, supported by a pair of stone gnomes. She turned it on.
Sylvia had found it all too easy to get used to sleeping late again. She had to force herself to open her eyes and keep them open. Ten-thirty! She jumped out of bed and tore open her curtains. Nothing had happened. The street was deserted.
She pulled on sweats, attached Harry to his leash, and strolled out. To Harry’s dismay, Sylvia stopped abruptly. Everything was melting — it must be at least forty degrees!
She had called for the latest forecast before setting her plan in motion. The robust voice had advised her to expect “flurries tonight and much colder temperatures toward morning, well-below freezing, and wind chills in the single digits.
“What did we ever do to deserve such great weather?,” asked Mrs. Darby brightly as she surveyed the world from her driveway.
“Just lucky I guess.”
Returning home, Sylvia noticed the light flashing on her answering machine. So she pressed the message button releasing a booming voice.
“Hello? Are you there? (A large pause. . .I know you’re there, pick up the phone!) This is Connie Braxton. (Another pause. . .now that you know it’s me, I’m sure you’ll want to pick up.) Aunt Agnes had an accident. . .she fell down the escalator at the mall. They took her away in an ambulance! It was just a bad sprained leg and some deep bruises. Of course, she’ll be on crutches and painkillers for a while. I know you’ll want to get her mail and help her out. Aunt Agnes said you wouldn’t mind, with all the time you have on your hands now. Bye-bye.”
She watched the light blink, dumbly. Her plan ruined, only to be drafted to help Agnes. Pushiness thy name is Braxton! She considered her next move.
Sylvia’s mind drifted back to last summer:
“What are you up to Syl? Pulling weeds I hope. I was wondering why I have so many dandelions this year. . .must’ve come from your yard. While you’re at it, yank those tiger lilies—they’re over for the year—I wish you’d dig ’em up and plant something nice.
Now that the pain was lessening, Sylvia could think. Press your advantage; she’ll be more wobbly than ever; any accident now will be put down to her injury.
Many of the next-door neighbors held each other’s key as insurance against being locked out; Sylvia had Agnes Braxton’s.
The rusty black box sporting the name BRAXTON in curling plastic letters was stuffed with catalogs, bills and ads. No letters.
She remembered the times Agnes had said she was so sorry but the mail carrier must have made a mistake. She’d already opened it before realizing it wasn’t addressed to her.
Now Sylvia let herself in, dropped the mail on a dusty entry table and went into the kitchen.
Dirty coffee cups smeared with lipstick dotted the counter and table. Smatters of dried egg and bits of burnt toast decorated dishes stacked in the sink.
In the midst of the clutter, four throw-rugs caught her attention. The worn chenille had not been attractive when new. She tested one rug with her foot. It immediately bunched and slid forward. Sylvia knew just what would set things in motion: the silicone spray she used to lubricate her treadmill.
But how could she get Agnes to come out here? She needed her to come tearing into the room, not paying attention to what she was doing. She would not be moving around much, let alone racing into rooms.
Something would have to demand her attention. Something impossible to ignore. The smoke detector!
She had seen one in the kitchen. It didn’t take much to set these older models off: dust, a wisp of smoke or steam from the stove. The ear-splitting noise had led many people to remove the batteries, including Mrs. Braxton.
Sylvia wondered whether she had the right batteries at home. Her gaze wandered to an empty humidifier. Its mist could set off the smoke detector. The rugs could be arranged just so. Hurriedly, she straightened the room. She refilled the humidifier and then darted home, undetected.
She gave Harry food and water and retrieved the silicone spray and some thin latex gloves. Next she found a fresh battery. She shoved everything in her coat pockets and popped next door.
Sylvia took a stepladder from the laundry room. She climbed up, attached the battery and pressed a button. The shrieking was immediate. After resetting the detector, she returned the ladder and took out the silicone. She sprayed the linoleum and rearranged the rugs in the path to the detector.
While admiring her handiwork, she heard a car pull up. From the peephole, she watched Connie attempt to help her aunt out of the car.
Sylvia bounded outside. “Sorry to hear about your accident, Agnes. How do you feel?”
“How d’ja think I feel? Damn pills. Want to go to bed.”
Connie rolled her eyes and muttered: “She’s a load.”
“Stop griping and let’s go. I’m cold,” snapped Agnes.
Connie looked as though she might use what energy she had left to push her aunt onto the driveway before peeling out.
“I’ll get her inside,” Sylvia said quickly. She offered a shoulder and arm to Mrs. Braxton who leaned on them heavily.
Connie fished around in her aunt’s bag for her medicine with no success until, exasperated, she took it to the more brightly lit bathroom and dumped it on the counter.
“It says `take one pill every four hours,’” yelled Connie. “I’ll get some water.”
“If that doctor thinks I’m wakin’ up just to take his damn pills,” said Agnes.
Connie returned with the water and medicine.
“I heard that. Just take this pill and I’ll set your alarm for four hours. You must follow the doctor’s instructions,” said Connie.
“I can cope,” mumbled Agnes. “Gonna sleep late. I’ll call when I want you.”
“I’d be glad to check on her tomorrow morning.”
“Thanks Sylvia, but I have some early errands to run anyway.”
“Quit gabbing and go! I’m tired!”
They laughed their way to the front door as Connie regaled her with a less-than-flattering anecdote about Aunt Agnes.
“I’ll lock up.”
Sylvia waved as Connie sped away. Then, she turned off all but the kitchen light and glanced at the clock. The second hand lurched between ceramic bunches of now-gray grapes. Her gloved hand switched on the humidifier, pointed the nozzle at the smoke detector and adjusted the mist to high. She turned off the light and locked the door behind her.
Sylvia made coffee and waited. She wasn’t sure how long it would take. She decided she’d return in two hours. If her plan failed and Mrs. Braxton was still alive, she’d say she’d come to check on her. If her plan succeeded, everything would have to be cleaned up and put back. Nothing must seem out of place.
She tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. The coffee wasn’t helping her nerves. How could she have thought she’d need it to stay awake? She began to pace and, with increasing frequency, to stare out her bedroom window at Mrs. Braxton’s house.
The house sat as quiet and dark as any other on the street. An hour crept to an end. Sylvia couldn’t stand it any longer. She would get Harry and take a closer look from outside. Then “hearing something,” and being the good and concerned neighbor she was, she’d go in to check on Mrs. Braxton.
Harry strained at his leash, determined to go everywhere, smell everything and claim new territory. Sylvia struck a pose of annoyance mixed with boredom at being dragged out of bed at this hour by her dog, in case any wayward neighbor might be driving by or looking out a window on the way to get an antacid. She was anything but bored, however, and all her senses were primed for any clue as to what was happening next door. But it was no use. The only one getting anything out of this expedition was Harry. She couldn’t detect anything from the front.
Harry didn’t need any prodding to redirect his operations to the back of the house.
The kitchen window shouldn’t be dark. She should have turned on the light when she went to disconnect the alarm. So what is going on?
Sylvia took Harry home, then returned and let herself in through the back door. The only sound she heard was the muffled whooshing of the furnace. From the kitchen doorway, she saw the steady stream of mist continue its climb towards the smoke detector. On the floor lay an overturned stepladder and a crumpled heap of flannel that had once been Mrs. Braxton.
It had worked. Finally.
“I wondered when you’d get here,” said a familiar voice from the darkened living room.
Sylvia jumped. Trying to keep her voice calm, she said, “I didn’t know you were here, Connie…I was out walking Harry and thought I heard a noise so I came over…”
“To check on my poor aunt,” Connie finished. “That’s very neighborly of you. I think that’s the main reason I’m going to enjoy living here. . .the neighborliness.”
“My aunt objected to relatives living too nearby, but that obstacle has been removed…thanks to you.”
“Me? I was just coming by to check on her and see about the noise…”
“Oh yes, the noise,” said Connie as she shifted her position on the couch and drew her aunt’s afghan closer around her. “Do you think it might have come from something like this?”
Connie held up something small that Sylvia had trouble making out. She had a sinking feeling she knew what it was.
“In case your eyes haven’t adjusted, it’s the battery you installed in the smoke detector tonight.”
“Don’t interrupt,” snapped Connie. “She always used to interrupt: another of my aunt’s lovable traits. The smoke detector used to go off while she was cooking, so she disabled it years ago. Said she’d rather take her chances. But when I came by to check on her, it was blaring away.
I found her on the floor. Thought she must’ve lost her balance, but when I got out the stepladder to stop the noise, I slipped on one of those damn throw rugs I’ve been asking her to get rid of for years and almost broke my neck.”
Sylvia, who was periodically wiping her sweaty hands on her jacket and eyeing the nearest door, managed an “oh?”
“When I went to put the rug back, I slipped again and noticed the floor there was slick. I checked under the other rugs and found the same thing. I assume that’s your doing, also? It sure isn’t from cleaning. My aunt was never one for cleanliness…I don’t know the last time she mopped the linoleum. A lot will have to be done to bring this place up to my standards.”
Sylvia could only nod as though hypnotized. Connie seemed to know everything; what was the point of denying it?
“I don’t see any reason why you should have to spend your retirement in prison…if you do as I say.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Sylvia eased herself carefully onto her couch, groaning as she did so. She was stiff and sore all over, as if she’d been in a gardening marathon. She was engaged in a type of marathon, though it involved nothing as enjoyable as gardening. Every day now, beginning at dawn, she started a long-distance relay race whose seemingly unreachable goal was to carry out Connie’s wishes.
Connie’s wishes, her orders, were relentless and exacting. From morning til night Sylvia had to divide her time between the moderate sprucing up of Connie’s soon-to-be previous residence and the extensive, cleaning, repainting and redecorating required to make Agnes Braxton’s home habitable.
It was just past nine now; pleased with her progress, Connie had let her knock off early.
A real treat, thought Sylvia, bitterly sipping her cup of decaf. She gathered a week’s worth of unread newspapers toward her and began skimming them, starting with the oldest. In a matter of minutes she tossed it aside. The news was stale. The radio she listened to while working kept her abreast of major stories. She was just looking for items of local interest: weddings, divorces, births, deaths. A couple more, then bed. (Now that mornings were so ridiculously early, bedtime had to be too.)
Sylvia skimmed several more papers and yawned. Responding to the noise, Harry rearranged himself on the floor but still slept with his back to her, silently protesting all the recent departures from his routine.
Sylvia was about to toss the last paper on the pile when a small item caught her eye: “Accidental overdose causes death.”
She read on: “The coroner’s jury, Wednesday, ruled an accidental overdose was the cause of death of Agnes Braxton, age 76. Braxton was found dead in her home at 64 Laurel Lane, February 23. Autopsy results indicated an overdose of a painkiller recently prescribed for injuries received in a fall. Interviews with relatives led to the verdict of accidental overdose.”
Sylvia was suddenly wide awake. An overdose killed her, not the fall. She read it again. There was no mention of injuries from a fall as the cause, or even a contributing cause, of death.
She took another gulp of coffee. Sylvia tried to recall exactly what happened when they were getting Agnes ready for bed. She remembered Connie saying something about how often the doctor wanted her to take the pills, then Agnes arguing, Connie bringing in the medicine and the water to take it with…
“Interviews with relatives led to the verdict…”
Connie had been Agnes Braxton’s only living relative. And she had handled the medicine. And the water. Plus she was there waiting for Sylvia that night. And wasn’t Connie with Agnes when she had that fall on the escalator?
Sylvia jumped up and began to do a little jig, until her sore muscles reminded her who was boss. She was free!
Tomorrow she would sleep in. Have a big breakfast. Read the morning paper at an unhurried pace. Not dress until noon. When Connie called, threatening her for being late, Sylvia would inform her she had recently caught up on her reading and found it most interesting. So would her attorney if ever anything should happen to her.
Sylvia smiled and (painfully) bent down to pat Harry before turning out the light.
So, Connie Braxton was going to be living next door.
Did she say living?
© Karen Adkins