Friday, July 13, 2012

Ante Mortem by Ellie Anderson

Chapter 9


Della opened her eyes and panicked for a split second until she realized that it was Saturday.  Whew!  She wasn’t late for work after all.

The sky was overcast.  Hopefully it would stay that way.  If it was cool enough she would start removing the door between the two bedrooms.  It had been too hot lately to do any type of physical work.  She spent most of her time at home sitting directly in front of the window-unit air conditioner that kept exactly two square feet area of the living room cooled. 

The heat never seemed to bother CJ, although with the tiny amount of body fat he had, she wasn’t surprised.  Della was more plumply padded than she wished for and she often referred to herself as a walking hot flash.

Della sludged her way to the kitchen and started a pot of “Kick Ass Coffee”, a Mother’s Day present from CJ (she suspected he chose it solely based on the anticipation of her reaction to receiving a gift with the word “ass” in its name).

The copy of the news story about Ivy’s death was on the kitchen table, mixed in with some other stories that she found at the Midvalley City Museum a few days after the microfiche fiasco.  They were mostly unremarkable upon first glance but she planned to go over them again and glean any little tidbit of information that might be available. She flipped mindlessly through the pages as she sat down.

She was disappointed that Mary didn’t make an appearance while Steve had been there earlier in the week.  His brush-off comments still stung and the two hadn’t spoken much or spent any time together except at work, and then it was only in meetings about the Baby Bea case.  He was busy with another trial—a high profile kidnapping and rape.  He was in his “zone” and she knew better than to distract him when he needed to be focused.  Maybe he was right, she thought.  He was definitely a voice of reason that she trusted and  maybe she was imagining things. They were no closer to making an arrest in the Baby Bea case than they had been the week before and things were pretty tense at the office.  Everybody wanted to hear the details of the case, but there wasn’t much to tell.  Franks and Ashram were hard at work and she knew that they wouldn’t hear back from them until they had more to go on.  The media was getting antsy, and the DA was starting to pressure Steve for answers.

The coffee was done and Della poured it into her favorite Scrabble® mug.  She muddled towards the fridge to add her usual copious amounts of milk, tucked the papers under her arm and made her way to the living room so she could plant herself in her favorite two square foot spot and start the air conditioner.  She was instantly chilled when the air hit her.  Aahhh!  A good sign!  The removal of the door was looking promising. 

Della swallowed deeply, closed her eyes and rested her head on the back of the couch. How did Cy and Mary handle the heat?  It must have been unrelenting.   She looked over at the gas stove that stood where the home’s original stove had once been.  Someone broke into the house during the time she was waiting to close on the loan and they stole the original one.  She’d had it replaced a few years later with a gas version. The style remained pretty true to the time period of the house, style-wise, but it was much more convenient than it would have been in Cy and Mary’s time.  It was easier to heat a home than to cool it off and Mary must have had a devil of a time trying to keep it cool, and she must have been miserable when she was pregnant.  Of course, she probably opened all the windows and let the breezes from the canyons to the east blow through.  Della couldn’t do that because most of the windows were painted shut.  Someday she would get new windows.  Double-paned.  The kind you can open up from the inside and tilt so that you can easily clean them.  She’d get central air, too.  Maybe get both at the same time.  Ahhh…to much to wish for.  There was always something coming up that seemed to suck the money right out of her pocket.  School expenses.  Floods in the basement.  Car repairs.  Right now, she’d better just stay focused on the door.

She finished her coffee, set the papers on the coffee table and laid down on the couch to let the cool air blow over her.  CJ wouldn’t be up for hours.  He was at that age where teenage boys could sleep all day if they were left to themselves.

She dozed off and dreamed of her old beagle, Maggie. 

The winding sidewalk was amass with hundreds of people, all shoulder to shoulder, moving as a single mass towards some promising and well-anticipated destination.  Maggie ran alongside the slithering mass of people and never took her eyes off of Della.  It had been six years since Maggie had died.  She strangled herself in her lead rope.  Della was lucid enough in her dream to remember the way she felt when she’d found Maggie lying dead in the backyard.  She was still sickened by the thought of it, even in her dream. 


Annie, Della’s beloved yellow lab, had died two months before Maggie and Della was devastated.  So was Maggie.  While Della would be at work during the day, a lonely and confused Maggie would dig her way out of the yard and Della would come home to find her sitting on the front porch or running down the street somewhere.  She tied her up with plenty of length so that she could get into the garage through the dog door and still get out and get around the yard--she could go lay in her favorite shady spots.  Maggie hated the heat as much as Della, and she was always looking for somewhere cool.  Della’s despair over finding Maggie laying dead in the hot sun was magnified well beyond where it would have been, had Maggie died peacefully in a cool spot.  The poor baby had wrapped her lead around and in and out of the legs of a plastic lawn chair and somehow one of the legs had worked its way down between her collar and the back of her neck-- she had died in the hot sun.  All by herself. 

At least when Annie was put down, Della got to be with her.  She’d been losing weight and didn’t want to eat, yet it seemed so sudden.  Della knew it was coming, but wouldn’t admit it. One day Annie just didn’t want to walk anymore, and despite the fact that Della swore she would never put down one of her pets, she knew instantly that she had to do this for her.  Annie had withered away to fur and bones.  Della probably let her hold on too long—for selfish reasons.  The night before she had to be put down, Annie just laid down on the living room floor next to the coffee table.  Della slept on the floor with her that night, holding her paw in her hand from the floor on the other side of the coffee table because she couldn’t get over on the same side where Annie was.  The next morning, Della took her to the vet and said goodbye and held her while her heart stopped beating and her eyes darkened.  Della instantly wanted to scream, “Take it back!  Take it back!  I’m sorry!  I don’t want this!” 

She left the vet’s office that day feeling an emptiness that she’d never felt before or since.  It was her first real experience with death.  Through all the heartache, she still felt honored that she was with her in the end… that they shared that precious moment.  Della came home and vowed that she would make Maggie’s life perfect.  So, when Maggie started digging her way out from under the fence, Della decided to tie her up until she had time to get to the fence line that weekend.   She planned to buy some cinder blocks and line the bottom of the fence all the way around the yard.  Their street was busy and she was afraid Maggie would get hit by a car or lost. 

So on that hot, summer day when she and CJ got home, Della asked CJ to run and let his “sister” in.  He headed to the side door and Della noticed that things sounded different.  She didn’t hear the tinkle of Maggie’s tags or her jumping against the door in her eagerness to be let in.  Della knew instantly that Maggie was dead.  She ran to the door, hoping to get to the dog before CJ did, but by the time she made it out, CJ was standing a few feet from Maggie’s body, staring at her, with his head tipped to the side.  He was puzzled.  Della ran past him and began to sob.  Her eyes were filled with tears as she dropped to the ground and tried to disentangle Maggie from the chair leg and the lead rope.  She could see the blur of Maggie’s blackened tongue protruding from her mouth and all she could think of was how sorry she was the Maggie had to die in the hot sun all by herself.  She carried her in, laid her on the couch and knelt on the floor next to her.  Della sobbed and held her as Maggie’s body grew stiff while CJ sat down next to the body and gently laid his hand on her side. 

Della was eventually able to call the vet’s office.  They told her they would stay late until Della and CJ could get there with Maggie’s body so that she could be cremated.  Della and CP tenderly wrapped her in the same blanket that Annie had laid on when she died and carried her to the back of the car. 

Della was glad that she and CJ had shared that experience together, even though it was awkward and embarrassing to carry her stiff body into the vet’s office like that.  She hoped that CJ would grow up understanding death in a different way than she had.  Death for Della was mysterious and magical—especially since she’d been sheltered from it not only when Ben died, but whenever a family pet died.  It all happened out of sight and she was always simply told that her beloved pet had gone to heaven. 

It was no wonder that she was obsessed with cemeteries and kept the headstone in her living room.  Death had always been hidden from her and she longed to discover its secrets any way she could.  Even her coffee table base was a Victorian church truck with a piece of glass on top.  She always liked to imagine what all the people were like that it had transported on their last day above ground and she obsessed with what the transition through death was like and what lay beyond this life.


She woke with a start and was instantly puzzled by the dream and what it might mean.  Maybe Maggie was trying to tell her that no matter how hectic life was or wherever it took her, Maggie would be there with her.  But even if this was the subconscious meaning, and it was meant to be comforting, it made her heart ache.

Della got up, absentmindedly went to the kitchen, put her coffee mug in the sink and went to check on CJ.  He was still sleeping—a tangle of all arms and legs crammed into a twin bed—he was oblivious to the 11:00 AM hour that had slipped up on them.  She was surprised that she had napped so soundly.  Morning naps were always the best sleep and that’s usually when her dreams were the most intense.  Nonetheless, she was annoyed with herself that she’d let so much of the day slip away and she wanted to get started on the door.

She grabbed the tool box from the mud room, entered her bedroom and faced her project.  The door between the rooms would need to be opened before she could start working and she decided to go ahead and start even though CJ was still asleep.  She’d try to be quiet, but she wouldn’t complain if the noise woke him up, because she secretly hoped he wold wake up so that he could help her.

Where to start?  This was not something she had done before but she wasn’t going to let that stop her.  Everything she’d learned about home improvement, she’d learned by trial by fire.  And HGTV.  And Youtube.  It was amazing what you could learn how to do online.

Removing the door itself was easy enough.  CJ slept through her banging on the hinges.  Damn.  Maybe she could be noisier with the next step.

After careful consideration she decided that she’d just start ripping off the trim.  A pry bar probably would have worked better but since she didn’t have one, the hammer claw and a flathead screwdriver seemed to work just fine.  She was good at improvising.  CJ was still snoozing away while she chipped away at the trim and moved onto the frame itself.  It was pretty messy underneath.  The old lathe and plaster had been covered by drywall and a bunch of stuff that was unidentifiable and it seemed to her that it was kind of hodge-podged together.

CJ groaned and rolled over.

“Good morning, sweetie-pea!”

He responded with a grunt.  Not much chance of getting his help.

Her attention returned to the doorway and she wondered what she was going to do now that the trim and frame were gone.  She formed a plan; clean up the mess and go to the computer to see what she could learn.  She’d probably have to frame in the open space where the door had and put up more drywall.  That might be a tough one.  She’d never hung drywall.

Della sat down in the doorway and sighed heavily.  Maybe she’d bitten off more than she could chew.  She started to gather a handful of splintered wood and was distracted by what looked like yellowed paper—several pages of it hidden in between the layers of lathe and “stuff.”  The paper was fanned out and she squeezed her fingers in and tried to grab it by squeezing the pages together.  Her fingers caught a big chunk of it, but when she tried to pull it out, it was obvious that there was more to it--a cover and a back that were catching on the wood as she tried to pull.  She used to hammer to break away some of the obstructing rubble and was able to reach in and get her fingers on each side of the cover, squeeze it together and pull.

The cover was a dark, aged, sable-colored leather.  The pages obviously had some years on them.  Her heart raced as she opened the front cover and looked at the first page and read,  “Property of Mary Louise Harper Jansen.”

She turned the page.

Della’s eyes teared up as she ran her fingers over the handwriting.  Mary’s handwriting.  Pages and pages of it.  Her heart was thudding against her ribs and her mind was racing; she barely noticed the wisp of frozen breath that brushed her cheek as she started to read.

1 comment:

Sabrina E. Ogden said...

Okay, those dog stories were hard to read... poor little Maggie.

I can't wait to read what's written in that diary. Great post today, Ellie.