The moment Allison opened the door, she heard the low murmur of the television and the pleasant sound of Cathy laughing. The usual sounds brought a smile to Allison’s face, and the young woman slipped into the apartment and closed the door behind her.
“Hello, Cathy,” she said.
The elder woman peered around the side of her brown recliner, and upon making eye contact with the younger, her mouth dropped open in pleasant surprise. “Oh, are you Miss Allison Lee? It’s about that time, isn’t it?”
Allison glanced at the clock on the nearby wall, then turned back to Cathy and gave her a nod. “I have a twelve-thirty appointment with Cathy Sanders, Room One-Eighteen. Just like normal.”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes. I remember now. You started coming here last week, right? Welcome, welcome. Make yourself at home, darling.”
Allison had started her weekly visits over a year ago, in truth, but she kept the thought unsaid and broadened her smile. The greeting was the same as always.
A guest like herself entered the apartment through the kitchen. The usual fridge-counter-stove-sink setup rested in an alcove to her left; the table and chairs sat on her right across from the alcove. Further ahead, Cathy’s recliner sat opposite the television set along the back wall, though Allison could barely see it through the window of the kitchen alcove. An end table and two-seater sofa stood close enough to the recliner to allow for easy conversation. A short hallway to the younger woman’s right led to a closet, the bathroom, and the bedroom.
Allison headed straight for the parlor area and set down her purse and the paper bag she had picked up at the local doughnut shop. She brought out two cups of tea, taking care not to let either slip out of the disposable drink tray. Cathy helped by taking the paper bag, folding it up, and laying it down beside the two cups.
The elder woman sniffed, her eyes thoughtful. “Did you bring tea with you?”
“That’s right,” replied Allison. “They cooled down quite a bit on my way here. Feel the outside and check if they’re still hot. Don’t want to burn yourself.”
“Oh, of course not.” Cathy did just that, tracing her fingers along the brown cardboard. “Ooh, I think I’m lucky. This feels like the perfect temperature.” She sipped the tea through the cap, closed her eyes, and smiled. Her nod indicated her satisfaction.
Allison moved the colorful quilt aside and sat herself down at last, so Cathy turned off the television. They spent their first few minutes together in silence, enjoying the taste of their cinnamon apple tea, the elder’s favorite. Afterwards, the old woman set her cup on her lap and looked ahead out the window.
Cathy cleared her throat, but her gaze didn’t move much. “It’s always good to have someone to talk to. I have so many stories, you know. Would you like to hear them?”
“I’d love to,” said Allison.
“You better be ready. I could go on for hours.” Cathy giggled and winked.
“I don’t mind. I’m real patient, and it’s important to remember things when you’re older. Tell me any story you like.”
“All right, then. No complaints now, you hear?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Cathy nodded, took another sip of her tea, and settled back in her chair. “I have two kids, you know—a boy and a girl. They used to get into quite a bit of mischief. When they were little, they would run around the house for hours. I had to leave them outside a lot so they’d have the room.”
Allison could picture it clearly—a small boy and girl, about a year apart, running around an old brick house surrounded by a white picket fence. She could imagine the laughter of the little ones as they darted over the grass. That energy, Cathy mentioned, never waned much as the children grew.
The young woman had heard these stories before. Hardly ever did they all come at once; in three hours, the elder woman could tell only about four or five at a time. Which ones Allison would hear, and in what order, changed with each visit. The most common one she heard was how Cathy had to help her son out of a tree once, followed a week later—“Exactly one week!” as she’d put it—by her daughter, who somehow managed to trap herself in the same way. An amused Allison pictured the events with fondness.
When Cathy finished the story again, her old shoulders bobbed with her bubbly laughter. “I couldn’t believe it. I just could not believe it. We were all frightened then, but a few days later, we started laughing about it. Such crazy, wonderful times.”
Soon, she told the story about her sixtieth birthday party. Cathy’s daughter hosted a family gathering at her house, and her full-grown children had decided on the most ridiculous idea for a birthday celebration. “My son and daughter brought chicken suits to wear. I love chickens, of course, but I told them, ‘This isn’t Halloween!’ and my daughter said, ‘Bwaak!’ Then she and her brother insisted on serving everyone the cake and drinks while wearing the suits. They even came with masks!”
Allison didn’t bother to hide her widening grin. “Did they speak to people in chicken squawks?”
“Oh, yes they did. My daughter especially. And they just kept doing that until the chickens in the coop started squawking back.”
The younger woman had to put her cup down on the end table, lest she drop it in the midst of her laughing fit. However, the funny images that popped into her head would not leave. For the next few minutes, her mind’s eye played out the scene of two ridiculous chicken-people serving cake and annoying the actual chickens enough to earn their clucks of ire. The guests around the tables and lawn chairs doubled over laughing, sounding a lot like chattering squirrels.
Cathy giggled quite a bit at the memory. “Like I said, it was all because they knew I liked chickens. There was also something about trying to out-squawk real chickens, I think. To this day, I don’t know which one of my crazy kids came up with that idea.” The elder woman took a sip from her cup and looked at Allison. “If I had to guess, I’m pretty sure it was my daughter.”
A hard pang hit Allison’s heart, but she forced herself to ignore it and put on a smile. “Well… you always did describe her as the creative one.”
“Did I say that once? It must’ve been the last time you were here…”
Allison opened her mouth, but no words left her. Each combination she could think of collected into a scrambled mess, even the one thing she wanted to say.
Cathy gasped suddenly, bringing her hand over her mouth in surprise. “Oh… I just remembered…”
The younger woman jerked to attention. “Yes?”
“I’m not sure I told you this story before, but it’s about my daughter. We were out shopping a few years ago. She had her wedding a couple weeks earlier, and she wanted to buy some new clothes.”
“Ooh… no, I don’t think you told me this one.” Allison moved up in her seat, drawing closer to her charge. “What kind of clothes were you looking for?”
“We looked for all kinds, but my daughter didn’t want anything fancy. We found plenty of dresses—fancy, slinky, fancy and slinky, you name it—but they either weren’t what she wanted or they didn’t have the right size. She had a field day commenting on the dress styles. She sounded like a sports newscaster, if you can believe it. Eventually, she settled on something very cute.”
Allison looked down at her plain, sleeveless dress colored a brilliant shade of scarlet. The skirt portion fell to her knees, and she wore black leggings and matching red shoes to complement the dress. She squeezed her hands tight together and let them rest in her lap before focusing on the elderly woman again.
“She got lucky with the one she picked,” Cathy went on. “The first one she grabbed was the first one she tried on, and it fit perfectly.”
“Do you remember what store you went to?” asked Allison.
“Ooh… I think it was a Marcia’s. On our way out, my daughter raised her hand in the air and declared, ‘And so ends our epic quest!’ I swear, she got that out of one of the fantasy novels she loved to read.”
At that point, Cathy fell quiet. The warm smile on her face faded into a distant, unreadable look, staring straight ahead. Her fingers drummed against her cup of tea for a time before she coughed into her arm. “I don’t remember much of the trip home. It must be my age. I just know that, for some reason, my daughter stopped coming to see me after that day. My son stopped coming to see me then, too. I wonder why…?”
Another pang struck Allison, this one harder than the first. It took her a few moments to recollect herself. “Do they call you?”
“Sometimes, yes… but it’s not the same as seeing them in person. Did I do something wrong?”
“Of course you didn’t.” Allison pushed herself back in her seat. “When I was assigned to come visit you, the nurses said you suffered a stroke one day. Maybe the reason you don’t remember much is because the day you went shopping was the day you had your stroke.”
Taken aback, Cathy gave her a look of shock. “Really? Goodness, I don’t remember.”
“That’s pretty common, unfortunately. But I see you’re managing all right.”
Cathy’s warm smile returned as she nodded to that. “I am. I can still walk and cook. My eyes are still good, and I can keep sewing things like that quilt next to you. I just miss seeing my kids. I do like talking to them over the phone, but…”
The elder woman gazed into the distance again. Her smile drooped away, but a short time later, it came back. “Ah… I wish you could’ve met my daughter. I think you two would’ve gotten along very well.”
Allison took in a deep breath, restrained herself once more, and smiled again for the old woman. “We may have met already and don’t even know it.”
Cathy made a hardy laugh before leaning back in her chair. “Wouldn’t that be interesting?”
Their conversation petered out. This didn’t surprise Allison once she glanced at the clock and noticed its hands read half past three. That marked the end of her visit. The young woman sighed and plucked her purse from the side table.
She rose from her seat, rested her hand on the elder woman’s arm, and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’ll be back tomorrow, all right? Take care of yourself, Cathy.”
Cathy placed her dry, wrinkled hand atop Allison’s. Her mouth smiled, but her eyes appeared tired. “You take care, too, Miss Allison. I look forward to your next visit. You’re such a good girl. Have I ever mentioned that?”
Allison really didn’t want to leave after hearing that but kept the thought to herself. Instead, she chose to say, “You have, many times. More than I can count.” She didn’t think she could add more.
The departure was short and sweet, much like the past several visits. Allison placed the colorful quilt blanket upon Cathy’s lap and hugged her goodbye. She disposed of their cups and left through the door with soft steps. This time when she walked down the hall, she kept her head down—not enough to raise suspicion from an onlooker, but enough to keep her face concealed. She didn’t want anyone to ask what was wrong. It wasn’t something she could explain or receive help with.
Even so, she looked over her shoulder at the door of Cathy’s apartment, staring for a long moment. Some nostalgic words came to mind, words she had not spoken in a long time, and she choked as she whispered them. “See you later, Mom.”
Allison stayed quiet as she turned away and proceeded down the hall. A short while later, she signed out, departed the building, and crossed the parking lot. The last of her resistance failed, and she cried all the way to the car.