Iona dismounted her bicycle before it stopped. Holding onto the handlebars, she stumbled forward then brought the bike under control just as she reached the fence of her apartment complex. The hinges of the wrought iron gate creaked as she opened it and wheeled her bike through. Bits of green paint clung to the wheels. The gate clanged shut behind her. On her right, the humid smell of laundry soap mingled with the hum of a dryer before the path opened onto the apartment grounds.
Green and yellow grass unrolled in patches to lap at the bases of towering pines. The brown drooping needles of the boughs testified to the presence of the bark beetle’s relentless assault. A shout of laughter from the park behind her cut through the rails of the fence. Twilight shrouded the entire area in shadow.
She waded deeper into the quad, and her eyes struggled against the gloom. Her normal mile and a half bike ride from work had turned into two when she circled the park twice before finally crossing the street. Such good news as the potential bonus needed to be celebrated and savored with others, not alone in her empty studio apartment.
She paused by the grill, still reeking of wet charcoal and sweet barbecue sauce and tugged her cell phone out of her pocket. Her hand trembled as she thumbed through her contacts. Multi-digit European numbers scrolled past. She wanted an American one, the only one that mattered. Her sister Sabine’s name appeared in the frame of the screen. Three times she’d texted her sister about Christmas plans.
Three times she’d been informed of Sabine’s various obligations to her husband’s family.
Iona wasn’t family. Not since their parents’ deaths. Taking a deep breath, she typed in her message. “How about a Christmas Eve brunch at Federico’s? My treat for you and your family.”
She read and reread the message three times before hitting send. A minute past. Her heart thudded in her ears. ‘Delivered’ appeared near the message, but no floating bubbles indicated a reply was forthcoming. Would Sabine accuse Iona of trying to buy her nephews’ affections again? Or would her invitation open the door to ugly accusations that Iona was shaming her non-college educated sister about her low income?
Releasing a long breath, Iona stared at the screen. She’d be able to deal with whatever fallout happened in person, not long-distance from a studio flat in Europe. After five minutes, she guided her bicycle toward the three-story building where she lived.
An elderly lady mounted the steps from a basement apartment. Gripping the rail with both hands, she climbed like a toddler, feet meeting on one step before tackling the next. Her housecoat was buttoned askew. Her steel-gray curls poked the air at odd angles as if she had just rolled out of bed. Her powder blue slippers were worn, allowing one toenail to peek out. The pink polish was chipped at the end. Hazel Fields had escaped.
Iona slowed as she approached Hazel. The ticking wheel counted down like a dying heart. Would the old woman recognize Iona or recall their first meeting? Hazel had shown up at Iona’s door looking for her friend Pearl.
The old woman had become quite angry when Iona hadn’t known any Pearl. Thank heavens Hazel’s daughter had appeared to take her home. Iona was certain that Hazel would have punched her on Pearl’s behalf and snapped the brittle bird bones underneath Hazel’s liver-spotted skin.
“Mama.” Libby, the daughter, appeared on the step behind Hazel. “Can you come back to the apartment now?”
Crying out, Hazel raised her arm as if to strike her daughter. “Who are you? Leave me alone. I’ll call the police.” The old woman gripped the railing so tight, her crepe paper skin smoothed over her white knuckles. “My daughter won’t let you get away with this.”
Pain tightened the edges of Libby’s features. “Marsha is expecting you in the apartment. You two always watch The Price is Right together.”
Hazel’s wrinkled brow resembled a Shar Pei’s. “The Price is Right?”
“That handsome devil Bob Barker is waiting.” Libby set her hand on her mother’s back and stroked it slowly.
Iona slowed. Bob Barker had been on The Price is Right when she was a child, surely there was another host by now. Then again Hazel Fields lived in the past.
Hazel released her death grip on the railing and clung instead to her daughter’s arm. “My daughter is a cop, you know. A detective. She’s a success, not like the other drug-addled thief.”
Libby nodded. “Tell me all about Marsha.”
Iona pushed her bike away from the two, her chest tight. Libby was the one doing the hard work of taking care of her mother. Libby had to watch her mother’s mind leave this earthly plane long before her soul departed her body. Yet, it was Marsha’s company the old woman craved, and Libby was abandoned.
Just like Iona. Except her parents’ deaths had been much quicker. But the score and a half of years between then and now still drove a wedge between siblings.
Hoisting her bike on her shoulder, Iona mounted the stairs. The wheel continued to spin and click as she reached the first landing. It stopped on the second. She huffed to a stop on the fourth. Her third-floor apartment seemed higher than usual.
Maybe she should take longer bike rides, build up her stamina for when she returned to Europe? Those walk-up apartments were always cheaper than modern places with elevators. And cheaper meant she could stay longer. Her neighbor’s door stood open, the overly cheerful music of a children’s show streamed outside accompanied by the pungent, oily scent of fast food.
Iona slid her key in the lock, twisted it, and pushed open her door. Using her heel, she swung the door shut and then positioned her bicycle against the wall. She paused. There had been no click as the door hit home. Her skin prickled as she turned.
A hand wrapped around the door and pushed it open on silent hinges.