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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Children Lost on the Darkest of Nights: The Legend of Peg Powler - Chapter 7


Children Lost on The Darkest Of Nights:

The Legend of Peg Powler

(A Sewing Box Mystery)

Chapter 1: Friday, November 1, 1991, 1:51 am

Chapter 2: Saturday October 29, 2011, 11:37 am

Chapter 3: Sunday October 30, 2011, 10:30 am

Chapter 4, Monday, October 31, 2012, 8:01 am, Halloween 

    Chapter 7: Monday, October 14th, 1991, 8:13 am

    'Steep Time'.   

    Thank God.  What a night.

    In spite of the fact she was so troubled, Jean had no trouble falling into a deep sleep.  Deep enough to dream…

    She was standing, in her nightie, in a grassy clearing. It was night, the moon was full, the sky clear.  There was a slight breeze, cool to the skin, almost a wind.  She could hear the sound of rushing water and felt compelled to see what it was.  Barefoot, with each step, she felt every twig nestled beneath the grass, every pebble, every stone.  As she grew closer to the sound, she saw it was a wide river.  She tried, but couldn’t make out what lay on the other side.  The river looked dark and turbulent, great black ribbons undulating and twisting.  It screamed of danger, and yet, she was drawn to it, moving ever closer.

    She reached the rim of the embankment which led down to the river’s edge.  There, the grass gave way to raw earth; top soil ripped away by the eroding waters of high seasons past.  She made her way down the embankment using the scraggly vegetation and odd, stray roots for leverage. It was a matter of only a few feet before the dirt gave way to a floor of rocks and pebbles.  It was there that she noticed the tiny shoes – children’s shoes, lined up neatly along the water’s edge.  Three pairs.  There was something off about them.  They were not modern by any means and seemed so out of place. Yet, it was obvious to Jean that they had been left there with purpose, lined-up with great care.  

    It felt so wrong.  Something about the shoes made Jean grow fearful.  Where were the children they belonged to?  The shoes were set as if the children had taken them off, placing them there so they could go wade in the water - as if they meant to return.  But it was late.  It was night.  Children so small? Children whose feet would fit these shoes?  They should not be out playing in the water at this hour.   

    The pebbled shore hurt Jean’s feet, but she ignored the pain, so overwhelming was her concern for the safety of the absent children.  Pacing back and forth along the water’s edge, she scanned the water for signs of life.  Her desperation began to grow.  She wanted to call out, but she didn’t know for whom.  

    Suddenly, the night air grew still and Jean felt the skin on the back of her neck raise.  There was a sound behind her.  Someone approaching.  She turned around to see who it was and… she awoke.

    She was freezing cold.  

    Quickly, she pulled the quilt and flannel sheet tightly around herself.  What was this?  Where?  It took her a moment to realize she was safe in her own bedroom.  Then a feeling of dread overtook her.  She sprang to her feet and moved swiftly into the hallway.  Missy’s bedroom door was closed.  It was a habit her granddaughter had recently adopted.  With great care, Jean turned the knob on the door and cracked it open just wide enough to see inside.  There, in the glow of the clock radio and a tiny nightlight, Jean was able to make out a head of tousled hair, stringy with the kind of sweat sleep brings.  It was the sleeping figure of her granddaughter.  Jean listened carefully.  She was breathing.  Missy was safe.  

    Relief washed over her, and she closed the door as quietly as possible.  Feeling the weight of the night overtake her, she lurched heavily in the direction of her warm bed, wrapping herself in the blankets and sheets before falling into a deep, undisturbed sleep.  

    In the light of day, she mulled it all over while allowing the steam from her mug of tea to fill her nostrils and open the pores of the skin on her face.  Rethinking it, she smiled.  It probably had something to do with Dorie and Missy.  That’s the leap any amateur psychoanalyst would make. The previous day’s events would still be working their way through her mind.  But what did it mean?  And why three pairs of shoes?  Why were the shoes so… old, as if from another time?

    The phone rang.  Jean sprang up and grabbed it before the second ring, stepping on the ancient, tangled corkscrew cord in the process.  She really needed to buy a new phone.  

    “Good Morning, Mother.  I’m returning your call.  What is it you need?”

    It was Helen, Jean’s oldest daughter.

    Jean had forgotten she’d even called her.  Helen sounded pleasant, if a bit crisp.  It was always that way between them.  Of her three daughters, Helen was the prickliest and most judgmental.  But if she was hard on others, then she was unforgiving when it came to herself.  This lack of empathy for others and inability to accept her own shortcomings was reflected in her physical appearance.  A tall woman, she was much too thin.  It made her look harsh and hawk-like.   Conforming to some Midwestern, suburban ideal that was completely foreign to Jean, Helen appeared to have her act together.  She had embraced the whole preppy look in her teens and had never really outgrown it.  Helen thought of herself as disciplined and goal-oriented.  Jean thought of her as severe, rigid and humorless. Jean frequently got the impression that her presence in her oldest daughter’s life was an inconvenience; an obligation that Helen barely found the time to fit in.  Rather than bother with the usual small talk – social niceties such as, ‘How are you?’ and the like – Jean got right to the point, retelling all that had happened with Dorie the day before.

    Helen’s response was blunt and a tad unexpected.  

    She told Jean to let Missy go.  

    “Missy is not your responsibility,” she explained.  “She’s Dorie’s.  You complain about Dorie’s behavior all the time, but then, when given an opportunity to actually help her improve, you choose to enable her instead.  This is a pattern with you, Mother, and it has to stop.”

    Jean was a little taken aback. “So this is all my fault?”

    Helen heaved a heavy sigh. “That’s not what I’m saying.  The fault is Dorie’s.  The responsibility is also Dorie’s.  You need to give her an opportunity here to do the right thing.”

   That did not make sense to Jean.  “Even if it means Missy ends up paying the price?  Tell me, Helen, would you trust Dorie with your kids?”

    Another sigh.  Jean knew that she was taxing her daughter’s patience. “That’s my point, Mother; Missy is not your child.  She’s Dorie’s.  There’s a reason - some reason - she was given Missy and even if that means that Missy ends up with a lousy life, that’s simply the way it’s meant to be.  If that happens?  It won’t be your fault.  Besides… haven’t you done enough?  When is it your turn?  When do you get your life back?”

    Helen’s sudden concern for Jean’s well-being came as a surprise, but it also felt, in an effort to win the argument, a little tacked on. Jean remained resolute.  “I don’t need a life.  I like the one I have… the one with Missy in it.”

    There was a slight pause on the other end of the phone.  When Helen spoke again, she sounded defeated, bitter, and a tad distracted.  “Then… I can’t help you.  You asked for my opinion, and I’ve given it. That’s all I can do. You?  You do what you want. You always do anyway.”

    “She’s threatening to get a lawyer.”  

    Again, Helen went quiet on the other end.  “Let Missy go, Mother.  Let Dorie have her. You get the courts involved and it is just going to mean a lot of grief for everyone involved, not to mention expense.  And time… who has time for that?  Trust me.  The simplest thing to do is to let Dorie have Missy and sometimes the simplest thing is also the best thing for everyone involved.”

    “But…”  Jean wanted to protest, but Helen cut her off at the pass.

    “Mother!  Stop being so difficult.  I don’t have time for this.  I have my hands full with Eddie today.  He’s been suspended from school.  So I have to home school him.”

    This was news to Jean.  But then it wasn’t unusual for Helen to hold back the happenings in her life.  “Suspended? From school?  Why?”

    “Some misunderstanding.”  From her tone, Jean could tell this was not something Helen meant to share. Clearly exasperated, she continued, “He walked into the girl’s locker room or something.  I let his father deal with the school.  You are so lucky you only had daughters to deal with. Boys are nothing but trouble.”  She paused, looking for something.  Agreement?  Reassurance?  Jean had none to offer.  Sensing this, Helen ended the conversation quickly, before Jean could ask more questions. Light and breezy, she signed off.  “Okay, I will talk to you soon.  Good luck with everything.  Let me know how it turns out.  Love you.”

    The phone clicked on the other end.  Silence.  

    Another heartwarming conversation with her eldest daughter - so typical.  But then, maybe Helen was right.  Was she being difficult?  She shrugged it off.  Well, so much for daughter number one. Jean hung up the receiver and was about to return to her place at the table and her cup of tea when the phone rang once more.

    “Mom?  Are you all right?” It was Jeanette.  “I got your messages this morning.  I was… busy this weekend.  Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.  What’s wrong?”

    Jean repeated everything that she’d told Helen and then reiterated what Helen had suggested she do.

    “What do you want to do?”

    “I think Missy needs to stay here, with me.  What do you think?”

    There was a slight pause, and then, “I think you shouldn’t worry.  What time is Dorie coming?”  There was an assuredness to Jeanette’s voice that gave Jean hope.

    “I’m not sure.  Yesterday she was here at around eight in the morning.”

    “I’m on my way.”

    Hanging up the phone, Jean relaxed a little.  Good.  The cavalry was coming.

--- ---

    It was not the knock-down, drag-out fight that Jean had expected; more of a one-two punch affair.  And surprisingly quiet.  That’s certainly not the way it had always been.  

    Dorie and Jeanette had been at odds with one another from the moment Dorie developed a personality.  In their youth, Jean could remember horrible, blood-curdling screams and all-out physical brawls that even the most seasoned bar bouncer would’ve been powerless to put a stop to.  Right up until the year Jeanette graduated from high school and then promptly moved out, the two were constantly at each other’s throats.  Since that time, they seemed to have developed a thin veneer of civility and a modicum of maturity, though they still bristled in the presence of the other.

Jeanette arrived before Dorie, plopping herself down on the couch.  She looked tired.  Dark circle under her eyes.  And her hair needed… something.  It was wet and stringy, as if she’d popped in and out of the shower and hadn’t bothered to look in the mirror before dressing.  Maybe her appearance had something to do with what she’d been doing all weekend.   Jean wanted to pry, but knew better; too many questions caused Jeanette to stay away. And ostracizing the one family member in her corner was something she knew better than to do.  

    Dorie arrived dressed to the nines in a chic little day suit, perfectly tailored.  Her face was made up flawlessly.  She seemed to take to her role as the princess visiting the less fortunate with great aplomb.  After breezing in and asking Jean if Missy was packed and ready, she noticed Jeanette sitting at the kitchen table.  Jeanette’s presence seemed to take the wind out of Dorie’s sail.  She stumbled momentarily.  To say that the sisters greeted one another guardedly would be to put it politely.  Jean didn’t know what to make of it.  

    The two sisters could not have possibly looked more different from one another; Dorie’s carefully sculpted elegance contrasted sharply with Jeanette’s haphazard slothfulness.  With her long, wet hair hanging about her face, dressed in a bulky sweatshirt, and what Jean was fairly certain were a pair of mens Levis, Jeanette looked the polar opposite of her sleek, stylish sister.  Jeanette’s weight, something she had always struggled with and a source of endless frustration, also came into sharp focus when the two were compared side-by-side.  Seeing her older sister in such a state, Dorie’s upper lip lifted into a superior smirk.

    “Looking good as always, Jeanette.”

    Jeanette took her sister’s snide comment in stride. “Thanks, Dorie.  You, too.”

    Dorie spun about and asked Jean pointblank, “What is she doing here?”

    Jean opened her mouth to explain, but she needn’t have bothered.  Jeanette was already on her feet, moving toward her sister.  “Mom told me all about your plans for Missy.  Hey, Mom...” she turned to Jean.  “Why don’t you put on some hot water?  I’d like that cup of tea you offered earlier.  Bring it into the living room when it’s done, okay?  And maybe make me some toast.  I haven’t had anything to eat this morning.”


    Jeanette cut her off. “Peanut butter or some jam, maybe?  My blood sugar is getting kind of low and you know how I get when that happens.”  She smiled at Jean. And then it dawned on Jean what her daughter was really asking.  

    With a bit of reluctance, Jean moved hesitantly into the kitchen.  “Okay.  I’ll see what I can… do.”  She went to the stove and picked up the teakettle, a recent addition to the kitchen, thanks, again, to Missy.  Picking it up, Jean thought, what if there were no more birthday presents?  She choked down the thought and moved over to the kitchen sink, her back now to whatever was transpiring in the living room.  She emptied the kettle of water before refilling it with fresh tap water.  The sound of the faucet running drowned out whatever Jeanette was saying to Dorie, but then, she was speaking in such a careful, measured manner, that Jean very much doubted she would be able to make out what she was saying anyway.  The kettle three-quarters full, she moved back to the stove and lit the burner with a great ‘swoosh’.  Jean focused on the hum of the brilliant blue flame for a moment.  Ah, toast.  She went to the breadbox to retrieve two slices of store-bought bread.  White.  Even with all the talk about the health benefits of wheat and heavier grain breads, Jean had resisted changing, and Missy didn’t seem to mind.  Jean slid the bread into the toaster’s slots and pushed down the dark tab.  It’s funny, given the conversation taking place in the other room, its possible outcomes and ramifications, how all these tiny mundane tasks seemed to take on so much weight, necessitating so much of Jean’s focus.  The toast popped up.  The smell of it filled the kitchen with its warmth and Jean felt her heart lighten a bit.  She removed the peanut butter from the cupboard and then got the jelly from the fridge.  Both were some off-brand, a store brand.  It was pretty rare that Jean could afford anything more expensive.  Sometimes she splurged, especially when Missy accompanied her to the grocery store or if she happened to have a coupon.  She spread one slice with peanut butter and the other with the jelly.  Grape.  Why do they call it 'grape'?  They should call it what it tastes like… 'purple'.  Is 'purple' a flavor?

    When she moved to return the jelly to the fridge she caught sight of the kitchen witch and froze.  Was it smiling at her?  What did it know?  She had come to resent the doll’s impenetrable, beady eyes.  It was all she could do not to snatch it down and throw it in a drawer.  Where had it come from?  Did it have anything to do with Dorie’s sudden appearance?  She’d have to ask.

    The teakettle began to wail.  Without flipping off the burner, Jean hustled over to the cupboard to retrieve a mug for Jeanette.  Should she get one for Dorie?  Yes?  No.  As she spun about to turn off the burner, she glanced into the living room.  Her two daughters were exactly where she’d left them, with Jeanette’s larger frame blocking most of Dorie from view.  What kind of tea?  She wanted to poke her head in and ask, but she was loathe to interrupt Jeanette, and she didn’t want to antagonize her; especially if what she’d said about her blood sugar was true.  Jean had long suspected that her middle daughter might be subject to that hypoglycemia she’d heard about on one of the afternoon talk shows.  She chose ‘Mint Medley’.  Good for digestion and not too acidic.  Wrapping the bag’s string carefully around the mug’s handle, she decided to give it a good five minutes to steep before delivering it.  What else?  Oh, a plate – for the toast.  Normally she would cut the toast in half, but growing up, Jeanette had always wanted her toast just as her Dad preferred it, left in one big piece. For a moment she thought about hauling out a cookie sheet and placing a hand towel on it, to serve as a makeshift tray, but nixed the idea.  If it had been for Dorie?  Yes, but this was Jeanette.  That was one of the many things that Jean liked about her middle daughter – no fuss.  Carrying the mug by its handle with the plate of toast in her other hand, Jean took a deep breath and entered the lion’s den.

    The sisters were now seated on the couch and poised primly as if in the midst of a casual conversation.  As Jean entered, they both paused.  Dorie avoided meeting Jean’s gaze, but Jeanette smiled and thanked her for the tea and toast.  Jean asked if Dorie would like some tea, as well, but Jeanette answered for her. “No, that’s okay, Mom.  Dorie was about to leave.  She has a mid-afternoon flight to catch and still has to get back to the hotel and check out.” Jean didn’t know what to say.  She turned to Dorie to see if this was true and all she got was a slight nod of agreement.  

    “But what about Missy?”

    Dorie rose stiffly. She spoke to Jean, but her eyes were on her sister.  “I’m afraid I won’t have time to say good-bye.  But then, I’m sure she’s used to it.  Tell her, I’m sorry.  It was great to see both of you again. And, Mom?" For this, her daughter looked her square in the eye. "I want to thank you for everything that you do for Missy.  I really… I really do appreciate it.”

    Jean's brow knitted. What was this?  Jean stood looking from one daughter to the other, both looking as if they’d swallowed the canary.  She wanted to ask more questions, but sensed that would not be wise.  Jeanette must have said something to Dorie, and whatever it was, it had done the trick.  But what?  Jean decided she didn’t want to know.  Some things are best left as is.

    Awkwardly, Dorie broke the silence by moving closer and giving her mother a hug.  Jeanette rose then, as well.  The sisters nodded at one another, but did not embrace.  It seemed a done deal.  Jean watched as her youngest moved toward the door.  “Dorie?”  Dorie turned to face her mother.  “I forgot to thank you… for the gift.”

    Dorie looked dumfounded.  “Gift?”

    Jean ran into the kitchen and grabbed the kitchen witch.  Returning to the living room, she held it out for her daughter to see.  “This.  I just… love it.  I put it on top of the refrigerator.”

    Dorie shook her head.  “That’s not from me.  What is it?”

    Jean shrugged. “I think it’s a kitchen witch, but I’m not sure.  It’s not from you?”

    Dorie smiled ruefully.  “No, Mother.  Whatever THAT is, it’s not from me.”

     “Oh. How odd. Well… when will we see you again?  What should I tell Missy?”

    “Tell her… tell her whatever you like.  I’m sure she’ll understand.”  With that, Dorie turned and opened the front door to leave.

    Jean followed close behind.  “Well, could we arrange for her to visit over the summer, or something?”

    Dorie stopped.   Looking over her shoulder, her eyes went from her mother to her older sister.  She stared at Jeanette as she spoke. “A visit?  Ummm… sure.  We’ll see how it goes.  I… I really need to be going.  Mother?  It’s always good to see you.  Take care of yourself.”  And with that, she was gone.

From behind the screen door, Jean watched as her youngest got into her rented car and drove away.  It was bittersweet.  But it was over.  Wasn’t it?

    Once her sister left, Jeanette picked up her toast and tea and moved to the kitchen table.  Jean joined her.  They spent the rest of the morning talking about mundane things; television shows they both watched, the weather, Missy’s extra-curricular activities, celebrity gossip, and the like.  When it came time for Jeanette to go, Jean couldn’t help herself; she had to bring it up.  

    “I don’t understand.”

    Jeanette smiled broadly, tilted her head, as if all was right in the world, and said, “I told you not to worry.”

    Later that afternoon, when Missy got home, Jean broke the news.  Missy, near tears, ran up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door.  Jean decided to let her work it out for herself.  If she needed her grandmother, she’d let her know, right?  Around seven that evening, Missy crept down the stairs and into the kitchen.  Jean made tomato soup with milk and grilled cheese sandwiches. They didn’t speak much, but it was enough for Jean to know that things between them would be okay.

    As they sat, dipping sandwiches into soup, Jean’s eyes drifted up toward the kitchen witch on the fridge.  Had its expression changed?  It seemed less foreboding.  She took it as a good sign.

    Perhaps things would be all right now.

--- --- 

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - Nina Simone

1 comment:

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

So the sisters have something going on?
And what's with the kitchen witch????