The door took a long time to be opened. I could hear the click and clank and clunk of each deadbolt on the other side. One by one, they released. I tried not to be impatient, and to ignore the sickness building in the pit of my stomach. My right knee bounced back and forth anxiously as I rubbed my hands together for warmth. It was the first cold day of the year. Fitting, I supposed.
When she finally poked her head out, it was with much skepticism. Though she had checked my face through the window beforehand, she needed a little more.
“Hi, Grace? We spoke on the phone, I just -”
“Card?” She interrupted with a bluntness to her tone that felt disconnected from the sweet highness of her voice.
I reached into my wallet and passed her my ID. She had warned me that she’d want to see it, to make sure I was who I said I was. It made my heart thump a little to watch her scrutinize over my identity. Though, I was used to being processed in a formal, almost un-human kind of way. Growing up in the system gave me all the practice I needed.
“Well, I’ll be. Raleigh Marsh, I can hardly believe it.”
A smile took her over then. I could see it melt through her shoulders, which dropped in obvious relief. It was contagious. I could feel my insides warm in reaction.
She widened the door and ushered me in, glancing over my shoulder to make sure I hadn’t brought any guests – or, more likely, that I hadn’t been followed.
I hadn’t been, of course. There was not a thing about my visit to Grace that would be intriguing to anyone other than the two of us. But, in the short time I had spent communicating with Grace, I could tell she wasn’t to be reasoned with. Agoraphobic, I guessed. Paranoid, definitely. My analysis was basic; I was no professional, I just knew how to read people, and how to deal with them. Besides, if I had to wade through a little cooky to dig up some actual answers about where I had come from, it was hardly a price to pay. After years of investigation, someone finally had something to offer. A great aunt. Sure, that’s not exactly the kind of kin most people in my position hope to find, but it’s better than what I’ve had so far. Nothing.
“Grace, I want to thank you again for arranging this,” I said as I followed my host into the kitchen.
She was a tired-looking woman, though I would have only pegged her in her early 50s. Her blonde hair was just starting to lose its vibrance, dulling to a whitish grey. She was slim in a way that hinted at stress and malnourishment. I looked around her kitchen and spotted plenty of quick foods, like peanut butter and canned soups. But her eyes, however sunken, lit up at my thankfulness.
“Dear, the pleasure is all mine. Most folks – well. Let’s just say, your aunt has had her fair share of loneliness. It will be nice for her to know she has a real, tangible connection to this world.” Her expression drooped a little then and she turned her attention to a rusty tea pot, adding a solemn, “we all need that, I think.”
I nodded, keeping my lips pursed in an uncomfortable, yet hopeful, smile. I held my breath a little while she got a pot of chamomile, trying to discern the most polite way to say, ‘on with it!’ I had no strong desire for the tea. Finally, pouring the hot water into two mugs, Grace broke the eager silence.
“Now, I want to prepare you. Your aunt is not quite what she used to be.”
Grace’s gaze trailed towards the ceiling. My heart fluttered, knowing my aunt was just above our heads.
“Sit,” she gestured to a chair and I obliged. “You say you haven’t got any other relatives?”
“You must have so many questions,” she sighed. “Only, I must warn you, it may be difficult to communicate with Rose.”
“Is she responsive?” I asked hesitantly. Sad images of decrepitness and illness settled over me.
“She can be. You just have to be patient. And persistent.” She smiled, but behind her eyes was something enigmatic.
The silence returned as I watched her sip her tea, mind wandering to a place I wasn’t quite welcome.
“Have you been taking care of her for long?”
Grace chuckled, not because my question was funny. But, because she had intense emotions towards the response.
“A while. Yes.” her eyes drifted up again. “I’m all she’s had.”
In that moment, I realized Grace was sharing something very close to her heart with me. I was grateful; but, I was also unnerved. My stomach dropped, and stayed down as we made our way to the stairs. The air was thin, and cold, and empty. But I pressed on. I thought we’d stop on the top floor, but instead, Grace released the stairs to the attic. Something in my chest hardened and crawled up my throat. I couldn’t speak. Bewildered, I continued to follow her lead.
The attic was dark, but warmer than I expected. I creaked up the final step and saw the source of the heat was an unimaginable number of candles. Everywhere. Candles. I panned the space, side to side. There was no sign of a bed, of my aunt, of life.
“What’s -” I started in a croaky whisper, but Grace hushed me.
“Rose, there’s someone here to see you.”
No – a shadow?
“Rose, I’ve brought you a very special guest.”
Yes – a shadow.
I peered out into the darkness, flickering in the candlelight. I squinted, trying to make out what Grace might be looking at.
“Shh!” Grace scolded. “Patience,” she whispered, gentler now.
So, I was patient. And slowly but surely, a figure began to materialize out of the nothingness. First, a shadow. Then a shape. Then, a woman draped in white.
“Rose, I’d like you to meet your great niece. Raleigh. I believe she’s the one you’ve been waiting for.”
The woman grew denser, a warm glow emanating from her. She smiled, and whispered, “Yes. Yes, she is.”
And in that moment, I knew, somehow, I had been waiting for her too.
© Shyla Fairfax-Owen