On Saturday morning, Mrs. Lacy called him because Candace wouldn’t let her into the house. She had a tremulous voice as though she were about to burst into tears, but in all the years Steve McKay had known her, she never had. She talked about everything in the same unsteady voice, even when she was reminiscing about his family. Lovely woman, your wife, such a sorrow, she said whenever there was a pause in the conversation.
“Now, about Candace. She won’t let me in.”
“Maybe Mrs. Allen doesn’t want visitors.”
“I talked to her two days ago and we had a lovely visit.”
Steve wanted to ask why she was dropping in again so soon, but she went on.
“The girl should be put away. She insists on blocking me at the door.” Her quavering voice grated. “Can’t you do something?”
“I’m retired, Mrs. Lacy.”
“Well, you know what I mean.”
He did, but it wasn’t his business how Mrs. Allen and her daughter lived. They were three houses down and they never bothered him. As far as he knew, they never bothered anyone. But Mrs. Lacy wouldn’t back off.
“All right. I’ll walk down, but unofficial-like. I’m not on the force anymore.” He punched off his cell wishing he could stand up to her. He would finish the paper first, enjoy his coffee. Then he would go; he could spare the time. It wasn’t like he had a lot to do — maybe once — but not now, not for years. After the accident, the drive went out of him, and he was glad when he was able to retire — he was tired of watching younger men pass him by even though he knew he didn’t want a promotion. He didn’t begrudge others their success; he envied them their hope, their belief in a future.
Steve took note of the neat Cape as he walked up to the front door. He knew Mrs. Allen had little money, but what she had she took care of — the lawn was well groomed, the walk swept, and the old fence still upright though in need of paint. He knocked on the door and waited. He knocked again.
The door opened a crack and a nose appeared, then a face.
“Candace Allen?” Steve addressed the young girl standing in front of him. She was a little shorter than Steve but had an outsized head with large brown eyes and short hair. “I’m here to see your mother. I’m a friend of hers.”
Candace blinked once; still holding the door with one hand, she turned away. Steve leaned around the door. Candace was studying a small poster tacked to the wall. “No, you’re not,” she said. “You’re not a friend.” She closed the door hard.
Steve started. No ordinary citizen had ever slammed a door in his face. The odd criminal, sure, but not a neighbor, not someone he knew. He recognized the feeling immediately — that’s what he’d been feeling since the accident — shut out, forgotten, left behind.
“Open up, Candace.” He knocked again. “I knew your mother when she used to come down to the police station to help us raise money for sports programs for the kids.” That was a long time ago — when Candace was just an infant and before anyone suspected something was wrong, and when Jason was going to be a football star one week and a fireman the next. He felt that bubble of amazement whenever he thought about Jason as a child — the wonder of it that he could have produced such a creature. “Open up!”
The door opened but only enough to reveal half of Candace. She blinked her dark eyes. “I don’t know you. You said you were a friend but you’re not here.”
“Let me take a look at that.” Steve slipped in and studied the handmade poster. Someone had drawn in a childlike hand six faces, distinguished mostly by hair styles, and printed the person’s name underneath.
“These are the only people I’m supposed to let in if Mom can’t come to the door.” She clung to the door with both hands, bracing herself as though Steve might force her out and shut the door on her.
“That’s pretty good, Candace.” Steve murmured a few more meaningless phrases to give himself time to think. Candace Allen was mentally challenged, and Steve had taken that to mean low IQ, but that wasn’t what was happening here.
“So tell me, Candace. You go by drawings of people? Who did these?”
“My mom. We took off Mr. Wheaton because he died so he won’t come anymore.”
Steve recognized the face with a large nose; someone had drawn two heavy lines through the image.
“That was pretty clever of your mom.” Steve moved deeper into the narrow hallway. “And this one?” He tapped another large poster, professionally printed, composed entirely of round faces, more cartoon than realistic, illustrating different facial expressions. Now things were beginning to make sense.
Candace looked at him, at the poster. Her eyes opened wide. “You don’t like it!”
“What? Sure I do. I’ve just never seen one before. Your mom’s a clever woman. Used to do an amazing job at the Grange Hall getting us set up for our events.” He made a point of offering a warm smile and an encouraging nod.
Now it was Candace’s turn to frown. “I don’t remember that. She never told me about that.” The skepticism in her voice grew as though she was beginning to doubt Steve’s word. “You can’t come in.”
“Your mom won’t mind.” Steve’s professional training was tugging at him, had been since Candace first opened the door.
“You’re not on the list.”
“These are recent friends. Did you notice that?” Steve pointed to the faces on the first poster — a woman from the VNA, a home visitor from the Senior Center, the woman next door, a cousin, and a woman who cleaned. “Any of these friends come lately?” Most of them, Steve knew, came only when called.
“Mom doesn’t want visitors right now. She doesn’t feel well. She’s lying down.”
“She told you no visitors?” Steve was watching closely now. “When did she tell you this?”
“Yesterday,” Candace said.
“Do you understand what a policeman is?”
“The policeman is our friend.” She paused to glance at the first poster. “You’re not on the list.”
“But I am a friend.” He pulled out his warrant card and held it up for Candace to examine. “I’m going to say a quick word to your mom.” He moved past her, heading off to the right. He knew these small Capes usually had a bedroom downstairs, and Mrs. Allen occupied that one. Kitchen on the left, bedroom on the right — both in the back. He rapped on the bedroom door, ignoring Candace’s cry of distress, and entered.
Steve gave a start, a silent intake of breath. Not two years retired and he was already getting soft. He shouldn’t have had any reaction. He moved to the bed and felt Mrs. Allen’s hand, which hung over the mattress edge, palm upward. She was curled up on her left side, a light blanket covering all but her head and stockinged feet. There was an unpleasant smell.
“When did she go to bed, go to lie down, Candace?” Steve knew the girl was behind him — he could hear her breathing with a slight whistle.
“Yesterday morning. She said she didn’t feel well — she had a headache.”
“Just a headache?”
“That’s what she said.” Candace took a step closer. “You shouldn’t be here. You’re not on the list. You’ll wake her up.”
Steve considered what to tell her. With her soft round face and dark almond-shaped eyes, she didn’t look anything like her mother. Steve had assumed she looked like her father, but that wasn’t it at all. “Candace, listen to me carefully …”
The whole thing went as well as could be expected. Candace understood — her mother had talked about the future with Candace and now it was here. The EMTs were kind and considerate, and careful. Steve had to distract Candace from the proceedings, or the removal of Mrs. Allen’s body would have taken all day, but the girl seemed to understand what was happening on a practical level.
The police arrived within minutes if not seconds of the EMTs and looked the place over — two young ones Steve didn’t recall well. Other than examining the bedroom, they didn’t have much to offer on the situation.
“Probably a heart attack,” one said.
“What about the girl?” the other one said. “Doesn’t sound like she can stay here alone. Not too with-it.”
Steve followed his gaze to where Candace was studying the larger poster with all the round faces illustrating different expressions. All at once he saw what they saw — not a young woman with a determined, intelligent mother who trained her to live in the world, but an older child who didn’t look like she should be left alone on a city street. When social services got here, that would be the end of life as Candace knew it.
“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said, surprised at the sound of his own voice. “I know the family. I’ll wait for the social worker.” His comrades were relieved that one of their own would finish up this part of it.
Candace sat at the kitchen table, hands folded, listening. Her face was so devoid of expression throughout Steve’s speech that he began to feel he was talking to himself, expressing thoughts he would have otherwise kept to himself.
“I can’t decide if it’s better for you to be here alone during the day and sleep at my place, or be at my place during the day and sleep here.” He watched Candace for a reaction, but her eyes kept roving to the hallway beyond. She’s thinking about that poster, Steve realized. “Perhaps your cousin will have an idea.”
“I don’t like my cousin.” Candace spoke with no feeling at all. “Mom said he didn’t want me to live here.”
If that were true, her options were shrinking. Well, at least she would inherit the house and that could make things easier for her wherever she went. The social worker would know what to do.
“Mom said I could stay here, all the time.” Candace paused. “She’s not coming back?”
Steve shook his head. Candace had not shed one tear.
“How do you feel about that?” he asked.
A brief conversation with the social worker on call led to a Monday-morning appointment at Steve’s house to discuss Candace’s future. The problem of where to spend days and evenings resolved itself when Candace asked Steve to not lock the door while she went to the corner market to get a meal to use in the microwave. It was nearing ten in the evening and the only place open was a Super Saver about four miles away. It was raining and Candace didn’t drive.
“I can’t eat that.” Candace studied her plate later that night. It had been easier to get Candace to Steve’s house than he had expected, but as he tried to get the girl settled in the guest room, he encountered hurdles he’d never thought about. Candace had very specific dietary requirements, or at least limitations and preferences that didn’t make a coherent diet. It all seemed to revolve around Mrs. Allen’s preferences, which had much to do with her medical ills.
The problem of food exhausted Steve, and when he finally got to bed at 1:30 in the morning, he was dreading the next task — sitting down with the social worker and figuring out what to do with Candace and her relationship with her cousin.
“A boiled egg is okay with toast,” Steve assured Candace Sunday morning. The girl studied the tea cup and the round white object sitting in it with skepticism, but in the end said okay. Steve pushed the salt and pepper shakers closer. He shouldn’t be staring but couldn’t help himself. Here was a totally guileless person who had managed to live to adulthood in an unfeeling world. Steve tried to guess just how old Candace was. He’d been a sergeant for a few years and his own boy —
He felt a knife drop in his gut. He was usually pretty good at keeping his thoughts away from all that.
“Here, have some more toast.” Steve shoved the plate closer to Candace.
“Is my mother really gone?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Candace might not understand all of what this meant — a funeral, closing up the house, probably selling off everything, finding another place to live. The state would want a say in what happened. Maybe a call to NAMI, a local chapter, would be a good idea, get an advocate for her. Steve began to think about the bleak landscape that lay ahead.
“You ever have a job, Candace?”
“Yes. Can I have tea instead of coffee?”
“Oh, sure. I’ve got tea around here somewhere.” Steve stood in the center of the kitchen. He knew Margie had kept tea in the house, and he’d never cleared out the cupboards, so it should still be here — somewhere. He opened cupboard doors, peering inside, moving boxes and jars around, then closed the door and tried the next one. He began to feel self-conscious — he should know where things are.
“I forget too,” Candace said.
“Huh?” Steve turned to her.
“I forget where I put things so I keep everything I want on a table.” She returned to her toast.
Steve wondered what Margie would say to that kind of clutter. He went back to his search and located the tea behind a box of instant cocoa mix. “We’re well stocked for your sister, Stevie,” Margie once said. The sound of his wife’s voice in his head froze his hand in midair but nothing more came — not her fragrance, not her little laugh that always followed the mention of his sister. Laurel, his sister. He hadn’t seen her since the funerals either. She’d called a couple of times, invited him over for the holidays, but that was the end of it. They hadn’t talked in years.
Steve pulled out the tea bags, dropped one into a mug, and put water in a saucepan on to boil.
“Coffee makes me sleepy,” Candace said.
“It’s supposed to keep you awake.”
“It makes me sleepy.” Candace poured in milk, then sugar — melted ice cream, Steve thought.
“What kind of job did you have?”
“Shredding paper at the Food Pantry.”
“How did that go?” He wondered if this was the kind of conversation Mrs. Allen had every day with her daughter.
“Okay.” Candace shrugged. “Can I keep my posters?”
“Sure.” Steve had to think for a minute, then recalled Mrs. Allen’s front hall. “I’ll get them for you.”
The door was unlocked when Steve reached the house later in the morning.
“Hello?” Steve pushed open the door and called out. He heard footsteps and saw a man coming down the narrow stairs from the second floor.
“Who are you?” the young man asked. Perhaps in his 30s, he wore neatly pressed suit pants and a white shirt and gray print tie. Steve introduced himself, using his former title as he explained the recent events.
“I’m Ken, Candace’s cousin. My father was her maternal uncle; he died a few years ago.” He stretched out his hand. “Sorry you got landed with Candace. The state will take her off your hands in a day or so. I’ve applied for a foster family for her. Mrs. Lacy called me.” He turned into his aunt’s small study.
“She’s asked for the posters.”
Steve followed him to the doorway. “Mrs. Allen, your aunt, has a lawyer here in town. I’ll see he’s notified.”
Ken swung around. “Not necessary. I’m planning on handling everything.”
“Not unless you’ve got a will that puts you in charge.” Steve walked over to the telephone and picked up the receiver. “I’ll make sure the house is safely secured, so nothing goes missing.” He stood poised over the telephone, his eye on Ken. It seemed like long minutes but really it was only seconds before Ken slowly closed the drawer he had opened. “You might want to leave the key, so there’ll be no misunderstanding.”
An hour later Steve watched Candace tack up both posters on Steve’s living room wall. Then she found a pen and handed it to Steve.
“You have to put your face on this one or I won’t know if I can let you in.”
Candace pointed the pen straight at him, as though it were a dart and Steve the dartboard. He stared at it. He’d never even drawn a dog as far as he could remember. And he had no idea what he looked like to her. He took the pen. After a closer look at the other people depicted there, he drew a circle, gave it a line for a plain nose, two eyes, tufts of hair above his ears, nothing on top, and thick lips. It didn’t look anything like a human being. Then he wrote his name beneath it. Candace studied it, then Steve.
“Yeah. You’re Steve.”
My God, thought Steve, suppose she didn’t think it looked like me. What then? Would I be locked out of my own house? He gave a weak smile. That sent Candace to her poster of human feelings and expressions. What would Margie say to that? Of course, his wife hadn’t been hard to read. She’d have been amused. He scanned the second poster for an expression that most closely matched his wife’s usual expression. He tapped his finger on a round face with a warm smile. Underneath it was printed affection. “My wife,” Steve said. Then he looked again and tapped another with wide eyes, labeled wonder. “My son,” he added.
Mrs. Allen’s lawyer had offered to drop by as soon as he heard Steve’s story on Sunday afternoon. He laid his briefcase on Steve’s glass-topped coffee table, popped it open, and pulled out a file. “Mrs. Allen left everything to her daughter. She hoped Ken would help out if the need arose.”
“I don’t like Ken,” Candace said.
“Ah, yes, I believe your mother mentioned something like that.” The lawyer paused.
Steve explained that the social worker would be coming in the morning to discuss the situation.
“The state will want to make sure she has a guardian,” the lawyer told Steve. “So I’ll get going on this legal business.” He turned to Candace. “And we can talk about where you will live, eh, Candace?”
“I’m living here,” Candace said.
The lawyer raised one eyebrow and looked at Steve.
At the sound of Candace’s declaration Steve looked nonplussed. The simple statement didn’t seem to convey any feeling from Candace, yet Steve felt a deep quiet emanating from her words, and he could see those little round faces depicting affection and wonder almost throbbing on the sheet of paper, like glowworms that had once gotten stuck inside a screened-in porch at his grandparents’ house years ago. His grandmother opened the screen door and shooed them out into the night, where they left a trail of gold through the darkness. He couldn’t remember if he’d told Margie about them, but he’d have to tell Candace. There was more to the world than strangers who came to the door.
Featured image: suscraft / Shutterstock
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