We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
—From “Revelation” by Robert Frost
I waited for the doorbell as lights from police vehicles flashed outside, a commotion not seen in my 50 years of living on Clarendon Way. Wearing my quilted robe, I vowed to say as little as possible. So far, I had done nothing wrong.
I opened the door to a young officer, who scanned worn sofa, piles of books, and a single cup of coffee. I offered a warm drink, but she was in a hurry. Blond wisps escaped her police hat, diminishing her authority. She stood by the window and I asked what was going on.
A neighbor was missing. The officer asked how well I knew Beth Tocala, and I could honestly state that the friendship had faded years ago. She asked about unusual activity. “Especially last night?”
“No…” I selected words as though they were needlepoint. “But I heard shouting a few days ago…”
An Escalade pulled up outside, a welcome distraction. A woman in a dark suit leapt out, gesturing wildly. Stone-faced officers blocked her from entering Beth’s home. Andrea Duff-Richards didn’t like what police were telling her.
I pointed. “That woman was next door when I heard the arguing.”
“You’re sure?” the officer pressed.
“Same car. Same bossy way. She knocked on my door the next day, asking questions…” I went to the table near the door and gave her Andrea’s business card.
“Am I safe here?” I shuddered. “She made me feel so uncomfortable.”
“We believe your neighbor was the only target.” The officer closed her notebook. “Still, keep your doors locked. Don’t allow strangers inside, and call 911 with any concerns.”
I closed the door. One could tell the police more, but easy answers ended investigations prematurely.
* * *
My worries about Beth began two days earlier while raking leaves, untangling clematis vines from faded roses. Another old woman preparing gardens for winter.
Beth and I had not talked for years, but I knew her patterns. Her Volvo had not left the garage in weeks. Instead, health aides and cleaners had visited with increasing frequency — the kind of help I planned on resisting until the very end. Grateful to still manage a rake, I combed fallen leaves around a hollowed log and arranged fallen branches like stiff braids along garden borders — devising shelters for small creatures rather than doing actual yardwork.
A rapping noise caught my attention. Beth leaned against an upstairs window, her eyes pleading for help.
Then a shadow jerked Beth away with a muffled shout. I agonized about what to do. Should I knock? Question the caregiver? Insist on speaking to Beth?
Of course, I’d be horrified if a neighbor called the police to check on me. Beth and I had not spoken in years, reason not to act hastily. Moving slowly, I put my rake away. Once inside I hurried to the bedroom window overlooking Beth’s driveway to study a dwelling I once knew as well as my own.
A sleek black SUV was in the driveway. Using my binoculars, I jotted down the plate number and the agency name posted on the side — Compassionate Choices. Then I headed to my kitchen to make a cup of tea.
* * *
For years, Beth and I were the closest of friends — car-pooling our children, vacationing together, trusting each other with secrets. Such friendships often languish as children age, yet after ours left for college, Beth and I continued our sunrise walks. More often than not, we met later in the afternoon on her terrace, fixing dinner together with our husbands.
Friendships also struggle to survive mismatched living standards. Both husbands were professors, hers in engineering and mine in history; I was a campus librarian while Beth was a designer. Our two homes contrasted like salt and pepper. Beth’s mid-century home, stunning in pale hemlock and intricate stonework, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, commanded attention. Faculty coveted invitations to Beth’s parties, and I helped host. Guests took little notice of the gray bungalow with unruly gardens next door. Over time Beth and I fell into the habit of using my home for the children’s birthday and Halloween parties.
Different lifestyles and temperaments did not doom the friendship. Soon after Beth’s first grandchild was born, our families planned to spend Thanksgiving together. My son flew in from the coast with his latest girlfriend. Beth’s daughter, Emma, along with her husband and infant daughter traveled cross-state, a drive that typically took less than three hours. The young family had a late start, hitting traffic before coming to a complete halt. An eighteen-wheeler slammed into the waiting vehicles. Two went up in flames, including Emma’s.
For weeks, Beth remained inconsolable. I checked on her daily and organized neighbors to deliver meals. Conversations were one-sided. She avoided eye contact, staring off into the distance or abruptly walking away.
The consensus among friends was to give her time. Her husband pleaded with me to keep trying, but visits became shorter. Before long, I was spending more time with co-workers and a birdwatching group.
Eventually weeks went by without seeing Beth. Our neighborhood aged. Sounds of children playing vanished, and chalk drawings no longer brightened the sidewalks. Garage sales featured bicycles and toys; windows went dark during the evening hours.
One crisp December morning, a puff of snow from a tree near Beth’s driveway disturbed the stillness. Retrieving my binoculars, I moved closer to the white pine and waited. Before long, a branch quivered and the golden eyes of a tiny saw-whet owl gazed at me.
Beth’s angry voice broke the silence. “Now you’re spying?”
I whispered furiously. “Look in the tree.”
Turning, she slammed the door.
I checked the pine, but the owl had vanished. My first instinct was to run over, scold her into hearing my explanation, but then decided a kind note, describing my excitement at spotting the owl, might be less irritating for us both.
Beth did not reply. Days later, a grinding roar filled my home, and I ran to the window. A bucket truck commanded her driveway. Overhead, a man armed with a chainsaw amputated the pine’s limbs. Workers below shoved graceful boughs into a shredder.
I mourned the soft needles tickling my windows and instantly felt old, knowing I’d never plant a tree again and live long enough to rest beneath its shade.
Years later, I still shuddered at my fury.
* * *
An alarm jolted me awake. If I didn’t set the clock, afternoon naps extended into evening. Without the alarm and lists, my mind was like an old, soft quilt, preferring vague memories of years ago rather than details of the present.
The tea had long cooled. My note reminded me a decision was needed.
The easiest course was to do nothing, but Beth’s face haunted me. I longed to call someone who knew her, but friends had moved away or died, and my son remained angry about the ruined friendship. Worried about me living alone, he’d renew pleas to sell my home and move near him.
Amid fears about growing old, I balked at change. Walls once touched by my husband’s hands went without new paint. The wobbly kitchen table bore marks of a small boy pressing his pencil to finish math homework. The rock wall out back included finds collected during family vacations. A lush border of day lilies were descendants from a handful provided by my grandmother.
I was alone, but not lonely. Poetry, birds, my home kept me company.
Before calling anyone, I had to talk with Beth. Shoving aside second thoughts, I stepped outside, following the stone path to her driveway. No longer familiar with the night, I felt my throat tighten.
Intent on devising questions for Beth, I brushed against an old yew, triggering a low snarl. Gasping, I jumped backwards and fell. A disgruntled racoon ambled away.
Precious silence returned. Breathing hard, I lay on the cold ground, feeling more foolish than terrified. My bones seemed intact, and I had little choice but to roll to my side, taking a moment before feeling steady enough to stand again.
One accident could change a life.
Shaken, I crossed the driveway and rang Beth’s front doorbell—a black gadget with an image of a kangaroo of all things. No answer. I rang again and twisted the doorknob before giving up.
Soft tapping stopped me crossing the driveway. Beth struggled to open a window. “We can’t let them see us talking,” she whispered.
I moved closer. “Who would care?”
“The agency…” She rushed to confide about a car accident, a broken shoulder, the need for home care, as though years had not passed. “I made the mistake of talking too much about Emma, the house, my savings. … I thought they cared.” Papers, jewelry, and a porcelain clock from her father went missing. Bank statements stopped coming in the mail, overdue notices piled up. “I told the agency I didn’t need their help. The next day a social worker took my car keys and cellphone. She had that doorbell installed — if I open the door, they send someone to check.”
I asked about calling the police, but she shook her head. “The social worker got a court order. A judge gave her control over my finances, healthcare, everything!”
I didn’t know how to respond. Trouble had a way of spreading for older people. That’s why so few of us make a fuss. Better to be inconspicuous. “But why you, Beth?”
“I’m not the only one. Do you remember Sally? The agency took over her life!” Our friend’s empty house had gone up for sale a year earlier, and I regretted not saying farewell. Beth had once accused me of prying. I should have asked more questions.
“The social worker claims the house is too big.” Beth sighed. “But I can still take care of myself.”
I asked about her lawyer and doctor.
“You don’t understand,” she said, frustrated. “The agency convinced the court that I’m incompetent. I’m on a waiting list for a retirement home. The hearing is in a few days.”
“There must be some way to fight,” I insisted.
“Even Sally’s daughter couldn’t help,” she explained. “The court assumed she wanted money.”
A vehicle turned the corner, headlights exposing our street. Beth ducked and I instinctively stepped back into the shadows. Once the car passed, Beth reappeared. “Time is running out. They plan to sell my house.”
I offered to call my attorney.
Beth urged caution. “You can’t let the guardian find out.” She asked if I minded holding a few belongings and to meet at the rear doors. Waiting, I stared at clouds whirling in a pewter sky with no moon or stars.
Moments later, the door slid open. Beth handed over a travel bag. “A few things rescued before the movers come.” Her voice broke.
I tried to soothe her. “We’ll think of something …”
“It will take too long,” she said. “Look at what happened to that singer, Britney Spears, and she was in her 30s. Who will believe two old women?”
Despite the chill, Beth joined me on the terrace and pointed at the space where the white pine had once stood. “I was wrong. I’ve regretted ever since.”
I had waited years for that apology, but simply promised to return the following evening.
* * *
The next morning, I examined Beth’s belongings: photo albums, a misshapen pottery bowl with Emma’s initials, worn flannel shirts that had belonged to her husband.
There was also paperwork from Compassionate Choices, including a petition for appointment of guardian to an incapacitated individual. A letter described Beth’s difficulty managing personal care and finances. Because she had no living spouse, children or parents, the petition requested a state review, and the judge issued an emergency order making her a temporary ward of the probate court, appointing social worker Andrea Duff-Richards to manage Beth’s assets and care.
A list of patient rights accompanied the form. The social worker could relocate Beth with just two weeks’ notice.
A few professionals had erased Beth’s civil rights — unthinkable, but legal. My first reaction was to call the elder-abuse hotline, but Beth’s warning stopped me. Who would believe an old woman?
Even worse, Beth remembered a young, efficient version of me, not the woman who jumbled words or forgot mid-sentence what she wanted to say. I hesitated to call my attorney, fearing he might alert my son. Before making calls, I had to organize talking points, but I didn’t know Beth anymore. Breakfast would help me think. I heated butter for a scrambled egg.
The doorbell interrupted. I opened the door to a woman in a trim gray suit and pearls. A black Escalade was parked in front.
“Yes?” I spoke brusquely, as though she had interrupted a business meeting.
She introduced herself as a social worker providing care for Beth Tocala. “We have reports about her wandering, and I wanted to ask about last night.” She glanced toward my living room, angling for an invitation inside. “May I call you Jeanne?”
The woman knew my name. I was tempted to slam the door, but also wanted to test the wall around Beth.
I frowned. “A family member called. He had trouble reaching her.”
Andrea’s eyes turned wary. “Who? I should talk to them.”
“I’ll let them contact you,” I said, sternly.
Andrea gave me her business card. “Tell them to call. And please, you should call if you notice odd behavior.”
“Beth won’t come here,” I snapped, protecting myself as well as Beth. “We haven’t talked in years.”
She beamed, pleased that Beth could not count on a close neighbor. I closed the door and the smell of burning butter pulled me away.
* * *
As a librarian, I marveled at how curiosity shapes our endeavors and relished a project testing my research prowess. But I knew enough not to leave a trail of internet browsing. Leaving my iPad and phone on the kitchen table, I headed to a library on the other side of town.
Avoiding my Google accounts, I searched Compassionate Choices. The agency offered a range of services, from help with errands or light cleaning to memory care for those with dementia. The contact page listed more sales staff than health personnel.
Then I hunted down Sally Gibson’s obituary and felt ill. The lifelong resident of our small college town had died at Meadows Retirement Home, a small place on a desolate highway, 40 miles away. I researched Sally’s Tudor on Zillow. The new owner got a bargain, paying half of what homes typically went for in our neighborhood. The town assessor’s website listed the owner’s name — the lawyer who represented Compassionate Choices. Beth was not paranoid.
Next, I read about court-appointed guardians, learning that the system thrived on more, not less care. Unscrupulous guardians charged hefty fees, arranging an array of services with kickbacks all around. Physicians prescribed multiple medications. Realtors and appraisers sold homes. Auction houses sold possessions. Once money was siphoned away, the guardians transferred broken people to distant, low-cost facilities where no one knew their history or asked questions.
Judges sided with doctors and social workers who documented accidents and memory loss — an easy task, considering how often I lost keys or left the stove on. The system automatically labeled family members as greedy, and police refused to intervene.
I dared not alert the guardian and turned my attention to home security systems. Kangaroo was an inexpensive camera doorbell, taking photographs, not videos. I read about health agencies and Airbnb hosts monitoring guests with sensors and cameras, watching rooms from miles away! Yet Andrea, clueless about Beth opening windows, had seemed to scrimp on surveillance.
For the first time in months, an afternoon nap did not tempt me away.
* * *
After dinner, I followed my routine, switching on bedroom lights and pulling the shades. Wearing black sweatpants and sweatshirt, I tucked my silver hair into a ski cap that once belonged to my son. Face paint from the dollar store was next. First, I smoothed a green coat over my face and neck before applying black and purple dashes across my forehead and cheeks at odd angles. Such makeup could fool surveillance cameras — a recommendation found in Vogue of all places.
Downstairs, I donned old shoes and my darkest coat, then checked my bag for disposable gloves, flashlights, extra bags and supplies that could come in handy if Beth consented to my plan.
No cars waited out front, and the tallest trees danced overhead in the wind. Avoiding the driveway, I crept near the shrubs separating our properties. A branch snagged the corner of my eye, and I blinked tears away.
The plan would work if no one saw me.
Approaching the stone wall surrounding Beth’s terrace, I scrutinized the house belonging to her other neighbor — a television glowed, the windows were dark. If the couple peered outside, they wouldn’t detect me in the darkness.
Decades earlier, Beth and I had hidden extra house keys outside for emergencies. My key remained and I expected hers to be in place. Keeping my head down, I felt along the terrace wall, finding the loose stone. I removed a sandwich bag with the key for her basement door.
After years of disuse, the key did not turn. Pulling the knob hard, I tried again.
The door opened and I was ready to run at the sound of an alarm. But the basement was musty and still. No miniature red or green lights of surveillance pierced the darkness.
Pocketing key and bag, I slipped off my shoes and waited for my eyes to adjust before maneuvering among stacks of boxes and climbing the stairs. Anxiety swelled with every step. Near the top, the distinctive smell of old age hit. Soft, uneven lights blinked from the kitchen — clocks on the microwave and stove flashed wrong times, not surveillance.
Listening for sounds inside or out, I crossed the living room. The furniture was gone. So was the cream rug with the huge off-centered turquoise circle that once dominated the space.
I glanced out the nearest window. My small home beckoned, promising peace, but I continued, hoping that Beth expected me.
The hallway led to three bedrooms and an office, all doors closed. I tried the master bedroom first — a bare mattress covered in plastic reflected streetlight. Backing away, I tried Emma’s old room, but that was empty.
The guest room, across from the bathroom, was last. I nudged the door open to stifling heat and a mix of smells from urine, disinfectants, and old food. Another clock glowed with the wrong time — that along with streetlight allowed me to avoid hazards. I fretted about who was crazier, Beth or me.
A small mound on the bed rolled to one side. “You came!” Beth whispered. An unfamiliar hand with papery skin and ragged fingernails clutched my sleeve. She asked about my face.
“Makeup to trick surveillance cameras. Are there are any?”
“No, but they know if I move around.” Turning in the bed, she pressed a pendant to the pillow with one hand before slipping the cord over her head. Only then, she sat up. “If they knew I moved around at night, they’d force me to swallow more stupid pills!”
“Andrea visited this morning,” I explained. “She saw me at your door.”
Beth took a deep breath. “Does she know we talked?”
“No, and I kept our conversation brief.”
She asked if my lawyer had advice, and I explained my worry about him notifying my son or Andrea. Beth moaned. “A realtor stopped by today. They’re putting the house on the market.”
Thin and anxious, Beth looked terrible. She wanted rescue, but I had to assess her abilities before making promises. I asked if she could walk to my house.
Beth stood. Together we paced the hallway where our shadows mixed with the trapezoids of streetlight from the windows. She was stiff, but her gait was steady.
I asked questions about her medications and health, and she offered prompt responses. Beth took Zocor for cholesterol. “That was my only medicine before Andrea took over and convinced a doctor to prescribe more drugs. They made me feel foggy.”
“Are you still on those?” I asked, gently.
She shook her head. “I beg the aides for pills and they don’t notice my tucking them away. If I pretend to be helpless, I’m left alone!”
Beth had more complaints. Andrea kept the heat high to dodge accusations of neglect. Aides prohibited Beth from cleaning, dressing, or using the bathroom. She caught them deliberately splashing urine in the hallway. “They take photos as proof I can’t take care of myself,” Beth said. “But that’s not true. All I want is a chance to speak in court!”
She didn’t know the hearing could exclude her. “Would you leave?” I asked.
There was no hesitation. “Of course! But that won’t stop Andrea from hurting others.”
My son would scold me for recklessness, but he didn’t need to know. “You can prove you don’t need her, but that requires time.” And I laid out my plan.
* * *
Anyone hoping to file a petition, establishing death to sell Beth’s property, had to wait two months. “And it’s not a crime for you to disappear,” I said with confidence fueled by lack of sleep. “If you go missing on Andrea’s watch, she can’t file that petition.”
“But where?” she asked. I pointed toward my home.
“That’s too close!” Beth protested. “She’ll figure it out …”
“You’ll hide in plain sight,” I countered. “I told Andrea we have not spoken in years.”
“Phone records bear that out.” Beth warmed to the idea.
“The aging office will question Andrea,” I reasoned. “If someone pries, we leave. Go on a vacation. With my car in the garage, no one would see us loading luggage or you stretched out in the backseat. We head to my cabin. Or a hotel.”
“You still have the cabin!” Beth exclaimed. She asked if my son and I spent much time there.
I rolled my eyes. “He wants me to sell both properties.”
Scheming erased years of separation. Beth’s fingerprints didn’t matter, but I kept gloves on to avoid leaving hints about her destination. She hurried to the office to gather Social Security and Medicare cards, the house deed and a few statements. I asked about medications. “In the kitchen cabinet above the coffeepot,” she directed.
I carried multiple vials to the hall closet. Closing the door, I switched on the flashlight. Trazadone, Tramadol, Valium, and more with labels warning against driving or operating heavy equipment: After copying names and dates, I plucked a sample pill from each. The Zocor was coming with us.
By the time I finished, Beth had gathered a small pile near the basement door. “Too much?” she asked.
“Not at all,” I assured her. Together, we packed papers, prescription glasses, old photos, and cards into the shopping bags I had brought along. Beth was keen to leave, but I stopped her, placing my hands on her shoulders.
“You’re sure? Who knows when you can return?”
“This hasn’t felt like home since Emma died,” Beth admitted. “What about you? The guardian spent most of my money. I don’t want to be a burden.”
I dismissed that worry. “Two can live as cheaply as one.” My house was small, and I spent little. After what happened to Beth and Sally, I would never divulge the sums in my accounts.
She sighed. “I often thought about knocking on your door…”
“True friendships don’t fade.”
“Friendships based on need don’t last,” she countered. “Andrea is vicious, and I don’t want to cause trouble.”
That comment gave me pause. My loneliness was a peaceful sort, easily tamed. The thought of fear invading my home was another matter. Suddenly, I wondered if fleeing was enough and checked my watch. Five hours before dawn. “Maybe we’re going about this all wrong,” I mused.
Beth turned, startled.
“You still leave, but why not make more trouble for Andrea?” I suggested. “Convince the police to investigate for theft or fraud …”
“Or murder?” Her laugh was playful.
Amazingly, I no longer felt tired. We huddled on the stairs, brainstorming how to attract police attention, target Andrea, and transform the search with evidence that intrigued fictional detectives. I preferred the subtlety of Sherlock Holmes, but Beth shot that down. “Jacques Clouseau and Nancy Drew could run rings around this town’s police department.”
She was right. “We point to your financial records…”
“Leave signs of a violent struggle,” Beth stressed. “It’s not a crime to trash my own home!”
“As long as they can’t track the mayhem to us.”
The aide would arrive by eight. Leaving our bags by the door, carrying flashlights, we went to the office. Beth’s checkbook and credit cards were missing, but we found unpaid bills and bank statements listing large withdrawals.
Beth read a card attached to a second notice for nonpayment from her gardener. “Poor Henry,” she murmured. “I never saw this.”
“It’s not too late to respond,” I advised. Snatching pen and paper, we crafted an apology for the delayed payment and outlined a case for investigators in her shaky handwriting. “A social worker has taken control of my mail and finances,” Beth wrote. “I feel trapped in my own home. There is a court date and hope to pay you soon. …”
We left the note on the desk, and I handed her a marker. She drew angry circles around the largest withdrawals. “And now, the fun part,” Beth said, closing the office door.
In the kitchen I selected the sharpest knife. Beth opened the dishwasher, using a cloth to retrieve Andrea’s glass from the previous day. I poured cranberry juice and we returned to the bedroom.
“As hard as you can,” she urged. Counting to three, I flung the full glass against the wall behind the bed, splattering liquid and glass. Avoiding the pendant, we tugged sour-smelling sheets from the foot of the mattress, twisting them to the floor.
Next, I swept the lamp, clock and other items from the night table, knocking the piece over. We opened the closet and drawers, yanking clothes away. I pocketed wool socks, then pointed to the potty chair.
“I despise that thing,” Beth said.
I kicked, spilling the vile-smelling contents to the carpet. We broke out giggling.
“Time for blood,” I announced. In the bathroom, I washed the knife before wiping the blade with rubbing alcohol from the medicine cabinet.
“We have one take to get this right,” I cautioned.
As Beth held out her hand, I pointed out that head wounds produced more blood.
“Do both.” She flashed a smile, directing my cut. “Close to the scalp — I don’t want a scar.”
Wincing, I sliced the palm of her left hand and an inch along the hairline, then backed away. Beth dropped to her knees and crawled backward, dragging the cut hand along the floor. Upon exiting the room, she pressed her head against the door frame before proceeding toward the kitchen where I waited, wrapping one clean towel around her hand and pressing the other against her head.
Darkness prevented us from observing the full effects of our work. We didn’t need a perfect crime scene — just enough to get the police started.
Making our way downstairs, Beth clutched my arm to avoid touching the rail or walls. Near the door, I put the wool socks on her feet and wrapped my coat around her shoulders. “Did we do enough?” she fretted. “Andrea could clean before calling the police.”
That gave me another idea. Better someone called before the aide arrived. Beth waited as I made a quick detour into the garage, unlocking the side door, visible from the street, and flinging it open. With luck, an early runner or dogwalker might alert the police.
* * *
Checking that we left nothing behind, I locked the basement door, pocketed the key, and retrieved my shoes. We took the roundabout way to my home in silence, each carrying two bags.
My mind pondered the possibilities for the days ahead. Andrea’s court petition described a feeble individual who had trouble walking and forgot her medications. Investigators would question whether Beth was capable of masterminding escape.
The search would not last long. Volunteers would comb nearby parks and yards, posting fliers with photos from years ago. Police would contact hospitals and public transit drivers. With no family members to complain, searchers would give up soon enough.
Andrea could face charges, though I was convinced we acted in self-defense. Society writes older women off as invisible and disposable. Andrea befriended the vulnerable, isolating them and destroying hope, committing murder in slow motion.
All Beth needed was a few weeks of good meals and laughter. Then she could reappear.
A light snow fell as we entered my bungalow. Keeping the lights off, we carried the bags to the guestroom. I handed over an extra nightgown and towels, and she watched as I scrubbed my face clean.
“You’re my guardian angel,” she murmured. “I feel young again.”
Not exactly young, I thought, but distracted, free and whole again.
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