Rebecca pulled out her phone and snapped a picture of the letter. Maybe she could get someone to decipher it. At the same time, she was not sure she should know its contents.
Leaving the paneled living room, she went up the stairs, looking at the gallery of family pictures on each wall: Mom, her sister Sandy, her brother Alex, and her—all from ten or more years ago. Once in her bedroom, she changed into her gray yoga pants and a blue tank top, then stood at the vanity and looked at her long black hair, the gray roots reappearing. Men had always complimented her hair, but she wondered if, at fifty-nine, she was trying to appear too young. She tied her hair back and looked at her profile. She shrugged and washed the makeup off her mostly smooth olive skin and went to bed.
The next morning came too soon. Rebecca overslept, which frazzled her, for she had an appointment in twenty minutes. Hurrying down the stairs, she heard her mother talking at the kitchen table. In Greek. Rebecca came behind her, touching her shoulders and kissing her. “Good morning, Mom.”
“Good morning Kalanta.”
Rebecca hadn’t been called by her middle name since she was a child. Needing to get out the door, she could not take time to discuss or think about it. She once loved being called Kalanta, which was how the Greeks in her family referred to joyful songs—like the Kalanta Cristougenon, an ancient Christmas carol. Singing had once been her life, but she hadn’t been musical in twenty years.
Two years earlier, after her divorce, Rebecca Kalanta Theodorus had moved back to Smoke Valley from Washington State. The timing was good, for it gave her a chance to reconcile with her mother, who was in her mid-eighties. Rebecca was in good health and loved her work as a hospice liaison for St. Andrew’s Retirement Village.
“Mom, I’m going to visit Martha in a few minutes,” she said and filled a mug with coffee.
“Who is Martha?”
“The new hospice client. The one I told you about last night.”
Her mother stared out the window. “Oh.”
Rebecca went upstairs and threw on yesterday’s white blouse and black slacks. She quickly brushed her hair without looking in the mirror and uncharacteristically skipped her makeup, then glided back rapidly downstairs and kissed her mother. “Bye, Mom. I love you.”
“Where are you going?”
“Martha’s. I’ll be back around 5:00.”
Five minutes later, she got out of her brown Jeep and approached a small gray-blue cape cod.
A short, thin woman in a bathrobe answered the door. She leaned on a cane.
“Hi, I’m Kalanta from St. Andrew’s Village. Martha?”
“That’s me. The office told me Rebecca was coming.”
“I’m sorry, I’m Rebecca. My middle name is Kalanta. It’s a long story.”
Martha welcomed her in and led her to a breakfast nook of varnished birch next to a large bay window. Nodding toward the stainless steel decanter, Martha said, “The coffee’s hot. Help yourself.”
“Thanks,” Rebecca said and poured some into a glazed red mug.
“I’d like to walk you through how hospice works if you feel ready.”
“No sense putting it off.”
“Here’s a sheet of basic information.”
After Rebecca explained the provisions and expectations, Martha’s hands shook. “I’m so scared about this. I’m alone. My husband is gone, and I have no children. Will you be able to help me with that part?”
Rebecca took Martha’s hands gently and held them. “I’m so sorry.” Her black eyes were wide open and her head nodded slowly as Martha’s voice quivered, pouring out her worries.
Martha wiped her eyes with a napkin. “You seem to know, dear girl.” She tried not to stare at the right side of Rebecca’s face. There was a scar that began just below her temple and extended to her jawline.
“I will do everything I can to help you, Martha.” The sun shone through the bay window on Rebecca’s face, giving her warm smile even more radiance. “You can call me anytime. I may not be able to answer right away, but I will respond.”
Still holding on to Rebeca, Martha’s tears fell on the hospice paper, causing some of the ink to bleed. “You’re an angel. Thank you, dear.”
When Rebecca went to open her car door, she saw her scar in the reflection of the glass. She immediately began to sweat, realizing she’d forgotten her makeup in all the rush and distraction. Her heart rate rose. She taught a weekly self-defense class and needed to be there in a half-hour. Rather than risk being seen at the local CVS, she darted home. Her mother was napping, so she rushed upstairs and carefully covered her scar and left again.
After teaching her class about landing a punch on a bigger person, Rebecca regained some confidence. On her way to her office at St. Andrew’s, she called her sister. “Hi Sandy, just wondered if you could stop by and check on Mom. She’s been a bit out of it… Thanks… I’ll be home in a couple hours.… Bye.”
Like most days, she parked in front of the old stone church next to the St. Andrew’s administrative building. The church had been boarded up for years. People finally had enough of old Thomas Aquinas Louis. Plus, a nondenominational church had aimed an effective marketing campaign at the young families moving into Smoke Valley. Once calling themselves Soldiers of Christ Academy, they rebranded themselves simply as SOC.
However, on this today, as she approached the admin building, Rebecca heard music coming from inside the cathedral-like structure. Instead of going to her office as planned, she turned and strolled up to the church’s open doors and stood outside looking in. The music was from an old hymn she once treasured. Seeing a woman about her age approaching, she power-walked in the direction of her office.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked. She wore a white robe with a red sort of vestment over her shoulders. Her head was covered with a white scarf-like cloth. A large wooden cross hung near her waist.
Rebecca turned around and asked hesitantly, “Are you open to the public? I was wondering if I could just go sit in one of the pews and think for a few minutes.”
“Sure, come on in. We’re reopening. Back from the dead as it were.”
Rebecca walked toward the door and the earnest woman, who explained, “The sanctuary will be open every day from eleven to one. Our new priest will be reading the prayers at noon. You’re welcome to stay.”
“Thank you.” Rebecca entered the sanctuary and walked toward the back corner looking to her right at the large stained-glass window shaped like a rose. She’d always wondered what the place was like inside. Like many people in Smoke Valley, she’d heard a version of Minnie Peterson’s “walkout” in 1952.
In the front of the cathedral was a stage. Behind the altar and pulpit, there was a man softly playing the piano. Incense was burning. Rebecca found an empty pew where she could be alone and looked around. There were four or five women scattered in the pews, a couple of them kneeling. She looked down toward the floor and saw that there was a small moveable cushion. She moved it down and then back up, then sat in the pew and closed her eyes. After a few minutes, she heard footsteps. The woman in the robe was coming. Rebecca slipped out the side door and over to her office to collect some files for her new clients.
The following Sunday, Rebecca went to Sanctuary Ridge for what had become a weekly dinner with David, Homer, and Ruth. She brought with her a printout of her mother’s Greek note to leave with Homer, who sometime had insight into “linguistic stuff.”
After the meal, David stood up, looked at Rebecca and motioned to the screen door. “Walk?”
“Sure, ” she said and followed him out to the brick path that led past the stone retaining wall lined with yellow roses. David stopped and pulled the rope of the old bell.
“Calling somebody home?” she asked.
“Oh, not really. I just wanted to hear it again.”
After they checked his tomatoes and continued on the path, David pointed to a rotting wood post with a sharp and rusted piece of chicken wire tacked to it. “I raised pheasants here when I was a young man. I think I’ll get Tommy to build a new pen so we can watch some of those beautiful birds grow.”
“With all the stories I’ve heard about this place, you’d think I would’ve known that.”
After they passed the old barn’s foundation, David stopped next to the wooden bench that offered a view across the valley. “I’ve got news, we better sit.”
He told her about his diagnosis and how she mustn’t worry. Rebecca hugged him and lay her head on his shoulder. She wept, but tried to protect him from knowing just how much it scared her. After some silence, she asked, “Does Jacob know?”
“Ruth has relayed it to Scarlett, so I think he probably knows. Ruth got his number for me. I’m still trying to figure out what to say.”
In the following weeks, Rebecca not only came for Sunday dinners but walked with David until he began to decline. She increased her workout regimen, lifting in David’s gym and walking the property. Her mother hadn’t spoken (or written) in Greek lately.
David mentioned a rash of break-ins along Price Mill Rd., where Sanctuary Ridge was located. “It’s nothing to worry about,” he told Rebecca. Not convinced, she talked to Tommy, David’s groundskeeper, about setting up a team of watchmen until the understaffed police department caught the intruders. Rebecca herself did two shifts a week, which amounted to staying the night, monitoring the security cameras, and walking around the house listening for any troubling sounds. David was not informed of the full extent of this because he surely would have put the kibosh on it.
One moonless cloudy evening, Rebecca walked around the house with a baseball bat. She had zip ties in her pocket. She was confident that she could apply what she learned from a local cop about apprehending a suspect. As she was heading back into the house, she heard what sounded like an empty can being tossed into the trash bin by the garage. She carefully crept from the screened-in porch and hid behind a cedar bush. She had earlier turned off the lights to give her an advantage, but the headlights of a car on Price Mill briefly shone on the back of a man in a beanie looking in the hall window next to the front door. She was able to sneak up behind him and wrestle him to the ground and tie his hands behind his back. “Who the hell are you?” she said like a protective mother.
“It’s Jacob, for God’s sake. Let me go.”