Meda Lillin’s hands are bent around the handles of her rocking chair. Her knuckles are brown and knobby like the wood beneath them, and I have to peer closely to see where the rocking chair ends and her skin begins. She’s smiling, and staring out through the window, and she’s very still. Her rocking chair works, but she doesn’t use it that way.
Her cotton dress sweeps down her bony legs and puddles around yellow sandals that used to be white. The shoes expose toenails that are thick and too long and meticulously polished to match the pink petals where the sandals fasten.
Meda’s room is as still as she is. The window is open, but there’s no breeze. The curtains hang like wet linen on a clothesline, heavy and thick. Her dresser drawers are empty, her closet hangers aren’t used.
“Wasn’t always so quiet around here,” Meda says, and startles me, because I thought she’d fallen asleep.
“It’s nice,” I lie, and try to shift on my feet without making any noise.
“You got kids?” she asks. She swivels her head toward me like an owl. “I have kids. All grown now. Grandkids, too. They used to come see me, but they don’t like the quiet either.”
“You have a radio,” I say. “Want me to turn it on?”
“No ma’am. I’m listening to the birds.”
I move closer to the window and peer over her shoulder. I don’t see any birds, and I don’t hear any, either.
“You ever notice how the sky turns blue right before the sun comes all the way over the mountain ridge there?” she asks.
I hadn’t noticed. I shake my head.
“You watch tomorrow. It turns blue.” She sweeps her cloudy eyes back to the window.
I figure the sky is always blue, unless it’s nighttime. I don’t have time for skygazing. I wake up at dawn for my shift at the hospital, and I spend evenings doing home visits as a second job. I’m lucky if I get a chance to stare at the TV.
“Where are your clothes?” I ask, searching the empty closet one more time for laundry.
“Right here,” says Meda. She points to her dress.
“Don’t you have any others?”
“To wear while you’re washing something else?” I’ve never had to explain this to a grown woman before.
Meda shrugs. “I don’t get dirty.”
I try looking for dishes, instead. There are none. No messy ones in the sink, no clean ones in the cupboards. “Have you just moved in?” I call from the kitchen.
“Been here nearly five years.” Meda’s voice is close behind me, and I turn to find her standing in the doorway. “Ever since Amos died. My husband.”
I watch her walk to the refrigerator, expecting her to shuffle like the aged woman she is, but her step is light and graceful in her soft sandals. “Did you used to dance?”
She pauses to look at me over her shoulder, her dark eyebrows quirked. “Used to?”
“Like in college or something?”
“What a funny question,” she says. She opens her refrigerator door.
Inside, there are more apples than I’ve seen in my life, piled on every shelf and stuffed into the little compartment drawers at the bottom. Only apples. Yellow or red, or a blend of both, most with a chunk of stem and a couple leaves still attached.
She taps her chin, regarding her stockpile, then she chooses one and offers it to me. “I dance every day, child.”
I take the apple, staring past her shoulder at the crammed refrigerator.
She plucks out a fruit for herself and closes the door. “But you’re not the kind to understand, I think. You’re one of the busy ones.”
“What do you mean?”
“Looking to wash my clothes or fix me dinner, eyes roving for whatever chore you can do next.”
“Your son is paying me to look after you for two hours. It’s only fair I earn the money.” I tug at my apple stem, scowling at the thing because it won’t pull loose.
Meda puts her soft hand on my fingers. “You can’t pull it, child, you have to twist. And try this, while you twist it, say the alphabet.”
“The alphabet. Whatever letter you stop on when the stem comes off is the letter of the first name of the man you’ll marry.”
I laugh. “I’ll just eat it with the stem on.” I take a big, juicy bite.
Meda smiles. She twists her apple stem and only gets as far as “A” before it pops right out. “A. Always A,” she says. She carries her apple into her bedroom and settles, ballerina-like, into her rocking chair. “He was a good man, Amos.” She nods to herself, her eyes glittering amber in the low evening light.
“You must miss him.” I sit on the edge of her bed and take another bite of apple.
“Yes.” She sighs. “I didn’t expect him to go so soon.”
I nod, because I don’t know what to say. Grief has always settled strange and uncomfortable onto my shoulders. Scratchy. Like a tweed scarf. I shift, trying to dislodge the feeling.
“Have you lost someone?” Meda asks.
“My mother. When I was seven. She had cancer.” I stand up. “Look, do you have a vacuum cleaner or something?”
Meda looks at me over the back of her chair. “Vacuum cleaner? Do you know how loud those things are?” She shudders. “Why don’t you just sit and listen to the birds with me?”
“I don’t think that’s what your son had in mind when he—“
“Yes it is,” she says. “He doesn’t come any more, doesn’t bring my grandchildren to me. He hired you to fill in the hole where his guilty conscious was leaking.”
I wince, because it’s been a while since I talked to my father. I sit back down on her bed and listen for birds.
While I unlock the front door to my house, the phone is ringing. I toss my keys onto the table and pick up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s Kristin.”
“Oh, hey. What’s up?”
“I just had an emergency come up, could you take my shift tonight?”
I look at my watch. 8:00. “I just got home.”
“I know, I’m really sorry. Cammy’s already on, and Georgia’s out of town. I wouldn’t ask, but it’s really important.”
I rub my eyes.
“I’ll take your shift in the morning. If I’m back in time. I’ll make it up to you.”
“All right,” I say, and shake my head. That’s two shifts Kristin owes me, and she’s only been working at the hospital for two weeks. “In the morning,” I warn her.
I hang up, and change back into my scrubs.
Kristin isn’t back in the morning. We have two gunshot wounds in ER and a bus rollover by noon. I’m about to take a blood sample of a patient in room three when my supervisor taps me on the arm. “Wrong room. Blood sample’s in room two. Have you slept?”
“Got two more hours, then I will.”
“Take a break,” she says. “I’ll draw the sample.”
My grumbling stomach leads me down to the cafeteria. I study a fat slice of cherry cheesecake. I sense someone behind me, and twist to find a thirty-something man in blue scrubs and booties holding a fork. He’s eyeing the same piece of cake.
“Last piece,” he says. “Want to share?” His smile crinkles up the corners of his blue eyes.
“Ah…no. Thanks.” I self-consciously smooth my hands over my cheesecake-induced hips.
His eyes follow my hands and his mouth opens to say something else, but I duck away and head for the salad bar.
I wobble to Meda Lillin’s door, more tired than I ought to be. I’ve been without sleep plenty of times. I reach up to knock but the door opens and she’s standing there, smiling. Then her smile fades.
“You look awful.”
“Thanks,” I say, and follow her inside.
“You been so busy you can’t even sleep?” Meda opens the refrigerator, selects a large yellow apple, and tosses it at me.
My reflexes are slow, but I juggle it around and manage to keep it from hitting the floor. “Double shift at the hospital.”
“And you came to see me anyway.” She smiles again.
“I know,” she says, holding up her hand. “It’s still nice to have a visitor.” She turns to make her way into the bedroom with the picture window. “Maybe one of these days you’ll want to come, but not because of the money. When that happens, I’ll tell you a secret.”
“You can’t tell me now?”
“No, you won’t believe me. You don’t trust me yet.”
“I trust you, Meda.”
She laughs. It’s a soft kind of giggle, like a child’s. “You haven’t even told me your first name.”
“No, ma’am.” She settles into her rocking chair and stares out the window. “I figure you will when you’re good and ready.”
I drop onto her bed. “It’s Penny.”
She leans a brown elbow onto the arm of her brown rocking chair and regards me. “Is that short for something?”
I groan. I’ve never liked my name. “Short for Penelope,” I say. “Why?”
“Makes a difference, most times.”
“A difference in what?”
“What it means. Penelope is Greek, but you probably knew that.”
I shake my head. “No. What’s it mean?”
She smiles. “It means ‘girl with a web over her face’.”
I don’t like my name any better now that I know what it means. I flop onto my back and stare up at her ceiling. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s just a name.”
She makes a sound like ‘hmph’. “No such thing as just a name. It’s a part of who you are, the blanket that wraps your soul.” She leans closer. “Telling someone your name gives them a sort of power over you. They can call on you with it, day or night.”
“Yes,” I say, growing drowsy on her soft bed. “That’s useful for getting someone’s attention.”
“They can summon you from wherever you are,” she says, her voice taking a hard edge. “Ask things of you they got no right to ask. Make you think you want it, too.”
I try to respond, but my weary jaw doesn’t work. I watch her through slitted eyes while she frowns through the picture window. I can’t keep my eyelids from lowering and lowering. I give up and let them fall. Maybe a few minutes sleep will revive me.
I come awake slowly, aware that I’m in a strange bed and that it’s dark. I hear children whispering, and they giggle and hush each other. I sit up, startled, and peer around the room.
No one is there.
A cloud shifts to reveal the moon outside. A shadow passes by the glass, gliding silently. Ballerina-like.
“Meda?” I call through the open window.
The shadow moves on.