Madelyn stood at her mother’s bedroom door and clutched her notebook to her chest. In it were drawings of the river and of claw marks—of train windows and blue eyes.
She had tried to draw a picture of Frank Isler’s piano, but she could never get it to look right.
Her mother hadn’t left her bed in nearly three weeks. It had taken almost an entire bottle of potassium bromide to sedate her. She’d thrown half of it up.
The sedative had left her incapable of speaking for several days. She was still lethargic and suffered tremors at night.
Since the attack, Madelyn had been allowed to drop her poorly executed façade regarding her schooling. Instead, Lionel agreed to search for a private tutor while the adults in her life tried to sort things out.
The fact was, aside from the side effects of her sedation, nobody could really find anything physically wrong with Mary Isler.
Madelyn twisted at her hair and bit her lip. A pang of guilt sprang at her inexplicably. Mary Isler hadn’t believed the story about the attack at dinner until her uncle Lionel had shown her the bruises on her daughter’s arm.
Lionel pushed past her in a frustrated march.
“What is this, Mary?” he thundered, throwing a stack of creamy envelopes down onto the bed. Mary’s head rolled around on her neck and her eyes stared up at him in a glazed stupor. “Nineteen. Nineteen godforsaken letters and not a word on any of them!”
Mary looked up at him with confused eyes, her jawline slack and her mouth hanging open. Slowly, realization crept in and the corners of her mouth curled up into a drunk-looking grin. “Ben, my Ben.” She reached forward and grabbed the top envelope like it was the first drink of water she’d seen in days. Weak and shaking, she tore it open and read the page.
Lionel clenched his teeth and tore at his hair. “Who the bloody hell is BEN?!”
“He’s coming!” She cried, elated. She clutched the parchment to her bosom and fell back dreamily into her pillow.
Lionel snatched the papers and tore at them, screaming profanities at every rip, until they fell to the floor in shredded bits. He turned on his heal and stomped out of the room having never once so much as seen his niece.
Madelyn clutched at her drawing journal for strength. Tentatively, she approached her mother’s bed.
“Maddie? Darling?” Mary Isler said, her eyes bright and unfocused. “Isn’t it wonderful, dear? Ben O’Maley will be coming soon! You liked Ben, Maddie, don’t you remember? You met him on the train. I wonder if we’ll have coffee like we did in car six?” Her voice dropped below a whisper and then she was sleeping again.
Madelyn waved a shaking hand in front of her mother’s face. Then, she slowly removed the parchment from her Mary’s hand.
A tear slipped down her cheek as she looked over it, towards her mother’s sleeping face.
There was nothing on the page.
Not a word.
Gray clouds slipped in as the summer dried up. For the next week, Mary Isler showed marked improvements in both her health and her psyche.
Within a day, she was out of bed and bustling about the guest rooms in Lionel’s house. She ordered her housekeepers to scrub at the wooden floorboards and to give the furniture a good go with some polish. She washed the linens and blankets herself. When it came time to hang them on the line, she hummed and whistled and smiled…as if she didn’t notice the chilly autumn wind whipping through her.
She made special instructions about what was to be served when Ben was to arrived and moved her cleaning frenzy throughout the rest of the house until a single speck of dust might have stuck out like a sore thumb.
Madelyn, unsure of what to make of her mother’s marked flip, returned to school that week.
On Tuesday morning, three days after Mary’s return to the world, she was singing a melody to herself as she swept the kitchen floor.
Lionel eyed her suspiciously over his deposition. His breakfast—which he hadn’t touched—had been prepared carefully and included freshly squeezed juice, perfectly sizzled bacon, honey drizzled over fruit, and freshly baked bread.
Today was the day that Mary Isler had begun cooking again.
“When Ben comes, he says he wants to bring you some Scotch, Lionel. He knows you love Scotch.”
How? How does he know I love Scotch?
Mary opened the door and swept her little pile out onto the walk. She continued chatting away as she tended to the dead flowers sitting in pots on the porch. “I think he said it was from the Spreyside? or Speyline? Something like that.
Speyside. She means the Speyside. If she must invent such things, she should at least get the region correct!
“He is bringing a gift for Maddie, too, but I don’t know what it is. He hasn’t said,” Mary continued, closing the door and straightening her apron. “What is it?”
Lionel had gone rigid. His jaw was set and his papers were clenched in his fists. “Stop it.”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“You can carry on about your friend Ben and his imaginary visit, but keep my niece out of it. She’s your daughter, Mary. What the devil is wrong with you? Prancing about, dangling a fake father figure in front of the poor girl when Frank’s not even cold yet!”
Mary tilted her head, confused, and clasped her hands together. “But, Ben isn’t fake. He sent another letter today.”
Lionel jumped up so fast he knocked his chair over. He fumbled, reaching for his pocket watch. “It’s 7 A.M. It’s 7 A.M.!! The post hasn’t even come yet.” He waved the watch in front of her, frightened that if he dropped the papers from his other clenched fist he might hit her.
Mary patiently reached into her apron pocket and pulled out another cream-colored envelope addressed to her. She unfolded it slowly and turned the letter around to show her brother. She raised her eyebrow as though she were making a point.
Lionel blinked. The paper was blank. He put the watch back into his vest pocket and walked out the door.
Halfway down the walk, he saw the shop keeper, John, heading down the road toward town. “John?” he heard himself ask in a shaky voice.
“Lionel? You don’t look well!” John said, concern drawn across his face.
“John, have you been to the post office yet today?”
John chuckled uncertainly. “Of course not, Lionel. It’s seven in the morning. The post hasn’t even come yet.”
Lionel nodded, rubbing his forehead with long fingers, his shoulders slumped. “No, of course not. Thank you, John.”
He made his way to the courthouse at a loss on what to do about Mary Isler.