I close Anna’s door behind me. It’s too close to lunch to take her out and I can’t wait one more minute to tell her all that happened. I’m not supposed to shut the door, but it’s not a huge rule. I can’t risk talking to her with the door open, but with it closed, no one will hear a thing. They made the doors and walls soundproof, so that patients don’t hear each other at night.
“It’s me,” I say, kneeling in front of Anna’s chair. I must remember to get her a pair of glasses, even if she can only wear them around me. Her head is dropped and she has a slight pulse to upper body, repeatedly moving just an inch forward and back.
Her eyes are open, but she doesn’t make contact with mine, let alone answer. “Anna,” I say in a whisper. “I have to talk to you.”
Nothing. She doesn’t even look up. But I know she understands. Unless she took the pills today. Maybe with the pills, she can’t reply. “Anna,” I plead. “I found Bea. And Jake. And you were right, Bea helped Scottie!”
Again, nothing. I sigh. What can it be like to know what I’m saying, and not be able to respond? The idea tortures me. Seriously.
I turn to get her medicine bag, then put it on her lap. No response.
“Anna,” I plead, still softly, but with insistence. “I made a bowl break with my magic. Bea showed me how. But it was a huge mess with my Dad, and I have to…”
As if out of nowhere, I hear a toilet flush. Anna’s toilet. I look to the closed door, already ready to shoot myself for not checking. I hear the water faucet come on.
Oh, no. No, no, no. My gut takes a flying leap. You can hear through the bathroom door just fine. They want to be able to hear the patients though those doors. I should have looked.
Now Anna catches my eye with a stern look. I give her a look back that says Yeah, I get it now.
Immediately, I’m ready to lie. I just talk to Anna, I’ll say, like I talk to my cat Scottie. I’ve been looking for some friends and I found them and I wanted to tell my elderly confidant about it. They aren’t anyone important. Anna’s a great listener, even if she sometimes drools. Yes, I know she can’t understand me, but…
The door begins to open. My mind races through the options. A nurse? Dr. Garcia?
My gut drops at the next thought…Helene?
I watch to see the door open fully, revealing none of the above. It’s a guy. He’s about my age. Really, really cute. Dressed kind of strange, in all white, with a light blue scarf around his neck. Dark curls. Blue eyes. Impressive leather shoes, like the kind Dad wears on casual Fridays.
“Hi,” I say, flustered as I attempt to stand and back away from Anna at the same time.
“Hi,” he replies, looking at me, then at Anna, then back at me.
“I’m Julie, I help out here,” I say. “I take care of Anna…Mrs. Bayless sometimes. She listens to my problems, kind of lame I know, but…” My words taper off. I wasn’t expecting to lie to a guy my age. It’s harder.
“It’s nice of you,” he says. No introduction. No handshake. No smile. In fact, he looks nervous.
“Yeah, I like it. So, you know Mrs. Bayless?”
“I used to,” he says, uncommitted. He’s looking at me, but also around me. Sort of like Bea did when I first met her.
“Does she ever talk back?” he asks, looking at her medicine bag, then right into my eyes.
Now I’m really in it. I have to lie. Anna’s own eyes told me that.
“She babbles a lot,” I say, shrugging it off. “Sometimes there’s something that seems like words, but nobody really pays any attention. How did you know her?”
His eyes are really boring into mine now. “I’m wondering if we could talk somewhere? Go get lunch, maybe? Not here.”
“Sure,” I reply, shrugging again, like it’s no big deal that the second gorgeous guy in two days has appeared out of nowhere, this one asking me out within our first five minutes. “I was going to take Mrs. Bayless to lunch, but the staff can do that. I can walk with her after. Not like she’s going anywhere, right?”
I give a slight laugh, but immediately feel like a total jerk. I mean, Anna knows what I’m saying, even if she can’t respond. It’s gotta land pretty hard when someone you just helped so much starts joking about your life plight right in front of you.
“I could walk with you both,” he suggests, “after lunch.”
Well, there goes my talk. But I can’t exactly say no, I want to talk to her alone, now can I?
“That would be great. I’m sure she’d like that.” I raise my voice, like everyone does when they are talking to the patients here, just to play the game. “Wouldn’t you Mrs. Bayless?”
Of course, she offers no reply. Not even a grunt. Later, I will apologize with every fiber of my being.
“We can go sign out and…”
“Actually,” the guy says, “I was going to stop and see someone else, so why don’t I meet you outside the front door in, say, five minutes?”
Okay, so now he is lying. You can just tell. But why?
“Sounds good,” I reply, and watch him slip out the door.
It isn’t until he’s gone that I realize who he is. Michael. I don’t know how I know that. The idea just landed on me, and I’m utterly certain.
I bend down once again to Anna. “Can you talk now?” I ask.
Again she does not speak, just pulses, her head hung.
“Anna?” I ask. “I know you can hear me. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t think about the bathroom. I’ll be more careful next time, I swear.”
Anna says nothing. She doesn’t even look me in the eye. Pure guilt floods every cell of my body.
“That was Michael, wasn’t it?” I ask, thinking she might at least confirm this. “Your great-grandson.”
“Look, I have to talk to you,” I plead. “I found Bea, and..”
Anna again shoots me a look of warning.
“Okay, I’ll just wait. I guess we’ll be back for a walk after lunch.”
“Walkalone walkalone walkalone walkalone,” she says in a sudden spurt, babbling along with her head, which has gone from a pulse to a full out bob.
I hear her, but don’t understand. Am I to walk alone, as in not talk to Michael? Or walk alone meaning walk with her alone after lunch?
I’d ask, but the door is opening again.
“Julie!” Edna the nurse scolds. “You know this door isn’t supposed to be closed in the daytime unless Mrs. Bayless is being cared for by the staff.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say, slipping Anna’s medicine bag into my pocket so the nurse won’t see. “It must have closed behind me.”
Edna looks at the door, knowing full well those doors do not close on their own, but finding no real reason to get bent out of shape. “Just watch it in the future, okay? We don’t want Mrs. Bayless to need us and not have a way for us to know that.”
She’s talking down to me, like most adults do. Like I couldn’t tell them if I was in the room with her? But now more than ever, I have to let things like that slide.
“Sure,” I say. “Sorry. Wow, look at the time, I gotta go. Back after lunch for her walk…” I let my voice trail off, do a quick sign out, and practically run down the stairs to meet Michael.
He’s waiting for me, just like he said.
“I have a car, if you don’t mind riding with a stranger,” he says, smiling.
Actually, that was probably flirting. I mean, it could have been. My stomach does a little flip-flop, which helps the guilt about Anna just a tiny bit.
“If you tell me your name, you won’t be a stranger anymore,” I say, smiling back. Not flirting. Just smiling.
“You know who I am,” he says.
The biggest freakin chill runs up my spine. Yea, I know. But how does HE know I know?
“Michael,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, getting my door. Only now do I realize I’m getting into a Porsche. I look at him with one eye cocked, and he gives me another smile. Whatever.
He doesn’t say anything as he drives, so I just look at him from the corner of my eye. It’s funny, me in black tattered rags and him in some kind of European white suit. I think I heard a bit of an accent in his voice, too. But from where?
I look ahead as that question starts the tumble of my usual thousand questions. How clearly could he hear me? Could he make out the words? Does he know about Bea and Jake? He must, if he is Michael. What did he think of Anna’s medicine bag? Why did he want to talk to me alone? Why lie about seeing someone else before meeting me at the door? What doesn’t Anna want him along on our walk, or maybe even for me to be talking to him? A thousand questions I cannot ask. Well, I suppose I could ask what he heard.
I clear my throat. “How much did you hear, when you were in the bathroom?”
He looks at me with absolutely arresting eyes. “I wouldn’t have come out if you hadn’t mentioned Bea and Jake.”
“You were hiding?”
He looks at me cautiously, like he wonders if he can trust me, and then like he has no choice. “I couldn’t sign in. My Aunt Helene doesn’t know I’m here, or even that I know where Anna is now. She can’t know I visited her.”
“I surely won’t tell her.”
“Thank you,” he says like he really means it.
“So you know about the family…dysfunction?”
He laughs. It’s a beautiful sound, like a river rolling over rocks. I kind of check myself, thinking that sounds pretty lame and gushy. But really, that’s how it sounds.
“I am the family dysfunction,” he says.
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“It means I’m the reason my Great Aunt Anna is in there,” he says, his voice dropping down.
“She’s protecting me, and Jake too, I think, from Aunt Helene.”
It sounds like he knows pretty much everything I do. Maybe more. But I have to be sure. I don’t want Anna or Bea saying I’m the one who messed things up.
“Protecting you from what?”
He soundlessly swerves into the drive of the Northwaters restaurant, which I’ve been to a few times with Dad, but only at dinner. I didn’t even know they had a lunch. Goes right along with the Porsche, though.
He puts the car in park, undoes his seat belt, but then turns to face me in his seat. “I don’t know,” he says. “But I have a feeling you do.”
My mind is running in twelve directions at once. There’s too many ways for this to go, and too many ways to screw it up. But I can see Michael is asking for help.
I hesitate, my eyes boring into his this time.
I want to help him. I really do. But I also owe something to Anna, not to mention Bea and Jake. No, there is just now way to play this. I have to go with the truth, even if it’s limited.
“I think it would be best if you talk first,” I say.
He takes his own moment to ponder. “And then you’ll go talk to Anna, alone, to see what it’s okay to tell me?”
“Something like that,” is all I can say. Anything else would give too much away.
He pauses, then nods his agreement, then gets out of the car. Before I’ve figured out how to get out of my seat belt, he’s come around and opened my door. He offers me his hand, like a date would. I mean, like a really awesome boyfriend who was totally into me would.
It makes me think something that even three days ago I could not have imagined: That this could actually end up being the best summer of my life.