The ambulance screamed out of the parking lot, lights flashing and siren wailing, two emergency techs inside worked in tandem, each doing their assigned tasks, hooking up the heart monitor, checking oxygen level, pupil response, starting IV fluid, administering oxygen. The man had a pulse now. He was beginning to pink up. The EMT slipped an O2 mask over the man’s head, dislodging his knit cap, showing full black wavy hair with an unusual patch of white at the temple as if he’d been touched by a dab of white paint. The EMT pulled the cap out from under his head and threw it to a bin marked BELONGINGS. “Come on bud. Keep it up. We’re with you.”
The dead man wore an oversized gray sweatshirt, and blue jeans. His clean-shaven but slackened face was pale and blood oozed from a small cut next to his eye; a pair of black-rimmed glasses lay nearby, and a dusty backpack rested over one shoulder as if thrown there by an angry acquaintance. Bystanders hovered next to the man who lay motionless outside the Walmart superstore.
As a nurse Marcia Owen never imagined she would use her CPR skills outside of a hospital.
She needed a defibrillator to restart the man’s heart. As she knelt down at his side, she yelled to a gum-chewing kid watching, “Get an AED.”
The kid’s mouth dropped open. He argued that he didn’t know where to get one, while Marcia lifted the man’s shirt and began the rhythmic compressions. Her short dark hair flopped over her eyes but she didn't stop.
“Walmart is right there,” she shouted, “they have to have one. Hurry up.”
The victim was a complete stranger and hadn’t given permission to be touched or have his bare chest pushed hard enough to risk breaking a rib. But he was near death and life is precious. She didn’t dither over saving him.
Moments later the defibrillator pads were in place, the robotic voice commanded, “Shock required. Do not touch the victim. Stand clear. Shock required.”
Marcia pressed the flashing light and an electric jolt, like a tiny bolt of lightning, shot through the man’s chest to restart the sputtering heart.
Marcia Owen walked to her car on legs that felt as weak as paper straws. Ten minutes earlier, she’d come upon the man lying on the sidewalk, not breathing and without a heartbeat. The day had begun under a solid cloud cover and got drearier with drizzle starting up. At least the rain held off.
Once behind the steering wheel, Marcia wrapped her arms around it and dissolved into tears for the stranger she’d saved. And for herself. For her little duchess. She could have saved her too. It had been a month already. It seemed like yesterday.
The child had strychnine in her blood according to the autopsy report. It doesn’t take much, the doctor said. A four-year-old puts things in her mouth, the doctor told her.
Marcia obsessively went over every minute of her daughter's last few days. She badgered the daycare people and blamed herself for letting Cassie out of her sight. Rat poison, the doctor had said, oftentimes contains strychnine. She must have gotten into it somewhere. Marcia couldn’t accept the idea that rat poison might be simply sitting around where a child could ‘get into it’.
"This is my baby girl," Marcia raged. "Someone needs to pay for this. That poison did not get there by itself. There is a wicked monster running around and must be stopped. I'll hang the lunatic myself," she screamed, wiping her swollen eyes.
Patches, Marcia's cat had not come home the night before Cassie died. Nor the next night. His absence puzzled Marcia, as if Patches knew to stay away. The morning of Cassie's burial, Marcia had another shock when her phone rang.
"Oh, no. Oh, no," she collapsed onto the sofa with Cassie's blue blankie in her hand. "Not Patches too."
It was a happy day for Marcia and her mother they called Nana. Cassie had been running around the backyard looking like a greeting card's curly-haired, angelic cherub, playing with her kitchen set, serving the cat and her baby doll. Nana visited for lunch. They had grilled chicken salad and a peanut butter-jam sandwich for Cassie.
“Come on inside, sweetie, lunchtime,” Nana called to Cassie.
Marcia helped Cassie into her booster chair and set napkins and cups on the table with the food. Patches nuzzled against Nana’s leg and purred. She lifted him onto her lap, stroking his deep tawny fur. A distinct garlic scent drifted in.
Nana said, “Oh, Marcia, smells like the garlic bread’s ready. Shall I get it from the oven?”
Marcia laughed. “You’re joking right?” Her mother had already begun to put down the cat. “What are you talking about Mom? There’s no garlic bread.”
“I certainly smell garlic. Kind of all of a sudden. Don’t you smell it?”
Marcia sniffed, moving toward her mother. “Now that you mention it, yes. I think it’s you,” she said laughing.
“Oh, no. It’s Patches,” Nana said. “What in the world? Do you feed him garlic?”
Marcia took the cat and held him up. “Phew, you do stink. Outside with you.”
She dropped the cat on the step beyond the door and at the same time, a car exhaust backfired, startling them. Patches bounded up a tall old oak tree. It sounded like a gunshot.
In the distance, a faded gray car, lopsided with broken springs, sped around the corner out of the parking lot.
Back inside at the table, Marcia kissed the top of her precious girl’s head. “Let’s finish lunch. I have a cherry cheesecake for dessert.”
“Ohh, Cassie, did you hear that? You want some cheesecake?” Nana asked.
Cassie shook her head. “It’s okay sweetie,” Marcia said. “We have cookies too. Want one?” Cassie didn't respond.
“Marcia, she looks tired. Why don’t I take her in for a story? You want to lay down with Nana and have a story? Pokie Little Puppy?” Cassie looked at her plate. The pink had gone from her cheeks. Nana carried the child to bed. It was a usual routine for her to nap after lunch.
Mortimer Shamus worked off hours for the Homeowners Association, picking up around the property, taking care to be out of sight as the manager had requested. The gig wasn’t difficult but didn’t put much dough in his pocket either. He was only twenty-five but he’d reverted to his old ways that he called mayhem-makin. Not enough to hurt anyone. Maybe just lame up a cat.
Earlier that day, he'd whistled softly, Glory, glory, hallelujah as he loosened the Styrofoam container of garlicky shrimp and set it on the ground behind the ancient oak tree.
He couldn’t help himself. That first day when he banged his car door into the shiny new Lexus parked too close to him; he giggled out loud as he strode up to his apartment. He did it and got away with it; a way to even up the score. From there, he welcomed any opportunity to create pandemonium. After this went on for a while, he needed more. It became like a game to him, trying to figure out the worst dirty deed he no could get away with.
The old gray Chevy rolled to the curb, popped a loud backfire, and stopped. Morty stepped out. He slumped to his one-room flat where he lived on the outskirts of town, across the tracks, near the airport. The neighborhood had put him off at first, but it was something he could afford on his lowly income. He’d been there two years already. His plan to upgrade fell through when he lost his maintenance job at the Mr. Steak restaurant. Seemed like he would never get ahead.
“A man can only take so much,” Morty said through gritted teeth. The pink slip crumpled under his fisted fingers. The squirrel next to his car scampered away after the balled pink paper ricocheted off its head.
Marcia Owen began her new position at the Mission Outreach as director and manager of supplying food, clothing, and job opportunities to those in need. An endowment had recently been received allowing money for advertising which Marcia Knew nothing about. She leaned on her elbows, head in hands, taking deep breaths. Maybe I should go back into nursing. At least then I’d know what I’m doing. Her green metal desk held a computer, a stack of time-worn manila folders, and a green blotter covered with doodles of mostly trees and cats.
The phone jingled. “Good morning, Marcia Owen speaking.”
An advertising company, a start-up, had offered to work for an affordable price.
She hired three more employees to take phone calls and enlist community assistance. signs were manufactured, distributed throughout the city. WE ARE HERE FOR YOU! YOU ARE NOT ALONE. CALL NOW. The signs went up all over town, even near Morty’s apartment, but he never saw it since it faced the opposite direction on the highway.
Morty earned his GED after dropping out of high school. He applied for the military but was disqualified due to a heart defect. He took unskilled jobs which lasted only a year or two.
At age forty, Marcia gave birth to a healthy baby girl, miracle of miracles! After a devastating late term miscarriage, she’d given up hope of ever becoming a mother. Baby Cassie was everything shed dreamed of—beautiful, happy, and bursting with life.
During his growing-up years with Auntie Harriet, Morty entertained himself with his magnifying glass. He followed ants or beetles with the hot sunbeam until the insect curled up in a ball and quit moving. The power he had over them felt good. He liked seeing them suffer. He reveled in creating gems out of the iridescent copper-colored scarab beetles by pulling off their legs.
He earned a reputation in the neighborhood as a troublemaker after he spray painted the pastor’s dog with red and white stripes. Morty thought it was a beautiful job, funny too. But between that and sharing vodka with his ten-year-old buddies, the neighborhood parents refused to allow their kids around Morty.
They got along well, Harriet and Morty, keeping each other company at dinner. Morty always wondered about the voices she claimed to hear. He didn't care too much that he couldn't hear them, instead, he pretended they were just voices that Auntie could hear and he could not. To him, it was a game. Pretending was something he did very well. Sometimes they would sing together when she could recall the words. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was his favorite; he liked singing it real loud.
The neighbors referred to her as the spinster and fretted over her ability to mother a child. Harriet seemed older than her years, shriveled and pale, gray-streaked hair. She lived in a two-bedroom house, inherited from her parents. She kept up with it, mopping on Tuesdays, bathroom on Wednesdays. The television blared constantly. She seemed to have no social connections but could be heard outside when the windows were open in summer, conversing with the television as if her TV was a Zoom conference.
It was an unusually quick adoption. She had no experience with kids, yet she vowed to raise the child in God’s light. She would be the boy’s Auntie, God told her. And when the state provided funding for Morty’s care with a generous stipend, Harriet thanked the Lord for her blessings.
God spoke to her right after her fiftieth birthday, through Anderson Cooper on the news program. He said, "This little boy deserves a good home. His parents' decades long prison sentences mean that he will spend his childhood in foster care. Harriet, I'm pleased to announce, this boy, Morty will be your son. Call the number on your screen. Morty is waiting for you."
He was such a beautiful little boy with all that curly black hair and the patch of white near his temple. God whispered in Harriet’s ear, the angels touched him just for you.