She stared at the ceiling. She had been tossing and turning, trying to find a comfortable position, determined to will sleep to overtake her . . . to no avail. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she heard the clock in her living room chime four times. She had thought to herself, “Four in the morning. Unbelievable” and tried once more to pound her pillow with her fist, pull the covers up over her ears, squeeze her eyes shut, and hope against hope that she would drift off to sleep. Finally, she opted to surrender. She rolled onto her back, kicked the sheet and blanket off her legs, and opted to stare wide-eyed at the ceiling.
She would have risen from her bed, prepared herself a snack, and gotten comfortable in front of the television. Wee-hours infomercials usually lulled her into unconsciousness. But tonight, of course, she was confined to her bedroom, afraid that even if she tiptoed into the kitchen, moving very quietly, her four-month-old nephew would awaken. Given that her sister had only succeeded in getting him to settle down and go to sleep less than three hours earlier, she dared not risk disturbing either one of them. She knew her sister was sleeping because she heard her snoring softly.
“Exhausted, no doubt,” she sighed as she considered the darkness of her room.
The evening’s events continuing playing out in her head like an unattended movie reel looping over and over in an abandoned theater. She had not been surprised when she answered the telephone and heard her sister’s frightened sobs.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing really,” she had lied. “What’s the matter? You sound horrible.” She picked up the timer and silenced it before it could interrupt their conversation in 45 more seconds. As she did so, she walked over to the oven and peeked in, calculating that the chocolate chip cookies would need to bake for another two minutes or so, and resetting the timer. Her Christmas cards, festive sheets of stationary, address book, and stamps were neatly organized on the kitchen table and the fire had was beginning to crackle and pop as the flames attacked the dried-out log she had just placed atop the ashes of its predecessor.
“I need you to come help me. We have to get out of the house.”
“Who has to get out of the house?”
“I need to take the baby and go. Paul’s not here. He went downtown. But before he left, it got pretty bad . . . ”
“Bad . . . how?”
“He was pretty drunk.” Her sister’s voice was barely a whisper. “After he left, I called his doctor.”
“He’s been seeing a psychiatrist.”
“Since when?” She again silenced the timer just as it was about to begin beeping. Cradling the phone between her left shoulder and ear, she removed the cookie sheet and began placing the hot cookies on a rack to cool. She was glad for the activity as it prevented her from sitting down and focusing fully on what her sister was saying.
“Oh, I think it’s been a couple of months. I’m not really sure. I found the doctor’s business card in his jacket so I called and spoke with him. He said . . .” Her sister’s voice trailed off as she struggled to compose herself.
One by one she piled the cookies on the cooling rack as she waited for her sister to continue.
“He said that there are signs of violence, so I should take the baby and leave. He recommended that I not be here when Paul gets home.”
“Swell,” she thought to herself, knowing that her plans for a quiet evening in front of the fire addressing Christmas cards, enjoying a hot toddy and freshly baked cookies, would have to wait for another time. “O.K., so what do you want me to do?”
“I was wondering if you could come and get us.”
Silence. She briefly pondered whether she could refuse this latest request, but knew that there was literally no one else to whom her troubled sister could turn for help.
“I suppose he took your car.”
“Yes. His car is in the shop.”
“Give me about fifteen minutes.” As she hung up the phone, she found herself again wondering how her older sister wound up in a disastrous marriage marked by alcohol, verbal and emotional abuse. She had been wondering for many months how long it would be before she received such a telephone call, but was relieved that at least the situation had not escalated into violence. Yet.
She knew that this night presented the opportunity she had been waiting for. Tonight she would help her sister walk away for good from her destructive, dead-end marriage.
But what if she refused?
“Hold down the fort, Charlie,” she said, patting the seat of the big cozy chair in front of the fireplace. Charlie, her beloved terrier, had been following her around the house as she tucked the Christmas cards back into the drawer of the secretary, turned off the oven, and put on her coat. He put his paws up on her knees and she bent down, picked him up, and gently placed him in the chair. It was their ritual. He would wait there until she returned.
“Love you, boy,” she told him as she lightly kissed the top of his head, turned, and walked to the garage.
To be continued . . .