Things go missing in the nursing home.
Helen’s weighted blanket. A letter from her late-husband. An abalone button. A cassette tape of crashing waves she bought at Acadia National Park after she stepped into the ocean for the first time, age fifty-two. A cassette player. A scratchy afghan knitted by she-forgets-who. A photo of herself as a child, mummy-wrapped in jackets and scarves, taken the winter when snow fell so hard it vanished the mailbox, the garden gate, the rhododendron bushes.
When Helen came to live in the nursing home, a few months ago now, the staff warned her. They said sometimes residents would get confused and wander away with other people’s belongings. Don’t worry, they said. It’s never malicious. So, Helen tried to prepare. She labeled her objects with a black Sharpie. HELEN. In large, all-caps, so even her roommate, half-blind Lois, could read it. Their doors didn’t lock, so she hid important objects between her mattress and bedframe, tucked under the edges of the fitted sheet.
Still, one by one, her items disappeared. She’d go for a slow walk around the building, or go to dinner with the other ladies in her hall, and she’d return to a blank feeling in her room and an empty space on the dresser or under the mattress.
It was never more than an annoyance until the day her rock disappeared. It wasn’t a valuable rock, but she’d had it since childhood. She’d found it in a creek when she was twelve or thirteen. A rock that fit perfectly in her palm and was almost completely smooth, except for one thin crack she’d pick at with her thumbnail. For nearly eight decades she’d managed to not lose it, to take it with her through the transitions in her life. She thought she’d die with it one day, its familiar weight in her pocket.
Helen noticed the rock missing the moment she returned to her room from lunch. It was just a feeling at first, a hollowness in her chest. When she shoved her hand inside the pillowcase where she kept it hidden, her fear was confirmed.
Helen couldn’t understand it. Who stole a rock from another person’s pillow?
She decided she would find it. Helen looked in the rec room, under the air hockey table and inside the cardboard boxes holding puzzle pieces. She looked in the television room, making sure to check between and under the couch cushions. She went to the dining hall, where the staff was still cleaning up lunch, where tables were decorated with vased flowers that looked real but smelled like nothing.
There was only one last place in the nursing home to search: the sunroom. No one liked going in the sunroom. One, it smelled like Florida. Two, it was where the parrot lived. When Helen thought about it, it was the perfect place to hide things you didn’t want found.
As Helen stepped into the sunroom, the parrot clamored beak-and-claw across his massive cage to greet her. The parrot’s name was Steve. On his cage, there was a sign that said, “Therapy Parrot on the Job,” which everyone thought must be a joke. The parrot was more likely to bite than to comfort. He was the type of parrot that was supposed to speak, but as far as Helen knew, never had. A couple weeks ago, someone had passed around an article during dinner about a Macaw that had just celebrated his 117th birthday. The article unsettled and depressed them. They didn’t like thinking about the fact that Steve would outlive them all, would probably still be rattling his bars and biting knuckles when they were nothing but ash in a box.
Helen shuffled around Steve’s cage. “Out with it, Steven,” she said, craning her neck to see into the shadows behind the potted plants. “Where’d they put it?”
Steve turned his bead-black eye in her direction and said nothing.
“Don’t be so withholding,” Helen chided.
She combed through the room, looking under every chair, under the leaves of every potted plant. She even scanned the bottom of the parrot’s cage, searching for the glint of something familiar amidst the bird shit and lost feathers. She was about to give up and move on when she noticed a door.
It was a white, shaker style door on the wall that paralleled the parking lot. She couldn’t remember ever noticing it before. Maybe it was a back door out of the nursing home. Maybe it led to a small supply closet. Maybe, she thought hopefully, that was where someone had chosen to hide her stolen things.
Helen stepped forward, put a hand on the knob.
Steve let out a wild parrot-scream and banged his beak against one of his bell toys.
“Shush,” she hissed over her shoulder. She paused, waiting for the sound of a staff member rushing in to interrupt her, to usher her away from her mission and back into the common area. When no one came, she pushed the door open. It creaked on its hinges.
She stepped through.
The door, just so you know, and Helen’s passage through it, is not a metaphor for death.
The door is real.
For the past few months, starting right before her move to the home, Helen’s mind would occasionally time travel. Never for more than a few seconds. And she always knew when it was happening. Sometimes it would bring things from the past into the present. Great-Aunt Maribel’s cigarette burning on her windowsill. Her husband in his Air Force uniform, leaving for the Sioux Falls Army Air Field, not looking back as he shut the door behind him. Her old Spaniel, Blaze, barking from another room. A chicken coop, strewn feathers moving with the breeze. An inherited perfume bottle, its stopper shaped like a ballerina. Tulip bulbs as round and warm as eggs passed from her mother’s hands to hers.
I’m telling you, the door was not like that.
The door is not a metaphor and the door is not a figment of Helen’s imagination. The door is real for her, and the door would be real for you, too. If you’d been there.
Helen’s palms hurt.
She was on her hands and knees on the other side of the door, which had shut behind her. She didn’t remember the door closing. She also didn’t remember falling.
Helen stood up slowly and brushed the dirt off her hands. She wasn’t in a supply closet like she’d expected, or in the parking lot. She was in a meadow surrounded by thick, coniferous trees. She could smell the sharp snap of pine. Bees buzzed out of sight, hidden by foxtails as tall as Helen’s hips. Though she couldn’t locate the sun, the sky was bright and blue.
This place was entirely unfamiliar.
Helen’s skin prickled with heat. She picked at her turtleneck and curled her toes inside her slippers. In the nursing home, she was always cold, no matter the season. She rolled up her sleeves and pushed her hair away from her neck.
She thought about what to do next.
Behind her, the door’s knob glinted in the bright light. It’d be so easy to go back. She was sure she wasn’t supposed to be here.
But she hadn’t accomplished her mission yet. And on the other side of the clearing, the trees parted slightly as though for a path. The shade of the forest looked as sweet as the deepest part of a creek. It made Helen’s mouth water, and before she was aware of making the decision to move towards it, her feet were carrying her.
The shade of the forest engulfed her. It smelled of chlorophyll and rot and new life. As Helen’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, a cabin took shape on the path ahead of her. A small cabin, made of roughly hewn logs, barely bigger than the room Helen shared back at the nursing home. One side of the cabin was missing a wall and opened to the forest. Helen could see dried herbs tied with string hanging from the ceiling. A cast-iron pot, as big as a laundry basket, balanced on a frame over blackened wood. Helen stepped closer, wanting to see what was inside.
“Hello?” A woman spoke from a cot on the other side of the room.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Helen said, quickly stepping back. She felt betrayed finding someone else here, in the forest. For a moment she’d believed it was all hers. “Are you staff? I was just looking for something I lost.”
The woman had white hair pulled into a bun. Uneven teeth. High cheekbones that made her eyes look sunken. She got out of the cot slowly, like she had to consider the movement of each muscle, each bone.
Finally, she settled herself in front of Helen. She squinted at her, up and down. “Well,” she exclaimed, “you’re just as old as I am.”
Helen didn’t mind being called old. For the most part, she’d enjoyed aging. She liked how age softened her expression. She liked when women in their thirties, just starting to feel the early edge of age, smiled at her in the grocery stores. She liked that being old meant she’d survived a lot. Sometimes she thought about how the only thing she hadn’t experienced yet was death, but that it couldn’t be any worse than some of the other things she’d endured.
As the woman continued examining Helen, Helen took the opportunity to look into the cast-iron pot.
In its belly, she could see some sprigs of rosemary, a handful of capless acorns. Also, there was an afghan. A button. A cassette tape. A folded piece of paper. A single, round stone.
“Oh,” she said. She didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved. Had this woman stolen her items or found them? She looked at the woman again, took in her clothes. She wore a long, beige, shapeless dress that stopped just above her thin, yellowing ankles. “You don’t work here, do you?” Helen said, now accusatory. “You don’t belong at the home.”
The woman smiled. “You don’t belong there either, Helen.” Her front teeth overlapped. She was missing a canine. When a wasp buzzed into the cabin and landed in her hair, she didn’t swat it away.
Helen wondered what was happening. Was this woman a thief? A squatter? She’d read about intruders who lived in people’s walls, their basements, for years, remaining undiscovered by only coming out at night. Taking one egg. One slice of bread. Things that would go unnoticed.
“Who are you? What is this place?” Helen asked. “I’ve never noticed it before.”
The woman smiled wider. “Helen, don’t lie. You know this place.”
Helen was about to protest, but as soon as the woman said it, she realized it was true. Or partially true. She didn’t know this place. But she knew parts of this place. These pine trees with their wide bases were the same she’d hidden beneath when she was a child playing hide and seek with her cousins and the neighbors’ kids. She’d kissed a boy for the first time under such a tree. She was fifteen. Afterwards, the skin on their arms was strange and unfamiliar, bumpy with the pattern of fallen pine needles. She’d run home, afraid her friends would see their matching patterns, and know what they’d done.
And this cabin. It wasn’t really a cabin. It was the shed, in the backyard of her first adult home in Muncy, Pennsylvania where she’d stored gardening equipment. She wondered what had become of her tomato garden. She wondered if tulips still bloomed. She wondered if anyone still put out a salt lick for the white-tailed deer. She’d rented the home by herself, which was unusual for a woman in those days. She’d relished waking up every morning to no one, to empty rooms that were only for her to fill.
Even this woman’s voice seemed suddenly familiar. The woman had an inflection that reminded Helen of friends she’d made in typing school. Friends who’d, like her, grown up in factory towns. Women whose brothers worked in the glass factories, sometimes came home with missing fingers. Women who’d endured cold winters, walked to school with ankles wet from slush and shoes white with road salt.
Helen shook her head. Rubbed her eyes. She started to reach for her things at the bottom of the pot, but the woman stopped her.
“These are the things you must sacrifice, if you are to stay and I am to leave.”
“Stay,” Helen repeated, not understanding.
The woman sighed. A wind blew, and there was the soft patter of pine needles hitting the room. When the woman spoke, her tone was softer than it was before, like a mother explaining something difficult to a child. “Helen, one day someone else will come to these woods, and it will be their turn to stay and your time to go. But that won’t be for a long time, not until you’re ready.”
Helen looked over her shoulder. On the other side of the clearing, she could still see the white door that led back to the nursing home. It was becoming fuzzy. Like something her eyes couldn’t focus on. She didn’t want to go back. She didn’t want the final home of her life to be a building full of strangers, didn’t want to pretend to be comforted by a parrot that wouldn’t even speak. If she had to die eventually, she’d rather do it here. Amongst the woodpeckers and the fungi growing steps up the trunks of the trees and the plants converting sunlight to sugar. She’d rather this be her final home.
The woman smiled and nodded. “Well then,” she said. She turned, as though to reach for something, and then suddenly she was gone. Vanished.
Helen blinked. She searched the room, walked outside and circled the cabin. Went back inside.
Her things—the blanket, the cassette, the letter, the stone—had gone, too.
She sat on the edge of the bed. When she lay down into it, the hollow in the center of the mattress perfectly fit the shape of her body. A breeze passed through the cabin, swinging the hanging herbs. She heard the spiders stepping along the edges of the shutters. A mouse scratched across the roof.
Helen got up out of bed.
There was much to do. She had a bunch of tomatoes, freshly picked from the garden, that needed washing. She had a chicken coop to repair before the martins came to steal the eggs. She had tulip bulbs to dig up before the frost came. So much to do. There would be time for sleep later.
Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and the collaborative collection, The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV Girls, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest judged by Chen Chen. Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in North American Review, Passages North, Necessary Fiction, Waxwing, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere.
Featured Artwork: IMAGINE Rabiah Al Adawiyah: Mortal pleasure. A temporary world. Imagine, whatever you will achieve, all merged into one without a purpose. Imagine, all dreams come true by themselves.