***August 26, 2022***
Who knew that when she was a kindergartener trying so hard to raise a bean seed at PS 121 that more than fifty years later she'd be chopping plants down? Not to mention Miss Rossini would get a big kick out of it because her resulting bean plant was the sorriest piece of greenery ever seen.
Alexandra Eames was at the far end of the back yard with the cordless hedge clippers, taming the bittersweet plants along the chain-link fence into some semblance of order. Clouds had been gathering throughout the already humid August morning; now it was sticky and growing darker; she'd come out specifically because it was cloudy and didn't want to slather herself with sunblock. She was just completing the final bush, wielding the clippers as if she were an expert of years rather than someone who'd learned to use them only two weeks earlier, and stopped to regard her work.
"You're not supposed to trim those in summer," came her husband's amused voice from behind her.
Perspiring freely, little scraps of leaves and twigs still scattered on her person, she wheeled. "Well, since neither of us did it in the winter when we were supposed to, I'm now trying to beat them back. Mrs. Krentz is worried that they'll start invading her yard."
Robert Goren said mildly, "They don't call bittersweet 'invasive' for nothing. Left alone those bushes could kill a tree."
"And Mrs. Krentz loves her trees. Besides, I need the exercise. Do you know how much weight I've gained in the past ten months?"
"Fine with me," Bobby said with a small smile, arms crossed in front of him.
She made a face. "It's not 'fine' that I'm fat."
"Not true, and it's 'fine" because when I saw you last October...I was afraid...that you were sick. I never mentioned it...but I was worried about you." He smiled and stepped forward, looking down at her slight body, stroking her cheek with his left thumb. "Now your face has color, you've lost the stress around your eyes, and you look happy."
She flushed. "I am happy. You make me happy," she said simply, then regarded him, looking cool and collected in a clean hunter green polo shirt that was filled nicely with his broad shoulders, tucked into blue jeans. "Done with work for the day?"
"I'm almost finished with the assignment, but taking a break. Narcissists, both of them, but no challenge to speak of."
"Be careful what you wish for. Mark Ford Bradys and Nicole Wallaces are unwelcome here," she answered darkly. "This is interstate...what? Smuggling?"
"Willful removal of Native antiquities. Seneca ceremonial cloaks and a 300-year-old carved fish." He added, eyes darkening, "Not only are they transporting items with cultural and emotional value and don't give a damn, they don't seem to even care about the monetary value of what they're stealing. To these two, it's more about giving someone the bird. Tomorrow I'll turn in my report and let law enforcement supply the gilded cage."
A grin was the reward for his wordplay. "Good for you. Taking the afternoon off?"
"Thought I'd go out to the hospital," he said. "Profiling selfish people makes me want to visit someone decent."
"Are you taking Sam?"
"As soon as I give him a quick brush out," and then he regarded her speculatively. "Did you want to come?"
She considered. Bobby had been taking their big tricolor collie, who had earned his therapy dog certificate in early May, regularly to the Veteran's Hospital between Waterbury and Naugatuck on Thursdays. She'd been using that time to work out final problems with her manuscript for the past few weeks and hadn't accompanied him, but she was still debating over some requested passages from her editor and needed to clear her head, hence her assault of the bittersweet.
"If you can wait for me to shower and look less like I'm undergoing jungle commando training," she responded, and he laughed, retrieving the clippers from her to return to the basement and waving her toward the house. Once those were stored away, he waited for her on the back porch, brushing Sam from nose to tail tip, fluffing out the feathers on his legs, and then buckling on his scarlet therapy dog vest. When Sam saw the vest, his tail turned into a fan; he knew very well what it meant and where he was headed.
"Next thing you know you'll enter him in a dog show," Alex said, amused, tossing him his car keys, then locking the back door. She was showered and tidy again, her eyes lightly sketched with mascara and eye shadow, face sporting just a hint of blush and lipstick, in a summer-weight blue chambray blouse and grey capri pants, her feet in silver-tone sandals; his eyes flicked to her right wrist to note the bracelet he had given her on New Year's Eve back in place after being carefully removed for yard work, and he smiled. Cradled in her left arm was a little blue carry box about a foot long, eight inches wide and seven inches tall, hard plastic at the bottom and metal-barred at the top, and from his seat on a horizontal perch in the interior her little white-and-grey parakeet Bandit was staring out at the big green world with eager black eyes. When a sparrow twittered from the maple tree nearby, Bandit burst into a volley of excited chirps in return.
"Last time I came with you," she said, before he could ask, "I remember that a couple of the patients were nervous about Sam's size. I thought Bandit might be more to some people's liking." She added lightly. "Do you think they'll allow him in without an official vest?"
"Mr. Flirt? They'll probably pass him through and leave us cooling our heels in the hall." Bobby lowered his face over the carry box, and instead of being cowed, Bandit stretched his neck and his beak probed between the bars so he could nibble on the hairs of his beard. "I know what you're up to, buddy."
"Hi!" Bandit returned in Alex's voice.
Alex laughed, then Sam was bundled into the back seat of Bobby's Camaro and she took the passenger seat with the carry box balanced on her knees. Once out of the driveway and then at the corner of Courant and Main, he turned left toward Southbury, but instead of heading eastbound on I-84 toward Waterbury, he bore left on Main Street.
"You must have your mind still on your case," she said lightly as he made the turn. "This isn't the way to the VA hospital."
"They're all 'the hospital' to me," he said, offhand. "I'm not going to the VA, I'm going to St. Bernard's."
He could practically feel the temperature of the car drop twenty degrees as Alex stiffened next to him. "The...hospice? Why would you want to do that?"
A frisson of memory made him wary. There was an anger underlying her questionand fear beneath thatthat he'd only heard once before: when she'd chewed him out when she'd discovered he'd gone undercover. "I-I've done it before," he managed.
"Intruding on people while they're dying?" she asked incredulously.
The flashback was immediate and as vivid in his memory as it had been the first time. He could still see her stony and implacable expression and hear the words branded into his brain.
"I get it. You're the genius; I just carry your water... All your wounds are self-inflicted."
There was a driveway that led to a deserted business just beyond the pizza parlor and he nosed the Camaro into it, hitting the brake with a jolt that made a puzzled Sam sit up from his prone position on the back seat. Alex grabbed at Bandit's carry box and barked, "Bobby, what the hell-"
He retorted, "That's what I want to know!"
"I asked a simple question," she said testily. "Why do you want to bother dying people?"
Only then did she notice his tremor, and his voice was brittle when he asked, "Alex, what's going on? Why are you angry with me?"
"Because you don't"
"I've already said I've done this before, a couple of times," he repeated. "I've come home and told you about it."
"I thought you were at the VA."
Bandit, who had been happily fluffed and burbling throughout the ride, was suddenly staring wide-eyed, feathers flattened, at both of them, and they could hear Sam panting in the back seat. He said stiffly, "Please don't use that voice."
"The one you used on me after Stoat" He couldn't finish.
Oh, God, she thought, then said aloud, apologetic, "I didn't mean it to sound like that." Even in her own distress she knew it was the one thing that he couldn't bear, the one thing left she could do that would devastate him. They had needed one long session with Dr. Chaudry right after their wedding, triggered by Nicole's greeting card and a trivial dispute, where they'd hashed the whole situation out again and she had learned several things she had not known earlier. "Bobby...I'm sorry. I'm"
He swallowed visibly, then stated, "You're angry that I visit patients at the hospice. Why?"
"Because it's an intrusion. They're dying. They want to be alone with their grief"
He finally met her eyes, puzzled. "But...they all aren't...Eames, your mother was in hospice care. Surely you know"
"It's how I know," she said fiercely, "that it's for the dying and they want some peace"
"But," he said, still confused, "they're all not in extremis. That's not what hospice is for."
"And I suppose now you're going to lecture me about what it is for," and the post-Stoat voice was back before she realized it.
"No," he said finally, in a flat voice following a pause, "I do not intend to inflict any kind of lecture on you. We can turn around here and I will take you and Bandit home."
Now she could see the smoldering anger being held at bay, the kind he'd mostly kept under wraps since she had reappeared in his life, and realized she had badly bruised him just as he had her. At one time he would have lost his temper, but he only collected himself for a few minutes, then said, low, "Hospice isn't about death. It's about quality of life when there's nothing left that medicine can help with." A flicker of pain crossed his face. "I would have l-lived on skid row and bought my clothes from thrift shops to be able to af-afford that 5K treatment for my mom. Instead she chose hospiceof her own accord; she was clear-minded when she did it. They gave her pain meds, Father Carlito would come daily to talk with her, there was a therapy...cat...seriously, a cat, they call it a ragdoll, a big calico, and it was like a stuffed animalwould lie in my mom's arms and just purr and she'd smile." He smiled reflectively thinking about it. "She chose...the best thing, not all pumped full with drugs that might not work."
She was hunched up over Bandit's carry box and he looked at her, anger gone as he noticed her discomfort. "But you knew this, Alex, your mom was in hospice, even if only a few days"
Alex said shortly, "It was over a month."
Her mother had suffered a stroke, affecting her speech and her left side, what was it, the third year they had been partners? Bobby remembered Alex taking time off, then only snippets of info were allowed releaseshe hadn't been forthcoming and he had no wish to push her: transfer to rehab, finally home with a visiting nurse. She, according to terse Eames news blips, had been fine for six months, her mobility even began to improveand then everything collapsed at once, domino style. Elizabeth Eames had died while he was away at a mandatory training seminar, and by the time he'd returned Alex was already back to work. When he expressed his condolences and apologized for not being there to support her, Alex had simply turned shuttered brown eyes on him and murmured about it being for the best and brooked no further discussion of the matter.
"I didn't know. I would have...um...covered for you if you wanted to visit...if you had asked, I'd have been glad"
"I used to call her every night," Alex said shortly, "but I could never visit. I could barely drive past the place. Not until the day she died. I...I couldn't see her like that...in that place"
Anger not at another then, but at self, a feeling he knew intimately. He reached out, touched her arm. "You always talked about your dad," he said, voice gentle. "Not a lot about your mother. You two were...okay?"
Holly Lewin, her editor at Hastings House, had just recently made similar comment about her mother's virtual absence in her manuscript. It was one of the things she'd been chewing on as she hacked away bittersweet branches.
She said, head still bowed, eyes curtained by her hair, "We were. Sure, we had a few disagreements when I got older and ornery. But Mom was our rock." She gave a quiet sniff. "We always knew, of course, that Dad could be hurt in the line of dutywe were NYPD kids, after all. When we were little, if Dad didn't show up right away after his shift, Mom always kept it upbeat. She knew he might be hurt, or dead, but she'd quiet us when we said "where's Daddy?" once too often; would tell us, 'Your dad works hard. He's probably out for a beer with his buddies. We have to allow him that. He sees some awful things on the street.' Sometimes it was just that: he and his buds were at the local tap. Or sometimes he had extra paperwork and he'd forget to call to say he'd be late because he figured he'd be done in a half hour." She snorted. "He was a two-finger typist. Not a chance."
Bobby's smile quirked, and he pushed her hair back to brush her face with his fingers.
"And the few times he did get hurt," she finished, "they'd conspire; he'd wait a few days, until the gunshot wound or the knife slash had started to heal, and then Mom would let us see it. They'd both say 'See, nothing at all,' and Dad would joke about it despite the pain. They tried so hard not to frighten us, even though we knew the score. And after all that pretending that 'nothing' was wrong,' Mom still tried like hell to talk me out of the NYPD. She even tried to convince me that if I wanted to do something in law enforcement, I should become an attorney. Me! Can you see me as a lawyer, all dressed up like Ron Carver every day?"
"I can see you doing anything you wanted, Eames," he said mildly. "I never thought you were afraid of anything."
"That's love talking," she retorted, but she colored a little. "Oh, sure, I could do anything...anything but visit Mom in hospice."
Bandit suddenly fluffed up and tweedled, then said "You're such a bird."
Alex laughed with tears in her eyes.
"We're almost there, so don't go home," she said to Bobby. "I'll walk around the grounds. I've driven past it plenty of timesit's a pretty place. But...I don't think I can come in."
"So Sam and I go enjoy the air-conditioning while you and Bandit pant in the August heat? Can't do that." He laid a hand on her shoulder. "It'll be all right. Let me walk you through it."
St. Bernard's Veteran's Administration Hospice was a few miles further on Main Street, near the Russian church, in a building formerly used by a small, exclusive prep school, Hopkins Hall, and donations and a foundation kept the grounds almost as they were during the school's era. There was a small amphitheater where senior students had once put on plays and where, on summer nights, amateur bands still made music for the residents, a picnic area, a garden, and even working tennis courts. There were, in fact, two people playing tennis on the court when they arrived, and an older man, thin and bald, working out with his racket and an automatic ball pitcher.
The parking lot was only a quarter full and Bobby parked as close as possible to the entrance. Sam stood up the moment they pulled into the space, tail waving like a flag in a strong breeze, fur flicking in Alex's face. "Sam, stop"
"Sam, sit," Bobby reproved, then popped out of his seat to open the door for Alex before she could reach for the handle. "You're carrying precious cargo there," he said in response to her raised brows, and she glanced down at Bandit, who was now craning his neck to see what lay beyond, then smiled, and said "He thanks you," as she emerged. Sam reversed himself in the back seat and came squeezing out before Bobby could tip the seat forward, panting happily. Bobby took his leash in his right hand, offering his left to Alex, who was regarding the colonnaded doorway with doubtful eyes. "May I?"
With an expression of both trust and apprehension, she took his arm and they walked into the building.
You could see the faded glory of the former prep school in the lobby area, where gloss-white painted crown molding and vintage beadboard over a polished stone floor contrasted with a plain paint job of pale daffodil yellow where there had formerly been wallpaper. At left, older but still well-kept armchairs circled tables in a little meeting area decorated with framed paintings and a few vases of artificial flowers, with a fireplace at the far end displaying brilliant scarlet and orange dahlias in a trug. Bobby whispered that the paintings in the lobby were done by some of the residents.
Centered in the lobby was a more modern check-in desk of the most basic of cream-and-eggshell modular furniture, with clear plastic shields installed after the COVID pandemic and bright computer screens sprouting around the edges. The counters, however, were enlivened by containers of artificial sunflowers, and the receptionist on duty, a slim man with silvering dark curly hair and bronzed skin, looked up as they walked in, then smiled in welcome, rising.
"Hi, Bobby, hi, Sam!" he said. Alex could read his name tag, Javier Sandoval. "Long time, no see. Is this the amazing Ms. Eames we've heard so much about?"
"She is," Bobby said, amused. "Did you expect me to bring someone else?"
"Nope," and then Sandoval peered at the box. Bandit stood up straight and stared at him in return, then relaxed, ruffling his feathers. "Hi!" he said, and Sandoval laughed.
"He has a small, but solid vocabulary," Alex said, a smile flickering on her lips, then extended her hand. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Sandoval. It's Alex, please."
"Pleased to meet you, too, Alex. Call me Javi. And this lil' guy?"
"Bandit." Here the budgie kissed, and she chuckled. "He's a people person."
"I see." And then Sandoval sobered. "Bobby, you remember Gil Medowi?"
Bobby straightened, his face concerned. "Yeahthings goin' bad for him?"
Sandoval shook his head. "And he knows it. I think he might need your brand of company today."
"Room 203, right?"
Sandoval nodded, and Bobby turned to her, only to have Alex shoo him with her hand. "Go on."
He tilted his head at her and from his sit position, Sam copied him so nearly perfectly that she flashed a grin, then said, "Go on. It's okay." He shrugged and headed for the elevators, Sam neatly heeling at his left side.
Alex told Sandoval, "I was hoping to walk outside for a little bit. This one," and she eyed Bandit fondly, "likes to talk to his wild cousins."
Sandoval pointed down the hall. "Straight through. There are doors out back to take you to our Quiet Garden. There's a covered pergola and Adirondak chairs."
"Thank you." The place was serene, but Alex was fighting an urge to flee. The few memories from her mother's stay at a hospice were fragmentary, but if she concentrated hard enough, she could remember a pale-green room with soft lights and abstract flower paintings. Her mother had originally begun hospice service at home, but Elizabeth's condition had worsened until she required a dedicated residence where she could be quietly monitored, given pain meds, oxygen. On her final day, her dad and Lizzie and Steve and Jack and Patty had been gathered around the bed, and Mom...she looked okay. Alex had feared she'd be fighting pain, but she simply looked tiny in the bedElizabeth Cochran Eames, who appeared ten feet tall when she was angry!her face as unruffled as it was on the nights she told the kids Johnny was just at the bar with some friends. And her face had lit up when Alex approached, a small soft smile.
"Oh, Mom..." she murmured to herself, but nodded to Sandoval, and, lifting Bandit's carry box, made her way down the lengthy hallway. This took her past the first floor rooms, and when she passed the open door of an empty chamber, she was curious enough to approach and look inside. St. Bernard's was not an expensive venue, but by dint of effort, the room had been given simple homelike touches through volunteers and donations: while it included a hospital bed and all the requisite plugs, it also contained plain, wooden furniture including a bureau with drawers and a little desk, a flat panel television mounted on the wall, closet with a regular wooden door instead of a hospital cabinet, and paint-by-number oils of puppies and kittens scattered on the walls. In the far corner was an oversized bronze-gold armchair, a zig-zag green-and-yellow crocheted afghan thrown casually over the back. She had to admit that it tried hard not to look institutional; there were even USB fixtures behind the bed, presumably so you could plug in phones or tablets or music players.
There were several more rooms before reaching the exit: half had closed doors, but three had them slightly ajar. In one room two men were talking above what sounded like the score of a superhero film, one triumphantly saying "Attaboy, Cap!" One of the hospice employees was standing in the doorway of the next, chatting with the occupant about the previous night's Red Sox game; and in the third she could hear voices that sounded almost Spanish, but not quitePortuguese, perhaps, or Catalan?laughing heartily.
Alex looked down at Bandit, who rode trustingly in her arms. "I don't know, little bug, if I'd be able to laugh somewhere like this." But she wonderedwas that the atmosphere she had missed in the month before her mother died? Not mourning, not sorrow, but joy in shared company? Maybe even happy tales of the past?
When she pushed her way out the rear doors, the renewed humidity almost took her breath away. She crossed the few feet of concrete pavement until she was under the pergola and on the grass. It was indeed shaded, but, with the heavily clouded sky and still air, not much cooler. She whiled away a few minutes reading the plaque set in front, dedicating the building to the original St. Bernard Hospice on the pass through the Swiss Alps.
It would certainly be a lot cooler there, Alex decided enviously, and sat down in one of the Adirondak chairs. After fifteen minutes she was as soaked to the skin with perspiration as she had been after pruning bittersweet, and thunder was ominously growling in the distance.
The last straw was when Bandit lifted his wings, not opening them as if to fly, but rather shrugging backward, which was a sign he was overheating. She agreed silently with him.
"We'll sit up near the registration desk," she told the budgie, and abandoned the Quiet Garden to re-enter the building.
A bright yellow door poster that she'd missed on her exit from the hospice reminded staff and residents of an upcoming autumn festival in three weeks. Once back inside, she passed two more closed doors, then a large framed bulletin board labeled "Our Friends Not Forgotten," filled with overlapping photographs thumbtacked down that stuck out past the frame on all sides. She lingered only briefly: the patients pictured ranged from the elderly to children, and one little girl with big dark eyes and dark hair in braids reminded Alex so much of Ana Serrano that she had to abandon her perusal, heart hammering, eyes fixed on the distant registration desk instead. But she accelerated so quickly she nearly stepped out of one of her sandals. She had stopped to adjust it, juggling the carry box so not to upset Bandit, when a throaty voice called, "Excuse me, ma'am, but what are you carrying? Is it a mouse?"
Alex, startled, looked through an open door at another homey room, this one painted the pale daffodil yellow of the lobby, and the pictures on the wall were beautiful prints of birds: a pair of titmice, a cheeky chickadee, an upside-down nuthatch. The oversized brown armchair (had a local furniture store had donated all their unwanted models?) was pulled next to the bed, and the afghan this time was of multicolor granny squares, as if there were a whole cadre of Viola Perrinos crocheting them, with a few books stacked in the chair's seat. A pair of small, pink fuzzy slippers were next to the foot of the bed, and the small person that went with them was in the bed, a book open on her lap. The girl was very thin, with black hair clipped close, her skin faded chestnut, an oxygen cannula tucked under her nose. Like Alex, she wore a little chain on her neck with a cross upon on it.
"It's a bird," Alex said, and held the carry box up.
Bandit, as she had told Sandoval, was a "people person," and at once the little budgie was alert, giving a calling chirp as he peered through the bars.
The girl smiled, brightening her hollow-cheeked face. "It's a parakeet, isn't it? May I see her? Or are you on the way to visit someone?"
"No," Alex responded. "I was just...looking around."
She carried Bandit into the room, which was filled with a spicy scent coming from a bowl of cinnamon sticks and cloves on the top of the bureau. The television was on, very low, tuned to Buzzr. Now that Alex was in the room she could see that the "child" was more a teenager, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, but small for her age. She approached the bed, and Bandit hopped as well as he could on his lame leg and tweedled.
"Oh, she's pretty!" the girl said admiringly. "I've only seen the green and yellow kind, or the blue and white ones."
Here Alex was in safe territory. "It's a color mutation called 'harlequin pied.' I'd never seen one with white and grey, though, until I found him. Usually the other color with the white is blue. His name is Bandit, for the mask, of course."
"Sorry, Bandit. I didn't mean to insult your manhood." She bent her head over the box and when she leaned forward Alex could see the chemo port at the top of her chest. Then the girl glanced back up. "I'm Kendra Cloman, by the way."
"I'm Alexandra Eames."
Kendra brightened. "You're Bob Goren's wife! He talks about you all the time. I love when he and Sam come by."
"So I hear," Alex said. "He's upstairs with a Mr. Medowi."
The girl bowed her head. "I heard about him this morningthrough the grapevine. He's not doing very well. I think he's going to be transferred to the quiet ward this evening." When Alex looked puzzled, she added, "You know, where they call in the priest or the minister or whatever for you." She looked thoughtful. "I suppose someday they'll be passing that word about me."
Alex felt her throat constrict and her feelings must have shown clearly on her face, because Kendra said hastily, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to shock you. But what am I gonna do? Dad always said we had to face facts in our lives. And I'm no way like those angelic girls in the books my grandma used to read, the 'golden haired little one' who's dying of 'consumption' or whatever-the-hell who goes up to heaven with hymns on her lips. I've cried a lot to my mom and my aunt, and sometimes I yell. Dr. Singhhe's my counselorsays that's fineI can yell all I like." She wrinkled her nose. "I don't like to yell. You believe in angels and all that heaven stuff?"
It was such an abrupt turn Alex didn't know what to say at first, then she answered truthfully, "The long robes and the harps and the choir eternal? Not...really."
Kestra heaved a sigh. "Oh, good. I feel like I'm letting down my grandma when I don't. She's Baptist and goes on about that choir eternal."
"I read somewhere once," Alex added, sitting at the edge of the armchair with Bandit's carry box balanced on her knees, "that heaven might be different depending on what you love. Mine would be with family and friends and pets; maybe some great crime novels and biographies. I know Bobby's heaven would have an endless library. And a friend of mine crochetsI'm sure her heaven is filled with yarn and crochet hooks and patterns."
Kendra nodded. "I like that. Individualized heavens. I'd have my family, there, too. And birds. I want birds there; I love birdsI do the backyard bird count every year." She frowned. "Did, anyway. Heaven like that, it would be easier to take it on the chin." She flicked eyes at Alex. "That's what my dad always said when he was deployed, or when we had to bear up to something hard. 'Take it on the chin.'"
It sounded much like her own father. "So your Dad's in the Army?" Alex asked, leaning against the side of the bed, watching Kendra look longingly at Bandit. With a smile she set the carry box on the girl's lap, and after a few minutes the small bird was sitting contentedly on his good leg, the other tucked up, fluffed, grinding his beak, so that the teen asked, "What's he doing?"
"He's showing you he's calm and content. He likes you."
"Awwww. Sweet baby." Then the girl looked back at Alex. "Dad was in the Army. Lieutenant Colonel Philip K. Cloman. That's how I got to come here." She paused. "An IED got him when I was ten."
Alex's throat constricted again. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks. It doesn't hurt as much as it used to, except in the summer. Dad loved summerwhen he was off-duty we'd do all sorts of crazy things come summer: rock climbing, body surfing, hang gliding, ziplining. He was somethin' else." Then she looked reflective. "Dad died right before my little brother was born. Never even got to see him, except for the sonogram. Never thought it was fair." Kendra sighed. "That's why my mom and aunt aren't here. One of them usually is. Kalon starts real school tomorrow, kindergarten, and they took him out for ice cream. Wanna see his picture?"
Here she pulled out an iPhone, and in a minute had revealed a beaming kindergartener wearing a purple T-shirt with a cartoon triceratops on the front, blue jeans, and rainbow-colored sneakers. "K's a sharp dresser," she added with a grin.
"He is!" Alex said with a smile, recalling her nephew Eddie at that age, with that same enthusiastic smile welcoming the world. Heck, her mom had a photo like that of her first day at PS 121. Dress codes were different thenshe was in a little A-line flowered print dress with a white lace collar and black patent-leather shoes with pink ankle socks, but it was the same grin. At that age the world was a big wide blazing miracle, full of wonders. Then you grew up, and the people who kept you safe needed to be kept safe themselves.
Sometimes you couldn't keep them safe.
"I sure hope the world gets better before he graduates high school," Kendra said, frowning. "You read Facebook, Twitter, stuff like that?"
"Lots of messed up people out there," the girl said, troubled. "I don't want K getting into...well, shit, you know."
"Not him or any of the other kindergarteners," Alex said in a heartfelt voice.
Kendra's head bent over Bandit's box again. She had inserted her bone-thin pinky between the bars of the cage, but she was a few millimeters short of being able to touch the soft, puffed white feathers. "I sure wish I could hold him."
Alex said regretfully, "I'd let him out, but someone might open the door..."
Kendra widened her eyes. "Oh, no! That would be scary."
After a few seconds of quiet, Alex said suddenly, "Here, you hold the box. What's the charge nurse's name?"
"Nancy," the girl said with puzzlement.
Alex disappeared for a few minutes, then returned to tuck the one straight-backed chair in the room under the doorknob. Then she gave Kendra a smile. "I got Nancy to write a big note on the door that says 'Bird loose in room. DO NOT OPEN.' The chair's insurance."
Now she surveyed the room to make sure there was nothing to endanger Bandit, then Kendra watched with wonder as Alex reached into the carry box and captured the little bird in her right hand, setting him on her extended left palm. She expected him to beat his wings and fly the moment she loosed her grip, but he simply ruffled his feathers before he sat placidly on Alex's hand, tweedling a few soft notes. She was as astonished as Kendra was pleased, the latter's mouth dropping in a soft O.
"Hold out two fingers instead of one, because of his foot, like this," demonstrating to Kendra two parallel fingers held horizontal in front of her, "and put it right under his chest." Kendra swallowed hard and did so, and Bandit stepped, unperturbed, on the fingers, standing up proudly and giving a little kiss.
"Hi!" he announced, and Kendra laughed. "What happened to his foot?"
"Raised in too small a nest box, we think. His brothers and sisters sat on him." Alex extended a forefinger just next to the bird's head, and he obligingly fluffed his head and let her scratch under the earhole hidden under the feathers of his "mask." Kendra watched with glowing eyes, and when Alex withdrew her finger, she nodded at Kendra, who tried it herself. Once again, Bandit fluffed, and then began to emit soft little sounds, "chirbles" Alex called them, budgie song.
It was like a magic spell; she continued watching the girl's delight and the bird's acceptance as minutes ticked by, until there was a soft knock at the door and Bobby's "Alex?" Bandit cocked his head, then continued burbling quietly with Kendra giving him tender scratches. Alex tiptoed to the door, removed the chair, opened it a crack. "Hurry!" she whispered.
She had ceased wondering how Bobby moved so quickly despite his size; he and Sam had slipped inside in what seemed like a second.
"Look," she said, still spellbound. "He didn't even try to fly."
Bobby put his arm around her shoulders as they watched the interaction of girl and bird, and a moment later she'd pulled out her phone and started taking a video of the scene. Kendra murmured, "Who's a pretty little man, huh, Bandit?" and the bird obliged by putting his head at full tilt and allowing her to gently scratch deep into the feathers and down under his beak. "You're so soft, little bird. Like the teddy bear I had when I was little. Plush parakeet."
"Good boy!" Bandit intoned in a satisfied voice.
Bobby said softly, "Bandit is an old soul."
A few minutes later a soft rap came on the door, accompanied by the voice of Nancy the charge nurse. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but it's time for Kendra's meds."
The spell was broken. Bandit ruffled his feathers, then made a beeline for neither Bobby nor Alex, but instead for the top of Sam's head. The patient dog was used to it by now, but still rolled his eyes upward as if in exasperation as the bird made a wobbly landing between his ears, then began to nibble on Sam's eyebrows.
"Hold on a minute, Nancy!" Alex called, and Bobby's hand swooped down to capture the tiny creature, who promptly sank his beak into the flesh of his forefinger. "An old soul with a sharp beak! Vampire bird."
"Sorry, Bandit," Kendra said, but she looked beatific.
Once Bandit was back in his carry box, Nancy came through with a little paper cup and some water. Kendra looked at it wryly. "This is the stuff that puts me to sleep. I guess I'll see you another time."
Alex looked up at Bobby. "Next week," she said.
"I'll introduce you to my mom," Kendra promised.
"Let me know about Kalon's first day of kindergarten."
"Oh, yeah. Betcha he's got stories. K's a talker. Bye now..."
"How'd you find me?" Alex asked as they exited the room.
"I thought you were out back," Bobby answered, "then I saw the sign on the door. Where else would you be?" And Alex had to admit Nancy had certainly made it large enough.
Alex continued softly, "So how's Gil Medowi getting along? Kendra said they might have to send him to the 'quiet ward.'" She looked up. "It's the ward for the dying, isn't it?"
"It is. I stayed with him as long as I could. They came for him while I was there." Bobby had his head down, hands in his pockets, eyes on his feet as they walked toward reception. "I pretty much let him lie there and pet Sam the entire time. It's what he wanted."
"How do you do this week after week?" she asked, seeing the sorrow in his eyes as Bobby signaled a farewell to Sandoval, who nodded in understanding.
"I...just imagine what I would want if I were here alone." He arched an eyebrow. "Are you serious about next week?"
"I kind of promised, didn't I?" she answered, but the response was anything but regretful and he smiled.
"Have you...um...ever discussed your mom with Dr. Chaudry?" he asked as they walked toward the car.
"She's asked a couple of times. I pretty much blew her off," Alex confessed after a minute. "Finally she said that it was fine; when I was ready to talk she was ready to listen." She regarded him with a small smile. "I think next Wednesday I might be ready."
"Want to stop at Longfellows on the way home and pick up a treat?" he asked, referring to the bakery she liked in Southbury.
"If we're quick," she answered, her eyes faraway. "Holly asked me for something and I think I know what to write now."
He eyed the heavy grey sky speculatively. "I don't think we're going to make it home before the storm breaks, though."
"I suppose not" she said absently, eyes on Bandit but not quite focused as she settled in the car, and he knew he'd already lost her to her manuscript.