Cynthia opened the door, blinking as the sun hit her eyes. There was no one there. Probably kids, she thought, but then remembered they were all in school. She turned to go back inside but as she did, she caught a glimpse of someone in the shrubbery, someone standing by the rhododendron.
She turned her body to follow her gaze. A small bird, maybe a starling, shook the leaves as he alighted onto the branch she was looking past.
She felt the gin, warm in her belly, smooth honey through her limbs, softening her muscles. Just a bird.
She again turned to go inside, but now her eye caught on something on the corner of the welcome mat on their covered porch. A battered manila envelope, torn open across the top, laid on the mat. Bending down to pick it up, she glanced across the front yard. Starlings had filled it now, moving together with their hive mind. She shivered.
Standing in her doorway, Cynthia smoothed her hand across the blank front of the envelope. I guess maybe it’s Chuck’s? she thought tentatively, and then with more resolve, yes, Chuck’s. Probably something from work.
She brought the envelope inside and sat it on the table beside her empty highball glass. If it’s Chuck’s, I should just leave it for him for when he gets home from work.
Instead she sat down at the table and felt inside the top of the envelope, fingers brushing across the thick stack of pages. Nothing on the front to indicate who it was for or what it contained.
I at least need to know who this is meant for. She thought as she slid the stack of pages out onto the table. The first page was a carbon copy of a medical chart, a yellow sheet of paper with a nurse’s relatively neat but hurried scrawl, a spot for the doctor’s initials. It felt like snooping.
Her eyes scanned the page. She made out “Combat stress fatigue”, and “phenobarbital”.
She lifted the sheet and found that underneath there were plenty more just like it, medical charts documenting an extended stay at the hospital maybe. She searched for the name of the patient, but found only numbers: 8607, 1305, 9652. Beneath the medical charts were a series of folders with the Royal Canadian Navy insignia on the front.
She realized she had been holding her breath. She gave a jagged exhale as she pushed the sheets of paper and folders to the side and looked back into the manila envelope.
A key, brass, sat glinting at the bottom. She shook it out and it tinked as it hit the Formica tabletop. She peered into the envelope to see if anything was left. A tattered, threadbare piece of blue fabric. She pulled it out gingerly.
This was not from Chuck’s work.
Chuck worked at The Chronicle Herald, the local newspaper, but in the sales department, courting advertisers. Chuck had considered joining the Navy reserve, but Cynthia had asked him not to. The kids liked spending time with Chuck on the weekends. Maybe that had been selfish, she thought.
The Royal Canadian Navy insignia. Cynthia thought about her mother, Annie, a nurse in the second world war. Was this for Annie?
When Annie had gone to war, Cynthia had been left with her grandmother, Evelyn. Evelyn’s husband Fred had died young and Evelyn had inherited a house and a small plot of land on the south shore. When the war started, her two children by Fred had both gone. Harry had died, almost immediately. Evelyn was mourning him and thinking about killing herself when Annie showed up with Cynthia and told her that she was going over to England to help, that she had to go over to help. Evelyn drank, was usually asleep in a chair by 6pm. Cynthia had enjoyed those evenings alone, the house quiet and Cynthia left with her library books.
She glanced at the bottle of gin, still sitting on the counter by the stove. She stood and poured another measure into her glass, foregoing the ice this time. She drank it in one swallow and reached for her cigarettes, lit one, and paced the kitchen for a minute, looking at the stack on the table.
She was about to sit back down to read when she heard her front door open. Hank barked. She froze, hand on the back of her chair.
“Hi Cynth!” Jeanie called, cheerfully. “I made a cake.”
Cynthia gathered all the papers up and shoved them, the brass key and the small piece of cloth into the pantry, closing the bifold door as Jeanie walked into the kitchen, trailed by Hank, with a bundt cake.