It was a bad dream; Donnie was missing and no one was doing anything about it. Sally had called her children, who tried to console her, but kept reiterating in louder and louder voices that their father was gone, that he had died and gone to a better place. Sally wasn’t buying it, especially the better place part. There was no better place for Donnie than at her side. She treated Donnie well, spoiled him in fact. But he deserved it. His father treated him badly as a child; he had an awful time on three tours in Viet Nam. Sally spent most of her life trying to make up for the sadness in Donnie that she did not cause. She was a good wife, a better wife than mother, but that was okay.
Sally knew she shouldn’t have gone to California to see Nora. Yes, Nora was dying of ovarian cancer, and the sisters used to be close. But Donnie had trouble breathing and wasn’t supposed to fly so he couldn’t go. Sally hated to leave him, but Nora guilted her into it. Sally’s two adult (middle-aged in fact) children had worried about her own ability to travel, but her daughter Paula got a special pass to take her to the gate and put her on the plane, and her niece Kathy was at the gate to meet her when she arrived.
But when Sally got there, her sister didn’t seem all that close to the final moment, and then Sally got Covid. While she wasn’t all that sick, she couldn’t travel for ten days. On the third day, she got a call from her daughter that Donnie had died. By the time she arrived back at O’Hare over a week later, they said Donnie had been cremated and all her daughter wanted to talk about was the memorial service.
Donnie was surely gone; the house was forsaken, but Sally just knew he wasn’t dead. She and Donnie had lived in each other’s pockets for sixty years. Sally would know if her pocket were empty. As a longtime reader of detective fiction, Sally knew when a crime had been committed and had to be investigated.
As soon as her daughter left her alone, Sally went to the police station. At first, a lovely lady police sergeant named Wanda Stone had taken a sympathetic interest, written down the facts as Sally gave them to her, and told her she would file a missing person report and have the officers look out for Donnie. But then Sergeant Stone went into the back room to get some forms, and came out with a different attitude. She said Sally’s daughter was coming to get her. Paula showed up about twenty minutes later; she was a real estate agent and had been showing an expensive house up on the Broads, so she wasn’t very happy to have to come get her confused mother. Paula had on a bright yellow dress, blue high heels and was carrying a red clutch. The shoes and purse were supposed to match, the old lady thought to herself. Sally had no trouble with a gay brother, a trans grandchild, or women priests, but she still had trouble with mismatched accessories and white shoes before Memorial Day.
Sally had her own car, so there was no need for Paula to be there and Sally told her so. Paula followed her home anyway, and then came in. Paula insisted her mother settle on the couch, but refused to sit herself.
“If you can’t accept that Papa is gone, we’re going to have to consider memory care or something,” she said, trying to look her mother in the eye but not able to hold the resolve.
“Memory care. That sounds nice – like you are spending your time making photo albums or something.” She stared at her daughter. “But I know it’s not. You want to put me in a nursing home. You want to sell my house and make me forget that your father disappeared. I believe that you think he’s dead, but I would know. I would just know.”
“Well, I saw him after he died. It was too bad you were stuck in Sacramento, but I saw Papa – and believe me, I’m sorry, but he was dead. And you signed the document we faxed to you to get him cremated – which is what Papa wanted, isn’t it?”
Sally nodded. “I hardly knew what I was signing. Kathy just put it in front of me. But it isn’t that I needed to see him; I just know he isn’t dead. That does not mean I am crazy. I have always had good intuitions – you would have had college loans if I weren’t so good at playing the stock market. I know you mean well, but you are just mistaken.”
Paula shrugged. “Everyone knows you were a brilliant woman, but you are eighty-five and you are starting to forget things. How many times have you lost your car in the last year?” Paula had rescued her mother from two shopping malls and one medical center garage in the past few months.
“I know, I know. But I didn’t misplace Donnie; something happened to him.”
“Yes indeed, something happened to him. He died. Now can we just get on to planning the memorial service?”
Sally sat there and glared. “Do what you want. I’m going to figure out what happened to my husband.”
“I’m going to call Charlie.” Charlie was Sally’s eldest, but lived about an hour’s drive away and was not a frequent visitor.
Sally shrugged her shoulders, but as soon as the front door slammed she was on the phone with the hospital. After speaking to the operator, ombudsman, and the head of the emergency department, Sally was referred to Stalwart’s, the undertaking firm that transferred her husband’s body from the hospital once he was pronounced dead. The ER doctor told her Stalwart’s would also be able to get her a death certificate.
“I have a death certificate,” Sally admitted. “But how do I know it was made out for the right person?”
Everyone at the hospital had tried to be nice, aware that they were talking to an elderly recent widow, but Jim Stalwart, the undertaker, immediately took offense that anyone should doubt what he did and to whom the paperwork signified. “Are you doubting my word?” he finally blasted back at poor Sally.
“No, I’m not. I’m sure you thought you were having poor Donnie burned up to ashes, but I really doubt that it was him.” The undertaker said she should have her lawyer call him and hung up.
Sally went over to her neighbors, the Langs. Beth and Joe had seen Paula arrive and the ambulance right after, and watched Charlie being taken out on a gurney.
“Did you see his face? Donnie’s face?” asked Sally. The Langs looked at each other. Beth had gone over when they saw the ambulance to ask if she could do anything, but a weeping Paula told Beth the EMTs were trying, but it appeared Donnie was beyond help. There was nothing anyone could do.
“But did you see his face when they took him out of the house?” Sally impatiently demanded again.
The Langs had not wanted to appear to gawk, and not been close enough to see the face, but they were both convinced it was Donnie.
“Surely, Paula would know her own father,” soothed Beth. Sally said that you would think so, but somehow she just knew that Donnie was not dead.
And so it went. Sally turned into a regular Miss Marple. She talked to the people at the crematory that Stalwart’s funeral had used, bringing along Donnie’s photo. They were not eager to discuss their methods and didn’t admit to even having opened the coffin. Sally checked the bank to see if Donnie had used his debit card and called the credit card companies.
“Do you want to close that account if the victim is deceased?” asked the voice at Capitol One.
“Not until I’m sure he’s dead,” answered Sally, giving the poor telephone voice in India something to talk about at teatime.
Paula and Charlie got a few calls – the undertaker and the doctor at the ER both talked to them at length, questioning whether their mother needed more “help” than she was getting. Jim Stalwart said they should get their mother under control, and the neighbors talked about her being in deep denial. The two siblings had a few long and fruitless discussions.
“It’s those murder mysteries she’s always reading – she thinks she’s Agatha Christie or something,” Charlie posited.
Paula offered to go and stay with her mother for a few days to keep an eye on her, but Sally turned her down. “I’m not afraid to be alone – I’m just convinced that Donnie is still alive. I would know, I just would know.” Paula also suggested that they visit Sally’s doctor together. “Do I look sick?” said Sally.
Paula and Charlie then scouted out local memory care centers, seeing more of each other in a week than they had in thirty years. They easily settled on Brook Haven, whose glossy brochures featured an elegant facade in a lovely setting, which would seem to be a waste of resources as none of the residents ever went outside. The inside though, replete with activity rooms and three dining rooms, impressed the siblings, and through tag team efforts they bribed Sally into at least visiting it with them. “Then we’ll all go out to lunch together,” said Charlie. “Just the three of us. How long has it been since we’ve done that? And you can pick the restaurant.”
Sally took a long time getting dressed – she wanted to look as sane as possible. Her clothes all matched (maybe that was just a sign of being old-fashioned she mused); she took a shower, and spent a bit of time blow-drying her hair and getting make-up in all the right places. She had put in a call to her lawyer to make sure they couldn’t force her into anything, but he hadn’t returned her call. She wrote him a note and left it with the Langs, telling them to give it to the attorney if she wasn’t back home by that evening. The Langs were sympathetic and ready with stories of people who loved assisted living.
“This isn’t assisted living!” bellowed Sally. “This is jail!”
When they got to Brook Haven, the very slick Brenda Booker met them at the door and gave them the grand tour. The facilities were surely impressive, but the inhabitants who were not vegetative were combative. Brenda introduced them to the activities director, but it did not look like the residents were capable of any activities beyond sitting and staring, and occasionally accusing one another of stealing their seats or their sweaters. They saw one altercation over a doll, and Paula and Charlie commented that the staff handled it very well. Sally snorted.
When they got back to Brenda’s office to discuss the nitty-gritty of how much it would cost, how the family paid for the toiletries and Brookhaven paid for the diapers, and security features that ensured no one could escape, Sally excused herself to use the bathroom. Brenda offered to send someone with her, but Sally said that Brenda had just told them there was no escape, so what was she worried about?
By the time the trio in the office had parsed out the costs, figured how long Sally could afford to stay alive based on their estimate of what the sale of her house would bring, and ascertained that if they were unable to take her for holidays, Brookhaven would provide turkeys and Christmas trees, Sally had still not returned. Brenda called in her assistant and the four of them went looking for her.
The staff in the recreation area had seen her, but not for a while. She had been talking to some of the residents, and they had the impression she went down the hall to look at one of their rooms. The foursome looked into the rooms along the adjacent hallway, cut through the dining area and nurse’s station, and still no Sally.
Eventually they came back to where they started. Brenda was in a deep state of embarrassment that Brookhaven had lost Sally before she even arrived. Charlie and Paula were in states of self-satisfaction; this incident just proved that their mother couldn’t be trusted and needed close watching. Brenda’s assistant was in a state of fear because she knew what Brenda was like when she was embarrassed.
And then around the corner, beaming and holding the hand of a little old man who was half the size and had half the teeth of the missing Donnie, came Sally.
“I found him,” she crowed. “I told you he wasn’t dead.”