Cognitive Changes

Cognitive Changes
Not yet published

Minerva French came highly recommended, but no one seemed to know by whom. In Rachel’s tight circle of acquaintances, counseling was not something a person admitted needing. Seeking more guidance than the Bishop could deliver over the pulpit could only be mentioned in whispers. Rachel’s constant fear was of being a disappointment, and she glanced around Ms. French’s office with a fair amount of trepidation. The office didn’t look like an office, it resembled, more than anything else, a cramped living room or a large walk in closet decorated in soothing earth tones, purple and sage throw pillows, and several nice watercolors of high mountain meadows and slightly blurred wild flowers. Rachel caught a whiff of dried lavender.

“If you’re looking for framed diplomas,” Minerva smiled with a sniff in her voice. “there’s a shrink five doors down the hall. You know, one of those Type A foot tappers who dispense pills with wild abandon.”

“Oh.” And Rachel had a fleeting visual of white coated doctors flinging prescription pharmaceuticals from the back of a Twenty-fourth of July float as grubby children raced across the black asphalt to gobble them up.

Minerva gestured toward the couch, picked up a notebook in a tooled leather casing, and faced Rachel in an ergonomic chair that fit her body so perfectly Rachel wondered if the woman would be shaped like an apostrophe when she stood.

“Mrs. Hobbs,” Minerva began.

“Please, call me Rachel.”

Minerva sidestepped the interruption. “You’ve experienced some sort of inciting event, some proverbial last straw, that’s brought you to my office. Why don’t we begin there?”

No tragic familial history? No recitation of past complaints? Rachel inhaled audibly. Over the past several days, and certainly dodging cars this morning on Highland Drive, she’d been rehearsing a winsome spiel, but she wasn’t prepared for a question this direct, and her stomach clenched around an event that was sure to sound small. She cleared her throat.

“Every spring—the second week in May—I drive to Preston, Idaho and plant my mother’s flower bed and multiple pots of geraniums.” Multicolored snap dragons and cheerful red geraniums

“Your parents are elderly?” A fair assumption. Rachel dyed her hair, but nothing could be done about papery wrinkles on her neck.

“Mid-eighties.” Rachel continued, “It’s a large raised flower bed, and I usually plant four or five flats of snapdragons and another flat of trailing lobelia along the border. It just flows over the edge.” She launched her extended fingers over the bottom cushion, miming the lobelia. “My mother loves those flowers.” Her mother had planted them for over thirty years and Rachel had lovingly planted them for the past five. Tufts of white hair haloing her face, Rachel’s mother spent hours sitting in a spindle back chair, her lips curved in an exhausted smile, staring out the kitchen window at her flowers.

“And there is a problem about the flowers?”

“No one’s been watering them. And snapdragons are not what you’d think of as xeriscape plants.”

“You’re upset with your parents. You view this neglect of your gift as rejection?”

Rachel shook her head so vehemently that she dislodged a stiff lock of hair that caught in her eyelashes. “No. The poor dears can’t put in their own hearing aids. It’s my sister.” Her eye blinked repeatedly and started to tear. “She’s killing them on purpose.”

Minerva sat up a little straighter. “Your parents?”

“No, the flowers. I can’t believe she’s this passive-aggressive. I drive up once a week and give them a good drink, but it’s not enough in this heat. They’re shriveling up. Two hundred dollars worth of bedding plants—down the drain.”

Last Friday as she was vacuuming out kitchen drawers, she’d caught her mother glaring out the window at the neat rows of withered plants, a snapdragon graveyard. Her mother’s fingers were so crippled only the ball of her thumb could push a brochure in Rachel’s direction, an advertisement for an assisted living center down the beach from Puerto Vallarta. It looked like Club Med. “Cheap,” her mother had whispered.

“Too far for me to drive.” Rachel had smiled. For the past ten or twelve years, she’d made the five hour drive to Preston once a week, fifty-two times a year, if you didn’t count the extra trips on holidays. Dependable, that’s what she’d always been. The good kid, not that being good counted for much—not in her family.

Water splashed in the miniature desk top fountain, and Rachel heaved a sigh. Minerva French scribbled across her pad as her honey colored hair swung loosely against her cheeks. Her clothes—obviously a hundred percent cotton—were slightly wrinkled in a companionable sort of way. She was slender and fit, and only her face seemed encumbered by the weight of the disturbing revelations she absorbed daily. Her skin hung in soft folds, and her nose and eyes had the odd effect of upholstery tacks holding up her face. Her green eyes rested on Rachel, and she hooked a lock of her hair behind her ear, exposing an ethnic looking earring—wooden beads strung on a thin wire.

“This sister’s benign neglect seems to be the problem?”

“Benign? I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep.” Rachel rolled her eyes. “At least I was. The dentist made me a bite guard. Now I go to bed every night with a wad of hard plastic in my mouth.”

Relaxing in her chair, Minerva French crossed one long leg over the other. “Tell me about this sister of yours.”

Claudia. Where to begin? With the pinched nose or with the skein of silky hair knotted on top of her head. “Three marriages. The latest ex is a sous-chef in San Francisco. Her only child, a PhD in micro-biology is squirreled away in Greenland communing with the vanishing permafrost. Claudia refuses to recycle, so he and his mother don’t speak.” Rachel stopped to catch her breath. “You have no idea what it was like to follow her through high school in a small town. She smoked unfiltered Camels, introduced half the football team to the joys of swilling Jamaican Rum, and got caught going a hundred and three on the freeway outside of Pocatello.”

“And now she’s back.” Ms. French said, a half smile played on lips glossed a soft pink.

“AWOL for years, then she roars back into town. The return of the prodigal. My parents were thrilled. Before I could say beware of girls bearing gifts, she’d fired Mrs. Colby.”

“And Mrs. Colby is . . .”

“A sturdy woman it took me months to find. She came in each morning to fix breakfast for my parents, helped with the hearing aids and showers, and styled Mom’s hair. She arrived back at five to plate up dinner. Now Claudia nukes a hot dog for my parents before she heads out with a guy who’s only obvious talent is speaking Japanese.”

Old people awash in females with conflicting agendas, that’s how this must sound, but Mrs. Colby was a no-nonsense ex-Relief Society President, a little faded and frayed around the edges, but completely reliable. Rachel untangled her fingers from the fringe on a pillow and glanced out the window at a white-hot sun blistering the pavement. “No one needed Claudia to gallop into Preston on her white charger ready to save the day, ready to care for our parents, ready to be a pain in the ass.” The words sizzled on Rachel’s tongue.

“Did she move in with your parents?”

“No, she rented a studio apartment five minutes away.”

“Seems ideal.”

“Well, it’s not. It’s just one thing after another. Three days ago, Dad’s neighbor called me. It was ninety-five degrees, and there was Dad wearing Mom’s mink coat and mowing the front lawn with his snow blower.”

“Mink?” Minerva asked.

“It’s not new.”

“Thank Heaven for that.”

Rachel glanced at the small carved animals on an end table. Alaskan, she thought, but she could be mistaken. “It’s a miracle he didn’t die of heat stroke.”

Minerva only nodded.

“Two years ago, Claudia just kept spouting, ‘A blessing in my life. Taking care of Mom and Dad is a blessing in my life,’ but now she’s burned out. Spent. Irritable. Short tempered. Not answering her phone, but she can’t recant, can’t admit doing penance has worn thin. Not Claudia. In her head, she’s always the reasonable one, and it’s the rest of the world that’s skewed. But I’m awake every morning at three worrying about what’s going on in Preston.”

Pencil in hand, Minerva leaned forward in her chair, her sharp green eyes zeroing in on Rachel. “You need to put your foot down.”

Rachel gazed down at the tips of her blue and white striped espadrilles buried under the pile of pillows. “I’ve never had one—you know—that sort of a foot. The kind a person can put down.”

She didn’t hear the soft ring of an alarm, and a clock was nowhere in evidence, but Minerva could intuit an hour with precision that was uncanny. She picked up the calendar sitting behind her on the bookcase. “I have a two o’clock on Thursday. Does that work for you?”

 

Three weeks later, Rachel arrived early for a last minute appointment. She’d left a message this morning in something of a panic. Fortunately, Minerva had a cancellation at three. Settling her ample hips on the couch, Rachel dispensed with the preliminary chit-chat and dove into her tale. Her neck muscles were so tense that nodding felt more like a muscle spasm.

The day before, wearing light-weight business casual, Claudia had arrived in high dudgeon on Rachel’s front porch to elucidate a letter she’d sent three days earlier, registered mail. It was a schedule, but the way she jabbed at the numbered bullets with her sharpened fingernail gave the impression that she’d rewritten the Ten Commandments. After two years of lost remotes, glasses, purses, and her mother’s uterus that wasn’t actually lost but fell out every month or two, it was becoming clear, at least to Claudia, that the cognitive changes their parents were experiencing were not likely to improve; in fact, the changes were occurring at an alarming rate. Surprise, surprise.

“I’ll take the first two weeks each month, she’d announced. “Phil will drive up from St. George for the third week, so the last week is yours. I’m being more than fair.” End of discussion. Carved in stone. And because Rachel was the only church-going person in her disintegrating family, and because she’d always been disgustingly compliant, her sister’s expectation was that she would arrive at the appointed time with baked goods, hot out of the oven.

Phil, a retired ex-Marine, an aficionado of red meat radio, and a seemingly solid guy, would spend his week playing golf with his string of old high school buddies, drinking beer with his dad out on the patio on the long summer evenings and sharing forbidden cigarettes. At least on the good days.

Minerva and Rachel sat across from each other breathing in sync. The only sound in the room was the gurgle of the miniature fountain.

“I don’t know what to do. They can’t stay with me. Too many stairs. I can’t step out of my life a week at a time. I have a garden. Flowers. Vegetables. A husband. Grandchildren. On Tuesday and Thursday, I teach Sudanese immigrants how to read. I’m the Primary President, for Heaven’s sake. I’m in charge of 120 little kids every Sunday morning.”

Minerva ran her fingers through her hair. “No one discussed this plan with you before the assignments were passed out?”

“No. Claudia and Phil discussed it. That’s the way it’s always been. Claudia manipulates him, and then they join forces.”

“It’s time to locate your missing foot. What about rehiring Mrs. Colby?”

“She’s moved in with her daughter in Idaho Falls.”

Minerva tapped her own foot impatiently. “Well, what about another Colby-esque type assistant?”

She shook her head. Somewhere along the line, the heavy weight of morality had been attached to the schedule. “Good children care for their parents—themselves. Bad children don’t.” The hiss of hypocrisy had raised its ugly head; time for the token Mormon to put-up or shut-up. Arrive on time or be forever damned.

“That excludes Home Healthcare?”

Rachel wavered. “The truth is it’s too expensive. Medicare is pretty good about assisted living, but they’re finicky about in-home care.” Because who knew who was siphoning off loose change?

“What aren’t you saying?”

Money was something her family didn’t discuss, and the effort required to speak felt like she was sticking her finger down her throat to keep her waistline in check. “It was husband number two.” They’d all loved him, a charmer with charts and graphs and a complicated business plan, something they’d all heard discussed but never beheld spread out on a kitchen table. “Claudia bullied my parents into giving her a third of their estate—early—so she and Rubio could open a book store in Chicago, The Unabridged Bookshop, in a great location in Boy’s Town.”

Minerva stared over her tortoise shell half glasses.

“Yes,” Rachel sighed, “we should have seen it coming, but people in Preston are slow to come out, and he was just so adorable.” And so was his boyfriend.

“So your sister ended up with a hundred thousand books in a divorce settlement.”

“Mostly in paperbacks plus a fair amount of debt, which my parents paid. Claudia’s financial disaster had expanded like a virus on a willing host, pulsing, bubbling and emitting strange smells until it filled the Petri dish.

“Ouch.” Minerva blinked twice.

Rachel grimaced. Her parents were reduced to living on a monthly social security check and a sketchy reverse mortgage.

A yellow pencil held loosely in her hand, Minerva drummed a quick rhythm on her paper. “It’s time to chuck that tea into the harbor. Your sister’s choices don’t obligate you.”

Rachel opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She opened her mouth a little wider, but the result was the same.

“Remember that Mel Gibson movie,” Minerva said, “where he prances around with his face painted blue in front of his ragtag army? What was the battle cry?”

“Freedom.”

“Keep that image in the front of your mind.” Minerva pulled a new phone out of the pocket of her striped trousers and ran her finger over the screen. “Tuesday at eleven?”

 

Tuesday morning, Rachel dragged her weary body into the office and collapsed on the couch. “No one in my family is speaking to me. Even my mother.” Rachel’s mother couldn’t remember what she’d eaten for breakfast, but she could register hurt and betrayal. She’d flashed a stink eye in her daughter’s direction Friday afternoon during the ambush Claudia had organized.

Standing in the middle of the living room with his fist raised to the square, Phil had barked at Rachel as though she were a new recruit. “You will be here the last seven days of each month.”

“Actually, I won’t,” she’d mumbled.

“What?” An astonished expression on her face, Claudia leaned forward. “You’re refusing to participate in our parents’ care?”

“I’m refusing to live a fourth of my life in Preston, Idaho.” With no exit strategy. Her father’s short term memory might be stuck in 1962, but his ticker pumped along at a healthy sixty beats a minute. Both siblings rose to their feet. Her father beamed and gave everyone a thumbs up–but her mother, parked in her wheel chair, rolled her eyes.

Claudia’s taut expression pierced Rachel’s adult veneer and suddenly she felt herself shrinking. She was six-years-old. When her parents left home, Phil was the defacto babysitter, and so the moment the garage door closed, the younger version of Rachel tiptoed into her mother’s closet with a picture book and a flash light and hid among the slightly smelly, high heeled shoes.

A purple pillow clutched in her hands, Rachel searched Minerva’s face for a trace of empathy. “They used to stuff me in small spaces. In with the pots and pans or next to the ironing board in one of those long skinny cupboards.” Or wedged between the furnace and the hot water heater on the dirty concrete floor littered with dead spiders. Too little to reach the light switch, she listened to Claudia and Phil giggle and snort outside the barred door. Sooner or later blue jets would roar inside the metal box and terrifying flames would reach for her. She cried until she invariably wet her pants.

“There’s always a price when you change the rules.” Minerva waved both arms as though she were directing the opening notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “No longer willing to be the put-upon little sister, you’ve struck out on your own. How does that feel?”

Plucking at the button on her cuff, Rachel said, “Sort of like the linoleum in the kitchen has suddenly vanished, and I’m suspended in air waiting to crash into the basement.”

“As much as your siblings might want that to happen, you’re not going to fall. How is your husband behaving? Supportive?”

“I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but Mel’s a professor in archeology at the U. His favorite phrase is There’s no such thing as a new problem. But he hates conflict, doesn’t see the point. After all, a few million more breaths, and we’ll all be dead regardless. Artifacts, if we’re lucky enough to be discovered in a dig or else just a scrap of a narrative on a piece of acid-free paper.”

A large smile spread across Minerva’s mouth. “What a wonderful perspective.”

Rachel cast her eyes upward as if she were preparing to count the ceiling tiles. “I walked in the other night and he was standing in his underwear turning the alarm clock over and over in his hands as if he were trying to determine its historic significance. When I started to tell him about my sister’s latest email, he grabbed the TV remote to turn down my volume.” Then he’d picked up her bite guard. “What will someone think when they discover this in a thousand years?” She’d snatched it out of his hands.

“And so your husband has risen above the fray?”

“Not exactly.” Rachel opened her purse and extracted a long envelope, Registered Mail stamped in red ink. “He pulled this out of his brief case last night when he walked in the back door.” She handed the letter to Minerva. Mel had wandered in from the garage with a wearied expression on his face and dropped the letter next to the garlic she’d been mincing. “I don’t understand your brother.” A remark she thought strange coming from a man who’d written his doctoral thesis on Genghis Khan’s debris.

Minerva wiggled her fingers expectantly, then extracted the letter from the envelope. She read for a few minutes and then a fey smile covered her face. “How very interesting.” She perused the letter again, pausing to read a few sentences out loud. What conclusion might be drawn from this episode? It seems astounding to me that I had to basically challenge someone’s character, integrity, and trustworthiness, and still have not received an answer from you about a very simple request. Minerva suppressed a smile.I’m assuming the simple request is that your husband compels you to do your duty—at least what your brother perceives as your duty?”

“In a nutshell, yes.” But a nutshell was not what had been sent. The letter contained four or five sheets of long-winded chest thumping.

“Well, well.” Minerva’s face brightened. “Your brother is a bully,” she said as though the last piece of a puzzle fit perfectly in place. “Have you thought of a response? Because this can’t be ignored, or he’ll just continue. Bullies don’t stop until they slam into a wall.” Her fist hit her palm with a resounding smack. “You could return it with a grade on the top: C+ for grammar and punctuation, but a D- on content.” She winked, something Rachel had never seen a therapist do. “Or you could send a response of your own.”

“Not Mel?”

“Oh no. Mel’s just collateral damage. You’re the one who’s being attacked.”

“Won’t the situation just escalate? Phil loves firing off nasty letters.”

“This letter isn’t the first?”

“No, I have a box full. Under my bed.” Covered with dust.

“Burn them. The minute you get home. Light a match.”

“And then write a response?”

“One paragraph. No recriminations. No rationalizations. Just a simple declaration that you will continue to do what you’ve always done. Visit your parents once a week, bring food, and arrange for assisted living if your sister relents.” Minerva tapped her cheek with her finger. “Concluding sentences should say something like this: Going forward, any letters will be returned unopened. Any emails will be deleted, unread. If your brother needs to communicate with you, he should leave a concise message on your machine. Twenty words or less. He won’t be able to get at you, and that will drive him straight-up nuts.”

“At least that solves the problem for me.” Rachel’s head was starting to throb. “Last week I found a police report hidden under the place mats. In a larger town my dad would have been arrested. He wandered off in the heat of the day and got confused and lost. After an hour or two, the sounds of recess drew him to the local elementary school. A seven-year-old girl playing hopscotch looked so much like me he’d grabbed her hand and said, ‘It’s time to go home.’ The girl gave him a bit of sass, and he swatted her behind.” That was the official report and Phil’s signature was affixed to bottom as the responsible adult. “I questioned my mother, and she said Phil shoved Dad—on the way to the car—a couple of times and berated him for a half hour after they got home. My mother was furious.”

“Not that it makes it okay, but does your dad remember any of it?” Minerva uncrossed her legs and put both feet on the floor.

“No.” Rachel glanced at her wrist watch. It was twelve o’clock on the dot. A zip lock filled with carrot sticks, sliced green peppers, and cherry tomatoes waited on Minerva’s desk.

“Next Wednesday? Ten in the morning?” Minerva thumped her middle finger on her desk. Brushing past her, Rachel stepped over the pillows piled on the floor and clutched her straw purse under the crook of her arm. Her letter to Phil would be in the mail before five.

 

Wednesday morning, Rachel knocked lightly and stuck her head around the door. The beatings will continue until morale improves was on the mug Minerva raised to her lips. The smell of fresh coffee filled the office and Rachel dropped onto the couch. She tucked a purple pillow under her arm and reached for the nubby, sage green pillow on the end of the couch.

Minerva’s notebook was opened on her lap and the sheets covered with penciled notes were now accented with stars and arrows drawn with red ink. She set her mug on an end table and spoke in a hushed voice.

“It’s time we addressed your childhood.”

Rachel breathed in through her nose until her chest rose. This was therapy she understood. The feel good, we’re all in this imperfect world together, sort of therapy that might eliminate the need for the bite guard that made her gag every night when she stuck it between her molars.

“My mother is wonderful,” spilled out of Rachel’s mouth. “She explained menstruation a year in advance, but she was not what anyone would think of as emotionally available.”

Minerva shook her head like a buffalo getting ready to charge. “No, no, no. Forget your parents. We don’t learn socialization from our parents. We learn it from our siblings. I don’t know what was going on in your house, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good.”

Her lips open, Rachel clutched the front of her checked shirt.

“You come in here once a week and build a barricade with the coffee table and all the throw pillows, and then you grab the chenille throw like you’re going to make a tent inside your fort.” A frown on her face, Minerva grasped her mug with both hands. “You create physical boundaries, because you’re unable to create emotional ones. In all my years of practice, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I didn’t realize,” Rachel began, lifting her hand gingerly from the pile of pillows stacked on her left.

“No. Of course not.”

Rachel flinched when Minerva reached over and touched her kneecap.

“You’re hyper-vigilant,” she declared, as though that was all there was to be said, as though that explained everything.

“Hyper-vigilant,” Rachel repeated, “is that just a nice way of saying I’m a wild-eyed paranoiac?”

Minerva’s laugh was soft, calming, and probably rehearsed. “No,” she said. “Think of it this way, when most people are going to cross a busy street, they’re already thinking ahead about what they want to accomplish on the other side. You, on the other hand, expect to be hit by a bus.”

“Flattened?”

“Precisely.” Minerva smiled at her. “The question is why.” The sound of the fountain was oddly reassuring. Minerva dropped the shades casting the room in soft shadows.

“Rachel, make yourself comfortable. Put your feet on the footstool and hold a pillow against your abdomen so you feel safe, and then slide one behind your head. Now close your eyes.”

Rachel’s eyelids fluttered anxiously.

In a voice that sounded like melted caramel, Minerva started to speak. “When I say childhood, what memories bubble to the surface?”

Rachel willed her fingers to relax and released the pillow.

“Don’t be selective. Just describe what you see.”

She sighed, “I suppose the apple orchard was the worst. If I didn’t escape first.” Up high into trees full of pink blossoms or small green missiles. Sure footed and skinny, she climbed until the sun warmed her cheeks. Her siblings were afraid to follow.

“And if you didn’t escape?”

“If I didn’t hear them coming, they’d tie me to a trunk with a jumping rope and whoop and holler and poke me with sticks.” Tears leaked down worn cheeks and she pressed a hand against her throat. “I mean, so much of this is just normal kid stuff, but the day they murdered my doll, they crossed a line.”

Minerva murmured encouragingly.

Rachel whispered, “Such a lovely doll. She had a cloth body and curly blonde hair. I whispered fairy tales to her every night before she fell asleep. I didn’t want her to get mussed so I never took her outside, except that one afternoon. I’d wrapped her in an old receiving blanket, and we were playing house in the tall grass.”

Minerva beckoned for Rachel to continue.

“Before I could jump up, Phil whipped that jumping rope around the tree. Claudia snatched my doll. She had a length of clothes line and a stake from the garden.” Rachel shook her head. “She plunged the stake into the ground and tied my doll to it. They had a wonderful time gathering sticks and twigs and laying a circle of rocks. I couldn’t believe they’d go through with it. We weren’t allowed to play with matches.”

Her eyes narrowed, Minerva filled in the blank. “They burned your doll at the stake?”

“Yes.” Her toes had melted before her fabric body caught fire, sending smoke and sparks of charred cloth into the trees. The blonde curls shriveled and turned black. The rosy cheeks melted into the flames, hissing as dribbles of plastic hit the rocks. Finally, bright blue eyes, that had been blinking frantically, fell out of her face. The stench of burning chemicals had filled the summer afternoon.

“Surely, there was a consequence?”

“They buried the evidence.” No ashes to be scattered, just a thick glop of melted plastic.

“Did you tell your mother?”

“She asked me a day later where my doll had gone, and I told her it had been burned alive which surprised her, but nothing more was said.”

Minerva made a quick note on her pad. “She didn’t believe you?”

“It was more a case of her not being able to come to grips with the two delinquents living in her house.”

Neither of them spoke for several minutes as Minerva stretched her legs and stared out the window. Finally, she pressed her hands together as though she were forming an imaginary ball. “Bullying inside families is a complicated mess, because the parents love the victim as well as the perpetrator, so the inclination is to minimize the behavior. Which damages everyone.” She shook her head sadly. “Why you? Why didn’t they torture each other?”

Rachel shrugged. “My father was an only child and I was my grandfather’s favorite.”

Grasping her pencil firmly, Minerva looked up from her notes. “You were the victim of emotional and physical abuse.”

Rachel twisted her mouth to the side. “Abuse? I don’t think so.”

“Trust me. I’m a professional.” Minerva’s eyebrows came together in a V. “And these two characters are caring for your elderly parents? That’s terrifying.”

Rachel straightened her back. “I should bring my parents to Salt Lake. Install a lift.”

“Yes. You should.”

“It’s not like I’d be kidnapping them. They’re my parents.”

Claudia attended a Zumba class on Tuesday mornings. Just enough time for Rachel to pack up her parents, a few keepsakes, and their dwindling check register–and race across the state line. She took a deep breath and planted both feet firmly on the woven rug. “I can do this.”

“Yes, you can. Be brave. Be strong. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.” Rachel grasped the hand Minerva extended across the coffee table. “Next Wednesday at three.”

On Monday, AmeriGlide screwed a couple of hand rails into the bathroom tile and installed a $1,400 lift in the stairway. Early Tuesday morning, Rachel hit the interstate doing seventy and was surprised two hours later to find her father’s’96 Coupe de Ville parked in the driveway with the trunk open. He was wearing his Red Sox cap and a pair of her mother’s Jackie O sunglasses that Rachel hadn’t seen in decades. He tossed a couple of battered suitcases into the back seat next to the cooler before he gave her a hug. With a broad rimmed turquoise hat tied under her chin and her purse on her lap, her mother rolled down the ramp into the garage.

Eyes narrowed, she said, “Don’t try to stop us.”

“Where are you going?”

Her father unfolded a map with her mother’s spidery handwriting in the margins and a route outlined in red marker. “Just the thing,” he said. “Puerto–”

“Vallarta,” her mother finished.

“All alone? You’re driving to Mexico all alone?”

“One last road trip. What’s the worst that could happen?” she snorted. “We could die? We’re eighty-six-years old.”

Her father settled her mother in the passenger seat, clicked the shoulder strap, and handed her the map, then he collapsed the wheel chair and stuffed it in the trunk. “Adios,” he said making a crisp salute.

She knew she should stop them, call the highway patrol, call her siblings, or hop in the back seat, but instead she kissed her mother on the cheek. “I love you, Mom.”

Her mother nodded and said, “Put it in reverse, Gordon.”

Late that afternoon, panting as though she’d just escaped from an angry mob, Rachel leaned against the open door to Minerva’s office. Missing one clip-on earring and with her purse clutched to her chest, she gasped, “They’re gone.” Then she glanced around the room, looking for Minerva, who wasn’t there.

An angular man in pressed khakis and a button-down shirt stood slowly from the mess he was making by a filing cabinet and appraised her with a stern expression. “Who’s gone?”

“My parents.” They’d cleaned out their checking account and taken the paperwork on the reverse mortgage. A terse note in her mother’s handwriting was left on the mantle for her warring children. We are sick of your squabbling, so don’t bother looking for us. You are all a terrible disappointment.

“Where’s Minerva?” she said. “And who are you?”

“FBI. She’s slipped through our fingers again, and her name’s not Minerva French, and she’s not a licensed therapist. She was Daphne Goldberg in Milwaukee and ran a successful ponzi scheme for nearly four years. Deloris Green was the name she used in Denver. She sold nonexistent property in a REIT until the IRS picked up her scent. Her real name is Dorothy Jo Griffin, and twenty years ago, she was a middle school art teacher in Midwest City, Oklahoma, her last legit occupation. There are twenty-four warrants out for her arrest.” He tapped a couple of files on the side of the desk and slid them into his brief case. “She made out like a bandit. Any idea where she might have gone?”

No idea. Shaking her head, Rachel exhaled until every bit of air drained out of her lungs. The miniature fountain, the pillows, the cotton clothes in earth tones, and the scent of lavender were just props in the sham. A brilliant con artist, that’s what she was. Rachel started to smile; she couldn’t help herself. Because bogus therapist or not, Minerva French was the best thing that ever happened to her. She’d freed Rachel from her childhood, given her a get-out-of-jail-free card, handed her a complimentary ticket to the rest of her life.

With a jaundiced eye, the agent was giving her the once over, as though she were a slippery accomplice he might need to handcuff, but Rachel was glancing around the cluttered office. She knew where she hoped Minerva was going—south, across the border. Designed for aging Americans, a cluster of assisted living centers on the beach surely needed a professional manager, a dietician, a physical therapist, or a recreation specialist. Minerva’s fluid skill set wouldn’t disappoint. Or maybe they’d need a medical director, and she envisioned Dr. Delores De Melo in flowing white cotton resort clothes, checking blood pressures and reassuring ancient guests.

She pictured her parents being served a frosty Margarita as they sat on canvass beach chairs and buried their toes in the sand. Rachel smiled, tossed a nubby pillow over her head, and caught it deftly with one hand. “I’d like to keep this if you don’t mind. It’s a relic from a past life.”