Audrey Harrison stood at the large picture window. Coffee mug in hand, she focused on the small brick path meandering from the parking lot and stopping right beyond her apartment. Window open, the fresh morning sun escaped in to the bright, cheery room. Only a screen came between her and the fresh air.
“Your visitors come today, don’t they?” Janet asked as she walked in with a tray holding Audrey’s breakfast. “And by the way, may I say that you look smashingly gorgeous!”
“Oh, I know. I do!” Audrey laughed as she tugged at the bottom hem of her graphic tee. The words ‘I’m Unflappable’ spelled out across the front of the shirt in large block lettering spoke volumes about the wearer’s personality.
“I love your skinny jeans, too!” Janet remarked as she sat the tray on the small table in front of Audrey’s wing chair.
“You’re just full of it today.” Audrey grinned. “At eighty-five years old I can spot a load of baloney when I hear it.”
As she sat down she glanced at the photo sitting next to the breakfast tray. “How is Mavis doing?”
Mavis lived across the hall from Audrey. A few weeks earlier Mavis was admitted into a ‘dedicated unit’ in another area of the complex. Over the last few months dedicated unit had become a popular term bounced around the care center.
Janet glanced down at her blouse as she brushed away an imaginary spot. “She’s… doing okay.” Janet looked up, smiling. “I brought that jam you like. You probably should get busy eating. Your son and granddaughter will be here soon, ya know.”
After Janet left, Audrey munched on her toast spread with strawberry jam as she looked out her window. Her clear blue eyes rested momentarily on the large brick edifice emblazoned with gold letters announcing “Shady Oak Senior Living.” Shady Oak’s vast complex included other apartment buildings identical to Audrey’s; maintenance provided housing, skilled nursing facilities, and a recreational center. ‘All the comforts of home, without the obligations’ the glossy Shady Oak brochure touted to its prospective residents.
Audrey’s eyes rested on the row of maintenance provided homes located across the street. As part of the complex, these homes were available to those fifty-five and older. She focused on one house in particular; the house directly across from her apartment.
Audrey often peered over at the house across the street accented with bright orange shutters. Despite having been recently sold, she hardly witnessed any outside movement. She realized that was the norm now. Hardly anyone ventured out, not even to the mailbox. But that house carried a different vibe for Audrey, whose imagination was the brunt of jokes in her senior community and with her small family. Audrey referred to the house as ‘the shudder house.” She also had a sharp sense of humor.
Audrey got up from her chair and once again walked over to the window. At any moment now her visitors would walk up the sidewalk; Dean, her son, laughing as he carried his lawn chair, Charlotte, her granddaughter beside him. Charlotte was tall and reed thin, like her mother, with the distinct difference being her copper-red hair, inherited from her father. Every Sunday—weather permitting—her son and granddaughter made their way to Audrey’s window. They would tell tales, laugh, and enjoy the sun together.
While she waited, her eyes caught sudden movement. Across the street, a figure dressed in black was striding through the lawn of the shudder house making their way to the back. Audrey strained into the screen as she focused her eyes on the house.
“Mom!” a burly, man with a copper-red beard approached carrying a red fabric folded chair under his arm. Charlotte walked beside him with a deliberate stride, her long hair tied into a pony tail. As she came up to the window she exclaimed, “Grams! How are you?”
Audrey stretched out her arms from the other side of the screen. Charlotte folded out her own blue fabric “Southwest State” embellished chair and plopped into it, then grinned at her grandmother.
Audrey couldn’t help but appreciate Charlotte’s bright mood. Only a few months ago, her granddaughter had been in a much darker place. Her emergence from that place was pivotal for both her and Dean.
Settling in her own chair, she remembered the scene she had just witnessed.
“Did you happen to see a figure dressed in black walking down the street as you drove in?” Audrey asked as she ran her fingers through her short gray hair in an effort to appear nonchalant.
Dean and Charlotte shook their heads, saying ‘no’ in unison.
“He had a mask on.” Audrey said.
Charlotte chuckled. “Grams, everybody has a mask on right now.”
“He was headed toward the backyard of that house, the shudder house, the one that recently sold.” Audrey pointed to the house.
“That’s strange.” Dean said as he reached into the fast food sack, retrieving breakfast sandwiches. “Maybe he’s a grass trimmer or something.” He handed a sandwich to Charlotte.
“Dad, I don’t believe lawn care staff usually dress in black.” Charlotte peeled back the fast food paper with only two fingers, avoiding most of the wrapping as she tossed it in the paper bag. She applied hand sanitizer, handed it over to her dad, then asked, “What did you have for breakfast, Grandma?”
“Let’s see,” Audrey tried to forget the image of the man as she described her morning meal.
Over the next several hours the three of them laughed and talked. They discussed the recent events—both the tragic and the absurd. They talked about recent favorite TV shows and virtual concerts they enjoyed. All three followed their closest major league baseball team giving them the additional discussion topic of recent adjustments to the game.
Stories of Charlotte as a child were always a favorite subject. But the task would grow difficult as Dean and Audrey tried to avoid mention of Charlotte’s mother. The stories they picked were safe ones about Dean and Charlotte’s fishing trips or errands they would run to the lumber store. Dean worked in construction, having built most of the new homes in the area under his company’s name, Harrison Construction.
Later that night as Audrey lay in bed, her thoughts centered on her granddaughter. A year prior, Charlotte had been a straight A student attending the state university. She enjoyed school and college life, got along well with her dorm roommates, studied hard, and participated in several campus activities. Her goal was to become an attorney specializing in environmental law.
Six months ago her dad made the trip to the college town Charlotte lived in with the purpose of making her bail. Accused of shoplifting a luxury end handbag by slipping it under her coat, she found herself in the women’s cell of the county jail.
Dean brought her home, and after a week of repressed emotions on both sides, he forced her to accompany him at work. She helped out on one of his building crews; fetching needed supplies, ordering and delivering lunches, carrying scaffolding pieces as required. Once in a while glimpses of the young woman she had been emerged; bubbly, funny, and self-composed. She still had hard days, but they became fewer as time progressed.
A familiar heavy wave came over Audrey as she thought back to the day Charlotte’s life changed forever. Through moist eyes she glanced out the dark window. Sidewalk lights illuminated the darkness allowing her to peer into the outside night. The ability to watch the darkness gave her comfort. The shadowy view allowed feelings of connection to the world, a world she now only knew through a screen.
She suddenly set up as her eyes focused on the side of the house across the street. Again, a dark form came into view. This time, the figure was dragging something across the lawn. The object appeared to be a filled trash bag, evidently heavy. As Audrey watched, headlights came into view, then stopped in front of the house. A different dark figure got out of the vehicle and proceeded to help the form dragging the object. The two figures lugged the object to the car, opened the trunk and lifted it into the opening, then shut the lid. Not losing a beat, they got into the car and sped off.
“Damn!” Audrey said. “License plate!” She squinted, trying to make out the plate, but she was too late. “A red, two-door, late model compact car.” She muttered to herself.
Although difficult, she hurried to her door. When she opened it to run out, she remembered. There were explicit instructions requiring residents stay in their room, not leaving under any circumstances, with the exception of an extreme emergency. Extreme emergencies were then defined in detail. Witnessing a crime was not one of them.
“Damn!” She said again, as she rushed to the phone. She hit favorites, then the center’s number and waited for an answer.
“Shady Oak Senior Living. How can I help you?”
“What are Shady Oak’s new rules for residents reporting a crime?” Audrey asked.
“I’m not sure what you mean?” the voice replied.
“Well, I believe I just witnessed a murder.”
The young, attentive police officer stood on the other side of her door as he talked to Audrey. Through his face mask he said, “Ma’am, we woke the homeowners out of a sound sleep. With everything going on, they didn’t want us in their house. And even if you did see someone dragging a trash bag in the middle of the night, it isn’t illegal.”
“Just the same, it was very suspicious.” Audrey said. “Did you check the windows for fingerprints, survey the back yard? Are you going to stake-out the place, at least for a few nights? Are you sure the homeowners are okay?” She sensed a grin behind his mask. She knew she sounded like a wannabe Jessica Fletcher.
Audrey glanced down the hall at the open doors. She was sure everyone was up and enjoying this break from their isolated routine. The center’s director, having been called in, stood with the night manager. The director looked put out by the whole thing, what with having quite a bit on her plate over the last few months.
The officer explained, “We don’t have the manpower for a stake-out. Besides, with no evidence, there is no justification.”
After the police left and the commotion subsided, Audrey went back to bed. It was a long time before she fell asleep.
“Audrey! It’s not like you to sleep until noon!” Janet had opened the door with her security key and stood at the end of Audrey’s bed, breakfast tray in hand.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night. Besides, it’s only eight o’clock.” Audrey sat up, brushing the hair out of her eyes.
“I guess you caused quite a commotion,” Janet remarked.
“They tell me they couldn’t find any evidence of a crime.” Audrey shook her head. ”But it did happen.”
“Then you need to keep watching,” Janet shrugged. “They say criminals return to the scene.”
Audrey thought about Janet’s remark as she ate her breakfast. I guess I might as well. As I read that new book I got from the library I can keep an eye on the house.
After breakfast she called Dean to tell him about her night. He acted concerned, but behind his voice Audrey could tell that stress was weighing heavily on him. Current construction slowdown forced him into laying off some of his crew. It was a good thing Charlotte wasn’t part of the budget, he wasn’t paying her a dime.
When she glanced up from her book to check the time, she was surprised to see it was past noon. Janet brought grilled ham and cheese accompanied by a small bowl of potato salad. A delectable piece of three layer chocolate cake sat next to her glass of iced tea. As she ate the sandwich, Charlotte appeared in Audrey’s window, her blue chair under her arm.
“Grams. I thought I’d stop by during my lunch break. I hear you had an interesting night.” She said as she sat down and retrieved a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from her brown sack.
“I guess I was seeing things, as far as everyone’s concerned,” Audrey said with a grin.
“I can’t imagine that. You’re sharper than anybody I know. Now… that is.” She gave Audrey a half smile. “Why can’t Dad talk about Mom?”
Audrey sat straighter in the chair. “I don’t know, dear. I’m sure he misses her. But I believe he thinks that in talking about her to you, it will… well, make you sad.”
“Of course it will make me sad.” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “But it’s better than acting like she never existed at all.”
“I’ll talk to your father.” Audrey wasn’t going to enjoy the conversation, but he needed to know how Charlotte felt.
“Thanks, Gram. Are you going to eat that piece of cake?” Charlotte pointed to the cake through the screen.
Later that evening Audrey kept her promise to Charlotte. She called her son.
“I didn’t realize,” Dean said. “I should have talked to her. It’s just hard. I know it’s been nearly a year, but… It’s still fresh in my mind, Mom.”
“I’m sure it is. Julie had a lot of problems. We’ll never know what was really going on with her.” Audrey picked at her blue robe as she talked to avoid grasping her hands too tightly together.
“She just took off! Left me, her daughter. Who does that? Only a damn note, if that’s what you call it. Dean’s voice was brittle. “Dean, I’m sorry. I love you and Charlotte. I just need some time away.”
Audrey felt the pain as if it was yesterday. Her mind returned to that night. Sitting in her wing chair, Mavis sitting in the other during those days when people could be together. They planned on watching “Funny Girl” on TV. The news was just about over. Settled in with their bowls of popcorn, they watched as Julie’s face flashed on the screen.
“A hometown woman’s body was found hundreds of miles away in what appears to be a hit and run—-” The bowl of popcorn slid from Audrey’s lap as she stared at the screen. “Detectives at the scene told our reporter evidence of tire tracks and witness statements indicate a four-door gray sedan with an out-of-state license plate may have been involved. Preliminary reports state that Julie Harrison may have been jogging. A suspect is in custody… ”
A few days later, her work day over, Charlotte visited her grandmother again. While the sun set, they chatted. She sat eating vegetable fried rice takeout. Audrey, in a tee with their baseball team logo imprinted on the front, sat eating her dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Equal time team ball cap on her head, Charlotte watched her computer screen game. Audrey watched the game on the TV. Dean was working on the construction business budget at home and not in a great mood according to Charlotte.
Not long after the game was over, Charlotte picked up her chair to leave.
“Seems odd, no one in the seats,” she remarked.
“Perhaps it’s better that way, taking into consideration the way they played.” Audrey snarked.
As she got up to wave goodbye to her granddaughter, movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. A figure, once again dressed in black, trailed to the back of the shudder house.
“Charlotte!” Audrey couldn’t get the words out of her mouth fast enough. “There!” She pointed. “They’re back! The… whoever that is!”
Before Audrey could react, Charlotte took off running toward the house. “No! Don’t go over there!” Audrey’s mind flashed back in time to the bowl of popcorn, the TV screen, the announcer.
This time instead of calling the desk, Audrey called 911. She screamed into the phone that her granddaughter had taken off running to catch the dark-clad figure. She told the dispatcher to hurry, please hurry!
Desperate to run over to her door, open it, run down the hall, and to the outside, she stood planted in her spot, a helpless feeling overwhelming her. After what seemed like forever, she heard sirens, then came the flashing lights. The officers tore out of their cars with their flashlights aimed toward the back of the house. Then the lights disappeared.
“At long last our town has the opportunity to come together for this special ceremony.” The town’s police captain stated from the podium to the crowded auditorium.
“This town… this world, has been through devastation not seen for generations. But we’ve come out on the other side. During this unprecedented crisis, there were heroes on every corner, in every situation, and at every juncture.
We are honoring five such heroes tonight. It is my pleasure to announce the recipients of the first award, Charlotte and her grandmother Audrey Harrison. Through their joint efforts, our department apprehended two of the most dangerous criminals our town has ever encountered. Through Audrey Harrison’s persistence and perseverance, the actions of the criminals became known. By bravely following the movements of one of the perpetrators, Charlotte Harrison assisted in their capture. The town would like to show their appreciation by—
Audrey sat next to Charlotte in the front row, Dean beside her. She turned to find Janet sitting with Mavis in the back row. They smiled in her direction. As the captain detailed out the night’s events to the audience, Audrey ran a film version of her own inside her head:
The night Charlotte disappeared around the corner of the house, she came upon the black-clad figure taking off her knit hat and pulling an elastic hair tie off her blonde ponytail. She pulled the patio door open while she loosened her thick hair. Before Charlotte realized what she was doing, she followed the woman into the house. As Charlotte watched, the blonde figure walked into a bedroom and began speaking to a man sitting on a bed. A lifeless body was lying on the floor, in a puddle of blood, a gun steps away.
Down the hall from the bedroom, Charlotte dialed 911, texted her situation and address, then turned her phone on record.
“We have to be careful. Some nosy old person at that old people’s home across the street must have seen us the other night.” Vern said.
“No. I have to be careful.” The blonde said. “You won’t have to worry about anything.”
The blonde drew out her own gun from her jean pocket and aimed it at the man while she kicked the other gun under the bed.
Panic stricken, Charlotte turned to run toward the kitchen and outside, ready to direct the authorities when they arrived. But, she didn’t see the centerpiece vase of flowers on the table. The vase fell as she accidentally hit the table in her haste.
The man and woman turned toward the noise, looked at each other and ran towards her. The woman got to her first. She brought her gun forward and pointed it at Charlotte.
But she hadn’t noticed the absence of the centerpiece vase, which came crashing down on her head. The gun spilled toward the floor as Charlotte said, “Lady, you should have made better life choices.”
Before the man could react, the back door opened. “This is the police. Each of you raise your hands and stay where you are.”
As the captain narrated the incident, Audrey continued her thoughts about that night. She remembered detectives explaining to her and Charlotte that the blonde assumed the name Tracy; the tall man, Vern. Together they became a ’55-plus’ couple named the Bakersons. Their real names were Chrissy Lowell and Carson Taylor. Chrissy and Carson were wanted in connection with a bogus IRS phone scam. They bilked a few million dollars from hundreds of unsuspecting and vulnerable people. After the FBI began tracing their movements they vanished. The couple’s faces and profiles began appearing in every police station in the area. They were elusive until they showed up as Tracy and Vern buying the house across the street.
The couple had one goal in mind; to launder their money through a local ex-felon, Lars Compton. In the meantime, they would be under the radar in Audrey’s senior community.
The Bakersons bought the house online. Taking advantage of the occurring crisis, they claimed that their age of 65+ impeded the experience of an in-person transaction. As a result of Audrey’s initial call, the police talked to the couple through semi-closed doors, only seeing a partial headshot of ‘Vern.’ Not in the designated age bracket of 55+, Vern used the present global situation to their advantage. They claimed they were staying in and would prefer not to be in close contact with anyone, as instructed.
On that particular night, the couple had set their plan in motion. The car Audrey saw was a rental. The bag was stuffed with millions of dollars of cash, along with several assault rifles. Lars made the deal with them using his ‘influential connections.’ His connections requested the guns and ammunition as a ‘bonus’ for his trouble. Because it took some convincing by Audrey that she really had witnessed suspicious activity, a lot of time elapsed before the living center staff made the call to the police. By the time the police arrived the couple had transferred the black bag to Lars and returned to the shudder house.
The night of the second call and subsequent capture began with Lars going to the house. The deal secured, it was time for Lars to hand over the laundered cash. However, he kept more than his part. As Carson counted the money, he slowly realized Lars ‘indiscretion.’ Muttering something along the lines of having to piss, Carson walked to the bedroom, opened the bed stand drawer and drew out a gun. Lars followed him, rightfully suspicious. And as things like that go: Lars explained his situation/Carson didn’t buy it/Lars lunged/Carson fired.
Meanwhile, Chrissy had plans of her own. She told Carson she was going for takeout. That he could handle the transaction, she trusted him. But he shouldn’t have trusted her. Once in the car she changed into her black pants, turtleneck, hoodie, and ball cap. Carson wasn’t the only person with a gun. She planned on killing him once Lars left and she was back inside the house, taking the money for herself.
All that changed once Audrey saw her, and Charlotte walk into the house.
As the captain completed his story, he asked the award recipients to step forward. Audrey and Charlotte accepted their tokens of appreciation; gold bracelets embossed with the police department logo and the inscription, “Together we conquer our enemies.”
Later, as Charlotte, Dean, and Audrey sat with their friends at a table at their favorite local restaurant, Dean held high his stein of beer in a toast to Charlotte and Audrey.
Mavis addressed Charlotte asking, “So, what are your plans, now that the world has opened back up again?”
“I’m going back to school.” Charlotte replied. “I plan on getting that law degree. But I also plan on coming home during the summer to help my dad. And to see Grams. This time from anywhere we damn well feel like going.”
Audrey stood up and hugged her granddaughter, her tee emblazoned with the words ‘Seize the Day! It’s A Crime Not To!’ Raising her glass once again she said, “I’d also like to make a toast. To us. To the world. To being together, again.”