A chill shot down my spine the instant our eyes met. Nola Pack looked ten years older than she had a week ago when we met in town. She stood in her open doorway, clenching its frame. Her red eyes sought mine as a breeze teased her disheveled hair. The ranch wife I remembered from previous meetings would never have appeared with even one stray hair on her immaculate swept-up bun.
I smiled and greeted her, but her grave face stole the sunshine from the bright spring morning. I no longer heard songbirds sing in the nearby flowering orchard as I searched for clues to her distress.
Nola didn’t return my smile, nor did she speak. Her bloodshot eyes narrowed as she studied my face. She stepped aside, still clutching the ranch house door with a grip that raised veins on the back of her hand. I stepped into the picturesque entryway, put my tool case down, and stooped to remove my shoes.
“No. It’s fine. Come in,” she said.
“You don’t want me to remove my shoes?”
“Not today, Mrs. Woods. Come in.”
“If you’re sure,” I said, wiping my shoes on the entry mat before I stepped onto her white carpet. “And please call me Izzy.”
Awash with sunshine, the music room issued a warm invitation. A sofa and two chairs faced the walnut grand piano across the room, its lid open on full stick. A violin leaned against a matching walnut music stand that filled the piano’s graceful curve.
“What an improvement over the old upright,” I said. “When did it arrive?”
“About ten days ago.”
“Anything I need to know before I begin? Problems? Concerns?”
Her brow narrowed. Still unsmiling, she shook her head and looked over my shoulder to the window beyond the piano. I set my tool case against the wall and tucked a stray curl into the hair clip on the back of my head. “I’ll get started then,” I said over my shoulder.
“Wait, please,” Nola said. “I need your help.” She closed her eyes. Her voice almost a whisper, I strained to understand her words.
“You don’t want me to tune your piano?” I asked.
“No. Not now.”
“A few minutes then? Or did you mean not today?”
“Not today.” Her voice carried unmistakable urgency. “Please. Come with me.” She turned and walked into the hallway beyond the living room.
Another chill raced through my body. I stood rooted to the white carpet. Nola turned and looked at me from the other end of the hall. With a frantic wave she beckoned me to follow.
I walked from the music room, past four closed doors. Two doors displayed a child’s colorful paintings. I knew there were children in the house, or at least a child. During an earlier call a girl had peeked at me for a moment before Nola scolded her. I had never been invited beyond the music room though, until today.
The hallway opened into a glassed-in dining room aflame with spring sunshine. Nola led me outside to a redwood deck extending over a pond, water slapping the rocks beneath us. In the far corner of the deck, a slender girl slumped on a lounge, her arms wrapped around her chest. She stared at the blue water, humming in a split voice that sounded as if she sang in two pitches at once.
I tilted my head toward Nola and narrowed my eyes.
Nola met my puzzled gaze. “She’s talking to herself. She does it when she’s under stress.” Her voice was devoid of any emotion, fear still in the undercurrents.
Nola brushed aside a tree branch bursting with fragrant blossoms and knelt at the girl’s knees. In a soft voice she said, “Laura, this is Isabel Woods, the lady I told you about. She’s our piano tuner.”
The girl didn’t move. If anything, she hugged herself a little tighter.
“Look at me, sweetheart,” Nola said.
The girl turned to her mother, but her gaze shot beyond Nola toward me. Her eyes didn’t appear to focus. I offered a tiny smile, but Laura didn’t respond.
Laura Pack squeezed herself, as if tightening her grip on her own shoulders could wring the stench from her mind. All morning the awful smell had overwhelmed her. The pungent odor of putrid diapers drove her mad. Baby poop. Hour after hour, the reek of excrement filled her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She even tasted the stuff. She swallowed, desperate to stop the bile rising in her throat.
Why this happened, she didn’t know. Every time she faced her fears, every time her world went wrong, this same awful odor permeated her nostrils and filled her brain. Mama didn’t believe her. She would shake her head and say she made it all up, that there was no rotten smell because Mama couldn’t smell it.
But after that awful phone call, Laura sure could.
And it grew stronger and stronger until it filled her mind. Mama had decided to send her away. So she’d be safe, Mama said. She didn’t think it would make her safe. She didn’t think she’d ever be safe without Mama.
Laura heard her mother call her name. It sounded so far away. She turned her head, dazed. The awful smell – why wouldn’t it stop?
I can’t see you, Mama. I can’t see you. Don’t look at me. I don’t want to see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see. Why do I have to go? Why? Why? Why? Don’t want to go. Won’t go. I won’t. I won’t see you, Mama. Don’t look at me. No. No. Baby poop. No.
No – wait. Look at me. I want to see you. Look at me. I see you. I see you, Mama. I’m scared. I’m so scared. It smells so bad. I hear you. I hear your voice. You say I’ll be safe. I’ll be safer. Why? Why? Why? You come too. Be safe. Be safe, Mama. Be safer. Look at me. I can see you. I see you. I don’t want to go. Don’t want to.
Laura’s gaze focused on the piano tuner. The strange woman’s frizzy gray curls struggled to escape from the loose clasp on her head. Laura found no comfort in this stranger. Not even when the woman smiled.
I don’t know that lady. Who is she? I’m scared. Scared, Mama. I see you. I see you, Mama. I see her. She’s looking at me. She’s smiling. I see her. Okay. If you want me to go, I’ll go. I see her. She smiles. She’s kind. She’s kind of – not you!
Don’t want to go. Don’t want to, Mama. Don’t want to. Don’t want to. Don’t want to leave you. Baby poop, Mama. It’s baby poop. You come too. Be safe. Safer, Mama. Come too. Come with me. I see you, mama. I see you – I see you – I see you. I love you, Mama.
Nola clasped her daughter’s hands in her own. She pulled the girl to a stand and pressed Laura’s hands together over her heart. Their eyes met.
After a few silent seconds, Nola nodded once. She turned to me.
In a shaking voice she said, “I don’t know how to ask you this. We need your help. Could you – please – would you take Laura for a while? We’re desperate.”
Oh, my God. I don’t believe this. I coughed, choking on my response.
Laura pulled away from her mother.
“She could be in danger and I need time to sort things out,” Nola said.
I glanced from mother to daughter. The girl’s shoulders shook as she sobbed, her head buried in her hands.
What was I to do? I couldn’t take a strange child with me, drive out the driveway, head toward – head where? My appointments filled the day’s schedule. This would never work. What in the world was happening here?
But, I’d never been one to turn down a plea for help. What could I do?
“Please.” Nola’s whisper screamed in my ears.
I shook my head. “I need to think.”
“We don’t have time.”
“Are there no family members? Grandparents? Aunts or uncles?” I asked.
“My family lives in New York. They’re too far away. I need help now.”
“What about neighbors or friends?”
“I don’t know anyone around here. Except you. ”
That I could believe. The Pack family was a mystery to their neighbors. Hints and stray comments dropped when I tuned pianos a couple miles up the road confirmed nobody knew these people. They had no local friends. Just the piano tuner.
“Ranch hands?” I said. “You must have hired help.”
“I don’t trust them.”
“Is that why you think Laura’s in danger?”
“Please. There isn’t time to explain.”
I scratched my head through the mess of curls. Frizzy Izzy. I was living up to my childhood nickname, the hair an outward manifestation of my inner turmoil. “Have you called the sheriff?” I said.
“No. I can’t call the police.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Please. I can’t involve them.”
“This is crazy,” I said. “I can tell you’re desperate. But you haven’t told me why. You want me to pack up your daughter, the girl you’ve never even introduced to me on prior visits – load her up and take her away. But why? ”
“It’s an emergency. I need Laura to leave for a while.”
“I kind of want to leave too. In fact, you’re making me want to race from here as fast as I can go. But I don’t know why.”
“Just take Laura with you. Please.”
She had me. Could Nola read people enough to guess I’d find it impossible to refuse? My passion to help others usually served me well. I was, after all, in a service profession, traveling all over the countryside to tune pianos for people. Service with a smile, was the homily I always told myself. Make harmony from discord. And I loved the work. I loved the people. I found pianos fascinating, each one a variation on an ingenious theme.
This, however, was a first. This was different. Not a discordant piano today. This time, I was being pulled into a desperate situation.
Nola, should I tune your life?
A knot of anxiety hardened in my stomach. I didn’t know how to refuse. “For how long? How long is a while?” I asked.
“Might be only an hour or two. Perhaps a couple of days. I’ll call you when the crisis is over. Don’t call me.”
Chills raced through my body. “Why not? What if something happens?” I said. “What if I need to get in touch?”
“I’ll contact you as soon as I can. Just don’t call me.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Take the girl. No police. Don’t call Nola.
Laura wilted into the deck lounge and wailed.
In a soft voice, Nola said, “Izzy, believe me, if there was any other way, we would never put you in this position. The situation blew up on me this morning. You’re the miracle we need right now.”
“Please tell me why you’re so afraid,” I said.
She shook her head. “There’s no time. You need to go now.”
I touched the girl’s trembling shoulder with my fingertips. “Laura, are you okay with this? Will you come with me until your mother calls?”
Still sobbing, Laura ventured a tiny nod and turned to her mother. They grabbed each other in a desperate embrace.
Nola gently pushed the girl away. Taking her hand, she said, “Let’s go.”
She pulled Laura through the open doorway and gathered a few bags from the dining table. We dashed down the hall and into the music room, the bags in Nola’s arms brushing Laura’s artwork as she ran. I collected my tool case and hurried out to the waiting Blazer.
After I tossed my tools on the back seat, Nola handed me a briefcase. “Don’t lose this,” she said. “These things can’t be replaced.”
What does she mean? Another wrinkle.
I scrutinized her for a moment before I set the briefcase behind the driver’s seat.
Nola deposited Laura’s bags on the back seat and tucked her daughter into the passenger seat. She leaned inside and kissed the child.
“God be with you, Laura. I’ll see you soon.” A tear dropped into the girl’s stringy blond tresses.
Nola wiped another tear from her cheek and glanced at me. “Now quickly – go!”
I turned the Blazer onto the long gravel drive and spun the wheels as we left.
Accelerando, Isabel. Step on it.
We jiggled across the pasture lane. Laura shrank against the opposite door and wailed. Her thin voice vacillated with bumps in the road. At the end of the long driveway, we rumbled across the cattle guard and through stone pillars. The remotely controlled gate surged to life as soon as we cleared it.
“Your mom must be listening,” I said.
Laura’s strange two-tone whine rose a notch in volume.
I braked enough to navigate the turn onto the deserted county road. Heading south, I floored the accelerator. Less than two miles later, we met a two-ton flatbed pickup. It raced toward us, engine roaring.
“That guy’s in a hurry,” I said.
Laura gasped. Mouth open, eyes wide, she clung to the door, her gaze riveted on the truck. She ducked, hiding her eyes behind her long hair.
The truck aimed straight for us. I swung the steering wheel right and braked hard. The farm truck thundered by as my Blazer crept along the shoulder. “Dang, take your half out of the middle,” I said.
Laura dissolved into hysterical sobs.
I pushed our speed again. We sailed along the road, sunlight streaming through the windshield. The bright morning mocked the grim mood inside our cab. Tears streamed across Laura’s cheeks. She reached up with her right arm and wiped her face with her sweatshirt sleeve. I reached over and squeezed her rigid hand.
“That was a close one, wasn’t it? You recognized the truck. Did you know the driver?”
Laura nodded. Her chest heaved. She worked her jaw, as if trying to speak, but her words didn’t form through her wail. She screwed up her face, knotted her hands into fists and managed to blurt in her strange split-tone voice, “My dad.”
She nodded and shrieked heart-wrenching sobs.
Was he the source of Nola’s panic this morning? Were her urgency and desperation because her angry husband headed home? Why would Laura’s life be endangered at her father’s hands?
I wished I could have stolen a look at the truck driver. I’d never met Laura’s dad. In all the previous service calls, not once had he been home. Did he look into my car? Did he recognize Laura? The thought horrified me.
“Honey, do you think your dad saw you as we passed?”
She shook her head. She must have watched his face, even if I didn’t get a peek.
“Is your dad the reason your mom sent you with me?”
A hesitation. Then a quick nod. This was a family dispute.
Nola’s words echoed in my mind. Her life is in danger. I shuddered.
In danger from her dad. Something she failed to mention.
No police, Nola had begged. Why not?
“It’ll be all right, Laura,” I said to reassure her.
Would it though? I was unconvinced.
Why is the girl afraid of her dad? How long will Izzy have to look after Laura’s well-being? To find out, order your copy of Sundrop Sonata at these suppliers, or come to Art in the Park October 3 in Winfield.