The next day Vandalia paid us a surprise visit. She stood outside the screen door to the office and kicked it lightly. Jason hustled to let her in. Van entered bearing a gift. A shiny silver cake pan draped in a pretty checked cloth. She kept her eyes on the fabric as she walked over to Mom O.’s side of the desk and deposited the baked good on top of her phone message pad.
“This is for you, Mom O’Dell,” she said. She still didn’t make eye contact. Instead, she caressed the perimeter of the pan with a lacquered fingernail.
It was hard to tell who was more surprised, Mom O. or us. Mom seemed to sag all of a sudden. Become slightly smaller. The flesh under her eyes resembled tiny chalk-colored hammocks.
As we awaited Mom O.’s response, we studied Van. Noted with substantial regret and some astonishment the high neckline of Van’s shirt. We found comfort though in its snugness. Discussed later how mystery has its own appeal.
“I made these for you myself,” Van said, her voice smooth. “They’re brownies ‘cause I’ve heard how you’re partial to sweets. I wanted to let you know again how much I value the concern you showed me yesterday.”
Mom O. finally found some words to say. “I thank you, Van. This is very sweet of you. It wasn’t necessary, but I appreciate it all the same.”
Jason wheeled his chair backward toward the shelving unit where the coffeemaker sat. Located a plastic knife. Rolled in the direction of the treat pan. Van wagged her pointer finger at him, its dark shine flashing like air-brushed blood.
“Keep your mitts off, Jason,” Van said. “Those are for Mom and Mom alone. She’s earned them, indeed she has. Putting up with you boys and all.” As she finally regarded Mom O., her scarlet-slicked lips slid back to reveal her very white but in need of orthodontia smile. “Honestly, I don’t know how you do it.”
None of us could remember Mom O’Dell missing a day’s work ever but when we arrived at the office the next day her seat was empty.
“Had to call 911 last night,” Mark told us. “Mom had a terrible bout of diarrhea. They’ll discharge her later today. Remind me to pick up Gatorade.”
Jason positioned himself in front of Mom O.’s candy dish. His eyes fairly gleamed, probably at the thought of a day without Mom limiting his sweet intake.
“That’s awful,” he said, as he ferreted through the confections. “Do they know what caused it? Is it—”
Mark didn’t glance up. “No, Jason. It is not contagious,” he said. He twisted in his chair to rummage in the trash can. It was an effort to catch his next sentence. “Seems it may have been something she ate last night.”
In concert, our mouths gaped. Adam spoke first.
“It was them brownies, wasn’t it?”
Charlie moaned. “Aw, man,” he said. “I should’ve known.”
As one, we turned to face him. Waited.
Charlie reached in his back pocket, produced a granola bar and a tube of salted mixed nuts. Ripped the bar's packaging with his teeth.
“Van’s a horrible cook,” he said. “Can’t think of anyone worse.” He wrestled with the slit on the bag of nuts. Spoke again once he got it open. “Her mother died when she was young so she never really learned her way around a kitchen.”
Mark smacked the desk and we all jumped. “Why the heck didn’t you warn me, Charlie? Mom could’ve dumped ‘em and pretended to like ‘em. No one’d be the wiser.”
Charlie waited to speak until his mouth wasn’t full. “She told me she found the recipe on the Internet. Said it had five stars. I figured . . . figured they’d probably be okay.” His probably sounded weak.
Mark’s exhale made his lips flap. “Well, at least some good came of it. They found out Mom’s heart’s terrible.”
Our chins all stuck forward at the same time. Adam spoke first. “I'm sorry to hear that, Mark. Will she be okay?”
“Lord willing, she will," Mark said. "They put her on a half dozen drugs. Hopefully one of ‘em’ll do the job. But let’s make an effort not to rile her up, okay?”
(To read the first part of this story, click here.)