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Short Story

Change of Life (copyright, 1999) by Donna Conger

"That's five times. She tells us that we don't visit enough, that she's always home, waiting." Ted paused. "Then we show up and she's not here. It's just like her to pull something like this. Let's go." His voice was clipped. He turned to his wife, his blue eyes blazing.

"Maybe she's sleeping," Candace offered meekly.

"The bell would have wakened her." He spun away. "No, she's gone." He wrenched the car door open. "And we've wasted another day trying to appease her. I'm sick of this."

Candace opened her door. "I like the drive to Monterey, Ted. It gives us time to relax. It's not a total waste."

She buckled her belt as he backed out of the driveway. "A CEO with a sixty hour week chooses what relaxes him. This, Candace, is just a family obligation."

Candace pressed her lips together and stared ahead. When Ted was angry, no amount of optimistic logic would help.

Thelma Benson sighed as the sound of the cars engine faded. She'd called out until she was hoarse. Now, completely alone again, she lifted her prune-like hands and turned them over, studying them with horrified fascination before she let them fall back into the cold bath water. She glanced at the clock again. Fourteen hours of captivity.

Thelma shivered. The water had long since turned chilly. Even if she could reach the faucet, she didn't dare turn on the hot water for fear that it might scald her. She adjusted the bath towel around her shoulders, hoping for warmth. During the night she used it as a pillow. She didn't sleep well, partly because she was afraid she'd slide deeper into her watery prison.

How many times had Ted told her to get someone to stay with her?

Thelma shivered again, this time with fear. The warning signs had given her plenty of notice. The message? Disaster was on the way. Over the last four days, her hips and knees short circuited many times. She stumbled and buckled, grabbing furniture as the bones seemed to disappear from her legs. After dinner, her knees went numb. She made a resolution to call her doctor first thing Monday. She would talk to Ted about it on his Sunday morning visit. No need to alarm him before then.

By nine p.m. last night, Thelma's fear was palpable. She drew a steaming bath with plenty of bath salts. She decided that she just needed to relax.

Fifteen minutes later, her shoulders unknotted and her legs felt marvelous. She soaked for thirty minutes more then reached forward to let the water out.

A searing pain struck her in the back. Thelma's thunderous heartbeat seemed to muffle her intense cry of pain.

Her mind was sharp in threatening situations, honed by a one-hour labor--every second of it intense--and near delivery in the limousine. She often thought her birthing experience prepared the way for a lifetime of boardroom brawls, business disasters, and family squabbles that always ended up on the front page of national newspapers.

She never lost her head. She would simply roll over onto her knees and lift herself up. Then she would pull herself out and call the doctor.

But nothing happened. Her legs were dead weight.

Thelma still didn't panic, but she knew what was wrong. The pin, she thought, angry with herself. What goes around comes around.

It all started when her friends cajoled the seventy-year-old woman into an Aspen skiing trip. Thelma perceived it as a dare. They thought she'd turn them down. She was confident, after watching others, that she could handle the intermediate slopes without taking lessons. Thelma did not want to be seen on the beginner's slopes in Aspen with children. The press found her no matter where she went, and they took devilish delight in snapping pictures at the most inopportune times.

It happened quickly. The result was a broken hip. Thelma wailed in the emergency room at the diagnosis; she would have liked to emerge from the trip with a fashionable injury such as a broken leg or foot. Busted hips were for frail, old people.

The break was so bad that it required a pin in her hip. The injury further infuriated her because it left her feeling clumsy. She remained a hermit for more than three months.

Her self-imposed solitary confinement began to gnaw at her nerves. California offered little to do when one was house bound. She staunchly maintained that she needed to live a normal life and that meant doing something constructive. One day, she asked her gardener to disengage the front sprinklers. She would water the front lawn herself.

After dousing the half-acre to her satisfaction, she headed for the faucet. She'd gotten some sun, some fresh air, and a chance to move about with ease. She felt invigorated. She walked with confidence, feeling healed and whole.

But the wet grass did its magic. The fall took her by surprise, but it wasn't as painful as the tumble on that accursed Colorado Mountain. She looked for signs of serious injury. She experienced only one stab in her back during the next week. She believed she'd escaped any serious consequences.

Fatigue washed over her. She let her head sag against her makeshift pillow. Sleep entreated her to surrender to it. She closed her eyes, knowing she would not truly rest. She decided on something more constructive this time. She prayed for the first time in her life.

She woke early, cold and uncomfortable. Body parts that weren't numb ached miserably. Her irritation launched desperate plans through her clouded brain. She knew the odds of being heard were stacked against her: her private bathroom was off the far side of the master bedroom on the second floor of the ten-room house. The front door was locked and Ted had no key.

That was the way shed wanted it, but the logic didn't matter now.

She sighed. Ted told her several times to get a condo with one floor. Thelma was surprised at the lump in her throat. A chill rippled through her. "I must try again," she mumbled. She took a deep breath. Only her arms were operable. She tried to throw herself over the side of the tub so she would fall out. It was no use. She tried pulling herself up and over again, but she had no upper body strength.

At last the regrets began. "If only I'd stayed with the therapy," she told herself softly.

The phone rang. She whipped her head toward the adjoining bedroom, wishing she could will the message to say, and "If this is Ted, please come to the house. I need your help.

She knew his visits were only out of obligation. She knew that because she'd created a child exactly like herself; stubborn, emotionally detached, and brilliantly ruthless. Thelma often wondered what her tender hearted daughter-in-law saw in him. Ted was handsome, the spitting image of her: blond, tall, and fit. His wealth, though impressive, wasn't the kind of criteria that would impress Candace. It surely wasn't his personality. She loved him, and Thelma never could figure out why.

But she was glad. Thelma could never allow herself to show emotion toward her son, but she assumed that he knew she loved him. A thought gripped her; he did know, didn't he? He had to know. What if he didn't? What it she died here and he never knew how she felt? His father knew she loved him because she told him on his deathbed ten years ago. He smiled feebly and nodded then he died. That had given her courage to go on without him.

What other mistakes had she made? Her mind locked onto analyzing the last thirty years. Thelma was an antithesis of most of the women in her generation. She'd married late then had a child well into her thirties, after five years of marriage in which she endured questions about her fertility.

Theodore Benson I wanted more children. Once Thelma had Theodore Benson II, an heir to the Benson Financial Conglomerate, that part of her life was complete. She was more concerned with what she could accomplish, and that did not include room for more children.

Ted's birth seemed so recent now, when there was nothing else to think of. The sights, the sounds, the pain! Her exhilaration at the doctors pronouncement of a male still made her smile. Today, however, Thelma felt guilty at her relief that she had not borne a daughter. Most females, were, in Thelma's eyes, weak. Shed spent a great deal of energy fighting against her own deficiencies.

Thelma never cried. But tonight tears built behind her eyes. Yes, there were regrets after all. The thought of a daughter she would never have haunted her now.

Perhaps that was why her one soft spot was Candace. Her charm, her grace, and her soft-spoken demeanor appealed to Thelma. Candace offset Ted's harsh personality; that gave Thelma a break from looking into the male mirror of herself.

She jerked her head up, disoriented. She checked the time. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, four hours since Ted came and left.

Candace slowly lowered her novel. In a second, it lay on her lap, page down. She raised her head, turning her head this way and that, not knowing what she heard or what she thought she heard.

There was nothing. But the odd feeling she had since they'd left her mother-in-law's house was still with her.

She expected their visits. It wasn't like Thelma to not be home. Thelma was fanatically efficient. Why didn't she call as she normally would and tell them she wouldn't be there?

Thelma Benson was an overbearing mother. She could be cold. She used intimidation then guilt to get what she wanted. But Ted fought back with equal ferociousness.

There was always a reason for whatever she did. She didn't just disappear. Besides, she liked Candace. Candace had expected, given the press and her treatment of Ted, that she would be chopped into little pieces at the slightest provocation. But Thelma treated her tenderly. She felt as close to Thelma as she did with her own mother.

She touched her firm belly with a wistful smile. It was supposed to be a surprise. Ted and Candace tried for four years to conceive. She could barely contain herself as they rang the doorbell this morning.

Maybe nothing was wrong. Perhaps premonitions were something that happened to expectant mothers.

She picked up her book again. But five minutes later, she was in her car, driving toward Monterey. She called. No answer. Even if she was not home, she wanted to leave a note. She wanted to check again.

She phoned the police en route.

Candace arrived just in time to see an officer speed toward her. She turned pink, snapped off the motor, and jumped out of the car.

"Thank goodness you're here ma'am. We've been circling the property but we found nothing. Then a minute ago, we heard a sound."

"What sound?" she asked, speeding toward the door.

"A knock--" one started.

"More like a thud," the other said. He pointed. "Up there, against the second window.

"We called out," the other resumed, "and thought we heard a cry.

Candace was busy punching the alarm code. Only Thelma had given it to her. "A cry?" she asked breathless.

"More like a muffled cry," he offered.

She pushed the door open. "Mother Benson!" she shouted frantically.

She heard a muffled cry and darted into another room. The cries grew softer as she moved deeper into the kitchen.

"We think its coming from upstairs," an officer said. She moved toward the stairs.

"Candace," came the weak cry.

Her heart hammered as she whipped down the hall toward Thelma's room. Candace knew that Thelma kept a great deal of cash on hand. A theory began to form in her mind, one she hoped was wrong. She bolted into the room, two officers directly behind her.

"Mother Benson?"

"In here." The voice was weak. She imagined her beaten and tied. She swung her head to the officers, terror etched on her face.

The officers nodded, pulling guns. They stepped forward. One pushed Candace back with his hand and kicked the door open. Thelma's red eyes were wide. Her body was slumped in the tub, the towel covering her body.

Candace was speechless for a second. "Mother Benson? Youre taking a--bath?"

"Oh, Candace," she said, barely audible. "Since nine o'clock last night."

Nearly twenty hours! The exclamation never came. Thelma admired that quality in Candace. She didn't state the obvious. Candace turned to the officers. "Please leave us alone. Thanks."

"We'll call an ambulance," one said.

Thelma normally would have objected, but she only closed her eyes. "I thought I was going to die here," she said meekly. She placed a cold, wrinkled palm on Candace's face, savoring the warmth of her skin. "I heard voices. I threw soap at the window, hoping."

They stared into each others watery eyes. "Let me get you out. You look like a prune." Her soft smile prompted one from Thelma.

"No child. You're too small. And besides, a woman carrying my grandchild shouldn't be lifting a hundred eighty pound woman."

Candace's astonishment solicited a chuckle from Thelma. "How did you know?"

"Your face is glowing."

Candace smiled. "Ah ha. But you don't know everything." She grinned. "We're expecting twins."

Thelma's laugh was so guttural that it caused an officer to lean into the doorway and ask if everything was all right.

"I'm going to be a grandmother, officer," Thelma said. "Two times." She kissed her daughter-in-law.

* * *

Ted's opening comment was, "I told you so," once he heard the story.

Thelma lay in a hospital bed, warm and cozy at last. "Let's not talk about me, son. Let's talk about what names you've considered."

"It's our decision," Ted said, tensing.

"Yes, it is. You name those precious babies whatever you want."

Ted cut a look at Candace as if to say, "What's wrong with her?" He focused on his mother. "Are you going to sell the house, now?"

"Actually, I had another thought in mind. I thought I'd give it away."

Ted's eyes widened. "Mother, I think youve gone insane."

"No, son. The house will go to charity. Maybe they can use it for unwed mothers or something like that."

Candace cooed softly. "What about you?" she asked.

"I'll find a place. Somewhere close to you and your new family. If that's okay with you. I'd like to see my grandchildren often, if I call first, of course."

Ted frowned. "Deal."

Thelma's eyes watered again. She reached for Ted's hand. Ted looked uncomfortably at his wife. She smiled, giving him a nod. Candace had already seen the transformation. Slowly Ted reached for her outstretched fingers. Thelma enveloped his hand then squeezed.

"Two babies," she said with wonder. "No mother could be prouder of her son." Ted's staunch expression mellowed. "I do hope they are girls." Thelma winked at her son.

Ted chuckled softly, shaking his head. "I think I could get to like you this way, Mother."

Thelma's eyes softened even more. "Teddy," she said, using that name for the first time since he was a baby, "I've always wanted you to call me Mom."

Ted considered it then shrugged. "Mom it is."

"No, son, like you mean it, please."

He made a dubious face, mumbling something about calling psychiatry. "Sure, Mom."

"There's nothing wrong with my head. I love you, Teddy. That's all."

He leaned over and kissed her cheek. His eyes warmed as he looked deep into his mother's eyes. "Ditto." He grinned. "Mom."

All three smiled.

 

Tree-lined gateway