"Well, I'm headed to bed. You all right there, girlie?"
I was almost through the transcription batch, but Helen was growing deafer; she wouldn't hear unless I yelled -- and she wouldn't settle down until I responded. So I rose from the tablet phone, running from the study through the living room to the front door.
Opening up and leaning out, I hollered, "I'm just fine, Helen! You sleep well!"
"Thanks, Paula dear," she replied. "Don't stay up too late now."
I smirked. My neighbor had forgotten, or didn't care to remember, that we -- that I -- was usually active at night and slept all day. But I could forgive her a few memory lapses. Mom and Dad had taught me that we owed everything to Helen -- our home and its comfortable safety, our access to food and clothes, our ability to stay healthy and mostly self-reliant -- and that I was never to be rude to her.
When the illness came, Dad succumbed first, then Mom a few days later. Helen had done everything in her power to save them, and when I fell ill she feared terribly that I would die too. But she dosed me with antibiotics and hovered over me, and I recovered. For the first few months after my illness, she checked on me multiple times a day, bringing little gifts or stories from her errand-running, just to make sure I was all right. I appreciated her concern, but I wasn't comfortable with the frequency of her visits, so I was relieved when she settled into a little ritual of checking in with me once in the morning and once before she went to bed. While Helen could be a bit of a mother hen, I had to admit that the sound of her voice helped me feel a little less lonely. I suppose she felt the same way.
I closed the door, heading back to work. As Dad used to say, another day, another dime.
Helen had bought the phone for Dad. He'd tried to refuse -- it was so expensive! -- but she'd insisted, showing him all the ways being wired could improve our lives. "My grandson got one for me," she'd said, "and I don't know how I managed without it."
The phone was our initiation into a larger world. Once we'd figured out how to open a bank account online, how to make money online, how to buy things online, we didn't have to rely on our old survival methods. We could buy proper furnishings, handmade clothes and food, and have them all delivered to Helen's address. We could even stream new movies, and I could talk to people online about them. I was almost starting to feel like a typical person when Dad got sick.
Well, no point in dwelling on that. At least I had my neighbor, and I had the tablet phone.
I'd settled down and was just about to resume transcribing when I heard a soft cry and felt a shock run through the house -- a sudden hard THUMP, like a miniature earthquake. That couldn't be good. A horrible sick feeling spread out from my stomach.
"Helen?" I yelled. Then, in a panic, "HELEN?!" No reply.
She must have fallen. And if she wasn't responding, she was probably unconscious. She might have had a stroke or a heart attack. I had to get help right away.
Well, that's what the phone was for.
"911 operator, please state the nature of your emergency."
I tried to keep my head clear, not to say anything that would give me away. "My neighbor Helen had a fall and she isn't responding when I call her. I think she's had a stroke. I can't do any CPR and I need a doctor."
"Could I get your name and address, please?"
The place where we sent the packages. "Oh. Yes. The address is for Helen Pratt, 134 Northeast 29th Street."
"Helen is the woman who you believe had the stroke, correct?"
"Yes, that's right. Please come quickly."
"And could I get your name, please?"
I hung up, shut the phone down, ran upstairs, climbed into the wardrobe in my parents' room and, hands shaking, shut it tight after me. Everything I'd seen and read about 911 services told me that they checked up on every call, even false alarms, so someone would arrive soon to check on Helen. And I couldn't let them see me.
I stayed there, still shaking and trying not to throw up, as the paramedics arrived. I heard them working on Helen, talking about what to do next. I listened as they loaded her onto a stretcher and ushered her out of the house. And I wanted to wail as the noise of the sirens drifted away.
Mom and Dad were right. We owed everything to Helen. If she died, how would I survive?
* * *
I heard nothing from my neighbor for four days. Even though I tried to keep calm and stick to routine, it was pretty much impossible. I paced, tried to eat, threw up, binged on Netflix, slept an hour or two at a time at most. Every little noise had me on high alert.
And then, on the morning of the fifth day, while I was just getting into bed, I heard the sound of Helen's front door opening.
I thought it was her. I honestly thought it was her. That's the only way I can explain why I did what I did. Because I raced downstairs to the front door, opened it up without thinking and sang out, "Helen! Is that you?"
And that's how I came face to face with Helen's grandson.
He was huge -- six feet if he was an inch -- with messy brown hair, a stubbly chin and dark eyes that stared down at me in absolute astonishment. I stared back up at him, too shocked to retreat.
At least he didn't try to grab me. Instead he fumbled for a chair, dragged it toward him, sat down heavily in it, still staring at my house and at me standing in the doorway.
"Are... are you Paula?" he asked.
"Uh. OK. Um. Grandma, uh, Helen says to tell you thanks, first of all. I guess you called 911 and it saved her life. They had to do emergency heart surgery..."
"Is she going to be all right?" I burst out, and he twitched -- surprised I could talk, I supposed.
"Yeah, I think so. Surgeon thinks she'll get through this fine. But, uh, she wanted me to come talk to you. She was worried about you."
"I'm fine," I lied. "As long as Helen's all right. When is she coming home?"
I couldn't read his expression. "Well, that's what she wanted me to talk to you about. She wants to come back here, but her surgeon wants her in assisted living now. And she said she couldn't move, that this was her home and that you needed her here."
My legs were wobbling. I hung onto the doorknob for stability. "What -- what's assisted living?"
"It's like an apartment where you have doctors and nurses to check up on you."
"Helen's already a nurse," I protested, feeling tears well up. "And this is her home." And it's my home too, I thought but didn't say.
He nodded. "I know, but she's going to need extra care after this. She can't live alone any more."
"She doesn't live alone! She has me!"
What he said next I already knew, but it still hurt miserably to hear. "How are you gonna take care of her when you're so tiny?" And the moment he said it, I could see he wished he hadn't.
"Oh man, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, Paula. This has got to be so hard for you. It's hard for me too. I thought Grandma was crazy when she told me there was someone living in her dollhouse. I mean, who wouldn't? But she was so worried and she kept telling me I should check on you, and... whoa, are you all right?"
And that was the last I heard from him for a while, because that's when I blacked out.
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