Miss Esther Horace of Number 18 Eddington Way looked out her kitchen window while washing her teacup and saucer. Across the street, atop the Chapman’s house, a boy appeared in a bright flash of red.
She dropped her teacup. It clattered into the porcelain sink, but she took no notice. She dried her hands on her apron before bringing her glasses to her eyes, the glasses which hung around her neck on a beaded necklace—her far-away glasses. She kept two pairs of glasses around her neck, forever tangling them. The other pair, the up-close glasses, dangled on a thin chain, easily distinguished from the beaded string. Better to untangle the glasses than get a migraine from bifocals.
Glasses on, vision clear, Esther verified, yes indeed, a boy stood on her neighbor’s house. He was on the roof’s peak, one hand on hip, the other pointing a sword to the sky. The boy wore red tights, with a blue cape fluttering in the wind.
He couldn’t have appeared in a flash of light. Ludicrous. It must have been the sun playing tricks on her eyes.
Esther shook her head. Boys will be boys. Playing super heroes was harmless, but not on a roof. If he fell he’d break his neck.
She removed her glasses, dropping them to her chest, and crossed the kitchen to the telephone. “I better ring the Chapmans, George. Tell them what their boy … what’s his name? Jimmy? No. Similar to Jimmy.”
She spoke to a small, aged, framed photo on the wall of man in uniform, George Smythe, her childhood sweetheart. George had never come home from the war. They never married. They didn’t grow old together.
“Billy. That’s it. Billy Chapman. Didn’t know he was back from hospital. Poor dear. Good news he’s home though, but he shouldn’t be up on the roof. Not in his condition. Oh dear, now I can’t recall just what type of cancer he had.”
She stood lost in thought for a moment.
Now what was I doing? Must remember to call the repairman.
The Grants had been kind enough to lend her a space heater while her furnace was on the blink. She heated her bedroom at night with it.
Did I leave the heater on?
She noticed the telephone. “Oh yes. Call the Chapmans.”
She put on her up-close glasses and opened her address book to the letter C. She ran a finger down the list to the name Chapman, and dialed the number, double-checking each digit as she dialed.
Leukemia. That was the cancer.
Nice family. A boy and girl, man and wife. A good balance.
Good neighbors. Quiet neighbors. She always bought the candy the kids sold for school or scouts or what have you. Even though she couldn’t stomach sweets anymore.
Ring. “We’re sorry. We’re unable to come to the phone—”
Esther disconnected. “Bloody machines for everything these days.” She caught herself. “Sorry George.”
She went back to the window above the sink and swapped eye glasses. The boy still stood in the same spot, posing, like a hood ornament on an automobile.
She’d have to go over there herself and tell the boy to get down.
Esther made sure the stove’s burner was off for the second time since taking up the kettle. One couldn’t be too careful. Did I turn the electric heater off?
She fetched her jacket from the hall cupboard and her purse from the kitchen counter into which she placed the photo of George. Ever since Margerie Kimball’s flat was burgled eight years prior, Esther never left home without George. She eyed the umbrella hanging next to the door. It wasn’t raining; it was sunny—wasn’t it? No matter. Umbrellas were always handy. She grabbed it and hooked it over her arm before working the door locks.
Going to ask Billy Chapman to get down from the roof. He has Leukemia. I live at Number 18 Eddington Way. If you repeated facts and actions in your mind it kept you mentally sharp. Years ago she had learned the trick from her dear friend Edith, God rest her.
Before removing the door chain Esther checked the stove’s burner again. Can’t be too careful. She looked through the door’s peephole. No stranger lurked on the doorstep. She stepped outside, put on her far-away glasses, and looked up and down the street. No neighbors working in their gardens and, most important, no ne’er-do-wells lay in wait. Across the street, the boy still stood on the house, sword extended.
Going to ask Billy Chapman to get down from the roof. He has Leukemia.
Esther switched to her up-close glasses, closed and locked her front door. She removed a toothpick from her purse and stuck it in the doorjamb, beneath the middle hinge. Another trick from Edith. The toothpick would fall if anyone opened the door while she was away. She walked the short path to the street, using the umbrella as a cane.
Eddington Way stretched half a mile in a lazy loop, almost a spiral, before dead-ending. Retired couples, mostly, lived in small, box-like houses fringed with trees lining the street. Not an affluent neighborhood, but people kept their grass clipped.
Esther had never been accosted in her neighborhood, but vigilance was the price for safety. She walked with one hand in her purse, clutching her screecher, a small aerosol can which emitted an ear-splitting shriek when depressed.
She glanced both ways before hobbling across the street.
In front of the Chapman house she looked up at the boy, shielding her eyes from the sun with a hand. “What’re you doing Jimmy?”
He giggled. “You know my name is Billy, Miss Esther. Now I’m the Crimson Protector.”
“Okay dear. You must come down.”
“I can’t. I’m protecting you. I have to save you from the bad thing.”
“That’s nice dear. Can’t you save me from down here?”
Billy pointed to the ground with his sword, a plastic toy sword. “If I was down there you wouldn’t have come.” He giggled again.
“It’s not safe on the roof. How’d you get up there?”
“I ran up the wall. I’m faster than gravity now.”
“Where’s your mother at?”
Lower lip growing fat, he looked ready to cry. Without another word he turned and walked over the roof’s peak. Out of sight on the back of the house.
Esther went around the Chapman house, through the gate into their back garden. Billy wasn’t on the roof. She walked back and forth, examining the roof from all angles. Billy had disappeared.
“Mrs. Horace? What are you doing?” Janet Chapman stood outside the door on her back patio. Her red eyes and blotchy face told Esther she had been crying.
“It’s Miss Horace, dear. Never married.”
“Miss Horace, what on earth are you doing back here?”
“Sorry. I tried ringing you. I saw Billy on your roof. Didn’t seem safe.”
Janet gasped. Her hand flew to her face and covered her mouth.
In the distance a siren wailed, an alternating low-high tone.
Janet’s expression changed from horror to anger. “Having a laugh? Well, it’s not a bit funny. You’re sick Miss Horace. Sick.”
“I was looking through my kitchen window—”
“William died in hospital last night. Get off my property. I never want to see you again.” Janet Chapman went back inside, slamming the door behind her.
Esther stared at the closed door. What had happened? Billy hadn’t look dead. Nor had he looked like a ghost. Was she mental? If you worried about your sanity it meant you were okay, didn’t it? But if you knew you only needed to worry about your sanity to be sane, then you could still be crazy but smart enough to worry about it. Which meant worrying about your mental state wasn’t an indicator of your mental state.
The siren’s wail interrupted Esther’s thoughts. Closer now. She walked around the house, back through the gate, to the front. Across the street, out her open kitchen window, white smoke billowed.
Esther felt nothing but a numb acceptance. She hadn’t turned off the electric heater. Sad, yet funny … almost.
She stood at the curb, watching flames engulf her kitchen window curtains. A fire truck pulled in front of her house, blocking her view. Esther sat down on the curb. She’d have a bloody hard time getting back up. No matter. One of the nice men from Fire Services could help her.
She removed the small, framed photograph of George from her purse and touched his cheek with her fingers.
“Looks like the boy really did save me, George.”