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Sheila knew the truth the second the small, cloth bag fell from the inconveniently high cabinet above the wood stove. She knew the truth the second she jumped in surprise and knocked her funny bone on the kitchen table behind her. She knew the truth the second she sucked in a tiny breathe and bent down to pick up the relatively diminutive sac from the water stained, heavily trodden carpet. She knew the truth the second the frayed strings of the bag came undone by her fingers and its contents were revealed into her shaking palms. Sheila knew the very second, the very millisecond even, she felt the breeze blow the curtains hanging in front of the window against her back that maybe, a part of her had known all along.
Sheila closed the bag and drew in a penetrating breathe. Her eyes stung for a moment as a sense of misdirection overcame her and she was at a loss of what to do next. At last, when the curtains rustled once more, she stuffed the bag into her apron pocket and spun away from the table to quickly snatch the matches from the still open cupboard. Her hands still shook and it took a few unsteady swipes to get one lit. Once the stove was burning, Sheila braced herself against the counter, trying to steady her breathing and calm herself, her hair falling in loose strands from her bun. What am I to do? What am I to do? She closed her eyes and bit her bottom lip softly, allowing the welcoming warmth to wash over the room.
At last, there was an insistent knock on the front door, echoing down the short hallway. Sheila’s eyes snapped open, and she felt the weight of the linen bag rest against her thigh. Taking a deep breath, she stood up straight, pushed her hair behind her ears, and slammed the cabinet door shut. At the front door, she allowed a peek at who it was, before opening it with a welcoming smile. “Why, good morning, Mr. Smith! How are you today?”
A tall, dark haired man stood on the door step, an air of purpose about him. He held a covered plate with what looked like a pie on it and tipped his hat in welcome while returning Sheila’s smile and nodding politely, “Very well, thank you. I’ve come to give my condolences to Bertha for your unfortunate loss.” He raised the plate slightly as if an indicator, “My wife baked this pie, but I’m afraid she was feeling a bit ill, so allotted to stay home.”
Sheila’s heart skipped a beat and she tried to maintain a normal demeanor. Keeping up her smile, she said, “Well that’s awfully kind of you and Katherine. But I’m afraid Ms. Anderson is out for the moment. But I’d be happy to give her the pie and you are very welcome to come back later.”
Mr. Smith offered her the plate and gestured with his hand, “We may very well do that this evening. I suppose you’ve had many visitors lately, just a horrible thing for William to die so young, just horrible.”
By now, Sheila was in a cold sweat and she prayed Mr. Smith wouldn’t notice the change in the pitch of her voice. She shook her head emphatically, and tried to swallow the discomfort, “Oh yes, yes, we’ve had the whole town in and out of here these past few days. Mr. Anderson was a good man; a lot of people respected him.”
She felt Mr. Smith’s eyes boring in to her with a strange intensity and he leaned forward furtively, as if their conversation were about to become much more important. “I suppose he was, wasn’t he?” There was a pause and Sheila caught her breathe. “You know, there is talk amongst the town that William has a large sum tucked away at the bank he’s been saving his entire life. A very large sum.” A heavy silence followed and Mr. Smith’s presence became so over powering Sheila had trouble concentrating.
She blinked repeatedly and struggled to speak, “I –um-I guess…that that is quite a rumor, isn’t it, sir?”
Mr. Smith’s eyes were appraising, as if studying her reaction to his words. Drawing back slightly he continued with less intensity, “Well I suppose…” he somehow sought her gaze, “if there were money, it’d all go to Bertha due to his ‘unfortunate’ passing.”
Sheila hesitated, still not sure what to do with herself, or the strange turn this conversation had taken. “I-I suppose.”
He continued to stare for another instant, getting his message across. At last, he stepped back to the edge of the door step and the friendly smile was once again on his face. “Well, then, Ms. Sommers, you have a nice day now. Give Ms. Anderson my respects, if you will, when she…” a small smile curled on his lips, “…when she gets home from the bank, of course.”
Sheila watched the tall, dark man retreat with wide, nervous eyes. Only when he was out of sight did she realize she was still standing in the doorway with a pie in her hand and an apron around her waist. She retreated into the house and back into the kitchen, her palms slippery and her heart frantic. The pie somehow found its way to the table where at least twenty others were already sitting. She began to pace the entire length of the room, her hands wringing anxiously in her apron. What do I do? What do I do? Mr. Smith’s elusive, yet enlightening visit had at least revealed she was not alone. No…he knows too…that’s why he came, he knows too.
Sheila could still feel the half empty, worn linen pouch weighing her down and she slowly came to a halt next to the wood stove, glancing up at the cabinet in spite. She knew what she had to do. She knew what she had to do the second she heard the front door open and the familiar sounds of Ms. Anderson making her entrance. She knew what she had to do the second she heard the rustle of her coat and the sound of her voice calling Sheila’s name. She knew what she had to do the second Bertha appeared in the kitchen door, looking slightly disgruntled, and flushed from the autumn air.
The woman bustled forward, her posture seemingly excited and energized. As if she had just succeeded in some great endeavor. …when she gets back from the bank, of course. “Sheila, my goodness, girl, how many times have I got to call your name?”
Sheila continued to stare back at her mistress, watching as she bent down to look at all the food the concerned townspeople had baked for them to show their support. “I saw Carlson leaving on my way in, what was he doing here?”
Sheila swallowed, her apron growing heavier and heavier with its burden. At last, she choked out the words, “I found it.”
Bertha seemed to not hear her at first, but after a fleeting instant she looked up, obviously confused, “I’m sorry, dear, what?”
More confident, she spoke with more force, “I said, I found it.” She reached into her apron and pulled at the small sac, dropping it with a ‘plop’ on the table, “…this.”
Ms. Anderson stared for a moment, as if by willing it to disappear it actually would. Finally, her nose wrinkled in disgust and she looked back at Sheila fiercely, “You know I use Arsenic for the rats!”
Sheila held her own under the gaze, there was no turning back now, and stood up straighter. “I know that I use Arsenic for the rats, and I certainly don’t keep the bag that’s been missing, for nearly a month now, in the kitchen. After all, we know William hasn’t been feeling well these past few weeks…don’t we?” Even she was surprised by how much her voice hissed and held such a commanding tone.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about! You are way out of line!” Bertha’s cheeks were flushed red and her eyes bulged, from panic or anger Sheila didn’t know.
“I mean, those special ‘teas’ and ‘soups’ you made so he’d ‘feel better’. Poison, Ms. Anderson, all poison!” She squeaked, acutely aware of the hot stove emanating behind her.
“How dare you even suggest I do such a thing to my husband! I loved him, you hear me, loved him!”
Sheila took a staggering breath, “Not more than you loved his money that I’m sure is stuffed in your purse by now!” She reached forward and picked the bag of Arsenic up and dangled it in the air. “Which,” suddenly there was a knock at the door, “is exactly why Mr. Smith and I called the sheriff.”
And then, Sheila realized, in a split moment, that maybe she’d known what she had to do all along.