By Karen Brode
Hazel’s neighborhood had been asleep a long time when Opal pulled up behind the car in the driveway. Opal was in a fix. Even so, she knew what she could do and what she couldn’t do. There is no way on God’s green earth she could ever sleep in a rat bed.
Opal stared for a second or two at her sister’s house. The bushes outside were trimmed, the grass mowed. There was no table propped up against the side of the house or boxes of dirty toys spilling off of the porch. Relief washed over her. She took a deep, cleansing breath.
With renewed purpose, she took to the front porch steps and peered into the darkened house. Hazel’s room was just off the porch. The curtains were closed, but Opal persevered.
“Hazel!” she whispered as loudly as she deemed appropriate. She tapped her fingernail against the screen until it hit the glass of the window. “Hazel, it’s me!”
Opal put her ear to the window and listened. When she heard no movement, she tapped harder with her knuckle and spoke a little louder.
“Hazel! Get up and let me in!”
A light flickered on inside the room. Moments later, the front door opened a crack.
“Opal,” Hazel said, her voice groggy with sleep. “What time is it?”
Opal pushed her way through the open door using her wedge pillow and suitcase as a battering ram. As soon as she was in the living room, she sank into the nearest chair and sighed.
“I thought you were staying at Cleo’s” Hazel said. She pulled her robe tighter and shuffled over to a lamp on the end table nearest the chair where her sister sat. “Is everything okay?”
Opal leaned her head back and shook her head. “It’s worse than I ever imagined.”
Hazel walked to the chair opposite and sat down.
“I couldn’t stay there,” Opal continued. “You understand, don’t you? You’ve seen how Cleo is living.” She paused for a moment and shuddered. “I don’t know why you didn’t warn me. That house should be condemned. No human being should be allowed to live there.”
“Does Cleo know you’re here?” Hazel finally asked.
“No and you’ve got to help me think of a reason why I left there at this time of the night when Cleo was asleep!”
“I don’t know that I feel comfortable…,” Hazel started to say.
“Well it was because of you that I said I’d stay there in the first place. Cleo obviously doesn’t realize what state she’s living in. You’re the only one who could’ve warned me. So now you need to help me soothe Cleo when she wakes up tomorrow to find me gone.”
“You didn’t leave a note or anything?” Hazel asked. She looked down at her robe and picked off a couple of balls of fuzz.
“If I had stayed there one more second, I am sure I would have caught my death. Are you going to help me or not?”
Opal felt the heat rise in her face and suddenly she was hungry.
“Do you have anything to eat? I don’t think I ever ate after everything that happened. I could tell you stories about Cleo’s kitchen and the awful corndogs she wanted to fix for us, but not on an empty stomach.”
Hazel grimaced at the mention of corndogs, which gave Opal a sense of satisfaction.
Hazel nodded then. “I think I have something you could have.” She rose and shuffled toward the kitchen.
It took Opal a few tries, but she finally got out of the chair she had been sitting in. When she entered the kitchen, Hazel had already started warming pork chops in an iron skillet.
“That is a sight for sore eyes,” Opal said. She smiled for the first time since arriving in Denison.
When the pork chops were ready, the two sisters sat at Hazel’s table while Opal told her the entire story about the house, the fire, Cleo’s face covered in soot, bird cages in the bathtub, and finally, the dead rat in the guest bed.
“Oh my goodness,” Hazel said, covering her mouth. “I honestly didn’t realize it was that bad. I’ve never been past the living room.”
Opal nodded and swallowed another bite of pork chop. “It’s worse than bad.”
Hazel chewed on her bottom lip for a moment and then said, “What should we tell Cleo tomorrow? She’s definitely going to wonder why you left in the middle of the night.”
Opal felt a tug of guilt, which only made her eat faster. Soon she had nearly half a pork chop in her mouth and she couldn’t talk. It took some time before she could swallow all of that, but by then she had an idea.
“What if we tell her I had a horrible migraine headache and I knew you would have the right kind of medicine?”
Hazel looked down at the table and slowly looked back up at Opal.
“Do you…” she started. “Do you really have a headache?”
Opal felt certain that, even if she didn’t have a headache now, she would have had a horrible one had she stayed the whole night in Cleo’s house. Just thinking about it made her rub at her temples.
“I could,” she said. She squinted her eyes. “I do.”
Hazel cleared her throat. Opal knew that meant she hadn’t been very convincing. Still, it was all she could come up with to explain why she had gone.
“How about we get some sleep tonight and see how we feel in the morning?” Hazel asked.
Opal nodded. Her plate was clean and she felt certain Hazel was right. The light of the morning would provide answers that the dark of night never could.
Moments after Hazel had whispered goodnight to her sister, she heard Opal snoring.
It reminded her of how her husband Albert had snored all those years ago. He could snore louder than anyone. What she would give now to have him back lying beside her keeping her awake. It was kind of a comfort to hear Opal in the other bedroom bringing down the house with all that noise.
It seemed only moments that Hazel had drifted off to sleep before the phone rang. There was no chance that Opal was going to wake up to answer that call. Hazel shuffled down the hall toward the telephone. Even before she said hello, she heard Cleo yelling.
“Opal’s missing! She went to bed here last night and now she’s gone. Her car is gone. Her things are gone. I didn’t even hear her leave! Do you think someone came and got her in the night?”
“Cleo, it’s okay,” Hazel interrupted. She hesitated and looked down the hall toward the room where Opal was surely awake but too cowardly to come out and take her medicine. Hazel cleared her throat before continuing. “Opal came here because she got one of those old bad migraines. She knew I had medicine for it.”
There was an audible sigh over the phone. “Well why didn’t she tell me she was leaving?” Cleo asked.
“I’m sure she just didn’t want to bother you. It was late but it wasn’t worth waking you so that you’d worry.”
Cleo paused on the other end of the line and Hazel wondered what she was thinking.
After a while, she finally said, “Well, I guess that was nice of Opal. But I’m sorry she woke you up for something like that. I hope she’s feeling better.”
Hazel felt relieved that the worst was over, but she also felt a little worried about how the rest of the day might go.
Not long after she hung up the phone with Cleo, Hazel and Opal sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Neither seemed in a hurry to get through the meal. The activities waiting for them on the other side of breakfast were not ones either of them looked forward to. Still, when the last bite was taken, Hazel knew they had run out of reasons not to go visit their sister.
“Are you about ready to go to Cleo’s house?” she asked.
Color drained from Opal’s face. “Maybe you could tell her you had to take me to the hospital in the night and I’ve been quarantined in a special ward so no one can visit me.” She smiled sheepishly and then said, “Is there such an ailment as rat fever? You could say they’re suspecting I have some sort of rat disease.”
Hazel might have thought that was funny at another time when she had been able to sleep but she frowned at her sister and sighed.
“Alright,” Opal said. “I’ll go. But I won’t enjoy it.”
Cleo was in her robe when she opened the door to her house. She still had black soot all over her face. Hazel was glad Opal had warned her. It was a little shocking, though, even with the warning.
“How’s your migraine, Opal?” Cleo asked.
Opal rubbed her head. ” I got a few hours sleep and I’m feeling a little better.”
Cleo looked unconvinced. Hazel wondered if Opal saw Cleo’s look of suspicion. She didn’t seem to. She was smiling in that judgmental way she had. She guessed that Opal was convincing herself that her reasons for lying were merited because Cleo had not managed to wipe the soot off her face. Somehow, Opal being who she was, would see that as being less than upstanding, which would justify the lie she told her sister.
Hazel pressed her lips together and then pushed passed both women into the living room.
“We need to have a plan,” she said. “We need to start in one room and do one thing and then we’ll finish that and go on to the next chore.” She started toward the kitchen and continued. “I’m thinking that we should clean out the freezer and refrigerator.”
Cleo was hot on Hazel’s heels into the kitchen and Opal was not far behind. The look on Cleo’s sooty face was deep concern and, for a moment, Hazel felt sorry for her.
When Hazel opened the door to the freezer, several frozen items fell onto the floor. She picked up the first package. At one time it had been a small roast, but there was a hole in the plastic covering and it was freezer burnt. Hazel placed it on the edge of the countertop.
“Cleo, where are your trash bags? We need to separate out what we need to throw out and what we need to keep,” Hazel said.
Before Hazel could brace herself Cleo jumped in front of her and pointed a finger in her face.
“Now, you listen here. You think I’m going to just do what you and Opal want me to do, but this is my kitchen, and that is my meat. I happen to know someone in Sherman who wants this meat! I’m not throwing it away.”
Hazel looked over at Opal. She could see her sister ready to step in and blast Cleo with everything she hadn’t said the day before.
“Look, Cleo,” Hazel said holding the meat up so she could see it. “This has been in the freezer for four years. It can’t be good anymore.”
Cleo grabbed the meat out of her sister’s hands, shoved it into the freezer, and slammed the door before it could fall out again.
“It’s not like it’s been sitting out all this time,” Cleo said. “It’s been in the freezer, so it’s still good!”
Hazel looked at the closed freezer door and sighed. This was going to be more difficult than she thought.
“Let’s start in one of the other rooms, then,” she said. She gave Opal a look that told her to keep her mouth shut and then continued. “How about we do the guest bedroom first?”
Opal practically skipped to the bedroom, if you could call what she did skipping, given her physical impediments and all the junk crowding up the floors around them.
Hazel decided it would be too mean to start with the dead rat, so she suggested they take the trash bags to the street so they could be picked up.
Cleo looked like her head might explode then and there. Her face turned red. She picked up and clutched one of the dolls Opal had tossed on the floor the night before. She held it tightly to her chest like a little girl might do.
“There are very important things in those bags,” she said. “I set aside some of Neal’s shirts in one of them so I could give them to his friend Ralph. I just haven’t had time to call him to come get them.”
“Okay. We’ll leave the bags for now. How about this stack of magazines?” Hazel thumbed through them. “You’ve got Family Circle, McCalls, Redbook, Southern Living. Can we take these out to the street?”
“Why on earth would you throw those magazines away?” Cleo put the doll down on a box and grabbed the magazines out of Hazel’s arms. “There are all kinds of recipes and stories in those magazines that I want to clip out.”
Hazel jumped when Opal practically burst at the seams. She watched her older sister move faster than she ever thought possible. Opal grabbed as many trash bags as she could and ran out the door. She was putting them in the trunk of Hazel’s car before either of the other women knew exactly what was going on.
Cleo chased after her and yelled, “What are you doing? Those are my things!”
Hazel stayed hidden by the frame of the door. She watched as some of Cleo’s neighbors came out into their yards.
Cleo pointed at Opal and turned to them. “She is stealing my things! Citizen’s Arrest! Somebody call 911.”
Nobody moved. Hazel watched as Cleo grabbed all of the bags from the car and took them back to the house.
Opal was right. It was worse than she had thought. Clearly, Cleo was not going to let them get rid of anything. Hazel walked out on the porch and felt completely defeated.
Neither she nor Opal talked on the way back to Hazel’s house. There just wasn’t anything to say.
After a few hours, Hazel called Cleo. She wanted so badly to impress upon her sister that Opal would be going back to Arkansas soon.
“You know Opal was just trying to help. She came because you asked her to, but when she took some of those bags out to my car, you accused her of being a thief. Neither of us feel right coming back to help out if we’re going to be called a thief.”
Cleo listened to all that Hazel said. Then she said, “I can’t let Opal come back over here until the fruit flies die.”
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.