"Meredith?" Cass' reedy voice squeaked.
"Oh good, you're really coming," she sighed with relief. "On your way out, could you stop by the store and pick up a few things?"
I groaned inwardly, but tried to keep my voice light as I replied, "Sure, Cass; what do you need?"
"Oh... How about a jar of pickles? Oh, and a box of crackers! And if you could pick up some fish sticks, and a bag of string cheese, and a bag of salad, that would be wonderful!"
I wondered at the variety of the things she wanted, but I knew she would take offense if I questioned her.
"Sure," I told my sister, "I'll swing by the store on my way out of town."
"Lovely!" Cassandra responded quickly, and hung up the phone.
I picked up the items at the Market Basket and tried to make my way toward the freeway. At last, I was "home free."
Not an hour after I had gotten on the freeway, Cass called again.
"Oh, Meredith, I almost forgot! Could you pick up some Light Homestyle Ranch? It's my favorite kind!"
This was threatening to get out of hand, I could tell. "Cass," I tried to reason with her, "they only carry those at Manny's Foods."
"Well, I know, Mer!" Cass sounded shocked that I should consider her presumptuous at all. "There's one between Beaumont and Austin, isn't there?"
I rolled my eyes and checked the GPS. "Yeah, there is, but it's more than ten miles off--"
"It's just a quick stop, Mer!" Cass whined, "And while you're there, you can pick up a few pints of ice cream. Oh! And some frozen dinners, like those pot pies! And orange juice, I have been craving orange juice!"
I knew I had to cut her off before she went much longer. "Okay, I'll get all that stuff for you."
"Oh Meredith! Normally you know I wouldn't put such an insignificant matter on you like this—“
Oh yeah, you would!
"--but you know how housekeepers are these days. I swear, Darla has the itchiest palms of anyone I know!" She groaned painfully, most likely for my benefit. "A poor innocent sufferer like me has so few friends these days!"
"I'll stop by Manny's, and maybe I can make it there before dinner is over."
"Okay, Meredith, hurry on over!"
I shook my head and exited the freeway. Cass said to hurry, even as she piled on the errands!
I picked up the things at Manny's, and by the time I got back in the car, there was another message from my sister.
"Hey, Mer... I'm out of cookie dough... and soda, but you can just pick up a couple bottles of Coke when you get to Austin. And if you wanted to pick up some doughnuts for tomorrow's breakfast that would be fine."
I tried to keep my cool, but when I hit the freeway, my temper got the better of me.
"Does that woman have anything in her larder?" I fumed. "Good golly!" I felt like she had invited me over just so I could get this stuff for her because she was too lazy and too busy being ill to do it herself, and Heaven forbid she be obligated to her own housekeeper to pay her to get them!
As I got closer to Austin, my blood pressure gradually returned to normal. I couldn't be angry with her, I realized, because this is what I would be glad to do for my sister. By the time I returned to the car after making the last stop, I was myself again. I cranked up the radio and sang myself the rest of the way twenty miles out of town to Charlie's ranch, Mangrove Row.
Charlie's dog Trig, a border collie, ran out to meet me.
"Hey girl," I cried as she fawned around my feet, sniffing and panting heavily, "Did you miss me? You're such a good girl!"
I scratched behind her ears, and she sat perfectly still, enjoying my touch.
"Where is Cassie, girl?" I asked Trig. "Is she having dinner?" I moved to the back of my car and took out my bag and the groceries. Trig knew what it meant, and she took off toward the house, barking to alert her mistress.
The Mangrove homestead was a two-story ranch “cottage” with nearly the same square-footage as the Elliot estate, with the exception that rather than being imposing and stuffy, the Mangrove mansion was more like a goodwife opening her arms in welcome.
The minute I stepped in the door, I was greeted by Cassandra's voice emanating from the den.
"What is that infernal dog barking so loud for?" she groused.
I decided to lighten the mood, "Only a poor, weary stranger coming in for something delicious to eat!" I called back, setting the bags of food on the counter.
Cass, who had been sprawled on the couch watching television and looking as feverish as she could manage, leapt up at my voice with alacrity that belied her fever and ran toward me.
"Oh Meredith! You're here! Oh good, I'm starving!" she grabbed the box of crackers and returned to the couch, munching away.
I stood in shock, "Cassandra, it's after seven! You mean you haven't had dinner yet?"
The weariness instantly returned to Cassie and she barely lifted her hand to as me, "Could you bring me a soda, Mer?" As I did so, she went on, "I wish you wouldn't use that tone with me! Of course I haven't had anything to eat since breakfast because it was just then that I felt just dang-awful in my belly, and I've been worried about keeping things down ever since! Can I get some cheese sticks?" she looked up at me like a female, adult version of Oliver Twist.
"All right," I told her with a sigh. I was starving, too, so I didn't have the stomach to argue.
While she munched on cheese and crackers, I pulled out one of the pot pies and heated it in the microwave. Cassie ate her food from a tv tray in the den, and I sat alone at the counter in the kitchen.
When I had finished, I threw away the pie pan and washed the fork I had used. I got myself a tall glass and filled it with orange juice before joining Cassandra in the den.
She finished her show and clicked off the tv.
"How are you doing, Cassandra?" I asked her.
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Where do I start? Charlie left last weekend to a stockyard convention, as I told you before. The man is so demeaning sometimes! I mean, really! I offered to go with him, to keep him company while he was over there, but he kept coming up with all these reasons why I shouldn’t go. Let me tell you, Meredith,” her tone was almost bragging, “I was so hurt and shocked that my own husband didn’t want me around that I promptly came down with a head cold the next day! Of course then I didn’t want him going off, so sick and all alone, but of course, he told me he’d already paid for the trip, he might as well take it!” Cassie threw up her hands in disgust. “There’s Charlie for you! Oh, Meredith, I’ve been battling sickness after sickness since he’s been gone. It started with a head-cold, then it moved on to a sinus infection, then I felt feverish, then I felt nauseous, and today I’ve just felt lethargic and completely not myself!” Her eyes began to moisten with tears, “And Charlie’s gone and he won’t be back till tomorrow and I’m all alone!”
I couldn’t help shaking my head and biting back laughter as Cassie covered her face and wept. She claimed that this scared, hypochondriac, weak, spoiled woman was not herself, but if that was so then she had been someone else besides herself for her entire life!
“You’re not alone, Cass,” I consoled her, “I’m here with you.”
She continued to whimper as she grasped my hand. “I know,” she gasped, “I know you’re here; it’s just so hard to live in this cruel world sometimes!”
I patted her shoulder, “Well, I think all you need is plenty of rest. I’m sure you’ll feel perfectly well in the morning.”
Cassandra braced herself, “You’re right,” she said, “I think I’ll go to bed now.” She immediately stood up, re-wrapped herself in the blanket that had been over her lap, and marched out of the den. I remembered that I had left my suitcase in the kitchen.
As Cass marched upstairs, I called after her, “Do you have a particular room you want me to use?”
She didn’t look back or slow down. “Just pick any of the spare rooms. Darla maintains them all.”
I shook my head, but I glanced through the three downstairs rooms before selecting my favorite one: the one with a view of the horse pasture.
Charlie was largely a cattleman, and though he knew horses, he didn’t have the time or the skill to take care of them. The barn was largely looked after by an older couple, Donny and Barbi. Donny was out in the field now, rounding up the horses and herding them into the barn. I would have to pay them a visit tomorrow, I decided.