Chapter Fourteen: Imagining Things, Pt.1
Another bout of déjà vu swept over Meryl as she found herself retracing familiar steps through Dolores Hawthorne's empty home. But whereas before the darkened rooms seemed comforting, now they felt gloomy and unsettling, what with their odd assortments of half-finished concoctions and strange implements scattered throughout. Now thoroughly in investigative mode, Meryl had to wonder: did circumstances and misplaced gratitude cause her to turn a blind eye to the obvious signs of an unbalanced mind?
Perhaps… but she was determined nonetheless to give Dolores the benefit of the doubt.
So the trio spent several hours combing through all the shelves and cabinets, exploring the back rooms, and examining every book and basket. Yet for all their effort, they could come up with nothing that would further their understanding of the midwife's mindset or suggest an alternative motive for her crime. In fact (Meryl acceded grudgingly) the evidence was pointing strongly against her.
They were sitting at the table in the outer room, picking through various unpromising items when Meryl suddenly tossed aside the notebook she was examining and, with a rather Milly-like manner, gazed wide-eyed up at the ceiling. In spite of her increasing sense of despair, she couldn't help again being oddly fascinated by the house.
"What is it, Meryl?" Milly asked as she idly thumbed through a box of recipes.
"It's just that I'm so amazed by all this! Every time I look around this place, I only have more questions." Meryl gestured around the room. "How does she manage without electricity? What does she do about plumbing?" She leaned across the table and reached into a basket near Vash, pulling out a piece of something shriveled. "What kind of plant is this? How is she able to grow anything at all?"
Long since bored out of his mind with the tedious pace of their investigation, Vash roused himself and was looking intently at the thing in Meryl's hand, brows slightly furrowed. "Rem was the one who was interested in plants. Flowers in particular. I don't recall seeing her handle one like this, though, but I think I remember learning about something like it in the archives. What was it called…?"
Vash stood up and started pacing, lost in thought as he twisted the plant idly in his fingers. Milly, likewise restless, yawned hugely and got up to stretch. Meryl sighed: she knew this was the signal that they had gone as far as they could with their searching. It was depressing. Defeated, she was preparing to sink her head against the table when the sound of a stomach rumbling drew her attention towards her partner. The tall girl was now rifling through the cabinets around the stove with avid interest.
"Gosh, I'm getting so hungry. Do you think Mrs. Hawthorne would mind if we ate something from her pantry?"
"I don't think that's such a good idea, Milly. Aside from her not being here, I'm not so sure it would be very safe."
"Aww…," Milly agreed reluctantly, replacing a cracker tin. "Do you think it would be all right to at least get something to drink before we go?"
"Well, I don't see why not," said Meryl, recalling the tea that Dolores had offered them. In the end that hadn't hurt them, had it? Besides, it was a long, hot walk back into town. "She probably has a water jug or a thermos or something around here…."
They all began looking around the kitchenette, and aside from an empty kettle found nothing that had obviously held water. Even the sink had no faucets, just a drainage plug in the basin and a dry bucket underneath.
"She must have had to haul water from a well," muttered Vash as he turned away from the sink, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "She did say something about getting her own water from an underground vein. I'll bet we overlooked it while we were searching earlier."
Sure enough, another quick hunt through the house revealed a narrow space hidden behind the open bathroom door; Milly had mistaken it earlier for a linen closet. Vash squeezed himself inside, kneeled down and lifted up a large square board that covered the floor, revealing a hole. Leaning over his back, Milly shone a light across the opening and down into the shaft. Meryl then pressed carefully around Vash's other side, trying to get a better look at the well. They could just make out a faint glimmering along the walls, and the sound of running water.
"I guess that solves one mystery," remarked Meryl as she watched Vash slowly lower a bucket into the well. "But it's an awful lot of work to haul water every time you need to cook or wash or bathe or just drink something."
"Yes, it is," agreed Milly, who had grown up in a village with a central well in the town square. "But you take it in turns to do the hauling, and if you have a big storage tank you can get enough to last through the week. Every Wednesday afternoon was my turn, and it took me three hours just to get enough for the animals!"
You sure had it rough growing up, thought Meryl as she simply shook her head. She was about to comment wryly on the fact when at that moment she was distracted by an unusual odor drifting through the well closet. It was an odd, musty smell she had sometimes encountered with aged plumbing in dark, decrepit buildings, and she impulsively glanced over her shoulder towards the bathroom.
"Something really smells funny," she mussed.
"Could it be gas?" wondered Milly.
Meryl scowled. "If you don't drop –!"
"No, it's true, Meryl – remember when I helped dig the well? They warned us about the dangers of underground excavation, and one of their lectures was all about gas. It's really dangerous, because you can accidentally release colorless, odorless gases that could quickly kill you if you're exposed to them for too long."
Meryl shuddered, thinking back to that time - she hadn't quite fully appreciated until now just how risky Milly's well-digging job had been. At the time it had seemed mostly a necessary inconvenience, and she had been so preoccupied with worrying over Vash's slow recovery...
Closing her eyes, she leaned her head restfully against Vash's side. He briefly glanced down at her while hauling on the rope.
"Hang on, Meryl - I've almost got the bucket up all the way. Just a few more moments..."
She smiled softly to herself.
Milly, meanwhile, was going off on a tangent. "... Mostly you feel tired and nauseous, but sometimes smelling gas even makes you hallucinate!" She paused suddenly, a thoughtful expression on her face. "And it makes me wonder, you know, if maybe there isn't some kind of invisible gas cloud floating all through Bowe's Flats. Because ever since we came to this town, I've been having the most vivid dreams, and thinking they're completely true until I wake up!"
Vash, who had one second earlier succeeded in lifting the bucket from the hole and was staring intently into the vessel with a puzzled expression, abruptly turned to face Milly. Meryl likewise lifted her head to stare at her friend.
"Um... what do you mean by that, Milly?" she asked, trying to keep her tone light.
Milly gave an embarrassed laugh. "Well, take last night for example. When I went to sleep, I had this incredible dream about sitting with Mr. Woofwood in the city park in December. He was exactly the way I remembered him – even right down to the smell of his cigarettes. And when he held me in his arms and kissed me, I could have sworn it was exactly like that time in –," She quickly broke off with a smile, and then wistfully shook her head. "Anyway, when I woke up, I instantly knew that it couldn't have been true. And it's not only because I know that Nick is gone… but because there are some experiences your heart just won't forget, when they really happen."