The only person to cross Hildy’s porch was the mailman, and he didn’t even come every day. But someone was in her house right now rustling around.
“Denny, that you?” she called, nightgown cooling against calves as she made her way down the stairs holding her phone’s flashlight aloft. She went to the study.
Wearing a hoodie with a bandana across his mouth, Mack stopped rifling through a desk drawer and squinted in her direction.
“Why didn’t you call first?” Hildy scolded. She stepped closer. “Oh! You’re not my Denny!”
“No, ma’am,” the young man straightened. “Can you lower that?” He reached over and clicked on a lamp. As the woman lowered her phone, Mack saw the white braid that hung to her waist. He lowered the bandana so it rested around his chin.
“Have we met?” she asked.
Blinking quickly, Mack cleared his throat. “No, ma’am, I’m…Jones. Nick Jones.”
“You’re not looking for something specific, are you? I don’t keep my checkbook or wallet in that desk.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, I’m–I just–”
“And I don’t have much in my bank account anyway,” she gave him a cheery smile, waving her hand. “But had I known you were coming, Nicky, I’d’ve had a meal waiting!”
Mack’s brow furrowed. He backed away from the drawer, balling fists into his sweatshirt pocket. He couldn’t exactly charge out of the house, not without knocking her over. She filled the doorway. With that phone in hand, she could call 911 in a flash.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” Hildy asked. “I’ll make you a braunschweiger sandwich! Come, come,” she turned and started away.
Mack hesitated, teeth biting his lower lip, then shoved the drawer shut and stuck his flashlight in a pocket. He obediently followed the woman. She reminded him of his great-aunt Betsy who used to carve, at family cook-outs, extra wedges of cantaloupe especially for him. Mack hadn’t talked to her nor the rest of his family in years.
Hildy flicked lightswitches as she moved purposefully toward the kitchen. Perhaps Denny knew this lad. Maybe from years ago at Dover High. She snuck quick glances at him as she puttered about, slipping placemats on a table, spreading mayo on slices of bread, rinsing lettuce.
Mack eyed the back door off the kitchen and saw the damage he’d done busting out the pane to unlock the deadbolt. His chest tightened. Had he known a light sleeper lived here, he would’ve gone next door instead. That family was still on vacation. He noticed Hildy’s bare feet, and figured she’d been so pumped to greet whomever Denny was, she didn’t even pause to put on slippers.
“You seem happy I’m here,” Mack remarked, aiming for nonchalance as he leaned in the doorway.
“Well, it’s not every day a 60-something lady gets a houseguest to feed!” Hildy tilted her head and winked at him. “Might you know my son, Denny?” She licked the butter knife and placed it in the sink. “He’s around your age. Works at KippCast, last I heard.”
“I don’t work at KippCast.”
She looked him over. Denny was just as skinny. His jeans slouched over gym shoes the same way. She used to enjoy laundering his clothes, pulling heated, clean jeans from the dryer, folding the colored T-shirts into squares. “Can I serve you a glass of milk?”
“Sure,” Mack eyed the sandwich brimming with its frill of lettuce set upon the table atop a little saucer. Dinner had been cold leftover pizza, and that seemed like days ago. Gingerly, he took a seat on one of the vinyl-padded chairs, and pouring two glasses of milk, Hildy joined him. Her braid swung over one shoulder.
“This is absolutely delightful!” She beamed at him over her glass. “I wake up and here you are!”
Mack warily took a bite. “I’m not–not Denny, you know.”
“I know you’re not, but you live in the neighborhood, don’t you? I used to know everybody in the neighborhood but kids grow up, empty nesters move out; new folks move in. And I just don’t get about like I used to. If I do, nobody’s around, I mean, their garage door goes up and off they go in their car, whoosh!–Say, I forgot to introduce myself, didn’t I?”
“You’re Hilda Grensole,” Mack said, having seen it on envelopes in her desk. “You’re here alone, right? Nobody asleep upstairs or anything?”
“My Albert died in 2017.”
The look on her face made his stomach hurt. “Sorry to hear that,” he said.
“When Albert couldn’t sleep, he’d wake me up and we’d come down here and have sliced bananas with sour cream and a dollop of marmalade. We felt like the only two people on the planet moving around the house halfway through the night. Things so quiet everywhere. And then we’d go on back to bed and sleep in long as we liked. When you’re retired, you can do that sort of thing,” she winked at him.
“Well, thank you for this, Ms. Grensole,” he downed the last of his milk and rose from the chair, wiping his mouth with one sleeve.
“You’re leaving already?”
He glanced at a clock above the toaster. The second hand was a banana; each numeral a raspberry. “It’s like 3 a.m, ma’am…” he said, embarrassed by her unabashed warmth. She acted as if she liked him practically right off the bat, without knowing him. Betsy used to tell him, “Mack, there are no strangers in this world. Just friends we haven’t met.”
“Wish I’d baked my brownies!” Hildy exclaimed. “I do my own recipe, Nicky, not that cheap Betty Crocker crap come in boxes. Mine are rich and fudgy; you’d like them.”
“Well, thanks for having me, Ms. Grensole,” Mack saluted her. “You’re a kind lady.”
“Wait! Let’s do a selfie before you go!” She picked up her phone.
Mack paled. “How about next time?”
“Next time?” Hildy set her phone aside. “We’ll have a next time?”
“Why not?” He forced himself to smile.
She clapped both hands like a child. “I’ll make macaroni & cheese! I do this bread crumb topping thing you’ll love!”
“Mac & cheese’s my favorite.”
Hildy reached for his hand, and he let her grab hold. “Come next Saturday then. But more like six o’clock, a proper dinnertime.”
Mack drew away, giving her a cheery thumbs-up. Though he was leaving without jewels or credit cards, at least he wasn’t leaving a raging grandma poised to call the cops. In fact, even tomorrow when she found that broken glass on the carpet and knew what he’d done, she’d probably still think the world of him. He spotted a pair of fleecy slippers on a shelf, and placed them softly on the kitchen floor so she’d hopefully put them on and not get cut. Then pulling the bandana back over his face, Mack let himself out.
Hildy cleared the saucer and glasses from the table, set them by the sink and decided not to wash up yet. The dishes looked companionable gathered together, and she wanted to see them there on the sideboard when she came down in the morning.