Stopping to pick up her coat from the chair, Meredith went out to the car and got her overnight bag, then she brought it back inside. She started toward the stairs, then she paused to look around the room with a mixture of nostalgia and vague sadness. It was the same; the old sofa facing a pair of wing chairs in front of the fireplace, the books on the shelves, the lamps. The same, only smaller, and forlorn in a way with the packing boxes open on the floor, some of them already filled with books and knick-knacks wrapped in newspaper.
It was still snowing in the morning when Meredith crept into Matt's room to check on him. He was a little feverish, but his forehead felt much cooler.
In the gray light of day, after a night's sleep and a hot shower, her unexpected reception at the farmhouse last night seemed more comic than unsettling.
Putting on a pair of pleated navy slacks and a bright yellow and navy V-neck sweater, she walked over to the mirror to brush her hair—and she started grinning. She couldn't help it. The more she thought about last night, the funnier it seemed in retrospect. After all her nervousness and determination, after her harrowing drive through a blizzard, they'd said only a half-dozen sentences to each other before Matt had practically collapsed at her feet, and they'd both gone to bed for the night! Obviously, she decided with a suppressed giggle, there was some perverse supernatural influence at work whenever she went near Matt.
Actually, the fact that he was too ill to forcibly eject her was something of a boon. Although she couldn't very well unload all her news on him when he was so sick, by this afternoon he should be feeling well enough to discuss the whole thing rationally, and yet too weak to refuse to listen. If he still tried to make her leave, she'd buy time by telling him a half truth—that she'd lost her keys in the snow and couldn't go.
Content with her plan, she brushed her hair and fluffed it with her fingers until it fell in casual waves and curls over her shoulders. Satisfied, she put on lipstick and mascara, then backed up and checked her appearance in the mirror. Her hair was getting too long, she thought, but apart from that, she looked fine.
Intent on rounding up some sick-room things like a thermometer and aspirin, she headed down the hall and into the bathroom. The cabinet behind the bathroom mirror yielded up a thermometer and several bottles, most of them with labels yellowed with age. Meredith surveyed them, her brow furrowed with uncertainty. Illness, other than an occasional bout of menstrual cramps or a rare headache, was practically unknown to her, she'd had two colds in her entire life, and the last time she'd had the flu she was twelve years old!
What did one do for someone with the flu and bronchitis, she wondered. The flu was rampant among employees at the store, and Meredith tried to remember what Phyllis had told her about her own symptoms. She'd had a splitting headache, Meredith recalled, and nausea and aching muscles. Bronchitis was something else again— that caused congestion and coughing.
Reaching up, Meredith took out a bottle of aspirin and the thermometer, which were the only things she was actually familiar with, then she selected a bottle with an oily orange label: merthiolate. The label said it was for cuts, so she put it back and picked up a tube of stuff that said it was for muscular aches. She opened it, squeezed a little onto her finger, and the smell of it made her eyes water.
In stupefaction she scanned the shelves. The problem, she realized, was that the contents of the medicine cabinet were so old and outdated that the brand names meant nothing to her.
A large brown bottle said smith's castor oil, and her shoulders started to rock with laughter. It would serve him right, she decided, it really would. She had no idea what castor oil was supposed to cure, but she knew it was purported to taste utterly vile. So she added that to the things in the crook of her arm, intending to put it on his tray as a joke. It dawned on her that she was in remarkably high spirits for someone who was marooned on a farm with a sick man who hated her, but she attributed that to the fact that she was going to be able to put an end to that hatred. That, and the fact that she very much wanted to help him feel better. She owed him that much after everything she'd inadvertently put him through in the past. Added to all that, there was a youthful nostalgia associated with being there that made her feel eighteen again.
She spotted a short blue jar and recognized its label; it was supposed to relieve the symptoms of congestion, and it didn't smell a whole lot better than the stuff in the tube, but it might help make him more comfortable. She added it to what she had and looked it all over. The aspirin would help his headache, she knew, but it might also upset his stomach. She needed an alternative. "Ice," she said aloud. An ice bag would definitely help his headache.
She went down to the kitchen with her store of medicines, opened the freezer, and was relieved to see that there was plenty of ice. Unfortunately, after searching through all the cupboards and drawers, she couldn't find anything suitable for use as an ice bag. And then she remembered the red rubber bag she'd seen in the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink that morning when she was looking for a towel after her shower. Upstairs, she bent down and pulled the rubber bag out of the cabinet, but it had no cap on it. Crouching down, she felt around for a cap, then she crawled partway into the cabinet to look for it. She saw it at the back, behind a can of cleanser, and she pulled it out, only to discover the cap was attached to a three-foot length of slender red rubber tubing with a curious metal clamp on it.
Straightening, Meredith surveyed the peculiar cap-and-tubing arrangement, then she tried to pull the threaded cap loose from the tube, but the manufacturer had, for some unknown reason, made the whole thing as one piece. With no alternative but this one, Meredith checked the clamp, then she tied a tight knot in the tubing to be on the safe side, and brought the contraption downstairs to fill it with ice and water.
With that task completed, the only remaining problem she confronted was breakfast, and she had precious little to choose from. It had to be something bland and easy to digest, which eliminated almost everything in the cabinets except the loaf of fresh bread on the counter. In the refrigerator she found a package of fresh lunch meat, another of bacon, a pound of butter, and a carton of eggs; the freezer contained two steaks. Cholesterol count was evidently not one of Matt's priorities. She took out the butter and put two slices of bread into the toaster, then she looked through the cupboards again to see what he might be able to eat for lunch. Other than some cans of soup, everything else was spicy or rich: stew, spaghetti, tuna fish—and a can of sweetened condensed milk. Milk!