Sympathetic

Melinda wasn't really expecting anything to happen when she'd given Carole her card. She figured she'd have to find a way to accidently bump into the family again, but instead, the answer to her current situation fell right into her lap— almost quite literally.

The shop was bright and sunny the next morning when she opened, the curtains over the windows flung wide to let the sunlight in. Dust hung in the air in a thin sheet, remnants of the new box of antiques she was unloading behind the counter. Around noon, after unpacking most of the boxes old Mr. Kinney had left for her, she went around back to hide some of the more valuable items to post for bid on eBay. There were a couple of trinkets she was sure that Mr. Kinney hadn't known the real value of. She put them into a box in the back and then hurried back out front when she heard the familiar tinkle of the door's ancient bell.

As Melinda rounded the corner, she was met with an armful of Carole; the two bumped into each other and nearly fell. She found herself grinning as Carole profusely apologised for the collision, beckoning her back around to the front of the store.

"It's alright," Melinda assured her, happy to see the woman again. "Why don't I close up for an hour so we can go to lunch? Have you been to Fernando's yet? It's fantastic."

"I— well— alright. I just thought I'd stop by to say hello while Burt and Kurt were touring Rockland U, but lunch sounds wonderful right about now," Carole agreed quietly, seeming a little shy as she adjusted the way the strap of her purse fell across her shoulder. "Is Fernando's far from here?"

"Not at all. It's just around the corner."

Melinda posted her Out for Lunch sign in the doorway of the store and locked the door behind her as the two women went to lunch. Fernando's was busy, as per usual, but they were lucky enough to get a table outside on the patio to be able to enjoy the good weather.

"My husband used to take me here when we were teenagers," Melinda told Carole after they'd both perused the menu and given their orders to the young, fresh-faced waiter. "It was right smack dab in between where both our houses were, so before he got a car, we'd both walk and meet in the middle."

Carole chuckled. "My first husband and I had a similar deal back when we were first dating. Nothing in Lima is too far to walk to, but we'd always go to this ice cream place two blocks away from my parent's house called The Ice Box. It was probably the lamest place ever, but it ended up being where he proposed."

"That's so sweet," Melinda said with a smile, easily able to imagine a young Carole being wooed in the cheesiest ice cream parlour in Ohio. She seemed like an old-fashioned kind of girl. "Do you have kids?" she asked, moving the topic to one where she could segue into the subjects she'd been dying to discuss.

"My son Finn is almost eighteen now," Carole confessed, a far-off look in her eye as she bent her head to sip at her ice-tea. "And Kurt— you met him last night— he's just about there to. Where does the time go, huh?"

"Speaking of Kurt," Melinda replied easily, an indulgent smile crossing her sharp features. "How is he feeling? He seemed rather upset last night."

Carole frowned, seemingly mulling over the question as she sipped at her ice-tea again. "He's fine, I guess," she said at length, holding back the answer she wouldn't give to a complete stranger. "He's always been a little touchy."

"Was it something I said?" Melinda inquired, trying not to look eager. "Because he started acting strange right after I was talking to his dad. At least, I think he was acting strange. Is that normal behaviour for him?"

"Heavens, no!" Carole looked horrified. "He was so rude to you. He's not like that once you get to know him— I'm sure it had nothing to do with you. He gets so emotional over the strangest things, sometimes. His father always mutters something about him being just like his mother in that respect, but I never met the woman, so I wouldn't know one way or the other."

The waiter returned with their orders and the pair dove into their food enthusiastically. A soft melody from the speakers by the door and the chatter of other patrons kept the silence at bay while they each began their meal, taking turns to sing praise about the chef.

"Kurt's mother," Melinda began again, bringing the conversation back to where it had been before the food arrived. "How long ago did she pass away? If you don't mind me asking, of course."

Carole swallowed her mouthful of chicken salad, picking up her napkin and dabbing lightly at the corners of her mouth while she shook her head. "I don't mind at all. Kurt was six, I believe, when she got sick—Burt never says what from, but I have been able to ascertain that it was something awfully taxing on the family. Cancer, maybe. I don't know. She didn't actually die until Kurt was almost eight, from what I gather."

"That's so awful," Melinda said sympathetically, putting down the forkful of pasta that had made it almost half-way to her mouth. "I can't even begin to imagine how hard that must have been on Kurt."

"And on Burt, too!" Carole agreed, scooping up more chicken onto her own fork before eating it, taking her time to chew and swallow before continuing. "I can't even begin to imagine how hard it was for him, working full-time and raising a kid he knew nothing about. He and Kurt weren't as close as they are now, when Kurt was younger. Burt told me once he was afraid Kurt was going a little crazy after Katie died, truth be told."

"Crazy?" Melinda asked, feigning only mild intrigue to keep Carole talking. "How so?"

"He was talkin' to himself all the time, claiming she was there and he was talkin' to his mom. I'm kind of glad my husband died when Finn was too little to remember him. He might still have a dead parent, but at least he doesn't have to deal with the memory of her death, y'know? Kurt was actually there the day his mother died."

"I have a six-year-old, and I can't even imagine him having to deal with a parent getting sick like that. They're just so vulnerable at that age, so impressionable." Melinda shook her head, turning her attention back to her food. "How are you doing, dealing with all this? It must be hard on you, too."

Carole chuckled again, sipping at her ice tea. "I'm alright. The whole family— me, Burt, Kurt, Finn— we're all a little damaged, but we stick together, and it makes it so much better, to have a support system like that. And I don't have to worry about who'll take care of Finn if something happens to me."

"If something happens to you?" Melinda asked, genuinely concerned at how passively Carole had said that. She could even imagine leaving Aiden— she would probably wait to cross over herself if she died prematurely— and yet Carole seemed so okay with it, like it was commonplace for people to die without warning.

"Well, you know. I've been in a couple of rough patches lately. Like just a few weeks ago, I accidently drove Burt's truck right off the road. Don't know how the hell it happened; one minute I'm fine and on my way home from the hardware store with a box of bolts for Burt, the next, I'm upside down in a ditch. Crazy, huh?"

Melinda felt that tell-tale sinking feeling in her stomach as she listened, biting down on her plump lower lip to stop herself from asking when these kinds of accidents started happening. Right around the time she started seeing Burt was the answer she was praying for it not to be, but she had a feeling her bad feeling would turn into a worse feeling sooner rather than later.

"Yeah, crazy," she agreed absently instead, quickly finishing up her lunch. "I've got to get back to the store. How long are you in town for? We should get together again, maybe with Burt and Kurt next time?"

"We're here all week," Carole answered quickly, finishing her own meal and taking out the money for her half of the bill. "I'm sure Burt would love to see a friendly face again. You are so wonderful. I'm so glad we ran into each other last night."

"Me, too."

They paid their respective halves of the bill and walked back to the store together saying good-bye at the door as Carole turned and went off towards the park. Melinda watched her go, dread slowly peeling back the layers of her conviction like an onion. She needed to help this woman before the ghost of Katie Hummel decided to kill her. Because that car accident? Probably wasn't an accident.

For someone who claimed to be so happy, Katie was sure stirring up a lot of trouble. And Melinda was going to get to the bottom of it.