Work To Do

Caitlyn unlatched the picket gate and stepped gingerly into the small front yard.  She hesitated at the concrete walkway before mounting the steps to the tiny bungalow.  The garden was opulent, blooming roses lined the sunny fence, dark blue hydrangeas flourished in the shade of the porch.  But the house’s paint was peeling and the wooden steps looked a bit uneven.  As her co-workers had pointed out, it seemed obvious that no one of note lived here.

But Caitlyn was convinced that the woman who had greeted her on so many mornings was none other than Nobel Prize winning physicist Doctor Jillian Baldwin.  Her photo had been all over the internet three years ago when the honor was announced.  Of course they’d only run pictures from the 60s and 70s when Dr. Baldwin was active in the lab.  She’d refused interviews now, in keeping with her reputation as a recluse.  But Caitlyn was sure it was her.  Doctor Baldwin didn’t look all that different than she had in 1976, even though she must be in her 90s.  Yes, of course that was odd, but Caitlyn forged ahead.

As she walked up to the door and rang the bell, she couldn’t help but remember the tirade of her principal, Hal Zimmer.  “Whoever she is, she’s a stubborn old broad.  The school board has been trying to buy that lot for decades.  It backs up to our football field and the booster club wants to build a cafe and gift shop there.  They’ve offered her twice what that dilapidated shack of hers is worth, but she’s not smart enough to know a good thing when it lands on her doorstep.  Hardly Nobel calibre.  No.  Not bright, not friendly, and stubborn as all get-out.”

Caitlyn felt a chill.  I’m stubborn too, she thought.

The door swung open and the woman Caitlyn was used to seeing early mornings watering her roses stood before her.  She was short, no more than five feet tall, with a thin wan face and thick white hair pulled into a long braid.

“Doctor Baldwin?” Caitlyn asked in a deferential tone.

The woman stepped back.  “Oh!  Who are you?  How do you know me?”

“My name is Caitlyn.  We chat sometimes—remember?  In the mornings.  When I’m walking to work from the bus stop.”

Jillian peered up at Caitlyn through the screen door. “Oh!  Oh, my yes.  The teacher.  From the school back there.  Of course!  I didn’t realize it was today.”


“Yes, it snuck up on me.”  She pushed open the screen door.  “Come in.”

Caitlyn hesitated.  “Oh, I don’t mean to bother you.  I just wanted to ask—”  

“You must come in,” Jillian interrupted.  “It’s time.”

She ushered Caitlyn into a cramped living room with old chenille furniture, lace doilies on the coffee table, and a large black cat perched on the back of the sofa.  Jillian sat primly beside the growling cat, offering a soothing hand on its head.  “You wanted to ask me something?”

Caitlyn sat stiffly on a chair across from the scientist.  “Yes, you see, graduation is tomorrow night, and our commencement speaker has cancelled unexpectedly.  I thought, well, we have a famous scientist who lives one street over, and—”  

“Oh dear!”  Jillian exclaimed, “certainly you don’t think I could speak at your high school!  I mean, I don’t. . .”  She paused to look at the cat as if seeking advice.  The cat trilled sympathetically.  “Oh, yes.  That’s true.  I suppose I’ll have to do it.”  She turned back to Caitlyn.  “I guess I will.”

“Are you sure?” Caitlyn asked.  “We’d be so grateful.”

“Yes, fine, that’s all fine.”  She stood up.  “C’mon.  We’ve got work to do.”

“Excuse me?”

“Let’s go.”  Jillian and the cat headed toward the narrow doorway adorned with a colorful beaded curtain on the back wall.  Before Caitlyn could say a word, her host brushed through the curtain with a quick backward glance, an invitation to follow.  Caitlyn took a deep breath and stood.  She lifted her hand to separate the beads and a white light momentarily blinded her.  Blinking rapidly to orient herself, she saw before her a large room lined with bookshelves, sleek furniture and cubist art.  

Caitlyn paused.  “This house is much bigger than it looks from the outside,” she murmured.  

Jillian chuckled.  “Indeed.”

She led Caitlyn through a doorway on the side, down a short hallway, and into an even bigger space.  An industrial sized kitchen?—or a laboratory?  Caitlyn stood with her mouth open, stunned as the black cat rubbed against her shins.  “I don’t see how—?”

“C’mon, Caitlyn,” Jillian urged.  “There’s more to see.”

They moved from room to beautiful room, like walking through Ikea if Ikea were filled with expensive quality furniture.  There was a a large yet intimate-feeling study with books, TV, and music, three bedrooms, an office, a gym.  Finally, stretching across the back of the house, was a glass-paneled atrium filled with orchids, violets, fuchsia, and ferns.  Jillian invited Caitlyn to sit on a cozy wicker sofa, offering her gingersnaps and hot tea, all set up as if Jillian had been expecting company all along.  

But Caitlyn wasn’t ready to sit.  she hovered near the back windows that offered a view, not of a postage stamp sized back yard, but of a magnificent lawn that swept down past a koi pond and gazebo, shielded by redwoods and pine.  “But Doctor Baldwin,” she said, “where is my school?  It’s right behind your house, isn’t it?  I don’t see it.”

“Oh, sweetie,” it’s there,” the older woman assured her.  “You just can’t see it because it’s in a different dimension.”

Caitlyn sank onto the sofa and the cat jumped into her lap.  “What?”

Jillian was pouring tea into a delicate china cup.  “You’ll understand soon enough.  In the meantime,” she continued as she handed Caitlin her tea, “don’t tell anyone.  They won’t believe you anyway.”

The next day, Jillian spoke at the commencement ceremony.  “The only advice I can give you is this:  Pay attention!  Watch closely, listen carefully, read everything.  Don’t worry about the future.  It will come get you when you’re ready.  That’s all.  let’s have some of that cake I saw earlier in the reception hall.  Oh—last little gem:  never say no to cake!”

Caitlyn was concerned that parents and staff would be disappointed by the briefness of Jillian’s remarks, but everyone seemed strangely satisfied and genuinely effusive in their praise.  Principal Zimmer tracked Caitlyn down to thank her personally for engaging Doctor Baldwin.  

“Do you have summer plans, Caitlyn?” he asked.

“Well,” Caitlyn said slowly, “I had planned to stay in town, but I now have an opportunity to travel.”

At that Jillian appeared at her side.  Taking Caitlyn’s arm, she said, “Let us amble.”  Nodding farewell to her boss, Caitlyn wandered off with her new mentor.

Photo by Darren Richardson on Unsplash

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