Mabel leaned toward the sunlight streaming through the wide window, squinting at the ball in her hand.
“G 32,” she called out.
Around the plastic card table, a man and a woman bent over their bingo cards while another woman leaned on the wall by the window, eyes peeled for something outside.
“Bingo!” exclaimed Agatha, the woman across from Mabel. She cackled gleefully as she scooped her colorful bingo tokens back into a bulging pocket of her eggplant-purple velour tracksuit.
“It’s too dark in here. I can’t see these numbers,” the man beside her grumbled, pulling at a tuft of cottony white hair sticking out on his head. “Patricia, can’t you turn on a light or something? I’m going blinder by the second.”
The woman in the window, significantly younger than the other three, didn’t look away from the window as she said, “Can’t. The power to the building was cut last week.”
“Harold, please,” Mabel said to the cotton-haired man, “you’re just sore that Aggie has won every round.”
Agatha looked up at the sound of her name. “What?” She spoke too loudly for the room. “Are they here?”
“No, doll,” Mabel said, reaching across to pat Agatha’s hand. “Harold’s just being a sore loser.”
“I’m not a sore loser,” Harold protested. “I’m just telling you that there’s not enough light in here, and my legs are starting to go numb from sitting on this doggone fold out chair. I thought you said it was happening today?”
“Of course it’s happening today,” Mabel harrumphed. “We just got here a touch early. Right, Trish?” She looked at the middle-aged woman in the window for confirmation.
Trish stiffened. “They’re here.”
Mabel hoisted herself to her feet and leaned to look out the window. Sure enough, a group of men and large machinery were gathered in the parking lot outside.
“Do you think they’ll see it?” Agatha asked, straining her neck to see out the window. A cellphone on the card table blared in angry song, and everyone jumped.
“They saw it all right,” Mabel said. She snatched the phone up, and Agatha and Harold leaned forward. Trish took a seat at the table, and Mabel took a deep breath before answering and putting the call on speakerphone.
A deep voice barked on the other end of the line. “Are you guys serious?” he said.
Mabel glanced at her friends, and Agatha gave her a thumbs up in encouragement.
Mabel grinned. “Good morning,” she said, voice laced with saccharine. “This is Mabel Waverly from inside the Activity Center. To whom am I speaking?”
“Steve Ellis,” he said, “with Verity Construction. I just saw your sign. How many people are in there with you?”
“I’ve got a number of fellow protesters from Autumn Acres Retirement Community in here with me, and we’re not going to leave until we get what we came here for.”
A loud sigh sounded on the other end of the line. “Lady, I don’t mean to be rude if you’re making some kind of political statement or something, but I don’t have time to deal with this. Me and my guys, we’re on a tight schedule, and we’re just trying to do our jobs, okay?”
Mabel was happy to note that she did indeed feel at least a twinge of sympathy for Steve. “I understand,” she said, “and I’m truly sorry for all the inconveniences we’re going to cause today.” She looked at Trish, who gave her an encouraging smile, and Mabel took a deep breath. “You’re going to need to call the police and Councilman Merrill Scott, the man who purchased this land. Please make them aware that this is a hostage situation; we’re holding the Activity Center hostage.”
And with that, she clicked off the phone.
Within half an hour, the parking lot was swarming with people—police officers, local reporters, curious passersby with nothing better to do—and Mabel jumped at every sound, waiting for the call she knew was coming. She and Trish were glued to the window, watching everything going on outside with rapt attention. Behind them, still sitting at the plastic table, Aggie and Harold were busy reading that day’s paper with flashlights for added light, passing pages back and forth between them.
Trish shifted her weight nervously beside Mabel, twisting a lock of brown hair between her fingers. “What if I’m blackballed as some kind of disturbance-maker or something?” she asked quietly. “What if this makes it really hard for me to find another job?”
Mabel looked up at Trish’s face, earnest and lined with worry, and felt something expand in her chest.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said, patting Trish’s hand. “This was my idea, remember? I’m going to see to it that everything is set right.” She tried to sound more confident than she felt, but couldn’t keep the doubts from clouding her own mind. What if he didn’t come? What if nothing played out like it was supposed to? She glanced at Trish. She had risked so much to help her with this harebrained scheme. What would become of her, should things go awry?
Just then, a sleek black Audi pulled into the parking lot and slid into a vacant space near the police cars, and Mabel smiled in relief. So far, so good.
“How much longer do you think this is going to take?” Aggie asked, putting down her page of the funnies.
“The councilman just arrived,” Mabel announced. “It won’t be long now.”
Harold’s chair scraped against the linoleum floor as he stood up. He walked over and peered out the window beside Mabel.
“That his car?” he asked, thrusting his thumb in the direction of the Audi in the parking lot. “He could get an easy thirty grand for that, if the salesman knows what’s what.”
Not wanting to miss the fun, Aggie joined the others at the window, pressing her face to the glass. No one said anything as they watched the councilman climb out of his car. He certainly looked the part, Mabel thought. Early forties, clean shaven, with a navy-blue suit obviously tailored to fit him precisely—this was a man used to getting what he wanted. Mabel bit her lip and tried to calm the butterflies in her stomach.
“Look at us, pressing our noses to the glass like children watching for flying reindeer on Christmas Eve,” Mabel said, prying her eyes away from the window. “We need to act like adults. Come on, everyone, let’s wait for him to come to us.”
Reluctantly, the others followed her example, sinking down into chairs around the card table. No one spoke as they listened for the sound of someone approaching.
Clomping footsteps sounded down the hallway, and everyone looked up. Two policemen entered the room, followed by a thin man in a double-breasted suit.
“Mabel Waverly?” one of the policemen asked.
Mabel smiled serenely. “That would be me. I assume you’re here to collect our demands?”
The policemen shared a glance. “No ma’am,” the first one said with a patronizing smile. “We’re here to remove you from the premises. This land belongs to Councilman Scott.” He gestured to the man in the suit. “Mr. Scott has agreed not to press charges if you vacate immediately and allow the demolition to continue as scheduled.”
“I see.” Mabel could feel everyone’s eyes on her as her mind whirred. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a word with Mr. Scott alone.”
At Mr. Scott’s nod, the officers backed toward the door.
“We’ll be right outside,” the second one said.
With the policemen gone, Mr. Scott stepped forward. “Miss Waverly, I don’t know what you’re trying to do here,” he said, “but I am perfectly within my rights to have those officers escort you from this building.”
“You certainly are,” she said with a wry smile. Her mouth was dry. “I heard you want to put a shopping center here.”
Mr. Scott folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see what relevance that has.”
“I just wonder what kind of image this place will have if those reporters out there see those police officers dragging out a bunch of helpless elderly folks at your behest.”
“Listen,” he said, stepping forward, “I don’t want to cause any discomfort today, but this building has to come down. The new shopping center will be a perfect home for numerous small businesses in the area, and it will generate more revenue for this community. It will help provide good jobs for people, as well as being a safe, central location where people can gather. Doesn’t that sound like it will be good for the city?”
“This Activity Center was good for the community, Councilman,” Mabel said.
“This place is dilapidated and underused,” Mr. Scott countered. “It’s been nothing but a money pit for the city for years.”
Mabel pulled herself to her feet, ignoring the way her left hip protested the sudden movement. “I beg your pardon,” she said, “but this place has been a haven outside of the confines of the retirement home to many. It has provided steady employment for kind and honorable people like Patricia here”—she gestured to Trish—“who has always been gracious, thoughtful, diligent, and attentive. And this has been a place where we, the elderly members of this community, could gather together regularly for a few hours of exercise, community, and fun.” She met Mr. Scott’s eyes. “All of which are vital for the mind, body, and spirit, sir.”
“Hear! Hear!” Harold cried, holding up his can of grape soda.
Mr. Scott cleared his throat. “Be that as it may,” he said, “I don’t have the ability to stop the construction now that—”
“Baloney,” Aggie said, folding her arms over her chest.
“We happen to know, Councilman,” Mabel said, “that you purchased this land and that it is perfectly within your abilities to stop the demolition of this building.”
This was it, she thought; this was the moment she had to lay it all out on the table, make her demands, and let the chips fall where they may. She cast a glance around at her friends before straightening her spine–why hadn’t she worn her memory foam tennis shoes today?–and meeting the councilman’s eyes once more.
“Councilman, if you want to truly make a difference for this community, don’t start by closing down the Activity Center. This is a place where the young and old can come together, where people can forge friendships. It is a place where geriatrics like me can don a bathing suit and partake in an aerobics class taught by very healthy young men. This place may not look like much on the outside, with its scuffed sidewalks and chipped walls, but on the inside, it’s something special.” She gestured around the room. “This is a place where old dogs can learn new tricks, and a place where young vandals can fulfill their community service requirements. This place isn’t nothing. It is something special that can be saved, if only you will work for it.”
She watched Mr. Scott’s face carefully. “In addition,” she added, “if you choose to be most gracious and save the Activity Center, you will have the support and votes of all the residents of the Autumn Acres Retirement Community in your upcoming reelection campaign.”
Mr. Scott shifted his weight. “You make a compelling case, ma’am, but speeches can’t make funding grow on trees, and the fact of the matter is the city just doesn’t have the budget needed to keep this place in the condition it deserves.” Mr. Scott suppressed a smile, which made Mabel frown. “And while I appreciate the offer of votes,” he said, “I’ll be reaching my term limit by the time elections come around and won’t be running for reelection.”
Mabel shot her gaze quickly to Trish, who was looking fixedly at her folded hands on the tabletop. This was not supposed to happen. The elderly vote was a big deal in Goldenview, and it was supposed to seal the deal. She could feel the eyes of the others on her as her mind worked, trying to find a way out of this. Her knee and hip ached, impeding her thoughts. But no, she could not let this be the end. She could not let Mr. Scott think she was easy to bend and break, that the people she represented today were unimportant. With one more glance around the table at her friends—even Trish met her eyes—she cleared her throat.
“Councilman,” Mabel said, kneading her sore knee, “people often assume that once one becomes eligible for AARP benefits, one is too fragile or weak to do anything that matters. But I’d just like to tell you that some of us are like those packs of concrete out there—we only get stronger with age.”
Aggie and Harold murmured their “Hear, hears” in agreement, but Mr. Scott said nothing.
Mabel sighed, heaving herself to her feet. “Walk with me, Councilman. The least you can do is see what it is you’re taking away from this community.” She picked up a couple of the flashlights on the edge of the card table and passed one of them to Mr. Scott. He took it and followed her out of the room. The two police officers just outside the door stepped forward as if to talk to Mr. Scott, but he shook his head, and they stepped back.
“Miss Waverly,” the councilman said when they’d walked awhile down the darkened hall, the beams of their flashlights bouncing off the walls and linoleum floors, “I don’t want you to think that I’m some heartless snipe who wants to destroy a beloved community institution.”
Mabel stopped short. “Mr. Scott, I am eighty-three years old.”
Mr. Scott stopped too, but didn’t say anything.
“I have known all sorts of folks over those many years, and I know that hardly anyone fits neatly into one box. So no, I don’t think you are some ‘heartless snipe,’ as you so creatively put it.” She paused before adding, “But I do think that you could do more for this community.” Mabel went on, walking slowly forward again, toward the double doors she knew stood at the end of this hall, even if she couldn’t see them in the darkness.
“Did you know that for the last four months that the Activity Center was open, my friend Trish, you remember, was the only employee who worked here.” Rounding a corner, Mabel’s flashlight beam finally found the double doors marked “Pool.” Pale blue light streamed from the slim windows cut into each door. She led the way, pushing through one of the doors, and sunlight hit her eyes.
Three of the pool room’s walls were almost entirely glass, allowing Mabel to have a full view of the scene outside. The day was cloudier than she would have liked, hampering the amount of light slipping into the room, but she supposed that didn’t matter now. She stepped forward on the white tiles turned gray with age, her footsteps echoing through the room, and walked to the edge of the pool. It was covered with a large navy-blue cover. She turned to face Mr. Scott.
“Trish arranged a senior’s aerobics class here with a variety of instructors,” she said, her voice echoing around them. “She also created the Garden Club, which met every second Tuesday, and she pioneered Senior Game Days, where we’d all get together and play anything from bingo to Battleship.” Mabel couldn’t suppress a smile at the memory of their first game day, tables lined up in the gymnasium with stacks of board games Trish had found at the local Goodwill or the back of her own closet. “She is the one person who really cared enough for us to do anything,” she finished, looking down at the graying tile.
“Miss Waverly, what are you—”
Mabel looked Mr. Scott square in the eye. “Patricia Smith is the hardest working, most giving, and kindest person you’ll ever come across, and you’d be lucky to have her working for you,” she said.
And there it was.
Mr. Scott waffled. “What makes you think I would be in any position to hire her at Autumn Acres, Miss Waverly? I’m a city councilman.”
Mabel put a fist on her aching hip and cocked an eyebrow at him. “Mr. Scott, please. You are a businessman first. Though you don’t like to flaunt it, I know that you own Autumn Acres and that it was your idea to install that new activity center on our campus before tearing down this one. It was the senior citizens of the community that used the Activity Center more than anyone else, you said, and you were quite right, I suppose.”
“How do you—”
“Public records, Mr. Scott, are public.” Mabel shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She wished the day wasn’t so cloudy so she could get some more light in here. Her eyes hurt from straining them in the semi-darkness for so long.
“If you’re not going to save this place, the least you can do is let us keep our Trish. Give her a job at that newfangled place at Autumn Acres, and not only will that place suddenly be the place that you’re remembered for, but she’ll have everything figured out in two weeks flat, with scheduling and classes and everything else.”
The corners of Mr. Scott’s lips turned up as he stared at Mabel, and she stared right back. As she’d said, she wasn’t some frail thing just because her body was old. This was a fight she would not back down from.
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Mabel’s heart did a backflip, but she suppressed her smile and raised an eyebrow at him. “If I’ve got myself a deal, why don’t you go ahead and make the call. I expect Trish to receive a pay raise, too, for all the extra work she’ll be doing with these fancy facilities.”
Mr. Scott smiled, shaking his head, and pulled out his cellphone. He took a few steps away from her as he pressed the phone up to his ear, and a few seconds later his words echoed through the pool room. With the councilman facing away and the echo warbling his voice, she couldn’t make out what he was saying, but she thought she heard him say “Patricia Smith” a few times, and this time she didn’t hold back her smile.
A couple of minutes later, he hung up the phone and walked back to her. “It’s done,” he said when he was near her again. “Susan Feins, the Autumn Acres director, is setting everything up. She said she’s glad that someone capable will be coming. Your friend just has to go in for an interview and pass a background check, and the job’s hers.” Mr. Scott stuck out his hand for Mabel to shake, and she did.
“I’m glad we could finally come to an agreement, Miss Waverly,” Mr. Scott said. “Shall we go tell your friends?”
Mabel grinned, leading the way. She paused by the door, and looked up at him. “You know my friends out there, Harold, Agatha, and Trish—they’ve all taught me things in their own way,” she said, tucking her hands into the pockets of her cardigan. “Harold used to be a used car salesman, and very successful too, so he taught me to always demand more than I truly want to start, so that the other party feels they’ve talked you down when they finally agree to your price. And Agatha, well, she used to be a paralegal at Gunther and Sons—worked there for forty-two years. Do you know what she’s real good at? She’s real good at getting ahold of public records that usually take folks an age to get their hands on, and she’s even better at paring them down to the most salient information they contain.”
She smiled at Mr. Scott’s expression as these words started to sink in. “And Trish. Patricia Smith has one of the kindest, most selfless hearts I’ve ever come across. Did you know she cares for her niece who’s sick? She does. Doesn’t have to, by all accounts, but her sister is struggling so she pitches in with every spare dime she has, and sometimes more than that. She does everything she can for the people she cares about.”
She could see the wheels turning behind his eyes.
“So all of this, holding the building hostage, meeting with me, everything—”
“Mr. Scott, you said it. This place is dilapidated and underused,” she said with a laugh. “The place in the retirement community is a far cry nicer.” She shrugged. “We just wanted our Trish back.”
Mr. Scott chuckled and shook his head. “If you ever run for city council, Miss Waverly, you’ll certainly have my vote.”
Mabel smiled. “Why, Mr. Scott, that’s not a bad idea.”
And she led the way back to her friends to share the good news.