Okay, I’m sure there are some readers who are still wondering what happened in the story between Jena and her grandmother that I posted over a week ago. After much debate, I have decided to let you read the rest of the chapter despite its length. Those new readers to my blog can read the beginning part here.
Everyone can thank me with hugs over my generosity.
Two thumps of dropped luggage sounded beside me as I approached the rocking chair to give her a customary hug. Gingerly, arms wrapped around Granny’s bony frame to offer the lightest of squeezes. One cheek rested against hers as I heard one disdainful sniff at my shoulder.
A flush of heat swept through my body, which made the odor worse. Embarrassed, I wanted to release the loose hold but felt the blush on cheeks and wanted to hide it from her. My purse had held a few dollars used on fast food burgers and diet soda during the journey here. A hotel room had never entered my mind as such an expense to put on myself. Instead I had slept in the car while sweating heavy and without clothes on as one blanket draped like a tent from the backseat and over the driver’s headrest. I had hoped this would be enough to fight an indecent exposure charge in case a curious cop glanced into the decrepit vehicle. Unfortunately, I forgot to equip the Nova with proper bathroom facilities: like a shower. This would have cost me extra from the dealership.
When comfortable to lift away, a relieved sigh blew out my chest as I straightened from the rocker. I did not feel bad about it especially after seeing a similar action from Clare. A simple truce and one I was grateful to have.
"Sorry I’m late, Granny . . ." Oops! Clare hated that name, Jena. Hurry and fix it. "Grandmother Clare. The traffic was bad. Since it’s the start of summer, a lot of vacation goers are out on the road."
Clare lifted her glass to lips and took another sip. A smirk appeared on her lips. Why was she smiling now? "So long as you got here safe, Jena. Having you out here with me will be wonderful."
Okay. Where had the aliens taken my real granny? I had not expected such a statement from her. Out of character. I had read in a magazine about strokes and about how they could cause strange things to people. Maybe switching personalities was a side effect.
"Thanks," I replied simply. The old wood rail appeared steady enough for me to lean against it as I crossed my arms and did just that. "I was in such a rush to get here that I didn’t even stop at a hotel to freshen myself."
"Mmm." Sip-sip. Creak. Grin. Clare continued with her routine, almost in a daze. Her smile began to disturb me as she murmured, "Well, nothing has changed here. You know where the bathroom is, although I had the taps replaced last year. They sent a plumber who must have flunked out of their pipe school. He crossed the water lines and installed the hot on the right and the cold on the left," she laughed with her whole body. Her bony arms jiggled the sloshing glass before placing it on the small table beside her.
I tentatively joined in, my giggles too raspy for anyone’s ears to enjoy. I stopped the forced humor while noticing Clare’s too thin frame engulfed inside her favorite paisley dress. Granny had once been a big woman, but now she could compete against an anorexic model for top billing. Strangely, I was glad the prison staff had trusted me enough to cook for the other inmates during my wonderful stay at the state pen. I could never claim the title of Iron Chef on my resume. Yet I had learned to make cheese sandwiches without charring the crusts. From now on I would make sure she ate properly.
Clare’s feet gave a big push against the floorboards. The teetering seat back whacked the rail behind her, making a deeper notch from repeated strikes. Then the rocker swung forward to almost stand on tips. Granny slid neatly from the chair with only a slight bump of the flat seat to lift her rump upward in a reminder for her to stand. She shuffled forward showing the stiff arthritic gait of someone who had been sitting in the same position for too long.
I had intended to move toward her to offer an arm for support. Instead, clumsy feet kicked at the luggage by mistake. The light case skidded across the floorboards as an oncoming pink rocket seeking my poor granny’s wobbling ankles. I imagined her surprise tumble and rapid descent. Her slam against the porch boards as the impact would shatter her hips and send a rippling effect through the rest of Clare’s fragile bones. Her unmoving body broke inside.
But, officer, I didn’t mean to . . .
A hand came down on my shoulder to snap my attention back to the porch. The realness of her fingers pulled me from days long past and those mistakes I wish I could forget. In her other grasping fingers she held the case although I had no recollection on how she had avoided the strike. Clare handed it to me before strolling into the house almost dismissing my presence. I could hear the faint rush of water splashing into the kitchen sink.
I picked up the second piece of luggage and moved toward the screen door. Then I backtracked toward the rocker. Never leave any glass on the outside table: Clare’s command ingrained into my skull from younger days. Easily I found myself slipping into a routine at her house. Right now, I needed to feel wanted. It made me part of the crowd instead of staring through the window while weeping to be let in and have others enjoy my company. Besides, the task would become an unconscious effort on my part requiring little thought but receiving outer reward.
"Grandmother, you forgot your glass," I shouted through the open window.
"Could you bring it inside for me, Jena?" she shouted in return.
My hand shooed at the gnat who found a tiny perch and a tiny sip of liquid on the rim. A sleeve worked at wiping whatever minuscule footprints it had left. Then I hurried toward the screen door fumbling glass and luggage in struggling arms while trying to get inside. A splash of cold tea soaked both sandals at the effort. Before I could get completely inside, Clare grabbed the glass and dropped a towel on my feet.
"Thank you, dear." Clare showed her amusement this time. Predictable me. Predictable, clumsy Jena who does not even have the sense to lay something down so she could open the door.
I laid the bags to one side of the entry and wiped the tea from doused toes. When I rose, Clare walked toward the table carrying two large plates and her glass. Between the place settings sat a bowl of potato salad, the tubers diced into cubes and lathered in mayonnaise along with seasoned salt.
Mayo. I hated mayo. Clare knew this.
I slapped on a smile and took the offered plate with a "thank you, ma’am." Heaped chunks made their way down my throat in big gulps without choking while glad she had diced the potatoes small. Finished in five minutes flat, I rose from the chair and had the empty plate in the sudsy sink water before Granny could offer me another helping. Politeness required me to stay in the kitchen until she cleared her plate, as I went about washing the ten dishes required to make a one-quart size bowl of food. Clare’s lips moved as she breathed silent words before each bite, and I deluded myself into thinking she said grace after every bite.
Uncomfortable with the silent conversation Clare wanted with herself, I paced the floor until seeing the empty vase on the counter as I picked it up and headed outside. From a pocket, fingers retrieved car keys and a Swiss army knife attached to the loop. I flicked up the blade and glanced around to spot any cop, knowing even this tiny slasher would break my parole. In back and forth motions, I sawed through each branch. When the last rose stood pretty in the vase, I lifted to feet with my present to Clare tucked in steady hands. I reentered the kitchen and saw Granny and luggage had left.
"Clare?" In search of her whereabouts, my voice led the way into the other rooms with my body following. The house had three storeys, counting the full attic as another level, while I climbed stairs two at a time until reaching the second floor. The wayward luggage waited in my old bedroom, perched on the clean covers ready for sorting into the dresser drawers. I hurried further down the hall headed to the other bedroom when a slight noise caused me to turn.
Granny stood right behind me, close enough to have caused my neck hairs to flutter in the slight breeze of her breath. Where the hell she had came from I had no clue. How she could move so silently up behind me was also a mystery. Why she had not answered when I called out her name was unnerving enough to force me to take a hurried step back. Arms raised the vase between our two bodies in protection.
"Isn’t that sweet of you?" She grabbed the vase roughly. Her tone sounded commonplace. Dull. Flat. "Go have your shower now, dear. Then you should take a rest. I am sure you are tired from your trip."
A gulp stuck in my throat causing me to nod in agreement. I hurried to the bedroom for some fresh clothes and my hygiene bag before walking toward the bathroom. At the sink, I took out the travel tube of toothpaste. The mayo had to leave my mouth. It was a desperate requirement so I could fully enjoy the shower without smacking lips at the aftertaste. Spearmint flavor numbed my tongue as I leaned in close to the mirror to inspect my pearly whites and each silver enamel caused by a sugar-high childhood. After rinsing out three times, I reached out toward the medicine cabinet to put my toothbrush inside.
Fingers pulled hard, but the mirror door stayed in place. I glanced around the shallow cabinet to make sure I opened it from the right side. My eyes noticed a bit of silver over the connecting metal clasps. A lock.
Oh, Granny Clare. Why would you do this?
"It’s to help with any late-night cravings you might have. I keep all the medications in there. You won’t find even a single aspirin anywhere else in this house," Clare answered my unspoken questions. Bigger now, the smirk had returned to her lips. She had planned a joke at my expense. She must have waited this entire time to spring it on me. The potato salad became a means to a hurtful end. Same old Granny.
At a loud sigh, I placed the toothbrush down on the sink. My appearance stared back at me in the mirror: twitching cheeks caused by anger, a furrowed brow signaling the start of a raging headache, and shiny wetness filming over both eyes. Although my acceptance of the prank smoothed away those imperfections in seconds, the ache in my heart would take more time to fix.
"The doctors warn about keeping medications in the bathroom. The humidity ruins the pills’ effectiveness." I could only muster this weak response before shutting the door in Granny’s face. The shower faucets turned on full blast dulled out any response she might give. The rushing water calmed me down but did nothing to lighten the dismal mood. By the time I had dressed to leave the bathroom, Clare had retreated from the entry.
Quick steps propelled me to the bedroom where I locked the door and collapsed on the bed. Through the heat register on the floor, Clare’s loud voice echoed. On the dresser, the telephone’s flashing red light told me she had called someone. It took only two sentences to let me know Teddy talked on the other end of the line. He was Granny’s golden child.
"Yes, Jena got here with her poor attitude. I swear, Teddy, her manners are atrocious. You should have seen her lift her nose when we ate lunch. She should be grateful for the food I fixed for her, it has to be a lot better than what she got in prison. She turned mean, Teddy. Absolutely mean."
"You are welcome for the flowers, Grandmother. It’s my simple way of showing how much I care and to thank you for allowing me to stay here with you," I muttered. Over eyes rested my hand, the glove wet from having gone into the shower with me. A force of habit, this, and one gripped tightly within my unending guilt. The odor of moist fabric filled my nose along with the hallucination of fresh smoke and flame forever imbedded into the disfigured folds of scarred skin. I lifted my hand away as it hovered over the carpet and the sounds of Clare’s harsh sarcasm. Fingers squeezed together.
Drops of water fell to the carpet as tears that I wished I could shed.