Sunday, April 19, 2009


Jack’s body seemed to think that it needed to get up at school hours. He tossed and turned a few times, but sleep did not want to return, so he made his way downstairs.

Jack could hear Ellie being “helpful” in one way or another in the kitchen, and wondered how he’d slept through her making it downstairs to the kitchen in the first place.

He glanced around the corner to the left of the stairs, and saw Beth, curled on her side, breathing deep and steady. Her face was smooth, without any hints of the pangs of pain she’d been fighting off all day yesterday. Her lips had some of their color back as well.

“Jack, oh, good you’re up. I know the poor dear is still sleeping, but you have to get her up so she can take her pills.” Jack’s mother shook a medicine cup brimming with tablets and pills, then set it on the counter.

Jack took the pills and a large glass of water over to Beth. He sat carefully on the edge of one of the cushions. She didn’t stir.

“Hey,” he said. “Morning wakeup call,” he said, softly.

She stretched, catlike, blinking and pushing her hair from her eyes.

“Are we late for school?” she murmured.

“No school today,” Jack said.

She looked out the window, saw that the sky was still dark. She flopped back, and Jack had to tug the blankets away as she tried to pull them back up over her shoulders.

“It’s time for your pills,” Jack said. “Mom says you have to take them now. Don’t make this difficult,” Jack said.

“There are too many of them. I don’t want to take them.”

Jack’s mom peeked from the kitchen doorway. “Beth, dear, please take them. I don’t want to have to explain to my mother why we have a neighbor slowly bleeding to death on our couch.”

Beth sat up, slowly, held her hand out. Jack handed her the glass, then started doling out the pills.

“Your grandmother is coming?” she asked, between vitamins.

Jack nodded.

“You don’t seem very excited about that,” Beth said as she took a long, blue pill.

“You’ll see when she gets here,” he said grimly.

* * * * *

While Jack was busy peeling potatoes, Beth and Hannah bundled up, and disappeared for about twenty minutes. Jack caught a flash of blonde hair and saw a long, black bag over Hannah’s arm, and then the two of them were up the stairs, their conversation muted as the bedroom door closed behind them.

He finished helping his mother get the turkey in the oven, then grabbed a quick shower before his sisters could start hogging up the bathroom.

The crunching of tires over gravel shortly after ten in the morning announced the arrival of Granna Nellis.

She drove a very large, well preserved sedan from the late 60s, or early 70s. It had a very large trunk, and it seemed that she filled it to the brim every year when she visited.

Ellie made a mad dash for the front porch, catching herself on the railing. She was closely followed by her mother, who made every effort to keep the girl from sticking her head between the slats.

“Mother, you’re early.”

“Nonsense, Margaret,” the older woman said as she unfolded herself from the front seat. Granna Nellis was on the tall side, her gray hair in its customary severe bun. Atop her head was a turquoise hat, adorned with a large bird feather of some sort. Matching turquoise shoes peeked out from crisply pressed bottoms of a turquoise pants-suit. The rest, though, was hidden beheath a voluminous, shaggy fur coat.

The topic of Granna’s coat usually came up around the holidays. Jack’s sisters wondered how many small furry animals died to make such a thing, while Jack had thought perhaps she’d just nagged it straight off a sasquatch, sewn in a zipper, and been done with it.

“I am never too early to come see my only daughter and her family,” Granna Nellis said. “Now send that son of yours out here to make himself useful.”

Jack steeled himself, then made his way outside, down the porch, and around to the back of the sedan.

“My, just look how much you’ve grown,” Granna said, ruffling his hair that he’d spent the past ten minutes trying to tame. He made the hug as brief as possible, not wanting to start wheezing from the smell of the coat and Granna’s perfume.

“Hello, Granna,” Jack said.

She loaded two shopping bags over each of Jack’s arms, then gave him another to hold in each hand. A large box followed. Jack staggered up the steps. Beth didn’t weigh this much, he thought.

“Granna, can I help too?” Ellie asked.

“No, dear. This sort of work is what boys are for,” the woman said, as she swung the trunk shut.

Jack waddled inside, setting the packages down alongside the stairs, out of the way.

Granna came in, herding Ellie in front of her. Jack heard the door open upstairs, and Granna looked up.

“Charlotte!” she said, a large smile on her brightly lipsticked lips. “How is my favorite granddaughter?”

“I don’t know, Granna. Hannah will be down in a minute so you can ask.” No bright electric blue dress this year, but instead Charlotte had gone with a rather tame skirt and blouse combination. She looked, Jack thought, like a teacher. His sister gave Granna a quick, obligatory hug, but couldn't avoid the kiss on the cheek. She waited until Granna’s attention was back on the stairs before she wiped the lipstick off her cheek.

“Ah, there is my eldest granddaughter,” Granna said, the smile still in place.

Hannah made her way down the stairs, still lifting her auburn hair out from the collar of the blazer that completed her charcoal pants-suit. The stone and bead necklace the professor had sent from Peru matched perfectly against the lighter gray of her blouse.

Jack thought she looked like a teacher, too. Hannah gave an obligatory hug, but did something with her hair to deftly avoid a grandmotherly smooch on the cheek.

“Well, now how are—”

“Come on,” Hannah said, having turned back to the stairs. “Don’t be shy.”

Granna’s smile wavered, then fell completely as she turned her gaze to the top of the stairs.

“And who might this be?” she asked, her voice going quite a few degrees cooler.

“Granna,” Jack said, stepping forward so he could look up the stairs. “This is….”

His voice didn’t so much trail off, as he just seemed to forget how to speak.

Beth was wearing a dress. And makeup. A necklace sparkled around her neck, the ring standing out against her pale skin.

The dress was of something dark, a very deep blue or maybe black. It flickered between the two as she came down the stairs.

Hannah did something with her hair, sweeping it up a bit at the sides and clipping it so it was still somewhat long in the back — if nearly brushing her shoulders could be considered long. The clip looked like a combination of a black chopstick and a wedge of some sort of glossy black ceramic.

Jack didn’t know if the color on her cheeks was from his staring at her, or if Hannah had put it there. A touch of rouge, a hint of eyeshadow, and some sort of magic with whatever it is girls wear around their eyes. Beth’s eyes shone, some trick of the eyeshadow making those golden motes stand out.

“Mother, this is our neighbor’s daughter, Beth. Beth, my mother. You can call her Gra—”

“Mrs. Nellis is just fine,” the older woman said, somewhat brusquely.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Nellis,” Beth said, extending her hand. The older woman paused before taking it.

“Not a very firm grip,” she noted.

“You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve been ill and—”

Granna drew her hand back. “Ill, and you invited her to dinner here? Who knows what—”

I know what, Mother,” Jack’s mother said firmly. “And she was not just invited over for dinner. She is staying with us while her father is out of town on business.”

“Just like you, Margaret, always taking in strays and nursing them back to health. Why, this house is bursting enough as it is. Where could the girl possibly sleep?”

“I make do on the couch,” Beth said.

“Except when she sleeps with Jack!” piped Ellie.

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