The Comfort of Strangers
-Fierce Fiction by Caroline Misner-
It was me who dropped the box of Band-Aids into the toilet. None of us wanted to admit it, but Ben and Jimmy had nothing to confess. I was reaching for the toothpaste when it teetered over because the bottom flap was loose and wrinkled and the box wouldn’t sit straight. A dozen Band-Aids in their sterile wrappers fluttered down and landed in the rust streaked toilet where they floated like lily pads in a pond. It was a stupid place to keep the Band-Aids, anyway—up on a shelf over the toilet beside the toothpaste and toothbrushes that sat in a glass so chalky you couldn’t see through it. I knew I would be in for a licking—and I good one too. Back then it was perfectly acceptable to beat kids for being clumsy, even kids who were not your own. Bonnie was good at that.
But I got her back. After I stuffed the Band-Aids back into the box and arranged everything on the shelf in the exact positions I remembered, I stuck her toothbrush in the toilet. I didn’t just dunk it in the water. I swished it around and used it to scrub the black flaky crusts from under the rim before wiping it in her face towel and putting it back into the foggy glass.
My little act of vengeance didn’t give me much satisfaction, though it did keep me from crying when I got my licking. Bonnie liked to use utensils—belts, brushes, wooden spoons. This time it was a rubber spatula snatched from the dish-rack. Three sharp whacks to the back of my thighs, just below the hem of my shorts, while she gripped my arm to keep me from fleeing. She didn’t even bother trying to extract a confession out of me anymore. It was always assumed I was guilty unless Jimmy was there. Then we usually both got the licking, since it was obvious the non-guilty child was an accomplice.
I skulked in the doorway that night and watched Bonnie get ready for bed. She always left the bathroom door open so she could keep an eye on me. Ben “The Baby” was usually in bed by then. Even though he was almost four, he still slept in a crib in his mother’s room but stayed awake most of the night. I slept in a windowless room which must have been a pantry or large closet at some time before the big old house had been divided into separate apartments.
Bonnie kept a collection of wigs lined up on Styrofoam heads on her dresser. At any given day I didn’t know if she would be a blond with short hair or a curly brunette or a striking redhead with bangs. Today, she was dishwater brown with curls. She pulled the wig from her head and used her nails to fluff her natural hair which was already turning grey in patches though she was barely in her thirties. She slipped into her robe, faded pink with little strings looped from the terry fabric, and tied the sash round her waist.
Whenever she brushed her teeth, she bent over the sink and jerked her head back and forth. She glanced at me in the doorway. I stared back, fascinated, and wondered what kind of germs would swarm from that toothbrush and invade her body until she rotted like Granny Annie in the hospital.
“What are you looking at?” Globs of froth dripped from her jaw.
I stubbed the toe of my pink Cinderella slipper into the floor and gave her my best “aw shucks” look before I mumbled, “Nothing.”
“Go to bed.” Bonnie bent over and spat into the sink. I saw specks of black in the foam.
I went to sleep smiling that night. Through the wall, Ben alternately entertained himself with songs from Sesame Street and called out to his mother.
If it hadn’t been summer, it wouldn’t have been so bad. At least I would be a respite from Bonnie and her little brat. His nose was always runny and he always had scabs on his knees. He wore thick glasses that dulled his insipid eyes. He never got a licking for being clumsy.
Jimmy came every morning, usually so early I was still wrapped in faded wrinkled sheets in my closet. I had no idea if it was dawn or not. The only light in the room came from a naked lightbulb swinging from the ceiling and I was forbidden to turn it on until Bonnie woke up. Jimmy told me how his mother had gone away, and I thought he meant like my mother who had gone away. But then he mentioned she had gone to heaven and was now an angel watching over him. I knew my mother wasn’t watching over me. She had gone away to “be bad” as Granny Annie had told me; like Jimmy’s mother, she was probably never coming back.
Jimmy’s father dropped him off every morning on his way to work. I could hear Bonnie opening the door for them. She spoke with Jimmy’s dad a lot, and sometimes I heard her giggle. I thought it sounded like a witch cackling.
Bonnie was married once to a man who went to heaven too. Jimmy told me that Ben’s dad had drowned during a fishing accident and that was why Bonnie had to babysit and take in foster kids. She had lived in a nice house then, but when her husband drowned she had to move to the little apartment at the top of this house. She was looking for another husband and that’s why she wore wigs and went out late at night when her stepdaughter came to watch us. And that was why she giggled whenever Jimmy’s dad came around. I cringed at the thought of her becoming Jimmy’s new mom. The thought of her being married to anybody baffled me. I was convinced her husband had deliberately drowned himself to get away from her.
I only saw Jimmy’s father in the late afternoons when he came to pick him up after work. He always looked so tired, though he smiled when Jimmy sailed into his arms for a big hello hug. Jimmy’s dad always wore the same beige overalls, stained with black grease, and a kerchief round his head like a pirate. Jimmy said he worked in the “the shop” but I never saw him there. Bonnie took us shopping all the time—to the food store, the Walmart, the Sally Ann, but I never saw Jimmy’s father at any of those places. I looked and looked and a few times I asked a clerk if she had seen Jimmy’s dad but no one knew who I was talking about.
Most of the time we were told to play outside, either in the weedy backyard Bonnie shared with the other tenants or in front of the house on the sidewalk. Ben had a nice collection of wagons and tricycles, but he refused to let Jimmy and me play with them. I learned that the hard way the first time I got a licking. It was my second day with Bonnie, a day when Jimmy wasn’t there, so his father must have had the day off work. Ben left his tricycle on the path to go find something else to amuse him. I took it upon myself to ride his tricycle, even though it was too small and my knees bumped against the handle bars when I pedalled. Ben stood on the porch and stared at me before running into the house. Bonnie emerged a few minutes later clutching a ladle. At first I wondered what she was doing with it—was she planning on making soup outside? Without explanation, she snatched my elbow and hauled me off the trike. She whacked me several times with the ladle, hitting me wherever she could find a free spot. The bowl of the ladle struck me in the legs, the arms, the rear end and the small of my back. I had never felt real pain before. I was shocked and I struggled to breathe between sobs. I had never heard of anyone ever hitting another person. Granny Annie certainly never hit me.
Bonnie left me bawling on my knees. Ben jerked his tricycle back from where it had toppled over onto the lawn, climbed aboard and rode off, calling, “This is mine!” over his shoulder.
Jimmy and I were allowed to play on the swings in the backyard, probably because they didn’t belong exclusively to Ben but to all the tenants in the house. They were rusty and the chains stiff. If you swung too high, the poles jerked out from the ground. Jimmy and I would make a game of swinging as high as we dared before the two rear poles lifted from the ground and we teetered near collapse. Once Jimmy swung so high the entire swing set tipped over. Jimmy landed on his bum in the grass and the poles that held the chains to the set missed him by inches. Jimmy cried, I think more from the shock rather than from pain; all he got were a few grass stains on the back of his shorts and some scrapes to his palms. Ben ran into the house to report on Jimmy’s wrongdoing. Jimmy got a licking with Bonnie’s yellow flip-flop, the one with the big plastic sunflower between the straps. I got a licking, too, for allowing it to happen.
Granny Annie went to the hospital the day I was going to graduate the second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Winston, planned a ceremony. We were to wear robes and little cardboard hats we had made ourselves. We even made tassels from scraps of yard and glued them to the flat tops so that Mrs. Winston could change them around when she gave us our diplomas. Parents and siblings were invited to attend and afterwards there would be a party. Granny Annie was so excited for me; she baked cupcakes for the whole class and I helped decorate them with coloured icing and glassy sugar sprinkles. We packed them in a big box and left them on the dining room table. I laid out my favourite dress, a light blue sleeveless shift with crocheted daisies around the hem that Granny Annie had made herself.
Granny Annie looked pale except for the blotches of red on her cheeks, which looked especially puffy. She sat at the table and dabbed her forehead in her apron. She was sweating but she shivered as though she was cold. I offered to stay up a little later and help with the dishes. It was already past my bedtime.
“It’s just the heat in the kitchen,” she said, smiling and stroking my braids. Her fingers trembled as she unwound the elastics. “I’ll be fine. Go and get ready for bed. We have a big day tomorrow.”
Granny Annie went to bed early, too. I could hear her shuffling down the hallway and flicking the light on in her room. The wall creaked when she leaned into it and I thought I heard her groan. I was worried for her but I didn’t know what to do. She assured me she would be all right and grownups were always right.
Even though she didn’t look particularly sick, Bonnie liked to take a lot of pills. She kept them on the dressing table in her room. I could see the little plastic bottles from the opened doorway, lined up like game pieces among her lipsticks and perfumes. Each morning she would select a few, tapping her finger on top of the bottles as she deliberated which ones to take. Sometimes the pills made her happy and energetic; other times the pills made her sleepy and she would shoo us out into the backyard for the rest of the day so she could spend the afternoon staring numbly at game shows on the television while she chain smoked menthol cigarettes. At five o’clock we were finally allowed inside to watch the “The Flintstones” while she prepared supper and waited for Jimmy’s father to pick him up.
Bonnie was never a very good cook. She admitted it herself and I learned my first day with her how horrendous her cooking could be. Cindy had left and Jimmy’s father had already come to take him home. It was just me and Bonnie with Ben clinging to her calf and sucking his thumb, both of them staring at me as though I was the intruder, which I felt I was.
“Dinner time,” Bonnie announced and turned into the kitchen with Ben dragging at her heels so she walked with a limp.
Dinner that night was freezer-burnt hotdogs and all the ketchup I could eat. Granny Annie never made hot dogs and I didn’t care for them much but I was so hungry my mouth watered as Bonnie speared the wieners from a boiling pot and dumped them on our plates. She didn’t have any hotdog buns so she put them on slices of stale white bread. It was the worst meal I have ever had. Bonnie sliced the wiener into little pieces and left them on my plate, announcing I was not allowed to leave the table until I had eaten every single one. I choked back a few; the rest I dumped behind the refrigerator when Bonnie turned to the sink to wash the dishes.
Granny Annie wouldn’t get out of bed the morning of my graduation. I was so excited I hadn’t slept much, but I was also worried about her. I crawled out of bed at dawn and listened at her door. She was usually up by now, puttering in the kitchen as she cooked my breakfast and packed my lunch for school. I tapped lightly on the door but there was no answer.
“Granny?” I whispered and when no reply came, I called a little louder, “Granny? Granny Annie? Wake up. It’s time to get ready.”
The door was unlocked so I pushed it open and stepped into her bedroom. Granny Annie lay in bed, her eyes closed as though she was sleeping, and her grey hair splayed across the pillow and shiny with sweat.
“Wake up,” I said and nudged her gently, “It’s time to get ready for my graduation.”
Granny Annie’s eyelids were pinched shut as though she was in pain, but they trembled and opened at the sound of my voice. She looked at me with eyes stained pink around the blue centres. She heaved herself up on one elbow but collapsed back into the pillow. Her lips were dry and she licked them as she spoke.
“Go get Mrs. Veronica.”
She sat up suddenly and vomited all over the bedspread. A thin yellow fluid with bits of last night’s supper floating in it.
I had never seen an adult throw up before. Terrified, I backed toward the door.
“Hurry!” Granny Annie shouted between heaves.
Mrs. Veronica was the lady who lived next door and Granny Annie’s best friend. They gardened together and went shopping together; in the evenings they played cards while I watched television and did my homework. Mrs. Veronica had no husband or grandchildren of her own, so she must have been terribly lonely.
I crossed the back yard, resplendent with the flowers and herbs Granny Annie had planted that spring, and burst through the gate that separated our properties. Mrs. Veronica was still in her robe when she answered the back door to my desperate pounding. She carried a steaming mug in one hand and a rolled up newspaper was tucked under her elbow.
“Granny Annie’s sick!” I wailed. “She wants to see you. Hurry!”
I didn’t know an old person could run so fast. By the time we reached the bedroom, Granny Annie had collapsed back into the sheets, sticky vomit pooled all around her. Mrs. Veronica tapped her cheeks and shouted into her ear, but Granny Annie only moaned and rolled her head from side to side. Mrs. Veronica grabbed the phone and called for help. Then all chaos broke out in our quiet little house.
The ambulance arrived first. Four attendants rolled a hospital bed covered tightly in pale blue linens through the front door and directly into Granny Annie’s room. They hovered over Granny Annie, trying to rouse her by shouting questions into her ear. They wound a black Velcro wrap round her upper arm and pumped a bulb connected to it with a small hose. They stuck needles into the inside of her elbows and hooked tubes of clear plastic fluids to her. Mrs. Veronica spoke with one of the attendants, who scribbled whatever she said into a little black notebook. Once in a while they glanced down at me, shrugged and resumed their hushed conversations.
I stood as far away as I could with my back pressed against Granny Annie’s antique wardrobe. I wanted to flee, to run as far away as I could, to hide under a bed or a fallen log. I had never seen anyone so sick before. Granny Annie and I usually just got the sniffles, or a mild flu, especially during the winter; seeing her this ill, where an actual ambulance had to come to take her away, terrified me. Grown-ups were not supposed to get this sick. Grown-ups were supposed to live forever.
A policeman came in next, just as the attendants hoisted Granny Annie onto the wheeled bed and tightened a strap round her waist so she wouldn’t slip off. He spoke with Mrs. Veronica in the same hushed tone as the attendant. I was beginning to think everyone was forgetting about me.
The ambulance attendants wheeled the bed with Granny Annie on it toward the door and I started to cry.
“No!” I wailed and leapt from my hiding spot. I grabbed the cuff of the sheet and pulled; I couldn’t let them take Granny Annie away.
The policeman clutched my arm until I loosened my grip. I was hysterical. I cried, I thrashed, I begged them not to take my Granny Annie away.
“Calm down.” The policeman gripped both my arms and held me tight. His voice was gentle and soothing, as though he had told many little girls to stay calm. Tears rolled down my face and blurred my vision so I could hardly see him. I appealed to him for help.
“Please don’t let them take her!” I cried.
“No one’s going to hurt your grandma,” the policeman said. “She is very sick and those nice people are taking her to a hospital so she can see a doctor. Do you understand?”
I nodded and dug my teeth into my lower lip to keep it from trembling.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” he asked.
“Patricia,” I mumbled then added, “Pattie.” I had been named for Patty Duke.
The policeman looked up at Mrs. Veronica as though to verify what I had said. She nodded and the policeman looked back at me.
“You will be able to see your grandma again soon,” he said. “In the meantime, you have to be strong and brave. I will call someone to come and take care of you. Until then, you can stay at Mrs. Veronica’s house. Do you understand?”
I nodded and asked, “Will Granny Annie be all right?”
“She’ll be fine,” Mrs. Veronica said before the policeman could answer.
After he left Mrs. Veronica told me to pack up whatever I wanted to take with me. I had no idea I would be going away somewhere too. We found my pink Bambi suitcase under my bed and filled it with clean underwear and shorts and blouses. We packed my toothbrush and all my hair ribbons. There was no room left for any of my dolls or toys. I put on the blue daisy chain dress I was supposed to wear to the graduation ceremony but I knew I wouldn’t be going to school that day.
I hate teenagers. They are selfish loathsome creatures that take some morbid glee out of intimidating younger kids. Since they’re not adults yet, they know they hold power over us and they use it to their every advantage because they have no power over grownups. Bonnie’s stepdaughter Gloria wore thick glasses and had long stringy hair that almost reached her waist. She spent most of the time flinging her hair around her shoulders and primping in front of the mirror. On Thursday nights when Bonnie wore her favourite wig and went out for the evening, Gloria would come by to babysit Ben and me and I dreaded it.
Gloria was always sweet and perky, promising us a good time, until Bonnie left. Then Ben and I became the invisible children. On good nights she ignored us until bedtime, talking on the phone with her various boyfriends and eating ice cream without offering any to us. Her favourite were ice cream sandwiches which she ate slowly, running the tip of her tongue between the wafers before biting into it. On bad nights we both got good lickings with Bonnie’s slipper for the most minor of infractions such as making too much noise while she tried to watch TV. One night she plopped Ben, thrashing and wailing for his mommy, into his crib and locked me in my closet-bedroom so she could have friends over.
I could hear them through the door. They played loud music and laughed and talked. Cigarette smoke seeped beneath the door and the smell made me sick; it didn’t smell like Bonnie’s cigarettes at all. Ice cubes clinked in glasses and the floorboards creaked beneath them as they danced. Ben cried the entire time and once in a while, Gloria or one of her friends yelled at him to shut up and go to sleep. I cowered in the corner of my cot, wishing for everything in the world to go away. I must have dozed, despite the booming music, because I was suddenly startled by bright light blinding me in the door. Three teenaged boys stood there, swaying side to side with brown bottles in their hands. They laughed and pointed at me before closing the door and locking it again.
Bonnie didn’t come home until late the next morning. By then I had to pee so badly I couldn’t stand up straight. Ben had managed to crawl out of his crib and unlock the door for me. He was hungry and he thought I could make him breakfast. His bloated diaper sagged almost to his knees and a rash glowed on his inner thighs.
Gloria was sleeping face down on the coach, still wearing the jeans and blouse from the night before. Jimmy arrived with his father and I answered the door. Jimmy’s dad looked over the living room and shook his head in disgust. Empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays covered every surface; garbage was strewn all over the place and there were dark wet stains on the carpet. A tall glass sculpture that looked like a fancy vase sat on the coffee table.
“Hey!” Jimmy’s father nudged Gloria but she wouldn’t wake up. She moaned and rolled over on the couch, turning her back on all of us.
“What’s going on?” Jimmy’s dad asked.
“She locked us in our beds all night,” I said.
Jimmy’s dad clicked his tongue and shook his head. He grabbed Jimmy by the hand and left. We never saw either one of them again.
When Bonnie finally arrived, Ben and I were pouring cereal into bowls and eating it dry because there was no milk. Gloria finally woke up and the two of them argued and swore at each other. Gloria started to cry and called her stepmother all kinds of hideous names. Bonnie whacked her in the head and called her a cheap slut—whatever that meant. Bonnie called her a money-grubbing bitch. Gloria left in tears, clutching that odd glass vase. I hoped that I would never see her again. But she was back again the next Thursday night in a foul mood and gorging on ice cream sandwiches which she refused to share.
I got a good licking that day, first with a wooden spoon and when that broke, the hairbrush. Bonnie spat and cursed and blamed me for Gloria’s behaviour as she cleared the living room of the junk and scrubbed the carpet. Jimmy’s dad called and said he would not be bringing Jimmy over any more; he’d found another babysitter. My heart plunged. Jimmy was my only friend and with him gone I’d be left alone with Bonnie and Ben.
I got another licking after Bonnie got off the phone, on the same bruised spots where I had gotten the first. They had argued and that usual sweetness in Bonnie’s voice whenever she spoke with Jimmy’s dad had disappeared. She yelled and cursed him and dared him to call the authorities. It had been my fault that I hadn’t persuaded him to stay. But at least Jimmy got away. He was the lucky one.
Mrs. Veronica made me hot buttered toast and chocolate milk served on a TV tray in her living room so I could watch cartoons while I ate. We had never been alone together before and I felt awkward in her house. Her house smelled of old eggs with lots of black pepper. The carpets were threadbare so I could see the weave beneath the patterns. She always kept the thick drapes closed against the sun and there were clear plastic covers over the couch and armchairs. There were no toys except for a stuffed clown doll whose nose was really a knob you could wind so that it would play music. Mrs. Veronica told me to be very careful with it. The doll had belonged to her daughter who had died when she was a little girl and it was very old. I didn’t want to play with it anyway.
By noon I was so bored I could have pounded my head into the wall just to have something to do. Mrs. Veronica settled on the couch with her knitting and watched “All My Children” and “General Hospital” and “As the World Turns” and all the other shows about rich people who think their lives are worse than ours.
The phone rang a few times and sometimes she let it ring and ring before answering it so she could catch that last bit of dialogue before the next commercial.
Cindy Bronski arrived just as General Hospital was ending and Mrs. Veronica sighed and rolled her eyes over the interruption. Cindy was blond and freckled; she smelled of cinnamon and my mouth watered for candy. She carried a briefcase and a thick folder. Mrs. Veronica let her in and Cindy bent down and introduced herself to me, even shaking my hand like I was a grown-up. She said she was my caseworker and she got here as fast as she could. There was a placement available and she needed to settle the paperwork as soon as possible so I wouldn’t miss out.
I had no idea what she was talking about. I was told to get my suitcase from the bedroom and watch TV while she and Mrs. Veronica went into the dining room to go over the papers in that thick folder she carried. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about but I knew it was all about me.
I left with Cindy. We drove for a long time, past the school where I should have been receiving my second grade graduation diploma, across a highway and into a neighbourhood of houses so old and dilapidated they almost looked haunted. Rusty cars hunched by the curbs, some with men in sweat stained t-shirts leaning against them; kids ran barefoot and screeching up and down the street. We pulled into the driveway of a narrow house with white paint peeling off the porch.
Bonnie was smiling when she answered the door. Cindy called her Mrs. Dorman, and Ben peered at me from behind her knees. Bonnie graciously invited us in and offered Cindy a cup of tea. They sat in the kitchen and spread the papers across the table so Bonnie could sign them.
“Why don’t you go and play in the other room?” Bonnie suggested and pried Ben’s fingers from her leg. “Ben will show you around, won’t you dear?”
I followed Ben to his toy box which Bonnie stowed in the hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen because there was no other place to keep it. Ben lifted the lid and took out one toy at a time.
“This is mine,” he said and held up a toy truck. He reached in for a plastic toy telephone. “This is mine, too. And this too. And this. And this.”
He may as well have been saying “Don’t touch.” By the time he had finished rummaging through the contents of the box, his arms were loaded with toys, most of them broken. I picked up a Sesame Street pop-up contraption with dials and levers. It was a baby toy and I had no interest in it but it was all that was left in the box.
“Oh, and that’s mine, too.” Ben said. When he tried to take it from me, he lost his grip on the load and the toys crashed into the floor. He started to cry.
“What happened?” Bonnie and Cindy came rushing from the kitchen.
“She tried to take all my toys!” Ben popped his thumb in his mouth and ran to his mother, wrapping his arms around her legs.
“No I didn’t,” I protested but stopped when I saw the look on Bonnie’s face. If Cindy hadn’t been there, I would have gotten my first licking.
I was told to clean up the mess while Ben whimpered in his mother’s lap. When Cindy was ready to go, I didn’t want her to leave. I ran up behind her on the porch and grabbed the hem of her dress.
“Don’t worry.” She bent down and stroked my hair. “You’ll be fine here. And every Tuesday I will come by to check on you and take you to the hospital to visit your grandma.”
“I want to go home,” I said.
“I know, but there is no one there to take care of you,” Cindy replied. “Is there anything else you need before I go?”
“Can I have a piece of your cinnamon candy?”
Cindy smiled and reached into her purse. She gave me a piece of cinnamon gum which I immediately peeled and popped in my mouth.
After she drove away, Bonnie refused to let me back into the house until I spat it out.
Tuesdays were a reprieve I anticipated all week. As the summer wore on, the top floor apartment grew increasingly hot and the air dense. Bonnie kept a fan blowing day and night in the living room and her bedroom, but it did little more than push the sticky air around. My closet-room was like an oven and most nights I couldn’t sleep because I felt I was suffocating. Cindy’s car was air conditioned and clean and smelled of cinnamon and flowers. She always gave me piece of her gum which I chewed as she drove.
I had never been to a hospital before. To me they were vague places where nurses served Jell-O on plastic trays to people in bed. I knew it was a place sick people went to get better. But I also knew it was a place people went to die.
I clutched Cindy’s hand as she led me down a busy corridor full of people in wheelchairs being pushed by young men in pale green pyjamas. We took an elevator to the sixth floor where nurses sat behind a tall wide desk like at the principal’s office at school. Cindy asked the nurse a few questions and she picked up a clipboard and led us down another corridor lined with doors like in “Alice in Wonderland”. A few of the doors were opened, and there were people in beds inside, some watching television, some reading, most sleeping or staring numbly at the ceiling. It was so quiet I could hear Cindy’s high heels echoing off the walls. I gripped her hand even tighter and tried to pinch my nostrils against the ammonia smell that seemed to seep right out of the walls.
The nurse placed the clipboard on a rack outside one of the doors and led us in. Granny Annie lay sleeping on a bed with the front end raised so it almost looked as though she was sitting up. There were tubes in her nose and more taped to her forearms and inner elbows. A big machine hunched next to the bed. A green glowing dot jerked up and down on a tiny black screen and it made a strange beeping sound whenever it jumped off the screen and a new dot took its place.
The nurse told us we only had twenty minutes and left. Cindy uncurled my fingers from her hand and nudged me toward the bed.
“Mrs. Ashcroft?” she called in a voice that was too loud for the hushed room. “Pattie is here to visit you. Mrs. Ashcroft, are you awake?”
Granny Annie moaned and rolled her head toward Cindy’s voice but her eyes didn’t open. I inched closer, afraid that if I moved too fast Granny Annie would die.
“Granny, it’s me,” I whispered. “Please get better. I want to go home.”
It was terrifying to see her so feeble. Granny Annie had always been strong and energetic, rarely pausing to rest until it was time for bed. Now she looked old, though I had never thought of her as an old person before. I laid my cheek against her hand; it rested on the chrome bed rack that prevented people from rolling out of bed. The hand was puffy and bloated, like a rubber glove filled with warm water I remembered Granny Annie’s firm freckled hands the way they used to be and I began to cry.
The hand I held moved from my cheek and gently stroked my hair. I looked up and saw that Granny’s Annie’s eyes were opened, though glazed and blankly staring at the ceiling.
“I think she heard you, sweetheart,” Cindy whispered.
Granny Annie closed her eyes and went back to sleep. I don’t think she ever woke up again. Every Tuesday when Cindy brought me to the hospital to visit her she was always asleep and looking paler and thinner. More machines were wheeled into her room and hooked up to her body. I held that bloated hand and begged her to recover as little pinging balls danced across the screens.
Ben and I wandered across an overgrown field that separated the back alley behind the yard and another street lined with squat apartment buildings with rusty balconies. Abandoned cars nestled in the weeds like turtles. It was hot but overcast and the air tingled with the anticipation of rain Bonnie had taken a few of her pills and spread out on the couch beneath her whirring fan in her bra and underwear. She turned on the TV and told us to go out and play. Neither of us had any interest in staying in the backyard with the broken swings and the sandbox with cat poop buried in it, so we opened the back gate and left.
We heard music coming from one of the apartments on the first floor and followed the sound to a small terrace with faded flowers drooping in their pots and clothes drying on a rack. The glass door was opened and a television blared “The Newlywed Game” from the apartment’s dim interior. An old woman in a threadbare housecoat emerged and gave us sugar cookies glazed with pink frosting. Ben and I ate them greedily behind one of the old cars in the field; Bonnie had forgotten to feed us breakfast that morning. When we returned to the apartment to get more, the door was shut and the blinds closed. It began to rain; fat warm drops typical of a late summer shower, so we headed home. Bonnie usually let us inside if it was raining.
I was surprised to see Cindy sitting in the living room with her file folder in her lap. It was a Friday, and she wasn’t expected for several days. I could tell Bonnie had been caught off guard, too. She teetered from the living room to the kitchen in her dressing gown, preparing tea and hastily shoving dirty plates into the sink.
“There you are!” Cindy said. “Where have you been?”
“We went out for a walk until it started raining,” I said. Bonnie giggled nervously.
“You know these kids, always wandering off the minute your back is turned,” Bonnie slurred as though she was very sleepy.
“Uh-huh.” Cindy opened her folder and marked something down on a paper. “I have a surprise for you today, Pattie. And also some very sad news. I’m afraid your grandmother is not getting any better. But your mother has returned and she wants to take care of you again. She’s proved that she’s capable and she has a new husband and is willing to take care of you in your old house. Isn’t that exciting?”
It was all too much to swallow all at once. “Mother” was a foreign concept for me. I knew other kids had mothers, women who loved them and took care of them, the way Granny Annie took care of me. But mothers always seemed to leave, the way Jimmy’s mother had left to go to heaven, the way my mother had left to be bad, the way Ben’s mother left even when she was in the same room as him.
But I was leaving; I was getting out of Bonnie’s house. I was going to live in my own house again, in my own room with all my dolls and toys and favourite books. A bubble of glee wriggled in my gut. It was almost too good to be true.
“When can I go?” I had so many more questions for Cindy, but that was the first that came to mind.
“Today,” Cindy replied. “Go pack your bag. Don’t forget anything. We’ll leave for the hospital as soon as you’re ready.”
I sprung toward the closet-bedroom, whisking past Bonnie with barely a look back at her.
“If things don’t work out, I can always take her back,” Bonnie said, leaning against the doorframe, her eyelids drooping. “It was a delight having her.”
I didn’t say good-bye to either Ben or Bonnie as I lugged my suitcase down the stairs, resisting the urge to kick Ben all the way down. Bonnie stood glowering with her arms crossed over her chest.
“You could at least say thank you,” she said.
“Thanks for everything you’ve done to me.” I wouldn’t look at her.
We drove to the hospital, the rain boiling down Cindy’s windshield, the wipers flapping back and forth. I chewed three pieces of cinnamon gum in a row, shoving each one into the ashtray the minute the flavor began to fade. It rained so hard I couldn’t see behind the car when I looked back through the rear window I didn’t want to see Bonnie’s neighbourhood. It was being washed away.
A man and a woman stood over Granny Annie’s bed, looking down at her. The little glowing ball bleeped sadly on the screen behind them. Granny Annie looked even smaller than my last visit, as though she was slowly dissolving into the sheets.
The woman looked up when Cindy and I stepped into the room and immediately brightened. Her hair was such a light shade of blond it looked almost white, but a streak of black ran along the top of her head where her hair was parted. She wore tight black jeans and a black t-shirt with shiny writing on it. She wore a lot of makeup, almost to the point of looking clownish. Her eyes drooped at the corners and she had a heavy chin; when she smiled there was a gap between her two front teeth. She sniffled as though she’d been crying but her eyes were waterless and clear.
“Hey, sweet pea!” The woman dropped to her knees and engulfed me in a tremendous hug. She smelled of sweaty roses and cigarettes and she was so thin I could feel her bones pressing into me through the damp fabric of her shirt.
“Patty, this is your mother, Nancy,” Cindy said.
“Look how big you’ve gotten.” Nancy held me at arm’s length. “I hardly recognize you. You must have grown a foot.”
I didn’t know what to say to her. This woman was a total stranger yet she could remember when I was a foot smaller. The man rounded the bed and stepped toward me, his arms opened and I was afraid I’d get another obnoxious hug. He wore a blue kerchief on his head the same way Jimmy’s dad wore his. He even wore an earring in one ear and had a scraggly beard; his t-shirt stretched over his big round belly and he had tattoos on his arms. Surely this man was a true pirate. All he needed was a patch over one eye.
“Don’t be afraid, sweet pea,” Nancy said. “This is my husband, Brian. He’ll be your new dad.”
“Stepfather,” Cindy corrected.
“He’ll be more of a father than she’s ever had,” Nancy snipped.
Thankfully, Brian didn’t hug me. His big rough hands took both of mine and he squeezed gently. There was black hair curling on the tops of his fingers, like hairy sausages, and he wore a scratched up gold ring on one of them.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” he said. “I’m happy we can be a family.”
Family was another unfamiliar word. Granny Annie and I were the only family I could remember. I pulled away and approached her bed where she lay peaceful and oblivious to everything going on in the room.
“You go ahead and visit with your grandma,” Cindy said. “I’ll be over here talking with your mom and dad.”
I stared down at Granny Annie as they talked behind me and shuffled papers for Brian and Nancy to sign. Their words swam between snippets of conversation; I knew they were talking about me and that I was important.
Brian didn’t speak much. Nancy did most of the talking, sniffling and coughing between sentences as though she had a bad cold. When they finished she was beaming. Brian picked up my suitcase and Cindy shook my hand for the last time.
“I’ll be by to see you tomorrow,” she said.
I nodded and looked over at Nancy. She was laughing and twirling a ring of keys around on her finger.
The cupcakes Granny Annie had made for my graduation party had been sitting on the dining room table for so long a wispy film of white mould had formed over them like a spider’s web. The sturdy cardboard box was so soggy it limped under the weight of the ruined cupcakes when I tried to lift it. The whole house felt damp and musty; the windows had not been opened all summer and the air inside smelled of rotting food and Granny Annie’s perfume. When Nancy threw herself onto the couch, a cloud of dust burst up from under her. Granny Annie would have never allowed anyone to lie on the couch with their shoes on and their feet up like that. And she would have never allowed the house to get so dusty.
Down the hall, Nancy was barking orders at Brian and telling him where to put all their stuff. She had laughed and squealed all the way back to the house in a rented U-Haul. Brian drove in pensive silence, either not hearing Nancy’s chatter or choosing to ignore her. Both ignored me, even though I was sitting right there between them. I wondered if I would ever get a licking from either one of them, for dropping Band-Aids in the toilet.
About the Author – Caroline Misner
Caroline Misner’s work has appeared in numerous publications in the USA, Canada, India and the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit”; in 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series “The Daughters of Eldox”. Her latest novel, “The Spoon Asylum” was released in May of 2018 by Thistledown Press and has been nominated for the Governor General Award.
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