In The Cool of the Day

cool of the day illo

In The Cool of the Day

by A.G. Carpenter

 

The sun has barely crawled above the tree tops and already the house is cooking, humid and smelling of too many generations of tomcat. Miriam and Gran have scrubbed every inch of floor and baseboard and as much of the wall as can be reached without a stool, but the smell lingers. Especially when it’s hot.

Miriam nudges the screen door open with her shoulder, carefully balancing the tray with the pitcher of sweet tea and two glasses with crushed mint in the bottom. “I brought something to drink,” she says.

Gran looks up with a smile, vague around the edges. “Oh? Oh, yes. That’s nice.” She smooths the hair back from her face and her normal clarity returns. “Sweet tea with mint.”

“Your favorite.” Miriam fills the glasses and takes one in either hand. A moment of concentration and condensation forms on the rapidly cooling glass.

Gran nods, approving. “You’re getting better at that.” She takes a sip. “Just right.”

“Been practicing enough.” Miriam takes a quick swallow from her own glass. Her palms are pink and hot and she flexes her fingers, waiting for the heat she drew out of the tea to dissipate.

“Make sure you get the beans picked before the storm comes in.”

Miriam glances at the horizon, clear and hot, doubtful, but she nods. “Yes, ma’am.” A plume of dust rises from down the road, glinting in the early morning sun at the base. “Cars coming, Gran.”

“Yes.” Gran pushes up to her feet and reaches for Miriam’s arm. “Help me upstairs.”

Back in the winter Gran had started needing help up the stairs. A sturdy pair of legs to help keep her balanced, she’d said. Each month the trip upstairs took longer; not just stopping half-way up to catch her breath, but after every step.

The doctor had come out and looked at her. He’d recommended she move to a bedroom downstairs, get plenty of rest, and take the pills he gave her every day.

Miriam couldn’t swear Gran wasn’t taking the pills, but she certainly hadn’t taken a bedroom downstairs and she was always up before sunrise. Until yesterday when Miriam found the kitchen empty and Gran still lying in bed, foggy-eyed and cranky as a baby.

Gran pauses at the bottom of the stairs and smiles apologetic. “Must be the heat getting to me.”

Miriam knows it is more than that, but to speak it is to make it real and she would do anything not to lose Gran. Even lie. “Hasn’t been a summer like this as long as I can remember.” She picks Gran up, careful, and carries her upstairs.

“Don’t forget those beans, now,” Gran says as Miriam tucks her under the sheets.

“No, ma’am.” The thrum of car engines is loud and Miriam glances toward the window, uneasy. “You sure about this, Gran? I can send them away.”

“No, sweetheart. It’s about time my daughters came to see me. And if a touch of heatstroke is what it takes then so be it.” Gran pats her hand. “Now get on downstairs and open the door.”

Miriam nods. “Yes, ma’am.”

Gran squeezes her fingers, reassuring. “Don’t you let them push you around. This is your house too.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

But her stomach squirms as she steps out on the front porch and comes face to face with Gran’s daughters.

Aunt Leslie and Aunt Margaret are like china dolls – made from the same pattern but colored different from each other. They are dressed up like they’re headed to church, curls coming loose and limp from the heat, heeled shoes wobbling on the gravel path.

Aunt Leslie’s mouth ties up in a knot and she turns up her nose. “Girl.” Her tone of voice spells the word b-a-s-t-a-r-d. “What have you done with Mother?”

“Gran’s upstairs. Resting.”

Aunt Leslie’s eyes get smaller and harder and she grabs Miriam’s arm. “If I find a mark on her…” Her own fingers make marks of their own, tightening up hard enough Miriam’s hand goes numb.

There is little point in denial, the aunts will not believe her no matter what she says. The accusation itself is so ridiculous it doesn’t bear acknowledgment. So Miriam says nothing. She pulls her arm out of Aunt Leslie’s grip and gestures toward the house. “You can wait in the parlor ’til Gran wakes up.”

Aunt Margaret sniffs, her mouth screwed up just like her sister’s. “Don’t know what sort of country medicine you’ve been practicing, but Gran doesn’t need to be getting out of bed.” She waves a hand and a broad woman in an unflattering white uniform trods forward. “I’ve brought a nurse to look after her.”

Miriam knows it is too late for nurses or doctors, but she will not be the first to admit that Gran is not just sick but dying. She stands to one side as they all march inside.

Aunt Leslie has her two daughters in tow, dressed in pink and white with shiny patent leather shoes that tap-tap-tap on the wooden porch. Veronica and Matilda are younger than Miriam, but look older with their noses in the air in perfect imitation of their mother.

Cousin Jeanne, who is too young to know much of anything, least of all that she is supposed to hate Miriam, smiles as Aunt Margaret tugs her into the house. “Hello, Miri.”

“Hush, Jeanne.” Her mother glares at Miriam and slams the screen-door hard enough to shake the paint loose.

Miriam looks toward the cars, but there is only Aunt Leslie’s husband, Thomas, and Aunt Margaret’s husband, Earl.

Mother hasn’t come.

Miriam can’t pretend to be surprised by it. Mother never comes, even though she always promises to be there. But it is still a disappointment.

She pulls a piece of ribbon from her pocket and ties her hair back. There’s beans to be picked and tomatoes too. As she starts filling the basket a truck rolls up the drive. For a moment she feels a flicker of hope, then the engine stops, the door opens and a lanky young man climbs out. Bobby. She swallows against the wave of betrayal, forcing it back down her throat as hard and cold as a hailstone.       Bobby owns a piece of land down the road and keeps it by doing odd jobs all over the county and it’s not like she doesn’t know he needs the money. Or that if he weren’t there some other fella would be.

He waves to Miriam, then ducks into the house when she doesn’t wave back.

She wipes the sweat off her forehead and yanks a few more beans off the vine. It ain’t personal. But she reaches the end of the row before the buzz of anger quiets back down.

Used to be the garden was Gran’s domain, but now Miriam does most of the tending – working ’til the sun gets too hot to bear, then going back out late in the day to sing to the plants before night comes. It is hard work, but satisfying in a way that the chores at the orphanage never were, no matter how much she accomplished.

The uncles and Bobby begin carrying things out of the house: the dining room table and chairs, boxes that clink and clatter with Gran’s best china and silver, the writing desk from the parlor, and so on. Back and forth they trudge, sweating and swearing as they load up the trailers hitched to the rear bumpers.

Miriam recognizes the bedframe from her room and the little dresser. She closes her eyes and thinks real hard and her room flickers up out of the red-veined darkness on the back of her eyelids. The mattress and covers are sitting against the wall, her clothes jumbled in a heap in the middle of the floor. Aunt Margaret takes the mirror off the wall and jerks her head at Bobby. “Bring that down too.” An awkward gesture toward the night-table, then she is edging out the door with her arms full.

Bobby rubs his head with a scowl. He pauses for a moment, tugging the sheets on the lonely mattress straight, then scooping Miriam’s clothes off the floor and setting them on the coverlet.

Miriam smiles, even though she loses her concentration and her view of the room. Her head aches from the effort and she rubs her forehead with her knuckles, tired and hot. A waste of effort anyway. She knows what she’ll find when she goes inside.

The kitchen is a mess, but apparently Aunt Margaret and Aunt Leslie aren’t interested in the everyday plates. Or much else that’s useful. They’ve pulled it all out – looking for valuables, Miriam guesses – then moved on.

She takes a few minutes to straighten the worst of the mess, then starts lunch. Good thing she did the baking just yesterday; there’s two fresh loaves in the bread box for making sandwiches.

“I imagine you must be beating the boys away with a stick, Miriam.” Bobby leans back against the counter, easy.

Miriam’s heart skips a beat or two but she doesn’t let it show. “Don’t be silly. I know your folk are from Alabama and they do things different down there, but ’round here we wait ’til girls are good and proper grown up ‘afore they start seein’ boys.”

“Proper grown up.” He chuckles. “Just how old is that?”

All she has to do is glance sideways to see his face – dark hair flopped into his eyes and a teasing smile pulling his mouth all crooked.

She pulls her own mouth into a little knot and tosses her head. “Sixteen. At least.”

He’s quiet for a moment.

Out of the corner of her eye, Miriam can see he is chewing his lip, thoughtful. Seems he’s taller than the last time she saw him and not as skinny, neither. His shoulders are getting broad like his daddy’s.

“Sixteen, huh? So it’ll be another few months before I can ask you to marry me.”

The knife slams through the tomato, narrowly missing the end of Miriam’s thumb. She looks up at him, wide-eyed. Expecting this is just another tease.

He’s smiling, but not playful and his spring-green eyes are serious.

“Marry you?” Her voice squeaks on both words, first up, then down. She sets the knife down and wipes her hands on her apron like Gran does when she’s figuring the answer to a difficult question.  “We’re not courting, Bobby.”

“Not yet.” He shoves his hands in his pockets, waits.

Miriam’s mouth opens and shuts a few times. “Bobby Fannin…” She stops, not sure what to say next.

He shrugs, easy and loose, like a cat stretching. “You think about it, Miriam.”

She raises her chin, still bitter over the help he has given her aunts. “I think if I’m to be marrying it won’t be to a dirt poor farmer with nothing but sticks to his name.”

He gets a pale around the mouth but he reaches out and takes her hands tight. “Say what you want, Miriam. It won’t change my heart.”

Before she can say anything else, Aunt Margaret bangs through the door. “I’m not paying you to stand around, boy.”

He ducks his head. “No, ma’am.”

“They need help getting that dresser up on the trailer. You go give ’em a hand.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bobby glances back at Miriam and his eyes are still serious, but he smiles anyway before he’s out the door.

Silence lays down in the room like an old hound.

Aunt Margaret’s mouth screws up tight and her nose flares as she looks at Miriam. “Is lunch ready, girl?”

Miriam flushes. Always girl. As if it will keep people from knowing they are related.

“Well?” Aunt Margaret steps closer and Miriam flinches. Her arm still aches with the bruise Aunt Leslie gave her earlier.

“Almost, ma’am.”

“Get on with it, girl. My husband will be back inside shortly and he’ll want something to eat.” She smiles, gloating. She has a husband, while Miriam’s mother doesn’t. Just like Miriam doesn’t have a father. At least, not one she’s ever met.

Aunt Margaret clomps down the hall and Miriam finishes cutting the tomatoes. She adds thick red slices to each sandwich, balances the top slice of bread and cuts them neatly in two. The table in the middle of the kitchen is covered with plates. With both aunts and their daughters and husbands, plus Bobby, the house is full.

Miriam balances a row of plates down one arm and picks up two more with her other hand. She knows better than to ask for help.

Bobby and Uncle Earl are still outside, but the rest of the family is sitting in the parlor, hot and uncomfortable in their Sunday best.

Matilda and Veronica look unimpressed by the lunch offering, but Jeanne smiles, big and warm, when Miriam hands her a plate with a sandwich cut in the shape of a star.

“Thank you, Miri.” Her voice is high and clear, breaking the muggy silence in the parlor like glass.

Miriam smiles and nods. The back of her neck is hot with the weight of outraged looks and she hands out the rest of the plates, quick, and returns to the kitchen.

It only takes a moment to lay Gran’s lunch out on a tray: sliced cucumbers and tomato with fresh greens and another glass of sweet tea.

“I’ll take that, girl.” Aunt Leslie shoulders her to one side.

Miriam frowns. “I take Gran’s lunch in.”

“Not anymore.” Aunt Leslie picks up the tray and marches down the hall.

Swallowing a lump of disappointment, Miriam sits down at the kitchen table and pulls her own plate close. She pours a fresh glass of sweet tea and adds a wedge of lemon to the amber liquid.

Before she can take the first bite or sip, Aunt Leslie is back. Her face is stiff, rosy lips mashed into a line so thin they are almost invisible.

“Yes, ma’am?” Miriam wonders what she forgot, if there is another pinch coming.

“She wants you to eat with her.” Aunt Leslie’s voice grates on every word.

“Sure.” She picks up her plate and walks down the hall to the steps, then up to Gran’s room. Aunt Leslie trods on her heels the whole way, clearly not about to let Miriam spend any more time alone with Gran.

The nurse is in the bedroom.  From the look on her face, like she has just found a dog pile, she has been told about Miriam and her unfortunate beginnings. “You must not agitate the patient,” she intones, blocking the way to Gran’s bed with her solid breadth.

“No, ma’am.” Miriam shakes her head, solemn.

“We will stay here,” Aunt Leslie says, planting herself by the door.

“No, you won’t.” Gran’s voice has lost none of its strength. “I’m having lunch with Miriam. Not with you.”

The nurse smiles, fat and fake. “Ma’am,” she says. “You are in a very fragile condition. I should stay close by.”

“Nonsense.” Gran waves a hand. “I’ll be fine.” There is an edge to her words, the same tone that she uses when the debt collectors come rattling around trying to pry a few more dollars out of the mortgage, and the glass-stoppered bottles on the bedside table rattle with it.

The nurse blinks, trying to stand against the force of Gran’s will, and folds. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll be just outside.”

Aunt Leslie is already turning toward the door, furious and fully aware that she cannot challenge Gran’s authority. At least, not yet.

The door closes and Gran pats the bed beside her knees. “Come sit with me, Miriam.”

Miriam sits on the edge of the bed and smiles hesitant. “I made your favorite.” She gestures to the tray in Gran’s lap.

“So you did.” But Gran doesn’t seem interested in her lunch. She looks at Miriam closely. “You look tired.”

Miriam shrugs. “I picked the beans,” she says.

“And your aunts? I’ve heard a lot of tramping about.”

Miriam isn’t sure she can talk about the missing furniture from her bedroom without anger.  She takes a big bite of sandwich and shrugs. “They’re packing stuff,” she mumbles around a mouthful of tomato and cheese.

“Miriam.”

She nearly chokes on her sandwich, swallows hard and rubs watering eyes with the back of her hand. “They took my bed,” she says. “And the dresser.”

“Did you want those things?” Gran looks surprised.

“No.” She pauses, trying to find the words to explain the carelessness that left her clothes tumbled on the floor, trying to get a grip on the fear that makes her throat too stiff to eat. “They’re going to send me back to the orphanage, aren’t they?”

“I would never let that happen.”

“But…”

“Margaret has agreed to take you to live with her.”

“Aunt Margaret?”

“I thought you would like that.”

Miriam bites her lip, considering. “Uncle Earl’s seems okay. And Jeanne.”

“But?”

“I want to stay here. In the house. With the garden.”

“Close to Robert.”

She cannot help blushing. “I guess.”

Gran nods. “He’s told you he loves you, then.”

“Uh. Not in those words.” She presses her hands to her cheeks, red hot with embarrassment. “He said something about marrying me.”

“Good.”

“But I’m only fifteen.” And soon to be living with Aunt Margaret. And already said things in spite.

Gran pushes a curl of iron grey hair out of her eyes. “Fifteen now but sixteen soon enough. Besides, there are worse things to be than young and in love, Miriam. Robert Fannin will do right by you if you let him.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She doesn’t say anything about what happened in the kitchen.

Gran takes a bite of  salad. “This is good. You use the vegetables in our garden?”

“Yes, Gran.”

“You’ve done well with the plants this year. You treat them like I told you?”

“I sing ’round them every evening. And love them all, even the scrawny ones.”

“Good. That’s the most important bit.”

“I know, Gran.” She takes another bite of sandwich. “You should eat. Get your strength back up.”

Gran laughs and stabs another slice of cucumber with her fork but doesn’t eat it, her eyes heavy on Miriam’s skin. She touches the bruise, gentle. “What’s this?”

“Nothing.”

“Miriam.”

Her face heats up again but she says nothing. Unable to say how Aunt Leslie pinched her hard enough to make her fingers numb, how she has a blossom of bruises under the edge of her sleeve.

Gran sits up straighter. “Hold still.”

“Gran, you shouldn’t…” Miriam stops as warmth touches her skin, velvety as a late summer evening. The ache and itch of the bruised muscle fades.

Gran leans back against her pillows with a sigh. Her cheeks are blue-white as snow. “I think I need to rest, darling.”

“Sure.” Miriam puts her plate on the tray with Gran’s barely-eaten lunch and stands up. “Thank you,” she says, awkward. Gran’s forehead is warm against her lips.

“You’re welcome, Miriam.” Gran lays her hand on Miriam’s arm as she picks up the tray to leave. “Before you go. Send Leslie and Margaret in here.”

Miriam hesitates. She knows that look in Gran’s eyes – the same anger that’s been burning in her own chest all day – but she’s only seen it that strong twice before. The second time was when a band of sheet wearing hooligans had chased an immigrant worker up onto Gran’s land. They were mostly drunk and probably wouldn’t have done anything serious, but they’d talked about hanging. Or burning.

Gran had ordered them off like so many children caught in a Halloween prank. And they had gone without argument.

Before Miriam has to make a decision, to obey or argue that it isn’t necessary, the door swings open and Aunt Leslie stomps in. Aunt Margaret hovers in the threshold.

“That’s enough, girl. You’ll tire her out with your mindless chatter.” Leslie reaches for Miriam’s arm.

“Leslie.” Gran’s voice is like a mountain, immovable and impossible to ignore.

In the instant, Leslie turns her mouth up into a smile. “Yes, Mama?”

“I raised you better than to lay a hand on a child like that. You too, Margaret.”

Miriam holds her breath as her aunts look at her, pinning her between them. The smile is still on Aunt Leslie’s face, but her eyes have gone hard and hot with a threat of later punishment.

“I don’t know what the girl’s been telling you, Mama, but I…”

“Don’t lie to me, Leslie.” The room shakes under the impact of the words and Miriam grips the tray, white-knuckled.

Only twice has she heard that tone in Gran’s voice. The first time was when she came to the orphanage to claim Miriam. The director, a hard-shouldered woman who meant to be kind but never was, had said there were legal issues and Gran couldn’t just take Miriam. But Gran had said Miriam was her grand-daughter and she didn’t need to be in an institution as long as she had family willing to take care of her. The words had been polite, but a mirror on the wall had cracked while Gran spoke and by the end the director had changed her mind.

Leslie is not that clever. “Now, Mama…”

“I may be dying, but I ain’t stupid. I know what you’ve done. I’ve half a mind to cut you off right now and let the mortgage men have my things. They’ve been after them long enough.”

Aunt Leslie turns a fine tint of purple, her hands knotted into fists so tight her knuckles creak. “Yes, Mama. I’m sorry.”

Gran shakes her head. “Not sorry enough, I think.”

“Really, Mama. I was acting poorly.” She turns to Miriam, desperate. “Forgive me, Miriam?”

Miriam doesn’t dare to say anything, but she nods, reluctant. Holding onto hurt like that never does a body good.

“You girls remember what you promised me,” Gran says.

Aunt Leslie looks at Aunt Margaret and they both nod. “Yes, Mama.” Leslie sits down on the edge of the bed. “We’ll take care of her like she’s one of ours, just like we said we would.”

Miriam can hear the lie, brittle as glass in a vice, but Gran nods.

“Good, Leslie.” She sighs, sinking deeper into the pillows. “Now let me sleep.”

“Yes, Mama.” Aunt Leslie bustles out of the room, dragging Margaret with her.

Miriam swallows hard. Maybe she should say something. But Gran’s eyes are flickering shut, her breathing already slowing into sleep. “Miriam.” Her voice is barely a whisper now. “Best to check the mailbox.”

“There won’t be anything…”

“I’m expecting something and it’ll do you some good to get out of the house.”

Miriam waits, but Gran is silent. The first tremor of a snore scratches the air.

“All right,” Miriam says, quiet. She tiptoes from the room.

She can feel the vibration of Aunt Margaret and Aunt Leslie coming from the kitchen, alternating furious and frosty contrition. Her head throbs with the intensity of it and she sets the tray on the bottom step and slips out the front door before they can realize she’s gone. Gran might be able to stand up to them, but Miriam is not Gran and she cannot bear the heat and noise and hate in the house any longer.

Besides, Gran did tell her to check the mailbox.

Miriam pauses to make sure her sneakers are tied and starts across the front yard. The shade from the oak trees is thick and cold after the sticky heat of the house. She lifts her hair off the back of her neck with one hand, letting the breeze touch her skin.

She finds Bobby sitting on the tailgate of his truck where the drive meets the long dirt road out to the mailbox. He’s eating the last bite of sandwich, washing it down with an old enameled mug full of water.  Brushing the crumbs from his chin, he stands up, slow. “Going somewhere?”

“Mailbox.” Miriam has the sudden feeling the trip down the road has nothing to do with looking for mail.

“I’ll drive you.” He drinks the last of the water and walks around to the front of the truck to open the passenger door. “Get in.”

She shrugs. “Okay.”

The truck is as hot as everything else, but it’ll make the trip down the road short. Miriam stares out the window, afraid he’s going to try and talk to her again. But he stays quiet as the truck jostles along, dust billowing behind like a dirty flag.

As Miriam suspected the mailbox is empty. She scuffs a bare spot in the gravel, uncomfortable with the thought of returning the house and knowing that Bobby won’t leave ’til she does. “You all finished? With the house?” she says to break the silence. It is like scratching a fresh scab, but the words come more easily than an apology she is not certain she is ready to give.

He shrugs. “Seems like. All the heavy stuff, anyways.”

Storm clouds are rolling in from the west like a wall, dark and thick. A gust of wind kicks across the fields and the afternoon turns dusky. Thunder whispers like the scrape of a chair pushing back from the dinner table, drifting across the tossing rows of corn.

Bobby’s eyes grow wide, head tilted back as he takes a deep breath. “Rain’s coming,” he says. He puts his arm up, fingers spread wide like he’s trying to catch hold of something. “Hail, too. Big as my fist.” He clenches his hand, demonstrating.

Miriam shuffles her feet. The storm has the look of violence, green and purple tinging the clouds. “I should head back.”

“I can drive you.”

“Naw.” She shakes her head.

He doesn’t move, a stubborn slant to his shoulders. “Miriam.”

“No, Bobby. I’ve had enough of your help.” Her mouth twists on the last word, anger boiling on the back of tongue. He steps toward her, fists clenched. She can see the hurt in his eyes and it coils in her stomach like acid but she bites down on the apology.

“Go on then.” He points up the drive. “Go on.”

She breaks into a trot. The engine in the truck chugga-chugs to life, then grows distant as he turns out onto the paved road.

A breath of orange touches the back of her neck and Miriam stops, looks back over her shoulder. Maybe half a mile distant across the fields is a broke backed old tree, grey limbs stretching into the dark sky. For a moment, nothing. Then.

Lightning leaps from the branches and pours from the clouds overhead, coming together like God slapping his hands. It is almost too fast to see, but the white-hot line of electricity burns on the back of Miriam’s eyelids.

“Oh.” She stands frozen, heart kicking in her chest.

Flames blossom in the struck tree, then sputter out as the blurred edge of the storm sweeps near. Cold rain hits Miriam’s head and she turns for the house.

Feet pounding the gravel, hair whipping through the air, mouth trembling with energy of the moment, she is just on the edge of the rain, drops hit at random and raise gooseflesh. She reaches the yard and ducks under the shelter of the oak trees.

Rain clatters on the leaves overhead as she sprints for the porch, the storm coming in earnest.

The front hall is dark and hot. Miriam pushes wet hair out of her eyes with a laugh because otherwise she will cry.

“You are a disgrace.” Aunt Leslie bulls out of the parlor. “Mother is dying and you stand here and laugh.” She leans close and her eyes are small with hate. “You may have Mother fooled but I know you’re a wild seed. You’ll not get a soft hand from me.” Her mouth twists into a smile that is a promise of just-you-wait.

Miriam shudders, remembering cold dinners and hard beds at the orphanage and the lie Aunt Leslie told about taking care of her.

Rain pounds the metal roof.

“Come quick.” The nurse is at the top of the stairs, nearly yelling to be heard over the water falling against the house. “She’s passing.”

Miriam steps forward but Aunt Leslie and Aunt Margaret block her path.

“Not you,” Aunt Margaret hisses. “You stay here.”

Up the stairs they go: Aunt Margaret and Aunt Leslie, Matilda and Veronica, Uncle Thomas, and last of all Uncle Earl and Cousin Jeanne. The clatter of feet melts into the roar of the rain, deafening.

Miriam swallows a sticky lump of disappointment, the hall swimming and twisting around the edges as tears well up and spill over. “Not fair.”

She wipes her cheeks with rain-wet hands, staring blurrily at the mirror at the foot of the steps. She’s just a collection of  white smudged arms and legs in the dark hallway. In the parlor behind her, the curtains billow and sigh as a gust of wind sweeps away the tepid air of the house.

Something in the parlor stands up and paces toward the hall.

Miriam licks her lips not sure whether to move or stay. Not certain she even can move.

“I thought I’d taught you better than that.” Gran’s voice is even stranger than the thing in the parlor.

Instinctive, Miriam glances toward the sound, but the hall is empty.

“You won’t see me there.” Gran sounds amused.

She looks back toward the mirror and certain as the day is long, Gran is standing next to her reflection. And beside Gran…

“Who is that?” Miriam pauses because the thing from the parlor looks a bit like her or maybe she looks a bit like it. It seems familiar and she remembers afternoons when she had first come to stay, and Gran would be out singing in the garden and something would walk with her through the shadows and the sun.

Gran smiles. “God,” she says.

There were plenty of pictures of God at the orphanage. A bearded old man in a nightshirt who was usually sitting on clouds or smiling down at the world from the depths of space. But here, in the hallway, there is no beard and no nightshirt, just the presence that makes things grow. And love.

Miriam straightens. “Pleased to meet you.”

Maybe God smiles. Something touches her like the first rays of sun on a chilly dawn. She cannot help but smile in return.

Thunder bangs overhead.

Gran steps closer. Her reflection reaches up and her hands are warm and comforting on Miriam’s shoulders. “This is yours,” Gran says.

Miriam straightens, anger and fear and sorrow melting away.

“What about the others?” Miriam cannot bear to call them by name.

“You mean my twice fool of a daughter Leslie who thinks she can stand in my own house and lie to me? Or her sister, Margaret, who has always trusted propriety over her own heart?”

Miriam nods. “Yes. And my cousins.”

“Jeanne will grow into her own. Maybe even Veronica and Matilda, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.” Gran frowns. “My daughters will receive everything they deserve.”

Miriam doesn’t dare ask what that might be, but she remembers when the Klansmen came after the little immigrant, word around town was that none of them could speak nothing but Spanish for close to a month after Gran chased them off. As clearly as she saw Bobby putting her room straight earlier, Miriam knows that Aunt Leslie’s deceit will come back to her. But now is not the time to dwell on ugliness repaid. “I love you, Gran.”

“Yes. I know.” She steps back and puts her arms around God and together they walk out into the garden. A glance back over her shoulder and a smile. “Hold on.”

Hail pounds the house. The metal roof clangs and pings. Outside the oak trees crackle under the assault and even the broad eaves of the house can’t protect the downstairs windows.

Wind pours through the house ’til the hallway sings with it. Pictures peel off the wall and waft out the front door. The curtains snap and shred and tear away, drifting past like strands of pondweed in a fast current. Miriam drops to her knees, arms thrown over her head as the unwanted plates from the kitchen wobble past.

“Miriam. Miriam.” Bobby is yelling to be heard above the noise. He pushes through the door, fighting the wind and flock of books pouring out into the front yard.

“Bobby.” Her heart aches with relief. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” He grabs her hand, pulling her to her feet. “Come on.”

The voice of the wind changes – growling deep and angry. The rain, pouring like a faucet opened up, turns sideways. A tornado is coming.

Bobby has his arms around her, half-dragging her away from the house, away from the trees. Eyes squinched shut against the battering rain, they find the ditch by accident, falling into ice cold water.

Miriam shields her eyes with her hand, peering back at the house. The oak trees stand up straight and taller than ever before, then the house crushes inward like a paper bag. Miriam buries her face in Bobby’s chest and they cling to the muddy ground as the twister screams overhead.

As suddenly as it began, the storm is over.

Miriam opens her eyes, slow. She and Bobby are pressed cheek to cheek, arms twined ’round each other like kudzu in an old tree. She starts to sit up, but he tugs her back down, pulling her into the curl of his arms as though she was made to fit there. They are breathing hard, muddy cheeked and wet from the storm.

Bobby pushes a strand of hair back from her face.

She clutches his shirt, giddy, and for the first time she asks herself what it would be like to love him. The answer is as startling and enlivening as the lightning touching the broke-limbed tree.

She already does.

He kisses her.

She wants to put a label on the feeling, to store it in a jar or her heart so she can remember the moment forever and ever, but the electricity of skin touching skin, an ordinary thing that is extraordinary now that it is Bobby’s lips pressed to hers, refuses to be bottled or named.

Just like God.

Something crashes to the ground in a chime of broken glass and Miriam stands up, reluctant. The house is a snarl of wood; all except for the front bedroom and the stairs leading down to what used to be the hall. Aunt Margaret and Aunt Leslie crouch in the middle of the floor, their daughters and husbands pulled tight around them.

The nurse is the first to move. She clatters down the steps, white-faced and wide-eyed, runs a few steps across the yard before her ankle turns on an upturned root and she falls, heavy and unmoving.

Miriam sighs. It’s still raining and the ground shines like glass, fog rising in cold tendrils as the hail melts. The cars have taken a beating, dents in the roof and hood, windows broken out, the trailers ripped free and the contents scattered across the field. The furniture lies closest, splotchy and warped, veneer peeling and discolored by the rain. The boxes of china are broken to smithereens, shards glistening among the rapidly melting hailstones.

Another piece of the house shifts, nails squealing as they pull free of wooden beams. Aunt Leslie squeals herself and rushes for the stairs. The others are a breath behind, staggering down the listing staircase and out into the storm-torn yard.

“My things.” Aunt Leslie’s voice whines like a band saw. “What have you done to my things?”

Uncle Thomas shuffles toward the car, Matilda under one arm, Veronica under the other. “Get in the car, Leslie.”

“Not ’til I get what’s mine.” Her gaze settles on Miriam. “You. You did this.” She tries to pinch Miriam’s arm, but this time her fingers just slide off.

Miriam straightens her shoulders. “Go home.” The rain trembles in the air around her.

Aunt Leslie stares at her and something in her eyes folds up and she turns away, small and unhappy and unable to do anything about it. Uncle Thomas starts the car and it rattles down the road as fast as possible through the puddles.

Bobby and Uncle Earl are in the front yard, trying to help the large nurse to her feet, hindered by the fact she keeps pulling them both down like a drowning swimmer.

“If you just let us help you up, we’ll take you straight into town.” Uncle Earl is talking loud and slow. He gets her arm across his shoulder and pulls her upright. With Bobby’s help, he steers her to the car where Aunt Margaret and Jeanne are already waiting.

Miriam picks her way toward the wreckage of the house. The stairs creak underfoot but they hold and she climbs up to Gran’s bedroom. The room is empty. Gran and her bed are gone with the storm. Everything else as well.

Uncle Earl’s car sputters down the road and Miriam pushes rain-slick hair back from her face. Her head aches and her hands are cold. She closes her eyes, too tired to do anything but stand in the rain.

I thought I’d taught you better than that.

She looks up, staring out across the field where the wood meets the grass and the shadows are deepest. There is movement through the slow rain – the thing which is God and Gran and Miriam walking under the trees.

In the cracks between the floorboards something glints. She reaches down and pries it loose – the thin gold chain and carnival glass pendent Gran wore around her neck every day. This is yours. Miriam slips the chain over her head, the glass settling against her breastbone, cool and heavy.        “Miriam.” Bobby’s at the foot of the steps, looking up at her, serious. “You all right?”

She nods. Comes down and takes his hand.

“A shame about the house,” he says. There’s a cut on his forehead, blood trickling down the side of his face in a bright line.

Miriam takes a breath and presses her fingers against the torn skin and something like what she felt earlier when they kissed stirs in her chest. Love. And God. And something else. “We can build another house.” She pulls her hand away and the skin underneath is new and clean.

Bobby frowns. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Miriam rests her head on his arm as they make their way toward his truck. “Glad for the rain. It was too hot.”

_______________

By day A.G. Carpenter is a mild-mannered stay-at-home mother who has short stories published or forthcoming at Daily Science Fiction (“Insomnia”) and Stupefying Stories (“The Collections Agent”, “Caught”). By night she writes fiction of–and for–all sorts. She like movies where things explode, rainy days and isolated country roads. Her favorite color is black.

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