Chapter 16

Jennie was sweating—this time not from fever, but from the heap of blankets piled atop her. She had shoved them to the floor before she was really awake, but her skin still shone damp as if glazed in morning dew. Birds chirped in the dimmed lighting outside, and she knew it was early, but she did not know the day. Her end table had a bottle of Children’s NyQuil and a spoon that had half-glued to the surface from unwashed goo. Jennie’s first thought was to worry that it was where her sister could get it; her mind flashed pictures of her sister guzzling the sweet syrup until organs shut down, body seizing until blue and cold. Her second thought was that she didn’t remember taking it. In fact, didn’t remember anything. Jennie looked hard at her sister’s bed until she saw movement: a grunt, then a roll over.

With blankets on the floor, she noticed she was wearing her fuzzy jammies—Christmas Eve jammies, meant for the hours awaiting St. Nick, the ones she affectionately called her HO-HO-HOs because of the print. Her mom always complained when she wore them “because it ain’t December,” but they were her favorites, textured the same against the skin as their outside, warm and soft as a stuffed animal embrace.

“You feeling okay?”

Jennie was startled by the voice, but even more surprised by its kindly tone.

It was her mother.

“It’s time to get ready for church, if you’re up for it,” her mom said softly. “We’ll stop by your Grandmom’s before we go.”

That was all Jennie needed, and she nodded. As her mother left their room, the memories of the cold and tub and sick came back to her in foggy pieces. In the trickle of the early sunlight her recollections seemed distant, unreal. Her bed—that was real. Her pajamas—real. The medicine—real. But how did she get here? Who put on the pajamas? She just could not remember.

Jennie tried not to think, finding comfort in the routine of Sunday dress. Her strength had mostly returned—though her mouth was dry and tasted bad, and she felt the familiar cramps of hunger. That was what gave her the drive to get up: visions of her Grandmother’s pantry. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Pop Tarts—frosted or chocolate. Fruity Pebbles. Cocoa Pebbles, where the milk left behind was more chocolate than Nesquik. She chose her mother’s favorite dress—the Pepto-pink one—and her frilliest of ankle socks paired with white patent shoes. She hated the outfit. Most Sundays Jennie wished to wear tights and skirts like other girls her age, but today she pushed her wishes deep inside and just obeyed.

Before she woke up Sarah, Jennie put the medicine safely away, wiping the sticky from the table and laying her sister’s clothes out one by one. As she did, another flash of memory: her Grandmom was here when Jennie was sick, so close but with so much distance. She remembered feeling as if she wanted to reach through the walls to her, how she called out in her head in hopes that on some level telepathy was real and that she would hear, that she would feel it inside of her heart or mind or ears and come to her, come running, come to cradle her in warmth and love and healing.

In spite of everything she had been through—last night and for all the years she’d been alive—it was only when she imagined herself through her Grandmother’s eyes that Jennie started to feel anger.

*

“Granny Got Your Gun!” was the headline in Section E of the Tippashaw Gazette Sunday Paper. Section E was the “Lifestyle” section, and Clara was the local color story of the week. It had everything the paper appreciated in such a tale: tenacity and drama, a hero and a villain, an end with a dash of humor. The reporter had marveled at her moxie. “Did you really tell him to give you his gun? While it was pointed in your face?” The reporter nodded, scribbled notes in her tiny lined notebook. “Weren’t you scared?” More nodding, more scribbling. Now the complexities of her experience—the terror, the strength, the surreal—was boiled down into simple words, black ink on the thin page of off-white, a tale to be digested over coffee, recounted at the water cooler, then crumpled, wadded, disposed.

Clara read the word “Granny” over and over again. She knew she should not take offense. In fact, she was a Grandmother. But in her mind “Granny” was reserved for blue-haired ladies with walkers, tight home-perms and bifocals on a chain—too old to be a descriptor of her. She didn’t even need to color her hair; most all of it was black. Yet the picture next to the article—in full color for the front of the section—showed a woman who looked the part of a “Granny.” Even the hair she prided herself in looked thin and faded. Clara Mae touched her face where smile lines had long since turned to full-fledged wrinkles, and turned the paper upside down on the table. She didn’t want that old lady looking at her.

Out her back window, Clara was relieved to see her granddaughter trotting toward her house from the trailer. They looked joyful but tired—not unusual for a Sunday morning, Clara reassured herself. She had gone over for a visit a couple of times this weekend, but the girls were at a friend’s or napping, and Clara couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about it didn’t seem right. She wasn’t worried about anything specific, and she didn’t realize how worried she actually was until she could lay her eyes on the both of them together.

Kathy was right behind the girls, decked in the finest floral and lace a thrift store could buy. She’d topped her outfit with a grey and white fur coat that was way too big and puffy to be appropriate for anything down south—and it certainly wasn’t typical church wear. Clara wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be real something or “faux,” (it was nappy in places and too-thinned in others) but it was Kathy’s pride and joy. She thought it made her look rich, “like Zsa Zsa Gabor.” Clara opened the back door to knee hugs and Kathy’s fur-framed sour face.

“We need to talk,” Kathy said as she entered, and Clara Mae thought of how much her son—God rest his soul—hated it when she spoke those words.

*

Before Jennie was ushered off into the den, her Grandmother had handed her the newspaper. “Granny Got Your Gun,” Jennie marveled at the headline. Her Grandmother was famous. More than famous. A hero. She wasn’t afraid of robbers or guns. She wasn’t afraid of the bad guys, the ones that took away Daddy. The thought that they could’ve taken her Grandmom away, well, she just couldn’t bear it.

Grandmom said the TV was broken, and Jennie saw its side was marred by a streak of dark. The streak had long, skinny fingers stained on the wood paneling of the old TV and smelled of ash, like from sudden fire. Sarah would be antsy without the distraction of TV, so she prompted her sister to count the Precious Moments figurines—a mathematical meditation that calmed her while they waited. One-two-three. With her sister placated, Jennie leaned toward the kitchen to listen to the grownups. She held the newspaper as if reading, just in case.

“Kathy, I did y’all a favor to let you move in. I haven’t even said anything about rent. But the trailer is mine,” she heard Grandmom say.

“When you asked us to move in, you clearly said it was a gift. You said you were giving us the trailer. I assumed it was only because that you were still grieving that you hadn’t completed the paperwork to sign it over to me—” her mother’s voice this time.

“Letting you live in the trailer, not give you the trailer!” Her Grandmom was mad.

“But that’s not what you said. So now it’s time to hold up your end of the bargain,” her mom said.

“Kathy, I spent hard-earned money on that trailer. I’m not just going to give it to you for nothing!” Clara said, and then she softened. “But I know losing Dan left you in a hard spot. You don’t have to worry. I’m here for you as long as you need.”

“I don’t need you,” her mother said. “You need me. I’m the one that’s got the kids, and you can’t do nothing ‘bout it. So you’re going to sign the trailer deed over to me, and you’re going to do it today.”

“How dare you threaten me?” Grandmom was standing up to her mother, and Jennie’s chest puffed out a bit with pride. “Those kids need me—and you need me—and I’ve given up so much to help you—”

“Look, I don’t need this. We was just doing you a favor hanging around. We don’t need you, no one ever needed you,” her mother said.

Grandmom fell silent. Jennie wanted to run to her, run right in there and tell her it wasn’t true, tell her how she was their only hope, tell her how much she needed her before and now, tell her how much she needed to be taken care of instead of being the one taking care. Jennie wanted to tell her how sick she was, tell her of HER REAL MOTHER and the TOILET. But she couldn’t. What would they say?

As the memory of the Creme Pie came back so did the stomach upset, and she fought it—choking back the vomit until it burst into nostril. She blinked and blinked and coughed (so quietly) while the acid ate at her nasal passages, vocal chords. Jennie’s eyes fell to the newspaper, the photo of her GRANDMOTHER THE HERO, and in that moment she believed that her Grandmother could do anything, fight any wrong, put right any ill.

What is that? Jennie noticed a blur above the counter, a tiny contorted face peering over her Grandmother’s shoulder from his milk crate shrine. She was surprised she had missed him; The Doll was encircled in a halo of what might have been a starburst of flash, but on second look she believed to be a ring of visible heat or energy. Once she could make him out she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. And his eyes were locked into hers, holding eye contact with her no matter where she moved, like a painting from a haunted mansion cartoon.

Jennie was startled to feel jealousy—the feeling of a lover spurned (he was with her now), feeling that the protection that she needed was being kept away from her. Her Grandmother was magic, she saw it so clearly now, a witch or voodoo queen or enchanted woman. And The Doll, of course, was OF HER—hers in the way that she had created it in magic, or perhaps that they were magic companions: the black cat to her conjurer, each feeding the other in crafty symbiosis.

In the kitchen, the words had moved to a hush. All Jennie could hear was under-the-breath murmurs, the rustle of papers, the squeals of a drawer opening then closing again. Then her mother was there again, standing next to her, fat fingers gripping her bicep too tight.

“Let’s go,” her mother said through clenched teeth, her neck spotted in patches of flush belying her anger. “NOW.” Jennie’s mother jerked her when she didn’t move readily, and she felt a pop and a pain in her shoulder. But she did not cry; she just stood. Once she stood, all eyes turned to her. Her mother’s eyes: go ahead, I dare you. But in her Grandmother’s eyes were the strength, the now-familiar magic, and with a deep breath and deep belief she could help. Jennie said, “She hurts me.”

She was expecting the worst, a blow or yank from her mother when she spoke the words. But instead a calm descended over her mother. “Jennie,” she said, “I’m sorry if I hurt your arm a little bit. But it is time to go.”

“No. I didn’t mean my arm, Grandmom. This weekend. I was sick,” Jennie started, but faltered. “So sick. She won’t feed us. She put me in the bathtub,” Jennie realized too late that she wasn’t prepared, that her words fell out flat and weak and she couldn’t make her Grandmother understand—

“Jennifer Lynn. What are you saying? I can’t give you food when you’re just gonna throw it right back up,” her mom patted her on the head, as if with compassion. Then she turned to her Grandmother and in a hushed voice, “She was sick, fever made her crazy ‘till it broke. I didn’t want to worry you.”

Jennie realized that her Grandmother was accepting this as truth, head nodding.

“NO! You put me in the bathtub. You made me sleep in there. I was SO COLD.” This time, Jennie was looking her mom directly in the eye, for the first time really confronting her, standing up that it wasn’t right.

Her mother knelt down and smiled gently. “I know the bath was cold, hun. I was trying to break your fever. You passed out a little bit there for a minute, but I didn’t make you sleep in there,” her mom stood up, looked at her Grandmother and shrugged with a knowing look (kids, huh?). Then she looked at Jennie again, right in the eye this time, and said, “I mean, what do you think I am, a monster?”

It was what Jennie recognized as between a rock and a hard place. “No ma’m,” Jennie said, resigned. “But—”

“Then enough with this. It’s time to go to church,” her mother took Jennie by the arm—but gently this time.

Grandmom reached out and swatted her mother’s hand away. “Kathy, let her talk.”

“I saw it,” Jennie said, the words that had been pent up now flooding out of her. Her Grandmother was magic, she could protect her, save her from the bad guys, and she just had to get it out, tell her everything and she would understand—“When I was sick I saw it. The potty—filled with poop!—and I saw it. I got sick and I saw it. I saw what she was, a rock in the creek, like when we would go crawdad’n, she’s like one of those rocks,” Jennie saw the confusion in her Grandmom’s eyes; she had to make her understand—“you  have to believe me. One of those rocks! Covered in green and slime and the things that creep beneath—” Then, as much as Jennie tried to hold them back, the tears came, fast angry tears, hot tears, tears that drove down her face and snotted her nose. Through her cursed blubbering, she could see that she’d lost her case, the exchange of grownups nodding knowingly, her words dismissed.

Then with a sincerity that churned her stomach, her mother knelt down to her level again and hugged her. The hug felt kind, genuine, THE REAL DEAL. “Jennifer. I always take care of you. Listen to me. You were very sick and it made your brain messed up. These things that you are talking about, they aren’t real. They didn’t happen. You got a stomach bug, and you had a high fever. I gave you a bath to cool you down, gave you some NyQuil to cut your fever, then I put you to bed. I watched over you all night long. Everything else is just a bad fever dream, understand?”

The NyQuil bottle. Jennie did remember the NyQuil bottle.

But it all felt so real.

As they drove out of the driveway to the church, Jennie could see her Grandmother standing at her window watching them, a stack of papers in her hand. Johnny Cash sang through the static of the AM car radio.

‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday, Johnny said to Jennie, makes a body feel alone.

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