We’re almost there, folks, with this tangled love story across time. This portion contains one of the most challenging and humbling themes (i.e., racism) for me to deal with as a writer and as a human being. But, without further ado, the next-to-last part of the serial story slash novella is below. I will post Section C later today, after you’ve had time to digest and critique or enjoy or abhor (or ab-joy?) this part.
*By the way, the book titles here, as are all the characters and town, are fictitious.*
Undelivered Valentines, PART 4, Section B
by Leigh Ward-Smith
“Good morning! How are you? Let’s have a great day!” Jamie sang as she pinned back the black curtains.
Now who’s got a saccharine habit, Emily thought. She groaned. Rusty moved excitedly from Emily’s bed to Jamie and from Jamie back to the bed, his nose aimed half-skyward part of the time, jousting one in the thigh and the other in the side.
The real-world canine inspiration for Rusty in this story.
“You’re getting the covers wet, Rustbucket,” Emily called to the dog. He sat, and the floor became a bass drum with a canine beater-tail providing the attack.
“It’s 9 already, so we’d better get our day started. D’ja need to shower?” Jamie prodded.
“Mom, it’s soooo early.” She sat up and threw the explanation in her mother’s direction. “I didn’t want to mention it, but I had a kinda rough night.” She rubbed at her eyes with the bottom of her palm.
Jamie frowned with her whole face. “You did? What happened?”
“Nothing but your typical, everyday haunting,” came the reply.
She knew her mom’s skepticism, sometimes decaying into a modern version of cynicism, guided her. Diogenes and his lamp, she’d always reminded the girl as she grew up. She had no idea of the symbolism then, wondering whether that guy’s tendency for dodging knees had anything to do with the lamp.
“Well, regardless of what happened, we really should get moving. We can talk about it over breakfast, which I already have going downstairs. Waffles, eggs, and fruit sound good to you?”
“Only if I can have coffee,” the teen rejoindered.
“Okay, but it’s decaf for you today.”
Sadie greeted Jamie at the door. “Gram’s still napping upstairs. Sometimes we’re able to get her to rest, other times, no such luck. She gets up at a god-awful time, pre-dawn nowadays most of the time. Says her dreams are gone but that she’s still ready for sleep. I don’t get it, honestly.” She shook her head vigorously sideways.
The women moved to sit in the living room Wilma had kept up so diligently but that was beginning to surrender some tatters. The giant floor rug under the navy-blue Phyfe-style Federalist sofa bulged near two of its floral corners, fraying along the edges of the same. Jamie wondered how long ago Wilma’s house had been built, if they’d lived there for 70 years already.
Jamie began an apology. “I’m sorry my daughter Emily, uh, couldn’t make it today. She was still getting ready when—”
A hesitant knock came at the door, and Sadie walked over to open it. Orangey weaved in through a teenager’s legs and made a beeline to the kitchen.
“Hello. I’m Emily; my mom was supposed to come over here . . .”
After a split-second hug that left Emily looking at her mom uncertainly as she stood on the doorstep, Sadie beckoned her in with a “please come right on in.”
“C’mon, Em. We were just getting started. Glad you were able to make it. Did you deal with the Rusty issue?” Jamie asked.
“Yeah, Mom. He’s resting in his kennel. I think he’s calm now.” She stood at the side of the couch and wrung her hands nervously, thinking how fancy it was and wondering if she should sit.
To Sadie, Jamie turned and said: “Our dog was unexpectedly sick this morning. He’s a nervous dog sometimes, so we were both a little delayed.”
“Oh, it’s no problem.” Sadie patted Jamie’s hand.
She turned to the girl and extended her hand for a formal greeting, drooped somewhat elegantly at the wrist. “Emily, please call me Sadie. I’m sort of new in town here, too.”
Sadie must have noticed the teen’s gaze already becoming glued to her own shoes, a ragged pair of Asics gels that looked like they’d been through a wood chipper and mud puddle all at once, because she thought to add “I have some cinnamon rolls and juice in the kitchen, just out of the oven. I mean the rolls, obviously,” Sadie giggled.
“Care to have some, Emily, Jamie?” Sadie’s blue-eyed gaze leapt from the standing girl to the seated woman.
“Yes, um, Sadie. I didn’t eat much breakfast before coming, so I’d love some rolls.”
“Brilliant move, Sadie,” Jamie whispered aside to Sadie as she got up. “We all know the fastest way to a teen’s chameleon heart is through sugar and fats.” Another giggle bubbled up, then was quickly deflated.
Jamie could hear Emily’s eye-roll rather than see it, for she knew the girl had heard her. But something different occurred to her in that millisecond. Am I being too dismissive of Emily? I don’t mean to be harsh, just funny. To lighten the mood and puff away the clouds, as it were.
“Yeah,” Sadie began, “Gram told me some more about your dilemma, Jamie.” Jamie quirked an eyebrow. “What I meant is, I heard you’ve found a letter of some kind and need some help finding out who it belonged to or was meant for. She said a Gladys was mentioned. Any leads so far?”
“Here,” let’s go sit on the couch now that we’re replenished with goodies,” Sadie motioned for them to follow out of the kitchen.
The young woman whom Jamie guessed to be about 24 years old was nothing if not inquisitive. And sunnily persistent with her opinions.
The comfortable couch sank down only a little as they all sat on it, with only the slightest eeek. “Well, Em and I are still putting the blocks together. It’s a tricky thing, when you don’t know many people in town and have to approach this situation blind. I’m afraid our realtor was no huge help.”
Sadie just nodded as if she knew the story already, pausing to sip a hot beverage from a mug with the “#1 Grandma” emblazoned in red on its side.
Jamie began. “You said something last time about strange experiences at the house or it being a pesthouse in the past . . .?”
Suddenly there came a tapping, as of a small hand tentatively rapping.
“Who could that be?” Sadie moved to the door just as the doorbell rang twice hesitantly.
A small shadow moved, as if bouncing from foot to foot, behind the door, which Jamie could see out the delicately curtained window on the door. It then merged with another.
“Who’s that at the door on a Sunday?” Wilma called from up above as she ambled slowly downstairs. Jamie noticed for the first time that a motorized chair to carry sitting people, presumably Wilma, up the stairs had recently been installed. In fact, it looked unused, the way its metal parts still gleamed and a yellow bow hung from the armrest.
“Hello. We’re selling cookies, candy, and other stuff for our school, Washington Elementary. As you know, funding has been cut . . . ” A girl and a boy, about 11 and 7 or so, respectively, stood on the doorstep. The boy looked down at his high-top shoes. One untied lace protruded tongue-like.
“Well, how nice and mature you both are,” Sadie enthused. “Can you come in and let me have a look at what you’ve got there?”
“N’ma’am,” the boy stepped forward and spoke. “Our mom and teacher said we shouldn’t go into strangers’ houses.”
“You know what,” Sadie said as she bent to get equal to his eye level, “your momma and teacher are right.”
By then, Wilma had shuffled down the foyer and toward the opened front door that faced away from her view. At first, Jamie thought nothing of Sadie tossing a nervous glance backward, then subtly attempting to move the conversation outside to the porch.
What happened, happened in an instant, as Jamie and Emily waited for Sadie’s helpful, or at least interesting, information about their home.
“Who’s there, Sadie? You out there?” Wilma moved toward the closing door and reached for it. Sadie had no choice but to let her open it, as she didn’t want to get in a door tug-of-war with a 90-plus year-old woman she loved.
Wilma looked out and saw the children on her doorstep, then squinted over their heads to the driveway. A car sat outside at the curb waiting, presumably for the children. Jamie and Emily couldn’t see Wilma’s expression, her nose sliding derisively into the center of her face in a vortex that called to mind quicksand.
“We don’t want any,” Wilma attested, doing a literal brush-off with her right hand as she audibly huffed. She then summarily turned and walked away, her back to the children and her own great-granddaughter, who had begun to blush at the ears and cheeks, her mouth partly agape.
Emily also couldn’t help but hear the old woman, whom she’d not yet met. Wilma mumbled, “what do those people mean, coming here on the Lord’s Day tryin’ to sell me something? This ain’t no robber’s den.”
Jamie had overheard, too, because she softly gasped. She moved back in her seat, as if the comment had arrowed her in the chest or she wanted to get away. Emily’s eyes turned to plead with her mother. What do we say? they questioned, with raised brows.
“Uh, well,” Jamie began as she sprang up from the sofa, now flooded with decisiveness. “I guess we should get going now. We have lots to do. C’mon, Emily.” She pulled the girl’s hand.
Wilma looked mortified. “Where are you going, dears? You just got here, and I was so looking forward to chatting with you today about cold-frame gardening and various and sundry other things.” She called to Jamie’s back.
Jamie only half-way turned and shook her head. “No, we’re going to have to pass. We, uh, we . . . for now, we have some things we need to do.”
The elderly woman was crestfallen, but almost oblivious. “Oh, you mean what I said about those little burrheads bothers you? Aww,” she almost growled, “like it or not, they’re used to that. Besides, this is my house and I say what I damn well want.”
Who knew the formerly sweet old lady could be polite-as–peach cobbler, then turn arctic.
Jamie didn’t have to continue dragging Emily by her hand to the door and past Sadie, who was now rooted in place looking at the shrinking backs of the kids walking down the driveway as they hung their heads.
Had those kids heard her slurs and savagery, too? Jamie wondered.
“We’ll talk later, Sadie,” Jamie was trying to brush out the door when Sadie stopped her. She quickly retrieved a canvas bag from the adjacent closet and pressed the straps into Jamie’s hands.
“Here, this might explain a lot. I hope. I’ll get Gram settled down.”
Jamie and Emily brushed out the door with the bag and two minds brimming with conflict.
With her back jutting uncomfortably into the door, Sadie thought of the unpleasant task ahead.
I’ve just got to keep telling myself, she matured in a different era, almost a time-traveler. A stranger in land that’s very strange. To her, at least.