Lots of stories are percolating but not ready to post so for those of you who are very, very, bored, or highly skilled procrastinators, I have the first chapter of a WIP. One reader had issues with my main character - too flawed, too unlikeable. She had some fine points and I'm worried she's right.
The other reader loved everything I wrote. Too bad she's my sister and her opinion is suspect.
So, for the first time, a post that is too long and gasp, fiction.
As I stagger into a battered metal trashcan in the alley behind my grandparent's house, I realize, I should have used the front door, rung the doorbell. Only, that would be like admitting I'm an adult and the way my life is going, I could never do that.
Besides, it annoys my grandmother and anything that annoys Elizabeth Percival Stevens the Third, entertains me. Don't judge, you haven't met the bitch.
Lights click on in the neighbor's yard and a nasal whine breaks the silence. "Go on Rusty, see if there's a problem." Rusty is the oldest Irish setter in the history of Coronado Island. He has to be. He was old when Mom left me here for an entire year with my maternal grandparents. Granny Snot-Bucket made my life miserable and I've returned the favor.
I wouldn't come home, but I need to see Pops.
Rusty pads into his yard and sniffs, but as far as I can tell, either he doesn't know I'm here or he doesn't care. He woofs and, after a moment, a door creaks open and the light flicks off.
I wait a minute and then fumble along the fence for the gate latch. When it sticks, I shift my weight and shove. Nothing happens. My fingers slide over the latch and and what feels like a padlock. I've been locked out. Well crap, what did I expect? Four years is a long time.
“You could use the front door.”
I shriek and send trashcans clattering into the alley.
"You can also clean that up in the morning."
"Pops?" My heart is slamming against my chest and I'm pretty sure I'm having a heart attack.
"You were expecting someone else?"
Amusement dances in his voice and once again I'm sixteen and on the wrong side of the fence. "What are you doing out here?" I hiss.
"Trying to keep the neighbors from calling the police." He harrumphs and I grin. "Now go around to the front door. I don't know what Betsy's done with the key."
"Okay." For a moment I stand still and soak up the scents and sounds of the island, that is more isthmus than island, and more familiar than foreign. Fog carries the sharp tang of pacific ocean along with hints of juniper and jasmine. A jet from nearby Naval Base Coronado whines overhead.
When I hear Pops close the back door I skirt the spilled garbage and send one battered can spinning against the neighbors gate. Lights wink on up and down the block and it seems that all the dogs in a three mile radius are howling. Before Mrs. A. can send Rusty back out to pinpoint my location, I launch myself around the corner and sprint for the front door.
Pops is waiting. He pulls me into a hug, but his chest is skeletal and the strength is gone from his embrace. Mentally I knew what to expect, but his gaunt frame is still a shock. Hot tears spill down my face and soak the shoulder of his pajama top. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about." He sighs and pats my back and I'm instantly ashamed I've stayed away so long. "Where are your bags?"
Crap, I was hoping to avoid this conversation by sneaking in the back way and using the small room behind the kitchen that used to be the maid's quarters back when Betsy was a little girl. Betsy has always been old so I have a hard time imagining her as a young girl. I bet she was stuck up even then.
"Well," says Pops, interrupting my silence, "I don't know about you, but I need to sit down."
Oh God, of course he does. I reach for his elbow and we veer into the den where Pops settles back into the nest of blankets piled on the leather sofa. "You sleep here?" I ask collapsing onto the love seat.
"Why were you sneaking through the alley like a teenager?"
"Oh that." I shrug.
“Oh, okay, I stopped off at McP's and thought I'd better leave my car on Orange Avenue for the night.” McP's is just the coolest pub ever, but it's full of service men and Betsy disapproves. Dad was a navy seal and even he couldn't earn the old bat's respect. Course he's Hispanic, which really sticks in her craw and makes her look at me like I'm an exotic pest. Pop's clears his throat and I look up.
“And this is a regular occurrence?”
For a moment I stare at him open mouthed. Is he asking if I have a drinking problem?
“Of course not.” I pitch to my feet. “I just, I just ...”
“Wanted a pint or two before you faced your grandmother?”
“Well,” I blow out a breath and sit back down, “the last visit was a disaster.”
He mutters under his breath and I think I catch the words always and disaster. “What did you say?”
“I said it's time to heel the rift between you.”
“That's not what you said.”
For a moment his look is fierce, but then he subsides into the cushions. “It's what I should have said.”
“Maybe,” I mutter, “you should save your breath.”
“Jennifer Lynn Gonzales,” he yells, “get your head out of the pity pot before you drown in crap.”
The words slam into my solar plexus. Pops has never raised his voice to me. Aware my mouth is hanging open, I snap it shut, then purse my lips, but damned if I can speak.
Pops clenches his teeth while I blink back tears.
“I thought I heard voices.” Grandma Snot-Bucket glides into the room, clasps my head between cool palms and presses her lips to my forehead.
I flinch, but she doesn't seem to notice. She crosses over to Pops, repositions his pillow and strokes his head. Elizabeth Percival Stevens does not touch sick people. This, must be her doppelganger. That, or Pops sent her to obedience school, but that's probably wishful thinking on my part.
Her mouth tightens. “Betsy. My name is Betsy.” Tucking a cream colored cashmere throw under Pops chin, she turns to me and lifts a brow. “ You will call me Betsy.”
Right. “Um, I don't think I can do that.”
“You can and you will.” Her voice is pleasant, but steel threads her tone. I nod. What else can I do?
Crap. She sounds like she's talking to a third grader for christs sake. “Night Betsy.” My jaw tightens as my eyes dart to the side, but she doesn't seem to notice. “Sweet dreams,” I add, just in case she did.
After she leaves, Pops rolls his head toward me and offers a smile. “Now that wasn't so hard was it?”
I guess that's a matter of perspective, but then I notice the sheen of perspiration along his temples and soften my voice. “No, I guess not.”
Pop's clicks on the TV and Law & Order springs to life. While the images flicker in the small room I gaze at the family photos tucked on the bookshelf and try not to cry. Maybe it's easier not to know about death. Maybe an unexpected phone call in the middle of the night would be cleaner. My natural inclination is to run, but I might not get a second chance to be the granddaughter that Pops needs me to be. At least I hope I can live up to his expectations.
Exhausted, I drift asleep to the soft murmur of voices and wake to a banshee hiss in my left ear. “Jennifer Lynn Gonzales, where are my car keys?”
“Shit.” I crack open an eye and blink in the dim light. My cheek is stuck to the leather and I'm staring at the floor. Is that a new rug?
I jerk upright, sending pain flashing along my spine, then fall face first into the sofa and wait for the ache to subside before rolling over and peering at my grandmother. She's bent over me and her hair flares out to the side in crazy lady, pushing a shopping cart down the side of the road, fashion.
“Hand me the keys.”
Yawning I cast a wary look at Pops, but he's snoring. I turn back to Betsy. “What keys?”
“The car keys.”
“I don't have your car key keys.”
“Not my keys,” she snaps, “Your keys.”
“I'm not parked out front.” I throw an arm across my eyes then peek out to squint at the cuckoo clock hanging over the mantel. The gears aren't turning. So much for Swiss engineering. “What time is it?”
“Six,” She gives me an exasperated look, “now get up. Your grandfather's golfing buddies will be here any minute and I want to feed them breakfast.”
“It's too early,” moaning, I flop back on the sofa and scrub my eyes, “besides, you don't cook, Pops does.”
At that we both turn to look at Pops. He needs his sleep. With a sigh, I shove back the sheets and pad into the kitchen. Betsy follows.
“You'll need to move your car before the boys get here.”
The boys have enjoyed their senior citizen discounts for as long as I can remember, but who am I to argue. The woman does not listen. I heave a sigh and try again. “I am not parked out front.” That I left the car on the main drag isn't something I want to announce. She'll think I haven't outgrown my high school shenanigans.
Discovering her granddaughter is a complete failure might scew up her social life and God forbid I mess with that.
The kitchen hasn't changed. The walls are papered in white with thin blue stripes, like mattress ticking, and colorful Tiajuana souveniers line the window sills. Betsy has good taste in junk, I'll give her that. She rummages in the fridge and I sink onto the banquette and prop my head in my hands. “So what's going on?” I ask, certain that grandpa's golfing days are behind him.
She stills, her back rigid and I'm sorry I asked.
“The boys,” Her voice is frosty, “take care of one another.”
That still doesn't answer my question. Hey, wait a sec, is she implying that I don't care?
She sticks her head in the fridge and I'm rewarded with an ample view of her boney backside. I close my eyes.
“We don't have any eggs.” She says as if I'm personally responsible.
Well of course we don't have any eggs. We never have eggs. Betsy doesn't cook. She serves leftover party food. “Don't you have any Trader Joe's seven layer dip?” I ask without any obvious hints of scorn.
Right on cue she withdraws a plastic carton. “Good idea.” She beams and dumps the dip onto a blue fiesta wear platter.
When she disappears into the pantry for crackers I grab a spoon and carve out bits of mold. I bite my lip and curb the urge to say something. She'll just give me the stink-eye and serve the dip anyway.
Oh, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I have a civic responsibility to protect the public from botulism poisoning. Well, it won't work, she's been serving crap for years and it's unlikely she'll stop anytime soon. And hey, no ones died. Yet.
“No crackers.” Says Betsy, returning with a loaf of potentially stale bread. “We'll make toast points.”
“And bloody marys.” I mumble with a touch of sarcasm.
For a moment she glares at me and I squirm. “Sorry, what can I do to help?”
She looks around the kitchen and runs her fingers over a ceramic tile she brought back from Italy. Her hand rests on the bright image of a lemon tree and her mouth curves in a wistful smile. “Your grandfather always loved Italy. We honeymooned in a tiny villa on Lake Como.”
My nostrils flare and my mouth drops open. She's doing it again. How is every tragedy always about her?
As if sensing my irritation she turns to me and holds out a hand. I ignore it.
“I can't bear to lose him.” She whispers and the next thing I know, my fingers tighten around hers and I'm hugging her close. Her body is thin, but where Pops is frail, she is strong as a cast iron railing. After a minute she pats my arm and turns away. “Perhaps you could make a pitcher of mimosas.”
When I hear her soft tread on the stairs I open the fridge and peer inside. A foul funky odor hits my nose. I pinch my nostrils. Loosely wrapped food spills from every available surface, and honestly, I don't know where to begin, but Betsy's footsteps overhead prompt me into action. If I'm lucky, I might have twenty minutes, while she spackles on powder and blush, so I grab a trashbag from the pantry. I've played this game before. The trick is to remove the first layer of crap from the shelves, toss the stuff from behind and then replace the items she expects to see.
Gingerly, I reach inside.
A half used carton of milk hides behind a moldy loaf of raisin bread. I check the sell by date and decide that, in Bety's world, three days past prime is reasonable. I'll toss the carton the minute I can replace it with a fresh one. When I get to the vegetable bin I reach in and pull out a rotting mass of green goo. My stomach heaves. What the fuck?
“Jennifer.” Betsy's voice trails down the stairs. Shit. Wiping my hand on a dish towel that's seen better days, I grab the trash bag, sneak out the back door and run across the lawn to the alley. If Betsy catches me, I'll never hear the end of it. The woman does not like to part with anything.
The gate is still locked so I hide the bag behind a small patch of tomatoes. I'll sneak back later and move it to the trash can in the alley.
“You,” says a nasal voice from behind bouganveilla at the far side of the yard, “were you the one skulking about last night?”
Oh today just gets better and better and it's not even seven am. “Mrs Abernathy?”
“Doctor Abernathy. So ... we're you?”
“Right, sorry, Doctor Abernathy, and no I wasn't, skulking that is.”
“You use to.”
I can't actually see Doctor Abernathy, the fence is too high for that, but I can picture the skinny old bat with her lips pinched and her nostrils flared.
“So, you've finally come home to care for your Grandmother.”
That'll be the day. “I'm here for Pops.”
“I see,” she says after a beat, “nasty business cancer and your grandfather is such a lovely man, but if you ask me ...”
As if. She pauses and I roll my eyes. “I need to get back inside and ...”
“It's your grandmother that needs the help. Alzheimers is the absolute worst.”
Why that old bitch. Betsy is eccentric, not demented. A chill skates down my backside and I have to unclench my teeth to answer. “Nice chatting with you Mrs. A., gotta go.” Sticking out my tongue, I trot back to the house. She's still talking and I imagine it'll take her a few minutes to realize I'm gone.
What is it with senior citizens?
Everyone's busy so two questions. Would you keep reading or not yet, and, though I want Jennifer Lynn to have room to grow, is she too unlikable?
Feel free to comment on anything that annoyed you or tossed you out of the story. :)