Samuel eased his car through the four-way intersection, just three miles away from his Grandmother’s house.
The road quickly turned from two-lane asphalt to a gravel-packed road barely wide enough for one car. But Samuel knew this road very well and easily kept the Chevy Cavalier within the shoulders. This year he’d only made one visit to Grandma Helen’s--that wonderful time for a teacher when those February President’s Days allowed him to take long weekends--but prior to that he visited her what? Five to seven times a year? Thanksgiving. Christmas. Easter. Spring Break. Multiple times during the summer. Maybe even more than seven times a year. Sometimes he lost count.
This year was different. Samuel really couldn’t put a finger on it, but his teaching life began to spin out of control. Telling his Grandmother he was too busy to visit sounded like a bad excuse. Or simply cliché. He never was that grandson who ditched the only family he had. Though this year, he continuously did just that. Like the successful stockbroker who didn’t have time for anyone else. Or the husband who barely saw his family because the wife refused to see his family or made ultimatums against visiting. Those were the types of people who made the excuse I’ve just been too busy.
He had been busy though. School conferences and meetings increased after the first of the year. The Benton Harbor debate team had an amazing year and made it to the Midwest Finals. Samuel and his team lost to some Ohio school, but practices and exhibition meets took up a lot of his time January through March. The principal also volunteered him for detention duty in April so any hopes of visiting Grandma on the weekends faded away. And he really couldn’t tell the principal no. Career suicide. Even though Samuel never expected to teach past his fifth year, he refused to burn those proverbial bridges for now.
Plus, all that chaos and schedule jamming severely diminished time for his novel.
He glanced in the passenger seat. An electronic Smith and Corona typewriter sat nestled in the ninety-degree angle of the seat and backrest. The cover attached with two clips, one of which had broken off in one of the moves to college, his apartment, or any of the various trips to and from his classroom. The old, metal clickety-clack could take it. His grandmother had purchased it for him from a Ben and Franklin store for thirty bucks when he was nineteen. She found one of his short stories lying around and decided to encourage an obvious obsession. Titled “Uniform Men,” the story was handwritten on wide-ruled notebook paper. One afternoon, he found the typewriter on the desk in his room. Ever since that day, Samuel religiously pounded away at the typewriter keys whenever he wanted to lay words on paper. Computers were nice--his laptop sat on the floorboard--but something about writing distraction-free made words flow better and faster. The Internet had too many things to do: getting lost on the Internet was like getting lost in space. You could keep going and going, but the interminable void of Cyberspace kept spitting back something for you to get submersed in.
Lucky for Samuel, his Grandmother didn’t have the Internet. She didn’t have TV. As far as he knew at this moment, she just had a radio--which remained tuned to the local station for farm reports--and encyclopedias.
He might even finish the book in the two weeks he planned to stay. Three chapters had already been written. When he decided to visit Helen, he also decided that would be the time to get the damn book written. Enough putting the damned book off. No more procrastination of the damned book. Enough I’ve been busy he remembered telling himself as he dialed his Grandmother’s number. Enough I’ve been busy for shoving the novel to the side for other business, but also enough I’ve been busy for his Grandma.
Deep in thought, Samuel overshot the end of the driveway. He did a three-point turn and slowly pulled next to the mailbox with ‘Helen Taylor’ painted in crisp, white lettering.
Many afternoons, Samuel took the one-third mile trek from the house to the mailbox to eagerly retrieve the letters, advertisements, and bills. He never sought the bills or the slick, crepe paper-like advertisements. Samuel only wanted one thing: a letter from a magazine offering to publish one of his stories. And he got that first acceptance when he was twenty.
He watched from the front window, stalking the rural carrier in her old Ford Bronco the moment he heard the truck. It would stutter as it slowed down and occasionally grind out a squeal to send the birds squawking away. He never found out why the truck did that, but he really didn’t care. The mailman’s arrival was all he cared about. When the green Bronco with the slightly skewed Rural Carrier magnet drove away, Samuel dashed from the house and sprinted to the mailbox. He was like a kid who looked forward to a Justice League of America decoder ring or a much-anticipated comic book. Samuel whipped open the mailbox door and flitted his hand around until he grabbed the stack of mail. Moving the envelopes from front to back, Samuel went through a few bills, a letter from his Great Aunt in Kentucky and a Publisher’s Clearinghouse letter. The final one, as if fate decided this position was where the acceptance letter would be placed, bore the return address of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Quarterly. The envelope wasn’t the return envelope he included to have his story back if it was rejected. He held a plain white envelope. This has to be it, he remembered thinking. Samuel carefully ripped the letter open, and read: Dear Mr. Taylor, We really enjoyed your story, “Great Roads in Hargathia” and would like to publish it in our Winter Issue. The character and…
The rest didn’t matter. Only the first few words that included “would like to publish” mattered. He ran back to the house, screaming and exuding excitement. When he reached his Grandmother in the house, the first thing she asked was, “Did you bring in the rest of the mail?” He looked down at his hands to see only the acceptance letter. The rest of the mail sat littered in spots along the driveway as if he left them to remember the path back to the mailbox. Then, before Samuel could turn around and collect the rest of the mail, his Grandmother pulled him close and gave him a big and comforting hug.
Samuel smiled at the mailbox, the memory fading away like a flickering 8mm film reel.
To the right of the house, the trees caught wind and swayed. Leaves detached from the trees and cascaded to the ground. Samuel looked around the yard and only saw the three maples to the right moving in the wind. The other trees stayed absolutely still. The leaves wouldn’t already be fragile in the early summer, would they? He glanced to the sky through the front windshield. No clouds; just brilliant blue sky.
Then something dark flew over the trees and hovered near the ground. Almost as if a grey cloud had descended. It surrounded the trunks. The shadow pulsated, or so Samuel thought.
From the front of the house, Samuel’s grandmother emerged, waving frantically and sporting a wide grin. As soon as she hit the second step, the shadow rose a few feet and then zipped behind the house.
There she is. From the car, Samuel noticed his grandmother had a slower gait and thinner frame. She was ninety-one years old, but he hadn’t been away that long, had he? Months couldn’t physically change a person where they almost wouldn’t be recognizable, right? It was possible, but not to his Grandmother. He didn’t want it to be possible anyway.
Samuel put the car in gear and eased up the gravel driveway. The rocks crunched reminiscently under his tires and he truly felt glad to be here. Truly felt at home.
He stopped the car near the walkway and got out to meet his grandmother at the end of the cement.
“Hello, Samuel.” She cupped his face in his hands and stared deeply into his eyes. “Let me ask you something. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
And the question. Always that question. Samuel could never escape that question, no matter if he’d been away for days or months. Always the first thing she asked after the initial greeting. And his answer always--
“Yes, grandma, I do.”
“Good. Good!” She wrapped his arms around him. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you!” She planted a quick kiss on his cheek and saw his Cavalier. “Are you still driving that thing?”
Samuel shrugged. “I’m still a teacher with a teacher’s salary.”
“That will soon change when you finish your book. I think it’s great you decided to complete it here.”
“I figured the fewer distractions I have, the faster I can get it done. I already have three rough draft chapters.”
“A wonderful start. Two weeks should be plenty of time, don’t you think?”
Helen grinned the same grin Samuel saw when she came out of the house. “Samuel, I’m so glad you’re here.” Her eyes welled and a tear shimmered in the sun as the drop rolled down to her chin and fell away.
“Grandma, no need to cry.”
“Oh posh. That is joy coming out of my eye.” She pushed him towards his car. “Now get your things and get settled in your room. I made some of that apricot sweet tea you like. After the drive, you need to relax a bit before you get going on your book.”
Samuel’s stomach suddenly yearned for the apricot sweet tea. What made it even better was Helen used simple sugar--so it dissolved better--and knew the perfect combination of sweet to tea.
It was almost like drinking alcohol it was so addictive. Of course, he could never tell his Grandmother that drinking her apricot sweet tea was like drinking alcohol. She’d be likely to never make it again.
“Alright,” he said. “Give me ten minutes.”
He watched her disappear back into the house before grabbing his suitcase from the trunk and his typewriter and laptop from the passenger seat.
When he had everything balanced just right, Samuel made his way to the front door. As the front screen door creaked open, a quick blur of shadows rushed by in his periphery. He turned his head to the right, but saw nothing.
“I need some of that sweet tea,” he mumbled to himself.
The spring on the door pulled it shut with a slam, as the spring had for at least fifteen years. The house smelled on the border of being musty without actually reaching a full musty state.
Grandma probably recently mopped the floors because they shone vibrantly and he smelled the varnish. The living room to his right still had no TV, but on the far wall his grandmother still kept the one hundred pictures of grandpa. One hundred because that’s how old he was when he died. The fireplace screen looked screwed shut. Besides, Helen only used the fireplace once when he was seventeen and had a girlfriend over--or a female companion as his grandmother called her. On three shelves to the left of the fireplace were three sets of encyclopedias. The last time he came, only two sets rested on the shelf; the topmost set appeared new. Maybe she had decided a 2012 version of the Britannica would make her shelves modern.
The kitchen sat ahead. As he passed it, he asked, “When did you close up the fireplace?”
Ice clinked in glasses. “Oh, I felt it safer to close it up than let nasty critters into my house uninvited.”
Did she feel some critters were respectable enough to invite? Samuel laughed. “Makes sense. Did you block off the chimney?”
“No. Harry’s suppose to do that next week sometime.”
Harry Belford lived in town and owned the paint store. He often did handy-work for Helen. He was twenty years her younger and Samuel often teased her that she should go for it. She’d always answer, “I’m too old for dating. The man does what I want anyway.”
Samuel turned left down the main hallway. The wood floors gleamed from the sconce lighting in the hall. In his socks, Samuel sensed the slickness of the floor and had an overwhelming urge to sprint down the one hundred foot hallway and quickly halt, letting his body’s momentum propel him forward as he slid ten to fifteen feet. Just like when he was eight years old, or twelve, or sixteen. And just like being that young, Samuel took a sneaky glance into the kitchen: his grandmother stood at the sink, washing dishes. She had a tendency to catch him sliding along the floor twenty-five years ago and always expressed disappointment. She’d catch him now and even though Samuel was thirty-three, Helen would still express her disappointment.
The urged passed. He didn’t want to be grounded to his room on his first day back.
The end of the hall opened up, resembling a cul-de-sac. His grandmother’s bedroom was on the right, the door ajar by inches. Next to that, a linen closet and a guest bedroom. The door sat open, blocked by a brick. The yellow, floral curtains inside flapped outward from the breeze coming through the open windows.
The final bedroom was his. In actuality, the bedroom had been his since for twenty years, when his parents died in a car accident. His grandmother took him in and became his guardian and provided just as if she were a mother and father.
The car accident...
Samuel wrapped his hands around the doorknob. Each visit, each entry into the room violently brought back the memories of his parents. But he didn’t want to have those memories right now, so he willed his brain to think about something else. The layout of the room flashed through his mind.
He pushed open the door and let it slowly kiss the wall.
A double bed occupied the center of the left wall and had a fresh change of floral sheets, much like the pattern of the curtains in the adjacent room. A succinct grass smell wafted to his nose: the sheets must have just come from the clothesline. Samuel couldn’t wait for bed tonight because that smell got him fast asleep and through the night uninterrupted.
Next to the bed, a dresser. Elegant wooden picture frames surrounded photographs of his mother and father and rested at angles on top of the dresser.
His grandmother entered the room. “Samuel, I need to tell you something about your parents.”
In the far corner, his favorite reading chair and floor lamp. He didn’t know if the chair was a proper reading chair, but many hours a day had been spent reading in the soft, red plush seat with dark brown wooden armrests on either side. Samuel considered it a reading chair, so that’s what made it that.
Besides the reading chair, Samuel also loved the antique roll-top desk. It came up to his shoulders and, since Helen had taken care of it all these years, looked like it just came out of the factory. Samuel wondered if she used the same varnish on the desk as she did on the floors. The desk had four small drawers running across the top and three drawers on the left base and one cabinet taking up the space of the right base. Two slabs of wood pulled out above the bases--peeked out at the moment--but he rarely used those. In the center of all sides, intricately carved symbols, presumably the maker’s logo or signature carving, gave the impression the desk should sit in a castle or mansion. Not in his grandmother’s house.
Samuel set his suitcase and laptop on the bed and then reached over to the small gold handle on the roll-top and lifted. The hood glided easily to its open position. The inside remained bare, as it had probably since he left for his first job.
After carefully putting the typewriter on the main portion of the desk, he stepped back and ensured it was centered. Off to the right a little. He lifted the typewriter--the rubber feet might scratch the otherwise unblemished surface--and moved it to the left.
With the typewriter centered, Samuel pictured himself at age twenty, a faded version of himself slumped over the typewriter keys, punching them with ferocity. When he had been inspired, he’d sit for hours until the story was done. Young Samuel pulled a sheet out and placed it with the others and quickly replaced the now empty typewriter with a new sheet.
Older Samuel stepped forward to see what words flew from younger Samuel’s fingers.
“Borland stepped cautiously up the hill, eyeing the crest suspiciously. The other side held the Beast, he knew, and there was only him to slay it. He had been the only one charged with destroying the beast. For the town; for his family; for himself. The sun even didn’t want to see what happened: it disappeared behind gathering storm clouds as Borland reached the top of the crag. He drew his sword and...”
Older Samuel smiled. The Crag, he remembered. His third sold short story. A fun little fantasy story about one man and a beast. The magazine that published it thought it was a great tale of metaphors. Overcoming obstacles, summoning courage, destroying the “beasts” that haunt people’s own lives. Samuel got a hundred dollars for the story, so the only obstacle he encountered was figuring out what to spend the money on.
Younger Samuel stopped typing and turned his head towards the door. Older Samuel followed the gaze and watched his younger self dash through his vision and vanish through the bedroom door. The typed-written papers and the sheet rolled through the platinum dissolved, leaving behind a ghostly memory.
“Samuel! Did you hear me?” His grandmother.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Are you ready for that tea?”
He’d unpack later tonight. First that tea, then some writing.
On the way to the kitchen, Samuel stopped by the bathroom, washed his hands, and splashed cold water on his face. Slightly refreshed from the drive, he took a seat at the kitchen table as his grandmother set down two glasses and a gallon pitcher of apricot sweat tea. Samuel helped himself and then poured a glass for his grandmother. She placed a plate of chocolate chip cookies in the middle of the table.
“Homemade?” Samuel asked.
“Don’t insult me. Of course they’re homemade.”
“Sorry, didn’t want you to go to all this trouble.”
“I may be old, but I can still cook.” She sipped tea as Samuel grabbed one of the warm cookies. “Besides, it’s never trouble. I’m just glad you’re here.”
“I have been busy, grandma. I hope you don’t think I’ve been neglecting you. I love coming here.”
“I know you do, Samuel.” Helen took a cookie and broke it in half, the gooey chips hung on to both sides like strings. “I was thinking that maybe we could have lunch or dinner in town while you’re here. Just to get out.”
“That sounds great. Is Will’s Diner still open? I haven’t had one of his ruebens in a while.”
His grandmother shook her head. “No. Sadly, he had to close a few months ago. A couple of those chain restaurants opened up on the north side of town and took away all his business. An Olive Garden and a Cracker Barrel.”
“He had loyal customers, didn’t he?”
“Will couldn’t compete with the allure. Small town loyalties can change in an instant,” Helen said, putting half the cookie in her mouth.
“That stinks. I guess we could go to one of them.” Samuel gulped down half the amazing tea and then refilled his glass. “What’s he doing now?”
“Not sure. Travelling. Living off his savings.” His grandmother took another drink and then looked over Samuel’s face.
He blushed and averted his eyes. She had an uncanny ability to see things, to read people and call them out. Samuel wondered what she saw now as her eyes searched for something, something deeper in him, in his heart. In his soul.
“I also thought,” she said, “that you and I could go to church both Sundays you are here. You haven’t been consistently attending. True?”
Samuel nodded. “Yes, grandma. The week gets me so exhausted that when Saturday and Sunday roll around, I have to recoup. And even then I’m still doing work. Grading papers, going over reports, planning for the debate team—“ Even in his head, it all sounded like an excuse. I’ve been busy.
“You know how I feel about excuses. Especially those that you think are stopping you from going to church. The excuse doesn’t stop someone from doing something: it’s the person. Jesus was exhausted most of his life and he still managed to hold that cross and die for our sins. So I think you can manage an hour or two each week to show your faith to the Lord.” She paused, letting the admonishment sink in. “I’ve said my words. We’ll get you back on track. I assume you don’t have to grade papers or reports or do stuff for the debate team while your away for two weeks,
“Right. Just my book. That’s the whole purpose to this time away.”
“Good. The church misses you. The Lord misses you.”
His grandmother smiled. “I wasn’t asking, Samuel.” She replenished his glass. “Now take that and get to your room and start writing. I’ll call you for dinner.”
After picking up the sweating glass, Samuel walked around the table and planted a kiss on top of her head. “I love you, grandma.”
“I love you too. I better hear typing until dinner.”
Going to church was the least he could do while he was here. How many Sunday’s had he missed? At least all the Sundays the past two months, maybe longer. The last time he went to church was the last time he visited his grandmother. He couldn’t even remember it was so long ago. Samuel rubbed his chin. Damn, that was in January. And for all she had done for him since—
Samuel, it’s very hard to tell you this and I’m sorry I just have to come out and say it, but...
--there was no excuse to betray his grandmother like that. Maybe he would suggest they sit down for devotionals after church or later in the week. She’d enjoy that.
He pushed the chair from the side of the roll-top desk and plopped down and then bent over to plug in the cord to the Smith and Corona. Samuel spun around and grabbed a fresh ream of paper from the laptop case. After scooting into the groove just large enough to hold his legs, he turned on the typewriter.
It hummed with eagerness and anticipation. Mmmmmmmmmm. As if Samuel was turning on a lover. Type on me, Samuel. Type on me big time. I am here to receive your words. I am here to receive you.
He slipped a paper into the roller--much like slipping his penis into--
“Stop,” he told himself. Thinking about sex was as much a distraction as the Internet or leaving your phone on hoping for a text or phone call or wondering if the grass needs mowed or trying to figure out what you wanted for lunch, dinner, or tomorrow’s breakfast. Or as much as a distraction as the sexual thoughts now.
Samuel flipped the rail closed, dropped the paper down with twelve returns, centered the carriage and typed, Chapter Four.
Then, a slight hesitation as his mind rotated through various ways to start the chapter. When he settled on one, Samuel pushed the words from his brain to the paper like a woman giving birth. A few sentences at a time. Pause. More sentences. Pause. Words. Pause. New paragraph. And so on.
He wrote like this for some time.
After two and a half hours, Samuel leaned back in his chair, stretching his muscles. His lower back disliked him and told him so. He pushed back from the desk and popped his knees.
Twenty-one pages were stacked next to the typewriter. Chapter Four came easy and he had written two pages into Chapter Five before the need to use the bathroom forced him to stop.
The analog clock on the dresser read 5:34. Had he missed the call for dinner? Grandma usually ate around 5 p.m.--a stereotype of old people that rang true for her--but she would have came and got him. She understood the possibility of being immersed in writing potentially blocked out the loudest of voices. It had happen before, so how couldn’t she think it could happen again?
“...and how could...show me...something...that...”
A cottony voice, low and audible enough to make out some of the words.
“...what do...to do?”
A break. Silence.
Samuel slowly rose from the chair and stood in the doorway leading to the hallway. His grandmother’s door was completely shut now. A soft white light quivered rhythmically through the small gap under the door. A few seconds later, the light shut off like someone flipping a switch.
“...for two...don’t know exactly...can’t...stay here forever...”
Samuel crept to his grandmother’s door. He put his left ear an inch from the door. A quiet wind, almost nonexistent breeze, whistled through the room. The drapes snapped and the blinds rattled incessantly, vibrating to the point of madness.
“Maybe for that long.” Each word articulated. Each word clear. Maybe for that long.
First, who couldn’t stay here forever? And second, what was shown to grandma? And third, what did maybe for that long mean? She spoke to someone in there and he heard a response even though he didn’t hear who answered. Also, what about the light and the wind? Those might be explained easily enough: a bulb burned and flickered out and grandma had left the window open.
The breeze was strong enough to push the guest room’s curtains in the air, so why not his grandmother’s?
Inside the bedroom, the bed creaked. Crap, she’s coming to the door.
Samuel sneak-dashed to his room and closed the door quickly, letting up just as the latch clicked into the plate. His grandmother’s bedroom door eeeeeked open. Five footsteps later, a knock came.
“Samuel. Dinner’s ready.”
“Be there in a second.”
Had she heard him at the door? Running back to his room? His breathing relaxed. Had she heard his lungs pushing out air as if he just finished a 100-yard sprint?
The knock at the door and her statement about dinner gave him no indication she knew he eavesdropped. And even if she knew, would she mention it?
Probably not, but a determined Samuel wanted to find the right moment to bring it up in a conversation. He’d have to admit he listened at the door, but what the hell was she talking about in there and more importantly: who the hell was she talking to?
Samuel turned off the typewriter, making a note in the margin of the current sheet. A habit he picked up years ago when he’d be in the middle of a good writing session and it had to be interrupted and he couldn’t really remember where he was going with it. So he started making notes about what the next few paragraphs would be about. That way, he could jump right in. Just as he planned to do right after he ate.
He went to dinner.