My short story entry was a finalist in the RPLA contest. Here it is for the of you who’d like to read it.
Sometimes I have to get rid of things. Two husbands. An old dog that got sick on me. The tumor that nearly finished me off. And now this girl, this sorry creature with stringy blond hair hiding her eyes, fingernails bit down to the quick, and a permanent sneer on her tiny, pinched face.
“I can’t do this,” I tell Kevin.
“Can’t or won’t?” he says.
I hate him for that. Smug whippersnapper, dropping the girl off the back of his Harley like she was no more than some package he’d gotten stuck with delivering. Which I guess is pretty much the case.
“I’m too old,” I say. “Fifty-nine’s no age to be starting over raising a kid.” I’m actually sixty-three, but this guy doesn’t have to know that.
“Okay then, kick her out. It’s no skin off my ass.” He guns the motor and is gone.
I overlook Kevin. He isn’t her father, just one of the many in-and-outers my daughter picked up along her way. A bit better than most of them, at least had the decency to drive the girl out here. Could just as easily have walked off, left her the way you’d leave a stray cat.
Though what I’m to do with her is a question I’ve got no answer.
Lilith is what Tracy named her. Just like my daughter to give the child a name God-fearing folks around here don’t care for. The locals go strictly with the Adam and Eve version, never mind that old Adam may have planted a few seeds elsewhere.
“You might as well come inside,” I tell her. “Take your stuff upstairs. Supper in half an hour.” It’s not like I mean for her to stay, but with it being late afternoon when Kevin dropped her off, it looks like we’re stuck for tonight.
She gives me a look that lets me know she’s not about to be taking orders, a look I saw often enough from her mother’s too-pretty face. “Not staying,” she mutters. But in the end she stoops and picks up her backpack, black like everything else she’s wearing. Goths, they call themselves, these young ones bent on hiding or maybe even destroying the only youth they’ll ever know.
“The room at the head of the stairs,” I tell her. “Bed’s made up. Bathroom’s at the end of the hall.”
I watch her feet going up the stairs in thick black boots, crude clompers laced halfway up her calves. Coal-miner’s boots, ditch-diggers boots, you ask me. It’s almost like I’ve been afflicted with the two extremes—a daughter, Tracy, who always left the house looking and smelling like a whore, but a well-dressed whore, and now this granddaughter who could pass for some waif out of a war zone…the losing side.
I listen for a while, then finally the toilet flushes, but no footsteps coming back down. I go to the foot of the stairs and call up to her—“Lilith. Time to come eat.”
No answer at first, then a mumble I can barely make out, “Not hungry.”
“Suit yourself,” I call up to her. “I don’t carry trays upstairs.”
I set two places just in case. I wait a while then walk to the stairs again and listen. The door up there is closed, but I hear a faint mewling sound like she might be crying. I start to go up, put my foot on the bottom step, then decide against it. I get feeling sorry for her I might lose sight of what’s got to be done.
The woman from Children’s Protective Services is about as much use as a petticoat on a cow. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Sanders,” her snotty voice barks at me, “we’re taking only the most critical cases at this time.”
“You don’t call it critical the girl’s mother is dead and she’s got no place to live?”
She stares at me through her ridiculous boogie-owl eyeglasses. “It’s my understanding that you are her grandmother…her next of kin.”
I can’t demy that.
We head back home, my home, that is. Where hers will end up being, is something I don’t care to dwell on. She’s trailing along, still hanging onto that backpack, walking a good six steps behind to make it clear she doesn’t want it known we’re together.
That suits both of us.
All this time she’s scarce uttered two words, so I’m a little surprised when she blurts out, “I didn’t ask to come here, you know.”
“No,” I call back over my shoulder. “Reckon you didn’t. Your mama?…you were with her when….”
“Not at the hospital. They wouldn’t let me.”
I stop and turn around to face her. “Your mother could have called me, you know…made some sort of arrangements.”
“Or maybe you could have called us.”
The sting of her words smites me so hard that bile rises from my stomach. “Your mama and I…we….”
For the life of me I can’t get the rest of it out and we walk the rest of the way without talking.
“You could put that backpack down, you know,” I tell her at the breakfast table next morning. “Nobody’s going to steal it.”
No answer. Sits there with her head bent over the cereal bowl, a lop of her hair mearly in the milk. Once in a while takes her spoon and sends the Cheerios in a slow swirl around the bowl’s edge.
Tracy’s done it to me again. Made me out to be the bad guy, the evil mother, evil grandmother. “You think you know best how I should live my life!” she flung at me the day she left.
She was wrong. I never knew that. No more than I knew how she should end it. No more than I knew how to stop her from ending it. By that time the gap between us stretched too wide for any words I might have said.
And now the young one, this Lilith. Another bridgeless gap. She’s made that plenty clear. Doesn’t want to be here. Wants nothing to do with me. If I was to take her in she’d make my life and hers a misery.
“My mother said you had a dog.”
Her words coming out of the blue like that startled me. “Dog? What made you think of….”
“She said you had one. Do you?”
“What else did your Mother say about me?” Soon as I asked that question I wanted to snatch it back. Any answer that came would be like sticking lit matches under my own fingernails.
“She only said about the dog.”
“I did have one…once.”
Up to then, she’s refused to look at me, but now she lifts her head and turns her dark eyes in my direction. “What happened to it?”
“Did you take it to the vet’s and have it killed?”
“Brandy…Brandy was old…very old. And very sick. She’d lived years and years past her time.”
Lilith stirred the Cheerios some more, then, with her dark eyes boring into me, demanded, “Who decides when it’s somebody’s time?”
Bible verses floated through my head—a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to die. What answer to give a confused, angry twelve-year-old? And who does decide? Had Tracy chose to end a life that had become unbearable, or was the overdose accidental, the decision of demons hovering over her? No answer to that.
“You ever had a pet?” I ask.
“A gerbil once. One of Mama’s…friends…bought it for me.”
“What happened to it?”
“One day when I came home from school it was gone. Just gone. Sometimes when Mama was bad….” She didn’t finish the sentence but the words crowded the air between us.
I try to visualize the life the two of them had shared, Lilith having to be as much the mother as the child.
I get up from the table, carry my bowl to the sink, the weight of it pulling me down, the weight of everything pulling me down these days. I thought when Tracy left, when she wiped me out of her life, my job was done, responsibilities over. Near twenty years from the day she stormed out, a seventeen-year-old with a no-good doper boy friend and enough anger to fuel a rocket, and I’d managed to go on living, pushing the memory of her far to the back of my mind.
And now this.
The girl would stay. I’d known that from the minute she landed on my doorstep. And there was every chance I was letting myself in for the same heartache all over again. A better than even chance. After all, we were starting out from a minus position, two hard-heads bound to lock horns.
I pour a cup of coffee, carryit back to the table and sit down again opposite her. I will have to think about getting another dog.