The next morning, Granny was still in bed when I got up. Neither one of us had gotten much sleep the night before so I didn’t wake her, thinking she could use the rest.
She always had two cups of coffee before doing anything, so I kindled a fire in the wood cookstove and put on a pot. While it perked, I wrapped ice cubes in a dish towel, making a cold pack for my swollen eye. When the coffee was ready, I poured a cup for myself, adding copious amounts of cream and sugar, sat at the kitchen table, and held the ice pack to my throbbing eye.
Reflecting back on last night’s events, I didn’t know how I could have been so blind for so long. The last few months of Mama’s life, when her depression and drinking had gotten really bad, Daddy had begun to notice to me. In retrospect. I could see it for the ugly thing it had been. At the time, I had only known that my kind but distant daddy had gradually disappeared, and a drunken, repulsive stranger had taken his place. And now that I knew I was going to keep living with Granny and never have to see him again, I felt a small measure of peace.
When Granny failed to put in an appearance by mid-morning, I poked my head in the bedroom door to check on her. Her sunken eyes focused on me, and she motioned me to come closer.
I crossed the room to her bed. Her skin was the color of parchment, the tracing of blue veins stark in contrast. One side of her face seemed . . . loose.
“What’s wrong, Granny?”
“Just one o’my sick headaches, gal.” Her voice came out weak and slurred. “I ain’t had one for a while. Reckon I was due for a real doozy.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“You can fetch me some aspirins. Then I’ll just lay here and try t’sleep. That’s about all a body can do for it.”
I returned shortly with the aspirins. She propped herself up on one elbow and attempted to reach for the pills with her free hand, but couldn’t raise it more than a few inches. “It don’t seem to wanna work,” she said. “Can you do it for me?”
“Of course.” I put the aspirins in her mouth and held the glass of water to her lips while she drank. “Do you want me to call the doctor?”
When she finished the water, her head dropped back onto the pillow. “I don’t need no doctor. Just let me rest today and I’ll be good as new.”
“Are you sure, Granny?”
“Yes, chile.” Her voice was growing weaker. “You go on now, and I’ll rest . . . and pull the curtains on your way out.”
Granny’s color had improved by suppertime, but she was still too feeble to get out of bed. I fed her a little warmed over soup and gave her more aspirins.
“Don’t you go worrying none about me, gal,” she said. “In a couple a’days, I’ll be okay.”
“I still think you should see a doctor,” I said, plumping her pillow and tucking the covers. “Seems like more than a headache to me.”
“I’ve had ‘em my whole life, and they ain’t kilt me yet. Doc says I have what’s called migraines. It’ll pass.”
That night I slipped out of the house to meet Ira, but when I reached the bridge, he wasn’t there. I waited for about an hour then returned home, fearing to leave Granny alone for any longer than that. After crawling back through my bedroom window, I changed into a gown, then looked in on her. She was sleeping peacefully.
A little later as I was slipping between the sheets of my bed, I wondered what had kept Ira away.
True to her word, in a few days Granny was once again up and about. But she wasn’t the same, seeming a shadow of her former self. And yet she brushed aside my concern, saying there was nothing wrong other than old age catching up with her. She flat-out refused to go to the doctor.
I let the matter slide, for I had another worry to contend with—Ira’s continued absence. Since the night Granny had gotten sick, he hadn’t met me at the bridge. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for one or the other of us to miss a night occasionally, but not two nights in a row.
Had he left without me?
By the sixth night, I was sick with apprehension, and no longer caring what the consequences might be, I decided to go to his house.
The new moon and a wealth of twinkling stars lit my way as I followed the side-road that led to Ira’s home. Black-shrouded woods crowded close on both sides. Insects chirped and chattered, frogs croaked, whippoorwills called. Small nocturnal animals rattled the underbrush. The white noise of the night.
After about ten minutes of steady walking, glowing lights broke the darkness ahead. And shortly, the road came to an end in front of a house I assumed was Ira’s home. A soft breeze rustled the leaves of the ancient oaks and elms surrounding the place, causing sinister shadows to dance over the worn boards and grimy windows. A choking tangle of weeds, tall grass, and vines made up the yard, a beaten-down trail cutting through it to a small, listing porch.
For the first time since I had eased out my bedroom window earlier, it crossed my mind that what I was doing may be unwise. But before I let the thought have a chance to take root, I took a deep breath and started down the trail.
When I stepped up onto the porch, I startled a large black cat lying in front of the door. With a displeased hiss, it streaked through the pool of golden light spilling out a window, jumped off the end of the porch, and disappeared into the night.
“Who the hell are you?”
Heart in my throat, I whirled around. No more than an arm’s length behind me stood the tallest man I had ever seen, at least six-and-a-half-feet, possibly more. Long straight black hair, dark eyes and skin, with features similar to Ira’s. The big man had to be his father. Crutches propped under his massive arms, he wore an old flannel shirt and blue jeans, one leg empty below the knee.
And this burly giant was staring at me as if I were something to be frightened of.
“My name’s Chloe . . . Chloe Walker,” I said. “I’m a friend of Ira’s, and I haven’t seen him in days. He’s all right, isn’t he?”
Ignoring my question, he asked one of his own. “You’re Melanie and David Walker’s girl, ain’t you?”
I nodded my head. “Yes.”
“And you’ve been staying with your grandma?”
“Yes. Mama died and—”
“Yeah, I heard.” His face hardened. “What the hell you doing out here anyway?”
“I told you—Ira’s my friend, and I haven’t seen him . . . around. Is he all right?”
“Oh yeah, sure. He come down with the flu, but he’s getting along better now. You say you’re his friend?”
“I didn’t think that boy had any friends, leastways one as pretty as you.” He smiled. Ira’s smile.
“I met him last year just after I came to live with Granny. We’ve been friends ever since.”
He cackled. “I bet that pisses off your old grandma to no end.”
“She doesn’t know,” I said. “Ira told me she wouldn’t let me see him if she did. You’re not going to tell, are you?”
“Me? Hell no. Why should I care what you do? You come over here anytime you take the notion to see my boy.” He laughed again. “Imagine that: Melanie’s little girl and my boy, friends.”
“You did say he was going to be okay?”
“Yeah, the fever broke a couple of days ago, but the doc said for him to take it easy awhile longer. Boy couldn’t do much if he wanted to, weak as a kitten.”
“Is he . . . I suppose . . . in the house?”
“You come all this way afoot to see about Ira, and here I am jawing your ear off. I imagine you’d like to see him.”
“Yes, I would, Mr. Jamison.”
“Come on in the house then.” He hobbled past me, across the porch to the back door, and pulled it open. He motioned for me to go in first. “Don’t mind the mess, the maid didn’t show up today,” he said.
I didn’t know what to make of Ira’s father. He wasn’t at all what I had expected, judging from Granny’s, and even Ira’s, description. Though on the rough side, he didn’t seem to be the monster they had made him out to be.
“Come on, he’s back here.” He led the way through a filthy kitchen, and then a doorway on the right. “You’ve got company, boy.”
Ira was stretched out on a stained and faded sofa of indeterminate color in the equally squalid living room. His normally copper hued skin was pale, his body noticeably thinner. As he looked up, his eyes widened in surprise. “Chloe, what’re you doing here.”
I moved to the sofa, squatted, and took his hand in mine. “I had to come. I’ve been worried to death about you. I knew you wouldn’t like it, but . . .” I brought his hand to my lips and kissed the palm.
“It’s all right. I’d have done the same thing in your place.” His eyes narrowed to slits. “What happened to your face? Who hit you?”
I had forgotten the ugly, purplish-yellow bruise. “N—nobody. I ran into a door.”
His brown eyes caught fire. “Don’t you lie to me, Chloe. Somebody hit you. Who was it?”
“It was Daddy, but—”
“That sonofabitch, I’ll kill him!” He tried to rise from the sofa but was so weak that I easily pushed him back down.
“No Ira, he was drunk, he didn’t mean it.” His reaction convinced me I had made the right decision not to tell him everything. Remembering Bubba Higgins, I had no doubt that he would carry out his threat if he knew the whole truth. “He’s gone now and not ever coming back. Just forget it.” I grasped both his hands in mine, looked into his eyes, “Please, for me?”
“I can’t just forget it. He hurt you.”
My eyes dove deeper. “Please, Ira.”
He sighed. “Okay, little girl, I won’t go after him—this time. But if he ever touches you again, he’ll answer to me.” He paused. “You said he ain’t coming back—why?”
“Granny ran him off with a shotgun when he . . . he hit me. She told him he’d better not ever come back.”
Ira’s face turned cold, deadly. “For his sake, he’d better not.”
“Old Nora did that?” Mr. Jamison asked. “I’d sure like to have been a fly on the wall when that happened.”
I had forgotten we had an audience.
“Ain’t you got something else to do, old man?” Ira asked.
I laid my hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. I’ve got to go anyway. Granny’s been sick, so I’d better get back in case she needs me.” As if it had a mind of its own, my hand moved up to cup his cheek. “You’ll be all right, won’t you?”
“Of course, he will,” Ira’s father answered. “I’ll take right good care of him, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow night,” I said. “If that’s all right?”
“You’d better not,” Ira said. “I don’t much like you coming all this way by yourself in the dark.” He laid his hand over mine.
“She’ll be all right, boy,” his father said. “I’ll take her back tonight, show her the short cut down the branch. It don’t take no time at all that way.”
“Since I can’t, I ain’t got no choice but to let you,” Ira said, glaring over my shoulder. “But you’d best be nice to her, Pa. I won’t like it if you ain’t.”
I stood, Ira’s hand sliding away from mine.
“I’ll be a perfect gentleman.” Mr. Jamison had a huge grin pasted on his face, and his eyes danced. I didn’t see what he found so funny. He might not be the ogre I had imagined him to be, but he was still a strange man.
I bent over and kissed Ira on the cheek. “I’d better go, but I’ll be back tomorrow.” Then in a whisper, “I love you.”
His wan features lit up in a smile. Softly, “You too,” then, growled to his father, “You behave yourself, old man.”
Mr. Jamison inclined his head in acknowledgement, then his eyes shifted to me. “You ready?” At my nod, he turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
I blew a kiss to Ira—grinning when he snatched it from the air—then followed his father into the kitchen and out a different door than the one we had come in, this one on the opposite wall from the first.
Outside, the ground quickly sloped downhill, flattening out at a small, bone-dry stream bed.
“This cuts a straight line from here to your grandma’s house,” Mr. Jamison said. “Following it will get you there quicker than who done it.” Even though he used crutches, I had to hurry just to stay up with him.
In just a couple of minutes, he stopped and pointed to a large tree growing on the left bank. “See that big sycamore?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“There’s a game trail there that runs up to that blackberry thicket behind y’alls outhouse.”
“How do you know?”
“Suspicious little thing, ain’t you?” He laughed. “Truth is, there’s been a deer run through here for as long as I can remember. Back before the war, I used to do quite a bit of squirrel hunting back here. Still do every once in a while.”
“Why didn’t Ira ever tell me about it?”
“Hell, that boy don’t hunt. He don’t cotton to killing animals. Till I brought it up, he most likely hadn’t thought anything about it.”
“Well, I’d best get up to the house and check on Granny. Thank you for bringing me back, Mr. Jamison.”
“Like I said, just follow that trail up the hill, and you’ll be there. And you come back to visit anytime you take a hankering to. You’re always welcome at my house.” He turned and hitched back up the stream bed. “Ain’t it a hoot,” he cackled.
“Good night,” I called to his retreating back. More laughter was my only answer.
To be continued . . .