Will didn’t argue with me. All and all he was a good boy, Caleb too. They were a handful for Isabelle though, what with her having to work all the time and no husband to help out. Funny how a man can just walk out on his family and never look back. That’s what Jack Fisher had done though: he’d gotten on a plane to California and called Isabelle on his cell phone somewhere over Colorado and said he was leaving her.
Worry lines creased Isabelle’s young face, worry lines she shouldn’t have, and I hated Jack Fisher all over again.
“Let me help you with that, child.” I reached for one of the bags of groceries.
“I’ve got them, Nana.” Isabelle moved past me and into the kitchen. She plopped the bags down on the countertop and started putting things away.
I felt a tug on my apron and looked down at Will’s upturned face. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Caleb too.”
While Isabelle bustled about the kitchen, I made a pitcher of cherry Kool-Aid, and the boys took their glasses and went out on the back porch. They liked it outside here; there weren’t no outside to speak of at their apartment in the city.
“I’ve got a favor to ask, Nana,” Isabelle said, looking out the window over the sink.
I took two glasses of Kool-Aid to the table and sat down. “Anything you need, all you gotta do is speak up. You know that.”
A breeze sidled through the window screen, ruffling Isabelle’s blonde hair. She closed her eyes and smiled. “It smells so clean out here, the grass, the trees, even the dust from the road.” The smile slipped from her face. “Not like the city where all you smell is gasoline fumes and baking asphalt.”
“You’re welcome to come back home anytime you take a notion. You know that too.”
Pap and me had taken Isabelle in after the car wreck that’d killed Josh and his wife. This old farm was the only home she’d ever known.
“I can’t live way out here, Nana, I have to work.” She opened her eyes and turned to me. “And that’s why I’m here, why I need a favor.”
“Come tell me about it.”
And she did. She told me about the job interview she had set up with a company two states over, a company that’d pay her twice what she was making at the law firm she was working at now. “Marshall is a nice town, Nana,” she said. “And I could have a nice house with plenty of room for the boys and a big yard for them to play in. And a place for you to–”
“Hold on now.” I’d heard this kind of talk before, and I knew that Isabelle meant well, but I wasn’t leaving my home. Me and Penny weren’t going nowhere. “How does this have anything to do with needing a favor from me?”
“Well, like I said, I’ve got to go for an interview. I’d drive there this evening, have the interview tomorrow, and drive back afterward. All I’d miss is one day’s work, but…” She took a swig of the red Kool-Aid, then drawed a deep breath. Eyes as blue as her daddy’s met mine. “But I can’t take Caleb and Will with me, and there’s no one I can leave them with–except you.”
All she needed was a babysitter? From the way she was carrying on a body’d think she was gonna ask for a million dollars or some such. “Lord have mercy, Isabelle, them boys can stay here anytime.”
“I know, but they’re loud and noisy.”
“They’re just being boys.”
“And you’re, well…” Her eyes cut down to her lap. “Old.” Then they jumped back up to me. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Nana, but you’re too old to be taking care of little boys. Someone ought to be taking care of you. And I wouldn’t be asking you now if I had any choice…but it’s only two days.”
That’s when I remembered Grace.
“Caleb and Will aren’t so little anymore,” Isabelle said. “And they’re always good for you, not like they are for me, always arguing whenever I tell them to do something. So if it isn’t asking too much…could you…please?”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. And though she weren’t trying to make me feel sorry for her–Damn that Jack Fisher to hell!–I did anyway.
I answered the only way I could: “Of course they can stay with me and Penny, and we’ll all be just fine.”
A while later, as me and the boys were standing out on the front porch waving goodbye to their mama, I wondered how I was gonna explain Grace to them–she couldn’t very well stay in the bedroom for two days. But I didn’t have to wonder long.
“Who’re you?” I heard Will ask, and turned to see Grace, with Penny right behind, stepping through the open door and out onto the porch. Lord, that gal had shot up some more, and the mess of peach fuzz on her head had grown down to her shoulders and was as blonde as it could be. And Isabelle’s old tee shirt that’d reached her ankles when I’d pulled it over her head that morning was pret’near up to her knees now.
I opened my mouth to answer Will’s question, but was beat to the punch.
“I’m Grace,” my jellyfish-gal said.
“Grace who?” Will asked.
I was so surprised to hear Grace talking that for a minute I couldn’t say anything myself. But Caleb, who hardly ever said anything to anybody, asked: “Where’d you come from?”
“In there,” Grace said, pointing back inside the house.
I didn’t think that’s exactly what Caleb was asking, but he let it go. Then Will took in asking questions like he was a government man, but Grace ignored him, turned to me and said: “I’m hungry, Nana.”
She’d called me Nana, like Isabelle and the boys did. And she was talking now. It was like she’d been listening to us talk and had picked right up on it. She sure was a strange one. But then, she’d started out life a jellyfish; what else could a body expect but strange?
I told Caleb and Will that Grace was a neighbor girl, and left it at that. They accepted it, but I knew I’d have some explaining to do when Isabelle came back. That was tomorrow, though, not today, and I’d worry about it then.
I fed them supper, beans and taters and cornbread–that Grace, she ate three times what the boys did–then we sat out on the back porch, and as the light and heat drained out of the day, listened to the night things begin their chirping and chattering.
It surprised me that Penny now tolerated Caleb and Will, that she let them pet her and stick their faces down in front of hers and baby-talk her, though to give the boys credit, they petted soft and talked soft. Still, Penny had been skeert of youngens since the MacBeevy’s grandson had poked her eye with a stick and blinded it. This was a turnabout for her. And I couldn’t help but wonder if Grace had something to do with it. Except to go make water that dog hadn’t been ten feet from Grace since we’d brought her out of the woods.
And Grace, she was a wonder in herself, growing and changing right before my eyes. I’d look away and look back, and I swear, she’d growed a bit. I thought Caleb noticed something was going on with her too, but Will was so busy jabbering away at her that he didn’t notice nothing.
Dark pulled down the shade a tad more, and the lightning bugs came out. Pretty soon Caleb and Will were running all over the backyard after them little night-lights, grabbing one out of the air and peeking through their fingers at it, then setting it free and taking off after another.
Grace sat on the top step and watched their goings-on. Penny watched too, for a bit, then stretched out behind Grace and put her head on her paws and went to sleep. Good thing I weren’t the jealous type or I would’ve been one green old woman. ‘Course, I hadn’t always been number one in Penny’s book; she’d belonged to Isabelle when they was both youngens. I was used to coming in second.
Grace seemed mighty interested in the bug catching, and it wouldn’t have surprised me none if she’d hopped up and chased after them too. But she didn’t; she just watched. And watched hard. Then I realized Grace wasn’t interested in what the boys were doing, and wasn’t interested in playing with them either. She was interested in them. Grace was studying Will and Caleb. And maybe learning.
Penny lifted her head and cocked it to the side. A quiver rippled down her body, little golden waves that started at her shoulders and ran down to the base of her tail. Then she scrabbled up on her feet, her toenails clacking as they skittered over the boards, and moved up beside Grace.
Something had spooked her.
I looked where she was looking: the corn patch.
A low growl rumbled in Penny’s chest. Her hackles rose.
There was something in there. And it weren’t nice.
Then it hit me that Caleb and Will were way out in the yard, and what if it came out of the corn patch–
I was halfway down the steps and didn’t even remember getting there. “Caleb! Will!”
Caleb stopped running and looked back. Leastways, I think it was Caleb. It was so near full dark it was hard to tell which boy was standing still and which one was still running after the lightning bugs.
Snarling and barking like she was fixing to tear something to pieces, Penny brushed past me and out into the yard. She ran straight for the boys. And I was fixing to run too–or at least try to–when I felt a hand wrap around my arm. “No.” And looked up the arm to Grace’s face. “She’ll bring them back.”
Skeert to death, I tried to pull my arm away. I had to get to the boys before it came out of the corn patch, and grabbed them and…and…
Granny’s shoe-leather face appeared in front of mine. You be good, Aggie, or the devil’ll get you. She smiled, a thread of tobacckey juice running down her chin. He’ll come out of the corn when it gets dark, and grab you in his claws and fly away to the black place.
I heard screaming. Granny’s face dissolved and here came Caleb and Will running toward me with Penny right at their heels. I looked over their shoulders at the corn patch and saw…nothing. Not a blasted thing. Except corn stalks.
His eyes all big and skeert-looking, Will clattered up the steps and threw his body against mine, his head hitting my chest and pret’near knocking the wind out of me. I would’ve went down if it hadn’t for been for Grace’s steadying hand.
“I saw something in the corn,” Will said, his voice muffled against me.
“What, child?” I asked.
To be continued…
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