NOVEMBER SHORT STORIES

November 1, 2011 Fiction

 

This month we feature Three wonderfully crafted stories by Jenny Ortiz, Janet Yung and Gary Beck.

 

 

 

 

One of Us

By

Janet Yung

 

 

A series of unfortunate circumstances found us living next door to my rather odd aunt, making her acquaintance at the end of the summer I was twelve. The house we moved into was cheap and the neighborhood relatively safe in my suburban raised mother’s opinion.  My parents discussed the pros and cons of the location before taking the place, my mother concerned not only about the safety of the area, but also the proximity of Aunt Edith who never socialized with her family.

Being peculiar was a family trait on my father’s side, making the estrangement not that unusual.  Studying her from the security of my bedroom window not long after we became neighbors, I watched her puttering in the yard, her lips moving, either talking to herself or engaged in conversation with a non-existent companion. Since she was my father’s aunt, my mother left it up to him to explain she was “okay”, but a little “different.”

“What do you mean different?” was my response, not certain how to decipher the description.  “Different as the sort of person you’d cross the street to avoid or different in a quirky and endearing way?”

“Just different,” he said, rustling my hair. He assured me there was little chance we’d have much contact despite living so close. Although Aunt Edith was a widow, the image of her long dead husband was only a vague memory and she resembled a spinster now.

Venturing out the first weeks we lived there, vainly hoping to encounter someone my own age, I felt eyes boring into my back,  turning quickly only spotted only the corner of a lace curtain fluttering back in place.  Shivers ran up and down my spine and after that, I made of point of racing past Aunt Edith’s house on my way to the park or the store, eager to be out of her sight. Then one evening after supper, my mother announced she had a errand downtown the next morning and wondered about my staying home alone while she was gone.  “Would you feel safe all by yourself?” she asked putting leftovers in the refrigerator.

“Sure,” I shrugged my shoulders, curious as to why she didn’t want to take me along, until she let it slip that she had a job interview.  She hadn’t worked since before I was born and she never talked about going back until we moved into the house.

“We could use the money,” my father agreed when the topic came up, opting for a wait and see attitude about the possibility that an offer would materialize, compelling her to at least check it out. The matter of what to do with me would be the only real obstacle.

The next morning I watched my mother pull the car out of the garage and drive down the alley.  “Don’t answer the door, don’t go out of the house, don’t turn on the stove or oven and if you notice anything funny, call your father. I won’t be gone any longer than I have to be.” She said before leaving.

“Okay mom.”

The sky clouded over before noon while I dozed off in the small chair in my back bedroom, watching for her return.  Staving off hunger, I’d gone through a half dozen chocolate cookies and more pretzels than I could remember, wishing she’d call to let me know when she’d be home. I woke with a start, my book dropping to the floor at the sound of someone knocking on the door.  My heart pounding, I crept into my parent’s front bedroom and peered through the drapes, trying to catch a glimpse of who it was.  I caught sight of someone with gray hair wearing a funny looking pair of slacks and an over  sized white shirt. I instantly thought it had to be Aunt Edith unless the neighborhood was populated with people exactly like Aunt Edith with us being the odd men out which explained a lot about my inability to connect with anybody. She pounded a couple more times and then walked away in the direction of her own house, staring up at the windows.  Safely beneath the windowsill, I was certain she hadn’t seen me, anxious to know what had possessed her to cross the property line to enter hostile territory.

I’d barely regained my composure when the phone started ringing.  I hesitated before picking it up but then relented, thinking it could be my mother and my failure to answer would set off a panic, with her wondering why I wasn’t answering. “Hello?” was my cautious greeting.

“Lois, is that you?” said the voice on the other end, stern and frightening.

My first impulse was to hang up and find a safe place to hide, convinced I was having a nightmare. If that wasn’t the case, I might be about to become the victim of foul play, therefore confirming my mother’s worst fears. Terror won me over and I slammed down the phone, racing around the house making certain that all the doors and windows were bolted.  I’d barely made it to the front door when the phone began ringing again, the one in the front hall sounding louder than the one upstairs.  I stared at it momentarily, willing it to stop, but it continued to ring and then, at the last instant I grabbed it without saying a word into the receiver.

“Lois, don’t hang up, this is Aunt Edith.” That instant I wanted to faint, certain she could see into my soul even though we were divided by two solid brick walls.  She explained my father had contacted her when my mother let him know she’d be running late.

After  having gained entry to our home, she sat in the kitchen keeping an eagle eye on me as I rummaged through the refrigerator trying to decide what to have for lunch.“Evidently, your mother wasn’t able to make more than one phone call and she thought it best if he try to explain the situation to me. Is she in Jail?”

The question startled me into bumping my head on the shelf above the one I’d just buried my face in, hoping to hear my mother coming through the front door, a cheery greeting bringing  normalcy back to my world. “No!” The intensity of my response surprised even me, forcing an “I’m sorry,” in the next breath, remembering to be polite to my elders.

“Don’t worry about it,” she brushed off my apology as if it didn’t matter.  “Did you find something to eat?”  She stared at the round plastic container filled with leftover soup from two nights ago.

“Yeah.  Lentil soup.  Would you like some?”

She sniffed at it a moment and volunteered, “I lost my appetite for brown foods after my last colonoscopy.  I realized it looked exactly the same way coming out as going in.”  The information did little to suppress my appetite.

“Be careful with the stove,” she said, tapping her hands on the table as anxious to be away from me as I was from her.

I dumped the soup into a sauce pan and clicking on the flame, stood at the stove, stirring the soup, at a loss for words.

“You know,” Aunt Edith broke the silence, “I was shocked to hear from your father.  I barely recognized his voice.”  My body tensed, suspecting what was coming, like knowing from the way the air smells on a summer afternoon when it’s about to rain.

“He hardly said hi when I saw him in the yard.”

“Oh.”  I replied.  The soup began to boil.  Turning off the burner before removing the pan from the stove, I congratulated myself, thinking if my mother did take a job downtown, I’d be able to fend for myself in the hours after school.  No need to worry or have someone check up on me. Filling a bowl and carefully setting it on the table across from Aunt Edith, I settled onto my chair, waiting for the soup to cool,  while spreading butter on a piece of bread.

“And, I don’t believe I’ve gotten a Christmas card or birthday card in over ten years.”  Another pause, while I bent my head, studying the floating ingredients in one of my mother’s favorite soups.  “Why do you think that is?” She asked.

I was dumbfounded an adult would question me about someone else’s motives.  I barely understood the things I did.  I slathered butter on another piece of bread. Then, a key turned in the front door.  “What’s wrong?” Aunt Edith asked as I jumped from my chair.

“My mom’s home,” I called racing for the front door, seeing my liberator breezing down the hall, smoothing down her hair and putting her purse on the table.  I’d never been so glad to see her and rushing forward and wrapping my arms around her waist while restraining myself from weeping with relief.

I hung onto her as we walked into the kitchen where Aunt Edith still sat looking at us with a stern expression on her face.  “Edith,” my mother said, “thank you so much for coming over.  We really appreciate it.”

“Any time,“ her reply ominous as she pushed herself away from the table, blue veins popping on her bony hands and disappearing through the back door wordlessly.

While my mother chatted happily about the interview, adding there were a couple of her former co-workers at the new place, my heart pounded, following the logical path between “any time,” and “I think they might offer me the job,” her face bright at the prospect of being out in the real world again. My qualms were dismissed with “there’s no point in worrying about anything till we know for sure.  Now, why don’t you run outside.  School will be starting soon, then you’ll be cooped up all day.”

Two days later, my fate was sealed after my mother and father both sat down with me to discuss the way things would be once school began, I felt deflated.  Aunt Edith had agreed to check in on me after school.  “You won’t need to go over there,” my mother reassured me.“And she won’t be over here, but she’ll be around if you need her.”

Making a face, my father responded, “we’ll feel better knowing there’s a family member close by in case of an emergency.”  Smiling he added the most implausible notion.  “Besides, you might get to like her once you get to know her.  She is, after all, one of us and I think maybe we should see this as an opportunity to reconnect.”

“Maybe,” was the best I could do, left to spend the evening pondering this latest twist of fate and how suddenly life can change without warning. And that was how I came to know Aunt Edith.

 

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