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Chapter 1: Darkness Descends
"What's wrong? Why have you come for me?" I asked her.
Once I had arrived, she had simply started out of the principal's office and begun her stomp through the corridor to the exit for the parking lot. As usual she expected me to trail along like some obedient puppy.
She continued to walk, ignoring my questions. She always fixed herself on her purpose or destination as if she were a guided missile. Getting her to pause, turn or stop required the secret abort code only her own private demon knew and was reluctant to relinquish or reveal. You just had to wait her out, calm yourself down and be patient as difficult as that was. Grandmother Beverly could spread droplets of poison frustration on everyone around her like a lawn sprinkler.
But this was different. She had ripped me out of school and sent my head spinning. I would not be denied.
"Just let's get out of here," she said sharply, not looking at me. She lowered her voice and added, "I don't want anyone hearing about this, if I can help it."
My heart was racing now, galloping alongside my unbridled imagination.
"Your foolish father," she muttered. "I warned him. No one can say I didn't warn him."
We passed through the doors and headed toward her vintage Mercedes sedan.
"Grandmother," I cried, planting my feet firmly in the parking lot. "I'm not taking another step until you tell me exactly what is going on."
She paused finally and turned to me, hoisting those small shoulders like a cobra preparing for a deadly strike.
"Your mother has gone mad and you're the only one who can talk to her. I certainly can't. Of course, I can't reach your father," she said, "and there's no time to wait for him anyway. I don't want to call an ambulance if I can help it."
"You know how one thing leads to another and in this community there's enough gossip about this family as it is," she continued. "Maybe you can get her to stop."
"I can't even begin to describe it," she said, wagging her head as if her hair had been soaked. "Let's just get home," she insisted and hurried to get into the car. Now that she had sharpened my curiosity and raised the level of my anxiety like mercury in a thermometer, I rushed to get in as well.
Once I was seated, my head bowed with the panic I felt.
"I must tell you," she continued after starting the engine and pulling away from the school parking lot, "I have always felt your mother was unbalanced. She had tendencies I spotted from the first moment I set eyes on her. I warned Taylor about her minutes after he had brought her around for me and your grandfather to meet her.
"She was coming to see us for the first time, but she wore no makeup, draped herself in what looked to be little more than a black sheet, kept her hair miles too long like you do and had enough gloom in her eyes to please a dozen undertakers. She could have worked constantly as a professional mourner. I could count on my fingers how many times I've seen a smile on that face, and even if she did smile at me, it was the smile of a madwoman, her eyes glittering like little knives, her wry lips squirming back and into the corners of her cheeks like worms in pain. How many times have I asked myself what he could possibly have seen in such a woman?"
I had heard a similar lecture before.
"Maybe he was in love, Grandmother."
"Love," she spat as if the word put a bitter taste in her mouth. "How could he be in love with her?"
She glanced at me and then put her eyes back on the road. She was a good driver for someone in her early seventies, I thought, but then again, she was good at everything she did. Failure wasn't in her personal vocabulary.
"Your mother was certainly never what I would call beautiful. I'm not saying she doesn't have pleasing features, because she does, but she does nothing to enhance them. In fact, what she does is diminish them just like you do with that silly makeup you wear.
"Of course, it didn't help that she had the personality of a pallbearer. Believe me," she said, "that takes the light from your eyes, the glow from your smile. It's no wonder to me that she never made any friends. Who wants to listen to the music she likes or read those poems about loss and death and insanity? She has no social graces, doesn't care about nice clothes or jewelry. She was never interested in your father's work or helped him meet business associates."
"Then what do you think it was, Grandmother," I asked dryly, "a magic spell?"
"You think you're being facetious, I know, but let me tell you that woman can cast spells of sorts. I'll tell you what it was," she said, after a short pause, never wanting to admit to not knowing something. "She was probably his first love affair. Men, foolish men, often mistake sexual pleasure for love. Sex is like good food. You can eat it with anyone, Cinnamon. Remember that," she ordered.
"Then what's love?" I asked her.
"Love is commitment, responsibility, dedication. It requires maturity."
"Sounds boring," I said. "If that's love, I'll take good food."
She opened her mouth wide and glared at me, shaking her head.
"You'd better be careful of your thoughts," she admonished. "Insanity can be inherited, you know. The genes from our side of the family just might not be enough."
I wanted to laugh at her, but I kept thinking about what awaited me and how it might make her right.
No one could tell anything about the inhabitants of our home by simply driving up, especially this time of the day. The front faced east so that all morning the windows were turned into glittering slabs, impenetrable crystals, twisting, turning and reflecting the sunlight. In fact, if it wasn't a day for the gardeners, and today wasn't, there was a look of abandonment about the place. Our cars were always left in the rear, out of sight. Two tall weeping willows on the northeast end painted long shadows over one side of the structure, adding to the sense of desertion.
There was a swing under a maple tree to the right on the west side. I noticed it was going back and forth, which made me smile. Anyone looking at it would be convinced there was a ghost sitting on it. I imagined one myself, one of the Demerest girls, smiling.
Fall had just lifted its head and begun to blow the cooler winds over the landscape, waving a magical hand to change the greens into yellows, browns and oranges. The grass, however, seemed happier, waking to heavier dews every morning. It was a deeper green. I loved the aroma of freshly cut lawns, the freshness traveled into my brain and washed away the cobwebs and shadows from my darker thoughts.
As Grandmother Beverly turned up the drive, she finally revealed the situation in detail.
"I was in the living room, watching a good Cary Grant movie, when I heard her humming in the hallway. What is she doing downstairs? I wondered. The doctor had specifically told her that if she was going home, she was to remain in bed, resting, getting stronger. I offered to be her nurse, to march up and down those stairs as many times as need be, so she couldn't use that as any excuse.
"But your mother never listens to wiser voices. She hears only what she wants to hear. Secret voices out of the shadows," she muttered.
"Anyway, I went to the family room doorway. At first, I didn't see her. Then I heard her talking to her plants."
She paused, smirked and shook her head.
Mommy often spoke aloud to her plants as if they were her little children. She said when she was sad, which was far too often, the leaves were limp and dreary, but when she was happy, they were crisp and alive.