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When I opened the door to greet my grandmother for the very first time, I'm not sure what I was expecting. I know I hadn't envisioned an apple-shaped woman in a Kiss My Asphalt T-shirt, with windburned cheeks and a sagging tattoo of a phoenix on her arm. But what I really didn't bargain for was a brief hug, followed by a forceful shove that had me landing firmly on my butt on the cold, black-and-white checked floor of my hall bathroom.
"Let me out of here!" I twisted the bathroom doorknob until I wrenched my wrist. How the frig did this happen? One minute I was answering my door, and the next I had landed booty over tea kettle on tile that was about two weeks overdue for a good scrubbing.
"Buck up, sugar cake." My grandma's chunky silver rings clinked against the other side of the door, and her gravelly voice sounded like she'd spent the last century breathing semi-truck exhaust. "This is for your own good."
My own good? In what world could she know what was good for me? I'd never even heard from my mom's mom until she called me the day before. The next thing I knew, she was flying to Atlanta to meet me. I had assumed that meant air travel, not the hot pink Harley parked in my driveway.
I kicked the door with all my strength. "Ouchie!" I hollered as pain seared my foot. Dang it all. Three years teaching at Happy Hands Preschool and I couldn't even cuss right. I limped in circles, the pointed toe of my simple black heel curled up like an elf shoe.
Why tonight, of all nights, did this have to happen?
Grandma chuckled. "Why, Lizzie Brown - kickin' and a hollerin'. Thank heaven my grandbaby has spunk. I know you're hacked to Hades, princess. Buttrust me. If I let you out now, you'd wreck all your pretty furniture."
She'd obviously cracked her head on the pavement one too many times. As for ruining my Pottery Barn knockoff furniture, my pathetic excuse for a watchdog would take care of that. Pirate, my Jack Russell Terrier, tended to piddle at the first sign of trouble. I pounded against the door until my hands throbbed. Of all the dumb things to do, I had to let a stranger into my house.
Was I that desperate for affection?
Probably. My adoptive parents, Cliff and Hillary, meant well. But they weren't exactly warm and fuzzy. They didn't even like to touch each other. So, sue me, it felt good - even if it was a little forced - when my biological grandmother hugged me for the first time.
"Levitis cadre. Familio, madre," she chanted like a deranged monk.
"Cut it out! Today is my thirtieth birthday, and I'm going to be late for my party if you don't open this door. Now!" Let's face it. I couldn't go out much on my salary. Happy Hands Preschool wasn't exactly raking in the big bucks. And the one night out of the year where I could count on all of my friends to be dateless and available, this geriatric biker had to take me prisoner.
She rapped her knuckles on her side of the door. As if I were going anywhere. "Lizzie dear? You have ridden a bike before?" she asked, as if I'd taken Hog 101 in high school.
Had she seen my cream-on-white front room? "Yeah, um. In case you haven't noticed, I'm more of an indoor girl." Not that I was against motorcycles, in theory. But if Grandma thought I was going to hoist my rear end up on the back of her hog, a pot hole had knocked something loose in her head.
"Well, Lizzie, the thing is . . . " She paused to find the right words to say whatever it was I was sure I didn't want to hear. She cleared her throat. "Our coven's on the run."
Oh lordy. "You think you're a witch?"
"Am a witch, darlin'. So was your mother. And if I wasn't such a damned good witch, all hell wouldn't be after us. I don't have time to spell it out for you right now, but let me ask: You own any leather chaps?"
Yeah, hanging right next to my white capri pants. "No!"
"Well, that bites," she said. "Life on the road can chafe your thighs."
I gulped. She'd better not even think of kidnapping me. That was it. "Pirate! Watch dog! Attack!" He didn't even have the courage to whimper. Useless beast. Last time I was buying him Silky Bones Pet-sicles.
"Less than one minute to go, by my watch. You were born at precisely 6:43 p.m." She rubbed at the other side of the door like she was comforting a spastic kitten in a crate. "I found you just in time."
"Oh yeah, that makes sense." If I could get her to open the door, I could bolt past her and be free faster than I could say whack job. Our reservations were at 7:30. If she let me out now, I could lock her out of my house, out of my life and, of course, make a mad dash to my flipping birthday party. I rubbed my temples. Oh, to be less desperate for a night of fruity drinks and debauchery.
We were supposed to be heading to Fire, one of Atlanta's newest bistros. I'd slipped into my sapphire party dress and twisted my inky hair into a stylish updo for the occasion. Now I could just feel curls escaping.
"Times like these I wish my hog watch had a second hand." Grandma snorted. "And hey -" She rapped on the door, clanking her rings. "Try to stay clear of anything flammable."
The woman was delusional. And I still couldn't figure out how she'd locked the door from the outside.
"A few of these little beauties . . . " she said to the sound of jars being unscrewed. "You know, I would have been in your life sooner, but we lost track of you. Never would have recognized you now in that Audrey Hepburn-looking getup."
Audrey Hepburn my rear. I bought this dress on clearance last week at Ann Taylor. And what was I doing even listening to fashion advice from a senior citizen in rhinestone-studded skinny jeans? "Why me? Why now?"
"My spell only allowed me to locate you when your power had grown strong enough."
Spell? I groaned under my breath. This is exactly why I hadn't searched out my birth parents. Somehow, I knew my biological family would be a bunch of nut jobs.
And was that incense I smelled?
The pungent aroma of ginger and clove seeped under the door. Oh, no, no, no. "You'd better not be lighting things on fire out there!" Decision made. I mustered a few calming yoga breaths and tried to stuff my hair back into its polished updo. The further I got away from this branch of my family tree, the better.
"Listen, lady." I said as I struggled to bring my temper down a notch. "I mean, Grandma. Listen, Grandma. Let me out of here and you can whip up whatever spell you want."
After I remove you from my house and my life.
I searched under the sink for a weapon and came up with a toilet brush and a bottle of Purple Prairie Clover sanitizing spray.
Was I really going to shoot my own grandmother?
"Open the door and let's talk."
She began to hum. It sounded like a church hymn.
"Grandma? Come on, now. Look. It's not just that people are expecting me. He's going to be there," I said, as I used my thumb to pop the top off the sanitizing spray. "Hot Ryan Harmon from the gym," I explained, as if she was supposed to know who that was. My girlfriends certainly did. "It's taken me months of flirting on the elliptical machines to screw up the courage to ask this guy out, and you are not going to ruin it for me." I deserved to date once in a while, didn't I?
"Lizzie, you stay away from him. That man is a troll."
"And you know because . . . " Crazy and opinionated. What a lovely combination.
I needed this shot at Ryan because - newsflash - I didn't know many single men over the age of four. Hot Ryan Harmon was all I had going.
"Don't take it personally, lover girl." She pulled the door open a crack, her long gray hair swooshing as she shook her head. "Trust me."
I whipped up my sanitizing spray and fired just as she slammed the door.
"Gak!" The air around me erupted with Purple Prairie Clover mist. I breathed in a metallic taste. The room smelled like I'd fallen head first into a vat of wildflowers.
"Until what?" The flowery spray was going to my head. Bright spots dotted my vision. Stumbling, I smashed my already sore toe into the cabinet under the sink. "Mother Fudrucker!" I braced myself over the sink as my stay-slim rice cake and peanut butter pre-dinner rumbled up the back of my throat.
Maybe I'd poisoned myself. My tongue thickened and my head felt like it was stuffed with packing peanuts. The room swirled and my legs buckled. A hot flash seared up my spine, through my limbs. I could have sworn I saw my hands melt into the faux marble countertop. Steam bubbled inside me and rose from every pore.
"You are the Exalted Demon Slayer of Dalea. Or at least you will be in four seconds. Three . . . !"
The place reeked of melted plastic and Purple Prairie Clover. I had to be hallucinating. Standing seemed like too much of an effort. My legs gave way and I slid down the door, my head coming to rest near a forgotten smidge of Extra Brite toothpaste on the floor. The room - no, the air itself - gleamed. The black-and-white tile practically sizzled under my body.
I felt something approach from behind. It gave off a funny clicking sound, like high heels on hardwood. And, phew, it smelled like I'd gone from a bad bonfire straight into the outhouse.
My grandma threw open the door. "Now we - "
The look of terror on Grandma's face made me think missing the party was the least of my worries. Her eager greeting melted into a scream. I turned and immediately wished I hadn't. I choked back a shriek while my heart did the samba.
A shrunken, razor-toothed, man, no - thing perched on the top of my toilet bowl. He existed in a swirling gray cloud that clung to his essence like a shroud. A gold ring wound through his flared nostrils until the heavy ball of it rested against rows and rows of spearlike teeth. His hide crinkled, as jagged as desert earth after a drought. It crackled as he tapped a single clawed toe against the white porcelain. Worst of all, his scarlet eyes seemed to have only one target - me.