Authors: Nita Prose
I’m surprised by what I’m hearing, utterly shocked. But perhaps I should have known that Gran had her secrets. We all do, all of us.
“Oh, how your gran loved you, Molly,” Mr. Preston says. “More than you’ll ever know.”
“And you kept in touch with her over the years?” I ask.
“Yes. She was friendly with my wife, Mary. And from time to time, when Flora was in trouble, she’d call me. But the real trouble happened early.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Did it ever occur to you that you had a grandfather?”
“Yes,” I say. “Gran called him a ‘fly-by-night too.’ ”
“Did she?” he says. “He was many things, but never that. He’d never have flown away if he’d had a choice. He was forced. Anyhow, he was known to me. A friend, you could say. And you know how things happen when love is fresh and the blush is still on the rose.” Mr. Preston pauses to clear his throat. “As it turns out, Flora was with child. And when she could hide it no longer and her parents found out, that’s when they really turned their backs on her, for good. Poor girl. She wasn’t yet seventeen. She was just a child secretly running away with a child of her own. That’s why she became a domestic.”
It’s hard to imagine, Gran on her own like that, losing everything, everyone. I feel a heaviness on my shoulders, a sadness that I can’t quite name.
“She was bright, your gran. Could have won scholarships to any school,” Mr. Preston says. “But in those days, as an unwed woman with child, say goodbye to education.”
“Now, wait just a second, Dad,” Charlotte says. “Something doesn’t make sense. Who was this friend of yours? And where is he now?”
“The last I heard, he has a family of his own that he loves very much. But he’s never forgotten Flora. Never.”
Charlotte’s head cocks to the side. She eyes her father in a funny way that I don’t quite understand. “Dad?” she says. “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
“My dear girl,” he says. “I think I’ve said quite enough already.”
“Did you know my mother too?” I ask him.
“Yes. Now, she was a true fly-by-night, I’m afraid. Your gran had me try to talk some sense into her when she shacked up with the wrong fellow. I went to see her, tried to pry her from the flophouse she was living in, but she wouldn’t listen. Your poor gran, the pain of that…of
losing a child the way she did…” Mr. Preston’s eyes fill with tears. Charlotte grabs his hand.
“Your gran was so good, that she was,” Mr. Preston says. “When my Mary was struggling near the end, your gran came to her rescue.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Mary was in extreme pain and so was I. I sat by her bedside holding her hand, saying, ‘Please don’t go. Not yet.’ Flora watched it all, then drew me aside. She said, ‘Don’t you see? She won’t leave you until you tell her it’s time.’ ”
That’s exactly what Gran would have said. I hear her words echo in my head. “Then what happened?” I ask.
“I told Mary I loved her and I did as Flora said. That’s all my wife needed to rest in peace.”
Mr. Preston can’t hold back his sobs any longer.
“You did the right thing, Dad,” Charlotte says. “Mom was suffering.”
“I always wanted to repay your gran, for showing me the way.”
“You have repaid her, Mr. Preston,” I say. “You’ve come to my aid, and Gran would be grateful.”
“Oh no, that’s not me,” Mr. Preston says. “That’s Charlotte.”
“No, Dad. You insisted on this. You convinced me we had to help this young maid you worked with. I think I’m starting to see why it was so important to you.”
“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” I say
“Gran thanks you. All of you. If she were here, she’d say it herself.”
With that, Mr. Preston stands, as does Charlotte. “Well, let’s not get too soggy then,” he says as he wipes his cheeks. “We best be going.”
“It’s been a long day,” Charlotte adds. “Juan Manuel, we brought your real overnight bag from your locker at the hotel. It’s by the front closet.”
“Thank you,” he says.
It strikes me suddenly, an urgent feeling. I don’t want them to leave. What if they walk out of my life and never come back? It’s not the first time that has happened. The thought puts me instantly on edge.
“Will I be seeing you again?” I ask. I can’t keep the anxiety out of my voice.
Mr. Preston chuckles. “Whether you like it or not, Molly.”
“You’ll be seeing us plenty,” Charlotte replies. “We have a case to prepare.”
“And besides the case, you’re stuck with us, Molly. You know, I’m old, and I’m a widower who’s become a bit set in my ways. It may seem odd, but this has been good for me. All of this. All of you. It feels like…”
“Family?” Juan Manuel suggests.
“Yes,” Mr. Preston says. “That’s exactly what it feels like.”
“You know,” Juan Manuel says, “in my family, the rule is that on Sundays, we all have dinner together. That’s the thing I miss the most from back home.”
“That’s easily remedied,” I say. “Charlotte, Mr. Preston, would you be so kind as to join us for dinner this Sunday?”
“I’ll cook!” Juan Manuel says. “You’ve probably never had real Mexican food, the kind my mother makes. I’ll make the Tour of Mexico. Oh, you’ll love it.”
Mr. Preston looks to Charlotte. She nods.
“We’ll bring dessert,” Mr. Preston says.
“And a bottle of champagne to celebrate,” Charlotte adds.
At the doorway, I stand and wait as Charlotte and Mr. Preston put on their shoes. I’m not sure of the proper etiquette for saying goodbye to two people who have just saved you from life in prison.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Mr. Preston says. “Give your ol’ friend a hug.”
I do as I’m told and am surprised by the sensation—I feel like Goldilocks hugging Papa Bear.
I hug Charlotte as well, and it’s pleasant but entirely different, like caressing the wing of a butterfly.
They leave arm in arm, and I close the door behind them. Juan Manuel stands in the entryway, shifting from foot to foot.
“Are you sure, Molly, that you’re okay with me staying here tonight?”
“Yes,” I say. “Just for tonight.” The words that follow cascade out of my mouth. “You’ll take my room, and I’ll take Gran’s room. I’ll change the sheets right now. I always bleach and iron my sheets and keep
two pairs at the ready, and you can rest assured that the bathroom is sanitary and disinfected on a regular basis. And if you do require any extra amenities, such as a toothbrush or soap, I’m most certain that I—”
“Molly, it’s good. I’m fine. It’s okay.”
My verbal rush comes to a halt. “I’m not terribly good at this. I know how to treat guests at the hotel, but not in my own home.”
“You don’t have to treat me in any special way. I’ll just try to be clean and quiet, and to help out where I can. You like breakfast?”
“Yes, I like breakfast.”
“Good,” he says. “Me too.”
I try to change the sheets in my room by myself, but Juan Manuel will have none of it. We peel back Gran’s lone-star quilt and remove the sheets, replacing them with fresh ones. We do it together as he tells me stories of his three-year-old nephew back home, Teodoro, who always jumped on the bed when he was trying to make it. When he tells his stories, they come to life in my mind. I can see that little boy jumping and playing. It’s like he’s right there with us.
When we are done, Juan Manuel goes quiet. “Okay. I’ll get ready for bed now, Molly.”
“Do you need anything else? Perhaps a cup of Ovaltine, or some toiletries for the bath?”
“No. Thank you.”
“Very well,” I say as I leave the room. “Good night.”
“Good night, Miss Molly,” he replies, and then quietly closes my bedroom door.
I pad down the hallway to the washroom. I change into my pajamas. I brush my teeth slowly. I sing “Happy Birthday” three times to make sure that I’ve brushed every last molar properly.
I wash my face, use the toilet, scrub my hands. I take the Windex from under the sink and do a quick polish of the mirror. There I am, shining back at myself, spotless. Clean.
There’s no point dallying any longer.
I walk down the hallway and stand in front of Gran’s door. I remember the last time I closed this door, after the coroner and his aides wheeled out Gran’s body, after I cleaned the room from top to bottom, after I washed her sheets and remade the bed, after I fluffed her pillows and dusted every last one of her trinkets, after I took her house sweater off the hook behind the door, the last remaining stitch of her clothing I had not washed and held it to my face to breathe in the vestiges of her before putting even that into the hamper. The sharp click of this door closing was as final as death itself.
I reach out and put my hand on the doorknob. I turn it. I open it. The room is exactly as I left it. Gran’s Royal Doulton figurines dance statically in petticoats on her bureau. The ruffles on her baby-blue bed skirts remain pristine. Her pillows are plump and wrinkle-free.
“Oh Gran,” I say. I feel it, a tidal wave of grief, a wave so strong that it carries me to her bed. I lie down on it, feeling suddenly like I’m on a life raft lost at sea. I hug one of her pillows, put it to my face, but I’ve washed it too well. There’s no scent of her left. She is gone.
On the last day of her life, I sat with her. She was lying where I am now. I’d carried the chair by the front door—the one with her serenity pillow on it—and set it up beside her. A week earlier, I’d moved the television, setting it up on her chest of drawers so she could watch nature shows and National Geographic while I was at work. I didn’t want to leave her alone, not even for a few hours. I knew she was in great pain, though she took great pains to deny it.
“Dear girl, they need you at work. You’re an important part of the hive. I’m fine here. I’ve got my tea, and my pills. And my
As the days passed, her color changed. She stopped humming songs to herself. Even in the morning, she was quieter, each thought belabored, each trip to the bathroom an epic journey.
I tried desperately to make her see reason. “Gran, we need to call an ambulance. We need to get you to a hospital.”
She’d shake her head slowly, her gray, feathery tufts trembling on the pillow. “No need. I am content. I have my pills for the pain. I’m where I want to be. Home, sweet home.”
“But maybe they can do something. Maybe the doctors can—”
“Shhhh,” she said whenever I refused to listen. “We made a promise, you and I. And what did we agree about promises?”
“Promises are meant to be kept.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s my girl.”
On the last day, her pain was worse than ever. I tried yet again to convince her to go to the hospital, to no avail.
is coming on,” she said.
I turned on the television, and we watched the episode, or rather I watched and she closed her eyes, her hands gripping the bedsheets.
“I’m listening,” she said, her voice a mere whisper. “Be my eyes. Tell me what I need to see.”
I watched the screen and narrated the action. Columbo was interviewing a trophy wife who didn’t seem terribly distraught to learn that her millionaire husband was probably not the main suspect in a murder case. I described the restaurant they were in, the green tablecloth, the way her head moved, the way she fidgeted at the table. I told Gran when I knew Columbo was onto her, that look that showed he knew the truth before anyone else.
“Yes,” she said. “Very good. You’re learning expressions.”
Halfway through the episode, Gran became agitated. The pain was so bad that she was wincing and tears were running down her face.
“Gran? How can I help? What can I do?”
I could hear her labored breath. There was a catch to each intake, like water gurgling in a drain.
“Molly,” she said. “It’s time.”
Columbo continued his investigations in the background. He was onto the wife. The pieces were coming together. I turned the volume down.
“No, Gran. No, I can’t.”
“Yes,” she said. “You promised.”
I protested. I tried to reason. I begged her to please, please, please let me call the hospital.
She waited for my storm to pass. And when it did, she said it again.
“Make me a cup of tea. It’s time.”
I was so grateful to have instruction that I leaped to my feet. I rushed to the kitchen and had her tea ready, in her favorite cup—the one with the pretty cottage scene—in record time.
I took it back to her and set it on the bedside table. I put a pillow underneath her so she was more upright, but no matter how gently I touched her, she moaned pitifully, like an animal in a trap.
“My pills,” she said. “Whatever’s left of them.”
“It won’t work, Gran,” I said. “There aren’t enough. Next week we’ll have more.” I begged her yet again. I pleaded.
She no longer had enough breath to complete the phrase.
In the end, I relented. I opened the bottle and put it on the edge of her saucer. I brought the teacup to her hands.
“Put them in,” she said.
I emptied the rest of the painkillers into her tea—four pills, that’s all. Not enough. It would be five days before we could fill another prescription, five days of agony.
I looked at Gran through my tears. She blinked and looked at the spoon on the saucer.
I took it and stirred and stirred, until a minute later she blinked again. I stopped stirring.
With great effort, she leaned forward, enough that I could put the cup to her gray lips. Even as I fed her the liquid, I begged. “Don’t drink. Don’t…”
But she did. She drank the whole thing.
“Delightful,” she whispered when she was done. Then she eased herself back on her pillows. She put her hands to her chest. Her lips moved. She was speaking. I had to come right up to her lips to hear.
“I love you, my dear girl,” she said. “You know what to do.”
“Gran,” I said. “I can’t!”
But I could see it. I could see her body stiffen, the pain seizing her
once more. Her breathing became even more shallow and the rattle was louder, like a drum.
We’d discussed it. I’d promised. She was always so rational, so logical, and I could not deny her this last wish. I knew it was what she wanted. She did not deserve to suffer.