All of my stories are a bit personal, in one way or another, and all of them have at least a kernel of truth or two. This one is special, because it’s extra personal, and because there’s a lot more than just a crumb or two of real life. I couldn’t think of anything else to write for this month. This is the only story that wanted telling.
“You really don’t have to do that, you know.”
Sara stood in front of the sink, peeling a peach. Sticky juice dripped down her fingers and into the basin. If she’d been smart, she’d have thought to get a bowl and collect it. Wasted juice made for a dry cobbler, and she would not be taking a dry cobbler to the funeral dinner. She’d rather turn up empty-handed than risk her reputation on dry cobbler.
“Sure, I do,” she said.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” said her mother, from her perch at the breakfast bar.
Really, Sara shouldn’t be cooking anything. As family of the deceased, Sara’s obligations consisted of weeping quietly, accepting condolences and awkward hugs, and finding a place in her grandfather’s tiny kitchen for the massive collection of casserole dishes and KFC buckets friends and neighbors had been dropping off for the last three days.
“It’s what I can do,” she replied. “And it’s what I want to do. Can you grab me a bowl?”
“You’re just like him,” her mother said, and passed a green plastic bowl over from the pantry. “You always have to be busy.”
“So, you’re saying it’s genetic?”
Sara could practically hear her mother’s eyes roll. She looked over and winked.
“Just like him,” her mother said.
“I’ll miss him.”
Sara’d been living in California for the last three years. She hadn’t gotten home as often as she wanted to, and when she heard her grandfather had died, it’d felt like a punch to the gut. When she moved, he’d been as hearty as ever. He’d refused to slow down. He’d laid floor tile and worked on old trucks and split firewood, and even now, she just couldn’t imagine him as a frail old man. He’d never even lost his hair, until cancer treatments took it from him. Sara dreaded old age.
“Let’s go outside once this is ready to bake,” she told her mother. “I’d like to enjoy the view for a little while before we head to the funeral home. It might be the last time I’ll see it.” She tried her best to hide it, wiped it away as fast as she could, but a single tear trickled halfway down her cheek. “I don’t think I ever realized how special it was.”
“Your grandpa used to say this was God’s country,” her mother said. Sara heard a sniffle and the rustling of a tissue. “He was proud of you. He wanted you to come home, though.”
“I’m sorry this is happening on your birthday. He’d hate that.”
Sara was grateful the cobbler was ready to bake. She shoved it in the oven and went straight to the door. She just needed a minute, just a second, to pull herself together. Outside, August heat radiated off every surface, and the humidity settled around her shoulders like a weighted blanket, close and heavy. Sara sat down in the porch swing and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, and another. She heard the screen door open and close, and then felt her mother sit beside her.
“I’m glad I get to share today with him,” Sara said, and opened her eyes, squinting against the bright morning sunlight. “I just wish none of this was even happening.”
“I know,” her mother said. “Me, too.” She took Sara’s hand and held it.
They sat like that, hand in hand, in silence, just looking out at the mountains in front of them, the fields and pastures, and the little church down in the valley.
“Do you remember when you locked your grandma out of the house?” Sara’s mother asked, and giggled.
“I don’t! I don’t think I ever did that. I wasn’t that mean when I was little.”
“Oh, you did,” her mother said. “And you told her she was old and you were new.”
“Oh, God, I did not!”
“You most definitely did, Miss Meanness,” her mother replied.
“I was a terrible child,” Sara admitted. “Do you remember the little girl who used to stay in the old house down the hill?”
“I used to go down and play with her. I can’t remember her name.” Sara thought about it, and couldn’t remember much, except, “the bats! There were bats in the attic and she used to talk about how she’d hear them in the middle of the night. They kept her awake.”
Sara’s mother didn’t reply.
“She had long dark hair and freckles,” Sara added.
“Sara,” her mother said, “no one’s lived in that house since I was in school.”
“Well, she didn’t live there all the time. She just visited family.”
“That house has been empty for years.”
“No,” Sara insisted. “No, I remember playing with her.”
“You must be thinking of something else,” her mother said.
“No,” Sara said. She thought of it again, the little girl and her pink bedroom, her tattered white curtains, how she laughed when Sara didn’t know how to braid. “No, I remember.”
The oven timer buzzed, pulling Sara out of the moment. She went inside. She had things to do. No matter what else might happen today, no matter how faulty her memory might or might not be, she would not let that beautiful biscuit crust burn.
After the funeral and the dinner that followed, Sara went back to her grandfather’s house with the rest of her family. The sun hung low on the horizon now, almost invisible behind the ridge line. She sat on the porch swing alone, rocking gently back and forth. The high heat of the day had broken, but she could still feel the dewy, warm air through her itchy funeral clothes.
She hated funerals. She hated everything about them. She hoped no one would ever plan a funeral for her.
“Just put me in the ground and drink some wine,” she said, out loud for no particular reason.
“You know this family doesn’t drink, right?”
Sara’s uncle walked out onto the porch and sat beside her.
“Sure they do,” she answered. “Just not in public.”
“Like all good Baptists,” her uncle added. “I’m sorry about your birthday.”
“Everyone’s said that,” Sara said. “It’s fine. I’m actually kind of honored to share the day with him.”
“When are you heading back?”
“A couple of days, I think.” Sara hadn’t checked her work phone since coming home. She didn’t know what kind of mess she’d walk back into. “I’m not sure.”
“We’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss y’all, too.”
“You can always come back. They’ve got newspapers here.”
Sara wouldn’t be coming back here to live, not ever. But she said, “I know. Maybe someday.”
Her uncle nodded and stood up.
“Hey,” she said, “before you go, can I ask you something weird?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Do you remember the family that used to live down the hill?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“There was a little girl, right? About my age?”
Her uncle thought for a moment. “Yeah, they had a little girl.”
“Oh, thank God. I thought I was crazy.”
Her uncle nodded. “I’m surprised you know that, though.”
“Why?” Sara felt a pang in her stomach, doubt or fear or something deeper.
“You never met her. They were gone before you were born.”
“Yeah, they lost her. She died in a car accident. They moved not long after it happened. Not sure where they went.”
Her uncle went inside, leaving Sara alone again, in the deepening dark. She looked down the hill, at the white steeple and the gray ruin of a house just visible in the last light of the day. And she remembered being down in the pasture, playing with a dark-haired little girl, spinning in dizzying circles and giggling so hard she got hiccups. She remembered her grandfather calling down to her, his gruff voice beckoning her back home.
“Sara,” he’d said, “get back up here! It’s not safe down there by yourself.”
Now he was gone, and Sara knew her family would sell the house.
“If we keep it, every time we walk in, we’ll just be expecting to see them and they won’t be there,” her mother had said.
Sara wouldn’t be back here again. This view, the porch swing, the mystery girl. None of it would belong to her anymore. She’d only have the memories. She supposed death was always like that, leaving you with questions and no one to answer them, with memories and no place to ground them. What a birthday present.
Sara stood up and stretched her arms. After one last, long look, she walked inside.