Authors: Susan Vaught
“So much for understanding the feud,” she said. “I'm sorry, Dani. I know you really thought she was going to tell us. So did I.”
“I'm not giving up,” I told her, even though that's exactly what I felt like doing. “There's still the key. It has to unlock something important.”
“Or something lost, or a safe full of confused writingâwho knows?” Indri sighed. She didn't have to tell me Grandma wasn't right when she hid the key for me, that the key might be completely meaningless.
I spread my fingers out on the stack of papers, andâ
A cane smacked down next to my hand, barely missing my thumb.
I jumped so hard I let out a squeak. Indri jumped too, knocking her pastels every which direction.
“What are you doing with those papers?” asked a gravelly, angry voice. “That's your grandmother's writing, isn't it? It's not yours.”
I barely had time to process the hornet-colored shirt and fedora before Avadelle Richardson made a grab for Grandma's writing.
Panic helped me swipe the papers sideways out of her reach. Blood pumping so hard I could barely think, I yelled, “It's not yours, either!”
Then, everything seemed to slow down like in the movies. Each beat of my heart echoed in my ears as I became aware of Mac standing beside the table, looking totally unhappy. He shoved a shock of brown hair out of his eyes and tried to get hold of his grandmother's elbow.
“You got no business in Ruth's private papers,” Avadelle barked at me. “She's not dead yet, is she?”
“No.” I held the papers to my chest and glared at the elderly writer.
“Come on, GG,” Mac said. “We should go.” He made another grab for her elbow, but she jerked away from him.
GG, his baby name for his grandmother. I remembered that from when Mac sat with me after he played the national anthem at a school football game, picking at the callouses his guitar strings made on the ends of his fingers and explaining why he couldn't go with my parents and me for pizza afterward.
It's my turn to help look after GG. She doesn't get around so well anymore.
Yeah, and she kept almost getting arrested and sued because she was such an evil old bat. Worm Dung wasn't just making sure Avadelle didn't fall down and go boom. He was doing his
shift to keep the world-famous novelist out of the county jail.
I kind of hoped his grandmother would hit him with her eagle-head cane. The wings would make a heck of a mark.
Before Avadelle could grab for Grandma's papers again, I slid them into their envelope and tucked it into my backpack.
“That's right,” the old writer grumbled, her blue eyes round and half-wild. “You put those up, and you let them be.” Her breath came short, and her face turned red as a summer sunset.
“GG,” Mac said again, and this time she let him take hold of her arm. “Why don't weâ”
“I can take care of myself, thanks,” I snapped at Mac. He actually flinched at my tone, and for three seconds, I felt like a lioness. Roaring wasn't totally out of the question.
“If she was working on a manuscript,” Avadelle said to me, “somebody with some real brains might be able to finish it later, if you don't go mucking it all up.” The oaks behind her made her look tiny, and a leaf drifted lazily to her shoulder. She didn't brush it off. Squirrels, oblivious to the danger she posed, darted around five or six feet away, jaws jammed with acorns and bits of people's sandwiches.
Then, from out of nowhere, Avadelle asked, “Is Ruthâis she stillÂ .Â .Â . talking?”
The wildness in the old writer's gaze dimmed to something like sadness, only sharper. Her expression caught me by surprise so badly that I answered her.
My attention shifted to Mac, but I jumped off him in a hurry and looked at Indri. She had frozen in place like a Grove statue, color-stained hands poised in midair, lemur eyes and mouth formed into O shapes.
Avadelle breathed in, then breathed out. “When Ruth says things, is she out of her head?”
I dared to look her straight in the face. “Most of the time.”
The pain in Avadelle's expression deepened. “That's an evil disease she has, stealing the brain. Taking away the best of who a body's been, and who they might be.”
Before I could agree with her, she pointed a knobby, time-blotched finger right into my face. “If she says anything outlandish, you don't pay it any mind, and you don't repeat it. She has a right to her dignity.”
“Look,” I started, but Indri kicked my ankle so hard under the table all I could do was bark, “Ow!”
A few tables and trees away, I saw Ms. Yarbrough's head snap up. She stood and stared in our direction. I couldn't be sure, but she might have looked a tad horrified as she started toward us.
“GG.” Mac dug his feet into the grass and pulled at his grandmother's arm, forcing her toward him. “Your favorite table's free. Come on now. We need to go.”
Ms. Yarbrough was one hundred yards away and closing fast. Her eyes fixed on Avadelle, and something in her expression reminded me of Indri's evil pastel horse.
Avadelle gave me one last angry glare, her cloudy eyes
shifting between my face and my backpack, then let Mac pull her away. I watched him try to act tough with her, but I could tell he was being gentle. I would have thought that was nice, if I didn't totally hate his stupid guts.
“Okay, that was weird,” Indri murmured.
I couldn't quit watching Avadelle, which of course meant I was watching Mac, too. I really needed to grab a squirrel and let it bite me to bring me back to sanity. “Yeah. Completely.”
Time to get my thoughts off Mac. The jerk. Worm Dung. Way past time. “So, since Grandma didn't finish what she wanted to tell me, we'll have to figure it out ourselves.”
“I'm in,” Indri said. “Where do we start?”
“With my parents, I guess. And maybe with Professor Harper, since Grandma wrote his name down on the pages?”
“Isn't he in Ventress Hall?” Indri asked.
“Isn't that the most haunted building on campus?”
Indri gave me a wicked smile as Ms. Yarbrough reached us.
“I'm in double now,” Indri whispered. “I'll get a note from my mom.”
Night on Fire
(1969), by Avadelle Richardson, page 191
“This place is so small!” Leslie covered her mouth after she spoke. She did that a lot, blabber, then try to stuff the words back down her throat. Thing is, she tended to tell the truth, and the truth didn't need silencing.
I glanced around my classroom, at the old maps and stacks of worn-out books. “You should see it when there's thirty kids here. It'll be crowded enough with ten or twelve grown people in a few minutes.”
She picked up one of the English textbooks, and it came apart in her hands, cover and pages alike. She looked sad, then guilty, then angry. “These should be replaced. ButÂ .Â .Â . there's no funding, right?”
“There's a professor at Ole Miss, Jim Devon. He gets books for me, new as he can.”
She got quiet for a few seconds, then popped out with, “CiCi, how can separate ever be equal? How can anyone become who they were meant to be when they get treated as less than human?”
“People believe in the way things have always been.” I shrugged, wondering why I was spending all my time with this girl younger than me, who still didn't have much of a clue about how the world worked itself in Mississippi, even after a whole year of trying to learn. “That's why speaking out and registering folks to vote is so dangerous.”
Her eyes met mine, and I knew she was imagining my students sitting shoulder to shoulder in the tiny room, sweating in the swelter, trying to turn pages without books falling to pieces, doing their best to learn despite a world arranged against them. Something flashed across her face, something solid and strong and full of purpose, that made me know why, of all the students showing up in the South to “help,” I didn't mind looking after Leslie Marks.
ELLING THE WHOLE TRUTH IS
one of those things everybody talks about like it's always the right thing to do, even if it's not easy. But I was starting to think that was stupid.
Watching life leave a person you love, a minute at a time, an hour at a time, a day and a week at a time, can change how you see everything, even what's “right” and what's “wrong” and what's “truth”
and what's “fiction.” Maybe absolute whole truth wasn't always the right way to go. Maybe almost truth could be almost good enough.
Mom and Dad and I moved quietly around Grandma's room, arranging dinner plates on the blue card table Dad had folded out for us. Sunlight still coated the cream-colored walls, and the ceiling fan turned lazily on low, its big blades stirring the air just enough to keep the room from being stuffy.
Natural light seemed better for keeping Grandma easy, and a little bit of sound. Mom's iPad was on the farthest counter, playing a Grandma mix of Amos Lee, Norah Jones, Dionne Farris, and Jazmine Sullivan. Grandma had worked with Dad right up until last year, collecting music she loved and sorting it into playlists she'd enjoy “later,” as in, when her mind and hands wouldn't let her handle tablets and song lists anymore.
As in, now.
My place was closest to Grandma tonight, and I had already done my usual checks. Her pulse was still seventy-five. The tall stool helped me reach her bed, and I put her plate next to mine. Mom had purÃ©ed up her pork chops and potatoes and green beans, and we had applesauce too. Four colored pools of food. It didn't look great, but I had tasted the purÃ©ed stuff before. It was different, but decent. Kinda like a food milkshake.
Grandma loved applesauce, so after we sat down, I leaned
over to where Grandma lay in the hospital bed. The head had been raised, but her eyes were closed tight. I could tell from the way she was breathing that she was far, far away in her mind, so I rubbed my fingers against her cheek like the nurses had taught me to do.
“Got some applesauce for you,” I said.
Nothing happened, but the muscles in her face tightened, like she might be thinking about it.
“Applesauce,” I told her again. “Yum. It's got some cinnamon.”
Her lips pursed.
I slipped the spoon into her applesauce, and brought the tip to her lips.
“Way to go,” I whispered when she ate it, then turned back to Mom and Dad. I put Grandma's spoon down, picked up my fork, and ate a little of my own dinner. Mom had cooked the pork chops with lemon pepper, and I liked the way the spice stung my tongue.
Mom was trying to get Dad to talk about his day, but I could tell right away he wasn't listening. He studied me, then Grandma, then back to me again. “She take it?”
My mouth was full, so I nodded.
In the background, Amos Lee sang about “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight.” That's what we were supposed to do, have as normal a family meal as we could, letting Grandma participate any way she could. The hospice people told us it was the best gift we could give Grandma, and ourselves. It
made sense, I guess, but it wasn't always easy to do, especially for Dad.
“Feed her another bite, Dani,” he urged.
Mom patted his hand. “She will. Just give her time. We don't have mess schedule and lights-out in civilian life, remember?”
Dad frowned. “Mama doesn't eat enough to feed a bird. She's got to be starving.”
Mom patted his hand again, but she didn't say anything. To make him happy, I fed Grandma a few bites in a row, pork chop milkshake, then potato milkshake, then green bean milkshake. After that, another applesauce. When I finished, I dabbed her mouth with an aloe wipe, and turned back to the table to eat.
Dad stared at his food. Mom stared at Dad and looked worried. I wanted to let out a great big sigh, but I didn't. That wouldn't help anything. Dad didn't want Grandma to go. I understood that. I didn't either. Not really. But she was so sick now, and so far gone from the person she used to be, she really was like a ghost. Thinking thatâand sometimes thinking that it would be better if she did go ahead and pass awayâmade me feel really, really guilty.
“Ms. Manchester told us a great ghost story today,” I related to Grandma when I fed her another bite of applesauce.
“It was about the cemetery at Ole Miss,” I said.
“Ghost stories,” Dad grumbled from behind me. “You going to have nightmares tonight?”
He couldn't see my face, so I rolled my eyes. “No, Dad.
I'm not five anymore. Jeez. Do I ever get to live that down?”
Mom laughed. “No, you do not. We had to keep the lights on in the houseâ
every single light
âfor a week after you and Indri stayed up and watched those horror movies.”
I gave Grandma some pork chop. “Those were gross. Stalk-and-slash stuff. Today, it was just a spooky story with a lot of history. We heard a few more too, about Saint Anthony Hall and somebody screaming in the steam tunnels around the Lyceum.”
“Oxford's history isn't all sweetness and light,” Dad said. “The cityâthe whole stateâit's come a long way. Maybe it's time people let go of all that mess from the past and just moved on.”
Grandma got green bean milkshake, and more applesauce, then I turned to eat some more of my food as Mom said, “There's room for both remembering and forgetting, I think. Moving on can happen even when folks remember everything clearly. Speaking of which,” she fixed her eyes on mine, “did you see Mac Richardson today?”