Please Note: below is an excerpt from the unfinished blob that is my current writing project
Summer Break with Memaw
The higher branches provided a beautiful reprieve from the mid-morning sun, and, as the pecan leaves rippled in the humid but welcomed breeze, Andy thought she spotted another unicorn in the sky. Yes, that cloud was definitely a unicorn and behind the unicorn a castle, home of the brave Princess Penny. Andy shifted slightly, the dry ridges between the tiny canyons in the bark scratching her skin just enough to remind her how high up in the tree she was. Andy needed just a few more seconds with Princess Penny and her beautiful unicorn before climbing back down for lunch. As the clouds leisurely floated above her, Andy’s mind drifted along with them to far away places and all the adventures she wished she and Princess Penny could have together.
Andy was never sure if she had been up in her tree for moments or centuries, as the never ending Texas sky pulled her from one daydream to another. A droplet of sweat trickled into her squinting hazel eyes and the salty sting brought her thoughts back to Earth where she waved a goodbye to her cloudy friends and sat up knowing she was pushing her luck not climbing down immediately. Andy could not help herself, however, and leaned forward on the unrelenting bark instead, bracing her chin in her clammy palms, and closed her eyes so she could better hear the cicada’s summer hymnal of love. Andy loved the familiar summer song and let it lull her into another lackadaisical stream of thoughts. At least school was finally over, and Andy felt overwhelmingly excited to stay with Memaw for a third of her break. Momma had agreed to an entire month, but only after Andy had endlessly begged and nagged her about it. She was certain Momma only said yes to finally shut Andy up. Andy needed that month more than anything, and she needed it for the same reason she spent so much time as far up in this old pecan tree as she dared to climb. She needed time away from Momma, needed to escape her as often as possible. Andy felt anxiety clinch up her stomach with the thought of it. If Momma ever found out how much Andy loved being away from her, then Momma would never let Andy out of her sight again. Andy squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as possible, and as she pushed the thought deep down and hid it inside her feelings fort, where all her other secrets lived, she shivered with the effort of it. The humid breeze feathered across her damp skin and Andy popped her eyes back open, sat up in full alert, blinked through the sunlight piercing through the pecan branches, and started searching for another unicorn.
“Andalee Bordeaux!!” she heard Momma holler out from the partially open door of their dingy, yellow trailer house front door.
At the sound of Momma’s voice, Andy’s insides leapt up like a fish after a dragonfly and she sharply turned her head away from her cloud friends and back down towards their trailer where she saw her Momma’s intimidating, stolid frame commanding half the space between the doorway and the front concert steps. Andy also noted the foreboding look in her Momma’s eyes. The look that made Andy freeze and wanna’ puke at the same time. Andy felt her stomach twist up like a pretzel, as the certainty of what was to follow punched her in the gut.
“You come on down from that tree right now, young lady! I told ya’ I didn’t want ya’ outside ‘til you finish your packin’!” Momma hollered up at Andy some more.
“I did finish packing, Momma,” Andy cautiously answered back as she lifted up on one elbow breaking her skin against the bark this time.
Andy winced but didn’t dare break eye contact because she feared Momma might think she wasn’t paying close enough attention and that would just make everything worse.
“If I have to tell ya’ to climb out of that tree and come inside one more time, then you’ll be bringing ‘long a switch with ya’ on the way down for me to whoop ya’ with!” Momma threateningly bellowed as she snapped her arm up to point a stern finger in Andy’s direction adding visual emphasizes to each of her angry words.
“And ya’ can forget about stayin’ with your Memaw this summer too!” Momma added to ensure Andy had no doubts about how badly she’d messed up again.
“Yes, ma’am! I’m climbing down right now, Momma. I’m sorry, Momma! I’m climbing down right now!” Andy hastily exclaimed as tears begin to sting her fearful eyes.
Andy heard Momma slam the trailer door hard, so she shifted off her branch and began her descent out of the safety and freedom of her pecan perch as fast as she dared. Climbing out of the tree took significant effort as Andy’s hands had begun to tremble and sweat and her elbow was now on fire and bleeding with each bend and pull of her climb. She nearly slipped several times and had to catch her breath as she struggled to balance on the creaky branches silently swearing at Jesus every time she lost her grip.
Why was Momma so angry at her all the time? Why couldn’t she ever make Momma happy with her? Andy felt overwhelmed again but this time with dread and frustrated defiance. Momma just couldn’t take her month with Memaw away! She just couldn’t! Andy was sure she’d definitely die from the tragedy of it! Andy shimmed down the pecan tree as mad as a hornet stuck in a Coke can. She was rather afraid of heights and so climbing down was usually slow going for Andy and sometimes she got so stuck by the idea of falling she’d have to yell for Daddy to come help her. Knowing she was already on the brink of losing it all, Andy relinquished any lingering fears of falling to her inevitable bone shattering demise and kept climbing down. Spending her entire summer break stuck with Momma was a fate worse than falling to her death. Andy could not lose her trip to Lafayette. Plus, Daddy wasn’t home to save her.
Finally, her bare feet landed on the silky, cool, green grass beneath the shade of the old tree, as she managed to miss landing on any fallen pecans. The shells were especially painful when she fell on her back, which happened on occasion as she misjudged the lower branches ability to support her weight. From that, her fear of heights had been born. Free falling even one foot off the ground always knocked the wind out of her, which terrified Andy. It took all her power to keep from crying like a little girl as soon as that first deep breath filled her lungs. She hated crying, even more than falling, but rarely was able to keep from it. Andy paused for a moment twisting her arm around to get a look at her freshly scraped elbow. It wasn’t too bad but there was a bit of dried blood already forming a scab over the cut. Andy sucked her current tears back successfully, forgot about her stinging elbow, and bounded off in a sprint towards their trailer house, with her bare feet slapping the sun scorched grass with every bound. She opened the door, panting, sweat dripping down her dirt smeared face and a pungent slap of boiling onions and potatoes instantly pulled a groan out of her already turning stomach. Andy knew they must be broke again, as Momma only made potato soup when they were out of grocery money.
The frosty breeze billowing out from the wall unit magically tucked in the living room window sent an ominous shiver down Andy’s spine and she blocked out the last of the morning’s sunlight with a determined push of the front door, and she knowingly kept pushing it closed till she heard the empty click of the latch catch. Heaven help her if Momma found the door not shut all the way! It took several moments for her eyes to adjust to the low lighting of the trailer house. Momma covered every window with tinfoil as soon as the Texas heat set in to help keep the electric bill down. So, Andy stood planted in place, allowing her pupils to enlarge, exposing less of her sweet but sad hazel eyes. Her pupil’s necessary adjustment took just long enough to piss Momma off again.
“Andalee, what in the hell fire are ya’ doin’? Get ya’ ass in this bedroom right now!” Momma hollered down the hallway at her.
“Don’t make me have to tell your daddy how ya’ wouldn’t mind me today when he gets home from work!” she hollered again through the thin walls at Andy just for good measure.
Andy bolted, as fast as she dared inside the trailer, being certain to not break any additional rules, toward her bedroom feeling her stomach clinch up again with each hastened step against the over-vacuumed carpet. Andy didn’t notice in her haste down the hall that she was ringing her hands together, which was just another thing about Andy that pissed Momma off. Andy made it to her bedroom, pausing cautiously in the doorway, where she saw Momma yanking her clothes and books and the few favorite toys Andy had packed for her trip to Memaw’s out of the worn suitcase Andy had left lying on top of her neatly made bed. Momma had instructed Andy, over the fried egg sandwich she’d given her at breakfast that morning, to leave her packed bag open for inspection. Andy did just as she had been instructed to, or so she had thought anyway, but there Momma was tossing Andy’s things angrily about her room. The clothes she had packed early this morning were now messily scattered about her bed, her books slipping off Andy’s white and purple striped comforter thudding on the dingy, but immaculately clean beige carpet floor of her bedroom, as Momma continue to empty the suitcase Andy had packed. Andy felt sick to her stomach and quite distraught as she watched this raging woman she called Momma pillaging through her suitcase. Andy was wringing her hands again. She wished Momma wouldn’t throw her stuff around like that, especially her books, but Andy felt certain she was on thin ice and it was going to take a miracle to keep Momma from sending Andy out to fetch a switch for her punishment already, or even worse take Lafayette away from her, so Andy kept her trap shut.
“I told ya’ to pack your clothes in this bag neatly!! And I told ya’ to only pack what you needed! Didn’t I, Andalee?” Momma asked through clenched teeth as she finished empting the small, scuffed red suitcase and stomped closer to where Andy stood frozen in her bedroom doorway.
Andy began to tremble again, and as she prepared to answer Momma, she lowered her eyes and stared down at the ugly carpet as hard as she could. She new if she looked Momma in the eyes for too long, Momma would accuse her of talking back, and that switching Momma promised her would be inevitable.
“Yes, Ma’am, I thought that’s what I did. I thought I packed just like you told me to,” Andy said in a quiet but rushed and quivering voice.
“Well, ya’ didn’t!” Momma hollered down at her.
Andy didn’t dare lift her head and slump her shoulders for good measure displaying as many signs of complete surrender as she could.
“Get over there and pack again and this time do as you’re told, or ya’ won’t be going!” Momma spat at her.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Andy whispered and walked over to her bed, with her eyes still glued to the floor and started picking up her clothes.
“Ya’ only need to pack five pairs of play clothes, two pairs of church clothes, two pairs of pjs, your swim clothes, one pair of tennis shoes, your church shoes, and five pairs of socks and underwear. Your Memaw can do laundry and ya’ can just wear them over again, understood?” Momma coldly instructed.
Andy just could not understand why Momma was instructing her to pack a week’s worth of clothes when Andy was going to be away for a month, but again Andy knew better than to inquire further. All Andy needed was for the fancy Lafayette kids in Memaw’s neighborhood to ridicule her for not having enough clothes. They already shunned her pretty good because Andy wasn’t around very often, and they had their fancy dress club formed already. Hopefully, Thomas would be visiting his grandparents again and would want to play with her like they did last summer. Thomas didn’t have many clothes either. Plus, he never made fun of Andy about anything and he just happened to love building forts out in the woods as much as Andy did.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Andy whispered again, her head still hung in defeat.
“Put the rest of those clothes back in your drawers and ya’ better fold them like I taught ya’ and put them away neatly! And ya’ ain’t bringing any toys or books!” Momma lorded over her.
Upon hearing the book ban, Andy felt a rush of anger flood over her and was helpless to stop her entire face flushing hot and battle ready red before she could control herself. Andy forced the anger back down to her feelings fort as quickly as she could and slowly turned around to face Momma, with a wad of crumpled clothes in her hands to keep from wringing them. Andy cautiously looked up, making bold and possibly dangerous eye contact with her Momma. She mustered up all the strength she had to find her voice and began what Andy was certain was going to be a vain plea for her books.
“Momma, please let me bring my books. Please,” Andy gently pleaded with her overbearing mother. “I swear I won’t lose them or mess up any of the pages,” she continued begging, and Andy felt those pesky tears begin to sting her eyes again, but her books were worth the trouble.
“Don’t swear, Andalee!” Momma warned viciously, “It’s not Christian!”
Andy hung her head again and stared back down into the carpet. In the moments of silence that hung between the two of them, Andy began wishing she could turn into a fire ant and crawl away as fast as she could through the fabric wonderland of the trailer toward the front door. A fire ant would be tiny and fast enough to scuttle away from Momma in a flash, and if Momma did happen to catch her ant Andy knew she could bite Momma and sting her real bad while making a grand escape. Ant Andy could scurry all the way back up to her favorite limb in the pecan tree too and change back into a little girl again once safely hidden amongst its bountiful branches. Andy leapt against her own skin as soon as she heard the sound of her Momma’s voice breaking the silence looming between them and the fire ant daydream instantly dissolved.
“You can bring three books, but I swear if ya’ lose or ruin them I’ll take it out of your hide when you get back home and you’ll never stay the summer with your Memaw again!”
In her usual fashion, Momma followed every permission Andy received with a threat of punishment.
“I promise I won’t lose or break them, Momma,” Andy truthfully assured her.
Andy’s books were her most prized possessions and she’d never lost or ruined a single one in her entire life! She felt angry again that Momma would even think she’d do a thing like that to any of her books but since Momma was still starring her down Andy didn’t dare let her feelings show.
“Finish packing up with the exact number of outfits I told ya’ to last night at dinner or the trip is canceled! And, you can forget about going back outside today, young lady, since I had to waste my time telling ya’ how to pack all over again!” and with that Momma marched out of Andy’s bedroom and back down the hallway towards the kitchen.
Andy’s heart broke as she realized she was now stuck inside the house with Momma for the rest of the day. It was so unfair and Andy clenched her tiny fists so hard she nearly broke the skin on her palms. As soon as she could hear what sounded like Momma pulling pots and pans out from the kitchen cabinets, she felt it safe enough to move her body again. Looking around at the mess Momma had made of her bedroom, Andy let out a long but quiet sigh of despair. Andy picked up her clothes and sorted out what she could bring and what she had to put away. Andy re-packed her suitcase with the exact number of outfits Momma had instructed her to and tried to be as neat about it as Momma would. She put away her toys next dropping them inside the handmade wooden toy box Daddy had built for her last Christmas. As she scanned her bedroom nervously assessing if it was tidy enough, Andy tried hard, but she just couldn’t remember Momma telling her how many pairs of clothes to pack last night when she gave Andy her instructions during dinner. Andy was certain Momma had only said she needed to pack her bag after breakfast and before she went outside to play. Since she was powerless to prove that to Momma and knew it would just get her into more unwanted trouble anyway, Andy pushed it out of her mind and down to the safety of her feelings fort. Andy sighed out her emotional exhaustion, as she slumped down onto the carpeted trailer house floor, still quite disappointed about not being a fire ant, rested her small back against the side of her bed, and allowed several silent tears to rush down her freckled, sun kissed checks. Andy let her angry tears flow freely as she listened to the sounds of Momma cooking her lunch through the thin trailer walls. Through watery eyes, she starred at her books trying to decide which of the three out of the four she had previously packed she still wanted to bring with her. It was so unfair and now Andy had to stay inside all day on top of everything!
“Lunch will be ready in 15 minutes and ya’ better be finished packing by then!” Andy heard her Momma holler from the kitchen.
From the smells drifting through the cool air of her tiny bedroom, Andy guessed she was having blue box macaroni and cheese with sliced barbeque hot dogs and a side of buttered canned peas for lunch again. Momma’s menu didn’t rotate very often, and since everything was bought on sale and in bulk, Andy usually had the same meals for breakfast and lunch all week long and sometimes two weeks in a row, if the bargain was good enough. Dinner was usually better because Daddy was home then, and a manly meal was required for how hard he worked to put food on their table, that is unless it was potato soup night because the money had run out again. Andy quickly pulled herself back together and wiped away her tears. If Momma found out she’d been crying over re-packing her suitcase, then she’d definitely cancel her trip to Memaw’s, and Andy would rather die than let that happen. Andy stood up and revisited her suitcase to quadruple verify that she’d packed the exact number of outfits Momma told her to. She counted five pairs of cut-off jean shorts, her light blue Astros baseball tee, her black SheRa tee, her Wonder Woman tee, and two shirts Momma had made for her with floral cutouts attached to the fronts with the fancy hot glue gun Daddy got Momma for Christmas last year. Andy hated those ugly shirts Momma made for her, “ladylike shirts” Momma called them, but she packed two of them anyway in a desperate attempt to pass Momma’s inspection this time. The two Sunday dresses, that her Memaw was never gonna force her to wear, sat neatly folded on top of her shoes. Only thing left was to pack her swim clothes, and clothes they actually were, as Andy was not allowed to wear a real swimsuit. Andy instead packed a pair of basketball gym shorts and a plain white tee to swim in out of her play clothes drawer. Little girls must always be modest for Jesus, as Momma always reminded Andy. Lastly, she tucked in her boys Star Wars socks, which Andy still didn’t understand how she’d convinced Momma to buy for her, and then finally tucked her unicorn undies around the edges finishing her packing for the second time that day. She pushed the open suitcase in front of her pillow to await its finally inspection by Momma. Andy had purposefully left the impossible decision of which one of the four books she couldn’t bring for last, and now she slowly turned around no longer able to avoid the devastating task.
She was halfway through, Dear Donna’s Dreary Observations, and definitely had to bring that one along. So, with that decision easily made, she placed the book neatly in her suitcase. Andy then stared back down, with her eyes torn between each of the other three books she had wanted to bring along. There on her tiny bedroom floor, tossed carelessly about in anger by Momma, laid her most precious possessions.
Anne of Green Gables, a classic one of Momma’s church friends gave to Andy on her eighth birthday, which was, without a doubt, one of her favorite stories of all time.
Heralds from the Land of Havilah, a gift given to Andy by the school librarian on the last day of school. Mrs. Leary had promised Andy the read was going to be an unforgettable adventure.
And then, there was her new signed copy of, Felicity and the Fabulous Montana Mustangs, with “For Andy, the wonderous tree climber! With warm regards, Felicia Jones” inscribed on the dedication page. It was the first book in a series Andy’d been dying to read, that Memaw had mailed to her at the start of summer break. Memaw had promised Andy a fantastic gift in exchange for good grades at school and the signed book was now among one of Andy’s most favored treasures. She stood there deliberating as long as she dared as she heard Momma now setting her plate at the table, and with a heavy heart, finally decided. Andy reluctantly picked up her worn favorite, Anne of Green Gables. She’d already read it twice, but, as her favorite, she felt a little pang in her heart as she placed it alphabetically back among her collection on her small bookshelf. Andy apologized to Anne, promising they were forever kindred spirits regardless, and prayed she hadn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Andy then neatly placed the final two books in her suitcase and really hoped she was finished packing this time.
“Your lunch is ready, Andalee.” Momma said as she quickly popped her head around Andy’s doorway and then just as quickly disappeared back down the hallway.
Andy nearly leapt out of her skin but immediately stood up and made a beeline for the kitchen. Once there, she pulled the cheap but shiny metal chair out from under the retro red kitchen table and sat down as quietly as possible. Momma picked up Andy’s empty plate, walked back to the kitchen stove and portioned Andy’s lunch out for her. Momma set Andy’s lunch down in front of her and poured Andy a glass of sweet iced tea. Momma then sat down across from Andy with her own lunch and glass of tea.
“You can go ahead and start eating now and ya’ better not waste any time with your daydreaming.” Momma instructed her.
“Yes, ma’am” Andy meekly replied and picked up her spoon.
Andy finished her bland yet overly salted lunch without muttering a single word. Andy honestly had had every intention to eat every bite on her plate, even the mushy peas and without Momma’s warning needed. Although, her stomach was so full of butterflies it was hard to find room for her food, she dreaded the inevitable bowl of potato soup still simmering on the stove for their dinner, and so wanted to fill up on her slightly better tasting lunch. Hopefully, Momma would at least make fried cornbread to go with the godawful smelling soup. Andy got hold of herself, pushed her drifting thoughts back down in her feelings fort for later review, and focused on finishing the bbq hotdog slices she’d saved for last. Once Momma had finished eating and then decided Andy’s plate was clean enough, she gave Andy permission to put her dishes away in the kitchen sink and return to her bedroom to play. Andy stood up, pushed her chair back under the table and cleared away her dishes.
Stuffed on powdered cheese and bbq franks, safely back in her room, Andy grabbed, Anne of Green Gables, off her bookshelf. She carefully pushed her open suitcase down to the foot of her bed and sank as deeply into her pillows as she could. Maybe if Andy spent extra time with Anne before leaving for Lafayette all would be forgiven for leaving the book behind. Andy sank further into the comfort of her pillows desperately wanting to hide as much as possible to avoid Momma’s attention again. If only Andy could go back outside, climb to the top of her pecan tree, and watch the clouds roll by some more! Andy let out a deep, sorrowful sigh but also felt blessed that she, in the least, had Anne to keep her company. Andy opened, Anne of Green Gables, to the first chapter, “Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Surprised” and began to read:
Andy paused while looking up from the familiar page and let the book gently close around her fingers as she laid it down on her lap. As it often did, Andy’s mind began to drift off into the great expansion of her imagination. She couldn’t wait to leave for Lafayette tomorrow morning and Andy was quite certain it would be difficult to fall asleep tonight. She decided to stay as still and quiet as she could for the rest of the afternoon and be seen as little as possible once Daddy got home. She’d had a close enough call with Momma already and couldn’t dare risk inflaming her wrath again. Andy wondered what delicious and naughty treats Memaw must be buying her right now! She wiggled her bare toes into her comforter trying to contain her excitement as she wondered over the surprises that lay in store for her tomorrow! How different her Daddy’s Momma was from her own. Memaw let Andy run about the blacktops and woods surrounding her small Louisiana neighborhood all day long and never expected Andy to check in. When Andy had asked her grandmother why she was allowed to do this, Memaw had explained quite simply that she knew Andy would come home when she got hungry enough. Memaw always cooked all of Andy’s favorite foods too. Whatever Andy wanted and Memaw never denied any menu request she made. Andy ran the list of her requests she had prepared so far. She wanted a crawfish boil to share with Thomas and his grandparents, oh and a fish fry too with catfish and hushpuppies! Fresh gulf shrimp po-boys, boudin and saltines, and all the gooey, cheesy nachos she could eat piled high with spicy, pickled jalapenos!
Andy also loved sitting at breakfast enjoying a cup of coffee with Memaw that Momma didn’t want her to have, with a paper plate piled high with crispy bacon! Andy loved her Memaw more than anyone on the planet and always enjoyed spending time with her. If Andy ever happened to do anything Memaw didn’t like, then Memaw would just sit Andy down on the sofa and gently and quietly explain to Andy how it was her responsibility to keep Andy safe and that respect and trust are two very fragile but necessary tools that anyone who wanted a happy life had to learn how to use properly. Plus, Memaw always reminded Andy how fragile Momma’s permission for them to spend the entire month together already was so neither of them could afford breaking any rules. Yeah, Memaw was nothing like her Momma. Memaw’s favorite saying was, “Laissez le bon ton roulet!” which is how they say “let the good times roll” in Creole. Momma’s favorite saying was, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” which was a quote from the only book Andy ever saw her Momma read, the Holy Bible. Sometimes Andy would fantasize about running away to live with Memaw forever and like with all Andy’s fantasies, it did help her feel better for a while. Andy quickly interrupted her own thoughts, however, ‘less Momma somehow read her mind through the thin trailer house walls and take her trip away. Andy quickly went back to her adventures on Prince Edward Island. Somewhere after Gilbert tugged Anne’s hair Andy’s hazel eyes fluttered helplessly shut and she was fast asleep before realizing it.
As her eyes fluttered open in the gentle rays of the early July sunrise, that stole through the off white blinds of the bedroom her Memaw had made up for her, Andy happily realized she was tucked beneath bright red, blue, and white checkered sheets, her head sunken in the middle of an oversized Goose Feather pillow and not waking up in her small bedroom back home. Andy must have kicked the dark blue comforter off late last night when she’d gotten too hot because she saw it was now messily lumped on the floor over top the Independence Day throw pillows her Memaw loved. Andy let out an involuntary sigh of relief knowing she didn’t have to worry about being perfect at Memaw’s house. Andy closed her eyes again and listened to the buzzing hum of cicadas outside and new it was going to be another hot and humid day. Andy hadn’t minded the sticky sweat of the Louisiana humidity one bit, as she’d been blissfully bounding about her Memaw’s small, mostly elder neighborhood for two days now barefoot without a care in the world. Andy spent from dawn to dusk romping about the woods and back roads with dirt circling rings around her neck and clumping between her bare toes. Today, she had plans to build a fort back in a small ravine she and Thomas Jackson Jr. had found while playing hide and seek in the back woods behind the neighborhood yesterday. His grandparents had actually agreed to two play dates this week and Andy was grateful for the company. Andy was sure the weekend’s crawfish invite might have helped sway the permission Thomas got, as it was no secret the two buddy’s grandparents weren’t exactly friends. The cicadas buzzed louder as if calling Andy to come out and play under the cool reprieve of the back woods and brought her thoughts back to the early morning.
“Soon!”, she promised.
Andy sat up a bit, rubbed the eye boogies from her eyes, and grabbed Heralds from the Land of Havilah off her nightstand. She carefully opened it to chapter 15, “The Milkweed Map”, and devoured each word as it leapt off the page and into her imagination. She’d finished, Dear Donna’s Dreary Observations, on the drive to Lafayette, which had thankfully kept Andy out of any further trouble with her Momma.
“So, you’re awake. How’d ya sleep sugar,” her Memaw playfully asked from the doorway.
“Great! I had the coolest dream,” Andy exclaimed as she marked her place and set her book back on the nightstand.
“Is that right? Well, you come on and tell your old Memaw all about it over breakfast. Chicory and bacon alright?” Memaw asked as she winked at her.
“You bet it is!” Andy excitedly replied as she leapt out of bed and followed after her grandmother towards the kitchen.
Andy helped herself to an oversized cup of mostly chicory coffee and loaded it up with sugar and hazelnut Coffee-Mate. As she tiptoed to the table, she quickly stole a sip of the steaming sweetly dark liquid, careful to not scorch her tongue, before setting it down on the plastic fireworks placemat on the table. Andy then giddily made her way back to the kitchen counter and devilishly piled her paper plate high with an over generous portion of crispy fried bacon. Andy sat down across from her Memaw at the weathered farm style table her Papaw had built many years ago, and they both slowly sipped on their coffees for a few moments without speaking. Andy felt so grown up she couldn’t help but beam with pride.
“So that dream you had, tell me about it,” Memaw prompted as she placed her mug of chicory coffee aside and began crunching on a thick slice of bacon.
“Well, I was walking down this old dirt road,” Andy began, “and I came upon this rock.”
Andy went on to describe a fantastic tale of being swept to another dimension through the rock she’d stumbled upon where she had to battle a troll king to save Princess Penny and the Enchanted Kingdom from darkness and destruction. Memaw listened intently, and when Andy paused to munch on another piece of bacon, her grandmother kept the story going with questions about what might happen next. Andy loved telling stories to her Memaw. Momma never had the patience to listen to any of them. Once Andy finished the wild tale of her dream, embellishing the parts she couldn’t remember, and had swallowed the last crumb of bacon, Memaw helped her clean up the kitchen and then promptly encouraged Andy to go out and play. Andy went back to her bedroom, changed into a pair of cut of shorts, an ancient and faded SheRa Princess of Power T-shirt, and slipped on a pair of nearly blown out flip flops she’d most likely lose before the day was over. Andy slung her old book bag over her shoulder and headed out for the day. On her way to the back door, however, Andy heard her Memaw burst into another coughing fit. Andy instantly switched modes, dropping her book bag by the back door, and swiftly made her way to the kitchen. Andy quickly filled a glass with ice and water, and power walked it to the living room sofa where her grandmother sat still hacking up her lungs.
“You okay Memaw?” Andy asked with the concern evident in her voice, as she handed her grandmother the glass of cold water.
“Oh, sugar, you don’t worry about me one bit,” Memaw shakily yet firmly exclaimed through ragged gasps of breath and took a long drink of the cold water Andy handed to her.
Andy watched intently as her grandmother tried to shrug off the cough to spare Andy any worry, but it wasn’t working. So Memaw sat up straighter, her eyes a tango of smile wrinkles and evasiveness and again let Andy firmly know there was nothing to worry about.
“I’ve been coughing like this for a week now, sugar. Probably just my asthma acting up again and that’s another reason not to smoke any cigarettes young lady! Just look what they do,” Memaw gently cautioned her.
“You don’t look so good, though,” Andy continued anyway.
Andy reached out and put a loving hand on her Memaw’s forehead. Memaw’s skin was hot to the touch but clammy at the same time. It never ceased to amaze Andy how quickly folks could go from perfectly okay to sick as an old dog.
“Maybe you should go to the doctor,” Andy urged, “and get a check up or whatever just to make sure.”
“Nonsense, Andy. I told you it’s just this old asthma acting up again. Nothing for you to worry your pretty little head about sugar, I promise,” Memaw reassured Andy all over again.
Andy’s brow creased stubbornly and her Memaw knew this was a battle Andy was willing to fight with her on.
“Look, if it will make you feel better, then I promise I will go to the doctor, if I start to feel any worse, ok?” Memaw compromised.
“Ok, that does make me feel better,” Andy replied genuinely.
“Now you go out and build that fort with Thomas and you two have fun,” Memaw instructed and then turned Andy around to face the back door, gave her bottom a playful swat, and gently nudged Andy toward the outdoors.
Andy picked up her book bag, slinging it over her shoulders, but paused with the cold, metal door handle still in her hand. Then, compelled by forces deep within her, Andy let go of the knob and ran back to the living room. She wrapped her skinny arms around her Memaw giving her grandmother one final bear hug before heading out to play.
“I love you Memaw!” Andy said breathing in her grandmother not knowing it would be the last time.
“I love you too, sug…” Memaw replied as another cough cut her words short, “…and don’t forget to be back before dusk today. I got bingo.”
“Yes’Mam!” Andy confirmed, as she sprinted out the back door towards the woods without looking back this time.
Andy made it through the dense Louisiana forest to their secret fort location before Thomas did so she shimmed up a nearby tree to wait for him. Just as she was finding Princess Penny’s castle in the clouds, she heard a limb snap off in the distance and knew it must be Thomas approaching. Andy sat up on the thick limb of the live oak tree, and as she swung her legs around to start her decent, she noted that Thomas was still wearing the same clothes as yesterday and was glad Memaw had packed extra PB&J for her lunch today. Thomas probably was home alone again, as his grandparents spent a lot of time at The Lodge, or the local watering hole, as her Memaw put it. Andy had dared to ask Thomas once why he stayed the summer with his grandparents since they were never home much and Thomas had said that he liked being home alone with his grandparents far better than being stuck home together with his father. Andy had let it go at that knowing she felt the same about her Momma and because she also knew why she didn’t like to talk to anyone else about it.
“Hiya Andy!” Thomas playfully waved at her as she plopped both feet back on the ground.
“Hi yourself, Thomas” Andy replied and couldn’t help but take on a leader-of-the-pack tone whenever she spoke with him.
“Should we get this fort going?” Thomas asked and without waiting for a reply he wasted no time gathering fallen branches from the forest floor.
“You betcha!” Andy replied as she started gathering her fair share too.
They stole up all the twigs and leaves and branches nearby in determined silence trying to out pile the other, and before either of them realized it, the morning hours had drifted by. With the sun high overhead and their fort finally taking on shape, they decided they were starving and in much need of a lengthy lunch break. The two friends sat down on the fort’s newly swept dirt floor, leaned back against the side of the enormous old live oak they were shaping the branch walls around, dirty elbows just touching, with both of them feeling grateful for the dense canopy shade in the midday heat. Andy and Thomas looked around their newly built fort and then at each other with dusty, accomplished grins on their rather pleased faces. With sweaty, dirt encrusted hands Andy unzipped her old book bag and searching past her secret notebook, last fall’s sweater jacket, water canteen, and her new book she was planning on reading tonight after dinner she tried to find the sandwiches and apple her Memaw had packed for her lunch. Thomas didn’t have a book bag nor had anyone packed him a lunch to put in it, if he had. So, Andy handed Thomas her water canteen, trying to clear space to aid her sandwich search. Thomas popped the two tiny tin cups off the top and poured them each an ice-cold portion of much needed water.
“So, I got an extra PB&J for lunch, if you wanna’ share.” Andy said casually, as she rummaged through her book bag, head down, not wanting to offend Thomas.
“Thanks! I didn’t eat last night. I’m starving. Not that I was too disappointed mind you. Teriyaki Thursdays are gross. Plus, they mostly just bring me back the soggy vegetables.” Thomas confided haphazardly.
Andy pulled the sandwiches out of her book bag, finding them at last, and without hesitation, she handed both to Thomas.
“I overate breakfast again. You know I can’t help myself when it’s Memaw’s bacon. If you take these so I don’t waste them, then you’d be doing me a solid.” Andy pleaded.
“Are ya’ sure?” Thomas asked cautiously.
“Of course, I’m sure! I said so, didn’t I?” and Andy winked at him just to lighten the mood.
Andy saw Thomas’ face flush the slightest shade of pink as he took the sandwiches from her dirty hand and so she distracted herself with a couple of nearby squirrels chasing each other around a young live oak off in the distance to be polite. She rarely thought about the two years between the two of them but in that moment her summer friend seemed far younger than his 10 years. Andy bit into her apple, hoping her younger friend couldn’t read her thoughts.
Thomas inhaled the first PB&J, barley chewing, and as he opened the second Ziploc bag and got ready to devour what was supposed to be Andy’s lunch he paused for a moment and she saw dark concern wash over his face.
“Maybe I should save this one for dinner. I mean sometimes they do bring me leftovers from The Lodge, but most times they forget, and this week they’ve been forgettin’ regular. They’re really old” Thomas worried out loud, with an unconditional excuse hidden between his words.
“They’ll be at The Lodge again tonight though. So, maybe they’ll bring me something home. It’s Fried Chicken Friday, which is my second favorite. Jambalaya Monday’s are the best!” he rambled on unable to hide the bitter edge of hunger in his voice.
“Oh, my Memaw’s gonna’ go to The Lodge tonight too! She and her old high school drama club always met up for bingo night!” Andy exclaimed and she saw a ray of hope light up the concern on Thomas’ face.
Although Andy knew her Memaw didn’t like Thomas’ grandparents much, because instead of visiting The Lodge once a week with friends like her grandmother did, Thomas’ grandparents lived at The Lodge more than they lived at home, or that’s what everyone whispered about them anyway. Memaw wouldn’t even sit near their “white trash” bingo table, but Andy would never say something so hurtful as that to Thomas or even let on she knew about his grandparents excessive drinking at The Lodge. Thomas had enough meanness being dumped in his life and Andy’d be damned before she’d add any more on the boy who had been her only friend here for two summers in a row now. Andy chomped down on her apple some more before her face revealed her feelings about their friendship to Thomas. The last thing she wanted to do was make him feel awkward about hanging out with her, as they were both teased enough about it already.
“Maybe I can ask Memaw if you can have nachos and watch TV with me tonight and she can bring you back to your grandparents after bingo.” Andy schemed.
She began to formulate an escape plan for Thomas immediately, as Andy couldn’t stand leaving him alone and hungry now that the truth of it was slapping her in the face and not just some neighborhood rumor anymore. Andy had no doubts, however, that if she pled the hungry alone case to her Memaw, the two friends would be hanging out together tonight. She and her Memaw had that in common. They couldn’t stand by and watch something suffering and not try and do something to stop it. Andy just wished the idea had come to her sooner so maybe Thomas wouldn’t be looking as thin as he had been lately. Obviously, the extra PB&J she’d thought to ask Memaw for, after Thomas hadn’t had a lunch yesterday, wasn’t gonna’ be enough.
“Really? That sounds like fun! Do you think your Memaw would say yes?” Thomas doubtfully asked.
“I’m sure she would” Andy replied confidently.
“Although,” Andy added with concern, “she was coughing pretty bad after breakfast. So, I guess there’s a chance she might not go.”
“My grandparents have been coughing a lot too,” Thomas added, “but they do smoke an awful lot of cigarettes.”
“Memaw smokes too,” Andy confided with a scowl of disapproval on her forehead. “I sure wish she’d quit” Andy spat out, as she tossed her apple core towards those same two rambunctious squirrels off in the distance.
“I wish mine would quit too,” Thomas agreed as he ducked his head in shame, “the kids next door always tell me I stink.”
“Well, you don’t stink!” Andy countered protectively, “and who cares what those jackasses think anyway! I know I sure don’t!”
Thomas couldn’t help but laugh out loud at Andy’s swear word, as he looked up at her with a mixture of relief and awe in his sad smiling eyes. Andy chuckled too and gave Thomas a friendly pat on the back to help lift her friends spirits even further.
“How about you bike home and ask your grandparents, I’ll run home and ask my Memaw, and then you call me in one hour.” Andy instructed.
“What if they say no?” Thomas pouted.
“Then you can just come over anyway, I’ll make us nachos, and you can bike back home before anyone finds out.” Andy said mischievously.
“But, let’s ask first.” Thomas nervously stated.
“Ok, and you can keep that sandwich anyway just in case.” Andy thoughtfully instructed, as she packed up her book bag and Thomas kicked up the stand on his bike ready to hop on.
Packed up, the two friends hid the path to their fort and set off in opposite directions. Andy watched Thomas’ bike winding down their handmade trail and she yelled out a last reminder for him to call her in one hour. He waved in confirmation and finally faded from Andy’s view. Less than 10 minutes later, Andy kicked her blown out flip flops off by the red, white, and blue back door welcome mat, dumped them in the trash bin, and then barreled inside her grandmothers modest two bedroom ranch house.
“Memaw, I’m back!” Andy called out between pants. “Can Thomas hang out with me tonight? Please say yes! He’s all alone and hungry!” she hastily added in the excitement of her grand plan.
Andy walked through the laundry room, with her bare feet slapping on the cool tile, and hung up her book bag. She made her way into the kitchen getting ready to wash the dirt out from under her nails but stopped short when she didn’t see her Memaw at her usual perch at the farm table sipping her afternoon coffee. Andy looked around the house searching for her grandmother. Her eyes scanned across the kitchen and into the living room where her mind immediately tried to reject the shadowy image she could just make out on the sofa. The blinds and curtains where still closed making the usually light and airy living room of her Memaw’s ranch as unwelcoming as her Momma’s trailer back home. Andy was confused. Memaw always kept her blinds up and curtains open during the day and usually with the windows cracked, heat willing, to let in the breeze. It always made her Memaw’s house smell so fresh, with hints of the nearby bayou’s mysteries lingering on all the fabrics, which made Andy loathe the potato soup stench of her trailer back in Texas even more. But today, instead of the heavy, herbaceous bayou, Andy smelled something that made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
“Memaw! Memaw! I’m back!” Andy called out again, as her voice cracked a little.
Andy stood still but could only hear her own winded panting from the sprint through the back woods she’d just completed. Dread hit her stomach, a feeling she normally only felt at Memaw’s on the day her Momma showed up to take her back home. The shadowy figure on the sofa compelled her to move forward but she fought against it, as unrelenting fear flooded her body. She pushed the unwelcomed emotion back down inside her feelings fort and started walking towards the living room convincing herself that the unmoving shadowy figure on the sofa must just be her Memaw taking a nap so she’d feel up for bingo tonight.
“Memaw?” Andy whimpered out this time fully aware of the nervousness shaking up her voice.
And then, Andy stopped abruptly, her toes digging into and gripping the shaggy, green living room carpet for balance, as her heels slipped against the cold linoleum kitchen floor at the sudden conflicting lack of motion of her body. Andy was forced to stare helplessly at the horror in front of her, as her eyes had finally fully adjusted to the dim living room lighting and she was powerless to look away.
There was her beloved Memaw slumped over, with curlers still in her silver hair, her head lying at an unnatural angle on the arm of the sofa, her mouth slightly open, her kind eyes unblinking and wide open in a cold, blank stare, with a thin trail of blood dripping from the corner of her mouth down her chin, and thumping methodically drip after slow drip against the shaggy carpeted floor below.
An eternity passed by, or was it a second?
Andy realized her lungs were burning from a lack of oxygen and as she tried to gulp in air she heard herself let out a blood curdling scream instead. Andy felt like she’d just fallen out of her pecan tree back home and hit the ground hard, but her feet were still frozen half in and out of her Memaw’s living room. The room started spinning and Andy shut her eyes tight willing herself to wake up from this nightmare but when she opened them again tears rushed freely from her panicking eyes. Andy wasn’t asleep. She rushed to her Memaw’s side and frantically tried to shake the life back into the most precious person in her life. Andy screamed and pleaded but nothing she did made her Memaw look back at her. Panting and sweating and crying and shaking Andy finally let go and slumped down on the floor in defeat and angrily starred up at her grandmother’s lifeless body.
“I told you to go to the doctor!” Andy screamed at no one.
“I told you to go! I told you to go!” Andy choked out over uncontrollable sobs.
She sat there angrily weeping in shock until her ribs were sore and her throat hurt. Somewhere in the back of her mind Andy heard the phone ringing.
“Thomas!”, she hoped.
Andy rushed to the phone and yanked it off the receiver where it hung on the kitchen wall, her hand shaking like a leaf.
“Thomas! Memaw’s dead!” Andy blurted out over sobs into the mouthpiece of the old land line.
A piercing alarm shattered Andy’s sobs, set her ear to ringing, and she realized suddenly it wasn’t Thomas on the other end of the phone.
“This is a message from the Emergency Alert System. This is not a test. Repeat. This is not a test. All citizens are to immediately cease all consumption of poultry and poultry containing products. Repeat. All citizens are to immediately cease all consumption of poultry and poultry containing products. Be advised. Consuming poultry or poultry containing products will result in certain death. A deadly H8V1 virus has infected the Nation’s supply of poultry and poultry related products. Repeat. This is not a test. This is a message from the Emergency Alert System. Repeat.”
Andy listened to the message three more times dumbfoundedly frozen in place before she finally let the phone absently slip from her white knuckled fingers and thud against the linoleum floor. Andy slowly turned back towards the living room to stare at her Memaw’s lifeless body again. Tears began welling up inside her once more and stung her already bloodshot eyes, as the emergency message sank deeper inside her awareness.
“A virus…from fucking chickens?” Andy asked out loud in confused disbelief barely registering the shaky words tumbling like dust over her dry tongue.
Suddenly, a spark of hope ruptured over Andy’s skin and she bolted like a roadrunner towards her grandmother despite herself.
“You didn’t make us any eggs or chicken Memaw!” Andy exclaimed and against all logic she desperately tried again to shake the life back into her grandmother.
“Memaw! Memaw! Wake up! Wake up! We didn’t eat no eggs or chicken!” Andy desperately screamed at her Memaw’s ashen face over and over and over again.
Andy was trembling with exhaustion so violently that she finally had to let go of her Memaw’s lifeless body for the second time and accept the unacceptable. Memaw was gone and she wasn’t coming back. Andy was terrified. Shivering with grief and suddenly wanting to lie down and take a nap more than anything else in the world, Andy desperately tried to understand what was happening.
Fried Chicken Friday at The Lodge.
Andy sat up and dread rushed her head faster than a raging river, as she realized exactly where Memaw had eaten the goddamned poisoned chicken!
“Oh, god!”, Andy screamed, “Thomas!”