Saturday, April 2, 2016

Another Just-for-Fun Fiction
by c.j.
Kinfolk.  Humph.  Gathered around the table, they were like so many sheep in the fold grazing, their jaws moving in that circular way of chomping unless arguing whether to pass the food from left to right or right to left.  Amy's eyes were drawn to her step-aunt's plate on the left.  Why did it grate on her nerves the way the woman meticulously cut her salad, her meat, her green beans into tiny pieces which she then pushed around her plate like a shuffle board before taking one teeny tiny measly bite?  They'd be here till doomsday at that rate.  Across from her sat her sister in a bohemian peasant dress but rigidly separating her food so that none touched.  If it did, she would not eat it.  Drat the doomed pea that rolled into the mashed potatoes.  She could see her sister stiffen.  Her stepdad used his own filthy fork to serve himself, sticking it into first one piece of meat then another, shaking it off before jabbing it into the one he finally chose.  The rude man didn't even try to excuse his belch, which did all kinds of strange things to her appetite.  Then next to her sat her mother who blissfully ate away, unaware that the popping in her jaw set Amy's teeth on edge.  Grannie was happily munching as her dentures danced in her mouth in such a loose way that made Amy look away.  It wouldn't be the first meal with dentures flying across the table.  Her brother chewed with his mouth open just trying to gross her out. 

Suddenly it seemed as if everyone's feasting was like a whole herd of cows chewing their cud,  or an invasion of grasshoppers chomping, and lilliputian that she was, she had to leave.  Her idiosyncrasy was the worst of them all, her inability to handle the sound of people eating.  Nails on a chalk board did not compare to this.  It was called "misophonia," annoyed by sounds like chewing.

"Thanks for the dinner, mom."  She popped up from her place and bent to kiss her mother on the cheek.  It was a poor payment for skipping the forced family time.

"Wait, we haven't had dessert yet.  It's your favorite, pumpkin pie," her mother protested in almost a whine.

I hate pumpkin pie, Amy overruled her in her head.  Her favorite was chocolate or berry, or pecan, anything but pumpkin.  Her mother never could get it straight though pretending she knew each child's likes and dislikes like the back of her freckled hand.

"Bye everyone!" Amy grabbed her coat and purse and was out the door with a huge heave of relief.

"Are you coming back to help with Grannie?"  Was that desperation in her mother's voice?

Ignoring her, Amy snuck out the back door through the kitchen.

By the time she had driven out of her old cookie cutter neighborhood, a relic of the '50's, her stomach was finally calming down in a truce that said she would not throw up if she drove really fast down the country road with her windows down gulping fresh air.  It was more than just the meal.  It was the unnatural pairing of her mother with her stepdad as if they were still all the same old family.  They weren't.  No amount of pretending could make Earle take her father's place. 

Then there was Grannie.  It had become obvious to all that she was not just forgetful but in full blowm dementia, Alzheimer's probably.  It did make for interesting dinner conversation though,  especially when Grannie thought Earle was her dad.  After three times reminding her who he was, she got up huffing and said, "My daughter would never marry an old man like you!"  That got Earle so riled,that her mother had to stand up behind him forcing him to sit back down with both hands on his shoulders.  A quick mid-dinner massage relaxed him enough to stay put.  Grannie then jammered on about her deceased siblings as if they were still all young'uns.

Without realizing where she was going, she headed to her Nana's house, her daddy's mother.  Amy realized that it was pert near the reason for the whole disjointed meal back home: Nana wasn't there.  Earle resented her mother's former mother-in-law being included, as if Nana was a threat to anyone being the best Christian in three counties!  Her mother hated it when Earle called Amy's daddy, her ex-husband.  "He's not my ex.  You didn't marry no divorcee, but a widder woman.  He's my former husband, if you please."  Earle failed to see the distinction.  So, Nana stayed home even though Amy's mother made polite invitations. 

It used to be that all the family gatherings were at Nana and Papa's house.  What a time that was with cousins galore.  Even when Grandpa passed on, Nana still kept the family glued together with a vice clamped on hard. Then the mill shut down, and aunts and uncles and cousins dispersed to the winds.  Only Uncle Ivan still lived nearby, and he was single.  Amy was the only grandkid that made the effort to go see her grandmother very often.  Her brother an sister came over when Amy guilted them into it.  They always loved it once they got there as Nana pulled them in around her table.  The crickets and frogs would be singing before they'd finally tear themselves away to go home with a promise to return, which they soon forgot again.

 Amy's stepfather Earle lived on disability, an accident from years ago at the mill. while her mother worked in the school cafeteria.  They met playing Bingo at the Elks Lodge.  Her mother was lonely.  End of story. 

That was when Amy started seriously considering moving out.  She'd stayed this long to help her mother take care of Grannie who lived with them.  It was heartbreaking the way that Grannie didn't even know her family most of the time anymore. But it was time to face the fact that it was a bigger problem than the family could handle the way she wandered off.  That was the reason Amy'd had to take most of her classes online so she could watch over her grannie. However, she needed some credits she could only get during the daytime on campus.  Change was coming.

When she got there,  Amy found her Nana rocking on the porch.  It scorched Amy to think of her Nana all alone on this Easter holiday.  Sure she went to church where the pervasive smell of lilies could raise them all from the dead.  But here was the supreme cook of the congregation with no kinfolk to gather around her table, unless Uncle Ivan showed up, maybe with his newest girlfriend, maybe not.

"Hi, Nana!  Did you have your Easter dinner yet?  Did Uncle Ivan show up?"

"Hello, sweet girl.  I'm still waiting.  He promised to drop by.  I've got a ham keeping warm with all the fixings."

Amy opened the rear car door and brought out the pecan pie she had made and pilfered from her mother's overflowing array of pies, pumpkin and zucchini breads and carrot cake.  With all the jaw popping and loose dentures, and pure pumpkin lovers,  no one would miss one crunchy nut dessert.  Earle vehemently disdained pecan pie and would dominate the whole dessert eating conversation yaking with his mouth full of pumpkin of one kind or another, to make sure everyone was aware of what a disgrace he thought anything with nuts in it was to be called a dessert.  It was the new holiday ritual.  Oh well.   

No use beating around the bush.  She took a deep breath, "Nana, how would you like to have a house guest?"

"Well, I guess I haven't thought about that.  Who'd you have in mind?"  Nana looked a little worried. 


Nana jumped up and started grinning and clapping saying, "Sweet girl, are we goin' to have us some fun or what!"

"That's what I thought, but I wasn't sure if you'd want to change from the quiet house to having rowdy little ol' me."

"Good heavens, that is music to my ears," she sighed.  "It gets plumb tiresome here by my lonesome sometimes, I'll have to admit, though I've never said it to another soul before."

"I'm feeling a little cramped back home at Mama's, so I'd hoped you wouldn't mind some moving in kind of company."

"I reckon yer ma has got her hands full just adjusting to her man without all the rest of you having to pussy foot around him too.  You know I always hoped she'd re-marry up, but it looks like she married down to me.  But that's all I'm going to say about it.  As lonely as it gets around here, I'd never take on another man to remedy the situation.  Now you are a whole different situation.  I'd be tickled pink if I could see you happily fall in love with just the right man.  Why, I'd have a front row seat right here in my living room.   I'll promise you this here and now, I'll do my best to  keep my mouth shut and my nose out of it though, mind you, unless you got ahold of a skunk, that is."

Her Nana had turned into the old grandmother she remembered, suddenly so full of life she couldn't sit still. 

"Come on, Ames, let's pick you out a room up here."

"Oh, Nana, you know which one I've always loved best."

"Sure do, Sugar Pie.  The end room with the spreading walnut tree right outside your window.  Oh, the noisy sleepovers you and your little cousins used to have in there!"

"I don't know how you put up with it sometimes, Nana.  We were so loud staying up until the wee hours."

"Oh, happy memories I'm treasuring now.  I guess I'll have to wait for some great-grands to start that all over again."

Before they could go up the stairs an old truck came rumbling up the drive.  Uncle Ivan's girl friend wasn't with him, but neither was he by himself.  Nana's dog was barking a happy greeting.

"Did Uncle Ivan mention he was bringing company, Nana?" Amy was peeking out the front window.

"He just knows anyone is welcome.  Come to think of it, he did say his new friend didn't have any family around.  Maybe it's him.  Let's see, his name is John or Wayne, Matt, or Dillon, or Roy or Roger, Shane, or--oh, I know!  It's Zane.  I knew it was one cowboy or another."  With that, she threw open her door and welcomed her men in with a welcoming hug.

"Glad you could join us, Zane.  It's good to see you again."  Her grandma now stood behind her guest and nodded her head towards him and winked." 

"Hey, Uncle Ivan."  It was all Amy could spit out since her expectation of meeting one of her uncle's bowling buddies just threw a gutter ball in her stomach. But when his friend walked in, it was as if a strike had pins flying in her chest.  By-Golly-Polly-put-the-kettle-on, he was young enough to be her uncle's son, not much older than she was in fact, tall and good looking to boot.

Her uncle was shy, but he managed to mumble, "Zane, this is my niece.  One of my sister-in-law's kids."

If she ever wondered, this proved it.  Her uncle never had learned her name.

"Nice to meet you Niece," and the man winked.

"Hi, nice to meet you too."  She didn't know whether to shake on it or just nod her head. 

"Smells good, Ma, as always."  Uncle Ivan sniffed like a hound dog.

He followed his nose into where the table was set, somehow with just the right number of place settings.  Amy hurried to help her grandmother bring in all the hot things out of the oven and all the cold things out of the refrigerator.  The butter and salt and pepper were already on the table.

"Ivan, would you like to say grace or should I?"

"Go on ahead, Ma," he mumbled.

Amy knew it was a ploy on her Nana's part to remind her son that he was too rusty to say a simple prayer.  But Amy didn't want to know what they would do without her Nana's sweet prayers covering them all.  The one her grandmother said in gratitude for all the food she'd worked so hard to prepare, was just an example.  To Amy, it was better than being in church, even on Easter.

"Ivan, I have an exciting announcement for you." Her grandmother burst out taking her son by surprise.  "Your niece is moving in!"

"Way-all,' good fer her.  I don't know how anybody could stand to be under the same roof as that stinker Earle, anyway.  My sister-in-law should have had her head examined.  If I'd known she had such poor taste, I would have snatched her up myself."

Amy snickered.

"Now, Ivan," her Nana tisked though in total agreement with his assessment.

Amy just kept quiet while eating but felt smug knowing she wasn't the only one her step-father drove crazy.  After that, even Uncle Ivan's smacking while chewing wasn't so bad as long as she didn't look at him.  But that meant, her eyes kept colliding with their guest's.  At least he was a man who knew how to dig in and appreciate her grandmother's cooking all the while using proper manners."  His jaw didn't even pop.

"So tell me, Zane, what is it you do exactly," her grandmother asked.

He was gentleman enough to swallow his food, take a drink of water, wiping his mouth off with his napkin before answering.  "I'm a firearms instructor in the police academy at the college, ma'am."

"Oh, really?  That sounds like a fun job!" Her grandmother responded.

"Well, you never know with the subject of guns how people will feel.  You either love 'em like they're your best gal, or hate 'em like you wish you could never see or hear of 'em again, if you know what I mean.  You're the first person I've ever heard call it a fun job though, which it is, ma'am."

Her grandmother laughed merrily.  It was all Amy could do to stifle her own snort of amusement.   Good grief, she'd start her own round of kinfolk gaffs if she wasn't careful.

"That's where my Amy goes to school.  Isn't that a coincidence," and she raised her eyebrows conspiratorially.

"The Early Childhood Development Department is clear on the other side of the campus," Amy looked down at her green bean casserole as if it could jump into the conversation at any time. 

"So, that's your major?  That's admirable."

"It's just a two year program, but an open field for a job market.  The economy might be down, but people keep having kids, nevertheless," Amy responded glancing up at his smiling eyes.

"I took my firearms test for my job as a security guard from Zane.  That's how we met.  Then I found out we were both veterans," her uncle said while filling his cheeks with sweet potatoes looking so much like a squirrel, it almost made her choke on a laugh.

But that was a lot for her uncle to say at one time.  When he'd been laid off at the mill, he'd been one of the lucky ones to land a local job.  But he as a loner.  Years ago, he'd gotten married right before he left for Viet Nam.  When he came back, it seemed his wife had left him for another.  Nana always said, he'd never recovered.  He just went through a slew of girlfriends, but never got too serious with any of them for long.

"So, tell me, Ivan.  Whatever happened to Priscilla?"  Nana asked.  "I expected you to bring her today."

"She's dirt under the bridge, water under the rug. You know how it goes."  But he grinned, "I'm surprised you remembered her name, Ma.  You must have taken a shine to her..  And Zane's name here, you jest rolled it off your tongue like you remembered it right off."

Amy stuffed a snicker into her napkin.  Her grandmother was notorious for messing up people's names.  The one job she could never be trusted with at church was a greeter.  She'd called a Mr. Heinz, Mr. Hiney and a Mrs. Rains, Mrs. Runns.  Hearing her try to remember Uncle Ivan's girlfriend's names was always a hoot.

"So, what's my name, Uncle Ivan?"  Amy looked up sweetly but with a glint in her eye.

"Can you pass those mashed potatoes down here and the gravy.  Them's awful good."

"Don't think you can change the subject now, Ivie."  Grandmother caught on to the game.  She knew he hated to be called by that nickname.

 Zane said.  "You know you never did tell me her name when I came in.  I don't know how you could forget the name of your pretty little niece like that.  You remembered all the parts of your pistol and aced your test, Ivie."

Zane smiled while her Uncle Ivan scowled.  "Now look what you started, Ma."

Zane said, "I promise not to ever call you that nick name again, if you can remember your niece's name before dessert.  It'd be nice to learn her name some time tonight."

Her uncle looked up at her with soulful eyes.  "I plumb forget what name my sister-in-law picked.  I remember she wanted to call you Ellie Mae, but your daddy said no, thank the Lord.  Let's see.  She wanted to call you Mary Beth Ellen to get all the aunts' names included in one fell swoop in case she didn't have another girl, but again, your daddy said no.  But for the life of me, I cain't remember what name she did stick on you."

"That's been over twenty years ago, Uncle Ivan.  You must have gotten the I-can't-remember-names gene from Nana,"  Amy smiled.  "Don't let it ruin your dinner.  My name will just wake you up out of a dead sleep when it pops in your head in the middle of the night, sometime."

"Gol dang it, It's on the tip of my tongue."

"None of that cheap swearing in my house, mister.  I still got the razor strap hanging where it always has."

Zane smothered his laugh.  "Now that's something I'd like to see."

"Don't think she can't, I'm telling you," Uncle Ivan said almost proudly.  "She's had lots of practice," haven't you, Ma."

"Mostly on you, if I remember rightly," Grandma said with a twinkle in her eye as she passed all the dishes one more time around the table, left to right.

"You know this is my second big dinner today, Nana."

"And you ate like a bird both times I'm sure.  It's like I had to sprinkle bread crumbs from there to here to get you full."

"You don't look quite as scrawny as you used to, gal , that's fer certain.  Jeepers, I almost got it.  Your name jest flitted in and out of my head." Her uncle snapped his fingers.

"Keep trying, Uncle Ivan.  I got faith in you," Amy teased.

"I for one am anxious to find out her name, that's for sure, and am not likely to forget it very soon either," Zane said with a wink in her direction.

"I think you jest flirted with my niece, Zane.  Best be careful.  I got a concealed weapons permit now," her uncle growled with a grin.

"If only you could remember her name, Ivie," Zane teased unmercifully.

"I'm in a pickle now.  He closed his eyes and pinched his nose.  Just a minute, it's coming to me.  He'd raise his finger up in the air.  Nah, that ain't it either.  Sorry, Sweet Pea, I'm still working on it."

The real reason he couldn't remember her name was because for as long as she could remember, he'd called her Sweet Pea.  "Don't worry about it.  I'll always answer you when you call me that, Uncle Ivan."  Amy reached over and patted his hand where he had his napkin in a twist.

"So I'll just be calling you Sweet Pea?" Zane said with a twinkle in his eye while Amy blushed.

"You can bet, one reason you've had such a time of it remembering names is because you've drug in a different girl friend each week with another name to remember for so long I can't count," Nana said.

"That's probably true, Ma.  I know one time I tried to whisper sweet nothings in my gal's ear and called her Darlene.  That was another gal's name from the past, so I had to twist my tongue every which way to turn it into Darling so she'd never know."

"Did it work?" Amy wanted to know.

"Nah.  Turns out Darlene was her best friend, and she picked up on it right away.  But I still can't recall her name."

Zane asked seriously, "Tell me, Ivan, why all the girl friends.  I'll bet you've had every girl in the county within ten years of your age sweet on you.  Don't you think there's someone out there who's just right?"

Uncle Ivan turned red and coughed, "I doubt it.  I thought that once.  Didn't work out so well," he mumbled.

Amy was shocked.  She'd never ever heard him mention his former marriage.

"I think as long as he's running from God, the right gal can't catch  up with him.  If he'd turn back to Him, things might just fall into place,"  Nana said matter of factly.

"I think I'll agree with your mother on that, Ivan.  She's got a lot of wisdom it sounds like," Zane said.

"Well, this here day is Easter, and we've got a lot to be thankful for, most of all for our Savior who took our sins on the cross so we don't have to bear them alone."  Nana said while boring her eyes into her son. 

"Are you going hide Easter eggs for us out on the lawn like you used to do, Ma?"

That got them all laughing at the mental image of Uncle Ivan with an Easter basket in his hand hunting eggs. 

"Speaking of girlfriends, did you see how pretty Ida Pearl looked today, Amy?"

Uncle Ivan slapped his knee, "Now you done it.  I'll get my dessert and not be called that stupid ol' nick name any more, right Amy?" and he pointed to Zane who put his hands up in good natured surrender.

"Okay, I promise not to call you, Ivie, and it's nice to meet you, Amy."

She smiled, but catching her grandmother's drift, she carried on, "I don't know when Ida Pearl looked prettier."

"Did you see how Arnold was flirting with her in church?  It was practically sinful,"  Grandma went on with sly looks at her son who once had a crush on the woman back in high school.''

"Now that you mention it, I did notice Arnold hanging around her buzzing like a slow summer fly."

"Sounds like you're missing it by not going to church, Ivan," Zane grinned.

"What happened to her man?" Ivan wanted to know.

"Didn't you hear?  He was killed in that terrible drunk driving accident over in Hopsville."

"Was he the drunk?" Ivan asked.

"No, he didn't have any alcohol in his system, praise the Lord.  I guess he was just heading to the bar, and the other car was leaving.  It was so sudden for poor little Ida Pearl to deal with, but it's been nine months and she's not wearing black any more."

"You don't say,"  Uncle Ivan almost sounded interested. "I'll bet she does look purty in one of those Easter egg colors."  Then he added almost wistfully, "She always was a sweet gal and easy on the eyes.  Her husband wasn't near good enough for her.  He put her through a lot."

Amy was glad her uncle went to a rehab when he got back from the war and stayed clean and sober since then.  Unfortunately, all the meetings he went to seemed to take the place of church.  That must be where he met all his girlfriends since he didn't hang out at the bars any more.  He was kinda good looking for his age, she supposed.  It made her glance over at his friend.  Zane was paying close attention to what her grandmother was saying.  She liked that.  Amy selfishly hoped that Zane wasn't part of the crowd that her uncle was.  There had to be a life after meetings.

"Have you found a church yet, Zane?"  Her grandmother was asking, of course.

"I've tried a couple of them.  Today I went to the big community church in town this morning.  It was kinda showy.  Where do you go?"  He asked looking at Amy.

Grandma got meekly quiet all of a sudden waiting for Amy to answer.

"It's the Harvest Church just down the road.  It's where our family has gone my whole life. I can't say that I've tried many others, but we like it because of the preaching especially," Amy said.

"Is Ray still leading music while playing the accordion with his wife on the organ?" Ivan asked.

"Lands sakes, Ivan!  Has it been that long since you've come to church, son?  That was nearly twenty years ago?"  Grandma exclaimed.

Ivan rubbed his chin. "I think I came when some of the kids got baptized or dedicated or something, but I might have slipped in late after the music.  I'm just not that fond of accordions."

"Now, we have a keyboard player, guitars, and drums sometimes.  It's a mixture of hymns and some of those newer songs.  If young people are happy in church, I'm happy," Grandma said.  "Sometimes Amy is on the worship team singing harmony.  You really should come sometime."

"Why don't you take me next Sunday, Ivan.  Then I can sit with your family, maybe."

Ivan got a sly smile.  "I see how it is.  I'll think on it."

Grandma jumped on it.  Then you can both come for Sunday dinner afterwards.  It was settled in her mind.  Amy hoped that her uncle and Zane wouldn't disappoint her. 

Just then there was pounding on the door, and Nana's dog was in a frenzy of a barking warning.  Amy groaned when she looked out and saw an old car with more dents than a run over garbage can.  "It's Chris."  Her grandmother rolled her eyes.

"How on earth did he find me here?"

Her grandmother answered the door.

"Hello, Miz McKinley.  Is Amy here?"

"Yes, Chris, she is.  We're about to have some dessert.  Would you like some pie?  You're almost as skinny as a bean pole."

"Yes ma'am.  Thank you."

Goodness, Amy thought.  He was sure pouring on the good manners.  Normally he was more Neanderthalish.

When she went into the kitchen to help serve the pie, her grandmother was waving her hand in front of her face whispering, "Pewy!  Do you smell a skunk?"

Amy sniffed the air before she caught on.  "Grandma!  I've only gone on one sympathy date with Chris.  Since then, I've just tried to get rid of him, but he's not taking the hint," Amy whispered back.

"When you got a rabid skunk, sometimes you've got to call in animal control.  We'll see what we can do." Her grandma winked.  "I do wonder if that boy is sick the way his clothes hang on him though, and he acts kinda nervous all the time, shifty-eyed."

"He sure has lost weight and doesn't look or seem like the pudgy, slow kid I grew up with, that's for sure," Amy admitted.

Her uncle was introducing Zane to Chris.  Neither one looked too happy.

They both seemed intent on staying till the last dog died.  Amy was a little ansy to go get a load of her things to begin to move into her Nana's house.  Uncle Ivan was just enjoying their competing interest in Amy.

A Spring storm blew in with dark foreboding clouds.  "Looks like we're going to have a thunder storm,"  Ivan said looking out the window.

"Yeah, it was starting to be pretty windy on the way here.  It was blowing birds into my windshield right and left." Chris was busy stuffing his mouth with more pie."

Amy grimaced at his usual outlandish exaggerations.

Zane joined Ivan looking out the front window.   When Amy came and stood between them to watch the dark sky, her uncle decided it was time to show Chris his pistol back at the table.  She jumped every time the sky boomed. Zane put a hand on her shoulder. As it was getting closer, she counted aloud the seconds between the lightning and the thunder.

"Are you frightened?" He wasn't mocking but she heard compassion in his voice.

"It isn't that I am really afraid, but it does make me jumpy like a little kid who likes scary stories but hides under the covers." 

Suddenly, the lights flicked and went out.  "There she goes,"  Uncle Ivan said.  "Don't even try to touch that gun on the table, Chris.  I don't want it to go off accidently in the dark." Then he called to his mother in the kitchen,  "Mom, don't try to get around in the dark.  Just stay put.  You might fall.  I'll come find some candles."

"You don't know where they are...Ouch."  She hollered.

"I said don't move, Mother.  I'm coming."

The storm was upon them.  Amy was torn watching the lighting and wanting to hide her face.  He put both his hands on her shoulders now standing behind her while the storm was in full swing.  It was pitch black.  You couldn't see your hand in front of your face without the lightning flashes.  Amy's heart did a dance with the storm when the thunder boomed and the lightning flashed, jumping and thumping at the rumbles and bolts cracking like an electric whip. They could hear her uncle muttering to Chris and Nana in the kitchen opening and shutting drawers and cupboards in a search for candles and flashlights.

Being next to Zane just felt safe.  Amy had just enough fear of the dark to want to hide there.  One of his hands had moved from her shoulder to her neck and caught in her hair with his thumb rubbing circles. His breath was warm and sweet from pie and coffee on her neck.  Just then there was a commotion in the kitchen with a chair crashing over.  As she jumped and turned around she was smack dab up against Zane's chest.  She looked up as he looked down and in the flash of lightning, and she thought for a second he was going to kiss her.  A sudden blaze of light found them that wasn't lightning.  It was one of Nana's giant flashlights, big enough to probably be against the law if you went deer hunting with it.  Amy fell back, but not before Uncle Ivan began laughing while Chris glowered.

"I declare, it don't take some fellas any time at all," he hooted.

It sounded like Chris stumbled over every single dining room chair in his huff to get out of there. 

"I guess I should thank you," after the door slammed.  "I've been trying to let Chris down a little too easily, and it wasn't working," she giggled nervously. He still had his hand on her shoulder since Uncle Ivan left them in the dark taking his flashlight back into the kitchen.  They could hear his chuckling as he told her grandmother, who shouted, "What!"

"I hope you didn't mind," he asked nervously, rubbing his neck.  "You seem to have a bit of trepidation with the storm."

"I do tend to chicken out, but I'm determined to get over it," she blushed stepping out of his hold.  A clap of thunder sounded like it was at the front porch, and Amy dove back against his chest.

"Well, I don't mind if you don't, Amy," he smiled putting his hands a little lower on her arms making her tingle like a sliver of lightning got loose.  Just a sliver of  light was gleaming out of the kitchen.

"Is it safe to come back in there yet?" Uncle Ivan shouted.

They stepped away from each other as her uncle and grandmother walked in.

Uncle Ivan came up to stand with them. "Amy had a time of it when she was little and got accidently locked in the little back barn when a big thunder storm passed through.  What were you doing out there anyway, Sweet Pea?" he asked.

"We were playing hide and go seek with all the cousins and I got shut in there somehow," she answered.  "It's not that I'm really afraid, just jumpy."  An unpleasant kind of  shiver ran through her this time as she hugged herself without Zane to hold her.

"That's right.  Afterwards, it took awhile to figure out you were missing after all the other kids ran in the house like a herd of wet cats when the storm broke," he continued.

Her grandmother came close with a candle in her hand.  "Finally when the thunder moved on, somebody heard you hollering and let you out," her grandmother reminisced.  "It gave us all a scare for awhile until we found you, but it gave you a worse scare being out there in the storm by yourself."

"I always wondered if my brother Merle actually locked me in, but was afraid to tell anybody when they all got upset realizing I was missing."

"I think the storm is moving on," Uncle Ivan observed.  "Hopefully, they'll fix the electricity soon."

Grandma was busy lighting candles on the dining table.   "I don't mind a little romantic candlelight once in awhile.  Once you get that fire going in the fireplace, Ivan, we'll all be cozy." 

"So, Zane, tell me about that gal you got back home," Uncle Ivan stared him down.  Amy stiffened.

He answered, "She decided it was too difficult to maintain a long distance relationship, so she broke up with me a few weeks ago.  That's one reason I decided to stick around here rather than go home during the college's Spring Break.  So it was nice to be invited to join you all here," he said while looking only at Amy's troubled face graced by the candlelight. 

"That makes sense then.  I didn't take you for a two-timer."  Uncle Ivan was satisfied while Amy couldn't feel any more embarrassed. 

"We can take that big flashlight into the kitchen to do the dishes, Nana," Amy offered.

"Nah, this is too nice sitting in here all toasty listening to the fire cackling."

Just then Amy's phone rang.   She held it up to the light of the fire to see who was calling.  It was her mother.  She was tempted to not answer, but sighed and took the call.

"Yes, we're out over here too."

"I know Earle has a hard time handling Grannie.  No, I don't think I'll be there any time soon.  Well, you should have kept my sister there to help you without letting her sneak off."  Amy took a deep breath, then went ahead and said what needed to be said.  "I've been thinking and praying about this, but I think  it might be a good time while you are off work for Spring Break to find a home for Grannie.  She'd be safer there.  She's gotten too much for you, and I can't be there all the time any more.  In fact, I decided that I'm moving to Nana's."

Everyone could hear the shrill protest.

"I'm sorry mom.  I just can't do it any more.  She's up more during the night than during the day, and I'm just plain exhausted.  I know you are too, but I'm the one up with her since you have to have your sleep to go to work.  The way she keeps wandering off is down right dangerous.  I shudder every time I think about that time she went down to our new neighbors, walked in their house in the middle of the night, and they found her there rocking their baby.  I don't blame them for being upset.  I know you tried to explain it to them, but it was too scary.  What if she had taken a notion to take that baby somewhere?  Besides," and she dropped her voice to a whisper while walking back into the kitchen, "you know as well as I do that she might just take her clothes off, like as not.  It's just a matter of time before she does it while Earle's home, and then it would be fireworks for sure. It's not her fault.  It's her disease.  You shouldn't feel guilty about seeking good care for her.  I know you can't afford to quit your job yet.  I was going to start moving my things here tonight, but the electricity went out.  I promise I'll help you tomorrow while you go look into putting her in a home.  But then, I'm moving out.  I'm sorry mom.  I know.  I love you too."  Amy leaned against the kitchen cupboards with tears trickling down her cheeks. 

"Honey, are you okay?"  It was her Nana.

"That was the hardest conversation I've ever had.  It's up there with the time I broke my engagement with George."  Amy knew a big reason she'd broken off with her fiancé was their fights over her taking care of her grannie all the time.   "Mom is beside herself.  Earle doesn't make it any easier.  I feel guilty, but I just can't keep doing it any more, Nana."  Amy was finding herself another shoulder, but this time it was the soft arms of her grandmother holding her while she sobbed.  Her Nana cried a little bit too.

Uncle Ivan stood in the doorway to the kitchen.  "Life's hard sometimes, Sweet Pea, but you're doing the right thing.  It's not your responsibility, you know.  Your mama has leaned hard on you to help her for a long time, ever since your daddy died in fact.  Before that, it was you taking care of your little brother and sister.  It's time for you to be an unfettered young woman."

"Listen to your uncle, Amy.  He's right, you know.  You know that your grannie was one of my best friends, but part of her has already moved on in the peculiar way God has for some of us to step slowly from this world to the next.  It sure is hard to watch, a long goodbye, but I can promise you that your grannie would never want to put her family, you or your mama, through this.  Neither of you should feel guilty about it.  From what I've seen when I've visit dear ones in the rest home is that it allows you to enjoy being with them when you visit rather than have the whole responsibility of their care upon your shoulders dragging you down. Visits can be happy times rather than the stress of 24/7 care."

"I guess, but I really am running away from home," she snuffled.

"It's about time, darling," her uncle drawled.

"Thank you, both of you."

Let's go sit by the fire and finish this day counting our blessings," her grandmother dropped her voice to a whisper, "and one of them is still sitting out there."

"Oh, Nana." Amy gave her a fragile smile.

Zane stood up when they came back in to the fireside.  "Are you going to be okay?  Family issues can be difficult.  I've gone through a couple of those myself.  Is there anything I can do?"

"You can just pray for us," Amy sighed. 

"Why don't you let us help you move your things here to your grandma's tomorrow.  It won't be easy to make the break, but with backup, it might be easier,"  Zane offered.

"You'd do that?"  Amy was astounded.  "That way it won't be so much like a funeral when I walk out the door tomorrow.  Maybe my mama won't bawl her eyes out if you're there." 

"Just give us a call, Sweet Pea, and we'll be there," her Uncle Ivan agreed.  "I'm not on duty until tomorrow night."

Amy dreaded going home,  Her precious grannie would probably be wound up from all the company today and would keep her up most of the night.  She knew her mother was walking a tightrope with Earle.  Amy knew in hindsight that her breakup with George had been for the best, but she didn't want her mother to have to choose between taking care of her grannie and making her marriage work.

Zane told stories from growing up with his brothers, about his family, and his time in Afghanistan.

"Do you have PTSD problems?" her grandmother asked.

"Nana, I don't think that's something you should be asking," Amy gasped.

"It's alright, Amy.  I had some difficulty adjusting when I first came back, but am not bothered as much any more.  My nightmares have simmered down.  Sometimes I find I'm on hyper alert still.  But I guess, you never get over some things, right Ivan?"  Zane was frankly open.  "Sometimes the hardest thing to deal with is feeling guilty that you came back whole when others were injured or never made it back at all.  Some of those were my close friends."

"That's why we need our military brothers.  We're never the same as the kid who first put on the uniform when we come back," Uncle Ivan said.

"Thank you for serving your country, Zane," Amy said softly looking into his beautiful eyes. 

"Sitting here by this fire with a full stomach is about as nice as it gets," but I need to mosey on home after I help you with those dishes.

Just then the lights came on.  Then flicked back off.  "I guess it's dishes by candlelight," Uncle Ivan laughed.  They took the party into the kitchen and laughed together while many hands made light work.

Zane walked Amy to her car using the huge flashlight.  When he opened her door, he turned off the glaring brightness.  "I really enjoyed getting to be with you, Amy.  I hope to see you again besides helping you move to your grandmother's."

"I hope so," Amy smiled whether he could see it or not.

Those words kept her happy while she made her way home and was up a good part of the  night with Grannie.

The next day her mother was able to find the best placement for Grannie with the help of social services.  They found a place, not too far away, with a special wing for Alzheimer's patients. Amazingly there was a bed open just that very day.  Just about the time it was to take Grannie to her new home, she disappeared while Amy and her mother were still packing up Grannie's things.  That fear that jabbed her stomach was all too familiar.  "She's gone again, Mama!"

They both ran down the stairs frantic only to find her sitting on the curb, dressed in her Sunday-go-to-meeting dress, gloves, hat and her Baby Jane shoes.  Her purse was clutched in her lap.

"What are you doing out here, Grannie?" Amy managed to ask while catching her breath.

"I'm waiting for my boyfriend.  He's coming to pick me up."  The smile Grannie bestowed on her had a glimmer of the girlish good looks she'd once had.  It was just like the photo of her as young woman, only with the addition of a lot of wrinkles, a whole lot of them.

"Why don't we move to the front porch where there's shade, okay?"  She helped her grandmother up and walked her back to the house."

"Mom, I'm going to sit here with Grannie while you finish what you were packing, alright."

"That'd be for the best," her mother sighed.  "As hard a this is, I can truly see you were right.  It's next to impossible to keep your eye on her at all times, worse than when a toddler learns to run.  And if she gets a wild hair to spurt out the door in the middle of the night, it could be so dangerous."

Just then Ivan and Zane arrived. They just showed up without her calling them.  That was nice. Ivan greeted Amy's mother and gave her grannie a hug saying, "Hello sweet Violet. "

 Amy introduced Zane. Grannie was taken up by him and asked, "Are you my date?"

Amy held her breath with wide eyes, but he graciously took  her hand and kissed it.  "Yes, Miss Violet.  It looks like you and me are about to go for a drive."

Grannie only looked sweetly bashful.

"Goodness, that would be a huge help if you wouldn't mind coming with us to take her to her new care home.   I'm almost finished packing."  Her mother whirled back in a flurry to get it done. 

The two men sat on the steps while Grannie sat primly on a chair taking shy glances at Zane.  It was almost enough to make Amy jealous.  Her estimation of these two men rose tremendously.

"My things are already packed, so if you don't mind keeping her company, I'll go get them.  We thought we'd lost her again a few minutes ago right before you got here."

"We'll put your things in the back of my Jeep, Amy.  After we get Violet settled, then we can take your things over to your Nana's."  He lowered his voice, "It might be easier on your mom than dragging out your goodbyes.  This has got to be a tough day on her."

Amy could only nod, and went in to where her suitcases were ready.

"I don't mind riding along, that way I can know where to take my mom when she wants to come visit Violet," Ivan said.

"I bet you're missing out on your beauty sleep since you worked all night, Uncle Ivan,"  Her mom said gratefully remembering his schedule working security.  Secretly, Amy wished her mother had married her father's brother, Uncle Ivan, instead of  Earle.  But Ivan wasn't a baptized believer, so her mother wouldn't go out with him the one time he'd asked.  It must have been hard for the man to get up the gumption to even do that.

"My beauty sleep?  If I got more beautiful, you couldn't stand it," he winked.  Yes, he winked at her mother and she blushed.

In the car he fell asleep as soon as her mother's car engine started humming its lullaby.  Amy sat in the back between Ivan and Zane while Grannie sat up front.  Zane reached over and took her hand.  "It's a big day all around today, isn't it," he said softly.

Amy allowed her arm to be more entwined with his as she leaned into him.  "Just because it's the right choice, doesn't mean it's not hard.  But we all know it's time, time for me as well as Grannie."

He looked off out the window and said, "Yeah, right choices can be really hard sometimes."

She had been up all night with a restless grandmother, and fell asleep against his shoulder.  She woke as soon as her mother pulled in and stopped.  Amy looked up embarrassed into Zane's grinning face. "Did I drool on you?"  She wiped his shoulder down just in case.

"I didn't mind it a bit." 

Things went more smoothly than they could have imagined.  The staff took Grannie to the cafeteria while the family set up things in her room including putting the wedding picture of her and Grandaddy up for all to see.  They left her favorite quilt across the foot of her bed.  Her mother started crying, but Ivan walked her out to the car.  Amy walked in to say goodbye, but Grannie was so busy visiting with the others that it was like she was a bird who'd flown out of her cage.  It didn't matter if they were listening or could understand what she was saying, it was still a social life she'd probably been yearning for.  Amy kissed her on her cheek and walked out with Zane.

"I can't believe how well that went," she sighed.

"Prayer helped. I'm sure your Nana has been praying up a storm along with the rest of you," Zane offered.

"You know, I think you are right.  It was if God had prepared Grannie's heart."

Ivan was behind the wheel as her mother was too puffy eyed to drive using up half a box of Kleenex already.  Amy still sat in the middle in the back seat next to Zane so she could hold his firm hand some more.  It had leant her the strength she'd needed and still wanted.

Somehow, Ivan and Zane got to singing funny old country western songs.  Amy joined in with the harmony and they'd end up laughing before they went on to the next.  It was sure nice to see her mother happy and being silly with them.  It had been a long, long time.

They dropped her mama off then headed over to Nana's with Amy's things.  When they got there, Nana was taking her laundry off the line, but she stopped and helped Uncle Ivan take Amy's things in, but Zane stopped her with his hand on her arm.

"Amy, I was up most of the night thinking about you, and I've struggled about what to do.  I have taken a serious liking to you.  There was more than thunder and lightning going on the other night, but I can't lead you on.  I'm only here for a short time before I move on.  Because of that, I think it's best if I don't see you any more."  He squeezed her arm and then took a couple of suitcases into the house.

She numbly carried in the last box in and went up the stairs feeling like a fool for sitting close and holding his hand.  He brushed past her without looking at her as he left her room where he had carried her luggage.  She stayed sitting on her bed as she heard the the Jeep leave with a painful caved in feeling in her chest.  Finally she sighed and told herself, "Well, that was the shortest not-a-romance as a girl could have."  So, why did she feel so aggrieved?

Her Nana's footsteps coming up her way made her stir with forced business unpacking. 

"Just sit here while I put my things away, Nana."

"Tell me how it went with your grannie, Amy.  How's your mother taking it?  It seems to have made you a little sad."

Amy felt tears burning in her eyes and turned her back to hide them.  Her Nana didn't need to know that they weren't over her grannie's move, but the permanent absence of a certain young man.  So Amy told Nana all about the smooth move for Grannie to the Alzheimer' unit. 

"It was an answer to prayer, see Nana?" Amy tried to be upbeat. 

"God had prepared her and made a way," Nana smiled.  "God is good.  You know he can still do that for you and a certain young man too, missy.  Ivan told me what was up."

"No, it was no use getting my hopes up, Nana.  He told me he's moving on.  In other words, he's just not that interested in me."

"P'shaw, he's not.  I saw the way he looked at you Sunday, and the hang dog look on his face as he left here today."  That's not the last you'll see of him, I can guarantee."  Her Nana looked too smug.

Amy would hate to disappoint her, but not nearly as disappointed as she felt herself.  She was running on empty and all caved in.  As soon as her Nana would leave, she'd have a good lonesome cry.  And she did.

When she woke up, Nana had a nice supper of left over ham in a potato and cheese chowder, her favorite.  It was perfect for the end of the dreary day and the return of the rain.  At least her stomach had comfort food even if her heart was gloomy.  Afterward the dishes were done, she built a fire and sat and stared into it with eyes glazed over.  Her Nana left her to her ponderings uninterrupted.

Amy went the next day to sign up and got the classes she needed at the college for the next quarter.  Just her luck, she saw Mr. I'm-out-of-here walking out to the parking lot.  She ducked into her car hoping he didn't see her and watched him drive away before she turned the key in her little Civic.  Goodness, how did that man she'd hardly met have such a grip on her?  No, she was not going to cry, no she wasn't, stop it!  But a few tears didn't listen.

When Sunday came around, Amy was shocked silly when Uncle Ivan walked in and stepped over her to sit by Nana.  That left Zane to sit by her.  She pretended he wasn't there, that his heat through his shirt couldn't be felt when his arm brushed hers, that the whiff of his Old Spice shaving cream was not infiltrating her senses, that his knee was only accidently bumping her leg sending shivers and trembles.  Why had she come to church when she couldn't pay the least bit of attention?  His deep voice blended with her harmony too nicely.  This was torture, pure and simple.  Her prayer today was, "This isn't funny, God." 

She could even hear Uncle Ivan's on her other side belting out the hymns he did remember from childhood, then sitting silently during the new choruses.  Nana was pale except for telltale rosy spots on her cheek.  Amy knew her Nan's lip was trembling with rejoicing having her lost sheep sitting beside her in church.  At least somebody was joyful.

Afterwards, she slipped out waiting in the back while her Nana made a lot of introductions for Zane as other old timers crowded around Uncle Ivan slapping him on the back and such.  The single young women of the church surrounded Zane like vultures while Ada Pearl stole a few surreptitious glances at Uncle Ivan before she walked away down the aisle.  Uncle Ivan parted the waters and caught up with her in time to escort her to her car.  Amy wanted to grind her teeth at Zane's new fans while at the same time be filled with overflowing happiness for the joy she knew her Nana was feeling.  She even got a tug of wistful hope for Uncle Ivan and Ada Pearl.  She was one mixed up mess of emotions.  Amy went to her car alone and waited for her Nana.

How dare he still come to Sunday dinner!  She didn't care even if her Nana had invited him.  He'd made it perfectly clear that he did not want to see Amy anymore.  Well, this was one fine way to show it, Mr. I'm-not-stuck-on-you.  Amy did not enter any conversation at the table unless forced to out of politeness.  She'd rather look at Uncle Ivan chewing than watch Zane neatly wipe his mouth before speaking.  She parted her food into separate neat piles making sure nothing touched, then cut the roast and green beans into smitherines, shuffling them around before taking teeny tiny bites.  Her jaw didn't pop, but her heart pounded.  This was pure torture. 

"Can you make a fire for us, Ivan," her Nana asked.  "I know it's supposed to be Spring, but the weather hasn't caught on yet."

"I will get some more wood," Zane offered.

"You'll need to split a log or two," Ivan told him.

After he went outside, Nana said with forced casualness, "Amy, I left my Bible out in your car.  Would you mind getting it for me?  I wanted to show Ivan something in the bulletin about those new recovery groups the church is starting."

Amy did what her Nana asked, but walked stiffly by the good looking man with an ax chopping wood without a glance.  Just before she went back up the porch steps, a hand grasped her arm.  She looked startled up into Zane's face which was as grim as the reaper's.  She jerked out of his hand.

"Amy this isn't working.  I can't do this.  I was wrong.  I want to see you.  Can you forget what I said the other day?"  Zane was begging with his eyes, his beautiful intense dark eyes.

"I thought you were out of here, that you were leaving.  That hasn't changed, has it?"

"No.  But I have to have hope that something could be worked out."  He was holding both her arms now which sent more shivers than a goose's goosies on its gooseflesh.  "I've never met someone as beautiful and kind as you, the way you care for your family and all.  You are something pretty special, I'm thinking, not common a'tall, but precious."

"I thought you just found out that your last girlfriend's long distance romance didn't work out."

"That was just her excuse.  We both knew it would never work between us and was over a long time before that.  But I've never felt it so hard to wish something away as the way I feel about you, Amy.  I've tried and I just can't do it.  Tell me you feel something too, something you want to hold on to."  His arms had slipped around her waist making her trapped against his chest.

"I'm not good at figuring out things in the future, so all I know is what is right in front of me, and right now that's you."  She was so close that she had to lift her head back to look up at him.  He put his hands in her hair at the back of her neck and bent down, their lips met.  That distance was crossed right smartly and tingly too with sparks a-flying. 

It took awhile for the firewood to be brought in, but the fire was already smoldering.  Amy forgot all about bringing her Nana's Bible in.  She must have dropped it by the ax by the porch steps.

The day couldn't have ended more perfectly sitting before the fire cuddled up to the nicest, best looking man in the world.  Her Nana was knitting away with a smug look, and Uncle Ivan was busy talking to Ida Pearl on the phone in the kitchen.  Later, she walked Nate out to his car and found more kindling for that fire with a kiss.  He said a funny thing before he left that left her puzzling, something about after tomorrow, he'd have some more explaining to do.

Early the next morning, when she came down with her jammies still wearing her fuzzy slippers, there was a lot of nose churning down their country lane.  Her Nana said, "Would you look at that!"

About twenty sheriff, police, and swat cars were speeding down their dirt road past their house to the back pasture.  There was even a small tank with a turret where a man held a rifle.  A loud speaker could be heard telling somebody to come out with their hands up.  Just then Uncle Ivan came busting in through the front door. 

"I couldn't say anything before, but they're catching the guys who have set up a meth lab in our back barn, the one we haven't used since Dad was alive.  I think your old friend Chris unfortunately is part of it.  That's the real reason Zane's been in town, training the swat team on how to do raids like this.  A couple months ago, I noticed whenever I was here visiting Mom that Chris and a lot of other cars kept going back there, too many for a quiet country lane.  It's been under surveillance."

"The nerve of those young men to do such a thing on my property!"

Ivan chuckled, "Yeah, Mom, they even did a back-ground check on you in case you were in on it."

"What!  Well, I never..."  Nana was speechless.

"You wouldn't be the first sweet little old lady trying to make some bucks selling drugs.  But they figured out right quick that you weren't that type," he grinned.

"Of course not!"

"I even brought Zane along so he could see for himself that you two weren't involved.  Then when Chris showed up here on Easter, his hackles were raised for sure.  If you must know, Sweet Pea, that's the real reason he hesitated seeing you worried it might compromise his investigation."

That night they watched the local news.  "Hustle in here, Amy.  Come see!  Uncle Ivan called and told me to turn this on. He's on his way over.  This is the biggest drug bust our county's ever seen.  Look here who the FBI guy they are interviewing is."

It was Zane.  FBI Zane. Zane who was going to be out of here.  Zane who just did the most dangerous job with the Swat Team busting a drug cartel up in their hills beyond their house.  Zane who had probably just finished up his job here.  Zane who couldn't talk himself out of forgetting her.  Zane who was unforgettable.  And her?  Least likely for an FBI kinda guy.  She was feeling shaky.  Shaky for the danger he'd been in.  Shaky for what was soon to be a long distance relationship, if there was really a relationship at all to be long distance about. 

Even before the last law enforcement had moved out, news vehicles were parked in their yard.  Some knocked on their door trying to get interviews, but Uncle Ivan turned them away.  Amy was glad he was there to protect them from the unwanted attention.

That night they watched all the news coverage together at five o'clock.  Then they watched it again at ten o'clock.  Finally Uncle Ivan took a deep sigh.  "You know, I gave Zane the big tip off, but don't say anything to anyone."

Nana gasped, "Will that put you in danger, Ivan?"

"No, Zane assured me no one would know.  Besides, they just rounded up all the bad guys.  Did you see how many AK 47's and other weapons they collected?  It's a good thing they got the jump on them is all I can say.  I guess they know what they're doing."

"How soon do you think he'll be leaving here?"

"Hard to say.  I think that his job teaching firearms was just a front."

Amy could only hope that she wasn't just a front, someone to get close to the scene of the crime, one he could just drop and disappear from.

She went to bed even before the news was over, in bed, under covers, but wide awake.  Her phone rang close to midnight. 


"Are you okay?" Amy asked?

"Yeah, it was a big day, a long day, but it's nice to have something good to think about other than bad guys doing bad things.  How are you?"

"Worried.  You're leaving aren't you."

"I have time off coming.  I just have to finish my reports first.  I'll be there  as soon as I can tomorrow.  We can talk about it then.  Okay?"


"Thank you.  I just couldn't sleep without hearing your sweet voice.  You don't know how much I needed that."

The next day, Amy was waiting on the front porch for him when he drove up.  She ran down, and he caught her up in an embrace on the lawn even though it was raining. 

"I got some good news this morning, Amy," he finally got around to saying more than his kisses had.  "The police academy has offered me a full time teaching position at the college.  I've been in the heat long enough.  I think it's time to take a step back and get on with my life, with you in my life, that is."
"You mean you aren't leaving?"  She wasn't sure if it was raindrops or happy tears coursing down her cheeks.
"I kinda took a liking to the kinfolk hereabouts."
Nana called to them from the porch, "Don't you young'uns know enough to come in out of the rain?  I got some good food on the table waiting for you."
Amy realized kinfolk gathered around the table wasn't so bad, as long as the circle was extended to include a special fella, one with good table manners.
"And they will come from the east and west, and from north, and south,
and will recline at the table."
(Luke 13:29)



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