Copyright is held by the author.
“PLAID! PLAID! Don’t you ever wear anything but plaid?” Sarah said laughing as she pulled up a chair in her Grandmother’s kitchen. “C’mon, Gran, don’t you know only sweaty old men with big, fat beer bellies and pathetic little pony tails wear plaid?”
“Really, Sarah!” Myrah walked over to the stove and picked up the whistling tea kettle. Carefully she carried it back and placed it on the trivet in the middle of the table. “In the first place, I am not so old,” she said, sitting down across from her beloved granddaughter, “and, in the second place, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a ponytail.”
The two women sat staring at each other in silence like champion prize fighters at the opposite sides of the ring. Suddenly both burst out laughing.
“So, ‘not so old’ lady,” Sara said finally, “why did you bring me here?”
“Labour, to be precise.” Myrah swirled the tea pot a few times as she started to explain. “I need you to climb through the window upstairs, and crawl out across the roof to clean my eavestroughs.” She brought her teacup up to her lips to hide her face. “You’re the perfect candidate for the job.”
Sarah’s mouth flew open. “What!? Are you crazy? I could break my neck if I fell; don’t you know that!?”
Myrah’s eyes twinkled. “Oh, you’ll be all right. I’ll be at the window, spotting you. And besides, I’ll let you wear one of my plaid shirts.”
Sarah inhaled deeply. “C’mon, you don’t really expect me to do this, do you?”
“Here, Sweetheart, have some more tea.”
Sarah studied the contents of her teacup as if the answer to such a preposterous request lay hidden somewhere in its depths. She wouldn’t hurt her Grandmother for the world. This was a person she loved. Really loved. Finally, a thought occurred to her.
“I see by the calendar on the wall that your birthday is approaching. Is this what you want for your birthday present? Oh, by the way, how old will you be?” She asked, hoping to distract the older woman enough for her to forget about the eavestroughs.
“Eighteen, Myrah answered without missing a beat.
“Then you can clean your own eavestroughs.”
Myrah put down her cup with a sly smile. ‘’Well, I would if I didn’t have my handyman coming over later to do the job.”
In spite of being annoyed, Sara couldn’t help grinning. “You were just playing with me. Right?”
“I take my fun where I can get it,” Myrah answered with a wicked grin.
“Were you harassed like this when you were eighteen?”
Sarah was curious. Myrah had always kept pretty mum about her childhood. Maybe now was a good time for Sarah to probe a bit into her Grandmother’s past.
Myrah had to make a serious decision. Should she gloss over the facts, or be 100% honest with the girl she had loved since the day of her birth. “Well, okay,” she said finally, “but you may not like what you’re going to hear.”
“Please, I’m not a baby.”
“So, you’re not.” Myrah poured herself another cup of tea and settled back to begin her tale. “Well, just before my real eighteenth birthday I was asked to perform a task a lot more dangerous than cleaning out the eavestroughs.”
“Are you sure you have the time? It’s a long story?”
“Quit stalling or I really will clean out your eavestroughs.”
Closing her bedroom door firmly behind her, Myrah knelt on the floor and slid her hand between the bed and the mattress. From there she retrieved the five-year calendar that she had purchased shortly after her father’s recent death and her mother’s seemingly sudden remarriage. Each page was filled with days marked by large red X’s, and today Myrah added another one. With great care, she counted the months, the weeks, the days until her 18th birthday. At the moment, that day seemed so very far away, but then with each big red X it came closer and closer. And, one thing was certain. No one had the power to stop time. No one. Not even Buck.
Myrah’s purchase of the five-year calendar was inspired by events she neither expected or appreciated. The loss of her much-loved father had thrown the lives of both Myrah and her mother into turmoil. Myrah grieved, but she had school and all her friends to console her. Her mother, on the other hand, was more child than adult, and she did not want to live without a man to take care of her. The result was that shortly after the funeral, she went out in search of just such a person. Unfortunately, she found him.
His name was Buck, and like the caribou of the wild, he was a cumbersome strutting male on the prowl for a suitable mate. With her slim body and fat bank account, Myrah’s mother filled the bill. Of course, she did have the unwelcome baggage of a half-grown child, but Buck made it clear that he was in charge and expected total cooperation from all in the household.
Myrah instinctively understood that her world had now become a menacing one. So, to protect herself, she became an invisible presence in the house. If either Buck or her mother tried to elicit any response from her, she spoke only in monosyllables and escaped to her room as quickly as she could. It was a wise course of action.
Why her mother settled for this man was a mystery to Myrah. It wasn’t as if she and Buck were happy together. Many a day as Myrah was walking home from school, she could hear the shouting long before she reached the front door. She had learned to tune them out long ago, but to give comfort to her heart, she bought a five-year calendar and a reliable magic marker in red. One day her nightmare would end. The X’s proved it.
And then, as her 18th birthday was suddenly on the horizon, the house grew quieter and quieter. Was it possible, Myrah wondered, that at last, the atmosphere in the house would be peaceful? Could she let her guard down now that she was so near to the end of her ordeal? Was that possible?
As fate would have it, the vacant house next door had finally sold and a divorcee and her only child were moving in. Normally, this would qualify as something of a minor occasion, and if the woman’s 10-year-old son had even approached being normal, that might have been true. But he didn’t. And it wasn’t.
The kid turned out to be the scourge of the neighbourhood. His daily escapades were beyond belief. One of his exploits was to scour the neighborhood looking for newly planted flower beds and then to stomp the life out of them until nothing was left but a graveyard of pretty petals smothered in dirt. He followed fragile pensioners taking a stroll in their walkers, and then crept up behind them and screamed in their ears as they clutched their hearts and lost control of their vehicles, which took off rolling down the street like runaway trains.
The whole neighbourhood was up in arms, but it didn’t do them any good. The boy’s mother said she was already saddled with too much responsibility, and, they should take this up with the boy’s father. He was the real asshole in the family, she added for good measure. Finally, in desperation, the police were called, and although sympathetic, they said their hands were tied. The boy was underage and, unfortunately, out of their jurisdiction.
Then one day the kid had a brilliant idea. He hid behind a bush between his house and the one next door where Myrah lived, and waited. Sooner or later Buck would be coming home and, as was his custom, would park his brand spanking new Cadillac in the driveway. Of course, it would have been much safer for him to house this luxurious commodity in the garage, but then why deny passersby the privilege of eating their hearts out. It was just a little pleasure in life, but Buck enjoyed it.
Meanwhile the kid had spent the morning going around the neighbourhood, collecting special supplies. It was going to be a great day.
The sun was now setting lower and lower in the sky. The time was ripe.
Taking a last look around to make sure the coast was clear, the boy crept carefully up to the unguarded car. Pausing for just a moment, he reached inside his damp paper bag and scooped up a large handful of dog excrement. Then, as if a starter pistol had been fired, he began racing around the car, smearing every available surface with putrefying dog droppings. Finished at last, he crushed his empty bag and ran down the road, laughing manically.
Buck was out of mind with rage. That kid had to pay and to pay dearly. The only question was how.
That night Myrah heard the screen door in the kitchen slam. Then silence. In a few more minutes the door slammed again. Buck was back. Seconds later Myrah heard her name being called from the kitchen. Her blood froze. How she longed to escape, but when a madman summons you, your options are limited.
“Look, kid, I notice your birthday is coming up in two days,” he said, stopping to take a drag on his cigarette. “The fact is,” he continued while blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth, “you owe me.”
Myrah kept very still.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he repeated. “You owe me.”
“I owe you?”
“Yeah, you owe me,” he repeated, taking another deep drag on his cigarette. “You’ve been living under my roof, at my expense and eating food that I provided. It’s time for you to pay up.”
It was all Myrah could do to keep from screaming. “You are mistaken. My father paid for this house.”
“Yeah, well, I forked over the money for its upkeep. And now it’s time for you to pay me back.”
Myrah’s every instinct told her to keep still and say nothing.
“In two days, you’ll be 18 — what the law defines as the legal age,” he began, “and until then the cops can’t touch you. But me, I’d go to prison for what I really want to do.”
“And what is that?” Myrah really didn’t give a rat’s ass what it was, but she had to keep him calm by pretending to be interested.
“Just this,” he said, his face the color of puce. “Pound the shit out of that little bastard. Pulverize him until even his own mother won’t recognize him.” He said, savoring every word like it was honey filling his mouth with sweetness.
“If you hate him that much, why don’t you do it?”
“I told you. Weren’t you listening? For the next two days, the cops can’t touch you. As soon as you turn 18, you’re jail bait.” He stopped to flit bits of tobacco off his shirt. “Why don’t you open your ears once in a while?”
It was time to think. Myrah had a desperate idea she might talk some sense into the man. It was worth a try.
“Buck, be reasonable. You see me. You’ve seen the boy. That kid might be ten, but he’s way taller than I am, and it looks like he outweighs me by at least forty pounds. Besides which, he’s really muscular. If I were to try to beat him up, just the opposite would happen.”
“I thought of that,” Buck said agreeably. “That’s why I went into the back alley just now and came back with this.”
He pulled something from behind the storage pantry.
Myrah gasped at the sight.
It was a sturdy length of metal pipe, now rusted but still lethal enough to do serious damage. “This ought to level the playing field, eh? Here, hold it. See how it feels in your hands.”
Myrah didn’t make a move.
“Okay, this is the plan. I’ll lure the kid to the back alley where you’ll be hiding behind one of the garbage bins. Then, when he’s not looking, you’ll come out swinging. Aim it at the back of his head. Afterwards we’ll drag him to the street and dump his body on the road.” Buck rubbed his hands together gleefully. “I think tomorrow night is the perfect time for our little escapade.”
Nausea was sliding up Myrah’s throat. She wondered if she were going to throw up all over the kitchen floor.
Buck eyed her suspiciously. “About 10 o’clock for the kick off?”
“I won’t do it.”
“Oh? You mean you’ll think it over?”
“No. I mean I won’t do it.”
“You won’t do it? Well, then maybe I’ll use this weapon on you,” he sneered, taking a threatening step towards her.
She didn’t make a move. “I won’t do it,” she said again.
They had come to an impasse. Buck seething rage, Myrah rigid as a statue.
The next move was his, and they both knew it. As for Myrah, even if she still had feelings in her legs, it was useless for her to run away, and screaming for her mother to come to her aid was out of the question. The woman could never stand up to Buck or face anything even remotely unpleasant. She was an adult in name only, much too terrified of life to make a positive difference in anyone’s life. No, Myrah was alone. All she could do was stand still and wait. If she were to die a horrible death, then that was her fate. All she had left was her dignity. She would die as herself, and that was all anyone could do, she thought. And she wasn’t afraid.
Moments went by as Buck continued smoking. He was waiting. Maybe waiting for her to capitulate. Maybe waiting for her to crumble in fear. But nothing was happening. After a while, Myrah decided to leave the kitchen. He could crush the back of her head as she walked away, but still she turned and kept on walking until she was on the other side of her bedroom door. There she collapsed onto the floor.
Two days. That’s all that was left. Just two more days.
It was time to prepare. She got her little plaid valise out of her closet and threw in a few bits of clothing and some precious books. Fortunately, she had time tomorrow to go to school and get her final report card and diploma so that she could include them in her valise. Then she would leave the very next day, her 18th birthday.
The following morning, she was ready. On her way out, she passed Buck and her mother sitting at the dining room table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. She stopped for a moment to tell them good-by.
“So, bitch, I see it’s your birthday,” Buck snarled. “You’re 18. You’ve now outlived your usefulness to me.”
Her mother said nothing.
Silently Myrah picked up her valise and walked out the front door. Her new life was about to start.
Sara stared down into the bottom of her teacup as if in a trance. Finally, she raised her head and began to speak. “Did he really say that to you, Gran? ‘You’ve outlived your usefulness to me,’?”
“Yes, he did.”
Sara shook her head in disbelief. “And you weren’t offended?”
“No, not really. Only people you respect can offend you. Besides, in a way, he was speaking the truth.”
“And you never saw him again?”
“And your mother neither?”
“And you never looked back?”
“Hmm. So how did you manage to go to university.”
“My father had left a small trust fund for me with his solicitor.”
“You were lucky.”
Sarah suddenly remembered the date. “You know, in all this talk, I almost forgot tomorrow is your birthday.” She looked directly into the older woman’s eyes. “C’mon, Gran, how old will you be, really?”
“How old? Well? I’m not exactly sure, but we can consult the lines running across my forehead. Maybe the answer is written there somewhere.”
Sarah’s smothered a smile. The woman was impossible!
“Oh, wait a minute,” Myrah said excitedly. “An answer is coming. Could it be 106? Or maybe it’s 34? Or could it be 88? I’m really not sure.” Her eyes got really big. “No, I think the real answer is 18.”
Sarah couldn’t help but laugh. “So, you’re not going to tell me? Is that it?”
“Listen, Sarah, does it really matter? Whatever the magic number is, I’m still me.”
“Yes, you are, Gran. You certainly are.” Sarah stood up and moved over to where her grandmother was sitting and put both arms around her. “There is no one like you, Gran, at any age,” she said, hugging her tightly, no one in the world. Happy Birthday, Sweetheart.