Cat had strange dreams that night of a large, hairy creature running in front of her car, followed by a little girl in green. Her forehead smacked into the steering wheel—
She jumped awake. She was tucked into a fuzzy white blanket on an unfamiliar bed. There was a large mural of outdoor plains in the morning light across all four walls and a bedside table with a lamp. Cat laid back with a sigh. She must have been exhausted after driving so much, she reasoned.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Gran popped her head in. Her fishbowl glasses were slipping down her nose, and she was still in her nightgown and curlers, but she smiled cheerily.
“Good morning, Cat,” she greeted. “I’m afraid I don’t have breakfast, but if you play driver, I’ll treat you to a special breakfast, and then we can go shopping.”
“Ok,” Cat agreed. “But we probably don’t need much food, Gran. I’m taking you back up with me today.”
“Oh, that won’t work,” Gran said with a shake of her head. “Do you have a change of clothes, dear?”
Cat glanced at her t-shirt and jeans. They were definitely not fresh, but she didn’t plan on doing more than driving here and back as quickly as possible.
“I didn’t bring any extra clothes,” she admitted sheepishly.
“There’s a box,” Gran said, shuffling through the doorway. “In the top shelf of the closet, I think. It should say Mare-Bear on the sides. It’s her old clothes she never bothered picking up after she moved out.”
She opened the closet, and Cat could see it was literally filled with cardboard boxes. Lots were labeled Mare-Bear, but Cat also saw ones that said Tupperware, TV, and one that just had a bunch of question marks all over it.
“You can look through it,” Gran offered. “And I suppose I also need to find some clothes. I’ll meet you in about ten minutes, and we can roll out.”
She giggled at her own remark and slowly shuffled out of the room.
Tap, tap, tap.
Tap, tap, tap.
Gran closed the door behind her, and Cat heard her use her walker/cane combination as she went down the hall. It’d probably take Gran the entire ten minutes just to get to her bedroom. Cat pulled out her phone.
Mom picked up on the third ring. From the video, Cat could tell she was already at her office.
“Hey, sweetie,” she greeted, waving to Cat. “How’s it going?”
“Well, I’m staying here, and Gran offered me your old clothes,” Cat replied with a shrug. “I hope you left behind something good.”
“Honestly it’s probably Juicy sweatpants and spaghetti-strapped tops,” Mom replied with a flush.
Mom stuck her tongue out at Cat before looking serious.
“How’s she doing?”
“I really think I’m going to have to trick her into coming with me,” Cat replied. “She seems pretty spacey, to be honest. And she’s so slow. Did you know she needs a cane and a walker to get around?”
“She’s an old lady,” Mom replied. “Cut her some slack.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Cat continued. “Do I need to just pack for her? I don’t want to be stuck here all summer.”
“Maybe she’s just a little confused,” Mom said. “I’ll give her another call today and talk to her. I’m sure you’ll be able to leave by tomorrow.”
“I owe you big time,” Mom said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Hey, if you see a pair of bedazzled skinny jeans, bring those up for me.”
“There’s no way you’d fit into your old pants, Mom.”
“It’s for nostalgia’s sake.”
With a chuckle, Cat hung up and pulled out some of her mom’s old boxes. She tried to brace herself for whatever travesty awaited.
Flared jeans and a white lacy camisole with a light knitted overshirt. That was the safest outfit Cat could find. Gran gave her a bright smile as soon as she saw her.
“You look just like Mare-Bear!” she exclaimed. “Well, except Mare-Bear was much shorter. Don’t tell her I said that, though.”
She winked at Cat, and Cat couldn’t help but smile.
Forty minutes later, Cat pulled into the parking lot of Agatha’s Bites, what Cat guessed to be the only restaurant of a town this spaced out and small. She jumped out to help Gran get her walker re-assembled, and they both shuffled inside.
“It’s hot out there,” Gran said loudly to no one in particular.
The girl behind the counter looked up. Cat tried not to jump. The girl, maybe a couple years older than her, glanced at her with bright red eyes.
“Hi, Ms. Betty,” she said in a monotone. “You’re still alive.”
Gran gave a chuckle.
“I’ve still got a few fights left in me,” Gran retorted. “This is my grand-child Cat. Cat, this is Bree.”
Cat smiled and quickly looked away from the girl’s creepy eyes. She’d say Bree looked like she was going through a goth phase, but goths usually wore black instead of gray.
“The usual table?” Bree asked.
“Of course,” Gran said and gave Cat a wink. “The best table in the house.”
The best table in the house was apparently the one closest to the kitchens. Cat heard the loud clatter of pots and pans behind a swinging door and tried to focus on the menu in front of her. Gran was humming, or maybe muttering, as she browsed through the menu.
Everything was fried or covered in syrup. Cat scanned for something more low fat. She didn’t want to gain weight just before the peak of swimsuit season. Almost self-consciously, she pulled her stomach in slightly and sat up a bit straighter.
“Unlimited pancakes!” Gran exclaimed. “Oh, how yummy! And it comes with bacon and eggs.”
“I’ll just have scrambled eggs,” Cat decided. “Do they use a lot of butter when cooking?”
“It’s a Southern Style restaurant,” Gran said. “They’d be shut down if they didn’t.”
“Great,” Cat muttered, scanning the menu for a safer option.
“You’re on vacation,” Gran said. “And skinny as a twig. Eat something more.”
“Fatty foods give me acne and make me bloated,” Cat said automatically.
“You’re, what, fifteen?”
“Acne will find you even if you drink water straight from an iceberg,” Gran said. “Don’t worry about it so much. When I was your age, you’d be lucky finding a part of my face that wasn’t decorated with a pimple or two.”
“My friend Naomi said a low calorie and no butter diet is a sure way to not have acne,” Cat replied.
She bit her lip and brushed a hand to her cheek, as if still feeling the pimple from last week that earned her Naomi’s lecture.
“Well, Naomi isn’t here,” Gran replied. “But pancakes are.”
Cat smiled in spite of herself. The thought of fluffy pancakes made her stomach sigh in longing. Gran waved to a waitress.
“Two of your pancakes please!” she called. “Pancake plates, I mean. Please don’t give me just two pancakes.”
Gran chuckled at her own joke, and Cat felt herself sink lower into the booth. Thank god she didn’t know anyone here, she thought. She could die of embarrassment. Gran chuckled, looking over at her.
“When you get to be my age, you don’t get embarrassed about the little things,” she said. “Why, just last week I…Hmmmm,” she said, trailing off. “Well, I think something happened, but I wasn’t embarrassed.”
Cat wondered if Gran was talking about the Sign. At least, that’s what Mom called it. The sign that Gran was slipping mentally and needed to be taken care of. Some driver found Gran, sans shoes and cut up pretty badly, walking down the road about two miles from her house. She had no idea how she got there, and she looked disoriented according to the emergency room doctors who saw her and called Mom. And then Mom sent Cat down here to bring Gran up so they could figure out “what to do.” Cat knew that was code for putting her into an old person’s home.
If Gran couldn’t even remember that’s what happened, Cat thought, maybe she really was slipping.
She looked over Gran, who was happily folding and unfolding and refolding the napkin in front of her. She didn’t seem like she was all there, Cat decided. But she also didn’t seem crazy. Maybe the crazy only came out every once in a while.
Without realizing it, Cat cleaned her plate. And the second plate of pancakes brought after the first one. She must have been hungry, she thought, but she bemoaned her ruined diet. She hoped she wouldn’t wake up with a face full of pimples tomorrow.
“What kind of food do you like?” Gran asked, pulling a faded leather wallet out of her bag. “We can cook some lunch and dinner together.”
“Oh, um, anything I guess,” Cat said, clearing her throat. “Probably something light, so we can leave early and be back home by afternoon.”
“Oh, you’re leaving so soon?”
“No, Gran, we are.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Gran stood up. “The store is just across the street.”
Cat sighed. This conversation didn’t seem like it went the way it was supposed to go. She followed Gran out slowly.
I’m never going home, she thought morosely. I’m going to be stuck in this small town with an eighty-year old all summer.
She let out a sigh, then caught her breath.
A boy pulled out several shopping carts from the corral and smoothly arranged them into a long line. The sun caught his sandy blond hair and reflected off the puka shell necklace around his neck. Cat couldn’t help but follow him with her eyes as he pushed the carts towards the store.
“Do you like muesli?” Gran asked, interrupting Cat’s train of thought. “We can have some for breakfast tomorrow.”
“It’s granola with yogurt. I think. Well, that’s what I call muesli,” Gran babbled on. “I sometimes put in blueberries, too. Or strawberries. Raspberries get too mushy though. And apples are too hard, of course.”
Cat watched the red uniformed shirt and khaki shorts disappear behind the sliding doors.
“We can have that for breakfast tomorrow,” Gran said. “Does that sound okay?”
Cat grabbed a cart, realizing it was the same cart the boy had touched. She shook her head and tried to clear her thoughts. She was in love with Aiden, she reminded herself. Aiden with the sandy hair and hazel eyes and dimpled smile. Aiden who played water polo and always wore a varsity jacket even in the summer.
Aiden slipped further from her mind as she found herself scanning the store for the other sandy-haired boy. She slowly followed Gran down the aisles. Gran picked up several boxes, squinted hard at them, placed them in the cart, then changed her mind and returned them to the shelves. But Cat didn’t even seem to notice.
“I’m thinking paninis for lunch,” Gran mused. “I don’t have a panini press, but we can squish the sandwich with a plate.”
“Uh-huh,” Cat murmured, still looking for cart boy.
“Where do you think they hide the bread?” Gran asked.
“Well, Ms. Betty! Fancy meetin’ you here!” a loud voice boomed in a typical Southern drawl.
Betty turned and gave a kind smile.
“Mayor Castio!” she said warmly, shakily reaching her arms out to give the man a hug. “What a surprise seeing you here!”
“Man’s gotta eat,” Mayor Castio replied, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and nodding politely to Cat. “Even the mayor. Hi there.”
“This is my grand-child Cat,” Gran said. “Cat, this is the most honest politician you’ll ever meet in your life.”
“Nice to meet you,” Cat said awkwardly, giving a polite smile.
“You here to visit?” Mayor Castio asked. “How nice.”
“Well, actually,” Cat began.
“I’m so glad I bumped into you,” Gran interrupted. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you about the library funding.”
Cat sighed. At this rate, they were never going to leave the store. She scanned the store and saw the cart boy hanging around a cash register. He wasn’t looking her way, but she still flushed and looked away quickly. She wondered if she should walk past him, maybe ask which aisle the ice cream was in. No, the granola. She shook her head. Maybe she should just wait for him to notice her. He would notice her eventually. But she was still recovering from the long drive, she realized with an inward groan. Her clothes were cringey, and her breath probably still smelled of pancakes and bacon.
Okay, she wasn’t going to talk to him. She would just look at him. In a non-creepy way.
“And they call me spacey,” Gran said with a smile.
Cat looked over. Gran was placing a loaf of bread and some variety sliced cheese into the cart.
“How did you—” she began.
“Had the mayor run around for me,” Gran replied. “A benefit of being this old and slow. Come on, dear. It’s almost nap time for me.”
When they got home, Cat helped Gran unload the food into the pantry and fridge. She was hopeful, since they didn’t buy too much food.
“So we can leave right after breakfast tomorrow, right?” Cat asked.
“Oh, ok,” Gran said. “I’ll make sure to fill you up before your long drive.”
“Ok,” Cat said with a smile. “Are you all packed?”
“For what, dear?”
“To come with me.”
We already had this discussion, Cat wanted to add, but she resisted.
Gran chuckled and shuffled out of the kitchen, either not hearing Cat or just choosing to ignore her.
“Great talk,” she muttered to herself.
She went back to her room and flopped on the bed, pulling out her phone and snapping a selfie. Then she deleted it and tried to get a better shot. She finally found a good angle with the mural behind her, camera above her, chin lowered, and eyes looking into the distance.
She glanced at the mural. She could have sworn it was the plains in a soft light, but now it looked brighter than the morning. Cat shrugged and posted her pic, waiting to see if Aiden would like it.
OMG where ARE you? Naomi commented almost immediately.
Cat rolled her eyes. She had posted #visitingGran in the tags.
Before she could respond, an alarm blared. Cat fell out of the bed, dropping her phone. The noise was coming from one of the locked doors in the hallway. Cat pressed her ear to the door before dropping down and trying to peek through the cracks. She could only see carpet and what looked like a red light flashing. She tried the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Gran?” she yelled. “Gran!”
The alarm faded, and the house grew quiet. Cat tried the door handle again and headed down the hall. She wondered if Gran was sleeping through the noise.
“Sorry for the scare, dear,” Gran said.
Cat jumped. Gran had somehow managed to sneak up behind her.
“What—What was that?” Cat asked.
Gran had just materialized in front of her, and Cat wondered if she had been inside the room with the noise.
“I was changing the batteries to the smoke alarm,” Gran said. “I guess it must’ve set it off somehow. Luckily my hearing aids weren’t in, huh?”
“But, there was a light,” Cat said slowly. “And… how did you set off the smoke alarm?”
“Would you like some tea?” Gran asked, hobbling to the kitchen. “And a hot sandwich? I’d say it’s about lunch time, wouldn’t you?”
“Gran, is everything ok?” Cat asked, following her into the kitchen. “Maybe you should get the smoke alarm replaced if it was going off like that.”
“Hmmm, perhaps,” Gran said with a distant look. “Maybe I’ll head to the store tomorrow.”
“Or we can replace it when we get back from visiting my place,” Cat suggested. “Mom’s waiting for us, you know.”
Gran just hummed absentmindedly as she pulled out two pitchers of iced tea. She poured a glass from the green pitcher and handed it to Cat before pouring a glass for herself from the purple pitcher.
“Careful not to mix these up,” Gran said. “Mine has some Metamucil in it to help digestion.”
Cat nodded and took a sip from her cup.
“Do you think you can pack tonight by yourself?” Cat asked.
“Cheese and tomato ok for your sandwich, dear?”
Cat resisted the urge to bang her head against the wall. This was going to take a lot longer than she wanted.