On AQ Connect lately, there has been much discussion about writing short stories. One person said that they like to take side characters from their longer works and write vignettes about them. I decided that I’d like to try it, so here’s an independent short story about Grandpa Jim from my manuscript, JIM AND JACK:
’Til Death Us Do Part
Jim sat down in the chair next to the bed and took Ella’s hand in his own, careful not to let the I.V. catch on the sheets. Her skin was cool and smooth, the freckles and veins made more prominent by its pallor. It was odd to see those hands so still, he reflected. Somehow that made it more real that she was dying.
He sat quietly, listening to the evenness of her breath and the steady beeping of the heart monitor. She seemed unaware of his presence, and he didn’t want to disturb her. The pain was under control for the moment, but he knew it would return when she awakened.
His mind drifted back to when Hazel had died, decades ago. So different were the circumstances it seemed implausible that the events were related, but they were, their three lives intertwined.
Hazel’s last words as she clasped their hands had been that they should comfort each other, and she’d pulled them together in her moment of passing. The act had stayed with him, but he hadn’t known why for a long time.
Every day afterward, Ella had motored to the island, keeping house for him and preparing his meals. He had told her that he was fine and she didn’t need to bother, but she came anyway, knowing that he was not fine at all. When he’d needed to talk she had listened, and when his temper had gotten the better of him, she put up with it. Selfish in his misery, he managed to ignore the fact that she had also lost her sister, but she had continued to come. He harbored regret that he had wallowed in his grief and isolated himself to avoid the healing, or rather the dimming memories that would accompany it. As time passed and his feelings of grief abated in spite of his determination to cling to them, he realized that his feelings for Ella had changed dramatically.
She had always seemed like his own kid sister, tagging along when he and Hazel went for walks and sneaking peeks from the landing when they sat together in the parlor. She had been a junior bridesmaid at their wedding, her long red hair somehow managing to snag in her bouquet as she followed them up the aisle. Hazel had spent the first five minutes of their marriage untangling it.
He felt disloyal at having such feelings for his dead wife’s sister and had pushed them away as long as he could, until one day when he found Ella crying in the garden shed. Remorseful that he had been so self absorbed that he hadn’t thought of her loss at all, he had taken her into his arms to comfort her. From then on, he had thought of little else.
Tortured by her nearness but unwilling to suggest again that she stop coming to the island, he let things continue as they had, enjoying her company every day, but, ashamed of himself, he kept up the brotherly front.
One morning, she was late. Jim kept expecting to hear the hum of the motorboat, but by lunchtime she still hadn’t arrived. Worried, Jim finally picked up the phone. When she didn’t answer, he got down to the dock fast and rowed like a maniac.
When he arrived at the landing, her small skiff was bobbing next to the dock, so at least she hadn’t drowned on the way to Half Moon. As he hiked up the slope to Jefferson Hill, he imagined all kinds of other things that could have happened to her. She had never been late like this.
His heart was pounding when he got to the door of her family home. It was the first time he’d been there since Hazel had died and a wave of sadness threatened to wash over him, but he pushed it away, thinking only of Ella living in this big house all by herself.
She didn’t answer the bell, so he went around back and kicked in a basement window. When he dropped to the floor, one foot landed inside an old pickle crock, which caused him to stumble through some cobwebs before he crashed into a rough stone wall. Undaunted, he gave his leg a shake to rid it of its confines, and the crock rolled loudly into a dark corner. Jim purposefully mounted the steps to the first floor. When he opened the door to the kitchen, something hard whacked down on his head and he fell to the linoleum, banging his chin.
“Oh, my!’ gasped Ella, bending down in her nightgown to help him up. The broom that she had hit him with fell to the floor next to her. “I thought you were a robber!”
“I rang the bell!” he rubbed his jaw and looked at her in confusion. “Why didn’t you come this morning?”
She stared at him in surprise. “I told you that I was going to help Lucy Lockhardt with her babies last night! I thought you’d understand if I wasn’t in any shape to come over this morning.”
Ella’s best friend Lucy had given birth to triplets the week before. When her husband had needed to go to out of town unexpectedly, Ella had volunteered to stay overnight. Jim had forgotten all about it.
“Oh.” He stood up awkwardly, feeling foolish. She tried to brush some cobwebs off his shirt, but he quickly pushed her hands away. The look on her face told him that she was offended, but the lightness of her touch was more than he could bear.
“Well,” he said, embarrassed. ”I guess I’d better be getting back.”
She looked at him with a puzzled frown. “You came here because you were worried about me?”
“Well, of course,” he replied. “You are always over by nine, and I forgot about Lucy.”
“You could have called,” she said.
“I did!” he exclaimed. “There was no answer.”
“Oh.” Ella laughed. “I switched off the ringer because I wanted to sleep in for awhile, after being up all night.”
Seeing her there, barefoot in her nightgown with her long red hair tangled around her, Jim realized that something had to change or he was going to go crazy.
“You know I loved your sister,” he said.
Her smile died. “So did I,” she said after a moment.
“I think that she wanted us together,” he said, realizing as he said the words that it was true.
Ella’s mouth pursed. “She did.”
“How do you know that?” he demanded.
“Because she told me so, the day she died. She knew that I’d always held a candle for you, and she was afraid that we’d both end up alone. She gave us her blessing.”
Shocked, Jim took a step back. “Why didn’t she say anything to me?”
“She tried.” Ella reminded him.
“But why didn’t you ever mention it?”
“I knew that you didn’t feel that way about me.” It came out in a whisper.
Ella stilled and looked into his eyes. “You do now?”
“What do you think?” He pulled her into his arms and she gasped.
He kissed her, and the rest was history.
“How’s she doing?” Tom asked in a low voice as he entered the room.
Jim looked up. “About the same,” he said. “Where’s Brian?”
“Will and Trish volunteered to keep him for the afternoon,” said Tom. “I just talked with the hospice people about taking Mom home today.”
Jim, still holding her hand, was silent.
“It’s what she wants,” Tom reminded him.