I pulled into my grandmother's driveway and cut off the engine. There was no going back now. One deep breath and then I opened the door. A light October wind kicked the dust from her driveway onto my black pumps. Not the best choice of footwear for running away to the country, but I hadn't exactly been worried about my wardrobe when I fled Atlanta this morning.
All the way here, all those hours on the interstate, all the hours on the winding back roads from Georgia to Tennessee, in all that time I never doubted my grandmother would take me in. Now that I was here, standing in her driveway, holding my suitcase, and looking at her small farmhouse? Now, I wasn't so sure. She loved me, I knew it, but I hadn't laid eyes on her for at least three years. Oh, I sent her a box of chocolates every December. She sent me birthday and Christmas cards that looked as if she'd purchased them in bulk back in the nineteen seventies. Angelic large-headed children wished me well twice every year. She always included a five-dollar bill. It was as if she'd forgotten I was twenty-one years old and five dollars would barely buy a cup of coffee. Still, she loved me and I had no other place to go. That had to count for something.
The dark red paint on the small porch was starting to peel. Pale patches of concrete spread across the neatly swept floor. I climbed up two steps and set my suitcase down on the rag rug welcome mat. My palms were sweaty as I knocked on the aluminum storm door. The door swung open immediately.
My grandmother looked just the same as she did the last time I saw her. It was if she hadn't aged at all. She had the same tight bun to keep her silver hair under control, the same deep blue eyes, and possibly even the same faded cotton housedress.
She stepped back and held the door open for me to enter. "Well, come on in then. I'd say it's good to see you, and it is, but I expect you're not bringing me good tidings, are you?"
I leaned forward and hugged her. Her thin arms stayed at her side for a moment before she reached around and patted me on my back. My Gran wasn't a storybook grandmother. She'd never been the type to bake cookies and knit sweaters.
She cleared her throat and released me. "Now get on in here. Tell me what's so bad you had to up and leave school to come see me."
I picked up my suitcase and followed her into the cramped living room. This too had not changed one bit. The same muddy brown sofa sat in the corner, covered with the same floral embroidered pillows. Grandpa Ernie's recliner still sat next to the television even though Grandpa Ernie had been resting in the Greasy Creek Cemetery for the past twelve years. A bookshelf overflowing with paperbacks and Reader's Digest Condensed Books filled the corner of the room. A small fire burned in the fireplace.
Gran sat on the edge of the sofa, crossed her legs at her ankles, folded her hands in her lap, and looked at me. I rubbed my palms on my pants leg and sat beside her.
She didn't say a word, just tilted her head and waited. Gran was the best listener. She'd always stop whatever she was doing to hear how I discovered an empty wasp nest in the barn when I was seven, or how that one kid at school kept trying to trip me on the playground. Gran listened with her whole body. When you spoke to her, you knew you'd been heard.
"The thing is, I, um, I need a place to stay for a while." I looked at her to see if she would react. She didn't. "I kind of quit school." She didn't even blink. "It's only for this semester, I think, but I just couldn't stay. Do you remember my letter telling you about Rick, my fiancé?" Gran nodded. "Last night I caught him and one of my sorority sisters, um, kissing." They'd been doing a lot more than kissing, but I wasn't going to talk about that with Gran.
I stared at my hands in my lap. "Rick tried to explain, but it was too late." I took a deep breath. "I just gave up. I don't even know who I am anymore. I mean, I don't think I ever actually loved Rick. He was just there, you know? He was the kind of guy that someone in my sorority would date." I scooted toward her. "I was angry at Rick, then I was really angry with myself. I have no idea how I ended up with this life. Mom was the one that wanted me to join Alpha Delta Pi. Rick was the first frat boy to ask me out and suddenly I turn around and we're engaged?" My voice rose. "Seeing him with Holly was the best thing that could ever happen to me. It was as if a big bucket of cold water was thrown in my face and I was suddenly awake for the first time in years."
Gran tilted her head to the side. "And now? Now you're awake, what is it you want, Kate Lawson?"
This was the moment of truth, Gran would either let me stay or not. I sat up straight. "I want some place real, some place honest. All I could think about was getting in the car and driving to your house. Can I stay with you for a while? I thought maybe I could get a job and pay Mom for this semester's tuition. She won't be out a penny, I promise. She doesn't even have to know I dropped out. She's still on that three month cruise with her new boyfriend. Once she's home, the money will be paid back and I'll have figured out what I want to do with the rest of the school year." My voice had pitched up. I was begging and I knew it. "What do you think?"
"Of course you're always welcome here, you know that. You're my kin and you'll always have a place in my house. You can stay as long as you need to." Gran nodded. "I'm proud of you for getting rid of that man, but dear, make sure it doesn't cost you more than it has to. Don't toss away your future because of a fool like that."
Gran stood up and wiped her hands as if she had just finished doing a dirty job. "Now come on in the kitchen and let me get some supper in you. I bet it's been a while since you had a home-cooked meal. And don't worry none about me talking to your mother. I haven't heard from her in a dog's age, so I don't think I'll be telling her your business any time soon."
"Thank you, Gran." I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I could stay. I could start again.
I followed her into the galley kitchen. It ran the length of the house, a late addition to the old farmhouse. The bathroom was tacked on the far side. The floor was covered in brick patterned linoleum and sloped toward the back porch as if it was falling away from the rest of the rooms. Whoever had run the plumbing had done a decent job back in the day, but the carpenter could have used some help.
"Is there anything I can do? I'm not much of a cook, but I'm ready to learn."
"I've got everything under control," Gran said. She picked up a dishcloth and lifted the lid of a pot simmering on the stove. The comforting smell of chicken and dumplings filled the room.
"I can't believe it!" I smiled for the first time in two days. "You made me chicken and dumplings every Sunday for lunch that summer I stayed with you. I haven't had them since. You must have been sick of it by the time I left."
"Oh, it's still one of my favorites. I did try to teach you how to make it yourself back then, but your mind seemed to be elsewhere half the time." Gran picked up a wooden spoon and gently stirred the pot. "Now grab some glasses and pour us some tea."
"Of course I was distracted that summer. Who could blame me? I was seventeen, Mom and Dad were getting divorced. And, I had my first ever kiss. It was a busy time." I opened the painted cabinet door, the green a little worn near the handle. "It was one of the happiest times of my life. Things were changing, but I knew myself. I haven't felt like that in a long time." I glanced at my grandmother. She was looking at me, her hands on her hips. She had to know what I was going to say next. "I want to feel that way again. I meant it when I said I wanted to learn. I want you to teach me."
"Teach you how to cook dumplings? You got it." Gran didn't move.
A tiny voice at the back of my head warned me to slow down, to back off, but I ignored it. I'd thought of a thousand ways to ask what I wanted and now that I'd started, I couldn't quit. I didn't know when I'd have the guts to bring it back up again. "Gran, you know what I want you to teach me. I want to be a witch like you."
Gran's hand moved so fast, I never saw it. All I felt was a smack up the side of my head. She had hit me with the dishcloth and it stung. I stepped back and rubbed my temple.
"Don't you ever go using words like that in my house, missy. I've been a God-fearing member of The Greasy Creek Presbyterian Church since I was old enough to sit up by myself. I'm no witch and I won't put up with anybody saying so. Do you understand me?"
"I'm sorry, Gran. I am. I didn't mean to upset you." I looked at the short woman in front of me and felt afraid. Gran wasn't often mad. She was the type that saved her anger up so she could spend it all at once. The tiny voice begged me to shut up but I plunged ahead. In for a penny, in for a pound, as Gran always said. "You may not use the word, um, the ‘w' word, but what do you think about being called a wise woman? That's a bit better. And come on, you have to admit that everyone in Greasy Creek comes to you for help. I saw it every single day when I stayed here. People came for help with sickness, for help getting their true love, for advice on when to plant potatoes, or when to buy a new car. People come to you and you help them. I've seen the herbs you collect. I've seen you tell people what to do, and they do it. They respect you. Call it what you like, but you are powerful."
Gran frowned and turned back to the stove. "Oh, you've seen me help people. That's my Christian duty." She shook her head. "Kate, honey, just because you see something don't mean that you know something, girl." She picked up the spoon and turned toward me. "Now, no more talk of this tonight. Get me a couple of bowls."
I handed her two mismatched bowls from the cupboard. I wasn't going to press my luck again. The side of my head still stung from the dishtowel. I poured the sweet tea from the fridge while she ladled out the chicken and dumplings.
I sat with her at the tiny table in the kitchen. There was only room for three chairs in the narrow galley. The small dining room in the center of the house had an oak table that would seat eight, but Gran always said it was only used for special occasions. As far as I knew, it hadn't been used since Grandpa Ernie's wake.
I picked up my fork and quickly set it back on the table as Gran cleared her throat. She looked me in the eye and then bowed her head. I closed my eyes and held my hands together in my lap as Gran thanked the Lord for my arrival, the good weather, and our food. When Mom left home, she left everything behind. I could never remember her saying grace before a meal. Still, I should have remembered praying with Gran during those summer months. I mumbled "amen" and picked up my fork again.
The night sky showed our reflections in the kitchen window as we ate. My image seemed to waver and shimmer while Gran's looked as steady as a mirror. My tiny grandmother was real in the way that a mountain is real.
"I think I know where you can find some work." Gran took a sip of tea and looked at me.
"Please, please don't say Friendly's Sausage Factory." I'd worked there during that long summer. It had been an education to say the least. My job was to help clean a building where five hundred pigs a day left the earthly realms for the great beyond and a plastic wrapped container in the freezer section. The one benefit was the simple fact that half the town's teenagers worked there. We had a lot of fun between our disgusting shifts. Still, it was about two years before I could eat sausage again. And then, only if someone else fixed it for me. If I saw it raw, there wasn't a chance I could put it in my mouth.
Gran shook her head. "Heavens, no. I wouldn't wish that job on you again for anything in the world. I'll never forget how bad you smelled when you came home at night. I had to wash your clothes twice just to get the stink out. No, I had something better in mind. Things have been busy at The Spoonful Café on Main Street. Remember that place? Megan Fitzhugh bought it three months back. I'm sure she could use some help. We can stop in tomorrow morning. I've got a bingo game at the church. I'll drop you off and you can see what you can find."
"Megan bought the Greasy Spoon?" I asked. "She was always so nice to me at Friendly's. We took our breaks together outside, desperate to get some fresh air. Good for her, owning her own business." I took a bite of dumplings and swallowed. A warmth filled me as I breathed in the steam from my bowl. I hadn't been in Gran's house for an hour yet, and already I was starting to relax. "You know, coming back here is exactly what I needed. It's going to be nice to catch up with her and everyone else in town. I had a lot of good friends back then. Why, I just saw Darla Mills earlier tonight. She was standing under the streetlight in front of the courthouse. I drove back around the square to talk to her, but she was already gone."
I scooped another dumpling into my spoon and looked up at Gran. She was sitting perfectly still, her tea glass frozen halfway to her mouth. She was staring intently at a spot just above my head. A quick glance toward the ceiling showed nothing hovering over me. "Gran? Are you okay?"
She blinked rapidly and set her glass down on the table. "You say you saw Darla Mills, did you? Are you sure?"
"Yes," I said. At least she was looking at me now, not at whatever may have been lurking above me. "She looked great. I swear, she hasn't changed a bit since high school. What's she doing these days?"
"I'm not exactly sure what Darla is doing these days," Gran said. "I didn't know she was even back in town."
"What?" I laughed. "I'm amazed that anything happens in this town without you knowing about immediately."
Gran gave me a tight grin. "Yes. I'm somewhat amazed too." She looked back up to the ceiling. "This isn't usual." She shook her head slightly. "Apparently, Darla left town about a month after you moved back in with your mother. She never told anyone where she was going. She's never told anyone anything since."
"Well, think of that." I tilted my bowl to get the last bits of chicken in my spoon. "Darla and I both coming back to Greasy Creek at the same time."
Gran shot me a sharp look and then pushed back from the table. "Come on and finish up. You can get settled in your mother's old room while I take a bath."
I reached out to grab her bowl before she could pick it up. "Go on. I'll do the dishes."
"Thanks, Kate." Gran walked down the galley to the single bathroom. She turned before she closed the door. "I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're staying."
I smiled, relieved that she wasn't really angry with me. "Thank you, Gran, for everything."
She shut the door and I cleared the table. Gran didn't have a dishwasher, but I guess that living alone, she didn't need one. I washed the bowls with bright yellow lemon dish soap from the dollar store, and set them on the drainer to dry overnight. There were still a couple of servings of dumplings in the pot. I needed a bowl to put up the leftovers.
I opened the bottom of the green cupboard and saw frying pans and baking sheets. I closed it and turned to the white pie cabinet against the sidewall. Oh, I remembered this cabinet. It was strictly off limits. I was never allowed to touch it. I glanced down the hallway at the closed bathroom door. The sound of running water was faint.
I cracked the top door open and looked inside. Row after row of small bottles, some obviously recycled pickle and mason jars, lined the shelves. There were no pickles, or canned beans here though. Some bottles were filled with colored liquids, some with dried plants. A few jars had cloudy things floating in them. All the bottles were labeled with my Grandmother's neat spidery handwriting taped onto the front. I closed the door carefully and smiled. She might not call herself anything but Ruby Lawson, but I knew what she was. I knew what she was doing and she did too. Now, all I had to do was convince her to let me in. If I could get her to teach me what she knew, I'd be something other than a college dropout and an ex bride-to-be. I wouldn't be shy about it either. I'd call myself a witch.
The water turned off. I glanced toward the bathroom, afraid of seeing her standing in the hall. The door was still closed. I squatted down and looked in the cabinet under the sink. Old Cool-Whip containers and mismatched Tupperware bowls were stacked on top of one another in a leaning tower.
I carefully pulled out a yellowed bowl and peered into the cabinet to find a matching lid. It took me three attempts before I found it. I put the leftovers into the fridge and was washing the stew pot when Gran appeared wrapped in a faded pink robe. She was towel drying her long silver hair. She looked younger with it down.
"Thank you for doing the dishes, dear," Gran said. She leaned forward and peered at me. "I appreciate it." Her glance shot up above my head again. "The bathroom's all yours if you want a soak tonight."
I fought the urge to look up as I put the pot on the drying rack. She was beginning to make me nervous. "Thanks, but I think I'd rather get unpacked first."
"Come on into the bedroom." Gran smiled at me again, a tight smile that didn't reach her eyes. She led the way into the living room and opened a door across from the fireplace. "You were the last one to stay here. I think there's even a few of your old romance novels in the desk drawer."
I picked up my suitcase and walked into the room I had used for three months. Once again, nothing had changed. The same small desk stood in front of the window overlooking the front yard. The same iron horse shoe hung over same wooden twin bed. It was covered with the same blue chenille blanket. The same small dresser stood in the corner. Gran's house was so old that it didn't have closets. I never understood how anyone could build a house without closets. Even people back in the day had to have some place to keep stuff stored.
I set the suitcase on top of the dresser. I was suddenly exhausted. I hadn't slept much last night, hadn't slept at all actually, and the day was finally catching up to me. I yawned and stretched. "If it's okay with you Gran, I think I'm going to head on to bed tonight. I'm beat."
She finished drying her hair and held the towel down by her side. "Suit yourself. I'll get you up bright and early so we can get a head start into town. I'm going to watch a bit of television before I turn in. I'll keep it down so I won't bother you."
"I doubt you'll wake me," I said as I unzipped my suitcase. I pulled my make-up bag out and went back through the living room, through the kitchen and to the small bath. The room was still steamy from Gran's bath, and the air smelled minty. I scrubbed my teeth and looked down at the small jar on the back of the toilet. Gran's writing had been smudged and I couldn't read the label. I opened it up and sniffed. The smell of mint and a deeper, earthier odor filled my nose. Whatever it was that Gran put in her bath seemed to work for her. She looked great for a seventy-year-old woman. I was going to have to try some of it tomorrow.
I slipped back to the living room. Gran was settled on the far side of the couch with the remote in her hands. Grandpa Ernie's recliner was closer to the television, but I'd never seen her sit in it, before or after his death. "Good night, Gran."
"Good night, Kate. Get some sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a busy day."
I closed the door to the guest room, my room now, and peeled off my clothes. It was a relief to kick off my heels and slide into my nightgown. I pulled the covers back and climbed into the small bed before turning off the light.
I lay in the dark and listened to Gran call out an answer to a game show. From the sounds of it, she was watching a rerun of Wheel of Fortune. Not exactly wise woman behavior if you asked me, but still, my stomach was full of my favorite dinner and my sheets smelled like her homemade lavender laundry detergent. It was almost as if she'd known I was coming. Almost as if she knew before I did.