Short Story: Ethan Stays

It’s been a while since I’ve written a short story. I’ve been mulling over a few ideas here and there. Starting and stopping a few times on this one and other ones half finished because I was half interested in them.  I finally sat down and just wrote, not putting too much pressure to figure out where it would go or how it would end.  It’s sort of my nod to cooler weather, ghosts, youth, old age, family, and life and death.

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potpourri.jpg

Ethan was seven years of age when he stayed with his grandma at her large house. It was on the last Friday of September when the leaves are well established yellows, oranges, and reds that he, for the first time would be away from him parents’ watchful eyes. He looked forward to being away from his older sister. The whole weekend Ellen wouldn’t pick on him for not understanding her over macaroni and cheese or whatever else she made from a box during her attempt at being a pseudo babysitter.

It was on that Friday his parents seemed a little too eager on the car ride.  His father had scrambled out of the driver’s seat, rushing to where he sat.  He needed no help getting out, but his father helped him anyway.  He practically pulled him from the car.  Ethan had turned back once, that brief moment to see his mom admiring her face in the mirror, as he walked alongside his dad. 

When she realized he was looking at her, she brought her hand up, moving it back and forth.  It looked like a broken mechanical doll repeating the same movement or a weathered looking scarecrow during a storm.

After his dad rang the doorbell, Ethan realized he had to go the bathroom.  They stood on the steps for several minutes until the door opened.His grandma, Dorothy, had recently been using a cane to get around.  Once he was alone with her, he intended to ask her about the origins of it.

“Well, what do we have here?  It’s the dashing duo.”  Ethan looked at his grandma’s red hair in curlers with a clear plastic bag covering them.

“Hi, mom.  Here to drop off Junior.”

“I thought you were coming at six.”

“It’s a quarter past.”

Dorothy looked at her fake gold watch.  “I guess it is.”

“Time stops for no one.”

“You sound like your father.”

“And, how is he?”

“The last time I brought him flowers, he seemed fine.”

By now Ethan was hopping from one foot to the other, which Dorothy noticed although his dad did not.  “You’ve been at my place enough to know where the bathroom is.”

Ethan dropped his bag and ran into the house.

“I’ll be back on Sunday to pick him up, around noon.”

“He might not want to leave.”

“Either way, I’ll be here.”

“Whatever, whenever.”

Ethan Sr. kissed his mom on the forehead and rushed back to his car. 

Ethan heard his parents’ car peel out of the driveway as he put the toilet seat down.  His grandma had one of those ugly covers for it.  This one reminded him of peas or cartoon vomit.  It was a sickly green color.  The rug was the same ugly color and as he washed his hands, he was glad his feet or shoes were not touching it.  His grandma had bought a stool so he could better reach the sink.  He learned to pump two squirts of soap onto his palm and rub his hands together, quite vigorously from her.  He was not sure what she meant by clean hands will help you get ahead in life.

She held her arms out, cane raised, and waited for his hug.  She had a way of smooshing his face against her thigh and no amount of fabric between their flesh stopped her heat from warming his cheeks especially when she patted him on the back.  Each time her palm touched his shirt, the more his cheek changed form.  “Now that you’re no longer dancing like a mad man, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“For starters, you can get your bag so you’re not wearing the same underwear for the duration of your stay.  Your dad put it by the door.”

“Can I sleep in the room he used to sleep in?” Ethan asked, darting off. 

“I thought you liked the room grandpa used to sleep in.” Dorothy said, turning in the direction he went. 

“Not anymore,” he shouted.

“Why not?” she shouted back.

He waited to respond until he returned.  “I don’t know,” he said, knowing well enough why he did not want to sleep there.  Ethan’s grandfather was shaped like a barrel by the time of his passing.  He had been physically fit in his youth and the majority of his adulthood, but he had contracted a debilitating disease that left him in a wheelchair for the last year of his life.  He had been told he did not have much time remaining and made the choice to live it to the fullest, which meant eating everything he had restricted up to that point.  He couldn’t get his fingers on donuts, cupcakes, pies, and cakes fast enough.  He became a sugar junkie as his grandma told him during the funeral.  It was open casket and the first time he had seen a dead body, let alone a fat dead body.

Dorothy looked at his eyebrows bunched up like caterpillars.

“Grandma, you aren’t going to die soon, are you?”

“No.”

“Because grandpa hasn’t been gone that long and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Just because I have a cane now doesn’t mean I’m going to keel over.  Besides, it’s not as if I plan on dying when you’re around.  I’ll make sure you’re nowhere near me when it happens and if you are, I’ll shove you out of the room.”

“This is why I don’t want to sleep in grandpa’s bed.”

“Because you’re afraid I’ll die?”

“I’m afraid I’ll die in there like he did.”

“That’s the best way to go, in your sleep, but you don’t have to worry about that for a very long time.”

“You know that for a fact.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Look in the mirror.”  Dorothy pointed to the mirror hanging on the wall.  “I’m sure we’ll see the same thing.”

Ethan walked to the mirror on the wall.  He studied his face.  There weren’t any wrinkles on it, unlike the ones etched into his grandpa’s living or dead face.  His skin was pale, eyes appeared almost gray, and his nose was slightly crooked from the time he had gotten into a fight with his sister.  She had knocked him down and before he could soften the fall, his face hit the pavement.  He found satisfaction in her punishment.  While she had to sit in her room without music, television, computer, and phone, he got to play video games when all his homework was finished.  Despite this acquired flaw, he looked like a normal child.

“Are you going to tell me what you see?”

“I see me.”

“Describe me.”

“Light brown hair.  It’s shorter now because I got it cut.”

“Tell your mother she can save money by giving you bowl cuts.”

“Stop it, grandma.”

“It’s true.”

“I’m getting better at throwing a football,” he said, putting his finger to his lips. “I’ve been told my feet are big for my age but Ellen told me that.  When I’m older, I’ll be average height.”

“What does everything you said have in common?”

“I don’t know.”

“Take one more look at yourself, from top to bottom.”

“I’m normal looking.”

“What else?

“I guess I’m not as old as you are.”

“Bingo.”

“That doesn’t mean I won’t die in grandpa’s bed.”

“The chances of you dying in his bed are so small it’s not worth thinking about.  I’m sure your mother told you worrying causes premature wrinkles.”

“No.”

“No one likes a worry wart, and you shouldn’t waste any more of your precious breath on this.  There’s nothing special about your grandpa’s bed.  It doesn’t have magical powers and neither does mine.  I’ve never known a bed to kill anyone.”

“Then why did Ellen tell me when October starts, spooky things happen to good people?”

“She’s rattling your chain.”

“I touched human eyeballs the last time we were alone.”

“If she actually did that, your parents would put her in the funny farm.  Stay here, I’ll be back shortly.” 

When she returned, she told him to close his eyes.  She spit into her hand and rolled two grapes around.

 “Okay, did they feel like this?”

“A little bit.”

“Slimy.”

“Yeah.  What are they?”

“Touch them again.’

He picked up a grape and held it in between his fingers. “I know what it is.” 

“Tell me.”

“A grape.”

“I taught your sister everything she knows.  Now take this other eyeball in my hand and throw them away. 

Ethan opened his eyes, grabbed the other grape, and ran off toward the kitchen. 

Dorothy shouted, “don’t forget to wash your hands.”

He came back with clean hands, grabbed his bag, and headed for the staircase with her following.  She waited at the bottom step as he climbed the wooden stairs, each time creaking under the weight of his body.

When he reached the last step, Ethan paused when he smelled a mixture of cinnamon and pumpkin potpourri.  From the potency of it, he knew it was in every room including the one he would be calling his own for a few days.  He smelled hints of outside air too, as he suspected every window was open in every room, another mixture but this time of growth and decay.

Inside his dad’s old room, he set his bag down and took in all the medals, ribbons, and awards his father had gotten throughout high school and college.  It was hard for him to believe he was once his age, but there was proof of it on the walls.  Photos of him with his own dad adorned a major portion of the wall above the bed.  His grandpa told Ethan he was going to grow up to be like him as they had similar personalities and he was the only one who enjoyed hearing his ghost stories in the last months of his life.

As he unzipped his bag to get his Gameboy, as he was excited to show his grandma how he had reached the next level in Super Mario Bros. since his last visit, he heard a noise coming from the closet.  The possibility of it being a ghost sent shivers up his spin and rested at the nape of his neck.  He dropped his Gameboy and cautiously walked to the closet, tiptoeing part of the way. 

The handle was chilly to the touch and after it had warmed, he opened the door.  He expected his grandpa to be on the other side, but no one was there.  He released the breath he was holding but let out a gasp when he heard a scratching from behind the wall.  Shoe boxes stacked on top of each other and old clothes on hangers blocked much of the back wall, but he knew that was where it originated.  He moved boxes and created an opening through the clothes.  The wall felt the same as any other in his grandma’s house.  He leaned forward, as far as he could without tipping over, and listened for any noise.   When he heard nothing, he watched for movement.  Nothing happened and was satisfied old houses were more prone to make weird noises.  He closed the door, half confident he was safe.

Dorothy had given up waiting for him and was in the kitchen sipping on apple cider with a cinnamon stick poking out of the cup when he entered.

“You want a cup of cider?

“Maybe later.  Can I have hot chocolate instead?”

“There’s packets in pantry, but I don’t have marshmallows.”

“That’s okay.”

“You need help pouring the water?”

“No.”

“The water should still be hot.”

“Okay.”

Ethan grabbed a cup from the rack on the counter and left enough space for the cocoa. The best part was mixing the powder into the water.  He liked to watch the spoon spin around in the cup every so often.  Maybe, he was more like his grandpa instead of his dad.  His dad hated hot cocoa.  “Where did you get that cane?”

“It should look familiar.”

“It looks like grandpa’s old cane.

“That’s because it is.”

“But dad bought you a flower cane.”

“I refuse to use that ugly thing and now that your grandpa’s gone it has some meaning.  Hard to believe I thought this was ugly too one time.”

“He liked eagles.”

She patted the top of the cane as if was a living eagle.  “He sure did.”

“Do you believe in ghosts like he did?”

“I prefer to focus on living.  Get your cocoa before your water gets cold.”

Ethan hurried to the pantry and brought back two packages.  He took turns pouring and stirring the powder until some of it separated and turned a different color.  He watched the spoon spin and spin around the sides of the cup. 

“Why don’t you believe in ghosts, grandma?”

“I believe in reincarnation.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s when someone takes another form after they die.”

“Like a chair.”

“In some religions but I choose to believe people come back as a different person.” “How would I know if I am?”

“You’d know things about the past that you couldn’t possibly know in this lifetime.  For example, if you fought in the Civil War, you’d have hunches about it.  If you died in battle, you’d have memories about it, often vivid ones.”

“I don’t remember anything like that.”

“Then, it’s safe to say, you didn’t fight in the Civil War.”

“Could I have been reincarnated from grandpa?”

“You were already living when he died so no.”

“But someone might be grandpa who hasn’t been born yet.”

“Maybe, a part of him.”

“I heard something from the closet in dad’s room.”

“Probably the spiders in the walls.”

“Ewww.”

“Better than mice.  You remember the mice from last year in the attic.”

“Yeah.”

“If you hear anymore noises, let me know.  I’ll have your dad come over and set more traps.  You know how much he loves to crawl around for me.”

Ethan smiled and took a large gulp of his hot cocoa.  As if reading his mind, Dorothy stood up and announced it was time to take out her curlers.  He was lucky she allowed him to touch her hair.  If it was his mom, she wouldn’t let him near her hair even if he begged. 

It took a while for her to reach the middle of the staircase, but when she did the air felt colder the second time.  He didn’t know if it was because the air had actually cooled outside or if he really feared the possibility of seeing his grandpa’s ghost in the closet.

“Will you save me if I’m being attacked at night?”

“I think it’s time to focus on something other than ghosts.”

“What if something attacks me that you can’t see?”

“You can’t expect me to protect you if I can’t see it.”

“But I’ll know where it is.”

“Then, we’ll fight against it together.”

“You promise we’ll be safe.”

“Nothing has happened to you so far.”

“No.”

“Your father made it out alive after living with me for eighteen years.”

“I know.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Okay.”

He wanted to believe his grandma, but he was certain he saw the faint outline of a hand and partial arm on her leg.  When her foot left the last step, they disappeared.  Maybe Ellen had gotten the month wrong, spooky things happened at the end of September instead of the beginning of October.  When Dorothy turned and smiled at him, it reminded him of what his dad said before leaving their house.  The words echoed within him, and he felt something he had never experienced before.

2019

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