The day that Nana May died was hot and syrupy and clung to the skin in tiny beads. The sun sat at its highest peak in a cobalt sky, searing the earth until it cracked open, scorching the grass until it singed brown. There was no breeze to bring cool relief, no rain cloud to break at any time soon. As each minute of the day dripped by, the world slowed down, hissing and spitting like an old car engine.
Nana’s many cats crawled from one shady place to another as midday shadows shifted across the dusty front yard. A young ginger tom named Red found solace beneath the rusty shell of a pick-up truck. Other felines pawed their way under hedgerows and the lush woodland canopies that surrounded Nana May’s whitewashed house. Even the birds, usually so full of song, moved on their branches, spreading their feathers to expel the warmth. Crickets in the foliage chirped lethargically. Fat honeybees swayed drunkenly through the air. For miles around the land lay flat on its back, melting away on the last Sunday of July.
It could have been the coldest of winters before Nana May looked up to notice. Upon returning from the village church, she’d spent the last hour and twenty-four minutes of her life preparing the culinary delights that now baked and sizzled in the kitchen.
There were butter almond cookies, sweet bread, and sponge cake. Sugary smells permeated the air, mingling with the delicate scent of tea leaves that were steeping in an old brown teapot.
Nana May finished pumping pink icing onto the cooling cookies, paused to wipe perspiration from her brow, and was on the move once more, shifting her large frame toward the kitchen table.
A battalion of gingerbread men smiled up at her. Nana May smiled back as she pictured the wide, hungry eyes of her grandchildren. They had seen more than their fair share of horrors, but if they could finish off a mountain of her butterscotch fudge (which contained more butter than sense) and still come back for more, she knew they were over the worst of it.
This was her gift to them. Every Sunday, a different tasty mountain to fill their stomachs. Every Sunday, a little further away from the past.
Nana scooped up one of the biscuit men and frowned.
“Your smile’s not big enough for my little ones,” she sighed. The gingerbread man looked pensive, melancholy even; his eyebrows pulled down over sad blue eyes. “Oh well, plenty more where you came from.”
Pinching his leg between finger and thumb, Nana May tore it from his body.
“Sorry about that,” she chuckled, as she popped the gingerbread limb into her mouth.
It was hot against her tongue, so she sucked in a deep, cooling breath. Caught up in the sudden rush of air, the leg flipped over, hit the back of her throat, and lodged itself in her gullet.
Nana May’s face flushed red.
Her free hand reached for her neck. She stared at the gingerbread man with wide eyes, then watched it slip from her fingers and break into pieces on the flagstone floor.
Panic scrambled up Nana May’s throat.
Her heart fluttered, beating faster and faster, then not at all, then in mad, erratic measures. Nana spun a full circle, her long skirt billowing like sheets on a washing line, her arms flapping at her sides. Scarlet rivulets filled her eyes as blood vessels started to burst.
The coal oven that she refused to replace with a modern stove emitted enough heat to keep out the coldest of winter nights, and now it blasted her with molten waves.
She stumbled, striking her hip on the corner of the table. The back door swung into view and she lunged towards it, a cacophony of gurgles and squawks punctuating every step. Trembling fingers curled themselves around the door handle and with one final and tremendous effort, Nana May wrenched the door open and staggered outside.
The first thing she saw was her rocking chair.
A summer evening had not passed without her sitting in this spot, rocking back and forth, listening to the evening chorus of birds and insects. She told stories to her grandchildren from this chair—stories that filled them with laughter, sometimes with fear. This was the chair that had rocked her to sleep each night at the bedside of her cancer-stricken husband, the chair she’d wept in when he’d died. It was as much a part of her as her own bones.
Nana May slumped back into the chair’s well-worn grooves. Her head rolled back and she saw the sky falling towards her. The sun was coming down with it, setting fire to the world. Where the woodland met the garden, she saw a darkness lurking in the trees, and it terrified her.
Above the din of her hammering heartbeat, she heard an irrevocable quiet. Then there was only beauty. Then there was only light.
Nana May found she could breathe again.
Sebastian Montgomery sucked in a breath as he watched Elise freeze on the bottom step, her fingertips turning white as they gripped the rail.
“What did you call me?” she said, without turning around.
Sebastian tried to speak, but a dry croak and a squeak sprung out. Slowly, his sister turned, her tangled mass of blonde locks writhing like a nest of vipers.
“S-sorry!” Sebastian stammered.
But Elise was already advancing, emerald eyes ablaze, hands curled into angry balls.
The broken blue toy car Sebastian was holding clattered to the floor. He took a step back, dark hair falling over even darker eyes.
“Do you even know what that word means?” his sister raged.
Sebastian shook his head from side to side. “No! I’m sorry, Elise—I don’t!”
It was true. He’d heard the word for the first time a week ago, on the last day of the school year. He and his gaggle of nine-year-old friends had been sitting around a picnic table, eating their lunchtime sandwiches in the sunshine, when Billy Tooms had looked up and declared: “Miss Barker’s a whore!”
The other boys had exploded with shocked laughter, but Sebastian had knitted his brow into a confused frown. He thought Miss Barker was a wonderful teacher, but the word Billy had used to describe her sounded harsh and unpleasant.
When Elise had wandered into the hall and accidentally stomped on his favourite toy car, the word had shot from Sebastian’s mouth like a firecracker.
Now, he stared at his sister as she welled with fury. Elise’s clumsiness was getting worse. Nan May had said it was because she was going to be a teenager soon, and that all teenagers were clumsy (and bad tempered, although there would be none of that under her roof). Even so, it didn’t mean Elise could break his toys and get away with it. That wasn’t fair!
“When will you ever learn to keep your big mouth shut?” she cried, her voice breaking.
A tear slipped from her eye and Sebastian watched it sail down the contours of her cheek. Before he could reply, Elise turned and hurried away in the direction of the kitchen.
Confusion overwhelmed him. Usually, their fights ended with Elise pinning him to the ground and pinching his ears until he wept. Sebastian was small for his age, his clothes always hanging off his slight frame. Elise was tall and healthy, and strong like their grandmother. It was unnerving to see her so quickly crushed, her fight snuffed out like a candle flame.
Guilt flooded Sebastian’s veins, and although he was still unsure why that word had had such a devastating effect, he vowed never to utter it again.
A thought struck him. What if Elise told Nana May?
Sebastian’s love for his grandmother equalled his love for Elise, and he loved them more than everything else. The looks of shame and disappointment his grandmother might bestow upon him would be enough to break his heart into a thousand pieces.
Standing in the hall, he felt tiny splinters already beginning to spread.
The kitchen was a furnace. Heat from the stove turned the air into treacle. Wisps of steam puffed up from the cookies cooling on the table and the tea steeped too long in the pot. Elise had been standing here for just a few moments, but beads of perspiration were already clinging to her skin and hair.
She wrinkled her nose at the unpleasant odour hiding behind the sugary smells. Smoke was spilling from the edges of the oven door. Grabbing a towel, Elise removed a blackened loaf of bread and dumped it onto a cooling tray. She stood for a moment, wiping her stinging eyes.
Stupid Sebastian, she thought. Always picking things up from his stupid friends and not knowing what to do with them!
The kitchen closed in on her as something else stirred her emotions. For as long as she could remember, she had never known her grandmother to burn a single thing.
“Timing is like breathing,” Nana once said, while showing the children how to bake the perfect apple pie. “Get it wrong and you’re going to run into some trouble.”
Elise looked towards the back door that led to the garden. It stood wide open like a hungry mouth.
“Nana May? Are you out there?”
As she waited for Nana’s soothing voice to reply, her gaze flitted about the kitchen, fixing upon the shattered gingerbread man lying on the floor, then darting back to the loaf of burned bread. Ignoring the unease creeping into her thoughts, she edged towards the open door.
So, Nana May had finally gone and burned something—did it really mean something bad had happened to her?
Elise stepped outside.
The first thing to hit her was the scent of the roses that sprang from well-tended beds. The second was the staggering heat, which made the temperature of the kitchen seem tepid.
As Elise allowed her body a moment to adjust to the discomfort, she turned her head. Nana May was sitting in her rocking chair, eyes closed, hands folded on her lap, chin resting on her chest.
For the briefest of moments, she looked like an old woman taking a much-needed afternoon nap. Elise sighed with relief. Then she noticed little things that filled her dread.
Strands of hair, usually drawn back into a flawless bun, had sprung loose. The skin on Nana’s face, usually so radiant despite the ravages of age, was now so pallid and waxy that not even sunlight could penetrate it.
Then there was the matter of her chest. It did not rise and fall like someone in the throes of sleep. It did not rise and fall at all.
Nana May had been petrified like the people of Narnia. She was an ice sculpture sitting out to melt on a summer afternoon.
An odd, strangled whimpering disturbed the air. Almost a minute went by before Elise realised it was coming from her own mouth. She snapped her teeth together and the sound ricocheted back down her throat, slamming into her stomach.
The world turned full circle. She saw the ground rush past overhead. Then it swung right back and struck her on the temple.
Oblivious to the pounding in her head and the trickle of blood darkening her hair, Elise pulled herself up from the garden path. Her grandmother’s left shoe had slipped from her foot and was now hanging precariously from her toes. How they had always laughed at Nana May, whose feet never reached the floor when sitting, whose shoes always slipped off as she rocked back and forth, enchanting them with wondrous bedtime stories.
Elise willed it to fall, but the shoe remained.
“Nana!” She was dead, of course. Elise had known it almost instantly. “Nana May!”
How she longed to rush over and bury herself in the folds of her grandmother’s clothes! How she yearned to feel the beat of her heart against her aching head! Elise extended a trembling hand towards Nana May, wishing her touch to be one that healed.
“What are you doing?”
The voice was startling, shattering the silence that had enveloped her in a protective shroud.
“You’re bleeding,” Sebastian observed.
Any trace of guilt had clearly vanished the second he’d stumbled across the feast in the kitchen. Now, he stood in the doorway, cramming warm cookies into his mouth. Chocolate sauce decorated his cheeks and fingers; smears that his grandmother would have wiped away with spit on her handkerchief after scolding his impatience.
Elise burst into a fit of hysterical giggles.
“Quiet!” Sebastian chided. “Nana’s sleeping.”
Elise stopped laughing.
“Go inside,” she muttered.
Sebastian stepped from the harbour of the doorway and onto the path. He stood over Elise, pointing a finger at her bloody temple.
“Maybe we should wake Nana up. You need a plaster on that.”
“I can put a plaster on it myself. Go inside.”
“Yes, but Nana should take a look at it in case it gets infected.”
“I’ll clean it with the antiseptic from the medicine cabinet. Now go inside.”
Sebastian ignored her. “How’d you do it, anyway?”
“I fell. Please, Sebastian.”
But Sebastian was already stepping over her and tapping Nana May on the shoulder.
“Nana?” Sebastian smiled at Elise as he waited. “Nana, it’s time to wake up.”
He shook her, sending the chair rocking back and forth. The shoe came away from their grandmother’s toes and flipped over onto the grass. Nana’s hand slipped from her lap. Her head rolled around on her neck.
Sebastian took a step back, his face the colour of sour milk.
“She won’t wake up.”
Elise stared at the gravel path, at the trees, anywhere but his stricken features.
“I know,” she whispered. “Please, just go inside.”
Sebastian didn’t move. “Why Elise? Why should I go inside? What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Why don’t you go and get the antiseptic for my head?”
“No!” Fat salty tears coursed down his cheeks. He threw the cookies he was holding onto the ground and grabbed Nana’s shoulders with both hands.
“Nana!” Sebastian shouted in the woman’s face. “Nana May!”
“For God’s sake, she’s dead!”
Sebastian stared at his sister.
“It’s true,” she whispered, as she curled into a ball on the garden path, not caring that the gravel was scratching her skin.
Sebastian let out a low, painful moan. His knees buckled and he fell onto the lawn. He sat there for a moment, his mouth twitching, the veins in his forehead popping. Then his eyes rolled back in their sockets.
Elise watched helplessly as he tumbled into darkness.