I was sitting on the lounger on the patio, with my hands resting on the warm back of Nugget, my cat, when the phone rang. I heard Mom answer it in the kitchen. Nugget carried on purring contentedly on my lap, and I continued to stare at the garden with unseeing eyes.
“Dana!” Mom was calling me in her perky phone-voice.
The heavy lump in my chest was pulling me down so badly that I did not want to move, let alone speak.
“Dana!” the voice was more demanding, “Dana, it’s Kitty’s mum. She wants to talk to you.”
I forced myself to answer, even though it physically hurt to speak.
“I can’t,” was all I could say.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I just… can’t.” As I spoke, I realised I’d called her “Mom” rather than “Mum”. I remembered how hard I’d tried to break the habit; tired of the sniggering that broke out in the classroom each time I’d said it. Now, it no longer seemed to matter.
I heard a sound that told me Mom had put her hand over the phone – her rings clanked against it. Her voice came a bit closer to the patio doors.
“I know this is hard for you, but Kitty’s mother is worried about Muffin.”
“Muffin?” Despite myself, I became a bit curious. Muffin was Kitty’s ugly little mutt who loved Kitty with all his heart.
“He misses Kitty so badly. And she wonders if you’d take him for a walk? So sorry to keep you, Rose,” Mom clearly took her hand off the receiver, “Dana is just in the middle of something. She’ll come to the phone soon. But do tell me how are you getting along now? Is there anything you need, anything at all? You do know you only have to ask?”
Mom kept on chatting in a compassionate voice, and I still sat there, unable to move. There was an aching hole in my heart.
“I’m putting you on hold for a moment, Rose.”
The next words would be for me.
“Kitty’s mum says if you don’t want to see anyone, you don’t have to. They’ll put Muffin out in the garden for you. Do you think you can do it now?”
“I don’t know, Mom…”
“I know this is hard for you, dear, but think about Kitty’s mum and Muffin.”
The memory of Muffin’s joyful squirms whenever he saw Kitty finally dragged me out of my misery. I was not the only one grieving.
“OK,” I gave in, “in about an hour?”
“She’ll be over in about an hour,” Mom announced, “and do take care of one another now, Rose, won’t you? Whenever you want to talk, just give me a call. Any time. Any time at all.”
It was still morning when I left, and the sun hadn’t yet dried the grass. The spider webs were decorated with dewdrops and the light of the sun glistened on them, as if someone had draped diamond necklaces everywhere. Mist was moving slowly in golden swirls in the shadier parts, and little birds were announcing their presence loudly while they flew and hopped about. They were everywhere, busy finding food for their young. It was a golden day, and life was making itself known. The kind of day that I’d have revelled in, once.
I walked along the familiar back road deep in my thoughts. Fresh hoofprints told me our neighbouring farmer had already been riding here this morning. The big round hoofs had pushed deep half circles in the soft verge. His Welsh cob, Cariad, was the kindest horse you could imagine. Kitty often went to groom her and all the other cobs that belonged to Tony and Jen, who bred them. She loved horses.
Had loved horses, I corrected my thoughts, with a lump in my throat.
Muffin’s ugly little goblin face greeted me at the gate of Kitty’s house. He was so happy to see me he squirmed as if he was going to wriggle out of his skin, and his little stump of a tail wagged so fast it was a blur. I took his leash that they’d left hanging from the gatepost for me, bent over the low gate to attach it to his collar, receiving several wet dog kisses while doing so, and then opened the gate for him. He jumped against my legs and whined until I lifted him up, and then he concentrated on washing my face thoroughly.
I have to say his pure joy made me feel slightly better.
I put Muffin down and he scooted forward, yanking the leash with such force I almost fell. He was really strong, despite his small size. I started running too, not wanting to stay by the garden gate in case I was surprised by someone from Kitty’s family.
Muffin seemed to know exactly where he was going, and I realised pretty quickly where it was, and why. He was going to our secret place to see if Kitty was there. Perhaps it was no bad thing that I couldn’t explain to the little guy that Kitty was gone forever. He’d have to figure that out himself and maybe it would be less painful for him that way. For a moment, I sort of wished I was a dog or a cat, but then I realised that it was no easier for them, either, just different.
I heard a car approaching from behind and moved closer to the edge of the road. It took me all my willpower to force myself not to jump frantically onto the verge and I started to tremble. The driver hit the brakes and the sound of the car sliding on the road was too much for my nerves. I screamed and crouched, covering my head with my arms, waiting for the impact.
“You thought I’d run you over?” I heard a familiar voice ask.
In a second the fear was gone and I jumped up to see Grandma’s huge smile.
She was still smiling as she stepped out of her spiffy red sports car.
“Come and have a hug!”
I flew into her outstretched arms. I never really hugged my mom, but I loved hugging Grandma. Maybe it was because she loved hugging me. Mom was more reserved. I knew she loved me, but she had never been much of a hugger. If she had to hug, it was one of those awkward, one-armed hugs, and she even patted my back just like men always do. I was sure it was embarrassing to look at, so I let Mom off the hook and did not hug her in public.
No such problems with Grandma. I squeezed her with all my strength, and she did the same back. She had really developed hugging into an art form. Despite her small frame she grabbed you like a bear and laughed with joy as she hugged, making you feel like you were the only important person for her at that moment. And to be honest, that was probably the case. She hugged you as if she was not sure if she would ever see you again.
Suddenly I felt a surge of happiness. Surely things would be better now that Grandma was here.
“And how are you now?” she asked me, pushing me to arm’s length and looking me in the eye.
She knew, of course, but she didn’t pity me, I could see that. She was simply asking a question, knowing what had happened. She knew exactly how to interact with me. I hated all that mushy pity talk that was going down.
“I’m OK, more or less,” I shrugged.
“Well, it gets easier with time. But were you on your way somewhere nice?”
“I was going to our special place. Or in fact, it seems Muffin is headed there. We called it our den. Would you like to come along?”
Having someone with me suddenly felt like a good thing.
Grandma left the car where it was – no one ever drove along that road really, and it wouldn’t have done the neat little car’s suspension any good to go offroad – and we jumped over the ditch onto the path that encircled the hay field. Grandma always wore jeans and trainers and never acted her age (“How should I know how to act my age? I’ve never been this age before!”). She was the wild child of the family. How or when this had happened I never really knew. Her early life as far as I could tell had been quite staid and rural, in a farming community, but at some point she had kicked back and become the glamorous and rather intriguing figure that I knew. She was sure fun to be around.
Our trainers and jeans got all wet from the still dewy grass that brushed against us as we followed the little footpath around the turn towards the forest, across the meadow. It entered the forest through some old oaks, and led, curving gently among the trees, to our secret place, mine and Kitty’s.
It was Kitty who had originally found it, a little abandoned hut, big enough for two people to take shelter in. It stood at the edge of what had originally been a cultivated field that was now almost overgrown with small trees, and we had concluded the hut had been meant for agricultural tools. Its roof was still whole, and someone had taken the trouble to cover it with felt. It was overgrown with moss now, but still waterproof. It even had a little gas stove.
We had brought two old plastic garden chairs to the hut, and a little table, from our garden shed – the kind you see all around the world in cafeterias and on beaches. My mother was a bit of a pack-rat, and never wanted to throw away anything that wasn’t broken, and these chairs and the table must have been from the early days of my parents’ marriage, gone into storage when they travelled around and then brought back into service when we came to live here. The white plastic had darkened into a dirty gray that no cleaning could remove. My parents never noticed they were missing. Not that I had ever expected them to. Dad always tried to chuck old stuff out without my mother noticing, and was quite successful at it too, being careful to throw only those things away that had not met her eye for a while. If he had noticed the furniture gone, he’d never have said a word anyway.
There, in our shed, we had sat and talked and laughed… Watching the forest change from season to season, through the open door. We had tamed some curious squirrels, and they frequently came to see if we had brought any nuts for them. I thought about them now and wondered how they were doing. They probably missed us – we must have seemed to have disappeared from their lives quite suddenly.
“So this is where you and Kitty used to hang out?”
I nodded, lifted the latch, and pulled the door open. Grief hit me in the face with such strength I could not help a little sob from escaping. Grandma’s hands were on my shoulders instantly.
“Come here. Sit down. You need to talk about it.” She turned me towards the chairs and gently pushed me down on one.
“I miss her so much,” I cried.
“Of course you do. You were the best of friends.” She squeezed my hand. “Now; you need to get it out of your system. Tell me how it happened.”
I drew in a ragged breath.
“We were walking by the road and that… drunk driver just hit her. There was this noise and…She… She bled so much. She hit her head, you see…” I tried to describe my painful memories for her, even though I did not want to. It was agonising, but as they came out, forced out bit by incoherent bit, I could feel a strange kind of release.
Grandma nodded, not letting go of my hand, but giving it an occasional gentle squeeze, waiting for me to continue.
“She… She didn’t die immediately. She clung to life for a week. That…that’s how they described it. Clinging to life. In and out of consciousness. Then she slipped into a coma and died. It was for the best, they said. The doctors. The huge brain contusion meant she would never have been… normal… again, had she survived. Not the Kitty we knew and loved…”
“That is probably true,” Grandma said softly. “It doesn’t make it easier, though.”
Tears rolled down my cheeks. It was more of a flood of tears than just a trickle. Grandma pulled out a clean tissue from her pocket and gave it to me.
“You know… they told me that when she was still half conscious, she talked to invisible beings… Like she saw someone who wasn’t there…” I wiped my tears away, tasting their salt on my lips.
“Yes, that is quite common when people are about to die,” Grandma commented in a matter-of-fact voice.
“Yes, it is. They say the invisible people are our loved ones, coming to fetch us when it is our time to leave.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
“Did you see her before she died?”
I shook my head.
“She was in intensive care and they didn’t allow visitors, other than her family. But her brother sent me a photo of her with his phone.”
“Oh dear…” Grandma shook her head. “That probably wasn’t a very good idea. I’m sure he meant well, but… ”
She was right. The picture was forever etched into my mind. Her immobile bruised body under the thin hospital sheet, with a machine breathing for her, and her swollen face…I knew then what horror meant. Strange how you use a word all your life, but you don’t really understand it until one day it becomes real for you. She was no longer conscious at that point. I didn’t want to remember Kitty like that, but could not erase the picture from my mind. Kitty – my friend. My best friend in the world.
“He said it was like looking at a car whose engine is still functioning, though the driver had already left. She was no longer there.”
We sat there in the summer morning, Grandma and I, on the old chairs outside the hut. She did not ask anything, and let me wander through the labyrinth of the memories of those painful days.
The night she died, I’d known it from the moment I woke up – I had seen her in my dream, with a winged creature that could only have been an angel. The wings had been odd, though. Not white, not feathery, but like a halo of blue around the angel’s body. They were in deep conversation with each other, and walking away from me. My throat had constricted the way it does when you lose something or someone you love in a dream, and you can’t call out.
Kitty had given the winged creature an object, which looked like a book. The angel had been male, with light colored hair, and, strangely, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt instead of the kind of flowing robes you’d expect an angel to wear, and he’d looked at me over his shoulder while he led Kitty away. I could still remember his bright blue eyes piercing the distance, and I had felt an odd burning sensation in my chest and back, and felt very much awake. And when the phone rang in the middle of the night, while I lay on my bed with my eyes staring into the darkness, I already knew.
The drunk driver who had killed Kitty would be brought to trial in the future and undoubtedly be convicted, but nothing would ever bring Kitty back.
Suddenly rage hit me. In my mind I saw the scared woman stumbling out of her car to almost collapse into the road because she was so drunk. I screamed out loud and slammed the table with my fist. I wanted to face her, I wanted to hit her, I wanted to kill her…
Muffin backed away from me, whining. I forced myself to stop, so I wouldn’t scare him.
“Sorry.” My voice shook.
Muffin stood for a while, observing me with his head tilted to one side, and then came back up to me with his rear end wriggling madly back and forth as though he should apologise, not me. I leaned down to pat him, and he licked the salty tears from my cheeks.
“Nothing to apologize for,” Grandma said. “If you weren’t angry at the driver, I would be worried. Now, do you have a mug here?”
“A mug? Yes, two…”
Grandma rose and I noticed she had a bag in her hands. Not a handbag, she never carried those, but a worn back pack. She went inside the hut, and I heard her put the kettle on our small gas stove. After a while she came back with two mugs of steaming instant coffee, placed these on the small table, and then returned to fetch a cake she had brought from the village store.
“Food helps when you’re sad. An age-old fact. All grandmothers know it,” she declared. She broke off a big piece of the cake and placed it determinedly on a tissue on the table in front of me.
My mouth was dry, and I wasn’t hungry at all, but if Grandma had gone to all this trouble, then I would eat her cake.
“That’s better. Low blood sugar makes it worse.” She was right. Forcing myself to eat did help, even though I didn’t want to admit it.
Suddenly Grandma stiffened and turned her head towards the depths of the forest. She sat there, unmoving, for a few seconds, then noticed me watching her and smiled.
“Just thought I heard something. There are no bears in the woods around here, are there? Distant relatives of Winnie the Pooh sniffing about in search of honey?”
I bit into the dry cake and washed it down with hot coffee. Then I managed a smile at her little joke.
“No bears, as far as I know. I don’t think any were stowed away in our bags when we left the States.”
“Our cake is safe, then. But I’ll go and see if there’s anything there. Perhaps it’s a deer. I’d love to get a photo of a deer in the forest. Do you mind?” She took her phone from her pocket, and rose from her chair.
“No, not at all.”
Grandma walked silently away, leaving me drinking my coffee, with Muffin pressed against my legs. I gave him the last bit of cake. Then I sat, looking down at the tiny ants marching over the wooden steps to reach the crumbs on the ground, tears falling silently down my cheeks and even dripping onto the knee of my jeans.
A little bee landed on the steps too. Bees seemed to like me; they were always flying around me, but I was never stung. I could hold them in my hand and not feel fear – something Mom never understood. Sometimes I even hummed to them and occasionally I imagined they answered me.
Muffin, who had been sitting looking hopefully at me wondering if I had more cake, turned his head and then got up and walked through the open door of the hut. I heard him sniffing and scampering about inside. He did not come out again. After a while I heard him scraping the floor and whining. An urgent, high-pitched whine, interspersed with little impatient growls.
“What is it, Muffin?” I asked with a thick voice. As if a dog could answer…
Well answer he did, in his own way. The scraping sounds were furiously rhythmical now, and he was positively howling.
I looked inside through the open door, and saw Muffin in the process of digging his way through the floor behind the little stove.
“Is there a mouse or something?” I asked, walking over to him.
One of the floorboards looked weird. It seemed to be sawn into sections… and the saw marks looked new, if the sawdust on the floor was anything to go by. Now I noticed that there was an old saw in the corner too. The teeth were all rusty and worn. It had not been there the last time we had been here. Next to it were a crowbar and a hammer – and the new nails at the end of the old board looked as though they’d been recently hammered in. Also… there was something marked on the wood. I bent down and peered at it, narrowing my eyes, which had trouble adjusting to the darkness after the bright sunlight. Yes, someone had drawn, or written, something on the floor right next to the saw marks where a piece of the floorboard had definitely been cut through.
I bent closer. D & K. Dana and Kitty. Our initials, the way Kitty always wrote them: the K pointing to the left from the back of the D. “We have each other’s backs,” she had explained when I had pointed out the wrong direction of the K.
I got on my knees, grabbed the floorboard and managed to get my fingers under the edge. After that, it was easy to lift the sawn piece away. It had been cleverly sawn at an angle so that the lower part was narrower than the upper one and so it fitted neatly into the space without falling right through.
I was looking down through an opening, which gave directly onto the dry ground underneath the floor. Nothing had grown on that earth for decades. And there, placed on the dusty ground, was a little metal box that I knew very well.
The box was white and had a metal handle that fell flat into an indentation on the lid. The lid and sides were covered in little cat caricature stickers. I had always wondered why Kitty did not have a cat, as it was obvious she was crazy about them. Well, probably because she had found Muffin, whom she loved dearly, at a rescue shelter. Muffin was small and his best friend wouldn’t have called him good-looking, with his impressive underbite that would probably have earned him an honorable mention in the world’s ugliest dog competition. Muffin also hated cats with the same enthusiasm he loved Kitty.
I knew I was looking down at Kitty’s little strong box, where she always hid her secrets from her nosy siblings. She carried the key to the box whenever she left home. The last time I’d seen it, it had been on her desk the evening before she was hit by the car. And now it was here… She must have brought it the evening before the accident, after I had left her house. Perhaps because of this she had slept late and was half asleep when I had come to ask her out. Maybe that was why she had not paid attention on the road…
No. I shook my head, though there was no one to see the gesture. It had not been Kitty’s fault. It was that damned drunk driver’s fault, may she rot in hell.
But why ever had Kitty come here late in the evening with her precious box?
Still on my knees I put my hand through the opening almost up to my shoulder, managed to grasp the handle, and lifted the box up onto the floor. Muffin was whining and running around me, sniffing the box.
The key was attached to the handle with a wide red silk ribbon with embroidered pink roses. I remembered that one too. It had decorated the waist of Kitty’s old porcelain doll, the one that sat permanently on top of her book shelf, out of reach of Ella, Kitty’s little sister who was still too young to handle such precious things. Kitty had inherited the doll from her grandmother. It was a real antique, not one of those retro-dolls advertised in magazines.
I opened the white box, and an envelope looked back at me. Literally. Kitty had drawn two eyes on the envelope, looking directly at me. The eyes were smiling. She had always been good at drawing, and the smiling expression had been created with skill, lifting the lower lid slightly. The eyes looked eerily real. They looked familiar, too. Even the little mole on the temple, beside her right eye, was carefully drawn. Kitty must have looked into the mirror and drawn her own eyes.
Underneath the eyes something was written in Kitty’s bold handwriting. I recognized the long curving loops and strong rhythmical style of it. Kitty’s handwriting was like something from another age, and flowed with beauty, grace and character. Nothing like my scribbling – teachers sometimes commented they had trouble reading my handwriting. No wonder – when I wrote, I always felt as if I was in a hurry to finish the sentence. Probably because I typed extraordinarily fast, and writing with a pen was too slow a method to write down my thoughts. They always ran with such speed my handwriting simply could not keep up with them.
“To Dana: to be opened after I am dead,” the envelope said.
Muffin glanced through the open door. I thought I heard Grandma returning, and, without thinking, slid the envelope under the waist of my jeans, pulling my shirt over it. Then I replaced the box under the floorboards, got up and kicked the board back in place, just in time before she appeared in the doorway.
“Maybe we should be heading home – what do you think?” Grandma asked.
“Yes, I think so too. Let’s drop Muffin off at his house first, though.”
We put the coffee mugs back on the window sill, closed the door and began to walk back to the car, with my arm linked through Grandma’s, and Muffin leading the way.