Emmaline glanced to one of the empty picture frames, then looked back at the woman. “I . . .” she started. Before she got to deciding how she wanted to answer her grandmother, she had to decide if she wanted to. She missed the old woman dearly, and it was great to hear her voice, see her face and all that. But her grandmother did not play dress up. She started over. “Who are you?”
Her grandmother closed her eyes and shook her head lightly. “Don’t ask me stupid questions, honey. Who is Emmaline? Emmaline is not your name, is it?”
Goodness, she did sound very much like the woman. A familiar someone was so welcome. She was growing weary of holding up defenses, so she let them down. “I’m sorry,” she said, lowering her head just a bit.
Her frog-laden grandmother leaned forward in her chair. “Don’t you apologize to me. It’s not my name you’ve forgotten.” Emmaline nodded. “I was just curious,” said her grandmother, “who she was.”
They were quiet for a bit, then she said, “Can you tell me my name?”
Her grandmother snorted. “Nope. No one on Earth can tell someone else what their name is.” She leaned back again in her chair. “We’re the human race, honey. We can go by whatever we choose.”
That seemed true enough. If she decided tomorrow that her name was Socket Wrench no one could really tell her different, no one but the government, but what do they know.
Her grandmother snorted again, “You’re not going by Socket Wrench.” She twined her fingers together, which she did either when she was about to prove she was smarter than you, or when her leg itched but she was too old to reach it and too proud to ask someone else to (the woman was prone to itchy legs, probably because she spent so much time sitting, Emma knew because she complained about it so often.) “Let me ask you something more important. What do you know about almonds?”
Almonds? Well yes, of course she remembered something about almonds. Among many things, word games had always been something Emma and her grandmother shared a fondness for. Especially when she was a little girl, the two would sit for hours at and try to come up with their own tongue twisters. There was one that had always been a mutual favorite. It wasn’t the most difficult they’d concocted, but it was the one that most made them giggle. Emma had to grin.
“All almond omelets are always already alternating Olive Gardens.”
Her old fingers untwined and her grandmother smiled her wry smile. “I think you still know who you are.”
Then quiet again for a bit, then she asked, “So, what do you think, grandma?”
“Gonna have to be more specific.”
“About me, this.” She gestured to the red recliner she sat in. “I’m traveling with a killer.”
As her grandmother nodded her favorite chair rocked gently. “You are.”
“What do you think? Should I be going back to dad?”
“Oh, honey,” said her grandmother with a wave like she was swatting a fly, “you go back to your dad and he’s liable to cuff you to your bedpost. He’s like a blind, dickless monkey without you.” Emmaline started a little. She forgot how crude her grandmother was, on occasion. The woman’s frog belly jiggled as she chuckled and she said, “sorry.”
“I know,” said Emmaline and she looked down at the frog head on the floor. Then she looked back up and said, “Grandma, I promise you that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.” She laughed a little as she spoke. “This guy kills people.” She pointed to the wall behind her with her thumb.
“I know he does.”
“And . . .”
“Girl, many people kill people. Writers, teachers, baseball coaches, mothers, fathers for sure, burger flippers. You. We all make decisions every day that are liable to lead to somebody’s death somewhere down the chain. Remember when that vice principal at your school came in with the flu and half the front office ended up in the hospital?”
Emmaline sighed. She knew it wasn’t the time to explain that Mrs. Earhart had had food poisoning and that no one at all was hospitalized, so instead she said, “I don’t think that’s the kind of kill people he was talking about. He said he does it for a living.”
Her grandma leaned forward again. “So now you’re gonna begrudge the man for living?”
She closed her eyes, having had many conversations with her grandmother like this before. “Nope, I’m not.”
“I didn’t think so.”
She almost kept pressing the question, but decided better of it. She sat back in her chair, as did her grandmother, and they shared one more quiet moment. “It’s good to see you, grandma.”
The woman grinned, closed her eyes as if she’d suddenly decided to go to sleep, and said, “I know, honey.”
Her grandmother had always been the type of person that could fall asleep at will. Just as easily as she snapped her fingers or juggled, which she was actually very good at. She’d never understood how it was possible, how the physical realm allowed her to leave it so easily. When she tried to sleep, unless she was utterly exhausted due to an especially taxing day, she was pinched and tugged by the silliest, most frivolous thoughts. Why are bad words bad? Which is an alpaca and which is a llama, again? What if Hell was just reincarnation in which those that described themselves as dog people were forced to live full lives as cats, and vice versa? She’d have to get lost deeply into one of these inquiries to distract herself long enough to fall asleep. But with her grandmother she could leave the room to get a plate of Hot Fries and come back to find the old woman drooling on herself.
Or she could’ve, when the old woman was alive. Emmaline supposed she was sleeping pretty much exclusively now that she was dead.
Dead? Dead, and yet lying in the chair right in front of her, snoring like a chainsaw. That was really something, too. When grandma was asleep in the living room, the entire house and most probably every child playing kick ball in the cul-de-sac outside was fully aware, because the snoring was the closest Emmaline could imagine to the sound of a magnitude 6 or higher earthquake. And her grandmother liked to always leave the windows open. Once their neighbor Jerrold had called the police to report that he’d heard an automatic weapon firing in their house, and to this day she couldn’t decide whether or not it was just one of Jerrold’s tasteless “pranks.”
Emmaline sat there for a little while, listening to her grandmother rumble and watching her nose vibrate with every breath intake. Of course she was confused, but she didn’t care. She took off her shoes so she could put her toes down on the bear/moose/goose rug. And when she did, she did, she noticed that the fuzzy frog head on the ground seemed closer to her than it had been before. It did kill away a little of the comfortability she’d gained. The main element of horror, she’d always thought, was taking possession of the familiar and introducing unfamiliarity within it. Warping it. She looked back to her grandmother, who she had forgotten was currently 90% frog. It wasn’t necessarily horrifying, but she was undoubtedly slightly unsettled. My, was she slightly unsettled. When she returned her eyes to the frog head, it was of course looking straight at her. She cleared her throat, then bent over to pick it up. And then she awoke.
Still in John Bain’s recliner, back in his RV. She curled her toes, pressed her feet into the shag carpet, arched her back, and did one of those post-sleep full body stretches that feel arguably better than orgasm, and she couldn’t help but let out a small pleasure growl as she did, which immediately made her over-aware of herself and the person within earshot.
“Well, a rise and a shine to you, madam,” said John Bain.