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Grandma’s Kitchen

This story is part of the Escort Duty collection.  Thought I’d pass it along.


Grandma’s Kitchen

The man stumbled through the doorway.  The worn linoleum at his feet was waxed and polished to a mirror shine, just as he remembered.  The soft glow of the light above the sink illuminated a room painted a dusty lavender, with sprays of dried flowers and herbs tacked up over the kitchen table.  The scent of fresh coffee, propane burning, and something yeasty and spiced with cinnamon filled his head.

At the stove, with her back to him, stood an elderly woman.  Her back was bent with age, but her strong hands moved the heavy cast iron pans with ease.  Her summer house dress, white with blue flowers, was clean and starched, just as he always remembered it.

“Hello, baby,” she said without turning around, “It’s been a long time.”

“Grandma?” he stammered, taking another step into the kitchen.  He looked around, taking in the neat rows of church and PTA cookbooks and canisters on the counter, as well as the empty dish rack next to the enormous farm sink she kept scrubbed with the sponge and cleanser next to it.

The old woman turned, and her twinkling brown eyes and wide smile brought it all back to him.  Tears ran down his face as he took two quick steps across the creaking floor and swept her into his arms.

“Oh, Gran,” he sobbed, “I’ve missed you so much!”

“Oh, I missed you too, baby,” she said, squeezing him just as tight, “Now, you sit down and I’ll get you some coffee.”

He took a seat in the aluminum and vinyl chair on the long side of the table.  The other two chairs sat on the narrow ends, and the other long side lay against the wall.  The felt-backed plastic table cloth was yellow and worn, but still had pale pink roses around its edge and in a cluster at its center.

His grandmother set a white china coffee cup in front of him, then sat at her customary seat at the head of the table.  She had her own cup of the strong, boiled coffee which she had made every day she lived in the house she shared with her husband and family.

The man lifted his cup and took a sip.  The coffee was strong and bitter, but was better than anything he had tasted in a long time.  In fact, it was a taste he had enjoyed since he was a child.

“How did I get here?” he asked quietly

“You walked through the door, baby,” she said, putting her own cup down and half rising, “Oh, are you hungry?  Just put up a batch of sugar cookies.”

“Uh, sure, Gran.”

The old woman got up and opened the chipped ceramic cookie jar.  It was in the shape of a clown, and she had treasured it since her own grandmother had given it to her.  Reaching in, she retrieved several of her small, crumbly cookies and put them on a small plate.  She returned to the table and set them down before retaking her seat.

The man reached over and hesitantly took one of the cookies.  Taking a small bite, a smile came to his face.

“Gran, these are the best,” he said, putting the cookie down.

“So, baby, what have you been up to?” she said, taking one for herself and dipping it into her coffee.

“I’ve been doing my thing, you know?  Just living as best I can.”

“Sure, hon, that’s what we all do.  You’ve been good, haven’t you?”

“Sure I have, Gran,” he answered, staring down at his reflection in the top of his coffee.

 

Around him, he smelled burning oil and the pungent aroma of hot rubber.  The reflection showed a car, its front end crumpled around a telephone pole.  The driver lay halfway out the shattered windshield, his blood running down the fender beside him.  A curl of steam came from beneath the crumpled hood.

On the other side of the car, a woman screamed.   The man watched as he ran around the car to find her trying to open her door, a bundle of cloth in her hands.

“Help me!” she screamed, beating her fist on her window.

He grabbed the door handle and tugged.  The door groaned, but wouldn’t move.  The frame was buckled around it.  He looked around and picked up a rock.  As he lifted it over his head, the woman saw what he was about to do and turned her face away from the window.  The rock shattered the window, sending shards of glass into the car and onto the ground.

Unmindful of the sharp glass sticking out of the door’s frame, he wrapped his hand around it and yanked as hard as he could. The door moved an inch or two, then stuck fast.

A new smell struck him as he gave the door another pull – smoke.  With a whoosh, flames licked up through the open spaces in the hood.  The woman screamed again, and he could hear the baby in her arms crying.

He put his foot on the fender and strained back as hard as he could.  With a screech, the door let go, sending him sprawling backward into the gravel.  He felt the seat of his school pants give way, but looked up to see the woman, the baby clasped to her breast, leap from the car and run into the ditch.

A wave of heat washed over him as the fire spread to the interior of the car.  He scooted back to join the mother and her child in the ditch as their old sedan burned on the side of the road.

 

“Oh, baby, you made me so proud that day,” his grandmother said, picking up her own coffee and taking a sip.

“I never found out what happened to them after that,” he said, “I was too worried about what mama would do to me for ripping my pants.”

“Oh, honey, they turned out all right, don’t you worry about that.  And you did even better things, didn’t you?”

“I tried, Gran, but I didn’t always succeed.”

The smell of the kitchen receded, replaced with the taste of dust from a gravel road.

 

“Retard!” Joey shouted as he kicked the kid lying on the ground.  He had his hands up over his head and his knees drawn to his chest.  The kick landed squarely on his shin, eliciting a howl of pain.

“Joey, let him go, man!” Ricky yelled from where they had dropped their bikes.

“This little shit told Mrs. Olsen that I was the one who broke all her chalk, and now I gotta stay after for a week!” Joey yelled as he reached down and grabbed the smaller boy by the hair and hauled him up off the ground.  The kid stayed curled in a ball, even as Joey wrenched him onto his feet.  Blood trickled down from his nose, mixing with the tears on his chin.

“Shit ass little crybaby!” Joey screamed as he hit him again in the back, “Get up and fight!”

Ricky ran over and grabbed Joey around the middle, pulling him away from his victim. The boy screamed as Joey ripped at his hair before letting go.

“I’ll get you, asshole!” Joey shouted as Ricky dragged him back.  He kicked out with his legs, spraying gravel at the other boy.  Finally, Ricky got him back on his bike, and they rode off.

Joey turned his head and shouted, “I’ll find you tomorrow, you little shit!  You better kiss your mom goodbye!”

 

The man’s hands shook as he picked up his cup and took a drink of the strong, bitter liquid.  Grandma squeezed his hand after he set it down again.

“I broke his nose, and I kept beating him up for weeks.  Every time I saw him, I’d punch him, or trip him, or something.”

“Did he ever fight back?  Did you ever stop?”

“After a while, I didn’t do it anymore.  He stayed away from me, I didn’t go looking for him.  His family moved across town a couple summers after that.  I saw him a few more times, but I never got close enough….”

“To what, baby?”

“I don’t know.  Apologize, maybe.  Maybe let him take a good poke at me to pay me back for the lump on his nose.”

“He’s a doctor now, did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t.  I haven’t seen or heard of him in years,” he replied, looking up at his grandmother.

“You tried to make up for it, didn’t you?”

“Maybe,” he said, taking a deep, shuddering breath.

The earthy smell of the herbs Grandma had tacked up on the wall to dry washed over him.

 

“Henderson!  Get your ass up here!” the platoon sergeant bellowed.

Joe looked up from the canteen cup of C-Ration coffee he’d been trying to suck down before they moved out again.  With a sigh, he set it down on a rock and hustled up to the front of the column.  The men lay to either side of the road, some talking quietly, some eating or drinking, but most either asleep or just lying there in exhaustion.

He stopped a couple feet from Staff Sergeant Phipps.  The short, skinny noncom looked as mean as he ever did.  His green fatigues were as dirty as everyone else’s, but for some reason, he seemed as parade-ground ready as he had when they had walked out of the firebase two nights before.

“TOC says we can come home,” Phipps said curtly, “You take point for a while.”

“Got it, sergeant,” Henderson answered tiredly.  “Which way are we going?”

Phipps took a map in a waterproof bag out of his breast pocket and held it up for the other soldier.  He pointed to a red X along one of the blue lines.

“We’re here, this is that village over there, got it?”

“I see it.  Firebase is on this hill a few clicks north, right?”

“Right.  We came down this trail right here, so we’ll swing to the west and come in from the south on the main road.”

“Got it.  When do we head out?”

“Just as soon as everybody gets their asses off the ground.  Go grab your shit.”

Henderson jogged back to his pack.  Snaking his arms through its straps, he pulled them tight around his shoulders.  He picked up the canteen cup of tepid, bitter coffee and took a couple of large swallows before pitching the rest into the bushes.  Putting the cup back into his canteen pouch, he walked quickly back to the head of the column.  Once there, he checked to make sure his rifle was loaded and there was a round in the chamber, then signaled to Phipps that he was ready.

Phipps and the rest of the noncoms had gotten the platoon back on its feet and lined up to head out.  They walked down the line, kicking men who were slow to rise and pushing others to get them to maintain enough interval so that a grenade landing in their midst would not get two of them.

Phipps pointed to Henderson and shouted “Move out!”

Henderson turned and walked down the trail, his eyes watching the tree line for movement.  The rest of the soldiers waited a moment to put some space between him and them, then followed.

As he walked down the dirt path, he listened to the trees around him.  Normal sounds like birds calling and the wind in the leaves made him feel a bit better about being in such an exposed position.  They had laid in ambush sites for two days and two nights, and had not seen a hair of the enemy.  Now, a couple of hours from getting back to the comparative safety of the firebase, he desperately clung to the belief that so long as everything seemed normal, they would be OK.

The trail wound its way through the hills of the highlands, with thick undergrowth and tall trees to either side.  He tried to watch for traps or wires, but could only see a few feet in front of him and less than that to either side.  Occasionally, Phipps would call out a direction to go or a correction when he went the wrong way.

Suddenly, an explosion to Henderson’s left knocked him to the ground.  Pain stabbed at his arm as he rolled on the ground.  Stunned, he lay still for a moment.  Around him, he could hear men shouting, more explosions, and the rattle of gunfire.  The deep bangs of the platoon’s machine guns mixed in with the sharp bark of M-16’s.  They were joined by the loud reports of AK’s as the enemy opened up on the column.

Henderson lifted his head and felt a jolt of agony run up his right side.  Looking down, he saw the charred remains of his uniform shirt laying over a bloody wound.  He screamed at the pain, but rolled over and grabbed his rifle from the fallen leaves next to him.

The screams of other men punctuated the fight, as both sides ripped at each other.  Henderson saw Phipps hunched over, walking from man to man, trying to get them moving out of the ambush or to help them.  The staff sergeant grabbed a grenade from his load bearing suspenders and lobbed it into the jungle on the other side of the trail.  A moment later, its explosion caused a temporary lull in the shooting from that direction.   Phipps followed his grenade, firing into the brush.

Henderson could hear Phipps yelling and firing, and stood up to follow him.  For the moment, the pain drew back, and he ran into the jungle.  He fired at flashes from rifle fire in the undergrowth, hearing someone scream as he went.  He also heard Phipps yelling ahead of him, then cursing.  A long burst of AK fire split the air between them, cutting into the trees and snipping off twigs and leaves.

The young soldier burst through a curtain of branches to find Phipps lying on the ground, a gaping wound in his leg pumping blood out.  His rifle lay next to him, its bolt locked to the rear on an empty magazine.  Henderson fired blindly into the jungle, then pulled one of his own grenades out.  Pulling the pin with the thumb of his firing hand, he rolled it into the jungle.

The explosion was close, knocking him back onto Phipps.  The older man bellowed at the pain, his hands squeezing down on his wound.  Henderson grabbed Phipps by the suspenders and hauled him up onto his shoulder.  Without thinking, he began shouting as he ran through the brush.

“It’s me!  Don’t shoot! I’ve got Phipps!”

 

“That boy lived, didn’t he?” Grandma asked, putting her hand over his.  The blue veins on the back of her hand stood out from the thin, milky skin around them.

“Yeah, I guess he did,” he answered, “The RTO called in mortars from the firebase, and we got the hell out of there once they opened up.  Me and Rodriguez carried Phipps back after we put a tourniquet on his leg, and there was a dust-off waiting for us.”

“Baby, we were so proud to see you in the paper when they pinned that medal on you,” Grandma said gently.

“Yeah, well, I got home as quick as I could.”

“But you never really came home, huh?”

“Nah, I got a job out in California and never really got back here.”

Suddenly, the kitchen smells changed, becoming richer, punctuated with the tang of alcohol on his tongue.

 

The bottle sat in front of him, half empty.  The pale yellow liquor inside was strong and tasted as bad as he felt whenever he stopped drinking.  He and Rodriguez had pooled their money and bought a garage together in Los Gatos, where his partner had family, and they spent their days fixing cars and drinking.  Lately, it had been more drinking than turning wrenches, but it kept the lights on.

Lisa set his dinner on the table next to the bottle.  Steam rose from the plate of noodles covered in tomato sauce.  She had sprinkled some cheese on top, trying to make things nice for her husband.  She went back to the stove and made herself a plate before sitting down across the table from him.

He looked up from his plate and slurred, “The fuck is this?”

“Spaghetti marinara.  My mom sent me her recipe,” she said quietly, staring down at her dinner.  She poked at it with her fork, moving the pasta around.

“I’m not gonna eat this shit.  There’s no meat in it!  Get me something else!” he said loudly, slamming his hand on the table hard enough to make their plates and his bottle jump.

“There isn’t anything else,” she said, never lifting her eyes, “You haven’t given me money for groceries yet this week.”

“Bullshit, I gave you twenty dollars on Friday!”

“That was last Friday, Joey.”

“The fuck it was!”

“Joey, you didn’t give me any money,” she said, trying to keep her voice even.

“Then where did this shit come from?” he shouted.  Lisa tried to keep her hands from trembling when she glanced up and saw his bulged, bloodshot eyes and red face.

“Mom sent me the pasta and the spices,” she replied after looking back down, “I got the tomatoes out of Mrs. Henderson’s garden.  She said I could have as much as I want.”

He picked up his plate and tossed it across the table.  It landed and stopped before it fell off the edge, but its contents sloshed over its side, falling to the floor.

“I ain’t eating this crap!  Make me something else!”

“Joe, there’s nothing else in the house,” Lisa answered in a voice barely above a whisper, “We’re almost out of milk, and there’s just a couple pieces of bread left from what I got last weekend.”

“I gave you money, damn it!”

Lisa didn’t answer.  She kept her eyes down and continued pushing her food around her plate.

Joe stood up, his hand slapping hard on the glass bottle as he snatched it up.  The liquor inside splashed against the side, but it was empty enough that it did not come out the top.

He opened the refrigerator, empty except for a mostly-dry bottle of milk.  He slammed the heavy door closed, whirling toward the cupboard.  Its door bounced against the side of the refrigerator as he took a box of cereal and a bread wrapper out and threw them on the floor.

“What did you do with the money, bitch?” he shouted as he swept his hand across the counter, knocking the sugar and flour canisters onto the floor.  What little they held mixed together on the worn linoleum.

“Joey, you didn’t give me any money!” Lisa said quietly, tears running down her face and onto her food.

“You calling me a liar?” he demanded, reaching across the table and grabbing her by the hair.  His wife cried out as he dragged her out of her seat and pulled her onto the floor next to his chair.  His bottle rang as he slammed it on the table.

“Joey, stop!” she screamed, “Please!”

His hand stung as he brought it across her pale cheek, leaving a red handprint behind.  Lisa screamed again, trying to bring her hand up to protect herself.  He struck her again, then again.  He did not notice that he had closed his fist.

Joe let go of his wife’s hair, and she slumped to the floor.  Her eye was already swelling, and the bones of her face screamed at her as she tried to cry and breathe at the same time.

Her husband stood up, shaking the ache out of his hand.  Grabbing his bottle, he headed for the door.

“I’ll be back in a couple of hours.  Clean this shit up and get me a decent meal for once,” he yelled as he slammed the screen door behind him.

 

The man wiped his nose on the back of his hand, unmindful of the tears which ran down his face.

“She was gone when I got back the next morning, and the cops were waiting for me.  I got the divorce papers from her parents’ lawyer a few weeks later.”

“Did you ever apologize to her?”

“No, I never saw her after that.  I heard she went back to school, but after that, nothing.”

“She has a nice family now, honey.  She met a good man, and they have a bunch of kids and grandkids.”

“Good.  She deserved that, after…..”

A pain ran through him as he sat trembling.  He watched the coffee in the bottom of his cup slosh back and forth as the tremor passed.

“Baby, nobody told you this would be easy.  Thing to do is be honest and try to make it better.”

“I tried, Grandma, I did.”

“I know, baby, I know.”

Another shiver ran through him as he looked up at his grandmother’s soft eyes.

 

Joe Henderson backed out the door to his favorite bar just ahead of the bartender.

“Go home, asshole!” she shouted, punctuating her words with swings of the sawed-off pool cue she held in her hands.

“Screw you!” the old man yelled.  His face, ringed by thinning white hair and a scraggly beard, was flushed, highlighting broken veins on his nose and years of hard drinking.  His eyes were bloodshot, and he weaved as he stepped out onto the sidewalk.

“You’re a nasty drunk, Joe,” she said after he turned and walked toward the parking lot, “Don’t come back until you learn some manners!”

Joe gave her the finger over his shoulder as he fished his keys from his worn work jacket.  A cold wind blew down Spring Street as he turned the corner of the building, cutting through its thin material.  Joe shivered a bit as he pulled his keys out and unlocked the old sedan, which he had taken in lieu of pay from one of the infrequent customers at his garage.

Flopping down into the driver’s seat, Joe cursed loudly as he slammed the door.  Between the three pitchers of beer he had drunk that evening and the shiver in his hands from the cold, it took three tries to get his key into the ignition.

Joe turned the key, hearing the tired engine try to turn over in the cold.  It cranked for a few seconds, then he heard the solenoid click rapidly.

“Shit!” he yelled, pounding on the steering wheel, “The damned battery’s dead!”

Joe got out and opened the trunk.  Rummaging through the rubbish and loose tools he kept there, he muttered to himself.

“Just gotta find my cables, then I’ll ask that jerk in there to jump me.  Wouldn’t be surprised if he told me to go pound sand.”

Finally, he gave up on finding his set of jumper cables.  He crossed his arms to warm his hands in his armpits and considered his options for a few moments.

“Screw it,” he finally said out loud, “It’s only a few blocks home anyway.”

Joe tottered down the sidewalk, trying to avoid the occasional patch of ice.  His breath left frost in his mustache and beard, and soon he was shivering violently from the cold.

Taking a right down First Street, Joe left the old business district and entered the run-down neighborhood where he lived.   The homes were uniformly old, some from the turn of the last century, but their upkeep differed from property to property. Joe’s house was the neatest on his block, and he smiled when he saw it.

Only thing I ever did right, he mused as he walked down the sidewalk, Twenty years of payments in ten years.  The leaves from the big maple tree in his front yard were gone, and the hedges, which bordered his driveway, were trimmed as level as a pool table.

Joe looked at the house across the street with a sneer.  The Anderson’s were renters, and their place was not as well kept as Joe’s or any of the other neighbors.  Christmas decorations lit up their windows, and an inflatable snowman waved to Joe as he turned to walk up his driveway.  A bicycle lay in the yard, and a pink battery-powered truck was plugged into the outlet next to the door.

Damn kids, he thought as he fished his keys out again, always making noise and leaving their shit in the yard.  Looks like a damn garage sale over there.

Joe unlocked his door and stepped inside.  As he unsteadily turned to close it, he glanced across the street again.  Joe stopped, the door half closed.

“What the shit?” he said, stepping back out onto his porch.

Flames licked at the curtains in the Andersons’ front window.  Joe saw black smoke curling up on their living room’s ceiling as he shouted “Fire!” and jumped down his porch steps.

Joe sprinted down the driveway, hit a patch of ice in the road and sprawled on the asphalt.  Picking himself up, he ran across the yard and onto the porch.

Banging on the front door and mashing the button for the doorbell, Joe yelled “Hey!  Hey, in there!  There’s a fire!”

Joe heard the smoke alarm in the house buzz and ring, and continued to pound on the door.  There was no answer from inside as he watched the fire spread through the living room.

He tried the knob, but it would not turn.  Cursing, he took a step back and kicked at the door.  His work boot connected next to the doorknob, and the jam splintered under the impact.  The door flew back, and a wave of heat and smoke rolled out.

Joe turned and shouted into the street, “Fire!  Help!” before covering his face with his arm and running into the house.   He heard shouts from the second floor as he recoiled from the flames, which engulfed the room.

“Get up!” he shouted, “Fire!”

A woman’s voice screamed somewhere in the house, then he heard a child crying over the roar of the flames.  Joe squatted down below the smoke and saw a bedroom door festooned with plastic butterflies on the far side of the living room.

The smoke from the burning carpet seared his lungs as he shouted up the stairs “Come on!  Get out!”

Another scream came from the door on the other side of the fire.  Not thinking, Joe ran across the room, his coat catching as he brushed against the burning Christmas tree, and slammed into the bedroom door.  His hand burned as he grabbed the doorknob, and he cried out as he shoved the door open.

The bed was empty, and there was no child on the floor.

“Kid!” he shouted, looking around, “Come on! We gotta go!”

Joe tripped on a toy, landing hard on his chest.  His vision swam for a moment, then he looked up into the tear-streaked face of a dark-haired little girl.  She was under her bed, a toy bear in her arms and a blanket wrapped around her.

Joe reached for her, but she scooted back against the wall.  He cursed as he grabbed for her, catching her arm and dragging her out.  She screamed again, her face a mask of terror.  Joe wrapped the blanket around her and turned to the door.

What he saw froze him for a moment.  The door was outlined in flames, and the fire was making its way into the bedroom.  Acrid black smoke hung in the air, and Joe could only see as far as the doorway.  Looking over his shoulder, he saw the bars on the other side of the tiny window.

“Shit!” he shouted as he ran into the flames.  He felt his beard and hair burn away as he ran, and his lungs screamed from the heat and smoke as he carried the little girl through the inferno of her living room.  He bumped into the couch, and fell to one knee.  The little girl screeched as her foot hit the burning upholstery, then he was up and running again.

He crashed against the door, then fell onto the porch.  The cold air of winter felt wonderful to him, and he hacked and coughed as he got up and stumbled out into the yard.  He heard a window break behind him and saw a man and a woman fall onto the grass in a heap.  A young boy landed next to them a moment later. The boy cried out as his ankle snapped to an odd angle when he hit the yard’s hard ground.

Joe heard sirens as hands grasped him and took the little girl from his arms.  He walked to the sidewalk and sat down hard.  He coughed again, bringing up black gunk and spitting it on the sidewalk.   A paramedic walked over and examined his face.

“How you doing, sir?” she asked, shining a bright light in his eyes.

“I’ll be OK,” he croaked, his throat raw.

“Your face looks pretty bad.  Let’s get you to the truck.  Can you walk?”

“I can dance if I want to,” Joe rasped as he heaved himself up.  His head swam as he rose, then he felt a crushing pain in his chest.  Flopping back down, his vision narrowed to a narrow, colorless tunnel. The last thing he heard was the medic shouting and more sirens coming up the street, then nothingness swallowed him.

 

Grandma took their cups back to the stove and refilled them.  The clock on the ancient range buzzed as she set them on the table.  The old woman went back to her oven and used her apron to protect her hands when she took out a cookie sheet bearing a half dozen cinnamon rolls.

“Grandma,” Joe said plaintively, “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“What’s going on is I have hot cinnamon rolls if you want one.”

Joe smiled and nodded.  He got up, went to the cabinet, and took out a couple of plates.  Grandma used a spatula to take two of the piping hot sweet rolls from the pan and plopped them on the plates.  Joe took them to the table while Grandma fetched a pair of forks and joined him.

They ate the piping hot pastries in silence, the only sound the tick of the clock over the sink.  As he washed the last bite down with the dregs of his coffee, Joe looked up at his Grandmother.

“Gran, thanks,” he said gently, “I haven’t had anything that good in a very long time.”

“Oh, Joey, don’t worry about that.  I always make something special for my only grandson, you know that.”

Joe nodded and stood up.  He leaned over and kissed her softly on her wrinkled cheek.

“I feel so much better now,” he said, glancing toward the door.  Night must have fallen, because the window was pitch dark.

“Oh, baby, talking to your Gran always made you feel better.”

“I’ve tried, Grandma, but I haven’t done so good.”  He stood from his chair and looked out the window at the inky blackness.  The reflection of a young man stared back at him.

“Don’t worry about that anymore, sweetheart,” she said, rising, and wrapping her arms around his chest.  He rested his chin on the top of her head and hugged her back.

“Now, I think it’s time you got going,” she said, picking the dishes up from the table and putting them in the sink.

“So soon?”

“You’ve got a lot to do, and my stories come on in a couple of minutes.”

Joe smiled at the memory of being banished from her house during her television programs.  He squeezed once more, then turned to the door.

As he touched the doorknob, a pang of regret ran through him.

“Gran, I don’t want to go.”

“Baby, you have to.  There’s so much waiting for you.”

“I love you, Grandma.”

“I love you too.  Now, get out there.  I know you can do right.”

 

Joe opened the door and stepped outside.  He was enveloped in utter darkness as soon as he crossed the threshold, and saw nothing when he looked back.  He thrashed around and tried to yell, but could only hear distant shouts and feel something squeezing against him.  Suddenly, a blast of cold hit his naked skin and harsh lights forced his eyes shut.

“OK, the baby’s out.  It’s a little girl!  She looks great!” an unfamiliar voice boomed.  Joe felt strong hands pulling him up and turning him over.

“Gran, what’s going on?” he yelled, but only screams came from his mouth.

“It’s OK, Joey, no need to be scared.  I’m here with you,” his grandmother’s voice said gently in his ear.

Joe was laid on a warm, soft surface, and he strained to turn his head.  Opening his eyes, he saw the blurry outline of a woman’s smiling face.

The baby girl snuggled into her mother’s breast, her tiny hands stretching out as she cried.  The panicked feeling was ebbing away, but the cold and light upset her.  A nurse draped a soft blanket over her small body as her mother, sweat and tears running down her face, gently stroked the fuzzy hair on her head.  Joe listened to the familiar sound of her heartbeat as he lay his head back down on her chest.

The last thing Joe heard before his vision blurred and darkened again was the soft voice of his grandmother.

“It’s OK, baby, just try to make it right.  I love you.”

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