'Strange Treasures in Gran’s Kitchen'
LISP 4th Quarter 2020 Official Selection Short Story, 'Strange Treasures in Gran’s Kitchen' by L.M Brown
Strange Treasures in Gran’s Kitchen
My sister was like water drawn by the moon to slip quietly away. Our sleep was never disturbed by her soft thread down the stairs, to the front door with the rectangular piece of stained glass hiding a starless night. We never heard her leave. All those times she snuck out, no one woke. The first time, we found her asleep on the beach after two days. On another occasion, she was spotted in town. I don’t know where. The specifics never seemed important once she was home.
She said when she ran, she could be anything she wanted. She forgot about us. It was easier to believe this than to think she understood what she was doing. The cruelty in that was unforgiveable and I never conceived my sister as cruel. Whenever she ran, my father canceled his classes and my mother wouldn’t sleep or talk to anyone. If Gran phoned, I had to pretend everything was normal while my mother paced, and my father drove through the streets.
“I’ve seen some strange things,” Gran told me once. I know now that my sister left gifts behind after her visits. Her pockets were always full of treasures; bird feathers, stones from the beach grown dull and smooth, and once an empty snail shell that she handled as if it were something to be protected.
We were in her kitchen. Gran was washing dishes and I was drying. Her gaze drifted to the window that looked out on her back garden and the concrete walls that separated her house from the green. There were layers to her housing estate. As a child, I’d been frightened of the expanse of it, with the rows of houses and the green that we could have gotten to if we’d jumped Gran’s back wall, but we never went that way when we stayed during the summer. Gran was a front door lady and always immaculately dressed, so it would have been a shock to see my sister jump the wall into her garden, disheveled and dirty. Gran would have yelped from fright before my sister pulled down her hood to reveal her long blonde hair.
That was how I liked to imagine it. My sister stealthy and mysterious, not cold and hungry and scrummaging through Gran’s presses, eating like I used to see her eat whenever she returned from her nights away, with food pressed into her mouth and falling on her chin. She wouldn’t have expected Gran home early from evening mass. The moment Gran stepped into her house she knew someone was there. “Hello,” she said. She had not closed the front door and she stood before the stairs, in front of the mirror that hung above the hall table. My sister would have been a blur when she ran for the back door.
An hour later, Gran opened the door to me and my mother. Dad stayed at home in case my sister would come back. Gran was more annoyed than worried, as if she believed my sister was playing some silly joke and we would be able to explain what it was.
“Where is she?” Gran said. My mother shook her head. I saw Gran’s anger dissolve and knew by her straightening shoulders that she wanted to hold onto it. There was the whir of traffic, a shout from the bus stop, from the green a barking dog, and Gran put her head outside and looked around, as if my sister might jump out to say boo, like we used to when we were children.
Her movements had slowed by the time she’d stepped back into the hall and closed the door. I imagined I saw my sister’s face through the four squares of distorted glass, but it was only shadows of us. Gran was watching her daughter. My mother had her back to the dark living room. No fire had been lit. Gran would have been too restless to watch her nightly show of Carnation Street. “It’s not the first time,” my mother finally said. Gran’s face fell.
I could have said my sister had started to run a year ago. I could have said that we got her back, as if she was a dog inclined to roam. Instead, I reached for Gran’s dry hand and she glanced at me as if only realizing I was there, and I hated my sister then for what she did to us. I hated that I felt invisible. When she ran away, I was no longer there either. I wandered around houses like a ghost.
“What do you mean it’s not the first time? She’s only fourteen, how did she get out her by herself? Did she get the bus? Those buses are so dangerous at night.” Gran’s words came out in a torrent. My mother stood straighter. At home, she sighed constantly and paced the rooms. In Gran’s house, she was tense and rigid. Gran was slimmer than my mother, but they were both tall, and they seemed to take up the whole hall.
“What are we supposed to do. We can’t lock her in,” Mom said, though they’d tried, and mornings when my parents unlocked her door, my sister refused to move. “Prisoners don’t go to school,” she said, and my parents were not ones to use force to get her out of the room. The third night, they would inevitably keep her door unlocked, frightened because she refused to eat. The next morning, she would be up and ready for school. We watched her every move, waiting for signs that she might run, though we never saw them.
Gran called the guards, and we answered questions from a sympathetic garda, though I didn’t believe in his sympathy. It wouldn’t last. Sympathy has a timeline, a best before date and then it goes sour. There weren’t many places my sister could go. We’d gotten to know a few kids from summers playing on the green, but we’d never gone to their houses. Gran was against us intruding on others. We had each other and that was enough. The garda said they would search the town. There were a few fast food restaurants that allowed kids to sit inside with a coke for hours.
The guards would also go to the fields at the back of the estate where an old warehouse stood, and kids went to smoke and drink. I didn’t want to think of my sister there, amid the broken glass and debris. The place scared me. There was an air of tragedy to it, though my sister and I had only gone there during the day when the remnants of the outdoor fires would be cold ash and the silence was thick.
There, by the warehouse you could not hear the shouts of the kids at play or the traffic in the town behind it. I couldn’t imagine my sister going there in the dark. I didn’t know what she would have done. Would she have hidden from the kids who were smoking and drinking, their faces ghoulishly lit with the fire flames, or would she have stepped out of the bushes and walked to the fire without worry?
We did not find her when we walked through the estate and visited the houses of the kids we knew best. Gran waited at home in case the phone rang. We had no mobile phones then. There was no connection to my sister. The world was wide open.
Afterwards, we sat at the kitchen table with our tea undrunk. Every now and again Gran asked my mother, “Why would she do this?”
“She doesn’t need a reason. She goes and comes back as if nothing has happened,” my mother said.
It’s hard to recall how long my mother’s anger lasted, if the next morning she woke without that armor, or if it disappeared bit by bit. I do remember that we stayed three days in Gran’s house. My father came the fourth day to convince us to go home and my mother refused. She has not left yet, eight months now, and my father travels the hour from his door to his mother-in-law’s door whenever he can. I don’t know how long he will keep this up, or if my mother cares. There’s a looseness in her gaze, a detachment when she speaks to you as if she were waiting for the door to open and my sister to return any moment. I’ve never told her about waking when the town was in darkness and walking into Gran’s kitchen, certain that I would find my sister sitting at the table, though I imagine it’s a journey my mother does every night and the moment before the kitchen light turns on, she is sure she glimpses her daughter, her blonde hair iridescent in the moonlight.