This story is by Natalie Orga and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“George!” The daily call sounded.
A sunlit kitchen. The muted whistle of a tea kettle. The hum of insects emanating from the porch screen. These images were what stood out to Lily. Even months afterwards, she could still draw up a crisp image in her mind’s eye of the antique, claw-foot bathtub filled with plants that stood in the kitchen by the screen door. A scraggly palm tree, its trunk twisted towards the skylights. A sturdy, fuscia-blossomed bush. The floor tiles always chilled her bare feet.
“Breakfast is ready!” Lily’s grandmother called again. Her nose was inches from the screen of the window as she shouted towards the shed in the backyard.
“I already had breakfast, Eleanor,” Lily’s grandfather yelled back, as he did every day, reliable as the toll of a bell.
“Come in and eat with us, George,” Eleanor responded. Her voice was surprisingly musical for her age, not withered or reedy with time. Eleanor used to be a singer with a voice of gold, sweet and smooth as a honey-brown dawn (or so Lily’s mother said).
George was already making his way from the shed, his workshop, towards the house. Lily heard the scrape of the door hinges as he shuffled his way inside. The skinny palm tree flapped slightly in the breeze created by his jacket as he sat at the breakfast table.
“It’s eighty degrees outside. Must you wear a jacket?” Eleanor complained, beginning to saw at a sausage link on her plate. Every morning, she made each person one egg, two sausages, and a slice of whole grain toast. She was a creature of habit.
George, who’d been asked this a thousand times in the exact same context, responded as he always did: “Yes. It protects my arms from the sawdust.”
“But it’s hot,” Eleanor pointed out blandly.
George stared at her. She looked childlike in her long flowered nightgown, despite the silver in her hair.
“These eggs are great,” Lily interjected. For a moment, George and Eleanor both looked surprised to find their granddaughter still at the table with them.
“Are you excited to go to college?” Eleanor asked Lily after a beat. She’d asked this a thousand times this summer, ever since Lily moved to her house to work before setting off for new horizons. Lily nodded.
Eleanor switched on the stereo; jazz music flowed from the speakers in crinkled, quiet riffs. She stood in the center of the kitchen, swaying unsteadily.
“Dance with me, George?”
George looked away. He used to be able to watch her dance for hours, but now she looked like a ghost.
George didn’t come to breakfast one morning. Instead, only Eleanor sat at the kitchen table. In front of her, a leather album, sticky with age, lay open on the kitchen table. When Lily entered the room, Eleanor straightened up in her floral nightgown and smiled.
“Come see, come see,” she said, pushing their plates of eggs aside.
“Who’s that?” Lily pointed at a photo. It was of a young woman, maybe twenty, with hip-length blonde hair and round blue eyes. She smiled at the camera, close-lipped and shy. She looked confident, if only in an odd, quiet way.
“That’s me, of course,” Eleanor scoffed, glancing at the image, “I was pretty, wasn’t I?” she added slyly. Lily could see flashes of the childish woman she’d been in those same eyes, still so round and ice-blue.
“Beautiful,” Lily grinned.
“Oh, no, dear, I was just pretty. Beautiful people have it harder than I did,” she said matter-of-factly, flipping the album page with finality.
“Well, beautiful people can be fooled by others. Sometimes, people trick them into thinking they love them, when they don’t. You’re beautiful. You’ll have to watch out for that this year,” Eleanor chuckled. Lily shrugged, always slightly abashed by compliments.
“And you didn’t have to watch out?”
“No, I was sure. I found somebody I loved.”
“Love. I was younger than George, sure, and pretty, but I knew he loved me.”
“How did you know?”
Eleanor pushed back her chair and began clearing the dishes, the clinking of china filling the air. The sunshine was still weak and dew-slicked, making the spiderwebs on the window screen glitter like beaded necklaces. Jazz music crackled from the radio.
“You just know.” But her voice was strained, as if she’d been singing the wrong tune for far too long.
“Do you think you’re going to meet someone in college, Lily?” Eleanor asked, almost wistfully. George had come to breakfast that morning, his pajama shirt sun-bleached and white as his hair.
“Give the poor kid a break, El,” George grunted, shoveling an egg into his mouth. But Eleanor had always been a hopeless romantic with few boundaries, so he knew she’d steam-plow ahead anyway.
“Maybe she’ll finally find someone!” Eleanor said in an excited stage-whisper.
“That’s not my priority,” Lily reasoned.
“I hope you find true love, Lily,” Eleanor exclaimed, gathering up her dishes. She turned, looking hopeful, “Dance with me, George?”
George scoffed, looking uncomfortable, and Lily wondered if they had ever found it.
“Do you like my necklace?” Eleanor wound the pendant between gnarled fingers. Curlers were pinned in her thinning hair and she was wearing hot pink lipstick that sank into the creases of her mouth, bleeding around the edges. She was still vain, and happy to admit to it; it kept her young, she declared. This morning, she was going to an early antique show, and was primping accordingly.
“It’s beautiful. What stone is that?” Lily asked, clutching her mug of tea in both hands.
“It’s a real ruby from a famous shipwreck. My birthstone is a ruby. Did you know that? Maybe I can will this to you, if you want,” Eleanor added. Lily shifted in her seat; Eleanor spoke of her own death far too often with unnerving nonchalance. It bordered on obsession.
“That’s up to you,” Lily sighed, trying to ignore the comment, “Where did you get it?”
“Your grandfather gave it me,” she sighed, grinning like a schoolgirl, “He used to simply shower me in gifts, back when I was young and lovely.”
“Really?” Lily struggled to imagine George as a charmer, young and dark and debonair.
“Oh, yes! He spent far too much money on me, not that I’m complaining,” she giggled, “But then he realized he’d won me over, and he didn’t need to do that any more. So he stopped.” Eleanor paused to powder her nose (she liked to put makeup on at the kitchen table, a quirk acquired after years of applying theater makeup from when she was a singer on a cruise ship).
“He’d won the war, so he didn’t need to fight the battles any longer. I understand,” she murmured, but she was frowning. George hadn’t come to breakfast in a few days.
The next time George ate breakfast with them, it was a brutal day of heat. The drops of dew seemed to set the spiderwebs ablaze.
“College is going to change you in the best of ways, don’t worry,” Eleanor was saying, after asking Lily if she was excited for the millionth time.
“I know. That’s what they say,” Lily stammered, dragging her fork across her plate, despondent. She was no longer excited.
“But…?” George prompted. He had no patience for beating around the bush.
“But what if I change, and it’s not in a way everybody likes?”
“Honey, people who love you will always love you,” Eleanor reassured.
“Not necessarily,” Lily countered, putting the fork down.
“You’ve changed,” George blurted.
The comment was stark and hostile, a barb in the conversation. George had directed it at Eleanor. For a moment, only stunned silence. Then Lily stood, leaving the couple to their own devices.
George looked at his wife, feeling nothing. She seemed old, scared. Hurt. But he was angry. Why? He wasn’t sure, but an acute sense of loss dogged him when he looked at her.
Breakfast was silent. George remembered when Eleanor was long-haired and coy, with a voice like sunshine. He remembered her dancing, all flashing teeth and silly spins and gold-spun laughter.
Lily left the table early again, leaving her grandparents. They sat inches apart, adrift in an ocean of spiderwebs and tea kettles and sticky photo albums.
“When did you stop loving me?” Eleanor asked. It wasn’t accusatory or angry, simply curious. George wanted to say that he didn’t know, but the words made him queasy. Their granddaughter hadn’t come to breakfast that day.
“What happened? I mean, when did we become so unhappy?” When he closed his eyes, George could just focus on her voice. It sounded like no time had passed.
“When we chose to be,” George responded, kneaded his forehead with his palms. Eleanor was crying in silence, her face unmoving.
“Love is a choice, and it’s always been that way,” he whispered.
Strains of jazz music, drifting like mirages.
“Dance with me, Eleanor?”