This story is by Wanda Kiernan and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
John read his wife’s text message on his lunch break. “She’s here. AGAIN. Did you KNOW she was coming and FORGOT to TELL ME?” Staring at her words he felt the familiar panic rise up and choke him. He knew the “she” was his 32 year old baby sister. She was probably in trouble again. That’s always when she showed up at their door. “Just a day or two,” she’d say, and end up staying a year or two, instead.
John wasn’t close to his sister. They didn’t have much in common. He was born an old soul, and she was stuck in a perpetual wild-child adolescence. John wondered if she born that way, or was it because their parents had died – one of cancer, the other of a broken heart – when she was just 18?
He texted Ellen back “No and No. I’ll take care of it when I get home. Love you.” He added a heart emoji to lighten her mood. He doubted it would help. To Ellen, Penny was bad-luck incarnate, and nothing could change her mind.
After lunch, and despite the July heat, he was glad to get back to work with his gravedigger’s crew at Green-Wood Cemetery. The four men worked well together. They fell into an easy rhythm. Digging the new plot would be tricky. It had tombstones on either side and behind it. The work was hard, but he loved it. He loved the cool feel and smell of the earth.
As he dug deeper he drew in the earthy smell, and thought about being six feet under, covered in dirt, and at peace. It was better than thinking about the mayhem waiting for him at home.
As he walked across his lawn, Amanda came skipping out of the house cheerfully shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, Aunt Penny is here. She came to visit me!”
“Is she? Did she?” he said, failing to match her enthusiasm.
“And look what she brought me.” She showed off her new panda t-shirt, and panda barrettes.
“Very nice,” He lifted his 7 year old daughter, and held her tight wanting to absorb her joy, hoping it would make it easier to see his sister again.
“Can she stay in my room? Can she? Please?”
“We’ll see, hon.”
As they walked into the house he saw his wife’s back heading into the kitchen. It was going to be a long night.
Amanda ran into the living room, grabbed a panda bear from off the floor, and plopped herself next to her aunt, “Daddy’s home. He said maybe you can stay in my room. We can have a sleepover.”
“That sounds like fun Amanda Panda. Hi, John. We’d invite you, but girls only.”
“Please daddy, please?”
“We’ll talk about it later. Daddy needs to talk to Aunt Penny first. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and help mom with dinner?”
“I want to stay here.”
He gave his daughter a stern look. Amanda pouted, and slid off the couch.
“Give daddy another hug.” But she walked by, ignoring him.
“Ooh, she’s gotten a little willful. I wonder where she gets that from?” Penny said, with a touch of pride in her voice.
He could see a little of his sister in Amanda. Did something rub off during Penny’s first extended stay, which coincided with Amanda’s first two years of life? They had an inexplicable bond which he neither denied nor encouraged. To think that Amanda would grow up to be like her Aunt Penny made John nauseous.
“What are you doing here? You’re turning my house upside down already.”
He grabbed the new panda bear by the throat. “And stop giving her these. She has enough pandas to last a lifetime. Don’t you have better things to do with your money?” he said.
“I want to make sure she remembers me. No one else will.”
“You’re probably right. You’re never in one place long enough to be remembered. And you can’t stay here, Pen. I told you the last time not to come back.”
“Come on John, we both know you didn’t mean it. Besides, how can you keep your daughter’s favorite aunt out of her life?”
“When her favorite aunt almost killed her, that’s how. You’re lucky Ellen let you in the house.”
“She wasn’t going to, but she couldn’t be her bitchy self in front of Amanda. And, please, get over it already. It was an ACCIDENT.” She picked up the Skippy peanut butter, shoveled out a heaping spoon full, and started licking it like a lollipop.
John watched in disgust.
The “accident” was two years ago on Easter Sunday. On that day Penny was 364 days into her one day stay. Amanda was in the living room in a time-out, which were becoming daily occurrences. Ellen blamed Penny’s bad influence, and she was arguing about it with John when Penny came rushing into the kitchen with her niece in her arms.
“I don’t know what happened. She’s having trouble breathing.”
John started screaming at Penny, “What did you do?” He grabbed an EPI pen, and gave it to Ellen, then ran into the living room. He saw an overstuffed Easter basket by the time-out chair, and an half eaten package of strawberry Pop Rocks on the floor.
John heard Amanda cry, and ran back into the kitchen. Both of them hovered over their little girl, making sure she was okay. As Ellen held her she said “I want her out of our house, and away from our child.”
“She grabbed it out of my hand. She didn’t give me time to throw it out. She can be such a spoiled brat sometimes.” Penny said, defended herself.
And with that. She was out.
“You can’t stay with us.” John repeated.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t unpack. Just one sleepover with Amanda and I’ll be out in the morning. Promise.”
“Promise like the other times? I want you out by six tomorrow morning. I don’t want to see you at breakfast.”
“I’ll be out by 5:30, asshole. Boy, that wife of yours really has you by the balls doesn’t she.”
“Listen, you want to live free, with no obligation, that’s on you. I opened my home to you twice, and both times things ended badly. But here you are again, and you’re insulting us. You know, just get out now. I don’t think I can stand having you under my roof for another 12 hours.” John went to open the front door.
“Johnny, Johnny, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m in between stuff right now, that’s all.”
In between stuff was Penny speak for homeless, jobless, on her last dime, and running from a bad relationship.
“I’m working something out. It’s going to be all right. Listen, I’m just passing through. Honest. I’m sorry for what I said before. You’re a good brother, and you got a terrific kid. 12 hours is all I need to finalize some plans, and then I’m out of your hair for good.”
“Are you making those plans while watching Rockford File reruns and shoveling peanut butter in your mouth?” he asked eyeing the TV, and the half empty Skippy jar in her hand.
He saw Penny’s eyes darken as she formulated another insult. But then he saw the darkness lift. She had thought better of it, only because she needed something from him.
She grabbed the remote. The TV screen went dark. “Can I borrow your laptop? It’s hard to make plans on a smart phone. It’s so tiny.” She picked up her iPhone 7, and wiggled it in the air.
John shook his head, but kept his judgments to himself.
“Go ahead. Remember, you’re out by 6:00.”
“5:30. Don’t worry. And the sleepover with Amanda? A last hurrah before her auntie is out of her life forever?”
“No sleepover. She’s only with you when Ellen or me are with you. Understand?”
John got up. The conversation had gone on too long.
As he left the room he heard his sister say, “Jeez, that gravedigger job must be getting to you. You should consider a happier line of work.”
Amanda, surrounded by a battalion of panda stuffies, had her hands over her ears, and na na na’d while John read her a bedtime story. It was a long three hours from the time he got home to getting his daughter into bed. He was running out of patience.
“I want Aunt Penny to read to me.”
“That’s enough, Amanda.”
He turned off the light, and as he left the room she said “You’re a mean daddy and a bad big brother.”
He rolled his eyes, and went to his den to be alone, but Ellen was waiting for him. She sat on the edge of the tattered recliner that she hated. Two carry-on suitcases, like two tombstones, stood nearby.
“She’ll be out by six, I promise. She promised.” he said. “You don’t need those.”
“We had this conversation, John. She’s not good for Amanda. She’s got her under some type of spell. I’m going to my Mom’s in the morning, and I’m taking Amanda with me.”
“But she’ll be gone by then. You don’t need to leave.”
“Are you sure she’s leaving? And even if she does, she’ll be back. She always comes back. And she uses our daughter to manipulate us. You have to figure something out. There has to be a more permanent solution.” With that, she left, devastated but resolute.
John felt defeated and powerless.
A commotion woke him up. He was still in the den. On the television Damien was standing in front of a field of white crosses in a cemetery. Then he heard voices coming from the living room, and he thought the worst. Penny had some guy over. That was probably the plans she made.
He barreled into the living room, turned on the lights, and yelled “Both of you, out, now. This is not a hotel room!”
Penny and Amanda stared out from under their tent; a sheet thrown over two stuffed armchairs, with one edge anchored by a pile of books on the mantelpiece. He saw a child’s gift basket in the center.
“What are you talking about Daddy.” Amanda was cracking up.
“Amanda.” And he pointed in the direction of her room.
His daughter got up and headed to her room without saying another word.
“She started it.” Penny said with a smile.
“What did I tell you? You can’t be alone with her. You had one simple rule to follow for all of eight hours, and you couldn’t do it, could you.”
“She came to me on her own.”
“And where did that basket come from? Does it have strawberry Pop Rocks inside?”
“Nothing was going to happen. Look,” she reached into her pocket, “her EPI pen just in case. She was safe. She loves me so much. I just wanted to be with her.”
“She doesn’t know you. You’re poison to my family.”
“Yes, poison. My wife is getting ready to leave me and take our daughter with her, all because of you. My life is falling apart because you can’t keep yours together.”
“Well, your wife’s a bitch. You could do better. Amanda could do better. We can all do better without her.”
He remembered the ‘accident’ two years ago; his daughter struggling to breathe. A blinding rage suddenly engulfed him, and he grabbed the fire iron.
“Sorry Sis, it was an accident.”
John was in a secluded section at the outskirts of Green-Wood cemetery before dawn. The ground in the center of the four pine trees was soft, making it an easy dig. As the summer sun rose, he tapped down the last of the loose earth, and covered the plot with a carpet of fallen pine needles. He stepped back, admired his handy work, and finally felt on top of the world.