by J.L. Royce
Kitty sat midway down the narrow staircase, watching the bustle of activity in the sitting room. The air glowed with decades of dust and memories, stirred by the move. She clutched her pillow—her favorite, special pillow, her comfort during this uproar.
But then, all the pillows were special.
Her brother Todd studied one. “Why do we have to keep this old shit, anyway?” He tossed it frisbee-style, aiming for the tall mover’s box near the door. It hit the rim and bounced away, colliding with their father.
Kitty knew something was wrong. Grandma had known, too.
“Because…” his dad replied, “…it’s Grandma’s shit!” He winged the pillow back at Todd, triggering an immediate melee. By the time Fran entered from the kitchen, her mother’s embroidered pillows lay strewn everywhere.
“Brad—stop it!” she cried. She rescued the nearest square, brushing it off.
“Mom spent years embroidering these. We’re not going to just drop them off at Goodwill, or throw them in that thing.”
Fran gestured out the window to the small dumpster parked in the driveway. Much of her mother’s life had already been deposited there: forty years of newspapers, magazines, rags, tattered clothing, broken appliances, and other clutter.
Brad approached and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s alright hon; we’ll find them a home.”
Todd dumped an armful of the pillows into the box without ceremony. “Why’d she need so many?”
“It was just a hobby,” his father said. “She enjoyed making them, and she was good at it.”
“Why didn’t she give them away, then, like scarves or sweaters?” He held one out for his parents to see. “And what’s with all this weird sh—” he caught himself “—writing? They all have it.”
“It’s Slavic,” his mother said. She turned the square round and round, eyes following the border of letters, familiar yet inscrutable. “Her great-grandparents came from Eastern Europe. And no, I don’t know what it says. Mom never shared that with me.”
The loss in her voice was tinged with bitterness.
“In the corners—are those eyes?” Todd asked. But his mother made no reply.
“Let’s get this lot sealed up, and we’re done,” Brad said. “That should just leave our things to pack and the linens we used.”
Fran raised her eyebrows. “Have you forgotten the crawl space?”
“I thought you…” Her husband’s face fell. “We aren’t leaving tonight, are we?”
“I don’t see how.”
“What?” Todd was aghast. “We can’t go home? I’ve got a party tonight!”
“Afraid not,” his father said.
Todd swept up another armful of the throw cushions and crammed them into the container.
“Maybe if Kitty got off her butt and helped…” But she retreated to the stairs.
“Look at the bright side,” Brad said. “We’ll have to order in dinner since the kitchen’s packed up and the pantry’s empty. And that means…”
“Pizza!” they shouted together.
“My Pie—best in the county,” Todd said. Brad nodded.
“It’s not the time for a party,” Fran said. “We only buried her days ago.”
She reached down into the shipping container, arranging the jumbled contents. Brad smoothed his wife’s hair back from her damp brow.
“Kitty had a special connection with Mom,” she said with a glance at her daughter. “I’m almost jealous.”
Fran folded the flaps together and leaned her arms on the box.
Brad said, “You’ve been pushing yourself to get through this, and I understand; but let Todd blow off some steam.” He turned to his son. “Why don’t you go make peace with your sister, and see what she’d like from My Pie?”
“I’ll get my phone.” Her brother headed off to the kitchen.
“Maybe it’ll cheer Kitty up, too,” Brad said. “He was never that close to Gram. Not like her.”
Kitty ran up the stairs to her room.
She sat in the middle of the narrow bed, clutching a pillow. She had left the bedroom door ajar, to hear the family’s conversation.
“Here, Kitty Kitty…” Todd peeked into the room. “You’re not going to throw that, are you?”
She shook her head.
“Getting hungry? We’re ordering ‘za.” He dropped heavily on the old bed, causing it to rock alarmingly. “And I’m going to sneak in a dessert pizza, or maybe a chocolate volcano—remember those?”
“Well…” Todd’s gaze wandered the room, once their Grandmother’s craft room. The sewing machine, knitting supplies, and endless works in progress had all been cleared out: sold, donated, trashed. But the lingering, stale smell of potpourri lingered.
“I remember staying here, for summer visits, when Gramps was still alive.” He chuckled. “That man loved his beer, almost as much as fishing and cards. And Buster—broken-down, a hundred probably in human years but faithful till the end. Guess you didn’t get to know Grandpa.”
He nodded at the pillow she held. “Lot more of those downstairs, and in Grandma’s—the other—bedroom. We’ve packed them up.”
Todd extended his hand. “Do you—”
“No!” She shrank away. “You don’t understand—we’re supposed to keep them!”
“We have to pack—we’re selling the place. We can’t afford two houses, and Dad’s got his business back home. Why would we keep all those pillows?”
“I don’t know,” Kitty mumbled into her crossed arms. “Grandma said so. She was supposed to explain…” Her summer visit was to have been this very week.
Todd motioned at the pillow. “Can I see it?”
Kitty laid it flat between them, though keeping a firm grip on its edges. He studied the embroidered scene.
“Is that you?” He pointed. “And…Mom?”
The two smiling figures were holding hands. Around them was a halo; and beyond that, a dark background, and then letters.
“That’s so cool.” Todd ran a finger around the foreign words. “There’s the writing—and these eyes.” He touched the four corners. “Did she say what it means?”
“Grandma called it the Old Speech.” Kitty pointed at the corners. “Wards.”
“Yeah, they’re words. Duh…”
“No, wards.” Her eyes flashed. “I’m not dumb, you know.”
“Never said you were. Wards?”
“Protection? From what?”
Kitty shrugged and picked up the cushion again.
“Well, you’ve got Dad to protect you; better than an old pillow.” Todd slapped his legs. “So; chocolate volcano?”
She lunged for him and hugged her brother fiercely, the pillow pressed between them.
“You believe me, don’t you?” Kitty asked. “Keep the pillows.”
“Sure, whatever you say.” He tugged free of his sister. “I’ll go order dinner. Why don’t you come down? You can lay on the couch, read to us from your joke book.”
Kitty accepted his proffered hand and let herself be led downstairs.
“I’m just saying, you wouldn’t want it to get dirty.”
Kitty shook her head at her father and clung to the pillow. Fran doled out the pizza on paper plates arranged on an upended packing box, carefully picking off the olives her daughter detested. The parents sat on the worn couch, with their children cross-legged on the faded floral carpeting.
“How’s this?” Todd tore a yard of paper towels from the roll and laid it across his sister’s lap. “Now can we eat?”
He folded a slice of pizza and stuffed half of it into his mouth.
“Must you?” asked Fran. “Is that the kind of example you want to give your sister?”
Brad stifled a laugh.
“I’m missing my party,” Todd replied. “At least let me enjoy dinner,”
“Help me finish the crawl space later, so we get home tomorrow,” Brad said.
Todd nodded. “Anything to get back to civilization.”
“Don’t mess up the couch,” he said to his parents, waving another slice of pie at them. “I’m sleeping on that thing.”
“You need to have the pillows around you,” said Kitty. She set aside her plate and ran to the packing box, pulling it open and peering inside.
“Kitty, we’re packing, not unpacking.”
“I’m getting Todd’s protection,” she explained. She frowned at one, tossed it back, picked another, and handed it to her brother.
“Let’s see…” He turned it around and studied the image. “Is this me?”
“Yes, with Grandpa—she did that a long time ago.” She handed him another pillow.
“And I’m bigger in this one…is that some kind of uniform—wait, I’m on skates!”
“Grandma said you would play hockey…in college, I think?”
Todd gawked at her.
“Well, then, remember that I taught you how to skate,” his father said.
“Grandma said she could see what would happen; that it was as simple as knowing that if you throw a ball up, it will come back down.”
“No kidding.” Her brother was smiling at his future drawn in careful stitching. “What about the…wards?”
“They seal the promise, Grandma said. Protect it.”
“Too bad it’s faded.” He tossed the pillow to his father, who caught it deftly.
“Watch it, Mister Varsity Forward—I can still outskate you.”
Todd was about to rebut the claim when Kitty leaped up with a cry.
“Faded?” She ran over to her father and snatched the pillow.
Todd shrugged. “Worn out.”
“Perhaps it was on the couch, in the sun,” Fran said.
“This can’t be.” Kitty dropped the pillow and ran to the box, heaving mightily to push it over.
“Hey!” Brad said.
Fran rose and began gathering the plates. “I’ll fetch dessert—if you settle down.”
Brad nodded, then sank to Kitty’s level. “Let’s put these away and have cake.”
But she shook her head, sorting through the pillows, selecting some, putting them into groups.
Her father studied them. “These are Todd…and these are Mom and me…who’s this?”
Several pillows revealed another girl whose dark curls were a contrast to Kitty’s fine and fair hair. The images were nearly indistinct.
His daughter replied, “She’s lost.”
“I don’t recognize her,” Brad said.
Fran reappeared with paper bowls loaded with cake.
“Do you know her?” he asked his wife.
“Hmm?” She leaned over to present him a bowl and glanced at the pillow. “Some cousin? I don’t know. Kitty…” she stroked the girl’s head. “Let’s have some chocolate cake.”
The girl stared at her mother. “You don’t remember?” Her eyes were wide.
“No, I said—” Fran blinked. “You know this girl?”
“When I was little. She was older than me but younger than Todd.”
“Did you meet her here, in Grandma’s neighborhood? Because I don’t recall her.”
Kitty drew in her lips, blinking, and shook her head.
“Her name was Claire,” the girl burst out. “She lived with us. She shared my room. My sister!”
Fran frowned at Brad, who shrugged. She handed her son a bowl. Todd began whistling an off-key, eerie tune, as he loaded his fork. Gleaming black liquid oozed slowly out of the rich cake.
“Shit!” He slapped his forehead.
His mother started. “What is it?”
“We should have gotten ice cream!”
Fran glared at him and turned back to her daughter. “Maybe you told Grandma about a special friend…a make-believe friend?”
“No! She lived in my room with me, and then she was just gone! And Grandma said…”
Fran offered her a bowl, but Kitty ignored it. “What did Grandma say?”
Kitty was on the verge of tears. “You didn’t pay attention, and Grandma couldn’t hold on to her.”
“This cake is awesome, Kitty Kat,” Todd said. “Come on, eat yours, before I do.”
But she had withdrawn, staring at the pillows, touching the image of the lost girl.
Come morning, Kitty ambled out of her room and down the stairs, half-expecting Grandma to be bustling around her kitchen. But the figure huddled at the old table was her mother, clutching a cup of coffee and staring out the bare window overlooking the small backyard. When Fran noticed her daughter, she straightened.
“I grew up here. I came down those steps every morning, like you just did, in time to see Father off to work. Kiss him goodbye.” Fran cried softly and opened her arms. Kitty slid between them, confused, but willing to comfort and be comforted.
“I’m so sorry,” Fran murmured.
“That I haven’t tried harder to—get over—to find—”
Kitty pushed away, staring. “What?”
“You and Todd. A father.”
The front door slammed. Todd came in and tossed the car keys on the table. He waved his phone and said to his mother, “Good news.”
He tousled his sister’s hair with the other hand, bent to kiss her head. “Morning, Kitty Kat.”
The girl blinked, still puzzled by her mother’s remark, by her brother’s business-like air.
Todd continued. “Antique Barn will take the whole lot, on consignment. I sent photos of a couple yesterday, and they got really excited. They want to do an entire feature on their YouTube channel—Memories in American Folk Art or something—to boost sales. One of us will have to do an interview, chat about Grandma, you know.”
“That’s wonderful, Todd!” His mother smiled and touched his arm.
“The pillows?” Kitty asked. “We can’t give them up!”
“We need the money,” Fran said. “Todd and I need to provide for you. I’m sure Grandma would understand, want us to be more comfortable.”
Todd filled his travel mug with coffee. “I’ve got a shift at work tonight, so I’ll need to get going before noon. I’ll put the rest of the bags into the SUV and drop them off at Antique Barn on my way. They want to get a display set up.”
Kitty stared at her so-grown-up brother.
“I’ll bring a load of our stuff back from the apartment in the morning, so we can start settling in.”
“Where’s Daddy?” Kitty asked, in a small voice.
Todd frowned, but at a glance from his mother said nothing.
“Did you dream about Daddy?” she asked in a gentle voice.
“It wasn’t a dream! We were all here last night, having pizza and cake. I showed Todd that Grandma said he was gonna play hockey—”
Todd snorted. “I can barely stay upright on skates. Maybe I’ll learn in my spare time.”
“—at the university.”
His face hardened. “Well, that’s not happening.”
“Next year,” Fran replied. “We’ll be able to afford technical college—”
“And I told you about Claire,” Kitty added.
“Who?” Todd asked.
“That’s a nice name,” Fran said. “I always liked that name. If Todd had been a girl I’d have named her Claire.”
Todd topped off his mug from the pot and closed the cap. “Gonna start loading. I’ve got no time for…” He shook his head and strode into the sitting room.
“You mustn’t take them away!” Kitty made to chase after him. but her mother restrained her.
“I understand you miss Daddy—we all do—but it’s been years.”
“And we have to eat.” Todd wrung the neck of the bulging black garbage bag before him and heaved it over his shoulder. “Later.”
Kitty struggled against her mother’s embrace, then surrendered and sobbed into her shoulder as the door slammed.
“This is all wrong! Grandma was supposed to show me…”
They sat on the porch in the cool evening, mother and daughter, watching the shadows from the old trees crawl across the unkempt lawn and fill the empty street with darkness. The scent of floral decay wafted from the lilac bush nearby.
“I want us all to be together,” Kitty said. She stared at her pillow. “Grandma said…”
Fran stroked her hair. “What?”
“She said, when Grandpa died, that she had to give up Buster. She said, He’s just a dog, he don’t understand why Grandpa is gone. So she sent him to the shelter, but he was old, and they…and they…”
Fran remained silent, giving her time to continue.
“It’s like…animals have to live with not knowing, not understanding why they’re alone.”
Her mother cleared her throat, but before she could offer comfort, Kitty squirmed and looked at her.
“Is it that way for orphans, too? Do they have to wonder why they’re alone, if they might have done something differently? If they had done more, they might still have a family?”
“You mustn’t worry. This is the way it was supposed to be. We’ll always be together, now.”
Fran half-turned to face Kitty and gently took her shoulders. “This is our home now. Just you and me. The two of us.”
Kitty shuddered. Todd was already fading from her memory: like Daddy, like Claire.
She nodded and clutched her pillow to her breast.
“The two of us.”
J. L. Royce is a published author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest, exploring the wilderness without and within. His work appears in Allegory, Fifth Di, Ghostlight, Love Letters to Poe, Lovecraftiana, Mysterion, parABnormal, Sci Phi, Strange Aeon, Utopia, Wyldblood, etc. He is a member of HWA and GLAHW. Some of his anthologized stories may be found at: www.jlroyce.com.
∼ Read October’s story, “Wolves at the Door” by Logan Noble ∼