What Grandma Done
by Tim Simmons
“Now, you be back before dark, you hear?”
“I will, Momma!” replied Hannah. She raced across the kitchen toward the back door.
“Hannah...” her mother called, stopping her short. Hannah glanced back to see her mother’s stern face staring back at her.
Hannah nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” she said and opened the kitchen door.
She stepped onto the back porch and after unlocking the screen door, pushed it open and hopped down the back steps. Hannah looked up briefly and saw soft smears of clouds settling onto the golden sun as it hung just above the tree line. There was plenty of daylight left for a quick visit. Although her grandparents lived just down the road, it had been over a month since she had seen them.
Turning abruptly, she raced into the front yard and toward the gravel driveway that led to the old country road known as Renfro Drive. Her short brown hair bounced as she went. When she reached the end of the driveway, she turned right, and began walking along the one-lane gravel road.
Towering above her on both sides, pine trees jutted upward, massive silhouettes against the softening sky. It wasn’t long before she reached a large gravel driveway leading to her left with the familiar white mailbox and hand-painted name in black letters on its side: Renfro.
Hannah ran up the gravel driveway and toward a small pond where she loved to fish.
Huge Catalpa trees twisted skyward, as if guarding the entrance to the secluded pond. Hannah saw long, black caterpillars high in the trees, hanging onto the backside of the leaves, eating them with a fierce determination as if they, too, had to be in before dark.
Her gaze shifted to the little pond. She could hear the occasional grunt of a bullfrog from somewhere on the far side. The pond seemed unusually alive. Hannah heard a huge splash in the shallows that made her long to go grab one of Grandpa’s fishing poles but she thought she’d better wait and ask first.
Abandoning the pond, she turned to her right and jogged up to a gate that led to the old barn. She climbed up onto the lowest bar of the gate and peered through. Gaping holes where boards used to be and a roof that had rusted completely through in places gave the barn a forsaken, even ominous appearance.
Everything about it looked old and worn, much as it had when Hannah had ventured inside it a year ago and had gotten into trouble.
Her thoughts drifted back as she stared at the barn.
* * *
She was seven then and, without anyone knowing, had climbed up into the loft to look around. She had climbed the ladder as far as it went and with great difficulty managed to pull herself up and into the loft. She remembered the huge wasp nests as large as dinner plates clinging to the roof. Several bales of hay were stacked here and there with the remnants of broken bales laying strewn about, covering the boards.
She walked toward the loft opening to look out onto the farm, creaks and cracking sounds issuing with each step. Halfway there she heard a crunching sound then — snap! The rotted board had given way before she could react. She fell through the floor, splintered wood scraping at her sides. Her arms hit hard on the surrounding boards, keeping her from falling through completely. Her chest had become lodged between the side boards and she screamed.
Her grandparents, hearing her desperate screams, had somehow managed to rescue her. Her mother made her stay away for a whole month as punishment, and when Hannah had completed her sentence, her mother warned her again about the barn but Hannah didn’t need much convincing after that.
Her mother always worried that she would find some new way of getting into trouble and had recently forbidden her to visit her grandparents — but for a different reason.
* * *
Something shiny near the barn doors brought Hannah back from her daydream. She wasn’t sure what it was but she had made up her mind long ago to stay away from that place. Hannah stepped down from the fence and ran toward the old house, a small, single-story wood dwelling, nestled between a large group of Mimosa trees on the left and a grove of tall pine trees just to the right.
She stared at the house. Hannah could see that it hadn’t changed since her last visit. White paint had all but peeled completely off and the roof was sagging visibly. Large chunks of brick were missing near the top of the chimney. While she stood gazing at the house, a strange feeling of dread washed over her. Something had changed. Or maybe it was merely a trick of the fading daylight.
Upon reaching the house, she climbed the three concrete steps that led up to the enclosed back porch and gingerly swung the screen door open. The porch was cluttered with all sorts of ancient debris that fascinated her.
Hannah stepped through the doorway and eased the screen door shut. Gazing around in wonder, she stared at the ancient relics whose use had probably faded long before she was ever born: empty jars containing mysterious pieces of metal and wood, various rusted metal parts of unknown origin, and a broken rocking chair upon which rested a dust-covered coat. Hannah saw an assortment of odd-looking devices propped up in one corner. Tools of some kind, she thought.
She reached up onto one of the wooden shelves that formed a makeshift window sill and lifted a small jar filled with a jumble of odd-shaped pieces of what looked like a mass of fish hooks all tangled together. She tilted the jar and noticed that there were some coins at the bottom.
There was a sudden loud click at the back door which startled Hannah out of her reverie. She let out a small gasp and whirled around toward the door to see a face peering out of the window at her.
The door opened slowly.
“Well, what a surprise,” came an aged voice at the door.
“Grandpa!” said Hannah, running up to hug him.
“If it ain’t my favorite granddaughter, Hannah,” the old man exclaimed, bending as far as he could to return the hug. “Wasn’t expectin’ to see you here. Thought you’d forgot about old Grandma... and your Grandpa, too!”
“Momma wouldn’t let me come out here by myself. But she finally let me.”
“Can’t say as I blame her. What with all that’s been goin’ on recently. Won’t you come in for a spell?”
Hannah stepped into the small kitchen and breathed in the unmistakable aroma of apple pie baking in the oven. Old man Renfro, wearing the stereotypical garb of overalls and flannel shirt, closed the door behind her. He was a tall man with large hands that were gnarled from years of hard manual labor. His hair was thinning on top and was hanging down almost to his shoulders in stringy clumps. His face was patchy brown and red with deep wrinkles cutting across his forehead.
“Why don’t we have a seat at the dinin’ table,” Grandpa began, “and you can catch me up on what all you been up to?” He shuffled over to the sink and opened a cabinet.
Hannah turned her gaze from the man and trotted to the dining room. She plopped down into a chair and looked around.
“I think I got orange juice in the fridge,” came the old man’s voice from the kitchen.
“Okay, Grandpa,” replied Hannah. She reached over near the window and retrieved a small notepad and pencil.
“’Fraid we’re out of orange juice,” came Grandpa’s voice from the kitchen. “How ’bout some sweet milk?”
“Um... I’ll just have some water,” answered Hannah, scribbling away on the notepad. She heard water running in the kitchen sink, then the shuffling of boots. With glass in hand, the old man made his way to the dining table.
“Whatcha drawin’ there?” he asked, placing the glass down in front of her.
“I don’t know. Just drawing.”
“Well, tell me what you’ve been up to.” Grandpa took a seat across from her. “I reckon you been up to somethin’, it bein’ summer and all.”
“Oh, just playin’,” she said without looking up, moving the pencil in a slow arc across the piece of paper.
“Playin’ with your friends, I guess.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Well, I’m tickled you came to visit.”
Hannah looked up suddenly. “Where’s Grandma?”
Grandpa’s eyebrows arched. “Well... last I saw her she was out in the old barn.”
“What’s she doin’ out there?”
The old man’s eyes narrowed and a grin crept into his face. “Well, why don’t we go see?”
Hannah just stared at Grandpa.
“You ain’t still scared o’ that ole barn, are you?”
“No,” she said, looking down at her drawing.
“Well, you don’t need to be scared,” Grandpa told her. The old man got to his feet with some difficulty. “I’ll go out there with you.”
Hannah ran around the end of the table and past the old man then turned around to face him. “She’s not up in the loft, is she, Grandpa?”
Grandpa chuckled. “No, I reckon not. Not with them boards a-rottin’ through.” He shuffled into the kitchen and retrieved a set of keys from a holder on the wall and a battery powered lamp that was sitting on top of the refrigerator. “It’s a mite dark in there this late in the day.”
Hannah opened the kitchen door and jumped through.
“Hold on a minute,” Grandpa said.
Hannah paused, turning to see what was keeping him.
“I reckon I best take this apple pie out before it burns.”
Hannah watched as Grandpa removed the pie and placed it on top of the old stove.
“Now... let’s go see if we can find your grandma.”
Hannah skipped along in front while Grandpa lagged behind, his steps cautious on the gravel driveway. Reaching the gate, Hannah looked back and called out, “C’mon, Grandpa!”
“Just hold yer horses. I’m a-comin’.”
He reached the gate and raised the barbed wire loop that held it shut. The gate swung inward and they entered the barnyard. It could have been a graveyard for large metal tools long past their prime. A fifty-five gallon drum, cut in half for use in feeding the livestock, was rusting in one corner; and part of a combine, now deep red with rust, lay abandoned in a far corner, weeds jutting up through every opening.
Hannah was now able to tell what was making the shiny flashes she saw earlier. The barn doors were secured with a shiny new padlock.
“You locked Grandma in there?” she asked, turning her confused gaze up toward Grandpa.
“I sure did. After what happened, I decided to keep the old barn locked up at all times,” he said, inserting a key into the lock. “Safer that way.”
The rickety barn doors complained with a slow, knotted creaking as Grandpa struggled to get them open. The warm glow of evening seeped past the barn doors and into the main section — a middle hallway that connected the adjoining stalls on both sides. Hannah eased past Grandpa and slowly made her way down through the middle of the barn, looking left and right, empty stalls fading into darkness on either side of her.
“Grandma,” she yelled. Her voice sounded small in the shadowy, vaulted expanse of the barn.
Grandpa walked toward the center of the barn and hung the lamp on a rusted nail that stuck out above one of the horse stalls.
“Grandma?” came Hannah’s voice from the far end of the barn. Running back toward the old man, Hannah stopped, breathless. “She ain’t answering, Grandpa!”
The old man’s wrinkled face glowed in the anemic light as he peered down at Hannah. He pointed to his right. “She’s right over there.”
Hannah’s eyes followed Grandpa’s finger to one of the darkened stalls. She peered in the direction of the stall but couldn’t see anything but dark shapes and shadows.
“Grandma?” she said, the words almost a whisper. There was no reply. She glanced back at Grandpa, who tilted his head down and with a sweep of his hand, gestured for Hannah to move closer to the stall.
She hesitated then took a careful step closer. Looking into the stall, she could barely make out an old work hat just sitting there on the ground. But there was something odd about it. The ground beneath the hat was raised up. Her eyes had adjusted more to the darkness and she could see that it was definitely a mound of dirt about six feet in length with a work hat on top. One of Grandpa’s work hats. Hannah stared at the mound.
“I know it’s a shock to you, Hannah. Death ain’t never easy to take.”
It was several moments before Hannah turned back toward her grandfather. “Grandma’s dead?” came her trembling words, her eyes shining wet in the dim lamp glow.
Grandpa shuffled toward Hannah and put a hand on her shoulder. His eyes narrowed, gazing hard into Hannah’s own wet eyes. “Hannah, something terrible happened to your grandma.”
Hannah’s eyes widened.
“I aim to tell you what happened,” he said, “but you gotta promise me you won’t tell nobody... ’cause if you do...” The old man hesitated, his mouth tightening. “If you do, Grandpa could get in a heap of trouble, you understand?”
Hannah nodded, a tear streaking down her cheek.
“You don’t want Grandpa to get in any trouble, do you, Hannah?”
“No, Grandpa,” she said with a sniffle. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.
The old man bent down and grabbed Hanna’s other shoulder. His grip tightened, his eyes now wild. “You promise you won’t tell a soul?”
“Promise me!” he growled, shaking her lightly.
“I... I promise I won’t, Grandpa,” Hannah answered, her voice a whimpering cry.
Releasing his grip, Grandpa straightened. He looked toward the makeshift grave. It was several moments before he spoke again.
“I killed her,” he stated flatly.
Hannah backed away from her grandfather, toward the barn doors, unable to turn and run, unable to stop staring at the shadowy figure in front of her. The old man turned his gaze toward her, the lamplight deepening the recesses of his aged face.
“Hannah!” Grandpa yelled, stretching out a weathered hand toward her. “I want you to know why I done it. I ain’t told nobody.” He paused. “I can’t hold it in no more.”
Hannah continued to back away, staring blankly at the old man. “You killed Grandma,” she whispered, the words drained of all emotion.
“I had to, Hannah,” he said, turning back to look toward the makeshift grave, “on account of what Grandma done.”
Hannah remained silent but her emotions raced unchecked, her heart pounding. Too afraid to bolt for freedom, she just stood there, staring at a murderer she once knew as her grandfather.
“I couldn’t see it,” he mumbled. “Couldn’t see it till it was too late. You see, it all happened so fast. Lookin’ back, I guess I stumbled upon the truth that night at the supper table... That was when I knew that somethin’ was mighty wrong.” Grandpa looked up toward the roof as if it might help him recall the details.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Tim Simmons