The next evening, I found myself sitting in grandpa’s old recliner. It was the same ratty, velvet chair of my childhood. I was nostalgic as I sat there, recalling a vivacious Grandpa Wayne, reclining to his room after dinner. He would sit in the light of the window and read his old western books. Someone had pulled the chair close to the bed for easier access. I reasoned it was probably rather difficult for Helen to stand while feeding or reading to him, especially in her crippled state.
At grandma’s insistence, I’d agreed to assist Grandpa Wayne with his dinner. It wasn’t a hard decision, considering I’d come to dread eating my meals alone. Grandma was usually busy flittering about the old house or gone into town for appointments and groceries. Although I enjoyed my conversations with Libby, her overly-chatty exuberance seemed out of place in the dreary old house. I found it hard to indulge in her cheery gossip with Grandfather’s sickness and the absence of Vanessa.
“Grandpa, it’s me,” I said gently, taking his withered hand into my own. I barely recognized him, he’d become so frail. Time had turned his dark, salt and pepper hair to a frizzy white. His cheeks sunk into each other like two hollow caves until he almost looked emaciated.
“I’m awake, old girl,” his watery eyes rolled towards me, dawning the same mischevious twinkle I remembered from my girlhood. “Just resting. What they tell me to do, I reckon, get some rest.”
He tried for a smile and I returned one of my own.
“I’m sorry you’re feeling ill, Grandpa,” tears stung my eyes, I hadn’t seen him in so long.
I felt a twinge of something like guilt, though I knew his sickness was not my fault. Inwardly, I kept thinking had I not been away, maybe I could have prevented this malady by witnessing the slow onset. I was no doctor but my nursing degree and the little work experience I had did allow me enough skill to acknowledge when a person was sickly. I shook the thoughts away. There was nothing I could do about the past, but I could focus on the present moment and right now Grandpa Wayne looked like he could use some nourishment.
“Don’t look so sad honey,” Grandpa gave my hand a feeble, reassuring squeeze. “It’s probably not as bad as they are all making it out to be. Just a little sick in my stomach is all. Now how about some of that soup you got there?”
We ate in silence for quite a while. I gently cajoled Grandpa into eating almost a whole bowl of tomato basil soup while I absent-mindedly nibbled at some grilled chicken and rice. I hadn’t had much of an appetite all day. Libby was an excellent cook and the Creole-style chicken smelled tantalizing but I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than a few bites.
I attempted to make small talk and as Grandpa answered with a series of grunts and passive agreements I looked about the room. There were boxes of medical supplies stacked near the closet and someone had set some plants on the window seal. They were dying, pitiful brown masses, I supposed by the lack of sunshine during these overcast, winter days. The room was dank and veiled in shadows thrown by a dusty old lamp that sat atop the bedside table. The small room was furnished in bulky antique oak furniture, the knobs of it’s drawers dull of time. Each piece loomed in the background like a dark spirit awaiting release. I shivered and thought to myself, sadly, that were I sick this room wouldn’t do much to lift my spirits.
When finally Grandpa waved the spoon away, I wiped his face with a napkin and put the dinner tray aside. His eyes were heavy with the exhaustion of merely eating and I realized just how sick he must be. The Grandpa of my memory ate heartily, and loved small talk.
“Grandpa, I need to ask you something,” the subject had been on my mind since my arrival and given the gossip of Libby, I had no idea what conclusions to draw.
He nodded at me, his eyes vaguely questioning, and said nothing.
“It’s about Vanessa,” I began. “You are aware she’s gone?”
Another vague nod of recognition, though he offered no other explanation.
“I don’t think it’s like her to leave here, and just stop communicating altogether, especially with Grandma. I’m worried…do you have any idea where she would go?”
For a long moment he didn’t say anything. His eyes were closed and I began to worry he’d fallen asleep. Or perhaps he was just refusing to acknowledge the sad fact that Vanessa’s disappearance was suspicious.
“She wouldn’t just do that,” I tried again. “Leave and not say anything about her whereabouts. She knew I was coming to spend the winter here, Gramps. She was excited about it.”
“Maybe,” he opened his eyes. I thought they seemed more watery than usual. He placed his hand over his forehead as if he were struggling not to cry, or the strain of being silent was making his head ache. “Or maybe she’s not talking cause she can’t.”
My heart gave jolt. Whatever could he mean? Did he know something I didn’t, or was this just the ramblings of an old, sickly man?
“Whatever do you mean, Gramps?” I asked, hoping he’d say something to smooth over the insinuation he’d just made. But mostly, I wanted the icy, heavy feeling that had shifted in my chest to melt. I wanted warm words of comfort. I needed Vanessa to be okay.
“Well what do we have here,” a cheery voice called from the doorway. I turned to see Aunt Helen, one hand leaning heavily onto a wooden cane, the other grasping a handful of medicine bottles. And then, “Oh hello Aubrey, I barely noticed you. You are just a withery little thing it’s hard to see you in a crowded room.”
Aunt Helen shuffled to meet me as I stood. Her stubby arms felt rough and cold to the touch, as if she’d just been outside. Her hug seemed almost harsh in the way she pulled me in, then quickly pushed me away and held me at arms length.
“You are just as beautiful as ever, even if willowy, why you haven’t ate a thing, look at this plate!” She picked up the bed tray and handed it to me. “It’s about that time dear, dad needs to take his medicine and have his nap. Would you be a doll and take that tray back to the kitchen for me?”