A Grace of Her Own

by Laura

Melanie's house was one of the stately old Victorians in the neighborhood. Its ornate arches, wrap around porch, lattice work and time period colors once made it the crown jewel on the block. However, that was years ago when Garrison was alive. After losing him to a sudden heart attack, Melanie was left with an empty house that had five bedrooms. There were no children to fill it; there weren't even any dogs, or cats whispering in the corners. Being lonely most of the time, Melanie became a hermit. She only came out of the house to work as a part time library assistant.

Then one summer weekend in August evolving from her months of mourning, Melanie Grace ventured outside in Garrison's old faded blue overalls, donned a wide brimmed hat, and decided to cut the grass herself. The electric mower was rusty and old, but luckily she had enough cord, and it started up on the first try. The fresh aroma of the newly cut grass danced in the air. Then, after sweeping years of rough, scattered debris off the porch and creating dirt filled tornados, she mixed some paint. Taking off from her library job the following Monday, she began painting the porch in soothing honey lemon and brass hues. The spindles suddenly became alive, and the lot on Wade Avenue was slowly coming back to life. Old and new neighbors came by to greet her and brought her juicy beefsteak tomatoes, from their own gardens. Gradually becoming friendlier, Melanie even had a few people over for cookies and fresh iced tea with lemon wedges, on the freshly painted porch. However, after sprucing things up, she still had five empty bedrooms and no one to share them with. She decided to do something about it the following weekend.

Her new sign read " "Melanie's Place," rooms available. At first the feedback was not kind. The neighbors turned on her. They didn't want unethical activities going on under their noses. One by one Melanie explained and patiently reiterated that she would screen all applicants carefully and not let any rift raft go on in her house.

Arriving in Cranberry that same sultry summer, in August was Susannah Lipton. Her mother had kindly asked her to leave home, in Detroit, because she decided to drop out of high school, right before graduation and live with her boyfriend. Susanna didn't like school and was convinced the teachers didn't like her. Her grades were mediocre, enough to get by, but school was a huge inconvenience for her. She wanted to live with Henry, and work as a cashier in her favorite book store on Can Ave. That was her plan. She enjoyed reading and writing, just not in school. Her job, combined with his new management position at the local record store, helped make ends meet.

Everything was going according to plan and for the first time in her life. Susanna felt free. Then one morning while getting ready for work, Henry didn't wake up. He had a massive heart attack at the age of 19 and died instantly. The doctors said it was just one of those devastating circumstances, but that didn't help. Henry had been her one true love. Susanna's grief was insurmountable. She was numb for weeks on end and could barely breathe, or eat. The funeral was just a blur of automatic emotions; it was something that happened in another lifetime. It was teaming at the cemetery and no one extended an umbrella for her, she had to do it herself, she barely had the strength. It was as if the clouds were angry, they let loose their fury in an angry sharp piercing rain that punctured her skin. Susanna was soaked to the bone. The graveside was muddy and smelled of manure. Grass was torn up in order to make room for the burial plot. It was as if someone had scooped out the precious roots of life. His parents showed up for the funeral, but quickly left afterwards and didn't even acknowledge Susanna's presence. There was no gathering afterwards, nothing to acknowledge what occurred. Somehow Susanna managed to make it back to her car and drive back to their apartment in her statured clothes. Days melted into weeks, weeks melted into months. Susanna was walking around like a lifeless zombie wearing Henry's shirts. Henry was her life, he was her breathe; he was her reason for existence. The only thing she had was the ring they picked out together. It was a friendship and engagement ring. Susanna wore it around her neck dangling from a chain so she could easily feel it all the time.

However, she needed money to pay the rent, so she managed to pull herself together and show up for her shifts at the bookstore. After three months of barely breathing, Susanna had a small savings of $500.00 dollars. She gave notice to the landlord that she would be moving out the following month. There was nothing for her in Detroit after, packing up their belongings, Susanna gathered the money that was left over and bought a bus ticket to start a new life somewhere far from Detroit.

Walking from the apartment to the bus station was almost unbearable. Susanna's clothes clung to her skin, enveloping her in a liquid summer sweat. After purchasing a ticket, she boarded the bus with complete strangers for a very long ride. Nothing was waiting for her on the other side, but she needed to take a chance.

Departing four hours later from the dusty and dirty Greyhound Bus Depot, her feet pounded down, dry cracked pavement. A neat back pack was slung over one shoulder while her honey brown hair fluttered in the breeze. Her sunglasses kept sliding down her nose, and finally after three tries she rested them on the top of her head. Up ahead not far from the depot was a green and white striped awning that seemed to be suspended from a second floor window next to the budding flower boxes. Perched preciously above the awning was a sign that read- Sam's Deli. Stepping up under the temporary shelter of the awning, wrestling with an old wooden door latch, Susanna pressed down with both hands, and went inside. Out of nowhere, a stout pudgy woman in a housedress appeared and asked Susannah if she needed help with anything

"What can I get for you hon?" .

"Just something cold to drink."

"Help yourself, cooler is over there. Don't keep it open too long."

Sliding open the cool transparent door took all of her effort. Her forearms were sunburned and her back was tight. Reaching inside the case, she retrieved a Coke. Scrounging around in her damp pocket for a measly dollar fifty, she slammed it on the counter.

"Are there any places to stay around here?"

"Well, the only place within walking distance is Melanie's Rooming House." The cashier said

Great she thought a rooming house. She would probably have to share a bathroom and abide by some strict rules. Her plan wasn't working out very well.

"How do I get there?"

"Go to the end of this dead end street, make a left on Main, and go up three blocks until you hit Wade Ave. You can't miss it."

"Thanks."

Struggling with the sticky door again and stepping out into the heavy air made her head spin. Walking to Melanie's became very difficult. However, Susannah dragged herself forward in her old scuffed sandals. After what seemed like hours, she finally spotted a tall white picketed fence; this had to be the place she thought. A pleasant looking woman in her sixties answered the screen door. Dressed in an aqua blue tank top with a close cropped pixie haircut, and plaid green shorts, she greeted Susannah before she had a chance to knock. Intuition told Melanie that this girl was in need of more than just a place to stay. Maybe it was Susanna's hunched walk, blistered feet or worn leather backpack that gave it away, but Melanie knew that Susanna Lipton needed a place of refuge,

"Is that what you're interested in, a room?"

With a garbled throaty voice Susannah said yes.

The large Victorian house was inviting. Melanie brought out some fresh iced tea on the wooden wraparound porch and Susannah was glad for another cold drink. The clear glasses were sweating because of the humidity, a small puddle had developed, but it didn't seem to be a problem. Melanie pulled an old squeaky white wicker rocking chair closer indicating that Susanna does the same. It was a kind friendly gesture and Susanna was ready to settle in, but then Melanie got down to business. Yanking her reading glasses off her head she began reciting the litany from her own notes as if she was making a speech to a large audience.

"The charge for the room is $70.00 a night. If you want to use the kitchen it's an extra $20.00. You must have at least one good written reference and an emergency contact number. You are expected to keep the room neat and leave it the way you found it when you arrived. No loud music, drugs, smoking, alcohol, or members of the opposite sex. I need one form of legal ID and a credit card number. You can stay as long as you want, but must pay for each night before 10:00 a.m."

Thinking this was a bad idea, a very bad idea she felt trapped. Things had gone from bad to worse, she was grieving for Henry and now she met up with this tight ass woman. She certainly didn't need this attitude her face; Susanna had enough of that at home. She was on the prowl for freedom, not smothering from some old lady. However, she knew Melanie was her only choice. She didn't have a car and her cheap sandals weren't taking her far any time soon. This lady was her only choice. Digging out the friendship ring that also served as an engagement ring, from a small chain around her neck she whispered a prayer. It had something to do with finding peace. Pinching it between her thumb and first finger, so knew she was lost. She wanted to go back to the apartment that she shared with Henry. Instead, she decided to plop herself in this one horse town with an old woman who ran a boarding house. Jesus, she wanted to sleep forever and wake up when the pain was all over.

"Do you still want the room?" Melanie asked in a demanding tone.

"Yes, but I only have cash, no references, or anything else you require.

"Well, I'll try you for one night, and one night only to see how you do."

"Okay" Susanna said to herself trying to focus and be polite as possible.

Climbing the first flight of brown stained steps added to her existing perspiration under her arms. Off to the left, tucked neatly in an alcove, was a small friendly door. There was a stuffy attic feel to the air making it hard to breathe. A welcome sign was stenciled on the front of the door in county dÃcor. Great, Susanna thought she would be living in an oven with Martha Stewart for the next 24 hours.

"This is your room. I can get you a padlock if you wish, but right now it's just me living here. The bathroom is down the hall, one towel and washcloth per person; don't leave anything on the floor. I expect you to leave the room and bathroom the way you found it. Come downstairs when you are ready, we can have an early supper together."

Realizing Melanie had an agenda; Susanna was starting to get pissed off. Unpacking her sparse belongings and basic toiletries, she decided to take the room for only one night. After making that decision she definitely needed a cigarette. Her heart missed Henry more than life itself. She couldn't move, her legs were like dead bolt weights, but she needed that cigarette to take the edge off. If only Henry were here things would be so much easier. Checking to make sure the ring was still on the chain; she grabbed her cigarettes and lighter, and pulled the door shut behind her. Henry always told her to quit, it was the only thing they fought about, but now it didn't matter because he was dead. Maybe she would die from cancer and be with him sooner rather than later.

Remembering Melanie's precious no smoking rule, Susanna headed outside with her Marlboros and Zippo lighter. Slinking her way down the steps, she ran into Melanie face to face while she was vacuuming the blue oval braided rug in the front hall.

"Just getting some fresh air." said Susannah

"Okay, sure enjoy"

It was a stupid lie, but there was nothing like a long hard drag on a cigarette to take the edge off, and this lady was serious starting to annoy her. After lighting her cigarette with the Zippo lighter and dangling it from her lips, she began pulling her frizzy hair back in a ballerina bun in an effort take some of the weight off the back of her neck.

"I'm making some spaghetti would you like some"? Melanie asked over her shoulder.

"Sorry, I know your rule, but came outside."

"Its okay." it's really okay. "

Melanie knew not to make a big deal about Susanna's smoking. At least the girl came outside. It might be a long 24 hours if she started to nick pick the situation.

Great, this broad cooks and runs a boarding house, how domestic. However, Susanna was hungry; her last meal had been a melted Snickers candy bar six hours ago.

"Can I help you with anything?" asked Susannah out of a sense of duty.

"Sure, you could help me with the salad. I just picked some vegetables from my garden."

"So, you have a garden?"

"Well, it started out as my therapy after my husband died. All I has was my job, but nothing else. I needed something to nurture. One day I bought a packet of seeds and it took off from there."

"How about you start on the tomatoes and lettuce." Wow this lady was really pushy, but Susanna bit her lip in an effort to curb her smart mouth.

"Sure, do you want the tomatoes in quarters?" Susanna asked in an obligatory voice.

"Yes, please." Great, Martha Stewart with polite manners she thought to herself.

"Do you want the lettuce shredded?"

"Yes, that's fine."

After working in silence for a good 10 minutes Melanie burst out laughing.

"You know what I would like?" asked Melanie as she sucked up her invisible tears.

Maybe a Few Xanax Susanna thought to herself.

What?"

"I would like someone to tell me what the hell I'm supposed to do with this big old house. I have five empty bedrooms and no renters. My dear husband left me this massive thing and now I have to pick up where he left off. It's been years since he died but it still hurts every day."

Reaching down deep in her soul Melanie tried to find her good natured humor.

"Maybe, just maybe I should turn it into a brothel!" she said quietly under her breath.

"Well, it might supplement your income." Susannah said flatly with a sigh.

"You know you're right, I could call it Melanie's Men."

Both women burst out laughing holding their sides as if there wasn't air. Melanie forgot what is was to laugh so hard, so did Susannah.

The spaghetti water was starting to boil over and the electric range was sizzling. The tomato sauce was waiting to be poured out into the sauce pan. Both of their stomachs were growling, so they worked fast, Susannah on the salad and Melanie on the spagetti.

Carrying their plates onto the porch, they admired the sunset.

"It reminds me of my husband. We used to go camping, and at the end of a long day we would stop to admire the sky."

"How did he die?"

"Heart attack, 5 years ago. He just up and left me one day, said he was going out for a walk and collapsed in the middle of town."

Great, more drama, something Susanna didn't need but unfortunately knew about. Susanna didn't offer any personal information about Henry.

After a long pause, Melanie interrupted the silence.

"How is the spaghetti?"

"Very good, thank you."

Finishing up they watched the lightening bugs dance on the limbs of the trees. The humidity still clung to the branches making them droop. Ciadices were dancing and mating, probably making love. Drifting off to sleep, Susanna pushed herself up from the white wicker rocker and took her bone white china plate into the kitchen. "Rinse your plate, I don't want bugs.

"Okay" God she thought this woman is really pushy.

"Good night Susannah."

"Good night Melanie."

Before she went upstairs to her room, she dug out the special ring from Henry to make sure it was still there.

The next morning a sweet summer breeze welcomed the new day. It was a little after 11:00 a.m. and Susanna was starving.

Melanie left a note telling Susanna that she was doing some shopping and would be back later. It was written in her neat catholic school script. The morning paper was neatly laid out between the two placemats. Susannah was annoyed by this gesture, after all Melanie wasn't her mother, or even her friend. Sighing, she flipped to the Help Wanted ads knowing this is what Henry would have wanted. Spotting a different type of ad Susanna became intrigued. It was requesting a part time child care provider. Well, I guess it beats waitressing Susannah thought to herself. At least kids could be cute.

After putting the groceries on the counter, there was a brief pause between them.

"Ah I see you have been introducing yourself to the Cranberry Chronicle. People around here take a lot of pride in that paper. I'll be the first to admit that the paper can be a little cheesy, but in a good way."

Susannah chuckled to herself about that remark. Maybe this broad did have a sense of humor after all.

"So, what do you know about babysitters in this town?"

"Well I know a lot of people are looking for one. Honest, they are scarce. More kids than babysitters make for unhappy parents."

"So do you think this ad is legit? It's asking for childcare for a set of three year old twins."

"Well if I recall, Marion Levy has a set of twins that must be at least three years old by now. I bet you it's her ad."

Jesus Christ three year old twins and a mom who stays home part time. Susanna found that one hard to swallow.

"Thanks for the tip." Susanna said trying to be as polite as possible.

She got up with a start and pushed the chair out of her way. While Melanie's back was turned unloading groceries, Susanna slipped out the back door.

"Where are you going so fast in this heat?"

"I'm going to the pay phone to call the number in this ad."

"That's just stupid. You mean to tell me you were purposely going to walk three long blocks in this heat to make a local phone call?"

"Well, I wanted some privacy."

"I can give you privacy; just let me put these groceries away."

"Okay," Susanna said coming back in through the door and gulping down some more orange juice and dying for a cigarette.

"Put your plate in the sink, I don't want ants." Melanie demanded.

"Sorry".

"Don't be sorry, just rinse your plate."

Wow, it was going to be a long 24 hours if she decided to stay another night.

Sitting in the hall Susanna dialed the number in the paper from an old rotary phone. Letting it ring three times she was about to lose her nerve and hang up when a hassled woman's voice answered.

"Hello" stated Marion.

"Yes, I was . . . calling about the ad in the paper, the one for part time child care." Susanna spat out.

"Okay, then yes. I have three year old twins who aren't potty trained yet. Their names are Andrew and Abby. They are really a handful. I pay twelve dollars an hour cash to start. Are you still interested?" Marion asked.

"Well, I could give it a try." Susanna stated.

"Whom may I ask is calling?"

"My name is Susanna"

"Oh yes, you must be the girl staying at Marion Levy's place..."

Wow you surely couldn't breathe in this town without anybody knowing about it.

"Yes, that's right."

"Well, tell me a little bit about yourself." Marion inquired.

"I just got here yesterday from Detroit."

"Wow that's a long way from home."

"Well, I took a bus . . . "

"You mean to tell me you took a bus from Detroit in this heat."

"Well, yes, I did."

"Did you come alone?"

"Yes, I did."

"Why did you decide to come to Cranberry of all places?" Marion asked politely.

"Well, to be honest, Cranberry seemed the farthest distance from Detroit."

"Okay well, are you still interested in the position?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Good, when can you come over to meet with me?" Marion asked in one breath.

"Soon, I could be there around 1pm."

"Great, my address is in the ad. I'm just three blocks from Melanie's. She knows where I live."

"Great, I'll see you then."

"Okay, goodbye."

"Goodbye."

There was still time to chicken out. She could just call her back and say this wouldn't be a good fit for her. She didn't know what to do with kids. Besides she was still mourning Henry and didn't know is she could be freakin' Mary Poppins for the Bobsey Twins.

On the other side of town Marion Levy was a frazzled woman. She had three year old twins who drove her crazy. At three years of age they still weren't potty trained and too old to be in diapers. Since this was the case, they weren't accepted to the preschool at church. Of course Marion blamed herself for this dilemma. After all, she was a stay at home mom and had the time to put into the twins' potty training. Her husband Tim seemed entirely obviously to her position. Granted he did try, and was a great dad. He even built an extra bathroom on the first floor, but Marion took this problem personally. She was starting to think that this hunt for a babysitter was nothing more than an over indulgence, but in reality her mothering skills needed work.

Arriving precisely 1pm Susanna let herself in through the front garden gate and knocked at the front door of 21 Meredith Street. The house was a tiny cape cod on a corner lot. Tim and Marion had bought it when they were first married. Tim had put some work into it, and now it stood as straight as a soldier, with its deep black slatted shutters and bone white siding. The front yard was neatly kept, but not overdone. There was one parking spot behind the house. Toys littered the area next to the minivan. Marion tried her best to keep the van straightened up, but it was useless. Carting the twins around every day made for muddy floor mats and sticky windows.

Finally Susanna reached the address in the ad and was dripping with sweet before she rang the doorbell. One ding dong was all it took and it was as if Marion appeared instantly.

"Susanna, hello, and come in. we've been waiting for you".

Walking in through the boxy screen door the twins instantly clung to each one of her legs.

"Well you must be Abby and Andrew." It's so nice to meet you my name is Susannah."

"Let her come in and get cooled off."

"Please come in." Marion guided her inside with the palm of her hand.

Susanna was trying to be friendly, but was a bit apprehensive. What she really wanted was a long hard drag on a cigarette. Funny, she forgot to bring them with her today. That was a good thing; she didn't want Marion to get the wrong idea about her, she needed the money.

"Susanna, would you like something cold to drink?" Marion asked.

"Yes! Please Susanna said trying to remember her manners."

"We just have bottled, or tap water; sorry the selection isn't so great." Marion stated.

"Ice water would be great, thank you."

"Please sit down. I'll tell the twins to play downstairs, so we can talk."

Sounding like a drill sergeant Marion directed the action.

"Abbey Grace and Andrew James please remove your arms from Susanna's legs right now and go to the basement to play. Remember to clean up what you get out and don't play with the paints, or play dough."

With mischievous grins, the twins pried away their arms and let Susanna free. They rattled down old musty basement steps with their plastic swords and capes flapping around their necks.

Susanna was a little taken back by Marion's tone of voice. Was it really necessary to be so bitchy towards her kids? She started to think she might have gotten herself into another precarious situation, but then again she needed the money and the kids were really cute. Quietly and privately she gently yanked the chain around her neck to make sure the ring was still there, and it was. God she really missed Henry. They could of have had this. The house, the kids, and marriage, but now none of that mattered Susanna was just trying to survive. Still, being in Marion's house and seeing the twins was like taking a stab straight to her heart. She would never have this dream and it took all her might not to cry in front of Marion. The only thing keeping her together right now was Henry's ring. She knew he was with her, she could feel it. Suddenly Susanna knew she had to get out of her head and get on with things.

"Susanna, please sit down anywhere you like." Susanna chooses the loveseat adorned with a denim slip cover. Then she thought it would be a good idea to reach for a coaster.

"Okay, so I need someone to help me around lunch time and into the early evening. I need someone here while I do a few errands like grocery shopping. I also need some time to do a full load of laundry, fold it and put it away all at one time. I also need someone here when I have to run one or the other to the doctor, which happens quite often. God knows I love the twins more than life itself, but sometimes I just don't have a minute to breathe. My husband God Bless the man works 60 hour weeks so we can afford to keep this house, but he just doesn't get it." Marion babbled.

Susanna only listened to Marion part of the time, the rest of the time she was still stuffed inside her own head.

"So, please tell me if you think this situation will work for you, or not. I need an honest answer."

"So," Will it work, or not Susanna? Marion asked in a demanding voice.

"Yes, yes it should work. I'm staying at Melanie's for now, but hope to get my own place soon."

"Yes, well rents are expensive. . . Are you sure this situation feels right with the twins and all? I'm not offended if you want to back out."

Instinctively feeling for her pack of cigarettes, Susanna swallowed hard when she realized they weren't there. Pulling an elastic band from her wrist she twirled her hair and wound it up in a sloppy bun before giving Marion her answer. God she missed Henry, it hurt to breathe, but she had to answer Marion.

"Yes, yes this will work."

"Is twenty dollars an hour okay with you?"

"Yes, its okay."

"Great, then can you come back tomorrow?"

Jesus Christ this woman was wound tighter than a yo yo, Susanna didn't want to know what she would be like if she took the time to unwind herself.

"Yes," Susanna said as she looked Marion square in the eye.

"Great, can you be here by 1:00 tomorrow?"

"Sure." Susanna said keeping her answers short and sweet.

"Okay great! I'll get the twins to come say goodbye."

"Abbey and Andrew come up here and say goodbye to our guest Susanna."

"Susanna wook what we made for you." Andrew piped up

Susanna knelt down to get a closer look.

"It's Addey and me in the pool with our dog."

"Oh, it's beautiful. Can I keep it, or do you want to hang it up?"

"You can keep it; we like to draw wots and wots of pictures."

Placing the picture under her arm she stood back up.

"Are you comin' tomorrow Zusanna? Hone Hone?

"Yes, Abby she will come back tomorrow." Marion stated firmly.

"Yeah, Suzannea we wove you."

"Okay, let Susanna go home, we will see her tomorrow."

"Yes, I will come back tomorrow." Susanna said as she headed toward the door."

"Great, thanks Susanna is $20.00 enough for today?"

Not realizing that Marion was trying to pay her, Susanna became surprised.

"Yes, it's fine thank you."

Dumbfounded, she turned the knob that opened the screen door and let herself out.

"Bye everybody, see ya later gators."

"Afta while crocodiles."

Shoving the money down into her damp jeans she was blown away. Marion just paid her $20.00 for visiting her and the twins for 30 minutes. It was at that precise moment that she missed Henry the most.

While walking back to Melanie's house Susannah became drenched with sweat. Opening the back door to the house didn't bring much relief either. However, she quietly let herself inside.

"So are you going back?" Melanie inquired with her back to Susanna.

Again with the noisy questions, this chick was really starting to get on her last nerve.

"Yes."

"Good, good because if you plan to stay another night its $70.00."

"Okay. I will pay you for another night. Let me just run upstairs and get my money."

Taking one step at a time her feet hurt with each vibration. The handrail served as a balance beam and Susanna was glad for its steadiness. Reaching the top of the creaking steps Susanna let out a sigh and was painfully aware that Henry was gone forever. This had to be a dream. Here she was in the middle of Mayberry trying to find herself.

The next day Susanna woke up to the sound of Melanie cleaning out the kitchen cabinets. The clatter of the jars and cans woke Susanna from a deep sleep. The air in her bedroom was still frigid from the air conditioner used last night. She padded quietly out of her bedroom hoping to avoid Melanie.

"Good Morning Susannah, I hope I didn't wake you with my noise . . . .

"No, not at all." She lied.

"Let me just get into the shower and change, then I'll be down for breakfast."

"There are no cooks here; fresh fruit is on the table." Melanie said.

"Thanks, Melanie."

It was a beautiful summer day. There wasn't a cloud in the blue jeweled sky, but it was hot. So hot that sweat started to accumulate on Susanna's forehead just as she got out of the shower. She pulled on some old underwear and an old shorts and tank top, making a note to herself to invest in some new clothes.

After gobbling down a juicy peach, she threw the pit in the empty trash bag hoping this wouldn't piss Melanie off. Then it was time for a smoke, a long hard drag on her favorite brand. Yeah that's the ticket she thought. Anything to take the edge off. Opening the squeaky back door, she was planning to sit on the step to enjoy, but Melanie startled her.

"Don't worry, I'm going outside." Susanna said with a start.

"It's not that Susanna. You are such a beautiful girl and I hate to see you pump those cancer sticks into your lungs."

"Well, Melanie last time I checked I own my body."

Susanna lit her cancer stick with a long tipped Zippo lighter. The lighter was intended to be used to light candles, but Susanna used it so she wouldn't burn her fingers.

Pulling the loose stand of hair away from her face she inhaled deeply on her cigarette. Taking it away from her fingers she tapped the ashes on a spare piece of foil she grabbed from the kitchen.

"Garrison smoked a pack a day, he quit now and then but wasn't serious about stopping." Finally it caught up with him and I lost him forever. He's gone now and you can see how I have to pick up the pieces."

"Did you love him? I mean really love him forever?"

"Of course Susanna, we took vows and he was my best friend."

"Okay well, love hurts sometimes."

"Yes, I know Susanna, I know it does."

"I'm off to Meredith Street to save Marion from her stressful life."

Susanna hopped down from the wooden railing and tugged at her jean shorts. Her hair was falling in wisps around her face and her sunglasses were perched on top of her head snug and secure.

"Susanna, would you like a ride to Marion's? It is almost 100 degrees out here."

"Thanks, but I'd rather walk and get my adrenaline going."

"Okay suit yourself, the twins are a handful. Be patient with Marion."

This lady was really starting to get on her last nerve. What she anyway? A philosopher? She surely wasn't her mother.

"Bye Melanie, if Marion calls tell her I'm on my way. "

"Will do Susannah."

Walking to Marion's was harder than Susanna thought. The humidity engulfed her throat; she was dying for a cool drink. She arrived at the screen door parched and breathless.

"Susanna, please come in, let me get you some water."

While waiting for the water Susanna plopped herself down on the same couch she sat on yesterday, it was starting to feel very comfortable. Twirling her hair around her finger she looked at the pictures lining the grand piano. Everyone seemed to have a smile almost like a Kodak moment.

"Take a few minutes to cool down. My dear husband likes the air conditioner turned all the way up to the freeze mode. If you get too cold free to turn it down."

"Thanks, Marion"

"The kids are watching a cartoon. I told them they could pick one more short one after this one was over, then the TV. Needs to go off. I left your money and my info on a tablet on the kitchen counter. Please try to get them to use the potty instead of the pull-ups. However, if they wet themselves I've put out wipes and clean pull-ups in the corner. I won't be back until five, but I have my phone if there is an emergency. Don't let the kids go outside, it's too hot and they love to swim in the pool. No swimming, or outside play allowed. The pool has a cover on it because we decided to close it early in the season. We have had a lot of kids over who didn't come equipped to swim in it. They just came with swimmies around their arms and we just couldn't take any more chances. Thanks Susanna. I'll just slip out while the twins are occupied. They know I will be leaving soon."

Jesus God, Marion should be a drill sergeant thought Susanna she was one tough nugget. Then again Susanna really needed the money. The cash was neatly laid out against the yellow tablet and she folded it without counting and shoved it down deep in her pocket. She had to get into Mary Poppins mode. All was quiet, for now she thought. Susanna thought it best not to disturb the twins until their cartoon shows were over. So, Susanna decided to be noisy. She started in the kitchen. She slid open the wide drawer under neath the island. There was a checkbook in Marion's name. As she flipped through it some more there were obvious deposits from an unknown source. They were in $1,000 amounts every month. Must be nice just to have an extra $1,000 to play with every month Susanna thought.

Next, she moved onto the high cabinet above the stove. It contained cold and flu remedies along with prescription meds. Susanna knew the snooping was wrong, but kept doing it anyway. The labels on the bottles were in Marion's name. A quick glance revealed that the bottle contained Xanax. The other bottle had a name she couldn't pronounce, but it was to be taken once daily. She put the bottles back quietly and snapped the cabinet shut. It was at moment Andrew poked his head around the corner.

"Suzanna, you came back, yeah . . . abba Suzanna came back."

Andrew clasped his arms around her legs tight and suddenly she couldn't breathe.

"Hi gators how are you today"? We are good Suzannah. We wuvloe you."

"I love you to, but do you guys have to go to the potty?"

"Yes,"

"Abba, potty time. Close the door to the T.V. room and go to the potty.

Leaving the bathroom door wide open Andrew pulled down his pants, pulled down his pull ups and whipped out his tiny penius. His aim was pretty good. Finishing up he pulled up his pull-ups and his pants, flushed and washed his hands with lots of soap.

"Good job Andrew, I liked how you remembered to flush and wash your hands."

"Abby it's your turn. Susanna I show you my Dora underwear. She's my favorite."

With one quick gusto Abby pulled her pants down to her ankles and pulled down her Dora underwear.

"Wow" Abby, that is Dora, isn't it?"

"Yes, and Susanna you know somethin' else?"

"What Abby?"

"I did a snake poopy yesterday and my daddy is proud of me."

"Know somethin' else Suzannah"?

"Mommy sayz we can't go to school until we don't pee in our pull-ups anymore."

"Yes, that's right Abby, so try to pee in the potty right now like a big girl."

"Okay Suzanna, I try to pee like me in the big potty."

God these kids were adorable, but Susanna knew they were bad. However, she also knew they were good for Marion; it might help get the stick out of her butt.

The twins became itchy, so Susanna suggested they all play a game of hide and go seek. The house was just the right size and had safe hiding places.

"Okay gators how about a game of hide and go seek?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Suzzanna will you play with us?" The twins asked while tugging at her shorts. Remembering Marion's rules Susanna thought she should put some restrictions on the kids. "Of course, but there are some places you can't hide."

"Wlike we can't go outside, or in the basement right Suzzannna?"

"Yes, you can't hide in those places, but anywhere else is fine."

Something in her gut told Susanna that this game might be a bad idea, but she decided to let the twins play it anyway. They were old enough to know the rules, and knew not to go outside near the pool. Shrugging off her doubts, she covered her eyes and began counting.

"Okay gators I will start counting, you go hide; remember our rules."

"1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9..10 ready or not here I come."

Playing along in a childlike way Susanna talked to herself out loud while looking for the twins.

"Nope, not behind the sofa, not behind the television, not in the bathroom. Boy, I wonder if Abby or Andrew might be in one of the coat closets. I think I will take a look. Not in this closet maybe they hid together in the closet next to the front door. . . .Booo I got you. I found you Andrew James."

"Boy Suzzanna that was fun. I love being the hiding one. You are a good finder."

"That was fun, but now let's find Abby."

"Okay let's go Suzanna."

Clasping her hand tight Andrew dragged Suzanna in room after room looking for Abby. After 10 minutes of searching through the house Suzanna became worried.

"Where iz she Suzzannah? Where's my Abba?"

"I don't know gator, but we need to find her soon. She will be in big trouble with me when I find her.

"Abba, come out, come out Abba. Suzzanna is looking for you.

That sick feeling washed over Susanna. Where the hell was Abby? They searched the entire house, even the basement and the crawl spaces. She couldn't believe she was in some strange town watching other people's kids in their own house and lost one of them. How is that possible? God, Henry what should I do? Marion will be back soon and how do I tell her I lost one of her kids in her own house?

Meanwhile Andrew was hysterical.

"Where is Abba? My Abba where is she? Suzzanna you have to find her. Find her now Suzannah."

"I know, I will find her I promise. She will probably be in trouble with me for hiding in a place she wasn't supposed to be in, but I'll find her, I promise. Blow you nose and take a deep breath."

This wasn't working. Abby was nowhere to be found. However, there was one place she didn't check and that was the backyard. That sick feeling came back again. The sliding glass door was still locked, but beside it was a doggie door. It was tucked away in a corner, but it lead to the top of the steep steps that led to the pool. The pool, dear god, the pool, but it had a cover on it right? The cover was tight. There hadn't been any rain lately. Abby knew better than to go outside near the pool.

Andrew was glued to Suzanna's hip. He was quiet. It was then that she knew where Abby was.

"Andrew James please let go of me and carefully get me the phone."

"Okay Suzanna."

With the phone in hand she told Andrew to wait in the kitchen. Sliding open the patio doors she looked out into the yard and in the pool. Abby was face down on the top of the pool cover. The pool still had a small amount of water in it from a few days ago, just enough for a little girl to drown in. Somehow Suzanna raced down the splintery wooden steps and reached the edge of the pool.

"Abby I'm here, Its Suzanna. I'm gonna help you get out of the pool."

Instinctively Susanna tugged at the pool cover, but it was too heavy to move, Abby wasn't getting closer to her, but just farther away. The phone was just inches away, but it seemed too far to call for help. Finally she reached it.

"911 what is your emergency? She's dead, Abby's dead, I was supposed to watch her and keep her safe, but now she's dead."

"Slow down, what is your location?"

"I don't know I don't fuckin know. This house . . . It's on Meredith Street, I think. Yes, 21 Meredith Street. Please help me Abby is dead."

"Okay, we'll send somebody out, but hold on and tell me what is going on."

"Okay" Susannah whispered

"Now, what is your name?"

"Suzanna."

"Good, now what is happening?"

"I told you, she's dead, but it's okay because Henry will help her and then there is Garrison he will help her too."

"Suzanna focus, focus, now tell me where you are."

"I told you she's dead, dear sweet Jesus in heaven she's dead. Oh Henry please help her. Take her into your arms and guide her. Please Henry I miss you, but be Abby's angel."

Hearing the sirens Susanna dropped the cordless phone, it smashed to pieces on the concrete. Dear sweet Abby is dead and it's my fault.

Paramedics came running, police cars raced to the scene and parked on the grass. Within minutes medics and police were around the perimeter of the rectangular swimming pool. Someone put their arms around Susanna and guided her away from the scene, but she wouldn't move. She knelt down on the grass and started hyperventilating.

"I need oxygen on this one, Ben I need you over here." said the EMT.

"Breathe deep let the oxygen help you. . . . Is your name Suzanna?

"Yes, but Andrew, where is he?"

She tore off the oxygen mask away from her face and let it hang around her neck. Trying to stand up she almost toppled over.

"Andrew, Andrew where are you big guy? Are you still in the kitchen? I won't be mad if you came outside. Where are you?"

Andrew bounded down the deck steps without his blankie and called her name.

"Suzanna . . .Suzanna."

"Over here big guy, it's me, I'm right here."

"Suz . . an . . .na what is going on? Where is Abba?"

Looking him in the eye and holding his hands Suzanna knelt down in front of him and decided to tell him part of the truth.

"Andrew, Abby was hiding outside and went near the pool. There was still some water left in it and she fell in. The police and firemen are helping to get her out right now."

With hurricane force winds a medical chopper loomed overhead. Emergency vehicles filled the street. Susanna knew a child had died while in her care.

"Andrew she is going to get a ride in a helicopter and go to the hospital to get better."

"But Suzanna I want to see her now . . .Suzanna . . . now . . I want to see abba now . . . when can I see her?"

Andrew knew the truth. Abby was dead. He sprawled himself out on his stomach, began to kick and scream, mucus running out from his mouth and nose, but Susanna didn't yell at him, she got down on the grass held him in her arms and cried with him too.

Marion Levy knew something wasn't right when she left the house that afternoon. It wasn't a feeling of dread, but more like uneasiness. She felt that Susanna was competent and caring, but there was just something that bothered her. On her way to the parking lot from the grocery store she became nauseous with fear. She wanted to vomit right there in the parking lot, but held it down, way deep down in her stomach. She quickly loaded the overpriced groceries into her new station wagon and slammed the hatch shut. She then sent the cart rolling toward the cart corral, not caring if it was in the way, or not.

Checking her mirrors and automatically locking her doors, she headed out of the parking lot. She hit mostly red lights which added to her nausea. As she approached the main intersection leading into her street she knew something was terribly wrong. She stopped at the stop sign for an extended period of time to compose herself. There was a police car ahead parked on the wrong side of the street. She knew it was one of the twins. Dear sweet Jesus in heaven please let everything be okay. Why didn't somebody call her? She had her cell phone on the entire time she was gone. Surely Susanna would have called her if there was an emergency. She parked in front of the police car facing the wrong way, not caring if she got a ticket, or not. Leaving her purse on the seat she opened the driver's side door and vomited on the black pavement below her feet. She wasn't able to move. The only thing she could do was wipe her mouth. Then out of nowhere a cop approached her.

"Ma'am do you live here? Is that your house? Are you the mother to two twins?"

"Jesus god yes, just tell me,"

"There's been an accident, come with me."

Marion knew one of her babies was dead; it was just her motherly instincts. She couldn't move, her legs were full of led. She leaned on the cop for support, but dropped to her knees.

"My babies, my babies, which one? Just tell me it's not both, please dear god tell me."

"Mam it was your little girl. Apparently she went outside near the pool and fell in on top of the cover. There was a little bit of water on top of the cover and she couldn't make it out, I'm so sorry."

"Just tell me, is she dead?"

"Well the medics are airlifting her to Children's Hospital. When they arrived she didn't have a pulse and wasn't breathing. We can take you to the hospital. Is there someone we can call?" The cop asked as reached under both arms and he pulled her back up to a standing position. "Your husband or a friend"?

On her knees she whispered" My husband is out of town, he flew out this morning"

"Oh Holy Jesus please help me." Marion pleaded.

"Okay ma'am were going to take you to the hospital, come with us. Is there someone who can watch your other child?"

As her chest closed up without oxygen she whispered SuuuuZannnna. She should be here."

"Okay, we'll find her and make sure she can look after your other child. My partner will take you to the hospital."

"Where is she? Ssssssuuuuuuzaaaaaaannnnnnnnaaaaaaa, you were supposed to watch my babies, where are you?"

"Where is she?" she asked the cop

"We're not sure, but we'll find her and get you to her as soon as possible."

"We really need to get to the hospital, please get in the car."

Susanna was still face down on the grass with Andrew approached her.

"Are you Suzanna?" Somehow she balanced herself up on her knees and looked at the cop. With a heaving sigh she said yes.

"Yes."

"Are you able to look after Andrew while we take Mrs. Levy to the hospital?"

"Yes" she said in a whisper.

"You don't look like you are in any condition to watch a child, maybe we should find a neighbor."

"No, I want to be with Andrew."

Andrew was still face down on the grass drooling and crying. Tears were coming out on both sides of his face. His golden brown hair blended in with the velvet green grass.

"Okay, well we will call a neighbor just in case, she can come sit with you."

"Goood idea." Susanna mumbled as she struggled to get up.

Abby hung on for a week in a vegetative state. Finally when everyone had a chance to say goodbye Marion and Tim decided to let her go. Susanna was not invited to say goodbye, Marion hadn't uttered to single to her since she left the children in her care a week ago. Andrew was being cared for by extended family members.

Given the circumstances Melanie let Susanna stay without charging her, it was the right thing to do. She became her surrogate mother feeding her and helping her bathe. Without her help Susanna who have tried to take her own life. Melanie was her life line to the outside world.

Susanna wasn't invited to the funeral, or the burial. When the burial was over Susanna stood at the head of the plot and prayed hard for the second time in her life.

"Henry, please guide Abby into your arms and hold her tight. Comfort her and cherish her childhood innocence."

Susanna found a lady bug crawling on a blade of grass and carefully gathered it in her hand. Just as she was going to place it back on the grass at the head of the casket it flew away and chased a butterfly.

Melanie helped her get into a standing position and turned her towards the car.

Susanna was running out of money. She didn't have the strength to move let alone get another job. Melanie didn't mention anything about money; she just let Susanna grieve in the privacy of her room. When she was asleep Melanie removed all the sharp objects in sight just in case Susanna had any big plans. Melanie did check on her three times a day and came up with food. After that she head the toilet flush, she took that as a good sign.

However, life had to go on. Melanie continued fixing up the house. It was coming along except for one room, Garrison's study. The mustiness still hung in the air and clung to the blinds with the tarry tobacco smell. Each day Melanie took baby steps to open the blinds and gradually let the sun in, even on cloudy days. It was the one room in the house that contained a three pained bay window with a window seat. Garrison left it piled high with dusty books. He insisted on dramatic red velvet floor to ceiling drapes on top of the blinds, they were now dust encrusted and stiff. This was the hardest room of all for Melanie, it's was Garrison's refuge. He would spent hours smoking cigars and reading mysteries and crime novels. He kept his cigar habit in the study, but did smoke his cigarettes freely throughout the house. Melanie missed him; his smell was still on his old worn sweater. It was draped over the back of the chair as if he just stepped out for a moment. The filing cabinet was full of files of screen plays, poetry and novels never published.

Melanie decided it was time to bring the study back to life. She began by dragging a pint splattered ladder from the basement. After securing the footings she ascended toward the ceiling with a yard stick and pried the drapes down from the window casings.

"Damn it, Garrison you SOB you had to have these god awful drapes, now they are full of dust and won't come down from the windows. What the hell should I do with them?"

With dusty tears in her eyes she finally got the drapes to tumble down to the ground with one final slump. Feeling emotionally sturdy, she pried the other set down from the ceiling. That set wasn't as difficult. Then came the blinds. Melanie didn't bother to unscrew them; she just yanked them down with full force forgetting the glass knickknacks and on the windowsill and the glass vases on the coffee table. With a loud splintery crash the blinds came down along with the knickknacks and vases.

Susanna woke with a start. Even though the air conditioner was running, she still heard glass breaking. Instinctively she flew back the covers and put on her robe and tiptoed down the steps very carefully. She didn't know if she was the only one in the house, or not. At the bottom of the steps she turned herself around toward the kitchen, and then heard the smashing of glass again.

"Jesus Christ you had to have all this crap all around the house, now I have to pick up your mess once again. "

"Hello, is anybody there?"

The sound wasn't coming from the kitchen, but from the front of the house.

"Garrison you bastard . . ."

"Susanna you scared me!"

"Are you okay Melanie?"

"Well, as you can see my dear husband has left me another mess to clean up. I'm trying to freshen up the study, but now I have another mess on my hands. . . Be careful there is glass everywhere."

"I'll get the vacuum cleaner."

"Thanks, Susanna."

Trotting off to find the vacuum cleaner Susanna still felt dead inside, but slightly human. Rolling the vacuum cleaner towards Melanie she instinctively wanted to run and hide back upstairs, but something kept her there. Maybe it was Melanie on her hands and knees picking up shards of glass from her dead husband's remains.

"He was a wonderful man, but loved to collect things. As you can see he loved to collect breakable things."

"I can see that."

"What else can I do to help you Melanie?"

For the first time in three weeks Susanna looked at Melanie and conversed with her.

"Grab the broom; it's in the closet next to the fridge. The dustpan is there to. Put on some shoes and help me get the dust up from around the edges of the rug."

With her robe half open Susanna bend down on her knees with the broom and swept the dust toward the dustpan. The two women worked in silence until Melanie plugged in the vacuum cleaner and it began sucking up the remains.

Susanna motioned to Melanie that she was going upstairs to get dressed. Melanie nodded. The bed was unmade calling to her to get back in; the air conditioner was still running and sounding like a broken engine. Susanna stood frozen, not sure what to do. With baby steps she moved slowly toward the air conditioner and shut it off. The silence was defining. Then very slowly she removed the pillows and gently placed them on the floor near her feet. Reaching over towards the headboard she pulled up the top sheet and smoothed it out. Then came the bedspread. She robotically repeated the motions on the other side of the bed. When she was finished she was exhausted. She would not allow herself to lie back down, so she sat in the rocking chair in preparation for getting in the shower. There was clean underwear and clothes piled high on the dresser thanks to Melanie. Balancing her weight in her knees Susanna stood up and fingered around her neck for Henry's ring, thank god it was still there she needed the strength. Selecting the items on top of the stack she padded quietly to the bathroom and sat on top of the toilet with clean clothes in her lap. She smelled herself and it was awful. She hadn't changed clothes in two weeks. She stood up and placed her clothes on top of the toilet seat. With one swoop she yanked off her robe and nightgown. Standing naked in front of the mirror she realized she had circles and bags under her eyes. Turning around in a circle she faced the shower. Concentrating hard, she turned both knobs, then the one in the middle. A calm mist of warm drops was waiting for her. Managing to get herself inside, she concentrated on every move and had to think things through wile washing her. Finally, after the huge task of washing her lead filled limbs she held on to the towel bar and stepped out of the shower. Using a fresh towel and holding it close to her face, she began drying herself very slowly. After what seemed liked hours she managed to get dressed and ran a comb through her hair. Step by step she left her bedroom and stood at the top of the steps. Hearing the vacuum cleaner she felt an obligation to help Melanie.

"Hello, Susanna welcome back."

"Hi, Melanie what are you doing?"

"Don't you remember? You were just down her helping me clean up this mess."

"Oh, I guess you're right."

"I'm almost done, how about some lunch?"

"Not hungry."

"Susanna you have to eat, how about some soup?"

Very quietly Susanna plopped herself down into the stiff back couch. She wanted to vomit, but couldn't.

"Things are a mess around here Melanie."

"Yes, yes they are, but nothing that can't be cleaned up and put back together."

Glancing at a home and garden magazine Susanna noticed a cute playroom on the cover, but didn't say a word.

At that point Melanie had the study cleared out and she was starving.

"Susanna how about that soup?"

"Okay."

Robotically Susanna walked to the kitchen table and sat down. Melanie placed a hot mug in front of her with a spoon. Pinching the spoon with her right hand she lifted it and placed it into the soup. It was chicken noodle. Sip by sip Susanna took it all in. finally after an hour she was finished.

"What do I do next Melanie? Tell me how to live."

Sitting on the kitchen floor with her legs crossed in a semicircle Melanie took Susanna into her arms and stroked her hair.

"Five minutes at a time, . . . five minutes at a time."

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