Authors: Shewanda Pugh
PUBLISHED BY: Delphine Publications on Smashwords
Copyright © 2014 by Shewanda Pugh
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Crimson Footprints III: The Finale
For making the impossible possible.
“There are years that ask questions and there are years that answer.”
Zora Neale Hurston
For this series, I find myself unequal to the task of thanking all those who have made Crimson Footprints possible. In the early, uncertain days of the Crimson Footprints idea Dr. Christine Jackson proved an unequaled ally, enthusiastic friend and a voice of wisdom for the process. More recently however, this book faced what felt like insurmountable odds which made it seem like a pipe dream instead of a realistic possibility. I thank my parents, Alain and Dorothy Leroy, without which this book or author couldn't be here today. I thank a devoted cast of family and friends that include my parents, husband, siblings, extended relatives, confidantes, doctors and writing community. To my husband, Pierre Garner, who listens until I get these things just right; to Leona Romich, with her knack for telling me when enough is enough; and to Ian T. Healy and Tavares Jones, without whom I wouldn't have been able to kick this book up a notch: These are the people who saw me through Crimson Footprints 3. For that, I thank you. A special thanks goes out to all those who decided one day to pick up a Shewanda Pugh book, and somehow, someway, ended up on this page. What a journey we’ve taken together. I can never repay what you, the reader, have given me.
Dying was such a nasty business. All coughs and withered limbs with promises laid bare. Deena Tanaka knew it well. Not in the silent march of anticipated demise; no, her recollections came from violent interruptions of life in its prime.
Her grandmother was dying. An old woman comprised solely of hope and sharp wit, love and biting judgment. She had emptied out her tank without refills to spare. Deena discovered that even when the very old died, it burned her with a righteous injustice better suited for the young.
The old woman cleared her throat. Rocks and sand paper on ash, Deena thought; that was what it sounded like. Her husband, Tak, set aside his sketch pad, unfolded long legs, and stood. Three strides brought him across the harsh lighting of Grandma Emma’s hospital room and to her side without a word. He moved like music without melody, Deena realized, like song without sound: Silent, yet purposeful, graceful without pretention; he simply didn’t have to try. Some things, like people, simply were.
Tak grabbed the rose water pitcher from a nearby stand and filled a paper cup with water. He adjusted Grandma Emma’s seat, leaned forward, and brought the drink to her lips. She sputtered, choked, and finally recalled the rhythm of drinking - it was the same way each time. When she’d had her fill, Tak sat the cup aside, smoothed down her hair, and adjusted the incline of her bed until she laid parallel to the floor once more. Deena came over and slipped a hand into her husband’s. Together, they watched and waited for her to close her eyes.
Grandma Emma snorted out a laugh.
“You two gonna hover over me in death, too?”
“Only if you’ll do me the honor of your unparalleled company,” he said.
She opened her eyes because she could always manage that for Tak.
“Old dog,” she murmured. “Always too fresh at the mouth.”
Tak sat on the bed’s edge, pulling his wife by the hand that still held his. Despite the banter, despite the lightness in his tone, she saw the worry lines that cornered his eyes and the frown pulling down the edges of his mouth.
“I love you,” Deena mouthed. Tak smiled faintly and returned the words.
Grandma Emma groaned, no doubt touched by a shade of pain.
“I’ve been waiting,” she said. “On my boy to visit. All day and he ain’t seen about his mama.”
Tak and Deena exchanged a look. Her father was her grandmother’s only son, murdered when Deena was eleven.
She moved to say as much, only to have the slight shake of her husband’s head thwart her.
“I’m gonna die,” Grandma Emma announced. “Soon.”
She opened her eyes to see how the declaration sat with them. Deena stood, hand still looped with her husband’s, arms limp at her sides, unsure of what to do with herself.
It was one thing for them to know it, to be told it by the doctors, and quite another for Emma to resign herself to it.
“You can’t think like that,” Deena said. “Don’t let them have the final say—”
Her grandmother waved a hand and choked out a laugh. “God handed in his verdict. The coroner’s waiting on me.”
“What am I supposed to say? You’re my grandmother. I don’t want you to—”
“You’ve had me locked up in this sick folks’ prison for months. It’s time you let me out.”
Her gaze swept the confines of the upper level hospital room, taking in the starched and well-tucked sheets, the narrowness of her bed, the endless units beeping and judging and handing down verdicts with each assessment of her body. Sharp white lines formed the walls, polished linoleum for the floor, and fluorescent lights bright enough to dilate the pupils reared down on them, as if warming a chicken to hatching. Just outside her window, the Atlantic Ocean stretched on, always beyond their view with her insistence that she keep the blinds closed.
“Grandma, you will be fine. You have the very best doctors in the city and—and—”
They could do nothing for her, of course. Had done nothing, but make her comfortable.
She looked to Tak for help.
“Out,” Grandma Emma managed. “Out of here.”
End stage Alzheimer’s. A place where speech sometimes made no sense or was forgotten. Where food could be inhaled instead of eaten. Where privacy during bodily functions was a long forgotten privilege.
Her grandmother’s gaze shifted from Deena to her husband.
“You,” she said.
Tak leaned forward, already in the throes of some secret conversation, judging by the way his mouth turned up.
“Get me out of here,” she said.
He released Deena’s hand and took one of Grandma Emma’s in both of his.
“Tell me where,” he said.
Deena scoffed, earning only a flutter of lashes from him.
“Tak, we can’t—”
“Tell me where,” he said again, softer still. “Anywhere you say.”
Her grandmother’s smile spread wide as the grandest valley. Her body shook with the roughest of asthmatic laughs. It ended in great gasps.
“That how you get my granddaughter? You ol’ swindler.”
Tak leaned over and whispered in her ear, whispered with the corners of his mouth turned up. He set her laughing till she choked. Deena swatted him on the arm.
“What have I told you about that?” she said. “She shouldn’t—you shouldn’t—”
Except he said something else, and her grandmother roared anew, making her granddaughter wonder when she’d seen her so happy.
“She’s delicate,” Deena said. Except she wasn’t and she never had been.
Deena rose and went to the corner, leaving them to their hushed talk.
It was their way. Even on death’s doorstep, apparently.
She snatched back the curtains, took a seat in the corner, drew up her shawl, and looked out on night’s landscape.
Cool air fogged the windows, blotting out the seamless expanse of ocean she expected. A rattle of window hinted at the howling winds that came next. For three days, winter had been near frigid in Miami. All this from a place that saw beach-time on Christmas Day and surfing on New Year’s.
Deena glanced over at her grandmother and her husband.
They were plotting, having dropped all pretense of humor. The man she loved and the woman she loved, voices hushed as not to be overheard. But Deena didn’t care. She’d veto whatever scheme the two had set their sights on. Rest, comfort, and medical care were what her grandmother needed. Nothing else would suffice.
Eventually, Deena began to drift. Long days at work, checking in on the kids, and bedside duty every night at the hospital meant that sleep came in snatches and whispers. For now, her grandmother’s illness had shoved aside mounting worries about her oldest son, Tony, getting into the right colleges, thoughts of Mia, picking up her grades, or the possibility of Noah, calming down. For now, she could think of nothing but her grandmother and all their wasted moments, stolen by stubbornness and disagreements.
Deena woke with a start, scorched by the certainty that it had happened, that death had come on her watch. But Tak’s wide-eyed look and shake of the head said no, they had a little longer.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
They sat in the shadows, all lights extinguished in her sleep so that only the one over the doorway remained. Tak’s face floated, hollowed and shadowy, camp ghost-story style and divested of its body.
“I’m listening,” Deena said.
He drew away, drew away with a bite of his lower lip and a pinched expression. Wrestling and weighing his words. Accepting and rejecting each one.
“I promised your grandmother that we’d take her somewhere.”
“Well, that’s fine. But it wasn’t in your power to promise.”
Something flickered there, a wink of annoyance, a shadow of challenge. Just as quick as it appeared, it was gone, his expression smoothed out to earnestness.
“Hear me out,” he said. “She hasn’t been anywhere her whole life, Dee. Only where she was born in Eufaula, Alabama and the one time we evacuated to California for the storm. We talked—”
“You talked?” Deena said doubtfully. Her grandmother hadn’t been lucid enough to navigate the intricacies of a conversation for awhile now. Whatever discussion they’d had, had been entirely one-sided.
“We talked,” Tak repeated, firmer still. “And this is what she said. She had me take it down.”
He stood, lean body unfolding in skimp lighting, and dug deep into the pocket of his jeans. Long sleeved black thermal stretched over muscles flexing imperceptibly, flat against well worn jeans and hard, narrow hips. Age had done him justice as superbly as his father. They said that black didn’t crack. Hell, Deena thought, there wasn’t a monopoly on that after all.
“She even signed it,” Tak said. “After I read it to her.”
Deena looked around. “How long have I been sleep again?”
It didn’t seem long enough for a signed contract. Earlier that day, she couldn’t get her grandmother to say if she wanted red Jell-O or green, but a pretty man could do wonders, it seemed.
Deena took the paper, which she read over and over again, before dropping it to the floor.
“No. Hell no.”
“Sweetheart, it’s what she wants.”
“She doesn’t know what she wants!” Deena turned from him, an old familiar urge to scream, bubbling to the surface. Any mention of her family, of her kin, had that sort of power.
“You can’t possibly want this,” she said. “Or think it’s a remotely good idea.”
Tak dropped down next to her. “I want her to have peace. And I love her enough to make that happen.”
Deena looked up at him then looked away. She exhaled air she hadn’t known she’d had hoarded and looked down at the paper once again.
“It’s not fair when you say it that way. I need choices, Tak. Control. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know it. But that’s not always an option.”
She shot a look at a blackness devoid of stars, bereft of clouds and as emptied as she felt at the moment.
“All of them?” Deena said. “An open invitation to Hammonds and Tanakas?”
Tak had the decency to offer an apologetic smile. “Apparently, she wants nothing less.”