Sanden’s mother had just finished cleaning the house. With the room straightened, things looked odd and out of place. The large, clear vase that had been used as a deposit for stray coins or buttons or anything small enough to toss in until they found a better place for it was now empty. Sanden shrugged and plopped two artificial flowers and a handful of loosened dirt she had brought in from the backyard into the vase. Thinking better of it, she tucked the marble she was about to toss in with them into her pocket instead. She looked up and caught her mother frowning.
The silky, once white peonies, covered in a light shadow of dirt and yellowed by the sun, were the only things that looked right in the room at the moment. It was clear her mother was on a mission to wipe Gram’s memory clean from the house. Sanden stood nearby the junk vase and waited for her mother to toss the sopping sponge she was wringing into the sink. Miraculously, she didn’t mention the fake flowers.
“Well, that’s that.” Mother paused, inspected the sink as if looking for Gram’s reflection, wiped at the stainless steel basin, and then continued on with a doubtful kink knitted into her brow. “The boys’ packs are in the trunk like I asked you?”
Sanden didn’t care for the condescending tone her once empathetic mother used on her now.
“Sanden, did you put Alec and Andrew’s backpacks in my trunk?” she asked again.
Of course she had.
What kind of mom would send her twin sons off for a weekend with Grandma and not also send their packs she’d stayed up all night filling? Alec’s favorite ghost stories book about an inch too thick that poked out from the zipper and Andrew’s Snoopy stuffed animal Sanden knew her more sensitive eight year old couldn’t sleep without. Obviously her own mother thought that little of her.
“They’re in the trunk. Here are your keys.” Sanden fished out the heavy silver ring laced with assorted house, office and vehicle keys from her deep cardigan pocket and handed them over. “When will you be back?” Sanden’s voice sounded unsure—she heard its hollow effort a moment too late. Four sleepless nights in a row had left Sanden both in need of her mother’s help but fearful of it.
Her mother would bring the boys back, wouldn’t she?
Of course she would.
Last week’s threat had been idle, a tough love rouse to scare Sanden into a good night’s sleep. Right? Hadn’t she masked the dark circles haunting beneath her eyes and made sure to drag a proper comb through her hair before their impromptu early morning cleaning session? Sanden found the marble in her pocket and squeezed it in her knitted fist.
“You told the school I’d be picking the boys up today?” her mother asked again, framing her statement into a doubting question.
Sanden’s nerves stood alert despite the fatigue she felt weighing down her every limb and thought. Had she forgotten that part? No, she remembered making the call the day before to the school attendance secretary. This was just her mother being unsure of Sanden’s ability to follow through where her boys were concerned. No need to panic. But the lack of sleep seemed conducive to the irrational emotion.
Sanden breathed deeply and tried to sound sure, adding details to bolster her attempt at being convincing. “I spoke with Mrs. Derry yesterday, around…” Tell her a time, Sanden. Be sure of yourself. Don’t give her any reason to doubt you. “At…I spoke with her at 12:30. She has your name on her list and you can either pick them up from Mrs. Duncan’s classroom or meet them at the kiss ‘n’ ride.”
Why did that simple task feel like it had depleted her very last molecule of energy? Sanden pulled out a seat and tried to ease herself steadily down onto the sturdy wooden dining room chair. She wanted desperately to lay her head down and devote the next month to sleep. But that wouldn’t help her cause any. She knew it when she looked into her mother’s eyes and saw regret spoiling any chance that Sanden had convinced her she was fine.
“Sanden, the boys are staying with me for a while.”
“No, just for the weekend. That’s what you said…” Sanden stuttered out. “Back in time for Christmas Eve lights and hot cocoa. That’s what we agreed on.”
“You need more than just this one weekend to get your head on straight. You need rest. It’s best they stay with me during winter break. How in the world do you think you will manage with them home every day from school?”
An uncontrollable twitch started in Sanden’s lower lip and she smelled the smoky burnt vanilla scent of a candle that had been blown out. Her mother absolutely did not trust her. It was plainly obvious but now she was overstepping her grandparental boundaries. “Mother, I’m fine. I can take care of my children.” Memories of loss—first her husband and then Gram—collided with her exhaustion.
“Sanden, when was the last time you slept through the night?” Mother didn’t budge.
She wanted to lie. To say that it had been just last night. But her mother would see through that and if not, she could just as easily ask Alec or Andrew. With one night owl and one early riser, the boys had wandered out from their room on plenty occasions to find Mommy sitting quilted and tucked into the recliner, the television muted, and her eyes dry from the lack of closure.
“Fine. What do you want me to do? I’ll do it,” Sanden said, her head hanging in her hands.
Mother didn’t falter, her words spilled out undeterred. “A young man will be coming by the house this afternoon to speak with you. His name is Alice. He’s a friend. Let him in, Sanden. I think he’ll be able to help.”
Cold words and frigid insinuations stabbed at Sanden’s heart. Her mother wanted her to allow some stranger into the house, Gram’s house, and do what? Open her heart up to him? Tell him there was a good reason she was the basket case she was thought to be? That she wouldn’t leave the house Delilah Grant had worked so hard to pay for—to have for the family—all those years ago? What kind of mother did that to her only daughter?
“Do I have a choice?” Sanden asked.
“No. I’m sorry. I’ll have the boys call you when we get to my house.” Not even an inflection of pity came through in those words.
“Which one exactly?” There was the newly purchased single story in the neighboring suburb which is where Sanden thought her boys would be visiting or the one she now feared they’d be staying at—the cabin Uncle Stu had just finished painting in the San Bernardino Mountains, a good three hour drive from where she sat, planted and stunned.
“We’ll be in the mountains. The boys will enjoy the snow. They’ll be fine. It won’t do you any good to worry about them. Please, Sanden. Be reasonable. I don’t want to have to do this but I’m getting to the point of looking into my rights as a grandparent…speak with Alice. Whatever you say to him will be confidential. We just want to help you so you can be your best for the boys.”
Feeling completely rational and sane, albeit irate and betrayed, Sanden mustered up the words to prove she was thinking clearly. “Okay, I guess they could use some fun time. The boys will love the snow. Please make sure they stay bundled up and give them hugs for me. Tell them Mommy will see them in a few days. I’ll speak with this Alice.”
Her mother nodded and then stepped forward to pat Sanden on the shoulder. It was all Sanden could do not to jerk away. Instead, she stood there and leaned her head down to rest for a moment on her mother’s shoulder. Then they parted and Sanden watched as the woman she had once trusted now walked out the front door of Gram’s house, carrying with her the uncertainty of whether she’d get her boys back in time for Christmas.
Apologies at how awkward she felt and her lack of hospitality couldn’t find their way past the anger Sanden felt at her mother. Alice had arrived promptly at three p.m., parked his dark green Audi alongside Gram’s curb and strolled up to the front porch, a composition notebook in one hand and a large backpack slung over the opposite arm. Sanden hoped he hadn’t seen her spying through the faded yellow curtains at his approach. She’d been too nervous awaiting his arrival to do anything but hole up like a peeping Tom in her own home. No, instead she’d remained stationed on the recliner butted up against the large draped double-wide windows of the front room, trying desperately to think through what in the world she might say to this complete stranger.
After goofing on the handshake she’d meant to deliver with courage, Sanden let Alice know where he could sit.
“Aren’t you going to have a seat?” he asked politely in return.
“I’m fine here,” she said with just enough brevity to sound in control. The truth was she wanted to succumb to her body’s need for sleep. Even in this stranger’s company. Her legs felt weak and one knee buckled, making her snap up in an unnatural pose. “But I guess if we’re going to talk, it would be easier if I sat down.”
Alice tapped his thumb against the open page of his notebook but hadn’t gone for his pen yet. Sanden thought he looked about as comfortable as she felt, like he wasn’t quite sure where to start either. Who had her mother sent to her? Was this guy licensed or was he just a friend?
“Sanden, you probably have questions for me. Feel free to ask. Otherwise I’ll just get started with some I have for you.”
So he had picked up on her mistrust. That was fine. She was filled with it. And wasn’t in the mood to stick her foot in her mouth by being the first one to open up. If he had questions, he could ask them and she would make sure he heard what he needed to. The audacity of her mother, she shook her head at the thought.
“Umm, okay, so I understand you’ve been having trouble sleeping. Would you say that’s accurate?” he asked, taking turns looking down at his pad and then clearly into her eyes.
He’d made enough eye contact in the first fifteen minutes to assume correctly. Maybe she wouldn’t have to speak that much after all, except for she’d found herself manufacturing a slew of questions she’d like answered. Alice the stranger sat across the small dining room table, waiting for her to answer. He blinked and rested a knuckle against the corner of his mouth.
Something about the action set her off. “Look, I don’t know you and I don’t really know why you’re even here.” How could he be so darned patient when she could barely sit still in her own skin?
“It’s okay, Sanden, I understand. It doesn’t sound like Audrey explained our session to you so let me do that first. Okay?”
Session. Great. Her mother had sent over a shrink. Not just a friend. And with the backpack undoubtedly filled with notebooks, how could anything she’d say be off the record? Sanden felt like the victim of a cruel trick. Her mother had set her up to fall, knowing Sanden’s anger over keeping the boys would spill out into anything she shared with the unproven man across from her now. Scenarios began pouring out from Sanden’s mind like whistling hot water from Gram’s old kettle. Mother would use whatever she said to this friend, Alice, to have her deemed incapable of caring for her children. And once proven incompetent of that, it wouldn’t take much to have her removed from Gram’s house. The house Mother had wanted to sell after Gram died—but that Sanden had begged to keep in the family.
She might be wrought with exhaustion, but Sanden was not incompetent. She was a loving mom, a good mom. Like her mother had been before Gram got so sick and the stress had erased that part of her. And there was no way Sanden was going to say anything that might aid in losing her precious kids. They needed each other.
Wiping at a stray piece of bang that had fallen over her dark eyes, Sanden held back the bite she refused to let get the best of her. “I’m sorry, Alice. What is the plan?”
The plan. That’s what was crazy. This man’s plan to stay the weekend while observing her unnatural sleeping patterns and questioning her on why they were.
But what choice did she have? None.
“This first night, I suggest we set up wherever you’re most likely to fall asleep. Whether it’s your room or the couch or that recliner. Wherever, your choice.”
My choice, what a joke. But she had already condemned herself to participating at all cost.
“Okay, I guess Gram’s room. That’s where I keep my stuff.” Six months and she still couldn’t bring herself to claim the space as her own.
Alice followed closely behind, his proximity creeping her out a bit, as they walked the short hallway to the last door on the left, passing Alec and Andrew’s room on the way. Sanden swallowed her sadness at what had become of their little family. No one to call daddy, no Great-Grammy to sing them to sleep.
Once inside, she flipped up the light switch and made her way to the farthest side of Gram’s tall bed.
Alice stayed propped in the doorframe, his head only inches from skimming the top. Would he tell her to lie down? There was no way she’d be able to fall asleep in this strange circumstance with her mother’s confidant hovering in the doorway. Was he expert enough to recognize if she faked it? He couldn’t have that many years of practice, couldn’t be much older than her. His clothes were too stylish, his brown hair a few strands too unruly and his skin too smooth to be past thirty-five. The very unsettling way he patiently stood there made Sanden want to climb the wall. But she wouldn’t let that happen.
She lifted herself onto the top mattress with a hop and then sat feeling uncomfortable in her own skin.
“So I didn’t realize shrinks made house calls.”
“I’m not a shrink. I’m a sleep therapist.” Alice paused and for the first time bowed his head as if he was the uncertain one. “Sanden, I’m here as a favor to your Grandmother.”
The horrible liar. “Why would you say that?” she shot back full of hurt, losing the self-control she’d kept up since he’d arrived. Who was this man? Why was he messing with her this way?
He must have sensed her anger because his voice became a shade calmer, deeper, as he tried to explain, “I cared for Delilah and as I’m sure you can understand, she isn’t someone you forget.”
The lilac wallpapered room stilled along with her pumping blood and beating heart. This stranger had cared for Gram? She searched his face, trying to remember having seen him at the nursing home Gram had been sent to. But he was completely foreign to her. Still, Sanden’s defenses softened, her interests peaked. Surprised, she fielded a simple question. “When?”
“You look sleepy. How about you try and lay down and we’ll talk about it when you wake up.”
She could argue but figured it wouldn’t do much good. Anyhow, the likelihood that she’d be able to fall asleep was slim. With the two of them wide awake, he’d eventually have to talk to her.
Sanden yawned, surprising herself. She watched doggedly to see if Alice would click the end of his pen and jot down the insignificant action. But he didn’t. Just stood there filling up the doorway, looking calm and confident.
She felt nothing of the sort. “What do I need to do? Count sheep, or…”
“Sanden, just close your eyes and try not to think about anything.”
“I don’t think I can do that with you just standing there.”
He glanced around the modestly furnished room, his gaze settling on Gram’s old sewing chair. “Mind if I sit here?” he asked.
“That’s fine. But, are you going to watch me the whole time?”
The first modicum of a smile spread his mouth out a little thinner before he became the ultra-serene professional again. “No, I won’t stare at you the whole time. Please trust me and close your eyes. You need rest so that we can talk when you wake up.” He looked away at some family pictures hanging on the wall.
She agreed, a little too easily. There was something about the good doctor that made her feel un-judged, funny enough since he was there to do just that. Four nights of zero sleep and the toll the day’s backward surprises had taken on her eventually won out. Finally, Sanden let go and drifted off, the melodic humming of Alice’s voice lulling her into unconsciousness. The song familiar and soothing.
* * *
Alice sat back into the cushion of the familiar chair. How many times had he seen it from the framed photo perched on Delilah Grant’s nightstand next to her hospital bed? Three generations of outwardly beautiful women. The matriarch seated and holding a grade school-aged granddaughter on her lap. Her adult daughter standing tall and proud behind them. All with the same brown suede colored hair sprouting long and straight from their heads and the matching flowered dresses draping over their slim frames. Sitting in the chair now felt surreal. If there truly was a heaven, Delilah Grant ought to be watching down on them, just as shocked as he was that of all the people Audrey Grant could have called, she’d somehow chosen him.
While his first instinct had been to decline Audrey’s request, every red flag lined up in his moral code raised, he couldn’t find it within himself to say no. Delilah had complained to him about her daughter while under his care and he’d never really been sure whether to take heed or write off the elderly woman’s rants as side effects of the dementia. But as he had sat by many nights during her restless sleep-talking, and heard the clarity of the grandmother’s heartbreak for the little girl she loved named Sanden, he felt compelled to at least meet the young woman who should be about his age by now. And that’s why he was here.
“I know you’re not crazy. I’ll help you anyway I can,” he whispered to his sleeping patient.
Sanden wanders into Gram’s kitchen. She notices right away that the dish drainer no longer sets in the sink, instead hovering over the edge letting water drip to the floor. Sanden realizes who must have done this odd reorganizing. It fits with Gram’s Alzheimer’s and her new personality.
Thinking of Gram, Sanden listens closely to a faint mumbling. “He should be here doing this.” Sanden figures Gram must be speaking of Grandpa who has been passed on for quite a few years now. While standing at the kitchen sink, thinking about adjusting the dish drainer’s position, she hears another sound directly above her head. Tap, sweep, sweep and her grandma’s voice along with it. Somehow, she must be sweeping the attic. But Gram is nearing seventy and Sanden has no idea how she has managed to get herself to the rafters.
She goes to confer with her mother. She tells her, “Listen, Mother. Grandma’s singing.”
Mother smiles but otherwise seems uninterested. And then the noise stops. The singing reprimand aimed at her grandpa and the tap, sweep, sweep of Gram’s broom go silent.
As Sanden passes through the dining room, she discovers why her grandma has become so quiet.
Her grandma is hanging by the neck, tied to a rafter, her body coming down through the hole in the ceiling halfway between the kitchen and dining room.
Sanden looks up and for a brief moment, sees her husband, Gram’s favorite grandson-in-law, standing above her, his long legs balancing on two beams with a look on his face that Sanden has never seen in real life. He looks wrong. But she forgets about him quickly and he vanishes. She goes back to concentrating on her grandma.
Sanden shouts for her mother who comes in with the young twins following close behind. The boys stare at the unnatural act of their great-grammy. They are too little to make sense of it and Sanden is glad for that but so very angry at herself for not shielding them better.
Gram’s eyes flutter open but she frowns. Sanden’s husband reappears and Gram looks to him. Sanden criese, “We have to get her down.” No one moves to do anything.
Gram starts to cry and Sanden asks what she wants her to do. She promises to find a way to get her down but Gram looks again to her husband. Does he want to save her? Mother has become completely irrelevant at this point. She isn’t helping Sanden to save Gram and she isn’t helping to get her grandsons out of the horrific room.
Sanden dashes past Mother and takes her little boys to a different part of the house. She comes back to find the situation hasn’t changed. She will have to be the one to take action.
Dressed in black slacks and a tailored, button-up black and white blouse, Gram has the air of an older but timelessly fashionable woman. Her hair is done and her makeup is just right. Aside from the fact that she hangs there by her neck, she looks like Sanden remembers her from the time before the Alzheimer’s took over. When Sanden was Gram’s pet and she taught her granddaughter how to read the stars in the sky and the romance novels at the used book store.
Sanden stands directly below her; she is just tall enough so that her head acts as a temporary stool for Gram to rest on while she ponders whether or not she wants to live. Gram’s weight is getting to be too much though and Sanden can’t keep balanced. Gram has to decide, now. But she waits too long. Sanden’s husband reappears. He reaches over and wraps Gram in his bulging arms. Then together, they jump from the rafters.
* * *
Warmth encircled Sanden’s wrist. Her screams trailed off but after blinking several times, she knew they must have been ear-piercing because the stranger holding onto her looked horrified with his popping eyes and gaping mouth.
“Are you okay?” he asked, inching closer to her face.
It was Alice. He was the one holding her wrist and had now slipped his hand down to cup her shaking hand in his.
“It was just a bad dream. I’m okay.” But she knew she’d said it too shakily. He hadn’t backed away yet. Sanden continued to pant.
After two minutes of shamelessly holding her hand, Alice let go and straightened back up, although he stayed put on the edge of the bed. “We should talk about it, if you can.”
She shook her head. “Not here.” Suddenly as she looked around Gram’s room, it was the last place she wanted to be. Because it was not what Alice needed to see. Sanden had to show him why her mother was days away from seeking custody of her boys. If he could see how harmless her offense was, then he’d understand and plead her case. It was the only shot she had.
“Okay. Where then?” he asked softly, his dimly lit face the kindest adult’s she’d seen in too long.
Without answering, Sanden climbed from the bed, tugged her oversized sweatshirt so it covered both her shivering shoulders, and silently wandered from the room. This time, Alice’s intimately close footsteps didn’t creep her out. Maybe it was because he hadn’t let go of her hand yet.
* * *
Was it unconventional to have followed his patient out back in the cold of night as she walked trembling in the pitch dark? After she’d just woken from some terrible dream? Yes. Was he willing to drop her hand and let her go alone? No.
Alice did his best to remain open minded. It wasn’t that he thought Sanden was crazy—just severely sleep deprived. That he could fix, usually. And after spending the past few hours listening to her sketchy half-sentences as she slept, he was determined to stay the course.
“Sanden, what are we looking for?”
“Right here.” She bent down and he followed suit, their hands still entwined. “See, this is why my mother called you. She thinks I’m crazy just like Gram.”
“What? Over these flowers? In this garden?” It was difficult to see but he was sure the moonlight shown down on a rather small patch of soil, maybe four feet by four at the most.
She looked at him, as if deciding whether or not she could trust him, and then gently tugged her hand free to snatch a grouping of the pale flowers from the ground. He was admittedly confused. “Sanden, I really don’t understand. I’m sorry but you have to help me out here.”
She waited for him to take the stiff bouquet from her and then once her hands were free, returned her attention back to the ground and smoothed over the loosened earth. She then scooped a small amount of soil back out, turned to retrieve the flowers from him, and held them firmly in the ground until once again, the heavy plastic stems were supported. “I’m crazy right? Because I…” Her voice hitched for a few seconds. His heart went out to her in droves as he saw the very trepid way she watched his face.
“Go on, Sanden. Because you what?”
“Because I care about Gram’s flowers and I won’t let my mother toss them out like they’re trash. Gram planted these here and this is where they belong. Where she wanted them to be. Here…right here.” Her sobs broke through like a quiet yet fierce rushing creek. And then she fell into his arms, weeping into his shoulder.
He rubbed her back as he thought. That couldn’t possibly be the reason Audrey Grant had called him. Although to try and convince Sanden otherwise would take some time. No, it had to be the severe lack of sleep. “Can we talk a little bit? Is it okay if we do that?”
He felt her nod.
“How often do you…take care of your grandma’s flowers?”
“You think I’m crazy now, too.” She began to pull away from his chest and he let her because he needed to see her face. Wanted her to know he was on her side.
“No, I promise you. That’s not true. Here, sit with me and let’s dig a little. You want to re-plant them all? I’ll sit here and do that with you, Sanden. I’d be happy to. But I don’t think that will help you, hun.”
Good, he could tell she was listening. He shouldn’t have, but he cupped her chin to make his point.
“You need to talk about those bad dreams you’re having. They’re what’s keeping you from sleeping, aren’t they?”
Her soft chin bobbed up and down in his grip. “I can’t. I don’t want to scare anyone.”
“I’m not scared, Sanden. Talk to me.” He then went out on a very thin limb. “I know what happened to Delilah, but maybe you need to tell me about your husband.”
Her whole face frowned. And new tears flooded her moist cheeks. God, he wanted to hold her in his arms again. This was all wrong but he was all she had right then and there. And he’d just asked her to bare not just her soul, but likely indescribable pain she’d kept hidden far too long. Alice had forgotten about the damp ground until he sank down into it a little further, steadying himself on his knees. He felt the cool moisture build around his knee caps as they sank a little lower. It was unconventional, uncharacteristic and most likely unethical, but he stretched out his arms and if she would accept, invited her to sit with him, tucked into his chest.
Her face once again buried so close to his heart that he could feel her breath each time it caught on the way out, she whispered, “I got a call one day from Dan’s best friend that he’d been in a car accident. That night I was on the first flight to Denver where he’d been training. While I waited at the airport for a ride to the hospital, Gram’s nurse called to let me know she had passed.” Sanden’s breathing stalled, scaring Alice until she spoke again. “And then when I arrived at the hospital…”
“Oh God, Sanden. I’m so very sorry, hun.”
She didn’t have to say the words. Dan had died before she made it to him.
“Shh, it’s okay.” Alice enclosed her a little more tightly in his arms and gently rocked her from their seats on the ground. “I understand now. We’ll make it better Sanden, I promise.”
She didn’t know why, but Sanden believed him when Alice said he’d be there for her. Maybe it was because of the way he’d sat holding and rocking her in the dirt, not once making her feel like she’d lost it or like he’d rather be anywhere else but there with her. He’d been Gram’s friend while she was hospitalized. He still needed to tell her that story. If her lids hadn’t felt so incredibly heavy, she’d have asked him to share. But on Alice’s promise, all Sanden could think about was sleep. She stood, wiped herself off, and led him back inside the house. Instinctively, she checked in on the boys’ empty room. A worried frown tangled its way into her soft features.
Alice gave her hand a squeeze just before she lost the courage to walk further down the hall. “It’s okay,” he said into her ear. “I’ll speak with your mom.”
Sanden didn’t want to feel aggravated toward her new friend, but she couldn’t help it. “How are you so sure that anything you have to say will change her mind about me?”
“Her request was simple.”
“And what was that?”
“That I help her baby get a good night’s sleep—by any means necessary.”
“Really? That’s all she said?”
“And nothing about me being crazy and taking the boys away and selling Gram’s house?”
“No, hun. None of that.”
With the few hours of sleep she’d managed before the nightmare, the idea was easier to believe. “Will you stay, Alice?”
“Tonight, and tomorrow and the next night.”
“And Sanden, one more thing. Your Gram’s garden is lovely. I’d be honored to help you take care of it.”
She squeezed his hand and led him back down the hall toward the living room couch. In the morning she’d call her beloved boys then move her things out of Gram’s old room and into the house’s vacant master suite. Tonight, she just wanted to curl up on the sofa next to her confidant, a wonderful man named Alice. Sleep had never sounded so good.