Sarah, Returned--Chapter Three (A Steemit Original Novel)
"Easy there, Sarah,” Jacob says as he gently lifts me to my feet. His arms are strong, much stronger than I expected for someone his age. Is he younger than he looks? Maybe I’m seeing him wrong. Maybe everything I’ve ever thought is wrong, and I really am crazy, like Karen wants everyone to believe.
Karen says and does nothing during this whole exchange. She just stands there, arms crossed, eyes bulging. It's not like I expected her to be helpful. Those surprised eyes are the only indication she saw anything out of the ordinary.
I wish Matt were here to lean on, but he’s long since disappeared out the back door with the minister and his wife.
”I’m sorry,” I dimly hear Jacob talking, but it sounds so far away. I realize with embarrassment that I am staring at his shiny patent leather loafers, and force myself to raise my head. I need to know if this is real.
“I shouldn’t have dropped such a bomb on you that way," he continues. "Please forgive my lack of tact. If there was an easier way to say it, I would have. Obviously, this comes as a shock to you. How could it not? But, there’s something you have to know about your grandmother, Sarah. When I said Lizzie is...was...a force of nature, I meant it in the most literal sense. She would never allow herself to get dementia. I’m serious. Her willpower was otherworldly at times. I’m sure you saw glimpses of it here and there. The fact is, she had too much she wanted to hide. There is no way Elizabeth Morgan would ever permit herself to be in a position where she might reveal her precious secrets. She’d kill herself first, as soon as the doctor gave her the diagnosis, and she still had enough awareness to know what she was doing. Lizzie was careful, so careful. She took every precaution to ensure that no one, especially you and Matt, knew anything about her past. I’ve never met a more methodical planner than your grandmother. Lizzie was a good person, but the lengths she went to guard her secrets bordered on the diabolical.”
I must look like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi, because he gives me a sympathetic smile, and continues his bizarre tale.
“Think about it, Sarah. You know how people with dementia start to mistake you for people from their past? It usually happens at the beginning. As it progresses, they begin talking about things that happened to them decades ago as if they were current events. They forget words, and repeat sentences. They forget how to do things they’ve been experts at their whole lives. Did she ever do anything like that? Because those are all universal signs of all types of dementia.”
He’s right. Grandma never did anything like that. She just….stopped talking. It happened slowly, over the course of about a year or so, but that’s the only symptom she ever exhibited. She wandered the house silently, and eventually quit getting up from her chair without help. She still fed herself, and looked at books in her lap. She even watched TV. I didn’t think it was strange, because I was a kid and didn't know any better. But now....
My continued silence must have been a moment too long, because Karen snaps at me, impatient with my need to process this information.
“Answer him,” she commands, nudging me in the back with the tip of her shoe.
I blink, clearing the mental fog around me. “No. It wasn't like that at all. My voice trembling, I explain what happened with Grandma, nausea building in the pit of my stomach with each word. If Jacob is telling the truth, I need to know the real story. If Grandma didn't have dementia, what was going on with her for the past eight years?
“Lizzie deliberately stopped talking to make you think she had dementia,” Jacob explains. “She paid her doctor to tell you and Matt she had it. You would be surprised what money will buy, and Lizzie had plenty of it. But, she never stopped engaging with the world. When she looked at those books and watched TV, she wasn't staring off into the ether. She was actually reading, and enjoying her shows. People with dementia don't do that. Lizzie knew exactly what was going on at every moment.”
“But, why would she pretend?” I finally demand, a little tickle of anger beginning to gnaw on my psyche as I ponder the implications. I mean, how could she? What Matt and I went through caring for her, worrying about her, grieving her loss years before she really left us. What kind of person does that to their grandchildren?
“We adored her,” I finally grind out between clenched teeth. “We thought she loved us, too. Why would she do something so cruel?” Tears squeeze out from the corners of my eyes, a couple of them dripping slowly down each cheek, threatening to smudge my carefully applied mascara. It's the least of my concerns right now.
“Lizzie was getting old, starting to slow down,” Jacob explains. “It happens. I think I feel it happening to me some days.” If his unusually healthy looking exterior is anything to go by, I highly doubt he ever feels anything but terrific.
My silence tells him this explains nothing, so he continues.
”The thing is, Lizzie wanted to control everything,” Jacob admits, looking almost sheepish, as if all this was his fault somehow. “Knowing her time with you may be becoming limited, she wanted to accomplish a few things. One, she wanted to make her passing as easy on the two of you as possible. Disengaging slowly, years ahead of time, was her way of doing it. Don’t think she didn’t love you, because she did, so much. Her methods may have been odd, but she was always her own person, highly unique, and she did what she thought was best. Two, she was determined to protect you and Matt from whatever dangers she thought her secrets presented. So, she took precautions. The feigned dementia was her way of accomplishing this. Even going into assisted living two years ago was her idea. With you turning 18, Lizzie didn't want to be a pretend burden to you and Matt anymore. Honestly, she would have gone sooner, but she wanted to see you grow up first, Sarah. Once the decision was made, Lizzie paid her doctor to tell Matt it was time for her to move to a facility. She chose the place herself, and paid her doctor to recommend that particular facility to Matt. She also paid the staff there to pretend she had dementia whenever you two came to visit. Let me ask you, Sarah. Did Lizzie always look immaculate when you were there? Was her room sumptuous and equipped with every luxury, even those you wouldn’t think someone with dementia would need?”
“Yes,” I whisper, amazed I never noticed how odd it was. Looking back, it now seems like the most obvious thing in the world. Matt and I are clearly idiots. Did she take advantage of that, thinking we weren’t smart enough to figure out her scheme?
I shake my head, dumbfounded. It was all so calculating, and yes, diabolical. So at odds with the beloved, gentle-natured grandmother I knew. The one who helped me with my homework with such patience, never becoming frustrated when I couldn’t get the math thing quite right after hours of trying. The one who baked the most amazing chocolate chip cookies for us nearly every day after school. The Grandma who made sure we got to participate in every after school activity we wanted to, and sat smiling and clapping proudly in the audience at each play, competition, or recital. That grandmother would never do what Jacob is suggesting. No way.
But, there's that tugging on my subconscious again, and it is telling me it's all true. The tugging that never leads me astray, never lies. Jacob's story is real. And, it crushes me.
“Sarah,” Jacob says, giving me an intense look. He reaches out to gently stroke my hair with one tentative finger, as if preparing to demolish the remnants of everything I believed was true. "Do you even know how old your grandmother was?”
Of course I do. Grandma raised me. I know her birthday as well as I know my own.
“Yes,” I announce with complete confidence. "She was….”
Um….why isn’t the information there? I know Grandma’s age. I know her birth date.
But, I don’t.
I pause, unable to answer. If I had any lingering doubts about Jacob's story, they're gone now, wiped away by that one, simple question. As I stammer, reaching inside my mind for information that isn't there, I realize the horrible truth, and it hits me like an unexpected slap to the face. I don’t know my own grandmother’s age. I never did.
“I….I…” I don't know what to say. A lump forms in my throat, tight and painful, while tears once again begin to form around the rims of my eyelids. Her age. Like so many other things about her, it was just something I assumed I knew, and never gave a second thought to. Realizing this bothers me more than learning she didn’t really have dementia.
And, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. We never celebrated her birthday, not once. She never brought it up, and we never thought to ask. Come to think of it, her birthplace and the names of her parents or any siblings she may have had are also mysteries. Grandma never talked about anything or anyone who Matt and I didn't already know.
Matt. He has to know her age. He was the informant for her death certificate, and the registrar would require that information. Matt must know. I have to ask him. I take a step toward the back door, intending to drag him back here, but Karen steps in my path, while Jacob tightens his grip on my arm.
"Don’t worry, Sarah,” Jacob soothes me. “I don’t mean to upset you by any of this. Believe me, that's the last thing I wanted. I just felt you deserved to know the truth. If it helps, I didn’t know how old she was, either. No one did. Even your grandfather didn’t know the exact number. She refused to reveal it. He always said he preferred it that way, because it added mystery and romance to their marriage. Lizzie told anyone who asked that a lady never revealed her true age.”
“What about her birthday?” I manage to choke out, my voice cracking. “At least the month and day. Didn’t anyone ever celebrate it?”
“She didn’t like to be reminded of the passing of the years. No, we didn’t know her birthday either, and she refused any suggestions of celebrations. The one time your grandfather asked her if she would like a birthday party at some point, she about snapped his head off, and told him to never mention it again. He didn’t.”
Karen has been tapping her foot with impatience this whole time, and now she is apparently ready to have her say. I shudder inside, wondering what fresh hell she will unleash on this already insane situation. Could she possibly make it worse? Of course she could. And, probably will, using that bitch wand only she can wield.
“Okay,” she says, loud enough the few remaining heads in the house turn our way. The last of the guests look at the three of us only for a moment before returning to their own conversations. “Let’s assume all of this is true….and that’s a big assumption. How do you know all this, when Sarah and Matt were left in the dark? And, why come forward with the truth now, just after Mrs. Morgan has died, when her estate isn’t settled yet? It’s all a tad suspicious, Mr. Morgan..if that is really who you are.”
“All valid questions,” Jacob admits. “To answer the second question is simple. Lizzie gave me permission to come forward and tell you the truth as I know it after she was gone. I made my case regarding this years ago, and she did agree you kids deserved the truth. I’m here today at her request. She wanted it revealed the day of her funeral and to be spoken of no more afterward. Naturally, I can’t keep you kids from discussing it, but I can come here today and fulfill my end of the bargain. As for the first question, that’s a bit more complex. You see, Lizzie didn’t want me contacting you kids, as you know. However, that edict did not apply to her. I was free to contact her as much as I liked, and we wrote to each other for years. We even talked on the phone once in a while. Despite her wanting me to stay away, your grandmother didn’t hate me or my family. Quite the opposite. She loved us. Besides you and Matt, we were the only family she had left. We’ve been in close touch this whole time. I even went to visit her in the assisted living home a few times. I can dutifully inform you she was sharp as a tack to the very end. I want you to know she never, ever forgot who you and Matt were. Oh, sure, she pretended to not know you when you came to visit, but everyone down to the janitors at that place knew what she was doing. They were all paid incredibly well to keep her secret. In fact, I’m sure it was her doctor who filled out her death certificate, so Matt didn’t have to. She probably paid him in advance, just so you kids wouldn’t go looking for answers she didn’t want revealed, like her birth date, place of birth, and her parents’ names.”
I’m dizzy, my head spinning with all this new, crazy information. If there was a chair nearby, I’d sit down. The floor may end up being an option. Nausea flows over me in waves, each one more intense than the other. Can I make it to the kitchen in time if I need to? Throwing up in front of Karen would be so embarrassing, and just more fuel for her case against my sanity. Oh, poor Sarah is so mentally fragile, she gets ill when people talk to her. I can hear her saying it.
Of course, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t doubting my sanity a bit myself right now. None of this is remotely normal. What Jacob is telling me is what movie scripts are made of, not real life. People don’t actually do these things. At least, I didn't think they did.
“You say you visited her,” I mumble, looking at the floor to regain my equilibrium, and to quell the nausea. “Your son lives in California. You don’t?”
“No. I live in Portsmouth.”
Portsmouth. I shake my head, the hint of a laugh forming in my throat. It disappears as quickly as it came, when another wave of nausea rolls over me. Portsmouth is one county over, a twenty minute drive from here at most, depending on traffic. He’s been here all this time, right next to us, and we never knew it.
He visited her, wrote to her, talked to her. They’ve been in touch since before Matt and I lived here, and that communication never stopped. They talked when she was living in the facility, while we were at home thinking she was slipping away into the recesses of dementia. Only, she wasn’t doing that at all. She was fine.
Did my grandmother ever tell me anything that was the truth? Or, was her whole life one carefully constructed and flawlessly maintained lie?
“This is crazy,” I say, my voice squeaky as I try to hold back cascades of sobs that are begging to break free.
Karen, naturally, is having none of it. “He wants to get your sympathy, so you’ll give him part of the estate,” she growls, sounding for all the word like an angry cat. “That’s all this is about, Sarah. Money. Are you really so naive?”
If I could slap her without a psychiatric hold being placed on me, I would without hesitation. Did she ever stop being a bitch to anyone but Matt? To his credit, Jacob seems irritated with her, too. He narrows his piercing eyes at her, his look so sharp I’m surprised it doesn’t bore two pupil-sized holes right through her. That would be awesome.
Leaning forward in her direction, he addresses her, his gentle voice taking on a stern, steely edge that would stop even the most dangerous men in their tracks. To my delight, Karen’s mouth snaps shut, and she even takes a step back. “I told you before, young lady, I am quite financially comfortable, and I’ve no interest in Lizzie’s money. My presence here is about me fulfilling my obligation to my sister-in-law, and because I want to re-connect with my family. That is all. If she hadn’t given me permission, I wouldn’t be here. Even though she’s gone, I would continue to stay away, because frankly, the old girl could be terrifying. I have no desire to cross her in this life or another. It’s why I went along with her whole convoluted scheme in the first place. Honestly, I’m surprised she actually died. Part of me always thought she was a witch--the good kind, mind you—and would live forever. Gracious, for all I know, she did, and is still out there somewhere, starting anew.”
My God, is that a possibility? Might she still be alive? Out there, wandering the world to begin a new life? I mean, she was old, but not so old a new beginning was out of the question. After what Jacob just told me, I wouldn’t be surprised. Honestly, I don’t know what to believe anymore. And, with Karen around, that is a bad position to be in.
Maybe I should ask. If there’s a possibility Grandma might still be alive, I want to know. One more hug from her would mean the world to me. Maybe, just maybe, she could get Karen off my back. More importantly, I could ask her to her face if what Jacob said was true, and try to get her to tell me what she had to hide.
But, no. If I seem like I’m entertaining such a notion, Karen will have all the evidence she needs to put my sanity into question. I can’t allow it.
Jacob must have seen the conflict playing across my face. “Are you okay, Sarah?” he asks, genuine concern in his voice. “I didn’t mean to overwhelm you with all of this, especially on what must already be a hard day. It was my hope that knowing Lizzie didn’t have dementia would bring you some peace.”
“It does,” I assure him, and it's true. I would much rather think my grandmother died fully herself, however weird that self was, than believe she simply faded away and forgot us. It is less painful that way. Her passing still leaves a big, gaping, Grandma-sized hole in my life, but knowing she didn’t have dementia really does take the sting off the edges. “Thank you for coming, and thank you for telling me.”
“I hope you’re not mad at me, or her. You do know she only did what she thought was best for you and Matt, right. And I merely respected her wishes.”
“I’m not mad,” I promise him. “Actually, I would love to keep in touch now that we’ve re-discovered each other. If you don’t mind.”
Who could blame me for reaching out to a stranger claiming to be my long-lost great-uncle? I have no parents, no aunts or uncles, no siblings, and all my grandparents except Grandma died before I was born. All I have is Matt, my one cousin. Of course I want to reach out to any hint of family that might remain. If Jacob is my great-uncle, and I believe he is, I want to develop a relationship with him, one we should have had all along. I want to get to know his son and grandchildren, too. I’m hungry for family, and he is my newly discovered family sandwich, sitting within reach on the table.
His eyes soften, and for a moment, it looks like he might let a few tears drop himself. Being too dignified for that, he quickly composes himself, but the gentle expression remains. “I would like nothing better,” he assures me. After exchanging numbers on our phones and promising to make a lunch date as soon as possible, he hugs me, and politely excuses himself to go find Matt. He has to repeat the entire story to him. As he walks away, heading toward the back door, he gives Karen one more side-eyed glare that makes me break out a huge grin.
Matt is just coming inside as Jacob reaches the door, and the wide-eyed look of delight on my cousin’s face, followed by him throwing his arms around Jacob in an enthusiastic hug, tells me everything I need to know. Matt definitely remembers him. We are related.
Karen sees the reunion, too, so her waiting argument about Jacob lying about our connection flies out the window before she can utter a word. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have other things to complain about. And, once he’s out of earshot, I know she’ll tell me exactly what those reasons are in 3…2…
“He’s probably a charlatan you know,” Karen seethes. “That’s why your grandmother didn’t want him talking to you and Matt. And, if you believe he’s not here to get his hands on the inheritance, then you’re stupid as well as crazy.”
I sigh loudly, and make a point of ignoring her. Karen is not going to goad me into an argument. Not this time. Never again, if I can help it.
She waits a moment to see how I will react to her taunt, but when it becomes clear to her I’m not taking the bait, she huffs loudly and stomps away, arms crossed over her chest in a gesture meant to convey she is refusing to talk to me. She doesn’t go far, though. Oh, no. That would mean letting me out of her sight, something she will never do until she gets that morsel of evidence she needs to blow up into me being in a psychiatric facility. To my irritation, she only moves a few feet down the wall, far enough away we don’t have to talk to each other anymore, but still close enough to see everything I do.
Oh my God. She’s like an itch that won’t go away. Is she ever going to give me some personal space, or is she waiting for the right moment to slip a dagger in me and make it look like I did it to myself?
While Karen and I make grand gestures out of avoiding each other, Matt and Great-Uncle Jacob have an intense, lengthy conversation in the casual family room. It’s only a few feet from the wall Karen and I share, and is completely free to use now that most of the guests have left. Only three remain, lingering in the formal living room across the open hallway. Everyone is too far away for me to hear anything they’re saying, but that’s okay. All I want to do is ponder everything Jacob told me, and what it means.
A thousand questions pelt my mind. Should I look into Grandma’s past? Will her doctor tell me anything if I ask? What does her death certificate say? Matt has a copy, so that should be easy to obtain. What was her birthday? Can I go down to the Strafford County courthouse and get a copy of her marriage license to Grandpa? The birthday, or at least age at marriage, should be on it. It’s a good place to start investigating.
At one point, my phone dings, and I look down. A text from Carter lights up the screen. “I get off work at 9,” it reads. “Do you want to come over? I’m sorry I left you alone with Karen all day. I love you.”
“I would love to,” I text him back. “Let me know when you’re home, and I’ll be there. I’ve got to get away from this witch. Maybe I can spend the night?”
“You know it,” is his quick reply.
Thank God for Carter. He’s known about the Karen issue since the first time she threatened me, and has been a welcome source of refuge from her evil many times since. As soon as I can slip out of here, I will go to his apartment. Fortunately, I always carry a packed overnight bag in my car. Nominally, it’s there in case I get stuck in the snow, which every good New Englander knows is just good sense. These days, it serves a dual purpose of allowing me to get out of the house as quickly as possible without having to go back to my room for supplies; it's perfect if I have to leave right away. I’ve got a backup of everything in there, even my laptop, phone, credit cards, and driver’s license.
Yeah. Karen can clean this place up herself tonight if she wants to. I’m going to Carter’s. Screw her.
Eventually, around eight in the evening, all of the guests but Jacob have blessedly made their way out of the house. Once the last one is gone, the caterers pack up and leave. It’s just me, Matt, Jacob, and Karen in the house now. I eye my car keys, dangling on a hook by the back door, and start moving toward them. The goal is to slip out now, while it’s quiet.
That, of course, is when Karen chooses to make her move.