We never slept in this room without Grandma, and since she’s gone we did not want to sleep in here now, but Mama said the bed in the other room was too little for me and Richard to sleep in together. She is sleeping in that bed, and Daddy is sleeping on the couch in the living room. We had to come down here because of Grandma’s funeral. She was Daddy’s mama, but Aunt Chloe, who lives in Chicago with us, raised him.
Aunt Chloe didn’t come down here with us. She said road trips were way behind her. Richard and I like road trips because of the snacks and seeing cows and horses and other stuff out of the car windows. Daddy calls Aunt Chloe ‘Mama’ instead of calling Grandma ‘Mama.’ He called Grandma ‘Ma’am.’
Aunt Chloe is me and Richard’s favorite aunt, and that includes both sides of the family. Aunt Chloe is the best. She lives downtown, and we get to go over her house for all the free concerts and stuff in the park. Mama says Aunt Chloe can live downtown because she’s rich and has more money than Oprah Winfrey.
“Do you hear that?” Richard asks.
“Yeah, I hear it,” I say.
I heard the noise a while ago, but I was hoping he didn’t hear it because one strange sound in Grandma’s house leads my scaredy-cat little brother to a hundred questions especially with the funeral and stuff. He is five years old, and he thinks that dying is like catching a cold, and he wants to make sure him, me, Daddy, and Mama do not do anything that causes us to die like Grandma. I keep telling him Grandma died because she was sick for so long, not because she did something, but he’s just a little kid, so he doesn’t understand.
“What do you think that is?”
“The wind,” I say, knowing he won’t believe me.
“The wind doesn’t scratch.”
“It does if it’s blowing a tree branch against the window.”
There are no trees outside of Grandma’s bedroom window, but I think maybe Richard will not remember that. He scoots closer to me and puts his big head on my pillow. There was only one pillow on Grandma’s bed when we got here, and since I got in first, I grabbed it. But because Richard is scared of the dark, and because of the funeral stuff, I don’t push him away from me.
“But it sounds so close.”
I can smell the last Reese’s Cup on his breath. Mama gave it to him because he whined for it, like a baby. The scratching sound is close. It’s right behind the headboard down at the bottom.
“Go cut on the light Malcolm.”
“Nope, Daddy said go to sleep,” I say. “If he sees the lights on he’ll get mad.”
“If you don’t go cut the light on, I’m going to scream, and he will get mad anyway.”
“And beat your butt.”
He’s right. If he screams, Daddy will come in the room and get us both because he will think we’re playing, and he will spank me the hardest because I am seven years old and the oldest. I snatch the pillow from under Richard’s head and push him away. He makes me sick thinking he’s smart.
“Are you going to cut the light on?” he asks. When I look over to him, I don’t see him because it’s so dark.
I throw back the blanket and sheet and swing my legs around and my feet down to the carpet because I do want the lights on, and I do want to see what’s making that noise.
I can’t even see my feet. Daddy cut the hall light out, so even the little light that comes in under the door is gone. When we slept in here with Grandma, she always had a prayer candle burning, so it was not black like it is now. They don’t have streetlights in the country. Where we live it never gets this dark. We have streetlights that shine through our windows all the time.
“I can’t see,” I tell my brother.
“There is nothing to see, just stand up and swing your arms around until you feel the string then pull it.”
He is too short and too scared to help me, but he has a mouth full of ideas. I start swinging my arms around and take a couple of steps.
Instead of feeling something with my fingers, I feel something with my toes, and it doesn’t feel right because whatever it is feels like it’s feeling me, so I start dancing around and jump back in bed.
“What? What’s wrong with you?”
“I think it’s bugs in the carpet.”
He’s almost screaming.
“Shhh, you know Grandma got bugs around here,” I tell him.
“On the back porch and a little in the kitchen, but not in here.”
We are both sitting up in the middle of the bed.
“This the country, bugs are everywhere,” I say.
The scratching sound is getting louder.
“Go cut on the light Malcolm, please. The bugs won’t hurt your feet.”
Could the bugs be climbing up the headboard and making that scratching sound? Are we surrounded by bugs? The scratching sound is moving up, getting closer to us.
I tell my brother, “Go on and scream. When Daddy comes in he will cut on the lights and see whatever it is making the noise.”
“I don’t want a whipping.”
“He’s not going to whip us if he sees the bugs.”
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daaaddyy!”
“That’s enough, dang.”
We are both listening hard, but all we hear is the scratching.
“Daddy! It’s bugs in here. Daddy!”
The scratching noise is halfway up the headboard.
“They’re behind the bed, Malcolm. Daddy!”
“No they’re not, it just sounds like that because it’s so quiet.”
“Are you scared?”
“Then go cut on the light.”
“Nope, call him again.”
The door opens, but the light that comes in is only shining around the person who opened the door. No, the light is not around her but coming from her, out of her. She is a light, like a Santa Claus with a light bulb in the middle.
“That’s Grandma,” Richard whispers. “That’s not right, is it? The cemetery people put her in the ground. Why is she here with us?”
I feel my brother digging his stubby fingernails into my arm.
“No, it just looks like her,” I say.
“It is her.” He’s crying.
Grandma moves from the door towards us bringing light with her.
“You’d better not pee in my bed, Richard Wellington Brown III,” she says. “That’s a new mattress. It cost me $375 dollars.”
It is Grandma. She’s at the side of the bed, glowing, glowing like . . . like her prayer candles. She told Richard not to pee, but it is me that has to hold my water with all my might.
“I got a kitten under my bed. She was the runt of the litter, real sickly, and hasn’t meowed yet. You boys are going to take care of her. If you don’t . . . I will be back to see you, and you won’t like me when I come back.”
(I don’t think we like her now.)
She bends down and comes up with a kitten and throws it in the bed with us.
“I named her Chloe, after my sister,” she says. “Call her anything else and I will come back to see you.”
The door slams shut and Grandma is gone. I have the baby cat in my arms against my chest. Richard stops digging into my arm.
The door opens again, and this time the light from the hall shows us Daddy.
“Why aren’t you boys sleeping?”
“Grandma, dead Grandma was here, and she gave us a kitten.” Richard says reaching to pet the cat.
“What did you say?”
“He’s not lying, Daddy. She was here, and she gave us this cat, and she said we have to keep her, and she named her Chloe.”
“You two ate some of those crab apples didn’t you?”
We did eat some crab apples. I ate four and Richard ate three, but what does that have to do Grandma being here? Daddy walks in the room and pulls the string, cutting on the light.
The baby cat is snow white with one little black spot between her eyes.
“You lucky she’s cute,” Daddy says. “Your Mama will probably let you keep her, but keep the Grandma story to yourselves. If she thinks you are lying, no kitten. Now go to sleep.” Daddy pulls the string, but when he leaves he lets the door stay halfway open, so the light stays in with us.
“Do you think Mama will still let us get a puppy, since we have a kitten now?” Richard says.
“I hope so, because you can’t play fetch with a baby cat.”
“Give her to me. I want to hold her.”
“Here, take her.” I toss the kitten in his lap. “I want a puppy, not a stupid cat.”
The room turns black again.
“I am not playing with you, Malcolm James Mercer Brown. You better take care of my kitten.”
I don’t see her, but I hear her.
The light comes back and my brother is sitting in the middle of the bed, petting the white cat with the black spot and laughing at me.
“And don’t forget, her name is Chloe,” he says, grinning.