Free Fiction Monday: Perennials
Grief often transports us to the past. But for one woman, the transportation becomes more literal. She lives more in the past than the present, her beloved grandmother often tells her. Until one final moment of grief changes her forever.
A powerful tale about the impact of love and family.
“Perennials” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available in ebook here.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
In real time the destruction looks different. I stand at the edge of the Pacific Garden Mall and see flat concrete, large holes surrounded by wire fences, a few shored-up buildings, and innumerable parking lots.
Last summer, eucalyptus trees covered the mall. Buildings—a few that had survived the ’06 quake—lined the streets. Street musicians hung out on corners; bicyclists and pedestrians filled the sidewalks. The place had the kind of life that too few cities experience.
I had always loved that life. To me, it was the heart of Santa Cruz.
I don’t like real time. As I stand here, hands in the pockets of my windbreaker, staring at the remains of the destruction, I see the city as a newcomer would see it: a broken, deserted downtown, like so many other downtowns in so many other places. Newcomers would think that Santa Cruz has charm anyway. The Boardwalk, with its famous roller coaster and sea view, still stands. Shops dominate the pier. Funky older houses line tree-covered, winding streets. There are only a few of us who know, a few of us who remember, and we will never forget.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother’s house smelled of peppermint. I loved the kitchen. Light streamed in from two windows and the screen door. Grandma’s collection of saltshakers lined one window like a curtain. On the counter, chocolate cake with marshmallow frosting cooled. The cookie jar waited on top of the refrigerator for that special moment during the day when Grandma would reward us for being ourselves.
In her bedroom the portraits hung: Grandma’s mother in 1886, at twenty-six a foreboding woman with dark eyes; Grandma’s entire family around 1910, arranged from tallest to shortest, Great-aunt Ruth (always the gregarious one) with a bow the size of a Stetson hat tied in her hair; Grandma, Grandpa, my father, and Aunt Mary in her forties—Grandma looking the same, shoulders back, gaze straightforward and proud; Grandpa smiling, his hair nearly gone, hand holding his only daughter’s; Aunt Mary looking young and happy; and my father, wearing black-rimmed glasses, his body still young-man trim, and his hairline receding like his father’s, with an impish grin that I had seen only when he played cards. I used to lie on Grandma’s bed and stare at the pictures as I tried to conjure the family ghosts. No haunting ever came—no shaking chains, no eerie voices. But some of the pictures seemed alive. On those nights when I slept on the cot at the foot of Grandma’s bed, I would wake to whisperings that I attributed to my great-grandmother and my grandfather, both of whom died shortly before I was born. The whisperings were always too faint to hear, but I felt the love in them, just as I felt the love in my grandmother’s gaze.
I take my car from the mall to the Boardwalk. The drive is familiar, except for the cracked windows, the fallen signs. The road itself has lost its smoothness, and the car rocks in the ruts. I keep the radio off, listening instead to the whoosh of other cars as they pass, the honking horns, the occasional shouts of pedestrians as they walk down the twisting streets.
The morning looks no different than any other, even though it should. I know that if I turn down the right street, I’ll find my tiny one-room apartment, filled with books and newspapers, an overlarge stereo, and a sofa bed; a place that’s less of a haven than somewhere to sleep. I clerk at the local grocery store and put most of my money into a savings account that I never touch. My grandmother and I share a social life with each other—made up of each other—which she said is normal for a woman of ninety-five, but not for a woman of thirty. She would tell me I need to live in my present and work for my future, and I would always laugh and tell her life is easier in the past.
The Boardwalk looms, a barrier against the sea. The view is both dated and modern: the old wooden roller coaster dominates the skyline, making the newer flume ride and the Giant Dipper seem cheap and brassy. I park my car in the empty parking lot and walk to the gate. Someone has locked it and placed a CLOSED sign against the metal bars. Through the doors past the concession stands and shored-up rides, the ocean whispers against the beach. The air smells of sea salt and fresh wind instead of cotton candy and corn dogs. My hands sink deeper into my pockets, and the nylon strains against my knuckles.
On hot summer days, the parking lot was full, and cars circled the street like hungry cats. I walk back to my car, alone in a place that I never believed could be lonely. I pull the car door open and stand for a moment before crawling inside. Across the street a cyclone fence surrounds an empty field. Scraggles of winter grass cover the choppy earth. Something sat there, something I should remember. My mind yields up no images, no pictures of the spot, though I had once gone by it daily. I get into the car, close the door, and huddle against the steering wheel. One tiny fragment gone—dispersed by the sands of time.
On the day my Aunt Esther died, I arrived home from school to find my mother scrubbing the kitchen floor. Dirt streaked her face, except for the places where hours-dried tears had cleaned the skin. I touched her shoulder, and she shook me away.
“Get off my floor.” Her voice was harsh and raw. I had never heard its peculiar edge before.
I stood for a moment, wanting to ask details—the school counselor had told me only that my aunt, my mother’s favorite sister, was dead—wanting to hold my mother, to comfort her, to share the pain. Instead, I walked across the clean linoleum into the living room and sat on a transplanted kitchen chair in the growing twilight until my father came home.
He made us dinner on the well-scrubbed stove, and then he put my mother to bed. I huddled under one of my grandmother’s afghans on the couch and listened to my father’s voice drone as he made the arrangements by phone. When he finally came into the living room, looking smaller than I had ever seen him, his balding head shining in the lamplight, I asked, “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to remember her,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”
The empty field mocks me. I can see nothing but the diamond wires of the cyclone fence, the clumps of dirt, the shades of ancient footprints. If I go back six months, I will see it. I will know.
I reach for a time slip, feel its power hum against my fingertips, but as I try to grasp the rim, the slip scuttles away, and I remain in real time, clutching the steering wheel of a twenty-year-old car, a car I’ve owned for only half a day.
Somewhere I will find a place that hasn’t changed, a place where the past, present, and future have fused, a place that is safe.
I turn the key in the ignition, and the car hums into life. As I pull out of the parking lot, a dozen other cars appear from nowhere. Perhaps we all are searching for the same thing.
Four days after my aunt’s funeral, I found my first time slip. I lay on my bed in the upstairs of the creaky old Victorian house my mother had just cleaned top to bottom. I was almost asleep, when a light-filled slit like that of a half-opened door appeared in the air before me. I had seen those slits before, several dozen times in my young life. When I was four, the night my sister (who was my mother surrogate) married, hundreds of light slits appeared in my room. I cowered against the wall and screamed for help. No help came. My parents, too drunk from the wedding, slept through all my cries. Finally the lights faded, and I thought the lights were dream visions that passed into my waking hours.
That night, though, I knew I wasn’t asleep. Another slit appeared, and another, until they surrounded me, and their light felt like a hug. No one had hugged me since my aunt died. No one had said more than three sentences to me in all that time—except my grandmother, who tried to comfort me by phone from her home six hundred miles away.
I reached out, perhaps to hug back, perhaps just to touch, when I felt something hum against my fingertips. I stuck my hand inside the nearest light, and felt a solid edge. I grabbed the edge, pulled a little—
And found myself in my Aunt Esther’s dining room. The room smelled of cigarettes, roast beef, and fresh bread. Bottles of alcohol covered the bureau, and half a dozen people sat around the table. The chandelier sent a crystal light across the room. It took a moment to recognize the man at the head of the table as my uncle. He was too slim, his hair too dark. My parents sat on one side, my mother’s hair long and black and coiled around her scalp, my father looking like the picture in Grandma’s bedroom. Aunt Esther came out of the kitchen, carrying one of her good serving bowls filled with broccoli in cheese sauce. She was beautiful: her face unlined, her eyes wide and dark. Her hair, cut in its usual marcel, didn’t seem dated, but looked appropriate somehow. She set the bowl down, and the woman across the table—not my mother, but someone else I vaguely recognized—stubbed out a cigarette. My uncle carved the roast beef, while my father picked up the bowl filled with mashed potatoes and plopped a spoonful on his plate. My mother took the bowl from him and looked at Aunt Esther.
I walked to the table and took a little piece of meat. It was good and hot. I hadn’t had Esther’s cooking since my uncle died.
“All this food,” Mother said. “We should say grace.”
“Father would have said grace.” Aunt Esther’s voice was smoother, less rough than I remembered it, as if the years of cigarettes and alcohol hadn’t touched it yet. “But I figure we earned it—why should we eat it after it gets cold?”
“Esther.” My uncle placed a slab of roast beef on his own plate. He didn’t look up, but I could hear the caution in his tone. I touched his shoulder, hoping he would pull his chair back, but he didn’t notice me.
Esther took a sip from the drink beside her ashtray. “I don’t have to do everything my father taught me. He’s been dead for twenty years. And if he were here, he wouldn’t be thankful for the food. He would yell at me for all the paint I wear, the booze I drink, and the things I say.”
“You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” my mother said softly.
“See what I mean?” Esther said. “She was only four when he died, and she can mimic his voice perfectly. Some people always haunt you.”
The scene faded. I reached for my uncle, but found myself grabbing my own bedspread, the smell of roast beef and cigarettes still lingering in my nostrils. I hugged my pillow and waited until dawn for the lights to return. They didn’t, and I fell into an uneasy sleep.
I have driven along the ocean for over an hour. Finally I pull into an empty turnout at the edge of a cliff and get out of my car. The wind is cold here, the ocean rough and gray. Waves break against the rocks below me. Off in the distance, heavy, dark clouds threaten a major winter storm.
The ocean is here, ever present, ever changing, never reassuring. I reach for a time slip, and can’t even find one, shivering as a chill runs up my back. Used to be I could slip anywhere, anytime. I would close my eyes and reach until I felt the hum. Then I would grab a corner and pull myself into another world.
My grandmother would say it was as if I had disappeared from my eyes. She never knew where I went, and I would never know where I was going, only that I would find somewhere better than I was. She hated it when I was gone. But the time slips never lasted long. I would get a brief glimpse and then come back to the present. I saw bits of my parents’ lives, bits of wars, bits of places I would never see again. When I went through high school, the lights faded, but the hums remained. I learned to control the slips, to go anywhere I wanted. And often I would end up in Santa Cruz, on the Boardwalk or in the mall, places where time had a special essence, an added dimension of warmth.
Sea droplets splash my face. I draw my windbreaker closer. This is a place I would have visited in a slip, but it feels wrong in real time. Less powerful, less potent. If I were able to slip now, I would return to my grandmother’s house, steal a fingerful of marshmallow frosting, and lie on her bed, staring at the photos. I would listen to the whispers, the haunting, and if I heard my grandmother’s step, slow and sure across her linoleum, I would run to the kitchen, hug her, and never let her go.
Some of the water drops running down my face are warm. I wipe my cheeks, irritated at the moisture, and turn my back on the sea. It is not home, it is not safe, and it has no warmth.
Last week the phone woke me out of a sound sleep. Grandma was in the emergency room, bleeding from countless ulcers in her ninety-five-year-old stomach. She was screaming for me, they said. Even if she hadn’t been, I still would have rushed to the hospital.
The hospital had a Sunday-morning quiet. The walls were painted forest green, and the plush carpet absorbed all sound. I hurried to the emergency wing, and they ushered me to a back room. My grandmother lay on a bed, held down by a doctor and three nurses. Her gray hair was matted around her face; her watery blue eyes were wide with fright. When she saw me, she murmured, “Thank God. Thank God.”
“You’re her granddaughter?” the doctor asked. He was my age, but his frustration made him seem younger. “We need to put some tubes down her to pump the blood from her stomach. But she won’t let us.”
The tubes went through the nostrils. I remembered my mother hooked up like that in the years before the alcohol finally killed her.
Grandma grabbed my hand. She squeezed so tight that I knew I would bruise. “They’re hurting me,” she said.
“They have to hurt you to help you,” I said.
“Will you stay while we try again?” the doctor asked. “Maybe she’ll be calmer around you.”
I nodded. They brought the tubes to her nose, and Grandma screamed and thrashed. I put my hands on her shoulders, held her head in place, and she stopped moving. All the while they worked, she watched me, staring into my eyes as if my presence gave her strength. Finally everything was in place, the suction began working, and the tubes turned black with her blood.
The doctor thanked me and took the nurses outside. Grandma closed her eyes and sighed once. I reached for a time slip, a short moment somewhere better, when her grip tightened on my hand.
“Stay.” Her voice was wispy, a little girl’s.
“I’m right here,” I said.
“No.” She shook her head once. I brushed the hair from her forehead. “Stay in your eyes. You aren’t living when you’re running away.”
I pulled over a chair and sat down, never letting go of her hand. For that entire week, I stayed. But she didn’t.
This morning she left.
I’m back on the mall, staring at the empty spots, the holes, the missing pieces. I can’t slip away anymore, can’t run to some better spot in someone else’s life. In my week’s stay, the ability to slip left me. I ramble through this broken place, where pieces of the past have shattered like concrete against the force of the earth, and I know that parts have already left my memory—perhaps to form other time slips that other children can run away to.
I guess, Grandma would say, it is time to start living in the present and planning for the future.
I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
Beside me on the cyclone fence, a work permit flutters in the breeze. Across the street, enterprising merchants have set up large tents filled with heat and light and merchandise. I walk over there, away from the demolished Cooper House, the shored-up western facades, the buildings of handmade brick that had survived the ’06 quake and had died in this one. A little bit of history passed on. A life spanning nearly a century, punctuated by two quakes and, in the end, some lingering pain.
A woman sells plants outside the nearest tent. She sits next to the tent wall, clutching a steaming paper cup, and watches me. I glance at the plants, little shoots in green plastic pots, and I know that she is here, hoping that people will plant for spring.
“I want some flowers.” My voice cracks as if I never use it. “Perennials.”
She shows me more shoots in more green plastic pots. I buy six that bloom in different light and temperature. Flowers for my grandmother’s grave, always and forever. Always changing, always there. One small way—my only way—to control a bit of time…
And to keep it warm.
Copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1992
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2021 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longuiera/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Aleksandar Mirkovic/Dreamstime