By Carol L. Wright
The late afternoon bookstore crowd made up for the lull earlier in the day and kept Gracie running. When six o’clock finally arrived, she thought about staying late to look for her missing book but did not want to be late for dinner with Spencer and Carrie—especially because this time she had prepared something in advance.
After putting Dickens in his cat carrier, she turned out the store lights. She reveled in the realization that she was getting stronger from carrying Dickens on the walk to and from the store every day. They were making good time and were almost to Elm Street before she remembered that she had driven to work that day.
“Oh, darn it. And I have a light to put up outside the house tonight, too,” she complained to Dickens. It made no sense to leave her car and the new porch light parked in town all night, so she turned around to get the car.
Driving home had taken her longer than if she had walked.
Coming in from the driveway, Gracie entered through the kitchen door. She was hit by the smell of beef, carrots, celery, potatoes, parsnips, rutabaga, onion, clove, and bay leaf from the Yankee Pot Roast she had put together in her slow cooker before leaving the house that morning. She closed her eyes and took in the aroma. Oh, thank goodness I don’t have to cook.
Before she could set Dickens’ carrier down, Carrie was in the kitchen.
“Hi, Mom, I need money for a fundraiser at school.”
“Oh, really?” Gracie placed Dickens’ pen on the floor and stacked the box holding the porch lamp on top of it.
“Yeah. We’re supposed to sell wrapping paper, but I figured if you just gave me some money, I wouldn’t have to sell anything.” Carrie stood with a hand on one hip, almost daring Gracie to tell her “No.”
“Could you run that by me again?” Gracie said, in a tone that did nothing to conceal her irritation.
Carrie forged ahead. “I just need some money so I won’t have to do the dumb fundraiser at my school for the French Club trip. I don’t want to sell wrapping paper. It’s not worth my time to go door to door with that stuff when it’s overpriced, and nobody wants to buy it anyway.”
She said the last sentence very slowly as if her mother were mentally challenged. Gracie could almost hear the “duh,” at the end of the sentence. Was this as bad as Gracie thought, or was it just that Carrie had chosen a bad day for such self-centeredness? Whatever the reason, Gracie let go with both barrels.
“Oh. So it’s okay for your father to work sixteen-hour days, and for me to work at the bookstore, but it’s not okay for you to work to get the money to support your activity at school?”
“I didn’t say that. It’s just I shouldn’t have to . . .”
“And exactly who should have to pay for the French Club trip? All the taxpayers who won’t be going on it? Or just your parents, because you should have everything you want without having to lift a finger for it.”
Carrie decided to take a different tack. “Well, it’s not safe for kids to sell stuff door to door anymore.”
“It’s not safe to visit our neighbors? Since when? It’s safe enough when you want to do something at the Antonello’s.”
“But Angela’s selling it, too, and . . .”
“And speaking of safety, was it our neighbors whose building was vandalized or was it my store? But I still work there every day.”
“Yes, but it’s different. You’re an adult, and I’m just a kid, and . . . “
“It’s interesting that you’re ‘just a kid’ when it’s something you don’t want to do, but ‘practically an adult’ when it’s something you do.”
Carrie smiled at her mother’s logic and threw her hands in the air. “Hey, I don’t make the rules.” She giggled. She actually giggled. Did she not understand how angry Gracie was?
“Well, listen here, Missy.”
Carrie’s eyes flew open. She was getting the message.
Gracie never used “Missy” unless she was royally ticked off.
“I am busting my rear end trying to make a go of the bookstore, and Dad is staying up late every night trying to get his book manuscript done, all so we can pay the bills around here. Just the bills.”
Carrie looked away and rolled her eyes, but that didn’t stop Gracie.
“Not the field trip expenses, not the souvenir money, not the money to replace what you should earn through fundraising, but just the money to keep you clothed and fed and with a roof over your head.”
“Oh yeah,” Carrie turned back to her mother and bared her teeth. “Well, it’s not as if you’re spending all your money on me. You’re spending who knows how much to send Ben to college, and on the bookstore, and going out and buying things all the time. Like what’s that thing?” She pointed to the box holding the porch light.
“It’s a motion-activated light for the front porch. It’s a security measure.” Gracie could hear the defensiveness in her own voice.
“So the neighborhood isn’t safe after all.” Carrie pulled herself up, clearly proud of her parry. Gracie had done battle with lawyers who were less formidable.
“It is a purchase to benefit the entire family. I don’t want you coming home from school after dark to a house with no lights on outside.” Gracie blushed a little, knowing that was not the whole reason she had bought the lamp.
“It isn’t dark when I get home, not that you’d know.”
The volume of their argument had Dickens yowling in his pen. Gracie bent over to let him out, and he dashed from the room.
“But it will be.” Gracie spat out the words. “As it gets toward winter, you well know, it will be dark by four-thirty in the afternoon.”
“And I get home at four-fifteen.” Carrie crossed her arms and jutted out her chin.
“It’s getting dark before then, and sometimes you might get home a little later than usual. And you won’t have to remember to turn on the porch light for me or Dad for when we get home from work.” Gracie glanced at the clock. It was nearly six-thirty.
“And I suppose it’s all my fault you get home late every night, too. You just had to open a bookstore to find some way to get away from me, right? After all, once Ben was gone, there was no reason for you to be home anymore.” Carrie wiped fat tears from her cheeks and her lower lip quivered before she continued. “It’s not like there is anyone here who’s important enough for you to spend time with. The only time I have someone in the family to talk to is when I text with Ben, and he’s always in a hurry to be someplace, too.” Her tears fell freely now, and she reached for a napkin from the holder on the kitchen table.
There it was. Gracie finally understood. It wasn’t that Carrie hated her or hated the bookstore; she hated the feeling of rejection that the bookstore represented.
Gracie realized her mouth was standing open. Shutting it, she stepped over Dickens’ carrier to give her daughter a hug. Carrie wrapped her arms around herself and turned away from her mother as she approached, but Gracie was not deterred. She opened her arms and engulfed her daughter in them, kissing the top of her head.
“There is no one in the world I love more than you, Carrie,” Gracie said, her voice softening, tears filling her eyes. “I thought you understood that.”
Carrie squirmed within her mother’s arms to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. “Then why do you spend more time at the store than you do with me?” It came out as a whimper. “You don’t even want me to come down to the store anymore. You have your books, and you have my cat, and there’s no one in the house for me to come home to at all.”
“Isn’t Dad home some days when you get here?”
Gracie loosened her hug and turned Carrie to look her in the face.
Carrie rolled her eyes. “He’s up in his study with his music on. He doesn’t even know I’m home.”
“But he helps you with your homework, doesn’t he?” Gracie was sure he did.
Carrie looked down. “I don’t really ask him for help much anymore. He’s so smart and doesn’t understand why I have trouble with some stuff. He can’t really explain it so I understand it . . . like you can.”
Gracie bent her head, trying to catch Carrie’s eye. “He’s used to college students, not ninth graders,” she said, pulling her daughter closer.
After a long hug, Gracie pulled out a kitchen chair and offered it to Carrie, then sat across from her. “To tell you the truth,” Gracie said, looking at her hands clasped in front of her on the table, “I’m not having much fun at the store, either. I miss you, too, and I’m not at all sure I can make this store pay for itself. I’ve worked so hard, but I feel like I’m not getting anywhere.”
Carrie reached across the table to take Gracie’s hands. “Oh, it will work out, Mom. You always said that a new business takes time to turn a profit. You haven’t been at it very long. I know you can make it work. I just wish you didn’t have to spend so much time there.”
“I do, too. I’ve always enjoyed spending my afternoons with you, having your friends over, helping you with your homework.” Gracie looked across the room to a corner of wallpaper curling away from the seam. “I just don’t know what to do about it.” She looked back at Carrie whose expression was sympathetic. Gracie realized from the look on Carrie’s face, my daughter is comforting me as I complain about the very thing she resents me for.
Gracie patted Carrie’s hand. “Look, we’re smart women. We can fix this.”
“Can we? How?” There was a hopeful look in Carrie’s eyes.
“I’m not sure yet,” Gracie said, taking a gasp of air and laughing. “But I’m home now. We can spend tonight together, and maybe this weekend we can set aside some time to figure this out.”
“Saturday. Let’s talk about it then.”
“Okay. Saturday when I get home from the store. It’s a date.”
They shook hands.
“And we can both be thinking about ideas on how to fix this until then.” Gracie nodded her head, and Carrie mimicked the motion.
“At least now we each know how the other one is feeling,” Gracie said, “so we can stop making assumptions that hurt our feelings and aren’t true. And whatever happens, never, never again doubt that I love you and want to spend time with you. Got it?”
Carrie smiled. “Got it. And I love you, too.” They hugged again, and Dickens returned to the kitchen.
“Now, I’m going to bake some corn muffins to go with that pot roast. That should take about twenty minutes. Why don’t you go upstairs, wash your face, and tell
Dad that it’s safe to come out now.” She winked at Carrie, who laughed.
“Okay. Be right back to set the table.”
“Sounds great. Then maybe after dinner, I can help you with your homework.”
Gracie sat at the table, her smile fading as she watched her daughter leave the room. It took her several moments before she could work up the energy to bake the muffin mix. No matter what else was on her to-do list, spending time with Carrie was now at the very top.
After dinner, Carrie helped with the dishes without being asked. Then she and Gracie sat at the kitchen table together while Carrie did her homework. It wasn’t that Carrie needed Gracie’s help, but both of them enjoyed the company.
Carrie finished her math, French, English, and biology homework. Gracie used the time to make some final decisions about her holiday orders. Carrie only had a few pages left to read for history, and she would be done for the night.
“Do you want to go into the living room to do your reading?” Gracie said, shifting her weight on the kitchen chair.
“Okay,” Carrie said, packing her other books in her backpack and picking up her history text.
Gracie brought the box containing the porch light into the living room and dug out the installation instructions. It didn’t look too hard, but she decided to wait until Carrie was through with her homework before going to work on it.
Carrie sat in Spencer’s reading chair and Gracie sat on the couch, tucking her feet under her. The room was quiet. The only sounds were Carrie turning pages, and the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall. Spencer, who was working upstairs, must have been using his earbuds because Gracie couldn’t hear his music.
Dickens joined her, sitting on her lap and kneading her stomach. He purred as Gracie stroked him. Once Dickens settled down on her lap, Gracie felt her eyelids get heavy, and shook herself awake. She needed to keep her mind occupied or she would fall asleep for certain, but she didn’t want to disturb her sleeping cat.
There was a book she had been reading on the table at the other end of the sofa. It had been so long since she had had time to read, she could hardly remember what it was about. Picking up a legal pad on the near end table, she decided to jot down some notes.
Starting a to-do list, she numbered her tasks.
“1. Spend time with Carrie.”
She looked over at her daughter and smiled.
“2. Return Del’s call.”
Not now. Carrie will feel abandoned again.
“3. Send in holiday orders.”
All she needed to do on that was decide how much she could afford. She knew she wouldn’t have to pay the invoices for ninety days but didn’t want to order more than she could reasonably expect to sell. That led to:
“4. Figure out how to improve sales.”
This was getting depressing. What else?
“5. Do thorough search of store for missing book.”
It wasn’t getting any better. But it did bring up number six.
“6. Call Chief Johnson again, re: Lowry, break-in, and nearly being run down—twice!!”
She added two exclamation points—one for each incident. It was clear to her that neither one was an accident. Should she mention the feeling that someone was following her home, or would that just make her look paranoid?
Gracie tapped the end of her pen on the pad, and Carrie looked up.
“All done,” she said, slamming her book shut. Dickens lifted his head.
“That didn’t take too long.” Gracie said with a smile. “Now, how would like to help me put that lamp up?” She looked at Dickens who had resumed his nap. “But I am being held down by a cat at the moment,” she said. “Besides, you should probably get ready for bed.”
“It’s not that late. I can help. Let me see the directions.”
Truth be told, Gracie was happy for the help. She shifted her feet. Dickens glared at her and moved to the other end of the sofa.
“Okay. Let’s get this baby installed. You find the flashlight, and I’ll get the Phillips screwdriver.”
They giggled together for the first time in weeks as they followed the directions and installed the lamp. Ten minutes later Gracie stood back to inspect their work.
“Okay, I’m going in to turn the light on. You go out to the sidewalk and see if you can trigger it.” Gracie went in and flipped the switch. When she returned to the porch the light came on.
“I think I triggered it,” Gracie said to Carrie who was doing jumping jacks out in the street. “Let’s stay still for a minute and then see if you can trigger it from there.”
Gracie sat on a porch step, and Carrie on the curb. A minute later the light went out.
“Okay,” Gracie called, trying hard not to move. “Now stand up and see what happens.”
Carrie stood, but the lamp stayed dark.
“Move around a little.”
“I am,” Carrie said. Gracie didn’t move her head to look, afraid any motion would ruin the experiment.
“Okay, then walk this way.”
A moment later the light came to life. Gracie turned her head to see Carrie standing on their front lawn, about twenty feet from the front door.
“Looks good,” Gracie called to her. “Now, how long should we set it to stay on? One, five, or ten minutes?”
Carrie rushed up onto the porch. “Five. It’s a nice compromise.”
“Okay. Five it is. That’s enough time to get in from the driveway, and if it isn’t, any motion will reactivate it.” Gracie set the dial and high-fived her daughter before they went inside. They sat on the stairs until the light went out, five minutes later.
“It works!” Carrie high-fived her mom again.
“I told you. We’re smart women. We can figure things out. But now it’s time for bed.”
As Carrie bounded up the stairs and prepared for bed, Gracie went back to her legal pad. She looked at her to-do list and stuffed the legal pad into a canvas bag to take with her to the store the next day. It could wait until then.
Gracie grabbed her book and reading glasses and went upstairs to say good night to Carrie, then poked her head into Spencer’s study. She found him laying stacks of file folders on the floor around his desk, like Continental soldiers. What a filing system.
“Don’t let the cat in,” he said, almost dropping some papers.
“Don’t worry. I just wanted to let you know I was heading toward bed.”
“I’ll be in after a while,” he assured Gracie.
She blew him a kiss and left him to his work.
After a relaxing shower, Gracie picked up her long-neglected book and brought it to bed. She set her book aside after only one chapter. Between having trouble sleeping the night before, and an emotionally exhausting day, she was ready for sleep. She took off her reading glasses, laid them on her bedside table, and turned out the light. She relaxed into her pillow.
A moment later, she opened her eyes. She had a feeling of being watched.
She raised her head and looked toward the window.
The porch light was on.
Carol L. Wright is a former book editor, domestic relations attorney, and adjunct law professor. Her debut mystery, Death in Glenville Falls, was named a finalist for both the 2018 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award and for the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Carol is the author of several short stories in various literary journals and award-winning anthologies. Many of her favorites appear in A Christmas on Nantucket and other stories. She is a founding member of the Bethlehem Writers Group, a life member of Sisters in Crime and the Jane Austen Society of North America, and a member of Pennwriters and SinC Guppies. She lives in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. You can learn more on Carol’s website, or by following her Facebook page.