I always thought it would be Gracie who’d rescue me from my childhood nemesis—not a monster under my bed, but one beside it, in it. I was wrong.
Big Mac passed while we were on vacation. We’d left for
Myrtle Beach at six in the morning on a
Saturday. Mac departed this world not twenty four hours later. Gracie had no
way of contacting us so Mac was eulogized and buried without us, without me.
When I found out, I sobbed myself to hiccups knowing I hadn’t said goodbye to him, hadn’t asked him to swing me around one more time, had never worked up the nerve to tell him . . . Not to mention Gracie’d lost the love of her life. I gnawed my nails down to the quick knowing my best friend in the whole world had lost her husband of sixty one years and I hadn’t been there for her.
On Monday Gracie was marvelously collected when she described his death.
“He never woke up,” she said. “Had his hands folded over his chest as if he knew.”
She dabbed under my nose with a lavender handkerchief. “Now, Pet, don’t grieve so. He had a wonderful life and where he is now, it’s even better. Plus we’ll see him—”
She stopped herself but I knew the word she’d nipped off: soon. My heart stuttered as the thought of being alone in the world settled on and around me. Gracie smoothed the front of her dark dress. That’s when I noticed the pile of spent hankies on the end table and realized despite her brave demeanor, she was not without her own sorrow.
“He left you something,” she said. When she held out her hand, I noticed it was trembling. “Come.”
Gracie led me upstairs and down the hall to the other side of the house. When she opened the last door on the left, Big Mac’s Old Spice aroma embraced me. I took in the room—dark woods, white chenille bedspread, Mac’s pocket knife, wallet, and mustard-colored change pouch on the dresser.
The closet door was cracked. Inside hung the navy blue suit Mac wore to church every Sunday. I turned with my face bunched up.
“What’d you bury him in?”
“His other suit. The black one he wore when we got married.”
That fact tore fresh tears from me. Gracie pressed her handkerchief into my hand before she entered Mac’s closet. She stood on tiptoe to reach the top shelf. When she faced me again, she held a wooden box. I stiffened. I knew that box. I'd helped Mac build it. For his gun.
It wasn’t a big gun, just a .22. Mac had showed me how to use it in March when he took me to Gideon Woods to shoot pop cans off fence posts. The box was tied with a bow like a present, with the same strips of cloth Mac and I used to stake up tomato plants each summer.
Gracie pressed the case toward me. “He wanted you to have it.”
My eyes bugged. I pushed against it. “No way! Shouldn’t you keep it? Since you’re all alone now?”
Gracie set the gun on Mac’s dresser. “Don’t worry about me, Pet. I have a little something of my own.”
We stood there for a little while, quiet, both of us sniffling off and on. I tried to manage a complete breath but it seemed impossible. I missed Mac so. Hated the knowledge that I’d never see him again.
After a few minutes Gracie encased my hands in hers, peered deep into my eyes with her cornflower blue ones.
“Mac knew, Pet,” she whispered. “We both did.”
Immediately I felt the blood in my face drain away. Even so, I wanted to grin. They knew? Really? Then I scowled. If they knew, why didn’t— I made my eyes small to focus like microscopes so I could see inside her, to make sure we shared the same thought.
“That’s why he wanted you to have this,” Gracie said. “Keep it under your bed, or in it. Use it when the time is right.”
I slumped. They did know. I glanced over at the dresser. Imagined the gun in my hand. Pictured pointing it at a human being, someone I knew, and squeezing—
My eyes fluttered open. “But what if—”
She circled my waist with her arms, joined her fingers together over my hip to form a solid fence around me.
“Shhh. You’ll know what to do,” she said. “What did Mac tell you when he taught you to shoot this spring?”
“He said the gun is my friend, my equalizer. What’d he mean by that, Gracie?” I pressed on. “And he said make sure I understand the repercussions of using it or not using it. When I’m in danger."
Gracie tilted her head. “He said all that?”
I nodded. Gracie let go of me and stepped away. “Well, then. I reckon you’re ready. Do what you have to do, Pet. I’ll be praying for you.”
She was headed out of the room when I asked the question I’d wanted to ask for ages.
“Gracie? Can’t you just talk to my—”
Gracie sagged in the doorway before she turned.
“Oh, sweet girl, I tried. I did. Your mom . . .” The corner of Gracie’s left eye crinkled. “Is she all right? Is she on some kind of medication?”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Pictured the kitchen counter with its array of orangey-gold bottles beside the sink.
I nodded. “Lots.” I smashed my nose with my palm to stop its burning.
“And your daddy’s not home much, is he?”
I finally lifted the gun case. Crushed it against my chest until the corner made me wince.
“Even when he is, he isn’t.”
Gracie wrung her hands. “I’m so sorry, Pet,” she said. “Tonight though, things’re gonna change. Right?”