Friday, August 3, 2007

Chapter Twenty-Five: In Deep Hot Chocolate

Ginny and Arthur were thrilled that Compass wanted to come visit. They had noticed a distinct cooling from their granddaughter since their brunch together, which had puzzled them a little. All was made clear when Compass admitted she needed to be sure her grandparents really were who they said they were. She apologized for not trusting them; they assured her they were relieved to have a granddaughter who was so clever and careful and they weren’t hurt at all. Compass opted not to tell them that she’d been ready to throw herself on the warm bosom of her maybe-family-maybe-foe without question, and only Mark’s unwelcome warning had stopped her.

They agreed on another meet in Bremerton that very afternoon, after Compass’s last class. Winter quarter was finally drawing to a close and the days were slowly starting to lengthen. In Seattle, March was generally pretty dreary – the sky still leaking most of the time, no sun to speak of, winds and wetness and grayness. March was the reason Seattle was only very overpopulated instead of tragically overpopulated. Today was no exception. Compass’s car was doing something noisy and disconcerting, and just turning up the radio didn’t seem to be helping, so she was stuck riding the bus down to the ferry terminal from school.

The bus smelled like a soggy Newfoundland and was, as usual, crammed hip deep in nutcases ranging from the standard fashionably-homeless kids, tattooed, pierced and outfitted in the latest Value Village ensemble, to the genuine deep-enders, mumbling or shouting, more froth on their lips than on top of a yuppie’s latte. Scattered among them were those quietly willing the bus to go faster, to get them home before the nuttiness leapt out of control. Compass hated the bus. She had once tried to enjoy it as an opportunity to observe a fascinating cross-section of America, but being trapped in a seat next to a urine-soaked, vomit-flecked sad-act once had put paid to that forever. Now she just kept her eyes on neutral surfaces – her book, her backpack, the back of the seat in front of her – and hoped to stay beneath the radar.

The ferry, in contrast, was a treat. It was early afternoon yet, so the boat wasn’t crowded, and she had a whole table to herself. Compass bought a a cup of hot chocolate and a bag of greasy popcorn, and she had her laptop computer in her bag. Seattle ferries now had WiFi, so she could surf the Net while relaxing cozily in some of the most picturesque scenery the Northwest had to offer. Almost before she could stop herself, she had surfed over to DragonflyDad.

Two new posts. It gave Compass chills to think there was someone out there, thinking of her, typing away at a blog created expressly for her. She was, she supposed, a tiny bit flattered, but this was counteracted by her being a whole lot freaked out. She tried to read the letters as a neutral observer, tried not to see every line as potentially sinister, but a lifetime with Mina had trained Compass to expect the smack beneath the caress. She read the letters carefully, chose again not to respond, spent the rest of the trip making notes in her journal. She was aware of her own deliberate refusal to feel anything, recognized it as the defense mechanism that it was, registered it in her journal. She was proud of her Spock-like detachment, though she suspected her emotions were merely delayed, not deflected.

Her grandparents met her at the terminal in Bremerton, and this time Compass could see faint echoes of Mina’s face in Ginny’s, her own nose squarely set in the middle of her grandfather’s face. As Compass was hugging Arthur, Ginny started to laugh.

“I’m sorry, dear, you were perfectly right to be cautious. I’m trying to see us as scary, but I can’t. We’re just too cozy and plump!”

It was funny, now that Compass was back with her muppet grandparents. They were cuddly and sweet and made her think of oatmeal cookies and Ovaltine, whatever that was. The scariest thing about them was Arthur’s drug-trip paisley socks, just visible beneath the mid-shin conclusion of his Wrangler jeans. Compass between them, they all looped arms and walked to the car. No restaurant today, Compass was going to get a home-cooked dinner.

The Corberson’s home was more modern than Compass might have expected, but still comfortable and welcoming. One entire room was devoted to their computers. A self-declared Internet junkie, Arthur even had his own blog: The Garden Gnome Gnows, the title of which took some explaining. Arthur had a very extensive garden out back; his blog gave tips for killing slugs and building raised beds. His pet project was creating the first beefsteak tomato hybrid that could actually thrive in the short growing season of the Pacific Northwest. Ginny was an Internet gamer. Her doctor had recommended some games as a way of keeping her fingers limber and her mind sharp, and Ginny had quickly gotten hooked. Her characters’ costumes were rather more demure than most, Ginny admitted, but she could frag a baddie with the best of them.

Dinner was veggie burgers hot off the grill, which Arthur grumbled about and wouldn’t confess to liking, even though he had two, homemade potato salad, a giant green salad, corn, baked beans and apple pie for dessert.

“We like to eat picnic food in March,” said Arthur. “As a reminder that summer will come again.”

It was a lovely afternoon and evening, and the bottle of very nice wine they managed to polish off added a warm comfort to a potentially awkward time. Compass insisted on helping with the clean up, so the three of them crowded into the kitchen to do the dishes. Compass told her grandparents about Henry and Sophie, and Ginny decided that she had to go visit her daughter if for no other reason than to see if she could hear the music.

“Obviously they only play for the people they approve of,” said Ginny.

“And for cats,” said Compass, smiling. “They love my cats.”

When the dishes were done and dried and put away, the three of them adjourned to the living room. Arthur built them a fire and Ginny brought out the hot chocolate, and Compass felt like she was being given a second chance at the childhood she’d missed. They offered her a bed for the night, and as it was already fairly late, she accepted. A quick phone call to Todd covered the cats, and with everything settled, Compass snuggled in for real.

“So, granddaughter,” said Arthur, bushy eyebrows doing calisthenics above his nose, “what really brings you here?”

Compass thoughtfully squished a mini-marshmallow against the roof of her mouth while she considered her own motives. “First, family,” she said. “I’m pretty sure this is the first family evening I’ve ever had. Mom and I didn’t talk, really; I read books, and she . . . huh. I’m not really sure what she did. I know we spent evenings at home together, but what did she do during that time? She kept a journal, and she used to write in that, I remember, because every time she had it out she had to find some new way to threaten me about ever touching it.”

“She’s done that since she was a little girl,” Arthur said. “Only pink, flowered, little-girl diary on the block to be wrapped in razor wire.”

“She was the only little girl wrapped in razor wire,” said Ginny. “A little mean from the get-go, was our girl.”

“Why is that? You two are so nice!”

“She spent a lot of her early childhood sick with asthma, bronchitis, all kinds of problems,” Ginny said. “And the rest of it fat. She had no friends until she slimmed down in high school, and by then she’d learned to be mistrustful of everyone. I think she felt she’d been cheated. She probably had, really, but she was never able to let go of the resentment.”

“She ran off to England when she was just 17,” Arthur added. “That way she could punish us without having to learn a second language.” He poked the fire, sending sparks up the chimney. “So that’s one reason; what’s another?”

“Answers,” Ginny said. “You want answers, isn’t that it? Do you even know for sure what your questions are?”

Grandma was right. Compass was all-over questions, but she was having trouble sorting them out. There was so much shouting going on in her head, she couldn’t think with all that noise.

“I think I want to know the colors of their hats,” said Compass.

Ginny looked puzzled, but Arthur understood right away. “Black or white, good guy or bad guy, right? Whose side to be on, which team to cheer for, or even what the teams are?”

Compass pulled out her laptop. She’d copied all of Oliver’s posts into a Word file which she now showed to her grandparents.

“It’s sort of awful, not knowing if your father loves you or is gunning for you,” she said. “I mean, I guess love is asking a bit much, since he’s never actually met me, but I’d be happy with ‘doesn’t want to kill me,’ at the moment. It’s not the best foundation for a relationship, but there are worse.”

Arthur sat next to her on the couch and put an arm around her shoulder. “I guess our Wilhelmina’s not the only one who was cheated out of a childhood.”

“I didn’t get the typical version,” Compass said, and couldn’t resist snuggling a bit closer to her vanilla-tobacco-scented grandfather, “but it was OK. I mean, she was drunk and nasty a lot of the time, but I don’t think I’m traumatized or anything.”

Arthur took the computer from Compass’s lap and brought it closer to his face. “Hard to gauge, isn’t he? One minute nice enough, the next a bit mean-sounding.”

“Oh, the Idiot could be charming, that’s true,” said Ginny. “When he was sober. I never met the man in person, but we had a conversation or two over the years, and six lines of dialogue in, I’d find myself giggling. Giggling! I don’t giggle; it’s undignified. He’d try to charm Willy’s phone number out of me, and I’d try not to let him.”

“But is he a good guy or a bad guy? I find myself wanting to respond. I mean, he’s been writing these letters to me for years, that’s got to mean something, right?”

“But you only have his word for that,” Ginny gently reminded her. “He could be writing those letters right now, for all we know.”

Compass leaned her head on her grandfather’s shoulder. “Shit. Sorry.”

“I think I’d wait a bit yet,” Ginny said. “Don’t respond. Stay safe for now and give us all time to find out more.” Ginny patted Compass’s knee and took her granddaughter’s cup into the kitchen to refill it. The second cup of chocolate had even more marshmallows than the first. “When Willy was pregnant with you, when she and Jeremy were together, I think she had some genuine happiness. It was the softest I’d ever seen her. Even her smiles had fewer teeth in them, if you know what I mean.”

Compass nodded. She did.

“Losing Jeremy put her over the edge, in some critical way,” Arthur said. “She cut herself off from everyone; told us you were born with the cord wrapped around your neck, and that was the end of you. We should never have believed her.”

“So it really was death by garbage truck at the hospital, just like she said?”

A look passed between her grandparents. A significant look.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Ginny, and she picked up her own cup and disappeared back into the kitchen. Arthur just nodded and began poking the fire again.

“There’s something more here,” said Compass. “What is it?”

“It’s late, that’s what it is,” said Ginny. “I’ll just put some clean sheets on the guest bed.”

“I’ll see if I can’t rustle up a nightshirt for you,” said Arthur, and they both rushed out of the room. As much as 80-year-olds can rush, anyway. When they returned, a longish time later, they were clearly done with tonight’s conversation. Compass was presented with a towel, a toothbrush and an oversized t-shirt to sleep in. She was bundled to bed as if she were ten years old, and she found herself too tired to resist. If her grandparents were hiding something from her, they were doing so with good intentions. She’d weasel it out of them tomorrow.

On her way from the guest bathroom to the guest bed, she could hear them talking rather intensely in the kitchen. She didn’t want to eavesdrop, but a few words reached her anyway: “murder” was the one that kept her awake that night.


NuclearToast said...

Good Lord, is there anyone in this story that doesn't have something to hide? And "murder" gave me chills!

Ash said...

Murder?!?!?!? I can’t wait to read what happens next!