The last day I was fully human started off like any other April Monday in East Texas. Oh, sure, there were all kinds of warning signs that my entire world was about to come crashing down around me. But I didn't recognize them until it was too late.
I should have known something major was wrong when I woke up that morning feeling like utter crap, even though I'd just snagged a full nine hours of sleep. I'd never been sick before, not even with the flu or a cold, so it couldn't be anything like that.
"Good morning, dear. Your breakfast is on the table," Nanna greeted me as I shuffled into the kitchen. As usual, she was the ultimate in contradictions, her voice and smile a Southern mixture of sweetness and steel. Like your favorite old baby blanket wrapped around a mace. "Eat up. I'm going to go find my shoes."
I nodded and plopped down into one of the creaky chairs at the table. When it came to cooking, Nanna rocked. And she made the absolute best oatmeal in the world, maple and brown sugar with a ton of butter just the way I liked it. But it tasted like flavorless mush today. I gave up after two bites and dumped it in the trash can under the sink seconds before she came back.
"Finished already?" she asked before slurping her tea. The sound grated over my nerves.
"Um, yeah." I set the bowl and spoon in the sink, keeping my back turned so she couldn't see the blush burning my cheeks. I was a horrible liar. One look at my face and she'd know I'd just thrown out the breakfast she'd made me.
"And your tea?"
Oops. I'd forgotten my daily tea, a blend that Nanna made just for me from the herbs she spent months growing in our backyard. "Sorry, Nanna, there's no time. I still have to fix my hair."
"You can do both." She held out my mug, her cheeks bunched into a bright smile that didn't do much to disguise the snap in her eyes.
Sighing, I took the cup with me to the bathroom, setting it on the counter so I could have both hands free to do battle with my wild, carrot-colored curls.
"Drink your tea yet?" she asked ten minutes later as I finished taming my hair into a long ponytail.
"Nag, nag, nag," I mumbled.
"I heard that, missy," she called out from the dining room, making me smile.
I chugged the cold tea, set down the empty mug with a loud thump she'd be sure to hear, then headed for my bedroom to grab my backpack. And nearly fell over while trying to pick it up. Jeez. I must have forgotten to drop off a few books in my locker last week. Using both hands, I hefted a strap onto my shoulder and trudged back down the hall.
Nanna was at the dining table digging through her mammoth purse for her keys. That would take a while. "Meet you at the car?" I said.
She gave an absentminded wave, which I took for a yes,
so I headed through the living room for the front door.
As usual, Mom had been on the couch for hours already, talking on her cell phone while drowning in stacks of paperwork and pens she'd be sure to lose under the sofa cushions by the end of the day. Why she couldn't work at a desk like every other safety product sales rep was beyond me. But the chaos seemed to make her happy.
Even as she ended one call, her phone squalled for attention again. I knew better than to wait, so I just waved goodbye to her.
"Hang on, George." She hit the phone's mute button then held out her arms. "Hey, what's this? No 'good morning, Mom,' no hug goodbye?"
Grinning, I crossed the room and bent over to hug her, resisting the urge to cough as her favorite floral perfume flooded my nose and throat. When I straightened up again, my back popped and twinged.
"Was that your back?" she gasped. "Good grief, you sound worse than your nanna today."
"I heard that," Nanna yelled from the dining room.
Smothering a smile, I shrugged. "Guess I practiced too much this weekend." My beginner ballet and jazz classes would be performing in Miss Catherine's Dance Studio's annual spring recital soon. As the days ticked down to my latest impending public humiliation, I'd kind of started freaking out about it.
"I'll say. Why don't you take it a little easier? You've still got two weeks till the recital."
"Yeah, well, I need every second of practice I can get."
That is, if I wanted to improve enough to avoid disappointing my father yet again.
"You know, killing yourself in the backyard isn't going to impress your father, either."
I froze, hating that I was so transparent. "Nothing impresses him." At least, not enough to earn a visit from him more than twice a year. Probably because I was such a screwup at sports. The man moved like a ballroom dancer, always light and graceful on his feet, but I didn't seem to have gotten even a hint of those genes in my DNA. Mom had tried enrolling me in every activity she could think of over the years to help me develop some grace and hand-eye coordination
soccer, twirling, gymnastics, basketball. Last year was volleyball. This year it was dance, both at Miss Catherine's Dance Studio and at my high school.
Apparently my father was fed up with my lack of athletic skill, judging by Mom's argument with him over the phone last September when I began dancing. He really didn't want me to take dance lessons this year. He must have thought they were a waste on someone as uncoordinated as me.
I was out to prove him wrong. And so far, failing miserably.
Mom sighed. "Oh, hon. You really shouldn't worry so much about making him happy. Just dance for yourself, and I'm sure you'll do fine."
"Uh-huh. That's what you said last year about volleyball." And yet, in spite of taking her advice to "just have fun," I'd still ended up hitting a ball through the gym's tile ceiling during a tournament. When the broken pieces had come crashing down, they'd almost wiped out half my team. That had sort of ended the fun of volleyball for me.
Mom bit her lip, probably to keep from laughing at the same memory.
"Found 'em!" Nanna sang out in triumph from the dining room. "Ready to rock and roll, kid?"
Sighing, I pulled up my backpack's slipping strap onto my shoulder again. It scraped at my skin through my shirt, forcing a hiss out of me. Youch. "Maybe I should grab an aspirin before we go."
"Absolutely not." Nanna strode into the room, keys jingling in her hand. "Aspirin's bad for you."
Huh? "But you and Mom take it all the t"
don't," Nanna snapped. "You've never taken that synthetic crap before, and you won't start polluting yourself with it now. I'll make you more of my special tea instead. Here, take my purse to the car and I'll be right there."
Without waiting for a reply, she shoved her forty-pound purse into my hands and headed for the kitchen. Great. I'd be late for sure. Again.
"Why can't I just take an aspirin like everyone else in the world?"
Mom smiled and picked up her phone.
Four very long minutes later, Nanna finally joined me in the car. She thrust a metal thermos into my hand. "There, that ought to fix you right up. Be careful, though. It's hot. I had to nuke it."
I bit back a groan. Nanna hated the microwave. The only button she'd learned how to use was the three-minute auto-heat. I'd be lucky if the tea cooled off at all before we reached my school, even if it was a ten-minute drive.
We lived in a small, somewhat isolated nest of houses five miles outside of town. As I blew on my tea to cool it, I watched the rolling hills pass by, dotted here and there with solitary houses, big round bales of hay, and cows in all shades of red, brown and black. Out here, the thick pine trees that had once covered all of East Texas had been cut back to make room for ranches that were now broken only by rows of fences, mostly of barbed wire, sometimes wide slats of wood turned gray by time and the weather. You could breathe out here.
But as we neared the city limits, the strips of trees became thicker and showed up more often, until we passed through a section of nothing but pines just before reaching the junior high and intermediate schools. The first traffic-light intersection marked the start of downtown Jacksonville, where all of a sudden it became nothing but streets and business after business, mostly single-story shops and a few three- and four-story buildings for the occasional bank, hotel or hospital. And more pines winding around and through every area of housing large and small, even butting up against the edges of the basket factory and near the Tomato Bowl, the brownstone open-air stadium where all the home football and soccer games were held.
I used to love my hometown with its cute boutiques and shops full of antiques where Nanna sold her crocheted designs. I even used to love the town's ribbons of pines and the way the wind in the trees added a subtle sighing to the air. When the fields of grass and hay turned brown and dead in the winter, you could always count on the pines to keep Jacksonville colorful all year long.
But the town's founding families, locally referred to as the Clann due to their Irish ancestry, had ruined it for me. Now when I heard the wind in the trees, it sounded like whispering, as if the trees themselves had joined the town's grapevine of gossips. Those gossips had probably produced the long line of famous actors, singers, comedians and models that Jacksonville's relatively small population of thirteen thousand residents was so proud of. Growing up here, where everybody talked about everybody else, eit...