GIFT FROM THE GREAT AUNT
Aunt Lacey’s voice was sharp enough to slice through cement. “Jane. Get your hand away from that keyboard.”
I was back in the spare bedroom, but all I was doing was looking at the stupid computer when Aunt Lacey appeared. I say she appeared because Aunt Lacey never did anything normal like walking in the door. If you happened to be facing the right direction you might see a little shimmer in the air first, like the shimmer you see over a paved road on a hot day. Then it would start to get a shape, and it would start to look like her shape, and there she’d be. Today I wasn’t facing the right direction, and when her voice came from about two inches behind my ear, I almost jumped out of my socks.
“I haven’t touched it,” I said. I dropped my hand to my lap and gave her the look I’d been practicing in front of the mirror.
“And stop looking at me like you’re a dog and I’ve stepped on your tail. Your Aunt Attie’s on her way over and your mother needs you to help with dinner.”
She flicked out then. Just took it for granted I’d do what she said.
It made me mad, so I hung out with the computer a little longer before I left the room. Now it was so close to my birthday that computer was on my mind a lot. Both my aunts had been yammering at me all my life about not messing with it. They’d never say why. It wasn’t hidden away or anything. It was just back in this room, along with the extra sheets and out-of-season clothes and a lot of boxes of stuff there wasn’t room for anywhere else, and the guest bed for when somebody stayed over. So it wasn’t any secret. I’d been using regular computers practically since I could walk, and nobody ever broke out in hives about that. But this one was totally, absolutely, off limits. That was one of the only two things I knew for sure about it.
The other thing I knew was that it was mine. The Great Aunt gave it to me the day I was born. Aunt Lacey and Aunt Attie were okay with that, I thought. Mom totally didn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything she could do. What has been given cannot be ungiven. It was my computer, and when I turned fourteen and got Qualified, which would be in exactly two weeks, I could start using it. Whatever getting Qualified meant. Some family thing.
Of course I’d been checking the computer out sometimes when nobody was around, but I never tried to turn it on. My aunts would know if I did that, for sure. They tended to know things. It looked pretty much like any laptop. There were a few differences, though. One was the little glass moon—a fingernail moon—up at the top left corner of the screen. Those same little moons were on the laptops that Aunt Lacey and Aunt Attie had, and I figured it was some company logo. There wasn’t anything strange about that except that I’d never seen those moons on anything else.
What was strange was the touchpad. Usually a touchpad looks like part of the computer, and most of the time it’s made out of that smooth plastic stuff that looks like metal but isn’t. This one was actual metal, set in the keyboard. Around the outer edges it was jagged and dark and rough, but the middle part, where you run your finger, was mirror-smooth, polished to a silvery shine. It felt very hard when you touched it. Well, yes, I did touch it sometimes.
The other weird thing about that computer was that it glowed. I don’t mean those LED lights. I mean it glowed—the whole computer. You couldn’t tell in the daytime, or with the lights on, but if you came in here after dark there’d be this ghosty yellowish light coming from it.
I thought I’d better go help Mom before Aunt Lacey got on my case again. So I shut the computer, put the pile of placemats back on top of it, and headed for the kitchen.
Mom was bustling around like she had a major stress attack going on. I was used to her stress attacks and I rated this at about a Category Four. She kept picking things up and putting them down again, yanking the oven open and looking in and then doing it again a couple of minutes later, stirring whatever she had on the stove so hard some of it slopped out. Canned mushroom soup it looked like. Mom used a lot of canned mushroom soup.
Aunt Lacey was perched on a stool at the breakfast bar with a cup of tea in front of her. Her own laptop was sitting next to the cup, and that display was going—the mass of colored strings that kept weaving around and between each other. Aunt Attie had one like that too. Neither of my aunts ever went anywhere without their computers, and both of them were like mine—the little glass moons and those strange metal touchpads. I’d never seen them in the dark, so I didn’t know if they glowed, but I was pretty sure they did.
“Go set the table, Jane,” Mom said when she stopped fussing around enough to see I was there. “I’ve no idea where your Aunt Attie is.”
Aunt Lacey gazed up at the ceiling the way she did, which meant that whatever she was looking at wasn’t in this room. “Corner of Seventh and Adams,” she said. “She’s in the turn lane but there’s a red light and two trucks in front of her.”
Mom flapped her hands and said, “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“Now they’re moving,” Aunt Lacey said. “She’s made the turn. She’s on Adams.”
Mom grabbed a bunch of plates off the shelf, too fast, I thought, and plunked them down on the kitchen table. “Take these, Jane,” she said. “And don’t forget the napkins this time.”
Aunt Lacey raised her right hand a few inches. “Crossing Anderson Avenue.”
“And the butter,” Mom said. “Remember the butter.”
Aunt Lacey’s hand was still up. “Four houses away. Three houses. Turning in the driveway. And now…” The hand came down flat on the bar and the doorbell rang.
I left the plates where they were and ran to the door.
Aunt Attie always came to our house the normal way—parked her Toyota in the drive and then walked up to the house on foot. Aunt Attie liked people to feel comfortable, and she knew how Mom was about the weird stuff.
The goal of Mom’s life was to be normal. She worked as an office manager for some dentists, and she made it clear she didn’t want anything to do with the family business.
The really un-normal thing was that I’d been part of this family my whole life and nobody had ever told me what the family business was. Whenever I asked they’d say things like “don’t worry about it.”
Aunt Attie came through to the kitchen and put her computer next to Aunt Lacey’s. As usual, it was already on—the colored thread display came right up when she flipped it open. Then she came and wrapped her arms around me, and said, “Only two more weeks, Jane.”
Aunt Attie does say pointless things like that sometimes, but that’s just how she is. I can live with it. Most of the time she’s easier to be around than Aunt Lacey is. She has a big calm face and a big soft body, and she wears loose dresses with big flowers on them. She doesn’t look much like Aunt Lacey, who is thin and quick and strict, but pretty, sort of, except that her hair is always a mess and she darts around like a squirrel. Mom’s nice looking enough, I guess, but she acts stressed out so much of the time that’s mostly what you see about her. It’s hard to believe they’re all sisters, but they are.
Aunt Attie gave me a final squeeze, then stepped back and looked into my face. “So are you ready for the big day?”
Like turning fourteen was that major a deal, other than having some old family ceremony. But I said, “I guess so.” Then Mom called out that dinner was ready, so we didn’t talk about it any more.
Dinner was like most of the ones we had—pretty ordinary. Meatloaf, mashed potatoes with mushroom soup gravy, green beans, a salad that was just lettuce and Italian dressing. Apple pie from the supermarket for dessert. All the time we were eating, though, it felt like something else was going on too. I could tell by the way the three of them kept glancing sideways at each other. And by how Mom kept jumping up for things like more water when nobody’s glass was empty and to see if she’d left anything in the microwave.
We’d cleaned up and gone into the main room and my aunts had moved their laptops to the coffee table, when they finally got to the point. Aunt Attie sat down next to me on the couch and Aunt Lacey took the straight chair that faced it. Mom poured wine for herself and my aunts and ginger ale for me, and then went to the green chair across the room and sat looking at her fingers, which were laced together in her lap.
Aunt Attie took my hand. Not a good sign. “About your birthday, dear,” she said. “Lacey and I think it might be best not to have a party this year.”
I stared at her. “I always have a party. What’s the matter with this year? Anyway I’ve sort of invited people already.”
“Oh dear,” Aunt Attie said. “We should have talked about this earlier. It’s just that this particular year…”
“Which friends did you invite, Jane?” Aunt Lacey asked. “How many?”
Both of them were watching me. Mom kept looking at her fingers.
“My friends,” I said. “You know who they are, they’re over here all the time. They’ve been here every birthday of my life. Beth, Lee-Ann, Sheryl. And Jinx and Kevin and those guys… eight or nine, I guess.”
“Eight or nine.” Aunt Lacey tapped her fingers on the coffee table. “Teenagers. The vibrations can get pretty…”
“Oh I think we can handle it, Sister, don’t you?” Aunt Attie said. “If she’s already invited them. How long does one of those parties go on? Nine-thirty, ten? They’ll be gone in time, won’t they?”
“I suppose they will,” Aunt Lacey said. “Yes, I guess we can take care of things. They’ll have to be out by ten-thirty, no later.”
“No!” Mom said, so suddenly I jumped. “I won’t have this happen.”
Aunt Attie squeezed my hand, then let go of it and turned to Mom. “I do think it will be all right, Grace. It would have been easier without a party this year, but we can manage things.”
“I wasn’t talking about Jane’s friends,” Mom said. “I wasn’t talking about the party.”
“Oh,” Aunt Attie said. “Yes. Well. But Grace, dear, we’ve always known that…”
Her eyes flicked to her computer screen. “Mmm,” she said. “Lacey?”
Aunt Lacey looked at her own screen. “Mmm hmm,” she said.
Then she and Aunt Attie went into one of those conversations my family specializes in, the murmuring, mumbling kind where nobody ever starts a sentence at the beginning or keeps going with it till the end and you can never get all the words anyway. They always act like they know what they’re talking about, but anybody else is out of luck.
“…not since that time when, you remember…”
“…was sure she was out of the…”
“…she would hardly try to…”
“…but, you know, the Fabric …”
Then Aunt Lacey came up with a complete sentence that had all its parts, but it didn’t make a shred more sense. “The thing is,” she said, “It’s been centuries since there’s been a new one.”
I jumped up and went around the coffee table and stood in the middle of the room where they’d have to look at me. “As far as I can tell, this is all about me,” I said. “I think I have a right to know what’s going on. What’s going to happen on my birthday? Is it about that Qualification business?”
They did look at me then, all of them. Mom looked scared. Aunt Lacey looked stern. Even Aunt Attie lost her everything’s-okay smile for a few seconds.
“It’s just that Lacey and I Saw a little something, dear,” Aunt Attie said. “I’m sure it will be all right, though. Nothing we can’t take care of. You can go ahead and let your friends come over.”
I got that feeling in my stomach, not exactly like I was about to throw up, but the same general kind of thing. When Aunt Attie and Aunt Lacey said they Saw something in that kind of voice they didn’t mean like I was seeing them right now. They meant they Saw it—you could tell there was a capital S—and whatever it was they Saw was something that had happened somewhere else, or that hadn’t happened yet at all but was going to. Most of the time it wasn’t good.
I said, “If something is going to happen on my birthday I need to know what.”
Mom got out of the green chair so fast she bumped it into the wall. She made it over to me in about one step, and put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. For the first time I realized that I was as tall as she was now.
“Nothing is going to happen except your party, Jane,” she said.
She turned to Aunt Lacey and Aunt Attie . I could see her eyes, and I’d never seen that look in them before. It was exactly like one Aunt Lacey did, and sometimes even Aunt Attie. I called it the Angel-of-Death glare, although I’d never say that aloud. I thought if Mom could have shot fire out of those eyes and exploded both my aunts with it, she’d do it.
“Nothing,” she said again, and made each word stand by itself. “Is. Going. To. Happen.”
Then she said something I didn’t understand at all. She said, “I’m taking it back. I’m sending another message.”
Both my aunts stared at her. Then Aunt Lacey said, “You can’t still believe this is your doing, Grace.”
Mom kept the glare. She said, “I would have had it. I was next in line, and I ran away. Now I take it back.”
“Oh Grace, dear,” Aunt Attie said. “It was Known. It was always to be her.”
The way she said Known, I heard the capital letter again.
“What is given cannot be ungiven.” said Aunt Lacey.
“I’ve heard that all my life,” Mom said. “I don’t believe it.”
“It makes no difference what you believe,” Aunt Lacey said.
Aunt Attie pressed her hands together. “Lacey’s right, Grace,” she said. “There are a few areas where we have no control. In this matter, all the signs lead to the same outcome. But Lacey and I will be here on the birthday, and we’ll see that everyone is safe.”
“Can you?” Mom asked. “Is that an area where you have control?”
Aunt Attie got up and came over and put her arms around Mom and me. Then Aunt Lacey did the same thing, and all of us were standing together in the middle of the room, hugging each other, which I only remember happening a few times before in my life. It made me feel a little better, even if not totally okay.
It was only later on when I was back in my own room trying to write an essay about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement that it came to me that neither of them ever answered Mom’s question.