Deeds, not words shall speak me.
Brevard, France 1919
Amelie would never forgive them for murdering Mathieu. Never. More than a week had passed since his slaughter, but, rather than diminishing, the stabbing pain in her heart only grew stronger. Worse, she did not know what hurt the most; that Mathieu was really gone, or that her own sister had killed him with lies.
How could they have done such a thing to him? Or to her? The mere sight of them turned her stomach, especially the spectacle of Mariette fawning over Raoul. Her sister would marry the heathen come spring--the same month Amelie and Mathieu had planned to wed. Amelie should be arranging her wedding, too, joyfully anticipating the day she and her betrothed would pledge their undying love and devotion to one another. Instead, she spent her days in mourning, grieving the untimely passing of her lover, her young heart growing as hard and cold as the ground in which he rested.
No, not rested. She was certain Mathieu's soul was no more at peace than hers. Thanks to Mariette and Raoul. Their accusations against Mathieu--that he was a monster, a werewolf!--were as ridiculous as they were unfounded. No, Mathieu was innocent. It was the two of them who should have had their heads chopped off and been buried in separate graves for spreading such nonsense.
She watched Mama and Papa, Mariette and Raoul, gathered by the fire, talking, even laughing, as if nothing unusual had happened, as if Mathieu had never existed. Who were these people? Not her flesh and blood. Not anymore.
Unable to tolerate a minute more of their company, Amelie excused herself, pretending not to notice her father's nod at Mariette. No sooner had she entered her room than she heard Mariette's footsteps echoing behind her.
No matter. Amelie was determined to leave, regardless who guarded her. Night had fallen; they would have to sleep sometime. Even Mariette. Patience would see Amelie safely out of the house. If not tonight, then one night soon.
And one day she would return and see to it that Mathieu received a proper burial.
Phoenix, Arizona 1998
"Great," Gretchen Lauterbach mumbled to herself as she contemplated the formidable mass of clouds looming to the southeast of the city. "Another birthday spent crammed under a circus tent with 150 sweaty well-wishers." She looked at the near-empty driveway and groaned. "Even better, I'm the first one here."
Which, she supposed, was as it should be, seeing as how she was one of the guests of honor. But to have arrived before her older brother Bernard, who usually made even the most punctual look late, was no small trick. One she believed she had never before accomplished. She interpreted it as a bad sign.
Preparing for a quick after-party getaway, she pulled her car to a stop at the end of the semi-circular drive and again eyed the dark clouds gathering overhead. So what had held Bernard up? Sure he'd been extremely busy preparing for the upcoming preliminary and his run at the state senate seat, but, as his campaign coordinator, so had she. Then, as if they didn't already have enough social pressures, their mother had decided to invite Bernard's most prominent campaign supporters to the party, making this year's festivities extra special. Perhaps before having to endure yet another round of obligatory handshakes and smiles, he and Elizabeth were savoring a few precious minutes alone. Something Gretchen would have been wise to do herself. No doubt Bernard would arrive shortly.
Reluctantly, Gretchen abandoned her car's air-conditioned comfort only to be assaulted by a wave of furnace-hot desert air, which was now laced with out-of-the-ordinary humidity and the smell of rain. She hustled up the flagstones to the front door.
"Oh, yeah, this means trouble," she reaffirmed after several lightning bolts singed the sky.
Gretchen didn't know why she took the rain as a bad sign. For the last eight years her mother had held the midsummer party on the back lawn and nothing catastrophic had ever happened. The air-conditioned tents provided more than adequate respite from the Valley of the Sun's scorching triple-digit temperatures, and they'd withstood monsoon downpours before, too. So what was her problem? If she insisted on seeing doom at every turn, she'd find it. Yet, she couldn't help herself. Nor could she shrug the sense of despair that pressed down upon her.
She let herself into the house, relishing the cool air that welcomed her. She wondered if she was anxious because of Gram. While Gretchen was celebrating her twenty-ninth birthday today, Gram was celebrating her ninety-eighth. As much as Gretchen would like, she knew her grandmother wasn't going to live forever. A fact emphasized by Gram's recently diagnosed dementia, the latest ailment added to an ever-increasing, and rapidly accumulating, list of health complications.
Gretchen wondered if the dementia would affect Gram's attitude toward the party. In years past, Gram openly mocked and stubbornly protested the annual event. The worst came the year before, when she refused to leave her room and appeared only briefly--and none-too-happily--for the cake-cutting ceremony. But that was last year. Now, Gram was but a shadow of her former self. These days she spent the majority of her wheelchair-bound time staring silently at the walls, keeping any opinions that she might have to herself.
Yes, Gretchen admitted to herself, that's the source of my angst, the reality that this very well could be the last birthday I'll spend with Gram.
Then she immediately scolded herself. She shouldn't be mourning her grandmother's passing before it even happened. She should be making the best of whatever time they had left together. Adjusting her attitude, she headed down the gallery towards Gram's bedroom, her footsteps clicking on the grand foyer's marble floor. As she passed the living room, a soft voice with a faint accent called to her.
"Bonjour, ma fleur."
Gretchen turned to see Gram sitting by the piano. She was dressed in a simple pink silk dress, her curly, silvery-white hair neatly coiffed, her withered cheeks sporting a tint of rouge.
"Gram? What are you doing out here? Shouldn't you be hiding? You do know today's the big day, don't you?" Gretchen asked, half teasing, half not. She walked over, bent down and kissed her grandmother's cheek.
As was her typical response to attempts at conversation these days, Gram merely nodded and smiled up at her granddaughter.
Gretchen proceeded to speak like she always did, under the assumption that even though Gram didn't communicate like she once had, she was still capable of understanding what was said to her, an assumption not popular with most members of the family.
"I know it's not polite to remind a woman of her age, but I have to tell you, Gram, ninety-eight fits you well. You look great."
Again the smile, accompanied this time by a slight chuckle.
"We'll be damn lucky to look that good when we're her age. Even luckier if any of us makes it there," Erich Lauterbach said from behind them.
"Hi, Dad," Gretchen said, turning to see her father walking into the room, arms open.
"Happy Birthday, sweetie. You ready for all this nonsense?" he asked after giving her a quick hug.
"I guess," she shrugged.
"Well, your grandmother's certainly ready. No arguments this year. She's been waiting out here for an hour."
"Oh?" Gretchen asked, raising an eyebrow. "Expecting a hot date, Gram?" But her grandmother didn't respond to the jest.
"Speaking of people who look terrific....hard to believe my baby girl's going to turn thirty next year."
"Don't remind me," Gretchen groaned. "I'm still not sure how I feel about that."
"Let me tell you," her mother answered, blowing in from the lanai with Mrs. Waite, Gram's nurse, in tow. "You should be panicked. You're not married, and as far as I know you're not even dating. Have you seen the recent statistics for the likelihood of women marrying after thirty?"
Lucile pecked the air in front of Gretchen's cheek before stepping back to eye her daughter from head to toe.
"Look at you. No wonder you're still single. You've gained weight, haven't you? Or maybe it's that dress. Yellow's not your color. Makes you look heavy. I thought we agreed you were going to wear that little blue Donna Karan I picked up for you the other day. Blue really suits you better. Might not hide your figure, but it brings out your eyes--"
"That's a hell of a way to greet your daughter on her birthday, Lucile," Erich snapped. "Apologize."
Lucile glared hotly at her husband and said, "You're not helping, Erich. What's the point of truth if everyone avoids it?"
"Maybe we avoid it because your version is skewed."
Gretchen's parents scowled at one another, then Erich asked, "Is there something you need help with, or have you harped on the musicians and chewed out the caterers adequately by yourself?"
Gretchen suppressed a smile. The insult was lost on Lucile.
"Oh, now you want to help. Where were you an hour ago when the tent's air-conditioning unit failed? I could have used your help then. The ice sculpture started melting and the flowers wilted."
"I was in the study. You knew that. All you had to do was send for me."
Gretchen's parents conducted a silent boxing match with their eyes until the ringing of the doorbell ended their bout. Mrs. Guff, the Lauterbach's housekeeper, scurried out from the kitchen, where she'd been overseeing the catering staff, and answered the door. A few seconds later she entered the living room and announced the arrival of the Temples. Mr. Temple was one of Erich's oldest business associates--and one of Bernard's biggest contributors.
After they conveyed their birthday felicitations to Gram and Gretchen, Erich led them to the beverages on the back lawn. The doorbell rang again, the second in what would become a steady stream of non-family member guests. Gretchen helped Mrs. Waite wheel Gram to the screened-in lanai, where the guests would pass en route to the tent. Lucile and Mrs. Guff stayed near the front door--Lucile to greet newcomers and direct them to the birthday girls, and Mrs. Guff to collect the gifts, which she arranged in a tidy display atop the baby grand.
It wasn't long before Gretchen found herself swept outside. She endured a tiring hour of non-stop mingling, several painful minutes of which were spent listening to admonishments from Mrs. Dodding for working so hard and still not having a man. The torture ended when the shamelessly status-obsessed woman spied the governor and his wife and abruptly excused herself from Gretchen's company.
Abandoned, but thankful for the precious few moments alone, Gretchen surveyed the festivities, searching for a non-demanding companion with whom she could comfortably visit until cake-cutting time. She considered the guests swarming around the buffet, but saw no one she wanted to engage in conversation. She admired the ice-sculpted swan, unperturbed by the many hands reaching for shrimps, cheeses, and fruits, floating amidst the flowery backdrop. Small beads of water glistened on the centerpiece's curved neck and frozen wings before cascading into the holding tray below. The swan's edges weren't as sharp as they could have been, but considering the temporary air-conditioning outage the sculpture had suffered through, it was fairing well. Even the flowers had recovered, after receiving fresh water and a reprieve inside the mansion.
"Lost?" a familiar voice asked, interrupting Gretchen's ruminations.
Gretchen turned to find her sister-in-law and cousin standing behind her, smirking. "Finally cut loose from Mrs. Dodding, huh?" Veronica asked.
Gretchen frowned and said with feigned dismay, "Even though I'm a guest of honor, I'm still nowhere near as exciting as the governor."
"We bet on how long she'd chew your ear," Elizabeth said.
"Oh, that's nice. So which one of you profited from my misfortune?"
"Me," Veronica said, holding up a twenty-dollar bill.
"Heck of a way to earn mad money, Nica," Gretchen said.
"A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do," Veronica shrugged.
"What's so funny?" Gretchen asked. With a hint of sarcasm she asked, "And why is it you're standing around making bets with her instead of promoting the candidate?"
"I'm taking a break," Elizabeth said. After a sip of wine she arched one of her perfectly shaped eyebrows and asked, "As his wife, I think I'm entitled to that at least."
"Touché," Gretchen said.
Elizabeth eyed the remains in her glass, then looked up, scanned the party scene, and frowned, her green eyes troubled. They lit up when a handsome young waiter appeared and handed her a fresh glass of wine. "Here you go, Mrs. Lauterbach. Sorry about the delay. Got caught up in the traffic jam." He nodded over his shoulder at the group of people milling in front of the bar.
They couldn't see him, but they heard Bernard's bellowing voice, followed by a hearty round of laughter, and they knew he was doing what he did best: selling himself.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, smiled, and nodded at the waiter. Her smile brightened when her gaze fixed on something past Gretchen's shoulder. She set her glass on the table and said, "Excuse me for a minute, ladies. I see the perfect opportunity to promote the candidate, Gretchen. Bernie wanted me to make sure I had a word with the governor. Dazzle him with my brilliance... or baffle him with my bullshit. Whichever. Anyway, I see the perfect opportunity."
Veronica and Gretchen followed Elizabeth's line of sight and saw Governor Hendricks, clearly agitated but trying to remain gracious, still in Mrs. Dodding's clutches.
"Oh, that's pure brilliance. Rescuing him from her will definitely earn Bernard brownie points," Veronica said.
Elizabeth smiled and winked, then headed off to save the governor. When she was out of earshot, Gretchen asked her cousin, "How's she doing?"
"What do you mean?" Veronica asked.
"With the drinks. She's not snarfing 'em down, is she?"
"No. She knows better and she's been good. A half glass at all times."
"That's what I'm worried about; her drinking until it's half-empty, then setting it down and getting another. Which, at that pace, she'll get tanked."
Veronica frowned while she watched Elizabeth talking to the governor, who now looked relieved and was even smiling.
"I don't know, Gretch. Maybe booze helps her think. I mean, strategy is key, and that really was genius of her to A, not rush to talk to Governor Hendricks when he first arrived, and B, approach him when he's stuck with someone like Mrs. Dodding."
"You call it genius, I call it luck."
"No, I call it cutting her some slack. She's been through a lot lately. So what if she has a couple of drinks?"
"I know losing the baby was hard on her, but Bernie should've considered that when he accepted the nomination. Logan would just love to run a smear campaign against Bernie... and he wouldn't hesitate using Elizabeth."
"I know, I know. We've been over all of this before. But come on, Gretch. This is a birthday party. Your birthday party. Do you really think your mother would let any of Logan's spies in?"
Gretchen thought about it for a second, then shook her head.
Veronica's eyes narrowed at something over Gretchen's shoulder. "Pipe down. She's coming back."
A few moments later, Elizabeth rejoined them.
"I only have two hands so here's a glass of chardonnay for whoever wants one."
"Thanks," Veronica said, taking the wine and smiling facetiously at Gretchen.
"How'd it go with Governor Hendricks?" Gretchen asked.
"Fine. Short and sweet."
"Perfect," Veronica said.
"How's everything else going for you, Liz? You holding up okay?" Gretchen asked.
Elizabeth shrugged, but volunteered nothing. Knowing how sensitive the baby issue was, neither Veronica nor Gretchen probed further.
As yet, Lucile and Erich Lauterbach had not been blessed with any grandchildren--unless Gretchen's older sister Rachel, who had been virtually disowned by Gretchen's parents five years before, had had one. Even if she had, given the current circumstances, Lucile and Erich wouldn't have acknowledged the baby's existence anyway. Regardless, it was highly unlikely that Rachel would be the one to bless the family with the first grandchild. She was forty-four, a year younger than Bernard, was not married, and had never expressed any interest in becoming a mother--except to Hitch, a mutt she'd rescued from the highway many years before.
Then there was Gretchen. Like her sister, she was single, but she was also much younger. She'd been born late in Lucile and Erich's lives, coming as somewhat of a "surprise"--not an "accident", Gram had often insisted, as none of God's children were that--to parents who thought their childrearing days were behind them. Since Bernard and Elizabeth's childbearing years were numbered, Gretchen's parents--mainly her mother--now looked to their youngest daughter as their sole heir-providing source. A pressure Gretchen could have done without, but one that made her more sympathetic to her brother's plight.
As the only male child, Bernard was painfully aware that his parents desired more from him than just grandchildren. They wanted a boy to carry on the family name. It wasn't like he and Elizabeth hadn't tried. For the last ten years they'd tried everything, but with no luck. Now, instead of worrying about how to simultaneously finance college educations and retirement funds like their peers were doing, Bernard and Elizabeth prayed the next fertility treatment would work. They'd discussed adoption, but Lucile quickly put the kibosh on that idea, making one message in particular perfectly clear to the entire family: anyone lacking Lauterbach blood would never be acknowledged as her grandchild. Period. Everyone got the message.
"Have you heard from Rachel yet this year?" Veronica asked, breaking what had turned into an uncomfortable silence. She was one of the few family members who asked Gretchen and Bernard about their sister, and one of even fewer who sent along hellos. Rachel and Veronica hadn't been close, but they'd always been amiable. Perhaps because of their shared position on Lucile's Top 10 list of most despised family members.
"You know, I haven't. Not even a card. But I expect I will. I'm hoping she calls this year, but I guess it depends on where she is. I'm not even sure she's in the States."
The waiter appeared with champagne. Elizabeth and Veronica traded in their chardonnays, then Elizabeth fixed her focus on the tent's arched plastic windows and changed the subject to the weather.
"Looks like we're in for a heck of a storm."
Gretchen followed her sister-in-law's gaze and sighed. The little bit of blue sky that had been overhead when she'd first arrived was gone. In its place reigned the legion of clouds she'd seen threatening to take over from the south. The bird of paradise and oleander bushes thrashed in the growing winds, and the air smelled wet and sweet with the promise of rain.
"Speaking of storms," Veronica said, nodding her head. Gretchen turned and saw her mother approaching them.
"Elizabeth. Veronica." Lucile smiled at her daughter-in-law, but addressed her niece with unbridled disdain.
"Lucile," Veronica answered, her tone cold to match her aunt's. Elizabeth simply nodded and smiled.
"It's time to cut the cake, Gretchen."
"I'll be right there, Mother."
Lucile nodded demurely to Elizabeth before shooting Veronica one last disapproving sneer. The girls watched her strut back to the front of the tent where the caterers were setting the massive birthday cake on Gram's table.
"She's such a ...viper," Veronica said, respecting Gretchen's presence and keeping what she had truly wanted to say to herself.
Gretchen smiled sympathetically. Lucile had never liked anything about her older sister Marguerite--including Veronica, Marguerite's only child. From what Gretchen understood about the aunt she'd never known, Marguerite's death had been as unjust as it was untimely. She'd been murdered shortly after Gretchen's birth, but the murderer had never been caught. The tragedy hadn't softened Lucile's attitude towards her sister's offspring any; even though, at age twenty, Veronica found herself essentially orphaned, having lost her father to a car accident a few months prior to her mother's death.
"Guess I better get front and center, and smile pretty for the cameras," Gretchen said.
"That you better," Elizabeth agreed, raising the champagne glass in farewell and demonstrating immense restraint by not indulging in a pre-toast sip.
Gretchen approached her grandmother, placed a hand on her shoulder, and kissed the top of her head.
"Did you meet all the nice people, ma fleur?" Gram asked.
Gretchen eyed the crowd of guests gathering in front of them and said, "Yes, Gram. They're all here to wish us, but especially you, Happy Birthday."
"All these people? Here to see me?" Gram asked, genuinely surprised. "No, I don't think so."
Before Gretchen could answer, her father boomed, "A birthday toast!" He winked at his daughter before turning to the crowd. "Happiness always to two of my most favorite women, my gorgeous mother-in-law and my darling baby girl. May you both continue to grow more beautiful with each passing year."
Everyone lifted their glasses and the remarks, "Here, here!" and "Well said!" resonated throughout the tent. The guests serenaded Gretchen and Gram while the musicians provided the Happy Birthday melody. The singing ended in a round of applause, then Gram leaned in, Gretchen bent down, and together they blew out their candles, which was followed by more clapping. One member of the catering staff hustled to transfer cake slices to plates while the other servers lined up to distribute them.
"Make sure Rachel gets a piece," Gram said. Gretchen was about to explain that her sister wasn't there, but she saw Gram smiling at someone and she turned to see whom.
It took a moment for the raven-haired woman's face to register, although it was complete surprise, and not because Gretchen didn't immediately recognize the olive-skinned beauty. Gretchen, like Bernard, took after her father's Germanic origins and donned golden brown hair, fair skin, and blue eyes. Rachel, on the other hand, inherited their mother's Spanish and French blood. There was no mistaking the dark cascading curls, the oval face, or the exotic eyes. If it were possible for Lucile to have a much younger twin, Rachel would be it. She was thinner than Gretchen remembered, and she looked frazzled--which was understandable considering her unexpected appearance--but, overall, she was as radiant as ever.
"What on earth are you doing here?" Lucile shrieked, after turning around to see what had caused Gretchen to blanche.
For one moment, a hush fell over the crowd. Then the whispers started. "Who's that woman?" "That's their other daughter." And from those who were newer family acquaintances, "I didn't know they had two girls."
"Rachel?" Gretchen's voice broke the icy stare down between mother and oldest daughter.
"Leave! Right now!" Lucile shouted.
Erich clutched his wife's elbow and whispered in ear, "Lucile, let's take this somewhere else. You don't want to create a scene."
And that was all it took, reminding Lucile where she was--and who was there. Flaunting her best smile and a gentler voice, she requested that Rachel please accompany her into the house.
"Forget it," Rachel said. "I came here to see Gram, and that's what I'm going to do."
"I'm sure you have a lot of catching up to do, but, as you can see, this is not a convenient time. My family is in the middle of a party."
If Lucile's words had stung--as it was obvious they were meant to--it didn't show.
"You can't keep me away forever."
"I've done pretty good so far."
"I need to see her."
"Over my dead body."
"If that's what it takes."
"Stop it!" Erich commanded. Somewhere a flash went off. Lucile groaned.
"See what's happening?" Erich hissed through clenched teeth. "That's the society columnist you insisted on inviting."
Rachel approached her parents.
"I'm not sure why you're here, but you better have a damn good reason," Erich said.
"I do. Gram."
Rachel took another step forward, but Lucile flew into a rage.
"You stay away from her!" she screamed, rushing at Rachel, grabbing her shoulders, and pushing her backwards.
"Let go!" Rachel shrieked.
Mortified, Gretchen watched in horror as her father struggled to pull the women apart. All the while the photographer clicked away, capturing the squabble's every grappling detail.
"Okay, okay," Rachel said, shrugging out of reach from her mother's clawing fingers. "I get it, okay? Don't you understand I just came to see Gram?"
"And so you have. Now leave," Lucile insisted, smoothing her skirt.
Rachel headed out of the tent, but paused when Gram's scratchy voice pleaded, "No. Please. I want to talk to her."
Rachel turned around. Her bottom lip quivered, her eyes glistened with tears. "I'm sorry, Gram," she said softly. And with that, she dashed across the lawn and disappeared around the side of the house.
Gretchen started to run after her sister, but her father grabbed her and held her back.
"Let her go, Gretchen. It'll only make things worse."
"But we haven't seen her in five years! How can you just abandon one of your own children like this?"
Overhead, thunder crashed, followed by a zip of lightning. The dazzling white after-burn flickered across the guests' stunned faces. Then the rain came, a threatening deluge that assaulted the tent's top, instantly drenching everything not covered.
Her father's sad eyes caught Gretchen off guard, revealing something she'd never before considered. He missed Rachel too.
Upset by Rachel's dramatic exit, Gram started crying. Mrs. Waite quickly wheeled her away from the guests. After helping her parents with damage control, Gretchen finally had a chance to sneak away and check on her grandmother.
She found Gram in her bedroom, sitting in her recliner, watching the storm through a large bay window topped with a soft pink swag. Along with rain, the room smelled of rose-scented lotion. The sounds from the party, the music and the conversation, were barely audible, muffled in part by the frenzied, watery drumbeat of raindrops pelting against the glass. Every few minutes a violent thunder-boom rattled the house and shook the panes, and flashes of lightning illuminated the storm-darkened bedroom, but Gram didn't seem to notice.
Gretchen asked the nurse to give them a few minutes alone, and Mrs. Waite obliged. Gretchen went to sit next to her grandmother in a wingback chair covered in pink and white floral chintz. With the exception of the white walls and the white leather recliner, almost everything in the room was pink, Gram's favorite color. The floor was covered in a plush, dusty-pink pile, which, on Gram's more coherent days, she referred to as her carpet of rose petals.
Against the west wall, before the door that led to the pink and white tiled bathroom, stood a large bureau where powder, rouge, and lipstick shared space with the pictures of Gram's grandchildren. A large portrait of Gram's late husband hung on the wall. Five more frames filled with young, smiling faces--Gram's children in their teens and twenties--surrounded their father's imposing, stern face.
To the left of Gram's recliner stood a nightstand that held a pink porcelain lamp with an ivory-fringed lampshade, a bottle of lotion, and a box of tissues. There was no bed in the room. Because the arthritis and osteoporosis had left her back so crooked it caused her unbearable pain to lie flat on a regular mattress, Gram preferred sleeping in the recliner. She was more than comfortable in it, especially since it faced the window and the ring of pink rosebushes with the birdbath in the center. Knowing her mother's love for nature, roses and birds in particular, Lucile had had the gardener arrange the display. It was one of the few concessions, besides the recliner, that Lucile had made in an effort to make Gram's life in the Lauterbach mansion pleasant.
From where Gretchen sat she glimpsed a portion of the front drive, where another wave of guests braved the downpour and dashed to their cars. There were still plenty of cars remaining, though. Since Gram was fine, Gretchen stood, imagining her mother could probably use some more damage control assistance.
"Do you need anything before I go, Gram?"
Expecting at best a simple shake of the head, Gretchen was surprised when her grandmother answered, "Yes, I do need something."
"Sure thing. What?"
"For you to go to France."
That was not the answer Gretchen had been expecting. A request for a glass of water, or for a slice of the cake she'd never had a chance to taste, but not for a trip to another country. Was Gram suffering a dementia-fit? Gretchen hoped not. She loved her grandmother, but it always frightened her to see Gram lost in her mind like that.
"I can't go to France, Gram," Gretchen said softly.
Saying more all at once than she'd said in many months, Gram asked, "Why not? You've always wanted to, and I need you to go. If I had asked Rachel, she would have said yes without hesitation."
Gretchen frowned. Frustrating as it was, it was a fact: Gram's short-term memory didn't function anymore. The same person could visit her every day for a month, but she'd never remember. As soon as the visitor left, she'd ask about their well-being and wonder why they hadn't stopped by lately. Yet, Rachel's brief appearance had stuck in her mind. Why? Because there'd been such an ugly scene? Or had Gretchen been too hasty in assuming Gram was in one of her delusional states? She decided to test Gram's mental waters.
"Were you planning on asking Rachel?"
Gram studied her granddaughter's face for several moments before answering. "If I had known she was coming today, yes, I may have asked her. You see, my time is almost up." Unable to ignore the look of horror in Gretchen's eyes, she reached for her granddaughter's hand and added, "Not just yet, ma fleur, but close. There's a promise I made long ago. One I must keep before I die ... and before my foggy old brain has me swimming in the past forever."
"You know, Gram?" Gretchen asked, sinking back down onto the chair. It had never occurred to her that her grandmother might be aware of her plight.
"Sometimes, yes," Gram nodded. "Though sometimes, like now, the fog lifts. I know where I am. I know whom I'm with. That's not always the case, but I can tell you this, while I have the chance. Even if it seems like I don't, I always know who you are. In my heart. Sometimes my mind stumbles trying to put names with faces, but I do know you, ma fleur. I know."
Gretchen tried to hold back her tears, but it had been so long since she'd talked to her grandmother. Her real grandmother, the one who'd always been full of life and whose mind had always been sharp.
"Oh, please, don't cry. We all must bloom, then fade, each in our own time and way. We live, we love, we move on. It's life's cycle, and while it may sometimes seem cruel, it's really not. Remember I love you. Always. And cherish that." Gram, too, was crying now. She took several tissues, keeping some for herself and handing the rest to Gretchen. "Go to my bureau, please. Pull out the top middle drawer and bring it to me."
Gretchen wiped her eyes and honored the unusual request without question. She held the small accessories-filled drawer in front of Gram, who rifled through the contents for a moment. "Ah! Here it is," she said, pulling out a neatly folded, but very tattered, rag of a scarf from beneath an assortment of handkerchiefs. "Put that away and then come back. I have something for you."
Gretchen did as her grandmother asked, returning to find a folded piece of paper waiting for her on the chair.
"That's for you."
"What is it?" Gretchen asked, picking it up and sitting down, noticing her grandmother had spread the faded black scarf across her lap.
"It's a map of Brevard's cemetery."
"Why do you have a map of that?"
"So I would never forget where he was."
Gretchen unfolded the paper and studied the crude drawing. A single row of straight lines topped with inverted Vs, which she assumed were trees, formed a semi-circle at the top of the page. Below that were several rows of small Ts, which she assumed were crosses. Behind the first tree on the left side of the page was an X with the number eight behind it. Another X appeared in front of the last tree on the right, this time with the number five in front of it. The Xs looked like something one might see on a pirate's map, but Gretchen somehow didn't think they marked the spot of buried treasure.
"What is this, Gram?"
"The map of Mathieu's graves."
"He has more than one?"
"Unfortunately. And that's why I need you to go to France. You must bury his head with his body so that his soul can finally rest in peace."
Thinking she'd misunderstood her grandmother, Gretchen said, "Come again, Gram?"
"You've always thought I left France because my family died, but that wasn't exactly true."
"They were alive?"
Thunder rumbled and a bright flash from lightning chased shadows in the dark room.
"Yes, but to me they were dead. You see, I loved someone else before your grandfather. I was supposed to marry that other man. But they killed him."
"Who? Your family?" Gretchen asked, growing more confused by the second.
Gram nodded. "Them. The village. Rumors. Legends. They thought he was a loup-garou because they were too foolish to question such nonsense. They let their fears control their senses, and an innocent man died."
"Oui. Mathieu. They chopped off his head, right there in the middle of the square for everyone to see. Then they buried his head and body in separate graves without marking either one."
"What? Why would they do that, Gram?"
"I told you. Because they were ignorant and superstitious and they thought Mathieu was a loup-garou. But he wasn't. He was a gentle, compassionate man, not a monster. He was no more a werewolf than he was capable of killing those men."