The Wolf and the Woodpecker, Chapter 1

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Elizabeth is a disgruntled fifteen-year-old who is doomed to a summer of boredom at her grandparents' house in Georgia. She meets some strange characters at a flea market and soon finds herself entangled in an otherworldly adventure--on a harrowing mission to save the daughter of the Wolf Queen.

     “Sissy, hurry up!” I heard my grandmother yell as I drop the last peach into the basket and wipe my hands on my shorts.  We were supposed to be canning peaches this afternoon, and my job was to gather as many ripe peaches from her backyard trees as I could.  It was blistering hot outside and I had been gone over an hour, but I didn’t know that.  Time, and the whole world, just slipped away from me whenever I had the chance to wander along the fruit trees on my grandparents’ property: peach, apple, pear, and plum. The fragrance was hypnotizing, and if I had to spend the summer out here in the middle of nowhere, with no friends, no computer, and no money, at least I had the birds and squirrels to keep me company. 

     “Coming, Nana,” I said, and made my way back to the kitchen.  When I came in, she had everything set up in two stations: one at the sink for washing and cutting up the peaches, and one at the stove for adding the sugar and pectin and sealing the jars in boiling water.  I’d seen her do this a thousand times, but this is the first year I was old enough to help without making a mess or cutting off a finger. I  resented being sent out here, and didn’t say one word to my mother on the entire four-hour drive; I just sat in the back seat of the car with my headphones in and listened to my favorite band, Gold Ru$h, or slept. My mother, fresh out of nursing school, had just accepted a position at the biggest hospital in our city—but that meant twelve hour shifts, some weekends, some night shifts, and no place for me to go, except Nana’s, at least until she got a little seniority or a decent schedule.  She pretty much had to go back to school and do something when my dad left us a few years ago.  She had been a hairstylist, but my dad carried us on his insurance or something like that, and she said doing hair wasn’t a reliable income.  So, she worked at the salon when she wasn’t in class or at the hospital doing “clinicals.” I bounced around from my dad’s house to friends’ houses after school if Mom was working, so I didn’t see her much. I was looking forward to the summer, thinking that Mom and I would finally get to spend time together; she was so stressed out and tired all the time this last year.  I thought maybe she just couldn’t handle having a daughter and a new job. She told me that wasn’t it, that it would be easier for her if I stayed with Nana just one more summer until I was able to get a driving permit. The only thing that made it just a teeny bit better is that she promised me a laptop computer before school started back.  I was thinking about this when Nana put her hands on my shoulders.

     “Are you ok, Sissy? Did you get too hot out there? You’re kinda spaced out.”  She steered me toward the table to sit and gave me a glass of sweet tea.

     “I guess…yeah,” I mumbled, still quiet, wishing she would stop calling me “Sissy.” My name is Elizabeth. I’m an only child—at least, for now.  My stepmother is pregnant, so I will have a half-something or other sometime in November. Then, and only then, I’ll be a “sissy,” the Southern term for “sister.”  I started to tell Nana not to call me that, but realized just how thirsty I was and raised the glass to my lips.  Mmmm…Nana made the best sweet tea.  I gulped it down and refilled my glass with the sugary liquid.  “What do you want me to do? Wash and cut or put the jars in the pot?” Please let me wash and cut, Please let me wash and cut. I don’t want to burn myself by the stove.

     “Oh, whatever you wanna do, sweet pea. You wanna wash and cut?”

Yesss. Nana had a thick Georgia accent, drawing out her “y’alls” and smooshing words together.  She was the epitome of a stereotypical Southern grandmother, with her soft skin and large backside. She reminded me of the granny on Looney Tunes, my mom’s favorite cartoon from when she was little.  Mom used to snuggle me on the couch on Saturday mornings and we’d watch Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.  Granny had this long black skirt and her hair twisted up into a tight gray bun.  She chased Sylvester the cat away from Tweety Bird with a broom in nearly every episode—when would that stupid cat ever learn? Come to think of it, I don’t think my mom ever laughed at those cartoons.  I don’t think she laughed much at all.

     “Yeah, I’ll wash and cut. I’m probably not good with the cooking part,” I said, trying to remember the last time my mom laughed.

     “All in good time, sweet pea.  I’ll teach you some easy things to cook this summer, so you can surprise your mama when you go home.  That sound like a plan?”

     “That sounds like a plan,” I replied, and started to smile.  Maybe if I learned to cook, Mom would let me stay home alone sooner than my birthday. I got to work washing and slicing peaches, being careful not to cut my finger off.  I tried to concentrate, but my mind kept revisiting the look on my mother’s face as she left me here last night. What was it? I tried to think of a word to describe it, but I just couldn’t. She looked like she was desperate to say something but held her tongue.  I wish I knew.  I had given her the silent treatment for four straight hours, then barely hugged her before she left to go back home. She was probably just mad at me. Heck, she was always mad at me about something—my grades, even though my math teacher hated me this year and I barely squeaked by with a C; my room, which was always a “huge mess” to her (I like to call it “organized chaos”); my chores, which—okay, I’ll admit, I hate doing chores!—but whatever.  And she says I spend too much time on my phone. Well, what else am I supposed to do? It’s not like I have a computer or anything! Ugh.  What is with her? Don’t I do anything right?!

     I found myself getting distracted by my anger, when all of a sudden, the knife slipped and I cut myself.  It wasn’t deep, but it bled—a lot, I thought—and I started to cry.  The juice from the peach I was cutting stung, and I just wanted to run away.  Nana was quick, though; a retired nurse herself, she knew exactly what to do, and before I knew what had happened, I was sitting in the chair with an icy compress to stop the bleeding and the first aid kit was sprawled out on the table.  Nana bandaged my thumb and the soft pad of skin on my palm, gave my shoulders a soft little squeeze, and sent me on my way, saying it’s ok, sweet pea, I’ll finish up in here; you take a break.

     I went to my room—the guest bedroom, and also the room my mother grew up in—and flopped down on the bed, still crying hot tears.  The cut really wasn’t that bad; honestly, it didn’t hurt anymore, but I just couldn’t stop crying.  I rolled over onto my side and looked at the faded yellow floral curtains, wishing that Mom was here.  I was still upset with her, but I wanted her to hold me. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry about yesterday.  Sorry for being such a screwup. I closed my eyes, and I must have fallen asleep pretty quickly, because when I opened them again, it was dark. I sat up and turned on the bedside lamp, wondering what time it was, and I heard my grandfather’s voice, so I knew it was after seven.  He still works part-time as a mechanic, although he is old enough to be retired; Nana says it keeps him out of her hair, and he says it keeps him from rusting up, whatever that means.  I stretched and went into the kitchen, where they were putting things on the table for supper. 

     “There she is!” my grandfather boomed (he was hard of hearing and never realized how loud he spoke) as he rustled my hair.  “I was wondering when you were gonna come out of your room.”

     “Hey, Pop.” I put my arms around his bony frame and squeezed tight.  I had a special connection with my grandfather; people always told me I looked just like a toasty little version of him.  Same hazel-green eyes, same smile, same bony frame—the only difference (besides me being a girl, obviously), is my skin color. Half Mexican, half American, I’m golden honey in the winter, but cinnamon toast in the summer. My grandfather was tan, for sure; but only from the elbows down. He always rolled up the sleeves of his work shirts, and so the rest of him was milky white and freckled. He was my Pop, and I was his “nugget,” and I don’t know what I would do without him. Suddenly the smells of freshly cooked dinner tickled my nose and made my stomach rumble.  “Mmm, I’m hungry.”

     I have to say, dinner that night was spectacular.  If you’re feeling kind of homesick (already) and you cut your hand (klutz) and you cried yourself to sleep feeling sorry for yourself, the best thing to cure all that is a plate of Nana’s cooking.  We had all my favorites—mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese, fried okra, biscuits, and fresh peach pie.  I liked to dip my fried okra into the mashed potatoes, whipped to perfection and so buttery. The mac and cheese was from scratch, too; no boxed powdery cheese in this house—only creamy, smooth, velvety bite after bite of deliciousness. I stuffed myself until I thought I would explode! Now, it might sound weird that a fifteen-year-old likes all these “old people” foods, but my mom and I have lived on a tight budget for the last few years and we have had to eat very simple meals most of the time.  At Nana and Pop’s house, hunger never lasts more than a few minutes.  The refrigerator is always stocked, there is always some kind of dessert, and a meal is not complete without some kind of bread. I was in heaven.  I was feeling much better when the phone rang, and it was Mom. 

     “Hey,” I said, tentatively. 

     “Hey, sweetie. How’s it going?” Mom sounded tired or...sad?

     “Fine,” I said. “We just got through with supper.  I helped Nana can some peaches, until I cut myself. I’m ok, it’s not bad.  How was work?”

     “Pretty rough day.  But I’m learning a lot. I’m just really tired.  Just wanted to call and check in before bed.  Is Nana around?”

     “Yeah, hold on, I’ll pass her the phone.” I wanted to apologize but couldn’t make the words come out.  As I handed the phone to my grandmother, I felt a little twinge of sickness start to well up in my stomach.  Maybe I ate too much after all.

     I sat quietly, trying my best to look like I wasn’t paying attention to the conversation between my mom and Nana, but I was listening so closely to see if I could tell what Mom was saying.  I don’t think they were talking about me though, because all I could hear was a set of “m-hmm’s” and “ok, sugar’s” from my grandmother.  She hung up the phone after saying “We’ll talk again in a day or two.  Love you.”

     “Well now,” Nana said. “I’m gonna clean up the kitchen and scoot on up to bed. If we’re plannin’ to go to town tomorrow, you better not stay up all night, ‘cause you’ll be too tired. Okay?”

     “Yes ma’am. I’m still a bit sleepy.  I think I’ll go to my room. Goodnight Nana.” I hugged her.  “GOODNIGHT, POP!” I had to yell so he could hear me. And with that, I went back to my mom’s old bedroom and closed the door.

 *************end of Chapter 1********

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