‘Grandma’s not crazy,” Mom says, as she adjusts the rearview mirror to better glare at us. “She’s ECCENTRIC.”
Tommy and me don’t ask what ECCENTRIC means. We’ve only got two more minutes with our game players. Tommy’s got his highest ever score on Chopping Maul VandalZ. I just reached Level 17 of Zombie Massacre III, and I’m about to zap a real ugly zombie in a lace bonnet. It’s August, and we’re headed down Route 1 to Grandma’s house.
Mom only stays long enough to say, “Well, lots to do! Be good for Grandma, boys!”
Tommy and me gotta stay a whole week.
Grandma lives in Morris Mill. She says her tiny town in the middle of New Jersey is “underappreciated.” I say it’s boring, mainly because Grandma takes away our game players as soon as we get out of the car. She says, “Go outside and play.”
Tommy and me stand on the porch with our noses pressed against the screen door, until we get screen marks on our noses and nose marks on the screen. From there we watch the kitchen clock. At noon Grandma will let us in for lunch.
“Take a walk around town,” Grandma says through the screen door. “Or go throw rocks in the river.”
“I caaaaan’t!” Tommy wails.
When Tommy was four, he was eating an oatmeal-raisin cookie in Grandma’s backyard when this squirrel ran up, swiped the cookie — FOOSH! — and took off up a huge tree. Tommy just stood there with his hand halfway to his mouth. The squirrel climbed onto the roof of the church next door to Grandma’s and stood there eating Tommy’s cookie while he cried. (While Tommy cried, not the squirrel.) I pretended to blast it with exploding gold nuggets — POOM! POOM! — like it was a goblin in Mine Train to Hell.
So now when Grandma makes us go outside, Tommy won’t leave the porch. And I’m not going if he’s not going, even though I’m not scared of Morris Mill squirrels.
Through the door screen, I see Grandma’s hunched back. She’s filling her teapot. “I’m having an old friend — I should say an old acquaintance — over for tea,” she tells us. “You two go get some fresh air next door in the church yard, so she and I can talk.”
“The air’s not any fresher there than it is here on the porch,” I say. Tommy nods and tightens his grip on the door frame. “I bet it stinks like rotting flesh,” I add. There’s a creepy, old graveyard behind the church.
“If I hear anything else fresh come out of that mouth of yours, you’ll stink like rotting flesh,” says Grandma.
She might look like anyone else’s grandma (except maybe more hunched), but she sure don’t talk like anyone else’s grandma. She’s crazy. Or ECCENTRIC, if that means the same thing.
A long silver car pulls into Grandma’s driveway, and a lady gets out. She’s got white hair swirled up on top of her head like vanilla frosting. Her flowery perfume stinks. Maybe it’s covering up the smell of rotting flesh.
I aim an invisible arrow at her hairdo in case it’s fake and disguising her snake hair like in Blood Bath IV: Medusa’s Revenge. When she reaches the porch —Kuuuuh-CHUNK! She frowns at my sound effects, but her hair doesn’t move. And not a single snake pops out.
Drat. Only 6 days and 23 hours until I get my game player back.
Grandma unlatches the screen door and says, “Hello, Virginia. Come on in.” Tommy tries to sneak in behind her, but Grandma’s too quick. He goes back to pressing his nose against the door screen. I shove him over so I can see too.
Grandma’s kitchen is yellow with white cabinets. Her kitchen table sits against a window with long white curtains. A breeze makes the curtains poof out over the table so they keep hiding and unhiding a china teapot and flowery napkins like some babyish peekaboo game. I never seen that teapot and flowery napkins before.
We watch Grandma set a plate of oatmeal-raisin cookies on the table. Six big ones. I clear my throat so she’ll remember it’s rude to eat in front of little kids.
Grandma opens the door a crack and shoves two cookies out. “Now, run and play,” she says. We scooch down beside the door where she can’t see us. No way are Tommy and me leaving the porch. Not with all those squirrels around.
“So Morris Mill finally got a traffic light,” says the lady. She laughs like that’s funny. “My dear, you must be simply starved for culture out here.”
“I’m not starved for anything,” Grandma says. She takes a huge bite of cookie.
Her friend takes a teeny nibble and pats her mouth with a flowery napkin. “Why don’t you visit me in The City? I’ll take you to The MoMA or the Guggenheim. It wouldn’t hurt to be exposed to a little… cultivating.”
“If I wanted to be exposed to cultivating,” Grandma says, “I’d visit a farm.”
I peek through the bottom of the door screen. Just like I thought: Grandma’s hunch has gone straight as a rifle. That means she’s real mad.
Her friend doesn’t notice. “Of course, New York also has exceptional shopping. We could visit Bloomingdale’s or TiffannEEE!”
A big fly is dive-bombing the lady like a vampire pilot in Death Wish 2. She tries to protect her fancy hairdo by waving her hands and giving little “EEE! EEE!” screams. I bet the fly’s real confused that she has a cupcake hairdo but stinks like dead flowers. And maybe rotting flesh.
“What, you don’t have flies in New York?” Grandma mutters. She rolls up a newspaper and chases the fly around the kitchen, swatting the air.
Once the fly’s busy with Grandma, the lady goes back to talking. “You must have a hole in your window screen. Alphonse could repair that. Have I told you about Alphonse? He has the most fabulous little shop in Chelsea and has an absolute gift for repairing historic window screens, as I was telling Marni. The Marni, the interior designer. Her brownstone is in the same historic district as mine, though mine’s older. I was telling Marni over coffee that Alphonse makes repairs in keeping with the historic character of the window screen.” She looks at Grandma’s kitchen window. “Now, your screens aren’t architectural treasures, but Alphonse might, as a favor to m — EEE!”
This new “EEE!” is because Grandma nearly whacks her friend with the rolled up newspaper as the fly buzzes to the window over the kitchen table. Grandma whacks again, so hard she breaks a huge hole in the screen. The fly goes out.
“That’s better,” says Grandma. She plumps back down in her chair and takes another cookie, which isn’t fair since I only got one. Now there’s only one left on the plate, and I bet I’m the hungriest person looking at it.
“Well,” Grandma says, “I’ll tell you of something Morris Mill’s got that’s better than New York’s — our ghost.”
The lady’s eyebrows go up. “Well, for those who believe such nonsense, I’m quite certain The City offers superior tales of paranormal activity.” She eyes Grandma suspiciously. “Besides, I don’t remember hearing of a Morris Mill ghost when we were growing up.”
“You never heard about the little girl at the church picnic?” Grandma looks real surprised. “It happened right outside this window. In the church yard.”
The lady folds her arms and leans back in her chair. “I haven’t believed half of what you say, since we were nine and you pushed me into the river to meet the Millstone Mermaid. My new saddle shoes were ruined.”
Grandma shrugs. “Might’ve been a big fish. But the ghost? Well, now. That’s a real story. Starts years before we were born. Remember old Martha Harrison? It was a little cousin of hers. That’s why no one talked about it. Didn’t want to upset the family.”
Tommy and me flatten our noses, foreheads, and chins against the screen. A real ghost story? Probably not as fun as playing Ghoulinator 2000, but we don’t want to miss a word.
“Remember how the church held a Sunday school picnic in the church yard every June? My grandmother always brought her famous oatmeal-raisin cookies. This exact recipe,” says Grandma, pointing to the last cookie on the plate.
“Now, Martha’s little cousin was spoiled rotten. She grabbed one of my grandmother’s cookies instead of starting with casserole. Seeing all the disapproving looks, her mother took the cookie away and said, ‘Now, dear. You know you must eat some nice casserole first.’
“The girl fussed and cried until her mother was so embarrassed and angry she snapped, ‘You’ll eat dinner first or die trying.’ Tragically, that’s exactly what happened. The girl choked to death on her first bite of Mrs. VanDyke’s tuna surprise. She never got a cookie.”
Tommy sniffs. He’s thinking about the cookie he never got when he was four, because of the squirrel. I put my arm around him.
Grandma’s friend shifts in her chair and looks real uncomfortable. “I never did trust potluck casseroles. But what about the ghost?”
“The little girl’s ghost,” Grandma says in a low voice, “never stopped trying to get that cookie.”
Grandma looks at the last cookie on the plate. Her friend and me look too. The only sounds are the tick-tick of the kitchen clock and the shush of a breeze blowing the long, white curtains against the kitchen table.
Then I see it. Something dark behind those curtains, creeping through the big hole in the screen and across the kitchen table. Something long, like an arm stretching out and a hand feeling around. It reaches the plate and stops. We’re all stiller than dirt, staring at that shape under the curtain as it quivers over the last cookie.
“EEEEEEE!” the lady shrieks.
The arm thing jumps and pulls back out the open window, leaving the curtains hanging down normal. But the cookie plate is empty.
Grandma’s friend keeps screaming “EEEEEE!” as she snatches up her purse and runs out the door.
Tommy missed it all. He’s too short to see the tabletop. “What happened?” he keeps asking. “Did the fly get her?”
“She’s screaming because the last cookie’s gone,” I tell him.
“Who got it?” Tommy wails. “I only got oooooone!”
“It was taken by a —“
Grandma quick shushes me. “Don’t scare your brother.”
“I wasn’t gonna scare him,” I tell her over Tommy’s blubbing. “I saw that flash of bushy gray tail when it turned around, so I know it wasn’t really a ghost arm. It was only a—“
Grandma makes a fierce hissing noise. Her hunch goes straight.
Then I get it. Tommy’s only scared of one thing. And it’s not ghosts. If he hears a Morris Mill squirrel snuck into Grandma’s house, he won’t sleep all week.
“A whaaaat?” whines Tommy.
“A creepy ghost tentacle,” I tell him. “Like in Ghoulinator 2000, except this ghost had a tail too. Next time we’ll blast it with ecto-torch-throwers. FOOOOSH! Splat!”
Tommy cheers up right away. “Awesome!” he says. He’s almost as good as me at Ghoulinator 2000.
While he’s busy saying “FOOOSH! Splat!,” Grandma closes the window and clears off the table.
“How did you know a you-know-what would come in that window?” I ask her.
Grandma shrugs. “I had a hunch.”
“You still do,” I tell her.
Except when she’s mad. But now that her friend’s gone, she seems real happy, even though she says, “Keep mouthing off like that, and you’ll end up with a hunch. Now get off that porch and go play.”
See? My grandma’s crazy. And, if ECCENTRIC means smart, then she’s real ECCENTRIC, too. Though maybe not ECCENTRIC enough to get me and Tommy off the porch this week.
Sharri Bockheim Steen lives in Rocky Hill with her husband, two children, and three furry pets. She teaches high school biology and writes for the pharmaceutical industry. Her fiction include a growing collection about Morris Mill, a fictional town in central New Jersey that is overrun with squirrels. This story is meant as a respectful nod toward Richard Peck, a favorite author who died this past May.