Allen got the text informing him of his cousin Diane’s death as he slept. It was waiting for him to awaken, starting his day with bad news, even before the morning cup of coffee which transforms one back into a human being. Allen was shocked, Diane was two years older than he, but growing up it had seemed like even less. As adults they weren’t especially close, but on the other hand both would always find a reason to sit down and catch up, whenever either of them came within range. Allen lived on the East Coast, but had grown up on the West. Diane hadn’t left the home turf.
Both cousins were in their early 60s, from a family which reliably managed to live into their 80s. Allen sent a text back to his brother Simon, asking for details concerning the memorial service. He decided the first order of business was to start the coffee, before going back through the scant trail which had led to the announcement.
Going onto Diane’s social media pages, he could see posts for her business had continued as normal, one as recent as the previous day. There was nothing to be concluded from that source of information, she could have scheduled running the ads months earlier. Her personal pages were completely empty of any reference to illness, although she hadn’t posted anything in over a week, which was rare.
Allen knew of a friend of hers, with an online profile, so he ventured over to Samuel’s page. Ah, the mother lode, Allen thought. From Samuel’s page, the details surrounding Diane’s death became much more clear. She had come down sick with something which looked like flu and spent more than 10 days in intensive care before finally succumbing. She had entered the emergency room with pneumonia and with treatment almost immediately went comatose.
Thinking over the timeline, Allen realized she must have gotten sick on the road trip with Auntie Lu, which was to have concluded just before Diane’s admittance into the hospital. Auntie Lu, every year or so, would gather up a group of relatives to go camping or on a road trip. Generally the trips took less than two weeks, and spanned the entirety of the Western United States. Allen wondered if anyone else on the trip had fallen sick, there was a national outbreak of flu which threatened to overwhelm hospitals, but like her death there was little information as to what had occurred.
He also didn’t understand why no one had bothered to tell him Diane was in the hospital or sick in the first place. She normally was in regular contact with him via text or social media.
As Allen sat drinking his coffee and wondered what had actually happened, he remembered something else. Several years earlier, Allen and Simon’s mother had gone on the trip with Auntie Lu for the first time, without her husband who had died the previous year. On the way home, their mother had collapsed for reasons unknown. When the doctor eventually investigated the potential cause, an aggressive brain tumor was found. The team of doctors struggled to get ahead of the cancer, but it was buried too deep. Allen’s mother had died within three months of her return.
Offhand and jokingly, Allen thought he didn’t want to be traveling anytime soon with Auntie Lu. Then he remembered another trip years earlier, after which another relative had died prematurely. Maybe the joke wasn’t really funny after all.
During the entirety of Allen’s life, Auntie Lu’s trip had been a big deal. As a child, being one of about 20 first cousins, getting selected to come along was something they had all wanted. It didn’t matter where they went, it would still be a large group, and cover upwards of a thousand miles by the time it was over. Usually the travelers would be split 50-50 between adults and minor children. Allen thought back on the three times he had ridden along, remembering the explosive laughter which always followed the punch-line of whatever dirty joke Auntie Lu was telling at the time. They would all pile into two rental vans, ten to fifteen people, and hit the road. Typically, there would be two days of travel and motels, three days of camping and two days to finally return home.
As Allen thought back, there were often episodes of illness on the trip. Some people would get car sick, and after a few days there would always be colds or the flu. There generally was a good explanation, such as the fact camping in tents when it rains is not very comfortable. During the camping phase, bathing also wouldn’t happen very much and the food itself had the chance to turn on you. Allen wouldn’t eat the mayonnaise after the first couple of days, even when he was a child. But the entire group always had a great time and no-one had ever turned down a chance to go.
When Allen was a child, he never really paid attention to how people were related to him. There were so many relatives, who could keep them all straight? Allen didn’t even try to do so, basically taking the word of whatever known relative was speaking on the topic. As he thought it over, he couldn’t really pin down how Auntie Lu was related to himself. Everyone called her “Auntie Lu” and Allen had always assumed she had to be some far removed cousin or great aunt, since she wasn’t the sibling of either of his parents. They had called her “Auntie Lu” themselves when they were alive. Allen wondered why he had never thought about the topic before, but it hadn’t really mattered very much.
Allen waited until the West Coast had time to rise and drink their own coffee before calling his brother Simon.
“Hey, Simon, Allen here. What’s the story on Diane?”
“Hi Allen, I wondered about it as well. I only found out myself last night, and thought you would already be asleep so sent the text.”
“I wonder why the relatives didn’t say anything? I went online and saw her friends had posted some information during the whole thing, but our relatives didn’t say a word. Normally those morons are the first to organize a prayer meeting when someone catches a sneeze. I have to say they found a way to lower the bar of my regard for them even more, which I didn’t think was possible.”
“I don’t understand it either. Shoot, I live here in the area and no one even told me she was in a coma. I was told she died, via text message from her phone by one of her kids.”
“So there is no information on a funeral or arrangements? I kind of need to know if I have time to get there, takes at least a day of travel.” Allen said.
“Nothing was said one way or the other. Maybe you should call Auntie Lu.”
“Yeah, I will. About Auntie Lu, how are we related to her again?”
“Huh, I don’t really know. I thought she was maybe the sister of our grand-dad. Now I think about it, I don’t know where I got the idea. I know she was connected to someone in Mom’s family. Maybe we should ask Cousin Barbara, she does all of the genealogy stuff. I never got into it myself. Why are you asking?”
“I never got into the genealogy myself. I’m asking because it struck me as a strange coincidence people die after going on Auntie Lu’s road trips. I was joking we ought to call it Auntie Lu’s Death Ride. In all the years I can remember, I can’t think of one time Auntie Lu got sick herself.” Allen observed.
After a pause while Simon thought it through, “You know, I can’t either. You’d think she would have at least had an upset stomach with all the barfing the twins used to do.”
“Yeah, the twins still barf too much, remember when they were both pregnant and had morning sickness together? I don’t know, maybe it is all a coincidence and something you get when a widely mixed age group gets together. If there were health problems, maybe the trip just makes it more apparent. Diane was only two years older than me, though, and seemed pretty healthy the last time I saw her.”
“Same here, I had dinner with her about a month ago. She had lots of plans for her new business, and didn’t mention any health problems at all. Look, I’ll see what I can find out here and get back to you with anything new. If you call Auntie Lu, why don’t you loop back with me if you learn something.”
“I will, thanks for letting me know as fast as you did, the surprise hit me pretty hard. You just don’t expect to lose someone that way, of course it would be bad no matter how it happened. Take care of yourself!”
“You too, and stay off of Auntie Lu’s Death Ride!” Simon joked as he hung up the phone.
While he had the phone out, Allen pulled up his cousin Barbara’s number and dialed.
“Hi Barbara, it’s your cousin Allen. First, did you get the news about Diane?”
“Hi Allen, no, I didn’t. What has happened?” Barbara said.
Allen went and summarized what he knew for Barbara. She was shocked as well. Allen and Barbara had shared several elementary school class years together when they were children as they were the same age.
“The other reason I called was to ask about Auntie Lu. I’m asking because it struck me as a strange coincidence people periodically die after going on Auntie Lu’s road trips. I was joking we ought to call it Auntie Lu’s Death Ride. Then I realized I didn’t remember how she is related to us and decided to ask you, as the family’s resident genealogy expert.”
“Oh Allen, that is a terrible joke,” Barbara said between laughs, “but I don’t know either, which is very strange. Let me get my binder and see. Hmmm, whoa! This is really strange, she isn’t in my notes anywhere. My parents had always said she was our aunt, but when I did the family tree I started with the direct connections. I’ll have to look further, but so far I am not seeing her listed anywhere. Why didn’t I notice it before?”
“Isn’t she in some of the old pictures Grandmom had, you’ve got those, right?” Allen asked.
“Yes, this is really starting to bug me. Damn you, Allen, it is going to drive me crazy until I figure it out.”
“No more than me, Cuz. I might have to just ask her, I can get away with it since everyone knows my knowledge of the family tree is woefully deficient. I’ll get back to you with anything I learn. Maybe I’ll see you at Diane’s funeral?”
“Depends on when it is, I suppose. Tell them they need to do better on letting people know what is going on.” Barbara said.
“I will, talk to you soon,” Allen said as he hung up.
Time to call Auntie Lu, Allen thought to himself. He dialed once more and waited as the connection rang multiple times.
“Hi Auntie Lu, it’s Allen. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, I always have a few minutes for my favorite nephew. I suppose you’re calling about Diane?”
For an old woman, she had a strong youthful voice. “Yes, can you tell me what happened? It just seemed strange she could be in the hospital comatose for more than a week before the news started leaking out. I know I live on the other side of the country, but social media keeps us up to date on Cousin Ed’s daily dump for Chrissake.”
“I suppose the explanation is everyone thought someone else was telling the extended family. Normally it would have fallen to your lovely mother, but as we know, she isn’t here to do it. I still think about her every day, and the things we were planning to do after your Dad passed. You know I’m not on social media myself,” Auntie Lu said.
“Speaking of Mom, it occurred to me, in jest, it historically has proven fatal for people attending your road trip.”
“Allen, you know I like a joke as much as anyone, but that one is in bad taste.” Auntie Lu said with an edge in her voice.
In the past, Auntie Lu had never shown a reluctance to give or receive jokes in bad taste. In fact, she herself had a whole repertoire on nothing more than boogers and poop. In the past, even jokes at her expense rolled off her back as though she were a duck shedding water. Allen wondered at her sensitivity now.
“I don’t mean to offend, it just seemed a noteworthy run of bad luck. Diane was pretty young, Mom was as well, and how old was Cousin Bob when he died?”
“He was pretty young as well. We have a large family, with a full range of age groups. The only thing I’ve come up with, is each person had some health issue no one knew about, and maybe they shouldn’t have gone camping with us.”
“Refresh my memory, what was Cousin Bob’s underlying health issue? I know what Mom’s was, what about Diane?”
“Cousin Bob had a faulty heart valve and, if you remember, he never went to the doctor. Shoot, that man didn’t even go to the dentist. The yellow color in his teeth was not gold fillings I can tell you that! As for Diane, we still don’t know, but I suspect they’ll find she was on an unsafe weight reduction diet. During the trip she had her own liquid diet, and seemed pretty frail to me. She had lost close to twenty pounds and told us she had only ten more to go.”
“How many years have you been doing the trip? I know of at least thirty, just from my own experience.” Allen asked.
“A long time, Allen, a very long time. In the beginning the cars weren’t nearly as comfortable, and we didn’t stop in motels.”
“So fifty years? You sure don’t seem old enough for that many.”
“I can feel every one of those years, nephew. The trip keeps me young, getting to run with kids and adults who I remember as kids. I look forward to it all year long.”
“I know, I remember jockeying for position when it came time to choose the roster. I don’t think I had any issues myself other than a cold, but Aunt Lu, how many of those trips ended with someone dying?”
“No one ever died on the trip, Allen. Usually someone will get a cold or the stomach flu during the trip, and the ride back isn’t nearly as much fun stopping every few miles for a restroom. Think about it, people cooped up in a car breathing the same air as everyone else. It would a miracle if people didn’t come down with something. People never complained about it, because the whole trip is just so much fun. When you travel on an aircraft, I’ll bet you have the same kind of issues.”
“It is definitely true I’ve caught my share of colds after a plane ride. Auntie Lu, you’ve been doing this a long time for the family and I never thought to ask you about when you were young. I know we call you Auntie, but I can’t remember for the life of me what branch you were in, I think Mom might have told me once but I have since forgotten.”
“I married into the family, with my beloved Edgar. We were never blessed with children, and when he passed young, I started the yearly tradition in memory of him. I know children don’t remember things unless they are just interested in genealogy. When you come out for the funeral, I’ll get out some of the old boxes of photos, if you’re interested.”
“I would like it very much. Speaking of the funeral, do we have any better information on when it is taking place?
“Yes, I do. We’re holding the viewing and memorial service at Gadsons this Saturday, and she’ll be buried immediately afterwards at Riverview. Diane’s church offered up a reception hall and the ladies are providing the food.” Auntie Lu said as if she was reading a list.
“OK, thanks Auntie Lu. I’ll have to scramble and get plane tickets. I’ll give you a call when I arrive, maybe we can go out to dinner.” Allen said.
“It sounds good. Oh, you could stay in one of my guest rooms instead of a hotel, if you want. No one else has claimed one yet. I don’t know why I stay here, but it was the house Edgar and I bought when we thought there would be a large family.”
“It sounds good, we can go somewhere even nicer for dinner then, since I’m saving on the hotel.”
“I’ll hold you to it, boy! I eat like a horse,” Auntie Lu chortled.
Allen laughed as he hung up the phone. The odd feelings he had before had faded away after talking to Auntie Lu. It would be great to put the entire thing to rest after she showed him all of the old papers and photos. He still felt strange, and as much as he had visited Auntie Lu in the past, no one had ever stayed over in the large two-story home. When visiting, the kids would run through the house playing various games children play, but at the end of the day they always went home.
Allen first sent Simon and Barbara an update on the funeral services and timing, then went online to work his way through the airline fare gamesmanship. His rental car was a bargain, so much so the insurance cost more than the fee. Allen was always careful when it came to finances, the last thing he wanted to do was argue with the car rental company about potential damage to their car. He had two days to get things together before getting on the plane to Los Angeles.
The time went quickly and, before he knew it, he was sitting in economy class next to a man who kept sneezing for most of the five hour flight. Allen couldn’t help thinking about his conversation with Auntie Lu and thought it would be ironic if he caught a fatal flu bug on the trip.
Allen’s flight landed on-time and he made it to the car rental facility in good time as well. Now all he had to do was brave Los Angeles traffic to San Bernardino County. Auntie Lu lived in an old section of Riverside, a town which had seen much more prosperous days and barely remembered it. Auntie Lu lived in one of the few turn-of-the-20th-century Queen Anne style multistory homes sitting on a one acre lot close to downtown. Allen remembered living in a much smaller place in Bloomington, it had always seemed such a long drive to get to Auntie Lu’s, but it was only a fifteen minute trip on a bad day. Parking on the street, he got his suitcase and walked to the front door. Allen used the old iron clapper to knock. It was exactly the same as it was when he was a child, forty years ago, except now he could actually reach it. The place itself looked older and smaller to Allen, but he could see there was someone doing maintenance. The old lead paint had been painted over at some point, but you could see the places where the lead paint had chipped off.
The sound of deliberate footsteps now could be heard through the door. The door opened and there was Auntie Lu, looking much the same as she had the last time he saw her, at his mother’s funeral.
“Hi Auntie, I made pretty good time.” Allen hugged her briefly and picked up his suitcase.
“I’ll say, the traffic just gets worse and worse it seems like. Are you hungry, Barbara and I were just going to sit down for a snack?”
“Barbara?” Allen asked in a surprised voice.
“Yes, she is staying in the other guest room. She called me after we talked and was asking some of the same questions as you, so I told her to come over as well.”
Allen followed Auntie Lu, who was moving as well as he remembered from years ago. “Dang, I can hardly keep up.”
“I’m headed to the kitchen table, I always move fast then, like a horse on its way back to the paddock,” she quipped.
They entered the kitchen, which wasn’t large by modern open floor plan standards, but had always seemed large to Allen. Barbara was sitting at the kitchen table with a loaded plate. She saw Allen and jumped up to give him a hug.
“Auntie Lu said you were coming. Allen, you’re getting old, look at all the grey hair!” Barbara said.
“Here now, I wouldn’t be so impolite as to mention artificial means of hair coloration clearly being used by a cousin of mine. The topic of age is just as dangerous for you, my dear, although you’re looking well preserved.”
“You’re looking fit too; truce? Auntie Lu has both of us beat in that regard. I don’t think she has aged at all in the last twenty years.”
“Clean living and a full wine cellar. I’m glad you’re not mentioning my hair color, Allen. Speaking of wine, should we open a bottle and toast Diane?” Auntie Lu asked.
“I don’t see why not, plenty of time to sober up before dinner. What time should we get there tomorrow?” Allen asked.
“The viewing runs from 9 am, and the memorial service starts at 11. Graveside is 1 pm to give everyone time to get there. Simon said he would drive in from Orange County tomorrow morning. We can get dinner somewhere close by tonight and eat-in tomorrow night.” Auntie Lu said.
“When are you going to show me all the genealogy documentation?” Barbara asked.
“I was thinking tomorrow evening after the reception. We’ll need something to cheer us up then. I’ve gotten the boxes out of the attic, they still might be a bit dusty, but I’m sure you’ll be interested.”
“In the attic? They might be completed ruined by now with all the summer heat, I’ll bet it gets up to 130 degrees up there in the summer.” Allen said.
“It does get pretty hot, although these old homes are better insulated against it. When this house was built they didn’t have air conditioning, you know. No, I took a quick look and the records are fine. The pictures are on the old heavy photo paper. I’ll bet there isn’t an ounce of moisture in the entire lot, so we’ll have to be careful around any flames.”
Auntie Lu handed full wine glasses to the two cousins and held her own aloft, “To Diane, taken too soon and already sorely missed.”
“To Diane” Allen and Barbara said before sipping a small amount.
The three sat drinking wine, talking about Diane, and eating from the snacks set on the table for the next hour. Allen’s suitcase had been left in the hallway, in the rush to the kitchen. When the initial hunger had passed, Barbara waved her hand in the direction of the central staircase.
“Allen, I’ll show you where you’re staying, if you like. Auntie Lu gave me the low-down earlier.” Barbara said.
“Yes, that would be helpful Barbara, I’ll tidy up in here.”
Allen and Barbara walked back out to the entry and up the grand staircase.
“Auntie Lu gave me the smaller room because I agreed to come after you did. Yours has a private bath, you bastard!” Barbara said.
Looking back down the stairs, Allen asked softly, “Did you find any old records when looking? She mentioned she had married into the family, Uncle Edgar.”
“No, I didn’t. I ended up calling her about it, because I feel I must have missed something important, and also because I’m embarrassed she isn’t represented. All these years of being there for the family and I didn’t have her listed anywhere. Did you say Edgar? I don’t think there have been any Edgars in over a 100 years. You don’t think she is that old, do you?”
“No. I’m going to wash up and see if I can think clearer afterwards. Is there an ironing board, I need to do my shirt for tomorrow?”
“I’ll bring them to your room, I did mine earlier.”
Allen showered up and since Barbara was true to her word having left the ironing board, he spent a few more minutes getting the clothes ready for the next day. He sent a text message to Simon indicating safe arrival at Auntie Lu’s, then went downstairs to join the others.
The kitchen table had been cleared of snack plates, but the balance of the wine was left in their respective glasses.
“Where did you two want to eat tonight?” Allen asked.
“Somewhere expensive, Allen is buying, Barb!” Auntie Lu gleefully stated.
“Why don’t we walk over to the Mission Inn, it might be nice to sit outside?” Allen suggested.
Barbara and Auntie Lu agreed promptly and, after polishing off the wine, set off. Riverside had become somewhat seedy in the twenty years since Allen had last walked its streets. In his youth, the neighborhoods leading into the downtown area had an upscale feel to them, and it was safe to walk with a family. Now, like so much of the inland valley, it had become more and more like the worst parts of Los Angeles. Iron bars on every window, iron fences around the lots, and large angry looking dogs defending their patch. Allen hadn’t thought much of the area when he was young, but now it looked as impoverished as some of the worst places in the world. Third world lifestyles with first world toys, he thought.
They came upon a small group of young Hispanic men sitting on a late model Chevy, smoking weed, and hanging out together. They saw the trio headed their way, and started the circling motions common to any predator pack which confronted with prey animals.
“Maybe walking wasn’t such a great idea,” Allen said.
“Nonsense, I know all the boys around here, we’ll be fine,” Auntie Lu said.
Sure enough, when the crew got a look at who was coming, their circling became random and less threatening.
“Manny! How many times do I need to tell you to take this kind of stuff out of the neighborhood? Your mother will be very disappointed.” Auntie Lu said in a chiding way.
Manny muttered something which sounded like “crazy bruja” and several more conventional Hispanic curse words Allen recognized. Manny and his crew didn’t get any closer to the three, almost as though they themselves were afraid of her.
As they walked on, Allen was amazed and said so. Normally, a situation like that wouldn’t end well for the gringos.
“Allen, you’re underestimating the fear these young men have for their mother. The fact I knew his mother, and how she would react to her friends being poorly treated, is more than enough to change Manny’s behavior. Believe me, we weren’t worth the trouble with those stakes. About the only thing these cholos respect is their mother. Regardless, it shouldn’t ruin our evening.”
Allen was able to get a table inside the Mission Inn’s open courtyard, and they proceeded to enjoy the night out. Stories about times spent with Diane were the main currency of conversation, mixing laughter with sadness.
“Auntie Lu, was there any more information on why Diane succumbed to the flu? I’m still finding it hard to believe she wouldn’t be able to survive a cold or flu. Plus, I don’t think I’m in much better shape than she was, and I never considered it to be much of a risk.” Allen said.
“The only thing which came back was that her internal systems were weak and unable to respond effectively to the virus. She had taken the flu shot several months prior, but this round of the flu was for a different strain variant. The way it was explained to me was the flu symptoms caused a cascade of organ failures, which ultimately proved fatal. The doctors wouldn’t take a position on whether her diet and self-medicating had anything to do with it.”
“Damn doctors! They are so concerned about their liability exposure, it has gotten very hard to get their honest opinion when things aren’t completely obvious. I assume they closed on cause-of-death without needing an autopsy?”
“They sat on releasing the body for a day or so, then finally agreed the case was not unusual enough to merit an invasive investigation. Hon, when people get close to sixty years of age, things go wrong with some people. It’s unusual when it happens to someone close to you, but not uncommon in the wider world. Our family has done fairly well when it comes to longevity, but a few will always be exceptions.”
“I’ll miss Diane, we had a lot of things we planned on doing over the next few years and it won’t be the same without her.” Allen settled up the bill as the group drank the last drops of their wine and picked up their take-home bundles.
The walk home was completely uneventful. The car where Manny and his crew were gathered had moved on to some other location, presumably taking them with it. The neighborhood was quiet, with no one on the street.
Allen had seen it before, in places like Tijuana further south. The neighborhood becomes a deserted prison for the people living there at night, protected by the safety of strong bars and steel doors. When Allen was young, he remembered an active evening culture with neighbors sitting in their yards or chairs and children safely running rampant in the night. This neighborhood had moved on from those days. In the back of Allen’s mind, something was trying to surface. He was trying to remember what disturbed him about Manny’s mutterings. The conventional urban Hispanic curse words were not of note, but the word “bruja” did. Taking out his mobile phone, he looked up the definition online and found it meant “witch or sorceress”. Manny wasn’t afraid of his mother, he was afraid of Auntie Lu.
By the time they returned to Auntie Lu’s home, it was about an hour before bedtime. The three sat in the kitchen, nibbling on a small dessert produced with a flourish by Auntie Lu.
“Did Manny call you a witch, Auntie Lu? Why would he say that, he had no compunction to also using terms I haven’t heard in years, thanks to living on the East Coast?”
“It’s better than being called the b-word which rhymes with it,” Auntie Lu chuckled. “Manny has had a tough time since his father died, he has had to support his mom and extended family. Frankly, I don’t think he would be able to do so without some illegal activity, he was never the best student. I think I cramp his style a bit, since I’m not frightened of him or his boys. My house has a gothic feel to it as well, from a different time. Most of the homes were built in the 50s on smaller lots and were single story. I always scare them at Halloween, with the decorations and sound effects.”
“I’m spent,” Barbara said. “What time should I set my alarm for, tomorrow morning?”
“I’ll have the coffee brewed by 7:30, but we don’t have to leave until 9:00. It takes less than thirty minutes to get to the funeral parlor, and I assume you don’t want to get there too early.” Auntie Lu said.
“No, that sounds right. What’s for breakfast?” Barbara asked.
“Chorizo scramble, in honor of Allen’s presence. I could go omelet or even pancakes if you prefer,” Auntie said.
“No, it sounds good! I haven’t had it in a while either. Good night, you two.” Barbara kissed Auntie on the cheek and rubbed Allen on the shoulder in passing.
“I’m right behind you, the jet lag is catching up with me. Auntie, I’ll help with dishes, give you a clear field tomorrow for the wonders of chorizo.” Allen said.
“You’re on, big guy! You wash, and I’ll dry.”
The two made short work of the dirty dishes, and with one final wipe of the countertop Auntie pronounced it done. Allen kissed her on the cheek as well and headed up to his room.
Allen’s dreams were very strange, similar to the time-passing movie trope of showing the world evolving from inert matter to the current date, but punctuated with a cackling Auntie Lu who was the same as she had ever been. He was unable to move, but strangely unafraid. When his world began to spin, like Dorothy caught in the tornado, Auntie Lu rode a flying bicycle laughing and pointing back at him. He woke with a start, thinking he might have had some stomach upset generating bad dreams, but upon reflection decided everything was fine and went back to sleep.
The funeral went off without any hitch, the mourners all agreed it was an unexpected but made their own rationalizations on how to deal with those feelings. The religious all focused on the wonderful life in heaven Diane was no doubt experiencing at that very moment, and professed jealousy. The secular crowd focused on how they would always remember something about her. There were palliative thoughts for everyone’s feelings.
Afterwards, at the church hall, the relatives gathered and socialized holding their paper plates with the standard church potluck fare. Allen looked around for a glass of wine, but there wasn’t an open bar at the gathering. Why are none of our relatives Catholic? At least they stock a bar to bolster the spirits of the bereaved, Allen thought to himself. As things began to wind down, Allen looked for Simon.
“Simon, I think we’re about to go back to Auntie Lu’s. She is going to show us a bunch of genealogy records and photos, of her husband Edgar and others. Were you going to join us?” Allen asked.
“No, I have an early work-day tomorrow, I’ll head straight home in a little bit. Plus, the thought of going through Auntie Lu’s records gives me the creeps. I don’t know how you can stay there.” Simon said.
“Oh, I remember. You always hated going over there when we were kids.”
“Something about her home scares me, even to this day. When I was a kid it was all I could do to be polite when Mom would drag us over there.”
“You used to play just like all the rest of us. Hide and seek, inside and out.”
“Yes, I did. If I didn’t do something to take my mind off of the fear, it would have felt like forever.”
“What were you afraid of, the house?”
“I never knew, it just felt like something was going to eat me if I stayed too long. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it persists.”
“Some places are like that, I didn’t have any problem sleeping there last night, although I remember having some bizarre dreams featuring Auntie Lu. I can’t even remember the details, I just put it down to having a lot of wine and jetlag.” Allen said.
“She does have a good wine cellar,” Simon observed, “enjoy the rest of your stay. Come out again and spend some time on my side of the state, rather than the hollowed-out husk of San Bernardino County.”
“I will, and if you ever decide to hit Florida, I have a guest suite with swimming pool access. No one ever heads my way, it would be great to play host for a change.” The two shook hands and headed their separate ways.
Allen went off in search of Auntie Lu and Barbara, finding them suffering the attentions of the attending pastor. Allen didn’t know what it was, but pastors always homed in like laser-guided missiles to the relatives who weren’t professing Christians. Allen suspected the Bible-pounding family contingent of ratting them out, but nothing could ever be proved. Allen caught Auntie Lu’s eye and signaled with a raised eyebrow if she wanted to leave. She quickly nodded assent, and turned to the earnest parish-pounder who was attempting to save her soul, in order to make a graceful exit. Barbara latched onto her like a drowning person going down for the third time and escaped as well.
“I don’t know about you ladies, but I am sore need of liquid refreshment. What do you say?” Allen asked.
“Our hero!” Auntie Lu said dramatically, “Lead on!”
The trio ran the gauntlet of last minute goodbyes from earnest relatives, and finally then were free to depart. Allen brought the rental car around and they climbed in.
“I thought we were never going to get away from the preacher. I have already blocked his name from my memory, and soon he will be completely forgotten even though the trauma will still persist.” Barbara said.
“I think he felt a duty to minister to the bereaved, it wasn’t meant personally.” Allen said and laughed.
“I don’t know about you, but as I get older I have a lot less patience for them. How about you, Auntie?” Barbara said.
“If they press too hard, I just tell them I’m a Wiccan or something else which would give them hives. It’s fun, I provide details of my midnight nude revels during the solstices. My reward is making their eyes bug out.”
“I wish I had the patience to do that, usually I just feel like an animal caught in a trap, considering chewing my own leg off to escape.”
“Well, we’re out of there. I’m looking forward to getting comfortable with decent beverages and showing you two my old photo albums.”
Barbara brightened at the prospect and chattered on topic with Auntie Lu as Allen drove back to Riverside. Allen looked over at Barbara and noticed she would look older than Auntie Lu soon. He thought of mentioning her health when a chance presented itself, but then sat formulating ways to make the point without upsetting her vanity. Auntie Lu looked technically older, but she exuded a lively energy which overcame the appearance of age. Barbara, and himself he suspected, were starting to just look tired.
Allen pulled into Auntie Lu’s driveway, and closed the iron gate behind the car. It felt safer to keep the rental car on the grounds what with Manny and his thugs working the neighborhood. They might have a fear of Auntie Lu, but Allen wasn’t going to bank on it extending to cover him as well.
The sun was just starting to go down in the western sky, a rare clear blue sky driving a beautiful sunset. California occasionally would provide a reason why people loved being there, but Allen was glad he was only passing through as a tourist. Looking around the neighborhood before following the women inside, he noticed Manny and his crew working the same patch of roadside as the previous evening. Shaking his head, Allen went inside the house.
Everyone broke to their bedrooms to change out of the more formal funeral garb and clean up. Allen put on a pair of shorts and polo shirt before rejoining the other two downstairs. In the living room, Auntie Lu had placed a group of four cardboard boxes which looked full of dusty photos and binders. She was running a dust cloth across the boxes in an apparently futile attempt at dust catching. She smiled wryly at Allen, and motioned him to open the wine bottle set out on a side table. He opened the bottle and poured three glasses. Barbara and Allen sat down on either side of Auntie Lu on the couch to better see the photos and mementos.
“Barbara, here is a photo of your Mom before one of our trips. Allen, your Dad is there on the right. They must have been eight or nine years old.” Auntie Lu said.
“I’ve never seen this one, look at those smiles! Auntie Lu, you’re there on the right?”
“Yes, the man on the left is Albert, son of Henry and Margaret. He used to help take care of the remaining land I had at the time. The year of the photo, he drove the bus we rented for the trip. It was the first year we had something so big, previously we used to form a caravan of passenger cars. We went big for a few years but these days it is easier with a pair of passenger vans.”
“Auntie, you look exactly the same except for the hair and clothing styles.”
“Thank you, Dear! You’re too kind. I think I have some more trip photos with your parents.” Auntie Lu rummaged around the box, flipping through pictures until she found the right ones. “I liked putting your parents together because they got on so well, it is always a subtext when picking the group each time. Who will be the most harmonious given the overall group composition? I did have to explain to them once we didn’t live in Appalachia and cousins were off-limits.”
“What?” Barbara and Allen asked in unison.
“Just seeing if you’re paying attention,” she cackled, “it was kind of sweet, they did have a very high regard for each other, but it was mostly innocent at the time. I teased them about kissing cousins once and your Dad, Allen, turned red as a beet. Clearly, he had thought about it. He made of point of not being as overtly affectionate with her afterwards.”
“No one ever told me anything about that, but then I suppose they wouldn’t have. We did visit a lot as children, didn’t we, Barbara?” Allen said.
“I do know they loved each other very much, but I didn’t have any inkling of anything else. But, my Mom cried for a week after your Dad died, so there was something.” Barbara said.
“The trips made everyone closer to each other, the shared experiences and all of it. When I would consider who to bring, there was always an attempt to pull in parts of the family who weren’t as close. After a good trip, they would be right in the middle of the group from then forward. Ah, here we are, a picture of your parents as teenagers.” The photo showed a handsome man and a pretty teenage girl wearing clothes from the mid-1950s. “It was the last trip they made before getting each having their own children.”
“Auntie, what happened to Albert. He was in a couple of the photos. He didn’t marry, did he?” Barbara asked.
“No, he didn’t. Unfortunately, no one knows what really happened to him. One day he went off to take care of some business in the valley and he never returned. It was a big deal when it happened, the police searched everywhere to no avail. We had been having trouble with a local family who were a bit rough, which naturally made them suspects, but no proof of foul play was ever found.” Auntie sadly said.
“I remember him being one of the dead-end branches on the genealogy map,” Barbara said, “did he live here with you or somewhere else?”
“He had Allen’s bedroom, due to it having a dedicated bathroom. My Edgar was ahead of his time when he contracted for this house, he knew people would want their own bathrooms. Here, let’s freshen everyone’s glass, Allen. Thanks, Dear! There is another bottle on the kitchen counter,” she said, “I think there are some construction photos in here somewhere. Ah, here we are! These are some pictures of the ground-breaking for this house. The man standing on the left is my Edgar. We had over 500 acres of orange groves in the valley, and the packing facilities were here in town. You could say oranges, and cheap labor, built this house.” Auntie Lu reminisced.
Barbara look at Allen over the back of Auntie Lu as she bent over the cardboard box, “Auntie Lu, what year was this? Was your Edgar the son of William and Eleanor?”
“Yes, that was him. He was so handsome when we first met, twenty years after the War Between The States ended, he really could not be ignored by one such as I.”
“But Auntie, he died over a hundred years ago.” Barbara said.
“Yes, he did. It was hard being a widow with money in those days, always some man trying to take advantage for love or money. Eventually it stopped, due to my aging and conversion of most of the orange groves to housing tracts. Over time, I had to sell the land piece by piece in order to pay state taxes. It happened to a lot of the old California families with large properties.” Auntie Lu said.
“But it makes you over a hundred years old, how is something like that possible?”
“All too easy, I’m afraid. It is hard watching the ones you love die before you will, but it is part of the price.”
Allen’s vision began to blur and his head spun as he tried to stand up, “What was in the drink?” At the corner of his vision he saw Barbara had spilled her drink and appeared to be unconscious. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness was Auntie Lu’s face, reflecting regret as well as anticipation.
When Allen woke, he couldn’t move his arms or legs and determined they had been tied. Looking around, he appeared to be lying on the floor of Auntie Lu’s basement wine cellar. One of the shelves which appeared to be built in against the cellar wall was actually a doorway to another small space. Panicked, he looked for any sign of Barbara without success.
“Barbara, are you alright? Can you hear me?” Allen whispered.
A sound came from the small bolt hole, approaching steps, then Auntie Lu looking somewhat younger than she had just moments before, came forth. “I’m sorry, dear boy. She has already asked her final questions and moved onwards to join the others.”
“You killed her?”
“Not all of her, some continues to live within me.”
“But why? She didn’t do anything to you, neither of us did.” Allen said as tears streamed down his face.
“Not yet, but it was only a matter of time when the questions start. I don’t feel badly, as you both had every opportunity to walk away from those questions.”
“What are you? A witch like Manny said?”
“I’m a lamia, a very old and wise one. Most of us don’t last long enough to pass as human, but I’ve been lucky in my personal habits.”
“Isn’t a lamia some kind of vampire? But you eat regular food and drink.”
“We live on the life force of living creatures, not the blood itself. When we used to drain blood it was because we thought the life resided there, but I learned it was not necessary, which is why I alone of my kind have survived. Even the life in plants can be tapped, but it isn’t as filling as that of human beings.”
“Have you already fed from me, is that why I am so weak?”
“Yes, I took but a taste so you would survive to have this conversation. You really are my favorite nephew, and deserve some answers.”
“Barbara is dead? Where is she?”
“She lies within the family crypt, over there. You will join her and the rest when your time comes.”
“How old are you?”
“Very, my boy, very. I knew Zeus and Hera when they were somewhat less than gods. But these times have been the very best. Family, it is what maintains my interest and connection to the earth.”
“So the trips, were just a way for you to feed without causing suspicion?”
“Yes, and for all the other good things which came out of them. The slight taste from everyone is enough to maintain my life and appearance, but not to cause permanent damage to the donors.”
“The relatives who died after such trips?”
“Unhappy accidents, my feeding would weaken that which was already precarious, unbeknown to me. I grieved deeply for each and every one. I’ll grieve for you and Barbara as well, but life is more important to me than anything which threatens it.”
“People know we’re here, how will you get away with it?”
“People will know you have left, but no one will know what happened to you and Barbara on the way to the airport. Manny is loading your things into the rental car as we converse.”
“Manny and his crew will know, how can you trust him? Why don’t you let me go and we forget this ever happened? I promise I’ll never be a threat.”
“Manny knows what would happen, first to his family and him last of all. He is no threat, Manny even worships me to some extent. Alas, if only I could believe in your promises. No, you are too much like my beloved Edgar, you won’t let it go, especially now you know of Barbara’s passing.”
“You killed Edgar too?”
“I had to do so, he learned some of the truth and would not be satisfied with half-answers. He’s in there with Barbara.”
“Won’t the bodies smell when the police come to investigate?”
“Allen, mummies only smell musty, and the wine cellar environmental controls take care of the rest. No one will ever know.” Auntie Lu bent over to touch his face, immediately his body felt weaker and his failing mind could no longer order his muscles to fight against the bonds which restrained him. Auntie Lu bent over and picked him up quite easily. She carried him into the dark space, which he could now see contained many bodies sitting against the walls. Barbara was there, recognized by her hair and clothing, but her body was desiccated to the point of dry wood. He understood why no one would find the crypt.
“Good bye, my dear. I am so sorry,” Auntie Lu bent down and set him next to Barbara before touching him for the very last time.
After a time, Auntie Lu walked back out of the crypt and closed the shelf-door with a final click. To her right was a full length mirror, which she now perused. The reflection was that of a beautiful young woman who could tempt a man before she even smiled.
“No, that won’t do. It won’t do at all.” Auntie Lu said aloud. Staring at the mirror, the reflection slowly changed to a woman of indeterminate age, bright-eyed, substantial, and clearly someone’s young grandmother. “Much better!”
She walked back up the stairs in time to see Manny on his last trip to the car.
“Make sure the car isn’t found in one piece, Manny, don’t forget the GPS tracking record.”
“Don’t worry, tia, it will vanish.” Manny said as he left the house.
Auntie Lu did a quick survey of the guest rooms and found them to her satisfaction. She decided another glass of wine was in order.
Funerals always made her sad.
All rights reserved (C) 2018 D. M. Kalin