She sat at the kitchen table after lunch. Blew bubbles with her straw into a glass of root beer, popped them with the tip of her crooked finger, licked the sweet with her tongue.
“You all right, Alba?” I said, my hands wrist deep in dishwater. My aunt gazed at me with her blue mist eyes, child-like grin, tissue-white cheeks. She seemed together. But I knew better. She was no more at peace than my neighbor’s wild-eyed Rottweiler. Her behavior, as of late, had skittered a fair distance from the usual. The slight tilt of her head, her focus up to the sky, a pining look that wouldn’t go away.
My face averted, I helped Alba into the wheelchair. Didn’t want her to notice my middle-aged mouth pinched tight while I fretted over God-knows-what. She was eighty-four—had her first “episode” less than a year ago. Bad times were coming. Decline, decay, death. Part of life’s great circle, some say. I don’t much care about the circle. It’s the not knowing when she’s gonna croak that’s a bitch.
“Get Birdie,” she said, as we started toward the door. A while back, the doc in Ridgecrest said a pet might help keep Alba sharp. Dogs and cats were out ’cause of allergies. We settled on a zebra finch instead. Got it cheap, for a pity price. The young clerk at the pet shop took a gander at our sorry asses and threw in the cage for free.
“I’m not goin’ to Jupiter without him, Jolene,” Alba said, as we got ready for our daily walk. It was the same routine every afternoon since she got sick: wheelchair, zigzag afghan over the knees, Birdie (cage and all) balanced on her lap.
"What do you mean you’re going to Jupiter?" I said, the first time this chicken bull dribbled out of her mouth.
“That’s right. Birdie and me . . . we’s goin’.”
“How’d ya get that idea?”
“He talks to me while I'm sleeping—says he's takin’ me to Jupiter through a hole in the sky."
My brow scrunched a question, as I pictured a dark and hollow void punched into the sky above our house. "Who does? Birdie?”
“No. That Big Boy bobblehead on my nightstand."
Alba was all I had left, family-wise. I wouldn’t have bought the doll for her that day at the swap meet if I’d’ve known she was gonna carry on crazy about it. But she insisted.
“There’s somethin’ different about this bobblehead,” Alba said. She gurgled, flicked a finger at the Big Boy's fat tomato cheeks. “See—he comes to life when his head jiggles.”
I pulled the afghan up to her chin, kissed her brow like I was her ma. Put Birdie’s cage on her lap, covered it with a tea towel so he wouldn’t get a chill.
“B.B. (Alba’s pet name for the doll) said it’s happenin’ on Friday.”
”It’s all in your mind, Alba. Bobbleheads can't talk."
"This one does.”
Alba wasn’t gonna change her thinking, not for me, or anyone. She was headed to Jupiter, end of story. Been tellin’ me so these past six months. But no matter how hard I tried to pay her no mind, the whole idea sat in my gut like day-old road kill.
Once out the door, I wheeled Alba down Post Street toward the County Road. The early spring air tickled my nose hairs, patted my cheeks with its icy fingers. We traveled along the hard-packed dirt beside the two-lane asphalt highway—trailers and bungalows in open fields to the left and right, snow-capped Sierras ahead. A gray wash hung in the distant sky; silver-lined clouds gathered silently above us.
“What day is it?” Alba said.
“Uh . . . Friday?” I said, gulping.
“Yep, it’s just like he said.” She glanced at the sky.
“Them clouds. B.B. called ’em somethin’ special.” She put her hand to her head as if thinking. “Now what was it?”
My eyes lifted to watch the changes overhead. Clouds, layered in wide bands, now sat above a bunch of upside down saucer-shaped puffs stacked together. What in God’s name is this?
“I remember.” Alba leaned forward, pointed. “They’s the len TIC ’lar clouds.”
“Sounds like a bunch of hogwash to me,” I said.
“Uh-uh. B.B. said most folks think they’s made by the wind. But that’s not true.”
Why haven’t I seen these clouds before? Truth was, I hadn’t paid much attention to anything since I retired early and moved in with Alba. But never mind the past. Whatever was goin’ on right then in that devil of a sky, I didn’t like one bit.
“Take me closer.” Alba kicked her heels hard against the footplates. I sped up, my eyes steady on those clouds.
“I dunno know, honey. It feels like snow. Maybe we should turn around.”
“Nooo, let’s move on, Jolene. We’s runnin’ outta time.”
Strange how none of the folks were out givin' us a wave from their yards that afternoon. Or how I didn’t hear the crows cawing as usual. Must be this cold weather we got today. It made sense to me why no one was around, why we were out there by ourselves.
It has to be the weather, I told myself as the stack of clouds now settled over the highest peak.
Yessiree, it’s this cold, cold weather keepin’ them folks inside.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Diana Bollmann lives with her family and a covey of backyard quail in suburban Arizona. Her story, “Rotation,” was named “Story of the Month” in Long Story Short Magazine. Other works were published in The Sedona Journal of Emergence and Trivia:Voices of Feminism.
Visit Diana at her website: dianabollmann.com (The Road Not Taken).