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Sunset, Sunrise

At ninety-seven, my great-grandmother had fended the Grim Reaper off with a boat hook for so many years that I’d begun to think she was immortal.

I was wrong.

Two policemen met me at the airport with the news of her accident.

Punctilious and considerate, they drove me to the hospital and stood at my back while the harried doctor filled the air around my ears with nightmarish visions.

He spoke of ‘massive head trauma,’ ‘uncontrollable swelling into the brain stem,’ then needing “next-of-kin’s permission to turn off life support.”

My heart lurched. “No. She’s not dying. She can’t be.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Grenholt.” He sounded more frustrated than sorry. “There is no brain activity at all. Technically, Mrs. Grenholt is already dead.”

His mask of professional compassion slipped even further as his pager began to bleat. “Excuse me.”

He glanced from me to the beeper and back again. Grey eyes held mine, fatigue rimming them with red. Then his voice softened. “Your great-grandmother used to give me herb tea and ginger biscuits when I went into the shop. ‘No coffee,’ she’d say, ‘because doctors live on the stuff.’ She always had a kind word and a listening ear.”

His jaw tightened, his tone became brusque. “Why don’t you go and sit with her for a while. Take all the time you need. The nursing staff will answer any questions … assist you with arrangements. I’ll …” he hesitated. “I’m very sorry.”

He was gone in a swirl of white coat.

Anger spurted through the numbness that seemed to encase me. Sorry? Like hell. More likely that I was simply on the conveyor belt … next-of-kin number 124 this shift.

My carry-on luggage lay on the floor where I had dropped it on arrival. Feeling myself starting to shake, I shoved it out of the way and drew a chair closer to the bed.

The younger policeman stopped hovering in the doorway and asked if there was anyone they could call to come and be with me. Perhaps someone at home?

Like who? Granny’s husband was gone. Her only daughter decided parenting was hard work, dumped her illegitimate son on Granny’s doorstep, and disappeared. And he—my father—and my mother had both died in a car accident just after I was born.

The only home I’d ever known lay between crisp white hospital sheets, broken and silent.

“No,” I said over the lump in my throat. “There’s no one else.” There never had been.

They left me alone then. Alone … to close the door … to face the silent beloved … to start to come to terms with the end of all I had known.

“I’m here, Granny,” I said, softly, taking her uninjured hand.

It was warm. Blood seeped through the dressing covering most of her head. Her normally pale face showed black and purple bruising. There were amorphous swellings instead of eyes and nose.

She was only unconscious, my mind insisted. Sleeping. She’d be fine. Just fine.

Light had gone from the sky before my grief let me see beyond the slow rise and fall of her chest and warmth of her hand, to the machine that hissed out her breath allowing her body to imitate the functions of life. Although warm, her hand felt flaccid … lifeless.

Reality wrapped around me. I was there. She wasn’t. I’d left it too late.

Which was strange.

Granny always said nothing in life was ever too late. When she’d taken on the task of raising me, she’d been a widow of seventy-five and still a full-time businesswoman. Despite strong opposition from well-meaning critics she’d sold the family home and moved us both into the two bedroom flat above her knick-knack and antique shop in Newtown.

I’d spent my childhood in that shop, graduating from a snug crate under the oak table where the cash register sat, to a playpen, and finally to a special childproof area Granny had constructed.

As I grew older I learned about money, practicing my numbers and alphabet writing up inventory and price tags.

It didn’t occur to me that anything about my upbringing or me was unusual. I thought every four-year-old recited Shakespeare’s Sonnets or could add up an eight-column cashbook accurately in her head.

When I started school I learned I was different in many ways, only one of which was that, while other girls had their mums and dads at school functions, mine smiled at me from silver frames on the mantelpiece. I had Granny however, and I’d never felt any lack.

Not until yesterday.

Yesterday, I’d seen things that opened a gaping hole around my heart—things I didn’t understand.

Yesterday I’d been promised answers.

Yesterday, I’d been told to hurry.

Today, I was here, and the only person who could help me was already beyond my recall.

My throat closed over. “Don’t go,” I whispered, letting the tears stream down my cheeks. “I don’t understand what’s happening. You do.”

I pressed my wet cheek to the fragile hand in mine. No response.

I tried again. “Listen. You’re the one who wouldn’t talk about it on the phone. You’re the one who told me to come here. And what did you mean that you’d almost given up hoping?” It was difficult to control my frustration. “Come on, Granny. Give me a break here. I caught the damned plane as soon as I could.”

I stood up and leaned on the windowsill stretching cramped muscles. Outside, the rain lashing the trees in the car park made the lights shiver and glow. The sight intensified my despondency.

It was hard to think we had talked less than a day ago, harder to believe she’d accepted my vision without question. Anyone with a Doctorate in Nuclear Physics is used to being considered an oddball, and as I earned mine at seventeen I was a major oddball.

Now I was a twenty-two-year-old major oddball who believed her father, dead for more than two decades, had materialized in the rain to walk beside her as she crossed a Melbourne street.

Moreover, my great-grandmother thought this not only a perfectly rational occurrence, but also a cause for celebration and action.

We haven’t the time to waste.

Those had been her last words. Not ‘I love you’ or ‘Goodbye,’ but a recognition of time passing too quickly. In fact, we’d had less time than either of us imagined.

A nurse came in, checked the clipboard at the foot of the bed, told me I could use the little kitchen down the corridor if I liked to, and slipped out again.

By three in the morning, I was desperate for caffeine and wishing for the millionth time that I hadn’t quit smoking. Hoping that one of the night staff might have a cigarette they were willing to donate I kissed Granny gently, told her I’d be right back, and stepped into the dimmed corridor.

I sensed rather than saw the shimmer of the air around me a heartbeat before he appeared.

Seeing the same ghost twice in less than twenty-four hours was pushing the envelope, I thought, even as I registered the differences in his appearance.

Gone was the dark evening suit and carefully combed hair. Tousled and slightly disheveled he wore a tartan shirt, old work trousers, and muddied boots.

Yesterday he had been smiling as he walked beside me empty-handed.

Tonight his face was sober, and he carried a small red leather case.

My reaction to block the doorway to Granny’s room was instinctive but wasted. He simply passed through me.

It was like being snap frozen; a piercing chill, beyond cold and heading toward agony. There was fear, disbelief—and then the sharp rap of my head against the doorframe as I cannoned into it.

I’d hardly hit the linoleum before I was scrambling to my feet and shoving back into the room.

I don’t know what I expected to find. Something cataclysmic, perhaps.

What I found was everything as I had left it.

Well, almost. The red leather case on the bedside cabinet had not been there a few seconds previously.

I stared down at the case. It both repelled and drew me. Part of me wanted to run. Part of me wanted to be sick. Another more rational part of me knew—as my fingers opened the silver catches—that this was what I had been waiting for.

Slowly, holding my breath, I lifted the lid.

It nestled in blood-red velvet, around twenty centimeters long. Not jewelry, as I had thought, but a knife—a wickedly honed blade glinting from an ivory handle.

I swallowed hard. Reached out to touch.

As my fingers curled around the grip several things happened.

The silence was shattered by a woman’s hysterical screams.

From somewhere close, a baby shrieked, frantic and terrified.

A man’s pain groaned through his soothing words.

Then the wall in front of me rippled … faded … and a window—a portal on another world—opened before me.

My father stood in the middle of a kitchen, a screaming baby wrapped in a yellow bassinet blanket clutched in his right arm. Blood flowed from hideous wounds in his left arm and chest soaking the tattered left sleeve and front of his tartan shirt, spilling onto the baby’s shawl.

I’d hardly had time to assimilate this horror before his attacker struck again.

Shrieking obscenities, she rushed at him, her arm upraised. In her hand something flashed in the light … something long and silver.

And red.

On my side of the portal, the ivory handle in my fingers burned cold and deadly.

The same. They were the same.

I wanted to drop my father’s doom, throw it far from me, but I could neither let it go, nor tear my eyes away from the drama playing out before me.

He tried to get the knife from her, swinging the baby out of her reach as she slashed down, but he was tiring from blood loss and exertion.

She, on the other hand, seemed to have superhuman strength thrusting the blade at him with deadly intent as they dodged back and forth.

The killing blow came without warning, silver flashing into his chest with sickening ease. He gave a grunt and staggered back.

She shrieked, her spittle flying as she wrenched the weapon free.

At her second strike he fell.

With a vengeful howl and with the blade dripping red, she ripped the wailing baby from his arms, lifting it up, tensing her muscles for the knife thrust into the little chest.

But she could not move.

Oh, she wanted to kill, she wanted it so badly. She tried to do it, screaming at the frustration of her will.

She didn’t see, as I did, the glowing woman standing beside her, her hand around the straining wrist, her face set in a terrible sternness. The face, I thought stunned, that with my father’s, smiled at me from Granny’s mantelpiece.

She didn’t see, as I did, the silver bubble flung from the dying man’s hand.

It encased the child, a shield and a comfort. In spite of the noise and the horror the baby’s wails stopped. The rosebud mouth trembled once, stretched in a yawn. Her eyes closed. She was, incredibly, asleep.

Me, I realized, my mouth dry. Me. Asleep in the arms of a madwoman while my father’s blood dripped from my clothes and the ghost of my mother glowed like neon in darkness.

“You understand now why I didn’t want to talk about it over the phone.”

I swung around. Somehow, seeing Granny standing dressed in her Sunday best beside her own body didn’t seem out of place.

She smiled. “Poor darling. This is a shock, I know. But some things you need to see for yourself. They loved you more than you can imagine.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, numbly. “You said they died in a car accident. What happened? Who’s the woman with the knife?”

Granny sighed. “It doesn’t make nice telling. You were two weeks old when Alan came home to find Kate dead. She’d taken sleeping pills and slit her wrists in the bath. The coroner found she’d committed suicide while of unsound mind—post natal depression, they said.”

The wrongness of it hit me in the solar plexus. “I don’t believe it.”

This time her smile was grim. “You’re right. She hadn’t. Alan didn’t know this other woman, but she was a new neighbor and as unstable as they come. Wanted to look after you and him and made herself unbearable. In the end, Alan decided to pack up and move back home with me. The woman went crazy. Said she hadn’t gone to all the bother of getting rid of Kate to have him walk out on her. When he called the police, she tipped over the edge completely. And this …”

“… is how it ended,” I finished, sick at heart.

“Almost.” She took the knife from my hand and tossed it carefully through the portal into the kitchen.

Light glinted from the blade. Then it vanished, sound roared back, and the action continued.

The kitchen door opened and a much younger Granny entered. Grey with shock, she cried out.

Faced with this new threat, the woman with the knife struggled harder, but not to kill. Now it was to get away.

My mother removed her restraining hand and caught the protective bubble as the madwoman dropped the child to the floor.

The silver shimmered … rippled … dissolved. The baby slept on as it was carried tenderly in glowing arms to the kitchen bench.

Not by one ghost, I realized with a lump in my throat. By two. My parents stood over their sleeping child, embraced … and turned to confront the woman who had killed them both.

As though a sixth sense had warned her, the woman whirled around. Her scream was one of sheer terror. The look on her face told me she knew exactly who and what was walking towards her.

The knife clattered to the floor. She dropped to her knees. Her face twisted in a spasm of agony and then she fell forward, dead before she hit the ground.

The younger Granny moved over to where the baby had been deposited and picked her up. The ghostly forms of my parents joined her.

They were embracing as the portal closed, fading once more into the hospital room wall, solid and reassuring.

Outside the window the first glimmer of a lightening sky touched the horizon.

“Alan used the last of his energy protecting you,” Granny said, tucking my arm in hers as I brushed away my tears with my free hand. “He made sure you wouldn’t remember. He also ensured that you wouldn’t want to know anything about the past until you were ready to receive the full truth.”

Her smile twisted a little. “Which is that you come from an unusual family, and have yet to discover your more unusual gifts. Alan promised to let me know when you were ready to step out for yourself. When you called last night and said you’d seen him, I knew the time had come. For both of us.”

I gestured to the bed where her body lay still and silent. “And this?”

She moved closer, looking down at herself dispassionately. “Well, I must say he cut it a bit fine. I’m ninety-seven—and even then I needed time I didn’t have. Modern technology gave it to me. But I can’t stay. When I’m gone, you’ll come into your real inheritance.”

I neither understood nor cared about inheritances or gifts. “I don’t want you to go,” I whispered.

She ignored me. “And you’ll fall in love. He’s your match in every way, and closer than you think.”

“I don’t care.” I cried. “I love you.” I swallowed back the tears. “Damn it, Granny. I won’t pull the plug.”

Her smile was the one she always gave me when I was being particularly dense. “Don’t you think I know that? If I left it to you I’d be here for another ninety-seven years.”

Still smiling, she reached out, touched the respirator. The numbers on the screen began to change.

“There.” she said, almost gaily. “Almost over. Just enough time to enjoy the sunrise.”

Leaning over, she kissed me gently on the cheek. She felt warm and smelled, as she always did, of lavender. “I love you, Anna. I always will.”

And she was gone.

There was nothing left to say, nothing more to do.

So I simply sat beside her, watching the numbers on the screen drop steadily towards zero, and held her hand as she enjoyed the sunrise one last time.

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