Continued from: Part 2: The Phone Call
Still dripping with chlorine-saturated pool water, I followed my mother and sister out to the parking lot to the beat-up clunker that we call a car. When I saw my mother sticking keys into a car I thought she had mistaken a stranger’s car for ours because a small brunette girl I did not recognize was sitting at the backseat. Suddenly I realized that it has to be our car, since no other car used a metal coat-hanger as an FM antenna. Because my mother and Emily both chose to sit in the front I was forced to sit in the backseat with an apparent stranger. I wanted to make a good first impression, hard to do while drenching wet and reeking of the smell of chlorine and kiddie pee. I tried wringing out as much water from my hair and clothes as the limits of human strength permits. Nonetheless I was still dripping, and repulsed by my appearance and smell the strange little girl scooted away from me as I entered the car and sat next to her.
I glanced at her a few times and thought that she looked rather pretty, (even though I was ten years old the concept of attractive women was not foreign to me) so I was enticed into trying to communicate with her.
“Hi,” I said, greeting the girl with a friendly smile and wave.
She did not respond to my question, instead she turned her head to look at me with a cold stare as she crept her body away from me. She then turned her head away face the car window, seemingly staring blankly at the clouds. I interpreted her coldness as hostility towards me, and did not attempt to speak to her for the remainder of the ride. We arrived home quickly, when we did so I immediately ran towards my room for a fresh change of clothes and then upon returning back to the living room I saw that same strange girl sitting at the kitchen table like a statue, or more precisely a well-done wax sculpture. There appeared an expression of anger on her face, but what I found more disturbing was that no part of her body had moved during the entire time I was staring at her, not even an occasional blink which I would expect from a living and breathing human being.
I walked close to her and started waving my hand in front of her face. She did not turn her head or change her expression but seemed to stare aimlessly at the floor. Her gaze was not diffused like that of a mentally challenged individual, she seemed to be concentrating on the floor staring at a spot the size of a penny. She appeared so stiff I had to make sure she wasn’t suffering from rigor mortis. I tried touching her wrist to feel if there’s a pulse, but as she felt my fingers lightly brushing against her arm she leapt from her seat and ran into my room and locked the door shut.
I started banging at the door and saying, “Come out, it’s not like I was going to eat you.”
At that point my mother walked past me and started yelling, “Don’t bother your cousin! I thought you know better than to make girls cry!”
“I’m not bothering my cousin, I’m merely trying to comfort the strange girl you brought home, and besides I’ve only made my sister cry once and it’s no use reopening old wounds.”
“That strange little girl is your cousin,” my mother remarked, “don’t you remember? It was two years ago so you might not have any recollections, but at the Christmas we spent over at Uncle Cecil’s place in Los Angeles don’t you remember that shy little girl who won’t come out of her room? That was your cousin Caroline.”
Once mom mentioned her name I suddenly remembered. The reason I couldn’t recognize her was because the last time I saw her she was bald due to a side effect of the medication she was taking. She didn’t looked pretty then but since her hair has grown back and her ringworm cleared up she became gorgeous. Up until that point in my life I’ve only seen her twice, the first time when she was four years old and I was four also. She was a rather lively child who ran around the living room in nothing but her underwear. In the evening my Uncle Cecil sat her down on his lap (fully clothed) and read to her from a children’s book. Little did I know that this seemingly vivacious girl was suffering from leukemia, though it made sense later why my Uncle Cecil would read a book to Caroline about a small boy who went bald from taking medicine, a story I found odd at the time. My mom was visiting Caroline at the time so she could see her niece for the last time before she died, being the eternal pessimist.
Fortunately after chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, followed by remission, followed by another transplant because the first one didn’t take, followed by remission, my cousin was still alive. Because of the previous failed transplant my mother did not believe that this transplant will take either, so she made another trip to see her niece for the last time again, and this was the visit to Uncle Cecil during Christmas two years ago. It was not just that she couldn’t come out of her room as it was discouraged by doctors that she should not have close contact with other human beings, since her immunity was virtually nonexistent due to the chemotherapy even as much as catching a cold could be fatal.
We were only allowed to watch her from a distance, and when I saw her I was appalled, she was emaciated like she has walked out of Auschwitz. Completely pallid and without luster in her skin, the medication that was supposed to cure her seemed to be starving her to death. On top of that the lack of immunity due to both the disease and its treatment had also contributed to her state, I was told that this was what AIDS was like in its terminal stages before antivirals. It was not a beautiful sight, the chemotherapy had made her partially bald. I even saw her playing with her hair when suddenly she pulled a large clump out of her scalp leaving a sizable bald spot, and she suffered from a few fungal infections (up until then I didn’t know you could get fungal infections in the throat).
I didn’t think anybody expected her to survive at that point, but apparently she did though her disease had left permanent marks on her body. Due to the harshness of her therapy she is smaller than a what a normal person of her age should be. Even though she was ten years old her body was more of the size of a six year old’s, but I’m glad she’s alive at all. Now that I had realized this everything made sense, mom told us yesterday that Uncle Cecil and his family was coming all the way up here to see our new house in Cupertino, he must have been bringing his daughter along to show us how well she is doing. I was also amazed at Caroline’s progress, she no longer looked like a corpse, she had meat in addition to skin and bones, and her skin and hair had a shiny luster to them.
But the presence of Caroline left another question unresolved, where were Uncle Cecil and Aunt Dana? Mom was standing in the kitchen preparing dinner, I walked up to her and asked, “Isn’t Caroline supposed to come with Uncle Cecil and Aunt Dana?”
Mom was reaching for the monosodium glutamate as I asked her, she turned her head at me with a look of dread, as though thinking of a way to gingerly break bad news to a ten-year-old kid.
“Ricky my dear, Uncle Cecil and my sister died a gruesomely painful death a few hours ago.”
“You’re kidding,” I said in a flat voice because I didn’t know what tone to use in response to the death of a loved one.
“No, I know they’re dead because I saw their corpses just two hours ago. The back Aunt Dana’s head was split and despite efforts of the coroner to make her wound less ghastly by pushing in some of her brains that have fallen out, I saw them. The face of Uncle Cecil was burnt beyond recognition, even though they told me I couldn’t recognize him I insisted so they showed me. Indeed his face was completely charred, to the point that his nose had fallen off.”
I had always thanked my mother for giving me these interesting mental images to ponder over when I’m sitting on the toilet.
“If their bodies were so gruesome, why did you insist on seeing them?”
“It was my last opportunity to see my sister and my brother-in-law; I don’t want to have an open-casket funeral, such things ruin my appetite,” she said, then took a ladle and dipped into the pot of hot soup she was cooking, tasted it and announced, “It needs more salt.”
“If I would have your permission I’d like to skip dinner,” I said in an uneasy tone.
“Why? I’m starving,” my mother said, sticking a fork into a piece of carrot to see how tender it was.
“May I ask how they died?”
“The details of this are not clear, but from what we know they were driving north on Highway 17 when they accidentally swerved off down the mountainside. The car flipped over a few times before it hit a tree and burst into flames; Caroline was the only survivor. From what we could reconstruct about the accident Aunt Dana died instantly when her head was thrown against the car door. Uncle Cecil met a much more painful death, from what Caroline told us he was injured but conscious after the accident, then after Caroline walked out the car burst into flames and burned Uncle Cecil’s head until his brain boiled and he expired.”
“That was more detail than I wanted to know,” I said honestly.
“Hey! You only have to deal with the fact that relatives you hardly knew have died, but Dana was my sister and Cecil…I didn’t know much about him but he’s the closest thing I have to a brother. Ricky, if you hear soft sobbing coming from my room please don’t enter to disturb me, as you can imagine it has been a hard day for me.”
I slowly slinked away from mom and headed for my room when sudden I bumped into Emily. “Have you heard what happened to Uncle Cecil and Aunt Dana?”
She stood back and tried recalling information from the cavernous depths of her memory, “Uncle Cecil, Cecil, Cecil…who was he?”
“He lived in Los Angeles, ran a cement company, his clothes smelled like fish…”
“Oh, for a moment there I forgot we had a person by that name in our family. It’s difficult to remember these far-flung relatives because I only see them on Christmas or Thanksgiving or when they turn up dead in the pool of the Playboy Mansion. I remember Cecil, he liked sitting me on his lap and tell me stories about being a sergeant in the Vietnam war, and allowed me to sip from his cup of wine and become the world’s youngest connoisseur.”
“Unfortunately you can’t relive those experiences, because Cecil had a car accident and didn’t survive,” I said in the most deadpan voice I could muster.
Emily was more surprised than saddened by the news, then looked pensively as though reminiscing memories of a good friend, “Good old Cecil, he was a funny man, too bad I didn’t get to know him better, to have him die this young is a pity.”
“He wasn’t that young, didn’t you see those gray streaks in his hair and fine lines by his eye?”
“I don’t pay attention to those details, all I saw when I stared into his face is that of a handsome young man who can still turn heads if he dresses in a formal suit and change his Nikes with dress shoes.”
“Hold your admiration for your pretty boy ’cause his face ain’t no look so pretty no more.”
“I never called Uncle Cecil ‘pretty boy,’ and why are you purposefully using bad grammar?”
“I know, but when you mentioned the name of Cecil I see your face full of admiration, the same kind of expression that melodramatic teenage girls have when they see their favorite male singer face to face. You talk about Cecil with the same kind of bewilderment in your voice when you talk about Justin Timberlake. Besides, triple negatives pose no logical paradox; double negatives are what we have to watch out for.”
“So Uncle Cecil is really dead, he didn’t become a vegetable or gone into prison?” “Uncle Cecil is a person who’s too crazy for the state to send into prison, and if he’s a vegetable then he must be a really well-cooked vegetable; his skin is burnt to a crisp carbon black but his brains is cooked to the point of being tenderly delicious.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ll understand it better when mother explains to you everything.”
Continue to: Part 4: First Conversation with Caroline