The Tenth Time

Note: This story was originally published in 2011 in the Tyler Laurel.

It was the worst disappointment we’d had yet to receive in our budding little lives. The night of the crimson moon’s eclipse that we’d waited and waited for was shot. Dark clouds billowed across the sky like villainous smoke, obscuring stars and satellites and red moons alike. I stood on the porch, running my hands through my hair with a groan. My baby brother took one look at my face, then burst into tears.

“Wait, wait!” I pulled his little fists down. “I’ve got an idea. Come on.”

We dashed back into the house and went to the kitchen. My grandmother sat at the table wearing a mint-green nightgown, her silver-streaked hair tied back in a loose bun. She held a mug full of hot chocolate to her lips; when we came hurtling in, she accidentally split some over her bosom.

“Grandma, it’s too cloudy to see the moon! We can’t see it! There’s too many clouds!”

“Oh, what a shame!” clucked Grandma. “You were waiting all day for that, too. Well, why don’t you sit down at the table and have some sugarless ginger snaps… I’ll fix us all some more cocoa.”

“No,” wailed my brother, who hated sugarless ginger snaps.

“We have to drive out until we see it!” I declared. My grandmother headed over to the cupboard and began to rummage about, but I would not be deterred. “The sky isn’t cloudy everywhere. We can go driving until we find it!”

“We can look it up on the internet,” my brother added. This was the solution he offered to all problems, including my uncle’s impending divorce.

“Oh honey, no,” said Grandma. “It’s too late for driving! Your grandfather and I are already in our pajamas. Why don’t you turn on the television, they’ll put pictures of the eclipse on the news.”

“That’s not the SAME!” I shouted. I didn’t want to see the red moon eclipse on television! You could see everything on television or the stupid internet… I could see a blue or a green or a tie-dye moon eclipse if I wanted to, and it wouldn’t be any different than seeing a two-headed llama or a magician floating in between buildings, because it was all inside a screen, not right in front of me. This was my chance to watch something rare and beautiful unfold before my very eyes, and I was going to miss it because of pajamas and clouds with bad timing?

“It’s not the same! It’s not! I’ll miss it! If I miss it, I may never get another chance to see it before I die!”

“Oh, Sophie, don’t be ridiculous.”

“It’s not ridiculous! It’s a space phenomenon!”

“I said no.”

“It’s not fair! It’s just because I can’t drive. It’s not fair that I… I…” My nine-year-old brain scrambled for the right words. “Depend on you, when you’re so old!”

My grandmother was a kind and fair woman, and that was honestly the first time she and I ever came to a head over something. A cold gleam seeped into the corners of her blue eyes, like muted anger or the tip of a steel-cased tear. She put the mugs for our cocoa back in the cupboard and shut it sharply.

“Sophie, you are a child, and I am an adult. It’s nothing to do with being old. It’s responsibility. I’ve already let you stay up two hours past your bedtime, to say nothing of Andrew – and you have the… the gall to come in here, yelling at me?” She walked back to the table, sat, and took a distracted sip from her mug. “To be honest, I’m very disappointed”

It was horrible. Not only was I going to miss the red moon’s eclipse, but Grandma was disappointed in me. I hadn’t even known grandmothers could be disappointed in you. They were always so busy being proud of your stick-dogs and button jars and dandelion bouquets – Grandma’s solemn tone and averted eyes were their very own horrible sort of phenomenon.

I couldn’t help it. I started crying, loud. Andrew stared up at me, shocked, before moving his own jaw up and down in imitation, and then he was crying too. Grandma ignored us, which only caused our caterwauling to increase in volume and misery.

“Gina! Tell those brats to shut up, I can’t hear the damn television!” my grandfather yelled from the adjacent room. This wasn’t particularly upsetting since he always addressed us in this way.

“Now look, stop before you make Granddad miss his shows,” admonished Grandma. Granddad had already turned them off, though. I heard the canned laughter being sucked into a black hole. He came swaggering down the hall and leaned against the doorway, fat face grizzled and squinting. Andrew quit crying, always awestruck by the sight of our grandfather standing (he spent most of his days parked inside an armchair), but I kept it up.

“What the hell did you do, Gina, sit on Sophie’s hamster?” Granddad asked, fixing me with a gruffly incredulous frown. In between snivels, I jutted my chin out at him. He wasn’t going to make light of this tragedy, not like he did everything else in life.

“Oh, she’s all in a tizzy over that red eclipse or whatever it’s called,” my grandmother replied. “And now she’s angry because I won’t take her and Andrew out driving in the middle of the night to see it.”

“Red eclipse? That’s unmitigated horse-shit, Sophie, eclipses are black. Turn the whole sky black. Why are you crying over something that doesn’t even exist? Most ridiculous thing I’ve heard since all that Santa bull.”

“Santa?” queried Andrew and Grandma cleared her throat nervously.

“I-it’ duh-does exist,” I whimpered. “Grandma’s just suh-suh-sayin’ it wrong. It’s a ruh-red muh-moon tonight and, and it’s gonna eclipse.”

Granddad took one hand out of his pocket. It was spotted and gnarled all over with twisty blue veins. He scratched the grey stubble on his chin with yellow fingernails.

“Is that so?” he mused. “A red moon?”

“Yuh-yes.” And even though I normally refrained from handing him details, as his love for mockery knew no bounds, I added, “I learned about it in January and now I’ve been waiting three muh-months.”

My grandfather didn’t say anything. He watched me for a long time – or maybe just a time without speaking, which was rare for him. In the end, he shrugged and tossed his head towards the front door.

“Let’s get the damn car started then, Sophie.”

I couldn’t believe it. This was the man who said if I ever brought a stray cat home again, he’d shoot it. That I couldn’t be a Brownie in the Girl Scouts because it leads to domestic abuse, that if I tried to play my clarinet in the house again he’d shove it down my throat. (“Play in the woods and torture some coyotes to death for me, wontcha? Heh heh heh.”) Why help me with this? This wasn’t anything crucial. In fact, busted tear ducts aside, I was being unreasonable and childish in my demands for a night-run to find the moon.

Grandma was flabbergasted as well. “It is past ten o’ clock!”

“Thanks cuckoo,” Granddad replied, sauntering out into the hall.

“She needs to be put to bed!”

“She will when we get back. Put Andrew up, will ya before he figures out he can’t come.”

Of course, Andrew already knew – I don’t know why Granddad always talked like Andrew couldn’t understand us.

“Why?” he asked plaintively. “Why can’t I come?”

“Because you don’t even know what’s going on. You just want to be a part of it,” said Granddad. I disagreed, silently. I’d told Andrew about the eclipse, drawn pictures, let him in on my excitement. And I know if he’d seen it, it would have left an impression. But in my confusion and relief at being taken, I abandoned him without a second thought. In moments, Granddad and I were headed out the door, into the night, closing Grandma’s fuming and Andrew’s betrayed cries behind us.

“Come on, you get in the back of the truck. Lay down and keep your eyes peeled for your red moon.”

I looked at the truck bed, then up at him. “Grandma will kill you.”

“Grandma won’t know, or the only red moon you’ll see is the one hanging over your grave.” He arched an eyebrow. “Well? Get in the damn truck if you’re done being wishy-washy!”

I hoisted myself up and laid down on top of dead wasps and aluminum beer cans. The cloudy sky above was framed by towering pine trees. I listened to Granddad’s footsteps as he stomped into the driver’s seat. He jerked the key and the engine rumbled; my little body flew up and hit the bed, repeatedly, as soon as he started down the country road.

The back of the truck was hard and not at all easy on the shoulders, but I didn’t mind. The night air smelled sweet, and the wind pushed its way over the truck and over me, freezing the tip of my nose, sending chills up my spine. Every tree we moved past rustled magnificently.

A few other cars zoomed by, with radios blaring, and for the first time, I understood why Granddad insisted we never touch the dial in his truck. It was so jarring, that blast of electronic voices. We encountered them less and less as we drove on, and I half-imagined, half-believed, we were driving somewhere no one else knew the way to.

The clouds eventually began to dwindle, and then I saw it – a red glow. The truck hurtled north, and the curtain of clouds drifted east… and there it was. The crimson moon.

“Granddad!” I exclaimed, standing up, but he shook his hand back through the window dismissively. So I sat down, Indian style, and gazed up at the sky. Coyotes howled in the distance. I wondered if it was a different kind of cry for the red moon.

I huddled into a little ball, hugging my knees and craning my neck at the ruby red moon above. It wasn’t as though it were soaked or painted… no, more like someone had rolled it around in red dust. I held out my hands, and they were red too, bathed in moonlight. I waited for the eclipse to set in.

“Your Great-Grandpa wanted me to watch an eclipse with him once.”

I nearly jumped out of my clothes. Granddad was sitting at the edge of the truck bed suddenly, glowing red.

“But I just told him to piss off.”

My image of Granddad as a teenager was one on par with Granddad as he was now, so this confession did not surprise me.

“Figured he was drunk. My old man, he was always drunk. Stumbling around the house, singing till he was hoarse. I hated that rotten smell. Like drenched sour fruit. Hated it. When your mom took to it, broke my heart.”

I had never heard him mention my mother since her funeral. I couldn’t help but take my eyes off the sky. I focused instead on my grandfather’s back and shoulders, glowing red with moonlight.

“Anyway, it was ‘round midnight, and I’d already been asleep about an hour. Next thing I know, old man comes barging in, dragging me out of bed and babbling how it was starting. Eclipse’s starting, and we had to see it.”

“…did you?”

“Hell no. My old man was always trying to get me to see things. Dead mother, missile volleys, sunrises at two AM… he drowned his eyeballs in liquor every damn night. I figured this was no exception and told him off. He sorta whined, pleaded with me to go out with him, but I pulled the covers over my head and made out like I wasn’t listening. I heard him shuffle away, then I heard him crying in the hall. Nothing new.”

Granddad shrugged.

“Come next day, I found out everyone and their dying pet goldfish was out watching the eclipse night previous. Practically everyone but me and my old man. I felt bad. ‘bout the only time I ever did feel bad for him.”

He was silent, then turned, and his red face fixed me with a scrutinizing look.

“There’s one thing I want you to understand, Sophie. People in life, they’re gonna disappoint you, nine times out of ten. The tenth time, though, it’s most likely you’re gonna be the one disappointing them. That’s why you gotta be careful. Understand?”

I didn’t. I nodded, but I didn’t. Granddad turned away and we watched the moon. I wondered what drunk was. It always came up in grownup talk. And why my Great Grandfather saw his wife and missiles and stuff nobody else could. I didn’t know what Granddad was trying to tell me. I only knew he was feeling old, and a little heavy with regret.

It started, and there was no more time for reflection. Shadows started to crowd the bottom of the moon. They clambered across, and it looked like the night was eating it up, slowly, slowly, ever so slowly. For so long, we sat, watching the moon disappear. The red light disappeared from my hands. The truck, the stars, Granddad, everything illuminated was gone. All was quiet. It was as though the world’s breath had been sucked out of it.

“I love you, Granddad,” I said, in that silence. You see, that’s the one thing I, wanted him, to understand.

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