Sundress by Robert Shapard

She hadn’t seen her children or grandchildren for so long she sometimes forgot she had them. Then Child Protective Services found her. They brought one she didn’t know about, a four-year-old grandchild (or was she a great-grandchild?), Lucy. The mother had died of a drug overdose, they said. There was some monetary support involved, there was no one else, so she said all right.

Her house was near the town of Mount Hood, Oregon, not far from the Interstate and the railroad and the river, with a view of the mountains beyond. She didn’t have Internet but got it at the coffee shop in town.

In no time they were close, Lucy and Gramma, a great pair, and she began to worry that she might die before the girl was along in her schooling and the other arrangements for her life. Of course Gram quit smoking, but that wouldn’t be enough. It always came down to this moment.

Lucy was by her side on the back porch glider, a lovely late afternoon. She said, Sweetie go play in the yard, Gramma has something to do. The back yard was large but gated, she didn’t keep livestock anymore, just chickens, fruit trees, vegetable and flower gardens.

She went into the house and in the bedroom took off her clothes. In a large closet was the cedar chest she hadn’t opened in years. Inside it she found a sundress from long ago. It was so pretty. She laid it out on the bed. In the bathroom she went into a brief trance. Then with a deep breath she pulled off her old skin and dropped it on the hamper. She took a shower and by the time she got out she had changed into a young woman. Her new skin was lustrous and soft and her hair was dark. In the bedroom again she put on the sundress, which she filled beautifully, and went outside to call Lucy.

The girl was near the porch. When she turned her eyes went wide and she asked, Who are you? The young woman said, I’m Gram, can’t you see? She said softly, Look close. But the girl’s face was set. No you’re not. Who are you, where’s Gram?

It was all coming back, how terrified a child could be, how bewildered. This time she hoped it would be different. She had to admit she was surprised at her own voice, how young and pleasant it was. Sweetie, she said, It is me, I wanted to show you, you can do this too when you get old. No one has to die if they don’t want to, isn’t that wonderful? She reached to scoop the girl up but she darted away in the gathering evening. I want Gram, she screamed, again and again. It wouldn’t be easy to catch her. And what was the point? If a child didn’t accept, it was over.

So Gram went back in the house and in the bathroom pulled on her old skin again. In the closet she laid the sundress away and put on her old clothes. Of course the girl didn’t want to be alone. How cold to be among strangers. It was the way of the world, not to want to live alone even forever if you could have love instead. She went out the screen door and saw the girl sitting in the dark of the yard. Lucy, she called, clearing her throat.

The girl sat up staring, then she ran to her, gulping for a breath, A woman came … she said she was you! Oh she did, did she? Gram said. Well we won’t worry about that, I’m here now. Lucy held her leg fiercely, Gram, she said, Youre my Gram.

It was time to feed the child and put her to bed. In the kitchen afterwards she did the dishes, found the cigarettes where she’d hidden them, and poured some whiskey in a jelly glass. Tomorrow she would call Child Protective Services to make other arrangements for the girl. It was best for her. As for herself she could get along without the money, she had before. She had no business raising a child at her age, what if she died? Sooner or later she would.

Robert Shapard has co-edited seven books of very short fiction, including Flash Fiction Forward, Flash Fiction International, and Sudden Fiction Latino. He co-founded Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing. His longer stories have won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses; his flash chapbook is Motel and Other Stories.

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