Cheryl hosts a family reunion, but an uninvited guest showed up.
A Family Mystery
Cheryl plopped down next to her husband, Leon, and expelled a heavy sigh. She glanced over at Leon, his face broadcast his displeasure. She'd better not bother him now. Instead, she plodded through her mind again and again. How did her relatives talk her into hosting the family reunion at her house? Somebody must have hinted at it, but for the life of her, she couldn't figure out who. Her manipulative mother was an easy target. She'd been doing it since Cheryl was a child, but the worst part is that her own father often joined in with her. Trying to fend off both of them proved to be a futile exercise. It was easier to save her breath. But for some reason, Cheryl didn't think it was her parent's idea. Not this time.
Could it have been Benny, her younger brother? He wasn't married and lived in town. His job, not career, didn't pay much, so he'd be the perfect one to want to keep the reunion close to home. For Cheryl, that may have been the best thing anyway. If it was anywhere out of town, he'd be begging her for airfare.
Now Sarah, her older sister, wouldn't do it. She was too mousey to suggest anything like that. In fact, Cheryl wasn't sure if Sarah would even show up. She'd always been well-behaved and never got into any real trouble, and that bothered Cheryl. How would Sarah handle her kids if they were being mischievous? The answer was easy: she'd let her husband, Derrick, handle it.
Well, that eliminated the nuclear family. It must have been someone from out of town. Was it Aunt...? No. That's not in her nature, but it fits perfectly with Cousin Amelia. She'd do anything to leave New Jersey, even if it meant coming back down to Biloxi, Mississippi. She lost enough money in Atlantic City and trying her luck at those waterfront Casinos on the Gulf of Mexico would surely bring her luck.
She couldn't figure out who the culprit was. A sudden insight into her wicked and conniving family entered her mind: it was a conspiracy! They all had a hand in it. Subtle questions about her home and the number of rooms, how close they lived to the airport, and traffic into and out of Biloxi. She'd been suckered in and she knew it. She should have known better, but it was too late now. Her only saving grace was that the reunion would be limited. Some chose to stay in hotels during their trip, but they would all meet up at her house. Dammit, a house full of her family. What type of deviltry would that breed?
The doorbell rang. Cheryl gazed over at Leon through the crowd that had already gathered in the dining room. She could see he was bothered but was a good sport about the influx of her family. They'd been very accepting of him, especially since he held such a good job and could afford this nice, spacious home. The door opened. It was Benny, dressed in something he considered appropriate for the gathering. A striped shirt buttoned to the top but hanging out at the bottom covering up the growing paunch around his waist. When the kids moved aside, she could see he didn't bother to iron his pants. And sporting sneakers? He could at least have worn some cloth, casual shoes (he probably couldn't afford them!). Oh well, that's her younger brother.
Other relatives milled around the house talking to one another and introduced themselves. There was no shortage of hugs going around, and the same was true with their appetites. She stocked up on store-bought snack platters. Trying to cook for that mob would be more than she could handle. She did prepare a large pot of spaghetti and purchased five jars of sauce. Another pot contained chili, and in the refrigerator, were ten packages of hot dogs and buns. That should satisfy the kids and adults for a while. Her two kids, Terrance and Bobby, were consumed with their phones along with the other kids. At least they weren't underfoot.
A conversation in the corner caught her ear. Her parents were discussing the old days, being a young couple living in Chicago back then. Cheryl remembered those days. Carefree except for the weird neighborhood they grew up in. They weren't poor, but definitely, lower middle class (or was it upper lower class?). The kids she grew up and went to school with got in their share of trouble, but nothing very serious. Then her parents recalled their odd next-door neighbor. An old woman they'd barely seen all the time they lived in the small house. Cheryl and her young friends thought that she was a witch and they would torment the old gal by ringing her doorbell and running away. Sometimes they'd stand in front of the house and call for the witch to come outside. It was shameful, but back then, there were no video games to waste their time.
Sarah came over and joined the conversation. She remembered the old gal. Sarah was the rational one, urging the others to stop teasing the lady, but Cheryl knew Sarah held her own reservations. Something wasn't right about the lady, and they would make up stories about her right before they were told to go to bed. Soon, Cousin Amelia came over and joined the conversation.
"I heard ya'll way over there. There's an old lady living next to me right now. I've seen her in the backyard only a few times. Sometimes she comes outside with a cane, and other times, without it. She never speaks to me, even if I say hello, so now I just ignore her and go about my own business. I ain't got time for that old biddy!"
Cheryl's father said, "Yep. The old lady living next to us back then was the same way. I don't know how she lived for so long. I never saw her go out for groceries, and I know she had to be on some sort of medication. That hump on her back didn't add to her beauty. Nope, not one bit."
Cheryl's mother replied, "Now Darren, be nice! She wasn't that bad."
"Did she ever speak to you?" he asked.
"Well, no. But that's no reason to speak mean about her. She was old and probably set in her ways. That's no reason to bad mouth her."
Amelia chimed in and said, "Why not? I mean she could have at least said hello. That old bag next to me right now is the same way. She never speaks. I don't care anymore."
Cheryl watched as other relatives came over and joined the conversation with each of them spilling their guts about their own odd neighbors. How did this damn conversation begin in the first place? Then it dawned on her that her current next-door neighbor was an old woman whom she barely saw. Now, what are the chances that so many relatives had old women living next to them?
This wasn't the type of talk she thought should be taking place during a supposed joyful reunion. Instead, everyone should be giving updates to each other about their families, not discussing and gossiping about other people. But that's what her family always did, regardless of what she thought. All it took was a glance out the dining room window into her backyard to give her an idea.
"Hey, it's nice outside. The humidity isn't bad. Why don't we take this out into the backyard. Leon, me, and some of the kids can move some chairs outside and we can sit under the overhang. We can bring a little food outside but watch for the flies. The liquor and beer could be brought out also. Whadaya say?" It was unbelievable, but they all consented without giving her any lip. When was the last time that had ever happened?
There was plenty of movement as everyone shuffled around, making small plates and pouring themselves their preferred libations. After about twenty minutes, everyone had settled down and the conversation shifted toward the weather. Those from the northern climates complained about the snow like they always did. Cheryl had heard the same gripes for many years, and she always asked them why they don't move somewhere where it's warmer. The only thing she got in return was excuses and some of them so lame, she dismissed them. If they wanted to freeze their asses off during the winter, it's their problem. She'd had enough of snow a long time ago, and she moved to Biloxi for that very reason.
She gazed over at all the kids, still engaged with their phones, barely speaking to one another. They'd all become anti-social in her eyes. She wandered over and gazed at her eldest's screen. All of them participated in an electronic conversation! What? They sat right next to one another but chose to text each other. What's this world coming to? She reached down and snatched his phone.
"Hey! All of you. Give me your phones right now. I'll give them back in an hour, but right now, just talk to one another. Is it too hard to talk? Use your vocal cords for a change. Go out into the sun and let it hit you. You all act like vampires from that damn Twilight movie or something. Move around, jump up and down. Hell, wrestle each other if you want, but get off your asses!"
The rolling eyes and side stares attacked her simultaneously, but she didn't care. They'd know what she was talking about once they hit their senior years and found it harder and harder to move around. She watched as they dragged themselves out into the sun, dropping their head to shy away from the sunlight (just like damn vampires).
She returned to the adult conversations which had shifted over to money issues. Not the type of conversation she expected, but everyone else seemed engaged, with Benny leading it. He was searching for a handout from someone...anyone. But she knew it would fail. Those that flew in for the reunion had spent enough of their hard-earned cash just for the trip, and she and Leon stopped with the handouts long ago. Even Sarah was wary of Benny.
She turned when she heard the kids started talking loudly and pointing. At least they were talking. "Excuse me. Let me go see what those kids are up to," Cheryl said. She stepped onto the grass and approached them. "What are you doing?"
Her eldest replied, "The old lady next-door over there. Look. She's at the fence staring at us."
Cheryl's eyes shifted to the fence, and sure enough, the old lady stood there with her cane, stooped over with her long, stringy grey hair hanging off her shoulders.
"Hello," Cheryl said while waving. The lady didn't respond. Cheryl heard footsteps approaching her. She turned. It was Cousin Amelia.
"Who are you waving at, dear?"
"My neighbor, but she's ignoring me."
"Oh my God!" Amelia dropped her plate.
"The old lady who lives next-door to me! How'd she get down here?"
Cheryl's father and mother approached and gazed over at the fence..
"It can't be! It's impossible!" her father said. His drink spilling from his tilted cup.
"She should be dead!" her mother replied.
"What are you talking about?" Cheryl asked.
"Cheryl, that's the old lady who lived next-door to us when you were young."
"No, that's my next-door neighbor now!" Amelia replied.
At least four other family members, older and younger came over and stated the same thing including Benny and Sarah.
Cheryl gazed back at the old woman with the humpback, and for the first time, the old woman acknowledged her and lifted her head. Her cloudy eyes stared through Cheryl, and her sinister sneer made Chery's flesh crawl.