Greenwood, Kansas, Heather's Apartment
I was studying French in our apartment's living room when someone knocked on the door.
"Heather!" my brother, Jake, yelled from his bedroom. "Someone's at the door."
Little brothers. What a pain.
Regardless, the knock on the door was a perfect distraction, because I hadn't been able to concentrate on my homework with hot Ryan on my mind. He was adorable, with soft brown eyes and slightly curly brown hair. Mom thought long hair looked terrible on boys, but I thought it was just right, just like his sweet smile. It was just a shame it was April and he wasn't playing football. He was the varsity quarterback, and did I say he was adorable yet? Yep. He was way adorable, but he knew it, too. I just wished he'd get rid of that stupid friend, Derek, who was another football player. Derek was probably the most evil person I knew and I suspected he made Ryan mean. Peer pressure was the pits and those jocks stuck together.
That's when it hit me. Maybe that was Ryan at the door and he'd ditched Derek. I jumped off the couch, making all my books fall to the floor, but I didn't care. I had to see if Ryan finally decided I was worthy enough to date, even though he never gave me the time of day. He was a senior at my high school and I was only a freshman. Granted, I'd stalked him, according to the rumor mill, so he really didn't want anything to do with me. He, Derek, and his friends actually made my life miserable. But I could always hope things would eventually turn around.
I ran to the door and twisted the knob, but before yanking it open, I considered my predicament. Mom was out on a date with Ed, the Neanderthal, and she didn't want anyone visiting our apartment when she wasn't there. However, if it was Ryan, I'd let him inside, just so I could memorize his face. What Mom didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
As soon as I skimmed my hand through my hair to make sure I didn't look horrible, I thought of what I might say to the Adonis senior. "Oh, hi." No, too cheesy. "Fancy meeting you here. Did your grandmother just move into the complex?" The thought made me chuckle, because it seemed as if everyone else in the place was old and retired. No, I'd just have to wing it.
I sighed in frustration, hoping my hair looked okay. I had long brown hair with red highlights and should've fit in with the cheerleader-types at school. But they had cool eyes to go with their long hair, while mine were just blue. Big plain blue eyes. My eyes weren't striking at all, frustrating me. Maybe Ryan would notice my hair and ignore my eyes, since I wasn't allowed to wear makeup yet. Mom was such a stick-in-the-mud.
With my hopes and excitement at their highest level, I yanked open the door…but in that instant, my hopes were dashed and my excitement plummeted. It wasn't Ryan.
My shoulders fell and my heart sank. It was some little old lady, more plump than tall with gray hair, wearing an apron that said, 'What's your plan for eternity?' Great. I was just trying to get through the day and she wanted to talk about eternity? Since eternity wasn't anytime soon, it definitely wasn't on my radar.
"Hello," the older woman said with a smile. "I just moved in next door and wondered if you had some sugar I could borrow. I'm making chocolate chip cookies and ran out."
Welcome to my life, a complete social coma. My world consisted of high school, where I was less than a nobody, and this old-people's apartment complex.
I guess I had to be nice to this woman and let her come inside the apartment to get the sugar, but Mom wouldn't be happy if she found out. Jake would tell, too, because he loved getting me in trouble. Little brothers were just annoying, in general.
"I can get you the sugar," I said. "Mom won't let me have anyone in the apartment."
"Your mother is wise," the woman said. "My name's Mildred VanDerLanHootsonBickHamson."
With my mouth hanging open in confusion, I stared at the woman, wondering how she could ever remember, or spell, her own last name. "Uh, what would you like me to call you? I don't think I can remember your last name."
The woman chuckled. "Blame my dead husband, Frank. I do every day…" She stopped and bit her lips. "Sorry. I shouldn't do that." She looked upward. "Bless his soul."
What an odd character.
"Call me Mildred," she said, watching me again. I could've sworn I saw a twinkle in her eye. "Granny Millie if you want." She moved her head slightly to the right and stared behind me. "I think something's burning in your apartment."
"It is?" I spun on my heel, raced to the oven, yanked open the door, and batted at the waves of black smoke billowing out into the kitchen. The smoke detector wailed, making me hold my ears.
"Would you like help?" the woman asked from the door, raising her voice.
"I'd love some help. This was dinner and we have nothing else to eat. Mom was supposed to go grocery shopping but she didn't yet."
Granny Millie ran over, grabbed some potholders, and pulled the TV dinner out of the oven. She dropped it into the sink and flipped on the faucet, dousing the small lasagna in a cascade of water. After flicking on the fan above the stove, she opened a few windows. Within minutes, the smoke detector stopped howling, even though smoke still hung in the air, making me cough.
"Way to go," Jake said, waltzing into the room while clapping. As soon as he saw Granny Millie, he stopped and stared. "You're in trouble now. No one's supposed to come in here. No one."
"She's helping me so I don't burn down the building," I said. "I guess we'll have dry cereal for dinner now." I opened a cabinet door and glanced in Jake's direction. "Want dry bran flakes? We're out of milk."
We were always out of milk.
"You won't have bran flakes for dinner," Granny Millie said. "Call your mom and tell her you're coming to my place for dinner. No neighbor of mine is going to starve."
I whirled around toward the woman. "No neighbor helps another neighbor here."
"Well, I do, because I believe in the golden rule—'treat your neighbor as you'd like to be treated.' Besides, you remind me of…a relative of mine. Her name's Heather. She's a wonderful child and a sophomore in high school back in Pennsylvania."
I stared an extra moment at the woman, blinking exactly twice to make sure I wasn't dreaming. "My name's Heather, but I'm only a freshman."
"Well, you remind me of her. She has blue eyes and long brown hair, too, a lot like you. She has an older brother named John. He's in college."
"I see." This was just odd. "We really can't join you. It's just not right." Besides, even though it was doubtful, someone might see us hanging out with an old lady. Speaking of a major social coma.
The woman waved me off with a grin. "It's no imposition. I'm alone so it would be fun. Want fried chicken?"
"My favorite!" Jake yelled, running toward the door. "Which apartment's yours?"
The woman chuckled, stopping him with her hand on his arm. "Hold on, young man. The boss lady has to ask your mom first. I don't want to get you in trouble."
I grabbed the phone and dialed Mom's cell phone number.
"Yeah?" Mom said. "Talk fast. I'm on a date."
I heard chuckling in the background, certain it was Neanderthal Ed. The man had no personality. If Dad knew about him, he'd burst a gasket.
"Mom, it's Heather. Dinner burned."
"Were you watching it?" I could hear kissing sounds, making me sick.
I rolled my eyes. "Yes, Mom. A neighbor lady helped me get rid of the smoke. Can we eat at her place?"
"What's her name?"
Oh man. There's no way I could remember that last name. And her first name was… Uh-oh. I forgot. "Talk to her," I said to Mom. "She lives next to us." I handed the phone to the lady while I listened to their conversation.
"Hello?" The woman smiled. "It wasn't a crisis and I'd love to make them dinner. My name's Mildred VanDerLanHootsonBickHamson. I just moved in next door to your apartment. I was making cookies but I ran out of sugar. I came over here to borrow some more." She smiled and rattled off some digits. "I'm a grandma, so you can call me Granny Millie. Stop by when you get home and you can have some cookies with me. They're…heavenly."
I kept saying Granny Millie to myself, but my mind was on Ryan's smile instead. I wished he were here instead of an old lady who quoted things I didn't understand. How could you treat your neighbor as you'd like to be treated? Wouldn't that include being nice to yourself and thinking you were the neighbor? Or maybe not. It was very confusing.
"Yes, ma'am," Granny said over the phone, bringing me back to reality. "I just moved in and I'll be working as a hall monitor at Greenwood High School."
My stomach plunged to my toes. Granny Millie was working at my school? If she and Mom became friends… Oh, not good. Not good at all.
I had to stop this.
I grabbed the phone from Granny Millie. "Mom, we'll just stay home. Jake and I can get dry cereal. I'm sure we won't starve."
"No, you go to the neighbor's place," Mom said. "She seems really nice, and she's going to be working at your school."
I twisted around so my back was toward the older dumpy woman. "So? I don't like that idea at all," I almost whispered, covering the mouthpiece with my hand.
"Why, because she'll keep an eye on you?"
"Yeah. I don't want… Never mind."
"We'll talk when I get home. Have fun at dinner." She hung up on me, making me stare at the phone. What kind of mother was she, anyway?
"Let's go," Granny Millie said. She headed toward the door, but on her way out, she stopped at the small end table beside the couch. "What's this?" She pointed, staring downward. It was as if the letter had drawn her to the end table.
She was awfully nosy, but I didn't even know, myself. I joined her beside the couch, seeing a letter addressed to me. "I didn't notice this." I opened it, seeing a note from Derek, the evil kid at school. "Some kid wants me to join his group. No way. He's evil." I threw it on the end table and it disappeared in a puff of smoke, along with the envelope.
My eyes rounded, staring at the missing item. "You saw that, right?"
"Yes, I did." She glanced upward and nodded before returning her gaze to my face. "Underworld."
"Never mind." While still holding Jake's hand, she inched closer to the door.
"I want fried chicken," Jake said in excitement. "Can we have fruit, too? It's been a long time since I had fruit."
Now he'd done it. People were supposed to eat fruit on a regular basis, but not us. Mom couldn't be bothered with buying fruit, even the canned kind. She was trying to save every bit of money she made, but I wasn't sure why, because she never had any.
Granny Millie stopped and stared at Jake. "You're kidding me about the fruit, aren't you?"
"No," I said. I couldn't lie. "I make TV dinners at night because Mom's hardly ever home. She has tonight off, but she's out on a date. We don't buy fruit because it's too expensive."
"No fruit?" Granny Millie said, her mouth falling open. "Do you eat fruit at school?"
Jake bit his lips while I stared at her. This wouldn't end well, I could tell. But I still couldn't lie.
"Uh, no," I said.
She was silent for a moment, just watching the two of us. "Well, let's go see what I have in my pantry. I'm sure we can find something good for dinner." She sauntered out of the room with Jake in tow, while I grabbed the house key from the hook on the refrigerator. As I locked the door behind me, I worried this old lady might find out too much about our lives. Jake had better keep his mouth shut.