Georgia Sunrise by Zachary Crain
Tiana Wolfe spent every summer of her childhood with her grandfather. He was a tall man, at least it looked that way from the perspective of an eight year old girl; and he had a kind, rosy face. While reflecting in her adult life, he seemed to have a mythical aspect to his personality. He was wise, telling her stories from decades past with a shocking twist, and an archetypal lesson contained in each one. Words flowed warmly from under his peppered grey mustache, and he ran his hands across his handsome cheeks and his empty scalp as he spoke. She could recall nestling her head into his sweater every night as they sat on his front porch. He always wore a dark blue sweater she had gotten for him on his sixty-third birthday, reading:
Their days together would always follow the same loose, comfortable schedule, that consisted of only what they wanted to do. Tiana would rise whenever was comfortable for her, which was usually around 9:30am, preferring a long night’s sleep. She would eat whatever she wanted, usually either a small bowl of Mini Wheats or two scrambled eggs (Paps had taught her to make these, although she was only nine). Eating would take her around half an hour, just enough time to finish watching an episode of ‘The Jetsons’ on Boomerang. She would then put her plate in the sink and wash it out. Paps always took care of the rest. From there, she would go outside to see Paps either mowing, or working in his tomato garden. He lived on a large property, so sometimes she had to search for him if she heard the mower humming. “Beautiful morning, Ti-ti!” he would yell at her as soon as he saw her, as he continued to do his work. Sometimes it would rain, and he would be sitting in his garage drinking coffee. Tiana liked these days, because she would get to slide across the smooth grey concrete, and Paps would come inside the house and talk to her much earlier. Rainy mornings were rare in the Georgia summer though, so most mornings she would have to go inside and prepare for the day on her own. She would shower and brush her teeth, slide on a one-piece bathing suit and shorts, and head back outside through the garage. There, Paps would be sitting leaned deeply into his white lawn chair, with a root beer in hand. Paps did not drink real beer, like Tiana’s parents. He always had a chair set up beside his, and Tiana would run through the gravel to the front of the garage, and slide down next to him. She slumped as he did, and he never corrected her posture. The two sat there in silence for a moment, Paps not enforcing the silence like most adults did. Instead, letting his granddaughter watch his own smile and nod in the Georgia sunshine, which lead her to do the same. This was very different than most adults she had seen, who yelled and complained if you didn’t appreciate the moment as they clearly were. After a moment of this, in which time didn’t matter, the pair would stumble inside laughing, with Paps picking at her as he often did.
“The gators’ll gecha’ out on the water if you aint careful!” he told her on their last summer day together, as they walked inside after completing the morning ritual.
“Paaps, stooop, no they won’t” she groaned back at him, stopping in her tracks and staring down at the driveway gravel they stood on. Sensing her fear, he leaned down to her face, and responded “Naw, I’ve been dealin’ with gators my whole life, and not once has one gotten the better hand on your Paps.”
Tiana shook her head positively, but still wouldn’t look up at him.
Paps let out a humbled sigh, paused and looked up, saying “Ti-ti?”
“Yes Paps?” Tiana said cutely, as young children often do to communicate feeling slighted
“Let’s go sit out on the porch, let Paps tell ya’ a story” he said with the glowing smile that had gotten him out of trouble with women and girls his whole life.
“Okay Paps!” Tiana said, finally looking up at him, flashing a close eyed grin.
Tiana and Paps walked back through the gravel and grass to the front porch, holding hands the whole way. Paps sat down on the far left end of the patio sofa, as he always did, and Tiana snuggled into him from the right.
“What story are you gonna tell me, Paps?” Tiana asked, looking up at him with big eyes
“Oh, this is a very important story for ya to hear, but you’re gonna have to be a big girl to listen, ya understand?” he looked down at her seriously
“Yes Paps, I understand” she stared up at him for a moment, and then they both laughed releasing the pressure of the moment.
“Now. You have to promise Paps you’ll understand the meaning behind this story, and not get too scared otherwise. Ya hear?”
“Yes Paps, I wont get scared”
“Good girl, now lemme ask you a question”
“Why was it you was scared earlia’ about the gators?”
“Because I don’t like them Paps”
“And why is it you don’t like the gators?”
She stared back at him for a moment, they hadn’t broken eye-contact since they sat down on the couch. “Because they’re scary Paps, gators kill people”
“That’s just what I thought you’d say, honey, so that’s what this little story imma thinkin’ about tellin’ you is for.”
“Alright Paps, please don’t make it scary,” her last word was muffled as she nudged her face into Paps’ sweater.
“Okay, sweetie” Paps said, taking in a deep breath and patting Tiana on the back before he spoke.
“When I ‘as a boy, we didn’t have a lotta land like we’ve got here now” (Paps always called his property his, even though no one had lived with his since mawmaw died).
“No, when I ‘as a boy we lived on a small farm down further south on da coastal plain” he finally broke eye contact with Tiana, staring out to the road at the end of an acre of freshly cut grass.
“We ‘as very poor, and not in the way people ‘round here are, we ‘as the type of poor that was poor in a town called ‘Ideal’, ‘magine that Te-te,” he said, starting to laugh with the mention of his hometown. “When I ‘as a boy we ain’t have too many people that lived ‘round us, and we spent most the day workin’ on peanuts, so I ‘as kinda like you.”
“How were you like me Paps?” Tiana asked, interjecting after a pause in his story.
“Well, I ‘as like you ‘cause I didn’t have any kids to go ‘round with in the summer, so I ended up spending all my time with my Grammy”
“Was she nice like you, Paps?”
“Ohh she ‘as the best woman I ever met. She was real pretty, had this long, pure grey hair that went all the way down to her butt. She didn’t like anyone touching it much, but every now and again she’d let me play with it while she told me stories.”
“She told you stories too?”
“You bet she did,” Paps said, looking down at Tiana excitedly, “she told stories much much better than I do. Sometimes I even gotta steal some of ‘em, but I can’t tell ‘em quite like she could.”
“Which ones did she tell you?”
“Well, one of ya favorites, the one about the big blue man coming down through the sky and burnin’ up all the bad people in Georgia? Well she taught me that one”
“Paps! You made me think you thought of all your stories!” Tiana said, laughing
“Well Ti-ti, not even your Paps can come into da world knowin’ everything”
Tiana sat and listened to Paps listing all of the stories they had both heard first of children, and Tiana was stunned. She couldn’t imagine her Paps being a child, nestling into the bosom of an old woman with long grey hair, and listening to stories as she did now. She began to wonder if one day she would be a beautiful woman with long grey hair and a happy grandchild listening to all of the stories she had to tell. Tiana decided that she wanted this very badly.
“She always wore this pretty red bandana, and she’d pull ‘er hair back wit’ it.” Paps said, looking back down at Tiana excitedly, “she’d sit around all day in a rockin’ chair out on our front porch, me and your great-uncles would do all the workin’ and we’d come ‘round back and she’d be sittin’ in her chair swayin’ with the breeze.”
“What did she do all day?”
“Oh! That woman did everything! O’ course we never saw any of it ‘cause we’d go to bed early as we could and she’d still be up, then we’d wake up in the mornin’ and the whole dang house would be clean, and we’d have somethin’ nice on the table to have us ready for the day.”
“She sounds like a magic woman” Tiana said, with her eyes growing as her curiosity did.
“Oh, she was magic alright!” Paps said, leaning down and lowering his voice, “Every night, she would sit on the porch and tell me stories, and she’d always say, ‘Grandson, I love you, but one day Nanny’s gonna melt away.”
“That doesn’t make her magic! That just makes her crazy!” Tiana said, laughing
“No, no, my Nana was not crazy, she really did melt away” Paps said, with an intense seriousness that caused Tiana to push herself up on his legs and open her eyes wide.
“One day, it was a nice hot summer day like the one we’ve got now, she just melted sittin’ right down in her chair on the front porch.”
Tiana looked at him, stunned, and said “how did she melt?”
Paps smiled and paused, looking back out at the road and rubbing Tiana’s back.
“Well, I ‘as about ten years old, and since I ‘as a little boy she’d been tellin’ me she’d melt away. On Sunday’s daddy wouldn’t make us work so I’d spend the whole day out on the porch with her, listenin’ to stories and eatin’ every now and again. She told me that mornin’, ‘son, today is the day I’m gonna melt.’ So I ran inside all sad and cryin’, and I told daddy and he didn’t believe me. Went outside and yelled that she ‘as a crazy woman, just like you said, fillin’ my head wit’ lies and deceit. As the day went on, we’d go outside and look up on the porch at her, and there she was! Sweatin’ as hard as I ever seen someone sweat before! Her face was lookin’ all doughy and soft and she was just a leanin’ down into her seat.”
“Thats horrible Paps, she was dying she must have hurt so bad!” Tiana said, burying her face down into Paps’ stomach.
“No, no Ti-ti, that’s the thing about it, she was just fine. After a while of looking at her all doughy and sweaty I went up on the poarch and talked to her and she was just sittin’ there, as happy as she could be. I went up and she pulled me up to her real close, I could feel her starting to melt and she just sat there and hugged me, told me she ‘as the happiest woman alive.”
“Did you not do anything to help, Paps?” Tiana questioned, looking back at him with a horrified look in her eyes.
“Of course we did! We all went out on the poarch with her and sang and prayed, we held her hands while we still could and she just kept tellin’ us it was alright, it’s her time to go”
“Did you see her melt all the way?”
“Well, we sat there for a while and we sang gospel to her, and she told us she wanted to be alone for a while. So we went inside, minded our own business for a while, then came out right after the sun went down, and she was gone. There in the rocking chair sat her pretty little red bandana and the rest of her clothes.”
Tiana buried her face into the cushion they sat on, turning away from Paps. For the first time since starting to describe the melting he turned towards her and whispered down into her ear, “it’s alright Ti-ti, it’s just alright. That’s why you shouldn’t be scared of alligators now, ya hear?”
Tiana and Paps spent the afternoon hours as they would any other, sitting lazily out on the water in Paps white pontoon boat, drinking root beer and enjoying the sun.
“Oh no!” Paps cried, grabbing at his chest and collapsing to his knees
Tiana popped out of her seat and ran over to him, shrieking, “What’s wrong Paps what’s wrong!”
“Uh-I…I think I’m melting” Paps groaned, letting out a struggled breath
“Nooo” Tiana said beginning to sob, backing away and standing up straight, contorting her face as children do when they cry.
“No, no, no Ti-ti,” Paps said, standing up straight and returning to normalcy “I was just messin’, you know how I kid, I’m so sorry sweetie” he said with a rush of sympathy running down his face.
“You’re mean! You scared me!” Tiana said, backing out of his hug and pointing accusingly at him.
Paps walked back to the driver’s seat of the boat with his head down, and sat down slowly.
“I’m sorry baby,” he said with his head down to the wheel.
Tiana kept crying, and gave no response.
“I was just messin’,” he whispered to himself, as he started the boat with the intention of going back home.
Tiana spent the rest of the day locked in her room, deviating between tears and an intense fear of apparitions. She threw herself around in bed, incapable of finding a safe spot. If she faced the window, her melting Great-Grandmother could be standing at the door, watching over her and wailing in pain. And if she faced the door, Paps could be staring at her through the window, shaking in the insanity that had surely gripped him. She decided it would be best to lie on her back with her eyes on the ceiling. That way, through peripheral vision she could see the whole room. But what if her the ghost of Nana was under her bed! Her melted body oozing up from the floor, solidifying under her, just in time for an attack. Her only occasional comfort came from Paps coming to her door offering apologies and a chance to come out and make-up. For just a moment, she would consider consoling. But she knew she couldn’t trust him, he was a crazy old man after all. With the help of the internet, she decided that Paps must be a schizophrenic.The website read, “Often, sufferers of this disease can be made dangerous by their paranoid delusions, as they often report a sense that family members and friends are “out to get them.” My God, she thought. I’m really going to die.
As the day wore on, eventually Paps came to the door in one final attempt to console her. “Ti-ti, I love you.” She heard him lean against the door, “I love you, and I’m sorry. I wish you’d just say somethin’.” He stood for another moment. “I guess not. That’s okay, goodnight Ti-ti.” For just a moment, she considered going outside and hugging him. Telling him, “It’s okay Paps, I know you’re shetsophernic but I still love you.” She decided against it. She did not want to die.
As Paps went to bed, Tiana looked at her clock. 11:14. At 12:14, she would call her mother, and tell her she needed to go home. The hour was long and nerve wracking, and Tiana found herself pacing through the room in a sweaty haze. Finally, the hour turned, and she called her. At this point she cried, “Mom!” she exclaimed in a nervous whisper. “Mom! I really need to go home. Paps is crazy, he’s telling me all these stories about melting women and he’s acting so weird mom please!” her crying intensifying as she grew more and more desperate.
“He told you about melting ladies?”
“Yes mom he’s shetsophrenic”
“That son of a bitch,” Tiana heard her mom whisper, pulled away from the phone.
“I’m on my way to get you right now, your Paps isn’t crazy, but don’t let him fill your head with any of that garbage”
“Thank you so much mom, so so much”
“I’ll be there soon, just calm down. I love you”
After hearing her mother mumble, “That son of a bitch is gonna make me drive five hours,” before she hung up the phone, Tiana was filled with relief. She let out a sigh, fell back into her bed, and finally felt safe.
Tiana slowly and anxiously drifted into sleep in the early hours of the morning, with the paranoia and tension from earlier hours presenting themselves in a number of sleep disruptions and dreams. She envisioned her Great-Grandmother in the corner of the room, slowly melting into the floor. You did this! She screamed from the pit of her stomach, pointing at her with a long finger that had skin oozing off of the bone. Following this dream, Tiana decided it wasn’t safe to sleep. So she stayed up until she heard the sound of a door at 6am, and with it the purposeful and unmistakable footsteps of her mother trudging through the door.
“You bastard,” she snapped at Paps accusingly, Tiana had heard her use the same tactics on her husband at home.
“I know,” he said defeatedly; Tiana deciphered that the conversation was taking place in the living room behind the far side wall of her bedroom.
“You can not be filling her head with those lies! She is a little girl and you know what that shit you pulled on me did”
“Sweetie, I know”
“Don’t sweetie me!”
“Kristie, it isn’t lies”
“You gave Eric a nervous breakdown! The poor boy was anxious all his life, now look at him! I told you never to pull this shit on her,” she said, audibly sobbing at this tense point of the conversation.
Immediately following that exchange, Tiana heard her mother’s footsteps stomping to her bedroom door with more purpose than she had coming into the house. “Tiana, honey” she said with an attempted tenderness, “you need to come out and let Mommy take you home, everything is gonna be alright baby”
Tiana felt her heartbeat rise further then it had throughout the night imagining the altercation that would take place when she left the room; but to her, this fear was outweighed by what would happen if she decided to stay. She hesitated sitting in her bed, curled fully under the covers, and let out a muffled “Okay, Mom.”
Tiana stood up and attempted to hurriedly gather her belongings, but her nerves had caused a shaking sensation to run over her body, making this almost impossible.
“I-I’m coming mom. Please,” Tiana begged, letting out a tearless sob as she spoke.
After a continual stream of commands from her mother, she opened the door, and saw her mother crying intensely, with her face deeply red and contorted.
“Let’s go sweetie,” she said, taking a short break in her tears. She drew Tiana in, covering her eyes and dragging her around the corner and turning her away from Paps”
“I wanna see-”
“I wanna see Pap-”
“No!” both of their cries increasing in intensity as Tiana was forced through the living room.
“Paps!” Tiana cried, breaking away from her mother’s arms and turning towards where she heard him crying on the couch by the far side wall.
“Paps I don’t care that your schetso-” she was cut off by the sight of her Paps on the couch. At least, she thought it would be her Paps. Sitting on the couch was a slowly dismembering glob of a man. It could be loosely recognized as Paps, and was only discernible as a human from its desperate tears and struggled jerking movements. “I love you Ti-ti,” he cried from a mouth that was slowly sticking together through a downward stream of melting humanity from his top lip. Both Tiana and her mother stood separately, incapable of looking away from their dying father-figure. He cried painfully, and stared deeply back at his two girls, but his eyes were slowly being covered too by his collapsing forehead. His skin was slowly seeping from his body into the couch, and his clothes hung off of him loosely. The words “Love, Ti-ti” on his sweater were being drooled over by burnt, sweating skin.
“Please, please come ova here” he moaned at the girls, who were stuck in shock in the middle of the living room. Tiana ran over to him and hopped on the couch beside him. “Oh, Paps!” she cried, jumping beside him in a puddle of his own body. He embraced her, with what little substance he had left in his body. “Your Paps is alright now, he’s just alright,” he said, now with a wry smile across his face. “But you were hurting so much Paps”
“I ‘as just scared you didn’t love me anymore, TI-ti” he said, with a hint of joyful calm in his muffled speech. “I love you so much Paps!” she shrieked, burying herself into the remains of his melting body in a desperate attempt to full him together.
“Don’t worry about me baby, I’m just alright. Just alright.”
“I’m scared Paps!”
“Don’t be scared Ti-ti, no reason to be fearful. This is beauty baby, your Paps couldn’t be any happier.”
“Please don’t die Paps! Please don’t die!”
“Look out at the sun baby, look out at the sun,” upon hearing this, Tiana turned upward and looked out the window behind the couch, as Paps was.
He smiled, and said, “It was just like this when Nana was out on the porch. Just like this, it was big and yella’, sent out pink and orange rays through the sky and shined right down on ‘er.”
Tiana was calm with these words, and she looked out the window with him while he could still see. “It was just like this.” The pair sat silently for a moment, and Tiana held onto his sweater until it became empty of any remains of Paps, and until the sun had settled on remaining a simple yellow in the sky. Tiana looked up at her mother, who was curled into the floor letting out shocked cries. She was no longer scared of alligators.
Zachary Crain is an unremarkable eighteen year old who lives with his mother in Asheville, North Carolina. He attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and plans to continue writing fiction into the future. He spends his days writing, reading, running, and doing all of the pesky tasks that life throws in between those things.