No stranger to car troubles, particularly this car’s trouble, Caroline reluctantly slid into the driver’s seat of the ’91 Honda next to her estranged great aunt. Pretending to adjust the rearview mirror, she watched Gran and Gramps get into their car as if to make sure they would really follow them to Atlanta.
“Just don’t overheat,” she repeated in her head. “We have to make it home. Please don’t overheat.”
Caroline couldn’t help but assume that the scene she had caused last weekend at her sister Liz’s wedding landed her the undesired job of picking up her great Aunt Virginia from her grandparents in Thomaston and bringing her back to Atlanta. The thought of her drunken bridesmaid’s speech, coupled with her sister’s tears and her punishment, churned Caroline’s stomach the same way the wine had.
“Senior in highschool, eh?” Virginia asked as they pulled out onto the main road.
Caroline looked around before answering.
“Yeah,” she said, her voice higher than normal and almost unrecognizable.
“Best times of your life.”
“But I…” Caroline began to say she thought Virginia never graduated from high school. Gran always said after their folks died, Virginia ran away.
“I didn’t graduate from high school in the traditional sense. But what I would give to be young and pretty again. Gran wasn’t the only heartbreaker in the family, but you probably don’t know anything about that.”
Caroline nodded, adjusting her sticky palms on the steering wheel. She knew Gran had been a debutante and Virginia had lived in what everyone but the police knew was a brothel. “Practically the same thing,” she thought.
“Sure is hot in here,” Virginia said.
“We can’t turn the air on. The check engine light was on even before I got to Gran and Gramps.”
“Wouldn’t want a car fire or anything.”
“What if the car caught fire and she just went crazy?” Caroline thought before resuming her silent plea with the car not to overheat. She imagined the fire Virginia had set to her own house eight years ago, and her subsequent years in and out of rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. After her latest release last summer, Virginia had been shuffled from one of her ten siblings to another for the last few years.
Caroline’s mother, the psychiatrist, thought all Virginia needed was the right prescription, so she was coming to their home in Atlanta for observation. As much as Caroline hoped her mother would fail in correcting Virginia’s “imbalance,” she prayed they wouldn’t need her assistance before returning home.
Caroline dug deep in her purse for her sunglasses, which seemed to have sunk to the bottom of her bag, evading her grip.
“Need something?” Virginia asked.
“For this to be over and for August to get here quickly, Caroline thought, but politely responded no thank you. Finally she grasped the sunglasses and slid them over her face. She looked to her right where Virginia was staring at the road in front of them, mouth open slightly. The rich brown shades enhanced every line of Virginia’s head and baggy shirt. Her face was wrinkled with deep furrows and her teeth were yellow-missing in places. She was clean and well kempt, but Caroline could tell, despite Gran’s best efforts with a perm and some baby powder, that her hair was wiry and her skin sallow.
“How can she be Gran’s sister? Caroline wondered. Even in her old age, Gran was beautiful: a small frame, thick salt and pepper hair cut short, and subtle make up that always looked as if it had just been applied. “Maybe it’s because she is sick.” Caroline had accidentally overheard Gran telling her mother Virginia stopped allowing Gran to come with her to doctor appointments, and even though Virginia kept prescription bottles by her bed Gran noticed they were empty.
“I can’t make her take her medicine, or do anything for that matter,” Gran had said.
“We’ll sort things out when she gets here. Trust me,” Caroline’s mother responded, as Caroline walked away from the open door. Despite all the stories, Caroline couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Virginia even though she was afraid of her.
Virginia began breathing heavier and she snored softly. Caroline sat back in the driver’s seat and pulled her left leg up under herself, a habit her mother had often scolded her for. The sun sat just over the horizon almost touching the road as it unfolded straight in front of the car. She thought of her senior trip to Key West in a few weeks, hoping for good weather and a room assignment with her best friends. She thought of the tequila Becky’s sister had already bought them and her instructions about sneaking it into their bags and water bottles. Caroline tried not to ask herself why her siblings had never done anything like that for her or why they seemed to like it when she got in trouble. Even better than the tequila was the thought of a week without her siblings and parents. “This is it, she thought. “After this summer, everything will be a senior trip. Freedom is going to feel good. So immersed in her thoughts, she barely noticed the heavy clunking noise or Gramps signaling for her to pull over. The car had begun to smoke as she made her way into the shoulder and Virginia jerked awake.
“Doesn’t look good,” Virginia said through a yawn.
Caroline popped the hood and climbed out of the car to stand beside Gramps.
“It definitely overheated. I think I might drive up to the nearest gas station and get some water or coolant. Gran will call a tow.”’
Caroline stared at the engine and listened as Gran spoke to the automated information line several yards away. She thought briefly of the wedding and felt her face turn red. “If only I hadn’t had that last glass, I wouldn’t be here now,” she thought to herself.
“I need to take a leak,” Virginia said.
“Oh okay,” Caroline mumbled, trying not to dwell on her mistake. She didn’t look up as Virginia wandered into the woods on the edge of the highway. Caroline kicked the gravel loose gravel a few times, watching the cloud of dust rise and fall. “Maybe it’s not so bad.” A smile crept over her face as she realized the ordeal the car would be causing for her parents. “They shouldn’t have sent me anyway. It was an accident after all, and now look what happened. They deserve it for trying to make her my responsibility.”A few moments later she felt an arm around her shoulder and looked up to see Gran smiling at her.
“It will be all right Carrie,” she said.
“I know Gran, it’s just frustrating,” Caroline said.
“It could always be worse.”
“She isn’t coming home with you.”
“Oh sweetheart, don’t worry about that. What with your trip and getting ready to go off to school, you will barely notice her there.”
“Gran, where is she?” Caroline asked.
Gran’s face lost color and she looked around frantically.
“Virginia,” she said, walking around the car.
Gran emerged from the other side of the car shaking her head. Her eyes locked with Caroline and they both began yelling Virginia’s name frantically, but there cries were barely audible over the passing cars.
“She couldn’t have gone far,” Caroline said as they walked towards the woods on the edge of the highway. Pushing past the tall weeds, a voice called back.
“I’m coming,” Virginia screamed. She pushed through trees and bushes and met Caroline and Gran at the edge of the woods.
“Can’t I take a piss without everyone worrying?” Virginia said.
“Excuse me?” Gran asked.
“Oh come off it,” Virginia said, but Gran’s lips tightened and her brow furrowed.
“You are not being very lady-like,”
Virginia stared blankly at Gran, whose eyes met hers in a narrow gaze.
“At least we found her,” Caroline said after a moment.
“It’s not like I ran away. I told her I was going to take a leak,” Virginia said, pointing at Caroline.
“Well I wouldn’t put it past you,” Gran said.
Caroline remembered how Virginia had run away from home when she was in middle school, after her and Gran’s parents died and again much later in life for no reason at all. Gran stood with her arms crossed, staring hard at Virginia.
“Gran, I think Liz and Aaron are coming home today,” Caroline said.
“Oh, that’s good,” She said still looking at Virginia.
“’Yeah, I can’t wait to see their pictures”
“I’m sure the Bahamas were lovely.”
“Oh, the Bahamas,” Virginia said. “A John of mine…I mean a friend of mine named John used to go a lot with his family. Always came back so tan. Must be like Eden there or something.”
Caroline stifled a laugh and wondered if Virginia genuinely slipped in talking about a John or was just trying to get at Gran. Either way, she was a little impressed.
“Caroline, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the wedding,” Gran said.
Caroline felt her body tense, she knew what was coming.
“I know you may not like what I have to say, but I have some real life experience that backs up what I’ve got to say”
“I know you didn’t plan on experience the effects you did at the wedding and I want you to know alcohol is some serious business,” Gran said.
“Carrie you are growing up, going off to college next year. You saw what even a little alcohol can do and girl, you better be careful. The wedding was embarrassing, but it can get you a lot worse. We’ve got a history of alcoholism in this family and I just would rather you not turn out like some member of our clan,” She said, grabbing Caroline’s hand and looking at Virginia.
“Like I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” Virginia said. “Don’t let her scare you Caroline, a few drinks never hurt anyone. Hell, that’s probably what brought you into this world,” Virginia laughed.
“Virginia!” Gran was indignant.
“Come on now. Can’t you see you’ve upset her,” Virginia scolded Gran.
“Here’s some real advice Carly.” She smiled wildly, displaying her missing teeth.
“It’s Caroline.” Gran corrected her with disdain.
“Oh right, Carolina. A state just like me. Anyway, like I was saying. Some real advice.” Her eyes twinkled and even seemed to smile at Caroline. “Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear, but beer before liquor, never sicker. There’s something that might actually help you out in college.” She ended the adage with a slight nod of her head.
“Oh, and stay away from those Frat boys!” Virginia added triumphantly.
Gran looked like she was about to explode.
“What?” Virginia asked, “I went to college for a while too.”
“No you did not,” Gran yelled. “And now you have taken a serious conversation with my granddaughter and turned it into a joke. And you wonder…”
“Wonder what?” Virginia asked.
“Oh I think you know,”
“I know how your church prays for me, but you could care less what really happens to me. I may be a little out there, but at least I’m not a hypocrite,”
“You see, Caroline, this is why I talked to you about the wedding. Because I don’t want you turning out like this.”
“That’s right, Caroline, you don’t want to turn into big bad Virginia who did things her own way instead of being all proper. Sounds like Caroline already has enough spunk to know when to speak her mind and you shouldn’t try to take that away from her”.”
“Don’t tell me how to raise my grandchildren.”
At that moment, Gramps drove up and motioned the women to get in the car.
“Everything okay here?” Gramps asked.
“Fine,” Gran said pursing her lips. “The tow truck should be here any minute.” Gran crossed her arms and looked out the window. The car was silent as they sat and waiting for the truck, Gran still fuming and Virginia looking rather pleased with herself. When the tow truck arrived, Gran and Gramps got out of the car, but Virginia motioned Caroline to stay.
“Listen Caroline, I know it’s a lot to ask, but I need to tell you something,” Virginia said.
“Okay,” Caroline said, half asking.
“I don’t want to come back from Atlanta. I’m sick, sicker than she or any of them know. I just don’t want to come back to that,” she said pointing out the window to Gran who was obviously telling Gramps what had happened moments before he arrived.
“I think I might feel more at home, with you.” she said placing her hand on Caroline.
Caroline was confused. “How can she think that? She doesn’t even know me.” she wondered.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but please,” Virginia said.
Caroline’s Honda had been successfully loaded onto the tow truck and Gran and Gramps reentered the car. Gran kept her arms crossed and wouldn’t look at Virginia.
“Let’s try this again,” Virginia said, pulling a pair of her own sunglasses out of her bag. Gramps drove on towards Atlanta and Gran’s lips tightened. Caroline looked out the window, too afraid to make eye contact with Virginia. When she finally did, Caroline saw her own reflection in Virginia’s sunglasses.
-Rachel Sauls is a senior majoring in Communications at UTC.