Poisoned Pete

“Satisfied?” Grandma asked when I marched back to the circle. I took my original seat next to Marcos, to which Drake objected. He stood up so quickly, he shed his age twenty years with the popping of his knees.

“Pipe down, Robin Hood,” Jerry said. He bent forward and mushed Drake in the gut with a heavy grunt. “She ain’t Maid Marian.”

Drake flopped back on the couch, kicking his legs up in the air. He tried to push himself to his feet again, but his legs slipped from under him, and the cushion absorbed his fists. He’d exerted all his energy just that quick, returning to a frail old man.

“What did Rick tell you?” Grandma asked. “Assuming that’s who you called.”


“He told me something interesting.” I hesitated to say more. I couldn’t imagine Grandma capable of doing something so evil. Poisoning her husband? She wasn’t that kind of Grandma. No, she was the kind that never stopped talking. No matter where she was, she always found a situation that reminded her of an interesting chapter in her life, like jazz music striking memories of her first husband, Andrew, the saxophonist. What would provoke her to confess the cautionary tale of how she murdered her sixteenth husband?

“Have you ever killed anyone, Grandma?” I didn’t want to accuse her straight out, but it wasn’t too outrageous to think she might have aided a few of her husbands in their deaths. How often did twenty-six men, whose only thing in common was one woman, all die tragically after marrying said woman?

Grandma nodded slowly. “He told you about Pete, huh?”

“So it’s true?”

“You killed someone, Millie?” Tammy asked.

“Can’t say I’m not surprised,” Jerry said. “Probably more where he came from.”

Jerry’s dry joke and Grandma’s shifting eyes put a sour taste in my mouth. Uncle Richard only suspected that Grandma had poisoned Pete. He had no proof, and he surely didn’t have a reason—not one he could think of. But Grandma wasn’t an evil person. She couldn’t be. The worst she’d ever done was fall in love too many times. There had to be an explanation, but succumbing to the darkness to take a man’s life, even with a good explanation, tainted your soul.

“I was protecting your mother,” Grandma said.

“How? What did he do to her?”

“It’s not what he did, but what I was afraid he was going to do.” Grandma crossed and uncrossed her legs. She smacked her dry lips then reached for her glass of water on the table next to her. Realizing the glass was empty, she sat it in her lap between her knees. She lifted her head to the ceiling and swallowed hard. The room was so quiet we could hear her throat click. It was as if everyone the center had stopped what they were doing to listen.

“Pete and I were married a couple years,” Grandma said in a raspy voice. She cleared her throat and began again. “We had been married a couple years when I started to notice how he looked at Linda.”

“How did he look at her?” I asked.

Grandma bounced her knees up and down. She picked up the empty glass and held it in her palms, drumming the edge with her nails. “At first I thought it was the fatherly, endearing kind of look, but then . . .” She crossed and uncrossed her legs again, fidgeted in her chair, put the glass back on the table. “Linda liked to run around the house naked. It was cute when she was a baby, but she was getting older and she needed to put some clothes on. I’d yell at her ’til I was blue in the face, ‘Put some clothes on, Linda! Let’s be a lady today.’

“One day Pete decided to spank her for not doing what I said, which . . . there’s nothing wrong with that. When a child’s disobedient, you give them a spanking. Spare the rod, spoil the child. But . . . let her put some clothes on before you bend her over your knee and smack her bottom with your bare hand.”

“Oh my!” Tammy gasped, covering her mouth with both hands.

“Pedophile!” Frank snorted. It was the first time he’d spoken since Lindell.

“Later that night, I woke up freezing. He wasn’t in bed, so I went down the hall looking for him and saw him come out of Linda’s room. He said she had a bad dream, so he read her a bedtime story. But when I looked down at how his pajama bottoms were pulling at his . . . ” Grandma couldn’t bring herself to say the word, crotch, for all the implications that came with it. “How many bedtimes stories make you . . .” Again, her voice faltered.

I raised my hand. “It’s alright, Grandma. You don’t have to say anything else.”

“Linda said he didn’t touch her. They just laid in the bed together while he read her the story. But all I could think about was how they laid together. Did he spoon her? Did she feel . . .him behind her?”

“Grandma, please.” Bile rose at the back of my throat, and I couldn’t swallow it down. The rancid taste filled my mouth, and it was all I could do not to spit it out on the floor. Grandma’s fumbling with the empty glass made sense now. We all needed water to wash out the filth of Pete from our systems.

“The right thing to do was to divorce him, but all I could think about was him hurting other children. What if he married another woman with a pretty daughter like Linda? Would he do more than just read her bedtime stories? I had to stop him. I had to protect future children as well as my own.”

“So you poisoned him.” I said.

“I cooked him blueberry pancakes . . . with antifreeze.”

“Mama bear!” Thomas slapped her back.

Grandma grimaced, but tried to force a smile.

Tammy was still shaken by what Grandma had shared. “I don’t know what scares me more. That a grown man wanted to have sex with a child, or that you killed him.”

“Are you going to call the cops, Tammy?” Jerry asked flatly.

“Speaking of cops, you weren’t caught? How’d you get away with it?” I asked.

Grandma shrugged. “I got lucky. Turned out Pete had this rare kind of genetic kidney disease. So when his kidneys failed, they ruled that as the reason.”

Tammy rocked herself on her heels and stood up, sliding her chair backward. The legs scraped loudly against the tile floor.

“Tammy?” Grandma looked up, her brows furrowed in a worried stare, silently asking, “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

Tammy glanced down at her wristwatch. “It’s after two, and I haven’t taken my nap today.” She turned and gave me a thin-lipped smile, then briskly walked on the balls of her feet past the nurses station to where the bedrooms started at the back of the community area.

“Well, she’s got dementia, so if we’re lucky, she won’t remember anything when she wakes up,” Thomas said. He kept his eyes on her until she disappeared into one of the rooms. Then he turned to Frank. “And we all know you’ve killed people, so if you say anything—“

“Bah!” Frank snapped. “She probably killed all her husbands. What do I care?”

“Good answer.” Thomas leaned across Grandma and looked at Jerry.

“I’d a killed the bastard too!” Jerry said.

Marcos had been unusually quiet, but when we all looked to him for his answer, he beamed, showing teeth and gums. “Yeeeeeaaaah!”

“I think that means ‘no,’ ” Jerry said. He flicked his wrist over at Drake. “And this one’s too busy trying to reincarnate his wife, he probably wasn’t even paying attention.”

“Oh, you stop messing with Drake. He’s my friend,” Grandma said.

“Until he tries to sleep with your granddaughter.” Jerry crossed his finger over his throat and stuck out his tongue.

“Ahhh! That’s a good one!” Thomas guffawed, slapping his knee.

Those two always knew how to turn a tense situation into a joke.

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “Q” is for Quaker Quinton.

Oxygen Oscar

I quickly checked my phone for a missed call from Mama. Still silent, but I turned the volume up on the ringer so I would hear it when she finally did call. “So what ever happened to Ryan?” I asked Grandma.


“Nate’s son.” When she continued to give me a blank stare, I added, “You said you married him because you both had kids. His first wife was already dead. Then he died. What happened to the kid?”

“Nothing happened to him, dear,” Grandma said, “but his name’s Rick, not Ryan.”

“Rick?” I said. Immediately, a light bulb went off in my head, and I blurted, “As in Uncle Richard!”

“The one and only.”

“Uh-oh, looks like another family secret has been revealed.” Thomas rocked back and forth in his chair, grinning like the Cheshire cat.

“I’d hardly call it a family secret,” Grandma said.

“I thought he was like a brother to Mama,” I said. Uncle Richard was Mama’s childhood best friend. He wasn’t around much when I was growing up, but those times he did visit, it was like a family event. Grandma would cook BBQ ribs and home-style potato chips—not too crunchy, not too soft—just the way he liked it, and we’d sit on the patio, licking our fingers and tossing sucked-dry bones to the stray dogs that roamed Grandma’s backyard while she reminisced about the shenanigans Mama and Uncle Richard used to get into when they were kids.

During my years in high school, Uncle Richard became a father to me. He gave me the sex talk when Mama, the doctor, made herself too sick to even teach me about body parts. When my date stood me up at prom, Uncle Richard’s was the shoulder I cried on, and after I’d cleaned myself up, he took me shopping so I could come to school that Monday looking like the girl next door and make everyone jealous.

My real dad was never around. He and Mama dated as undergrads, but he bailed when she got knocked up. Since then, I’d seen him only twice a year on holidays, but his sporadic visits and phone calls suddenly stopped after I’d turned eighteen. Maybe he thought he’d done his job as a father and wasn’t needed anymore, or, if Mama had the same luck as Grandma, maybe he was dead. I didn’t know the man well enough to care either way. Uncle Richard and Pawpaw were suitable replacements.

“He’s not her actual brother, but they grew up brother and sister,” Grandma said.

“So you raised him as your son, all the way up until Pawpaw?” Something still didn’t sit right with me. It made since that they grew up together, but nothing about Uncle Richard and Mama’s relationship indicated that they were raised as siblings. I always had the idea that they used to date, and after realizing they were better friends to each other than lovers, they broke things off and had been thick as thieves ever since.

“By the time I married your Paw, Rick was already grown and in college. So he only adopted your mom.”

“Excuse me,” I said, taking my purse and speed walking to the exit once again. I couldn’t wait for Mama anymore. If she was in surgery, it could be another hour or more before she called back. I didn’t have that kind of time. Grandma had already revealed so much, I was desperate for someone to tell me it was all lies before I lost my mind like the drifting patients at the nursing home.

Uncle Richard answered after the second ring. “Baby girl! How are you? Haven’t heard your voice in a minute.”

I cut right to the chase. “When were you gonna tell me you and Mama didn’t just grow up together, y’all were brother and sister.”

There was a long pause. Then Uncle Richard said as calmly as flowing waters, “So Millie’s finally telling you the story about her twenty-six marriages, huh?”

“Should I believe any of it?”

“Well, I don’t know about the ones before I came around,” Uncle Richard said, his voice cool like a New York street thug from the ’50’s, “but my dad and everybody behind him, yea, sure she married them.”

He sounded so aloof, I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or just playing with me, but I continued with my interrogation. “What about my grandfather? My real one.”

“Aw, you’ll have to ask your Ma or Millie about him. That’s not my place to tell you.”

“Grandma said his name was Lindell.”

Another long pause. “That sounds about right.”

I dropped my shoulders in defeat. I was hoping he’d say something different— that everything I’d grown up knowing wasn’t a lie— but it became evident that I was the last to learn everything, and that realization cut so deeply that I began to feel physical pain in my gut.

Uncle Richard must have heard my sigh on the other end. “Cheer up, baby girl. Your pops is still your pops, no matter what the records show. The same goes for your real dad. Would you want your kids to grow up knowing their grandpa was a deadbeat, or would you rather them have a relationship with someone who actually cares?”

“But that’s different. Lindell is dead.”

“Exactly. Why fuss over a dead grandpa when you had a living one who loved you?”

He had a point, but I still wasn’t ready to accept it. “I just wish I had known before.”

“Well, that’s understandable,” he said. I relaxed under his smooth voice. It felt like he was there with me patting me on the back. “I’m here for you if you need me. Ask me anything.”

I quickly jumped down his throat with question after question. “What happened to your dad? Who came after him? And the husband after that? How did they die?”

“Slow down, now! One question at a time,” Uncle Richard said in his mellow voice. “First off, I hated my dad. I don’t doubt he had something to do with my mom’s disappearance.”

So she had actually disappeared. Maybe “serial killer” was a more deserving nickname for Nate than Grandma had even realized.

“He slipped and fell, fighting with Millie in the bathroom, and cracked his skull on the side of the sink. The police looked at all the bruises on Millie and ruled it self-defense.”

I remembered how nervously Grandma scratch at her neck when she talked about her marriage to Nate, the frightened, distant look in her eyes. How close had she been to death before gravity took control? She should’ve been used to it by then—with so many of her husbands dying unexpectedly—but witnessing death and experiencing it were two different things. Even witnessing it could be traumatizing. Not all of her husbands’ deaths were comical or relieving. I could only imagine how earth shattering it was for Grandma to find Lindell hanging from a tree—and when she discovered she was pregnant, all of those emotions rushing back to the surface.


Uncle Richard continued on. “Next was Oscar. They’d only been married a couple months when he died. Asthma attack. It was partly me and Linda’s fault. We liked to hide things. Millie beat the shit out of us when she found his inhaler buried in the backyard.”

“Y’all killed her husband!” I gasped, then quickly covered my mouth when I realized the reception desk nurse was watching me, her hand hovering over the landline phone in front of her.

“It was my idea, but I didn’t know the cat was gonna die! I was nine. I only wanted to shake him up a little. I kinda had a crush on Millie then.”

“Oh lord,” I said, then rolled my eyes exaggeratedly so the nurse would see. It was all a joke. Nothing to worry about. Please don’t call the police. But my overenthusiastic body language ceased when I heard what Uncle Richard said next.

“Pete’s a different story, though. That one was all on Millie.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe you should ask her, just to see if she says something different.” His voice had the same smooth tone he carried our entire conversation, like he didn’t care on way or the other, but his words insinuated that Grandma did something that wouldn’t just cause the nurse to worry, but everyone who knew and loved her too.

I turned my back to the nurse, stood next to ficus tree in the corner behind the entrance doors, and whispered into the receiver. “What do you think happened?”

“I think she poisoned him.”

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “P” is for Poisoned Pete.

Nutty Nate

It rang once and went straight to voicemail. I checked the time. New Orleans was an hour behind, which meant it was after one there. I hung up. Mama usually turned her phone off while in surgery. I would try her again later, but what if she had a long shift, or had multiple surgeries scheduled, or was too tired to talk when she finally quite for the day? I couldn’t wait for her to call me back at her convenience. I needed an answer now.

I dialed her number, hoping that maybe a second call would prompt her to pick up this time. Again, it went to voicemail, and I waited for the beep to sound to leave a message.

“Ma, it’s Meg. Call me back as soon as you get this. I’m at Cedar with Grandma, and I . . . she . . . she’s said some things, and . . . ” I fumbled through my mind how I would ask the question. Who was your real father? I wanted her to hear the urgency in my voice and call me back as soon as possible, but I didn’t want to frighten her, make her feel too uncomfortable to say anything at all, or confuse her, especially if everything Grandma had said turned out to be all lies. “Does the name, Lindell, ring a bell to you?”

I turned at met the pallid skin and dark eyes of Drake, who had quietly walked up behind me, and breathing on my shoulder, whispered, “Jenny.”

I nearly knocked him over with my purse as I swung around. “Dammit!” I squeaked. I backed into the window to put some space between us.

“Mr. Carlton, stop scaring the guests,” the nurse said, though she never looked up from the computer screen. She wasn’t too concerned about how nervous this man made me feel.

He reached out his hand and lightly brushed my cheek with his fingertips. If I didn’t look white before, that had all changed now. I was white with fear. Would he lean in to kiss me next? I turned my head and pinched my lips together to avoid future advances.

“Millie wants to know if you’ll come back.”

I cut my eyes at him. He’d backed off, and was holding out his hand for me to take it. His grip was stronger than I’d expected. He lead me back to Grandma’s circle, but instead of guiding me to my empty chair, he squeeze my hand tighter and pulled me to sit next to him on the couch, recently vacated by Winifred.

“Look at the happy couple,” Thomas said.

“Hush!” I snapped. I tried to regain possession of my hand, but Drake intertwined his fingers with mine and pinned my hand down in his lap.

Thomas smirked, and I started to squirm, thinking about all the sexual jokes he’d made that afternoon. Drake looked frail, but he had a hidden stamina about him. I feared I would inadvertently feel something rising in his lap. I jerked my hand, and he yanked it back, like playing tug of war.

“Drake, let the poor girl go!” Tammy said.

She startled him enough that his hold loosened, and I broke away and scooted closer to the arm of the couch, furthest from him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by abruptly going back to my chair next to Marcos. As long as he didn’t touch me again, I wouldn’t have a reason to move.

“Meg, I’m sorry,” Grandma said. “I really didn’t mean to spring that up on you . . . about your grandfather.”

“Do you expect me to believe anything you’ve said?” I asked.

“It’s all true.”

“How? Where’s your proof.”

“Your mother’s the proof,” Grandma said. “How old is she? Do the math.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything about who her father was,” I said.

“I married your Paw in ’84. You grew up calling him your grandpa ’cause that’s all you knew, but—“

“But Mama called him daddy too,” I said.

“She was still a teenager when we married. Like I said, he was my longest marriage. She called him daddy ’cause he stuck around.”

I shook my head and slipped my silent phone back into the front pocket of my purse. I was growing more anxious for her call. She was the missing link. She could piece this whole mystery together for me.

“Didn’t you say you looked me up on Ancestry? Didn’t it have the date on it.”

I’d created the Ancestry.com account over a year ago, and spent the entire afternoon scrolling through a seven-page list of hints generated by Grandma’s name and birthdate. I’d skipped over records of names I didn’t recognize until I came across a record of Grandma and Pawpaw’s marriage. But clicking on the link proved fruitless. I needed a paid subscription to see any more. All the information the preview provided was their parents’ names and the name of their only child, Linda. No marriage date, no ages.

The other hints I’d ruled out, believing that Millie Jones was just a common name. There were marriage records that had Grandma married as a teenager. 16, 17, 19. I’d thought they were just records of other Millie Jones’, but could those marriages have been to Andrew? Burt? Carl? I couldn’t remember the recorded names of the husbands.


There was only one name that stood out to me in that search. Nate Parker. He was married to a Milly Jones, had a two-year-old daughter named Linda, and also an eight-year-old son named Ryan. The record was from 1970, and while there were striking similarities—the names, Mama’s age—I scratched it out because, at the time, I’d believed Pawpaw was Mama’s father.

“Were you ever married to someone named Nate Parker?” I asked.

“That nut!” Grandma scoffed. “Biggest mistake of my life.”

“Wasn’t Nate the serial killer?” Jerry asked.

“I might have exaggerated just a little,” Grandma said, “but he was crazy. I married him because we both had kids. I thought it would be good for Linda. Us being a family. But he always talked about how he hated his ex wife, who just happened to die mysteriously the year before.”

“Ha! Like you could talk. You had thirteen dead husbands before him!” Thomas said.

“I didn’t always feel safe around him.”

“He should’ve been the one scared of you,” Jerry said.

I noticed Grandma rubbing the base of her neck, visibly agitated by Thomas and Jerry’s teases. There was something about Nate that Grandma wasn’t saying. More than just hatred of his first wife lead to him being dubbed the serial killer.

“Did he ever hit you, Grandma?” I asked.

“He had a bit of a temper,” she answered with a wavering voice, walking around the question, but from the way she continued to pull at her neck, I suspected he’d attempted to choke her . . . once . . . just before he died mysteriously, like his wife.

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “O” is for Oxygen Oscar.

Mudslide Milton

I didn’t wait for Grandma to respond. I took my purse and walked right out of the front door, ignoring her calls for me to come back. Nothing she said would explain away the hurt I felt. Everything I knew about myself, my family, it was all a lie.

I paced around in the lobby. My car was parked right outside the window in the only front row space that wasn’t marked handicap. I searched my purse for my keys. I couldn’t stay there another second. Grandma could be on her way to tell me that Mama wasn’t my real mother, or that Pawpaw was really my uncle. I didn’t know anymore. I had to get out.

I didn’t notice the nurse at the reception desk behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin when she spoke. “Excuse me, ma’am. Can I help you?”

“Oh. Uh, no, I was just on my way out.” I stuck my thumb through the key ring and jiggled my keys in my hand, waving goodbye as I made my exit for the glass doors.

“Wait! You’re Ms. Millie’s granddaughter, right?”

I turned around. The nurse was leaning over the front desk watching me. “You look just like her,” she said.

“Really?” I stepped back from the door and approached her suspiciously. “Grandma says I look more like my great-aunt.”

My great-aunt, who had actually been Lindell’s sister, not Pawpaw’s. My mind drifted to Drake, how he kept calling me Jenny because I looked so much like her. I glanced down at the blue veins that showed through the fair skin on my wrist. I’d never questioned why Mama and I were so much lighter than Grandma and Pawpaw. I hadn’t ever noticed, but now it was glaringly obvious. I was a quarter white, and Pawpaw wasn’t my real grandfather. Who was he? Another one of Grandma’s many husbands? Did that mean all the others were real? Andrew? Deek? Fred?

“Did she really have that many husbands?” the nurse asked.

“Well,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, “I know she’s had at least two.” Still, it sounded deceitful coming off my tongue. That Grandma had been with anyone but Pawpaw. That the man I’d grown up calling my family was of no relation; he was just a man.


“She told me about her husband Milton once.” The nurse rested her elbows on the desk and place her chin in her palms. She looked up at the ceiling as if returning to a fond memory. “They spent their honeymoon in a cabin in the mountains. Romantic, huh? Too bad it didn’t last.”

“What did she say happened to him?” I asked flatly. Another dead husband. How convenient.

“She never told you?”

I rolled my eyes. “The story escapes me at the moment.”

“You know how they say April showers bring May flowers?”

I nodded.

“Well, that April brought mudslides. They really shouldn’t cut into mountains to build roads. There’s nothing to hold than land in place when it rains.”

“He died in a mudslide?” I imagined him in a car tumbling down the side of the mountain in a sea of mud and uprooted trees. It reminded me of a clip I’d seen in a Mount St. Helens documentary. I remembered being at Grandma’s house when I watched it. The tragic deaths of the Mount St. Helens eruption must have inspired her next husband. It was his true origin story.

“She said he was going to the store to get diapers for the baby.”

Baby? I leaned in closer. My mother, possibly? Grandma didn’t waste anytime—remarrying while Mama was still an infant. If that were truly the case. Again, I started to question if anything Grandma had said were true. Was Pawpaw really my grandfather, or Lindell? Milton, even? My head was spinning. Who was real and who was fictional? Did Grandma even know? She was such the storyteller, she was starting to believe her own lies.

Maybe the nursing home atmosphere was getting to her. She was younger and healthier than most of the residents, but spending so much time with people whose minds had long deteriorated—Drake couldn’t accept that his wife had passed, Marcos only spoke a single word, Winifred wished for death—was taking an unhealthy effect on her. Grandma’s new normal had become her twenty-six husbands—men she might have known in her lifetime, or simply invented. Her stories about her husbands were just as credible as Drake swearing I was his dead wife, Jenny.

The nurse must have noticed the confusion on my face. “I’m sorry, I thought Ms. Millie told you.”

“I’m kinda in the dark.” I tried to force a smile, but the strain felt like someone was pulling on the skin of my neck.

“Well, I don’t know much.” The nurse pushed herself off the desk and returned to her computer to type something on the keyboard. “Just that Milton was nice enough to marry her while she was pregnant. I think she said the father was murdered?”

“Yes, my grandfather.” I shocked myself at how quickly I answered. With nurses and patients around her repeating Grandma’s stories as truth, I was actually starting to believe them myself. Like the saying went: If you heard a lie often enough . . .

“I’m sorry to hear that.” The nurse turned her eyes back to the computer screen.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I didn’t know him.” I only knew Pawpaw, and Lindell needed more than just biology to steal Pawpaw’s title. He needed the relationship. The endless pranks; the tag teaming against Mama and Grandma; the chocolate chip cookies sneaked into my room after bedtime; and when I was a teenager, the advice on boys—Lindell wasn’t around for any of that. None of Grandma’s husbands were. Only Pawpaw.

I turned and looked out the window. The sun was still high in the sky, reflecting off the hood of the cars in front in a blinding glare. I thought about leaving, but a more curious part of myself wondered what more Grandma could tell me, and if I could believe any of it.

I needed to talk to someone, but not Grandma, not anyone at the nursing home who had been prepped by her stories. Someone I could trust, who could claim witness to some of Grandma’s marriages including Pawpaw, who could tell me if Grandma was just full of it in her old age or if living in a nursing home had taught her honesty.

I reached into my purse for my cellphone and dialed Mama’s number.

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “N” is for Nutty Nate.

Lynched Lindell

Monochrome Photo of Couple Hugging

“With all of these husbands you had, why is it that you only have one child?” Tammy asked Grandma.

Grandma twiddled her thumbs. “I wondered that myself. I guess that’s just how life works out for some of us.” She hung her head and stared at her hands in her lap. “Miscarriages run in my family. I’ve had quite a few of them.”

I didn’t hear my own gasp. “Is this true?” I asked.

“I had three with Carl. Two in the months before we married, and the third one came after he died.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Winifred said.

I blinked several times to squelch approaching tears. “How did you cope?” I asked.

Grandma inhaled deeply and exhaled through her mouth, making a soft whistle. “Your Pawpaw was my longest marriage. Everything else was two, maybe three years on average? I guess, when you only have such a short time to show someone how much you love them—” Grandma raised her hand the way witnesses in court swore on the Bible, “and I did love all of my husbands, in my own little way, even Burt—” She licked her dry lips and plucked at the peeling skin. “I guess . . . once you realize that you’ll be their last memory leaving this world . . . you just want to make sure they never live to regret marrying you . . . and you just accept that you probably won’t have any children . . . or if you do . . . know they’ll grow up never knowing their father.” Grandma twirled the end of her sleeve around her finger as she rambled on.

“That’s so sad,” Tammy said.

Grandma shook her head. “No, my life is never sad. I’ve had sad moments, but also amazing ones.” Grandma raised her chin proudly. “A normal person will probably never find their soulmate. Or if they do, they’ll only have one, or the relationship won’t last their lifetime. Me, I’ve been married twenty-six times and have found my soulmate at least a fourth of those times. When you have someone who knows your soul like that—” Grandma beat her fist against her chest. “The way Carl knew me. And Andrew, Lindell—” She wave her hand in front of my face. “Your Paw . . . It won’t matter if you never have kids. All that matters is that you spend the rest of your life loving your soulmate as hard and as deeply as they love you.” Grandma closed her eyes and laid her head on the headrest of her chair, visibly spent from her speech.

I felt the urge to want to call Kyle. He texted me that morning asking about dinner. Drinks were nice, but let’s have a real date, his message said. I never answered. Agreeing to a quiet meal at an overpriced restaurant where the wait staff wore semiformal attire and frowned at anyone in jeans and flip flops was too much of a commitment to me. I didn’t want to jeopardize my job, or his. On top of that, I didn’t know what to expect from Kyle, what he expected from me. Past experiences had taught me that first date impressions often changed. He was a gentleman before, would he be one after? If the relationship soured, would I still feel comfortable flying with him?

However, Grandma’s speech reminded me of how important life and love was. What was the purpose of living if I spent my entire life avoiding the possibilities because of the “what ifs”? Grandma had married the same number of men as I had years. By the time she was my age, she had already been married eleven times, and her life had barely begun. Meanwhile, all I could account for was a date who stood me up the night of Junior prom and a goldfish that died after only three hours.

I took my cellphone from the front pocket of my purse and typed three letters: Y-E-S.

Kyle’s response was almost immediate. Pick you up at 8.

When I looked up from my phone, Grandma was smiling at me. “You’re turning red, Meg,” she said with a wink.


“Millie.” Jerry cleared his throat, leaned back in his chair to raise his leg and cross it over the other one. “You’ve talked about Andrew. You’ve talked about Carl, and about Meg’s grandpa. But I don’t think you ever told us what happened to your husband Lindell.”

“It’s hard talking about him sometimes,” Grandma said.

“Because of the way he died?” I asked.

“I just don’t understand how people can hate.” She turned to Frank. “Why?” she asked, and then again, “Why!”

Frank kept his face hidden behind the newspaper.

“We were all made in God’s image. Who cares if we’re different colors? Why? Tell me why!” She jumped from her chair and snatched the newspaper out of Frank’s hands, tearing it in half. “This black and white goes together.” She pointed, shoved the paper back in Frank’s face. “Why can’t we? Why?”

“Bah!” Frank said.

Grandma returned to her chair, again looking exhausted. She curled her legs under her, sitting on the side of her ankles, and hugged herself. “Lindell and I had been dating a year when we heard about the Supreme Court ruling. June 12, 1967. A day forever remembered as Loving Day. It had to be fate that their married name was Loving. It sounds crazy now, but back then, they put you in jail for what Mildred and Richard did. It shouldn’t be a crime to fall in love.

“Marrying Lindell was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The law was the law, but we still lived in the South. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t try harder to convince him that we should move North, where it was safer. But he was a proud man, and he wasn’t gonna let a bunch of racist redneck fear mongers run him out of his own home.”

Frank’s cheeks were sunken, the corners of his mouth curved downward. His loose skin dragged down his face. To the ignorant watcher, he appeared asleep, but I knew he’d heard everything Grandma said, and was ashamed.

“They were disgusting. They wanted to see us do it. Fulfilling a suppressed fantasy, maybe? They watched from the window. We didn’t even know.”

“Who is they?” Thomas asked.

“Them! The men that killed Lindell! So many of them. It was like an army.” Grandma shut her eyes and rocked on her heels, reliving the horrifying events of that night. “They broke in the second we were done. All of them, trying to get into that one window. It was enough time for me to run. Lindell fought them off so I could get away. He didn’t care what happened to him, but if they caught me, they would do their worst.

“There was no point in calling the police. Lindell was a traitor and I was black. They wouldn’t come. Some of those mob men probably were cops. I ran to the closest neighbor’s barn. They only had chickens, so I climbed to the second level and hid in the hay. I didn’t move that whole night.

“The next day was Sunday. The Sabbath. Everyone was in church, praying and asking for forgiveness, while my whole world was crashing down. When I came home that morning, I found Lindell hanging from a tree in our backyard.”

“Oh my god!” Tammy gasped.

Jerry picked up a tissue box, snatched out a few sheets and handed them to Grandma. “You are a brave woman.”

“I couldn’t save him,” she sobbed. She blew her nose and balled the tissue in her fist.

“It wasn’t your job,” Jerry said.

“He protected his wife like he was supposed to,” Thomas added.

“His memory will live on in you, Grandma,” I said.

“Yes.” Drake nodded his head in a large gesture, nearly tipping himself over/

Grandma sniffed and rubbed her nose.  “A few weeks later, I found out I was pregnant.”

“Oh no,” Winifred whispered. “Did you have another miscarriage?”

“This one went full term.” She lifted herself off of her legs and stretched them out in front of her, staring down at her ankles. “April that next year, I had a girl. I named her in honor of her father.” She bit down on her bottom lip, looked up at me and quickly glanced away. “Linda.”

“No,” I said quietly, shaking my head, then screamed, “It’s not true!”

The other seniors were startled by my sudden outburst, but Grandma didn’t move a muscle, her entire body tense. She kept her eyes glued to her ankles. She understood why I was so upset. Linda was Mama’s name.

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “M” is for Mudslide Milton.

More about Mildred and Richard Loving

Kinsman Kennedy

“Meg, when are you going to settle down?” Grandma asked me.

In my periphery, I saw Drake perk up. “Just haven’t met the right guy, I guess.”

“Well, have you looked?”

“Did you go looking for any of your husbands?” I hated how Grandma always implied that it was my fault I was still single. I didn’t have time to look for love when I was flying to New York or Los Angeles three times a week, and visiting her in my time between. How could I  even trust a man to be loyal when I was never home? I was inviting him to cheat. I could hear his complaints now: You never have time for me. Your job is more important than me. I haven’t been happy for a long time. I have needs too . . . 

“Completely different generation,” Grandma said. “The men today need a little more persuasion.” Which was a nicer way of saying men were fickle. They promised to make you their one and only, but the minute a Kim Kardashian sashayed by with her perfectly round—and most likely surgically enhanced—ass, they ditched you for one last thrill. What man wanted a steady relationship when there were so many beautiful options, when the bachelor’s lifestyle was so much more enticing?

I was better off dating one of Grandma’s dead husbands . . . or Drake. We were already married in his mind anyway.

“Ever think about dating one of the pilots?” Grandma suggested.

“Most of them are already married. Plus, we’re not allowed to date.” I didn’t mention Kyle, the co-pilot on many of my flights. He was in his mid-thirties, with salt and pepper hair. Our first flight together, I was loading up the cart with drinks for the passengers when he exited the cockpit, on his way to the restroom, and whispered in my ear, “You look beautiful.” I was wearing the same uniform as the other stewardesses on board, but he only noticed me. As a natural reflex, I glanced down at his hand. He wasn’t wearing a ring, nor did he have a tan line indicating he might have taken one off. As far as I knew, he was single.

Single, older, white-collar men. I had a weakness for them. Maybe it was their corporate CEO charisma that attracted me. I liked a man in charge, a man who didn’t wait for me to make the first move. Most of the men my age were too passive, but Kyle was different. Even the co-pilot took control of the plane when necessary.

On our last flight to LA, he invited me out for drinks. Under the assumption that the whole crew would be joining, I said yes. But it was only the two of us, and we had a blast. Even better was that he didn’t expect an invitation back to my room afterward. He was the perfect gentleman.

“A traveling man with a wife at home definitely knows how to bend the rules,” Grandma said.

“Are you trying to say you want me to be someone’s mistress? Me, your only granddaughter?” Sure, Kyle and I were bending the rules a little, and maybe thirty-five was a bit old never to have been married, but I was confident he didn’t have a wife. Even if he did, a couple of beers at an LA nightclub was hardly serious.

“First class hooker,” Frank mumbled.

“Frank, I will throw you out of that chair!” Grandma threatened. She rolled up the sleeves on her sweater and flexed her biceps. “I’m stronger than I look.”

“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos said. Frank glowered at him, an admonishing look a parent might give a child, but Marcos didn’t flinch, his smile as big as ever. Kill ’em with kindness, I thought.

Grandma turned to me. “Honey, I just want you to find someone for your own before . . . what do they say . . . all the good ones get taken?”

“And when you do, make sure he ain’t your cousin,” Jerry interjected. “All these men Millie done married. Ain’t no telling how many you got.”

“I’ll have you know I only had one child with one husband, thank you very much,” Grandma said. “And it ain’t so bad to marry your cousin. I know plenty of girls who married their cousins, and none of those babies were born with pigs’ tails neither.”

“That you know of,” Thomas said.

I suspected Grandma was leading us into her next husband, so I cut right to the chase. “Did you ever marry your cousin?”


“As a matter of fact, Kennedy was my grandmother’s cousin’s son’s nephew.” Grandma titled her head back and squinted at the ceiling. “I guess that would make him my . . . third cousin? Is that right?”

“Incest!” Frank spat, dribble hanging from his bottom lip.

“It’s not like I knew that when I married him! Back then, we were told before we married anyone to ask who their grandparents were to make sure we didn’t have the same ones. But great-great-grandparents? When you’re that far removed, who even cares?” Grandma said.

“When did you eventually find out?” I asked.

“At his funeral.”

“HEH-HA!” Thomas nearly toppled over the rocking chair laughing so hard.

“Everyone was saying how much I looked like his aunt. So finally, someone pulled out a Bible with the family tree, and we connected the dots.”

“No one thought to check the tree before you got married?” I asked.

“Like I said, great-greats weren’t that important. And you gotta remember, going that far back for us, we’re entering slavery territory. It’s a miracle someone was even able to keep track of the family during that time, especially when you got brothers and sisters sold, mama’s separated from their babies. Then there’s the horny master always inserting himself where he don’t belong.” Grandma cut a sharp glance at Frank.

“I don’t want cha,” he said. He reopened his newspaper to the same section he’d been on for the last hour and held it up in front of his face. We all knew he wasn’t reading, though. His ego was bruised. It must have been hard—a former KKK member belittled constantly by a black woman. Yet he never excluded himself from our circle entirely. Maybe somewhere deep down inside, he did want Grandma. He wouldn’t have been the first.

“By the way, Meg,” Grandma said, “a fun fact about your family—all the daughters look like their aunts . . . or in my case, their husband’s aunts.”

I tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh. Only in Grandma’s world would that ever happen.

“If you’ve noticed, your mom looks nothing like me.”

“She doesn’t look like Pawpaw either, but neither of you have a sister,” I said.

“Jenny?” Drake suddenly cried.

“Goddammit!” Thomas threw up his hands. “Yes, yes! We get it! She looks like Jenny. Now will you can it?”

Grandma quickly shushed him, but Thomas was only saying what we all were thinking. Did I even look that much like Jenny? With my frizzy hair, my long neck like a gazelle, my flat nose? Not to mention, Jenny was obviously white, or so I thought. Maybe she was black, and he just didn’t know. I’d heard the stories of the tragic mulatto. The very light skin black woman who fell in love with a white man and tried to pass for white to be accepted. It was a common theme in movies and books. I had no doubt it happened in real life too, possibly with Jenny and Drake. However, I was hesitant to accept that assumption because of the stereotype that was sure to follow: all black people looked alike. No. We didn’t. And I didn’t look like Jenny, no matter how hard Drake tried to make me his deceased wife come back to life sixty years younger.

“Meg,” Grandma started, then caught herself. She pressed her lips together, as if reconsidering what she was about to say. “Your . . . grandfather . . . actually did have a sister.”

“Uh-oh, family secret time!” Jerry clapped his hands and rubbed them together.

“Why have I never heard of her?” I asked.

“Well . . . she and I kept in touch over the years before she died, and your mother’s met her once or twice, but . . .” Grandma trailed off.

“But what? Who was she?” I pressed.

“It’s complicated.”

“Family secrets are always complicated,” Jerry said. “Un-complicate them.”

“Will you be quiet!” Grandma sapped.

“You’re not going to tell me that this mysterious sister of Pawpaw’s is really my grandma, are you?” I’d heard those stories too—women who waited until they were on their deathbeds to reveal to their daughters that the ones they’d called big sister or aunt or close family friend all their lives were actually their biological mothers. Lies told for years to hide the family shame of a teenage pregnancy or birth out of wedlock.

“No, no.” Grandma shook her head. “I am definitely your grandmother . . . but you do, er, did have a great-aunt . . . on your . . . grandfather’s . . .side—“

The was the second time she mentioned Pawpaw’s name like a question. Like suddenly, she wasn’t sure what to call him. What else was she hiding?

“I only mention her because, like Kennedy’s aunt and me, your mother looks exactly like her . . . and so do you.”

I waited for her to continue, but she went silent, and Tammy quickly asked her a question off the subject. However, I suspected the revelation wasn’t done. I looked over to Drake. For the first time, his eyes weren’t on me, but focused directly on Grandma. His heavy frown seemed to suggest that he was just as curious to know what secrets Grandma was hiding.

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “L” is for Lynched Lindell.

Jalopy Jasper

“Do you see him?” I pointed over Thomas’ head at the ghostly man. “Do you see that man!” I shouted, failing to hide the hysteria in my voice.

The group followed my finger, but no one jumped, screamed, gasped. Their faces remained still, expressions unchanged. Were they looking at empty space or a person? I had to know. I had to know if his was real.

Grandma stood up, walked over to the man and draped her arm around his shoulder. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Drake, are you over here scaring my granddaughter?” Grandma asked as she guided him to sit on the purple couch next to Winifred.

Drake nodded like a bobble head doll. “I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m,” he repeated, like a scratched CD skipping endlessly on one second in the track. His lips made and arid popping sound as he spoke, and his voice was like the desert wind after a sandstorm. Grandma rubbed his back between his shoulder blades and lightly pushed him forward, but he froze when he crossed my path, his feet planted firmly, as if they were stuck in concrete. His mantra halted, and he stared at me with his jaw dropped. “Looking for my wife.” The vowels in his words dragged, and the accent in his voice rose on “wife,” almost like he was asking instead of telling, and seeking the answer in me.

“No, honey.” Grandma turned him around and sat him next to Winifred. “That’s my granddaughter. She wasn’t even thought of when you and Jenny married.”

His face formed a question mark, and he stared at her with furrowed eyebrows, debating in his mind whether to accept her answer.

“You remember, Jenny’s gone. She died a few years ago, before I came here. You remember. We were at her funeral,” Grandma said.

We, I wondered. Did Grandma know him prior to becoming a resident here? How? I’d never seen him before in my life. Just ten minutes ago, I’d convinced myself he was a ghost—an eerie figment of my imagination materialized from Grandma’s story about Gaston.

But he obviously recognized me. He pursed his lips, as if trying to say, “You,” but nothing came out.

I lowered my eyes to my lap, hoping the lack of eye contact would dissuade him from staring, but I felt his eyes on my skin, my cheek growing warm under his persistent gaze.


I would do anything for a distraction, to get the topic—and his eyes—off of me. “So who came after Ian?” I asked Grandma after she settled back down into her chair.

Grandma watched Drake from the corner of her eye. “I bought my first car from Jasper with the money Ian left me.”

“Was it a lot?” Tammy asked.

“We were touring with the fair,” Grandma said with light sarcasm in her voice. “Do you know how much admission was back in the sixties?”

“Enough to buy you a car,” Jerry said slyly.

“A jalopy is more like it.” Grandma brushed the tip of her nose, as if fanning away a foul smell. “He was a fast talker, but I guess you gotta be when you’re selling cars that ain’t worth the flat tires they rusting on.”

“He talked you right outta your skirt, didn’t he?” Thomas slid his tongue across his bottom lip. He was such a flirt, and it was so obvious that he and Jerry were competing to be Grandma’s next dead husband. To Thomas’ remark, Jerry made a gagging sound and pressed his finger down on his tongue toward the back of his throat. Tammy and I instinctively scooted our chairs back another inch. We couldn’t be too careful.

Grandma covered her face with her palm and continued. “I don’t know why I married him.” She shrugged. “Shoot, I don’t know why I bought that car. It was a piece of crap. But it was a means to an end . . . his end to be specific.” She gave us a chilling grin, and I half suspected her hands weren’t as clean she she professed in Jasper’s ultimate demise. She was supposedly married to a Cadillac expert. How much did Carl teach her about cars? Could she take one apart? “I’m just glad I wasn’t in the car with him when it finally blew out,” Grandma finished. Her innocent, unknowing widow routine was starting to get exhausted.

“You went to the beach?” Drake interrupted. He was watching me more intently now, his eyebrows in the shape of crooked commas.

“No, she’s not tanned, Drake, she’s black,” Grandma said.

“Black?” He jerked his neck back in shock—my being black, the wildest thing he’d ever heard.

“She’s not Jenny, she’s my granddaughter,” Grandma said, then louder, “GRANDDAUGHTER!”

“Oh.” Drake snuggled into the tiny space between the cushions of the couch next to Winifred. His eyes shifted as they tried to focus in on me. I smiled, which seemed to confuse him even more. He couldn’t believe I was anyone but his dead wife, Jenny. But who was she, and why did I look so much like her?

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “K” is for Kinsman Kennedy.

Illusionist Ian

“Well, here comes Jerry.” Grandma nodded her head in Jerry’s direction. He was smacking his lips as if chewing on something, and Grandma rolled her eyes. “Thomas, come sit in this here rocking chair. We don’t need a repeat of what happened last time.”

Thomas stepped across Grandma’s outstretched legs and sat in the rocking chair just as Jerry entered our circle.

“What’s this? Musical chairs?” Jerry asked.

“What you got in your mouth?” Grandma said.

“My gummies,” Jerry said, which I took to mean his gummy vitamins. They were easier to swallow than those god awful horse pills that could get lodged in your throat and choke you to death . . . like a saxophone mouthpiece?

I chuckled to myself. Grandma’s first husband was growing on me.

Jerry hunched his body over and flopped into the cushioned chair previously occupied by Thomas.

“Now isn’t that better?” Grandma asked.

“Don’t patronize me, woman,” Jerry said. He cleared the phlegm in this throat, his bottom lip bulging out, and it occurred to me that if his stomach were to become upset again and he projectile vomited all over the floor, Tammy and I would be in the direct line of fire. Was it wise for the nurses to give him vitamins that tasted like fruity candies when the last fruity snack he’d eaten was still a pink stain on the linoleum by Marcos’ feet?

I scooted my chair an inch or two back, and Tammy, recognizing her imminent danger, did the same. Grandma gave us both a side smirk, but said nothing. Jerry was too busy complaining about being forced to switch seats to even notice.

“Calm down, honey, you’re still next to me,” Grandma said.

“You two should be married,” Tammy said. “You argue enough.”

“Ha!” Frank’s hoarse voice echoed through the room. His outburst unsettled me, especially after Grandma  had said he used to be in the KKK. His rubbery skin sagged. His flabby stomach lay in his thighs. He sat in a wheelchair, but a cane was hooked around the arm of the chair, indicating that he could walk, but didn’t always have the strength. I looked at his arms. Upper body strength usually increased with age, especially when you had to use it to pick yourself up because your legs were too weak to do it by themselves. How good was his swing? Could he possibly use his cane as a weapon? Was Marcos safe sharing a room with him?

He was an old man, and hopefully, that meant he was harmless too. The nursing home wouldn’t bring anyone in who could pose a threat to the other patients—other than the apathetic nurses, of course. His bark was dull now, but how sharp was his bite in his prime? How many families did he terrorize? How many crosses did he set fire to in front yards?

There was an awkward silence amongst the group, but Grandma was unfazed. She crossed one leg over the other and looked Frank right in the eye. “I married a white man before,” she said, then pointed to me. “Look at how light my granddaughter is. We all mixed up in here. How that make you feel?”

“Humph.” Frank turned his wheelchair to the side, giving us his profile once again.


“Don’t pout,” Jerry said. Sensing the tension lifted, he added, “I bet she ran him off like she did Ian.”

“I did not run Ian off!” Grandma said.

“All your nagging pushed that boy right to do a disappearing act.”

“He was a magician!”

“Funny how he didn’t get good til he married you,” Jerry said. This comment seemed to tickle Winifred, and she emerged from her purple cocoon laughing uncontrollably.

“So was Ian your next husband?” I asked.

Grandma nodded. “After Harry died, I packed up and moved the next town over to attend college. It was a nice change for me. Nobody there knew who I was. I could start over.”

“Until you got married again,” Thomas said sarcastically.

“Look, Ian’s disappearance was just an accident,” Grandma defended. She turned to me. “When I met him, he was doing your basic parlor tricks.  Pick a card kind of stuff.”

“And after you married him, he got tired of you and—” Jerry egged.

“No, no.” Grandma shook her head vigorously. “He wanted to be the next Harry Houdini. With or without me, he would’ve eventually graduated from the simple stuff.”

“Conveniently after—“

“Ian loved me!” Grandma shouted over Jerry. “I was his assistant for four years. He proposed to me after he sawed me in half and put me back together. After graduation, we were gonna travel the country. Be the best show on earth.” She glared at Jerry. “I was supposed to be the one to disappear that night.”

“What went wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Grandma hunched her shoulders. “After he shut me in the box and spun me around, I waited under the stage for the signal to come back up. The audience was dead silent for a few seconds. Then I heard a few gasps and a loud applause. I thought the trick had gone as planned.”

I surmised what might have happened but couldn’t accepted. This would have to be the most unbelievable of all her stories. Andrew? Maybe. Burt and Carl? Possibly. Deek? It could happen. Elliot? Metal conducted electricity, a silver fork was metal, so probably. Fred? Well, if your mind was that far gone. Gaston? Anyone could break their neck falling down the stairs. Harry? I would even believe that. Who knew, maybe he read one of Gaston’s deathly comics and freaked himself out looking at a shirt hanging on the door. But there was no way, no earthly way, Ian could have physically disappeared into thin air, and the audience watched it happen!

“The signal never came,” Grandma was saying, “so I went up anyway. I guess they expected Ian to come out behind me, but he never did. He was gone.”

“I still think you ran him off,” Jerry said.

“Maybe he was a better magician than you thought,” Thomas suggested, and the hairs down my spine stood on end. Gripping the chair behind him, the ghostly old man was back.

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “J” is for Jalopy Jasper.

Haunted Harry

I splashed cold water on my face and stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Why was I so jumpy? I had to remember where I was; a nursing home, where most of the elderly residents came to fade away from memory, like ghosts, but that didn’t mean I’d seen a ghost—just a weird old man. This place was full of those, and like Grandma, all they wanted was attention, some needier than others, and I suspected he was one of the needy ones—they were often ignored.

I tore a paper towel from the dispenser, wiped my face, and checked myself in the mirror one last time. I still looked rattled, but most of the fear had gone away. Hopefully Grandma wouldn’t prod me about my sudden departure. She always said I was the emotional one of the family. Easily excitable, her exact words. It must have started with Pawpaw’s practical jokes—well, I guess they were Elliot’s first—I never got used to them. I went over the list of pranks Grandma claimed Elliot had invented: whoopee cushions, fingers, Jack-o-lanterns . . .

So I guess I could thank Elliot for Halloween 1999, when Pawpaw hurled a glowing Jack-o-lantern at my head across the neighbor’s yard on a clothesline. I stood there, frozen in terror, screaming my head off until the thing hit me dead in my face and knocked me out cold. Later, after I had woken up with a throbbing headache and a black eye, Pawpaw confessed that he was only reenacting a scene from a short story by Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.” Meanwhile behind him, Grandma chided me about how I would be the reason why black people would never get to live past the opening credits of horror movies.


When I finally emerged from the bathroom, Grandma was already on her next husband.

“Meg, sweetie,” she said when she saw me, “I didn’t mean to scare you like that.”

“N–no, I wasn’t . . . It wasn’t . . .” I stuttered. Our circle was back down to five: Grandma, Thomas, Winifred, Tammy, Marcos, and Frank. The nurse must have left when I bolted to the bathroom, but her empty rocking chair still teetered back and forth by itself, and I imagined the ghostly man was now sitting in it—all the energy he’d absorbed to manifest himself depleted, making him invisible once again—still watching me with those scared, worried eyes.

No, no. I shook my head. He was real. He was a patient here. That’s why the nurse was gone. She’d seen him and taken him back to his room. Maybe she would give him medicine that would put him down, keep him from harassing visitors unaccustomed to his haunting nature, at least until dinner.

“Come here, baby.” Grandma stood up to examine me closer. She pinched and stretched my cheeks like she often did when I was little. “Honey, all the melanin has drained right out of your face. You look bout as white as Winifred.”

“Like you seen a ghost,” Thomas jeered. The swooped side smirk on his face told me Grandma had been talking about my history of getting spooked.

“Did you see him? Did you see Gaston?” Grandma asked.

“W–what?” The old man was Gaston? That couldn’t be right. I thought Grandma had said Gaston was younger. Or maybe I’d just assumed that because he drew comics. Comic books were childish to me, but I knew of grown men who collected and also wrote them. Gaston could’ve been as old as Fred, or older, and like comic book writer,  Stan Lee, he could’ve been creating superheroes well into his nineties.

“I only ask because he haunted Harry too.” Grandma reached behind her, grasped the arms of her chair, and eased herself down in her seat. I followed suit. I should’ve known her concern wasn’t sincere. I couldn’t remember a time when she ever showed true concern for the things that frightened me. She was a storyteller first, and she often used me as inspiration for her scarier ones. Like the rest of her husbands, Harry probably wasn’t real at all, but because I was so spooked after she’d finished talking about Gaston, she had all the material she needed to continue on to husband number eight.

“The way Gaston died, I should’ve known he would come back. I didn’t think he would come back so jealous, though. He barely even paid attention to me when he was alive, but as a ghost, he was so loving and attentive. It was like he needed to die to be a good husband.”

“Ha!” Frank flapped his newspaper in front of him. “He gotta be dead to love ya ’cause you’re a piece of work.”

Thomas threw his head back and laughed, his Adams apple jiggling up and down. “That was a good one!”

“I’m serious,” Grandma protested. “He was sweet to me, but he terrorized Harry, like the poltergeists in his comics. I couldn’t leave Harry alone in the house . . . literally. I was just outside in the backyard pulling weeds from my garden when I heard him scream.”

“So you mean to tell me the ghost of your dead husband haunted your existing husband?” I asked.

Grandma nodded slowly. “To death.”

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “I” is for Illusionist Ian.

Ghostly Gaston


He’d been walking circles around the nurses station unnoticed for the last half hour. I sneaked a few glances his way as Grandma started to tell us about her next husband.

“Gaston was lost like Fred. He just never seemed to be in the same world as the rest of us.”

There was something about this man that chilled me right to the bone. Although it could’ve been the draft—I was sitting directly below a vent in the ceiling.

“He was the creative type. He wrote graphic novels about ghosts and ghouls. I hated his drawings; they were terrifying! He was quite the artist, but he busied himself with his comics. Never had time to do anything else. He was a ghost himself, really.” Grandma’s voice faded into a low mumble as I became enraptured by this odd man, who seemed all too familiar to me.

His skin was pale, nearly the same color as the thin white t-shirt tucked in his corduroy pants. He had an awkward gait—bent forward, hips crooked—as if in the motion of sitting, or maybe he was just constipated. He walked on the sides of his feet and stared ahead of him at something not in the room with wide, worried eyes, occasionally raising a shaky finger to point at it. His mouth was so small, it was almost nonexistent, the creases in his lips blending in with the hundreds of wrinkles on the rest of his face. He babbled on and on as he pointed, but I couldn’t make out the words. The nurses paid no attention to him, focused on whatever work that was in front of them. It was almost as if everyone was going out of their way to ignore him . . . or maybe they just didn’t see him.

It reminded me of the day Pawpaw died. After saying my goodbyes, I sat outside in the waiting room. Mama and Grandma stayed with him to the end, but I couldn’t have my last memory of Pawpaw be his dying breathe while he lay in a hospital bed, tubes coming from his arms and nose, sparse hair on his head from all the radiation and chemo, crying because he feared what death would be like. I didn’t know if Pawpaw was religious at all, I’d never seen him in church, but I prayed that he believed in God, that he was in a better place now, that he was at peace.

In the waiting room, I watched doctors and nurses walk by, orderlies push gurneys into the elevators, family members rush through the halls to find the rooms of their sick loved ones. Normal hospital traffic. However, one person had caught my eye—so quickly that I’d stopped crying. She pushed an IV pole in front her her, two drip bags hanging from the hook. I thought maybe she was a nurse because of the hot pink scrubs she was wearing, but she had that frightened, searching stare of a lost patient who had wandered from her room. Hospital staff walked past her, looking down at whatever was in front of them on their clipboards. She stood in the hallway for several minutes, invisible to everyone but me, then she turned and walked into what looked to be a conference room and never came out. Eventually I mustered up the courage to follow her, and when I looked inside, the room was completely empty, and there was no other door on the other side.

It wasn’t too uncommon to see ghosts in hospitals. People did and do die there, but I’d hoped Pawpaw had moved past this realm. Being dead among the living was a fate worse than death itself; you were unable to touch or feel or speak to the ones you loved, and no matter how hard you tried to gain their attention—clanging pots and pans, turning on radios, slamming doors—no one would ever see you.

Seniors died in nursing homes too, right? Could their ghosts remain absentminded residents?

The man’s eyes drifted down to meet mine, and his mouth widened into the shape of an O, expressing shock that someone had actually seen him, and he picked up his pace, walking straight toward me.

I spun around in my chair, lowered myself so that my head was hidden behind the back. Maybe he had poor eyesight. Maybe he would lose track of where I was and wander somewhere else. My stomach did a back flip and sank in my gut, resting on top of my bladder. I crossed my legs to hold it in, waiting for the perfect moment to escape to the bathroom.

“Gaston just never paid attention to anything. He was so busy reading his comics, he didn’t even see the stairs in front of him,” Grandma was saying, oblivious to the fact that I had missed more than half of the story, and might have inadvertently summoned a visitor to our circle. “Broke his neck right on the bottom step. Scary thing is one of the characters in his book died the same way, almost like he planned it.”

Shivers shot down my spine. I looked up at fluttering ribbons hanging from the vent above my head to see if the air conditioning had kicked on.

“I still have the comic. It’s in my room . . . Meg, if you don’t believe me.”

I jolted from my seat, not from being startled by Grandma yelling my name, but because the strange white man had abruptly appeared again, standing behind Grandma’s chair and staring directly at me with his wide, worried eyes.

© 2016 Nortina Simmons

A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “H” is for Haunted Harry.