My grandmother kept a satchel in her room. It sat by the door collecting dust. Inside she had packed a change of undergarments, a nightgown, several pairs of knee-high socks, a cotton blouse, a plain skirt with an elastic waistband, and a tin of Dunhill pipe tobacco. I knew this because once, when my mother and I had come for our regular Sunday visit, Grandma had opened the bag and showed me its contents.
“I’m going home soon, Brenda,” she had said. Brenda is my mother’s name, but I had long since given up reminding her I was her granddaughter.
“You are home, Grandma.” I pointed to the tobacco tin in her bag. The vague odor of a burning pipe lingered in her room. “And since when do you smoke?”
Grandma gave me the same glare she had given me as a child when I took the Lord’s name in vain. It was a look of hostility, betrayal, and stubbornness all wrapped up in one small, wrinkled package. Her attitude was fierce, but at eighty-seven years old she was diminutive, barely five-foot tall, and as brittle as a late-winter oak leaf. I feared she’d dissolve in a poof of rose and liniment scented dust if I hugged her too hard.
“That was Papa,” she said. “He came to visit. Said he wants to know when I’m coming home.” She had told us something similar before. Sometimes, instead of her father, it was one of her dead sisters who visited.
“If Papa were still alive,” Mom said, “he’d be 120 years old.”
Grandma nodded as though she had accepted my mother’s answer, but she looked unconvinced. After her car had been taken away, she had tried, on more than one occasion, to walk back to her childhood home, a tobacco farm in a neighboring community called Cheston. The farm was no longer there. Neither were her eleven brothers and sisters. Her papa had died sixty years before, and over the next half-dozen decades, all his offspring had followed. All except Grandma. She was the last, and I wondered if the burden of outliving so many was what had ultimately broken her mind.
Locked doors and round-the-clock nurses kept her from body from wandering, but not her mind, and certainly not her heart. Quite possibly, her heart had gone home long ago and was now waiting for the rest of her to catch up.
When the case worker called to tell us Grandma was missing, I soon discovered her satchel had disappeared, too. Mom and I could guess where she had gone, and we dashed down the road in Mom’s car, heading for Cheston, for the old farm that had given up tobacco in favor of growing a crop of middle class houses. “This is a long way for an old lady to walk,” I said.
“She’s always been tenacious,” my mother said. “And stubborn. She’s stronger than she looks.”
The county sheriff had called out a search party, and we hunted the area for hours with a small group of eager volunteers. Bloodhounds found a scent trail and followed it until we found her, at last, lying near a patch of woods at the edge of the subdivision. Her eyes were closed, and she might have been sleeping, except she was too still, too cold. Her lips were too blue. Her satchel lay beside her, still packed as it had been in her room, except for one item.
“The Dunhill’s gone.” My hands shook as I searched through her belongings. “Where do you think—” A breeze wafted past, carrying a hint of pipe smoke. I scanned the surrounding area, searching for… what? A ghost?
I shivered. “Smell that?”
Mom closed her eyes, inhaled, and nodded. Her chin trembled. “It was Papa’s favorite.”
Year after year, Mom and I went back, bringing my own children when they were old enough to help. We had established an annual tradition of returning to Cheston, to the old farmland. Like an Easter egg hunt, we searched tall grass, leaf mounds, woods, and common areas, but we never found that tin of Dunhill.
Whenever the breeze blew past us, though, it always carried a familiar scent: a hint of tobacco smoke mingled with liniment and rose perfume.
As KB Sluss, Karissa’s short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Cast of Wonders, Luna Station Quarterly, and Stupefying Stories. She is also a first reader for Strange Horizons and an editor at Quantum Fairy Tales. As Karissa Laurel, she is the author of several adult and YA novels. Her latest, Heir of Thunder, is a YA fantasy about the daughter of the god of thunder.