Elizabeth belonged to Trina’s grandfather. She was eighty-two years old, although Trina would never have guessed it to look at her; she looked old-fashioned, but not old. Trina played with Elizabeth every Christmas when they visited Grampa, although she was careful to keep it a secret. Elizabeth said he wouldn’t like it if he knew they were friends, which Trina thought was mean. Elizabeth said she was right, and that Grampa was a very mean man indeed.
Trina decided Elizabeth was her very favourite friend. Nobody else she knew had such interesting stories to tell.
But then Grampa died, and instead of Christmas dinner the next year they had something called a wake. There were lots of people dressed in black, who sipped wine and told stories about Grampa. But none of these people was Elizabeth, and their stories were dull; all they talked about were the nice things Grampa did. Trina wasn’t interested in that.
She searched all over, but Elizabeth was gone. So was Grampa, which was also upsetting — Trina had hoped he would tell her all about having an aneurysm (her new very favourite word) the way Elizabeth had told her about being strangled. How long did an aneurysm take? Did it hurt? She’d been looking forward to finding out.
Without Grampa, she had to learn about aneurysms from a book, and it wasn’t half as much fun. But at least she discovered why he never came back: his own brain had killed him, so there was no one for him to belong to. It was disappointing, but interesting too. Trina liked to know how things worked.
She wondered for a while if dead people could belong to things (like cars, for example — she’d learned that a lot of people died in road accidents ) but it didn’t seem to happen like that. Trina peered into as many cars as she could, but none of them ever had anybody interesting inside.
Sometimes she glimpsed people who looked promising — like the little boy following a man who got off the bus in front of her one day, or the skinny kid hanging around with a big gang of boys outside an off licence — but it wasn’t easy to get a chance to talk to them.
Then she had a marvellous idea: she could go and visit people in prison! They certainly wouldn’t be rushing off anywhere else, and they were bound to have really fascinating stories to tell her.
Her mother, unfortunately, was horrified at the idea. She sat Trina down and said it was kind of her to think of doing nice things for disadvantaged people, but that it wouldn’t be appropriate. Trina tried to argue, but she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t understand at all.
It was so unfair.
Henry Kelsey was Trina’s three-doors-along neighbour. He was eighty-six, and he definitely looked it; he had wispy white hair, watery eyes, and baggy skin that seemed too big for his body. He’d had a wife called Peggy, but she’d died a month ago (of cancer, Trina heard, and since Peggy hadn’t come back it must have been true) so now he lived on his own.
Trina helped him with his shopping and tried to get him to tell her more about cancer, but he didn’t like to talk about it. Sometimes he got upset, and sometimes he said things like, “You’re too young to worry about anything like that, sweetheart,” which was dumb. She tried to explain that she wanted to, but he just gave her a sad smile and patted her on the head. Trina couldn’t understand what was wrong with people. They were so frustrating.
She wondered if he had cancer too, because he looked kind of sick, so she asked her mother if he was likely to die soon. Her mum looked unhappy, and said it was possible, but that she hoped not. Trina hoped not, too. It would be such a waste. Cancer was her very favourite disease, and she really wanted to know what it had done to Peggy Kelsey. She didn’t want Henry to die before she got old enough to hear about it.
She thought about the problem for a while — there had to be something she could do — and then she had another marvellous idea.
Trina’s mum got all teary-eyed when she asked if they could invite Henry for Christmas dinner. “You miss your Grampa, don’t you?” she said.
Trina nodded. If she’d had her marvellous idea last year, Grampa would have belonged to her — and then she could have asked him about Elizabeth, and he wouldn’t have been able to do anything mean to her. But still; there was no point crying over spilt milk, as Grampa himself used to say. You just had to do better next time.
So on Christmas Day, Trina laid an extra place at the table while her mum talked about the kind hearts of children and the spirit of the season. Henry cried a little, and said he’d like to wash his face before dinner.
“Of course,” Trina’s mum told him. “The bathroom’s right at the top of the stairs.”
Trina jumped up straight away. She’d learned that the majority of fatal accidents for old people were due to falls, with over 60% happening on stairs. The most common injury was a hip fracture, which could lead to infections, blood clots and all manner of medical complications, including something with the wonderful name of avascular necrosis. Trina was really hoping to learn more about that. It was the very first item on her Christmas list.
“I’ll show you where the bathroom is,” she said, and smiled as Henry took her hand.
Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. She has worked as a mortgage underwriter, supermarket cashier, makeup artist, tarot reader and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time. Four volumes of her Transient Tales series of short stories are now available, individually or collected in an omnibus edition, and details can be found at www.transientcactus.co.uk.