>”It needs more cheese,” Della Beaugarden said, making a squinchy face. When she did that, the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes deepened, making her look even more like her own recently departed mother. She had salt-and-pepper hair clipped at her nape in a silver barrette, and bifocals perched on her forehead. She was still wearing her Sunday dress, but had slipped into her bedroom shoes.
Meriweather put her hands on her hips. “Mama, that is a potato casserole. The main ingredient should be potato.”
They were cooking in the enormous square kitchen that Meri had grown up in, wearing aprons that Gram herself had sewn, only Meri’s covered up jeans and a black t-shirt. It was a formality, the apron, since Meri didn’t actually participate in cooking. She’d skipped church, as always, and her mother was put out, as always
“Edna likes cheese,” Della said, and went to the refrigerator, where she got out a block of red-waxed cheddar and took it to the grater for another go round.
Meri snorted. “She called me a turkey butt. Why should I care what she likes?”
“Don’t be that way. You know how bad hospitals scare your aunt. You can’t hold that against her.”
“Tell that to the poor lab tech, the one she chucked the pudding at.”
“He deserved it,” her mother pronounced.
And he had, Meri admitted to herself. A careless oaf, he’d stuck her aunt’s soft white arm with abrupt callousness. Edna had called him worse than turkey butt, then flung her chocolate pudding in his face, and Meri had laughed as the guy sputtered and fumed. But then she’d glimpsed the tears in her aunt’s eyes, and she’d felt bad. Needles weren’t funny, especially not inexpertly wielded ones.
Her mother was right about one thing, though — Edna was scared, only it wasn’t of the hospital. The hospital she could handle. The fear Meri had glimpsed that first night was bigger than ordinary fear, deeper too, and less containable. More like fear’s feral cousin.
It had calmed under Dwayne’s shushing and hand-holding, which had surprised Meri not one bit. Dwayne was the most solid person she knew, soft-spoken and sturdy. She told him once he was too normal to be a detective; detectives were quirky and eccentric and dark around the edges, she explained, like on TV or in the movies. Dwayne had laughed heartily at that.
Della tidied up the bright yellow haystack of cheese shreds and dumped them on top of the casserole, then popped it into the oven. Then she turned the light on and looked at it, like it was a naughty child she couldn’t trust to behave. She’d been cooking since Gram’s funeral, a totally unnecessary chore since the house was still full of sliced ham and macaroni salad and multiple baked goods. They’d had pineapple cake for breakfast, and there was still food coming, stews and casseroles and salads, all in containers with the owner’s named taped to the bottom.
Grounding and centering, Meri knew. She did the same thing in ritual, with cakes and ale. Only she didn’t bake them herself — she got the nice lady at the bakery on the corner to do that. She thought about trying to bake her own sometimes, had even bought a cookbook. But she’d never opened it. It was as pointless as an apron in her world.
Looking at her mother, she wondered if perhaps the earthing quality of food came from someone actually getting their hands in the flour and sugar and butter. In the cheese, even.
Not Velvetta though. Meri was pretty sure Velvetta was an affront to the Goddess.
“Mama?” she said. “Did they ever figure out what Aunt Edna was talking about? When she kept saying Gram had been killed?”
Her mother frowned. “The doctors think her blood sugar went too low or something. Your grandmother wasn’t killed — she had a heart attack, pure and simple.”
They didn’t talk further, even though they both knew that Edna’s sugar had been fine — all her tests had been fine. Lucid as a summer day, Edna was. Dwayne had checked her out of the hospital that morning and taken her back to her house, this sprawling ramshackle place over by Lake Thurmond. He’d promised Meri and her mother he’d fill them in as soon as possible on what was going on. He said it with his eyes averted, which didn’t mean that he was lying — Dwayne never lied. It just meant he wasn’t quite ready to share the truth.
Meri wiped her clean hands on her clean apron. She would have liked to have written the whole episode off as grief-related stress. But from the way Dwayne had gone all quiet as he listened to Edna’s story, she knew that wasn’t going to be the case, not this time.
“Have you heard from Dwayne?” she asked.
Della shook her head. “Have you?”
“No.” Meri chewed her lip. “He’s at Aunt Edna’s, right?”
“So maybe I should give him a call? See if he’s got this situation under control yet?”
Della pulled on a hot mitt and removed the potato casserole from the oven. “So maybe you should go over there and take this food with you. And then you can see for yourself.”