A Big Responsibility
Jazz didn’t expect to lose him, never intended to lose him, but she did—on her first watch.
She had searched the entire house. No Grandpa. The open door into the garden swept her outside.
The forest echoed with her desperation as nervous sweat trickled down her temple. Her eyes frantically darted across the yard.
“He won’t be able to find his way home.”
The setting sun shouted a warning. Tears pooled in her eyes, making her vision blur. She angrily swiped the weakness away before checking the pathways around the house. The locks were still in place.
“He’s got to be here somewhere. I only left him alone for a few minutes.”
Jazz rushed to the back gate, and the gap between the door and post screamed at her. She shoved the gate, the clang of metal sending the phoebe birds scattering into the air.
“I left it open!”
The wind whipped in the treetops. Gathering clouds in the gray-orange expanse above threatened both Jazz and Grandpa.
“Please, not a storm now!”
Jazz grabbed the rope of the tire swing in the oak tree and performed a technique Grandpa taught her. “Tactical breath,” she whispered. Drawing her lungs full of Georgia humidity and pine, she counted to four, held for two, then exhaled for seven more counts. After several repetitions, she squared her shoulders.
“If I don’t find him in ten minutes, I’ll call Mom, but they’ll never leave me alone with him again.”
She thumped the tire with her fist, the percussive rhythm helping her think.
“He’ll walk where it’s the easiest, and that means the path into the woods.”
Her feet slapped down the narrow strip of packed dirt, legs brushing through powdery pollen that colored her skin a dusty yellow. After a heart-pounding sprint through the vegetation, a movement caught her eye. Her sob soared into the evening air as she recognized the familiar gait.
He turned to the sound with no recognition in his gaze. When she caught up to him, she grasped his hand in both of hers and pressed it against her cheek.
“Hey, you’re gettin’ my hand all wet.”
“S-sorry.” She sniffled. “It’s raining where I live.” As if on cue, the clouds dropped their tears to join hers.
“We need to get you out of this storm.” She quickly pulled him along the path back to the house, talking the entire way about the games they would play, the chocolate milk they would drink, and the classic movies they would watch on the television tonight.
Grandpa remained oblivious to her existence during their trip through the woods. He stopped several times to run his hand down the rough bark of a tree or pluck a wild mint leaf to chew, the luscious summer scent wafting about him.
“We’re getting soaked,” said Jazz, but Grandpa remained lost in nature—this time adrift only in its beauty.
When they finally arrived at the back door, Jazz opened it for him. He stopped before entering and put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you.”
Her heart soared. “My pleasure.”
Jazz idolized Grandpa, and though the hours were nerve-racking, he was never a burden. For the rest of the night, she never left him. She carried the mostly one-sided conversation, keeping all the information light and humorous.
When her chatter lessened, he became agitated, and Jazz scrambled for anything to fill the void. A donation box filled with old toys from her childhood caught her eye. She flipped open the top and rifled through the contents.
“Oh my gosh!” She pulled out stuffed animals with rips and tears, marker measles, and stains from who knows what.
“My dragons and unicorns! I’m not giving these away!”
Jazz imitated the sounds Grandpa used to make in the backyard as they circled the unicorns, determined to protect them from the dragons. It was kind of their thing, a world Grandpa created just for them. He had given her unicorn and dragon toys, models, and board games since she could remember. Surely he would remember these.
“Look, Grandpa. Time to save the unicorns.” She danced the filthy stuffed animal in the air. “Remember the water balloon bomb? You dove and covered the unicorn, and it hit you right in the back. ‘Sacrifice is love,’ you said, but it was a hot day. I think you just wanted to cool off.”
Jazz’s chuckle quickly faded when Grandpa tilted his head then stood abruptly.
These bizarre episodes had increased lately, and Jazz dreaded them like the plague.
“What’s wrong?” Jazz asked as her skin prickled with fear.
“Circle behind, or they’ll wipe out our entire squad.” The distress in his eyes swept through the room like a specter.
“What squad, Grandpa?”
His gaze fell to her eyes but failed to connect. Jazz flipped the channel of the television to a sitcom and raised the volume. Sometimes this would bring him back to the present.
But the loud, canned laughter irritated him. He frantically waved his hand as if to push the distraction away.
She muted it quickly and tried another tactic. “I can send a unit around to the left.”
His head snapped back to study her. “Secure the perimeter once all agents are in the clear.”
“Yes, sir.” She kicked her imagination into high gear and continued the fantasy, anything that worked toward a peaceful resolution. “Would you like to review the plan of attack before we deploy?”
“I need my, uh . . .” Grandpa’s focus began to waver, and Jazz used it to her advantage.
“Computer, sir? Wait here. I’ll bring it to you.”
He sat once again, and Jazz drifted to the dining room table for her laptop just in case. She stalled as long as she could, waiting for him to forget this narrative. Just as his patience became restlessness, the grind of the garage door mingled relief and dread with the room’s tension.
Jazz sat quickly beside Grandpa and unmuted the television, fervently praying that he had returned to Easton, Georgia, away from the battle he fought.
“We’re hooome!” called Abby as she strolled into the living room and slung her purse onto the recliner. “How was your evening?” her mom asked.
“Great,” Jazz said, quickly glancing to assess Grandpa’s condition. He displayed no peculiar facial expression, but that meant very little.
“Did everyone love Brittany as the princess?” Jazz faked a cough to cover the sarcasm.
Her sister floated into the room with the holier-than-thou air of a sixteen-year-old. “Yes, they did! Everyone loved me. It’s too bad you couldn’t enjoy the moment with Mom and Dad.”
Jazz would replace a night at a boring play with Grandpa’s curious company any day. “Maybe next time,” she lied.
Rob picked up Abby’s purse and plopped into the recliner. “Time for bed. It’s after eleven.”
“In. The. Summer!” complained Jazz to her dad.
“If you don’t keep a relatively stable routine, it will be two weeks of exhaustion when school starts in the fall,” said Abby, coming in from the kitchen.
Jazz huffed. “Wouldn’t it be better to have two months of freedom and two weeks of misery instead of no freedom at all?”
Grandpa chuckled, and they all jumped, startled.
“See, Grandpa agrees with me, don’t you?” asked Jazz.
Jazz threw her arms around his neck. “My hero!”
“Well, I don’t agree, so head upstairs,” said Abby.
“Oh, alright.” She grumbled faintly, then surreptitiously scooped up her stuffed animals and climbed the stairs.
Once Jazz’s door closed, Abby turned to her father. “Dad, did you have a nice time with Jazz tonight?”
His eyelids closed as his chin slowly lowered to rest on his chest.
“Someone else needs to go to bed,” said Rob, joining Abby to help Grandpa to his room.
“Up you go, Dad,” she said, taking him under the arm. Abby stopped short as he stood.
“What on earth?!” She quickly bent to examine his shirt as he stepped around her. “Rob, his clothes are all wet!”