Castle Roland

Ten Steps Down

by Owen Hudson


Chapter 10

Posted: N/A

"That's my house that's on fire," Grandma said when the police officer said that we couldn't go any closer.

"I'm sorry, but the fire department is still putting out the fire," the officer said. "Someone from the fire department will talk to you shortly."

"Craig, you stay here with Margaret and I'll take everybody home," Dad said. "James and I will get the chores done and then I'll be back."

"Honey, you forgot that James is on crutches," Mom said.

"Oh, that's right," Dad said. "His mouth works so well that I forgot about his leg."

"Dad, I don't talk that much," James protested. "Besides, I can help."

"I'll help you," Seth offered.

Grandma and I got out of the truck and stood in Mrs. Harris' front yard and watched the firemen fight the fire. "Margaret, are you alright?" Mrs. Harris asked as she hugged Grandma.

"It's not the house that bothers me," Grandma said. "It's losing all of my personal items. There are no other pictures of my daughter."

"At least you're okay," Mrs. Harris said.

"Yes, you're right," Grandma said with a weak smile.

"You're welcome to stay here with Jim and me," Mrs. Harris said.

"She'll be staying with us," I answered before Grandma could.

Soon the fire was out and the fire captain came over to talk to Grandma. "I'm sorry Mrs. Cochran," he said. "I'm afraid that we couldn't save much of your house."

"Do you know how it started?" Grandma asked.

"It looks like it may have been started to cover up a burglary," Captain Bauer said.

"I didn't have much of value," Grandma said. "I would think a burglar would pick a house with more valuables than I have."

"We'll call the fire marshal to investigate," Captain Bauer said.

"Is there anything left?" Grandma asked.

"The fire was contained mostly to the garage, living room, and kitchen," Captain Bauer said. "There is some damage in the remainder of the house, but you may be able to salvage some of your personal effects."

"When can I check?" Grandma asked.

"Maybe tomorrow after the fire marshal has completed the investigation," Captain Bauer said. "If you'll give me a phone number where you can be reached, somebody will call."

"Who in the world would want to burn your house?" Mom asked during dinner that evening.

"Mom, think about it," I said. "Look who lives next door."

"Oh my God, you're right," Mom said. "Neal would do something like that."

"Margaret, do you have any idea where you will live?" Dan, who had come to pick up Nicole, asked.

"I hadn't had time to think about it," Grandma said.

"You'll live here with us," Mom said.

"Right now I can't think about anything," Grandma said. "I'll help you clean up here and then I need to go to Wal-Mart and get a few things."

"You go on," Mom said. "I'll clean up here. Craig, you drive her. She is too upset to drive."

Grandma seemed despondent as I drove her to Wal-Mart. It seemed appropriate that I leave her to her personal thoughts. She seemed to merely check the size of an article of clothing before tossing it in the shopping cart. In the past I'd seen Mom and her spend what seemed like an eternity checking out an article of clothing before deciding whether or not to purchase it.

"Let's see, I have pajamas, a robe, house slippers, underwear, a few changes of clothes, and toiletries," Grandma said more to herself than to me as she went over her mental shopping list. "That will have to do until I can see if there is anything salvageable in my house."

When I went to the kitchen for breakfast the next morning Grandma and Mom were working together cooking breakfast. Grandma seemed to be in a better mood after a good night's sleep. "You're family and more than welcome to stay here with us," Mom was saying to Grandma. "Don, the boys, and I would love to have you."

"I know that, Libby," Grandma said. "But, I really need my own place."

"We could convert the garage into an apartment for you," Dad suggested.

"Don, that would be too expensive, and besides you need your garage," Grandma said.

"Then we could bring in a mobile home for you," Dad said.

"I would be terrified of living in a mobile home if we had a storm," Grandma said. "I really don't want to decide so soon."

Mom seemed to understand that Grandma wasn't ready to make a decision about her living arrangements yet. "Craig, school starts tomorrow," she said to change the subject. "I want you to take James into town for a haircut, and you could use one yourself."

"Where is James?" I asked.

"I saw him on his crutches going toward the barns," Grandma said.

"It's been driving him crazy that he couldn't go out to the barns," Dad said. "Craig, go out there and get him to get ready to go into town with you."

"I don't need a haircut," James said when I found him.

"Mom said that we both need one," I said. "Do you want to argue with her about it?"

"Oh no," James admitted with a big grin.

"Get in the car and I'll go inside and tell Mom that we're on our way," I said.

"Here is $40 to pay for your haircuts and for a tip," Mom said when I told her we were leaving. "You can get something to eat in town. Your dad and I are going with Margaret to meet with the insurance adjustor and see if we can salvage anything from her house."

"How will I get around in school with these crutches?" James questioned as we drove past his school.

"You didn't seem to be having any trouble when you went out to the barn," I mentioned.

"I know," James admitted. "But, I didn't have a bunch of books to carry around."

"Use your backpack," I said.

"I didn't think of that," James admitted. "I have a pretty smart brother."

"I have a pretty smart and great little brother," I said.

"Have a seat boys," Dave, our barber, said when entered the barber shop. "I'm almost done with Fred and will be right with you."

"Like I was saying," Fred continued his conversation, "this country is going to hell because of the queers and that nigger president that isn't even a citizen."

"You do know that the president's mother was born in Kansas, don't you?" Dave asked.

"Yeah, but he was born in a foreign country," Fred argued.

"Hawaii isn't a foreign country," Dave said. "It became a state in 1959."

"He was born in Africa," Fred argued.

"Nobody has provided any proof of that," Dave said as he removed the barber's cape from Fred. "Which one of you boys is next?"

"You go first," I said to James.

"What do you think?" Fred asked me as I sat back down after taking James' crutches.

"What do I think about what?" I asked not wanting to get into a conversation with Fred.

"Don't you think that nigger was born in Africa?" Fred asked.

"I don't know about any niggers, but there are a lot of black people born in Africa," I said.

"What are you a nigger lover like Dave?" Fred asked.

"There are a few black students at school but none of them are niggers and I sure don't love you," I said unable to conceal my anger.

"Who in the hell do you think you are, talking to me like that?" Fred yelled.

"He's my customer and Don Turner's son," Dave said. "If you know what's good for you, you'll get the hell out of here.

"Yeah, Craig kicked Neal's ass and he can kick yours," James said from the barber chair. "If you've ever seen our dad angry you would get the hell out of town."

Fred turned toward Dave and James as if to say something. I stood in readiness in case Fred attacked either. "Fred, I said it was time for you to leave, and I mean it," Dave said. "You don't want Don to beat the crap out of you like he did in high school."

"Did Dad really beat him up?" James asked as Fred angrily left the shop.

"He sure did," Dave said as he resumed cutting James' hair. "Fred has always been a bully and was picking on a smaller boy and calling him queer. Don told him to cut it out, but Fred turned on Don. That was a big mistake. Don didn't weigh as much back then, but he was solid as a rock. Fred swung the first punch. That was the only punch he got in. Your dad knocked him down twice and each time dumb Fred got back up. The third time must have knocked some sense into him. Fred didn't bother to get back up."

"Wow, Dad was a bad ass," James said.

"No James, your dad was a gentle giant," Dave said. "That is the only fight I know of that he was in."

After paying Dave for our haircuts, James and I drove to the Dairy Queen for a hamburger. "What are you grinning about?" I asked James as we sat to eat.

"Can you believe that Dad beat the crap out of Fred?" James asked with an ear-to-ear grin.

"I'm not surprised," I said. "He came to our rescue."

After we ate James said, "Let's go by Grandma's and see if we can help."

"You're on crutches," I pointed out. "You would be no help."

"You could help and I could supervise," James giggled.

Grandma, Mom, and Dad were standing in front of the burned out house talking to a man that I assumed to be the insurance adjustor. However, when James and I approached we saw that he was from the fire marshal's office. "It definitely was deliberately set," he said. "I'll be sending the information to the police department."

"Your hair looks nice," Mom said after the fire marshal left. "I thought you two would be hanging out in town."

"We came to see if you needed any help," I said.

"There wasn't much to salvage," Grandma said. "A restoration company took what they think they can clean and restore. I'm happy that my photographs are salvageable."

"Margaret, I understand that those restoration companies work miracles these days. I need to go grocery shopping," Mom said. "Do you want to go along and maybe get your mind off of the fire?

"If you don't mind, I'll ride with back to the farm with the boys," Grandma said.

"Not at all," Mom said. "I shouldn't be long."

"Would you drive down Second Avenue on the way back?" Grandma asked as I drove home.

"Sure," I said. I was curious what was on Second, but didn't ask Grandma why.

"Stop here," Grandma said when we were at the Oak Place Retirement Center.

"You're not thinking about living in a retirement center, are you Grandma?" James asked.

"My friend Millie Henderson lives here," Grandma said. "Do you want to come in with me?"

"Sure," James and I both said.

"Let's stop at the office," Grandma said.

"May I help you?" The lady in the office asked?

"Yes, I'm Margaret Cochran," Grandma said. "Do you have any vacant apartments?"

"I'm Letha Morgan," Mrs. Morgan said. "We do have one two bedroom that is vacant."

"May I see it?" Grandma asked.

"Sure, let me get the key," Mrs. Morgan said. "We just finished remodeling it. It has all new carpets, new paint, new appliances, and even all new cabinets. One might say that it is practically a new apartment."

"Why do you want to live in an apartment?" I asked.

"I wouldn't have a lawn to keep up, or worry about maintenance," Grandma said. "I'll just sell the lot where my house was."

"What happened to your house?" Mrs. Morgan asked.

"Someone broke in while I was away and set it on fire to cover up the burglary," Grandma said.

"Oh, that was your house," Mrs. Morgan said as she unlocked the door. "One benefit here is that we have a security system."

"Oh my, this is nice," Grandma said when she saw the apartment.

"Look around and if you're interested come into the office and we'll go over the lease," Mrs. Morgan said.

James and I waited in the lobby while Grandma went into the office with Mrs. Morgan. "I don't know why Grandma doesn't just live with us," James said.

"That would be nice, but I think she wants her own place," I said.

After about 20 minutes Grandma came out of the office carrying papers. I assumed that she had signed a lease.

"I guess I'm ready," Grandma said without an explanation.

When we were almost home James asked, "Grandma are you going to tell us or not?"

Grandma laughed and said, "I thought you would never ask. Yes, I signed the lease."

"You could have just lived with us," James said. "I would move back into my old room and you could have your room back."

"That's thoughtful of you, Honey," Grandma said. "But I need my own place."

"Craig said you would probably want your own place," James said. "At least you will be closer to us and I could even walk there to visit you."

"I expect both of you to visit me often," Grandma said.

"Did Craig take you on the scenic route?" Mom laughed when we got home.

"As a matter of fact he did," Grandma said as she was suppressing a smile. "I had him drive me by the Oak Place Independent Living Center. I rented a really nice two bedroom apartment."

"Margaret, you know that you were welcome to come and live with us," Mom said.

"I know that, Libby," Grandma said. "But, as I told the boys, I need my own place, and at the center I won't have to worry about yard work or maintenance."

"When do you plan to move in?" Dad asked.

"As soon as I can buy some furniture," Grandma said. "I'll go shopping tomorrow. Libby, if you're not busy I'd like for you to go with me. You have a talent in decoration."

"I'd be pleased to go with you," Mom said. "Do you need to wait for your insurance check?"

"No, I have enough money to buy everything I need," Grandma said.

"Could I go with you?" James asked.

"Did you forget that you start back to school tomorrow?" Mom chuckled.

"Oh yeah," James said. "I forgot."

"Craig, I'll drive James to school as long as he is on crutches," Mom said.

"I don't mind driving him," I said.

"I know you don't," Mom said. "But, I want to make sure that he can get around on his crutches, and I don't want you to be made late by helping him. You can pick him up after school though."

"Mom, I can get around just fine on my crutches," James argued.

"I know you can," Mom said. "But, I know how the halls at school can be with a bunch of stampeding kids."

"Craig, let's go get the evening chores done," Dad said.

"I'll go help too," James offered.

"You may go with us, but Craig and I will do everything," Dad said.

"Aw Dad," James said in disappointment.

"Sorry Son," Dad said. "Until the cast comes off you're only observing."

I was amazed at how fast James had learned to use his crutches. He was able to keep up with Dad and me on the way to the barns. We were almost finished with the chores when we saw James washing down the floor in one of the barns.

"James, what did I tell you?" Dad yelled. "Put that hose down."

"But Dad, I can do this," James argued.

"Yeah, and you get your cast wet and we're both in trouble," Dad said. "Now, give that hose to your brother."

James wasn't happy about not being allowed to help, but didn't argue with Dad. It was obvious that he was upset when we went in the house, and Mom asked, "What's wrong with him?"

"He's mad because I wouldn't let him help," Dad explained.

"You're just mean," James said. "Dave said you beat up Fred."

"That's not what he said," I corrected James.

"What did Dave say?" Dad asked.

"Fred was saying that queers and niggers were the cause of the country's problems," I said. "On the way out Fred tried to get me involved and I said that I didn't know any niggers. Fred asked me if I was a nigger lover, and I said again that I didn't know any nigger and that I sure didn't love him. Fred asked me who I thought I was talking to him like that. Dave said that I was your son and that you would beat the crap out of him again."

"That Fred has always been an ignorant redneck," Mom said.

James was still angry and went to his room while I was telling what happened in the barber shop. "I'll go talk to him," Dad said.

"Why don't you let him cool down a little first," Mom suggested.

"Let me talk to him," I suggested.

"Maybe it would be best if Craig talks to him," Mom agreed.

"Go away," James yelled when I knocked on his door.

I ignored James' instruction and went into his room and sat on the edge of his bed where he was staring at the ceiling. "I said go away," James snapped.

"Why are you mad at Dad?" I asked while disregarding his request.

"He didn't have to yell at me," James said.

"Dad yelled at you because you disobeyed him," I pointed out.

"I could have washed down the floor," James argued.

"Maybe you could have, but you still disobeyed him," I said. "But, Dad was right; you could have gotten your cast wet."

"People have been yelling at me all of my life," James said quietly.

"James, those other people yelled at you because they were callous," I said. "Dad yelled at you because you disobeyed him. He does love you."

What I was saying to James seemed to be getting through, but he remained silent. I stood to leave the room but before I left James asked, "Do you want me to apologize to Dad?"

"Only if you really mean it," I said and went back to the kitchen where Mom and Grandma were busy preparing dinner.

"Is he alright?" Dad asked.

"I think so," I said. "Just give him some time. I think your yelling at him brought back some unpleasant memories."

"Oh hell, I forgot what he has been through," Dad said.

"Nobody asked me," Grandma said. "But, I think he's still healing. The mental scars from abuse are sometimes more difficult to heal than the physical ones. Just give James time to heal. He is one of the most loving and kind young men I've ever met."

"Margaret, I think you're absolutely correct," Mom said. "Let's give him time."

Shortly before dinner was ready James came out of his room and went over to Dad, gave him a hug, and said, "Dad, I'm really sorry."

"That's okay son," Dad said. "I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have yelled at you like that."

"I'm the one that disobeyed you," James admitted. "But, I only wanted to help."

"I know that Son," Dad said. "But, until your cast comes off you'll have to let Craig and me do all of the chores. It won't be all that long."

"Okay Dad, I love you," James said.

"I love you too, James" Dad said. "Just remember that if I correct you it is because I do love you."

James appeared to be his old self when he came for breakfast the next morning. He even seemed excited about going back to school.

"James, call me if you have any trouble at school," Mom said as she placed a plate of French toast and sausage in front of James and then me. "Margaret and I will be shopping for her new apartment, but I'll have my cell phone. If you don't reach me, call your dad."

"Yes Mom," James said as he enjoyed every bite of his breakfast.

"Craig, don't forget that you're picking him up after school," Mom said.

"I know Mom," I said as I too enjoyed my breakfast.

When I arrived at school there was a clamor of excitement among the students. It was as though long lost friends had been reunited as the students renewed friendships. The girls were admiring each other's new wardrobe that most were sporting. Of course, the guys were discussing the upcoming football season.

There were pretty much the same groups in the cafeteria for lunch. The only difference was one class had graduated and a new group of freshmen had moved up from the middle school. The freshmen were roaming around like lost sheep that would occasionally spot another lost member of the flock.

Jon, Rachel, Nick, Ashley, Seth and I were all at our usual table. While definitely not homely, Ashley had blossomed over the summer. She was now gorgeous and Nick seemed to be extremely proud to have her as his girlfriend. Rachel was her same bubbly self.

"How is your brother doing?" Jon asked.

"He is doing fine," I said. "The crutches haven't slowed him down one iota."

"What happened to your brother?" Nick asked.

A woman who was texting ran a red light and hit Dad's SUV right where James was sitting," I said. "He had a fractured spleen and leg. His spleen is healed now, but he'll be in a cast for a few weeks."

"Poor little guy," Ashley said.

"Don't let him hear you call him a little guy," Seth laughed. "He thinks he is ten feet tall."

After school I drove to the middle school to pick up James. I didn't have to wait long when he came out of the school with another boy who was carrying James' back pack. "This is my friend Mark," James said. "He offered to carry my back pack."

"Thank you Mark," I said. "That was nice of you. I'm James' brother Craig."

"I'm happy to do it," Mark said. "I'd better go so that I don't miss my bus."

"Mark and I rode the same bus when I lived at Mrs. Powell's," James said. "Mark said that Mrs. Powell now runs a home for old people. I hope she doesn't treat them as bad as she did the kids that lived with her."

"We'll talk to Mom and Dad about her," I said. "Maybe we can call Uncle Jason about her and see if he can find out anything."

Mom and Dad were livid when James told them about Mrs. Powell. "That woman has no business taking in elderly people," Dad said. "James, I bet you take better care of Jake and Jade."

"Craig and I thought maybe we should call Uncle Jason and see if he could do something," James said.

"You're right," Mom agreed. "I'll call him after dinner and you can talk to him."

Uncle Jason agreed with us that Mrs. Powell should be investigated. He promised that he would start the process immediately.

With school activities and helping Grandma get moved into her new apartment, we almost forgot about the situation with Mrs. Powell until Uncle Jason called a few days later and said, "Watch the news on Channel 27 at five tonight."

At five the entire family gathered in the den to watch the news. The news teaser mentioned an investigative report of a boarding care home. "That's Mrs. Powell's house," James exclaimed when he saw the clip showing Mrs. Powell's house.

The story must have been the main story of the evening. The teaser was shown several times during the news and finally near the end of the news cast a female reporter came on, standing outside Mrs. Powell's house.

"We have an investigative report from Samantha Peterson with a disturbing account of a boarding care home," the news anchor said. "Samantha, I understand that elderly residents of the home were living under horrific conditions."

"That's right, Tim," Samantha said. "My own grandmother posed as a potential resident in this rural home in Brown County. With the approval of Adult Protective Services we equipped my grandmother with a hidden camera and arranged for her to live in this home. My grandmother was assigned to share this tiny room with another elderly resident. As you can see the room is very cramped and not much larger than a closet."

"Hey, that was my old room," James said.

"In spite of being shown a full menu when I checked Grandmother in, she was served only a bowl of beans for dinner," Samantha said.

The video continued showing Mrs. Powell telling Samantha the evening meal would be baked chicken, green beans, potatoes and freshly baked bread. The video continued showing Samantha's grandmother sitting down to a bowl of beans for dinner. "Is this all we get for dinner?" The grandmother asked in a frail voice.

"Shut up and eat it or go to bed hungry," Mrs. Powell barked. "Mary, it is your turn to clean the kitchen and do dishes. Ethel, you're new and will get your work assignment tomorrow."

The video continued showing the elderly residents busy cleaning, doing laundry, and other tasks as Mrs. Powell barked orders. The video then showed Samantha confronting Mrs. Powell with the video evidence of how she treated the elderly residents. "Get out of my house," Mrs. Powell yelled at Samantha.

Mrs. Powell was then shown being arrested by a deputy sheriff. "We discovered that Mrs. Powell was previously a foster parent until her foster care permit was revoked. It was also discovered that one resident's bank account was depleted with several checks allegedly cashed by Mrs. Powell."

"Samantha, how did Mrs. Powell get a license to run a boarding care home?" Tim asked.

"Tim, the license was issued to Linda Morgan, Mrs. Powell's daughter," Samantha said. "Mrs. Morgan denied any knowledge of the application and the signature on the application does not appear to be that of Mrs. Morgan."

"Thank you Samantha, that's a very disturbing and interesting report," Tim said. "We'll be right back with the rest of the news."

"Wow, that bitch is in trouble," James said.

"James!" Mom exclaimed.

"Sorry Mom, but she is," James countered.

"He has a point, Libby," Dad said with a laugh.

"You boys need to get started on your homework," Mom said. "I'm going to check on dinner."

"I'll help you," Grandma said.

"Thank you Margaret," Mom said. "I put a pot roast in the crock pot while you were over at your apartment. All I have left to do is make a salad."

"I'm sure I can find something to do," Grandma said as she followed Mom into the kitchen.

During dinner the conversation centered on Mrs. Powell's arrest, and speculation about how much time she would spend in jail. "I hope she gets beans every night like she fed us," James said. "I also hope she gets a room as small as the one Craig and I had."

"I don't know how Uncle Jason managed to get the TV people to expose her," I said.

"I'm sure he has a friend that works for the news department there," Dad said. "He has always been able to call in favors."

"Maybe he could find out who burned Grandma's house," James said.

"He's giving the police a chance to do some investigation," Grandma said.

"It's a shame that you have to move into an apartment," Dad said.

"Actually, I'm looking forward to living there," Grandma said. "While we're on the subject, I'll be moving in tomorrow. All of the furniture is there and the phone and cable will be turned on tomorrow."

"I wish you lived here with us," James said.

"Thank you, Honey," Grandma said. "But, I won't be that far and you'll come and see me often."

"We'll expect you here often too," Mom said. "I'll go with you tomorrow to help you get everything put away."

"You're more than welcome to go over with me," Grandma said. "However, I put everything away today. I could stay there tonight, but I wanted to spend one more night here with my grandsons. Besides, I would have been there with no telephone and no TV."

"Was anything salvaged from the fire?" Dad asked.

"Fortunately my important papers and my photographs were in an area that wasn't burned," Grandma said. "I can smell the smoke on them, but the restoration company said they could get that out. It would have cost too much to restore the other stuff. The insurance company will pay me for it instead."

"Could Craig and I go by and see Grandma's new apartment on the way home from school?" James asked.

"I'll drop you off," I said. "I'll need to help Dad with the chores."

"There isn't much to do," Dad said. "I can do it all myself if you want to stop by."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"I'm sure," Dad said. "I'll just get an early start."

In spite of his crutches, it was all I could do to keep up with James when we entered Grandma's apartment building. "Slow down," I commanded. "You'll trip and fall or worse still run over some old person."

"Grandma," James exclaimed as he wrapped his arms around her.

"Come in boys," Grandma said. "I have a surprise for you."

I knew what the surprise was when I detected the aroma of Grandma's freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Grandma had often baked these for me when I lived next door to her.

"Wow, these are good," James said as he wiped his milk mustache away after washing the big bite of cookie down with the milk.

"Grandma, your apartment looks really nice," I said after finishing off a cookie. "It already feels like home."

"I think I'm going to love it here," Grandma said. "I also have friends that live here. I certainly won't miss the old neighborhood."

"It is nice to come and visit you without having to look over my shoulder," I admitted.

Days became weeks and James was finally out of his cast. Still there was still no arrest in the arson of Grandma's house. "We have suspects," is all the police would say.

Jason said that the police were sure that Neal and Sharon were somehow connected to the fire. He was sure that the police were putting pressure on Sharon to rat on Neal. However, so far she wasn't cooperating.

One afternoon when James and I arrived home from school a police car pulled in behind me. "What in the hell does he think I did?" I asked myself more than I asked James.

The police office walked up to my car just as I was retrieving my book bag from the back seat. "Are you Craig?" he asked.

"Yes," I said in a trembling voice. I wasn't sure why he was asking.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you, but your mother is dead he said.

I would have fallen to the ground in shock had I not had my hand on the car door. "Mom was dead! How? Why?"

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