“You’re gonna get killed,” said her grandmother.
“Hi, grandma,” said Emma as she pushed to her feat.
“Have a seat,” the old woman said, and Emma turned to see that the red recliner was still in its place. She had a seat.
“That bitch woman is coming for you.” Her grandmother didn’t use her legitimately angry voice too often. The only other times that Emma could remember hearing it off the top of her head were when the woman had seen a fight break out outside the house, and the day her father had sold his wedding ring.
“John is protecting me,” she said.
“John is trying.”
Emma loved her grandmother, but she wanted to go back to Mad Gab.
“No, we need to talk.”
Did they? Did they really need to, right this second? “Grandma,” she said, “are you even real? Are you really here?”
“Honey, you’re dreaming. Would you really be able to believe me if I said yes?”
Her grandmother knew the way her brain worked. But then if that was her argument, then why should Emma accept anything she said from this point forward?
“Because I am your grandmother.”
The woman loved to use that one, just like her father was wont to use because I am your father.
“What do we need to talk about?”
Her grandmother took a deep breath. “When you die, you gotta come find me.”
Emma raised her eyebrows. “When I die.”
“When, not if,” said her grandmother. “You’re in it deep, my girl.”
That was distressing. This woman had always been her primary source of motivation. Be your own woman, eat all the Butterfingers you want, leave if you want to leave. Never you’ve already lost. She scratched her brow, a bit irritated.
“And where do I find you, when I die?”
Her grandmother frowned. “I honestly do not know.”
The old woman sighed. “Well, that’s all my piece. How are you?”
“How am I? My dead grandma said I’m gonna die.”
The floor boards creaked as the woman leaned forward. “That’s the last moment’s conversation, honey. We don’t have too much time and I want to know how my granddaughter is doing.”
What support. She felt like she’d already answered the question sufficiently enough. She began to just twiddle her thumbs, which she knew that her grandmother knew was what she did when she would rather be someone else. “Have you ever had Pizza in a Bag?
“Pizza in a Bag?”
“Have you ever had it?
“Is that what we’re going to talk about? Pizza in a bag?” She wasn’t looking at her, but she could tell that head shaking was happening. She could almost hear each word stronger in a different ear as the old, wrinkled, somewhat fuzzy mouth was thrown side to side. “This could very likely be the last time we speak.”
But they’d already had a last time they spoke, before the stroke. They’d talked about clouds, and flying. It was a silly, fanciful, frankly uncreative conversation, unlike many they’d had before. It had lacked substance, but her grandmother was bedridden and cancerous, and in those days any conversation in which she’d been truly fervent was absolutely encapsulating. And Emma had held it in an even more special, gilded vault in her memory just because it had turned out to be the very last time she’d hear the voice of a prominent and beloved figure in her life. Everyone on the planet has only a handful of people at most who they can say directly had a proverbial hand in shaping them into who they’ve become, just as everyone has a list of someones who are particularly hard to say goodbye to, and some of the most special people are those who overlap onto both lists. Emma had been satisfied, as much as one can be, with the last conversation she’d had with her grandmother, because both of them had been smiling at the end, and now this frog was polluting that satisfaction. Human beings can be at their most uncomfortable when they’re idea of closure is disrupted, and Emma was the type of person who loved to read, but never read the same book twice. She very nearly couldn’t allow this woman in the chair across from her to be the same woman that raised her. Something had been fortified, or erected entirely new, in her since they had last spoken.
“I’m dreaming,” she said. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because. I. am. Your –”
“My grandmother is dead. She had a stroke.”
She still didn’t look, because she didn’t want to see her face, because she wanted to really believe that the last words they’d shared were about clouds and flying, and not life beyond dying. But she could feel her grandmother’s eyes on her like one feels cold of an open door in January. The old woman said, “And yet.”
She wanted to go back, back to whatever her present was now. Whatever the place with John Bain and Ferrule and the Walmart woman was. Because at least it was the realm of the living. The realm where she was told that she was hunted but not that she was doomed, and not by her own grandmother. She wanted to will herself to wake up. She closed her eyes and laid back. Her grandmother spoke but she didn’t listen, tried to bury the voice with her own. “All almond omelets are already alternating Olive Gardens,” she said.
“Oh, don’t do that,” said her grandmother.
“All almond omelets are already alternating Olive Gardens.”
“All almond omelets are already alternating Olive Gardens, all almond omelets are already alternating Olive Gardens, all . . .” She repeated and repeated, raised her voice every time she could hear her grandmothers start to break through. She squeezed shut her eyes, and repeated and repeated until it sounded like the walls were throwing the sentence back at her. All around her own voice bounced and swam in the air, trying to fill every space of sound, though still the old woman’s words bobbed in here and there. She wouldn’t go away. She wouldn’t be dead. “All almond omelets are already alternating Olive Gardens, All almond omelets are already alternating Olive Gardens,” she repeated and repeated and repeated and –
Emma went quiet, opened her eyes. Her grandmother was standing, taller than she should’ve been, tall as the frog. Both of them were breathing very heavily. She felt sweat in her eyes. “Denise,” she said, “that’s my . . . that’s . . .”
“No, girl. I told you, no one can tell you your name.” Her grandmother sat back down, slowly. “Denise is your mother’s name.”
Yes. Yes, it was. “Why did you say that?”
Her grandmother’s fingers were twined. “To get your attention.” Her father only spoke very little about her mother. Even her grandmother had always kept the topic of her own daughter held tight and quiet. And rarely did either of them refer to Emma’s mother by name. She didn’t think she’d heard it in maybe a decade.
“Listen to me,” said her grandmother, steadily. “The word ‘life’ means something very different in your world now. I’d think you already know that.” She was somewhere close to knowing that, al least. “Don’t make me feed you the death is no end bullshit. Death is an ending. But so is graduating from school, starting a relationship, trying grape juice for the first time. I’m sorry you are going to die, honey. I’m sorry. But you’re a smart girl. I know are because I made you smart. And . . . and I’m sorry I said we might not speak again. I’m sure we will.” Emma looked at the woman. “Of course we will. Now go back to John. You’ll need each other.”
Goodness, her grandmother was annoying. How did she do that? Sometimes she played her the way Saphal wished he could play the piano. Emma slowed her breath, looked up at the popcorn ceiling. It reminded her of clouds a little bit. She watched it until her vision faded to dark, and then she woke up, again.