Nicole Kosar is a psychology major at Ursinus College. She loves writing, and is so grateful to her DIY Publishing class for giving her the opportunity and support to send out her stories.
Outside the car window, the wind wrestled with the bare trees. I was more likely to get blown away than reach the inside of the nursing home. My younger sister was unwrapping a scarf from around her neck. She had no chance. As soon as we stepped outside, the wind was going to carry her away. I told Mom just that. She said I was being dramatic and turned around in her seat to briskly reaffix the scarf around Alice’s neck.
“Ready?” Mom asked.
“No,” I grumbled.
Mom opened her door.
Her own mother died a few months back. I don’t remember very much about Nana dying. I remember when Nana came to stay with us for a while, and Alice and I would cover our fingers in blackberry juice to make it look like we were bleeding then act out some sort of tragic scene for her. I remember standing over a slab of stone, my mom sobbing loudly and clutching me close. Alice watched, eyes wide in fear.
I tried not to think about any of that. My grief for Nana was replaced with a whisper of fear, fear of what would happen to me once my parents got old. But I kept that issue wrapped and safety tucked in a box in the corner of my brain, covered in packing peanuts and bubble wrap. Dad used to assure me that I was only eleven and didn’t need to think about all that for a long time. But that was before Dad packed a suitcase. That was before I turned twelve.
Once safely inside the nursing home, Mom marched us towards the receptionist.
“Now remember,” she half whispered, half hissed. “Be nice. Great-Aunt Marta just moved in here.”
“Maaa,” I said. “Why do we even need to be here? She’s not our grandma anyways.”
“Shush, Kira,” she said, smug victory in her voice. She flipped her dark hair out of her face. “We’re here anyways. So, buck up. Maybe if you’re good, we’ll go get Dunkin after.”
“Lemonade!” Alice said. “I want lemonade!”
“Only if you’re good,” Mom said sternly, then steered us towards the tall, beige desk.
The nursing home reception room was small. One big, shiny desk with that plastic-y wood, one big, low-hanging lamp, and three red chairs that looked worn-in and comfortable, but I’m pretty sure I bruised my butt when I jumped onto one of them.
Alice reached up to poke my left cheek. “Poke,” she said seriously. I glowered at her and she grinned, that same victory-grin Mom had on earlier. I poked her back, and she ran screeching to Mom. Brat.
“Kira,” Mom hissed at me, trying to comfort the little snake that clutched her leg. I wished Dad was here. Then I remembered why Dad left, and I snatched that wish right back out of the universe.
“It’s not my fault,” I said. I was tired and cold and Alice was being stupid and Mom was taking her side. Glancing around the empty room, I added, “I don’t even want to be here!”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Mom said. “You’re twelve years old now, Kira.”
“So?” I said.
Mom marched over and looked down at me, fire burning behind her pale green eyes. “So, you’re too old for me to deal with your crap. I listen to it all day from other people at the insurance company. Do you know how many hours I work? How many hours I sit there and listen to people complain? Hm? Do you?”
I watched a bit of spittle fly from her mouth.
“So, Kira. So, you do not get to ruin my day off. You do not get to act like Dad.”
I tried to swallow past the brick that formed in my throat. I wanted to scream or stomp my foot or throw something, but I knew nothing I did would matter. I’d just be proving her point. I’d be acting like Dad.
Alice poked her head around. “Daddy?”
“Oh, no, no, Alice.” Mom pried Alice’s fingers from her hand and pushed her towards me.
Alice glanced up at me. “Is Daddy coming?”
I shook my head.
“Daddy’s not coming,” Mom said, all quiet rage and eyes pinning me to the floor like a bug. “He was a lazy man, and a lazy father. We’re on our own.”
“No,” I said. “We’re stuck with you.”
“Watch your mouth, Kira.” Mom sat down on one of the hard chairs.
“Why don’t you just visit Great-Aunt Marta by yourself?” I said, looking away.
“Because!” Mom exploded out of her seat. “Because you need to be here.”
“Who…who were you looking for again?” The receptionist interrupted.
“Marta Rossi,” my mother growled, turning her anger on the poor lady. “Like I said before, she just got moved here. I’ve been standing here for ten minutes while you did what, since you obviously weren’t looking for Marta Rossi’s room?”
The receptionist winced and asked for an ID. Mom slapped it onto to table, looking down at the poor lady, glare in full force and right shoe tapping all the while.
I silently prayed for the receptionist.
A filed complaint later, Mom led us into an elevator. I felt like cattle, being herded this way and that. I told Mom and she rolled her eyes at me and said “Tough.” My bottom lip jutted out all on its own, and I folded my arms. I watched my reflection in the mirrored walls of the elevator and pushed my cheeks together.
“Ma, why do they have mirrors in elevators?”
“Because people are vain,” Mom said, leaning towards one wall to fix her lipstick.
“What does vain mean?”
“It’s when people think they’re better than they are.” She turned to me with a loaded stare, meaning locked behind the words.
“Like Daddy?” Alice asked. I turned to her sharply, ready to slap a hand over her mouth, but Mom smiled.
The elevator door clacked open, revealing an unseen land. All thoughts fizzled away as I was assaulted by the light.
My first thought was how white it all was. All white linoleum. The tiles on the floor were sterile and clean and I focused on not stepping on the grey-brown lines that cut the white into squares. It was brighter than the sun, and reminded me of snow in early morning. Untouched, and silent. White drywall stretched for ages, the equally white ceiling breaking for long strips of lightbulbs. So bright, I couldn’t look straight at them. Like a man-made sun.
Danger seeped through those linoleum cracks. I couldn’t step on those cracks, or the dark would reach out and grab my ankle. Spots and odd-shaped stains discolored the white of the drywall.
Every single hallway looked the same. Beige doors spaced three feet apart. Some carts or plastic shelving littering the hallways. I was impressed with the confidence Mom navigated the hallways. She always seemed to know where to go. If she wasn’t complaining, I knew everyone was good.
I tried to stay on Mom’s heels with a watchful eye on my sister. The desolate landscape seemed to swallow up life and the ever-curious Alice found several opportunities to detour, straying far enough to examine the contents of the carts. As soon as I saw her veer of the path, my arm shot out and snatched her wrist, lugging her along like we were crossing a particularly dangerous stretch of highway.
We halted abruptly at one of the beige doors. The curdling orange number 495 glared down at me. Mom pushed open the door to greet her Great-Aunt.
Marta was the last of my grandmother’s sisters. She was very important to my mom, and she always gave me little rock-hard Jelly Beans.
“OH!” Great-Aunt Marta squealed. I didn’t know adults squealed. “You brought the girls. Come here, come here!”
I was dragged into a big hug, mashed against a Great-Aunt Marta and my bony sister. Over her shoulder, I caught glimpses of Marta’s room. A thin, white plastic bedframe was covered in tape and photos, small and large showing my cousins, my uncle, even me and my sister. The four white walls were covered with children’s art and more photos and cards were spilling over the top of the small, dark dresser. A fat, wet drop landed on my forehead. I broke away to wipe it off, and found Great-Aunt Marta sniffing.
“Uh, Ma,” I said timidly.
Mom leaned in to hug Great-Aunt Marta as well. “We brought more pictures, too, Marta!”
“Oh, dear me,” Great-Aunt Marta reached for a tissue. “Thank you, sweets.”
“So, how was the move? Do you like your new place?”
Great-Aunt Marta looked around. “Well, it’s certainly not home, but I suppose…”
“Well, like you always told me, home is where family is.” Mom reached over to tap one picture of Alice and I hugging onto a wall.
“Yes!” Great-Aunt Marta said, tears welling up in her eyes again. “Yes! Family is everything. Everything. So, girls! Tell me about school! Home! All of it!”
Mom nudged me, sending me a meaningful glare.
“Oh! Um, good. I’m in fifth grade. My teacher’s mean but I like my class.” I searched my memories for more experiences. “Uh, I had to write a bunch of poems for our poetry unit. Mom put one up on the fridge but I don’t like it very much.”
“Oh! That’s so wonderful!” Great-Aunt Marta’s hands clapped together. “Do you have any with you?”
I shook my head.
“Bring some next time! I would so, so love to see them.”
“We will,” Mom promised. “Alice is in second grade, and she loves it, right Al?”
Alice’s response was a firm and resounding, “Yes!”
“Oh good!” Great-Aunt Marta turned to me. “And what about you, dear?”
I frowned. “I’m in fifth grade.”
“How nice! Any fun projects this year?”
I glanced up at mom. “Uh, I wrote some poetry…”
“Oh!” Great-Aunt Marta leaned forward to smile, yellowing teeth long and wide. “Did you bring any with you?”
“No…” I backed away, stumbling over a box on the floor. It was filled with bubble wrap.
“We’ll bring some next time,” Mom said quickly. “How are you? Is everything settled? Are all your medications set up?”
Great-Aunt Marta flapped a hand in dismissal. “Look on the dresser. Roger stopped by earlier and he-”
I glanced up sharply. “Dad’s here?”
Mom snatched the small post-it note from the dresser. “Typical. Roger was supposed to sign off for the meds to transfer but-” Mom stopped, remembering who her audience was. “Kids, go on outside.”
“Oh, sweet Kira,” Great-Aunt Marta trapped me in the fleshy, flabby cage of her arms, stroking my blonde hair. “She looks so much like him, doesn’t she, Liz?”
Mom’s eyes narrowed. “Kids. I want to talk to Great-Aunt Marta alone for a second.”
“You know I hate to bother you,” Great-Aunt Marta said as Mom ushered us out of the room. “But my great-nephew always says he’s much too busy…”
“Oh, I know,” Mom huffed, then closed the door with a click.
I leaned against the wall, and turned to find green eyes gazing up at me.
“Let’s play pretend!”
I shook Alice’s sticky hand off my arm.
“Come on! Let’s...” Alice glanced around. Far-away chirps echoed down the hallway. They sounded like birds. She grinned at me wildly. “Birds!”
“Alice!” I yelled. “No, wait, Alice!”
I reached out to snatch her arm, but she sprinted down the hallway and disappeared from view. I flung myself down the hallway after her, barreling through the turn and nearly tripping over a wheelchair. As I scrambled around it, an arm grabbed me.
I jumped, and the arm didn’t budge. It was old, saggy, and attached to a woman in the wheelchair. She leaned forward, her frost-colored, short hair brushing my face.
“Now, where do you think you’re going?” the old woman said, voice crackling.
“Excuse me,” I said politely, wincing. The smell of moldy flour rose from her.
“You’re not getting away that easy! Only if you answer correctly.”
“What? No!” I tugged my arm uselessly, knocking into a nearby metal crate. A few boxes on the top shaking, spilling peach-colored packing peanuts onto the floor.
“I thought you learned your lesson.” The old woman stared at me with milky, swirling eyes. “Now, answer correctly.”
“What…answer what?” I craned my neck around the old woman, scanning for my sister. My mom. Someone.
“Recite the Apostles’ Creed!”
I leaned away, her excitement taking up physical space. “Recite it?”
She shook my arm. “That’s what I just said, isn’t it?”
“Uh,” I searched my memory. “It starts like… I believe in God, the Father…”
“Almighty!” she corrected, tightening her grip, blue veins bulging from her wrinkled skin. “Say it. The Father Almighty.”
“The Father Almighty.”
“Now the rest! Go on.”
“I don’t know the rest.”
She laughed, a gurgling sound. “Very funny, young lady. If you keep up those jokes, I’ll have to lock you back in the closet again.” She dragged me closer, whispering, “Do you want that?”
“Kira?” Alice’s dark brown hair bobbed into view. She stuck her head down the hallway.
The old lady’s eyes rolled over to Alice. “Ah! Come, child. Tell this impudent girl how the creed goes.”
Alice slunk closer. “The what?”
“Alice, go get Mom,” I ordered, the old woman’s grip bruising.
“Go on!” the old woman continued. “He who was Creator of heaven and earth! How could you forget! You’re – not supposed to – forget!”
Before she finished, the old lady lunged forward, her free hand curling into a claw as she reached for Alice –
I pulled away, shrieking.
A nurse in blue appeared, slapping the old woman’s hand away from me. The old woman cradled her hand and moaned like a beaten dog. “You know better, Mrs. Hendricks. Come on, let’s get you back in bed.”
“Wait!” The woman’s eyes roved around, searching for me. She reached out with a mangled, cooked finger. “She’s my student!”
I shuddered and backed away.
“She’s not your student,” the nurse said, none too gently steering the wheelchair into a room. “Your students are long gone.”
A whine erupted, filling the hallway. It was coming from the old woman, slowly turning into a scream. Before it could reach top volume, nurse closed the door, muffling any sound.
The nurse turned back to me with a wink. “Sorry about that.”
My mom was hurdling towards me, her heels clipping down the silent hallway. Great-Aunt Marta was shuffling alongside her.
“Ma!” I said.
“Kira, Alice,” Mom eyed the nurse. “Are you okay?”
The nurse smiled tersely. She must already know Mom’s reputation. “Everything’s fine. Mrs. Hendricks gets a little confused sometimes. She used to be a schoolteacher at the catholic boarding school. She was just as crazy then too.”
Mom offered the nurse and close-lipped smile. “As we get older, we become more ourselves.”
The nurse sighed. “That we do. That we do.” She reentered Mrs. Hendricks room, now silent.
Great-Aunt Marta caught up and wrapped her arms around me. I was sinking into the pillow of her stomach when she started to cry.
“A-are you okay, Kira?” Great-Aunt Marta sniffed.
“The question isn’t if she okay,” Mom snapped. “It’s why she ran away when I told her to just wait outside.”
“Hey!” I said. “Alice ran away first and-”
“Excuses,” Mom spat. “Who does that sound like?”
“Daddy!” Alice said happily. She knew her cues.
My mom’s heels boomed through the hallway as she walked away, breaking the home’s silence. Great-Aunt Marta shuffled alongside her, the pink slippers a splotch of illegal color.
I watched Mom march away, one hand dragging Alice along. She turned around and glared at me, eyes slashing through that box in my head. Packing peanuts and bubble wrap and stringy thoughts spilling all over my brain.
What will happen to me when she gets old?