“I thought she’d dozed off.” It was the excuse I’d been making all week. Tim was standing next to me, gazing at the body in the coffin. Above the fragrance of hothouse flowers rose a faint scent of mothballs, an odor I’d associated with Grandma from earliest memory.
“She seems to be asleep now,” my cousin said. “So peaceful.”
“She was awake when I got there, sort of. Her eyes weren’t all the way open, and she gave me that frown.”
“God, that sour look! I think this is the first time I’ve seen her smile.”
“Her dentures,” I confessed, “I removed them. She never wore them except at supper. She told me they hurt her mouth.” I remembered asking her about it on one of those stifling summer evenings, lying awake in the bed next to her, the sounds of the neighborhood kids coming through the unscreened window, my friends shrieking as they chased fireflies or played hide-and-seek. “I went downstairs to make her tea and brought it up to her, and she sat up in bed to sip.” I watched Tim reach down and touch Grandma’s hand where it clasped the open Bible to her chest.
“She’s so cold. Don’t you just wish you could fetch her shawl and cover her up?”
I fingered the locket at my neck, the one with a wisp of Reilly’s hair inside, and almost said something, but I’d become practiced at not showing my feelings. Instead, I continued my story. “I was running late for work. After I got the tea and she settled down, I gave her the shot.”
“You took such good care of her.” Tim touched my arm.
I had eased the needle under Grandma’s loose skin—it always made me think of basting a turkey — and nudged the plunger till the barrel was empty. Then I pressed a cotton ball over the puncture and drew the needle out. I cleaned the site with a sterile wipe. No need for a bandage; Grandma had been on insulin for so long I think her arm had forgotten how to bleed. I replaced the plastic sleeve that protected the needle, dropping it and the bottle and the wipe into my purse. “I told her that I had to rush off to work. I told her to rest.”
But Grandma hadn’t rested, not immediately. I couldn’t describe for Tim the expression on her face, nor did I allude to how it made me feel. I said merely, “I think something was troubling her.”
“Maybe she sensed her time was near. God, she made your family recite so many Rosaries,
I’d have thought she would be looking forward to—” He paused, then finished, “it.”
I didn’t mind the word anymore, I’d become numb, but it was still taboo in our family.
After giving her the shot, I had walked the perimeter of the room, tidying things up and looking for anything that might be askew. Grandma was fond of that old proverb, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” And after countless hours confined to her room, I knew the place for everything.
I noticed the curious framed print of the Madonna and Child hanging on the opposite wall, with the small crescent of orange that peeked out like a slice of carrot from behind the baby’s ear, and I blinked back the tears. In one corner the antique television and the faded rug, where she had made me endure so many episodes of Jeopardy or Murder, She Wrote, while she lay in bed sipping her “nightcaps.” And the cluster of photographs on the far wall that chronicled my life as an infant, a toddler, a Girl Scout, and a high school graduate. Even the picture of me and Jacob on our wedding day was still there, divorce being unthinkable in Grandma’s world. Only a rectangular shadow remained where the photograph of Reilly had been. I’d taken that one down myself.
Grandma was struggling to stay awake. Was the shadow on her face now morphing from worry to terror? I looked into her eyes and smiled, the only genuine smile I’d given her all year.
Tim leaned over to peer at the Bible Grandma was clutching. “What’s the passage?” He looked up at me. “Did you choose it?”
I had indeed picked up the Bible from her nightstand that morning and found the passage I wanted. I marked it with a ribbon, then stuffed the book into my raincoat. Grandma would have no further need of it today. I turned back to her, averting my eyes from the window that had been locked and sealed since the evening that Reilly had toddled over to it, stumbled, and fallen to his death, while Grandma lay passed out on the bed.
Barely any breath at all, now.
This time when I eased the needle into her arm, having located the precise spot I had used earlier, it really was insulin. When I was done, I dropped it into the sharpie box on the nightstand and tossed the bottle into the waste basket. I didn’t use a wipe this time.
Then I looked at the closed eyes and the motionless form that would soon turn cold and rigid. Mrs. Fletcher might suspect the significance of Matthew 18:6, but that was television. Here, in her bedroom, the decomposition of tissues had already commenced, and chemistry would soon obliterate nearly every trace of poison from the old lady’s body.
Tim finished saying his Hail Mary, “…now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.” He made the sign of the cross, and we turned to walk back to our seats. “I guess there was no reason to ask for an autopsy,” he said to me. It was more of a statement than a question.
“No, her time had come.” I laid my hand on his arm. “She’s in a better place, now.”
Dave Arbogast is a writer and retired teacher. He resides in Virginia with his wife, Betsy. His previous fiction has appeared in the online journal AntipodesSF.