“Give-it-to-me-now!” Alicia shrieks.
Elated by his big sister’s attention, Rory prances, waving the pink-and-gold ribbon just out of her reach.
“Or you won’t be my doggie next time we play house,” Alicia adds with calculated malice.
Rory’s face contorts. He fills his lungs.
Grandpa’s slippers scrape on the rickety metal strip separating cracked linoleum from balding carpet.
“You two fight again? I call mother and father.”
Grandpa Stan sometimes talks different because he’s from Pole-Land. Like Santa. He’s also as old as Santa, and has the same hair.
“Their phones don’t work on the ship,” Alicia counters.
Daddy also said the ship’s sailing in a place where they only get sun at night, so during the day they sleep, and at night they do stuff. They can Skype in the morning, though, if Grandma’s home to turn on the computer.
“No zoo tomorrow?” Grandpa’s bushy white eyebrows bunch together, but he isn’t really mad. He just hates it when Rory bawls.
“You promised!” Alicia whines. Next to her, Rory holds his breath.
“Play nice, then,” Grandpa says and shuffles back to the kitchen.
“Okay, you can be my doggie,” Alicia proclaims as she snatches back the ribbon.
Rory brightens up.
“Pway house now!”
“We can’t. We don’t have Sarah and Jake to be mom and dad.”
Sarah and Jake live down the street, back home. Jake already turned five. Grandparents live in a huge building with a smelly elevator and no neighbors: only strangers and pirates.
“Grandpa, how many minutes till Grandma comes back?”
Alicia repeats the question, progressively faster and louder, on her way to the kitchen.
The phone rings, and Grandpa hobbles over to the wall mount by the fridge to pick up.
“Yes? … Who from hospital? I’m sorry, my English not so good. Say again, please…” Grandpa takes his eyeglasses off, and they rattle in his hand. “Anna hit car?… But you do something, yes? What you mean: on-a-rival?!”
He clutches the glasses toward his chest and wheezes, like when Grandma makes him eat heart pills.
“On-a-rival,” he mumbles after hanging up. “On-a-rival.”
“Why did Grandma Anna hit a car?” Alicia asks.
“Hit a car! Boom!” thrilled by the Godzilla-like image of Grandma toppling vehicles, Rory giddily punches Alicia in the back.
“Stop it!” she spins around and pushes him away. He ramps up to howl, but then stares past her, mute.
At the clink of shattering glass and a muffled thud, she, too, turns her head.
Grandpa lies on his side in front of the fridge, eyes closed, mouth open. Pieces of his eyeglasses lie nearby.
“Are you sleeping?” Alicia asks, confused by the jolly grin of the dislodged dentures.
Rory takes Grandpa’s pose as an invitation to climb on and horseplay. Alicia joins in for a bit, but it’s not fun. Fear needles her, like that day when she snuck Mom’s jewelry outside to play with Jake.
“Maybe he died a little,” she concludes. Rory nods thoughtfully.
“When people die, they stay asleep — unless you revive them.” She kisses Grandpa’s stubbly cheek. That doesn’t do it. “Grandma Anna will probably revive him when she’s back,” she adds, harnessing enough certainty to push the fear away.
They go off to play, soon homing in on the strictly off-limits Grandma’s porcelain angel.
“Grandpa, can we play with the angel?” Alicia shouts into permissive silence.
The angel is brightly painted with gold trim and too heavy for one hand. She sets it on the floor, but it topples and the head comes off. She reattaches it with lots of scotch tape.
Next to the tape, they find the water-colors. Rory demands a dinosaur, but dinosaurs are scary, so they settle on her drawing him an elephant. There’s no more blue, but Rory remembers that he saw a big jug of blue under the kitchen sink, where Grandpa keeps car supplies. The jug’s too heavy to lift, so they pour the turquoise liquid into Grandma’s mug, spilling some on the floor.
It smells like markers.
Rory sticks out his tongue and leans toward the mug for a taste.
“Yuck!” says Alicia, and they both giggle, until she notices that Rory’s holding on to his butt.
They sing in the bathroom till he’s off the potty.
“Gwaaanpa, I’m done!”
Alicia checks on Grandpa and returns, pondering the predicament.
“Stand still,” she orders, sighing like Mom. She wipes Rory’s scrawny bottom, then dumps and rinses the potty in the sink, till it’s mostly clean.
The sky outside is indigo-blue.
“I’m hungwy,” says Rory.
The fridge door only opens a little bit with Grandpa in front of it. Alicia squeezes in and stands on tiptoes. Rory wants cheesecake, but that’s for after dinner, and they didn’t yet have lunch, or snack. Alicia reaches and pulls out an opened brick of yellow cheddar.
They aren’t allowed knives, so they take turns biting from the hunk.
“We forgot to wash our hands,” Alicia remembers after two bites. They run back to the bathroom, wash up, then resume working on the cheese. It’s now really dark outside, so cheese counts as dinner. Alicia obtains two enormous wedges of pre-sliced cheesecake. She makes Rory use a spoon, but the dessert ends up all over his face, hands and t-shirt anyway. Neither can finish their slice.
Rory follows her to the bathroom, but folds his hands and glowers at the sight of a loaded toothbrush.
“You’re not Gwanma!”
She’s sick of his filthy, whiny face.
Scarcely waiting for another defiant “No!”, she shoves him, hard. He falls backwards, narrowly missing the bathtub with his head. The fear returns, bigger and icier, as she readies for Rory to scream. Instead, he runs up, sobbing, and presses against her — the way he grips Mom’s leg outside whenever he sees a big dog. Alicia kisses his matted blond hair.
“Zoo tomorrow,” she reminds, way more confidently than she feels. “Grandpa promised.”
Her brother nods in agreement, rubbing his grimy cheek against her dress.
Sarah Sotan writes in Vermont, USA.