While the grown-ups conferred in the hospital room, Lena filled the dim hallway with her anxious energy. She hopscotched up and down the checkered floor, avoiding the white tiles.
Black tiles only. Black tiles only. Grandma alive.
Lena pictured Grandma coming out of the room, their trip back home.
Me, Papa and Grandma in the car. Me, Papa and Grandma in the car.
Grandma in the car, not in the ambulance.
Hop, hop, hop.
Lena approached the heavy door and glued her ear to it, trying to listen in.
Nothing. She hopped back.
Black tiles only.
“Sit the fuck down, for fuck’s sake,” Ceci hissed.
“I’ll tell Papa you said a bad word!”
Ceci rolled her eyes and got back to her phone.
Lena didn’t want to include Ceci in the car, but she knew Grandma would be sad if something bad happened to her.
Me, Papa and Grandma in the car. And Ceci too.
Ceci was always mad at Lena. Papa was often angry too. Grandma was the one that came to the rescue, took little Lena-chick under her big Grandma-hen wing, all hugs and soft words. Except for that one time. Grandma had shot Lena a stern look when she caught the girl playing with her dolls in that way. “What way?” Papa had asked. “Well,”
Grandma started, Lena eavesdropping on them. “She was making them, you know…” Grandma chuckled, but Papa’s serious face made her serious too. “The dolls were bumping nasties,” she let out.
Lena couldn’t help but giggle at those words — bumping nasties. She was still giggling when Papa found her and grabbed her by her skinny arms and shook her like she was a dusty rug. “Where did you learn that?” he barked. It was Ceci, she wanted to say, but fear got the words stuck in her throat. It was Ceci and her boyfriend that she had walked in on once. Just that once, just for two seconds.
Papa threw Lena in the bathroom and locked the door. Lena curled up in the tub. The cold calmed her skin, hot from the spanking. This was all Ceci’s fault. And Papa’s fault. But mostly, and most hurtfully, Grandma’s fault. Why did she have to say anything? They had their little secrets, the two of them. Stealing peaches from the grumpy neighbor’s tree. Dipping fingers in sugar and licking them when there was no candy in the house. Why couldn’t this be one too?
Sorrow and the rotten smell from the drain made Lena sick. She didn’t answer when Grandma knocked. “You want a hot dog, sweetie? Cake? Soda? Talk to me, honey.”
That evening, Lena went to bed without kissing Grandma goodnight — three times on the forehead, once on each cheek. That night, Lena didn’t whisper in the dark, “Grandma still here” while knocking on the bed headboard three times. The next morning, Lena woke up to the howling of the ambulance.
When Mama had died, Lena was too little to know what she could do. Now things were different.
Knock, knock, knock. Grandma still here. Hop, hop, hop. Grandma alive.
Ceci made fun of her sister’s superstition. Papa frowned. Two days later, the hospital called. Grandma was out of the ICU.
When it was time to bring her home, Lena was the first one in the car. Ceci hated hospitals, but someone had to be with Lena while Papa talked to the doctor.
In the long, silent hallway, Lena had just joined Ceci in the gray plastic seats when the heavy door opened at last. Out came Grandma, rosy cheeks, a tired smile. The wheelchair didn’t scare Lena. She ran right up to it, white tiles and all, and jumped onto Grandma’s lap.
“Lena…!” Papa censured her, though softly.
The doctor smiled and shook his head, scribbling something on his clipboard.
Lena kissed Grandma — three times on the forehead, once on each rosy cheek. Then she did it again, and one more time for good measure.
“You can drop off the chair at discharge,” the doctor said, handing Papa a piece of paper. “And make sure you look after this good, old heart,” he added, patting Grandma’s shoulder.
“I will,” Lena replied.
Fabiola Werlang is a writer, translator and editor. Born and raised in Brazil, she moved to the United States in 2013 and has called Pittsburgh home since 2016. She is the coauthor of two illustrated books: “Moscas e Outras Memórias” (Flies and Other Memories) and “A Menina que Organizava” (The Organizing Girl), both published in Brazil. In the US, her work has appeared in 3Elements Literary Review and Spank the Carp. In 2021, she was one of the writers featured in the Applied Words – Transnational Voices series promoted by the Guild Literary Complex of Chicago.