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"Red Raspberries": Second Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011

Now that the motion sickness has subsided, my stomach begins to churn in hunger. On the way to the kitchen, I pass GiGi's bedroom, which is off of the dining room in what used to be my father's home office. GiGi is asleep, propped up on the ivory brocade pillows which match the loveseat she is lying on that came from her house. Her knit pants are two lengths too short for her legs. Her ankles, vein-y blue and swollen, glare out; and, the flesh of her feet is pinched by the straps of her little Asian embroidered slippers. She sleeps with her mouth in a wide gasp. Her knobby, waxy hands are crossed over her chest as if she was laid out in a casket. It stops my breath for a minute—until I see the shallow rise and fall of her chest. I wish upon all of the stars that she stays asleep while my mother is gone. And, then, another more sickening wish flits carelessly across my heart—I wish for her to never wake up again.

GiGi has been living with us since August—since my Great Grandfather Charles passed away. He died of a heart attack at 82. But I think he died of a broken heart from watching his Lovey Dovey succumb to dementia. He was her sole caretaker and in their last days together, she was wretched to him. She would have quiet moments; and, then a switch was flipped and she became an irrational wild animal—wielding a rolling pin, a fireplace poker, a shoe at him mistaking him for an intruder, a predator. Since my grandparents, GiGi and Charles' son and daughter-in- law, live out of state and are battling their own health issues, my mother volunteered to take over GiGi's care and move her in with us. We didn't talk about it; it just happened. The only thing my mother said was, "We are family. We take care of each other." But, my mother lives in the memory of GiGi—the vivacious, self-assured matriarch. She cannot accept this fragile, frightened imposter living in the shell which once housed my great grandmother's spirit. And even the shell has begun to look unfamiliar as medicines and mini strokes have made her petite frame swell and her eyes droop. I think my mother secretly believes that she is some Alzheimer's whisperer, able to coax out the true soul from the unhinged elderly. She's not doing a very good job at it.

The truth is GiGi makes me feel uncomfortable. I never know what to say to her. And, these days, talking with her is like speaking with a paranoid alien with a foreign tongue. In her quiet moments, I don't think she even wants to talk. I think she is just stuck in a memory of a lovely time in her life; and, I don't want to interrupt her. It's my mother who makes me talk to her. She thinks it's kinder, more respectful to patronize her with conversation rather than to sit there in silence. But my mother is in denial. GiGi doesn't know where she is. And forcing her to speak only agitates and confuses her. GiGi doesn't recognize any of us, and she receives us all with suspicion. To make matters more distressing, she thinks that I am a younger version of my Great Grandfather Charles and she tries to connect with me over stories from their sixty years together. Stories a 13-year-old boy cannot possibly relate to. And I was never good enough at history to act out any reference to the eras she is recalling. In those moments, I feel like I'm suffocating and I want to run away.

My stomach grumbles again. I walk away from her room softly, quickly before she senses that I am there. When I open the fridge, my heart sinks in disappointment. I remember that my parents didn't get a chance to go to the market this weekend. My snack choices are string cheese and a pint of grayish blueberries. Since I am allergic to dairy, I opt to try a berry. But, I regret my decision after poking around the plastic container only to have my finger come out painted with moldy skins and a sludgy purple juice. The queasiness of an empty stomach creeps up the back of my throat again. I know I am not supposed to leave. But I decide I need to go to the Quick Stop around the corner. I check on GiGi one more time. I hold my hand an inch above her gaping mouth to check that she is still breathing. I pull her quilt up over her hands and cover her slipper-feet. Even though she is wearing a turtleneck and a thick wool cardigan and it is still 75 degrees outside, she is always cold. When I am certain she won't stir, I sneak away.