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

"Red Raspberries," by Amy Cappelli, is the second place winner in the Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011.

By Amy Cappelli

The last fifteen minutes on the afternoon bus are agony. In that time, there are ten drop-offs and what feels like a stop sign at every corner. The first waves of motion sickness hammered to shore five stops earlier. The stifling heat from the sun pounding against closed windows and the fact that I haven't eaten since third period lunch which was at 11:00 only adds to the nausea. So, I make myself very quiet, concentrating on keeping my stomach settled. But Gordon, a squirrely seventh-grader in my homeroom, keeps needling for my attention. He talks with his hands which quakes his whole body sending vibrations through the vinyl seats. He is annoyed that I am not engaged in his reenactment of Family Guy from the night before. I threaten that I might puke on him if I have to talk. That just aggravates him more; so, he calls me "Ginger" above the din and racket of the other voices. The rest of the bus joins in the taunt. "Ginger! Ginger!" It's not that I am not used to the appellation. Ever since I was in Pre-K, someone has latched onto a moniker to ridicule my red hair: Elmo, Carrot Top, Ronald McDonald, Ginger. But, today, with the queasiness, the jeering stirs a different warmth which boils up and burns my throat. Fortunately, I am rescued by the announcement of my stop. I rush off before saying goodbye to my bus driver, Mr. Leon. I hear him "Humph," before the doors seal behind me. I just want to be home in my room. It's only the second week of October and I am already sick of seventh grade.

Before I can even unload the 20-pound backpack digging a permanent groove into my shoulder, my mother has intercepted me at the door. She has my 18-month-old sister, Penny, on her hip and Penny's diaper bag slung over her other shoulder. Facing each other in the small hallway, we look like beasts of burden.

"I'm so sorry, Samuel. GiGi's caretaker did not show up today." She pauses as if expecting me to figure out what that means. I don't respond; but, I do know it means—GiGi has driven away another caretaker and we have to pick up the slack. I think your skin would need to be thicker than an elephant's in order to endure the racial slurs that spew from GiGi's mouth when she is having a bad day. "I need you to look after her. She's asleep now. I don't expect her to wake up before I get back from Penny's doctor appointment. I should only be an hour. If she wakes up, you know what to do."

"Keep her calm. Keep her entertained. Keep the doors locked. Don't leave her alone. Ever."

"Thank you. You're the best," she says hurriedly. "Call me on my cell if you have a problem." She hugs me with her semi-free arm. I wonder if she feels my shoulders tense. I wonder if she senses that I want to shrink away from her. When I hear the car pull away, an involuntary sigh escapes me and I realize I've been holding my breath all day.

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.

When I return with my grocery bag of beef jerky, corn chips and soda, I pull my bike into the shed at the back of the house. I notice immediately that something is not right. The back door to the house is thrust wide open. I panic as I run through the house, peeling through every room. GiGi is gone. I left her for literally ten minutes and she was in a coma. My heart is racing as I climb on my bike. I don't even know where to go. I ride up and down our street, calling her name—knowing that she will not recognize my voice. I curse at her under my breath. I curse at my bicycle when I realize I will not be able to get her home on it if I do find her. Heat is rising to my cheeks. And I can't tell if the panic which presses from inside my ribs is from the fear of not being able to find GiGi before my mother returns or the fear that I will find her and she will have one of her outbursts making it impossible to get her back home on my own. I realize that I must look wild—whipping around on my bicycle in frantic circles. I slow down so that my neighbors—who are very close with my mother—don't suspect that anything is wrong. And, while I know that I could enlist their help to canvas the area for the daft old woman, I do not want to incriminate myself by letting on that I had given her a chance to flee our home.

The world is spinning too quickly and I feel like I am going to be swallowed by it. I feel lost. And then, as I am turning the corner to ride down the streets behind my house, something bizarre happens. I can taste fresh raspberries on my tongue. It's as if I am swept back in time—back to GiGi's garden where I am picking plump red raspberries off of the thick plants that wove a green blanket along the chain link fence in her yard. I am small again. We are sitting at her kitchen table with the sun lazily setting beyond us—two bowls of fresh cream and our raspberries before us. Her hazel eyes are gentle, knowing, peaceful—like I remember them. She reaches across the table and lovingly places her warm hand over mine. "GiGi?" Her name becomes a question on my heart. I swallow hard and the sweet-tart taste of red raspberries fills my mouth again; and, the warmth of her hand burns over mine. The words are yanked through my mouth from a deep place inside me, No one asked me if this was okay with me! And then there is the taste of warmth and salt as tears stream down my cheeks.

As if a curtain is lifted before me—I find her sitting on an iron bench at a grassy triangular intersection. I prop my bicycle against a tree and cross over to the bench, unsure of how to approach her. She looks like a statue- with her frozen gaze. She also oddly looks like my baby sister when she wakes from a nap—groggy, disheveled, innocent. I slide onto the bench beside her. For a heartbeat she does not acknowledge me and then there is the awakening. A faint light in her eyes as she turns to me. Even though she looks exhausted, frail, she smiles and the beam brightens her eyes. "Charles." She says the name like it is the answer to a question that's been plaguing her.

"Yes," I answer.

"Charles, do you remember when we planted the raspberries in the yard? Do you remember how the year after we planted them, they suffered—there wasn't any fruit?"

I nod, deciding to play along.

"I was so disappointed. We had just lost our second baby. And, we were so far from home. I wanted the raspberries—to remind me of our farm back home. You told me to have faith. It wasn't time yet. Do you remember that?"

"Yes," I say quietly—feeling as if I am eavesdropping on a conversation not meant for my ears.

"And then the next summer we had our boy—after so much heartache we had him. And the yard was filled with raspberries." A look of pure contentment washes over her face and her shoulders drop in a sigh. "We had too many raspberries; we had to invent recipes for them. You told me life is like that raspberry summer—patience and faith bringing forth an abundance of days both sweet and tart. And it is all in our hands to decide what to do with them."

She places her hand over mine—it is warm and her whole life, all of the good stuff is coursing through it. I thought that I had made peace with the idea that I had lost the great grandmother I had known and loved. I thought I said goodbye three years ago when she stopped remembering our names or recognizing our faces. A feeling of dread seeps into me and I realize that I don't want her to stop talking. The uneasiness I usually feel around her is gone. I will be her Charles if she will tell me more stories. "GiGi?" I whisper. But, she doesn't hear me. She doesn't say anything more. We sit, the two of us at the intersection. I know my mother will be frantic. I know that I will get in trouble—unforgivable trouble. But, there have been so many awful days. And, GiGi is lost now in a lovely memory. And I cannot find it in my heart to interrupt her.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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