Snowflakes clung to the core of the glass like mushrooms taking over the forest floor. My breath damped against it as I sat in the window sill, looking down on the road with designated attention. A book lay opened in my lap, but I hadn't looked at it for a few minutes. The road was all I saw.
A sound from the digital clock told me that they were half an hour late. Uncomfortable scenarios formed in my mind, and I let them twist around my brain, forming a loop ready to tighten.
Just as I took a deep breath to save myself from inner doom, the car came climbing over the asphalt. I put the bookmark in and closed the pages around it.
As I slowly walked down the staircase, straightening the fancy dress I had put myself into, I passed the pictures that hung on the wall. I stopped in slow motion, as if in a movie, watching the black and white colors as I pondered whether the look I must have on my face belonged in fiction rather than reality.
My eyes were gauging at the beautiful woman in one of the photographs. She was in her twenties, wearing a slim dress, gloves and a hat with a veil before the eyes. The lack of colors was not the only thing to tell tale that it was from times long passed.
The woman had my hair. Or rather; I had hers. It was the only thing I could recognize as me in her, even though it was put up in a knot. Other than that she seemed like a stranger. A stranger that I desperately wanted to know but never could.
I heard someone come up the stairs, and my sister smiled tensely at me. She stopped on the stair beneath me, and I turned to her, smiling the same way.
"What are you looking at?" she asked in that shrill, sisterly voice. She always put that on when she was prepared to comfort me somehow.
I send an involuntary glance towards the photograph, and she picked up on it, quick as she was.
Her eyes were sad, but she kept on smiling. "Isn't she just beautiful?" she asked. It was rhetorical. We had often discussed the beauty of this particular woman. Partially because that woman deserved it so much now that it was just memories. "You're lucky you got her hair, y'know. I'm so envious!"
I nodded. My face had gone into a more serious tone as I didn't bother to keep the smile in place.
She sighed and took my hand. "Come. Put on the face. For Kenny."
I groaned and tried a small grin. She laughed at my stupid face and dragged me with her to the kitchen. Uncle was in the middle of taken out the turkey from the oven whilst mother hung over the high table with a glass of wine locked in her fingers. Aunt Whitney was cutting up salad as she spoke in a serious tone with mother.
When we walked in both of them stopped and looked up suspiciously, but they smiled heartily when they saw who it was.
Whitney got up and came to look at my sister, starting on how fabulous her grades were doing and how beautiful she had become. When she turned to me she began fritting me for details on my latest art works, but I was not in the mood for discussing the morals and ethics of whatever project was in my mind, so I shrugged and said that it was nothing of importance. Her eyes looked worried, but she put on the face and laughed. Then Kenny came in and she told him to wash his hands before dinner, and then he complained that he had already done that, but we still weren't eating, and then my sister told everyone that we had just seen them driving down the road and that father must be attending to them.
Uncle tilted an eyebrow and asked when we saw them. Sister told him that it had to be about ten minutes ago. Uncle hurried out the door.
A tight knot gathered in my stomach, and I went to the bathroom.
When I came back everyone was gathered in the hallway, smiles plastered on now that the vanished guests had finally been found after a little detour. Kenny was wild and happy and jumped up and down of sheer joy. Father and uncle stood with two stooping figures in the doorway.
"Hello Simon, hello Karen," mother, sis and Whitney greeted. Father smiled and uncle held grandmother by the arm.
"Grandpa'! Grandma'!" Kenny shouted. Grandfather took the kid's right arm and shook his hand.
"Hello," he greeted. He smiled and Kenny grinned. It was so typical grandfather to try and teach him manners – all attempts failed, of course.
My sister greeted grandfather with a handshake and a white smile. As grandfather moved on to me and a stingy odor invaded my airspace, I put my hand forth, twitching my lips. The mask was half fake, half real.
He put his eyes on me, and they widened as his wrinkled mouth formed a small o.
"Karen?" he exclaimed, his hand suddenly on my arm. His face was that of disbelief.
"Oh, ye-yes dear?" my grandmother asked behind him.
I think my face must have been frozen in a clown mask as fear rampaged in a furious torrent behind it. For a few moments I was certain someone was going to jump out with a camera, lightening my heart by telling how this was all just a sick, twisted joke.
Nobody but my sister and grandmother noticed. I think Kenny might have heard, too, but he was still too young to understand.
My sister caught my eyes, and it took her only a few seconds to grab my grandfather's arm and laugh heartily. "Grandpa'!" she said, smiling at him. "The turkey is almost ready. I'll show you and grandma' to your seats."
It wasn't needed. Grandfather was aware of which seat was his, but he took her gesture as one of politeness and accepted it with a smile.
I fled into the kitchen, finding a good place in the corner. Then I moved to the other end of the room, resting against the counter. A few seconds later I moved over to stand by the fridge.
Everything was turning inside me. Maybe the bathroom was a better place to have run to.
Dread. That was the feeling. And hate.
I dreaded these evenings. I hated them. I also loved them. But I hated them so much more.
I hated having to smell the filth. I hated having to watch the grumbled bodies. I hated hearing their stuttering voices, seeing their faces fall apart in wrinkles as they lost their awareness.
I hated having to remind someone I'd known my entire life that my name was Emma and that I was their granddaughter.
My sister came into the kitchen to move dishes onto the dinner table. I hurried to go and help her, but she told me not to.
So I stood there, feeling helplessly useless, when my uncle came in, clapping his hands together and rubbing them, like a villain expecting something incredibly evil to finally happen. Uncle often had that look, somehow.
"Are we ready for the turkey?" he asked, poking me in the side. "You look like a snail on the highway. Are you that desperate to taste my masterpiece?"
I laughed and told him that the snail was an understatement and that he'd better hurry bring in the turkey.
Truth was that as delicious as uncle's turkey was, I couldn't bring myself to enjoy it. Not tonight.
"Oh, this is the kitchen."
I turned to find my grandmother standing unsurely on the linoleum floor, opening and closing her mouth, like she was constantly discarding questions.
"Grandmother, just go back to the table," I said with the mask on. "The turkey's coming in right away, and it's de-li-ci-ous!"
I hurried around the counter, taking her hand and patiently following her to the table. She was slow, walking as though a rock might come shooting up from the ground with no warning to toss her over.
"My, you look so pretty today," she complimented. "If you put your hair up in a knot, your pretty face would show more."
I smiled proudly and asked her how her book was coming along. She told me how she was at the climax and all the pieces were coming together.
Just like the last time I asked and the time before and the many times before that.
My grandmother was a writing genius, but she hadn't published anything for years. One day she just came into a writer's block. She said it wasn't worth mentioning, and she began writing again after a couple of months. It was her longest block, but we were all assured that she was doing well.
Then she began messing up the plot. When she was writing something in the middle, a comment from the end would suddenly show up. She would tell us she was places in the book that she hadn't come to yet. And then she stopped writing all together. She kept talking about the same scene. It was always exciting, dramatic and beautiful, and she was always just about to be finished. She had always written on it just the other day.
The knot in my stomach grew tighter and more compact.
"Now!" my father announced in a cheerful tone. "Father in law, what wine would you prefer? An 1897 or 1904?"
I rolled my eyes and sat down besides Kenny who was talking to my sister.
"…And mother said I could get one for Christmas if I'm very lucky."
"Lucky," my sister said sarcastically and winked at me. "We'd just get a 'dreams are dreams because of that – they're dreams'!" We said the last part in unison. How many times our father had said that to us whenever we wished for something totally out of our range. Kenny had a mother who endeared him more than anything on earth and wouldn't deny him anything. My parents often said that he was lucky to have my uncle for a father. If Whitney was alone in raising him, he would get no spine, but uncle was tough and didn't just spoil away.
"Has the garden survived, dad?" uncle asked grandfather, who began to tell how the winter had treated his garden roughly. I watched my grandmother, sitting beside him, as her eyes clung to the turkey that was now placed in the middle of the table.
I looked away, and I was suddenly staring into my mother's scrutinizing eyes. She held me like that for a few moments, then she smiled and I was free.
Conversation during the dinner consisted mostly of my father and uncle discussing some lawyer stuff. Grandfather would sometimes cut in, adding something. Whitney and mother had a separate discussion, which was low so that they didn't disturb the main debate. Kenny was cheerful and kept yapping away to my sister and myself.
Grandmother didn't speak. Sometimes food would spill from her mouth and down on her dress, and my uncle would wipe it away with his napkin.
I didn't say much, either. I was wondering if I really looked like her that much. And I was pondering whether I liked that or not. Being a living memory of someone when they'd be gone.
When Kenny finished he waited for permission to leave the table. When he got it he ran off to play some video game. Sis and I soon joined him, sometimes glancing at him as he played street fighter, but mostly we just discussed some random subject.
My sister is five years older than me. She had had much longer time than I with them. That thought kept eating at me the whole time. I had never seen my grandparents really fresh, but I knew that my sister had. She had even been over there, discussing matters in one of my grandmother's books as she was writing it. I had never gotten to do something like that. My grandmother finished her last book when I was nine. I had read that book so many times, just to find some hint at who she had been right before everything went wrong.
It was the same book that lay with a bookmark in it upstairs.
"Kenny," I said, and he responded with a hmm. "What age are you now?"
"Nine," he murmured, rocking to the side as he pressed extra hard on the joystick, placing a punch right in the enemy's face.
"It seems like it was just yesterday he was in kindergarten," I noted to my sister.
She laughed. "It seems like just yesterday you were both out playing together," she teased.
I stuck my tongue at her, which made her note on how mature I was, so I mentioned Jonas as revenge. I expected a blush, but she just grinned at me, totally cool.
"Girls, Kenny!" Whitney called. "Dessert any moment now."
"Okay," I called back. I left the living room to go put my glasses in my room. I put them on when reading, but I didn't really need them otherwise, and it had become a habit for me to forget to take them off.
When I entered my room, my grandmother stood in it.
I stopped halfway in, glasses in my hands.
"Oh, I cannot seem to find the bathroom," she said to me when she became aware that she was no longer alone. "But then I saw this." She held forth the book she had finished six years ago. "I read the summary. Is it good?"
A lump gathered rapidly in my throat and I wanted to scream. I walked over to her and opened to the front page. Her eyebrows rose as she saw her own handwriting, her own autograph. Then she laughed.
"Oh, my, this is one of my books!"
"It's good," I said with a burning sensation in my throat. If I cut open my throat and stuck my hand in, would I be able to grab the pain and drag it out?
"Thank you, my dear." She looked at my face and her eyes narrowed. "Such a pretty face. You should wear your hair up in a knot. Then your beautiful face would show better."
I smiled. "Yea. I know."
I put my glasses on the table and grabbed a hair band. I began pulling my hair back while I explained the way to the bathroom. As she left, I wondered if she could find it.
In the mirror I saw my hands pull the soft, brown hair together in an improvised knot. I poked it to see if it would stay. It seemed stable enough. She was right. My face did look better.
When I walked past the photograph again I gave it a quick glance. The woman had her hair up in a knot, too, hid in the hat. I wondered if her grandmother had told her to wear it like that.
There was cake on the table when I came down there. Mother had gone to find grandmother and came back with her a few minutes later. Grandmother seemed delirious, like she was uncertain of where she was.
"You have such a lovely home," she said.
"Thank you," mother replied.
When grandmother passed grandfather, he took her hand to help her sit down. They looked at each other for a passing moment. Then the moment was gone, and cake was being consumed.
I poked at my cake, picking it into pieces, choosing only a few crumbs to be eaten.
I wondered if this was what she wanted. If she really wanted to be alive without living. Being a brain-dead body, kept alive only because human evolution had taken a twisted turn on the road and somehow managed to keep those from dying who was naturally supposed to.
Pouting, I decided that she wouldn't have wanted it. If a past her had seen the present her, she would have somehow stopped it. Told us something so that we could help her.
There were none in her books. I was certain. I had read all the latest ones, looking into every core for a hint of how to help her. The only problem was that I most probably was not old enough to even get her books and therefore wasn't in a position to judge.
A cough from the other end of the table caught my attention. Grandmother was choking. Uncle was already on his feet to help her. Grandfather kept eating.
Grandmother grabbed the edge of the table leaning forward with her hand at her chest, coughing desperately. Uncle patted her hesitantly on the back, obviously unsure of how much force he could afford to put in.
"What's wrong with grandma'?" Kenny asked. I was numb. Sis shushed him.
We all watched in silence. Everyone except grandfather had stopped eating. We watched as grandmother stopped coughing and instead called out names.
"Simon!" she called.
Finally the fork stopped midair, and grandfather tilted his head to look at her. He dropped the fork, suddenly realizing what was happening. My eyes denied me and kept on being open. Grandmother leaned back into uncle's arms, shaking a bit. Grandfather got up and put his arms around her, calling to her. My father had switched his cell phone open, calling 911.
Kenny was beginning to cry. No one did anything to stop him. Tears began falling on his plate.
"Mom!" mother finally called, running to my uncle's side. The anxious look on her face burned into my mind like glowing iron on flesh. A mark that could never be removed.
"I think it's a heart attack," my father explained in the phone. "Come quickly!"
They'd be too late. Grandmother lay still now. Her eyes were shut, surprisingly. She must have seen what was coming and decided to embrace it. It was my decision to believe so.
"Karen!" grandfather called. He was sobbing. I had never seen a grown up cry before me. Now there were five right before me.
I got up, somehow. The way out to the hallway seemed unrealistic. I was in a faraway place.
The door opened before me and I stumbled out onto the trodden snow. White rain fell on me and my surroundings, a new layer on the old one. White paper.
My fingers began moving in the air. There was no keyboard, but the words printed themselves into my mind.
I stood there for a long time as disbelief changed into two very different emotions. Sorrow and relief.
Sorrow I understood. It was expected.
I did not expect relief. Even so I felt it, dearly. It washed my soul clean, and it was hard to feel bad when my stomach suddenly unpacked itself and let something go that had been gnawing at me for so long.
My fingers found their way up to the knot. Maybe I should wear my hair like that more often.