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COLD, a short story

By Kirsten Nicole

June 30, 2023

This was a short story I wrote for a class during my MA. I wrote it back in 2019. As a disclaimer, none of the characters in this short story represent any of my friends or family members. Purely fiction.

The sky is a dull gray color. No shading. No highlighting. Kind of like the wisps of hair on Nonna's head. I grab my keys from the ignition with one hand and thread my fingers through the four or five plastic bags in the passenger seat with the other. My breath makes white cloud puffs….

“Puffs!” I groan and throw all my weight against the car door as it closes. “How could you forget the Puffs?” I can already hear Nonna's crackling voice in my head, as I drop the bags and run gloved hands down my face. They don’t provide warmth or comfort. A flake or two of snow lands on the black wool and vanish in an instant.

“I don’t ask much.”

Yes you do, Nonna.

“I just needed some tissues for my allergies.”

And cherry cough drops and Dunkin Donuts caramel cake decaf coffee and regular-length, size two, Poise pads and six cheese Danish pastries…besides who has allergies in the dead of winter?

“But I understand, honey.” She’ll reach for my hand and when I give it to her, she’ll pat it and with a voice like sweet pickles, she’ll say. “You’re just so busy all the time. Running yourself ragged. It’s no wonder you forget me now and then.”

So, do I go inside and drop off the groceries and hope she doesn’t notice until I’m back tomorrow? Or do I just go back now and get the stupid Puffs? I glance at my watch. She’ll be expecting me in ten minutes. Otherwise I’ll get a gazillion phone calls.

Thank goodness the woman can’t text.

Treading lightly over the dusted steps leading up to the front door, my boots leave imprints in the snow. It just started. Probably a good idea not to go back to the store anyway. I’ll drop these off and get home before it starts accumulating too bad. My roommate and I are due to have a Hallmark marathon.

A Christmas wreath still hangs on the door, even though it’s mid-January. She never gets out of her recliner. Sagging old thing, all the design worn off the seat cushion. Funny how the more wrinkled Nonna gets the smoother her chair gets. I was the one who took down her Christmas tree and decorations and hauled them up to the attic, and she insisted on leaving that wreath, that she would get it. I’ll sneak it upstairs now, and she won’t even notice.

“Is that you, Kandace?” she croaks from the living room. I sigh, glancing at the doorway, where the linoleum changes to dated green carpet and I can see the back of Nonna's pink chair. I peel off my gloves and place them on the counter tile.

“Yes, Nonna. I have your groceries.” Slipping out of my jacket and sliding the hat off my hair, I drop them both in a kitchen chair.

“Did you get the Puffs?”

My eyes snap shut and hands grip the countertop, frozen. “No, I’ll bring you some tomorrow when I stop by, okay?”

There is a long, empty pause.

“Sorry.” The word leaves my lips and vanishes in the air, just like, and with as much substance, as my breaths outside.

“It’s all right, honey.”

Wait, what?

“You’re a busy girl.”

Oh, here it comes.

But she doesn’t say anything else; only silence hums through the house. I open the coffee and dump some grounds in the coffee maker, pulling down two, chilled mugs from the cabinet. Only two left. The green light blinks on the dishwasher, which means the cleaning lady must have already been by this morning. The moment I open the dishwasher, a contented sigh escapes as the wave of steam warms my face and hands.

“Are you making coffee?”

“Yes, Nonna.”

I always do.

“Take your time, honey.”

I frown and lean against the counter for a moment before emptying the dishwasher, relishing the heat of the plates and cups. Once the coffee maker grumbles enough coffee for two cups, I fill our mugs and head to the living room. Nonna has a photo album open on her lap. I can tell she’s toward the beginning based on the faded orange-ish tint of the pictures. They’re small too. Little squares with white frames.

“Your dad was cute as a bug’s ear. Always was,” she says without looking up. I set her mug on a coaster, steam curling out of it in twisted ringlets, and I sneak a glance at the album as I sit across from her. I haven’t looked at pictures of Dad, young or old, since I tore up the funeral program and burned it. The couch groans when I sit on it, and finally Nonna looks up at me. There are deep, purple circles under her eyes, like a half-eaten plum, and gray hair with patches of scalp peeking through. Her shoulders are slumped a little more than normal and her hand rests on an empty tissue box.

“So….” I clear my throat and wrap my hands around the mug, breathing in the thick smell of caramel. “Reminiscing, huh?”

It takes a lot not to look at the pictures, but I don’t feel like hurting today.

“Yes.” Nonna flips a page, flashing the bulging veins of her hands. I sip my coffee. She’s awfully quiet today. Usually she’s complaining about some neighbor or the most recent political whatever that I haven’t heard about…or care to hear about.

“Here.” She hands me the album that’s starting to crack on the binding and reaches for another. I just stare at the robin-egg blue of the cover with its gold trim, unable to open it, and hope she won’t notice.

“Go on.” She nods and opens her own.

“Not…not today.” I set the book on the coffee table.

“Why not?” She’s pinned me with a harsh stare by the time I look back up.

“I don’t think I’m gonna be able to stay very long anyway…how was…?”

“That’s not the reason,” she snaps. I blink. “Your cheeks turn every shade of red when you lie.”

This time I can feel my face get hot. How does she know that anyway?

“You don’t want to see your dad.” Her tone is so accusing I can’t help but straighten.

My eyes narrow a little. “I haven’t wanted anything more for the last two years.” The heat in my words surprises me.

“Oh please.” She waves a withered hand and turns her head, the closest thing she can do to turning away.

“Don’t even…” I stand to cool off, setting my mug down hard on the coffee table. We’ve always had a silent agreement. We don’t talk about Dad. Period. Neither of us has ever wanted to. Why is she bringing him up all of a sudden?

I notice how chilly it is. She doesn’t even have the TV fire going.

“What happened to the heat?” I wrap my arms around myself and check the thermostat which is completely dead.

“It stopped working.” She lets out a dry cough, for attention or from the chill, I can’t tell.

“Why didn’t you call me?” I demand, tapping the thermostat a couple of times before snatching two blankets from the hall closet. She waves another careless hand and gives me the cold shoulder.

“Nonna, I can’t fix these things if you don’t tell me about them.”

“I don’t care about the cold.”

“You’ll freeze to death.” I tuck the blanket around her, momentarily catching sight of a tow-headed little boy as I move the album from her lap.

“Maybe that would be best for everyone.”

I glance heavenward, used to these “woe is me” pity parties.

“I’m only a burden. If Anthony were still here, he’d do everything you’re doing and you could focus on school. If Luke hadn’t….”

But it isn't that way. The woman has lost both her sons and I'm the only grandchild and Dad always said he’d never put his mom in a nursing home. And since I don't have a parent to make the same promise to…. Besides, after Dad died, I needed someone to need me.

Nonna doesn’t say anything else.

“I’ll call someone.”

“Don’t call someone. No sense fixing something what won’t matter soon anyway.”

“Nonna.” I moan.

“Don’t even….” Her eyes flash. “I know that look. For once, I’m being reasonable. Don’t send someone to fix the heater. I don’t need it.”

“Your hands are frozen.” My fingers brush hers as I return the album.

“Let them freeze. Since when did you care so much about me anyway?”

I stand there, staring at her, jaw dropped, halfway having set the album back on her lap. She did not just say that. She did not.

“Since when have I…” I can barely get the words out, they’re so hot on my tongue. “What is your problem?”

Nonna looks at me coolly, like she’s been expecting this, like somehow I’ve lived up to her expectation and she’s disappointed. “What is my problem?” She matches my tone. “I’ve never had a problem. You’re the resentful one, honey.”

Resentful? So she’s noticed. About time. Keeping all that bottled up like a shaken soda was getting tiresome.

“Yeah, I am resentful, Nonna. You wanna know why? Because I do everything for you. I get groceries. I fix meals. I make doctor’s appointments and take you. I pick up medications. I take your cat to the vet. I take time out of studying and classes and spending time with my friends to sit with you, all so you can treat my like I’m not even your grandkid!” My chest heaves. It feels light, like someone’s lifted the refrigerator off of it. But Nonna's glare sends chills down my spine. Indignation would be better.

“Maybe that's because you’re not my grandchild.” The words pierce deep. “Just because my son adopted you, doesn’t mean that I had to.” Deep down, I've always known she felt that way. But that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. It’s hard to tell if it’s nice to finally hear her say it out loud or if I wish she'd kept lying.

“I know.” I surprise myself with how calm my words sound. My hands are shaking. Even though I knew it, I’d always hoped and felt like maybe it wasn’t true. “I know you never thought of me as yours. You didn’t do a very good job hiding it.”

“I didn’t try to hide it.” She pauses and runs a hand over the album. “I didn’t try to hide it at first.”

“And then you did?” I can’t help the snort. If she thinks her passive-aggressiveness somehow changes everything… it's almost more aggravating. The victimization of herself…. I guess I never realized all this bitterness. I take a couple steps back and glance over at a mosaic of pictures on the wall. My dad and his brother are in most of them. Some of Dad and Mom together. Looking at those pictures is easier than looking at Nonna right now. And I’m far enough away I can’t seem them very well. I do, however, only spot myself twice.

“I wanted my son to have his own children.”

“He couldn’t, Nonna. Especially after Mom got cancer.”

“And at that point, they knew she was going to die. They shouldn’t have put any kids in that situation.” Her words are unfeeling, and the anger is simmering in my chest.

“She didn’t die for like nine years! She deserved to have a little happiness too. But you always seemed to want to rip it away from them.”

Nonna doesn’t speak. “Perhaps I did. But it was only for their good.”

I roll my eyes and don’t care to hide it from her, but I still don’t turn around to face her, staring, unseeing at the pictures on the wall. “So you hated me.”

“At first.” Nonna's passive aggressiveness is gone. It hurts. “And then when Luke died….”

“I was all you had left.” I finish for her, turning to face her now. “You didn’t have anyone else to do your dishes or pay your bills or set up appointments or keep you from being lonely. You didn’t love me. You just needed me.”

Nonna doesn’t deny it. I don’t stay to listen to her pitiful excuses. I grab my mug and storm to the kitchen, dumping the remains of my coffee down the sink and dropping it with a clatter inside. The drawers grumble as I slide them open, pulling out the phone book and slapping it on the counter. My fingers brush over the names and business, finally finding “In Home Care.”

“Kandace,” she calls from the living room. I don’t answer, sliding my phone out of my pocket to dial the number, when I notice there is a voicemail from her doctor.

“Hey, Kandace, just wanted to call and see how you were doing. I’m sure your grandmother’s already talked with you, but I wanted to give you a few more details in case she forgot.” I pull out a piece of paper, cradle the phone on my shoulder, and jot down the “In Home Care” number so I can call on my way home and drop the phone book back in the drawer.

“…pancreatic cancer.” I freeze. “If there’s anything else I can do to help make her comfortable, just give me a call.”

Pancreatic cancer? The phone falls into my hand, and I stare at it. She hadn’t told me.

“Kandace, please come back.”

I know I shouldn’t feel relief. I don’t. Not really. Just shock. She’s always seemed the invincible woman, even as she sat in her chair more and more. I don’t feel overwhelming sadness. I don’t feel the anger at her not telling me either. Numb, I walk back into the living room, holding the phone in my hand, mouth open a little like I’m going to be the first one to say something. I should. I need to. I need to take control of this situation.

She seems to know that I know. Her glare is gone. Her irritation is gone. Her loathing is gone.

“I’m dying,” is all she says.

I nod.

“I’m sorry. I wasted so much time thinking I needed my boys back.”

I nod again, speechless. She looks down at the album in her lap. The one person I had left in the world, as much as she irritated me, was going to leave me too. I stare at her.

The wisps of gray hair on her head.

The sunken eyes and sagging cheeks under thick cut glasses.

The lips, which, as long as I remembered, were turned down on either side.

The tiny shoulders and caved in chest.

The wrinkled hands and bony arms and legs and swollen feet.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. I’ve never heard the words in Nonna's voice before.

“For what?”

She reaches for my hand. Hers is like a skeleton, skin draped over bone. It’s so cold. “For wasting time. I needed you. But I needed to love you.”

We needed each other. But it’s too late. I pull my hand away. It’s too late.

Without another word, I turn and head back to the kitchen. Once again, I pull out the phone book and jot down a number, then crumple the “In Home Care” note and toss it in the trash. I thread my fingers through my gloves, pull on my hat, and button my coat and push open the door.

“I’ll call someone to fix the heater.”


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