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The piercing sound of the alarm clock echoed throughout the apartment, undersized and inadequate for the family of 3. The noise resounded throughout the small room, echoing off of 100 year old walls, plastered years ago when the neighborhood had been a prosperous community of immigrants fresh off of their vessels to a new life. Wallpaper that hadn’t been replaced since the dawn of the ending of the Great War was left clinging to the walls, barely holding on.
Michael’s eyes flew open, his breathing heavy and shallow from dust that had been thrown into the air by the mere movement of his body against the mattress. Sunlight characterized by the early morning filtered in through the blinds, scattered by the particles that hung in the air, and shrouded his face in a blanket of soft warmth. A long groan was emitted as he picked himself up on his elbows and leaned haphazardly against the pillow.
The beeping continued.
No one would come to tell him to turn it off.
Still, as a habit of his previous life, he summoned up the strength to reach over and turn off the clock’s insistent ringing. The room became eerily silent. The radiator in the corner had long ago stopped hissing, and he wrapped himself in a cocoon of blankets in search of heat. There was no sound of rummaging in the kitchen of seasoned hands looking for a cooking utensil or the noise of a teapot howling. Those familiar aspects of the apartment had disappeared.
Instead, he heard the hushed murmuring of nonsense, spoken by his grandmother in the room across the hall. He ran a shaking hang through his coarse hair, thick with grease from the day before and sighed. He wished he could rest his head, heavy with sleep, against his bedframe and drift back into a dream. But his wants were constantly conflicting with his needs, and he couldn’t resist despite his greatest efforts.
Slinging his stiff legs over the side of the mattress, he slowly put weight onto his feet. The old floorboards creaked, the sound similar to the mewling of a cat in pain. He hated his room-barely sufficient for a mattress and a desk. Although his neighborhood was anything but wealthy, he had been to the homes of his friends and classmates, and many were much bigger than his. He knew that his grandparents held a great sum of money, yet they stayed in the broken apartment. He constantly questioned this- but perhaps, it reminded them of their own fragmented lives. No matter where they escaped too, they would have always been haunted by a dark past. This was their sanctuary- it told them that they had survived. The apartment had never been completely destroyed.
He sauntered across the room, trying to keep the noise down as best as he could. Although he knew his grandmother was not asleep, he did not want to startle her. He slid through the open doorway and tiptoed a few feet across the hall, where his grandmother’s door was propped open slightly. He peered in through the small crack and saw his grandma staring up at the ceiling, her mouth moving frantically. He pushed open the door and walked into the room, which smelled like the foul stench of urine, masked slightly by his grandmother’s favorite perfume.
“Grandma.” He spoke softly as he walked over to her bed. Her blank gaze stayed locked onto her initial position. Only the blinking of her eyes acknowledged his presence. “It’s time to take your pills.”
He pulled open a drawer on her bedside table. It was filled with medication bottles scattered on the bottom. He sorted through the orange containers, eyeing the labels and plucking out the correct medications- it had become almost routine.
Michael popped open the safety caps of the 10 bottles he had taken out and carefully counted out the correct amount of pills. An image briefly flashed in his mind- of his grandmother lying out on a stretcher- and he quickly re-checked his selection.
“Pick up your head.” He whispered as he cradled his grandmothers back against the pillows. She didn’t budge, and continued to murmur. “Pick. Up. Your. Head.”
Ever so slowly, she lifted it up. Michael gently opened her mouth and placed the pills on her tongue, grabbing the glass of water that sat idle on the table. He raised the edge up to her lips, chapped with age, and tipped it slightly. The pills disappeared. He massaged her throat to help with the descent.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it, Grandma?” He breathed as he returned the medication to a different drawer. It was a tip her doctor had given to him, in order to prevent her from taking her own medication. He knew that in an hour, she wouldn’t be able to recall him coming into her room to deliver her pills.
With a drawn out sigh, he strode to her door as to exit the room, when he was stopped by his grandmother’s wavering tone.
“Where’s your grandfather, Miguel?” She questioned with a hint of an accent, using the Latino equivalent of his birth name. As a first generation US citizen, it was something that she had called him since he was little boy.
“He’s at the grocery story, grandma.”
“Why, at such an early time?”
“I am not sure. He came into my room this morning to say goodbye since I am not working my shift today and won’t see him until later on. I’m sure he didn’t want to wake you up. ”
The conversation ended as quickly as it begun. She made a soft grunt and turned over to face the window, pulling the quilt up to her chin.
Michael shook his head and closed the door behind him.
His grandfather wasn’t at the grocery store he had held ownership of since he was 19. The building was now inhabited by a Fairway Market. His grandpa did not come to say goodbye to him in the early dawn of the day, nor had he worked a shift for him since the beginning of the summer. However, he had to tell his grandmother this, had to blatantly lie to the most sacred women in his life. It was a way to protect her. She couldn’t remember the fact that his grandpa had passed away from liver cancer before the incessant heat wave entered Queens, and would be devastated to find out. Yet, he was racked with guilt.
It was a burden that would lie upon his shoulders until the day he would be abandoned yet again, this time due to the hands of death instead of the call of cocaine.
Some days, he just wanted to leave the mess behind.
He forced the thought out of his mind.
“Michael!” He was enveloped in a rough hug. “Where have you been, buddy? I haven’t heard from you all summer! I thought that you, liked, died or something.”
“No…just…busy.” Michael wheezed with a grin. It filled him with joy to reunite with his friends -, especially Ricardo, who he claimed to be his best. The sight of his close peers made the day even better than it already was. Despite his tender love for his grandma, being released from caring for her released the pressure that shrouded him all summer. “And…don’t you… think….that if…..I died….you would …have….found out?”
“I’m never told anything, man. People just don’t trust me.” Ricardo released him. Michael fell out of his arms and momentarily lost his balance, catching himself before he hit the cement. He picked himself up and rubbed his callused, slightly bleeding palms on the fabric of his pants.
“Yup. I’m just a little cut up, that’s all.” Michael responded with a nod.
Ricardo’s smile stretched almost to his ears. “Good. Let’s find a seat before the crowd arrives and you get seriously injured.” He chuckled with a wink.
Lunch was most likely his friend’s most favorite point of the school day. Failing miserably in all of his other courses, it was the only class that did not have someone yelling at him to do better. If Ricardo could eat for the rest of his life, he would. He wasn’t extremely heavy, though- somehow, he managed to keep off most of the weight. Instead, it was masked by muscles that made him the top football player in the senior class. He was a jock, through and through- yet, he had not one mean bone in his body. They had met in freshman year when Michael decided to try his luck at football- his thin frame and long, lanky body did not hold up well to the brutality of the sport. Instead, he had found his calling in basketball, where Michael found his rise to popularity and a scholarship to Columbia in the following fall, to follow his hopes of pursuing a medical career.
As he nestled into one of the hard benches in the middle of the courtyard- an oasis escape from the bustle of the Queens- he spotted the rest of his group exiting through the door into the open air. Ricardo waved them over. When his friends locked eyes on him, all but one had a look of surprise and excitement- everyone except his ex-girlfriend. He smiled faintly. She had a reason to be angry at him- he had nearly abandoned her over the summer, for other duties that, in his mind, had a greater calling. She didn’t share a similar view. And he couldn’t tell her the truth. No one could know of his personal life. He realized, at that moment, that most of his adolescence had been one big cover up. He felt a strange sense of melancholy, of a time before his grandfather became ill.
He was lost in a day dream when he felt himself being shaken vigorously. He didn’t realize how much time had passed- lunch was almost over.
But that wasn’t the issue.
“Isn’t that your grandma, Michael?” Christian quizzed.
Michael shot a look across the courtyard, his stomach lurching and anxiety making his head explode in pain. In the center of the outdoor area stood his grandmother, nervously caressing herself with her arms and shivering in fear. As he examined her closer, he could see that she was mouthing his name “Miguel. Miguel.”
Michael was devastated. Somehow, she had managed to follow him to school, even though when he had left she was safe in bed. He then realized that she was still clothed in her pajamas, which still was hung with the foul odor of urine. The situation had become even worse.
A chorus of laughter could be heard throughout the crowd of students as they watched the women- his grandmother- continued to walk around absentmindedly. Without a second thought, Michael stood up from his seat and marched over to his grandmother, throwing an arm around her shoulders and leading her away.
Curious eyes watched him as he left the courtyard through one of the doors in the gate. None of the monitors in the court yard stopped him from leaving the school. They knew the circumstances, unlike his friends. Michael diverted his eyes to the ground, deeply embarrassed.
“Where are we going, Miguel? Where are you taking me?” She whimpered like a child.
“Home, grandma. Home.” He grunted.
“I thought I was at home?”
“No.” Michael spat. “You followed me to school.”
“I did?” She questioned, as though she had no idea what had just happened.
“Yes, grandma. You did. And you made a fool of me in front of all my friends.” He growled. He was astonished- never before had he spoken to his grandmother in such a manner. But it had grown to a point where his anger had overcome him.
His grandmother stopped in her tracks.
“Come on, grandma. Let’s go. I can’t stay here all day with you. I need to go back to school.” He nudged her slightly, but she stayed still. “Grandma. Grandma!”
“I’m so sorry, Miguel. I’m so very sorry.” She whispered under her breath.
Michael cocked an eyebrow.
“What did you say?”
“I said,” She turned around and faced him, grabbing his hands in hers. “That I am sorry, my love.” The corner of her lip turned up into a small smile.
Michael was taken aback. He cleared his throat and looked down at the pavement, threading his fingers between hers. Unsure of how to respond, he merely replied, “Let’s get you home, Grandma. It’s getting cold out.” She nodded.
The rest of the walk was silent, as Michael rolled over what she had said in his head over and over again. His home appeared over the horizon as they got closer.
Then, he froze in his spot, his stomach heaving as he held down vomit. His whole world, in that very moment, turned again upside down.
“Michael. It’s been too long!” The man who was leaning against the front stoop of his house exclaimed. His clothes were tattered and he had thinning salt and pepper hair with a shadow, appearing as though he hadn’t shaved in quite a while. His hair was tussled and his pocket was full and bulged out. Michael shivered in disgust. “And Mom- I haven’t seen you in quite a while. How have you been?”
The man sauntered over in front of Michael. Michael let go of his grandmothers hand as he backed away, shimmying from the man’s grasp.
“I am ashamed, son. That’s no way to greet your father.” His dad hissed.
“I will never call you my father. You don’t deserve it.”
“Oh, Michael. You are still dwelling on what happened so long ago?” He laughed. “I am a changed man, let me tell you that. Jail did quite a bit of good for your mother and I.”
“Then what’s in your pocket?” Michael argued.
“Oh, this?” His father patted the wad. “Just a few dollar bills for later. I was hoping to treat you to lunch.”
Michael knew his father was lying. He could see a small plastic bag peeking up through his pants pocket.
“What are you doing here? Why, all of a sudden, have decided to return?”
“Isn’t the answer simple, son? I thought I left you with more intelligence than that!” His dad spoke smoothly. “I want you back. It’s time for you to return with us. Your grandmother can’t take care of you anymore.”
“No! Absolutely not!” Michael shouted. He walked to his grandmother’s side, her facial expression one of fear and confusion. “I am 18 years old now and perfectly capable of caring for myself. It’s my job to return the duty to her now- something you will never be able to do.”
“She’s my mother, for god sake!” His father retorted.
“Who you abandoned, along with your father and me, your son.” Michael whispered in a harsh voice. “You never loved us- And you never will.”
“I am hurt, son. Truly.” He clutched his hand over where his heart would be. “But, I have my ways of getting you.” He stared at his grandmother.
“Go away. Leave. I’ll never go. And you won’t touch her!”
“Fine. I’ll leave.” He raised his hands in defense, sensing the anger of his son. “This is not the last time you’ll see me.” Michael observed the craze look in his father’s eyes. He blamed it on some type of drug.
Michael walked his grandmother up the steps to their apartment. He dug his keys out of his pocket and frantically unlocked the door. He glanced quickly behind him and walked inside, slamming the door shut.
Michael jumped awake and gasped for air, unable to do so. A hand was cupped over his mouth. Michael tried to scream out for help, but it was muffled. The hand was replaced by a thick strip of black tape. In less than a second, he was taken up into the intruder- his father’s- arms and was roughly thrown over his shoulder. His father hurried out the window and onto the fire escape as Michael struggled against his father’s strong hold on him.
“Stop squirming!” His father snarled, the heavy smell of alcohol and marijuana wafting on his breath.
They reached the bottom of the stairs. All of the lights in his apartment were off as his grandmother slept soundly in her bed. She had probably not even heard his shouts for assistance, too preoccupied by her dreams.
His father approached a car and threw him into the back seat. He clambered into the front and started the engine, speeding off into the night.
Now that his hands were free, although he realized, bound with tape, Michael ripped the covering off of his mouth.
“What do you want from me? Why do you want me so bad?” He wheezed.
“Hm.” His father grunted. “Money, son.”
“Money? I have none to give you! I haven’t had a job since grandpa died.”
His father sucked in a quick breath, as if the idea of his own father’s death actually pained him.
“It’s not your money I desire. It’s is my parent’s- your grandparents. And it’s written in their will- as their only child, once they both die, I inherit the money.” He turned around as he reached a red light. “I have some…deals to pay off. Your mother left me. I’m on my own. I need that money. With you not there to take care of your grandmother, she will die soon enough.”
Michael’s eyes widened.
“You wouldn’t do that to your own mother. It’s so…so perverted!”
“I would and I will. They never cared for me. She deserves it.” He scowled. “Now shut up. I need to drive.”
Michael sat back in his seat, tears sitting on the brim of his eyelid. He had to get out of the car, had to save his grandmother. He peered down at the car handle then looked back up at the back of his father’s head.
Biting his lip and closing his eyes, he forced the door open and dropped out of the car. Gravity pulled him out onto the pavement. He violently rolled onto the cement, the skin on his elbows and knees scraped off easily. He cried out in pain and winced when he came to a halt.
In the distance, Michael heard the screeching of tires as his father turned his care around, realizing his absence. Pulling himself through the agony, he rocked himself onto his legs. His eyes darted around the dark area for a place of safety, the only source of light a flickering street lamp.
His eyes adjusted and, a few feet away, he spotted an abandoned home. In the corner of his eye, he could see the dim light of his father’s vehicle approaching. His chest squeezed in fear.
Rushing forward, panting heavily, he ran towards the home, kicking in the door with a burst of force. The cracking of bones in his foot bit against the muscle of his leg. There was no time to stop and catch his breath, however. The thought of letting his father even laying a hand on his grandmother gave him the strength to continue.
On his left was a staircase, shrouded by shadows and dotted with spider webs. He hustled up the stairs with a limp, panting, his tongue parched with thirst.
“You think you can escape that easily?!” His father bellowed, his voice echoing throughout the house.
Michael heard the breaking of glass as his dad furiously smashed a nearby light bulb. As he reached the top of the stairwell, a closet was in clear sight. Without a second thought, Michael rustled with the doorknob, struggling with his hands that were still taped shut. He finally got it open, his heart beating frantically with the sounds of his father marching around downstairs.
Michael silently shut the door and held his breath, counting the seconds that passed. He sealed his eyes shut, and made his body rigid, in an attempt to make himself as still as possible.
“You want to hide?” His father roared. “Fine! I’ll just go straight the source instead. No one will suspect the death of an old, insane woman! I’-”
The blaring wail of sirens cut off his father. Michael could hear the faint call of policemen shouting orders from outside the deserted building and the loud thump of his father landing on the ground as he battled against the hold of the officer.
“Help!” Michael panicked in a hoarse voice. “Help! I’m up here, in the closet!”
Minutes later, he was blinded by the rays of a flashlight. A soft hand pulled him gently out of his hiding spot. His head swam with dizziness and nausea and his vision blurred. He hadn’t realized how much blood he had actually lost. The concerned questions of the office were muffled by a shrilling sound in his ears.
Veins of black crept up over his eyesight. He collapsed onto the floor, the stench of mold filling his nose. He was floating away into the abyss. It was the end. Everything he had worked for- was for nothing.
Michael awoke in the room, washed in white. A tube of fluids was hooked into the crease of his elbows. The machines hooked up to him beeped in unison.
“Miguel?” A woman whispered softly.
“G-Grandma?” He coughed.
“Sh.” She cooed. “It’s not your grandmother. It’s the nurse.”
“Where’s my grandma? Where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital, sweetie.” She spoke. “You passed out last night.”
“And my grandma?”
“She’s….she’s dead, honey.”
Michael grabbed a handful of the blanket that covered him.
“Dead? How?” He whimpered.
“One of your neighbors last night hear ruckus coming from your house and came to check. When he checked her room, she was already gone.”
“Damn!” Michael yelled. “Was she murdered? Tell me, was she murdered?”
The nurse turned to him from where she stood checking his fluid bag. She shook her head. “No, honey. She just simply passed away in her sleep. She was 93, after all. She had lived a long life.” She stared straight into his line of vision. “And don’t worry. Your father won’t bother you ever again. He never was released from jail. He’s locked up now- for good.”
“Where am I going to live? What’s going to happen to me?”
“One of your friend’s family stepped up to the plate to take custody of you until you leave for college. Ricardo, I think it is?”
Michael sighed. No matter how he tried, the tears would not fall. Perhaps it was the shock of the moment that wouldn’t allow it.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. You’ve had a rough awakening. I’ll be back later with your lunch. How does turkey broth sound?” She chuckled lightly, and then shut the door behind her.
Michael was again alone.
He turned over in his bed, a wave of pain overcoming him. He moved slower until he was looking through the blinds, partly opened, allowing the sun to peek through and scatter light about the room.
His shoulders felt light, now that the burden of caring for his ill grandmother was relieved. Yet, he felt a strange sense of emptiness. His grandparents had been such an important part of his life, shaping him into the man he was today. No matter the affect age had upon them, they were there for everything. And now, in a moment’s notice, they had slipped out of his grasp, so easily. It was a different feeling from when he was taken away from his real parents, who had shown little love for him, there affections focused solely on their drugs and alcohol.
They had taught him that, despite the circumstances that life presents you with, the restraints do not bind you completely. A loss is an opportunity to start fresh, using what you have to remind you of your mistakes so that you don’t make them again.
Finally, he truly understood.