Back when Florida was still habitable, my Grandmother lived in an assisted living center on the tip of a peninsula. Whenever the Grid failed, the sky glowed with generators, but in her youth, Granny had climbed Mount Shasta and seen darkness. I imagined this darkness as a closet, a celestial blindfold with stars like the colored streaks that danced behind my eyelids when I squeezed them tight.
Granny called stars the ejaculate of universe and swore our earth was dying for lack of congress.
I gave her plastic glow-in-the-dark star stickers for her birthday. She cried until she had to pull out her oxygen tube and blow her nose.
After that, she convinced my parents to let me stay with her. “Our back-up generator is as good as any,” she lied. So, at six, I learned to light a match, play Go Fish, and change Granny’s oxygen bottles.
But mostly we prepared.
Not prayed, you cannot pray to disrupt someone’s respirator, put emergency crews in danger, or make work for the gal who fixes your generator. You mustn’t wish harm to others, but if you do not prepare for miracles, you miss them.
So, we prepared—
Granny’s home offered daily excursions. Every time the power grid went out, I’d run down stairs and sign us up; it didn’t matter if they’d already departed. We’d light candles in Granny’s room, play Go Fish, and watch the lights dim. After my second win, if the coast was clear, I’d zoom Granny down the hall in her wheelchair. Double points for silence. Triple for not dislodging her oxygen.
We were on task. Granny had just turned over the Bold Rabbit, and I was reaching for its mate, when we were heard it; the longed-for cough of the back-up generator failing.
I snatched Granny’s phone and the activity sheet from her bulletin board.
“Darling,” she said, smooth as a movie star, “Billy and I are at the … Aquarium… we’ll sit tight.”
We hadn’t maneuvered into our hiding space before Colleen banged open the door and shouted “Everyone downstairs! The buses are loading.”
We joined the throng of residents confusing the hallway. “Hang back, Hillary” Granny said. (Hillary was my codename, after the famous climber.) We pretended to wait for a less crowded elevator, but Colleen herded us toward the open one. Granny threw her skirt over her oxygen and claimed she’d left it her room.
“There’s plenty on the bus,” Colleen answered.
“I left Teddy!” I cried, angling Granny’s chair toward her room.
Colleen blocked me. “Run and get it; we’ll wait here.”
Granny mimed a scream; I shrieked.
“I’ll get it!” snapped Colleen. She tore into Granny’s room. I sped Granny down the hall.
“Hillary! Ice room!” Granny said. We squeezed into that inlet of soda machines and laundry chutes. My heart pounded; we were exposed, but in the half-lit chaos, no one saw.
Once the hallway cleared, I pushed Granny to the emergency stairs, which was as far as our practice drills had gone, because that door had an alarm.
The knob slipped in my sweaty hand. Using Granny’s handkerchief, I could turn it, but I couldn’t budge the heavy door. Granny rammed her chair into it. It cracked opened, set off the alarm, and sighed shut. We heard shouting as they evacuated the floors below us, but ours was just one more bell.
Granny undid her silver bun, “Wedge these in the catchy thing.” We shoved bobby pins around the latch. They were already bending and popping as Granny extended her chair’s metal footrests, but several held. Granny backed down the hall, then I raced her at the door.
We were in.
Glow tape marked the dusty stairs, eight to the roof. I set the brake and came around to help Granny stand. Wheeling made her arms strong, but as she drove her hands into my shoulders, her knees collapsed and the chair shot backwards. Granny slammed to the concrete landing, knocking out her dentures.
The chair, and her oxygen, banged to oblivion.
I felt around for her wet teeth and tried to wipe the grit with her hanky. She laughed and chucked them down the black hole after her chair. “Like dars, dey come ow ad nigh.”
We’d never planned to take the chair up the stairs — the plan was always for Granny to slither, limb by limb, but seeing her wild-haired, sprawled in the dust, slurring, her oxygen lost —
Granny said, “Don waweee. Ib been on da uppa flaw fa a yea. I’m acclamadded.”
Understanding her took forever; mounting each step took longer. I was afraid the sun would rise.
“Oh da Powwa come on. Yoo go.”
I couldn’t leave her. “This is dark enough for me.”
Granny’s arms swung. Her hand slapped the railing. Her fingers curled. She hauled herself up, her hair catching the light. With each exhale Granny staggered forward. Cresting the summit, she leaned into the press-bar handle of the door.
The universe exploded in.
Snow danced everywhere. I tried to catch it. It missed my tongue, whirled off my fingertips. It rarely snowed in Florida back then, but aside from a blurry smudge of moon, I had never seen nocturnal light. I had no idea there could me so many stars. Nothing like Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Granny’s stickers. I danced from wall to wall across the rooftop, unravelling my arms in the black, my cells expanding with the universes. When I tired, I located my Grandmother by the splash of her silver hair and lay next to her, holding hands, floating through the stratosphere until the rescue workers woke me.