Today, Nana got stuck on the toilet.
I should have known it would happen. The day had been too good. Nana sat up in bed when I came in and actually remembered to ask if I'd passed my driving test, grinned and clapped her bony hands together when I told her I'd only made one error. She wanted to know if Mom would come visit soon. She wanted me to tell her everything about my life, and Mom's, and the world revolving around the nursing home.
But then she had to pee, and when I sat her down on the toilet she couldn't get up and now she's screaming because sometimes her limbs don't do what she tells them to and she forgets that and then is immediately reminded and this terrifies her. She gets stuck on the toilet about once a week, but her memory's pretty patchy and I imagine every time feels like some new torture. Normally someone who works at the home can help me get her back into bed. But today when I poke my head out of her room, the only two aides I can see are converging on a tiny old lady trying to yank out a sleeping grandpa's breathing tube, and they look like the last thing they need is another screaming senile old woman, this one with her pants around her ankles. So I try to lift Nana up from the toilet myself the way I've seen the aides do, with her hands on my shoulders and me lifting her from the waist, but those aides are trained and no-nonsense, and I'm a foot and a half taller than Nana and deeply uncomfortable with seeing her naked ass. So I'm hauling her up and she's saying, I can't do it, honey no honey stop I can't do it get the nurse, and she sounds so furious with her crackling limbs that I think she might cry, so I brace myself and scoop her ninety pound body into my arms and walk the four-foot eternity from the toilet to her bed and lay her down, and then cover her bare legs with a blanket.
When we both stop panting, she says, "Honey?"
She always calls me honey. Not sure if she's being sweet, or if it's because she sometimes can't remember my name.
"I have to pee."
"I'm picking up Nick later," I say. "At the airport." Changing the subject takes her mind off her bladder. Sometimes.
"Nick who?" she says. "I thought Nick was your father."
"That was Mark. Nick's my brother."
"The one your mother loves so much?" she says. Classic. Can't remember her toilet adventure, but still knows that my mom, who visits once a month tops, prefers my big brother.
"That's the one," I say.
"Where's he been? Why don't any of you ever visit? When's your mother going to get me out of this place?"
I choose to answer only one of these questions. "I was here yesterday, Nana."
"Oh, well..." says Nana, confused. The line between her sparse white eyebrows deepens. "Where are my pants?"
"I'll get you an aide," I say. "I gotta go. I'll bring Nick next time."
"Nick?" she says.
"Love you, Nana. I'll see you soon."
Nick's waiting at the front of the airport when I pull up. He's gotten a tattoo. A snake or a dragon climbing down the neck of his shirt. Nick, playing bad boy. I want to laugh but the sound sticks on some obstacle in my throat.
He's surprised to see me. "Thought Mom was coming." Pause. "Didn't know you could drive."
"I got my license yesterday," I say.
"Way to go," he says, then, "You got a cigarette?" as if you get cigarettes when you pass your driving test or something.
"No," I say. "We can go to a gas station, though."
At the station, Nick buys a pack and I get a soda. He smokes out the window on the way home. It'll probably stink in the car later. Mom won't care. Nick's a grown-up now, she'd say if I brought it up. Nick can take care of himself. Worry about yourself, Logan.
"You want a drag?" he asks, extending his hand. A cylinder of ash falls between the seats.
"Sure." I reach for it.
"I'm telling Mom."
"Fuck you," I say, and he snorts.
"Aw, Logan swears, now?"
"Aw, Nick smokes cigarettes, now?" We fall back into banter naturally. "Thought you were supposed to be the good boy."
I can see Nick's smirk in my peripheral vision. "Hey, I just needed to be good enough to get out of here. Now who cares what I do?"
He's right. He went off to college like Mom wanted, he's gonna get a degree in architecture, just like Dad had. Who cares if he inks his shoulders and shrivels his lungs? It'll all work out for him in the end. Mom's always said that Nick is going places; to me, it looks more like the world just bends itself to fit him.
Sometimes it makes me want to punch a wall.
"How's Mom, though?" Nick's serious now.
"Okay, I guess. The same."
"She's confused a lot. Still wants to come live with us."
"You still visit her every day?" He's making fun of me again, but I don't care.
"Almost every day. It'll be easier now that I can drive."
"Logan," he says. "You need to get yourself some friends. Christ."
"I like talking to her," I say. "We have a good time."
"Does she remember anything, anymore? Last time I saw her, she called me Mark." Nick does look a lot like Dad, so this actually makes sense.
"She doesn't remember much," I say. "Doesn't matter, though. I tell her the same stories every time. Same jokes. She always laughs."
"Does she really want you hanging around? You think she'd want to, you know, get some friends her own age. Even if you don't."
"She doesn't care. Although she keeps telling me to get a girlfriend."
Nick exhales a long column of smoke directly into my ear. "Nana knows what's up."
Mom scowls when she sees Nick's tattoo. "You'll never get a job, now."
"Everyone has tattoos," says Nick.
"He smokes cigarettes too," I say. Mom, fussing with Nick's hair, pretends she doesn't hear me.
We eat dinner together in front of the TV. A year ago, this was a regular Saturday night. Now, the couch seems incapable of fitting all three of us properly. Nick takes up too much room. Or the couch has shrunk, maybe.
Mom finishes her chicken and starts typing frantically on her computer.
"Nana wants us to come see her tomorrow," I say, when the click-clacking becomes deafening.
"She said that?" says Mom skeptically, without looking up from the screen.
"She'd want us to," I say.
"We can take her to Howard's," says Nick. "For lunch."
"They haven't got a wheelchair ramp," I say.
"I'm working all day tomorrow," says Mom. "We'll have to go later in the week."
"What restaurants have wheelchair ramps?" Nick asks.
"She'll want to eat at the nursing home anyway," I say. "She's addicted to the canned peaches."
Sunday, Mom spends the whole day hunched over her computer. Monday night, Nick blows us off to visit friends. Tuesday, I corner them in the kitchen and tell them we have to visit Nana tomorrow. Nick flies out tomorrow night. We'll go after school. I'll drive.
Wednesday, I pick them up after seventh period. In a bizarre reversal of everything I know, Mom sits in the back seat. Next to me, Nick drums his fingers on his knees, and I wonder if he's wishing for a cigarette.
Nana is sitting propped up on her pillows when we come in. Her face lights up in that sweet wrinkly way when I come to give her a hug.
"You brought friends, honey!" she says.
Nick bends over to kiss her on the cheek. He is glaringly, painfully at a loss for words. I suppose Nana does look pretty bad compared to the last time he saw her. She's going downhill, the aides keep telling me solemnly in the hallways. I see her too often to acknowledge this; from visit to visit, she's not so different. Mom, who hasn't come to the nursing home in weeks, stands open-mouthed in the doorway.
"Hi, Mama," she finally gets out.
With an audible crack, Nana sits up straighter. "Mindy! Christ, honey, it's been long enough."
Thank God she got the name right. Mom looks hurt enough as it is. "I came last month."
Nana laughs hoarsely. "You think I remember that?"
Mom looks like she is going to cry. "I've been so busy."
"So are you bringing me home?" says Nana.
Mom swallows hard. "No, Mama. You—you live here, remember?"
Nana's eyebrows are knitting.
"Nana, the aides are bringing peaches in a minute," I say.
But Nana has locked her attention on Mom. "This isn't supposed to happen. You're my daughter. My daughter. Why are you doing this?"
Mom backs against the wall, as far from Nana as she can get. Nick stands between them, hands out, like Nana's going to jump out of bed and go for Mom's throat. Nick is fucking useless.
"Nana!" I yell. "Peaches!" I am also, as it turns out, fucking useless.
Nana rolls her head toward me. "Take me home, Logan. You have to."
The words lodge themselves in my chest. How the hell did this end up on me?
The door opens, and an aide backs in with a food cart. No one seems to notice. Nana turns back to Mom, opens her mouth and lets out a stream of biting nonsense. Mom rocks back and forth on her heels, reduced by her mother's anger to a guilty, misbehaving child.
Nick stares at me helplessly. I want to scream at him, and at Mom, and Nana, tell them to get their shit together and at least try because God knows I've put in my time. But I can't really imagine that helping the situation.
"Mom, Nick," I say. "We're leaving." I walk around to Nana's side and put my arms around her. She trembles against my chest, and a wave of anger washes over me: anger at Mom for not taking care of her, and at Nick for leaving and barely looking back, and at myself for not being able to fix any of it.
I hold her shoulders and look her in the eye. "I'll be back soon, Nana," I tell her. "Really soon."
She gazes up at me, wide-eyed, like a baby animal. "Will you take me home?"
I will not cry. I don't cry. I say, "Yes."
We walk out slowly, sedately, as though nothing has happened, or perhaps as though everything has and we are too exhausted to run from it. On the way out, I tell the aide, "Make sure she eats the peaches."
We drop Nick at the airport. He half-hugs us at security and speed-walks into the throng ahead. From the back of his retreating neck, the dragon tattoo stares me down, reproachful.
Mom doesn't speak until we are back to the car. Then she says, "Let me drive."
I get in the passenger seat. I get it. She wants some control back.
As we veer out of the airport parking garage, Mom says, "You'll kill me if I ever get like that, right?"
"I'm fucking serious."
"No, I won't."
She laughs, just a little hiccup of noise. "I'll ask Nick."
"He won't do it, either," I say.
"He will," Mom says.
I have a sudden, brutal urge to smash the passenger window, just put my fist right through it. I would bleed a lot. The glass would fall into the car, glitter everywhere. Mom would scream.
I really almost do it.
"We don't need two dead parents," I say, instead.
Mom's hands tense up around the wheel, and I push my advantage. "You gotta visit Nana more."
Mom laughs again. This one is like a dog barking. "Logan, I work every day. That's why she's at the home in the first place. Plus, you saw what she's like. She can't stand me."
"Well, maybe she wouldn't be like that if you saw her more often."
A light turns red way up ahead of us. Mom slams on the brakes too hard, and everything in the car lurches forward.
"She's always been like that," Mom says. "Since I was a kid. You don't know what it's like."
I let out a bark-laugh of my own.
"What?" Mom says. She's scary quiet.
"You seriously don't think I know what that's like?" The words are out of my mouth without my permission. "I'm pretty god damn sure I get it."
The light turns green, and Mom stares straight ahead at it without stepping on the gas. A car honks behind us. Mom turns her head very slowly toward me, and her face is odd, distorted, like it's been shattered and then glued back together.
"Get out," she says.
I get out.
I'm a block from the gas station where Nick bought his cigarettes. I walk there without making any sort of conscious decision. The door dings when I push it open, and the cashier, a ratty little guy chewing gum, looks up.
I walk to the counter. I can see myself in a fisheye mirror next to the door. I look confident and completely deranged. I want to laugh.
"I'll take a pack of cigarettes," I tell the man. I don't even have money. Burning bubbles of laughter pop in my throat.
"ID?" the man asks.
"I left my wallet at home."
He shakes his head. "Sorry. You want anything else?"
I smile hugely, and then I punch him in the face.
The collision of fist and flesh is sudden and shocking. I've never hit anyone before. My stomach slams into the counter between us as my brain comes crashing back into my skull. The cashier reels, puts his hands up to his face. I think I got his nose. I can still feel the shuddering impact when I flex my fingers. He's bleeding. There's blood on my hand, not a lot, but smudged all across my knuckles. I can't get enough air into my lungs.
"I'm sorry," I manage to say.
I turn on my heel and lurch out of the store. The door shuts behind me with a pleasant ding. I hear the man shouting, swearing angrily in the store, but I keep running. The insane laughter keeps building up in the back of my mouth until my lips open of their own accord and I am howling with mirth, sprinting next to the road, a crazy boy racing the cars.
Mom hasn't texted or called. I don't care.
I consider running right down the highway and out of here, through the fields that border town, hitchhiking my way to any civilization that doesn't know me. I consider chasing Nick's plane through the sky and begging him to take me with him. I'd live in his dorm closet. Get a job so I could pay the rent he'd undoubtedly charge. We'd smoke cigarettes out his window and never talk to each other. It would be a blast.
Shocker: my feet take me back to the nursing home.
Nana is asleep when I come in, a book open facedown on her chest, glasses sliding down her nose. I stand next to her bed silently and just stare at her until she wakes up, like a real creep. She's happy to see me.
"Honey!" she says. "Are you taking me home?"
Of all the fucking things she could remember. I collapse into the armchair in the corner.
"Are you all right?" says Nana, rolling over to face me with difficulty.
"I hit a guy," I say. I don't mean to. It sort of pops out, sharp and bitter.
"I punched him. Look." I show her the blood on my right hand; it's crusted all around my fingernails. Looking at it, I want to puke. I can't get over the fact that it doesn't belong to me, that I have the bodily fluids of some random gas station cashier clinging to my skin. I go into Nana's bathroom and scrub my hands with her lemon-scented soap.
When I come back into the bedroom, Nana has changed. She's sitting up, and she's got that baby animal look again, but she seems cornered, now. Her eyes are darting all around.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
"What did you do?" she says. Her voice squeaks up at the end.
"I—Nothing. I didn't do anything."
"There was blood," she says. "Blood."
"Nana, it's okay—"
Her hand flashes out quicker than I would have thought possible and slams the button on her bedside table.
Shit. "Nana! It's okay! It's me!"
The aide must have been right in the hallway, because the door bursts open immediately.
"What's the matter?" she asks. She's one of the old hands; we've talked multiple times. She frowns when she sees me, confused. Nana is pointing at me, her whole body visibly shaking.
The aide strides to Nana's side and gently lowers her arm. "This is your grandson. He's here to visit. You remember?"
"No!" Nana shrieks. "He—the blood—"
"Ma'am," the aide says firmly. "There's no blood. He's here to see you, just like always."
Nana babbles incoherently. I look at her, and there's no recognition in her face. She's as scared as if a stranger had broken into her room with blood on his hands.
The aide catches my eye and mouths, I'm sorry. Aloud she says, "You may want to give her some space."
I don't need to be told twice. I dart out the open door, my freshly scrubbed hands burning in my pockets.
I walk around the block a few times. I don't know what else to do. The sun is sinking now, and it's getting cold. I stride as quickly as I can without feeling suspicious, praying the cashier didn't call the cops on me.
Eventually, I go back into the nursing home's lobby and eat seven peppermints from the bowl by the door. The aides don't mind. They're used to me hanging around.
I can't stop thinking about Nana's expression. In the back of my head, I've always known there'd be a day that she wouldn't recognize me. Just my luck that it's the day I've chosen to become a fucking psychopath.
Finally, I go back up to Nana's room. I open the door cautiously.
"Honey!" she says. "It's been a while."
I start crying. Just like that. I throw myself down in the armchair in the corner and just sob.
"Oh, honey," says Nana. "Come here."
I lie down next to her on the bed, and she puts a frail arm across my shoulders, and we stay like that until I stop shaking. It takes a while.
My phone vibrates in my pocket. Mom is calling. I don't pick up, just grip the phone until it stops ringing. I press my face into the pillow.
"I know, honey," Nana soothes. "I know."
I roll to look at her. Her creased features glow in the light of the bedside lamp.
"It'll be alright," she says.
I sniff, roll onto my back. Stare at the ceiling for a long time. Then I pull out my phone and text, At nursing home.
"Mom loves you, Nana," I say. "I know it."
My phone dings. Coming now. Take you home.
Nana doesn't respond for so long that I think she might have fallen asleep.
"Tomorrow," she says finally, dreamily, "tomorrow, I'm going home."
Esmé Kaplan-Kinsey is a 20 year old writer from California. They are currently a sophomore at Reed College. They are a 2020 Youngarts Finalist in Short Story and a Scholastic Gold Medalist, with work appearing in No Contact Mag, Ephimiliar Journal, Blue Marble Review and others. When not writing, Esmé enjoys nature walks and spending inordinate amounts of time making playlists.