“But why, Gran, why does everybody have to die?” He was only eight and it wasn’t like the idea was news to him. But it wasn’t something he thought much about until it got personal.
She only shrugged, advanced one of her checker pieces. “Pay attention.”
This, he knew, was unlike her. She usually had an answer for everything, even the things he hadn’t thought to ask. Last summer she had explained childbirth to him in horrifying detail when his sister had been born. All he had wanted to know was why his mother had to be in the hospital to have the baby. Why couldn’t she just do it in the bathroom or the bedroom like she did everything else that he wasn’t allowed to watch.
“Are you going to do it in the hospital?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll have to think about what I want.”
“You should want to not die.”
“Nobody wants to die.”
But he wasn’t sure that was true. When Kaycee Johnson’s father shot himself in the attic on Christmas Day his parents had said he must have wanted to die.
“Your friend’s father was confused,” she reminded him. “He confused not wanting to live with wanting to die. Your move.”
He jumped one of her men and swooped it from the board. “Didn’t see that coming, did you?”
“It’s the long game that counts.” She jumped two of his men, gathering them up as she did so, and landed in his back row. “King me.”
“Damn.” It was the only time he was allowed to use the word. Not that anyone went crazy when he said it, not like his best friend Carter’s mother who had slapped Carter pretty hard when she heard him say the damn cat had peed in his shoe again. When he and Gran played checkers, no one seemed to mind.
He topped her piece and was surprised he felt a bit magnanimous about it (a word he learned when she thanked the officer for the parking ticket he was sticking on her windshield). “There you go,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” and they both looked up and caught each other’s eye. He liked the way the fine lines drew themselves along her temples when she smiled.
“But don’t you have things you still want to do?”
“Well, sure I do,” she said. She drew back her shoulders. “I still have time.”
He wouldn’t ask how much. “How much time?”
“Nobody knows, maybe a year, maybe more.”
A year was a very long time.
“What about you,” she said. “What do you want to do? You have a long time ahead of you. Might as well figure it out.”
He stared at the board. One of his pieces was ripe for her King. He slid it a square away, knowing the chase was on.
She folded her hands in her lap. “So, what kinds of things do you have to do?”
“I’m going to invent a flying car.”
“I think that’s been done.”
He looked up, surprised to learn this. “I don’t know, Gran. Looks like all of the big things have already been invented.”
She tapped her King and then slid it to trail his piece. “Think of the small things.”
“I want to learn to walk on my hands.”
“Oh, that’s a good one.”
He moved his piece further from her King, knowing it was useless. She changed course, which threw him off a bit, unsure of what she had set her sights on. He leaned over the board and took a minute to get his bearings.
“It’s just a matter of practice,” she said. “By September you’ll be walking into the first day of school on your hands.”
“You know what I can’t do, no matter how hard I practice?”
“Lick my elbow.” He spied a two-step move that might or might not require a sacrifice but would get him his own King. He moved his man.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to.” She winked at him. “You mind grabbing that bag of pretzels on the counter?” She hefted the empty bowl beside the gameboard.
“Don’t cheat, Gran. I have the board memorized.”
The kitchen counter was cluttered with the leftover lunch plates, crusty scraps of grilled cheese and a scattering of curly Fritos. Behind the plates was set an enormous array of prescription bottles all sticker-labeled in a frustrating language he couldn’t understand. He could see she had taken a thick black marker to the lids of each one. He knew the code she used by now. 1-B was one at breakfast, 1BT was one at bedtime, and so on, all labeled in her large shaky print. He wondered if they helped her stay alive, wondered if she’d be dead already if she wasn’t taking them. He found them reassuring, the proof he wanted.
Pretzel bag in hand, he popped his head around the corner and into the den. “No cheating, Gran!”
There she was, her arm bent at the elbow and lifted beside her head, her hand to the back of her neck, and her tongue—stretching. Trying.