My grandmother lived in a two bedroom apartment above a Chinese food restaurant in the middle of downtown. The restaurant used to be a laundromat, and before that was a convenience store, and before that a custom frame shop, and before that sold glass figurines smuggled into the country in hollowed-out Bibles. Her apartment smelled like a mixture of everything that had gone before, an aromatic shadow of the existences that had passed like waves beneath it, sesame oil and glue and fire and cleaning supplies and oregano.
(The smell of oregano was my grandmother’s.)
She had begun renting the apartment when she was first married to my grandfather, a stern man with a thick black beard who was always growling and reminding me of the rules and sneaking me butterscotch candies under the table before dinner. He was a good man, and she loved him, but he died when I was eight years old.
She kept the apartment when she had my mother, the eldest of her children, because, she said, it had two bedrooms, so why move?
She kept the apartment when she had my aunt Becca, the next child, because, she said, the room is big enough for two beds, and they are both girls, so why move?
She kept the apartment when she had my uncle Bastion, her next child, because, she said, there can be a curtain in the room to divide the boys and the girls, so why move?
She kept the apartment through the next five children. Eight in all were born and grew up in that stuffy little apartment that smelled like bleach and soy sauce. Eight children turned into teenagers in that tiny second bedroom, crammed into corners and bunkbeds, climbing over each other to get up in the mornings and to go to bed at night. Eventually the boys moved out and made a camp in the corner of the living room and lived there, and still, my grandmother wouldn’t move.
She said it was because it was rent controlled and there was no way she would ever get a deal that good in downtown if she left.
I was forty-two years old, with grown children of my own, when I discovered the extra room.
I was visiting without my children, who live far away, which is a bit of a custom of mine ever since my mother died. My grandmother is a kind, careful, absentminded woman, the kind of woman who will always offer you tea and then forget she put the kettle on until the fire alarm reminds her. She and I were always close, and some of my earliest memories are of sitting in her lap, staring crosseyed at the walls, seeing shapes and making up stories to go along with the shapes. Of course if we blinked we would lose the shapes, but we never lost the stories. I visit her about once a week, to make sure she is doing well and hasn’t set anything on fire and to drink tea and weave tales with her.
I was sitting in the green plush chair in her living room next to her in the lavender paisley one. She was gazing intently at the ceiling, where she’d seen an old timey pilot with goggles and a leather cap having a dogfight with a giant eagle over a birthday cake. She was telling me a story about the eagle having stolen the birthday cake from the pilot when she suddenly sat up rigidly, stared straight ahead for a few seconds, and then shook her head and brought her hand to her face.
“Oh, I’m, I’m quite sorry dear,” she said, “I believe I’m in one of my fits.”
Doctors had never quite been able to figure out what caused her “fits,” though they were certain she was not epileptic. Migraines had been considered, but no medication could keep them in check. They weren’t painful, she said, but put her out of sorts. I made sure she would be alright, and I believed her when she said she would. I brought her a glass of water and helped her to her bedroom where I assumed she would lie down and sleep it off.
When I left I locked her apartment door behind me and stepped into the hall. I was halfway to the stairs before I remembered I had left my reading glasses on her coffee table. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should just wait and get them later, when I remembered that my semi-annual copy of Popular Engineering would be delivered that evening and I had hoped to read the article on nanobot DNA transference before bed. Convinced I could be quiet enough to not disturb her, I went back to the apartment, creaked the door open as silently as I could, and made my way toward the living room.
Her bedroom sits at the end of a short hallway off the main hallway that leads to the living areas. In that hallway is also the door to a guest washroom. I was preparing to sneak past when I noticed a quivering glow coming from the wall across from the bathroom door. What’s more, the glow seemed to be coming from underneath the wall, as if there was a crack and something was glowing on the other side.
I became instantly and deeply concerned. Old, shoddy wiring coupled with my grandmother’s inability to remember the last time she lit a fire was a danger that terrified me constantly and I ran down the hallway to see if I could find the source of the light. I opened her bedroom door but she wasn’t in her room, her bed made as if she hadn’t gone in at all. I walked in and called for her, but heard nothing in return.
I left and shut the door and went into the bathroom next to it, but still, it was empty. I left that room, too, and closed the door, and faced the wall the light was shining through. It wasn’t coming from anywhere. There was no crack, no doorway. I reached out my hand to touch the wall to determine if it was hot, and as soon as my fingers touched plaster, a door appeared, and a knob, and the pulsing light streamed under the doorway, and I took a breath and opened it.
My grandmother stood at the bottom of a large slide, several feet across, covered in bright peeling paint and leading into a sky of dark stormy clouds infinitely high. The room was filled with trees, the floor was dirt, and I blinked. Hard. Twice.
She was helping a young woman stand up. She had fallen off the slide when she arrived at the bottom and was shaky, covered in dirt and twigs. Her face was pale and she looked wildly around, first at my grandmother, then at me. It was then that my grandmother saw that I was there.
“Come here, dear, and help this poor woman. We need to make her some tea.”
Several minutes later we were settled in the living room, me in the plush green chair, my grandmother in the lavender paisley one, the new girl, who couldn’t have been older than 22 or 23, sitting in the pale pink one, sipping earl grey tea with a little bit of creamer, no sugar, while I stared at her and held my steaming cup until it burned because I had forgotten how to drink.
“Now, dear,” my grandmother said, addressing the stranger, “is that better?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, but she didn’t look better. She was still pale, though a bit of red had returned to her nose where the steam from the cup was warming it. “Thank you, ma’am.”
My grandmother turned back to me. “You can go if you’d like, sweetheart, no more need for you here.” She smiled as if I had caught her eating an extra chocolate chip cookie instead of storing an alternate dimension in her apartment.
“I think I’d rather stay and figure out what’s going on.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself, dear.” To the stranger she said, “And you, sweetie. What’s your name?”
“Emma,” she said.
“Emma. And what can you remember?”
“I don’t know. Something about…a fire, I think? A loud noise. A big man.”
My grandmother just nodded.
“Where…where am I?” the girl finally asked. She seemed to be coming back to herself. “Is…is this…am I dead?”
“Dead?” My grandmother laughed, but it was kind and not mocking. “Of course not, dear. There is no such thing.”
“So where am I?”
“But…but you said I’m not dead.”
“Well of course you aren’t. You aren’t in the same place where you used to be, and you won’t forever be in the place where you are now, but you certainly aren’t dead. Do you feel sad?”
“Then you aren’t dead.”
We sat in silence for some time. I had so many questions but felt intrusive even being there. I wished I could leave without having to get up and make my presence remembered. Finally my grandmother stood and looked at me.
“Now, dear, I really must insist you leave. I love you, as you know, but I must get this young woman situated. She will need a job and a place to stay and my work is, well, it’s not nanoengineering but it’s difficult in its own right and I prefer to do it alone.” She smiled at me and I stood and hugged her and felt suddenly a chasm of distance between us, as if the woman I’d known my whole life was gone, but without the catharsis of a funeral.
I didn’t realize I had been staring at her for far too long, and the words, the question finally burst out of me. “Are…are you an angel?” I whispered.
She smiled. “Of course, dear. Now go on. I will see you next Saturday. I’ll make biscuits.” And she shuffled me to the front hall, gave me a kiss on the cheek, nudged me through the door, and closed and locked it behind me.