I've been invited to be a part of The Writer's Collection. Each week they suggest a theme and then authors of different genres put their spin on it. This is the first week I've been involved. I wrote this up as a flash fiction piece (something I put together rather quickly). If you'd like to check out how the other authors spun "Once Upon A Time", please head on over to The Writers Collection website and check them out.
My grandmother lies in her hospital bed, machines and wires hooked in places that make me cringe, fighting for her life. Watching her struggle for each breath, wheezing and gasping even with the aid of oxygen, makes me burn inside.
I reach for her hand then squeeze her cold fingers between mine, rubbing skin so thin with my thumb I’m afraid I’ll hurt her.
Grandma’s eyes flutter open and she smiles.
My mother and father jump out of their chairs and stand behind me, each placing a sweaty palm on my shoulder.
“Mom?” Dad asks, voice shaking in a way no daughter should ever hear from her father.
But Grandma doesn’t look away from me; she holds my gaze, her eyes pale blue and determined. “Do you . . . .” With her free hand, she slowly reaches for the mask covering her mouth, but doesn’t have the strength to remove the elastic bands.
“Here, let me help you,” Mom says, stepping beside me.
“I’ve got it, Mom.” I stand and help Grandma take off her mask.
Mom shouldn’t have to do any more; Dad’s been a wreck and she needs to worry about him.
“Tha—” Grandma coughs, chest rattling with whatever fluid is invading her lungs. “Thank you.”
Tears roll down my cheeks and drip from my chin as I return to my uncomfortable blue chair next to her bed. Grandma’s the strongest, most caring woman I know, and the doctors said she’d be lucky to survive the night.
Cancer is a bitch.
“Do you need a drink, Grandma?” I ask.
Dad sits on the foot of the bed and drops his bright-red face into his hands.
Mom rolls Grandma’s hospital tray toward her then stares at my father, her face as white as Grandma’s bed sheets. Dad has always been so strong, just like Grandma, always taken care of us, told us everything will be okay, we’d always be together, we’d always have our family. Now part of his family is dying, part of his foundation, his root, his childhood.
Grandma tugs at my arm with the strength of a young child. “Do you remember that story I liked to tell you when you were little?”
Turning back toward her, I nod.
“Will you tell it to me now?”
I stare out the window, out toward the shining sun, the cars driving eighty-miles per hour on the highway, watch a flock of black birds soar through the deep-blue sky, then take a shallow breath. “Once upon a time there was a young girl who loved a young man—”
My father chokes and runs out the door, releasing a howl of agony once he’s in the hall. Whispers drift into the room. Mom tells Dad to be strong for me, for Grandma, but all I hear from him in response are wails.
Words catch in my throat, my face burns, and my hands sweat. My father hates this story, but to see him react that way . . . .
“Be more courageous than your father, Helen. My life has been fulfilling, and I do not fear death.” Grandma closes her eyes and wheezes.
If it weren’t for the sounds she’s making I’d swear she’s already dead and in her coffin. Grandma’s white hair is messed up around her face, and her deep-set wrinkles do little to hide the dark blue veins under her thin veil of skin. “You don’t have to tell me the rest; the fact you remember means everything to me. You see, this is my story, Helen. I’ve been sharing it with you all these years so you would know a thing or two about your family’s history, so when you have children of your own you can share it with them, or share your own story with them.”
I gasp. “You’re the girl who fell in love with the young man in the farm field? You stole clothes and bandages from your parents to give to him? You’re the one who broke your foot chasing a chicken and was helped by the same young man five years later?”
Grandma smiles again, keeping her eyes closed. “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Your father didn’t want me to fill your head with love stories, but he’ll have a few things to tell his grandchildren someday, and so will you. I love you, Helen—”
The machines beep, a speaker announces code blue, echoing all around the sterile room. I look at Grandma, her mouth open and eyes wide, then burst into tears.
“Grandma! Someone help. Please, help her.”
A crowd of nurses rush into the room and push me toward the door. My mother and father appear beside me and wrap their arms around my shoulders.
Grandma’s gone and she’s not coming back. I don’t need a team of doctors and nurses to tell me that. Rushing from the room, I bolt for the exit. I don’t know where I’m going or how I’ll get there, but there’s one thing I’ll always remember: Grandma’s story. One day whether I’m telling my children or grandchildren, the story will always start: Once Upon A Time.