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"Orange Buddies," short story excerpt

Friday 7/9/21

After my grandmother died, my mother said, “Heather, your big sister needs you,” which made me want to say, “wait, hold up, I’m supposed to need her more,” but I got what my mother was driving at.

Laura was what I was told to call “sensitive.” I wanted to move on. We still had three grandparents left. These things can’t be helped.

I didn’t tell my mother what I thought because she might have decided I didn’t love my grandmother, which was not true, I was pretty sure. And I felt shame before she even knew what I was thinking, so I figured the shame I’d feel after would just about kill me. In the event of my shame-based demise, it seemed reasonable that my grandmother would be the one taking care of me, wherever we were, and we weren’t super close. I wasn’t ready to see her again. A lot of one-on-one time wouldn’t prove ideal. She was also sensitive. So that’s why Laura was her favorite, not that she said it.

She talked in this funny way that reminded me of someone squeezing the air out of a dried orange. Which admittedly wasn’t something I’d heard, but I just knew it would be like my grandmother’s voice. She ate a lot of oranges that seemed like they weren’t fresh, that you could tap on and they’d make a noise like wood—pine wood, not oak wood—or a callous on the top of your toe when you patted it against the ground.

Each time she ate an orange, she asked if I wanted one. I think she believed we were orange buddies, after a fashion, because I’d study her pretty intently, trying to understand what the appeal was, as she got a knife under the skin. She had to force it with what I assumed was all of the strength left to her in life—and then out came this small hiss. She talked that way, too. To me, anyway. I’d reply, “no thanks.”

After she died, I got up early as if it were Christmas morning every Saturday and Sunday—for probably a whole month—and went downstairs, where I’d fix myself a glass of orange juice, and call Laura’s cell phone as I sat at the kitchen table, my little legs dangling. That’s how I thought of them, as I watched my feet go back and forth half a foot above the floor.

I pursed my lips, pretending I was this dried up old orange myself, make a hissing sound, provide a cough or two, then I’d say something into Laura’s voicemail like, “This is Gram, I miss you more than I miss anyone, we were both so sensitive, I want you to live a long life and be happy and then come and go to a dance with me. They have amazing dances here, you should see them, but not for a long, long time. You can bring me an orange because I can’t get those in heaven strangely enough.”

Then I’d hang up and go back to bed. Laura would be smiling a couple hours later at breakfast, and all chatty, and though I was only seven, I thought, “Is she fucking with me?”

I expected my dad to say, “What have you done?” when he found out, which is what my dad said when he knew exactly what you’d done and how bad it was, with my mother’s version of that line of inquiry being, “How could you?”

My dad’s question was the one you had to answer. That was hard. But my mom’s was the one you couldn’t say anything to, which was somehow harder.

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