Between them, my mother’s parents have three surly cats, two canes, one good eye, and no living daughters. Plus me, now.
The press drones are vulturing across the street, filming in case my careful smile falls while waiting on the patio for someone to answer the bell. “World’s Last Orphan Breaks Down in Emotional Reaction,” they’ll broadcast to the ghouls who live online. I’ve learned more control than to let that happen.
Grandpa finally opens the door. He stretches his apish arm toward me, and I brace for a public hug, but his hand extends beyond and gives the cameras a one-finger salute. “Go on, kid,” he rumbles, and I turn, join him with my own two half-fists raised in scorn. Last time I was here, my skin was hairless and goose-fleshed, but my arms are almost as hairy as his now.
He accepts delivery of me from the police unit, ending the long chain of transfers. That chain began at the hospital where mom was, to mournful fanfare, The Last Parent to Die. This house is my new home, and my old home, too. I remember the smell of this place, how the smell of flowers from the greenhouse dances with the perfume of pampered cats.
And the silence. I remember that, too. Grandma breaks it. She calls from the other room. “Don’t be a stranger. Come say hi to your grandma, then.”
I limp down the hall. It’s been eight years since I saw grandma, and she aims low when she stands and tries to kiss my cheek, just gets some of my neck with her paper-dry lips. She reaches up to my face. I hold her hand there, against me. A second peck is right on target. “You’ve gotten so tall,” she says, “and rugged. Is that a beard?”
“Maybe you shrank, Grandma.”
She cackles. I’ve always been her favorite. Her only. But her favorite.
“Not unless this whole place got smaller. The cupboards are always right where I left them.” While she’s talking, Grandpa comes back from the door, leaning hard on his cane.
His face is wet, leaking from his good right eye and his bad left eye. Today, his left iris is heart-shaped, for Valentine’s Day, even though that was a month ago. Seeing me notice the tears, he shakes his head. I don’t tell Grandma.
She smells like coffee grounds, the way she always has. Grandpa sits across the table from her, and I sit on the end. He hands me a deck of cards. “You still remember how to play?”
“Yessir. Seven rummy?”
He grunts in assent, and Grandma points a finger at me. “Don’t you let your Grandpa Jack deal. He cheats, you know. He looks at the cards.”
The cards are rough, frayed at the edges the way old things get, but the Braille markings are still easy to feel. “Grandma, you’re saying you don’t read the cards as you’re handing them over?”
“Well, of course I do! Otherwise he’s going to lie about what he’s laying down, won’t he?” We all laugh. She puts her hand near me, and I lay mine on top of it. It’s warm and pliable.
“I’ll deal. I can keep Grandpa honest. You’ll have to keep yourself honest, I guess.”
Grandma goes out her third in a row, and I deal another hand, but I can’t hold it in anymore. I stand and lean against the glass door to the greenhouse, leaving smudges.
When Mom was a child, she ran through the door, so clean it was invisible, and almost bled to death. The glass is still that clean, but butterfly stickers, peeling after decades, keep it from being invisible.
“It was just vanity that she died, wasn’t it? That’s what they told me. I still couldn’t talk her into making the transfer.”
Grandma sets down her cards and closes her eyes, shutting out the last bit of light she has. She breathes heavy, clenches her fist and runs her knuckles across her blouse, where her breasts used to be.
“You never know what’s in another person. I know what they say nowadays, that you can just copy all the bits that make us ourselves. Jack and I have never believed that. April didn’t either. It was her choice.”
“You’re not mad at her?” I sit down. This close, her sweet perfume is a faint note against the acrid coffee.
“Of course I’m mad at her, you little shit.” She slaps the table, but there’s no fire in it. It’s the anger I remember, except it’s grayed over the years. “But you chose to take your losses, too. You think Jack didn’t tell me about your dark glasses? That I don’t know what they mean about your seizures? You think I can’t hear you limping, still? Why not have those things fixed?”
Grandpa has reached across the table. He’s running his thumb up and down the sleeve of her blouse. His good eye is looking at her. The heart iris is looking at me.
“I wouldn’t feel like me,” I tell her. Uselessly. Nobody understands.
“And she would have felt like her?” Grandpa’s voice is low, aimed at me, even though he’s still looking at Grandma.
“It wasn’t her choice to deprive me. I didn’t ask for her to be my mother. She owes me sticking around.”
“So why didn’t you choose for her?”
I shrug. It’s only when the vase threatens to tip that I realize I bumped the table as I did, by habit, so Grandma would know I’d shrugged. When I was small, the table moved less. “It wasn’t my choice, either. I just thought. I thought she loved me enough.”
Grandpa rests his heavy hand on my shoulder. “She didn’t think it would be her loving you. That means it wouldn’t be the same.”
“It’s just not fair.” They’re so old they’ve forgotten how it feels to lose a parent. It’s being done right, now. You don’t get a reversal unless you agree to stick around for that kid.
I open the refrigerator. It’s full, but nothing is unwrapped. The cupboards are the same. I choose one of the prepared meals and heat it.
We go on this way for weeks. We mark the change of time when Grandpa changes his heart for an Easter egg. The stripes cross the whole eye, not just the iris.
It’s late in the morning on Easter. We’d fought, but I’d finally agreed to go to church with them.
Nobody answers when I knock on the door. I bang with my fist, and still nobody. Finally, I breach their sanctum. They’re wearing the usual pajamas. Their arms are around each other, but they’re not making breathing motions.
I slap the button on the wall to summon a medic. A few minutes later, it opens the door for itself and comes in to examine my grandparents. He’s one of the donor personalities. Medics usually are.
“Are they dead? Did I kill them?” Too? I don’t say that last word.
The medic places his fingers on their necks. He leans close over their mouths and listens. Soon, an ambulance arrives and they’re taken away. Only then does he speak.
“We’ll get them on their feet again. It’s hard when people won’t let us cure them. You should think about that when you’re deciding whether to be a heretic, like your mom. She got the idea from her parents, you know.” For a moment, I’d forgotten I was famous.
The medic is walking through the house, checking on the animals, checking the greenhouse to see how the plants are faring. I trail after him, making sure he touches nothing except what he must.
He stops and looks at me. “Their contracts are very clear. No repairs to vision. No stronger limbs or faster movement. It’s hardly surprising they’re in trouble when they insist on being half broken already. You add in the stress of having you, broken yourself, and….”
He trails off suggestively, puts his arm around me in Gesture of Comfort.
I push him away. “They were never broken. They’ve always been perfect.” I shove him hard against the wall, but medic units were first built when the machines were heavy, armed, built for combat. Built to subdue the unwilling, before people saw sense. He’s in no danger from me.
Smoky slinks in. She decides my shoe is prey and pounces on it, bites and worries the tongue in her mouth, like a dog. Like she’s always done. Carefully, I lift my good foot and kick her. She hits the wall with a crunch and stops moving.
“That wasn’t kind,” the medic tells me. He picks up Smoky, tests her limbs, makes a few adjustments, then sets her back down. He shines a laser into the cat’s right eye to reset her.
Smoky blinks, stretches herself, kneads her claws in the carpet. She yowls and swats at the medic. After a moment, she goes to play with the two other cats, surly as ever.