I never told anyone this, but I’ll tell you. I was hunched over the stiff cotton sheets of my grandfather’s hospital bed trying not to tug and tangle on the tubes spider-webbing his body when he took my hand. It was calloused from the wear-and-tear he had lived into them, but there was far less of his hands than before, mostly skeleton now.

“Leslie,” he said, and it made my chest tighten, gasping in the scent of sanitizer and sadness. My parents plucked my name from the middle of his own, carving Leslie from where it lived, between James and Johnson. It was an echo then, when he spoke it to me: we both were that name. “Thank you for coming,” he said, a whisper, “it means so much.”

I was a child. I did not know how to respond to adult things like, thank-yous and death, hospitals and the choking of sanitizer currently swirling in my throat. I had two options: cry, which I never did, not until his funeral, or laugh. So, I laughed. The guilt blossomed. A monster, burning my stomach and chest. His hand tightened in my own, an echo of the handshake game we used to play until the bones of hand shifted and ground against each other.

“I’m serious,” he said. I wanted to say that I knew. I wanted to say that it wasn’t me laughing. It was the hospital and confusion and the way everything was so muted here, the blinds blocking out the summer sun. Nothing alive here existed but my laughter, and even that was hollow. Before I could respond, my family came back, lunch-tray clad, and my grandfather squeezed my hand one last time before dropping it onto the sheets. I moved to sit at the window, staring out through the blinds, dreaming of what my grandfather laughter has used to be, how it would shatter these windows with its boom, sending the hospital tumbling down.

My grandfather used to grow sunflowers. I found myself looking for yellow out the blind-slated window. We’d lay our heads beneath the stalks that stretched above the fence line, reaching for the sky, and our heads against the damp soil. When they blossomed, we’d watch them sway back and forth in the afternoon winds. Sometimes, if we were lucky, they’d bent towards us, for just one moment. They’d be yellow stars, close enough to touch, in the daylight.

He’d turn to me and ask, “Did I ever tell you about what waits at the top of the mountain over there?”

I’d shake my head. I didn’t know anything about anything when we were beneath the sunflowers. That was the rule.

He’d grin, then, and I’d think about how the gap between my front two teeth was a mirror for his own.

“There, at the top of the mountain, is empty air.” He would say, but he’d be grinning.

“Oh yeah?” I’d ask, sinking my fingers into the soil.

“Up there, you can see the roads trace lines between the rooftops and trees. One day we’ll go up there and I’ll show you where all those roads have taken me.” He’d be rubbing his fingers over the Saint Christopher necklace he always had tucked against his chest.

My grandfather used to ask my brother riddles in his favorite restaurant with all those piñatas hanging from the ceiling. “What’s the capital of Kentucky? Louisville or Louisville?” Pronouncing them “Loo-is-vil or Loo-ee-vil”. 

“Frankfort,” my brother would say.

He’d act surprised when my brother got it right.

I used to laugh while he did, thinking how silly it was that he didn’t know, all of us had the answer memorized long ago. Now, I think he knew and he laughed anyway until the walls shook and every eye in the restaurant found our table. It used to embarrass me. He had a belly laugh, and a quick one at that. There wasn’t a restaurant in town that didn’t have the aftermath of his laughter etched into the walls. Now, in this hospital full of his heartbeat, I’d give anything to hear it again.

My grandfather used to cannon ball into the middle of the pool in his back yard. I read once, Saturn would float if there was a swimming pool big enough for it to fit inside. I thought about that when he’d surface, lie face up in the middle of the pool, drifting on the water. My grandfather used to turn to me after I’d been staring for far too long, sun pinking the tip of his nose. He’d beckon, gravitational. My brother and I would go running, trying to make a splash bigger than our grandfather’s and failing every time.

He used to call my flip flops slippers. Used to do a lot of things. Until lying beneath sunflowers became lying beside him on a hospital bed, careful not to tug on the wires snaking from his wrists. Until he was wrapping his arms around a plastic tub, puking and curled over it like the cannonballs he used to tuck himself into as he soared into the water. Until he shrank, and his bones hollowed.

He used to sneak out of the house between chemotherapy sessions, when my grandmother wasn’t looking. He’d stand on the side of the house in the pink of morning and smoke cigars, leaning against the wood fence he’d stained the summer before. I used to think she didn’t know. Now, watching her pull forbidden snacks from her purse, I think she let him have this. It was a diagnosis with no chance for a cure. What was a cigar on a Sunday morning and apple pie with a slice of cheese every once in a while?

My family and I snuck pizza into his hospital room on Super Bowl Sunday. The nurses left napkins by the door and added their bets to the whiteboard in his room with fading markers. All of us filled the room with laughter, and pretended not to notice the absence of his.  He pulled my brother close and whispered riddles to him between rasps. His laughter was softer when my brother finally answered right. Like a sigh, the room quieted. We all had been waiting for it.

My grandmother moved him home. We bought thin crust pizza and apple pie. I sat on the edge of his bed in my softball uniform caked in dirt and tried not to look at the sunflowers outside, how they bent towards the ground now, the end of summer. He’d been sick. There was no one to take care of them. He grabbed my hand, but I couldn’t do it. I left, going out the back door and through the wooden gate to the base of the mountain.

“Where are you going?” My brother asked.

“To the top,” I pointed. He nodded and, without a word, fell into step with me. In my softball cleats, we climbed to the top and took a picture of his empty air. We came back down and both of us crammed ourselves in the tiny bed in the middle of the living room while my grandfather traced all the lines of the road as best he could, telling us in whispers where they had taken him. “This one we took to get to the hospital the day you were born. This one goes all the way to California, if you know where to turn. This one will take you back home.”

At his wake, I walked around with my shoulders tense and tried to fill the silence with something else. Music. Chatter. Anything.

 “It’s funny,” my grandma said, sitting beside me at the table beneath the porch my grandfather built. “I keep waiting to hear him laugh.”

I grabbed her hand and both of us laughed while she wiped tears away. “Me, too,” I said.

My grandfather used to grow sunflowers ten feet tall. The day he died, I cut them down. My grandmother stood on the edge of the cool decking, her pink toenail polish a snag against the tan out of the corner of my eye, while I took the garden sheers to their thick and woody stems. She pulled them from my hand when it was all over, gathered the flowers into her arms. I followed her inside while she made a vase, full of water, and slid them inside one by one.

“I couldn’t watch them die,” I said, watching her trim them up. I couldn’t watch Saturn drown again.

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Addison Rizer is a junior at Arizona State University studying English while pursuing a certificate in LGBT Studies and Writing. She is interning on literary magazine, Superstition Review, as an interview editor. She plans on going into editing after graduation.


Editor: L. Naisula
Graphic Design: Shompole, N.L.
Original Image: Kike Algarra