By Olivia Ferrucci
  Eighteen years have passed and here I sit, yellow light slipping through the supple curtains, my mind numb from utter exhaustion. It is November fourteenth. My grandmother needs to take three pills tonight; two resembling tiny yellow lemons and one sour like children’s candy. I cannot forget. But here I am, still upon a windowsill and fogging up the thick, frostbitten glass. The bags under my eyes are sinking, lower and lower.
  I very much live for two people- each morning when I awaken, I slather jam on toasted rye bread for my grandmother and myself. She tells me about the life she remembers and the dreams she doesn’t as I help her shower, and we depart only after I place the two round pills in her palm. My grandmother’s memory is the Hope Diamond, but she is a mere pickpocketer. During my study hall, I rotate between scribbled grocery lists and calculus homework. The afternoon passes like lethargic molasses, but I return home eventually. Once more, the cycle begins.

  Passion is the sole bond that ties my family together. We identify each other not through eye color, height, or even surname, but the energy we put behind our lives and pursuits. At the age of eight, my mother became enamored with language. She said words filled her up in a way nourishment never could, only increasing her hunger to learn and learn and learn. Spanish was first- then came English, French, and Italian. Now, my mother devours words every day as an au pair. She slips between countries as most do with towns, always learning. Always consuming.
  Under my breath lie the words I have written with care. Though I am eighteen years old, I have only discovered my passions in the midst of high school. Debate ignites me in a way I cannot explain- it is the only time in which I can fight back, give my two cents, and be praised for it. My grandmother listens as I recite my speeches, always offering accolades. She worked in marketing for forty-three years, never stopping to hear the world’s slow hum that holds so many people captive in their routines. Without a single complaint, my grandmother worked a full-time job and raised three children all by herself. I once asked her how she did it, how she sacrificed herself to make ends meet. She replied that she could not bear to see the fear in her children’s eyes. And just like that, my grandmother bled.

  I have been Etta Reyes for as long as I can remember, yet that name means less and less to me as the days become shorter with winter’s heavy breath. My mother and father met as “At Last” blared in the background of a sleazy jazz bar. I suppose it stuck, because they never even came up with a boy’s name- I was always Etta, always have been. They hardly speak now. Their careers take them to separate ends of the globe, and we all pretend it is distance that divides them rather than a lack of love. It was not always this way, though. I see it in the pictures. I see it in the crinkles under my grandmother’s eyes when she speaks of their early days. She says my father traded in his car so he could buy my mother a ring. They would’ve gone to the ends of the world for each other, but now they do that anyways, and not for the sake of romance. When my mother comes home for a few days each month, I see the fatigue in her arms as she washes the dishes. I see the way my father gazes at other women, even if they are as young as I am. And so my parents’ paths do not collide. The only time they are home at the same time is the holidays. My mother and father are like the sun and the moon. Always spinning, but never quite reaching each other. Stuck on this same path. I cannot orbit like this- cannot become afraid to stop circling, fearful to start loving.

Looking Back
  A girl named Ana walks home every afternoon with her head held high. We met in debate, and now she is the closest thing I have to a friend. Ana goes to parties and laughs and smiles. I watch the way her eyes shift when she knows what she wants. I watch her succeed because she can, and I wish I knew how to do the same. At last year’s state debate tournament, Ana rolled her neck and glided through the thick blue curtains to the stage. Her argument spilled out of her mouth like sweet lemonade and I found myself mesmerized by her sheer presence. There is a glimmer in Ana’s eyes when she revels over admissions and dorm rooms. She talks about going to Stanford or maybe Brown, if she feels like it. Everyone wants her, she says.
  Last year, I saw Ana crying as she walked home. Her head wasn’t tilted to the sky, but sagging far beneath the clouds. Her mother had been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. We talked, and she said her mother would be fine, and I said I know. But now, Ana’s mom stays in the hospital and I’m not sure Ana will get to go to college at all.
  Before our teacher, Ms. Catana, arrives, the debate kids talk for a few minutes about what we’ll be doing next year and our dreams. A boy named Eli babbles about working hard to buy a Mustang, and a freshman shares her hopes of going into fashion design. Ana talks about taking a train to California and never looking back. I don’t say anything at all.

My Grandmother and the Mountains
  My grandmother often talks about her friend Eliza. She relays grand stories of tiptoeing through the open city and breaking hearts, life shining through her dull eyes. She´s so happy, my grandmother says, living by the wildflowers with three cats in a small cottage. So happy. My grandmother keeps the telephone on her nightstand just in case her friend calls.  She murmurs that Eliza is just busy, up there in the mountains. No reception. One of these days, she will make her way up to the mountains, too. She will live with the cats and the sunflowers and drink lemonade with her best friend. I nod, and nod, and turn the corners of my mouth decidedly up. Eliza passed away of a stroke three years ago. She will call, my grandmother says.

The Hurricane’s Eye
  I am a meteor, hailing from the sky and crumbling to my own end. Dust trickles from my strong legs, and I can feel the impact already. I am about to hit the earth. The grass is springing from the dirt, and cherry blossoms are dancing throughout the warm air. My shoes feel light, as though I could find myself above the ground at any given moment. Mama is so proud of me because I made it into the national debate division. Now, me and some of the other debate kids get to go to a big tournament in Boston for a few days and perform for a thousand people. Before I leave, I kiss my grandmother on her forehead and she just stares ahead. Numb. Grandma, please. Don’t be mad. But she says nothing.
   The next two days are a blur, full of meaningless small talk and hotel room rehearsals. I have been writing my speech on animal rights for several months now, and the words fall out of my mouth as I practice one by one like well-oiled machine parts. Tonight’s the night. My team is on its way to Emerson College, where speech and debate are the favorite children of extracurriculars. I look down the whole way, focused on my soft black shoes, tattered and worn from my mother’s footsteps. Ana and Eli are chattering nervously as Ms. Catana scribbles furiously into her small black notebook. When we arrive, the four of us make our way to the auditorium where the competition will be happening. A wide, sturdy door extends itself, and oh. The auditorium is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Sprawling and luxurious, glittering paintings line the endless walls. My neck twists up and the ornate, gilded patterns coating the deep red ceiling dance before me. Each luminous bulb spins a vortex of white light onto the matte stage and I am silent. I tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear and am immediately swept back into the mad storm of preparation.
  “Are you ready?” Eli asks, two hours of hairspray and heartbeats later. I nod, not quite sure of my answer. We stand just beyond the rippling maroon curtain that shields us from more than a thousand eager judges and audience members. My heart rattles in its cage but I do not, will not, allow the tremors to show. Before I know it, the names ‘Etta Reyes’ and ‘Michael Cristino’ tremble through the loudspeakers and I am gliding towards the podium. The faces are a mosaic of smiling strangers, all warped by the bright light cascading from above. And suddenly, I am here. The auditorium disappears, and it is just me and the tall boy staring me head on. I stare back. On some formality, he gets to speak first. I listen as Michael divulges the explicit nuances of how animal testing has allowed for scientific progression, and why we lack alternatives. My pen carves memorized statistics and evidence onto the lined paper placed upon the podium. The watch clicks and it is my time. I feel countless eyes steadying on me but I do not flinch. Without hesitation, I launch into a calculated monologue. The world slows as I speak, and I feel it coursing through me. Even in this alternate universe in which only my voice exists, I can hear Michael gulp. My voice softens as I finish and a thousand roars fill my ears.
  My eyes adjust to the sheer radiance of the sunlight peeking through the transparent curtains of the hotel room. Groggily, I turn to my side and face the wooden nightstand. Just behind the towering golden trophy engraved with my name lies a ringing cell phone.
  “Hello?” I mumble. The panicked voice of my mother rings through, and I can hear tears even through the miles of telephone lines connecting us. And then the rain comes. Etta, your grandmother has had a stroke. Come. Come now.

When a meteorite enters the Earth’s atmosphere, preparing to crash, it burns up and creates a streak of light known as a shooting star.
I have crashed.
My fault. Everything.
Who was I to act upon self-interest?
Who was I to prioritize myself?
She is alive, but that isn’t the point. I sit here, in this white hospital room drained of life, as my shoulders crumble under the weight of a thousand apologies.

  Dementia is a funny thing. One day, you can recall each string you have spun and every page you have turned. The next, you aren’t sure if your middle name is Lila or Lois and did you forget to turn the oven off? Today is one of my grandmother’s good days. When I arrived home from school, she told me with pride that she had eaten two meals and even watched the television for a bit. I smile, nod, move to the kitchen so I can prepare her afternoon pills and review what assignments I need to do tonight. I am pouring ice water from a cracked blue pitcher when my grandma’s thin voice rings through the air.
  “Have I taken my pills yet?” Humming, I murmur a slight “no” and stir the shattered white pill into the glass. I am making my way to the kitchen table when the door comes into my view. It is unlocked, and I remember. I remember head down, earbuds in, tromping through the crosswalk just after last period. My eyes shifted left for just a second, but it was enough. My grandmother stood like a ghost in her bathrobe, bare feet on the sidewalk’s edge. Through some odd miracle, just one small Honda was buzzing along the opposite lane. I gripped her from behind, and a frustrated cry broke the silence. My grandmother’s eyes landed on me, wild and fearful. We walked home in silence until I saw the blue door of our home left slightly ajar of my own accord.
  The television depicts old age as a send-off. When your loved one reaches the magical age of seventy-two, or perhaps eighty-four, you are expected to ship them off to a retirement center: a holding place where they can be taken care of by someone who is not you. Occasionally, as I watch my grandmother write down names and addresses and everything she doesn’t want to forget, I think about dementia. I wonder how awful it must be to question whether you will wake up tomorrow with a sense of self. How can I send this woman who is so afraid of forgetting to a place where there are no means of remembering?

Russian Dolls
  The women in my family are Russian dolls. Each of us holds the stories that came before ourselves, encapsulating every struggle and triumph within our lineage. Inside of me lies the fear of not going to college. It is burdensome and omnipresent, lingering like the stale odor of a cigar. My grandmother tells me that she used to weep by her window as she imagined going off to college. Now, I am not sure if I will receive the opportunity either. If I were to pack up and simply vanish, what kind of ghost would my grandmother become? What kind of ghost would I become? I have devoted my entire life to living for two people. I have forgotten how to be just one. These dolls inside of me are starting to get heavy, and I can feel my skin stretching from the inside out. I cannot bear to see my grandmother crack, so I just keep staying. I keep staying.

   She is in the hospital again. Low white blood cell count, they say. We need her to stay overnight. And here I am once again, crumpled in surrender within the means of a flimsy plastic chair. I rest my head against the wall and inhale deeply. The ticking of heart monitors plays like a record in the background, but I cannot find it in me to focus on that. Here I am once more, focused on self-interest. I roll the thick paper between my fingertips, not caring to look down. Between the embellished phrasing, the staple details, and the announcement itself, lie those four words.
  Congratulations! You’ve been accepted.
  I always wanted to go to law school, but never like this. Not by choosing myself over another. My parents are on their way home, but for now it is just me, my grandmother, and this damn piece of paper. Before I can reach for my phone to see if my mother has landed, my grandmother stirs from under the thin blue sheets.
“Grandmother? Are you awake?” Her face softens. These days, she is not remembering me as she used to. I rush to her side, resting my hand on hers. Her eyes land on the paper now touching her pale hand, and an eyebrow raises in question. I lick my lips.
“I was accepted to Columbia,” A blank stare meets mine as she struggles to understand.
“The school, grandma. For law. We talked about it a couple of months ago when I applied.” I can’t do this. I walk out of the room and make my way to the nearest window down the hallway. The sun has just dipped under the horizon, leaving a trail of soft blue stars to follow like small raindrops. The cosmic wasteland does not reach me in this narrow hospital hallway; I am very much grounded.

  I am a rose. No longer shall I bleed from my own thorns, however. It is June 1st and I am perched upon the windowsill, thinking about the months to come and what they hold for me. My parents have moved back home for a bit to care for my grandmother. She has her good days. In August, I will move to New York and follow my passion in a way my grandmother never could. She is proud of me. I am proud of me, too. I spent so many years letting roots that did not belong to me intertwine, entangling me, choking me, but now I am allowing myself to breathe. And yes. The rain will keep falling. Her memory may flatline, and this rose garden may not prosper, but no person can survive without rain. Last week, my grandmother told me that she has found herself through me. Though she herself may be on the cliff’s edge, she knows I can grapple the mountain for her. I can go to college and pursue my dreams in her honor and we will be the reddest roses we know. We will.


  1. your words really paint a picture, olivia. some of the best writing i've seen in a while. the russian dolls metaphor was so good!!!! this is the type of piece you continue to think about way after you read it.

  2. This is so lovely yes yes yes!

  3. "She says my father traded in his car so he could buy my mother a ring. They would’ve gone to the ends of the world for each other, but now they do that anyways, and not for the sake of romance." this breaks my heart

  4. Absolutely beautiful, and so incredibly visual, too. The photos accent the stories really well.

  5. This is so beautiful, please write novels so I can buy them all and hold them dear to me. you are so talented !