She pressed the damp towel against grandmother’s face, the wetness of the fabric blending with the clamminess of the old woman’s withered visage. If her eyes were open the granddaughter could not tell, for they were housed beneath layers upon layers of wrinkles covered in a thin film of crust. They always looked like that, the eyes of those on the brink of death. But she was breathing, and as long as she did, the granddaughter would remain. She was humming quietly to her when the Doctor came in. This did not cause her humming to stop, nor her focus to shift from the women before her on the white sheet. Assuming this was a sign the young girl had not heard her presence, the Doctor closed the door to the small hospital room grandmother had been staying in for the past four months. The sound of the door slamming reverberated across the expanse of the too small room and still, the granddaughter remained unmoved. The Doctor noted that despite the girl’s small stature, she looked larger than life in the miniscule room. One final attempt to grab the attention of the young girl was made by way of clearing throat. The Doctor elicited a guttural sound from within her neck, lips remaining pursed and stiff as a piece of chewy candy left uneaten for far too long. The Doctor, like the candy, seemed to have lost her chew, her sweetness—that much was clear as, when the granddaughter still remained unresponsive, she resorted to an abrupt and aggressive “Hello.” Unfazed by the woman’s typical unfamiliarity with being ignored, the granddaughter responded with a similar greeting. However, hers was much calmer in comparison. Most family members of patients would jump to the Doctor’s feet, begging for good news to be released. After all, there were only so many reasons someone of such acclaim would enter such a space. But not this one. She knew there was no good news to come, there never was. The only news delivered by the Doctor could revolve around grandmother’s inevitable death, or-- “How much more time do you need, dear?” “Enough,” the granddaughter joked without laughing, turning to pad grandmother’s right cheek, showering it with as much love and gentleness as she could. “You only have so much time left, dear—” “I am very aware. Thank you, Doctor Celeste.” “Now you know I hate to say this dear, but I have to because of protocol… your poor grandmother's soul will be forced to go to hell if you don’t pay to host her. And with a number like hers, who knows how long she’ll have to wait there until it’s her turn to go to heaven,” the Doctor said, making her way to the front of grandmother’s hospital bed to look over paperwork. “I am very aware, thank you doctor Celeste,” the granddaughter grinded her teeth behind her closed-lipped smile. She wondered, if you hated to say anything, why say it at all? “No I know. I know you’re aware, I know. It’s just, there is only so much time we can give you for the soul transference. Besides, if you are struggling to find funds for the ritual alone, how do you expect to continue to pay for your grandmother’s continued stay in our facility? We can only keep her alive for so long, you need to supply proof soon that you will compensate us for our—” “I am very aware, thank you—” “Or else we will have no choice but to pull the plug,” the Doctor continued. Still attempting, however, to maintain her role as a Doctor, she followed her comment with a “dear.” It felt like a slap in the face, so much so that, for the first time since the Doctor had entered the room, the granddaughter turned toward her. The granddaughter repeated what had become an infamous phrase these past few months. “I am very aware, thank you, Doctor Celeste,” but this time, her voice trembled. Not in sadness or fear for grandmother's demise, but out of frustration and anger. Her time with grandmother was already limited and the Doctor was taking it all up. “It’s a million dollars, you know?” the Doctor added, leaning on the foot of grandmother’s hospital bed. “I am very aware,” intentionally the granddaughter had omitted the mock pleasantry, and with equal intention, the Doctor continued. “Maybe there is someone else who could host her for you? Perhaps a family member? I am sure they’re aware of the benefits; a boost in their own number in the line to heaven. Surely that’s enough to entice everyone. And besides, what else is family for?” The Doctor smiled—no, not smiled, grinned. Smile implied happiness, glee, and surely there was no way to feel such emotions in a room where two communicate verbally and one through a heart monitor. This time the Doctor did not give the granddaughter room to respond. Instead she continued on, explaining the options the young girl was far too familiar with, for she had spent hours upon hours learning it all. But all roads lead to the same result: she was too damn broke to do anything about anything. Even so, the Doctor continued on and on, listing what she knew the granddaughter knew over and over again in that deep voice of hers. The low pitch scratched against the girl’s ears, twisted and coiled with the consistency of black tar into her ear drums, and finally rested in the hollow space between mind and skull. It would shock none that she snapped. Wet towel squeezed tightly in hand, the liquids previously hidden within the plushness of its making now oozing between the gaps of her clamped fist, the granddaughter swiveled around more quickly than the Doctor could register. Face to face, the young girl, so much smaller than the doctor in so many aspects, raised her one emptied hand towards the reaper's neck. The Doctor shrieked and stumbled back onto the ground. She hadn’t even realized that the young girl’s hand couldn’t reach her throat even if she tried, hadn’t realized that the young girl was very much aware of this, hadn’t realized that that was the whole point. They could talk all they want, but at the end of the day, they were always scared of folks like her, and that’s exactly why they did what they did. The granddaughter towered over the woman’s elongated body as it sprawled across the floor. The only thing she could think of was that this scene was just so White: under the blur of her damp eyes the Doctor’s lab coat blended perfectly with the parchment-colored floor, the floor with the paleness of the doctor’s skeletal hands, the hands with the stark white of eyes meeting dilated pupils, and the eyes with the bright teeth gnawing her lips. Grandmother always seemed to be taking her last breaths and yet, even on her death bed, she possessed a skill the Doctor would never have: invisibility of what lurked beneath. For her rich skin was too deep to view the blue of veins, while the pulse of life was visible through the transparency of the Doctor's covering, her opaque skin doing nothing to hide the beacons of animation. The granddaughter wondered if when the Doctor was in the nude, a lover could see the beating of her heart. Wondered if she had a heart at all. “I will have the money soon, Doctor Celeste. I pray you have enough kindness within you to keep my dear grandmother alive for a while longer. I will see you tomorrow; it seems my visiting hours are over.” Who she prayed to was uncertain, for what god would allow such atrocities to be done, would allow the pure of heart to descend to fiery pits if they lacked compensation to be held within his bosom. It didn’t matter, she thought, because what other force could help her in this world besides the one who made it. Praying was all she could do. She kissed her grandmother on the forehead, the warmest part of the woman’s body, and walked out of the room. Nothing obstructed her throat, but still, the Doctor struggled to breathe.
Nasira (Pomona '23) is a Black author focused on creating stories centered around Black characters and experiences.