Rosa can hear the telltale rumble of the van pulling away from the entryway. Wheels snap over fallen branches, the machine lurching as it strains to make its way back onto the main road. She knows without looking that its precious cargo is sitting in neat boxes outside the door. Multicolored serums, plastic syringes, needles individually wrapped. Somewhere, there is another week’s supply of insulin that’ll go to waste. Conrad has refused to take any since his son’s death back in October. Rosa isn’t supposed to know any of this, but the vents that twist through the ceiling aren’t soundproofed. The halls throb with carried voices, tinny with cajoling or cracked with sadness, a symphony of arrivals and departures.
What if he dies? She has thought about almost nothing else in the weeks since noticing her mother’s faded disposition. At first she’d thought the weight of Albero had settled in. The southern regioni have a harsher humidity to them. She’d waited for the deepened lines on her mother’s forehead to disappear on days cool and blissful. A lathered promise that never came to fruition.
She pushes herself up from lying on the hard wooden bench near the stairs and slides her homework, a sheet with algebraic problems neatly printed on it, into its assigned blue folder. The coarse polyester blend of her pleated skirt scratches at her knees. She slips away from the entryway and stealths into the garden, holding the blue folder out in front of her like a shield. On afternoons like this, the sweet smell of clementines wafts around her, and the waning sun seeps along the paths and up to her shoulders, a warm cocoon. The home is laid out in a great big horseshoe; the entryway at one end, endless rooms down two of the three long hallways in-between, and the infirmary at the farthest end, for the sickest patients.
Despite her mother’s best efforts, she always manages to find her way into the “forbidden” areas, especially the infirmary. The sickest patients are often the liveliest. Hooked up to IVs and respirators, their minds wander. Mrs. M., when she is awake, likes to talk about her husband, whom she met as an extra on the Warner Brothers set. He’s immortalized in a sepia-toned photograph next to her bed, wearing a camelhair coat, a prim brown fedora with a matching ribbon, and a dour smile half-swallowed by his scarf, which has rows of off-kilter geese stitched onto it. “Knitted by yours truly,” Mrs. M says, smiling so Rosa can see her missing teeth. Across from her is Mr. Barron, an American expat who’s traveled to over one hundred countries and whose stories can take Rosa anywhere she wants to go.
Rosa tends to avoid the southwest corner. Michael, the ex-soldier, is given to barking directions. Two weeks ago, when Rosa passed by him, he started out of bed and yelled, “It’s the French, boys! Get down!”, startling Rosa so badly she tripped and nearly fell into Mrs. Ricci. He often yells at Ines to bring him some whiskey; usually she refuses, but Rosa’s seen her slip him some in an old quinine bottle on birthdays, Shrove Tuesday, and Christmas. Her mother says she should address anyone older than her with their proper title, but Michael refuses to be known by his rank and last name. Strange, she thinks, for someone in the military to dislike titles.
Today she is especially careful. Ever since Conrad started refusing to take his medicine, one of the aides has come to check on him every half-hour. Rosa has a warning when her mother is coming down the hall, since she’s given to humming the bars of Ave Maria as she patrols her small kingdom of the ill, but Matteo and Ines are less easily avoided. Matteo has wide hands and practiced eyes that can spot her as easily as she can insert an IV, and Ines’ voice is so shrill you can hear it even over the noise of the kitchen.
The laundry room, next to the infirmary, barely cracks open. Rosa slides the blue folder in first, momentarily thinking of discarding it there but deciding that someone will find it and she’ll have to do the sheet all over again. She sticks her head in. The coast is clear, so she squeezes through the breach. Golden, sun-baked light spills in through the large windows on Rosa’s right, puddling on the ground. She walks down the center of the long room, careful not to click her boots against the tiles, to the double doors.
The steady whirring of machines and the lower, ephemeral sigh of breath meet her. Nobody’s awake to talk with her today. She sighs and closes the door again; the returning silence erodes her patience. Too little to do here.
On a whim, she opens the door again and sees if she can spot Conrad, who lies at the other end of the hall, where the doors let out onto a walkway with a wooden awning and ivy arcing over it. She can hear a nurse murmuring behind the curtain and see the tiniest sliver of his face through their gap. Sad grooves and pockmarks worn into it, like into the cork oaks that grow on the hillside.
The warm tanginess of roasting chestnuts creeps up to the school doors, swirling in Rosa’s mouth as she bursts out the door with the other students. Across the street in the plaza, people are fixing tinsel and decorations to the red rails: purple baubles, golden bows, a huge reindeer. They almost block out the asters.
The students split into groups and pairs. Rosa is too new to have anyone to walk or lounge contentedly in the plaza with, so she meanders alone over to one of the vendors and plunks a few coins onto the counter.
“One cone, please.”
The vendor eyeballs her. “You’re short. One fifty.”
“They were fifty cents cheaper yesterday!”
“Getting near Christmas, miss. And Christmas is good for business. Those tourists over there, they’ll buy five. I might run out, you know.”
“Come on, I bought three from you last week. I’ll tell my friends to come buy some too.”
“Where are the friends then?” He’s already shoveling chestnuts into a cone, though.
She grabs it before the look of pity in his eyes goes away and he changes his mind. Returning to the gazebo and resting her arms on the rails, she watches the laborious construction of the Christmas scene.
Glittering streamers free themselves and sink to the ground; voices shout; distant guitar chords float through the air above as the lamps turn on and soak everything in yellow light. Rosa finishes the chestnuts and licks the buttery taste from her fingers, wiping them on the underside of her skirt. Folding its hem, she hears snickering and looks up; Stephane and Ben, from her math class, are standing in the entryway of the gazebo. Stephen holds a pack of cards in his hand, and sits in the center; soon, a couple others Rosa recognizes in passing follow.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Playing scopa,” Stephane says. “You know how?”
“Not really, no.” Her mother doesn’t allow “gambling games”.
“Well, if you figure it out, you can join us.”
She sits and rolls back onto her heels, sliding her backpack underneath her. The game begins with great ceremony. Packaged sweets are produced from backpacks and messenger bags. Stephen deals three cards to every player in the circle. He deals himself three also, then lays four out faceup in the middle of the circle. Rosa watches as each player lays a card down on the table, and cards accumulate on the table in front of them. Ben smirks when he takes the seven of coins from Stephane.
After the round, Stephane flips his cards over triumphantly to reveal all four sevens. Ben throws up his hands in frustration. Stephen smiles and unwraps a candy from the pile in the center.
Rosa taps Stephane on the shoulder. “I get it now,” she says. “Can I play?”
“Do you have any snacks?”
“Maybe tomorrow then.” One of the girls from Catechism rolls her eyes.
She stalks away across the plaza. A warm wind blows at the bottom of her sweater. The sun is beginning to set, but the sky is still a cool, deep sapphire. Almost no one is out on the streets outside the plaza. She walks a few blocks, the ground beneath her beginning to slope slightly. She ambles past Da Mamo, where they serve tuna and tomatoes so good they almost melt in your mouth, and the Hotel Cozza, whose glass doors that have replaced the wrought-iron and wood ones decorating most storefronts in the old quarter. A couple of streets beyond that, past the residential neighborhoods, the buildings are less well-maintained. Shadows of their former selves. Large grand windows on the outside, unshuttered and stripped of glass, peek in on cracked concrete foundations and the oleander growing jungle-like to reclaim the land. Painted plaster dissolves into fissures running up the sides of otherwise smooth pastel-colored facades, revealing rows of neat brick.
Her mind careens into its newly-formed corners. Somewhere in one of them, she knows she and her mother are not supposed to be here. Trying to make friends with the other students, who all live close to the school and each other, whose cliques are immovable, is beginning to weigh on her shoulders. Back in the city, she lived in the same building as most of her friends, with an intricately curved balcony that looked out onto a gorgeous set of steps with people milling about on them any time or day or night.
It’s hard to think of someone else living there now. Maybe they are very happy there, and have gotten around to oiling the hinges that her father said he never had time for. But it’s like folding socks, or holding her mother’s hand. No matter how much time you have there are some things you just don’t get around to doing.
Rosa lies on the couch of her mother’s office, bored, playing with a spare stethoscope. She holds the disc against her heart. Da-dum, da-dum. The walls are covered with faded posters detailing a healthy diet, a diagram of the heart, the lymphatic system. Her mother has explained these posters over and over again to her, but despite her best efforts Rosa always forgets something in the tangle of veins and arteries and pathways through the body.
Her mother’s office is one of the only rooms that is well-insulated and well-sealed, so she doesn’t hear her mother’s sonorous voice drilling down the corridor. The door bangs open. She jumps up, looping the stethoscope around her neck. In one moment she can tell her mother means business—her slightly flared nose, boots tapping impatiently against the tile.
“Ines, come on in, please. Rosa, give us a second.”
Ines edges into the room, face flushed. Once the door swings shut, Rosa presses her ear to the door. Ines speaks fast and shrill.
“Have you seen how much weight he’s lost?”
“Of course I have.”
“Yesterday, he tried to get up, nearly fell over Mrs. Ricci. Nearly impaled himself on a piece of plastic when he fell. It took Matteo and I twenty minutes just to get him to stop swatting at us. And his toes are turning black. I think it’s bothering the others.”
“Ines, I understand all this. You know I have recommended restarting therapy. Three times, in fact, I have spoken to him,” Chair legs shuffle. “You know, that by law, I can’t do anything about it.”
“What do you suggest, then? We just watch? I suppose you’re going to tell me to pray?”
Her mother laughs, but there is a hole in the middle of the laugh. “Well, it couldn’t hurt.”
A beat, and she goes on, turning coaxing. “As for watching in a sense, yes. But also, no. Not if you see it that way. I want you to make him comfortable. Of course, yes, make sure he can’t get up—better yet, make sure he doesn’t feel the need to for any reason. Remember why you’re in this profession.”
Ines’ voice is low, tightly wound. “I’m in this profession to fix people. To heal them.”
“Ines. I admire that, truly. But grief can go beyond the reach of medicine. And when it does, you give comfort. Kindness. The only recourse here is palliative care. Make sure he has everything he needs to be as comfortable as he can under that weight.” Her mother’s voice measures out words like the black mulberries they eat for breakfast. “That’s my final word.”
“Yes, Doctor. Of course.”
The chair closest to the door scrapes up and away from her mother’s desk, and Rosa runs down the hall, making sure that she touches the ground only on her stockinged toes, before Ines can see her listening.
That night she and her mother walk to church. They slide silently into a pew not far from the pulpit, below alternating light-and-dark tiles arcing high above the stone flooring. In the middle of the domes, painted plaster and metal worked to look like golden sunbursts support gorgeous chandeliers with candles rising off like sentinels.
Barely anyone else is in the church. Rosa recognizes Stephen’s mother, whom she sees sometimes when she drops him off. There’s an old woman with a striped scarf tied around her neck in the back; she looks almost asleep. Two men with nearly identical brown haircuts sit kitty-corner to their pew.
She reaches for the pencils and the pieces of cardstock that they have in the small wooden pockets decorating each pew at intervals, her mother slaps her hand away. “You are in the House of God!”
Rosa rubs her hand and bows her head.
She has never been able to feel much in the church besides a pervading sense of cold, because they refuse to heat the place. She’s tried very hard to feel, what is it, a sense of communion, that her mother describes. It’s supposed to be like a hand on your shoulder, a slight warm weight, and from that hand radiates the feeling that everything is just as it is supposed to be. When the pastor says, “Open your heart,” Rosa imagines a literal doorway. She tries to locate it just beneath her sternum, and open it to receive light and let it out again. As simple as breathing. Praying comes in fits and starts.
Dear whoever it is, out there. Wherever Papà is, I suppose I hope he is happy. If you can make him happy. Mamma’s been working hard, at the hospice house, for Conrad and the rest. I hope he’s comfortable. I pray Ines is kind to him. Perhaps giving him a large plaid blanket to combat the cold. Everything my mother must have told her to do. I pray—the word is beginning to sound less self-conscious—he finds his son, wherever he ends up. I’m told there’s a heaven, but I don’t know that there is, so I’ll bet you can’t promise that—
She’s interrupted by a loud boom hurtling around the interior of the church. Rosa’s mother opens her left eye, her lips disappearing into a grimace, and peeks around. A second, then a third, echo off the far corners, followed by a muttered expletive from the back where the congregation isn’t allowed. Rosa’s mother shakes her head. “They must be having some trouble with the organ. Probably tuning it for tomorrow’s mass. All right, let’s go.”
They head out through the cavernous mouth the doors swing open to reveal and blink in the sudden change to darkness. The church sits on a long, unassuming street; narrow, but still lit with a soft verdant light that suffuses everything around it in a golden halo. A couple of finches sit on one of the lamps, and Rosa thinks she sees one of them clutching a yellow primrose fallen off its stalk in its sharp beak.
As they draw near it, the finch drops the flower and flaps away. It comes to rest near Rosa’s feet. In the light, it is the hue of the yellow-brimmed hat that Conrad used to keep hung on a hook by his bedside. Rosa walks gingerly around it.
Ben passes Rosa a note right before their last class ends. She reads it in the safety of the steeple her folded hands form at the base of her lap.
Finally, she—yes, she—is invited to something! She’s heard Ben and Andra planning all week. Everyone in their class is going to the beach for a bonfire while their parents celebrate and drink out on the plaza. Ben probably just thinks she needed the formal invite, unlike everyone else. He wasn’t wrong.
All afternoon she waits in anticipation. When they return to the plaza the sky is still cottony pink out, perfect for watching the sun set against the horizon. Once her mother is engaged in talking to one of the vendors selling small nativity scenes she attempts to slip away.
“Where are you going?”
“Just over to the Cozza. I have some friends waiting for me over there. Be back soon,” she lies.
“Okay…” Overcast clouds come over her mother’s face, but soon she turns back to the vendor, who’s now trying to sell olive tree figurines to a couple of Canadians.
Rosa walks out to the beach past the viale, which in actuality is only a few streets from the plaza, so that she feels secure in the knowledge that she could rejoin her mother. She looks up and down the stretch of sand. The mustard yellow of waterfront restaurants shine off the water, fake soda lamps lit. No one’s here yet, so she picks her way out to the natural pools near the edge of the boardwalk, stripping off her shoes and socks and leaving them in a trail behind her. Dusky graffitied sandstone grades into olive-colored shale beneath her feet. It’s starting to cut, so she sits and stares at the continent’s rough edges where the siltstone cliffs decay into the waves.
There’s so much life in the pools. Small pools of water with barnacles and mussels. Rosa watches a crab race across a larger one, grabbing a tiny translucent fish she hadn’t even noticed. Startlingly bright and soft-looking moss on the rims, the same moss coating the underside of the cliffs. It works her into a lather.
A finger alights on her shoulder. “Hey.”
She turns; Stephen. “Hi.”
He sits down beside her. “We didn’t think you would come.”
“I don’t know. You’re always racing off to somewhere. Where?”
“Ah… my mom, she works at the hospice house on the edge of town.”
“Oh, she’s the new doctor. All the expats there.” Rosa doesn’t like the distaste in his voice.
“Just people who needed a warmer climate. And yes, my mother is the doctor.”
Stephen looks uncomfortable at the defiance in her voice, and quickly changes the subject.
“Cool. My Mamma, she’s a receptionist at the college. It’s not very fancy. Not like having a mom who is a doctor.” He scoops water up into her hands and lets it fall between his fingers back into the pools. “Andra will probably be here with the beer soon. We have these every year, you know. I’ll introduce you to some of the people in the higher classes, if you want, you can get to know everyone.”
“I’m going back to Rome soon anyway.”
He eyes her pityingly. “Doesn’t seem like it.”
After Stephen hoists himself up and walks away, she chides herself for being so closed-off, blatantly rude, misunderstanding his concession as a challenge when really it was an olive branch. She should really go up there, apologize, try to join in the fun and have a beer and listen to whoever is playing guitar. It’s beginning to get cold anyway. She shivers, but the sea breeze feels strangely lifting, and soon she is on her feet, making her way to the bonfire. She has every intention of saying hello, meeting people, burying her feet under sand warmed by the fire, but in the flickering of the flames her classmates’ faces are distorted and jagged, unwelcoming, so instead she slips away and finds her mother in the plaza, claiming a migraine.
When she wakes up the next morning, acoustic guitar thrumming in her head, she is covered by a plaid blanket. Her mother is absent from the next room, and this is how she knows Conrad must be going.