The house looked familiar and reassuring. It was six years since Aimee had last been here, and yet it looked exactly the same as when she used to stop by to see grandma right after grandad died. When she was fourteen. And then less often though highschool.
It was a blue Victorian, set back from the street. There was a tall birch in the front yard, and a bench on the front porch. Reaching back to memories, before grandad got sick, she remembered them sitting on that bench on Sundays, reading.
She remembered it so hard that she could almost see it: both of them sitting there, smiling at her as she approached.
When she was very little grandma’s house had meant cookies, and malted milk, and being indulged in a way her parents would never do.
Now she was afraid of what was inside that door. She’d called grandma, once a month or so, the last six years. But it wasn’t the same. And now Mrs. Jones, who looked after grandma said that she was losing touch with the real world. That she might be gone any minute.
The truth was that Aimee had problems with death and ending. Not just death and ending of people but of everything. Cats, dogs, relationships.
She’d thought the world was safe and predictable until ten years ago, when mom and dad divorced. Then there had been her high school friends, until the group dispersed as if it had never been. Then—
Then college friends for a little while. And then work.
Until the last year. In the last year, it seemed to her half of her friends had got married and half had left for parts unknown. The last year had been hard, between moves and breakups, and– Well, Brad!
And on that moment, as she sat, parked in front of the house, her cell phone rang. She watched, without answering, as Brad’s name came up on the screen, and that goofy picture of him that she’d taken a year ago, at breakfast at the diner.
After a while the phone stopped ringing, and there was a ping, announcing he’d left a message.
Right. She was going to go in and see grandma. Mostly because it would it would be easier than listening to that message.
She slipped the phone into her pants’ pocket, picked up her purse, and got out of the car.
Mrs. Jones was around fifty years old, and a widow. She lived down the street. Mom had told Aimee about her, and how she was perfect to watch grandma, because she had training as a nurse. And then the other lady, whatever her name was, stayed with grandma at night.
Mom had arranged it all by phone, from California.
Aimee couldn’t really throw stones, since she also hadn’t been back to see grandma in much too long.
Mrs. Jones greeted her with a smile, anyway. “You must be the granddaughter, Aimee.”
Aimee smiled, as Mrs. Jones stepped back into the cool hallway with the marble table by the entrance, where the mail used to be set down. It was now clean, gleaming.
Mrs. Jones led her across the living room.
“Does she know I’m coming?” Aimee asked.
“Well…. Yes, we told her. But she’s talking about the ball again.”
Aimee blinked. “The ball?”
Mrs. Jones looked over her shoulder, a diffident smile on her faded countenance. She reached up, to pull strands of salt-and-pepper hair back from her face. “Yes. I mean, you know,” and then, obviously realizing that Aimee didn’t know, added, “She is in her right mind, you know, but—”
“But lately, this last week or so, she’s been talking about the ball, and she’s been trying to find her shoe.”
Aimee stared. “She lost a shoe?”
“Well, some things have been given to goodwill, yes, but—” She sighed. “I don’t know. I gather she went to some ball with your grandfather? Sometime ago?”
Aimee didn’t know. She remembered her grandfather as a kind gentleman who smelled of pipe tobacco and always had a sweet about his person for her. That and crispy five dollar bills, which he dolled out like he had a printing press in the basement.
Which she was almost sure he didn’t. It occurred to her, as she went up the dark stairs, with family pictures – mom and dad’s wedding, her baby picture, the picture of her brother who had died ten years ago, just before the divorce – that she really didn’t know that much about her grandmother. Despite all the times spent in this house, eating cookies, reading comic books, talking about what fascinated her at the time, she really didn’t know much about her grandparents. They’d always been old, in her mind. Though she supposed they’d only been in their late fifties when she was born. And that was not old. Not really.
Grandma’s room was bright. The windows were open, and the late spring air blew through. If there was a smell underlying it all, it wasn’t the smell of sickness so much as the smell of chemicals. Grandma’s old dressing table, by the door, the one she remembered playing at when she was still a toddler, had been divested of all its sweet-smelling powders and floral perfumes that used to fascinate Aimee, and instead was crowded with medicine bottles.
And grandma was by the open closet, rummaging.
She didn’t look like she was dying, despite what grandma had said on the phone. She looked older, of course. Like time had taken all the spare softness from her, dried her out, leaving only essence of grandma. Like she’d been dried and toughened and reduced to her absolute central core. But she was standing on her on her own feet, and looking through the closet.
She turned and smiled, “Aimee.” She came close and hugged Aimee, in a fluid movement, and that close she smelled like the perfumes, of roses with a hint of lavender.
“Let me look at you.” Smile. “You’re all grown up. You remind me of your mom when we met her.”
“Mrs. Jones says you’re looking for your shoes? Something about a ball?”
Grandma looked as if she’d been caught out in something she hadn’t meant to be discovered. “Let’s have some tea,” she said.
And Aimee remembered that’s what they’d done, last time she’d been here, just before she left for college. They’d had tea and the special, “for good” bought cookies that came in the tin. That’s how grandma referred to them, and she always thought they were better than the ones she made.
This time, the tea was the same, and very sweet. Grandma got the good teapot out, and the saucers cups and plate from the matched set. “This was my wedding set,” she said. “I’ve put it down in the will for you.”
“Grandma, I don’t—”
“Oh, I think I’ve used it maybe a dozen times in my life, most of the time with you. It doesn’t matter. You should have it.”
Grandma poured two cups, but she seemed to just wet her lips with her tea, and not really drink it. She didn’t eat any of the cookies. Aimee didn’t know how to ask about that. Mom had said, “She’s stopped eating. Since you’re in Denver for the new job, you should go see her. It might be the last time.”
Aimee offered the cookie box, feeling stupid. Mrs. Jones had made herself scarce.
Grandma smiled, “No, thank you, honey. I’m not hungry. Tell me about you. What are you doing? Your mom said you had a job?”
“Uh…. Yeah. It’s just an entry job, you know, executive assistant, and… well, that’s what it is.”
“And there’s a young man, your mom told me.”
“Well, there was…”
“But he wants to get married.”
“And you don’t?”
“Well, not yet, not at twenty four,” she said. “I mean, it seems like we should…. Do things, learn who we are first.”
Grandma wet her lips with the tea. “You’re running down the staircase,” she said.
Aimee had no idea what Grandma was talking about. And it got worse from there. Mrs. Jones ducked in and said something. Her sister had called, she had to go. Could Aimee stay a few hours? She gave Aimee her phone number in case of emergency.
While they were talking, grandma made it back up the stairs. It seemed to Aimee if she were dying, she wouldn’t be able to walk all over the house.
But Mrs. Jones looked worried about leaving her alone, and Aimee smiled and said, “Never mind, we’ll be all right.”
Then she went up the stairs, after grandma.
Grandma was at the closet again. “The problem,” she said turning to Aimee. “Is that I can’t find the shoe. And I don’t think they’ll let me in without the shoe.”
All right. Aimee had no idea what that was all about, but then – she glanced at the dressing table – all those tablets must have weird side effects. Aimee remembered how she had hallucinated all sorts of odd stuff when she’d taken pain killers.
“All right. How about you sit down on the bed, and tell me what you’re looking for, and I’ll look? What do these shoes look like?”
Grandma’s closet was scarily large and very full. One shelf was taken entirely with sweaters, which she remembered grandma wearing all the time, except in the height of summer. But there were things hanging that had to be older than her: A beaded skirt, a beautiful embroidered dress. The shoes were under everything on the floor, she knelt down and started shuffling through them, then stopped when grandma said.
“Not shoes. Just one. He has the other one. And it’s glass.”
“Exactly like that.” She paused a while. “You see, I went to the ball and met your grandfather.”
“You met him at a ball? Or was it prom or something?”
“No, no, listen, not this world. The real world. It was a ball. He was the prince, and he sent a notice for every young lady to come, so I put on my glass slippers, and I went.”
“What? No fairy godmother?” Aimee asked, feeling discomfited. She’d read somewhere that when people had dementia you should just humor them. But Grandma didn’t have dementia, or at least no one had said she did. Still. What was the use of arguing.
She looked over her shoulder and grandma looked pensive. “No,” she said. “I think they added that in afterwards. I just had to find my glass slippers, and I stepped through and…. It was beautiful, Aimee. Really beautiful. There was this castle, which was made of glass, only it was white glass and…. Well, it sparkled, all of it sparkled.
“And everyone wore these wonderful gowns, but he came walking through, and he chose me. We danced all night.” She paused. “Only I knew that I couldn’t stay in the real world. Sure, no one dies in the real world. But no one lives either. There are no babies born. There is no time… So, I chose time. And when I chose, the clock struck. And I ran. I lost a shoe. And the other one, I kept. It’s in the closet. It should be in the closet.”
Aimee, knowing it was crazy dug through the closet. There were leather pumps, and crocodile-skin shoes, and a pair of red patent leather stilettos she couldn’t even imagine grandma wearing.
“He came after me,” grandma said. “That’s how you know he loves you. He comes after you to this world.”
Aimee looked over her shoulder again, and grandma was looking straight ahead. She sighed. “It was a good life, Aimee. Even if your brother left us much too early, and then your mom and dad couldn’t deal with it.”
“And then dad died this summer.”
“Yes, but that’s the risk you take, when you leave the real world. And it’s still worth it.” She sighed. “Only now he’s waiting for me, you know? He’s gone back to the real world, and he’s waiting for me. At the passage. He has the other shoe, but I have to take the one I have. It’s the only way to go over.”
At that moment, Aimee’s hand touched the thing. She knew it before she pulled it out from the corner, where all the skirts hung to the floor and hid it. She felt the glass, cool and very smooth, and pulled it out, and there it was. A pump. Size seven, like the other shoes. But all made of glass. Only it couldn’t be glass, could it? It had to be crystal.
“You found it.”
Aimee was very careful with it, handing it over. Grandma took it. She was speechless for a moment, then she said, “I knew you’d find it. Probably just like your own pair.” She turned it over and over in her hand, then looked up. “I think I’ll rest a little bit, before getting ready for the ball.”
When Aimee left the room, Grandma was half-sitting half laying against her pillows, holding the glass shoe.
Aimee went to the kitchen, and washed the tea things, then listened to Brad’s message. “Aimee, please call. If you want me to move there, I’ll move there. I don’t need to date other people. I know what I want. I want you.”
That’s how you know it’s real, Grandma had said. They come after you.
She felt suddenly very sleepy and lay down on grandma’s sofa, like she used to do when she was little.
She was putting glass slippers on. She was sitting up and putting glass slippers on. And grandma was standing there. She was barefoot, but holding her slipper. And she had on the beautiful embroidered dress. It hung kind of loose on her frame, but it still looked beautiful, all white and gold.
Grandma smiled at Aimee. “I thought you could wear my wedding dress,” she said. “I’ve saved it all this time, and I thought maybe you could wear it. You can’t go to the ball in jeans.” But she didn’t have any wedding dress. She just stood there, waiting, as if the two of them were late for something.
So Aimee got up and followed her, and grandma was moving like she was much younger, towards the little room at the back, past the kitchen, the one with the books and the sewing machine.
But there was a great light there, and the sound of voices, and music.
Aimee saw grandma step through what looked less like a doorway, and more like a big tear in the wall. Someone she only saw as a shadow was there, and he handed grandma something. It must be the other shoe, because grandma stopped and lifted her feet to put shoes on, and then she gave the man – yes, it was a man and he looked like pictures of grandad when he was young, tall and straight and dark haired – her hand, and the two of them stepped through into the crowd. They both looked young and beautiful. They turned to each other, and–
“Grandma,” Aimee stepped after, walking into…
It was a glass castle, only the glass was also light. And her own glass slippers tinkled on the floor as she walked. Looking down, she saw that she was wearing a white lace dress. Se could feel something like a tiara in her hair.
“Aimee!” It was Brad’s voice, and she turned to him. It was Brad, but also it wasn’t Brad. It was Brad as he would be if he were perfect, wearing a tux of a deep sparkling blue, with a crown on his blond hair, which for a change lay perfectly straight, instead of half up in the air, as always.
She forgot grandma, and grandad, and she danced with Brad.
She didn’t know how long they danced, but everything was perfect. And she, who could never run without falling was dancing the waltz as if she’d been doing it her whole life. Around her were beautiful, happy couples. She thought she saw her brother. Only John had died when he was single, but here he was dancing with a beautiful young woman, a stranger. Then she caught a glimpse of grandma and grandad, enthralled, in each other’s arms.
And the dance was more than a dance. It was being together, really together, as you couldn’t be ever in life. It was…. The real world. Where everything was magical and perfect.
Someone stood up from a throne she hadn’t seen before, and a voice rang out. It was male, and in her mind she knew it was the voice of the king. He said something about all the couples here, all perfect, all forever.
“But But no one lives either. There are no babies born. There is no time… So, I chose time.” Grandma’s voice sounded in her mind. And Aimee realized she could stay here. Here forever, in perfect harmony with Brad. But she’d never live. Yes, sure, she’d never lose him. She’d never lose a child as she’d lost her brother. And they’d never divorce like mom and dad had done.
But they’d never live.
“So, I chose time.”
Time. There must be time. A place ruled by time, where love was far more perilous, but also… grew. And there were children, and laughter, and a good life. It was worth it.
She heard, somewhere, a clock strike, and everyone stopped in their dance.
Time. She had to choose time. She had to leave the real world.
She pulled away from Brad – it was the hardest thing she’d ever done – and she ran.
She ran across the beautiful ballroom and down what seemed like an endless staircase made of glass. She lost a shoe halfway down, and saw ahead of her, the rent in the real world that led to grandma’s sewing room. She plunged through it, and felt the second shoe come off her foot as she rang through.
And there were sirens.
After the ambulance had taken what remained of grandma, Mrs. Jones made tea, “There’s no reason for you to blame yourself,” she said. “She went in her sleep. And you slept too, and that makes sense, seeing as how you drove all the way from Denver. But there’s nothing you could have done. She stopped eating three days ago, and she didn’t drink either. It was just her time. Se missed your grandad.”
Aimee nodded, dumbly. “Did you… They didn’t take the glass shoe, right?”
“A glass…. Shoe?”
And Aimee thought she’d probably dreamed that too, just like she’d dreamed the ball and grandma and grandad twirling together.
While Mrs. Jones was washing up, Aimee went up the stairs. She couldn’t imagine the paramedics taking the glass shoe in the ambulance. But it wasn’t anywhere in the room. She looked everywhere, even under the bed.
She must have dreamed it. It was all a dream.
Her cell phone rang, and she picked it up, and turned it on without thinking. It was Brad, “There you are,” he said. “I’m coming up. You’d best give me your address, or I’ll go door to door with these glass shoes till I find you. And there’s a lot of doors in Denver. It could take forever.”
“You lost them, in the staircase.”
“But that was a dream,” she said.
“Maybe,” he said. “But I was also in the dream. And I have a pair of glass shoes. Your grandmother told me to tell you she’s okay. And that I am to come to you and stay with you. Because it’s worth it. I wouldn’t dream of disappointing her.”
“You can’t have had the same dream I had!”
“No? then how do I know what happened.”
“Oh,” she said. And she gave him her address.
There was time enough for the real world. She’d keep the glass slippers. But meanwhile they’d live and love, and have a few babies, maybe.
And some day she’d find the glass slippers again and step through to the ball that never ended.