Irma would never forget the look on the people’s faces as they lifted her grandfather up. Disgust; anger; fear; worst of all, pity. Grandfather had been an able handed man for eighty six years. Pity was for the weak. Pity was for those who no one remembered.
It had been a record breaking summer day. School was out. Sunlight torched the sidewalk. To walk outside, barefoot or not, on this concrete, was to acquire a coltish limp. Irma had done it anyways. The trick was to step on sandals made of sponges, tied with soft twine salvaged from the produce aisle.
Behind her, Grandfather was moving, albeit slowly. He wavered, the way piles of sand did in the documentaries, shaped and reshaped by the wind.
The desire to talk tugged Irma all the way out the door, but she stayed silent. They were worn out by the heat. The grocery store was just straight down, but Irma had counted that it was still ten blocks before they could reach the ice cream.
Half a block ago, Irma had excitedly engaged her grandfather with a fragment of a seashell she had found on someone’s lawn. She had pressed it in his hand, both of which were equally wrinkly, and closed his fingers around it. “Is this from the ocean?” she had breathed. “How did it get here?”
Her grandfather had gently pried her hands open and squinted at the pale moon shaped fragment. “Irma, it is definitely from the ocean. It is a sign that you and I will move near the water.” Then he turned his hand over, transferring the shell back into her hand. “Keep it safe. When we get there we will place it on the mantle.”
Irma kicked her feet extra high the rest of the block. A shell! The sea! They were nowhere near shells, nowhere near the sea. Her grimy neighbourhood stank of underground and concrete and heavy things. The thing closest to the sea was the neighbourhood pool, which Irma was only allowed to go once every special occasion. “Ripthroat”, as grandfather muttered under his breath when he thought Irma wasn’t listening.
She considered smashing a hole into it and some strong, wax-like string, maybe the kind they used to tie vegetables together in the produce aisle, and wear the medal around her neck. She had not decided yet whether she should keep it out for all to see, or tuck it under her shirt, where she could feel its touch.
At the moment, she rubbed to feel its presence in her pocket. The question of whether they should continue their walk from the posh neighbourhoods to the corner shops was on the tip of her tongue when something in the air changed. It was as if the dense, heated air had been suddenly become superheated, their neighbourhood placed on a pan and heat turned up.
She heard a hacking cough, and wobbled in her step. Her eyes snapped to her grandfather; it was reflexive. “Grandfather!” All she received in reply was a low moaning groan. He was clutching his chest, and suddenly for Irma the neighbourhood became a maze.
Somehow, her feet carried her towards a door.
“Who is it?”
Irma still had her eyes on her grandfather, who was now lying on the sidewalk, and nearly pounded her fist into the empty air where the door had once been, the air where a frightened face now peered at her as if she were wearing an astronaut helmet and asking for carrots.
“Did my secretary send you here? That-”
Then her face closed and reopened, fish gills breathing, when she saw Grandfather choking on the sidewalk over the shoulder. To Irma, the white, painting-studded walls rippled and she yearned to jump into their depths and cool off.
“David, we’ve got an emergency on our hands!”
The clamour that followed lulled Irma into a haze. An ambulance, which reminded irma of a refrigerator turned onto it side, on wheels, arrived on the scene. People in white jumped onto the concrete as if magnetized. Irma stayed rooted to the spot, a few meters away. A shorter man in white rushed up to her.
“Are you his granddaughter?”
“Does this bus go to the sea?” Irma asked, latching onto the paramedics arms.
“Shhhh. Your grandfather will be okay,” the man replied, his shoulder squeeze firm and warm. “ Will you come with me? The ride will be fun, I promise.”
When Irma seemed to resist, her body turning towards the grocery store, waiting for the paramedics to give her grandfather some magical oxygen and walk away with her to continue their usual journey, the paramedic tugged a balloon out of his pocket and began to blow. To Irma, his arms crossed and recrossed like pretzels, but the end result was a tense red donut shaped creation.
“Here you are! Now, can we get on the bus?” He offered the balloon to her.
“What is that?” Irma turned the foreign object in her hand. “A jelly donut? You are not very good.”
“It’s a buoy,” the paramedic winked. “The kind used to save people from drowning. A lifeguard taught me. Now, the bus?”
Excitedly, Irma pulled out her sea shell fragment. “Like from the sea? I have a something from the sea, too! It’s a sign. Grandfather says we’re going.”
Static buzzed from the paramedic’s pocket. “Radio in. I’m getting her, she’s calm now,” Irma heard distantly. “Yes, we’ll have to tell her later.”
She thought she saw pity in his face. Irma didn’t understand. After they gave Grandpa a rest, they would be on there way, planning to go to the beach. The heat was hot and still climbing. They could wait; she didn’t want to burn her feet on the sand, and she wanted to feel it, all the grains and seaweed like she saw in books, every grain in her hand.