It wasn't even nine o'clock, and Grandma Ofie was talking about the end of the world again. I tried to ignore her, like I always did, but this morning she was feeling enthusiastic, unusually bright and awake.

"Oh, and the lights!" she said, her eyes kind of glazing over, as if she were seeing them now. "Did I ever tell you about the lights, Gretchen?"

I sighed. "Yes, Gramma." Only a million times before.

She didn't seem to hear me, or just didn't care, because she continued on as if I hadn't said anything at all: "There were big lights. Big lights everywhere in the sky, like thousands of extra little stars in places they shouldn't be. It felt like—oh, well, it felt like I was in a box, Gretchen. I was in a box and someone had poked a million tiny holes in the top so I—so we—could breathe. And there I was—I was looking up at them and light was peeking through. Shining really, really bright—"

"Would you like some toast or anything?" I set the plate of eggs down in front of her without so much as a glance in her direction.

"No, thank you, dearie." Grandma Ofie was quiet for a moment. I got the feeling she was looking at me, but I made myself busy, rushing over to the empty pan on the stove. I cracked some more eggs, plopped them into the pan. Listened to the fierce pops, the soft sizzle of boiling yolk. The kitchen fell into a painful, awkward silence.

Of course, it was Grandma Ofie who broke it. "Did I ever tell you about the triangles?" she asked slowly.

"No, I don't think so," I lied.

"Ah, the first one. The first one was red, but then…it wasn't, not exactly. It was every color—every color except red all at once. But then, always red, too"—she laughed lightly—"It was…beautiful. Yes, I think that's the word for it. It was very pretty. But, so very ugly and terrifying and—and wicked, all at the same time. Is there a word for that, Gretchen? For something that's beautiful and ugly at the same time?"

"No, Gramma, there isn't." I turned down the burner, hoping the eggs would take longer. I turned around just long enough to ask, "Did you remember to take your pills?"

"Oh—yes, yes." She waved her wrinkled hand in the air, as if to wave away the question, just an annoying fly buzzing around her face. "Anyway, where was I?"

"Beautiful and ugly," I muttered, practically attacking the eggs in the pan with my spatula.

"What was that?"

I sighed. Might as hurry this conversation along. "The staircase," I said. "You were just about to tell me about the staircase."

"Why, so I was." I could hear the smile in her voice. "The triangles darted around the sky. They left streaks of color—ribbons of light that were crisscrossing over the sky, making the universe look like a—well, like a Christmas gift. Wrapped by a child."

Grandma Ofie paused and then continued, her voice seeming very distant. "Remember that one time when you made that clay ashtray, Gretchen? I think you were seven—maybe eight. I don't even smoke, but I still thought it was cute. You wrapped it up in so many different colored ribbons because you thought it would make it prettier. I almost couldn't even open it, there were so many ribbons…and then you gave it to me and you—" She stopped, abruptly, as if she'd choked on her words. I heard her sniff. Was she crying? Surely not.

I gripped the spatula handle, squeezed my eyes shut, tried to decide whether or not to turn around and check. Yes and No began to compete in a morally epic battle inside my head, hurling excuses at one another with deadly accuracy.

Grandma Ofie recovered. She inhaled deeply and said, "Well, anyway…that's what the sky looked like. And then those ribbons fell…and…all of sudden…there was this staircase…"

I slowly, hesitantly, turned around to face her.

"…a spiraling staircase made up of so many circles, leading upwards—up beyond heaven. I saw it, Gretchen. I saw this—this house up there, at the very end. I—I very carefully got on the first step and—What's the matter, dearie?"

"Gramma," I started. My voice was very quiet, very shaky. I don't know why I was suddenly feeling the way I was feeling. Angry. I was angry and sad and overwhelmed. I tightened my grip on the spatula handle. "Gramma, it wasn't real."

I don't know what possessed me to say it. I just did. The words spilled out of my mouth so easily. Too easily. I immediately felt guilty. A terrible bubble of self-hatred grew in my stomach. I was a horrible person, harshly telling a sick old woman the truth she wasn't able to quite understand.

But, no. No, I thought, I shouldn't feel guilty. Because I'm sick, too.

Oh, how I was sick. Sick of hearing that stupid story. Day in and day out. Over and over and over again. I was sick of her believing it. Remembering something that never really happened. I hated how she wasn't able to recall what happened last week or yesterday or even a few hours ago. But always the end of the world. She always remembered the day everything ended. That fake memory.

"Yes. It was real, Gretchen. I know it's hard to believe—I remember it like it was yesterday…" Grandma Ofie's sad, drooping eyes met mine and I saw how scared and confused she suddenly was. She was trying to process my words. Make them make sense. She licked her old, dry lips nervously. "Gretchen," she said, "what are you—"

"I'm not Gretchen!" I screamed. I hurled the spatula at the ground with a wild shriek and felt oddly dissatisfied with the sharp clank-thud as metal met linoleum flooring.

Grandma Ofie was shaking her head. No, no, no. Her mouth was opening and closing, like a fish gasping for air, as she tried to decide what to say.

"Look at me, Gramma. Look at me."

"Gretchen, stop this—"

"The end of the world never happened. It's me—Linda. I'm here. Talking with you. You're still here"—I scrambled to the kitchen window, fumbled with the latch that kept it closed, but as soon as I got it open, I took in a deep breath. Inhaled the scent of the city. My ears drank up the sounds of life outside. "Listen, Gramma. Hear that? Horns. On cars. People are driving those cars. People are still out there. The—world—is—still—here!"

Grandma Ofie slapped her hands over her ears. "No. No, I climbed up the staircase—I climbed up the staircase into this house. The world is gone! I saw it—saw the hands of…of God"—she burst into tears—"But I made it, I was safe. Me and my family—you—we are safe here. Safe." She began to rock gently back and forth, eyes wide as the tears ran down her face.

"It didn't happen."

"He took it all away—I saw it! Gretchen, you were so young, you just don't remember—"

"I don't remember because it never happened!"

There fell between us a new, strained silence. Grandma Ofie was staring at me with tear-filled eyes. I stared back, fighting back tears of my own.

After a moment, she said, "Maybe you're right, Linda. Thank you."

I wanted to say something. But I didn't trust myself. My mouth had already betrayed me once. I swallowed the heartfelt apology that was creeping up my throat and turned back to my eggs, which by now were brown and starting to give off that nose-wrinkling overcooked smell.

I heard Grandma Ofie rise to her feet, push in her chair. Shuffle away from the kitchen, down the hall to her room. The door creaked shut behind her.

Maybe you're right, Linda. Thank you. The last thing Grandma Ofie ever said to me.

She died that night. Because of me. I killed Grandma Ofie.

I didn't cry at her wake. I didn't cry at her funeral. It was later that I cried, alone in my bed, over the most ridiculous thought—She's in a box.

She's in a box and no one poked any holes in the top for her to breathe.