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A long row of brightly colored flags greeted Henry Stone as he entered the Indianapolis airport terminal. Drooping one after another like giant, silent birds, the flags reminded him of the United Nations. Except he knew the U.N. was back in New York City.
Grandma Martha waved to him from behind a metal rail, holding a yellow balloon in her other hand. Henry glimpsed a smiley face printed on one side of it, knowing it was meant for him, wishing it weren't.
Brother! He had just finished fourth grade. Didn't his own grandmother know that he was too old for smiley face balloons?
"I'm so glad to see you," she cried, hugging him so tightly that he could smell her hair spray and lemon-scented perfume. "How was your trip, honey?"
"Okay." Henry untangled himself from her smothering embrace and tightened one of the straps on his backpack to hide his embarrassment.
"Not too lonely?"
"Are you sure?"
Henry wished Grandma Martha would stop trying so hard; she was making him tired.
She brushed back a wisp of brown hair that had strayed into his eyes. "My goodness, you're getting so big."
It was something she said every time they met. Grandmother talk.
"Pretty soon I'll be taller than you are." Henry played along.
"Yes, you will."
Shaped like a teapot, Grandma Martha was only a head taller than Henry now and slowly shrinking, while he, though small for his age, had grown two inches since last Thanksgiving and looked more and more like his grandpa, who had always been slim and straight as a saltshaker.
Leaning down so she could look him in the eye, his grandmother quietly asked, "How are you, Henry?"
"Okay," he said, which wasn't really true. But it was the best answer he could come up with in the middle of an airport.
Grandma Martha sighed sympathetically, then held out the balloon.
"Welcome to Indiana, sweetheart."
"Thanks." Henry refused to smile as he took the balloon. If only he had a pin.
They headed down a crowded corridor lined with more drooping flags. If Grandpa Jay were there, he would have made a game out of finding England's Union Jack and the maple leaf of Canada. But he wasn't. Henry's favorite grandparent was gone. Gone forever. Henry hung his head like one of the flags and trudged on.
An escalator carried them downstairs to the first floor. As soon as they stepped onto solid ground Grandma Martha reached for Henry's hand.
"Let's hold on to each other so we don't get separated," she said.
"But you just told me how big I am," Henry protested.
"Henry, take my hand and don't argue with me."
Slowly, they made their way through the crowd. Henry could hear his dad's voice back at Newark airport. "Promise me you'll be easy on your grandma," he had said. "She's had a tough year."
Henry had promised, but he hadn't expected to be treated like a first grader as soon as he got off the plane. He wished his dad were there to see. Surely, he would understand.
His mom had tucked a note into his shirt pocket when she hugged him good-bye. "Read it on the plane," she had whispered. The note was a poem.
Rose are red,
Violets are blue,
Wherever I am,
I'll think often of you.
Roses are red,
Violets are gray,
I hope you and Grandma
Have fun every day.
Who ever heard of gray violets? They were supposed to be blue, weren't they? But the color his mother chose seemed right, considering how things felt. Folding the paper in half again and again until it was the size of his pinky, Henry had dropped the poem into the bottom of his backpack and tried to forget about it as he stared out the plane window at clouds shaped like dragons.
He studied his grandmother out of the corner of his eye. She reminded him of a little steam engine, the way she chugged along, her puffy white hair billowing atop her head like smoke.
"Keep your eyes open for Area D," she instructed, still clutching his hand.
"You're squeezing my fingers."
"I don't want to lose you."
"My hand is getting numb!"
"Is it really?"
Grandma Martha loosened her grip slightly.
Henry knew she meant well and that he should listen to her. But has she forgotten everything she learned as a mother, he wondered, or has she always been like this? Either way, Henry didn't feel like holding hands. When he saw a sign with a big D on it, he pulled out of her grasp.
"There's our area, Grandma!"
As he sped toward the luggage carousel Henry let the smiley face balloon string slip through his fingers.
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