Stay young, or at least have the good sense to die quickly. Because the end, I’m afraid, is not what you think. I flash my eyes, hoping to catch the nurse’s attention. If I can make her see me, really see me, she could get it. She’d do it, too. She’s one of the good ones. Susie, I think. No, it’s Sandy, like the beach. That’s what she always says. It’s in the bottom drawer of that cheap particleboard dresser. Comfort. Solace. Salvation. Only a few steps away and it might as well be on the other side of the world. I blink furiously, but it’s no use. She’s too busy putting my right arm through the sweatshirt, which I hate because all the twisting and pulling makes me feel like a damned trussed bird. Or is it the left one she’s got? Lefty loosey, righty tighty...how did that go? Hell, I don’t know. It’s all the same anymore. Two arms that don’t work when you tell them to. No more use than a pair of old rolling pins tied to my sides. Less! At least the rolling pins could still make a pie.“There now, Mrs. Mercer, you’re all dressed for the day,” Sandy says, fluffing the pillows behind me. “This shirt must be new. Such a pretty shade of blue too, brings out your eyes.” This is a lie. The last time I saw my eyes they’d sunken so far into the wrinkles I couldn’t even tell what color they were. But it’s nice of her to say.She presses a button and the head of my bed begins to rise. “And the bears on the front are adorable. A gift from your family?”Yes, such as it is. Though how a closet full of Chanel made anyone think I’d want teddy bears embroidered on my chest I’ll never know. But that’s old age for you. Not only do complete strangers now clean my backside, but I’ve become a depository for every craft any relative can make. One slip on an icy step, a few confused days, and you wind up here, in a kennel full of old people, surrounded by latch hook and patchwork. I spend my time staring at mint green cinder block walls, sleeping in an adjustable bed next to a lady with a goiter the size of a small watermelon who blares Judge Judy all day and bathes in Jean’Nate. I smile and slowly nod. “Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?” Sandy asks, tucking the dead twigs that used to be my legs under the thin covers. Her touch is sure and firm, with an efficiency that makes me think she’s been at this awhile.Concentrate, I think, taking a breath. You can do it. Make the damn words come out. Sandy heads toward the hall, smiling at Gladys, my roommate.“Annk..aaannnkk,” is all my mutinous mouth can manage. But she’s coming back. Did I say it? Maybe she’ll find it. I know it’s in the dresser. Look! Please! Look at my eyes, I’m looking right at it!“You’re welcome, dear,” she says, patting my arm. She heads toward the dresser and for a second I think she’s with me, that she’s actually seen past the skin and bones lying in the bed and found me, Anne. But no. She keeps going, passing the dresser without so much as a glance, and doesn’t stop until she gets to the tv. She presses the volume button and shakes her head like an indulgent mother. “Let me turn this up a bit, I know how you and Gladys love your Judge Judy.”Jesus, I think as she leaves, I need a drink. Some Stoli to throw in that dixie cup of cranberry. I roll my head to the side and glance at Gladys. Her eyes are closed, her goiter heaving with her labored breath. I wonder if she remembers vodka, if she remembers good fruit and chocolate and salt. Does she think about the crisp of a spring pea or miss the way a fresh loaf of focaccia could soak up a beautiful, earthy olive oil? I wonder if she’s in there somewhere, like me, locked inside a dead shell, or if she’s one of the lucky ones who’s already gone, like Walter across the hall, content to make macaroni necklaces in a room full of drooling wheelchair zombies.Dammit! How did this happen?A wave of anger rolls through me, the flush warm on my tissued cheeks, and I swing one of my rolling pins to the side. It knocks into the table beside the bed. The whole thing wobbles, tipping the juice over. My rage dissipates, gone before I can even enjoy it. I smile though, surprised at my own strength. I really did that. The juice has made a pink puddle on the serviceable linoleum floor that I share with Gladys and her goiter. I’m exhausted from the outburst, from the constant drone of Judge Judy and her endless stream of moronic litigants, but for the first time in months I feel good. Alive. My eyes close and I imagine the spill spreading. It’s a pretty pink; the color of that perfume Molly used to have. I am in her room, a sea of pinks and purples. She’s struggling with the perfume, her fingers small, barely big enough to wrap around the glass bottle, and it’s hard for her to spray. “Not too much,” I say, smiling. She is determined and beautiful, her blonde hair hanging in braided pigtails. A tall rainbow feather is tied to the back of her head with a thick strip of red yarn. Complete warrior princess. Fearless. Even then. The yarn has begun to unravel though, and the tiny threads are tickling her face. She scrunches her little nose, trying to ignore it. “Hold the bottle away from you a little,” I say, “or it’ll be too strong.” I reach to help, but she pulls away. “Mom,” she says, “I do it all the time.” I see the white lettering between her fingers: Loves Baby Soft. A present from her uncle last Christmas. Now she can’t get enough of it. A spritz before preschool. A spritz before lunch. A spritz after bath and another before bed. “Okay,” I laugh. “Is everything set up?”“I have pretzels, and some sammies in the fridge.” She sprays herself in the face with the perfume and winces. She steals a glance at me, waiting for the I told you so. When I say nothing she sticks her tongue out and wipes it with her sparkly sleeve. “And pickles. Lots of pickles.”“Any veggies?” Her shoulders slump. “No one wants that but you. Papa even hates carrots. He told me. Can’t we skip it?”She’s right. No one ever wants vegetables but me, and certainly not for a birthday picnic on the living room floor. “What blanket did you use?”“The big one I always use for my forts. The white one with the checks.”I wake to the smell of shit. The strange thing is, it’s not mine. At least I don’t think it’s me. Or Gladys. It’s not even human, if my sense of smell can still be trusted. It’s the pungent, sharp smell of dog poo. And someone has just stepped in it.I roll my head to the right, excited by the new development in my cage of routine, and see the culprit. Our room is dim, the faded curtains closed for evening, but the door is open, of course, privacy being the thing you lose right after bladder control, and in the glaring brightness of the fluorescent hall light I see the fat male nurse who works nights, Eugene, is in the hallway scraping the bottom of his shoe. And beside him is a dog.“Therapy dog,” Gladys says, looking at me. Her goiter wobbles with her words. She’s a good roommate, but I try not to get too attached. The turnover rate around here is pretty high.I smile and nod. Eugene hobbles on one foot, loses his balance and falls to the floor with a muffled thud. The dog, a collie I think, barks. Eugene is now sprawled on the floor, tangled in the dog’s leash. It couldn’t happen to a better guy. Unlike Sandy, Eugene isn’t one of the good ones. I laugh, or gurgle really. It’s about as close as I can get to a laugh these days. But for the moment, it’s alright. Around here this counts as real entertainment. Not like the rubbish they pass off in The Sunflower Room. As if I’m supposed to be interested in bean bag toss or an awful elementary school choir. I’m a grown woman with eight decades under my belt. Yes, I am living inside a dying husk. And yes, after the last stroke I can hardly even mumble. My skin is so thin and transparent my veins have replaced my breasts as my most prominent feature. I’ve been to China and Thailand, to Paris and Milan. I ran a successful restaurant for over thirty years, and when I was nineteen spent a scandalous summer in San Sebastian with a beautiful Spaniard who made my simple name sound like a dirty word. I don’t want to play putt putt golf from my wheelchair into a dingy green beach bucket. A girl has to have standards. I want to dance and play bridge and smoke cigarettes! Oh, how I loved to smoke. I could blow rings that would make you weak in the knees.I watch Eugene the fat nurse stomp off, dragging the dog along on the leash. We had a dog once. When Molly was young. Lolly we called him, because that’s how Molly said her name then. She is standing over our bed. It’s the middle of the night, but even in the dark I can see how swollen her eyes are. “It’s Lolly,” she says through tears. She wipes her nose with the back of her sleeve, like when she was little. “Come on.” He has lost control of his bladder in the night and wet all over her bed. He is dying, in earnest, his cancer having finally gotten the better of him. Chris carries him downstairs, wraps him in the white checked blanket and lays him on the couch. “Lol..,” Molly chokes. She lays beside him, holding his head in her lap, waiting. His breath is shallow, weak. He is struggling. I rub his smooth head, misshapen from the bulging tumor in his sinus cavity, and think what a good dog he’s been these thirteen years. How he put up with Molly dressing him in doll clothes when she was young, how he suffered though obedience school with her when anyone could see he hated it, how he curled up by my head when he’d found me crying on the bathroom floor the day my father died. Chris had wanted to bury the blanket with him, but I’d insisted we keep it. Funny how a thing like that, an ordinary blanket, could become so important.“Stop it!” Gladys cries, waking me. “Get away! I don’t like that!” Her voice is tight and thin, breaking. She sounds frightened.Thunder crashes loudly outside. It’s dark and rain is pelting the window by my bed, like it’s blowing sideways. It sounds like one hell of a storm.I open my eyes and find Eugene standing over Gladys on the far side of her bed. Both his hands are on her goiter. “Oh, Mommy,” he says, rubbing lotion into her throat, “don’t make such a fuss.” I hate the way he says that. How he calls us all Mommy, like it’s some kind of endearment. He smooths the extra lotion into his thick hands then wipes them on the front of his blue scrubs. As he walks around Gladys’ bed, his eyes on me, I see the bulge in his pants. I look at Gladys. Her face is stricken, eyes wide and popping, like a kid’s toy that’s been squeezed too hard.“Help! Someone! Help!” she cries, the only good voice between us. She looks toward the bright hall, pressing her call button over and over. But I know it’s no use. It’ll be at least ten minutes before anyone comes. Eugene knows it too.He smiles as he approaches, his piggy eyes locked on me. “Mommy, what’s wrong? Why so upset already?” He pulls a new pair of gloves from the box on my bedside table. I flinch as he snaps them into place.He lays his hands on me and I stiffen. There’s nothing I can do. There never is. He rolls me onto my side, hard. The sheets twist, catching my thin skin, and I know I’ll have another bruise in the morning. I feel him checking my diaper. His gloved hand brushes my backside, lingers a little too long. When he sees it’s dry he drops me. I roll onto my back, too fast for a broken old woman, and am dizzy for a second.“Now,” he says, leaning over me, “was that so bad?”I’m shaking despite all my efforts to stop. Somehow I know it’s part of it for him. I look away, hoping he’ll just leave. I see Gladys watching us, her finger still frantically pressing her call button. She really is a good roommate.Lightning flashes, lighting up the curtains from behind like a thousand headlights coming right for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been frightened by a storm, but this one is getting pretty bad. Eugene squats down beside my bed, his face level with mine . I feel him there, the warmth from his body close and uncomfortable. His breath is hot on my neck and I want to be anywhere but here, anywhere other than trapped in this body, in this place, in this moment.When he licks my ear I scream, a guttural rasping sound that’s worthless. I flail, fighting with all I’ve got, rage and desperation taking over. The adrenaline has made me stronger than I thought possible, and I see that one of my rolling pins has bloodied his nose. Now it’s Eugene who is calling for help. He backs away, holding his fat, broken face. His voice is angry and unsure, so different than the smarmy one he uses with us. I have enough time to see the shocked smile on Gladys’ face, and then they are descending like a flock of vultures, holding me down, my arms pressed to my sides, my shoulders held to the bed. I feel the sting of the needle as lightning flashes outside and everything goes fuzzy, heavy.The storm is blowing all around us, shaking leaves from the few trees in the small yard behind Landis Hall. It’s May 9, 1951. A Wednesday. And Chris and I are soaked. “See?” he says, laying beside me, “it’s not so scary.” He is propped up on one elbow, watching me. I am hiding, face down in the blanket. It’s new, an early graduation present from my grandmother, and I feel guilty. I should be taking better care of it than this. The checked white pattern will never survive all this mud. I hate storms. And this one is raging. The sky is black, despite it being four in the afternoon, with thunder so close at times it feels like it’s shaking me out of my skin. But here we are, right in the thick of it.“I don’t know how I let you talk me into this!” I scream, my voice muffled by the blanket and the storm. I am shaking, adrenaline pumping through my frightened body, but am starting to realize he’s right. It is thrilling, like being at the top of a roller coaster, waiting for the car to plunge over the top. I love that he made me come out here.“What are you guys doing?” Julie, my roommate, shouts from the doorway of the dorm. “It’s raining!”“We know,” Chris says, waving his hand at her. “Are you cold?” he asks me, rubbing the goosebumps on my bare arms. He takes his jacket off and lays it over my shoulders. It’s warm and smells like him; familiar, safe.“Was it the shivering that gave it away? Because I always do that when I’m about to be struck by lightning.”He laughs and it soothes me, like the first sip of coffee on a cold morning. I peek over and see how wet he is, how his blonde hair looks dark because of the rain, how his t-shirt clings to his strong chest and arms. He’s smiling and shaking his head at me. “We can go in if you want,” he says, laughing.“No! I’m doing this,” I say, defiantly. I roll over and point at him. “And when I die it’ll be your fault. You can explain it to my mother.”“I think I’ll risk it,” he says. He grabs his side of the blanket and crawls on top of me, his knees pressing divots into the blanket below. He is serious all of a sudden, thoughtful and determined. He looks as if he’s standing on the edge of a cliff. My stomach begins to twist. I glance at the door, wondering if Julie is still standing there, but it’s just the two of us. I look back at Chris and caution myself, knowing I could be reading this all wrong. The rain is falling around him, shining in the flood lights of the dorm across the street, and everything else has gone. No sound, no cold, no fear. Just us. Under the blanket I cross my fingers, on both hands.He leans forward, pressing my shoulders into the soft ground, and kisses me. He is with me, in this place of ours, I know it now. “Annie,” he whispers, “will you marry me?”The wind howls and the leaves blowing in the trees sound like distant applause.“Yes, dummy.” For once I have read it just right.“We’re not going to have any trouble,” she says, “I guarantee it.” It’s quiet except for feet shuffling around my bed, the squeak of rubber soles offensive as I wake. Gladys must’ve dropped her remote. No Judge Judy yet. The room is bright, even to my closed eyes, and there is commotion, as if a crowd has gathered. I am barely awake and already I’m on display. I snicker to myself. There was a time when I could command a room, when I’d wanted that kind of attention. But that was so long ago. Now I am just exhausted.“I mean it,” she says confidently. “Go on. We’ll be fine.”I hear the crowd go, shuffling on out. Well we're movin’ on up, my mind sings, to the east side. To a dee-luxe apartment in the skyyyy. I smile. I haven’t thought of that show in decades. I always liked it.“Mrs. Mercer?” Her voice is familiar and I know I like her. Round face, short bob, kind brown eyes. Susie, Sally, something like that. I open my eyes, shaking the last of the cobwebs loose. Sandy, like the beach. That’s it.She is smiling, her hands on her full hips. “That was some excitement last night.” She reaches for my hand. “Are you all right?” Fish don't fry in the kitchen, Beans don't burn on the grill. Took a whole lotta ta-ryyin', Just to get up that hill.I nod. I am very tired, like the day after I ran that half marathon with Molly, but I feel okay.“Good.” She squeezes my hand. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” She sighs. “Gladys passed away last night. Stroke.”I look over, and despite what Sandy has said, I expect to see Gladys there, her goiter bobbing below her chin as she searches the covers for her remote. But she is gone. The bed is bare, stripped naked to the thin mattress. One of the support bars is bent, the hinge by the head of the bed broken. Stroke my ass. Eugene’s foolishness has killed her.“I’m so sorry,” Sandy says. “I know you were friends.” She squeezes my hand and begins to bustle about, folding my clean laundry and tidying my dresser. No rest for the weary, I think, watching her work. I feel the warmth of my tears leaking over my wrinkled face and I smile. I’ll miss Gladys, despite her love of inane television. But I am happy for her. And a little jealous. She’s finally free.“It’s nearly noon,” Sandy says, opening the curtains. It’s a bright, clear day. Last night’s storm has blown out the last of the haze. “Molly will be here in a few hours.”My beautiful Molly. Seeing her has become bittersweet. The guilt is hard to bear.“Aaaan..ket,” I say forcefully, nodding toward the dresser. If Sandy comes through now I can be finished with the nonsense. My arm is dead, too tired from last night’s brawl to point, but all of my being is focused on the bottom drawer of that ugly dresser. I want my blanket, and everything it holds.“Honey, what is it?” She comes close, and for the first time in weeks I think it may work. She is looking right at me.“ket...aaanket.” I nod furiously toward the dresser, like one of those stupid bobble heads Chris’ brother used to put on his dashboard.“You want something?” she asks, walking toward the dresser. She points to it, like we’re playing the kids’ game Hot/Cold. “Something in here?” I nod. Yes! Yes! You’re getting warm, Sandy, very warm.“Something in the dresser?”“Eeeesss!” I stammer.“This drawer?” she says, opening the top one.Cold. Cold. Bottom drawer, Sandy! I shake my head.She closes the top drawer. “This one?” she asks, holding the handle on the second drawer.I shake my head. No, but you’re getting warmer!I feel my heart thumping through my little bird chest. This just might work!“Well,” she says, laughing, “there’s only one left. It must be something in the bottom dresser.”I nod. I nod. I nod until I think my head will snap off backwards.Sandy bends over, and I can hear the bottom drawer of the cheap particleboard dresser slide open. Weeks of pointless gestures and mumbling, weeks of trying to catch someone’s attention, and finally she’s realized. Hallelujah!“Mrs. Mercer,” she says, standing up, her hands on her hips, “honey there’s nothing in there. It’s completely empty.”The sun is warm and pleasant on my skin, the sensation at odds with my mood. I am distraught, so empty I feel hollow, like you could drop a penny inside and it would never stop falling. All I’d been counting on, all I’d needed to make it through was in that drawer. And now it’s gone. Probably stolen. Things disappear around here all the time. But who the hell would steal an old woman’s blanket?“Mom!” Molly says, walking through the doorway. She is in jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a large shopping bag at her side. She is beaming, and despite my mood, I smile. Even now, in her fifties, she’s gorgeous. People take better care now though, I suppose. Exercise and healthy eating. We never worried much about that. I press the button on my bed, slowly sitting up, and try to enjoy this bit of sunshine.“Are you alright?” She drags a folding chair to my bedside and sits. The paper bag she’s carrying rustles pleasantly as she puts it down. It reminds me how much I loved shopping, going out to lunch, having our girl’s days. She takes my hand. She is warm and vibrant, her touch soft, but her eyes are full of concern. “They said Gladys passed, and that there was some kind of episode last night.”Something like that. I have no way to explain. I’m not sure I’d want to even if I could. There are just some things you cannot share with your children, no matter how old they’ve gotten.I squeeze her hand and smile, reassuring her I’m alright. But I already know she won’t let this go. I can feel it coming.“We’re getting you out of here,” she says, looking around. Her face twists in disgust, like she smells something bad. I shake my head, not wanting to go through it again.“Mom, I mean it.” She leans forward, resting her elbows on my bed. She looks up at me and she’s twelve, lying on the shag carpet begging to stay up another fifteen minutes.Not on a school night, Sweetie.“I’m serious. Selling the house would be enough.” She sits up and shakes her head. “Jeff’s expecting a promotion and the kids can work themselves through school.” She stands up and starts pacing. “Grace doesn’t graduate until next year. She can work and save up. You did! It’ll be good for her.” When she steps from in front of Gladys’ bed I am shocked all over again that it’s empty. I shake my head, slowly, defiantly. I will not have my granddaughter’s college money be spent on me.“Dammit, Mom! This place is a...well it’s not the right place for you.”She’s right. It’s not really the right place for anyone. But it’s all I can afford. Chris’ chemo and radiation and all of the holistic therapies and treatments took every bit we’d saved. And then some. Eighteen years is a long time to be alone, I’ve discovered, without the other half of your heart. And I am weary. But I will not let her do this.I shake my head, slowly, defiantly.She smiles, the mischievous one that reminds me so much of Chris, and sits back down. “You know, I could just do it anyway. You’re not the boss of me anymore.”I squeeze her hand and we laugh. It’s over for now. But I know Molly like the back of my own wrinkled, palsied hand. It’s only a matter of time before she does this on her own.“Oh!” she says, looking down at her side, “I almost forgot! I brought you something!”I brace myself for the latest bejeweled glasses case or tissue box. A friend of my great niece has discovered bedazzling. I could join the Rockettes if I wanted.She reaches into the large paper bag and pulls out the white checked blanket. “I noticed how dirty it was the last time I was here,” she says. “So I washed it.” My eyes are running again as she gently spreads it on top of me. It smells just right. Like a fresh load of laundry. Like home. She tucks me in, cozy and warm and I feel wrapped in softness, cocooned in love, like an indian baby in a papoose. I am overwhelmed.She smiles, knowing she’s made me happy. “And I found these,” she says, flopping a small sandwich baggie of little blue pills on the table by my cranberry juice. “Not sure if you need them, but they were inside the blanket.” She gives me the mom face. “They almost went through the wash. Show them to Sandy. She’ll know what they are.”I know what they are. I hold her hand in mine, and nod, thanking her. This means everything. We visit for a while. I listen as she tells me about what schools Grace is considering for college and why Charlie (or is it Chandler?) switched from tuba to trumpet in marching band, about the race she’s training for, and Jeff’s obsession with making homemade wine. I absorb it all. I am so proud of her, of her family and who she’s become. Finally she looks at her watch and sighs. “I have to go. It’s an appointment all the way across town. I tried to change it, but you know how it goes. Couldn’t get a Monday opening for another two months.”I do know how it goes. How eighty-one years goes by in the blink of an eye, how love and gratitude can make your heart swell so it’s hard to breathe, and how some things are worse than letting go.She hugs me good bye and I hold her, my beautiful warrior princess. I close my eyes and she’s four, wearing her rainbow feather headdress, passing out pickles to her grandparents. I smile as she leaves, my face wet with tears, and reach for the baggie.Well we're movin’ on uuup, my mind whispers, to a dee-luxe apartment in the skyyyy.
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