June 22, 2001
Black eyes with red slits down the center stare at me. Bugs scurry out of the gray, matted hair and down the puckered, crackled face that belong to those villainous eyes. Tight, splintered lips turn up and display tawny, rotten teeth. The mouth opens, dispensing the scent of burning flesh. “Pearl, it’s time—”
My eyes spring open, but my mind is empty, unoccupied by any thought of remembrance. Why is my heart beating so fast? With a trembling hand, I cover my heart until it slows to a dawdling pace. I lift my head and search for the red numbers, which reads 10:28. “Is that all?” I drop my head back on the soft pillow and close my eyes.
Is it true your life flashes before your eyes right before you die?
What if you can’t remember that life?
Tap, tap, tap.
I open my eyes.
The door opens, letting in a hint of light from the hallway into my dimly lit room. “Are you awake, Mrs. Pearl?” a soft, feminine voice I don’t recognize whispers through the crack.
I heave a sigh. “Yes, come in.” I brace my hands underneath myself and push up, but my elbows buckle and slide back to my sides, making my back hit the mattress. My eyelids flicker when tears swell behind them, and I wipe at them quickly with my quivering hand.
The woman with the soft voice strolls in, closing the door behind her, and goes straight to the only window in my small room. She edges open the darkening curtains, letting a trace of sunshine seep through the cracks of the blinds.
“Okay?” she asks, glancing over her shoulder.
When my eyes adjust to the faint light, I nod.
She flings the curtains the rest of the way open, filling the room with daylight. She turns around and gives me a soft smile as she walks to the light switch and flips it on, making the room come to life.
Without taking my eyes off the woman in the light pink scrubs, I feel around on the bedside table until I find the ceramic bowl. I grab my teeth, clanging them against the rim and shaking off the excess water, before popping them into place with ease.
The woman standing in front of me slowly fades away, and Mary appears. My breath gets caught in my throat, and my praying hands cover my opened mouth. “Mary, is that you?”
She laughs. “Yes, Mrs. Pearl. It’s me.”
I tilt my head as my eyes scan her. “You’re different. Did you cut your hair?”
Her eyes light up. “Oh, Mrs. Pearl, you noticed. Yes, I did, and colored it.” She runs her hands down the burgundy bob and pushes up on the ends. “Do you like it?”
“Yes,” I mutter, peeking at the red flashing numbers on the clock. “It’s lovely.” I look away from the clock and back at her. “You’re late.”
“Uh-huh, it took longer than I thought. I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Oh, it’s all right. The big one took care of me just fine.”
She lifts a brow. “You mean Debra.”
I look at my hands, now knotting the blanket. “Yes, that’s what I said. She brought me breakfast. Burned oatmeal.” I pause, twisting my lips. “No, no—it was runny eggs and flat pancakes.” I beam. “Yes, that was it.”
She sighs. “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad. Do you need your bed pan?”
“Yes, it was, and no, I’m fine,” I grumble. God, I miss the days when I could pee on my own, or do other things that are too embarrassing to share with others. It’s not fun getting old.
Her hands find her hips and she taps her foot. “What year is it?”
My eyes fix on the veins under my thin skin covering my hands as they straighten the cluster of pleats of the blanket. “Doesn’t matter.”
“It’s 2001, Mrs. Pearl.”
“Already? Time sure flies when you’re having fun.” I smirk.
“Mm-hmm.” She rewards me with a crooked smile and walks to the closet. “Who’s the president?”
I roll my eyes. “Don’t care.” I put my arms underneath myself and push up, but fall back for the second time. Or is it the third?
She shakes her head while pulling open the shuttered bi-fold doors. “Don’t be like that, Mrs. Pearl.” She claps her hands together. “Now, let’s get you dressed!” she says, disappearing into the closet and emerging with a purple dress, fanning it against her body. “How’s this one? I like this one.”
I shrug and look away. “Sure,” I mumble and push up. At last I get into a sitting position, feeling elated. Arching my stiff back, I hear crack, crack, and I wince. Urgh. My back aches all the time. Not slightly, God no, it hurts like the devil’s inside me, pulling my spine apart. Some game he’s playing, and by George if he isn’t winning! But I guess that’s an unpleasant part of getting old, one of many. When you get to be my age—well, whatever age that may be—the aches follow you from the time you wake to the time you fall asleep, and then after.
I throw the blanket off my legs and swing my feet off the side of the bed, dangling above the tile floor. I take a deep breath before I stand on rickety legs and flap my arms as I wobble.
Mary’s at my side in an instant. “Oh, Mrs. Pearl, let me help you.” She grabs my waist, but I fall back on the bed and take her with me.
She regains her balance and straightens. “We’ll need your wheelchair, Mrs. Pearl. Your legs don’t want to cooperate today, do they?” A small, sad smile creeps over her face.
“I’ll just take a nap.” I grab the old, worn-out red-and-white flannel shirt I like to snuggle with and lay my head back on the pillow, but she grabs my arms and pulls me back into an upright position.
“Oh, no you don’t! You just woke up from your nap. We need to get you dressed for your party.”
Before I can protest, she lifts the silk gown over my head, tosses it in the hamper, and replaces it with the muumuu.
She grabs my hairbrush from the dresser. “Your birthday party.”
I look at the floor and scratch my head. “It’s my birthday? Today?”
“Well, no, it’s tomorrow, but it’s the only day your family could come.” She runs the brush through my tousled, thinning white hair.
I look back at her as my head bobs to the side with each yank of the brush. “My family?”
“Yes, your great-granddaughter, Meredith, was here last month and…”
My eyes drop to the floor as Mary’s voice fades. I remember having a daughter at one time, but I don’t remember her name. It’s at the tip of my tongue, and it’s so frustrating that I can’t reach it. What is her name? I rub a finger along the rivers on my forehead. I had boys—two, maybe three—but I can’t recall their names either. A feeling of desperate suffocation starts in the middle of my aching back, crawling forward slowly to envelop my wheezing chest.
Why can’t I remember their names?
I clutch the flannel shirt tightly, frantically, and notice it’s missing a few buttons and is frayed and tattered at the edges. I hold it to my nose and take a deep breath. The sweet vanilla-and-cherry scent I loved is no longer there. Where did it go?
“…that family is super rich.” Mary huffs, waves the brush in the air, and drops it on the dresser. “Meredith wanted for nothing, I can tell you that,” she says as she steps toward the wheelchair sitting in the corner and bends at the waist, releasing the brakes.
She straightens, grips the handles with tight fists, and glimpses at the ceiling. “Oh, never mind,” she says on an exhale before pushing the chair toward me.
“Where are we going?” I ask as she hoists me up and quickly helps me slide into the seat.
She sighs. “To your party. I just told you, remember?”
I shake my head, my face burning with frustration. “I don’t want a party.”
She grabs my thick glasses from the nightstand and puts them over my eyes before placing the multi-colored afghan from off the end of the bed around my legs. “It’s your hundred and fifth tomorrow. You’re the oldest here at the home, maybe even the whole state of South Carolina. Don’t worry, it’s just your family. But…” She beams, her eyes sparkle with excitement, and she bites her bottom lip. “Live 5 News and The Post and Courier want to do a news piece on you. You can be on television! Isn’t that great?”
I wave her off. “Oh, I have nothing worth talking about.”
“Well, you can think about it. It sounds like fun.” She opens the door, pushing down on the stopper with the thick sole of her soft leather clog. “Let’s go to your party.” She wheels me out the door and kicks the stopper, releasing it. The door closes behind us with a soft click.
“All right, let’s get this over with,” I say with spite not directed at Mary. I want to get this over with—this entire miserable life over with.
We pass by doors with colorful drawings attached to them: big black trains with red cabooses, stick figures under blazing yellow suns, and farm animals in front of bright red barns. Most aren’t even colored in the lines. They’re dangling their family in front of my face like a slice of sweet, sticky pecan pie. They’re taunting me. We have family, and youuu don’t! A heated wave crashes into my heart when a pang of jealousy comes out of nowhere. It’s an emotion I’m not used to, and I hate it. Others here are lucky to have a family who visits them often. My door has sat unadorned since the day I arrived, and it will be that way until I leave in the back of the coroner’s van. No, I don’t want the pie—they can keep it.
The aroma of turkey and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and green-bean casserole wafts through the cafeteria when we enter. A dozen round tables fill the open room, occupied by residents chatting with their relatives. It’s all the same. “How are you today, Papa? You look great, Granny! Oh, my bunions are killing me.” Blah, blah, blah.
My eyes roam amidst my bitterness, stopping on a young woman with a little girl sitting at a table near the wall of windows overlooking the backyard, staring in my direction. The woman whispers in the little girl’s ear before they both stand.
This must be my family.
Mary pushes me forward, stopping at the table with a small store-bought cake that doesn’t look edible enough to eat, but I’ll never complain…out loud.
A flash of red catches my eye. I turn my head and see the woman’s cherry nail polish melt from her fingertips. I glance around, but everyone else is greeting one another with pleasantries. I rub my eyes behind my glasses before looking back at the dripping polish and leaning in. No, it’s not polish—it’s blood!
It trickles from her nails, making ten tiny puddles on the floor. The sound amplifies like water dripping into a cave’s pool. Plop. Plop. Plop. She must’ve chopped off her fingertips with the cake knife. But I get a glimpse of the knife blade—clean—on the table. When I look back at her nails, the blood is dry and turned back into the God-awful red polish. I shudder and rub my eyes again. They’re playing tricks on me. God, I hope I’m not hallucinating, but I’m afraid that’s what has happened. What kind of pills did that big woman give me this morning?
“You’re shivering; let me close the vent. It’s a hot one today, and they have the air cranked up.” Mary slides a chair under the ceiling vent. “That’s Southern heat for you.”
I slouch. “No, I’m fine, Mary,” I say before she has a chance to step onto the chair.
“You sure? It’s not a problem.”
“I’m fine,” I repeat. I don’t want her thinking I’m going crazy on top of my forgetfulness.
“Okay.” Mary looks at her watch. “Do you want your lunch?”
I shake my head and look at the white fluff in the pink cardboard box next to the clean knife. “No.” I swallow; my throat feeling like it’s coated in sand. “I’ll just have cake.”
I watch the woman’s cherry nails land on my shoulder as she bends and kisses my cheek. “Happy birthday, Nana,” she says into my ear before straightening.
“This is your great-granddaughter Meredith,” Mary says.
I shoo her away with my hand. “I know, I know. I remember,” I snap.
Meredith’s fancy black dress, which is hanging from her scrawny body, makes it appear as if she’s on her way to a funeral. By the looks of her sickly thin figure and pale complexion, I’d say it’s her own.
She tosses her long, brown hair over her shoulder, showing off an enormous diamond ring, among others, and several thick gold necklaces wrapped around her tiny neck. More diamonds decorate her ears. Are they sure I’m related to this woman?
I turn to the cute, little brown-haired, blue-eyed girl, and my mind surges with perplexity. My breath hitches, and my back straightens. “Angela?”
“This is Sara—”
Oh. I slouch again.
“—your great-great-granddaughter, Nana,” Meredith screeches.
“I’m not deaf,” I say, cringing, and swat my ear.
Meredith pushes the timid girl closer—her flip-flops shuffle across the tile while her hand fists the skirt of her pale yellow dress.
She lets go of her dress, and I take her small hand in mine. “You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago.” Angela. I smile, feeling rejuvenated by remembering her name. Angela.
She drops her eyes and grins as her pale cheeks turn the color of a pink rose and expands over her freckled nose.
“Here, let me have that.” Mary takes a blue balloon that reads HAPPY BIRTHDAY from Sara’s other hand and ties it to the arm of my wheelchair.
Sara gives me a gentle hug as if afraid I’ll break. “Happy birthday, Nana,” she says, her voice small and apprehensive.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” I say, smiling at her when she releases me. “How old are you?”
“I’m eleven, almost twelve.”
“That’s a good age,” I say, turning away and glancing around the room at all the unfamiliar faces involved in trivial conversations. Meredith is sitting on the sofa, alone, watching us, chewing a piece of gum with her arms folded, and rapidly bouncing her leg over her knee. I look back at Sara. “Where’s your father?”
Sara’s face drops as she puts her hands behind her back and twists back and forth. “He died in a car accident a long time ago.”
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” I say to her as Mary hands me a piece of cake. “Thank you, Mary.
“You’re welcome,” Mary says.
I pick up the plastic fork with shaky hands and shove the cake into my mouth, swallowing the dry morsel with a gulp. My taste buds don’t care it’s my birthday. But I don’t want to hurt Meredith’s feelings, so I nod my approval of the delicious flavor to her and eat it without complaining. She shakes her head when Mary offers her a piece.
“Are you nervous, Nana?” Sara asks.
I turn my attention back to the little girl in front of me. “No, sweetheart”—I chuckle—“I’m not nervous; I shake sometimes. It’s a part of getting old. When you get to be my age, you’ll do things you can’t control. It’s life.”
“How old are you?”
I stare at her. How old am I? Mary told me earlier…
After a moment, Mary answers, “She’ll be one hundred and five tomorrow.” She places a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll leave you to your party, Mrs. Pearl. Will you be all right?”
I pat her hand. “You go. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, I’ll come back and check on you later,” Mary says and walks away.
Sara stands beside my wheelchair, gawking at me.
“What, sweetheart? What’s on your mind?” I ask.
She scrunches her nose. “You’re old.”
“Sara!” Meredith shouts, and Sara jumps. “That’s not nice; you can’t say things like that.”
I narrow my eyes at Meredith. “Why not? I am old, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
“But—” Meredith starts as loud music shrieks from her direction.
I grab the chair’s arms and recoil away from the sound. “Good lord, what is that awful noise?”
Meredith digs around in her huge black purse and pulls out a little silver gadget. She flips it open, silencing it. “Hold on, Scott,” she speaks into it before pulling it away from her ear and standing. “I’ve got to take this.” She turns to Sara. “Will you be okay here with Nana?”
“She’ll be fine.” I flick my hand at Meredith. “Go, so Sara and I can get acquainted.”
Without saying another word, Meredith marches down the hall, already speaking into the small telephone. Her voice fades when she disappears, and I shake my head.
Sara’s arms wrap around her midsection tightly and she drops her chin to her chest, as if she were trying to hide the enormous frown on her face.
I pull out one of the plastic folding chairs sitting around the table and pat the seat. “Come sit next to me.”
She plops down, heaving a great sigh, before she picks up the fork in front of her and stabs lumps of spongy yellow and creamy white, spreading it across the paper plate.
“What’s troubling you, sweetheart?”
Sara drops the fork on the plate, forgetting the cake massacre, and pulls a necklace from under her dress. She slides the object attached to the chain back and forth across her chin and narrows her eyes as she looks at the floor. “She’s always talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone,” she says and tightens her lips.
I nod at the necklace. “What do you have there?”
She stops, lifts her chin, and holds it toward me. “It was Grandma Lillian’s. I never met her. My mom gave it to me.” Her weary eyes glance at the empty hall before returning them back to me. “She gives me presents, but she never spends time with me. She—”
I lean forward as my eyes fix on the X-shaped diamond pendant and all the sound around me disappears. I reach for it, not able to look away, and the moment my fingers touch it, my body turns cold, pins and needles shoot down my spine, and a burning pain sears my fingertips. I quickly drop the ornament and shrink back in my chair. My unfocused eyes clear and all my forgotten memories rush back all at once like two steam trains colliding in my brain. I remember Lillian and Meredith. I remember Angela, my boys, and Pierce. I remember Hazel and her X—her godforsaken X. Hot bile threatens to come up in my throat, and I grind my teeth behind tight lips. Everything she did to me throughout the years sickens me.
I remember it all.
I take a deep breath before focusing on the amazing blue eyes glued to mine. “Your mom loves you,” I say with clarity. “People today are too busy for what’s truly important. Things were different when I was growing up. We were poor, we didn’t have a lot.” I look at the empty hallway where Meredith disappeared and flick my wrist. “It was a time before they had portable telephones. We talked to each other. We told stories.” I look back at Sara. “Would you like to hear a story?”
Her back straightens. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Have you heard of a witch named Hazel Sullivan?”
Her eyes bulge, almost popping out of their sockets, and she sucks in a lungful of air. “You mean a real, live witch, Nana?”
“Yes, dear, a real, live witch. She wasn’t like the witches from fairy tales or movies you see today. You know, the ones with big noses, who wear the pointy black hats, and ride on brooms? No, she was none of those things. I lived next to Hazel for five years.” I hold up an outstretched hand. “The first time I met her was the summer of 1919, and it was the worst summer of my life.”
I shake my head and gaze at the tall glass windows overlooking the back patio. I can’t believe it was so long ago.
I look back into Sara’s eyes, which are dancing with attentiveness. “I wish I would’ve never met her, but by accident I did. That summer haunted me throughout my entire life.”