It isn’t much to look at, small and dark, only six inches tall, round hairless belly that never shakes when it laughs. Black eyes, all pupils, watch my blue, watery ones. When I look at its eyes, it looks into mine.
Drool spills down my cheek, but I can’t stop it. My twisted mouth opens more when I try to speak or call out for help, only increasing the stream. Six weeks I’ve been lying here, unmoving, watching it watching me.
Every two hours, a caretaker comes to my room, moving me into a new position to prevent bedsores. How do they know what feels comfortable? I can’t tell them, and they don’t usually ask. If they do, they pay no attention to my eyes straining to make contact with theirs.
My flannel sheets soften the hard mattress, but the large wrinkle pushing against my arthritic hip keeps me awake until I’m turned once again.
The staff are gentle, but hurried. They come and they go, leaving me with four beige walls, an empty bed next to mine for company and a window too far away to see. Sometimes, they change the television channel to a station they think my son said I like.
It drops down from the small gray TV set fastened to the wall onto my dresser, sitting now on top of the flower arrangement left by my pastor. It nibbles on the petals, turning their edges brown and withered. It belches and urinates on the flower. The plant wilts.
At two thirty, I face the clock on the wall. It’s an institutional style with large black numbers and a second hand painted red. The red hand hurries like the staff here, around and around, moving by rote, without thinking about what it’s doing or having what could be a conversation with the other hands. But, they at least catch up with one another occasionally and share gossip. I hear them whispering to It: “How long does she have? Where will you take her? How?”
It just smiles that wide-toothed grin, its greenish teeth gnashing and its black tongue waggling at me between its fangs.
Today, at six forty-five, my son Harold sits down on the bed beside me and takes my hand. He smiles and squeezes my fingers.
“How are you, Mom?” he whispers.
My eyes fill with tears, and he turns his head away from me.
“I brought you fresh flowers.” His voice strains to sound as cheerful as the bright card on the potted greenery, waxed and stiff, wrapped in purple foil and strangled with a bright white bow. He sets the large plant on the dresser in the exact spot as the last doomed cuttings. This one is still alive, its root ball crowded and overwatered, but, like me, yearning for the earth.
A knock on the door relieves him of further obligation. Harold kisses my forehead with promises of another visit tomorrow. I watch the back of his thinning hair as he disappears through the door, passing my next visitor.
It is back, swinging on the doorknob. It flies through the air and lands again on the bedpost, teetering there for a moment, then somersaulting onto the end of the bed to watch my treatment.
John, my physical therapist pulls my arm out and in. He moves my legs next, following the same rhythm, too fast. His tattooed arm lifts each leg, bending my knees. I watch the dragon tattoo swirl around his elbow, leave his arm to glide onto my sheets.
It leaps and lands on the dragon’s back. Long talons dig into the dragons scales; blood spurts onto the sheets and my face as they thrash on the blanket. I can taste the dragon’s blood in my open mouth. I try to spit, but only manage to drool again.
"I’ve got it, Mrs. Prendergast." The nice young man pulls a tissue from the box on my nightstand and dabs at my lips. “You’re moving much better tonight. Let’s see how you do tomorrow. I’ll get Wanda to give you your nightcap and maybe you can sleep better tonight."
He winks. "She said you were awake half the night. No midnight parties for you, you need your rest.” He laughs as he pats my arm.
The dragon has thrown It down beside me and slithers back onto John’s arm. There is no blood on him or on my sheets, but I still taste it.
The clock hands rest at eight and Nurse Allen comes in to change my urine bag. She adjusts my intravenous fluid bag, looking at her watch and flipping open a phone that she had concealed in her pants pocket, now playing a soft jazz tune. As she turns from my bed, It crawls under my bedspread. I lie on my back and watch the small lump move from the edge of the bed toward my leg. I feel its rough body climb onto my knee, pricking my skin with his claws.
It stands up now making a tent with its obscene body. The lump under the blanket waddles up my leg, pausing on my stomach. I feel its small weight pressing on my bladder. The blanket over me rises again and again as It
jumps in place, using my body its trampoline.
Nurse Allen turns back to glance over her shoulder at me, still arguing with her ten-year-old. She smiles at me before snapping her phone shut and sliding it into her pocket. “Your bag’s filling up again, Ms. P? I just changed it two minutes ago. I’ll bring another one later. Don’t do anything else before I get back, you hear?”
I hear the door shut and the sound of her laughter grows muffled. The blanket slowly rises and falls over my stomach. A loud snore comes from underneath. I feel Its cold weight curled up on me. I strain at my right arm and my arm moves, finally, after all these weeks. My right leg moves just a bit as well. The left side of my body lies still as death.
I move my right arm up and stare down towards my body. It is there, as I thought, snoring low now. It sounds like purring. My hand moves toward It and my fingers (bless them) open up to grasp. Its eyes fly open. A low growl rumbles between the green teeth that clamp down on my fingers. Blood seeps from my fingertips and I
scream silently. It releases my hand and I draw my fingers slowly to my face. It settles, satisfied to have made Its position clear, back on my stomach and closes it eyes.
Nurse Allen enters my room, sees the blood and my hand raised. "Oh, my goodness, Mrs. P., did you bite yourself? You must not be yourself. I’m going To have to restrain you."
She wraps my hand in a towel and pulls the alarm. Three orderlies race into the room and assist her in tying my legs and arms to the bedrails. My eyes shout to them, "Not me! Not me!" but they mistake my fear for anger.
The youngest orderly hangs back as if I might throw off my restraints and devour him next. He exits before Nurse Allen can explain that they need to visit me every hour tonight “until she calms down.”
“Mrs. P., I’m going to go call your son. He won’t be happy about this, but I’m getting off in thirty minutes. I can’t sit with you all night. Well, you take care. I’ll see you Tuesday. That’s two days from today, in case you’ve lost track.”
The door shuts again and she’s gone. They don’t bother to turn me this night, as that would entail undoing the crazy lady’s restraints. It sleeps, stretching occasionally, sometimes emitting an odor like stagnant ditch water. The stink permeates the room.
Sleep comes finally, just as sunlight pushes through the blinds.
I awake to Dr. Treble’s voice and his hands, removing my restraints. "Mrs. Prendergast, I hear you had an eventful night." He shines the pen light into my eyes.
It is awake now, too. It peeks out from beneath the blanket, yawns, and begins to crawl up toward my face. It wraps my hair tight around its claws and clambers up the side of my head. It sits on my forehead with a sickening squish as the doctor continues his examination. Its putrid odor wafts down to my nostrils.
“Can you move your arm again for me?” The doctor is moving my right arm. He lays my sore hand gently at my side. I close my eyes and will my arm to move. I raise my elbow a few inches into the air and stop before my arm flops back onto the bed. We continue in this manner for several minutes.
“This is splendid,” he concludes. “I was speaking with your son yesterday. I told him as soon as you could move and begin eating, you could go home with him. But, I’m not sure if it’s safe to discharge you if you continue to hurt yourself. Let’s give it a few more days. I’ll check back with you on Friday.”
He closes the beige folder with my name printed on the cover, hands it to Nurse Greene and leaves without looking back.
“Tch, tch,” It chides from my head. It slides backward down onto my nose so that its eyes are inches from mine. It rotates so that its bare buttocks face me, waggles its cheeks as it leans toward the tip of my nose and inserts
its fingers inside my nostrils. The sickening smell fills my head, my eyes water. I bring my hand halfway to my
face, and then remember.
Nurse Greene turns from filling my chart and sees my hand hovering in front of my bleeding nose. “Lord, she’s done it again,” she says. She bats at my hand, knocking it down on the bed and sending a pain soaring through my arm.
I moan, and this time the sound comes out loud and strong. It digs harder now; the blood flows across my mouth and onto the pillow. My head is turning. I’m turning my head! I shake it back and forth, but Its claws are
inside piercing my flesh It only retreats when Nurse Greene brings a wet washcloth over my nose. She pushes a button and I’m sitting up, the wet cold cloth a welcome relief.
It flicks blood droplets onto my face as it slides down my pillow. Jose and Gabriel, the day orderlies arrive and refasten my restraints. Nurse Greene inserts a needle into my IV fluid and I sleep.
Thursday arrives with tingling feelings in my left side. My left hand moves up a few inches. I grasp the blanket’s edge with my right and lift. It snores softly, head on the pillow It made from my nightgown. I lower the blanket squeezing the edge as I do, practicing, and building my strength.
A loud knock on my door startles It. I see the lump under my blanket rise; it tunnels toward me like a bed mole. It sits on my left cheek when John enters. He walks backward into the room pulling a wheelchair, tentative smile lighting up his young face.
“How’s my girl today?” he asks. “Feel like a spin around the farm?” I try to smile, but my face is still partially frozen. I imagine how grotesque I must look to him. He pretends not to notice while settling me into the chair, fastening enough straps to hold a gorilla, not an eighty-pound partially-paralyzed woman.
John places a cotton cloth in my right hand. “See how long you can hold this for me, Mrs. P.”
The cloth falls onto my lap as we enter the therapy room. I squeeze the fabric in my hand until the pain shoots up my wrist, and I count to eighty-five before my fingers release. How long does it take?
It does not follow us when we leave. It sits on my pillow, waiting, as I’m pulled back into my room, staring at me, black, thin lips drawn downward, eyes narrowed. I grasp John’s arm with my right hand as he lowers me to the bed.
It does not move. I raise my head to keep from touching down and John laughs.
“I won’t drop you, Mrs. P. Don’t worry.”
My head falls back onto Its mouth, open with teeth bared. They sink into my scalp and a scream leaves my lips. John scans my face, sees nothing and places his hand on my forehead. The blood seeps from beneath my head.
“Help!” I whisper, my voice gravelly from nonuse. Nurse Allen calls for the emergency doctor on site. I don’t know him or recognize his name. He and Harold whisper near my door, then throw looks back across their shoulders as they continue their conversation in the hallway.
Other voices come and go, some raised, some stammering. Harold becomes louder so that I can understand every few words.
“Needle... pillowcase? Irresponsible... morons! How could this happen? My mother...” Then, “My lawyer… not another night,” comes through the faux wood door.
Dr. Stevens appears by my bedside next, trembling, his large face reddish purple. “Mrs. Prendergast, I’m so sorry for what happened to you this morning. There was a terrible mistake… we’ll get to the bottom of this. Your son is taking you home. He’s bringing the car around. Is that okay with you?”
I stare past him. It sits on the bedpost, licking its thin black lips. I manage a twisted smile and narrow my eyes at It until It pushes out Its lower lip into a pout.
I wait until the doctor turns his back and then I push my tongue out between my teeth. I feel a laugh rising inside when It turns away, wrapping its arms around its body and rocking back and forth.
My son brings the wheelchair and John lifts me again, setting me down this time with only a waist belt attached. Harold pushes me toward the open door, spins me around and starts pulling me back.
Another wheelchair appears in the doorway being pushed by Jose. An old, frail woman stares ahead without seeing, weaving from side to side.
“Mrs. P.," says Jose, "meet Mrs. Johnson. She’s taking over your room."
Harold glares at him.
Jose moves the wheelchair over to the empty bed by the window and turns down the bedspread. As he lifts Mrs. Johnson onto the bed, It turns slowly. Black lips draw back from green teeth as It swings down from my bedpost,
scurries across the carpet and begins to climb up the bedspread of the other bed. I watch as her eyes grow wide, mouth frozen in silent scream.
I blink back the tears as I turn my head forward.
Harold rolls his eyes at Jose and leans into the wheelchair handles, pulling me out and into the hallway. We head to the glass door with the Welcome to Divine Care sign painted in silver flourishes.
I don’t look back.
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