Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
Elaine Hartwood bent over the pockmarked nightstand, collecting her breath. In the midst of a fitful sleep she had knocked over her Life Alert badge, which under normal circumstances hugged her wrist reassuringly. Within this moment of self-inflicted torment, it felt to Elaine as though a buoy had slipped her by, in brine-cluttered waters that ripped up tide pool habitats indiscriminately.
Elaine, still prodding the carpet with her slim fingers, croaked at length. She listened for footsteps for a moment and, hearing nothing, croaked again, albeit more desperately. A pair of sanitary slippers padded down the corridor with an IV drip in tow. Elaine couldn’t tell who was attached to the feet: no, not from this angle, but what did it matter?
“Miss Hartwood?” A voice probed the space, low and serene. Elaine shrunk back against the sheets, her eyes as fierce and lit up as a lemur’s. Sheets like wet parchment clamped onto her ankles.
The nurse regarded Elaine with twitchy, owl-like eyes. Her hair, icing white, was pulled into a modest up-do that rendered her features near ghoulish. A mottled red patch between her eyebrows suggested a possible first attempt at tweezing. Ugly and sympathetic, she must not have been older than twenty-five years.
“Miss Hartwood?” She pressed a clammy hand to Elaine’s cheek. “Everything alright in here?” Elaine hung stubbornly from the bedpost, dropping her arm at intervals in search of a single split fiber on that goddamn nylon cord. She cast the nurse a furtive glance, choking back a ball of spit. The nurse grabbed Elaine by the armpits, to which she, 60 years the woman’s senior, could not protest. That didn’t stop Elaine from yelping out loud, her face a paper mâché mask of stress wrinkles.
“Please don’t touch me!” She cried with the nervous energy of a child. With her back reoriented against the pillow; she expended the last of her energy digging those slim fingers into the pocket of her nightdress. Wisps of white hair marched along to the tune of static.
“Miss Hartwood,” The nurse stood back, huffing. “Please refrain from moving around. Not only does it make my job harder, it’s terribly straining on the body.” Elaine sniffed, her eyes refusing the woman’s. ‘Miss’ was a more than a bit patronizing to Elaine. She was rotten, riddled, and afflicted on the outside, and she knew it.
The nurse spotted the red piece of plastic on the ground before Elaine could let slip another cry. “This must be what you need.” She said with deliberate slowness. The nurse stooped down and pinched the object between her forefingers. She let it dangle in her grasp, pendulum-like, knowing full well that Elaine could only stare. Then, without warning, the nurse plopped the object into Elaine’s lap with a smirk that pulled her lips away ragged.
She skirted the edge of Elaine’s bed. “Agreeability” she said, idly thumbing the scrapbook at Elaine’s bedside, “is a learned skill. No wonder this room this hasn’t had a visitor since ’05.” She left a few of the pages astray with her exit.
Following the nurse’s trajectory, Elaine set the corridor ablaze with her eyes. It was one thing to be patronizing, god knows Elaine had dealt with more than her share of that after turning sixty-five. All the pamphlets for American Fort designer coffins, silk-lined and detailed in gold; the advertisements for discounted liposuction and recommendations to glossy faced surgeons, with specialties in gastric bypass and chin lifts and cataract removal and even breast augmentation. She couldn’t be upset, exactly: these sorts of things tended to happen in old age. There was always something to correct, always something commanding cash flow from puffy, overstuffed clutches full of Visas and Amexes and Mastercards, numbers of massage therapists and chiropractors and grief counselors.
All of this Elaine knew, but at the ripe age of eighty-seven, she figured she could at least be done with other people’s bullshit, more specifically nurses with grudges and foul temperaments who treated senior citizens like lingering roadkill. She lay there, her legs spread apart, thin and veiled with faint blue veins. It didn’t bother her as much as it used to, to know that days in which men would climb between them were long over.
She sat like this for a long time, breathing low and hoarse. Abbey Mason, her red-haired niece, winked at her from a laminated photograph on one of the scrapbook’s bent pages. Her smile was bright and dazzling when the picture was taken in August, and her white bosom pouted from underneath a red tube top. It was amazing to see what teens, or more realistically tweens, could get away with in terms of clothing. Back in the distant years of preparatory school, Elaine remembered being forced into those awful skirts of the knee-length variety.
Abbey’s smiling face wasn’t the only mystery in the room, though, (what could be so great about the age of chronic acne and lewd teenage boys)? because a yellow wristband blinked rhythmically next to Elaine’s nightstand. She looked it over, her eyes narrowing into two fine slits, and made a grab for her coke bottle lenses.
In high definition the wrist-let was not just a wrist-let but in fact some sort of digitally impressive watch. Elaine once more reached over her nightstand to pick up the object, which shone lamely in her hands. The interface displayed colorful apps, which led Elaine to the conclusion that the watch must belong to her millennial-aged nurse.
But some strange activity was happening within the device; it kept on brightly pulsing with no indication of a timer, not even a heart rhythm. Elaine held the watch in front of her glasses, let the wrist strap dangle around. She poked its knobs below the screen and even sprung it against the desk a few times. Yet the dreaded thing kept on flashing, as if she didn’t get the message the first time.
After a while, Elaine got bored of looking at the watch and decided to stuff it in a random drawer, along with her heart pills, aspirin, and neon pink hair ties, courtesy of Abbey. Her sleep wasn’t as fitful that night, and she didn’t wake up so frequently for her oxygen tank.
A week went by, and Elaine began to notice the absence of her on-call nurse. A new, large woman with pleasant dimples responded to each of Elaine’s demands without hesitation or scrutiny. One day, while Elaine was watching the large woman scrub at the cavernous space between her breasts, she found herself asking: “What happened to the other woman? Jules?”
The new woman considered this for a moment, pressing her heels up against the bathtub. She brushed away a few suds from her manicure with a wet cloth, pressing her lips together.
“She won’t be in for another few days. There was an incident involving her partner, so our boss agreed to let her fly home.” Looking somewhat pensive, she studied the bathroom’s wilting wallpaper, then turned her attention back to her client. “Transitions are always tough. In your case, I mean.” She plucked the wet sponge from the bathtub’s outer rim and resumed scrubbing. In assisted living, there was simply no consideration for modesty.
Warmth spread its tendrils over Elaine as the sponge made its way up between her raised armpits. The feeling was good, no doubt, but it did nothing to soften her expression. Surely, she hadn’t driven her last nurse to madness with her endless string of requests: this tea is too hot, the chair needs more padding, the living space could use new board games. After all, Julia Stern was paid to be there; Elaine was more or less held against her will.
In the space of two days, Elaine resigned herself to oil pastel art projects and counting the grey linoleum squares beneath her feet during lunchtime. She even managed to make friends with a dark-eyed crone who was always swathed, ironically, in those wick-away sports tees that implied some level of physical activity. She still found it patronizing to be called ‘miss’, though less so. She still refused most dinners that hailed from the microwave, especially when meat was involved. Not that she was ever partial to meat, anyway. Not after those trips to Cambodia in her formative years.
At a quarter to three, the icing-haired woman with the repugnant face entered through the automatic doors, her eyes struggling to contain fat tears. The large woman flitted away immediately to tend to her, along with a few other staff members. As much as Elaine loathed her old nurse, she truly wouldn’t have minded the cacophony: that is, if she wasn’t awaiting a plastic fork and spoon demanded by her cold pasta.
She stirred, watching the scene unfold in front of her. Stern inhabited the slightly miffed but sympathetic receptionist’s chair, her body bent low as if bracing for impact and with three sets of hands on her shoulders. A fair distance away Elaine spotted that same yellow watch adorned on the nurse’s wrist, its screen black as charcoal scraped from the bottom of a George Foreman grill. Elaine couldn’t make out what she was muttering, not even with her hearing aids, but she still couldn’t imagine anything positive coming from those puffy, worm-like lips.
Several minutes of consoling did little more than move Stern out of the receptionist’s chair and into the back room. When her new nurse resurfaced, Elaine was only capable of thinking one thing: here comes my fork and spoon.
She was alarmed by the cold prick of those awful nails belonging to her new nurse, who stooped down to Elaine’s level, perhaps forgetting that the elderly woman was perfectly capable of manning her own wheelchair. Elaine collected the necessary utensils from her, and with satisfaction asked to be returned to her room. A little joyride down the hall couldn’t hurt anything.
But Margery’s first order of business, unbeknownst to Elaine, was to inform her of something she didn’t care about. “Poor old girl. Her partner passed away, and although they hadn’t met, she could feel his pulse die through that little device of hers. Tragic.”
This wasn’t the news Elaine was expecting. Before the woman could disappear, she wrenched own her arthritis-ridden arm onto her shoulder. “I knew when my husband died because I watched the life pour out of him. End-stage pancreatic cancer. Feel free to inform Miss Stern.”
Elaine Hartwood died exactly three days and thirteen hours later, of natural causes. In memoriam, she became the last known person to have chosen her married partner, signifying the end of an era.