Eleanor Adler’s once-blonde hair, now gray, piled on the sheets. Her gaze was fixed just beyond the ceiling. She mumbled, “My cup of water. Get your own cup. We have plenty of cups.”
Never moving her focus, she tried to grip the plastic cup on her night stand. “This one belongs to me. Mine! They’ll give you one if you ask. But you never ask, do you? You only take.” Frightened by her own words, she hardened the jaw muscles beneath her loose skin. His presence dried her mouth, leaving the bitter taste of copper. She refused to roll over and glimpse him hovering out of reach near the door. His black wool cloak covered his face, but she knew his arctic blue eyes scanned the room. He had come without his sickle, as he normally did when he only wanted to watch. Finally, he gave up his post leaving her to herself.
“Not today.” She uttered with more clarity than before, “I told you it wouldn’t happen today.” A knock at the door interrupted her taunts of victory. After entering, the nurse gently removed the empty cup from her clenched hand.
“Eleanor?” The nurse touched her shoulder. “The doctor wants to talk with you for your afternoon review.”
Eleanor shifted as though caught doing something wrong. “That time already?” Her words hung limp in the air. She eyed the doctor as he approached her bed.
The doctor pulled a pen from the pocket of his white coat and checked the chart. The nurse whispered him. Eleanor saw the concern on the doctor’s face. They both turned their attention to her. “Mrs. Adler.” His voice came deep, stern. “How do you feel today?
Eleanor looked him in the eyes and pressed her lips together.
“The nurse said you sounded upset when she came in to check on you.” The doctor let his question sit before offering his normal question. “What pain do you have today? Anything new?”
She nodded slightly as the nurse operated the bed controls and raised the back of her bed, “Yes,” Eleanor said. “It hurts like hell when I piss.”
The doctor flipped a few pages in the chart. “Looks like a heavy dose of Methotrexate.” He turned to the nurse “She may have a UTI. We need to keep an eye on this.” He handed the chart back to the nurse.
Eleanor’s gaze moved to the large white-framed window. The doctors always came and went just as he did. She did not trust either of them.
The nurse propped her further. “Mrs. Adler, what else should we know about?”
“I’d like to know a few things. Explain the deal with this pissing pain,”
The doctor stepped back into the room. “Urinary Tract Infections commonly happen for people with Rheumatoid Arthritis, most likely the cause of your discomfort when using the bathroom.”
Eleanor cleared her throat as if to acknowledge he had spoken.
The nurse stepped away from her bedside. “Try and get some sleep. I’ll return a little later. Robert might come by after he gets off work.” She looked down. “It seems like your son cares about you very much.”
Eleanor fixed her gaze back on the white-framed windows. “Yeah, he cares just about as much as his father did.”
“Hey, Mom.” Eleanor looked up and saw her son, Robert, standing at her bedside. His red striped tie dangled on her arm. “The nurse called me out of work today. How you doing?”
“I’ve had a hell of a day. This pillow kills me. They only have rocks around here.” She lifted her knobby, twisted hand and attempted to adjust her head.
“Everything else okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Her eyes dropped to her lap.
“So what lies did they tell you this time to get you in here?” Eleanor squinted.
“The nurse did call. I planned to stop in anyway, though.” Robert fidgeted with the edge of her bed sheets. “She said you might have a Urinary Tract Infection.”
Eleanor huffed. “They say a lot of things around here.”
“The doctors only have your best interest in mind.”
“You say that, but you don’t hear them whispering at that desk out there.”
“Not everyone is out to get you.” Robert paused.
She continued in her bleat about the staff. “They took my TV remote away from me. I can’t find it anywhere.”
Robert leaned over and looked under the bed. Eleanor followed and leaned as far to the side as she could. “You must have knocked it off the stand.” He flipped the far corner of the blanket back onto her bed uncovering the remote on the floor. “Here.” He placed it on her stand again and smiled. “Now you have everything you need.”
“I need a day off.” Eleanor laid her head back on her white stone.
“I think I’ll head home for dinner,” he said.
“Don’t leave,” she whispered
Robert continued in his farewell. “Tomorrow I’ll come back with Stephen. I know he want to see you.”
“If he wanted to see me, he would have come today. Or yesterday.”
After kissing her on the forehead, he stood upright. “I’ll stop in tomorrow. Maybe in the morning. Goodnight, mom.” He stepped out of the room.
“Good? In this hell-hole,” She thought as she let her head drop to the side catching slightly on the edge of the pillow. She thought, “Not long now and he’ll return. Waiting, watching me from just inside the door. Those damn nurses keep letting him in.”
Julie pulled her blue Toyota Camry into the garage and turned off the ignition. She took a deep breath. Two honks came from a black Denali as the other garage door opened its lips. Julie wondered if she could get her mom’s attention long enough to tell her about the tests—or if she even wanted to.
“Hey girl!” Her mom’s semi-false falsetto voice grated. “You made great time in that traffic.”
“Hi, Mom.” Julie grabbed her book-bag from the back seat of her car.
“Help me with the groceries.” Her mother struggled to handle a blue reusable sack. “Just got my nails done—a little wet still.” Julie leaned in to grab the other four sacks from the back of the Denali. “Thinking about making this new Paleo cauliflower crust pizza for supper.”
“Haven’t you gotten any of my emails about Paleo recipes? I have to tell you, this new diet is amazing. I feel spunkier already.”
“I’ve gotten a few,” Julie said, relieved by the lack of questions as to why she made the trip home on such short notice.
“It would do you some good to get into it. You know youth doesn’t just hang around like a double chin.” Her mom pushed open the house door and rushed to set the bag down on the kitchen counter.
Stephen’s keys dangled from his belt loop, announcing his entrance. He headed for the bags of groceries and searched them. “Hey, Julie. Didn’t expect to see you home this weekend. Nothing exciting happening on campus?”
Julie shrugged. “Kind of a last-second decision.”
“Dad finally left Noni’s room. Guess she didn’t have the best day,” her mom said while shoving a bundle of Swiss chard into the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.
“You mean worse than lying crippled in a bed unable to walk or really use her hands,” Stephen said. “Stephen, I don’t know what your father meant. The text only said that Noni didn’t have her best day.”
“When will you start buying real food again?”
She glared at him. “Can you think of something more real than organic kale chips?”
Julie picked up one of the Health magazines on the counter and flipped a few pages. “When did you start the Paleo diet?”
“I don’t know. A few months ago.”
“Last week,” Stephen mumbled from behind the fridge door. “Before that Garcinia Cambogia Extract made the hot news. I caught her dripping it into dad’s coffee.”
She defended herself. “None of you make this easier for me. I really intend to keep my resolution this year. We only get one body, you know.”
Stephen cracked open an energy drink.
“Why don’t you drink the Honest Tea I buy? One day all those calories will catch up to you in the form of diabetes.”
Wanting to change the topic, Julie focused on Stephen. “Why the keys? You can’t even drive.”
“They go to his bike lock,” her mom answered for him, “which he has obsessed over, along with growing the top part of his hair out and a handlebar mustache.”
“Can you even grow peach fuzz?” Julie said reaching out to his face.
“Shut up. I just shaved this morning.” Stephen swatted at her outstretched hand
The food cart rolled back and forth between rooms. Noni heard it three rooms down. She still had time. He preferred to come while she strained to ingest the food they shoved in front of her. She knew better than to wait to drink her water. He could have the food, but the water belonged to her. “Not this time,” she reassured herself. “I won’t make that mistake again.” The lights flickered on, and the food-cart-man limped into her room.
“Chicken or beef?”
“Hell, I don’t care,” Eleanor croaked at him.
“Chicken then.” The man slid the tray onto her stand and set a fork within reach of her twisted hands. He filled her blue plastic cup only half way.
“I pay $70,000 to live here, and I can’t even get a full cup of water? Does this place have us on rations?” She seemed to catch him off guard, because he looked startled. He filled the cup the rest of way. Having finished, he pulled her door slightly closed as he exited. She struggled to clasp the cup with both hands but finally succeeded in raising it to her lips. A few gulps satisfied her immediate thirst. As she lowered the cup, the sides gave in, and the remaining contents flooded her chest. “Shit.” She struggled in her anger to place the cup back on her stand. “What a helpless beast.” She paused after hearing her own words, waiting for a response. No reply concurred after the description of her sorry state, but she could feel that he was behind the door.
“You’ll never win. Never.” She sneered at him.
He continued to watch her, silent.
“Hi, Mom.” Robert pushed open the door and stepped fully into the room. “The whole family’s here to see you. Even Julie came.”
Eleanor looked up in search of the Grim Reaper. Her invading family blocked him. “I’ve got to keep an eye on him,” she thought leaning to the right to see around them.
Robert stepped closer. “What did you get today?”
“Ah, hell. I’ve lost him.” Eleanor looked back at her food and focused harder on holding the fork at the right angle.
“You took the water. You won’t get anything else from me today.”
“I didn’t take your water.”
“Not today,” she mumbled.
“Noni, who took the water?”
Eleanor sat in silence, never looking up.
“We can get you more water. They have plenty of water around here.” Stephen turned and stepped out of the room. The Reaper reappeared where He previously stood, his sickle in hand.
Eleanor look up, surprised by how close he had gotten to her bed. She called out, “You think me an animal that you come at me with a stick and a hook?”
She sensed the reaper’s presence growing and clenched her arms to her chest. “You can’t take me today,” she yelled. A passing nurse stepped in to check about the yelling, but she dodged out again.
Eleanor continued to defend herself. “I will make my grave my home, but not today.”
Robert and the family stood near the dull white bed, quiet.
“Only I get to decide when I leave here.” She saw spit fly from her mouth.
He waited quietly like always. That bothered her the most. His patience.
“Who can replace me? Any that will suffice your call instead of me? Take that crotchety old man down the hall.” She rocked left and right in her bed. “I heard him calling for you in the night.”
Robert grabbed his mother’s arms. “Mom, calm down. The whole family came to see you. Even Julie.”
Two nurses swooped into the room and took over. “Please wait in the hall,” one asked as the other tipped a bottle upside down and filled a syringe.
“What are you giving her?” Julie asked.
“A small dose of Ativan. Not much—just enough to calm her down.”
Robert touched his mother’s hand and got her attention.
She finally looked up at him.“Robert.”
“Mom. What happened?”
“I just, uh,” She looked down at the food on the stand beside her. “Eating my lunch. You know the great food they have here.”
Julie stepped closer and leaned over her bed. “Hi Noni. Everything okay?”
“I told Robert, and that doctor, the other day. It hurts when I piss. They still haven’t done anything about that.”
“Anything else?” Robert asked again.
Eleanor kept silent. She feared any intervention. If they knew, they wouldn’t let her win.
One nurse pushed the lift into place and set Noni down on the bed. It took two of them to move her frail, thin body in and out of her wheelchair. “Lucky for them I don’t like the food here,” she thought.
One moved the wheelchair to the corner of her tiny box. The other pulled the purple curtain into place. “Anything else?” She asked.
“The remote.” Eleanor wiggled her shoulders.
The nurse flipped on the TV and pulled the door half-closed as they left.
Eleanor had waited for this moment all day. Finally. Alone. “He can’t win. He’ll never win.” She squinted, searching for a thought. “He thinks this catch will be easy. He thinks this old lady will follow his call like a beat dog.” Laughing to herself, she scanned the room for ideas. “My body lies hindered, but not helpless.” Her eyes settled on the heart rate machine next to the bed. “The cord looked long. But long enough?” Eleanor grabbed at it, causing the cord to unravel and bounce. The end swayed near the floor. “That will do.” Leaning to one side she snatched at it. “But, will it hold me?” Clutching the gray rubber cord between both knobby hands, she pulled hard, not too hard. “Yes. I will win.” Eleanor let the cord go. Now she must wait. She must wait to make sure he didn’t take up guard. She must wait so no one can take her victory from her.
Julie laced up her shoes and headed for the door.
“You know the sky could fall on you out there, right?” Robert called to her over the noise of the tv.
“Yeah, I know.” She pushed open the front door and stepped into the rain. No thoughts of wet shoes, cold arms, or the doctor’s warnings could keep her in. She needed to fill her lungs with clear air. Only a week ago she had fainted on her way to class and only a few days since the doctor had given her that concerned look. “I want to do a few tests,” he had said. What he hadn’t said concerned her more. Before the appointment, Julie thought she didn’t eat enough vegetables. After reviewing her medical history, the doctor mentioned anemia. “Perhaps we have nothing of concern, but I want to make sure.” “A couple of miles surely doesn’t count as too much activity,” she thought as she jogged toward the trailhead.
Perhaps nothing. The line repeated in her head as she picked up the pace. The new light-green leaves swayed under their load of water drops. Perhaps nothing. Larger drops pelted her as they rolled off the Northern Hackberries stationed on either side of the trail. Perhaps something. Julie struggled with the weight of this as it gnawed in her mind. She longed to wrestle it off but remembered her mom’s comment: “One day all those calories will catch up to you in the form of diabetes or something.” She struggled once more to escape, but her tired body finally pinned her down. Gasping for breath, Julie leaned over and grabbed her side. Perhaps something.
Julie pushed open the back door and deposited her wet shoes and socks on the rug. “Did you survive the run?” Robert greeted her from the same position as when she left.
He attempted a conversation, “Too cold for a long run?”
Her reply came from halfway down the hall. “Yeah.”
Julie flipped open her laptop and hit the spacebar. After failing to remember any of the drugs Noni took, she gave up and googled “Hallucination and Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Within the first few results, she found an article that looked promising. Three lines caught her eye. Female over 60. Anxiety. Methotrexate. It said nothing about violent patients. Yet, clearly Noni had a conflict with her hallucinations. Julie feared what effect the conflict would have on her stubborn grandma. She quickly changed her clothes and dashed out to the living room to talk to her father. He sat still in his chair, watching TV.
“I think the doctor over-medicated Noni.” Julie hardly waited for her father’s response.
“Why do you think that?” He kept his eyes on the screen.
“None of us wanted to say it yesterday. She hallucinates. They might turn violent.” Julie grabbed a dry pair of shoes and started pushing her feet into them.
Never wanting to vocalize the worse possibility, her mom threw in her perspective. “The nurses will take care of it.”
“No, I need to go check on her,” Julie persisted.
“Just wait, Julie, I’ll come with you.” Robert folded down the leg rest on his chair.
“I’ll come also,” her mom said.
“Someone going out?” Stephen emerged from downstairs.
“Julie wants to go check on Noni.”
Julie grabbed a jacket and headed for the door. “I think the nurses gave her a bad combination of medications.”
Her mom headed down the stairs. “Let me change. Stephen, put on some real clothes if your want to come.”
Julie fiddled with her zipper as she stood next to the door waiting for her family to get ready.
They arrived outside Noni’s room ruffled and confused. A rustling noise came from inside the dark room. Then a thud landed somewhere beside the bed. Julie, in the lead, stepped in to examine the situation. The bed lay empty. Noni lay on the floor.
Without thinking to call for help, Julie crouched over her grandmother. “Noni, Noni.” The elderly woman did not reply. Her gray hair lay on the floor next to her. Desperation filled the air. Looking around, Julie tried to locate someone, anyone. Three nurses rushed in. One of them escorted Julie and the family into the waiting area.
“Another hallucination has overtaken her,” Julie thought as she took her seat in the red chair next to the fake plant.
“What happened?” Stephen took his seat across from Julie’s.
“She must have fallen out of bed.”
“Why’d she fall?” He pressed the issues further than any of them had answers for, and they all sat in silence for a moment.
Her mom broke the silence, “Surely she just dropped the remote again and thought she could get it on her own. I never understand why she doesn’t just push the call button when that hap—”
Stephen ignored his mom’s comment. “What if she’s broken something?”
“The bed isn’t that far from the floor.” Her mom snapped back.
“If only we’d gotten here sooner,” Julie mumbled under her breath. “She didn’t respond when I touched her.”Julie thought, “perhaps it's nothing, the impact could have stunned her.” She sat and listened, hoping for the nurses to call them back into the room after lifting Noni into bed. She wanted to calm herself. “Are we supposed to just sit here?” Julie thought.
The nurses’ frenzied call for the doctor landed in her ears.
Cover image by Joseph Greves.
Sign Up Today
You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.