This story is prompted by the photo below, offered by Emilio Pasquale. Click his name to check out his photography blog (you won’t be disappointed!)
The asphalt seams thumped a steady rhythm as she sped through the dust coagulating in the late-afternoon desert air. Both hands gripped the steering wheel as if it was the only tether saving her from being swallowed by blackness. Part of her feared it might be too late; that the darkness which began as a pin-point deep in her soul had already bloomed into an inky pool that engulfed her heart and slithered through her veins.
Anna Morris hadn’t always been that way. She could remember a righteous childhood where God had smiled upon her. Growing up, she went to church with her parents every Sunday and sometimes Wednesday, clothed in frilly dresses, white ankle socks with ruffles, and patent leather Mary Janes. During middle school and high school, she focused on the likes of Newton, Pascal and Aristotle, rather than the boys in class who managed to distract her friends with their unpolished charms. It was her senior year in high school when the light shifted and shadows crept into her world.
To round out the credentials on her college application, Anna began volunteering at a care home. The first resident she visited was Mabel Pyerstrom. The fragile woman must’ve been no taller than five feet, and weighed about ninety pounds, judging by the small hump tucked under the crisp white linens. Anna could remember the conversation like it happened yesterday, not twenty years ago. Her voice laced with apprehension, she had introduced herself as “Anna.”
“Come, sit by me,” Mabel said, her trembled words both fragile and demanding.
Anna obeyed. Her gaze rested upon the woman’s bony hand, its pale, papery skin marred by sunspots and a road-map of bulging blue veins.
“Age takes prisoners.”
The woman smiled, stacking wrinkles around her cloudy eyes. “We squander our youth, take our blessings for granted and then…” She worked a phlegmy cough that seemed to rattle all the way down to the bottom of her lungs. “And then, it leaves you a wrinkled shell until it finally lets you go.” The skin puckered around her lips as she spoke.
Anna cringed. She didn’t know what to say; she couldn’t argue against the cruelty of time. “W-would you like me to read to you?” She pulled Wizard of Oz from her tote bag.
Mabel turned toward her voice. “Ah, been a long time. Lost my sight some twenty years ago.”
“I’m sorry. It must be awful to live in darkness.”
“I said nothing of darkness. Just see different things, that’s all.”
Anna felt her cheeks flush. Thankful the woman couldn’t see, she ventured, “I-I don’t know what you mean.”
Mabel laughed. The rasp morphed into another cough.
A shudder ran through Anna’s body, ending at her curled toes. For a moment she wondered if the volunteer hours were worth it. Surely her grades alone could carry her into college. She contemplated leaving but stayed seated next to Mabel’s bed while the commingled odors of meatloaf, soiled linens, bleach and age taunted her gag reflex.
Mabel tapped the bed with her fingers. “Can you just hold my hand?”
Anna hesitated before closing the book and slipping it back into her bag. She reached for Mabel’s hand and gasped when the ice-cold skin pressed against her own sweaty palm. The woman clenched with surprising strength. As Anna’s gaze studied the contrast of Mabel’s pale wrinkles against her own tanned, smooth skin, she felt a sense of unease creep over her. Anna tried to pull away.
“I see death.”
“Death roams these halls. Watching. Waiting. I can feel it. See it.”
“Okay.” Anna didn’t know what to say.
Mabel cleared her throat and continued in a gravelly voice, “I asked to go. After ninety-four years I’m ready. You know what the bastard said?”
Anna flinched, caught off-guard by the curse and angry tone. “Um, no.”
“Said I needed help over the bridge.”
“What does that mean?”
“A second chance. Said left was wrong. Lucifer left. Right was right… light.”
Anna feared the woman had lost her mind. She opened her mouth to call for a nurse, but words lodged in the back of her throat as if she’d swallowed an apple whole.
Mabel tugged Anna’s hand until her body leaned over the bed, face inches away. The old woman reached her left hand up and ran her fingertips along Anna’s cheek, and then trailed along her jawline. “You’re an angel sent to guide us right in death, Anna Mary Claire Morris.”
Anna gasped and jerked back, knocking over the chair. She’d only given her first name. Again, she couldn’t break the woman’s hold.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Anna.”
We? Panic raged inside her.
The old woman’s breath grew shallower and her chest stilled.
Anna waved her free hand over Mabel’s nose and mouth to check for even the faintest wisp of warm air.
A nurse rushed through the door, glancing at the overturned chair. “What happened?”
“I-I don’t know. She was talking and then she wasn’t” Anna attempted to pry her hand free. “She won’t let go.”
The nurse checked Mabel’s pulse and noted the time of death on her chart. She peered over her glasses. “Are you okay?”
Anna pressed her left palm into her forehead. A blinding light seared through her brain. “Owwwwww!” She moaned as sharp pain started at her forehead and radiated to the back of her neck. It felt like waves of brain freezes timed seconds apart. A minute later, the misery halted, Mabel’s grip released, and Anna fell backwards, stumbling on the overturned chair.
That was the first time it happened.
A semi passed on the left, a whoosh of air rocking the car. Anna jolted into a present resembling the interstate she traveled: not an attraction of its own, rather a means to a final destination. Exhausted after reliving the experience with Mabel, she wondered how accurate the account. Memories were shifty like that. Similar to the greasy mirage shimmering on sunbaked blacktop before disappearing upon approach, memories tended to change shape over time.
Again, thanks to Emilio for suggesting the challenge to write a story based on one of his photos, and for offering the photo to post with the story!