Grace is on the phone again. I roll over onto my back. Instead of the sleeping bag, I’m lying on a thin sheet with a softer cotton one for a cover. A thick blanket has been kicked to the side. My back aches dully as a whole instead of as individual pieces in a painful puzzle.
“No, she’s sick for sure.” Grace cradles the phone to her shoulder as she washes the dishes. “I’ve been trying to feed her, but she refuses. She keeps asking for people I’ve never heard of, and she’s losing control of her bowels at least twice a day.”
My cheeks go hot. I ignore the cracking scabs on my back as I reach down to my butt. I’m clean now, but the thought of Grace having to change me like a baby makes my neck tighten and my chest tingle with embarrassment. I know she or Momma must have removed my tampon and replaced it with a pad. I can ignore that detail.
“I’m not a doctor and I don’t feel comfortable making a decision like that.” Grace places a cup upside down in the dish dryer. “She has a very long time to live, I think. I’ve seen end of life, and this isn’t like what I’ve been around. She’s just very sick.”
“I’m dying?” I ask. My throat catches around the words as my eyes close again. There I am, lying on the floor, covered in shit from head to toe. That amber cocoon is dried shit, cracking and peeling, showing fresh, orange shit beneath.
“I’d like you to come and check. I can bring her in, but with her hip still healing and these other problems, I don’t know how much help I’d need.” Glass tinks together as Grace puts another glass away.
I pry open my eyes again. I’m not covered in shit. The sound of Grace’s voice drifts off, replaced with the sound of empty static opening in my ears.
On the fourth day, I wake up early in the morning to two voices. Grace is standing in the kitchen with a thin, hook-nosed man dressed in black slacks and a button-up tweed jacket. The man has a stethoscope around his neck. It catches the light and sends a silver reflection around the ceiling.
“Grace, there’s nothing to do here. She’s going through delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal. She isn’t going to eat, she’s going to be crazy. I say you either give her the gin or she’ll be like this until she either gets over it or dies.”
“I’m not giving her the gin.” Grace is wearing cut-offs and a tank-top. Her mascara is the same bright green as her eyes. “She doesn’t deserve it.”
“Deserve?” The man raises an eyebrow.
“She is sick. I’ve seen detox. This is more than just the D.T.’s.”
“You’ve seen it in people your age. On a body that old, this is what it looks like. The sweating, the convulsions, the uncontrollable diarrhea. The hallucinations. I’m puzzled by how thirsty she is, but that could just be her way of asking for gin. This is all normal, but it could be too much for her.”
Grace cocks her hip to the side. “I just wanted to make sure. You know, get a medical opinion for her records. For paperwork.”
The doctor puts a hand on Grace’s shoulder. “You’re doing great, Grace. Some old people just take more time. With the hip fracture and now the drinking, it’s a miracle she’s doing as well as she is.” I feel a twinge of jealousy as the doctor looks Grace up and down. He says, “How are you doing, Grace?”
“I’m fine. She’s a client.” Grace shrugs his hand off.
They talk while I try to keep still. The words are lost to me as I think about Gramma. She’s the one with diarrhea. She’s the one that Grace was talking about. I hope. It could have been Gramma and me. I don’t want to know.
Grace’s body tells stories. She moves from foot to foot, touching the toes to the ground before bringing down her heel, like she’s walking downhill. She holds her hands together at waist, unfolds them. When she nods, her whole body seems to be agreeing. When she shakes her head, her hips move in the same way, saying no.
The doctor doesn’t have body language. He stands stiff as a rod. He reaches out to Grace again and even that isn’t a gesture. It looks rehearsed. If the doctor dances at all, it’s all been very well practiced, but not enough to be natural.
Grace leads the doctor to the door, says goodbye, and turns to me. Her lips are bright and the smile in her eyes makes my heart beat hard. “You feel better?”
“I do.” I sit up a little. “I’m thirsty. My back is sticky.”
Grace goes to the kitchen and grabs a gin glass and fills it with water. She brings it to me, crouching next to me.
“The berries in the water,” I say, remembering the last glass of water I saw.
“Juniper. I was going to start watering Marie’s drinks down. Juniper is the flavor in gin. But I decided to go a different route.”
I swallow the cool water. “Momma?”
Grace leans in, touches her forehead to mine. “Your Mom is fine. She was just hurt for a few days. Sore from the car accident.”
Water hits my throat, catches in my windpipe. I cough as my lungs spasm. I headbutt Grace.
“It’s okay, sweetie. Cough it up.” Grace raises a hand to slap me on the back, but stops her hand in the air.
I cough until my throat feels like it might tear in half. I clear my throat with a gargling sound. I clear it again, tasting bile and heat.
“Jesus, Mish. Cough that water up.”
“I’m okay.” I hit myself in the chest with a fist. Cough. “Did you say car crash?”
“That’s over now. Don’t worry about it. Just a little whiplash. Your mom got a ride home with a guy who’d been drinking. She feels really stupid over the whole thing, so don’t get too harsh with her over it, okay?”
“Momma didn’t–” I stop.
“What your Momma did or didn’t isn’t our business,” Grace says. “You need breakfast. There’s nothing a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast can’t make a little better.”
Grace sticks her tongue out the side of her mouth and plugs her nose. “And a shower.”
She stands up and walks into the kitchen. She gets a plate down from the cupboard, takes milk and eggs from the fridge. She pulls out a silver pan.
I get up and go to the bathroom. I want to shower and go to the creek.
In the middle of the night I wake up to the sound of screaming. “I’m dying. I’m dying.”
I sit up in my little makeshift bed. I’ve got a small mattress beneath me that arrived when I was sick. The soft sheets are laundered and I’m wearing bandages so that I don’t stick to them. I still have honey covering my back.
“Help me!” And then a gagging noise. “My guts are twisting. Oh, Jesus, help me.”
I fold back the sheet and stand up. The full moon shines brightly through the windows. The wind is blowing the weeds back and forth. In the shadows of the swaying trees, it looks like someone is walking through the field.
I step down the hall. “Gramma?”
“Help me, honey.” She retches again and loudly passes gas. “Oh, sweet merciful Lord. Help me.”
“Gramma?” I peek around the corner of her doorway. “What’s the matter Gramma?”
She is sitting up in bed. Her legs are shaking and have kicked the blankets away. Vomit covers the side of her bed, brown and red and dripping down onto the Bible on the floor. One eye is shut but the other is wide open. “Call 9-1-1. Get the doctors over here. She’s poisoned me. That evil witch has poisoned me.”
She kicks out a leg with a loud crack. Gramma doubles over, grabbing at her hip, crying out of the open eye. Her hands tremble and spasm. She screams a piercing wail. “My hip. Oh God. Please, God, show mercy. Help me.”
“Gramma, what’s the matter?” I step into the room. “Are you feeling bad?”
“That fucking witch poisoned me. That bitch. I’m dying. Call 9-1-1, you little cunt. Call the fucking doctors.”
I kneel at the foot of her bed as she doubles over and pukes again. She takes two deep breathes, but neither seems to satisfy her. Her chest heaves. Her arm kicks out to the side. She gasps for breaths. “Those green eyes. I saw them watching me.”
“Maybe we should pray, Gramma.” I fold my hands.
Gramma can’t get words out. She gulps for a taste of air, but yellow vomit falls from her lips. She hacks and heaves.
“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thine name,” I say. I close my eyes. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Gramma throws her head back, her body curves upward until only the back of her head and her butt are touching the bed. She stays stiff in this position as her mouth makes little fish-lip movements. She coughs up one last bit of vomit.
“Lead us not into temptation,” I say, skipping to the part that matters. “And deliver us from evil.”
I wake up in the morning and Grace and Momma are both there. So is the doctor.
“Mish,” Grace says, poking Momma in the arm.
“Michelle, sweetie,” Momma says. She comes over to me and puts her arms around me. She digs in too hard and my back wants to jerk away from her embrace, but I force myself to stay still and wrap my arms around her.
“It’s okay, Momma.”
The hook-nosed doctor says, “Heart failure or her lungs just stopped working. Looks like she asphyxiated on vomit in the end, but there’s no way to say why without an autopsy.”
Grace nods her head. She has dark circles under her eyes like she was up all night or like she’s been crying. There are no tear tracks through her make-up. “Well, it’ll be good to have answers.”
My heart starts beating faster. Momma must feel me tense up, because she lets her tight grip around me slip a little and says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to squeeze your owies.”
“I’m okay, Momma.”
The doctor shakes his head. “Autopsy is expensive. Unless the family wants to pay for it, this is just going down as natural causes.”
Momma says, “We don’t need one.”
I relax into Momma’s arms and think about the dream of angry, green eyes in the night and of the window opening.
Momma whispers into my ear, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t think it would happen again. But I just had to be alone. I’m so sorry you were here.” Her hands dig into the cuts in my back, but I don’t pull away. Her breath is hot in my ear. “Grace was here the whole time, so I knew you were safe. I love you, Michelle. Please forgive me.”
I stay in her arms, snuggling against her shoulder. “It’s okay, Momma. Everything is okay now.” I pull her in tighter, my face sliding down her arm. My cheek brushes against a mass of tiny scabs in the cradle of Momma’s elbow. “Can we go home?”
“We’ll go home,” my Momma says. “I’ve got work off tonight. I can take off tomorrow, too. Oh, Michelle. Oh, I promise, it’s all going to be better from now on.”
Yellow bruises dull her thin skin around those little scratches and pocks on Momma’s arm. I push my face in deeper to her body, look away from those scabs to Grace.
Grace turns away from the doctor, seeing me watching her. It isn’t but a momentary twitch of her lips, but they dip down. Her eyes flash a darker green. Her cheeks flush just the slightest red.