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By Jean Busatti
Copyright 2000 Jean Busatti

 About: A short story about 97-year-old Alice's unusual influence on Kathryn.

Kathryn stared at the plaque outside the door of the hospital room. "Alice Desmond" it said in bold letters. This must be "the Alice", she thought. She stood just outside the door and peered into the room. There was no reason for her to be here. Kathryn was oddly curious and had been since hearing the old woman’s screams from her own bed in the corner of the wing. The nurse had told her the source of the noise was Alice. She had suffered a stroke and had no control. Kathryn was drawn to the room although she did not know why. David, her fiance, would surely have called her a "cheeky bitch".
The room contained two beds, one empty. No wonder, Kathryn thought. It was hard enough to sleep on the same floor with Alice. It would surely be impossible in the same room. No one was in the corridor, and she moved forward the tiniest bit to see more. She looked carefully around the room.
The last of the day's sun streamed through the slats of the blinds and left squares of reflected pink and gold on the white coverlets of the beds. Brown petals and leaves were scattered about on the bureau and floor below a vase of dying flowers and buds. A large painting of a gull seeking its freedom through flight was an ironic reminder of a different life. The bird blended into the background color of the wall imprisoning it there for eternity.
Kathryn moved forward again. The form in the bed was tiny and birdlike, almost invisible under all those covers. Kathryn glanced behind her and stepped over to the bed. Street and hospital noises were strangely muted in the room. It was as silent as a tomb; an icy shiver gripped her spine. Panicking for no good reason she could think of, she moved toward the door to the hall once more.
A soft noise from the bed. Kathryn looked back. Alice had moved; the sheet had slipped down from her face. Above the covers appeared a long hooked nose, sunken cheeks and eye sockets purple against the stark white of the woman’s complexion. Age had collected on its debt.
Kathryn glanced at the chart at the foot of the bed. Alice was ninety-seven years old. People really do live that long. Well, no need to worry! No one in Kathryn's family ever lived to old age. It was reassuring to know that she would never look like this poor shell of a woman. Besides, Kathryn was young and she was gazing down into a very distant future. No need to worry about it now! She shivered, however, and felt a pang of sorrow for the creature below.
Kathryn's heart beat wildly; tiny globules of perspiration drizzled down her back. How silly, she thought, to be afraid of an old lady in a hospital bed. She pulled herself up straight and brazenly moved back to the place beside the bars. She leaned against them and stared down at the emaciated body below. The steady breathing of the sleeping crone in the silence of the room and the movement of the patterns on the coverlet cast a hypnotic spell that lulled her into a dream state.
Kathryn started and gave a cry of surprise; she almost stumbled into the bed in her confusion. The eyelids fluttered... the ancient eyes flew open... faded blue irises stared past Kathryn into some dark chasm. Drool formed a pool of moisture on the jutting chin. The gaze shifted with difficulty and focused on the young woman. The ancient one made not one sound; her mouth never opened. Yet loud and clear for Kathryn a scream, primal and passionate from the prison deep within, broke the silence of the room. She was certain that she heard it. Kathryn gasped and stepped backward toward the door. Without even a glance backward, she turned and raced down the corridor toward her room.
Katherine looked into the full length mirror on the wall of the tiny room. She breathed a sigh of relief. She was, after all, still young and beautiful. She reached up and touched the soft elastic skin that stretched over her high cheek bones. She ran her fingers softly over lips that were velvet, over eyebrows that were thick down, over the tiny depression in her chin that David kissed tenderly in intimate moments. She pressed her fingers against a firm slim neck and against the mounds of cushioned satin flesh that peeked above her nightgown.
"Young! I am young," she cried. She pranced and pirouetted before the cracked mirror over the sink. She thought with sadness of the old lady down the hall. She thought of David and all they meant to each other and she was grateful for the life the two of them would someday have. She worshipped her youth if only for the moment. She basked in the knowledge that she was healthy, that the doctor had given her assurance of her discharge from the hospital the following morning. She could not have been happier. Life was a beautiful red rose, moist with the dew of a summer morning, radiant and warmed by the sun.
Nights in the hospital were long and tedious. After visiting hours were over and she had taken her leave of David, Kathryn cranked up the top portion of the bed and settled back against the pillows to read her book. She became so entranced with the novel that she hardly noticed that the hospital no longer vibrated and rattled with the usual sounds of bed pans and food trays. The lights in the hall dimmed and a heavenly stillness fell upon the institution. Katherine felt the book drop from her hands as she fell into a heavy slumber.
Kathryn sat straight up. Her book clattered to the floor. A blood curdling scream rent the silence. It traveled through the dank sterile halls and into the rooms. It struck fear into the hearts of the sick and the dying. It exploded finally into a throaty gasp of agony and faded away. The hospital was hushed once more.
Katherine was unnerved. It is Alice again, she reassured herself. She reached out for the slab of buttons and turned on the television set far above her. She set the volume low and waited for the beating of her heart to diminish with the welcome sound of human voices. Images appeared on the screen and vanished as suddenly. Colors and lights brightened and darkened alternately shadows on the bleak hospital walls. Katherine closed her eyes to the garish brightness of the set. The sounds of the TV were lulling her into a world of dreams when she heard the chanting as she had the previous evening
"Ah… lice! Ah… lice!" the voice of a woman hissed from down the hall. "My name is Ah… lice."
"Ah… lice! Ah… lice." A male voice chimed in from a different room. "Her name is Ah… lice." "Ah… lice! Ah… lice," cried the woman. "My name is Ah… lice!"
"Off on top! Ah… lice! Off on top!" continued the ancient male voice with a mocking laugh.
The litany continued for a very long time. Kathryn put the covers over her head in an attempt to drown out the sounds, but still they came. The chanting faded occasionally, but it was louder with each renewed effort. Finally, the noise stopped. Nerves screaming, Kathryn came out from under the covers, turned the television down to a whisper, leaned back against the pillows and dropped off to sleep once more.
Kathryn awoke. She had the odd sensation that someone was staring at her. She opened her eyes slowly and rubbed them with clenched fists. Through the window opposite came the first flush of dawn. A form moved slowly and painfully through shadow to the side of Kathryn’s bed. Kathryn did not budge as an ancient face bent close to hers. Kathryn’s stomach turned with fear. She tried to calm herself. It was just Alice after all. She clutched at the pillows as though they were a weapon to keep the old woman at bay.
"Go away!" she cried, but the hag stood her ground and stared right through Katherine. The gaze burned into her until the young woman could not look away. Closer and closer came the old woman. Katherine tried to scream, but the cry froze in her throat. Fear suffocated her. She was pulled down into a void as her head fell back against the pillows and her hand dropped down to the side of the bed.
It was still quite early when the young woman woke to the sound of birds outside. She rose from the bed, took a glass of water, and looked around her. The old woman sat on the big armchair near the bed. Her head leaned back against the high cushions. She mumbled from time to time in her sleep and snored loudly as her toothless mouth gaped open. Kathryn looked away in disgust.
The morning was bright and beautiful. It was time to leave this horrid place. She would have to get out before the next shift of nurses. The newest ones would soon come on duty. Kathryn opened the closet, put on jeans and a blue silk blouse that hugged her slim figure, and swung around in front of the mirror. "Beautiful," she muttered as she stared at her image. She rummaged around in her purse for lipstick and smeared it on her, ran a comb through her long blond hair, and put her nightgown in the valise.
The hall was deserted. Kathryn glanced back at the old lady that panted and huffed on the chair. The nurse would find her there and soon. Kathryn hurried to the elevator. It was no time at all before she was in the lobby. Security guards walked past her, but they gave her no more than a quick glance.
Kathryn walked out of the swinging doors of the main entrance and down the path in front of the hospital. She breathed deeply of the crisp cool air and sighed loudly with pleasure. It was spring and the grass was luxurious and cool. The trees were budding anew. The earth smelled fresh. Flowers brought color and life to the landscape.
Kathryn hummed. The birds seemed to chirp in rhythm with her. It was wonderful to be young and alive. It was marvelous to hurry along the cool green earth. It was magnificent! Before she reached the gate to the outside streets she looked back up at the window of the room she had just left and waved for no reason. She glanced down at the red birthmark on her hand and rubbed it as though wishing on it. She pulled open the gate and stepped out into the world.
"Ah… lice!" she chanted as she moved quickly down the sidewalk. "My name is Ah… lice!" Her words echoed along the empty streets of the city.