"Please, we're just trying to help."
Edith's eyes watered, but she could see the young woman bending down before her, her cropped hair sticking out at an odd angle over ears, spilling something that may or may not be water into the wilting lily's glass by her side. No, she wasn't young. Her skin was blurry through Edith's itchy eyes, but it was clearly wrinkling around her eyes, and there were streaks of grey at her hairline. She was wearing a white blouse and a beige blazer that looked tighter than it should be. Her name was probably something Cherise.
"Listen," Edith said hoarsely, "I don't need your help, and I don't want it. If this is my last winter, then let it be the last. I'm ready." It was usually best to avoid using names. It seemed everyone was switching them up these days, and people tended to get annoyed about being called the wrong one, which led to them trying to be even more overly solicitous to make up for it. A bad business. Last night the room had cleared because of something she said, but no one wanted to confront her about it so they were all extremely polite in making their excuses. No, it wasn't yesterday. It was this morning. Edith frowned. What were they all doing in here at three in the morning?
Cherise sat down on the old red leather couch catty-corner from Edith's armchair. She stretched her legs out under the low coffee table and they brushed Edith's blanket where it covered her feet. "Sweetie, I promise this isn't your last year. So come on and let's make sure we keep your memory going. You don't want the rest of your life to be any more miserable than it has to be, do you?" She sounded as though she were reading her lines of a script, but one that even she found unconvincing. She reached out and patted Edith's knee.
Edith blinked down at Cherise's hand on her. It was like she had become a machine, a feeling machine. One that could be turned on by dumping her in this ratty old chair and then all they had to do was feed in periodic reminders that they were taking care of her, and wasn't it so important to look after the elderly and preserve their memories for the future, for family tradition. And then out came reassurance that they had done their duty and when their time came, they wouldn't be alone. The cake on the table, a garish red, white, and blue thing with sixteen candles sticking out like buckteeth, was proof enough that it wasn't really memories they cared about.
"What's so good about remembering that I was alive eighty -- eighty-four years ago? That wasn't a good year. This one might just be worse. I didn't ask to remember all this crap," Edith said. "My father practically sold me off to our drunkard neighbor just because he had a nice inheritance. And there's your sainted grand-what-have-you. So I'm sure that's a memory I'll treasure in my deathbed." Edith could feel her hand shaking as she waved it in a sort of imperious gesture around the room. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the cushion, ignoring Cherise's sigh. She remembered the feel of her first husband's hands. They weren't rough, the way she had imagined all men's hands were, the way her brothers' were from working on the farm. They were soft and smooth and always a bit sweaty. He used to wear linen suits and get sweat stains from wiping his hands on his thighs.
Edith heard a rustling motion and then footsteps walking out of the living room. Good thing she had her eyes closed, then. She didn't want to see Cherise's pursed lips as she stood up, eyebrows furrowed as she tried not to roll her eyes or say what she really thought. Twenty years ago she had gone to a piano recital, maybe it was Cherise performing. She played Pachelbel's Canon in D. It wasn't the first time Edith had heard it since her wedding, but the song always reminded her of how she'd felt when she got married for the first time. Nervous, angry, relieved. The moment had come when her life would change irrevocably, better or worse. Edith frowned. It wasn't Cherise performing; she was far too old. It was a redheaded kid, a boy. The next moment like that that came for Edith would be her death. And just like the first time, she would probably be surrounded by people -- it seemed they could hardly stay away these days, probably because they knew as well as she did how little time she had left -- but still alone.
Edith opened her eyes and saw that now the cake was gone from the table, and there was a cup of what looked like mildly dirty dishwater but was probably meant to be tea in front of her. "I don't want it," she said, and looked around. Where had Cherise gone? Edith had just realized that wasn't her name. It was Chiara. Her stepsister had married an Italian. Or someone had. Was she Anne's daughter? She used to run around with her friends, playing soccer, doing all sorts of things they weren't supposed to. And now here she was wearing a pantsuit and trying to make Edith remember all the reasons she had never asked to stick around for so long. She closed her eyes again.
Charlene was back in her living room, this time with a little grey Yorkie on a leash with a matching plaid bow and sweater on. She and the dog had strangely similar facial features. The wrinkles were gone from her face and she was laughing and doing the can-can while the Yorkie bounded around her and leaned up onto the table to lick the cake's frosting. Let him have the fondant, Edith had never particularly liked it. She blinked, shook her head and went back to sleep. Around her the room shook. She was already feeling warmer. Winter would pass. Maybe the Yorkie would eat her dead body before Charlotte got him under control. Edith appreciated an honest hunger.
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