This is the way I remember it, even the hardest parts that cut through my heart like a dull blade through brick. ‘Course I’d been drinking. I’d had a shitty day at Willow Manor: damn that Chelly Ringwald who told our supervisor she could smell booze on me. (That was a fat lie ‘cause I’d only been sipping vodka from my soda can. Hadn’t had enough for it to leak from my pores. And my hands are always steady, no matter how drunk I get).
And most of the residents like me. Sure, maybe I talk a bit too much, and I know I can be bossy at times, but I always go the extra mile for them: fluff their pillows, rub their crusty feet, turn up the volume on their boring soap operas, take them for extra trips to the toilet without them even asking. I even make them homemade brownies and stay late to share them when their own families hardly ever visit.
My badge says Jo Walbridge, Certified Nurse Aide. With a little yellow smiley face drawn beside it. That job was the one thing I could be proud of, even after all the other good things in my life had long since seeped into the leach field. It made me feel like I still mattered.
I was a good wife, too. I was Ricky’s Jo for something like forever, since way back to first grade, when he knocked me down flat during Dodgeball and then helped pull me up off the ground. As I squinted up at him, his baby blues and shaggy blonde hair reminded me of a rock star.
We were together from that moment on. Married at seventeen at the town clerk’s office, brimming with love that no one else had.
But time is a clever thief. Before you know it, thirty’s a dim memory and you wonder where your strong, skinny body went off to. You stop talking to each other and start eating. You watch too much TV. Drink too much wine. You just keep going ‘round and ‘round, year after year, doing slow laps in a clouded pool.
Sometimes I don’t blame him for ending the marriage. Gotta admit, I did sorta let myself go. Ricky got tired of reading the same old newspaper. He wanted to flip open something new, and just like a magic finger snap Ava appeared at our front door.
She was like an expensive package delivered to the wrong house. Long blonde hair and a broken-down car. Big almond eyes and strappy bronze sandals. I saw those glittered fingernails and knew Ricky was gonna leave me. She was a box of treasure that he was trembling to open. (But to this day I still don’t know what that glitzy bitch sees in him – maybe she just likes older men with bad teeth and empty wallets).
She startled him awake when she entered his life. Like he’d been sleepwalking in someone else’s pajamas for a couple of decades. Without missing a beat, he stepped out of his Ricky suit and became Rich.
So anyways, I was steaming mad that day, ‘cause Chelly saw on Facebook that Rich and Ava were headed to Bermuda for their honeymoon. He’d never taken me anywhere except to Hampton Beach. But I’d always wanted to go to Bermuda–even had travel posters of those timeless pink sands and fairy tale shells taped to our bedroom wall for years.
In fact, I’d scrimped and saved for us to go on our twentieth.
When that day finally arrived, I was over the moon excited.
Our cab idled outside as I gathered up our suitcases. I could feel the pink sand between my toes, smell the sweet jasmine and cedarwood in the tropical sea breeze. In a few hours, we’d be drinking Dark and Stormies and watching the sun slip into the teal ocean.
I opened the basement door and yelled down to Ricky. But he didn’t answer and the cab driver was getting antsy. I clomped down the stairs, ready to really give him a piece of my mind, and there he was, curled around the legs of his workbench, shaking all funny. His face was the color of raw meat. His eyes were glazed and staring and there was spittle pooling at the side of his mouth.
Another few minutes and he would’ve been a goner. But I peeled him off the floor, dragged him up the stairs and got him into the cab. We raced to Emerson Hospital. For a whole year I nursed that man back to health. Spoon fed him! Helped him with his physical therapy. Never once thought about myself.
That stroke dimmed the left side of his body, and even three years later his mouth held a permanent grimace, like he just took a long whiff from a month-old milk carton.
So yeah, I was pissed he was taking that skinny bitch to Bermuda. Who wouldn’t be? That trip was my dream. Thinking about it made me even madder. I tried to shake off the memories like mites from a dog’s ears.
I stomped into Viola Martinez’s room. (She’s one of my favorites. Always a smile on her face, always a kind word). She was watching Days of Our Lives and offered me her dish of bread pudding without taking her eyes off her beloved Victor.
I stabbed a fork into it and sat down on the edge of her bed.
Just then the local news interrupted the programming…sightings of an unusually large black bear have been reported in Maynard and Acton. 7 News has received cell-phone video from several viewers and me and Viola watched as the bear reared up to its full height that must have been like seven feet at least and we’d like to remind everyone that this time of early Spring is when bears come out of hibernation and we watched it rip apart someone’s utility shed and tear it to pieces and make sure you remove any bird feeders or outside grills as they attract bears and then it turned and looked right at the shaking camera and it had these crazy red eyes and a head like a giant dog with huge pointed ears.
“Shit, Vi, that’s no bear!”
“It’s a werewolf,” Viola said, dead serious. Like she’d seen plenty of them in her day. As a bear of this size could pose a threat to public safety, if you see this animal, please notify Massachusetts Environmental Police as they will be dispatching their Large Animal Response Team. “Oh, hell,” she said, “Guess this is all we’re going to hear about now,” tapping her feet in frustration that her time with Victor was being interrupted.
“Probably wandered out of Tadmuck Swamp. They get real hungry when they wake up.” I whipped my head around to study Viola, my fond opinion of her quickly turning to awe. “What?”
“Yuh, they hibernate just like bears and rise after the Hunger Moon.”
Days came back on just then so I knew I couldn’t ask her any more questions. But when I stood up, I accidentally knocked over her tray.
It clattered to the floor, and so did my soda can.
I stooped to wipe up the mess and there was Chelly – the fat-faced bitch – holding up my can like a prize.
So sure enough, I got called down to our supervisor’s office. Mrs. Holzer asked me if I had been drinking and the truth just spilled right out like the vodka. I was then informed very matter-of-factly that this was my Last Day on the Job.
Her eyes were dull as old pennies as she handed me my last check. It felt like wilted lettuce. I backed away, turning in sharp angles, my face coming apart like a broken puzzle.
Outside, the sky was coughing snow. I looked for my car, barely visible in the fog, and realized that little trusted piece of metal was all I had left.
So, I drove straight to The Wishing Well. I know it was a stupid thing to do, but I needed to kill the pain that razor-wired through my body.
As I approached the mahogany bar, a few of the regulars greeted me, then looked past me as if I was trailing Ricky’s ghost. Bobby Renner took one look at me and poured me a pint of Sam. I told him to keep them coming. (I like the Well because it’s a got a homey feel, and lots of familiar faces. They also have a vintage juke box, a real Crosley Rocket that the owner restored).
I popped in a quarter and Bon Jovi started belting out the story of my life.
Your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye.
Tim Baylis swaggered over to me, his hips moving with the beat, his index finger pointed like a gun. He pulled me into the hallway and planted a lip lock on me.
Onions and stale cigarettes. I almost gagged. But I craved the attention.
I play my part and you play your game.
The place cleared out early because the roads were so bad. So, it was just Tim and me at closing time. I got into his truck and we fumbled around a bit. (Tim’s married and I know his wife, Lissie, and I’ve got nothing against her. She’s always been good to Tim and decent to everyone else).
When he unzipped, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I opened the door and jumped down out of his truck.
I tottered back to my car, unsteady because of the ice. (I’d stopped drinking a while ago, so my head wasn’t thick anymore). Tried to ignore my phone, but it kept throbbing like a pulled muscle. I held my breath and checked Facebook. And there it was, their latest status update. We made it to Paradise! And there they were: Rich and Ava Walbridge – beaming newlyweds! Embracing by the turquoise sea. Ava gleamed like a gold coin against the sunset. Ricky looked a lot younger, and I could tell he’d lost some weight.
I peered closer at Ava. And. My. Heart. Fucking. Stopped! From her right wrist dangled a bracelet of dainty shells. The same bracelet I’d been trying to find for weeks, the one I thought I’d lost somewhere. The one Ricky gave me after our senior class trip to Hampton. The one he made himself from the delicate seashells we’d collected, each one of them carefully strung with little silver beads, each one representing a tiny piece of his heart that he’d given only to me.
Shot through the heart and you’re to blame!
I smashed my phone to the ground, and slowly crushed it beneath my right heel until their smiles splintered into evil grins in the dirty snow.
Tim’s truck peeled out of the parking lot, his snow tires like sharp teeth against the ice.
I got into my car. Sleet pelted the windshield like bits of broken shells. I drove out onto Route 2 and it was bad out there. Slippery as hell. No traffic. Not even a plow. But I wasn’t driving that fast, maybe forty or so. The edges of the road kept fading away so I flipped on my high beams. That only made it worse.
I slowed down even more. After I while I realized I was holding my breath and forced it out in a huff. I could see a little better when I passed beneath a traffic light. I knew the right side of the road would be a little grittier so I moved closer to the edge.
And that’s when I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye.
It moved like a dog, but it was bigger, way bigger, and it was fast! And just as I squinted to get a better look, something reddish fluttered like a flag for a split second and smashed into my windshield.
I slammed on the brakes and bashed my head on the steering wheel.
The car went into a spin that seemed to go on forever and then finally crashed.
Everything went black. I felt like I was falling down into a well, down, down, slippery and wet and cold and black and I couldn’t find anything to grab onto.
I let go and kept falling.
My head was a storm of black and gray and hints of deep blue. And then, despite the pain and dizziness, color came flooding back in. I was sparkling from head to toe with thousands, maybe millions of diamonds and rubies. All I could think of was: I sure know how to one-up Ava. She might be a gold coin but Hey — look at me! I’m sitting here in a treasure chest of jewels right now! Boy, do I got that bitch beat.
And then all those sparkles really hurt. Like being stung by hoards of bees.
I plucked one out of my thumb and it bled like a little river. And it got stuck in my index finger.
My head was doing a whup-whup-whup in perfect rhythm with the tires. A coppery taste filled my mouth; my body felt like a water balloon stretching to fill up all the hollow places. There was an odd feeling of electricity in the air.
I heard a strange whistling noise and it took me a while to realize it was my own breath.
I struggled to switch off the ignition. My left temple throbbed and I knew I had to get my head straight. I wrestled a knot of metal out of my waist.
And then I looked up.
A woman’s face watched me: upside-down, a sad moon face; her coffee-and-cream skin torn like sheets of paper at the edges where her cheekbones began, her look strangely calm, her sea-gray eye clouded like an old mirror.
One dark eyebrow pointed up like an arrow.
I tried to lean away from her but I was trapped by the steering wheel.
My eyes began to focus. She wore a ragged necklace of red glass. Her left arm was bent at an impossible angle. Her black hair hung down like frayed rope. She reminded me of the dolls I used to play with as a kid, the ones I messed up and broke. I’d hack their hair or shave their heads. Cut their clothes with dull scissors. Pull off a leg. Paint their limbs with red nail polish and wrap them in bandages.
I wanted to teach them that there was no such thing as a perfect body or a perfect world, and sometimes life really hurt. And after I made them ugly, after they looked beat up and wrung out, after they accepted the fact that they would never be beautiful again, they started to feel like family. And that’s when I started to care about them, and wanted to heal their scars and bruises.
The lady watched me, the glow of her opal eye like the dimming beam of a tired flashlight. The air was shivery cold, but sweaty at the same time. I touched a piece of her red coat that hung by my right cheek as if she had offered it to me. I wiped my face with it: soft and quilted, expensively stitched. A sliver of glass etched a jagged line across my cheek.
Sorry I hit you, beautiful lady. Why did she run in front of me like that? In the middle of the night? I reached up as careful as I could to try to find a pulse.
Shit! I couldn’t reach her neck. Or her wrist.
As I studied her face, the slender lines of her nose led to a wet, black hole where her other eye should have been. I imagined that eyeball rocketing out of the socket, slippery as a frog, plopping down onto my lap with a little splat. And now I was scared to look down, because I just knew that the squelchy eye bulb was wiggling like a bobble head in the sparkling nest of my crotch, craning to look up at me, trailing pulsing red strings against my thighs.
After a blinding flash of unbelievable pain, I was out of the car, face-planted into the bloody snow.
I got up, all wobbly. And looked around.
The car was dented like a soda can. Folded into the shoulder of the road, like a hunched-over old man. Carrying a broken doll on his back. Covered with a top sheet of snow.
I edged over to the wounded lady, and stubbed my toe on a tire iron.
“Ma’am? Are you alive?”
Even though I hadn’t found a pulse yet, her lungs could still be weaving milky strands of breath.
I lifted up the back of her coat and with light from the approaching headlights I could see her shoulder was impaled by the collapsed sun roof. I would do way more damage if I tried to pry her out of there. And there was no chance of doing CPR with her body wedged in there like that. I felt her pocket but no phone.
A car fishtailed and slowed but kept going despite my frantic waving; it slithered like a nervous snake. A shadowy head turned towards me as two hands clutched the wheel.
As he sped off, I could see the man’s eyes were huge with fear.
And that’s when I heard the growl. I near about jumped out of my skin. I turned and there it was, right behind me, stretched up to its enormous height, its gleaming fangs dripping with saliva, long sinewy arms topped with claws like curved blades.
It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. And it smelled even worse. I had to breathe through my mouth or I was gonna puke. It didn’t look like a bear at all, not close up like this. Its fur was dark, but in the early dawn it appeared long, gray and very matted. Its eyes glowed red like they were lit from within, and when it licked its lips with a foot-long tongue, I knew we were only seconds from being devoured.
The horrid, stinking wolf-thing took a bold step forward and lifted his claws.
And I fucking lost it.
I reached down and grabbed the tire iron. “You lousy PIECE OF SHIT!”
The werewolf jumped back. It looked at me with something like astonishment. It tilted its head sideways and sniffed me for a long moment.
A firehose of adrenaline hit; I raised the tire iron above my head and charged the monster full bore, screaming out the piercing, shrieking, frenzied battle cry of a crazed Viking.
“I WILL KILL YOUUUUUU!”
I chased him into the woods, crashing through brush and over dead trees. A few times, I tripped over tree roots and almost went down. My heart was doing a break dance in my chest. After a while, when it seemed he had run far ahead, I turned around and found my way back to the car.
Exhausted beyond words, I went to check on the lady.
I gently touched the middle of her back.
“There now, it’s going to be alright. I’ll stay right here with you.”
I spit out some bloody phlegm, then reached over and found her other arm, flung across the windshield.
At last, at her wrist, a fluttering pulse like a frightened bird.
She made a soft moaning sound, and it filled me with hope.
“Hang in there, lady, help is coming!”
I looked out at the horizon. The sky was heavy and hung over. It struggled to lift its lids to reveal the palest gray, streaked and bloodshot by the spinning red lights in the distance.
An ambulance siren pierced the quiet.
I gently held her hand and squeezed.
Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.