Meet Jackson Teague, traveling massage therapist. He is at the home of Emily Shrop, an elderly patient, and something’s not right.
“About time, young man,” came the voice from a mop of white sticking up in all directions out of deep feather pillows. “I know she’s cute, but remember you’re here to see me.”
“Mrs. Shrop,” blushed Dahlia, and left the room laughing. Jackson grinned. Dahlia might be cute. She was also married, with two kids and a husband back in Manila waiting for her sponsorship paperwork to bring them over.
The bedroom was cluttered, too, with more trinkets and the accoutrements of illness. A huge porcelain doll, two feet high and neatly dressed in a Scottish pinafore beneath a mass of red curls, stood on the seat of the platform rocker in the corner. A new addition, it ate up the space on that side of the bedroom. By rights it should be in the living room with the rest of the collection.
“Enough about my love life,” he said, turning back to his patient. “I hear you’re not well. Getting old, or something.”
“Nonsense and balderdash,” Mrs. Shrop announced, but there was the smallest wheeze to her voice. “So long as the girls keep my medicine coming I’ll be fine.”
At least they knew enough to keep the Glenlivet out of the bedroom. “Still three shots a day?”
“Prisoner’s allowance, but it’s all the doctor will prescribe. Makes the pills go down easier.” Emily Shrop was, not to put too fine a point on it, a whiskey-soaked alcoholic. The small forest of pill bottles on the night table were propping up her hard-pressed liver, and the three shots staved off a shuddering withdrawal that would have been the end of her.
“All for the best,” he said, and stepped up to the bedside. “Let’s have a look at you, then.” She was like one of her dolls. Emily Shrop had been blessed with clear, porcelain skin over fine features pared to their essentials by advancing age, the hair of a bleached-white kewpie doll, and eyes like tiger-eye beads, bright and startling blue.
Usually bright eyes. Usually clear skin. Today she was cloudy and pale, like he was seeing her through a mist. She said, “Quit staring, you’re just like Dahlia. I haven’t felt so good in weeks. My aches and pains are practically gone.”
“Great to hear.” Or not, he thought to himself.
He put his oil bottle and appointment book on the side table, stepped up to the bed and took a breath. He loosened his guard over the fascination inside his head and let it out a tiny bit. Then he drew back the bedsheets and looked.
Mrs. Shrop lay in her knee-length nightie and glowed. The clean lines of her face and head stood out in sharp relief. Her skull sat square and level on top of her spine, and then all hell broke loose. He could see it, all the way down, the brittleness of severe osteoporosis. Three failed thoracic vertebrae had collapsed her chest into a deep inward curve, and he could almost feel the bright sparkles of pain that emanated from the breaks. Her ribs bumped and rubbed into each other as she breathed. Below her ribcage it was like her body was barely held together, so weak were the connections of her spine and pelvis.
“What do you mean, your aches are gone?”
She lifted a hand to grasp his arm with a surprisingly strong grip. He could hear her shoulder creak. “I mean, I don’t hurt, not hardly. Best I’ve felt since my last bender.”
He frowned. “Then why aren’t you getting up and around?”
Mrs. Shrop let her arm fall. “I don’t feel like it. The pain’s not holding me back, but I’m, I don’t know, drained.” For the first time a vague worry crossed her face. “Like somebody’s pulled a plug somewhere and I can’t get it back in.”
He squinted and tried to figure out what he was seeing. It was a diminishment of sorts. Something was stealing her away.
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