He’d come for her more times than she could count, and every now and then, he’d managed to surprise her. Like the night he’d stolen her husband on a dark, slick road. She’d barely escaped the same fate – though she’d not felt particularly fortunate at the time. Or years before that, when a stranger had pressed cold steel to her throat and paid with his life. Those had been accidents, events she couldn’t have foreseen. Usually though, Death approached her in more conventional ways, age or illness seeping into her being, and over time, she’d grown good at evading his grasp. Very good.
This time, however, had been different.
As he’d slithered close, she’d ignored the signs: the physical exhaustion, the shortness of breath, the dull ache in her chest. Stupid of her really. She was so in love with this life, so attached to the people and circumstances she’d created, that she hadn’t wanted to give it up.
She knew better. All things ended.
“Mother?” Her daughter’s voice pulled Helen back. “Can you hear me?”
Reluctantly, Helen opened her eyes. The room was stark, functional, with muted green walls, safety-bars on the bed, and the sick antiseptic smell of hospital.
“How . . .” Her voice sounded rough, unused, ill. She cleared her throat. “How long?”
Caroline took her mother’s hand, fear and weariness etched in her face. “The doctor says . . .”
Helen shook her head. “How long have I been here?”
“They brought you in last night.” Caroline hesitated. “You had a heart attack. A rather serious one.”
Helen closed her eyes again, sensing the dying heart. Each beat borrowed a moment, counted her remaining days, hours, minutes. “You’ve been here the whole time.”
“Of course.” Caroline’s hold on her mother’s hand tightened. “You gave me quite a scare. But the doctors say you’re going to be fine.”
Helen forced a tight smile. It was a lie. Whether Caroline’s or these phantom doctors’, it didn’t matter. “No one lives forever.”
Tears filled Caroline’s eyes, though she blinked to keep them from spilling over. “Except you. You can’t die on me.”
Helen sighed. There was truth in her daughter’s words, and denial. Neither of them was ready. Yet it was time. Past time. Death stood close now, his breath heavy and impatient against her neck.
“Go home, Caroline.” Turning away, Helen closed her eyes again. “Get some rest.”
“Mother, I . . .”
“I have a lot to do in the next couple of days.” Things she should have done, plans she should have made before things had gone this far. It would take all her remaining strength. “And I need my rest.”
* * *
Two days had passed since Helen had accepted the inevitable. In that time, she’d not been idle. Her failing body would not allow it.
“Caroline,” she said. “Bring the wheelchair and help me up.”
“Are you sure?” Caroline’s expression had lightened in the last forty-eight hours, taking her mother’s activity as a sign of recovery. “The doctors say you should rest.”
Helen dismissed the comment with a brusque wave of her hand. The doctors knew she’d outlived this body. So did she. And no amount of rest would buy her more than an hour or two. “Don’t argue with me, child. Get me in that wheelchair.”
“Don’t call me that.” But Caroline followed her mother’s orders and helped her out of bed. “I’ll be thirty-five next month, and I’m no one’s idea of a child. Or is your memory failing, too?”
Helen smiled to herself. She’d always liked Caroline’s smart mouth. It had been one of Helen’s gifts to her. “My memory’s just fine. Now let’s get moving. I have something to show you.”
She directed Caroline up a floor, then down a long, subdued corridor.
“Where are we going?” Caroline asked, obviously uncomfortable away from the usual hospital bustle. “Is it okay to be here?”
“I’ve made arrangements.” Helen gave the duty nurse a brief nod. “It’s the last door on the right.”
Inside the room, reality became the steady beep of a heart monitor and a small, fragile form beneath crisp, hospital sheets. Helen pushed her chair to the child’s bedside.
Caroline followed more slowly. “Oh, my,” she whispered, pain evident in her voice. “Who is she?”
“Her name is Maddie.” Helen watched her daughter closely. “She’s been in a coma for several days.”
“Her father claims she fell down a flight of stairs.”
Caroline met her mother’s gaze, anger sparking her usually calm, grey eyes.
“My thoughts exactly.” Helen turned back to the unconscious child, clamping down the rage that threatened every time she saw the small, battered face. Anger would only shorten the time she had left, and she still had much to do. “You’d think he could have come up with something a little more original.”
“Tell me the authorities don’t believe him.” Caroline, too, returned her attention to the comatose child, gently brushing soft black curls from her forehead. “Tell me he’s in jail.”
“No. Not jail.” Though Helen suspected he would have preferred prison to what she’d done to him. “But he won’t hurt her again. I promise.”
Caroline again looked at her mother. “You didn’t . . .”
“He’s still alive.” Though Helen had been tempted to change that. Money and a shortened life-span had its perks. “But I’ve made sure he’ll never come near her again.”
Caroline studied Helen a moment, as if gauging the truth of her words, then settled on the bed next to the girl. “What about her mother?”
“Dead. Or gone. No one knows.” Helen shrugged. “Does it matter? The woman’s not here. And this child,” Helen gestured toward the bed, “is all alone.”
Silence stretched between them as Helen weighed her next words. She’d never been one to hesitate. Long years had given her a surety most lacked. But the next few minutes were critical, and she knew stubbornness was another trait she’d given her daughter.
“You need to adopt her.” So much for subtlety.
It took a moment, as if Caroline weren’t listening, then she rounded on her mother. “What?”
Helen nodded toward the still form in the bed. “I’ve already made the arrangements. Maddie’s father has given up custody, and you—”
“What are you talking about, Mother?” Shaking her head, Caroline deserted the bed, putting distance between them. “You want me to adopt this child?” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that?”
“There’s not a whole lot of time.”
“What has time to do with it?” Confusion marred Caroline’s features. “You can’t just spring something like this on me. I’m in no position to adopt a child.”
“A hundred reasons.”
“Name them. As you keep reminding me, you’re no longer a child. You’re well educated, financially set, and you need someone in your life.”
Caroline rubbed a hand across her forehead. “This is absurd. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.”
“It’s the perfect solution for both of you.”
“Even for you, Mother, this is . . .” She threw up her hands, evidently unable to find the words.
“I’m trying to do one last thing for you before I die.”
“Die? Who said you’re going to die?” Caroline laughed abruptly. “Besides, this isn’t about me. Or this little girl. It’s about you and your attempt to control my life. As always.”
Helen inwardly flinched. Caroline had come closer to the truth than she would ever know. “This is a gift. For both you and the girl.”
Shaking her head, Caroline wrapped her arms around her middle.
“Don’t be foolish,” Helen said, sensing her daughter’s resistance weakening. “You need someone in your life. Someone to care for.”
“She’s in a coma, Mother.” There was a quiet desperation in Caroline’s voice. “What if she . . .”
“She’s afraid now, but she’ll wake up soon.” Helen knew she’d won. “And when she does, you’ll be here for her. I promise.”
* * *
The lawyers finally left.
It had taken four of them to execute Helen’s final wishes, pushing through the adoption in record time and settling a lifetime of financial affairs. Again, Helen’s money had spoken, and everything was finally in order.
Caroline sat across the room, looking shell-shocked.
“Are you okay?” Helen asked.
“Couldn’t this have waited . . .” Caroline made a vague gesture encompassing the drab room, “. . . until you’re out of this place?”
Helen sighed, the stench of Death’s breath so close now. There wasn’t much time left. She felt each beat of her heart as it counted out its remaining moments. “I’m not ever leaving this hospital, Caroline.”
“But the doctors say—”
Helen raised a hand to stop her daughter’s protest. “It doesn’t matter what they say. I have only a short time. This heart won’t last much longer.”
Caroline closed her eyes as if that would stop the tears pushing at her lids. Helen sympathized. She’d steamed-rolled everyone and everything her entire life, and Caroline was feeling the effects of these last few, exhausting days. Or maybe, the effects of an entire lifetime under Helen’s shadow.
“Come,” Helen said, gently now that her time was near. “Let’s go visit your new daughter. My new granddaughter.”
Caroline no longer seemed capable of resistance. Rising stiffly, she followed her mother’s instructions. They made their way to the upper floor in silence, as if they had nothing left to say to each other. Then, once inside the girl’s room, Caroline found her usual place on the bed beside Maddie and brushed a stray curl from the child’s cheek.
“She is beautiful, isn’t she.” Softness touched her voice, overshadowing even the exhaustion.
“Yes, she is.”
“What if,” Caroline’s voice caught in her throat. “What if she never wakes up?”
Helen kept her eyes on her daughter. “Maddie will wake up, Caroline, and you’ll raise and love her.”
“You’re always so sure of yourself.” There was no hostility in Caroline’s voice, just resignation. And maybe a bit of awe.
Death pressed even closer. Helen had held him off for days, but her heart was failing. It was time to move on.
“Oh dear,” she glanced at the clock, then rummaged through her empty robe pockets. “I seemed to have left my pills downstairs. You know, the Coumadin. Could you go get it for me? I really should take them on time.”
With a final glance at Maddie, Caroline rose and circled the bed to her mother’s side. “You need your rest. I’ll take you back to your room.”
“No.” Helen grabbed Caroline’s hand, fighting the sudden tears threatening. She never cried. “I want to stay here a bit longer. Just go get the pills for me.”
Caroline frowned. Helen didn’t forget things, and she was never helpless. “If that’s what you want, Mother.”
“Yes, yes.” Helen gave her daughter’s hand one last squeeze, then released her before she changed her mind. “Go.”
“Okay.” Caroline moved to the door, then stopped and turned back. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Though the lie about broke her heart. “Now go.”
Caroline hesitated a moment longer, then left.
Alone, Helen took a deep breath and rolled her chair closer to the bed. “It’s time to wake up, Maddie. Time to rejoin the living.”
She took the child’s small hand and felt the life-force within. So small. So fragile. So very young.
Helen had done this more times than she could count—dozens at least, maybe more. Yet she’d never regretted anything like leaving Helen’s life behind. Even knowing she would still be here, still know Caroline and now Maddie, didn’t ease the pain. Yet, she had no choice. It was this, or leave them both forever. Besides, without her, Maddie would never wake up. She’d wander aimlessly in the hazy world of fear her father had created.
So, as always, Helen would do what needed doing.
Closing her eyes, she focused on the child, sending her thoughts, her consciousness toward the drifting, frightened mind.
The transition happened smoothly, seamlessly. Maddie had gone so far underground that she offered no resistance. Still, Helen felt the slight tug of her old body, the momentary fear of release and loss. Then it was gone. A memory.
Suddenly, the sensation of youth surged through her, pain free and vibrant. She took a minute to revel in the intoxicating awareness of this new, young body.
“Are you there, Maddie?” she asked.
“Who are you?” The thought whispered to her, small and frightened. “What do you want?”
“My name is Helen, and I’m here to help you.”
“Am I dead?”
“No, child.” Helen smiled. “You are very much alive.”
“I know.” Helen pictured herself soothing the frightened girl, pulling her into loving arms and holding her close. “But there’s no need. Not anymore. I’m here with you.”
Maddie trembled. “Will you stay?”
“Always, but you need to open your eyes.”
“No.” Maddie pulled back. “I’m afraid.”
“You don’t need to be afraid any longer.” The child’s fear tugged at Helen’s new heart. “He’s never coming back.”
“You do it, then. You open my eyes. You can do it, right?”
“I can.” Helen wanted to share this body with Maddie, as she’d done with dozens before her, not control it. “But it will be much better if you open them.”
“Why must I?”
“Well, for one, your mother will be back soon. Won’t it be a nice surprise if you’re awake?”
“Yes, you have a new mother. Her name is Caroline, and she loves you very much.”
“Yes, and between us, we’ll make sure no one ever hurts you again.”
* * *
When Caroline returned with her mother’s pills, the first thing she noticed was a pair of big, dark eyes staring at her from the bed. It took a moment for the miracle to register, then she rushed to the child’s side. “You’re awake.”
Maddie nodded, slowly. “Are you my new mother?”
A rush of tears filled Caroline’s eyes as she reached for the child’s hand. “Yes, yes. I’m Caroline.”
Maddie smiled, cautious, but hopeful, too.
Caroline laughed, joy filling her. “Mother, this is . . .” She turned to Helen, really seeing her for the first time since entering the room. She was so very still, slumped in the chair, looking decades older than her sixty-two years.
A sudden fear gripping her, Caroline gently released Maddie and moved to Helen’s side. “Mother?”
Helen didn’t respond.
Caroline took the lifeless hand, her heart screaming in protest. It can’t be. Not now. Not yet.
“It’s okay.” The small voice coming from the bed was shy, timid. Then the voice grew stronger, almost demanding. “Caroline?”
Turning back to Maddie, Caroline’s joy and sadness warred within her.
“She’s okay.” Maddie’s voice seemed to belie the child who used it. “And you’ll be okay, too. You have me now.”
Caroline caught her breath, as the room shifted out of focus, tilting oddly with a rush of impossibilities. “Maddie,” she started, “how did you know about me, Sweetie? How did you know you were getting a new mother?”
“That’s easy.” Maddie’s smile broadened, all trace of her earlier trepidation gone. “Helen told me.”
This short story is part of a series I’m developing about Helen. I have another short piece I’m working on now and I’ll post it as soon as it’s complete. So, let me know what you think.