To Feel (Short Story 5,000 words)
This is my first post but one of my favorite stories I have written. I'm sorry its a little long. The length was a requirement for the class but it was nice to add some back story to the original idea I had in my head. This story has been reworked a few times and I'm just looking for some feedback before deciding what the next step should be. Thanks for your comments!
The nurse rapped on the door of Room 125 at Sunny Hills Care Center and peaked into a very plain room that contained a rocking chair, a dresser with two picture frames on it, and a bed with a very old, plain woman slowly knitting an unrecognizable blob of yarn.
“Otillia, you have visitors.”
Tillie didn’t raise her head from the blob she was knitting. “Tillie,” she said quietly.
“What was that, dear?”
“My name is Tillie,” she said in a slow, thick voice.
“That’s right, Tillie. Why don’t you show your family that pretty scarf you are making?”
“It’s a sweater,” she snapped.
Tillie snapped her head up; yanking her needles out of the row she was working on. That voice sounded familiar. Two children, a boy and a girl, maybe around ten years old, approached her bed. The girl was a little older and her face was partially hidden by strait brown hair. The boy was shorter with a face that had not quite lost all his baby fat. Tillie knew she should be able to recognize them, especially if one would call her grandma. That must mean she had had a child at some point. And that child had children. Through the foggy mist in her memory she saw a little blond haired girl running naked around the house, towel trailing behind and dripping wet.
“Julie! Come here, you’ll catch cold.” Her voice was scratchy and worn from years of use. It didn’t sound right, like listening to a recording of your own voice and wondering if you really sound like that.
“I’m right here, Mom.”
There middle aged woman standing at the end of her bed. Her deep brown eyes were watery with concern. She remembered her eyes; they have never changed. But she could not understand why her hair had become brunette laced with red streaks. That color did not belong to that face.
“How are you feeling?”
Feeling? Her hands were sweaty and she did not know who these children were hovering over her bed. Her tooth was sore, she didn’t know why; maybe she cracked it on something. What does she mean, feeling?
Tillie could only stare at this woman. Her mouth was held lank, her tongue trying to remember how to make a word. “Pppeeeehhh…” Why wasn’t it working? What did she want to say anyway?
“What, can you say it again?”
Say what? She didn’t say anything. Nothing would come out. Why were these people bothering her?
“Go away.” Tillie knew how to say that, she said it often enough during the day. Those two simple words, however, affected this woman differently than the nurses in their simple blue scrubs. Her daughter, yes, she could see it now. Her eyes, it must be her daughter.
“Mom, it’s okay. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.” Her eyes closed briefly and two tiny rivulets of tears fell down her face. Black mascara leaving trails for more tears to follow. Tillie was alarmed by her daughter’s distress. What had made Julie so sad?
“Julie? Do you need something?”
Relief fell around her daughter at the mention of her name, her recognition.
“No, Mom, I’m very happy. Don’t worry about my need. I’m going to speak to one of the nurses. I’ll be right back. Kids, why don’t you show Grandma your surprise?”
Tillie’s gaze followed her daughter as she left her small room out into the hallway. She caught the words “better” and “dementia” before the door closed. She turned her attention to the wide-eyed children shuffling their feet before her bed. If she believed what her daughter had said, these kids must be her grandchildren. She tried to remember them but only recalled the smell of the pine needles from an unseen Christmas tree. Christmas with snow. Wrapping paper crinkling as it was stepped on, being tossed aside after hiding treasures.
Tillie looked out the window at the red and gold leaves outside. Leaves crinkling like wrapping paper. Could it have been that long? Did her daughter abandon her to this world of medicine and sterile bed pans? She had to look away from those faces. She glanced down at the sweater she was working on. Her hands began the familiar patterns of purls and knits.
The girl—Charlotte, yes, her name is Charlotte—fingered the sleeve she had begun to work on. “This looks real pretty.” Tillie snatched it away and tucked it under her pillow.
“It’s not done yet,” she mumbled.
“Daniel,” The younger boy jumped at Charlotte’s voice. “Why don’t you show Grandma the picture you found?”
Tillie studied the youth’s face. His plump lips filled by the baby fat still weaning from his cheeks. His crystal blue eyes were slightly hidden from his straw blond hair that needed to be cut badly. She remembered this face more than the girl’s. It was the face she sneaked peeks at during class. The hands that held her tight as they walked home from school. The wild flowers he picked for her. The boy held out a small flat package wrapped in paper.
“Thank you, Clarence.”
“But my name—”
“Shhhh, just let her go, Daniel.”
“But—ow! Why’d ya step on my foot?”
Tillie tried to listen to their conversation but they didn’t seem to want her to hear. She fingered the colorful paper and tried to tear it but her fingers wouldn’t grab the creases. She studied the words written in the circles. No they weren’t circles, they were longer and they had lines coming out.
“It says ‘Happy Birthday,’ Grandma. Sorry, we didn’t have any other kind of paper besides Christmas stuff.” Christmas with wrapping paper crinkling. Children’s laughter. There are children and there are presents. Why is there no laughter?
“Can she open it?”
Who said that? Where did these kids come from? Tillie chewed on her lip as if she was sucking on a lemon. Her finger scratched at the paper again. The boy looked at her the way Tillie would look at a tomato with fuzz growing on it.
“Here, let me help,” said the girl, reaching for the balloons. A large rip appeared on her present. Why couldn’t she do that? She picked at the torn edge; the rest came off surprisingly easy. It was a piece of cardboard? Why would she need cardboard? But it was still nice to get a present.
“Thank you, Clarence. It’s pretty.”
“No, Grandma, like this.” The girl flipped the cardboard over. It looked much more like a picture frame this way. Why couldn’t she figure that out? She looked down at the aged black and white photo in the black plastic frame. A younger version of herself looked back at her. The woman was much thinner and wearing a white swimsuit with USA printed across the front and a medal fell across her small breasts. Her hair was hidden in a white cap with the American flag on it. Water dripped from her face and her upheld arms.
“Me and Mom found it in an old photo album. She thought it would be a good idea to give it to you.” The boy’s smile faded as his grandmother continued to stare blankly at the photo. “Um…Do ya like it?”
Tillie didn’t answer, didn’t hear the question. Her blue-veined fingers stroked the glass as her eyes studied the woman’s face. It held strength, power, achievement. Her face no longer knew such things. She wanted her life to be the one in the picture. The woman in the picture smiled back at Tillie. When was she ever so happy? Could she feel that blissful even now, with two strangers staring at her and a knitting needle poking her in the side? She stared even longer at the photo, trying to remember what made her so happy. What was had she done that was so important? Who would give her that pretty medal? Images filtered through her memory like morning fog burning off a lake. She saw a crowd. They were waiting for her. Waiting…for what? Why was she so high up? Looking down over everyone, like some kind of god. Flags of every color blurred their tiny faces. They were waiting for her. But she couldn’t do anything until she saw Clarence. Saw his face, his sandy hair, his blue eyes she could spot ten miles away. Why couldn’t she find him now? She had to move, she had to do…something. “Clarence,” she said softly.
“Grandma? Are you ok?” That girl was shaking her shoulder, touching her. “Should I get a nurse?”
“Who are you?”
“Your granddaughter, Charlotte. And this is Daniel, remember.” She said this matter-of-factly, like rehearsing a spelling bee.
“No…Clarence. I want…”
“Grandpa died a long time ago. Please remember.” That girl actually said “please.” He’s right in front of her, why can’t he see that? The crowd...so high…Clarence…the picture…Why couldn’t she remember? Her eyes screwed shut, shutting out the room, the sterile smells, the hum of machine. All she wanted was to remember, to know.
Something ripped inside her and she couldn’t stand it anymore. She started screaming, yelling, anything to get that torn feeling away from her. She thrashed her arms and the picture frame crashed against the wall. She dimly heard the tinkling of glass.
“Mom! What happened, what’s wrong?”
“Where’s Clarence? He was right here! Right next to me! Talking to me.” Tillie looked around the small room; her eyes were wild and scared. Her small chest was heaving up and down and her arms shook as the nurse tried to restrain her. She saw two children scrunched into the corner of the room, attempting to be as small as possible. She vaguely thought that she had seen them before. Why was she here and why was that nurse gripping her arms so hard?
“Mom, listen to me!” Another woman pushed the nurse out of the way. She liked her, she had nice eyes. Her arms stopped struggling but her hands were still bunched into clammy fists.
“Mom, Dad died six years ago. Do you understand me?” The woman pronounced each word slowly as if each were a ball she was tossing to a child, hoping she would be able to understand. “Why do you think Dad was here?” Hoping she would grasp them with chubby little arms.
Before Tillie could answer the girl in the corner piped up. “I think it was Daniel, Mom. Grandma kept calling him Clarence.” The girl’s nose quivered and her eyes began to water. “What’s wrong with Grandma?”
Tillie wondered where this “grandma” was. She couldn’t possibly be talking about her? Could she? She had a child once, a blond haired curly girl who loved to laugh in a high pitched squeal. Where was that child?
“Charlotte, its ok,” the woman said. “Here, give me a hug.” She crossed the room and held the child tight. Did her arms hurt too? That’s when she saw it, right when the woman bent down on her knees and dried the girl’s tears. Light from the window reflected off the back of her head. It glittered gold, gold like the tangles Tillie used to comb out of her daughter’s hair.
Tillie watched as Julie’s shoulder’s sagged and might have even heard a “thank you.” The boy shuffled over to some shattered glass by the window and began to pick it up. How did that glass get there? Did the window break? “Daniel,” Julie snapped, “don’t touch that. You’ll cut yourself.” She paused, took a deep breath, starting over in a much calmer voice she said, “how about you two wait out in the lobby. Maybe you can ask the lady at the reception desk to turn on some cartoons for you.” What are those kids doing in here?
The boy sulked, “I was just trying to help.” He looked like he needed to cry but Tillie felt this boy was too proud, like all young boys.
“I know.” Julie said letting out another sigh and shooing the two out of the room, “I’ll be out in a little bit.”
After the children left the room, Julie walked over and bent over Tillie again who was still trying to figure out how her daughter had grown so old without her realizing it. “Does she throw things a lot?” she asked the wall.
Immediately a nurse appeared beside Julie. Tillie didn’t think it made much sense that the nurse was in the room the whole time but she never did see her come in. “Sometimes.” said the nurse, “its part of the frustration Mrs. Hawkes feels when she can’t connect with what is going on. She’s just…venting her anger,” she finished lamely.
“Mom,” Julie leaned over and looked into her eyes. Tillie looked back at the black smudges under her watery eyes. “How do you feel?”
There was that word again: feel. She was tired of that word. What did that word mean? Why did they keep asking her that? Tillie sucked on her lip. Her daughter-that-was-not-her-daughter was looking into her eyes again, like she could find all the answers in her pupils. She watched her brown and red hair swish in front of her face, moving forward and backward with each breath Julie took. She remembered those golden curls hanging wet around her face as she pulled her from the bathtub long after her fingers had grown pruney. She remembered putting a towel around her tiny body and rubbing her vigorously. Her daughter shrieked and ran off giggling.
“Julie, why are you running away?”
“I’m not going anywhere, Mom. I’m right here.”
Her blank gaze was snapped away from the memory she saw better than the woman in front of her. Who was she? Why was she here? “No, Julie left me, I have to find her.”
“Mom, I’m Julie. Please…just look.”
Tillie did look, she studied the smooth curves of her cheeks, the crow’s feet just beginning to form around her eyes. This was not her child. But her eyes, they were the same pools of deep brown that mimicked the photograph. They held the same concentration she had before each dive. When she would fly through the air, twisting and bending, until just before she hit the water. Oh, how the water felt after each dive. It was a miracle that never changed. She could always depend on that water wrapping around her body and caressing her in every move. Oh to feel that again. Feel. That was how she felt.
“You want some water, Mom? Here, let me pour you some.” Julie—yes, it was her daughter, she grew up—reached for the pitcher next to her bed and filled a cup with water. She gently grasped Tillie’s hand and guided the fingers so they could hold onto the rings of the plastic cup. Tillie smiled and stuck two fingers into the water and wiggled it around. It wasn’t the same but it was a start.
“Aren’t you thirsty?”
No, why would she be thirsty? She stared at Julie but could not form the words to tell her. She wiggled her fingers viciously until water splashed onto her shirt. Julie tried to take the cup away but Tillie wasn’t ready to let go yet. The two wrestled silently over the cup. The nurse was busy picking up pieces of glass on the floor. Where did that mess come from? Tillie let go of the cup unexpectedly and Julie’s arm snapped back, the water splashed right into the nurse’s face. The nurse gasped at the shock and shook her head, dripping droplets onto the picture in her hand. Tillie laughed, the nurse loved the water too! Julie looked at her and began to giggle along with her until they were both howling with laughter. Tillie could see the tension drop from her shoulders.
“Well, you, um, just let me know when you’re leaving,” the nurse stammered, dropping the picture on the dresser and attempted to walk with some dignity out of the room.
“Mom, you really need to learn to control yourself,” Julie said still laughing.
Tillie had stopped laughing when she noticed something on her dresser. “What did…” she tried to continue but she couldn’t find the right words. “Pic…thingy.” She pointed futilely at the object on the dresser. Julie went over and picked up the photo and sat down on the bed next to her mother. The photo still had a few water droplets on it and there was a big scratch down the middle from the glass. Tillie took the picture from Julie, holding it as if it would shatter like the glass frame. She loved that picture even though she never saw it before. Or had she? She could never be sure of anything.
“Remember when this picture was taken, Mom?” her daughter asked. “Dad used to tell this story so often when I was little. Maybe I should tell it to you.” She snuggled closer on the bed, let out a sharp gasp and removed the sweater and knitting needles from under the pillow. “Mom, you can’t leave these under things, you’ll get hurt.” She set them on the nightstand and scooted down the bed farther. “You remember this picture?” Tillie didn’t say anything, didn’t shake her head, didn’t make any gesture that she had heard her. But she did.
“It was way back in 1948, right before you and Dad got married.” Julie began. Tillie felt like she was child being read a bedtime story but she didn’t feel like complaining, she still wanted to know. Why couldn’t she remember? “You guys traveled all the way to London. It was the first Olympic Games after World War II and the whole world was excited to see everyone compete. You traveled with the rest of the U.S. swim team, Dad tried to get on the same ship as you but it was all booked up. Dad always said that was the worst trip he ever took waiting for you. When you two finally met up, he wouldn’t leave your side, even got chased out of the hotel twice by security. Remember that, Mom?” Tillie chuckled. She didn’t remember that happening but she remembered Clarence and that was definitely something he would do.
“The day you competed Grandpa said you were so nervous. He told you over and over that he would be in the stands and would be right up on that platform with you in heart. Dad always told me that when you climbed up there, you looked all over the stadium until you both saw each other eye to eye before you would even get in your diving stance. And every time he told this story he said your dive was perfect. Always used the word ‘perfect.’” Julie said this word with a hard “p” sound, like the cooking guys on TV. Tillie scrunched her eyes trying to remember. Tried to remember the face in the crowd, the one that she always knew. But oh, how good the wind would always feel as she twisted in the air. The first crash into the water was always the best. It wasn’t really a crash but the shock from air to water was always harsh and incredible.
“Yeah,” she said quietly.
“You remember diving? You always took me to the pool in the summer and try to teach me. But,” Julie chuckled, “I was afraid of heights and you could never figure that out.” Tillie remembered the little girl running out of the bathroom, lank yellow curls flapping every which way. “You’d get up there and show me how and you’d always do this extravagant spin or something that I could see how you could do that. Got all the boys looking anyway.”
“Anyway, you won the bronze medal at the Olympics. Everyone was so proud of you. You kept beating yourself up ‘cause you only got 3rd place but no one cared, especially Dad. You could have come in last and he still would have been proud of you. You were always so hardheaded when it came to competition, really helped out when you became a mom. Tillie looked at her daughter and wondered how she got so old. She stared at her misty eyes and tried to remember where here little girl had gone. The nurse bustled in with a lunch tray, interrupting both their thoughts.
“Ottilia, are you ready for supper?” the nurse asked cheerfully. The painted on smile looked strange to Tillie and she merely grunted in reply.
“Well, I guess I should get going,” Julie said, getting off the bed and embraced her mother in an awkward hug. “It was good seeing you, Mom.”
“Are we going for a walk?” Tillie wasn’t sure why she asked that, but it seemed like a good idea, besides, she was tired of sitting.
“Not today, Mom. Next time we come it will be Christmas! We’ll have fun and open some presents. Sound good?” Julie asked, giving her another quick hug.
“Where are we going for a walk?”
“Just eat your supper, Mom. I’ll see you next month.” Julie left the room before Tillie could respond. The nurse set the tray on the roll up table and left the room and the old woman painstakingly picked up her napkin and fork and worked on getting the food to her mouth. She could hear that nurse outside the room with someone else. Their voices were muffled but every time she heard a laugh she knew they were laughing at her. She really didn’t like that nurse.
“Otillia, eat your potatoes. You like potatoes,” the nurse said walking back into the room.
“Tillie. Name’s Tillie,” she said, picking at her lumpy mashed potatoes with a fork. Why did she hate her full name so much? She pondered this while she swirled the potatoes around her plate. Tillie could still hear the chanting...Otillia, Otillia, Big fat idiot! She stuck her fork into the Jell-O cup, the up and down motion making squelching noises. The mashed potatoes from her fork sat suspended in red mass; she wished she was the mashed potatoes. Relaxing in a gooey mix, like floating in water. Big fat idiot! The kids called her that when she was little. What did she do? They were all around her, in a circle, pushing her and singing their stupid song. What did she do? She told on them but she didn’t remember what they had done to be tattled on. Ow! They pushed her into the dirt, she scrapped her knee. They were taunting her. It hurt…Where was Clarence? He was always there to help. Every time she was hurt, he was there. Why wasn’t he here now?
CRASH! The tray went flying into the wall. Mash potatoes and Jell-O slid down the wall and plopped onto the floor. “Mrs. Hawkes! What have you done now?” That nurse came back into her room with her medication and a glass of water. Tillie smiled, she was glad the nurse had to clean up that mess, showed her to laugh at her and call her “Otillia.” Besides, the she was funny when she was mad. “Here, Otillia, take your pills while I go get something to clean this up.” The four pills rattled in the small plastic container as it was smacked down onto the table and the water sloshed in the cup. Grabbing the pills, Tillie popped them into her mouth and started chewing. Blech! Why on earth did they give her something so terrible to eat? She spit what was left of the pills back into her hand and shoved them in her pillow case. She would have given them back to the nurse but she would have made her take them anyway. Tillie felt something slightly sticky back there and realized she must have already hid some of those pills back there. She didn’t know when but she really didn’t want to tell anyone. She drank the water to get rid of the taste. She just finished the glass when the nurse came back in with a mop and a trash can. “Otillia, why don’t you go visit in the common room while I get this cleaned up?” she spat out, almost pushing Tillie out of the room.
Tillie’s slippered feet shuffled into the common room where other patients were playing cards or watching TV. That stupid game with the wheel was on. She didn’t like the sound it made. Maybe a walk would be more fun, she told herself and shuffled to the courtyard. On her way, Tillie saw the nurse run out of her room, clutching the pillow case. She wondered if she had gotten that dirty, too. It didn’t matter, she got blamed for a lot of things she didn’t do.
The courtyard wasn’t a courtyard in a true sense, but just a fenced-in place outside of the care center where patients could walk around outside. There wasn’t much there except for a couple of benches, a brick path and a sad looking fountain that badly needed to be cleaned out. There were a couple men in the courtyard; one she vaguely recognized was also staying at the facility. Howard—Harry—Henry? What was his name? The white haired man was sitting on one of the benches with a younger man, probably his son. Tillie walked along the fence line, enjoying the late afternoon sun and watching the squirrels run into the woods bordering the home. Leaves stuck to her slippers as she made her second lap around the courtyard. The two men sitting on the bench walked back inside, leaving her by herself in the late afternoon sun.
As Tillie came up to the corner of the building that had the gate to the parking lot next to it, her toe hit something hard. She picked it up and fingered it, running her nail over the smooth surface. How did the lock fall on the ground? Tillie tried to set it on the gate where it belonged but her fingers couldn’t get it to work properly. Instead of staying shut, the gate creaked open. She looked out into the tall trees covered in violently red and gold leaves. It was beautiful, better than looking out her window. It invited Tillie into the woods. She slipped out the gate before that nurse would bother finding her and snuck into the woods and started through the underbrush.
Low shafts of light spread through the forest in the beautiful November evening. It was so simple walking, there was no thinking, just moving. Tillie moved farther into the woods, examining the many shades of reds and oranges of the leaves on the ground. She admired the green of the ferns and the long yellow grass fell over the stones. The grass almost looked liked straw—straw blond hair. Clarence had straw blond hair. Where was he? She had to find him. The serenity of the woods rapidly turned into a vicious wilderness. He was hiding out there; he should be by her side. Where was he? Tillie tried to push back thoughts of him lying on the ground, hurt and afraid. She tripped over a root and scrambled on her knees over to a tree. As Tillie grabbed onto a tree branch and pulled herself up, she huffed and puffed trying to catch her breath before continuing her chase. One of her slippers fell off but she couldn’t afford to go back and find it.
Tillie started running in whichever direction offered her the most movement in the dense forest. Every flicker of gold and yellow she saw sent her stumbling after her dead husband. She paused to catch her breath again, took a step and stumbled over a root, losing her second slipper. Children’s shrieks crowded in her ears: Ottilia, Ottilia, big fat idiot. She wanted to cry, she wanted to let everything out but she could not even do that. She needed Clarence. Clarence made everything better. She crawled on until she found a branch to help her stand up. She began running again as she saw the trees thinning a little. Abruptly the woods ended. Her feet, already bruised, crunched on sharp gravel. A path seemed strange in the middle of nowhere but it at least offered her a faster route in her search. She continued on, flapping her arms to keep her warm. The last sunlight of the day cast cruel shadows and broke up the trees into ferocious monsters. Every once in a while she would pause to shout her husband’s name but her frail voice did not carry far into the trees. Then she heard a glorious sound. Her pace quickened as she went around a bend in the path until she came to a small bridge. She looked over the sides at a slow moving river. A creak bubbled its way through stones and meandered into the river.
It was a sight she was most familiar with but did not know how she knew. She loved the exhilaration of being so high up and the anticipation. Anticipation? What was that? She knew it must mean something, she heard it often enough. She could hear the cheer of the crowd as the wind shook the leaves left on the trees. Her husband must be out there. He was always out there. Always congratulated her; always smiled no matter how she scored. Score? Who was keeping score? What does that mean to a person? She kept looking through the crowd and then she finally saw him. The sun, almost ready to set, slid under a cloud and bathed the river in gold. How could she have missed him? His smiling face, his sweet eyes…
She crawled under the railing and stood just so her stockinged toes were over the edge of the boards. She stretched her back as high as she could, stretched her arms out, fingers wiggling, then straitening as she brought her arms up over her head. She never forgot how to dive. And jumped.
The air could only be enjoyed for a short but wonderful moment before Tillie hit the water. The cold air fluttered through her loose sweater, tears sprouted out of the corner of her eyes, and her teeth became ice cold exposed from her smile. Hitting the water sent chills to her toes. She slid through the water, savoring the parting of air and water as her hands, head, body, legs, and feet took their turn touching the water. She floated beneath the surface, letting the water fill every pore of her body.
Water could never be so liquid, parting for her every motion. It moved her. Tillie sank farther down, unwilling to swim back up to the surface. She let the water guide her, tell her what was good and what was bad. She felt the river spread through her body as she let her arms and legs rest on its moving current. She did not want this moment to end.
Tillie did not care that her bloated body would be found 13 hours later by a fisherman. She did not care that her grandchildren’s college education would be paid for by the money won in the lawsuit. She did not care that the nurse would be fired for her irresponsibility. She only felt. She felt the water through her hands. She felt the coolness of the river warm her body. She felt alive.