Beatrice Miller closed her eyes and leaned back on the cushions propped against the headboard, listening as Rhea shook pills out of various bottles. She could almost tell which pills made which kind of rattle on their way out.
“Here you go,” Rhea said gently, and Beatrice opened her eyes again.
She gazed at the shapes and colors in Rhea’s palm: the tiny white one, the brown oval, the fat blue circle, the yellow capsule, the coated pink disk, and the gargantuan greenish thing that looked as if it were made for veterinary use in large animals. She placed one at a time on her tongue and swallowed from the glass of water Rhea held out.
“Let’s check your pulse.” Rhea sat on the edge of the bed and took Beatrice’s hand, the skin fine and wrinkled and soft as only that of the very old can be.
Beatrice searched Rhea’s face. “You’re not sleeping well, are you?”
Rhea continued counting silently before replying. “It’s to be expected, right?” She moved the covers aside to reveal Beatrice’s thin legs under the flannel nightgown, her fingers feeling along Beatrice’s ankles, then her feet. She seemed satisfied, smiled at Beatrice, and picked up the blood pressure cuff. “Let’s do this and then I’ll get you some breakfast.”
A few moments later Beatrice watched Rhea leave the room. Then she reached into her mouth and retrieved the pills. The white one had melted, leaving a bitter taste, and the blue was half dissolved, but the others were pretty much whole. With some effort she stretched her arm down and stuck the pills between the bed frame and the box spring.
Rhea hadn’t opened the drapes. It didn’t matter. Beatrice knew what was out there. And they both knew what was coming. It was just a matter of when.
Around noon Beatrice asked Rhea to pull the drapes open. Rhea was silent a long moment, then said, “Why? It will only depress you.”
Beatrice let out a feeble laugh. “What difference will that make? Here, help me turn on my side.”
Rhea helped her. “You probably don’t need this extra pillow now.” She moved it to the other end of the bed.
“Do you think any day will be better for me than the one before?” Beatrice felt a wrench in her hip and added quickly, “This won’t work. I need to get onto my back again.”
Rhea’s strong arms came to her aid. “Okay now?”
“Yes.” Beatrice exhaled with relief. “Open the drapes, will you? I heard more shrieking before. It’s like a free-for-all. The hawks, the rabbits, the squirrels—they’re all raging at each other.”
Rhea clutched her cardigan against her wrinkled nurse’s whites. “I don’t think you can see anything. The fog just keeps getting worse.”
“I need to look anyway.”
Rhea stifled a sigh and pulled back her curly black hair with a rubber band she’d plucked out of her pocket.” All right, but we should turn the light out first.”
Beatrice nodded. Rhea reached for the lamp on the nightstand and pulled the drapes apart. Outside, the fog squatted over everything and pushed against the old house’s first-floor windows as if to suffocate all life inside. Thick and gray and aggressive, it reflected dully off the hardwood floor. Rhea kept her eyes averted. At length she crawled into the wing chair in the corner and tried to make herself small in its protective arms.
Beatrice stared into the vapor for a long time. She could make out the larger, closer trees, but everything else flattened into the murk.
“I’ve been thinking,” Rhea said in a small voice. “Maybe we should turn off the generator so as not to call attention to ourselves.”
“They’ll find us anyway. But it might give us an extra day so you can leave.” Beatrice put her face in her hands and sought comfort in the darkness. When she removed them she looked at Rhea and her heart broke. In the large chair the young woman who cooked for her, helped her to the bathroom and changed the sheets when she didn’t make it in time, gave her sponge baths and pills she’d stopped taking several days ago—this capable young woman looked like an unnerved child. “There isn’t much more time. You have to gonow.”
“I told you: I can’t.”
Rhea’s eyes were big and shiny. She sniffled, and Beatrice realized her nurse was starting to cry, something she’d never seen Rhea do.
“I’m not leaving you here,” Rhea said.
Beatrice tried to make her voice harsh. “Don’t be absurd. What would be the good of even trying to move me? Let’s not have this conversation again. How much longer am I going to last anyway?”
Rhea heaved a long, ragged breath filled with tears and mucus. “It’s not right. I can’t leave you alone.” She paused. “I wouldn’t even know where to go.”
“You don’t stand a chance in here, you know. You heard all the reports.” The last one had been two days ago.
“It’s probably too late already.” Rhea reached for the TV remote control, pressing buttons as if to satisfy herself that no stone had been left unturned. The set turned on, but the screen remained black and the volume silent.
“You could try the computer again,” Beatrice said.
“Wi-fi’s still down.”
“Try again. You never know what might change.”
Rhea’s streaked face showed an uncharacteristic irritability. “You don’t think I’ve been trying every chance I get?”
Beatrice turned her gaze back to the window, searching for new shadows in the haze. There were none yet. “Rhea,” she said softly. “I’ve come to love you as if you were my own child. And I would tell my child to leave me to die in peace and to fight for her life. You can do nothing for me, ultimately, but it would be a sin to go down with me.”
“That’s not how I was taught.”
“Nor was I, but that’s the way it is now.”
A few hours later, Beatrice knew she was awake, understood it was no dream, but suddenly the dusky room with its smells of sickness and its view of the unforgiving fog melted into the backyard of her childhood home, and she was a small girl sitting in the spring-green grass by the pond with the skinny white birch on one side and on the other the Japanese black pines that were so lovely before the blight that would kill them years later. A robin hopped near her in the grass, and she felt the sun on her bare legs. Birdsong filled her ears. Beatrice the girl smiled up at the fluffy white clouds. Beatrice the old woman felt herself heaving with sobs.
Rhea was immediately at her side. “Did you have a bad dream?” She took Beatrice’s hand.
Beatrice clutched Rhea’s fingers and blinked away the colors and sounds of a different existence. “I’m all right,” she said at last.
By 5 p.m. Rhea had drawn the curtains again and was in the kitchen preparing a light dinner. Beatrice dozed from the painkiller she’d been given an hour ago. Painkillers she would take. Those, she was not going to remove from her mouth and stick onto the box spring. The room was dark and the house silent, and when the telephone in the hallway rang the sound needled into the old woman’s sleep and woke her.
For a moment she didn’t know what it was. It rang several times before she heard Rhea running from the kitchen.
“Hello?” Rhea was breathless. “Callan! Callan, where are you?”
Beatrice strained to hear.
“It—they weren’t working. I don’t know. Is your cell—?” Rhea’s voice lowered, and Beatrice could make out tones but no words. She looked at the closed drapes and wished they were open.
She listened for a long time to Rhea’s distressed whispering, hearing an occasional “I can’t. I can’t do that.” She would fire Rhea tonight, even though she knew it would be pointless. There was some whimpering from the hallway, then a muffled “I love you.” A few more minutes of hushed urgencies followed, and finally Beatrice heard footsteps going back into the kitchen.
In the silence a coarse, heavy sleep overtook her again. When Rhea returned with a tray of soup, toast, and applesauce, Beatrice stirred and pulled herself up slightly. Rhea put the tray down on the small hospital-style table that swung over the bed, then she turned on the nearby light. Her eyes were red and swollen.
“I heard the phone ring,” Beatrice said as Rhea tucked a paper napkin under her chin. “Is it working now?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t very clear.”
Beatrice lifted the spoon halfway to her mouth and waited, but Rhea busied herself smoothing out the bed around the old woman. “Will you have dinner with me?” Beatrice asked.
“Of course,” Rhea replied without looking at her. “Just let me straighten up and I’ll join you.”
Beatrice brought the spoon to her mouth. The soup was a thick carrot and ginger puree. It dribbled down her lip a little but she caught it with a second napkin before it went far. “You heard someone, though. On the phone. Who was it?”
Rhea hesitated. She picked up the empty glass of water on the nightstand. “Callan.”
Rhea nodded. She seemed reluctant to say more but finally murmured, “He’s on the coast. He’s found a guy with a boat who’s sailing to the Caribbean tomorrow.” She clutched the glass to her and glanced at Beatrice.
“He wants you to go with him.”
Rhea didn’t reply.
Beatrice sighed and put the spoon down. “Go, Rhea. I’m firing you. I have no more money for you. Go.”
Rhea looked down at the floor. “You know it’s not about money.”
“Open the drapes, please.” Beatrice’s voice choked on a cough and the spasms shook her small frame. “Turn off the light and open the drapes. I want you to see what’s outside.”
“I know what’s outside.”
“It’s just the beginning. And I want you to know that I’ve been spitting my pills out when you weren’t looking.”
“What?” Rhea snapped to attention. “Why, and for how long?”
“The drapes. Please. Now.”
Rhea made an exasperated sound and reached for the light, then she yanked at the clear plastic rod that controlled the drapes. Beyond the window a dense, leaden twilight had settled on the earth, sifting a strange radiance into the fog.
“Look carefully,” Beatrice said. “Do you see anyone or anything moving out there?”
Rhea sank to her knees and peered over the windowsill. She stared for a long time before replying, “No.”
“That’s why you need to go now. Find Callan.” Beatrice rested her head back on the pillows and pushed the tray table away. “If I have to tell you again tomorrow night, it might be too late.”
To the side of the house a terrified scream cut the fog, tightening into a yowl of anguish that ended abruptly. Goosebumps hatched along Beatrice’s neck.
Rhea continued gazing out the window before sitting back on her heels and facing Beatrice. She remained huddled under the sill.
“I don’t think I can eat anymore,” Beatrice said.
She was drawn to the window despite the desperate squeals of rabbits having their viscera torn, their terror lingering like a configuration in the mist. Sometimes she wondered if the cries were from the hawks or maybe the herons or Canada geese that passed through the area. Woodchucks, wild turkeys, deer. . . The caterwauling could be from any of them.
“Wait, you look crooked.” Rhea adjusted Beatrice’s shoulders against the chair back, settling a pillow between Beatrice’s hip and the chair arm. Beatrice winced, and Rhea removed the pillow.
“It’s fine.” Beatrice bit her lip as she said it. Moving the wing chair by the window and getting into it—her idea, of course—had taken a significant effort, and now Rhea looked as if she were swallowing back an I told you so. “Thank you. I’m so tired of being in bed.”
“I know. In a few minutes I’ll bring your medicine.” She shot Beatrice a stern look. “And no spitting anything out.”
“Do me a favor. Raise the window for me, will you?”
The look of horror on Rhea’s face was instant. “What for? It’s almost night.”
“I want to smell the air.”
“Beatrice.” Rhea squatted by the chair and placed her hand on the old woman’s arm. “I let you sit here by the window against my better judgment. Why on earth—?”
“It’s still my world, isn’t it?” Beatrice snapped, then looked contrite.
Rhea stared at her. “Is it? You’ve been telling me it isn’t anymore.”
Beatrice pressed her fingers against Rhea’s. “Humor me. Just a crack. A few minutes. Then you can close it again.” She could almost hear Rhea’s thoughts rumbling across the pale unlined face. “It can’t hurt me, not at this point.”
Rhea sighed and slid open the window lock, then pulled the pane up an inch.
“More,” Beatrice said.
Rhea nudged the window up another notch. “That’s all. What about me? It can hurt me, can’t it? I’m coming back in five minutes.” She huffed out of the room.
“Not knowing doesn’t make it go away,” Beatrice called out, her voice so weak it barely left the chair. Tilting her head, she found the tentative current of air from outside. The smell hit hard and fast, high up in the bridge of her nose, a grimy odor of exhaust, spent fuel, ozone, a combination of things it possibly was and probably wasn’t. She tasted the oiliness.
The phone rang, its jangle rattling Beatrice’s heart into skipping a beat. Rhea’s footsteps pounded into the hallway from the kitchen. The phone rang two more times before Rhea picked up the receiver. “Hello? Callan, is that you?”
Beatrice’s eyes skittered over the fog. Against the darkness of the room it seemed backlit. There was something else, something new: a thin, whining screech from deep within the mist. Not an animal sound. A kind of high electrified humming.
“Hello!” Rhea was shouting into the phone. “Hello!”
Beatrice breathed—one breath, two breaths, three. She heard Rhea hanging up the phone.
It was earlier than usual when Rhea brought in Beatrice’s morning tray. Beatrice had been mostly awake for hours, watching the turbid light of dawn struggle into being. The drapes had been left open all night. The house was chilly, and Rhea wore a thin blue sweater under her cardigan.
“Good morning, Beatrice.” Rhea placed the tray on the little table but pushed the table aside so she could sit on the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling?”
Beatrice’s smile was weak. “Just peachy, thank you.”
Rhea kissed Beatrice on the cheek, then pulled back and gazed at the old woman’s face. “I brought you some Earl Grey with your breakfast. A hot cup of Earl always makes me feel better. I put lots of honey in it too, the way you like it.” She took Beatrice’s wrist and clocked her pulse. Then she pressed a stethoscope to Beatrice’s chest and back, drew aside the covers to check for swelling in her legs, and reached onto the tray table for Beatrice’s pills.
“How come I get these with breakfast today?”
Rhea shook the pills into her hand and held them out to Beatrice with a glass of water. “So there’s less chance of your being able to spit them out.”
“What’s this?” Beatrice pointed at a couple of colossal pills she’d never seen before.
“Pain killer. You’re out of the other ones. But you need to take two of these at a time because they’re not as strong.”
Beatrice eyed Rhea, then nodded. “Can you cut them for me?”
“I thought you didn’t like the jagged edges.”
“I don’t. But these are too big.”
Rhea took the butter knife from the breakfast tray and carefully broke the pills in half by pressing the knife against a center dividing line. “You never told me why you’ve been spitting out your medicine.”
The knobby bones in Beatrice’s fingers showed white as she clutched the sheet. “So that we can both leave sooner.”
Rhea’s hand hovered over the pills she’d cut. “I don’t like that answer.”
Beatrice’s breath came slowly. She was immensely tired. “You’re young, but at my age, and in my health—” She waved toward the window. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to fight.”
Rhea’s eyes met hers and they held each other’s gaze. Rhea gave the pills to Beatrice and closed the old woman’s hand around them. Beatrice put each half on her tongue and dutifully swallowed it with water. She took the other pills as well, this time not removing any of them from her mouth. Rhea poured her a cup of tea from the glazed ceramic pot and buttered the toast for her, placing it next to the single poached egg and three stewed prunes.
Beatrice raised the cup to her lips, her hand shaking slightly. She took a sip and furrowed her brow. “You put honey in this?’
Rhea nodded. “Lots. Why? Does it need more?”
Beatrice took another sip. “It tastes harsh.”
“Those new pills I gave you.” Rhea got up to straighten the bed around Beatrice. “They can temporarily change the taste in your mouth. Drink up, okay? I’ll bring you more honey. Be right back.”
She bustled out of the room without looking back.
Beatrice picked up the fork and broke into the poached egg, watching the yolk run on the white plate, the color of the sun as she remembered it. The egg tasted bitter like the tea, and slightly gritty. Somewhere in the house Rhea walked around quietly, a floorboard creaking here, a door whispering closed there. When she finally came back, Rhea held the honey jar in one hand and a glass of milk in the other.
“I warmed this up for you.” She placed the milk on the tray and spooned honey into the tea, then sat down in the wing chair. Beatrice noticed she had exchanged her soft white loafers for sneakers. “Might get some of that taste out of your mouth.”
Beatrice reached for the glass. “When are you going to leave?”
“What?” Rhea looked startled, the dark circles under her eyes suddenly accentuated.
Beatrice sipped the milk. It left a vinegary sting on her tongue and made her voice lower to a whisper. “You can’t save me.”
Rhea’s eyes wandered carefully over Beatrice’s face. “You know I love you, right?”
Rhea rose from the chair. “Make sure you eat enough, okay? I can get you more tea if you like.”
“This is enough, thank you.” Beatrice took another sip of milk, then one of tea and a bite of egg. She dabbed the toast in the grainy yolk, chewing slowly.
“Do you want me to close the drapes?” Rhea asked. “I’ll turn the light on.”
Beatrice shook her head. “I’m fine. Go make yourself something to eat. I just want to be by myself a bit.”
Rhea came close, put her hand on Beatrice’s shoulder, and leaned to kiss her on the forehead. Then she left the room, closing the door halfway behind her.
Beatrice stared out at the fog a long time, sipping the bitter tea and warm sour milk, forcing herself to nibble on toast dipped in the gravelly egg. The prunes tasted all right, and she ate all three. At long last she regarded the empty tea cup and poured herself more, drinking it down in big gulps that tasted less heinous than before.
Finish the milk, she told herself. She stopped with the glass in midair when she heard the click of the front door lock. Very quietly the door opened, halting just before the spot with the chronic squeak. Then silence, and the door closing again with another click and the subtle turn of a tumbler as the deadbolt was set from outside.
Beatrice put the glass down and closed her eyes a moment, falling almost immediately into a doze that splintered when she heard her own battered breathing. Her head was heavy, each rise and fall of her chest an effort.
A great ruckus of squawking and wailing erupted just outside the window. It died quickly and left a shrill keening that bore into Beatrice before falling away.
Her eyes rolled to the window and she saw the shadows of the closest trees, indistinct and little more than smudges, shifting in and out of the opaque brew. She squinted at the movement. Last night’s attenuated whine was back, higher, more insistent, cutting through the alarmed bluster of geese somewhere in the distance. Her nose wrinkled at the oily stink creeping into the house.
The shadows grew darker, larger, not trees but vague hominid blurs coming closer, looking less and less like omens or apparitions. Beatrice squeezed her eyes shut, then looked again at the steady, logical progression approaching the porch. She swallowed hard against the dread rising in her chest, then reminded herself it would all be over soon.
She forced herself to drink down the rest of the milk and ran her finger around the bottom of the teacup to gather the last granules. She glanced into the gloom of the bedroom, at the dresser, the unused desk, the old framed photographs of family, and put her head back against the pillows.
She closed her eyes. “Godspeed, Rhea.”