“Perfect,” Charlie said. “If you ask me.”
“I did ask you,” Alfredo said.
Crow and priest surveyed a possible site for the bird sanctuary Alfredo had dreamed about for months. Years, really, but until he came to Cadeña-l’jadia, he never imagined its reality. But here it was. The perfect place for a bird sanctuary.
On the west side of the island below the Boulders, the stream that flowed beneath them resurfaced and wound down a lazy path through a wide floodplain to the river. During dry seasons, the stream slowed to a tiny trickle; in wet years, the river inundated the entire area. Tall trees and brushy undergrowth lined the many small channels lined with rushes and grasses and flowers.
“I’m not a migrator,” Charlie said. “Nor in need of rescue. My opinion may not be worth much.”
Alfredo stood next to him, one foot on the ground and one foot on the log. He balanced a sketchbook across his knee and made a few broad strokes with a large, flat-edged carpenter’s pencil Sam had left at the cottage. “But you are a bird; that is the perspective I do not have.”
He looked up from his sketch to the scene before him and shook his head, frowning. “If only I had Jade’s talent.”
Charlie hopped up to Alfredo’s shoulder and peered down at the sketchbook. “Oh, it’ll do, I reckon. You’ve got the basic elements. Cliffs, rocks, water, a few trees.”
A bell sounded from the direction of the river and Charlie jumped back down to the log. “Sounds like the Captain.”
“Yes,” Alfredo said. He put the pencil in his pocket and shut the sketchbook. “He is bringing Sam and Russ to help me move a few rocks and plants around.”
“No business for a crow,” Charlie said and took off toward the tree house. “I’ll see you later, Jayzu.”
A small forest seemed to float into the broad inlet, and after finding a suitable landing spot, the Captain leaped off and tied the boat to a tree. Sam and Russ disembarked with shovels and a pickax.
“Be back at sunset,” the Captain said as he leapt back aboard.
“Don’t work too hard!” Sugarbabe yelled from her perch.
“Thanks, Captain!” Alfredo said. He turned and gestured toward the future bird sanctuary. “This is it, gentlemen.”
“Perfect!” Russ said as he surveyed the landscape. “The river will replenish the soil with nutrients and keep the plant populations healthy, which will provide a food supply for the birds.”
“And the cliffs will shelter the cove from the cold winter winds,” Alfredo said, pointing toward the limestone edifice. “Many of the island’s ravens and raptors nest or roost in caves along that cliff face.”
The three men spent the day moving and placing rocks across the main stream channel to create a wide, shallow pool. Russ moved some of the water plants that grew along the banks of the small stream to the edges of the new pool. “In time,” he said, “this should all fill in with the other island flora—whatever the wind blows in and birds poop out. In a few years, this will be as lush and green as the rest of the island.”
At the end of the day, they admired their work. “It doesn’t look much different than when we started,” Sam said, leaning on his shovel.
“That was the whole idea,” Alfredo said, smiling. “It looks great. By the time the migrations start in the Fall, there will be plenty to eat.”
The Captain pulled into the sanctuary under the late afternoon shadows. “Yo, Captain!” Russ called out. “Perfect timing! We just finished!”
The Captain grinned and waved, then picked up a large canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder. He jumped off his boat, walked over to the other men and put the canvas bag on the ground. Without speaking, he opened the flap.
“Beer!” Sam cried out as he leaned in to pull one from the ice.
“You are an angel of mercy, Captain,” Russ said.
“Just the delivery boy,” the Captain said. “You need to thank the Padre.” He handed Alfredo a beer.
“Thanks, gentlemen!” Alfredo said, raising his bottle. “Thanks for your help, all of you.”
After a brief celebration, they hopped aboard the Captain’s boat. Alfredo got off at the inlet, waving as the Captain left with Russ and Sam for the City Docks.
Henry Braun took a gulp of his perfectly cooled coffee as he opened the Sunday Ledford Sentinel. An architectural rendering of the new Wilder Island Bird Sanctuary and Botanical Gardens was splashed across the front page. In shock, Henry spewed his coffee across the table, spraying his wife. Minnie said nothing as she wiped off her face and arms.
“Son-of-a—” Henry swore, over and over again as he read the accompanying article. He read it twice, a third time. “What the hell? A bird sanctuary?” He glowered at Minnie across the table. “Isn’t the whole damn island a sanctuary?”
He stood up, shaking his head. “Those bastards.” He picked up the newspaper and left the kitchen, scowling terribly all the way to his office.
Henry kicked his office door shut behind him and tossed the offending newspaper onto his desk. He picked up the phone and punched a few numbers, seething with impatience as he waited for his attorney to answer. “Dammit, Jules, what the hell do I pay you for?” he shouted into the phone. “Why didn’t I know about this damn bird swamp before it hit the papers? I don’t like being blindsided.”
“Calm down, Henry,” Jules said. “It changes nothing. They can build Notre Dame on the island, and it changes nothing. Churches are not exempt from eminent domain, as I told you; bird sanctuary is certainly not going to change anything. Just cool your jets. Is your presentation to the city ready? What about the model of Ravenwood Resort? These are the things you need to be worrying about, Henry.”
Henry slammed down the phone. He strode to the window and jammed his hands in his pockets as he looked out over his estate. Two crows in the tree outside his office window mocked him, their sly smiles ridiculing his plans, his dreams. He shook his fist at them and spent the rest of the day moping, muttering vague threats, and punching the air with balled up fists. He phoned his attorney several times, relentlessly pestering him until finally Jules promised to come over for a nightcap.
Minnie Braun calmly ate her Eggs Benedict alone. She wondered for the millionth time why God had forsaken her so, and then she scolded herself. Jesus never said, ‘Take up your cushion and follow me.’ Life is hard, and I have it so easy. Easy, if all she considered was the comfort of the body. Her soul she had dedicated to Jesus, but who was there on Earth to hold her heart?
For years, she had listened to Henry talk about Wilder Island—owning it, subjugating it, and turning it into a money machine. His long-winded diatribes became a staple at the breakfast table, lunch table, and dinner table. Minnie never saw Henry in between meals, a scenario that was perfectly fine for both of them.
Priests, for God’s sake! That’s what Henry roared when he found out who owned the island. Minnie smiled to herself at the memory. Oh, how he pouted and bellowed, threatening everyone clear up to God! The next day she wrote a big check to the orphanage run by the Sisters of St. Anne down in MacKenzie.
She was a devout Catholic and hoped to think of herself as a good Christian as well. She had a comfortable life in Henry’s big house where she lacked nothing. She was never hungry, never cold. But she felt enormous guilt at being financially supported by Henry; his most lucrative business deals often left someone else impoverished.
“It’s business,” he had said to her the first and only time she had mentioned that fact.
Minnie Braun’s husband was a respected paragon of the business community. But she wished she could undo some of the damage he had done, though in most cases, she was incapable of remedying anything. Trying to warm the icebox in her heart, she bought coats and gloves for the poor children, and she arranged for groceries to be delivered to the soup kitchens. She constantly looked for widows whose rent needed paying, and poor children whose parents could not afford Christmas presents.
Over the years, Minnie had devised intricate ways to squirrel away money, a few dollars here, a few hundred there from her household budget. She shrewdly invested that money, Henry’s money, and funneled the profits into her heart-warming projects. Frequently Minnie begged the Good Lord’s forgiveness for what her husband would surely have called theft—just in case it was.
Minnie kept her charitable contributions secret from Henry. He would never approve of any of the places she gave his money to—that little Jesuit chapel on Wilder Island, for instance. She was charmed by the legend of Brother Maxmillian, and the restoration of his chapel had captured her imagination. While her husband fiddled with lawyers in his relentless pursuit of Wilder Island, Minnie funneled his money to Father Alfredo Manzi, whom she saw every Friday when he delivered Communion wafers to St. Sophia’s.
Oh, the look of surprise on Father Manzi’s face when I handed him twenty-five hundred dollars in cash! But she was grateful as well. The Bible said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.
That’s what she had said to Father Alfredo when he gasped at the size of her gift. Of course he knew she was the wife of perhaps the city’s wealthiest man. But to everyone else at the church, as well as everyone except her husband and his attorney, she was known as Gabrielle. No last name, just Gabrielle. No one knew anything about her but her name and that she always dealt in cash.
Minnie needed a place to unload her guilt, lest it keep her from heaven. She unburdened herself in the confessional, but her real salvation came through her enormous gifts to the orphanage, and now to the hermit’s chapel. She hoped to see it someday.
But her contributions did little to placate the gnawing guilt that chewed at the edges of her conscience. And when the cold reality of her loveless marriage bore down heavily on her, she found some comfort in escaping into fantasy, where she and Father Alfredo fed orphans on the steps of the hermit’s chapel on Wilder Island. Of course she knew there were no orphans on the island, but the image comforted her.
Alfredo borrowed the monsignor’s car after Mass and drove to Rosencranz Hospital for the Insane. The hundred-year-old building was nestled in the woods about an hour’s drive from Ledford and about twenty minutes as the crow flies. Concertina wire atop the chain-link fence around the property discouraged trespassers as well as escape, should an inmate be capable of devising such a plan. The fence divided the tamed acreage of the asylum grounds from the thick, wild forest that forever threatened to encroach upon it.
He turned onto the long driveway that connected the rural highway to the Victorian-style building and its meticulously manicured grounds. A guard stopped him at the gate, pushing a clipboard at him, and he scribbled the name, Dr. Martin Robbins, onto the daily visitor’s log.
“Follow this road around and you’ll drive right into the parking lot,” the guard said as he pointed toward the building.
Alfredo drove through the set of heavy-duty chain link gates crowned by the same concertina wire as the fence. Inside, a few neatly trimmed trees grew alongside the curvy asphalt drive. The old stone hospital building suddenly appeared in his view. A gazebo stood alone on the treeless lawn, encircled by a well-ordered flowerbed of mixed colors.
“Originally Rosencranz was some rich guy’s mansion,” Sam had told him. “He’d made a fortune in China in the opium wars, or so they say. And when he came back filthy rich, he built this huge house for himself and his twenty-three cats.”
“Twenty-three cats?” Alfredo had said dubiously.
“That’s what they say,” Sam had said with a shrug. “Anyway, the mansion was supposedly the most expensive house in the US of A at the time. And Mr. Rosencranz, he threw legendary parties. Before he went nuts.”
A guard motioned Alfredo straight ahead to the parking lot, blocking him from entering the service road that branched off the driveway. He parked the car and walked up the imposing granite steps, and through the heavy, metal-clad wood front doors. He stepped into the lobby, astonished at its opulence.
He stood upon a floor of huge slabs of polished white marble with streaks of black and gray. Polished wood and sparkling clean windows adorned the walls, evidently the original living room of the mansion. The pressed metal ceiling high above dwarfed the sparse furnishings—a receptionist desk, a few chairs and end tables huddled together near the front entry. The odor of institutional disinfectant permeated the air.
A sour-faced, middle-aged woman sat behind a plastic-laminate desk and credenza, which formed an unbreachable barrier between the outside world and the hinterlands of the institution. Behind her stood a row of offices, partitioned off from the lobby with wood-paneled walls with closed doors and curtained windows. She put down the book she was reading and greeted Alfredo with a frown. “Can I help you?” Her voice echoed coldly around the lobby.
Sound confident. That’s what one of St. Sophia’s young parishioners told him. The youngster was a master shoplifter who had rarely been caught because, as he said, “I just acted like I owned the place, so no one paid me any mind.”
“Good morning, Miss,” Alfredo said with what he hoped was a charismatic smile. “I am Dr. Robbins from Catholic Social Services, and I have an appointment with one of the patients.”
“You got any ID?” she asked, her eyebrows arched suspiciously.
“Yes, ma’am,” Alfredo said, withdrawing from his wallet the fake ID Sam Howard had made for him.
Truly, Sam is a jack-of-all-trades! Lucky for me, his skills go beyond cottage building!
The priest was uncomfortable with the deception, and he knew he was breaking at least one law. But there was no other way he could get access to Charlotte or her file other than to be a psychiatrist or medical doctor. Charlotte has no family, Someone needs to look in on her. Forgive me, Father. I need to find out why she is here.
NoExit’s voice rang in his ears. “There is a vast difference between law and justice.”
The sour-faced woman scrutinized his ID carefully, looking first at the photo, then up at him. Alfredo had taken great care to look the part of a shrink—that’s what Sam had called him. He had donned a pair of plain-lens glasses and erased his iconic streak of white hair using small amounts of black dye. A gray sport coat over a blue button-down shirt, khaki trousers, and loafers finished out the ensemble of the handsome psychiatrist.
Evidently satisfied, the receptionist licked her lips and copied his name and address from his ID onto the guest register. She handed it back. “Who you want to see?” she asked indifferently, her hands poised over the computer keyboard.
“Charlotte Steele,” Alfredo said. Charlie had told him that was the name on the smock she always wore when he saw her. He memorized the shapes of the letters and picked them from an alphabet Alfredo showed him: C. Steele.
She typed a few characters into her computer, and without looking up, she picked up the phone. “Yeah, Patrick,” she said. “Bring Inmate 456191 to the patio. Yeah, Ms. Steele, that’s the one. Yeah, there’s someone here to see her.” The sour-faced woman listened for a few moments and then laughed as she said, “I hear ya, pal. But whaddya gonna do? Right, okay, hon, thanks.”
“Sign here,” she said, pushing the register toward Alfredo. “They’ll take her to the patio.” She jerked her head toward the windows. “You can wait for her out there.”
“Of course,” Alfredo said pleasantly as he signed his fake name. “May I please have her file?”
She got up as if it might be her last act on Earth and walked the two or three steps to a file cabinet. She opened a drawer, rifled through its contents, and then another.
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she said, returning to her desk. “I can’t find her file. All I can say is it must be in the archives. I’ll send someone down for it and have it brought out to you.”
Alfredo frowned, hoping to look like an irritated doctor. “That will be fine, Miss. Thank you,” he said curtly. He turned toward the doors and stopped. “What is your name? I hate to keep calling you ‘miss.’”
The sour-faced woman smiled. She is actually rather pleasant looking. “Dora Lyn, Doctor,” she said. “One n, no e.”
“Pleased to meet you, Dora Lyn,” Alfredo said, smiling back.
He left the lobby through double glass doors and stepped out onto the patio. Several wheelchairs had been parked amid the few empty tables whose occupants were either asleep, with their mouths hanging open and their heads flung back, or they were staring blankly ahead. A tiny old lady babbled incoherently into her lap, shaking her head. An elderly stoop-shouldered man walked his wheelchair along the low stone wall encircling the patio, his slippers shuffling along the flagstone.
Alfredo was aghast. This is where Charlotte lives? Among elderly dementia patients?
“Charlotte Steele for Dr. Martin Robbins!” a loud voice shouted.
Alfredo waved, and said, “Over here, please.” As the aide wheeled Charlotte over to meet him, she cried out and pointed to a flock of birds gliding by overhead. “Oh, look! The loons are flying to the river!”
She wore a blue denim jumpsuit that zipped up the front, the same as the patients in the wheelchair. A tag above her left breast read, “C.STEELE.” A thick black braid fell down her back, almost to her waist. Her eyes arrested him for a moment, eyes the color of rain.
“She don’t talk, Doctor,” the aide said somewhat apologetically as he delivered Charlotte into “Doctor Robbins’” temporary custody.
Alfredo thanked him and wheeled Charlotte to a table in the far corner of the patio next to the stone wall that bordered the patio. A rose bush hedge so thick he could not see the ground through it grew up against the wall, closing in the two sides of the patio. A most effective barrier. Beyond the hedge stretched the impeccably manicured and treeless grounds of the asylum.
He came around to the front of her wheelchair so she could see him. “Would you like to sit in a regular chair, Charlotte?”
She squinted into the sun and held one hand up to her forehead like a visor. “Who is it?” she asked. “Who are you? You hear me? No one hears me.”
“My name is Jayzu,” Alfredo said. “And I hear you. Would you like to join me at this table?”
She nodded, ignored his outstretched hand, and stood up from the wheelchair. She sat down at the table, and Alfredo pushed the wheelchair up against the stone wall. He took a chair opposite her, with his back to the people on the patio—most importantly, the guards and orderlies. “Good morning, Charlotte.”
Charlotte looked bewildered. “Who are you?” she asked suspiciously, her expression darkening again. “How do you know my name? Why are you here?”
“I am a friend of Charlie’s,” Alfredo said. “He asked me to come see you.”
Charlotte’s face lit up, and she cried out, “My Charlie? Where is he?” She looked out across the grounds toward the woods. “Is he here?”
“No,” Alfredo said. “He is not here. But I am. Will you talk to me today? I will tell you all about Charlie.”
He looked over his shoulder. The aide who had brought Charlotte to him was staring at them, but looked away as soon as Alfredo caught his eye. He turned back to Charlotte, who was placidly looking at him. “Charlie is well. He has a wife and a lot of children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”
“Where is Charlie?” she asked. “Where does he live?” Her pale blue, almost gray eyes sparkled with lively interest.
“He lives on Cadeña-l’jadia, as do I, “Alfredo said. “It is a beautiful island in the river.”
“Where is Cadeña-l’jadia?” Charlotte asked. “Is it that way?” She pointed toward the direction the loons had flown. “Or that way?”
“Oh, let me see,” Alfredo said, and he looked around to gain his bearing. “North is that way, right?”
Charlotte nodded, “Yes, that is north, Jayzu. Is that the way to Cadeña-l’jadia?”
“No, it is toward the southeast,” he said, pointing.
She nodded and looked, her hand shading her eyes from the sun. After several moments, she turned her eyes back upon him. “I want to go to Cadeña-l’jadia. I want to see Charlie. Will you take me there, Jayzu?”
Nonplussed, he held his breath for a few moments and then sighed. “Perhaps, Charlotte,” he said. “Perhaps someday I can. You have been here a very long time, I know.”
“Three thousand and eleven days. Counting today,” she said. “But not counting the days in the Graying.”
He mentally calculated the number of days. Eight years ago. That is about when Charlie said he got her to look up at him. “The graying?” he asked. Was she in a coma?
Charlotte glanced beyond his shoulder toward the building and frowned. He turned around and saw an aide rotating each of the wheelchairs one-quarter turn until they all faced the building, away from the table where they sat. “We turn ’em every fifteen minutes, Doctor,” the aide explained to Alfredo. “So they won’t burn on one side.”
Two of the tables were now occupied by elderly patients and their visitors. Alfredo wondered if they were doctors, or if these people had family that visited upon occasion. He turned back to Charlotte, who had gotten up from the table. He joined her at the stone wall as she leaned over and touched a red rose on the other side. “Oh!” she cried out suddenly. She withdrew her hand, revealing a spot of blood on the end of her finger.
He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the drop of blood from her finger. “What about the graying, Charlotte,” he said as he guided her back into her chair. Obviously not a coma. Severe depression, perhaps? “How long were you in the graying?”
“I do not know.” She shrugged. She sucked on her injured finger for a few seconds. “I did not count the days during the Graying, because there was no night to separate the gray into days. But it was a long time, I think. Many years.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do you know how many, Jayzu? How many days have I been here?”
“About twen—” Alfredo started to say before stopping himself to listen to the argument in his head. Should I tell her? Yes, she asked. She deserves an answer. The truth shall set you free. But what if it devastates her?
“You counted about eight years and three months’ worth of days,” he said after a few moments. “Charlie told me he found you eight years ago.”
“Yes, Jayzu,” she said. “But how many days was I in the Graying?” Her eyes forced the truth from him.
“Twenty three years,” he said, hoping his words would not crush her. “I do not know how many days that is.”
She stared at him for a few seconds. “eight thousand three hundred and ninety five days in the Graying, plus two thousand nine hundred twenty days since the Graying is—” She choked on the words and looked away from Alfredo as she brushed the back of her hand across her cheek. “Twenty five years.”
Glory be to God! She is as lucid as I am, although I cannot do math that fast. But should I have told her? It seems to have made her very sad. Seeing her gray eyes full of tears made his heart ache.
Charlotte exhaled a long sigh and looked at Jayzu with great weariness. “I have been here longer than I thought.”
Jayzu looked so distressed, she reached across the table and patted his hand. “Better to know than not know,” she said. “In the Graying, I did not know anything. I saw nothing, and I heard nothing, except once in a while, I heard screaming.”
She shivered; the vastness of the Graying billowed up at the edges of her consciousness. “Emptiness, Jayzu. Everywhere emptiness. No days, no nights. Only grayness.” It called to her. Still. Fall! Just fall in! “It was very quiet in the Graying, but sometimes I heard voices. Fall! Just let go! Fall!
“Do you remember when you came here?” Jayzu asked, his voice pulling her back. “Or why they brought you here?”
Charlotte put her hands over her ears, shut her eyes tightly, and shook her head back and forth. Needles and lightning bolts poked her, and she recoiled in a stiff paralysis that left her gasping in pain.
“Are you all right, Charlotte?” Jayzu’s voice .
She looked at him, suddenly startled. Where am I? Who are you? The Graying thinned, and a strange man was staring at her. The scent of the rose hedge brought her back to the patio. She pulled her braid to her front, unwound it and rebraided it. The grayness dissolved, and she sat in the sun at a table with a dark-haired man who said his name was Jayzu.
“They tricked me,” she said. She frowned and her face darkened with an old memory. She was in the woods. They came out of nowhere!
“Who tricked you?” Jayzu asked. “Who were they? Where did they come from?”
“Jayzu,” Charlotte said reproachfully. “I cannot answer a million questions all at once!”
“Forgive me, Charlotte,” he said, smiling. “That was too many questions. Tell me who they were.”
Her eyes darted back and forth as she searched for an answer deep within the wells of her memory. Finally her eyes focused again on Jayzu, and she said, “The foreign people.”
“Don’t kill me!” someone shouted from the patio.
Charlotte and Jayzu looked toward the direction of the noise. A patient was being escorted off the patio, yelling and waving his arms. “They’re trying to kill me!” he shouted, hanging on to the doorframe as the aides tried to take him into the building. “Help me! Someone! I’m innocent!”
A couple left as soon as the patient disappeared into the hospital. The man put his arm around the sobbing woman and escorted her gently through the doors to the reception area.
“He is a foreign person,” Charlotte said. “These people are all foreigners.” She gestured around the patio to include everyone. “All foreigners, except you.”
She felt the warm sun on her back and the solid chair beneath her. A few birds in the rosebushes fluttered and flapped. The man across the table was looking at her intently. He seemed concerned, but he did not make any move toward her.
“I do not know how I got here, Jayzu.” She pushed a stray hair out of her eyes. “I was in my hidden place, where the little creek split in two and made an island. They found me, and I was very scared. They took everything from me. And then they took me.” There was nothing more to tell or remember.
Charlotte looked up at the sky. Fluffy white clouds floated toward the west. After a few moments, it seemed to her that tiny multicolored drops of light fell from the blue onto her face. She shook her head back and forth quickly, her black hair catching its share of the light and twinkling with tiny flashes of shimmering color.
“Then the Graying started.” Her calm gray eyes focused on Jayzu. “I kept telling them it was coming, and they kept not understanding. Why could they not just speak English? They just kept yammering in their foreign language and sticking me and shooting lightning through me and—”
She gripped the arms of her chair and held her breath. A few moments passed, and she exhaled. “After a while, I could not hear them anymore at all, but they kept sticking me, and their mouths moved up and down like this.” Charlotte stared myopically while opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water.
Jayzu laughed, attracting the attention of the aide at the desk next to the doors. He frowned for a moment, and Charlotte was afraid he would make Jayzu leave. But the aide went back to the book he was reading.
“I do not remember anything after that,” Charlotte continued. “It was mostly gray, for a very long time. I lost track of the days.” She sighed, leaning back in her chair and looking toward the woods. “Eighteen years.”
“And when the graying ended?” Jayzu said.
Charlotte nodded. “When Charlie first came to the windowsill. But I am not in the Graying anymore. I am seeing and hearing even if no one can hear me. Why can you hear me, Jayzu, and the others can not?” She gestured vaguely toward the patio.
An old woman in one of the wheelchairs suddenly erupted a string of nonsense in a singsong voice. No one paid her the slightest attention except for Charlotte. “What did she say, Jayzu?”
“I do not know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
He looked at her with a strange expression on his face. “Charlotte, what language are we speaking right now, you and I?”
“Well, English!” She frowned in confusion at his question.
“Maybe I am silly,” he said with a foolish grin that made Charlotte laugh. “But, you and I are not speaking English. They are,” he gestured toward the others on the patio. “But we are not. And the old woman was not. I think she really might be mentally incapacitated, but you are not.”
“But, Jayzu, how am I different from her?” She pointed at the old woman. “No can understand me either. Why is she crazy,” she drilled him with steel gray eyes, “and I am not?”
Jayzu stared at her strangely without speaking for a few moments. “I do not know the answers.” He shrugged. “But I know you are not crazy.”
“If I am not crazy, then why am I here?” Charlotte angrily waved at the bank of wheelchairs.
“Because to them,” Jayzu said, “you sound like that old lady.”
She considered Jayzu’s words, her forehead wrinkled as she tried to fathom the idea that she was the foreigner. “There is no difference between her and me, then?” she said, her voice distraught.
Jayzu reached across the table and took her hand in his. “If anyone knew the answer to that, Charlotte, neither you nor that old woman would be here. But you are not crazy, and she is—dementia is what they call it. People’s brains wear out when they get old.”
“I do not want dementia,” Charlotte said, looking past Alfredo at the old woman and watching her head bob back and forth. “Am I old, Jayzu?”
“No,” he laughed, “you are not old; you are what is known as middle-aged. Like me. You and I are the same age. You have many years left. Probably forty, at least.”
“How old are you, Jayzu?”
He looked at her with a strange expression of fear and sympathy, and he hesitated before he said, “You are forty-two, as I am.”
Forty-two. Charlotte mouthed the words soundlessly. Forty-two. Fifteen thousand, three hundred and thirty days. She shook her head in disbelief.
“You do not look old,” Charlotte said. “Then I am not so old either! I was afraid I had become an old lady and spent my whole life here in this stupid place!”
She looked down in her lap as her eyes stung with tears. And Jayzu says I will live another forty years? Till I am eighty-two. Like the old lady in the wheelchair. She forced her tears back and shut her mind to that thought.
“What do I look like, Jayzu?” she said. She tried to smile, but it felt gritty and tense.
He seemed surprised at her question and said, “Do you not have a mirror in your room?” Charlotte shook her head, and he continued, “Well, your eyes are sometimes very light blue and sometimes gray, like the dawn sky before the sun rises. Your eyebrows match your hair—black as Charlie’s feathers. Your nose is straight and fits your face perfectly. You are a beautiful woman, Charlotte. You do not look old.”
She blushed behind her hand. I am beautiful? “Oh, Jayzu! I wish I could see my face!”
A loud buzzer sounded, an ugly noise that made Charlotte cover her ears. A voice spoke over the loudspeaker.
“What did she say?” Charlotte asked. “They yell like that all the time, and I never know what they are saying.”
“She said visiting hours are over,” Jayzu answered. “But we do not have to pay any attention to that. I need to leave soon, but before I go, show me where your room is. I will tell Charlie, and he can visit your windowsill there every morning, before anyone gets up.”
Charlotte’s frown immediately vanished, and she lit up. “Oh, my Charlie! Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!” She clapped her hands and laughed. She rose from the table to dance around the patio, dodging the wheelchair people, singing in her strange babble that no one else understood.
The aide grabbed Charlotte and steered her back to Alfredo, who had gotten up from the table to follow her. “Thank you,” he said as he took Charlotte’s arm. After the young man was out of earshot, he said to Charlotte, “You will see Charlie soon, Charlotte. But come, let me escort you to your room.”
She nodded, and the two walked arm-in-arm through the patients’ lobby. At one end, a gigantic flat-screen television blared a popular soap opera to one very attentive woman amid a sea of snoring white-haired people in bathrobes.
Charlotte led him down a hall and into an elevator. “Third floor,” she said, punching the button. “I am on the third floor.”
When the doors opened, she nudged Alfredo to the right, keeping a strong hold on his arm. She opened the unlocked door to her room, a small cell that had space only for a single bed and a small dresser. He looked around the room, frowning. It is so small!
“Jayzu,” Charlotte said. “Do not be sad for me. I love my little room. It is quiet and holds me comfortably. Much better than when I had a bed in the great room. It was so noisy all the time, all that yammering!” She put her hands over her ears and shook her head, her eyes large and glassy.
Alfredo laughed, and she took her hands from her ears. He felt humbled by her strength of spirit, her peace and humor with a life he would find unendurable.
“This is my sanctuary, Jayzu,” she said, her gray eyes full of the moment, of him. “I do not need any more.”
The elevator doors opened and Dr. Robbins stepped out into the lobby. Dora Lyn put her book down and looked at him curiously as he approached the desk to sign out. “I hope you had a pleasant visit, Doctor?” she asked as she pushed the visitor’s log toward him. He had such a wonderful smile. It had been years since anyone had smiled at her with such … what was it? —Attentiveness? That was it. As if he had actually noticed her as a person.
“I did, thank you,” he said as he scribbled his name. “Did you ever find Miss Steele’s file?”
“No, I am so sorry, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, blushing. “But I’m sure it is here somewhere.”
“I shall return in a week or so for a follow up,” he said with a warm smile. “Perhaps you will have located it by then.”
“Sure, Doctor,” she said.
He started to leave, and she said, “Uh, Doctor?”
“Yes?” he said, turning back around.
“Were you really talking to her?” Dora Lyn asked. “I mean, it’s none of my business I know, but, well, I saw you two out on the patio, and it seemed like you were actually talking!”
He looked at her with a surprised expression on his face, and she continued, “I mean, she doesn’t talk to anyone, that Charlotte. She hardly ever says anything. And when she does, it’s just this squawking kind of noise. Do you understand her?”
Dr. Robbins did not reply, and she wondered if she was completely out of line for saying anything. “I’m sorry, Doctor, it’s none of my business.”
“No,” he said, finally. “It is all right, Dora Lyn. We are trying a new therapy on patients such as Charlotte. By mimicking their quote-unquote language, we hope to establish a connection with them, some of whom, like Charlotte, have not spoken an intelligible language in many years. It has shown great promise.”
“I always thought she was in there, Doctor,” Dora Lyn said, nodding her head knowingly. ”You can tell by the eyes.”
“The windows of the soul,” he said and walked toward the door. As he reached for the handle, he turned and said, “God bless you, Dora Lyn.”
“Thanks, Doctor,” she murmured to his back. “God bless you, too.”