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The room was quiet except for the soft, peaceful snores coming from the lumpy cot in the corner. A small hand peeked out from under the scratchy woolen blankets. They were a paltry guard against the frosty air conditioning. The metal radiator was silent; it could offer no protection to a skeleton. Goosebumps dotted his pale, wrinkled skin but he didn’t seem to notice that his sweater was worn through. Brown thread stood out in scraggly contrast to the room’s uniform of stark white sterility.
Everything was cold to the touch—the white iron bed which had never been slept in; the grubby glass of the window that needed to be washed; the granite countertop that played host to a deceptive rainbow of pills. The woman’s teeth chattered in her sleep, her thin arms clutching uselessly at the blankets around her shoulders. It was almost too cold in the dark room, but that was the way Walter Fraley liked things.
Walter lined up three pills from the endless army on the countertop. Fifteen milligrams of beige Rheumatrex to stop the infected cells from spreading through her weak body.
Medrol was supposed to increase her appetite, but the chalky white tablets were hard to choke down. They tasted of dirt and hopelessness. Even the dull orange ibuprofen couldn’t take that pain away.
“Wake up, Edith. It’s time to take your medicine.”
The bald head peeked out from the shelter of wool, the sluggish blue veins standing out more than ever against the smooth paleness.
“I can’t today, Wally.” The words came slowly, dragged out in halting whispers of hot breath. “I’m too tired.”
She was always too tired. Too tired to take her medicine, too tired to change out of the stiff, papery blue floral nightgown, even though it scratched her tender skin. Too tired to do much of anything except wait for the darkness to carry her away.
Walter picked up the dusty pills and carried them on their own little tray to the empty bed. Edith had refused to sleep in the bed, preferring the creaky cot in the far corner. She declared that hospitals were depressing enough without that particular cliché. One by one, Walter placed each tablet on the white sheets as if he were handling the glass angel figurines Edith used to collect.
She was mesmerized by the way the sun shone straight through the delicate figures, splaying dots of light on the table. Each tiny cherubic face glittered with secrets and promises that only the heavens could hear. Sometimes, Edith heard their melodic hymns whisping through her imagination. The faceted glass was smooth under her wrinkled fingers, cool and comforting. She could spend hours creaking away in the old wicker rocking chair, staring in awe at the radiant angel army. They smiled back in artificial serenity, tiny hands clasped together, stretching towards the ceiling.
Now they were nothing more than memory shards, laid to rest in a brown cardboard box in the basement, thrown in with the rest of the things. No newspaper to protect them from the cold floor, to keep them from breaking or becoming scratched. Edith had imprisoned them in the basement when she could no longer bear to look at the glorious wings that struggled to flutter. Clasped hands reached to be remembered but found only empty air. But it was the plaintive faces that depressed her, frightened her so much that she could no longer hear their hymns. Open mouths with too-red lips—a silent scream. Painted eyes seemed haunting now, somehow creepy instead of comforting. Their beauty had become a curse, injecting the angels with the knowledge of a sinner. She had placed them all face-down in the box, unblinking eyes unable to see anything anymore.
Edith had kept only one of the delicate guardians. It perched on the sill of the room’s only window, wings poised as if in flight, ready to capture the nightmares that the cold couldn’t chase away. She wasn’t sure why she had chosen that particular angel to rescue. Perhaps it was because it had been the first figurine in her collection. It was a shame she couldn’t remember where it had come from.
Edith smoothed the crinkled pink silk of her best Sunday dress and pouted at her reflection in the shiny black patent Mary Janes her mother had bought just for her Confirmation. Tugging at a silky blond curl, she sank slowly to her knees. The riser was uncomfortable, the wool scraping her knees and making them itch. She resisted the urge to scratch, keeping her small hands pressed together and her eyes firmly closed. But she had to peek. The prayers were dragging on and on, the reverend’s drone a tempting lullaby. To keep from falling asleep, Edith slowly opened her eyes and looked up through her lashes. A flash of light from the altar caught her attention. The small angel posed with hand in prayer and eyes closed, much like Edith had been only moments ago. Her silver wings sparkled in the dim light, casting dappled shadows on the wall behind the altar. She seemed eerily perceptive in her state of tranquility, as if she knew Edith didn’t want to be confirmed that evening. Edith started to rise from the kneeler, her eyes fixed on the transparent white skin of the miniature martyr. Slender fingers reached for the elegant hymn that emanated from perfectly O-shaped lips. The Amen echoed through the caverns of the majestic church.
“Edith, it’s time to take your medicine.” A heavy map of wrinkles had settled into Walter’s face, nearly obscuring his clear blue eyes.
A weak groan was his only answer. With a sigh, Walter placed the pills back on the still-undisturbed bed. He narrowed his eyes at the supposed “miracle drugs,” shaking his head. He watched Edith shudder in her sleep, a wince darting across her pointed features. A child-like whimper shook her feeble frame. Walter traced the faded veins of blue and red with his thumb, massaging her clammy head with hesitant, languid strokes, as if trying to memorize her. Her skin was cold and dry, her lips raw and turning blue. She remained still, comatose yet audible, too weak to move and too strong to give up without a fight. The angel stared at her from the windowsill, forgiving her sins. She had done all she could. Now she deserved to rest in peace.
Her gold-rimmed glasses acted as a makeshift bookmark for the open King James Bible on the nightstand. The thin pages were wrinkled, the words smudged in some places where her fingers had underlined the verses as she read. Yellowed pages were worn through with oil stains and the book smelled faintly of mildew and Chanel Number Five. The Bible was open to a passage Edith and Walter both knew by heart. The gospel according to John, chapter three, verse 16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Walter knew Edith had made her decision. She had refused to take her pills, claiming fatigue, but no part of her was truly weak. The angels were packed away in the basement. The Bible was open to the only verse Edith had ever memorized, ever felt the need to remember beyond Bible Study and Sunday sermons.
Walter turned away from the lonely cot and picked up the three pills from the bed in the center of the room. He rolled the tablets back and forth in his hand, the artificial dyes staining his palm. Clenching his fist tightly around the disintegrating pills, he threw the medicine into the brown wicker trash can next to the nightstand.
He stood by the bed, staring into the once-empty trash can, shoulders heaving and eyes narrowed. As he raised his head, the moonlight shone through the angel’s glass body, catching his attention. He glared helplessly at the silver wings, the glitter long gone. Her lips were only half red where the paint had chipped off and the blue glass shone through. She seemed to see right through him, through the fear and agony of a loss he wasn’t ready to accept.
The tears slid silently down his cheeks. Walter took the pills from the trash can and laid them carefully in a row on the windowsill, right next to the glass guardian. He lifted the gold-lined Bible from the nightstand and carried it over to the empty bed. He settled into a sitting position and pulled the stiff white sheets around his legs. Opening the book to the gospel according to John, chapter three, verse 16, Walter began to read.