Before I met M., I was free. Free to go where I wanted. Free to sleep when I wanted. Free to do nothing all day if that was what I chose to do.
Now I hardly sleep, and when I do, it’s full of anxiety. At first I would try to sleep when M. did, but I was constantly wondering if she had stopped breathing or fallen off her bed, or if Turks had swept in from the night and absconded with her. (You may laugh, but I remember a time and place where that was a valid concern.) I was counting worst-case scenarios instead of sheep. I would catch quick naps throughout the day—yes, we could technically call these cat naps—so I could keep vigilant watch during the night. I would slip out early in the morning, during the shift change, as to not be detected.
I still had the freedom to go where I pleased, but that freedom was used more often than not to be in close proximity to M. So this freedom, I kept telling myself I had, was beginning to feel less and less free.
When I wasn’t near M., I was searching for my next victim. The search, however, was becoming more desperate. I realized I had to know how much time M. had left. So, one night I jumped up onto her midsection and listened.
One year at best.
If things continued the way they were, she would be dead in a year.
• • •
I had noticed that Ms. Buckman had developed a rather nasty cough. The only moment I had to test her was during the daily Jell-O break. As the residents gummed spoonfuls of neon-colored gelatin, I jumped onto Ms. Buckman’s lap. She had three months to live, which was surprising, given the severity of the cough.
The second harvesting went off without a hitch. Ms. Buckman was snoring loudly one second, and the next moment her essence was sliding over her lips and into my mouth. As I let the silver mist pass from my mouth to M.’s, I was treated to glimpses of Ms. Buckman’s life.
Here she was looking down at her newborn son. Here was a life spent raising him, planning birthday parties, watching him graduate, seeing him ship off to the Army, crying as he returned from “that stupid, pointless war,” laughing as she played a wrong note on the piano, while her son and his new bride danced in the reception hall. And she had done it all herself. Her life had been her own until it was for him. And then it had been theirs.
A few weeks ago I wouldn’t have understood her actions or the sense of joy and accomplishment that came with them, but now it made perfect sense. To be honest: That scared me more than just a little. Just before the morning shift change, I decided enough time had passed for the essence to have been absorbed. I jumped up for a quick check. Fourteen months. A little over a year. It was working.
I left her room, exhausted from staying up all night to keep watch but much too exhilarated to get any actual sleep. The early part of the day was spent in a sleep-deprived, euphoric daze. By that afternoon, I was going to be in trouble.
It was craft day in the recreation room. A time, along with game day, that made M. light up. Lately, these were my favorite times as well, and I would never usually miss a chance at seeing a smile in her eyes, but the events of the night were weighing on me and I decided to take a nap. So there I was, sleeping on the window sill, basking in the sun—very much aware of the list of clichés I was perpetrating. Just as I was drifting off, I heard this awful, screeching voice scream across the room.
“Mom, over here, Mom! MeMaw is over here!”
One eye popped open and searched for the source of the offending voice. The cubby little demon was circling a poor old woman who was trying to work on making a paper picture frame. The little boy’s swollen hands darted in and out of her pockets, presumably looking for something else to shove in his mouth. I was hoping he’d be successful; anything to shut him up.
“MeMaw! MeMaw! Where’s the candy? You always have candy!”
Even though the last thing this walking billboard for childhood diabetes needed was candy, I was praying he would find some and fill his screeching mouth. And for good measure choke.
“Bobby, be quiet.” Was his mother’s only half-assed attempt to control the situation.
I was about to close my eyes again and pretend that sleep was in my future when I saw the satan spawn walk toward M.
“What’s wrong with her? She looks like a retard! Mom, look she’s a retard. A wee-tawd. Mom! Look at the weeee-taaawd.”
I looked at the mother, who had no intention of silencing her crime against humanity. I looked at M. and saw the pain in her eyes. She was tearing up and I was jumping off the sill.
I barely heard his cries as my mouth filled with the coppery taste of his blood. I could swear there was a touch of vanilla as well. I raked my claws down his fleshy calf for good measure and darted under the table before his mother turned around.
“Something bit me, Mom!”
The mother finally tried to act the part.
“Nurse? Nurse? Something bit my son! I could sue you! I’ll sue this whole place!”
An attendant came over (was it Jody or Janice?) and calmly explained, “There are no animals in here, he must have scraped his leg on the table. If you come with me, we’ll patch him up.”
“Do I look stupid? I know what a bite looks like; I’ll have you fired!”
“No, you won’t,” the nurse said. “What you will do is take your wailing child, who is upsetting our guests, out of this room immediately. And you will work really hard on your parenting skills before bringing him back. Good day.”
The woman, shocked into compliance, ushered her brat out the door.
I heard a knock on the table.
“Stay under there for a while just in case. I know she’s your friend, but you have to be careful.”
As she walked away, I thought, “My friend?” I must not be as sneaky as I thought.
Just then a piece of butterscotch hit the floor. I peered out from under the table, but MeMaw had already gone back to her frame.
“I’m glad the little bastard is gone.”
Me too, MeMaw. Me too.
Anthony David Lawson is the author of “Novel,” as well as a local playwright, director and actor. He will write a piece of prose presented in parts every other week in encore throughout 2015, entitled “The Nine Lives of Xen.”