“Live or die, live or die! That’s all anybody does around here. For once, I wish somebody would come up with a third option.” –Mad Cassandra Browning
Stella Ryman and the Case of the Third Option
On this particular sun-and-shade April morning at Fairmount Manor, Stella Ryman no more entertained the idea of becoming an amateur sleuth than she had of entering next spring’s Boston Marathon. For not only was Stella eighty-two years old, but she had lately sold her home and a lifetime of gathered possessions and washed up at Fairmount Manor Care Home in such a state that she would have bet her remaining seven pairs of socks that she’d be dead in half a year.
And here she lay in Palliative Care, only three months in.
At this time of morning, she reckoned that the rest of Fairmount Manor residents, in their ones, twos and threes, would be engaged with daytime television, or else sitting poised for the lunch tone to sound. But Stella was lying flat on her back and all alone, tucked up tight in a metal-framed bed in a shadowed upstairs room. Her fingers danced across her blanket, like little birds unsure where to light.
Of course, she was new at dying. A first-timer. Just like everybody.
She would not be afraid.
Soldier on, Stella.
She felt as if she was floating, and it took almost every scrap of Stella’s concentration to make sure the sensation was taking her upwards. There should be no need to fear your own demise if you were ascending. Of course, if she felt like she was falling downwards, that would be quite another matter.
She bit her lower lip and attempted to trap one flapping hand with the other. In this way she managed to get both her hands folded across her breast. Her model for this posture was the Lady of Shalott, although at her age no Lancelot would be standing by to regret her passing. She tried to imagine Dr Terry—who looked, now she thought of it, something like Lancelot if the parfait knight had gelled his hair—sighing, “She has a lovely face, God in his mercy lend her grace, Stella Ryman.” Ah, well. To Dr Terry, as to the world, Stella was an old lady dying Upstairs in Fairmount Manor as best she might. Eyes firmly shut, she took a long slow breath.
Somebody slapped her in the face.
It was a light slap, but sharp for all that—sharp enough to hurt. It felt like the kind of slap you used to receive in the schoolyard as a child, when you’d royally teed somebody off—a bully, maybe, or one of those terrible, touchy friends you made from time to time throughout your life, the difficult ones who were so hard to shake.
“Wake up, Stella Ryman,” a voice hissed from the side of the bed. “Stop this nonsense at once.”
This specific halitosis was unmistakable. Stella’s eyes snapped open. She looked up into Mad Cassandra Browning’s furious, tearful face. At eighty-eight the woman was six years older than Stella herself, with grubby bare feet and a single streak of white in her mad Medusa hair. Cassandra’s jacket was striped with bars of light and dark from the half-closed blinds in the window behind her, so that Stella was put in mind of a convict who has taken over the prison and is making demands.
Stella floated a little bit sideways.
“Damn it all,” she muttered. Then it occurred to her that whether or not her early religious instruction had been in all ways accurate, she couldn’t possibly exit this life swearing. “Blast!” she thought, and then, in an attempt to clear her slate: “Bless us every one.” She tightened the clasp of her hands across her breast.
A drop of something wet hit her cheek. Unclasping her hands, she brushed it away. Another drop rolled down into the corner of her mouth. However, Stella wasn’t the one who was weeping. Mad Cassandra’s tears dripped down upon Stella’s face.
Stella’s heart softened. “It’s sweet of you, Cassie, but please don’t cry.”
“I can’t help it.” Mad Cassandra’s eyes shone damply in the shadowy room. “You’re like an elephant.”
Patiently Stella said, “I’m not like an elephant, Cassie.”
“You’re behaving exactly like the elephants in the National Geographic magazine, the ones that think they know when they’re going to die and then they go away and do it.”
Stella had read about elephants—The Elephant had been a favoured subject for children’s written reports in the school library she used to administer—and she could easily picture the great beasts, with their dignity and poise, choosing their own moments to depart the earth and quietly slipping away. Considering the source, this was a lovely compliment, and she thanked Cassandra for it.
Mad Cassandra loomed above the bed, her tearstained face shadowed by her long hair. “Don’t you thank me, missy. You’ve got no business acting like an elephant when you’re needed downstairs. There’s a problem.”
“What problem?” Stella’s interest flapped its ears for an instant. Then she remembered where she was and what she was meant to be doing. “I’m sorry, Cassandra, but whatever the problem is, I’m afraid I can’t help. They had to wheel me up here on a gurney. I’m getting weaker with every moment.”
Cassandra snapped, “That’s because you haven’t eaten in days. I heard that Reliza girl say so when she took a moment away from making eyes at young Doctor Terry.” Dashing the tears from her furrowed cheeks, Cassandra stared fiercely round the little upstairs room until her face transformed itself with a ferocious grin. “I know what to do. Wait here. Or else!” With a final bang of bony fists on Stella’s bed rail, Cassandra was gone from the bedside.
“Or else, what?” With relief—with disappointment—Stella closed her eyes once more. She shifted her legs and moved her clasped hands lower, down to her warm belly. No matter how she wriggled, she couldn’t seem to rediscover her inner Lady Shalott.
read the entire story in Pulp Literature Issue No. 1, Winter 2014.