Today's Reading

In the ring of flaming leaves surrounding her, there is a break, a dark triangle big enough for a child—or a shriveled old woman—to crawl through.

Rose crawls through it.

On the other side is a long narrow meadow. Sun touches the grasses. They sparkle with their offerings of dew. Cars honk in the distance. Traffic hums faintly. Beyond the trees, across the cleared area, she sees roofs tucked into the riot of fall color. Rose has never been here before.

No past, no future, the present a mystery, she is groundless, a spark of life in a chunk of meat, part of the duff and twigs. This is the eternal moment of Now. Somehow, she'd imagined it would be more enlightening, less creepy.

Laughter, gay and careless, percolates through the gap in the foliage screening her from the meadow.

Holding to fistfuls of the supple branches, she totters out of her meditation lair. She pulls herself to her feet, stands swaying and blinking in the morning sun. Two boys, perhaps twelve or thirteen, both wearing small backpacks, are walking bicycles down the green. They don't notice an ancient skeleton in a hospital gown wobbling in the shrubs.

In the side pocket of one boy's pack is a red plastic water bottle.

In another incarnation, she might have said, "Excuse me" or "Good morning." What she does is point and croak, "Water." A cartoon, the tattered old prospector crawling across the desert sands toward a mirage boasting a single coconut palm, unrolls in her mind, and she laughs, a dusty "Huh, huh!"

The boys stop.

"Did you hear that?" says the boy with the water bottle.

"Gunga Din," Rose says, and wishes she hadn't. It will be incomprehensible—insane—to a modern boy.

"There!" The other one points a finger at Rose. "Hey, lady, were you the one screaming?"

The nearness of water gives Rose the initiative to let go of the bush. She takes two staggering steps toward the boys, both frozen, mouths agape, eyes round. Reflected in those eyes Rose sees herself as the boys must see her. Hair uncombed, leaves clinging to a filthy stained hospital gown, gaunt and wobbly and batshit crazy.

"OMG," says the nearer boy, a nice-looking kid with shiny brown hair falling over his forehead, his wiry frame covered in the ubiquitous baggy cargo shorts and a green T-shirt. "You okay, ma'am?"

Rose can think of no short answer to that. She opens her mouth to say, "Could you please let me have a drink of water?" What comes out is "Unh, unh." A withered arm with a bony hand claws at the air. The boys flinch back.

"Aden," says the boy who has the water, "you go tell the people at the nursing home one of their patients got away. I'll stay here and make sure she doesn't get more lost."

"You sure?" asks Aden, eager to get away from the specter that is Rose.

"Pretty sure," the water boy says.

Aden straddles his bicycle.

"Nursing home? Got away?"

"No," Rose cries feebly. "Help me!" Her knees give way. As she falls to all fours, the hospital gown parts in back and slides down her elbows, leaving her naked.

"Go! Go! Go!" she hears the water boy yell, then the sound of bicycle tires throwing gravel as Aden leaves.

No longer able to hold her head up, Rose stares at the grass, panting like a dog.

A tentative hand lands on her shoulder. "Water, ma'am. I'm sorry there's not much." Gripped in a brown young hand, the bottle appears beneath her face, the spout near her mouth. Rose wraps cracked lips around it and sucks.

"You have to bite down to get the water to come out," the boy says.

Rose bites down and, like a suckling calf, works her throat. A couple of tablespoons of tepid water reach her before a gurgle lets her know the bottle is empty. She keeps sucking convulsively until the boy gently pries the spout from her lips. There isn't enough water to reach her throat, but her tongue is sufficiently wet. It no longer feels like beef jerky.

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