The dining room rung a hollow dry ring as Beatrice pushed toast crumbs around the circumference of a ceramic plate, pressing them into near-crested soundwaves. She did this without looking, transfixed and staring out of the wavy glass windows at the rain, steadily and heavily coming down over her silent, thoughtless vision. She was seated at a wooden table, dressed to leave in a raincoat and rubber boots. Her housemate was dressing, so she sat alone. Her cheeks were warm and pink, but her face bore a fairness that, adorned with rain, seemed almost waxen. She stood up from the table and walked her plate to the sink, placing it on top of the pile of dishes which needed urgently to be cleaned. Again, she gazed out the window, looking at nothing in particular but the still raindrops outside and the deep, dark green of a warm, wet east-coast summer. Everything was lush, and it was humid. The grey clouds seemed almost blue and closed over the whole sky like the roof of a stadium. The window framed it like a painting. Behind her, Greta, an older woman, stout and built like an ox with hardened skin and lifeless hair, walked in with her coat and boots on. “Are you ready?” “Yes.” Greta ordered: “let’s go.” Beatrice nodded and, feeling herself coldly drop back into the quotidian world, followed Greta out of the door. It was shut behind her with a creak and a slam and then the sound of the rain, cool on the ears, overcame the senses with quiet insistence. It was beautiful, but sad, smiled Beatrice. They started up the road on foot, Beatrice in step behind Greta. She was a good roommate, thought Beatrice. Strict, yes… but something of the saints to her as well… a sort of holy grimace. They had been roommates for only 2 weeks, after all, since Beatrice had started work at the clinic. As they walked through the green rain up the gentle road neither of them spoke. Beatrice didn’t feel a particular need of chatter. It made for a peaceful walk. They wound down the road past scattered houses, all pulled back into their properties like turtles into shells, finally stepping up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. A few minutes later they passed a warm-yellow daycare and then at the building adjacent walked up the concrete path to the front of the clinic. The porch creaked under Beatrice’s feet. Greta held the door for her with a rigid arm. The building was an old house, and Beatrice imagined it was as old as the town. The floors were a deep aged brown and the walls a freshly painted light-yellow. The windows bore crosses of white wood between old panes of wavy glass. Altogether the building comprised a medical clinic of little recognition. Its primary patients were the local and lonely elderly, who found it a kinder place to lay than an impersonal hospital in a larger, neighboring town. There was also a doctor, though, who took appointments there during the week. The clinic was owned and operated by Mrs. Thibault and a few nurses (Greta was one). Mrs. Thibault, was in and out, fetching this and that, taking phone calls and directing Beatrice in her duties as “general assistant:” a vague role. Mostly, though, Beatrice was there as a friend, an amicable comfort to the elderly, a role she enjoyed. She wasn’t really sure why she’d taken the job, though. She thought about that a lot. Perhaps to experience some part of life that, for her youth and adolescence, had been held safely at a distance. In the entryway Greta removed her coat and, opening the closet to hang it, observed herself in the mirror on the back of the door. She pulled out a few grey hairs while Beatrice stood behind her, making occasional eye contact through the mirror. As Beatrice hung her coat, she glimpsed herself too and ran her finger down the bridge of her pointed and fine-ridged nose and thought of her mother. She smiled at herself and climbed the stairs to the nurse’s quarters and office, first leaning out over the banister into the hall to hear the sounds of the patients: the quiet murmuring of the television, and silence. Upstairs, Mrs. Thibault greeted Greta and Beatrice: “good morning. How was the walk?” Greta allowed Beatrice the response and began looking over patient reports, empty appointment schedules. “It was soaking, Mrs. Thibault, although I like the rain. The daycare definitely won’t be playing outside today.” “I hear it’s not supposed to let up until Saturday in the early morning.” She paused and the informality dissipated. “Beatrice, would you start off with a round of warm towels? Then it’s morning meds, which are set aside for you downstairs.” She knew. It was odd that she was told this same thing every day as if it weren’t the same. Mrs. Thibault went downstairs and out the front door on an errand, leaving Greta and Beatrice alone in the room. Greta, her eyebrows and her gaze transfixed by the contents of the clipboard, walked downstairs too. Beatrice thought Greta was like a preacher strolling as he reads; she followed, with a sigh, to warm some water for the towels. As she waited for the teapot’s whistle, she saw herself back on the beach at home, in Santa Barbara, with the sun beating down and a cool breeze, and her resting lazily on the beach in that great confluence of elements. She looked at the time. Her parents were probably still sleeping, enjoying the summer. For a moment her college roommate came to mind, but the teapot whistled, and she was busily pouring water over the towels and then waiting, making sure they weren’t too hot to touch. Outside it continued to rain, and along the street a single pair of pedestrians walked, hand in hand, towards town, as though the rain did not in fact exist. Any onlooker would have seen their dark raincoats and passed them over as one moving element of the dark landscape outside. Rolled, warm towels in hand, Beatrice walked into the nearest room; she would work from the front of the clinic to the back, along the singular hallway where all the patient rooms were situated. The first patient’s name was Frieda. Beatrice did not know the Frieda’s diagnosis. This was the case for most patients. So every time she walked in she would assume the kindest, most philanthropically happy demeanor she could, assuming that she alone was the brightness in the patient’s life, which was otherwise rife with misery, pain, and dejection. Frieda occupied the corner bed in a two-bedroom. The floors were the creakiest of any in the house, but it hardly mattered since Frieda was in the clinic for two days recovering from some kind of lower-body surgery; she wasn’t supposed to walk anyways. She was high-spirited, though upon Beatrice’s gentle entrance into the room she didn’t seem to notice a thing; she was preoccupied with a book. Abruptly, Beatrice asked, “What are you reading?” Frieda jumped a little, her short hair bouncing slightly as she lifted her head and peered out from a wrinkled face. “Oh! Good morning Beatrice! Oh, you’ve brought the towels. You are wonderful to me.” She put the book down and reached out with both hands as Beatrice laid a warm towel across them. She held it to her face for a moment, then gently rubbed her hands. “What’s the book?” “Oh!” Frieda exclaimed, seemingly broken from a trance. She continued excitedly, “it’s a wonderful new novel by James Patterson. You know, I hear he writes his books in one 24-hour sitting! I don’t know how anything decent could come of it, but I do love his stories.” She swapped the towel from the book and began to read. Beatrice picked up the towel and inquired again: “what’s it about?” Frieda furrowed her eyebrows and pressed her pointer finger to her lips. “Hmm… I’m not really sure yet, to be honest.” She reflected, then confidently exclaimed, “Seems political!” Having satisfied the question, she added, “Beatrice, you’re a Stanford girl, right? That’s what you said?” Slightly embarrassed, Beatrice affirmed, “yes, I studied biology.” “Hm! My husband went there. I always think about the gold mural.” Frieda returned to the book. Beatrice, seeing her presence in Frieda’s room dissolve, went on towards the next patient. Something in each of them, Beatrice thought, must be wrong, or they wouldn’t be in the clinic. Wouldn’t that make the clinic a sad place? No; the atmosphere was almost happy, quite happy even. The place certainly didn’t take itself to be anything but a blissful resting place for travelers on their paths through life. Though, this stopover was near to the end of the path, or even at it; that excitement of being near death drifted out from the walls in wafts. Sherry was Beatrice’s next visit, who was perfectly kind and cordial. Then it was Helen, who was immersed in a soap opera, and then onto a fourth patient who Beatrice hadn’t met. When she arrived, however, she found the patient fast asleep. There was some relief in this discovery; with no connection to the old woman before her yet established, she had approached with the slightest apprehension. Even though each of her experiences in the clinic so far–she had been there only two weeks–were nice, she was still somewhat reserved. She stopped at the door; the sleeping woman lay face up with her arms at her sides over the white sheets, hugged to her like she was trying to squeeze through a narrow passage. The look on her face was not troubled. It was not peaceful either. It was something between the two. Beatrice looked on for a moment, ran her finger down the bridge of her nose, and stepped on to the last room. At the back of the clinic, facing an overgrown backyard circumscribed by a narrow gravel path and littered with trees, was a single bed. Its occupant, Stan, had been there since Beatrice’s arrival, and as far as she knew wouldn’t ever leave. He was in poor health. Exactly what was wrong, once again, eluded Beatrice but he was visibly unwell and seemed quite near death, of which he was more keenly aware than anyone. When Beatrice entered Stan was propped up in a sitting position with a tube running beneath his nose and looking out the window with which his bed was aligned. He was emaciated. Outside it was still dark and green. Though his physical facilities had declined it seemed as though his mind had not lost its sharpness. In one hand he held a pencil which rested on a pad of paper. There were words scrawled across it, almost illegibly. He turned his head slowly towards Beatrice, who came beside his bed with innocent reverence. Her eyebrows were ever so slightly squeezed to the center and her eyes gently pinched in the corners from a soft and light smile. Stan smiled back, through his shining eyes but also with a droopy grin. “Thank you, B,” he said with great affection and in a somewhat raspy, worn-out voice. He paused and looked back outside. Then, slowly, “it rains today.” The words were bare, like bones, but they brought Beatrice to a place of great emotion, and she looked on expectantly. He struck her as a brave man, brave for being so alive. “They say it won’t let up until Saturday,” she said slowly, on an unwinding breath. “That’s three whole days.” nHe quietly muttered to himself, “wonderful… wonderful…” and began scribbling something on his notepad. She waited for him to finish, standing by his bed. Pulling the words up tentatively, she asked, “what do you write, Stan?” He looked towards her. “Sensations.” He paused. “And sometimes memories.” She found herself on the verge of tears, which Stan did not see, glancing down at his paper. Never had she been so near to death, the death of another, as in her moments by Stan’s bedside. She knew he did not want a towel and though she wanted to sit beside him longer she found herself lost for words, far removed from Stan and his experience. “I’ll be back soon, Stan.” In the hallway she passed alongside Greta, who grumbled a greeting Beatrice pretended not to hear; she did not want to talk. Greta probably would not understand. She brought the remaining towels to the basement–dark and lit only by a strung-up light, which she pulled on with a click–and then started upstairs. As she climbed from the darkened basement she stumbled on the wood-plank stairs and caught herself on a splinter of wood. She carefully pinched it between pared nails and dropped it on the ground, with greater care exiting the basement into the warm clinic light. As she bent to pick up the tray of morning medications, she remembered that she had bought little candies–Jolly Ranchers–the day before for some of the patients. Excitedly, she went to the coat closet and took from her pocket a small handful of cheap sweets. In Frieda’s room, she placed the cup of meds on the table and, with Frieda’s attention and curiosity, said, “And here’s something else, for you…” as she removed one hand from behind her back and, opening it, revealed the bright blue candy within. “Oh, darling, you shouldn’t have!” Frieda replied, reaching over and pulling the wrapper away excitedly, but refraining momentarily as she eyed the medicine. “I got them on my day off yesterday. They’re so simple, but I love them.” “And I, too… and I too…” she trailed off with sigh, before leaping back into speech. “Oh just waituntil Helen gets hers. She will simply adoreyou.” She happily paused to take the meds; it was clear she had more to say on the topic. When she’d popped the Jolly Rancher into her mouth, she mumbled, “I thank the lord every day that I’m not a diabetic like Sherry is.” Her tone was pitiful. Beatrice made a mental note not to offer any to Sherry. “Certainly, Frieda, I do the same.” Wincing at her prim awkwardness, she walked out the door, down the hall towards the back of the building, and into Sherry’s room. Sherry, who had been responsive and delightful in the early morning, was now raised up at 45 degrees and staring straight ahead. When Beatrice entered, with a gentle knock on the door frame, she went unacknowledged and immediately felt a nervous tension growing in her chest. Beatrice followed Sherry’s gaze, but found it focused on exactly nothing at all. Her nervousness developed into curious concern “Sherry?” Now, though, Sherry’s eyebrows furrowed and the neutral balance of her expression dissolved into obvious disapproval. Beatrice uttered softly, relieved, “Sherry?” “I wastrying to meditate,” she admitted somewhat haughtily, and suddenly breaking the room’s stillness. “Just leave the meds, I’ll take them.” “It’s alright, Sherry, I’m supposed to watch you take them.” Beatrice was momentarily worried about a disagreement, but Sherry reluctantly let herself be distracted and took the pills. Beatrice ran her finger down her nose and sat down. Sherry looked out the window again, as she had when Beatrice entered. Her bed faced a large window, aligned with a similar one in the daycare opposite. She would have frightened the children, if they’d been able to see her through the glass, with her blank, staring face. “It’s dark today.” Then, with melancholy, “I used to be very sad in the wintertime.” Beatrice felt a slight motion sickness growing in her gut. “I do, too. But a rainy day like this…” Beatrice trailed off, not uncertain what she would say but uncertain if she would say it. Memories of dark high school winters drew themselves up from the past. She just nodded slowly, respectfully looking at Sherry, who didn’t seem to hear anything anyways. The moment faded. “Why do you meditate?” For a moment the rain lightened up, or seemed to. “It’s a form of prayer, I suppose, that I know does something for me.” “Something how?” “You just feel it.” Beatrice had been dismissed, and with little else to say she stood up, remembering not to deliver any candies, and left the room. Helen very much enjoyed receiving the candy, and slid it into her pocket for later. When she moved on and down the hall, to the new patient’s room, she once again found the old woman asleep. Her room was the only one without a full window, just a small one that wasn’t even visible from the bed. As she slept, she faced the door. The look on her face was exactly the same as before; nothing had changed. Beatrice thought of snow white, asleep beneath an ethereal sheet of glass, breathing with the delicacy of a princess. She walked carefully up to the bed, breaching the plane of mystical glass and placing a green Jolly Rancher beneath the pillow. Beatrice stopped before Stan’s door, turned around and went upstairs; she’d heard Greta inside, doing Stan’s meds. Upstairs, she sat at her desk by the window on which there rested a small stack of papers. Mrs. Thibault’s desk was empty; Beatrice was alone. Below her the floorboards creaked with Greta’s movement and the low whir of the dishwasher sounded from the kitchen, like the rain, heavy now, flicking the window. The light outside hadn’t changed with the progress of the day. Amongst Beatrice’s thoughts were anticipatory visions of the next few months; she looked forward to sunny days, and autumn days, and sunny autumn days, and recalled some of what she had heard about east-coast autumn. She could not reconcile those brilliantly colored photographs with this dreary and dark world outside her window; the two were disparate enough to frighten her. Downstairs the front door creaked open and shut, and footsteps started slowly up the stairs. Beatrice turned to face the papers and, acting busily intent on her work, began to read. “Hello Beatrice,” Mrs. Thibault said, exhausted, bearing an armful of newly purchased linens. She placed them on her desk. “Hello,” Beatrice slowly looked up, turning towards Mrs. Thibault, who sat on the corner of her desk with one leg gently dangling in the air. “Do you want me to take those downstairs and start them washing?” “Oh, no… no I’ll get to them later.” Beatrice put down her pencil silently and looked on in anticipation. Mrs. Thibault, to Beatrice, was always one for careful posture and manners. Only now she was slouched over and leaning her head on the palm of her hand. Her posture was somewhat limp, like that of a young and exhausted new mother, only Mrs. Thibault was 50 and had no children. She removed her glasses; she looked older. “How are you doing, Beatrice?” Mrs. Thibault was nice, but the tone was unexpected, and surprised Beatrice did not have a chance to reply before she went on wearily: “It’s a tiring season, this part of the summer. I can’t seem to stop thinking about the weather. The air conditioner never seems to hold up… hopeless pay…” she trailed off. “Who is the new patient downstairs? She’s been asleep all day.” Mrs. Thibault’s eyes dropped, and she looked pained. “Just a local woman. Don’t worry about her, there’s nothing to be worried about.” Beatrice nodded, assured, listened as Mrs. Thibault went on. “Frieda really likes you, you know. They all do. You’re quite good at this job, but I just can’t figure out why someone of your education would wind up here, in your position. I mean, haven’t you some better way to employ yourself, for the good of the world?” She paused, but again went on. Beatrice realized that Mrs. Thibault had not looked up from the ground, from her dangling foot, since her arrival. “I suppose there’s not much point in my saying that.” She looked at Beatrice. “‘Hand in hand forever’ isn’t exactly the word of the day, is it.” “No, I don’t think so. The phone rang and Mrs. Thibault seemed to shake herself, stood up. “But keep up the good work. Go and… ask Greta if she needs anything from you and if not, check the laundry and have a break. We’ll certainly need you after lunch.” With that she turned away and picked up the phone. Downstairs, Greta only shook her head in succinct reply; Beatrice was not needed and, happy for a rest, stepped outside to take her break, sat down on the porch chair as she had grown to enjoy. The street was empty, and she couldn’t see a soul. To breathe in the wet air was different than glancing at it from within the house. The constancy of the rain and its grayness, Mrs. Thibault’s odd manner, had seeped into her chest and her head, the sensation of which left her staring blankly out at the lawn of the daycare. She thought of nothing but felt a familiar feeling rise within her, one which she had cheaply labeled: ‘existential.’ She was feeling existential. It was a feeling of simultaneous existence and nonexistence; an irrefutable understanding of one’s own presence in the world accompanied by a remarkable distance from it. It was a sensation wherein, she speculated, if the chair she sat on were to collapse at the center and thereby throw her to the floor she would have no will to stand up, or the gravity of her own body would overcome whatever will she had. A car drove along the road, disrupting her reveries, its tires shushing along as it displaced water over the concrete. The lawn remained empty, and Beatrice missed the children, missed smiling at them and watching them play during her break. If she looked through the window, though, which faced right at her, she could see the happy little rooms and the toys, and the children running–blurs–past the window. She smiled and looked away. The wind blew harder and, as though it were trying to cradle the drops of rain and keep them from the ground, sent the rain in shallowly sloped skew lines into the earth. Rain began to come under the porch, and Beatrice escaped inside. When she stepped in, she immediately sensed an inexplicable change which the space had undergone in her absence. She looked around herself, unsure what exactly she sought, but determined to find the catalyst for this change. As she did, the shadow of some presence wrapped itself around her, her ankles and knees and then her chest and head and suddenly she felt afraid. That same shadow seemed to have wrapped around the structures of the very building and, her eyes fixed on the end of the hall, in a momentary shock, she realized it was death that had suffocated the soft yellow walls. She felt only fear. Mrs. Thibault peered out from one of the rooms and called: “Beatrice, come.” Although her legs guided her body to the door of the sleeping woman’s room, she was in a state of total paralysis. What met her beyond that door was a horrible shock: a scene hardly any different from before. Greta now stood by the bed, intensely and impersonally involved in something. “Beatrice, step in.” Mrs. Thibault gently held Beatrice by the shoulders and led her into the room, like a little girl. “Go on, take her hand and keep her company.” Mrs. Thibault left. There was a muted sense of urgency in her voice. Beatrice obeyed and, in a chair pulled up by the bedside, took the hand of the dying woman, which lay still on the bed above the sheets; it was cool. The hand responded slightly, but the eyes never wavered; she looked straight up into the bright light on the ceiling, blinking only occasionally. Beatrice looked up to see what transfixed the eyes, but quickly averted her gaze; the light left a mark on her vision and she started to tear up. She stared at the woman’s face, trying to take it in. She had white-grey hair, which if she’d been standing would have fallen to her shoulders. With her head tilted back and her chin up, the hair fell in tight waves down the pillow as though blown by a strong wind, from a hair dryer or a roofless car in motion. Her face was wrinkled and pale. She hadn’t seen the sun in years, maybe decades. Her eyes, once hazel, were only traceably so; they were clouded by blindness. A tear rested halfway down her face. Greta stood up. “There’s nothing to be done. She’ll maybe fight for a few, but then she’ll be gone.” She paused and flipped to the front page of her clipboard. “88!” she proclaimed, flicking the page. “That’s pretty good. We can only pray for that kind of life.” Then she stood up and left to get more papers, promising she’d be back. Eighty-eight years sealed and sent away. Beatrice imagined that life: She was born in rural Idaho to a large farm family, right after World War One ended. Her father was old and her mother was too. She was the youngest until her brother was born–a surprise. Tired from all the child-raising, they left her to grow herself, which made her free-willed and free-spirited. During the depression–she would have been young–she walked the two miles to the local library and read every day, all on her own. Then her father died on the farm in an accident, World War Two came and her brothers fought, and she was sent to live in Chicago with her aunt. She joined the Red Cross and travelled after the war all over Europe mending the broken cities and people’s broken spirits, all with a little silver cross, meticulously polished, around her neck. It was a gift from her mother before she left home. She rarely spoke to or of her family. Many of her brothers were dead. Soon she spoke French well and, back in New York, joined a travel agency. She lived alone. After years in the big city, and seeing the world change, and computers take over, she moved to a town further south and read. Maybe she made some young friends, inspired them, and that is how she ended up in the clinic room, not dying blind and alone in her plush chair. Truthfully, Beatrice did not know. Perhaps nor did anyone, and a life’s story was lost to history, confined to records no living person will ever read. Besides, what did it matter. But she did wear that silver cross, and it was polished perfectly. Beatrice smiled weakly, feeling tears begin to well. What eighty-eight years must teach you… And all that was locked now in a box, whose key but also whose self was to be dropped into that deepest conceivable sea. It was of no value to her now. Beatrice was sure she saw the eye blink, and another small teardrop begin to fall from it. It was still fixed on the light above. She wondered if she shouldn’t wipe it away. There were two teardrops now, meeting to form a large one which rushed down the face leaving a wet wake. The woman’s breathing was faint, so faint that it was hardly noticeable; Beatrice wasn’t certain she wasn’t making it up. Her throat welled up from the tears, and she desired to say something, anything in hopes that it be heard. “You’re about to find the solution to the greatest mystery…” she paused. “I wonder if that matters to you.” She realized that her lunch hour had passed, was ashamed to have thought of it. It felt as though she’d had that dry hand in hers for hours. All at once it turned colder. She clasped it desperately with the other, trying to warm it gently. A breath passed and then did not return. Beatrice guiltily felt her own breathing continue. A tear was still moving down the now perfectly motionless face. The hand went stiff. The eyes lost light she thought they’d already lost. Anything in the old corpse that had retained qualities of life now left, and in a moment of horrid consciousness and instinct, Beatrice quickly pulled her hand away, as though from a hot stove. Many stereotypical remembrances of dying moments flashed across her mind, but she found none of them exact besides one: “lifeless eyes.” It was, in fact, all that she could think of, running over and over again in her mind how moments before the eyes had seemed bright and alive and now, even as the tear was still inching its way down her wrinkled, cold skin, they were visibly, horribly, utterly, and totally dead. She stayed there in a paralyzed stillness, clasping her hand to her warm chest, looking at the tear-stained pillow. Greta re-entered, stood at the top of the bed and then closed the eyelids. Mrs. Thibault, in the door with sad eyes, looked at Beatrice. Greta crossed herself and the corpse. Mrs. Thibault did herself the same. Beatrice held her hand close to her heart, her gaze unwavering. Outside on the porch the wind blew water onto Beatrice’s ankles, but she did not move them. She only sat still, as in a painting, looking out to her right, her nose in parallel with her shoulders, at the daycare children playing out in the rain. They had been let outside, and now in their brightly colored rain-coats a brave few splashed in the large puddles gathering among the grasses. There were only three of them, but at moments they’d form into what appeared a circle, their movements concentric to one another’s and then collapsing to the center. They laughed, and they smiled. Beatrice sat and watched, and if she cried it was unnoticeable. Her face was wet with rain. She looked and watched and waved back when the lady on that opposite porch waved to her. She was smiling. Her smile was the weak smile of the emotionally pained: accompanied by a softness of the eyes like fresh, dry, snow. She watched the children playing in the rain as a far-off church bell rang the afternoon. None came up to her, nor even saw her, for they were so caught up in their games. She nodded in understanding.