Ellen sat in the diner alone, sipping tepid coffee from a mug whose handle had a hairline crack in it. She expected the cup to drop to the table at any moment. The noise would bring the other patrons attention to her so she gingerly put the cup on the table. Looking out the window, she noticed that the sky had turned a hazy gray in the waning light.
It would soon be Christmas, she marveled. No warm glow suffused her face, no pleasure at the meaning of the season. Ellen expected that she would not see the stroke of midnight. She knew, with a certainty that she would be dead long before the dawn broke tomorrow.
She had spent the day at the hospital with her mother. Sitting straight in a chair for eight hours, watching - hoping – the old woman would die. And when at the end of the day, the nurse said her mother was doing much better and would probably go home in a few days, Ellen knew what she had to do. She thanked the nurse and wished her a Merry Christmas. Then folding herself into the same gray coat she’d worn for fifteen years, she left the hospital.
Now, in the diner, she reached into her coat pocket and touched the bottle of pills she had stolen from her mother’s medicine cabinet this morning. She had intended to feed them to her mother along with her morning oatmeal, but being the weak willed person she felt she was she lost her nerve for murder.
But her own death seemed to be the answer. And an end to the pain, the misery, the day to day life of nothingness. She was 42 years old had never married and lived at home with her parents. She was their life, their only child, and their link to the world and eventually their caretaker. Since her father’s stroke when she was 12, Ellen had known a life of bedpans, medicine schedules and the humiliation of never having the things all her other friends had - no freedom, no fun and most of all no life of her own.
Her father got frailer each year, until the day of Ellen’s graduation from high school. He died as Ellen was taking a shower, preparing to go to the ceremony; she had argued for weeks that she be allowed to go, as her mother insisted that any celebration now would be sacrilegious. Ellen had grimaced at that; they didn’t go to church! They went no where, except for the trips to the grocery store and the doctor. Ellen was going to wear a dress to the graduation ceremony that she had made, a dress already four years old. The amazing thing was, she still fit into it. Money and food were in short supply since her father became ill. They subsisted on food stamps and the kindness of others.
But her father’s death made the excitement of graduating evaporate. She argued with her mother for the first time that day as she pleaded to be allowed to go to this one function. Her mother retreated to the spare bedroom, called the ambulance and then left Ellen to deal with the transportation of her father’s body to the funeral parlor; to the discussion with her family doctor and by the time she closed the front door that night, Ellen knew she had missed the one event in her life she had ever wanted to attend.
There was no thought of college. She got a job at the local Woolworth store as cashier. Dime store life, she dubbed it in her mind. “I live a dime store life in a dime store town”. She started to save her money, by hiding the infrequent raises she was given. She was determined to get away, move to the next town, just to be on her own.
When Ellen turned 22, her mother had a heart attack and took to her bed. Ellen’s savings were used to buy a hospital bed for her mother, at the doctor’s instance.
But persevering, she began again to save. Knowing that she would be free some day soon.
Twenty years passed in the turn of a page. Suddenly, Ellen’s mother was much worse, more frail and appeared near death. Ellen knew it was mean and thoughtless, but that final morning, she had gone to the bank to take out her savings; to be ready to leave as soon as the expected funeral was over. To her surprise, the teller told her that her mother had repeated depleted the savings account, had taken out almost all of the twenty years worth of savings by last month!
Ellen was devastated! She had never bothered to have a statement sent to the house, so her mother wouldn’t see it and had Woolworth’s deposit a small amount from each check into the savings account each month. Now, the balance was less than $200.00! What could she have spent it on? Ellen wondered as she sat beside her mother’s semi-conscious body all day. Eating away all her hope, the realization that she had lived all her life as her parent’s prisoner, sapped her energy. She had come prepared to kill the woman in the bed. But at the last moment, couldn’t bring herself to do it. And when she learned her mother wasn’t dying and would soon be released, Ellen decided to take that ultimate step to freedom.
Now, as she watched the evening creep closer to the diner where she sat, Ellen knew she would not be missed. She had no friends, no family other than her mother. She was not sad. She was resigned.
She decided to walk to the center of town, buy some hot chocolate at the town square vendor who was set up near the holiday display and take the pills. She would then find a quiet alley, throw away her identification and walk a few miles out of town to finally lay down and go to sleep forever.
Slowly she rose from her seat and left the diner, certain that no one had either seen her come in or leave. She was invisible.
The sounds of children laughing and a guitar and drum playing signaled the closeness of the town square. There weren’t a lot of people there, about twenty, she thought. Three teenagers were engaged in a fierce throw and run snowball fight. The troubadours sat next to the refreshment vendor, smiling and singing as they serenaded the small crowd.
The tree in the center of the square was lit and twinkling. It was a perfect picture of how a Christmas Eve should be. Ellen walked slowly but purposefully to the hot chocolate vender and purchased an extra dark with whipped cream.
“No need to watch my figure anymore”, she mused. She walked some distance from the people gathered on the snow covered square and licked the cool, sweet whipped cream from the top of the cup. She set the cup down on the sill of a shoe shop window and took the vial of pills from her pocket. It was her mother’s sleeping pills, enough to do what needed to be done. She quickly sipped the hot chocolate and downed 10 of the small white pills. Then throwing the remainder of the chocolate in a trash bin, she walked away from the picturesque scene.
She tossed her purse, with her identification in it, into a dumpster four blocks from the square. Then she just walked out of town. Time had no meaning for her. It grew dark, but the moon was full and gave her enough light to see by. After about ninety minutes, she grew weary. She decided to find a spot away from the road, that would become a snow bank if the predicted snow fell tonight. It would be months before they found her body, she surmised.
Ellen left the main road and walked into the woods until she found a cluster of rocks. She sat in the corner where the rocks formed a curve and drew her coat around her. Slowly, her eyes began to close. She felt no fear. But she felt no joy either and that saddened her. She had never felt joy in her entire life and had expected to feel it tonight, when she finally took charge and did what she wanted to do. After a few minutes, she fell asleep.
Bright lights hurt her eyes! She tried to open her eyes and couldn’t, her body felt like lead! She heard clanking, clanging noises and whispers of someone or something talking. She couldn’t focus to hear. She tried to speak, but her mouth wouldn’t open. If this was heaven, Ellen thought, it was certainly not what she had imagined! Suddenly, she felt a stinging sensation throughout her body, a foul smell assailed her nose and she felt her stomach lurch! Then quickly, she was again in darkness. She slept again.
The voice beckoned her. Ellen struggled to open her eyes. When she did, she saw an angel! A figure in white, silhouetted by a brilliant white light!
“Ellen!” More insistent now, the voice summoned Ellen to full wakefulness.
“Ah, there you are my dear!” The voice said. “You gave us quite a scare you know! We thought for sure you were dead!”
Ellen looked more closely at the angel. It was not an angel at all! It was the nurse from her mother’s room! As she focused, she realized that she lay in a hospital room. The nurse quietly adjusted a plastic bag that was dripping fluid steadily into Ellen’s veins.
“What? What happened?” Ellen asked. Now she remembered. She had tried to kill herself! She had fallen asleep and expected never to wake!
“Some kid found you in the woods, sound asleep! He was on his way home and nearly fell over you. He ran home, got his father and together, they brought you here. We pumped your stomach you know! You were such a silly girl.” The nurse smiled benevolently at her.
“Silly?” Ellen asked.
“Yes! You should know better than to take too many aspirin at once. I thought you seemed a bit quiet this morning. If you had a headache, I would have asked a doctor to give you something. Sometimes, we forget just how many aspirin we’ve taken…Lord! I’ve done it myself.”
“Aspirin? But, they were …” suddenly Ellen knew she should guard her secret. “They were in a prescription bottle of my mother’s, I guess I lost track of how many I took.” The nurse smiled and bustled out of the room.
Ellen was stunned! Her mother hadn’t needed sleeping pills! She was taking simple aspirin in an effort to make Ellen think they were for her insomnia.
The nurse returned with a young boy of about thirteen. He seemed ill at ease and stood nervously watching Ellen’s face.
“This is the young man that stumbled across you, Henry Sistek. Henry, this is Ellen.” The boy stepped forward and Ellen was immediately struck by the fact that he was blind.
“I know the way through the woods by heart” he said. “I knew when I left for town that morning that there weren’t any branches down so when I fell over you, I felt around and discovered you were a lady! I ran home and got my dad! Are you ok? You sure were sound asleep!” He drew a long shaky breath after his nervous speech.
“Thank you Henry.” Ellen said graciously.
“I was afraid you were dead!” Henry admitted. “I would have hated that you know! I’ve found two dead deer in the woods there and it’s not a good feeling when you find out their hearts don’t beat. It scares me you know.”
Ellen smiled at the young man. He seemed more at ease now that he had seen that she really wasn’t dead. The door opened and a man entered. He came forward and stood behind Henry, both hands on the young man’s shoulders.
“This is my dad.” Henry announced proudly.
“We’re certainly glad to see you feeling better miss.” The man said.
“I want to thank you both,” Ellen said, unable to take her eyes off the man’s face. “I was so foolish.” She smiled and was rewarded with an answering smile from Henry’s father. He had the kindest eyes she had ever seen.
“Well, we have to go now.” Henry said. “It’s Christmas Eve you know.”
“Yes, I do know.” Ellen said. For the first time in a long time, she smiled. And in her breast a small glimmer of hope began to grow. The man stood silently looking down at her as his son turned to leave.
“I hope you feel better soon.” He said as he reached out and touched her hand.
A tremor of heat wiggled through Ellen’s veins. She smiled and thanked him again, though she never knew what words she said. As he was leaving, he turned at the door.
“If you’re feeling better, perhaps you’d like to come by the house tonight, it is Christmas you know. I’m not a great cook, but I’m told you can’t get sick from eating my food!” His smile twinkled.
Entranced, Ellen shook her head. “I’d love to.”
“Good,” he replied. “My wife will come and pick you up about five. Till later then.”
“Wife! Ellen, stupid, stupid Ellen” she chided herself. Even now, you make a fool of yourself! Suddenly, she began to cry. Silently tears of anguish fell slowly down her cheeks. She turned her head to the wall and gave in to her grief.
She slept some more, then woke to find the IV gone and the room growing light from the dawn breaking. She had failed! Failed at everything! And had been outwitted by her mother. Duped into thinking she was going to be free only to discover that her mother had been taking aspirin instead of sleeping pills for all these years. Ellen turned and lay face down. She wouldn’t get up again she decided. She’d lay here and wither. She had nothing left to live for; there was no hope left. She made herself go to sleep. This, she reasoned, would be her life. She would move into her mind and stay there.
Later, she again awoke. This time with a burning need to relieve herself. She slowly got up and went into the bathroom to urinate.
When she came out of the bathroom a woman stood at the window, looking out. Ellen glanced at the clock. It was 4:30.
Slowly, the woman turned around. Ellen had to control her urge to turn away! The woman’s face was hideously burned! One eye was burned over, there was skin covering the socket. The skin puckered in peaks and valleys over the woman’s face and neck. She lifted one hand and Ellen saw that it was misshapen with burn scars.
“Ellen?” the woman asked quietly.
“Yes.” Ellen replied.
“My son and husband told me you’d be joining us for dinner tonight. I’m sorry I’m early, but Henry was so excited about having you as a guest, I had to leave early or I’d never hear the end of it.”
“I’m sorry to be so much trouble…”
“Not at all.” The woman replied as she cut off Ellen’s protest. “Henry loves people is all. He’s excited by the opportunity to get to know you better.”
“He’s a wonderful young man.” Ellen stated simply.
“Yes. We are very lucky to have him. My name is Susan, and I’m very pleased to meet you.” Susan held out her hand and Ellen shook it gingerly.
“Smoking.” Susan said. “You were going to ask about my face?”
“Er, no!” Susan cut off Ellen’s denial by raising her hand.
“No need to deny it. Everyone wonders and it’s truly all right you know. It happened so long ago, I don’t mind talking about it.”
“Henry was three. I was sitting on the sofa, smoking as usual and the two of us fell asleep. When I finally woke up, I was engulfed in flames and Henry had fallen off onto the floor, hit his head so hard, he damaged his retina. He wasn’t always blind you know. Anyway, the mailman saw the flames, ran in and doused them, call the paramedics and well, the rest you can see.”
“It must be horrible!” Ellen said.
“I thought it would be,” Susan said simply. “But it’s not. My husband loves me. My son loves me and has grown up to be a wonderful young man! He finds joy in the simplest things; it’s hard to be sad around him.”
Ellen turned away, hiding the pain on her face. She felt terrible!
“Were you trying to kill yourself?” the simple question hung between them.
“Yes,” Ellen replied softly.
“Christmas is a time of life! Whatever has happened can’t be that bad. Do you want to talk about it?”
Ellen began her story, leaving out nothing. They sat together for almost an hour as the story unfolded. Susan took Ellen’s hand, cried with her and gave comfort when it was needed. After Ellen stopped talking, Susan stood up.
“How very sad for you my dear. But really, you have a choice you know. You can wallow in this or move on. You’ve been sorely used, Ellen. But does that give you the right to take your own life? If you could trade places with me right now would you?”
“I don’t know.” Ellen answered honestly, thinking again of the Susan’s attractive, kind husband. “Maybe.”
“Well, I wouldn’t trade places with you. We are given many roads to follow in this life. My road is this face, these hands. Your road is your devotion to your parents. Should I have given up? Look what I would have missed!”
Ellen began to feel stirring of guilt, then it quickly subsided, to be replaced with an overwhelming feeling of peace. She looked into Susan’s eye and smiled.
“Thank you.” She said simply.
Susan stood up. “I’ll be right back” she said and then suddenly left the room.
Ellen went to the mirror in the corner and fixed her hair. Then suddenly remembering her mother, she dialed the switchboard and asked for her mother’s room. A nurse answered and told her that her mother was taking a nap. The door opened and Henry and a woman entered. The woman was not Susan.
“This is my mom,” Henry announced, as though he knew Ellen was standing there. The woman walked over to Ellen, her hand outstretched.
“Hello, my name is Carrie.” The woman said. Ellen stared at her. She was beautiful! Dark hair and eyes, not at all like Susan.
“But I don’t understand,” Ellen in a confused whisper. The woman, sensing Ellen’s distress, moved her to the window where Henry wouldn’t overhear them.
“My dear, what is it? You look as if you’d seen a ghost!”
“Who is Susan?” Ellen asked.
“Susan! That’s Henry’s mother. She died when he was three.”
“How?” Ellen asked, already knowing the answer.
“The house caught on fire, a burning cigarette, they said. She carried Henry out, then went back in for the family dog. She never came out. Why do you ask? Did you know her?”
Ellen swallowed slowly, wondering what to tell this stranger. Had she had a vision? An hallucination? It wasn’t possible! She’d never heard of Susan before; she couldn’t just think this up!
“Ellen?” Carrie again touched her. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes I am. It’s just that I had a dream, or at least I think it was a dream, that Susan came here to see me. We chatted for some time and I told her things, I’d never been able to tell another soul. She was so real! So real!”
“It certainly sounds like Susan. I often think I see her too. At times, when life seems to get me down, I feel her presence. We were twins you know. After her death, Ed and I grew close and we fell in love. It’s like Susan was there guiding us; as though she knew we were meant to be together and raise her son. She was a wise woman, loving, kind and so full of life! Now, let’s go, I’m late and dinner will be ready. We can’t keep the chef waiting!” Carrie steered Ellen and Henry from the room and down the hall.
Later, after dinner, the four of them sat in the living room, listening to music. Often, Henry would join in with a slightly off key duet. Ellen smiled. It was odd, but she felt at home here. Felt as though she’d found some friends at last. Carrie had said she would come by Woolworth’s after work one day this week and they’d go shopping. Finally, she felt that life was worth living!
Ellen glanced out the window and thought she saw a shadow. Susan! Was her first thought. Then Ellen smiled. It had been an angel in her room that night. A very special angel.
[This message has been edited by Poet deVine (edited 12-13-2001).]