The Wishing Well
Do you think it's better to do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason?
— Amy Luna, Sumner, WA,
from Sassy, May 1991
Beyond the mountains, more mountains.
There are always ghosts in the well. I can't call them echoes, because the sounds I hear all were made too long ago.
The splash of coins in the water.
Voices whispering their wishes.
Nobody was supposed to hear them.
But I do.
"It's been almost two weeks," Brenda said, "and he still hasn't called."
She butted out a cigarette in the ashtray on the table between them and immediately lit another. Wendy sighed, but didn't say anything about her friend's chain-smoking. If you listened to Brenda, there was always something going wrong in her life, so Wendy had long ago decided that there was no point in getting on her case about yet one more negative aspect of it. Besides, she already knew the argument Brenda would counter with: "Right, quit smoking and gain twenty pounds. As if I don't already look like a pig."
Self-esteem wasn't Brenda's strong point. She was an attractive woman, overweight only in the sense that everyone was when compared to all those models who seemed to exist only in the pages of a fashion magazine. But that didn't stop Brenda from constantly worrying over her weight. Wendy never had to read the supermarket tabloids to find out about the latest diet fad— Brenda was sure to tell her about it, often before it appeared in newsprint along with stories of recent Elvis sightings, Bigfoot's genealogy and the like.
Sometimes it all drove Wendy a little crazy. In her unending quest for the perfect dress size, what Brenda seemed to forget was her gorgeous green eyes, the mane of naturally curly red-gold hair and the perfect complexion that people would kill for. She had a good job, she dressed well— perhaps too well, since her credit cards were invariably approaching, if not over, their limit— and when she wasn't beating on herself, she was fun to be around. Except Brenda just didn't see it that way, and so she invariably tried too hard. To be liked. To look better. To get a man.
"Was this the guy you met at the bus stop?" Wendy asked.
Brenda nodded. "He was so nice. He called me a couple of days later and we went out for dinner and a movie. I thought we had a great time."
"And I suppose you sent him flowers?"
Sending small gifts to men she'd just met was Brenda's thing. Usually it was flowers.
"I just wanted to let Jim know that I had a good time when we went out," Brenda said, "so I sent him a half-dozen roses. What's so wrong about that?"
Wendy set down her wine glass. "Nothing. It's just that you— I think maybe you come on too strong and scare guys off, that's all."
"I can't help it. I get compulsive."
Brenda looked at the end of her cigarette, took a final drag, then ground it out. She dropped the butt on top of the half-dozen others already in the ashtray.
"I just want to be in love," she said. "I just want a guy to be in love with me."
"I know," Wendy replied, her voice gentle. "But it's never going to happen if you're always trying too hard."
"I'm starting to get old," Brenda said. "I'm almost thirty-five."
"Definitely middle-aged," Wendy teased.
"That's not funny."
"No. I guess it's not. It's just—"
"I know. I have stop coming on so strong. Except with the nice guys, it seems like the woman always has to make the first move."
"This is too true."
Sunday afternoons, I often drive out of town, up Highway 14. Just before I get into the mountains proper, I pull off into the parking lot of a derelict motel called The Wishing Well. The pavement's all frost-buckled and there are weeds growing up through the cracks, refuse everywhere, but I still like the place. Maybe because it's so forsaken. So abandoned. Just the way I feel half the time.
The motel's all boarded up now, though I'm sure the local kids use it for parties. There are empty cans and broken beer bottles all over the place, fighting for space with discarded junk food packaging and used condoms. The rooms are setout in a horseshoe, the ends pointing back into the woods, embracing what's left of the motel's pool. Half the boards have been torn off the windows and all of the units have been broken into, their doors hanging a jar, some torn right off their hinges.
The pool has a little miniature marsh at the bottom of it— mud and stagnant water, cattails and reeds and a scum of algae covering about two feet of water. I've seen minnows in the spring— god knows how they got there— frogs, every kind of water bug you can imagine. And let's not forget the trash. There's even a box spring in the deep end with all the beer cans and broken glass.
The lawn between the pool and the forest has long since been reclaimed by the wilderness. The grass and weeds grow thigh-high and the flowerbeds have mostly been overtaken by dandelions and clover. The forest has sent a carpet of young trees out into the field, from six inches tall to twenty feet. Seen from the air, they would blur the once-distinct boundary between forest and lawn.
The reason I come here is for the motel's namesake. There really is a wishing well, out on the lawn, closer to the forest than the motel itself. The well must have been pretty once, with its fieldstone lip, the shingled roof on wooden supports, the bucket hanging down from its cast iron crank, three wrought-iron benches set facing the well and a flower garden all around.
The shingles have all pretty much blown off now; the bucket's completely disappeared— either bagged by some souvenir-hunter, or it's at the bottom of the well. The garden's rosebushes have taken over everything, twining around the wooden roof supports and covering the benches like Sleeping Beauty's thorn thicket. The first time I wandered out in back of the motel, I didn't even know the well was here, the roses had so completely overgrown it. But I found a way to worm through and by now I've worn a little path. I hardly ever get nicked by a thorn.
The fieldstone sides of the well are crumbling and I suppose they're not very safe, but every time I come, I sit on that short stone wall anyway and look down into the dark shaft below. It's so quiet here. The bulk of the motel blocks the sound of traffic from the highway and there's not another building for at least two miles in either direction.
Usually I sit there a while and just let the quiet settle inside me. Then I take out a penny— a lucky penny that I've found on the street during the week, of course, head side facing up— and I drop it into the darkness.
It takes a long time to hear the tiny splash. I figure dropping a penny in every week or so as I do, I'll be an old lady and I still won't have made a noticeable difference in the water level. But that's not why I'm here. I'm not here to make a wish either. I just need a place to go, I need—
A confessor, I guess. I'm a lapsed Catholic, but I still carry my burdens of worry and guilt. What I've got to talk about, I don't think a priest wants to hear. What does a priest know or care about secular concerns? All they want to talk about is God. All they want to hear is a tidy list of sins so that they can prescribe their penances and get onto the next customer.
Here I don't have to worry about God or Hail Marys or what the invisible face behind the screen is really thinking. Here I get to say it all out loud and not have to feel guilty about bringing down my friends. Here I can have a cathartic wallow in my misery, and then... then...
I'm not sure when I first started to hear the voices. But after I've run out of words, I start to hear them, coming up out of the well. Nothing profound. Just the ghosts of old wishes. The echoes of other people's dreams, paid for by the simple dropping of a coin, down into the water.
I guess what I want is for Jane to love me, and for us to be happy together.
Just a pony and I swear I'll take care of her.
Don't let them find out that I'm pregnant.
Make John stop running around on me and I promise I'll make him the best wife he could ever want.
I don't know why it makes me feel better. All these ghost voices are asking for things, are dreaming, are wishing, are needing. Just like me. But I do come away with a sense of, not exactly peace, but... less urgency, I suppose.
Maybe it's because when I hear those voices, when I know that, just like me, they paid their pennies in hopes to make things a little better for themselves, I don't feel so alone anymore.
Does that make any sense?
"So what're you doing this weekend, Jim?" Scotty asked.
Jim Bradstreet cradled the phone against his ear and leaned back on his sofa.
"Nothing much," he said as he continued to open his mail. Water bill. Junk flyer. Another junk flyer. Visa bill. "I thought maybe I'd give Brenda a call."
"She the one who sent you those flowers?"
"You can do better than that," Scotty said.
Jim tossed the opened mail onto his coffee table and shifted the receiver from one ear to the other.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.
"I'd think it was obvious— you said she seemed so desperate."
Jim regretted having told Scotty anything about his one date with Brenda Perry. She had seemed clingy, especially for a first date, but he'd also realized from their conversation throughout the evening that she didn't exactly have the greatest amount of self-esteem. He'd hesitated calling her again— especially after the flowers— because he wasn't sure he wanted to get into a relationship with someone so dependent. But that wasn't exactly fair. He didn't really know her and asking her for another date wasn't exactly committing to a relationship.
"I still liked her," he said into the receiver.
Scotty laughed. "Just can't get her out of your mind, right?"
"No," Jim replied in all honesty. "I can't."
"Hey, I was just kidding, you know?" Before Jim could reply, Scotty added, "What do you say we get together for a few brews, check out the action at that new club on Lakeside."
"Some other time," Jim told him.
"I'm telling you, man, this woman's trouble. She sounds way too neurotic for you."
"You don't know her," Jim said. "For that matter, I don't really know her."
"Yeah, but we know her kind. You're not going to change your mind?"
"Well, it's your loss," Scotty said. "I'll give the ladies your regrets."
"You do that" Jim said before he hung up.
It took him a few moments to track down where he'd put Brenda's number. When he did find it and made the call, all he got was her answering machine. He hesitated for a brief moment, then left a message.
"Hi, this is Jim. Uh, Jim Bradstreet. I know it's late notice and all, but I thought maybe we could get together tonight, or maybe tomorrow? Call me."
He left his number and waited for a couple of hours, but she never phoned back. As it got close to eight-thirty, he considered going down to that new club that Scotty had been so keen on checking out, but settled instead on taking in a movie. The lead actress had red hair, with the same gold highlights as Brenda's. The guy playing the other lead character treated her like shit.
That just added to the depression of being alone in a theater where it seemed as though everyone else had come in couples.
Sometimes I feel as though there's this hidden country inside me, a landscape that's going to remain forever unexplored because I can't make a normal connection with another human being, with someone who might map it out for me. It's my land, it belongs to me, but I'm denied access to it. The only way I could ever see it is through the eyes of someone outside this body of mine, through the eyes of someone who loves me.
I think we all have these secret landscapes inside us, but I don't think that anybody else ever thinks about them. All I know is that no one visits mine. And when I'm with other people, I don't know how to visit theirs.
Wendy wasn't on shift yet when Brenda arrived at Kathryn's Cafe, but Jilly was there. Brenda had first met the two of them when she was a reporter for In the City, covering the Women in the Arts conference with which they'd been involved. Jilly Coppercorn was a successful artist, Wendy St. James a struggling poet. Brenda had enjoyed the panels that both women were on and made a point of talking to them afterwards.
Their lives seemed to be so perfectly in order compared to hers that Brenda invariably had a sense of guilt for intruding the cluttered mess of her existence into theirs. And they were both such small, enviably thin women that, when she was with them, she felt more uncomfortable than usual in her own big fat body.
This constant focusing on being overweight was a misperception on her part, she'd been told by the therapist her mother had made her go see while she was still in high school.
"If anything, you could stand to gain a few pounds," Dr. Coleman had said. "Especially considering your history."
Brenda's eating disorders, the woman had gone on to tell her, stemmed from her feelings of abandonment as a child, but no amount of lost weight was going to bring back her father.
"I know that," Brenda argued. "I know my father's dead and that it's not my fault he died. I'm not stupid."
"Of course you're not," Dr. Coleman had patiently replied with a sad look in her eyes.
Brenda could never figure out why they wouldn't just leave her alone. Yes, she'd had some trouble with her weight, but she'd gotten over it. Just as she knew it was a failing business that had put the gun in her father's mouth, the bitter knowledge that he couldn't provide for his family that had pulled the trigger. She'd dealt with all of that.
It was in the past, over and done with long ago. What wouldn't go away, though, was the extra weight she could never quite seem to take off and keep off. Nobody she knew seemed to understand how it felt, looking in a mirror and always seeing yourself on the wrong side of plump.
She'd asked Jilly once how she stayed so thin.
"Just my metabolism, I guess," Jilly had replied "Personally, I'd like to gain a couple of pounds. I always feel kind of... skin-and-bonesy."
"You look perfect to me," Brenda had told her.
Perfect size, perfect life— which wasn't really true, of course. Neither Jilly nor Wendy was perfect. For one thing, Jilly was one of the messiest people Brenda had ever met. But at least she wasn't in debt. Brenda was tidy to a fault, but she couldn't handle her personal finances to save her life. She'd gone from reporter to the position of In the City's advertising manager since she'd first become friends with Wendy and Jilly. At work, she kept her books and budgeting perfectly in order. So why couldn't she do the same thing in her private life?
There was only one other customer in the restaurant, so after Jilly had served him his dinner, she brought a pot of herbal tea and a pair of mugs over to Brenda's table. She sat down with a contented sigh before pouring them each a steaming mugful. Brenda smiled her thanks and lit a cigarette.
"So whatever happened with that guy you met at the bus stop?" Jilly asked as she settled back in her chair.
"Didn't Wendy tell you?"
Jilly laughed. "You know Wendy. Telling her something personal is like putting it into a Swiss bank vault and you're the only person who's got the account number."
So Brenda filled her in.
"Then when I got home on Friday," she said as she finished up, "there was a message from him on my machine. But I decided to take Wendy's advice and play it cool. Instead of calling him back, I waited for him to call me again."
"Well, good for you."
"And did he?"
Brenda nodded. "We made a date for Saturday night and he showed up at my door with a huge box of chocolates."
"That was nice of him."
"Right. Real nice. Give the blimp even more of what she doesn't need. You'd think he'd be more considerate than that. I mean, all you have to do is look at me and know that the last thing I need is chocolate."
"Jesus, Brenda. The last thing you are is fat."
Jilly just shook her head. "So what did you do?"
"I ate them."
"No, I meant where did you go?"
"Another movie. I can't even remember what we saw now. I spent the whole time trying to figure out how he felt about me."
"You should try to just relax," Jilly told her. "Let what happens, happen."
"I guess." Brenda butted out her cigarette and lit another. Blowing a wreath of blue-grey smoke away from the table, she gave Jilly a considering look, then asked, "Do you believe in wishing wells?"
Wendy took that moment to arrive in a flurry of blonde hair and grocery bags. She dumped the bags on the floor by the table and pulled up a chair.
"Better to ask, what doesn't she believe in," she said. "This woman's mind is a walking supermarket tabloid."
"Ah," Jilly said. "The poet arrives— only fifteen minutes late for her shift."
Wendy grinned and pointed at Jilly's tangle of brown ringlets.
"You've got paint in your hair," she said.
"You've got ink on your fingers," Jilly retorted, then they stuck out their tongues at each other and laughed.
Their easy rapport made Brenda feel left out. Where did a person learn to be so comfortable with other people? she wondered, not for the first time. She supposed it started with feeling good about yourself— like losing a little weight, getting out of debt, putting your love life in order. She sighed. Maybe it started with not always talking about your own problems all the time, but that was a hard thing to do. There were times when Brenda thought her problems were the only things she did have to talk about.
"Earth to Brenda," Jilly said. Under the table, the point of her shoe poked Brenda's calf to get her attention.
"Why were you asking about wishing wells?" Jilly asked.
"Oh, I don't know. I was just wondering if anybody still believes that wishes can come true."
"I think there are magical things in the world," Wendy said, "but hocus-pocus, wishes coming true—" she shook her head "— I doubt it."
"I do," Jilly said. "It just depends on how badly you want them to."
Most wishing wells started out simply as springs or wells that were considered sacred. I found this out a while ago when I was supposed to be researching something else for the paper. I had just meant to look into the origin of wishing wells, but I ended up getting caught up in all the folklore surrounding water and spent most of that afternoon in the library, following one reference which led me to another...
All the way back to primitive times, a lake or well was the place that the sick were taken to be healed. Water images show up in the medicinal rites of peoples at an animistic level, where those being healed are shown washing their hands, breast and head. At the water's edge, reeds grow and shells are found, both symbols of water as salvation— something that Christian symbolism took to itself with a vengeance.
But even before the spread of Christianity, the well of refreshing and purifying water had already gained all sorts of fascinating associations. It was symbolic of sublime aspirations, thought of as a "silver cord" which attached a human to the center of all things. The corn goddess Demeter or other deities would often be shown standing beside a well. The act of drawing water from a well was like fishing, drawing out and upward the numinous contents of the deeps. Looking into its still waters, like looking into a placid lake, was seen as equivalent to meditation or mystic contemplation. The well symbolized the human soul and was considered an attribute of all things feminine.
It's no wonder the Christians came to include it in their baptismal rituals; Christianity has had a long history of taking popular older beliefs and assimilating into its own— even I knew that. But there was so much here that I had never heard of before; fascinating stuff, even though it ended up taking me way off my initial topic. And anyway, the idea of making a wish at a well is tied up in all those tangled stories.
Throughout Europe sacred wells were given new names after various saints. But as the centuries passed and religious beliefs changed, many of these saints' wells became less esteemed and pilgrims no longer approached them with the same feelings of devotion they once had. People stopped offering prayers to the saints and made a wish instead.
And the associated rituals often survived. In some places the wish-maker had to dip her bare hands into the water up to her wrists, make a silent wish, then withdraw her hands and swallow the water held in them. Other places, one left a pin, often bent, or the ever-popular coin. In some ways, wishing wells are a reversion to paganism, the serious wishes made at them being reminiscent of when people approached the sacred water to make an offering or benediction to some god or other, or to the spirit of the water.
Of course water wasn't seen just as the home of benevolent spirits. Folklore throughout the world relates the dangers of water witches and sirens, kelpies and other malevolent creatures whose sole existence seems to rely on drowning those they manage to snare with their various wiles. Everybody knows the story of how Ulysses confronted the sirens and most have probably heard of the Rhine maiden Lorelei— although, oddly enough, she entered folkloric tradition through Clemens Brentano's ballad "Lore Lay." He was so convincing that people just assumed it was based on true folklore.
Among the creepiest of the water witches are the Russian rusalki. They're lake spirits in female form— very beautiful and very deadly. They were supposed to bring a weird kind of ecstatic death when they drowned their victims, although some stories said it wasn't actually death they brought, but rather passage to another world. Another book I read said that before their current place in folklore tradition, they were considered to be fertility spirits. I found one reference where some Russian peasants were quoted as saying that "where the rusalki trod when dancing, there the grass grew thicker and the wheat more abundant."
That's the weird thing about folklore. Everything gets stirred up so you don't know which story's the original one anymore. Whatever comes along, be it a church or a new government, usually assimilates into their own the traditions and beliefs that existed before they came, and that's what creates the tangle.
This bit with the rusalki being psychopomps— leading human souls into the afterworld— makes them reminiscent of angels or Valkyries. Certain birds and animals could also act as "good shepherd" spirits. All of which might make the rusalki seem less scary, except I saw a representation of one in a book, and it gave me a serious case of the willies. The picture showed a tall, scowling woman dressed in a tattered green dress, with claw-like hands and burning eyes. In another book I ran across a painting of a Scottish waterwraith that could have been the rusalka's twin sister.
It's funny how the same inspirational source can make for opposite beliefs. Fertility goddess from one point of view, harbinger of death from another. Benevolent spirit or collector of souls. Weird.
Anyway, through all my reading, I never did discover anything interesting about the wishing well at the motel. It wasn't erected on some sacred site; it wasn't the central crossroad of a bunch of ley lines or the home of some Kickaha corn goddess. It was just a gimmick to get people to stop at the motel. But that makes for another funny thing— funny strange, still, not ha-ha. Jilly once told me that if you get enough people to agree that something is a certain way, then it becomes that way.
It almost makes sense. For one thing, it would explain how Elvis or JFK can be as much a spiritual avatar for some people as Jesus is for others. Or how a gimmicky wishing well could really grant wishes— just saying it did. Doesn't do much to explain the voices, though.
Or the ghosts.
Here's something I've never told anybody before: One day, about a month or so ago when I'm at the well, I get this weird compulsion to close my eyes and try to imagine the faces that once went with those long-lost voices I now hear.
All I want is for Timmy to look at me the way he looks at Jennifer.
That girl— was she pretty, or fat like me?
Please make Daddy stop shouting at Mommy the way he does.
That child— I can't tell, is it a boy or a girl?
We'll love each other forever.
Did they? They sound so young, that couple. Don't they know that nothing ever lasts? Nothing is forever. Except maybe loneliness. Or does being lonely just feel as though it lasts forever?
The air is thick with the scent of rose blossoms, the hum of bees. I look down at my legs and see them crisscrossed with the shadows of rose thorns and tiny jagged leaves. The faces rise easily in my imagination, but later I realize that maybe it wasn't such a good idea, calling them up the way I did.
Lying in bed that night, it's as though I've actually summoned their ghosts to me by imagining them. I dream about them, about their lives, about wishes that were granted and ones that weren't. About how the wishes some received weren't what they really wanted, how others are happy they never got theirs...
It all seems so real.
I learn to put them aside in the morning, but lately it's gotten harder. These last few days I can feel my life tangling with theirs. They're not dead people, I think, but then I realize some of them might be. The Wishing Well closed its doors twenty years ago. A lot can happen to a person in twenty years. I really could be living with their ghosts— if there really were such things.
Jilly believes in ghosts. As Wendy says, Jilly believes in all kinds of things that nobody else would. Not exactly tabloid fodder, but close. Everything's got a ghost, she says. A spirit. And if you look closely enough, if you pay attention and really learn to see, you'll be able to recognize it.
While Jilly can be persuasive, I don't think I can quite believe in ghosts. But I do believe in memories.
Jilly's friend Christy Riddell— the writer— made the connection between ghosts and memories for me. He told me it's not just people that have memories; places have them, too.
"If you think of ghosts as a kind of recording," he says, "a memory that's attached itself to a certain place or an object, then they don't become quite so farfetched after all."
"So why don't we see them everywhere?" I ask. "Why doesn't everyone see them?"
"People's minds are like radio receivers," he explains. "They're not all capable of tuning into every station."
I still don't believe in ghosts and I tell him so.
"Look at the stars," he says.
This is happening in the middle of a party at Wendy's house. Christy and I are having a smoke in the backyard, thrown together because we're the only ones with the habit in Wendy's circle of friends.
"What about them?" I ask, my gaze roving from star to star in the darkness overhead.
"Did you ever think about how many of them are ghosts?"
"I don't get it."
"We're not seeing the stars as they are right now," he says. "We're seeing them as they were thousands of years ago, maybe millions of years ago— however long it took their light to reach us. Some of them don't exist anymore. What we see when we look at them right now aren't the stars themselves, but the light that they gave off— images of themselves, of what they once were."
"So maybe that's what ghosts are."
I hate to admit it, but I can almost buy this.
"Then how come ghosts are so scary?" I ask.
"They're not always," he says. "But memories can be like wounds. They're not easily forgotten because they leave a scar as a constant reminder. It's the moments of strongest emotions that we remember the most: a love lost or won; anger, betrayal, vengeance. I think it's the same for ghosts, the strength of their emotions at the time of their death is what allows them to linger, or go on."
If strong emotions can linger on, I think, then so might desperate wishes.
"So I met this woman at the Carlisle," Scotty said as he and Jim were having lunch on Monday, "and she's stunning. She's so hot I can't believe she's interested in me."
"Really?" Jim asked, looking up from his soup with curiosity.
"Oh, yeah. Tight red leather miniskirt, legs like you wouldn't believe, and she snuggles right up next to me at the bar, rubbing her calf against my leg. And let me tell you, the place is not crowded. I'm thinking, if we don't get out of this place soon, she's going to jump me right here on the bar stool."
"So what happened?"
A sheepish look came over Scotty's features. "Turns out she's a hooker."
"Hey, it's not funny. I could've caught a disease or something, you know?"
"So you didn't take her up on her... offer."
"Get real. What about you?"
"No hookers for me, thanks all the same."
"No, I mean with what's-her-name, Brenda. Did you see her?"
Jim nodded. "She was different this time," he said. "A little cooler, I guess."
"What? Now she's playing hard to get?"
"I don't think that's it. She just wasn't all that up. I asked her if something was bothering her, but she just changed the subject. After the movie she perked up, though. We stopped for a drink at the Rusty Lion and she had me in stitches, talking about some of the weird people she met back when she was a reporter, but then when I took her home she was all withdrawn again." Jim toyed with his spoon for a moment, slowly stirring his soup. "I'm not really sure what makes her tick. But I want to find out."
"Well, good luck," Scotty said. "But just before you get in too deep, I want you to think of two words: manic depressive."
"Thanks a lot, pal."
"Don't tell me the thought hasn't crossed your mind."
Jim shrugged. "The only down side I see is that she smokes," he said, and then returned to his soup.
Jim calls me on Tuesday night and he's really sweet. Tells me he's been thinking about me a lot and he wants to see me again. We talk for a while and I feel good— mostly because he can't see me, I guess. After I get off the phone, I take a bath and then I look at myself in the mirror and wonder how he could possibly be interested in me.
I know what l see: a cow.
What's he going to think when he sees me naked? What's going to happen when he realizes what a fuck-up I am? He hasn't said anything yet, but I don't think he much cares for me smoking, and while he's not stingy or anything, I get the feeling he's careful with his money. What's he going to think about my finances?
I'm such a mess. I can't quit smoking, I can't stick to a diet, I can't stop spending money I don't have. Where does it stop? I keep thinking, if I just lose some weight, everything'll be okay. Except I never do, so I keep buying new clothes that I hope will make me look thinner, and makeup and whatever else I can spend money I haven't got on to trick myself into thinking things'll be different. I decide if I get out of debt, everything'll be okay, but first I have to lose some weight. I think if I get a man in my life... it goes on and on in an endless downward spiral.
I'd give anything to be like Wendy or Jilly. Maybe if I had a wish...
But while I might be starting to believe in ghosts, I side with Wendy on the wish question. Hocus-pocus just doesn't work. If I want to solve my problems, I'm going to have to do it by myself. And I can't keep putting it off. I have to make some real changes—now, not when I feel like it, because if I wait until then, I'll never do it.
First thing tomorrow I'm going to make an appointment with my bank manager. And I'll start a serious diet.
"Frankly, Ms. Perry," the manager of the Unity Trust said, "your finances are a mess."
Brenda nodded. The nameplate on his desk read "Brent Cameron." He'd given her That Look when she came into his office, the one that roved carelessly up her body before his gaze finally reached her face. Now he didn't seem to be interested in her looks at all.
She'd been upset when he gave her the once-over; now she was upset because, he'd obviously dismissed her. She knew just what he was thinking. Too fat.
"But I think we can help you," he went on. "The first thing I want you to do is to destroy your credit cards— all of them."
He gave her an expectant look.
"Um, did you want me to do that now?" Brenda asked.
"That might be best."
He handed her a pair of scissors and one by one she clipped her credit cards in two— Visa, Mastercard, gas and department store cards. The only one she didn't touch was her second Visa card.
"You can't keep any of them, Ms. Perry."
"This isn't mine," she explained. "It's from work. I'll hand it in to them when I get back."
He nodded, "Fine. Now I know this isn't going to be easy, but if we start with making a list of all your monthly requirements, then I think we can come up with a plan that will..."
The rest of the meeting went by in a blur. She got the loan. She also came out with a sheaf of paper which held her financial plan for the next three years. Every bit of her income was accounted for, down to the last penny. God, it was depressing. She was going to have to do all her shopping in thrift shops— if she could even afford to do that. To make things worse, she hadn't even mentioned the six-hundred-dollar repair bill she owed her garage for work they'd done on her car last month.
What she could really use right now was a cigarette, she thought, but she hadn't had one since last night and this time she was determined to quit, once and for all. She was starving, too. She'd skipped breakfast and all she'd had for lunch was a bag of popcorn that she'd eaten on the way to her interview with Mr. Cameron.
It hadn't done much to quell the constant gnaw of hunger inside. All she could do was think of food— food and cigarettes and not necessarily in that order. She'd been feeling grumpy all morning. The interview hadn't done much to improve her mood. Her nerves were all jangled, her stomach was rumbling, her body craved a nicotine fix, she was broke for at least the next three years...
How come doing the right thing felt so bad?
Her route back to the office took her by her favorite clothing store, Morning Glory, and naturally they were having a huge sale— UP TO 40% OFF EVERYTHING! the banner read. She hesitated for a long moment before finally going in, just to have a look at what she could no longer afford. Then of course there were three dresses that she just had to have and the next thing she knew she was standing at the counter with them.
"Will that be cash or charge?" the sales clerk asked her.
It'd be her last splurge before the austerity program went into affect, she vowed.
But she didn't have enough money with her to pay for them. Nor could she write a check that wouldn't bounce— wouldn't that impress Mr. Cameron with how well she was following the guidelines of his budget? Finally she used her In the City Visa card.
She'd make it up from her next pay. Her first loan payment wasn't due for three weeks, and she had another paycheck due before that. Conveniently, she'd managed to forget the unpaid bill due her garage.
Thursday after work I drive up Highway 14 and pull into the parking lot of The Wishing Well. By the time I've walked around back and made my way through the rose bushes, the evening's starting to fall. I've never been here so late in the day before. I sit on the crumbly stone wall and lean against one of the roof supports. It's even more peaceful than on a Sunday afternoon, and I just drink in the tranquility for a long time.
I need something good in my life right now. I've already lost a couple of pounds, and I still haven't had a cigarette since Tuesday night, but I feel terrible. My jaw aches from being clenched so much and all I can think of is cigarettes and food, food and cigarettes. Whenever I turned around at work, someone was stuffing a Danish into their mouth, chewing a sandwich, eating cookies or donuts or a bag of chips. The smoke from Keith's cigarettes— one desk over from mine— is a constant reminder of what I can't do anymore.
Sitting here, just letting the quiet soak into me, is the first real down time I feel I've had in the last two days. It's dark when I finally reach into the pocket of my dress and take out the penny I found in front of the trust company the other day.
"So there's this guy," I say finally. My voice sounds loud, so I speak more softly. "I think I like him a lot, but I'm afraid I'm just going to get hurt again..."
It's the same old litany, and even I'm getting tired of it. If the well had a wish for itself, it'd probably be for me just to go away and leave it alone.
Wishes. I don't believe in them, but I'd like to. I think of what Jilly said about them.
It just depends on how badly you want them.
To come true.
For all the times I've visited the well, I've never actually made a wish myself. I don't know why. It's not just because I don't believe in them. Because there's something here, isn't there? Why else would I be able to hear all those old wishes? Why else would the ghosts come walking through my sleep every night? Truth is, I've been thinking about wishes more and more lately, it's just that...
I don't know. Two days into my new healthy Brenda regime, yes, I'm still hanging in with the diet and not smoking, but it's like I'm conspiring against myself at the same time, trying to undermine what I am accomplishing with other messes. Can't eat, can't smoke? Then, why not blow some money you don't have?
I made the mistake of stopping at one of the sidewalk jewelry vendors on Lee Street and I used my In the City Visa card to buy fifty dollars' worth of earrings. I didn't even know those vendors took credit cards. Then, when I got back to work, there was a guy from a collection agency waiting for me. The garage got tired of waiting for the money I owed them. The collection agency guy had a talk with Rob— my boss, the paper's editor— and I had to agree to letting them garnishee my wages until the collection agency's paid off.
Which is going to leave me desperately short. Where am I going to get the money to pay off the bank loan I took out earlier this week, not to mention the money I borrowed on the paper's Visa card? This diet and no-smoking business is saving me money, but not that much money.
Whatever good I'm supposed to get out of doing the right thing still seems impossibly out of reach. Even though I haven't smoked in two days, my lungs seem more filled with phlegm than ever and my mouth still tastes terrible. All I had was popcorn again today, and a quarter of a head of lettuce. I'm losing weight, according to my bathroom scale, but I can feel the fat cells biding their time in my body, ready to multiply as soon as I stick a muffin or a piece of chocolate in my mouth. I'm worse than broke.
I guess the reason I haven't ever made a wish is that this is the only place I know where I don't feel so bad. If I make a wish it'll be like losing the genie in the bottle. You know, you've always got him in reserve— for company, if nothing else— until you make your final wish.
What would I wish for? To be happy? I'd have to become a completely different person for that to work. Maybe to be rich? But how long before I'd blow it all?
The only thing I'd really want to wish for is to see my dad again, but I know that's something that'll never happen.
Monday morning found Jilly sitting on the wooden bench in front of Amos & Cook's Arts Supplies, impatiently waiting for the store to open. She amused herself as she usually did in this sort of a situation by making up stories about the passersby, but it wasn't as much fun without somebody to share the stories with. She liked telling them to Geordie best, because she could invariably get the biggest rise out of him.
She'd been up all night working on the preliminary sketches for an album cover that the Broken Hearts had commissioned from her, only to discover when she finally started on the canvas that she'd used up all her blues the last time she'd worked with her oils. So here she sat, watching the minute, hand on the clock outside the delicatessen across the street slowly climb to twelve, dragging the slower hour hand up to the nine as it went.
Eventually Amos & Cook's opened and she darted inside to buy her paints. It was while she was heading back up Yoors Street to her studio that she ran into Brenda coming the other way.
"You're looking good," she said when they came abreast of each other.
"Well, thanks a lot," Brenda said sarcastically.
Jilly blinked in confusion. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You and Wendy are always telling me how I shouldn't worry about being fat—"
"We never said you were—"
"— but now as soon as I find a diet that's actually letting me lose some weight, I'm looking great.' "
"Whoa," Jilly said. "Time out. I have never said that you needed to lose weight."
"No, but now that I have I look so much better, right?"
"I was just being—"
Friendly, Jilly had been about to say, but Brenda interrupted her.
"Honest for a change," Brenda said. "Well, thanks for nothings."
She stalked off before Jilly could reply.
"You have a nice day, too," Jilly said as she watched Brenda go.
Wow, talk about getting up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, she thought. She'd never seen Brenda running on such a short fuse.
She was a little hurt from the confrontation until she realized that besides Brenda's bad mood, there'd been something else different about her this morning: no cigarette in her hand, no smell of stale smoke on her clothes. Knowing that Brenda must have recently quit smoking made Jilly feel less hurt about the way Brenda had snapped at her. She'd quit herself years ago and knew just how hard it was— and how cranky it made you feel. Add that to yet another new diet...
Quitting cigarettes was a good thing, but Jilly wasn't so sure about the diet. Brenda didn't need to lose weight. She had a full figure, but everything was in its proper proportion and place. Truth was, she often felt envious of Brenda's fuller shape. It was so Italian Renaissance, all rounded and curved— and lovely to paint, though she had yet to get Brenda to sit for her. Perhaps if this latest diet helped raised Brenda's self-esteem enough, Brenda would finally agree to pose for some quick studies at the very least.
She knew Brenda needed a boost in the self-esteem department, so she supposed a diet that worked couldn't hurt. Just so long as she doesn't get too carried away with it, Jilly thought as she continued on home.
Even I'm getting tired of my bitchiness. I can't believe the way I jumped on Jilly this morning. Okay, I know why. I was not having a good morning. The ghosts kept me up all night, going through my head even when I wasn't asleep. By the time I ran into Jilly, I was feeling irritable and running late, and I didn't want to hear what she had to say.
Thinking it over, none of that seems like much of an excuse. It's just that, even though I knew she was just trying to be nice, I couldn't help feeling this rage toward her for being so two-faced. You'd think a friend would at least be honest right from the start.
Yes, Brenda, you are starting to seriously blimp on us. Do everybody a favor and lose some weight, would you?
Except nobody was going to say something like that to a friend. I wouldn't even say it to an enemy. It's bad enough when you've got to haul that fat body around with you, never mind having somebody rub your face in the fact of its existence.
I think the best thing I could do right now is just to avoid everybody I know so that I'll have some friends to come back to if I ever make it through this period of my life.
I wonder how long I can put Jim off. He called me three times this past weekend. I played sick on Friday and Saturday. When he called on Sunday, I told him I was going out of town. Maybe I really should go out of town except I can't afford to travel. I don't even have transit fare this week. Too bad the paper won't pay my parking the way it does Rob's. Of course, I'm not the editor.
When it comes right down to it, I don't even know why I'm working at a newspaper— even a weekly entertainment rag like In the City. How did I get here?
I was going to be a serious writer like Christy, but somehow I got sidetracked into journalism— because it offered the safety of a regular paycheck, I suppose. I'm still not sure how I ended up as an advertising manager. I don't even write anymore— except for memos.
The girl I was in college wouldn't even recognize me now.
Jim looked up to find Scotty approaching his desk. Scotty sat down on a corner and started to play with Jim's crystal hall paperweight, tossing it from hand to hand.
"So," Scotty said. "How goes the romance?"
Jim grabbed the paperweight and replaced it on his desk. "One of these days you're going to break that," he said.
"Yeah, right. It wasn't me that missed the pop fly at the last game."
"Wasn't me who struck out."
"Ouch. I guess I deserved that." Scotty started to reach for the paperweight again, then settled for a ballpoint pen instead. He flipped it into the air, caught it again. "But seriously," he went on. "Was Brenda feeling better on Sunday?"
Jim nodded. "Except she said she's going to be out of town for a few weeks. She had to pack, so we couldn't get together."
"Too bad. Hey, did Roger tell you about the party he's throwing on Friday? He told me he's invited some seriously good-looking, single women."
"I think I'll pass."
Scotty raised his eyebrows. "How serious is this thing?" he asked. "She's out of town, so that means you have to stay in?"
"It's not like that."
"When do I get to meet her, anyway?"
Jim shrugged. "When she gets back, I guess."
Scotty gave him a long considering look, the pen still in his hands for a moment.
"I think you've got it bad, pal," he said finally.
"I guess I do."
"How does she feel about you?"
"I think she likes me," Jim said.
Scotty set the pen back down on Jim's desk.
"You're a lucky stiff," he said.
I've decided that the ghosts are simply hallucinations, brought on by my hunger. Never mind what Jilly or Christy would say. That's all that makes sense. If anything makes sense anymore.
I've been on this diet for almost four weeks now. Popcorn and lettuce, lettuce and popcorn. A muffin on Wednesday, but I won't let that happen again because I'm really losing weight and I don't want to screw anything up. From a hundred and twenty-six to a hundred and four this morning.
Once I would have been delirious with joy to weigh only a hundred and four again, but when I look in the mirror I know it's not enough. All I still see is fat. I can get rid of more. I don't have to be a cow all my life.
I still haven't had a cigarette either and it hasn't added anything to my weight. It's as bad as I thought it'd be— you never realize what a physical addiction it really is until you try to quit— but at least I'm not putting on the pounds, stuffing my face with food because I miss sticking a cigarette in my mouth.
I'm so cranky, though. I guess that's to be expected. My whole body feels weird, like it doesn't belong to me anymore. But I kind of like it. There's a down side, like my clothes don't fit right anymore, but I can deal with it. Since I can't, afford to buy new ones, I've been taking them in— skirts and jeans. My T-shirts and blouses are all getting really loose, but I don't mind. I feel so good about the way I'm starting to look now I know that I can never let myself get fat again. I'm just going to lose a few more pounds and then I'm going to go on a bit of a more normal diet. I'm sick of popcorn and lettuce.
The diet's probably making me cranky as well, but I know I'll get past it, just like I'll get past the constant need to have a cigarette. Already it's easier. Now all I've got to do is deal with the financial mess I'm in. I don't know how to handle it. I'm not spending any money at all— mine or the paper's— but I'm in deep. My phone got cut off yesterday. I just didn't have the money to pay the bill after covering my other expenses. I guess I should've told the bank manager about it when I went in for that loan, but I'd forgotten I was overdue and I don't want to go back to his office.
What I really want to do is just go away for awhile— the way I'm pretending to Jim that I have. Before my phone got cut off, I was calling him from these "hotels" I'm supposed to be staying in and we'd have nice long talks. It's the weirdest romance I've ever had. I can't wait to see his face when he finally sees the new and improved me.
But I'm not ready yet. I want to trim the last of the fat away and put the no-smoking jitters aside first. I know I can do it. I'm feeling a lot more confident about everything now. I guess it really is possible to take charge of your life and make the necessary changes so that you're happy with who you are. What I want now is some time to myself. Go away and come back as an entirely new person. Start my life over again.
Last night one of the ghosts gave me a really good idea.
Wendy slouched in the window seat of Jilly's studio while Jilly stood at her easel, painting. She had her notebook open on her lap, but she hadn't written a word in it. She alternated between watching Jilly work, which was fairly boring, and taking in the clutter of the studio. Paintings were piled up against one another along the walls. Everywhere she looked there were stacks of paper and reference books, jars and tins full of brushes, tubes of paint and messy palettes for all the different media Jilly worked in. The walls were hung with her own work and that of her friends.
One of the weirdest things in the room was a fabric mâché self-portrait that Jilly had done. The life-size sculpture stood in a corner, dressed in Jilly's clothes, paint brush in hand and wearing a Walkman. No matter how often Wendy came over, it still made her start.
"You're being awfully quiet," Jilly said, stepping back from her canvass.
"I was thinking about Brenda."
Jilly leaned forward to add a daub of paint, then stepped back again.
"I haven't seen much of her myself," she said. "Of course I've been spending twenty-six hours a day trying to get this art done for this album cover."
"Do they still make albums?"
Jilly shrugged. "CD, then. Or whatever. Why are you thinking about Brenda?"
"Oh, I don't know. I just haven't seen her for ages. We used to go down to the Dutchman's Bakery for strudels every Saturday morning, but she's begged off for the last three weeks."
"That's because she's on a diet," Jilly said.
"How do you know?"
Jilly stuck her brush behind her ear and used the edge of her smock to rub at something on the canvass.
"I ran into her on the way to the art store the other day," she said as she fussed with the painting. "She looked, so thin that she's got to be on another diet— one that's working, for a change."
"I don't know why she's so fixated on her weight," Wendy said. "She thinks she's humongous, and she's really not."
Jilly shrugged. "I've given up trying to tell her. She's like your friend Andy in some ways."
"Andy's a hypochondriac," Wendy said.
"I know. He's always talking about what's wrong with him, right?"
"So Brenda's a little like that. Did you ever know her to not have a problem?"
"That's not really being fair," Wendy said.
Jilly looked up from her painting and shook her head. "It might not be a nice thing to say," she said, "but it is fair."
"Things just don't work out for her," Wendy protested.
"And half of the reason is because she won't let them," Jilly said. "I think she lives for extremes."
Putting her palette and brush down on the wooden orange crate that stood beside her easel for that purpose, she dragged another orange crate over to the window and sat down.
"Take the way she is with men," Jilly said. "Either nobody's interested in her, or she's utterly convinced some guy's crazy about her. She never gives a relationship a chance to grow. It's got to be all or nothing, right off the bat."
"And it's not just guys. It's everything. She either has to be able to buy the best quality new blouse or dress, or she won't buy it at all. She either has to eat five desserts, or not have dinner at all."
Wendy found herself reluctantly nodding in agreement. There were times when Brenda could just drive her crazy, too.
"So does it bug you?" she asked.
"Of course it bugs me," Jilly said. "But you have to put up with your friends' shortcomings— just like you hope they'll put up with yours. Under all her anxieties and compulsive behavior has got to be one of the nicest, warmest people I know. What's saddest, I suppose, is that she doesn't know it."
"So what should we do?"
"Just like we always do— be there for her when she needs us."
"I suppose," Wendy said. "You know, I hate to say this, but I think what she really needs is a man in her life— a good, solid, dependable man who cares about her. I think that'd straighten up half the problems in her life."
"I think she's got one," Jilly said. "That is, unless she screws this one up by going to the other extreme and suddenly playing too hard to get."
"What do you mean?"
Jilly leaned forward. "You know the guy she met at the bus stop?"
"Uh-huh. Well, it turns out he works at the Newford School of Art."
"He's an artist?"
Jilly shook her head. "No, he works in admin. I dropped by to see how the registration was coming along for that drawing class I'm going to be teaching next semester, and he started talking to me about Brenda."
"How'd he I know you knew her?"
"She'd talked to him about us, I suppose. Anyway, he was wondering if I knew when she'd get back and I almost blew it by saying I'd just run into her on Yoors Street that week, but I caught myself time. Turns out, he thinks she's out of town on business. She calls him every few days— supposedly from this hotel where she's staying— but she's been very evasive about when she's due back."
"That s so not like Brenda," Wendy said.
"Ignoring a nice guy who's showing some interest in her?"
"That, too. But I meant lying."
"I thought so, too, but who knows what's going on with her sometimes. Did you know she quit smoking?"
"Really. And that last time at the restaurant— before you showed up— she was telling me how she was finally taking your advice, to heart and wasn't going to throw herself all over some guy anymore."
"Yeah, but she always says that," Wendy said. She swung her legs down to the floor and hopped down from the window seat. "I'm going to give her a call," she added.
Jilly watched her dial, wait a moment with the receiver to her ear, then frown and hang up.
"She didn't leave her answering machine on?" she asked as Wendy slowly walked back to the window seat.
"The number's not in service anymore," Wendy said slowly. "Her phone must be disconnected."
Wendy nodded. "I guess she didn't pay her phone bill. You know how she's always juggling her finances."
"I don't get it," Jilly said. "If she was that short of cash, why didn't she just come to one of us? We're not rich, but we could've helped out."
"Has she ever asked you for a loan?"
Jilly shook her head.
"Me, neither. I think she'd die before she did that."
Wendy packed her notebook away in her knapsack. Turning from the window, she added, "I think I'm going to go by her apartment to see how she's doing."
"Let me clean my brushes," Jilly said, "and I'll come with you."
Well, I didn't have to ask Rob if I could get a leave of absence from the paper for a couple of weeks. After I left work last night, it came out how I'd been using In the City's Visa card. Rob confronted me with it this morning, and since I couldn't tell him when, or even if, I'd be able to pay it back, he gave me my pink slip.
"You've been impossible to work with," he told me. "I realize you've just quit smoking—"
I hadn't told anybody, wanting to do it on my own without the pressure of feeling as though I were living in a fishbowl, but I suppose it was obvious.
"— and I can certainly empathize with you. I went through the same thing last year. But I've had complaints from everyone and this business with the Visa is just the final straw."
"No one said anything to me."
"Nobody felt like getting their head bitten off."
"I'm sorry— about everything. I'll make it up to you. I promise."
"It s not just about money," Rob said. "It's about trust."
"If you needed a loan, why didn't you come talk to me about it?" he asked. "We could've worked something out."
"It... it just happened," I said. "Things have been getting out of control in my life lately."
He gave me a long, considering look. "Do you have a problem with drugs?" he asked.
"No!" That was one of the few areas of my life where I hadn't screwed up. "God, how could you even think that?"
"Because frankly, Brenda, you're starting to look like a junkie."
"I'm on a diet, that's all."
The concern in his eyes seemed to say that he genuinely cared. The next thing he said killed that idea dead in the water.
"Brenda, you need help."
Yeah, like he cared. If firing me was his idea of compassion, I'd hate to see what happened if he really started to be helpful. But I was smart this time and just kept my mouth shut.
"I'm sorry," was all I said. "I'll pay you back. It's just going to take some time."
I got up and left then. He called after me, but I pretended I didn't hear him. I was afraid of what I might say if he kept pushing at me.
I was lucky, I guess. He could have pressed charges— misappropriation of the paper's funds— but he didn't. I should have felt grateful. But I didn't walk out of there thinking how lucky I'd been, I felt like dirt. I'd never been so embarrassed in all my life.
That was Friday. I'm trying to put it behind me and not think about it. That's easier said than done. I've been only partially successful, but by this morning I don't feel as bad as I did yesterday. I'm still a little light-headed, but I'm down another couple of pounds and I still haven't had a cigarette. Day twenty-nine into my new life and counting.
I've moved into The Wishing Well, in unit number twelve— that's the last one on the north wing. I didn't bring much with me— just a few necessities. A few changes of clothing. Some toiletries. A sleeping bag and pillow. A kazillion packages of popcorn, a couple of heads of lettuce and some bottled water. A box of miscellaneous herb teas and a Coleman stove to boil water on. A handful of books.
I also brought along my trusty old manual typewriter that I used all through college, because I think I might try to do some writing again— creative writing like I used to do before I got my first job on the paper. I would've brought my computer, but there's no electricity here, which is also why I've got a flashlight and an oil, lamp, though I wasn't sure I could use either until I checked if they could be seen from the highway at night. It turns out all I had to do was replace a couple of boards on the window facing the parking lot.
And of course I brought along my bathroom scale, so I can monitor my weight. This diet's proving to be one of the few successes of my life.
I've hidden my car by driving it across the overgrown lawn and parking it between the pool and my unit. After I got it there, I went back and did what I could with the grass and weeds the wheels had crushed to try and make it look as though no one had driven over them. A frontier woman I'm not, but I didn't do that bad a job. I doubted anybody would notice unless they really stopped to study the area.
Once I had the car stashed, I worked on cleaning up the unit. I had to keep resting because I didn't seem to have much stamina— I still don't— but by nine o'clock last night, I had my little hideaway all fixed up. It still has a musty smell, but either it's airing out, or I'm getting used to it by now. The trash is swept out and bagged in the unit next to mine, along with the mattress and a bundle of towels I found rotting in the bathroom. The plumbing doesn't work, so I'm going to have to figure out where I can get water to mop the floors— not to mention keep myself clean. I found an old ping-pong table in what must have been the motel's communal game room, and I laid that on top of the bed with my sleeping bag unrolled on top of it. It'll be hard, but at least it's off the floor.
I finally made myself a cup of tea, boiling the water on my Coleman stove, and settled down to do a little reading before I went to bed. That's when things got a little weird.
Now usually I'm asleep when the well's ghosts come visiting, but last night... last night...
I'm not really sure what she is, if you want to know the truth.
I was rereading my old journal— the one I kept when I was still a reporter— kind of enjoying all the little asides and notes I'd made to myself in between the cataloguing of a day's events, when the door to my unit opened. One of the reasons I'd chosen number twelve was because it had a working door; I just never expected anybody else to use it.
I almost died at the sound of the door. The fit's a little stiff, and the wood seemed to screech as it opened. The journal fell from my hands and I jumped to my feet, ready to do I don't know what. Run out the front door into the parking lot. Pick up something to defend myself with. Freeze on the spot and not be able to move.
I picked the latter— through no choice of my own, it just happened— and in walked this woman. The first thought that came to mind was that she was some old hillbilly, drawn down from the hills after seeing the light that spilled out of the window on the pool side of the room. When I was cleaning up the unit, I took the boards off that window and, miracle of miracles, the glass panes were still intact. I never did bother to tack the boards back up when night fell.
She had to be in her seventies at least. She looked wiry and tough, face as wrinkled as an unironed handkerchief, hair more white than grey and standing up from around her head in a wild tangle. Her eyes were her strongest feature— a pale blue, slightly protruding and bird-bright. She was wearing a faded red flannel shirt and baggy blue jeans, scuffed work boots on her feet, with a ratty-looking grey cardigan sweater draped over her shoulders, the sleeves hanging down across the front of her shirt.
She looked vaguely familiar— the way someone you might have gone to school with looks familiar: The features have changed, but not enough so as to render them unrecognizable. I couldn't place her, though. When I was a reporter I met more new people in a month than I could ever hope to remember, so my head's a jumble of people I can only vaguely recognize. Most of them were involved in the arts, mind you, and she didn't look the type. I could more easily picture her sitting on a rocking chair outside some hillbilly cabin, smoking a corncob pipe.
I wasn't thinking about ghosts, then.
She seemed to recognize me, too, because she stood there in the doorway, studying me for what seemed like the longest time, before she finally came in and shut the door behind her.
"You're the one who comes to the well on Sundays," she said as she sat down on the end of my bed. She moved like a man and sat with her legs spread wide, hands on her knees.
I nodded numbly and managed to sit back down on my chair again. I left my journal where if lay on the floor.
"Got a smoke?" she asked.
How I wished.
"No," I told her, finally finding my voice. "I don't smoke."
"Don't eat much either, seems."
"I'm on a diet."
She made a hrumphing sound. I wasn't sure if it was a comment on dieting or if she was just clearing her throat.
"Who... who are you?" I asked.
The sense of familiarity was still nagging at me. Having pretty well exhausted everyone I could think of that I knew, I'd actually found myself flipping through the faces of the ghosts I'd called up from the well.
"No reason to call myself much of anything anymore," she said, "but once I went by the name of Carter. Ellie Carter."
As soon as she said her name, I knew her. Or at least I knew where I'd seen her before. After I first found the motel and then started coming by more or less regularly, I'd tried looking up its history. There was nothing in the morgue at In the City, but that didn't surprise me once I tracked down a twenty-five-year-old feature in the back issues of The Newford Star.
I'd had a copy made of the article, and it was pinned up above my desk back home. There was a picture of Ellie accompanying the article, with the motel behind her. She looked about the same, except shrunk in on herself a little.
She'd been the owner until— as an article dated five years later told me— business had dropped to such an extent that she couldn't make her mortgage payments and the bank had foreclosed on her.
"So've you made yourself a wish yet?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"Well, don't. The well's cursed."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you clean your ears, girl? Or is that a part of your diet as well?"
"My name's Brenda."
"How long are you planning to stay, Brenda?"
"I... I don't know."
"Well, the rate's a dollar a day. You can give me a week in advance and I'll refund what you've got coming back to you if you don't stay that long."
This was insane, I thought, but under her steady gaze I found myself digging the seven dollars out of my meager resources and handing it over to her.
"You need a receipt?"
I shook my head slowly.
"Well, have yourself a nice time," she said, standing up. "Plumbing's out, so you'll have to use the outhouse at the back of the field."
I hadn't got around to thinking much about that aspect of the lack of bathroom facilities yet. When I'd had to pee earlier, I'd just done it around the corner near some lilac bushes that had overgrown the south side of the motel.
"Wait," I said. "What about the well?"
She paused at the door. "I'd tell you to stay away from it, but you wouldn't listen to me anyway, would you? So just don't make a wish."
She gave me a tired look, then opened the door and stepped out into the night.
"Listen to your elders, girl," she said.
"My name's Brenda."
She closed the door before I could say anything else. By the time I had reached it and flung it open again, there was no one to be seen. I started out across the parking lot's pavement until I saw headlights approaching on the highway and quickly ducked back into my room and shut the door. Once the car had passed, I slipped out again, this time shutting the door behind me.
I walked all around the motel, but I could, find no sign of the woman. I wasn't really expecting to. I hadn't found any recent sign of anyone when I'd explored the motel earlier in the day, either.
That's when I started thinking about ghosts.
So tonight I'm waiting to see if Ellie's going to show up again. I want to ask her more about the well. Funny thing is, I'm not scared at all. Ellie may be a ghost; but she's not frightening. Just a little cranky.
I wonder how and when she died. I don't have to guess where. I've read enough ghost stones to be able to figure out that much.
I also wonder if the only reason I saw her last night is because I'm so light-headed from my diet. I'd hate to find out that I've suddenly turned into one of those people that Jilly calls "sensitives." I've got enough problems in my life as it is without having to see ghosts every which way I turn when I'm awake as well as when I'm asleep.
Besides, if I'm going to meet a ghost, I wouldn't pick one from the wishing well. I'd call up my dad— just to talk to him. I know I can't bring him back to life or anything, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to know why he quit loving my mom and me.
Brenda's apartment was the second story of a three-floor brick house with an attached garage in Crowsea. It stood on a quiet avenue just off Waterhouse, a functional old building, unlike its renovated neighbors. The porch was cluttered with the belongings of Brenda's downstairs neighbor, who appeared to use it as a sitting room-cum-closet. At the moment it held a pair of mismatched chairs— one wooden, one wicker and well past its prime— several plastic milk crates that appeared to serve as tables or makeshift stools, three pairs of shoes and one Wellington boot, empty coffee mugs, books, magazines and any number of less recognizable items.
Jilly and Wendy picked their way to the front door and into the foyer which was, if anything, even more messy than the porch. The clutter, Jilly knew, would drive Brenda crazy, she who was so tidy herself. At the second landing, Wendy pressed Brenda's doorbell. When there was no answer after Wendy had rung the bell for the fifth time, she fished her key ring out of her pocket and unlocked the door. Jilly put her hand on Wendy's arm, holding her back.
"I don't think we should be doing this," she said.
"It's not like we're breaking in," Wendy said. "Brenda gave me a spare key herself."
"But it doesn't seem right."
"Well, I'm worried," Wendy told her. "For all we know she fell in the shower and she's been lying there unconscious for days."
"For all we know she's in bed with Jim and doesn't want to be disturbed."
"We wish," Wendy said as she went in ahead.
Jilly followed, reluctantly.
It was, of course, as tidy inside Brenda's apartment as it was messy on the porch. Everything was in its place. Magazines were neatly stacked in a squared-off pile on a table beside Brenda's reading chair. The coasters were all in their holder. There wasn't one shoe or sock off adventuring by itself on the carpet.
Her desk was polished until the wood gleamed, and the computer sitting dead center looked as though it had just come out of the showroom. If it weren't for the corkboard above the desk, bristling with the snarl of papers, pictures and the like pinned to it, Jilly might have thought that Brenda never used her desk at all.
"Brenda?" Wendy called.
Jilly's sympathies lay with the downstairs neighbor. Tidiness wasn't exactly her own strong point.
As Wendy went down the hall toward the kitchen, still calling Brenda's name, Jilly wandered over to the desk and looked at what the corkboard held. It was the only area that made her feel comfortable. Everything thing else in the room was just too perfect. It was as though no one lived here at all.
Old newspaper clippings vied for space with photographs of Brenda's friends, shopping lists, an invitation for an opening to one of Jilly's shows that Brenda hadn't been able to make, a letter that Jilly dutifully didn't read, although she wanted to. She liked the handwriting.
"This place gives me the creeps," she said as Wendy returned to the living room. "I feel like a burglar."
Wendy nodded. "But it's not just that."
Jilly thought about it for a moment. Being in somebody else's apartment when they weren't always gave one a certain empty feeling, but Wendy was right. This was different. The place felt abandoned.
"Maybe she really has gone out of town," Jilly said.
"Well, her toothbrush is gone, but her make up bag is still here, so she can't have gone far."
"We should go," Jilly said.
"Just let me leave a note."
Jilly wandered over to the window to look out at the street below while Wendy foraged for paper and a pen in the desk. Jilly paused when she looked at Brenda's plants. They were all drooping. The leaves of one in particular, which grew up along the side of the window, had wilted. Jilly couldn't remember what it was called but Geordie had once given her a plant just like it, so she knew it needed to be watered religiously, at least every day. This one looked exactly like hers had if she went away for the weekend and forgot to water it.
"This isn't like Brenda," Jilly said, pointing to the plants. "The Brenda I know would have gotten someone to look after her plants before she left."
Wendy nodded. "But she never called me."
"Her phone's been disconnected, remember?"
Jilly and Wendy exchanged worried glances.
"I'm getting a really bad feeling about this," Wendy said.
Jilly hugged herself, suddenly chilled. "Me, too. I think we should go by her office."
"She didn't tell you?" Greg said.
Both Jilly and Wendy shook their heads. Jilly leaned closer to his desk, expectantly.
"I don't know if I should be the one," he said.
"Oh, come on," Jilly said. "You owe me. Who got you backstage at the Mellencamp show last year when you couldn't get a pass?"
"We could've been arrested for the way you got us in!"
Jilly gave him a sweet smile. "I didn't break the window— it just sort of popped open. Besides, you got your story, didn't you?"
Greg Sommer was In the City's resident music critic and one of its feature writers. He was so straight-looking with his short hair, horn-rimmed glasses and slender build that Jilly often wondered how he ever got punk or metal musicians to talk to him.
"Yeah, I did," he admitted. "And I got double use of the material when I covered Lisa Germano's solo album."
"Isn't it wonderful?" Jilly said. "It's nothing like what I expected. I never knew that she sang, which is weird, considering what a really great voice she—"
"Jilly!" Wendy said.
"Oh. Sorry." It was so easy for Jilly to get distracted. She shot Wendy a slightly embarrassed look before she turned back to Greg. "You were saying about Brenda?" she prompted him.
"I wasn't, actually, but I might as well tell you. She got canned first thing yesterday morning."
"Weird, isn't it? She's the last person I would've thought to get fired— she's usually so damn conscientious it makes the rest of us look bad. But she's been acting really strange for the past few weeks. I heard a rumor that she's got a really bad drug problem and I believe it. She looks completely strung out."
Wendy shook her head. "No way does Brenda do drugs."
"Well, she's doing something to herself, because there's not much left but skin and bones. And it's happened so fast— just over the last few weeks." He got a funny look. "Jesus, you don't think she has AIDS, do you?"
Just the mention of the disease made all of Jilly's skin go tight and her heartbeat jump. She'd had three friends die of the disease over the past year. Another two had recently tested-HIV-positive. It seemed to be sweeping through the arts community, cutting down the brightest and the best.
"Oh, God, I hope not," she said.
Wendy stood up. "Brenda doesn't do drugs and she hasn't got AIDS," she said, "Come on, Jilly. We've got to go."
"But you heard what Greg said about the way she looks," Jilly said as she rose to join her.
Wendy nodded. "It sounds like she's finally found a diet that works," she said grimly. "Except it works too well."
She left Greg's office and walked briskly down the hall towards the stairwell. Jilly only had enough time to quickly thank Greg before she hurried off to catch up to her.
"I don't even know where to begin looking for her," she said as she followed Wendy down the stairs.
"Maybe we should start with this Jim guy she's been seeing"
Jilly nodded, then looked at her watch. It was past five.
"He'll be off work by now," she said. "The admin staff usually leaves at five."
"We can still call the school," Wendy said. "Somebody there will give you his number."
"I haven't seen her in over two weeks," Jim told Jilly when she got him on the line. "And she hasn't called for a couple of days now."
"That's just great."
"What's wrong? Is Brenda in some kind of trouble?"
Jilly put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to Wendy who was standing outside the phone booth. "He wants to know what's going on. What do I tell him?"
"The truth," Wendy said. "We don't know where she is and we're worried because of what we've been hearing."
"Right. And if there's nothing the matter she's really going to appreciate our blabbing all her problems to a potential boyfriend."
"Hello?" Jim's voice was tiny in the receiver. "Jilly? Are you still there?"
"What do I tell him?" Jilly asked, hand still over the mouthpiece.
"Give it to me," Wendy said.
Jilly exchanged places with her but leaned in close so that she could listen as Wendy made up some story about needing to pick up a dress at Brenda's apartment and they were sorry to have bothered him.
"Right. Tell him the truth," Jilly said when Wendy had hung up. "I could've told him that kind of truth."
"What was I supposed to say? Once you reminded me of how Brenda would react if we did lay it all on him, I didn't have any other choice."
"You did fine," Jilly assured her.
They crossed the sidewalk and sat down on a bench. The tail end of rush hour crept by on McKennitt, making both of them happy that they didn't own a car.
"Could you imagine putting yourself through that everyday?" Jilly said, indicating the crawling traffic with a lazy wave of her hand. "I'd go mad."
"But a car is still nice to have when you want to get out of the city," Wendy said. "Remember when Brenda drove us out to Isabelle's farm this spring?"
"Mmm. I could've stayed there for a month..." Jilly's voice trailed off and she sat up on the bench. "We never checked if Brenda's car was in the garage."
The car was gone.
"Of course that doesn't prove anything," Jilly said.
She and Wendy walked slowly back up the driveway. When they reached the front of Brenda's building, they sat down on the bottom steps of the porch, trying to think of what to do next.
"Just because she's gone for a drive somewhere on a Saturday afternoon," Jilly tried, "doesn't mean anything sinister's going on."
"I suppose. But remember what Greg told us about how she looked?"
"She looked fine when I saw her," Jilly said. "Thinner, and a little jittery from having quit smoking, but not sickly."
"But that was a few weeks ago," Wendy said "Now people are talking about her looking emaciated, like she's a junkie or something."
Jilly nodded. "I'm not as close to her as you are. I know she's always going on about her weight and diets, but does she actually have an eating disorder?"
The Brenda Jilly knew had never weighed under a hundred and twenty-five.
"She was in therapy in high school," Wendy said. "Which is when she first started suffering from anorexia. The one time she talked to me about it, she told me that the therapist thought her problems stemmed from her trying to get her father back: If she looked like a little girl instead of a woman, then he'll love her gain.
"But her father didn't abandon his family, did he?" Jilly asked. "I thought he died when she was eight or nine."
"He did, which is a kind of abandonment, don't you think? Anyway, she doesn't buy into the idea at all, doesn't think she has a problem anymore."
"A classic symptom of denial."
Wendy nodded. "All of which makes me even more worried. The way Greg was talking, she's down to skin and bones."
"I wouldn't have thought it was possible to lose so much weight so fast," Jilly said.
"What if you just stopped eating?" Wendy said. "Your basic starvation diet."
Jilly considered that for a moment. "I suppose. You'd have to drink a lot of liquids, though, or the dehydration'd get to you."
"It's still going to leave you weak."
Jilly nodded. "And spacey."
"I wonder if we should report her as missing?" Wendy wondered aloud.
"I've been that route before," Jilly said. "There's not much the police can do until she's been gone for at least forty-eight hours."
"We don't know how long she's been gone."
"Let's give it until tomorrow," Jilly said. "If she's just gone somewhere for the weekend, she'll be back in the afternoon or early evening."
"And if she's not?"
"Then we'll see my pal Lou. He'll cut through the red tape for us."
"That's right, he's a cop, isn't he?"
"I might still try calling the hospitals," Wendy said. She gave Jilly a pained look. "God, I sound like a parent, don't I?"
"You're just really worried."
Wendy sighed. "What gets me is that Brenda's always so... so organized. If she was going somewhere, she'd be talking about it for weeks in advance. She'd ask me to drop by to look after her plants. She'd— oh, I don't know. I thought we were close, but she's been avoiding me these past few weeks— nothing I can really point to, it's only when I look back on it I can see there was something more going on. Whenever I called, she was just on her way out, or working overtime, or doing something. I thought it was bad timing on my part, but now I'm not so sure."
She gave Jilly a worried look. "The idea that she's gone on some weird diet really scares me."
Jilly put her arm around Wendy's shoulders and gave her a hug.
"Things'll work out," she said, wishing she felt as confident as she sounded.
Wendy's anxiety had become contagious.
I wait until it's past ten and then realize Ellie's going to pull a no-show. Waiting for her, I find myself wondering about my reaction to all of this. From the voices rising up out of the well and their lost faces manifesting in my dreams to the ghost of the motel's old proprietor... I seem to accept it all so easily. Why doesn't it freak me as much as it should?
I don't have an answer— at least I don't have one that makes me feel comfortable. Because either the ghosts are all real and I'm far more resilient than I'd ever have imagined myself to be, or I'm losing it.
I'm tired, but I'm not quite ready to go to bed. Maybe weak would be a better way to put it. I've had a busy day. Since there's no maid service— along with everything else this place hasn't got— the first thing I did after I got up was go exploring for water. There was the well, of course, but it was deep and I'd no way to bring water up its shaft. I wasn't so sure I'd even want to if I could. Bad enough I called up ghosts, just by thinking of them. I didn't want to know what would show up if I took some water from that well.
Turns out I didn't have to worry. Not a half dozen yards into the forest, on this side of an old set of railway tracks, I found a stream. The water's clear and cold, even at this time of year. Using a battered tin pail that I discovered inside what must have been a tool shed, I carried water back to my unit and scrubbed the floors and walls. It sounds pretty straightforward, but it took a long time, because I had to rest a lot.
I'll be glad when I've regained my strength. I think I've caught some bug— a summer flu or something— because I keep getting these waves of dizziness that makes the room do a slow spin. It only goes away when I rest my head.
I forgot to mention: I checked my weight this morning, and I'm right at a hundred pounds even. When I look in the mirror, I still see some flab I could lose, but I really think I'm getting there. Once I hit a comfortable ninety-six or seven, I'll switch to a hold-and-maintain diet. Well, maybe ninety-five. No point in going halfway.
I just wish I didn't still want a cigarette. You'd think the urge would be gone by now.
Jim's been on my mind a lot. I'd really been enjoying our telephone conversations. I find I can relate to him so much better knowing that he can't see what I look like when we're talking. It seems to free me up and I found myself talking about all sorts of things— the kinds of conversations I had when I was in college, when we were all going to change the world.
A couple of miles back towards Newford, there's a diner and garage sitting on the corner where a County road Crosses the highway. I noticed a pay phone in its parking lot when I drove by. I'm thinking of driving down tomorrow evening and giving Jim a call. This time I'll really be out of town. The only thing I worry about is moving the car too often. If I keep driving over the lawn, anyone with half a brain will be able to see that someone's staying at the motel.
Then I laugh. What am I worrying about? I'm not trespassing. I paid for my room.
I wonder what a ghost does with money.
I give Ellie a little longer to show up, but when the minute hand's crept to quarter past ten, I finally put on a jacket and go outside. I want to clear my head. It takes my eyes a few moments to adjust to the dark. The night gets absolutely black out here. The stars seem so close it's like they're hanging from a ceiling the height of the one in my unit, rather than in the sky.
But you get used to the dark. Your eyes have to work harder to take in light, but after a while you can differentiate between shapes and start to make out details.
I look around, listening to the crickets and June bugs, the frogs down at the bottom of the pool. My gaze crosses the lawn to where the rose bushes have overgrown the wishing well. After a while I cross the lawn. The tall grass and weeds make swishing noises against my jeans. My legs are damp from the dew, right up to the knee, and my sneakers are soon soaked.
I use my flashlight to light my way as I squeeze through the rose bushes, but it's a more awkward process than it is by day and I'm nursing a few thorn pricks before I make it all the way inside to the well. I shut off the light then and put a match to the candle I brought. There's not much of a wind at all, just a slight movement in the air so that the candle casts shadows that make the rose thicket seem even denser than it really is. I pretend I'm— well, not Sleeping Beauty, but one of her handmaidens, say, hidden away behind the wall of thorns. Did they all sleep straight through the hundred years? I find myself wondering. Or did they wake from time to time and glance at their watches, thinking, "When is that prince coming?"
It's weird what'll go through your mind when you're in a situation such as this. There are people who pay good money to go away on spiritual retreats. I always thought it was kind of weird, but now it's starting to make a little sense. When all you've got is yourself, it changes the way you think. You have the freedom to consider anything you want, for as long as you want, because there aren't any distractions. You don't have to go to work. The phone won't ring. Nobody drops by your apartment. It's just—
"So what are you hiding from, girl?" a voice asks.
I'm so startled I jump about a foot off the fieldstone wall. This is getting to be a bad habit of hers, but I've got to admit, Ellie sure knows how to make an entrance.
I see her sitting on the edge of one of the benches, the candle's light playing a thorny pattern on her white hair. She never made a sound, coming through the bushes, but then I guess a ghost would just float through.
"Who says I'm hiding?" I ask.
"Everything about you says it."
I shake my head. "I just need some time to be by myself, that's all."
"You're not a very good liar," Ellie says. "I think the only person who believes you is yourself."
"I'm not lying," I tell her, but the words ring as false to me as they obviously do to her.
If I stop to think about it, I know she's right. I have been lying, most of all, to myself.
I look at her, half-hidden in the dark, and find myself telling her what's brought me here: all the messy baggage that I seem to drag around with me wherever I go. I have to laugh at myself as I'm doing it. In the stories, it's always the ghosts that unburden themselves.
"What makes you think hiding'll make it all go away?" Ellie asks when I'm done.
"It won't, I guess. There's a lot I'll have to face up to when I get back. I know that. But at least I'll be able to do it with a little self-esteem."
"Seems to me you're just going to the other extreme," she says.
Like she knows me so well.
"You don't know what I'm like," I say. "You don't know how hard it is, just trying to be normal. To fit in."
She seems to consider that. "It's easier when you're my age," she says finally. "Nobody expects you to be pretty or fashionable. You can be as pushy or as cantankerous as you want, and they don't blink an eye."
"It was easier when I was younger, too," she goes on. "Oh, we had movie stars and singers to look up to, the pretty girls in the Coca-Cola adverts and all, but there didn't seem to be as desperate a need for a girl to make herself over into one of them. We all wanted to, but we didn't have to, if you get my meaning."
I shake my head.
"You didn't have to be pretty to land yourself a husband and raise a family. You just had to be a good person."
"Like the best looking girls didn't get the best men," I say.
"If you think the girls you see as pretty are any happier than you are, you don't know much about anything."
Ellie doesn't give me a chance to speak; she just barrels along over the top of what I was about to say.
"What you don't understand," she tells me, "is that all these problems you've got— none of them are your own fault."
"Oh, right. The old cop-out: Society's to blame."
"It is, girl."
"Brenda. My name's Brenda."
I hate the way she keeps calling me "girl."
"Society makes you get all these expectations for yourself and then, when you can't meet up to them, it screws up your life. You spend money you don't have because you're trying to comfort yourself. You smoke because you imagine it relieves your stress. You lose weight, not because you need to, but because you think if you can look like some woman in a magazine your life's suddenly going to be perfect. But it's not going to work that way.
"First you have to accept yourself— just as you are. Until that happens, nothing's going to get better for you."
At least she's not going on about my father, the way the therapists always do, but it still all sounds so pat. And how much did she make of her life? Working her ass off trying to keep her business afloat, having to declare bankruptcy, probably dying broke in some alleyway, one more burned-out baglady.
"What would you know about why I'm doing anything?" I say.
"Because I've been there—" she hesitates for a moment "— Brenda. I spent too much of my own life trying to be somebody that everybody else thought I should be, instead of who I am. If there's anything I regret, if there's anything that really gets me riled up still, it's all those years I wasted."
Is this my future I see sitting in front of me? I wonder. Because I know all about that feeling of having wasted my life. But then I shake my head. There's a difference. I'm doing something about my problems.
Still, I think maybe I know what's keeping Ellie here now. Not vengeance, not any need. Just regret.
"You really are dead, aren't you?" I say.
"Land sakes, girl. Whatever gave you that idea?"
I'm not going to let her put me off this time.
"I know you're a ghost," I tell her. "No different from the voices in the well."
"You've heard voices in the well?" she asks.
"First the voices," I say, "and then the ghosts. I dream about them. I started wondering what they looked like— the people those voices once belonged to, and now I can't get them out of my head. They've been getting stronger and stronger until now— well, here you are."
It makes sense, I think as I'm talking. The closer I am to the well, the stronger an influence the ghosts would have on me— so strong now that I'm seeing them when I'm awake. I look over at Ellie, but she's staring off into nowhere, as though she never even heard what I was saying.
"I never considered ghosts," she says suddenly. "I used to dream about spacemen coming to take me away."
This is so weird, it surprises a "You're kidding" out of me.
Ellie shakes her head. "No. I'd be vacuuming a room, or cleaning the bathroom, and suddenly I'd just get this urge to lay down. I'd stare up at the ceiling and then 'I'd dream about these silver saucers floating down from the hills, flying really low, almost touching the tops of the trees. They'd land out on the lawn by the wishing well here and these shapes would step out. I never quite knew what exactly they looked like; I just knew I'd be safe with them. I'd never have to worry about making ends meet again."
I wait a few moments, but she doesn't go on.
"Are there ghosts in the well?" I ask.
She looks at me and smiles. "Are there spacemen in the hills?"
I refuse to let her throw me off track again.
"Are you a ghost?" I ask.
Now she laughs. "Are we back to that again?"
"If you're not a ghost, then what are you doing here?"
"I live here," she says. "Just because the bank took it away from me, it didn't mean I had to go. I've got a place fixed up above the office— nothing fancy, but then I'm not a fancy person. I sleep during the day and do my walking around at night when it's quiet— except for when the kids come by for one of their hoolies. I get my water from the stream and I walk along the railway tracks out back in the woods, following them down to the general store when I run short of supplies."
I hadn't gone further into the office than the foyer, with its sagging floorboards and the front desk all falling in on itself. That part of the motel looks so decrepit I thought the building might fall in on me if I went inside. So I suppose it's possible...
"What do you do in the winter?" I ask.
"Same as I always did— I go south."
She's so matter-of-fact about it all that I start to feel crazy, even though I know she's the one who's not all there. If she's not a ghost, then she's got to be crazy to be living here the way she does.
"And you ye been doing this for twenty years?" I ask.
"Has it been that long?"
"What do you live on?"
"That's not a very polite question," she says.
I suppose it isn't. She must feel as though I'm interrogating her.
I'm sorry, I say. "I'm just... curious."
She nods. "Well, I make do."
I guess it's true. She seems pretty robust for someone her age. I decide to forget about her being a ghost for the moment and get back to the other thing that's been bothering me.
"I know there's something strange about this well," I say. "You told me last night that it's cursed..."
"It grants you your wish— can you think of anything more harmful?"
I shake my head. "I don't get it. That sounds perfect."
"Does it? How sure can you be that what you want is really the right thing for you? How do you know you haven't got your ideas all ass-backwards and the one thing you think you can't live without turns out to be the one thing that you can't live with?"
"But if it's a good wish..."
"Nothing's worth a damn thing unless you earn it."
"What if you wished for world peace?" I ask. "For an end to poverty? For no one ever to go hungry again? For the environment to be safe once more?"
"It only grants personal wishes," she says.
"No. Only those of people who want— who need— a wish badly enough."
"I still don't see how that's a bad thing."
Ellie stands up. "You will if you make a wish."
She walks by me then and pushes her way through the roses. I hear the rasp of cloth against twig as she moves through the bushes, the thorns pulling at her jeans and her shirt.
"Ellie!" I call after her, but she doesn't stop.
I grab my candle, but the wind blows it out. By the time I get my flashlight out and make it out onto the lawn, there's no one there. Just me and the crickets.
Maybe she isn't a ghost, I find myself thinking. Maybe she was just sitting here all along and I never noticed her until she spoke to me. That makes a lot more sense, except it doesn't feel quite right. Do ghosts even know that they're ghosts? I wonder.
I think about the way she comes and goes. Did she have enough time to get out of sight before I got through the bushes? Who else but a ghost would hang around an abandoned motel, year after year for twenty years?
I get dizzy worrying at it. I don't know what to think anymore. All it does is make my head hurt.
I decide to follow the railway tracks through the woods to the general store where Ellie says she buys her groceries. I'll use the pay phone in the parking lot to call Jim. And maybe, if they're still open, I'll ask them what they know about Ellie Carter and her motel.
Jim picked up the phone when it rang, hoping it was Brenda calling. He hadn't heard from her for a few days now, and Jilly's odd call this afternoon had left him puzzled and just a little worried. But it was Scotty on the other end of the line.
"I thought you had a date tonight," Jim said.
He carried the phone over to the sofa. Sitting down, he put his feet up on the coffee table and rested the phone on his chest.
"I did," Scotty told him, "but she stood me up."
He could almost see Scotty's shrug.
"I can't say's I really blame her," Scotty said, "if you really want to know the truth. I'm coming on so strong these days, I think I'd stand myself up if I was given the chance."
"What are you talking about?"
"Ah, you know. All I do is think with my cock. I should be like you— take it slow, take it easy. Be friends with a woman first instead of trying to jump her bones the minute we're alone. But I can't seem to help myself. First chance I get and I'm all over her."
"Yeah, well don't hold me up as some paradigm of virtue," Jim said. "And besides, I get the feeling I'm getting a version of the old runaround myself."
He told Jim about the call he'd gotten from Jilly this afternoon and how it had sounded as though she hadn't known Brenda was away on business.
"When you put that together with how Brenda won't even leave me the number of where she's staying, it's... I don't know. I just get a weird feeling about it."
"Sounds like a scam to me," Scotty said.
Jim switched the receiver from one ear to another. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Think about it. It's obvious that she's put her friends up to call you— just to get a rise out of you. To make you more interested."
"How much more interested can I seem? Whenever she calls, we're on the phone for at least an hour. I'd take her out in a minute, but I can't seem to get the chance. She was too sick before she left and now she's out of town."
Jim sighed. "Supposedly," he repeated, somewhat reluctantly.
"Maybe she's just getting back at you for not calling her after she sent you those flowers."
"You really think so?"
"Hey, what do I know? Dear Abby I'm not. I'm just a guy who can't get a date and when I do, the girl dumps me before we even go out." He paused, then added, "Next time she calls, just ask her what's going on."
"What if there's nothing? I'd hate to screw things up. I figure not calling her back right away was already one strike against me. I don't want to add to it now because—"
A sudden beep on the line interrupted him.
"Just a sec," Jim said. "That's my call waiting. It might be Brenda calling."
"I've got to go anyway," Scotty said. "Call me tomorrow and let me know how things worked out."
"Will do," Jim told him.
Cutting the connection with Scotty, he took the other call.
I was really looking forward to talking to Jim tonight. I just wanted to hear his voice and connect with a world that didn't involve ghosts or diets or strange voices that come out of a haunted wishing well.
Following the railway tracks really cuts the distance to the general store. The highway takes a curve, but the tracks go straight through the woods. They're overgrown, but not so much that they're not easy to follow. I didn't even need to use my flashlight. I just stepped from wooden rail to wooden rail, one foot, then the other, but slowly, every step an effort. I was so tired.
This flu bug I've caught made it seem as though I was walking all the way back to Newford. I kept having to stop and rest. I would've given up and just gone back, but by the time I started thinking along those lines, I'd already come so far that going back no longer made much sense. And besides, I had this real need to step outside myself and my problems— if only for a few minutes.
But now I wish I'd never called Jim, because it seems as though all my lies are coming home tonight: the ones Ellie pointed out that I'd used on myself, and the ones I'd told Jim. He didn't come right out and say he didn't believe I was out of town, but he kept asking all these questions about what my day had been like, had I got to see the sights, that kind of thing. Innocent enough questions, but I couldn't help but feel there was an agenda behind them, as though he was trying to catch me up in my lies.
And then there was this business with Jilly calling him and Wendy wanting to pick up a dress from my apartment.
I don't have any of Wendy's dresses— God knows they'd never fit me anyway. At least they wouldn't have before the diet. I could get into one of them now, I suppose; it'd just be a little short in the skirt and sleeves. But even if I did have something of Wendy's, she's got a key to my place anyway.
As soon as Jim started talking about their having called him I knew what was really going on. They were worried about me. They'd probably found out about my phone being cut off. Or that I'd lost my job. Or both. Wendy was probably upset anyway because of the way I've been avoiding her these past few weeks...
What a mess I've made of things.
I get off the phone as quickly as I can. Once I hang up, though, I don't have the energy to go back to the motel. The general store is closed, gas pumps and all, so I just sit down on the steps running up to its porch and lean my head against the railing. I want to rest for a couple of minutes.
Once I'm sitting down I feel as though I'll never be able to move again, but I know I can't stay here. It's not that I'm scared of running into the people who own the place or anything— there's no law against using a public phone and then having a rest before heading back home.
No. It's that I can't shake the feeling that I'm being watched. At first I think it's Ellie, but the watching has a hungry feeling about it, as though I'm being stalked, and I can't see Ellie wanting to hurt me. If she ever did, she's already had plenty of opportunities before now.
Logically, I know I'm safe. I'm just a little sick, weak from this flu bug I've caught. Maybe it's the flu that's making me feel paranoid. But logic doesn't help me feel any better because, logically, there shouldn't be ghost voices in the well and ghosts running through my dreams. Logically, I shouldn't keep having conversations with the deceased proprietor of an abandoned motel.
Finally, I drag myself to my feet and start back. I have to rest every fifty feet or so because I just don't have any strength left in me at all. The feeling of being watched gets stronger, but I'm feeling so sick it's as though I don't even care about it anymore. I have cramps that come and go in painful waves. I want to throw up, but I've got nothing in my stomach to bring up. I can't even remember if I had any dinner or not. When all you eat is the same thing, popcorn and lettuce, lettuce and popcorn, day in and day out, it's hard to differentiate between meals.
I don't know how I make it back to my room, but finally I do. Dawn's pinking the eastern horizon, casting long shadows as I stumble to my bed. The birds are making an incredible racket, but I almost can't hear them.
My bed seems to sway, back and forth, back and forth, as I lie on it. I keep hearing ominous sounds under the morning bird calls. A floorboard creaking. A shutter banging. I'm too sick even to turn my head to see if there someone there. There's a wet, musty smell in the air— part stagnant water, part the smell you get when you turn over a rotting log.
I really want to turn to look now, but the cramps have come back and I double up from the pain. When they finally ease off, I fall asleep and the ghosts are waiting for me.
They're not familiar any longer— or rather, I recognize them, but they look different. It's so awful. All I can see is drowned people, bloated corpses shambling toward me. Their faces are a dead white and grotesquely swollen. Their clothes are rotting and hang in tatters, they have wet weeds hanging from them, dripping on the floor. Their hair is plastered tight against their distended faces. They have only sunken sockets, surrounded by puffs of dead white flesh where they should have eyes.
You're only dreaming, I try to tell myself. You're sick and you have a fever and this is only a dream.
I manage to come out of it. The lights bright in my eyes— must be mid-morning already. It's impossible to focus on anything. I have some dry heaves which only makes me weaker. I try to fight it, but eventually I fall back into the dreams again.
That's when I finally see her, rising up from behind the ranks of the drowned dead. She looks just like the picture of the rusalka in that book. A water-wraith. The deadly spirit of the well.
Wendy stayed over at Jilly's studio Saturday night. She slept on the Murphy bed while Jilly camped out on the sofa— over Wendy's protests. "I'll be up early working," Jilly insisted, and refused to discuss it any further. And sure enough, when Wendy woke the next morning, Jilly was already behind her easel, frowning at her current work in progress.
"I can't decide," she said when she saw that Wendy was awake. "Have I made it too dark on this side, or too light on the other?"
"Please," Wendy said. She put on the kimono that Jilly used as a bathrobe and shuffled across the studio toward the kitchen area, looking for the coffee. "At least give me a chance to wake up."
The door buzzer sounded as she was halfway to the coffee carafe sitting on the kitchen counter.
"Would you mind getting that?" Jilly asked. "It's probably Geordie coming by to mooch some breakfast."
"Wonderful," Wendy said.
She was barely awake and now she had to put up with Geordie's ebullient morning cheer on top of Jilly's. She considered writing a sign saying, "Quiet, please, some people are still half asleep," and holding it up when she opened the door, but she didn't have the energy to do more than unlock the door. When she swung it open it was to find a stranger standing there in the hallway.
"Um, is Jilly here?"
Wendy gathered the kimono more closely about her neck and looked over her shoulder. "It's for you," she told Jilly. Turning back to the stranger, she added, "Come on in."
Jilly looked around the side of her easel, her welcoming smile turning puzzled.
"Jim?" she said.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," he said.
So this was Jim Bradstreet, Wendy thought as she continued on her quest for a caffeine hit. He wasn't as handsome as she'd imagined he'd be, but there was a warmth about him that was directly evident. Mostly, it had to do with his eyes, she decided, the laugh lines around them and the way his gaze had immediately sought her own.
Behind her, Jilly laid down the paintbrush she'd been using. Wiping her hands on her jeans, which left new streaks of a dark red on top of the other paint already on the material, she sat Jim down on the sofa and introduced him to Wendy. Wendy offered him coffee which he luckily refused, since there was barely one cup left in the carafe.
"Well, this is a pleasant surprise," Jilly said. "I didn't think you even knew where I lived."
Wendy brought her coffee over to where they were sitting and curled up on the end of the sofa opposite Jim. That was Jilly, she thought. Always happy to see anybody. Sometimes Wendy thought Jilly must know every third person living in the city— with plans already formed to meet the rest.
"I looked the address up in the phone book," Jim said. He cleared his throat. "Uh, maybe I should get right to the point. I've been kind of worried about Brenda ever since you called yesterday. You see, I got the impression that you didn't even know she was out of town."
Jilly's eyebrows rose quizzically, but she didn't say anything. Wendy stared down at her coffee. She hated getting caught in a lie— even one so well-intentioned.
"Anyway," Jim went on, "when she called me last night, I tried to find out where she was staying, how long she'd be gone— that kind of thing. I was trying to be surreptitious, but I could tell she felt I was grilling her and she acted very evasive. We hardly talked for more than five minutes before she was off the phone."
Nice-looking and kindhearted, too, Wendy thought. Obviously concerned. She wondered if he had a brother.
Jilly sighed. "Well, it's true," she said. "We didn't know anything was wrong until yesterday when we found out her phone was cut off and she'd lost her job."
"But it's the paper that's sent her out of town," Jim began before his voice trailed off. He nodded. "I get it," he added, almost to himself. "She just didn't want to see me."
"I don't think it's quite like that," Jilly said.
"She's been avoiding everybody," Wendy said. "I haven't seen her in three weeks."
"And you say she's lost her job?"
Jilly nodded. "Brenda will probably hate us for telling you about any of this, but you seem to care for her and right now I get the feeling she needs all the people she can get to care about her."
"What— what's the matter with her?" Jim asked.
"We don't know exactly," Jilly said.
With Jilly having opened the Pandora's box, Wendy realized she couldn't hold back herself now. She just hoped that it wouldn't put Jim off and that Brenda would forgive them.
"Brenda's got a serious case of low self-esteem," she said. "Way serious. She's always had money problems, but now we think she's quit smoking and gone on some weird crash diet. If you've done either, you probably know how it can make you a little crazy. With everything coming down at once on of that— losing her job, obviously way broke— God knows what she's thinking right now."
"She never said anything..."
"Well, she wouldn't, would she?" Wendy said. "Do you lay all your problems on a woman you've just met— especially someone you might like a lot?"
"She said that?" Jim asked. "That she likes me a lot?"
Wendy and Jilly exchanged amused glances. It was almost like talking to Brenda, Wendy thought. That'd be the first thing she'd center on as well.
"When you were talking to Brenda," Jilly asked. "Did she say where she was staying?"
Jim shook his head.
"Well, I might be able to fix that, Jilly said. "Or at least, Lou might."
She got up and dug her phone out from under a pile of newspapers and art magazines and dialed a number.
"Who's Lou?" Jim asked Wendy.
"A cop she knows."
"Yes, hello?" Jilly said into the phone. "Could I speak to Detective Fucceri, please? It's Jilly Coppercorn calling." She listened for a moment, then put her hand over the mouthpiece. "Great," she told them. "He's in." She removed her hand before either Wendy or Jim could say anything and spoke into the phone again.
"Lou? Hi. It's Jilly. I was wondering if you could do me a favor.
"That's not true— I called you just last week to ask you out for lunch but you were too busy, remember?
"How soon we forget.
"What? Oh, right. I want to get an address to go with a phone number.
"Well, no. I don't have the number yet. I need that as well."
Wendy sat fascinated as she listened to Jilly deal with number traces and the like as though she were some TV private eye who did this all the time. Jilly passed on Jim's number and the approximate time of Brenda's call to Lou, then finally hung up and gave Jim and Wendy a look of satisfaction.
"Lou'll have the address for us in about half an hour," she said.
"Can anybody do that?" Jim asked.
Wendy just looked at him. "What do you think?" she asked.
"What's the big deal?" Jilly asked. "All I did was ask a friend to do us a favor."
"But only you would think of tracing Brenda's call," Wendy said.
"But everybody knows that the phone company keeps records on that kind of thing— don't they?"
"And only you would know who to ask and have them actually do it for you," Wendy finished.
Jilly waved her hand dismissively. "Anybody want some breakfast?" she asked.
Jim glanced at his watch. "But it's almost noon."
"It's also Sunday," Wendy told him. "Normal people are only just waking up about now."
"So call it brunch," Jilly said.
It took Lou closer to an hour to get back to Jilly, by which time they'd all eaten the somewhat complicated Mexican omelet that Jilly had whipped up for them with her usual careless aplomb. Wendy and Jim were cleaning the dishes and Jilly was back behind the easel when the phone finally rang.
"You're sure?" Jilly said when she had finished writing down the information he had given her. "No, no. I'd never think that. I really appreciate your doing this, Lou. It's just such a weird place. Yes, I'll tell you all about it next week. Thanks again."
She hung up the phone and then stared at what she'd written.
"Well?" Wendy said. "Aren't you going to tell us where she is?"
Jilly shrugged. "I don't know. The call was made from a public phone booth in the parking lot of a general store up Highway 14."
"A general store?" Wendy said.
" 'Ada & Bill's General Store.' It's almost in the mountains."
Wendy's hopes fell. "That doesn't tell us anything."
Jilly nodded her head in glum agreement.
"I've got a car," Jim said. "Anybody want to take a drive up there to see if we can find out more?"
All Jilly had to do was change her jeans for a clean pair and comb her tangled hair with her fingers. Wendy was dressed and ready to go in a record five minutes.
Everything stands still when the rusalka appears. She's tall and gaunt, a nightmare of pale flesh clad in the remains of a tattered green dress, hair matted and tangled, the color of dried blood, the eyes burning so that looking at them is like looking into the belly of a furnace.
She's what's been haunting me, I realize. She's the curse of the well. It's not her granting wishes that makes her so terrible, but that she steals your vitality as a vampire would. She sucks all the spirit out of you and then drags your body down into the bottom of the well where you lie with all the other bodies of her victims.
I can see the mound of them in the water, a mass of drowned flesh spotted with the coins that have been dropped on top of them. I know that's where I'm going, too.
She steps up to me, clawed hands reaching out. I try to scream but it's as though my mouth's full of water. And then she touches me. Her flesh is so cold it's like a frost burn. Her claws dig into my shoulders, cutting easily through the skin like sharp knives. She starts to haul me up toward her in an awful embrace and finally I can scream.
But it's too late, I know.
That's all I can think as she drags my face up toward her own. It's too late.
She's got jaws like a snake's. Her mouth opens wider than is humanly possible— but she's not human, is she? She's going to swallow me whole... but suddenly I'm confused. I feel like I'm standing on the edge of the wishing well and it's the mouth of the well that's going to swallow me, not the rusalka, except they're one and the same and all I can do is scream, and even that comes out like a jagged whisper of sound because I've got no strength in me, no strength left at all.
"That was it!" Jilly cried as Jim drove by a small gas bar and store on the right side of the highway. "You went right by it."
Jim pulled over to the side of the road. He waited until there was a break in the traffic, then made a U-turn and took them back into the parking lot. The name of the store was written out in tiny letters compared to the enormous GAS sign above it. The building itself was functional rather than quaint— cinderblock walls with a flat shingled roof. All that added a picturesque element was the long wooden porch running along the front length of the building. It was simply furnished, with a pair of plastic lawn chairs, newspaper racks for both The Newford Star and The Daily Journal, and an ancient Coca-Cola machine belonging to an older time when the soft drink was sold only in its classic short bottles.
Jim parked in front of the store, away from the pumps, and killed the engine. Peering through the windshield, they could see an old woman at the store's counter.
"I'll go talk to her," Jilly said. "Old people always seem to like me."
"Everybody likes you," Wendy said with a laugh.
Jilly gave a "can I help it" shrug before she opened her door and stepped out onto the asphalt.
"I'm coming," Wendy added, sliding over across the seat.
In the end they all trooped inside. The store lived up to its name, selling everything from dried and canned goods and fresh produce to fishing gear, flannel shirts, hardware and the like. The goods were displayed on shelves that stood taller than either Jilly or Wendy, separated by narrow aisles. It was dim inside as well— the light seeming almost nonexistent compared to the bright sunlight outside.
The old woman behind the counter— she must be Ada, Jilly decided— looked up and smiled as they came in. She was grey-haired and on the thin side, dressed in rather tasteless orange polyester pants and a blouse that was either an off white or a very pale yellow— Jilly couldn't quite decide which. Her hair was done up in a handkerchief from which stray strands protruded like so many dangling vines.
"I wish I could be of more help," Ada said when Jilly showed her the photograph of Brenda that she'd brought along, "but I've never seen her before. She's very pretty, isn't she?"
Jilly nodded. "Are there any motels or bed-and-breakfasts nearby?" she asked.
"The closest would be Pine Mountain Cabins up by Sumac Lake," Ada told her. "But that's another fifteen or so miles up the highway."
"Afraid not. Pine Mountain is certainly the closest— other than The Wishing Well, of course, but that's been boarded up ever since the early seventies when the bank foreclosed on Ellie Carter."
"That's the place where Brenda goes on her Sunday drives," Wendy put in.
Jilly nodded. She could remember Brenda having spoken of the place before. "And she's got a newspaper clipping of it up above her desk in her apartments," she added.
"I doubt your friend would be staying there," Ada said. "The place is a shambles."
"Let's try it anyway," Jilly said. "We've got nothing to lose. Thank you," she added to Ada as she headed for the door with Jim in tow.
Wendy stopped long enough to buy a chocolate bar, before following them to the car. Jilly had already slid in beside Jim so this time Wendy got the window seat.
"What would Brenda be doing at an abandoned motel?" Wendy asked as Jim started up the car.
"Who knows?" he said.
"Besides," Jilly said, "with the way this idea panned out, our only other option is to go back home."
The motel was easy to find. They followed the long curve of the highway as it led away from the store and came upon it almost immediately as the road straightened once more.
"I don't see a car," Jim said.
He parked close to the highway and they all piled out of his car again. The soles of their shoes scuffed on the buckling pavement as they approached the motel proper. The tumbled-down structure looked worse the closer they came to it.
"Maybe she parked it around back," Jilly said, "Out of sight of the highway."
She was trying to sound hopeful, but the place didn't look encouraging— at least not in terms of finding Brenda. It was so frustrating. She kicked at a discarded soda can and watched it skid across the parking lot until it was brought up short by a clump of weeds growing through the asphalt.
"God, it's so creepy-looking," Wendy said. "Way abandoned."
It did have a forlorn air about it, but Jilly rather liked it— maybe because of that. She'd always had a soft spot in her heart for the abandoned and unwanted.
"I think it's great," she said.
"No, really. I've got to come back here and do some paintings. Look at the way that shed's almost leaning right into the field. The angle's perfect. It's like it's pointing back at the motel sign. And the lattice work on that roofline— over there. It's just—"
"What's that weird sound?" Jim broke in.
Jilly fell silent and then both she and Wendy both heard it as well— an eerie mix of a high-pitched moan and a broken whisper. It was so quiet that it disappeared completely when a car passed on the highway behind them. Once the car was gone, though, they could hear it again.
"It... it must be some kind of animal," Wendy said. "Caught in a trap or something."
Jilly nodded and set off around the side of the motel at a run, quickly followed by the other two.
"Oh, shit," Wendy said. "That's Brenda's car."
Jilly had recognized it as well, but she didn't bother replying. She had a bad feeling about all of this— the motel, Brenda's car, that sound. Worry formed a knot in the pit of her stomach, but she ignored the discomfort as best she could. Head cocked, she tried to place where the sound originated. It made her shiver, crawling up her spine like a hundred little clawed feet.
"It's coming from over there," Jim said, pointing toward a thick tangle of rose bushes.
"That's where Brenda said the well is," Wendy said.
But Jilly wasn't listening. She'd already taken the lead again and so it was she who, after pushing her way through a worn path in the rose bush tangle, first found Brenda.
Jilly almost didn't recognize her. Brenda was wasted to the point of emaciation— a gaunt scarecrow version of the woman Jilly had known. Her clothes hung on her as though they were a few sizes too large, her hair seemed to have lost its vibrancy and was matted against her scalp and neck. She was leaning over a crumbling stone wall, head and shoulders in the well, thin arms pushing on the stones as though something was dragging her down. But there was nothing there. Only Brenda and the terrible soft keening sound she was making.
Afraid of startling her, Jilly waited until Jim and Wendy had pushed through the roses as well so that they could lend her a hand in case Brenda fell forward when she was touched. Speaking softly— just uttering meaningless comforting sounds, really— Jilly pulled Brenda back from the well with Jim's help. When they laid her on the ground, Brenda's eyes gazed sightless up at them, vision turned inward. But the sound she'd been making slowly faded away.
"Oh my God," Wendy said as she took in the change that had been wrought on Brenda in just a few weeks. "There's nothing left of her."
Jilly nodded grimly. "We have to get her to a hospital."
She and Wendy took Brenda's legs, Jim her shoulders, then they carried her back through the rose bushes, all of them suffering scratches and cuts from the sharp thorns since the path was too narrow for this sort of maneuver. Brenda seemed to weigh nothing at all. Once they had her out on the lawn, Jim hoisted her up in his arms and they hurried back to his car.
"What about Brenda's car?" Wendy said as they passed it on the way back to the motel's parking lot.
"We'll come back for it," Jilly said.
I don't remember much about the hospital. I feel like I was underwater the whole time— from when I hung up the phone on Jim Saturday night until a few days later, when I found myself in a hospital bed in Newford General. I don't know where the lost time went— down some dark well, I guess.
The doctor told me I'd been starving myself to death.
I was in the hospital forever and I've been in therapy ever since I got out. I'm really just starting to come to grips with the fact that I have an eating disorder. Have one, had one, and always have to guard against its recurrence.
Thank god I had my health insurance premiums paid up.
The thing that's hardest to accept is that it's not my fault. This is something Ellie told me and my therapist keeps returning to. Yes, I'm responsible for the messes I've made in my life, but I have to understand where the self-destructive impulses come from. The reason I feel so inadequate, so fat, so ugly, so mixed up, is because all my life I've had certain images pounded into my head— the same way that everybody does. Perfect ideals that no one can match. Roles to play that— for whatever reason— we can't seem to adjust to. When you don't toe the line, it's not just the outside world that looks askance at you; you feel in your own head that you've let yourself down.
Logically, it all makes sense, but it's still a hard leap of faith to accept that the person I am is a good person and deserves recognition for that, rather than trying to be somebody I'm not, that I can never be, that it would even be wrong to be.
But though that's part of my problem, it's not the real root of it. Every woman has to deal with those same social strikes against her. For me, it all comes back to my dad, to this belief that if I'd been better, prettier, he wouldn't have killed himself; that if I could somehow regain the sexless body of a child— look like a child, be the perfect child— I could win him back again.
Understanding that is even harder.
I weigh a hundred and twenty-seven pounds now, but I still haven't taken up smoking again. As for my finances— I'm working on them. I had to declare personal bankruptcy, but I'm going to pay everybody back. I have to, because I don't think anybody else should have to pay for my mistakes— no matter what the extenuating circumstances leading up to those mistakes. A friend of Jilly's got me a job at The Daily Journal doing proofing, copyediting, that sort of thing. The pay's not great, but there's room to move up.
Things never really worked out between Jim and me— my fault again, but I'm trying not to feel guilty about it. I just couldn't accept that he cared for me after he'd seen how screwed up I can get. I know it wasn't pity he felt— I mean, he obviously liked me before things got really weird— but I could never look at him without wondering what he was seeing: me, or that creature I became by the well. Jilly says he still asks about me. Maybe one day I'll feel confident enough to look him up again.
There was no rusalka—that's pretty much the general consensus, myself included. Sort of. Wendy says I must have seen a reflection of myself in the window of the motel room and just freaked out. My therapist simply says there's no such thing, but won't offer explanations for what I thought I saw except to tell me that I was in a disturbed state of mind and that people are liable to experience anything in such a situation.
I don't quite buy it. I don't know if there really was a water-wraith or not, but there's something in water that's still haunting me. Not a bad something, not a nightmare creature like the rusalka, but still something not of this world. When I talked about it with Jilly once, she said, "You know the way Christy talks about ghosts being a kind of audiovisual memory that a place holds? Well, water's supposedly the best conductor for that sort of a thing. And that's why there are so many holy wells and sacred lakes and the like."
I suppose. The ghosts in my head are gone, but I hear water all the time and my dreams always seem to take me underwater. I'm never scared, it's never spooky. Just... strange. Dark and cool. Peaceful in a way that I can't explain.
Wendy says I shouldn't let Jilly fill my head with her weird ideas, but I don't know. The interesting thing about Jilly is that she's totally impartial. She accepts everything with the same amount of interest and tolerance, just as she seems to love everybody the same— which is why I think she's never really had a steady boyfriend. She never quite has that extra amount of love it would take to make a relationship with just one person work.
Wendy disagrees with that. She says that Jilly just can't get close to a man that way. I get the feeling it's got to do with something that happened to Jilly when she was growing up, but Wendy's as closemouthed about that as she is with any bit of privileged information, and I've never quite got up the nerve to ask Jilly herself. I'd hate to remind her of some really awful thing in her past— if that's truly the case.
Whatever it was, she's moved beyond it now. Her life is so contained, so steady, for all her fey impulses. I think I envy that about her more than her thinness now.
I wonder if there's anything she envies in other people.
It's autumn now— months later. Like I said, the ghosts don't come to me anymore, but sometimes I still hear voices drifting up from out of the well when I go for my Sunday drives up to the motel. Or maybe it's only the wind. All I know is that I still like to come sit on the old stone wall here by the well and when I leave, I feel... different. It's as though the calmness that's hidden away in that well enclosed by its rose bushes imparts something to me: maybe no more than simply another way of seeing things.
I don't worry about it; I just appreciate it. And if I come back a little spacey, saying odd things which seem very insightful to me, but are confusing to other people, nobody seems to mind. Or at least they don't say anything about it to me.
As for Ellie, I went up into the rooms above the office where she said she lived and there was nothing there. No Ellie, no sign of anyone living there, except it was very clean, as though someone took the trouble to sweep it out regularly and maybe put some wildflowers in a vase on the window sill when they're in season. There was a glass jar with dried flowers in it when I was there, and it didn't smell musty the way the other rooms do.
I tried to find an obit for her, but as someone pointed out to me, she could have died anywhere. If she didn't die in or around the city, there wouldn't be an obit in the morgues of any of our local papers. Still, I looked.
Jilly's got another answer, of course. She says she knows what Ellie meant about the well being cursed: Ellie must have wished that she'd always be at The Wishing Well, so after she died, her ghost was forever doomed to haunt the motel. Which, as Wendy put it, is par for the course, considering the way Jilly sees the world.
I like to think Ellie's just gone south for the winter.
The first time I go back to the wishing well, I find four dollar bills held down by a stone on the wall of the well. I look at them and wonder, a refund for the days I'd paid for, but didn't stay at the motel?
I drop them down into the shaft, one after the other, but I don't make a wish. My life's not perfect, but then whose is? All I can do is forget about miracles and try to take things one day at a time. I'm the only one who can empower myself— I don't need my therapist to tell me that.
I don't think the well ever was cursed. The only curse comes from the ghosts a person brings to it.
I still think about my dad a lot. I guess we had more in common than I thought, since we both screwed up our lives pretty badly. I think he'd be proud of me for finding a solution different from the one he did.
WKPN's on the radio when I drive home. "Rock and gold, without the hard rock and rap." They're playing Buddy Holly.
I turn the dial, chasing static and stations until I hear a black woman's voice, clipped rhymes, ghetto poetry riding the back of a sliding beat that's so contagious my pulse can't help but keep time with it. She's talking about standing up for herself, being herself, facing the world with what she calls a buffalo stance.
You can keep your "rock and gold," I think. I'm tired of living in the past. I'm like the wishing well, in a lot of ways, full of old ghosts that I just can't seem to exorcise. They're what keeps dragging me down. It's when I listen to them, when I start to believe that all the unhappy things they're saying about me is true, that I'm at my worst.
What I want is what this woman's singing about, something that's here and now. What I need is my own buffalo stance.
I think I'm finally on the right road to finding it.