The old woman tipped her head as if hearing a distant, curious noise and swiveled her face in his general direction. Her mouth opened in a toothless vague smile, and she patted her hand in toward him in the air, as if searching for something. Her sweatshirt, a sea foam green with sparkly appliques of panda bears, was smudged with rusty stains around the middle that might, Hector feared, be blood. Some were more maroon in color, spongey and moist.
There was no way she had come here on her own. The hike was a vigorous one, even for Hector, fresh from the Army and in the best shape of his life.
“Is there someone with you?” He asked. But then, receiving no answer, he shouted back up the canyon. “Hello!” he called. “Is someone here?”
The buzz of cicadas swallowed the place where his voice had been.
“Hello!” He yelled again but was answered with an echo.
Had someone brought her here with some evil intent, and then fled at the sound of Hector approaching? The hairs on the back of his neck stood up at the thought, and he spun around a few more times, reassuring himself that each shadow in the canyon wall was only that – a shadow.
He cursed himself for leaving the cell phone in the car. He had no way to call 911, and to leave her alone in a place like this would be to kill her.
“Can you hear me?” he asked. “Do you need a drink?”
The old face cracked open into another smile, and she nodded.
Hector unhooked the flask from his hip and held it to her lips. She wrapped her hands around his and eagerly tipped the jug back, taking deep swallows, stopping only to gasp in a raspy breath before greedily chugging more. How long had she been out here? He looked closer; the stains on her shirt were most definitely blood.
“I think…Ma’am, I think you might have hurt yourself. You’re bleeding. Do you mind if I look?”
Again, with that strange bobbing motion of her head and the toothless smile—well, not toothless, exactly, she did have at least one—she shook her head that she didn’t mind.
“Thhhsh’okaaaay,” she said.
“Okay. I’m just gonna…” Frightened at what he might find, Hector reached out to the hem of the filthy sweatshirt. “I’m gonna lift your shirt a bit and….Mother of God!”
Her torso was wrapped in a sticky bandage, frayed and dirty, with blood seeping through on all sides. Hector dropped the hem of the shirt and stood, his thoughts fragmented into several options. He needed a rescue helicopter, or a team of rescuers to carry her down on a stretcher. He considered running down the path for his cell phone, but the vultures had returned to a branch a little farther off, and even now, one had landed up the trail and was hop walking in cautious little leaps toward them. No. He’d have to carry her, though how he’d do it without hurting her more, he couldn’t imagine. Again, he scanned the surrounding area for signs of whoever had brought her up here. Only a psychopath would do this. That sharp tang of fear gave him resolve.
“Ma’am, I am going to carry you out of here, ok?”
She nodded, and her hand fluttered on his shoulder like a moth wing. She couldn’t weigh more than ninety pounds, and he’d carried men twice that size in training exercises, after all. He untied the long-sleeved shirt from around his waist and crouched down by the log, backing up to where her legs dangled over the edge.
“Ok, I’m gonna…”
He’d meant to explain his actions to the blind old woman, that he would carry her piggy back, but she had already flung her arms around his neck, and her legs wrapped around his waist with a surprising agility. Hector wrapped his shirt like a kind of sling around her bottom, and tied the sleeves around his belly, then stood, holding her legs. He hadn’t been sure how to hold her to him, but she clung like a vine, a surprising strength in the bony limbs. In fact…he experimented with loosening his grip, and she clung to him tighter, so that she felt nearly grafted onto his body. He could do this. His combat gear had felt heavier.
Hector took several experimental steps away from the log.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” She cried out in pain, her voice dry as old leaves.
“Did I hurt you?”
Hector sat back on the log, gasping, more from fear than from effort, and she pointed a long bony finger, toward the two plastic Walmart sacks sitting there.
“You want these?” He asked and felt her nod against the back of his head.
He leaned to grab one of the bags and slid it awkwardly onto his lap, peeking inside.
Each double-bagged bundle was full to bursting with acorns, and he couldn’t imagine how he might hold those and her as well.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. But we’ll have to leave these here. I can’t carry you and them.”
She let out another wail of despair, or pain. Had she been out here, gathering acorns all day? Perhaps she’d eaten acorn meal as a young girl, and now, lost in some kind of dementia, was remembering days of her youth?
“Look, we can empty the bags, and I’ll fill them up for you again at the bottom. How’s that? There are acorns all over the valley.”
Hector moved do just this, but her grip tightened on him, and the tips of her fingers dug into his chest, hard and strong as old wood.
“No…” she whispered. “No. Theeesh onesh.” Her lips where soft around the words, as if growing up from a hole in the ground, the accent of a person who had never spoken a language before but, having learned a phrase would try it, halting and foreign.
“Ma’am, we can’t do that.”
“We cannn.” And as if to prove her point, her arms and legs gripped him even tighter, and the unbidden image of a spider leapt into his mind. In a shameful moment of fear and disgust, Hector wondered if he’d be able to get her off. She was that strong. “You…caarrry,” she said.
With a shake of his head, Hector took a bag in each hand and stood, expecting her to loosen her grip and stay on the log, but she clung to him, light and secure as an empty backpack.
“You okay?” He asked.
“Yesssth.” Her breath, across his shoulder, smelled of rotting leaves and old mushrooms.
Hector set off on a walk that soon became a jog as he learned to trust that the old woman would not let go and that he could handle the weight without slipping. He feared worsening her injury with the impacts of his feet on the trail but feared the effects of time and heat exposure even more. Surprised at his own energy, Hector reached his truck in just over an hour and was relieved when the old woman let go and let him lift her into the passenger seat. He stashed the sacks of acorns at her feet and raced down the Tower Canyon Road into town. She did not speak again. By the time Hector tore into the parking lot at the ER, the old woman had slumped against the door like a piece of old parchment folded in on itself, and he paused, hand on the ignition key, and held hiss breath until the fabric of her sweatshirt fluttered up, and then down.
He gathered her from the passenger side, careful that she would not tumble out, then jogged through double doors meant for the ambulance and past the emergency reception, her weight like an empty sack in his arms.
“Sir, you can’t…”
A young woman with dark hair called out to him, rounding the front desk, but then stopped when she saw what he carried.
He had not planned the lie. It just slipped out. The young woman had kind eyes that reminded Hector of soft things, and of home, and the lie hurt inside his chest. “She’s been hurt,” he said.
“Follow me.” She snapped into action and led him through another set of double doors into a sterile corridor and shouted out to someone he couldn’t see. “She’s back, Mark! Get me a bed, and Dr. Morse!”
What followed was a whirlwind of activity: a bed was wheeled in, other hands lifted the old woman from Hector’s arms, three people hovered over her body while another took Hector by the arm, and the bed was whisked away into one of the rooms. A woman with gray hair and a doctor’s coat jogged toward the room. “Is it really her? What happened?”
The woman from the waiting room touched his arm. “You’ll have to follow me, sir. They’ll take good care of your grandma, I promise, and I need to get some information.”
An alarm bell rung in Hector’s head. What information did he have, after all? He’d never seen the old woman before in his life. He could run out the Emergency doors, but then they’d have him on camera, a brown-skinned man bringing a wounded woman into a hospital and fleeing the scene, license plates clearly visible on camera. And he’d said she was his grandma. Why had he done that? Walking that story back would be incriminating as well. With his heart sinking, he followed the woman to the reception desk.
“She’s been here before?” He asked.
“Yes. We weren’t able to ID her. Was here for a few days but disappeared yesterday. Pulled out her IV and walked out in the middle of the night.” The young woman glanced up at him. A hint of accusation. “Didn’t anyone miss her?”
“I, uh, just got back from overseas. Afghanistan. Came back yesterday.” He felt himself sweating, willing her to believe him. “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the doctors.” The keyboard clicked away. “Ok, I just need to get her details. What is your grandmother’s name?”
Hector made a mental plea of forgiveness to his real grandmother for copying her name and details, but a solution had come to him. “Maria Gonzales.”
“May 18, 1928.”
“I…I don’t think she has one anymore. Her mobile home burned. She was supposed to have died in the fire. But they never found her body.” He became more animated as the story took root, began to feel like a possible version of truth, if not exactly the truth. Against his will, tears welled up in his eyes. “My parents and my grandma, they told me. Everyone dead. Everything is burnt to the ground. But I just found her wandering around up in the canyon.”
“Oh god. How is that possible?” The young woman shook her head. “No one knows what’s going on anymore, FEMA, the state. They nearly had an armed revolt up there the other day, and who can blame them? I am so sorry about your family.” Her eyes filled with sorrow. “I’m from Paradise too. All my things, my horses…” she trailed off.
“I am sorry,” Hector said. He looked at her name tag. “I really am sorry, Daphne.” They shared a glance of scorched understanding, the kind that can only happen between people who have had everything torn away. He noticed the way her dark hair reflected blue highlights, that she was about his age, and that her face, which she would probably think was too round, was perfect to him, with deep dimples on either cheek, and he imagined that she might smell like apples.
She blinked. “Well, do you have an address we could use for the time-being?”
The reality of his situation hit home. He didn’t even have an APO address anymore.
“I’ve only got the address to the old place, but the whole street is gone, let alone a mailbox.”
Her lips quirked in a small, defiant smile. “I’m sure that will be fine,” she said. “If you want to take a seat, it’ll probably be a while.”
Hector grabbed some chips and a Coke from the vending machines. He sat as far away as he could from the few other people in the waiting room, positioning himself next to a large potted palm where he could seem to be watching the TV in a corner of the ceiling but could also glance toward Daphne from time to time without getting caught. Looking at her caused a burst of pleasure inside his chest, as if his heart could smile, a feeling Hector had missed for a very long time.
The chips tasted funny and the Coke was flat, so he threw them away. News droned from the TV: rocket launches, mass shootings, climate disaster. While Hector waited, other people came and went from the waiting room: a trembling young man carrying a vomit pail had swallowed bleach to kill the demons; an angry white man dragged a bloody-faced pregnant woman in by the upper arm; a man who looked homeless came in to get a drink of water and sit, sleeping, in one of the chairs until Daphne had to shake him awake and ask him to leave. Hector watched her slip a five-dollar bill into his pocket.
He waited for an hour before the doctor with the gray hair came to find him. “Your grandma is in ICU but resting peacefully. You can come back, if you like.”
“What happened to her?” Hector asked.
“That’s my question for you.”
An old man in a nearby seat leaned into their conversation, so the doctor pointed back toward the double doors, and Hector followed her to another little waiting area just inside the corridor. He told the same story he’d told Daphne: that he’d just come back and discovered his grandma, who he had thought to be dead, wandering in the canyon with an IV needle in her hand.
As he’d hoped, the doctor shook her head at the situation but didn’t question the story. “No one knows what’s going on up there. Well, I am glad she can be scratched off the deceased list, but I’m sorry she’s in such a state.”
“What’s wrong with her? She had stitches nearly around her whole body.”
“I don’t know what happened. She was found lying near the old Honeycomb bridge…” She paused for a moment, then cleared her voice. “Near where the Honeycomb bridge used to be, I mean. She was bleeding from wounds, pretty much just as you saw. As if she’d been sliced in half and sewn back together.” The horror must have shown on Hector’s face, because the doctor rubbed her eyes and apologized. “I’m sorry. I don’t always think before I speak when I get tired. I didn’t mean to imply that actually is what happened. It just looked that way. Honestly, she was in more danger from dehydration than from the wounds when they brought her in here. The skin layer only. They would have healed better if she hadn’t disappeared on us.”
“The police? Did anyone call them?”
She nodded. “Well, yes, but…look, the whole place has been in absolute chaos, and they couldn’t get anything out of her when questioned, and we couldn’t rule out her having done it to herself. Your grandma, does she suffer any kind of dementia, delusions, anything like that?”
“She didn’t used to, but it’s been a few years.” With just a few lies, the old woman’s story had grafted itself onto the story of his real grandma, and Hector himself was losing touch with the past.
“At any rate, the police didn’t take it as seriously as I would have liked. So you’ll have to take it up with them if you want to get to the bottom of it.”
Hector did want to get to the bottom of it, but not by involving the police.
The doctor led him to a dark room with soft lights illuminating the curtained spaces, the quiet hum of medical equipment, and a muffled pinging sound from down the hall. “The nurse is right outside if you need anything.”
The old woman might have been just a few twigs under the sheets, there was so little of her without the bulky sweatshirt and the jeans, and her face was a shriveled brown apple on the pillow. Her lips puffed in and out of the toothless mouth, fluttering as she breathed. Hector pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. He wondered for a moment what had compelled him to get involved in the tragedy of a total stranger but remembered Daphne and the five-dollar bill—that thread of kindness that kept a person stitched to the fabric of humanity.
“Ma’am, what happened to you?” He took her dry hand in his and found it surprisingly warm. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay with you. As long as you need.”
At these words, the hand tightened, and he looked up to see the woman’s eyes had opened, directed toward him. Hector couldn’t be sure, but the milkiness of them seemed diminished in this light. They were simultaneously darker, and a little brighter, and had focused on his face. Her grip was strong.
She said something, but he couldn’t understand the words, leaned in closer. She spoke again. “Pocket.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
How did she know his name? But then her hand snaked over the edge of the bed, seemed intent on searching his pockets on its own, and Hector backed up a step, a little frightened.
“In your pocket.”
Hector reached in and pulled out one of the acorns he’d collected at the top of the canyon but had forgotten. “This?”
He held it out to her, and she closed her fingers around his, folding the acorn and his hand into her own. She smiled. “Yesth, thish.”
Where her hand closed over his, a pulsing began. A slow, nearly indiscernible pulsing. Like a heartbeat, but slower. And where a heartbeat was red in his imagination, this pulse was green, and mossy, and secret. Hector looked up at the old woman.