When I was 15, I was having a bit of a problem with drugs. I overdosed and almost died. My mother attempted rehab by sending me to a home nursing course. I got a job at a nursing home, where the still-well people lived in nice apartments with kitchens and water views, and the dying people lived in the basement. I worked mostly in the basement. It was sad. I wrote my first short story and forced my parents and five younger siblings to sit on the beach on a drift log and listen to me read the story.
“Send it out,” my mother said.
A magazine wrote back, “We’re up to our ears in dying old people.”
Now everyone’s up to their ears in demented old people. But this is Leah’s story, and Leah wasn’t old. And I’m telling it. So listen.
When we turned thirty, not quite in our prime, but close, we were still attractive.
“This is the best-looking you’ll ever be,” my mother said. Leah was particularly pretty. Also brilliant. Then one day her husband called. “Leah left her car in the middle of the street,” he said.
“Is she drunk?” By then, Leah and I had both done rehab. Real rehab, in hospitals. We drove each other there and sat through the interminable filling out of forms, the last thing someone wants to do when she’s twitching.
“I’ll be fine,” Leah said when we found out she wasn’t drinking or drugging, just demented. “Isn’t there some way to die up there in Oregon?”
“Death with dignity doesn’t include dementia,” I said. “Two doctors have to say you’re within six months of dying and that you’re in pain.” I caught a flight to LAX so I could sit with Leah face to face and find out what was really going on.
Leah said, “You’re addicted to fear,” and gave me a thick red hardbound book. “You only feel alive when you’re making a scene.” She pushed her hair from her face. “Now you’re making a scene about my desire to die.”
I opened the book to a random page. “I’m an internal drug store stuffed with bottles of fear, shame, self-loathing, and doubt,” I read.
Leah tried to straighten her body, but the motion seemed to make her dizzy, and she started to tumble backwards. When I jumped up, she recoiled. “You think normal people are boring,” she said.
“Normal people are boring,” I said. “But I like them better now. I’m starting to see their value.”
Pretty soon Leah started falling down more often, but by then her husband didn’t call me anymore to ask about it because he moved out. “I can’t take watching you like this,” he told Leah. I couldn’t take it either, but I never told Leah. I flew down more often to go to the doctor with her and take her shopping in small boutiques, where she spent hours trying on a single pair of jeans. At the counter, she pulled wads of cash from her purse and spread it across, leaving it to the cashier to select the correct amount.
She still had her car, but wasn’t supposed to drive it. “When are we going to take away your keys?” the doctor said. “Don’t you care about other people?” As if Leah was no longer in the room, he turned to me. “She’s lost the part of her brain that governs reason,” he said.
Then he called his nurse to schedule another appointment for more tests, but I could tell he’d written Leah off. I’d done my own research, of course, endlessly googling medical journals and studies. There really was nothing else to do, but Leah and I never spoke about that.
When I flew down to pick Leah up for the follow-up appointment, I arrived a few minutes late. Her car was gone. She had one of those beepers to hang around her neck for when she fell. I bought it after she fell in her living room and ended up crawling to the back of the house. The beeper came with a lockbox to attach to the front door. The lockbox, which opened with a combination, held a key. If Leah fell and pressed the button, the person who responded wouldn’t have to break down the door.
The key was in the lock box, but the lockbox was open, and so, it turned out, was the door itself. Inside, Leah’s house smelled like rosemary and lavender. Her red leather purse sat on the table, hunched over as if someone had punched it. As always, it was stuffed with cash. Her car keys were gone. It was cold outside, almost freezing at night, but her thick down jacket hung in the closet.
I called the doctor’s office to see if she’d gone ahead on her own, but they said she never showed up.
I didn’t report her missing until the following morning, told the police where I thought she might be, and then headed up to our favorite trail. For years, every time I was in town, we met at that trailhead and hiked up into the mountains. Leah was a stalwart hiker, although she refused to wear whatever kind of hiking gear was the current style. Instead, she dressed in ironed slacks and bright pretty blouses, her thick hair coiled on top of her head, and her face and eyes made up. Sometimes, to make a point, she would take my hand and then hold on until I pulled away.
Her unlocked car sat at the trailhead. Within minutes, it seemed, the area swarmed with police, and then search and rescue teams, one with a brace of five dogs. The dogs were from the most highly trained unit in the world, called to search out survivors in earthquakes and floods, but they could not pick up a scent. Perhaps the demented know how to erase themselves. Perhaps the demented know how to elude all seekers. Nobody ever found even a trace of Leah. It’s as if she never was.
K.C. Pedersen writes and lives on a saltwater fjord in Washington State, or just above the Ventura River in the Sespe Wilderness, crossable during heavy rain only on foot across a shaky suspension bridge. Other writing appears in Quiddity journal and public-radio program, Eleven Eleven, Utne Reader, Rodale Press, Laurel Review (Greentower Press), R.KV.R.Y, American Motorcyclist, South Jersey Underground, Foliate Oak, Juked, Pithead Chapel, Superstition Review, Agave, Eclectica, Ginosko, New Plains, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere.
Lead image: “10.19.10 Stripper Style” (via Flickr user iampeas)
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