The Changeling Bride(3)

By: Lisa Cach

Elle got behind her and grabbed her under the arms, pulling her as gently as she could up onto the curb into a sitting position. The woman was light, despite her bulky appearance. It felt like she had more clothing than flesh under her ragged jacket.

“Are you okay?” Elle asked again. The woman was breathing heavily, but seemed disinclined to move. Her feet were still in the puddle, mud splattered up her ankles. Her knit cap had fallen off, and Elle picked it up and held it out to her.

“Here, you’d better put this back on. You’re getting wet.” The woman made no move to take it, so Elle set it in her lap.

The woman suddenly leaned away from Elle, groping along the sidewalk with one gnarled hand until she found the cane that had skittered away from her when she fell. She took her hat and shoved it inside the front of her jacket, then with a surprising burst of strength stood up, leaning heavily on the cane. Elle stepped back, then reached out again to steady the woman, who swayed and seemed ready to fall.

“Ma’am, are you sure you’re okay? Do you want me to help you get somewhere? Can I call someone for you?” Elle chewed her lip, uncertain. She didn’t feel comfortable leaving the old woman, but she didn’t know what to do with her, either.

“Do you want to come to my apartment?” Elle found herself asking, not believing those words were coming out of her mouth. She thought of the carpets she only walked on shoeless in hope of keeping them clean, the sofa she vacuumed weekly. She didn’t have much money, but she had Lysol disinfectant, by God. “I can make you something to eat, maybe some tea, and you can use my phone.”

The woman ignored her and reached an arthritis-warped hand into a pocket, fumbling around, searching for something. She drew out some old tissues that dropped to the ground and melted on the wet sidewalk, then poked through a handful of gum wrappers, lint, and bent paper clips. She found what she wanted, a piece of heavily folded pink paper, and carefully lifted it in her twisted fingers, holding it out to Elle.

The old woman obviously wanted her to take it, so she did. The woman wrapped her cold hands around Elle’s and squeezed. For the first time she looked directly at her, and Elle realized that the woman’s eyes were the same yellow-green of the morning transient’s, and their eerie intensity held her spellbound. The old woman smiled, as if with a secret, then turned and hobbled off, staggering from side to side every few steps but covering ground with unexpected speed.

Elle frowned after her, her lips parted in puzzlement. When the woman had disappeared into the slanting rain, Elle looked down at the folded paper, then put it into her pocket. She’d throw it away when she got home.

“Tatiana darling, I’m home!” she called, opening the door to her apartment. It was hardly necessary, as Tatiana had heard her key in the door and was bounding down the hall even as she stepped inside. A smile curled her lips, her wet feet and the rain trickling down her scalp momentarily forgotten at the sight of her princess running to greet her.

She knelt down and opened her arms, burying her face in Tatiana’s neck, rubbing her hands up and down Tatiana’s lower spine in the way she knew the dog loved. She got her ear washed in returned, and then the big Samoyed wriggled out of her grasp and raced back down the hall, pouncing on a squeaky toy.

Tatiana had been a surprise birthday gift from her brother, Jeff, a testament to both his thoughtlessness and his clumsy affection for her. At first sight of the uncoordinated ball of fur, she had been in love, forcefully restraining herself from dribbling out all the nauseating endearments that immediately sprang to mind. “Darling. Precious. Widdle snookie-wookie-ums.” She had said them all in her heart, but had refused to so debase herself as to utter them aloud.

What she had said instead, as she had cuddled the puppy to her chest and allowed it to chew her finger, was, “You know, don’t you, that this means I’ll have to find an apartment that allows dogs? And that I’ll have to housebreak her, and walk her, and make sure she gets enough exercise, and pay for shots at the vet and spaying, not to mention a dog license and dog food?”

“Aw, but, Ellie, how could you refuse that face? Huh? Just look at her, she loves you already,” Jeff had answered, a fatuous grin on his face as he snuggled his pregnant wife closer under his arm.

“Lemmee hold ’er, Aunt Ellie,” three-and-a-half-year-old Clarence begged, tugging at her pants.

“Not right now, Clarence,” she said, pulling away from his grasping little hands. She loved her nephew, but she wouldn’t put her heavenly angel in a child’s care. She summoned greater peevishness into her tone and continued, “And I’ll have to take her to obedience school and groom her, and I’ll get fleas in my carpet, and white hair all over everything I own. A dog is a big responsibility. Don’t you listen to the Humane Society ads?”