I'm about to explain the price. I hate going through this the first time with rookies.
She laughs. "I already know, dearie. This is my seventy-eighth time."
What was her name? Oh, it doesn't matter. None of us remembers each others' names. That's why we biddies trot out the sweeties, loves, and darlings.
But she's a rookie. I know I've never repeated her. I raise an eyebrow.
"Look, honey, you told me all about it the first time around. And I didn't want to miss out. They all said you were getting. Well. You know." She tries to smile, but she must have had a stroke at some point. Maybe the stroke was my fault. No, she's a rookie. No way I could have caused it with her. Not like I did with Dennis.
There's a name. I can pay with that memory this time around. Something inconsequential. I don't need to remember Dennis's name anymore.
I tap my glass of orangish juice. It's not like me to send someone through the first day they're here.
Then again, it's my seventy-eighth today, too. And they all knew that today would be my last today. I told them. I'll never see tomorrow.
I sigh again. After a moment I nod.
"Such a delight, sweetheart!" She closes her eyes in relief. "I have to tell you, honey, having to explain to you every day that I've been doing this for a while gets a little wearing. But every time you tell me yes," she gives her half-smile again. "I'm so glad. My kids are coming today, you know."
Of course they are. Those are the only todays worth repeating.
The staff wanders around the tables, delivering trays with our orders and pills on them. Like every time I've repeated today, they all act like they're sleeping. It's one of my spells. Lets me get work done without them interfering or thinking I'm slipping up. And I'm not slipping up.
I know exactly how many times I can do this. I know exactly how many todays I have left in me.
And today my children are coming. All of them. It's my birthday. My eighty-ninth birthday. The seventy-eighth time I've celebrated my eighty-ninth birthday. And I should have plenty more of them left.
I walk along the side of the hall, my hand light on the rail. I don't need a walker or a chair yet, but I do need the help balancing. You'd think with all the spells I've created, I'd have figured out some way to keep walking. But no. When I was young, I kept battling the Den Queen, and then the Nautili came, and then one crisis after another. And there's only so many spells you can create in a lifetime.
Well, there was one last one. This one.
And now here I am. In a nursing home. At least my hearing's gone enough I can't hear the buzzing of the fluorescent lights. Another staff member comes by, and I nod at him. And that's when one of the biddies wheels herself up to me. "Gladys!" she calls me.
Pretty sure that's not my name, but what do I care? I turn and raise my eyebrow at her.
"I got to breakfast late. Again. I missed the spell." She looks miserable. I should remember her. I should remember that she's always late.
I shrug. Not my fault she didn't get there on time.
"Please, Gladys. I can't bear to see tomorrow. Not without you. Please." Her hands are shaking. Maybe it's because she can't hold them still.
I press my lips together. Finally I nod. I raise an eyebrow.
"I've chosen my price," she answers.
I take my left hand and hold it in the Stance of Repetition. The whispers pass through me, binding her to midnight. She will return to it, staying in today, one more time.
This woman I don't know the name of smiles so big.
"Thank you, Gladys! Thank you!"
I make it to my room and sit down in the hard dark blue chair the home has provided. The sun is trying to pry its way through my blinds, but I won't let it. Sol tried stealing one of my babies, and I told him he could not have her. He's been angry at me ever since. I'm surprised more of my old enemies aren't trying for revenge now that I'm so close to death.
Who will protect my children when I'm gone?
Oh, it doesn't matter. It's me they want. And once I'm gone, once my last today happens, once I forget how to breathe, I'll die. No tomorrow. And they won't strike at my children because it won't matter. Of course it won't matter. I'm not that important in the large scheme of things. And I've got plenty of todays left anyway, if I still remember silly things like Sol trying to kidnap Sarah.
I chuckle to myself as I sit on the chair. I probably look like I'm losing it, laughing to myself like this. It was long ago. Every year it seemed like another big bad guy would come down, another world-ending threat. And I always invented a spell that would keep the world turning.
Well, the world can turn without me now.
Clarence wasn't at breakfast. I wonder what happened to him? He's been with me from the beginning. I kept him on a day when his daughter came. And when his wife was on hospice. He repeated a lot of those days. Maybe I should check on him.
I groan as I stand and shuffle back out to the hall, my hand on the rail. More staff pass by. Always busy. Busy enough to not notice my little enchantments. I saved the world. Least they could do is save someone's bladder by getting them to the toilet fast enough.
Down the hall, sit on a bench. Past physical therapy. Sit on another bench. Across the lobby, past recreation. When did I start needing so many benches? And then finally down Wintergreen Wing, painted a cheerful orange color. There's Clarence's room.
I knock as loud as I can. Old man never puts in his hearing aids.
No answer. Well, the positive thing about being old is that you can be as impolite as a teenager and everyone just waves it off. I open the door.
Clarence lies drooling on his bed. His arms twitch. His eyes are vacant.
I shuffle as quick as I can to the bed. He grabs at me. Thankfully I don't fall. I like having both hips whole.
"Today," he whispers.
I crease my eyebrows together.
"Today," he repeats.
The room smells of urine and other excrements.
I hit the alarm next to his bed. A nurse wanders over, smells, sees Clarence, and curses as she rushes to his side to check him.
The ambulance comes to the back door. It's the first time today it came. I think.
This is the price. Every time we repeat today, we give up one memory. Just one. And after a lifetime so long, there are so many memories we're all willing to give up. But eventually.
Eventually you run out.
And then you start forgetting things like how to hold your bladder. Or talk.
Or your children's names.
So when you repeat, it better be worth it.
I've only repeated today seventy-eight times. Even if Clarence has repeated every time with me, he shouldn't have gone this far. He had enough to pay the price. Why would he forget . . . by the looks of him, he gave up the memory of using the toilet. Of being able to say anything other than 'today.' How many memories has he given up?
And this today is my last today. I will spend all my todays, all my memories, here. One last time to see my family. Because the day after, they won't see me. They're going their separate ways. And I don't have it in me to see if we'll ever all be together again.
Poor Clarence. He's been riding this with me for so long. And now he's given up too much. And I will go the same way. I will repeat and repeat and repeat until there is nothing left I can give.
And that's why they're all repeating today with me. They're scared of losing me. They're scared of not being able to repeat. So even if today is the worst day, they're all scared of what tomorrow will bring. They're all paying the price. Even that rookie I never met before.
Sarah's the first to come in, like every today. She's got silver hair now. I think she's my oldest. She doesn't know it, but her father used to be a vampire. My first husband, if I recall correctly. She comes into my room and hugs me. "Denny told me about Clarence. You doing ok?"
Of course I am. I'll see him tomorrow. He won't be repeating, but I will. So I'll see him like this again. Where he's lost everything.
Maybe I'm not ok, but I won't let my daughter know that.
I just nod at her.
"Mom?" There's that note of concern in her voice.
I bring my eyebrows together. What?
"Mom, are you ok?"
I nod again. Why wouldn't I be ok?
"Mom, why aren't you talking?"
I tilt my head. Why would I talk? I've never talked.
I gave up talking? I've forgotten how to speak?
"Mom? Oh, no. You're forgetting. I knew this was too much. We can't have the family see you like this. We should just cancel." And she takes out that stupid phone. She's already dialing someone.
I put my hand on her wrist and I shake my head.
"Don't worry, Mom. I'll stay here. We can still --"
I shake my head again. No. They're not canceling.
This is today. This is the day I see all my children. This is the day I will repeat.
Just because I can't talk doesn't mean I will give up my today.
Sarah tries to distract me, taking out a notebook and asking me questions about when I was younger. I wave her away. I won't give up seeing my family. I get up and start making my way down to the community room Sarah rented. Sarah trudges after, trying to ask me questions and distract me. She's always loved me so much. She wants to make sure I'm ok. Well, I'll be ok when I see everyone. I shuffle through the door and eventually take a seat in one of the faded green chairs. I settle back.
This is why I repeat today. Other days I would repeat on occasion, but this is the one I've chosen to never move on from. Because I get to see everyone. I get to hug everyone. This today is perfect, and there is no need to move on.
Sarah takes out her phone and orders pizzas. As she yells at the poor clerk - "No, two pepperoni, one cheese! They never get it right, no matter how many times I've ordered this exact same thing!" - when the plain white door opens and Sarah's husband steps in. The twins, Sarah's grandkids, rush past him. I fling my arms wide, and they rush to me.
"Gentle with Grandma Gladys!" the husband calls.
They cuddle into me. Oh, these two. If there were any of my descendants likely to get into adventures like I had, it's these two.
I hold my hands against their cheeks and smile.
"Grandma Gladys! Guess what I did today?"
I smile. I know exactly what he did. He watched a butterfly come out of a cocoon, and he wants to build a cocoon so he can have wings, too. But it's such a delight to hear him every time. I used to give the most outlandish guesses. Not anymore.
Why, oh why, would I give up talking and keep my old stories? Such a foolish choice.
"Grandma?" he asks again.
I nod, eyebrows raised.
"Why aren't you guessing?"
Sarah and her husband are talking quietly over in the corner. They're glancing at me.
I scrunch up one eye as if I'm thinking. I tap a finger against my chin. I frown. I shake my head and shrug. I smile. I raise my eyebrows.
"Grandma, are you ok?" he asks again.
His sister is watching me carefully. She's always been smart. "Grandma, what's wrong?" she asks.
I sigh. I tap my throat.
She gets it. "Grandma's throat is sore?"
I nod. Close enough.
"Grandma, if you're sick, we shouldn't be around you," she adds.
I shake my head. I hug her again. I laugh. At least I haven't forgotten how to do that. Without laughing, there wouldn't be much point in having this today a seventy-ninth time. I want to laugh as much as I can with the twins. I want them to remember their laughing great-grandma.
I want to tell them my stories.
Don't cry, you. Gladys. Your name is Gladys. And you don't have to cry. This is a happy day. Today is a happy day.
And the twin - the girl twin - she says something else. But I don't hear it. I just realized: I'm calling them the twins. I'm doing it because it's easier. Because.
Because I've forgotten their names.
Sarah comes and crouches in front of me. "Mom? Mom, it's ok. Grant, come and get the twins."
She won't even say their names. Of course not. Then I would hear and I could learn them again maybe. Reality isn't that kind.
Why would I ever choose to forget their names? Am I that horrid a person that I would choose to forget my great-grandkids' names before I forget my stupid, pointless adventures? Am I that selfish? I've only repeated today seventy-eight times. There's no reason I should have forgotten so much.
Sarah is putting her hand under my chin. "Mom? Can you hear me?"
I wrinkle my nose at her. Of course I can hear her.
"Mom, I'm going to cancel tonight. If you're like this with just the twins, you can't handle everyone else. Let's go back to your room. I still have a cake, we can still celebrate, just you and me. We have work to do tonight anyway. We'll just have to get everyone together some other night."
I don't know what my expression does, but it must be dramatic.
Sarah shakes her head. "Don't worry, mom. We'll get together again. We'll just wait for you to have a good day."
She thinks on a good day I'll talk again. But I can't talk. Not ever again. I chose to forget how. She thinks on a good day I'll remember the twins' names. She thinks on a good day I'll be the mom she remembers from before I went into the nursing home, before I was forgotten, before I figured out how to repeat todays.
There will never, ever be another good today. I gave them all up for this last good today.
And now this last good today isn't good anymore. Already. Because I've already forgotten too much.
Sarah must have walked me back to my room. Yes, she did. I remember now. She did. I'm sitting in my chair, the lamp on beside me. Everyone else is still at supper, chatting away like they do. I am alone.
I am a selfish old woman who refused to give up her adventures. Who chose the memory of those times over my own family.
What is wrong with me? What have I done?
Maybe I shouldn't repeat today. There's no point now. Not if this will keep happening.
I try not to cry.
And Sarah walks in again. "Grant took the twins. OK, mom." She crouches down, her hand on the arm of the chair. "Let's do this. The next spell."
I blink at her.
"Come on. You forgot this, too?" She puts her head down. Sighs. Looks back up at me again. "It's all going too fast. We're not going to have time for you to teach me everything, are you? Mom, they're all coming back. All your old enemies. They're just waiting for the day you won't stand up to them. You need to teach me all your spells. All of them. So there's someone to protect the family when you're gone."
Why don't I remember this?
"Mom, teach me your repeating spell. Stop paying the cost for me. Let me pay the cost. It's the only way you'll last long enough to teach me everything."
And it all falls into place.
And I don't need my voice for my spells. I don't need to talk.
And Sarah will not pay the price. I will not let her forget anything. That is who I have always been. I will protect.
I sigh. I raise my eyebrows.
And I teach Sarah. Another spell. Another thing for her to know. Another enemy she will be able to defeat. And hopefully she won't wait as long as I did to teach another person all these old spells.
And that night... I try to find two more memories. One for me. One for her.
And tomorrow when I awake, it will be today. And I will have forgotten again. But Sarah won't. I will not let her face what I face. The forgetting, little by little, today by today. I will pay the price for her.
For as long as it's today.
x x x
A cautionary tale of sorrow and sensation and inevitabilty, this well-wrought parable moved me. Perhaps it's because I empathize with the narrator. Perhaps it's because of my own deep-seated fear of my ongoing aging. Thanks Johnathan Mast for this tale. Tell him your take on our BBS.. -GM