“Hi!” He’s smiling big and waving, but this time not at me. He backs out from our table then turns to me and pauses, pointing to Maxine and Liz and Gladys. I sigh, because I know what he wants. Rising, I step around to seize the handles of his wheelchair. My knuckles are stained white as I slide my friend Clarence over to the other table. Smack into his favorite spot, between Liz and Gladys. And directly across from Maxine. His other friends.
He’s beaming at Maxine now, so he doesn’t see my smile. The one I’ve pasted across my lips like a sticky-backed decal. The one I feel crumpling round the edges, threatening to peel away and expose the witch’s scowl underneath.
I’m staring stonily at the orange and purple banner, tacked across the dining room’s paisley-printed wall. EVERGREEN CARE CENTER VOLUNTEER APPRECIATION DAY.
Inside me the witch’s voice begins to ask me questions….
Why can’t Clarence stay with me on this, my special day? Fine if he joins Maxine and them for concerts, holiday parties, chili cook-offs. But why today?
On and on the witch’s voice inside natters to me. The voice called bitterness, called jealousy. It’s honed to the fine edge of a mosquito’s whine….
Does Maxine lug a ten-pound guitar here every day, stumble in puffing to sing with Clarence? No. She rarely comes to our singalongs at all, even though he always selects her favorite hymns…. Did Liz go visit him every weekend, over his last two-month stay at Mercy Hospital? No, though he told me every Saturday he missed her…. Did Gladys bake him that special birthday cake, the one I festooned with blue icing kitty-cats? No, though he slid his own piece right over to her--after taking one small bite off a kitty’s ear.
The mosquito’s whine intensifies. Its owner’s fist, a witch’s claw, clamps its bony fingers round my heart and squeezes tight. Her voice almost drowns out the words of the speaker….
“…she’s been faithful every day in her music ministry, as well as in her work with Clarence. The Volunteer of the Year Award goes to Katie Greenlake!”
Claps and cheers and smiles. I know the biggest ones come from Clarence himself. But I cannot meet the grin splitting his glowing moon-shaped face as the orange-purple pendant is swung about my neck. Shame washes through me, for I hardly deserve this with my stinking attitude.
But I know who does.
Pictures drift into my mind. Liz, whose husband died last year, lighting up every time I return from the hospital to tell her Clarence misses her. Gladys, who has no family left to celebrate her birthday, eagerly forking up Clarence’s blue icing kitty-cat. Maxine hugging the Teddy bear Clarence offers her while he listens to her grieve for her sister with bone cancer.
Another Voice, gentle and golden, pours into me just below the witch’s whine. It warms me inside, loosening the fist clamping my heart.
Tell them, Katie Greenlake. Tell them who you think rightly deserves this award.
I open up my mouth—but the words catch inside my throat, sharp as chicken bones. I choke on them, fall silent, slink steam-faced to my chair.
“…this one to a very special resident volunteer. The Resident Volunteer of the Year Award goes to…”
Please say it, I am praying….
More claps and cheers and smiles. Clarence could win a prize for the biggest ones.
Again I hear the gentle-golden Voice prompting me.
You could offer him that prize yourself, Katie Greenlake.
My heart begins pounding. I’m fingering the orange-purple pendant round my neck….
But it’s Maxine, Clarence’s other friend, I see slipping off her own pendant. She’s the one dropping it over his salt-and-pepper head. My big moment feels stolen—and the witch cackles in triumph as her icy fingers tighten round my heart--
“I…I happy you win, Katie!” My friend’s gentle-golden voice slips beneath her cackle. He points proudly to the pendant swinging from my neck, then to his own matching one Maxine just gave him. “Look, we both win, they’re the same! I…I happy they give us that award!”
“I…I’m happy too, Clarence!” This time—at last—the words dance from my mouth quite easily. The witch’s claw releases its heart-crushing grip, dissolving in an ocean of gentle-golden joy. Her mosquito whine is silenced by the Voice singing now within us both.
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