Ethan struggled to rise to consciousness. He could barely open the eyes of this new body. He felt so weak that his eyes seemed the only things he could move. The bed under him felt soft and the down comforter over him smelled like it had recently been outdoors. The room, though not large, contained expensive furnishings: an oak chest-of-drawers with ornate brass pulls, a small bedside table with a lace doily and fresh daisies in a cut-glass vase.
“That Hawley girl got herself in a bad way,” said the young woman in the maid’s uniform.
“I heared she’s got a bun in the oven,” replied the older one, who had to be a nurse. Who else would wear a starched white hat with corners flaring out like the wings of a dove?
“I heared Mr. Hawley beat her with a strap till she bled, but she wouldn’t say who the father was. Prolly some soldier wandered through. She always was headstrong.”
If his new face had allowed it, Ethan would have smiled. These biddies were so involved in gossiping, they’d never even noticed this bugger had died.
“Headstrong? To let a soldier use you then be on his way? That’s not headstrong. That’s sheer crazy, Madge.”
“Well. I hear she may be that too. Don’t seem to know nobody around her. Says her name ain’t Katherine Hawley. Why would she make up such a stupid thing?”
“Tryin’ to make people think she’s not in her right mind so’s the baby ain’t her fault.”
Madge said, “I heared from their maid that in her sleep she says her name is .”
Though the rest of the body seemed immobilized, Ethan’s new ears worked fine. Suddenly, upon hearing ’s name, getting this body to move became very important to Ethan. He felt his heart begin to race. He needed to get their attention.
“Poor creature. Such a pretty girl. But she won’t be much longer for these parts. This much scandal? If ’tweren’t for the war, her father would have made her scarce already.”
“Where’s he sendin’ her?”
Madge said, “Don’t know. Prolly out west. Marry her off to some desperate rancher in the middle of hell-and-gone who ain’t had a woman in years and who don’t care what she done long as she has a heartbeat.”
“Would you ever do that? Marry off mail-order like that?” the nurse mused.
“Oh, Helen, why would any woman in her right mind do that?”
“It’s somethin’ to think about ‘cause after this war, men are fixin’ to be scarce. Unless you don’t mind a few parts missin’.”
Her eyes bright and her voice dripping with meaning, Madge, the maid, said, “Only one part really counts.”
They both convulsed in laughter that they immediately tried to suppress, casting furtive glances at their master’s wrinkled face. This only made them laugh harder. At the sound of their choking, Ethan managed a groan and was able to move his head. Madge caught the motion and elbowed Helen into silence. When they saw his eyes open, their laughter stopped as quickly as if their heads had been twisted off their bodies. He had eyes like a demon, a bloodshot mess, with no whites at all around the pupils.
“Mister Watson.” The nurse pulled his hand from under the quilt and felt his pulse.
Jesus, Ethan thought, as he saw the wrinkled skin that barely concealed the blue veins of his hand. “Water,” hissed out of his throat.
The nurse picked up a glass tumbler from the bedside table and inserted a glass straw between Ethan’s lips. He took a short pull of water and found his voice. “Tell me about this girl” he croaked. The eyes of the two women went wide.
Helen, the nurse, said, “Mr. Watson, you should rest.”
“I’ll rest when I’m dead. Tell me about this crazy girl.”
Helen recounted what she had heard on the streets and from Doctor Robert. When Helen repeated the name , Ethan became energized.
Ethan said, “I must get up.”
Shock crossed Helen’s face and she exchanged a glance with Madge. “Sir, Doctor Robert said you need bed rest. Your heart can’t take a shock. Maybe next week you can sit up in a chair for a spell.”
Ethan struggled to sit up. His heart beat in his chest like the wings of a hummingbird and a wave of dizziness washed over him. He took deep breaths and closed his eyes, tried to clear his mind of thoughts. Slowly his heart rate dropped.
When he opened his eyes, the terror-stricken faces of Madge and Helen loomed only inches away.
To Helen, he said, “You the nurse?”
“If my heart stops, you get up here on the bed and you crouch on my belly and press on my sternum. With all your weight. Understand? You do it ten times and then check my pulse. If you don’t feel it, press on my chest again. You do this for at least twenty minutes, until I either come back or you can’t feel my pulse, you understand?”
“Sir, I ...”
“I know you think I’m crazy, but you can save my life if you do this. It squeezes my heart and makes it pump. I’ve seen it done. Now, will you do it?”
With eyes so widely open she had white all around the pupils, she said, “Yes, sir.”
“So, get up here and show me how you’ll do this.”
Helen looked at Madge with such pleading in her eyes, the younger girl said, “I’m sure she understands, sir.”
The bloodshot orbs fixed their energy on Madge. “You’re doing it too.” He redirected his baleful gaze at Helen. “Now pull back this quilt and haul yourself up here, nurse.”
Gingerly the thin nurse pulled back the covers. She looked so confused, Ethan finally said, “Hike up your skirts and straddle me like you wanted to give me what-for.”
“Mr. Watson, I...”
“Just do it.”
Both women blushed deep red. Ethan walked them both through CPR until he was sure they could do chest compressions.
Beth is here. These two women know her location. I just have to keep this old coot going.