11.30pm, two and a half hours in

Diana jarred awake, palm-pushed herself to a sit, “Who…” recognizing the fairy tale-beautiful Ivy standing by her unruffled bed, looking out the window. Hearing Diana’s rustling, Ivy turned on her bedside lamp, walked across the room, and poured from the water carafe, offering the glass while Diana propped both pillows and got comfortable against the headboard, “Time?”

“Eleven-thirty pm. You slept near two hours.” Diana took a sip and grimaced, handing the glass back. “Warm as piss.” Ivy took the glass and carafe and left, returning with a carafe of juicily crashing ice cubes, pouring an icy glass that Diana took and drained.

Ivy, “Bad dream?”

“No. Not for the most part. A mostly beautiful dream; about a beautiful place – your home. But then the dream turned threatening and jarred me awake.”

“Tell me,” Ivy sitting on the edge of the mattress.

Diana sat erect and squirmed into the pillows, her arms by her sides as she spoke. “The dream began beautifully, everything Kodachromed. I was with your Queen, she looked just like you, Ivy, and her son, that relationship obvious to anyone seeing them together. The three of us set out on a tour of the beautiful island, they on horseback, me towering over them, on the back of a huge unicorn, Lily-Bianca her name. Her glossy, alabaster coat reflected and refracted the sunlight, surrounding her with a halo of redundant brilliance.”

“We all know of her. She’s a legend -- an independent one. Aloof. Doesn’t bother with anyone. Says something about you that she let you near her, let alone permit you to ride on her.”

Diana slid out from under the covers, got to her feet and, not looking at Ivy, began pacing the room, soliloquizing, punctuating the story Italian-style, her voice, modulated, dreamlike. “So the dream begins on the top of one of the low mountains where melting snows become rivulets that quickly merge into a small stream, Lily-Bianca following the stream which converges with others, eventually growing into a swiftly-flowing, gurgling river carelessly careening off the rocks in its course.

“Adding to the water sounds, jumping fish tinkle harpsichord-like, mud and water-patting beavers clap, clap, clap with their tails, and otters, floating on their backs, crack shellfish on rocks set on their chests, adding castanets. Add in dragonflies whirring, and bumblebees droning; add in the sharp rattle of kingfishers and the melodious whistles of flycatchers; and add in the croaking of frogs and toads and we have nature’s ensemble creating complex, spontaneous water music for us.”

“The ‘Singing River,’” Ivy, walking over to the rocker on the right hand side of the fireplace, and sitting.

“Yes. That’s the name they used.”

“Of course nature entertained you. Passing royalty, each of you.”

“Did you ever have ice cream…”

“From the Emperor of Ice Cream? Of course,” happy memories exciting Ivy.

“A giant of a man. His emporium a twenty-foot tall, single-story clapboard structure shaped like an inverted ice cream cone; with an eye-level four-foot high window looking out at a twelve-foot deep, outdoor, open wooden porch and bannister, both running the full circumference of the picture book shop, affording visitors breathtaking views of the mountainside.

“Inside, a semi-circle of six lecterns at which customers place their orders; beyond which are two bakers busy making batter or cleaning the equipment. We were the only customers.”

“I’m sure island security saw to that.”

“No. No one was with us.”

“You wouldn’t see them, Diana. At least, most people wouldn’t.”

“In any case, the prince directs me to the front of one of the lecterns where I find a pad shaped like a hand inviting me to leave a handprint which, with the Prince’s encouragement, I do, setting my open palm on the pad as per instructions.  Pulses send the bakery my hand’s template.

“Reaching under a large, moist cloth that covered a small mountain of pastry dough, one of the bakers cuts three small pieces and, like a pizza-maker, she stretches them by tossing each into the air, catching it with her fingertips. She shapes it with crimps, creases, and scrunches, sizing the handle of the emerging cone perfectly for my hand while forming a half-dozen tiny bowls at the top of the cone to hold scoops of ice cream two inches in diameter – the size of large marbles.”

Ivy jumping in, “She draped the pastry over a steel form and flash baked it.”

“After which she air-chills it before she hands it over.”

Ivy, “Yes! Yes! But you left out the most important part.”

“The tasting. Each lectern is built with a gooseneck nozzle under which sits a stack of half-ounce paper cups. Next to it, a tablet displays a catalogue of near one hundred flavors, with pictures and text, ten flavors per screen, each flavor armed with a ‘taste’ button. Punch that, which I do several times…”

“We all do!” Ivy interrupting, laughing.

Diana stopped pacing, “…and instantaneously, the nozzle fills the paper cup on top of the stack. I sucked it right down. Delicious. After a whole bunch of tastes, my hosts egging me on, I make my selections, they deciding much more quickly. We walk outside to the porch, the Prince pointing to the near mountain top. We watch eighteen hummingbird-type birds, with two-inch, scoop-shaped beaks, skim their assigned-flavor snowbanks, each filling its beak and come screaming down the mountain.

“In rapid staccato they deposit their hauls into the appropriate cone cups. When my cone cups are all filled, I am holding a veritable ice cream smorgasbord.”  

Diana resumed her pacing. “We waved ‘Goodbye,’ and ate as we rode – so delicious. Higher up on the mountain we had passed four mountain goats and eight bighorn sheep; on this part of the outing we passed a dozen elk, a dozen antelope, and, perhaps, two dozen deer feeding on the edges of meadows further down. And everywhere birds, some flocking by the hundreds, others alone, hopping from branch to branch. And dozens of small critters, some of them new to me, a gnasher and a fluffer were mentioned, weasels both. The pace was deliciously slow.

“Lily-Bianca followed the river through a forest planted with the careful randomness of an abstract expressionist – giant sequoias and small Japanese red maple among the dozens of types of plants fully saturating the space at the outer edge of the forest as at its core. In some places the sunlight broke through the thick canopy revealing a forest floor vividly painted with colorful shrubs like blue mist and red dwarf. The Queen pointed out many of the types of trees, bushes, and shrubs – I’ve forgotten most. Although, in truth, I was so immersed in the magnificence of the woodland that I didn’t hear a lot of what was said.”
                Diana sat in the empty rocker, beside Ivy on her right. “In other places, the canopy left us in a dark twilight that slowed the steeds, they careful of the multitude of pine cones strewn over the ground waiting for some outside force, a hoof, perhaps, to break the cone and release the seeds of new lives into the forest soil; maybe the cone repaying the kindness by turning the ankle that fulfilled the cone’s destiny, as in No good deed…Not this day, however.

“We emerged onto a meadow proliferating with poppy, morning glory, bluebell, larkspur, forget-me-not, daisy, and marigold. Although the meadow was surrounded by forest, within its half-mile diameter circle neither large bush nor small tree grew.”

Diana’s tone sobered. “Except one. Dead center in the meadow stood a single thirty-six-foot tall tree with a plethora of long, graceful, golden-hued branches unmarred by knob or nub or split bark or fallen limb or woodpecker holes, the tree bereft of all vegetation. Except for the dominant branch halfway up the tree, its tip stretching elegantly outwards to fourteen feet from the trunk. The lowest point of the branch’s downward swoop measured six-feet from the ground at which point it began a steep ascent that ended four feet later at its tip. From the branch’s nadir hung a bright, brass-colored, twelve-inch long stem securing to the tree its single fruit, a baseball-sized, pear-shaped golden nut, its inner glow merging with the radiance of the bright sun reflecting off its shell, the effect, glorious – the light visible at a great distance, even in the bright afternoon. Without increasing speed, Lily-Bianca altered her direction, bee-lining to the tree.

“The Queen, beaming, spoke as we approached and with her first words it dawned on me that this jaunt had a purpose deeper than a lovely day-trip. ‘We’ve waited a hundred years for our Mallorn Tree to bear fruit,’ sweeping her hand to the tree. ‘It only comes to fruition to mark the arrival of a true hero to our island. And last night one such did arrive. The fruit is yours, my dear, and yours alone, not to be shared. You must retrieve it now and eat now, or at least before day’s end.’

“By now we were only twenty feet from the tree but I don’t remember reaching it nor do I remember taking that nut.” Diana was by the fireplace again and she sat down on one of the small, fabric-covered armchairs to gaze into the dancing flames. Her tone sobered, her delivery slowed, and when she spoke she didn’t look up from the fire.

“Because the dream suddenly turned, paralyzing grey tones infiltrating and permeating the universe around us, draining the Queen, the Prince, and their steeds of color and animation. The warm day chilled. Along the top of a line of trees I saw a significant movement that captured my attention and my breath: death lurking; lying in wait, even here in this Fantasy World. Me, not surprised: always expecting something like this. Me, thinking, ‘This is it.’ I trembled and that trembling woke me. End of dream.

“Maybe I’m not ready to see what was in the tree and woke myself. Maybe my not knowing is part of an exotic torture my enemies have in mind for me.” Diana sat unmoving, looking intensely into the fire. Through a mist she heard herself, “Do you have anything sweet? Do my parents know this place?” She got to her feet and walked across the room to her bed, sitting with her back tightly into the pillows she’d arranged against the headboard

Ivy stepped over to arrange the bedclothes. “Will Popsicles do? Your parents? I called them again an hour ago and gave them our address and told them you were back on this,” tossing Diana’s own cell phone beside her, Diana watching it bounce once on the bed by her knee.

“My cell? How did you get it?”

“There was a lot of confusion at your parents’ house after your disappearance. I was there as part of the Queen’s coterie. But when it became clear you were missing, I knew I’d be involved in recovering you – I have a bit of a reputation as a finder. In fact, it was I who prompted the Queen to send an independent party from the island to find you. In charge of the search, I thought I’d keep your phone safe till then. Didn’t tell anyone. Not that anyone asked.”

“Ivy! A little rascally! I’m surprised at you, but not disappointed.” Diana picked up the phone and stared at both sides of it.

“Oh, well. We all have our weaknesses. In any case, I told your parents they should wait for you to call them. I offered no further details regarding your condition.”

“They’ll wait – you told them. They’ll wait for me to call.” Diana shivered. “I’m cold.”

Ivy, wearing the same diaphanous evening clothes as she had on earlier, every hair still in place, her face as fresh as ever, stood beside Diana’s bed. “Pick one or more: an electric heater, a heating pad, a hot bath, a shower, an electric blanket, a sauna, warm clothes, all of the above. Of course, the best warming-up selection on the menu is the house special – dressing in sweats, a hat, and a warm jacket, and going outside for a bit of a walk; maybe even a very short jog.”

“Jog? Did you just say friggin’ jog?” Diana balled bedcovers in each hand and leaned forward from the headboard, anger and alienation instantly replacing the sociable on her face. “I feel like crap; I can hardly hold my head up; not to mention the cold, my exhaustion, and the time, friggin’ midnight. Jog? Are you nuts? Are you out of your friggin’ mind? Look, right now I have a ferocious headache. I just want to sleep. Do I have pajamas?”

Ivy, “Your mom’s going to bring some clothes for you tomorrow…”

Diana stiffened, glaring, “I don’t want to see anyone. Anyone!”

“No, my dear. She knows. She knows that she must call you first. But even a trivial errand will alleviate their anxiety, their feeling helpless. And we can use the clothes.”

Diana looked past Ivy to the glowing embers, “Grape? Pajamas for tonight?”

Ivy walked to Diana’s bureau and from the top drawer pulled freshly-ironed pajamas. She handed them to Diana saying, “You’ll have to wear these until your own clothes arrive.” Diana took the pajamas. “Give me a moment to check flavors,” and left the room, returning with a Popsicle just as Diana, pajama-clad, came out of the bathroom.

Diana, “I dropped my dirty clothes in the hamper that I saw in the bathroom. I’m still too fragile to face a shower. Tomorrow.” She held the rocker’s arm and half-sat and half-swung herself onto its seat.

“Perfect. The staff will get the clothes cleaned. Shower whenever you’re ready. This is all about you.” Diana accepted the purple treat, cozying into the rocker’s Laura Ashley padding. After setting a damp paper towel on the side table, Ivy knelt and lifted Diana’s legs onto the matching footstool, sliding a pair of wool socks over Diana’s dirty cold feet.

“Ivy, I know how dirty it is but that dress is really important to me. Please tell the cleaner to be careful with it.”

“I will, my dear. It’ll come back as good as new.”

Diana set the Popsicle wrap next to the cell on the side table and judiciously sucked on a corner of the confection. Delicious! Spot-on – the sugar jolt and fast-working hydration both panaceas, however marginal, against Diana’s growing malaise. First taste introduction over, Diana attacked the Popsicle like a feeding infant, soon biting off small chunks of the ice, narrowly missing a brain freeze, asking for another before finishing the first.

Ivy took the discarded paper with her, quickly returning with the second treat, unwrapping it before handing it over. Diana ravished it as well, setting the second denuded stick on top of the first, pickup sticks, putting her head back against the rocker and closing her eyes. Ivy turned off the two lamps and covered Diana with a blanket.

Reversing her shutdown, Diana sat erect, powered the cell, and texted her parents: Rescued. Safe now. Recovering. Have patience. Tell Sister Mary M I need to see her immediately. She has my number. Love. Talk soon. Diana. She turned off the cell again, put her head back again, and closed her eyes, but crying out after a three-count, arching her back, squeezing the chair’s arms. and rapid-shallow breathing. She fell back into the chair and splayed her fingers over her belly, pressing, massaging, stroking.

Ivy turned on the lamp near her own bed and walked quickly across the room, sitting on Diana’s bed, her feet on the floor beside the rocker. She put her hand lightly on Diana’s leg. “You’re soaking wet!”

“Cramps. Very bad,” Diana gasping, pushing deeper into the rocker’s frame.

Ivy stood up saying, “I’ll get you a facecloth.’

Diana, “Yes. First another Popsicle, please. I’m parched. Ivy, what’s going on with me? I’m falling apart.”

“You know very well. You’re a day into withdrawal. Your body is letting you know it’s missing its regular injections of heroin. Everybody reacts differently but, without taking medicine to mitigate the symptoms, yes, another drug, there’s no workaround. You just have to go through to get through,” Ivy standing.

Diana nodded, saying, “Keep on keeping on,” drawing a blank from Ivy. “A song,” explaining. Ivy left, returning with the ice treat. Diana reached for it but, instead, slammed her hand to her mouth and jumped to her feet, reaching the bathroom bowl just in time. When the nausea ran its course, she flushed the toilet and, Ivy closely following, went to the sink, both hands on it for support. Without turning, Diana pointed backwards to the door. Ivy nodded and withdrew.

Diana reached for the bar soap, looking into the mirror above the sink before soaping up; into the eyes of a cadaver with blackened hollows for eye sockets and tautly pinched cheeks revealing the contours of every facial bone; looking at little more than a sweating skull on which perched an osprey nest. If she hadn’t so recently thrown she might have just now. She scanned her stick arms exposed by her borrowed short-sleeved pajama tops, the naked arms revealing purple, black-and-blue, and all-black splotches; and revealing bruises and swells surrounding well-defined, needle-induced marks and scars, some scabbed, some still raw, some oozing blood bits.  

   Leaning over the sink, Diana washed the alien face and, eyes closed, groped for the towel hanging to the right of and below the mirror, not reaching it. Without prelude, her bowels released, a burst cesspool disgusting her olfactory organs, fouling her pajamas, and swamping the floor. Stunned and nearly overcome with disgust, Diana grabbed the sink to prevent a fall.

She took a deep breath and used her left hand to remove her pajama bottoms and underwear, tossing her laden bedclothes to an unsoiled spot on the floor, her right hand still gripping the sink. When the equally revolting reprise struck, a second massive load of the same warm, noisome, squishy filth swamped her hand. Through tears she opened the tap and washed her hands free of the muck, turning the pristine, white, porcelain sink-basin into a toilet bowl. Beseeching the scarcely human face in the mirror for help, none coming, she looked away. Naked and foul, she stepped gingerly to the toilet bowl, held onto the tank, and sat heavily, burying her face in her hands, sobbing loudly.

Through her fingers she saw the bathroom door still open. Hands a megaphone she screamed, “Close the door!” followed by a choked, “Don’t come near the door!” reburying her face in her mismatched hands and bursting into a second round of tears. The door discreetly swung shut leaving the erstwhile regal Diana crusted, sweated, leaking, whimpering, and weeping, an unattended queen on her septic throne.

Seven minutes – what it took for her abdominal muscles to exhaust themselves and purge her digestive system. After a prodigious amount of toilet paper and several flushes, she hauled herself to her feet, stabilized on the top edge of the toilet bowl cover, and, using the walls for support, made her way to the white subway-tiled shower. She pulled open the glass door and, from outside the stall, she reached in and turned the handle to ‘Warm,’ yanking her arm out so the initial burst of cold water didn’t touch her. Twice she increased the water temperature before gingerly stepping in.

The shower unfamiliar to her after a five-week absence, Diana kept her left hand on the door handle as a safety measure if the shower appeared threatening. She allowed the shower to wet her right hand and arm and her right side before releasing the door and stepping fully under the water. The hot water poured over her, covering her nose and mouth so she had to turn her head to breathe properly. The long-abandoned experience made her dizzy. Facing the wall, she palmed the tiles, extended her arms, locked her elbows, and set her legs and feet behind her, “assuming the position, the police might say; at least they do on television,thinking, holding the position while rediscovering the joys of hot water.

She stood up straight and turned the handle to its hottest setting, filling the shower stall with steam and changing the entire experience: wherever it struck, the water’s hot abrasion brought Diana physical pleasure that increased in intensity with the water temperature, becoming so rapturous that Diana ignored the accompanying burn. Notwithstanding the pain, because of it, perhaps, beginning at the top of the back of her neck and working down her back, she slowly, methodically, and sequentially exposed her back, arms, chest, and legs to the torment, two-minutes of bliss, she groaning aloud from beginning to end – Masochism 101.

When the unexpected gratification abated, Diana reached for the large bottle of shampoo on the small porcelain corner shelf, poured a generous palmful of the silky, perfumed hair soap and firmly massaged it into her scalp. She rinsed her hair clean of the soap and poured another handful, again attacking the built-up dirt in her matted, tangled, but no longer water-repellant, shoulder-length auburn hair.

Not until her hair squeaked, after the third shampoo, did she start on her body, one small section at a time – soaping and rubbing and rinsing away the weeks of accumulated dirt and dried sweat, along with the clinging remnants of the freshly-added poop – “Out, damned spot!" until head to toe squeaky clean.

Near ready. Holding the shower handle for support she used her big toe to smoosh several of the larger, firmer stools to a sludge loose enough to ooze through the drain, maneuvering the shower head to flush the tiled floor. Satisfied with the shower floor she turned the handle to ‘Off.’ Feeling clean as well as warm and tingly, she wedged her back into a corner of the shower stall, hugged her shoulders, bent her knees to a standing sit, and closed her eyes prolonging the moment. 

Time to leave the shower and clean up. She resisted, her face seeking oblivion in her hands – seeking but not finding. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” thinking. She stood up and took a towel from the bar just outside the stall, drying off and cloaking herself in it. She gingerly stepped out of the shower, tip-toed a path to the door and opened it a crack, calling, “Ivy,”

“I’m here, my dear.”

“Ivy, I need my warm-ups, some cleaning equipment, especially a roll of paper towels, and a plastic bag to put my terribly soiled clothes in.” Diana closed the door. Ivy returned in a flash, tapping. Diana opened the door just wide enough to slip her hand through and take the warm-ups and supermarket plastic bag from Ivy, closing the door immediately afterwards. She put on the fresh clothes, made her way carefully to the soiled pile, using her thumb and forefinger to pick up the bedclothes and stuff them into the bag. She reopened the door that same small crack, handing out the bag, “Ready.”

“You’re dressed?”

“Yes. But I’m probably going to need another set of warm-ups to change into when I’m done cleaning.” Diana extended her arm around the door, waving her hand for the supplies, almost jumping when Ivy seized her wrist, pulling the resistant but weakened patient out of the bathroom.

Ivy closed the door and blocked Diana’s return, “You're done in here. Come, my dear girl – into the sauna while the cleaners do their job.”

“No! I can't leave the bathroom like that!” Diana’s face pomegranate.

“Diana, my dear, we’re a team. You must permit us to help you in the small ways we’re prepared for.” Diana paused a moment before stepping into Ivy’s arms and burying her face in Ivy’s shoulder, crying softly. Ivy put her arm around Diana, turned her slightly forward-facing, and led her down the hall to the sauna.

Some twenty minutes later they returned to their evergreen-smelling suite, the bathroom as pristine as the night Diana arrived. Diana got on the bed and sat up against the headboard. Ivy suggested ibuprofen and an anti-diarrheal medicine. Diana replied, “I don’t do medicine – just heroin,” looking slyly at Ivy, she amused by Diana’s amusement.

Per Ivy, the diarrhea will last a day or two. She suggested that Diana look in the bathroom closet for some overnight clothing options. Several minutes later Diana took Ivy’s suggestion, getting out of bed to look in the bathroom supply closet, finding a stack of Depends. When the shock of it passed, she set pride aside and, with watered eyes, put one on.

Subdued by a combination of exhaustion, sore abs, and mortification, she slunk into bed, turned off the lamp, adjusted the covers and the pillow, and, murmuring “Goodnight,” fell asleep.