Chapter 31

But if the man was bothered by her reaction, he didn't show it.

He smiled. He was wearing dark blue pants, a blue-striped shirt, and a bow tie. "Miss Halliday?"

Arden remembered she'd told Dr. Felicien she was unmarried.

"She wants to see you," the burn-scarred man said.

"She? Who?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I forget that everybody 'round here doesn't know her name. Miz Kathleen McKay. I believe she's who you've come to find."

"She's-" Arden's heart slammed. "She's the Bright Girl?"

"Some would call her that, Imagine. If you'd like to come with me?"

"Yes! I would! Just a minute!" She crossed the room and got the little pink bag from atop a dresser.

On the way out they went through another ward toward the rear of the hospital, and in passing the man spoke to the patients, calling their names, giving some encouragemcul, throwing a joking remark here and there. Arden couldn't help but see how the patients-even the very, very sick ones-perked up at this man's presence. She saw their faces, and she saw that not one of them flinched or showed any degree of distaste. It dawned on her that they didn't see his scars.

Arden followed him away from the house and along another fieldstone path that led toward a grove of pecan trees. "I hear you had a time findin' us," the man said as they walked.

"Yes, I did." She figured Dr. Felicien or somebody had gotten the whole story from either Dan or Train.

"That's a good sign, I think."

"It is?"

"Surely," he said, and he smiled again. "It's not far, right Avrletta's Island through here." He led her under a canopy of interlocking tree branches, and just on the other side was a small but immaculately kept white clapboard house with a screenedin front porch. Off to one side was a flower garden, and a Plot Of vegetables as well. Arden felt faint as the man walked up the front steps and opened the door to the screened porch.

He must have noticed her condition, because he said, "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Just a little light-headed."

"Breathe deep a few times, that oughta help."

She did, standing at the threshold. And suddenly she realized who this fire-scarred man must be. "What's ...

what's your name?" she asked.

"Pearly Reese."

She had known it, but still it almost knocked her knees out from under her. She remembered the prostitute at the cafe in St. Nasty saying that the Bright Girl was an old wovnan who came to Port Fourchon to see my mama's cousin. His name was Pearly, he was seven years old when he got burned up in afire. Near thirty years ago, she'd said.

The Bright Girl took him with her in a boat.

"Do you know meT' Pearly asked.

"Yes I do," she said. "Your second cousin helped me get here.

"Oh." He nodded, even if he didn't quite understand. I-I @ that must be a good sign, too. You ready to meet her.?"

"I am," Arden said.

He took her inside.

The Bfl!ght Girl (:)nce inside the door, Pearly called, "Miz McKay7 I brought her!"

"Come on back, then! I know I look a fright, but come on back anyway!"

It had been the raspy voice of an old woman, yes. Dan had been right, Arden realized as the first hard punch of reality hit her.

There was no such thing as a woman who could stay young forever. But even if Jupiter had been mistaken about that part of it, the Bright Girl could still have the healing touch in her hands. She was terrified as she followed Pearly through a sitting room, a short hallway, and then into a bedroom.

And there was the Bright Girl, propped up on peachcolored pillows in bed. Sunlight spined through lacecurtained windows across the golden pine-plank floor, anct above the bed a ceiling fan politely murmured.

"Oh, " Arden whispered, and as tears came to her eyes her hand flew up to cover her mouth so she wouldn't say something stupid.

The Bright Girl was, indeed, an elderly woman. Maybe she was eighty-five, possibly older. If her hair had ever been blond, it was all snow now. Her face was heavily lined and age-spotted, but even so, Arden could tell that in her long-ago youth this woman had been lovely.

She was wearing a white gown, and now she reached to a bedside tale for a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses. The movement was slow, and her mouth tightened with pain. The fingers of her hand were all twisted and malformed, and she had difficulty picking the glasses up. At once Pearly was at her side, but he didn't put the glasses on her face for her. He steadied her hand so her gnarled fingers could do the work.

Then she got the glasses on, and Arden saw that behind the lenses there was still fire in the Bright Girl's pale amber eyes.

Like lamps, Arden thought. Like shining lamps.

"Sit." The Bright Girl lifted her other hand, the fingers just as twisted, and motioned toward a flower-print armchair that had been turned to face the bed. The elderly woman's voice trembled; either from palsy or being nervous, Arden didn't know. Arden sat down, her hands clutching the pink bag in her lap, her heart galloping.

"lzmonade," the Bright Girl said. Her breathing, too, looked painful. "Want a glass?"

"I ... think I would."

"I can put a shot of vodka in it for you." The Bright Girl, surprisingly, had a midwestern accent.

"Uh ... no. Just lemonade."

"Pearly, would you? And I will take a shot of vodka in mine."

The two women were silent. The Bright Girl stared at Arden, but Arden wasn't sure where to park her eyes. She was so glad to have found this person, so glad to finally be there, but she was feeling a crush of disappointment, too.

The Bright Girl wasn't who Jupiter had said she was. The as ai Bright Girl could not cheat time, and she wasn't a f th healer. If she had a healing touch, then why hadn't she been able to smooth the scars on Pearly's face? Tears burned Arden's eyes again; they weir the bitter tears of knowing she had been wrong.

The Bright Girl-at least the time-cheating, never-aging, faith-healing part of her-was a myth. The truth was that the Bright Girl was a rather small, frail, white-haired eighty-five-year-old woman who had gnarled fingers and labored breathing.

T "Don't cry," the Bright Girl said.

"I'm all right. Really." Arden wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm-" She stopped. The floodgates were about to burst. It had all been wrong. It had been a cruel, cruel trick.

"Go ahead if you want to cry. I cried my eyes out, too, that first day."

The tears had begun trickling down Arden's cheeks. She sniffled.

"What do you mean ... you cried, too?"

"When I came here and found out." She paused, her breathing stntined. "Found out the Bright Girl couldn't just put her hands on me and take it all away."

Arden shook, her head. "I'm not ... I don't understand.

Take what away?"

The old woman smiled slightly. "The pain. The Bright Girl couldn't heal me of the pain. That I had to do for myself."

"But ... you're the Bright Girl, aren't you?"

"I'm a Bright Girl."

"Are you ... are you a nun?"

"Me, a nun? Unh-unh! I raised too much hell when I was a young girl to be a nun now! The thing is, I enjoyed raising hell. Seeing my father"-again, she had to pause to regulate her breathing-"squirm when the police brought me home.

We didn't get along so very well."

Pearly came in, bringing a plain plastic tray with two jelly-jar glasses of lemonade. "Take this one," he said, giving Arden a glass, "unless you want your head lmocked off. Miz McKay @s the occasional libation."

"I wish you would quit that! Over thirty damn years," she said, speaking to Arden, "and he still calls me Miz McKay!

= idmim .

Like I'm some weak little old flower that j m the"-a breath, a breath-"slumps in the noonday sun! My name is Kathleen!"

"You know I was raised to respect my elders. Don't drink that down too fast, now."

"I'll gulp it in a second if I want to!" she snapped, but she didn't. "Let us be alone now, Pearly. We have to talk."

"Yes ma'am."

I.There he goes with that southern-fried crap again! Go out and pee on the flowers or something!"

Pearly left the room. The Bright Girl gripped her glass with both hands, drew it to her wrinkled mouth, and sipped.

"Ahhhh," she said. "That's better." She glanced up at the ceiling fan that turned above them. "I never could get used to this heat down here. For a time I thought I couldn't stand it, that I was going to have to get back"-a breath, then another-"to Indiana. That's where I'm from. Evansville, Indiana. You said you're from Fort Worth?"


"Well, that's good, then. Hot in Texas, too." She sipped her vodka-laced lemonade again. "That's some birthmark you've got there."

Arden nodded, not knowing how to respond.

"You came here to be healed, didn't you?"


"And now you're sitting there thinking you're the biggest.

Biggest fool who ever put on panties. You came down here to be healed by a young, pretty girl who never ages. Who people say lives forever. You didn't come here to"breathing again, her lungs making a soft hitching noise"listen to an old woman spit and snort, did you?"

"No," Arden had to admit. "I didn't."

"I came to be healed, too. My 'condition,' as my father put it"-she nodded toward a walker by the bed-"used to be able to get around on a cane, but ... I can hardly stand up on the walker now.

I've had severe arthritis since I was a young girl. About your age, maybe younger. My father was from old money. The family's in banking.

Very social dogs, they are. So when the lovely daughter can't dance on her crippled"-a pause-"crippled legs at the social events, and when the white gloves won't slip over her twisted fingers, then. Then the specialists are called. But when the specialists can't do very much, then lovely daughter becomes a pariah. Lovely daughter spends more and more time alone, growing bitter. Drinking. Screwing any boy who.

Boy who'll have her. Lovely daughter has several ugly public scenes. Then one day lovely daughter is told she will have a T companion, to watch her and keep her out of trouble. Being enlightened bastards, we have hired a sturdy, nonthreatening woman of color who doesn't. Doesn't know what she ought to be being paid."

Kathleen McKay drank from the glass once more, her gnarled fingers locked together. "That woman of color ... was born in Thibodoux.

That's about fifty miles up Highway One from Grand Isle. We used to share a bottle of Canadian Club, and she told me wonderful stories."

Arden said, "I still don't under-" "Oh, yes, you do!" Kathleen interrupted. "You understand it all! You just don't want to let. Let go of the Hiusion.

I've been sitting right where you are, talking to an old, used-up, and dying woman. In this very bed. Her name was Juliet Garrick, and she was from Mobile, Alabama. She had one leg three inches shorter than the other. The one before her ... well, I don't remember. Some wicked deformity or another, I'm sure. Are you positive you don't want a shot of vodka?"

"I'm sure," Arden said. Her heart had stopped pounding, but her nerves were still raw. "How many ... how many Bright Girls have there been?"

"Cemetery's not far. You can go count for yourself. But I think the first two were buried at sea."

Arden still felt @ crying. She felt like having a cry that would break the heart of the world. Maybe she would, later.

But not right now. "Who was the first one?"

"The woman who founded the hospital. Avrietta Colbert.

Her journals and belongings and things are in a museum between the chapel and where the sisters live. Interesting, gutsy lady.

Strong-willed. Before the Civil War she was on a ship with her husband, sailing from South America to New Orleans. He was a rancher.

Wealthy people. Anyway, not far from here a storm blew up and smashed their ship. Smashed their ship in these barrier islands. She washed up here. The legend goes that she vowed to God she would build a church and hospital for the poor on the first island that would have her. This one did, and she did. There's a photograph of her over there. She was a beautiful young blond woman. But her eyes ... you can tell she had fire in her."

Arden sighed. She lowered her head and put a hand to her face.

"The sisters came here sometime in the forties," Kathleen went on.

"They manage the place, pay the staff, make sure all that work's done." She finished her lemonade and very carefully put the glass down on the bedside table. "All of us-the Bright Girls, I mean-came from different places, for different reasons. But we all have shared one very, very important thing."

Arden lifted her head, her eyes puffy and reddened.

"What's that?"

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