The Other Girl

Free The Other Girl by Pam Jenoff

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Authors: Pam Jenoff
about the medicine. We haven’t been able to get any new shipments of the laudanum and so we’ve had to dilute what we have left in order to make it last.”
    They had decreased Mama’s dosage, Helena reflected, and yet she was no more lucid—further proof that wherever her mind had gone with the illness, it wasn’t coming back. “Then perhaps another medicine,” she suggested. “Something that doesn’t make her so drowsy.”
    â€œI’ll ask.” But Wanda’s tone made clear that there were no other drugs to be had.
    â€œThe medicine supply,” Helena persisted, “is there truly nothing to be done?”
    Wanda’s forehead crinkled. “I’ve tried the other hospitals, even gone to the Mariacki Cathedral to see if any could be bought.”
    She was talking about the black market, Helena realized, caught off guard by the casual way in which the nurse mentioned procuring illegal goods, in a church no less. Helena considered the nurse: Wanda did not wear the yellow star of a Jew. Yet she had chosen to remain working here. Helena was touched by the nurse’s effort, risking her personal safety to help her patients. “Here.” Helena fished in her pocket for a coin. She could ill-afford to give away money now, but in addition to expressing her gratitude, it might buy Mama an extra moment’s care. She watched the conflict that washed over Wanda’s face, wanting to refuse the offering because taking care of Helena’s mother was her job.
    But no one could afford to be that proud in times like this. Wanda took the coin and shoved it into her pocket. “Dzi˛eki.” She shuffled past, continuing on her rounds.
    Helena settled into the chair beside the bed. Mama had suffered silently for months with what she presumed were just the normal aches and tugs of a body that had borne five children trying to pull itself back into place. But the pain grew worse and her appetite waned and by the time the village’s lone doctor came he could feel the lump in her belly, larger than an apple. She might have stayed at home until the end of her days, had fought for it. But then her mind started to slip, as though the cancer had spread there, or perhaps the fate she was going to face was simply too much to contemplate. One night they’d found her over the baby’s crib holding a pot of hot water and they knew the time had come for her to go.
    Helena pulled out the bread wrapped in paper. She tore it into small pieces and held it out. “Look, Mama,” she offered, bringing the dry, flat bread close to her mother’s nose. “Ruth baked this for you yesterday.” Even Ruth’s best efforts could not come close to the bread Mama had once made, but it was hardly a fair comparison, given the lack of good flour these days.
    When Mama did not respond, Helena leaned forward and dipped the bread into the glass of tepid water that sat on the table beside the bed. Then she lifted her mother’s head and put a small piece in her mouth, willing her to eat it. But the bread lay between her slack lips. Finally, Helena removed it again, fearful that she would choke. A sour smell came from between her lips, the teeth Mama had maintained with such care beginning to rot. Helena stared at the remaining fistful of bread uncertainly. No one would take the time to feed it to her once Helena was gone; it would just be taken by one of the nurses or other patients. She tucked it back in her bag.
    Helena gazed out the window, grateful yet again that the ward in which her mother was located looked into the interior courtyard. From here, Mama could not see the military vehicles that rumbled by or the German soldiers in the streets. A different room would have made the pretense of normalcy impossible.
    â€œYou aren’t going to tell her about the war, are you?” Ruth had asked their father the first time he prepared to set out for the city

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