“Look out!” Janie Manson waved her hands over her head. “The ladder is wobbling.”
Ethel spun toward the direction of her friend’s shrill voice, streamer in one hand, and dispenser of cellophane tape looped over her finger. As her heel swiveled, it caught on the seventh rung.
The next two seconds dragged in slo-mo for Janie as she reached out her arms, half a room away.
Mildred turned as she swooshed a plastic pink cover, etched with doves and bells, over the rectangular gift table. Her hands halted in mid-air.
Babs let loose a tray of white and black plastic salt and pepper shakers, which rolled willy-nilly across the floor like tiny nuns tumbling down a hill.
Annie Schmidt, sporting her new Florida tan, squealed with her hands slapped to her cheeks.
Janie dashed to the ladder, arms extended…a second too late.
Ethel’s leg flipped into the air and, in a half-twist somersault that would’ve scored a 9.5 in an Olympic diving competition, landed shoulder first onto the tiled surface. She plopped onto her back then lay stunned and silent…and very still. Only the silver-gray curls on her forehead moved in the breeze generated from the ceiling fan’s soft whirs.
Everyone halted, as if afraid to breathe.
“Is she…?” Betsy Ann whimpered, fist to mouth, as the idea of wearing black in the morning and white in the afternoon in four days’ time sunk in. The Bunco Biddies had gathered to decorate the recreation hall at Sunset Acres Retirement Community for her wedding shower.
* * *
“I don’t know.” Janie knelt by Ethel and pressed two fingers on the carotid artery in her neck.
About that time Ethel groaned. “Ow. I see stars.” She clasped her hand to her shoulder. “Is it out of joint?”
“I’m not sure. It is kinda angled funny.”
Ethel jerked to a sitting position. “Don’t you dare pull on it, Janie Manson.” Then her face paled as her eyes rolled into her forehead. A long moan escaped from her lips. She melted to the floor like a marshmallow off a stick over a campfire.
Bab’s rubber-sole shoes squeaked across the linoleum. “She’s sinkin’, folks.” Her hands cupped the back of Ethel’s head nanoseconds before it hit the ground.
“Don’t just stand there, people.” Janie grabbed her cell phone from her slacks’ pocket and pressed in the code 9-1-1. “Someone get a wet rag for her forehead. Elevate her feet. Cover her in one of those linen tablecloths.” With the receiver cocked to her ear, she clapped her hands. “Move.”
Nine other elderly ladies scurried around the center, bumping into each other in the process. They reminded Janie of newly hatched sea turtles scrambling toward the surf.
“Janie, you remind me of my second grade teacher calling us in from recess.” Betsy Ann huffed a sigh and knelt to wipe a stray curl form Ethel’s clammy forehead. “Oh, this is all my fault.”
“No it’s not. I decided to climb that stupid ladder.” Ethel’s whispered voice shook with emotion. “OOhhh. It really, really hurts.”
“I know, dear.” Janie patted Ethel’s hand, the unhurt one with white knuckles clutching her arm. “Help is on the way.”
Ethel nodded and closed her eyes.
Annie pressed a wet paper towel to her brow as Mildred and Babs tucked a cream-colored cloth around her body. Betsy Ann bowed her head. “Oh, my sweet Lord. Take care of Ethel. She’s one of my bridesmaids. And one of my very best friends.”
The other ladies huddled over the limp figure of their friend and mouthed an amen.
Outside, the whine of a siren grew louder. Roseanne and Josephine dashed to the double glass doors to usher the emergency technicians inside. A scrub-dressed crew with bright orange cases rushed in. “Back away people. Let us through.”
After a few minutes of blood pressure taking, pin lights flashing in her pupils, and latching a foamy brace to secure her neck, they slipped a board under Ethel. Then they lifted her onto a gurney. Janie trotted by her side as the team wheeled her outside to the parking lot.
“Do you want me to come with you in the ambulance, Ehtel?” Janie slid her glance to the gentleman she assumed to be the team leader. “That is allowed, right?”
“Are you next of kin?”
Janie narrowed her eyes and cocked her right eyebrow. “Close enough.”
The man took a step back. “Well, um. Okay, then.”
Ethel smiled through a shimmer of tears. “Thanks, Janie.” She motioned with her hand for her friend to draw near. “See? Nothing like an emergency to draw a crowd of senior citizens. Reminds me of the day you found Edwin in the dumpster.”
Janie rose to view at least forty of her retirement community neighbors gathered on the curb, either clasping the front of their shirts or murmuring to the person next to them.
“Yep.” Betsy Ann’s voice appeared on the other side as the techs lifted the gurney into the back of the ambulance. “Like kids around the ice cream truck.”
Ethel gave her a thumbs up sign as she disappeared inside the emergency vehicle.
Betsy Ann tugged Janie’s arm. “Let us know the moment you hear anything, okay?”
Janie winked and squeezed her hand, the one with George’s diamond solitaire on it. “I will. Don’t worry. Go finish decorating. Ethel’s hard-headed enough to be back here on that ladder again within the hour.”
“I heard that.” Ethel stuck out her tongue.
Betsy Ann laughed.
One of the emergency crew offered his hand as Janie crawled into the back of the van. She waved as they shut the doors. She peered through the dirty windows as the recreation center’s parking lot, and her fellow residents, disappeared around the curb, her fingers pinched by Ethel’s tight grasp.