BY TERESA TRENT
Copyright is held by the author.
THE BRIGHT yellow daisies at the residents’ tables made me smile. Val would have loved them. She always had a thing for yellow. Yellow curtains, yellow bedspread, even yellow plaid sheets on her bed. I pushed in a stray chair in on my way to Mrs. Garner’s room. According to the nurses, the woman had a troubled night, so I wanted to check on her to see if she needed anything. I hadn’t been around this resident much, but this would give me a chance to get to know her. My job title was nurse’s aide, but I liked to think of myself as a bit more than bedpans and bathing. I hoped I was a friend at a time in my patients’ lives when so many of these people had no one. In my twenty years of working this job, I could recognize the lonely ones. No visitors on visiting days, holidays, birthdays. It broke my heart to see these abandoned souls. It became my personal goal to be there for them. I found myself getting excited about giving them little gifts or cards. It took so little to bring a smile to their faces.
I suppose I’ve always been a caregiver of sorts. I felt the need to protect things right after Val died. She’d been so young and vulnerable.
“Mrs. Garner?” I walked into the cracker-box sized room to see my charge looking out the window at the rain as it beat tiny dances against the glass.
“Hi. I’m Stacie, the nurse’s aide today. I heard you had a rough time last night. How are you doing this morning?”
“Stacie?” She slowly turned her head and focused on my face. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been here a couple of weeks. We just moved to town, but I’ve worked in assisted living centres for years. I was just thankful to get this job so quickly.”
“They always need help here. Big turnover. No one wants to spend their days cleaning up after old people.” There were dark circles under the woman’s eyes. Was she troubled by insomnia, as so many were at this age?
“How did you sleep?”
She touched the silk edging on her pink terry-cloth robe. “Not well. I have too much to think about. I’m just so angry.”
“Angry? I hope we’re doing a good job of taking care of you. What can I do to make it better?”
“Humph. This is way beyond what a nurse’s aide can do.”
I tidied up the unmade bed and straightened a simple log cabin quilt in colours of brown and gold. “Tell me about it.”
Her lips drew into a line. Whatever it was, I’d try to help and if not, I could at least be there to listen. So many of these people had a lot to say, but no one who wanted to listen to them. Today I would be that person for her.
She let out a sigh, decision made. “It’s just that I can’t believe that man is here. Right here, living in the same centre as me, eating at the dinner table, playing bingo, attending services. It’s just too much.” She raised an arthritis-ravaged hand in the air.
“Is someone bothering you?”
“He wouldn’t dare.” She lifted her chin defiantly. I plumped the pillow and sat on the edge of her bed, close to her chair.
“Who wouldn’t dare? Tell me.”
“The man in 224. His name is Keith Vincent. He shouldn’t be here, I tell you.”
“Why shouldn’t he be here? Has he done something or said something to you or someone else here?”
“I told you no. Aren’t you listening, girl? It was years ago. He took away the only joy I’ve had in life.”
I reached out and took Mrs. Garner’s hand, trying to calm her. She was shaking, and I wasn’t sure what to do to make her stop.
“What happened?” It was all I could offer, but maybe getting the story out to me would help.
“He’s a drunk. A lousy, no-good drunk. He ran him over and didn’t even know it at first. My Davy. He killed him.”
“Who is Davy? Is that your son?”
“It was until that man backed over him. My only child.”
This was more than just a rough night. This was a deep anger spurred by having to live with the man who killed her son. I squeezed her hand. “Tell me about it. Why isn’t he in jail?”
“I’ve been asking myself that for decades. Davy was out on his bike going up and down the block, and Mr. Vincent pulled out of a driveway. The police said he’d been visiting his brother and had been drinking. It was a beautiful summer day, and all the kids were out playing in the street. Not like today, where they shut themselves up with their computers. No, Davy loved to play outside and ride his bike up and down our street. He was so smart and boy could he make me laugh. Everyone loved my boy. Everyone.”
She began to cry.
“He didn’t get any jail time?”
“Oh, I think he was there for a year, but then they released him. Just like that. A life taken, and he gets a lousy year. We fought it in the court, but my son’s life didn’t matter to them.”
“I’m so sorry.” I reached over and hugged Mrs. Garner’s shoulders. It must have been awful to have to be around this child murderer.
“Um,” someone said from the doorway. “Stacie, we need you in room 222. Mrs. Asher has had an accident.” My new supervisor, Ainsley, was all about the business of making sure the place was pristine. Sometimes I felt like she was more worried about running out of bleach than taking care of the dear souls who lived here.
“Sure thing,” I said, straightening up. “I’ll check back in on you, Mrs. Garner. Okay?”
She smiled through her tears. “That would be lovely. Thank you, sweetie.”
As I made my way to 222, I felt a grinding deep inside of me. It hurt my gut to think of it. Life could be so unfair, especially when a murderer gets away with something. As I cut through the dining room, the yellow daisies were dropping petals on the freshly pressed white tablecloths. Val’s true killer was never punished, either. He drove her to it. That’s why she left. He was the sole reason, but no one would listen. She was a free spirit, sure, but our stepfather was all about the rules. Make your bed. Get good grades. Nothing outside of what he dictated was the norm. If it meant you had to spend the entire weekend writing a paper, then so be it and that paper had better be “A” material or there would be extended study hours the next week. My mother told me he was the best thing that had ever happened to Val, but I didn’t understand how she couldn’t see he was crushing her spirit. Her essence. The things we loved about her. When she had enough, she stuffed her backpack full of her belongings and left. We never knew if she took off on foot or had someone pick her up. This was before the days of camera doorbells and surveillance on every corner. She was there one day and gone the next. The police wrote her up as a runaway and filed the case neatly away with all the other runaways they had never found.
“Oh, thank you, so much,” said Mrs. Asher, looking embarrassed as she lay in a wet bed. The smell of urine was in the air, but after all this time, it didn’t bother me.
“No problem. Let’s get you all fixed up.” I began changing her and the sheets without thinking about it. It’s like driving the same route every day and not sure if you actually paid attention to the stoplights. You just end up in your driveway unharmed and have little recollection of how you got there. Mundane tasks like changing a patient can cause me to check out mentally. The entire time I’m rolling Mrs. Asher over, I’m thinking about the man in 224. He killed Mrs. Garner’s son and now she has to look at him across the dinner table, possibly for the rest of her life? This was unfair, and it made me angry. More than angry. Furious.
“Oh,” Mrs. Asher said as I pulled up the corner of the sheet. I hadn’t realized it jerked her small body to the left with the violence I was putting into pulling it over the mattress.
“I’m sorry.” I bit my lip and tried to smile. She frowned and gave me a sour look.
After I finished with Mrs. Asher, I bundled the laundry to put in the hall hamper and walked past room 224. I remembered this guy because I had to help him get his television to work. He loved to watch any sport, whether it was football or a card playing tournament. His television was on all day, every day. When I looked in, he was sitting in his recliner, his eyes on the screen of the wall mounted television. He was eating peaches from a plastic fruit cup, with the syrup dribbling down his chin. Something clicked in my mind. This was the man the staff called “Fruit Cup” behind his back. There was a roar of the crowd at the event, and he smiled while slurping up another piece through his purple lips. I thought I’d seen everything that could disgust a person over the years, but this man disgusted me. Why is it the innocent are murdered in this world while their killers go free to eat fruit cups and watch television?
“Stacie? Are you going to stand there all day? You have other patients to attend to.”
There she was again. Was Ainsley following me today? “Sorry about that. I was just checking in on Mr. Vincent.”
She looked through the open door. “He looks fine to me. We need to restock supplies. Get rid of that laundry.”
“Sure.” I followed my supervisor, looking ready to do whatever, but inside I was seething. The good die and the evil continue. Davy died. Val died. Two men went on living. No justice. The court system didn’t do their job. Not fair. Not right.
I knew what I had to do.
It would have to be at night when there wasn’t anyone around. The nursing staff was light and there was only one nurse’s aide. I was lucky enough to get days most of the time, but had pulled one night shift since being here. It wouldn’t take much for me to convince the graveyard shift aide to take a night off. I could tell her I needed the extra hours to pay for moving expenses.
When I approached La Tonya, the aide that takes over for me at five and to make the offer, she nodded. “That’s so sweet of you, but I need every hour I can get right now.” She patted her stomach. “Baby will be here in three months and then I’m going to have to take time off. Things will be tight for us, but it will be even worse if I don’t work every hour I can now. I’ve even volunteered for weekend nights. It’s all exhausting, but I know it’ll be worth it. This baby’s our first, you know.”
Great. The one person in the world who couldn’t afford to give up even one night. “That’s so exciting. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of it then. I admire all you’re doing to prepare for your little one.”
She gave a little giggle combination squeal, “I can’t wait,” she said with her shoulders raised. So many expectations of joy for years to come. Just watch out for that baby when someone like Fruit Cup comes along. Someone who doesn’t care how cute, smart, or funny that kid is. They all die the same. Not getting the shift changed things. I had to get in there and give the kid killer his fruit cup. That was the way I would kill him. I’d mix antifreeze in the cup and that would be it. He’d slurp it down, suck it up, dribble it on his shirt, and then finally meet the justice he deserved. Something would tick over in the column of life, straighten out, smooth out. Out with the bad. Rot removed. It wouldn’t take much. He was a frail old guy who looked like he weighed 115 pounds soaking wet. Nope. No elephant tranquilizers needed for this one.
The more I thought about killing Fruit Cup, the better I felt about Val. My mother would tell you my stepfather never directly killed her, but he did. If she hadn’t been wandering around, out in the world, then her killer would have never found her at that truck stop. We would have never had to see her naked body dumped in some bushes beside the road. She’d be alive today, laughing, living and still in my life. I still miss her, even after all these years. My stepfather’s rules had forced me to live my life without my best friend. Mrs. Garner had to live hers without her beautiful Davy.
If I couldn’t get to him working on the evening shift, I’d find another way. After I finished my workday, I picked up one of the old man’s favorite fruit cups from the kitchen. Once I was home, I looked through my closet. My husband, who worked nights stocking grocery store shelves, had a black hoody. I clanked through the hangers on the rail and found it. It was a little big on me, but that would be even better. They’d have trouble seeing whether I was a man or a woman. Wearing blue nitrile gloves I’d taken from work, I prepared the little cup and carefully placed the plastic cover back on the top. In a nursing home, they would assume he died of natural causes, but I wasn’t taking any chances. If he didn’t finish it or somebody ordered a toxicology report, I’d be ready.
I parked my car in the back lot. Night shift workers preferred the front area to park because of the lighting. Back here it was pitch black. Now, I just had to make sure no one saw me coming in. There was a side door from the employee parking lot they kept open. It was off an administrative hall and off-limits to residents. It was against regulations, but people used this door to take smoke breaks, so it remained unlocked.
Wearing the hoody pulled up to shade my face, I quietly entered through the side door. Stepping inside, the administrative hall was dark. The offices were only open in the daytime, so this part was easy. As I came to the end of the hall, I spied around the corner. La Tonya was walking in the other direction, a medicine cup cart squeaking in front of her. It was 7:45 and I would have to get in, give him the fruit cup and get out before she showed up with medicine. I didn’t give him anything during the day, but that didn’t mean he didn’t take something before bed. I rushed down the hall, feet silent, head down, and turned the corner to the two hundred hall. The sounds of blaring televisions and residents snoring echoed in my ears. When I got to Mr. Vincent’s room, he was watching a basketball game, now in his pajamas and robe. He barely noticed my entrance.
“I brought you a special treat.”
His gaze left the screen and then drifted to me. I should’ve thought to take off the hoodie. It had to make him suspicious of why I was here. “What’s this for?”
“Just wanted to say I’ve been thinking of you.”
I could see the confusion in his red-rimmed eyes. “You have? Why?” His eyes took in the fruit cup, and he reached out for it, taking it in his hand, his yellowed fingernails curling around the plastic rim. “That’s mighty nice of you. I could use a snack. They never give us enough to eat around here.”
He stared right at me, almost into me. “Are you cold? Why are you wearing a jacket?”
I made a fake shivery sound, shaking my shoulders. “Yes. I’m cold. Freezing. Well, goodnight, Mr. Vincent.”
“Wait,” he called after me. He knew. He knew I was trying to poison him. This was the part where I would get caught. Tried by a jury of my peers, except this time the killer wouldn’t get off easy. I’d get a judge who’d give me a life sentence for killing someone with so little life left.
“You’re here during the day shift, aren’t you? Not too many people visit me, and well, you’ve warmed an old man’s heart tonight. Just want to say thank you. People don’t say that enough anymore.”
“No problem,” I muttered as I made my way out of the room. La Tonya was just coming out of a room at the end of the hall. She’d made it to the 200s. I waited as she entered the next room and then took off, not breathing until I got to my car. I’d done it. I’d made wrong right.
The next day, I was shaking when I entered work. Had I killed him? Was he alive this morning talking about the nice dayshift nurse’s aide who brought him the fruit cup that made him sick? I supposed I could take the day off, but that would point the police directly at me. I had to be there and act like nothing was different.
“I’m going to need you in 224,” Ainsley said instead of greeting me with a hello.
“Okay. What do you need?” That sounded normal, didn’t it? My voice wasn’t shaking.
“We need a reset on that room. Fruit Cup died last night. Clean it from top to bottom. I’m contacting the next person on the waiting list this morning.”
“What did he die of?”
Ainsley bobbed her head back in surprise. “Old age? I don’t know. I thought you’d worked in these places before. Old people die. End of story. Now get going.”
I did as I was told and returned to the room. The scene of the crime. They had removed his body, and the bed looked unslept in. He had to have died right in his chair. The fruit cup I’d brought him was still on the tray next to the recliner. I pulled out a trash bag and threw that away first. Then I began deep cleaning the room and prepared it for the next occupant. What murderer gets to be the one to clean up their crime scene? It was a sign that what I had done was right, and this was just fate telling me so. No one would ever know.
After finishing Fruit Cup’s room, I felt better than I had in years. With a few extra minutes, I swung by Mrs. Garner’s room. She had to be pleased that the man who killed her son would no longer be across the breakfast table from her. Maybe she would find peace after all these years. I hoped so. Like I said, working with the elderly was more than a job. It was my personal mission.
When I walked in, she was with a middle-aged woman who wore a white cardigan over a bright pink floral top and white pants.
“Hello, I’m Stacie. I was just checking to see if Mrs. Garner needed anything.” It sounded weird, almost practiced, but I couldn’t say, did you hear your son’s killer keeled over in the night?
“Stacie? Nice to meet you. You’re new, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been here a couple of weeks now. I love my new job.”
“That’s wonderful to hear. We are so thankful for the people who work with mother.”
“Mother? You’re her daughter? I’m sorry. I thought Mrs. Garner only had one son.”
“I’m Nancy. It’s nice to meet you and I’m one of three daughters.”
That was strange. I was sure she said Davy was her only child. Maybe she meant to say he was her only son.
“Probably not. You’ll have to watch out for my mother. She’s been known to tell some tall tales about people here. She once told me the lady down the hall was a Nazi spy. Then there was the story of how the cook in the kitchen used to be a stripper who killed her boyfriend with a garden trowel. She should have been a writer. Watch out, there’ll come a time she’ll weave a tale about you. Be warned.”
After that, I did some research on Mr. Vincent. He was a life insurance agent who’d never married. He didn’t have a brother and had never run a small boy over with his car. From what I could dig up on him, he was a nice guy, and I killed him.
No one would come after me. I did too good a job. No justice for evil deeds.
I had crossed over to the other side.
Teresa Trent writes historical mysteries, cozy mysteries, romance and short stories. She lives in South Texas with her husband and son and splits her time between writing and caretaking. You can find her at her blog, Books to the Ceiling or her website TeresaTrent.com.