Authors: Ava Mallory
Resigning myself to the fact that I'd probably have to hand wash all of my clothes over the next few days while I was off, I allowed my knees to touch the ground and crawled under the desk, hoping critters hadn't made their nest underneath the piles of papers and more branches.
I quickly sifted through the papers. Most of it was the forms that belonged inside the cabinets that stood behind me. I would imagine that they were moved for use and whoever used them just cast them aside to do something else. It happened. Nurses were busy people. They were the heart of any medical facility. Doctors may have held the fancy degrees and made the big bucks, but nurses were the ones who did the real work.
Under the desk, I could hear the muffled sounds of a conversation taking place in the kitchenette, just on the other side of the wall. I held still, waiting to hear for any signs of distress, but there was none. Instead, I heard Tina's soothing voice, speaking to my favorite curmudgeon, who must have been in dire need of a snack.
I really liked Tina. She was a jewel. She was everything that a good nurse should be. It was a pity that she had to wait and save money before she could take her boards. If my car wasn't in such need of a decent, reliable engine, I'd be willing to give her the money.
Nubbin's voice became louder. I held my breath, ready for what I was sure would be another one of his episodes, but Tina kept her voice even and kept their conversation on track.
“She really is amazing.” I whispered, feeling like a proud mama, even though she wasn't mine. I'd grown to be really fond of her.
I gathered as big a load of papers as I could carry and began the daunting task of crawling out from under the desk, when I heard a soft knock on the door.
“Just a second!” I said loud enough for someone on the other side of the door to hear.
I perked up as I crawled out from under the table and saw Tina standing side by side with Nubbin and Betty. The three of them waved oatmeal raisin cookies at me, giggling as they chewed theirs.
I opened the door, pretending to pout about the fact that I'd not been invited to their cookie exchange.
Tina laughed and handed me a cookie. “Here's one for you.”
Nubbin chimed in. “This nurse bakes. What do you do?”
Tina blushed as we all shared a laugh. She explained, “I baked at home today and brought some for everyone. I hope that's okay?”
I just wanted to hug her, she was such a sweet gal. “Cookies are always A-Okay with me. I didn't know you baked.” I said, enjoying the delicious cookie.
“I like to bake, but I wouldn't say that I'm very good at it.” She answered. “I'm teaching myself to do a lot of things. I want my son to have a real mom and have good memories.” A hint of sadness flashed across her face. She'd been through something. I didn't know what exactly, but I could see it in her eyes. Her life had not been easy.
As if Betty was thinking the same thing I was, Betty said, “Your little boy is lucky to have you. I bet you are a wonderful mom. I could just tell. Some women are just naturals.”
Tina looked down, her eyes moistening with tears. “Thanks, but I really don't know what I'm doing most of the time. I'm really good at faking it though.”
My heart ached for her in that moment. She and my daughter were the same age and I hated to think that Diana could ever feel that way about herself. I'd spent her whole life telling her that she could be anything she wanted to be in life. Thinking that she was inferior to anyone or anything would break my heart.
“Honey, you are a beautiful person, inside and out. And, you are a wonderful nurse.” I knew that she needed to hear that and hear it often, until the words finally sunk in and she no longer held her sweet head in shame.
Tina sniffled before she burst out laughing. The rest of us giggled tentatively, waiting to see if her laughter was true or just the calm before the storm. It didn't take us long to discover that her laughter rang true and we joined in, laughing until tears flowed from our eyes.
We were so distracted, none of us noticed when an aide from another unit walked in and stood behind us.
She cleared her throat. “Excuse me!” We all jumped at the sound of her voice. “The nurse needs Mercy's help. We called, but no one answered.” She looked in the office.
I followed her gaze. “The phone didn't ring over here.” I said. She frowned. “What has happened? What does she need me for?”
She sighed and answered. “Harry Lemons died.”
Betty clutched her chest. Tina and Nubbin gasped. Apparently I was the only one who had no idea who Harry was and why she was requesting my presence.
I stammered. “Uh... Okay... I don't know who that is, but I'll go see what I could do.”
Tina said, “Be careful.”
I thought that was a sweet thing to say, but completely unnecessary. At least, this time I was nowhere near the dying resident.
I left Tina to monitor the unit for a few minutes while I went to see why I was needed. The aide didn't bother waiting for me. She practically ran back to her unit, leaving me trailing far behind.
“What is it with these people?” I walked through the long, low lit hallways with a sense of doom washing over me, but I couldn't figure out why. I'd not left my unit once since I arrived. There had been no incidents on my unit.
When I reached the unit doors, I was greeted by Sheriff Wagner, Carol, and two deputies.
“What is this?” I asked, feeling every limb in my body begin to shake.
Sheriff Wagner stepped forward first, extending his hand. I looked at it, confused by the gesture. My confusion was short-lived because the deputies moved to either side of me and placed handcuffs on my wrists.
“What is this? What are you doing?” I couldn't believe this was happening. I'd done nothing wrong. “Are you kidding me? What is this?”
“Wait. What? What are you talking about?” Diana's voice cracked as she spoke. “Mom, what's going on?”
I didn't want to call Diana, but hers was the only number I could remember by heart. “Honey, calm down. It will be okay. I need you to call your Aunt Ruby and Uncle Hank and tell them exactly what I told you. Can you do that?”
“But, Mom, how could they do this to you? Why?” Diana began to cry and it was all I could do to not fall apart.
“Diana Elise, listen to me. I am okay. I need you to make that phone call for me. Don't worry about me. I can take care of myself.” I hoped she believed me. I didn't believe myself, but I needed her to truly believe that things would be fine.
Diana sniffled as she spoke. “I'm calling them now, Mom. Stay on the line, okay?”
“How are you calling them?” I asked, watching the clock. I wasn't under arrest, but Sheriff Wagner asked me to make the phone call quickly.
“Cell phone, Mom. I'm using my cell phone to call them.” There she was. My girl who found every reason to roll her eyes at her out of touch mother.
The deputy cleared his throat behind me, indicating that my time was almost up. I glanced back at him, trying to be as friendly as I could. “I'm calling my daughter. Just one more minute, please.”
I heard Ruby's voice mail pick up. My heart sank.
Now, what am I going to do?
“Well, Ms. Mares, it seems to me that you have plenty to tell me.” Sheriff Wagner sat down in the chair opposite mine and laid his hands on the table.
“I have no idea what you're talking about? Why am I here? You can't honestly believe I did this.” I wanted to sound strong and confident, but all I heard was fear in my voice. This was unbelievable.
The Sheriff sat back in his seat, the corners of his thin lips quirking up. “At first, no, I didn't believe you had anything to do with Rowdy's death, but my feelings have since changed.”
My breath caught. I couldn't move. Our eyes met, but he wouldn't clue me in on what changed his mind. A tiny fleck of light shone in his eyes. He was enjoying watching me panic.
After a couple of agonizing minutes, he finally broke the uncomfortable silence between us and said, “You see, ma'am, we have video footage. I can't prove it yet, but believe me, I will get to the bottom of this. Rowdy and Miss Betty deserve justice and I aim to give it to them.” He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and studied my face as the information sank into my brain.
I wiped another round of fresh tears from my face as we made the slow trip through on the slick, snow covered roads to my motel.
“I don't know how to thank you. If there's anything I can do to make it up to you, please let me know. I'd hate to think that you're going to be out of a job for coming to pick me up.” My voice broke as I spoke. I'd swear, I felt my last ounce of courage, leap right out of my body as soon as the ill-fitting handcuffs were placed on my wrists. I thought for sure that I'd be locked away forever.
“Don't worry about it right now. It's fine. I just told them that I had an emergency with my little boy. What's important is that you're not in that nasty place. I can't believe the nerve of Sheriff Wagner. Where does he get off dragging you into the Sheriff's office for something we all know you didn't do?” Angry tears spilled from Tina's eyes. I had no idea that all of this mattered so much to her or that I mattered at all.
I placed my hand on top of her thin thigh and patted it gently. “Thank you so much. I thought I was all alone out here.”
She answered, “Well, you're not. This place is full of busy bodies and nosy folks. They'd swear that no one ever did anything wrong around here. I'll tell you what. There are plenty of people around here who have done their share of wrong. They aren't fooling me. Believe me, when I got pregnant, my first worry was about raising a Knott child in this town of the haves and the have nots. These people have no accountability. They walk around through life like they are better than everyone else. Well, they're not.”
“Knott child? I thought your last name was...”
Tina answered before I could get the words out of my mouth. “Rowdy and Betty are my grandparents. My father is one of Milton's sons, so technically Milton is my biological grandfather, but Betty helped raise my father.”
“Wait a minute. You are related to both Milton and Betty? That makes Rowdy family too. Wow! Is everyone around here related? Jeb told me that his wife is the nurse I'm working for too.” There was still so much yet to learn about this place. No wonder everyone was so quick to suspect me of wrongdoing. They were all related, but as far as I was concerned, that didn't mean that they were immune from suspicion.
She pulled her car into the parking lot and parked next to my car.
“What are you doing? I'm sure they don't want me here. I'm pretty sure that I've been fired all the way around by now.” I felt my heart beating out of my chest. This was bad, really bad.
“Oh yeah, I definitely wouldn't try walking in here anytime soon, but you will need your car if you plan on getting home.” Tina reminded me.
“I wish I could go home, but I can't. The Sheriff says that I should stay in town. I suppose now that I'll have the pleasure of being charged with murder and who knows what else.” My sobbing began again. “I'm going to lose everything. With no job, I'll have no income, no home, no anything. They'll pull my license.”
Tina put her car in park, jumped out, and ran around to my side of the car, opened my door and gave me a hug. The show of affection was enough to put me over the edge. I sobbed for what felt like hours, until there were no more tears left in my body.
Tina let me cry it out. She must have sensed how badly I needed to cry. In a short span of time, my entire life had run amok for no reason whatsoever.
When Tina thought I'd exhausted every tear, she pulled away gently. “Are you ready?” She asked, searching for tissues in her pockets. “You were held for questioning and they let you go. That has to mean something. If they had any real evidence that you did something wrong, you wouldn't have been allowed to leave.”
I scrubbed the tears from my face, noticing for the first time that Tina wasn't wearing a coat. She shivered in the cold. “I'm so sorry. Get in the car. You're going to freeze to death out there.”
Tina rushed back into the car, her teeth chattering. I turned the heater on to full strength, but it hissed in resistance. She shook her head, changing the setting back to low.
“It only works on low,” Tina said. “And, the air conditioning button will turn the interior lights on.”
Poor girl. Her car was in worse condition than mine. Her ability to be so kind and giving despite her own struggles, touched me. What a wonderful young woman she was!
“Are you ready to go back to the motel?” She asked me, eyeing my car.
I sighed, knowing that I'd have to cough up my own money to foot the bill for the rest of my stay here because there was no way that the agency would continue paying for my motel while I waited for the outcome of the investigation against me.
Tina grabbed my hand, squeezing it. “This will work out. I know it will.”
“I hope you're right.” I grabbed the door handle. “Again, thank you for everything.”
She grinned. “You're welcome. I have to get home. Call me and let me know what happens.” She waited for me to get my car started and followed me out of the parking lot until we hit the main road and she turned off in the direction of her home.
What am I going to do now
, I thought.
I'm stuck here.
After securing my motel room door, I phoned my daughter to let her know I'd survived my interrogation. I'd never been so humiliated in all of my life. My poor daughter was terrified. Having no point of reference, Diana had conjured up images of me in stripes, banging a tin cup against bars, sinking into a major depression. I had to reassure her that only one of those components was partially true.
“Mom!” Diana scolded me. “This is serious!”
“Yes, believe me, I know how incredibly serious this is. No one has to explain that to me.” I answered.
“Aunt Ruby called.” Diana said. “They are on their way to get you.”
I wanted to cry. I'd almost forgotten that there were people in the world who actually knew me and cared about me. I hated the idea of knowing that Ruby and Hank were driving through some treacherous roads just to get to me, but I took comfort at the same time. I needed some connection to who I was.
“Did she say where they were?” I asked.
“She said they were heading into Colorado. The highway traffic was going pretty slowly and Uncle Hank doesn't want to rush it, but Aunt Ruby is hysterical. She wanted him to gun it and get there already. So, how did you finally talk your way out of questioning? Did they figure out that you're innocent?”
“No, honey. I think the Sheriff was just trying to intimidate me. He wanted to see if I would crack under pressure. After a while, he let me call someone to pick me up. One of my coworkers – the young nurse that I was telling you about – volunteered to get me. I can't tell you how humbling this is. She is just a young mom, trying to save money to take her boards so she can give her son a good life. Heck, her car, runs worse than mine and she left work before her shift was over to get me. Hey, did Ruby happen to mention how much time the agency is giving me to clear out my locker?” I swallowed back my emotions. I loved my job. I loved everything about it and now I was going to have to say goodbye to it forever.
“They fired you?” Diana sounded genuinely surprised. She probably hadn't thought that far ahead, but quite honestly, that's the first thing I thought about. Losing my license and ruining my career was never on my radar until the day I arrived here.
“Diana, they have to fire me. If I get convicted of murder or conspiracy or what have you, there will be a disciplinary hearing and my license will be revoked. That's the way this works.” I hated hearing those words coming out of my mouth. I'd known a couple of nurses who had their licenses revoked, but never for the same reason I'd lose mine.
“We have to do something!” Diana protested. “You didn't do anything wrong. I just don't understand how they could think you're capable of murder. This doesn't make any sense at all.”
She had no idea how right she was, but having her carry the burden wouldn't do either of us any good, so my first task was to calm her down. I cannot even imagine how difficult and surreal this must have seemed to her. I'd spent years trying to teach her right from wrong and telling her to speak up for herself and never let anyone break her spirit, but now, unfortunately, I was experiencing just that. Being blamed for having anything to do with Rowdy's murder was breaking me.
“Technically, they didn't arrest me for murder. They took me in for questioning. That's all.” I really had no idea why I'd been taken in handcuffs and questioned. One minute, I'm asked to help a nurse on another unit. The next, I'm led out of the facility in handcuffs and a police escort.
Diana must have sensed what I was thinking, because, she said, “Mom, keep your chin up. It is going to be okay. Don't let them break you. Please, don't let them break you.”
“I won't. You can count on that. I know exactly what I have to do. This little town is in for a rude awakening.” I was determined to do everything I could do to find the real murderer and clear my name, even if it killed me.
“Do you want me to go with you?” Ruby pulled her coat over her shoulders, studying my face. I must have looked a mess after another round of sobbing and explaining all that I'd been through to her and Hank.
“Yes. No. Oh, I don't know. I don't even want to go there myself. The last time I'd been summoned by that place, I got handcuffed and not in a good way.” I was feeling more confused than a polar bear in the Sahara.
“Well, I'm going with you whether you want me to or not. Technically, I am your supervisor and I am entitled to hear the claims against you.” She sighed, adding, “So, I can throw their words in their faces when we prove them wrong.” She patted my back to reassure me, but I wasn't yet ready to tell myself that this would be a good move at this point.
Hank chimed in. “I think Ruby is right. You can't go in alone. You'll need a witness. I just wish our attorney was here. I'm sure he'd be happy to help you with your situation.”
I hadn't considered that I'd need to hire an attorney. I couldn't afford an attorney. When I got divorced, I learned the hard way how much an attorney feels his or her time is worth and I exhausted my savings account to prove it.
Ruby sat down next to me on the bed and draped her arm over my shoulders. “You're going to be alright, you know? They can't convict an innocent person.”
I nodded my head to agree with her, but still had the sinking feeling that there would be more trouble ahead. According to Sheriff Wagner, they practically had me pouring poison down Rowdy's throat.
I opened the door, surprised by the amount of snow that had fallen on the already snow packed sidewalk.
Behind us, Hank grabbed his coat, announcing, “I'll drive.”
I pointed to the no longer visible road and asked, “In this?”
The corners of his mouth quirked up. He answered, “Yes, I thought I'd never see snow again. This is phenomenal!”
Ruby furrowed her brow at him, teasing, “I married you for your intelligence. I'm beginning to question my decision.”
Pretending to be hurt, Hank responded, “What? I thought you loved me for my rock hard abs and my chiseled cheekbones.”
I loved the way the two of them pretended to bicker back and forth. They were the quintessential perfect couple. I envied them sometimes, but I couldn't be happier to bear witness to their epic love affair.
I stepped outside into the snow, commenting on their exchange. “When you two are done fawning over each other, I'll be in the car.”
It took us forty-five minutes to get from the motel parking lot to the nursing home just five minutes away on a clearer day.
The gravity of the situation became heavier and heavier as Hank tried to plow through the roads. Other than comments regarding the hazards of the road and the weather, none of us spoke of the impending doom. I think both Ruby and Hank understood just how much trouble I was in and chose not to mention it.
Hank chose a space as close to the front entrance as we could get. Since it was obvious that I could no longer be employed here, the front door was much more appropriate.