By this point, I knew that this route was taking me nowhere. I should have known better than to pin hopes on one of the residents. What was I thinking?
Nubbin glared at me for a moment before a bout of laughter overcame him again. This round of laughter piqued the interest of a couple of other residents. They peeked into the room to see what we were laughing at. Not seeing anything that they found particularly funny, they shrugged, whispering to each other as they walked back to their respective rooms. Apparently, our brand of nonsensical laughter wasn't amusing to them and they went in search of something equally as stimulating. Soon, I heard the television in the room they shared. The volume was louder than a stampede of desperate Black Friday shoppers.
“That's my cue to go, Nubbin. Sleep well.” I patted his arm gently and walked out to find the source of the loud television.
I met Tina in the hallway. “What in the world is going on?” She asked, covering her ears from the booming sound of the game show the two residents were watching.
“Everything seems normal to me,” I joked, feeling a raging headache coming on.
“As long as no one dies, we're alright.” Tina was kidding, but we both knew that she spoke the absolute truth. As of late, we'd both been surrounded by death and, not that anyone is keeping track, I seemed to always find my way smack dab in the middle of it every time. Why was that?
It was five o'clock in the morning on Christmas Eve day and my charting was done – well, all except Betty's, of course – the disarray in the office had been organized, medications had been passed, treatments done, and everyone, including myself, had survived the night. All I had to do was record my report. It sounded easy enough, but as I soon learned, normal and quiet didn't go hand in hand with working here.
I stepped out of the office to help Tina get residents up and dressed, thinking I'd have plenty of time to tape report before the day nurse arrived.
It seemed Betty and Nubbin had other plans entirely. Both began yelling at exactly the same time.
Tina and I were assisting a bedridden resident. All had been going swimmingly well, until that moment. We glanced at each other, not uttering a word, but I'm sure both thinking the same thing – the near perfect night would not end well.
“I'll go.” I informed her and rushed out of the room, hoping that neither one had been injured during the five minutes I'd been helping Tina with the residents.
I broke out in a cold sweat as I made my way down what seemed to be a never-ending hallway toward Betty's room first, since it was the closest and I was probably already on some kind of government watch list where Betty was concerned. I mean, aside from the local authorities of course.
I huffed and puffed as I got closer, but still not close enough to Betty's room, admonishing myself for not following through with my yearly resolution to get fit and healthy again. All I needed to do was get there without keeling over from a heart attack en route, but my hips, the hips my grandmother used to affectionately call 'birthing hips', weren't doing much in the way of helping me to propel forward at an accelerated speed.
Betty and Nubbin continued to scream at the top of their lungs. The unit doors began to open just then and I just knew whoever was on the other side of those doors wasn't going to be altogether pleased that chaos had yet again graced the dementia unit under my watch.
The maintenance cart was pushed through the door, followed by Jeb.
Oh good! I thought I was toast!
I feigned a smile. He nodded, the corners of his lips quirking up as his ears caught the sound of the commotion. Finally, sweating like a turkey on Thanksgiving morning, I took a big breath, knocked on Betty's door and poked my head into her room.
She wasn't there.
“Help! Help!” Betty screamed again. Her voice was coming from Nubbin's room. I closed my eyes for a second, knowing that wasn't a good sign at all. “Betty?” I stepped back out into the hallway.
Jeb stood outside Nubbin's room and said, “She's in there.”
Are you kidding me? What is she doing in there
, I thought.
In my panic, I didn't knock on Nubbin's door before walking into his room. “What's wrong, Betty? What are you doing in here?”
“Hey, Cutlass, what took you so long?” Nubbin was sitting in his recliner, fully dressed and smiling.
I looked back over at Betty. She was seated at the foot of Nubbin's bed, completely dressed for the day too. Her clothes didn't quite match, but at least they were on. That was a good sign. I didn't see any indication that either was acutely injured.
“Betty, are you okay? Why were you two screaming?” I got the feeling that they were pulling my leg and, given that I'd about had a coronary while hightailing it from the furthest room on the unit, I wasn't at all amused.
Nubbin exploded in laughter, his ample belly bouncing up and down. Soon, Betty followed suit, giggling like a school girl. I stared at them in disbelief, noticing in my peripheral that Jeb was still standing in the hallway outside the door. He quickly pretended to be working on a spot outside the door, but I knew he was just curious to see the outcome of whatever it was that Betty and Nubbin were in cahoots about.
“I'm fine. I'm better than fine,” Betty stood up to hug me.
None of this was doing anything to lower my rising blood pressure. I accepted the hug, hesitantly, searching the room with my eyes, looking for any sign that something – I didn't know what – that seemed out of place, besides Betty.
“Yeah, Thunderbird, things are fine.” Nubbin chimed in.
I didn't get it. I looked each of them up and down again. Their color was good. There was no abnormal swelling anywhere that I could see. Their breathing was normal. What in the Jiminy were they screaming about then?
Betty walked over to Nubbin and patted his shoulder. “We sure got her, didn't we?
He blushed. I hadn't ever seen him do that before. I almost commented as such, but still wasn't fully recovered from the scare they'd given me.
“So, you both chose to scream just to mess with me? It was a prank?” I asked, feeling exasperated by their shenanigans.
Nubbin sat forward in his seat, saying, “No, we had our reasons.”
This game was getting old. I could practically feel the gray hairs growing as I waited for their explanation.
Betty must have finally felt sorry for me because she decided to try to explain what their intentions were. “Well, in light of the goings on around here as of late, we were testing a couple of theories.”
I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of her explanation, but her facial expression was quite serious. It begged a question.
“What are your theories?” I asked.
She deflected to Nubbin to further explain.
“Well, for one, we can't for the life of us figure out why it takes you people so long to answer when people are dying here. Do you know it took you practically three minutes to answer our hollering? What were you doing? Painting your nails or something?” Nubbin removed a pocket watch on a chain from his shirt pocket.
Pocket watch? I never noticed him wearing a pocket watch before.
“Wait a minute. Let me see that.” He handed the watch to me hesitantly, looking at Betty. I turned it over, reading the inscription: RK. Rowdy Knott 241612.
Betty gasped. “Um...We found it.” She offered.
I couldn't believe my eyes. Nubbin had the missing pocket watch and Betty seemed to be well aware of it.
“You knew he had the watch?” I asked Betty, trying my best not to screech at her.
She looked at Nubbin, who winked at her. “I suppose I did, but you see...”
Nubbin interjected, saying, “This here is one of our other theories. No one notices what's right under their noses around here. That's why they're getting away with murder. See, Betty gave me the pocket watch and the ring and not one person bothered to look in here for either one of them.” He reached into his top dresser drawer and pulled Betty's diamond solitaire ring out of one of his socks.
I had to sit down. Betty and Nubbin were going to be the death of me. Their ploy to test the sleuthing skills of local authorities had brought me a world of trouble.
I spoke through my clenched jaw. “Do you realize how much trouble I'm in? How was hiding the watch and the ring supposed to help solve Rowdy's murder?”
They both put their heads down, studying their laps. Neither of them answered my question. If I didn't already care about them so much, I would have been furious, but I knew they meant well, despite how much trouble their antics had caused.
I was afraid to ask more questions. For all I knew, Rowdy had faked his own death and was living in Nubbin's bathroom.
“Corsica, we are trying to help you here. Both Betty and I know you didn't kill that old coot. We are just trying to flesh out who did, so no harm, no foul.” He grinned a toothy, newly dentured grin at me, but I wasn't in the mood to smile back.
“Yes, there is foul. I was fouled. Fingers are pointing at me for everything that happens around here. Forgive me, but none of this is helping me in the least.” Now, I was yelling, but I didn't care.
Tina walked in. “Everything okay in here?” I watched as she too looked for any signs of injury, before her eyes finally found mine. “Why are you screaming, Mercy?”
I suddenly felt nauseous. I needed a few minutes alone. Without answering, I brushed passed Tina and ran into the office to sit for a few moments before I said or did anything I might have regretted.
Tina didn't chase me and I was thankful. I couldn't handle a conversation just yet. I could barely breathe. My head was spinning and the contents of my tummy were churning something awful. So much for an easy, event free shift.
“Welcome to Gering! What can I get you folks this morning?” Sissy had a beautiful smile and dimples. Too bad I hadn't seen them at all since I'd arrived in town.
As she turned her head to face me, the smile vanished from her face and was replaced by a raised eyebrow and smirk. “And, you, what are you eating today?”
Ruby choked on her glass of water, shaking the table between us. I kicked her under the table.
Hank had the presence of mind to intervene in the only way the little wench would soften to. “Wow, your eyes are just beautiful! So vibrant and large. I've never seen eyes so bright before.”
Sissy blushed in response, tilting her head to meet her right shoulder. “Thank you.” She answered.
“You are very welcome. Now, I think we'll take today's special with coffee.” He looked at me. “All three of us, please.”
She again offered him a smile, letting her eyes peruse his finely chiseled features a moment longer than either Ruby or myself were comfortable with. Ruby cleared her throat to bring 'Little Miss Sunshine' back to reality.
“Go now.” Ruby said.
The waitress scurried away quickly, shouting the order to the cook behind the counter, while the three of us at the table tried to hold in our laughter.
After Sissy returned with a pot of freshly brewed coffee, we resumed the conversation we'd started on the drive over from the motel.
Ruby asked, “So, these two patients, intentionally hid the watch and ring and claimed they were stolen to test their theory? What's their theory? What did that prove?”
I put my head in my hands, answering, “Nothing. I don't know what they were thinking and I didn't have the strength to stick around and hear anymore.”
After I'd finished my shift on Christmas Eve day, I left work as quickly as possible, glad that I had a day off before I had to return again. I needed the break to think things over and to strategize.
“I'm so sorry that you had to drive all the way out here. I know I've ruined your Christmas again.” I offered, feeling terrible about everything that happened.
“Again?” Ruby laughed. “Are you still stuck on that? It happened ten years ago for heaven's sake. I hardly call having your appendix rupture your fault. We're family. If something happens to you, it happens to all of us and there's no way I would leave you alone on Christmas.”
My throat filled with emotion as I looked across the table at them. I loved them so much. They were the best friends a girl could have.
“Thank you for everything,” I said, fighting tears.
I blinked wildly to force my tears away. Ruby and Hank's eyes had moistened too. Ruby fanned her face with her hands, while the always charming Hank let a lone tear trickle down his cheek.
I clapped my hands to alter the somber mood. “Okay, so let's strategize, shall we? How do we keep my behind out of the pokey?”
Sissy arrived with our food and napkins folded like origami. Cute, but that didn't negate the fact that Hank was most decidedly married and about twenty-five years her senior, so her attempts to impress him were pointless.
We focused on our breakfast until she was out of earshot before speaking. Christmas music played in the background of the otherwise empty diner, so the likelihood of being overheard was nonexistent.
Ruby checked over her shoulder. “You're innocent. I don't see how any footage they have could prove otherwise.”
I detailed the events of the day Rowdy died for them again. None of us could see how I could possibly be suspect given the fact that I'd only briefly met him and had absolutely no motive whatsoever.
Hank pulled a small notebook out of his breast pocket, so he could take notes as we talked. “Let's look at everyone that you know of who was there and can corroborate your story. Who could have seen or heard what? Who introduced you to Rowdy? What did they say about him? What was his mood, in your opinion? Did he speak to you directly?”
I answered each question to the best of my ability as I tried to put the pieces together yet again. As best as I could remember, Nubbin was in the middle of an outburst and was surrounded by all of the aides on duty and Kathy. I helped ease him down and was quickly admonished for stepping on Kathy's toes.
The aides? Who were the aides?
Ruby asked the same questions I was thinking. “Who were the aides? Have you spoken to them? What did they see?”
I tried to recall for a moment and answered, “With all the snow and the hazardous road conditions, hardly anyone has been able to get in to work, so I haven't seen much of anyone over the last few days.”
The dinging of the door distracted me for a moment.
Who else would be out on Christmas Day?
I watched as the man laid his briefcase down at a table in the far corner and walked over to the counter to speak with the waitress for a moment.
I don't know why I found his every move to be so interesting. He wasn't exactly my idea of handsome, but I did find him to be interesting enough to watch. I'd seen him before, but couldn't quite pinpoint where I'd seen him.
He turned in my direction briefly, turning his head away to say something else to the waitress. She poured a cup of coffee for him and handed him a slice of apple pie.
Ruby turned around to see what I was looking at. “Who is that? Do you know him?”
Hank glanced behind him. “He seems stressed.”
I'd noticed that too. His lips were pursed. Frown lines covered most of his face. He was not a happy man.
“Well, he is alone in a diner on Christmas.” I mused. “I've seen him before, I think, but I don't remember where exactly.” I watched him walk to his table. He didn't look back at me, so I let the matter go for the time being.
Between bites, Hank asked more questions. “Did you speak to Rowdy at all?”
I, for the life of me, couldn't remember if I'd spoken to him or not now. In between the screaming resident, a flustered Kathy, Nubbin spewing nonsense at me and the nervous feelings I had about being in unfamiliar territory, I couldn't actually recall if I'd really spoken to him or not.
“Mercy, you know what, let's drop it for now. You've been under a lot of stress too. Let's just relax, enjoy our meal, and get out of here.” Hank suggested, placing his hand over mine.
Ruby gave me a knowing look. “He's right. We don't need to do this now. Let's eat and go back to the motel. I'm sure they are showing some kind of classic movie marathon on television and I know how much you like old movies.”
She was right. I loved to watch the classics. My favorite actresses for as long as I could remember were Maureen O'hara and Katherine Hepburn. They were beautiful and strong. I adored them.
“You're right. Let's enjoy the day. I just want to call my baby girl, watch movies, and eat junk food.” I winked at Ruby. That was kind of our thing. We made it a point to have a classic movie night on a regular basis and, ever since Diana was born, she was included in that ritual. She was an old soul and the absolute love of my life.
“They're what?” I asked Tina to repeat what she said.
I could hear Tina jostle her phone around as she whispered, “They are testing her competency. There's two men in suits, the family attorney, and her son standing in the office now with Carol and Kathy. What do you think that means?”
I relayed the information to Ruby and Hank. They looked just as stunned by this sudden turn of events as I was.
Hank offered his insight. “They are testing her competency, so she can be interviewed or testify when this goes to trial.”
“Goes to trial? Who? Me? Are they prepping her to testify against me? How could they? She has dementia. That can't be a desirable quality for a witness, could it?” I asked.
Tina whispered, “I have to go.” She was hiding in the bathroom at work and didn't want anyone to see her on her cell phone.
I stared at my phone for a second. “She hung up. How am I going to know what else happens?”
Ruby quipped, “I'm sure the Sheriff will tell you when he arrests you, sweetie.”
Hank and I gasped.
She looked at us, wide-eyed, “What? Too soon?”
Hank nodded. “Yes, I believe it is.”
“Sorry.” Ruby offered. “I was just kidding.”
I raked my fingers through my hair as I tried to contemplate what good could possibly come from declaring Betty competent. In her hysteria, she'd accused me, but that couldn't possibly be then taken as gospel. She was under duress and I was an easy target. I couldn't fault her for that, but I did worry what a more lucid Betty would have to say about the matter.
I wasn't so much worried for myself because there was no evidence that I'd said or did anything wrong. Surely, no jury in their right minds would convict me of anything more than temporary insanity for agreeing to take this assignment because it happened to pay quite well and I happened to be in desperate need of critical auto repairs.
Hank handed the bag of microwave popcorn to me and said, “This could actually work in your favor, you know? If her memory doesn't fail her, she may know who the real culprit is and, then, all of this would be over and you'd be in the clear.”
He was right, but having spent a considerable amount of time caring for many people with dementia, I couldn't hold hope that she would remember things as they happened. Her imagination could very well get the best of her and I'd end up doing life in the clink.
Ruby added, “And, if she is declared incompetent, you'll still be cleared. Who would honestly take the word of someone with dementia? That would be absurd.”
It seemed to me, absurdity was the way of life in this little town. Just the fact that a horrific crime would automatically be blamed on the town's newest arrival was enough to convince me that they were the quintessential tight-knit, beware of strangers kind of town.
Although we'd rented a half dozen classic movies at a drive-up kiosk, I couldn't bring myself to focus and get into the movies I so loved. It was made even more difficult by the fact that I hadn't been able to get a hold of Diana at all.
I figured she must have chosen to spend time with friends or the new beau she still hadn't admitted to me she was dating yet.
Even though, Diana and I had no problem discussing any number of issues, she was still incredibly private about her relationships. I knew she dated, but she'd never once brought a boyfriend home. I always wondered why that was and would occasionally bring it up in conversation, but she would just shrug it off.
Now, there were plenty of boys that liked Diana. I'm not saying this just because I'm her mother, but she's absolutely stunning. Ever since she was a newborn, people always commented on how beautiful she was. What made her even more beautiful was the fact that she had absolutely no idea just how beautiful she was. Looks didn't matter to her and I'm glad. On top of everything, she was the most sincere, intelligent, caring human being I'd ever known and I couldn't be more humbled and proud to be her mother.
Ruby's phone rang, interrupting our thoughts. She smiled as she looked at the screen, handing me the phone. “It's for you.”
I looked up at her, confused by her statement. “What?”
“Answer it.” Hank said, smiling.
I heard rustling, but no one said anything. I looked at the screen and saw my daughter's lovely face – Ruby had Diana's high school graduation photo as her avatar.
“Diana?” I asked, tears filling my eyes.
“Merry Christmas, Mama!” She said. “Put the phone on speaker, please.”