Authors: Ava Mallory
"Alright. Tell me what else happened. What did you do? Did Rowdy complain of any ailments or did he come asking for your assistance?" The Sheriff pulled a small notebook out of his breast pocket and licked the tip of his pen, just like every cop I'd ever seen on television did.
I hemmed and hawed for a moment, trying to refresh my memory and make sure I didn't miss one single detail of the morning's activities. I glanced at the Sheriff's watch, the ticking boomed like thunder in the room. My head started to spin. I couldn't think straight and my darn hands started to shake.
The Sheriff's eyes fell to my hands and the hint of a smile appeared on his thin mouth, making me more nervous than I was when the State Patrolman in Colorado pulled me over for going a tad bit over seventy miles per hour, just as I was about to enter the state of Wyoming on my way to this Podunk town.
I hadn't noticed the Sheriff's badge until beads of sweat formed on my brow. I tried to use his name badge as my center and focus. I knew I needed to say something quick or he was going to become even more suspicious than he already was, so I asked, "Why didn't you introduce yourself, Sheriff Wagner?"
He jerked his head back, surprised by my question. Following my gaze, he looked down at his name tag and said, "It's Wagner. I'm Sheriff Charlie Wagner."
"Well, Sheriff Wagner," I could hear my voice shaking as I spoke. "I'm Mercedes Mares."
He stopped me and asked me to spell my name. I obeyed, pausing to make sure he got it right, then, proceeded to tell him exactly what happened again. All the while, poor Mr. Knott remained dead as a door nail on the ground, only about a foot from where I sat.
I pointed to Mr. Knott. "Isn't someone going to come get him? This town has a morgue, doesn't it?"
"Don't worry about that. What you need to be worrying about is making sure you've told me everything." He said.
"You can't honestly think I had anything to do with this. Excuse me if I'm wrong, but people do die, right? I think its sad that he had to die here, in front of his wife, but explain to me how this is a crime, Sheriff."
Challenging him wasn't a bright idea. I could see the muscles in his neck tense up and deep frown lines creased his forehead as he leaned down closer to me, daring me to ask him another question."Who said anything about this being a crime, Miss Mares?"
I swallowed half the foot I managed to put in my mouth every time I spoke without thinking. I should really learn to control myself. I knew better than to think that my Nothern California temperament would be taken kindly here in Western Nebraska. It wouldn't be the first time someone didn't appreciate my glowing charm.
I learned a long time ago that the art of deflection can work in my favor. I needed to do something to distract him and force him to focus on what the real issue was here - the fact that a man died in front of his wife, in a nursing home, while visiting her. Surely, they had family members that should have been informed.
"Kathy had been in here with Mr. Knott just a few minutes before it happened. Maybe, he mentioned something to her about not feeling well or maybe she noticed something." It was all I could think of to say. In my panic, I completely forgot to mention that I wondered whether or not he'd been ill lately. His color seemed a little off when I met him.
The Sheriff's mouth hung open every time he stopped to think. I wondered how many flies found their way in between his narrow little lips when that happened. After a second, he opened the door and motioned for me to go.
"Thank you. I'll be in touch. Write down your phone number and address for me, please. And, how long are you in town for, Miss Mares?" He asked, before motioning for the maintenance man to come into the room.
I swallowed hard, answering, "Three months. I don't have an address here. The agency put me up at the hotel on M Street by the Civic Center."
"I know the place. Write down your room number and your employer's number for me." The Sheriff closed the door and shook the maintenance worker's hand. I hadn't noticed before, but Sheriff Wagner had a nice smile. He was speaking animatedly with the maintenance man, stopping to pat his back a few times.
, I wondered.
Why am I the bad guy?
I quickly jotted down the information he requested and slipped it under the door.
All eyes were on me in the dining room. Residents were eating breakfast. I'd only been here a little less than two hours and I'd managed to alienate a whole slew of my temporary coworkers, find a body, and end up as suspect numero uno in a case that by all accounts looked like death by natural causes.
I tried to act like I wasn't the least bit thrown by this morning's events and jumped in to help with the dining room activities, but the room hushed as I entered it. I'd somehow managed to lose trust that I hadn't even had a chance to build yet. If I kept this up, I'd be the most feared person in the county lock up soon.
"What can I help with?" I asked Kathy, who turned her back on me as soon as I was escorted out of the office.
She didn't budge. I'm sure she heard me. I could see her reflection in the window, she sat facing. She was looking my way.
"Kathy? I know you can hear me. Tell me what you would like me to do. I could go help with Mrs. Knott, if you want me to or I can get the paperwork started for you." I begged her to let me do something, but she never turned back to face me.
Defeated, I turned and looked at the aides. They all averted their eyes as soon as I looked at them. My only saving grace was the good old curmudgeon himself, Nubbin. He yelled across the dining room for me to "pop a squat" at his table. I was so relieved, I nearly cried.
"Here, sit down." He said, motioning for me to sit in the empty chair at his table.
I sat, emotion bubbling in my belly. I wanted nothing more than to start the day all over again.
"Why the long face? People die around here all the time, Mazarati." He said.
I had to chuckle. No one had ever called me that before. I replied, choosing not to correct him. "I know. Thank you."
I sat, rubbing my brow, trying to ease some of the tension I felt. Under the table, one of the gentlemen seated there decided this was as good a time as any to play footsie with me and started running his foot up my pant leg. It startled me and I let out a yelp, before jerking myself away from the table.
"Whoa! Who did that?" I looked at each of the men. Nubbin was busily chomping on his toast and apple butter. One man was fast asleep in his wheelchair and the other had his nose in that morning's newspaper. I assumed it was him, but didn't want to embarrass him, so I let it go and sat down, positioning my chair so it was pointed slightly outward. Then, I felt it again. Immediately, I dove my head under the table, hoping everyone would still be alive and breathing when I looked back up. Staring at me with big brown eyes was a chubby dog.
"That's the dog. He's locked up here too." Nubbin informed me. "He's fat, lazy, and good for nothing, but heck, so am I, so I like him. I think he likes you too."
At least someone liked me. I felt a sense of relief wash over me as I tried to hoist the dog up onto my lap. He was no help in that department, but didn't seem to mind that I disturbed him.
"What's his name?" I asked.
The man behind the newspaper answered, "Barney."
"Well, hello, Barney." I said, before Barney proceeded to belch in my face.
"He likes you, Chevrolet." Nubbin explained. “Believe me, that's a big deal because Barney only likes a few people in this world and you're looking right at them.”
I was touched by Nubbin's playfulness. It just proved that even here, where there was so much loss, there still too was so much life.
"You're funny." I patted Nubbin on the back.
Just then, the Sheriff came out of the office and looked around the dining room.
"Kathy?" He asked. "Can I have a minute, please?"
Good. He's done with me
, I thought.
Nubbin cleared his throat and said, "What do you need her for, Wagner? You know just as well as I do that that old coot had one foot in the grave and the other one just needed Studebaker here to help him meet his maker."
There was a collective gasp in the room. None as loud as my own.
Did Nubbin just point the finger at me?
After what felt like an eternity - I'm sure, I'd aged ten years, at least - someone in the room took pity on me and said something.
"Now, Mr. Schmeckpepper, that's not a very nice thing to say. Are you finished with your breakfast?"
I looked at the aide's name tag and added her to the very short list of people that I liked in Western Nebraska.
"Thank you, Tina." I made sure to say it low, so no one would fuss about her talking to me.
"No problem. You can help get the dining room straightened out, if you want? Or, help get the residents back to their rooms?" Tina was an angel. I just wanted to hug her for being so kind.
"Sure. I'd love to help." I could feel everyone's eyes on me, but it didn't matter. I now had a function and the day wasn't going to be a total bust for me after all.
"I'll take Mr. Schmeckpepper back to his room and be right back, okay?" Tina informed me before turning to the other aides and issuing each some duties to follow.
The others didn't balk at being told what to do and readily followed her lead, even helping me by telling me which resident to help with and which residents required two staff members.
Things were moving along smoothly for a bit, until the morgue finally showed up to retrieve Mr. Knott. My stomach turned as I watched them load him and lead him out through the dining room and into the hallway that led to the unit's locked entry doors.
Betty's door was closed. The staff social worker had gone in to console her. I felt so sorry for her. I wanted to go in there and offer my condolences, but knew that would do no good. I'd already done enough damage for the day and if she had dementia and had forgotten, I didn't want to be the one to have to remind her, so I watched and listened and waited for the right time to ask the questions that I had. I had a feeling that what happened this morning would not soon be forgotten and I would be the one to bear the brunt of the storm that was sure to follow.
Kathy emerged from the office, following the gurney and casually glanced my way as she and the Sheriff walked off the unit together. I'd swear she was gloating as she looked at me, but I talked myself out of it because I didn't want to make assumptions.
As soon as the unit doors closed, I made eye contact with Tina and she answered the question before I could bring myself to ask."We never had a visitor die here before. I've been here almost five years and I've never seen or heard about that happening here, so I guess, they'll have to figure out some kind of plan or procedure just in case this ever happens again. I sure do feel sorry for you, though. It kind of sucks that it happened to you on your first day as a nurse here."
Finally, someone understood me.
"Thanks for understanding. Guess, I leave quite the impression, but I swear I had no idea that he and Betty were in the office. I don't know how they got in there." I really needed her to understand where I was coming from. I needed an ally.
"Yeah, I don't know. The door must be broken or something because as far as I know the only ones that can get in there are people with that key card, just the Charge Nurse and managers. Are you sure you didn't accidentally leave the door open? Anyway, why does it matter that he was in there anyway? It isn't like it's the first time one of the residents or family members have gotten in there. As a matter of fact, I think, Kathy had to chase Betty out of there just the other day, if I remember correctly." I was liking Tina more and more every second. She would prove very useful in my plan to clear my name, if it came down to that.
“Thanks for that.” I figured since she was the only one willing to hold a conversation with me, I'd ask her some questions. “So, are you in nursing school?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Well, I was. I'm officially a nurse now. I'm an LPN, but I haven't taken my boards yet. I have to save some money. It's kind of complicated. You don't want to hear about it.”
I wanted more than anything to hear her story. I needed something to get my mind off things.
“No. Tell me. I'd love to hear about it and congratulations.” I said.
“Well, I got married about four years ago and I have a little boy. His name is Noah. He's three. Anyway, my husband and I got divorced last year and I'm just trying to keep things together. Hopefully, if I pick up enough hours, I can pay for the NCLEX with this next paycheck.” She explained.
“Oh, I remember those days. That exam is expensive. Won't the facility pay for it?” I asked.
She shook her head. "No. They reimburse you, if you pass, but they won't pay for it up front. Anyway, I don't know what to tell you about Betty's husband. Just do your job and things will blow over. Kathy is just worked up because she now has a lot of paperwork to do because I'm sure she hasn't had time to explain anything to you yet, right? So, you can't do the paperwork yet."
Tina reminded me a lot of myself back when I graduated from nursing school. I was still technically a newlywed, but I'd just filed for divorce and had a little girl to raise. Like Tina, I didn't have a lot of money. My family was more than willing to do what they could, but I wasn't comfortable with that. They'd come from humble beginnings in Mexico and worked long and hard to build a life for us here, so I was determined to make them proud and do things on my own. Now, my daughter is the same age I was when I had her, twenty-two, and she just graduated from Bristol University last Spring with a degree in finance and was currently studying for her MBA. I couldn't be prouder.
I so very much wanted to let Tina in on all the sorted details of my very bad morning, but didn't want to get her involved. Who is to say that she wasn't some kind of mole sent to gather intelligence on me and try to snare me in some big conspiracy or initiation to get the new girl?
The maintenance man called down the hallway from Nubbin's room, saying, "Tina, Mr. Schmeckpepper needs helps over here."
I finally remembered to get his name. "Hey, sir, what is your name?"
He looked at me, confused. "Me?"
"Yes." I answered, offering my widest smile, thinking,
Please, don't be like the rest
He looked at Tina, wide-eyed before looking back at me and said, "I'm Jeb."
“Well, hello, Jeb. Thank you for being so kind to me this morning.” He turned fifteen shades of red and nodded before turning in the other direction.
"Do you want me to help?" I asked Tina.
Tina looked toward the double doors and thought for a second. She understood how things ran in this field. Telling a nurse what to do probably didn't go over well with her coworkers, but I was so desperate and she was a friendly one, so she nodded signaling for me to follow her to Nubbin's room.
It wasn't until I stepped into the threshold of his room, did I remember that he all but threw me under the bus just a little while earlier. I hesitated, contemplating whether or not I wanted to add any more fuel to the fire, but it turns out I didn't have to. As soon as Tina walked in, properly I might add, he asked for me.
"Not you, dumpling. Where's my friend Chrysler?" I heard him ask.
I'm not much of a crier, but I felt all sorts of emotions well up in my throat. I fanned my eyes before I started blubbering and Tina came out into the hallway to get me.
"Mr. Schmeckpepper wants you. He's asking for you." Tina smiled.
"I'm right here, Nubbin." I called into the doorway.
"Good. Now, tell me something, Camaro. What do you make of all this snow? Where are you from again?" He asked.
I hadn't mentioned to him where I was from, but I was thrilled that he was asking me. That was more than any of the other people here had done, except for Officer Friendly and Tina, of course.
Tina left us alone to talk. I was so relieved. I needed this moment of peace to gather my strength to move on and I wanted to see if I could jar his memory enough to tell me what happened after I went into the office. I wasn't going to push too much, but there were so many unanswered questions swirling around in my mind.
I heard when Kathy returned to the unit. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that where some people had vocal chords, she had two megaphones installed. She spoke louder than anyone I'd ever met and for no good reason. It was mind-boggling, not to mention, highly unnecessary to say the least.
"Where's Mercedes?" Kathy yelled.
I let my head fall to my chest in defeat. There was no reason for me to feel defeated, but there were a million new reasons for me to not feel so happy to be here.
"Guess who?" Nubbin laughed.
"I guess, I'll see you in a bit. Don't get lost now." I teased Nubbin as I walked out to see what Kathy was bellyaching about.
"I'm right here." I tried to not sound annoyed, but as the day went along, I could feel my last nerve, begging for release. It needed a break from reality, just about as much as I did.
"I need to talk to you." She didn't even bother to lower her voice. I mean, I was only about fifteen inches from her, but maybe she thought I was hard of hearing.
Hey, now there's an idea. Maybe in all the commotion, I hadn't noticed it, but maybe she was the one that was hard of hearing. Now that would explain everything.
I felt a tinge of guilt for thinking badly of her. How could I have not noticed? It was my job to notice these things. Maybe I'd been at this job for too long and I needed a vacation.
"Follow me," she bellowed.
I nodded, making sure that she could see that I responded to her demand. I mean, request.
I was a little reluctant to walk back into the Charge Nurse's office. Things had already proven to not be working in my favor. The last thing I needed was something else to happen and for me to be the one to take the fall for it, especially where this not-so-friendly nurse was concerned.
"Okay, well, I called the family. They live about forty miles outside of town and with the snow and the road conditions, it might take them a bit to get here. This is what I need from you - when they do get here, I'm going to need you to stay clear of them. Let me handle this. They know me. We have a good relationship and you're new here. That won't look too good on your part."
Kathy wasn't kidding. I thought that she was for a moment, because she almost seemed a little happy, but then, I considered it and finally figured out that she was happy to be able to find a way to get rid of me for a little bit. The question was where did she expect me to go and wouldn't these people have plenty of questions for me?
I asked, "Where do you expect me to go?"
She exhaled deeply, clearly upset.
"You need to stay on the other side of the unit. The girls will keep you occupied. I've already talked to them and they know the drill. Just whatever you do, don't come waltzing back in here unless I come to get you myself. Do you understand? You have to wait for me to straighten this out. I will explain to them what I think happened."
I stood there completely dumbfounded. It wasn't so unusual to be asked not to communicate certain facts to families, but to be outright told to hide from a family had never ever happened in all of my years of nursing. It was like I was some sort of common criminal.
I looked her right in her blue eyes and said, "But I didn't do anything wrong."
She sneered at me, as if I'd said something offensive and replied, "Well, until we know that for sure, you'll just have to remain under watch. The administrator and nurse manager aren't here and I am in charge. With the storm brewing, you'll just have to do what I tell you or you can go on back to where you came from and find a more suitable placement."
She was seriously enjoying this. What had I done to deserve this? I know I kept saying it, but I just got here.
I didn't have it in me to argue the point. I had a better idea. I would just deal with the managers or whoever was in charge. As of right now, no one other than the few people who were called in, had made any real threats or actually outright said that they thought I did anything, so as far as I was concerned, I didn't owe anyone or anything an explanation and I was going to do everything necessary to prove it. Now, I just had to figure out what exactly I could do to change her thinking about me and turn this case, if that's what it was, around.