Authors: Ava Mallory
Who was the first one to say that?
I couldn't remember.
“Why do you think it was someone from out of town? I'm sure other crimes occurred here before, haven't they?” I asked, feeling like she was trying to insinuate something by making that statement.
Her thin painted on eyebrows quirked up, almost touching her thinning hairline. “Gering is a safe community, filled with hard-working, humble people from good stock. Crime sprees aren't something we're used to.”
Crime sprees? Interesting choice of words there.
“I'd hardly call one murder a crime spree and I'm sure that Gering is a safe community. My question was why are you so quick to believe that some stranger just showed up in town to specifically poison an elderly farmer? Why would that happen? I'm no expert, but I think you can easily see that this must have been done by someone close to him, don't you think so?” I wasn't trying to start an argument, but her stranger theory didn't make any sense.
She stood up, indicating our little chat had come to an end. “Where are you from, Mercedes?”
I swallowed, knowing where this line of conversation was going. “California. Just a small California community, pretty much like the one you have here, except we smile.”
Her eyes narrowed.
Why did I have to add that final jab? What was wrong with me?
She stared at me, venom in her once friendly eyes. I waited a few moments, not wanting to be the one to cower and run, but a girl can only stand still for a few moments before her natural inclination is to say something. I didn't want to do that, so I turned to leave, biting my lip hard enough to make it go numb.
As I opened the door, Carol said, “I'll call your agency today to let them know about what is going on here. We should probably keep them informed and, until this matter is settled, we will have two staff members at a time covering each unit. Marie will be working side by side with you today.”
“Marie?” I asked.
She grinned, but didn't say another word as I walked out.
“What's wrong?” I asked as I walked through the doors. Staff members were huddled together outside of Betty's room.
Tina turned her head to look at me. “We had a break-in.”
Please, tell me this is some kind of a joke
, I thought.
One of the two nurses who had accompanied Carol onto the unit earlier, explained. “Did you know that Betty's window was broken?”
I looked at her name tag. “Marie, I was with the administrator, remember? I haven't had a chance to do rounds yet.”
Betty walked out into the hallway, wailing, “He took it.”
I'd all but forgotten about her outburst the day before.
Putting my hand on my forehead, I said, “That's what she was talking about yesterday.” I looked at Tina and she nodded.
Marie sighed. “So, you knew about the break-in yesterday and didn't say anything to anyone? Did you write an incident report or let maintenance know?”
I felt like a failure. I knew better than to not report anything, but with all that had been going on, I forgot about it.
“Sorry, it slipped my mind. I didn't notice the window.” Just to make sure I was remembering correctly, I asked, “Was anything taken?”
Betty answered. “I told you already. He took it.” She took a step backwards, almost tripping over Jeb's tool bag. I grabbed her frail wrist and held her steady, feeling horrible for ignoring her complaint. She'd already been through so much.
Marie ordered the aides to get back to work and readily informed me that we'd be spending the rest of the shift working side by side.
“You are my one on one. We need to get Betty involved in an activity while you write the report and we'll have to notify her family about the missing watch.”
“So, there really was a watch?” I felt like a louse.
Marie exhaled her coffee scented breath in my face and answered, “Yes, she said it was Rowdy's watch. She's had it forever is what she told me. He gave it to her as a kind of security item, so she'd feel like he was always with her.”
“I didn't know. I thought she was hanging on to a memory. You know, with his passing and all...”
Marie interrupted. “You chose not to believe her. Well, let me tell you something - that's not how we operate around here. If a resident has a complaint, we acknowledge it and do something about it. I don't know what you do where you come from, but that behavior isn't acceptable here.”
If she wasn't scolding me like a child, I would have hugged her. She was the first person I met since I arrived, who knew what her priorities should be. But, since she was scolding me, all I could do was bite my tongue and accept my fate.
“I'm sorry. I should have known better. Being busy is not an excuse.” I looked at Betty's face. Her face showed the strain of the last few days she'd had. I just wished I could do something to make her pain go away.
“I'll have the aides help me look for that watch. We can search the unit. Maybe, she just misplaced it. I'm sure it will turn up.” I thought that was the least I could do.
“Right, but I already told the aides to be on the lookout while they are doing their regular duties today. In the meantime, the incident report.” She reminded me.
I left the room, while Marie assisted Betty out of the room and into the day room. Nubbin sat in the doorway of his room, locking and unlocking the wheels of his wheelchair. It surprised me that he didn't have anything to say about the incident. I thought I could count on him to have something to say.
He didn't seem at all interested in me or any of what had happened. His attention was entirely focused on the wheelchair gears.
“Okay. Looks like my ally is preoccupied.” I muttered, keeping my eyes peeled open for any sign of a discarded watch. As I thought about it, I had no idea what the watch looked like.
Marie was hot on my heels, catching the office door with her foot. “Are you going to start that incident report?”
“Well, yes, that's why I was coming in here. Kathy has some incident reports under the desk.” I didn't want to sound irritated, but the fact is, I was exceptionally irritated by everything going on around here, most notably the fact that everyone treated me like I was a suspect.
Wait a minute. Am I a suspect? I mean, I know that I was technically a witness, but I never considered myself a true suspect. I don't know how many times I have to say this, but I just got here.
“Pull out Betty's chart and let's see what that watch looks like. If I remember correctly, it...” Marie started, but was interrupted by a loud tapping on the door.
Nubbin banged on the glass with his cane. “Hey! Is anyone going to arrest that guy or are you going to wait until he kills us all?”
“See that wasn't so bad, was it?” Marie patted my shoulder. “Ready to chart and do report?”
I nodded, surprised that the day had gone surprisingly well, considering the way it began.
“Yes, let me help Milton here back to his room.” I placed my hand on Mr. Smelt's shoulder. He and I had just spent the dinner hour discussing life on his ranch. His property sat on the opposite side of the road from Rowdy and Betty Knott.
“Thanks for dinner, Milton. Let's get you to your room, so you won't miss that show you were telling me about.”
“Ah, yes. Haven't missed it one single night since it first came on television. All except that one night when Rowdy tried to sabotage my sugar beets.”
Another one who had a problem with Rowdy?
I couldn't let that comment go. “I didn't know the world of sugar beets could be so cut throat. What did he do to your sugar beets?”
Milton sat straighter in his seat, anxious to fill me in on the sorted details of what happened to his crops.
I wheeled him into his room and turned his television on while he readied himself to tell his story, but he surprised me by talking about something else altogether.
“What line of work is your husband in?” Milton asked me.
I inhaled quickly, surprised by the question. “Um... Well, um... I'm not married. I was married.”
“He died, huh? That's a tough battle. I've been there myself. My wife died and left me with three boys and a girl to raise. I was just glad my sister lived so close. She helped keep the family fed and handled the laundry for my brood, plus her own. I'm sure that was no easy task with her own family to cook for and those giant overalls Rowdy wore day in and day out. Ugliest things I ever saw.” Milton reflected back.
Since he'd completely forgotten what we were going to discuss, I figured I'd better hurry this conversation along and report back to the office to get my charting done before the end of the shift. We still hadn't heard anything about having to stay over for the night shift, so I'd already made plans to grab a bite to eat at the diner on my way back to the motel and to call Ruby to fill her in on my latest news. I'm sure she was waiting anxiously by the phone for me to give her an update.
“Well, I'm glad you had someone there for you...” I started before realizing what he'd actually said to me. “Wait, you said your sister did Rowdy's laundry? Why would she have done that?”
Milton shook his head at the television screen. “Don't buy vowels!” He shouted at the screen.
I sighed, figuring I'd missed another chance to learn more about the people in this small town.
“Yep, that old thief was my brother-in-law. I can't say that I'm unhappy he's gone now. I thought mean and greedy never died.” Milton quipped as I stepped out of the room.
I stopped quick. Looking back to see if he would elaborate, but he was back to yelling at the contestant on television.
“Mercy?” Marie stood with her hands on her hips, tapping her foot as she beckoned for me to go into the office. “I have some bad news.”
My heart jumped into my throat. My dream of having a relatively uneventful day had completely flown out the window and I didn't even know what she was referring to yet.
Without even realizing it, I was holding my breath.
Marie laughed, “Breathe. It's not that bad.”
I exhaled, relieved that I wasn't about to be arrested for Rowdy's murder.
She put her hand on my shoulder, squeezing it gently, “No, Kathy can't make it in. Her road is a mess, so looks like you'll have to stay tonight.”
“Me? What about you? I thought you were supposed to be babysitting me?” I asked, wondering when exactly I'd drawn the short straw.
“Thanks for staying with me, but you didn't have to do that. What about your little boy?” I asked Tina, one of two aides that volunteered to stay for an extra shift with me.
She shrugged. “I need the money. He'll be fine tonight. He's with my babysitter. She loves him. So, why did Marie leave you hanging?”
“Oh, she's fine. She was worried about leaving her mother alone. She said that she doesn't live too far from here, so she'll be fine on the road.” I answered, hoping that Tina couldn't hear my stomach growling.
It didn't work.
“Have you eaten today?” Tina asked, handing me a package of crackers from the resident's snack cart.
“Hours ago. Thanks, but I'll just take a break and grab something from the vending machines.” I answered, putting the crackers back onto the snack cart.
“Go ahead. Take a break. We'll be fine here. Just make sure that you call one of the other units to let them know that you'll be off the unit for a bit, so they can cover.” Tina's kindness touched me.
“Thanks. I'll call them now. Don't let things fall apart while I'm gone.” I turned on my heels and walked back toward the office. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Nubbin standing in the hallway looking into Betty's room.
“Nubbin, how are you doing?” I asked.
He turned his head slowly with a vacant look in his eyes.
“Mr. Schmeckpepper?” Something seemed off about him. “Is everything alright?”
I walked up beside him, looking to see what he was looking at. Betty wasn't in there.
“What are we looking at, Nubbin?” I asked, confused as to why he was staring into her room. Betty was in the day room listening to music with some of the other residents.
Nubbin blinked a couple of times, then, answered, “Nothing, just looking.”
“At what? Anything interesting?” I asked.
He turned around to head back into his room. “Just trying to figure out why he had to break the window too.”
I knew that I had to continue gingerly or I'd risk not getting a plausible answer from him. “I never saw a broken window. I think someone fixed it already, but who broke it?”
Nubbin looked back over his shoulder. “The murderer, that's who.”
My heart stopped.
Did he know who killed Rowdy? Could it be that what he was saying was an actual memory and not a dementia related delusion?
Tina's cry for help interrupted our discussion. “Mercy, I need you in Milton's room.”
Milton? What? Why?
As much as I wanted to ask Nubbin more questions, I couldn't leave Tina out on a limb by herself. I had to leave Nubbin so that I could answer her call.
“Okay. I'll be back, Nubbin.” I walked around him to get out into the hallway.
“Do what you want, Nova.” He quipped, laughing.
“I'm right here, Tina. What's the ma...” My voice caught. I felt like the life had been sucked right out of me as soon as I turned the corner and looked into Milton's room.
“Tina, could you get the dog out of here, please, and ask Sarah to keep an eye on the other residents?” I needed a moment to calm down. This place had me so paranoid, natural occurrences were throwing me for a loop. People died in nursing homes all the time. That didn't make it any less significant, but it also wasn't such an anomaly.
“Sure, no problem.” Tina answered, not a hint of discomfort in her voice. She was a true professional and I was glad that she had volunteered to work this shift with me. To the dog, she said, “Come on, Barney. Let's go, boy.”
Barney followed her out the door. I took a deep breath and began my assessment of Milton. Hard to believe that just a little while earlier, he and I had been engaged in conversation while I helped to feed him. I didn't know him well, but I liked him.
“Farewell, Mr. Smelt, be well. May the angels guide your way.” I said, feeling a lump of sadness form in my throat.
Tina returned to the room to help me. We moved Milton from his wheelchair to his bed.
“I hate when this happens.” She said, tears brimming in her eyes. “It makes me sad each and every time. And, poor Betty, she's already so sad.”
“So, Betty really is his sister?” I asked, finally putting the pieces together.
Tina answered, “Yes, around here everyone is pretty much related in one way or another. Milton was Betty's older brother. She helped raise his kids after his wife died. My understanding is that his kids considered her their mother. Isn't that sweet?”
“Yes, that's very sweet. He was telling me something about Rowdy. It didn't sound like they got along very well.” I didn't want to seem like I was prying, but it seemed to me that not too many people were fond of Rowdy and I could understand why. He had appeared to be a little rough around the edges. I just wondered if there was another side to him that I didn't have the opportunity to see.
“Mr. Knott?” She cringed. “Well, he was different. I never had any problems with him. Basically, I just stayed out of his way when he came around, but Kathy...” She paused, shaking her head.
Interesting. Kathy never mentioned anything about an incident with Rowdy.
“What happened?” I asked, hoping she wouldn't shut down on me.
Tina smiled. “Well, you know Kathy. She's not exactly easy to get along with, but with Mr. Knott it was worse, if you can believe that. I guess, Kathy's husband used to work on the Knott's farm and they had a falling out years ago. She used to say that Mr. Knott owed her husband for earnings he never received. Now, I don't know if that's true or not, but the way she acted when he was around did make me wonder if she could be telling the truth.”
“Really? Wow, that must have been tough, especially since Betty was one of her patients. I mean, residents.” I answered, thinking I may have just found a motive for murder.
“Yeah, well, Betty moved in here a little less than a year ago, so that irritated Kathy and Milton more than anything. Not because of her, though, because Betty is so sweet, but just having to see Rowdy every day after what they both said he did to them. Anyway, that's life in a small town, I guess.” Tina followed me out of the room. “I wonder what the family will want us to do.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, letting the fact that I'd have to contact Betty's family sink in. “Thanks for your help. Please, make sure that this door remains closed and let's keep the other residents out of here. I'm going to make some phone calls and let his doctor and his family know, then, I'll have to figure out what to do about Betty.”
“Excuse me, Mercy?” I turned to follow the voice.
“Oh, Jeb. Hi.” I answered.
“I have the new camera up all over both sides of the unit. I'll need to be in your office to test the feeds, if that's okay?” Jeb asked.
I didn't understand the legality of putting cameras up everywhere, but I already had too much on my plate. I couldn't worry about that just yet.
Tina knocked on the office door. “Milton's family is here.”
I peeked out the door at them. His children were considerably younger than Betty's son. I hadn't expected that. A woman, I believed to be Milton's daughter, nodded at me, her sorrow visible in her eyes.
“Okay, thanks, Tina. Can you listen for the phone for me? I left a message for Betty's son. If he calls back, please, let me know right away.” I walked out to greet the family and express my condolences, just as Milton's daughter walked into Betty's room.
“Mama Betty, how are you?” She asked, hugging Betty warmly.
Betty recognized her right away. Other than the outburst when Rowdy died, I'd not seen any concrete evidence of Betty's supposed dementia. I was beginning to question why she was placed in this unit.