When and what do terrors of the night eat when man protects themselves so well?
When I had first glanced at the house, it appeared no different from any other house in the subdivision. It had the same one-floor layout, coloring, or even the SUV in the driveway. If one looked closer at it, they may note the ramp leading up towards the door. The little banners on either side of the ramp that had “Welcome” stitched into with smiling flowers were more forced than genuine. Those that approached the door would find the sign taped to the window of the door that read “If you have a fever, vomiting, or feel nauseous, do not enter.” If one ignorant of the purpose of the house and it wasn't all it appeared, the nurse in scrubs when they answer the door tends to be a dead giveaway that they this was your typical house. It was ahospice group home. They like to blend them into local neighborhoods. I never bothered to ask why, but the owners were never aware my kind came by.
Adjusting the plant I held in my arm, I knocked on the door and turned to search for any who may be out for a late evening stroll. On a Monday evening, it was the best time to come by when I wouldn’t have to worry about other family members that would visit and note my appearance in the house. When the door opened, I turned and saw a middle age Hispanic woman looking me over. She narrowed eyes as she gripped the frame of the door with the intention to close it in my face. Her eyes finally landed on my bamboo plant, something I had picked up at the 24-hour grocery store down the street, and they widened. Her narrowed eyes lifted and she pressing her lips together. Moving back, she allowed me to enter with silent welcome. The odor of the place hit my sensitive nose as she did so; a mixture of nonenal, air freshers, antiseptic cleaner, and the faint scent of urine. It was easy to understand why such a combating would make those that encounter think it death’s smell. It often lingered on those near its threshold.
Stepping inside, I sensed the house's barrier push back against me before giving way. Relatively speaking, the house was still new. It hadn’t been a true home for anyone for a number of years, but the lingering effects of when it had been once being still present. The woman didn’t speak as she closed the door behind me, and I looked her over and with the lack of scrubs and assumed she’s been the origin of the text-message I’d gotten from the network. She took her to leave, moving deeper into the house and a faint clicking of sounded as a door closed. She had either been new to the process or tended to be spooked by it. Either would have been possible.
I waited there, taking in the impression of the house, listening to the occasional faint creaking here and there of the structure. Someone had their T.V. blaring with some late night movie which was successful in covering up the snoring sounds from other rooms I noted on my way to the kitchen. I searched and found the cabinet labeled ‘Patient files’ and opened it to see a mixture of light blue, white, and bright violet binders with different names on them. I plucked one down with my glove hand and set it down on the counter and opened it to the visitor tab. Nodding to myself, I tucked it back into place and put everything else back how I found it before I looked around and found a mug and set on a kettle to heat up water. When it finally boiled I poured it into the mug with a tea bag and carried it with me. My feet were silent as I walked down the halls until I found the room I wanted, each of them holding a white board on the door with names written on them in white board marker.
Inside the room, a lone lamp that was on with two occupied beds on either side of it. In one, an elderly woman sat stiffly, her hands clutching at the blanket about her with eyes gazing off at some distant thing not visible in the room. The other person on the opposite side of the room, much older, faced the wall with butterfly decals pasted onto it. Her mouth opened and closed ever so slightly, reminding me of fish. I walked in and looked curiously at the ‘gold-fish’ woman and wrinkled my nose as I noted the lack of presence I felt form her. She breathed and her eyes shifted, but that was the extent of her abilities. Her body so frail and weak that there was no hope to sustain herself without the aid of others. Even with her eyes open, I waved my hand before her face and retained no reaction. Her mouth continued to open and close, perhaps a symptom from Parkinson's or something faulty with her nervous system. Leaning over, I placed my hand a top of her own felt the clenched fists the woman made with her brittle hands, but that was all. Her soul had left the body some time ago. All that was left was a vacant husk with nothing inside, kept alive by modern technology and pureed food. The sight of it makes my stomach clench.
Walking away from her, I placed the bamboo plant on the table next to the other patient in the room and pulled up a stool to sit on close to the edge of her bed. She didn’t say anything to me, only stared off at some point I couldn’t see. I took the moment to study the woman. There was an oxygen tube about her face, her hair was tightly curled about her head. The color of it snow-white that made her pale face appear tanned in comparison. The veins in her neck, arms, and hands stood out sharply in both definition and color. Even as she sat stiffly, there a subtle shifting in her upper body occurred like the swaying of a boat on the sea.
Kathy Jasmine Summer was the name that had been texted to me. A hospice patient with few to no visits in the last two years. The binder in the kitchen had confirmed that. The only ones that had seen her with any regularity were the nurses, doctor, and the Chaplin. I had noted the once a month visit from her case manager. Not because I cared, but because it would give me some breathing room. Case managers that do rare visits have little care of their patients in their care. I was curious about what conversations they had with Kathy, but as I was never to meet them, it remained a simple wonder.
She took that moment come back to herself, her attention suddenly fixed on me. I saw confusion in that gaze and she clutched the blanket a little more tightly and higher up as if it would protect her.
“Do I know you?”
“You do,” I said. Setting a cup of tea on the table and gave my most gentle smile. It didn’t put her at ease and I didn’t blame her. Her folder indicated that she had dementia. Not being able to remember anything was something I could relate to somewhat.
“I don’t know you.” She said, giving her head a shake, “Where’s Tammy?”
“I am Tammy, Kathy,” I lied.
That gave her pause, and she leaned in close to peer at me with her watery eyes. After a few seconds, she leaned back into her bed, looking defeated, “You’re right. I am sorry, Tammy.”
“It’s ok.” I reached over and took one of her hands in my own. They cold, the skin loose and delicate that appeared as if I gripped her too firmly it would tear. The sight of such weakness made my heart start to speed up, and I forced myself to breathe normally.
“I never know what is going on anymore.” She said, in a near sobbing voice, “I don’t know any of these people.” Her eyes looked about her modest bedroom that had another patience, asleep, in it, “They come and go and I never know what they want.” She leaned in close to me and whispered, “They won’t let me leave.”
My eyes went to her legs covered by the blanket. I suspected she couldn’t have moved on her own if she wanted to, “We can go now if you want.”
Her face brightened and then she shook her head, “No, we can’t go. It’s not safe outside.”
She pulled the blanket about her again and I patted her knee softly. Kathy looked around the room with wide eyes and then peered at me once more, “Do I know you?”
Giving her hand another pat, I picked up the tea and felt the cup in my palm to make sure it wasn’t too hot for her, “It’s Tammy.” I held the cup to her, “I brought you some tea. I thought you may like it.”
Kathy eyes shifted restlessly over my face and finally reached over to take the cup from me, her face relaxed, “How are the children, Tammy?”
“They’re good. Getting into all sorts of trouble as kids do.”
She smiled and sipped the tea, “I know. My own were always a handful.” Her expression shifted and tears filled her eyes, “I can’t remember the last time I saw them.”
“I can bring them tomorrow if you want,” I offered, watching as she took another sip of tea. I forced my hands to relax against my knees and leaned back from the woman a few inches.
Her expression darkened at that and she shook her head, “No… Billy was always the bad one. Alice was always so ungrateful!” She pushed the cup back at me, “I don’t want this.” Nodding, I took the tea and leaned back in my chair as I cradled the cup in my palm as she continued to speak.
“He killed the dog,” Kathy’s held shook faintly as she spoke, “He didn’t do anything. He was a good dog. But he killed him.”
“Who killed the dog?”
“My husband,” She looked at me with wide eyes welling up with tears, “He’d only nibbled on a slipper. Nothing more than a puppy. But Andrew didn’t want any of it. Took the dog out back and shot him.”
“It is… it was such a nice puppy. Yellow and fluffy…”
“A golden retriever?”
“Yes, one of those. I had more dogs since then after Andrew left, but I always felt horrible about the puppy…”
“Tell me about one of your other dogs,” I asked, holding the cup up to her once more.
She took it absently and sipped it, “They don’t feed me here.” She huffed, looking to me once more. “They don’t feed me. They don’t let me leave. I keep trying to call someone, but no one comes. I want to go home.”
“I don’t think they are going to let you leave, Kathy.”
“Well, I want to go home.”
“Where is home, Kathy? Tell me about it.”
Her eyes shifted, looking at me and then past me all at once. I remained as I was, still and non-threatening in her presence. My eyes traveled to the picture frame resting on the dressing table at the foot of the bed. I saw a much younger and more animated version of Kathy there surrounded by two teenage boys, a young girl, and a man roughly her age. They all smiled brightly into the camera with genuine happiness. Two years and no visitors. Unless some horrific accident had occurred, the children should still have been alive. Yet, besides residential staff, the elderly woman had been left alone.
“Where is Billy? And Alex?”
“Out right now,” I said, looking to the two teenagers in the picture once more.
“When will they be back? It’s getting late.” She looked outside to the darkness on the street and sipped her drink again. When she looked to me once more, she frowned, “Do I know you?”
I pulled out my phone and fiddled with it for a moment, “It’s Tammy.” I pointed the screen to her and played a video of frolicking puppies for her. Her lips pulled back into a smile and she leaned in to watch as puppies did their little puppy run. She handed me the cup.
“Oh, look at that one. And that one! So adorable.”
I smiled and found another video with kittens and she cooed over those as well, occasionally reaching out with a finger to attempt to pet them. It on back and forth like for a bit, Kathy switching from talking to me and then forgetting who I was. The tea cup made its way back into her hands several more times until it was completely drained. Her stories about her children changed every time she spoke of them, but her eyes were slowly drooping. She seemed to fall into the embrace of sleep finally, but she sat upright and looked at her with wide and alert eyes that took in everything. When she looked at me once more, there was a sharpness to her gaze that had been vacant before. When she looked at me that time, I wasn’t looking at a faded version of the woman anymore.
“Who are you?” She said with a slow deliberateness.
“My name is Ghost, Mrs. Summer.”
She frowned at my name, looking me over, “Where am I?”
“You’re in hospice. A little group home in Phoenix, Arizona.”
She pulled in a slow breath through her nose, “How long have I been here?”
“At least two years.”
Her breath left her in a puff and she gripped the blanket this time, it wasn’t to shield herself, but bundled up about her waist with white knuckles, “Where is my family?”
I shrugged, “I couldn’t tell you.”
Her eyes looked at me once more, her forehead creased, “Why are you here?”
“You’re going to die.”
Kathy pulled in a breath as terror touched her eyes, her chest barely rising or falling. The seconds ticked by before she licked her lips, “Is it… going to hurt?”
“No,” I crossed one leg over the other, “you won’t feel a thing.”
“Can I ask… why? Is it my time?”
“No. There is a waiting list for your bed, your family is not involved with you right now, and it will take several days for anyone to notice you are even gone.” I pulled in and
She looked back down to her hands and I noted the tears the fell from her eyes as she blinked. Kathy didn’t sniffle or sob. It made her a tough cookie in my book. When she looked up at me once more, her eyes were wide worried again, “Who are you?”
I smiled faintly, “It’s Tammy.”
Her face brightened, “Oh, Tammy, How are the children?”
When she was finally asleep, I stood and started to adjust the bed so it was easier for me to pick her up.
Cradling her in my arms, I carried her out of the room and down the dark hallway. All the other patients were asleep in their respected room in the house, even the one with the T.V. blaring. The only one up was the one who allowed me in that held the door open for me as I carried Kathy out of it.
In the morning she would call the authorities and say that Kathy was not in the bed when she went to check on her for the morning rounds. That she must have gotten up and walked out while she "nodded off" in the office. There would be a call for missing persons and a silver alert would be out by tomorrow night.
But I would have eaten her by then.