Kaitlin huffed, noting the time. She hated being late but couldn’t go to work covered in droppings. After watching safely indoors until the ambulance arrived, she raced upstairs to shower and change her scrubs.
Already unnerved by what had just happened, Kaitlin nearly fainted seeing her reflection in the bathroom mirror.
“Oh, my God!”
A vicious scratch ran down one side of her face. Hastily tending the wound with topical antiseptic and a prayer, Kaitlin vowed to call Ms. Agnes’s family as soon as possible.
“The poor woman’s possessed. Lord, help us.”
Running to her car felt like the bravest thing the young woman had ever done. Forgetting to buckle up, Kaitlin revved the engine and tore out onto the road with a screech. Her hands shook as she called Ms. Agnes’s daughter. She nearly screamed as the call went to voicemail.
“Ah…hi, Emily. This is Kaitlin Jones. I’m sorry to say your mother’s had a fall, and I suddenly realize I have no idea what facility they took her to. But, something strange …ah…please call me back as soon as possible.”
Kaitlin prayed for safety and forgiveness as she sped to work. Her mind spun, replaying the bizarre circumstances surrounding Ms. Agnes’s accident, eventually concluding something diabolical lurked at her neighbor’s house.
With the parking lot unusually full, she struggled to find a space in the furthest row away. Grabbing her bag, she threw the door open, hitting the car aside hers.
“Just what I need.”
Slamming her door, Kaitlin looked to see who owned the car. A Support Farmers, Buy Local bumper sticker made the woman’s blood boil.
“Great! Michelle’s working! Could things get any worse? Ooh, if Jane’s called out again and switched shifts with Michelle, she’ll get a piece of my mind!”
Once on the floor, Kaitlin apologized for being late and turned her attention to taking over the shift. Any earlier trace of fear or apprehension vanished as she assumed a cold, calculating, professional demeanor. Management applauded her efficiency and impossibly high standards. But, her staff learned quickly to avoid igniting her infamous temper, known to reduce even seasoned employees to tears.
“Who’s Michelle covering for?” she asked.
“Jane called out. Some emergency with her dog.” The day charge CNA replied.
“Not even close to a fair trade,” Kaitlin said.
“If you ask me, you’re too tough on that girl. A little kindness goes a long way.”
“I have been. Besides, if little miss klutzy’s daddy wasn’t chief hospitalist, she’d have gotten the boot already.”
“Careful, Kaitlin. You’re management’s darling, but hurt one of their own, and you’ll regret it.”
“Everyone says I play too hard, but I’m fair.”
“Gosh, look at the time. Got to go. My kid needs a ride home from practice. Have a good night.”
A loud clamor echoed from down the hall. The women peered around the corner to see Michelle splayed out on the floor, surrounded by a mess of food from a tray for one of the residents.
“I’ll try. But I can’t promise Michelle will make it through the night.”
Michelle wrestled with a pit in her stomach as she slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor of Bassett Nursing Home. She didn’t like her job, hating how it made her feel utterly incompetent. After an extra month of training, Michelle struggled with even the simplest tasks. She longed to quit but feared the repercussions. This week began horribly and had only gotten worse. Her immediate supervisor, Ms. Jones, made it clear the time to shape up or ship out had come.
Michelle couldn’t help but notice an edge to Ms. Jones’s voice when she presented herself for duty. A new resident had moved in yesterday, upsetting the orderly routine her boss thrived on. An ominous feeling seized Michelle hearing her shift assignment.
“Sink or swim, Michelle. This is your last chance. Prove me wrong. Do you understand?” Ms. Jones smiled.
Barring a miracle, she’d be fired by the end of tonight. Michelle wanted to cry but refused to in front of Ms. Jones. Despite her humiliating ineptitude as a CNA, she hadn’t given her supervisor the satisfaction of seeing her break.
“Come along; I’ll introduce you.”
Michelle walked onto the floor and followed meekly as Ms. Jones led her down the hall to the furthest room on the left. A tower of smudged, crumbled boxes had been piled next to the door.
“I want these dealt with today.”
“What are they?”
Ms. Jones rolled her eyes.
A quick rap on the door, and Ms. Jones barged in without waiting for a reply.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Agnes.”
“What’s good about it?” an elderly voice groused.
Michelle watched Ms. Jones’s body language change as she forced a laugh. She had never seen her boss act this way. Did this patient actually intimidate her supervisor? Michelle moved to get a clear view of this rare beast.
“Oh, goodness me, Ms. Agnes! I can’t thank you enough for finally agreeing to remove that horrible necklace!” Ms. Jones cried happily.
“I should think so! When she thought I was asleep, I caught one of yer little minions trying to take it from me.” The old woman said.
Michelle stared in wonder as a frail, wrinkly old woman with a pile of unruly steel grey hair atop her head held Ms. Jones captive in a withering look.
“Really? You must have been dreaming.”
“No, I was not.”
“Well, as a Christian, I appreciate not having to look at it.”
The old woman cackled.
“You know the problem with people like you, Kaitlin?”
“Whatever do you mean, Ms. Agnes?”
“You’re too narrow-minded. Jesus, don’t care a lick what I wear. With you, everything’s either Christian or not. The world doesn’t work like that, Kaitlin. I’ll have you know I’m mighty close to Jesus in my own way. And he tells me he ain’t got no time for yer gate-keeping foolishness.”
Ms. Jones’s mouth hung open, her clenched hands trembling. Michelle braced herself for a tirade. But instead, her boss turned and walked out the door.
“And who are you?”
“I… I’m supposed to…Ms. Jones asked me to… I’m your….”
“Yer name, girl. What’s yer name?”
The old woman tilted her head as if listening to something before grunting.
“You going to preach at me or try to steal my things?”
“No. No, I would never.”
“Ms. Jones told me to help you settle in. She said to start with the boxes. Unless you need something else?”
“Well, I’ve been waiting forever to use the toilet. Help me up. Then get the boxes. Not dignified to wet oneself.”
Michelle rushed to the old woman’s bedside. She struggled to lower the side rail.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you know how to work the bed?”
“Yes. Well, I should. Just a minute.”
“Dear, I can’t wait any longer.”
After shaking the bed several times, Michelle managed to lower the railing.
“Aren’t you going to help me up? I busted my leg.”
Michelle tried several ways to support the old woman before using the wheelchair. It took even longer to haul the woman onto the toilet.
“Now, put me back to my bed before I catch a cold.”
More confident reversing the process, Michelle relaxed, daring to enjoy the small victory. She felt a smile forming until the old woman hollered. Michelle jerked the wheelchair back.
“Careful, girl! This ain’t a bumper car!”
“Sorry! My depth perception’s horrible!”
“Don’t rush and watch my leg.”
Disaster struck again as the foot of the bed started folding up, surprising Michelle as she fussed with the pillows.
“No, no! That’s no good at all, girl!”
“I’m sorry! Controls were on the floor, and I must have stepped on it.”
Frantically readjusting the bed, Michelle brought everything level again and slid the railing back in place with an audible sigh.
“I’m old, so forgive me for saying, but you’re awful at this. Look at you. You’re sweating like a pig.”
Michelle burst into tears.
“I know. I know. I’m sorry, ma’am. I do try, but I’m all thumbs with nursing stuff.”
The old woman clucked her tongue and shook her head.
“Then why are you here, honey?”
“It’s my parents, my whole family, really. Everyone’s a doctor, nurse, or works in medicine somehow. We even have Uncle Stan, who’s a pharmacist.”
“All my cousins, my brother…and then there’s me. I’m trying, but I’m just awful at this.”
“Do you want to be a CNA?”
“What do you want to be?”
“I don’t understand…a CNA. I don’t think I’m smart enough to do anything else. I could never be a nurse or a….”
“Shush, girl! Smarts don’t have anything to do with it. You need to figure out what’s in yer guts.”
Michelle shook her head, frowning.
“Course you do. What puts a zip in yer step?”
“But, daddy says….”
“To hell with yer daddy and ma! It’s yer life, honey. What’re you passionate about?”
Michelle laughed, swiping tears away.
“Ma says if I had my way, I’d be barefoot, covered in dirt all day in the garden.”
“Got a green thumb, girl?”
“I’d say so.” Michelle giggled.
The old woman’s eyes grew bright.
“Hazard a guess at what’s in ’em boxes out there?”
“Ms. Jones said plants.”
“Some real beauties from my yard.”
The woman laughed wickedly.
“Bitched and cried ‘poor me’ until my daughter Emily agreed to dig ’em up.”
“There’s one over there.”
Michelle noticed a potted plant and some garden tools on the window sill for the first time.
“Bluebells! They’re beautiful!”
“Should have seen ’em when Emily pulled ’em out of the box. My daughter’s knowledgeable. I taught her the best I could, but she’s a city girl. Damn near killed those bluebells! Can only imagine the state of the others.”
“But, look at them now. I can practically hear them sing. They’re quite content.”
“Would you help me get the others settled?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. I’d love that.”
“Call me, Ms. Agnes.”
Michelle got to work hauling boxes in, squealing like a kid on Christmas morning as she opened them. Agnes marveled to see the transformation in Michelle. The young woman handled each potted plant expertly, knowing which needed extra attention.
“I told Emily to bring extra pots and a bag of soil. Did she?”
“Shady here most of the day. Wood lily and corydalis should do well.”
“Oh, Agnes. Woodland phlox!”
Michelle surveyed everything thoughtfully.
“Can I split a few to combine in this big pot? The wood lily and bluebells would look lovely together. There are ferns outside. I can add a small one with some rocks….”
“I love it. Let’s do it.” Agnes said.
“Ms. Jones will question my going outside, but she did tell me to take care of the plants first.”
“Don’t tell. Sneak out. It will only take a bit of time. Leave Ms. Jones to me.”
The women giggled mischievously.
“Can I use your hand rake and trowel?”
“Of course, unless you want to use yer hands.” Agnes teased.
“Wouldn’t hesitate at home, but it’s a nursing home. People will frown at the dirt under my nails.
“I always say, eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
“Be right back.”
Michelle stopped in the doorway, tilting her head as if straining to hear something. She shook the hand rake.
“You hear that, Ms. Agnes?”
“That rattle. Sounds like a pebble or some gravel inside the handle.”
Michelle turned and jiggled it closer to her ear.
“Yeah. Something’s in there jangling about. A bell? Like the one my cat has on his collar.” Michelle said.
She waved it around again.
“Definitely, sounds like a bell. Hear it?” Michelle asked.
“I can. But you’re not supposed to.”
Confused, Michelle tried to read the expression on the old woman’s face.
“Why do you say that?”
“Look inside,” Agnes said.
Michelle flipped the tool over.
“The bottom screws off?”
“What’s inside? Did you put a bell in there?”
Michelle twisted the end of the handle and pulled it off. A marble threaded on a leather cord tumbled into her hand. Holding it to the light, she saw a pattern marking it.
“This is a fairy stone. I forgot the name of this one, but it’s rare. People usually find the cross-shaped ones.”
“It’s called a Maltese cross. Quite rare.”
“Is this the necklace Ms. Jones mentioned?”
“It’s stunning…in a natural kind of way. Why does she want you to take it off?”
“Ms. Jones’s afraid of its magic.”
Michelle snorted but stopped abruptly, seeing Agnes was serious.
“That’s just superstition and stuff.”
“Put it on.”
“Do you have an imagination, girl?”
“Yeah? But, what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Humor an old woman. Please put my necklace on.”
“Because you heard the bell.”
“I don’t understand. Are you feeling ok, Ms. Agnes? Should I fetch a nurse?”
“No, no. Don’t do that. Just try the necklace on. I want to give it to you. That’s all. Don’t you like it?”
“Well, yes. But, I can’t take your necklace….”
“Go ahead, just try it on. It’s mine. I can give it to whoever I want to. None of my kids ever appreciated it.”
Michelle slipped the leather cord over her head.
“There. How’s it look?”
The old woman smiled with a sigh, turning her head as if to address someone.
“Lovely. Don’t you agree, Gideon?”
“Yes, Agnes. Perfect. Michelle’s just perfect!”
“Oh! Oh! Look at that! I mean…him! Ms. Agnes, please tell me you can see too!”
“Yes, girl. This is Gideon.”
“Hello! I’m so happy! Agnes has been searching for someone like you!”