“Anna, would you mind giving me a hand with the laundry?”
Anna looked up, Janine’s exhausted face slack as she stood over the laundry baskets. She nodded, getting up from behind the desk in the nurse’s station and walking over to help wheel the baskets.
“Thanks Anna, I owe you one.” I’m so fucking tired.
Anna smiled at Janine. “It’s no problem. Everything okay? You look tired.”
“Stop that,” Janine half-laughed, “You know it freaks me out.”
“I know, I know, you just want to make sure I’m okay. I’m fine, hun.” Really. It’s my own fault for staying up yesterday.
They wheeled the baskets through the narrow doorway of the laundry room. Without a word, they both began to pitch the soiled clothes into the industrial washer. Thoughts throughout the ward whispered in her ear, like a radio that was on two rooms over. Anna half-listened. Bending and tossing the clothes was easy, mindless work. Might as well keep an ear out for any trouble.
The whistling of the soft cloth was the only noise between them for a few minutes. Then Janine stood straight and stretched, leaning back and groaning as sore muscles moved. Anna finished up her own load and closed the washer door, starting the cycle.
“All’s quiet on the western front?” Janine asked.
Anna stepped back from the washer and listened. Her gaze went soft, eyeline somewhere above Janine’s left shoulder as she let her mind focus on hearing. Most of the residents were in bed, dreaming dreams or in the comforting dark of empty sleep. A few were up, watching the TV in their rooms, thoughtless. Some tossed and turned, their internal dialogue fragmented and agitated in their quest for a good night’s rest.
Anna came back, flicking her eyes to meet Janine’s. “Yep.”
Janine nodded and put the laundry baskets back in the corner of the room. Gosh her eyes go all weird when she does that.
Anna’s heart hurt a little at that, but she didn’t let on. She understood. Not all thoughts were meant to be heard. She couldn’t expect Janine to sacrifice her own inner voice just because Anna could hear her. Maybe she did look a little weird when she focused on listening, anyway.
They walked out of the laundry room together, their shoes marking their path down the tiled hallways with soft, measured clicks. The rows of doors on either side of them stood silent and closed off. Anna wondered what they might look like in the daytime, the doors open, people coming in and out, families visiting. She imagined the cacophony, both external and internal. She wouldn’t last an hour on the day shift, she knew, but she imagined that all those people together might make a joyful tangle of thoughts and voices.
Beside her, Janine sighed. Anna turned to look at her. Her friend’s makeup was messy, especially around the eyes. She’d been in a hurry when she’d woke up.
“You sure you’re okay, Janine?” she asked.
“Anna, I really don’t want the third degree today,” Janine said. Geeze. I want a cigarette. “I know you want to help, but it’s really just me staying up too long and oversleeping. Night shift is hard.” I wanted to spend time with my daughter for once. She made me that cute picture. Anna got a flash of a piece of paper, purple crayon scrawled everywhere, blue glitter glue making two crude faces. “It’s me and you, mommy!”
Anna looked forward again. “Sorry. I know night shift must be harder for you.”
“Hey, no worries. I’m happy I at least have such a cool coworker to make it suck less.”
They both smiled at each other and headed back into the nurse’s station. Before Anna could sit down, fear gripped her. It wasn’t her fear- she was feeling it from somewhere in Hall C. There were no words attached to the fear, just white-hot, burning panic that made her chest tight. The thought began flickering, like a candle flame in a gentle breeze, and she knew she had to go.
Janine had seen her freeze up so when Anna turned, Janine was already nodding.
“Hall C. I don’t know who,” Anna said, a waver in her voice.
“Okay. Go ahead, I’ll cover you.”
Anna took a deep breath. Inhale for five, hold for three, exhale for five. Reigning in the fear, she headed for Hall C at a casual pace. There were cameras in every hall. No point in making a scene for the person who reviewed them in the morning.
She took her time down Hall C, checking the clipboards by the doors, peeking in every other one. Luckily, most were sleeping. A few shooed her off and she was fine with that. All the while, she felt the terrible panic coming from the end of the hall. She had to have some sort of explanation as to why she’d be going in, though. Rounds were the easiest way to justify it.
As she neared the end of the hall the panic from the room at the end was reaching a fever pitch. Anna’s ears rang with it, her palms sweaty and shaking. It began flickering more, the gentle breeze turning into a windstorm. It would go out if she wasn’t quick enough. She decided to chance it and skipped a few doors to get to the end faster.
She stopped outside the door. Panic was common in retirement homes. It was the thought’s transmission blinking in and out of existence that worried her. Thoughts were only interrupted by sleep, surprise, or health issues. Anna grabbed the clipboard hanging next to the door. Mrs. Eleanor Brooks. Ninety-three. Medication for blood pressure and arthritis. Do-not-resuscitate order. She put the clipboard back, took another deep breath, and opened the door.
Mrs. Brooks’ bed was half-reclined, so when the door opened her eyes immediately caught hers. The panic pounding at Anna’s brain dulled for a moment as Mrs. Brooks realized help was within reach. Then it rose again, realizing help wouldn’t matter.
Her mouth was open, breathing heavily around empty gums, her dentures off in a glass on a bedside table. Wide, unblinking eyes pleaded with Anna not to go.
“Good evening Mrs. Brooks. Do you need anything?” Anna asked, the well-rehearsed and oft-repeated line falling through her lips with a hint of real concern.
Mrs. Brooks couldn’t talk. She nodded, a small whine of fear coming from the back of her throat. That was all Anna needed. She stepped inside and closed the door.
Pulling up a chair, Anna sat beside Mrs. Brooks’ bed and took her pulse. Mrs. Brooks laid back, her eyes still fixed on Anna, her fear softened with the presence of someone else. Her pulse was fluttery, light, fast. Anna kept her face composed but knew what heart arrhythmia meant at this age.
“Mrs. Brooks, did you wake up to your heart beating this fast?” she asked as gently as she could.
Mrs. Brooks nodded, gummed mouth still breathing heavily.
“Okay,” Anna said, smiling, “What we’re going to do is try to calm down a little first. Can you take some deep breaths with me?”
Anna began counting the inhales and exhales and Mrs. Brooks wheezed, doing her best to match with the counting. Anna kept her hand on Mrs. Brooks’ wrist, looking for any change in heart rate. The panic Mrs. Brooks was emanating began to ebb. Instead of a scream in Anna’s mind, it was more of a long, mournful moan of dread. Anna’s head began to throb. She had to remember to take her migraine medication after this.
After five minutes of counting breaths, Mrs. Brooks’ breathing was more or less regulated. Her breath still whistled, and her heart still jumped, but her mind was calmer.
“There, does that feel a little better now?”
Mrs. Brooks nodded, letting her jaw relax for the first time since Anna had come in.
“Good, I’m glad. Do you feel up for talking?”
Mrs. Brooks hesitated. Then she shook her head and laid back against her pillow, eyes closed. Anna felt the pain and hassle of the dentures, the cleaning, the arranging, getting enough breath to talk- no, Mrs. Brooks didn’t want to waste time talking.
“Okay, that’s no problem. Now, I’m sure moving your head and keeping an eye on me is tiring. I’m just going to ask you some yes or no questions for right now. If you can move your fingers, how about tapping once for yes or twice for no. Sound good?”
Anna moved her fingers from Mrs. Brooks’ wrist to hold her hand. Mrs. Brooks tapped once on Anna’s palm.
“Wonderful, Mrs. Brooks. Now, can you tell me, do you remember taking your medication today?”
“Good to hear. Did you eat anything unusual before bed?” Anna knew it was a silly question. All residents had the same food unless they had restricted diets. But it was better to check.
“Okay. So, I know waking up like that can be frightening. I want you to know that I’m here, and I’m not going to leave until you feel comfortable, okay?”
One tap. Then Mrs. Brooks took Anna’s hand in her own and squeezed gently. Gratefulness. Warmth. The undercurrent of dread still permeated into Anna’s thoughts, but other, more positive emotions, were beginning to appear. Anna realized she hadn’t heard a single word from Mrs. Brooks yet, just emotions. Mrs. Brooks was one of the few people she’d met who thought in pictures and emotions instead of words.
“Alright,” Anna said after a few seconds of silence, “How about we do some visualization? It’s a technique where I guide you towards thinking of safe places or good memories to relax.”
“Mrs. Brooks, I’d like you to think of a place you feel absolutely safe. Safe, cared for, and loved. This place could be real or it could be a made-up place in your mind. Anything you’d like.”
Images began pouring into Anna’s mind. A beach house. Warm sand. A cup of tea. A man with greying hair and a shock-white beard, smiling at her. The sound of the waves lapping at the shore. Kids laughing.
Anna closed her eyes to take it in as she continued her script. “Focus on the sounds. On the visuals. Let it be cohesive. Be detailed. Sometimes listing or naming all the things you see can help.”
Now she was inside the beach house. There were three bedrooms. White walls. Pictures of boat trips and fish caught. A fridge with all the kid’s school photos. Grandkids. The kids were grown now. But they sat on the walls, immortalized as children, jumping off the boat or holding the fish with her husband. Don. Her and Don’s room, the driftwood bedframe he’d built, the soft white sheets. Seashells and dried starfish decorated the walls. Every year they came down here, she joked that his hair was closer and closer to matching the white bedspread. His laugh echoed through the house.
Outside now. The little covered porch. She sat in her rocking chair, a glass of iced tea in one hand, while the grandkids ran about in the sand. Don sat beside her in his own rocking chair, holding her other hand. He’d made the rocking chairs too. His had a starfish engraved on the front. Hers had a conch. They rocked back and forth, hand in hand, watching the tanned children play and fight and think. Her kids were out at the store for dinner, all but Mary. Mary was inside nursing the baby.
The scene vanished for a moment. When it came back, it was distorted. The children were crying and Don was gone. Panic began to swell again. Anna came back to the retirement home, pushing her fingers up to feel Mrs. Brooks wrist again. Her heartrate was still rocky.
The scene was still changing in Mrs. Brooks’ mind. The waves were louder, fiercer, and thunderclouds were rolling in. Now she was alone. None of the children were there. Don wasn’t there. She turned to enter the house and the door opened to blackness.
“Mrs. Brooks,” Anna said hurriedly, trying to stem her panic, “Go back to that place. Think of the details.”
Two taps. Fear. Emptiness. Mrs. Brooks stood alone on the desolate beach. I don’t want to die.
The vision sputtered again and Mrs. Brooks’ breath was whistling. Anna grasped Mrs. Brooks’ hand in both of hers and felt the other woman’s pulse jumping and jolting around like a loose bird.
“Mrs. Brooks, tell me about your children.”
This stopped the panic in its tracks. Confusion melted in with fear.
“Think about them. Think about them and the grandchildren. Do they visit you?”
A faltering smile graced Mrs. Brooks’ lips. Anna saw her children, first Mary, the youngest, then the twins, Ron and Rose. Their faces changed, shifting from children to young adults, to middle aged parents. The grandchildren appeared by their sides, as well as their spouses. Their faces were fuzzier, confused in age, but the baby in Mary’s arms was clearest.
She saw herself holding the baby. Then the baby was grown into a young woman. Her face was fuzzy, but her name came clearly, Ava. Ava held a painting, a painting of the beach house with Don’s old pickup truck in the garage. Another painting of the beach. Of their rocking chairs.
Anna opened her eyes to see Mrs. Brooks smiling, eyes still closed as she imagined her granddaughter.
“Now,” she said softly, “Mrs. Brooks. Do you believe in any religion?”
Visuals of Ava being baptized. Christmas mass. Don’s funeral. Their wedding.
“Do you think you’ll see Don again?”
The visuals were getting fuzzier. Her pulse was lighter. But Don’s face was clear as day. It was simultaneously the face she fell in love with, the face of an old man, and all the faces in between. He was sitting in his rocking chair, a beer in hand, telling her she was the best part of the view from the porch. He patted the arm of her rocking chair beside him. He was asking her to join him.
Her fear dissolved in his bright smile and his beckoning. Though the vision continued to falter, gain static, lose color, Don’s hand stayed outreached.
“Go see Don, Mrs. Brooks. He’ll be so happy to see you again,” Anna said.
Mrs. Brooks was crying, a smile on her face as she laid in the hospital bed. Her mouth began to move and Anna leaned in closer to understand.
“Call me Eleanor,” she whispered.
Then she grabbed Don’s hand, and Anna saw her in full. Blonde hair flying in the wind under her white sunhat, the flower print dress clinging to her young body as she was guided into her chair with Don’s warm, tanned hand. She smiled wide and leaned down to kiss him.
Then the vision ended.
Anna felt for a pulse. Failing to find it, she squeezed Eleanor’s hand one more time before letting it rest on her bed. She counted her breaths through her own tears. Inhale for five, hold for three, exhale for five. She stood and readied herself to return to Janine.
She stood at the door for a moment, listening to all the quiet ambient thoughts and dreams of Eleanor’s neighbors. They were silly, fickle things that wouldn’t matter in the end, but every thought, every spark of emotion she heard from her wards would one day have to go out.
Anna would be there when that time came. She would hold their hand, ask about their families, their friends, their lives. All of them had a Don or an Ava. All of them had a safe place they’d return to. She’d be there, guiding them back, letting them go. Eventually she’d have to leave too but it was her hope- her wish- that they’d all be waiting for her, holding out their hands as she stood on the shores of forever.
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I'm so surprised no one else has commented on this story! It's so amazing.. I love how you created such dynamic characters, with such intense emotions. I also love how you created a main character with a power that isn't some super hero, but is still doing something so incredible.. Props to you!