BY: BRAD GLENN
“You can’t go in there, mister,” Jakob said. “That’s Maggie’s room.”
“I know. I’m looking for Maggie,” I responded. It’s customary to answer a patient by name, but I didn’t know his yet. It was only my first day at the facility. I barely knew which floor I was on, much less any of the patients’ names. There were one hundred and twenty of them. Sixty care workers, on-site therapists, case managers, and doctors. I was a nurse. I knocked on the door—barging in on someone, even when they’re institutionalized, is inappropriate, except in the case of emergency.
“You’ll be sorry, mister,” Jakob said. “Maggie’s a witch.”
I smiled, more of a conditioned response than anything, and the door opened. The girl who opened it must’ve been twenty, maybe twenty-five tops. She had all the visual characteristics of Down’s Syndrome: her eyes were slanted up slightly and bulging, flat bridge of the nose, and her tongue seemed too large for her mouth. She had black hair cut in a blunt bob and wore a black dress. She did look a little like a witch, but in a harmless way.
“Who are you?” she asked
“I’m Darren. I’m your new nurse.”
“No you’re not. My nurse is Jenny. She’s a girl.”
I could tell she had difficulty making the “S” sound, but that she’d had plenty of speech therapy. Twenty-three years at Silver Hill hospital taught me to keep an eye out for things like that.
“Yes! Jenny is so good that they gave her a more important job,” I said. “Jenny is now in charge of all the nurses, so they hired me.”
“Jenny is pretty. Jenny has blond hair.”
“Yes. Well, Jenny asked me to come and talk to you. Medical stuff. Nothing to worry about. I promise.” Maggie let me into her room.
She shouldn’t have been there, in all honesty. She could’ve been in a facility better suited for her. With a bit of support, she could’ve even had an apartment, lived on her own. Instead, someone dropped her here, and she slipped through the cracks in the system. Maybe her parents couldn’t cope with her, and I don’t mean to blame anyone, but it’s still sad. I could say that for a lot of the patients here.
“You’re old,” she said.
“I’ve been doing this a long time.” Her room was small—they all were—and most of the space was taken up by the bed, which was probably older than I was. There was a rickety bookshelf fastened to the wall and a bureau, which Maggie had covered with crow feathers and knickknacks. There were a couple of chairs by the bookshelf, so I sat down.
“You have a lot of books in here.”
Most were kids’ books. Halloween themed. There was also a dusty old jar on the bookshelf. Homemade pickled beets. I looked at them, my clipboard in hand in preparation. “Oh, that’s a nice jar. What’s in it?”
I don’t know why I asked her that. They were beets, and the patients aren’t allowed to have food in their rooms. I was busting her, but I really didn’t need to. Sure, it was food, but she obviously wasn’t eating it. Rules are rules, I get that, but I could’ve just been straight and told her that she wasn’t allowed to have food in her room.
“I can’t tell you.”
“You can’t tell me what’s in the jar?”
“Maybe when I know you better.”
Then together we filled out the questionnaire. We had to complete them once a week to make sure all her medical issues were documented and taken care of. Down’s patients are prone to leukemia, heart defects, compromised immune systems. Some have sleep apnea, constipation, obesity, dementia. But often people with disabilities hide their medical issues, so they’re afflictions go from bad to worse. Monthly checkups are critical. Like the weekly questionnaires: yes or no checks, rate each emotion, scales of one to five. Really, it told us very little, but it’s a paper trail, due diligence.
After a half-dozen more patient questionnaires that morning, I finally sat down in the staffroom. My wife made me a bag lunch, just like she did when I worked at the hospital, the exact same meal: baloney and cheese on a Kaiser with mayonnaise. Pauline didn’t like mustard. There was also an apple and a yogurt. I swear, it’s the same lunch I ate when I was a kid going to school, if you replace the yogurt with a cookie. Yogurt was too adventurous for my family.
“Temp?” a woman chirped as she sat down at my table.
“Just here for the day? Filling in?” she said. She was wearing pastel pink scrub pants with a flowered scrub top.
“No, it’s my first day. I’m a nurse.”
“Oh,” she said, and I could see the confusion on her face—she was wondering why someone in his fifties was having a first day at work. I wondered the same thing. But then her fake smile returned and she said, “How exciting! We don’t get a lot of men in nursing.”
“Yeah, it’s still mostly women.” I’d had that conversation hundreds of times. That and the one where people use the term “male nurse” over and over, as if you’d use the term “female nurse” or “female teacher,” or “female police officer.” Well, I guess people do say “female police officer” all the time.
“Have you met with Reinhardt?”
“Yeah… I mean no, I’m scheduled to see him this afternoon.”
Mr. Reinhardt was in charge of the facility. He was a burly man with a thick mustache and sideburns straight out of the seventies. He wasn’t part of my hiring process, so when I saw him walking around in his doctor’s jacket I assumed he was a doctor. He wasn’t. He was an administrator.
I thought we were going to sit in his office, but when I arrived for our meeting, he rose out of his ergonomic office chair. I didn’t know the brand, but it wasn’t within my wage bracket. He greeted me with a firm but slightly sweaty handshake and suggested we tour the facility while we talked. Or he talked. Mostly about himself, to be perfectly honest, except when he gave me advice, as if I were a young nurse in his first position.
“You have to remember,” he said offhandedly while he checked his buzzing cell phone. He flicked his thick thumb across the screen a few times then continued. “You have to remember, the patients are not your friends.”
We passed through the medical wing, and he pointed out the most expensive pieces of technology, ensuring that I knew the cost of each item. It was nowhere near what I was dealing with at the hospital, but it was adequate for the size of the facility, I suppose. I thought that it would probably be a better use of funds to replace some of the flickering fluorescent lights in the hallways, or put some carpet down so the place didn’t seem so institutional, but I held my tongue. “You see,” he continued. “We have to restrain the patients. We have to discipline them, perform medical procedures on them. Sometimes they don’t understand, and you don’t want them to think that you’re their buddy. You’re not. You’re here to provide for their medical well-being. That’s the job.”
“I know, Mr. Reinhardt.”
“Doctor Reinhardt when we’re out here,” he said. “Where were you before you came here?”
“Yeah? Good hospital. Old though. You got laid off then?”
“They don’t throw you a going away party when there’s fifty of you leaving. But luckily, I was only out of work for a month, and the union took care of me.”
“Good man, Darren,” he said, slapping me on the back.
The rest of the day went pretty smoothly. I wasn’t in the medical wing, so mostly I checked up on patients, put on Band-Aids, that kind of thing. One patient’s colostomy bag was infected, so I sent him to the medical wing. He wasn’t happy about that. I never learned his name. He was just Room 206 to me.
That night my wife made perogies and pork chops, and I told her about my first day.
“Sounds nice,” she said. It was crunch time at her office, so all the accountants were working overtime. Not Pauline, though. She kept regular hours regardless of what was going on at work. She was good at her job, so she always managed to get everything done, and done well; even at dinner, I could tell she was counting totals, double checking numbers in her head.
“Yeah, it’s just work. Same as the hospital.” She stared over my shoulder and forked at bit of perogy into her mouth.
“One of the patients is a witch,” I said, goading her. She wasn’t listening at all. I could say anything.
It was about a week later and I was getting used to the place—I knew enough of the facility to do my job effectively, and was starting to remember the names of my patients, a couple of other nurses, and, of course, admin—when Maggie stopped me in the hallway. “I know your secret,” she said, again, struggling with the “S” sound.
“Really? What’s my secret?”
“You’re a vampire.”
I laughed. I guess with my receding hairline it kind of looks like I have a widow’s peak, but otherwise I don’t look like a vampire. I have a paunch that started growing when I turned forty, and I don’t think vampires wear glasses.
“So I’m a vampire and you’re a witch?”
“Yeah, but I won’t tell anyone. We have to watch out for each other.” She smiled at me, her bottom lip sticking out, and I smiled back. A real smile.
That afternoon, after my baloney and cheese on a Kaiser, I heard screaming when I passed her room. Her door was wedged open, and the unit manager was trying to calm her down. Maggie had flipped the chairs over and pulled she sheets off her bed.
“She does this all the time,” the case manager said, her jaw clenched. I hadn’t seen this woman before. I would’ve remembered her by the stench of her home perm. “Get a sedative.”
Injecting a sedative was common. I’d done it a million times over the years, but Maggie didn’t seem that bad. Patients freaked out all the time, and when I worked in the ER, we always had to sedate people. The procedures were set, certainly, but that day, something just came over me—I didn’t want to stick this poor girl.
“Maggie,” I said. “Calm down. This isn’t worth it.”
She kept screaming and hitting her fists against her bed.
“Maggie, please. You have to calm down.”
“Jesus, just poke her already!” the case manager commanded, her voice piercing.
Still Maggie wailed with tears streaming down her face. She was so loud that the other patients came out of their rooms to watch.
Then, inspiration struck. I don’t know where it came from—probably desperation—but a song jumped into my head.
“Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you,” I sang. Old Rod Stewart song. I hadn’t thought of that song in years, or of Rod Stewart in general, but there I was singing “Maggie May” word for word. Maggie hit her bed again, but kept her fists on the mattress. She sucked in a few breaths, whined as she exhaled. I kept singing, louder, and making sure to punch up her name.
Maggie looked at me with trails of tears still wet on her face, but she was smiling. I finished the chorus, smiling my most comforting smile.
The perm-haired case manager gave me a look of disgust. When it comes to the patients, she was higher up the authority ladder than the regular nurses, and I’d disobeyed her. I probably had ten years of experience on her, but those things don’t matter in the medical field.
“Did you write that song?” Maggie asked me, rubbing snot on her sleeve.
“No. It’s Rod Stewart. He’s a singer from the seventies.”
“Did he write it for me?”
“Maybe,” I said, righting a chair. Maggie was still smiling and staring at me.
“Keep singing it.”
I finished up my day uneventfully, and after dinner that night I told Pauline the story. She laughed at the thought of a Rod Stewart song calming the girl.
“I used to sing, you know,” I told her.
“Well, I’ve seen your guitar case, but I’ve never seen you open it.”
“Yeah, I wanted to be in a band when I was in high school. I used to play along with the radio. Dr. Hook, Peaches and Herb. I used to do my homework with my guitar on my lap and whenever a song came on that I knew, I’d play along and try to figure it out. I even had a songbook for Supertramp.”
I had had a band. Well, not a real band. We never did anything except sit in my parents’ basement and make up songs. We used Tupperware and margarine containers for drums, and my parents’ old piano, which was in terrible need of tuning. Those were good days, hanging out with friends. I never found time to hang out with friends much after I got married. Didn’t really have any friends.
“I remember Supertramp. Never listened to them though.” She laughed.
My fingers itched. I remembered that feeling, the anticipation of playing a song. I put down my fork and placed my fingers on the frets of an imaginary guitar, seeing if I still knew how to form the chords. I jumped from a D to a G without hesitation. It was still in my head.
I went down to the basement that night to find my old acoustic guitar, but I ended up just moving boxes around and reorganizing.
The next day I ate lunch in the cafeteria. Aides would eat with the patients, sometimes feeding them, orally or through tubes, but the nurses tended to stick to the staffroom. Honestly, I was just tired of the nurse chatter: complaints, mostly, about the boss, the doctors, the caseworkers, and the patients. They even complained about the families, which was odd, as I rarely saw any families visiting the facility.
“Whatcha eating, Nurse Darren?” Maggie said, standing beside my table. She was wearing one of her long black flowing dresses was carrying her tray.
“A bun. Apple. Yogurt. Just a regular lunch.”
“We get spaghetti.”
She stood there for a moment, and it clicked that she wasn’t just asking me about lunch. “Would you like to join me?” I said.
She set her tray on the table and smiled, wide. Then she calmed, hovered her hand over her meal, and closed her eyes. After a moment, she opened them and dug into the mass of noodles and sauce with her fork.
“What was that about?”
“Magic stuff,” she said, mouth full.
After that, I never ate in the staffroom. I’d sit, and Maggie would join me. Sometimes other patients would join us, the high functioning ones. We’d laugh and joke around. One day I even left my lunch at home on purpose so I’d have to eat cafeteria food. Okay, that was a mistake. They were serving stew that day, and it was incredibly salty and slimy, but I still enjoyed eating with the patients.
Then Reinhardt called me to his office. I hoped admin wouldn’t be as petty and micromanaging as they were at the hospital.
“I’ve noticed that you’ve been eating lunch with the patients lately,” he said from his high backed leather chair. “Now, I don’t need to tell you about fraternizing with the patients.”
“I’m making connections, Dr. Reinhardt. It just makes the job easier if they know me and trust me. I need to be in contact with them more than once a week for their questionnaire.”
“You know what these girls are like, though. They have the minds of children, but the hormones of an adult. I don’t want any of them taken advantage of.” He raised his eyebrows. At me.
“What the hell? I’m ten years off of my retirement! I don’t want anything from the patients here. They’re half my age! Why would you even think that?”
“I’m just making sure. Litigation is expensive.”
“Dr. Reinhardt…” I stammered. This never happened to the female nurses. Just me. I couldn’t make friends here, couldn’t let my guard down. In this female-dominated field, I was immediately suspect.
“Make sure that you always keep the door open. Understand?”
I left the office both furious and ashamed, though I had done nothing wrong. It was decent enough advice, and really, I should always keep the door open when I’m alone with any patient. If anyone were to accuse me of something, I doubt even the union would have my back.
I don’t even remember choosing to be a nurse. There was no moment when it struck me that nursing was my calling in life. The recession hit, and jobs were scarce. I needed something stable, and nursing seemed like a comfortable path. There were times I liked it, even felt exhilarated, like when I worked in the ER. It was a rush, but I was a young man back then. Not looking at fifty in the rearview mirror.
As it happens, that was the day for Maggie’s health questionnaire. I’d nearly memorized the entire seventy-five questions, and I think that Maggie had memorized the answers too. Halfway through, I stopped.
“Maggie, what were you so upset about last week?”
“She tried to touch the jar. Only I get to touch the jar.” Maggie hung her head, hid her eyes behind her bangs. “She said I couldn’t have it in my room.”
“Well, the rules do say that you can’t have food in your room. You can’t get mad at her for following the rules.”
“It’s not food.”
“Okay. It’s not food.”
She looked up at me. “Do you want to know what it is?”
“If you’re ready to tell me.”
“It’s my grandmother’s heart.”
It was beets. You could tell it was beets. You could just look at it and see the beets in there. It wasn’t a human heart by any stretch of the imagination. I’d seen a human heart. There was no heart in that jar.
“I took it from my mother,” she continued. “After my grandma died, they all went to her house and took her stuff. They didn’t bring me. When they came home, I saw this in the boxes of stuff. I knew what it was, so I took it.”
“Doesn’t your mother see it up on the shelf?”
“She doesn’t come here.”
I didn’t push it any further. When you’re dealing with patients, especially ones who are institutionalized, you learn right away not to bring up family. I continued on with our questionnaire, with Maggie answering questions before I’d even finished asking them. It was routine, but Maggie seemed unhappy.
She cheered up, of course. It was like happiness was her default emotion. I saw her bouncing down the hallway later that day, black bob swinging back and forth, black skirt rippling with each step.
Then, a week later, she didn’t come down for lunch. Jakob joined me, rolling all of his food into little balls between his fingertips before eating them. Lorraine, who won silver for swimming in the Special Olympics, joined us too. And her boyfriend, Oliver, who shared his dessert with her. Sharing dessert was huge at the home.
I went up to Maggie’s room to check in. It wasn’t her questionnaire day or anything, but I was the nurse and could justify checking up on a patient. I heard her coughing from outside her door and knocked, but she didn’t answer.
“Maggie,” I called. “I can hear you in there. Can I come in?”
She didn’t answer, so I knocked again. She grunted, which I took to mean she didn’t mind if I entered.
Maggie was sitting up in her bed, leaning back on a pillow with her crow feathers spread out on the bed, along with some stones and old tarnished jewelry. She was hacking, and it was coming from deep within her chest.
“Maggie! You’re sick.”
“Just a cold, silly,” she said, her voice hoarse. She coughed again, harder this time.
“You know you have to be careful about these things.” I rushed my wrist to her forehead and felt her fever. I’d have to actually take her temperature, but I already knew this wasn’t just a cold. The nurse in me was telling me it was pneumonia.
I called the medical wing to let them know I was coming down, and then I got Maggie a wheelchair.
“I don’t want to go to the doctors, Nurse Darren,” Maggie pleaded. “They put needles into me.”
“They won’t put needles into you this time. They’re just going to keep you warm and make sure you’re safe,” I coaxed. “Anyway, needles aren’t so bad. The thought of the needle is worse than actually getting one.”
“Can you stay with me?” she asked.
“I can visit, but I have to take care of a lot of people. You see everyone I take care of.” While I helped her into a wheelchair, I felt her small body shivering. At first I thought it might just be shaking chills, but when I wrapped a blanket around her, I saw she was crying. “Maggie,” I said. “It’s all right. It’s just the doctors. They’re nice.”
It wasn’t working. She was scared and sick and it probably felt like she had no control over the situation.
“Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you,” I sang. “It’s late September, and I really should be back at school.”
A smile crossed her face. She wiped away her tears and pulled the blanket close to her body. I got behind her and pushed her chair.
“Keep singing!” she called out. I sang, and it felt good to sing, my voice growing more confident as she laughed.
“Louder, Nurse Darren! Louder!”
I kept singing all the way down the hall, patients and staff turning to watch as I belted it out, Maggie laughing and coughing the whole way.
When my shift was done, I visited her in the medical wing. She was asleep, swaddled up in her bed. The doctor confirmed that Maggie had a compromised immune system, so pneumonia was serious. I sat with her for a bit, but she didn’t wake up. She was sedated. They gave her a needle after all.
Pauline made beef Stroganoff for supper that night. She always lightens up on the pepper because she doesn’t like her food too spicy. She was telling me something about a woman at the firm who wore a bright purple dress to work, and apparently that was somehow scandalous, but honestly I wasn’t paying attention.
I pulled out the guitar that night. It was amazing how quickly my fingers remembered where they were supposed to go, pulling out chord progressions I hadn’t thought of in decades. I could still play “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty flawlessly. It’s kind of amazing what the mind can do.
I checked on Maggie first thing in the morning, and she wasn’t getting better. She was coated in a layer of sweat, but shivering even wrapped up in her blankets. Her cough had turned into a deep gurgle, and she hacked up balls of phlegm into a silver medical receptacle.
“Oh, Maggie. Oh, you poor thing,” I said, sitting on the bed beside her. She leaned against me, curled up.
“Nurse Darren. I hate this.”
“I know, Maggie. I know. It’s terrible. I feel so bad for you.”
The room was miserable, with a view of a brick wall out the window and the stale smell of sickness in the air.
“Can you get something for me? Something from my room?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, and then I waited through another coughing fit.
“I have a ring on my altar. It’s magic. If you bring it to me, I can get better.”
The doctor heard this and rolled his eyes.
“Of course,” I said.
As it turned out, she had eight rings on the bureau that she called her altar. I had to unravel bits of wool from some, but I gathered them all up. I ran them under rubbing alcohol to make sure there wasn’t anything in all those crow feathers that would aggravate her condition, and took them down to her.
Her eyes lit up when I came in. I had all the rings cupped in my hands, sparking and bright after the alcohol bath. I spread them out on the blanket, and she picked out a silver ring with a green gemstone. Well, it was probably glass, but she thought it was a gemstone. She put it on, and her body seemed to relax.
“Thank you, Nurse Darren. You’re a good nurse, for a vampire.”
I stifled a laugh. After all that, it was delivering a magic ring that made me a good nurse. I held her hand for a moment, told her that I had to work, and then went off on my duties.
The day passed monotonously, more Band-Aids and questionnaires. I’d been nursing for more than half of my life, not including nursing school, and this was where it had brought me. I tried to think about going back to the ER, but those years were long gone. I couldn’t even consider it. So I kept my mind on my work. Room to room. Behind my thoughts, “Maggie May” looped in my head, over and over, never actually interfering with my work, but always on the periphery.
When the day ended, I checked in on Maggie. She was sitting up in bed, smiling. She wasn’t sweaty anymore, wasn’t shivering.
“Damndest thing. Fever broke just before noon,” the doctor told me. “If it was actually pneumonia, it should’ve taken weeks to fight this off, but she’s already on the mend. Must’ve just been a virus.”
“Nurse Darren!” Maggie called. “You saved me!”
I smiled at her. It was silly, all of it, really. I only brought her a trinket. But she believed that it was magic, and she fought off pneumonia. Most people, even those with average immune systems, take weeks to recover. Months. Not Maggie. She defeated it with the belief that a magical ring was going to make her well.
“You know, I was really sick.”
“You’re still a little sick, Maggie. You still have to stay in bed.”
“Well, I might feel better if you sang to me.”
I sang her song three times before I told her that I had to leave. She wanted me to stay, but it was my night to cook, so I had to get the beef rib roast into the oven and the potatoes wrapped in tin foil to bake. I waved at her and left for a perfectly uneventful night at home: Pauline, distracted by work, again, while I plucked away at my guitar in the basement, trying to remember how to play songs.
When I got to work the next morning, they were cleaning out her room—Maggie’s heart stopped in the night. They told me that she’d had heart problems, and I knew it was common for patients with Down’s Syndrome to have heart defects. Maybe the pneumonia put a strain on her. Maybe it was just time. She was twenty-four, so the fact she lived that long with her heart condition was miraculous enough.
I went home. I didn’t check with the office, didn’t ask Reinhardt. I just went home. I went home and I laid in bed, and I spent a couple hours crying, then looking up at the ceiling lifelessly until that damn song started playing in my head again. I gave in and went downstairs to pick up my guitar. I brought it and the guitar stand up to the bedroom and set up the stand next to my bureau. I carefully arranged my fingers on the frets to form an A chord and strummed it a few times before singing quietly to myself, switching between the G and D chord.
At four o’clock, I took a quick shower to clean off my face; by the time I was finished dressing, Pauline had come home.
“Darren. You’re home!”
“Yeah. Tough day. I came home early.”
“Oh, poor you. You’ll have to tell me over dinner…” Her voice trailed off as she looked up at the bookshelf. “Is that a jar of beets on our bookshelf?”
“No, it’s not beets.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Brad Glenn is an author from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Since graduating from the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, he has been a special award winner for the BC Federation of Writers and has published short stories and articles. He is a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and leads the writing group the Inkhorn Society. He has self-published a book of short stories entitled Lemons on Venus and a novel called The Real World Monitor. During the day, Brad is a teacher, a dog owner, and a husband.