Nora flapped the towel out with a snap and hung it on the bathroom rack. A new resident was coming to live in Mr. Carpenter’s room. Mrs. King had arrived that morning with a beautiful bouquet of flowers from the supermarket to welcome the arriving old person, his or her first and last gift from Oleander Gardens.
Nora gave the room a final dummy check. Everything was in residence. She went on to the next room: that of Mr. Greenfield.
Mr. Greenfield stood gazing at the tiny picture of the late Mrs. Greenfield on his dresser. When Nora came in, he did a slow, hypnotized glance around the room and then shuffled over and closed the door.
“Mr. Greenfield, that’s not allowed,” Nora said. She went over and opened it again.
Mr. Greenfield cleared his throat. He leaned over toward her and leaned forward, so that when he whispered Nora could smell his near-death breath.
“The other residents have nominated myself to speak with you about an urgent matter.” Mr. Greenfield tried to focus on her eyes with a conspiratorial stare as he slowly swept the door closed again.
“Um…” said Nora.
Mr. Greenfield cleared his throat and hacked some phlegm into his hankie, which he then replaced in his vest pocket, still gazing in Nora’s direction earnestly. “We come to you…” he began. Then the ache in his knees must have got to be too much for him, because he creaked over to his easy chair and with a hack and a whoosh of breath, deposited himself in it. “Sorry, dear. A bit overwhelmed by the situation.” Mr. Greenfield fanned himself momentarily. “Can you still hear me from over here?”
He was three feet away. He must be used to talking to people who rarely remember to adjust their hearing aids, Nora thought. She nodded, her hand still hovering around the door knob.
“My dear, we have discussed it, and we know you have a special gift. There is no sense in trying to deny it.” As Nora began to shake her head, he raised a trembling, bony finger. “No, uh-uh. You can’t trick us. We’ve been around the block a few times. I know you try to hide it, but you’ve said a few things, and not just to me but to nearly every resident of Oleander Gardens, that prove it. You know things that you have no business knowing. Like yesterday, when you mentioned my dear departed Debbie, God-rest-her-soul’s quilt at the children’s hospital. The Christmas quilt. How did you know about that quilt? And that’s just one example.” Mr. Greenfield paused and coughed into his hankie. With a tremble, he wiped his purple, quivering lips, still gazing at Nora. His look, his tremble, and his odd skin colour were making her feel very uneasy. She had to get out of here.
“Okay, Mr. Greenfield. You win. I’m gifted. Now, I’m going to open the door before you and I both get into trouble, and I’m going to change your bed sheets, because I have a lot of work to do this morning and I want to get it done before lunch.”
Mr. Greenfield brightened. “Is it Tuesday?”
He cast his eyes down, disheartened, then brightened again. “Oh, why, I do believe it’s cheese sandwich day! Yes, Wednesday — cheese sandwich day!”
Nora nodded, opening the door, and peeled the sheets off Mr. Greenfield’s bed.
The cheese sandwiches were made with white bread with the crusts cut off, butter-flavoured margarine, and Kraft slices, renowned for their high milk content. They were the best of the lunch fare because she could grab some from the kitchen before Lynette or Loretta put them out for the residents and take off, thereby avoiding having to sit in the dining hall with the old people.
Clutching her ill-gotten sandwiches, Nora hurried down the corridor, towards the garden door that would lead her to the quiet solitude of the chapel. She didn’t make it.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards popped out of the games room. Mrs. Edwards caught Nora by the arm and gripped her sleeve with falcon-like talons. She must have had her nails done the day before, because they were solid, pink, and sharp at the ends of her knobby fingers. Mrs. Edwards leaned toward her in that irritating way the old people have of thinking they have to move into your hearing range and breathed, “So, are you going to do it?”
“Do what?” asked Nora.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards exchanged glances. Mr. Edwards said, “Tom was supposed to talk to you about it this morning.”
Tom was Mr. Greenfield. They must have wanted her to do psychic readings or something.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Edwards. It’s against regulations.” Nora had never read the staff handbook, but she was quite certain that palm reading or whatever would be against the rules. Mrs. King was very strict about what staff could and couldn’t do. Basically, they could do their job, which in Nora’s case consisted of changing bedding and towels in the mornings and supervising the lounge and games room activities in the afternoons. “I mean, I could ask, but I’m pretty sure–”
“Barbara King is not to know anything about this!” Mr. Edwards said.
“That witch!” Added Mrs. Edwards.
“Mrs. Edwards!” Nora said. “I’m sure she has your best interests in mind, or whatever.” That was something they told you at school, and Nora was sure it applied here, too.
Mr. Edwards leaned closer. He glanced around to make sure nobody was coming, then whispered, “Look. We just want to enlist your help in getting to the bottom of what’s going on around here. We’ll pay you for it, of course. A gift like yours should not be taken for granted.”
Mrs. Edwards said, “Will you help us?”
“Get to the bottom of what?” Nora asked. Just then they heard a door closing, and Ben and Ray, security force, appeared outside the games room.
“Lunch time, Mr. and Mrs. Greenfield. What are you doing?” Ben demanded.
The two stuck their chests out and advanced.
Mrs. Edwards released Nora’s arm from her grip. Nora stashed the sandwiches behind her back and batted her eyelashes at the security force.
Ray landed his eyeballs on her. “Please don’t delay the residents on their way to lunch, Nora. You’re just making things more difficult for everyone.”
“Let’s move it along, folks.”
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards did the old-person shuffle in the direction of the dining hall, and Nora resumed in the direction of the garden door. Ray and Ben followed the Edwards.