Moments later, Mrs. King’s voice came over the PA.
“Nora Kelly, to the administration office please. Nora Kelly, to the office.”
Nora was taken aback. That was an experience she had not had since leaving high school over a month ago. Feelings of guilt swept over her, even though she knew she had not done anything wrong. She had not skipped class, she had not been caught smoking out by the football tackle dummies, and she had not been found with dope stashed in her hollowed-out math text book during routine locker checks.
The entire population of the games room swiveled their heads slowly and stared at her. How did Mrs. King move so fast? They silently chorused. She was just here a moment ago.
Nora did a slight shrug and raised her eyebrows. Slowly, silently, all lenses on her, she slid her chair back and stood.
Randy stopped in mid pong, his paddle poised. As the ball bounced behind him and rolled to the back wall, he raised a finger to his lips. What was he worried she might say? She wondered. Did he think she was going to tell on him for eating take-out Chinese noodles out back with Jim instead of eating crustless sandwiches in the dining hall? Did he worry that she knew what he kept in his travel mug? Nora nodded in his direction, then swept her eyes across the peering old people in what she hoped would be seen as a glance of solidarity. The last thing she needed was a bunch of elderly enemies coming back from beyond the grave to haunt her for the rest of her life.
The administration office was the most comfortable and luxurious part of Oleander Gardens. There were two ways to approach it. One via the front door, reception area, and a pleasant hallway featuring a plush carpet, textured wallpaper, and framed watercolour paintings of flowers and mountains. This was the way Mrs. King brought potential clients, the families of old people, in for consultations. The other approach to the administration office was behind the kitchen, via the storage hallway, a sterile, hospitalesque corridor.
The textured wallpaper and thick, clean carpeting continued in Mrs. King’s office. The office itself was as large as one of the residents’ rooms, and Mrs. King’s huge, dark-stained wood desk was its centerpiece.
A puffy leather sofa and two easy chairs created an inviting seating area at the front of the office, and two black leather swivel chairs were tilted at nice angles to the desk.
Behind Mrs. King rose an antique shelving unit decorated with textbooks such as “Care of the Elderly,” hardcover literary novels, and antique ornaments.
As she entered the office for the second time in her employ at Oleander Gardens, Nora’s eyes were drawn to an old-fashioned typewriter with a black and red ribbon running through it, which sat on a round wooden table between the sofa and easy chair next to the door. The walls of the office were hung with artwork, expensively framed yet tasteful paintings of daisies, lilies, and, of course, oleanders.
Mrs. King sat behind the big wooden desk that Nora had only seen once before, at her job interview, as nobody dared venture into the administration office unless forced. The woman’s hair was pulled tightly back and dyed an unnatural coppery colour. Her face was made more severe and frightening by rigid contouring that looked like it had been applied in a dim room, and heavy lines of black liquid eye-liner ending in cat-like swoops at the outer corners of her eyes. Her carefully sketched black eyebrows were drawn together in a frown when Nora entered the room.
Behind Mrs. King to her right stood Ben in his security outfit, looking like an overfed, undertrained doberman pinscher. Nora had no idea where the other guard, Ray, was lurking. She approached the comfy chair in front of the desk and sat down carefully so as not to move it from its careful placement.
“Good afternoon, Nora. I suppose you know why I’ve asked you to come and speak with me.”
Nora shook her head. Mrs. King just stared at her. Her overly made-up eyes seemed to penetrate through Nora’s delicate facial skin and right into her brain cavity. It was worse than meeting with the vice principal, even though in this instance she was certain she had done nothing wrong.
With an exasperated sigh, Mrs. King decided to fill her in. “Nora, we try very hard to keep costs down. Do you know why? We work hard to keep costs down in order to pass the savings on to our clients, the families of our beloved residences. Here at Oleander Gardens we pride ourselves on providing the best care in the country at the most affordable price.”
Nora nodded. But what did this have to do with her? Was she being offered a pay cut?
“I couldn’t help but notice, Nora, that you were relaxing in the games room this afternoon instead of completing your duties. Do you expect me to believe that at…” Mrs. King checked her watch, a small, diamond-encrusted face on a silver band. “At two-thirty seven p.m., less than an hour after nap time, you have already completed your work and have time to relax? Forgive me for my disbelief, Nora, but I feel that I have assigned you enough tasks to keep you busy for eight hours per day, less one-half hour for lunch and fifteen minutes break, as the law insists. Do you in fact require more tasks to keep you busy? Have I underestimated your abilities?”
Nora swallowed the spit accumulating in her mouth and shook her head. “No, Mrs. King,” she managed to stammer.
“You’re right. I should get back to work. I’m sorry.”
Mrs.. King nodded. “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to run a top-notch retirement home like Oleander Gardens, Nora? And do you know what the single largest expense is, eclipsing all our other expenses by a margin of over fifty percent? It is labour, Nora. The money we pay to our employees. If we all do our parts, I won’t have to hire any more employees, and the savings will be passed down to the residents in the form of lower rates. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mrs. King. It won’t happen again.”
Mrs. King released Nora from her evil glare and turned her attention to some papers on her desk, which she straightened into a neat pile as she said, “See that it doesn’t.”
Nora sat on the stoop of her house with a peanut butter sandwich. Sandwiches for lunch and supper. What was her life coming to? Why was she sitting outside? It was chilly enough for a sweater, but she wasn’t wearing one. It smelled like dog poop. She didn’t have a dog so she shouldn’t have to smell dog poop while sitting on her own stoop. She could not think of one single, solitary reason why she was sitting on the stoop to eat her sandwich. Not one. However, she remained sitting.
Eventually a reason showed up, toeing the ground with one Ked, sailing along the asphalt like a cute, snapback-hat-and-Vans-hoodie-wearing modern day pirate. He saluted her, did some kind of skateboard stopping trick which involved flipping the board up into the air and catching it with one hand while simultaneously leaping like a ballet dancer into the air and landing on both Keds.
Nora couldn’t help smiling.
“Hey,” Cute Guy said.
Her peanut butter sandwich was long gone and she literally had no reason for being out here. It was so cold her teeth were chattering. She racked her brain but could not think of any way to respond.
So she shrugged.
By some miracle, Cute Guy crossed the street and came over to her stoop. He placed his skateboard lovingly on the ground and sat down beside her.
“Your parents fighting?” he asked.
“I only have one parent, so, no. Just thought I’d get a little fresh air, I guess.”
Cute guy sniffed the air. “Kinda fresh.”
“Kinda smells like dog shit, you mean.” They both laughed, and Nora shuddered.
“Cold?” He asked. Cute and a genius! What a combination!
Suddenly, in slow motion, Cute Guy was removing his hoodie. As he brought down the zipper, Nora heard every single plink of its teeth disengaging. He brought it down past his shoulders and she realized he was wearing nothing but a tank-top underneath. In the gleaming porch light his muscles looked hard and touchable under his brown skin. Nora couldn’t breathe. He shook out of the hoodie, and the tank-top fluttered against his flat front. Nora imagined nicely formed pecs and a six-pack under there. She looked away before she embarrassed herself, and felt the hoodie falling about her shoulders, pulsing with his body heat, which it still held in its cottony threads.
Nora looked back at him. This close, she could see that his eyes were dark brown, so dark that it was impossible to see where his iris ended and his pupil began, and rimmed with the longest lashes she had ever seen. His perfect mouth half twitched into a smirk. A tiny glint of white tooth seemed to tell her that if she had leaned forward, she could plant her lips on his and receive the first kiss of her life.
“Is that better?” He asked.
Nora nodded. It was so much better in so many ways; she could die at that moment and have no regrets.
But now there was an awkward silence. What do you talk about with a cute guy you barely know who has just put his fuzzy warm hoodie around your shoulders? They had only ever had one actual conversation before.
“So,” she said. She was physically incapable of just sitting there. It was absolutely necessary to say something, no matter how lame. The silence between them was too awkward, to painful. “So… how’s it going with that community service?”
Ugh. Lame-o. Was there nothing else? Nothing?
“Still have no idea what I’m going to do. Why, do you have a suggestion? I actually have to have the form filled in by Monday.”
That sucked. How much did she not miss school at that moment?
Cute Guy was continuing talking. Praise the good lord in heaven above that he was able to make conversation with random strangers, because she was certainly not. “So,” he said. “You’re so lucky to be out of school. I mean, you just get to do whatever the fuck you want all day. I mean, what do you do all day? If it were me, I’d be sleeping till noon, eating a big bowl of cereal, playing some COD Apocalypse, in my boxers, maybe watching some Netflix…” He trailed off, picturing the perfection of life without school.
“Uh, no. I mean, I have a job. Nine to five.”
“Yeah, but, you’re like, sixteen. Don’t your parents support you? Your mom seems to be doing all right. Nice house, nice car…” He swept his arm around. “All of this. I mean, that’s the reason my mom stays with my dad. You know.”
“Yeah, I guess. My mom works all the time. I mean, I never see her. And she totally supports me. She does everything, shopping and stuff. I could just sit around in my boxers playing video games or whatever and she’d be totally cool.”
“So why not give yourself a break?”
“You know, I don’t want to live here forever.”
“No? Where do you want to live? You going to move out, maybe get your own place downtown?”
“Me? I’m going to live in New York.” Nora had been in the same town all her life, in the same little house in the suburb for as long as she could remember. Her mom worked all these different jobs so she could have change, excitement in her life, but her life actually seemed really repetitive and boring, kind of like the old people’s stories. Suddenly Nora’s mind clicked, like a bunch of pieces of a 3D puzzle suddenly fitting together.
“Uh,” she said. “I think I do have an idea for your community service.”
“Yeah. Listen. I work at Oleander Gardens; have you heard of it?”
Cute Guy shook his head.
“It’s like this old folks home. All these really old people live there. They’re all these old people with these really rich, varied lives behind them, but it’s kind of sad because it’s like they’re just there waiting to die. And their families never visit and they all seem kind of lonely.”
“Yeah, so what do you do? Just kind of keep them company?”
“No, that’s the problem. I’m a cleaner. Glamourous, I know. I take care of the laundry, change their beds, all that kind of thing. There are two women who work in the kitchen, one dude who works in the mortuary and also teaches all these activities, and there is a woman who runs it and a receptionist and two security dudes, and that’s it. Everyone works really hard and nobody ever has time to just sit down and chat with the old people.” Nora was realizing by talking to Cute Guy about it that it really was sad. They really were lonely, and they really didn’t have anyone to talk to. They had each other, but everyone who worked there just kind of rushed through their day, hid behind the mortuary at lunch time or locked away in the administration office. It was no wonder that the old people always wanted to chat with her when she was changing their beds.
“So what you’re saying is, I could go down there after school a couple times a week and just sort of hang out with a bunch of old people?”
Nora smiled. “Exactly!” And hang out with her, too, as it turned out. This was starting to look like a win-win-win situation!
“Yeah, sounds good. Hey, would you mind talking to your boss about it? If they say it’s okay, I’ll bring in my paperwork after school tomorrow, I guess.”
Nora grinned, but inside her ribs were crushing her swelling organs. She could barely breathe. What had she just done? Not only had a conversation with the cutest guy she had ever seen while wearing his hoodie, but also arranged a standing date with him! The world just kept getting more and more insane and she was along for the ride! “Yeah,” she said. “Sounds good.”