by Jack LaFountain
Photo by Mickael Gresset on Unsplash
The temperature in the car was rapidly climbing but Brianne still hadn’t worked up the courage to open the door of her battered Pinto and set out into the cool breeze blowing in off the Pacific. She simply sat staring across the street at the rambling old mansion. Five minutes before her appointment, she reached for the key that would start the engine and let her drive away. Instead, her shaking hand fell into her lap.
“It’s an interview. What’s the big deal?” she asked the empty passenger seat.
Her eyes returned to the mansion. Brianne’s momentary bravado withered. The heavy oak gates set into an arch in the low courtyard wall were open in welcome. Through them see could see the dark green yucca wearing clusters of white, bell shaped flowers that ringed the court where a fountain bubbled a soothing invitation to step back into Old California.
She could do this. She had to do this.
Brianne took a deep breath and stepped out onto Pasco Del Mar. The breeze that ruffled her auburn hair was scented with brine bore up from the surf crashing far below. Another day in paradise. She had grown in San Pedro and spent summers tanning at Cabrillo beach but didn’t remember the old adobe mansion on the cliffs. That wasn’t surprising. The last two years with Kyle had taken more than her dignity.
A pair of passing blonde surfers eyed Brianne with undisguised appreciation. She tugged at the hem of her skirt sure her slip was showing. Once across the street, Brianne lingered by the fountain. She told herself she was taking time to smell the gardenias that grew along the house, but the nagging chill running down her back said otherwise. Her unease flittered on butterfly wings just beyond the reach of her control. Brianne flipped a penny into the fountain for luck, stepped over the fears lying between her and a new start, and walked to the door.
There was no bell near the weathered oak doors. Brianne knocked and waited. Relief washed over her when a second knock went unanswered.
No one home. You’re can go, she told herself.
She turned to go when movement caught her eye. One of the doors swung open to reveal a pallid scarecrow in a black suit and starched white shirt staring down at her. He lifted a thin hand to shield his eyes. The man’s down-turned mouth made Brianne wonder if she smelled bad.
“I’m Brianne Christopher.” Her words failed to crack the man’s stony effect. “Mr. Zanna is expecting me.”
The scarecrow nodded. An upward turn chipped away at the edges of his lips. A sweep of his hand bid her enter. The large foyer’s candles and crosses reminded Brianne of a small church. Crosses carved into the heavy doors convinced her it was true until a spark of recognition brought a memory to life.
No, not a church…a…a…funeral home. I remember it now.
Brianne swallowed hard and hurried after the scarecrow. The clack of her heels drew a disapproving backward glance from the man. Cursing the clamor, she followed her guide down a dark hall to an unmarked door. The man opened it without knocking and motioned her inside.
Edison Zanna was a neat trim man in what she guessed was his mid-fifties. A trace of gray colored his temples. Zanna’s otherwise dark hair and charcoal Armani suit accentuated his smooth olive skin.
“Welcome to Sunset Assisted Living,” Zanna’s baritone was as rich as his eyes. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. Please, sit down. I must say, your resume is very impressive. I hope Sunset doesn’t seem too tame for you.”
The administrator smiled. Brianne ignored the crawling sensation that smile sent down the back of her neck. Did he see her shiver; smell the anxiety she felt rolling off her?
“Actually, I’m looking for a change of pace.” She said, hoping to sound more confident than she was while avoiding sounding too eager.
Zanna held out a hand to a nearby chair. His smile suddenly disappeared
“I’m going to be frank with you. I won’t waste your time or mine. Sunset is not for everybody.” He held up a manicured hand. “No, please, let me finish. We get a lot of resumes. We pay extremely well and the money attracts a lot of interest. But we’re looking for a commitment to the unique needs of our residents. Money can’t buy that. So, tell me, Ms Christopher, why are you here?”
Brianne shrank into her chair. The old insecurity, carrying the flotsam of the last two years, was back full force. She told the social worker at the shelter that her days of being beaten were over. But were they? It was ‘knuckle time,” as Kyle was so fond of saying. Brianne wiped her palms. This wasn’t the way to interview, but at the moment, she didn’t care. No more covering up the bruises.
“I’ll be equally honesty,” she began. “I need a fresh start. I’m going through a divorce and living at the women’s shelter. I need the money, but I need more too. I need a chance to care again. I need people.”
Zanna’s eyes softened. “Our residents can be challenging.”
“After five years in the Emergency Room, I’m ready for new challenges.” On firmer ground, Brianne straightened in her chair.
“You’ve heard of Sundowner’s Syndrome?” He asked.
“I’ve heard of it.” Red flags went up poles along Brianne‘s neural pathways.
Here it comes. Here’s the catch.
“All the residents here are afflicted with a peculiar form of that malady,” Edison Zanna told her. “As such, they require some special attention.”
Perfect. I’m not chasing crazies. I don’t care what it pays.
“Do they wander at night?”
“No.” Zanna fumbled his pen. “No, we have measures in place to prevent that. They get a little confused now and then to be sure, but it‘s perfectly safe. They refuse to sleep at night, so things are a little busier then, we accept that here. At their age, I feel they should be allowed to do as they please; within reason, of course.”
“Of course.” More red flags were hoisted in her mind.
“It’s not like that,” Zanna said as if he could read her concerns. “Sunset is a privately funded facility. Our residents are expected to abide by the rules. However, they still need their independence and our compassion. Surely, you understand? The direct care is handled by our night attendant. Anna’s been with us forever; she’s a wonderful woman, but human compassion is not her forte. I’ll be counting on you to supply that.”
“When can I start?”
Brianne left Sunset fingering a new name badge and battling an intense craving for pizza. Extra garlic, please.
A huge smile lit her face. She had a new job, the potential for a new life—and when the Pinto started on the first try—cause for a celebration. Brianne made a left onto Gaffey and headed for Buono’s Pizzeria determined to spend the last of her cash on her sudden craving.
At three in the afternoon, the restaurant was almost empty. Brianne no longer went out at regular mealtimes or during the daily commutes. There were things worse than eating alone--much worse.
She had made up her mind no to be one of those women cowering at the shelter. Nevertheless, she was cautious. She wasn’t going to be Kyle’s prisoner for the rest of her life.
I’ll die first!
That was the one point on which she and Kyle were in agreement.
The pizza came and Brianne pushed the thought aside. This was a celebration. The world always looked brighter through layers of mozzarella, provolone, tomatoes, and garlic. Comfort food. She felt better already.
An hour later, Brianne dropped the box containing the remnants of her pizza on the passenger’s seat and slipped behind the wheel of the Pinto. Instant terror pumped ice water through her veins when she glanced into the rearview mirror. Brianne gasped for breath. A black pickup with a leering skull in the back window rolled slowly past.
The Pinto’s engine ground and refused to fire. Red lights flared in the corner of the mirror—brake lights.
Brianne twisted the key again. The engine coughed to life. She threw the car in gear; stomped the accelerator and bounced between parked cars into the street. Sanity returned somewhere north of the Pacific Coast Highway. Brianne made a series of turns to make sure she wasn’t followed and retreated to the shelter. Behind locked doors, Brianne buried her face in a pillow and sobbed away the lingering fear.
The close call scared the hell out of Brianne. It also steeled her. The next evening, she bundled her fear into the driver’s seat and went to work as planned. Sue, the day nurse who taken her on a tour the day before, was waiting.
“You’re early,” Sue said. “I like you better all the time.”
“I have a thing about being late.” Brianne put her purse on the desk.
“Did you bring a book? Oh, no matter, there’s a library down the hall. You’re sure to find something there,” Sue said as she gathered her things.
“What about the patients?”
“We call them residents, honey,” Sue reminded. “Anna will take care of them. Sit back, read a book, enjoy life.”
“Anything else?” Brianne asked.
Sue’s face turned to stone. “Always wear your name tag.”
At half-past nine laughter drew Brianne from her office. The long hall to the residential wing was alive with silver-haired people. There was not a cane or walker to be seen. The impeccably dressed group descended on the new nurse with a bounce in their step, shoulders back and straight, and heads held high.
Max was in German film until the Nazis came to power. On his arm was a regal beauty, with a Slavic accent, named Elizabeth. New Englanders Mercy and Simon came west after losing children to illness. Michelle was drawn to Hollywood in the 40’s. Richard grew up in Sacramento.
The group, though reticent about themselves, was eager to hear all about Brianne. Their interest in her personal life rather than seeming to pry melted her heart with tenderness. She was swept along with the group into atria where silver moonlight filtered through a high glass ceiling to paint an eclectic collection of furnishings with a pale light. Each in one the group seemed to gravitate toward a favored seat. She soon learned from them that, save for their beds, the chairs were the only cherished possessions each one was allowed to keep.
“I love the starlight,” Mercy swept a hand skyward before joining Simon and Michelle rifling through a stack of old records. The likes of Glen Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman filled the room with Big Band bounce. Brianne joined the others at a table near the windows. Elizabeth leaned to whisper in her ear before taking a seat.
“Do you play cards?” Richard asked.
“Not very well. Perhaps one of the others.” Brianne nodded towards the group by the phonograph.
“They won’t play,” Richard groused. “They’re prisoners of a puritanical upbringing.”
Richard fanned the cards and vanished the deck with a turn of his hand. The cards appeared in his other hand and he began to shuffle. Richard’s hands deftly worked the deck while his eyes never left Brianne.
“I’ve been warned about you,” she said with a wink and pointed at Elizabeth.
“Lies, all lies,” Richard assured her. The impish mischief in his eyes made her smile.
“You can be Richard’s partner.” Elizabeth offered the chair opposite Richard. “Max and I are wise to him.”
“Ruffs and Honours?” Max asked.
Richard began to deal.
Somewhere amid the turning of cards; Big band boogie and tales of days long past, the sky turned a deep violet that gave way to a rose-tinted gray to the east. Anna began lowering shades over the windows and closing the retractable covering overhead.
“I’m done in,” Richard said. He stifled a yawn. “Think I’ll go to bed.”
“Will you come again tomorrow night?” Elizabeth asked.
“Of course, I will.” Brianne laid a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder.
Elizabeth’s skin felt cold even through her dress. Brianne jumped surprised by the sensation.
“Are you alright, dear?” A cloud passed over Elizabeth’s face.
“I’m fine,” Brianne said. “It’s been a long night.”
“Come along, Madame.” Anna took Elizabeth’s hand. “Time for bed.”
As Anna steered her down the hall, Elizabeth glanced back and waved at Brianne. At the end of the hall the residents parted company; women to the left; men to the right. Doors closed and silence descended on Sunset Assisted Living.
“I see you survived the night. How was it?” Sue asked as the clock in the office moved to seven.
“Great. They’re lovely.” Brianne was beaming. “I may like being a nurse again.”
“Yeah, well be careful,” Sue warned. “Those lovely old souls have fangs.”
Brianne couldn’t help but laugh. So, it was possible to become cynical no matter where you worked.
The sun cast a corona about the base of the Point Fermin Lighthouse. The Pacific dressed in shimmering gold gently rocked a tanker awaiting the pilot boat. Unseen from her cliff-top view the surf beat against the rocks sending explosions of foam high into the air. Brianne stood drinking in the tangy smell of the ocean until the morning chill sent her to the shelter of her car.
Brianne whistled Big Band tunes and tapped the steering wheel in time. In a week she’d be free of the shelter. She was jazzed. She kicked out of her clothes moments after entering her room drawn by the overpowering, silent invitation of her bed. Her eyelids quickly came tumbling down.
That evening Brianne again found herself whistling the melodies of the Glen Miller Orchestra and dreaming of the new convertible in her future. She bounced to the door of the Sunset, eager to spend another night with “her” residents. It was silly to think of them that way so soon, but her heart had a mind all its own.
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a black Ford pass by. But when she turned to look, it was gone. She brushed the thought aside. There are myriads of black Ford pickups in Southern California. She went cheerfully inside.
The residents appeared as they had the night before. Brianne joined them beneath the stars where Anna had set a table with champagne and finger food. Brianne settled for tea and sampled a delicacy called Black Sausage. Plates laden with food and drink, the card players gathered at their table. The others were off to their music.
Two hands into the game, Anna appeared phone in hand.
“A call for you, Ms. Christopher.” She looked like she sipped rancid milk.
‘Who would be…calling…me?” Before he spoke; she knew. The color drained from Brianne’s face; her lip quivered and her eyes grew wide. Brianne clamped a hand over her mouth but a whimper slipped through her fingers.
“Nice place.” Kyle slurred through the phone. “See you in the morning.”
The line when dead.
A numb emptiness seemed to swallow her filling her with blackness. She needed a drink but her trembling hands managed only to slosh champagne on her blouse. Tears of frustration and despair coursed down Brianne’s cheeks. Mercy took the glass from Brianne and tried to steady her.
“Let me help.” Elizabeth tipped Brianne‘s face up to hers.
Ashamed, Brianne tried to look away. Something moved in Elizabeth’s eyes. Impossible, but there it was again. Brianne leaned closer. A single, white feather, like the ones from Grandma‘s pillows, floated on a soft breeze. Brianne felt the wind on her face and in her hair. She was floating too.
“Enough Elizabeth,” Max ordered.
Elizabeth released her. Brianne looked into the worried faces surrounding her. She was back in the ER again--bloody and battered. She fled to the staff restroom before the tears came back. Brianne was certain, this time, the tears would never stop. But of course, they did. Life goes on.
Brianne looked in the mirror. Despite the snot running from her nose and her red, puffy eyes, for the first time in years she did not see the ugly creature Kyle said lived in her skin. Behind the mucous and tears was a woman of worth; delicate as a flower or--perhaps a feather.
Brianne blew her nose; wiped her eyes; and splashed cold water on her face. Some of the redness and swelling were gone. Anna knocked before entering with a dry scrub top. Brianne washed out her blouse in the sink and hung it to dry. She would go face the questions. She’d done it before.
Will it ever stop? Ever be the last time?
When she stepped out of the restroom. Simon lifted his head sniffing the air. Richard began to lick his lips, spittle running down his chin. Mercy threw back her head sucking down deep drafts some unknown scent. Elizabeth chomped the air. Max clawed his way through the group as he rushed toward her.
Shed of the mantle of civility. the residents of Sunset closed on Brianne like starving wolves, lips drawn back, fangs bared, and eyes burning like coals. Death was coming. Brianne the agnostic, crossed herself. A hand seized Brianne.
“No!” Anna screamed. She stepping in front of Brianne an uplifted crucifix in one tiny hand.
“For God’s sake, get in there and get your name badge on,” Anna commanded.
Brianne scrambled to comply. She snatched the badge from the sink and pulled the lanyard over her head. She collapsed onto the floor.
Oh God…Oh God…Oh God…
The thought played like a mantra through her brain. A knock on the door brought the walls closing in. Brianne screamed.
“Ms. Christopher,” Anna called. “Everything’s alright. I’m coming in.”
A small squeak escaped Brianne’s throat. Anna came in and sat next to Brianne on the floor. She put an arm around the nurse’s shoulders. Her voice was soft and warm. Brianne silently soaked in Anna‘s words.
Once the existence of vampires is accepted, it’s easy to believe a certain lapse in self-restraint marks the undead’s long road to dementia. Assisted living for vampires in a refurbished funeral home even made sense.
“The view here is lovely,” Anna finally said. “But we really should get back to work.”
In the parlor, the monsters were gone. In their place sat six contrite senior citizens heads hung like guilty children.
“We’re sorry,” Max confessed. There were tears in his eyes.
“Don’t leave us, Brianne,” Elizabeth pleaded.
“Please,” Mercy chimed in. “It won’t happen again.”
Tears flowed. The unreality Brianne felt vanished. Her charges were more human than diabolical. A strange acceptance and peace settled over Brianne. There was, indeed, nothing new under the sun.
“Who was that on the phone, dear?” Mercy asked as the world spun toward a new normal.
“The man I’m divorcing.” It was Brianne’s turn to hang her head.
“Is he mean to you, dear?”
Brianne nodded unable to speak.
“There is a way to be free.” Simon pushed the phone towards Brianne.
The group was smiling at her. There was a twinkle in Simon’s eye.
“Why not invite him over to work things out.”
It took a moment. A smile crept onto Brianne’s lips and slowly blossomed across her face. She felt as light and free as a little white feather.