My grandmother warned me we’re haunted by those we’ve wronged, but I never took her literally until that snowy night in January 1996. The three of us, Judd Garrett, Nancy Alvin, and me huddled in the narrow passage between the back of the nursing home and the wall of concrete blocks hiding the dumpster. We propped the heavy metal door next to the laundry open with a chair while we snuck out for a smoke, stomping our feet against the cold. Judd leaned against through bricks of the building, the warm fog from the dryer vent drifted up and around him.
“Cold as a bitch tonight,” he said, blowing out a stream of smoke. Judd held his cigarette pinched between his index finger and thumb. His hands were tattooed between the knuckles with “Love and Hate” in black jailhouse ink.
“This damn snow,” said Nancy as she tossed down her butt. It sizzled in the bank of frozen white piled up against the side of the dumpster. The winter blizzard had shut down the roads and stranded us here at work. The graveyard shift, who would have been our replacements, could not get here, and so we were working through the night.
I glanced at my watch, 2:00 am. “I need coffee,” I said, and shook out another cigarette.
“I drink any more coffee I’m gonna shit my pants,” Judd said. His foot tapped against the concrete. Nancy and I had stopped to grab coats before stepping outside, but Judd’s arms were bare, with just the thin cotton of his uniform between him and the cold. His mint green scrubs hung loose on him, like a kid dressed up as a doctor for Halloween. Looking at the dark circles under his eyes, I thought to myself it wasn’t coffee that made him so jittery.
“We need to go back in,” Nancy squinted at the line of light from the open door.
I leaned over from where I stood across the doorway from Judd and stuck my head inside. The hallway was quiet and undisturbed but for the thump of the dryers.
“Let me finish this one.” I waved the cigarette at Nancy. “Rounds can wait longer, everyone’s tucked in and we still got a long night ahead.” Judd and I were two of the four nurses’ aides on duty that night, tasked with the unpleasant cleaning and checking duties. Nancy dispensed the medicine and handled all the charting for our shift.
Judd sighed and nodded. He stretched his back then bounced on his heels, excited.
“Hey, truth or dare, what’s the worst thing you ever done?” He looked first at me, then Nancy. She blinked at him, and I didn’t believe she would answer. If she did, I couldn’t imagine her confession. Nancy was older than Judd and me by at least thirty years. She was the head R.N. on the night shift. When I started there last year, she told me she’d worked at the home half her life. I guessed she enjoyed working with the old people, most of us wound up there as a last resort, low pay for hard work.
Round faced and round bodied, with a cap of grey permed curls, Nancy looked like everyone’s favorite grandmother. The one who baked cookies and slipped you dollars for candy. We waited there a minute or two, and I tapped out my cigarette against the heel of my shoe, prepared to go inside, when Nancy spoke up.
“I’ll tell you the worst thing I ever did,” she said. It happened, she told us, back when she was still in school, working toward her nursing degree. She had a job here as a nurse’s aide, putting in eight-hour shifts after going to classes all day.
“I was tired all the time,” she said. “We had a resident here we called Preacher. Because he used to be one before he retired. By the time his family moved him in here, he didn’t know day from night, but he remembered his bible verses and he’d stand in the tv room and sermonize while folks were trying to watch Price is Right.” Nancy smiled at this memory before she continued.
“He wandered,” she said, and Judd and I nodded, knowing exactly what she meant. Old folks might walk out of the nursing home and get hit by a car. Or die of exposure on a night like tonight. This was why our doors stayed locked at night, and all the entrances had alarms that buzzed if someone pushed the doors open from inside.
“I was so tired that night. After we fed everyone dinner, I walked Preacher back to his room and sat him down in a chair in front of the tv. Turned the channel to a baseball game, I knew he’d like that. But he kept trying to get up from the chair, and I had to go check on the rest of my folks.” She paused, and I knew what would come next.
“I took a sheet and wrapped it around his waist, tied him to the chair,” she said.
Judd shrugged. “That’s not so bad, Miss Nancy. A sheet? That didn’t do no harm.”
Nancy shook her head. “No, that’s not the worst thing. I forgot about him, left Preacher sitting there five hours, tied to that chair.” She looked right at me, but she saw something, someone else as she continued. “I remembered right as I was clocking out, ran down the hall and pushed open the door. He was in the chair, sitting there so quiet I believed he was asleep.”
Her chest rose and fell and I wondered if she’d finished the story when she said, her voice shaking, “He died. Sitting there alone in the dark, tied to that chair.”
“You didn’t kill him, Nancy,” I said. She strode past me, into the warmth and light of the nursing home. Judd followed, and I trailed after, shutting and pushing against the metal fire door to be certain it locked. I rubbed the sleeve of my coat across the glass pane of the window next to the exit, peering outside at the blowing snow. The wind howled and pushed against the door. As much as Nancy’s story rattled me, I was glad we’d come inside before Judd asked for mine.
At 4:00 am I gathered supplies for my cart from the closet behind the nurses’ station before I set out to check on the residents on my wing. The rooms were arranged along four hallways, ranging out from the nurse’s station in the center like spokes on a wheel. The overhead lights were dimmed, the halls lit by the glow of bulbs installed below the handrails running down both sides of the corridor. At the front of the nursing home the dining room and lobby were dark.
“Nancy’s story creeped me out,” Judd said as he stacked sheets and towels on his cart. “Hey Nancy,” he called, “what room was the Preacher’s?”
“14B,” she answered, without looking up from the chart she worked on.
“That’s your lucky number, Addie.” Judd grinned at me and winked. “You want me to hold your hand when you check on Miss Lawrence?”
“No thanks,” I said. I pushed my cart past him, brushing against his side so he had to hop out of the way. “I got this,” I told him.
The other two aides, Glenna and Miriam, had already started their rounds. I could see each of their carts parked at the end of the corridors, outside closed doors on the C and D wings. The rubber soles of my shoes made little squeaking noises as I walked down the hallway. I started at the front of the wing, saving 14 for last.
Most of the rooms on B were doubles, and I pushed open the door to each room. I went from bed to bed, changing sheets and gowns on any resident who’d wet or soiled themselves. The ambulatory patients were the easiest. For these I had to glance in, make sure everyone slept and nothing needed attention. Room 14 was a single, just one bed. Miss Lawrence got around well on her own, so I figured I’d be in and out quickly.
I paused with my palm flat on the surface of the door to 14B. The heat kicked on and the door shuddered against the frame before I pushed it open. Most nursing home rooms are laid out in a familiar pattern, the floor plan aimed toward ease of care instead of artistry. Dressers were built into the wall across from the beds, with sliding doors covering the closets. In the single rooms the bed could be rolled over to rest under the one large window in the room or pushed against the wall nearest the door to the hallway. Miss Lawrence’s bed was arranged under the window.
As I walked into the room, the door closed automatically behind me, blocking out the faint light from the corridor. A small nightlight cast a circle of yellow, illuminating the squat bedside table and the chair covered in vinyl next to the bed. I bent to adjust the covers over the sleeping woman, turning my back to the chair. While I inspected the rail to make sure it was locked in place, I wondered if this were the same chair the Preacher sat in the night he died.
The heavy drapes covering the window gaped open in the center and I leaned forward, across the bed to pull them closed. Outside snow swirled in gusts of wind, the flurries lit up by the security light in the parking lot outside. As I pulled the curtains closed, three things happened. Miss Lawrence snuffled and stirred in her sleep, a draft of cold air wafted across the back of my neck, and I heard a strangled sound, like a sob, from behind me where the chair sat next to the bed.
I stood there, frozen in place. The hair on my arms raised, and I shivered, even as the heat came on again and blew warm air from the vent above me. Refusing to look toward the chair I backed out of the room and kept my head turned toward the floor until my heels bumped against the door. I pulled the door open, not daring to glance into the room until I stood in the hallway.
What I saw in that chair should not have existed. The things that haunt our past feed off our guilt, hiding in our thoughts until we summon them forth with some action or memory. Triggered from nightmares into reality. The ghost in the chair was not Nancy’s Preacher.
Three years in the past I made a mistake that cost someone their life. An error in judgement, a mistake with medication that might have been passed over had I not been high on Oxy and if the patient, a twelve-year-old boy, had lived. The door swung shut, blocking out the sight of the child in the hospital gown, his legs and arms thin as sticks and white as chalk.
On my way to the laundry to empty the hamper on my cart I passed Nancy. I wanted to stop and ask her what she saw in room 14B. I wondered if she carried the Preacher with her always, if they ever left us or if we’d always see them, the ones we’ve wronged.