by KT Wagner
One foot, then the other. Enid Bailey shifts her weight back and forth. Standing too long locks up her knees, and it’s become worse since the accident. From the bottom step of the shadowed porch, she peers into the dark. What kind of people don’t leave a light on at night?
The moon is waning, but still bright. A night bird flaps past, briefly silhouetted. She recognizes the owl and smiles.
Up the stairs she trudges, lifts the iron ring and taps it against the door. The sound echoes on the other side of the door. The scent of lilacs clogs her nose and she stifles a sneeze. The faint licorice scent confirms it; the white lilacs are, Lemoine, the variety Miss Wilson requested.
Miss Wilson whispered to Enid about her wish to savour the perfume of Lemoine one last time. Each night, for a week now, right before her midnight cleaning shift at the seniors’ home, Elysium Manor, Enid searched the neighbourhood for this exact variety.
Enid frowns. The blossoms are fading; she cannot wait another day to ask permission. Surely the homeowners will understand. Miss Wilson, the poor soul, shouldn’t have to suffer another year.
She slips a pair of garden shears from her uniform pocket.
Bouquet cut, Enid unties her thin cotton apron, borrowed from the manor kitchen, and lays it on the ground. The faded stain on the front of her uniform is now exposed. She hesitates, swallows and reminds herself that no-one will notice on the dark streets.
Her fingers brush across the embroidered logo on the right breast pocket of her shirt—Tri-city Janitorial Services. Twenty-six years and an impeccable employee record at the Central City Residence. She’d taken pride in the job when others considered it a stop gap, or a stepping stone to something better. Not Enid, she loved her job. Maybe she should have explained that better? At the end, when she’d slowed down a little, they’d tossed her aside like she was worth nothing.
Stop thinking about it, she chides herself and tries to return her attention to the task at hand. She wraps the lilac bouquet in the apron and carefully straightens. Her bones pop and creak.
Despite arthritic joints she didn’t log a single sick day in over twenty years, but did that count for anything? No, of course not. They were so kind on the surface, but within the soft words they were hard-hearted. She had to leave.
They offered her two choices: the night shift at Elysium Manor or they’d move her to her daughter’s, all the way across the country to a place she’d never even visited. She picked the manor of course. She could still be of service.
They didn’t even issue her a new uniform.
She first heard the owls at the Central City Residence, not long before her fall. It shames her to remember that owls called and she didn’t answer, so she tells no one.
A lump rises in her throat. It’s so unfair, but she’s trying to get past it and make a difference where she is.
Sulphur-yellow street lights cast long shadows. She hobbles along the sidewalk, her cane tapping against crumbling cement. She is only a bit wobbly and doesn’t use it at work. They might misunderstand and the vacuum keeps her steady enough.
A man walking his dog nods and pauses. She smiles, nods back and continues on her way.
Rounding the corner, Enid glares at the crooked sign for Elysium Manor–such a pretentious name. The nursing home is a one-story building with a flat roof, tiny windows and dented aluminum siding. A twenty-foot laurel hedge shields the neighbours from the eyesore.
Slipping in the staff entrance, Enid pauses in the dark kitchen, and arranges the flowers in an industrial-size metal measuring cup to deliver later.
Her job here is not particularly hard, vacuuming and light dusting mostly. At first, she was concerned about the noise of the vacuum, but most of the residents are either deep sleepers or turn off their hearing aids at night. Only a handful are awake during her shift, her night owls. She smiles. They assure her the noise from the vacuum isn’t a problem. Only Abagail, the night nurse, seems bothered, but she’s always grumpy. Enid finds it best to avoid her.
The work soothes. She’s only responsible for the corridors and common areas. In the heart of the night they are deserted and dark. Sometimes, despite the ache in her bones, she fancies herself young again. Those dreams help pass the time.
On her break, she delivers the lilacs to Miss Wilson. The former gardener resembles a snowy owl with her puff of white hair and pale, desiccated skin.
Enid places the bouquet on a metal trolley and pushes it up to the bedrail. Miss Wilson struggles onto her elbows and leans toward the blossoms. Enid longs to help her, but it’s strictly against the rules for cleaning staff to touch patients. She’s proud of being a model employee.
She squints around the room. Boxes are piled in the corner behind the late Mrs. Rosenberg’s bed. The pile obscures half the window. A surge of anger tightens Enid’s chest. It’s inhumane the way some residents are treated. This may be one of the city’s charity homes, but that doesn’t excuse the callousness on display.
She misses Mrs. Rosenberg, her burrowing owl. The poor woman pined for the books she loved. On breaks Enid read to Mrs. Rosenberg from novels she found in the tiny resident library. It happened in the middle of a chapter from Jane Eyre. The old woman sighed a contented sigh and a radiance lit her face, and she was gone. Enid smiles at the memory of Mrs. Rosenberg.
Miss Wilson smiles back and exhales a rattling sigh. She falls back onto her pillow, cradling a blossom against her chest. Her face glows. “Thank-you my dear. Thank-you.”
It’s hard to respond. Miss Wilson’s eyes flutter close. Enid’s eyes are moist. “You’re welcome,” she whispers.
Miss Wilson appears almost transparent. Enid watches for a minute, then carefully backs out of the room and closes the door.
Enid always feels displaced and confused after tending to one of her owls. Pushing the vacuum around the front hall calms the crashing waves in her head. Her uniform is wrinkled and her apron damp. She smooths the material with her free hand and steers the vacuum back into the corridor between the resident rooms. Her shoulders hunch and her head bows as she shuffles along.
At times like this the injury bothers her the most. The doctors told her she’d have to learn to live with the pain. It’s a miracle you survived a fall down a flight of stairs, they said, like she should be thankful to be alive and not complain.
Mrs. Peterson’s keening cry is haunting and sad, like a great gray owl, and it tugs Enid away from her own misery. A flash of anger straightens Enid’s back. Nurse Abigail’s ability to ignore the crying, night after night, speaks to the woman’s missing soul.
It would be heartless to wait until after her shift to visit Mrs. Peterson.
“Have you found her?” Mrs. Peterson asks when Enid enters her room.
“I’m sorry, I still need to call the number the lady on Bracken Avenue mentioned,” she whispers, though she wonders why she bothers; Mrs. Peterson’s roommate sleeps like the dead.
The roommate arrived two days ago and Enid still hasn’t learned her name. There are many residents she doesn’t know because they keep daylight hours. A chill finger of regret runs down her spine and her fists clench. She misses the dayshift and the sunshine.
“Please, please call tonight.” Mrs. Peterson’s reedy voice echoes through the room.
Enid longs to wrap her arms around the old woman and comfort her. “I’ll try.”
She met Mrs. Peterson her first night at Elysium Manor. Some of the others liked to chitchat, but the frail woman got straight to the point. “Find my daughter. I was never a good mother, but I want her to know that I always loved her. It’s my only wish.”
The address she provided was a few blocks further than Enid normally ventured. When she finally found it late one evening, the woman who answered the door laughed. “Mrs. Peterson? Pretty sure that old bitty died a decade ago. Her daughter moved to Long Point. Check the phone book.”
Enid hesitates to telephone in the middle of the night, and Nurse Abagail is sure to find out about an unauthorized long-distance call.
Mrs. Peterson’s mouth stretches wide and an undulating cry fills the room.
Enid abandons her vacuum in the room and heads down the hall to the office. Surely, Nurse Abagail will understand.
With trembling fingers, she punches in the number from memory.
“Hello?” The woman at the other end of the line sounds tired and annoyed. “Who is this? I have call display. Why is Elysium Manor calling me in the middle of the night?”
Enid repeats Mrs. Peterson’s message quickly and waits. There is a sound like a sob, then silence. The silence expands.
Finally, a chilly response. “You must have your Petersons mixed up. My mother is long in the ground.”
A click and the line disconnects.
Enid sighs. Another dead end.
She hurries through the silent hall to tell Mrs. Peterson they have to keep looking.
Nurse Abagail waits outside the old lady’s door. “Enid, why don’t you lie down for a bit?” She doesn’t sound grumpy; she sounds tired.
Enid stops in confusion.
Nurse Abagail holds open the door.
Mrs. Peterson isn’t in her bed.
“What have you done with Mrs. Peterson?” Enid clutches the door frame.
Nurse Abagail shakes her head. “You’ve outdone yourself tonight. I found the lilacs after a nice young man called in with a concern about a resident wandering the streets. And, why hide flowers in an empty room?”
Enid blinks. She stares at her vacuum. For the briefest moment, it looks like a walker. She blinks again.
“The lilacs were for Miss Wilson. I’ll apologize to the homeowners.”
“We don’t have a Miss—“
Nurse Abagail is always grumbling about something.
A new voice fills the corridor. Enid tilts her head. It sounds like a screech owl.
About the Author
KT Wagner loves reading and writing speculative fiction. Occasionally she ventures out of her writers’ cave to spend an hour or two blinking against the daylight, or reacquainting herself with family and friends. Several of her short stories are published and she is working on a sci-fi horror novel. She puts pen to paper in Maple Ridge, B.C. KT can be found online at www.northernlightsgothic.com and @KT_Wagner