Night shift 12:01, Friday, April 23
She plodded to the chart rack, reached for a tissue and wiped at the moisture collecting beneath the collar of her burgundy scrub jacket. Lightly she tapped the button of the ancient desk fan. The tired motor spiked instantly creating a soft whirring sound.
Every night, shortly after midnight, for the past two years, before starting her shift, summer or winter, Selma Barclay R.N., turned on the desk fan. The hum of the fan soothed her, shielded her from the blaring, wheezing, sleep noises emanating from the nine elderly, long term residents of Bentley Psychiatric Ward.
She looked down the darkened hallway and studied the red neon Exit sign. From her place behind the glass of the nursing station she could see the entire length of the ten bed unit.
She hated night shift on the psychiatric ward. She hated the drone of sleeping humanity. She hated the curling bits of yellow paper hanging from the bulletin board notices nobody read or removed. But mostly she hated night shifts.
She’d requested a transfer to day shifts months ago, but her Nursing Supervisor denied her request. She rubbed her hand over tired eyes. For two years now she’d worked the back shift. Midnight till Seven AM.
Recently she’d begun to fantasize about going into Room 101 and holding a pillow over the face of Alvin MacAroy, a toothless old man who’d been a resident of Bentley Ward for more than fifteen years. In her mind she could see herself, placing the clean white pillow over his face until he ceased his rattling wheezing breath. She wondered if then, the Nursing Supervisor might reconsider a transfer to day shift. Thinking about the pillow brought a smile to her face. A smile that failed to touch her eyes.
Night shift 4:15, Friday, April 23
Three hours left in the long and bleary night. Gulping from a red and white thermos standing at her elbow, she felt the hot coffee sting the back of her throat. She’d made her hourly rounds, she’d replenished the Kardex, and checked the drug cupboard, and she’d filed the blood work and checked to make sure the charts had been signed.
She had caught herself nodding off a time or two, each time jerking upright, startled, disoriented, wondering where or who she was. She wanted to put her head down on the desk and close her eyes, for a minute, just one minute, but she couldn’t. She knew she couldn’t. She was the only staff member on Bentley ward, the only staff.
The desk fan helped her block out the sleeping sounds, but even the fan couldn’t entirely block out the wheezing rattle from room 101. For the hundredth time she thanked God for the desk fan. She didn’t know what she would do without it.
For the second time Friday night, she wondered what it would be like to go from room to room carrying the pillow. Holding the pillow snugly over the face of each piece of sleeping humanity until all the rasping sounds stopped. Eight dead bodies. Eight quiet dead bodies, eight soundless people. Maybe then the Nursing Supervisor would take her off night shifts. She wondered if she was losing it. If maybe she’d been working psych too long.
Impatiently she scrawled her name on each of the patient charts, Selma Barclay R.N. champion of the underdog, defender of the weak, always rises to the challenge. They said that once, on an evaluation form, but that was years ago. Now she was tired, bone weary tired. Three more hours tonight, and one more night shift tomorrow. Then she’d be off for four blessed days. She could do it. She was a nurse. Of course she could do it. Eleven hours total, three tonight, eight tomorrow, then she would sleep. Really sleep. She could do one more night shift – of course she could.
Evening Shift 21:10, Saturday, April 24
Through fogged filled mind, seventeen year old runaway, Angel Mason, struggled against the bite of hand restraints that dug at her wrists.
“Whoa, child, hold still.” The male voice was gentle, soothing.
Angel’s tongue felt thick. It was an effort to model her words. She wanted to speak to the man, to ask him why her hands were tied to the rail of the bed, but she couldn’t get the sounds to form. She thrashed about, pulling from side to side.
“Easy child, there’s nothing here to hurt you now.”
Angel opened her eyes. The boyish face of a man came into view. He wore a blue linen shirt, a black stethoscope draped about his neck. His name tag identified him as “Beauregard Adams.”
Angel fought for memory. She’d been at an all night party out on Long Island beach. She remembered taking a thing called purple microdot. It wasn’t the first time she’d tried drugs, but this time the rocks on the beach started to melt and the shadows of the trees along the cliff took on shapes of monsters with horns poised for attack.
“What’s happening?” Angel croaked, trying to still a sense of rising panic.
“Must have had a bad acid trip. Don’t fight it kid and you’ll be back on the streets in less than seventy two hours.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re safe.” He said. “You’re on Bentley Ward, at Island View.” And then he added, “The only reason you’re on chronic psychiatric is because acute is full.” As if it would make any difference to her, which ward she was on.
Angel saw both wrists tied and buckled to silver side rails and the position caused a dull ache between her shoulder blades. “My hands?” she asked, wiggling her fingers.
“It’s nothing, just precaution, you were pretty wild when the paramedics brought you in.” The assistant’s voice was friendly and warm, but his warmth did nothing to assuage her mounting fear.
“Please,” she begged, holding back tears. “Can’t you release me?”
“Aw, honey, old Beau here is just an orderly. But tell you what; if you settle down and get some sleep, I’ll leave a note for the night nurse, Selma Barclay. She’s a good one she is. Looking tired lately though. I’ll tell her you don’t cotton to your restraints.” He gave Angel’s purple spikes a fatherly pat and promised to check on her before he went off duty. “Oh,” he added, as an after thought, “don’t be alarmed by Aggie over there, she’s a little off, harmless though.”
Aggie, had to be at least eighty, but it was hard to judge. Aggie was the only other patient in the room. She stood in the corner clutching a rag doll to her sagging bosom. “Pretty baby, settle down pretty baby,” she crooned to the lifeless creature cradled in her arms.
Faded blue eyes peeked at Angel. “Get some sleep, it’s okay pretty baby.” She shuffled towards Angel and flashed a toothless grin. It was then that Angel Mason sought the blessed relief of unconsciousness.
Angel dreamt she was shackled to a tree and a grinning, gaping bear was trying to swallow her whole.
“Angel, Wake up! Wake up! I’ve brought you some juice.” Alice Munroe the evening charge nurse, tried to arouse the new admission.
“No, I, No, I don’t want juice.” Angel pulled her head away from the plastic straw being pressed against her lips.
“Look miss, it’s like this. I have nine old people to attend to and get to bed, most of them senile. You can refuse if you want to, but If I were you, I’d take the juice.”
Angel held her ground. “Please, I don’t need juice. Just unbuckle me.”
“Can’t do it honey. I really can’t. I don’t have a Doctor’s order.”
Angel focused on the nurse, “but the man, the Doctor was here earlier.”
Alice laughed softly. “You must mean Beauregard. He’s not a Doctor. What did he tell you?”
Angel kept her tone calm. “He said, if I slept, the night nurse would take these buckles off my wrists.”
“Humph! Selma might remove them when she comes on, but I’m not going to. I told you, I don’t have a Doctor’s order. And I don’t ever, and I mean ever, do anything without a Doctor’s order. Now do you want this juice or don’t you?”
“Suit yourself honey. You can refuse.”
“Okey, dokey, but don’t go saying I didn’t offer you something.” Angel watched as the evening charge nurse wheeled the medication cart over to the old woman who was sitting on the bed still cradling the dirty rag doll.
“Have you been to the toilet, Aggie?”
Aggie nodded and then as if she were a child and not a wizened old crone she said, “Aggie flushed, Aggie flushed.”
“Good girl! Here then Aggie, here’s your sleeping pill and a laxative.” Aggie held out gnarled hands, drank the brown fluid from the little plastic med cup and popped the pill into her gaping, slack jaw. “Sleep pretty baby, sleep.”
“Yes dear. You sleep, but first let me fix your panties.”
Angel watched as the nurse adjusted the plastic underwear, pulling it snug over brown wrinkled skin. “You don’t want to have messy bum, now do you, that will just make work for Selma.”
Aggie pulled back. “Selma bad mommy! Selma bad mommy!”
“Tut, now Aggie, you know you can’t say that.”
The charge nurse shot Angel an apologetic look. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her, for the last few months or so she has been calling Selma a bad mommy.”
The nurse looked at Angel and made a circling sign with her finger to her head, and whispered, “cuckoo you know.”
For the first time since she’d been admitted, Angel Mason laughed. Not because the Nurse was making cuckoo signs. But because she could see the old woman mimicking the gesture while the nurse’s back was turned.
Angel decided if she was going to spend the night tied to her bed in a mental ward she’d better find out who Aggie was. She felt kind of sorry for the old lady, having to wear a diaper and all. Angel had learned enough living on the streets the past few years to know it made more sense to make friends than to look for enemies.
“That’s a pretty doll Aggie. Can you bring it closer so I can see it?”
The old woman shuffled forward until she stood a few paces from Angel’s bed. Tentatively the old women reach out and gingerly poked the top of Angel ‘s spiked purple hair. “Oh, pretty baby,” she said. Patting first Angel’s hair and then what was left of the yellow wool of the rag doll. Aggie’s eyes grew wide as she saw Angel’s wrists restrained by the buckle straps. Her wizened old face began to crumple and Angel thought Aggie was about to cry. “Oh poor baby, poor baby,” Aggie said, running dry warm fingers over Angel’s hand.
Angel held her breath, barely daring to make a motion. “Aggie,” she whispered. “Do you think you could undo my hand?”
To be continued…
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