I stare at my grandmother, sitting in the creaky plastic chair across the small beige diner-like table. I imagine her as she once was, distinguished silver hair pulled back in a ladylike bun. A lively twinkle in her dark eyes, wrinkles forming around her lips from laughing. In another life, she had carried herself with grace and dignity, back straight, shoulders pulled back with an air of decorum.
That is not the woman who watches my every miniscule movement now. Uncombed gray wires stand above her head in a wadded mass of tangles, like an uneven blob of steel wool. The deep creases in her face make her appear permanently shocked and terrified. Her eyes look like cavernous black voids now, no life emanating from them but unending fear that seems to pour from the very depths of her soul. A drab, baggy dress sits crookedly on her small frame, exposing one bony age-blemished shoulder. I move my hand toward my cup of tea, and her eyes dart from my face to my slow fingers like she’s a hawk.
She grabs it suddenly, her clawing nails biting into my wrist so hard I wince. “Ow, grandma! Let go!”
Her onyx eyes turn wild now, her sunken face twitching nervously. “That outfit! Where did you get it?” she yips.
“It’s a uniform,” I answer, rolling my eyes. “I thought mom told you I got a new job. They had an opening since you left.”
“No!” she shrieks violently, her frantic grasp yanking my nearly out of my seat. “You can’t! Quit, now! Get out of there before they get to you!”
I don’t have time to respond before the orderly rapidly intervenes, peeling her off me and dragging her towards the door, muttering that if she couldn’t behave she would be sent back to her room. Exasperated and rattled, I stand to leave.
“I was hoping you’d be better,” I call across the room as she is escorted out of the family meeting area. “But it doesn’t end, does it? You’re just as crazy as ever!”
Her screaming recedes down the hall as I storm out of the facility, fed up as always.
The elevator shudders as it nears the top floor, making my heart flutter. I shake my head to dislodge the unease as it comes to a shaky halt and the doors creak open. I step over the threshold, trying to calm my nerves as the lights – what few there are that work – flicker ominously. Under my breath I curse my boss for sending me to a closed floor to clean. It’s easy to blame him for this among everything. Overworked, underpaid, and looked down upon for being a toilet-scrubbing maid, I am constantly exhausted and enraged and the supervisor with his many human faults makes for an easy target. Really though, it’s not his fault that they keep two rooms open up here for traveling med students. If the space were available for them to sleep on an open floor, I’m sure they would. But it’s such a small local facility, we must make do with what we have.
Walking down the darkened hallway around the corner, I make my way to the rooms. “Housekeeping,” I call lightly as I knock on the wooden door. I slip my key into the lock when I hear no reply and walk inside, my gloved hands holding a sanitized cloth and toilet cleaner.
The stench hits me like a wall… That raw, heady boy smell, like my teenaged brother’s bedroom. The bed linen lies twisted and strewn across the mattress. A collection of personal belongings clutters the nightstand, street clothes sit in rumpled piles all over the floor like animal droppings, and various kinds of junk food sit on every flat surface in the room. Working my way through the mess, I reach the restroom and see a dirty towel tossed on the floor in front of the shower. The toilet seat is erect, water marks splatter the vanity mirror, and I find smeared toothpaste and beard clippings in the sink.
The irritated complaints never stop falling from my lips as I do my best to clean the disheveled room, careful not to upset his possessions.
Locking the door behind me and setting up my wet floor sign outside, I hold my breath as I approach the second room. Again, no answer, so I let myself in.
This time, it’s a pleasant surprise. The trash receptacles are almost entirely empty, the bed is perfectly made, only one towel in the hamper, and the restroom is practically spotless except for the handful of bottles of multivitamins sitting on the ledge of the vanity.
As I finish up, I murmur to myself, “If these two lived together, they would have killed each other. Hell, I would have killed the guy myself.”
I’m just closing the door behind me, when I hear something crash loudly inside. Jumping in terror, I rush back in to see what happened.
Before me stand a young man and woman in powder blue scrubs, screaming at each other. The lamp, which had previously been placed on the nightstand, is lying shattered on the freshly cleaned tile.
My lips part to express my concern, but stop short, too petrified to move any further. I watch in frigid, motionless horror as the man turns away from her angrily and begins to stalk towards me. He doesn’t even seem to notice I’m standing in his way, doesn’t bother to even meet my eyes. I fly out of the way, pressing myself against the wall, making myself as tiny as I can seconds before her storms past. An overwhelming urge to run engulfs me. Before I can react, however, the woman grabs a sturdy ceramic vase and hurls it directly at me. I duck, barely in time, and it soars over my head, crashing into the back of the man’s head with a nauseating thud. He drops to the floor before my eyes, blood pooling around him like thick crimson ink.
I don’t wait for the woman to turn her sights on me; I bolt from the room, leaping over the man’s body and skittering across the tile floor, heading clumsily for the stairwell. I refuse to wait for that ancient, rattling elevator. I race down the four flights of stairs, panting heavily, and sprint for the front desk.
“Rapid…response…” I wheeze, slumped over the counter. “Fourth floor…”
Jumping to action, she immediately called for the emergency response team over the intercom.
I tremble, heart thundering, my teeth physically clattering as I raise a shaking hand to unlock the door.
I had shakenly made my way to my boss’ office just after alerting the receptionist. After explaining the events that I had witnessed filled out the reports he handed me. I was sent home, an act of compassion on his part after what I’d just experienced.
He had called the next morning asking me a litany of questions of how much stress I was under at work and if I’d been feeling okay, then suggested I use some sick time to rest.
Today, however, I have finally returned to work. Per my boss’s request, I’ve gone to clean those same rooms. I am to report to him immediately after finishing with any details about how I handle the situation – an odd instruction, I think, but I’m not going to argue.
I open the first door, my breath shallow and uneven.
I expect everything to be cleared out. The blood-soaked body has been removed – this is a medical facility, after all. Surely they have completely washed down everything in the area. The hallway looks perfectly in order.
I realize with mildly horrified perplexity as that familiar stench fill my nostrils that that was not the case. Trash overflow from the cans, new piles of dirty laundry lay crumpled on the floor, and a freshly spilled soda sits tipped on the floor next to the bed. Confused, I back out of the room, shivering uneasily as I gently rap on the second door before unlocking it. I find it nearly spotless once again, with only a few minor wrinkles in the bedspread and a couple of vitamins scattered on the bedside table. Taking a deep breath, I reach for the work-issued phone in my pocket to dial my boss’ extensions. Had the med student recovered and been cleared for work? Had the girl not been arrested for assault? Was she even allowed to work here anymore, let alone be any near the man? All the items in the room appear to be her possessions from before, just disturbed enough to make it apparent that someone had recently been inside.
Just as I turn to retrieve my supplies from the cart, I hear a commotion as the two young people enter the room. I gasp as I watch the two fumble into the room, entangled in an embrace, clinging to one another in desperate passion. Again they don’t notice my presence, as if I’m a phantom. I don’t make a sound as he tosses her to the bed. She tears his shirt from his body, the buttons freed from their constraining threads, flying around the room in a shower of plastic baubles.
Mortified, I scurry from the room, leaving them to their endeavors. My cart of equipment abandoned, I hurry to the elevator and jabbed the button repeatedly, anxiously awaiting its arrival. I board before the doors are completely open and take it all the way down, making my way to my supervisor’s office. He opens the door once I’ve heartily knocked, his face stunned and then a bit…sad?
“Is the male student upstairs okay to work?” I ask in a rush as he eyes me warily. “The blow he took to the head seemed pretty severe.”
He doesn’t speak for a moment, then ushers me inside and closes the door. “Take a seat.”
I obey, apprehensive and uncomfortable under his disappointed gaze.
“Did you see anyone upstairs while you were cleaning?”
I nod slowly, to which his gaze intensifies. “The same med students as before.”
“Are you sure?” he presses, as if he’s hoping I’ll change my answer.
Again I nod. “I think they must have been having a lover’s quarrel the last time I was up there. They seem to have gotten over it now.”
He sighs, and I can see him press a button on his office phone. “Did you take my suggestion while you were off to see a therapist?”
Embarrassed, I shake my head. “No. It seemed silly. After all, I wasn’t the one that got hit on the back of the head.”
Taking a deep breath, he leans in a bit, as if bracing himself for something unpleasant. “Listen. There is no way you could have seen anyone up there today.”
I inhale sharply, shocked. “What?” Was this a joke?
“Today is not one of the days they are scheduled to stay here. No one’s been up there for several days.”
I stare at him, confused, and consider this. “Perhaps they were looking for some privacy. Maybe they live at home with their parents and needed some place to rendezvous.”
He shook his head, no longer meeting my eyes. “There wasn’t anyone upstairs the day you called the rapid response team unnecessarily either.”
My heart begins to sink as I struggle to grasp what he was saying. “But I saw them.”
“I’m not sure what you saw, but no one needed emergency medical attention on that floor that day. Except perhaps you.” His words sting, and while they seem almost playfully sarcastic, there is an oddly soft undertone as he tries to sound compassionate.
“I don’t understand. They were there! I saw them. I almost slipped in that man’s blood!”
He ignores my outburst, rising from his seat. “I think it’s time to get you some professional help.”
“No!” I shriek, suddenly incensed and desperate. “No, I am not my grandmother! I am not seeing things! They were there. You have to believe me.”
He stretches his hand toward me in what I imagine is supposed to be a comforting gesture, but I burst from the room and dash down the hall. I don’t wait for the elevator and instead bolt for the stairs. The climb is a long way up and I’m heaving by the time I reach the top. Winded, I sluggishly jog to the boarding rooms. And there he is once again, lying comatose on the floor, blood spilling onto the tile and staining those baby blue scrubs. I scream, the sound ripping from my throat like the call of a banshee, high and blood-curdling. Tentatively, I lean down to check him. I am frightened, but even more so I am bemused. I look up wildly and see his assailant, the distraught young woman, rushing toward us in a panic. Instinctively, I shoot up to block her path, to protect him from this insane lady.
My blood chills in my veins, every hair standing upright, a cold sweat dewing on my skin. Her body passed through mine, a frigid presence mingling with mine for the briefest moment, knocking the air from my lungs. I stood there, gasping in frozen fear as I turned to watch her kneel and weep over his lifeless body.
The elevator dings just as the scene dissipates before my eyes. I sink to my knees as security surrounds me. I can feel my body expelling energy, my lips parted and my lungs straining with the effort of my screaming, but I can no longer hear anything but the ringing in my ears. I succumb to their attempt to subdue me.
I sit in the common room, working studiously on a puzzle. My focus, however, is truly held by the frail old woman across the room. She rocks in her chair next to the windows, pretending to be working on her knitting, an orderly watching the needles cautiously from the seat next to. But really she is watching me as I am watching her. I shudder at the toothless grin that stretches her wrinkled face when she catches me staring. I shoot her a heated glare of pure hatred and return to my puzzle. But still I can feel her smilingly at me. That’s all she does since I arrived here. I see it in my dreams, amongst other chilling things. But mostly I see that smile.
Always that smile.