Submitted Date 06/30/2019

On her way to the nurse's station, she passed a doctor escorting a woman in a floral print dress into his office. The woman seemed oddly familiar to Jean, but before she could give it much thought, she was approached by the head nurse, Mrs. Hyde. Mrs. Hyde handed Jean a list of her rounds for the day and gave her a brief status update. Not much had changed since her last shift. One woman had just been discharged and two new patients were admitted that morning. Jean headed for the recently vacated room to change the bedsheets. No matter how often she did it, there was a certain satisfaction from smoothing sheets on a newly made bed. She liked the faint smell of detergent lingering on the fresh linens and the thought of providing simple comfort under otherwise stressful conditions.

She was headed to the next room to clear away a lunch tray when she heard a sudden wail from down the hall. A deeper, muffled voice in a calm, measured tone came from the same direction. Jean paused, but only briefly. It was a hospital, after all, and although her wing was usually pretty quiet, there were the occasional cries and moans of pain. Sometimes a patient would call out for a nurse to complain to or to ask for help getting out of bed. She smiled at the middle-aged woman asleep next to her abandoned lunch tray. Apparently, the only part of the meal the woman found edible had been the gelatin dessert. Stacking up what remained and balancing a half-empty container of milk on top, Jean went back into the hallway to deposit the dirty dishes.

As she prepared for the next task on her list, a doorway down the hall opened a few inches and a doctor stuck his head out. It was Dr. Carnegie, Jean's least favorite physician. She tried to look away before he spotted her, but it was too late. They'd already made eye contact. He snapped his fingers and motioned her over. Mentally cursing her luck, she dutifully headed toward him. The last time they'd been in his office, the doctor had been a little too free with his hands. If he tried it again, she promised herself, she was going to kick him in the shins. She got to the door and saw he wasn't alone.

"Nurse, see to Mrs. Barnes for a moment." With that, the doctor was off down the corridor.

Jean went in and shut the door gently behind her. The woman she'd seen earlier was seated, face in her hands, crumpled tissue squeezed between her fingers. Her torso heaved and her shoulders were shaking, but there wasn't much sound aside from her ragged breath. She didn't so much as lift her head when Jean sat down next to her. Wanting to soothe the woman, Jean gently put a hand on her shoulder.

"Can I bring you anything, ma'am? Water?"

Turning her head tentatively, the woman peered around her shoulder at Jean. Her cheeks were streaked with mascara and her eyes were red. Turning back to her hands, she took a fresh tissue and blew her nose into it. After dabbing at her eyes a bit, she sat upright and offered Jean a polite smile.

"No. No, thank you. I just want to go home."

Now that she had a good look at her features, Jean remembered where she'd seen the woman before. It was the photo in Arnold Barnes' wallet. When the doctor mentioned her name, it hadn't immediately clicked. Barnes wasn't an uncommon surname but paired with her image in the photo, this woman had to be Arnold's wife. From the looks of things, her patient from the diner hadn't recovered.

"You wouldn't happen to be the wife of Arnold Barnes, would you?" She asked hesitantly.

The woman responded with another loud wail followed by heaving sobs. As Jean was about to offer her condolences, Dr. Carnegie slipped back into the room. Instead of releasing Jean to continue her rounds, he motioned for her to stay. He asked Mrs. Barnes a few routine questions and had her sign some routine paperwork. Reflecting on how impersonal the newly widowed woman must have found the whole process, Jean wished there was more she could do. After Mrs. Barnes had finished checking boxes and signing her name, the three of them stood.

"Someone will be in touch with you about the remains," Carnegie said, reaching for Mrs. Barnes' hand.

Mrs. Barnes only nodded, wadded tissue clutched to her chest.

Turning to Jean, Dr. Carnegie said, "Nurse, see Mrs. Barnes out."

Nurse. Jean wanted to remind him that she did, indeed, have a name. It infuriated her that the man had the nerve to make advances without even bothering to learn who she was. She wondered if the other nurses were subject to the same treatment. She wondered if any of them would tell. But, now was not the time to dwell on her own annoyances. She led the grieving Mrs. Barnes out of Carnegie's office and into the hall. When they'd reached the waiting room a young woman with blonde curls leaped up from her seat. Judging from the upward tilt of her nose and the dimple in her chin, Jean guessed she was Mrs. Barnes' sister. The woman rushed over and threw her arms around Mrs. Barnes.

"Thank you, nurse," the blonde said, "I'll take her home now."

Jean gave her condolences to both women and was about to walk away when she remembered the wallet.

"Would you mind waiting for just a moment," Jean asked them, "I have something you'll want to have."

The two women took a pair of seats nearby and Jean rushed back the way she'd come. She rounded a corner almost at a jog and nearly collided with an orderly in front of the bank of nurse's lockers. She opened her locker, reached into her purse, and closed her fingers around Arnold's leather wallet.

"I found this in the diner after the paramedics left," she told Mrs. Barnes. The widow looked confused and Jean explained that she'd been at the diner when Arnold Barnes had collapsed. "I'm truly sorry for your loss."

But, when Mrs. Barnes reached out for the wallet, Jean didn't hand it over. A thought had occurred to her.

"How did the hospital know to call you without an ID on your husband?"

"When Arnold didn't return to work after lunch, we feared the worst." The blonde next to her nodded in agreement. "So, we called the hospital and that's when we found out my dear…husband…" The woman's sobs drowned out the rest of her sentence.

Jean repeated her condolences and this time actually put the wallet in the woman's hand. Mrs. Barnes simply nodded and allowed her companion to usher her out of the hospital. Jean watched them go and then returned back down the hallway. The rest of her day was all blood pressures and bedpans. Nobody else died and she didn't have to comfort any more grieving widows. It was well past midnight when her shift ended. She was looking forward to having the following day off.

As she steered the Cabriolet into the drive, she noticed the porch light was on next door. Underneath the artificial glow, Ruth Dorman waved hello, her two-year-old son on her hip. For some reason, the boy never seemed to sleep and either Ruth or her husband, Tom, were up at all hours. Jean spent a few minutes pretending to search for something in her purse. She liked the Dormans well enough, but once Ruth started chatting, it was hard to shut her up. If her neighbor intercepted her on the way to the door, it would be another hour before Jean saw the cool side of her pillow. When she decided to hazard a glance in their direction, Ruth and the boy appeared to be distracted by a moth in the porch light. If she didn't make a break for it now, she might be in the car all night.

Two steps from the door, Jean thought she was home free.

"Busy day at the hospital?" How had Ruth crossed the lawn so quickly? Jean cursed silently and then turned around, one hand clutching her keys. She forced a smile.

"Yes. I'm a bit worn out actually, so…" she hinted. Ruth didn't pick up on it, however, and pressed on.

"I heard you had a bit of excitement at the diner today." Jean was constantly amazed at how quickly news got around to her neighbor. It had hardly been twelve hours since the incident at Pinkey's.

"Sadly, yes. Poor man."

"Tom's doing the service," Ruth said. Her husband, Tom, was a third-generation manager of the local funeral home. The official business name was Graceful Exit, but the two of them referred to it, oddly, as "the shop."

"Oh, really? Have the arrangements already been made then?"

"Yes. Mrs. Barnes called this evening, right before Tom left the shop. That woman certainly has her ducks in a row." Ruth shifted the toddler to her other hip.

"Is it unusual for families to call so quickly?" Jean had been so young when her parents died, she couldn't remember how long it took before they'd had a funeral. She guessed maybe a week, but there had been so much going on at the time, it was hard to be sure.

"The sooner the better, really," Ruth said, bobbing up and down slightly to soothe the kid. He was starting to fuss. Apparently, their conversation wasn't very entertaining for a two-year-old. "But, normally it takes a few days before we hear anything. It's a scramble those first 48 hours. Few people are really prepared to lose someone. Except, of course, the elderly. Those families usually have everything in order well in advance. Not sudden deaths though. Usually, people are so knocked off their feet they don't know what to do. We'll set up a nice service for Mr. Barnes though, you'll see. Will you be coming to the funeral, seeing as how you tried to save him and all?"

Without waiting for Jean's response, Ruth continued, "We thought about green bouquets, seeing as how he was in banking and all, but then it seemed a bit gauche. So, we're going to go with white carnations and eucalyptus for the florals." Just as Jean was wondering how to make her own graceful exit, the kid yanked on his mother's hair.

"Jack," she admonished, "let go of mommy's hair."

"I can see you have your hands full, Ruth. I'll say goodnight." And before Ruth could loosen Jack's grip, Jean unlocked her front door and slipped inside.


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