Mary peered out the windshield to where Gran pointed. An old man stood beside his car in their driveway. He was dressed in slacks and a dress shirt with the cuffs rolled up. He perked up as Gran pulled in.
As they got out of the car, the man walked up. He seemed a little nervous and embarrassed to be there. It was a common thing with new clients, especially the ones with a ghost problem.
“Sorry to bother you ladies, but are you Mrs. Dubont?”
Gran shut her door and reached out her hand. “Yes, I’m afraid these aren’t my usual office hours. I’ll be happy to make an appointment for you.”
The man shook her hand lightly as if unused to shaking women’s hands. “I understand, but I wanted to stop by because Nina Beadley told me about you.”
He nodded. “My name’s Neil Connor, and I was hoping you could help me. I got the same problem as Nina.”
Gran shot a quick look at Mary. “The same problem?”
Mr. Connor stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at his shoes. “Yeah, and I think it’s about time I got some help with it.”
“Mr. Connor, just so there’s no confusion, what exactly is it that you’d like me to help you with?”
Mr. Connor pursed his lips and nodded his head. “Okay, I guess that’s fair. My problem is I’m a widower, and my wife’s still with me.”
“Gladys?” Mary blurted out before she could stop herself.
Mr. Connor looked at her in surprise. “Yeah, that’s my late wife’s name. How’d you know? Are you psychic too?”
Mary hugged Chowder. “Not psychic.”
Gran quickly stepped in. “I’ll be happy to make an appointment for you, Mr. Connor. Why don’t you come in with me, and we’ll discuss it?”
Mr. Connor followed Gran into her office while Mary went to the front to get the mail. She was still processing the coincidence of two people dating and both having ghostly spouse problems. Was that how they’d hooked up? Did they strike up a conversation one night while playing bridge and figure it out? ‘My wife, God rest her soul, has been driving me crazy by turning on the radio at all hours of the night.’ ‘Oh, I know what you mean. My late husband likes to flick the lights. It’s about to give me seizures.’ ‘Hey, you know what? We should go out. That’ll drive’em crazy.’ ‘Yes, that’ll be a switch.’ Too bad it didn’t really work that way. Ghosts certainly hadn’t brought her and Cy together.
When she got inside, she set Chowder down and tossed the mail onto the coffee table. She took her book bag upstairs to her room, and when she came back down, she found Gran in the kitchen with her head in the fridge.
“Did you and Mr. Connor figure something out?”
“Yes, we set up a meeting for next week. He told me a little bit about his situation, and it’s surprisingly like Mrs. Beadley’s.”
“Huh, that’s weird isn’t it?”
“Yes, but maybe we could use it to our advantage.”
“I’m thinking if the late Mr. Beadley and Mrs. Connor met, they might be able to see that they’re leaving their spouses well and cared for. Mr. Connor thinks he knows what Mrs. Connor is anchored to, but he’s just been unable to part with it. I’m going to meet him at Mrs. Beadley’s home and hopefully have a nice chat with all of them.”
“Do you want me to come along?”
Gran shook her head. “No, I should be able to handle this by myself. You have school work and your volunteering to take care of.”
“Yeah, but I like helping you out.”
Gran smiled. “I know, but this is my responsibility. Don’t you worry about it. Now I need to get dinner made so we can eat and then get you to your orientation.”
“Which one are you signing up for again?” Rachel whispered.
“The hospitality cart.”
“You know that means you’re supposed to smile and chat with people, right?”
Rachel gave her a look.
“I can smile and chat.”
Rachel continued her look.
“Okay, I can smile. You can chat.”
“Why do I have to be the Chatty Cathy?”
Mary threw Rachel’s look back at her.
“Fine, I’ll chat, but you better smile so much your cheeks ache tomorrow.”
Mary nodded and tried on a smile to show her acceptance of the plan. They’d listened to the volunteer coordinator tell them about how important patient confidentiality was and how they were supposed to be sensitive to the patient’s needs and situation. They weren’t supposed to make assumptions about the patient, and they weren’t to pity the patients. It all sounded like good advice. They got their pictures taken for their ID badges. They went over a map of the hospital and what volunteers were expected and not expected to do. Finally they were split up to start doing their new tasks.
Rachel and Mary were handed over to Mabel, a seasoned volunteer and retired nurse. She had short gray hair and big red lips. She beamed at them when they were led over, and crowed, “Yes! I get the young ones!”
Mary and Rachel gave her nervous smiles. Mabel’s eyes softened. “It’s really good to see two young ladies helping out. You two will be covering the second floor.” When Mary heard that, she exchanged a quick glance with Rachel. They’d see Vicky.
Mabel showed them where everything was on the cart and how to work the coffee and hot water dispensers. Coffee, tea, magazines, and weekly newspapers were offered at no cost. Patients could also purchase small items from the cart, such as candy, toiletries, and stamps. They had to keep a tally of items sold and take special care with the cash box.
It all seemed simple enough except for the stopping and chatting bit. They were warned not to stay too long with a patient while on their rounds, but not to be in too much of a hurry either. If they wanted, they could promise to come back once their rounds were done and sit with patients and play board games or cards.
“That would really delight some of these patients. If you need a board game, just ask at the nurse’s station. They usually have a few stowed there.”
Mary was starting to feel really nervous. She hadn’t signed up to really volunteer, but to snoop, but here was Mabel saying that they could do someone a lot of good by playing a round of Pictionary. It seemed mean not to be willing to do that.
Mabel led them around the second floor. Mary got stuck pushing the cart while Rachel knocked on doors to ask if anyone wanted anything.
There were a few requests for coffee. Mary filled cups and helped Rachel take them in. Mabel introduced them to patients and nurses. A lot of the nurses knew Rachel’s mom so were extra-welcoming. Mary was starting to get dizzy from all the nodding and helloing. Everyone was just so happy to see them. It was making her a bit nauseous.
She wasn’t sure if she could go into Vicky’s room when they arrived at it. She was nervous of who she’d find in there. Rachel glanced at her, and she could see the nervousness in her eyes too. Mabel was oblivious to their tension. She motioned for Rachel to knock. She tapped softly on the door and opened it a crack.
“Would anyone like something from the hospitality cart?” she asked. Mary couldn’t see into the room, but from the way Rachel worded the question, she knew it had to be multiple people in there. She hoped it was just Vicky’s parents.
Nope, not just her parents.
“Hey Cy, I’m volunteering with the hospitality cart. Would you like anything from it? Would you, Mrs. Neilson?”
The door was pulled open wider, and Cy stood there staring. His eyes widened when he saw Mary too. Mary grasped the bar handle to the cart tight and twisted it a bit.
“Oh, you know each other?” Mabel said.
“We know Vicky. She goes to our school,” Mary said. She stared at Cy and then past him into the room. Mrs. Neilson came up behind him.
“Oh, you girls volunteer? That’s really nice. I’m glad I get to see you again. I didn’t catch your names when you were here earlier.”
“Oh, um, I’m Rachel and that’s Mary,” Rachel said.
“Rachel and Mary. I think Vicky has mentioned a classmate named Mary…” Mrs. Neilson trailed off and then sort of jumped. Mary figured the only way Vicky would’ve mentioned her was in a disparaging or complaining manner. She had no idea how explicit Vicky would have been with her mother about her loathing of her, but gauging Mrs. Neilson’s reaction, she’d been told a little at least.
Mrs. Neilson seemed to remember herself and said, “I think I will take a cup of coffee.”
Cy was glaring at her. She tried to ignore him, but her eyes kept jumping to him. She was jittery as she poured the coffee and spilled some over her hand. It made her hiss.
“Any change with Vicky?” Rachel asked.
Mrs. Neilson took a sip of her coffee and shook her head. “None, but there’s still plenty of hope.”
“We should be going. Don’t want to bother you,” Mary said, giving the cart a push.
“Please stop by again. It was nice meeting you both.” Rachel and Mary gave Mrs. Neilson a polite wave. Cy still stood in the doorway, arms crossed, eyes locked on them.
Once they were further down the hall, Mabel tentatively asked, “Is the young lady a good friend of yours?”
Rachel didn’t answer. She appeared very engrossed in the floor tiles. Mary softened the truth to not upset Mabel. “Not really, but I’ve known her for years, and the guy that was there was a friend.” She grimaced and hoped Mabel thought the past tense was a simple grammatical error, though the way he had scowled at them the whole time probably made her word choice pretty obvious. Mabel, though, didn’t reply, just nodded her head.
They were walking down the last wing. Rachel had taken charge and was knocking on every door without prompting, but as she went to knock on one door, Mabel swooped in to stop her.
“This room doesn’t need hospitality.”
“It’s empty?” Rachel asked because there appeared to be a chart on the door.
Mabel grimaced and opened her mouth to reply but didn’t get a chance because from behind the closed door, a cranky, nasally voice shouted, “Don’t you dare slide on by! I want coffee!”
Mabel’s shoulders slumped. “Make up one cup of coffee. Black. I’ll take it in. You girls can wait out here.”
“What’s wrong?” Rachel asked. The retired nurse had been so energetic and cheerful up until this moment.
“Mr. White is one of our more unpleasant patients. You don’t have to stop by his room.”
“Quit your old woman gossiping and bring me my coffee!”
Mabel’s lips thinned. She muttered, “I’ll bring you your coffee, you evil old goat.” But when she pushed the door open, there was a smile on her face. Rachel and Mary raised their eyebrows at each other. They stole a peek into the room. An old man was propped up in a bed with a breathing tube looped across his face.
“That sure as hell better not be decaf,” he said.
Mabel set the cup on his hospital bed. “No, it’s full strength with a dash of arsenic for extra kick.”
The old man harrumphed and his eyes shot to the door. “Well, get your sorry asses in here if you want to take a gander. Can’t see much of anything cowering like yellowbellies in the doorway.”
The girls looked to Mabel for her nod before taking a few small steps in. “Young ones, eh? What’d you do to get this punishment? Crash Daddy’s car while high on some Mary Jane?”
“We volunteered because we wanted to. Do you need anything else, Mr. White?” Rachel asked.
Mr. White ignored her question. He turned to Mary with a sly smile. “Like I’m supposed to believe that one is here on her own volition. Bet her skin’s just crawling. Or ears burning. How’s the heavenly choir sounding?”
Mary stiffened. How did he know? She stared at him harder, really looking at him. She looked past the breathing tube, the IV line, and the heart monitor. She looked at his forearms and his fingers. Jeweled rings and dark inky tattoos on his forearms. The rings had sigils on them and the tattoos were pentagrams with various symbols and writing around them. Signs of power and protection. “Anything tugging at you, Mr. White? Pulling you down?”
Mabel looked startled by her question, but Mr. White only chuckled. “Ain’t no shadows here, little girl.”
Continue to Chapter 6