Table of Contents

Spring 2009

From The Editor

Letter from Jack Getze

Short Stories

Patrick Whittaker

9:03

Anthony Rainone

Fall to Pieces

Phil Beloin

Late, After Dinner

Jake Nantz

Midnight on the Links

Stephen D. Rogers

Queen Anne's Lace

Mike Sheeter

Blue Fugazzi

David Moss

The Sleepy Pines Nursing Home

Fiona Kay Crawford

Successful Surgeon

Graham Powell

The Ins and Outs

John Towler

The Fall

Damien Seaman

Thursday Night Blowout

Matthew Acheson

Writing on the Wall

Interviews

Sandra Ruttan with Russel D. McLean

Declan Burke with Brian McGilloway

Jim Napier with Phyllis Smallman

Brian Lindenmuth with Craig McDonald

Reviews by:

P.A. Brown

Mexican Heat

Gloria Feit

Friend of the Devil

Theodore Feit

Death Was in the Picture

A Beautiful Place to Die

Night and Day

Claire McManus

The Hanged Man

The Poisoner of Ptah

My Sister, My Love

The Cruelest Month

Jim Winter

Trigger City

The Fourth Victim

TKO

Bookspot Review Roundup

Book Excerpt

The Big O
by Declan Burke

Featured Article

Passing of the Torch - Celebrated crime novelist dies
by Jim Napier

The Sleepy Pines Nursing Home

It doesn’t bother me that Loretta favors Jane over the rest of us. I think I respect her more because of it. Not that that prevented me from overturning my bowl of ice cream onto the floor when Loretta was on dinner duty last night. Even when I was a young girl, I was filled with spite. Now that I can’t go to the bathroom without a nurse’s aide to lower me to the toilet seat, can it be any surprise my spite is stronger than ever? Don’t think I’m humorless because of it. What makes me laugh hardest is Jane’s family thinks Loretta treats her like a withered queen out of the goodness of her heart.

Twelve of us live here in the Sleepy Pines nursing home. The residents, they call us. Unlike most of my fellow residents, my mind is still intact. Don’t think I consider this a blessing. It only means I can contemplate my ruined state with more clarity. If you asked me why I crave death the times I do, I would tell you the boredom. The pain is bad but it’s become more of a numbness. The boredom never gets better. I bring up my boredom because one of the ways I help myself forget about it is to listen in as Loretta reads Jane her letters.

Jane is closer to death than I am. If the nurses and aides entertain themselves after hours by betting which of us is dying next -- and how else are they supposed to entertain themselves, Parcheesi? -- I’m sure Jane and Bill Stapleton are running neck and neck. She has Parkinson’s disease. Arthritis has curled her fingers up like claws. Some nights I can hear her groaning from the pain in her tiny little voice so soft I have to strain to hear it.

I said Jane gets letters. Actually aside from cards on special occasions they’re really emails sent to Loretta, who then prints them out. Four kids, ten grandchildren, even three great grandchildren, they all write to her. Loretta sits at the foot of Jane’s bed with her mask of kindness, massaging Jane’s curled feet as she shouts out the words so Jane can pick them up with what’s left of her hearing.

All Jane’s children lead such busy, happy lives. They tell her what they’re up to, that they think of her often, that they can’t wait to see her. Does the dutiful tone of their letters make me curse my own family? No. I salute them for their honesty. They know by the time I die there won’t be any money left so there’s no point trying to butter me up.

Jane’s kids know she can hold on here for years and there’ll still be plenty of money left over. And like good intelligent descendants they want as much of it as they can get their hands on, which is why they keep those letters coming.

Loretta no doubt thinks some of Jane’s money is coming her way too. With good reason. Jane’s said things, I’ve heard them. “What would I do without you, Loretta?” “Are you sure you weren’t an angel in another life?” “You’re like a daughter to me.”

And the corners of Loretta’s kindness mask stretch out into an even bigger smile and she says, “The real question is what would I do without you, Jane? I’ve been blessed meeting you, Jane, all I can say is I’ve been blessed.”

Are you sure you weren’t a devil in another life? That’s the question I have for Loretta as I watch her hovering around Jane all day every day, fluffing up her pillows, turning her over onto her side, wheeling her out first for meals.

By now, I know all Jane’s kids. There’s Mark, the lawyer in Chicago, who coaches every one of his kids’ teams and counts his blessings every day for his wonderful wife, Jill. I wonder what the name of his mistress is. He never mentions that. There’s Jennifer, the philosophy professor, who recently got tenure at Berkley. Young Travis is still trying to find his way in life, but he fails so charmingly. They’re not the ones I’ve been thinking about today, though. This morning, Loretta read Jane an email from Elizabeth, Jane’s oldest daughter, who’s married to a man named Hank.

In the past year, there’s been an interesting change in Hank and Elizabeth’s life. They’ve been suckered in by some kind of mystical Eastern religion. At first, Elizabeth dropped little quotations from someone she referred to as the Mother and that was the extent of it. But lately it’s the only thing she talks about. They left their home in Portland and moved to India so they could be closer to this Mother. I can hear Jane groaning every time Loretta reads about the Mother. It’s even worse than her arthritis.

This morning’s letter was filled with Elizabeth’s usual muddle-headed blasphemies. I couldn’t take it anymore. I got into my chair to wheel myself to the living room, but Elizabeth’s last few words stopped me in my doorway.

“Worldly possessions are clouds blocking the light of truth. It’s only by ridding ourselves of these possessions that we can attain enlightenment. Hank and I have decided to sell all our possessions and give everything to the Mother. I’m guessing this won’t over too well with you, Mother” – Elizabeth was talking about the biological mother, not the spiritual charlatan one – “but I do hope you’ll try to understand.”

Jane let out a little high pitch gasp, like steam escaping from a kettle.

Loretta tried re-assuring her in that sweet brainless voice of hers. “I’m sure it’s just a phase.”

The kettle hissed again. “I need to talk to Elizabeth. I need to talk to her now.”

“Yes, Jane, I’m sure you must feel very upset, but she’s in India and she hasn’t left a phone number. Everything will work out. Let’s turn you over on your side.”

I couldn’t understand. If Jane wanted to say something to Elizabeth, she only had to dictate it to Loretta, who could reply to Elizabeth’s email. Why didn’t Loretta suggest this?

I’m not sure why the solution came to me at night when the pain kept waking me. Maybe because it’s believable as a dream. Loretta reads Jane her letters because Jane is too blind to read them for herself. So what’s to stop Loretta from making her own additions to those letters? No doubt Elizabeth and Hank did become disciples of someone called the Mother. They did move to India to be closer to her. But what if Loretta invented the part about giving up all their worldly possessions? She’d know Jane wouldn’t stand for Elizabeth giving her inheritance to the Mother. She’d want to redo her will. Loretta probably thinks she’s wormed her way so much deeper into Jane’s heart since the last will was written. In a new will, she’d get a much bigger share, maybe most of Elizabeth’s.

But what kind of wild idea is this? Has my mind finally begun to rot like all the others in here? Can I start drooling on myself with impunity? The way Elizabeth expressed herself, “clouds obscuring the light of truth,” those aren’t the words of Loretta, our plodding nurse. Loretta knows when it’s time to change the bedpan, but that’s where her imagination ends.

After a week of silence, a new letter came. Elizabeth and Hank had cashed in all their accounts. They’d presented the Mother with the money. The Mother blessed them and told them they’d soon have a blazing vision of truth.
The kettle hissed and hissed.

My head is buzzing. I can’t even feel my bedsores. A few hours after Loretta read Jane this new letter, a visitor showed up in Jane’s room. He wasn’t in there more than two minutes before I realized who he was. Her lawyer, come to revise her will. He joined us for lunch. He laughed when I dropped a spoonful of creamed broccoli on the ground, as if that were part of the fun and games here. He might not know it now, with his bluff manners and his physique, but there’s a room in here waiting just for him. Still, I like him. I wonder how much more Loretta gets in this new will. Pity the poor Mother. She was so close.

Time went by. Don’t ask me how much, I do my best not to know. In this morning’s letter, in the middle of some mindless babble about slowly peeking under the web of illusion, Elizabeth dropped a bomb. She and Hank are coming to visit. They’ve already bought a flight. They’ll be here in two weeks. I screeched so loud one of the aides came running, wide eyed, wishing she’d put her money on me in their death pool.

I want to be here when Jane asks Elizabeth why they’re giving all their money to the Mother and Elizabeth’s eyes bulge out of her head and she says, ‘What are you talking about?’

Ha. Of course I’ll be here. Where else will I be? I won’t be swimming laps at the YWCA.

They’ll be here in three days.

I was lying in bed last night, covered with thick, hot sweat, fearing death, when the floor outside my door creaked. Creak. Bump. Creak. Bump. It was Larry, circling the floor like he often does at night when thoughts of how his life might have been different keep him from lying still. I listened as he passed my door and slowly worked his way to the other side of the floor. His step seemed heavier tonight.

The still air was choking me. I couldn’t wipe away the sweat. I needed a breeze. I went through the elaborate ritual of pulling myself out of bed and into my chair and wheeled myself to the door, opened it and went back to my bed. The warm breeze rubbed over me, shifting directions, cooling my body. I cursed it for making me feel life still has value. I turned over a few times and ended up with my back to the door, my face to the wall. I drifted in and out of sleep. The film of moonlight against the wall darkened. I could hear soft breathing just outside my room. I let out a groan and turned onto my back, opening my eye just long enough to see Loretta standing in my doorway. She was still wearing her green nurse’s smock. A pillowcase was draped over her arm.

I don’t know why I pretended to snore but I did. I smacked my lips and grunted then I opened my eye again. She was still there, closer now, almost completely inside my room. The cross draft rustled the pillowcase on her arm. I spoke slowly, trying to sound like somebody talking in their sleep. “God damn this ice cream is all melted.” Where did that one come from?

My eyes were closed, but I could feel her standing there. I couldn’t keep my breathing even. The more I concentrated on it, the worse it got. I coughed and started gasping for air. When I finally got it under control, I looked over and saw my door was closed.

Strange voices outside my room woke me the next morning. I put on my robe and wheeled myself out to the living room. Two men in white came out of Jane’s room carrying a stretcher between them, a blanket covering her face. Loretta stood with her back to me, shoulders slumped, watching. Doris sat on her chair. Larry leaned against his cane. Loretta turned to face us. Her hair was uncombed. Her eyes were red. She started to say something then stopped, waving her hand in the air and shaking her head, wanting us to think she couldn’t speak without bursting into tears.
“Poor thing,” Doris said.

I brought my chair up to Loretta. “How did she die?”

“She was called,” Larry said, his normally feeble voice going firm.

I felt like clubbing him over the head with his cane.

“Yes, Larry, she was called,” Loretta said, walking over beside him and stroking his hair. “No finer person was ever put down on this earth, but it was her time to depart it and she was called.”

I had to maneuver my chair around to face Loretta, who now had her arms around Larry’s shoulders. “She was called,” I said. “But how was she called? She looked fine yesterday.” This was a lie. She looked like she was at death’s door the day she moved in and every day since.

Loretta looked down at me without blinking. She allowed the hatred to flash briefly, knowing the others would chalk it up to my insensitivity. “She went in her sleep. I can only hope it was painless.” Then to Doris and Larry, “I’ll be back. I need to spend a few minutes alone.” She walked slowly up the stairs.

Doris shook her head at me. “Evelyn.”

“Don’t even bother,” Larry said.

It didn’t occur to me last night when Loretta was standing outside my door with the pillowcase draped over her arm, but they didn’t change the linen at night. Even if they did, that was the aides’ responsibility. Loretta smothered Jane. Then she took that pillowcase and replaced it with a fresh one. She had to kill Jane before Hank and Elizabeth got here so she smothered her.

Someone so close to death like Jane, who would look closely for a cause? Most of the residents had gone back to their own rooms or to the living room sofa. I wheeled myself over to Jane’s room and looked inside. The sheets were still on the bed. Her chair sat beside the bed. This is where she departed the world. I don’t know if I started to cry for her or for me. Selfish as I’ve always been, I’m sure it was me. The emotion caught me by surprise, but I didn’t let it hold me up. I went inside, closing the door behind me.

After Loretta finished reading a card, she’d prop it up on Jane’s dresser. Printouts of emails she’d put in a wicker basket at the end of the dresser. How many times had I heard Loretta, say, “Jane, you are one popular woman. There isn’t enough room in the basket for all your letters.”

And Jane would say, “I want to keep them.”

“Of course you do. We’ll put them all right here with the others, in your bottom drawer. That way if you ever want to read them…”

Jane couldn’t read them, she could barely make out the pictures on the front of the cards. Why didn’t it fill her with rage when Loretta said that? Why did she say, “You’re so good to me?” instead of “I caught your sarcastic barb, you vicious swine?”

I took all the printouts out of the wicker basket. Then I took Jane’s pillow. Doris was the only one who saw me wheeling out of Jane’s room. She frowned, no doubt thinking I went in to pilfer the pillow for myself.

Back in my own room, I separated all Elizabeth’s letters from the rest. Most of them mentioned the Mother. But not a single one said anything about giving her all their possessions. It was just like I thought. Loretta had made those passages up to get Jane to re-do her will.

Other people must have heard Loretta read the letters. I wheeled myself over to Tammy’s room, two down from Jane’s. Tammy had reasonably good hearing and was as close to lucid as the minds in here got. She was in her bed reading.

“Tammy, have you heard Loretta read Jane her letters?”
She looked at me like I’d just kicked the little black poodle that was in all her photos. “That’s not how I was raised, Evelyn.”

“Screw how you were raised.”

Wrong approach. Tammy’s book started shaking in her hands. “What are you doing here?”

“Listen to me. I know you wouldn’t intentionally listen in. It’s impossible to avoid. Loretta read a letter from her daughter Elizabeth, in India.”

“Evelyn, I told you I do not listen to other people’s mail. Please leave me alone.”

There were plenty of other residents to try. And why not the aides? Laura was on duty this morning. I waved her into my room.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the news,” Laura said, shaking her head.

“Do you remember Loretta reading Jane letters from her daughter, Elizabeth?”

Laura thought I was sharing a fond memory. She shook her head and said, “So sad.”

I tried again. “There was a letter from her daughter Elizabeth…”

Laura smiled encouragingly, like she was coaxing me into swallowing my last spoonful of applesauce. “Letter from Elizabeth…”

“About her moving to India. Do you remember hearing it?”

She nodded. “Yes, I do remember that, Evelyn. Such an exotic place to live. Jane has such interesting children.”

I wanted to tell her she could stop buttering Jane up, she was gone, that she should save it for the next person who moved into Jane’s room. Instead I said, “Then you heard the part where Elizabeth said she was giving away all her money to a guru called the Mother?”

She gave me the cartoon smile of hers. “Are you getting tired? It’s time for you to lie down.”

At first I thought that was her way of telling me I was imagining things. But she was really just ignoring me, reflexively saying words she said to all of us so many times each day.

“No, I’m not getting tired, you fool.”

I got a glimpse of her contempt peeking through her sunny expression. Good. Maybe that would make her listen to me. “It’s important. Think. Elizabeth said they were giving all their money to someone called the Mother.”

“There was nothing about giving away money, Evelyn.”

For a moment I thought Laura was in on the plan. But no. I was overlooking the obvious. She was a half-wit. Still, maybe I could get her to help me. The only way I’d be able to ask Elizabeth what she wrote without waiting for her to get here is if one of the nurses or aides signed onto the Sleepy Pines email account.

“I need you to help me,” I said.

Laura moved over and reached for the wheel brake on my chair.

“No,” I shouted.

“But I thought you said…”

“Just listen to me. I’d like to send Elizabeth an email.”

“That is so sweet.” She said it again, “That is so sweet,” drawing out the ‘so’ even longer this time.

I forced down my anger. “When can I do it?”

She looked confused. “But we’ve already notified all Jane’s children.”

“I’m not trying to break the news. I want to send her a letter. My condolences. Let’s go. I’ll do it right now.”

This took her way past the boundaries of protocol. “You lie down. I’ll check with Loretta.”

I tried faking a laugh to make her think it wasn’t important. “Never mind. It was a silly idea. No point checking with Loretta.”

I could hear the foolish laughter from the kitchen where Laura and the other aide, Jillian, were washing up after lunch.

“She’s got it in her head Jane’s daughter, the one in India, told Jane she was giving away all her money to some guru freak called the Mother.”

“The Mother?” Jillian said.

“Can you believe it?”

“Evelyn probably heard Elizabeth calling Jane ‘Mother.’”

“You should be more understanding, Laura.” My heart froze. It was Loretta. “I know you weren’t trying to make fun of Evelyn.”

“Of course not. I thought it was funny is all.”

They cleaned in silence. Then Laura said, “It was sweet. Evelyn wanted to send Elizabeth an email, to give her condolences.”

“She what?”

“It was so sweet.”

“You didn’t let her.”

“I told her I’d have to ask you first.”

“You’re right, it is a nice thought, but I think it’s better for our residents to express their condolences when the family is here.”

Shoes clicked across the wooden floor. My door swung open. Loretta came in and closed it behind her. “Time for your pills, Evelyn.”

It was time. This is when I always took them. They were laid out on a paper towel on top of a plate like they always were. Three, the same three I took every day. Same shape, same colors. She hadn’t added one. I put the first one in my mouth and washed it down. Loretta stood at my bedside, watching. She couldn’t have found something that looked just like my regular pills could she? Why not? She was a nurse. Then why was I swallowing them like a sheep? I took the second one. Then the third.

It was so dark and noiseless out for the middle of the day. I rubbed my eyes and turned over. Loretta was standing in my doorway, leaning against the door. It was dark behind her too.

“You must have been tired, Evelyn. You slept right through dinner. We saved you some.”

I didn’t answer. She leaned more weight against the doorframe. Her arm was bent in a triangle. I couldn’t see a pillowcase. She took a step into my room.

“Sleep is so important,” she said.

I screamed but only a soft hiss of air came out. Light off the wall lit up the corner of her mouth. It was ugly and twisted. She took a step closer then turned her head again and backed out of the room. Now I heard what she must have been listening to. Creak, pound, creak, pound. I called out his name, but of course Larry couldn’t hear me. He never put his hearing aide in at night.

“Goodnight, Evelyn, sleep well.” Loretta closed my door.

I lay still until I thought she was upstairs. Then I picked up the phone and dialed 911. There was only silence. I hung up and tried again, but I still couldn’t get a dial tone. She must have unplugged it. I swung my legs to the side, cringing as they banged against metal. I hadn’t noticed the raised safety barrier. I rotated on my back until my legs were now against the wall then I extended them, trying to push my bed far enough from the wall so I could climb off that side of my bed, but I didn’t have enough strength.

I’d have to go over the barrier. I didn’t have any trouble lifting my leg over the top. Pulling the rest of my body over would be the hard part. I reached over, grasping one of the horizontal bars with my hand. Slowly, I pulled myself over. The weight of my body was too much. It jerked my hand off the bar, but somehow my leg snagged hold of the lower bar. I was now suspended in the air, just inches above the floor. I straightened my leg and fell those final inches to the ground. Now it was a simple matter of pulling myself up onto my wheelchair.

I pushed myself across the floor to Ginger’s room. The residents didn’t come more any more comatose than Ginger. I closed her door and turned on the light, holding my breath, watching her. She gave a small groan, followed by a loud gurgle, like a flushing toilet. Then she started to make a smacking sound with her lips. The saliva was like glue holding her lips together. She groaned again, louder this time, and pushed her tongue through her lips, snapping the strings of saliva. Her eyes didn’t open. I moved over to her phone on the nightstand.
The floor outside started creaking, too loud for Larry. It stopped then started up again, faster now. Doors opened and closed. My shaking finger hit the two instead of the one. I hung up but I couldn’t get another dial tone. I tried again.

Loretta yanked open the door. She stood there, watching me dial, unconcerned. But before I could finish, she lifted the phone from my hand.
“I should have known you’d have a hard time sleeping after you slept all day.”

She grabbed the back of my chair and guided me out of Ginger’s room.

I said loud as I could, “That was my second call. I already called the police. I told them you’re trying to kill me.”

“I read somewhere that two o’clock in the morning is the most common time for nightmares. Come on, Evelyn, let’s go back to your room.”

I shook myself back and forth, trying to throw myself off the chair, but she shifted the chair to keep me from falling. I screamed with everything I had, “Loretta’s trying to kill me. She’s trying to kill me. Help me.”

Lights went on upstairs. The other nurse, Sandy, came to the stop of the stairs in her nightgown.

“Evelyn’s having a bad dreams,” Loretta said, “I found her in Ginger’s room.”

“Do you need any help?” Sandy said.

“She’s trying to kill me. She killed Jane and now she’s trying to kill me.”

Sandy flashed Loretta a sympathetic wink.

“I’ll be fine, Sandy. Go back to sleep.” Loretta said.

She wheeled me inside, pushing my chair right up to the bed. I didn’t have any strength to resist as Loretta lifted me from the chair and put me on my bed. I waited for the sharp jab of a needle, the soft fabric placed over my mouth. She stood beside my bed, looking down at me.

“You’re not going to do anything are you?” I told her. “Not now, not after I yelled. But you don’t have to. You know nobody will believe me about the letters you made up. You’ll tell everyone I got confused. But what about Jane’s lawyer? Jane must have told him about Elizabeth giving her money to the Mother.”

She shook the restraint to make sure it was secure.

I felt an insane need to taunt her. “That’s right. I’m a dried up old woman, almost dead, how did I climb over that restraint?”

“You’ll feel better in the morning,” Loretta said. “Goodnight.”

Jane's kids showed up a few days later. I could see the way they all looked at me when I told them about the letters. Even Elizabeth and Hank had these tolerant little smirks. To them, my story was no different than Larry telling them he was still playing in a youth hockey league in his native Romania.

I wheeled myself right up in front of the lawyer. “Why do you think she had you change her will in the first place?” I said.

He turned away from me and gave his answer to Elizabeth and Hank. “She didn’t say anything about this Mother. She said she didn’t think you two were settled enough so she wanted your portion of the inheritance to go into a trust.”

“I’m sure the whole Mother thing just made her uncomfortable. I can understand that,” Elizabeth said with a sleepy-eyed smile.

And I could understand why the Mother considered her such an easy mark.

“But she put more money in for Loretta, didn’t she?” I said to the lawyer.

Elizabeth bent down so she was level with me. “Loretta has done so much for Mom.”

“Let’s not discuss this here, okay,” the taller son said.

So it’s over.

More and more lately I’ve been thinking the nurse’s aide, Laura, and Jane’s kids are right, that I imagined hearing those passages in the letters, seeing Loretta standing outside my door that night, pillowcase draped over her arm. Imagined the unplugged phone and the raised restraint bar.

Imagined I was the only one in the Sleepy Pines whose mind was still intact.

I think Loretta can sense my change of heart. I’ve become her new favorite. She wheels me out first for meals. She spends extra time helping me drink my orange juice so it doesn't spill down my bib. She fluffs up my pillows before putting me to bed.

This morning at breakfast, I slapped the cup out of Loretta’s hand, spilling juice all over the floor. I laughed as she bent over to wipe it up.

I know she made up those letters. And I'm sure as hell not putting her in my will.



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