In the tiny one story home, the sound of big band jazz music can be heard everywhere. It would actually be enjoyable if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the exact same songs that have played on repeat every single day for the last four years. Add to that the ever present sound of all the medical devices beeping and pinging out of sync with the music and you have a recipe for madness.
When Ella had first seen the advertisement for the job, she thought it was a dream come true. Home health nurse wanted for elderly patient, M-F 8am-5pm. After working 12 hour shifts plus overtime at the county hospital, it sounded like nirvana. All she had to do was take care of one patient while the family member was at work. The patient, Maude, had been in a coma for several years and during the interview her daughter Violet told Ella that all she was required to do was to make sure that the medical equipment was functioning properly, change out the nutrient and fluid bags once a day, and keep Maude’s music playing. Ella had asked about bathing and moving the patient, but Violet said she takes care of that at night.
“What kind of music does she like,” Ella asked, trying not to let her excitement show too much over finding such an easy gig.
“Only big band music. I’ve got a few CDs loaded into the player, you just need to be ready to start it over as soon as it ends. If there’s no music playing, her blood pressure sky rockets. It really keeps her calm.”
In the beginning, Ella sat mostly by Maude’s bedside, talking and reading to her. She only left the room to use the bathroom, grab some food for herself, or to answer the doorbell, which was always the mailwoman who had been on this route for 20 years asking how Maude was doing. “The same- unresponsive but her vitals are good.” Aside from being in a coma, Maude was perfectly healthy for a 78 year old. It’s apparent that she was never a pretty woman, even in her youth. Every time Ella looks at her, she is reminded of the witch from Snow White, which is probably why the house is occasionally under attack by the neighborhood kids screaming “witch” and hurling eggs. The few times this happened, Ella took it upon herself to hose the evidence away before Violet came home; she didn’t want to upset her.
Through her first year working there, Ella familiarized herself with the house, reading some of Maude’s own books to her; the ones in English anyway. Half of the bookshelves in Maude’s room were filled with what looked like really old cookbooks in a foreign language she didn’t recognize. She knew Violet had a bit of an accent she couldn’t place so she assumed these books were from wherever Maude had emigrated.
Ella was very content in her job, even if there wasn’t much to do. It wasn’t until the end of her second year she started to feel restless and bored. She had read through her ‘I’ll get to it eventually’ book pile and was tired of trying to read gossip magazines to Maude. Her time during the day began to be more in front of the TV and less in Maude’s room, rationalizing it to herself that Maude didn’t even know she was there. She always made sure that the music was playing and to check on her once every hour. But over time those hourly checks became every two hours, then every three, then twice a shift. As long as the CDs were playing and the beeping sounded normal, she knew everything was fine.
By her fourth year, Ella had settled into her routine of watching morning talk shows, then checking on Maude, then back onto the couch for daytime TV, including her soaps. One morning, after a particularly long night out with friends, she got to the house sure that she still reeked of wine. After a check on Maude and grabbing some water and aspirin, she laid down on the couch and fell asleep. A few hours later, the quickened beeping of the instruments woke her. It took her groggy brain longer than it should have to realize the music wasn’t playing. Ella scrambled off the couch and ran down the hall to see that although Maude looked the same, the devices around her were sped up almost double time. The dinging and beeping was almost as frantic as Ella as she pushed the buttons on the player to restart disc 1. Within seconds of the first few notes the beeping slowed to a normal pace. Guiltily, she spent the rest of the day next to Maude’s bed reading to her. The next day is when the trouble began.
It had started normal enough, saying good-bye to Violet, checking on Maude’s devices and nutrient bags, grabbing herself breakfast and sitting down to watch Good Morning America. It was sometime during the segment on a water-skiing squirrel she got a chill that sent goosebumps down her spine. It felt as if someone was standing just out of her peripheral vision staring at her. No one was there, obviously, but she got up to check on Maude, finding her exactly where she should be, all her equipment working normally. The whole rest of the day she couldn’t shake her feeling of being watched. That eerie feeling lasted a week and then worsened the following week with a constant dread in the pit of her stomach. Ella found herself sitting on the edge of the couch most days, looking at the TV but not really watching it, trying to convince herself that everything was all in her head and nothing was wrong. It was when she began to hear her name being whispered that she really started to freak out.
The first time it happened she ran into Maude’s room and stood in the doorway staring at the unconscious woman on the bed, convinced that somehow she was faking and was the one who had called her name. Movement just outside the window caught her eye and she threw open the dusty old crocheted curtains to see the mailwoman looking at her from the sidewalk twenty feet away. Is it possible she was just at the window and ran over there? No, she isn’t fast enough. Who was just here looking in? No one, there was no one here, you’re imagining things. Ella’s mind ran a mile a minute and she gave an insincere wave to the mail woman before drawing the curtains closed. Satisfied that Maude was still in her coma and not the source of the whispers, Ella made her way back out to the living room. She stood in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do with herself when she caught a snippet of dialogue from the soap on TV. “It was a ghost–” the show continued it’s ridiculous storyline, but hearing that word sent a fresh chill down her spine and made all her hair stand up.
A ghost? Could a ghost be responsible for everything I’m experiencing? She knew it all started with the lapse in the music, was the music somehow keeping a ghost at bay? It seemed ludicrous and if you had told her this scenario a year ago, Ella would be the first to tell you how crazy you sounded. But here she was, fully sane and considering a ghost. After talking with a friend that night, she bought a sage smudge stick to cleanse the house the next day. After Violet left, Ella lit the stick and walked slowly through the house, wafting it’s smoke into every corner, nook, and cranny, just as the saleswoman at the metaphysical shop told her to. An hour later, the whole house had been cleansed and she sat down on the couch relieved. For the first time in weeks she was able to actually watch TV, it was a news report on the massive thunderstorms that were going to hit very soon. Blackouts were a very real possibility during these storms, but thankfully Violet had all of the medical equipment connected to a backup generator that would kick in if the power went out.
And it did within an hour of the news broadcast, yet the beeping and big band played on. Between the lights being out and the storm clouds blocking out any hint of the sun, the house was pitch black. Ella grabbed the flashlight from the kitchen and made her way to the bedroom to check on Maude. The beam of the flashlight illuminated the instrument panels first and when everything checked out she turned to leave when the light from her flashlight fell onto the floor. She had never seen it before because it was always so dark but illuminated in the flashlight’s bright beam was paint on the hardwood flooring underneath Maude’s bed. Ella got down on all fours to check it out and she saw that the entire space underneath the bed was painted with symbols. She scratched at the one closest to her and the old paint flaked up easily under her nails.
As she pushed herself back up, the feeling of dread crept back in. It’s just because the power is out and this storm is making everything seem really creepy and there’s creepy symbols painted on the floor. There’s not actually anything wrong, you’re just freaking yourself out. And yet she hurried out of the room to grab another sage stick from her purse.
She dug through her large tote bag on the kitchen table and, unable to find what she was looking for, she dumped the entire contents of the bag out, spilling them on the table and floor. Lightning flashed and lit the house up for a fraction of a second before the BOOM of the thunder. In that fraction of a second she saw the sage stick on the linoleum floor next to some wadded up tissues and an old lipstick she forgot she even had. She dove for the bundle of herbs, somehow so sure that this would fix everything. Still on her knees, she tried to light the smudge stick when she realized it. She didn’t even know when it had stopped, but it had. The house was completely silent; no beeping, no alarms, and no music. And there, just at the edge of her vision, somebody was standing there watching her.
Fear jolted through her and she threw her whole body backwards and hit the kitchen cabinets behind her, she used them for leverage and pulled her body up. It was too dark to see clearly, but when another crack of lightning lit up the room, she saw everything… and wished she hadn’t. Maude stood in the entryway between the kitchen and the living room. She looked exactly how Ella pictured she would, except for the eerie grin on her face. The tubes that had sustained her in the coma now dragged behind her on the floor, dripping whatever substances they contained, and her body seemed stronger and less frail now than it had over the past four years. And then there was her eyes, they were yellow and had slit-like pupils like a cat.
With no warning, Ella was lifted in the air by an unseen force and dropped hard onto the kitchen floor. Blood immediately spurted from her nose and mouth, her tongue probed and found at least two broken teeth. But she didn’t have long to think about the pain before she was thrown hard to her right and into the stove, shattering the glass front and creating a thousand small cuts all over her body. Throughout it all, Maude hadn’t moved a muscle, except her eyes, which mimicked Ella’s movement as she was flung around the room twice more.
Ella lay mangled on the kitchen floor, blood pooling around her from countless injuries. The pain was too much to bear and she could feel her vision fading. With the last seconds of her life ticking away, Ella could only watch as Maude turned and walked to the front door, which swung open on it’s own as she got near. A flash of lightning outside briefly lit up the porch, where the mail woman waited, drenched and kneeling as if in praise of her former patient.
“Finally, it begins…”
All short stories in the “100 prompts” tag will be written using the flash fiction prompts list on Eva Deverell’s Creative Writing Blog. They will all be stand-alone short stories unless otherwise noted. Check out the Story Index for more. (Image is from: Here)
This story was written using Prompt # 39: “She’d been coming here every day for four years, and there was never any work to do.”