Things had just quieted down in the east wing when the welcome silence was pierced by another bellowing shout from Room 11. “Loo-eeeeze!!”
“Good heavens,” sighed Kaylee from behind the nursing station. She brushed a lock of hair from her eyes and replaced the phone in its cradle. “Doesn’t that man ever stop?”
“I can tell you’re new here,” drawled Janice as she checked items off of her clipboard. “I don’t even notice it anymore. It’s like the racket them geese make out on the patio. Drives you crazy at first, but then you get used to it.”
“I don’t know if I can ever get used to that. It makes me want to jump out of my skin every time he does it. Imagine having a man shout at you like that! Then again, I suppose poor Louise probably got so used to hearing it that she just tuned him out like you do.”
“Well, I’d say she was poor, having to put up with Mr. Francis until the day she died.”
Janice gave a hoarse laugh that died out in a series of coughs. “Ah, honey, you know what they say when you assume! Far as we know, nobody was putting up with Mr. Francis but himself.”
“What about Louise?”
“There’s never been any Louise that we know of. Old Mr. Francis was a bachelor, didn’t have no kids, lived alone and never said boo to the neighbors about any Louise until they started hearing him shouting the name over and over like he does here now.”
Kaylee furrowed her brow. “Well, that’s…odd.”
“And that ain’t the half of it! Wait ‘til you see him with his hockey players.”
“Hockey players! Had ‘em in a little plastic bag in the pocket of his robe when they brought him in. They got little silver sticks and everything! There’s even a goalie with a little face mask on him. Oh yeah, old Mr. Francis and his hockey players. Don’t even think about takin’ ‘em out his sight. He keeps ‘em on his tray most of the time, except for the one little guy with the green hat. He sleeps with that one.”
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Kaylee, her lips thinning into a grimace as she tried to suppress a giggle. It was totally unprofessional to speak of the residents in a disrespectful manner, and she feared that they were on the verge of crossing that line. As hard as it was to stifle her amusement, she reminded herself that there was nothing entertaining about the manifestations of mental illness. Janice, a veteran of several nursing homes but of little sensitivity training, had a bad habit of poking fun at people who had no control over their eccentric behaviors. Kaylee cleared her throat and spoke softly. “Thank goodness poor Mr. Francis is here, where at least he’s safe and cared for. He’s probably just lonely. The next time he yells like that, I’ll calmly walk in and see what he wants.”
“Oh, but honey, that’s the thing. He won’t tell you nothing when you look after him. He won’t even notice you’re there. I really don’t think the man’s lonely, odd bird that he is.”
“Maybe,” offered Kaylee diplomatically, “but there’s no way to know for sure, not if he isn’t having conversations with us. The next time he gets upset again, I’m going to—”
“Well, here’s your chance, Florence Nightingale,” grinned Janice. She bowed slightly and gestured toward the hall, extending one arm like a theater usher. “Enjoy the show!”
Kaylee reflexively bit her lip and cast an apprehensive glance at the open door to Room 11. This wasn’t how she had envisioned her first day. She had hoped to become a bit more familiar with the various protocols of Weber Estates before attending to any of their more confrontational residents. Now that she had claimed the higher philosophical ground, though, she would have to follow through with her good intentions.
She was halfway down the hall, just a few feet short of Room 11, when Mr. Francis yelled yet again, causing her to check her balance against the near wall. What in the world did the poor man mean by repeatedly roaring the name Louise? Was there any sense to it at all? Had he once known a Louise who had meant something to him? Might he mistakenly take an unfamiliar nurse to be this mysterious Louise? Kaylee gathered her courage and strode confidently through the doorway before she halted in a moment of unguarded shock.
The frail man sitting upright in his bed did not look like he possessed the lung capacity to produce more than a whisper, so wizened was his frame. He was hairless save for two shocks of wispy, white cotton that protruded above his ears. His cheeks were sunken, and tears gathered at the outside corners of his eyes before following rivulets down the wrinkled crevasses of his leathery skin. Most startling of all was his bizarre attitude: bony arms raised with clenched fists as though he were crossing a marathon finish line, and a defiantly victorious smile to match. An assortment of miniature hockey players littered the folds of his bedspread.
True to Janice’s prediction, he seemed to take no notice that someone had entered the room and was standing at the foot of his bed. Slowly he lowered his arms, and then he began reaching out with his hands and retreating repeatedly, like a child opening and closing dresser drawers. Not once did he regard her in any way, but his head swiveled suddenly and his eyes darted here and there in a long series of convulsions. At last Mr. Francis let out a prolonged and satisfied sigh before falling back onto his pillow.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, honey,” called Janice from the hallway. “He does that every time.” Her shuffling footsteps faded until Room 11 was uncomfortably quiet. Mr. Francis had closed his eyes and was drawing long and raspy breaths.
Kaylee looked about the room for clues but found no traces of her patient’s identity. All of the furniture was standard issue, and there were no photographs anywhere. No personal effects at all, except for the miniature hockey players. Was there anyone alive who could provide his history? If so, did they even know that Mr. Francis was here? Most likely the decrepit figure before her was once a highly-functioning, productive member of society, but now he was reduced to living out the rest of his existence trembling and repeating a meaningless name.
Suddenly Mr. Francis’ left leg twitched violently, sending a pair of hockey men clattering to the floor. Kaylee reached down and retrieved the figures, which were painted in garish shades of yellow and red. She placed them carefully on the bedside tray and noticed that the remaining miniatures were all balanced precariously near the bedrail. One by one she extracted each little hockey player and placed it with the others until the one miniature with a green helmet remained, perched just below the pillow near Mr. Francis’ gnarled neck.
Leaning in to examine it closely, Kaylee noticed the sharp edges of the tiny hockey stick’s blade. If Mr. Francis were to roll over, there was a minute possibility that he could inadvertently puncture his carotid artery. Really, this was a danger that the other nurses should have recognized. Letting a senile, non-communicative resident who is prone to tremors and possibly seizures sleep with a potentially hazardous object was unacceptable. She slowly reached out and secured it in her palm.
Before she realized what was happening, a cold and icy grip was clamped around Kaylee’s wrist. The old man was holding on to her! His strength was supernatural, and she could not free herself. Terrified, she tried to access the call button, but it was beyond her reach. She was on the verge of screaming for help when she saw that Mr. Francis was looking directly at her, and her voice deserted her. His gaze was steely and unrelenting. He had her wrist pinned firmly to the mattress.
Then, without breaking his stare, he raised his free hand before her quivering face. Desperately she struggled to break free, but her efforts had no effect. He was going to do something to her, she somehow knew, grab at her eyes or disfigure her in some way. She pulled back with all her strength until she saw that he appeared to be signaling her. He was extending his thumb and index finger at a right angle, curling the rest of his digits against his palm. It almost looked like he was attempting to sign the letter L.
She felt herself let go of the green-helmeted hockey player, and instantly Mr. Francis released her. A bright red mark encircled her throbbing wrist. She stepped away from the bed as the old man gathered his treasured toy into his hand and tucked it against his heart. The room was quiet once more. Kaylee stepped silently toward the door. As she crossed the threshold, she thought she heard a whisper from behind her.