Mrs. Dawson wasn’t doing well.
As soon as September had arrived and the weather had started to turn, so, too, had her health. While it wasn’t unusual to see that sort of thing working in an assisted living facility, I just hadn’t expected it to happen to Mrs. Dawson, especially not so quickly. She was feisty, she was crass, she had a lot of life left in her!
At least she had when I clocked out Friday evening.
By the time I returned the following Monday, she was bedridden and babbling, a completely different woman than the one who had constantly told me to cherish my youth, my looks, and frisky men with firm bottoms.
“Docs think it was a stroke,” my supervisor, Yasmine, said while she was filling me in on Mrs. Dawson’s rapid decline. “Hit her in her sleep. Marcia went up to see why she hadn’t come down for breakfast on Saturday and found her.”
As soon as I was done sorting meds and had helped Yasmine do the usual morning rounds, checking in on residents and making sure they took their pills, I slipped away to pay a visit to Mrs. Dawson. I knocked gently on the door to her suite, waited a moment, and then let myself in.
Someone had propped her up in bed and made an attempt to brush her hair, a halo of fine white fluff against her pillow. She didn’t even look towards me as I came to stand by her bedside; instead, her eyes, bloodshot and sunken, were fixed on the far corner of the room, and she was mumbling to herself.
“Mrs. Dawson?” I said softly. “It’s Virginia; I just wanted to come and see how you were doing.”
She continued to mumble, but turned her head slowly towards me.
“Do you remember me?”
There was no flicker of recognition, no hint she knew who I was. She just stared up at me, her dry lips moving constantly in a jumbled whisper. Thinking she might be trying to tell me she needed something, I leaned down to listen.
“There once was a girl. A girl. There once…a girl. She had a little curl. There once was a girl who had a little curl right in the middle…in the middle…forehead.”
She went on and on, repeating herself, stumbling over words, getting stuck on phrases. It broke my heart to see her so confused. I took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“It’s ok, Mrs. Dawson, we’re going to take care of you. You just need to rest.”
She studied my face for a moment before her gaze slipped back to the corner.
“Good, very, very good, but when she was bad…” she muttered.
I stayed for a little while longer and tried to get her engaged in a couple things, first a gardening magazine that she subscribed to with bright, cheerful pictures and then a TV show I knew she liked, but she didn’t even seem to realize I was still in the room. All of her attention was on that empty corner.
I sighed, gave her a pat on the hand, and left her to stare at the wall. As I closed the door behind me, I heard a soft, but distinct and high pitched giggle coming from within the room.
At least you’re still able to laugh, Mrs. Dawson, I thought.
I was in a gloomy mood when I returned to the caregivers’ station.
“You visited Mrs. Dawson, huh?” Yasmine asked after I sat heavily beside her.
“I can’t believe that’s really her,” I said. “She was fine on Friday.”
“You’ve been here long enough to know how it goes,” Yasmine said with a sad smile. “Age makes our bodies unpredictable.”
“I know, I know.”
Knowing didn’t make it any easier, though.
Still, there were a lot of other residents who still required a friendly smile and prompt care, so I couldn’t let myself get caught up in my emotions. That’s what the privacy of my own home and the tub of ice cream in my freezer were for. Yasmine insisted that it was best to keep busy and handed me charts to log into the computer.
The hour after lunch, when most residents were napping off their meals, was usually the quietest time during my shift. Often, I’d use it to play catch up on my paperwork and, that afternoon, we had a stack of doctor’s orders to sort through. I had my nose buried in forms when the soft patter of feet crossed in front of my desk. I looked up, prepared to find a resident or a visitor waiting with a question, and was surprised to see no one there.
Off to my side, someone giggled.
I glanced over in time to catch a glimpse of a little girl topped with Shirley Temple curls running down the hallway to one of the suite wings. Curious, as I hadn’t seen any adults around and we didn’t allow children to roam around unsupervised, I got up and went after her.
“No running in the halls, hon-” I started to say, but when I rounded the corner, she was nowhere to be seen.
I frowned, a bit annoyed that I was now having to play babysitter to someone’s grandkid, and walked the length of the hall to check behind every potted plant and curtain along the way. The little girl wasn’t hiding behind any of them.
“Where the heck did you go?” I grumbled as I turned back around, my hands on my hips.
All the doors in the wing had been closed when I passed by the first time. Now, though, one stood open. The suite belonged to Mr. Audrey, a retired fireman who called all of us staffers his kids since he’d never had any of his own. It seemed unlikely that the little girl would have been visiting him. I hurried towards his room, hoping that the kid hadn’t just let herself into the first unlocked door she came across.
As I got closer, I started to hear a quiet, but steady thumping coming from inside. I also recognized Mr. Audrey’s voice.
Great, I groaned internally, she’s bothering residents! I’ll probably get blamed for it if Mr. Audrey raises a stink, unlikely as that was given how much he loved kids.
I just had to hope he wasn’t in one of his rare bad moods.
I rapped my knuckles on the open door a couple times to announce myself and stepped inside.
The little girl wasn’t in the suite, but Mr. Audrey was. He was across the room from me, walking into the closet door, bouncing off, and walking into it again.
And all the while, he was mumbling.
“Once was a girl, had a little curl…”
“Mr. Audrey!” I said, rushing forward to stop him.
As soon as I said his name, he stopped, swayed in place, and then slowly faced me.
The end of a pen jutted out of the angry red wound that had once been his eye.
“And when she was bad, she was horrid,” he gasped and then collapsed to his knees.
The wail of the ambulance sirens lingered in my ears long after Mr. Audrey was taken away. After I told the head nurse of the facility what I’d seen, I wasn’t asked much else. It was just assumed that Mr. Audrey had hurt himself in an “altered mental state” (a polite way of saying Alzheimer’s made him do it) and I’d been the unlucky person to find him.
Yasmine had one of the other caregivers cover our desk and took me to the employee kitchen for a cup of tea and a chance to calm down. I appreciated it, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Mr. Audrey’s face, streaked with blood and ichor and twisted into a terrible expression.
“He was saying the same thing as Mrs. Dawson was this morning,” I said when the shock had worn off enough for me to speak again.
“What was that?”
“Something about a girl with a curl?”
“Right in the middle of her forehead?” Yasmine asked.
“Yeah!” I clutched my tea cup in both hands. “You heard it, too?”
“Not from them, it’s an old poem. You know; there once was a girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, and when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.”
“I…I saw a curly haired girl. Right before I found Mr. Audrey. I thought she was someone’s grandkid and followed her to his wing.” I could feel the blood drain from my face.
“There haven’t been any kids here today, Virginia,” Yasmine said and I couldn’t help but notice the concern in her voice. “Look, it’s been a rough day, why don’t you take off early. I’ll cover for you.”
“No, really, I think it’s best. Just take it easy and come back tomorrow, ok?”
I tried to argue, but Yasmine wasn’t hearing it and actually took my cup and started to escort me in a motherly, but firm way to our lockers so I could get my things.
“Don’t you think it’s weird? I heard two people saying the same thing. Two people who were fine a couple days ago, but now suddenly aren’t? And the little girl, I know I saw her,” I said.
Yasmine just kept ushering me down the hall. “A little odd, sure, but there’s a reason for everything, V. And maybe there was a kid visiting today and I just didn’t see her. It happens. Try not to dwell on it; I need you back here tomorrow feeling good and ready to work.”
“Nope, don’t want to hear it.”
We were still arguing at the elevator leading down to the lobby when someone murmuring nearby interrupted us.
“Right in the middle of her forehead…”
We exchanged a look, both uncertain, and turned to see Mrs. Waters ambling out of one of the common areas, mumbling to herself. She walked passed us without acknowledging us even when we said hello, shuffled up to the banister overlooking the first floor, and threw herself over it.
Yasmine’s screams were almost loud enough to cover up the sound of Mrs. Waters’ body hitting the tiles below.
While she ran to the stairs, I remained rooted in place, staring at the door that Mrs. Waters had come through. It was open just a bit; just enough for a small face framed by ringlets to peer through.
I blinked and she was gone.
They labeled Mrs. Waters’ death a terrible accident. She was confused, they said, and in her fugue state, she managed to go over the railing. Yasmine agreed that that seemed to have been what we saw; an old woman who wasn’t altogether “there” made a mistake. I tried to bring up what she’d been saying right before, how I’d heard others saying the same thing, but no one seemed too concerned with listening to a nursing aid.
Frustrated, ignored, and afraid, I decided I would take Yasmine up on her offer and leave early. I grabbed my purse and my jacket and I made a beeline for the exit. As I crossed through the lobby, I couldn’t help but notice the way the few residents seemed to watch me, small smiles on their faces.
“There once was a girl,” they whispered as I passed, “who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead…”
It took every ounce of self control not to run, screaming, from the building.
I drank a lot that night. More than I’d ever had to drink before or since. I didn’t understand what I’d seen or heard, I couldn’t make sense of it; it was easier to just try and forget. And if I couldn’t forget, at least I could drink myself so stupid I’d pass out. I drifted in and out of dark, drunk dreams until the next morning, one’s haunted by a little girl with Shirley Temple curls and the devil’s grin.
It was 10 AM by the time I regained consciousness; two hours after I was supposed to be at work. In a panic, I tried to call the front desk, but no one answered.
“Shit,” I slurred, and pulled up Yasmine’s number.
She didn’t answer either.
I scrambled to get ready, downed half a pot of black coffee, and jumped into my car. The radio came to life with the engine.
“…Terrace Assisted Living Facility went up in flames early this morning,” a somber voiced DJ was saying. “None of the 107 residents made it out alive.”
My heart seemed to stop and sink further into my stomach with each word.
“Authorities don’t yet know the cause of the fire, but are working tirelessly to piece together this tragedy.”
I switched off the radio and I sat there, staring at my steering wheel. Authorities might not know what caused the fire, but I did. I didn’t know how, or why, or where she’d come from. I didn’t know why she’d targeted defenseless elders. I didn’t even know what she really was.
Nevertheless, I knew what caused the fire.
A little girl with Shirley Temple curls, one in the middle of her forehead.