Auld Lang Syne

Twelve hour shifts were hard, especially at the holidays, when all I wanted was to be home with my own family. I’d been lucky enough to have Christmas off, which was by far the more important day in my opinion, so I really shouldn’t have been too bothered, but it did mean spending New Year’s Eve on the job. No midnight kiss for me, at least not from my husband. Instead, I’d be at Mrs. Eve Hugh’s house, helping her ring in 2009 with a sponge bath and her evening programs.

It really wasn’t so bad. Although relatively new to me, Mrs. Hugh was one of my preferred home healthcare clients, an elderly, nonverbal woman who couldn’t do much except sit up in bed and roll her head back and forth to follow you around the room. While some of my fellow nurses felt that she was too far gone to know what was going on, I thought otherwise. I saw how her eyes lit up when she was happy, how the corners of her mouth would twitch downwards when she wasn’t, how she stared at me when I spoke, intent and at least semi-aware.

She had her good days and her bad, when she’d gurgle and moan and refuse to look at me, but overall she was an easy patient.

It was already well past dark when I rolled into her driveway at eight o’clock. The empty driveway told me that my co-worker, who was supposed to wait until I arrived to leave, had already departed and I grumbled as I stepped out of my car. I didn’t like being a tattletale, but that was both irresponsible and dangerous to our client and I’d definitely be filling out a report to management.

My heated thoughts were interrupted by a soft whistling coming from across the narrow street. I recognized the tune, a slowed version of the New Year’s favorite Auld Lang Syne, and turned briefly towards the sound.

A man, tall and thin and wrapped in a long black coat, was standing on the sidewalk opposite Mrs. Hugh’s house, watching me from beneath the brim of a flat cap. He continued to stand there, whistling, even after I’d paused to look at him. I forced a smile and nodded, but he didn’t return the gesture. A small shiver danced across my shoulders and I tightened my grip on my purse while I hurried to the door.

I could feel him watching me until I was inside.

I made sure to slide the deadbolt into place before hanging my things on the coat hook.

“Mrs. Hugh?” I called out to let her know I had arrived. “It’s Abigail.”

I walked down the dark hallway to the living room, where Mrs. Hugh’s hospital bed and her various equipment had been set up. The only light source came from the television, which had been left on some trashy reality show. Exactly the kind of thing I was certain Mrs. Hugh did not enjoy.

“Oh, for the love of…” I mumbled and switched on the corner lamp.

Mrs. Hugh was eyeballing me from her bed, which hadn’t been elevated into the sitting position, and I could smell immediately that she had used the bathroom and the prior nurse hadn’t bothered to clean her up. No wonder she’d booked it early; she didn’t want to clean up the mess.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to her and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. It was cool and her skin felt papery and thin to the touch. “Let’s get you cleaned up, hmm? And then maybe we’ll have something to eat.”

I hadn’t even known I’d started to hum while I tended to her until Mrs. Hugh started to make a groaning sound in the back of her throat. It was Auld Lang Syne, I realized, and I remembered the strange, whistling man from outside. I shook my head to clear his pale face from my mind and I smiled at my patient.

I was surprised to see a tear slipping down her cheek.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Hugh?” I asked, quickly finishing my task so I could wash my hands and wipe her face.

She just stared up at me and groaned again.

“I’m sorry you were left to lie down like that for so long,” I said sympathetically.

I thought that she might be upset my co-worker hadn’t given her the proper care and I didn’t blame her.

Once I’d gotten her calmed down and more comfortably situated, I turned the tv towards something more to her liking and went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea and prepare her nighttime medication.

“Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?”

The pills I’d been carefully pouring from their bottle rattled sharply with my jump. The voice, low and soft, was coming from outside a nearby window. I was quick to shut off the kitchen light and reach over the sink to part the blinds just enough to see outside.

I caught just a glimpse of a tall figure dressed in a long, black coat rounding the corner of the house.

Mrs. Hugh’s pills meds momentarily forgotten, I followed the man and his voice back through the hall, passed the front door, and into the living room, where Mrs. Hugh was making strained gurgling sounds. Her eyes, so wide and watery, darted frantically back and forth from me to the window. At least the previous nurse had had enough sense to keep the blinds drawn.

“Shhh,” I said as loudly as I dared and crossed to her to take her hand again.

It sounded like the man had paused just outside the window.

“We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne,” he sang quietly, almost under his breath, and Mrs. Hugh moaned, her head lolling back and forth. Tears were spilling freely down her cheeks and her mouth flapped open and closed repeatedly, like she was trying to speak or scream.

“Don’t be afraid,” I whispered despite my own pounding heart. “I’m going to call the cops.”

Outside, the crunch of snow under heavy footfall told me that the man was on the move again.

I hated to leave Mrs. Hugh in such an agitated state, but my phone was back in my purse by the front door. I smoothed her thin, orange-dyed hair away from her face and assured her that I would only be gone a moment. Her sounds of distress followed me out of the living room.

I raked through my purse in the dark, too afraid to turn on a light and let the strange man know where I was. As my fingers closed around the phone, one of the wooden porch steps outside creaked. And then another. And another, until a shadowy outline was just visible through the door’s frosted glass window.

“We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine; But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.”

“I’m calling the cops!” I shouted before I could stop myself. “You’d better leave!”

The singing faded into silence and the man stood there for a long moment. My chest and throat burned for air, but I couldn’t bring myself to breathe through my fear. We were both perfectly still.

And then he turned and walked back down the steps.

I stayed where I was, one hand clenched around my phone, the other half raised in front of me in case I needed to hold the door closed, but he didn’t reappear. One agonizing minute stretched into five, and still all remained dark and quiet. Cautiously, I inched towards the door and pressed and ear against it.

No whistling. No singing.

“The cops are on their way,” I called, hoping that the bluff would be enough to drive him away if he was still there.

From the living room, I heard Mrs. Hugh moan.

“It’s ok,” I said over my shoulder to her. “He’s gone now.”

To make sure I was speaking truthfully, I went to the kitchen and peeked outside again. The yard was empty and I almost let the blinds fall back in place with a relieved sigh, when a nagging thought made me stop.

There should have been tracks in the snow, a little voice in the back of my mind said. There should have been footprints along the walkway. There should have been something. Instead, there was just a perfect, undisturbed blanket of white.

I drew back from the window and crept to the front door again. The same little voice that mentioned the snow told me not to open it, to just go back to Mrs. Hugh, but my hand seemed to have a mind of its own and I watched it unlock the door and turn the knob, pulling it open.

A blast of cold air sank right through my scrubs and had me shivering, but I stepped outside anyway.

There were no footprints anywhere.

I took another couple steps out on to the porch, my arms wrapped tightly around myself, and I scanned the yard with narrowed, uncertain eyes.

Behind me, the door clicked shut and, on the other side, I heard a slow, whistled version of Auld Lang Syne.

“Mrs. Hugh!” I cried.

I half expected the door to be locked when I tried it, but it gave way easily when I shoved it open.

“And there’s a hand my trusty friend. And give me a hand o’ thine. And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.”

His voice drifted faintly from the living room and I tore down the hall, ready to leap upon his back and drag him to the floor before he could lay a hand upon Mrs. Hugh.

When I came skidding into the room, I found everything almost exactly as I left it. The tv was on, the lamp was on, and Mrs. Hugh was sitting up in her bed, except now her eyes were closed.

I tried to revive her until paramedics arrived, but there was nothing any of us could do.

I did fill out a police report the following day, giving them as complete a description as I could, down to the sound of his voice. They said they’d look into it, but no neighbors had spotted any suspicious men matching my description and no one had heard anything unusual, Auld Lang Syne or otherwise. I spent the next week blaming myself for Mrs. Hugh’s death, believing that if I had stayed with her, if I had comforted her, maybe her heart would have held out.

I kept thinking that until I saw her obituary.

It was a lovingly crafted, full page spread by her children, who lived a few states over. There were a few pictures of Mrs. Hugh throughout her life, but none caught my eye more than the one of her wedding day.

She had been a beautiful bride, young and obviously very in love. She was staring up at her groom, a familiar tall, thin man who stared at the camera from beneath the brim of a flat cap.

I tore my eyes from the picture and skimmed the obituary itself.

Eve was predeceased by her loving husband of over 50 years, Michael. The two met at a roller skating rink on New Year’s Eve and were inseparable ever after. They celebrated every year with a trip back to the same rink, where they would skate, hand in hand, to the same song that was playing when they met, Auld Lang Syne.

I had thought I’d understood Mrs. Hugh. I had thought I knew what all of her little sounds and expressions meant. I realized then how wrong I’d been that night. Mrs. Hugh hadn’t been afraid, she hadn’t been crying from fear or trying to scream. Her tears were happy ones, her gestures eager and anxious to find the source of the singing. She’d been trying to call out to him.

That man hadn’t been a stranger at all.

Just as they had started their life together on a far back New Year’s Eve to the sound of Auld Lang Syne, Michael Hugh had come home one more time to accompany his bride to the end of it in the same way.

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