Nursing and being a nun aren’t really such different things. As the former, I help look after the body. As the latter, I help look after the soul. Nourishing both is important to leading a healthy, happy life.
When I was a young woman, fresh out of my nursing program and fresher still out of my final vows, I approached the world from behind rose-colored lenses. Everyone had good in them. Everyone could repent and be forgiven. Everyone could be saved. It made me an optimistic little thing, which was always a plus when it came to bedside manners.
My first job was as a hospice nurse at a private catholic hospital. They called me Birdy because I was “always chirping away” despite the solemn cloud that often hung over our wing. We were the last stop on the way to meet the maker. When they came to us, it was because all treatment had failed, and now they just needed comfort until the Lord came calling. I did my best to make their last days as bright and positive as possible.
Because I was the noobie, they stuck me on overnight shifts. It was peaceful, really. If a patient couldn’t sleep, I’d sit with them for a while, sometimes chatting, sometimes reading to them. If I wasn’t needed, I’d busy myself with cleaning and stocking supplies while manning the phones. Mostly I didn’t see anyone other than my coworker, Sister Mary Rose. Given the nature of our work, we weren’t directly staffed with a doctor. We’d have to call one from another floor if we needed assistance.
And we didn’t get visitors.
So when the elevator doors opened one night, I expected to see Mary Rose wheeling in a bin of fresh linens or a maintenance man step out. Instead, there was no one. The doors remained open for a moment, and then slid closed. The result, no doubt, of someone hitting the wrong button and getting off on one of the floors below. It happened.
I looked back down at the chart I was inputting into our system.
Slow, deliberate footsteps echoed in the empty corridor. They squeaked noisily against the linoleum floor.
I jerked upright again and leaned further over the desk for a better view down the hall. The landing in front of the elevator was deserted, but upon looking the other way, I discovered a little girl with short black curls and blue overalls dragging her hand along the wall as she walked toward the patient rooms.
“Hey, sweetie!” I called after her as softly I could. “You shouldn’t be up here.”
She ignored me and continued her slow journey away from the nurses’ station. She was nearing one of the open doors, where Miss Matilda, an elderly woman with end-stage breast cancer, was sleeping.
“Sweetie,” I tried again, and again the little girl kept her back to me.
She was almost to Miss Matilda’s door.
I hurried around the desk, losing sight of the child for only the seconds it took me to come around the corner. But when I did, the hallway was empty. A quick check of each of the six rooms on the floor, likewise, proved fruitless. The little girl was gone.
Concerned that she might have gotten into somewhere she shouldn’t, I called security to see if someone had reported a child missing.
“No,” I was told. “It’s been quiet tonight”
I advised them to keep an eye out for a child with short black hair and blue overalls before ringing down to pediatrics. Did they have an empty bed they weren’t aware of? Nope. All of the kids were accounted for. Confused, I hung up and did another slow circle of the unit. It was still just me and the patients.
When Sister Mary Rose returned shortly after, I told her what I’d seen.
“Long nights can lead to wandering imaginations,” she said in a motherly tone. “Say a prayer, ease your mind, and go check Mr. McCaffer’s bedpan.”
I accepted her advice and instruction with a bob of my head and went to the supply closet to grab a fresh bedpan before walking to room 406. The room was dark save for the light that came in with me from the doorway. Mr. McCaffer was barely past middle aged, but in the final throes of liver failure after a life of hard drinking. With no options left to him, he’d been admitted to our wing with only weeks left. I crouched beside his bed while speaking softly to him to let him know what I was doing.
“Soon,” a child’s voice said as soon as I’d ducked out of view. It sounded like she was just on the other side of the bed.
“Soon,” a second voice, equally young, agreed.
I straightened with a gasp, looking over Mr. McCaffer. He remained asleep, his chest rising and falling with brittle breaths. There was no one else in the room.
I was quick to return to the well-lit nurses’ station and Sister Mary Rose.
“Did anyone walk past here?” I asked. The children would have had to!
“No,” she replied. “Why?”
“I swear I just heard children in Mr. McCaffer’s room.”
“Are you feeling alright, Birdy? Not coming down with something, are you?”
“No,” I replied quickly. I was still on probation and didn’t want to put my job at risk. “I guess the atmosphere is getting to me a bit.”
“That happens. The quiet plays tricks.”
We chatted a bit while sorting medications and cleaning the station, until it was time for Mary Rose to take her lunch.
“I can bring it up and eat here if you’re not comfortable,” she said.
I told her I’d be fine. I had my Bible to keep me company if things got too spooky. She patted me on the shoulder and told me to buzz the cafeteria if I needed anything. After she’d gone, I busied myself by making the midnight rounds. A vital check here, a shot of painkiller there, working my way one room at a time, until I was in the one beside Mr. McCaffer’s.
Footsteps squeaked in the hall, two or three sets, at least. No longer slow, but hurried. A pack on the hunt. The thought came suddenly and sharply into my mind, and I shuddered.
Dark shapes flit past the half-closed door.
I froze, the IV bag I’d been switching out half raised. “Hello?” It came out in a raspy whisper. The patient I was treating stirred slightly in their sleep. I quickly finished what I was doing and crept on my tip-toes to the door.
“Soon,” the same girl from before said. She sounded gleeful.
“Soon,” a small chorus of children replied.
I slipped out of the room I was in and, with my breath held and one hand clutching the crucifix hanging around my neck, I inched toward Mr. McCaffer’s door.
Four girls were standing, shoulder to shoulder, beside his bed with their backs to me. The one with the blue overalls was in the middle. They were all holding hands and staring at him. A disquiet had settled over the room. A dark anticipation. It sent goosebumps running up my arms and my heart fluttered toward my throat. Mr. McCaffer remained oblivious to his young visitors.
They stood still. More so than any child I’d ever met. It was unnatural. Predatory. Alarm bells rang in my head, ordering me to run, but my first priority was to my patient and I couldn’t just abandon him!
I found my voice and managed to say, “Y-you can’t be in here.”
The children remained at his bedside.
“You need to leave,” I said with as much authority as I could muster.
“Do you want some candy, sweetheart?” The girl on the far left said. Her voice was ice cold and flat.
“I’ve got a new puppy, would you like to see?” The one beside her said in the same tone.
“Don’t you remember me? I’m your friend’s dad. I can give you a ride home,” the smallest girl on the far right said.
The girl in the overalls didn’t speak.
The beep of Mr. McCaffer’s heart monitor had become irregular. It quickened and then slowed and then became quick again.
“C-come on now. Leave!” The words trembled and fell limply from my lips.
“It will only hurt for a little while,” all four of them said together.
The heart monitor jumped.
“But soon it will be over,” the girl in the overall’s said.
I made the sign of the cross over myself and gripped the doorframe. The air had become oppressive and humid and I tugged at the collar of my habit, trying to alleviate the suffocating feeling that was closing around my neck.
“Who are you?” I gasped. “What do you want?”
“Mommy,” said one, and her voice cracked with a child’s heartbreak.
“Daddy and Nana.”
“Him,” said the girl in the overalls.
She let go of the other girls’ hands and turned toward me. Where her face should have been, was bare, exposed skull. She grinned at me through cracked and broken teeth. And in her empty eyes, through them, I saw, and I understood.
I screamed and the door to Mr. McCaffer’s room slammed shut. From the other side, I heard the high pitched keen of a flatline, and four little giggles.
I ran back to the nurses’ station and called down for security and then for Sister Mary Rose in the cafeteria. When they all came rushing upstairs, I yelled about the children with Mr. McCaffer and how one had no face. While Mary Rose comforted me, the security guards went to the room.
They found Mr. McCaffer deceased, having succumbed to his illness.
After his death, I took some time off of work and remained in the house I shared with the other nuns in my order. Sister Mary Rose had told them what happened, citing first time loss of a patient as the reason for my behavior.
“It’s always a bit frightening the first time we encounter it,” she said.
But it wasn’t McCaffer’s death that frightened me.
It was the image of those children at his bedside, and what the girl in the overalls had shown me.
Her death. How slow and painful it was, staring up into the red, sweating face of Mr. McCaffer as his fingers squeezed tighter and tighter around her neck. How her tiny fists beat against his arms. How they finally slowed, and sank to the ground.
He’d dismembered her body and carefully peeled her flesh away from her skull. He’d discard the rest, but that, her young, innocent face, he would keep. He’d go on to do the same three more times without being caught. If he hadn’t gotten ill, he certainly would have done it again.
There wasn’t a drop of remorse in him.
Unlike his poor victims, however, when it came time for him to leave this world, he did not do so alone.
They were waiting for him.
They were there to finally drag him down to where he belonged.
I learned a lot at that job. But nothing more important than the fact that some people are not inherently good. Some people never repent or seek forgiveness. Not everyone can be saved.
If ever I doubted that there was some kind of afterlife waiting for us when we die, it was resolved that night.
And if ever I doubted that those who choose to do evil will have their day of reckoning, it was washed away by the giggle of a faceless little girl.