Chapter 1

 

 

 

As Melanie Moth surveyed the sea of elderly Sorrento residents filling up on food and the latest gossip, a tinned plum hurtled like a missile at her chest. It decorated her white nurse’s uniform with a dark red splotch.

 

“Bullseye!” yelled Ruby Smith. She smirked as she dropped her firing weapon, and the spoon clattered onto the table.

 

A hundred faces turned toward Melanie to witness her reaction.

 

Melanie clenched her fists as a veil of red mist clouded her vision. “Mrs. Smith!”

 

“What?” Ruby’s bright orange hair floated around her lined face like a dandelion with a dye job.

 

Melanie swiped at the stain, spreading it further. “Look at what you’ve done.”

 

Ruby scrunched up her face like a two year old. “Yes, well, I’m not blind.”

 

Melanie’s mouth tightened. “You may not throw your food around the room.”

 

“I didn’t. I threw it at you.”

 

Giggles behind veined and mottled hands erupted around the room.

 

The burst plum seeped juice into the steel blue carpet. It would taunt Melanie forever. “Come here and clean up this mess.”

 

Ruby wagged her finger in the air. “Nope. Why should I pick up that plum when you didn’t catch it? Hardly my fault. And it hit you on the boob. I’m not touching that.”

 

An elderly man with pure white hair shouted, “What did she say? Did she say boob?”

 

The entire dining room erupted in laughter.

 

“Argh,” Melanie spluttered. This woman got the better of her every time. She looked out through the glass doors into the garden. Light was leaving for the day.

 

She wanted to follow it. “Why did you throw it?”

 

“I needed some action. I’m so bored I could lick the paint off the walls,” Ruby said. “I need funner people to hang out with. Like me.”

 

Melanie huffed, “Sorrento does not need more people like you.” Immediately she regretted her words. Quick, get rid of the evidence.

With the floor wiped and the exploded plum disposed of, Melanie discovered the residents still gaping at her. But Ruby had vanished. She bolted down the corridor as chatter behind her grew louder. Halfway down, a window stretched from floor to ceiling, giving a view into a small enclosed garden. Weak sunlight filtered down onto the largest plants while the smaller ones huddled in the sinister-like shade as if hiding from the world. Melanie placed her hands on the glass, stared at the garden and took slow deep breaths.

 

“Hello, Nurse Moth. Everything okay?”

 

Melanie’s shoulders jerked and she spun around. It was the new facility manager, Charlotte Henderson.

 

“Hello. Um, I was just checking to see if the plants look healthy.” The woman's presence jangled her nerves. Up ahead, she saw Ruby walk past the lounge door.

 

Their eyes met, and Ruby flashed her a mocking grin.

 

“And are they?”

 

Melanie blinked at the woman, distracted. “I'm sorry?”

 

“The plants. Are they healthy?”

 

She took another look through the window. “They look fine.” Like me. I look fine on the outside.

 

Charlotte brushed her hands down her maroon suit jacket. Her name badge was pinned below one lapel and her nurses' badge beneath the opposite one. “I wanted to let you know that my niece, Xena, is here for a few days to see if she wants to be a nurse. I've kept her busy this afternoon as I knew you were busy. Ah, here she comes now.”

 

A tall, gangly girl with long chestnut hair bounced toward them. “Gidday, I’m Xena. My middle names are Warrior and Princess.”

 

Charlotte closed her eyes for a second and then turned to Melanie, mouth pinched. The look said, Yes she is a handful.  “My sister loved that show. Xena, Nurse Moth will give you one more job to do, and then you can finish for the day. See you both tomorrow.” Charlotte marched toward the entrance doors, her black pumps clicking on the floor.

 

Melanie groaned inwardly. Another babysitting job.

 

Xena stared at her. “Did you spill something?” She pointed at Melanie’s chest.

 

Melanie covered the mark with one hand. “I had a run-in with a plum.”

 

Xena giggled. “It looks like the plum won.”

 

“Yes, I suppose it did.” The plum… and Ruby. “Okay, go up to the end of the corridor and you'll find the kitchen. A laundry trolley should be in there. You can wheel it down here, turn right and leave it just outside the frosted glass doors for collection.” She watched the girl skip away. None of her staff would get away with that behavior.

 

When Melanie arrived at the room closest to the dining room, she knocked on the door. A small voice called her to come in. “Hello, Mrs. De Luca. How are you?”

 

The woman sat hunched in her chair. She wore a black lace top and a black skirt, elegant and perfect for mourning. “Oh, you know. I’m okay.”

 

She didn’t look okay. Melanie knew the woman had lost her husband only two weeks ago and then had to move from one of the few double rooms to vacate it for another married couple. The sadness in her faded blue eyes touched Melanie’s heart. “Can I get you something before I go home?”

 

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

 

“Would you mind if I bring you a cup of tea and a scone. Cook put cream on them and they look delicious.”

 

Mrs. De Luca sighed. “That does sound nice. Thank you, Nurse Moth.”

 

Melanie had asked the residents to call her by her first name, but they preferred to call her by her title. She found Cook in the kitchen. “Mrs. De Luca didn’t make it to afternoon tea. Are there any scones with jam and cream left? She’s so sad at losing her husband. I’m afraid she’ll fade away just so she can join him.”

 

Cook wiped her hands on her apron. “Hey, no problem. She’s such a sweet lady, and her husband was lovely. I’ll give this scone a couple of seconds in the microwave. The water in the urn on the far bench is still hot if she’d like a drink.”

 

“Yes, I’ll make her a cup of tea. Not everyone can stay within the parameters of a regular time schedule. There needs to be exceptions sometimes.”

 

Cook looked at Melanie as if she had spoken a foreign language, shrugged and set the time on the microwave. When she pulled the scone out, she smiled. “Oh, I get it. You’re being nice for a cha… ahumph. Did you know you have a big stain on your uniform?”

 

“Yes, well aware, thank you.” Melanie accepted the plate and nodded. “Thank you, Cook. I’m sure Mrs. De Luca will enjoy this very much. Your scones are unmatched.”

 

Cook squinted at the ceiling and whispered, “Un… matched. Oh yeah, I do make real good scones.”

 

“Cook, what’s your real name? It doesn’t feel right to call you by your job title.”

 

“But people call you Nurse. I like to be called Cook. It reminds me of how far I’ve come.”

 

This was the first time Cook had willingly engaged in a conversation with her. “And how far have you come?”

 

“From Spokane. Oh right, I get what you mean.” She cleared her throat. “I started as a floor sweeper, and now I have the honor of cooking the meals of our most senior of citizens.”

 

Melanie gave what she hoped was a sincere smile. “Thank you, Cook. Lovely sentiments.”

 

Back in Mrs. De Luca’s bedroom, Melanie placed the plate on the bedside table and handed Mrs. De Luca the cup of tea. Hospitality didn’t come naturally, but she dug deep. “I know you miss your husband very much. We’re going to do our best to help you through this hard time. Would you like to come down to the lounge? Ruby Smith is in there, and she’s bound to be up to something no good.” One side of her mouth turned up when she realized the truth of her statement. If she could only let go the need for control, she might find the orange-headed woman amusing.

 

Mrs. De Luca lowered her gaze to her hands. Her pure white hair, still thick and wavy as a teenager’s, was the envy of most female residents. “No, thank you. I’d like to stay here and remember my Arnie. Then it feels like he hasn’t really gone. We’ll be together again soon if the Lord will grant my wish. I don’t remember how to live without him, and I don’t want to.”

 

Melanie checked her watch. She should have left work two hours ago, but a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. “Would you like to tell me about him?”

 

A dark shadow left the old lady’s face and a smile bloomed. “Oh, he was the sweetest man. Did you know …”

 

By the time she left Mrs. De Luca’s room, the widow was calm. As Melanie pulled the door closed, a laundry trolley hurtled toward her. She flattened herself against the wall.

 

Xena sprinted past pushing the speeding missile, her hair flying behind her like a ribbon. “Sorry,” she called out over her shoulder and carried on.

 

Just before the girl pushed the trolley around the corner, Melanie caught a glimpse of orange hair from inside one of the large white bags. Her mouth tightened, but she shook her head. Leave it, she thought. Charlotte's niece is a temporary problem, and if Mrs. Smith breaks a bone in her frail old body then it won't be my fault. She pictured the old troublemaker in a body cast, completely immobilized.

 

Seconds later, her eyes moistened as she realized that a woman closing in on 80 still knew how to have fun, while she had no idea at all. How can I inject fun into my life? she thought. Her body shuddered. Ouch, wrong analogy. Even though she had given many injections and drawn blood countless times, she almost fainted when a needle had her name on it.

 

Wearing a clean skirt and top, Melanie drove her small white car up the steep incline, and she waited for an opening in the traffic. A bus rolled slowly past, black smoke puffing out its exhaust pipe. Two minutes later, her car pulled up outside a bar before she had consciously decided to stop there. Thoughts of her teenage son and daughter squeezed like a hand around her throat. She nodded as she remembered her personal motto to put off anything that caused unnecessary stress, opened the door and got out.

 

Roughhewn planks covered the exterior of the building and the corrugated iron door creaked as she pushed her way inside. Light filtered in through one small corner window, and the air had a hazy, smoky look.

 

Melanie perched on a stool and leaned her elbows on the bar. When the bartender asked for her order, she said, “I'll have a gin highball in a cocktail glass, please.” She checked over her shoulder and then whispered, “Hold the gin and the lemon.”

 

He raised one eyebrow and gazed at the ceiling for a second. “Club soda, coming right up, Ma'am.” Moments later, he set the curved glass in front of her, decorated with a tiny pink umbrella. When she looked at him in surprise, he gave her a wink before turning to wipe down a glass shelf filled with multi-colored liquor bottles.

Melanie glanced around the tables, hoping she wouldn't see anyone she knew. Groups of twos and threes filled the tables, talking, laughing. Her aloneness smothered her, and small tears sat in the corners of her eyes. Gritting her teeth until her jaw creaked, she willed them not to fall.

A

silent television bracketed to the wall brought to mind a talk show from the previous night. A psychotherapist had spoken about people who wanted to make positive changes in their lives. Melanie had listened, riveted, fully aware of her reputation at work. Two words stuck in her mind. Be honest. But who with? She picked at a cork beer mat that crumbled in her fingers. Something brushed against her arm, and she her body jerked in response.

 

“Hi. Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.” He looked to be about forty with sparkling blue eyes and light brown hair that curled over his ears and touched his collar. A tie sat loosened beneath an opened top button. “Do you come here often?”

 

Original, she thought. She shook her head and focused on her untouched drink. It didn't do to encourage the male species. They were all users and abusers like her ex.

 

“I was just kidding. I'm Mitch, waiting for someone.”

 

She sighed and knew she had to respond. Her mother had slapped manners into her. “I'm Mmm …” Don't give him your real name. He could be a stalker or a pervert. “I'm Mmm… Mordor.” She bit her bottom lip. Oh, good choice. And realistic, too.

 

“Mordor? As in The Lord of the Rings?”

 

“Yes,” she said with a straight face. “My parents knew I'd be badass from the moment I was born.” She winced inside. Was that a profanity? Not cool.

 

He tipped his head back and laughed, and after a glance at the door, he pulled out the stool beside Melanie and sat. “I hope you don't mind if I sit here while I wait.

 

I don't want anyone to think I'm here to stalk women.”

 

Nice looking man, right age group, obviously waiting for a wife or girlfriend. “Really?”

 

“I'm waiting for my friend, Ggg… Gandalf.”

 

Was he making fun of her? A quick glance into his warm blue eyes said no. “Well, you should move away because Gandalf and I are mortal enemies.”

 

The man batted his hand. “He's small potatoes compared to you, and that's all in the past, so it should stay there.”

 

Melanie lowered her eyes. Easy to say when your mother's words don't dominate every minute of your day. The woman had taught her how to communicate--short, sharp and shouting.

 

“FYI, I've decided to change my name, but there's a slight hitch. If I stay with M names from Lord of the Rings, well, Mordor is taken. And it's the best. Moving on, there's Middle Earth which is slightly above my pay scale. Then there's Minas Tirith. I like how it rolls off my tongue. How do you do? My name is Minas Tirith. But, no. Which brings me to Merry, but I don't have the personality to carry it off. Therefore I've decided to revert to my middle name of Andrew which then allows my new name to be, dah dah daa... Aragorn. What do you think?”

 

“Not Strider?”

 

“No, I don't want his ranger's name. I want the real deal. We cool?” He held out his hand.

 

Melanie faced him and shook hands. “How do you do, Aragorn. Very nice to meet you.”

 

Mitch grinned and turned to the bartender. “Budweiser, thanks,” he said. “So, Mordor, what do you do for a crust?”

 

She barely paused. "I clean up after people," she said. Mainly teenagers.

 

There was no judgment in his eyes. "Good stuff. I'm a neurosurgeon. My father was a trauma surgeon, but I refused to follow in his footsteps. It was my one rebellious act."

S

he wanted to keep the conversation going, even if it only delayed her going home. "I have a cousin in New York who's a neuro. She says she finds it rewarding when she saves someone's life, but she hates it when she can only debulk a tumor so many times." She checked to see if he looked bored.

 

"I agree. It's a very rewarding field to work in. Today I performed a pallidotomy on a man with Parkinson's and his tremors stopped. Don't know how long it'll last, but he's happy."

 

"That’s wonderful. I remember when that procedure was controversial and now it’s changing lives. There are so many heartbreaking neurological conditions." She paused as she thought of some of her most feared. "ALS, multiple systems atrophy, multiple sclerosis. And there’s Huntington's which has its own horrors.” Before working at Sorrento, she'd nursed people with all of them. "I work with the elderly," she said, "and we get some residents with those conditions, but dementia is the one that's most common. It steals their personalities, and in the end, leaves behind an empty shell." She wondered if she sounded harsh, but it didn't matter. Dementia was harsh, and she'd never see him again anyway.

 

"You're a nurse, aren't you? I can tell that you care about people."

 

Club soda dribbled down her chin when her mouth opened in surprise. “Do I? I mean, yes… I do.” She did care, but no one would describe her as caring. She grabbed a paper napkin and dabbed at her chin, relieved that his eyes had been on his drink and hadn’t seen her shame in motion. “And yes, I’m a nurse.”

 

"I knew it. Do you work at the hospital? I'm sure I'd remember if I'd seen you before."

Melanie wasn’t sure why she didn't want him to know where she worked. Oh, yes she did… her reputation. She'd heard the whispers. "No. I work in the community."

"Can I buy you another drink?"

Melanie raised her glass. "No, thanks. I haven't finished this one." She took another sip. "What time is Gandalf supposed to meet you?"

Mitch checked his watch. "Hmm, I wouldn't be surprised if he's been called into surgery or had an urgent consult. He's my best friend, but it wouldn't occur to him to send me a quick text. I often end up sitting here like a Nigel No-mates." His eyes widened. "I didn't mean that you …"

"It's all right. My friend didn't show up either." Because she doesn't exist.

Mitch checked in the direction of the door again. "A man alone is not a pretty sight."

Melanie had no idea how to respond. From where she sat, he was definitely a pretty sight, and she could look at him all night.

He took a delicate sip of beer. "Do you have kids?"

"Yes. A son and a daughter." She wondered if she should point out that she was a single mother, although her ringless finger on her left hand screamed unattached. "Do you?"

He shook his head and lowered his eyes. "No, not yet. I was in a relationship for eleven years. Sabrina wanted to wait to get married. She couldn't handle the long hours I spent at the hospital, hated the dinners we'd plan that I didn't show up to. It doesn't happen so often now, but she couldn't wait. She wanted a husband who'd be home at five o'clock every night. When I mentioned children, she ran for the hills. She said she wouldn’t ruin her flat stomach for anybody and wouldn’t believe that a stretch marked stomach that held our child would be beautiful to me."

He looked so sad that she wanted to gift him her own children as a consolation prize. When she visualized handing over Torrin and Brecken, she snorted, and the club soda in her mouth blew out through her nose. Rather than feeling mortified, a usual response for her, she couldn’t help smiling.

He looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

“Sorry, private joke,” she said.

“You often think of something funny with liquid in your mouth?”

She thought she’d done a good job of covering it up. “Sure, why not? It makes life more interesting.” Melanie took another sip and wondered whether she should ask him if he wanted to grab a bite to eat. She fiddled with the tiny umbrella perched on the side of her glass as she searched for courage. Small talk could lead to something more interesting. Maybe.

Mitch pushed off his stool and grabbed his backpack from the floor. "Well, it was very nice to meet you, Mordor. I'd better go and feed my cat, Stinky. Hopefully I'll see you around some time."

Please stay. “You call your cat Stinky?”

“Her real name is Wicket, after the ewok on Star Wars, but I hadn’t had her long when she let out a shocking, um, smell. Stinky it is, except when we go to the vet. Then she’s Wicket. See ya.”

She watched him as he strode across the room and pushed open the door. What's wrong with me, she thought. He was smart, funny and handsome, but he had no interest in staying. She sighed as she drained the cocktail glass and left the bar. Her two-seater coupe waited in the parking lot like a reliable friend, its keys comfortably warm in her hand.

The tires kicked up stones as she pulled to a halt in her gravel driveway three minutes later. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and leaned her head on her hands. The soft bed inside the house enticed her to move. As she opened the car door, head banging music boomed out the open windows of her house. Perfect. She entered the kitchen which flowed into the dining room and around into the lounge. Pockets of teenagers and beer cans littered each room. Cigarette smoke hung in the air like morning fog.

Melanie located Torrin beneath an oversized male whose mouth was locked to hers. She grabbed the back of his tee shirt and yanked, releasing a breath as he landed on the carpet. "What is going on here?" she yelled above the music. "And where were you this afternoon at handover?"

The top layer of Torrin’s hair, dyed blue, stuck out at angles. She struggled to get up.

How long had she been under that boy?

Torrin’s face turned red with fury. She pulled her mother up the hall and kicked the door shut. "You just humiliated me in front of my friends. And I hooked off early 'cause I had stuff to do for the party. It's Jonno's birthday, and I really like him, so don't make a fuss."

Melanie stood at eye level with Torrin, but her daughter outweighed her by at least fifty pounds. She cringed at the thought of a meaty paw connecting with her face. Torrin wasn’t above it.

After her daughter stomped back to the lounge, Melanie found her son asleep with headphones clamped over his ears. She closed his door again and sought solitude in her own room.

As she lay in bed reflecting on her life, she realized that she hadn’t had a day off from work in over two months due to staff shortages. The stress took bites out of her heart. Exhaustion flooded her body, but no matter what she stuffed into her ears, the pumping base rocked the house and pulsed through her body. Four hours later, her bedroom walls were still boring, and her pillow was wet with tears.

                               

Jianna Higgins BOOKS 

 

- AWARD WINNING AUTHOR -

 

 

"Stories that move you."

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