My Last Noc Shift
It was my seventh night shift in a row. My heroic coworkers were at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, doing all they could to fight the pandemic. I admired them, but my chronic asthma put me at too high a risk. Someone had to take care of psychiatric patients, so employing social distancing, I made the rounds. I was alone in the unit and hoped a nurse’s aide would show up soon. The very private hospital was not known for adequate staffing even during the best of times.
Artie was in the dayroom drawing Iron Man on his arm, the table, sheets of paper, whatever he could get his hands on. The slender fifty-something white guy had fried his brain with stimulants and cocaine while working in the stock market. He made his family uber-rich, so they kept him in this posh looney bin.
My next patient was in a good mood. “Celena, please turn it down, it’s past eleven.”
The beautiful older black woman smiled then muted Earth, Wind, and Fire. She came and stood in the doorway of her private room smiling, “But sugar, he‘s coming tonight, going to take me home.” She once made platinum-selling albums, until her delusions started to come out in interviews. Celena could be hell on wheels if you doubted that John Glenn had taken her to the moon.
“Okay, try to get some sleep.”
Next, was my easiest patient. I doubted Mr. Parker needed to be here.
“Hi Louis, how are you?”
The old Sicilian gentleman smiled and gestured for me to join him at a table in the dayroom that looked out on a garden. I remained standing. “Good evening to my favorite nurse. Beautiful Becky, please call me Luigi.”
If he were thirty years younger, he could have gotten me in trouble. “You know your family insists on Louis.” He wore a crisp dress shirt, slacks, and leather loafers every day and only slept in silk pajamas.
“They would not hide me like this in the old country. I begged them to send me back, but they said I’d be killed. So, I live in this nice prison.” He frowned in a way that made his whole face sag. Then a twinkle came to his eyes, “Can I use your phone to order from that deli?”
I shook my head, “Louis, you can’t call the Feds again. We’ve had this conversation before.” In fact, we had that conversation every night, I think he was just trying to wear me down. “Tell me about your wife? Did she come by today?”
“No. She sent me cannoli with a message about sheltering in place. I bet she’s in Vegas. I should never have married that Roman trash, but she’s got a great ass.”
I saw someone come in through the secure entrance. “Try and get some rest Louis.”
Some help at last. A tall slender man, wearing a badge that identified him as a temp service behavioral aide, nodded to me. We always wore street clothes to put the patient’s more at ease. His cashmere sweater, designer jeans, and black boots had more of a dinner date look. His cologne was a bit of primal forest with a hint of spice.
“Hello, I’m David Ratislav.” He had thick brown hair to his shoulders and caramel-colored eyes.
“Hi! I’m Becky Sanders.” I didn’t expect anyone like him. I wished I had tamed my frizzy red hair and put on some makeup. Though I was pale with freckles, he was a whiter shade of pale. I guessed it was from working nights. “I’ll give you a run down after you stow your backpack in the office. There’s hand sanitizer in there. Coffee?”
“No coffee, thanks.” He stowed his stuff and took in the layout of the unit.
“Our census is low.” I handed him the iPad we used to keep track of bed checks and update mental status. He picked up quickly on what was expected. “Everyone’s been given their meds. Not much else to do except keep them from getting in trouble, and monitor Selena’s blood sugar level at 5am.”
“Great,” he smiled.
When David walked off to make rounds. I wanted to go with him to keep inhaling his cologne. I stayed in the nurse’s station munching on rice cakes, my latest diet fad. Working in Beverly Hills, I was surrounded by beautiful people wannabes who spent lots of time and money perfecting their appearance. Working nights meant I never got enough sleep and did not have the energy to make it to a gym, so I restricted calories. I sighed. My life was as boring as my snack.
David walked over. “Celena requested ice cream. And Luigi wants to use a phone.”
I chuckled, “Be careful with Celena, she might mistake you for a fan, don’t get too close when you give her the snack.” I opened the fridge that was packed with treats. “There’s sugar-free French Vanilla for her. Help yourself. The cheesecake is good.”
“Thanks, I’ll be careful with the diva.”
“And don’t let Louis use a phone. He’ll call the FBI.”
David chuckled, “He told me not to listen to you.”
I just shook my head. Artie came up to me after David had walked off. He looked about anxiously and whispered, “Don’t trust him. I’ve seen them before on Wall Street at night. We need Iron Man.”
“Everything is fine. Calm down, that’s just David. He’s a nurse’s aide.”
“We’ll be watching.” He moved back to his table and set his drawings of Iron Man around him for protection.
I knew telling him to go back to his room would increase his agitation. I let Artie be, hoping he’d get sleepy. If he required sedation, it would be difficult for two of us to hold him down for a shot.
David returned to the nurse’s station. “What’s up?” he looked over at Artie, who glared back.
“He’s suspicious of you.”
“Good man.” He grinned, “Protecting his nurse.”
“You remind him of someone he met in New York.”
“Really? Haven’t been there in years.” He worked on his status report. “Quiet night. Nice. How long have you worked here?”
I was flattered that he was interested in me at all. “Five years. It pays well, but the staffing has never been great, and now it’s dangerously low. Luckily I haven’t had anyone acting up lately.”
Artie stood and yelled, “Get away from her!”
“Crap,” I muttered. “I’ll see if he’ll take a Xanax.”
“Wait,” David said quietly. “Let me talk to him. Maybe I can calm him down.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. He usually doesn’t react well to people he doesn’t know.” I stepped into the medication room to get something for Artie. When I came out, David was slowly walking up to him, looking directly into his eyes.
David’s tone was soothing, “Relax, friend, all will be well. No harm will come to you Arthur.”
“But…,” the patient started then appeared to close his eyes. He slumped over the table.
“Rest Arthur, all will be well in the morning.”
Artie laid his head down on his arms and began to snore.
I had never seen anyone get Artie to settle down like that. “What did you do?”
He turned to me and his eyes held mine, “Hypnotic suggestion. I find it works much better than drugs.”
“No shit. Can you work here every night?”
David replied, “I only work part-time, to keep my nights free.” He walked back to the nurse’s station without another word. I did the next rounds, then returned and filled my mug. “What do you want to do with your life?” he asked me.
Never in all my years of night shifts had anyone asked that. His tone was sincere, and his gaze was penetrating. I felt uncomfortable but could not put my finger on why.
“Switch to days when I can afford it. I fell asleep at an intersection waiting for a green light yesterday,” I yawned.
With an amused grin, he continued, “I mean your goals. If you could do whatever you wanted.”
I was about to give him a flip comment, but something about him compelled me to give a serious answer. “I have a business degree. I’d like to work at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, but no headhunter ever takes me seriously.” I took a big sip of my favorite dark potion.
“Funny, that’s where I’m headed next. I appreciate the long nights in winter. I know someone who works for your favorite bean company.”
“Thanks, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a barista.” I studied his handsome features and sensed a belief that nothing could get in his way. I wondered what he might be capable of. “You’re lucky. I can’t afford to move anywhere, and there’s the virus restrictions.”
“But you’re essential personnel. This medical identification card can allow us to go wherever we want, whenever we want. Seize the moment.” He touched my arm for an instant, and I felt a sensation of energy. Trying to avoid contact with everyone, I took a step back.
“Don’t worry, I’m not a carrier. I’m immune to viruses,” he said with a smile.
“Right! What did you smoke before you came on duty? Whatever it is, I want some.” If there was a personal reason he worked in Mental Health, I hoped he would keep it to himself.
He smirked, “Be careful what you ask for.”
That was a little creepy. The rest of the night was unusually quiet. I’d probably never see David again, which was for the best. Artie stayed asleep. We barely spoke as he read War and Peace, and I dug into Salem’s Lot. Around five a.m., I got ready to do Celena’s glucometer reading.
David asked, “You really like that book?”
“Yeah, Stephen King always keeps my attention, even when I’m tired.”
“I’m not much of a horror fan, too predictable.” He put his book away in his backpack. “I’ll do her blood test. I need the practice.”
“Sure,” I was glad for his help as I got ready for the day shift and set up medications.
Several minutes later, he recorded her glucose reading. “She’s fine, went back to sleep.” He looked less pale as the night ended. His lips had more color. He noticed me staring at him, “Is everything okay?”
I nodded and turned away to double-check my med tray. I needed a night off. “Hey David, can you get Artie to go to his room?” I didn’t want the day shift to know he’d slept in the dayroom.
There was no answer. I hadn’t heard him leave the nurses station. I checked the staff lounge, no backpack. “What the fuck!” I would have to finish up the shift by myself. I’d let the head nurse yell at the temp service. I picked up the tray of meds, when I got to Celena’s room, she didn’t respond.
“Celena, wake up. I’ve got your medication.” Nothing. She was lying back in bed with a sweet smile on her face. I touched her wrist, checking for a pulse and noticed red marks on her finger where David had stuck her. Instead of the usual small needle stick, he had torn the skin. Her body temperature was cool, and I felt no pulse. “Celena!” I heard the day staff coming in, yelled for help and started CPR.
Minutes later, EMS arrived and took her away. Artie stood outside her room and told me, “I warned you.” He had never sounded so sane. They weren’t able to revive her in the ER. The cause of death was later reported as cardiac arrest complicated by severe anemia. Celena ate a sirloin steak every night. It seemed odd, but I reminded myself it was not unusual for older diabetics to have related medical conditions.
Reading Salem’s Lot in the middle of the night was messing with my head. Maybe I needed a break from working in psychiatric hospitals. I convinced my administrator to give me a couple of nights off and headed home. When I tried to go to sleep, I kept seeing David’s reddened lips after he had taken care of Celena. I wished I had a sedative.
I gave up trying to sleep and fired up my computer. I was surprised to see an email from a Starbuck’s recruiter.
Dear Ms. Sanders,
Your hospital administrator kindly gave me your contact information. You have been highly recommended for a position in our marketing department. Please reply at your earliest convenience. We offer a generous benefit package, which includes relocation expenses.
Human Resource Associate
I was trying to figure out who had “highly recommended” me. I didn’t know anyone at Starbucks or even Seattle for that matter. “What the Hell? What did I have to lose?”
I grabbed my phone and called Raoul. He told me that Starbucks was looking to hire people with fresh ideas. I had a long drive to help me come up with some. I started making plans to head up to Seattle.
Another email came as I was packing up at midnight.
I grabbed Salem’s Lot. I decided to read the ending before I left for Seattle.