Sunlight gradually illuminated the small room, the curtain rod swishing as Vanessa pulled back the thick, bronze silk drapes. She looped them around the heavy brass hooks that flanked the windows, then yanked on the cord to slide the slatted blinds to the top of the frame. Gently, she clicked the latch and pushed the window open wide, allowing a light breeze to alleviate the stuffy room.
“How’s my favorite patient?” Vanessa asked quietly, her voice sweet and musical.
The beeps and clicks of medical equipment were the only reply.
The hospital bed looked wildly out of place in what had once been a posh home office. They gray plastic frame and sterile white sheets stood out against the dusky gold wallpaper. The back wall was lined with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, jam-packed with cop thriller novels and Lord only knew how many copies of Sports Illustrated and various outdoors-y magazines. The antique, leather bound encyclopedias that had previously adorned the shelves before were packed away into boxes, tucked away in the corner gathering dust. A vintage mahogany roll-top top desk had been pushed up against the wall, now chronically open, the surface was littered with orange and white pill bottles.
“Stanley?” she placed her hand gently on her patient’s thin forearm.
“Ungh.” Stanley grunted back at her. He sniffled as he woke, flexing and twisting his facial muscles.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she sing-songed. Her voice and smile were true to her feelings for the old man; sweet, caring and totally real. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a rockstar,” he said through a wide yawn. His voice was sticky and crackling, he sounded dehydrated. Stanley tremored gently and groaned as he sat up.
She chuckled, “I’ll bet you do.”
As Vanessa sat down carefully next to his frail body, she looped Stanley’s arm around her narrow shoulders. Once his bare, bony feet were planted on the thick, oriental rug, she helped him stand. He leant heavily on her shoulders, he was definitely needing more support in recent weeks, and his other hand dragged a tall, stainless-steel IV roller behind him. The clear tubes from the bag led to the permanent port that strained against the papery skin on his chest, the clear tubes from his nose led the the oxygen tank in the rack above the wheels. The journey to the bathroom was slow goings, but as always, Vaness maintained total patience and empathy with every step.
She helped him into the bathroom and then stepped out, closing the door behind her. Though she was his full-time nurse, Vanessa wasn’t about to rob the man of any more of his pride. She returned to his room, exchanging the soft white sheets with another, cleaner set from the narrow shelf under the bed, She stripped and replaced the pillowcases, wiping the grainy plast bed frame and metal guard rails down with antibacterial wipes. Making her way to the desk, she counted out his first batch of pills for the morning from the various bottles.
With the pills cupped in her hand, she grabbed a plastic water cup with a lid and attached straw, she walked back to the bathroom and knocked softly on the door. Stanley opened and accepted the tablets and water bottle and Vanessa waited, hoping and praying for an easy morning.
Those prayer were all for naught though. On the other side of the door she could hear Stanley vomit. His extremely sensitive digestive system rejecting the myriad of medication. With each dry, violent retch Vanessa couldn’t help but wince., as though her own body were the one in pain.
After a few more agonizing moments, Stanley finished. Vanessa heard the rush of water and scratching sounds as Stanley brushed his teeth. Once he had finished he opened the door, leaning heavily on the counter, panting. Unfortunately used to these fairly regular episodes, Vanessa led him back to bed. Once Stanley was set back up on his throne of clean pillows, Vanessa plumped a fresh IV bag and replaced the flat one that dangled on his rolling rack.
“How’sa bout some breakfast!?” she joked.
Stanley laughed, the chuckle breaking off into a chorus of dry, brittle coughs.
Love, empathy and sadness warred within Vanessa’s heart. She remembered when she had first met Stanley just over a year ago; a strong, spunky man with a brash sense of humor. He had just been diagnosed with stage three stomach cancer, though and stranger could never have guessed. His six foot frame had been adorned with the lean muscles of a healthy, athletic sixty year old man. His thick, full hair was shot through with silver and the ghostly pallor of terminal illness hadn’t begun to fade his natural, outdoorsy tan. Almost right off the bat, he was one of her favorite chemo patients; despite the circumstances, she was always excited to see him. His dry, whimsical cracks and down to earth wisdom made him a fun conversation partner and they had quickly developed a deep and friendly bond.
Four months later, they found cancer had spread to his liver. By six months, it was in his lymph nodes. Though Vanessa would always see the Stanley as he had been in his prime, objectively he looked every part an elderly sick man. He’d lost about seventy pounds, his head was shiny bald and his waxy, pale skin and whites of his eyes were yellowed with jaundice. Vanessa had been in the office with him, holding his frail hand, when the doctor had officially pronounced him terminal. He would have less than a year to live. A lone tear escaped, she’d wiped it away before Stanley could see.
“What would you like for your real breakfast?” She asked him. “Brownie? Or maybe a cookie?”
A smile broke across Stanley’s face. “Vanessa, I would’ve married you on the spot, if only a pretty girl like you had said that to me back in the day.”
“My, my, what a gentleman,” she gasped theatrically. Vanessa fluttered her fingers in front of her face like a fan, affecting her inner southern belle. She didn’t know what it was about Stanley, he had always brought out a jovial side of her.
“But a cookie sounds divine,” he comically winked his veiny eye.
Vanessa laughed, brushing back her honey blonde hair into a high ponytail. Most of her colleagues at the hospital probably would’ve found their flirtatious banter degrading, or even gross, but Vanessa actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t like the flirt was real. She told Stanley she’d be right back and padded her bare feet down the hall to fetch his breakfast
The day after that fateful doctor’s visit, Vanessa had been surprised to receive a page from Stanley’s Oncologist and quickly made her way to his office. Dr. Meyers, a slim-built, quirky man with round wire spectacles that always looked as though they were about to fall off his long, hooked nose, asked her to close the door and have a seat. She had been nervous, she hadn’t a single clue what the meeting could be about.
“So Vanessa,” the doctor began, “I’ve noticed you have quite a bond with Mr. Carter.”
“Oh, um,” she stuttered nervously, “yes, sir. He’s quite a guy. But it’s always been professional! I don’t want you to think I could ever-”
Putting up a hand, he said, “Hold it, Ms. Quint.” The doctor chuckled. “I’m definitely not accusing you of anything inappropriate. Calm down.”
She did, with a deep, slow breath. She waited.
“Mr. Carter, as you know, has decided to cease all chemotherapy and radiation treatment.”
Vanessa nodded weakly, the wound still raw in her gut.
“His son contacted me this morning, expressing interest in setting up a round-the-clock home care situation for Stanley-”
“He has a son?” Vanessa blurted. She was shocked. Stanley had never mentioned anything about a son. Why hadn’t she heard of this? How had his son never been to even one appointment with his father? Stanley had told her that his wife had passed several years before due to a heart attack, but since he’d never mentioned any other family she’d assumed didn’t have any.
“Yes, his son Jonathan. You’ve never heard of Jonathan Carter?”
Had anyone not heard of Jonathan Carter. He was practically a local celebrity; the gifted wonderboy who had come up from nothing and thrived in his adulthood, making billions of dollars doing something with software and stalks and other things Vanessa didn’t understand.
“That…That’s Stanley’s son? Are you sure?” She was in complete shock. Carter was such a common last name, she had never even considered the relation.
“Yes,” the doctor continued, “and he’s asked me to refer a full-time caregiver for his father. You’re obviously the number one choice, I just wanted to make sure it was alright with you before I put your name forward. The pay he’s offering is… generous.”
“I don’t care about the pay,” Vanessa said, and she’d meant it. “I would love to be there for Stanley, however I can.”
So, there she was. Barefoot, working in yoga pants, in the world’s most bittersweet job setup. She loved Stanley, truly and deeply, but as the months passed, it was becoming clear that she probably wouldn’t be needed much longer. Vanessa had been so distracted by the inevitable pain of losing Stanley, she hadn’t spent much time considering the fact that once he did kick the bucket she would also be out of work. She pondered this as she made her way to the kitchen.
Once Stanley had made the decision to end treatment, Jonathan had moved him into his mansion. The house was the epitome of classic construction, the exterior wrapped in brick and stone, with a black shingled roof. The almost cabin-esque architecture looked right at home nestled in the grassy green hills. Vanessa remembered her first trip to the house, though house wasn’t a generous enough word. Thick trees line the cobbled driveway, finally clearing into a loop that passed five wooden garage doors. Vanessa had timidly pulled up, admiring the stunning mansion, and clicked the garage door opener she had been given. The door on the far end rolled open. The floor was done in hardwood that looked nicer than some houses she’d been in, and she’d felt guilty driving her red Toyota Camry into the impeccably clean space. Even after eight months, the intimidating structure still didn’t really feel like home. Nice as it was, she was definitely ready to leave it behind when Stanley’s time came.
Vanessa loved him in a way she imagined she would’ve loved the father she’d never known. He was a truly incredible person, a beautiful soul the world would definitely miss. She sure as hell would. What was she going to do when he was gone?
She pondered this as she wandered down the hallways and passed the expansive living room.The high walls and classic western paintings adorning them were like background noise to Vanessa. She’d always thought the heavy, masculine furniture in the living room looked stiff and uncomfortable. She’d been lucky enough to save a decent amount money working there, her food and board were essentially included and the doctor hadn’t been exaggerating about the handsome salary she’d agreed to when she had taken the job. Maybe she would take some time off once the job here was through, she thought. It was a unique and somewhat morbid experience to plan your own grief of a loved one, especially when she also had to make sure she could support herself after technically being “laid-off” and Vanessa felt slightly guilty at the thought before shaking it away.
The dining room was rarely used, but always impeccably clean. A table dominated the long room, a heavy-looking wooden number with a rustic feel. Matching chairs shrouded in vintage navajo blankets lined the table on either side, the two chairs on the ends boasting high backs and masculine arm rests. The hunting-lodge-chic furniture gave a powerful air of masculinity to the room. An imposing light fixture built out of various antlers hung proudly from the ceiling. Vanessa wandered into the kitchen, a slightly homier room with a staggered, sandy tile floor and smooth, dark-stained wood cabinets. Coming around the solid granite counter island, she pulled the sleek stainless steel refrigerator door open. The shelves were packed full of food, but after a little hunting she found a plate of chocolate chip cookies wrapped in blue saran wrap.
Jonathan had a full time chef, a culinary school prodigy named Harding. Harding was a quirky kid in his mid-twenties, his bleached blonde hair always swept back from his forehead in a flourished wave with a shaven part line, chunky black glasses framing his baby blue eyes. When Stanley had been prescribed medical marijuana, Harding had been extremely eager to try some so-called “magical” baking. The baking really saved Stanley, he very much preferred the pain relief from the marijuana, though the kitchen did always smell a bit funny for a day or two after Harding made them.
Peeling back the blue cellophane, she carefully pinched a soft, thick cookie from the top of the pile. I need a plate, she realized. The cookie could’ve been on the cover of a food magazine, there was some kind of perfect ratio of chocolate chips. Harding really did know what he was doing. She cupped a hand under the treat to catch any crumbs, she didn’t want to make a mess for Pepita, Jonathan’s cleaner. Vanessa hadn’t heard anyone else walk into the kitchen and almost dropped the cookie when she suddenly wheeled around, face to face with Jonathan.
Even though Jonathan and Vanessa had technically together for over half a year, she knew almost nothing about him. He was a tall man, just over six foot if she had to guess, with so much confidence he seemed even taller. His thick chestnut hair was always professionally short and clean-cut and he had inherited Stanley’s golden hazel eyes. While he was undeniably handsome, Vanessa had always resented him for the way he treated his father. And pretty much everyone else, too. His involvement with his father’s illness ended at paying Vanessa to babysit Stanley He was polite to his household staff, that she’d seen, but definitely not friendly.
“Jonathan,” she greeted him politely.
“Vanessa,” his tone was entirely dry.
“Stanley will be happy to see you.” Vanessa narrowed her light brown eyes. Her meaning was clear; you better go see your dad asshole.
“Oh,” Jonathan looked startled and embarrassed, “um, I’ve unfortunately actually got to pretty much eat and run… And I, uh, wouldn’t want to wake him up just to-”
“Actually, he’s awake already.” She said, with a coy smile. Vanessa was usually above petty spite like this, she was a grown woman after all, but this guy had pushed her buttons for months. Jonathan seemed to shrink with sudden insecurity and discomfort. She bet that she would never understand how uncomfortable he was around Stanley; the fumbling boyish way he avoided his own father. Having never met her father, she liked to think if she had any chance at building a relationship with him, like Jonathan had, she would take full advantage of it.
When Vanessa reached past Jonathan to the cabinet behind him, he actually jumped. She did her best to stifle her smile, his jumpy nerves were pretty funny, and he let her pass him to grab a plate. The round plates in the cabinet were neatly organized, Vanessa grabbed one of the smaller ones. The shiny, glazed blue clay made the cookie look even more cover-worthy. If it wouldn’t leave her in an unprofessional mindstate, Vanessa might’ve had one of her own. “Why don’t you take him his breakfast and say hello?” She said, heavy on the attitude
“I..,” he started, then stopped. He sighed heavily, in defeat. He knew there was no way out of this. “Alright.”
Jonathan turned and reluctantly shuffled out of the kitchen. Vanessa watched him go, trying not to notice the way his white shirt hugged his taught back muscles.
I’ve definitely seen worse in boxers too, she thought.
Discreetly, on her tiptoes, she followed him through the house to Stanley’s room in the west wing. He paused in front of the door, put his hand on the knob and took a slow, deep breath. He pushed the door open and as he stepped in, she could just barely make out something that sounded like “Heyyyy dad…”
Vanessa casually past Stanley’s door to her own room, just down the hall. While her clothes were packed into the dresser drawers and her beauty products were scattered all over the bathroom counter, but the guest room where she stayed had always felt like just that; a guest room, something temporary. This wasn’t her home. There was a comfortable, soft couch is Stanley’s room where she usually ended up sleeping anyway. He was rigged up to enough alarms during the night to wake the entire city, so she didn’t necessarily need to be that close.
She just liked to be.
Vanessa leaned against the wall, listening through to the men murmuring, and smiled to herself. She knew Jonathan’s visit, unwilling as it was, would brighten Stanley’s day immensely. Pulling on the elastic in her hair, Vanessa released her long, blonde hair. The honey-colored hair fell down straight to her waist, her crunchy split ends reminding her again that she would need to get someone to watch Stanley for a day so she could go get her hair done. She’d felt selfish and put it off but it was starting to get borderline gross. She checked herself out in the mirror, passively pleased with what reflected back at her. As far as Vanessa was concerned, self consciousness was a waste of time and energy. You’re given one face, one body, she thought. Why waste time despising it? That’s what her mother had always said, anyway. Eloise Quint had been one hell of a woman. She Vanessa up alone in a less than ideal neighborhood working night shifts as a bartender while Vanessa slept at her grandmother’s. She had taken time every day to motivate her Nessa, leaving her feeling fiercely loved up until her very last breath. Her fight and eventual loss to breast cancer seven years ago had pushed Vanessa all the way through nursing school. Helping people like her mom was all she wanted to do.
Her entire life, everyone had told Vanessa she looked exactly like her mother, and it was true.
“You’ve got none of your bastard daddy in you,” her mom had told her, almost too often, “And trust me, you have no idea how lucky that makes you”.
Vanessa’s pale skin was smooth and clear, a splatter of light freckles lined the bridge of her sculpted, narrow nose. Her lips were full and pink, her sultry eyes were the color of milk chocolate. She’d played volleyball in high school and college, and been a fitness enthusiast throughout, though eight months of hanging out with Stanley indoors had filled her out a little. She turned side to side, scrutinizing her figure. Could definitely be worse, she thought.
She could still hear muffled voices through the wall, a surprisingly long visit for Jonathan, when the doorbell rang. Vanessa scurried out of her room, calling out, “I got it!” Jonathan wasn’t an getting an excuse to end his time with Stanley that easily. She unlocked the giant front door and it swung open. On the other side stood a stunning, exotic woman, her jet-black hair tumbled past her ample breasts in a flawless cascade of curls. She wore a high pair of platform slingbacks with red soles and a skirt so tight Vanessa wondered if she could even breathe. The small, plain tote bag slung over her one shoulder probably cost as much as Vanessa’s car. Vanessa tugged on the hem of her thin, cotton tank top, suddenly feeling sloppy and small.
The mystery woman smiled at her the way people smile at children. “Is Jonathan around?”
“Yes,” Vanessa said, looking down. Of course this is the type of woman Jonathan would be involved with, she thought bitterly. “He’s in with his father right now. Um, come in.” Vanessa opened the door further and the woman strode right in. She cast awed eyes around the house the way newer visitors did,, she was clearly familiar with the place. Vanessa passively wondered how many times the mystery woman had been here. The clicks of her heels on the hardwood floor echoed through the huge room.
“I’ll get him,” Vanessa said, the woman stopped in the living room and gave her a grateful smile.
Vanessa walked down the short hallway and softly tapped on Stanley’s door before she entered. Jonathan had pushed a large leather recliner up to his dad’s bed and he sat back in it, looking comfortable. They were chatting comfortably, Jonathan’s nerves seemed to have settled. He was quite a bit more attractive when he smiled Vanessa noticed, resenting the thought. Stanley was sitting up a little straighter than usual, there was an amount of animation in his words and movements Vanessa hadn’t seen in awhile. She hated that she was about to ruin the moment.
“Jonathan?” He looked up. “There’s a woman here to see you?”
“Ah,” regret clouded his features. He looked back at his father. “That’ll be Jocelyn. I’m headed out to Munich for two days, you know how it is. But I’ll call you tonight if I can, and we can continue this when I get back.”
Jonathan moved to stand, but Stanley planted a sickly hand on his knee. “You’re working too hard Jonathan. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”
Jonathan practically rolled his eyes. He tried to worm away, but Stanley’s hand stayed firm..
“I love you Jonathan,” Stanley said in a gravelly voice. Tears brimmed in his bloodshot eyes.
Jonathan winced, almost as is if Stanley had struck him. He looked away, his face guarded, almost angry. He patted his dad’s hand twice, then pushed it off his knee. “Love you too, Dad.”
Vanessa’s fists clenched as she watched the exchange. How could Jonathan not see what he was doing to his own father? Stanley continued to look down at his hand and folded it with the other in his lap as Jonathan hustled out of the room. He pushed past Vanessa without a word. She heard him behind her in the foyer as he greeted the mystery woman with a suave hello.
The atmosphere in the room was heavy and silent.. Vanessa closed the door over, and silently made her way back behind Stanley’s bed and sat in the chair where Jonathan had previously been sitting. Stanley’s cookie sat untouched on the arm of the chair, Vanessa passed it onto his lap with purpose as she sat down.
“He’s a good kid, Jonathan.” Stanley had been trying to convince her of this since she’d moved in, yet she still doubted it. Vanessa nodded sympathetically. “He misses his mom more than he lets on. I just hope he realizes that there’s so much more to life than work. If only I had gotten to see a grandkid, you know?” Stanley’s eyes brimmed over with tears. He rarely talked about the end of his life, the little of it he had left anyway. Vanessa’s heart ached, she wrapped her hand around Stanley’s and squeezed.
“I hope so too.”