“What is the secret to your long life?” Jon asked Mrs. Branbury.
“Sex,” she said. “The secret is to just keep having sex even if neither of you want to or don’t feel like it. Do it anyway.” She looked at the very tall Peter van der Groot and smirked.
There is nothing more fun than a birthday party with cake and ice-cream, balloons, party hats and squeaky blow horns. Like celebrating new year, but even better. The Lodge residents celebrated every single birthday with as much gusto as they could. They even celebrated the staff birthdays, though the sweets were kept to a minimum and sudden loud noises avoided. There was always a nice present for the guest of honor and always the singing of happy birthday, unless that part of the celebration was waved off with a scowl, as Mrs. Krantz was one to do when it was her birthday. They came in a very slow moving herd. Every one of them wished to be there for the special occasion, some already bedecked in party hat, saved from previous celebrations.
“Sex,” Mrs. Branbury repeated with her frail wispy voice. “That’s why I married so often.”
Indeed she had married often. Four times, though the last two occurred while she was resident at The Lodge and well past childbearing years. Neither of those two lasted long, as both of those later husbands passed away not long after the nuptials, and consummation.
“I’m sure they at least died with a smile on their face,” Mrs. Branbury concluded. “At least the last two.”
They were gathered in the Sunroom, all seated in their favorite places. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, in a rainbow of colors on shiny foil was taped to the hallway window, a small table set in the corner with a round cake with white frosting and three candles, a one, a zero and an eight. Karl had carried the cake in from the kitchen, for the celebration, and Odd Gunnerson had positioned himself near the cake as a sort of sentry of the dessert. Ice-cream could be brought in later, for those that wanted it and were lactose tolerant.
The birthday parties were not long lasting, though a welcome festivity. For many of the residents a short gathering was all the thrill they could manage in a day.
“War,” Mrs. Branbury said to Jon. Her voice so tiny that he was the only person sitting close enough to hear her. “It is the plague of humanity. Took my first two lovely husbands.”
She was twenty when she married Clive in 1933. Margret was born in 34, William in 36 and Cecil in 38. She was left home with her three children when Clive went off to war. He went down in the water before ever stepping ashore in Normandy. The war office never told her but she found out later from Clive’s friend, Andy Anderson, that Clive took a bullet in the side of the neck, just a grazing wound, but then another right in the middle of his forehead which blew his brains out the back of his head. Never knew what hit him. Lucky, in a way, because he didn’t have to suffer the agony of drowning before even making it to the beach, like so many others did. Sad, Andy said, because he didn’t even get to shoot one of those Hun bastards. ‘Stupid,’ is what Mrs. Branbury told Andy at the time.
Three children raised alone until she married Hank. He helped a bit but worked mostly out of town so wasn’t home much. Ingrid was born by surprise in 51. Not long after, Hank shipped off to Korea, so he could shoot people that he didn’t know. But he was the one that got shot. Took a bullet and fell underneath a tank track and got squished into pulp. ‘Tank Hank’ his buddies referred to him after that.
“They didn’t bother shipping his pieces back home to be buried, so his bones are somewhere over there,” Mrs. Branbury said. “It broke my heart,” she said, “to lose those boys. Young men I suppose they were,” she said. But what broke her heart even more was losing her children. They had all grown to adults, married and had their own children, except Ingrid who died just over ten years ago, at 58, unmarried and childless.
“‘It was crushing,” she said, “broke my heart and drove me to my knees with grief, each one of them.”
She never dreamed they would go before her; it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Each time left her hollow, another piece of her heart torn away. It is a wonder that the grief didn’t kill her.
“I still think of them, even now,” she said to Jon. Her cloudy eyes moistened; red circles formed around the edges.
Jon patted her hand.
She loved them dearly and her heart was so broken over and over again when they passed. Jon wasn’t sure that he had felt the same way about his own son. He convinced himself that he must have, but why would that feeling of love for a child have left him. He made a ‘wish’ to the universe, like a prayer that a religious person might make to God, that something good, like the Singularity, might be there for Magnus and Harriet. But because he was atheist, felt his ‘prayer’ was meaningless.
“It doesn’t make any difference whether you believe or not,” Mrs. Branbury said. “If there is a god then god knows what is in your heart and certainly wouldn’t be so small and shallow to need you to have worshiped him because he would already know the real you. Just live a good and moral life and you’ll be okay.”
She was like a solitary leafless tree, alone in a barren field, covered with sadness. The only one left. All her siblings, her parents of course, her husbands and all her children had passed on. There were grandchildren and greats and great greats, but she didn’t really know any of them, they could have been the progeny of any of the other residents. Only one or two ever came to see her anyway. Probably because they thought she had no money to leave behind. But they were wrong.
“I was never much for my own birthday’s,” Jon said. “Didn’t want that kind of attention. But I really enjoyed celebrating my son’s birthday. Magnus. When he was a boy, not once he grew up. And Harriet of course. I liked to surprise her with something funny, a gag gift that would make her shriek or guffaw, and then take her to a nice dinner and sit on the bench by the river and watch it flow by.”
Mrs. Branbury smiled.
“You’re a nice man,” she said.
“Magnus got old before I even noticed. Now he’s gone too. Killed by poison gas that he never even knew was there. So now I’m here, just waiting.”
“Here with me,” Mrs. Branbury said.
He looked at her face, imagining what she must have looked like when she was a young woman; a face behind the many wrinkles and folds of skin, sagging bags beneath her opaque blue eyes, drooping eyelids, thin feathery white hair. She must have been a tall woman, though she was now shrunken, loose skin hanging off small brittle bones.
Odd Gunnerson fussed around the birthday cake while the Happy Birthday song rattled and squeaked, cackled and huffed in the Sunroom. There was coughing and gasps between the words but they managed to get through it. Odd turned, cake in hand, candles lit and a wide goofy smile frozen to his face, proud, as if he had been the architect of the cake.
“Be careful with that.” Nurse Shirley followed closely behind Odd as he made his way across the room, bearing the cake as if it was an offering to the monarch.
“I know what I’m doing,” Odd said.
“I saw you poking your fingers into that cake, like a little kid,” Shirley chastised.
“Never mind,” Odd replied. A dab of white frosting stuck to the tip of Odd’s right index finger.
“Hurry up before those candles burn down and wax gets everywhere.”
He shuffled, not lifting his feet from the floor, sliding them as if skiing, so as not to errantly snag a toe and trip.
“Quickly Mr. Gunnerson,” Nurse Shirley complained. “Before those candles evaporate.”
Odd sneered. ‘Why was she even here? She is supposed to work during the nighttime, so we don’t ever need to see her or hear her bitchy voice.’
They clapped as their song finished and Odd arrived just in front of Mrs. Branbury. She smiled.
Odd waited, bent over and presented the cake towards Mrs. Branbury.
“You need to blow,” Odd said.
Mrs. Branbury sat quietly staring at the flickering yellow of the candle flames.
“One hundred and eight,” she said. “How did I get so old?”
“Because you are a marvel,” Jon said. “Should I help you blow those out?”
The candle flames waved and weaved like dancing fairies. Mrs. Branbury watched them, fixed to their performance as if it were a private dance for her alone. The one melted to one side, the zero cupped and pooled liquid wax where the wick met the top of the arch, and the eight softened and drooped forward like the Leaning Tower of Pisa about to fall.
Odd’s eyes widened at the sight. He blew quickly to prevent any further damage to the candles. The yellow flames snuffed; three small grey curls of smoke rose from the cake, drifting into Odd’s eyes. He shrieked and wobbled, needing to dab his eyes but both hands were holding the cake. As the smoke curled into his nostrils, Oddur Gunnerson felt a huge sneeze coming on. The cake, the party and even Mrs. Branbury were in danger, should a gale force sneeze explode from Odd Gunnerson.
Nurse Shirley stood behind him.
“Give me that before you drop it,” she demanded.
Odd swung around quickly and put the cake into Nurse Shirley’s hands. He raised a hand under his nose to try to stifle his sneeze. His index finger, with the white frosting, pointed at Nurse Shirley.
“I was hoping to see if I could have blown those out,” Mrs. Branbury said.
“I’m here, I could have helped if needed,” Jon assured her. “Quite a thing, to have that many candles.” He imagined that small cake with a hundred and eight individual birthday candles, all lit into a blazing crown, an inferno of birthday cake, not just the three melting numerals.
The cake was returned to the small table. Beside it was a stack of paper plates and plastic forks. Nurse Shirley positioned herself between Odd and the cake, blocking him from even viewing the confection, took the long thin bread knife and sliced slivers of cake for the party goers. She handed the first piece to Odd with instruction that it was to go straight to Mrs. Branbury. He was not to be sidetracked, he was not to sample the cake or poke it with a sticky finger, just deliver it. She handed him a plastic fork. Odd examined the piece of cake closely, gave a look of disappointment to Nurse Shirley but dutifully made his way back across the Sunroom with Mrs. Branbury’s dessert.
Karl, leaning against the doorframe, was summoned to carry plates of cake to the other residents.
“No ice cream,” Karl said.
“They don’t need ice cream on top of all this sugar,” Nurse Shirley scowled.
Each sliver of cake was precise, equal in size to all the others. Each party guest happily accepted the cake, though Jon declined.
“Not a cake person,” he said.
“I’ll have yours then,” Karl told him as he turned with Jon’s piece of cake in hand.
A hint of light from the cake caught the corner of Karl’s eye as he sat beside Odd Gunnerson. He poked it with his fork. ‘A piece of foil,’ he thought. He dug at a small shiny object embedded in his piece of cake. Odd looked down at the object.
“It’s a nickel,” Odd said.
“A nickel. I would have put a quarter but I didn’t have one.”
“You put a nickel in my cake?”
“It was supposed to be hers.” Odd pointed to Mrs. Branbury. “You know, a birthday cake surprise. Money in the cake, like when we were kids. But she made me take the wrong piece.” Odd scowled, pointing to Nurse Shirley. “Now the surprise is spoiled.”
“You put a dirty coin in my cake?”
“Not your cake, her cake. But you got it instead. Now there is no surprise.”
Karl looked at Odd’s frosting tipped finger. The white frosting had hardened like an aberrant growth.
Mrs. Branbury’s hand wobbled back and forth with a slight tremor. Cake fell from her fork to her plate. Jon offered to help, and taking her fork he lifted a small morsel of white cake to her mouth. Mrs. Branbury placed her hand in Jon’s free hand, closed her eyes and relished the luxury of her cake. She asked for another fork full then another and another until she had finished the entire sliver of her birthday cake. Her eyes closed as she savored the extravagance, a smile on her lips.
Her eyes opened, she leaned towards Jon as if beckoning for another taste of the sweet cake. Jon looked down at the plate, empty except for a few crumbs.
“I can see if there is more,” he said.
Her eyes smiled at him, fixed, unblinking, serene. Jon smiled back, nodding that he was happy to help and show some kindness on her special day. Her smile remained fixed, she said nothing and seemed content in her reverie.
“Shall I check Mrs. Branbury? Would you care for a little more cake?”
She said nothing.
“I would give you mine but I didn’t take any. Not a cake person.”
She said nothing, just continued to smile.
“Mrs. Branbury? It’s no trouble. I’m sure Mr. Gunnerson would fetch you another piece.”
She said nothing.
“Maybe I could read you another story now, from my book.” Jon’s red cover Snorri book was tucked in the corner of the chair. “They used to have quite the celebrations back in those days. Sometimes they would go on for several days. Lots of drinking and gorging on greasy mutton. They weren’t very health conscious, like us. None of them ever lived to a hundred and eight. Not that I know of anyway.”
She said nothing, just continued to stare at Jon. Her gaze stuck, as if she was studying a freckle on Jon’s forehead. Jon shuffled nervously in his seat; not sure what Mrs. Branbury was doing by her long stare. He hoped she wasn’t giving him a ‘sex’ look. Clearly they were far too old for that kind of thing. Her gaze never faltered, her smile did not fade or change its shape. Jon felt the slightest squeeze of her hand in his, he wanted to draw his hand back but couldn’t make himself show any unkindness to the lovely old woman, especially on her birthday. He was handcuffed, a plastic fork in one hand, Mrs. Branbury’s frail boney hand on the other. He needed to pee.
“No cake then,” Jon said. “I could read.” He tilted towards Mrs. Branbury. “But just a short bit, nature calls.”
Her gentle grasp of Jon’s hand loosened and released, but her gaze and smile remained. Jon drew his hand away slowly from hers, freed his other hand of the plastic fork and brushed the sweat from both hands on his Icelandic sweater. He returned her smile.
“How about if I read about the party where Snorri betrothed his young daughter Thordis to the old Thorvald?” He flipped through the pages of his book. “Or maybe not that one because Thorvald ended up getting burned up in his house by his ex-wife’s sons.”
Mrs. Branbury continued to stare, though her gaze was no longer at Jon, it was distant, through him, past him and flat. Her eyes became empty, frozen in time. Her fragile body seemed to have sunk into the hollow of the Queen’s chair and she seemed to have fallen asleep, with her eyes still open. Not an entirely unusual thing, at The Lodge. Some folks spent their entire day sitting, unmoving, appearing to be frozen in sleep with their eyes wide. Jon had not seen this in Mrs. Branbury, but the excitement of her birthday party could have worn her out.
Jon gave a nod to acknowledge that Mrs. Branbury was certainly entitled to drift off and take a rest if needed. Her hand fell limp to the arm of the Queen’s chair.
“There you go dear,” Jon said. “You rest.”
Jon turned to the residents seated around the Sunroom, some visiting among themselves, some dozing, some waiting expectantly for Jon to read from his book and share another tale about the ancient Icelander Snorri Sturluson.
“No reading today,” Jon said in a hushed voice, so as not to disturb Mrs. Branbury’s sleep. “I’ll read double tomorrow.”
She became a statue, the light in her eyes dimmed like a candle flame slowly extinguishing.
Karl had seen this before, not in a person but many times in the small pets he had to euthanize in his veterinary practice. They looked alive, even though they had passed. Sleeping with their eyes open. Odd had taken back the cake covered nickel, cleaned it off and was about to present it to Mrs. Branbury. Karl grabbed Odd’s arm.
“Wait,” Karl said. “Just a minute, something isn’t right.”
“She’s not there.”
“The old lady. The party girl. She’s gone.”
“Gone where? She’s right there. Can’t you see her. I’m going to give her the surprise anyway, even if it is spoiled. She’ll still like it.”
“No, stupid,” Karl tugged Odd back into his seat. “She’s dead, passed away, gone to her great reward.”
Karl looked around for Nurse Shirley to have a look at Mrs. Branbury. The night nurse had left the room. They were there by themselves, with Mrs. Branbury dead in her chair. Karl was the first to see it, the only one to know that Mrs. Branbury was no longer one hundred and eight.
“I’ve seen this before,” Karl said. “She looks just like the animals, the little pets. I’ve seen thousands of them.”
In his lifetime as a veterinarian Karl Homesman had taken care of thousands of domestic animals. He loved the animals, loved that he could see their troubles and fix them, repair a broken limb, torn flesh or an infection bubbling poison into their small body. In the end they came to him to be aided to their final sleep. He euthanized more than he could count. He was with them taking their final breath, listening to the last beat of their heart and suffering the grief and sadness with the owner that had loved and cared for them. They all had the same look in their eye at the end. Frozen like a wax figure, like something that had been to the taxidermist.
Karl crossed the room, bent over for a closer look at the silent old woman. She had not slumped over or sagged into the soft hollows of the Queen’s chair. She remained propped, still looking in the direction of Jon Magnusson, as if there was a bond attaching them across the bridge of life and death. But Jon did not continue to look into Mrs. Branbury’s silent eyes. The inevitability of an ending made him cold to his core. It bore the truth of his own inevitable fate, soon to come.
“She’s gone,” Karl said.
Jon did not want to look back at Mrs. Branbury.
“I know,” Jon said. “She just stopped living, just like that.”
“I don’t think so,” Karl said as he looked closely at Mrs. Branbury’s frozen expression. “She looks like she has been euthanized, put down like an animal.”
Karl had seen this same inanimate face more often than he cared to recall.
Jon imagined Mrs. Branbury’s life force lifting away from her like a glowing fairy, growing fainter as she rose until she was gone. Jon looked towards the ceiling of the Sunroom as if watching Mrs. Branbury’s light leave. His eyes came to rest upon a dark furry wolf spider walking upside down across the ceiling. The creature was too far from him to make out detail of its features but Jon imagined Greta Lundberg’s face on the spider’s head, her face with eight spider eyes. He shuddered.
“Call for help. Maybe it’s not too late,” Jon choked.
Odd Gunnerson left the Sunroom, a stunned guilty look on his face as he tried to clean the white frosting from his fingertip.
“She’s gone, Jon.” Karl said. “Her heart has stopped.”
The room was silent.
Odd Gunnerson speed walked passed the Nurses Hub. Nurse Clara and Detective Klugman had open the locked meds locker. Nurse Clara explained each residents private medicine supply to the policeman. They went through each of the contents comparing quantities to the records kept for the supply and renewal of daily medicine for each resident.
“She’s dead,” Odd squeaked out as he ran past the Nurses Hub. “At the party.”
“We can compare this to Dr. Weppler’s inventory list in the pharmacy,” Nurse Clara said.
“Did somebody else just die?” Detective Klugman asked.
“Oh dear,” Nurse Clara said.
“What is it Mr. Gunnerson?” Nurse Clara called to Odd as he sped down the hallway to his room.
“I didn’t do it,” he yelled back.
The rapid claxon sounded, the red globe above the door outside the Sunroom began to flash in urgent alarm, like a strobe of blood.
“Oh dear,” Nurse Clara said. “Someone is in trouble at Mrs. Branbury’s birthday party. I have to go; we’ll have to finish this later.”
Nurse Clara closed the meds locker door. She looked for the key to lock the cabinet but didn’t see it. The hook on the key rack where it usually hung was empty.
“Oh dear,” she repeated. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
It was too late. Poor Mrs. Branbury departed the world on her one hundred and eighth birthday. They were there to witness her leaving as if invited to say goodbye to a friend departing on a grand voyage. Some didn’t realize that she was gone. Others left the Sunroom silently for the sanctuary of their own private room. Jon remained. Karl sat with him.
Dr. Hauptman came from the cold room; Dr. Weppler came from the Pharmacy, Nurse Clara checked for a pulse, there was none of course. Detective Klugman stood behind them. Nurse Shirley had left.
“She looks peaceful,” the Detective said.
“Nope,” Karl said as he shook his head. “Somethings not right here.”
“She was very old,” Dr. Hauptman said. “It was her time.”
“Nope,” Karl repeated.
“I saw that funny guy stick something in her cake,” Peter van der Groot spoke up.
“Nope,” Karl said. “That was nothing. I know what that was, something else.”
“It’s okay Mr. Homesman,” Nurse Clara said. “If you could leave us, we’ll take care of Mrs. Branbury, poor thing. You as well Mr. Magnusson, Mr. Van der Groot. We’ll see to her. Please head back to your rooms.”
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