What’s the longest shift you’ve ever worked? For me, I recently worked several days straight. Or was it weeks? I don’t even know anymore, because to be honest, it was the same day, over and over. I don’t mean that metaphorically, but literally. Let me explain.
I work the night shift at a local care home. The job itself isn’t that difficult; I prepare and distribute medications, monitor the elderly residents, clean the facility and do more paperwork than should be legal or right. But this particular day changed my life.
My work day starts at 9 pm. I check in and get the news about what happened that day, prepare any medications that need to go out, and then begin my rounds. Like I said, it’s not that difficult, but it is lonely. Aside from myself, only two other carers work the night shift, and on this particular night, one of them called in sick.
“Hey pretty lady!”
“Hey Betty,” I greeted my smiling colleague as I arrived. Betty was my favourite person to work with. She was always so happy, no matter what the situation was.
“So, Ben’s called in sick. Again.”
“Again?” He was a trainee, only 21, and had a penchant for partying. The night shift worked in his favour so he could pursue his interests more freely, but the frequency with which he called in sick was alarming. I couldn’t see him staying on much longer. “Gonna be a long night then, huh?” Little did I know…
I made my way down the halls, distributing medicine, stopping to chat with some of the elderly folk who were still awake and lucid. There was Mr Jones in 1A, a stubborn man who refused regular bedtimes because he was ‘old enough to decide what was good for himself.’ He told me about how his son came to visit that day with his new baby girl; he was a grandfather again! There was Mrs Crabapple in 2D, a sweet old lady with Alzheimer’s who thought I was her daughter more often than not. She told me about a lovely movie she watched earlier that day—or perhaps it was the other day, they all blended together—where an old man was visited by three spirits to make him change his ways. I smiled and nodded, gave her her pills and moved on. Mrs Anderson in 2F was also awake, although she wasn’t very chatty on this particular night. Odd, because she usually never stopped talking.
“I saw someone,” she said. “No good can come of him.”
“Who?” I asked, but she clammed up and said no more. I told Betty about it when I returned to the staffroom, but she brushed it off.
“Probably just chasing shadows.”
The rest of the night was uneventful. I did my cleaning rounds, I did paperwork, I did more rounds, then I did even more paperwork. I said goodbye to Betty, who was working an extra shift to make up for Ben’s absence, and then walked out the door.
Only I didn’t.
I was walking down the hallway again.
“Hey pretty lady.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. I said goodbye, I walked down the hall, I opened the door… and I was back again. Did I zone out and turn around without realising it?
“Are you okay?” Betty pulled me back to reality.
“Was I just here?” I asked. A strange question, but it was a strange situation. I looked up at the clock. It was 8.55 pm.
“You just got here. Our shift’s about to start. Are you sure you’re okay?” She looked concerned. I tried to smile, but I most definitely wasn’t feeling it.
“Yeah, sorry.” I put my bag down and caught up on the events of the day. Everything was exactly the same, right down to the tone Betty used. Unsure if I was dreaming or not, I nodded and agreed at the appropriate points, and in a daze I went about gathering the necessary medications for distribution. Mr Jones told me about his new granddaughter, Mrs Crabapple gushed about that movie she watched, and Mrs Anderson glared as I entered.
“I saw someone.”
I sat down in the dark canteen and put my head in my hands. What on earth was going on? I pulled out my phone. It was just after midnight. I couldn’t call my girlfriend, not now. She’d be asleep. Maybe I had a really lifelike dream? Maybe I was dreaming now? I went back to the staffroom.
“Betty, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
She was eating a sandwich, going through a large pile of paperwork on the table.
“Have you ever experienced deja vu so bad that you felt like you were reliving the same day?”
She looked up. “I can’t say I have, no. Why do you ask?”
I shook my head and shrugged. “Nothing. Nevermind.”
“You’ve been acting strange tonight. Did something happen?”
“No, no, I’m fine. A little tired maybe.” Come to think of it, if I really was reliving the same day, then I hadn’t slept for around 17 hours. I mean, my body felt fine, like I’d woken up only a few hours earlier, but my mind was getting foggy.
“Be careful. The night shift can get to you, you know.”
I sat down and began filling out some papers, the exact same papers I filled in the night before. I took a pen and scrawled “1” on the corner of the desk. I went about the rest of my night, again, grabbed my bag when it was time to leave and braced myself.
“See ya, Betty.” Hopefully not soon, I thought, as I grabbed the handle. I turned… and walked back into the hall. I dropped to my knees and tears began to well in my eyes. Not again.
“Hey pretty… are you okay?”
I got up and walked back out the door. I was back in the hallway. Again and again, I ran through it, I jumped through it, I went headfirst, I went backwards, I went sideways, I went every single way I could think of. I could see the outside. I could feel the cool breeze blowing over my face. But the moment my body was through that door, I was in the hallway again. Something was keeping me here. Something was making the night loop. I needed to find out why.
I went through the motions, but this time I tried to pay more attention. Betty caught me up on the day’s events, but there was nothing that sounded out of the ordinary; Mr Kane sprained his ankle whilst walking in the garden, and he was currently under bed rest. Mrs Johnson’s family called to say they would be missing their visit tomorrow—her 54th wedding anniversary—but could we arrange a cake for her? The plumber would be coming in the morning to check out one of the leaking toilets near the canteen, and one of us would have to cover Ben’s first rounds; that was me. I looked at my desk; the ‘1’ I scrawled was gone.
My eyes darted at every shadow, every movement, every sound as I tried to figure out what was going on. I enjoyed the night shift; it was quiet, it paid well and allowed me to save for my future with my girlfriend, Joanna. The residents were, for the most part, friendly, and despite the routine, every night was a brand new adventure.
Except for this one.
“I’m gonna be a grandfather again! A girl!” Mr Jones beamed as I checked on him. It was exactly the same each time, even the intonation. I congratulated him and moved on.
“I watched a movie today, you know?” Mrs Crabapple began.
“Oh yeah?” I handed her the cup of medicine and filled a glass with water. “Let me guess? Three spirits came to visit an old man.”
“No. It had dinosaurs! Really big ones!”
Well, that was new. Come to think of it, last time I saw her I was so confused that I wasn’t paying close attention, but I don’t recall her mentioning the same movie either. She said something different each time. Was Mrs Crabapple involved somehow? She was the only one who wasn’t acting according to the same script each time.
Something moved in the corner of the room. I turned, but nothing was there. No, that was a lie. I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but it was like a shadow fell upon the room. Nothing I could see, but I could most certainly feel it.
I saw someone.
I made straight for Mrs Anderson’s room. Her bedside lamp was on and she was scowling at the wall. She glanced at me as I walked in but remained silent.
“Mrs Anderson, this might sound strange, but did you see someone suspicious around here today?” Mrs Anderson was a busybody, but she was also sharp as a tack in her old age. Perhaps meddling in everyone’s business kept her mind well-oiled and in good working order. Recognition flashed behind her eyes, followed by fear.
“I did. No good can come of him.”
This had to be it.
“Who? Mrs Anderson, who was he?”
She turned back to the wall, glaring at it as though her life depended on it. The TV was off and that side of the room dark.
“No good,” she repeated. I realised she was looking in the direction of Mrs Crabapple’s room, just a few doors down.
“Why is he no good?” I placed a hand on her shoulder. “Mrs Anderson, please. I need to know.”
She said nothing more. Just continued to stare at the wall. I sighed, leaving her medicine by the bedside. As I reached the door, she turned to me once more.
“Be careful. He knows.”
“He knows? Knows what.”
She fell silent. Anger mixed with the fear in her eyes. She turned to the wall. She would say no more. I sighed and closed the door behind me. No matter how I looked at it, Mrs Crabapple was involved with this. She was the key. She was the only person who seemed to be moving of her own free will each time. But what was it? How was this little old lady with Alzheimer’s managing to keep the nursing home locked into a single night, over and over? It made no sense. Nothing made any sense.
I called Joanna.
“Hello?” The phone rang a few times before her bleary voice answered.
“Hey, sweetie, it’s me.” My heart jumped at the sound of her voice. It felt like it had been days. Technically, it had been. For me, anyway.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, yes, no, not really. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice again.” It was a terrible lie, and she knew it.
“We spoke three hours ago.”
“I know.” Three hours ago for her. Three days ago for me. Tears welled in my eyes. I’d never see her again if I couldn’t escape this godforsaken loop.
“Are you okay? Did something happen at work?”
“Jo, I need to ask you a strange favour.”
What did I even want to ask her? I had no idea what was going on. I was stuck in an endless work day and the only clue I had to work with was Mrs Crabapple, the only person who appeared to be unaffected by it. Then there was that sense of foreboding as I entered her room, but how did I know I wasn’t imagining it because of this whole strange situation?
Be careful. He knows.
“Could you… check that I finished doing the washing?” I couldn’t get her involved. I needed to figure this out myself.
“…sure. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine!” I tried to sound cheerful. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay? I love you.”
“I love you too.” Her voice was concerned, and I hated to lie to her, but the feeling in the pit of my stomach told me not to get her involved.
I poured through everything I could think of during my break. I googled time loops, Alzheimer’s and the paranormal, even shadow men. Mrs Anderson said ‘he,’ which meant she’d seen a person. ‘He’ knew. I didn’t know what it was he knew, but this man and Mrs Crabapple were the keys to unlocking the mystery.
I spent the rest of the night searching for this man she spoke of. I looked everywhere, including all the places I don’t usually visit during my shift. But there was nothing. The end of the night approached, and I made my way back to the staffroom. Another night wasted, and I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer.
“What are you still doing here? Your shift is over!” It was Betty. I tried to muster up a smile but couldn’t find the energy. I was tired. I’d been awake for days. It was a feeling I can’t put into words, and it’s not really a feeling most people would ever have the joy of experiencing. My body began each shift awake and alert, but my mind… my mind never slept. I’d been awake for several days straight, and it was becoming more difficult to tell left from right, up from down.
Maybe if I never left the building, the day wouldn’t reset? The night began anew every time I walked through the door, right? What if I just stayed put? I closed my eyes. I wanted to sleep.
“I’m just gonna rest here a bit, okay?”
“Sure, suit yourself. You sure you’re okay? You seem a little out of it? Everything going okay at home?”
“Yeah, no, I’m fine. It’s just been a big night.”
“Okay. Well, I’m just gonna get some of this paperwork done. I can drive you home if you like?”
“Sure. Sounds great.”
When I opened my eyes, I was standing in the hallway. The clock said 8.55 pm. Mother fucker.
I screamed. I screamed, and I kicked the nearby trash can over and threw the visitor’s book against the wall. I grabbed the snow globe sitting by the reception window and smashed it, sending glass flying everywhere. My arm was bleeding, but I didn’t care. I was tired. I was frustrated. I was angry beyond measure. I would murder everyone in the place if it meant I could finally get some rest from this never-ending nightmare.
“Jesus, what are you…” Betty never got to finish her sentence. I ran at the door headfirst, sending myself through the glass. I waited for the explosion of pain, but there was none. I opened my eyes, and I was lying on the floor in the hall. My arm wasn’t bleeding, the trash can was upright and the window unbroken. I stood up and ran to Mrs Crabapple’s room, Betty’s greeting fading into the distance. It was just up ahead. Just a little further. I turned the corner and flung the door open with a bang.
A man was standing above her bed. His hand rested above her chest as she lay unmoving.
“What are you…?” The words trailed off as he vanished into thin air. No, not vanished. More like he faded into the shadows. Mrs Crabapple took a large gasp and appeared to spring back to life, coughing and grasping at her chest.
“Mrs Crabapple! Are you okay?!” I helped her sit up, searching the room for any sign of the man, or what had looked like a man, anyway. There was nothing, but I could feel eyes on me. Something was still there, watching. Waiting.
“Oh. Hello Judy. How’s little Timmy?” Judy was Mrs Crabapple’s daughter.
“Little Timmy’s just fine,” I lied. “Listen, can you tell me who that was just now?” My heart was pounding in my chest.
Be careful. He knows.
“What do you mean, dear? Did you know I watched a movie earlier today? It was very good.”
“That sounds lovely. Perhaps you could tell me about it later. But there was someone here just now. Who was he?”
“Just now? Oh, I don’t know anything about that, but I did see Mr Winston earlier! Lovely young man. Said he had a gift for me. I wonder what it is!” She smiled up at me as though expecting me to hand her this gift. Mr Winston? That told me nothing.
“Who is this Mr Winston?”
“I don’t know. Do you know where my gift is? Oh, I’m so excited, I wonder what it is!”
We were alone in the room, but we weren’t. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my skin crawled.
“My chest, it feels so much better now.” Mrs Crabapple was talking to herself.
“There was this awful pain, but now it’s gone.” She smiled before turning back to the TV. “Has my game show started yet?”
If I was to believe that the man I saw standing over Mrs Crabapple could fade into shadows, then was it really such a stretch to believe that the same man had also done something to her? That he or whatever he had done was what was causing all of this? When I entered the room, she was lying frozen on the bed, his hand over her chest. When he disappeared, she woke up like all was fine. Something was tying this event to the night repeating, over and over. How was I supposed to end it?
There was laughter somewhere in the distance. Not in the facility though; it was inside my head. That’s the only way to describe the sensation of it, because I didn’t hear it, I felt it. Somewhere, deep inside me. It wasn’t mocking. It was mirth. Amusement at a situation coming together. Another piece being put into the puzzle, a puzzle so close to completion. I was the last piece. Or perhaps I was the first piece? Did it matter? All pieces were required to complete the puzzle, and I was just one of them.
I went to see Mrs Anderson.
“I saw him.”
She was siting in the same spot on her bed, looking at the wall. She startled as I approached.
“Who is he? What does he want? What is going on?”
“He’s no good. I’ve seen him once before. Next time, it’ll be me.”
“What do you mean, next time? Who is he? What does he want?”
“His name is Mr Winston,” she began, turning back to glare at the wall. Wait, Mr Winston? So, the man I saw standing over Mrs Crabapple’s body was the same man she saw earlier in the day? “Nobody knows his real name, but we call him Mr Winston. Those of us who have been here long enough to see him before, anyway.”
“You’ve seen him before? When?”
“I don’t remember exactly. Maybe one or two years ago. Mr Parker got sick. He should have died… but he didn’t. There was a cancer in his lungs. There was little the hospital could do, so he returned here to live out his final months in as much comfort as he could. That was the first time I saw Mr Winston. He…” She paused, trying to find the words. Words that brought back painful memories. “He put his hand into Fred… Mr Parker’s chest. He was lying in bed, cold, but when he touched him… it was like he sprang back to life. It was a miracle! Only it wasn’t.”
A tear fell from her eye, and she angrily wiped it away.
“It was a curse. People aren’t meant to live forever, especially not those of us here. The day repeated, and I saw Mr Winston stick his hands in his chest over and over, each time bringing him back to life.” She turned to me. “That’s not what God intended. Man is not supposed to live past his time.”
“How did it end?” I asked. “How did the day stop repeating?”
Another tear fell from her eye.
“I killed him.”
“It was the only way. We’re not supposed to live past our time. He… Mr Winston… He picks someone who’s about to die and saves them, but there’s a catch. They’re not supposed to live past that day. Not supposed to effect the lives of those outside their reach. They’re trapped. We’re trapped. We can’t leave. We can’t move on until that which is not supposed to be has ended.”
I had so many questions that I didn’t know where to begin.
“Okay, so, if this Mr Winston is causing this… why are you and I the only people outside of Mrs Crabapple who are aware of what’s going on?”
At that, Mrs Anderson lowered her gaze.
“It means that when your time comes, Mr Winston will come for you, too.”
I blinked a few times in response, unsure how to answer that.
“W-what do you mean?”
“I’m next. I’ve seen him twice now. No-one’s ever seen him more than that…”
“Who else has seen him?”
She shrugged. “Everyone here has heard of him. Some say they’ve seen him, others say they haven’t. But those who see him at least once always see him one more time. On their final day. Then it begins again.”
Her face was wrinkled. Worn out. Bags drooped under her eyes and her skin sunk around her cheekbones. How many extra days had Mrs Anderson lived through in her lifetime?
“Okay. Okay… if you had to kill Mr Parker, as you say, to end the loop… why haven’t you finished this one?” I turned to look at the same spot on the wall. “You know he’s there, don’t you?”
“I do,” she replied before looking up at me. “Have you ever taken a life?”
I shook my head. “No. Of course not.”
“It’s not that easy, even when it is someone who’s supposed to be…” She left the sentence unfinished. “I can’t. Not again. Not again…”
Tears welled up in her eyes and she hid her face behind her hands. I stood beside her, scratching the back of my head, at a complete loss as to what to do for the first time in my life.
I walked to the canteen in a daze. I sat in the darkness trying to gather my thoughts. Mrs Crabapple died, only this Mr Winston character found her before the staff did. The residents knew of him; he was a nursing home urban legend, you might say. This wouldn’t end until Mrs Crabapple died again, this time for good.
Could I do it? Could I kill another human being? Even one that was supposed to be dead already…
I opened her door with a creak. She smiled at me from the small desk in the corner.
“Mrs Crabapple, you should be asleep.”
She put the pen in her hand down. “Sorry. I haven’t felt this good in years, so I couldn’t sleep! The pain in my hands is gone so I can even write again!”
No, I couldn’t do it. She had no idea what was going on, and it was the happiest and sharpest I’d seen her look for years. Maybe I could get to this Mr Winston before he got to her? Let nature take its course.
“That’s lovely, Mrs Crabapple. Just lovely.”
I closed the door behind me and made for the entrance. I planned the route in my head. I needed to reach Mrs Crabapple’s room as soon as possible. On this round I ran straight for her room just in time to see him standing over her. I needed to be even quicker. If I could stop him, I could stop the loop. The loop needed to end. How many hours had I been awake now? Days? Weeks?
I ran for the door at full speed. As I threw it opened, I continued without losing step. It was straight down the hall, a right turn, straight down the next hall, a left and then the second door on the left. I ran like I’d never run before. My feet pounded the ground beneath me as my heart pounded in my chest. My lungs constricted as I sucked in whatever air I could. It didn’t matter. I just had to reach 2D.
I flung the door open. The man, Mr Winston, thrust his hand into Mrs Crabapple’s chest just as the door hit the wall. He turned to me and smiled. I was too late. Just like before, he faded into the darkness, and then Mrs Crabapple woke up.
I walked away. My feet dragged and my knuckles dragged. That was as much speed as I could muster, and it would never be fast enough. I would never reach her in time, and he knew it. That smug smile. If you want this to end, you’ll have to kill her. He had chosen that time specifically because he knew I would never reach her in time. I could try, again and again, and every time I would see him reviving her. Smiling at me. Waiting for me to make my choice; live like this forever, or kill an old woman under my care. It didn’t matter that she was technically already dead. I took this job to care for people. To help those no longer able to help themselves.
I stood by the back door, looking at the rear garden. A few small lamps cast a dim glow over the colourful flowers the residents liked to spend their final days by. They were vibrant and full of life, a reminder of younger days and better times.
I was achingly tired. I wanted to lie in the dirt and fade away. Feel it all end. The blissful release of darkness, an end to the never-ending pain. It wasn’t physical pain. My body was full of energy; my mind, however, was on the brink. How much more could it take?
I went back to the staff room. Betty was doing her rounds. I opened the medicine cabinet and pocketed the blood pressure pills from the back. This would do it, but could I do it? I could crush the pills and hide them in a drink, or mix them in with some food. Crushing them would cause her body to digest more than it was capable of handling at once, leading to fainting and then causing heart failure or respiratory difficulties. She would be asleep; it would be a painless death. Mrs Crabapple had a weakness for lemon cakes. Nobody would notice a single cake missing from the canteen stores.
How many days had it been since I last saw Joanna? How many more would it be if I didn’t do this? Would it continue forever, several years passing for my mind while a single night passed for the rest of the world? That was no way to live. I had to do it.
The canteen was dark. I made my way into the back, grabbed a cake from the next day’s stock and whipped up a quick icing for it. She had a terrible sweet tooth; there was no other way. I ground up the pills, mixed them into the icing and poured it over the cake as my heart tore in two. Mrs Crabapple was a gentle soul, she didn’t deserve this. No-one deserved this.
I knocked on the door before entering.
“Mrs Crabapple? It’s time for your medicine.”
The door slammed behind me, making me jump.
“I heard it was your grandson’s birthday today, so I bought you a cake!” I hoped beyond hope that, for once, her mind was still clouded and foggy. She looked confused for a moment and then broke out into a big smile.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have!”
No, I really shouldn’t. As I handed her the plate, I could have sworn the room itself vibrated around us. There was that laughter again, but I was the only person who could hear it… or perhaps Mrs Anderson could hear it too.
Mrs Crabapple swallowed her pills and then started digging into her cake. Each bite was a stab in my heart. I couldn’t look.
“Lemon is my favourite! How did you know?”
I made it my job to know the residents. I never thought I’d need to use that knowledge like this.
“Who doesn’t love lemon cake?” I smiled. It didn’t reach my eyes. She put the empty plate down on her bedside table.
“I haven’t had dessert this late since, oh, probably my twenties! Thank you, dear. It was delicious.”
I fought back tears. This would be the last time we would ever talk. The last time I would ever see her, all going to plan.
She smiled. “My, what for?”
It hit me that Mrs Crabapple was unaware of what was going on. She wasn’t restricted to the loop script like the other players in this game, but she had no idea what was going on either. She didn’t know that Mr Winston had dropped by to pay her one final visit. She didn’t know that none of this would end until she passed on as she was supposed to.
“For being a pleasure to work with.” A tear escaped, rolling unbidden down my face.
I sat by her bedside and listened to stories of her youth until the time came. When it did, I let the tears roll freely. There was no shockwave, no flash of lightning, no giant boom or anything to signify that something had changed. There was no more laughter in my head, nor could I feel anyone watching me from inside the room. Mrs Crabapple died of an overdose I gave her, her second death that night, and just like that, it was over.
I rang Betty on the intercom and took the rest of the night off. I opened the front door, took a tentative step forward, and when I opened my eyes I was standing outside, by the flowers of the front garden. I went home, hugged a surprised Joanna as tightly as I could, and cried until I could cry no more. I fell asleep in her arms, and the next day I got Ben to cover my shift. He owed me.
One day Mr Winston is going to come for me. That’s how it works, apparently. I just hope Joanna isn’t around when he comes.