A little bit over a year ago I started sharing bits of a story I had begun work on. I had an unexpected sick day home with Baby Badass yesterday, and while she was taking a nap I stumbled across this. It intrigued me, and since I had shared pieces of it before, I figured I'd share some more.
Being the head nurse at Spring Meadow Psychiatric and Long-term Care Hospital was not the career Russell Miller had always envisioned for himself, but it paid the bills. With what he made on the side from selling what he could snatch from the on-site pharmacy and supply closet, he lived a pretty comfortable life. He never went hungry, which was a pretty big statement for a man of his girth.
He was a tall man who wasn't always overweight. He towered over most with his 6-foot 6-inch frame, and in his younger years he was pretty lean. He got his green eyes from his mother, and his prominent chin from his father. Women were naturally attracted to him, and he used that to his advantage. He never was the kind of person to let someone get too close, because he knew that if he did, someone would notice that something had changed within him, but no one could put a finger on it until it was much too late.
Russell Miller was introduced into the life of being a caregiver when his mother fell ill. He had just turned eighteen a few months before when he got the call at his job at Hamilton's only full service gas station, a two-pump facility named Skip's Fill Up. It was his mother's boss at the Country Kitchen bread factory in Lewiston.
“You better get yourself over to the hospital, son,” her boss had said. “Your mother took a spill on her coffee break. Think it was a heart attack. The ambulance has already come and taken her over to CMMC.”
He skipped out of work with barely a word to Skip Preston, the owner and namesake of the station, and made it to Central Maine Medical Center just as Ethel Miller was being wheeled into surgery. Hours later, the surgeon who pulled the clot from her brain told Russell about the stroke.
Ethel's poor diet and her habits of whiskey and cigarettes had likely caused the blood clot that snaked it's way up into her brain. It wedged its way on up until it fully blocked a blood vessel in her brain, and Ethel collapsed in the Country Kitchen break room, shattering her Employee Of The Month porcelain mug. Apparently forty years of hard liquor and chain-smoking cigarettes can take a toll on a person.
The benefits Ethel had from her job at Country Kitchen only went so far. Russell picked up extra shifts at the Fill Up when he could to cover the difference, but when it became apparent that she would never fully recover, Russell made the choice to move her home.
He hired a part-time nurse to tend to his mother while he worked. The nurse looked after Ethel during the day, and Russell and took care of her at night. What he didn't know how to do, the nurse showed him. With Ethel's left-side paralysis, brain damage, and incontinence, there was a lot to be done, but Russell did it all with no complaint.
Russell's mother was all that he had. His father left town when he was still in diapers, so from an early age it was just the two of them. Money was always tight, even with only two mouths to feed, but Ethel saw to it that her only child had what he needed. She was a hard woman but she loved her son fiercely, and he loved her the same right back.
As a growing adolescent, Russell knew how hard his mother worked to provide for the both of them. He once offered to drop out of school so he could work, to help share the load and take some of the burden from her. When he suggested this one night over dinner, Ethel reached across the table and slapped him across the face.
“Don't you even think about leaving school, Russel James Miller!” she exclaimed. Whenever she spoke to him using all three of his names, Russell knew he was in trouble. “Education is your only way out of this mess. It's gonna be your ticket to college, and to a better life.”
And so he had stayed in school, studying hard to make his mother proud. His efforts earned him an academic scholarship to the University of Maine in Farmington. His first semester was just a few weeks away when the stroke happened.
Russell hadn't even given his scholarship and his pending college career a thought when he made the decision to bring his mother home. All he knew was that he couldn't afford for her to stay in the hospital, so home she went. When his neighbors and other people from Hamilton learned of what had happened, they all told Russell what an admirable thing he was doing.
For a long time, Russell wasn't at all bitter.
He dealt with the constant financial pressure of home care easily enough. He worked hard to keep the roof over their heads, and refused to let people help out or take assistance from the State of Maine. Russell Miller wasn't raised on welfare, and he'd be damned if he'd let his mother become dependent upon it, either.
Everything they had Russell worked hard for. And for four years, Russell was the primary caregiver for his disabled mother. He grit his teeth through countless messy diaper changes, and force fed her hundreds of pureed meals. It was probably his young age and lack of life experience that led him to feel that if he did a good enough job taking care of her, maybe she'd get better. Her prognosis was made clear by the doctors at the hospital before her discharge, but Russell pulled that from his mind. If he kept working hard to provide for her, maybe he'd wake up one morning and find her in the kitchen making breakfast like she had done when he was younger. If he changed enough diapers or swapped out her IV lines more gently, maybe she'd at least stop drooling out of the hanging corners of her mouth and shitting in her rubber underwear.
But by the time Russell turned 22, nothing had changed with his mother's condition. The summer before she died she had developed a nasty set of bedsores, huge crusty wounds that oozed with pus. The daytime caregiver suggested that she be admitted to CMMC, but Russell demanded that she stay at home.
At this point, Russell began to realize that his fantasies of his mother recovering weren't ever going to happen. He had been fooling himself to think that she'd get better after this long. If anything, she was getting worse. She wasn't ringing the bell anymore.
One of his crowning achievements as a caregiver for his mother was that he taught her how to signal for help. On the secondhand hospital bed that dominated their small living room, Russell used a spare IV hook and hung a brass bell from it. He ran a length of string from the bell to a cloth band that fit over her wrist. He taught her to move her arm when she needed something, which rang the bell and sent Russell or the daytime nurse running. But now, with Ethel plagued with bedsores, the bell hadn't rang in weeks.
Bitterness began to seep in. Seeing all of his efforts to make his mother better be in vain turned a part of Russell's soul black. He began to get angry at his mother.
It was because of her that he lost out on his chance to go to college. All of his old classmates had gone and come back by now, their pictures showing up in the Lewiston Sun newspaper in their graduation gowns and caps, holding diplomas that made the rest of the world theirs for the taking. If only his mother hadn't had that stroke, Russell would have seen his picture in the paper as well.
For the month preceding his mother's death, Russell's life became a constant symphony of “if only”. If only she hadn't had the stroke, he could have gone to college. If only she hadn't drank so much. If only she hadn't smoked so much. If only, if only, if only. Russell's black soul twisted these thoughts around in his mind.
It became clear to his bitter mind that this was all his mother's fault. It was because of her that he worked his hands to the bone each day to be able to pay for her medical expenses. It was because of her that he missed out on college, and not just the education but the better paying career that it would provide. Russell was still pumping gas at the Fill Up, filling the tanks and washing the windshields of his old classmate's cars when they came to town. The way they looked at him made Russell's blood boil. Resentment for his ruined life settled into his heart, and one day an idea came into his mind. An idea that would be the solution to all of his problems.
Right from the beginning of her illness, the doctors at the hospital weren't sure of how coherent she was. The stroke had left a good portion of her brain without oxygen for a very long time, leaving only enough of functioning to run the basic systems of life support. The doctors were only sure of two things: her heart was still sound and she could breathe on her own. Everything else was presumably gone.
Knowing his mother as well as he did, Russell knew there was still something there. It was in her eyes. Most of the time they were blank and glazed over, her pupils dilated unevenly and glassy. There were times, though, where something would return. It was like an invisible lens had been retracted, and her eyes sparkled hazel green like Russell always remembered. The moments when her brain grasped onto whatever fragment of lucidity it could find were few and far between, happening only a handful of times since she had been brought home.
On the night that Russell killed his mother, her mind had mercilessly cleared. For the first time in years, she could feel everything.
As he stood over her, holding the pillow that he would use to smother her, he saw her eyes change. That invisible lens pulled back from her eyes, and she looked almost like her old self, despite her withered and frail frame. She moaned as she rolled her eyes up to look at her son.
“Welcome back, mother,” Russell said in a low voice. It was nighttime, and Ethel heard the crickets singing through the open window near her head. A small breeze lifted the curtain up, and it brushed against her forearm as it fell. The sensation set her nerves on fire.
Her mind, while the clearest that it had been since her stroke, was still considerably foggy. It was bombarded with signals from all of the nerves in her body, waking up from their long period of dormancy and relaying information that felt like bursts of radio static. Being able to feel again was overwhelming and exhilarating. Her mind spun dizzily. Trying to keep up with it all was like trying to follow every conversation in a crowded train terminal.
Waves of sound rushed into her mind, stealing her focus for a moment. She realized that she was recalling all of the words spoken around her during the time she had been disconnected from her body. It all came at once, jumbled together and chaotic. She mostly could only pick out her sons voice. It started out being kind and patient, and then it was laced with anger and hatred.
“Its been four years, mother. For four years I've been busting my hump to keep you alive. Four years of feeding you with a spoon. Four years of paying for a nurse to watch you during the day. Four years of wiping your ass and scrubbing clean that fucking rubber diaper. Lucky for me I work in a gas station, because gasoline is about the only thing that covers up the smell of your shit.”
Russell took a step closer and adjusted his grip on the pillow. His hands were getting sweaty with nerves.
“I lost out on everything because of you. Everything. I'm the laughingstock of this town... All because of you.”
Ethel finally understood why her son was holding a pillow. The anger and bitterness in her son's eyes was unmistakable. She tried to cry out for help, but her mouth was drooping down in a funny angle and wouldn't cooperate. She worked her lips and made a few rasping, chuffing sounds, but that was all she could muster.
Russell Miller locked eyes with his mother one last time before holding the pillow down over her face. She struggled weakly beneath his weight, and as her strength flagged, the corners of his lips curled up into an evil smirk. He bared his teeth in a wolfish grin when he felt the last of his mother's life shudder out of her, catching the moonlight through the window in a way that made them glow.
He removed the pillow from her face and placed it back under her head. Her eyes were open wide in frozen death, but he closed them like he had seen people do in television and movies. She had made a bit of a mess with her blankets and coverlet with her futile efforts to free herself, and Russell straightened things up as best he could.
He wouldn't want things to look suspicious when the nurse came around early the next morning.
Have a good weekend, everyone.