Copyright Notice © 2016 Tim Knox
I left for Santa Rosa just after daybreak the next morning, determined to beat the rush hour traffic coming out of L.A. headed north on I-5. I plugged the address Rueben provided into the GPS and drove slowly out of my neighborhood. I had the window down. There was a nice breeze blowing from the west and the sun wasn’t high enough yet to heat up the air. I stuck my face out the window and took in a few deep breaths, something I wouldn’t be able to do as I passed through the dirty fog bank that was L.A. to hit the interstate to Santa Rosa.
I loved the old neighborhood, especially this time of day. Most of my neighbors were still asleep. I could see lights in windows here and there, but not a soul was outside this time of day. No kids screaming and no old people yelling at them to shut the hell up. It reminded me of when I had an early morning paper route here as a kid. I’d load up my bike at dawn and spend the hour before school slamming papers into porches and chunking them in bushes. Fun times, until complaints from my customers convinced my dad that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the newspaper business, at least not as a delivery boy.
I rolled into a McDonald’s drive-thru and bought two large cups of coffee that were the temperature of molten lava, a small Coke, and an Egg McMuffin. I scotched the Coke between my legs and situated the cups of coffee in the cup holders with the lids on. The Coke was to wash down the sandwich. The coffee was for later, after it cooled enough to not take the skin off my tongue.
The sun was well up by the time L.A. was in my rear view. It felt good, leaving the city and its thick air behind. I lowered the windows again, opened the sunroof, and drove with the radio off. The sound of the air whipping through the car was nice, relaxing, even therapeutic. I set the cruise control on 75 and other than pulling into a truck stop in Bakersfield to take a leak, didn’t stop until I hit Santa Rosa a little after noon.
It wasn’t a bad drive. The traffic moved along at a steady pace and the scenery was beautiful along the way. Santa Rosa is in the Sonoma Valley at the gateway to California’s wine country. I passed wineries and farms and long stretches of green that gave way to waves of giant Redwoods. The air was clear and cool and smelled of nature. I let the wind whip over me and breathed it in deeply. So different from L.A., where you can actually see the air you breathe.
The GPS led me directly to the Santa Rosa Assisted Living Center on the north side of town. It was an older complex of three large stucco buildings connected by covered sidewalks with well-manicured grounds and colorful landscaping. The place made a good first impression. I suppose that was the point; to make it look like a nice place where you could deposit your elderly relatives to live out their waning years.
I backed into a space so I had a clear view of the front door of the main building. I scanned the lot and thought I recognized Susan Harris’ old blue Camry parked in an employee space toward the end of the row. There was the dent in the rear bumper and a medical placard dangling from the mirror. Either her mother was now driving the car or Sarah Jane Woodley was actually Susan Harris.
I picked up my cell and found the text message from Rueben with the address and phone number of the Center. I pressed the linked phone number in the message. It was answered on the third ring.
“Santa Rosa Assisted Living, how may I direct your call?”
“Sarah Woodley, please.”
“One moment please.” The hold music was Hotel California by the Eagles. I wondered if that was coincidental or a subliminal message of some kind. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave! The irony was not lost on me.
After a minute the phone clicked in my ear. “This is Sarah Woodley,” she said. I recognized the voice as the one that had spoken to me from the other side of Susan Harris’ apartment door.
“Susan, please don’t hang up,” I said. I got out of the car and kept the phone to my ear as I hurried toward the front door.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Matthew Cruze. I don’t know if you remember me, but…”
The phone went dead just as I opened the door and entered the lobby. Susan Harris – now Sarah Woodley — was standing at the reception desk with her hand still on the phone. She froze when she saw me. Her eyes were wide. I couldn’t tell if it was a look of surprise or fear.
I held up my hands. “Please, I just want to talk to you. It’s important. No one will ever know I was here.”
She backed around behind the reception desk and peered past me toward the parking lot, her eyes darting nervously, as if she thought there might be others who had also come for her.
“How did you find me?” she asked. “Who did you bring with you? Oh my God, why are you here?”
The receptionist was a heavy set woman with a meaty face that was pushed into a protective frown. She got to her feet and put herself between me and Susan. She had a hand on the phone. “Sarah, should I call the police?”
“No, please, don’t,” I pleaded, still holding up my hands. “No one knows I’m here, I promise. I’m not here as a reporter. I am here because I need your help.”
Susan stepped from behind the woman. She frowned and looked me up and down. “How could I possibly help you?”
“By giving me five minutes of your time,” I said. My shoulders sagged and I let go a loud sigh. “Please, I don’t know who else to turn to.”
The receptionist picked up the phone and looked at Susan. Susan cut her eyes at me for a moment. I tried to look harmless. God only knows what she was thinking. Finally, she put a hand on the receptionist’s shoulder and said, “No, Marie, that’s okay. I’ll be in the garden with Mr. Cruze. You’ll hear him scream if he gets out of line.”
“If you say so,” the receptionist said, returning to her seat, still giving me the eye.
Susan turned to me and held out her hand. “Give me your phone.”
“It stays here with Marie. I’ll not have you recording anything. And hand over your wallet and car keys, too.” She set her jaw and wiggled her fingers. “Do you want to talk to me or not?”
“okay, no problem.” I handed over my phone, wallet and keys. Susan gave them to the receptionist for safe keeping.
Susan came from behind the desk and said, “This way.”
As we walked down the hall, I noticed how small she seemed now. She was probably a good five-five, five-six, but her posture made her seem shorter. She walked with her shoulders hunched, her back bent, like an old woman. She shuffled her feet. I remembered her being thin, but not frail. She was wearing pink scrubs and Crocs with pink ankle socks, just like the last time I’d seen her. Her arms had very little meat on them and there was no curve to her hips or backside. Then I realized why she was wearing the pink and purple scarf wrapped around her head, knotted at the back of her neck.
She pushed through a back door and we emerged in the green space between the buildings. There were a few shade trees and a couple of benches at the center. There were speakers disguised as rocks. Soft music drifted from them. There were well-kept flowerbeds and a small fountain with water gently spewing from the mouth of a cherub. She called it the center’s Eden.
We sat down on one of the benches with a foot of space between us. She took a clear Tic Tac case from her shirt pocket and thumbed it open. She tilted it sideways and a tightly-rolled joint fell into the palm of her hand.
“Is that pot?” I asked. I looked around to make sure no one was watching.
“Relax, I have a medical marijuana card,” she said. “It helps with the nausea. They don’t mind me smoking out here so long as none of the patients are around.”
I watched her delicately hold the joint between her thin fingers. She put it to her lips and used a bright-yellow disposable lighter to fire it up. She took a deep hit and tilted her head back and closed her eyes; holding the smoke in her lungs. She eventually let the smoke drift from her lips toward the sky. She caught me watching her and smiled.
“Stage IV breast cancer,” she said.
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“How could you?”
“Guess I couldn’t. What’s the prognosis?”
She picked something off her lip and shook her head. “Not good. I may have a couple of months, maybe three, who knows.”
I said, “If there’s anything I can do… ”
It was a dumb thing to say and we both knew it. There was nothing I could do, probably nothing anyone could do, but that’s what you do in these situations, you offer to help, whether you can or not. All I knew at that moment was that I barely knew this woman, but felt profoundly sad for her.
I said, “I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.”
She smiled. It appeared to take great effort. “Nice gesture, but thanks, I’m fine.” She took another drag off the joint, then tapped out the flame on the bottom of her shoe. She put the roach back in the Tic Tac case and dropped it into her pocket.
She turned to look me in the eyes. “So, how did you find me?”
“Actually, I thought I had found your mother,” I said. “I was hoping she’d tell me how to contact you. When I saw your car in the lot, heard your voice on the phone, I knew it was you. You’re using her name and social security number, aren’t you?”
She didn’t have to answer. She turned sideways on the bench and brought her legs up. She wrapped her arms around her knees and pulled them to her chest. For the first time we were face to face. Despite the sunshine and warmth of the day her arms were stone white and covered with goose bumps. There were dark circles under her eyes. The skin on her face was pale, pulled tight over her cheekbones. She wore no makeup, no jewelry. She had no eyelashes or eyebrows and I assumed no hair beneath the scarf.
She rested her chin on her knees, as if her head had grown too heavy for her neck to support alone. “Why are you here, Mr. Cruze?”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I said, “Marc Cronenburg wants me to coauthor Adrian Zoebel’s autobiography. And I’m not sure what to do.”
She gave me a wary look. “They want you? After everything you wrote about him in the paper, in your book? I mean, no offense, but you wrote some pretty nasty things.”
“I didn’t write anything that wasn’t believed to be true,” I said defensively.
She lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes at me. “Please tell me you’re not here to interview me for this book?” Her eyes started to well. She balled her fists and brought them to her lips. She looked like she was getting ready to scream.
“No, no, please,” I said quickly, waving my hands. “I’m not here to ask you to comment for the book.” Her expression said that she didn’t believe me –probably because I didn’t sound very convincing.
“So I’ll ask you again,” she said, gritting her teeth. “Why are you here?”
My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I looked toward the fountain for a moment. There was a tiny rainbow flickering through the stream of spray coming from the cherub’s mouth. I focused on it and tried to come up with an intelligent answer. I said, “Honestly, I don’t really know why I’m here. I guess I have questions about Zoebel that I feel only you can answer.”
“You just said this wasn’t about the book.”
“Please, let’s just forget about the damn book,” I snapped. I apologized quickly. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I was a nervous wreck all of a sudden. She must have sensed it because I could feel her mood lighten. She was a caregiver. Suddenly, she wanted to make me feel better. She tilted her head sideways to look at me.
“Just tell me,” she said, reaching over to touch my shoulder. Her voice was calm, soothing, and patient.
I glanced at her, more than a little embarrassed. “I’ve spent a good chunk of my life chasing this ghost called Adrian Zoebel, yet I don’t really know much more about him today than I did when I first saw him on television three years ago. The guy is an enigma. He’s made of Teflon; nothing sticks to him. And now I have this career-changing opportunity to work with him and I just don’t know if I can. Or even if I should.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“What did Adrian ever do to you?”
I blinked at the question, not understanding her drift. “What did he do to me?”
“Yes. You just said that you’ve spent a good chunk of your life chasing him; trying to prove he is or is not what you think he is.”
I turned sideways to face her. She smelled of pot and something else; an odor that I couldn’t identify, both sweet and sour at the same time. It took me a moment to realize it was the smell of her body, devouring itself from the inside.
I shrugged and said, “He’s never done anything to me personally. But neither did Ted Bundy.”
“That’s not a fair comparison and you know it,” she said, giving me a scolding look. “Try again.”
I thought about it for a moment. I had my reasons for detesting Adrian Zoebel, but I wasn’t prepared to share them with her. I said, “Have you seen his show, Angel of Mercy?”
She suddenly put her hands over her eyes. Her body shuttered and forced her to take a deep breath. “Are you okay?” I asked. I put a hand on her arm. It was like touching ice. She didn’t pull away.
I asked, “Should I call someone?”
She shook her head and tugged a wad of tissue from her pocket. She wiped her eyes and nose. She gave me a weak smile; meant to make me feel better. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I just get a shudder. It’ll pass in a minute.”
“Can I get you some water?”
“No, I just need a minute,” she said. She turned and dropped her feet to the ground. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and bowing her head. After a minute she said, “I’ve never watched the show. I don’t have to. I live it every day.”
“I understand,” I said. “Do you think Zoebel enjoys doing such a show?”
“Adrian’s not a killer, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“That’s not what I’m implying.”
“Then what are you implying?”
We sat in silence for a minute; her staring at me, me staring at the ground. She said, “I’ll ask you again; what has Adrian ever done to you? What are you looking for? Why do you hate him so much?”
“I don’t hate him,” I said.
“Bullshit,” she said. She poked my arm with a thin finger. When I glanced over she was smiling at me. It was like medicine. I felt the tension in my neck start to drain away.
“I just need to know the truth,” I said, holding out my hands. “I just need to know that I was right.”
“You want validation that all those horrible things you wrote about Adrian were true.”
I had to look away. “I suppose so.”
“And what if you discover that everything you thought was true really wasn’t? What if you learn that Adrian was actually a warm, compassionate, wonderful person who never did anything, but give his patients the very best care possible? What then?”
“I don’t know.” It was an outcome I couldn’t conceive.
She patted my knee, then used it to push herself to her feet. “Come on, you look like you could use a drink.”
She led me through a side door of the building wing across the courtyard. It didn’t resemble the medical building we were just in. This one looked more like an old motel, with worn carpet covering the hallways and cheap artwork on the walls. The doors had numbers on them. Most of them were open, allowing me to see inside. They looked like small apartments. Whenever one of the residents caught a glimpse of Susan they’d wave and call her name.
“This is one of two residential wings,” she said. “We can accommodate seventy residents between the two. The average age in this wing is eighty-five, mostly healthy, require little medical attention other than reminding them to take their meds. The residents who require more attention are in the opposite wing.”
We stopped at a room that had no number on the door. She took a plastic card from her pocket and inserted it into the lock and the door clicked open. She invited me in. She said, “Home sweet home.”
It was small; a living room/bedroom combination and a small kitchenette separated by a bar. The walls were a dull shade of yellow. Artwork of the same caliber that lined the halls hung about the room. The single bed was neatly made. There was no clutter to speak of; a few magazines neatly stacked on an end table; a few envelopes on a small desk. There were no personal photos that I could see. There was a single window. The curtains were pulled back and the sun was beaming in.
“You live here?”
“I do,” she said, pointing me toward a chair. “It’s not much, but I don’t require much. Have a seat. I’ll get us something to drink.” She came back with two small glasses of orange juice. She handed one glass to me and curled up in the chair to my left with the other glass between her hands.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“On and off for a few months,” she said, glancing around the room. “I have an apartment on the other side of town, but usually I just stay here.”
She drank half the juice and dabbed her lips with her finger tips. “It’s just easier for me to be here. I’m on call 24/7 and there are days when I need a little help of my own. The administrator is a good friend. She suggested this arrangement to help make things a little easier on everyone.”
“It’s good to have friends who look out for you.”
“Yes, it is.” She sighed. “And when my time is up I want to be among friends, not back at the apartment by myself. No one should have to die alone.”
“I agree,” I said. “How long have you been sick?”
“It came on strong a year ago. It was pretty well advanced by the time they found it. Pretty ironic, huh; a cancer nurse that ignores a lump in her own breast until it’s too late to do anything about it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know you well, but…”
“You don’t know me at all, Mr. Cruze,” she said. I thought I had overstepped, then she smiled at me. She put her fingers to her lips. Even smiling seemed to cause her pain.
“okay, I don’t know you at all,” I said, “but you impress me as someone who would rather take care of others than take care of herself.”
She thought about it for a moment. “I guess I am. I’ve always been a caregiver. My mother used to say that healing was my gift.”
“Does your mother visit you? Is she close by?”
She lowered her eyes and shook her head. “She passed away five years ago of the same type of breast cancer. But yes, she is always close by and she visits me often in my dreams.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I lost both my parents a few years ago. I know how hard it can be.”
“They’re all in a better place. And soon I’ll be there, too.”
I wanted to say I was sorry again, but didn’t. She kicked off her shoes and tucked her legs beneath her. She said, “So, let’s talk about your problem.”
“You sound like a shrink,” I said. “And who said I have a problem.”
“I said I wanted to make sure what I had written was accurate. Which, I believe it was. And if so, I won’t get involved with Cronenburg and Zoebel.”
“But now you’re not so sure.”
I had to be honest with her and myself. I said, “I guess not.”
“I would never betray Adrian,” she said quietly. “Even if I knew something that could incriminate him – which I don’t — I could never betray him.”
“I would never ask you to.”
“Bullshit,” she said, grinning at me.
“Okay, you’re right, that’s bullshit, but I’d never want you to tell me anything that makes you uncomfortable.”
“That’s bullshit, too.” She adjusted her thin frame in the chair. Every move brought a wince. “Besides, these days everything makes me uncomfortable.”
“If you won’t talk about Adrian, let me ask a question about you,” I said. “Why did you disappear?”
“You know why.”
“I think I know why, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
“Because Adrian’s attorney told everyone that I was involved with those people dying,” she said, her eyes closing. Her voice was just above a whisper, as if she didn’t want anyone outside the door to hear. The goose bumps covered her arms again. There was a sweater on the back of the chair. She reached for it and wrapped it around her shoulders.
She said, “My life became a witch hunt. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I lost my job. There were reporters camped out on my doorstep all hours of the day and night. The police took me in for questioning. When they finally told me I was not a suspect I decided to leave town. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just piled everything I could fit into a bag and snuck away in the middle of the night.”
“Did you talk to Zoebel at all during that time? When Grumman was attempting to put the suspicion on you?”
She shook her head. “No, by then we weren’t speaking.”
I tried to read between the lines of emotion in her voice. “I don’t mean to pry…”
“Of course you do,” she said. She gave me a little laugh that ended in a jarring cough. It took her a minute to right herself. “I’m sorry, what were you going to ask?”
“One thing I’ve always wondered,” I said. “What was really the extent of your relationship with Zoebel?”
She answered a little too quickly, I thought. She said, “I was his nurse for two years. We saw each other every day. He was my boss. We were friends, or so I thought.”
“You weren’t romantically involved?”
She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of the sweater. “If there was ever any love between us it died when he let his attorney throw me under the bus. That killed whatever feelings I might have had for him.”
“And you’ve never seen his show.”
She closed her eyes and said, “I watched it once and it made me sick to my stomach. I hate that damn show. I can’t believe he’s even involved with such a horrible thing.”
“Why can’t you believe it?” I said.
“That’s not the Adrian that I knew,” she said, closing her eyes. “That Adrian had a deep respect for life. He genuinely cared for his patients. He would never do anything to hurt anyone or capitalize on their pain. Now he’s paying people to end their lives on television. I don’t care what the law says now, it’s just not right.”
We suddenly seemed to be singing from the same hymn book. I decided to push her a little. “The twelve patients who died at Cedars,” I said. “Do you think Zoebel helped them commit suicide?”
She pulled the sweater tighter around her, like a chill was biting at her neck. Her head sank into her shoulders. She closed her eyes and her entire body started to shake. I leaned in and put a hand on her shoulder. “Should I call someone?”
She held up a shaky finger. After a moment, she opened her eyes and raised her head. “It’s passing.” A cold sweat beaded her forehead. She peeled off the sweater and reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze. Her hand was cold and clammy. “Thank you for your concern. It’s nice.”
“I’m sorry you’re going through this,” I said. “It must be hell.”
“It sucks,” she said. “That’s why I have this.” She turned her wrist over to reveal a small heart tattooed there with the words ‘Cancer Sucks’ inside the heart. She mustered a smile. “Cancer sucks the life right out of you. I got this my first year out of nursing school. I had no idea it would come back to haunt me.”
Without thinking, I ran my thumb over the tattoo. I suddenly felt like an intruder who had no right to be there with her. I let go of her hand and retreated to my chair. “Maybe this was a bad idea,” I said. “Maybe I can come back when you’re feeling better.”
“It ain’t gonna get any better than this, Mr. Cruze,” she said. She reached out and tugged at my shirt collar. “Don’t go, please, I want to help you if I can.”
“I appreciate that.” I picked up the juice glass and settled back in the chair.
She said, “I don’t think Adrian did anything wrong. I certainly don’t agree with what he’s doing now. I wish I could do something to make him stop, but I can’t. I can only hope he comes to his senses someday and resumes the real work he was meant to do.”
“I’m not sure that will ever happen,” I said. “He seems pretty… entrenched.”
“I blame it all on Marc Cronenburg,” she said. “He’s the one who brought Adrian to this point. He’s the one they should lock up and throw away the key.” She pulled the sweater around her again and put a hand to her mouth and closed her eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry, but I think I’m going to be sick. If you’ll leave your card I will call you if I think of anything else.”
She ran into the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind her. I sat there for a moment, listening to her heave and vomit. Hearing it made my chest hurt. I was incredibly sad for her. I wished we could have met at another time, under different circumstances. I wished there was something – anything – I could do to lessen her pain, but I knew there wasn’t.
I took out one of my business cards, scribbled my cell number on the back of it, and set it on the table next to her empty glass.
I could hear her crying softly from the bathroom as I went out the front door.
* * *
Sierra Simms called just as I was pulling into my driveway. It was nice to hear her voice; energetic, healthy, vibrant, alive; so different from the young woman I’d just left crying on a bathroom floor in Santa Rosa.
I thought of Susan Harris all the way home. I barely knew her, but knowing she would die soon made me sad. I was glad Sierra called. I leaned against my car and took in the evening air and listened to her talk.
She asked what I’d been doing and I said nothing. She asked if I was staying out of trouble and I said yes. She asked if I was keeping busy and I said of course. She chit-chatted for a minute, then told me to be at the studio on Wednesday at noon if I wanted to watch the taping of Gary Wayne Biggerstaff’s death sequence. That bothered me a little, how easily she used the term, but I suppose it was as much a part of her vernacular as “copy editing” was of mine.
“Text me when you arrive and I’ll come down to get you,” she said.
I said that sounded great. She asked if I wanted to meet the Biggerstaff clan. They were scheduled to be at the studio at two on Wednesday and I could meet and interview them then if I wanted to. I said I’d let her know, but I knew there was no way I’d be exchanging pleasantries with the Biggerstaffs, especially knowing that Gary Wayne would be dead before the day was done.
She told me Gary Wayne was now too weak to walk on his own and was being looked after at a private hospice in Sherman Oaks (being kept alive until show time, in other words). Hildy and the three younger boys had spent the day at Disneyland and were going on a tour of the stars’ homes tomorrow. The three older girls were given makeovers and got to spend some quality time shopping and hanging out with one of the lesser-famous Kardashians.
Sounds like fun is being had by all, I wanted to say, except for Gary Wayne. The casualness of the conversation was making me uneasy.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I could see Susan Harris’ sad eyes. I could hear her soft sobs. I could feel the chill of her hand. I suddenly thought I was going to vomit.
I told Sierra I had to go. I’d see her Wednesday.