Two for Eternity – Russell Thayer
October 31, 2021
I knew I would kill Mrs. Holloway the moment I laid my eyes on her withered cheeks again. It was my first shift at the rest home in North Beach. Graveyard hours. My unskilled job was to empty bed pans and hold the gnarled fingers of dying women while they spilled their regrets, but I could never hold that old cow’s hand, not after what she’d done to me, to Ray.
She didn’t remember me because I used an American voice now. My freckles had faded, my coppery hair hidden behind the dishonest nursing cap we all wore while on duty. I’d gained twenty pounds since the Japs tried to starve us all to death at Santo Tomas. After liberation, we were shipped stateside from the Philippines to scatter like fleas across the wild western pelt of North America. I’d tried to put the war behind me, to become someone else, but I could never forget what that self-righteous crone had done.
Mrs. Holloway had taken it upon herself to tame all the young women in the camp, but especially me for my rejection of shoes and schooling, my smoking and thieving, my interest in boys and men. She knew I’d been raised in one of the finest English homes in Hong Kong, and she always made sure to scold me, to let me know I could do better.
She was wrong.
It was a pleasure to let her suffer as the cancer chewed through her organs. She’d gnaw on her pink hands at three a.m., pleading with me to give her morphine, to call the head nurse.
“Nurse Armstrong is at home in bed with her female lover,” I’d whisper. “I very much doubt she’d want to be disturbed at this moment by your pathetic craving for dope.”
“Why do you girls have to be so horrible?” Mrs. Holloway would squeal, shaking a little as another wall of invisible cells fell to the disease, phalanx after phalanx, like doomed foot soldiers.
“Please help me, nurse,” she’d plead, her grip barely dimpling my forearm.
“I’m not a nurse,” I’d tell her. “I’ll leave a note for Armstrong.”
But I never did.
She’d tried to squash me flat in Manila, to pulverize my spirit, but worse than that was the day she sent Ray to his grave.
Mr. Frye, a veteran of earlier tropical wars, pimped whores out of the tower of the camp’s Main Building, and he hated Ray because Ray was a deserter from Bataan. When sanctimonious Mrs. Holloway got wind of Mr. Frye’s clock tower cathouse, she stopped focusing her ire on me for a moment. As one might expect, Mr. Frye wouldn’t stop raking in the pesos just because Mrs. Holloway asked him to shut down his operation, so she complained to the camp committee, and when that didn’t work, she went to Colonel Hayashi, the camp commandant, and when that didn’t work, she approached Lieutenant Abiko, a man so hated I can still see people kicking his detached head across the lawn after our liberation. Abiko arrested Mr. Frye for having violated any number of camp regulations designed to keep men and women carnally detached. As an act of revenge against Mrs. Holloway and the likes of Ray, Mr. Frye reported all the suspected deserters at Santo Tomas to Colonel Hayashi. The men were collected and taken away to be pistol-shot in the back of the head over an open grave. Ray was one of five. I was just sixteen at the time, and a bit of a fool, but Ray had told me under the yellow blossoms of a narra tree that he loved me.
Eventually, her suffering stopped pleasing me. Maybe, at nineteen, it was time to do better. I’d never be able to get into the locked morphine safe in Nurse Armstrong’s office, but I had in my possession a dozen morphine syrettes I’d stolen from a former navy corpsman and planned to sell to hopheads when times got even harder. The taking of those had saved the suicidal corpsman’s life, a story for another day. There’s always another day. For some.
Mrs. Holloway was in fine form that night, a reeking infant squalling and weeping, calling out for me as if I had nothing else to do on my shift but comfort her. At the side of her bed, after staring at her for a time, I took a rubber hose from the pocket of my uniform and wrapped it high above her elbow. My other pocket contained two syrettes. I pressed the pin at the top of the first one until I felt it break the seal. An anxious drop of clear liquid appeared at the end of the needle as I withdrew the pin. A half grain of morphine for an old woman’s already dead heart. Two syrettes ought to do the trick, balance our account, make amends for the men she’d killed.
“This one is for abusing me the way you did,” I whispered as I felt for the vein through wax-paper skin, inserted the needle, then squeezed the tube until it was flat. I saw something in her eyes after slipping into my English voice. “You must remember me from Santo Tomas.”
“Miss Bates?” she asked, lucid for a moment. “How?”
“Chance. Fate. The result is the same.” Maybe she knew the score right then, knew what I had in mind. “This one is for Ray,” I said as I found her vein with the second tube.
“Bless you,” she said. “I’m sorry they killed your friend.”
“You belong in Hell,” I told her. “We’ll talk about it when I get there.”
I freed the rubber tube with an elastic snap and bent to kiss her salty forehead as she moaned, fluttered, then went limp as the monster left us.