By Ryan Casey

"Is it the real you?"

"Yes, Aunt Sue, it's the real me."

They had been through this routine on so many prior occasions that it was becoming a running gag. But he knew his aunt was not joking; she had never had a sense of humor even when her mind was fully functioning and sane. Somewhere in her cerebral cortex were neurotransmitters that weren't crossing the synapse, or a lack of serotonin, or something else scientifically complicated or inexplicable that had convinced her that her nephew was some kind of mirage or ghost or figment.

"How do I know you're real?" she challenged. Even with old age having robbed her in the previous decade of her vision and hearing, she could still get this hard look in her eyes that made him cower, the same one she had given him when he was younger and she was Mean Aunt Sue, always the one to catch him in the middle of sneaking the last slice of apple pie or tickle torturing his little brother amidst vicious protestations. Even now, he couldn't look at her straight on when she had that gaze fixed on him, but he knew it no longer bore behind it the implicit threat of castigation or scolding (or 'tongue-lashing,' as she had always called it, as if it were a form of capital punishment).

He now faced it without feeling penitent, however, and gave her the same explanation as usual. "I'm your nephew, Aunt Sue. You used to call me Richie the Rascal, you made apple pie every Christmas, and you always gave me clothes for my birthday. It's really me." And I'll be damned if I stand here and let myself be called an imposter.

She peered at him, her arthritically gnarled hands gripping his wrist, probably wondering how someone who wasn't real could possibly know these things about her, but at last she let go of him and rested her head against the pillows.

"Okay, Richard — if it's really you. You wouldn't try to trick me, would you?"

"Never. Look, I even brought you some flowers."


He leaned closer to her, getting a whiff of the mix of talcum powder and feces that permeated nursing homes. "I brought you some flowers," he repeated, his mouth just an inch away from her ear.

"Well, bring them over here!" she snapped. "Where are they?"

"Right here." He produced the bouquet he had purchased for her, an arrangement from Stop & Shop that was one of the cheapest available, but that still managed to appear attractive. It was an assortment of poppies, which he thought were her favorite flowers, but she wouldn't even be able to see them, so what difference did it make?

He held them practically right in her face, and she squinted at them and fingered the delicate red petals and demanded to know what they were.

"There're poppies," he told her. "They look very nice."

"I like lilies," she said.

Oh, well. Who was it that liked poppies, then? His mother?

"Where are you going to put them?"

"Where do you want them?"

She thought. "Is there still a table next to the television?"


"What's on it?"

He looked. "Some cards and a jewelry box."

"Come closer, Richard. I can't hear you!"

He repeated the table's contents in a louder voice.

"Put the flowers there."

He did, and made sure she knew this so that she knew he was real and the flowers were real, and if anybody asked about the flowers she would know they were from him and that they were sitting on the table next to the television.

The flowers were just one in a line of gestures of disingenuous affection he had become accustomed to giving her. He'd sent cards, made frequent visits bearing gifts, paid for her to receive special services at Pinewood Manor, and had just now bought flowers. He doubted she really valued any of these things; she certainly couldn't read the cards on her own, probably didn't eat any of the candies, and was likely indifferent to getting her hair coiffed and nails manicured. Why she cared where the flowers were, he didn't know. They were too far away from her to see them, and she would forget before he had left what type they were and who had brought them. And then she would complain about their being on the table next to the television, and why would anyone put them there, and it must be that stupid nurse again.

But he didn't care what she thought, as long as she knew that he was doing nice things for her and that, ostensibly, he loved Mean Aunt Sue and wanted her to live another ninety-eight years. He had devised a plan.

The idea amused him. It even made him smile and laugh to himself, and as it was during one of his aunt's somber, silent meals, she was quick to notice and, naturally, couldn't withhold a comment.

"What's so funny?" she snapped at him.

"Nothing, Aunt Sue," he said as he shoveled some shepherd's pie onto the fork and fed her just as she had fed him when he had been a baby.

"Well, something must be amusing you. You didn't smile for nothing. Go on, what is it?"

He thought it funny how her mind had these sudden aberrations from delirium and would return to the days when she had been a sharp, no-nonsense school teacher. Not as funny as his plan, of course, but almost. Her mind sank in and out of senility, rising above the tide generally when the conversation ebbed toward dates and people and things she was familiar with, then getting pulled back into a strong current of hallucinations and idiocy.

Knowing she wouldn't resume her meal until she had an answer, he said, "I was just thinking about something I saw on television yesterday."

Can't possibly have anything to say when you haven't watched TV in a decade, he thought snidely.

"They've been stealing from me, you know," she said abruptly.

Here we go again.

"That nice brooch you gave me last week, Richard, they took it. It's not in the drawer where I keep it. They took it."

"Maybe they just moved it. Or you forgot that you moved it."

She shook her head. "No. They stole it. My brooch and my locket."

"The one your sister gave to you?"

She nodded, though her eyes were glassy and not really looking in his direction, so this was likely another of her confused spells.

The nurse, the one she hated, entered the room silently. One would think these nurses would make a little more noise so as not to scare a coronary into any of the residents, but patient comfort didn't seem to be a priority for many of them. Maybe he was just used to being able to hear people approaching in this place because of their strained breathing or squeaking wheels or muddled speech, but he wasn't about to trust any of the people who were charged with taking care of his aunt.

This particular nurse was a stringy-haired blonde who was always chewing gum and probably saw the bottom of a Doritos bag more than the inside of Gold's Gym. Her closet was apparently full of floral blouses and white khaki capris. Constantly dyspeptic and disorganized as she was, he doubted her medical efficacy and was polite to her only because he felt obligated to make up for the way his aunt hectored her.

"Hello, Susan," she droned.

"I thought I asked for coffee this morning," Aunt Sue complained. "This is tea, you nitwit. Tea! Don't you people know the difference?"

The nurse sighed, snapped her gum. "It's decaf. You know you can't have any caffeine with your new medication," she replied, her obvious indifference evinced in her tone.

"What medication is that?" Richard asked.

She looked at him as though only just realizing he was there. "Rylorna."

"That makes her delusional," he said impatiently. "She had that after the last surgery and she was a mess."

The nurse shrugged. "You'd have to speak with the doctor."

"Is he around?"


"Well, let me know when he's around, please."

Sigh. Snap.

"And I asked for another pillow!" his aunt screeched.

"Yes, Sue, I'll get you one, okay? You'll just have to wait."

"It's fine, Aunt Sue, I can get you one when you're done eating," Richard assured her, throwing an apologetic glance at the nurse. He really wanted to slap the sarcasm out of her voice, but he didn't want to continue in the family tradition of slapping staff around, and he didn't want her to renege on her promise, insincere though it likely was, to tell the doctor to speak with him.

"I've been waiting all day," Aunt Sue muttered before he spooned some carrot cake between her trembling lips.

One day she had asked him about her brothers. Was he going to visit them? They'd been wandering around the Manor all day looking for him. No, he had told her for the umpteenth time, they're all dead. Dead? Yes, and it had been over a decade since the last one had passed. No, that couldn't be, they had been in the hallways just that morning!

She'd changed the subject abruptly to the one subject that had once made him uncomfortable, the one he tried to avoid when he could and speak about with little conviction if he couldn't.

"You know, I only have two years left," she had said.

"Why's that?"

"Because. When I reach one hundred, that's it."

She'd said something similar almost every year. He couldn't blame her. Being afflicted with polio and bedridden and virtually unable to see or hear or bathe or feed herself was not his idea of living. It wasn't hers, either, and why God was being a cruel marionette and refusing to cut her strings had never been clear.

"You don't know that," he'd told her, just to say something.

"What will happen when I die? They'll just take me away and bury me in the chamber they keep underneath this place."

"There is no underground chamber, Aunt Sue. That's just your imagination. You'll have a regular burial, just like your brothers. There'll be a ceremony at St. Michael's, and a crowd of people will attend and pray for you."

If three were really a crowd, he was telling the truth. Otherwise, he couldn't imagine who would show up at the ceremony.

"Okay," she said.

"But what about your assets, Aunt Sue?" he'd asked.


"Your assets," he'd repeated loudly. "You know, all the money you made when you were married to Uncle Steven. What's going to happen? What are you going to do with it?"

The plan had begun to formulate as soon as the words had come out of his mouth.

"I don't know," she'd responded. "I'll probably pass it on to your brother."

Not if he could help it. He had been sucking up to her for months now, and this is was how she was going to repay him?

"Richard!" she was yelling, her tremulous hand scrabbling for his. "Richard, my tea!"

"Sorry." He shook himself from his thoughts and guided the mug and its straw to her mouth and let her suck down the sweet, hot beverage.

"It's not coffee," she decided, "but it will do. Has the nurse come yet? You should tell her I asked for coffee."

He had spent a lot of time thinking about it, usually as he drove to and from the nursing home. If she were to die, nobody would suspect a thing. The chances alone of living for ninety-eight years are practically astronomical; her death would come as no surprise to anyone, and likely no disappointment either. If he continued to worm his way into her good graces, he would soon be the one pulling the strings, no longer worrying about the capricious whims and wishes of Mean Aunt Sue and whatever anybody else was advising her to do. What had Tom done, anyway, that made her want to leave everything to him? He barely even came to see her, and when he did couldn't stand more than ten minutes in the room.

Richard thought it would be ideal if he could get rid of some of the staff at the Manor, too, just to serve revenge for the way they abused and agitated his aunt during her time there, but he didn't want to draw any attention to himself, didn't want to make her death seem like anything other than a natural one. Then he could organize a ceremony and a burial for her, just as he'd promised, and the more he could expedite the process, the less chance he would have of being discovered.

The coffee incident had given him the final piece of the puzzle. Every year on her birthday, he sneaked a bottle of wine past the bored teenager working at the front desk and shared a glass or two with his aunt. He had made it a tradition to do so on her special day since she had been admitted to Pinewood Manor, and it was the one day when he could tolerate her because, strangely enough, the alcohol had a sobering effect on her mind. He could hold a lucid conversation with her and didn't have to make amends with the staff for her obstreperous and obnoxious behavior. And she seemed completely unaware that she — or was it her delirious counterpart? — thought that such a celebration was just the marking of one year closer to her scheduled demise.

He smiled to himself as he drove home that evening, humming a little ditty to himself. He'd even splurge on some nice wine glasses just to seal the deal, put her completely at ease that this was just another visit from her favorite nephew (or second favorite, if it was indeed Tom she preferred). A little poison in her glass, and he would be able to sit and talk and drink with her and clean up afterward and head home before she even realized she was dying.

The grin toyed around his lips until he got home. Richie the Rascal he was, indeed...

Aunt Sue's epic ninety-ninth birthday fell just two weeks later, on a Sunday. As promised, her nephew Richard smuggled a bottle of Pinot Noir in his jacket and had wrapped a pair of crystal glasses in a nice box with a bow. He'd managed to find the glasses at a yard sale for a reasonable price, which was a pleasant surprise, as he hadn't particularly been looking forward to spending too much on her gifts when he knew she would have only a short time to enjoy them.

"Hi, Aunt Sue," he called as he entered the room, knocking gently. "It's Richard."

"Who?" she said in a daze. She had obviously taken advantage of that week's gift, the complimentary facial he'd purchased for her. Her skin was clean and devoid of hair, her eyebrows plucked, her lips outlined in crimson.

"Richard," he told her, bending down to kiss her cheek. "Richie the Rascal. Your nephew. Richard."

Her eyes lit up momentarily. "Richard! How nice of you to come. Do you know what today is?"

"Of course, it's your birthday. You know I come every year" — he lowered his voice — "and bring you a special drink."

"No, you didn't do that last year," she protested.

They argued about this for some time, with Richard finally realizing it didn't matter, and he presented her with his gift and encouraged her to open it.

"This isn't necessary, you know," she said, her fingers struggling with the red ribbon. "Do you know how old I am today?"

"I don't know, Aunt Sue."

"Ninety-nine!" she crowed, giving him her famous crooked smile. "Only one more year to go..."

"I would have guessed eighty," he joked lamely.

"Oh, if only," she said. "Help me with this thing, will you, Richard?"

He untied the bow for her and pulled it off and let her remove the lid and pull back the tissue paper. "What are these here?"

"They're crystal glasses," he explained, holding one up for her to see and feel.

"Oh, forget it, my eyesight went a long time ago."

"No, I mean for drinking. Glasses for drinking. So we can share the wine that I brought you." He took the wine bottle from inside his jacket and showed it to her. "It's red. I know that's your favorite. I brought it especially for you since it's your birthday."

He couldn't quite tell if she could comprehend, but she thanked him and he stowed everything under the bed and said they could have the wine after her lunch. The meal arrived promptly, carried in by the same sarcastic blond nurse at whom Aunt Sue hurled her usual torrent of abuse, which was met by cold snaps of gum and an even colder stare at Richard, who was in too good of a mood to let it bother him. He gleefully spoon-fed his aunt, even tasting the chicken pot pie himself and eating the slice of cheesecake when she insisted she was full and had asked for tapioca, anyway.

"You're not full, are you?" he asked her when she fell silent as usual, staring ahead with her mouth set in a grim line.

"I can't hear you, Richard."

"I said, 'you're not full, are you?'"


"Good. Then you'll share some wine with me?"

"Might as well. I only have one more year."

Less than that.

"How do my flowers look?" she asked as he uncorked the bottle with the corkscrew he'd brought along with him.

When he realized this was a serious question, he looked over to the table by the television and saw that the flowers were no longer there and told her as much.

"It's that damn nurse," she muttered.

"I'm sure she didn't take your flowers," he told her. "It's been two weeks. They probably wilted, seeing as nobody watered them."

It was of Aunt Sue's opinion that the nurse should have taken care of the flowers, but Richard reminded her it was the health of the patient, not the patient's plants, that was primary, although he didn't actually believe that himself. Not that he thought the plants deserved precedence, but it seemed like his aunt's health was more like an afterthought than a main concern.

Wasn't he about to kill her?

The glasses were nice pieces of stemware, a red vine-like design winding around the stem with similar scarlet glass rimming the top. Each one he filled halfway with Pinot Noir, adding to his aunt's glass the vial of poison he'd concealed in his pocket. He wasn't sure how much to add, not knowing how much was needed to kill her and not wanting to alter the flavor of the wine so drastically that she would refuse to drink it. So he emptied half the vial into her glass and the other half into the bottle, in case she wanted more afterward. He was content with just one glass; he wasn't about to get drunk and start babbling about what he had done.

"Try this," he said, tilting the poison-laded glass to her lips and letting her taste the wine.

"It's good," she decided. "There's a word for it... t-something... tart. Is that right?"

"Makes sense."

"Then it's tart, that's what it is."

He guessed that was her way of expressing satisfaction.

There was a knock at the door and the nurse called out, "Susan?"

Richard called back, "Just a moment," and put the wine bottle on the floor. He leaned into his aunt's ear. "I'll deal with her, Aunt Sue. You just enjoy your gift."

"Okay, Richie," she said, nodding and smiling vaguely. "Richie the Rascal."

The blond nurse was at the door, a bottle of pills in her hand. "These are for your mother," she said. "They should counteract some of the delirium."

"My aunt," he corrected. "By the way, did you happened to see the flowers that were on her table over by the television?"

She shrugged. Big surprise. "I don't know."

"Okay. Thanks."

He had to announce who he was before Aunt Sue would let him sit down again. He told her twice, in a voice of increasing volume, what the nurse had come for and what the pills would do.

"Should I take them now?" she asked.

He hadn't thought of that. Even easier than poison. "No, not with the wine, Aunt Sue. That wouldn't be good for you."

"Well, what's one year?"

She usually drank everything out of a straw, but she refused to let him put one in her glass. It was wine, for God's sake, and she should drink it like she always had. He guessed that she had been a big drinker in her day, probably enjoying a glass or two or three with dinner. She drank it regally, savoring every sip, not really engaging in conversation.

"Richard," she said in one of her final moments in compos mentis. "I really have appreciated all that you've been doing for me. I've been so lonely in this place for so long, and you're the only nephew who's ever bothered to come visit."

"Well, it's the least I could do," said Richard, smiling to himself.

"To show my gratitude, I have decided that I want you to have everything when I go," she continued. "Whatever's in my bank account, and anything that's here, is all yours when I pass. You deserve it, Richie."

That seemed to be it. He asked if she wanted more, but she didn't. She put her empty glass on her bedside table and let her head sink into the pillow and quickly dozed off, her thin frame rising and falling ever so slightly with each dying breath.

Richard sat comfortably in his chair, smiling and continuing to sip at his wine. His wish had been granted. Within a few minutes, or a few hours, or however long it would take for the poison to act on his aunt's already weak body, he would ransack the place for anything valuable and then empty her bank accounts. Too bad she'd lost the nice brooch he'd given her and the locket from her sister; those pieces probably would have fetched something nice.

After a while, he started to feel sleepy himself. He finished his glass, set it down in his lap, and fought in vain against his heavy lids' drooping of their own volition. When he awoke, he would be a wealthy man. Already there were dollar bills dancing in his head like sugar plum fairies, promising a new life to come...

* * *

The nurse knocked on the door a few hours later, around dinnertime. She carried in the dinner tray and saw the old woman sleeping quietly in her bed, her son or nephew or whomever reclined in a chair, head drooped slightly onto his chest as if in penitence, body still. She couldn't blame him; being around old people all day exhausted her, too.

Her eyes were drawn to the bottle of wine on the floor, then the two crystal glasses. So he was wealthy, after all. She'd suspected as much, given all of the gifts he had given his aunt, which she had conveniently pocketed when the old woman was asleep. The brooch had earned her dozens of compliments at a dinner party the weekend before, and her niece had been overjoyed upon receiving the locket as a high school graduation present. And the flowers had made a nice centerpiece on her dining room table.

She couldn't very well take the glasses or wine then, not when the old woman's nephew would wake up and see that they were missing, but a quick drink wouldn't hurt. She'd been on her feet all day and had had to deal with some interminably cranky patients, and some good Pinot Noir would help calm her nerves a bit.

The nephew had his hands still around his glass, so she took the one that was on the bedside table, presumably the old woman's, filled it a quarter full and drank it quickly. Not bad. She poured herself half a glass and drank that. Then another quarter, just to make things even. Then she replaced the glass where it had been.

Oh, wait, the dinner tray. She could leave it on the table... was it worth waking up the nephew? She looked at him. He was utterly still. She supposed he was a bit of a lush himself, had probably had even more than she'd had and was going to be out cold for awhile.

How come there was a lipstick mark on his glass? Had he been sharing with his aunt or something?

No matter. She'd leave the tray on the table so the old woman wouldn't call her and complain. Well, she'd probably complain about the food being cold, but it would be either that or not getting the food at all, and the former seemed a better option.

She put the tray down gently, trying not to make any noise, and crept soundlessly from the room, pausing to turn around and make sure everything was as she had found it. The glasses were where they had been, the wine bottle on the floor, the tray on the table, the old lady sleeping soundlessly... and the nephew slumped in the hard backed chair, hands wrapped around the crystal glass, a satisfied smile on his lips.

What was it he found so amusing?

Ryan Casey is an undergraduate journalism student and professional tap dancer at New York University with a passion for mysteries and creative writing. This is his first published short mystery story.

Copyright 2011 Ryan Casey. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.

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