“What’s this?” Emma held up the small wad of bills bundled together in a circle.
“It’s the money I owe you.”
Emma put her Honda in park and weighed the cash in her palm. “Where’s the rest?”
Simon shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he leaned down to meet Emma’s eyes through the cracked car window.
“That’s all I could get right now. I’ll have the rest by-”
“Tomorrow. You’ll have the rest by tomorrow,” Emma said as she flicked her sunglasses off her forehead and onto her nose. “I’d hate to have to pay your mom a visit, Simon.”
He nodded and stepped back as Emma’s car pulled away, kicking up dirt.
Emma pulled into the narrow parking spot by a manicured shrub after being waved through the gated entrance. She unzipped the backpack sitting in her passenger seat and double-checked its contents before exiting her car and approaching the flat, white building.
“Hey, Emma,” the receptionist said cheerily from behind the desk. She held up a visitor pass and leaned over the desk.
Emma smiled and took the pass, a cardstock square on a string necklace, and pulled it over her head.
“Your nan sure is lucky to have a granddaughter who comes and visits so often.”
Emma wiped some gunk out of her eye as she responded. “She sure is. See you later, Nancy.”
Nancy waved at Emma’s back as she took a right at the desk and continued past the lobby, down a sterile hall. A pale man in a wheelchair rolled down the hallway toward her, the light blue blanket around his shoulders a stark contrast against the white walls and floor.
“Where’s my hug?” the man asked once he was close, his arms outstretched.
“Fresh out, Mr. Frederickson,” Emma said, walking past the man. She’d made that mistake twice already, passing off his lingering hands as an accident at first. But the second time, when he face planted into her cleavage during their embrace, she realized what she was dealing with.
When Emma got to room 1201, she knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said a man’s voice.
“Hey, Will.” Emma stepped through the door and waved. “Hey, Banana Nanner.” She dropped her bag by the bed and leaned down to hug her grandma.
“I broke a piece off my quilting rack, on the bottom. Ran right into it with this damn thing,” Nan said, hitting the arm of her electric wheelchair. “Will is fixing it.”
He looked up from his squat on the floor and tapped on the wooden leg of the rack as he stood.
“I think that’ll hold, as long as you don’t hit it again. Just let me know if it comes unglued.”
“Here, Will. Take a banana muffin for the road,” Nan said, wheeling over to the table with a plastic tray on it.
“Thanks, Banana Nanner,” Will said smiling. He grabbed a muffin on his way out. “Just holler if you need anything. Later, Emma.”
Emma half waved and shut the door behind him as he left.
“Wow, Nan, that quilt is amazing,” she started, in a loud voice. “It that supposed to be-“
“He’s gone, Em. Did you get it?”
Emma leaned down and retrieved her backpack. “Not all of it,” she said as she rummaged through its pockets.
“What do you mean?” Nan asked and wheeled over to where Emma sat on the bed.
“Simon didn’t have all the money. I told him to have it tomorrow or-”
“Or what? You’ll call his mom?”
“Yes. I don’t know,” snapped Emma. “What was I supposed to say?”
“It’s not what you need to say, it’s what you need to do, dear. If someone doesn’t pay up, they’ve got to pay up,” Nan said with a pointed look.
Nan tossed her hands up and wheeled around to her quilting rack and sorted strips of fabric.
“Break his fingers, key his car, I don’t know. Get creative. But we’ve got to mean business.”
“Nan! Simon mowed your lawn for eleven years. I can’t just break his fingers,” she said, looking around the room. “I wouldn’t even know how.” Emma fiddled with the straps on her bag, tightening and loosening them again.
“So you planned to, what, call Barb? Tell her that her son owes us 300 smackers? Not that she’d be surprised, I’m sure.” Nan turned in her chair and shook her head. “You know, Simon was a sharp boy, he could’ve really been something if he’d just applied himself.”
Emma sighed and pulled materials out of her bag, setting them on the bed. She untangled a roll of stickers and counted out a few small plastic bags. Nan wheeled into the bathroom and came back with two prescription bottles filled to the lid.
“A hundred and fifty more,” she said, and handed the bottles to her granddaughter.
Emma doled out the doses and put them in the small bags, marking them with stickers of a bulging, muscular bicep. From the moment Happy Days Elder Village partnered with Sherwin & Finn Pharmaceuticals to test their newest miracle cure, an arthritis medication called MiriFlex, Nan had recruited her granddaughter to capitalize on the opportunity. She had called it a “blessing in disguise.” Emma was hesitant to get on board at first, but after Nan insisted she experience the lethargic effect it produced in high doses, she had to admit their product was pretty good, and that “Flex” was a solid street name for the drug.
Nan’s persistence reminded Emma of the first time she really got to know her grandmother, nearly five summers ago when her parents went through their divorce. She hadn’t spent much time with Nan up to that point. Her father claimed that Nan lived too far away to visit, though they drove twice as far to visit his parents on holidays. Her mother hadn’t had a problem with Emma’s lack of a relationship with Nan until the divorce. Then everything became ammunition. Things that never bothered her mother before became reasons to stay up arguing well into the night. It was once they separated that Emma really met Nan.
A then twelve-year-old Emma had been expecting a small, grandmotherly home with a well-tended garden and painted birdhouses out front. When her mother did talk about Nan, it was always while they took walks through the woods at the nature center. It always had something to do with flowers. And Nan did love nature, Emma found out, when she was dropped off at a lake surrounded by trailer campers. Some were mobile, their hitches resting on cinder blocks, but most of them, like Nan’s, looked permanent, with wooden porches built around them.
Nan was teaching her how to water color when the divorce was said and done. Emma was left to be shared by both of her parents, split between them like their property value, their debt, and their rifle collection. Her dad moved to Tallahassee and her mom just sort of checked out. Nan insisted she keep Emma until she finished her painting. Between the two of them, Emma and Nan were able to wear her parents down until they agreed to let them stay together on weekends. Once Emma could drive, she spent more time with Nan than with either of them. Her watercolor never got further than sky.
Emma looked up from labeling the bags. Nan was wheeling around, tidying up here and there, the low buzz of her chair the only sound in the room. She must’ve sensed Emma’s eyes and looked at her.
“Eat a muffin. You’re too thin,” she said, grabbing the tray from the table.
Emma knew better than to resist. She set the muffin on the bed next to the supplies and picked at the top without eating it.
Both women sat up when there was a loud knock on the door. They made eye contact and Nan wheeled over to the door at front of the room while Emma quickly pulled a quilt over the contents on the bed.
“I’m not decent,” Nan said through the door.
A muffled voice responded and banged at the wood again. Nan pulled it open and wheeled aside, allowing the visitor entry.
Madge, gray haired and liver-spotted, pulled her cane away from the door and shuffled inside.
“They’re here. We’ve got to shut this thing down,” she said, puffing.
“What? Who?” Emma asked and slid off the bed.
“The cops. They’re in the lobby, asking around. They’re onto us,” Madge said, wildly shaking her cane in the air. “One was in a jacket. It said D.E.A.”
“It can’t be,” Nan said, shaking her head. “There’s no Feds sniffing around. Not here.”
“I’m telling you there are. Wearing slacks, ties. Ladies in pantsuits.” Madge pulled her cardigan tightly around her torso. “They were there at the desk. They’ll bust us any minute.”
“Jesus Christ,” Emma said, lifting her hand to her forehead.
Madge gasped. “You watch your mouth, honey.”
Emma looked from Madge to Nan. “We’ve got to end this. Get rid of the Flex, flush it or something.”
Nan shakes her head. “We can’t stop, we’re in full swing.”
“We’re in too deep,” Madge buts in. “It’s not worth the money.”
Emma looked to Nan. Her expression was unreadable. “Actually,” she nods, “it is. Nan’s right, we’ve got a good thing going.” Emma walked to her grandma and kneeled at her side. “How much more?” she asked in a low voice.
“How much more what?” Madge perks up, asking them both.
“Madge, Nan needs this money. We need the money. She’s got a problem.”
Nan spoke up. “It ain’t a problem if you win-”
“You’re not winning, Nan. There are thousands of dollars that prove you’re not winning.”
Madge gasped. “A gambler. Nan, you ought to be ashamed. And dragging Emma into this scheme-”
Nan swiveled her chair and wagged her finger at the other woman. “Stay out of this. You’ve got bigger fish to worry about, Madge. How much money did you send that televangelist fellow again?”
“I was looking out for my soul,” Madge responded, with her hand over her heart.
“Well you sent him enough for ten souls plus yours,” Nan said. “Someone ratted us out,” She said, finally. She looked at Madge and narrowed her eyes. “W-W-M-D? What would Madge do?”
Madge clicked her tongue. “I am a follower of Christ,” she replied defiantly, “but I ain’t no narc.” She put her hand on her good hip and glared at Nan.
“Hey, calm down. Both of you,” Emma said. The women looked at each other and back to Emma. “Please,” she added.
“Em, go check it out. We’ll stay here.”
“Haven’t you involved her enough?” Madge said. “Leave her out of this.”
Nan started to speak up before Emma cut her off. “No, I can do this. You two just,” she waved her hands in their direction, “just shush.”
The women gave her stern looks. Taking a breath and stepping around them, Emma opened the door. Madge grabbed her arm and stopped her before she stepped out. “Be discrete, honey.”
“Well no shit, Madge,” Emma heard Nan say before shutting the door behind her.
Emma looked around the hallway. It looked like the normal, quiet bustle of residents wheeling and wobbling to and from their rooms, until she spotted a professionally dressed, unfamiliar woman speaking to Will at the end of the hall. Emma stepped away from Nan’s door and walked the opposite direction, toward the lobby. Upon turning the corner, she nearly bumped into a man in a light gray suit, leading Mr. Frederickson toward the staff meeting room. Emma froze before dashing over to the pair just as the man in the suit turned the door’s handle.
“Here’s that hug you wanted, Mr. Frederickson,” she said, leaning down and sliding her arms around his neck.
Mr. Frederickson giggled and Emma looked up to see the younger man holding the door open.
“In here please, sir,” he said.
“Here, let me,” Emma said, propping the door open with her right arm.
The younger man led the way into the office, and when his back was turned, she grabbed the corner of Mr. Frederickson’s blue blanket, still draped over his shoulders like a towel, with her free hand. She lifted her leg and placed the sole of her shoe on the back of his wheelchair and extended her knee slightly, sending Mr. Frederickson rolling into the room, his blanket staying behind in her hand. She pulled the door shut behind him and quickly wadded his blanket into a ball and stuffed it up her shirt.
Emma quickly walked back down the hallway and turned to step into a nook with a drinking fountain. She paused for a moment and peeked around the corner. After a catching her breath, she returned to the office, lingering outside with an ear pressed to the door. She could hear words being exchanged, but it was impossible to make out the conversation.
She took a step back from the door and looked around the hallway and made eye contact with two elderly women walking toward her. One put a hand to the other’s ear and whispered into it. Emma followed their gaze to her stomach, where the blanket was hidden. On impulse, she put her hand on the underside of the bulge and rubbed her belly. The women shook their heads disapprovingly and tsk-ed as they walked past her.
Emma turned on her heel, back to the door and pulled the knob, letting herself inside. The man in the suit was in the middle of a question when she entered.
“-you taking any sort of arthritis medication?” he finished as he looked up at her.
“You dropped your blanket, Mr. Frederickson,” said Emma, holding it up. She walked toward the old man. “Don’t mind me.”
“Oh,” Mr. Frederickson leaned forward and allowed Emma to position the blanket behind him while he thought. “I’m on MiraFlex,” he concluded.
“MiraFlex,” the man restated, and jotted something down on his notepad. He nodded at the pad. “Well, that might explain the bruising. It’s a pretty common side effect of most arthritis medications. You’ve been taking your dosage regularly?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. Twice a day.”
The man wrote on his notepad again. “Excuse me, miss? Do you mind?” He looked at Emma and gestured to the door.
“Sure, sure,” she said, smoothing out the wrinkles of the blanket. “Almost done here.”
He waited until she moved away from behind Mr. Frederickson’s wheelchair and strode to the door before continuing.
“And I know this might be a difficult thing to answer, but have you-” he paused again, looking at Emma. Her fingers were on the handle of the door, but she stayed put. “Miss?” he said.
“Oh, sorry.” Emma turned the handle and shut the door behind her. Again, she put her ear to the door and listened. Only murmuring. She ran down the hallway, dodging walkers and oxygen tanks and made it back to Nan’s room. She opened the door without knocking. Nan and Madge were in the middle of a heated conversation when she entered. Nan shot Madge a look.
Madge turned to Emma. “Well?”
“They’re asking about Flex,” Emma whispered urgently.
“Damn,” Nan said and threw her hands down.
Madge looked up and did a sign of the cross.
Nan drummed her fingers against her lips. “Listen. If they come for you, if they come for the money, it’s all gone. I gambled it away. Tell them that. I’ll take the heat.”
“Nan, come on. No way,” Emma said, shaking her head.
“No, no. I will. I won’t let anything happen to you. They can lock up a couple old geezers if they want. We’ve only got a few good years left in us anyway.”
Madge scoffed. “Speak for yourself. Maybe if we come clean now-”
“Save your plea bargain. I said I’d take the fall if comes to it. This thing hasn’t gone south yet,” Nan retorted.
Someone knocked on the door. They turned their heads to lock eyes with each other.
Nan grabbed Emma’s arm and pulled her ear close to her face and whispered, “Find your grandpa. He’ll put you through college. Wait until Madge is gone.” She released Emma’s arm and wheeled to the door.
Emma whipped around. “Nan, what?”
The door opened and Will poked his head inside.
“Hey, Nan. There’s a gentleman who wants to ask you a few questions in the meeting room, if you don’t mind.”
Emma stared into Nan’s eyes and stiffly and subtly shook her head.
“Oh, hey Mrs. Gearson,” Will said upon spotting Madge. “I was looking for you earlier. I think they wanted to talk to you too.”
“In a bit, dear,” Madge said with a dentured half-smile.
Nan wheeled toward the door that Will held open for her. She locked eyes with Madge and dragged her thumb across her neck with a hardened expression as the door shut.
“Holy hell,” Emma said after she was gone. “What now?”
Madge didn’t respond.
“What’s Nan going to do? She owes thousands, Madge. Can’t you do something?”
Madge just looked around the room before settling on the bed. “Straighten these sheets up,” she instructed Emma.
“Nothing? No help?” Emma cocked her head, trying to catch the older woman’s gaze. “You know what she’s going through, you blew your money on-”
“Now don’t you start. Fix these darn sheets.”
“I’m going out there. I can’t just wait around,” Emma said. As she quickly fixed the pillows and pulled the quilt up, the banana muffin from earlier fell onto the floor with a splat. She groaned.
“Oh, shoot,” Madge said. “You made a mess.” She steadied herself on her cane and planted her feet firmly on the floor.
“Let me,” Emma said.
“No, no. I’ll get it.” Madge insisted, beginning to lean down. She bent her neck first, followed by her torso, gradually bending.
“Really, I can just-” Emma tried again.
“Nope, I’m almost there now.”
Emma tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling with wide eyes.
“I’ve got it,” Madge said, finally at the floor. She paused there, to catch her breath, and pushed herself off her cane, slowly raising. Emma was sandwiched between the bed and the determined woman, going nowhere.
“I got it,” Madge said, presenting the muffin in one hand.
“Thanks,” said Emma. She took the muffin and tossed it into the trashcan by the door from where she stood. She walked past the woman and reached for the handle.
“Emma. Your Nan doesn’t have a gambling problem.”
Emma turned. “Yeah, I know it’s ‘not a problem if you’re winning,’ but you heard-”
“No,” Madge said, shaking her head. “She’s saved it for you. For college. There’s no debt, dear.”
“I don’t even care about college,” Emma said, shaking her head.
Madge shrugged. “Your nan does. You’re a smart, capable young woman. You just have to apply yourself.”
Emma rolled her eyes.
“She wants you to have a good future. She won’t be around forever.”
Emma turned away and opened the door, heading in the direction of the meeting room. She was nearly to the office, when she got stopped by the professional looking woman she’d seen earlier. Emma swallowed and swore to herself she’d never buy a pantsuit.
“Hello,” the woman said, hand extended. “I’m Jenny Wook, with the FDEA.”
Emma nodded and shifted her weight, trying to look around the woman to the room, where the door remained shut.
“The Florida Department of Elder Affairs. I think you could-”
“Wait, what?” Emma snapped her attention back to the woman. “The Florida what?”
“Department of Elder Affairs. We look into elder abuses cases. We make sure that-”
“You’re not a cop?” Emma asked.
Mrs. Wook laughed. “We’re not law enforcement. But we are investigating Happy Days.”
“There’s been complaints of bruising among residents lately. Concerned family members brought it to our attention. Could be nothing, but we want to want to ensure a safe, comfortable living for-”
“Great. No, that’s really great, but I’ve got to go,” Emma said, taking a step back.
“Wait.” Mrs. Wook smiled and held out a business card. “I’m sure Happy Days is a fine facility, but it would be a huge help if you’d call us sometime. Help us speed this up and get out of everyone’s hair.”
Emma took the card she held in front of her. “Uh, sure,” she said. Over the woman’s shoulder, she could see the door to the meeting room open. The man in the suit walked out, followed by Nan. When she met Emma’s eyes, Nan winked and clicked her cheek, wheeling away.
“Yeah, I’ll definitely call you,” Emma said to Mrs. Wook and smiled. She walked back to Nan’s room and swung the door open. They were alone in the room together.
“Banana Nanner,” she exclaimed, leaning down to embrace her grandma. She sighed. “Holy shit.”
Nan nodded. “Holy shit.” She pulled away and grinned. “I’m going to make cookies.”
“Okay.” Emma smiled for a moment. “Hey, Madge told me what you did. You don’t have a gambling problem. And don’t even say it,” she added, cutting off her grandma.
“Em, I want you to have a future. Get your education; get right with the law. Probably with the Lord too-”
“Nan,” Emma interrupted. “What about Grandpa? He died like ten years ago.”
Nan wheeled to her wooden dresser and pointed to the brass urn resting beside a woven basket. Emma approached the dresser, picked it up, and delivered it to Nan. To Emma’s horror, she popped open the lid and dumped its contents onto the bed. Bundles of bills fell out, the wads varying in girth. Emma dragged her fingers over the money.
“Shit, Nan. Is this all Flex money?”
Nan hummed. “Most of it is.”
“It’s not a problem if you win.”
“Jesus Christ, Nan.”
“It’s for you. For college,” Nan tried.
Emma looked over the bills. “Nan,” she began, before shaking her head. She turned. “Where’s grandpa?”
“At the bottom of Splash Mountain.”
Nan thought. “And a little bit in the Country Bear Jamboree.”
Emma made a gagging sound.
“That was just a spill.” Nan rubbed at the side of her mouth. “It’s what he wanted, Em. The man loved Frontierland.”
There was a soft knock at the door followed by Will’s muffled voice. “Delivery.”
They placed the urn at the side of the bed and scooped the bills back inside. Nan called Will in. He fumbled with the handle and pushed the door open with his back. In his hands was an off-white plastic tray, balancing a few paper cups on it.
“Here you go, Nan,” he said, balancing the tray on one arm and handing her a cup. He smiled at Emma.
Nan fished through the pills with a finger. “Where’s the MiraFlex?”
Will sucked in air. “Ah, we don’t do those anymore. Kind of a busy day, actually,” he said, drumming his fingers on the tray. “Some Sherwin & Finn guys called this morning. They said to stop the dosage.”
“What? Why?” Emma asked, looking at Nan.
“They said it didn’t work,” Will said, heading back toward the door.
Nan slammed her paper cup down on the bed. “It worked for me. Made me feel like a million bucks,” she exclaimed.
Will shook his head and shrugged, attempting to turn the handle with his elbow. “You must’ve been one of the lucky ones. For the rest, it’s like they weren’t even taking it.”