This is part one of a four-part mystery series set in the seemingly innocent surroundings of a retirement village. A new installment will be published each Friday. Please note this is fiction and any similarity between real people and places is purely coincidental.
SMILING PALMS PART ONE
Even before she stepped out of the car Shannon could feel the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She wondered if paranoia was contagious. After all, what danger could there be in a place called Smiling Palms Retirement Village?
The surroundings confirmed this thought. Brightly coloured signs pointed to various unit blocks that looked more like a holiday resort than a place to wait for death. Shannon grimaced as she thought this. She was not usually so morbid but her aunt had already planted the seed by referring to the place as “God’s waiting room”. If what her aunt had been saying was true, then her wait may be much shorter than bargained for.
Shannon had only yesterday returned from a stint in Canada as an exchange schoolteacher. The attractive 35-year-old blond, whose petite figure and luxurious, long hair never failed to turn heads, specialised in teaching challenged children diagnosed with behavioural problems.
Her small stature belied an amazing physical strength and inner resolve, which she largely attributed to her aunt’s influence.
Still suffering jet lag, Shannon was keen to see the aunt who had made her childhood bearable. Aunt Mary, her father’s only sister, had made her home a refuge to Shannon. She was a tall woman who loved sports and travelling and had never married.
Aunt Mary had an uncanny empathy for Shannon’s life as the daughter of a weak, spineless man and a mean spirited shrew who bordered on being clinically insane.
Shannon shuddered as she remembered being lifted from the floor by her hair when she was just four years old. Her crime had been failing to put away her toys. This brought on a flood of memories of being severely shaken and, in later years repeatedly slapped in the face. Even more distressing was the psychological torture her mother inflicted.
When Shannon could no longer cope with the insults or became frightened for her physical well-being, she ran to Aunt Mary. She would stay there until she felt safe enough to venture home where her mother would inevitably be in some drug induced stupor.
The nightmare ended nearly 18 years ago when Shannon’s parents died in a house fire.
At age 17 she was back at Aunt Mary’s – this time for keeps.
Aunt Mary’s home was full of special treasures and Shannon’s favourite was a crystal castle that stood in pride of place in the lounge room. When she was little she never touched it for fear it would break.
When she moved in permanently, Aunt Mary insisted she hold it daily.
“Imagine this castle is your life,” she would say.
“It seems so fragile, but it’s really quite strong, just like you.
“You are now queen of it. How it turns out is up to no one but you.
“If you are rash or foolish you will destroy it. If you are careful then it’s a treasure that can be enjoyed for a long time.”
By the time Shannon had successfully negotiated the exchange to Canada, Aunt Mary was in constant pain with chronic arthritis. There was no cure, and though only 68, her wonderful, active aunt moved with the bones of a 90-year-old. Not wanting Shannon to feel responsible for her, yet knowing she could no longer cope with caring for her house and garden, Aunt Mary opted for a retirement village. She had been unable to secure a unit before Shannon left for Canada but moved a few months later.
Her early letters had described the resort-like atmosphere of the place beautifully, interspersed with hilarious stories of what the other ‘inmates’, as she called them, were up to.
“I ask you darling, who would get a funeral home to sponsor the entertainment for a Christmas dinner in an old persons’ home?” Aunt Mary wrote.
“God knows what deal they made re future customers for the business.
“I only went because I was new here and wanted to meet some of the other inmates.
“It was a debacle. The man they hired to perform was older than God and only four feet tall.
“His costume changes consisted of swapping from a sailor hat to a cowboy hat – the only part of him visible over the top of the piano he was torturing while his stone-faced wife tried to sell his home-made tapes for $5 each.
“Amusing as all this was, one of the inmates, Gladys, stole the show after imbibing in too much wine.
“The poor dear has difficulty walking and uses a motorized cart.
“After over indulging she accidentally put the machine on ‘rabbit’ instead of ‘turtle’ and went racing onto the dance floor, knocking over several other inmates.
“There were walking sticks and Zimmer frames flying all over the room.
“Thanks to that performance there are now many more people who have difficulty walking.”
Another letter told how the maintenance man, Jacob, had caused one of the residents to have a near fatal heart attack when he suddenly appeared outside her window with no warning.
“I know he was just doing his job, cleaning windows, but you’d think they’d have the sense to warn these poor old dears,” she wrote.
“I try to avoid talking to the inmates too much,” one letter went on.
“If you make the mistake of asking how they are you become trapped in an hour-long monologue about illnesses ranging from constipation to cancer – most depressing.”
As she left her car, Shannon could see why her aunt had been attracted to the place. Brightly coloured flowers, petals dancing in the light breeze, seduced the eye from every nook and cranny. The warm, spring sun filtered through the palm trees creating beautiful shadow patterns on the road. Shannon could almost believe the trees were smiling at her.
Indeed, they felt more welcoming than the dozens of eyes she felt on her. Aunt Mary had warned her about this. Apparently, the residents saw any new arrival at the village as a matter of enormous interest in their otherwise dull lives and rushed to the window at the sound of a car in order to spy through their curtains at the intruder.
Shannon felt shaky as she walked up the stairs to her aunt’s first-floor unit. She could understand why her visit may cause interest, but combined with information in more recent letters from Aunt Mary, the prying eyes gave her the creeps.
The letters of the past few months had not regaled Shannon with funny anecdotes from the “home for the bewildered”, as Aunt Mary referred to the village, but with horror stories about mismanagement of funds, cruelty to the residents and, more recently, implied murder.
Come back next Friday for part two in the series. Hope you have a gleeful week, Tamuria.