Jessica Leeder                         Brief Q&A with the author
​Image by Timothy Buck from Unsplash                                                                                       
Jessica Leeder is a Canadian storyteller and journalist who writes fiction and narrative nonfiction. Her debut short story, "The Instructions," was recently published by epiphany magazine. Her reported work has appeared lately in The Walrus and The Globe and Mail. Jessica has an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University; her journalism has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2009), a National Magazine Award (2015), a Digital Publishing Award (2019), and a National Newspaper Award (2010). She is presently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her family.
The Pines

​“Knock-knock Mr. Mann,” a familiar voice sang out from behind the door. The night nurse, standing in the carpeted hall outside Art’s room, was peeking her head around the doorframe. 

Art hadn’t spoken to anyone yet that day and his reply came out garbled. Putting a fist to his lips, he tried to clear his throat but couldn’t. He forced his words through phlegm. “Who’s there?”

“Hope!” she said, striding towards Art’s La-Z-Boy. Her thighs brushed together, making a little whoosh sound with each new step. Art knew her name was actually Penny, Penny J., according to her name tag. He played along anyway.

“Hope who?”

“Hope you can still laugh at a great joke!” Penny giggled, pleased with herself. Her presence made the small, sparsely furnished room feel suddenly crowded. The tray she carried bore a medicinal spread: Art’s evening dose of insulin, a Dixie cup with his blue sleeping pill and a cellophane-covered dish of vanilla yogurt. Art hated yogurt. When he lived at home, his bedtime snack was something good, like a candy bar or peanuts. Here, if he managed to get his hands on something decent —The Pines’ bus used to take a group up to Walmart once a week to exercise their debit cards— he had to hide the loot in his sock drawer. Ninety-four and he was still sneaking around like a kid.

There hadn’t been any trips to Walmart since the pandemic set in. Nope. No one had been allowed outside for 15 months. Now, that wasn’t quite true. No live resident had been allowed out. From Art’s window overlooking the back parking lot, he had counted seven people wheeled out in black body bags. Seven times, the sight had flooded him with envy. 

Art never wanted to live at The Pines. In fact, he had specifically wanted not to live there. It was nice enough, sure, and Art had been in for visits plenty of times. The nonenal smell of the place always kindled Art’s sense of alarm and so he kept his visits short, listening to his friends’ complaints—the bland food, the loneliness, the aches in their bodies—without offering much sympathy. Art couldn’t see, then, that he would one day find himself in the same situation. No matter his devotion to resisting it.

He’s been in now for three years, long enough for the place to whittle him into a fellow he barely recognizes. Once a hardy man, content to spend hours in freezing arenas—Art loved to watch anyone playing a game—he’s old now, with skin that bruises more easily than a banana. He is a man with a permanent chill and has steeped in recirculated air for so long that his ability to sense anything pleasant has pruned as much as his skin.

What has sharpened is his realization that nobody on the outside cares much about his situation. Art’s daughters used to take turns picking him up for lunch. Since the pandemic began, though, they haven’t come. When they call to see if he needs anything, they rush to get off the line. Their pity for him seems to have gone the way of a pot boiled dry. Meanwhile, Art’s pickling away. Barely living, but nowhere close to dead.

“All ready?” Penny stood in front of his La-Z-Boy, deliberately blocking the TV. She looked at Art from behind her plastic face shield, mouth covered by a blue mask, eyebrows raised.

“I can do that myself,” Art said, waving a liver-spotted hand at the syringe of insulin.

“I know you can, but it’s what they pay me the big bucks for.”

“There’s a whole army of invalids in this place for you to look after. G’won,” Art blustered. “I’ll take care of this myself and leave the tray over there for you,” he said, gesturing to the kitchenette near his door.

Head cocked, eyes narrowed and weary, Penny paused to consider the offer. Pines staff were supposed to administer all injections to residents. But they were short-handed, had been well before the third wave of the pandemic crashed in. Penny was running behind; she had twenty more residents to check before her dinner break and was already having hunger pangs. Going along with Art seemed like a win for both of them.

“Alright, Mr. Mann. But let’s keep this between us,” she said in a conspiratorial voice. “I’ll swing by later to check in.” Penny turned to make her exit.

Looking away from the TV, Art gave a thin smile and a stiff nod before shifting his attention back to the screen. A hockey game he’d already seen was being replayed. Next up would be the news. But he didn’t need a reporter to tell him how grim things had gotten. Not with his insiders’ view.

“Knock, knock?”

 With his hearing aid turned up, Art could hear Penny down at Fiona’s door. She and Art had gone to the same high school. They had never been friends, but they knew each other enough to say hello. Not long after Art had moved in, Fiona began sneaking into his room. It wasn’t Art that she was interested in, though. She had a thing for blue jeans and would pilfer Art’s Levi’s at lunch hour, while he was down in the dining room. 

Art would return to find unfamiliar ladies’ slacks — nice slacks, like his ex-wife used to buy— discarded on his bed. The sight made Art more uncomfortable than annoyed; it reminded him that his room was not really his at all, that his door had no lock, that privacy at The Pines was a façade. Eventually, at his daughters’ suggestion, he began shutting his door when he went for meals. That put an end to the antics. Then, Fiona gave herself up as the trespasser when she complained to staff that she couldn’t seem to find any jeans.

 “Who’s there?” Fiona responded.

“Atch,” came Penny’s muffled voice. 

“Atch who?” Fiona responded. Art could hear the glee in her voice and felt aggravated on her behalf. The old Fiona, the discerning woman she was before dementia mottled her brain, would never have encouraged such a childish exchange.

“Bless you!” Penny said theatrically.

“Jesus Christ,” Art muttered under his breath, shaking his head as he bent forward to lever himself out of the La-Z-Boy. He hated the way staff spoke to residents as though they were toddlers. Art reached for his walker and wheeled it in front of him. He set the syringe of insulin in its front basket, and, gripping the black handles for support, began shuffling towards the kitchenette. From the bottom shelf of his minifridge he pulled out a round, aluminum cookie tin and set it on the counter before his shaking hand betrayed him. Gold letters spelled out “Danish Butter Cookies” on the container’s lid; they were the kind his ex-wife used to buy.

Art had found the tin buried in the box of knick-knacks that his daughters had packed for his move to The Pines. Its familiarity was welcome company, a reminder of his pre-institutional life, a time before he required disposable underwear, an appointment and a supervisor to shower, a time when he was free to eat whatever the hell he wanted. Some new use for that old tin would reveal itself, Art was sure. Of course, it did. 

A half-smile crept over Art’s lips now as he braced himself against the countertop. Pushing the tin into the slight bulge of his belly, he gripped it with his left arm and used his right hand to pry up the lid. Inside were nine insulin-filled syringes. Art added the one Penny had just left. One more and he’d finally have enough.

Art fit the lid back on the tin and lowered it back into the fridge. The sleeping pill, a non-negotiable at The Pines, meant he wouldn’t even stir when his blood sugar dropped. If he was really lucky, he wouldn’t wake up in the morning at all.

Art was fed up with life. All he did was sit and wait—for dinner, a phone call, for the end of another day. For the end of it all. At 94, he had outlived his six siblings and all of his friends. At their funerals, it used to pain him to think about all the life they would miss. That was back when Art had been scared to die. The Pines had relieved him of that fear. Sitting in his room alone, day after day, Art couldn’t think of what he had left to live for. His car was gone and so was his house. He couldn’t tinker in his workshop or go and play golf. He couldn’t read the newspaper—diabetes had mostly ruined his vision. He couldn’t even enjoy a meal—his heart medication made everything taste metallic. And all of that was before the pandemic, which stole away the very last of his small pleasures: a daily shuffle around the block with his walker, which he could sit down on when his legs got wobbly and demanded rest.

Death was the only thing left, though it seemed to Art that he would have to wrest it. It had taken him six months to figure out how. By tomorrow night though, he would finally be ready. Before, he was just too impulsive. 

Labour Day, not quite four years ago, Art had been feeling unexpectedly bad. His depression didn’t usually come on until fall but the doldrums had seeped in at the tail end of August. Too weary to battle more lows, Art gathered up his pills—blood pressure meds and the painkillers left over from his bypass—and poured himself a glass of water. Maybe if he took all of the pills, they would do him in. How long it would take them to find him, or what a goddamn mess there might be wasn’t his problem to worry about. 

Art divvied the pills into bunches of five, and got through a few handfuls before he had to pause. Worried that he was going to be sick, he leaned back in his La-Z-Boy and closed his eyes. Just for a minute.

His memory picked up a few weeks down the line, when he woke up in a hospital room smelling of broth and antiseptic. The doctor said he’d suffered a series of small strokes. When he asked Art if he remembered having suicidal thoughts, Art lied and said he must’ve just been confused about what to take and when. They gave Art something that was supposed to help him sleep but hallucinations of brown, hairy spiders crawling over the walls kept him awake. The marauders crowded into the corners of his room as soon as it was dark. 

Somewhere in the blur of those hospital weeks, the doctor added a new antidepressant to Art’s regime. He began to see a bit of light in his mind where, before, there was only grey. The demarcation between reality and dreams grew clearer, and the spiders took their leave. Art was transferred to rehab, where he began relearning how to hold utensils, how to walk, and how to tolerate being in the world again.

When it was time to go home, though, Art’s daughters told him he could not go back to his house. His home of 52 years. Instead, the girls had paid for a room at The Pines. Art balked, then agreed to try it. Once he was alone, Art phoned up his neighbour, Bill. It was Bill who helped him understand that The Pines was not a temporary move. In Art’s carport, where his white Lincoln had been parked, there was now a green dumpster, nearly full, Bill reported. Spearing the front lawn was a sign offering the house For Sale. 
“Knock-knock, Mr. Mann!” 

Penny was on again tonight, making her rounds. 

“Who’s there?” Art tried to make his voice sound jovial.

“I am!”

“I am who?” Knowing that this time would likely be the last, Art found it easier to play along with the tired joke. 

“Don’t you even know who you are?” Penny laughed. She whoosh-whooshed over to him with her tray and its familiar contents: the syringe of insulin, the Dixie cup and sleeping pill, and tonight, a snack of cubed honeydew melon. Art hated honeydew melon.

“Did you want me to just leave it with you again tonight?” Penny had dark circles under her eyes and her shoulders sagged.

“Sure, that’d be fine,” Art nodded. 

Penny’s eyes dropped to the carpet and she let out an exhale that made her blue paper mask puff out beneath the plastic face shield. Art couldn’t see the expression behind her mask. “One day at a time, Mr. Mann. One day at a time is all we can do,” she sighed. Her eyes dropped to the carpet. “Now, don’t you forget that insulin,” she said, recovering her cheery voice. “We don’t need any extra excitement.”

“Nope,” Art muttered with a sombre shake of his head. 

“Check back later,” Penny called over her shoulder as she walked out the door.

Art turned his hearing aids up as far as he could, risking the screech of feedback so that he could listen to Penny make her way down the hall.

“Knock-knock, Mrs. Turnbull!” 

She was with that woman who talked to her goddamn stuffed animals. Art thought she must have been jealous of her neighbour, the one with the dog. Vickers was her name. They let her keep a little white yapper in her room because of its Therapy Dog vest, which seemed to Art like nothing more than a license to piss all over the hall carpets. Once, while he was lined up for the elevator before dinner, Art stood right behind the thing and watched it crouch. 

“Your dog just went to the bathroom,” he raised his voice and pointed to the small puddle soaking into the carpet. Mrs. Vickers turned her head to the side, but only just so, as though her neck were stiff, giving a nod and a plastic smile.  

“Jesus Christ,” Art said, not quietly. If Mrs. Vickers heard him, she didn’t turn around. 
Maybe she was worth a couple of his insulin shots, Art thought to himself now. This is the part of the plan that he hadn’t quite figured out—how many shots would he dole out and whom would he pick? The people who deserved to be taken down a peg (or worse)? Or the ones who deserved to be put out of their misery? He was running out of time to decide. 
Art was fairly sure that he would need three jabs for himself. He got the idea from one of those cop shows, one where a nurse was overdosing terminally ill patients with insulin. Adding tonight’s syringe to those he’d been saving up over the past few months gave Art eleven in all. That meant he could afford to dose up two or three residents before doing himself the same favour.  

The only thing Art had ever killed before was his marriage (and he still didn’t even really know how). He had just come home from golf one morning and, whammo, instead of the roast beef sandwich he’d been hoping to find on the kitchen table, he found a note explaining that she was moving out and wanted a separation. The note didn’t explain why and neither did she when she returned that weekend to say Art could either pay for movers or help move her half of the furniture into her new apartment.

How she figured what furniture was hers after 43 years of marriage was a mystery, one that Art was too distracted to probe as he robotically lugged out the items she tagged. He’d struggled with her heavy recliner, the one that matched his and sat on the opposite side of the fireplace. The chair left deep imprints in the carpet that neither the vacuum nor time could reverse. Art never did cover them up. Why bother?

He did invest in a marriage counseling book on tape that he found for $11.99 at the mall. He listened to it in the car while he drove around town to ward off the loneliness that returned each night like clockwork. It was helping until, one night, Art drove by her first-floor walk-up and saw his best friend Kenny’s red Mustang parked out front. Kenny’s car was there again the next night, so Art parked across the street and killed the headlights. He looked in at them standing at the small kitchen counter. She was making dinner. Kenny stood behind her, his chin resting on her shoulder. Then he saw her lean back into Kenny’s body and turn her head up to nuzzle his neck. Bile rocketed up Art’s esophagus. He managed to get the car door open in time to puke it onto the asphalt. He spit hard a few times to get the taste out of his mouth, started the ignition and drove home.  

Art decided he would wait for her to come to her senses. But the wait stretched years and then decades. The fruitlessness of it eroded Art’s will. He stopped planting the garden. He drained the pool so he wouldn’t have to keep up with cleaning it. He ate his meals on a folding tray in front of the TV. When Art began struggling to get out of bed, he realized he could really dial things down. Instead of trying to subsist, he could see about trying not to. 

He started with half-hearted efforts he hoped fate would sway in his favour. He went out driving in snow storms along rural concession roads that hadn’t been plowed, barreling along through dangerous drifts. Eventually, the snow grabbed his tires and wrenched him into the ditch. Of course, someone came and offered to call a tow truck. Cut on his forehead and shaking with adrenaline, Art didn’t have the courage not to accept their offer.

Some nights Art experimented with “forgetting” to take his insulin to see if that might do the trick. It didn’t. He would wake up groggy on the floor, half in, half out of the bathroom. Sometimes there was a gash or a goose egg from smacking his head when he blacked out and fell. None of it got the job done.

This frustration and the misery of it—of not quite wanting to take his life, but not quite wanting to live it—had Art in its maw until, eyes brimming over, he told the doctor that he didn’t feel right. The doctor had said to get outside more, get more exercise. Art started taking two walks a day. Summer passed, and it was lonely. Then it was Labour Day and Art had the idea to take all those pills. The idea wasn’t a bad one. He just hadn’t been able to manage it.

Tonight would be different.

On television, the game had ended and Art switched over to the late-night news. It was, of course, all about the pandemic. Deaths were going up, hospitals were overflowing again with no end in sight. For more than a year, residents of The Pines had spent hours each day pressed against their windows—Art saw their desperation through the half-open doors he passed on his way to the dining room. They waved bony, trembling hands at people in the parking lot who looked to be oozing remorse. Sometimes Art heard them call out, “Hello! Hello!” or “Don’t Go!” in aged, hoarse voices that nobody outside could hear. Some families made homemade signs to hold up. Not Art’s family, though. They weren’t that type.

On the TV, the news anchors had begun their banter, the signal that they were about to sign off. It was nearly midnight. Art had to get going. He levered himself up from his recliner and, grabbed for his walker. He picked up the paper cup Penny had left with his sleeping pill and set it into his walker basket along with the syringe of insulin before shuffling to the bathroom, where he dumped the sleeping pill into the toilet.

“Don’t need you tonight,” he muttered, holding the flush and watching as the pill was sucked out of sight.  

Art backed out of the bathroom and parked his walker to one side of the minifridge. Holding onto the counter with one hand for balance, he opened the fridge bent down to pull out the cookie tin. After adding the new syringe to his collection, he lowered the tin into the walker’s basket. Then, he wheeled forward into the fluorescent-lit hall. The lights were so bright Art had to squint. He knew that, by now, most people would be sleeping. Turning right, he began shuffling down the hallway, slowing where doors on either side had been left ajar.

Art shuffled all the way to the end of the hallway, his eyes taking in the ugly decorations residents plastered to their doors. There were limp dollar store wreaths, hanging baskets stuffed with fake flowers that had long since lost their shape and overly cheerful posters likely intended for grade school classrooms. 

Art’s shoulders were tense. The idea that he might be caught and stopped alarmed him just as much as the prospect of following through. Walking helped loosen the coil tightening in his stomach. That’s what he’d say if one of the nurses came down the hall just now—that his nerves were bad and he needed a stroll to settle himself down. Art stopped outside of Fiona’s room. Her door was partly open, but not enough for Art to tell whether or not she was asleep. He inched through the doorframe and paused (if a nurse came now, he’d play confused). He could hear the soft rhythm of Fiona’s breathing.

Inside, Art had no trouble making out where things were thanks to the light cast from the hall. Fiona’s room was laid out the same as his: TV in the corner, single bed along the wall bordering the bathroom. Fiona had a loveseat instead of a La-Z-Boy and some frilly curtains hung over her window. In bed, Fiona was asleep on her back. Staring down at her, Art realized that he hadn’t thought much about how he would give the insulin to the others. When he injected himself, he pulled up his shirt and jabbed the syringe straight into his belly. That was where insulin got to work the fastest, the doctor once told him. When the nurses gave Art his shots, they offered him the choice between his stomach or arm.

Carefully lifting the lid of the tin, Art took two syringes from the pile. His hands were shaking a little and the lid of the cookie tin rattled, though not enough to wake Fiona. Pushing his walker to the left side of the bed, Art steadied his hip against the frame and fumbled with the little plastic tip covering one syringe, then the other. Before he lost his nerve, Art stabbed the thick slab of Fiona’s upper arm with the first syringe. He pushed firmly on the plunger with his thumb, emptying the whole thing into her. She didn’t stir, but Art’s heart was racing so hard he was a bit lightheaded and had to steady himself against the bed. He switched the empty syringe for the second one and drained it near the same spot. “There you go old girl,” Art whispered. Fiona, who doubtless had her own blue sleeping pill, was still in a deep sleep. Art hadn’t thought about how long it might take the insulin to kick in. They hadn’t talked about that bit on the cop show, and he didn’t have time now to consider it. He had to get on.

Wheeling back into the hallway, Art’s eyes scanned the doors more quickly than before. He had enough insulin to do three more people, plus himself, if he kept the others’ doses to two syringes. A door with a brass knocker in the form of Jesus on the cross caught his eye. It belonged to the Smiths, a married couple beloved for their religious devotion. Not Art, though. He found them stuffy. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Smiths celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. No guests were allowed in, of course, but to compensate, the cook made them a big, white sheet cake. Art hated white cake.

The day after their big celebration, the Smiths started a prayer circle and began saying the blessing on behalf of the whole dining room each night before dinner. The blessing felt like a goddamned sermon every night. Art resented every minute he had to listen to their preaching. He could see how virtuous it made them feel to stand up there in front of everyone, could tell that they thought themselves superior for their long relationships with God and each other. And, so what if they’d been married sixty years? He was sick to death of them flaunting it. All he wanted was his goddamned dinner—before it got any colder. 

The door to the Smiths’ room was completely closed, but Art decided to open it. He turned gently on the handle and pushed the door open a foot. He could hear snoring inside. Without thinking much more about it, Art wheeled his way in, moving across the carpet. The Smiths’ quarters looked different because they had two rooms joined together. The one he walked into was set up for watching TV with a small desk on one wall. A doorway on one side led into the adjoining room. Art shuffled through it, slower than usual, being careful not to bump anything. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the dark. A night light cast a greenish glow that illuminated two single beds with a Smith asleep in each. Mr. Smith was hooked up to a CPAP machine, which made such a racket that Art realized he could stop worrying about any sound he might make. Mrs. Smith was sleeping on her left side, facing away from her husband.

It might be better to do her first in case she woke up, Art thought, but he would have to jab through the long sleeves of her flannel nightgown. No matter. From his tin, Art chose two more syringes and plucked off the plastic covers. Just like with Fiona, he emptied one and then the other into the woman’s upper arm. He had to push harder to get the needle through Mrs. Smith’s sleeves and she moaned a bit before rolling onto her back just as he was finishing the second injection. Art paused beside her, his heart hammering, trying to steady his breathing so he could carry on. Shuffling three steps over to Mr. Smith’s bed, Art took in the size of the man. He was quite bigger than Art, with a belly that bulged beneath the covers as he lay on his back. 

“Better give him three,” Art thought to himself. He had enough to spare. This time, though, he’d go through the thigh. While that stomach was tempting, Art well knew the blooming sting of a needle in the belly. He didn’t feel badly about hurting Mr. Smith, but he didn’t want the man to wake up and ruin everything. Art carefully folded back the covers to expose Mr. Smith’s left leg. The limb jerked when Art slid the first needle in and he had to be quick with the plunger. Art’s hands shook more than usual as he fumbled to prep the second syringe; Mr. Smith was beginning to stir and swatted his hand downward just as Art tried to inject him, connecting with the syringe. It disappeared into the sea of dark that was the carpet. Art considered dropping to his knees to feel around for it but he knew his chances of getting back up on his own were slim. “Keep going, it doesn’t matter,” he whispered to himself. Art reached for the third needle and plunged it into Mr. Smith’s upper arm, just below the sleeve of his white undershirt. Smith swatted at that one, too, but the cords of the CPAP machine got in the way. Art stood beside him, frozen, watching until his large body stilled. 

Once he dared move, Art wheeled out of the Smiths’ room, and with a glance down the hall in both directions, pulled the door closed behind him. The hallway was still empty. There were just four shots left in the tin now. Art had mentally earmarked a couple for Mrs. Vickers, the woman with the dog, but if he was saving three for himself, there wasn’t enough insulin to go around. Maybe he’d give the extra shot to that damned dog. Powered by so much adrenaline that he could barely feel the carpet beneath the rubber of his cheap sneakers, Art wheeled his way to Mrs. Vickers’ room. His shuffling startled the dog, which began a low, raspy growl. Art hadn’t considered that the dog would bark at him.

“Tucker! Shush now, Ohhh!” Mrs. Vickers let out a yelp of her own as she took in Art’s silhouette over the foot of her bed. The dog’s growl was approaching a crescendo and sounded as though he might explode into a fit. 

“Ah, sorry, I must have been confused,” Art mumbled.

“You get out of here! Get out right now!” As she shouted in her hoarse voice, Mrs. Vickers was jamming her shaky thumb down on the red medical alert button all Pines residents wore on a lanyard. Pushing it triggered an ear-splitting alarm that blared over an in-room intercom; it would sound until one of the staff answered. Doing his best to appear disoriented, Art bent his head and began wheeling out of Mrs. Vickers’ room. When he turned his back, the dog leapt up on its feet and released a volley of barks, vibrating with pint-size aggression. Art picked up his pace once he was in the hall, hurrying as best as he could to get back to his room. Damnit. He needed to get in there and take his insulin before anyone came to check out the disturbance. He heard the ding of the elevator opening at the end of the hall just as he got inside his door. He left it open just a crack so he could hear whether anyone was coming, wheeled over to the La-Z-Boy and dropped into it.

Art leaned forward to grab the cookie tin from the basket of his walker. Balancing it on his lap, he tugged his shirt out of his belt, exposing his doughy belly. Art picked up one syringe, removed the cap and winced as he poked it into the left side of his stomach, which was blotched with yellow and purple bruises from the daily practice of doing exactly this. He tossed the empty syringe into the tin and reached for another. His eyes watered a little as he quickly emptied it into himself and fumbled for the third. With his thumb, he flicked off the plastic top. He leaned to the left and stuck this one into the right side of his stomach, just below his ribs. He had one more left, an extra he might as well use for insurance. Art took a few deep breaths. He would do this one slowly, it being the last. It pinched just as much as the others did but there was some relief, too. All he had left to do was close his eyes and wait.

Art still had the tin on his lap and a faint smile on his lips when Penny began to whoosh-whoosh her way towards his room.  

“Knock-knock?” She whispered from behind the door. “Knock-knock Mr. Mann?” 

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