Tom Musgrove peered carefully around the door. This close to midnight few of the staff should be around. Down at the end of the hallway he could hear moaning. "That's the way, Stan, get the nurses' attention," Tom muttered under his breath before he remembered that Stan Zaleski had been dead a year or so. Whoever had Stan's old room was making enough of a fuss to bring the head nurse galloping by. Tom stood still, or as still as an eighty-three year old man with arthritis and pneumonia could. The nurse never noticed him at his door; she was gesturing to a pair of aides coming from the side hallway. When the trio disappeared into the far room Tom waited. He wanted their full attention on the patient in that room and not on him.

Cautiously Tom stuck first one cane out and then the other and dragging his reluctant legs after them. "Can't fall now. Got too far to go." He murmured curses at his creaky old joints. A cough bubbled up and he leaned against the wall until it was finished wringing him out. Damned pneumonia. The "old man's friend" it was called when he was a kid. Eased a man out of life when he was too old and too weak to do useful work. Then antibiotics and all the other medicines came along, letting a man outlive his usefulness without half trying. Well, the Ring of Fire had changed that. Pneumonia was back along with a bunch of other diseases from Musgrove's childhood.

Dying, he thought, as he made his way one shambling step after another, wasn't hard. He'd never wanted to lie on a bed with tubes sprouting like weeds from every part of his body, his mouth hanging open, and his eyes staring at the ceiling. His father had lain that way for six months until the doctors couldn't find a vein strong enough to run another IV and the old man was allowed to die. It had cost the old man his dignity, his savings, and his house. Tom's mother lasted another five years before it was her turn to go. She'd come back to Grantville where her doctor knew her well enough not to stick her full of tubes. She'd passed on in possession of her wits and with her grandkids around her.

Nope, dying wasn't the problem. It was what you had to go through to die that bothered him. At least back here in this Year of Our Lord 1635 the doctors had a harder time keeping you from checking out quickly. A man had a chance to die with his dignity still intact.

The door at the end of the hall was open and he could see through it to the front entrance. A single lamp dimly lit the area. To Tom's relief the little red light over the front door was out. He'd heard from one of the cleaning crew that the alarm system was broken. It was that tossed off comment that made him think that his plan might work. With the alarm system down no loud siren would go off when the front door was opened at night.

The sofa and overstuffed chairs beckoned him, seducing him with thoughts of easing his aching bones in the depths of their cushions. "Sit down now and I'm never getting up," he hissed, surprised by how attractive the idea of scrapping his plan in return for a comfortable chair was. Grimly he clomped, right cane, left cane, right foot, left foot, over to the front door. Bracing against the left cane he pushed the door open. No siren. No sound, just crisp fresh air.

The cold air brought another coughing spell, this one short but painful. Tom looked back along the hallway, afraid the cold air might alert some staff member. He wasn't worried about the coughing—half the patients in the nursing home coughed long and loud throughout the night. One more thing he hated about the nursing home. He hadn't had a good night's sleep since coming here.

He tottered through the open door, painfully turning to gently close it behind him. Free at last! Now, should he take the ramp or the steps? Better the ramp. He'd fallen on the steps at Christmas and his hip still ached. Now that he was outside he didn't have to worry so much about noise and the farther he got along the driveway the less chance there was of some busybody seeing him.

Turning, he eased on down the ramp, pausing at the bottom to catch his breath and to cough again. This time it was deep coughs, the kind that wracked his whole body. By clutching the handrail Tom kept standing. When the coughing ended he slowly and painfully finished inching off the ramp.

Finally his feet were on the blacktop of the drive. The only light came faintly up the street from a gas lamp at the corner. It was, he decided, a curse and a blessing. No one in the nursing home would be able to see him on the driveway but he wasn't able to see any stones or potholes in his path. Firmly on the plus side was that he was on the driveway and there was no sign of any pursuit.

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff