MARY and Martha

by T. R. Frazier

A concrete Jesus stands among the holly bushes by the main entrance of Saint Anthony’s Care Home, one hand extended in an eternal blessing. Before His sightless eyes, I fidget and curse while the glitchy bioscanner verifies my retinal profile and temperature. I’m late, and I can’t afford to be late. Despite the bone-aching cold of the February day, my sweat glands are already overcoming my cheap antiperspirant, staining the pits of my maroon scrubs.

From the scanner’s speaker comes the matronly voice of Saint Anthony’s virtual manager: “Martha Davidson, nursing assistant, scheduled seven a.m to seven p.m.”

“Finally,” I hiss, and the entrance door hisses back.

I attempt a smooth trot across the dingy industrial carpeting, but there’s really no such thing. Coffee speckles my shirt—unwashed after yesterday’s twelve-hour shift, but there isn’t enough caffeine in this world to make up for a five-a.m. alarm and six shifts in as many days. I hate this job, almost as much as I hate myself for needing this job.

The virtual manager’s voice follows me up the stairwell. “You’re twenty-one minutes late.”

“So replace me,” I call back. Saint Anthony’s is so understaffed I can afford to be rude.

Still, I take the stairs two at a time and arrive on the floor breathing like a winded rhinoceros, as my dad used to say back in the days when we still talked.

Franny, blinding in her canary-colored scrubs, gives me the side-eye as she passes with her residents’ breakfast trays. She disappears into a room, but her Dominican-flavored remonstrance crackles in my earpiece:

“You in the weeds already. The nurse, she mad.”

I wince and head for the utility closet, but Carla gets on the feed long enough to say, “I did vitals and breakfast trays for your people, hon.”

“You’re a saint,” I tell her, then correct myself. “I mean, I know you don’t believe in saints, but—”

Carla, a Jehovah’s Witness, laughs. “Status reports in five. Hustle through your charts.”

Sure enough, the RN on duty is pissed. As the three of us nursing assistants gather around the nurses’ station, she skewers me with a look. I give her a what are you going to do about it? shrug.

“Mrs. Lazarus will be assessed for hospice today,” is her opening line. A blade of sadness slips through a chink in my carefully-constructed emotional armor. “Her family is coming by later this morning.”

“That’ll be a first,” I mutter, and Franny mmhmms.

The RN carries on, stone-faced: nanosurgery for one resident, bedsore watch on another. Just when I think I’m in the clear, she holds up a red-nailed finger. “Martha, seems like you could do with some extra help. You’ll be partnering with our newest team member.”

I groan, she smirks, and around the corner comes—not what I’d expected.

I’ve seen pictures of assistive bots, but never one in person. This model is a shining column of brushed steel and white plastic, about four feet tall and vaguely human in silhouette. It glides in on a wide, wheeled base, one disproportionately long arm raised in greeting. Its voice is female and calm to the point of smugness.

“Hi, I’m MARY. I’m here to help you.” The transcription tracks across the screen covering most of its stomach.

I hate MARY on sight.

The nurse is watching me, smiling like a shark. Carla and Franny exchange looks. We all know what this means. The price on bots has been dropping, so even criminally underpaid peons like us could lose our jobs. But I can’t lose this job. After rent and student loans, every penny goes back home for Mom’s care.

The nurse catches our look. “I know what you’re thinking,” she says. “The board has assured me that MARY is here simply to assist you in carrying out Saint Anthony’s mission.”

I bet that’s the line they feed all the humans about to be replaced by machines.

“Follow me,” I grunt. I start to shove past MARY, and the bot zips back to avoid a collision.

“Sorry,” it says.

I can feel an epic migraine coming on. “Be quiet and don’t get in the way,” I snap. I’m not going to let this bot help with anything, not even emptying an ostomy bag of fecal matter.

Every day is a race at Saint Anthony’s. From scan-in to scan-out, I’m in constant motion, dressing, washing, feeding, changing soiled linens, and convincing Mrs. DeLuca that no one is trying to steal her compression stockings. Seven residents depend on me for everything from calorie shakes to bathroom trips. I’m like a god to them—an underpaid, overworked god.

MARY and I stop in front of my first resident’s room. Beside the door, one of the Sisters has hung a framed portrait of a bearded guy with a halo.

I point at the door. “This is our first resident. I’ll do everything for him.”

MARY shakes its head with a little whizzing sound. “Correction. That is Saint James the Greater, patron saint of arthritis and rheumatism sufferers.”

I close my eyes. “Never mind.”

MARY follows me into the dark room, chirping, “I’m here to assist with menial tasks to maximize human-to-human interaction.”

You’re here to steal the one job I can hold down, I don’t say. Instead, I tug on a double pair of gloves and snap, “I don’t need help.”

MARY positions itself by the wall as I change the old man’s saturated brief and bed linens. I have to roll him back and forth like a log to get it done while the scent of urine burns my nose, all because some girl on night shift was too lazy to double-stack the pad. The resident groans a little as I move him onto his sore shoulder.

“Sorry,” I mutter.

I move mechanically, every motion efficient. In this job, there’s only behind and really behind. No time for chit-chat. At last, the resident is settled in his recliner with his exosuit on and his breakfast tray parked in front of him.

I massage my temples. “Anything else?”

He plucks at the plastic around his cutlery, avoiding my eyes. “No.”


I’m halfway out the door when MARY says, “Let me help you with that.” It glides up to the little table and, with its three-fingered hand, frees the fork and spoon from their wrapping.

“Thank you,” the old guy says. My ocular migraine is a searing arc of white light, and for a moment, it creates a halo around his head.

“You’re welcome,” MARY replies. “Have you heard the joke about the woman who thought she was a toaster?”

Now I’m the one hovering awkwardly in the background, and I’m relieved Carla gets on the feed to ask for an assist with a lift.

That puts me five more minutes behind, but as MARY and I get to my next resident, I pause and point at the little frame by the door.

“Who’s this?”

MARY moves closer to scan the image. “Saint Dymphna, patron saint of those suffering from diseases of the mind.”

When we enter, the resident, a heavy woman in her seventies, is up and moving about in the light of a bedside lamp, muttering to herself and pawing at the knick-knacks on her dresser.

“Morning, Mrs. DeLuca,” I say.

“The nurses have been stealing my stockings again,” she says by way of greeting.

“Really,” I say, and to MARY I add, “Don’t touch that,” as the bot bends to pick up a pillow from the floor.

When I approach with the breakfast tray, Mrs. DeLuca gets agitated. “I hate that shit,” she mutters.

It’s the same routine, same script, every day. I don’t have time for this.

“Let’s go, Mrs. DeLuca,” I say with forced cheerfulness. “Time to get dressed.”

She trundles forward, ready to pop me one, but today the script changes. Mrs. DeLuca’s arm comes down like a meaty two-by-four, but MARY darts in between us. The bot blocks the blow aimed at me with its arm, hyperextending the appendage to soften the contact.

Mrs. DeLuca blinks.

MARY flashes the image of an adorable kitten across the screen.

Mrs. DeLuca smiles and sits down.

I help her with her clothes and, by some miracle, she doesn’t take another swing at me. Maybe her anti-prion regimen is finally doing something. As I pull out the stash of stockings from under her bed, I start humming the tune to “John Henry.” My mom used to sing it, back in the days when she could still sing.

Thinking about my mom makes me think about her latest medical bill, and my good mood evaporates. Dad’s unemployment checks stop coming in four weeks, and even if I work overtime—

Blades of anxiety score my chest and scalp. I press the heels of my hands into my eye sockets, and when I take them away, Mrs. DeLuca’s got a halo too.

I’m barely holding it together when MARY and I pull up to door number three.

Without waiting for me to ask who the round-cheeked lady in the frame is, the bot announces, “Saint Corona.”

I stop fitting my mask long enough to say, “You’re joking.”

MARY raises a finger. “I know many jokes, but I am not currently telling one. According to some sources, Saint Corona is the patron saint of epidemics and plagues, although a search of my databank suggests that Saint Edmund or—”

“Never mind,” I say, my voice muffled by the forehead-to-chin facial shield.

This resident has been isolated for a week, and protocol allows only those interactions deemed necessary. He looks at me hungrily, the one face he’s seen in hours, but I turn away and start setting up his breakfast.

“Are you any good at Sudoku?” he asks my back.

I am, but I shake my head. No time.

“I can help,” MARY says, missing my frown. Or did it ignore me?

The resident brightens—literally. He’s got a migraine-halo too now.

Fuming, I empty his plastic urinal in the toilet and leave the pair of them to pore over a pointless little puzzle. Some of us have jobs and crippling debt.

So I’m alone when I knock on the next door, and MARY isn’t there to tell me who the tonsured young saint in the frame is. The only light in the room filters through the dusty blind covering a lone window, outlining a thin form lying on the low bed.

“Hi, Mrs. Lazarus,” I whisper, drawing the blind. She’s lived here longer than anyone on staff can remember, although that might say more about St. Anthony’s retention rate than her age. Still, Mrs. Lazarus looks like old age personified. She turns rheumy eyes at me and smiles—or at least, her caved-in mouth angles up.

Her voice, when it comes, is thready. “I hear you’ve been stealing Mrs. DeLuca’s support stockings again.”

I snort. “You’ve got me. That’s how I plan to pay off my student loans.”

I come to stand by the bed, shifting my weight back and forth. It’s about this time of day that my feet start to feel like tenderized meat. Mrs. Lazarus, a bird-boned little woman in a lacy polyester nightgown, hardly makes a dent in the mattress. From the crucifix on the wall above the bed, her Savior seems to look down on her, beholding the slow agony that is decrepitude.

“How are you today?” I ask.

“Sick to my stomach,” she says. “Didn’t sleep too well last night.”

“I hear your family is visiting later.”

It’s her turn to snort. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” She squints at me. “You heard I’m going on hospice?”

“Not necessarily,” I say uncomfortably. “The RN says you’ll be assessed for it.”

She waves a liver-spotted hand. “Everyone’s afraid of my death except me.”

When I help her off with her nightgown, every vertebra is visible on her hunched back. “You’re not afraid?”

“I’m too tired to be afraid. Do you know my daughter wants the nurse to put me through another round of epigenetic therapy?”

“That isn’t cheap. She must really love you.”

Mrs. Lazarus sniffs. “She’s afraid of her own mortality. Once I go, she’s next, in her mind. She even refused me a DNR so she can continue to ignore her own inevitable death.”

“If you don’t want to be resuscitated, do you believe in—?” I gesture awkwardly in the direction of Concrete Jesus, just visible outside the lone window. Every time I start thinking about ending things, which happened more than once this winter, that’s what stops me: not knowing what’s on the other side.

“Nothing like old age to teach you that your body is the machine your spirit rides around in for a while.” She points up at the crucifix. “I want eternal life, but not the kind my pills give me.”

MARY makes its entrance as Franny and I are using the electric lift to get Mrs. Lazarus from bed to wheelchair. When the lift shifts and jostles the bed, the wooden crucifix falls onto the pillow, and the bot zips over and picks it up, turning the object back and forth in front of its camera.

“The Resurrection and the Life,” Mrs. Lazarus says as the bot hangs the crucifix on its nail again.

Franny leaves, and I get busy brushing Mrs. Lazarus’s hair through the halo that’s appeared around her head. She’s got a stale, sour smell about her. MARY backs up against a wall and waits for an opportunity to make me feel guilty.

“How’s college going?” Mrs. Lazarus asks.

“I dropped out,” I say as I scrape her few strands of stringy white hair back into a scrunchie. Turns out the Humanities classes don’t teach you how to be a functional human .

She turns her head, and her ponytail slips from my fingers. “A smart girl like you should get out of a place like this.”

“Right back at you, Mrs. L.”

I was hoping to make her laugh, but instead she frowns. “I chose to come to Saint Anthony’s. You lost your way and wound up here.” She points to the window. “But neither of us can get out because of the windows.”

She’s lost me there. “Sorry?”

“The windows at Saint Anthony’s don’t open,” Mrs. Lazarus says. “Do you know why?” When I shrug, she points a shaking finger at MARY. “Any ideas?”

“For the safety of the residents,” the bot says, gliding closer.

“So prosaic,” Mrs. Lazarus sighs. “No, my mormor told me that when someone is dying, her loved ones should leave a window open. That tells the spirit it’s free to go. So,” she says, like it’s obvious, “I can’t escape.”

This line of conversation makes me uneasy, on top of being footsore, tired, and hungry. The whole time MARY’s head has been swiveling between us, taking everything in. I wonder what’s going on in its circuits.

After I get the old lady settled in her chair, I nudge the bot with my toe. “You’re all set, Mrs. Lazarus. Time for me and this undersized Dalek to move on.”

“I hope I don’t see you again,” she says.

That gets to me. I turn around in the doorway. “Why?”

“Because you’ll be gone, or I’ll be dead. Preferably both.”

As I close the door behind me, I whisper, “She must be losing her marbles.”

At a regular volume, MARY asks, “You think Mrs. Lazarus is becoming senile?”

I shove the bot along to the next room. “Ye gods, did anyone program any tact into you?”

MARY points a silver finger at the picture by the door, a winged guy stabbing down at another guy who doesn’t look too happy about it. “Saint Michael the archangel. Patron saint of soldiers.”

Saint Michael must be the patron saint of sad cases too, because this resident just about breaks my heart every time I go into his room. Ex-Navy, with blurry tattoos sagging with the rest of his skin. A couple strokes stole most of his left-side function and his ability to speak. Best he can do is grunt, but you can see it in his eyes that he’s all there.

I work in silence, tugging a Phillies t-shirt over his head. Then MARY has to start up the candy-striper act again.

“Hello, sir. Are you having a good day?”

He opens his mouth, then shakes his head in frustration.

MARY flashes a video clip of a baseball game on its belly. “Did you see that the Philadelphia Phillies lost again?”

He rolls his eyes.

“Do you agree that they need a new pitcher?”

The old vet nods vigorously, and the right side of his mouth lifts. He and MARY play their version of Twenty Questions while I do the dressing, toileting, washing, and feeding.

“Don’t mind me, slaving away here,” I mutter.

MARY’s starting to get under my skin. It’s not that I mind her interacting with patients. If I had the time, I would too, but I don’t. Somehow that hunk of plastic and metal manages to make me feel less: like I’m a soulless machine going through the same motions every day, like no matter how hard I work, I’ll always fail at the most important things. Story of my life.

My skull feels like it’s got an ice pick through it, and this resident is showing up with a halo now too. A couple more rooms to go, then the lunch rush sets in and it'll be once more unto the breach. (That’s all college education has gotten me: debt and literary allusions.)

An alarm whoops down the hall, and someone calls for a crash cart. MARY’s right behind me as I lurch out into the hall, and Franny and Carla pop their heads out of residents’ rooms.

A little crowd clots Mrs. Lazarus’s doorway, and if I thought I was sweating before, that was nothing compared to the cold, prickling wash of perspiration coming over me now. With MARY following me like a shadow, I cut through the knot of people: a couple nursing assistants, a rubber-necking resident, and three people in street clothes. The family.

In Mrs. Lazarus’s room, Crucifix Jesus looks down on the frantic little scene. Mrs. Lazarus is in the bed, eyes half closed, her limbs discomposed as if some great puppeteer has cut the strings that had once animated them. On the pillow, some watery vomit; its acid smell fills the room. Beside me, Mrs. Lazarus’s tall, bony daughter gibbers and wrings her hands. Two large men—her husband and son, I guess—stand with their backs against the wall, awkward in their helplessness.

“Get them out,” the red-nailed nurse grunts as she raises Mrs. Lazarus’s bed. Franny herds the family back into the hall while another nurse hurries in with the defibrillator, and a doctor’s face appears on the screen in the far wall.

“Pulse?” she asks.

MARY shimmies forward to the bed. “I can supply vital signs and perform blood analysis.”

The nurses look at each other, then at the doc on screen. “Do it,” snaps the red-nailed nurse.

MARY hovers over Mrs. Lazarus. “Systolic pressure: 81. Blood oxygen level: 38 millimeters of mercury.” A needle extends from the bot’s index finger. “A blood droplet draw shows elevated troponin levels. Symptoms indicate a myocardial infarction. A qualified human caregiver should begin CPR and defibrillation.”

The doc on the screen nods. “Call a Code Blue.”

MARY backs off, and the floor nurse starts CPR. I have to look away. Unlike our training on sterile plastic dummies, the real act of resuscitation is an ugly, violent thing. Mrs. Lazarus’s frail body shakes with each compression. Cartilage and bone pop and crunch audibly.

The movement causes the crucifix on the wall to fall to the floor with a wooden clatter. MARY extends an arm to retrieve it, but there’s too much going on around the bed for her to move in to put it back.

The second nurse cuts Mrs. Lazarus’s hand-knitted sweater open and sticks defibrillator pads in place.

In the doorway, the daughter flaps her hands. “I need her to live,” she moans.

“Stand clear,” calls a nurse.

“All clear.”

The machine emits a long, flat tone, and Mrs. Lazarus’s body bounces as the electrical current passes through her. As the nurses resume chest compressions, I think, Humans are electric machines too, in a way.

Two EMTs arrive on the scene with a wheeled stretcher.

“Save her!” shrills the daughter.

If I were brave, I’d tell this woman what she was asking. If I were brave, I’d beg her to let her mother go. Unless you’re Jesus, you can’t just bring someone back to life and not expect some side effects. Best case scenario: Mrs. Lazarus sustained broken ribs and trauma to her internal organs, so she’s going to be in pain for a long time even if the docs can resurrect her. I’ve had residents come back from the ICU, and they’re never the same.

But I’m not brave, so I stay quiet. Mrs. Lazarus and I won’t be escaping Saint Anthony’s today.

Then the window smashes. Or rather, MARY smashes the window. Most specifically, MARY smashes the window with Mrs. Lazarus’s wooden crucifix.

Every human head in the room swivels toward the assistive bot, standing with its arm protruding out of the empty pane. The stale, 73-degree air of the room rushes to mingle with the steely winter sky, and I swear I feel something go with it.

The stillness doesn’t last long. Another round of CPR begins, then Mrs. Lazarus gets another shock from the defibrillator. And another, and another. I can see failure in the nurses’ eyes, in the set of their jaws. Is it terrible that I feel a bubble of elation rise in my gut?

After far too long, the screen-doctor calls time of death, and the red-nailed nurse growls at us to get back to work.

MARY and I head to the next resident’s room, and even though I’m vibrating with adrenaline, the show must go on.

“Hey MARY,” I say, “could you—could you help me lift this gentleman into the shower chair?”

“I’d be happy to help,” the bot replies.

But as we finish getting the resident into a new brief and clean clothes, MARY’s minders show up, breathless and apologetic, to take the bot away for “reprogramming.”

I walk MARY out to the main entrance, and the two of us stand on the curb in front of Concrete Jesus while the minders bring the van around.

“Thanks,” I say, mostly to break the awkward silence.

“But I didn’t do anything for you today,” MARY replies.

“You did the most important thing,” I say.

“I don’t understand.”

I rub my forehead. “Neither do I.”

“Then you are welcome.”

The van pulls up to the curb, and MARY rolls toward the ramp that extends from the interior.

“MARY,” I call after her as the door closes. “What about Saint Anthony? What does he do?”

I catch MARY’s reply just as the door shuts. “Saint Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of sick people and lost things.”

I think about that for a while until my head hurts so much I have to throw up in the holly bushes. Wiping my mouth with the hem of my already-filthy scrubs top, I mutter an apology to Concrete Jesus and slump down on the bench at the base of His pedestal. The freezing metal makes me feel awake and alive for the first time today. As my migraine abates, I sit at Jesus’s feet, looking out on the cold, dreary world.

“Martha Davidson, nursing assistant, returning from an unauthorized break,” says the Virtual Manager.

“I got lost,” I reply as I hoof it back upstairs. “But I found my way.”

My headache is gone as we head into the lunchtime rush, but the halo effect has intensified. Everyone I look at is wearing one: the nurse, the residents, Franny, Carla, even Mrs. Lazarus’s daughter, who looks like a lost little girl despite her cakey makeup and jowls. I guess we’re all trying to find our way home, really.

At the end of the shift, the floor nurse reads the ass-covering email from the robotics company aloud.

“‘We offer our condolences to the family members of the deceased,’” she begins. Tears sting my eyes. Mrs. Lazarus got away after all. “‘Our technicians suggest the equipment was exposed to religious doctrine at your institution, which resulted in an alteration of its task parameters and ethical protocols that could not reasonably have been anticipated by our company…’”

The email follows with some threats veiled in legalese and closes with a vague—and probably illegal—promise of a donation to the nursing home.

At the end of the day, I’m usually the first one out the door, but MARY’s on my mind. Even though I’m dead on my feet and have at least four kinds of bodily waste on my uniform, I go back to Mrs. DeLuca’s room and help her find the stockings she’s squirreled away under the bed again. Then I sit down with the veteran and ask him a bunch of yes-or-no questions. On my way out, I shove a new Sudoku puzzle under the door of my quarantined resident.

After I scan out, I stand on the curb and, with Concrete Jesus looking on, call my dad.

“Hello? Yeah, it’s me… Yeah, it has been a while… Did you get the money I sent two weeks ago? Good… Thanksgiving? I don’t know.” I look up at Mrs. Lazarus’s open window and huff out a breath-cloud. “OK, I’ll be there… Hey, tell Mom I’m applying to nursing school.”

Taryn Rose Frazier is a writer and educator based in the Greater Philadelphia area. She has short fiction and poetry published or forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, As You Were: The Military Review, and Eye to the Telescope. You can find her at and on Instagram @tarynrose.writes

Author’s note: “In my callow college years, I worked weekend shifts at a Catholic nursing home as a lowly CNA. It was, hands down, the hardest job I ever had, and, I suspect, a better education than most of the courses I took. While I never had a robot to remind me of what it means to be human, I had as much to learn as the main character did.”

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