The buzzing was intermittent and distant. Jon wasn’t certain he was hearing an actual sound or if it was just an annoyance dreamed up by his imagination. He wanted it to stop, but it wouldn’t. He shifted himself slowly out of his bed, shuffled to his doorway and looked down the hall toward the sound. He stepped from his room into the hallway, the sound was louder. It was accompanied by the sound of the soles of shoes slapping on the hard floor, running somewhere. Down the hall, above a doorway, a red light flashed in unison with the buzzing, flash and buzz once every second. A ‘Code Blue’ alerting staff to the emergency, to announce the imminent death of another one of The Lodge residents. Staff rushed to the emergency but there would be no saving the life of anybody old enough to be in this place, whose heart had finally ceased to beat.
‘My gawd,’ Jon thought. ‘Is this the fate I have been delivered into, a herd of strangers stampeding to watch me die?’
The emergency was only emergent to the person whose life was nearing its end, though the staff did quicken their pace to the room with the flashing light above its doorway, a Pavlovian reflex. Everyone knew what it meant and when the buzzer went off there was nothing more that could be done except be with the person at their end.
Jon didn’t want to appear like just another ghoulish onlooker, but he had to look. He was hoping that it wasn’t Mrs. Branbury’s light that was flashing on and off. He wanted to at least have one conversation with her, see if there was any hint of her secret, see if he could pry a message from her old brain that he could use to guarantee he could make his century.
The sound was coming from the west wing. The flashing light above the door, a hypnotic strobe that had many residents slowly making their way towards it, like moths to a flame, with walkers and canes, some drawn like living dead, like zombies compelled to the death site. Mrs. Branbury’s room was down that wing. Jon joined the procession.
A small crowd gathered in the hallway outside a resident’s door, waiting for the news. The flashing strobe went dark and the buzzing ceased, leaving just the echo of its sound. Nurse Shirley emerged, a resigned look on her face. The door closed behind her.
“Mrs. Bleakhouse has gone to rest, she is at peace,” she said. “You can all go back about your business. I’ll let you know when we’ll have her going away service.”
Nurse Shirley lowered her head, her eyes downcast, and walked away.
Jon didn’t know Mrs. Bleakhouse. Someone in the crowd said they heard that her poor husband had been decapitated in a car wreck many years before. He had lost his head and she had lost the big toe on her left foot. It was suggested that he had been driving drunk.
‘People drop like flies here. Good gawd, is it like this every day?’
Jon turned to leave with the crowd when he saw the door to Mable Bleakhouse’s room open. Karl emerged, both hands stuffed deeply into his lab coat pockets, a toothpick rolling between his lips. He nodded and winked at Jon; a smirk rose at the corner of his mouth.
A chill ran through Jon’s belly. The horror of it. ‘Surely Crazy Karl wasn’t doing folks in. He is annoying, to be certain, but there’s no way he would be stabbing poor old people with that poison needle or snuffing them in some way. Though what would he care if they caught him. They would put him in jail, that couldn’t be much worse than this. Good gawd’.
Karl slid along the wall, out of the path of the slowly shuffling stampede of old people returning to their places. He came along side Jon.
“Yup, dead as a door nail,” Karl said. “I’m the one that pushed her call button. No sense leaving her there to rot and stink up the place worse than it already is.”
“You were there,” Jon said, “when she died?”
“Naw, she was already cold. I gave her a few pokes but she already had that death stare. You know the one, where your eyes are looking far away but there’s nothing there. Gives me the creeps, even though I’ve seen it a thousand times. I was a veterinarian you know. Had to put down so many poor things in my day.”
“What were you doing in her room?”
Karl shrugged. “Nothing. Just checking on her. She wasn’t at breakfast. Thought I’d see why.”
Jon began the long walk back towards his room at the far end of the hall. They passed the Hub. Nurse Clara stood behind Nurse Shirley watching her make notes in a chart. Karl walked beside Jon, as if they were a pair of buddies on a casual stroll. He winked at Nurse Shirley as they passed. She rolled her eyes.
“She likes me,” Karl said to Jon. “Pretends otherwise but I can tell.”
“You don’t expect it, people going like that, all around you,” Jon said.
“What, dying. Course you do,” Karl said. “That’s why we’re here. None of us getting out of this place alive, that’s for sure. Death row you might as well call it. We’re all on borrowed time here, in this place. Might as well call us the living dead. Especially old man Blount. He was lucky to have held on this long.”
“Not that lucky,” Jon said.
“He was probably a harmless old man.”
“Yeah, well he got what was coming,” Karl sniggered, pulled the syringe from his lab coat pocket and pretended to press the plunger as he jabbed it into the air. He swung around and held the syringe in front of his face, satisfied, then noticed the needle point was bent.
“Well, would you look at that?” Karl said.
Jon thought he saw a few drops of fluid drip from the needle tip. Karl winked.
Jon shuffled onward, his jaw hanging down. His room was still at least a hundred paces down the hall.
‘This will be my last place,’ he thought. ‘They should have left me alone in my own house. I am a stranger here.’
Karl put the syringe back into his lab coat pocket.
“I didn’t get old man Blount’s room. Someone else from the 2nd floor got it. I can’t believe it. I should have got Blount’s room for sure but some other sucker from the psych ward got a clean bill and snuck ahead of me too. What the hell. I should have got Lipton’s room but you came along,” Karl complained.
“What do I care about Mr. Lipton’s room or any other, I don’t even want to be here. You can have the room for all I care, or any other.”
“I better be the one getting old lady Bleakhouse’s room. Now we won’t even be neighbors, I’ll be all the way down the other end of the hall. No matter.”
“It’s odd that you were in her room,” Jon said.
“Not odd. Things are happening around here that shouldn’t happen. There was nothing wrong with old lady Bleakhouse and then poof she’s gone. Someone bumped her off, mark my words. Lipton too and probably Blount. Others too. I’m checking it out.”
“What do you mean, others? And what do you mean checking it out?”
“Something fishy going on here. People kick the bucket, but not when there’s nothing wrong with them. I’ve seen plenty of things die, but none when there’s nothing wrong with them. I’ll get to the bottom of this, you’ll see. And I’ll be up here where I belong too, soon, you’ll see.”
It seemed to Jon that Karl was too interested in the passing of the residents.
Bruce the orderly passed them, pushing a gurney with a squeaky wheel. A large young man with a broad chest and big arms with an indifferent look on his face. A white sheet was folded in the middle of the gurney. He pushed it into Mable Bleakhouse’s room.
“Guess they won’t be able to sneak this one by us,” Karl chortled. “it was probably him that did her in.”
Jon looked at the large young colored man pushing the gurney.
“Heard old lady Bleakhouse call him her nice little nigger. He was probably pissed at her.”
Jon returned to his room and eased into his green armchair. Karl followed, sitting in a side chair with his back to Jon’s large window, making himself a silhouette against the daylight.
“What does it matter which room you’re in,” Jon said. “It’s all the same.”
“You don’t know,” Karl said indignantly. “You just got here. I’ve been down there on two for years. Lost count because I’ve been locked up because my brain was out of service and they said I wasn’t fit to be on three with the other old codgers. You gotta go up, Jon, not down. The further down you go, the closer you get to the meat locker. People on two aren’t normal. I wasn’t normal when I came here but I’ve been good for a long time. I should be going up. I don’t even have a good view down there; I have to look out at the parking lot. I’m better now. They send you down when your brain goes or you get too feeble to get yourself about. And when you get even worse they send you down to one and you live across from the little chapel so people can pray for you. It’s too late by then because you’re already on your way to the meat locker and that dwarf doctor. You’ll see him, he comes around sometimes. I need to go up, not down. This should have been my room; I was planning on it.”
There was a long silence then Jon said, “I’m sorry if I got your room. I didn’t want to be here either. I wanted to stay in my own house. My grandson made me come here. My son, his father, died all of a sudden and there was nobody that could come and help me out, with meals and stuff. I just wanted to stay home, with Harriet and wait out my time. Now I’ll have to wait it out here. I’m almost there, a hundred years old. Then I’m free.”
“Harriet. That your wife? What’s wrong with her? Why couldn’t she look after you?”
“She’s dead.” Jon pointed to the urn on his dresser.
“Dead. Well that will do it.”
“Yes,” Jon closed his eyes.
“A hundred. Something special happens then?” Karl asked.
“We’re free,” Jon said. “I never believed stuff like that but Harriet came to me one night in a dream and told me something special would happen when I turned a hundred. I didn’t expect to make it another ten years after Harriet but that dream gave me the strength. Then Snorri came and told me the same thing.”
“Who the hell is Snorri?”
“Never mind, it doesn’t matter.” Jon leaned back, his mind drifting to thoughts of his wife Harriet, gone now ten years. ‘Ten years’, he thought. ‘It was probably ten years before that, while she was still with me, the last time I told her that I loved her. Her last ten years, and then she was gone. Things get away from us, but I could have at least told her that, just the same.’ He opened his eyes and looked across at the silhouette of Karl Homesman. “I told her while she lay there dead on the kitchen floor.”
“What?” Karl had been in his own daydream.
“Harriet. I laid down beside her dead body on the kitchen floor and told her that I loved her.”
“It was probably too late by then,” Karl said.
“Lost my wife and my dog in the same day. The two best things in my whole life.”
Karl hung his head. “Yeah, it’s tough to lose your dog. You don’t know how many times I had to suffer that with people. Putting their sick dog down. There were times I felt so bad it drove me to my knees. Not in front of them of course. It breaks your heart. Funny though, it didn’t break my heart to see my own mother dead. She was my prison my whole life until then. I feel guilty but I’m glad she’s gone. That was my freedom, even though they locked me in this place because of it.”
“That’s just a creepy thing to say,” Jon said.
“Not any creepier than your story. And listen my new friend, if you want to make it to your big day you better watch your back. Someone has been bumping our people off before their time. Like Lipton. Wasn’t anything wrong with him. And old lady Bleakhouse, she was fine just the other day. And Blount, someone should have done him long ago but there was no sign he was about to cash in as long as they kept him plugged in.”
‘I’m not your friend, for crying out loud,’ Jon thought.
“You think somebody has been killing people? That’s crazy. Why would anyone bother.”
“Lots of nut jobs around. But don’t worry. You and I can track down who is up to this no good and turn him in.”
“Why on earth would I help you with such a thing?”
“You want to get to a hundred don’t you?”
Jon thought of the needle Homesman had pulled from his pocket. He wondered.
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