The Dark Hallway
Jon did not sleep soundly. He rose often during the night, at the urging of his bladder and enlarged prostate. He had learned to make his way, untroubled, do his business and return to sleep without seriously waking himself. All was as it had been, except for the height of his bed at The Lodge. A slight knee twist the first time he tried to step onto the floor in the dark. Now he had a small footstool strategically placed, to step onto, his slippers right next to it. The night floor was always cold, even when he wore his sleeping socks, they weren’t enough to assuage the chill off the tiles. At night he closed his door to muffle the echoing of sounds off the hallway walls. This night the door was left open. As he closed it, after a late night visit to his toilet, he heard the shuffling of slippers scraping along the hallway down from his room. Jon stuck his head around his door to see the back of Karl Homesman slinking down the hall. Jon slid his slippers off and followed his new neighbor silently, in his sleeping socks.
‘I’ll catch you now. That’s when you do it, isn’t it. In the night when they’re sound asleep’. Jon had no plan to deal with Karl, once he observed him in the act, the simple observation should be enough for the evil Karl to surrender himself and confess his guilt. Once captured and the menace locked behind bars there would be no danger of Jon not reaching his century mark.
‘But why is that bastard still up to his wickedness now that he has his room?’ Jon was afraid. ‘What if Homesman turns on me when I catch him in the act? What if I become his next victim? What if Karl stabs me with that needle, or one that actually has a pointy end? Will it hurt, will I collapse and bleed out slowly in agony? Will Karl stuff a rag into my mouth so that I can’t even call for help?’ His body trembled as if he was naked in a freezer.
‘If he attacks me, I will have no defense. He is a bear and I am a stickman’.
Jon carried on despite his trepidation.
‘I’m like Snorri. Brave until it comes time to confront. Damn, I should have at least brought my walking stick’.
Jon wanted to be like Snorri yet resented the promise of apprehension masked by the pretense of diplomacy, when dealing with tense situations.
‘Don’t be a hypocrite. Have guts or don’t do anything at all. Don’t pretend you can fix it, only to have to dip your toe in the water first to see if it is safe. Don’t tip toe through the rest of your life hoping to make it safely to death. Be like Snorri; don’t be like Snorri.’
It was too late for that. Karl ducked as he slunk past the unoccupied Nurses Hub. Nurse Shirley was absent, probably on a nightly check of the sleeping residents,. poking them with a chubby finger, just to check if they were still breathing. Many of his new neighbors were of such delicate constitution that anything could happen. A bad dream might scare their heart into arresting itself. Not many of them were light sleepers, as he was. Many didn’t require frequent visits to the loo during the middle of the night, especially the old ladies, who had no defiant prostate to contend with.
Jon’s prostate was not his friend. ‘Did Snorri have to pee so often,’ he wondered.
Karl’s slippers scraped like sandpaper on the polished linoleum.
‘He might as well be whistling his approach,’ Jon thought. ‘Not very bright for a serial killer.’
Karl slipped out of sight behind the Nurses Hub. Jon slunk along the wall trying to remain invisible, silent and stealthy, like a centenarian ninja. He could not silence the creaking and popping of his joints as he crept. The quiet of The Lodge, in the dead of night, was deafening. Every little sound was a thunderous cacophony that Jon was certain would reveal his presence to Karl. He could hear Karl breathing.
‘Where is Nurse Shirley?’
Jon crouched, placed his hands on the counter edge of the Nurses Hub and peered over the top.
“You’re not very bright for such a smart man,” Karl said.
Jon let out a high pitched school girl screech.
“You wouldn’t make a very good assassin.”
Jon felt faint. He clutched his chest. “You either. Why are you still killing us?” Jon choked out.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Jon teetered, began a slow slide down the front of the Nurses Hub, then dropped. Seeing Jon about to faint, Karl quickly swung around the Hub, his foot extended to pillow Jon’s head from the hard floor.
Karl propped Jon against the Nurses Hub while he went for help and found Nurse Shirley wandering the dark halls on rounds. She gave them both a scolding for being out of bed in the middle of the night. ‘As if she didn’t already have enough to do.’
“You’re lucky,” Karl said as he knelt beside Jon, still propped against the Nurses Hub. “I was able to get over to you before your head cracked open on the floor. I was able to get my foot right there beside your ear and your face fell right here on top of my slipper. Good thing I have the fuzzy kind and not those hard felt ones. But your damn head is heavy and hard too. You’ve left a great purple bruise on my foot, good thing it didn’t break or I’d be a feeble old man just like you. Just look at this.” Karl removed his slipper to show a dark purple stain growing across the top of his hairy white foot. His toenails needed trimming.
Jon tried to piece together what just happened but had no memory of his fall or why he was even in the hallway in the middle of the night. Then he remembered, he was following Karl, to catch him in the act of murder. But instead he fainted, like a frightened schoolgirl. But why? Did Karl sneak up on him? Did he just have a spell? And now this evil killer is suggesting that he actually prevented him from smashing his head on the floor. If true then Homesman probably prevented Jon from becoming a vegetable before his hundredth birthday, for he surely would have suffered brain damage or maybe even died if he had hit his head on the hard floor.
His shoulder was sore but nothing else seemed to have suffered any damage. Most fortunate that a hip or femur didn’t split apart, that would be a death knell at his age, they’d have to put him down like a spent thoroughbred and there would be no hundredth birthday for him.
There was a faint bruise on Jon’s cheek from his ear to his chin, the outline of the top of a foot, the shape of a big toe most prominent, fading down the range of toes to an almost invisible pinky. Karl Homesman’s footprint would fade over time. Jon was reluctantly grateful.
It took both Nurse Shirley and Karl to help Jon off the floor to his feet and into a wheelchair. Karl pushed Jon back down the hallway to his room with Nurse Shirley as escort.
“I don’t have time to check your vitals,” Nurse Shirley said. “You both go back to bed and don’t make me chase you down or there will be trouble.” She left them, grumbling as she went, waddling and stomping the hard soles of her white shoes.
“You’re too old to be sneaking about,” Karl said. “What the hell were you doing?”
Jon closed his eyes. “Following you, sneaking about, of course. Catching you in the act.”
“The act? The act of what?”
“Murder of course. I know you’re the one bumping people off. You should be ashamed. Just leave us alone, we’re old, let us live out our final days in peace.”
“What the hell. I’m not the one bumping people off. But it sure seems strange that people are flopping over like flies all of a sudden. Since before you came. I’ve been keeping an eye. Just because I was down on two doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention to what has been going on up here.”
“You’ve been hoping for someone’s room.”
“Of course,” Karl said. “They’ve had me penned up with the nut jobs so long I was starting to think there was something wrong with me. I admit I was in a bit of dead zone when I first got here but I’ve been good for a long time now. For crying out loud, if you caught me doing someone in what the heck do you think you could do about it? Maybe you could wave your arms and screech like a banshee and scare me to death.”
It was his mother, Karl explained as he pulled a chair close to Jon’s bedside. He arrived home late from work one day, he had to stay past closing because an emergency had been rushed in. He spent an hour trying to save a small dog hit by a car but in the end had to euthanize the dog and then console the owner. Always a stressful thing, even though he had done it a thousand times, it never got easier. It was always like the electricity draining from his body, leaving him spent and troubled at the inevitability of the death of all things. There were times at the end that were so sad he cried with the owner at their loss. It was that day, he slumped home to the small house where he lived with his mother. He arrived well past the dinner hour, certain she would harangue him for his lateness, screech and complain about not having her dinner, complain about being a prisoner in her own house all day without a soul to talk to. He would apologize, absorb the blame and fix her dinner. It was never good enough to pick up take out or heat a frozen dinner or leftovers. His day would not end until he had done his duty and properly taken care of her needs.
He hoped for some reprieve from his long stressful day, but there was none. Already despondent from his failure to save the dog and now his failure to feed and care for his own mother in a timely way, her tirade, like a sack of bricks hurled into his face, his head filled like a volcano pregnant with poison lava ready to burst and spew anger and failure on the floors and walls of his captive life. He cowered like a beaten dog, at first, beneath her hawkish condemnation, spittle landing on him as she screamed, shaking her head, her greasy hair flopping like loose tendrils as she ranted. Never a thankyou from his invalid mother. In the deep recesses of his thought he wished for her to just come to her end so that he could get on with his life, with a real life, with any life at all, other than this.
Then it happened. Rage burst from him, releasing the weight of his torment. And then it was done. He was gone from that place and she was gone from that place too. He wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral or even say goodbye through his grief and regret. Karl Homesman wasn’t sure how long he had been on the second floor before his malaise began to lift like a muslin curtain pulled away and clarity restored.
“You killed your own mother,” Jon said.
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. I have no memory of what happened to her. Just that she was gone and I was here. They don’t tell me and I don’t ask.”
“Sorry,” Jon said. ‘Maybe Karl wasn’t the killer, or maybe he was. If not him, then who? Someone killed Mrs. Chin and made her disappear. Chopped her up and incinerated her bits so there would be no evidence of her disappearance..….maybe. Probably a hired killer, retained by her selfish children……maybe.’
“There are some interesting folks down on two,” Karl said. “Old, like us, of course. They don’t put the young ones in this place. Some just sit there like frozen statues, never speaking, maybe not even blinking their eyes. Some act like lunatics, some weep all day. Most are just waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Same as you and me, I guess.”
The clock ticked hollow and loud.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Jon said.
“They’re not all the same,” Karl said.
“The way they go. I can tell, I was a veterinarian. They look different. None are a bloody mess of course, that would be too obvious. Poison maybe. Pillow on the face maybe.”
“Stabbing with a needle,” Jon said.
Karl took the partial syringe from his pocket. “It’s just a joke. To get a rise out of the codgers. Otherwise they’d be like those guys on two, just a lump of flesh waiting to die and rot away.”
“I’m going to sleep,” Jon said again. “But I have to pee first.”
As he stood at his toilet bowl waiting for the pee to come, Jon wondered if the Vet that had to put his Lady down, cried after he left.
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