Sunroom, September 22nd
The words on the page undulated like slow moving ripples of black across a pond of milk. They seemed to speak, though no sound came from them. Jon rested the open book in his lap.
“What’s the story today?” Mrs. Krantz blurted, wanting him to get on with it.
“Snorri just wanted to do good,” Jon began, “but even though he was brilliant, sort of like Leonardo da Vinci, but not quite as much, he was flawed because he wanted to be recognized for his good deeds. It doesn’t work that way of course; if you are genuine then you don’t need to be thanked for the life’s work you were meant to do.” He coughed; his voice was weak.
He paused, looked distantly and thought, ‘Does that make me a hypocrite, for wanting to be recognized for my work, for my book. I spent years gathering this information. Shouldn’t I be praised for my effort?’ He returned to his book. ‘I am no Leonardo.’
Jon stroked his book as if petting a cat. It seemed to purr contentedly. He lifted his hand away; he should have been petting Lady. His bones ached, his muscles felt weary, perhaps the way they should have felt all along, considering his age. He imagined himself a shriveled husk, brittle and dry, weightless enough to be blown away by a light breeze.
‘We are all flawed of course,’ he thought. ‘I am flawed too, even though I’ve never really thought of myself that way. I have always had to be right. Never learned that there is great relief in not knowing something or admitting you were wrong. To just be human would be such freedom. Look at me now.’
“Make no mistake,” he went on, “they believed there were trolls, elves, dwarves, werewolves and witches, goblins and ghosts and other adversaries of the knights and priests and the righteous. The foundation of their society and life was religion. To be a priest or a bishop meant you were a lawgiver, a sheriff, or a tax collector. Someone important, though not necessarily a genius.”
He coughed and tried to clear his throat to make his voice louder and clearer but the strength of the voice he once commanded in his lectures was fading fast. It angered him, that his own voice, his magnificent tool, betrayed him.
“Fuck,” he said, then looked around at his audience to see if anyone had heard his complaint. None responded with raised eyebrows or questioning look. They simply waited for him to continue.
Rudy Wernbacher sat next to Jon.
“There were plenty of bad guys too, right?” Rudy said. “Are you okay? Do you want me to read for you, for a while? I don’t mind.”
Jon nodded and allowed Rudy to take the book from his lap. He pointed to a spot on the page where Rudy was to pick up the tale. Jon slumped back into his seat.
The squeaky wheels of a pushcart interrupted Rudy’s reading. Nurse Clara entered the Sunroom followed by Big Bruce pushing a hand cart with boxes of decorations. The head nurse smiled widely at the crowd gathered again to hear stories from there soon to be centenarian. An amazing thing, to be able to engage the other residents, at his age. She admired his drive and was pleased at how fit he had kept himself for such an elderly man. A very rare thing. While still somewhat ambulatory, most were past being as spry as Mr. Magnusson. He did seem to be slowing down in recent days though.
Jon appeared to be dozing, eyes closed, head tilted back, mouth slightly agape. His good friend Rudy Wernbacher squinted as he read from the big red book.
“Mr. Magnusson, why don’t you sit in the big chair,” Nurse Clara said. “Tomorrow is your big day, your birthday. Everybody, tomorrow our Mr. Magnusson will celebrate his one hundredth birthday.”
Rudy nudged Jon.
Nurse Clara smiled broadly at Jon.
“The big chair, Mr. Magnusson. As our new centenarian you should take your place in the big chair so we can start to celebrate you.”
“Was it my birthday? Did I miss it?”
“Tomorrow Mr. Magnusson. But you are welcome to take a place in the seat of honor.”
“No, I couldn’t,” Jon shook his head. “That is where Mrs. Branbury sits. It wouldn’t be right. She’s the Queen.”
“Yes, Mrs. Branbury,” Nurse Clara said. “Such a lovely lady, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.”
Rudy leaned close to Jon and whispered, “she’s dead. Gone. Nobody’s sat there since she passed. Go Ahead, you’re the big cheese now.”
“It doesn’t seem right,” Jon said. ‘Would moving into the Queen’s chair mean moving closer to my own end,’ he wondered. He looked at the empty big chair. The indentations in the seat and back still held the shape, the small outline of the departed Mrs. Branbury. Gone on her own birthday. He imagined her tiny frail body, a wisp of itself, an apparition dissolving into the glowing sunlit particles floating in the Sunroom. Perhaps he would dissolve on his birthday as well if he sat in that chair.
He didn’t feel right. Like a shrinking balloon, air slowly leaking out. It was hard to think straight. The faces of his audience took on different masks and shapes, some disfigured, some youthful and beautiful, some troll-like with long ears and bulbous noses, pock marked cheeks with purple veins. They visited among themselves, chattering as if he wasn’t there.
“We can help you shift over,” Nurse Clara said. “It will be alright. I’m sure Mrs. Branbury would have wanted you to take her place.”
‘Take her place. Next in line. My time is coming but it is too soon. I must make it to the tick of the clock. It will be dark then but I must wait and hope he doesn’t come for me yet.’
At least he had escaped the killer. The beast had passed him by and he, Jon Magnusson, would be a Centenarian. He would be victorious, winner of the last game. Unless someone in the Sunroom came forward and delivered his death blow before the stroke of midnight. Only hours to go.
‘Look at them. They look like hags and trolls, goblins from beneath the rocks, cave dwellers, a gaggle of them, pot lickers and wealth suckers, door sniffers and window peepers’.
They were too late to harm him now.
“All of you who are still beautiful can shield me from the others,” Jon said. “You,” he pointed at Mrs. Krantz, “you are too ugly, you mustn’t come near me.” He turned to Rudy. “Don’t let her or the other ugly ones near me. They are no good.”
“We can help you, Mr. Magnusson. Let us move you to the seat of honor. Then you’ll have the feel of it when we celebrate your special day tomorrow.” Nurse Clara waved Bruce to come and help.
Jon waved them off, his face screwed in annoyance.
“I can do it myself for crying out loud. I’m not dead yet.”
He struggled to rise, his hands gripping the arms of his chair as he strained to push himself up. The balls of his joints groaned, grinding in their sockets like rusty hinges. Rudy stood beside him putting out an arm for Jon to grasp and pull himself upward. Rudy slid a hand under Jon’s elbow and pulled him forward. Jon smiled with satisfaction. He whispered to Rudy.
“You’ll have to go on the hunt for me tonight, with Karl. I think I should rest up for my big day tomorrow.”
“There is still a killer skulking around this place.”
Rudy looked at the faces of the old residents scattered about the Sunroom. It seemed unlikely to him that there was a killer among them, most barely had enough energy to just carry on about their daily life. Likely each was more concerned about the inevitability of their own mortality than bringing an end to someone else’s.
Bruce placed the box of decorations on the floor in the middle of the Sunroom. He opened the lid removing the first item from the top of the box. The plastic tiara emblazed with the title Queen, that Mrs. Branbury had worn on her birthday. Nurse Clara signaled for him to place the crown back into the box.
Rudy guided his friend into the big Queens chair, eased him down and nodded, affirming that Jon was in the right place.
“There you go.”
“The hunt,” Jon said.
“Sure, I’ll check in with Karl. Tell him you’re resting up.”
“Thank you my friend,” Jon touched Rudy’s arm. “I am tired.”
Rudy sat, opened the book to the spot they left off at. In the upper corner of the page was an artist’s rendering. A short man, rather dullard looking, dressed in rough clothing, standing over an old long white bearded man, crouched on the floor with an arm above his head as if protecting himself from a blow. The short man held an axe above his head ready to deliver a strike upon the old man. A well-dressed man stood behind the short man, a hand upon the hilt of his sword, still secure in its scabbard, a smile on his face.
Mrs. Krantz rose from her seat to examine the box of decorations.
Nurse Shirley, still at The Lodge, even though her shift had long ended, sped past the Sunroom door then returned to look in. ‘An event about to take place. Yet once again I haven’t been invited?’ She saw Jon sitting back in Mrs. Branbury’s chair. He looked thinner sitting there; ashen and pale, nearly the image of a corpse placed sitting upright like a dead monarch being revered by his subjects.
Jon’s eyes opened, drawn directly to the short nurse like a magnet, as if she were a clarion calling to him with a shrill ear cracking burst, beckoning him.
‘She is lingering,’ he thought. ‘Why hasn’t the night nurse gone home already, she must be exhausted.’
Nurse Shirley twitched and fidgeted where she stood, barely able to contain an energy percolating inside her, as if she was a short stout human volcano about to erupt. She focused on him as if he were the only thing in the whole room. All the while wiggling about like a giant human itch. She had to leave.
Despite the jittering and jabbering in the Sunroom, Jon thought he heard Nurse Shirley say, ‘You’re turn next’.
“What?” Jon said.
Rudy stopped reading. Jon appeared to be talking in his sleep, his eyes closed.
“Looks like there is some grisly stuff about to happen,” Rudy said to the Sunroom audience. “Some of you might not want to listen to this part so if you want to leave the room I can wait before continuing.”
“We’re not children,” Mrs. Krantz complained. “Just read the damn story for crying out loud.”
Rudy wondered how he would do on ‘The hunt’. He could feel the ghost of his gout toe warning that it would act up if he did too much walking around. His gout toe medicine helped but did not shield him from negligence and overuse. He cringed at the thought of the fiery pain. But he promised his good friend Jon he would take his place. Maybe if he doubled his pain medication before prowling the halls with Karl it would help. But if they encountered the monster killer he may not be able to flee fast enough to escape his own brutal slaying. Then again the idea of a serial killer prowling The Lodge was a fantasy.
He turned the open book towards the audience so they could see the picture of the axe slayer on the corner of the page. Many squinted though none had eyesight good enough to make out the image from their seats.
Mrs. Krantz clucked. “For crying out loud, nobody can see that. Just get on with the story and don’t leave out any of the juicy bits.”
Nurse Shirley squeezed herself into a spot on the couch beside Mrs. Krantz. Nurse Clara helped Bruce hang a garland above the window and strung the banner of shiny foil letters spelling out Happy Birthday, along the wall near the television.
Jon relaxed back into the hollows of the chair, drifting into that place between rest and dream. He imagined the picture that Rudy was showing the listeners. He had examined it closely many times, knew it by heart, recalled every fold of Snorri’s night shirt, every wrinkle of his face and strand of his long white beard. The image filled his mind, changed from static to living, like the words on the page that rippled. Alive, so that Snorri was no longer a flat black and white image, prostrate and defenseless surrounded by brigands and murderers in the cellar stairwell of his home at Reykholt. Alive, in full color and dress. Shorter and fatter than the picture, hair thinner, face more deeply crevassed, tanned, and weathered with eyes a blue so light they were almost white. Jon reached out a hand to touch the face of his imaginary Snorri, his fingers pressed against warm flesh and mottled skin. The blue eyes widened in fear, as if being touched by a ghost, then calmed, realizing it was a familiar hand.
“He’s reading about your assassination.” Jon’s voice was clear, with the strength of a young voice. “In the stairwell leading to the cellar below your garret. Just up from your Snorralaug.”
“Who is reading?”
“My friend Rudy Wernbacher, from The Lodge. We go there when they have no more use for us. When we’re close.”
“The Lodge. They call it a Lodge but it is really just a holding place, like purgatory. No other place to go between here and there. You should run the other way.”
“The other way?”
“Don’t go down there, no place to escape from. Leave the house, go to the hills. They are coming for you.”
“Coming for me?”
“Gissur’s men. Hakon gave him the order.”
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