Miriam stood at the window and watched the night sky change from yellow to orange to blood red as I looked down at the game of solitaire on the table in front of me and realized that I had forgotten how to play. She didn’t usually stay this long in the evening. Usually, she’d bring me dinner-tonight it was meatloaf, cold in the middle and green beans, cold everywhere-and then she’d turn off the tv once the sun began to flirt with moon cause that’s when I get confused, she said. She said I get confused whole lots, but sometimes it seems crystal to me, but I have trouble convincing her of that. She’s got other patients to see. Why can’t she let me leave me be? I’ve had other visitors, lately. Ones I don’t tell her about.
Usually she comes in stinking of too much perfume and cafeteria food, says I always makes a mess out of things, and cleans up a good day’s work. See that’s how I remember things, I have to spread them out, like pieces of a puzzle of my life. All the things in this room that are mine, that I can call my own. I once had so many more, but they’re all gone now. I can’t remember where. But today was different. She didn’t come in and clean anything, didn’t turn off the tv. In fact, she left it on so we both could watch. She never does that. Instead, she took my remote and flipped it around onto all these strange channels. She said they were news channels, but they didn’t sound anything at all like the news I used to hear. In Brazil, they were saying that the entire city was swarmed by these huge spiders-called ‘em banana spiders, and they’re really poisonous and they started attacking all these people during this big parade, and everyone started screaming. People were dying. When we were kids, my brother got bit on the thumb by a diamond back rattlesnake. We asked our pa if he thought it was poisonous and he said “pretty much everything here in this goddamn desert is poisonous.” My brother lost his thumb, but told that goddamn story to everyone because every goddamn person asked about it. He died from a stroke about ten years ago, I think. But I can’t be too sure of that, cause last night we played cards here on my table and he talked about me coming home soon. But I didn’t tell Miriam that.
Outside the sky was red and orange and bright even though it was 10 at night. The nights had been stranger than usual lately. I mean, besides my visits. It started earlier this week, and it started at night. Miriam says I get confused at night, but everyone seems pretty confused this week, so maybe I’m not. About midnight, someone in the nursing home started screaming. Not unusual here, mind you. But then came a few more screams. Now that woke me up, and I’m a deep sleeper, I’ve been told. My wife Hannah always said I was a deep sleeper. Now she’s in the deepest sleep of all. Miriam says if I’m lucky I’ll join her soon. Anyway, I look out the window, and there’s this huge red glow in the sky, and at first, I think-we all think-it’s a plane on fire. But it’s too big. Then someone comes running down the hallway, screaming and saying it’s a cross. It’s a giant, fiery cross. I haven’t been to church since Sunday school as a kid, but anyone can see that it did look like one. It was on the news, too. On every station, even my regular shows were cancelled. I was tired of hearing it. A miracle? A giant practical joke? No one had an answer, but everyone had opinions. Everyone always has opinions on everything. People in the nursing home were upset, but I was tired and wanted to go back to my room. The next night, same thing happens. Only this time, this time when I wake up, I notice someone else in my room. Sitting in a chair next to my bed, was my dad. But he was younger. And he didn’t say much. At first, he just kinda looked at me, and I looked at him, and I asked him if I was dead and he said “not yet.” He said something about closing my blinds on the third night and locking the doors. I asked him where my wife was, and he said she was waiting for me. He made me repeat the directions just like he did when I was a kid cause I never listened. Close the blinds. Lock the doors. Close the blinds. Lock the doors. Talking to me like I was some kinda child again, and then I fell asleep muttering those words, and when I woke up, he was gone. I told Miriam about that one. That one visit. And you know what she did? She came in, said I should never get out of bed and go wandering around at night. She made me take a double dose of pills that night-those pills that make me groggy and nauseous-but when she left to see old Bethany next door, I spit those goddamn pills into the toilet. We all do here. We all joke about it. And they know, too. They just have to cross that off their little dirty list so they don’t get sued.
So that night I couldn’t sleep, and as I sat at my table I could see the red fiery cross in the sky again, and people in the streets were shouting and taking pictures and some of them were getting on their knees and praying in the middle of the street. Then out from my bedroom walks my brother. He looks like my brother, but he doesn’t smile, and he doesn’t talk, either, and I can see that the thumb on his right hand is back, like it would have looked if that snake had never bit him. He sits down and takes all the playing cards that I have scattered on my table, and he shuffles them while he looks at me. Finally, he talks, and he sounds sad, and he suddenly looks really old like me, and he says: Cut the deck three ways. And I do. And then he lays out a line of cards in front of me, but they don’t look like playing cards anymore, but like those old tarot cards like they have in the movies. I’ve never been to a psychic. Never had my future read. But here on the table before me my brother was doing exactly that, and I could see the full lifeline of everything I was, I am, and will be soon spread out on the table before me. When he got up to leave, he gave me a sad smile, and said he’d see me soon. I said, “see you soon,” not really understanding. Then he turned around and said: On the night it happens, close your blinds and lock your door.
The first day after one of my visits I told Miriam, and later when she came in without knocking she found me spitting out my meds into the toilet, and before I could flush them she came into the room and screamed at me. She did that a lot. She reached into the toilet, grabbed my pills, then grabbed my jaw and shoved them in until I swallowed. She said if I told anyone about that, about what she did, that she’d give me so many pills I wouldn’t be able to wake up. So, I kept my mouth shut, like I always do. Like we all do. Later that day, as my thoughts swirl with the pills, and I find myself drifting someplace between sleep and awake there’s a strange ruckus in the room next to mine. Bethany lives there, has for a few years. Sometimes after dark she screams out, ‘cause she gets confused like I do. Many of us do. But this time it’s different. At first, I turn up the volume on my tv set, and on the screen a reporter is hiding behind a large dumpster, and there are these people, just walking right by her, staring up at the sky, and some of them have knives and others have razors and they are carving things into their hands, their foreheads, without looking away from whatever it is in the sky. I hear Bethany screaming over the tv. The air smells like rotting eggs. Has for days. Inside and out. Some people have tied bandanas around their face, or put cigarettes up their noses, like they did in the old war movies. God, it stinks.
I opened the door to my room when I started hearing some of the nurses’ scream. As I looked out, I could see some of the other residents peaking their heads out too, while others just peaked through their peepholes. One of the nurses, a younger one, was on the floor on the hallway, crying and another nurse was trying to calm her. She looked up at me.
Go back to your room, Dave.
I did what I usually did and pretended not to hear her command. I looked into Bethany’s room and, behind a group of observing nurses, she was sitting on the floor, naked and covered in her own filth, with strange writing on the wall behind her. But it wasn’t her nakedness or appearance or even the writing on the wall that was scaring everyone. Her voice had changed. It sounded deeper, but it wasn’t normal things she was saying. Again, I get confused, but everyone else seemed to be, too. Welcome to my world, I thought. Her words sounded like they were moving forwards and backwards, words overlapping words overlapping words, saying the same sounds, like a record playing backwards, just out of tune. As the words repeated, they got louder, and things on the table started to vibrate and shake, like we were in some kind of an earthquake. Hadn’t been a quake here in some time, I thought. Quite some time. Outside the wind was bending the trees over. One of the nurses ran by me, ran down the hall, ran out of the building. She never came back.
The night I had trouble falling asleep, even with the extra pills Miriam gave me and stayed to watch again to make sure I swallowed. When the nurse assistant left the room, when he was done holding me, she pinched my arm real hard, then left. She left me all sorts of bruises and scratches. Some of the others got worse. Bethany got worse. But right now, she was locked up in her room. They had sealed her door shut. But I could hear her since our walls were joined, and she growled like an animal and clawed at my wall. Occasionally, she would laugh, and when I asked to move rooms, they said no one is going anywhere. Then they locked me in, too. They locked us all in, I think, ‘cause I heard everyone pounding on their doors. Let me out. Let me out. Some of them got tired and fell asleep. Some of them did it well past midnight. But Bethany never stopped, and a few times I heard what I thought were knocks on the wall. Then more laughs. That night, my wife came to visit me. She was dressed in clothes I had never seen before, certainly not the clothes we buried her in. That was white. This looked older. I couldn’t place it. I smiled as she sat across from me and asked her where she got her new dress, that she looked beautiful, and that I think of her every day that passes and was glad that she was not alive to see the shit I lived through every day. I was ashamed. But she just smiled, a sad one like my brother’s, and reached out her hands to touch mine. I couldn’t feel them, but it felt good to be so close to her again. She looked young and healthy and free, and my heart that had been so empty as of late was full again, and the she got up and whispered something in my ear that made me cry. When I woke up in the night and the sky was again on fire, I forgot what it was that she said. But my heart was still full, and despite the screaming from Bethany, I fell back asleep.
In the morning, something was different. There was no noise outside. No traffic sounds, no birds. It was still. And the light that came streaming in through my blinds wasn’t the normal light I’m used to. It was darker. Filtered. Almost red. As I got up to pour myself a glass of water, I noticed that Bethany had stopped growling or screaming or whatever it was that she was doing. I walked to the window and looked out, and I could see dozens, hundreds of people, kneeling on the street, looking up at the sky. The sky. There wasn’t much left of it, and the sun was hazy and dark and strange. The stars and the moon were still in the sky too, like they forgot to set once they saw the sun. But I can’t be too sure I saw what I saw. I get confused sometimes. Just ask any nurse here.
I flipped on the news, like I always do in the morning and sat down. Most of the channels were static snow. My shows were clearly not going to be on. I’d read a book but my concentration doesn’t last so long these days, and after five minutes I’d forget what I was reading in the first place. Books could be read to me, but no one comes in and does that anymore. On the news, somewhere in Africa, a river head gone red, like Kool-Aid, and in a closeup one of the reporters dipped their hand in and scooped it out. Looked like fruit punch. People were on both sides of the river and crying. Screaming. But I had the tv on mute and couldn’t hear what they were screaming. The CC subtitles were on, but they always scroll too fast and can’t seem to keep up with the words and it all gives me a headache. Then I heard the screams outside. I look towards the window, and everything seems darker now. The air stinks like something’s rotting. From my window you can see the summits of the skyscrapers, far off in the city. There I could see huge clouds of smoke spilling up into the sky. Lots of them, like half the city was on fire. Might explain the smell. Anyway, back to the screaming-I get confused a lot-I looked down and see all these people running down the street. I mean, really hauling ass. I can’t see what it is they are running away from, but it doesn’t seem too far now.
Close the blinds. Lock the door.
I keep hearing those words in my head. Who said that? As far as I knew, the door was still closed. I can’t close the blinds. When it gets dark in here, that’s when I start getting confused, so I leave them open. I always leave them open. Static on the tv right now. Wonder when the news will be on again? Nothing else to watch but the news. Last thing they said was that the suicide rates were rocketing. That’s been happening in here the whole time, I thought. I felt tired but didn’t want to nap. Something told me to stay awake. My eyes feel tired and I take my glasses off and pinch the bridge of my nose as a headache comes on, and just as I do, I hear the door unlocking and in storms Miriam with a box full of what looks like groceries. She slams them down on the table, then rushes over to the window. She’s breathing really heavily, like she’s been running all day. Maybe for days. She turns around and looks at me, then points at the food.
‘That’ll last you.’ She looks at it again and nods, as if she and the box of groceries were having a conversation I couldn’t hear. Sounds like something I would do. And they call me crazy. I’d laugh too, but she looks frightened. I ask her what it’s for and again she just says “That’ll last you. You’ll be ok.’ She picks up the remote and starts changing channels, but they’re all snow. Every one of them. She leaves the snow on, looks me, looks like she’s about to say something, and then she starts walking towards the door.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘I wanna go outside.’ I didn’t really, but I did want to leave my room. Nighttime was still hours away, but it felt like my room was getting darker and darker, like the sun in the sky was slowly dimming, running out of juice. When it gets dark, things get bad for me. That’s when they lock me in my room. Or they’ll come in and hit me till I stop screaming, even though sometimes I don’t even remember screaming and I say ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ but they keep hitting me anyway. ‘Don’t you tell anyone.’ They say. ‘Or I’ll come back and hit you harder.’ My family used to visit me, when they were still alive. Sometimes I sit on the sofa all day, waiting for night, just so that I can go to bed again. Not much else to do around here.
But she wouldn’t answer me. She opened the door, and as she did so I could see other nurses and staff members running down the hall. I put my hand on her shoulder to try and stop her, but she grabbed it and bit it-bit it hard-and then she pushed me away and slammed the door. I went to the open it, but it was locked. There was a lot of noise in the hallways, and now there were more shouts outside, so I walked back over to the window. Outside, I could see a group of staff run out to some vans while they were carrying things. They ran to the cars dropping things from the boxes like fruit and bottled water. I tried to open the window, but our windows don’t open in here. ‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘Hey!’ I kept shouting it, but they didn’t look up. Either they didn’t hear me or didn’t care. Just like every other day in here. And then they drove off. They were gone, just like that, gone out of my sight. All of them. My hand hurt, but at least she didn’t draw blood. It’s not the first time she’s bitten me, but it’s the first time she looked sorry for doing it. It must be a hard job. I don’t know.
I walk back to the door and put my ear up against it, and I hear others knocking and pounding on their doors too. We’re all locked in. Which isn’t unusual at night but it’s still afternoon-or supposed to be afternoon-we’re supposed to be able to go where we please. It’s one of the few freedoms we have left. Bethany next door has been strangely quiet the past few hours. She hasn’t screamed or barked or cried, which makes it easier for me to think, which is good cause right now I can’t do much of anything else. Then I heard a ringing in my ears, which I get from time to time-the doctors say its Tinnitus-but this keeps getting louder and louder, and as I walk back to the window, I realize it’s the sirens. The storm sirens go off, and I see more smoke coming from the city, and now the sun looks like it’s practically black. From a distance, the city seems to be moving. I don’t know how. It’s hot, and they say the heat can play tricks on yours eyes. The treetops, too, seemed to move, even though there was no wind. I hear more people banging on their doors. It’s getting dark out now, and there’s a fair number of us that don’t do so well in it. And now the staff is gone. Where to, I don’t know. Something tells me that they won’t be back.
Close the blinds. Lock the door.
The door was locked from the outside. What had my brother meant when he said to close the blinds? The TV didn’t work, and I can’t leave my room. What the hell else can I do? I can’t even make a call…the phone. I have a phone. I’d almost forgotten. Miriam always yells at me when I try to make a phone call, and for a while they took it away, then gave it back when there was a state inspection, but she forgot to take it away again and so I just hid it in the bottom drawer of my dresser. I pulled out all my winter clothes from the bottom until I felt the hard plastic of the phone, then found in the nearest outlet in the room, plugged it in, and dialed 911. It rang and rang, until an automated voice told me that my call could not be completed at this time. I hung it up and looked out the window again. I’m guessing some of the others tried to call, too. We can’t really talk to each other right now. I look at the box that Miriam left for me, and in it had some of my meds-blood pressure, sleep-along with some food from the cafeteria, but not much. I didn’t expect a goodbye, but I sure as hell expected someone to tell me what the hell was going on. I was afraid, and I was afraid for my friends in the home, and even the ones I didn’t like so much. I sat down on and tried to pray, but it had been so long, and I couldn’t remember the words. I wasn’t even sure what room to pray in, or what direction to face, or if that even mattered. There weren’t any crosses on the wall, not in my room anyway.
And then I heard the screams. They were coming from some of my neighbors. The screams were muffled at first. It sounded like they were looking out the windows. I stood up to catch a look at what was going on outside, but then I tripped over the telephone cord, and off my glasses went. It hurt, even on the carpeted floor, but my muscles and bones were strong enough to take the fall, and slowly I pushed myself back up. But I couldn’t find my glasses, the world right now was one giant blur, getting darker. I heard more screams.
“Get away from the window!” someone yelled. I didn’t recognize the voice. Outside I could hear a strange noise over the sirens, and as I walked to the window, the whole of the sky had gone black, and in the lights of the streetlamps I could see dark figures move strangely across the street. Their movement was strange, effortless, like they weren’t even walking. But without my glasses I can’t tell for sure what I’m seeing. It looks like they-whomever they are-are going into houses, buildings. It looks like they are going into our nursing home. I do as my brother told me. I shut my blinds. My door is locked. I get on all fours and again look for my glasses. I pat the dirty, patchwork work carpet with my bare hands but I feel nothing but the coarseness of the carpet’s texture. As I do so, I hear strange noises in the room beneath me, like the sound of a breaking doors, voices, talking. Screaming.
Eventually I give up, and sit at my dining room table, and the swinging lamp above it begins to flicker. I sit alone at my table and there is nothing left to do but play solitaire, only now I can’t see the cards clearly, and I can’t remember how to play anyway. More screams, more pounding on doors. I gather all the scattered cards on the table and shuffle them as best I can. Glass breaking. Things breaking. People screaming. I smell rotten eggs and something burning. I begin to spread the cards out on the table and say their names aloud as I do so.
Queen of Hearts.
Ace of Spades.
Jack of Diamonds.
I have no idea what I’m playing but I say their names aloud with dignity as there is nothing to do now but wait.
King of Spades.
Four of Hearts.
Laughing. There is laughing in the room next to mine. Bethany. I hadn’t heard her for hours, but now I do. She is laughing, but it is a deep and hateful laugh. It sounds like she is scratching the walls between us, like a cat begging to be let in. She’s for damn sure not coming into my room. Not that I can get out, anyway.
Nine of Diamonds.
There is a knock on the door. On my door. I freeze with a card in my hand and say nothing. All I can hear in my room is the ticking of the clock on the wall, ticking off those minutes that are meaningless now and perhaps always have been. I hear my heartbeat in my ears. Knock, knock. Louder this time. I hear other screams now, louder. On my floor. The sound of doors bursting open, people screaming. Things breaking. In the dimness I forget my room and think I’m back home. My wife has gone to bed early, and as usual I’ve stayed up late watching tv or reading a book. Sometimes she waits for me, sometimes she doesn’t. What am I reading now, in this very moment? I don’t remember, but I miss her, and my heart feels full knowing that when I go to lay down, she’ll be where she always is, on the other side of the bed, sleeping peacefully in the dark of night. Knock, knock. That must be my wife. She’s wondering why I’m still up and wants me to come to bed. I smile. I feel tired and miss her company and think that, yes, perhaps now is a good time to retire for the night. I call out to her:
“Ok honey, I’m coming to bed. Thank you for waiting for me.” There is a sound at the door that sounds like someone is unlocking it, and sure enough someone does, and the door opens. The room stinks now, and I think maybe it’s coming from the trash that I haven’t taken out yet. She’ll scold me for it tomorrow. I smile again. There’s someone else in the room now. In the dimness of my light I see something dark move towards me. It must be her. “Was I keeping you up my with movies?” I ask, but she says nothing. The figure is across the table from me now.
“**************!” I do not understand the language, nor do I recognize the voice. It is deep, watery, angry, mournful, empty and foul all at once. I hear the scratching and laughing at my wall again. I see other dark figures come into the room as well, surrounding me as I sit there. These must be our children. How they’ve grown up so fast. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a family dinner or take a trip to the beach. It’s a long drive but if the weather’s nice you don’t really notice it. The swinging lamp above goes dark and does not come back on, and now all I can hear are the screams, the sound of things breaking, the sound of the world falling apart, until, finally, it does…
…I walk up the stairs with a glass of water for her when she wakes up. I open the door slowly and see her sleeping under the covers on her side of the bed. Outside the moon is bright and beautiful, and its beam is long and welcome on our floor. I place the glass of water on her bedside table, kiss her gently, then tuck myself in. The room, and the world outside, is quiet, and all I can hear is the gentle night air rustling through the leaves. Tomorrow’s supposed to be beautiful, they say. I roll over on my side and watch my wife sleep for a bit, then I close my eyes as well, as I too now must sleep, as I have been desperately waiting for it for it for so long now.
Joseph Lewis is a returned Peace Corps volunteer and has spent the past three years living and teaching Western Literature and Film Studies to university students in Dazhou, China. He is currently a graduate creative writing student at the NEOMFA program at Cleveland State University. His work has previously been published in Prairie Margins literary magazine.