BY MARTIN KEARNS
Copyright is held by the author.
RANDY SLID his spoon into his orange gelatin and wondered at the permanence of the act.
Lunch was not his favourite meal of the day nor his least, but the spread available to the residents of his assisted living facility was nothing short of criminal.
“Pills, Mr. Moore.” He turned to The Ruthless, that’s what the geriatrics called her.
“Thanks, Ruth,” he said, knocking back the paper cup housing his various medications.
“How are we today?” she asked, plucking the cup from his hand and placing it on the medication tray away from the others.
“Not s’bad, not s’bad. Back’s giving me hell, but I’ll live,” he said.
“Don’t cuss, Mr. Moore. There’s medication for pain in your medley. Relief will come in a few minutes.”
“Are you ready for the battery?” Ruth asked.
The battery, a series of questions about his life and past, was a symbol for why Randy had been placed in Rolling Acres. Late-stage dementia—an unwelcome addition to his cosmic pension plan.
“Not so up for it now, Ruth. Can we push it off?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the crumbled remains of the potatoes.
“Now, now. Best to put the unpleasant things behind us, yes?” Ruth placed the tray on the table and produced a laminated list with the words Moore Tuesday across the top. “What is your middle name, Mr. Moore?”
“Bernard,” he said. “It’s a shit name.”
The large nurse’s lips pressed together.
“Language, Mr. Moore. Now…” Her eyes scanned the list. “What was the name of your first dog?”
“Chastity. My father always said it was a great irony, since she’d take a hump from any tramp around.”
Ruth took the list and slapped Randy over the head, drawing looks from the other residents. None spoke out.
“What are your children’s names?”
“Margarette, Francis, and —” He hesitated and lifted his eyes from the plate.
A white spot formed in his mind.
“— Lennox,” he finished.
Ruth smiled. “Very good, Mr. Moore. That’ll be all.”
Randy’s son, Leonard, came to visit that afternoon. By then, the realization that he’d forgotten his eldest boy’s name had taken hold and soured his mood.
“Tough day, Pop?”
“Like your mother’s London broil.”
Leonard laughed. “I remember those. Couldn’t pay a dog a Milk-Bone to choke one down.”
“What brings you out today? No work?”
“It’s summer, Dad. I’m a teacher. No work today or for a few more weeks yet.”
Randy felt that another bout of patronizing explanations were on the horizon and chose to get out ahead of them. “Right. Right. Keep trucking along to retirement.” He gestured around the room. “The grass is most definitely greener on this side.”
Leonard leaned back as though he was dodging a punch. “Oooof, you are in a mood. Want to talk about anything?”
“Nothing in particular.” He paused. “Sorry.” Randy made to stand.
“I’ve got something that may cheer you up,” Leonard leaned forward, producing a black, leather-bound book. “Found it while we were cleaning out the attic and putting together the heirlooms that mom wanted to pass down to her grandkids. Look familiar?”
Randy’s eyes fell on the book and flicked up to Leonard. “That’s my black book.”
The book had seen about as many hard miles as Randy’s sun-worn face, judging by a cover that had been opened and bent around the back often enough to leave a permanent crease near the binding. Didn’t crack, though. Things were made better back when he’d picked this up for two dollars at the local general store near the barracks.
“Had it before even Korea, right, Dad?” Leonard asked.
Randy’s eyes cleared at the mention of the war. “Around then, yes.”
“Do you still think about the war?”
Randy didn’t answer the question. Forgetting the war was a mercy. Men and women losing their lives for what amounted to little men in big clothes drawing lines on a map. Those memories—those, he could live without.
Leonard said, “Might have some old war buddies in here you can call up.” He produced a late model smartphone from his pocket and swiped the screen to unlock it. “We all pitched in and bought this for you, just in case the phones here are too wonky.”
Randy ignored the phone. He couldn’t think of which men were dead and which were alive. The bodies were shipped home, but those souls were pinned to the battle-scarred earth of that peninsula. He was sure of that fact.
The fog cleared, and Randy felt the weight of silence. “That’s very thoughtful, Lenny. I appreciate it.”
“Sure, Pop. Is there anything else you can think of for us to bring down here for you?” he asked, standing now with good deed done.
“Oh, no. Just maybe the kids now and again. I like the little one,” Randy said, remembering Leonard’s children as they’d been twenty years ago. The little one, Susan, was now 23 and beginning work on her psychology doctorate.
Leonard said, “Sure. We’ll bring them by.”
“Love you, Lennox,” Randy said.
“Love you, Pop,” Leonard said.
His black book sat on the nightstand and became a fixture in the room, not unlike paintings of fox hunts on walls or pictures of family members nestled in ornate frames on dressers. The days dawned and the nights stole their light, pills were presented and followed by bland meals, occasional visitors entered and inevitably left. These were the signposts of Randy’s days.
When September arrived, it brought with it a chill that settled into Randy’s lungs. It may have been being pinned to the bed with a bad bout of pneumonia that caused him to finally reach for the black book, or perhaps simply an inevitable pull like two magnets brought within the inescapable reach of one another. He held it, feeling the edges of the dried pages slide across his calloused thumbs and registered his own voice reciting names aloud.
“Patricia Sinclair,” a woman he’d had dealings with when he was working as an appliance repairman; “Rory McMurray,” his wife Bridget’s cousin, the only one Randy liked; “Alan McCormick,” Randy’s friend and poker buddy who died ten years. Embolism.
“Meredith Crowley.” Randy stopped at the name. There were no white spots in his mind now, just the sound of a pump and monitor scrolling his blood oxygen readings.
Randy’s eyes opened to reveal an opaque cavern. No light. The darkness beneath the door barred even an invasive sliver. He made to adjust himself and push the call button for a nurse but found he was unable to move.
He wasn’t panicked. Not yet. It was the feeling that there was someone in the room with him that brought panic from where it dwelled inside.
The thought that he’d had a stroke arose but fled when a black hand settled on the white cotton blanket draped over him. The colour black was what his mind used to rationalize the hand, but what Randy saw was colour swallowed as though a slice of the great void had been personified.
Pressure mounted on Randy’s chest as the springs in the bed creaked under an immense weight; his sternum’s natural rise and fall ebbed as his ability to take in breath became impossible. Randy heard a mixture of static and whispering, the sound growing until it rattled within his skull.
The bedside monitor blared its low blood oxygen alert, and the force on his chest lifted. The extrication, so sudden that his body left the bed as the mattress springs released the energy stored within, preceded lights flicking on overhead and staff pouring into the room.
After the team gave him a once over, they quickly left him. Randy reoriented the tubes that delivered oxygen to his sodden lungs and turned his body to the side to face a source of light. Just as exhaustion was about to overcome the last dregs of the willpower he had mustered to stay awake, he saw the screen of his phone blink on.
Ralot. Unknown sender.
Randy enjoyed an improved condition along with his oatmeal the following morning. He’d convinced himself that the events of last night were nothing more than a fevered dream. The day nurse assessed him, and he was taken off his oxygen tank and freed to move about the limited open areas of the facility. He didn’t feel the need to do laps around the place like some others, but he did enjoy an occasional walk to see Rayn.
Stephen Raynor, just Rayn to his friends, was cut from the same mold as Randy. Though he too was a veteran, the two rarely spoke of their time in the service. That suited both men just fine.
Randy made a slow pace and entered the game room. The usual crew played cribbage in the corner, a man Randy didn’t know constructed a card castle on an old poker table, and Rayn sat hunched as he studied a chess board.
“Can’t figure out how you play alone,” Randy said as he approached.
Rayn looked up with a surprised expression followed by bemusement. “Ain’t playin’ alone, Rand. The moves er sent t’ me, an’ I fix the board. Latest one came dis mornin’. Gotta sen’ one back soon, otterwise I just ain’t bein’ polite.”
A stroke a few months back had taken Rayn’s speech down a few pegs and maybe sent some of it up a few more — Randy really didn’t know.
“Well, that’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about. How does this other fellow send you his moves?” Randy asked as he took up a folding chair near Rayn.
“I’mnn a faceboog ‘roup—the ProKnights. This player is ppppretty ‘ood,” Rayn said.
Randy nodded empathetically as Rayn got the words out. “My son, Lenny, he dropped by and gave me this.” Randy waved the phone in the air in front of Rayn. “I got a message on it, and I don’t understand it. Thought maybe you could help me.” Randy placed the phone on the table with the chessboard.
Rayn took it up in hands gnarled by arthritis. “The ‘essage ‘ays unown sen’er,” Rayn said. “You ‘ive out the numb rto anywody?”
“No. I don’t even know it. Couldn’t figure out how to make a call on that thing if I had a gun pointed at me and a fella telling me to call for help,” Randy said. Rayn took the time to show him how to open messages along with how to use the phone call application. He opened the contacts and both men saw that Lenny had put all the numbers from Randy’s black book into the phone for him.
“You ‘an call hem like this.” Rayn showed Randy how to bring a contact into a phone call. “Or you ‘an jus dial em in the ol’ashioned way.”
Randy’s brain fired on the cylinders needed to learn well enough today. He picked up on how to use the phone from Rayn’s tutorial. “Reepy ‘essage, in any ‘vent,” Rayn said.
“Glad it wasn’t just me,” Randy added, staring at the alien tech.
The Ruthless poked her head in the room. “There you are, Mr. Moore. You left the dining area before taking your medication, tsk tsk tsk,” she said. The cribbage players looked at her sidelong from their cards with well-practiced hostile expressions. “Come now, Mr. Moore, let’s get you medicated and tested.”
“Why ‘idn’t you jus bring the ‘amn tray in ‘ere wit you?” Rayn asked. “Seemin ‘ike you’re ‘oubling the work.”
“Mr. Raynor, If I wanted a critical review of my daily duties, I’d read the gripe cards from the box out front. Now you just keep playing your silly game and leave me to mine.” She turned to leave and bumped the table, toppling Rayn’s pawns and a knight.
Randy stood and let her take him. As he rounded the corner to the hallway, the ghost of a smile touched his lips. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard his friend utter, “Uly itch.”
Randy was subjected to the usual routine: pills, quiz, and a fake smile from The Ruthless. He stood by the motto that fighting her was a fool’s errand. If you just gave her what she wanted, she left you well enough alone in a short period of time. Really, time was the most precious commodity around here.
He took to the walking path after and thought about the night before. The white spots had been few and far between since he’d woken up today. Memories from his childhood returned. A paper route he’d had where he’d thrown a bundle through the window of a soon-to-be angry customer’s front door.
The war cropped up. He thought of Crowley and bloody ridge. The kid couldn’t do a damned thing right. Once, he’d dropped a mortar into a tube that wasn’t locked down and the damned thing fell on its side. By the grace of the Almighty, the tootsie roll didn’t fire down their line and wipe out half of his squad, but that little miff by Crowley had every tube stroker digging shit ditches for a month.
Randy never had a problem with the other private, but the unit did give Crowley the treatment. From replacing the meat in one of his rations with a dead rat to filling his boots with piss while he slept, there was no quarter for Crowley. The kid didn’t help matters by being a card-carrying coward, either. Earned the nickname “Crawly” because when the bullets were winging through the air, he’d be down in the mud slithering like a snake for cover.
Randy eventually succumbed to the thought of Crowley in a foxhole dug deep in the mud, water creeping up to his chin as he screamed for help. The old man shook his head. It worked like churning up a Magic 8-Ball, but this time, the fortune would have read better not tell you now as it led him back to the black hand on his chest and the message on his phone.
The hand was real, and its intention had been to kill him. He had no doubt of that after thinking on the matter with a clear mind. But what could he do about it? Residents were as isolated and alone as an inmate in solitary when lights out was called. Just a person and the demons they brought in with them.
The day ended, the lights dimmed, the doors shut. Randy felt the seductive call of solitude. He decided to leave the light on by the short hallway leading into his room and turn on the television set. It shouldn’t alert the night staff to his breech of the rulebook if he kept it muted.
Crawling into bed, Randy picked up the phone and inserted the charger. On a whim, he opened the messenger application and punched in his son’s number from memory, an act that would have been impossible yesterday.
He typed, HI LEONARD, THANK YOU FOR THE PHONE. DID YOU OR ANYONE SEND ME A MESSAGE YESTERDAY?
The swoosh sound startled him, and he endeavored to mute the phone so the staff wouldn’t hear what he was up to. A slight rush filled him, and he smiled like a kid in a tent fort.
The replies came silently.
no we didn’t send a message
think you have the caps lock on.
He clicked the button to darken the screen, slid the phone onto the nightstand, and placed his head on a pillow that was too soft. A few final moments of consciousness allowed Randy to register that the television showed reruns of Magnum, P.I. before he fell asleep. The last thought he had was to wonder if Tom Selleck was still alive or not. He thought he was.
Randy awoke on his side facing the blacked-out windowpane of his bedroom. The presence of a deeper dark came to his attention before the realization of his paralysis. Flickering light danced on the walls before the television cut out.
Randy blinked and strained. He heard it—the static whispering began in his head, but this time it was louder. Clearer.
Ralot . . . Ralot . . . Ralot . . .
The presence of something became apparent. Randy felt it behind him, as though the atmosphere was heavier there.
Depressing springs within the bed squeaked as a weight settled on the foot and a half of unoccupied mattress to Randy’s back. He willed his body to move, but his will was encased within his mind. To blink his eyes before they became starved for moisture was all he could muster.
Two fingers scrolled down his spine. Small glints of light, refracted from the window, allowed for him to make out a figure — a deeper darkness distorted in the reflection. It was impossible to discern, a Rorschach image.
Ralot, Randy. The static laden voice filled his right ear. Ralot. Its ink blot hand crept to Randy’s face and covered his mouth and nose.
Randy’s mind dragged as he was suffocated, his eyes rolling back in his head, before a lightning flash brought him relief. He could still see the figure, but it had crouched back behind him in a manner all too familiar to Randy. It was taking cover.
Half a minute passed before it crept upon him once more, only for another flash of light to send it screeching down. His hand twitched, his leg kicked, and Randy shot up in the bed like a man half his age. Freed, mind and body, his thoughts raced.
“Shadow,” he said aloud and looked to the side of the bed to see where it had gone. Nothing. He gathered the courage to check beneath the bed. Nothing.
The window revealed thunderheads rolling through the night and the phone screen came alive.
Ralot, Randy. Unknown Sender.
Morning came, and Randy welcomed the sun from a chair in the corner of his room. He had not slept again after his haunting encounter with the abyssal figure. Randy had been steeling himself for death. His body had long been on the back end of its Kelley Blue Book value.
It was the unknown that kept him from palming his pills to make a check out cocktail. Randy trudged on with his days not due to the idea that taking matters into his own hands was a wrongful enough action to warrant eternal damnation. It was not knowing what was after this life at all that stalled him. Tartarus’s flames stoked no fear like those conjured by the unknown.
Randy took the phone and the book and walked to the cafeteria. The Ruthless sensed his foul mood and conducted her little business with brevity. She noted aloud about his memory being quite pristine over the past few days.
Sunshine worked its way through the damp remnants of the storm as the bedraggled old man made his way to the walking path and settled on a bench situated nearby. The book cracked open to reveal Meredith Crowley’s phone number. The sounds of ragged breathing were his only company during the eternity before she answered.
“Yes, hello. Is Meredith Crowley in?” Randy asked.
There was a pause. “She’s deceased. May I ask who’s calling?”
“Randy Moore. I served with her husband,” Randy said with a sigh. “I am sorry to hear of her passing.”
“I’m Danielle, Meredith and Franklin’s daughter. You say you served in the war with my dad?”
“Yes, we toured in Korea together. I was with your father through most of the conflict.”
“I see. I’m sorry, Mr. Moore. I wish I could be of more help to you,” Danielle said.
“There’s something else,” Randy said. “You see, I was supposed to look in on your mother after your dad died, and I wasn’t able. He died in my presence.” Randy paused to take a deep breath before he continued. “And I never pulled together the mettle to contact her. I am so sorry, Danielle.”
The rush of relief Randy hoped to have at finally speaking the words to describe how he’d felt for the last fifty or so years never came. It was naïve to assume it would have, he supposed. This wasn’t about cleaning the slate for his own sake, but righting a wrong before he punched his ticket. Still, some relief would have been welcome.
“Mr. Moore, my mother was pregnant with me when my father left for the war. I never did get to meet the man, but I was told he was good. A sweet man. My mother must have thought so, but she never had the chance to tell me because she died when I was three. This old house is all I have to know them by.”
Randy’s raspy breaths invaded the receiver. “I am sorry. So very sorry for all you bore. If I may ask, how did your mother pass?”
“She committed suicide,” the daughter of Franklin Crowley said to Randy. “Goodbye, Mr. Moore.”
Randy blinked away tears in the late morning sun, yet the world moved on around him. Birds took flight and sang their annoyance to the squirrels bounding about the trees. The sun journeyed across the sky, and he remained until the staff came for him.
Indoors, Randy walked away from the staff to the game room. Rayn was not there. The others explained that Mr. Raynor had been moved to hospice after experiencing another stroke. The chess board was still arranged for his game, and Randy saw the white king laying on its side. Rayn had finished his contest.
The sky was draped with violet as the door to his room slid closed, and Randy took up a seat by the window. His finger slid across the phone, opening the messenger application.
He keyed in the numbers to all of his children. Hello all of you. I have something I want to tell you before it’s too late. To start, I always tried to be a good dad to you. I think I hit the mark on that, or at the very least, had a near miss. Anyway, It’s important you understand why I always believed a man is measured and weighed when circumstances are at their most dire. For me, that was during an ugly scrum we had with the KPA in a place we called bloody ridge. A soldier named Crowley and I weathered it together in a foxhole. We sheltered from mortar fire and delivered enough punishment to stave off a KPA advance. Us and others.
Randy’s mind conjured the ridge. The night was dark, and sheets of rain shrouded the details of the landscape giving everything the nondescript feel of a dream. Punctuations of muzzle flashes from their M1 Garands were the only illumination other than nearby mortar blasts, which lit up the sky with small bits of hell.
The rain poured into our foxhole as fast as we bailed it out with our helmets. It kept coming, that rain. The only thing more persistent than the enemy throwing their own bodies at us was the rain beating on us from heaven. We’d been lucky, Crowley and I, and hadn’t seen so much flak as some of the others in our unit. But wells dry up all the time and luck isn’t any different. The mortar shelling came for us as the storm fever reached a fever pitch.
I remember being numb. When I tell you that, I’m not trying to make it sound like I was brave. None of us were brave. We were just trying to live to see the next day. That’s what war really becomes when confrontations slice moments into eternities. But fear, that’s something that can take hold of you. We were animals running from a forest fire, instinct driving us. After a time of behaving like cogs in a clock, a shell whistled down with our number on it, but we had the good fortune of it slamming into to the side of our hole instead of dropping right in with us.
The side of the pit collapsed from the shock of our shell and Crowley got himself covered in mud and muck right up to his chest. The water kept coming. I tried to free him, but that mud was like nothing you’ve ever seen. It just wouldn’t leave its grasp on him.
Randy stopped tapping the screen to wipe tears from his eyes.
I leaned in close and told Crowley I had to let him stand pat. That he’d be safer there in the hole than he’d be where I was heading, but I had to leave him. I told him to keep crawling up in the mud, told him to just crawl out. That he was the only one who could wiggle himself free. Then I left him.
I watched that hole all night from the cover of the trees, but Crowley never crawled out.
The sun eventually rose and showed us the carnage we had unleashed on each other during that fight. I screwed up the courage to go look in on Crowley, but he wasn’t there. Just mud and water in that hole. It took us hours to dig him up so he could be shipped home.
I’d spent the whole rest of the night whispering for him to crawl out. I saw the face of death in the choice to stay and the animal in me screamed to run. The man in me couldn’t pin that animal down.
Randy looked hard at the message and made sure he didn’t want to add anything more. The time for leaving things out had long passed.
Being a good father and husband is a banner I’ve flown, but I want you kids to know that it isn’t enough. You’ve got to listen to that good voice, the one that tells you to do a thing when all else inside tells you to run. It’s all that bars the door from evil finding you, that voice is.
I love you all.
Randy tapped send and placed the phone on the nightstand. The light, usually darkened after a minute of inactivity, never did turn black. Buzzing sounds of static emanated from the speakers of the gadget, the gadget he wished had never plugged him into the void of his unconscious awareness. The abyssal figure manifested across the room, unwrapping existence as it appeared in the darkness. Randy had turned off the lights to give easy ingress to the avatar of his torment. Its eagerness to devour him wouldn’t let him die naturally, he knew. The time had come to face it.
The figure shambled toward the old man who’d become disillusioned of any hope of mercy he’d managed to keep so far. Chaos and pain filled his senses.
Crawl out, Randy. Crawl out.
Tendrils of darkness intertwined with his body, and Randy realized as he peered into nothingness that it was not the presence of darkness defining the abyss, but rather the absence of light.
Martin Kearns is a special education and language arts teacher to alternative high school students who, like him, see the world a touch differently.