Death at White Oaks Retirement Center
by Hope Hammond
part 1 of 2
Robert kept his head down, intent on his meal. Salisbury steak tonight and it needed salt. One of the worst things about growing old was cutting out things he loved, like sodium. The other people in the dining hall ate eagerly, happy just to be able to move around.
One of the residents, Carla, gossiped too loudly about her roommate’s nighttime habits. Her hearing aid must be on the fritz again. Merv, nurse’s aide and idiot dipstick, wheeled a food cart to people. Everything seemed normal, despite the recent deaths at White Oaks. The others didn’t believe Robert, weren’t taking his warning to heart.
Robert shoveled a piece of steak. The residents’ lack of fear wasn’t his problem. By tomorrow morning he’d be halfway to his daughter’s. There was no way he’d let himself be killed off by some creature, some sort of hellish creature.
Edna Radner’s voice grated good evening on Robert’s ears. He frowned at the slight woman as she sat opposite him. Her nightgown billowed out on a draft of air.
“Oh my,” She caught the silky fabric and tucked it under her thigh, “Felt a bit of a breeze there.” Her loosely dangled earrings caught Robert’ s eye. An unusual adornment, she wore them every day. Her earrings were a pair of shark’s teeth hanging by a short chain and clip.
“Evening Edna,” Robert mouthed around a chunk of steak. Edna had come to White Oaks a few weeks ago. Robert remembered it well. It was the day after that demon had the soul of Mrs. Perkins for its monthly meal.
He saw the earrings the first time as Edna was being introduced by one of the nurses in the activity room. He glanced up from the television and for a glimpsing moment Robert panicked, thinking the teeth were attached to some other demon. It even caused him to jump out of his seat, provoking some of the other residents to laughter. Then his eyes focused and he saw Edna, an old wiry woman with nothing more dangerous to him than her crochet needles.
Edna often said she wore the earrings as reminders. To which someone would always ask what they reminded her of. She’d get a glint in her gray eyes and say that they helped her to know her place in the world.
Merv came over. He checked her name off a list and placed a warm tray in front of her.
“See any demons lately, Robert?” he said.
Robert stabbed his mashed potatoes. “Bite me, Merv.”
He gnashed the teeth in his round placid face. Then moved on.
Robert sliced the remaining steak into tiny cubes. He sopped a piece in gravy, ate a few more bites of steak, and used his butter knife to scoot some peas onto his fork. Edna toyed with her steak, her lower lip jutting out.
“Oh, I just have a hankering for something else.” She rubbed her stomach. “Do you ever have cravings for something and you just can’t seem to find it?”
“Constantly,” he muttered, eyeing her salty-oniony steak.
She put some mashed potatoes in her mouth and grimaced. Robert rolled his eyes. She did this at every meal. Nothing seemed to satisfy her.
Edna swallowed. “I left my medication in my room.” She got up, waving a hand at Merv, “Would you just watch my food until I get back?”
He nodded, turning to pick up Edna’s tray and gnashing teeth maniacally at Robert.
“Thank you.” Edna purred, smiling sweetly.
Robert turned back to his food, sopping up more gravy, scooping more peas. Dinner with Edna was something Robert never endured longer than necessary. After scraping the last pea he stood to leave.
A gray figure slid through the entryway. He glanced around, his heart thumping. The residents continued their idiotic talk. Merv walked blindly through the creature, distorting its filmy body. The man didn’t even shiver. It drifted forward, blank eye sockets staring into Robert.
It’s come to take me, Robert thought. He considered moving, running, something, anything. He couldn’t budge, save for squeezing his eyes shut, so he wouldn’t have to watch the creature rip out his soul.
The cold rushed over him. He heard the cries, the voices of the souls it had already devoured, flooding his head with the noise. Robert screamed. He screamed as hard and loud as he ever had. The voices went silent.
“Are you all right?” Merv yelled.
Robert opened his eyes. He was still screaming, his hands clapped over his ears. Robert stopped. He looked around the dining room and caught sight of the creature gliding along its way behind him. It passed through his body.
The others gaped at Robert. Carla asked the woman next to her if Robert was the crazy one. He took a few shaky steps forward. “Yeah, excuse me.” He pushed by Merv. Robert stumbled to the hallway where he leaned against a wall. Robert’s chest ached. He rubbed his shoulder.
Robert pulled out a pill bottle. He fiddled with it, banged the bottle on the wall till the lid popped off and put a pill in his mouth.
“Robert, you having another attack?” Merv had wandered out of the dining room after him.
Robert stood from the wall to show that he could still stand under his own power. “I’m fine, thanks.”
“Would you like me to escort you back to your room?” he asked.
“It’s fine, really.”
“Well, alright then.” He stepped back. Robert tried to smile at Merv the way Edna did. It didn’t work. Lapsing into his normal bearing, he wheedled away down the hall.
The cries still resounded in Robert’s mind. He shook his head to erase the audio memory. He felt sick, way down in his gut, maybe even in his soul. No man should ever have to see what kind of evils could eat a person up.
Robert rounded a corner. He leaned into the wall. The souls of those people were trapped and mutilated from now until God knows when. Eternity perhaps.
That must be the Hell of the good book. Kidnapped, mangled and trapped in the stomach of some creature. There’s no judgement in that, only unfortunates in the right place at the wrong time. White Oaks Retirement Center was ripe with people in the right place at the wrong time.
He wasn’t going to be one of those people. He’d run from here. When it came his turn to die, he’d get far from the sight of any death creatures and leave his body in safety. He would not spend eternity negotiating the bowels of a demon. Robert continued to his room.
It was empty. One of housekeeping staff pulled the eggshell colored curtains back to let light in. The window was nailed shut, but it had a nice view. Robert eased into the rocking chair.
He’d leave tonight. That way he had a better chance of slipping out without notice. He could figure out what to do from there.
Robert rocked the time away, trying not to think about the voices. He thought he’d heard Eddy’s in the mix.
Eddy had told Robert about the Death Creature one night after playing poker with a couple of guys. They used pills as bargaining chips because no one had any use for money in here.
“Hola,” Eddy cried, when someone threw in a Viagra. He stuck his finger in his mouth and pulled it out, making a popping sound. Everyone laughed.
Robert tried to remember if Eddy won that round. He must have. He was extremely jovial after their game broke up. On the way back to their rooms, Eddy stopped at the door of Michel Burgman and crossed himself. Robert wasn’t Catholic, but he bowed his head. Michel had died earlier that day. The head nurse spent hours tracking down the family only to find out they were in Panama on vacation.
Eddy whispered that it was the Death Creature that took him. Robert laughed at the time thinking it was a joke. Eddy looked funny. He said it was true, that there were creatures no one saw, predators lurking in the halfway between, the places dividing the physical realm from the metaphysical.
Robert didn’t know what to make of Eddy after that. It left him with a tension in his gut, made him wary to walk the hallways alone.
Robert stood from the rocking chair. He packed up a change of clothes. He’d have his daughter send for the rest of his things. He grinned. He’d been telling her for months that he needed to leave. Staff at the center suggested to her that he was mildly delusional after he made the mistake of telling anyone who would listen about the Death Creature. She stopped coming to visit with that bald husband of hers. Even after he’d gone to the bother of faking a heart attack. Robert relished the thought of her shocked face when he showed up.
He peeked outside. It was after eleven and close to shift change. He banked on most of the staff lounging in the break room. He slid down the empty hall, aware of being caught, either by the Death Creature or Merv. Robert headed for the kitchen. Shut down for the night, it was his best chance to escape, out the back entrance where trucks delivered pureed apricots.
He reached an intersection and stuck his head around the corner. Merv leaned against the receptionist’s counter by the front entrance. He made bedroom eyes at the pretty young woman behind it. She was a nice girl who said “ Hello, Mr. Griffin” to Robert every morning. Robert always smiled and nodded at her, unable to remember her name.
Merv leaned closer and she rolled her chair back a few feet. Merv didn’t have a chance with her. The more he leaned in the further she moved away. She slowly managed to wheel her office chair to the far end of her little enclosure. Merv was bent over the receptionist’s counter on his tippy toes, grinning idiotically. Robert shook his head.
Edna walked into view on the other side of the intersection. Her nightgown flowed out on some invisible updraft, making her body pillow-like. Edna walked slowly, pausing by each of the rooms. She tilted her head listening, then eyes narrowed she’d move to the next closed door.
“Edna,” Robert hissed at her, “lurking outside people’s doors?”
She looked at him, her eyes dark and glassy with wide pupils. “Robert?”
He ran past the open part of the hall to get to Edna. He tugged on her arm. “Come on now, Edna. You shouldn’t be out of your room this late.” Robert glanced in the direction he was heading. He could still make it. The thought of leaving Edna out in the open bothered him.
“No,” Edna’s arm, passed completely through his fingers. “I was looking for...”
“Ha. I knew it,” Merv bellowed. Robert groaned. A heavy hand landed on Robert’s shoulder.
Robert thought about making a run for it. The kitchen wasn’t far. His body tensed. His heart leaped against his ribcage. Freedom was so close.
“Don’t even think it, old man.” Merv squeezed Robert’s shoulder.
“I have to leave,” Robert turned on Merv. He struggled to breathe. A tight band wrapped around his chest. A sharp ache cramped his heart. He had to get out. Robert took out his pills. He struggled with the lid. Merv took it and opened the bottle for him. Robert grunted and popped a couple.
“I’m taking the two of you back to your rooms. I don’t want to see you out here again.”
* * *
Robert wandered along the light gray back wall of the activity room the next day. An impromptu bingo game quietly competed with the “Lawrence Welk Show” on television.
“B29,” A volunteer called out and five competitors placed their chips.
Robert moved to a free rocking chair by a group of artificial trees in the sun room. It had been built onto the activity room a few years ago. When the head nurse started reading into the beneficial effects of sunlight on old depressed people. There were two or three other occupied rockers, each with its own cluster of trees for privacy. A nurse wheeled around with her cart, handing out the daily medications.
Robert rocked his chair, sucking on a butterscotch candy. He couldn’t just walk out the front doors. He’d tried that already. He couldn’t convince his daughter to come and sign him out. Robert was certain that he could get out and it had to be soon, but how?
He stared out one of the windows. It had a broken latch. Whenever the wind blew it hissed in through the crack. Robert smiled. That window had definite possibilities.
“Here you go, Mrs. Briat,” The nurse said to a woman in the rocker next to Robert’s. She handed her a small plastic container of pills and a Dixie cup of water. Mrs. Briat gave her a pudgy smile.
Robert took his water from the nurse and set it on the glass table top next to his chair. He spit the half-gone butterscotch into his free hand, popped the pills and gulped them down with the water.
Mrs. Briat’s cup landed on the floor next to Robert’s slippered foot. “I’ll get that.” He bent down. Robert set the cup on the table and glanced at Mrs. Briat.
Her soft fat mouth opened to reveal teethless gums. Mrs. Briat’s eyes were wide behind her round rimmed reading glasses. Her hands curled in a claw-like manner clutching at her throat.
“Nurse, she’s choking,” Robert grabbed the woman’s uniform.
Robert got up when a gray shadow flowed out of the wall behind Mrs. Briat’s chair.
Copyright © 2005 by Hope Hammond