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Death at White Oaks Retirement Center

by Hope Hammond

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Part 1 appears
in this issue.


He staggered back from the pale demon. He hadn’t even seen it standing there. Its color so nearly matched the walls.

The creature loomed over her. She stared upwards in horror. Robert knew she saw it. She thrust her hands out. An attempt to push the creature away. Her hand sliced through its torso leaving whispery trails of smoke.

“Go get someone!” The nurse screamed. She tried to hoist Mrs. Briat from the chair. Mrs. Briat frantically tried to shove the creature away.

One long arm flew into the air. Instead of fingers were two flabby thumbs with a wide flat palm valleyed between. It bent the appendage towards Mrs. Briat, shoving it into her mouth. Mrs. Briat jerked upright. Her limbs went stiff, convulsions shuddering through her body.

The creature forced its ethereal arm further down her throat, sliding past the flesh and blood and bone in the physical world. It was up to its shoulder in Mrs. Briat’s mouth.

Robert looked into the face of the creature. Bile rose in Robert’s throat. Empty sockets rested on its flat bony cheeks. Its sharp-beaked turtle’ s mouth curved up at the sides in a perpetual smirk. The demon withdrew its arm. In its two thumbs a golden worm writhed, desperately flapping three sets of thin lacey wings, the essence of Mrs. Briat.

The nurse yanked Mrs. Briat out of the rocker and wrapped arms around her upper body. She forced the air from Mrs. Briat’s lungs with a sharp thrust of her fist. A white object popped from her mouth. It was an oxygen absorber capsule.

Mrs. Briat’s soul twisted in the death creature’s grip. “Oh, not again,” Robert whispered. It dangled the worm above its head. Its jaw jutted open like a cash till and closed, snapping the golden worm in half. Mrs. Briat’s soul flailed, flinging golden drops of bloody light that landed on the beige carpet. The mouth opened again and the worm disappeared inside. A lone delicate wing clung to the creature’s beak.

Merv pushed past Robert. The others gathered around Mrs. Briat’s body. She lay stiffly. Her eyes flat and unfocused. The nurse checked for a pulse. Merv called her name, repeatedly.

“She’s dead,” He stumbled towards the scene, “Just like the others.”

“No, she’s still alive.” Merv said.

* * *

Robert read softly from the good book for the shell of Mrs. Briat. He and Edna were in her room. The heart monitor beeped at a steady pace. She stared towards the ceiling, her mouth open, her lips sinking into her teethless gums.

Edna sat opposite Robert, crocheting a shawl for her niece’s birthday. A nice thought, but the niece would never wear it. Robert sent money to his relations as gifts. It was easier that way.

Edna stopped humming, “She’ll be fine you know, come out of it any time.”

“How do you know that?” He felt he should have done something, anything to stop that demon. He kept going over the situation in his mind but he still came to the conclusion that he would have been as helpless, perhaps had his own soul taken from him.

“Maybe I’m psychic,” she said, not missing a beat with her needle and yarn.

“Edna, you’re no more supernatural than I am.”

Edna smiled at him. Robert looked over at Mrs. Briat. None of the others lingered like this afterwards. It must not have been Mrs. Briat’s time. Her choking drew the creature, but she wasn’t dying. Robert couldn’t watch this anymore. He had to get away from here.

“I heard that the police are going to investigate. They’re saying it’s incompetence,” Edna muttered.

Robert laughed one loud bark of sound. “That’s a hoot.”

“Really, Mrs. Briat’s choking may well have been. What with the nurse accidentally putting in that oxygen absorber from the pill jar.”

“Yeah,” Robert said. Had the creature somehow caused the nurse to make the mistake? Once again he felt the urge to leave White Oaks.

“It’ll be all right. I’ve had a bit of trouble tracking him down lately, but as soon as I find him I’ll set everything straight. You’ll see,” Edna said

“Edna, don’t make fun. This creature is real. I saw it do the exact same thing to Eddy.” It had been even more horrible with Eddy. He knew what it was. He saw it coming. Robert remembered Eddy’s eyes bulging, his pointing it out, and giving Robert the sight. He hated Eddy for that. For showing him something he could have gone to his grave without believing in.

Merv came into the room pushing a squeaky cart. “Dinnertime.” Merv maneuvered the cart around Robert’s chair. He set up Mrs. Briat’s tray and tucked a bib into her collar.

“Come now, aren’t you hungry?” Merv picked up a spoonful of pureed peas and zoomed it in the air before landing it in her open mouth. She lolled the green mush in her mouth.

“See, she must be better. She’s eating,” Edna said.

“She’s catatonic, Edna. It’s an automatic response.” Robert frowned at Merv. He was flying applesauce into Mrs. Briat’s mouth now. “You know that’s degrading.”

“As long as she’s eating,” Merv said. He wiped applesauce from her chin.

“You don’t have to do the stupid airplane thing,” Robert said. He gestured at the spoon in Merv’s hand.

“Do you want to feed her?” Merv turned on Robert, looking ready to gore.

“Merv, he didn’t mean anything by it,” Edna said, “We think you’re doing a very good job. Don’t we, Robert?” Edna looked at Robert.

Robert wasn’t going to reply, until Edna brandished her crocheting needle in a threatening manner.

“Yeah,” he grunted. That pacified Merv, who went back to feeding Mrs. Briat.

“I’m getting out of here,” Robert grumped. He set the bible on a bedside table and stood up. Robert walked out. He wasn’t going to be one of those people.

Crying came from the entryway to White Oaks. Robert slowed as he approached it. Did the creature find another victim so soon?

He identified the head nurse, the receptionist Janice or Joan something and a little man in a dark suit with a briefcase. The man gestured at the head nurse.

His voice was high and nasally, “Seven people have died here in not less than eight months. We will shut you down.”

“An accident,” cried a woman. It was the same nurse who’d nearly killed Mrs. Briat. Robert hadn’t noticed her. She’d been hiding behind the receptionist. Her hands clenched and unclenched as if looking to wring the little man’s throat.

“I will not have you disturb our residents. Leave,” the head nurse said to the little man.

She towered over him by three inches. He puffed up his chest, looked up into her face.

“Out.” She pointed at the door.

Robert waited until the man was out the front entrance before starting down the hall. He gave the group wide berth. They were so engrossed in conversation they never noticed Robert.

He reached his room. It was eerily quiet. Robert listened hard for sounds. He felt a measure of relief when he detected a bird singing outside and a vacuum in some distant part of the center. Robert took his seat.

The broken window in the Sun room would provide his escape route. If Merv stopped him, Robert could watch television in the activity room. The dipstick could hang around as long as he wanted. He’d get bored sometime and go find a nurse to harass.

* * *

At eleven he stuck his head outside. The hall was empty, most of the doors were closed.

Robert skirted the corner, staying close to the wall. His loafers muffled his footsteps. He breathed through his mouth. His chest ached, but not too much. He could handle it.

He stopped at the end of the hall. Edna’s door was open, the light off. Robert thought she was probably wandering around again. He sidestepped the room, hurrying to the Sun room.

A traffic reporter spoke out from the television in the activity room. Blue light coated the four walls. Edna and Carla sat in cushy chairs watching it. So that’s where she is, he thought.

“The television is a little too loud,” Edna said. She reached forward to turn it down.

“Eh, I can barely hear it,” croaked the other woman. The back of her puffy white head poked over the top of the chair.

Edna leaned to speak into Carla’s ear. “You need to turn your hearing aid up.”

“Yes, I do think he’s hot.”

“No, Carla you need to turn up the hearing aid,” Edna yelled. She settled back into her chair. A high pitched whine strained Robert’s ears as Carla adjusted the device. Robert edged along behind them, barely breathing. He was certain they could hear the painful thud in his chest. Well, maybe Carla wouldn’t hear.

Edna rubbed her stomach. “I’m hungry.” She glanced around the room.

Robert dove behind a group of rocking chairs faster than his arthritis preferred.

“What did you say?” Carla asked.

“I said I was, never mind.”

Robert managed to stand. He felt as if a nurse tightened a girdle around his middle. Robert limped to the group of rockers where that demon attacked Mrs. Briat. A stabbing sensation ripped its way through his chest.

Get outside first, then take my pills... Robert fiddled with the window. He pushed it up, the effort wrenching his chest. Okay, maybe I’ll take the pills now.

He slid against the wall. Robert took the pill bottle out of his pocket. A rush of cold air washed over him. Robert glanced up. He managed a garbled cry before fear paralyzed him.

The gray mist form of the death creature came at him. His pill bottle clutched unopened in his hand wouldn’t do him good even if he could take one. He’d only end up like Mrs. Briat.

“Who is that? What’s going on?” Robert heard Edna calling. Go. Run, it’ll get you next. He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t move his mouth.

The creature’s empty eyes were already pulling him into the hellish pit of its stomach. It raised its two-pronged limb into the air.

“Ahem.” Edna stood behind the creature. Her arms crossed, her face stern. For a moment Robert thought she must have been talking to him. She wasn’t looking at Robert. She was looking at the demon.

It turned on the air to face Edna. The paralysis eased up. Robert slammed the pill bottle on the thin carpet. It popped open in a rush of white capsules. He put a pill in his mouth.

“Edna, run,” he gasped, waving with his hand. She continued to stare at the wispy creature. “I’m very hungry now,” Edna said. She uncrossed her arms. There was a certain smile on her lips. Her eyelids were lowered. Edna opened her mouth. She inhaled a deep wheezing breath, exhaled a gush of moist air. Robert thought of the folks who came in with emphysema. They constantly told the nurses they couldn’t catch their breath.

Her breathing got loud, increasing in intensity. Robert could feel the rush of her breath from across the room. In and out of her mouth the wind grew. It filled the tiny space. He was in the middle of a tropical storm. The plants shook. Their broad leaves pulled and pushed by the force of hurricane Edna.

The creature was in trouble. Its body caught in her breath, became distorted and wispy. It struggled to break free, but only lost more of itself to Edna. With each inhale the wisps moved closer to her mouth.

Edna’s eyes focused on one tantalizingly near spiral. She exhaled and inhaled with a renewed force. Robert saw the gray spiral slide inside her mouth.

The creature screamed. Its sharp beak parted in agony. Robert heard only the wind and rustling of the leaves. More of the demon lost shape swirling into Edna’s mouth

Soon the creature was only a frantic cloud of gray with beaky mouth and gaping eyes. There was a flitter of gold at the edge of its maw. A golden worm flew out, half of its body missing. It danced around the ceiling until it s other half flew out to join it. The two halves flitted about, colliding in a flash. The two were one again.

Three more halves popped out, then four, then three, gushing out in a river of writhing gold. The air filled with golden flashes. Most of them disappeared, cracked out of existence; others flitted away looking for old bodies.

Robert glanced at Edna to see the last wisp of gray sucked into her mouth. It snapped shut. The rasping wind ceased in the same moment. A few flashes flickered in the palms.

“Edna?” He was awestruck. He didn’t know what to say. “What are you?”

She burped politely. “Excuse me.” She yawned and patted her stomach. “You should have realized Robert, that a creature such as that would have its own predator to deal with.” She teetered to the chair in front of the television. Carla was watching Matlock in pure unhearing bliss.

Edna looked back at Robert, “You don’t have to be afraid. I find human souls entirely inedible.”

Copyright © 2005 by Hope Hammond

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