Previously published by Black Mirror Magazine, January 2015
The nurse hummed what might have been Beethoven or Mozart, Walter wasn’t sure. Her fixed smile didn’t change shape for even an instant as her cold fingers moved this and that out of the way and wiped him down with baby wipes. Baby wipes, for God’s sake. Her eyes were placid, like she wasn’t there at all. Walter watched her work because there was nothing else to look at. He had visually investigated every crack, corner, and dust pile in his room. She was one of the better-looking nurses, but he wouldn’t have called her pretty. Her left hand firmly gripped his cheek as her right hand wiped back to front, methodically wiping the cold disposable thoroughly along his crack.
He wondered if he should be enjoying this. It was by far the closest thing to intimacy he had felt in years. He tried laying back and closing his eyes before, earlier, when this was new, but the idea of the nurses sneering at what he used to be proud of killed him. He watched their every facial twitch, on the lookout for either disgust or ridicule.
This one was the most controlled. Some of them made small talk, even as far as commenting on his product, which Walter hated. He suspected this might have been where they began to think he was hard of hearing, for he refused to acknowledge such crude attempts at conversation. He began hating those damn nurses so much that it just gave him the smallest bit of pleasure to be able to ignore them. This one, however, never said much of anything. Her smile was always there, with her eyes soft. She was good at faking smiles, but Walter knew her mind was elsewhere. He recognized a daydreamer.
Right as she was packing up her things, someone knocked at the door. “One moment,” she said with a voice as soft as her smile, “I’m almost finished.”
Oh, Jesus, Walter thought, don’t be George or Ed. They’d already teased him about his diaper, saying they could see his bulge through his pants.
“Can Walter come out and play?” George’s raspy voice could barely contain his laughter.
“One moment,” the blonde nurse said, throwing the soiled bundle into the janitor-style trash can she wheeled from room to room, tending to all the diapered residents. She opened the door for George and wheeled the rank-smelling trolley past him.
George shook with laughter as he gripped the doorframe for support. “Caught red-handed,” he snorted. “How’s your fresh diaper feel?”
“Go to hell.” Walter crossed his arms indignantly. “I don’t wear a diaper. I pay extra for her to pleasure me, and you wish you did the same.”
“Right, old man. We’re going out tonight. Cindy is the night nurse and you know she sleeps after 9:15. We’ll meet at the west exit at 9:45. Make sure you oil the wheels to your walker. You can’t be squeaking all down these halls.”
“We’re the same damn age, old man!” Walter shouted hoarsely at George’s back.
Walter shuffled his walker several feet behind George and Ed as they walked through the automatic doors of the nearby Meijer’s. “You gotta buy something this time,” Ed was saying to George. “That guard is getting suspicious.”
“Yeah, he’s suspicious because you spend too much time in the makeup aisle,” George retorted. Walter thought they were both idiots.
“Yeah, but Irene keeps saying she wants just-the-right pink lipstick. I don’t know what the right pink is.”
“Why don’t you steal nail polish for her then?” Walter shouted from behind.
“Shhh!” Ed and George hissed in sync.
“Well, shit, nail polish isn’t so easy to mess up. Pink’s just pink in nail polish,” Walter said, refusing to shhh. “Why do you even get her makeup, anyway?”
Ed glanced this way and that for the overeager security guard.
“Because one of these days, my sad friend, her toothless mouth is going to say thank you without words.” Ed smiled and headed towards cosmetics.
“You idiot, her knees couldn’t hold her up even if she wanted to,” Walter snapped.
“Would you two shut up?” George was the instigator of most of their pranks, but also the most cautious. “Maybe Ed is onto something. Hell, I’ll get something for Rosemary, too.”
Walter shook his head and stared at Katy Perry’s face, smiling from an eight-foot cardboard cutout. Her eyes were as empty as the blonde nurse’s, Walter thought. She must be a daydreamer too. He stared at the smooth cleavage poking out of her daringly low-cut dress and willed himself to feel something. He shut out Ed and George’s bickering over just-the-right pink and swore he felt something stir.
He was still triumphantly smiling when Ed and George shuffled away from the lipsticks with their own bulges in their corduroys.
The security guard turned the corner and failed to come off as casual as he looked them over. “Come on,” George said hurriedly, “I wanted to look at a magazine, not what’s-her-face’s knockers.”
“That’s Katy Perry,” Walter retorted. “Can’t you read?” He didn’t care if the security guard was curious and he didn’t care if his friends got caught.
“I can read, and I want to read some magazines and buy one.” George said, saying ‘buy one’ a little too emphatically.
“Pornos don’t count as reading,” Walter huffed as Ed and George pored over Playboy a little bit later.
“I read it for the articles.” George laughed. “Come on, I’m buying it. It’ll shake our security tail.”
“Well, did Irene thank you how you were hoping?” Walter sneered. He already knew the answer.
“Bite me, diaper-boy,” Ed snapped. He moved his bishop, knocking over Walter’s pawn.
Walter grimaced, but settled for a non-intelligible grumble and glared at the chessboard. George walked up and pulled up a chair.
“How did your ‘right shade of pink’ turn out, playboy?” Walter said.
“She held my hand, which is more action than you’ve seen in twenty years.” George’s smile folded his face into twice as many wrinkles.
“I don’t know about that, those nurses touch him awful gentle, George.” Ed winked.
“Check mate, asshole,” Walter said and started the slow process of pushing himself out of his chair and groping for his walker.
“All right, all right, calm down, Walter. Didn’t mean to get your diaper in a twist.” Ed couldn’t keep a straight face to save his life.
“All right, that’s enough, don’t go, Walter. You know we tease you because there is nothing else to do. I could watch the flies poop in this place for entertainment.” George’s tone switched to soothing.
Walter gave up on getting up and settled back down with his arms crossed. “I don’t wear a diaper, damn it.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes as Walter and Ed mechanically reset the chess pieces and turned the board for George’s turn. “Cindy’s on duty the next two nights,” Walter began. “Should we try for more shades of pink?”
“Nah, that security guard watches us every minute we’re in there now. I can’t afford to keep buying six dollar titty magazines to cover our tracks every night.” George toyed with his chess pieces as he pondered.
“I gotta get outta here,” Ed said. “I have to breathe that fresh air. It smells like mothballs and halitosis in here. Let’s go anyway, to hell with that guard.”
“Why don’t we do something else?” Walter fiddled with the tape on his walker. “It doesn’t have to be Meijer’s… why don’t we vandalize something?”
George and Ed sat and thought for a while. Ed said, “What? You want to put your mark on the world?”
“Yeah, why not?”
The seniors silenced as a radiant young redhead walked in the room. The men all smiled as she bent down to give Ed a hug. Walter didn’t bother to look away. “Hi Grandpa, hi boys!” She sang while she pulled up a chair.
Walter dragged his walker over the rough sidewalk, twenty feet behind George and Ed. George and Ed giggled, but their hushed voices didn’t carry to Walter, who grumbled as his tired limbs lifted his walker over broken beer bottles. He saw that George and Ed weren’t waiting for him — @@make this mmdash@@they were looking into the long bag like children into Halloween sacks. Walter’s normally sharp ears couldn’t pick up their conversation over the noise of the traffic. Rap music blared as cars rushed by with blindingly bright lights. Walter was still trying to clear the brick church that could have passed for a liquor store to anyone not willing to read the sign. Large, protruding box windows cut the sidewalk into a narrow path of litter for him to navigate, with bus signs and traffic posts cutting in on the other side. Just beyond the church was an empty lot, where some artsy do-gooder decided a mural would be an advantage to the neighborhood.
Walter finally cleared the church to see George and Ed taking the spray paint cans out of the bag and shaking them as vigorously as their shriveled arms could muster. “Did you only get black?” Walter hollered as he turned towards them.
“Would you pipe down?” Ed grumbled. “What do you need colors for? It’s not like I could dilly-dally deciding on just the right shade when I was stuffing these into an empty oxygen tank bag.”
As George took his aim on the wall, blue and red lights suddenly exploded onto the scene with a sharp siren. Ed and George dropped their bag and ran into the dark alley between the mural-ed trees. Walter just waited for the damned pigs to get out of their cruiser and approach him. “Those guys with you?” they barked at him.
“No,” Walter lied, “I’ve never seen them before in my life.”
“Yeah right, three old farts in the same lot and one just a coincidence.” The officer sneered at him as the other ran after Ed and George. “Come on, Grandpa, you don’t want to start out lying to us now, do you?”
Walter grumbled something indiscernible and stared hard at the concrete.
“What were you doing tagging, anyway?” the cop asked Walter.
“Wasn’t ‘tagging’ anything, I was just walking.” Walter straightened his back as proudly as he could and gave the cop a steely look.
“Well, let’s just see what your friends have to say about that. Here they come,” he said, as the other officer emerged from the alley with George on one side and Ed on the other.
“Just don’t let it happen again, ma’am,” the officer said.
Cindy’s face was white with shock. “I can’t believe you guys. Just go to your rooms. I’ll deal with you two in a minute.” She shooed George and Ed down the other end of the hall and walked alongside Walter. “What’s going on with you, Walter? Why would you be out doing something foolish like that? It’s not like you at all. Please don’t do that ever again. You could get hurt.”
When Walter mumbled and played deaf, she put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Please Walter, behave for me. I don’t want to get in trouble. I like coming to work and seeing you every day.” Then she helped him into bed and pulled the scratchy wool blanket up over his chest.
Walter lay in bed and stared at the lines of light coming through his blinds. He had thought about asking if they could turn the damn light off so he could get a wink of sleep, but he doubted anyone would go to the trouble. When he heard the shuffling steps outside, he rolled over and looked at the clock. 9:45 glared back at him in small, red numbers. He had heard George and Ed in the common room earlier, talking about sneaking out together. They didn’t want to be slowed down by him and his walker anymore.
After failing to fall asleep, Walter started thinking of ways to get back at George and Ed. He got up and made his way to their rooms. He left his walker behind and guided himself by palming the walls. He went to Ed’s room first. He had dusty books on a shelf in the corner and sweaters draped over chair ends. Walter squinted, trying to find some sort of treasure to desecrate. His muscles grew heavier and heavier as he fingered through some drawers. He rested for a minute on Ed’s bed before dejectedly making his way back to his room. As he paused in the doorway, his eye caught something out of place tacked on the calendar. A message in curling script that read, Don’t forget to call me, Grandpa! 976–8624.
Walter wheezed on the edge of his bed, trying to catch his breath. One hand rested in his lap, while the other held the paper with Rose’s number. It was midnight when he heard quiet, shuffling steps returning down the hall. He wondered if they tried tagging again and his resentment grew as he imagined what they had done out there without him. The light coming through the blinds seemed brighter than ever. He would never sleep at this rate. He rolled the number back and forth between his fingers, then lay back on his propped up pillows, and pulled the phone into his lap. Slowly, he pressed each number with care. Walter felt butterflies stirring in his stomach with each ring. The adrenaline of the wrong and the unknown made him feel more alive than he had in years.
Walter was so shocked he dropped the phone. His heart raced as he slammed it back on the hook. He picked it up and dialed each number again with care. This round, the ring steeled a resolve in the bottom of his gut and Walter cleared his throat. Hello came much faster this time.
“Rose,” Walter said, sounding like Roooo-oooo-ooose.
“Who is this?” She didn’t sound alarmed yet, only confused and sleepy.
“This is…” Walter hadn’t thought this through. “Wooo-ooo, this is the Terror of the Night! I know where you sleep, Rose. You should be scared, Rose. Oooo-ooo, the Terror of the Night is after you!” Walter slammed the phone down and sat back, a satisfied grin across his wrinkled mug.
Walter continued to play chess with George and Ed, but there was no going back to the way they’d been before. Their bickering was muted and Walter started playing deaf to them. Every night the two snuck out together, Walter called Rose. Ed started asking George if he had ever heard of the Terror of the Night, while Walter played deaf and smiled nearby. One night after George and Ed snuck out, Cindy walked into Walter’s room. He kept his eyes closed, even when she sat on the edge of his bed.
“I know you’re awake, Walter.” She reached out and touched his arm. “I need to talk to you about Rose.”
Rose snapped him out of his fake slumber. Walter nodded cautiously, ready to admit to nothing.
“Walter, I know you’ve been calling Rose when Ed and George sneak out without you.” Cindy let this sink in for a moment. “I know you guys must feel like caged animals in here, so I turn a blind eye for you to feel a little free, but you can’t prank Rose anymore. She recognized the phone number, called, and asked me to have you stop. She says if you don’t stop, she will call the police and press charges. I’m sorry, Walter.”
Walter nodded slowly. Cindy patted his arm one more time and then left the room. He rolled over and glared at the light through his blinds.
Walter made fewer trips to the common room in the following weeks. He flipped through the books Cindy would leave on his desk for him sometimes, but mostly, he just stared at the wall. The nurses started feeding him in his room when he refused to go to the dining hall.
He was staring hard into the corner of his room when the door cracked open and George slid in. “Hey, Walter.”
Walter refused to blink or budge. George waited for a moment before sighing and saying, “I’ll let you borrow my Playboy. We can pass it around, eh, old man?” George tossed the magazine on the bed and started to leave.
“We’re the same, damn age, old man,” Walter said.
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