It turns. The ceiling fan. I watch the blades move, feeling curious about the racket. There is a sound like the space between radio stations pulsing with each rotation. A sharp whine comes up from below it. This sound I cannot explain. The blades blur until there is only a rotation of shadow and light. Pins prick my palms, the soles of my feet; I drift in the black and white snow of the—
I jolt away from him, terror lancing through me. He has dark hair and round cheeks. He is wearing clothes the color of old tile, shirt and trousers exactly the same. I cannot make out his eyes, which are only shadows in his circular face.
“Mister Harding,” he says again, hand outstretched and palm up like an invitation.
My fear turns to suspicion. I do not understand how he came to be beside me. Who is this man? What does he want?
I mean to demand an explanation, but I falter at the words. I feel confused. I am sitting up. My feet are in front of me, bones jutting at sharp angles and skin spotted. I curl my toes, fascinated. Those are mine. My toes.
I recline against the pillows behind me, noticing the sheet is thrown back. My knees are knobby and the ache in them are biologically familiar.
“Mister Harding, it is time for your shower.”
I dread that but I cannot think why. He places his weight on the bed and leans forwards. I accept his hand reflexively. My frown cuts into my face as he helps me scoot forward. I swing my legs around and place my feet on the floor. There is a little carpet where my soles land and I spend a moment enjoying it.
“Yes, yes,” I say scowling, irritated now. “Can’t you see, I am—” I stop. What am I? Who am I?
“I can help you, Mister Harding.”
Mister Harding, that’s right. Edgar Harding. “Fuck off, “ I grouse, casting him away from my arm. “I can do it myself.”
I hate the bathroom. It is cold and alien where my room was at least vaguely familiar. He turns on the shower and I wait for him to leave. He doesn’t.
He says, “I am here to help you, Mister Harding.”
I catch the blue of his eyes just before the room steams up. The cold tile becomes unbearable beneath my feet. The pins return, little ants biting all over my skin. I accept his hand again and he helps me into the tub. The water stabs at me and I cry out. I am afraid. It hurts. It hurts.
“Stop,” I croak, throwing my arms up to protect my face. I begin sobbing. There is thunder in my ears, water in my mouth, ants all over me. “Stop, please.”
It goes on and on. He has to drag me from the tub after the water stops. I am insensible with fear, shaking, my stomach roiling. I feel violated, but I submit to his assistance when he drapes a towel across my shoulders. He speaking to me, but I have no idea what he is saying. I blame the shower for the wetness on my face, but the salt sneaking past my lips betrays it for tears.
“Where the fuck is the creamer,” I mutter.
Squinting, I see the pot is there in the center, the cup is on the rack, the sugar and the little spoon on the left by the corner of the counter. The creamer should be on the right. The creamer should be on the right!
I slam my fist down, shaking my head. A rush of noise stuffs up my ears, clogging my brain. It should be on the right. Pins and needles. I clench and unclench my fingers, then reach up and open the cupboard. Not there. I check the box beneath the counter, the crate beside the waste bin. “Where the fuck—”
A cool hand rests on the back of my knuckles, guiding my hand back to the counter, where a carton of cream waits sweating. I startle, jerking my gaze to the woman. 303, I think immediately.
The buzzing quiets and her face sharpens in my gaze. Her face is dark and lined, with blooming freckles across her flat nose that might have been a mere smattering once. Her eyes were hazel, bright and watchful. She has no eyebrows, and if she has any hair, it is hidden under her orange and yellow silk scarf knotted prettily on her brow. She smiles at me and I feel better. I know her.
I cannot recall her name, but I know her. I know she lives in room 303 and, because I am in room 311, we are neighbors.
She withdraws, shuffling to a table in the café with her breakfast tray. I stir creamer into my coffee and, hesitating only a moment, move to join her. She eats her fruit cup silently. We say nothing. The pins and needles in my palms eventually fade.
An orderly approaches us. She was young, with the ends of her brown hair dyed blue and cats on her uniform. I am immediately apprehensive—but she is not here for me. My breakfast companion smiles up at her.
“Sarah,” 303 greets warmly, in a voice like autumn leaves.
“Good morning,” Sarah returns, resting a hand on 303’s thin shoulder. “Are you ready for your appointment?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be, girl. Help me on up now.”
“I’ll get my keys,” I say, jumping to my feet. The Bronco should have gas. We could certainly get there fifteen minutes early if we left now. Martha despises tardiness. She—
“Mister Harding,” someone says at my elbow. “Would you like another coffee?”
“Why would I want another? I haven’t finished my first. Where are my—”
“When you’re finished, we could play checkers.”
I looked at him as I patted at the pockets on my shirt and slacks. It was the damn round-faced fucker from this morning. “You.”
He smiled, blue eyes watching me warily. “Sam.”
“I’m not Sam,” I say, confused again. I sway against a swell of vertigo. I turn. There is a woman shuffling toward the door beside a nurse with cats on her clothes. I feel afraid for her. I don’t know why. “I’m not Sam.”
“No, you’re not,” he says beside me. “You’re Edgar Harding. Here. Here is your coffee.”
I look at him again. His clothes were the color of old tile. Somewhere between sage and mint. I ruefully recall buying a refrigerator in the exact same color. There are shadows like bruises in his round face, where his eyes should be. He looks like a round-faced skeleton wearing crab grass for a shroud. I accept the mug. The liquid is cold when I take a sip. I frown and set it down again.
He—Sam—coerces me into playing checkers with him. I win the first round, Sam takes the latter two. Peas are served with lunch on a plastic tray, next to corned beef and cabbage. I sit alone, bothered by the presence of the green vegetable, uncertain how to eat around it. The very sight of it fills me with an echo of revulsion and I wander in my thoughts, chasing the elusive reason why. I am very tired after. I allow Sam to guide me to 311 so I can rest. The rotating ceiling fan lulls me to sleep.
I take a turn in the garden after. The sun feels good on my skin. Flowers are budding, the air is cool but not cold, the soil is dark brown from recent rain. 303 is at our table for dinner.
They served peas again, but when I sit down, 303 scoops them off my tray with a spoon. She replaces the vacancy with a bread roll. Her hands shake but her movements are sure. She seems very tired, pale somehow. She stirs the peas on her tray but doesn’t eat.
The orderlies come to take us to our rooms. 303 moves slowly, and the cat-girl holds her close. I wait at my door, watching. She’s sick, I realize. The cat-girl goes in with her and shuts the door behind them. I turn reluctantly away and notice the red paper on the stand by my front door. There is a tin can of markers beside it. I look at Sam. His blue eyes are watchful.
He says: “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
I look over my shoulder at room 303 and then back the table. I bend toward it, take up a sheet and fold it in half. I write quickly Happy Valentine’s Day and move back out into the hall. Sam makes no objection, stepping aside to let me pass. I rap on door 303. Cat-girl answers and allows me in.
She is seated in her living room, propped up with pillows. Her smile, when she offers it, is sleepy but genuine. “Edgar,” she says.
I step toward her, haltingly, feeling foolish and jittery. I thrust the card at her, heat rising in my cheeks. Her hazel eyes warm and she reaches out a shaking hand to accept my valentine. I turn away as she reads it, embarrassed. I wish I wrote something more eloquent.
There are framed photos lining the wall. People smiling in them. There is a woman in most of them, with dark skin and bright eyes; a youthful, vibrant version of 303 with a halo of black hair framing her beautiful face. There are young people with her, at varying stages of age. Lighter than her, on account of her white husband, a wiry fellow with an elaborate combover and a grin like a grimace. I squint at him, frowning. He feels familiar.
I touch my face. There is a rush of tingling down the flesh of my arms. A rush of recognition.
Martha. I touch the picture directly in front of me, my fingertip tracing the face of one of the children.
“Isaac came yesterday,” she murmurs from the chair. “You remembered him before he left. He smiled like Christmas morning.”
I turn to her, dumbfounded. I croak, “Martha.”
“Yes, dear,” she says, smiling up at me.
My wife. My beautiful wife. I fall upon her, cupping her face. Her bright hazel eyes are moist with tears. “Martha! My Martha.” It feels good to have her in my arms, but I am delicate with her. She is tiny and frail. Her hair is gone. I stroke her cheek, a sob wracking me. I remember the cancer.
Her lips move against the inside of my palm, at the juncture of the thumb. A feather light kiss. “At least one more day, my darling.”
I hold her until the clock chimes. It startles me so badly, the pins and needles return to my palms and the soles of my feet. I glance up. The cat girl is standing beside a calendar. There is a butterfly resting on a lily, beside the word APRIL. Below the butterfly is a series of circles ending on 22.
It’s not Valentine’s Day.
I stand quickly. I am disoriented. It’s not…
A young man is at my elbow. I snatch my arm out of his grasp. He has clothes the color of old tile. He coaxes me to a room with a white plaque on the door that reads 311. Inside, I lay down on the bed.
Above me, the ceiling fan turns in a slow rotation.
Posted in: Flash Fiction