The West Wall
The Day Room would have been the perfect escape hatch if there hadn’t been something wrong with the west wall.
Well, maybe perfect was a bit of an overstatement; after all, it was in a basement (wonderful spot for a “day room”) and the walls were pink, but you learned to lower your standards in a place like this. The important thing was the television – a small Samsung in the corner – and the related fact that this was the only place where he could forget about his daughter and what she had done to him.
Eugene glanced at the room’s only other occupant – Mrs. Haverford, a small, shriveled husk, dull-eyed and slack-jawed like so many of them – then turned back to Tiger Woods on the ninth hole. Tiger had gotten par and two birdies before Eugene saw it again – something moving, shifting, in the periphery of his vision, something by the west wall. He turned to stare at it, but knew he wouldn’t see anything. There was just the wall, painted an innocuous shade of pink, and a painting of some vile-looking flowers – orange and droopy, with petals that looked like ragged hair. He stared at the wall for a full two minutes while the familiar fear gnawed at him. It’s the tumor, he thought. I’m losing my marbles. Maybe a snack would help. It was harder to see crazy things on a full stomach.
Eugene grabbed his cane and started up the stairs, slowly and with some difficulty. He was one of the few here who still retained that basic ability, and damned if he wasn’t going to hang onto it – and his rational mind – as long as he could. The other inmates (the pansy-mouthed folk who ran this joint could call them “patients” if they wanted; to him, they were all inmates) – most of them seemed to have given up on life. He didn’t pity them much, but he didn’t blame them either. He scorned their weakness, but the truth was, there wasn’t anything in here to live for. Unless eating grade D beef and canned pineapple chunks, sleeping, shitting, and staring at the television made life worthwhile.
He hobbled into the refectory and looked to see if anyone was around. The Home’s official policy was no meals in between meals, but he had found an easy way around that. The kitchen help took their afternoon break at 2:30, and right now they were all smoking and lounging about on the second-floor deck. None of the inmates (present company excluded) had the wits or the appetite to scrounge for food, so there was no need for anyone to keep an eye on the place. He took a peek in the fridge to see what was on the menu for tonight (some anonymous piece of meat – stray dog, for all he knew), then grabbed a package of Saltines from a cupboard. He froze momentarily at the sound of footsteps in the hall, but they were too slow and halting to mean trouble. Even so, he waited until they had receded before making his way to the employee fridge and relieving it of two bottles of Budweiser. His booty stashed in the deep pockets of his pants, he began the trek back to his room.
But being in his room always made him think of Janine. Not too surprising, really… it was the last place he’d seen her. After she and her asshole boyfriend had dragged him here and signed the papers, after they’d praised his white-walled cell (with the window overlooking a dumpster) like it was a suite at the Fairmont, she’d had the gall to promise she’d visit. He’d been expecting another speech of the reassuring variety, but she had nothing left to say. They’d only been in the Home for thirty minutes before she’d given him a quick farewell hug and the two of them had exited stage right in the blink of an eye.
That had been over a year ago, and she had sent him a card at Christmas – one of those that come in the buy-two-get-one-free packs at the drugstore. No message, no nothing – just her signature at the bottom, under the manufacturer’s Wishing you the best this Holiday Season. He had wanted to rip it up and toss the shreds out the window, but instead he had slid it into the top drawer of his dresser, next to his socks. It was pure weakness on his part, and he was ashamed of himself for it.
He could feel a headache coming on, and he sat down with a sigh. What was feasting on his brain would eat its way out sooner or later, but maybe he’d be lucky enough to keep his sanity until the coma took him. With this encouraging thought, he opened the package of Saltines and popped the cap on the first beer, glancing furtively at the walls. He’d never seen anything strange in here, had he? Or anywhere else in the Home, for that matter… only in the Day Room.
But isn’t that where you spend most of your time? asked a voice in his head. The voice was cold and slick. Hearing it always made him think of a salamander under a rock. He ignored it, chewing mechanically, washing the salty mush down with a swig of beer.
When did you first start seeing things, anyway? continued the voice in a conversational tone. Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago?... And you didn’t see them very often, did you?
No, he’d only seen them… once or twice a day.
I bet you only saw them once or twice a day, the voice estimated smugly. But now… now you can hardly get through an episode of Jerry Springer anymore!
He noticed the hand holding the bottle was shaking; he put the beer down on the window sill.
You know what comes next, don’t you? asked the voice, inexplicably gleeful. Those dark shapes along the wall will grow… and spread… and pretty soon you’ll be hallucinating night and day! Most people with a tumor like yours don’t see pink elephants, either… Eugene, my boy, I’m afraid the best you can hope for is giant spiders.
Go to hell, Eugene thought. I’m not going crazy, I’ll die before I lose my mind! And then he gasped as the pain bloomed sudden and sickening in the depths of his skull. He waited for it to pass, clenching his knees, everything else forgotten. When it had faded to a dull red roar, he leaned back in the chair, weak and perspiring.
There was a soft knock on the door.
Now who the hell could that be? The nurse had given him his morning pills; he wasn’t due to see the doctor for another week; it sure as hell wasn’t Janine come to say hello. He stood up shakily and looked around for his cane, then decided it wasn’t worth it.
“Come in!” he barked, sitting down again.
A woman opened the door and stood there in the entrance. He didn’t recognize her, but she looked vaguely familiar. One of the many inmates he hadn’t met.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied, surprised. “Not a thing. I just thought I’d drop by to say hello, Mr. Silver.”
“Well hello,” he said. He could be cordial, by God. “Miss… er…”
“Shaw,” she said. “Elizabeth Shaw. Do you mind if I come in?”
“Ah… no,” he said. “Not at all. Make yourself at home.” He got up out of the chair, but she waved her hand at him and sat down at the edge of his narrow bed.
“Well!” she said, looking at him brightly. “I’ve thought for a while that you were the only one around who might be worth talking to, and I’m glad I finally got up the courage to meet you!”
He mumbled something by way of reply.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “it’s not really much of a compliment.” She looked around his room with a critical eye. “They don’t pay much attention to details, do they? What are you in for?”
He stared at her. “Beg pardon?”
She laughed. “An innocent man, are you? Well, I’m in for… crossing at a stoplight without a walker. And reading without proper lighting.” Her gaze fell on the remains of his snack. “And drinking beer at three in the afternoon!”
He laughed in spite of himself. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who thought of this place as a jail.
“I’m in for being a troublesome pain in the ass who refuses to die,” he said, offering her the other beer, which she declined.
“That’s the worst crime of all,” she said thoughtfully. “Lucky for me I don’t have any relatives to be annoyed by my persistent good health.”
“But you’re here anyway,” he said. She smiled and nodded, but offered no explanation.
“What made you think I’d be worth talking to?” he asked.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve noticed you in the Day Room… horrible place, isn’t it?”
“It’s not so bad,” he said.
She raised her eyebrows at him, and tucked her chin into her neck. On anyone else, the mannerism might have looked pretentious – snooty, even. But when she did it, it looked like what it was, a simple expression of disbelief. He was shocked to find himself liking her.
“But you’ll agree it’s a strange place? Underground, for one thing. And the color scheme leaves something to be desired. And…”
His pulse quickened, and he leaned forward in his chair. “And what?”
She hesitated, as if trying to decide whether or not to say what she had come here to say. She settled for a compromise. “Have you noticed anything… unusual… about the room?”
He wasn’t going to let her off the hook. “Like what?” he asked.
She looked uneasy. “You’ll think I’m crazy,” she said, “but there’s something very odd about one of the walls… the one facing west.”
The room grew cold. His heart skipped a beat and he could only stare at her.
“Never mind,” she said, standing up. “I shouldn’t be intruding on you like this, Mr. Silver. But it was nice to have met you.”
“No,” he said. “You’re right about the wall. Stay for dinner, will you?”
They ate together in the dining room that night, talking in low voices like conspirators, even though there was little chance of being overheard. Some of his acquaintances stared at them, but he was long past caring what other people thought.
“I thought I was just seeing things,” he told her, forking glutinous mashed potatoes into his mouth, “but it’s only that one place.”
“I know,” she said. “And you can’t see anything if you look straight at it, only from the sides of your eyes... it’s like an itch in the back of your mind.”
“What do you see?” he asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a sensation of movement, something dark moving against the wall. Sometimes I think it’s slithering out from the wall, towards me. I’ve tried to catch it in the act – I’ve even waited as long as I can stand before turning my head – but I’ve never seen it directly.”
He chewed a piece of mystery meat and chased it with a swig of milk. “I’ve seen that, too – that dark movement. And other things…”
She waited expectantly, but it was hard for him to describe those other things – they were the visual equivalent of words on the tip of his tongue. He knew them, he just couldn’t think what they were.
“Well,” she said, looking dubiously at a spoonful of tapioca pudding and then deciding to eat it anyway, “I think we ought to examine the place, don’t you? See if we can figure out what’s going on?”
“I suppose so,” he said. Having his suspicions confirmed by someone else – someone in her right mind – was a tremendous relief, but it made him inclined to avoid the Day Room. Still... life would be unbearable without the sweet dose of amnesia only the Samsung could provide. It was ironic, he thought. People were always bitching and moaning about kids watching too much TV, but he’d bet his ass that old people waiting to die watched just as much. Maybe more.
“Why not go now?” she said, putting down her spoon and standing up. “No one will be there at this hour... we’ll have the place to ourselves!”
If a woman had suggested to him twenty years ago (hell, even ten) that they should go somewhere where they’d have the place to themselves, he wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. But here... now... to look at something that was likely just a vertical parfait of paint, plaster, and wood? Just a wall, in other words? Only what kind of wall had this strange effect on two people who didn’t even know each other?
“All right,” he said. “I’m game if you are.”
They stood there staring at it. As Elizabeth had predicted, the Day Room was empty, an abandoned prison where the bars were wide stretches of faded pink, and the only inmates were the ranks of scuffed plastic chairs. They had both come to a halt near the door, uncertain what to do.
“Maybe we should do an experiment,” suggested Elizabeth in a whisper, as if the walls had ears. And maybe they did.
“What experiment?” he asked. Damned if he was going to whisper in an empty room like a ten-year old kid.
She thought for a moment, then said, “Why don’t I keep looking at it face-to-face, and you look at it sideways. Then we’ll wait and see what happens.”
He didn’t much care for the way she put that (face-to-face), but he shrugged and turned an obedient forty-five degrees to the right. Facing the doorway, which was good, in case any of the night workers should wander by and see them standing in here like a pair of loons.
“No reason we can’t sit down,” he said, settling into one of the chairs and putting his feet up on another. From the corner of his eye, he saw her do the same.
Now they waited.
With the TV screen just a dark blank in the corner, he realized that the Day Room wasn’t all that charming, after all. Not only was it distinctly uncharming, but it had lost its power to prevent those bitter, cavorting memories from creeping up over their dark hill and into the light of his waking mind. To avoid thinking of his daughter, his deceased ex-wife, or the cancer that was slowly – ever so slowly – killing him, Eugene asked Elizabeth what she used to do for a living.
“I was an au pair,” she replied, without taking her eyes off the wall.
“No kidding?” he said. His ex-wife had been an au pair in her younger days. He found it hard to believe, though – a woman as intelligent as Elizabeth Shaw seemed to be. Well, women were women. If they all had a man’s ambitions, the world would be an unkempt place. “You never had any kids of your own?”
“I couldn’t,” she replied. “My husband had a low sperm count. A very low sperm count.”
He expressed his sympathy by coughing, then asked what had become of her husband.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” she said. “We got divorced sixteen years ago… Is it true that you used to work for the CIA?”
He was about to ask her how she knew that when – it – appeared, dark and sudden, curling sinuously along the periphery of his left eye, taking a shape he almost recognized.
“Elizabeth,” he hissed. “I see it! It’s right there!”
She froze in her seat.
“It’s just as we thought,” she said, after a long pause. “I don’t see anything.”
“What should we do?” he asked, in the same frantic stage-whisper.
“Wait!” she said. “Don’t turn your head! Try to get a good look at it... see if you can figure out what it is.”
Easy for her to say. Pretending to ignore that thing unfolding only steps away was like trying to stand his ground in front of an uncoiling rattlesnake. He kept his head still, fighting the overwhelming urge to turn and confront it. The black shape swam steadily at the edge of his sight, yet he had the distinct feeling that it was waiting, gathering itself – perhaps getting ready to spring.
“What’s it doing?” she asked impatiently.
He didn’t answer. His eyeballs inched their way toward the west wall, straining muscles and tendons, but he refused to shift his gaze. What in God’s name was it? It always began with a single dark shape, and now it seemed as if dozens of dancing shadows had converged there. He waited, sensing rather than seeing the darkness coalescing, twisting, reforming itself. There was something at the heart of it, he knew. Something opening up. And then the voice spoke in his mind. That cold salamander voice.
Eugene, it said. You crazy, foolish old man.
Leave me alone! he thought. I’m alive and awake and as sane as anyone, so get the hell gone!
No, Eugene, said the voice, in mild reproof. You won’t be alive for long, this whole thing is only a dream, and you haven’t been sane since your daughter abandoned you.
Suddenly, a thick black tendril freed itself from the coiling mass, lashing out at them.
“Elizabeth!” he shouted. “Get back!”
She leapt backwards with surprising agility and squealed as his fingers dug into the flesh of her arm. He was staring at the wall - they both were… staring wide-eyed at the smooth, faceless plaster with its lone adornment. The livid orange blossoms in the painting stared blindly back.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It was trying to get you,” he said. He looked at the wall side-ways again, but the writhing black thing was gone. They both edged out of the room simultaneously, neither saying a word.
He awoke the next morning with another headache, but it was just a normal one, the kind he used to get when Janine was a kid, screeching away on her rented violin. He went down to the dining hall, wondering if he would see Elizabeth there. But she was either a late riser, or took her breakfast in bed. It was just as well. She’d want to do another experiment, and he wasn’t up to it.
He felt a little better after eating, and decided to take a walk around the grounds. He shuffled across the straggly lawn all the way to the edge of the road, then stood still a long moment, gazing at the spread of green country on the far side of the blacktop. Nothing but fields – with the occasional tree gracing the open stretches of grassland – all the way to the horizon. He looked up at the cloudless sky, then down at the weedy ground; he felt the bitterness in the pit of his stomach and the relentlessly slow movement of his inner clock, the death that was taking so goddamn long to arrive. And he wondered for the first time, with a weary sort of incredulity, why he put up with it. His mind was a nightmare carnival of yammering shapes and shadows, and he spent all his time trying to lose them in the carnival of daytime television, substituting one glass wasteland for another. But their faces always appeared when he least expected it, and sometimes the voice of Sally Jesse Raphael was the voice of his daughter, louder and more insistent than ever. Why not shut them up for good and all, and put an end to this foolishness?
No, said the voice in his head – not the voice he’d been hearing lately, but the one he’d lived with for sixty-eight years. You won’t do that. You’ll stick it out. And he supposed he would.
After lunch, he made up his mind to go and see Elizabeth. It had been a long time since he’d deliberately sought the company of another human being, but… well… it had been a long time. Today, of all days, he felt like talking to someone.
He took the elevator to the third floor, looking carefully at the list of names on the wall until he found “Elizabeth Shaw,” room 318. She was at the far end of the corridor. Why did these hallways always smell of dust? He’d seen a vacuum cleaner in one of the utility closets, so he figured it must get some use. Or maybe it wasn’t dust, but the smell of age and infirmity, of dry skin and peeling wallpaper, the stench of peppermints in toothless mouths and mothballs in dark closets. He hesitated only for a moment, then rapped on the door of 318. The woman who opened it was hunchbacked, feeble, and white-haired. She stood there blinking at him.
“Is this Miss Shaw’s room?” he asked, bewildered.
The woman stopped blinking and squinted up at him. “Whaddaya want?”
“I’d like to speak with Miss Shaw.”
“You’re lookin’ at her.”
“No,” he said, “that can’t be right. Miss Shaw… Elizabeth Shaw.”
She stared at him expressionlessly. “I gotta meeting with the doctor,” she said, closing the door on him.
He stared at the closed door. His hands clenched and unclenched, his mind struggled to find an explanation.
Oh, there’s an explanation, all right, said the cold, laughing voice in his head. You are cra –
No! he thought. She’s real! I saw her, I heard her voice, I grabbed her goddamn arm… we had conversations! There’s another Elizabeth Shaw in this wretched place. Must be.
There isn’t. You know there isn’t.
How could I have made up an imaginary person with this lady’s name? I’ve never even met her!
You didn’t have to. You saw or heard her name some time ago and filed it away.
How could I hallucinate something so… so complicated?
Who knows? Tumors are strange things… especially when they’re taking over territory in your brain. Who knows what signals are being crossed, what connections aren’t being made, what neurons are firing where they shouldn’t be? Anyway, that tumor did you a favor, didn’t it? Gave you someone else to say “Yes, Eugene, there is something by that wall! No, you’re not crazy – I see it too! Pretty freaky place, that Day Room!” And she wasn’t bad-looking either, was she?
Wait – we had dinner together last night… someone must have seen us talking… Joe Biggs! The assistant cook! He came into the room to replace the ketchup bottles – he had to have seen us.
Ask him, said the voice, snickering.
Joe Biggs proved easy to track down – he was in the kitchen making himself an omelet, a cigarette parked behind one ear. He sang to himself as he tended the pan, and Eugene realized in some dim, far-away corner of his mind that the assistant cook had a nice voice – rich and melodic. Not that it mattered.
“Mr. Biggs?” he said. Joe Biggs wheeled around.
“Jesus!” he said. “You tryin’ to give me a heart attack? I’m too young for this place, you know.”
“Sorry,” Eugene said. “I wanted to ask you something.”
Joe Biggs turned back to his omelet. “Yeah,” he grunted, after a moment had passed and the old man hadn’t disappeared.
Eugene fiddled with the words in his head. “Last night… when you came into the dining hall… did you happen to see me eating dinner?”
The cook laughed as he flipped his eggs. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
“Did you see the woman I was eating with?”
Joe Biggs put his spatula down and turned to face Eugene. He regarded him carefully for a moment, as if trying to decide whether he was dangerous or not. Finally, he said, “The two of you… have a nice conversation?”
Eugene felt relief flood him, making his hands and feet tingle. “So you saw us, then? You saw both of us?”
The cook sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you and I don’t want to know… but I guess an honest question deserves an honest answer.” He wiped his hands on the front of his apron. “I saw you at a table last night, but you were talkin’ to yourself, my friend.” He gave Eugene a final, pitying look, then he turned back to the stove.
He found himself in the Day Room once more, and the voice had been right. This was all a dream – a sick dream concocted by his sick head. But maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as he’d feared. Maybe he could even get some entertainment out of it. Wasn’t that all that was left to him anyway, tumor or no tumor? He doubted if he would see Elizabeth again, but one thing was reliable, and that was the west wall. He remembered a dream he’d had long ago of wandering through endless blocks of identical apartment buildings. Midway through the dream, some part of his brain had woken up and realized that the rest of him was asleep. He had been delighted by the possibilities. I’ll run out into the street and get hit by a car! he had thought, and proceeded to be smashed to pieces by a blue VW bug.
This’ll be fun, he promised himself.
Oh, yes, said the other voice, and they shared a laugh. Eugene had a fleeting moment of regret – a heart attack would have been so much faster, so much cleaner – then he parked himself in his usual position, facing the TV screen, his eyes drifting to the wall… but never quite meeting it.
He didn’t have to wait long. But just as the shadows were beginning to twist and writhe in earnest, Elizabeth did appear, flushed and out of breath.
“What are you doing here?” she gasped.
“You’re just in time!” he said cheerily. “Come watch the show. And this time let’s stay ‘til the end!”
“No, Eugene!” she said, pulling – actually pulling – him out of his chair. He marveled at the wonderful special effects his diseased brain was capable of, then he wrenched himself free, laughing. All without taking his side-eye off that shape forming along the wall.
“We have to get out of here!” she screeched.
“That’s not the tune you were whistling last night, my dear,” he reminded her. “Besides, why should I take advice from someone who’s not real?”
“I may not be real,” she admitted, “but that thing in the corner is. You know that, deep down, or I wouldn’t be saying it.”
“Giant spiders,” he muttered. “Or maybe something even worse!” The mass of tentacles was spreading outward now, revealing a deeper, emptier darkness in its center… something like a hole in the wall.
“Please!” she screamed, but he took no notice. Instead, he began to edge towards the wall, creeping sideways like a crab, holding out a trembling hand. What would it be like? he wondered. Smoke? Oil? The skin of some deep-sea monster?
“You’re killing us!” she wailed, her fingers digging into his bicep as he moved steadily closer to the wall. One of the tendrils lashed out and snared him around the neck. It wasn’t like smoke or oil, after all, it was like being burned with acid. He cried out, Elizabeth moaned, and his eyes filled with tears. But he was laughing in spite of it, the way he had laughed lying there broken and bleeding on the dream-street with the blue VW’s smoke hanging in the air. The tendril – only it wasn’t a tendril, he saw, it was a whip – was dragging him to that hole in the wall. Only blackness in there, blackness and the faint gleam of eyes. He couldn’t see the creatures attached to those eyes, but they could see him. He felt certain of that.
“Don’t worry, Elizabeth,” he whispered. “This is only a dream. They’ll find me passed out on the floor tomorrow morning. Come visit me again, won’t you?”
Later that evening, the night janitor paused on his way to the laundry room in the basement. It was something in the Day Room that had caught his eye. Most other rooms in the building got swept every night, but he only tended to this room once a week. He told himself there was no need to be meticulous since hardly anyone used it, but that was just his excuse not to go in here. The truth was, he didn’t like the place. It was depressing (the pink walls and ugly plastic chairs seemed to summarize everything that was wrong with the Home) and there was a chill to it, a sense of underground damp and darkness that the fluorescent lights did nothing to dispel. But tonight there was something in here that didn’t belong, something lying on the floor.
He saw what it was right away – a silver-topped wooden cane. He picked it up, wondering how anyone who needed it could have left it here. It was plain and unadorned, and there was nothing to indicate who it belonged to. He thought he saw something scuttle along the wall to his left (rats in the basement? After the traps he had set?)... but... no... the room was empty. Shaking his head – a man could start seeing things in a place like this – he set out for the laundry room, taking the forgotten cane with him.
Charis Himeda is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Washington. She works in a biochemistry lab by day and enjoys writing (mostly speculative) short stories by night. Her fiction will appear in an upcoming edition of Eureka Literary Magazine. Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, she now lives where the sun don't shine.
Copyright 2003-2006 AntiMuse