“How do you feel?” I asked as I set the bags on the foot of Mrs. Batchalder’s bed.
“I’m fine, thank you. I feel drained, but I can manage.”
She looked as if she’d aged ten years in less than a week. An inflexible brace started just below her chin and extended down her torso. One side of her face was lax, as if it had melted. But considering what she’d been through, it was fairly impressive she was even alive.
“Thank you for braving this storm,” she said. Her watery blue eyes stared past me at the window.
The wind had picked up, tree branches lashed against the glass.
She shifted in her bed, raising herself up to see inside the bags. “Were you able to find everything?”
“I think it’s all there,” I answered.
“I want to go home, but at least it will be nice to have some of my creature comforts,” she confessed, lifting a few items from the top of the bags and peering beneath.
I could actually hear the clock this time. I felt as if I was losing my mind.
“Sit down. It’s nice to have a visitor.” Her half smile was forced.
I turned to pull the chair behind me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of black.
The cheshire-smiled beast hung crooked on the wall across from Mrs. Batchalder’s bed. Its eyes flicked back and forth. Its tail swished.
We’ve been waiting for you.
I felt the blood rush out of my head and dizziness wash over me. How did it get here?
We’ll never tell.
Mrs. Batchalder dropped back on the bed. Her unblinking eyes looked at the ceiling. All I could hear was the ticking and swishing.
Minutes passed. I felt hypnotized by the back and forth of the eyes.
Her voice came out in a wheeze.
“It’s late. Tick-tock,” she said, her voice completely flat. Her eyebrows drew together. A look of concern pained her face, but her eyes remained blank and unfocused.
The clock agreed, its smile growing wider. Pointed teeth appeared in the smile.
A small pink tongue slid from between the cat’s lips, tasting the air like a snake.
So glad you’re here.
My chair screeched against the floor as I jumped up and out of my seat.
Still staring at the ceiling, Mrs. Batchalder did not notice.
“Hurry, dear. Hurry,” she whispered.
She finally turned her head to me.
“Run,” she croaked. Her eyes rolled back in her head.
A loud cackle erupted from the clock. Its mechanical eyes narrowed. The ticking sped up and nearly blurred into one long sound.
I backed out of the room in a panic. This can’t be happening.
Mrs. Batchalder began seizing. Her frail body arched and shook.
“Help! Emergency. We need help!” I screamed.
I stepped back, scanning the halls for a nurse. I tripped over a grey-haired woman in a wheelchair. Her face was a mass of wrinkles. Her mouth opened and closed, and whispered words came out. She repeated the same thing over and over, her voice getting louder each time.
“Help me,” she cried. “Help me.”
“Nurse?!?” I shouted.
“Nooooooo. Not the nurse. Not the nurse.” She began rolling toward me. “Take me with you,” she pleaded.
“I can’t.” I stepped away and started down the hall.
“Leave the door unlocked,” she called as I moved away from her.
Looking back over my shoulder, I saw her rolling along behind me. I raced down the hall in search of help.
The noise of the storm camouflaged the sound of the wheelchair as the woman followed me. With my focus on her, I bumped into something unyielding. My knee cracked against metal and pain jolted through my leg.
A strong hand clasped my wrist.
A man in his 70s grabbed me. He was prone in a reclining wheelchair. His white belly mounded out from below his t-shirt. Pale legs stuck out of his short shorts. Wild eyes, disheveled hair, and wiry beard made him look like Charles Manson. Open-mouthed, he started cursing at me.
“You ruined my day. You always do. Now you’ll pay,” he roared.
I tried to wrestle my arm away, but his strength surprised me. The wheelchair woman moved closer.
Frantic, I reached out and slapped at the man’s hand, trying to loosen his grip while I pulled back. He reached for my other hand. The wheeled woman reached me and grabbed at the back of my shirt.
I stifled a scream as other patients entered the hall. Oh gods, what is going on?
In a bad cliche, the storm surged and the lights in the facility flickered.
Like a slow-moving group of zombies, old bodies in wheelchairs filled the hall.
A bald man with a large head wound started digging in his diaper, tossing pieces of feces onto the tile floor.
A woman with a walker clacked down the hall, a thick layer of mucus smeared across her face. Every two steps, she’d stop and slap herself on the cheek.
Another woman in a wheelchair used the tips of her toes to propel herself silently down the hall, a doll clutched against her bare breast so she could nurse it like an infant.
I tried to wrench myself out of Manson’s grasp, but his grip only tightened, his chair rocking from our struggle.
An early-40s woman in bright pink scrubs rounded the corner.
“What is going on?” she yelled, echoing my thoughts. “Leave her…” she bellowed. Her shoes squeaked against the floor as she raced down the hall.
Manson’s grip did not waver, but the anger had disappeared. Now he looked frozen, his jaw slack and his gaze vacant.
The nurse came to my side and pushed the woman’s wheelchair away. She laid a fingertip against the man’s hand and he instantly loosened his grip.
I pulled away. My wrist hurt. The skin was angry and red.
“I am so sorry,” the nurse said. “I don’t know what has gotten into them.”
Relieved to be free of the patients, I felt like crying. Or fainting. Maybe both. I just wanted out.
I could not speak. I knew my voice would shake. My heart pounded against my ribs. My legs felt weak from shock.
She put an arm around me to guide me away from Charlie.
“Like I said, I don’t know what’s gotten into them…they know better.” She ushered me down the hall.
“They know that’s my job,” she said with a low voice and a smile.
I did not notice the hypodermic needle before she plunged it into my side.