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John David Rose
Walter Phillip's eyes, wide with horror, were fixed on something in the dark corner of the ceiling of his room. He struggled with all his remaining faculties to find the word to name it, but struggle as he might, the word wouldn't come.
Walter, or Mr. Phillips as he was accustomed to being called later in life, had always been a dauntless man. Even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in the winter of 1941, he found himself committed to the war, as one fateful Saturday at the mere age of 15, jaw clenched, hands gripping the arms of his seat, he watched a Movietone newsreel which showed squadrons of Nazi warplanes flying over the chalk cliffs of Dover, the Blitzkrieg of the sky. He decided then and there that somehow he would help take the fight to the Nazis. Of course, realizing his goal became a whole lot easier after the Japs bombed Hawaii. He still had to lie about his age, but he had no qualms about that, considering the greater good he was intent on doing. And even though they were enlisting boys as young as 16 in those days, Walter boldly claimed he was 17, and his size and confidence allowed him to get away with it. Before he knew it, he had been inducted into the good ol' U.S. Navy and was off to play his part in the Second World War.
Two-and-a-half years later a then actually 17-year-old Walter found himself in command of an amphibious landing boat called an LCVP. He was traveling through miles of rough seas and minefields, through a barricade of sunken wooden poles and rows of submerged large metal obstructions called Belgian Gates, amidst an unrelenting shower of artillery blasts and mortars to hopefully land his precious cargo of fighting men on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Boats on either side of him were blown up by mines hidden in the water or artillery raining from the sky. Walter watched as weighted down GIs, pouring from his boat into three feet of water, raced toward a beach littered with huge anti-tank obstacles called Czech hedgehogs. The GIs were mowed down by Nazi machinegun fire that pinged off the metal of the hull of his boat and sprayed across the water. Walter's crew, Millar the sapper and Rossi the gunner were both dead. But Walter didn't flinch. He backed his boat off the sandbar they'd landed on and headed out to assist troops get off a nearby crippled ship, steering around the floating bodies of dead men that never even made it out of the water. It was the longest day.
During the war Walter learned the lessons that would define the rest of his life. Foremost he learned that the difference between living happily ever after and catching a random bullet was nothing more than blind luck. And the best chance a man had of making it through life was to trust in his own physical strength, his own ingenuity, and most importantly his own courage. Walter was tested in those days in ways that many men never are. The faith he came away with from those trials was an unwavering faith, but in himself and nothing else. But he also knew that he was one of the lucky ones and would by all reckoning get that happily ever after so many others did not.
Following the war he returned home to Littlefield, Iowa, a small town nestled amidst the corn fields. He began courting one of his high school sweethearts, a naļve and somewhat timid Midwestern girl named Agatha. A few months later he married her and made an effort to forget the traumas of war and to appreciate what luck had granted him.
In those days it was all about providing for his sweet Agatha, buying a home, starting a family, building a life. To those ends Walter got a job at the nearby Stockton manufacturing plant where he worked on an assembly line building transmissions for tractors and bulldozers. He bought Agatha a little white house with a whitewashed picket fence and a hedgerow of lilac bushes.
There was only one failing during that time in Walter's life, but it was a major one. And despite his best efforts Walter found himself laying it all at Agatha's feet. Years came and passed, but no child, and then two miscarriages. After the second, after the blood soaked sheets, and the blood soaked mattress, days later she asked Walter why God would let such a thing happen. Walter couldn't answer her. He didn't know how to say that it was just a random horror, and that in this they had just been unlucky. Agatha informed him that she couldn't go through it again. Walter wrestled with his emotions, vacillating between pity and resentment. Agatha was a frail woman after all. He stood by her though, with all his strength, useless though it was in this case, for he loved her in spite of it all.
And so eventually Walter, frustrated, redirected his energies into his work. He decided he needed a job where he could make better use of his own ingenuity. He also decided it was high time that he was his own boss. And so, one Monday morning in September of 1962, Walter found himself scratching his name onto the bottom of loan papers spread across a fake-wood-laminate-topped desk at the Littlefield Savings and Loan. Three months later he was flipping the switch to light up the neon over a big green and white bass leaping from the water above the words Phillip's Sporting Goods.
A decade later after selling thousands of hunting rifles, fishing rods, and cross country skis, Walter's keen business acumen allowed them to build a big ranch-style home on a cul-de-sac at the end of Beacher Lane. The back of their house looked out over the back nine of the local golf course and every morning Walter would drink his coffee, black, as he watched from his dining room table as the sun came up over the course.
Walter found that despite his financial success, there was still an emptiness he couldn't fill. He poured more and more time into the store, spending any free time he had with his golf league, and at the rifle club. Agatha had her own hobbies as well, a gardening club and a women's group at the New Faith Church. They spent so little time together, that a distance grew up between them. And Walter was shocked when in February of 1978 Agatha got sick with cancer and Walter didn't find out until some of the women from church showed up to help out with her duties around the house.
Agatha went downhill fast. After only a few short months of treatment, Agatha losing her hair, quickly wasting until she was nothing but skin and bones, she passed. Walter found himself unexpectedly alone, but strangely his life didn't actually change much at all. He was left to wonder if he had really been alone all along.
Realizing this, Walter never really made an effort to marry again. Of course, he couldn't imagine ever replacing his sweet Agatha, but also he had grown quite comfortable in his routine. Instead he just continued to focus on work and his hobbies.
In 1985 at the age of 59, Walter, at the prompting of his buddies, bought a gym franchise and put it in the empty Dime Store next to his sporting goods store. He had the foresight to get in on the early days of the health craze and he capitalized on it. His gym was popular, and "Mr. Phillips" became cool among the younger crowd in town. In those days he became the high school's golf coach, and started a small boxing league at his gym.
But despite his best efforts to stay physically fit, time caught up with Walter as it catches up with everyone. Walter started to slow down. When he found himself in the emergency room with severe chest pains in April of 1995 after a long day at the store, he figured it was finally time to give himself the gold watch. He sold the store and the gym, even sold his and Agatha's big house and moved to a townhouse. He kept active with his old buddies, golfing now and then, but even they faded away at some point.
Finally, one day in October of 2013 at the venerable age of 87, Walter didn't answer his door when his neighbor rang the doorbell. The kindly thirty-something neighbor had taken it upon himself to check on Walter every few days. Walter had previously given the man a key and on that day the man found Walter crumpled on the floor of his bedroom. He'd suffered a stroke the morning before and had lain on the floor paralyzed on the right side of his body, unable to move. For a day he stared at the thick layer of dust that blanketed the carpet and a pair of old golf shoes under his bed. He had waited there, unable to move, soiling himself, with no-one to help him, unable to think of a way out. There were many times during that day that Walter wept. The strength had already left his body, but now so had his ingenuity, and even his courage wavered as he was brought at last face to face with the ultimate horror of life, the utter loneliness of it all. It was the second longest day.
Byron Paul was a nurse at the Herman Hill Nursing Home. It was 8:14 p.m. and his shift had just started. He stared at Walter Phillips with a modicum of sympathy. Cynthia, the nurse on the shift before him had looked in on Walter from his door on her way out and noted he was agitated about something. Cynthia was normally the type who would have taken the time to check on the patient, but she was in a hurry to get home for a night out with the girls, so she just foisted it on Byron. It was hard to be overly sympathetic. Not that Byron wasn't a caring person, he certainly was. That's why he had gotten into nursing to begin with. Twelve years at the nursing home had sapped him though, and built up enough calluses to last. Seeing people, in their final days of life, losing those last bits of themselves to the ravages of time could grind a person down well before his own time. Some of the other nursing staff had found a perplexing beauty in those moments, and felt an honor in what they did, knowing they were giving the gift of caring to people as their lives wound down, but not Byron. He had long before given up any sense that he was caring for anything but worn-out, broken-down machines.
"F-f-f..." Walter sputtered. Flecks of saliva were collecting all around his mouth.
Byron looked at him and tried to tell if the old man's level of agitation could justify an Alprazolam. Byron decided it probably did. The drug would calm the old man down, but Byron had been reprimanded recently for over-medicating the residents again. So he decided against it. "You'll just have to calm yourself down, fella," he said. He looked at the old man and wondered what he was trying to say. He knew the man had had a massive stroke, that he was paralyzed and very weak, and that he had aphasia which meant the stroke had taken his ability to communicate. When he did manage to say something, it probably wasn't the right word anyway.
"F-f-f..." Walter's eyes wavered for just a moment to Byron.
"Brrrr. It's cold in here tonight," Byron said. The nursing home was always that way, the wrong temperature. But it seemed especially cold in Walter's room. Byron grabbed an extra blanket from a nearby shelf and threw it over the old man, quickly tucking it in on the sides and around his bony feet. "That ought to help." Byron stood there and made an obligatory smile.
"Well, best I can do anyway for ya tonight."
Walter stared again at the dark corner. The moisture in the corner of his eyes pooled and then streamed down his wrinkled cheeks. Walter stared wondering if he'd ever again move his eyes to anything else.
There in the dark corner, crouched back in the shadows was what seemed at first glance a man. But how could that be, Walter wondered, a man hanging, crouching on the ceiling? Then again there was something about the thing that Walter couldn't reconcile; there was something tarantula-like about it. Not in how it looked necessarily, but in how it watched, and how it waited. It defied both gravity and rational thought, except for its lank reddish-brown hair which hung down towards the floor as Walter would have expected. Its cheeks and mouth were stretched beyond the bounds of the humanly possible into a grotesque grin, displaying rows of translucent needle-like teeth. Its eyes were wide and the whites were set off so much against the darkness of the corner that Walter thought perhaps they glowed a little. The last and most horrific element of the thing was that it was motionless, except for the fingers of one hand that momentarily undulated from time to time and the corners of its overstretched smile that almost imperceptibly twitched.
Byron half-heartedly patted the old man's feet through the blanket. "Have a good night, Mr. Phillips," he said.
About to say something, Byron froze completely for a moment. He looked at the suffering old man lying there, his eyes wide with horror, his face lame on one side, his mouth half frown, sputtering, trying to get the word out again.
Byron gave a faint smile to mask the pity he felt and the sudden flip in the pit of his stomach. He had seen the gore of blood soaked sheets before. Blood soaked mattresses.
"I'm sorry I can't do more," he whispered.
Byron turned back toward the door, consciously keeping his eyes down, at the floor, away from the dark corner. Sweat trickled down the sides of his face in spite of the cold as he quickly clicked off the light to the room, and pulled the door shut as he escaped into the cold fluorescent light of the hall.
In the shadows that cascaded behind the escaping light, Walter watched the jerky movements as the thing scuttled along the ceiling. Walter clenched his jaw and whimpered.
It was the longest night.
micheledutcher - Now that I am old and retired, being helpless in a nursing home is a really scary thought. I especially liked the CNA who had seen this before but didn't try to stop it. Creepy!
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