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Winston left Shade’s neighborhood dejected. For someone who considered himself a solitary type, it always gnawed at his mind when he couldn’t share whatever was bothering him. He needed to talk with a friend and figure out what to do. Normally, that friend was Shade, but maybe he had one other option.
Avoiding the bustle and noise of Denny Road, Winston instead zig-zagged through the neighborhood toward Shifford Middle School. The neighborhood ended at a fence. Between the fence and school stood Progress Oaks Retirement Village, a squat, brown, two-story complex. On this side of the fence sat a house that had been vacant for over a year. Winston went around the place, through its back yard, and climbed up one of the apple trees there in order to drop onto the Progress Oaks side.
He walked around the building toward its front, trying not to peer inside rooms on the ground floor. Most of the shades were drawn, leaving only a sparse parade of plants and the backs of picture frames to observe. One old lady stood in her window watering a tiny bonsai tree. She wore a black bathrobe with pink spots, and she waved at Winston as he went by. He waved back and smiled.
Winston recognized plenty of the people in Progress Oaks on sight. At the start of each school year, seventh graders went on a field trip to the rest home. They were required to get to know enough about at least one resident to write a report. Once the school had started this annual practice, Halloween egging and toilet papering of the retirement home had dropped considerably.
Winston remembered his own first trip to Progress Oaks well. The residents willing to meet kids knew to leave their room doors open, and Winston had wandered through the halls until coming to room 219. Many rooms had decorative signs showcasing their residents’ names, sometimes colorful and laminated, and some even adorned with artificial flower bouquets. Number 219’s sign hadn’t been changed from the day the resident moved in. It was a typewritten strip reading DONALD ALLEN in small print. Through the door waited a tiny room with little more than a bed and a table. At the table sat an ancient man holding a deck of cards in one hand while the gnarled fingers of his other hand drummed softly on a cribbage board. When he saw Winston looking at him, the man’s face lit up in a huge smile.
Winston never knew if it was the smile or the cribbage board that had lured him in. Cribbage was the only game he ever played with his mom, and he’d gotten good enough to beat most online versions. Shade never wanted to take time away from his RPG and shooter games to bother with something as “legacy” as cribbage, so he and “Mr. A,” as Winston soon called him, became fast friends. At first, this took Winston by surprise. Because new relationships made him nervous, Winston rarely got close to people. He felt no need or desire for the frivolous time sink of a social circle, and people sensed this. Shade was his only real friend, and the two had been inseparable since second grade, almost half of his life now.
Strangely, Mr. A hadn’t made him nervous at all. Maybe it was because he was so old. Even weirder, Winston didn’t feel that the time spent with Mr. A was a waste. During their cribbage games and long talks, Winston’s mind shut down its usual treadmill of worries: school work, PC repairs, robots, Alyssa, Brian Steinhoff, and on and on. The only thing Winston had to fear from Mr. A was that he might keel over dead.
The Progress Oaks entryway featured two sets of sliding glass doors that formed an airlock to keep cold drafts from blowing over the residents inside. Winston liked to think of it as the airlock leading to an underground missile silo. Outside, everything was normal — all chirping birds and landscaping. Inside lay a carefully controlled environment with meals more like military field rations than real food. Lighting and sound ran on tightly regulated schedules. The air remained a constant 74 degrees and smelled like a stale combination of bleach, restrooms, old paint, and turkey gravy.
Winston passed through the airlock and couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose. The smell wasn’t offensive, only strange and unsettling — a whiff of the ghost of Christmas future.
Every wall surface was painted in shades of tan and brown. Mr. A claimed this was a psychological trick to make everyone calm, although if Mr. A got any calmer, he’d lapse into a coma. In the cafeteria beyond the lobby, Winston heard the low murmur of residents clinking and conversing their slow way through a breakfast of — Winston sniffed again — waffles, fake eggs, and low-sodium bacon. At what age did a menu like that finally become worth living for? Two hundred? Two-fifty?
Behind the reception desk, Rosie Fernandez peered over her row of three monitors and broke into a dazzling white grin.
“¡Holá, señor Chase!” she sang. “You’re in early today. ¿Estás bien?”
Rosie knew that Winston was in the opening weeks of Spanish II. She loved to look over his homework and quiz him. Her perfect Mexican pronunciation, while much appreciated, was a constant reminder of how much he sucked at the language.
“Holá, Rosie,” he said, approaching the desk. Rosie rolled her chair forward a bit. She was on the heavy side and prone to being self-conscious about her looks. Winston totally got that. “Is Mr. A in the cafeteria?”
She frowned. “No. He says he didn’t sleep and is not feeling well this morning. Pobrecito.”
Poor thing. Winston grinned. Rosie really cared about the residents, unlike steel-haired and sour-faced manager who sat in the office behind Rosie and always regarded Winston with squints and suspicion.
“Maybe I can bring him something?”
Rosie shrugged. “He already has a plate. But maybe you can poke his appetite, no?”
Winston started for the elevator, but Rosie called him back, holding out a clipboard and pen. Winston groaned at the annoying formality, but he signed his name and the time.
“I’m not a terrorist, you know,” he said, handing it back.
“That is what all the terrorists say,” she chuckled.
Winston took the elevator upstairs. If not for the little window in the door, he might not have known the car was moving. It was that slow.
The elevator opened onto an open space dominated by a nurse’s station, in which were a series of locked cabinets containing the residents’ daily medications. Two chairs at the station stood empty. Room 219 was seven doors down on the left. Winston knocked lightly.
“Come in,” called the old man, sounding weak and muffled, as though he’d just dozed off.
Winston turned the handle and pushed through. The room’s entryway was a short, narrow hall with a bathroom on the right. Beyond this, the room opened into a space just large enough for Mr. A’s motorized hospital bed, an IV stand, a low sink in the corner, a squat table, and two stackable plastic chairs.
The colored paper “garden” that Winston had made Mr. A as an art project last fall still ran along the bottom of one wall. Above this hung a framed print of some old actress named Joan Leslie. The black and white image showed a woman with dark, tousled hair sitting on large cushions. The 1940s actress looked over her shoulder at the camera with an expression that said, as Mr. A liked to put it, “Come here and do that again.” In the two years he’d been asking, Winston had yet to learn what “that” was, only that Mr. A liked the print because it reminded him of his long-deceased wife.
“Leave it open, please,” called Mr. A.
Winston kicked down the door’s rubber-tipped stopper and walked into the room.
“Morning, Mr. A. The breakfast police sent me up to force feed you.”
The man smiled around yellowed teeth. His white, wispy hair hung on his scalp, exposing countless constellations of age spots. His skin dangled in loose folds from his skull, and his shoulders jutted sharply under his white T-shirt. Mr. A really did look like he’d been up all night. He pulled the single bed sheet higher up over his belly, shifting the intravenous tube feeding into the back of his right hand.
“Another late night up partying, I see,” said Winston.
“Just booted the ladies out a few minutes ago,” said Mr. A. “Really takes it out of a guy. You’ll see.”
Winston dropped his backpack to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed next to the old man’s legs. “I sort of doubt that.”
“I don’t. I see a real firecracker of a girl waiting in your future. Don’t be in such a rush, boy. You’ve got—”
“Don’t say it!” said Winston, holding up a hand.
“—the rest of your life in front of you. Well, you do.”
Winston cringed. “I came here to make you feel better, not me feel worse.”
“Worse?” Mr. A patted the back of Winston’s forearm. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh…” Winston sighed, then mentally kicked himself for being melodramatic. “Just stuff. Mom’s being weird. She doesn’t want me to talk about it.”
Mr. A frowned. His blue eyes sparkled from under fleshy lids narrowed to slits. His body might be going, but there was nothing wrong with the oldster’s mind.
Winston considered playing dumb, but decided against it. If he couldn’t trust this kindly old man, stuck alone in a rest home and all but forgotten by the world, then he really was in trouble. He drew out the slip of paper from his pocket and held it up between them.
Mr. A brought Winston’s hand closer to his face and read the slip. Then his features did something very strange. The corners of his eyes turned down and his lips parted, as if remembering something distant and painful. Winston saw him slowly read over the words twice, three times, as if he were studying the letters themselves more than what they said. Then he gently took Winston’s hand and covered it with his own, folding the note inside.
He managed a small smile. “Always best to do what your mom says.”
Winston peered harder at Mr. A. Did he know something? The smile seemed warm enough, but there was a hard glint in his eyes Winston couldn’t remember seeing before.
Winston wanted to press for details, but heavy footsteps intruded. A man came into the room dressed in light blue scrubs that stretched across his tall, muscular body. His shaved, bald head made his thirty years or so seem even older and more daunting. He filled the little entryway and glowered at Winston as he came in.
“Good morning, Mr. Allen,” he rumbled. “How’s that breakfast coming?”
“Biff!” said Winston with exaggerated cheer. “Good to see ya!”
The mountainous man paused next to the bed and stared down into Winston’s face. “It’s Bill. You know that.”
Winston pulled a face. “Bill! I’m terrible with names. Sorry.”
Bill scrunched up his lips and exhaled impatiently through his nose. He took one look at Mr. A’s untouched breakfast plate still perched on the wheeled table hovering over Mr. A’s lap, then walked over to the corner. He tugged open the mirror cabinet over the sink and grabbed a paper cup from one of the shelves. He filled this with water and set it on Mr. A’s bed table with another paper cup containing several pills.
Mr. A gave Winston’s hand a little nudge. Remembering, he slipped the note discreetly back into his pocket.
Bill stepped to the bedside. “You need to eat at least a few bites of breakfast, then take your medicine,” he mumbled.
Mr. A made a non-committal grunt. Bill stared at him disapprovingly and made a similar grunt in return. Then he glanced at Winston.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” asked the nurse.
“Maybe,” said Winston. “It’s still up for debate.”
Bill took a deep breath, scowled, and shook his head. He turned and started around the bed to leave. Winston didn’t know why, but he wanted to mess with the man a little more. Bill was big and strong and good-looking — pretty much everything Winston would never be. And while it wasn’t in Winston’s nature to provoke someone like Bill, he couldn’t help but feel a grudging jealousy.
Winston noticed the small knobs and antenna of Bill’s walkie-talkie peeking out from one of his pockets. All of the medical and management staff carried them. Winston stared hard at the little radio as it went by, thinking of his trick with the Stadlerator 7000. He felt like Yoda using the Force to reach out to a rock. He pictured the radio controller in the device, the speaker, the circuit board, and he imagined speaking one word through them.
The walkie-talkie gave a faint crackle of static. Underneath the static formed a noise, a metallic whisper faint enough almost to be radio hiss. Yet it was clear enough. The walkie-talkie spoke the word “Biff.”
Bill almost stumbled into the door as he looked down and put a meaty hand over the radio. From where he stood, Bill could no longer see Mr. A. He glanced searchingly into the hallway, then down at the radio. He tapped it twice with his fingers, as if seeing if he could knock any more words loose. Then he looked back at Winston, who became suddenly, acutely aware that his mouth was open and his eyes were large with the shock and realization that his improbable impulse had actually worked. He might as well be wearing a sign that read, “Hey, I just did that!”
Bill took a step back toward him. “Did you…” he began, drawing the walkie-talkie from his pocket.
“No way,” said Winston as inspiration struck him. “Who else here calls you Biff?”
The big man stopped, looking once again from the walkie-talkie to Winston, his suspicion wavering.
Winston pushed him a little harder. “Is it Rosie? I can totally see you two…”
That was enough for Bill. The man’s sneakers squeaked on the tiling as he pivoted and left with a low growl.
Winston felt the rush of accomplishment flood back into him. He had telepathically spoken through the walkie-talkie! So it wasn’t just his robot. It was electronics. What did that mean? Why could he do it…and what else could he do?
Aglow with excitement, he turned to Mr. A but faltered when he noticed the old man’s complexion had grown even paler. His expression was worried — no. He looked afraid. He looked…
Mr. A looked just like his mom had earlier this morning.
“You know,” he whispered. “You and mom. What—”
Mr. A quickly shook his head. He raised his hand and set two fingers over his lips as his gaze flicked around the room’s ceiling, as if looking for hidden microphones. That searching was unmistakable and sent a cold spike of déjà vu racing down Winston’s spine.
“Bill’s right,” said Mr. A unevenly. “You should be getting along to school.” He glanced pointedly down at Winston’s pocket, the one holding the crumpled note. “Remember what your mom told you. You don’t want to be late.”
Slowly, wondering if he must be the victim of some terrible prank, Winston stood. He wanted to search around as well, but his instinct warned him to try and act normal. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Something was going on, something insane and elaborate. To the best of his knowledge, Mr. A and his mom had never met. Her work schedule or a headache or some other excuse always left Winston visiting his friend by himself. So, unless she was calling Mr. A behind Winston’s back…but why would she do that?
Winston could think of no sensible explanation. He gripped the bed rail, glad to have something cold and firm to hang onto, because he felt a bit dizzy.
“I appreciate you dropping by,” Mr. A said, again setting a hand over Winston’s. “It means a lot to me.”
Winston’s forced himself to swallow through a dry mouth. “No problem.”
“I wish we could talk more.”
The look in Mr. A’s eyes expressed more earnestness than his words let on.
“Me, too,” said Winston. “Maybe I’ll stop by later?”
The old man smiled. “I would like that.” Then his gaze softened and he patted Winston’s hand. “I cherish every minute.”
Winston had no reply. He slid his hand away and reached for his backpack, which now seemed much heavier than he remembered. “OK. I’ll try.” He managed a small smile and backed away.
“Have a good day,” Mr. A called hoarsely after him.
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.