Far From Home by R Brian Roser
West Coast Eisteddfod Short Story Competition 2014
Mr. McAdams walked down the worn, sterile corridor of the nursing home, seeing to his patients. The manager liked to refer to them as cherished guests, but that didn’t make it true. Every one of the cherished guests was sick in one way or another; they were at the end of their lives and had come here to wait for death. For most of them, the wait would not be long. He really envied them for that.
McAdams knocked on the door. “Mr. Williams? Are you awake?” he could hear the sounds of excited contestants shriek about their latest prizes while TV carnival music played in the background. Mr. Williams was awake. He was always very particular about turning off the TV when he felt himself going to sleep. He didn’t want the staff to find him dead and carry off his body to the theme music from The Price Is Right. “It’s time for your shot, Mr. Williams.”
“All right, come in, let’s get this over with.” McAdams opened the door and walked into the sparse room. It looked like a cross between an ICU and an abandoned attic. Rhys Williams lay on a hospital bed with plastic tubes taped under his nose. On the nightstand next to him were his ancient wedding photo, a tarnished cross necklace and a handwritten letter. Other relics of a life passed by lay around the room. A gold retirement watch, a photo album, a pipe he could no longer smoke.
McAdams pulled out the syringe, filled it with the chemical hope of longevity and stabbed his cherished guest in the butt. Williams lowered his gown again and turned his attention back to the game show reruns. It was the Price is Right and the contestants’ hairdos gave a clue as to how old the episode was. The prices they guessed were long since inaccurate; the appliances they had won were all broken down and odds were good that the announcer was now a cherished guest himself somewhere.
“You OK, Mr. Williams? That’s the first time you haven’t made some crack about your shots being a pain in the ass.”
“My brother died,” he said, pointing to the letter on the table.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Lucky bastard.
“He was younger than me. I always thought I would go first, you know.”
“What did he die of?”
“Heart attack,” Williams said. “At my age it’s pretty much going to be heart attack, cancer or stroke. I’m hoping for Ebola, just to be different.” He smiled at his own attempt at dark humor. In these walls, just about all the humor was dark, but the alternative was no humor at all. “He was always so full of life, you know. Like every day was this gift from God to …. I dunno… frolic and crap.”
“You really loved your brother, huh?”
“Yeah I did. And it hurts like hell to have to use the past tense.” Williams looked at his caretaker. “You got a brother, McAdams?”
“Younger or older?”
“You keep in touch with him. See him every chance you get, ‘cause you never know when he’s going to be gone.”
“Well, actually, Mr. Williams, my brother and I got into a pretty big fight a while back and we haven’t spoken since.”
“So make up with him.”
“Don’t give me that. You take an old man’s word for it, life is precious and so is family. I don’t care what happened between the two of you. When you get a letter like I did, trust me, you will be glad you took my advice. Promise me you’ll try to make up with him.”
“Mr. Williams, believe me, my brother is not going to talk to me. I will make you a deal, though. I’ll talk to my granddad about it. He’s the one who got seriously mad about the fight, so maybe he’ll be the one to smooth things over.”
“I don’t speak the language of the young, how much exactly is seriously mad?”
“Well, he gave me this scar,” McAdams said, indicating his face. “He also kicked me out of the house.”
“You sure he’s the right one to go to? Maybe your dad…”
“My dad died a while ago Mr. Williams.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s OK, I’m sorry about your brother.” There was an awkward pause when neither knew how to continue or end the conversation. “Well, other people are waiting for their pain in the ass today, so I better not keep them waiting.” He turned to leave.
“Talk to your brother, or grandfather or whoever. Don’t spend your lives not speaking to each other. Promise me.”
“I promise, Mr. Williams.”
Mr. Williams nodded his head and turned back to the TV. McAdams left the room to resume his daily rounds. He walked passed Mrs. Jones, but she was asleep and he didn’t want to wake her. His next job was cleaning out the bedpans, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of doing it. Might as well talk to granddad. Again. Problem was that all the times he talked to his grandfather, he didn’t really get much in the way of a response. He opened another door, walked passed the pews and knelt at the altar.
“Well granddad, it’s me again. I’m sure you know about my conversation with Mr. Williams, so let me say it again. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for what I did to Abel. He was my brother and what I did was wrong. I know that now. You’ve certainly given me a lot of time to think about it. Please forgive me. I want to come home. I want to be with you again. I want to see mom and dad and Abel and my wife and little Enoch. Ha, little. You made me watch him grow old and die while… I’m sorry. I’m being punished, I know, but how long will this punishment go on? Lord God, please, I can’t take this anymore. You gave me the mark so that nothing could hurt me; not even time. Do you have any idea how much incredible pain I’ve been in? Of course you do, you’re God. You know all. So then you know that this mental anguish is worse than anything. We got a man here dying of stomach cancer. He spends every day in torturous physical agony and I would trade places with him in a second if I could die with my mind at peace.” Cain turned his tear-stained face to heaven, but no answer came. “Well maybe I’ll see you later then. Love to Uncle Joshua. Amen.”
Cain stood up from the altar and became aware of someone behind him.
“Sorry, McAdams, hope I didn’t bother you. I was supposed to clean up in here, but I saw you praying and thought I’d wait to start the vacuum.”
“Thanks, Edward, I appreciate it.”
“Hey, you OK? You don’t look too good.”
“Nothing I haven’t lived with all my life,” said Cain, “but thanks for asking.”
“What language was that you were speaking? I don’t think I ever heard it before.”
It was the first language. The one used at the dawn of time; the one so old that there wasn’t even a name for it. “It was the language of my home.”
“Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“It was a little town between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.”
“You’re going to have to help me out here, I didn’t do too good in geography, what country is that in?”
Cain sighed. He tried to recall which empire owned it now. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Persians, Ottomans and British all owned it at one point or another. Did it matter who owned the rivers? Did it matter what it was called? Edward was waiting for an answer though and he was a good man, so Cain tried to remember for his sake. Wait, he did see a map on TV recently. It was in the news... “Iraq, I grew up in Iraq.”
“Oh, no wonder you took so long to answer,” he said, “and I thought I had it bad coming from Nigeria.”
“What was it like there?”
Cain shrugged. “We were farmers. I raised crops, my brother raised livestock. What’s there to tell?”
“Was there a lot of turmoil when you were there?”
“There’s always been turmoil there. There’s still turmoil there. It’s just different people causing it.”
“That’s rough, man. Well, I better get on with this. You take care, OK?”
That’s rough? No, that wasn’t rough. Cain lived through so many occupations and invasions that he couldn’t even remember them all. The names of the cities that were burned to the ground. The untold atrocities he witnessed by those who remained unpunished by God, while Cain had to endlessly carry the burden of his sin. Their empires rose, fell and decayed until all that was left was an echo in a dusty book. Their crown jewels and deepest secrets were displayed next to their peasants’ garbage under glass museum cases for indifferent onlookers. No, what was rough was never going home. Never finding a new home because of a curse ten thousand years old that he must forever wander the earth. Looking for a peace he would never find.
Life goes ever on. Well, one more check on Mrs. Jones and then he’d take care of the bedpans. When he peeked in her room, however, she was awake and reading a book. She looked up and saw him.
“You want to come in here and give me that big ol’ prick of yours don’t you, hot stuff?”
Mrs. Jones read a lot of romance novels. “Only if you’re willing to take it in the ass.”
“Mr. McAdams, you fiend, what is an innocent girl to do?”
“That depends, are you an innocent girl?”
“Hell no, come on in.” She put her book and glasses on the table next to her and pulled up her gown, while he filled the syringe.
“Be gentle with me young man; that prick of yours can hurt a girl if you’re not careful.” Mrs. Jones grabbed the bar on the side of her bed and turned away, her eyes closed. She hated needles, but it was the price. The price for human interaction. And she paid it willingly. She was stabbed every day by the world’s first murderer and she was grateful for it, just to have someone talk to her for a few, brief moments.
Cain made it as quick and painless as he could. He understood. He had his own pain that he endured every day, but it was so much worse to endure it alone. “There we go, Mrs. Jones, all done.”
She let go of the bar and exhaled the breath she had been holding. She wiped a tear out of the corner of her eye. Cain busied himself with putting the syringe away so he could pretend not to notice. “You stick that thing in me every day. I think we’re at the point in our relationship where you can call me Gwen.”
“Mrs. Jones, the management says that we have to call our cherished guests by their last names.”
“Nonsense, after all we been through, I’m sure they won’t mind.” Her eyes pleaded with him. Please, was it too much to ask? I don’t want to be treated as a cherished guest, I want to be treated as a human being.
“Well, if you promise not to tell anyone our naughty little secret Gwen, I’ll call you anything you want.”
She smiled. “Mr. McAdams you’re a bad, bad man.”
“Well, sit down for a minute. Even a young thing like you must get tired after all the running around you do.”
“Ok, Gwen, but just for a minute, then I have to get back to work,” said Cain, pulling up a chair.
“What’s your first name anyway?”
“Ken, Ken McAdams.”
“You don’t look much like a Ken; you look too exotic to be a Ken.”
“Exotic? Gwen, you need your glasses, there’s nothing exotic about me.”
“Oh yes there is, sugar. And I think you and me both know that special thing you do to me that no other man can do.”
“Oh yeah? And what is that?”
“You’re the only one who talks to me like I’m a person.” Tears welled up in her eyes and she started sobbing.
“Gwen,” Cain gathered her up in his arms while she cried. He held her. Just held her and let her cry. There were no words of comfort he could give; no lies he could tell that would make her feel any better. This was why he worked at Sunny Meadows. Because they knew. Not as completely as he did, but they knew. They knew the pain of time. Of loneliness. Of being forgotten by family in a place that was not their home. Of watching all your friends die one by one, until all that was left was you. Alone.
Eventually, her tears subsided. “Thank you, sugar,” she said. “Not many young people today are willing to put up with an old biddy like me, but I sure do appreciate it.”
“Not a problem,” he said, handing her a nearby box of tissues.
“Alright, I kept you long enough. I’ll let you get back to your work.”
“You want your glasses?”
“No, I think I need some rest right now, but thanks anyway.”
“OK, Gwen. Sleep tight.”
“Thank you Ken, for treating me so good.”
“You’re welcome, Gwen. See you tomorrow.”
Cain got up and left the room, while she nestled into her pillow to go back to sleep.
Well, he had put it off long enough. Cain went to get the cart containing all the cleaning equipment he would need to deal with the matter at hand. There was less conversation for this task than for giving out shots. Shots made them nervous, so they talked. Cleaning up their waste made them ashamed, so they didn’t. Cain knew about shame. He knew about not wanting to talk about it.
He was ignored in the first few rooms he visited. One woman was sleeping. One man was reading a spy novel about a cold war with a dead nation. Mr. Evans was with his family; his children desperately trying to get him to remember who they were, while his grandchildren played their iPhones, ignoring the man they had already forgotten. Mrs. Taylor, on the other hand, had her cards. She didn’t play with anyone. She didn’t even play solitaire. She just moved them from one pile to another. Over and over. No strategy, no game. She just turned one card over and then another, so the pile went from face down to face up. Then she would turn them over and do it again. She did the same basic, unimportant, mind-numbing, action over and over, until it was time to sleep, eat or die.
When Cain walked in to the next room, he realized immediately that Tod was dead.
Proper procedure in this case was to alert the nurse immediately. Her procedure would be to call the ambulance and theirs would be to proclaim him dead. It could wait. They could put the frantic circus off for a while. Cain stayed with him for a moment. Together and at peace. It was moments like these when he felt closest to his grandfather. At least to be near the peace he could not have. To have the illusion that despite ten thousand years of evidence to the contrary, he would actually one day find redemption. But with hope came frustration. The wrenching yearning for death. Being so close and yet never know it, like an alcoholic at communion. To sip what you crave, but never be satisfied.
“Why?” he wailed at the ceiling. “Why were you more pleased with him? All he had to do was watch over… I mean really, how hard is it to take care of sheep? I had to toil in the earth as punishment for my parents’ disobedience. You made me pay for my father’s sins, then for my own; then you killed Uncle Joshua to pay for everyone else’s. What’s wrong with you?” shouted Cain. “My smug brother is probably up there laughing his ass off and you wonder why I killed him? “
“Mr. McAdams, keep your voice down!” said the manager, hurrying into the room “You’ll disturb our cherished guests”
“Half of them are deaf, sir.”
“Well half of them aren’t, Ken, besides I’m surprised you haven’t woken Tod with all your shouting.”
“Tod’s dead, Mr. Spencer.”
“Oh my God,” said the manager, rushing over to check Tod’s pulse.
“Ken, your procedure was to notify the nurse.”
“Yeah, I get it. I’m fired.”
“Well you will be, mister, if you don’t start shaping up, do you understand me?”
“Yes sir, wouldn’t want to break the rules.”
“Good, now go and tell the head nurse, I’ll stay here and keep an eye on him.”
Cain turned and left the room, heading down the hall to the nurses’ station. He thought of Tod and how much he envied him. Cain would never grow old. He would never die. He would never even be harmed and the only price he had to pay was a life of endless pain.
updated by @brian-roser: 02/13/16 01:43:04AM