by Derek Andersen
When my daughter showed me the brochure, I was skeptical. The pages were plastered with seniors nailing aerobics routines, throwing down straight flushes—hell, even skateboarding. Their smiles were blinding, phosphorescent, as if their teeth had never known decay. Arcadia: Retire in paradise. Yeah, right. This place would be just like all the others—a complex of identical, mothball-ravaged rooms to die in.
But I’m not too proud a woman to admit when I’m wrong. The instant I set foot on the grounds, my breath caught in my throat. Encircling the building was a lush garden with every variety of flower—lilacs, peonies, dahlias.… Through the center ran a babbling brook that fed it life. Oh, Diary, how I wish you could have beheld the way the dewdrops glimmered on the petals like jewels.
The room they showed me was on the edge of the garden, next to my favorite fruit tree. The residents tell me it’s “older than time itself.” When you sit beside it, you can feel it radiating a wisdom, a quiet dignity. No matter how I try, I can’t recall the tree’s name. But that’s no surprise.
Diary, I can’t bear to deceive you any longer—I’ve come to you with an ulterior motive. I ask you, hat in hand, can you help me remember the magic of Arcadia?
Time and chronology have been stripped of their meaning. I exist in a fugue, half-formed thoughts circling me like shapeless wraiths. Strangely enough, I began to lose my memory just as my favorite soap opera character, Vivian LaRoche, was diagnosed with amnesia. I feel a sense of providence as I watch her strut from scene to scene, weaving love polylaterals and shattering hearts beyond repair. Her actions, I know, are on a track, hurtling toward some predestined end. As uncanny parallels between our lives begin to unfold, I can’t help but feel that our fates are intertwined.
Diary, I pledge to write to you every day, until my epic concludes and the credits roll. All I ask is that you help me chart the plot.
I’m still kicking, Diary. You won’t get rid of me that easy (ha ha). But, in all seriousness, I could’ve sworn I’d written yesterday.
That’s no matter. The important thing, dearest Diary, is that, for the first time since Wallace passed, I’ve fallen for someone. His name is Rupert—you’ll find it traced in giddy cursive across the last twenty pages of this notebook.
To my surprise, he showed up at my door this morning with a basket of chocolate-covered strawberries.
“What are these for?”
“Evelyn, my sugar bear, I want to apologize for yesterday,” he said, glass eye hovering a tad off-center. He seemed to be looking both at me and past me simultaneously. “If you don’t want to see me, I understand. I’ll head back to my room.”
“Rupert, I can’t remember a thing about yesterday. I’m sure it was nothing.” I checked the clock. “Come on, the bus is leaving soon.”
When we reached the line, Rupert hammed up his limp and threw in some leg tremors for good measure. The crowd, moved by his performance, parted for him. He snagged a cushy spot in priority seating and, like a gentleman, threw his sport coat over the chair beside him.
After a luxurious ride, punctuated by contented naps and ample legroom, we arrived at the mall. “Anything you desire is yours, my cherub,” he said, taking my hand.
We patronized many fine establishments, I think. I believe we also grabbed a bite at the food hall. But what I recall most vividly is our trip to Burlington Coat Factory. I found this lavish mink coat—well, faux mink—but it was made with such care that I couldn’t tell the difference. I threw it over my shoulders and strutted down the aisles, doing my best Grace Kelly impression. When I, at last, peeked at the price tag, my jaw hit the floor.
“I said ‘anything you desire’—and I meant it.” Rupert snagged the coat from me and handed it to the cashier.
“But, Rupert, you’re on a fixed income!”
“What is money for, if we can’t treat the ones we love?” He asked, glass eye twinkling.
I didn’t even get a chance to open my front door. We started necking like teenagers, right there in the hallway, with no regard for who may have been watching. Without breaking from his lips, I rifled through my purse and located my keys. Diary, the things we did to one another when we got through that door.…
We made love—and I cannot emphasize this enough—standing up. Even before I had a metal plate in my hip, this was a difficult feat. Not only did Rupert toss aside his walker, he, with a theatrical flourish, dumped his little blue pills onto the floor. The meds they put me on have been making it harder to … get there. But as Rupert bent me over my kitchen table—and the jealous faces of my girlfriends danced through my head—I had absolutely no trouble arriving at my destination. Three times, to be exact.
When we finished, we collapsed onto the couch and let The Last Taboo lull us to sleep. I found it fitting that Vivian had also fallen head over heels—in her case, for her psychic, Orin. But I was troubled by the foreboding web of omens he spun, caressing a crystal ball that shimmered like Rupert’s glass eye.
As my beau snored gently beside me, I remained wide awake. I couldn’t—and still can’t—stop thinking about Harriet. While the rest of the bus stroked my new coat, singing its praises, Harriet glared at me from the back seat. This was undeniably strange, coming from my bridge partner. On the way out, she brushed past me and whispered, “How convenient of you to forget.”
The hour grows late. From my armchair, I watch the silhouettes of my Hummels creep across the walls in a grim, moonlit procession. Outside, the brook has ceased its babbling. The leaves have ceased their rustling. All is eerily still. There is only the ticking of the grandfather clock. I’m reminded of the nights Wallace slaved over that godforsaken thing in the basement, tinkering with the pendulum—the wonky, not-quite-right pendulum—until it drove him mad. And still, there’s no sign of Lily.
Today, Diary, she was supposed to take me to Olive Garden for unlimited soup and breadsticks. It’s my birthday tradition.
I concede, Lily never was the most punctual. When she was a girl, she couldn’t so much as tie her shoes—hell, even Velcro them—without finding a distraction. A shiny nickel, a stray Apple Jack, a hedgehog scurrying past the window. These digressions caused her to miss the bus on an almost daily basis. To instill some urgency in her, I invented a boogeyman-adjacent figure called “Minute Hand Michael.” His deal was that he spared punctual children and feasted on the still-beating hearts of tardy children. I would wind up that grandfather clock and wait for Lily to hear the tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.… This was the sound of Michael approaching. From there, it was child’s play. I’d throw in a panicked, “Sweetie, hurry—he’s hungry!” and she’d be out the door in ten seconds flat. Wallace would look on disapprovingly as she sprinted to the bus stop, face flushed, eyes wide with fear. In private, he’d occasionally employ the word “traumatizing.” But he never argued with the results.
Olive Garden just closed. Sure, Lily errs on the side of tardiness, but it isn’t like her to be downright LATE. I’ve tried her cell a dozen times and I even had the woman at the front desk help me write a text. R u ok? Call me when u get this. Still nothing. I know my Lily is a grown woman, but that doesn’t stop the adrenaline from curdling my stomach. The worst-case scenarios from playing out in my head. The dread from creeping over me like a black veil.
A memory comes back to me, crisp as a Polaroid. Lily is wearing that black dress—the one I had insisted was too low-cut for the occasion. She’s standing at a podium, uncrinkling a sheet of notebook paper with trembling hands. The closed casket adds an eeriness to the affair. Without him immediately visible, it’s like we’re mourning an abstraction—a shared idea of this thing called “Wallace.” With a sniffle, Lily begins to tell the story of Minute Hand Michael. How Wallace eventually stepped in and put a stop to it. How he opened up the grandfather clock and showed her the guts—the source of the menacing ticks and tocks. How he demystified the natural world with one principle: all complex machines, even human beings, are composed of simple parts working in concert. And that, she manages, between sobs, was what led her to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer.
But, Diary, that’s a load of bullshit (pardon my French). There are some things in this world that cannot be prodded with a screwdriver. In my bones, I know Minute Hand Michael is as real as the biting autumn wind. He came for Wallace and now, like a vulture, I can feel him circling me. Circling Lily. Circling this whole goddamn place.
When I met Rupert, I was sitting on a bench next to the crocuses. The last blush of sunset had just faded from the horizon. He approached me with a beaming smile. Halfway, he had to stop and rest on his walker. When he finally reached me, he donned a pair of sunglasses.
“Sir, are you sure you need those? It’s eight pm.”
“Oh, I’m positive,” he said, easing himself onto the bench. “Since Gertrude passed, I’ve only known darkness.” He turned to face me. “That is, until now.”
“I’ve found the new light of my life.”
It was so sweet, I just about melted right there. We arranged a dining hall date the next evening and the rest is history.
Much of this history has faded from the wilted papyrus of my mind, granted. But I know something was amiss with Rupert tonight. I could feel it. For one thing, he loves meatloaf night. That’s an understatement—he observes meatloaf night like a holy ritual. He begins fasting a week in advance so, when it arrives, he can indulge in a three-helping orgy of ketchup-and-onion splendor. But tonight, he suggested skipping it. “Staying in.”
I’d been cooped up in my unit all day, so I challenged him. At first, he pushed back. “I’m too tired. Let’s just have some leftovers and watch your show.” But when I played the I-don’t-know-how-many-days-I-have-left-on-this-Earth card, he had no choice but to fold.
Throughout the meal, he met my gaze only with his glass eye. His other eye—the real one—restlessly scanned the dining hall. When I asked him how his meatloaf was, he mustered only a vague murmur of approval. He didn’t go back for seconds.
“Evelyn, can you indulge me in a hypothetical?”
“Anything, my love.”
“That coat you’re wearing—which, looks fabulous on you by the way.…” He paused, scratching his scalp. “Let’s say you weren’t aware it was faux mink. Let’s say you thought it was real.”
“If I knew differently, would you want me to tell you?”
I opened my mouth, then paused. There was clearly subtext in his question but, with my memory, it was impossible to decipher. “I don’t think I would. If I like the coat, what’s the difference?”
A palpable weight lifted from his shoulders. For the first time, he allowed both his eyes to meet mine. But this, dearest Diary, was a mistake.
“Still having memory troubles, are we?” Harriet hissed, flanking us from the left.
“What are you talking about?”
“Freely they stood who stood.” Harriet snatched my wine glass. “And fell who fell,” with a cackle, she dumped its contents onto my coat.
Rupert shooed her away and escorted me back to my unit. With a grimace and a Tide stick, he attacked the red stain on my jacket. He fought valiantly, but his efforts were futile—it remained rooted in the deepest fibers of the faux fur, an eternal blemish. Defeated, he tossed the stick aside and said his goodbyes.
After he left, I popped in the next VHS tape. A sense of dread crept over me when Vivian’s ex-husband, Johnny Copperhead, popped out of the woodwork. “Nice to meet you.” She reached out her hand. “Likewise.” When he took it, a menacing purple vein emerged in his forehead. I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this episode before. My suspicion grew as the camera panned over Johnny’s collection of exotic reptiles. I recognized the caimans and chameleons and Komodo dragons shot-for-shot.
I turned my attention to the window. To the fruit of my favorite tree, dangling tantalizingly in the moonlight. I was close—so close to remembering the origins of Harriet’s feud with me. Since her remark on the bus, I’ve felt the memory begin to swell, to ripen, in unison with the citrusy morsel. But I’m only half-sure I want to taste it.
9/24: Special services………………………$79
Diary, this was a line item in my bill from Arcadia. Could they be any vaguer? Sighing, I flipped back through your pages. Conveniently enough, there was no entry on the twenty-fourth. A fishy feeling crept over me. Medicare would probably cover it, I assured myself, shaking it off. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t find my damn card. I rifled through my armoire, my bureau, my commode, to no avail.
As I tore apart my living room, something caught my eye. It was a scrap of paper—the same paper that’s bound in your spine, Diary—sitting beneath a fireplace log. When I fished it out, I sent the log tumbling, revealing several more pages. Slipping on my readers, I tried to make heads or tails of the writing. It was in my hand, that much was clear. But everything was charred, save for a few ambiguous turns of phrase. That was, until I got to the last page.
…there he was… next to Harriet… crocuses…light of my life.”… sunglasses…
In that instant, all was illuminated. I saw Rupert’s betrayal laid bare before me.
“My chickpea, are you coming back?” He called from the bedroom.
“One second.” I squeezed my eyes shut and took a series of deep, measured breaths. But these did nothing to quell my heart palpitations.
When I entered the room, the first thing I saw was that two-bit pair of sunglasses, dangling from his shirt collar.
“Are you okay?” Rupert set his book down. Taking to his walker, he plodded toward me. When he finally reached me, he wrapped me up in his arms.
“I’m fine. Never been better.” I broke from his embrace.
“My jellybean, what’s wrong?”
“I just think it’s a little cloudy for those shades, Rupert.”
“There was some sun earlier.”
“Really? And who were you soaking it up with?” I snatched the glasses. “Harriet?” I snapped them in half.
“Evelyn, listen to yourself. You’re confused.”
“Confused? No, I think I’m finally seeing things clearly.” I threw his walker clattering to the ground. “You’re running a pretty simple operation here. Phase one: prey on widows behind my back. Phase two: gaslight me and scrub the evidence from my diary.”
“I don’t like when you get like this, my—”
“You don’t, huh? Then maybe you should take your limp dick and get the hell out.”
“Maybe I will!” His glass eye gleamed with rage. But he didn’t move.
There was an awkward beat.
“I’ll need you to get that for me, first,” he said, motioning to his walker.
Begrudgingly, without eye contact, I set it upright.
He clomped down my hallway, through my foyer, and to my front door, taking several breathers along the way. I couldn’t tell if his slowness was intentional—a passive-aggressive gesture—or if the argument had simply tired him out. After he opened the door, he stood there for a moment, panting. Before he turned away, he left me with these words: “I don’t know anything about a diary.”
Why, I can’t help but wonder, did he deny only this allegation? Why not deny his involvement with Harriet? I suppose it could’ve been another one of his twisted mind games. But there was something in his tone that inclined me to believe him. Diary, if he didn’t burn the pages, who did?
“So, there’s no cancer?”
“Well, not technically.”
“‘Not technically’? Mom, it’s a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.”
“Ok, fine. There’s no cancer. But, honey, what was I supposed to say? After you stood me up for unlimited soup and breadsticks, you stopped returning my calls.”
“Mom, we haven’t had unlimited soup and breadsticks in ten years.”
“Nonsense, we do it every year. It’s tradition.”
“Oh, I see. Now you’re pivoting to a cognitive decline bit. Very slick.”
“Honey, I’m sorry I lied about the cancer. But this isn’t a bit.”
“This is exactly why I had to cut you off. Ever since I was a kid, you’ve used fear to manipulate me. To this day, I’m plagued by nightmares of our grandfather clock ticking in the darkness, counting down to a nameless doom. I’ve had enough.”
“Lily, I’m sorry! There’s so much I regret! But right now, I need you to get me out—”
I was met by a click and a long dead tone. Then, there was only the rustle of the wind through the tree branches. The intermittent song of a whippoorwill. The sun’s last rays bled over the horizon, giving way to a brisk autumn night.
When I reached my favorite tree, the other residents had plodded off to dinner. I admired the little fruit that had, by my best approximation, ripened. We weren’t supposed to eat from the garden—it was a liability thing. I peeked over my shoulders, making sure the coast was clear. Heart pounding, I plucked it and hurried back to my unit.
Dentures chattering, I lit a fire. As it crackled to life, I listened to The Last Taboo drone on in the other room. I already knew the ending. Johnny Copperhead drops to one knee (again) and Vivian says “yes” (again). As Vivian walks down the aisle, she’s haunted by an almost mystic sense of déjà vu. The guests lurk like wraiths in her peripheral vision, just beyond her veil. When she reaches the altar, a wisp of a memory comes back to her—a scaly form encircling her throat; a distant cackle; a light fixture fading away down a long, lonely tunnel. But she shuts it out and recites her vows.
I peeled the fruit and broke it into its eight symmetrical sections. Ceremonially, I lifted the first piece to my lips. I had no idea what to expect. The thing could’ve been poison, for all I knew. But it called to me like a Siren, its allure bordering on erotic. I paused for a moment, fingers trembling. And then, down the hatch.
Diary, it was disgusting. In fact, that’s an understatement. It was the single worst abuse I’d ever inflicted on my taste buds. I spat it up and retched until my bottom denture popped out. Catching my breath, I stared at the vile red pulp on the carpet. Then, I chucked it into the fire, watching it shrivel with a satisfying hiss.
Now, as I gaze into the flames, I yearn for the sheen of wonder, of possibility that once gilded each new day. The way the dewdrops glimmered on the flower petals, each a gift from God. The asthmatic wheeze of Harriet’s laughter. The scent of fresh-baked breadsticks. The warmth of soup in my belly. I yearn for the sweet nothings, like honey on Rupert’s breath. The way my heart used to flutter just before I dialed Lily’s phone number. Diary, your pages are the only thing holding me back.
Derek Andersen is an Illinois Wesleyan alum working as a copywriter in Chicago. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Columbia Journal, The Emerson Review, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @DerekJAnd.