Stop that! - Editor
Saying Goodbye to Grandfather
by M. J. Waller
We shuffled out of the alley, took a right turn and bore down slowly upon Avonlea Care Home for Elderly Zombies. When we reached the cast iron gates, my father buzzed the intercom to gain access and they swung open ponderously in front of us. My father made to step inside the grounds but I held back, suddenly fearful and not so keen to see my grandfather any longer.
“Come on, Calum,” my father urged. “It'll be fine, really.”
I still hung back, not particularly convinced. The care home was nothing like I imagined it would be. Thin grass speckled the vast grounds and, here and there, dotted about mostly in areas closer to the cracked pathway, the odd flower grew, sometimes even in bunches of five or six. A single tree stood a short distance from the gate and not only did it look alive and healthy, but my eyes caught movement high up of a squirrel darting between the branches. . .no of two squirrels racing each other to the tree's crown. . .of three, of four! A bird burst from out of the upper foliage.
“Come on.” I tore my eyes from the flying bird and glanced again into the grounds. It was all just so unnatural. My father held out a hand and I darted towards it, anxious for the touch of something I could depend on, something safe. Even the smell here was all wrong. The reassuring reek of death I associated with the safe havens of home, friends' houses and even school, was in this place only a mild stench.
“That's it,” comforted my father. “We'll just make it a quick visit. We won't be long, I promise.”
I nodded and bound my arms even more tightly around his own, wishing that he had yielded to my mother's protestations that I should remain at home with her after all. But my father was adamant that I should come. Dementia eventually claimed all the males in his family, he told her, and he insisted I catch a glimpse of what would be my future so that I remembered always never to waste a moment of my present. I felt as if I had already seen enough.
My father escorted me slowly up the path and as we got closer to the huge, grey cube that was the care home, I saw a number of elderly zombies shuffling about or sitting on benches. Something wasn't quite right about them, although I couldn't put my finger on what this was, but in a strange way I found their presence oddly reassuring. I suppose it was because, old, decrepit and falling apart as they might have been, they were at least zombies and hadn't been transformed by their stay into some kinds of unimaginable monsters.
A nurse met us inside the door, clothed in a white uniform stained brown with old blood. Her body was twisted to the right so that she walked with a limp and she smiled at me, a beaming, gap-toothed smile. It was comforting to come across somebody in the middle of this place who was obviously still invested with some sort of normal zombinity and I smiled back, shyly accepting the sweet she pulled out of a pocket for me.
“A new hippocampus and spleen variety,” she told me. “And just wait till you get to the soft centre. You're here to see Mr. Wainwright, I assume?”
I popped the sweet in my mouth while she and my father discussed my grandfather further. Hippocampus had always been my favourite flavour sweet, and the delicious tang of spleen combined to give it an exotic, heavenly taste beyond anything I had ever tasted before, until I bit through the crunchy exterior. Then my taste buds fizzed quite literally and I couldn't stop myself crying out in pleasure.
The nurse gave me another smile. “Thyroid. But one enhanced by goitre. Told you it would be good.” She turned back to my father. “Do you want me to show you the way or will you be all right on your own?”
“We'll be fine,” my father told her. “I can remember the way.”
We shambled off through drab, freshly painted corridors towards whichever room was my grandfather's. The atmosphere was all wrong still and, if anything, the mild stench had deteriorated further to a pungent smell, but with the taste of the sweet still exploding around the inside of my mouth, these were facts I was only dimly aware of. And then we were waiting outside my grandfather's room. My father bent down to look me in the eye, his expression suddenly more serious than I ever remembered having seen it before.
“Now, Calum,” he began. “I want you to know that your grandfather is worse than I realized. He took another turn yesterday morning and the nurse tells me he's pretty bad so I need you to be brave. He might look different, he might act different, and he might not even remember who you are or who I am, but remember, whatever you see, he is your grandfather. Okay?”
I nodded mechanically, suddenly fearful again, then my father opened the door and we stepped inside.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. There was no hint of death here, only the scent of flowers, tulips I later found out. The room was well-lit, tidy, and every surface looked spotlessly clean. It was as if I had walked into an alien world.
But all this was nothing compared to the change I saw in my grandfather. He too was spotlessly clean. His clothes, a grey suit with white shirt and blue tie, were carefully ironed, his hair was neatly combed, and his skin. . .his skin had lost much of its greyness and was a scary shade of pale pink. He was sat at a table with a deck of cards spread across its surface and opposite him sat a man, a human man!
“ Dad!” exclaimed my father. “What the hell are you doing?”
The human jumped up quickly, backing into the fireplace, his face quickly turning a healthier-looking shade of grey. My grandfather on the other hand, simply looked confused.
“I'm sorry,” he mumbled. “Dad? Who?”
“Your son,” answered my father. “Ray. And this is your grandson, Calum.”
My grandfather peered at me. “Son? Grandson? I'm sorry. . .”
He looked so confused, sounded so pitiful that, despite his condition, my heart went out to him and I felt as if I wanted to cry. My father, however, had flown into a rare rage.
“Yes, son. Dad. . .I can't. . .I mean, they said you were bad and not eating but, honestly. . .playing with your food like this. . .I never thought. . . . Look.”
He strode haltingly across the room towards the cowering human, who was trying unsuccessfully to retreat into the small space of the fireplace.
“This isn't a toy. It's food.”
My father grabbed the human round the throat, held him up in the air and forced him against the wall with one hand. His other hand punched its way through the man's stomach and emerged again with a handful of intestines.
He turned, slammed the dying human onto the table and thrust the entrails at my grandfather.
My grandfather looked at them with a dazed expression then up at my father, and back to the human man. Then his face paled to grey and with a gargled yell, he launched himself up at my father, his son, and clamped a hand around his throat.
I screamed and dived at the both of them, begging and pleading with them to stop, then orderlies in white coats were rushing past me, I was flung into a wall, and the next thing I knew, my father was escorting me from the room, the skin on his right cheek, torn and hanging low.That was the last time I saw my grandfather undying, and I never did forget it.