- 52 min read -
It was the hardest thing Rebecca had ever done in her life, leaving the room her father was now a residence of in the Sgt. Lester Howard VA Retirement Home and in the dementia ward.
As Rebecca stepped out of the room, she leaned against the door as it closed behind her. Tears welled up in her eyes and she ruffled through her purse to find some tissue. Not finding any, she tried wiping away the tears with her fingers before noticing a box of tissues on a nurses medication cart. She plucked a few from the box and dabbed at her eyes.
She had done her best to appear strong, positive, and confident in front of her father as she told him she’d see him the next day. She promised to bring his favorite ice cream sandwich – though not entirely sure how to keep it frozen in the middle of a sweltering summer from the nearest convenience store to the farthest room from the parking lot. Honestly, she didn’t really need to bring one as he probably wouldn’t remember the request and the conversation they had.
She began the long trek down multiple hallways of veterans from various wars and multiple branches of the military: J. Williams, Navy; S. Tucker, Air Force; D. Parker, Air Force; T. Dakota, Army; M. Bittle, Air Force. Room after room. Some with a single vet, others with roommates, some with couples. But Rebecca’s mind kept going back to her father.
Once a powerful figure in her life, hoisting her on his shoulders when she was little, fixing her car as a teenager, and standing tall at the altar when she married Thomas, but now the fragile figure sitting alone and unaware in a hospital bed. It was something that no one could prepare her for experiencing. Alzheimer’s was a son-of-a-bitch taking the minds of people putting a veil between their memories and the world that was filled with a lifetime of experiences and people who loved and cared for them.
As she passed by the room of T. Perry, Army, an elderly man stood in the doorway and said, “It’s getting dark, ma’am. Mind the bushes. The Strix love the bushes,” Rebecca just nodded, not sure she heard him correctly. Perry then mumbled other words she couldn’t understand.
At the commons room, many patients gathered. Some in wheelchairs, some just standing, and others seated in the furniture strewn about. They clustered together, she noticed. But in rows, in the case of the patients in wheelchairs. And a few standing were doing so with their backs to each other. The exceptions being of one man at the exit, and one near a doorway that had a view of two halls. A man in a wheelchair rolled up to her, looked up at her and simply said, “The baby is dead, ma’am. Twern’t nuthin I could do. It’s dead.”
Rebecca headed out the door and headed down the elevator leaving the dementia ward and her father.
“You’ve got to get me out of here, Becky,” her father whispered over the phone at 2:00 a.m. in the morning.
“Dad? What’s wrong?!” She bolted upright, waking her husband, Thomas, who gave her an urgent inquisitive look as he turned on a lamp.
“There’s someone wounded and they won’t help him. He just keeps moaning for help!”
“Dad! Calm down just a bit. I don’t understand. Are you okay?” She heard a beeping in the background. “What’s that beeping?”
“I called for the nurse, but no one has come. She may be dead.”
“No one is dead. Why do you need a nurse, dad?”
“They got Tucker! Those bastards got Tucker and no one will help him. MEDIC! GODDAMMIT TUCKER NEEDS A MEDIC!”
The line went dead.
“What’s going on? What was he screaming about?” Thomas asked, trying to comfort Rebecca. She just shook her head and tears started streaming down her face.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s not real. It’s all in his head.” She composed herself. She looked at him, wiping the tears away. “But it’s real to him. How do you help someone when they believe something to be real that just isn’t?”
Rebecca called the nurses station on her father’s floor and waited as it rang nearly a dozen times.
“Floor six,” was the answer.
“This is Bob Steven’s daughter, Rebecca.”
“Hi Rebecca, what can I do for you?”
“Dad just called me and said some crazy things but I think he just needs some of his meds. I heard a beeping in the background from one of the machines in his room.”
The nurse paused a moment without answering.
“Yes. Sorry. We had two people call in sick and it’s a little hard to respond to everyone. Plus,” she paused, “It’s a full moon and the patients get a little overzealous. I know it sounds silly, but…it always happens.”
Rebecca felt a little relief. Then, in the background, she heard someone yelling.
“HUUULLLP MEEAHHH!” a man cried out loudly in a deep voice. His voice was followed by several other screams and cries.
“Ma’am?” Rebecca asked.
“Hun, I’ve got to run. I’ll check on your dad. If anything is odd, I’ll call you back and let you know. I’m sure he’s fine.”
Rebecca started to say something but the nurse hung up and the line went dead.
“Is he okay?” Thomas asked.
“I’m going to go with the answer,” she paused, “maybe?”
“Honey, you didn’t have to bring me this. Let me get you some money. There’s some cash in my wallet in the top drawer of the dresser over there.” Bob said to Rebecca upon her arrival on her lunch break.
“It’s no trouble, dad. And I don’t need any money.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ve got kids to feed. Take the two dollars at least.”
Rebecca went through the motions of picking up her dad’s wallet and rifling through it to take out money. There was, of course, no money in the wallet. They had been warned to not even leave any valuables out in the open as a resident, not meaning any ill will, just picked things up from time-to-time.
“So dad, about last night,” she started to say as she watched her dad dig into the ice cream.
“Yeah. That was something. Three of those bastards attacked us last night. Poor Tucker. He didn’t stand a chance. But he got us plenty of time to mount a defense,” some ice cream ran down his chin and on to his shirt. Rebecca grabbed a napkin and cleaned him up.
“Yeah, what was going on?”
“Well, apparently those strixy fuckers, pardon my French, only come once a month for three days. Just my luck you stuck me in this damn place on the first night they always show up.”
“Strixy?” she asked, taking a seat but her concern raised tremendously. She had heard of Alzheimer patients forgetting things, falling into old memories, and otherwise having the brain create false memories. She figured it best to just let it all play out.
“Yeah, the bloodsucking critters that live in the basement. It was hard to get information from some of the soldiers, but when the Strixy show up we go through the, what’s it called? Bola? Vola? Voal?, or some shit…sorry…some crap. Anyway, it’s cool ‘cause we get to all be young again and fight those crazy things.”
Rebecca was a little worried. Her dad wasn’t making sense.
“I actually took two of them out or gave them a whoopin. Sucker left some good bruises though.” he held up his arms and found them completely covered in massive bruises from just above the elbows to his hands.
“Jesus, dad! What did you do? Did someone do this to you?”
“Yeah. The Strix. I just told you.” He happily kept eating his ice cream like nothing bothered him.
“Does it hurt?”
He swallowed. “Not anymore. Not since I shifted back from the Voal. Yeah. That’s it! The Voal.”
“Maybe I need to get you into a new place after all,” she said.
Bob put down his ice cream container and began to protest, “No, no, no! It’s okay. We’ve got reinforcements now. Three new guys, plus an old nurse who is one of the guy’s wife. We came up with a good plan, plus some of the old timers gave us some advice on what’s worked in the past.”
Rebecca’s phone vibrated and she saw it was time for her to go and get back to work. She stood up, grabbed the trash, and gave her dad a hug and a kiss.
“Okay, dad. I’ve got to head back to work. I’ll swing by afterward. But I’m going to talk to the on-duty nurse about responding to your beeping from now on and see if we can watch those bruises.”
“Oh, I just unplug the machine now if it beeps too long,” he grinned. “And don’t worry, there’s a lot more of us than those Strix. They don’t want to drain us all at once. They need some of us around for next month. But don’t come too late! Sons-a-bitches will start swarming us again and I don’t want you to get caught in the crossfire.” He put on his glasses, turned on the TV, and drifted away.
Rebecca headed down the hall to the nurse’s station. While waiting, she noticed a room being cleaned out. An orderly came out carrying a chair and placing it on a large cart. The nameplate on the door said, ‘S. Tucker; Air Force.’
“Excuse me, what are you working on?”
The orderly put down the chair and said, “Just cleaning up the room and getting it ready for a couple coming in. An old army guy and his wife who was a nurse back in Korea.”
“What happened to Mr. Tucker?” nodding towards the sign next to the door.
“He passed away last night, ma’am.”
Rebecca arrived back at the retirement home with extreme anxiety from what she’d been mulling on since her earlier lunch visit. Her dad was really diving into some fantasy she’d never even heard traces of him imagining during her entire life. Was there something on TV? He didn’t read much. She couldn’t imagine him finding some sort of video or story on his computer. He only used it to play solitaire and check the weather. That or download viruses that she regularly had to clean off and uninstall.
Were all places like this one? Was there always a hint of some outside influence that caused paranoia and delusions?
She had looked up ‘life in retirement homes’ online that afternoon and found most people just understood you had to either wait for the same bland food at meal times, tried not to upset the nurses or be too much trouble, and avoid complaining of fear of being labeled as a ‘troublemaker.’ But veteran homes were different. These were all people who served in the military, though, like her father, it had been fifty-five years earlier. But he strongly identified with his Air Force service, regaled us with stories of his time in the Vietnam war (though he never saw combat), and would update her on all the events, friends, and differences that were happening.
Her father, being on the dementia ward, was a whole different level. Dementia, Alzheimer’s and other memory loss diseases nearly always caused a basic shift in personality. Some for the positive. Nearly always in the negative.
But all of that wasn’t what was causing her anxiety. It was all the talk of the Strix and the strange Voal. It would be odd if it was just her dad, but two other vets had mentioned them as well. And, while an elderly patient passing away wasn’t unusual, it was how it had tied into the story of the vet’s passing.
Rebecca parked her car and headed to the entrance with trepidation. She glanced up at the huge thunderheads building up and blocking the sunset. Even with the knowledge, a storm was coming, the rays of sunlight streaming past the cloud tops were glorious.
As she opened the door, she immediately heard an alarm going off.
She picked up her pace to the elevators, forgetting to sign in at the front desk, but the receptionist, Debbie, called out to her.
“Rebecca! Wait!” the young woman shouted, jumping up and grabbing some keys. “You can’t go up that way. There are a few patients blocking the doors to your dad’s ward. Here. Let me take you around to the employee elevator.”
“Is everything okay up there?” Rebecca asked as they headed to a different elevator.
“Sure, this happens every now and then. With so many in wheelchairs and being short staffed, it just takes a while to clear the entrance. But then the alarm sounds, everyone gets more agitated, and it escalates,” she explained calmly as she inserted the key that was hanging from a cord higher than most patients could reach into the elevator panel. A few seconds later and the elevator opened.
“Why are there separate elevators?”
“Oh, for moving supplies, equipment, and access to the basement and loading doc. But this doesn’t stop on your dad’s floor but does above it. We’ll have to take the stairs back down to his floor.”
“That’s not very convenient for supplies and equipment, then.”
“True. Old building. Hadn’t thought of that before.” the receptionist said without looking at Rebecca. She shifted uncomfortably as if Rebecca had just caught her in a lie.
They made it to the floor above the dementia ward and headed for the stairs back down. The alarm stopped sounding just as they opened the door and stepped into chaos.
The door opened up just off the main common room that was next to the exit. There were still several patients in wheelchairs blocking the door, but people were able to get around them and out if needed. They had turned off the alarm.
“I’m going to go see if they need help. I’ll log you into the book downstairs and see you in a bit,” Debbie said to her as she rushed off to help the nurses and orderlies.
Rebecca just watched for a moment to see if her dad was out in the mix, and once certain he wasn’t, turned to head to his room.
On the way, one man was in the middle of the hallway in a wheelchair trying to get movement by moving his sock covered feet without success. His arms seemed too weak to move the chair on his own, but he acted like he was holding something. “Do you need help going somewhere, sir?” She asked respectively.
“Back to the front, ma’am. The storm is comin’ and the Strix will overrun us if we’re not ready,” he said with a bit of fear and determination in his voice.
Rebecca just nodded sadly and headed to her dad’s room.
“Hey! Why’d you ask if you ain’t willin’ to help? They’ll get you too, ya know!” he shouted at her.
Rebecca took a moment to compose herself before entering her father’s room.
‘How many of these patients had bought into the Strix story? Was it something the nurses planted in their heads. Something to unify them and keep them more focused? Or was it just mass hysteria brought on by the full moon?’
She knocked on the door.
“Have you got your pants on dad?” she jokingly asked.
“Shit. Yeah. Of course.”
She came into the room and he looked a bit surprised.
“Becca! What are you doing here,” he asked angrily.
Taken a bit aback, she replied, “I told you I was coming back up today. I even brought you a soda.”
“I told you not to come up so late. I don’t need a Gawd Damn soda. What the hell are you doing coming back up here? I’m fine. The nurses can take care of me.”
He sometimes got like this. Angry. Belligerent. She tried not to take it personally, but when it came on suddenly, it took her a while to regain her composure.
This was one of those times she wasn’t keeping it together.
“What the hell, dad?! Don’t talk to me like that!! I’m going out of my way to make sure you can feel as ‘at home’ as possible!” She immediately regretted saying ‘…going out of my way…’
“Well don’t let the door hit ya on the way out. Just get out.” She didn’t move. “GET OUT, DAMMIT! NO BODY ASKED YOU TO TAKE CARE OF ME! GO!”
“YOU DID, DAD!” She slammed the soda on his overbed table and turned and left. Luckily, the doors all had hydraulic hinges or she would have slammed it.
A nurse rounded the corner almost running into Rebecca. They both came to an abrupt halt. “OH! I’m sorry.”
“Quiet alright,” Rebecca said.
“Is everything alright? I heard shouting.”
Rebecca dabbed her eyes and nodded saying, “Yes. He’s in one of his sudden onset angry spells, so be careful going in.”
The nurse, Shayla, Rebecca remembered, put a hand on her shoulder with empathy. “Its hard when their frustration flows back on family. He’ll come back around. You can’t let that aspect of their personality overpower the memories you have of them. It’s the disease. Not the person.”
Rebecca nodded feeling more tears welling up.
“You get on back downstairs. Visiting hours are almost up. I’ll take care of your dad. He talks some good smack, but I can give as good as he gets. I think that’s why he’s flirting with me when you’re not around,” Shayla winked. Rebecca laughed and groaned.
“Oh…a step-mom younger than me. Great!” she said sarcastically and with a smile.
Shayla patted her on the shoulder, gave her a little squeeze, and said, “We’ll see you tomorrow. He’ll be fine.”
Shayla headed on down the hall and Rebecca headed to the elevator.
On the way, she noticed there was still a bit of a commotion at the doors, so she went back down the stairs. It was labeled, “For Employees Only” and was locked, but a key hung up high on a plastic elastic spring. She reached up, pulled it down, inserted the key, and was able to open the door just fine.
Still shaking the sadness and anger off from her experience with her father, replaying the angry exchange, and trying to take some solace in realizing he probably wouldn’t remember any of it the next day, Rebecca realized she had gone done several flights of stairs and gone all the way to the ground floor. She had forgotten to take the stairs up so she could take the elevator back to the lobby. She looked back up the stairwell and decided that the extra exercise probably did her good.
Rebecca opened the door and stepped into a dark corridor. She squinted her eyes as the door closed and locked behind her. She had not exited into the lobby, but apparently, it was the basement. There was a foul smell, like something had rotted.
‘Was this the morgue?’ she thought before quickly realizing they didn’t have those in retirement homes.
Lightning flashed outside from the storm and small windows near the ceiling let in light to the basement she now found herself in. Large rooms seemed to open up at both ends of the short corridor. Trying to get her bearings, she decided the elevator to go back to the lobby must be to her left.
Sure enough, as she turned to the left, she could see an ‘EXIT’ sign and the dim glow of an elevator button. She quickly hurried to the elevator and pressed the button. Lightning struck again and lit up the room. She turned around, but darkness had fallen engulfed the room so she was unable to see anything. She turned back to the doors and pressed the button again, knowing full well it never did any good.
She heard rumbling from the thunder outside as lightning flashed again. She could hear the elevator nearing her level.
That’s when she heard the voices. Whispers, really. Not in English, either. She turned around scanning the darkness. The whispers stopped. “Who’s there?” she demanded.
The elevator answered with a ‘ding’ and Rebecca quickly turned and got in, hitting the lobby button and quickly looking back into the room where the light from the elevator spilled out from. Lighting lit the room again, but this time revealing three figures standing far to the back away from the light. She nearly screamed as she looked into the gaunt faces of three gangly men standing close together, their mouths hung open with teeth bared. Two of the men started to move towards the elevator, but one man put up his arms to stop them. He spoke hushed words and they stopped.
The doors closed and the elevator began to ascend.
As soon as the elevator doors opened up to the lobby, Rebecca lunged out and rushed to the to reception desk where Debbie was packing up for the night.
“Oh, Rebecca! I didn’t know you were still…”
“Debbie! There are some strange men in the basement.” Rebecca shouted, reaching the edge of the receptionist desk, and trying to catch her breath.
“What? Wait. What were you doing in the basement?”
“What?” Rebecca asked confusedly “Did you hear me? There were three men and two were about to attack me. They were just standing in the dark. The lights were out downstairs. There’s an awful smell too.”
Debbie picked up a phone but stared quizzically at Rebecca.
Rebecca let out a sigh, “I accidentally took the stairs down and missed the lobby.” Debbie nodded in satisfaction but still concerned.
“Joe. Debbie,” she spoke into the phone. “Yeah. The boys got back into the basement. Sounds like they may have even crapped up the place. … Yeah …. Yeah. Nearly scared Mr. Steven’s daughter to death. … Yeah. … She accidentally went to the basement via the stairs because of the door blockade.” Rebecca listened and slowly started to calm down. Debbie hung up the phone and turned to her, placing a hand on hers.
“So sorry, Rebecca, you probably saw Mr. Fitzgerald and his two tag-alongs, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Gattner. They’re kinda in bad shape. Cancer has eaten away parts of Mr. Fitzgerald’s face, Mr. Jones has become very emaciated due to treatment he’s going through, and Mr. Gattner has lost all his hair and avoids the sun at all costs, so he’s white as a ghost. It’s no wonder they rattled you. It would have me too if I didn’t know them.”
“Why are they down there? And, I think they were speaking a different language.”
“They’ve gotten ahold of the keys to the stairs sometimes. Sometimes, when its super noisy with the alarms, Mr Fitzgerald seems to come to a little clarity and can work his way out of the security. Still can’t get out of the building, but….” Debbie looked at Rebecca and grabbed her hands again, “Oh sweetie! You’re shaking like a leaf.” She came around the counter and wrapped her arms around her. “Let me take you on out to your car.”
The two walked through the doors and saw the storm was really powering up. They could smell the rain coming. Rebecca regained her composure.
“Good grief! It’s about to pour. I can make it to the car. You go ahead and get back in. I appreciate the help and explanation.” Rebecca said.
“Not a problem. The dementia these people go through can be a bit upsetting. You’ve seen your own father’s progression, but stepping into the middle or late stages of other people can be really unnerving. Their mannerisms and actions can seem bizarre if you haven’t been around them for years….and even then…” Debbie smiled weakly.
The wind picked up and lighting struck nearby with thunder following immediately behind. Rebecca and Debbie both flinched.
“Get back inside. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Be safe!” Debbie said and ran back inside.
Rebecca made it to the car, started the engine and started to leave. She slowed for a moment to look up to her father’s room. The sky was black only occasionally lit by the storm. The light from her father’s room, and all the others, allowed her to see in. She looked up sadly, and then noticed a figure in her dad’s room that stood in front of the window. ‘Is that dad?’ she thought. He seemed too tall.
The rain started falling in large loud drops and soon it was torrential. She looked back up, and noticed all the blinds had closed.
She shook her head, slowly pulled out of the parking deck, and drove home in the pouring rain.
‘I have NO idea how he’s going to be today, but at least there were no midnight calls,’ Rebecca thought to herself as she went up the elevator.
The thunderstorms from the night before had knocked out power to several parts of her home town. Their own power had been out for several hours. It didn’t seem like they had experienced any issues at the Veteran’s Home, according to the front desk when she signed in.
Being a Saturday, Rebecca decided to come up a little early. She had brought her dad a soda, some fried SPAM, and a new shirt she had found on sale. Historically, he’d either complain about it all or be extremely happy. She just never knew which would happen.
She said hello to several people, waved at the nurses at their station, and stopped a moment as she saw another person’s room being cleaned out. Shaw was their name. She also noticed a room that used to be empty now had a new person. She didn’t take time to read the name, though.
Rebecca paused at the door to brace herself. She knocked on the door, cracked it open, and said as always, “You got your pants on dad?”
There was no answer. ‘Maybe in the bathroom or in the cafeteria,’ she thought. Though he preferred food be brought to him. She went on into the room, “Dad?” she said.
She entered into the main part of the room to see her dad still sleeping laying on his side and facing away from her. Very odd for 10:00am on a Saturday, but not completely unheard of. He had gotten on some new medication that made him drowsy. She walked up and gently grabbed his shoulder, remembering to avoid the bruised area from the day before. “Dad?” She whispered.
Bob slowly rolled over onto his back and opened his eyes trying to focus. They were bloodshot and he had a bandage on his forehead where blood was seeping through, but dried.
“Dad! Are you okay? Did you fall?”
Bob smiled. “Hey Becky,” he said quietly. “Yeah. But I’m okay. Just tired. It was a busy night. We really put up a fight against the Strix. Only lost Shaw.” Bob’s eyes drifted off in a memory, “Shaw…man…that guy…” Bob’s eyes opened a bit wider with alertness, “What time is it!?” He asked as he started to sit up.
“Easy dad. It’s early still. 10:00am. I brought some fried SPAM and a new shirt for you.”
He relaxed a bit laying back down, but then sat back up, “SPAM you say? I can smell it! Oh! And you got me a Dr. Pepper. Thanks so much, sweetie.”
Rebecca, still concerned about the latest injury, calmly unwrapped the SPAM and handed it to her dad. “How’s Thomas and the latest on his car restoration?” he asked.
She was taken aback. Her dad hardly remembered Thomas’ name in months, let alone make any comment about Thomas’ restoration of an old ‘65 Ford Mustang. In fact, he’d never commented on it at all even though she’d shared the story a few times.
“Um, pretty good, actually. He said to say ‘hi.’ He’s only got to replace the door panels, and then start the engine rebuild and it should be ready to drive.”
“Hey, that’s something else. I remember when those came out. Kinda wanted one. Your mother wouldn’t have anything to do with the notion though.” He laughed. “Sure do miss her,” he said solemnly but with affection.
It had been even more months since he remembered her mom wasn’t with them anymore. He often would ask for her, or worse, think she was her mom.
“Well, let’s try on the new shirt. I might be seeing your mom sooner than later and I need to look good! Maybe you can give me a shave and a trim while you’re here?”
“Of course I can dad. And don’t talk like that about seeing mom.”
He stopped for a moment and grabbed Rebecca’s hands and looked at her with clarity and awareness, “It’s okay, sweetie. You’ve done good. I know I’ve been a son-of-a-bitch sometimes, and I can’t help it. And I was mad when you brought me here, though I knew I needed to be here. But, the past two days… while scary at first… have made me feel more alive than I have in years.” He smiled and lifted her hands up and kissed them affectionately.
The rest of the visit went remarkably well. She spent a good couple of hours soaking in the clarity her dad was experiencing knowing full well, it may be gone at any moment.
He joked around with the male and female nurses that came in during their rounds. “Can you put some Bud Light in the next fluid bag, Stan?” He asked.
“You know I don’t mess with that piss water, Bob. But I’ve got some Crown Royal I can dump in there.” He said winking at Rebecca.
“Hey, that’s my favorite. Put some of that shit in there, but not too late! I gotta be on my toes for tonight’s skirmish.”
Rebecca winced. The clarity was ending.
“Well, dad, I gotta go run some errands, but I’ll stop back in tonight…Not too late, of course!” She added quickly so he wouldn’t warn her against coming.
“Okay, sweetie. That would be good. I’m getting kinda tired again and could use a nap. Gonna be a busy night! Need all my energy. We’re going to run those sons-a-bitches out of here for good this time. We’ve got a rock solid plan.” He smiled. “Can you fix my sheets before you go? My feet are stickin’ out.”
“Of course dad.”
Rebecca was late. She almost wasn’t sure she should drop by. She was afraid her dad may flip out and really wanted to remember the morning. It was completely refreshing from the past few weeks and months.
But, she needed to check on him. Thomas had said he probably wouldn’t notice if she didn’t drop back by. He was probably right.
But she’d know.
She entered the passcode for the doors, since they were locked after hours, and headed into the lobby to sign in. As usually, no one was at the desk after hours, but she signed in anyway.
When she reached the elevators, she discovered they were off, or just not working. She wondered if that was normal. Luckily, she knew how to get up to her dads floor after the blockade issue the day before. And as she went around to the employee elevator, she discovered it was working fine.
She stepped into the elevator and pressed the floor above her dads. As the doors closed, the lights flickered and a loud deep vibration reverberated around her. It faded as the lights came back on and the elevator started moving. But it wasn’t the smooth sounding elevator she had ridden in before. It was loud and shaky. As she neared her father’s floor, she thought she could hear pops, and bangs, and then shouting. A loud explosive sound caused the elevator to shake and the lights to flicker again. “What the hell?” Rebecca thought grabbing a hand rail.
The doors opened to the floor above her dads and she rushed down the stairs. The sounds of pops and bangs sounded more like gunfire, shrapnel hitting walls, and the shouting more like screaming now.
Rebecca grabbed the door handle in a panic and swung it open to see patients and nurses running up and down the halls. They were ducking behind furniture and, amazingly, running and diving at their ages without slowing down. She could hear the gunfire, explosions, and feel hot waves across her, but couldn’t see them.
She stepped into the hall to begin the mad dash to her dad’s room, but as she stepped across the threshold, the world shifted around her, and she no longer found herself in a hospital, but falling into dirt, rocks, shrubs, and crumbling, shell shot buildings. Suddenly, explosions lit up the woods and buildings around her. It was dark, but the sky was clear save for smoke from the explosions and burning buildings.
Gunfire erupted and pieces of the wall above her were pelted with bullets sending bits of cement and brick raining down on her.
Her mind spun. Was she in the “Voal” her dad had talked about? Was this real? “Dad.” She murmured to herself. How in the world would she find him. And, if this was real, were the Strix?
Another explosion went off a bit too close and she decided to run in the direction she normally would when visiting her dad. She got up, but stayed low. As she rushed forward, she saw soldiers in army, navy, air force, and marine attire firing weapons and hurling grenades. As she ran down what she thought was the hallway she always went down, something tackled her sending her and it tumbling. She twisted around to try to get up on her hands and knees, but someone punched her hard on the side knocking the wind out of her and flipping her onto her back. She felt someone climb onto her and restrain her hands and body. She opened her eyes to a nightmare.
Above her was one of the men she had seen in the basement in the shadows. But this was no man. His eyes were sunken, nose was missing, and a gaunt face that was part of a head that seemed unnaturally elongated. But not only that, he had pointed ears and a mouth full of sharp razor-like teeth that dripped with blood and saliva.
Rebecca screamed as the bald headed Strix opened its mouth wide to feast on her.
Out of nowhere, the butt of a rifle slammed against the Strix’ head causing it to tumble off of Rebecca. The soldier fired multiple times into the creature which then fled into the distance. The young soldier turned to her, looked shaken, but stuck out his hand to help her up. She looked at the man who was both familiar but couldn’t be who he looked like. She looked up past his out stretched hand at his Air Force uniform and saw the name “STEVENS” embroidered on his chest.
“Sweetie, I told you not to come this late, but I’m glad I got here when I did. Let’s get you someplace safe,” he extended his hand out further with urgency.
“Dad? How can…”
The shriek of a Strix was near. Her dad whipped his head around and seemed to see something. He turned quickly back and this time grabbed her loose hand. “Come on, Becky. Move your ass!” She grabbed hold of his hand, jumped up and they both began to run.
“This way, Stevens!” a soldier shouted motioning them to a small building. His name was Parker.
Rebecca had completely lost her bearings and though she’d lost her mind as well as she ran with a younger version of her father she’d never met.
They rounded some rubble and into the half demolished building. Her father pulled her against a wall and had them quickly sit down on the ground. He scrambled on his belly to poke his head out of the doorway, pulled up his rifle to look through the scope to the surrounding landscape.
He backed up to her still staying low. “I think we’re okay Becky. For now. But if it’s anything like the last couple of nights, they’ll be back in 10-15 minutes. But, just gotta get to Parker and Bittle and collect some goodies that will get rid of these Strixie bastards for good.
“DAD! WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOING ON? AM I DEAD?”
Her father looked at her with eyes she hadn’t seen in years. He put a hand on her shoulder like he used to when she ran into challenges in her youth and various times in her life giving her strength and courage.
“You ain’t dead, Becky. But you don’t seem to be affected like me and the others in the VA.”
“How is this possible?”
“I don’t know kiddo, but it’s a second chance for me and the others in here. I’m not sure how they do it, but I’ve watched enough scifi and horror movies with your mother to think that these Strix… actually, I think they’re Stragoi. Energy vampires from the old world of Europe. Maybe… Romania? Seems like I remember dumb stories while in my Vietnam tour, or maybe some books or movies. But I think they LIKE us to relive this part of our lives. It’s when most of us felt most alive. I know I do at the moment.” He heard noises from outside and turned away to keep an eye out.
Rebecca was still reeling. This was all impossible. But it was what was happening right in front of her. And her dad was now the opposite of a weakened old man who had trouble walking, thinking, or remembering what should have been the most memorable of pieces of his life. Like her.
“Dad.” She whispered.
He didn’t look at her, but kept on alert, ‘Yeah, sweetie?’
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I’m not going anywhere, hun. I’ll keep you safe here.”
“No. Dad. I’m not ready…” she whispered in a trembling voice. “I’m not ready for you to go.”
Private Bob Stevens turned and looked into his daughter’s eyes now welling up with tears. This wasn’t about the Battle in the Voal. This was about his battle with Alzheimer’s that was leading him to a place where he would forget everything and everyone including those closest to him. And his only daughter would have to face an angry old man who once loved her more than anything and would no longer recognize her.
Private Bob Stevens had not been a father while he was a young man in the Air Force. But Bob Stevens was. He put down his rifle, took off his helmet, took his daughter into his arms, and held on tight. Rebecca broke down into body wrenching sobs and tears, clawing at her father to get closer. He was the strong man she remembered growing up, though much younger. All the feelings she had came gushing out as she gasped for air in between sobs. “It’s not fair. First mom. Now you. I’m not ready to be alone. I’m not ready for you to go. Please don’t go.”
“I know, sweetie. I know.” He rocked her back and forth ignoring the shrieks, screams, and gunfire going on around them nearby. “I’m not ready to go either. But… being trapped in my mind is awful, sweetie. At this moment, I can remember everything from the past year and even this morning.” He looked down at her. “And you know I haven’t been able to remember even yesterday in a long time.”
Rebecca pulled away a little and looked up at her father.
“This… Voal… these Stragoi, I don’t know what they want, but I’m grateful I’ve gotten to be with you and remember. They lifted the fog I’ve been in for years.”
Rebecca hugged her father tight again and nodded.
“It’s gonna be alright. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Heck… how many kids get to play army with a younger version of their dad?” He laughed.
So did Rebecca.
He kissed her forehead.
Parker and Bittle burst in through the doors and dove for cover. Rebecca and her dad hopped up, her dad grabbing his gun and putting on his helmet.
“You boys ready?” her dad said.
“Hell yeah, Stevens.” Bittle shouted with a sly look.
“I got all the supplies. You sure you remember what to do?” Parker asked.
“That a joke, Parker?” her dad said.
They all laughed like people do when they’ve been under stress and need to let out the anxiety.
Parker and Bittle dumped a bunch of materials onto the floor and went back to keep watch.
Her dad started sorting through things while Parker and Bittle fired occasionally into the darkness.
“What are you doing, dad?”
“You don’t think ALL the stories I told you were made up did you? Whether these Strix did it on purpose or not, they gave me back my memories.” He smiled at her, “ALL my memories.” He turned back to his supplies and set to work.
That’s when it hit her. Her dad had been an explosives expert in the Air Force. He was making explosives from materials around the hospital. Somehow, they weren’t changed in the Voal. Fear swept across her.
“Dad. Things that happen in the Voal are real, though. What if other patients or nurses get hurt?”
“I don’t think the nurses actually come through the Voal. Just the vets. I think they know it happens, but I’ve never seen them. FIVE MINUTES, BOYS!”
“Still the same plan? Lead them down to the cafeteria?” Parker asked.
“You think it will really take them out for good?” Bittle quizzed.
“Only way to find out.”
“Dad… what are you planning? Leading them somewhere to do what?” Rebecca asked.
Her dad looked up at her with a determination she hadn’t seen in years. “Going to blow these strix out of the building and into a million pieces,” he said as he held up a makeshift bomb and grinned.
“There are three, really, though we’ve heard there are sometimes more. Parker, Bittle, and I are going to go hand-to-hand and lead them to the cafeteria, though it looks like an open area with a tent next to it at the moment. The Cafeteria is along the outside wall above the parking deck. So we’ll get them along the wall and at the right moment, I’ll trip the ignition on the bomb and toss it at them. It should blow the real cafeteria wall out and the Strix with it. They’ll be some clean up and I may get kicked out of here, but if we can end these Strix for good… well… that’s a mission worthy of all missions in my book. Right boys?”
“Hell, yeah!” “Bet your ass.”
“That’s crazy, dad! You could get killed. All of you could.”
Bob carefully set the explosive down, grabbed Rebecca, and simply said, “I’m going to go soon anyway, Becky. This will give me a reason and a helluva story… a story that you’ll never be able to tell anyone… or they may lock you up.”
Whether it was the craziness of the situation, the shifted reality, the adrenaline, or the fact that seeing her dad so vibrant and young, Rebecca grabbed her dad’s arms, smiled, and said, “Let’s go kick some Strixi ass!”
The boys yelled in approval and Private Bob Stevens and his daughter stood up to join the boys at the doorway.
“Question, and I’m no military expert, but… who the hell is shooting at you if the Strix are physically attacking you?”
The guys all looked at each other as if it had never occurred to them.
“She’s definitely your daughter, Stevens. Always bringing up stuff that has to make sense.” Bittle said.
“Maybe it’s friendly fire, but they want us to believe it’s them firing,” Bob said.
“Keeping your energy high. Dad, you slept all day today. Maybe they are keeping everything ramped up to feed off of all of you.”
“Okay boys, watch for friendly fire then. Only fire at the Strix.”
The three men fanned out and, although seemed to be moving through a wooded trail, believed it was a hallway heading towards the cafeteria. Bullets ripped into bark and whizzed past their heads.
“Soldiers! Cease Fire!” Parker shouted, “Call out! We believe we’re firing on each other. Parker, Air Force!”
“Bittle, Air Force!”
“Stevens, Air Force!”
“Williams, Navy!” a voice said close to them.
This continued for a few minutes at varying distances. Then she heard, “Jones… Marines!” Something struck her odd. Then another.
“DAD!” Rebecca said quietly. “Fitzgerald and Jones were in the basement the other night. There was a third too… Ratner?”
“Gattner, Air Force!”
“Gattner! That’s the third. THEY’re THE STRIX!” she said.
Her father, Parker, and Bittle pointed silently getting directions on the three.
Parker questioned, “You sure? I play checkers with Jones. Seems okay. I little off. Now that you mention it…stays in his room all the time until dinner, when it’s dark.”
“Fitzgerald is a definite now that you mention it. That cancer story about his nose seemed off. He always had that ski cap on too… even when it’s hot,” Bittle added.
“Okay boys. Got your targets?” Parker and Bittle nodded. “On three… one…two…three!”
The three men opened fire at the targets Rebecca identified. Shrieks filled the air and the Voal shifted slightly as if all of reality suddenly became transparent and the Veterans home shimmered through.
“Push ‘em back, boys!” They continued firing and saw the three Strigoi run the opposite direction towards the cafeteria. Bittle saw them and broke into a sprint behind them.
“NO! Bittle! WAIT!”
Parker started after him. “Dumbass.”
“Dammit, they’re going to screw this up.” Bob looked down at his bomb and fiddled with something on it.
“What are you doing?”
“Making it so I can lob this fuc… sorry… lob this thing into the room. Gonna probably have to pull the guys out and hope we aren’t followed out. Plan won’t work if they get out of the cafeteria.” Rebecca watched what her father was doing.
“How do you set it and how long after you do?”
“Just pull here and you’ve got about to the count of three.”
She looked at him and nodded.
“You can stay here. I’ll be back after you hear the boom.” He smiled.
“Not a chance, dad. I’ve got your back.”
“Like you have the past two years.” He patted her face lovingly and then motioned to get moving.
Just as they started moving, he heard Bittle scream. It was like Tucker two nights before. They were tearing him to pieces in the Voal. In the real world it would look different.
“BITTLE!” He shouted breaking out into a sprint.
Gunfire erupted. Had to be Parker firing.
As they approached the field/cafeteria, it was mass pandemonium. It wasn’t just Parker and Bittle, but the three Strix as well as Dakota, Williams, and Perry. Everyone was in hand-to-hand combat with Fitzgerald, Jones, and Gattner. Though they looked much more terrifying, larger, and stronger than the men swarming them.
“Stay back, Becky!” her dad shouted and he tried to squeeze off a few shots before finally rushing in to fight as well.
Long taloned hands slashed at the young transformed soldiers. Rebecca watched in horror as she saw Gattner grab Dakota up by the throat off his feet and into the air. Two men tried to help, but their blows had no effect. She watched as Gattner took his free taloned hand and eviscerated the dangling man and listened to his screams. She covered her ears, but couldn’t look away this close to danger.
It was then that Bittle became the next to fall at the hands of Fitzgerald.
“NO!” Parker screamed.
“Push them back, men!” Her father cried as he swung his rifle butt and connected with Jones’ head. It was Jones, she knew now, who had pinned her to the ground and almost tore her apart as well.
“That’s it! A few more feet.” He shouted. The military men, though being beaten to death, had the Strix circled and their backs against the cafeteria wall, though to them it looked like dense trees.
Bob pulled the bomb out, “Ready to SCATTER, BOYS! IN Five…” her dad began the countdown and prepared to pull the ignition trigger. “FOUR!”
At that moment, Fitzgerald pivoted away from two men who had him pinned and right into the path of her father. With unimaginable strength, the Strix leader swung his arm and backhanded her father off his feet and flying across the room/field.
The bomb went flying and landed without incident sliding across the floor and stopping at Rebecca’s feet. She looked down for a moment, and then up at her father who was struggling to get to his feet.
Fitzgerald looked from her father to her and to the bomb. He turned and started towards her. But her father in his spry peak of youth, leapt onto the Stix’ back and yanked him backwards into the fray and towards the wall.
“BECKY! PULL IT AND THROW!” The Strix shrugged him off by flipping him forward over his head and onto the ground. Fitzgerald began pummeling her dad with his taloned hands. She watched as she heard clothing, skin, and bone breaking.
“DO IT, BECKY!” He screamed.
Rebecca grabbed the bomb, pulled the ignition switch and yelled, “THREE!” and hurled the bomb towards the Strix now gathered back together thanks to her dad.
The soldiers scattered and Rebecca ducked back. Her last glimpse of her dad was him rolling onto his stomach and covering his head.
The explosion shook the whole area. Debris and dust completely blocked her vision from seeing anything and her eardrums were ringing and she could not hear anything.
After a few moments, she thought she could see lights flashing and suddenly water started streaming down on her from above. She blinked and saw that the Voal was gone and only the hospital remained.
Nurses and security were running around trying to help evacuate the floor.
Fresh air hit her face and when she stood, she could see that the entire wall of the cafeteria was gone. Laying on the floor next to the opening, was her father.
“Dad,” she meekly muttered. She rushed to his side.
He lay face down in his t-shirt and sweatpants. She slowly turned him over to see no indication of being shredded by a taloned Strix, but he was definitely bruised and dazed.
“Dad!” she cradled his frail figure onto her lap and tears started streaming down her face. She wasn’t sure from relief, fear, sadness, hope, or all of the above.
His eyes fluttered. Still with some of the brightness from earlier, but definitely dazed. “Did we get them? Are they gone?”
Rebecca hadn’t even stopped to take stock. She looked around and saw many of the men who had just been fighting, though much older, weaker and frail. Parker was standing close to the hole in the wall with a hand resting for support as he looked down to the parking deck below. A few others were being escorted out of the building. Two men were laying on the floor like her dad. Maybe Bittle and Dakota. Neither eviscerated as in the Voal, but not moving. Fitzgerald, Jones, and Gattner were no place to be seen. “I… I don’t see them, dad. Maybe.”
“No,” Parker said, slowly turning from the hole in the cafeteria wall. “We got them, Bob. We GOT them, goddammit.” Parker smiled as he moved close. “Well done, soldier. Solid plan.” Her dad smiled at him and the clasped hands for a moment.
A nurse came by, “Oh my god! Shayla! Mr. Stevens is on the ground. Get a gurney! Mr. Parker, are you all right? Let’s get you out of here. We’ll be back for you and your dad in a minute, Rebecca.” She grabbed Parker by the elbow and back and began guiding him away to, what she thought, was safety.
“Becky,” her dad said.
“You did good, kid. Nice throw.” Tears welled up again. Her dad coughed slightly and winced in obvious pain. “Becky… I gotta go now. I’m sorry.”
“Dad. No. We’ll get you taken care of.”
“Becky… you know I’ll be ‘gone’ in a little while. The Voal is gone. The Strix are gone. My mind will be gone soon too.”
She knew he was right. She wasn’t ready. But she was more ready after tonight. She had her dad back, if only for a while.
She smiled at him with tears in her eyes. “Okay, dad. Okay. I’ll be okay. It will be okay. I’ll just stay here with you.”
“You were the best thing I ever did, kid. You be good, okay? You be good. Be happy. Do something for yourself from time to time. Don’t put off anything. Okay?”
“Okay dad. I love you. I’m glad I got to see you in action. Even if no one believes me and wants to lock me up.”
Her dad chuckled. He closed his eyes and seemed to relax.
“Becky?” He said.
“Right here, dad.”
“Love you, kid. You did good.”
“Tell mom I said ‘hi’ and I love and miss her.”
He took a few more breaths. Then he smiled and quietly said, “I’m coming home.”
A year after Rebecca’s dad passed away that crazy night, the Veteran’s home was reopening the Alzheimer’s wing. There had been no evidence of foul play and the news reports said it had been a gas leak from the kitchen. Six men had died that night, three that had borne the brunt of the explosion out of the building, and three inside – including her father.
Since that night, Rebecca had poured a ton of money and time into helping raise money for a new Alzheimer’s ward at the VA. Because of this, they had decided to dedicate and name the new wing after her father: The Bob R. Stevens Alzheimer Veterans Ward.
She and Thomas were there for the ribbon cutting. On the entrance was a bronze image of her father’s face on a plaque with his name, the branch of service, and a short bio. The grand opening was bittersweet as she knew full well that others would have much harder struggles that she and her father had, but the new facility was filled with caring people and excellent professionals.
As the festivities came to a close and night began to set in, Rebecca said goodbye to everyone and thanked them all. She and Thomas headed down the elevator to head home. As they headed out, they stopped by the main desk to sign themselves out, even though she hadn’t been visiting anyone. She was tired but happy as she watched people still filtering in and out.
“Did you have a good time, Rebecca?”
“I did,” she smiled. “Thank you for asking.”
“Have a good night, now,” Debbie said smiling.
She turned and looked back for a moment remembering her very first visit. As Thomas held the door for her, she smiled and glanced back towards the elevators.
She paused for a moment and was sure that it was just a play on her eyes after a long day and memories of the past, but as the door closed, she could swear that an elderly man in the back looked just like the deceased Mr. Fitzgerald.
“Everything okay?” Thomas asked.
She stood there for a moment, turned to her husband, and finally joined him saying, “Of course. I’m sure it’s all okay.”
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Some doors you can’t even find. This short story that opens the way for other times and dimensions – or at least to a field in Pettigrew, Arkansas.
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