The building was a drab gray, accented here and there with streaks of black and green mildew which appeared to have eaten through the paint in a few places. Holly hedges grown high as the roofline ringed the outside, covering the windows. To the careless glance it seemed like a cheap version of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, an aging cinderblock fortress surrounded by choking briars that kept out the world. Peeling paint on the wooden sign affixed to the wall beside the entrance read, “Alpha Home,” and below, in even smaller, more faded script, “For Retired Heroes.”
I signed in on the clipboard at the receptionist’s window, barely acknowledged by the dull-eyed woman watching television behind the glass. She glanced at me, eyebrows slightly raised, before turning back to the screen. Relieved, I flipped through a patient list thumbtacked to the wall until I found his name: Roger Smith, Rm. 334.
I made my way down the vinyl-tiled hallway lit by buzzing fluorescent lights encased in metal cages. The smell was nauseating, like pine-scented disinfectant mixed with old piss. After pressing the call button several times, the elevator doors slowly creaked open, as aged and infirm as any of the other residents. Though the stenciled numbers had long since worn off the buttons, I took a guess, stabbing the one third from the bottom. With a jerk, the car lifted.
When it stopped, the doors refused to open.
“Lovely,” I muttered, punching the button flanked with raised metal triangles. Nothing.
“Goddamnit!” I yelled, kicking the door. He would have to live in a shithole. Feeling my chest began to tighten, I slid down the wall, curling into a ball on the floor. My panic grew as the minutes passed, and it wasn’t long before I was up again, pulling at the doors with my fingertips, scratching and kicking and cursing their refusal to cooperate.
Suddenly the doors were wrenched opened and there he was, wrinkled and grey, his back slightly stooped. Though age and hard living had taken their toll, the muscles in his arms and upper back still strained the fabric of his threadbare red robe.
“There’s a call button, you know,” he muttered.
“I have claustrophobia,” I said, stepping out with as much dignity as I could muster.
“No shit,” he said, turning. “Then why’d you take the elevator?”
“It was faster.”
He stopped in front of his door, arthritic hands fumbling with the lever.
“Here,” I said, moving to open it for him.
“Back the fuck off,” he growled. “I can do it.” He put his shoulder to the door, shoving while pressing with the heel of his hand. The door flew open and he stumbled inside, barely managing to keep himself upright. I followed and closed it behind me.
When he’d righted himself he looked up. “You’re welcome, by the way,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve before shuffling over to a large, ratty armchair and lowering himself into it.
For a moment I just watched him, trying to recognize myself in his broken features.
“Why did you call me here?” I asked.
“That was the thing I always hated the most,” he said, continuing as if I hadn’t spoken. “There was always some ceremony, some medal, some plaque, but nobody ever took the time to just say thank you. No fucking gratitude.”
“Gratitude?” I walked up to him. “You want gratitude? For what? For walking out on me and Mom? For saving a bunch of orphans but never being there to read me a bedtime story or wish me happy birthday?”
“For opening the elevator doors,” he answered.
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. “Why did you call me here?” I asked again.
“Because you’re fucking up your life.”
“You don’t know the first thing about my life.”
He looked up at me, his eyes burning with the intensity of a younger man. “I know you have a job writing about the news instead of making it. I know you hide in your shithole apartment every night, too scared to even open the windows. I know you take a handful of pills in the morning just to have enough courage to face the outside world.”
“I still have friends,” he said, cutting me off as a coughing fit bent him in half. When he’d gotten himself back under control he sat up, spitting something into a dirty handkerchief before stuffing it into his pocket.
“I want to give you something,” he said.
“I don’t want anything from you,” I replied. I turned and began to walk toward the door.
Somehow he was behind me before I’d taken two steps, his hand gripping my arm like an iron band, his face crimson with exertion.
“This is the only thing I ever had that was worth two shits anyway,” he wheezed into my ear. “Everything else means nothing.” In the split second before I broke free he leaned forward and brushed a soft kiss against my cheek.
“Get the fuck off me!” I yelled, wrenching away and slamming the door behind me. I stumbled as I ran, my sobs echoing off the institutional metal walls of the stairwell.
The woman behind the glass looked up as I passed, waving a finger disapprovingly toward a sign on the wall that read, “All Visitors Must Sign In and Out.”
In my fury I picked up the clipboard, flinging it with all my strength toward the entrance. Trembling, I watched it begin to glow with some kind of energy, hitting the doors with enough force to shatter them before sending out a shock wave that tore their frames from the cinderblock walls. When the dust cleared, a gaping hole stared back at me.
From somewhere behind I heard the old man’s chuckle.
“That’s my girl,” he said.
Lynette Mejía writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror prose and poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Redstone Science Fiction, Everyday Weirdness, Daily Science Fiction, and the anthologies Children of the Moon and Penny Dread Tales. She is currently working on a master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. She lives in Carencro, Louisiana with her husband, three children, six cats, and one dog.