THE COLD INSIDE
by AL BRUNO III
Thursday May 13, 1993
“I can't believe I let you talk me into this,” John Sig growled.
Pausing in the doorway to the rest home, Phil looked to his friend. He was emaciated and his face had a dreary cast to it. He had long silver hair and a thick handlebar moustache. He walked with the aid of a brass handled cherrywood cane.
“This'll do you a world of good.”
“I don't see how.”
Phil took him by the arm and half-led, half-dragged him through the doorway of the Carvale Home For the Elderly and Infirm. They paused before the visitor sign-in book. “It's something the kids these days call a reality check.” Phil scribbled a false name on one of the lines near the bottom and then jammed the pen in John's hand, “Better give them your autograph or they might try to keep you here.”
“I'd like to see them try,” he replied as he carefully signed the name John Sig.
The other man did a double take, “Did you just make a joke?”
“I mean it wasn't a good one but still-” he shrugged, “I guess Zara was right, all you needed was a little fresh air.”
“The air here is not fresh.”
“You got a point there my friend.”
They walked through the halls of the rest home. It was a labyrinth of drably painted walls and florescent lights. On either side of them were the doors to the administrative offices. They passed through the cafeteria, there was a bingo game in progress and every table was crowded with residents. Attendants and orderlies flitted between them, like bees in a garden. Phil caught sight of one of the women working nearby and gave John's arm a little nudge, “Maybe this place ain't so bad after all. Check out the nursie over there.”
“Just lookit them titties!” He whispered conspiratorially, “Oh, I'd love to bury my pecker between those.”
John gave him an incredulous glare, “What's wrong with you?”
“Oh that's right,” his smile deepened, “You don't like'em with big tits do ya?”
“Well all right.” Phil clapped him on the back, “We're gettin' some color back into your cheeks.”
“Come on.” he led him down the hall, “If you're a good boy we'll cruise on by the junior high for some girls that are more your type.”
They passed a woman mumbling to herself as she rolled her wheelchair down the halls. Further along a lone man made his way towards the bingo game, he needed two canes to walk and every footstep was minuscule and palsied. Thanks to the game Phil and John found the residents' wing relatively empty. The only patients here were the ones too far gone or too sickly to enjoy the day's activities.
“Shouldn’t we move him again soon?” John said, “He’s been here almost seven years.”
“Nah, one way or another he stays here.”
“Aren’t you worried that someone is going to find him?”
“You’re starting to sound like Zara.”
“The man’s been in a coma for thirty-five years, but aside from that he’s perfectly healthy. I’m surprised nobody has put two and two together yet.”
Phil chuckled, “It’s like that building in downtown Troy you had your little tantrum in- ordinary people don’t see it because they don’t want to. Some part of their brains blinds them to the preternatural.”
“Lucky them.” John paused to examine one of the oil paintings that hung on the wall. It was a landscape, replete with rocks and crashing surf and gulls, “This place isn't so bad.”
Phil snorted at the painting, “They probably got it at a garage sale.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I meant that knowing you, I figured you'd have put him in a real snake pit.”
“It was a real snake pit when I put him here but the Goddamn State came in and made them clean up their act.”
A member of the janitorial staff rolled his cart of cleaning supplies from room to room, observing them warily. He looked like he might be about to say something but Phil stared him down as they walked past. His gait was purposeful, his chin held high, it was what he referred to as his I-Have-Every-Damn-Right-To-Be-Here walk and it never failed.
Scowling John trailed behind.
They entered a room near the end of the hall. Phil closed the door behind them.
“Who are you?” the wizened figure in the bed by the door shouted. He held the TV remote control in a gnarled hand “You can't come in here! This is a private room!”
Phil approached him; “Oh I forgot to mention, this is Victor’s roommate. John Sig, Mr. Richardson. Mr. Richardson, John Sig.”
“Get out or I'll call the police!” Mr. Richardson began pressing the buttons of the remote control. The TV exploded to life, the volume at maximum. The intruders flinched at the sudden noise. Emboldened by this he began shouting into the remote control, “Hello police? I'm being robbed! They're everywhere!”
Phil leaned in close to the man, and whispered in a long forgotten dialect.
Victor’s roommate collapsed, his breathing heavy and relaxed. Phil gently pried the remote control from his hands and switched off the TV. John stared at him, “How old do you think he is?”
“Almost as old as you probably.”
“He's not why we're here.” Phil walked over to the bed by the window, “Come on.”
The shape on the bed looked nothing like the Victor Kovach they remembered. The proud features had eroded away, leaving an emaciated ruin. He breathed on his own but IV's kept the fluids going in and catheters kept the fluids going out. His arms were skeletal, with blotchy skin stretched tight over thick veins. The dry lips of his mouth hung open, revealing yellowed teeth and dark gums. Their former mentor's eyes were runny and vacant, John stared into them for a long time searching for some spark of sentience.
Roughly drawing the bedsheets back Phil exposed Victor's bony legs.
“What are you-” John said.
“Looks like somethin' from a concentration camp doesn't he?” Phil pulled a Swiss army knife from his inner jacket pocket. He opened one of the blades and gave the catatonic man a quick jab in the side of the knee.
The wound bled but there was no reaction. “You see that John?” Phil said, “We’re in the home stretch now. We won.”
“He's got no power over you anymore. He's got no power over any of us anymore...”
“He's still got power over me.” John pushed Phil away and returned the sheets to their proper position, “He took away my family, my culture…”
“You can live without that!”
“Every blind man hungers for sight.” John glowered.
Blood continued to run from Victor's knee, staining the sheets with a slow-spreading dark blossom. “It’s not the same.”
“You only know what you see. It's more than that…” He indicated the figure on the bed between them, “I'm no better than this piece of meat here.”
He shook his head, “No… I’ll always be different.”
“Listen to me,” Phil's hands were shaking with frustration, “don't go nuts on me now. The only thing wrong with you is you got hung up on that waitress.”
“That waitress was the only thing keeping me sane. Those are your words not mine.” John walked away, “This was a mistake, there isn't any reality check in here- just two old failures and a corpse that breathes.”
Phil called after him, “I'm not a failure!”