The Last Golden Hour by Joseph Lewis


Miriam stood at the window, watching the night sky change from yellow to orange to blood-red, I looked down at the game of solitaire on the table in front of me and realized that I had forgotten how to play. She didn’t usually stay this long in the evening; she’s got other patients to see. Usually, she’ll bring me dinner—tonight it was meatloaf, cold in the middle, and green beans, cold everywhere—and then she’d turn off the TV when the sun begins to flirt with moon ‘cause that’s when you get confused, she said. She said I get confused whole lots, but sometimes things seem crystal to me, but I also have trouble convincing her of that. Why can’t she just leave me be?

And I’ve had other visitors lately, too. Ones I don’t tell her about.

Usually, she comes in stinking of too much perfume and cafeteria food, says I always makes a mess out of things and cleans up a good day’s work. See, that’s how I remember things: I have to spread them out, like pieces in the puzzle of my life. All the things in this room that are mine, that I can call my own. I once had so many more, but they’re all gone now. I can’t remember where. But today was different. She didn’t come in and clean anything, didn’t turn off the TV. In fact, she left it on so we both could watch. She never does that. Instead, she took my remote and flipped around to all these strange channels. She said they were news channels, but they didn’t sound anything at all like the news I used to hear. In Brazil, they were saying that the entire city was swarmed by these huge spiders—called ‘em banana spiders—and said they’re really poisonous, and they started attacking all these people during this big parade, and everyone started screaming. People were dying. When we were kids, my brother was bitten on the thumb by a diamondback rattlesnake. We asked our Pa if he thought it was poisonous and he said, “pretty much everything here in this goddamn desert is poisonous.” My brother lost his thumb but told that goddamn story to everyone because every goddamn person asked about it. He died from a stroke about ten years ago, I think. But I can’t be too sure of that, ‘cause last night we played cards here on my table, and he talked about me coming home soon. But I didn’t tell Miriam that.

Outside, the sky was red and orange and bright even though it was 10 o’clock at night. The nights had been stranger than usual lately. I mean, besides my visits. It started earlier this week, and it started at night. Miriam says I get confused at night, but everyone seems pretty confused this week, so maybe I’m not.

About midnight, someone in the nursing home started screaming. Not unusual here, mind you. But then came a few more screams. Now that woke me up, and I’m a deep sleeper, or so I’ve been told. My wife, Hannah, always said I was a deep sleeper. Now she’s in the deepest sleep of all. Miriam says that if I’m lucky, I’ll join her soon.

I looked out the window, and there was this huge, red glow in the sky, and at first, I thought—we all thought—it was a plane on fire. But it was too big to be a plane. Then someone came running down the hallway, screaming, saying it was a cross. It was a giant, fiery cross. I hadn’t been to church since Sunday school as a kid, but anyone can see that it did look like one. It was on the news, too. On every station; even my regular shows were cancelled. I was tired of hearing about it. A miracle? A giant practical joke? No one had an answer, but everyone had opinions. Everyone always has opinions on everything. People in the nursing home were upset, but I was tired and wanted to go back to my room. The next night same thing happens, only this time—this time when I woke up, I noticed someone else in my room.

Sitting in a chair next to my bed was my dad. But he was younger. And he didn’t say much. At first, he just kind of looked at me, and I looked at him, and I asked him if I was dead and he said, “Not yet.” He said something about closing my blinds on the third night and locking the doors. I asked him where my wife was, and he said she was waiting for me. He made me repeat the directions just like he did when I was a kid ‘cause I never listened. Close the blinds. Lock the doors. Close the blinds. Lock the doors. Talking to me like I was some kind of child again, and then I fell asleep muttering those words, and when I woke up, he was gone.

I told Miriam about that one. That one visit. And you know what she did? She came in, said I should never get out of bed and go wandering around at night. She made me take a double dose of pills—those pills that make me groggy and nauseous—but when she left to see old Bethany next door, I spit those goddamn pills into the toilet. We all do here. We all joke about it. And the staff know, too. They just have to cross it off their little, dirty list so they don’t get sued.

That night I couldn’t sleep, and as I sat at my table, I could see the red, fiery cross in the sky again, and people in the streets were shouting, and taking pictures, and some of them were getting on their knees and praying in the middle of the street. Then out from my bedroom walks my brother.

He looks like my brother, but he doesn’t smile, and he doesn’t talk either. I can see that the thumb on his right hand is back, like it would have looked if that snake had never bit him. He sits down and takes all the playing cards that I have scattered on my table, and he shuffles them while he looks at me. Finally, he talks, and he sounds sad, and he suddenly looks really old like me, and he says, “Cut the deck three ways.” And I do. And then he lays out a line of cards in front of me, but they don’t look like playing cards anymore, more those old tarot cards like they have in the movies. I’ve never been to a psychic. Never had my future read. But here on the table before me, my brother was doing exactly that, and I could see the full lifeline of everything I was, I am, and will be soon spread out on the table.

When he got up to leave, he gave me a sad smile, and said he’d see me soon. I said, “See you soon,” not quite understanding what he’d meant. Then, before he disappeared, he turned around and said, “On the night it happens, close your blinds and lock your door.”

After one of my visits, I told Miriam what happened. And later on, when she came in without knocking, she found me spitting out my meds into the toilet. Before I could flush them, she barged into the room, screaming at me. Just screaming. She did that a lot.

She reached into the toilet, grabbed my pills, then grabbed my jaw and shoved them in until I swallowed. She said if I told anyone about that, about what she did, she’d give me so many pills that I wouldn’t be able to wake up. So, I kept my mouth shut, like I always do. Like we all do.

Later that day, as my thoughts swirl with the pills, and I find myself drifting someplace between sleep and awake, there’s a strange ruckus in the room next to mine. Bethany lives there, has for a few years. Sometimes, after dark she screams out ‘cause she gets confused like I do. Many of us do. But this time, it’s different.

At first, I turn up the volume on my TV set, and on the screen a reporter is hiding behind a large dumpster, and there are these people, just walking right by her, staring up at the sky, and some of them have knives and others have razors, and they are carving things into their hands, into their foreheads, all without looking away from whatever it is in the sky. I hear Bethany screaming over the TV. The air smells like rotting eggs. Has for days. Inside and out. Some people have tied bandanas around their face or put cigarettes up their noses like they did in the old war movies. God, it stinks.

I opened the door to my room when I heard some of the nurses shouting. As I looked out, I could see some of the other residents peaking their heads out too, while most just peaked through their peepholes, safe and sound behind their doors. One of the nurses, a younger one, was on the floor in the hallway crying, and another nurse was trying to calm her. She looked up at me with panic in her eyes.

“Go back to your room, Dave.”

I did what I usually did and pretended not to hear her command. I looked into Bethany’s room, and behind a group of observing nurses, she was sitting on the floor, naked and covered in her own filth with strange writing covering the wall behind her. But it wasn’t her nakedness or appearance or even the writing on the wall that was scaring everyone.

Her voice had changed.

It sounded deeper, but it wasn’t normal things that she was saying. Again, I get confused, but right then, everyone else seemed to be, too. Welcome to my world, I thought. Her words sounded like they were moving forwards and backwards, words overlapping words overlapping words, saying the same sounds, like a record playing backwards, just out of tune. As the words repeated, they got louder, and things on the table started to vibrate and shake, like we were in some kind of an earthquake. Hasn’t been a quake here in some time, I thought. Quite some time. Outside, the wind was bending the trees over. One of the nurses ran by me, ran down the hall, ran out of the building. She never came back.

And so again, that night, I had trouble falling asleep, even with the extra pills Miriam gave me. She stayed to watch—to make sure I swallowed. When the nurse assistant left the room, after he was done holding me down, she pinched my arm real hard then left. She left me all sorts of bruises and scratches. Some of the other residents got worse, though. Bethany had gotten worse.

But right now, she was locked up in her room. They had sealed her door shut. But I could hear her since our walls were joined, and she growled like an animal and clawed at my wall. Occasionally, she would laugh, and when I asked to move rooms, they said no one was going anywhere. Then they locked me in too. They locked us all in, I think, ‘cause I heard everyone pounding on their doors. “Let me out!” Let me out!” Some of them got tired, and they'd fallen asleep. Some of them did it well past midnight. But Bethany never stopped, and a few times I heard what I thought were knocks on the wall. Then more laughs.

It was during all this commotion that wife came to visit me. She was dressed in clothes I had never seen before, certainly not the clothes we buried her in. Those were white. This looked older. I couldn’t place the time they were from. I smiled as she sat across from me and asked her where she got her new dress, told her that she looked beautiful, and that I think of her every day that passes, that I was glad that she was not alive to see the shit I lived through every day. I was ashamed. But she just smiled, a sad one like my brother’s, and reached out her hands to touch mine. I couldn’t feel them, but it felt good to be so close to her again. She looked young and healthy and free, and my heart that had been so empty as of late was full again, and then she got up and whispered something in my ear that made me cry. When I woke up later in the night, the sky was again on fire, and I forgot what it was that she said. But my heart was still full, and despite the screaming coming from Bethany’s room, I fell back asleep.

In the morning, something was different. There was no noise outside. No traffic sounds, no birds. It was still. And the light that came streaming in through my blinds wasn’t the normal light I was used to. It was darker. Filtered. Almost red. As I got up to pour myself a glass of water, I noticed that Bethany had stopped growling, or screaming, or whatever it was that she was doing. I walked to the window and looked out, and I could see dozens, hundreds of people, kneeling in the street, looking up at the sky.

The sky. There wasn’t much left of it, and the sun was hazy, and dark, and strange. The stars and the moon were still in the sky too, like they forgot to set once they saw the sun. But I can’t be too sure that I saw what I think I saw. I get confused sometimes. Just ask any nurse here.

I flipped on the news like I always do in the morning and sat down. Most of the channels were static snow. My shows were clearly not going to be on. I’d read a book, but my concentration doesn’t last so long these days, and after five minutes, I’d forget what I was reading in the first place. Books could be read to me, but no one comes in and does that anymore. On the news, somewhere in Africa, a river had gone red, like Kool-Aid, and in a closeup, one of the reporters dipped their hand in and scooped it out. Looked like fruit punch. People were on both sides of the river and crying. More screaming. Always screaming.

But I had the TV on mute and couldn’t hear what they were screaming. The CC subtitles were on, but they always scroll too fast and can’t seem to keep up with the words, and it all gives me a headache. Then I heard the screams outside.

I look towards the window, and everything seems darker now. The air stinks like something’s rotting. From my window, you can see the summits of the skyscrapers, far off in the city. There, I could see huge clouds of smoke spilling up into the sky—lots of them, like half the city is on fire. Might explain the smell. I look down and see all these people running down the street. I mean, really hauling ass. I can’t see what it is they are running away from, but it doesn’t seem too far now.

Close the blinds. Lock the door.

I keep hearing those words in my head. Who said that? As far as I know, the door is still closed. I can’t close the blinds. When it gets dark in here, that’s when I start getting confused, so I leave them open. I always leave them open. Static on the TV. Wonder when the news will be on again. Nothing else to watch but the news. Last thing they said was that the suicide rates were skyrocketing. That’s been happening in here the whole time, I thought. I feel weary but don’t want to nap. Something tells me to stay awake. My eyes feel tired, and I take my glasses off and pinch the bridge of my nose as a headache comes on, and just as I do, I hear the door unlocking and in storms Miriam with a box full of what looks like groceries. She slams them down on the table, then rushes over to the window. She’s breathing really heavily, like she’s been running all day. Maybe for days. She turns around and looks at me, then points at the food.

“That’ll last you.” She looks at it again and nods, as if she and the box of groceries were having a conversation I couldn’t hear. Sounds like something I would do. And they call me crazy. I’d laugh too, but she looks frightened. I ask her what it’s for and again, and she just says “That’ll last you. You’ll be alright.” She picks up the remote and starts changing channels, but they’re all snow. Every one of them. She leaves the snow on, looks at me, looks like she’s about to say something, and then she starts walking towards the door.

“Hey,” I say. “I wanna go outside.” I don’t really, but I do want to leave my room. Nighttime is still hours away, but it feels like my room is getting darker and darker, like the sun in the sky is slowly dimming, running out of juice. When it gets dark, things get bad for me. That’s when they lock me in my room. Or they’ll come in and hit me ‘til I stop screaming, even though sometimes I don’t even remember screaming, and I say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but they keep hitting me anyway. “Don’t you tell anyone.” They say. “Or I’ll come back and hit you harder.” My family used to visit me when they were still alive. Sometimes, I sit on the sofa all day, waiting for night, just so that I can go to bed again.

But she won’t answer me. She opens the door, and as she does so, I can see other nurses and staff members running down the hall. I put my hand on her shoulder to try and stop her, but she grabs it and bites it—bites it hard—and then she pushes me away and slams the door. I move to the open it, but it’s locked. There’s a lot of noise in the hallways, and now there are more shouts outside, so I walk back over to the window. Outside, I see a group of staff run out to vans, carrying lots of things. They run to the cars dropping things from the boxes like fruit and bottled water. I try to open the window, but our windows don’t open in here. “Hey!” I shout. “Hey!” I keep shouting it, but they don’t look up. Either they don’t hear me or don’t care. Just like every other day in here. And then they drive off. They are gone, just like that, gone out of my sight. All of them. My hand hurts, but at least she didn’t draw blood. It’s not the first time she’s bitten me, but it’s the first time she looked sorry for doing it. It must be a hard job. I don’t know.

I walk back to the door and put my ear up against it, and I hear others knocking and pounding on their doors too. We’re all locked in. Which isn’t unusual at night, but it’s still afternoon—or supposed to be afternoon. We’re supposed to be able to go where we please. It’s one of the few freedoms we have left.

Next door, Bethany has been strangely quiet the past few hours. She hasn’t screamed, or barked, or cried, which makes it easier for me to think, which is good ‘cause right now, I can’t do much of anything else. Then I hear a ringing in my ears, which I get from time to time—the doctors say it's Tinnitus—but this keeps getting louder and louder, and as I walk back to the window, I realize it’s the sirens. The storm sirens are going off, and I see more smoke coming from the city, and now the sun looks like it’s practically black. From a distance, the city seems to be moving. I don’t know how. It’s hot, and they say the heat can play tricks on your eyes. The treetops, too, seem to move, even though there is no wind. I hear more people banging on their doors. It’s getting dark out now, and there’s a fair number of us that don’t do so well in it. And now the staff is gone. Where to, I don’t know. Something tells me that they won’t be back.

Close the blinds. Lock the door.

The door is locked from the outside. What had my brother meant when he said to close the blinds? The TV doesn’t work, and I can’t leave my room. What the hell else can I do? I can’t even make a call…the phone. I have a phone. I’d almost forgotten. Miriam always yells at me when I try to make a phone call, and for a while they took it away, then gave it back when there was a state inspection, but she forgot to take it away again, and so I just hid it in the bottom drawer of my dresser.

I pull out all my winter clothes from the bottom until I feel the hard plastic of the phone, then find the nearest outlet in the room, plug it in, and dial 911. It rings and rings until an automated voice tells me that my call could not be completed at this time. I hang it up and look out the window again. I’m guessing some of the others had tried to call too. We can’t really talk to each other right now. I look at the box that Miriam left for me, and in it has some of my meds—blood pressure, sleeping pills—along with some food from the cafeteria, but not much. I didn’t expect a goodbye, but I sure expected someone to tell me what the hell was going on.

I’m afraid—for myself, for my friends in the home, even the ones I don’t like so much. I sit down on and try to pray, but it’s been so long, and I can’t remember the words. I’m not even sure what room to pray in or what direction to face, or if that even matters. There aren’t any crosses on the wall, not in my room anyway.

And then I hear the screams. They are coming from some of my neighbors. The screams were muffled at first; it sounded like they were sticking their heads out the windows. I stand up to catch a look at what was going on outside, but then I trip over the telephone cord and off my glasses go. It hurts, even on the carpeted floor, but my muscles and bones are strong enough to take the fall. Slowly, I push myself back up on my feet. But I can’t find my glasses. The world is one giant blur, growing darker. I hear more screams.

“Get away from the window!” someone yells. I don’t recognize the voice. Outside, I hear a strange noise over the sirens, and as I walk to the window, the whole of the sky goes black, and in the lights of the streetlamps, I see dark figures move across the road. Their movements are strange, effortless, like they aren’t even walking at all. But without my glasses, I can’t tell for sure what I’m seeing. It looks like they—whomever they are—are going into houses, buildings. It looks like they are coming into our nursing home.

Close the blinds. Lock the door.

I do as my brother told me. I shut my blinds. My door is locked. I get on all fours and again, search for my glasses. I pat the dirty, patchwork carpet with my bare hands, but I feel nothing but the coarseness of the carpet’s texture. As I search, I hear strange noises in the room beneath me, like the sounds of breaking doors, voices, talking. Screaming. So much screaming.

Eventually, I give up and sit down at my dining room table; the swinging lamp above it begins to flicker. Alone at my table, there is nothing left to do but play solitaire, only now I can’t see the cards clearly, and I still can’t remember how to play.

More screams, more pounding on doors.

I gather all the scattered cards on the table and shuffle them as best I can.

Glass breaking. Things breaking. People screaming. I smell rotten eggs and something burning.

I begin to spread the cards out on the table and say their names aloud as I do so. Queen of Hearts. Ace of Spades. Jack of Diamonds.

I have no idea what I’m playing but I say their names aloud with dignity, as there is nothing to do now but wait. King of Spades. Four of Hearts.

Laughing. There is laughing in the room next to mine. Bethany. I hadn’t heard her for hours, but now I do. She is laughing, but it is a deep and hateful laugh. It sounds like she is scratching the walls between us, like a cat begging to be let in. She’s for damn sure not coming into my room. Not that I can do much about it anyway. Nine of Diamonds.

There is a knock on the door. On my door. I freeze with a card in my hand and say nothing, making myself as small and silent as possible. All I can hear in my room is the ticking of the clock on the wall, ticking off those minutes that are meaningless now and perhaps always have been. I hear my heartbeat in my ears. Knock, knock.

Louder this time. I hear other screams now, louder. On my floor. The sound of doors bursting open, people screaming. Things breaking. In the dimness, I forget about my room here and imagine I’m back home. My wife has gone to bed early, and as usual I’ve stayed up late watching TV or reading a book, only now I can maintain focus. Sometimes she waits for me, sometimes she doesn’t. What am I reading now, in this very moment? I don’t remember, but I miss her, and my heart feels full knowing that when I go to lie down, she’ll be where she always is, on the other side of the bed, sleeping peacefully in the dark of night. Knock, knock. That must be my wife. She’s wondering why I’m still up and wants me to come to bed. I smile. I feel tired and miss her company and think that, yes, perhaps now is a good time to retire for the night. I call out to her: “Okay honey, I’m coming to bed. Thank you for waiting for me.” There is a sound at the door that sounds like someone is unlocking it, and sure enough someone does, and the door opens. The room stinks now, and I think maybe it’s coming from the trash that I haven’t taken out yet. She’ll scold me for it tomorrow. I smile again. There’s someone else in the room now. In the dimness of my light, I see something dark move towards me. It must be her. “Was I keeping you up my with movies?” I ask, but she says nothing. The figure is across the table from me now.

It cries out. I do not understand the language, nor do I recognize the voice. It is deep, watery, angry, mournful, empty, and foul all at once. I hear the scratching and laughing at my wall again. I see other dark figures come into the room, surrounding me as I sit there. These must be our children. How they’ve grown up so fast. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a family dinner or take a trip to the beach. It’s a long drive, but if the weather’s nice you don’t really notice it. The swinging lamp above goes dark and does not come back on, and now all I can hear are the screams, the sound of things breaking, the sound of the world falling apart, until, finally, it does.

I walk up the stairs with a glass of water for her to drink when she wakes up. I open the door slowly and see her sleeping under the covers on her side of the bed. Outside, the moon is bright and beautiful, and its beam is long and welcome on our floor. I place the glass of water on her bedside table, kiss her gently, then tuck myself in. The room and the world outside are quiet, and all I can hear is the gentle night air rustling through the leaves. I roll over on my side and watch my wife sleep for a bit. I know that I, too, must sleep now, as I have been desperately waiting to for so long.

Tomorrow’s supposed to be beautiful, they say.

JOSEPH LEWIS is currently in his last semester as a graduate student in Cleveland State University’s NEOMFA Creative Writing Program. He previously taught English and Film Studies at the Sichuan University of Arts and Science in China, where he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years. He has been published in Prairie Margins literary magazine, and his screenplay, Retribution, placed second in the 2003 Ohio Independent Screenplay contest. He is currently in the process of completing his thesis, which will be a horror novel set on a fictitious Lake Erie island during the winter. You can reach him at Jjlewis1981@gmail.com