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.