It was the small things at first. He’d repeat the same sentence within a minute. I knew that was bad. I had been reading all the literature.
“Edward called today, his son has been promoted to Sergeant,” he said.
I smiled, not wanted to point out to him he’d just told me that. Doing so would only have confused him. I was angry. Not at him, but at the dementia that was ravaging his brain.
“I don’t want to watch this!” he said angrily, “I hate this woman.”
I looked up at the TV to see the program he asked me to put on.
“You like her…” I said before cutting myself off.
“Get me the…” he stumbled on his words.
“The what, dad?”
“The phone, the phone!”
I checked the table in front of him and passed him his mobile.
“No, not that! The phone to change the channel.”
“The remote?” I asked.
“Yeah, whatever,” he said, his expression full of confusion.
I passed him the remote. I felt a pang of fear fill my stomach as another item on the checklist was ticked off.
“There’s something wrong with the television,” he said, pressing buttons almost randomly.
“What do you want to watch?” I asked, seeing the TV guide appear and disappear on screen. Then the set up menu, then the brightness, before the volume climbed to ear piercing levels.
“Let me help you,” I said, gently removing the remote from his hand.
He rocked back and forth, clearly frustrated. I turned down the volume.
“Anything, anything, just get that bitch off the television.”
“The cricket is on, is that good?”
I changed the channel. Dad began to calm down and relax back into his chair.
“Can I get you any food?” I asked.
“No, no, Sally will do that,” he said and turned to the empty doorway.
“Sally, when’s supper?”
Sally was my mum, she had been dead for twelve years.
“Let me go talk to her. Have you anything in mind?”
“Sally’s making casserole, there’s plenty for you if you like?”
I put my hand on his shoulder and walked out of the room. I heard my father cheer as England scored a six. I didn’t know much about cricket, but I knew that was good. And in that moment, I was happy for him.
I’d been staying with him for the past few days. I had a call that he was found wandering around in his pyjamas. If it wasn’t so harrowing, I’d have been impressed he’d made his way six miles from the house in the cold. Scotland doesn’t have the best of weather at any time of the year, and when it gets cold, it doesn’t relent. We had moved from England when I was small, and I felt more Scottish than English.
I’d called in to work and had slept over for the weekend, waiting for Monday when the doctor was to come. I saw my father weekly, and I knew I saw the signs of dementia before, but hadn’t wanted to admit it to myself. It felt like the end of an era, and a downward spiral that would only end in sadness. I hadn’t realised how bad it was. His kitchen was bare, only tins of soup and breakfast cereal remained. The guilt of my neglect filled me with embarrassment. I saw him getting thinner and ignored it.
Earlier in the day I had bought supplies to last the weekend, not knowing where he’d end up on Monday. I cooked him lamb chops and roast potatoes. When I served them to him, he had forgotten about the casserole.
He ate like he’d been starved for weeks, gravy and pieces of meat falling on his white shirt. The depression that had been growing for the past few days peaked and I felt tears begin to rise. I didn’t know he needed a napkin. This man was not the man I remembered. But really, he wasn’t the man I wanted him to be. He was so vulnerable and needed care.
“Sally is a wonderful cook, isn’t she?” he said, as he finished.
I looked at my father, covered in food, like I’d been as a child.
“She is,” I said.
“She went out with her friends you know, she’ll be back soon,” he said, his gaze returning to the cricket.
I cleaned him up. Then spent the evening listening to the stories I’d heard a hundred times before, and I didn’t mind. Today, I paid attention like never before. I knew my time was precious with him now, and it hit me like a truck.
I helped him into bed in the early evening.
“Where’s Sally?” he asked.
“She’s out with her friends,” I said.
He smiled and turned over.
“Typical,” he said, “out galavanting while the men of the house…”
He fell asleep mid sentence.
The room was cold, so I put the heating back on and tucked in on the couch. It felt odd. I’d grown up in this house, played right in front of where I now lay. But it felt odd, as if an hourglass sat on the mantlepiece and counted down the time I had left here, of my father’s life. Sleep didn’t come easily, and when it did, it was disturbed.
I dreamt of my mother.
She was sitting on the bed, next to my dad. She stroked his hair as he slept. I stood in the doorway and watched. Slowly she turned to face me. She’d been crying. Tracks of tears painted her face, her eyes red and puffy. Her lips quivered as she tried to speak, her mouth opened but no sound came out.
“What, mum?” I asked, even though I shouted, only a hushed tone came out.
Her lips moved again.
“I can’t hear you,” I demanded, though nothing came out.
I felt the room get cold. Mum shivered, warm billows of air wafted from her mouth as she spoke, sending mist into the barely lit bedroom.
I woke, tossing and turning. A cold sweat had gathered on my brow.
“Help him,” I heard in a whisper.
I shot upright, a water vapour appeared in front of me. I got up and put on my shoes. I walked to the front of the house to see the front door stood wide open. I raced to the bedroom, the covers were pulled back and my dad wasn’t there.
Almost instinctively, I ran out into the cold air. The street lights lined the impeccably quiet road. He’d done it again. I phoned the police and told them what had happened. As I did, I saw the glitter of frost that had taken hold on the driveway and thought the worst. I went back to the house to see my father’s coat sit on the small stool that sat next to the phone. I picked it up and got in my car.
I drove slowly around the roads immediately near the house, gradually moving my way outwards, not seeing any sign of him. In my panic I didn’t know where to look, so I headed directly for where he was found a few nights before.
The roads were quiet, yellow sodium lights illuminated the route, just barely. A car beeped, trying to speed me up. I gave them the finger via the rearview. The irate driver swerved into the oncoming lane, making his point by cutting me off and forcing me to brake. I watched as his taillights disappeared over the horizon. I mentally wished he’d die in a fiery wreck, the prick.
I continued to carefully make my way towards the destination. Around a mile away, I saw someone walk along the verge of the dual carriageway. He staggered in and out of the road. I slowed as I approached.
My heart began to race when I saw it was my father. I pulled up along side.
“Dad?” I said, though the open window.
He didn’t acknowledge me and continued to amble onwards.
“Dad, it’s your son! You must be cold.”
He turned to look at me and smiled.
“Can you get in?” I asked.
He shook his head.
He continued to walk, his slippers were dirty from the wet and icy roads.
I pulled up twenty yards ahead and got out, placing the coat around his shoulders.
“You need to get in the car,” I said.
“I need to see Sally,” he replied.
“Mum’s not here anymore,” I snapped, frustrated.
He stopped in his tracks, tears bulging in the corners of his eyes.
“Let’s get you home,” I said.
He relented. I opened the passenger door and invited him in. He plopped down on the seat, staring ahead absentmindedly. I noticed his left hand balled into a fist, a piece of paper jutted from within.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He continued to ignore me.
Gently I held his hand, it was ice cold. I opened his fingers and took out the crumpled paper. I closed the door and got back into the car. I phoned the police again to tell them I’d found him. They asked if I needed any further help. I told them we’d be fine. When I got back, I was going to put him to bed and lock the house.
I sat in the car and asked my father if he was okay.
“When’s Sally getting home?” he asked, his tears begged to drop, but they didn’t. I didn’t know what to say.
I sat in the car, my hands shaking as the panic I’d held at bay released. I left the car running, the heat was unbearable for me, though I wanted to make sure my father warmed up. I composed myself. I unfurled the piece of paper I had taken from Dad. On it was written a house number and a street.
“Is this where you were going?” I asked.
He didn’t respond.
I recognised it. My aunt and uncle used to live on that road. But they’d been dead for years. It wasn’t far from where we were, so I decided to swing by before going home.
Dad was silent for the drive as the two lane road turned into a side street and gave way to a country lane. I remembered traveling this way as a kid. I’d be excited to get to my Uncle’s house and watch him as he played the Match of the Day theme song on his electronic organ. He’d show me card tricks and I’d try to work out how he did them, I never guessed.
When we arrived on the street, it was not how I remembered it. My Uncle’s house was gone, so were most of the other houses. All that remained was a slightly run down cottage at the end of the street. There was no through road, I’d have to turn around. I checked the number on the paper, I wasn’t sure if this was it.
“Are you okay for a minute?” I asked, as I got out.
Dad didn’t respond. I locked the car as I left, keeping my eye on him as I walked up the driveway to the house. A warm amber glow reached out from within. I kept checking my car as I approached. I reached the house and looked through the front window.
Inside, sat at least twenty other older men and women, all wearing nightgowns and pyjamas. In the light you could see the dirt that flecked their slippers and lower reaches of their clothes. They sat on the couches and armchairs. A couple, in the middle, sat on small wooden collapsable chairs. A man in a white coat had a stethoscope to his ears, checking a woman’s pulse. Another placed the tip of a syringe into an old man’s forearm, his (I guess) partner held his hand as he fell backwards, mouth agape. Blood pressure machines and medical equipment dotted the room. I ducked as the doctor with the stethoscope turned towards me.
I ran back to the car and got in. The stifling heat hit me like a curtain of warmth.
“I want to go home, Sally’s waiting for me,” dad said.
“Sure,” I responded.
I tucked my father into bed and phoned the police. I told them about the scrap of paper and what I saw at the house. They thanked me and asked for my number. I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
In the morning I had a phone call. It was a detective. He asked how I got the address of the house. I told him my dad had it on him when I found him. He asked if he could interview dad. I told him we were waiting for the doctor to arrive, that he wasn’t well and had dementia. He said he could wait.
I asked if they investigated the address. He went silent. He told me the place was empty when they arrived. That I wasn’t the first person to report this. He thanked me for my cooperation and gave me his number to call him when my dad was in a position to talk.
As we waited for the doctor, I asked dad where he got the address. At first he said nothing.
“Can I get you a coffee?” I asked.
“Sally makes great coffee,” he responded.
I returned and placed the drink in front of him. He took a sip.
Out of the blue he said, “He told me that’s where Sally’s been going.”
“Who told you that?” I asked.
Dad continued to sip.
“Sally will be home soon. She’s making casserole, there’s plenty for you if you like?”
The doorbell rang.
I stood up.
“Let me get it,” my dad said.
He pushed himself up and I sat.
I heard them talk for a while, my dad chuckled and closed the door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Oh, no one you know,” he said as he held out an envelope in his hand.
He was smiling.
“It’s from Sally,” he said.
“Can I see?”
He passed it to me. I opened the letter and pulled out a piece of paper. On it was written a house number and a street name, different from before. I ran out of the house and to the bottom of the drive. A car pulled out of the road, I couldn’t make out the registration. I returned to my dad.
“He said Sally is looking forward to seeing me.”
He put on his coat.
“Can we go now?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, “I just need to make a call.”
“There’s not much we can do, Sir,” Detective Irons said.
“What do you mean? I have no idea who that guy was.”
“Nothing illegal has taken place.”
“Look, if there is anything solid to go on, call me back and I’ll get right on it.”
“Thanks,” I said, not meaning it, and hung up without saying goodbye.
Dad sat in the passenger seat of the car, he was smiling. That broke my heart. He wasn’t going to see Sally today.
I got in, punched the address into my phone and set off. The roads were still covered in ice from the night before and I was so grateful I was able to find him. I couldn’t contemplate how I’d have felt if I hadn’t.
As we drove, I wondered how the man expected my dad to get to the house last night. Admittedly he was close, but why didn’t he just pick him up? Maybe he did and dropped him off on the dual carriageway.
The satnav had taken us in the opposite direction to where I found him the night before. The houses became more and more sparse as the buildings turned to fields and the country roads of the nearby hills.
“I’m really excited to see Sally, Andrew.”
“I’m Jack, dad.”
He mumbled to himself and gazed out the window.
My phone signalled I had reached our destination, which confused me. I got out of the car and looked around. We were on a small single track, large hedgerows flanked the road. There was a gate a few feet ahead. This wasn’t the first time this happened to me. I’d gone camping around the country and ignored the specific instructions to disregard the satnav. Many times I had ended up on the opposite side of the campsite, where Google had decided was the appropriate entrance. The address was for a farm, so it could be one of the many exits the farmer would use around his land.
I approached the gate and noticed a hidden structure, almost like a bomb shelter, covered in grass and moss. The gate was one of those wooden fences that keep livestock in, wide enough to drive a tractor through. It was covered in a crust of frost that left warm fingerprints as I tried to rattle it. A large heavy chain was wrapped around the post, keeping the gate in place.
I knelt down next to the chain, moving it around to reveal a padlock. The metal was so cold my fingers burnt. I lifted the lock and checked underneath, as I did, the shank released. I dropped it in my panic. The gate was unlocked. I unfurled the chain, it slithered to the floor, letting out a metallic wheeze.
I pulled the gate open. The icy grass crunched under my feet. I trudged down the small steps to the grey door that led into the structure. There was no handle, so I pushed. To my surprise it creaked open, sending echoes of the noise down into the darkness.
I thought about phoning the detective. He said he needed something solid, and right now, all I had was my potential trespassing. I took the first few stairs and remembered dad. I returned to him, opening the passenger door.
“Come with me, dad,” I said.
His mind was going, but he was still physically fit, albeit a little leaner than he had been.
I used my phone for light as we descended.
“Sally wouldn’t go in a place like this,” he said.
“Shh, we have to be quiet.”
Our footsteps reverberated around the tin walls. I winced with every step. Dad’s hand groped for mine.
“I don’t like this,” he said in a serious whisper.
“Me, neither, dad.”
I grasped his hand.
“I know my mind isn’t what it once was. I’m not sure how much time I have left. You won’t leave me, will you, son?”
I’d never heard him speak so candidly. It was as if the adrenaline of being somewhere foreign, somewhere dark and foreboding had awoken something deep within him, showing me he was still there, buried under layers of failing grey matter.
“No, I won’t dad. I love you.”
“I love you too, son.”
A bittersweet happiness sparked in my stomach.
“This is silly,” I said to him, “let’s go back.”
We turned around, the light from the early morning shone down, illuminating our way out. As we ascended, the light from the entrance became smaller and smaller. It took me a moment to realise, I thought it was clouds that hid the sun. When the metal door slammed shut, I knew it wasn’t.
“Dad, hurry!” I said, squeezing his hand and racing down the stairs. At the bottom was another door. I pushed and it didn’t open.
“Shit!” I said, using my phone to search.
Recessed in the door was a small latch handle, I pressed it, freeing the door.
A dank odour flowed past us, the sweet smell of disinfectant. As if motion activated, the hallway in front of us was illuminated one after another by subway style lights. Clangs rang out as each set lit up. In the distance, hurried footsteps clashed with the concrete floor.
There were doors on both sides of the corridor.
“In here,” I said, dragging my father into the room on the left.
It was quiet, except for the solitary sound of beeps coming from a machine in the corner. An older woman laid in a hospital gurney. Wires were plugged into her head. Small dribbles of blood ran down her face.
“We have to hide,” I said, “Dad, can you get under there?”
I pointed to the free bed. I watched him struggle onto the floor. I rushed over to the side of the woman’s bed and sat in front of the machine connected to her.
The woman roused from sleep. She pushed herself up and I hoped she didn’t see me. I startled as the door to the room opened.
“They went in here,” a man’s voice announced.
“You’re a good boy,” the woman said, leaning over her bed, staring me right in the eyes.
I ducked further.
“You’d like a nice scratching wouldn’t you.”
She reached down. Her sharp nails dragged through my hair.
“Yeah, that’s a good boy. Would you like a biscuit?”
The door slammed shut.
I stood up, and scanned around for my dad.
“No!” the woman said, “Sit!”
“Dad?” I whispered, but he didn’t respond.
I ran over to the other bed, sliding onto my knees to look below. He was gone.
“You’re a bad boy!” the woman shouted, “how dare you.”
“I’m not your dog, miss,” I said, checking the rest of the dimly lit room.
“Get out! You horribly behaved mongrel.”
I turned to see her pointing her finger, spittle dripping down her chin. She pulled back the covers to reveal her hospital scrubs. Standing up, the wires pulled on her skull and she screamed. My heart began to thump. I’d checked everywhere and dad wasn’t here. The men must have taken him.
“Get out, you bad boy! I’m not feeding you, you bastard.”
I opened the door and closed it behind me. The corridor was silent. My dad was gone. I tried to open the handle on the other side, the door was locked.
Panicking, I jogged down the hallway; it stretched on for hundreds of yards. Doors flanked the sides, each one with its own circular window you’d expect to find on a ship. I peered into the first, hospital beds lined the walls. The occupants were old and young, wires drilled directly into their brains. There must have been at least twenty different rooms, all with at least ten occupants.
At the end of the corridor stood a reinforced metal door, to the left another. A white sign read Incinerator. What the hell were they doing here?
I yanked on the door in front of me, it made no sound and didn’t relent, no matter how hard I pulled.
I looked behind me and gasped. Four men in white surgeon’s coats patiently walked the hallway, stopping to check through the windows. One by one, they entered separate rooms. Until the last continued towards me.
I was trapped. I had nowhere to go.
“Where’s my dad!” I shouted.
“Calm, down,” the man said, putting his hand up, quickening his gait.
“You took him, where is he?”
“Jack, we can explain.”
“How do you know my name?” I said, caught off guard.
“We know a lot about you, and your family.”
Air wafted past as the door behind me swung open. I felt a hand gently rest on my shoulder. I spun around, swatting it away.
“You’re father’s here,” the suited man in front of me gestured to the far end of the room.
He was hunched over in front of a computer screen. On it was a woman’s face obscured by his shoulders.
“Would you make me your casserole?” he asked her.
“I sure would. You’d like it here, we play bingo whenever we want.”
I recognised the voice.
As if coming out of a trance he shook his head slightly.
“Is Jack there?” the woman said.
“Go on,” the suited man offered.
Apprehensively I walked over to the monitor.
The woman brought her hands to her mouth and cried.
“It’s you, isn’t it.”
“Mum?” I said, confused.
“What is this? Some sort of simulation?”
“No. That’s your mother. She’s been here for twelve years,” the man said.
“That’s horse shit! Dad, we need to go.”
I reached for his hand. He whipped it away.
“No, I want to stay here with Sally. Look, all our friends are there.”
He pointed to the screen. In the background, I could see a table of older women and men playing cards.
“That’s Daniel, I haven’t seen him in years.”
“No dad, it’s all make believe.”
I held his hand again.
“Jack!” he shouted, “It’s what I want.”
“How do you know what you want?” I said, the whole thing making me feel isolated and irrelevant.
“Come with me,” the man in the suit put his arm around my shoulder and led me away.
“What have you been up to?” my dad asked.
“Everything,” mum said.
They continued to talk as we left the room.
“You see them?” the man said to me.
I peered through the circular window.
“Every one of them wants to be here. She has dementia, like your father. Him over there, he’s got locked-in syndrome. It took a while to communicate with him, but we did.”
“What are you doing to them?”
“At first we analyse their brain activity. Then we run simulations through very advanced AI. We reconstruct the missing parts of their personality. Once that’s done, and we are confident of a lift, we extract them.”
“What do you mean extract them?”
“For all intents and purposes, their souls. We then feed them into our mainframe and into the cloud.”
“That’s not possible!” I insisted.
He smirked, as if he’d heard this all before.
“We have facilities like this all over the world.”
“So why isn’t this in the news?”
“The vessels. We have to dispose of them, once they’ve been extracted.”
“You mean, you kill them.”
“No, no, no,” the man said, patting my shoulder, “there’s nothing left in there. They’re braindead. Only the unconscious systems doing their best to keep the body living. They are only a husk of the person they were in life.”
“What do you do with them?”
“That’s why you haven’t heard of us. Some countries are enlightened and allow assisted suicide, not that this would be anything close. The people here have planned in advance. We spoke to your parents twenty years ago. This was to happen yesterday. Though your father decided to get out of the car, and run. Dementia is so unpredictable.”
He led me back to my dad.
“See him there, that’s how you remember him, right?”
Dad was laughing and so was mum. I welled up and nodded.
“He wanted this. He signed up with your mother. Do you want to deny him?”
“No,” I said quietly, “how long does it take?”
“Someone like your father, a day or two. It depends how far the disease has progressed.”
“How do you deal with the body?”
“As humanely as possible, they don’t feel a thing. By the time they have been extracted there is nothing left of their former self.”
“I said I wouldn’t leave him.”
“You won’t have to, give me your phone.”
I continued to watch my dad, a tear rolled down my cheek, but this wasn’t from sadness. I gave the man my mobile.
“Here, you can communicate with them on this App.”
He showed me the icon, Second Chance.
“You’ll need to wait until its been authorised. But once it has, you’ll have access to them.”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“It’s hard, I know. My parents are in there, and one day, I plan to join them.”
“Can I say goodbye?” I asked.
I didn’t want to interrupt them as my father and mother talked. They had so much to catch up on.
“Dad, are you okay for me to leave you here?”
“I love you,” I said, doing my best to hold back the tears.
“I love you, too.”
He hugged me, I felt strength from him that I didn’t know was still there.
The walk down the corridor felt like it would last forever, and a part of me wished it would. Ascending the stairs, the midday sun beat down. Even with the cold weather, I could feel its warmth.
I spent the rest of the day going through my father’s things. I found mother’s jewellery box. I couldn’t help it. The tears I did my best to hold released when I saw their wedding bands sit next to each other.
I didn’t feel hungry. I drank a glass of whisky, from the bottle my dad saved for special occasions, and then drank another. I fell asleep on the couch and slept well.
When I awoke in the morning, my head hurt. Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe the lack of food. I locked the house, drove to the shops, and had breakfast. I kept checking the App to see if they’d messaged. They hadn’t. I was beginning to think this was all a bad dream, that I could go home and find my dad in front of the TV, frustrated he couldn’t find his program. I’d take that now, at least that would mean he was still with me. I longed for his smell, a combination of Old Spice aftershave and tobacco.
A call came in and I left it for voicemail. After finishing my food, I listened. It was the doctor, come to diagnose my dad’s dementia. Shit. They’d arrived at the house and I wasn’t there. I felt like an idiot.
I returned home and phoned them back. I apologised, saying my father wasn’t feeling well and was in bed. In my parent’s bedroom, I found the photo albums and spent the rest of the day going through them and finishing my dad’s whisky.
I woke later in the evening to my phone vibrating in my pocket. Somewhat in a daze, I looked at the screen. There was a notification from Second Chance. I clicked.
It was a single photo. Of my mother and father. Mum grinned and dad had his lips on her cheek, kissing her. Underneath read – miss you son xx.
I relaxed back into dad’s chair. It was real, after all. I closed the message. It revealed a button that said Need Help?. It was only a click away.
I was about to put the phone down when it rang. Adrenaline surged through my system, expecting to speak to my parents. It wasn’t them. It was the detective.
“Hello?” I said apprehensively.
“I’ve been doing some research on that place you mentioned.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary anymore,” I said nervously, “Dad’s here with me, everything is fine.”
“That’s good to hear,” he responded, “However, I’ve found something. It appears the place was bought by a research company a few years ago. They have been using a lot of electricity, and I mean a lot.”
“It’s fine, seriously, a misunderstanding.”
“That it may be, but the company who’s paying for it doesn’t exist. That usually means some sort of criminal activity is going on there. Thank you for this. If you hadn’t told us, I’d have no idea how long it would have taken to discover it, if ever.”
I hung up the phone. I opened up the App. The detective rang back, I sent it to voicemail. I pressed the Need Help button.
It had been just over a week since I pressed the Need Help button. It opened a contact form and I poured my heart out. I told them what I’d done, I told them how sorry I was. I told them to keep my parents safe. There was no reply.
I phoned Detective Irons throughout the week, but as the ringtone connected, I hung up. I had no plan. I’d fucked up and the wheels of justice were in motion. The detective phoned back a number of times, but I sent it to voicemail, in the hopes of a message, though he never left any.
I drove past the grass covered building on Saturday, slowing to check it from the road. It was just as it had been. I wanted to go in, but what was I going to do? My dad would be dead by now. A knot of anxiety tied itself taut in my stomach and wouldn’t relent.
I stayed in my father’s house, not wanting to leave. I phoned work and told them dad took a turn for the worse and I needed more time off. They didn’t hesitate to accommodate. Usually I’d be grateful, but I kind of wished they’d forced me to come in, if only to take my mind off the mess I created.
I messaged my parents on the app a couple of times, not hearing back. Since the photo, I hadn’t heard from them at all. There was a part of me that wondered what I was doing, the other yearning to speak to my dad again. In the corner of the app, in a small font, read – offline.
Panic is such an odd feeling. It’s almost as if hundreds of protesters are vying for supremacy, while you stand in front of a podium. Each of them shout their concerns while you try your best to answer them, but as you do, more and more trample over them, rushing the stage as you fall backwards, shouting in your face. You lie on the ground telling them to stop, though they don’t, until you finally give in and make a decision.
I listened to Detective Iron’s voicemail message before speaking.
“Hi, this is Jack, we spoke a week or so ago. I’m phoning about that address,” I rambled, not knowing what I’d say next, “please be careful…” I went silent, “my dad’s in there.”
As soon as I hung up I regretted it. The detective didn’t phone back, and the more time that passed, the more anxious I became.
I paced the house, making coffee I didn’t drink and sandwiches I didn’t eat. The anxiety was unbearable. I left the house, got in my car and drove. As I left town, I noticed night had fallen. The car skidded on black ice as I drove faster than I should’ve. In the distance, I saw red and blue lights dance against the low hanging clouds. I slammed on my brakes, taking the corner too wide, barely missing an oncoming van. Its horn warped from high pitched to low as it swerved to miss me.
There was a line of traffic ahead of me. On the brow of the hill were police cars. I waited in line hearing the radio break into a news bulletin.
“Local police officers have raided a cannabis factory on the A32 south. It is advised that anyone heading that direction make alternative plans as the road will be closed for some time.”
Cannabis factory? Why were they covering this up.
I waited in traffic for ten minutes, watching cars ahead of me awkwardly make three-point turns, before racing off in the direction I had come. One by one I edged forward until I was only a few cars back. A man in a beige trench-coat sucked on a cigarette, directing police and EMTs in and out of the building. I dialled the detective on speaker phone and watched him.
The man in the trench-coat dropped his cigarette, stubbing it out on the road before removing his phone from his pocket. He stared at the screen, sliding his finger along it, then placing it back in his pocket. The detective’s voicemail announced itself on my phone. That was him.
I got out of the car and trotted to the top of the hill.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Step back, sir,” he said.
A gurney was gently hauled out of the metal structure. On top, a white cloth was pulled taut. This was followed by another gurney, and another.
“Sir, please,” he said again, “this is a drug enforcement operation. I must ask you to get back in your vehicle.”
I raced down the road and into my car. I started the engine, seeing the cars in front had already left. I stayed a little longer, armed response team members left the building and talked to the detective. He looked me directly in the eyes, lowering his gaze, placing his hand on his brow, blocking out the light from the police cars. Frantically, I turned in the road, making six separate manoeuvres until I was facing the other direction.
When I was out of sight, I slowed.
I took the next right so I could circle round and come back up the other side of the hill. The roads were tight, the tyres slid and I did my best to keep traction. The large hedgerows loomed down, my headlights doing their best to illuminate the way.
I slammed on my brakes as a woman in a hospital gown gazed back in shock. The wheels locked and I swerved around her. In my rearview, I saw her amble along the road unperturbed by the near-miss. I took the next few corners slower until I ground to a halt.
Twenty or thirty people hauled themselves up the hill. I carefully passed by, checking out their confused and vacant expressions. It was as if they were a tribe of zombies. As the lights from the car shone into their eyes nothing shone back. They wore dirty hospital scrubs. Blood dripped from their heads. In the beams of the headlights you could see round holes pepper their skulls.
The incline changed to a descent and the line of people climbing the hill wandered out into the road. I beeped my horn, anxious to get past. They ignored me and leaned on my car for purchase. Slowly I pushed past them and then stopped. I peered out the window seeing an old man shuffle, his mouth was agape. Water vapour rose out of his mouth, his eyes were exhausted and rolled back into his skull.
“Dad?” I shouted.
He didn’t respond.
I got out of the vehicle and pushed past the many people who groaned, making their way purposefully up the hill.
“Dad, can you hear me?” I asked.
He didn’t respond.
I put my arm around his shoulder, he was ice cold.
“Let me get you in the car,” I said, leading him through the crowd. I opened the door and did my best to lift him into the seat.
As I got back in, I turned up the heat, feeling sweat gather on my forehead.
I took the next left and drove home.
In the driveway, I rounded the car and hauled my dad out. Blood had crusted on the holes in his head. His full head of hair did its best to hide them. He listened to me as I asked him to step up and over the threshold to the house.
“Almost there,” I said, leading him inside, closing the door behind me.
As I let go, he stood there, as if waiting for the next instruction.
“Let me get you to bed,” I said, leading him through the house and into his bedroom.
It was warm inside. I pulled back the covers and picked him up, placing him on the bed.
“Lie down,” I said, and he did.
I pulled the covers over him. He gazed up to the ceiling.
I paced the room, not knowing what to do. My phone rang. I checked, it was Detective Irons. I allowed it to ring out, hoping for voicemail.
I stared at Dad as he continued to stare at the ceiling.
“Close your eyes,” I said, trying not to sound too anxious. He did.
My phone pipped. I checked it, expecting a voicemail from the detective. Instead, there was a notification from the Second Chance App. It was dad. I slid my finger across the screen to see mum and dad. Their arms were around each other.
“Hey son,” dad said.
I brought my hand to my face and wiped away the sweat.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s all fucked,” I said candidly.
“Son, what’s happened?” Mum said looking concerned.
I looked back to the bed, seeing my father lie there.
“Something bad has happened,” I revealed.
“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” mum said trying to sooth me.
“They said that you’d be taken care of, but…”
“You’re still alive,” I said to dad.
His expression changed.
“You have to kill me, son,” he said, his eyes looking directly into mine.
“I’m not sure I can do that.”
“You have to!” he demanded.
“Why?” I asked, “you are still there aren’t you?”
He retreated from the camera, taking my mother with him. I watched as they talked, not hearing a word they said. Mum returned.
“You need to do it!” she said.
“I don’t think I can.”
I glanced back to dad, who now appeared to sleep.
“Do it now!” dad said, thrusting his finger into the camera. He relaxed, “Please, for me. They’ll take me away if I’m still there. My dementia has gone. I feel great. Do you want me to only exist back there, thinking Sally is still alive, not able to tell the remote from the telephone?”
“No,” I said, hanging my head.
“Then please do what is necessary. Pick up a pillow and put it over my face. It won’t take long.”
I stared at the screen, seeing my parents stare back.
“I’m not sure I can do that.”
“I’ve not asked you for much, have I son?” dad pleaded, “remember when you were in college and I had to sell the car, our only car, so that you could get that laptop you needed?”
I nodded, a tear rolled down my cheek.
“Then do it, for me, for your mother. If you don’t, your mother will be left here alone. Do you want that?”
I shook my head.
I put the phone down and walked over to the side of the bed. My heart thumped so loudly in my chest I could feel it in my ears. I reached over dad. His breathing had slowed, and I could hear a light snore. I picked up the pillow next him, the one mum would have slept on. I held it in my hands, grabbing as much of each side as I could.
I lent over, seeing dad sleep so soundly. The pillow felt cold. It smelled of Old Spice. I brought it to my mouth, breathing in heavily before I brought it down.
There wasn’t a struggle. I forced it onto dad’s face and pressed as hard as I could. The wounds in his head bled, sending crimson streaks onto the bedsheets. I held it there for as long as I could.
I jumped as his arm flailed and grabbed mine. The strength was impressive. I pushed down harder. His grip increased, pulling my arm away. The pillow flew off his face and onto the floor. Dad gasped for air.
“Dad?” I said.
“What the hell are you doing, Jack!!!” he said, breathing heavily and peering around the room.
I hurried back, picking up my phone. The feed was gone. The App was silent.
He pushed himself up in the bed and glared at me with fear.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“You tried to kill me,” he said.
I didn’t reply. The enormity of the situation hit me. I looked back at my phone.
“Jack!” he shouted.
“It’s not what you think.”
I got down on my knees and sat next to him.
He turned his cheek.
“Dad, you are not supposed to be here.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You have dementia. You were supposed to die.”
“I’ve never been more awake in my life.”
I stood up.
“Where’s Sally?” he asked, looking side to side.
“Mum died twelve years ago,” I replied, my shoulder sinking again.
“No, you know that’s not what I mean,” he said, shaking his head, “she was there with me.”
“Where?” I asked.
“You know where, that place where you brought me last week.”
“It’s gone,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“The police have raided it.”
“You need to help her.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
My phone rang again, it was the detective.
“Please, son. You have to save her.”