The Essence of Senescence Milo Twyla

 

Chapter 2 

 

 

Hattie, Jules, Ernie, Zephy and Cosette each plodded lethargically from their individual but identical walnut doors, through the adjoining lifeless hallways, which stretched further than any human eyesight could follow.

        The walls and floor were of a rough and raw, smoky-white limestone. Absent of even one brick, they appeared as tunnels that had been carved through one colossal limestone block. Every one of the hundred or so indistinguishable doors was equidistant from its neighbour, each slightly off-tangent, tilting down in concurrence with the gently sloping hallway and its ageing pedestrians.

        Distance bore no correlation to the speed at which each of them travelled along it and, although the seniors lumbered along slowly, they had still passed hundreds of doors with only a few paces. In a fraction of the time that it should have taken in reality, the seniors swiftly neared the end of their individual, entombed corridors.

        Hattie, with Jules only a step behind her, was the first to reach the intersection of six ghostly hallways and to turn sharp left. She immediately crashed into something, perhaps someone. Her arms instinctively extended out in front of her and a person stumbled backwards, plunging to the stone floor.

        Hattie and Jules froze as did Ernie, Cosette and Zephy who now also stood at the same junction, less than a metre behind, witnessing every second of the calamity unfolding before them. No one moved, no one spoke, no one breathed, but all just stared on dumbfounded, each with traumatised expressions.

        Ernie was the first to react, snapping out of the stupor and instinctively scrambling over to help the inanimate body splayed out in a tortuous position on the floor in front of them. Warm blood oozed sinisterly into a puddle around the head, steadily submerging the pale, limestone floor inch by inch under deepest crimson.

        Only then realising that she and Jules were not alone, did Hattie glare at Ernie accusingly. She pivoted to see if anyone else had witnessed the catastrophic collision, only now noticing Zephy and Cosette, who still stood still, scrutinising the casualty on the ground.

        Ernie’s hands pressed onto the back of the head’s cavernous gash, then quickly shifted to the chest to start CPR. Zephy and Cosette drifted towards the others, transfixed and agape in shock.

        Minutes flew by, but the body remained unresponsive, no breath, no pulse, no movement. Exhausted from the consistent yet futile compressions and in pain from his grinding struggle, Ernie finally surrendered the victim to its fate. With shins, shoes, hands and forearms smeared in blood, he laid his palm tenderly on the fallen chest in an inaudible apology, prayer and farewell.

        “He’s dead.”

        Zephy and Cosette’s mortified eyes snapped to Hattie, whom Jules had protectively wrapped into his burly embrace. Hattie side-stepped his arms and demanded of him, “You need to hide it!”

        “What?” Ernie’s head whipped around to her in confusion.

        Jules studied Hattie’s panicked face. In their half a century of marriage, he had never seen her so unmasked, wearing such an expression of terror. He would have done anything to see it disappear and so nodded in consensus with her. “And then we need to go.”

        Prepared to drag it where needed without scruple, he bowed over and lifted up the body’s legs, blood transferring onto his own hands.

        Ernie’s intercepting arm and stuttering speech interrupted him. “I– What? I don’t understand.”

        Jules creakily straightened back up to his full elevated height. “They’ll come for Hattie!” He paused, a plan to ensure Ernie’s compliance formulating in his head. “And for you, too!”

        “But it was an accident! No one did anything wrong! And I was simply trying to help...” Ernie floundered, understandably overwhelmed and confused.

        “Help? Yes. Help us kill him.” Jules gestured to the body, then looked at Ernie with cutting eyes, striving to scare him into submission. “That’s what they’ll say when they come after you.”

        What? Who will?” Ernie asked, still bewildered.

        “Your DNA is all over a dead body,” Jules asserted grimly, evading the original question.

        Cosette snapped back into a sentient state, enthusiastic to contribute and proud of his knowledge. “These guys in moon suits come in and they can like, Sherlock-the-shit out of the room with their gismo-gadget things. It’s like they were here when it happened. It’s like... time-travel.” His comprehension seemed foolish and warped, but he effortlessly – obliviously – contradicted Jules’ entire argument.

        Inadvertently condescending, Zephy injected, “Watch a lot of TV, do you?” Her accent was different to the others’ American, obviously English. Still dazed and unblinking, but acknowledging her implicit arrogance, she turned her charming eyes up to Cosette. “Sorry. It really wasn’t my intention to superciliously mock.”

        Cosette was pleasantly stunned by the sincere apology, rarely received in his lifetime. He became enthralled by the curious woman, shorter than the height of his shoulder with such darling diction, so different from his southern drawl.

        However, before Cosette was able to voice forgiveness, Ernie discerned Jules’ ruse and said, “Then they’ll see that I–”

        He was cut off as Jules grabbed his neck, smearing blood onto his blue collar. Unhinged, Jules insisted, “You’re coming with us.”

        Ernie bobbed his head in fearful surrender.

        Zephy’s eyes widened and snapped up from the pool of blood. This is it! This is my chance! I can get out of here! Jubilantly, she declared, “I’m coming too!”

        Cosette glanced down at Zephy reverently and, eager to accompany the mysterious beauty wherever she led, proclaimed, “And me!”

        A self-congratulatory smirk stretched across Jules’ face as he arrogantly chuffed, “Like you had a choice.”
        Distant cheers and applause echoed from down the hallway,

causing an anxious Hattie to jump back with increased alarm and declare egotistically, “I need to go now!” When Jules bent down to move the body, she smacked his shoulder away. “Fool, there’s no time!”

        She scuttled away from the scene, leaving a trail of bloody footprints after her. Jules hustled the hostaged Ernie in front of him as they both followed, Cosette hesitant but only inches behind them, all three trailing even more bloodied footprints.

        Zephy noticed a compelling allure amidst the ghastly display and slid an impressive camera from her rucksack. Her movements were tentative at first, as these were in fact the first photographs she’d taken since arriving at this building long ago. Albeit aware of her desecration, she masterfully snapped numerous, stellar images: of the footprints, of the limp arm in the blood, of the twisted head’s profile.

        The camera dropped from her fingers to her sternum and hung familiarly from around her neck as she crouched down closer to the body, cradled its hands in hers and ruefully apologised. “Sorry.” With pinched eyebrows, Zephy stood up and, with uncharacteristic vigour, flew down the hallway to catch up with the others.

        Over her shoulder, the corpse suddenly spasmed in the swamp of blood. Sluggishly, it slumped to its side and writhed about, attempting to lift itself up.

        Oblivious to the man’s attempted revival, Zephy reached the juncture where hallways merged and Hattie, Jules, Ernie, then Cosette were nestled against rounded, black rock walls. Cosette breathed out a sigh of relief as he sensed Zephy line up behind him, whilst Jules peered past his wife and through the sculpted archway ahead.

        Hundreds of geriatric residents had been packed into the large, circular atrium, some standing, but the majority sitting on carved, wooden chairs. The lofty ceiling consisted of a vast blue, green, purple and red stained-glass window, whose tinted light shone down, illuminating the coarse, jet-black, rock walls, into which four, chiselled archways were placed at even intervals.

        Furthest from them was a squat stage. A woman stood at the podium with a microphone, next to a transparent barrel full of numbered balls. She reached her arm deep into the revolving vessel and plucked out a single ball. “And the last winner is ‘12~739’.” Behind her, a man wrote that number in large digits on the blackboard, to join ‘9~942’, ‘7~250’ and ‘9~168’ already inscribed in white chalk.

        Oblivious to the numbered sequences, once Jules identified that no one had noticed them, he signalled to Hattie to cross the entrance. She scampered over, followed by Cosette, Zephy, then Jules towing Ernie, his large palm sealing Ernie’s mouth shut, securing his silence. Skittishly, they all whisked down the immediate right.

        On the left side of this hallway was a palatial library, its walls blanketed with countless books of every imaginable topic. The heart of the library was hosting several book clubs, its members now clustered together on couches, deep in discussion as they each battled to contribute an opinionated synopsis.

        On the right side of the hallway was a spacious game room, where yet more preoccupied OAPs played bingo, board and card games, crosswords, jigsaws, pool, darts and table tennis to varying ability.

        And at the end of the corridor, motion-detecting, glass doors silently opened, through which the runaways poured out.