Had you asked 16-year-old Zach Erhardt, mused 26-year-old Zach Erhardt, where he would be in 10 years, you might reasonably expect any manner of mirth and snark, but you would certainly not expect an even oblique reference to trimming geezer toenails.
Yet, that is indeed what 16-year-old Zach has to look forward to, that is the upshot of his next 10 years: working the Alzheimer's ward in an elder care facility called Seaview Crest, duties including cutting through hard yellow calculus growing out of the feet of an 85-year-old man.
"Take it easy there, Zeke."
"It's Zach, Mr. Cooper"
"Just watch you don't cut me like last time."
"I've never cut you. I don't even think these feet can be cut. You're like if a rhino and alligator mated."
"Cut me like last time, they'll put you on KP."
As near as Zach could tell, Mr. Cooper often mistook him for an old army buddy. It was a common experience on the job; Zach's charges all suffered some degree of dementia, from the merely forgetful Mr. Moss, to the genuinely frightening biter, Mrs. Cleary, to the nearly catatonic Mrs. Sandusky, whose care was less complicated than that of a ficus.
"You done, Zeke?"
"I guess. That's about as good as I can get them without a belt sander."
Zach left the room, heading out into the hall. Seaview looked like nothing so much as a dorm in a midsize college, with its cheap but cheerful industrial carpeting, fluorescent lights and fake plants. Also like a dorm, the residents strolled, dropping in to visit, killing time until meals in the big common dining room. In fact, but for the fact that one's dorm-mates don't die off at the rate of one or two a month, life at Seaview was very like life in college, complete with gossip, cliques, parties, and, if the night orderlies were to be believed, serial hook-ups.
It was late in Zach's shift, the afternoon burning down the candle to dusk, when he heard a commotion from the room of Mr. Giordano.
Zach hurried in to see the near 90-year-old struggling to get out of bed, the oxygen line in his nose preventing him from rising.
"Whoa, Mr. G!"
"Hang on, let me help--"
"I told those assholes, and lookit what they done!"
"Sit back down, come on, Mr. G!" Zach helped him sit on the bed, straightening his bedclothes, calming him. "What's wrong?"
"T-bird and Beto. Bad enough on their own. But together? I told Mr. Santos, you can't trust those two jamokes to fill a bird feeder."
"What did they do? T-bird and Bebo?"
"Beto. I told them must a been a hundred times. You cut the phone lines before you go in. You don't do that, your response time goes from 15 minutes to 90 seconds, tops."
Sensing a doozy, Zach urged him on. "They didn't listen?"
"Who knows, with those two?" Giordano sighed, sitting back in his bed. "You tell 'em something, it's like a dog looking at the TV."
"So what happened?"
"What happened was we bust into the jewel shop, do the thing, smash and grab. But when we come out, instead of a walk in the park we run into a wall of black and white. We had to take off down the alley."
It was unusual for Mr. Giordano to be this disoriented, lost in the reenactment of some shattered memory. But even more surprising was hearing the description of a past crime, coming from what until now had seemed a sweet but fairly boring man.
"Those two assholes ran down that alley, forgetting it's a goddamn L-shape! They ran right back into the cops and got popped!"
"What about you?"
"Do I look like an asshole? No, because I ain't one. I went into the basement, behind the Chink tailor, Huang's, on Alvarado. Put the whole damn score into the furnace, the intake duct. Nice and hidden. Then I got the fuck out of there. But those two assholes, they better keep their traps shut!"
He started to rise again, this time pulling loose the O2 line, causing an alarm to peal.
"Mr. G, settle down!"
"Damn it, let me up! I gotta go get those diamonds, or Mr. Santos will come down with both feet on us all!"
Giordano whirled around, hearing quick footsteps in the hall.
"You got to go for me, kid. The alley behind the chink's! There's a red cellar door!"
"Do it kid, you gotta promise!"
"OK, OK, I promise!"
The other orderly, Gilbert, ran in, followed by the matronly physician on duty, Dr. Heller.
"What seems to be the problem, Mr. Giordano?" Dr Heller asked, reattaching the oxygen.
"Not a thing, boss, not a thing," Giordano said, suddenly cool and respectful, as Zach and Gilbert got him settled back in bed.
Later, Zach tapped on Dr. Heller's door.
"Will he be all right?"
"Who? Mr. Giordano? Yes, he's fine now."
"I've never seen him like that," Zach said, not a little concerned.
"It's common for Alzheimer's patients to experience this sort of thing in the late afternoon."
"Yes. It's called Sundowning. No one knows why, but the more upsetting aspects of dementia become worse in the late afternoon into evening. Paranoia, agitation, memory-based hallucinations. I'm sorry to say it, but Mr. Giordano may be in for more of the same from now on. If so, I'll talk to the family about a change in meds."
On his way out, Zach passed the dining hall. He peered in, spotting Mr. Giordano, eating without expression, until he caught Zach's eye and tossed him a knowing wink and piercing look.
Distributing clean towels the following day, Zach entered Mr. Giordano's room to find him asleep. Sitting next to him was a stunning girl Zach had only seen before in the photographs adorning Giordano's dresser and mirror.
"Oh. Hi there."
The girl put a finger to her lips and mouthed "hi". Zach stepped into the bathroom and quietly put the towels on the rack, stealing a glance at the girl in the bedroom.
She had glossy black hair pulled back in a ponytail, eyes the color of stormy skies, and a full red mouth like some expensive and exotic kind of candy. Zach took his time, the better to take her in.
Later, in the lobby, Zach was guiding Mrs. Sandusky toward the fish tank, where she could be safely planted for up to four hours.
"That was some epic towel-change."
Zach whirled around to see the girl from Mr. Giordano's room. He blushed, running a hand through his scruffy mop of hair.
"Oh, um, hey."
"What were you doing, straightening the towels like that Julia Roberts movie?"
"Yeah, if I don't get it just right they send Patrick what's-his-name to beat me."
She laughed, as Zach got Mrs. Sandusky seated in front of the fish.
"I'm Natasha," the girl held out a hand, and Zach took it.
"Do you want to have a cup of coffee? I'm kind of waiting around for a while to see if Grandpa wakes up."
"Sure. The coffee here is pretty bad, though. There's more caffeine in a tic-tac."
She laughed again, throwing her head back, showing Zach her lovely throat.
He showed her to the little coffee kiosk set up in the courtyard, and they sat and drank coffee and watched a few residents shuffling about stiff-legged like creaky giraffes.
"Dr. Heller said there was some kind of...incident yesterday," Natasha said.
"Oh, nothing big."
"I'm sorry about it. Was he really difficult? Yelling?"
"Yeah, but not at me. It was like he was remembering people from his past. Did he know a Beto? J-bird or something like that?"
"Not that I know of."
"Did he ever mention a Mr. Santos? A jewelry store?"
Zach's mind danced around several ways to ask a girl whether her grandfather had been a jewel-thief, few of them innocuous and none of them good. Natasha stood up.
"Thanks for being understanding."
"Oh, it's fine."
"It's sweet of you, looking after him."
"He's great, he's usually no trouble at all. They can get worse at night. It's common. It's known as 'Sundowning'." Nothing sounds as credible as recently acquired knowledge in the mouth of a fool.
"Really? That's fascinating."
"Yeah. It's upsetting, but perfectly normal."
"Wow. Well, sorry for the trouble anyway."
"Honest, it's no trouble. I like Mr. G."
She smiled at him, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Thanks again. I'm going to see if he's up. Bye, Zach."
He watched her go, feeling tingly-goofy-warmth fill him up like a water balloon, until Mrs. Cleary got close, clacking her dentures, and he made for safety.
"I dunno. Sounds pretty far-fetched."
"Far-fetched but not impossible."
"Zach, you know these old humps make up all kinds of crazy shit."
"I also know they call me by their son's names, and talk about their weddings and bar mitzvahs. They re-live their pasts, Gilbert, not made up shit."
Gilbert shook his head. He and Zach were sitting on the back porch of a little taco-and-beer joint overlooking the water, just released from their shifts at Seaview Crest.
"It's mostly nonsense, Zach. Hell, Mrs. Cleary accused me of putting cameras in her room to watch her have sex at night."
"Hell no. You know how expensive that night-vision shit is?"
Zach took a drink of his beer, brow furrowed. "He seemed so sure of it. Like it happened yesterday."
"Look, maybe it did happen. But even if the place still exists--"
"It does. Huang's Tailor, on Alvarado. Since 1962. Yelped it."
"So, the place exists. But what are the chances that a big bag of diamonds stayed hidden in a basement for 45, 50 years."
"Not very likely."
"Then why we even having this discussion?"
"Because what if did stay hidden? What if a 20-minute trip downtown gets us a big honking bag of stones? You want to walk around the rest of your life wondering? Cause I don't."
"So, go. Satisfy your curiosity. What's stopping you?"
"I might need help, you know, getting in. I don't know the first thing about breaking and entering."
"And so you turn to Gilbert, your token Mexican, is that it? Because you think I got my B&E badge in Beaner Scouts?"
"No. I thought in reform school."
But the notion's preposterousness decreased in inverse proportion to their blood alcohol level, and it wasn't long before they piled into Gilbert's pick-up, headed downtown with the stipulation that they would split whatever they found in the tailor's basement, be it diamonds or dust.
The back of Huang's opened onto a dimly lit L-shaped alley, and Gilbert killed his headlights and engine, rolling in neutral to the crook of the L.
"Right there. The red doors." Zach indicated a pair of wooden cellar doors behind the shop.
"Looks quiet enough." Gilbert eyed the windows of neighboring buildings. "Don't see any lights on. Let's do this."
They got out of the car and walked over to the store, Gilbert holding a crowbar and Zach a flashlight.
"Could we look any more suspicious? Maybe we should have worn black-and-white striped shirts and masks."
"Cool it, Zach. Don't look around. We go in, go out, fast."
"What if there's an alarm?"
"We go in, go out, faster."
But Zach's nerves were stretched to breaking. Sweat ran down his sides and he couldn't seem to swallow correctly. When they got to the cellar doors it was all he could do to hold the flashlight steady.
The doors were padlocked, but the metal latch was simple and old. Not hesitating, Gilbert set the end of the crowbar under the latch and threw his considerable weight on it. The screws pulled out of the wood with an irritated screech, like they were roused from a long sleep and wanted to get back to it.
"Come on. Don't look around."
Gilbert led Zach down the steps into the basement, taking the flashlight from Zach. The floor was dirt, stacks of boxes lined one wall, and a few broken dress forms stood, giant bowling pins waiting for the next frame.
They came in, Gilbert scanning the room with the light. In the center of the room, on a raised wooden platform, was the big, old furnace.
"He said the intake duct?"
"There." Gilbert pointed the beam of the flashlight to a long, corrugated aluminum tube, coming down from the basement ceiling at one end and entering the furnace at the other. Without a word, he walked over to the furnace and removed a metal cover, exposing the guts of the thing.
"Here. The filter."
An ancient fiberglass filter covered the opening of the intake duct. Gilbert looked back at Zach, wiggling his eyebrows, grinning. "Here goes nothing!"
And nothing is just what went, because when Gilbert pulled off the filter the duct held only air and a single lonely mouse dropping, as if their tiny kernel of hope had shriveled and blackened to shit before their hapless eyes.
"Somebody must have changed that filter in the last 40 years. I'm sure they found the stuff then."
"Stuff. The only 'stuff' involved in this sorry situation is the foot I'm going to stuff up your ass."
They were back at work, days later, in the office. Gilbert was putting fresh tennis balls on the front legs of a walker while Zach was sorting mail, throwing letters and circulars into each resident's cubby hole.
"We don't know that there were never any jewels in there. Anything could have happened to them."
"There wasn't never no jewels, stupid. We risked our asses for nothing, for some crazy old man's rantings."
"We had to try. I had to." Zach's disappointment was made worse by a nagging feeling of missed opportunity, a feeling with which he had come to be intimate over the last ten years.
"Serves me right for listening to you. Something I'll never do again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice I'll beat the white off you." He left, shaking his head and muttering.
Zach frowned, and went about sorting the mail, until something caught his eye on a newspaper he was folding up, about to stuff it into a cubby.
He unfolded the paper and looked at a story in the first column, above the fold. It wasn't a particularly large headline, and the photo with it was small, but nonetheless something about it had stopped him cold. Something about the words "JEWELRY STORE ROBBERY" and the photo of the alley next to the tailor shop, no doubt.
The article detailed how Alberto 'Beto' Mendoza and Hector "T-Bird" Trujillo, along with another suspect, had staged a brazen daylight "smash-and-grab" robbery, at Tropp & Medias Jewelers, 4690 Alvarado Blvd. Mendoza and Trujillo had been apprehended while fleeing the scene in the alley behind the store. None of the stolen items, the value of which the victims estimated at between $250,000 and $300,000, had been recovered, nor was Mendoza and Trujillo's accomplice found or identified. The article described the investigation as "ongoing" and the suspects as "cooperative".
Zach finished the article, and in a daze, went about his daily duties. It wasn't until late in the day, almost dusk, that he was able to head down the hall to Mr. Giordano's room, finding the old man sitting up in bed, playing solitaire.
"Hey, Mr. G."
"Hey, kid! You came up to see me!"
"Yeah. Um. Mr. G., do you remember..." Zach's voice trailed off, and he looked away, realizing the futility at Seaview of any sentence containing the phrase 'do you remember'.
"You find those diamonds, kid?"
Zach looked up at him. "Diamonds?"
"In the basement. Furnace." Giordano spoke quietly, his expression flat but his eyes darting.
"Oh. No, I didn't."
"Yeah, well you better go get them tonight. As you can see," he indicated his surroundings, "I'm tied up at the moment." He shook his head, face bitter. "Should have known those rotten punks would rat me out, get me sent up, but what can you do now?"
"Don't you worry, I'll take care of those two assholes. You just be a good kid and get those stones out of the furnace. Keep 'em safe for me till I get out next year, I'll cut you in nice and large."
Zach held up the paper, showing it to him. "Mr. G., how...how did you know..."
The old man squinted at the paper. "Huh. Made the front page, huh? Well, it figures. One hell of a score!" He cackled as Zach stared, not quite believing but stunned all the same.
Zach returned to the alley alone that night, too unwilling to face Gilbert's scorn to ask for help. Going down in the cellar, he couldn't tell whether there were more footsteps in the dirt than the night he and Gilbert had entered, but it seemed like there might be.
The furnace looked much as it had that night, and for a moment Zach wondered if he was going to be disappointed again. Then he saw the tear in the side of the tape connecting the intake duct to the furnace.
His heart revved up as he pulled open the tear. The beam of his flashlight illuminated a bit of white fabric. Zach reached in and grabbed the fabric, pulling it out.
It was a muslin shopping bag, emblazoned with the logo of a local overpriced organic market, of the sort you get a dime off your groceries for using. It was roughly 18 inches square, with handles, and it was more than half full of diamond jewelry and bits of broken glass.
Zach carefully put a finger in the bag and moved away some of the glass. There were rings, bracelets, and loose diamonds ranging in size from merely large to truly huge, some as big as a thumbnail. Zach didn't know about the value of diamonds, but he remembered it had something to do with four 'C's, and the shopping bag looked to him like a great big pile of C.
Zach shivered. Even though he knew that whoever had put the bag here was going to be locked up before retrieving it, Zach still was nervous. He didn't know how accurate or how reliable Mr. Giordano's strange connection to future incidents was. He barely understood how a toilet works; a supernatural oracle in the mind of an old coot was certainly beyond him.
Clutching the bag, Zach climbed the stairs and got the hell out of the basement.
Gilbert looked up from his lunch, shooting the stink-eye as Zach sat down across from him.
"Come to share the latest Old Fart Fairy Tale?"
"Good. 'Cause I got what they call irritable fist syndrome."
"Just thought you'd want to come over after work."
"My place. Come over."
"What for? A drink. Maybe something on the rocks."
Zach slid his hand across the surface of the table, palm down. As Gilbert stared, he tipped over his hand to reveal a bright diamond, two or three carats, glinting and gleaming cheerily. Gilbert only had time to gasp before Zach popped his hand down again, pulling the stone back into his lap.
"You're shitting me."
"Where'd you get it!?"
"My place. Tonight."
At Zach's house that evening, they drank, and picked over the diamonds, cooing and admiring like a couple yentas. They speculated on each piece's worth, and fantasized about what they would buy with the money they'd fetch. Gilbert put on three rings and a bracelet, holding a couple loose stones up to his earlobes.
"I might keep a few-three of these babies. Just for blingosity. Do I look like a player?"
"You look like a disco ball."
Gilbert put the gems down. "Thanks, you know, for telling me. Cutting me in. You could have kept it to yourself."
"And showed up for work in a new car? You'd have known in a second. Besides, I need your help to unload these. You did get a fencing badge in Beaner Scouts, didn't you?"
Gilbert threw a diamond at him, laughing. "It's going to take a lot of asking around, and we have to be careful, but yeah, I think we can sell them." He turned wistful, picking up a stone, peering into it, watching the light catch its facets. "How do you think he does it? And why is it only at sunset?"
Zach stood up, going to the window, where the end of a neon sunset was playing out on the horizon. "Maybe it's tied into the disease. Who knows? I don't think it's a question that can be answered. But I can tell you a much more interesting question that CAN be answered."
"Can the others do it too?"
They could, as it turned out. Starting simply, taking turns with each of the residents, always at sundown at the end of their shifts, Zach and Gilbert gently pried into fractured minds like they were trying to coax open a clam. Though only Mr. Giordano seemed to be able to predict crimes, the other residents each had their own specialty. Mrs. Cleary was tapped into weather predictions and other natural disasters, Mr. Moss could only predict traffic accidents and water main breaks, and Mrs. Sandusky would only utter the word "massacre". For a while, it seemed they had stumbled upon a truly miraculous yet utterly worthless phenomenon, until it became apparent that Mr. Cooper's specialty was sports outcomes.
It was Zach's idea to use the Racing Forms. Seaview was only a few miles from Del Mar, and the track was open for another two weeks before the end of the season. Zach sat down with Mr. Cooper, and opened up the paper to the next day's schedule, and hit gray paydirt.
"Look at the odds on this hunk of dog food," Mr. Cooper scoffed. "Twelve to seven, and he came dead last. Adderley's Pride stole it! At 8-1!"
"Adderley's Pride, huh?"
"Nobody saw that coming. Or here, this farkahkt fourth race. You want to tell me you would have picked Blame Game? Over Zenyatta? Over Goldie Looks?"
"Of course not. But Blame Game won running away."
Mr. Cooper was able to "remember" the winners in eight of the meet's twelve races scheduled for the following day, and Zach called in sick, taking his and Gilbert's meager savings to Del Mar, netting them each thousands of dollars. Suddenly, it seemed to Zach that his career choices may not have been so unwise after all.
It didn't escape Natasha's notice that Zach was spending extra time with her grandfather. It surprised and impressed her, that he would take an interest; most guys his age didn't care about anything that couldn't be seduced, consumed or played on a console.
She made up her mind that if he didn't ask her out, she would ask him, and if he didn't try to kiss her by the second date she would kiss him on the third.
For his part, Zach was relieved that Natasha took the initiative on both counts, and more relieved that Mrs. Cleary had been able to predict a food poisoning outbreak at the restaurant Natasha had wanted to go to, The Oyster Shack.
At dinner, Natasha cooed, "Mmm. This osso bucco is amazing!"
"See? My pick wasn't so bad after all."
"True, but next time you have to let me take you to the Oyster Shack. It's supposed to be the bomb."
"I'm sure it will be."
After dinner they walked along the water, watching surf-casters fishing for bonito, holding hands.
"You like working there? Seaview?"
"It's been rewarding."
"Hmm. Wouldn't have pegged you as a guy who found elder care fulfilling."
"Me neither. What would you have pegged me as?"
"I don't know. Indie-rocker-cum-indie-filmmaker."
"Ah. A loser, you mean."
"But an indie loser." She smiled, and gave his hand a shake, making sure he saw the smile.
Something about it opened him up a bit, they way steam opens up envelopes in cartoons. "I started out wanting to be a sculptor," he said.
"So why didn't you become one?"
"I found out it involved effort, and the ability to withstand rejection, neither of which it turns out I posses."
"Too bad. You would have been good at it."
"Yeah. Still could be."
"I like your optimism. It's charmingly misguided."
"So's your defeatism." She kissed him then, telling herself that this counted as a third date, considering the coffee weeks ago and dinner an hour before. If Zach had any objections to the breach in protocol, he didn't say.
While they waited for their fence to move the diamonds, Gilbert and Zach argued about how best to continue monetizing the strange powers of their charges. Zach wanted to continue betting horse races and sporting events, while Gilbert had in mind something bigger.
"What're the best odds we've gotten doing horse races? Twelve to one? Twenty?"
"There was a 15-1 one time, but we played it small."
"Exactly. This is nickels and dimes stuff. And we can't hit too many races or hit them too big or we'll raise suspicions."
"We're doing fine. Why get greedy?"
"I'm just saying, we can do better, get a bigger return."
"Be open-minded, OK?"
"We take them to Vegas."
"Oh, for god's sake. Are you crazy?"
"We organize a trip! We offer to, I don't know, chaperone."
"Sure, MacMurphy! Take them fishing while you're at it!"
Zach got up to leave, as Gilbert called after him. "Think about it! Screw this two-to-one, five-to-two piddling shit! You know what a single number hit in roulette pays? Thirty-five to one!"
"You know they're no good with numbers. That time you thought Mrs. Cleary was giving lotto numbers turned out to be her measurements."
"It's worth a try. Maybe your new girlfriend signs out her granddad for the weekend and we take a little trip to Sin City."
On his way out that night, Zach stopped by the office to find Dr. Heller frowning at a stack of patient charts.
"I just don't understand it."
"What's up, Dr. Heller?"
"Zach have you noticed anything different about any of the residents? Unusual behavior?"
A cold spot the size of an apricot bloomed in Zach's upper chest. "Not really. Why?"
"I'm looking over the monthly assessments and nearly all the residents suffered big increases in their DRS-2 scores."
"It's how we measure the dementia. It's normal to see a decline like this, but over the course of years, not weeks."
"Yes. It's as if something is causing all the dementia patients to deteriorate unusually fast."
Zach swallowed, a thought bubble reading "gulp" over his head. "What could be doing it?"
"I wouldn't be able to even guess. Have you noticed anything new? Anything they're doing?"
Zach shook his head.
"OK. If you think of anything, let me know. I'll be monitoring the patients extra closely for the next few weeks. Maybe we can find out what's going on."
Guilt poured out of Zach's face like blood from the Overlook's elevators, but Dr. Heller appeared not to notice.
All of a sudden it was obvious, as if by pointing it out Dr. Heller had turned the lights on in the funhouse, the luminous magic turned into so much cheap black-lit poster paint in an instant.
Zach noticed the decline, and not just an increase in their ramblings and decrease in the coherence. There was a dullness in their gazes, a slackness about them that hadn't been there before.
Zach helped Mr. Giordano button his shirt; Natasha was on her way over to have dinner with her grandfather. Normally, Mr. G would have been keyed up, looking forward to the visit, but tonight he stared as if looking out at a distant horizon.
"There. Ready for action." No reaction. "You need anything else, Mr. G? You want me to comb your hair? Altoid? Shot of whiskey?"
"Grandpa prefers ouzo if you can believe it." Zach looked up to see Natasha in the doorway, her pretty smile fading fast. "Don't you, Grandpa?"
Giordano turned his head to see her. There was a long, gut-chilling moment of pure blankness, and Natasha's lip trembled. Then, recognition melted over his face, slow as syrup, and the dead eyes flickered to life.
Natasha came over and kissed him. "You ready to go?"
"Gotta hit the head first." He got up, and left for the bathroom.
Natasha looked at Zach, eyes questioning. "Am I crazy? Is he like a million times worse?"
"It's always worse at night, but...yeah."
She sighed. "I tell myself I know what's coming, and to be thankful for the time I've had with him so far. But seeing him like this..." She trailed off.
Zach ran through a number of inadequate replies in his head, but each made him feel more and more like a tool. Figuring that he could at least be a useful tool, he put his arms around her, holding her as she sighed.
"It ends. Now."
"F to the no."
"Gilbert, we have to stop."
"You don't like money? Is that it? We have a gold mine here, you want to give it up? Why you wanna choke the golden chicken."
"Because we're harming them. We're doing harm! We can't just -- I'm pretty sure that isn't the right expression."
They were walking to their cars, leaving a much crappier bar than they could now afford. Both had acknowledged the importance of not attracting heat by spending a ton of money, a lesson less intuitively gained than picked up from Goodfellas.
"Old people go senile. It happens. You can't tell me we have anything to do with it."
"How long have you been doing this? You ever see anything like it, a whole group of them go swiss cheese all at once?"
This got to Gilbert, and he shook his head.
"It can't be a coincidence. We start messing around in their heads and next thing you know they start--"
Zach stopped walking.
"Where are we? Where are we going?"
Gilbert looked around, brow furrowed. "This way, no?"
"This way where?"
Even as he said it, Zach felt cold fear spreading through him. The street looked familiar, but for the life of him he couldn't say where he was, or, even more horribly, why. Gilbert looked just as scared, and angry.
"Stop fucking with me, man. Where you taking me?"
"I thought you--"
"What the fuck, man!?"
They stood in the street, motionless, gaping at each other for long terrible seconds. Then Zach saw a distant glow of neon, and sense and memory ebbed back into him. The Bar. Closing time. Their cars, parked in a lot a few blocks away.
Zach stared, horrified eyes wide, dreading that this tiny glimpse into a fathomless nightmare might be not a fluke, but a beginning.
Though Zach had stopped trying to get predictions from the residents of Seaview, had stopped talking to them in the evenings altogether, he still noticed their steady decline. And just as alarmingly, he noticed his own forgetfulness increasing. Car keys, wallet, jackets, all had suddenly become elusive artifacts, defying his every attempt to locate them. More and more Zach would find himself in a room with no clear idea of what had brought him there.
One night, when Natasha called him to wonder if he was going to show up for the date he had no recollection of making, he asked her to come over instead. Sitting on his couch, he toyed with the idea of telling her everything, but only in a morbid and unthinkable way, like you might toy with licking a battery.
"Sorry about forgetting you."
"And here I thought I was unforgettable."
"To any healthy-brained man, you are."
"Hope you're not catching Alzheimer's from your job."
Zach jolted as if cattle-prodded. Natasha laughed and put a hand on him. "Easy. I was kidding."
"I know it isn't contagious," Zach said unconvincingly.
Natasha looked wistful. "Do you ever wonder...how it feels?"
Zach nodded "At first, I imagine it's pretty horrible. Betrayed by your own mind, not able to trust your own thoughts. But after a while it's just a kind of...a fog blanket. They go on autopilot, mannerisms there, but knowledge replaced with feeling. Like, they don't know who I am, but feel safe, taken care of."
"I do know my grandfather feels that about you. It's great what you guys do for him, you and Gilbert."
She leaned in to kiss him, but he pulled away. "Gilbert?"
"Yeah. He's taking Grandpa to Vegas this weekend."
"Yeah! I thought maybe you could get the weekend off, we could--"
"No. Natasha, you can't let him--"
"What do you mean? It's only two days, Seaview does it all the time--"
"Natasha, please. Don't let him take Mr. G to Vegas. I can't say why."
Natasha looked at him, frowning, brow furrowed. "Zach, is something going on? If it's endangering my Grandpa you have to tell me."
Zach looked panicked, torn. "It's just that...he'd kill me if I told you this...Gilbert has a gambling problem. Big time."
"Are you serious?"
"Terrible. He'd bet the outcome of a sneeze. He's been clean for years now, but in a casino he's a time bomb. You have to call it off."
Natasha laughed, hugging Zach. "You're a good friend. But I'm sure Gilbert will be OK."
"Well, then why don't we go with them? We could have some fun, and you can keep an eye on Gilbert."
Zach thought, then nodded. "OK."
"Great!" She lunged on him, laughing. "Vegas, baby!" Zach did his best to smile, mind and guts churning.
Zach caught Gilbert coming out of Mr. Giordano's room the next morning. His eyes flared.
"Don't you fucking dare."
"I'm not letting you do it."
"Yes, you are. You don't fuck this up for me. Serious. You do and, the least nasty thing I do is tell your little girlfriend about our thing. You wanna hear what the most nasty thing I do is?"
"Gilbert. How are you supposed to even use him? It's pointless!"
Gilbert looked around, then pulled Zach around a corner by his collar, into a stairwell, out of sight.
"Giordano 'remembered' a score. A big one, in Vegas. An inside job, armored truck drivers. They're going to take two million in cash. Two million, Zach!"
"You can't be serious"
"I am. The old man can show me where they're making the drop, a place in the desert. I tried to get him to draw me a map, explain where it is, but he says he has to show me."
"Then what, you show up and go cowboy?"
"That's the plan."
"You're going to get your fool ass shot. And Mr. G's too."
"I could use your help, but I'm doing this, with or without you."
Gilbert started off, up the stairs.
"Gilbert, wait! You can't do this. You know it's hurting them, but it's hurting us too." Gilbert stopped, unable to look at Zach. "You know it is. I see you, staring sometimes like you can't remember what you were in the middle of. I do it too. And it's getting worse."
Gilbert shook his head, throwing off the thought. "Bullshit. You just trying to fuck with me. I'm doing it, and that's that." He took off, up the stairs, Zach watching.
On the trip, Zach did his best to stay close to Gilbert and Mr. Giordano. But when Gilbert took the old man up to his hotel room for a nap, and Natasha tempted Zach with something to happen in Vegas that could stay in Vegas, he had to relent.
Later, purring on the big suite's bed, Natasha said "hotel sex is just better. It just is."
"It's the knowing you don't have to wash the sheets."
"I'm glad we came along. I've been wanting to do this for a while."
"Me too." He kissed her, but his momentary distraction from his dread was starting to wane.
To his relief, Natasha gave him his out: "You want to hit the tables for a while? I have a massage appointment at two."
"Yeah, I could do that."
Zach got up, looking out the window at the sun-blasted strip. Down at the entrance to the hotel, he saw Gilbert and Mr. G. come out and join the long line at the valet.
Zach leaped over the bed, scooping up his underwear, dressing in midair.
"Wham bam thank you ma'am, is that it?"
"Sorry" He kissed her quick, pulling his shirt on. "Feeling lucky all of a sudden."
He left her smiling, shaking her head.
Zach made it downstairs just in time to see Gilbert drive Mr. G away. He jumped into a cab, and $200 made the 'follow that car' cliché go down a lot easier for the driver.
Gilbert's car pulled off the road at an abandoned gas station, and Zach had his driver go past and stop further on. Zach got out of the cab and started walking back to the gas station.
Looking around, he realized it was a good spot. No one around for miles, good clear visibility in all directions, and the windowless shell of the gas station provided shade from the merciless sun.
Crouching, Zach scuttled around the back of the building. Hiding behind an oil drum, he saw Gilbert's black sedan, engine running. Mr. G was in the passenger seat, no sign of Gilbert.
Zach crouch-ran over to the car, getting in to the driver's side. The blasting air conditioning settled over him like a blanket.
Mr. G looked up at him. "Oh, hey, kid. How's tricks?"
"You all right, Mr. G.?"
"Mr. G., where's Gilbert?"
"Who? You mean Costello?"
"You buckle up, Mr. G. We'll get you right back to the hotel."
Giordano buckled himself in carefully. "You know, Marco and Costello dumped their big score here, last week. You should have seen them fly outta here--oh, there he is now."
Zach whirled around, seeing Gilbert, standing behind the car with an enormous pistol, holding it up in the air like it was a giant foam hand at a ball game. "Hey, Zach! Come on out."
Zach got out, hands up. "I called the cops, Gilbert."
"And told them what? I took an old man for a drive?"
"Everything. They're on their way."
"Don't really think so. But just in case, come inside so's I can tie you up."
"Tempting, but no thanks."
He took Zach inside the structure, empty but for a few chairs and part of a broken shelving unit. He had Zach sit in a chair, tying him securely to it.
"So what's your plan? The crooks show up and you start blasting?"
"Mr. G. says they just drive by and toss the duffle bags. Their partners come by later to get it. I'm just going to take the meantime to be the middleman."
"Assuming they don't see the car out back, or me tied up in here."
"Yeah, well, I didn't really plan on you." Gilbert looked around, spotted an old plastic tarp. He moved to it, dragging it over and setting it in Zach's lap. He knelt down, tucking the tarp around Zach's and the chair's legs.
"Once I'm gone you go ahead and kick this off. Wouldn't want you to cook up like a Hot Pocket."
"And what do I do when the partners show up?"
"You're a smart guy. Improvise."
Gilbert stood, lifting the end of the tarp, about to cover up Zach's head.
Zach's head swam in the heat, his vision shimmered. A familiar feeling came over him, a creeping fog.
"You know where you are?"
"What do you mean?"
"Right now. Where are you? Why are you here?"
Gilbert snorted a laugh, but his eyes darted. "Fool, I'm here...I'm here..." He trailed off.
Zach could almost see Gilbert's mind trying work a broken path around grasping neurons, playing tag with a thought that was just out of its own reach.
"Do you know where you are?" Zach's voice was low, soothing, hypnotic.
"You're in the jungle baby. You're going to die."
Gilbert's lips trembled, eyes wide, mind succumbing first to confusion, then fear, lastly to the crowbar swung by Mr. Giordano, standing behind him.
Gilbert slumped unconscious into Zach's lap. Zach looked up at Mr. G., who was panting, a hand to his brow.
"Never did trust Costello, that son of a mother. This heat is a bitch, kiddo. I'm getting back in the ride."
The fog cleared, Zach blinked. "You think you could untie me first?"
"What am I thinking? Sure."
"Thanks, Mr. G."
"No problem kid." He looked down at Gilbert. "Fucking Costello. Did I tell you about the time he and Marco boosted their own Brinks truck? Skimmed like a pool boy."
Zach called the police from a pay phone in the hotel lobby, saying little and hanging up fast. A pumice-scrubbed and salt-soothed Natasha came over.
"There you boys are." She kissed her grandfather's bristly cheek. "Winning I hope?"
"Yeah, I had a good little run for a while."
"Who were you calling?"
"Oh, Gilbert. He ran into his old Iraq buddies, they're going to hit another casino. He's actually going to ride back with them, said we should take his car."
Natasha looked wary. "He did?"
"Yeah, they have one of those party buses with a stripper pole in it. He preferred it to four hours with us."
The tyrannical sun was finally yielding to the dusk. Mr. Giordano began to get anxious, the casino's chattering lights and bells seeming to grate and bedevil him, so it was no challenge to convince Natasha to leave for home early. Zach took Giordano to his room to pack, and to shove Gilbert's belongings into a plastic bag to be dumped in the trash chute next to the ice machine.
As they loaded up the car, Natasha noticed the large black duffel in the trunk.
"Where did that come from?"
"What's in it?"
"A million dollars."
"I told you I had a good little run."
"Funny, Danny Ocean."
They got in the car, and crept up the crowded strip, heading out of town. Mr. G. seemed to have calmed, and he breathed deeply as he gazed up at the casino lights.
"We should have got a convertible. I had a hell of a ragtop, years ago. Sunbeam. Little two-seater, fast as a rocket, cream with red leather tuck-and-roll." He smiled, pleased. "One thing I do remember about that car...."
Zach clenched his jaw. He didn't know whether Giordano was about to have another premonition, nor if having it unprompted would lessen the negative effect. Zach was about to interject, break the flow, stop the thought, when he saw something in Mr. G's eyes, some clarity, a lucid knowing that he didn't ever see when the old man was casting his broken mind into the future.
"1960. It was a beaut, Zach, but too small. Try to go up your date's skirt and you're likely to tear a rotator cuff."
"Grandpa!" Natasha grinned, blushing.
The traffic thinned and Zach sped up, hitting the highway. He wondered if Gilbert had woken up before the police arrived, or whether the police had arrived in time to catch the armored car thieves, or their partners. He wondered if the sharpness he felt in his mind was a sign that whatever damage had been done to him was reversible. He wondered how long a million dollars would last, and how much he should put away, and whether there was some kind of "Investing for Slack Assholes" course at the local Learning Center. Catching Natasha's eyes in the rear view mirror, he wondered what this new chapter of his life would look like, to the eyes of his 36-year-old self, or 46, 56, and beyond.
"We should come back again, just us, check out some of the other attractions."
Natasha leaned forward, chin on the front seat, teasing at his hair.
"Like the wedding chapels?"
"I was thinking of the nude car wash, but that could be fun too."
Police arrived at the abandoned gas station to find the angry partners of the Brinks truck drivers, all too happy to turn in their driver accomplices for taking half their score. They did not find, nor did the partners or accomplices see, anyone else at the scene.
A month later, in Laughlin, NV, at the Regency Grove Dementia Care and Rehabilitation Center, the Human Resources manager was placing an ad to backfill a recently terminated Orderly position. The former employee, to her mind a perfect candidate, had only been hired two weeks before, and the H.R. manager was particularly perturbed, not only at the inconvenience and expense, but because she considered herself good at her job, and an excellent judge of character. It alarmed her to think she could have been so wrong about the former employee, a clearly experienced and energetic orderly who nonetheless had proven totally useless on the job.
His performance had deteriorated so rapidly, he became so forgetful, irritable and confused, at first she had wondered if he had some kind of medical condition. In the days before he was finally let go after a violent outburst, she had the Physician on duty examine him. The results were inconclusive, as the examination was brief, the subject's symptoms became distracting, and the physician refused to entertain the possibility, however closely it fit the evidence, that before him was the youngest case of early onset Alzheimer's anyone had ever seen.
About the Author
Screenwriter Craig Ugoretz is delighted to be making another appearance on Popcorn Fiction. Craig has written for the stage and screen, and lives in Los Angeles with his family and his slowly diminishing capacity. His previous PF stories, "Steam Table Blues" and "Deserted" can be found in the archives.