Arthur wondered why his hand hurt. Pain throbbed in his knuckles in time with his pulse. He jolted at a crash from the stairwell at the end of the hall. Who was slamming doors? He didn’t see anyone in the hall.
Why was he out here? Arthur knew there was a reason but couldn’t think of it. He’d been forgetting things as long as he could remember, so one more didn’t bother him.
He looked down and saw the paper had arrived on the doormat. His knee popped when he stooped. Threads of pain pulled tight across his knuckles when he tried to pick the paper up. He found a secure hold on the fourth try and stood up. He closed the door and dropped the paper on the stack just inside. It was starting to smell.
How had Maddie let the stack get so high? He smiled at the thought of his wife, even though he knew she’d yell at him when she noticed the mess. Arthur liked to complain that he could never find anything because she put everything away.
He decided to get rid of the stack of papers before Maddie got home. She was probably on her way by now. First he needed to take care of his hand. He walked past the living room and down the hall to the bathroom. He reached out for the light switch. Knuckles crackled when his fingertips jammed into bare wall. He hissed in the darkness.
Once the pain faded a bit, Arthur reached out and ran his hand around on the wall in uneven circles. No switch. He chewed on his lip for a moment then reached out with his other hand, gently. There it was.
His reflection greeted him when the lights came on, thin face, thinning white hair, crooked nose. A web of wrinkles surrounded his bright green eyes and pulled tight around his mouth when he smiled. He saw light brown spots on the pale skin when he moved closer. Spots. Where had they come from? He laughed at the sight and reached for the corner of the mirror.
The image swung to the right with the cabinet door. Three little bottles stood on the shelf. Which one did he use when he hurt? Red? That sounded right. He picked it up.
The cap spun when he twisted but refused to open. Arthur squinted at the writing on the top. White letters on white? Who could read that? He twisted the cap to the right just to make sure, but got the same result.
Arthur smacked the bottle back onto the shelf. The others clattered into the sink. He felt like slamming the cabinet closed, but Maddie didn’t like when he hit things. He closed the door gently and left without turning off the lights.
Something stank in the hallway. Was that the…what was that? A stack of something? Why would that stink? The scent reminded him of camping for some reason. When was the last time he had taken Maddie camping? She love s’mores. Didn’t s’mores smell better than this?
His steps took him further down the hall and into the bedroom. Sunlight bathed the dark green walls in a lush glow. It got so bright up on the fourth floor. Arthur admired the color before walking over to the black wood dresser, stepping over a tangled pair of pants on the way. Maddie wouldn’t like that.
She smiled at him from inside a picture frame made to look like bright yellow flowers. He smiled back at the soft curves of her face through the glass. Her eyes danced with laughter beneath tousled brown curls. Arthur missed her a bit. When had she gone out. He decided to take her to dinner. Fine wine, candlelight, the works. Just because.
A thin, bitter smell wafted past, making him cough. That hurt his chest a bit. Was that the same smell from the hallway? Maybe something was wrong with the air conditioning again. What was the handyman’s name? Earl? Bob? That guy was useless either way.
Arthur thought of their old house, with that strange yellow brick chimney. He smiled again. Maddie had fallen in love when she’d seen it. Look how much character it has! The flue had kept getting stuck closed though. He thought that should remind him of something, but couldn’t think of it.
He realized there was another picture next to Maddie, a man with light hair and a goofy smile. Arthur snatched the picture up with his good hand and held it close to his face.
Who was this? The man wore a shirt with letters on it but Arthur couldn’t make them out. There were trees and a house behind him. With a yellow chimney. Why was this picture here? Had Maddie put it on the dresser before she left? Why would she do that? Why was this man at their old house?
Arthur snarled and threw the strange picture. It hit Maddie. Bits of glass spayed across the dresser, glinting like raindrops in the sunlight. He stared at the spider web of cracks over Maddie, now lying face up on the floor. Jaw clenched, face burning, he hurried out of the room. Why wasn’t she home yet?
He found himself in the big room with the couch. Springs creaked under the green upholstery when Arthur sat down. Something glowed behind the drawn yellow blinds. The stand lamp by the wall was on for some reason. His eyes followed a bit of fluff for a moment as it danced in a thin beam of light.
A funny-looking thing glinted silver on the plain brown table by Arthur’s knees. He picked it up by the squared end. It left a clean outline in the layer of dust on the table. Flat and light, a thin piece stuck out from the square, one edge cut in a jagged line. He tried to think of what it was for.
It smelled out here too. Worse, even. Arthur dropped the strange knickknack to cover a cough. It clattered across the table and hit the carpet with a soft thump. Arthur had half a mind to call and complain. Call who? There was someone you were supposed to call. The smell was so thick he could almost see it, like a thin gray haze filling the air.
A horrendous metallic buzzing shattered the quiet. Arthur’s jaw clenched hard enough to jolt his neck. What the hell was that?
That sound meant something. It had to. But it hurt. Arthur grabbed up a pillow from the couch. Ignoring the fresh crack of pain in his hand, he tried to fold the pillow around his head to cover his ears. It wasn’t long enough, so he grabbed another one and shoved them both against the sides of his head.
The blaring went on and on. Was it coming from the hallway? He thought there was something he was supposed to do when he heard that sound. What was it?
He hacked another string of coughs, feeling bad that he couldn’t cover his mouth. He thought he could hear someone out in the hall, but he didn’t want to uncover his ears to make sure. Where had he heard that sound before? His eyes squeezed shut as he tried to think. Naturally, he thought of Maddie first. He had the distinct impression there was a funny story behind the sound.
Something about cooking, he decided after searching through his memory. He had a hard time picking out specific images sometimes. He supposed he really was getting old. They had been trying a new recipe, he thought. Something with the oven.
Arthur felt something thump underneath the floor and the buzzing cut off. He opened his eyes and dropped the pillows. Eerie silence pressed in on him. He saw that the lamp had gone out. Someone must have turned off the power to stop the noise. Good. Now if it would just stop stinking.
The memory pulled at Arthur again. What had they been trying to cook? Something ridiculous, probably. Maddie always wanted to try new things. Goose maybe? Or goat? There was paprika involved, he knew that much. And a glaze. That had been the problem, hadn’t it? Arthur concentrated, trying to draw the picture in his mind. Had the glaze spilled? That sounded right. The sauce or whatever had fallen onto the oven coils and when Maddie opened the oven she found it had caught—
A harsh beeping sent the memory spinning away. Arthur slapped his hand on the table and winced. He’d almost had it. The new annoying sound came from the kitchen. Was that the phone? Arthur stood up in a crackling of joints and headed toward it. The tile felt cold under his feet. He snatched the phone up, knocking over an empty Chinese food box in the process.
“Hello?” He remembered to be polite despite his annoyance. It never hurt to be polite.
“Dad,” said a deep voice. Something rumbled steadily in the background. “It’s Stephen, are you okay?”
“Stephen. I’m on my way over.”
Arthur put his hand over the phone for a second to cough. The air seemed darker than before. Thicker. “You’re coming here? Who is this?”
“It’s Stephen, Dad. Kevin just called and told me what happened.”
“The nurse, Dad.” The man on the phone sounded angry. “He said you off and punched him for no reason and he quit.”
Well that was ridiculous. “What nurse? I don’t know a Kevin. And I’d remember if I punched someone. Who’d you say you were again?”
“It’s Stephen, Dad. I’ll be there soon and we can figure out what to do. He can’t just leave you alone like that.”
Another fit of coughing wracked Arthur’s chest.
The voice turned gentler. “Hey are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine,” Arthur said. He drew a hissing breath. “I just need to go outside and get some fresh air I think.”
“C’mon Dad, you know you shouldn’t go out alone.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Please just wait until I get there. We’ll have a walk and talk like back in the day.”
“Who do you think you are, telling me what to do?”
The voice went silent for a moment. “Look, I’m almost there. Just don’t go out on your own. It’s not safe.”
Arthur smiled despite the strangeness of the conversation. “You sound just like Maddie. Always worrying.” He wiped droplets of sweat from his forehead. Why was it so hot?
“Yes, my wife, not that it’s any of your business.”
“She should be home soon, actually. We’re gonna go for a walk before dinner.” Arthur said more to himself than the phone.
The silence on the other end was longer this time. “Dad, please,” the voice finally said, much quieter.
“We’ve talked about this. About Mom. Maddie. She’s…”
“Speak up,” Arthur’s hand clenched around the phone. “Why are you talking about my wife? Who the hell is this?”
“It’s okay Dad.” A ragged breath hissed over the phone line. “Just please stay where you are. I’ll be there soon and everything will be okay.”
“I don’t know who you think you are, but you can’t tell me what I can and can’t do!”
“And stop calling me that. It’s just plain weird.” Sweat was streaming down Arthur’s face now. “Unless you’re going to do something about the heat in here, I’ve had enough of this conversation.” The haze in the air had turned thick and gray. It hurt on its way down his throat.
“Please,” the voice said. “I’m almost there.”
Another ragged cough wracked Arthur’s chest. “Forget it,” he said. “I can’t stand it in here, I’m going out.”
“No! Please, just wait a couple minutes. I’m sure . . . I’m sure Maddie will be home soon. You don’t want to miss her.”
Arthur relaxed at the sound of her name. “I suppose you’re right about that. I want to meet her when she comes in. I’ll stick around. What did you say your name was?”
“It’s Stephen. I’m pulling in right now. I-oh shit!” Static crackled through the ragged yell. “Dad get out of there! The building’s on-”
Arthur slapped the phone down on the counter. “I told you not to say that.” Just speaking hurt his throat. A tiny voice still shouted indistinctly from the phone.
Arthur started to leave when a fresh fit of coughing overtook him. He grabbed a dish towel to press over his mouth, muffling the heaves. His chest burned and breath came only with a struggle.
He really needed some air. But Maddie would be home soon. Why not wait? A walk with her would be much better than one alone. He shuffled back to the couch. The smell was becoming unbearable. His lungs didn’t want to fill.
He tried to distract himself with thoughts of dinner. Italian sounded good. They could go to that little place by the library with the great linguine. Maddie would love it.
More coughs doubled him over and left a dull iron taste in the back of his mouth. This was becoming intolerable. An idea hit him. Why not just stroll around the building entrance, meet Maddie when she pulled in? That would be perfect. The heck with that man on the phone saying he had to stay put. Arthur didn’t need anyone’s permission. He went to find his coat.