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Bingo in Gehenna

      The two knights dragged their naked swords behind them in the dirt as they approached the sprawling, one-level, cement-block building. Sickly, untended shrubs grew along the outside of the structure. No entrance was immediately apparent.

     “No windows either,” said Sir Clarence, the younger of the two knights. His hair was bleached an unintentional yellow and pulled back into an oily ponytail under his homemade helmet.

     “No,” agreed Sir Franklin. “No windows. They thought of everything. You’ll see.” Sir Franklin, burly and weathered, had lost his glasses in a haystack he and Sir Clarence had slept in the previous night, and he’d spent every waking moment since squinting at the world while a headache put down roots in his skull. This mission had been his idea, a chance for the two knights to build some renown with a noble quest. If they succeeded and word spread, they could be commissioned for more profitable quests. But even if their success didn’t lead to higher profile work, at least they’d be leaving the world a less miserable place. At least they’d be acting knightly.

     The knights trudged around the irregular perimeter of the building. The dull points of their blades left two parallel lines in the dirt behind them.

     “Look,” said Sir Clarence. “There’s the front entrance.” He pointed his sword at a tinted glass door with a sign over it that read “Gehenna Retirement Community” in big, final letters.

     Sir Franklin squinted at the entrance and said, “Yeah, this looks right. Are you ready?” He hefted his sword and executed a few stiff practice thrusts.

     “Sure,” said Sir Clarence, and he made an awful noise in his throat and spat on the ground.

      The knights propped their swords over their shoulders, adjusted their helmets, and walked through the scraggly weeds to the door.

     “Remember,” said Sir Franklin. “Don’t get separated. From what I can tell from the research I did while planning this quest, it is a weird, confusing maze in there, and not just for old folks. All the halls look the same, that’s what I hear.”

     “Got it,” said Sir Clarence. He opened the door and stepped into the harsh light of the Gehenna Retirement Community front lobby. Sir Franklin followed him into the dense, humid atmosphere. In the middle of the lobby, an enormous terrarium rested on a table. The terrarium was ten feet long, four feet deep, and filled almost to the brim with a black, creeping, squirming mass of insects. Beetles, roaches, spiders, worms, and more, all struggling and fighting and feeding on each other. Beyond the terrarium, the receptionist, a plain, irritable woman in a sea-green dress, sat behind a desk on which a radio played the sound of tiny waves crashing on an impossibly distant beach. When the knights came in, the receptionist looked up and said, “Can I help you?”

     Sir Clarence glanced at Sir Franklin. “Don’t answer,” said Sir Franklin. “She can’t be reasoned with.” Sir Clarence nodded once, walked around the terrarium, and ran his sword through the woman’s chest. She died with a deep sigh. When Sir Clarence pulled his sword out of the receptionist’s chest, her body toppled sideways off of the padded desk chair she’d been sitting on.

     “That’s their security?” asked Sir Clarence. “Really?”

     “It’s supposed to not make sense,” said Sir Franklin. “Turn off the radio.”

     Sir Clarence swatted the radio with his sword and it crashed to the floor in pieces.

     “Ok,” said Sir Franklin. “That works too.” Then he held one finger up to his dry lips. “Shh,” he said. “Do you hear Him?”

     Sir Clarence stood with his head cocked to one side. “I don’t know if I actually hear Him,” he said. “Or if I’m just imagining His voice.”

Sir Franklin squinted down each of the cream-colored hallways that led in opposite directions from the lobby. Then he said. “This way. Let’s go to the right.” But he didn’t sound entirely sure.

     As they entered the hallway, Sir Clarence stooped to peer at an informational sign bolted to the wall. “I can barely read it,” he said. “The letters are so tiny!”

     “Don’t bother,” said Sir Franklin. “It’s all lies.”

     The knights made their way down the hall without encountering a single resident, member of the Gehenna staff, or even a door. They took a left, and then a right, and then a left, and then either one or the other, and as they walked, the clacking of their grubby boots on the tile floor became more and more muffled as the air grew thicker and more oppressive. “I can barely breathe,” said Sir Clarence.

     “Imagine if you were old,” said Sir Franklin. The throb in his head dug deeper. He grabbed Sir Clarence’s arm. “Hold up for a second.” The knights stopped. They tried to breathe quietly. Sir Franklin gave Sir Clarence a grim smile. “Hear Him now?”

“I do,” said Sir Clarence. “But I can’t tell what He’s saying.”

“Letters and numbers,” said Sir Franklin. “He’s

calling out letters and numbers.”

The knights walked through the featureless corridors for another ten minutes before they rounded a corner just like all the others and found themselves in a hallway lined with doors, many of which were standing open. The groans and curses and restless snoring of the elderly residents crept out of the doors and suffocated in the hallway.

     The knights entered the first open door on their right and found a cold, dismal room, empty except for two futons set four feet apart. The futon furthest from the doorway was empty, but on the near one lay a withered old man with pink spots on his bald head.  “Where’s his bed?” asked Sir Clarence.

     “He’s on it,” said Sir Franklin with a shudder. “Look at him. He’s actually learned to sleep on it, somehow. Poor old soul.” A croak came from somewhere within the room. Sir Franklin looked between the two futons, saw nothing, and then looked on the other side of the unoccupied futon and discovered another old man, thin and frail like the first, lying on the floor. “I tripped on this wire,” said the old man pointing to a brown electrical cord running from a wall outlet and into a closet. “Days ago.” Sir Clarence opened the closet door and discovered that the other end of the cord was also plugged into a wall outlet. “This is sick,” he said.

     Sir Franklin knelt next to the fallen old man and said, “Sir, can you tell us how to get to the Bingo Hall?”

     The old man closed his eyes and shuddered. “You don’t want to go there,” he said. “It’s too terrible.” He began to cry. “You can’t win! He calls all day and all night and no one gets a Bingo! It’s too terrible…”

     “Can we help you back onto your futon?” asked Sir Clarence.

     “Just leave me down here,” said the old man. “I’ve discovered I actually prefer it.”

     In the next room down the hall, an old woman sat in a wicker chair and watched what seemed to be a cruel parody of the nice variety shows of a bygone era. When Sir Franklin and Sir Clarence came into her room, she looked up at them with vacant eyes. “Please kill me,” she said. The old woman pointed at Sir Clarence and said, “I want him to be the one who kills me. He’s very handsome.”

     Sir Clarence blushed and said, “Ma’am, we’re not here to kill you old people. We’re here to slay the Caller. Can you give us directions to the Bingo Hall?”

     The old woman’s face fell, like the inevitable collapse of a tent. “I used to go there,” she said. “For months, I went. Maybe years. I thought it gave me hope. But then I realized that there wasn’t any hope in the Bingo Hall. It was false hope. Just another way to torment us.” The old woman paused for a long moment and then said, “There are no directions to the Bingo Hall. Just follow the Caller’s voice.”

     Sir Clarence and Sir Franklin exchanged a purposeful look and turned to leave.

 “Before you go,” said the old woman. “I want to tell you something. I met Marilyn Monroe when I was young! You believe me, don’t you? The nurses don’t believe me! They just nod and say, ‘I’m sure you believe you met Marilyn Monroe.’ And then they make exaggerated gagging noises while they bathe me.”

     “We believe you,” said Sir Clarence. “Well, I do. Do you, Sir Franklin?”

     “I think it sounds plausible,” said Sir Franklin.

     The old woman didn’t smile, but a fraction of the misery seemed to ease from her face. She turned back to the television and stared through it as the knights quietly left her room.  

     The knights walked deeper into the residential hallways of Gehenna, assaulted on all sides by low moans and hacking coughs and senile muttering. As they went further, they came across residents who were out of their rooms, wandering the halls lost and confused, leaning on rusty walkers or attempting to navigate wheelchairs that veered always to the left. And all the while, the dry, flat voice of the Caller grew louder and more distinct. “B-12. I-18. O-62. B-8.”

     A section of the wall swung open in front of the knights, and a staff member, the first they had seen, came out buttoning his pants. He was wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt that said “Gehenna” on the breast pocket. When he saw the knights, he froze, grew visibly angry, and was about to say something when Sir Franklin buried his sword in the staff member’s neck, coming just short of severing his head in one swipe. It was a quicker death than he deserved. Sir Clarence looked into the open section of wall and said, “It’s a bathroom! I would have never known it was here!”

     Sir Franklin wiped his blade on the dead staff member’s jeans. “They don’t want the residents to be able to find them. Not even in emergencies.”

     The Knights walked on. Sweat ran down their faces and their chests heaved. It felt like there was something in their throats, but they couldn’t swallow the feeling away. Their ears kept popping. The fluorescent light picked at their eyes. They passed a lounge where four sorrowful residents were watching a phony news report about how all the beautiful, old movie theaters in the country were being smashed with wrecking balls for no good reason. The Caller’s voice marched on, louder than ever now, “N-33. N-38. G-49. B-14.”

     The Knights, their hearts like swollen fruits, followed a curve in the hallway, and arrived, suddenly, finally, at a wide doorway with a cheaply printed banner over it that said “Bingo Hall” in gray, pixilated letters. The double doors were propped open with overflowing trashcans, and from within the room came the rustle of paper, the creaking of chairs, the click of plastic tokens, and over all, the merciless drone of the Caller. “I-23. G-73.”

     Sir Franklin and Sir Clarence stepped into the Bingo Hall. There were thirty folding tables arranged in rows on the tile floor with four elderly residents sitting at each one, two to a side. At the far end of the room, the Caller sat facing the Bingo players at a table of his own. He was long and lean with a creased, pointed face. His white hair, parted crookedly down the middle, flowed down over his shoulders. He had only two fingers on each hand and he reached into a black metal box on the table in front of him and plucked out colored plastic chips one after another, looking at them just long enough to read the numbers before setting them down in lines on the table in front of him. There was a cardboard box on the floor next to his chair. There was no microphone. The Caller didn’t need one. His unamplified voice filled the room, moved up and down the hallways, traveled right through closed doors and the very walls.

The residents sat hunched over their Bingo cards, their marker tokens piled next to their gnarled hands. Some of them had none of their numbers marked at all, some of them seemed to be very close to winning, but none of them seemed to expect a Bingo. Their presence in the Bingo Hall was the only outward sign that some small seeds of hope still lay within them. Most of them didn’t bother to glance up as Sir Franklin and Sir Clarence strode past them toward the Caller, brandishing their weapons.

     The Caller saw them coming, but he didn’t rise from his seat. “N-39,” said the Caller, his tone unaffected. “G-55.”

     Sir Franklin walked around behind the Caller’s table and held the blade of his sword against the back of the Caller’s neck. Sir Clarence stood nearby, ready to reinforce Sir Franklin as needed. The residents stared down at their cards, the futile game claiming every last bit of their faltering ability to concentrate, to stay in the present.

     “This is the end,” said Sir Franklin.

     “O-71,” said the Caller.

     “By ‘the end,’ I mean the end of your cruelty,” said Sir Franklin. “The end of your game. The end of Bingo. And of your life too, obviously.” He gripped the hilt of his sword with both hands and raised it above his head.

     “B-11,” said the Caller, his face calm, his eyes half closed, his deformed hands dipping in and out of the black box. “I-20”

     “Bingo,” said a woman from one of the front tables.

     The Caller nodded and said, “Please bring your card forward ma’am.”

Sir Franklin lowered his sword and said, “What?”

     The old woman, wearing a faded yellow dress that hung askew on her crooked body, shuffled up to the Caller’s table, balancing her card in her hands so that the tokens wouldn’t slide off. She set it down on the table in front of the Caller and rotated it towards him. The Caller studied it for a moment, glancing back over the called chips lined up on the table in front of him, and then said, “We have a winner.” He reached down into the cardboard box on the floor and pulled out a letter opener with a mountain goat engraved on it. The old woman accepted her prize, whispered, “It’s a miracle,” and shuffled back to her seat as the other residents murmured among themselves at their tables and watched the winner with reverent awe on their wrinkled faces.

     Sir Franklin ground his teeth. “One winner can’t save you. I don’t do last second conversions.” The Caller didn’t look up. He began dropping the called chips back into the black box. Sir Franklin raised his sword again, but Sir Clarence put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Hold on. We can’t kill him. Check this out.” Sir Franklin stayed his sword and looked to the entrance at the back of the room, his mouth falling open in amazement. He let his sword arm fall to his side, the tip of his blade clanking against the floor.

Residents were pouring, albeit very slowly, into the Bingo Hall. On foot, in wheelchairs, clinging to walkers, they came. Some of them dressed only in their threadbare hospital gowns, some of them leaning on the shoulders of strangers who were slightly steadier on their feet. They came, and those that could speak all muttered the same phrase, the phrase they had heard echoing in the halls, in their rooms, in their shells, in their cloudy heads: “We have a winner.”


Discussion Questions

  • Would you be surprised to learn that when I originally conceived of the idea for this story, it was Bats in an Aviary instead of Insects in a Terrarium?

  • Why do the knights and the residents consider the Caller to be the most insidious aspect of life in Gehenna?

  • Do you think this is a fair portrayal of all nursing homes?

  • Is the residents’ excitement over an engraved letter opener justified?

  • Do you think “Gehenna” means something? Do you know how to find out?