No one ever tells you how bored you’re going to be when you retire, or how lonely you’re going to be if you’re not married at the time. You hear stories about people spending their golden years travelling around the world and going on adventures. About kicking back and enjoying life to the fullest, because you were too busy working until now.
But no one tells you about the terrible food, the harsh rules, the demeaning orderlies, or just being plain disregarded by your own children. No, they don’t tell you about how they’re just going to stow you away like an heirloom quilt: having spent years keeping them warm and comfortable, only to get stuffed in a dark place with the rest of the useless junk to be forgotten.
I ended up in an old-folks home, and not one of those fancy resort style ones that host weekly mixers. No, I ended up in Silver River: a rundown ore processing plant that had been repurposed into a bleak retirement center, sporting all the drab charm of a federal penitentiary; it had gotten its name from being built near an old silver mine that, when the town was founded, produced quite the haul. The brick walls were permanently grayed by a combination of faded paint and collected dust. The main floor where the machines were once located had been turned into the ‘leisure’ area, with the only leisurely thing it had being a finicky box TV that was probably as old as me. It was one of the models that had that two-prong antennae that required constant adjustment, though I only ever saw the TV catch one channel-public access.
The individual rooms were lined along the scaffolding that surrounded and overlooked the production floor, or ‘leisure’ area. This factory had dozens of small rooms for various chemical treatments of the raw silver that were turned into living quarters for both couples and singles. Despite the dreary accommodations, the worst thing by far about Silver River is how they lock all our doors at night. No one goes in, no one goes out. The administration says it’s to keep those of us with dementia from wandering around and getting hurt, but I wasn’t buying. They also kept the rooms insanely frigid. I complained multiple times about the temperature, but I was just given more blankets and told it was better for blood flow, for whatever sense that makes. I eventually had to stuff one of the coarse linens into the vent to help stifle the cold.
What was formerly the foreman’s office was one of two rooms that didn’t have an elderly occupant. Its windows were blacked out and the door was electrically bolted. They said it led to the postmortem prep area for residents that pass away on site. The other unoccupied room was on the factory floor, electrically bolted and festooned several large fluorescent ‘HAZARD’ signs. This one was apparently a storage space for all the factory’s toxic materials that had yet to be disposed of, and that we could easily get sick from exposure. I’ve never seen anyone go in or out, but I did know that building a retirement center without fully removing those hazardous materials was a huge red flag.
I first noticed the weird noises at night about a month into my stay. It was around 2am on the last Thursday of the month, when a sort of rhythmic clicking woke me up from outside my door. The doors were windowless, so I couldn’t look; I just strained my ears as much as I could (my hearing was still pretty astute). It sounded like something tapping on the scaffolding, too light to be footsteps. I slowly moved closer and realized it was getting further away. Then it suddenly stopped, and I swear I heard one of the others resident’s door open. I spent the next morning asking around if anyone else had heard anything strange, but most of the other residents were fast asleep by 7pm. An orderly told me it was likely one of them patrolling the walkways or some kind of electrical/plumbing noise that rattled through the old walls.
It wasn’t until the second time I heard it, one month later, that I also realized something weird: one of the other residents would pass away that same night. When we were allowed out of our rooms the next morning, we saw the staff wheeling a stretcher into the morgue room, a white sheet carefully draped over it. I didn’t know the person, and heart failure was common enough among us old crones, but it was still peculiar to me. The third month was the same: one night of weird clicks and one more covered stretcher the next morning. I eventually mentioned this to the house psychiatrist, who told me I shouldn’t be up that late, citing sleep deprivation as the likely cause for my paranoia. He asked me what about my room initially made me uncomfortable, before the sounds. When I told him about the temperature and that I had blocked the vent, he scolded that doing such things would only fuel my anxiety in a place I was supposed to feel at ease. He sent me back to my room with an orderly who removed the blanket from the vent, vowing to have the temperature adjusted so I wouldn’t have to do that. He followed through on his promise but not before installing a metal grate over the vent to prevent further tampering on my part. This struck me as odd. I understood the discouraging of clogging the airflow system, but was installing a countermeasure necessary?
My next few weeks of sleep went uninterrupted, which I was grateful for, and I had just begun to forget about the weird noises-until the fourth month. I wasn’t awake to hear the strange sounds the night before, but the covered stretcher was being transported from a room almost exactly one month after the last death. The community coordinator cited cancer this time, but I had previously spoken with the woman that lived in that room; she NEVER mentioned having cancer.
I decided that I was going to stay up late the next final Thursday of the month, in hopes of further investigating whatever this was. I had napped most of the whole day and snuck away instant coffee packs from the cafeteria. When night came, I brewed up the strongest cup I had ever made and stared at the clock: 8:00pm; I was asleep by 8:15pm.
I didn’t understand how I fell asleep so fast. I mean, I was old and all, but it felt closer to blacking out than nodding off, and that’s when it hit me: It was the vent!
They must be pumping some chemical through the vents to keep us asleep!
The next morning was a struggle to mask my mounting panic and suspicion. I knew I couldn’t tell ANY of the employees, and I didn’t think the other residents would believe me. All I could do was fly under the radar and learn more about what was really going on in Silver River. I decided that listening through my door wasn’t going to cut it; I had to somehow figure out how to get out of my room at night. I will say that, for all its dreary lack of atmosphere, Silver River had an amazing craft shop. A few days of putting my limited welding experience to work, and I had fashioned the perfect little blocking plate to attach to my door and obstruct the locking bolt. I just prayed the doors didn’t have sensors. The orderlies checked off their resident roster as we filed into our rooms. I managed the slap the metal attachment I fastened over the lock without being noticed and sat on my bed. The chastising buzz of the lock engagement clamored for its usual several seconds before falling quit. I listened as the staff’s footsteps receded down the end of the scaffolding; I guess the locks didn’t have sensors after all.
I waited an hour or so before grabbing my bag and quietly popping my door open, wincing that I might set off some motion detector, which I didn’t. I laughed and reminded myself that I’m at Silver River: a hand-me-down retirement center build in a defunct mineral factory, and not some secured government facility. Seeing the walkways for the first time at night was odd and nearly pitch black. I listened for 10 minutes or so and didn’t hear a single thing, no employee chatter or patrolling footsteps. It was terrifyingly silent. I fished the little flashlight from my bag and partially muzzled it with my fingers before flicking it on. I prowled around the overlook, periodically shining the light down into the darkened leisure area, soon concluding that no staff were present.
I found a nice little alcove behind the janitor’s floor-waxer and set up camp. It wasn’t until after about 30 minutes of watching that I realized the toxic storage room was unchained, and its doors were wide open. This is the first time I had ever seen those doors open and wondered why in the middle of the night of all times. I wrestled with the thought of staying where I was and observing, but curiosity got the best of me. I crept across the leisure area and peered into the gloom of the restricted area. The darkness was crushing, and I immediately wafted the musty scent of mildew and wet dirt. The beam from my flashlight illuminated only a portion of the room at a time, and not very far in. I scanned it around as I crossed the threshold. The tile ended at the leisure area and the ground in the room was composed of creaky old wooden panels. The walls and ceiling were composed of the same aged pallets and beams that looked as though they might cave in at any second. The terrible smell became stronger and transitioned from smelling like ancient earth to reeking of decay. About twenty steps in and the wooden panels were replaced with dirt and jagged rock formations; that’s when I realized it was a mine shaft. There was an actual mineshaft directly connected to the damn building! I guess it made sense, given what it was before becoming the wonderful Silver River retirement community. But why were the doors open at night?
I nearly bit off my tongue as a ghastly amalgam of shrieks echoed from deeper down. Think of a screaming baby mixed with the battle-cry of an orc and the screeching of a woman being murdered. Yea now layer them a dozen times over. I hightailed back up the way I came and hit the stairs, stopping solely because I realized the door to my room was somehow wide open. I worked my head around to glean if someone was in there but was promptly distracted by scraping footsteps coming from within the ajar mineshaft doors. Quickly deducing my climb up the stairs would likely alert whatever it was that was obviously ascending towards here, I opted to hide in my original and much closer lookout spot behind the floor-waxer.
I snuffed out my flashlight and covered my mouth. I couldn’t see much more than an outline of the thing that emerged from the void across from me but noticed it was low to the ground. The cadence to which its nails (or whatever it had) clicked on the tile floor told me it was quadrupedal. It undulated across the room with cacophonous wheezing breaths, like lewd, hissing whispers, before taking to the stairs. The familiar tapping on the scaffolding nicked at my nerves as I steadily watched it slink into my room. Less than a few seconds passed before it released the same gut-wrenching mixture or screams that it had from whatever earthen tomb it called home, only much louder and angrier. The sudden blare of sirens accompanied by dizzying red strobe lights lit up the room like the fourth of July. A loud buzzer rang out as the doors to the employee quarters flew open and about a dozen armed men (had to be paramilitary) flooded onto the catwalk with their weapons trained on my room. The following chaos was a barely registerable maelstrom of gunfire, guttural roars, what I now regrettably recognize as tearing skin, and screaming. Lots and lots of screaming.
It was over in seconds.
I quietly waited for a few minutes after the battle, which ended with the enraged creature tearing back down into the mineshaft, its otherworldly wails eventually fading into the darkness. I cautiously popped out from my nook and listened; there was cascading racket of dripping coming from the scaffolding. I bolted towards the receiving office and through the front doors, into the night. I barely got five minutes up the road when I heard the helicopters, a damn fleet of them. I ducked into the bushes just before a convoy of blacked out SUV’s barreled down the road towards Silver River.
My hike through the woods wasn’t too bad, and my grandson picked me up at a gas station a few miles from the retirement community. I told him I got kicked out of Silver River for punching an orderly, a story he easily accepted as true. It was about an hour after I fled that he finally got there. I flicked on the radio to his car as we headed towards his house, and it was all over the news:
Silver River retirement community had burned down; no survivors.
My grandson became frantically grateful that I had a history of losing my temper, citing that I might be the only resident of Silver River to survive. I told him to never mention Silver River or my having stayed there ever again.