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Serenity Gardens (A Short Story)

Last updated on July 5, 2024

I’m working on new chapters of The Signal that will be coming out over the next couple of weeks. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy this short story I recently finished.

The song I’ll Follow You Into The Dark by the band Death Cab for Cutie was playing. It had come out when they were teenagers. It was their song. This was the last time they’d hear it together, if she was even really hearing it. He believed that she was, or hoped it at least. Melanie Stephenson was asleep, or unconscious really. Wes Stephenson—her husband of 39 years—knew that it was unconsciousness. Sleep was something you woke up from, and he knew that she would not wake up again. 

As he sat next to her in her hospital bed in the family room of their home, listening to that song that they had danced to nearly forty years ago at their wedding, his life with her flashed in front of his tired, tear-dimmed eyes. Their two children born, school-aged, Ben joining the Air Force like his father, Jess graduating college. 

And then the war. Not the one Wes had fought in as a young man. A different war. A war that left the world and their own life much worse than it was before. It was the war that Ben would not come back from, his cargo plane shot down 5,000 miles from home. The grieving he had done for his son felt so similar and yet so different from the way he felt as he watched the love of his life slip away. This grief began months and months before she was gone. 

It’s cancer. It was in that exact moment the grieving began. The love of his life had just heard how her life would end. He recalled the callous way the doctor said it. At least it felt that way to him. Surrounded by the thin, uncaring beige walls of the strip mall medical office, his own walls began to fall in around him. 

The sound of his grandchildren laughing in the next room brought him back to his sense of the present. Their mother—his daughter—was sat across from him in the bed, her red, tired eyes locked on her own mother. The song had ended, another on a playlist of music from their wedding had started, and Melanie was taking her last breaths, like she had so many nights before. 

And then, suddenly, he was awake, laying in a strange bed. It only felt faintly familiar, like he’d been there before, but couldn’t remember when. He felt unable to focus on the present. His thoughts raced with questions but he couldn’t pinpoint the answers. They seemed just out of reach. 

Where am I? A bed. Who’s bed? Is this my bed? Why do my knees hurt so much? They didn’t feel like this before. At least I don’t think they did. Why can’t I see?

And then the first clear answer he could grasp came to the front of his mind. Glasses. He reached over to find them on the bedside table and hurriedly put them on. 

Finally there was clarity. He could see the room around him with the light coming in through the window on the wall to his right and shining from low sconces at the base of the wall dimly on the floor around this bed. 

The room felt familiar and foreign at the same time. The air was musty and stale, the walls were a deep forest green, and the carpet was a dark brown and red. It wasn’t the room where he had just been in his sleep, the room he could last clearly remember. 

Even his body felt wrong. His skin was dry and thinner than he remembered whenever he had fallen asleep. His arms had a little less muscle than he thought and as he turned on the side of the bed to put his feet on the floor and stand up, his legs didn’t feel quite as strong as they were supposed to. 

But when the hell was before, exactly? He suddenly realized that he couldn’t remember when he had fallen asleep, and then he saw the mirror. 

It was a smart mirror that he could now remember hanging in his home. He’d built it with Ben as a technology fair project when Ben was in 11th grade. It was a one way glass pane with an old LCD screen behind it that would shine through onto the reflective surface. It would show the date, the weather, and whatever other useful information you programmed it to.

August 7th, 2067
117 Degrees Fahrenheit – Cloudy

The date has to be wrong. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not that. Of course my name is Wes! I know my own goddamn name!

As he looked past the text on the screen and his eyes focused for the first time on the man staring back at him, his anger and confusion gave way to shock. The man was him, but older than he’d ever been that he could remember. 

His hair was thinner and white where it had been thick and graying black. His face was slimmer and his lips cracked. His face was covered with a thick white stubble that he had always shaved clean before bed. It couldn’t have grown that much overnight. 

I am older. Much older. He looked around the room for some clue, some reason why this had happened. He surveyed the dozens of frames along the walls. There were pictures of him with Jess and his grandkids, older than he could remember them being. 

There were pictures he could remember clearly, his wedding pictures with Melanie, kissing in front of the church after just leaving the ceremony. He could remember that moment vividly. It was just like it was yesterday to him. He lived in that memory for a moment, but he knew she was gone. 

Then he came to the box. It stuck out from the wall more than the other frames. He couldn’t remember what it was until he looked inside and it was as clear a memory as the wedding picture. Only, where that one had brought him some feeling of happiness, this one brought him deep, empty sorrow. 

It was a shadowbox. Inside were pictures of Ben around a folded American flag. There was a picture of him in his Air Force dress blues at basic training graduation. Another of him in his flight suit in front of the plane that he died in. And there was a picture of him as young boy wearing the fatigue hat his father had worn. 

Tears welled up in Wes’s eyes as he staggered backwards and sat back down on the edge of the bed. That shadowbox was in my office at the house. How did it get here? Where the hell is here, anyway? 

He looked at the door. It was on the wall opposite the window. He’d noticed it before but never thought to go to it. Somehow he’d known that he had to make sense of this room first. The door itself had no window into whatever was outside, but it had what looked like a small screen on it. 

He stood back up and took a moment to steady himself. As he approached the door, the screen brightened and a face that seemed much more familiar appeared on it. 

That’s… me. That’s my kitchen!

“Hello, Wesley. It’s… well it’s you. Just listen to what I have to say and then the door will unlock, okay?” the version of himself in the video began. This Wes was at least a little younger, his hair not quite as white, his face clean shaven. 

“First of all, you are safe. This is a video you recorded in May of 2065. I know none of this makes sense but I’m going to explain.” The video cut briefly as young Wes’s voice had seemed to break in response to whatever he was about to say. 

“Look at the mirror. That is what day it is. In the time between the day you see and the day I recorded this, you’ve been living at Serenity Gardens. It’s an assisted living community…” Younger Wes’s voice broke again, but this time there was no cut in the video, just a second of silence before he continued. 

“In July of 2065 you were diagnosed with dementia. You had noticed you were struggling to remember things that you hadn’t before. Your daughter Jess and her husband Nick started to notice too. You all agreed that the right thing for you to do was go to a place to live that would help you be as independent as possible for as long as possible.

“Serenity Gardens is a good place. The VA is paying for it, so don’t worry about that. Doctor…” Younger Wes paused again, this time the video cutting again before he continued. “Doctor Ballard said that there will be good days, where you’ll remember nearly everything, and then days that you’ll not remember much. He said you’ll be confused and angry, and that’s okay.”

“Anyway, the nurses and aides are there to help you, and they’re good people. Trust them and treat them with respect. And there’s a whole community out there for you to live in and spend time with other people. It’s pretty nice, honestly. I just visited the first time before recording this video and…”

This time the video cut to black. A second went by and then the face of his daughter Jessica appeared in front of him. He couldn’t recognize where she had been when she made this video but it looked like a hotel room. 

“Hi dad. I love you. You said you’d never forget who I am, but it’s okay if you do sometimes. I’m your daughter Jessica.” 

“Of course I’ll never forget you, sweetheart,” he whispered quietly as her face spoke on the screen. Her voice was pained. Something was wrong, and he would have done anything in the world to fix it. 

“…so we’re going to be evacuating to a safe zone,” Jess continued. 

Wes realized with frustration that he hadn’t heard the last ten seconds of what she had said. His mind had gone to a happier memory of her as a young woman playing in her first college soccer game. He had been so proud of her. 

“They told us the military and FEMA would be able to keep you safe there, so do whatever the staff tells you to do okay? As soon as it’s safe to come back I’ll be there. I love you. I’m so sorry we couldn’t come get you before we had to leave.” She stared at the camera for a few seconds after the last sentence. 

“Jess, we have to go now,” another voice from off camera admonished her. She looked away. The screen went black. The door unlocked. 

Wes looked down to see that there was a wooden board propped up against the door handle, jamming it shut from the inside. He must have been the one to put it there. He couldn’t understand why, but he knew now that he couldn’t trust his understanding of anything. 

He pulled the board away and opened the door. A wave of musty, hot air flooded through the door from the other side as he stepped through. He was now standing in an alcove with three other doors on the outside of a building, staring across a carpeted street to another building with a red brick and gray cement block facade. 

No, this isn’t right. These aren’t real buildings. It’s one big building. This is just a big hallway.

Across the hallway that had been made to look like a street, a sign said “Restaurant” with an arrow pointing left and “Serenity Gardens Promenade” with an arrow pointing right. He suddenly became very aware of the purpose of this sort of place, almost clearly recalling the first time he’d been there.

This was a place for people like him, people with dementia. It was built to be a comforting reminder of their life of independence on the outside world. It had “restaurants” that were all dining rooms for one central kitchen, shops where you could “buy” the things you needed. And in the center was a big, open space where you could play games with everyone else. 

It was all meant to keep a person calm and make them feel safe as their mind slowly faltered to the point of complete and total delirium. It was meant to be safe, with nurses and aides there to make sure that everyone was taken care of. Of course—most importantly—there was no way to get out, or even real windows to see the outside world.

Something’s wrong. Where are all the people?

This was very wrong. Wes looked around to the other four doors in the alcove where his room was located. Each had an X with markings in the open spaces spray-painted on the doors. He closed his own door and inspected it. 

He’d first seen them on doors of homes in New Orleans when he was a child and a hurricane had decimated the city. He’d learned what they meant when he was in the military. They were a way for search and rescue teams to mark what they found after a disaster of some kind. 

August 4th, 2067. 2nd Battalion, 151st Infantry. No bodies, dead or alive. No entry was able to be made.

None of this made any sense to him. He couldn’t believe that something so bad had happened that the National Guard would be searching for survivors, if that was what had happened. He couldn’t understand why he would have barricaded himself inside his room either. 

A door across the alcove had the letters “DB” at the bottom of the X. Whoever lived there—whenever the search and rescue team came through—they were found dead. Flies buzzed around the bottom of the door. 

“HELLO!?”Wes screamed out at the top of his lungs, his words only being met with an echo. 

He shuffled out into the hallway pretending to be a road, it’s “sidewalks” made of thick, corrugated rubber, meant to be a much more forgiving surface than pavement for a demented old person to fall onto. Someone like me, he thought. 

In the large common area to his right he could see lights and equipment that looked like it didn’t belong in an area with fake grass that had been made to look like a park, outside of a facade with a sign that read “bookstore.” He walked carefully toward the area. There wasn’t any sense in trying to run, and he wasn’t sure that he could anyway.

Folding desks and cots had been set up in this common area, surrounded by boxes reading “USAMRIID.” There were no signs of people, as if whoever had set this all up had left unexpectedly. Computers and some kind of medical or laboratory equipment were left on the tables, none of them powered or working as far as he could tell. 

There has to be something here that can tell me what is happening. He looked around the tables for notebooks or paperwork that might give him some kind of clues and found nothing that he could make any sense of. 

Maybe there’s something in the bookstore, he thought. In the back of his mind, he knew it wasn’t really a bookstore, but something about this fake bookstore felt important to him, as if he’d been in there before, maybe since this all had happened. 

The lights were off inside as he stepped through the door, but just enough sunlight beamed through the skylights in the ceiling. Shelves of books—none of which were higher than someone with mobility issues might be able to reach—lined the walls and formed islands throughout. Leather chairs were situated throughout for anyone to sit and read. He felt as though he’d sat in them many times before. 

A brighter, harsher light was shining through a sliver in the shelves on the farthest wall. As he approached it, he realized that it was a door that had been disguised to blend into the wall, probably so that staff could come in and out of the residents’ area without coming through an obvious exit to the outside world. 

He pulled at the side of the book case and the door swung open into a cold beige-walled room with bright linoleum floors and a drop ceiling lit with harsh white lighting. It seemed like this area—whatever it was—had power that the rest of the place did not. It was definitely not somewhere he was supposed to be, and even now it wasn’t a place that he felt comfortable entering. 

His wrist buzzed. He looked down to see a bracelet that he had somehow not noticed before. It was thin and gray and had a single orange button on it’s side. 

“Please don’t go any further. The care team has been alerted and are on their way to help,” a disembodied voice came from some hidden speaker overhead. 

A chill ran down his spine as he tried to pull the bracelet off. He didn’t know why, but he felt very strongly that he did not want to be found by whoever was alerted to his leaving the residents’ area. The bracelet wasn’t coming off, no matter how hard he pulled, but after a few seconds it stopped buzzing. 

He surveyed this new forbidden room more closely. It appeared to be some kind of break room for the staff. There was a water machine, a counter with various snack food wrappers and several plates of food that had long-since gone rancid. At the far end was a door that had been propped open. The sign above it read “Nurse’s Workroom.”

Inside he found a row of desks and computers, med carts, and a dry erase board on the wall that started give him some clue as to what had happen, even if he ended up with more questions after reading it.

8/1 – PER ADMIN We are evacuating if we lose grid power. Anyone who was not able to be released to their family will be left behind. NO EXCEPTIONS. Staff who want to stay to take care of them will not be protected. THINK OF YOUR FAMILY! WHO IS MORE IMPORTANT TO YOU? — John

8/2 – We’re leaving. Note for anyone left behind: the national guard will be here in a couple of days. Good luck I guess. – Emily

Something happened that made them all have to leave. Did no one really stay behind to help us? Reading it and considering what it meant angered Wes. He wondered why his daughter hadn’t come for him. He considered the dates on the board and realized that he’d already lost track of what day it was. He wished he could remember what the mirror had said, and now he didn’t even know if he remembered how to return to his room. 

And what is that horrible smell? He realized he had been smelling it for at least a few minutes, or maybe an hour. His sense of time was distorted to the point of chaos. 

The door on the other side of the nurses’ room was cracked slightly, and it was the only way forward that Wes could see. As he exited this room into another long hallway, he wondered if he could ever really understand what was happening around him, to this place where he had woken up. Had he already discovered the answers and forgotten them? Could he even remember the pieces of the puzzle long enough to put them together?

The smell was getting worse as he neared the end of the hallway. It emptied onto a mezzanine over a much larger room. It seemed like this one had been some kind of cafeteria or dining hall for the staff. Now, looking down at the floor below him, he understood where the smell had come from. 

Dozens of white and black body bags, maybe hundreds—he struggled to be able to count them—lined the floor, surrounded by a cloud of corpse flies. The sight of it caused him to double over and vomit on the floor. Who were these people? The staff? Old people like me?

A bank of windows lined one of the walls, frustratingly too high for him to climb through. In that moment his only thought was to escape this hell. 

He noticed that something wasn’t right outside. It was light outside but the sky was a dark orange—not like a sunrise or sunset, but more like the world around him was on fire. He’d seen it when areas of the world were burning with wildfires, but never near his home. He didn’t even know if he was near his home at all in this place. 

He moved as quickly as he could across the mezzanine to the next hallway, a sign above it marking it as the administrative offices. At the far end of the hall, a door with the word “FACILITY DIRECTOR” and above it, an exit sign. He even thought he heard a human voice from beyond the door. He increased his pace to as close of a thing to a run as he could manage, swinging the door open into the offices. 

He turned from inside the office lobby where the director’s assistant appeared to have worked. Peering through the door of the largest office, he saw the body of a man slumped over his desk, a massive hole shattered through the back of his head. He noticed a handgun laying on the ground next to him. His computer was open and the voice that he heard was coming from its speakers.

“This is Matthew Feldstein with NPR News in Washington. I’ll keep putting out updates as long as I can. I’ve received a few messages from survivors out there asking if I’m okay. I have enough food and water for a few days, and as long as I have any news to broadcast, I will.

“The death toll estimate according to the last update from the CDC before we lost our connection was just over 300 million in the US, and I believe based on our projections that in the last five days, over 90% of the world’s population…” the reporter’s already-strained voice broke as he tried to say aloud what he was reading.

“Over 90% might be gone. I can’t imagine a way in which we will recover from this. I believe this might be our end. I will update this feed whenever I can, but until then, I’m so sorry that I can’t do any more to help,” he paused again before signing off, “Matthew Feldstein, NPR news.”

Wes turned the computer around to see that what he had been hearing was on loop on the computer’s news app. He looked at the date it was posted and the date on the computer. It had been up for just under twenty-four hours. There had been no further updates since then. He paused the loop. He didn’t want to hear it again. 

“They’re all gone,” Wes said out loud to no one in particular. Somehow it all made so much sense, as if he’d gathered the clues for several days prior, put it all together, and just now come to that conclusion. He wondered if maybe this wasn’t the first time he’d done so, but it did feel like the first time he’d been in this office, seen this dead man, and heard this reporter’s voice. 

This facility director—whose face was unfamiliar to Wes—had probably been the last one left alive. He’d stayed through the staff leaving, the Army coming and going, and everyone dying in front of him. Whether it was because he genuinely cared for the residents living there or maybe just a sense of responsibility to whatever corporation owned the place, he’d stayed. And now, even he had realized that there was no hope that whatever was happening would get better.

Wes picked up the handgun from the floor without really thinking of what he’d do with it. He gathered up as much physical strength as he had left and shoved the dead man out of his chair before slumping down into it himself. He sobbed to himself quietly for a few seconds.

What fucking good was figuring this all out anyway?

He leaned forward to the computer on the dead man’s desk. Open in one of the tabs was a spreadsheet listing the name of every resident, their outside guarantor, and whether they were known to be alive or dead. He began to scroll slowly from the top of the list. He’d never felt more tired, more hopeless. He knew he’d never seen this list before, but also somehow knew what he would find.

Stephenson, Wesley J.Davis, Jessica (Daughter)DEAD (CDC Report: 8/3)

She’s gone. Everyone he had loved was dead, well before they should have been. It was the kind of unfairness that couldn’t be rationalized, the kind that could only be experienced as gut-wrenching sadness and anger. How could he, a demented old man be the one who survived them all. 

He looked down to see the handgun in his trembling hand and felt a strange sense of calm. No more doors to walk through, no more puzzles to solve. He placed the muzzle of the handgun under his chin and took a deep breath, then squeezed the trigger. 

And then suddenly, he was awake, laying in a strange bed. 

Serenity Gardens is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents in this book are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Serenity Gardens © 2024 by Taylor Sloan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Click here to view a copy of this license.

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