Your dad’s in the upstairs guest room. You moved him there when you came to care for him a few weeks back. It has lots of space. Lots of sunlight. A solid oak door with a good lock.
You put down the tray with a sandwich and root beer and pick up the bat you keep next to the heavy door. You open it a crack and jam your foot up against it in case he’s gotten loose, so he can’t slam it on you when you snake your hand in to turn on the light.
Once the light is on, you open the door slowly, bat raised, until you see him.
He’s a trim sixty-seven, and he’s sweating through a t-shirt and sweatpants. Both of his ankles are in sheepskin-lined shackles on long chains. The chain fastened to his right leg is still attached to a metal anchor on the far wall. The chain for the left is coiled next to him and has a piece of the wall anchor still attached.
He is bouncing lightly in a Muay Thai guard. He studied for about a decade during his twenties, and he looks intimidating despite his age, with his hands in front of his face and his shins facing outward, anticipating a low kick from an unseen opponent.
“Stay back!” he commands.
It’s not clear if his statement is a threat, a warning, or if he’s just showing off. Then, he executes a perfect shuffle to high-knee thrust with the unchained leg. It ends nowhere close to you, but it probably could have broken ribs if it had connected.
He glares at you for a moment. Then he relaxes like it was all a goof.
“Pretty good for an old guy, huh?” he asks, smiling now but looking a bit embarrassed.
“Uh, yeah, actually,” you say. “You’ve lost weight. You’re getting stronger. More flexible too, from the looks of it.”
“I’m not developing superpowers or getting younger, unfortunately,” he says, shaking out his arms and legs. “I have nothing else to do up here but train.”
You gesture towards the broken chain. “Have you tried reading?”
“I’m too… distracted,” he says. “It’s difficult to follow the order of things. What came first. What came last.”
He nods towards the broken chain. “That just happened. I think. Sorry.”
“Did you see monsters?” you ask.
“They’re not monsters, Jessie,” he says with irritation. Then, a little less confident now: “I told you: I see intruders. In masks. Sometimes animal masks. Or skinheads. People coming into our home to rob us. To kill my wife. My daughter.”
Your mother called a month ago to say her last goodbyes after she was scooped up by the Care Teams in the first wave. You’ve explained to your father over and over that he doesn’t have a daughter. None of it seems to sink in.
“I know the intruders are not real,” he adds. “Sometimes they seem real. Even though I know.”
You turn back to put down the bat and retrieve the tray and then put it on a desk, close enough for him to reach.
“Is there anyone else left in the cul-de-sac?” he asks. “Old people like me?”
“Brenda Fugel is still here. She’s getting bad. Her daughter Katherine is keeping it on the down-low.”
“Oh,” he sounds sad. “That’s too bad. She was nice.”
His response surprises you; Dad never seemed to care much for the neighbors before.
Brenda would make cookies for the local kids. She was the first to deliver welcome baskets when new people moved onto the street. She could be trusted with the front-door key to watch a neighbor’s house or feed their pets or get mail when they were on vacation.
Brenda’s basement was your secret refuge after the worst fights. So many afternoons in your early teens were spent down there.
Your last visit to her was just past your eighteenth birthday, after another huge battle with your dad—the last fight you would have with him for a very long time.
You were there to say goodbye.
That final visit to Brenda’s was bittersweet and, in a way, like a second puberty. Once again, you had the bad acne that you did when you were thirteen, and you were feeling the same anger you did when you were young. There were new things, too. You had the pain that came with the top surgery.
You felt a bit ridiculous, swearing about your father in a voice cracking from the hormones. But you were feeling happy. Like you were finally who you were supposed to be. Brenda was happy for you too.
Now, Brenda sits restrained in a chair positioned so she can look out her second-floor window. A few weeks ago, she would still smile at you from her perch. Now, she yells so loud you can make out what she’s saying all the way from down on the street.
“You should kill yourself, you freak!” she shouted at you, apoplectic, when you walked by her house a few days ago. “You’re not a real man. You’re disgusting. People like you should all die!”
Katherine came by later and asked you not to look up at Brenda anymore.
“You agitate her,” Katherine said, crying. “You know, she’s not the same. She always loved you. This—this is not her. It’s the sickness.”
It’s communicative, what Brenda Fugel has. Your Dad. Everyone, everywhere, over the age of sixty gets it now. But even with a relatively quick progression and a nearly one-hundred-percent mortality rate, there are still millions of adults hiding away their loved ones in attics, basements, hunting cabins, and vacation homes. People like Katherine. People who can’t let go. People like you.
Katherine knows she will have to call the Care Teams soon. Harboring the infected is illegal, but the CDC has a no-questions-asked reporting policy. And every day she delays, she’s taking a terrible risk. Brenda looks frail, but you don’t want to think about what could happen if she gets loose.
“How are you feeling?” you ask your father.
“I’m getting better, I think,” he says in a playful tone. “The cough went away. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be the first one to recover.”
“I think you will,” you force the lie and a smile.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, Jessie,” he says, serious now, “but you should call the Care Teams for me, also. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I don’t think you would.” You lie again, but this time sound so convincing you almost believe it yourself.
“Not on purpose, of course,” he says. “By accident.”
He thinks he understands the disease. What it’s doing to him. But you know that he doesn’t.
The CDC says that there’s some blocking of neurotransmitters in the brain, so people with it feel stronger and feel less pain. But there’s still a lot they don’t understand, including how a change in hormone production increases the infected person’s actual strength, sometimes many times greater than what they had even in their twenties.
For your dad—a strong, fit man for his age—that’s enough strength to pull out a wall anchor that’s supposed to have a five-hundred-pound capacity.
After a week or two, the sickness looks like dementia. The patient becomes moody. Then paranoid and irrational. More aggressive. Violent. Eventually, they lose touch with reality. There are vivid hallucinations. About a month later, they’re an angry toddler in the body of an adult strong enough to pull an arm out of its socket.
That worsening impairment is always there for your dad now. As bad as it is, it’s not unmanageable. At least, it’s not right now because your father recognizes he is impaired, so the two of you can accommodate that impairment.
What he can’t perceive is the second part to the disease. The reason nobody dies with dementia symptoms and the reason for the Care Teams with their white-coat, doctor-assisted euthanasia. It turns your personality upside down. It makes you the opposite of who you were.
Eventually, patients terrify their loved ones or break their hearts. Calling the Care Teams becomes an easy decision for caregivers.
The gentle Brenda Fugel. Baker of cookies. Guardian of frightened children. Now, she’s an obscene bigot. Full of hate. Abusive. Extremely aggressive. You know she would try to kill you if she got the chance. She’d try to rip you apart with her bare hands if she were in the same room with you, and she might just have enough strength to do it.
But what happens to the father who seemed to despise you? What happens when his personality is turned upside down?
“Have I changed?” your father asks. “I can’t remember.”
“You’re still kind of an asshole,” you say.
“That’s how you know I’m getting better,” he says.
You try to be serious, but he chuckles, and you can’t help smiling—for real, this time.
He starts to take a bite of his sandwich but puts it down.
“You know Jessie, parents have expectations for their children. They have, in their mind, a picture of who that person is going to be. I had a picture in mind for my daughter.”
“You don’t have a daughter, Dad.”
He ignores you, speaking over you and pushing ahead, like always.
“When you’re a parent, and you have a baby girl, you have an image in your mind of what life is going to be like. You’re thinking about her in a tutu at a ballet recital, or having the chance to make her date sweat on prom night, or walking a happy woman down the aisle,” he continued. “Those dreams died when my daughter died.”
You bristle at this, but he misses it when he takes another bite of his turkey and washes it down with a sip of the root beer.
“Up here, sitting around all day, I’ve realized this happens to every parent. Every single one. You have expectations for your children. You have a picture of who they are and who they are going to be,” he smiled again. “They don’t always cooperate. You didn’t cooperate.”
You start to get angry now.
“And…and that’s a good thing,” he interrupts, making a placating gesture with his sandwich. “Because the picture you had in your head as a parent was just a fantasy. A daydream. It’s not a real person.”
He reaches out suddenly. You step back before you realize he’s trying to take your hand. You know you can’t get any closer. It’s too dangerous. But, for a moment, you consider taking it.
“A child that tries to conform to their parent’s whims and daydreams will grow up to be an unhappy person,” he says. “A good parent doesn’t want that. They want their kids to grow up to be happy. To be strong.” He smiles.
Then darkness seems to wash over him.
“I know I don’t have a daughter and she didn’t really die, okay?” he says sharply, bringing his extended hand down hard on the floor, making his plate jump. “Of course, I know!”
Ever since he got sick, he’s been talking about his daughter as if you had a sister floating around the house somewhere. This is the first time he’s acknowledged this person doesn’t actually exist.
“I was always… so damned angry before. I couldn’t let go of those dreams. It was like seeing that little girl die. When you transitioned, it was like you killed her. It made me so angry. So sad.”
He closes his eyes and frowns, then opens them again as if nothing happened. He starts to take a bite of his sandwich. Then, he stops short and plops it down on the plate. He picks up the broken chain by his foot and starts fiddling with it.
“It’s odd because, even though I’m sick, I feel like I have the strength you showed, even when you were a kid,” He seems to be straining. “The strength to become who you were meant to be… To be happy.”
You watch in horror as he breaks a link off the heat-treated, manganese steel chain with a pop, like it was a candy necklace.
“Whoa,” he says, concerned and a bit amused. “Jessie, you have to get a better chain. This one is trash.”
“What about you, Dad?” you ask, trying not to show your rising fear. “Are you happy?”
“I’m living my best life. I am a delusional asshole chained to a wall in my own guest room.”
He laughs and tosses the broken chain link into a corner of the room.
“I don’t know who I am anymore or what I wanted to be. I just know I wanted to have a family.” He turns back to his sandwich and finishes it up in a few big bites. “Someone who survives after I’m gone. Someone I’m proud of. Someone good. I felt like that person got taken away from me. I was wrong.”
He’s looking at you now. It’s as if, for the first time, he really sees you.
“I know I fucked it all up,” he says, chewing. “Still, I don’t want to…”
He picks up the broken chain again and drops it on the ground.
“I mean, how long do you think this will last?” he barks, spitting out tiny bits of sandwich.
Somewhere in your father’s head, the switch flips, lighting him up with true fury in an instant.
“Damn it, Jessie! I asked you to bring me my gun a week ago. Then I could have taken care of this myself. Now, we can’t do that. We have to have someone else take care of it. Some stranger at the Care Teams. You can’t give me a gun now. It would be like giving a gun to a lunatic! Right? Giving a gun to a baby! I could kill you, Jessie! Before I even realized…”
He looks at you, furious. Like he wants to kill you.
You take a step back. You’re wondering, now, if that other chain is giving you any protection at all.
He calms himself after several seconds. Then, he seems surprised at the look of fear on your face.
“I would never ask you to do that for me,” he says calmly. “And I can’t trust myself to finish things up on my own. You need to call the Care Teams. Please.”
“No. You shouldn’t talk this way,” you say, gathering up the plate and the root beer and putting it on the tray. “You need to rest and get better.”
You collect his tray and head out of the room.
You have heavy-duty handcuffs, manacles, and a matching chain of reinforced steel and titanium. You bought them online from a Chinese law enforcement supply outlet for when your father got to this point. When he was getting too strong.
He’s always calmer after breakfast, so you decide that tomorrow, late morning, You’ll have him handcuff himself to the radiator and put on the new manacles and chain. Then, you’ll attach those to the wall. You’ll have to install a new anchor while you’re at it. Something heavy with long drywall screws that will hold at least a couple thousand pounds.
“Jessie!” he yells as you close the door. “You know you need to do it. It’s the only thing. It’s the right thing.”
It’s odd because you wanted this man dead for so long. You were pretty confident he felt that way about you.
But now, everything is upside down. Your father is sick, but he seems as healthy as he’s been since you were small, physically and mentally. At the same time, you feel weak; you don’t even have the strength to pick up a phone and do what you had always wanted to do—what everyone in the world outside agrees is the right thing to do.
Coming home to take care of him when he got sick was your mother’s dying wish, and it was going to be the last service you planned to render for either of them. Whether or not he pulled through, it was going to be a final selfless act by a son for his father.
It was going to be goodbye.
Now you don’t know if it’s the disease changing him, making him so insane that he loves you again like when you were a child, or if it’s something else. His wake-up call. His understanding that this is his last chance to make things right.
You want to believe that so badly.
But you know your dad is right. Calling the Care Teams is the right thing to do. Now is the right time to do it. Before things get really bad. Before he escapes. Before he hurts you or someone else. Before he forgets how to talk and eat.
You can still hear him shouting in the attic. You know you should do it while you have some good memories of him to take with you. Those are precious gifts. Ones you were never expecting to receive.
You pick up the phone and call the number. It’s 811. Just one digit away from the police. They made it easy to remember.
“Hello?” says the voice on the other end of the line. “CDC Care Teams. We are speaking on a recorded line, and we are tracing the call.”
“Police?” you ask after a pause.
“You’ve reached the CDC Care Teams,” the voice says. “Please provide the name and location of the patient.”
“Uh—sorry. This isn’t an emergency. There’s a kid on my lawn stealing my Wall Street Journal,” you say, making sure the dispatch operator doesn’t hear you crying. “The damned kid is always swiping it. I was trying to reach the police. Is this 911?”
“It’s 811. You misdialed,” the voice says and hangs up.
You know you should have had them come to get your dad. But not yet. Not right now.
For the first time, he’s getting better.