A light flashed through the curtains of her bedroom. Alicia reached for the bathrobe in the chair next to her and pulled it around her.
She knew she would find the old man standing at the window
She padded quietly up the wood stairs so as not to alarm him. Alicia turned the door handle quickly. As she had expected, he stood at the window, pushing at the pane.
“Jan,” she said, “stay away from the window, please.”
He turned around to face her, then growled like a bear. He waved his arms as if fighting her off. Yet Alicia, who was nearly six feet tall, prided herself on being afraid of very little.
He growled again, an animal noise, wild and low, and said, “They need me. They’ve come.”
“It’s not for you to know,” he snapped back. In the semi-darkness, she saw his pale blue eyes dart toward the window.
“They told me to tell you, ‘Not tonight.’”
“I don’t believe you.”
“That’s what they said.” She lifted her palms upward. “You can’t leave tonight.”
Alicia didn’t know whom he waited for—aliens, conspirators, all old men had their demons.
“You’re sure?” he asked. “Absolutely sure?”
She nodded and his body relaxed. Alicia had been his nurse for six months now and, he’d jerk up in the middle of the night when he saw a flash of light. It could be a passing car or a bolt of lightning. Any light would send the old man to the window.
“Let me help you.” He allowed her to lead him to the bed. He was skin and bones now. He had a bad heart and nightmares plagued him constantly, so much so that she’d asked his doctor for sedatives.
Alicia had worked with dementia patients before, was accustomed to their night terrors and their hallucinations, and the way they would scream in the night.
Jan was different, though, he didn’t have the typical night terrors. Rather, he would run to the window, certain that someone outside had beckoned to him.
He sat up in bed now, beads of sweat across his forehead. She pulled a vial of sedatives from her pocket, filled a glass with water in the bathroom, and said to him, “Jan, I want you to take this.”
He swallowed the pill and drank the water down in one gulp.
“Would you like me to stay with you a bit? I could sit in the armchair.”
He shook his head, his eyelids dropping already.
In the mornings, he came downstairs for breakfast. Remarkably, he still insisted on bathing himself. She didn’t know how much longer this would last--many of the Alzheimer’s patients refused to bathe.
She suspected he didn’t want her to see the scars across his back. Once he’d told her that he’d gotten them in a car accident in Maine when he was very young but, even after all those years, you could tell they had been deep, painful wounds at times.
She rarely thought about her patients’ former lives. If you pried too deeply into their pasts, they often unraveled like wheels loosening from carts. The best thing was to keep them happy and comfortable. That’s what she told herself.
“Good morning, Alicia,” the old man said when he walked into the kitchen.
He looked up at her. He had pale blue like some Scandinavians had. With his bronze skin and those eyes, she always supposed he was Norwegian or Swedish. He had the faintest trace of an accent but she couldn’t place it. Alicia had grown up in Camden, Maine, and she knew some French people from Canada, but they were the only Europeans she knew.
“How are you this morning, Jan?”
“I am fine,” he said, “what a lovely breakfast you’ve cooked for me.”
Except for his night episodes, he was always cordial, not like other patients she had had.
Every morning, she made him pancakes and bacon and squeezed his orange juice herself. He ate his pancakes with strawberry jam, never maple syrup.
Now, he brought the fork to his mouth, ate his breakfast slowly, methodically, and she thought, as she often did, what a handsome man he was with his long, straight nose, and what her mother would have called “fine coloring.” Her own coloring was very different. She was half-Irish and half-Anglo-Saxon. She’d inherited her mother’s freckles and she burned if she sat in the sun for more than a few minutes.
Jan, though, couldn’t get enough of the sun, of the light itself. He soaked it up as if it were something rare. He’d sit sometimes well into the afternoon until the mourning doves came out and sang their songs.
On those days, he sat as happy as a child, watching the birds and the rabbits that nibbled the mint she grew by the deck. He laughed happily when Alicia came to shoo them away. “We are in the forest now,” he said.
She had no idea what he meant but supposed he referred to a forest from his childhood. They never talked about his episodes either. Sometimes she wasn’t sure whether he remembered what he had done. She locked the window every night and she’d always managed to catch him before he unlocked it.
When he finished breakfast, she asked, “Shall I take you outside now?”
“Oh yes,” he said, “outside where the air is fresh. Don’t you love the fresh air?”
“I do,” she said and took his elbow as he pushed himself from the chair.
Together, they walked out to the wooden deck.
The sun shone through the clouds. The deck stood just above a garden with lilacs and white roses. Alicia assumed Jan must be quite rich because he had a gardener care for them.
She settled him in the Adirondack chair and set up his Audible for him. He liked to listen to Stephen King novels. She thought that the books might contribute to his night terrors, but he complained bitterly when she suggested he might like something a bit “cheerier.”
“Now don’t you get any ideas from Mr. King,” she said.
“Mr. King,” he asked, a line forming across his forehead.
“Mr. King, the writer.”
“Oh yes,” he said, “Mr. King. You like him, don’t you?”
“No, you like him.”
“I do?” he frowned.
“You do, you listen to him every morning. You’re listening to The Shining now.”
He smiled as if he’d remembered suddenly and then looked over at the roses that shook in the breeze. Sometimes she would watch him, a range of expressions running across his face.
Alicia knew little about his life, only that he’d been married and that his wife had died over ten years ago. She’d had one sister who had a daughter named Susan. Jan’s niece paid his bills, managed his affairs, and made weekly phone calls to inquire about his health.
Lately, Susan had asked whether Jan should go to a nursing home, but Alicia suggested they wait a while. She knew he loved the cottage in Maine with its gardens filled with lilacs. After he sat outside, he’d talk about how sharp the salt air was and how he and his wife had loved to sail.
He could remember so much about his past and then he would forget the name of the author he was reading.
Alicia stacked his dishes in the washer and watched him from inside the kitchen. He sat quite still, his hand clutching the iPhone in his lap, white hair blowing in the breeze. A sparrow landed not more than a few feet from him but he didn’t seem to notice.
God help us all, she thought, if he turns into Jack Torrance, I don’t know what I’ll do with him. She chuckled to herself at the thought of the mild-mannered old man turning into a deranged killer. She’d always thought of Jan as gentle as a lamb, not like some of her patients who had become so aggressive.
She loaded the dishes into the washer and when she had finished, she called his niece.
“Is something wrong?” Susan asked as soon as she answered the phone.
“No, no…your uncle’s absolutely fine. I just wanted you to know, though, that Jan goes to the window at night when he notices a flashing light.”
“How odd. What do you mean—a flashing light?”
“A car’s headlights or a bolt of lightning.”
“How odd,” she said and then there was silence for a good thirty seconds.
“Why would he do that?”
“No idea whatsoever. Perhaps he’s hallucinating.”
“Perhaps, but he thinks someone is coming for him.”
“Really?” Alicia heard the concern in her voice or perhaps it was something else. She imagined Susan weighing the cost of having her stay with Jan versus the cost of sending him to a nursing home.
“He’s fine other than that. He eats well, he’s no trouble.”
“Except for trying to jump out the window.”
“He doesn’t try to jump out the window.”
“But he might—”
“I’ll nail the windows shut. You’ll be able to take them out later.” She didn’t say what later meant. They both knew.
“Oh, I suppose that will do, for now, I mean…. You take him to see Dr. Johnson next week?
“Ask Dr. Johnson then. Ask him if we should put Jan in a nursing home.” She had only met Susan once but she struck Alicia as the dutiful type, the kind of woman who cared for a relative because she was supposed to.
“I’ll mention it.”
“Good,” she said, “what’s he doing now anyway?”
“He’s sitting in the sun.”
“I watch him. I stay only a few yards away.”
She sighed and said, “Aunt Julie said he would sit out every day in the garden when he was in Poland.”
“He was born there, yes. People think he’s Scandinavian or sometimes Dutch because of his name, but Jan is a Polish name, too.”
“I hadn’t known that.”
“Yes,” she said, “go ahead and nail his windows shut—if you must. And tell me what Dr. Johnson says.”
“I will,” she said and then went upstairs and nailed the windows in Jan’s bedroom closed.
Jan spent most of July peacefully. He listened to novels outside, sometimes napping as the temperature grew warmer. In the evenings, they would have a cup of tea on the deck together.
At sunset one day, as the mourning doves cooed, she said, “Your niece said you are Polish.”
“She shouldn’t talk about me.”
“I said she shouldn’t talk about me.”
His face reddened and Alicia supposed he might be a terribly private person. Perhaps, though, it could be dementia. Her patients could be completely irrational at times. One minute they were laughing and the next crying. Jan clutched his hands hard around the tea cup until she thought he would break it.
He had one of his incidents that night. Alicia had been in bed for just over two hours when, at 2:00 a.m., a bolt of lightning flashed across the yard outside. She heard footsteps on the floor above her and she pulled her bathrobe from the chair.
A wailing sound, the noise of a beaten dog, came from his room.
“Jan,” she called, taking two steps at a time.
“I can’t get out, I can’t,” he screamed, “they’ve locked me in.”
As she reached the top floor, she heard the sound of breaking glass and she screamed, “Jan!”
He stood at the window, poking his arm through the broken window, streams of blood running down his arms.
“No,” she said, “They said it’s not time yet.”
He wailed like a child and then said, “When will it be time? We have to leave right away, but they’ve locked me in.”
“Soon,” she said, “soon,” holding him and rocking him. His arms had only been cut superficially but she wrapped them in gauze and then she gave him a shot of midazolam as he sat in bed. He fell asleep as she swept the glass from beneath the window. She thought of taking him to the hospital but it was so late now and, if she were honest, she could barely keep her eyes open.
Besides, he loved the cottage so. She would give him a few more days and, if he tried to get out again, she would suggest Susan put him in a nursing home.
Alicia took a spare blanket and lay down in the recliner chair next to Jan’s bed. He slept the entire night, barely even turning over.
As dawn broke, she crept downstairs and made him pancakes and coffee. She heard him drawing a bath upstairs and, when he came down half an hour later, he asked, “What have I done to my arms, Alicia?”
“You tried to get out the window.”
“Did I?” His eyes opened wide. “I shouldn’t have done that, should I?”
“No,” she said, “you could have cut yourself very badly.”
“You might send me away for good.” Sometimes he surprised her with his shrewdness.
He ate in silence and she didn’t mention the incident again. When he was finished, she took him outside and said, “I think we’ll have you listen to Anne of Green Gables.” She felt slightly ridiculous when she selected this book—his tastes ran to the macabre—but for today, at least, it might prevent the nocturnal ramblings.
She left him with a cup of tea and he hummed to himself, a tune she hadn’t heard before.
Alicia cleaned the kitchen, watching him from the window, and when she was done, she went upstairs. Usually, she cleaned his bedroom while he was in the house but today, she wanted to look at the folder he had tucked at the back of his desk.
She never snooped on patients but she told herself she was doing it for his own good. Perhaps that wasn’t true, but maybe there was something in the manuscript that would explain his reaction to the light.
Alicia watched him from the window, saw him sipping his tea, and then he closed his eyes. She wasn’t sure whether he was asleep or listening.
She pulled the drawer open, rummaged through pens and pads of paper, and pulled out the file. She’d only seen it once before when he thought she wasn’t looking. He’d sat at his desk and she’d stood behind him watching as he flipped through the pages.
Now she opened the manuscript and read it aloud:
I was one of the prisoners sent by the Nazis to burn the bodies at Ponar. They had shot nearly 90,000 people and buried them in mass graves. We pulled them from the earth— our friends, our sisters, and our mothers—and placed their bodies on funeral pyres.
The Nazis didn’t want the bodies found, didn’t want their precious regime sullied. We knew once we were finished, they would shoot us, too.
During the days, we burned bodies, and, in the nights, we tunneled with the spoons and files we took from the burial sites. It was our only hope for escape.
After months of tunneling, we stuck copper tubing through the earth. The tunnel ran outside the camp gate, I remember fresh air coming through—air like the breath of life and the wonderful sunshine, our freedom.
We knew there were partisan allies outside the camp. We decided to make our escape on April 15, 1944, the darkest night of the month. But I was tired from digging all day and tunneling at night. I fell asleep until I saw a flash of light, my friend who had lit a match. “Come,” he said to me, “we must run now, Jan.”
I was terrified but what other choice did I have? They would shoot us, too. “Come,” my friend beckoned, “come outside or you will die.”
Dogim, our leader, went first and thirty-nine of us followed. To go back, meant we would be shot.
The partisans had a secret camp at the Rudnitsky Woods. We figured that if we could only reach them, we would be safe.
Dogim and the first prisoners made it out safely but then the Nazis opened fire on us. We scattered and I ran as fast as I could, the sounds of my friends screaming, and dying beside me. But we ran through rivers and woods, stumbling from sheer exhaustion.
Then I saw an S.S. agent who stood with his back toward us. “Kill him,” my friend said. “Use your file.”
I’d saved a sharpened file from camp.
“I can’t,” I said,
“Everyone can kill. You must.”
I crept behind the man as quietly as I could. I slit his throat as if he were a pig and watched as he bled out.
“Come now, hurry,” my friend said.
Twelve of us reached the partisans at Rudnitsky that night. Eleven men survived.
I won’t tell my story while I am alive. I’m not proud of what I did. I did what I had to. The story I save for history.”
Alicia tucked the manuscript back into the drawer. She walked to the window and looked out at the old man asleep in his chair.
She would keep his secret, too. Protect him as long as she could, it was the least she could do until the light no longer beckoned to him.