This is the eight round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “H”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “H” as submitted by its author.
Sensitive Material Warning:
this story contains language and scenes some readers might find objectionable.
Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson
(3,330 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Antonio Geppetto suffered from an idiopathic form of dementia called Scemo-Dotta. At 92, there were days that he could not recall a single event from his vast lifespan, and other days in which he could recollect every month, minute, and memory. Additionally, the disease, like an impulsive puppeteer, manipulated his mood, character, and personality.
Before he’d committed the unpardonable crime of aging, he was a celebrated cosmetic surgeon. Doctor Antonio Geppetto catered to an elite, Hollywood clientele. Throughout his career, Antonio eschewed conventional, cash-grabbing procedures, such as breast augmentation and extraction of gelatinous fats. His love was for the feminine face. And there was no face he adored more than the apple-cheeked, heart-shaped face of Sophia Geppetto, his wife of seven decades.
Until very recently, the couple lived in a nine-thousand-square-feet mansion in Hollywood Hills, where Sophia was his primary caretaker. On bad days, she did everything for him, to include dressing, feeding, bathing, medicating, and toileting. Sadly, on April Fools’ Day, as Sophia was daubing tomato soup from Antonio’s quivering chin, the right side of her beautiful face fell, sliding into her laced collar. It was as if an invisible specter held a blowtorch to her face, mercilessly melting the meat of her visage. First, her eyelid drooped, hiding her berry-blue eye. Then, her ear flopped, like that of a beagle. Lastly, her mouth slumped and her tongue lolled and a crimson trickle of blood dribbled from her nostril.
That sunny April day was a bad day, for Antonio. A bad day made worse by the death of his wife.
100 days later, at Hillside Home – Senior Living Community
“My father insists on an apartment with two bedrooms,” Tony Junior told Dee Harlow, the Executive Director of Hillside Home, Senior Living Community. He flapped his hands and said, “It’s got something to do with Mommy – don’t ask me. They were never apart; not a day, for 71 years.”
Dee Harlow shook her head and said, “I’m afraid that’s impossible. We only have single suites available, Tony.”
“Please, call me Tony Junior,” he said, not explaining. “I don’t think you understand; this is a deal-breaker. The Old Man loves this place. Mommy used to volunteer here. Hillside Home checks all the boxes. Staff is awesome. Amenities, killer. View, magnificent – hell, he can actually see the terracotta roof of his old place from here. Let’s make this happen, Mrs. Harlow.”
“Miss,” she corrected, balancing the ledger.
“Any relation, Miss Harlow?” he asked.
“To?” she asked, but knew.
“Jean Harlow. The actress. The Blonde Bombshell? You’re probably too young to remember the movie Hell’s Angels.”
“No relation,” she said, shuffling the contract. “I’ll see what I can do for your father. But it will mean leasing adjoining apartments . . . doubling the price.”
Tony Junior grimaced. She saw it for what it was: bad acting by a bad actor. She divined that he was calculating the minor hit to his inheritance.
Theatrically, he slapped her desk with the heel of his hand. “Draw up the lease, Director Harlow,” he decreed. Rising, he turned to leave.
“Wait,” Dee said. “My nurse will have to evaluate Antonio before we can accept him into the Home. It’s my understanding that he has a rare type of dementia.”
“Scemo-Dotta Syndrome. He’s sharp, then dull. Up, then down. Good days and bad days and goin’ half-mad days,” he sang. “But isn’t that everyone?”
“To some extent,” she conceded. “May I ask . . . ahem . . . why haven’t you simply employed a private nurse to attend to him . . . at his home? Seems more cost effective than two apartments.”
Tony Junior flashed his chemically-brightened teeth. “Tried it. Didn’t work out.”
“What do you mean, didn’t work out?” she asked.
Tony Junior would say no more. Instead, he reached across her desk and flicked the tip of her unlovely nose with his finger. She instantly repelled.
“My Old Man gave Jean Harlow her signature pixie nose,” he said, winking. “He was a star-maker . . . an artist . . . a true genius. With genius, comes a dash of madness.”
Dee Harlow struggled to suck air into her lungs, so that she could lambast the creepy 70-year-old kid for his violation of personal space. But in those precious seconds, he was gone, out the door; skipping and whistling and dreaming of fatherly dollars.
For the best, she reckoned. The census at the Home was very low: 67%. If she wanted a robust bonus at the end of the fiscal year, it would have to be closer to 97%. Two apartments in two minutes was a coup.
Antonio Geppetto walked into Nurse Wilks’ office. The evaluation began the second he entered.
“Sit over there,” she said, swinging her chins at an uncomfortable chair. Not looking up, she scribbled on a yellow pad with a purple pen. Ambulatory. Takes direction. Unaccompanied – implies autonomy. Impeccably dressed, well groomed, no open sores, zipper zipped, shoes tied, no detected malodors. Looks unusually virile for 92.
“I too was in the medical field,” Antonio said garrulously. “Cosmetic surgery. Are you a RN?”
This question irked her. It was a shorthand caste system. “No, Mr. Geppetto, I’m a Licensed Practical Nurse, LPN – certified in Gerontology. I’ll ask the questions. Ready?”
“Hope so,” he said. “I really like this place – the Home – as my wife called it. Sophia used to volunteer. Serve coffee. Tie shoes. Brush hair. Massage hands. But mostly, listen . . . listen to the old folks.”
Nurse Wilks removed her glasses, exasperated. “Listening. That’s what I need you to do, sir. Should I pick up this red stamp and nullify your lease?”
“No, no,” he protested. “I’m so sorry. I’m rambling. I just miss her.”
“She’s dead, sir,” Nurse Wilks said coldly. “Everyone in the Home has lost someone. You are not special. And you will not be treated special. Are we clear?”
“No, I’m not-not-not asking to be,” he stammered.
“Speech aphasia,” she said, writing it down.
Tears coursed through the runnels of his wizened face. “I’m sorry. This has to be my home . . . her essence is here. Sophia is here.”
“You see her?” Nurse Wilk’s chided, clicking her pen, preparing an entry. “Is she here now? In this room? A ghost?”
“I sense her,” Antonio smiled, looking over her shoulder. “Sometimes I smell her. Lilac. A perfume from the old country.”
“Funny,” she replied, “I don’t smell lilac. But I do smell pee-pee. Did you make pee-pee in your pants, Mr. Gelato?”
“Geppetto,” he corrected. “Like the woodcarver in the children’s story.”
“Pinocchio?” she ejaculated.
He nodded solemnly.
Nurse Wilks flung her head back and brayed. “You’re named” . . . she was fat and asthmatic and it took seconds for her to catch her breath . . . “for a puppet?”
Curds of spit collected in the corners of her lip-sticky lips. “You made a wooden doll into a boy. A real boy. Pinocchio?”
“In the story, yes.”
She wiped lacquered tears from her fake lashes. She winked salaciously. “You like real boys, Geppetto?”
“Not like that,” he objected. “May I see the Director, Miss Harlow?”
Wilks didn’t break from her crude character. “Reminds me of that dirty joke about Pinocchio . . . something about sitting on his face and telling him to lie. Heard that one?”
He shook his bald head and cast his eyes downward, embarrassed for them both.
“That sound sexy to you,” she asked, clicking the purple pen and snapping gum. “Sittin’ on Pinocchio’s face and tellin’ him to lie to ya?”
“Certainly not,” he said, raising his face, meeting her turd-brown eyes. “This ridicule has gone on long enough.”
She grabbed her stamp. “It goes on as long as I say it does, puppet-fucker.”
Bowing his head, he presented his mottled, lunar scalp. “What can I do? Tell me. What can I do to be here – at the Home, with Sophia? What do you want?”
This was the moment she had waited for, had contrived. Slyly, she pushed a glossy brochure across her desk. A car was circled in purple ink. It was a luxury sedan, a Lexus LS.
Two weeks later, Nurse Wilks burst into the Executive Director’s office.
“Dee,” she barked, panting, “somebody stole my new sweater. The one with the big blue buttons. Call security.”
“Gail,” Dee soothed, “I’m certain it’s around here somewhere – not stolen. After I finish this budget report, I’ll help you look.”
Nurse Wilks exploded. “You never believe me! When that old faggot, Geppetto, said I hustled him for a car, you sicced the Staties on me. I could lose my license.”
“That old faggot,” Dee Harlow repeated, “is no one to be fucked with, Gail. He’s Hollywood royalty, for chrissake. And you – you try to shake him down for a Lexus. I’ve got half a mind to” –
“Fire me?” Wilks challenged. “I dare you.”
“Gail, don’t push me.”
Nurse Gail Wilks charged and physically pushed the Director back into her chair. “You think I don’t know about the Lorazepam? You’ve been filching pills since your son got out of rehab. Little shit’s still using, isn’t he?”
Dee’s face splotched and her eyes watered.
“That’s what I thought,” Wilks said.
Dee sniffed and pulled herself together. “We’re women of reason. We can work within pragmatic parameters. I’ll see that the State’s report is quashed. As for you . . . I would expect a quid-pro-quo. I need your silence about my son and the pills.”
Nurse Wilks grinned and pulled an imaginary zipper across her lips.
“I’m missing my mop,” Carlotta complained. “It was on my cart. A brand-new mop. Never used. Missing.”
Executive Director Dee Harlow had bigger problems. Mrs. Jensen in #206 had lost her purse. Why the old gal had a 2,000-dollar Louis Vuitton purse in a Memory Care Facility was beyond her, but it required her attention. Jensen’s daughter was a hot-head and would not relent. There were even threats to call the police.
“Carlotta,” Dee said to the housekeeper, “check the equipment closet. Jake keeps extra cleaning supplies in there.”
Carlotta puffed a hank of hair from her face. “It was stolen, Miss Harlow. I know where to get another mop. You’re missing the point. Someone stole my mop.”
“The point is,” Dee finished, “is that I’m crazy-busy. State will be her at 4:30. Worst possible time. The residents will be sun-downing and” –
“Okay, okay,” Carlotta griped. “But it was a brand-new mop.”
“I hear you,” Dee said, dismissing the complaint. “Tell me, Carlotta, have you seen Nurse Wilks? She’s expected to attend the 4:30 meeting.”
Carlotta sucked her lip. “Think she went up to the Italian guy’s room. But that was hours ago – after breakfast.”
“Mr. Geppetto’ room?”
“Is that his name,” Carlotta asked. “Like the ice cream?”
State showed up a 4:27. It consisted of one dapper agent: Mark Sowell. Dee knew his reputation. He was a straight-shooting gay man. Dee Harlow had hoped for Ben Collins – a hypocritical Mormon with whom she’d had a fling two years prior. She knew exactly how to pull his strings.
“Mark,” she said, shaking his soft hand. “I was told Ben Collins was working this case.”
Mark smiled mirthlessly. “Seems his wife went into labor. Number five for them.” Under his breath he murmured, “Breeders.”
She laughed and touched his shoulder. To no effect.
“Let’s get started,” he said. “I’d like to talk to” – he looked at his pad – “Nurse Gail Wilks. Then, if possible, conduct a brief interview with the complainant, Mr. Antonio Geppetto.”
“Nurse Wilks should be finishing her rounds momentarily,” Dee said. “As for Mr. Geppetto – you do understand that the complaint was brought by his son, Tony Junior?”
“Yes,” Mark said. “Tony Junior noticed a large withdrawal from his father’s checking account. When he inquired, his father told him that he was buying a car for the nurse – conditional to acquiring a lease.”
Dee Harlow let the accusation simmer in the space between them. Finally, she winked. “Dementia is a horrible thing. Not only does it erase memories, it creates memories. I’ve known Gail Wilks for 6 years. She’s a good nurse. A good person.”
“She’s also late,” Mark said, checking his watch. “While we wait, tell me about” – he read from his notes – “Scemo-Dotta Syndrome.”
Dee flinched as if the name was verboten. “Bad,” she whispered. “Very bad disease. So unpredictable. Extreme mood swings, personality shifts. It’s almost as if the victim becomes . . . possessed.”
“I wikied it,” Mark said. “First reported case in Venice, 1884. It was rumored that Robert Louis Stephenson based his novel on the case.”
“Which novel?” she asked.
He liked knowing what she didn’t. He held on to it, leveraging it for power. “The Strange Case,” he paused, “of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“You’ve done your homework,” she said. “Yes, Scemo-Dotta is wicked. And it’s rare. We’ve had only one other case. A woman, years ago. Bonnie Drescher. She complained about another resident’s small dog, Skippy. Said it barked all night. It didn’t, Mark. Our late-shift crew confirmed it. The dog did not bark.”
Mark checked his watch. “Is someone getting Miss Wilks? I have a teleconference with the Geppettos’ lawyer at 6:00.”
“I sent Carlotta to find her,” Dee said.
Mark sighed. “So what happened in the thrilling saga of the dog that didn’t bark?”
“The dog,” Dee continued, looking toward the kitchen, “was murdered.”
Dee scrunched her face, as if tasting bile. “Microwave,” she confided, then swallowed a ball of stomach gas.
“Oh my,” Mark said, covering his mouth prissily, showing his effete side for the first time.
The radio-phone on Dee Harlow’s desk burred. It was Carlotta.
Dee answered. “Carlotta, have you located Nurse Wilks?”
Carlotta replied in a hushed, harried voice. “You gotta get up here, ma’am,” she said. “Something’s wrong. His sheets – bloody. Please, hurry.”
“Carlotta,” Dee asked, “which room? Mr. Geppetto’s room?”
There was no answer.
Carlotta was in the hallway, outside Antonio Geppetto’s door, seated on the floor, head bent into her folded arms. She was crying and kissing her crucifix.
“Carlotta,” Dee said, her voice more angry than concerned. She did not want Mark to see her staff in such disarray. “Stand up and tell me what’s going.”
Carlotta looked up. Her face was flushed and wet. “He’s in there. But it’s not him, ma’am. And there’s someone else . . . in the other room. Some one. Some thing.”
Dee pulled the girl up by her arm. “You’re not making sense,” she shouted. “Mr. Geppetto is 92. He’s a harmless old man.”
Mark knocked on the door. “Mr. Geppetto, this is Mark Sowell. I’m with the State’s Health and Human Resources. Mind if I pop in for a chat?”
“Please do come in,” a genteel, basso voice said. And then, another voice, high and sibilant, added, “At your peril.”
The two women clutched Mark’s Sowell’s shoulders.
“It’s locked,” Mark said. Then, the sound of the unlocking latch.
“Okay, Mr. Geppetto,” he said, more to himself, “I’m doing it. I’m coming in.”
There was animal laughter. Something crazed and avian; something of the loon. “Only if you bring the two beauties with you,” the sibilant voice said.
The Executive Director and the house-keeper looked at one another, silently assessing each other’s features. Beauties?
Mark escorted the women. As a trinity, they breached the door.
“Antonio,” Dee called into the unlit room. “It’s me, Dee Harlow. The ED. You okay?”
An odd but familiar noise pierced the darkness. It was the sound of steel and stone. A kitchen sound. Slick friction. The sharpening of a knife.
Frightened, Carlotta reached for the light switch. Fumbling, she tripped over something and fell to the floor.
The genteel voice asked: “Sophia, is that you, darling? Are you all right?”
“I’m okay,” Carlotta called. “I tripped over a mop.”
“Sophia,” the voice said, speaking the sacred name. “Sophia, I smell your perfume. I smell lilac. And I can see you – your heart-shaped face; your lips, curvilinear, like Cupid’s bow.”
Something slammed against the adjacent door, rattling the jams. It was beastly in its desperation, ramming its bulk against wood and wall, testing the hinges.
“What’s that?” Mark said.
“That’s an adjoining room,” Dee answered. “He insisted on two rooms. Something about his dead wife.”
“Sophia,” the genteel voice said. “I see you. Your berry-blue eyes. You’re white, gossamer hair. You are an angel. My forever angel.”
Carlotta stood and flipped the light switch. Soft stage light flooded the apartment.
The scene was truly gruesome. The trinity gasped as one.
Carlotta pressed her crucifix to her lips, muttering prayers. Dee eructed bile onto her blouse and shoes. Mark turned on his heels and bolted from the room, fleeing down the hall.
Antonio Geppetto sat in his bed, cross-legged, naked from the waist down. Laid out, on the bloody sheets, was a gleaming array of surgical instruments: scalpels, scissors, chisels, pliers, suture hooks, and retractors. Rhythmically, Antonio rocked as he swept a scalpel across the top of broad whetstone.
The adjoining door clattered and crashed and threatened to break. Dee heard a voice in the din. It was pained and primal, but human.
Geppetto gawked at the ladies through magnified goggles. “Anything I can do you for you two lovelies?” He laughed like a swamp fowl as he ran his thumb along the scalpel’s edge. Blood leaped, adding its measure to the saturated sheets.
Carlotta picked up the mop; brandishing it. She saw that it was missing most of its head.
“Carlotta,” Dee said, “use your radio-phone to call security.”
Carlotta was distracted. “Do you see that?” She pointed to the carcass of a purse. It was mangled – parted out – cannibalized.
“Mrs. Jensen’s Louis Vuitton purse,” Dee said.
Antonio bounced out of the bed, landing on bandy legs and bare feet. “I’d love for you ladies to meet my better half?”
They looked at him, gruesomely curious. He was wearing a surgical smock and cap, but no pants. His uncircumcised penis dangled between his pendulous balls like a strip of dried jerky.
“Better half?” Dee asked, revolted by his genitals.
Antonio strutted toward the battered door and gripped the locked knob. “Ladies of Hillside Home, I now present my magnum opus, my raison d’etre – my beautiful, enchanting Sophia.”
He unlocked the knob and the door burst forward. The weight of the captive creature came crashing through, falling into a quivering heap.
The two women looked at it, then away from it, then at it again. It was the nurse. It was Gail Wilks, LPN.
“So-phi-aaaaaahhhh,” Antonio sang, operatically.
Yes, it was Gail Wilks.
Now, however, it was not. It was a changed thing. Thick stitches laced its face like vintage baseball. Its hair was not the mousey-brown mess that had once capped Gail’s crown, but an implanted crop of mop strands – white and unsoiled dreadlocks.
“Gail,” Dee said, neither question nor declaration.
The transmogrified female looked up from its fours, alert to the sound of her former name. She was blind – her eyes had been replaced by the blue buttons from her stolen sweater, and her mouth had been sealed with the golden zipper from Mrs. Jensen’s Louis Vuitton purse. Her formerly round face had been hammered and chiseled into a heart-shape.
Antonio Geppetto stroked the creature’s white head with his bloody hand. He smiled like a child and pronounced: “My masterpiece.”
Tremors of footfalls grew as Mark Sowell and security personnel galloped down the hallway.
With the theatrics of a circus ringmaster, Doctor Antonio Geppetto raised the scalpel and declaimed: “Lastly, the unkindest cut of all.”
As the redolent smell of lilac filled the room, Doctor Antonio Geppetto lifted his face to the heavens. With a purposeful, palsied hand, he swept the blade across his crenulated neck in a playful, swooping U, creating a grateful, sanguine grin.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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