Fear the lawn outside the senior living center, a mower purred. Small clouds cast dark spots in the otherwise golden day. Sharp voices rose and fell in the circular first-floor resident’s hall, where Phil pushed the cart from room to room, delivering lunches.
The lunch cart rattled down the hall of the senior living center. Seattle sun shined outside the window Phil passed; he had already had several conversations about it with residents. He finished delivering his meals. Taciturn Teresa, who banged her table to get Phil’s attention. Cantankerous Carlos, who said the stroganoff looked like it was made of jizz. Kind Kenneth, who thanked Phil for the meal and went on watching the local news. It was talking about the Seattle zoo, most likely something to do with the coronavirus. Phil ignored it.
Every day he pushed the cart past empty rooms. Pictures of great-grandchildren–or great-great-grandchildren–used to cover the walls. Novels, biographies, and history books–including a few in which the resident could open and point to their names–used to line bookshelves. Those who lived inside used to greet Phil in their own unique, scintillating, limited way. Whether they had big smiles or empty gazes, he would place their meals in front of them; he would explain each item, arranging things just the way they liked it, wishing them a wondrous meal.
Now the rooms were empty. Doors closed. Sterilized and sealed until a new resident entered.
Phil exited Kenneth’s room–cart empty, surviving residents filling their bellies–and he spotted Teri. She was tan, pretty. Short dark hair hung past her ears and the long skirt she wore revealed shapely calves. “Has anyone seen Phil?”
Phil hid around the corner until she disappeared. He snuck to the first-floor kitchen and left the empty cart there, slinking past Reggy’s room.
“Hello? Is that Phillip?”
He halted and entered the old woman’s room. Reggy–age and weight both near a hundred–greeted him with a smile he’d remember forever. Set inside a sunken, wrinkled face and under thin white hair, her green eyes twinkled.
Phil’s own smile pushed at the boundaries of his blue surgical mask. “Hi, Reggy! What do you need? Something wrong with your lunch?”
Ignoring her tiny lunch, the tiny woman pointed out the window. A long green hill ran down toward a lake. “I saw something outside.”
“What did you see, Reggy? I’ll check to make sure there’s nothing there.”
“I saw spots. It was a jaguar. I’m terrified of jaguars. I couldn’t sleep all night!”
“When did you see it, Reggy?”
“I asked the nurse to check, but he didn’t check enough,” Reggy said. “I’m terrified of them. Can you make sure it isn’t there?”
“Reggy, I promise you,” Phil said, putting his latex-gloved hand over his heart. “If I see a jaguar I’ll fight it off for you.”
“I’m terrified of them. Ever since I was in Brazil as a child.”
“Why were you in Brazil, Reggy?” Phil cast his eyes outside for a moment.
Her father was there for work. He was a linguist.
“My father was there for work. He was a linguist at the university studying the languages. He can still speak so many of them,” Reggy, whose father died more than fifty years ago, said. “He was such good friends with all of the locals, they would bring presents to him on his birthday. Such wonderful gifts they gave. They gave me presents too, but I don’t remember where I put them. I think they might be under the bed. One of them gave me the nicest blue hat. One of them gave me a pair of-”
Phil had left while Reggy was talking about her father. Her gentle little voice dwindled as he escaped. He headed for the bathroom, realizing too late how close he was to the offices.
“Phil! Please come in here, Phil!”
Teri grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the fax machine. “Teri, that is not six feet,” Phil said, holding his ground as Teri pulled. Heat rose in his face when Teri’s long lashes, sparkling above her blue mask, fluttered at him.
“You need to fix the fax!” Teri pointed toward the offending machine. The screen blinked, displaying a long, alphanumerical error code. “I don’t know why it keeps doing this! Every time I use it, it breaks!”
It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with her breaking it on purpose.
“I’ll fix it,” Phil said, tongue catching inside his mouth. His heart pounded; he figured Teri could feel it–she pressed her body closer. “And I’m going to show you how to restart it. Unless it’s a hardware problem, that fixes almost everything.”
“Can’t you just do it?”
“Hey, Phil!” a big voice from down the hall shouted. Teri jumped so high she almost headbutted Phil. Lloyd, six-foot-five inches of maintenance worker, stepped up to them. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you. You said you would help me move that busted recliner down to the shipping dock! Sorry Teri, but I need to borrow Phil. That recliner has been taking up space for three days now. The fax machine can wait.”
“Promise you’ll come back and fix it?” Teri called after Phil as Lloyd dragged him away.
As soon as they rounded a corner Lloyd released him. “Thanks, bud,” Phil said.
“You’re such a coward,” Lloyd said. “Why are you so scared of her? Sure, she’s a little clingy, but she’s nice. And funny. And damn those eyes. I swear the mask highlights them or something. I wish my mask did that. Why are you so scared of affection?”
“I’m not scared of affection. My residents show me affection.”
“But none of them want you to take them in your big strong arms. Unless Carlos is hiding something from us all. How about one of Kathy’s friends pretends to be your fiancé?
“I don’t even have time for a fake relationship,” Phil said.
Lloyd shook his head. “Your such a wuss, you know that? I won’t be there to save you every time. You know Teri’s messing with the fax machine on purpose. She’s going to get bolder. Soon we’re going to have to start pulling the fire alarm.”
In the break room, people gathered around a TV, commenting on some piece of news as Phil got a cup of coffee. Phil turned the voices out as he drank. The muscles in his back relaxed–he sat for the first time in four hours. A resident wheeled herself toward the patio through the “town hall”–the large interior area where with pathways leading outside to the patio, to the hall of residences, to the offices, and more. Once musicians had performed and residents had gathered for fun. Now no performers. Only one person to a table.
The resident waved at him, mask loose on her small face. He waved back, smiling.
He took a big sip as Teri walked into the break room, chatting with a friend. Phil sucked coffee into his lungs and had to hold in a cough as he escaped through the other door, into the town hall. He rounded the corner and found Reggy. Her smile, under her bonnet, cast all fears away. “Hello Phillip. Is it very nice out?”
“You bet it is, Reggy! Want me to give you a push?”
Phil found a mask for Reggy and then rolled her through the doors to the patio. Stations six feet apart gave the residents a chance at socializing. Phil rolled Reggy to her spot near the chrysanthemums. “I love the sunshine,” Reggy said, and her mask wrinkled as she smiled at the sky. “I love the clouds, too. I loved the clouds in Brazil. They were so pretty, even the rain clouds. I liked the rain clouds the most because jaguars don’t like to get caught in the rain, so when it rained we didn’t have to worry about them at all.”
Phil looked over his shoulder. Teri and her friend, masks on, walked toward the patio. “Reggy, I have to go check on something for a few minutes. But I’ll come back and watch the clouds with you.” He snuck through another door back into the town hall, darting back into the hall of resident rooms, where he found Meredith trying to contact her granddaughter on an iPad. As soon as Phil got the granddaughter to appear, Meredith’s eyes lit up, and she launched into a detailed account of her day.
Phil stepped into the hall and met no one.
Quiet moments happened, but not at one in the afternoon. Many residents still had lunch trays on their tables. The bingo girls went around getting everyone ready to watch on the campus TV station. Aides helped residents use the toilet.
The hall was empty. Phil rubbed the back of his neck. His nose flared as he took in a deep breath–it whistled out and his eyes slipped shut for a moment.
When he opened them, the hallway wasn’t as empty. A large cat–a jaguar, its spots black against gold–watched him. Its back was flattened, entire body motionless, save the tip of its tail flicking back and forth.
It and Phil locked eyes. He blinked a few times.
Each step slow, deliberate, quiet, Phil inched to his left and grabbed Meredith’s door, pulling it shut. Only the cat’s tail moved. Phil shot a glance over his shoulder before returning his gaze to the cat. Somehow it had moved a foot to the side. Behind Phil, three aides stood frozen.
I liked the rain clouds the most because jaguars don’t like to get caught in the rain.
The wall ten feet away had a fire alarm. It wouldn’t set off the sprinklers. It would automatically shut fire-safe doors to resident’s rooms. Jaguars can’t open doors.
He pulled it; the alarm cracked through the air and blinking lights dug arrows into his eyes. Doors disconnected from magnets and swung shut.
The jaguar’s ears flicked and laid flat. Phil tried to remember how fast jaguars could move. Surely Reggy had mentioned it at one point.
Phil glanced toward Reggy’s room. Empty. She was outside. She was expecting Phil to come back and sit with her.
When Phil’s eyes turned back, a jaguar-shaped hole remained at the end of the hall.
He ran to the aides. “Someone call animal control!” He ran to the first-floor nurse’s station and grabbed the walkie from its cradle. “There’s no fire. There’s a….”
Go on, say it!
“There’s a jaguar in the building!” he said.
There. You’ve gone and said it.
“There’s a jaguar in the building! I saw it myself! So did Adaku, and Chris, and Tibor. Get all the residents in their rooms and get it outside!”
The first response: “What do you mean a jaguar?”
The second: “Ohmigod, are you serious?”
The third: “Phil, this is the emergency channel.”
Phil got the walkie back into the cradle and grabbed a pen, clicking the point out and holding it in front of himself like a knife. He crept to the corner of the nurse’s station and peeked out.
The hall was empty. One of the resident’s rooms was still open, down at the end. The door hadn’t released. Phil crept forward, each step soft and gentle. His heart fired in his ears. His arm hairs stood on end, and he awaited a feline snarl.
Nothing appeared until he got to the open door. He looked around the corner at the empty, connected hall. He shut the resident’s door and took a breath.
He re-opened the door and raced in, looking for anything large and furry. The resident, watching The Andy Griffith Show without hearing aids, hadn’t noticed a thing.
Phil retreated and closed the door again. He clicked the pen and point retreated inside. He looked down at it and shook his head.
He forged down the hall to check other rooms, cringing every time the alarm split the air and blinking as lights flashed. All the other rooms on his floor were shut–as were the fire-safe doors leading to the town hall.
Phil swallowed, unable to hear it only because of the alarm. He backed toward the fire-safe doors, head turning back and forth, eyes open for black and gold. He reached the doors and spun, pulling on the handle. Locked.
He looked through the door’s window into the town hall and banged on it, trying to get someone’s attention. He spun and pressed his back against the door, chest heaving. At the distant end, the jaguar stared him down.
The door cracked open, and Lloyd’s meaty fist grabbed Phil’s shirt, yanking him through before the door slammed shut again. Phil jumped to the door and looked through the window, eyes darting around.
“For real?” Lloyd asked.
Phil nodded. “I have an idea. Open all the doors to the outside. If we hit the sprinklers it will try to get somewhere dry. All the resident’s doors are closed so it will have to escape outside.”
“But the sprinklers-”
“We have to get it out of there. Better than someone getting mauled, right?”
Lloyd blinked. “I guess….”
“I’m not going to let that thing get any of my residents.” He couldn’t see the jaguar. His surgical mask blew hot breath into his eyes. He pointed at the walkie hanging on Lloyd’s belt. “Start talking. The jaguar is still in there. Once all the doors are open tell me and I’ll activate the sprinklers.”
“I’ll…I don’t know. I’ll throw something at them. That sets them off, right?”
“Yeah, but you’d have to set each one off individually.”
Phil thought for a moment, smoothing his hand over his mask. “Broom.”
Lloyd nodded. “Broom. I’ll be right back.”
Phil peered through the window. The jaguar sniffed at the crack under a resident’s door.
If you don’t get away from there you’re going to be in a world of pain. I’m not letting you get them. Not this time.
Phil took a push-broom from Lloyd when the big man returned. “The easiest way to do it is to open the east doors and then the fire alarm doors down the hall, past the offices.” Phil’s throat burned as he tried to speak both over the constant alarms and through his mask. “It’s the shortest path from the first floor to fresh air. Get all the doors open just in case.”
“Man, why are you so good at this?”
Phil blinked. “I’m improvising. I do it all day. You ever had a ninety-year-old dementia patient ask you where her new babies are? You have to think fast. Besides, I promised Reggy.”
A moment later Phil closed the fire-safe doors behind him. Lloyd nodded through the window. Phil took a deep breath, lifted the heavy broom, and smashed the sprinkler above him.
Spray caught his eyes and soaked him. He blinked as a dark stain spread in the carpet and water ran down the door behind him. Down the hall the jaguar watched him. Phil retreated to the next sprinkler, keeping his eyes on the animal, and struck the sprinkler the same way. Water spread. He backed down the hall, hitting each sprinkler until he reached the end and turned the corner.
The jaguar huddled at the end of the next hall, twenty feet away, ears flattened against its head and tail flicking back and forth. Its lips curled up, showing long teeth. Fire alarms blotted out the growling.
Phil, soaked and panting after swinging the heavy broom, locked eyes with the beast. To reach the next sprinkler he would have to advance five feet.
Each time an emergency light flashed it caught the cat’s huge eyes. The jaguar snarled above the sirens. Freezing panic washed over him. His breath turned into a hard lump in his throat. The jaguar snarled again, and sharp teeth caught blinking lights.
What if it attacked one of your residents? One of those sweet old folks who have lived lives long and hard, and now have to sit inside and wither because a virus means nobody can visit them? You watched a dozen people, who have all lived four times longer than you, die. Fade. Before anybody had any idea of proper safety they were dead. Do you really want to see more of your friends torn apart by this creature? DO YOU?
Phil raised the broom. His heart pounded; the muscles in his arms and shoulders clenched tight.
Look at it. It’s scared. It doesn’t know what’s going on. If it sees any of the residents it could attack. Don’t let that happen.
Behind the jaguar, Lloyd opened one of the fire-safe doors and waved Phil on.
Phil’s feet remained stuck to the ground. “Go on,” Phil whispered under the alarms. “Get out of here. You know you want to leave. Get back outside and you won’t have to worry about the water anymore.”
The jaguar, dripping, turned its head toward the open door.
You don’t want them to die, do you?
“Get out of here!” Phil snarled, raising his voice as if talking to one of the sweet old deaf ladies on his floor. “Go! Turn around and run right now!”
The jaguar bolted for the newly-opened door. As soon as it got through the doorway it spun, nails skidding on the tiled floor. Turning to the left, its feline body flattened into a machine of movement, and it disappeared from Phil’s view.
He chased it down, rounding a corner, and he found it caught between him and another person.
“Teri, don’t move.”
She stood in an intersection of hallways. Behind her, bright daylight beckoned. The door let in fresh breeze, and the jaguar advanced a step. Water dripped from its fur, and its paws left big, wet prints. “Phil!”
“Teri, just keep backing up. Do it slowly and carefully. Don’t stop moving. Don’t turn around and don’t take your eyes off it. Just keep going until you get outside.”
She stood rooted to the ground. “Phil!”
“Teri! Listen to me!” The jaguar’s ears swiveled toward Phil for a moment. “Start moving. Slowly. Carefully.”
Teri stumbled backward and lost her balance. Phil’s heart leaped and he looked up. The closest sprinkler was above the jaguar, beyond Phil’s reach.
Teri righted herself. She trembled, and her knees wobbled until they collided. “One step, Teri, just one step,” Phil said.
Her foot slid back, putting a few more inches between her and the cat. She did it again and then another time. The jaguar slunk forward, breeze twitching its whiskers. Teri heaved with breath. She slid her foot backward again and the jaguar took another step.
“Phil, do something!” Teri shouted, and the jaguar froze. It had reached the intersection of halls, and its head swung to the right. It vanished.
Putting every ounce of energy he had into his legs, Phil sprinted forward and darted around the corner. The jaguar’s tail flicked out of sight.
The broom hit the ground. A scream came from the town hall. When he reached the wide-open area, a trembling culinary worker pointed at the open door leading to the patio.
Bright sunlight cut into Phil’s vision. Aides and helpers huddled against the far wall, standing between the jaguar and the residents–except for Reggy.
The wrinkled old woman sat in her wheelchair in her sunny spot by the chrysanthemums, eyes under her bonnet on the jaguar. The jaguar returned her gaze, dripping onto the concrete patio.
The woman didn’t blink. She didn’t look away. Hard, unflinching eyes above her mask twinkled like green gemstones. Her hands–little more than skin, bones, and veins–grasped the wheels of her chair and rolled forward toward the jaguar.
Phil sucked in a deep breath, but he watched astounded as the jaguar retreated. Reggy advanced–unstoppable, rolling as if on her way to bingo before coronavirus, where she held court with three boards and gave her candy winnings to her neighbors. The jaguar’s backward steps sped up.
In the parking lot–to Phil’s and the jaguar’s right–a van from animal control pulled up, guided by police. People rushed from the van toward the patio, scaling a chain-link fence. One held a rifle.
Reggy’s dauntless advance continued. She neared the jaguar. The cat slunk low to the ground, tail and belly dragging. A dart struck the cat’s hindquarters, and it roared.
Phil’s stomach dropped to his crotch; every hair on his body stood on end. He recoiled, shrinking back. The jaguar whirled in the direction of the attack, but as it tried to move its back legs collapsed under it. It dragged itself forward a foot, then fell fully, sightless eyes relaxing under heavy eyelids.
Animal control officers raced forward. Phil ran around them to get to Reggy. “Reggy, are you okay?”
The woman’s smile pushed through her mask. “Oh, yes dear. They’ve got it now.”
“You weren’t scared?”
“Oh, terrified. But I learned a long time ago–don’t run. My father told me when I was a little girl: ‘Don’t let fear rule you. Face it head-on. It’s faster, but it can’t stand a challenge.’”
Animal control caged the jaguar, and police took reports. The fire department arrived. Phil sat outside with Reggy as the lengthy process of drying the first-floor hall got underway. The jaguar had snuck in an open window after slipping away from handlers during transportation.
Teri ran toward him. “You really scared it off! You’re so brave!” She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him, once again much closer than six feet.
When she separated, wiping water off her arms, Phil looked at Reggy. The old woman watched bees buzz around the chrysanthemums. “Teri, just ask me out already.”
Daniel lives in Minnesota and writes for work and fun. His work has appeared in nearly twenty publications, including ‘Havik,’ ‘White Wall Review,’ ‘Castabout Literature,’ ‘Defenestration Magazine,’ and ‘Ripples in Space.’ His book “The Woman Who Walked Among the Stars” is available on Kindle. His twitter is @Danny_Deisinger, and his website is saturdaystory-Time.weebly.com.