The old man sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at the white and blue linoleum. He had been staring at it for about two hours and now the imaginary ants had come out and started walking in patterns along the ragged blue streaks in the flooring. He tried to makes sense of their logic, but the path they took was erratic. He always liked to find the confused looking ones. These ants would pause shift their bodies to the left and right, bob their heads up and down, eventually figure out where they were and recommence their walking.
Eventually he lifted his eyes and looked over his shoulder to the bed closest to the hallway. Two days previous, he pulled the curtain shut around the bed and tapped the curtain to the wall so it wouldn’t gape open. Even in his old age he was surprised he got this done without help, but he was paranoid and it needed to be done. Logically he knew that it was of no use but he kept thinking it might prevent the ghost from coming back. The idea to seal off the body squirmed its way into his mind earlier that day, or maybe it was the ants that marched the idea into his head.
The body had been lying in the bed for close to three days. No one came to claim it and he wasn’t sure if the staff even knew. But maybe they did, they could have slipped him something into his food to force him to go to sleep so they could check on the body every night. He looked at his bedside table where a tub of pudding lay opened. The imagined ants twisted a nerve or synapse that caused him to shiver.
He worried more and more about the mesh on the top portion of the partition separating him from the rucksack of settling organs. He didn’t know what could escape from there but the question was beginning to posses him. It was an idea that kept burrowing further into his mind. It had to be the ants. He could ignore it only for minutes at a time but then the thought would return.
The old man resorted to keeping his back towards the body at all times, maybe facing away from it would stop the ghost from coming. Subsequently he was forced to look at the window. An unmaintained bush had grown over the lower half of the window and the top part of the window was partially shadowed by a top-heavy pine tree. It wasn’t this way when he first came to the rest home nine years ago. The place was kept up relatively well back then, but then a switch of management two years into his residency changed all that. They didn’t renew their agreement with a landscaping service and the green space quickly became unsightly. Before, the window let in the beautiful morning light, but now it only entered in fits and starts because of the overgrowth.
The bottom of the window was dirtied. Dark yellow and brown triangles filled the corners; nature’s natural scab. The bush had grown so high the old man could see into the twiggy matrix beneath the bush’s green covering. Spiders decided to call it home, as there were various strands of silver gray cobwebs sweeping between the “branches.” One group of spiders created a whole sheet of cobwebs making it look like some sort of decaying parchment paper. If Jerry needed any reminding of his mental state, the ants would cause him to rotate his head toward the window. While it was an unseemly sight, Jerry was just glad it wasn’t spiders in his brain.
About the time when the shrub reached the bottom of the window was when Jerry got the idea of not speaking anymore. He was never a big talker in the first place and there was really no one to talk to in the rest home. Once the change in management occurred, his room partner Robert moved out and Jerry had his own room to himself for the next six years. The nurses would see to him once a day, but they really could care less about Jerry. They would ask how he was doing, but nothing beyond that. As the years dragged by Jerry retreated into himself. As he withdrew so apparently did the nurses, for they eventually only visited twice a week.
Jerry didn’t start hallucinating the ants until about a year and a half after Robert left. At first, every few days Jerry saw one scamper across the floor and under his bed. In the beginning, He gazed at the entry point for a few minutes, but two years later he waited hours for the thing to reemerge. Eventually the colony became comfortable and most days would flood the floor. Jerry’s theory was that these ants crawled into his ears at night and rearranged his brain to make him a selective mute. It had worked. They too began to convince him the nurses were out to get him in some way and Jerry was assured any word that exited his mouth would be sufficient evidence for them. Nine years after entering the rest home, Jerry and the ants became friend and now the invented ants were regular residents in his head.
All of a sudden Jerry thought he heard the dead man’s bed squeak. His back tightened as though someone grabbed his drooping skin and twisted it taught. He looked over his shoulder convinced the ghost who came the night previous would be standing there again. It wasn’t. He looked up to see if anything had gotten through the mesh or if anything was on the floor below. Nothing.
The old man looked back towards the window and the clock on the wall. It was nearing 4 p.m. He decided to check on the body again, just to make sure it hadn’t moved. The ants trudged around in his head and they could not be settled until he checked. He grabbed his cane and shuffled over to the curtain. On his way, he made sure not to smash any of the ants on the ground, he gingerly place his cane and feet only in the white spaces of the tiling. He pulled a section of tape he had applied to the wall off and drew the pale blue curtain back. The body was still there. The body’s mouth was sagging and its right eye was partially open. Just the way he had died.
Dinner came and went. No one talked to Jerry since he never talked back. He found it suspicious the caretakers didn’t notice that his room companion hadn’t been to a meal in three days. Maybe the ghost had told them not to ask.
Earl, Jerry’s now dead room partner, moved in only a few months before. Jerry knew little about him since Jerry had now been mute for many years. From what he could gather from Earl’s conversations with the nurses, he was from a city twenty miles east of the rest home and he was in sales. No family ever came to visit Earl and he only once mentioned a daughter, he didn’t give her name though. Jerry assumed he died in the night three nights previous. Jerry deduced it was a heart attack, but it couldn’t be confirmed, none of the ants were out to witness it.
Earl’s ghost reappeared that night. Jerry hoped for only one visit, but the phantom had a different idea. It glided in from the hallway door. Jerry was lying in his bed facing the window again, but the burning on his back tipped him off. He rolled over. The ghost hung at the foot of his bed, staring.
He wasn’t transparent, nor white he was a more muted version of his living self. He could have passed for a living person, but his skin looked like it was moving. It appeared as though the ants from the floor had climbed up his legs and onto his body. They were picking up quarter-sized pieces of his skin and carrying it to different parts of his ghostly shell.
“Unclaimed” the specter said, the same message it uttered the night before.
The living looked toward the hallway door certain someone would come in and see the floating being. No one came. Jerry’s eyes returned to the spirit, its eyes still locked on his.
Jerry was unsure what to do, even with all the ghost stories he heard while in the service. He was surprised he still remembered them.
“Unclaimed” it repeated.
It finally blinked making it seem a slight amount more human than it was a few seconds before.
A light flickered on in the hallway. The ghost looked to his right, then back at Jerry, and then turned and returned back out the way it came. The old man waited to hear a scream from the unsuspecting individual walking outside the door. It never came.
Somewhat miraculously, after about two hours, Jerry fell asleep. He woke up at 8:12 the next morning his back still to the body. He checked the body again and it was still lying there despite its animator appearing only a few hours before. He could have sworn the body was starting to smell, but he convinced himself it was the ants, once again, teasing his brain. It was a new experience though to have them manipulate his sense of smell.
Around noon, one of the janitors came into the room. “How are you today?” she asked. He responded with a simple nod and let her go about her work. She emptied the trash bins, wiped down the table by the window. Jerry moved to a chair at the table so she could strip bed and put on clean linens.
Once finished she with Jerry’s sheets she asked in a hushed tone pointing at the curtain covering the dead body, “Is he asleep?” Jerry nodded. The ants in his brain all of a sudden got more active trying to cover up his lie. He could feel them moving at a quicker pace now.
“OK, I’ll let him sleep then,” she said as she left.
The next few hours dragged on, but were sped up for a few minutes every so often by a nurse passing in the hallway. Jerry remained in the chair he had moved to when the janitor came and he had a direct view into the hallway and into the room across the hall. At first we would hear the squeak of the nurses’ shoes. Every time he heard them his heart would start beating quicker. However, they would always pass by the doorway without looking in, their scrubs the only pop of color Jerry would see all day.
By seven that evening Jerry had recommenced his gazing at the floor. The ants were out again tonight. Their pattern was as bizarre as ever. Jerry sometimes wondered since they entered his brain, he could probably control them. He tried again tonight, but to no avail. As usual the ants only stuck to the blue streaks in the flooring, this made it difficult sometimes when a tile ran into another and the border of the tile was white.
Before retiring, Jerry checked the body. It was still in the same position. He wasn’t sure if the imagined ants would want to enter a dead man’s brain, but if they did they could still access him through the six-inch gap between the floor and the curtain. Jerry re-taped the curtain to the wall. Each piece of tape was beginning to loose its adhesive. He made sure that each piece of tape overlapped the other one by two inches. If it wasn’t perfect he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, the ants were very particular when it came to measurements.
Earl’s spirit came for the third time just as Jerry was about to fall asleep. Rather than lying petrified in his bed, Jerry hoisted himself up resting his weight on his elbows.
“Unclaimed,” the ghost uttered.
Jerry just stared.
Jerry waited for it to repeat, but instead the apparition lifted his right arm and pointed toward where his leftovers lay. Jerry looked where he was pointing. He got a whiff of the body as he faced it, or maybe it was the ants inside his head again. When he turned back to look at the departed Earl, he was startled to find a melancholy look on his face. His head had tilted and now looked down at the ground. Despite his shifting skin, Jerry could tell his eyes were drooping. It was at this moment that he realized he had never seen Earl stand in his corporeal life.
Without warning Jerry felt the ants in his head freeze. He was about to touch his head, but he didn’t want so smash any of them. Most of them seemed to travel between his skin and skull. When something really bothered them, they would tunnel their way further into his mind.
Jerry opened his mouth to say that he understood what the ghost wanted, but at the first sound the ghost disappeared. Maybe Jerry had scared him.
Once Jerry composed himself again, he too was shaken he had almost uttered a word. Just the one syllable he got out surprised him, he hadn’t heard himself speak for years. Naturally he had mental conversations with himself and the ants, but just with one utterance he could tell he sounded much older.
Jerry woke up the next morning thinking the ants might not be there, but he was wrong. Today they were congregating right in the center of the room. He knew what needed to be done to make the ghost leave for good. Jerry was still terrified that the ants could still leave him if he spoke up to one of the staff or nurses. He followed their every whim, but he did not want another visitation from Earl.
He planned to press the panic button on the wall between he and Earl’s bed in the afternoon when he knew there would be as many nurses as possible on staff, which was still not a lot. Meanwhile he tracked the ants.
At 1:32 he pressed the button. He waited for the sound of squeaky shoes running down the hallway, but it did not come. He thought maybe no one was in the nurses’ station at the time so he waited ten minutes, but still no one came.
He racked his memory as to why the button may not be working. He pushed away a few ants as he went deeper into the recesses of his memory. He never read the memos that showed up on the bulletin board in his room, but maybe at some point a memo came telling residents the panic system had been suspended and a new protocol was being implemented. Jerry couldn’t remember, but he wasn’t too surprised. If the system broke, the current management was too cheap to get it fixed.
Looking around the room, he tried to come up with a way to make noise. He considered throwing something at the window, but his strength had deteriorated like his mind. Besides, there was nothing solid enough in the room to break it. He didn’t even entertain the idea of yelling. The ants would only let him get one word out, if he tried to get any more out he knew they would attack him.
The ants on the floor gathered closer together and stopped moving. They took up five tiles worth of space. They were watching Jerry, suspicious.
Jerry heard someone coming down the hallway. He leaned out to his left grasping for the partition. He began to fall off his bed. Just as his hip slid off the bed his fingers grasped the curtain. It was yanked off its series of metal chains holding it up from above. The tape Jerry had used to secure the separation between him and the body made a zipping sound as it too came down with the curtain. Jerry hit the floor with a slapping noise. He hoped he hadn’t landed on any rogue ants.
The person in the hallway heard his signal and came running. They halted though when they came into the room. Jerry glanced up to see who it was. It was one of the female nurses. She looked in shock, her face wearing a question, “What happened?’
“There,” Jerry said pointing up at Earl’s body.
The authorities arrived later that afternoon. Jerry was held in the gathering commons area, he felt bad leaving the ants in his room. The policeman in charge tried to question Jerry, but a staff member told the officer that Jerry didn’t speak. Regardless he asked Jerry the questions, which had to be turned into yes or no questions so Jerry could shake his head or nod.
The body was wheeled out an hour after the police got there. Jerry overheard them talking as they left and one of the officers mentioned a woman named Mary. Jerry assumed it was Earl’s daughter.
The investigation was completed very quickly. Jerry didn’t realize that there was an investigation into Earl’s death, until one of the officers returned a few days later to inform the staff and particularly Jerry. Jerry never even thought that the officers might suspect him, the ants hadn’t traipsed the idea into his head at all. The coroner’s office declared that Earl died of a heart attack, which they believed could have been prevented if staff had been more attentive to his condition.
The ghost did not return once the body was removed. Jerry and his ants were elated, such a strange alteration to their pattern was nerve racking. He was glad to get things back to normal, but the vagaries weren’t over. Some government agency visited the rest home a few days after the retrieval of the body. Within the day they had a representative on site twenty-four hours a day for a week. Toward the end of the week, one representative walked in on Jerry staring at the floor and began to ask him questions about what happened. He tried not to glance down at the floor at the invisible ants, but they were moving a little quicker than usual. The representative, who wore a name tag which displayed the name “Nancy” on it, had been briefed concerning Jerry’s condition and asked him a series of yes or no questions as well. That was the only time he met her.
Two days after this conversation, the owners were charged with neglect and most of the nurses quickly resigned. Whoever the government agency was, they moved quickly and staffed the place within a day. A nurse now came in and checked on Jerry three times a day. Three days in, a social worker named Kevin came and visited Jerry. The minute Kevin walked in the room the ants scampered under Jerry’s bed, they didn’t care if they walked on the white part of the linoleum. Simultaneously, the ants in his cranium dug deeper down into his mind.
It took a few weeks for Jerry to start talking again. It was painful at first, the ants began to bite trying to remind him that these people were out to get him. Eventually, they stopped biting and a few even left. By the third month he couldn’t feel any thing scurrying around his skull. The ants on the ground started to hide more often, and by the sixth month of therapy they disappeared. Jerry was now able to have full conversations with the nurse and his social worker, no longer did the invented ants afflict him. Jerry liked to think they found a hole in the wall and now lived outside in some small anthill. Luckily, the new owners hired a landscaping crew to completely redesign the back lawn. The ripped out the bushes and trees, which choked the windows. The morning light that Jerry so loved was now able to enter the room, a glorious amber rectangle which traveled from the opposite wall to the floor beneath the window. By mid morning the light patch reached Jerry’s bed and would warm him back to sleep for about an hour.
One day, Jerry awoke from one of these morning napes to the sound of motors and beeping outside. He looked out the window to see two small Caterpillar backhoes digging through the mangled grass. Jerry smiled, knowing the ants were being buried permanently. It was then Jerry recognized he never did claim the ants as his own. But in the end, the influence of a different kind of unclaimed resident evicted them for good.