Shady Shoes Rest Home was never particularly busy even on Sundays. Weekends always had a bigger potential visitor count but very rarely did the visitor count ever actually live up to this potential. Frank, the receptionist, saw it time and time again; a new resident would move in and for the first few months the family would visit and make a great deal out of bringing flowers or taking their elderly relative for a stroll. Then, after endless games of checkers and the smell of stale urine began to take their toll, their enthusiasm would start to wane, resulting either in a stop to the visits altogether or, perhaps worse, visits which clearly inconvenienced them. They made little attempt to hide the way they sighed in resignation as they entered the building, or glanced unconvincingly at an imaginary watch before proclaiming that it really was quite late and they just had to get to the supermarket or the dentist or pick up the kids from an equally imaginary birthday party.
That's what made SpongeBob SquarePants such an unusual visitor.
Today, like every Sunday, he marched up to the reception desk, grinning profusely, a stack of well-read Mermaid Man comic books tucked under one arm, the other fluttering excitedly at his side. The comic books had been autographed so many times that it was a wonder he was still able to decipher anything beneath the increasingly illegible signatures that covered every page. Frank suspected that he knew every one by heart anyway, if his ability to recite entire episodes on demand was anything to go by. It wasn't too much of a stretch to assume that this ability extended to the medium of comic books. Even when he reached the counter he couldn't stand still and began to bounce on the balls of his feet. His joy was infectious and at first Frank couldn't help but grin himself. But then, with a sickening jolt, he realized why SpongeBob was here and his smile faltered. Hadn't anybody told him?
"Hey, Frank!" chirped SpongeBob, reciting the same greeting he had given every Sunday for the past … however many years it was. Frank had lost track. "I'm here to see Mermaid Man."
The latter part of the greeting had been redundant for a long time, since SpongeBob always came to see Mermaid Man and everybody knew it, but they humored him anyway. He seemed to enjoy saying it.
"Listen, kid," Frank cleared his throat and shifted in his chair uncomfortably, wondering how best to proceed. Experience told him to be blunt, to come right out with it and state the facts, but a pang of guilt and the prospect of shattering the poor kid's heart into a million pieces caused him to hesitate. It was like trying to decide between punching him in the face or nipping him repeatedly. Neither option was appealing.
Clearly failing to perceive the change in tone and Frank's internal struggle, SpongeBob continued to bounce excitedly.
"We're going to re-enact the Sinister Slug story arc from issues #132 through #147. Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy are going to play Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy and I'm going to be the Sinister Slug. I've been practising every night this week. Watch!" he dropped to the floor, comic books spilling across the hallway as his arms snapped rigidly to his sides, and began to flop in what was presumably supposed to be an imitation of a slug but in reality looked like some kind of seizure. A startled orderly popped her head out of the office.
"Hey, kid?" started Frank, "Are you listening to me?" The continued (and now somewhat irritating) slug seizure indicated not, so he raised his voice. "SpongeBob!"
"Mm?" SpongeBob straightened up, suddenly all ears.
"Listen", said Frank again, though it was more a stall for time than a command now, as he already had SpongeBob's undivided attention. Big blue eyes gazed at him unblinkingly, perhaps expecting one of his many anecdotes about working in the rest home, or a joke, or even just the usual reminder not to wake any sleeping seniors on his way to the rec room. Certainly not what Frank was, eventually, going to have to tell him. "Mermaid Man … he, uh, checked out last night."
"Oh," SpongeBob blinked, then plopped down into one of three chairs that lined the hallway opposite the reception desk, scooped one of his comic books off the floor and begin to flick through. "That's OK. I'll wait for him to get back."
"No, kid," groaned Frank, almost immediately regretting his decision to go down the euphemism path but determined to stick it out anyway, "I mean he's gone to a better place."
"Rococo Reef Rest Home?"
On any other day, Frank would have chuckled indulgently, enjoying SpongeBob's trademark misunderstandings and making a mental note of the conversation to share with the guys in the staff room later. Today, however, was not the day for such misunderstandings, charming or otherwise. Frank exhaled in frustration, leaning forward onto his fins and rubbing his temples. "Neptune give me strength ..."
For SpongeBob, it seemed, the penny was finally starting to drop. He approached the counter again, for the first time a fleeting look of uncertainty in his eyes, though he was still half smiling. "Frank?"
"Mermaid Man is dead."
For three long seconds, SpongeBob didn't say anything. Frank couldn't bring himself to look at the boy and instead fixed his gaze on a nearby stack of papers. Out of the corner of his eye he saw SpongeBob's fingers, which had already been gripping the edge of the counter, clench slightly. When SpongeBob finally spoke, his voice was taut with panic and although he was clearly fighting to stay calm his question was riddled with desperation.
"Is that some kind of metaphor?"
"For crying out loud, kid!" barked Frank, "Do you have to make this so difficult?" Again, SpongeBob was silent, knuckles now white from gripping the counter so hard, and a surge of hot guilt turned Frank's stomach. He decided to start over. "Mermaid Man was very old. Do you understand?"
SpongeBob suddenly released the counter from his vice-like grip and took a step backwards, swallowing and swinging his arms as though he wasn't quite sure what to do with them any more. "Well," he squeaked, voice now unnaturally high even for him, "It's been nice talking to you, but I really have to be going now. I've got to pick up the dentist from a birthday party." He turned and began to walk away, evidently trying to keep his composure, though the effect was ruined a little as, upon reaching the exit, he broke into a run, stumbling slightly over the threshold and taking a huge, sobbing breath before disappearing altogether, comic books forgotten and still scattered across the tiled hallway.