A liver spotted hand ran through the fine wisps still on his mottled scalp. What a doddering old fool he was. Day after day, for the last twenty five years, without fail, he would walk to this street and stand across from that house. Every day, for twenty five years he had been drawn to this tree lined street like a moth to a flame. Or a gawker at a plane crash.
And he didn’t have the slightest idea why. He only knew that if he didn’t make his daily sojourn, he would pay for it at night in horrible dreams, and upon waking feel a sense of such forlorn longing, he would begin his day crying like a baby. So, yes, he came day after day.
Stopping finally, thank God, he took his station across from the house. He knew from painful experience to remain on the opposite side of the street. Just like the moth and the flame, were he to draw closer he would suffer for it.
As it had been every day, his gaze was drawn to the dark wooden door wondering what was behind it. He looked to the large windows to either side of it and lifted his head to stare at the bedroom windows on the second floor. Above them, like a jewel in a tiara, was the attic window, the half moon shape set just below the roof’s peak, partly covered by vines of ivy. Every time his gaze was drawn to that top window his heart would ache; why, he did not know.
The house was old, older than himself he was sure. For another day, all the windows were dark. The vines of ivy at the top window spreading outwards, clinging to the pitted brick, curling over the veranda and across the upper eaves. The house was being slowly swallowed up in it. The only other plants were the rose bushes out in front and up the side of the wide driveway.
His lips twitched in a sardonic smile. The last set of tenants was three university students swaggering in their yellow leather jackets, streaked with purple. They too were gone now. Engineering students, they lasted longer than most, a testimonial to their devotion at the altar of science. Still, that had proven to be no protection. No one who moved into that place ever stayed long. Because of the students renting and chatting to each other, the house stood vacant for longer and longer stretches.
He turned his head and his gaze swept up and down the street. The sunlight glared down; not golden rays, instead a steel brightness that washed away colors. And as always, the street was empty and silent. Not a whisper of a breeze in a tree. Not a single bird calling. Not even a barking dog. The street would remain still until the new tenants moved into the house. They would be the only people he’d see, until they too would leave. It had been so for twenty five years.
“The circle must close.” He muttered the mantra he’d murmured every day for years. He would wait. He would abide. Abide to who or what, he didn’t know… and it didn’t matter. He would abide.
His homage complete, he turned to leave knowing he would come again tomorrow. He would come as long as he was able. A sharp pain skewered his heart and he gasped. Staggering, he stabbed the ground with his walking stick to maintain his balance.
“No…” he croaked. Not yet. The pain was gone as quickly as it appeared, leaving him gasping from its memory. No… not yet… but…
The circle was groaning. It was stirring. It was preparing to close.
He sighed, and resumed his trudging gait. The cane clonked the ground next to him as he retraced his steps. Turning the corner and entering the park he saw the Spring sunlight now filtering through the budding branches, patterning the sidewalk like lace under his footsteps. The burning in his feet ebbed away as he wended his path through the park back to the nursing home.
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The pain was gone in just a second, leaving her cold as a popsicle. She hugged herself but it wasn’t enough. Throwing the top blankey aside, she popped onto the floor. She’d been coloring in her book, never meant to fall asleep. At five, she was too big for naps, even Mommy said so.
Everything got fuzzy for a second, so she rubbed her eyeballs with the heels of her hands. Oh no!
"Grandpa?" It had to be Grandpa in the dream. Nana showed her pictures of him once, when Mommy was out. Nana had promised that one day, he was going to come to Mommy’s place and they’d go for ice cream. He’d always been too busy to come, and Nana always told her that he sent his biggest love and hugs.
She’d always known Nana was telling fibs when she said that.
But now… he was in a barn, laying down on the ground! And his heart was hurting too! It was hurting bad! Real bad! She ran from her bedroom to the living room where Nana sat reading.
Mommy was there too! She was home from work? The question flitted and was gone because…
“Grandpa’s sick! He’s in the barn and his heart’s hurting, Nana! His heart’s hurting right here!” She slapped her hand over where her heart was. “He’s sick and he’s lying down on the ground! We have to help him!”
Mommy and Nana were still as statues looking at her. They were scared. She scared them, she could tell.
“Hurry! He’s in the barn!”
Mommy scooped her up. “Good Lord, Sarah, you’re cold as ice!” She turned her head, “Mom,
Sarah’s got one heck of a chill, and it’s got to be eighty degrees in here!”
Nana stood up and walked over to them. She put her hand on Sarah’s forehead. “Oh dear…”
Sarah batted Nana’s hand. “Listen! Grandpa’s sick!”
Nana’s brown eyes became wide. “Sarah McDougall!”
“Easy, Moppet,” Mommy was holding her tight. Mommy felt so warm. “Why don’t you give him a call, Ma? He keeps his cell on him, right?”
Mommy and Nana look at each other for a long, long time.
“Call him, Nana!”
They both whip their heads to look at her.
“Call him now! He’s sick!” She squeezed her Mommy’s arm and turned to her Grandmother. “He’s dying, Nana!”
Nana didn’t move. She was like a statue again!
“Okay, that’s it, Missy.” Mommy plunked her down onto the floor and grabbed her phone off the table. She looked at Nana. “First time I’ve called him in more than five years,” she mutters as she taps the screen and holds the phone to her ear. “It’s ringing.”
A cloud of sadness shrouded Sarah. She sniffed. “He won’t answer, Mommy. Grandpa died.” She looked at Mommy, then at Nana and started to cry. “He’ll never take me for ice cream now.”
“Slow down, Ma! You’ll get us killed!” Mommy was scared, yelling from the back seat.
Nana didn’t pay her any mind at all. They car sounded like a lion on TV as it roared down the street and out of town. Nana was hunched over the steering wheel like she was trying to push it with her hands to go faster.
“Ma, you’re scaring me,” Mommy gripped the seat ahead of her. Sarah’s lip quivered.
“Call 911, Gillian.”
“Ma, we don’t even know what’s going on!”
“Call them, dammit!”
Nobody said anything about Nana using a bad word. This was really scary.
Mommy patted her pockets. “Oh shit, I left it at the house!”
Mommy said a really bad word now, and nobody said nothing. Tears welled in Sarah’s eyes and she sniffled.
“Ma, you gotta slow down! You’re scaring the baby!” Mommy put her arm around Sarah and held her tight.
She looked up at Mommy. “Are we gonna have a axe-ci-dent, Mommy?”
“Shush baby. Just hang on. It’s only a few more minutes.”
Nobody said anything else as the car raced forward. After a few minutes, it slowed coming to a dirt road with big green fields on each side.
“He’s got the cows in, Gillian! He is in the barn!” Nana turned hard on the steering wheel and the car squeaked really loud and jiggled as it turned onto the road. Sarah peered out the front window. There was a big house—bigger than their house back in town. There were a bunch of other buildings near it.
“ Maybe he’s in the house, Ma! Would you slow down!”
Sarah saw the big brown cow barn. It had to be the cow barn because there were cows around Grandpa when she saw him in her head. And even though Grandpa was dead, she felt him there too.
She pointed her finger. “He’s in the cow barn, Nana!” She and Mommy strained forward when the car came to a skiddery, bumpy, stop by the big doors.
“Stay in the car!” Nana jumped out and ran to the barn. She hauled open a door at the side and disappeared inside.
“Like hell,” Mommy’s face was tight. She leaned over the front seat and turned the key and the engine stopped. Her fingers shook undoing the buckles of the car seat. “Let’s go, Sarah.”
Sarah held Mommy’s hand until they got inside the big barn.
The cows were mooing really loud. There was a long row of heads sticking out of some sort of thing that looked kinda’ like monkey bars at the park. There was hay and stuff in front of them, but they were looking at her, the whites of their eyes showing, mooing really loud.
Sarah took one look at Nana, kneeling down on the floor next to a man and thought the cows were crying like Nana was. She held the man’s head in her hands, brushing back his hair.
Mommy had stopped running and walked slowly up to Nana. She had let go of Sarah’s hand.
Nana nodded a bunch of times. “He’s so cold, Gillian.” She looked up to her daughter. “Your
Daddy’s gone, sweetheart.” Mommy was on her knees next to Nana and they both started crying.
Sarah stared at them. Why were they crying? Grandpa wasn’t just lying on the floor of the barn, he was standing over all of them, right by Nana’s side. His hands were tucked in the pockets of his blue overalls and his lined face was so sad looking down at Nana and Mommy. He took his hands out of his pockets and with one hand lifted up the green ball cap on his head and his other hand pushed back his grey hair.
“Shhh Sarah! They won’t understand!” Grandpa’s finger crossed his lips.
Sarah gulped back her words and tilted her head. He kept his finger on his lips and walked around
Mommy and Nana over to where she stood at the door. They didn’t even look up at him.
He took her by the hand. “Stay quiet as a mouse, sweetie, and we’ll talk outside.”
She walked out of the barn with her hand in Grandpa’s.
“We don’t have much time, angel,” he said. “I’m very sorry that this is the only time we’re going to meet.” He looked down at Sarah, with teary eyes.
“Why don’t you like me, Grandpa?” She had always hid it from Mommy, but she knew that Grandpa didn’t visit because he never wanted to.
He squatted down on his heels, eye level with her. “Because I was a stupid, stupid man, darlin’. I thought your mother was too young to be a Mommy, and I was too thick headed to admit I was wrong.”
Sarah’s lips curled in a small smile. “Nana tells Mommy that she’s thick headed too.”
“She gets that from me.” He stood up. “Now come along, darlin’. I don’t have much time and I have to make sure you do something.” He held out his hand again and Sarah took it. His hand felt different from holding Mommy’s or Nana’s. It felt thinner sort of. Like if she squeezed it too hard it would smoosh through her fingers like Play Dough.
At the front door he asked her to open it. It was only a screen door that was closed, and she was able to get it open standing on her tippy toes. She held it open for him and they went inside and up the stairs to a bedroom.
Grandpa stood by a bureau. “In the top drawer here, is a medal that I want you to have, darlin’.” He bent over and picked her up. Holding her, he said, “Now you have to open the drawer.”
She looked up at him. There wasn’t any Grandpa smell. When Mommy would pick her up, she could smell Mommy’s make up if she was wearing any, or the smell from her shampoo. When Nana would pick her up, she could smell candy, an odor that was just Nana. But Grandpa didn’t have any smells at all. And his arms felt like they were smooshy too.
She shrugged and took hold of the two handles on the top drawer and pulled. One side came out a little, but the other side didn’t move.
“It’s stuck, Grandpa, help me,” she said.
“I’m afraid not, darlin’. I can hold you and touch you because we’re blood relatives and you have a gift. But I can’t touch or hold anything else. You’re going to have to jiggle it out, okay?”
That sounded silly, but she tugged at one handle and it pulled out a little, then the other and it came out some. Back and forth she tugged and pulled until the drawer was finally open.
“Good job, Sarah. Now you see that silver chain and the silver thing on the end?”
“That’s called a medal. It’s a St. Jude’s medal.”
“Like medals soldiers have?” she asked. “From being in wars?”
Grandpa shook his head no. “Soldiers get those as sort of prizes. This medal is to help remember.”
“I’m not sure. Your Nana’s mother gave it to me when we got married, and I want to make sure you have it.” He nodded his head at the medal lying in the drawer. It had a thin silver chain and a delicate medallion. She picked it up and looked at it. There was a man with a beard and some writing on it.
“What’s it say?” she asked.
“It says ‘St. Jude, pray for us’. And on the back are the letters ‘A and C’.”
“Who’s St. Jude?”
“He was a man from a long time ago who helps doctors and nurses.”
She brightened. “Mommy’s going to be a nurse! She just found out that she got…” Her face screwed up.
“Yes! Ack-septed to a school for nurses!” Her face fell. “We’re gonna hafta move away.”
Grandpa nodded. “Yes. And that’s why you have to put this medal on and wear it all the time for me, okay?” He put her down, and she looped the medallion over her neck. “That’s a good girl.” Now his face looked sad. “Darlin’ I’m very sorry that I was so…”
He chuckled. “Yes, thick headed. Tell your Mommy how sorry I am when you get the chance, okay? And when you move away, make sure you always wear that medal.”
“Promise me, Sarah. You know how to make a promise, right?”
She looked at him. He was starting to fade away. Her eyebrows knit together as she watched him trace his finger over his heart. She copied his gesture. “Now say, ‘Cross my heart’”.
When she did, he nodded and kissed her forehead. She closed her eyes just for a second when he kissed her. His lips felt really smooshy.
When she opened them he was gone.
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