From Machine to Man

max

“Sir? You need to wake up now, sir.” The white, uniformed human shook Max’s shoulder. He focused and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. A woman stood over him and peered intently into his face. Max turned away. He did not feel well. Not well at all. And wasn’t that rather odd?

He closed his eyes and tried to remember. What happened? Ah, yes, Ingot thugs, mercenaries who preyed upon unwary merchants burst aboard ship and caught him just as he was transferring his data to another guard. An unlucky moment. Surely, it had been planned. But who could have known? Abanaber? He was new and seemed eager enough, but then, he disappeared once the fighting started.

Max sighed. He remembered facing the lead Ingot, a thin, sharp little being. He didn’t want to have to kill him, so he raised one hand and offered—nothing. He looked down and his leg was gone. No pain. No horror. Just falling, sliding to the floor, and the Ingot standing over him, chuckling.

He blinked open his eyes.

The nurse was still there, still peering. Her brown eyes were crinkled at the edges. She was pretty, neat with short, stylishly cut hair, over fifty, and worried. Very worried.

“Sir? I need you to sit up so I can make a proper assessment. Can you do that?”

Keeping his face as neutral as possible, Max raised his upper body, expecting to list to the right since one leg was gone. But he didn’t. He scowled at the end of the bed and the outlined forms of two legs lay there in front of him. He carefully lifted the sheet that covered his lower half. Yep. Two legs. He peered up at the nurse, one eyebrow raised.

She beamed. “Yes, we managed to save it. You were nearly dead when they brought you in. Honestly, I never saw—but never mind. You pulled through, that’s all that matters, right? Now, I just need to take your vitals. You can lean back against these pillows—”

She pummeled a couple of pillows into submission and then, with a gentle shove; she pushed him back, still beaming. “There now. Feel better?”

Max opened his mouth but closed it promptly. What could he say? Did he feel better? He did not feel well. But was that better than how he had felt? How had he felt? Blinking, he realized that his head ached. He touched his head and tapped around. It did not feel like his head. It was bumpy and hard with no hair. His eyes widened as his gaze darted to the nurse’s face.

She stared at an instrument panel; worry crinkles around her eyes again. “Yes, your—skull—was damaged but we were able to replace the missing part.” She glanced at him and patted his arm, a confident smile replacing the worry. “And your brain is completely intact.”

Max shook his head. “I thought my leg was blown off. I had no idea—”

The nurse tapped a console and raised her finger for momentary silence.

Max waited.

She tapped the last time and turned to face him, offering her complete attention. “No, your leg was damaged, but it was your head that received the worst of the blast. You can thank Captain Kimberling that he got you here in time, or we may not have been able to save you. Your friend, Mr. Abanaber, has asked about you every day—for weeks.”

Max bolted straight up. “Weeks? How long have I been unconscious?”

The nurse glanced at the console. “Exactly three Lunar cycles. I honestly didn’t expect you to do anything this different this morning. I’m so glad you woke up. Doctor Mangham will be here momentarily.” The nurse adjusted a tray near the table with studious concentration. “She wrote up a review about you for a prominent scientific journal. You’re the first android she ever worked on. And such an—”

Max shook his head. “But my leg was blown off. The Captain was taken and Abanaber was nowhere to be found—”

The nurse titled her head and smiled indulgently. “You were just dreaming. A nightmare, I’m sure. After all, it was a serious explosion. Stupid accident. Someone didn’t pack their materials properly, and then you came too close with your magnetic—”

Max almost rose from the bed, but a sharp pain to the head forced him to freeze. Holding his head in his hands, he moaned. “I can’t dream. I’m an android; I—”

The nurse chuckled. “Well, maybe you were an android once. Not anymore. At least not completely. I saw the pictures. The doctors were amazed. They wanted to do further studies, but of course, they needed your consent. It was Kelly who saved your life, really. She was the assistant on the scene. When the emergency team realized you were an android, they were going to turn you off in order to make the necessary repairs, but Kelly insisted that they check your brain functions first.”

The nurse leaned in and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Your android brain is overgrown with the human neurons they placed in you at creation. If they had turned you off, they would’ve never have been able to turn you on again.” She straightened up and adjusted the sheet. “You’re a lucky man, Max Wheeler. Most humans add mechanical parts and turn into machines. You, on the other hand, have changed from a machine into a man. A miracle, if I may say so.”

She turned to leave. “The doctor will be in shortly. Get some rest. You’ve awoken into a whole new life.”

Max watched her leave and lay back on his pillows. He blinked and felt an odd ache behind his eyes. Apparently being human involved some level of pain and discomfort. But then—he considered the possibilities—human?

He smiled as a tear traced its journey down his cheek.

Lilliputians

“It’s the little things that tie us down—you know—like the Lilliputians.”

Adam snorted, his eyes stayed glued to his phone. “Life’s what you make of it, Grandma.” His attention wavered. She said something he couldn’t catch.

He scrolled. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” There were three new messages, and he was itching to check his Facebook and Twitter pages. His stomach rumbled. He checked the time. Sigh. He knew his duty. “Hey, have you eaten yet, Grandma?”

Her puzzled frown annoyed him. It was a simple question; it shouldn’t cause brain strain.

“I—I don’t think so…. But don’t worry. I’m not hungry. You go ahead and check your box now and then we can chat.”

On autopilot, Adam scooted the kitchen chair out and sat with his arms propped on the table. There were a lot of posts to scroll through…and through.

A sudden bang snapped his head up. Grandma’s stricken expression propelled him to his feet. She stood in the middle of the room staring at the fallen teakettle as if it had flown through the window. A pool of steaming water slowly spread across the floor.

“You okay? Did you burn yourself?” The stovetop was glowing red and the kettle spout smoked like a chimney. Adam gritted his teeth as a wrenching pain punched his gut. He led Grandma to the table.

“Here, sit down. I’ll clean up. What were you doing anyway?” He grabbed a towel and tossed it over the wet floor. The twin pools of confusion and disappointment in Grandma’s eyes sent another twist to Adam’s gut.

“I just wanted to make us a cup of tea—for our chat.” She plopped down heavily on a chair. Her right hand stayed fixed with the palm up.

Snatching a potholder, Adam conveyed the kettle back to the stovetop and turned it off. He plucked ice from the freezer, wrapped it in a paper towel, and handed it to Grandma. “Here, put this on your hand.”

“Why?”

“Cause you burned it, see? It’s red there. Might blister. Dang it, Grandma, you know you’re not supposed to touch the stove! Just let me do it next time, okay?”

Grandma blinked back tears and straightened her shoulders. “I’m not a child—or a loony—you know. I can still make a cup of tea!”

“Sure, sure. I know. I shouldn’t yell. Just Mom will get so mad that you got hurt under my—”

Adam’s phone chimed. He snatched it up and stared. “Oh, brother! Some idiot just plastered a bunch of political slogans on my page.” He barely glanced at Grandma. “Just a minute, I gotta—”

Grandma shook her head as she rose and returned to her tea making.

An hour later, Adam looked up. Grandma’s place was empty. A cold cup of tea with a slice of lemon balanced on the saucer and a little cookie sat before him. He stood and looked around. Her washed teacup lay neatly drying on the drain board. Long evening shadows slanted across the tidy kitchen.

Adam tiptoed down the hall. “Grandma?” He peeked into her room. There she lay, sleeping peacefully on her bed, her hands folded over her trim waist. She’s really a beauty—funny I never noticed before.

~~~

Two months later, Adam sat beside Mom on the front pew at church. Grandma was laid out in her finest, and her hands once again rested in quiet repose over her neat, trim waist.

Mom’s shoulders shook as she covered her face with her hands. Dad wrapped his arm around her and leaned in. “You were always there for her, honey. Now, it’s time to let go.”

Adam stared straight ahead. All he could see through his parched, unfocused eyes was a cold cup tea with a slice of lemon on the side. His phone vibrated in his pocket. But he only felt the sharp snap of strings breaking.

This Devil Doesn’t Lie

man_baby

Clare flopped down on her bed with her arms spread wide and her legs dangling over the edge. A black cat jumped forward and curled up on the pillow, nearly blanketing Clare’s face. With a nudge, Clare pushed the shorthaired feline aside. “Hey, you, pillow-stealer!”

The cat blinked, yawned expansively, and then laid its head back on the pillow.

After slapping the light panel off, Clare nudged the cat to the side and wiggled contentedly under a thick blanket. “Ah, nothing like a well-deserved rest after a long, hard day’s work.” She closed her eyes, murmuring, “Nothing you’d know anything about.”

Only a faint moonlight shone through the window, illuminating the sharp edges of her dresser and a couple wall pictures. With the pleasant sensation of drifting into dreamland, Clare’s lips curled into a contented smile.

“Clare.”

Clare sat bolt upright. She knew she had heard a sound, her name, but who— She blinked and swallowed, her mouth half open. Peering over the sleeping cat, she braced herself. Nothing. She frowned. Her eyes scoured the darkened room as she tensed for the slightest noise. Silence. With a shake, she gripped the blanket and pulled it tight around her shoulders and lay back down.

It took a little time to release the tension in her body, but soon her muscles relaxed, and she felt a comforting drowsiness claiming her.

“Clare, I must speak with you.”

Shooting like a star across the room, Clare was in her robe and slippers before the cat could slip out the door. She swiped her Dustbuster off the dresser and held it firmly with both hands, aiming at the door. “Who are you?”

A long, weary sigh floated like a ghostly scent through the room.

Clare twirled like a ballet dancer, nearly falling off balance. “What the hell?”

“You’ve forgotten me? I’m affronted. Saddened, actually. I thought seeing me in person would forever sear me into your memory.”

Clare lowered the weapon as her formerly pink face blanched of all color. She slapped at the light panel, illuminating the room. “Damn you!”

“I certainly hope not. Unkind, Clare, very unkind!”

“Show yourself!”

Omega appeared in the center of the room. He stood, dressed like an ordinary Newearth human in loose fitting, black pants, a light blue sweater, and brown loafers. He lifted his arms and twirled like a model on a showcase runway. “Like it? The very epitome of ordinary. I’m trying to blend in, you see.”

Clare raised the Dustbuster again. “Why are you here?”

Omega snapped his fingers and the Dustbuster instantly rematerialized as a stuffed animal—a pink and purple giraffe. “Please, stop playing ridiculous games. I have very little time, and I have a score to settle with you.”

Clare stared at the stuffed animal, her eyes widening. She threw it against the wall and glared at Omega. “A score with me? I should be the one—”

“Yes, of course! You made it quite clear in the courtroom, before my nearest and dearest, what you thought of me. A devil you called me. You have no idea, Clare, really, no idea at all.”

Pressing her hands together, as if to hold them back from spontaneous combustion, Clare shook her head. “You play with us like toys.” She glanced at the stuffed animal that now lay forlornly in the corner.

Omega huffed. “Because you don’t understand, you lie about me. How human! I simply won’t stand for it any longer. Why do you hate me? Or rather, why do you think you hate me?”

Clare’s breathing rose and fell in shuddering gasps. “You—killed—my—parents! And then you wanted to analyze my suffering—”

“Lies, lies and more lies. I did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I saved your life. Your parents died of poisoned stew, true, but to be quite honest, I don’t know who poisoned them. But I did realize that someone intended to wipe out your whole family, so I went out of my way to make certain that you were safe. I watched over you like a devoted father hen.” Omega paused, one eyebrow rising.”I’m not sure that works.” He shrugged. “Anyway, when I asked you questions, it was to get to the bottom of the mystery—to protect you.”

Clare stood rooted to the floor. A flush spread over her cheeks. “It can’t be. You never cared.”

“I always cared.”

“No!”

Omega stamped his foot. “I don’t have time for this! I have to leave soon, and I have a request to make.”

Clare stared stone still and silent.

Omega stepped closer, his gaze boring into Clare’s. “Watch over Justine and the child. That silly idiot named her Aurora. How cliché. Like some Disney film. Oh well, I didn’t endow Max with the creative talent I offered Justine—poor fellow. In any case, I’ll soon be—how shall I say—indisposed for a time.”

Clare stepped forward. “But there’s trouble coming, something called Cosmos is on the loose—”

“Yes, I’ve heard. Unpleasant, but then biological life is always perilous. Ask the Bhuaci, they know.”

“But I can’t protect Justine or anyone, not against Cosmos.”

Omega laughed. “By the Divide! I never expected that. I want you to protect them from each other.”

“What?”

Omega looked up as if listening to an unseen alarm. “Time’s up. I must be going. Remember what I said. I saved you once, now save my family. After all, it’s only fair.”

In a blink of blinding light, Omega disappeared.

Clare found herself standing in the middle of a silent room. The cat meandered back onto the pillow and settled in for a contented slumber. Clare stumbled over to the edge of the bed. Her gaze slid to the multi-colored giraffe in the corner. She stood and snatched it off the floor. Tossing it on the bed, it landing peacefully next to the cat.  Clare shrugged. “Go ahead; you two sleep. I surely never will.”

Every Word

Lawry considered the long, red scratch on his face. “It’ll leave a scar—that’s for certain. Just the luck! Spiteful bush! Clip a few branches and wham—raked across the face. Well, I was never handsome to begin with….”

Lawry dabbed the dried blood with a wet tissue and stumped past his unmade bed to his littered desk. A cup with dried fruit juice, a scattering of cereal flakes, and bread crumbs testified to where he ate a majority of his meals. Tottering piles of books crowded around his computer. He fell into his chair with a sigh.

His mom had knitted him a blue hat with his name in scripted, bold, red letters across the top L-A-W-R-Y three Christmases ago, but never having the courage to actually wear it, he had placed it jauntily on his stuffed monkey who adorned the top of his computer like a good-hearted, though rather mischievous looking, angel.

Maximus Monkey, Ruler-Of-All-He-Surveyed, was the main character in a series of comics that Lawry had been working on for years. A moldy orange rind had somehow landed on Max’s shoulder. Lawry winced, and pinching the offending bio-matter in two fingers, he pitched it into an over-filled trash can. He tucked Max’s arm against the wall for better support. Though the little monkey still leaned, at least he wasn’t in imminent danger of careening to the floor. Lawry peered under his desk, his eyes widened. “Oh, wow! I really need to do something about this mess.” He looked for a broom, but as none was in sight, he returned to his computer screen and hit the power button.

He checked his mail. Nothing but spam. No agents or publishers begging rights to any of his stories. He checked the news. “Yep—the world’s going to hell in a hand basket—as usual.”

He opened his recent story page and stared at the blinking cursor. What could he write about that he hadn’t already written? What story was left to tell that hadn’t been told a million times over in cyberspace—a universe filled with unread, unloved stories?

A light knock drew a grunt from Lawry’s middle.

The knock tried again.

Lawry grunted again, a little louder, a little more articulately. “Yeah, what?”

A young boy, Jimmy, stuck his head through the opening. “Mom said thanks for cutting the hedge, and she’s making—hey, you get cut?”

Lawry rolled his eyes. Jimmy had an exasperating habit of stating the obvious as if it was headline news.

“Yeah. It’s nothing.”

Jimmy took those three words as an invitation and crept into his brother’s inner sanctum—holy ground—albeit a messy holy ground. A badminton racket dangled from Jimmy’s hand.

Lawry shifted his gaze away. He wasn’t an outdoorsman as today’s battle with the hedge surely proved. He sighed, his shoulders slumping even further. He leaned in towards the computer screen, tapping keys aimlessly. Just look busy.

“What’re you working on?”

“Nothing.”

“How about Maximus? He doing anything?”

Lawry’s gaze shot to the skinny eight-year-old. How did the little twerp manage to stay so skinny? He ate at least as much as any ravenous jungle animal Lawry had ever read about, but he stayed stick-thin. Metabolism. Lawry shifted his heavy frame in the chair. Damn metabolism.

“Can you read me something?”

Red, hot blushing fury filled Lawry. It was ridiculously unfair. Here he’d written his heart out for three long years, read every book there was about the art and craft of writing comics, joined clubs, took on-line classes, worked at a stupid, menial job on the side just to pay his fair share while he still lived at home—yet nothing. Not one,

“Dear Mr. Lawry Lawrence,

             We would love to represent you—”

Not even “—like to represent you—” heck even a “—we’d consider representing you—” would be a joy. But no, week after week, he received: “Your work does not fit our needs at this time.”

Lawry glanced at Jimmy’s hope-filled eyes. He was a lonely little kid. Doesn’t seem to make many friends at school. Just hangs out with his stuffed animals, mostly.

Lawry’s hands dropped to his lap. “Well, I don’t have anything new—not really—”

“That’s okay. I like all your stuff. How about ‘Maximus Meets a Moon Alien?’”

“I read that a hundred times. It’s—well—not one of Max’s favorites.”

Jimmy slid to the edge of Lawry’s bed and leaned against it. A stuffed rabbit peeked out from his pant’s pocket.

Lawry tapped his fingers on his desk and stared straight ahead, unblinking. He cleared his throat. “Maximus doesn’t have any favorites. Not anymore. Max is thinking about moving away. Maybe getting a real job—in the real world.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened, fear rippling across his face. “But Max can’t go! He can’t leave here. At least not till he saves his Monkey clan—like he’s always planning….”

Lawry felt the lump in his throat rise before he realized that his eyes stung. “Maximus can’t save anyone, Jimmy. He’s really a rather unimportant little monkey. He’s decided to settle down and stop all this adventure nonsense. Can’t be a silly monkey forever, you know. Gotta grow up sometime.”

Jimmy brushed back tears with the back of his hand, pretending he wasn’t.

Lawry glanced out of the corner of his eye. He reached up, lifted Maximus off the computer, stared into Maximus’ read-for-anything eyes, and passed him over to his little brother. “You take him. Maybe with you, he can have some fun. He’s tired of being stuck in down here every day. Go play badminton with him—or something.”

Jimmy slid Maximus under his arm uncertainly. “We can’t play alone….”

Lawry huffed a long drawn out sigh. “Oh, what the heck. We’ll play together. Max can watch.”

~~~

Two weeks later, Lawry sat at his computer desk. His face was almost healed, though he had been right, there was a scar. His desk was clean, the floor was swept, and his bed was neatly made. He placed one last sheet of neatly printed paper onto a stack and clipped it into a large, red binder entitled in bold blue letters:

THE ADVENTURES OF MAXIMUS MONKEY

By Lawry Lawrence

For Jimmy Lawrence on his Ninth Birthday

Lawry snatched car keys off his dresser and hustled outside with the binder snuggled under his arm. Jimmy was swinging Maximus from a long “jungle rope” in the backyard. Lawry smiled as Jimmy trotted over.

Jimmy pointed to Max. “He hasn’t given up his adventures—see? He’s back in the jungle and leading all the other monkeys to safety.”

Lawry grinned. He could almost see the entire herd as they swung from branch to branch under the green canopy. He patted Jimmy’s shoulder. “Listen, I gotta go to work now, and I probably won’t be back till late—but I wanted to give you this. It isn’t much, I know, but you always liked my stories. I figure they’re best in your hands.

Jimmy hugged the binder—his eyes wide. “Wow! You sure? I mean—I can’t believe it. Now I can read ‘em whenever I want. I can read them to Max!” Jimmy scurried back to the tree, untied Max’s dangling arm, and showed the little monkey the cover of the binder. Max’s face glowed.

~~~

Fifty-six years passed, and Lawry sat in a wheelchair near a bright window. His mind wandered endlessly after a severe stroke and the ravages of diabetes took his body places he never intended to go. Speaking was a challenge now, but he could hear as well as ever. His ears were cocked for the light tread of his brother returning home in the evenings. The shadows are growing long. Soon, he’ll come. He’ll sit with me awhile—he always does. Green day—almost feel—

The door opened and Jimmy stepped in, heavier, stooped a bit, and gray hair crowned his head. “Hey, Lawry. The grandkids were going through the attic over the weekend and guess what they found?”

A bald-spotted, dustier version of his former self, but still staring out of those read-for-anything eyes, Maximus Monkey landed in Lawry’s lap. Lawry blinked. His hand, as well as his voice, shook as he lifted the adventuresome critter. “I—almost—remember—”

Jimmy chuckled as he scraped a chair near, into the dwindling sunlight. “Don’t worry. I remember every word.” Jimmy leaned in, patted Lawrey on the knee, and grinned. “Once upon a time, there was a monkey named Maximus, and he had grand plans—”

Save Our People From Despair

faye

Despair is an ugly thing. When my mother sent me away after the invasion—little did she dream of what she exiled me to—hopeless dread and futile guilt. With her hands, she pushed me away, yet with her heart, she clung to me.

“Come back when you can; save us if you can. But at least one Bhuac must survive. And it must be you!”

I did as she demanded. I took the transport on docking bay one-one-four and headed out into the universe and away from certain Bhuaci destruction. I was protected only by a gruff, Ingot merchant named Buford, who needed someone to blame when things went wrong, which, with his clumsy skills, they often did. I accepted every menial job: collating orders, checking the ship’s inventory, noticing when things went missing, and even tracking down a guilty thief once. I was a Bhuac of all-work-and-no-play and served in every role imaginable, servant, advisor, director, detective, even guard on occasion. Being a shape-shifter, I could cover my quaking insecurities with hulking forms and menacing fangs.

But I never played the part I longed to return to—Faye, a gentle, beloved daughter. Even as a friend I would have felt some satisfaction. But Buford was not interested in friends. He was interested in units, the more the better. Profit was his closest kin.

Then one day we headed toward a planet I had never been to, a rising star on the horizon, called Newearth. Buford told me its colorful history, the demise of Oldearth, the Luxonians’ protection, the Cresta invasion, the Inter-Alien Alliance Commission. Something in me stirred for the first time in uncounted cycles. I longed to visit this new horizon, but Buford changed his mind, and we veered toward the Divide and a greater profit margin.

I waited.

Then a new opportunity struck. A traveler boarded, a hidden figure who merely said that he was heading to Newearth. His name was Gabriel. He appeared human, as I did on most occasions, but I sensed he was Bhuaci, like me. Knowing our own planet’s desolation and our sister planet’s demise, I could understand his desire for secrecy.

Gabriel paid Buford well to take him to Newearth. My imagination stirred, dead hopes rekindled, but I could not break free of my employer. How could I? I had no one to turn to, nowhere to go.

As we approached Newearth, Gabriel tossed a satchel he always carried over his shoulder and offered Buford his final payment. Buford held out his data-pad, tapping his foot. He had contacted a Cresta merchant who was to meet him on the other side of the planet. I stood by, watching, an unnamed grief wringing my soul. Then Gabriel surprised us both.

“Here, that should cover all costs.”

Buford glanced at the data-pad ready to pass it to me when his eyes widened, and he pulled it close and read it again. “What’s this? Trying to play some kind of game?”

Gabriel’s brows furrowed. “I never play games.”

“But it’s too much, by half or more. We agreed on twenty-five and this here’s near fifty. You’re Interventionist, aren’t you? Trying to catch me out! Well, it can’t be done, I’m an honest—”

Gabriel waved Buford’s concerns away. “Nothing of the sort. It’s just that I plan on taking your hired help with me. She’ll be quite useful on Newearth, and you’ll find another—”

“Not one as good! By the Divide, I’m not letting her go. She’s going with me to—”

Gabriel faced me and bid me come closer. I was in my favorite fairy-like form, lithe with large, almond eyes and shining, golden hair. I stepped nearer, hardly daring to breathe. Gabriel smiled down at me and clasped my hand. “You’re one of our own. So few of us left.” He turned to Buford. “If you don’t release her, I’ll charge you with enslaving a Bhuaci against her will. I happen to know someone on the Inter-Alien Alliance Com—”

“Take her, then! Good riddance. I only hired her for pity’s sake. She’s so timid and all. You’ll find that out.” He looked slyly out of the corner of his eyes. “And when you tire of her, send her back. I’m too soft, I know, but I’d hate to see her come to ruin on some dirty street.”

With a nod, Gabriel led me toward the debarkation tube. I had nothing to carry with me, so I accepted his direction and started away. I only looked back once. Buford had turned away.

When we arrived on the Newearth Main Street, I was overwhelmed by the bright, bustling energy all around. This was like no planet I had ever seen before. I thought my heart would burst with excitement. Gabriel continued to hold my hand as we scurried across the street and up to a tall building with large, gleaming windows.

I stared up at the brilliant structure set against the blazing, blue sky. “Where are we going?”

“Home. Temporary of course, but it will do until you become accustomed to your new role.”

My gaze dropped from the building to Gabriel’s face. “My role?”

Gabriel bent down at my side. “The one your mother assigned you—savior of Bhuaci.” As the sun beat down upon his golden head, a light shone in my eyes. I could barely see him, but I never forgot his words. “I’m your mother’s friend and your friend too. Your family sent me. I’ve been searching all these years. Now, finally, you will save our people from despair.”

My eyes filled with tears. So, I had a friend, a home, and a mission too. But who would save me from despair?

To Make a Difference

outlookspaceman

Soul-Searing

Autumn is always bittersweet and beautiful―like a memory. I am nearly fifty now and yet my childhood seems as close as the doorway. More distant, and more painful are the memories of my sons. I had only two, Joseph and David, both fine young men, each born with a high sense of duty. One is dead now and the other might be soon. People tell me that I can’t change anything―that fate is what it must be. I try to accept that. But the memories haunt me, like autumn. They beguile me with their sweetness and then frighten me with what comes after.

I grew up endowed with a mission to change the world. I was going to be somebody. My relations going all the way back to Adam and Eve were much the same. It must be something in our genetic code. We were the branch that reached for the sun and was never content to live in the shade of another’s glory. My father was a radio broadcaster and my mother was an artist. They both strove with straining hearts to be great at what they did. You probably never heard of them. Few ever did. But they lived and died believing that they made a difference. And I guess that is all that really matters, believing in yourself. At least, that is what David keeps telling me.

It is late now, and the house is quiet. The cicada came out late this year, and I can still hear them in the evenings joining their songs with the crickets and the frogs. It makes a low, pleasant hum, always in the background, like the music in a movie. You aren’t always aware of it, but it affects your mood and soothes, or warns you, as the case may be. Right now, the evening sounds are soothing. There are no dreadful winds screeching against the windows or thunder hammering on the roof. Right now, I feel peaceful and even a little drowsy. David should be home soon. His shift ended at 8:00 P.M. but he said it might take him a little longer as he was going to talk to his director about his options. That is what he calls it, his options.

War broke out again four years ago and I thought that Joseph would stay out of it, but since he was trained as a psychiatric nurse, he saw it as his duty to join up as soon as possible and help out in whatever way he could. I admired his patriotism. Everyone did. After all, we had not looked for war. It came to us, landed in our laps when extremist terrorists set off bombs in our cities. There have always been problems in the world and tensions were especially high with threats at the time, but I had always figured that we were secure, our lives would remain on the periphery of events. I had hoped that living in the countryside might shield us. But fate crosses all boundaries and Joseph was determined to make a difference. He wanted to save people. He wanted to be helpful. How could I blame him? Over a thousand people were killed in those attacks and more died in the following battles. War comes at a cost. But I hoped that it would not cost the life of my son. I am not sure why I thought he should be exempt. But I did. I honestly thought that he was too good to die.

So now I sit here trying to make sense of my memories and trying to decide what I believe. If fate rules us, then it really does not matter what I believe. I can sit here until Doom’s Day, and nothing will change. But if fate is just an excuse for not accepting our part of things, then perhaps it does matter. Maybe I have more to do with Joe’s death than I realize. Maybe David still has a chance.

~~~

Kurt and I were older when we got married. It took us a long time to find each other. We were like that song―looking for love in all the wrong places. But eventually, we met right where you’d expect two Catholics might meet, in a church. It was at Christmas time and we were both out of college, and it turned out we had some friends in common. It didn’t take us long to decide that we wanted a life together. It did take a couple years to pay off old debts and clear out our lives so that we could make room for our marriage. But once that was taken care of, we went forward and had a big wedding, inviting everyone near and far. We’re both believers, but not terribly involved in church activities, except around holiday time. Our lives revolved more around our work. I had been endowed with a missionary spirit, teaching in poor neighborhoods while Kurt had worked as an English as a Second Language instructor. Both of us were zealots. Both of us wanted to make a difference. And both of us were rather tired and worn out by the time we got married.

It took us three years to have our first child, but there was never a more anticipated bundle of joy than out little Joe. Suddenly all our zeal was directed toward this tiny little baby. It was as if no other baby had ever been born before, the way we acted. Kurt made every birthday a major holiday and started to teach little Joe the letters of the alphabet and how to play ball when he was barely old enough to toddle across the floor.

I was intent on providing the best home and the nicest, most delicious meals ever created by any mother anywhere. The poor child never had a chance to know moderation. Moderation just wasn’t in our vocabulary. If he even got a sniffle, I ran him to the pediatrician so fast that the doctor would usually just tell me to turn around and go home, giving me nothing more than an encouraging word and a slight sigh. Joseph either had a great immune system or we frightened every illness away before it had a chance for Joe grew up as healthy as an ox. He grew big too. The other kids in school used to say that he ought to try out for football, but I’d never let him. It was too risky. He had a smart mind and I didn’t want his head broken in some game which would only decide the fate of a team for a season. I wanted my boy to make decisions about far more important things. Luckily Kurt agreed with me. Kurt would read him stories by the hour about famous men in history. That boy went to bed dreaming about knights in shining armor and martyrs who suffered for their faith. Though we lived in farm country and envied farmers their knack for bringing fruit from the earth, even if it was simply acres and acres of corn or beans, still we never saw ourselves as farmer types. We had the missionary spirit. So when Joe grew up and chose medicine as his field, Kurt and I smiled in complete understanding. This was something worthy, something grand that could make a difference in the world.

Joe joined Peace Corps after college, and Kurt and I were so proud of him; we could hardly contain ourselves. We sent packages and extra money to support him through the two years he spent in the Philippines. He got Typhoid while he was there, and Kurt thought about going over to check in on him, but Joe told us not to come. His letters became subdued. Joe seemed to be changing in ways I couldn’t understand. I wondered if he was depressed, but Kurt said that he was just seeing the world as it really was and that sobered him up a bit. Besides, everyone was telling me: “Joe’s his own man now; he’s over twenty-one; you need to let him be.” It wouldn’t do any good to worry anyway. I had no control over the world or my son anymore. There weren’t any options I could veto.

When Joe arrived back in the states one blistering hot July day, he met us at the airport looking like an overgrown scarecrow. He had lost so much weight that I barely recognized him. He was tanned but his face was gaunt with exhaustion. I was appalled, but Kurt gripped my arm and told me not to mother him. He was a man now. Joe needed to tell us what happened in his own way. At least Kurt realized that something had happened. But as we drove through the city noise of Saint Louis back toward the rural quiet of Illinois, I waited expectantly for Joe to say something, for him to tell us his story. He didn’t.

He hardly talked that whole drive home and he talked very little for the three months that he lived with us before he found a job in Washington D.C. He didn’t seem to care about anything except getting busy someplace far away from us. I couldn’t understand. I thought my heart might break. I had always considered myself a wonderful mother, but now I wondered what I had done wrong. Why didn’t Joe seem to care about me, or his father, or even his little brother? Joe and David had never been especially close but they had been good friends. Now it was as if they hardly knew each other.

David was finishing college, and he was busy with dreams of his own. He seemed grieved by the change in his brother, but he didn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. I remember David came to me as I was sitting on the porch watching the sunset one evening and said, “Don’t worry about Joe, Mom. He’s made his decisions. He can’t go back to being your little boy anymore. You’ve got to accept that.”

I had no idea what David was talking about, but it seemed to be the advice everyone was giving me. Even Kurt told me not to worry. Joe was a big boy. He would make his own way. And he did. He made his way right into a psychiatric ward where he was helping men who had returned from the war with serious mental conditions. He was a very capable nurse and he got along with everyone, well, almost everyone. It was one of his own patients who killed him. Shot him in the heart. I never knew how a patient got ahold of a gun. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. Joe was dead and that was all I really needed to know.

At his funeral, the director of the hospital came over and shook my and Kurt’s hands and tried to console us. He looked me right in the eye and said that Joe died making a difference. I had to believe that was true. But I couldn’t understand why it was supposed to make me feel better. After all, if he was making a difference, wouldn’t it have been better if he lived? How did his death serve anyone?

It wasn’t until Kurt and I was cleaning out Joe’s apartment, when I came across his journal, that I began to understand the man my son had become. I found the journal tucked under a copy of The imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. I had heard of the book, but I had never read it, and I was surprised to find it among Joe’s things. I had been more afraid of finding girlie magazines, but there was none of that. In fact, his whole apartment was rather Spartan.   Kurt put a few of books in a box and then he said he needed to make some phone calls. He left the room and didn’t come back until later that evening when I was about done. I wanted to be angry at him for leaving me to work alone, but then I realized that he couldn’t help himself. Kurt wasn’t the kind of man who could cry in front of people, even me. He needed to be alone to deal with his grief. I figured pretending that everything was okay was the nicest thing I could do. Sometimes not talking was our way of getting through things.

I gave most of Joe’s stuff away, but I kept the journal. I couldn’t read it for over a year. But then in late September the following year, I picked it up after lunch, and I didn’t put it down even to make dinner. Kurt had gone to a game with some friends, and David was living on campus. I was completely alone. I wish I hadn’t been. It was an experience that seared my soul forever.

I’ve Played My Part

The first part of Joe’s journal was much like what I would have expected. He was obsessed with his work, and he wrote about the people he worked with and the things he was doing. But then he wrote about a series of nightmares which were haunting him and his reflections about what they meant. Then a few entries later, Joe finally admitted that he was struggling with his faith. There was a long time lapse between entries at this point and when he finally started writing again, he wrote about his experiences in the Philippines. He had become good friends with a girl there, and he had even thought about bringing her home and marrying her, but then he discovered that she was pregnant. His friends warned him that he would be in a lot of trouble, so they advised him to help the girl get an abortion. Abortion was not an option for this girl or Joe either, but her father found out, and there was a big scene and Joe discovered that he was in bigger trouble than he had realized. The girl’s father wanted Joe to marry her right away, and Joe knew that his dreams for the future were seriously compromised. A friend got him some medicine that was supposed to end the pregnancy quick and easy. Joe gave his girlfriend the medication, telling her that it would make everything better. She believed him and took it and soon became so sick she nearly died. The baby miscarried and Joe transferred to another village. After that, he fulfilled his time in Peace Corps as perfectly as possible. He wrote that he never even looked at another girl for a long time. He tried to put the whole event out of his mind and promised himself that he would make up for his mistake by being the best nurse he could be. And everything seemed to work out. Except that he couldn’t completely forget the girl he once believed he loved, or atone for the past with promises for the future. Nightmares haunted his nights.

I sat there sobbing, hugging Joe’s journal, thinking that my son had died a tormented man when I realized that he had left three pages blank before his last entry. When I thought about it later, I realized that perhaps he had left those pages blank for a reason. Maybe he had wanted to mark the place in his journal with white pages, to show the difference in his life. In any case, Kurt came home before I could read that last entry, and it was a long time before I could pick it up again.

Kurt never drank much but occasionally when he was out with friends they would stop by someplace and have a few beers. This particular night, he had had more than a few. I wondered at him as he came in swaying haphazardly and I asked him if he wanted anything to eat, but he just waved me away. He said he had finally realized that his whole life was a sham. He was never any hero, and he had never accomplished anything. The world would be better off without him. I was shocked and hurt. After all, if his life was a sham, what was mine? What was our marriage? I couldn’t understand this pit he had suddenly fallen into, but I did have sense enough to realize that a good night’s sleep would probably help, so I pretty much agreed with everything he said, and I helped him to the bedroom. I gave him a back massage and let him mumble himself to sleep.

As I watched him lying obliquely on the bed half dressed, since I couldn’t manage to get him completely undressed or completely straight on the bed, I realized that this was our life. A half-done life. We had the ideals and the zeal, but we didn’t have something that made things really work out properly. I wondered about that as I made my way to the living room. I didn’t bother undressing either, for I thought Kurt might get sick in the night; he wasn’t a drinking man and this little bout with the bottle might have other unpleasant consequences. So I just piled up the couch pillows, and I lay in the dark living room and thought about what I had read in Joe’s journal. I don’t know why I didn’t just get it and read the last entry, but I felt so overwhelmed that I couldn’t take one more emotional revelation. I just lay there and wondered what Kurt had meant by his life being a sham. Was his life really a sham? Didn’t he love me? What did that say about my life? I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I awoke to the sound of Kurt calling me from the bathroom. There were other unpleasant consequences all right.

That spring David graduated from college with an engineering degree. He had decided that he wanted to specialize in aeronautics and though I didn’t see the “big plan” David seemed to feel that there was one, and he needed to be a part of it. The war had slowed down and was rolling along like many modern wars, mostly on someone else’s turf. I read on-line reports and I wondered if anyone would ever find a way to convince leaders that killing each other’s young people was no way to solve our differences. But I could see the necessity of protecting the innocent. After all, “the only way for evil to conquer was for good men to do nothing.” I had always believed that. So had Kurt and Joe. But now Kurt was submerged in doubt, and Joe was dead. I had a hard time lifting myself to the heights of idealism that I used to love.

During that spring and early summer, Kurt seemed to be getting ill a lot. He lost weight and looked tired all the time. I urged him to go to see a doctor, but he insisted that it was just a summer cold and he’d get over it. He didn’t. By the time he finally did see a doctor, the cancer had spread throughout his lymph nodes and into his bones. It had progressed to the point where even the specialists didn’t think he had much time left. They were willing to do chemo treatments, but Kurt said that he was too old and too tired to fight that hard. He was ready to go. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt like I never knew my husband at all.

By the fall, Kurt was in the hospital a lot. I would go see him after a full day of teaching and spend the evening with him before I went home to shower and get ready for the next day. As we sat there in that white walled room, we would sometimes watch TV or we’d talk about stuff on the news. Kurt always enjoyed discussing current events, and he loved history so he’d often tell me everything he knew about the countries that were in the news. He loved sharing his knowledge. That was one reason he had been such a wonderful ESL teacher. He was smart, and he cared about the people he worked with because he knew something about them and where they came from. He had always seen a connectedness between people and events. Yet now, as he slowly succumbed to the ravages of cancer, he didn’t see himself as being particularly connected to anything or anyone. When I asked him why he was so ready to leave me and David behind, he said, “I’m done – that’s all. I played my part and though it wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, still, I gave it my all. Now it’s my turn to go off stage and let someone else take over.”

I remember; I wanted to slap him. I wanted to beat him on the chest and tell him that he wasn’t God and no one said he could slip quietly into the dark night. But even as I was shaking with fury, I wondered if I was being fair. Kurt had a right to face his death in his own way, and I should be glad he wasn’t suffering any worse. I should be relieved he was accepting his fate. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I was troubled. My heart was hurting and my head was aching. Nothing seemed to be making any sense. I tried to reach back to my youthful sense of high purpose but it was elusive. Everything that used to comfort me was slipping through my fingers. I sat there, the blinds closed against the blazing August sun and Kurt fell into one of his evening naps.

I wondered at my stomach crunching distress. I could feel the familiar ache in my middle and knew that inner turmoil was one of the worst pains in the world. I tried to talk myself out of my suffering. If Kurt was accepting his fate, why couldn’t I? If Joe had died making a difference, then what good did it do to grieve over his death? Was I was just lonely and frightened? No, I had friends, and I was certainly capable of taking care of myself. Though I was losing my best friend, I didn’t need to think I was losing my whole life. My life would still have a purpose. I would still be a valuable person, and I needed to accept what I could not change. But somehow all my reasoning just made my stomach clench harder and my brain whirl that much faster.

Late one October afternoon, one of Kurt’s students came by to see him. He was an elderly Asian man and though many of Kurt’s students had come before to say hi and engage in some kind of humanitarian kindness, this man, I don’t even remember his name, was the kindest of all. He didn’t say much, but as Kurt was sleeping, he just came over and shook my hand then he knelt by Kurt’s bed and began to pray. I was taken a little aback. I wasn’t sure what religion this guy was or who, exactly, he was praying to, but his sincerity was obvious. He stayed there kneeling for what seemed like hours but was probably only just a few minutes. When he got up, he smiled at me and just whispered as he left, “God knows.” I have absolutely no idea why those words comforted me so much, but they did. I could actually feel the knots in my middle unloosen a little and though I didn’t knee on the floor, I did bow my head.

Certainly, I had prayed for Kurt just like I had prayed for Joe. A priest had come in and anointed Kurt. Our faith had been an intrinsic part of our lives. But suddenly, I saw things from a different view. It was as if I was looking at my life from a new perspective. In my youth, I had always been trying to make a difference. Then as tragedy entered, I tried desperately to grasp its meaning. Everyone advised acceptance but that had seemed cowardly, elusive, a run-away kind of thing. But there, as an October rain drizzled against those never-opened windows, for a brief second, I grasped what I was missing.

Twinkling Stars

Kurt died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. We hadn’t planned much since he was so ill but several of his relatives had come to town for family get-togethers so, in a way, it was good timing. Everyone was close, and the funeral was arranged without difficulty. Kurt had insisted on making out a will as soon as he knew he was seriously ill, so money matters slipped into place easily. David came home from his work at NASA, and he did everything he could to help me out. He was as good and kind a son as a mother could want. But he didn’t talk much about his work. He just said that there were a lot of wonderful possibilities in the future, and he wanted to explore some of them. I knew he had always been interested in space exploration, but as he turned his attention toward engineering and then toward planes, I figured his childhood fantasies of traveling to far off planets had vanished like other vaporous dreams. It turned out I was wrong.

His dreams had never died and as he faced a world in turmoil and the deaths of his brother and father, his dreams seemed to revive with alacrity. Even during that wet and cold November, he would sit out on the porch in the evenings watching as the sky turned from misty-grey to solemn-black. When I came out and asked him why he didn’t come inside where it was warm, he simply said he was watching for any stars which might break through the clouds. I remember telling him that any stars which broke through a November night were more likely to be airplanes or aliens, and he just chuckled and said, “Maybe so, maybe so.”

I finally had the courage to read the last chapter of Joe’s journal that winter, and I could have kicked myself for waiting so long. It turned out that Joe had met someone in the hospital that he really admired, and he had shared his turmoil with him. The man, whose name was Dr. Scanlon, was just starting out, but he must have had been born with the wisdom of the ages for he told Joe that his mission in life was not defined by his mistakes but by how he handled his mistakes. Apparently, Joe got a new lease on life, and he realized that he would never be a perfect man. That job had already been taken. He was called to be as good a man as he could be, and when he slipped up, he was called to stand back up and try again.

I realized as I read this, how common place those words seemed. They were the kinds of things I told my fifth graders. But I understood that Joe had grasped them on a whole new level. I suppose someone would say that Joe had been born again. He suddenly seemed to believe that his life had a meaning beyond what he could fully grasp. And that encouraged him. “Thank God,” I murmured as I sat there on my bed once more rocking and hugging his journal to my chest. “Thank God.”

The next time David came home for a visit, I handed him Joe’s journal and told him he’d enjoy the last entry. David only smiled and said that he probably knew more about Joe than I realized. Joe had called him the day before he died and said that he was thinking about asking out a particularly beautiful intern.  They had laughed together, and David said he felt that Joe was relieved of a heavy burden. I just stared at my son and asked him if there was any hope that I would know him before I died, and he smiled that bewildering smile he has and said that he would share more―if he could. I just sighed and shook my head. David then did one of the most surprising things he has ever done. He took my hand and he led me out to the twilight sky and he pointed to the stars. He said, “Look up there, Mom, and tell me what you see.”

I told him I saw a multitude of twinkling lights that scientists tell me are really balls of burning gas bigger than the earth and that though I believe them, I’d be equally content to have them just be twinkling lights.  David has such an infectious laugh. I had to laugh with him. We stood there, him holding my hand like a little boy again, and he suddenly turned to me and said, “What if I told you that out there lies the hope of humanity? If only we have the daring to realize it?”

Well, what could I say? What would you say? I remembered my youth and I felt a strange flicker of hope and life. I felt his excitement. But I also felt a ripple of fear. What was he about to do? What was he about to risk? So I looked at his upturned face and I asked him, “What do you mean? Tell me about it.”

So David explained. He told me all about how he was working on the design for a settlement on Mars and how one day he hoped to be part of a mission which would initiate the first building efforts on Mars. There was even talk of him being a part of the next space mission so that he could better prepare himself for that experience and have a better understanding of what would be needed for a lifetime in a space settlement. I stared at David, much like I had stared at Kurt, wondering if I ever knew the man in front of me. I asked him why he had never shared these plans with me before, and he chuckled again.

“Some of this is not for the general public, Mom, and besides, it still sounds strange even to my ears. I wasn’t sure I could handle the bewildered expression I see in your eyes now. There was a time when I would have doubted my sanity for even dreaming of such things.”

“But now?”

David had grinned. “Now I feel a confidence born of grace. I trust that if God wants this done, it will be done. And I’ll be the man to help do it.”

There was so little I could say at that point. I realized that my whole life had been the humus of this dream. David’s dream, like so many others: Christopher Columbus, Einstein, Albert Switzer, Mother Teresa, had borne fruit not from the desert of fantasy, but from the nurturing love of family who dared to believe in things, who dared to dream big dreams even when those big dreams ended up being little more than a life well lived or a death well faced. I stood there as the clouds passed away and the stars broke through, twinkling their hearts out. I held my son’s hand and I never wanted to let him go.

So the Earth continues to revolve around the sun in its allotted course, and seven more years have passed. David has been on two space missions, and now, he has to decide if he will go on this last one. This will be a mission which will take him further than even my imagination can travel. He will begin a new phase in his dream. He will be a part of a team that will begin building a settlement on a very, very distant planet. He will likely spend the rest of his life working with robots and men who have sacrificed everything for a home very different from this one. He’s never been a coward, and he doesn’t expect to start now. I always wished David would settle down and have a family, but now I see how that was always impossible. He was a man born for a mission. I guess, we all have our missions. Perhaps mine was to give life to such a man and to plant a seed of daring hope.

Have I made a difference? Did Kurt? Surely when Kurt read those stories to the boys, he made a difference in the kind of young men they would be. He did as much as I to form them, not just their bodies, but their very souls. Kurt died believing his mission was over. Joe died trying to help an insane man deal with his suffering, hoping to have a family of his own someday. His life was about never giving up. My mission?

The winds have picked up, and I can hear David’s car pull into the driveway. He said he would come home tonight, even if it was late. It’s nearly midnight. It is raining now and there is a rumble of thunder in the distance. I suppose, he has accepted his mission.

I suppose I have too.

The forecast says that the temperature will drop tonight, down to the forties. Winter is on its way. Autumn can’t last forever. No season ever does. I left some chicken and fixings on a plate for him. I guess I’ll warm them up and sit with him awhile. I even made a few chocolate brownies. They’re his favorite.

The Key

oldkeyWhen people say they’re haunted, it usually conjures up images of ghosts and wraiths. But that’s not how it is with me. Six words, a beard, and the tap of a hand haunt my days and nights.

I’m probably as ordinary as a person can get, living a typically mundane life. One particularly innocent day, my client asked me to run a few papers by a local nursing home. Easy? Sure. Safe? Not so much.

I was running a tad behind schedule when I pulled into the parking lot—a totally nondescript building with a colorful banner emblazoned with “We’re so glad to see you!” rippling in a cold, February breeze. Turning from that cheery message to the field, not a half-mile away, I encountered a decided mood-changer—a prison yard.

Brushing dark comparisons aside, I hurried inside and ran smack into a large common dining room. Old folks milled about, aimlessly, it seemed. I spotted a nurse-type in her flowered top and waved my manila folder stuffed with my client’s “important papers.” A quick explanation and the flowered top flew off in hot pursuit of the needed signatures.

So, I just stood there, looking about, pretending I wasn’t looking about. It got awkward—real quick. I perused the menu, listened to the laugh track playing on a large screen television, and studied the “Report Abuse Here” sign. I turned around and surveyed the room. Any sign of abuse?

A couple old guys slumped at a table, one with his head down and his eyes closed, though his legs were in perpetual motion, the other chattered away undaunted by his less-than-enthusiastic audience. Several figures slept in front of the television, while a young man cleared tables nearby. Several old gals, the lively ones of the bunch, were looking my way. Oh no. One, with a crippled leg, limped toward me. Lord, did she think she knew me? What did she want? Where could I hide?

Too late. She’d seen me. Stretching out her hand, she reached for my arm. Would she fall? Tackle me? I searched wildly for a nurse, an aide; frankly, anyone under seventy would have been a Godsend at that moment.

I watched her hand reach out—and she patted my arm. I managed a squeak. “Need help?” After a brief smile, she limped on, her gaze focused on some mission up ahead.

“Nope. Just glad I can still get around.” She sounded like she meant it too. I looked at my arm, where she had patted me. Had she seen my panic? Was she comforting me?

The flowered-shirt nurse trotted up, a satisfied smile alerting me to her success. “The director said you should come back next week for—” I hardly heard the next words. Next week? Come back? Here? Dandy. I marched to the double doors, shoved the handle, and promptly set off every alarm in the place.

The following week was as busy as a spring tornado, but everywhere I went I saw that hand, felt that gentle pat, and heard those bloody, comforting words “Just glad….” Life is a mystery. I thought I had accepted that long ago. But now, I was a mystery to myself. When the manila folder was thrust unceremoniously back into my hands, I drove back to that parking lot overlooking the prison yard.

Squaring my shoulders like a soldier facing combat, I marched myself through the doors, breezing right by some old guy sitting in a wheelchair by the front glass doors, his gaze searching the parking lot. Must be waiting for someone. Maybe a son with grandkids—something like that. Sure.

In a moment, I stood before the throng of elderlies, searched for the flower-topped nurse, but instead a large man in blue lumbered over. Taking my manila envelope like a precious charge, he snail-paced away. Okay—so what’s on the menu today? This week? Any card catalogs I could peruse? I skirted by the Elderly Abuse notice.

Weakening, my gaze traveled the room. Before I realize what I’d done, I had stepped further into the room. A woman on my right sat at a table and gazed up at me, her eyes wide and frightened. Was she afraid of me?

I looked away—fast.

A man rocked in his chair—back and forth—while another woman talked and talked though not a soul was listening. The woman on the right cleared her throat. She leaned in, shoulders hunched, using every bit of courage to speak. Without warning, her gaze plunged into my own.

“If you’d just give me the key—I could get out of here.”

My heart stopped. Or it jumped to my throat. It certainly wasn’t where it was supposed to be, doing its job. I tried to say something, but no words would form on my lips. Desperate, she repeated her plea.

“If you’d just give me the key—I could get out of here.”

Lord have mercy, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I met the man in blue half way across the room and bolted for the door. The old man didn’t even flinch at the breeze from my passing, his gaze stayed fixed ahead, scanning the parking lot.

I spent the next week trying to rid myself of the echo in my mind, “If you’d just give me the key….” And the feel of my empty chest, where my heart should have been, the pat of a gentle hand, and the horror of knowing that the man in blue was going to wheel that old guy back to the common room—alone.

By the middle of the week, I needed serious therapy. But as that was not an option, I confided my hauntings to a friend of mine, Sammy, Sam for short.

Sam is a dear girl—woman—person, I suppose. In her own way. She listened patiently enough, and then she began her lament. It’s the government’s lack of decency, a selfish bunch of…causes all our troubles, religious zealots, insensitive relatives, you name it—Sam had a name to blame. When I finally admitted to myself that she wasn’t listening, I went home to the tune of “If you’d just give me the key….”

In fact, I never intended to go back to that nursing home. But in some kind of Christmas Carol twist, my client discovered one more signature was needed.

Fate, sure enough.

This time I came prepared. I ducked my head and shielded my eyes from the prison yard; I whizzed by the old man by the front door; I ignored the menu and practically knocked over a scruffy bearded kid who loped along to the center of the room. Flower-shirt was back, and she didn’t need to ask. She just plucked the manila folder from my grasp and suggested I sit and enjoy the live music before she trotted off.

Live music?

The kid who looked like he had slept on a park bench all night unslung a guitar off his back and sat down in front, smiling, nodding at people like he was having a good time. Joking even!

I leaned against the wall, prepared for nothing. The kid’s dark, lanky hair, tattered jeans and threadbare jacket told their own story. He sang country stuff mostly, though he’d stop to answer a question or change tunes at a request. He and the old folks exchanged teasing jibes. Obviously, he’d been here before.

I gazed around the room. Most of the folks had gathered around. The sleepers stayed put—in their own worlds. Some folks rocked, some stared, a few drooled as was their way. But the woman from last week smiled up at the kid through shining eyes. No mention of a key. And the front-door guy had wheeled himself in, one foot tapping away.

Suddenly the manila envelope was thrust into my hands. But I wasn’t ready to leave. Why? I don’t even like country music.

It’s been months now, and I’ve never gone back. But I am haunted, I tell you—haunted by a gentle pat and a scruffy young man—with a key.