Wilfred tapped his watch. “You’re late.” His voice rasped and broke into a hacking cough.
I paused in front of the park bench, catching my breath. “That watch hasn’t kept time in years. It’s ten on the dot, you old codger.”
Wilfred reached for the tray of coffee I’d brought. “Ah, the good stuff,” he said, squeaking the lid off his steaming Timmy’s cup. “Much obliged, Lenny. The kitchen police wouldn’t budge on the decaf this morning.”
With a firm grip on the back of the bench, I lowered my arthritic hips to the wood slats. “How was your breakfast?”
Wilfred took a cautious sip of his coffee and closed his eyes in prayer. A wistful expression softened his features. “Ordered my usual—two slices of bacon, crisp, two eggs, sunny side up, side of potatoes.” With a blink his wistful expression fell away. “Got oatmeal. Again. What’d you get?”
“A fruit plate and a scoop of cottage cheese. They actually called it a scoop, as if you might mistake it for ice cream.” I opened the paper bag wedged between the two takeaway cups. “Glazed or chocolate?”
“Glazed, if you don’t mind,” Wilfred said, unfolding a paper napkin and smoothing it out against his knee. Crows flapped in the sky above, chasing a raven with loud caws. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Wilfred took a dainty bite and fought his dentures to chew it.
“Cold,” I said, noting the chill of the fog coming off the lake. Years ago, a young boy drowned in that lake.
He dismissed my weather assessment with a wave of a gnarled hand. “Every day you wake up on the right side of the lawn is a good one, especially when you’re almost ninety.”
Old Wilford was a scant eight years older than me. “I suppose next week when you hit that landmark, you’ll be lauding the healthy lifestyle and clean living that got you there.”
Wilfred’s face broke into a wide grin. “I hope so. Been practicing my new lines.” He cackled, which brought on another coughing fit.
A mallard drifted into the shallows close to the bench. It craned its neck and gobbled up the crumb I’d tossed.
We finished our illicit treat and then Wilfred folded his napkin and tucked it back inside the paper bag. “Well,” he said, patting his bony thighs, “I’d best be getting back.” He leaned on his cane to get to his feet.
“Tomorrow? Same time?” I asked.
“God willing,” Wilfred said, as he straightened his overcoat. “I’ll buy. See if I can find a treat with a scoop of something you might like,” he said, and his laughter broke down into a sputtering cough.
“Get on home, old man. Take a nap.”
With a smirk, he turned and started his slow walk back to the assisted living residence he called home, a few short blocks away.
I’d met Wilfred in this very park. Cancer had taken my wife, Helen, ten years earlier, and the house seemed to get bigger every year. My youngest found a care home in the neighbourhood. Said I’d be safer there and have some company. I didn’t need safe—couldn’t muster enough speed to run with scissors. And damned if the constant company wasn’t downright annoying.
Every day I would escape to this park. Four years ago, old Wilfred dropped down on the other end of my bench, like I’d invited him. Even then he’d been wheezing and sputtering. But we got to talking, and I learned he too had escaped a bunch of blathering neighbours.
Ever since, we’d been taking turns bringing the contraband. He passed a Starbucks on the way to the park, I passed a Timmy’s.
I’d miss the old codger when he was gone. I stood and started back home trying not to think too hard about how close that day might be.
The next morning, Death came to visit. It’s a regular guest when you live in a care home. It’s familiar. It no longer causes a fuss. Unfortunately, Death stopped on my floor this time. Damned inconvenient if you asked me.
Somehow, I’d managed to pull on my overcoat and slip into the hallway before it was clogged with the usual drama. I looked to the elevator. The caution sign was already out, barring its use until the morgue’s gurney drew the event to its inevitable close.
Personally, I’d rather not bear witness. I knew the routine. Didn’t care to see the slipper-clad neighbours who would soon gather in clumps, unsure if they should be happy or sad it wasn’t them. And I sure as hell didn’t want to be here when the family showed up with red-rimmed eyes, wads of tissue and packing boxes. They’d drag out the event for hours.
As it was, I would be late. I buttoned my coat, then turned and headed for the stairs.
My tardiness would delight Wilfred.
A fine mist painted the park’s asphalt path black. I straightened as best I could and caught my breath. The old coot sat slumped on our bench in the distance. I’d have to take my licks this morning.
Wilfred tapped his watch as I approached but didn’t say a word—a pretty weak effort for Wilfred, considering our lengthy running shtick.
“The morgue got a new customer this morning,” I said, sparing Wilfred the details we both knew all too well.
I took a seat beside him. With a palsy hand, he lifted a cup to his lips. He looked paler than usual and hunched against the cool mist. I reached for the coffee he’d brought me. It was stone cold. Guess that was the price for being late.
I settled my back against the hard bench and filled my lungs with damp air that smelled of moss. The day already felt like a blur. I closed my eyes in an effort to picture this morning’s clearly forgettable meal. Gone. It was disconcerting how easily events slipped away these days.
Fat raindrops dripped from the leaves of the nearby maple, splatting in puddles around us.
“Well,” Wilfred said, dabbing at his rheumy eyes with a twisted napkin. “Guess that’s it. Time to get these old bones home.”
“Tomorrow, then,” I said. “Get some rest, old man.”
He leaned on his cane to stand then gazed out across the lake. “Safe journey, my friend.”
I chuffed. “Says the old man with the cane. Don’t you worry about me.”
Without another word, Wilfred turned to the chore of picking out a path home. Sure hope the old bugger made it to his ninetieth. I leaned back and closed my eyes to the mist, enjoying the quiet of the dull day.
“Excuse me, Mister,” came the voice of a young boy. I blinked my eyes open. He’d given me a start. “Have you seen my dog? He’s just a mutt about this high, black and white?” he said, levelling his hand at about two feet from the ground. The boy’s red and white striped tee-shirt needed to see the inside of a washing machine.
“No, can’t say as I have. Did he run away?”
“Dug under the fence again.” The boy dusted off his faded jeans and hopped up on the bench beside me. He put me in mind of the young lad in that old television show . . . what was the name of it?
“Momma says if I don’t find him by lunch, I gotta go on home.”
I checked my watch. “It’s already half past twelve.”
“I don’t wanna go home.” He swung his feet and the soles of his black high-top sneakers brushed against the grass under the bench.
The boy screwed up his face. “Liver. Momma made liver sandwiches. I hate liver.”
Little man after my own heart, I thought. “Me too. Nasty stuff. What’s your dog’s name?”
The boy’s face brightened. “Ranger. Short for Lone Ranger,” he said, puffing out his small chest.
“Good name for a dog. What’s yours?” A smattering of freckles dotted the bridge of his nose.
“Jeremiah. Jeremiah Boone.”
The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t grasp why. “Lennox Grady,” I said, and offered my hand.
He put his small hand in mine and straightened. “Pleased to meet you, mister,” he said, parroting a parent’s lesson in manners.
A duck paddling in the lake’s shallows upended itself. “How long do you think until your momma comes looking for you?” I asked.
A frown flitted across his face. He hadn’t thought of that. He shrugged his scrawny shoulders and looked down at his knees.
“I gotta go,” he said, and hopped off the bench. “If you see Ranger, tell him to go home, would ya?”
“Sure will.” I watched Jeremiah wander off, uncertain if he was headed home.
But I, assuredly, was. I stood and took a moment to find my balance. The drizzle had let up and the asphalt path was grey again in spots as I wound my way to the park’s entrance. Up ahead, a woman who looked an awful lot like my late wife Helen caught my eye. Damn glasses. I took them off and pulled a tissue from my pocket rubbing first one lens and then the other.
Golden years, my ass, I thought, and re-settled the glasses on my nose. I set out again, and the park’s bronze dedication plaque caught my eye. I stood in front of it and tipped my head until I found the sweet spot in my lenses and read . . .
in memory of Jeremiah Boone
A cold draft that felt an awful lot like senility set goosebumps running up my arms. I suppose I could now add dementia to the long list of ailments I enjoyed courtesy of the golden years.
I turned around and headed back home. Once through the glass front doors, I looked back the way I’d come. I couldn’t remember the walk. Anxiety squeezed my chest. I had half a mind to check for my marbles rolling down the hall.
Perhaps I needed a nap more than Wilfred today. I set out for my room and nodded at a familiar face, Charlie, I think. He stared through me, oblivious. Would that soon be me?
I passed the juice station and halted. Three women hunched in a doorway gawked toward my room. Two men sat side-by-side, their walkers within reach. They too stole glances in the direction of my door.
An Easter-coloured care aide strode into my room. I followed and jerked to a stop. The walls were bare. Empty hangers hung askew from the open closet door.
Confusion clouded my vision. I scrambled to remember my morning. Scenes drifted through my mind like smoke. Wilfred had given me grief for being late . . . or had he only tapped his watch? I thought back to our conversation. Safe journey, my friend.
Safe journey. I looked out into the hallway. The woman I’d seen in the park approached, tentative.
“Hello, Len,” she said, offering a smile I’d only dreamed about for more years than I remembered.
I darted a glance at my empty bed. “What’s going on?” I asked the care aide. He ignored me and picked up a box from the dresser. I pressed my back against the wall to let him pass back out.
Helen stood in the empty doorway with a sorrowful expression on her face. “Only the dead can hear you now,” she said, and held out her hand. “It’s time to go, Len. Let me show you the way.”
~ The End ~
JP (JO-ANNE) McLEAN writes supernatural thrillers and urban fantasy that readers describe as unique, intelligent and addictive. She is best known for her series, The Gift Legacy, which sells internationally and has been featured on indie blogs around the world. Her work has earned honourable mentions from the Whistler Independent Book Awards and the Victoria Writers’ Society. JP makes her home on Denman Island, off the coast of British Columbia. Visit her at https://jpmcleanauthor.com.