The old man lay listening to his rattling breath. The walls were barren, antiseptic-white and broken only by an overly cheerful sunflower painting. The room had been closed all winter. The air was stale, windows shut tight, curtains drawn. He pressed the button to summon a nurse.
He remembered back when he could have run a marathon, but now the mere effort to press a button exhausted him. “Always face your enemy from an equal position if you can’t take a superior one,” the chief used to say. He forced himself to sit up. The nurse arrived exuding the cool confidence of the very busy.
“Yes?” Even her words were clipped as if to pronounce them fully would take too much of her precious time.
“Can you open the windows? It’s stuffy in here,” he asked.
The nurse stared at him a moment longer than was polite. “It’s only fifty degrees. It might be spring, but it’s not warm yet.”
“Just a crack?” He gave her his best smile. The smile his wife had said could charm the devil himself.
The nurse hesitated, no doubt thinking about foolish old men and their irrational demands. He knew it was cold outside. He wanted to feel the breeze, smell the spring air. For all he knew this was it, and damned if he was going to spent his last day cooped up in a musty old room.
He held his breath. Until with a tiny shrug, she crossed to the windows in four quick steps. She pulled the curtains opened and then pushed a single window open. Just a crack, but it was enough. He leaned back with relief, his battle won.
“No, thank you,” he said. She was gone before he could change his mind. So busy these nurses. Always rushing to and fro. He’d love for one to stay a moment, to chat, to really listen.
The spring breeze lifted the curtain, bringing its goose-bump-inducing chill. But the breeze also brought the scent of freshly tilled dirt – too early for mown grass he decided. He pulled the covers up around him, wrestling with the heavy blankets until each breath came as a painful gasp. Settled, he strained to catch a hint of birdsong. His ears caught his neighbor’s windchimes instead. She’d passed away last fall, but no one had removed her chimes. Warm blankets and the sound of the chimes like a lullaby. Head sinking into the pillows, he dozed.
He woke in a panic, his lungs struggled to draw breath. Something wasn’t right. He wasn’t alone. He peered around, straining through eyes foggy with age and sleep. There. A black shape standing back near the chairs. A black shape. Small. The breeze lifted her hair. Her? Yes, a girl. She was too small to be a nurse. Had she gotten lost? The silence between them grew uncomfortable. She was waiting.
He coughed to clear his throat before speaking. “Visiting your grandparents?” She shook her head.
No? Why was she here? This was an old folks home. Everyone here was dying while she was…he paused. Understanding seemed to settle around him. She was there for him. Even though he had no children, and so had no grandchildren, she had come to visit him. He sat up. What now? He needed to entertain her, keep her from getting bored. Kids got bored easily, right? Now that she was there, he didn’t want to leave.
“You know, I used to be a detective,” he started. He peered into the spot she stood to gauge her response. The girl seemed to be surrounded in a dark fog, but she tilted her head to one side when he spoke. Encouraged, he continued, “I could tell you about my first murder mystery.”
She moved closer. Yes. What child could resist a scary story? He chuckled. “It was pretty early in my career. Back then, Newcrest didn’t have much crime. Just the occasional missing cat.” He smiled at the memory. “Oh, Miss Penny was always misplacing her cats. And we didn’t think this call was too serious either. A woman had locked herself out of her own house.”
“My partner and I arrived to help the lady in distress. I was a fair hand with lock picks – you’ll never believe the places those cats got into – and before long we’d gotten the door opened. Easy enough.”
“But inside we saw a different story. Her husband was lying on the kitchen floor. Obviously dead. Obviously murdered.” The memory was as fresh as if it happened yesterday. You didn’t forget your first dead body.
“We were all shocked. Remember, we didn’t get murders back then. The lady of the house was mess, we had to find out where she kept the smelling salts before we got any sense out of her. Claimed she’d been away all weekend on a knitting trip. Of course she was also our prime suspect. It’s usually a relative or someone the victim knows that does them in. We questioned everybody. The wife, the friends, the coworkers. No one knew a thing. I figured our first murder was headed for the cold case files.”
He closed his eyes remembering his disappointment. When he opened his eyes they were twinkling with merriment. “Then we got a lucky break. I found a man who knew a man who knew a man – you know that kind of thing – who knew our victim from back before he’d moved to Newcrest. Seems he was originally from Willow Creek and he had been part of the mob there. But, on purpose or by accident, he came here, found himself a lonely wife and married into respectability. All seemed well until his past caught up with him in his kitchen.”
The case had been his big break. Made him a proper detective. The girl was hooked on his story, moving closer with every sentence. “It was his wife of course,” he explained. “She was all tears until the truth came out. Then she changed fast. Said she’d found out about his past, and more importantly, about his other wife. Turns out the man was still married when he married her.”
He yawned as his story grew to a close, his eyelids heavy. “She got so mad she hit him in the head with a frying pan, then locked herself out of her own house as an alibi.”
The girl wavered close in front of him, but he was too tired to focus, he closed his eyes. The cool breeze conspired against him and soon he was fast asleep. A deeper, cleaner sleep than the frequent naps he’d grown accustomed to. Naps normally ended all too soon in coughing and panicked gasps for breath. When he woke this time, it was an easy thing. The girl was gone, of course. He sighed. She had been a good listener.
His loneliness was short lived. The next day the girl was back and he told her about his honeymoon trip to Al Simhara. His first, and only, big vacation. As he spoke he could feel the remembered heat soaking into his aged bones and the tilt-a-whirl feeling of newly in love.
His breath came easy as he described the pyramids and markets and spices and the sand. Again, he slept soundly after.
“You remind me of my wife,” he told her when she appeared on the third day. Today she stood close enough that he could see her clearly. Blond and pale with a smile that lit up her sparkling blue eyes. He’d fallen in love with those eyes so many years ago. “You’re like the daughter we never had,” she moved closer and he lifted his hand to touch her cheek. But his arm fell back onto the bed, too heavy to lift. Just like his chest. Each breath caught painfully before completing. The weight of the blanket was suffocating.
“Another story?” he asked, breathless.
“Does it hurt?” she asked. Her voice surprised him. It echoed softly in the room, as light as the spring breeze. Twice as cold. Her voice made his bones vibrate.
She stepped forward and took his hand in hers and made his lie truth. Her cool skin like felt like cream again his own calloused palms. He took a deep, clear breath, filling his lungs with the fresh spring air. His eyes closed.
The two did not move or speak for a long time. Then a movement, perhaps, or a sound made the girl look up.
“Hello, uncle,” she said.
“IT IS TIME.” His voice was like the girl’s, only deeper. It made everything living cell tremble.
The girl nodded and let go of the man’s hand. She stepped the foot of the bed.
“SO, HE WAS YOUR FIRST.”
“He was very sweet. I reminded him of his wife.”
“THEY SEE WHO THEY WANT AT THE END. IT WAS GOOD?”
“Yes. He just needed someone to listen to him one last time.”