A flat green line blips up, then down. A frail old heart beats and beats a slow, rhythmic drumroll to call on Death. With the first up blip, the clock on the wall sounds its first resonant tock.
The man is surrounded by friends and family. His wife sits in the hospice chair, holding his hand. He doesn’t know, but can feel it anyway. Every breath is pained and slow. He is unconscious now, but somehow aware of their presence. Some primal part of him is waiting for them to depart. He doesn’t want them to see the green mountains leveled to a flat plain. It’s his last gift to them, the people who found themselves by his side at the end.
He dreams of heaven.
∞ ∞ ∞
His watch reads 6:47 p.m. There’s a crack in it, and it’s hard to make out the exact time because his hands are shaking. His other hand grips tightly to the hood of his ruined Mustang. It’s blue, and had been the most beautiful set of four wheels he’d ever owned.
A police officer steps out of his car, his uniform crisp and his face lacking any signs of age. Late twenties, perhaps; certainly not of an age to understand what the man was dealing with. The officer had the man’s license in his hand, pressed neatly against a white slip of paper. His young hands pass the paper and worn piece of plastic over to the old man.
“You need to get your eyes checked, sir,” the officer said sternly. “We got lucky this time.”
There was a pause. The old man was still reliving the loud noise of the crash. He couldn’t believe it had come to this. The words spoken to him by the police officer went unheard.
The police officer let out a huff. “Do you need a cellphone to call someone?”
The old man nodded glumly. But when the officer’s cool phone sat in his hand, the old man realized he wasn’t entirely certain what number to call. He stared dumbly down at the phone, his own face reflecting off of its surface. It was lined with deep wrinkles. His hair was thin and white. His seventy-secondth birthday would be coming up soon.
And then, like God Almighty had looked down upon him and decided to give him one last favor, a phone number floated into his head. As he prepared to push the numbers on the dial pad, the time at the top of the phone changed. It read 6:43 p.m. He dialed.
∞ ∞ ∞
He pushes the door open, hoping to change out of his business suit and into something more comfortable. Instead, a sudden discordant song is started from within. “He’s a jolly good fellow, he’s a jolly good fellow, he’s a jolly good fehhallow, which nobody can deny!”
A banner is strung across the room. It says “Happy 40th!”in fancy letters. A group of friends, family, and close coworkers have congregated beneath it. His wife stands at the forefront, smiling happily. Its twin squirms its way onto his face, and he thanks everyone profusely as a dozen birthday wishes are given.
He gives his wife a sweeping kiss for the surprise, never mind how it is the Big Forty. Everyone gives their obligatory aww and then the ravenous traitors meander over to the food table that has been filled with cooked items he hasn’t seen before now. His wife is capable of working some real magic sometimes.
He grabs a plate and piles some fruits and a small cookie onto it. His brother, at the solid age of 47, ambushes him there. “So, the big 4-0,” he says with a grin. “Welcome to seniority.”
“Don’t listen to him,” a good friend replies from the man’s other side. “Haven’t you heard? Forty is the new thirty.”
“Maybe so, but trust me, brother, things can only go downhill from here.” His brother laughs. “Or uphill, I suppose. Get a good retirement, and life can be easy as pie. That’s the line they’ve been trying to sell me, anyway.”
“That’s because they know you’ll believe it.” The man chuckles at his brother’s feigned offense, and then he dives into the crowd with his food to entertain the party guests.
He still wishes he’d had a chance to get out of these work clothes before the party, but he supposed he could suffer them a little while longer.
The clock on the wall moves left.
∞ ∞ ∞
He tugs at the sleeves of the nice black suit he’s wearing. There are no clocks in the church; no one wants to encourage restlessness on such an important day. Still, he knows it must be nearing time. He can see his mother in the front row, wearing what he knows to be her Sunday best. She is getting on in years, he realizes. Her hair is turning a steely gray.
He sees his father sitting on the left group of pews. There’s a free seat on either side of him. The old man is solemn and cold, almost to the point of intimidation. The man is honestly surprised that his father even bothered to show up. The old man had met his soon-to-be-fiancé but once in the several years they’d known each other. The groom wonders halfheartedly if God would consider it a sin that he wished his father hadn’t come to such a happy event.
To his left are familiar faces in his life. His brother, who has a stupid grin on his face even now. His best friend, and best man. A few others, all very dear to him.
The church bells call out the hour, and two deep chimes resonate through the building. The ground vibrates slightly underneath him. When the churchbells fall silent, the pastor gives their pianist a meaningful look, and then another kind of sound fills the room.
After the expected wait time, the man’s young niece comes down the hallway, a decorated basket in one hand. She’s beaming, and tosses blue flower petals in the air. He wants to laugh. The little girl is reveling in all of the attention.
Following shortly after are three women in elegant, though not too fancy, blue dresses: his fiancée’s sister and maid of honor, along with two of her best friends. They are all somber. He remembers back to right after he first proposed, when the two friends said, mostly in jest, that they’d cut his heart out nice and slow if he ever hurt the love of his life. Rather than be intimidated, he’d admitted to being grateful that his wife would always have people to fall back on, should he be incapable of doing so. He thinks those words endeared them to him.
His eyes stayed at the door even as the bridesmaids made their slow way down the aisle. She’s as beautiful as an angel, he thinks, and never mind the cliché. What else are they for if not to attempt description of something too beautiful to describe?
When they say their “I do’s,” a great rush of exhilaration sweeps through his blood. He means every word of their vows. Every one.
After the ceremony is over with, the newlyweds get in their car to make the short drive to the reception. The clock on the Mustang’s dash reads 1:15 p.m.
∞ ∞ ∞
He wears a somber black robe that cannot match the pride and exuberance that is threatening to crack him open. A few medals hang from his neck. He’s surrounded by over a hundred similarly dressed men and women.
There’s a solemn elderly man at the podium, in a similar sort of garb, droning on and on about the world and the generation of people who had dedicated several years of their life to make it better. This is the moment that could change his life, he’s certain of it.The young man can’t believe he made it. It almost takes his breath away.
The man on the podium finishes his speech, and it’s time for names to be called. The second person to ascend the aisle is the beautiful young woman he’s had by his side for over three years now. The promises they’d made to each other. To go forward from this day as they’d done any other day in the past: together, supportive, not holding the other back from great things. She wants to move to the coast. Perhaps they’ll get married right before. Maybe they’ll wait a few more years, as his mother suggests.
He admires her poise, even though he knows she’d been practicing in those heels for days now. He knows her greatest fear is to trip on the stairs, but he always knew she wouldn’t, and he is right. She accepts her diploma and receives handshake after hearty handshake from the dignitaries lined up after the podium. When she descends the stage, she finds him immediately in the crowd. Her smile wins his heart all over again.
When it’s his name they call, the pride and exhilaration make way for doubt. Change is scary. He makes his way to the podium with as much dignity as he can muster. It’s there, though it feels almost like a front. He fears all this work will be for nothing, that he’ll find himself poor and struggling, that this moment will mean nothing in the end.
But that doubt quiets as he walks up to the line of dignitaries. Here and now, he’s accomplished something big. He accepts his diploma. The whole world never felt so within his grasp.
He finds her face in the crowd, too. The doubt is still present, but it’s faded. He offers a smile of his own.
∞ ∞ ∞
A young boy sits in silence, his backpack at his feet. The car slows, and he catches his first glimpse of school. A dozen other girls and boys are spilling out of cars and entering the building. It’s so much bigger than his house. He suddenly wishes not to be there.
He anxiously checks the digital clock on the dashboard of his father’s car. It reads 7:02. He can sense his father is getting impatient in the driver’s seat. The young boy can’t decide which is worse: to stay in the car with him or to go out and brave this new place with all these people he does not know.
Finally they roll to a stop close to the school’s open doors, and the lock clicks open. He unfastens his seatbelt. “Have a good first day,” his father says.
“I will,” is his automatic response. He ducks out of the car with his bookbag and silently follows everyone inside.
Several friendly-looking adults stand in the building, looking up last names and giving directions. He waits in line, looking at his shoes so as to avoid making awkward conversations. When it’s his turn, the teacher smiles brightly. “You’re in my homeroom, actually! It’s that way,” she said, gesturing to one side of the hall, “Three doors down. The one with the star on it.”
He mumbles a quiet thank you, and goes to search for his classroom.
It’s as sparse a class as the other two he passed by, and there are already several seats taken. He chooses one in the second row, away from other people, and sets his bookbag on the ground beside it. His older brother promised that school’s not so bad, but the young boy isn’t sure he could trust his older brother to tell the truth in this.
Another boy enters the class and slides into the next seat over without asking. The stranger throws his hand in front of him, and the young boy feels obligated to take it. “I’m Michael.”
The boy gives his own name.
“That’s a cool name. I think we’re going to be the best of friends.”
If that is how easy it is to make friends, he thinks, then perhaps school won’t be so bad after all. He settles further into his seat and waits for class to begin.
The clock reads 6:55 a.m.
∞ ∞ ∞
In the early hours of the morning, a baby boy takes his first breath. His mother’s hair is slicked back from sweat, and she’s exhausted. The father is notably absent. The baby cries as he is weighed and checked by the doctors.
When he falls into his mother’s arms, though, some part of him recognizes safety, and he falls silent. The mother smiles down tiredly at him.
“Do you have a name picked out?” The doctor asks.
“James,” is her tired response. “His name is James.”
The name agrees with the baby. His brow furrows as he concentrates on holding a smile to his face.
There is a clock on the wall. It lets out one last stuttering tick, and then there is nothing but silence.