Nathan managed a foot on the platform, but then had to hold on to the rail to drag the rest of his decrepit body up the steps. It always took too long, and though the bus driver never said a word, the other passengers always gave him hard and cruel looks. He couldn’t help it. He was eighty-four and no longer allowed to drive, so it was the bus or nothing. He feared soon enough it would be nothing. God knew how his knees hurt. He sat heavily on the bench just behind the driver where there were plenty of metal bars to hang on to in the turns. Once he was settled, his lower back shivered as the muscles let go of their great effort to keep him upright against the hard pull of gravity. Of course Lisa, his nag of a daughter wanted him to take the metro, but there were steps there, too. Besides that, even if the walls were white and the lights were bright, there always seemed to be something of a going-down-into-the-pits-of-Hell about the place. Nathan preferred the sun, even if the bus windows were terminally dirty and it looked like rain.
Nathan looked down at his suit jacket. It was terribly wrinkled. He supposed he could have it dry cleaned and pressed, but he had long since given up getting to such places on his own. He knew he could ask Lisa. She would do it, but she would also pay for it and more important, he would pay for it because she would use that as an excuse to start going through all of his things and weeding out what she did not like or what she did not think was important. His hand came up to smooth out some of the worst of the wrinkles, but all he saw was age spots and more wrinkles where his hand used to be. Getting old was as hard as gravity. He let the winkles lay, like sleeping dogs, and decided that no one would notice an old man in a disheveled suit, and if they did, they would not care. He might have sighed, but he used up all of his sighs ten years earlier.
Nathan looked at the other passengers to pass the time. There was a young man about mid-way to the back. Ha! Young? He had to be forty even if he was still clinging to the outrageous clothes of youth and still projecting the attitude of the disaffected and disenfranchised. Nathan could read it in the man’s eyes. He felt sorry for the man who was probably convinced from a very young age that he was incapable of doing anything. Ha! He should not feel incapable of doing anything until he was at least eighty!
With that thought planted firmly in his mind, Nathan turned to look at an elderly woman who was probably older than he was. She was smiling, for Christ’s sake! Nathan remembered the ninety-three year old he found in the supermarket the other day. When he remarked on the two gallons of cherry vanilla ice cream while they waited in line, her response was interesting.
“Two scoops doused in two jiggers of brandy is really good. How do you think I got to be ninety-three?”
Nathan had not thought. He just smiled and she checked out first.
Now this elderly woman was smiling like that one. Nathan decided it must be the brandy. He could not imagine any alternative that would cause such an old woman to smile. He concluded the little-old-ladies club must pass around recipes. Nathan rubbed the back of his hand as if the age spot was a bit of dirt. Then he rubbed the back of his stiff neck and held on while the bus came to the next stop.
“Stupid car!” The man virtually swore and Nathan heard. Everyone heard, before they saw the man. Nathan noticed the collar right away, and supposed the man was a priest or a minister. He shouted the words “Stupid car!” as he dug for the cost of the bus ride and made everyone wait and dig out their hard and cruel looks in response. Evidently the man wanted everyone to hear and see. Nathan understood. It was the man’s way of saying that he did not normally ride a bus and he would not be caught dead on one now if his car had not behaved stupidly. Nathan was not sure it was just the car that was behaving stupidly. He watched as the man looked down the aisle, noticed the young man and the old lady, looked at Nathan, and took the seat in the front, opposite. Before Nathan could speak, just in case he had something on his mind to say, the minister pulled the Washington Post from under his arm and ignored everyone. The bus started again.
Nathan coughed and produced a large bit of phlegm. He even disgusted himself, but he had a handkerchief in his suit pocket so he kept the disgust to a minimum, and while he was at it he rubbed his nose before putting the handkerchief away. He imagined that it was a remarkable thing he did not embarrass himself more often. He had lived alone for too many years and was of an age where he should not care, yet he did care about others – not what they thought of him, but to not disgust them if he could help it. Too many men, once alone, went to pieces. At least most of Nathan’s dishes were currently clean and put away.
Nathan straightened his shirt collar and sat up straighter for a minute. He had not worn a tie, of course, since he retired all those ages ago. He leaned out to look down the aisle once again and noticed the minister with the newspaper slid a little closer to the window which was beyond touching distance, just in case Nathan wanted to touch. The man turned the newspaper page as if to say, “I’m busy, leave me alone.” Unfortunately, there was little more to see beyond the young man and the old lady. There were other passengers, but they were hunkered down to where Nathan, with his not so good eyes, could hardly catch their hair color.
A man stood. He was a big, burly kind of a man; the kind of man Nathan never was. He staggered a little in the sway of the bus and jerked forward a bit as the bus came to a stop. He sat behind Nathan and Nathan guessed he would be getting off at the next stop.
The air whooshed and the bus door opened. Nathan turned to see a little girl come slowly up the steps. Nathan waited for the mother or father to follow, but none came. The bus driver asked for his money.
“Please, sir.” The little girl spoke softly, shy or embarrassed. Nathan would have had to turn up his hearing aid if he had not been sitting so close. “I missed the school bus, but I have to get home. My grandmother is very sick. My mother will pay you when we get to my stop.” That took real courage. Nathan admired the little girl
“Sorry kid. You’ll have to walk.” The bus driver looked sympathetic, but it was his job, and Nathan wondered how many rotten things were committed in the name of doing one’s job. He hated that expression. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” Here is the little secret. business or not, everything in life is always personal.
The little girl looked ready to cry. “I can’t,” she said and both Nathan and the bus driver were drawn to her feet where one shoe looked stiff and metallic. Nathan did not know if it was a club foot or the result of some disease or accident, but come to think of it, the girl did limp up the steps.
“Listen, kid. I’ll lose my job. I’m sorry.” The bus driver spoke kindly but shook his head before he looked back into the bus as if to suggest that someone from the city might be there spying on him. Nathan knew no paper pusher would leave the warm security of an office to ride a bus, but he allowed that the bus driver might have thought this was a set-up to see who they could fire, given the current state of the economy. “I need my job.” The driver said honestly enough.
The little girl began to cry, softly.
“Look, I’ve got family too. I have to get home.” The burly man spoke over Nathan’s shoulder.
“Yes, can we get on with this?” The minister spoke up from behind his newspaper.
Nathan glanced back. The young man turned toward the window to ignore the whole scene. The old lady began to dig through her purse, but Nathan preempted her. He pulled a bill from his pocket. “Here, child. You sit right up front with me and sit by the window so we don’t miss your stop.” Nathan pulled himself slowly to his feet while the bus driver made change. The little girl hesitated. She looked once into Nathan’s sad, old eyes while he looked into her sad, young eyes and they understood each other in that moment. The girl scooted past him to sit next to the window. Nathan barely got his change pocketed and sat down again before the bus driver shut the door and took off.
After that, Nathan put the rest of the bus out of his mind. He looked at the back of the little girl who dutifully stared out of the dirty window. He judged her to be about seven or eight and he wondered what kind of world we had become to have school busses leave without their passengers accounted for. Surely the school had some resources for those inadvertently left behind; and especially for a little girl like this, lame as she was. Nathan understood being lame even if both of his feet were normal for his age.
“Do you know which stop is yours?” Nathan asked, not certain if he would get an answer out of the child. She had to be scared, all alone with strangers as she was. He was pleased to see her able to respond.
“Yes, thank you. I have ridden this bus before, with my mother.” The girl gave up on the dirty window and turned to face front and the hard plastic translucent board that separated her from the bus driver’s back. “And thank you for paying.” She added as if remembering her manners. She looked up into Nathan’s old face, seeking his adult approval of her polite words and Nathan, who caught that look in her eyes, smiled in response.
“So what are you, eight?” Nathan asked.
“Seven,” she said. “I’m in the second grade.”
“Second grade.” Nathan repeated as he thought a long, long way back. Fortunately, the ancient days were easier to remember than that morning’s breakfast. “So you know all about reading and writing.”
“Oh, yes,” the girl said. “I love to read, but my writing needs some practice.”
Nathan nodded. “Do you stick out your tongue when you write?” He asked.
“No.” The girl shook her head. Clearly she did not know what he meant.
“Like this.” He let his tongue a little way’s out of the corner of his mouth and pretended to have a pencil in his hand. “You see?” He pretended to write on the translucent plastic in front of them. “A-B-C.” He spoke as he wrote.
The girl put her hand quickly in front of her grinning mouth. “That’s silly.”
“But it helps,” Nathan insisted. He did it again. “D” he said, and he pretended to have trouble with the letter and let his tongue move as his hand moved. The little girl giggled and Nathan smiled again. He had a grand-daughter – no – a great-grand daughter that was seven. “My name is Nathan.” He introduced himself.
The girl paused to examine his face before she spoke. “Mine is Mya.” And she lifted her little hand up to touch his wrinkled, craggy face. “You are very old, like my grandmother.”
Nathan lost his smile, but slowly. “You grandmother is not well.” It was a question though he said it like a statement.
Mya nodded. “She is in the hospital. My mother is going to take me to see her tonight. I think Grandma is dying.” Mya took her hand back and straightened up. Her eyes looked once again near tears. Nathan thought we are all dying; only some of us are closer to it than others. He forced a smile.
“Now, enough about dying,” he said brightly. “You just give her a big hug when you see her and tell her that you love her. That is all that really matters.” He wanted to hug the little girl himself and pat her hand to comfort her in her distress, but he did not dare. Surely someone would accuse him of terrible things, and he wondered again what sort of world they had become. All he could do was lift his heart in a kind of prayer for this little soul while the bus brakes brought them to the next stop. The big man started to get up as the doors opened, but before he could move far, someone jumped in and ran right past the driver babbling something about paradise and Satan and you demons. The minister hid behind his paper. The Bus driver grabbed and missed. The big burly man also made a grab, but it was too late. Nathan instinctively threw himself over the little girl like a shield of flesh and blood. There was a deafening sound, a moment of pain, a brilliant, blinding light and then nothing.
Nathan opened his eyes. He was sitting on a park bench up on a grassy knoll, looking through an iron picket fence at a very confusing street scene. People were running around, screaming, while cars and trucks were screeching to a halt in both directions and things, big pieces of things were falling from the sky. Nathan felt the little hand in his hand and he looked down to see Mya stare up at him. Her legs dangled from the edge of the bench where they did not quite reach the ground.
“I think we are dead,” Mya said. There was no sorrow, no fear and no surprise in her voice. She just simply said it outright like it was the most obvious fact.
“No.” Nathan quickly shook his head. “We were blown free of the explosion, weren’t we?” They were blown free to land perfectly side by side on a park bench? He wondered. Perhaps they crawled up on the bench before they became fully aware of what they were doing?
“I think we are dead.” Mya repeated herself and she turned her eyes from his old face to the strange goings on in the street. She held his hand, too, or rather her little hand was engulfed in his wrinkled old paw, but she seemed perfectly content with that and in no hurry to break free.
“No.” Nathan said it again, but there was no conviction in his word. He also looked to the street and realized that everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Pieces of the bus were still falling and bouncing very slowly off the pavement. People were still screaming in long, drawn out sounds while tires were still screeching; and after a moment they both felt something low and loud in the pit of their stomachs which tickled as the pitch rose up the scale. Mya giggled at the feeling while Nathan identified it. “The police. Maybe an ambulance.”
“Too late,” Mya said, a deep sadness echoed finally in the midst of her giggle. She looked again at the face of the old man beside her.
“We can’t be dead,” Nathan protested. “That would make us ghosts.” He turned his eyes again to that innocent little face, but she looked away. She straightened her legs and stared at her shoes.
“I’m afraid of ghosts,” she said.
Nathan did what he wanted to do, the world be damned. He dropped the girl’s hand and put his arm tenderly and lovingly around the little girl’s shoulder, hugging her as he spoke. “I won’t let any bad ghosts get you. Hush. Everything will be all right.” And they watched for a long time while police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and tow trucks all showed up; while men and women did the work for which they were trained and the innocent pedestrians backed away but stared long and hard at all of the broken pieces scattered in the street and along the side of the road. They watched the traffic start again, slowly, and it seemed forever that only one lane moved at a time. The cars and trucks went very slowly besides, not to be careful of the workers in the street, but because the people wanted to gawk at the scene. Last of all, there were cameras and reporters who came to make a record of it all for the evening news. That was when Nathan let out the sigh he thought he had used up, and he looked down again at the little girl beside him. She was looking up at him, her face a little closer to his than he imagined it would be, and she lifted her hand to touch his face once more, even as she touched him in the bus. Nathan stayed silent and did not move. He let the girl examine his ancient eyes.
“You’re not as old as you were before,” Mya concluded. “You don’t look as old as my grandmother anymore.”
Nathan took his arm back and Mya sat up while he looked down at his hands. He still saw the wrinkles and the age spots, though perhaps not so bad. The power of suggestion? Surely his suit was as wrinkled as ever. He looked at the girl and noticed her legs were not dangling so much. She could touch the ground with her toes, but then he told himself that this was the way it was before, only he had not seen properly. He rubbed his eyes and spoke. “Your grandmother is in the hospital?” This time it was a question.
“Yes.” Mya slipped her hands beneath her tight covered thighs in order to let her legs swing free.
Nathan looked to the sky to judge the time. The hospital was a long walk, but curiously he felt up to it. Certainly he did not feel up to trying another bus. “I know how to get there. Would you like to go there and see her?” He thought they could reasonably arrive before dark. “I could go with you,” he added, in case she did not catch the implication.
Mya looked up at him once again and nodded. “Mother says Grandma is dying. Maybe Grandma could help us.” The girl made no explanation about what she was thinking, but she also made no move to get off the park bench, so Nathan stood. He got up like a well practiced old man, expecting his knees to scream, his lower back to protest and his stiff neck to make itself known, but none of those things happened. To be sure, Nathan felt a little frightened when he realized that he felt nothing at all. The forever pain, arthritis, agonizing stiffness and constant struggle against gravity were all gone. Maybe they really were ghosts. He tried not to think about it too hard and reached instead for Mya’s hand. He needed her reassuring touch.
Mya looked up and readily put her hand in his, and Nathan understood she needed his touch as well. “You are a very nice man,” she said. She decided that he was a kind, older gentleman. She trusted him, and even more importantly, she liked him. Mya never knew her grandfather. She was only three when he died, but she thought that this man might be like him. She felt safe when she held his hand, and so she took it readily and they began to walk, side by side, to find a place where they could get beyond the fence and back to the sidewalk.
Nathan’s concern grew with each step about what exactly was going on. He walked easily and without pain of any kind. It was not that he felt he could run or dance or anything like that, but his lack of pain appeared to be the last nail in the coffin, so to speak. He said as much at last. “I think we’re dead.”
“I know that we are.” Mya spoke without so much as lifting her eyes. She was thinking about something and probably thinking about many things, and there was a little tear in the corner of her eye. They came to a gate in the fence and stopped so Nathan turned to the girl who was now taller than his wrist but not yet as tall as his elbow, and he put one hand on each of her shoulders and bent down a little to garner her full attention.
“Now, how do you know we are dead?” He asked, and he tried to smile his most reassuring smile.
Mya said nothing. She simply pointed at her feet and Nathan looked down at two perfectly normal shoes. He started to shake his head before he gasped. He had forgotten that she was lame, a cripple with a misshapen foot. He had forgotten all about the funny shoe which had evidently been designed to help her walk. He looked at the girl’s feet and honestly could not remember which foot it was. Both shoes looked identical and normal, and Nathan had no doubt the feet inside were normal, too. He let go and took a step back. Mya looked up at him and showed some fear. Her eyes said, please don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone.
Nathan caught the look and returned one hand to pat the girl gently on the shoulder. “Let’s go see your grandmother,” he said, and then he turned toward the gate and tried hard not to hesitate. He was not sure if he could open the simple latch, being a little afraid that his ghost hand might pass right through the solid metal. That would have frightened him perhaps beyond repair, so it took a great deal of courage to get his fingers to reach out. When he took hold of the latch, he let out his breath and heard Mya do the same. The gate easily swung open, and then Nathan stepped aside “After you,” he said, graciously and raised his hand in an inviting gesture. Mya smiled for him.
“Thank you,” she said and tried very hard to sound and act like a real lady as they stepped out of the gate and back into the real, everyday world, Nathan was sure to close the gate tight behind them.
“Oh, look.” Mya spoke first. There was a puppy on a leash. It looked right at them, wagged its tail and panted with its tongue. It was a little Labrador and obviously very young. Mya let go of Nathan’s hand to get down and pet the puppy. She did not think about it, she just did it, and the puppy responded with a lick. “Oh, cutie,” she called it. The woman on the other end of the leash was gabbing with another woman. Mya did not care about that. “Yes, cutie,” she said, and she looked up at Nathan who smiled. “Come and say hello. He won’t bite.”
Nathan was reluctant to squat down. He was very afraid for his knees, but as he did, he found that his knees were well up to the task and did not hurt at all. That was as much pleasure for him as a chance to pet the puppy. The puppy responded by lifting its paws to his shoulders and it gave him a lick. Everyone was smiling and happy until the woman jerked the leash.
“Egbert, behave!” The woman spoke sternly and tugged a couple of unkind tugs on the leash until the puppy came to obedience at her feet. The woman had a cruel streak in her and Nathan was surprised at how strongly he felt the woman’s cruelty. He looked down at Mya and saw that her eyes were wide. She felt it too. Nathan and Mya did not interfere, even when the puppy looked at them, sadly. “Yes, Egbert is an old family name.” The woman was saying. “I promised my mother I would use it for one of my children.” The woman laughed; or at least Nathan and Mya guessed that the sound was supposed to be a laugh. The two women returned then to their inspection of the disaster, and since neither Mya nor Nathan were interested in going there, they said good-bye to the puppy and walked, hand in hand in the opposite direction
“Poor Egbert,” Mya said. “He is going to have to live his whole life with that name.”
“Poor Egbert,” Nathan agreed. “And with that woman,” he added, but his mind was on other things, and at once he saw what he was looking for. There was a distraught looking young man sitting on the curb, ignoring everything that was going on around him as if lost in deep thought. Nathan stopped their forward progress for a good, long look. The young man’s black hair appeared unmoved by the wind, though of itself that meant nothing. He decided a comparison was in order so he looked back at the woman and her dog. He was astounded. The woman behind looked as real as any he saw in life, but the young man on the curb looked more real. It did not make sense, but that was the only way he could understand it.
Mya, who stood still and patient, got it at about the same time. “He’s a ghost,” she said. Nathan nodded, and he was fairly sure that this was the ghost of the suicide bomber.
“Hello, friend.” Nathan interrupted the man’s thoughts. Nathan had decided that he had no ill will toward the man. After all, he had lived a long and rich enough life in his own small way. He did feel strongly for Mya, however, that this man’s actions were decidedly unfair to her, young as she was. That was why he refused to abandon her, he told himself, though the truth was he felt he needed the little girl as much as she might need him. “Friend?” Nathan reached out to touch the man’s shoulder, but the man turned suddenly to stare at them with dark eyes filled with fear and hatred.
“Go away!” The young man shouted. “Why can’t you demons leave me alone? Go away!”
Nathan squatted, now that he knew he could do that, and he looked toward the man, eye to eye, though he kept his distance and made no further move to touch him. “Can I help?” He asked and felt Mya squat down next to him.
“Maybe we could help.” Mya agreed with Nathan, and there was a slight softening in the man’s eyes as he turned his eyes to take in the girl.
“There is nothing you can do. It is done,” the young man said through gritted teeth.
“But what is the matter?” Mya was very sensitive to the young man’s pain, though that was just a blessing of human sensitivity sometimes found in the very young and rarely found in adults, it was not a hyper sensitivity such as they both had felt in the cruelty of the puppy owner. Nathan had to catch Mya’s hand to keep her from reaching out to touch the young man softly, as she had petted the puppy.
“It is done,” the young man said again, and then he shifted his gaze to the heavens. “Why am I not in paradise? They all said I would be in paradise!”
Mya took the question seriously and responded with the only answer she could come up with. “Maybe they did not tell you the truth.” She spoke in her most encouraging voice, but Nathan had to move fast. He grabbed Mya around the middle and pulled her out of reach just as the man’s face turned wicked, and his arms, with hands formed like claws, reached out to scratch her, to grab her, to hurt her in whatever way he could.
“Leave me alone, demons! They warned me about your wicked tongues.” The young man shouted, but very quickly a voice of reason interrupted. It came from the side of the confrontation.
“Surely you did not believe the slaughter of the innocents was your ticket to heaven,” the voice said.
“Liar! You are all liars! I will listen no more! Leave me alone, you demons! Leave me alone!” He slapped his hands over his ears so there would be no talking to him, and he turned his face back to the curb.
“There is no reaching him at present,” the voice said, and Nathan and Mya turned to see something they both expected to see and dared not hope to see. Mya shivered and went straight to her knees. She drew a hesitant Nathan down with her. It was not that Nathan did not believe in what he saw, but rather his rational, worldly mind was more developed, and after all, he had never seen an angel before. He felt it, though, in his deepest marrow; that sense of awesome wonder, and not a little fear that showed in the trembling in his bones and in the pit of his stomach. He felt in a sense that he was naked in a way he had never been before and that feeling came with the realization that not every corner of his naked life was exactly clean. It made him lower his eyes, not that he could have looked into the golden glare of those orbs regardless of how much they smiled. He imagined Mya, being seven, had far less filth on her plate, but then he did not know for sure. It does not take some people very long at all to build up all sorts of wickedness in their lives. Maybe she felt it more strongly and that was why she humbled herself first of all.
“Some people prefer to live in a box.” The angel spoke and both Mya and Nathan could do nothing but listen. “They imagine they have put God in a box and believe that they understand his eternal, almighty nature, but in reality, all they have done is box up their own minds and hearts. You must pray for him before the box becomes as hard as concrete.” The angel paused and both Nathan and Mya ventured to look up. Perhaps they were drawn to do so. The Angel was looking at someone beside him. It was the old woman from the bus. Nathan was sure of that, even if she no longer looked like the old woman. She had become, well, it was hard to tell what age exactly. It was like she was ageless, young one moment but very old as well. What is more, she looked all sparkly, like Christmas lights on a grand old tree, and the lights were blindingly bright even if they looked dim beside the glowing presence of the angel. Anyway, her eyes were on the angel and she smiled, even when the angel turned again to look at Mya and Nathan.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. “For you there are two times, a time between and a half time.” And then it was gone – the angel was just not there anymore. The young suicide bomber had gone as well, probably run off somewhere. The sparkling woman turned toward Mya and Nathan. Nathan was not quite sure where the woman’s eyes were focused, so he could not be sure if she saw them or not or if her smile was for them or not, though he liked to think it was. All he could say for sure was her sparkling presence got very bright for a moment before she vanished as surely as the angel.
Nathan had tears in his eyes from the strain of all that bright light, or so he told himself. Mya also had tears in her eyes, but neither of them felt sad in the least. Indeed, when Nathan helped the girl up from the sidewalk, she seemed elated. Her hands had been held palm to palm in the classic image of a child at prayer, and though she readily gave up her pose to take Nathan’s hand once again, she still seemed to be praying, so Nathan kept quiet. Thus, neither said a thing as they walked the many blocks to the hospital.
“Do you know your Grandmother’s name?” Nathan asked when he finally broke the silence. They had walked right into the hospital lobby through the sliding doors which opened readily for them. One young man in the waiting area gave the doors a strange and uncomfortable look when they opened and no one came in, but otherwise neither Nathan nor Mya caused any disturbance. Now that they reached the front desk, though, Nathan had to ask. He decided it would be far easier to look her up than wander the halls for half the night. The sun was ready to set.
“Marylin Thorn.” Mya spoke without hesitation. Nathan nodded and started to reach for the front register when he heard a woman’s voice.
“Marylin Thorn is in room 317.” The woman behind the desk never once looked up.
“Thank you,” Mya responded.
“Yes, thanks,” and Nathan hustled Mya away from that area. He did not want to scare anyone. Without thinking things through, both went to the elevators and Mya pushed the button.
“Mother always lets me push the buttons,” she said. Nathan wondered how this was going to work out.
When the elevator came, there was one man in the car. He did not get off as they scooted by, but he did stick his head out the door to see if there was anyone there. The man shrugged and stood back while the elevator doors closed and Nathan stopped Mya’s hand from pushing the button for floor three. He noticed they were going down one more flight.
“But we have to go to three,” Mya protested at full volume.
“Shh! I know. Just wait, please.” Nathan answered as quietly as he could and he saw the man lift his head as if he heard something but he was not quite sure what he heard. Fortunately, the doors opened fairly quickly and the man got out and stiffened his collar tight against his neck as if suddenly chilled. “Now,” Nathan said, and Mya pushed the three just before a big woman got on and pushed four. The woman frowned once at the man who just left. Nathan matched the woman’s frown, because he thought if the woman stood by the doors, there was no way they would be able to scoot around her to get out on the third floor. Fortunately, the woman pushed to the back and Nathan and Mya were just able to squeeze past her without touching her. They got off quickly when the doors opened on three before someone else got on.
“Three seventeen, now let’s see.” Nathan looked at the numbers and arrows on the wall.
“Down here.” Mya took Nathan’s hand and lead the way. Now that she was on the floor, she remembered better. In fact, Mya found her memory and her mind overall was becoming very sharp and focused. She was thinking and seeing life through pre-teen eyes by then because she was indeed growing up even as Nathan was getting younger, not that they knew it, exactly. His mind, by contrast, was mercifully forgetting all sorts of embarrassing and difficult moments as the years dropped away, even while his mind also sharpened overall with the clarity of youth. With Nathan, though, he thought it was only how he felt. That long walk down so many city blocks, and without the least hint of pain or difficulty, had done him wonders. But with Mya it was becoming obvious if they cared to notice. Still, they really did not realize any of this until Grandma noticed, and said as much when they saw her.
“She has Alzheimer’s,” Mya warned before they entered the room.
What they found was a bit of a surprise. The woman was physically curled up in a ball, her knees drawn up to her chest and her hands in tight little fists pulled right to her chin; but that was just her body. The woman herself, or at least the image and outline of the woman, like her spirit or her ghost, was sitting up, legs outstretched and hands resting comfortably at her side. The woman appeared to be asleep at the moment, so they came in quietly and Mya pulled up a chair. As she sat, she reached out. “Grandma?” She found that she could touch the woman, or at least she could touch her grandmother’s spirit hand.
Grandma opened her eyes slowly. “Mya.” She recognized the girl right away; her spirit-self did all the talking and was very animated. The body in the bed, by contrast, barely fluttered her eyes.
“Grandma. I wanted to see you. I – I. Are you better?”
“No dear.” Grandma took a firm hold of Mya’s hand and reached over with her other hand to pat-pat that hand. “I’ll be gone soon I think. Sometimes the body doesn’t have the good sense to quit, but I am very sick, Pneumonia, you know. Still, I am content to wait. It would be wrong to rush these things, though I hope they have the good sense to let me go when the time comes.” She stole a glance at Nathan before she returned her eyes to her granddaughter. “But now stand up so I can get a good last look at you.” While Mya stood, Nathan thought that this woman’s body might be wracked with Alzheimer’s and pneumonia, but her spirit seemed strong and healthy and very aware. It was something that people – living people should know. Too bad there was no way to tell them.
Mya turned once slowly all of the way around. Nathan had his hands at his side at the moment and he noticed that presently the little girl was nearly as tall as his elbow where she had started out barely as tall as his wrist.
“My, how grown up you are getting.” Grandma made the expected comment before she added a thought. “What are you now, nine or ten? Pretty soon you will be getting bumps of your own.”
“Grandma.” Mya sounded like a true pre-teen. She sat, turned a little red and glanced briefly at Nathan.
Grandma explained for the stranger in the room. “When Mya was just a baby with a limited vocabulary she called them bumps every time she wanted to nurse.” Grandma was smiled and Nathan was smiled, too, as he looked at Mya and watched her turn a bit redder.
“Grandma. This is my friend.” Mya attempted to change the subject.
“Nathan.” He introduced himself. “You have a fine granddaughter. She missed her school bus, so I took it upon myself to bring her to see you. I have a great-grand just about her age.”
“Very gentlemanly of you,” Grandma said. “But I should say, you hardly look old enough to have a ten-year-old granddaughter, much less a great-grand.”
“Grandma, I’m only seven,” Mya said, though that did not sound right at the moment even to her own ears.
Grandma lifted her brows and her body shifted ever so slightly in the bed. “You know I cannot speak to your mother like I can to you. That is very frustrating. I tend to sleep a lot when she is here.” Grandma sat up a little straighter and her body moved a little again. “I think you had better tell me what happened.”
Mya started slowly, but she finished the story in a rush. She left out nothing, including the part about the angel. Nathan found some tears as she talked, and Mya had some tears as well. Grandma’s eyes filled up with tears, but it was her body that let a few of those tears fall while she went back to patting Mya’s hand and said, “My baby. My poor baby.”
“It will be all right, Grandma.” Mya was trying hard to be positive about it all.
“I won’t leave her alone.” Nathan promised.
“I am so glad that you are not alone.” Grandma finally took her hands back. “He seems a fine man. Don’t be afraid.”
“That is what the angel said,” Mya responded, and as she thought about the angel, she found her tears were finished and she felt much better.
“I am so sorry, my baby, but right now I am tired. I am so very, very tired.” They watched as the old woman closed her eyes. A few more tears fell from the woman’s physical body.
Mya did not want to leave right away, so they stayed for a little while and watched the old woman sleep. Soon enough Nathan stepped up and put his hands gently on Mya’s shoulders. He helped her rise from the chair. He wanted to get her moving before the tears returned, but he was not quick enough. Mya threw her arms around him and cried into his belly, while he smoothed her long black hair with his hand, patted her back and made reassuring sounds. He led her back into the hall just before the nurse came into the room.
“It will be all right. Everything is going to be all right.” He helped her down the hall only to stop in front of the water fountain. “Are you thirsty?” She was. There was a tall water fountain there, and a second fountain which was lower to the ground for the children. Mya had to stand on her toes, but she seemed delighted that she could reach the big fountain.
“I don’t want to stay little forever,” she said when she pulled back from the water. Some of the water dripped off her chin and down the front of her dress. She looked and wiped the water with her hand, but she was looking at her chest. “When I get breasts, I hope they are nice ones.”
Nathan felt a little embarrassed on hearing that. He could hardly say I hope they are, too; but he felt he had to say something. “I would not think that was so important.” That was what he said. When she looked up at him with deep questions in her eyes, he put his foot in it. “Breasts are for babies, right?” He regretted saying that as soon as it was out of his mouth. Mya wailed and began to cry again in earnest. The nurse came out of the room and looked up at the ceiling before she shivered and walked hurriedly back to the nurse’s station. Poor Mya was wracked with tears, and all Nathan could do was hold her and let her weep. He dared not say anything more. He dared not open his mouth. But when she collapsed to the floor, Nathan got right down with her. “There, there. It will be all right.” He felt he could say that much, even as he found a few tears of his own.
After a time, when Mya’s and Nathan’s eyes were both red, and Mya’s breathing was only interrupted now and then with moments of sniffles, Nathan got out his handkerchief and found it was clean. He took a corner to wipe her face and have her blow her nose.
“Come on.” Mya took the lead. She grabbed Nathan’s hand and only stopped briefly at the hospital map on the wall. She seemed to know where she was headed. This time they took the stairs down one flight and she pulled him through the authorized personnel only hallway to enter a different wing of the hospital. Nathan guessed where they were going, but he said nothing. They spent a long time looking through the glass at all of the babies, but she did not want to go inside. At last, Nathan thought they needed to change venues, so he asked as kindly as he could.
“Are you hungry?” Mya looked up at him with a forlorn expression that proposed never leave her face. It broke Nathan’s heart to see it. He realized that he missed the little girl smile that had meant so much to him and kept him steady, especially at the first. Mya had accepted the truth before he did, and she kept him going with her smile. She kept him from thinking too hard about it all and maybe becoming morose. Little Mya had no morose in her until the subject of bumps and babies came up. Now, she was in danger of becoming hopelessly mired in her own sense of loss and what would never be, and Nathan desperately wanted to save her from that. She certainly deserved better than to be depressed forever. “I could go for some Italian right now. Do you like Italian food?”
Mya looked up at him with her tear streaked face and those big brown eyes with their sadness etched into the black depths. She said nothing, but she did not resist him when he took her hand and headed them toward the stairs. Nathan hoped there was food left in the hospital cafeteria since the time was getting on, but he would not have been surprised if it was all cleaned up and put away for the night. Hospitals, like grade schools, tended to run on a very strict schedule.
The cafeteria was located on level B-1, which was ground level at the back of the building. There was still some service, though only one worker behind the line who wiped a spill around the macaroni and cheese. A couple of men and a few women in white coats were sat around, talked quietly and nursed their coffee and tea, having pretty much finished eating. Nathan supposed they were doctors, nurses, or more likely attendants of some sort hanging out to get the full extent of their breaks. There were a few tables with dirty dishes, but the man behind the counter did not seem in any hurry to get out and clean them up. Instead, the man looked at the clock on the wall as if waiting for the right moment to close.
Nathan also looked. It was nearly eight-thirty, perhaps five or five and a-half hours since the accident. He brought Mya up to the line, but they quickly realized that they could not pick up the trays, plates or silverware. Their hands simply passed through the items, and while it was a bit of a shock at first, Mya spent the next few minutes passing her hands through all sorts of things; and she smiled at the sensation.
Nathan looked at the food. There was some spaghetti in a kind of dark brown crust that might have been an attempt at meat sauce. It was real thick spaghetti and it did not look too appetizing. Still, he would not have minded a taste, though to be honest, he was not hungry in the least.
“I don’t think we can eat anymore.” Mya put her hands right into the hot macaroni and cheese and swirling them around with no effect on the dish or her hands whatsoever. “But that’s OK, I wasn’t really hungry.”
“Me neither,” Nathan said, and he looked up to see a big man staring at the deserts. To his surprise, the big man turned and looked right at them and with a quick comparison to the attendant behind the counter, Nathan recognized that this was another ghost.
“I’m hungry,” the man said.
“You’re fat,” Mya said as she stepped up beside Nathan. She clicked her finger nails on the metal cafeteria rail a couple of times and Nathan thought she needed some chewing gum to complete the pre-teen picture. “You should go on a diet.”
“Screw you, kid,” the fat man said.
“That was very rude.” Nathan turned and scolded Mya. She looked up at him with some concern to be sure he still liked her. She knew she was being rude, only now, after being scolded, she felt she paid her penalty and so she did not feel like saying she was sorry.
The fat man looked down for a minute before he turned his eyes again to the deserts. “The doctor said it was the fat that killed me. What does he know? The quack.” He looked at them again before his eyes were drawn back to that last piece of chocolate cake. “I didn’t think it would be like this.” He seemed to need to confess. Nathan stayed to listen, so Mya stayed, too. “I used to eat everything and anything I wanted. Mom was a great cook, and there was always plenty of junk around the house, you know, cookies, chips, treats and frozen waffles. God, I can’t think about it.” He paused to take in a deep breath. “I didn’t think it would be like this.” He began again.
“I pretty much lived my life whatever the hell way I wanted. I didn’t let anyone tell me no. I lost a couple of jobs, but screw them. I screwed everyone I wanted and when I wasn’t screwing, I was eating. God there was this one restaurant that made… but forget it. I thought when I died, like it would not happen so quick. I thought I still had years left to live and I thought I would straighten things out some when I got older.” He looked at them again. “I didn’t have the time. It all went by so quick.” He looked again at the cake and reached for it only to have his hand pass right through. “I thought when I died all of these old habits would be taken away, you know?” He looked up one last time and asked. “Why are we still here?”
“Maybe so you can have one last chance to straighten things out,” Nathan suggested what he and Mya were both thinking.
“Maybe you need to let go of some things,” Mya said and reached for Nathan’s hand which he readily gave her.
The man merely nodded and then ignored them. His hunger had him once again.
Mya and Nathan went out from there wondering what to do next. Then Nathan saw Mya yawn a big yawn and he thought they might find a deserted room in which to rest. He led the girl back to the elevator. He was feeling better than he had in years and feeling no pain at all, but he still was not sure about climbing a bunch of steps. Fortunately, the elevator was empty at eight-forty-five in the evening. They went again to the third floor, but Mya resisted seeing her grandmother. Thus they wandered in the other direction, past 315, 314 and 313. They found someone in room 312, and would have moved on if he had not shouted out to them. When they entered the room, Nathan noticed the bed was stripped clean and the man was sitting on the edge of it, fully clothed as if waiting for a ride home. There was another patient in the room, but he was sleeping.
“What is going on?” The man asked right away. “I can’t get anyone to listen to me, not the doctors or nurses or anyone.”
“What do you think is going on?” Mya spoke right up before Nathan could get a word in. Her words were not exactly meant to be rude as if to suggest the man was being stupid or something, but they came out that way and might have been taken that way. Nathan pulled her hand up to his chest and patted her hand to keep her quiet, even as her grandmother had patted that same hand.
“I don’t know.” The man spoke honestly to them, but there was something else behind those blue eyes. Nathan and Mya just stared into those eyes until the blue turned a little gray and the man turned his eyes to the floor. “I think I am dead.”
Mya almost said something, but Nathan hushed her and spoke instead. “I think you may be right,” he said calmly.
The man slid off the bed and threw his fists up to cover his eyes. He turned his back on them and began to spout. “I have a wife and three kids who need me. I can’t be dead. You don’t understand. I was just working on a big deal at work that was going to make my career. We were going to be set for life after that, and… and I was going to be able to spend some quality time with Sharon and the kids. I can’t be dead. I never got the quality time. It isn’t fair!” He blustered himself out and despite the closed eyes and the fists over the eyes and also the fact that his back was turned, both Mya and Nathan knew he was crying, just a little.
Nathan thought that you have to smell the roses every day as you go along or otherwise you will never catch them in bloom. That was what his mother taught him, but of course he did not say that out loud. He looked down. Mya was being good. She was feeling the man’s pain, and she looked up to get Nathan’s unspoken assent before she said anything at all.
“It will be all right,” she said. “That is what I keep getting told, and…” She looked up to catch Nathan’s eyes again. “And I believe him.” Nathan smiled, dropped Mya’s hand and threw his arm around her for a big squeeze. He needed to hear that as much as she needed to say it.
“What do you know?” The man turned on them with a little anger. They felt it, but not nearly as they felt the cruelty of the puppy owner, perhaps because this man was not among the living. “You know nothing. You don’t understand. How could you? A girl and a doddering old man. I have to get back to work. I have to finish the project. I have to succeed. I spent my whole life striving to be successful. I got the right wife, the right kids, and the right job; and now, just when I am on the verge of reaching my dream, my only dream, I have it yanked out from beneath my feet. It isn’t fair, I tell you. It isn’t fair!”
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. It was the least he could say and probably also the most he could say.
“Forget it,” the man said, having vented for the moment. He threw his hands out as if dismissing them. “It isn’t your fault. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. There is nothing you can do about it. Just leave me alone for a while. Please. I need to think about this. I need to think.” He sat again on the edge of the bed, closed his eyes, dropped his head, put his thumb to his temple and began to slowly rub his fingers across his forehead like a man in deep concentration.
Nathan turned Mya by the shoulders until they faced the door, and before she could say anything else. Then he withdrew his arm and took her hand once again. Room 307 had two empty beds, and as Mya seemed to be yawning up a storm, he thought that this was as good as they were going to find.
“Now we are definitely past my bedtime,” Mya said.
“Mine too,” Nathan agreed, and he was not entirely joking. Any time after nine o’clock was late for him. “Do you want the bed by the door?” Normally, the gentlemanly thing would have been for him to take the bed by the door to protect her against any intruders. At least that was the right instinct, but in this case, since she was already dead, he imagined there was not much that could hurt her, and he also imagined if they brought someone to the room in the middle of the night they would more than likely put the person in the bed by the window, interrupting him, not her. Mya just looked at him.
“Okay,” she said and sat on the bed, but she did not sound too sure.
Nathan nodded and opened the bathroom door, just to check things out, not that he had to go or anything. He turned on the light and paused at the sight in the mirror that greeted him. It was his own reflection, and he was first of all surprised that he even had a reflection. “Of course, I’m not a vampire,” he mumbled to himself and grinned at his own humor. Then he touched his teeth. They looked good, better than he had seen them in some time. He had let them go a little and raised his eyebrows at himself for that thought. Then he wiggled his eyebrows and looked quickly at his hand. It was still fairly wrinkled, but not so bad, and most of the age spotting was gone. He looked again at his face. The hair was still gray, but there seemed more of it, and in fact he thought that maybe he looked more like he had when he retired at about seventy-two, or maybe when he first retired at sixty-eight. He definitely did not look eighty-four, and it was the first time he admitted that while Mya was growing up, he was getting younger. It was also the first time he wondered if they might meet somewhere in the middle.
“Let me see.” Mya pushed her way into the room and Nathan backed up. She smiled at her reflection, pouted her lips, checked out the curve in her eyebrows and puffed her chest out, but there were no bumps yet. “I am growing up,” Mya said with some excitement. “I am.”
“Yes you are,” Nathan confirmed as he turned away. “But right now I am tired, even if you are not.” He lay down on the bed. “Funny our not being able to eat but our being able to sleep.” He reached down and pulled up the hospital blanket that was folded at the foot of the bed, and let his head rest on the pillow.
“We’re not asleep yet,” Mya said as she turned out the bathroom light and crawled under Nathan’s blanket. She curled up with him like any young girl might curl up beside her grandfather on a cold winter’s night, and Nathan willingly slipped a protective arm around the girl. Neither was uncomfortable with the arrangement and soon enough they were both fast asleep.
Nathan woke when Mya wiggled a little to get into a more comfortable position. He felt her breasts against his ribs and he imagined she was also making little curves in the beanpole body she had been. The breasts were still small, but he imagined she did not grow that much while they slept. All the same, he hoped they were nice ones for her sake, in whatever way she imagined breasts should be nice. He looked down and he knew he had judged about right. Mya appeared to be about thirteen, fourteen at most, and she was looking up at him. Her hand came up to touch his face – not such a little hand now, but he spoke before she could say anything.
“You have bumps.” He said.
“I have bumps?” Mya’s mouth opened in a tremendous smile and her eyes and hands shot instantly to her own chest. “I have bumps!” She declared and she rushed into the bathroom and shut the door.
Nathan sat up more slowly. It was not that he was stiff like he used to be when he woke at home, but because he was savoring the morning and feeling truly rested for the first time in ages. He thought of Mya as he heard a little squeal of delight come right through the door. If she was fourteen, he recognized that she was now twice as old as she had been only a day ago. He was happy for her when he thought about it. He had no idea what kind of relationships they might form in the next million years, or more. He could not encompass that though; but even so, he felt that she should not have to go into eternity always being referred to as a kid. He had heard the word used twice already and both times he heard it spoken unkindly.
He looked down at his own clothes. They were not as wrinkled as they had been, and what is more, his handkerchief was pressed and clean again, as if it had never been used. He imagined Mya’s clothes were adjusting as well as she got older and taller, though he could not imagine how that might work. He did not worry about it. He did not know how a lot of things worked, like microwave ovens, but it never stopped him before.
After waiting for a very long time, Nathan stepped to the door and knocked. “Are you all right in there?” He raised his voice just a bit against the wood.
“Yes. I’m fine.” The answer came sharply through the door. Something was happening but he could not guess what.
“I’ll be right here when you are ready,” he told her.
“Fine! I’ll just be a minute!” She responded, and Nathan shook his head and wondered what it was about women and bathrooms. He imagined he would never understand that either, so he did not let it bother him. He stepped into the hall and watched the shift change at the nurse’s desk. He followed one of the morning nurses with his eyes as she went from room to room with her tray of morning medicine. Out of curiosity, he looked in on room 312, but there was a new man in the bed and the business man had gone; then he hustled back to 307. He did not want to be found wandering when he was supposed to be waiting patiently for Mya.
Nathan paused outside the door to their room. There was a woman on her knees in the hall, cleaning. He thought little of it until he saw her give a furtive glance in his direction and immediately she started scrubbing a little harder for a few strokes of her brush. This was a hospital, he remembered. It was where people often went to die. Nathan imagined that most of the staff was immune to having ghosts wander the halls, but there would always be some that were sensitive to it.
The woman glanced his way again and squinted as if she could not quite grasp what she was seeing, or thought she was seeing, or maybe she was not quite seeing at all. Again, she started scrubbing harder for a few strokes, and Nathan wondered if the woman thought that she could clean and sterilize the ghosts away. Nathan was sure that was one thing she could not do, and he felt a momentary twinge of sorrow for the woman. He could almost taste the woman’s fear, a kind of palpable sense of foreboding. He felt it as surely as he had felt the cruelty of the woman with the puppy and concluded that ghosts must be hyper-sensitive to the emotional state of the living. He imagined this woman might have a break down, or anyway, this would likely be a very short-lived job. He felt sorry for her again, as he walked slowly back into his room.
Mya did not come out of the bathroom until it was seven, nearly an hour after she went in.
“All better?” He asked.
Mya sat on the bed. She was not ready to walk yet. It seemed like she wanted to talk and so Nathan took a seat on the bed opposite to her and prepared himself to listen.
“I know in my head that I am really only seven years old.” Mya started right in. “But I also know I am a teenager. I know this isn’t going to make any sense, but I don’t think I am just growing up on the outside.”
“No.” Nathan interrupted. “I have watched you and listened to you so I believe you, even if it doesn’t make any sense.” He smiled.
“I want pizza, and I don’t even like pizza.” She joked and tested herself, and Nathan gave her a little laugh. It was the least he could do.
“But what is wrong with that?” He asked. “You told me you did not want to stay little forever.”
Mya nodded. “I don’t. But it is all happening so fast. Shouldn’t growing up take time, I mean to learn things and explore things and all that?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Nathan turned thoughtful. “There really isn’t a whole lot to learn about being an adult, at least not much more than you knew by the time you were seven. Be good, do your best, love your neighbor and that sort of thing. When you grow up you have to take more responsibility for yourself and your own actions, decisions and choices. You know, like when the bird leaves the nest it must fly on its own, but you seemed like a very sensible and responsible girl since the first time I saw you. I can’t imagine trying to hitch a ride on a city bus at age seven. That must have taken great courage.”
Mya smiled and turned a little red. She fanned her face for a moment as she spoke. “You have no idea. I was scared out of my mind. To be honest, I just did not know what else to do.”
Nathan nodded and smiled his most reassuring smile. “Being an adult is a lot like that. Most grown-ups do things just because they don’t know what else to do. You have to be over eighty, I think, before you realize it doesn’t matter mostly what we do, as long as what we do is done in love and kindness.”
Mya smiled again and looked down into her lap where she worried her own hands.
Nathan asked because he picked up on the clue. “So what took you so long in the bathroom?”
“I think I had a period,” Mya said and did not look up at first. “Mother explained it all to me and I did not really understand what she was talking about, but now it kind of makes sense. I felt all crampy and then all fatish, though I had already taken off my clothes and I did not notice getting any fatter in the mirror. Then I felt like I had to go, you know? I sat down on the toilet and tried, but nothing happened until I noticed I was bleeding a little.” She looked up. “I didn’t know ghosts could bleed.”
“I didn’t know there were really ghosts until yesterday.” Nathan countered with a motion that suggested she should go on and finish the story.
“Well, that’s it. Then I got better and got dressed and came out.”
“But I thought such things lasted for three or four days.” Nathan sounded unsure.
“Oh, a week.” Mya responded with her eyes as big as they could be. “But that’s what I mean about everything happening so fast.”
“Still, you experienced something,” he pointed out.
Mya made a very teen age, exasperated expression come to her face and she threw her hands out to slap the bed, palm up, on either side of her. “But that is what I mean about not experiencing things. How can I really grow up without experiencing things?”
“Hmm.” Nathan tried to get serious again. “Have you experienced frustration and anger as well as accomplishment and satisfaction? Have you ever been worried and afraid sometimes and felt safe and secure at other times? Have you known sadness as well as joy, hate and love, cruelty and kindness? Have you ever felt the excitement of trying to go to sleep on Christmas eve?” Mya nodded to all of it. “Then I would say you have already experienced everything there is to experience. Grown-ups just experience these same things, though the world is full of fools these days who seem determined to cut back on the joy, love and kindness part.”
“I’ve never experienced falling in love with a boy,” Mya said a bit shyly.
“And never had your heart broken either.” Nathan raised a wise, old finger to emphasize his point.
Mya puffed a teenage puff. “I would still like to fall in love with a boy,” she insisted.
“Bah.” Nathan shrugged it off. “Boys are not so special.”
Mya rolled her eyes. She had practiced that in the mirror, but she did not need to tell him that. “Now you sound like my real grandfather,” she said.
“He must be a very wise man,” Nathan responded, stood and puffed out his chest just a little. “Now, shall we go?”
“Go where?” Mya suddenly got serious.
“To see your real grandfather?” Nathan suggested. Mya shook her head. “Well how about just your regular father?” Mya’s head shake became more pronounced.
“Dad left me and mother when I was just a baby.”
“Well, how about your mother then?” Mya’s head shook hardest of all.
“I’m not ready for that yet,” she said, and then she added something that did not surprise Nathan at all since he was feeling the same tug on his soul. “I think we need to go back to the place where the bus, you know.”
“The scene of the accident?”
“The scene of the crime.”
“Yes,” Nathan said. “I was feeling that myself but I wanted to hear it from you. I was willing to fight the feeling if you said you needed to go somewhere else.”
“No,” she said and held out her hand for him to take. It was a bigger hand by then and they were more truly holding hands now rather than Nathan enfolding her little hand in his palm. “I go where you go.” She finished her thought and Nathan simply nodded as they started to walk. They chose the stairs this time, and without Nathan thinking twice about the choice.
“But what about you?” Mya asked. She drew the thought from somewhere in her growing-up mind. “Don’t you have family?”
“I’ll tell you on the way,” he said, and they went through the sliding doors and out on to the street past the man attempting to fix the doors. Apparently, they were opening and closing at all sorts of times, and all on their own.
“I have a daughter, Lisa, and she is basically a good girl, or she would be if she would just let go of her Jezebel spirit.” Nathan talked as they walked.
“Her what?” Mya asked as she chose to let go of Nathan’s hand and walk at his side. She felt like she was getting too big to be hand holding like that, and anyway, he said she was growing up so she decided she had better start acting more grown up.
“It means she always has to be in charge and control everything,” he said. “She has driven out three of the last four preachers at the church.”
“I thought priests got appointed,” Mya said. She did not understand.
“Not in the Baptist Church,”
“Oh, we’re Episcopalian.”
“I’m sort of a mix myself.” Nathan let out a little smile. “I guess that is why I fit well with the Baptists.”
“I’ve always been Episcopalian,” Mya said in all honestly.
“Anyway, I have a daughter, Lisa, and she is all right I suppose, but a hard woman. She does not put up with any nonsense and does not have much of a sense of humor.”
“So you are married?” Mya said, seriously, but it was like a question.
“Was married.” Nathan answered and came to a stop. He stooped to pick up a stone from the curb and tossed it into someone’s yard. He missed the tree he was only half aiming at. “Mildred ran out on Lisa and me when Lisa was about your age, seven I mean. Actually, she was eight.”
“I’m not eight anymore.” Mya said with a grin. Once again, Mya had accepted all that was happening to them. It was Nathan who was having a hard time thinking of her as anything other than a crippled seven-year-old.
“So she abandoned us.” Nathan went to pick up the story but he felt Mya’s hand on his cheek and in his hair.
“Poor baby,” Mya said, softly and with all gentleness. Nathan turned, and there must have been something in his eyes because the girl quickly withdrew her hand and looked almost like she was scolded, even without a word. “It is what my grandma always says.” She cringed a little in defending herself.
Nathan softened. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” He did not want to upset her because after all, she was only a child. “I got over it. What?” He asked what because she was staring at him. Her hand reached very hesitantly for his hair again, and he did nothing to stop her, so she combed it behind his ear.
“You have brown hair. It’s nice. You know it isn’t so gray anymore.” He did not know, but to be sure, he found the whole idea of getting younger a bit disturbing. He was glad for her, that she was growing up, but he was not sure he wanted to get much younger. He lived a good long life and he was afraid that he might start to forget who he was. He decided that he needed to get them back on the subject so he started to walk again and she walked at his side.
“Anyway.” He exaggerated the word. “I have two grandchildren. My granddaughter, Susan, is twenty-eight and lives in California with her husband and two perfect children.” He rolled his eyes for her and that made Mya giggle. “My son, Stephen is local, and still married, sort of, and they have a daughter, my great-grand Emily. She is eight.”
“What do you mean, sort of still married?”
“Separated.” Nathan shrugged. “But they are in counseling so who knows? Maybe they will reconcile. Personally, I am not holding my breath.”
“You don’t sound very happy with any of your family.” Mya thought hard about it.
Nathan shrugged again. “I suppose I blame myself.” He held up his hand to keep her quiet until he explained. “I am the one who raised Lisa to be the way she is. I don’t know, but I think she needed her mother, a mother, any mother. I was working way too much and I put too much on her shoulders at too young an age. I made her grow up too fast, you see? That is my only real concern for you.”
“I will be fine,” Mya said quickly and took his hand once again to reassure him. “I don’t need to be in charge of anything.”
He glanced at her. “You say that now, but wait until you’re a little older.”
“You mean ten minutes from now?” She asked, and they both laughed a little.
“Anyway.” Nathan stressed the word again. “I’m the one who made Lisa into a hard woman, and she raised Susan and Stephen to be warped in their own ways.”
“I think your wife might be blamed for some of it,” Mya suggested.
Nathan shook his head. “I can’t blame her. She wasn’t there.”
“Exactly,” Mya said. “My mother and I are alone, too. I know that is not the way it is supposed to be. My father should be there. I am sure I missed out on lots of things because he was not there.” She paused and wondered ever so briefly if she was clinging to this man because he could maybe be the father she never had. “I am sure my mother has had me take responsibilities that I should not have to take, or have taken, back, you know, when I was seven.”
Nathan let out his breath in what was almost a little growl. “Parents talk all of the time about raising their children, but I think most of the time all we do is ruin them. We fill them with our disappointments, our anger and frustrations with life and twist their little minds until they become something they were never meant to be. I suppose that is the nature of sin. I never realized it before, the way the sins of the fathers keep getting passed on from one generation to the next and twisted in the process until it becomes something downright wicked.”
“Stop it.” Mya interrupted his tirade. “I am sure you did just what you told me to do. I am sure you did the best you could and my grandmother used to say you can’t expect to do any better than your best.”
“I suppose,” Nathan said, but he became quiet for a time.
“How come you never remarried?” Mya asked at last. Nathan looked at her for a minute before he answered. He wondered what was going on in that little mind of hers.
“Because it never seemed the right time or the right woman, I don’t know. It had to be right for Lisa, you know. Not just for me.” He shook his head and looked away from the girl. He took a deep breath before he spoke again. “I guess I did not want to go through all of that again. I was thirty-four when Mildred left, but I still feel the sting of her rejection. She ran off with a minister, though how you reconcile infidelity with ministry, I – I.” He shrugged again, and did not have the words. When he looked again at Mya, she was deep in thought. He nudged her rather than ask what was on her mind.
“Uh?” She looked up. “I was just thinking that I hope my mother remarries, especially now that I am, you know, gone and all. I think she needs a chance to start over, and I was thinking that maybe I was kind of standing in the way of that, do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Nathan said. “I can’t imagine you standing in the way of anyone’s happiness.” He smiled and she did too, drew a little closer and tried to match his stride as they walked. Nathan noticed that Mya now stood as tall as the half-way point between his elbow and shoulder. She was certainly growing. Her bumps were getting bigger, too, and she was showing more curves in that figure. She was turning into a beautiful young woman and he was happy for her. He put his arm around her in his happiness and in true affection. “You’re as tall as my heart now.” He said and sounded very much like the grandfather that he thought of himself, or the father Mya presently imagined him to be. She stopped and gave him a big hug.
The base of the bus stop sign was broken off and jagged. The police had put some orange cones around it and strung yellow “Police Line, Do Not Cross” streamers between the cones, but otherwise it hardly looked like anything happened. People were walking up and down the street, cars were moving in their early to mid-day routine, and they even saw a bus pull to the stop and wait a minute before starting up again.
“This is it?” Mya complained. “We died here, just yesterday afternoon, and this is all there is to show for it?” She certainly sounded very teenager.
“What did you expect?” Nathan asked the rhetorical question. “Unless there is a personal connection, the world of the living does not want to think about the dead and dying. Death is a subject best left buried in normal conversations, if you know what I mean.”
“Fuck you.” Both Mya and Nathan heard the words and were startled by them. They looked and saw a young man just inside the gate, staring at them. He came out to confront them. “What did you expect, a monument? In a week, no one will even remember that we ever existed.”
“My mother won’t forget,” Mya insisted.
“And my daughter won’t let anyone else forget,” Nathan added.
“Fuck you.” The young man said it again. It seemed to be his favorite phrase. “I don’t care what people think. I’m still here. God can’t get rid of me that easily.”
“Why would God want to get rid of you?” Mya asked and showed her innocence once more.
“Because God owes me, stupid. I got nothing but bad all my life, so God owes me tons and tons of good, and I will accuse him to stinkin’ high heaven and bring down the whole racist lot of them if I have to.”
“But why do you think God owes you? Who told you that?” Mya really did not understand, but Nathan drew her a little closer for her own protection. He had an idea of where this man was coming from and he knew it was a hair trigger from violence.
The young man looked at Mya like she was as thick as the fence post and almost as smart. He pointed sharply at Nathan in his suit. “I don’t expect some motherfucking rich man and his daughter to understand, but I learned from a very early age that I did not have a chance in this world. I was born poor trash and I would never be anything other than poor trash. You see?”
“What’s being poor got to do with it?” Mya searched for understanding and looked up at Nathan thinking that maybe he could explain it to her.
“Man, are you stupid!” The young man backed up a little, threw his hands to the sky and almost turned in a circle before settling down to explain. “My mama and grandma told me all my life that a poor man in this Goddamn America would never get a break, and they were right.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have listened to them,” Mya suggested.
“What? Not listen to my mama and grandma?” The young man looked at Nathan for support in his argument, but Nathan could only shrug.
“Don’t look at me. My mother was a penniless immigrant and my grandmother died at Auschwitz.” That made both Mya and the man pause and stare for a minute. Mya had heard the word and knew it was something terrible, and a lot of people were killed. The young man knew exactly what Auschwitz was.
“You a fuckin’ Jew?”
“In part,” Nathan said. He looked at Mya in a kind of reflex action to see if it made any difference to her. It did not, and Nathan wondered if she ever met a real Jew before. Probably, he decided. “I’m actually sort of a Baptist-Jew.”
“Awesome.” The young man settled down a little in his attitude and vocabulary. “So tell me, Jew-boy, how did you manage such a hot lookin’ daughter.” He leered at Mya and Nathan almost said something, but Mya nudged him.
“Do you really like what you see?” Mya asked. She set her hands on her hips and swaying just a little as if to show herself off.
“Mama, you and I could make love all night. Sweet sixteen I bet, and I could kiss you all over.” The young man responded. Then Mya pushed it too far. She leaned forward to show her young breasts just a little and she lowered her voice in imitation of a movie she once saw.
“Do you like what you see?” She asked again. She was maybe fifteen or so by then and quite capable of enticing any young man with such a move, but of course she was just play-acting, imitating a movie. She had no idea of the reaction she would provoke. The man leapt for her, no doubt with the intention of raping her on the spot, and Mya screamed. A woman waiting at the bus stop also screamed and backed up a couple of steps. Nathan reached for Mya to pull her to safety, but he was a bit slow. The young man went right through Mya as if she was just a ghost, which she was. The man fell on his knees on the pavement and let out a frustration scream of his own.
“It’s not fair! God, you owe me big time! Goddamn you God. It’s not fair!”
Nathan hustled Mya through the iron gate and up toward the park bench before he scolded her. “Ok? Are you happy? Do you see what a good looking young woman can do to a man? Part of growing up has to be learning to keep your sexy self to yourself. There are certain things you just don’t go around flaunting all over the place unless you want reactions like you just got.”
“Am I really good looking?” Mya heard him, or at least the part of what he said that her teenage mind could process. “Am I really sexy?”
Nathan stopped. He remembered scolding his own daughter more than once, and he thought that this time he could afford to be a little softer. “Yes,” he said. “You are very beautiful and enormously attractive, and I think you are doing a remarkable job of growing up under the circumstances, but you have to promise to be more careful about just what you do.” He spoke out of genuine concern, and she knew it.
“I promise.” Mya said. She raised her hand to signify a pledge not to be broken, though to be sure, she was not exactly certain what she was promising. Her mind was stuck on the words very beautiful and enormously attractive. She needed to hear that. She needed her best friend in the whole world to say that.
“Well, I am glad that is settled.” There was a man sitting on the park bench, their park bench, and he was reading the newspaper. Nathan did not have to guess who it was, and when the man lowered the paper, Nathan saw that he was right. “So the terrorist does not understand why he is not in paradise, and Mister Thomas thinks God owes him, and the little old lady has vanished to who knows where, no great loss there, so what is your problem?”
“None,” Nathan answered honestly.
“We’re just great,” Mya said. She stepped up and took Nathan’s arm for the first time. She was tall enough now that she could do that, and as she placed her other hand on Nathan’s bicep, she glanced down at her own breasts. She thought they were turning out just right as she imagined they were not even finished growing and she was still smiling about being called beautiful and attractive and sexy. It was heady stuff for her.
“Nothing?’ The minister asked, skeptically.
Nathan was surprised to see that the minister was hardly changed at all by the experience. He was a good looking man with a full head of black hair that was just beginning to gray a bit at the temples. He looked fit besides, like he ate all the right foods and worked out regularly at the gym. Indeed, Nathan got the impression that this was just the sort of man who would actually go to the gym. Nathan shrugged as he spoke.
“I was thinking that there have been a lot of cultures throughout history that believed the spirits of the dead could not pass fully over to the other side until they were properly buried.” He could think of no other reason for their still being there.
“Not catholic, huh? This is not purgatory, you know. There is no such thing.” The minister sounded like he knew all about it even though Nathan guessed it was his first time being dead. “So don’t you wonder why you are not in heaven, or someplace else?”
Mya and Nathan both shook their heads and laughed a little about sharing the same response. Then Mya spoke. “I assume when God is ready he will take us to where he wants us to be.”
“Blind faith.” The minister looked disgusted with that idea. “It is just one step before ignorance. I spent my whole life fighting blind faith and trying to educate the ignorant masses about the ways of God. I regularly made profound statements from the pulpit, most of which would probably go right over your heads. And then I lived it out. That is very important, too. I fed the poor and clothed the naked and visited those who were sick or in prison. Let me tell you, the only question anyone should be asking is why I was not translated instantly to heaven to receive my reward.”
Mya cocked her head to the side a little in a very teenage maneuver. It was like she was trying to get a different perspective on the man as if that might make things clearer. “Maybe God wanted something else from you,” she suggested.
The minister got agitated. “I’ll have you know, I was called to ministry at a very early age. I have given my whole life to God since that day. Who are you to question my calling? Young woman, I’ll have you know there is probably a whole book in heaven listing the names of people that have been brought to the faith by my work alone.”
Nathan interrupted. He was feeling close enough to Mya by then that he imagined he could understand some of the ways she was thinking. “Oh, she is not questioning your calling, and I take nothing away from all of your good work and all of the names written in heaven. Nor is she questioning your intellectual honesty and no doubt brilliance. I am sure all of that is very important, and I am sure God is grateful. No, I believe she was thinking of God maybe wanting something entirely different.”
The minister’s face reddened a bit. He was getting beyond agitated, but he refused to show it which in its way was less honest than the young man they left by the gate. Nathan thought steam might come out of the minister’s head at any minute. “Like what?” The man spoke through his teeth and barely slit his lips in the process.
“Like your love,” Mya said in all sincerity as she straightened out her head. Nathan nodded his silent agreement. He could see that.
The minister turned pale for all of a minute before he responded. “Now that just proves your ignorance,” he said at last as the color began to return to his face. “We cannot love God, you see? At least we cannot love God the way he has loved us. We are not going to die for him.”
“But haven’t you just said you did that?” Nathan asked, but it was a genuine question. From Mya’s teenage lips it would have sounded flippant.
“In a sense, yes, but what I mean is the way we show our love for God is in doing what is right and good and true according to his divine will. You see, that is why I said that I lived out my faith. A faith that is only words and a matter of the mind is really no faith at all.”
“So what you are saying is it is impossible to love God, directly, I mean,” Nathan said.
“I know love by the way I feel,” Mya interrupted. “I feel my love for God. Isn’t that the way everyone knows love?” Mya’s simple innocence caused her to look up at Nathan in case she had it all wrong.
“That is exactly how we know love, sweetheart.” He patted her hand on his arm and began to move her away from there. The minster swallowed, and Nathan was quite sure without asking that the man had spent his whole life trying not to feel anything at all.
Mya looked up at Nathan and opened her big brown eyes even bigger than usual. “You called me sweetheart,” she said. It was almost an accusation.
“Because you are,” he said. “I think you have the kindest and sweetest heart of anyone I’ve ever known, and I am beginning to believe the adult world would do much better if we listened to more seven year olds.”
Mya frowned on hearing that reminder of her true age, but then she sighed and laid her head against Nathan’s arm. She was almost big enough by then to set her head against his shoulder, the place where she slept so comfortably in the night. Nathan responded by giving her hand another fatherly pat
There was a second gate that let them out of the fenced area down closer to the actual scene of the accident. Nathan was reluctant to lead them past the angry young man again, though he added that man and the minister to his prayer list, even if that list was growing rather long. He knew the angel only asked him to pray for the terrorist, the young suicide, and he was tempted not to worry about the others, but he also knew that Mya’s prayer list was very long and that she was praying regularly, if not continually for them all. He could only imagine her asking God to love and help others in a completely kind hearted, loving and selfless way, and he thought that perhaps that was another lesson the grown-up world could learn from the young.
They saw the man as soon as they got through the gate. He was pacing back and forth on the edge of the street. Nathan had no trouble identifying the man as the big, burly fellow who moved up at the last to sit behind him. “What is it, friend?” He asked without hesitation, feeling very gregarious with Mya so close beside him.
The man turned to face them and Mya gasped and buried her face in Nathan’s side. The man was missing the side of his face, down to the bone and including his eye. His right hand was missing almost up to the elbow, and the stump was a bloody mess that looked to be festering. The man recognized them right away, too, though his vision of them seemed a little skewed through that one good eye. “The old man and the little kid. What are you, a hundred and something? And Kid, you must be, what, four or five?”
“I’m eighteen.” Mya picked an age, though she probably was not that old yet. “And he isn’t a day over forty,” though he probably was. She brushed Nathan’s hair again behind his ears and this time he did not mind at all.
The big, burly man stared at them for a moment and Nathan prepared to run and drag Mya after him if necessary. He was a bit surprised that the man did not respond to her teenaged flippancy with anger. Instead he looked up and threw out his good hand. “What is wrong with everybody?” He shouted to the sky. “So tell me this. When is the ambulance going to get here? I could die before they show up.”
Mya and Nathan looked at each other with the most curious expressions. It was Mya who spoke. “But we are already dead.”
The man frowned as far as they could tell from what lips were left. “Don’t be stupid. We can’t already be dead.”
A woman took that moment to come by on the sidewalk. The burly man jumped out in front of her and began screaming. He raised his arms, including his stump and yelled. “Would you get me a fucking ambulance!” Mya and Nathan were repulsed by the man’s anger, but not as shocked as they were by the woman’s response. She screamed which made Mya burry her face again a bit deeper in Nathan’s arm to prevent her own scream. And then the woman shrieked something about a ghost and she hurried off back the way she came. It was the woman’s terror that Nathan and Mya felt most of all, and as strongly as they felt the cruelty in the woman with the puppy. Nathan was suddenly glad that they had not spent much time around many living people since the accident. It reminded him once again that he and Mya had become very sensitive to the disposition of the souls of the living.
“Damn selfish bitch,” the burly man said. “Can’t she see that I need help?”
“Why not?” Mya looked up again, now that the feeling of fear had passed, and she was genuinely confused. “I mean, we are already dead. Why can’t we be dead?”
“Eh?” They had the man’s attention again.
“You said we can’t possibly be dead.” Nathan reminded the man.
“Because missy.” He spoke to Mya. “If we were dead we would no longer exist.”
“Not if there is a God,” Mya said forthrightly.
“Maybe the spirit can survive after death.” Nathan tried to add his own thoughts but stopped when the burly man’s frown deepened and a little piece of lip fell to the ground. This caused Mya to hide her eyes a third time.
“Don’t give me that God crap and all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo. That’s all just so much shit and you know it.”
“No. I know the spirit can live after death.” Nathan was completely certain about that, obviously, and his words reflected his certainty.
“If you believe that, you’re an idiot.” The man walked to the back of a parked car. “Look, I know what is real and what isn’t. It’s like this car is real.” He pounded on the hood, and though in fact he was putting his hand right through the hood, there was no doubt that he thought he was pounding on it. “Science tells me what is real, and that is good enough. If you want to believe in some fairy tale, that’s your business, but I’ll say you are an idiot.”
“But maybe there are some things science doesn’t know,” Nathan suggested.
“I’m sure that is true.” The burly man responded. “But when they figure it out I am also sure it will be as solid and real as this car.” He made to pound on it again and went through it again.
“But please.” Mya could not stand listening to the pain in the man’s voice. “We all died yesterday. The accident was a whole day ago.”
“Yes.” Nathan took up the cause. “If you were bleeding for a whole day, you would be dead by now, except you are already dead.”
“What are you talking about? Did that concussion rattle your brains? That kid only blew up ten, not five minutes ago.” He went to look at his watch, but that part of his arm was missing.
“But.” Mya was not for giving up, but the burly man was not going to listen.
“Look. I don’t want to hear about your God. I don’t want anything to do with a God because there is no such thing. I don’t want some freakin’ fairy tale hanging over my shoulder telling me what I can and cannot do. I am my own man, the captain of my soul and master of my fate or whatever. And even if there is a God, I don’t want anything to do with it. A pox on your moronic God. He should leave me alone forever and I’ll do just fine without him, and when I die, and when you die, I am sure we will all just blend back into the universe and cease to exist.”
Nathan was concerned for the vehemence and seriousness of the man. He thought it best if they did not tempt him any further, but Mya was still not giving up.
“But.” She tried again, but the man’s shout cut her off.
“Screw your God. He can leave me alone, forever!” he said, and suddenly he began to sparkle like the old woman sparkled, except his sparkles were pitch black, of a kind that swallowed all of the light rather than giving light. It started out in small spots, but as it spread, the spots began to join with others and became black blotches all over him. The man screamed. Nathan heard, “Not that. I never knew. Not alone.” Or Nathan thought he heard those words. Mostly he just heard screams. Mya had her face pressed into Nathan’s chest and she was crying her eyes out. Nathan was frightened half out of his mind, but he could not tear his eyes away to save his sanity. Then it was over. The man was gone and only a black wisp like smoke remained.
Then Nathan heard a voice come from the smoke that frightened the other half of his mind. “Would you like to join him?” The voice asked. “It will be very easy. Curse God and die.” Nathan nearly lost his wits completely on hearing that, but Mya dragged him to his knees by then and he wrenched his eyes from the black wisp to see her kneeling and watch her clasp her hands in the classic position of a child at prayer. Her eyes were shut tight, too, and Nathan thought that was a good idea. Nathan squeezed his eyes shut and felt his mind and his heart go out to the God of Gods.
“Please, please.” That was all he could think at first. “Let there be light.” That came to him. “The darkness can’t stand against the light.” And slowly he regained his wits. “God, give that man another chance, just a little more time to see the light, and please send a better messenger than me. Please, please God, please. The man can’t hear me. I tried. I tried.” After another moment he opened his eyes, and he saw that there was an actual light shining over his shoulder. He knew, without looking, that it was the angel, and the wisp of darkness stood no chance at all. When Mya opened her eyes, she saw the man sitting on the curb, gasping for air. With that done, Mya took Nathan’s hand and quickly led him away.
“We have so many to pray for,” Mya remarked. Nathan agreed and he lifted up a prayer then and there for the suicide bomber. He was told to pray for the man but thus far he had not actually prayed at all. He had just said he would like he always did when he was alive. Then he added a prayer for the angry young man, and one for the minister, and another one for the business man and the hungry man from the hospital. Then he started on his daughter and eventually worked his way through everyone he could think of. He did not pay much attention to where he was going, but he trusted Mya implicitly to lead him carefully down the street.
After that experience, neither felt any desire or need to return again to the scene of the accident – the name they finally settled on calling it. Nathan decided that they needed something good to do, so he led them to a nearby garden which he knew and which always seemed to have something in bloom, and certainly at that time of year promised plenty.
While they walked, Mya found a question that started with her short summary of recent events. “So, the suicide bomber thought he would go straight to paradise, but he didn’t. That young man thought God owed him tons of good, but nothing happened there. The minster refused to believe that he was not already perfect, though he was still stuck on a park bench, and the burly man refused to believe in anything at all, even if his own experience proved the opposite of what he was saying. I don’t get it? Why don’t they just say, I was wrong and get on with it?”
Nathan looked at Mya and slipped his arm over her shoulder. She responded by placing hers around his waist. She looked up at him like a girl might look up to her father to explain the hard bumps and curves of life in a way that she could understand.
“I have made plenty of mistakes in my time, and I have generally admitted them, but for most people these days that is not how the world works,” Nathan began. He paused for a moment while he remembered a story. “There was a woman in church way back when Mildred and I were going. I remember whenever the preacher started talking about sin; she would arch her back and give him terrible stares. I heard her once going out the door in front of us. Even as she shook the preacher’s hand she said, “Some of us don’t think of ourselves as sinners.”
“But that’s crazy,” Mya said.
“But she was absolutely sincere. You see, the world has become a very hard and fast place. If you admit doing something wrong, and especially if you apologize and say you are sorry, most people see that as a weakness, as something they can hold over your head and manipulate you with. Consequently, most people will never admit a mistake even if they know better, and they will never, ever say they are sorry. Do you follow what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” Mya said. “You are telling me the whole world has gone crazy.”
“Maybe the world is crazy.” He would not object to that description. “But it gets really bad when you think that no one can ever start over. You see, when you admit the wrong and apologize, you get over it and it gives you the chance to try something else, something different or new; but if you never admit that you were wrong, you get stuck. It’s kind of like telling a lie, and then trying to cover it up with another lie, and then another. If you don’t confess, you never get over it. It just gets worse and worse.” Then Nathan added another thought. “I think the whole problem with every one of those men is they are unwilling to admit that they were wrong.”
“What about you?” Mya asked.
Nathan leaned over and rubbed his knuckles gently, lovingly really on the top of her head. He spoke instantly. “Sorry. That was wrong of me.”
Mya pinched him in the roll he still had around his stomach and caused him to yelp. “That might have been wrong of me.’ Mya grinned. “But I’m not sorry.”
Nathan grinned right back at her.
When they arrived at the garden, Nathan was not disappointed. It was as beautiful as he remembered.
“It’s lovely,” Mya remarked. “So charming and quaint.” She was trying out the words, and then she tried something else. She got on her tip toes, steadied herself with a hand on Nathan’s arm, and she kissed Nathan right on the cheek. She smiled as she stared at him with true love and affection in her eyes. No one would have ever guessed that a day ago they were complete strangers.
Nathan coughed to bring her back to the flowers. He also took her to a bench where they sat and drew in the myriad of scents. Mya kept saying how beautiful everything was, and she got up a couple of times to take a closer look when she saw a more distant flower with a new color. Nathan could hardly bring himself to move at all. He was amazed at being able to catch all of the aromas, which were indeed beautiful, and he found he could even pull out the scent of one or more flowers independently from all the rest. Poor Nathan could hardly smell anything after the age of seventy-five or so. Now, the return of this most vital sense was positively overwhelming him with pleasure.
He was startled out of his reverie when he heard Mya let out a little shriek. He bolted to her side, his first run in more than twenty years, but he found her delighted, indeed, enchanted and not in danger as he feared.
“Look.” Mya pointed, and there was a kind of light fluttering around one of the flowers. Nathan looked again, and he noticed that there were several lights in that corner of the garden. Then he looked closer and gave his new, wonderful eyes their first real workout. He saw a little human-like figure with wings, a figure no bigger than a hummingbird hovering over a rose. He noticed, because the light was right then noticing him.
“Fairies.” Mya named them and she clasped her hands together in pure delight. Obviously her seven-year-old world view had no trouble accepting such things. But that was not fair, Nathan thought, because she was clearly now more like seventeen, and he knew it.
One part of Nathan’s mind tried to say that fairies were impossible, but it was another piece of his mind that parted the silence of his lips. “I knew it,” he said. “I always knew this universe was not the way I was taught.” Mya looked curious, so he explained. “Like the burly man. We were all taught that this earth was no more than dead matter and energy, that our minds, our consciousnesses were merely an accident of nature.” Mya shook her head as if that did not make any sense, especially in light of their experience. “But somehow, deep inside, I always knew the universe was alive, everywhere. I bet there are all sorts of things in the real world about which the living with their closed matter and energy minds have no idea.” He concluded and Mya nodded as if to say that now she understood.
The fairy flew up to Mya’s face and then Nathan’s face, and finally began to fly around them in a circle of streaming pink light. Other fairies were attracted to this and joined in adding gold, lavender and pale blue lights to the mix. Round and round they went, faster and faster so that Mya and Nathan could not keep up and began to get dizzy. The two humans drew closer to each other, and eventually held on tight. They got as close as they could lest they inadvertently bump one of the speeding fairies which they could no longer distinguish from the light. Then the circles of light began to rise and for a second, Mya and Nathan thought they were going to rise with it; but as soon as the circles got above their heads, they began to contract in size. They became smaller and smaller circles until it came to a single point and the light and the fairies vanished altogether.
Mya clapped her hands and squealed with delight. If she had been younger, like closer to actually being seven, she probably could not have resisted making the sound. Nathan stood with his mouth open in wonder. It was the most glorious sight he had ever seen! Then he remembered the angel and said to himself, the second most glorious.
Nathan started to let go of Mya, though he felt very comfortable holding her in that way. Mya also did not seem to want to let go, but they did, and Nathan had a terrific thought. He held out his hand, palm up as he spoke.
“Would my lady care to attend the symphony with me this evening?”
“Yes.” Mya spoke a bit loud and much too quickly. “A date?” She asked.
Nathan shrugged off the implication even if he could not stop smiling. “No, no,” he said. “You are supposed to say, “Yes, My Lord. I would be delighted.” And then you put your hand, palm on my palm, and give a little curtsey while I bow.
Mya laughed briefly at the idea, and it was no little girl giggle. She offered her hand and spoke as requested, and then Nathan drew her in to hold his arm again and noted that she was now as tall as his shoulder, and then just a little bit more.
The symphony hall was not far away. There was a little time yet before the concert since the sun had just about set. They spent the time looking at the posters and reading about the season’s offering, and Nathan confessed that he used to have season tickets.
“I had to give it up when my ears started to go,” he said. “God knows that when you get older, all of the senses start to go, one by one.”
“Can you hear me now?” Mya whispered.
“Yes I can.” Nathan whispered back, and she laughed again. Nathan thought it was a great pleasure to hear her laugh and he wondered if she was ticklish. She was, and in short order they were both on their knees laughing as hard as any two people had ever laughed. Finally, as Nathan got hold of himself, Mya had a thought.
“Oh, but I have never heard a symphony before. Mother only listened to country music. What exactly is a symphony?”
“What is a symphony?” Nathan puffed. “What is a symphony?” He grabbed her hand, pulled her to her feet and rushed her inside. They snitched a program and ran up the stairs to the box seats, Nathan hoped that the performance was not sold out. “I used to sit here,” Nathan said as he caught his breath. He was certainly under forty years old by then, but not by all that much. Mya, who was not winded at all, had to be maybe and finally an honest eighteen, maybe. They sat and Nathan explained all he could about Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and then after an intermission there was going to be a waltz by Strauss and a piece by Mahler. By the time he finished, the hall was beginning to fill up and Mya began to get excited. Nathan gave her hand a fatherly pat as if to say, just wait, when an older woman came to sit in his seat. Mya nudged him and he got up as quickly as he could, but it was not quick enough. The woman’s shoulder went right through his shoulder.
The woman paused and looked at the ceiling as if searching for the air conditioning vent. She pulled her shawl up fully around her shoulder and took the next chair over so Nathan got to sit down again. Mya tried to hold back a laugh and Nathan wiped his brow. “That was close.” He spoke to the woman, but of course, the woman heard nothing. He turned back to Mya but she hushed him. The orchestra was warming up and the lights were going down. Beethoven was wonderfully done. Nathan could not resist pointing out his favorite part in the piece, but he saw that Mya was moved to tears so he really did not need to say anything. When it was over, he thought that Mya applauded more than anyone, and then it was intermission.
The old woman beside them did not look like she was going to move, so Nathan politely said, “Excuse us,” even if she could not respond. Of course, their legs inevitably sent through her legs, and Mya stopped them at the curtain for a moment to watch. The woman bent down as if searching for the source of the breeze. She pulled her dress all the way down to cover her legs. Mya did finally giggle a little, but there was no little girl sound in it.
When they got downstairs, they found it very crowded and very difficult to get around without walking through people. Several men turned up their collars at the sudden cold, and some women adjusted their shawls and sweaters, but really, Nathan and Mya disrupted very little. Nathan felt bad, briefly, that he could not get them some of that famous watered down orange drink. They found the water fountain but Mya said that even in the hospital all she could do was wet her lips. The lights flashed and that startled Mya for a moment. She grabbed on to Nathan, but he assured her it was nothing to worry about. They went back up the stairs, more slowly than the first time, but when they arrived, even as the orchestra began to warm up once more, they saw that two late arrivals were sitting in their seats.
Nathan had a thought, and without saying anything, Mya asked, “What is it?” She was beginning to know him rather well, too, and she could read the excitement etched across his face and eyes.
“Come on.” That was all he said, and they were off, running again, going down the stairs two at a time. The lights were off by the time they broke into the orchestra seating. They reached the stage as the applause for the conductor abated. Nathan dragged Mya right up on the stage. She looked more than once, nervously at the crowd even if she knew the audience could not see her. By the time the first strains of the waltz began, he had her in the back corner of the stage, opposite the percussion section, where there was some room to move around.
“What is it?” Mya finally insisted.
Nathan smiled and lifted his left hand. “The waltz,” he said. “We should be dancing.”
“Oh.” Mya put her hand to her mouth. “But I’ve never danced like that before,” she protested.
“Then time you learned young lady. Come, come.” He insisted. She took his hand and he lifted her other hand to his shoulder while he set his hand gently on her waist. “Just do what I do.” He said, and they bumped legs. “I mean the opposite. When I step forward, you step back.”
“Oh.” Mya turned a little red and decided her only recourse was to keep looking into Nathan’s eyes. He looked into her eyes as well and waited for the right time to start, and then they waltzed. She was so unsure at first, but it was not long before she got it. The waltz was not a complicated dance. By the end of the Strauss piece, Mya was moving with delight, so gracefully and effortlessly, and Nathan was feeling a bit awkward as only a man can feel when dancing with a beautiful young woman. He stepped back at the end to look at her. Her school clothes were gone and she was dressed in a lovely gown, all pink and sparkling and a little bit low cut, he thought. He still had on his suit, but his shirt was tight and spotless. The suit looked like it just came from the dry cleaners and he was wearing a tie. He had not worn a tie in years
Then it was over and while the people applauded, Nathan leaned over and kissed Mya’s cheek, and she kissed his. Nathan thought that this was like dancing with his daughter on her wedding day. It was a dance he never got to have. She ran away when she was eighteen and when she came home she was already married. It was not that she eloped, though. She lived with the scum for two years first.
Mya thought something quite different. She still had to get a little on her tip-toes, though not much, and she kissed him softly right on the lips. “You could be my boyfriend,” she said.
Nathan’s eyes got big for a minute before he grabbed her hand roughly and dragged her backstage and down the hall. They went out the stage door, actually walking right through it without realizing it. She shouted the whole way, “Let go, let go!” and tugged against his big hand. He did not speak, but thought terrible things. When he got her outside, he found some stacks of crates in the alley and he threw her down to sit on a crate, not to hurt her, but to not take no for an answer. Then he spoke.
“Stop it.” He shook a finger in her face. “I’m eighty-four and you are just seven years old.” He knew that was a lie when he said it, but his mind was still telling him that. “I don’t mind being your grandfather. I don’t even mind being your father, but I’ll have no talk about boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“And why not?” She shot right back at him, not intimidated in the least.
“Because I’m too old for you, I mean way too old.” He yelled.
“Don’t you think that is for me to decide?”
“You can decide anything you like. I don’t care.”
“Well, I don’t care either. I don’t need you hanging around, you know.”
“Oh no? Where are you going to go?”
“I don’t know.” Mya shrugged. “What do you care?”
“I don’t care.”
“Well, I don’t care either. I’m grown up and I can take care of myself. I don’t need you.” She folded her arms, turned her head and stubbornly refused to look at him. Nathan paused. He just realized something he had overlooked.
“But I need you,” he said, softly. “Your insight and willingness to go through all of this no matter what is the only thing that has kept me going.”
“Really?” Mya asked. She turned back to face him, her eyes grew terribly wide with surprise.
“Really,” Nathan confirmed, and he lowered his eyes, unwilling to look into hers.
Mya got up and put her hands on his arms, not hugging him exactly, but inviting a hug. He responded by squeezing the breath out of her, and she found a few tears. “But don’t you know?” she said. “You saved my life.”
“I tried to.” His answer suggesting that he failed.
“No, I mean really. I thought you were nice from the very beginning, and I was right. I was wonderfully right. Don’t you know you are the most wonderful man in the whole world?”
“Hardly,” he said and looked once again into her eyes and loved her smile.
A voice came from overhead where there were likely some apartments, though they could not see a speaker in the dark. “Hey, buddy! Could you keep it down?”
Another voice joined the chorus. “Take her home and screw her brains out, you’ll both feel better in the morning.”
“Come on,” Nathan said and Mya was right with him. That last was certainly a line he was not going to cross, but the taking her home bit made some sense. His condo was not all that far away, and they walked hand in hand, but both were quiet. Neither was willing to bring up the boyfriend-girlfriend thing again; but in Mya’s heart, that was the way it was already, and Nathan kept telling himself it could never be that way.
When they got to Nathan’s first floor condo, he knew the door would be locked so he went in through the door and brought Mya with him. “I didn’t know we could do that.” Mya said when they were inside.
“We did it at the theatre.” Nathan pointed out. How could she not have noticed?
Mya looked down. “I had other things on my mind at the time.” She answered his unasked question and then ran a finger through the dust on the little table by the door. “Nice mess.” She turned her little nose up.
“Welcome to my pad,” Nathan said. He brought her into the kitchen where he turned on the light.
“Not too bad.” She looked around the room. “I could live here.”
“No.” Nathan shook his head and she looked upset for a second to think that he might exclude her from some part of his life. “You deserve better.” He finished his thought and she smiled. Then she turned serious and took his hands and made him sit down beside her. She worried his hands a little as she spoke.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, you know, about the way this world has become. I don’t want to be like that so I have to say this.” She had to clear her throat and Nathan thought it sounded so cute. “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
“No, no.” Nathan started, but Mya slapped his hand softly.
“Quiet. Stop treating me like a child. Let me finish.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. Go on.”
Mya cleared her throat again and paused. She almost laughed when she saw the smile on Nathan’s face. She cleared her throat in an exaggerated way and they both laughed before she lowered her eyes and began to worry his hands again. “Anyway.” She used his word and said it with the same inflection he used. It almost got them laughing again. “Anyway, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kissed you and I shouldn’t have asked you to be my boyfriend. Maybe I’m not old enough for that yet.” She was being more than gracious. She knew she was old enough on the inside, and he knew it, too. She looked up at him because she seemed to be finished and she was only waiting for him to respond.
“First of all, you have no need to apologize for the kiss.” He thought about it and was as careful as he could be in how he described it. “It was very nice and I kissed you too, you know.” Mya looked down. Clearly she thought the kiss was more than just very nice. “And as far as being old enough, I know you are.”
“Now you let me finish,” he said, and she quieted.
“I’ve been watching you very closely, and I have seen the changes you have gone through. Somehow, you have been growing up and maturing on the inside faster than possible for a living person, but I know it is real. I have seen how you have responded to people and situations, and I know the difference between a child and a teen and an adult. In fact, I would say you are an adult now, already. You are absolutely no seven year old trapped in a grown up body. If anything, I was thinking your outside body has just been adjusting to keep up with your age on the inside. You said you did not want to be a child forever, well now you certainly won’t be.” His eyes looked her up and down. He was a man, and far younger than he used to be so he could not help it, but Mya caught the look and leaned forward to expose herself just so and spoke in a more husky voice
“So, do you like what you see?”
She smiled and joked again, but Nathan growled, stood straight up and turned toward the sink to turn his back on her. “Don’t do that.” He spoke sharply, and she responded with a little anger, or perhaps some frustration.
“And what about you? You were nothing but a pot bellied bag of bones. Your arms were so spindly I was afraid at first if I squeezed too hard the bones would just snap in two. But now look at you. You can’t be more than thirty, and you have real arms and muscles and a flat belly and a chest and… and I better not say anymore. But you know what I mean. You have shed far more years than I have gained. Where have they gone? You’re not old enough to be my father anymore, maybe not even if I was still seven.”
“That isn’t the point.” Nathan turned toward her still angry, but he softened the instant he saw her and he realized that she was genuinely struggling with all of this. She knew what she was feeling, but she needed to know what he was feeling. She needed to understand, and he could tell by the look in her big brown eyes that she would never force herself on him if he honestly felt that it simply was not right.
He spoke with all the tenderness that was in him and explained things once again as well as he could to this little girl. “I remember being eighty-four. It is a bit like a dream or maybe a story I read once, but I remember working all those years, and all the bad times and good, though maybe not so many bad, I think. Still, even if it does not exactly feel like me anymore, I know it was me. And you. I remember you as a frightened little rabbit, just seven years old with a bad foot and a limp, begging for a ride home so you and your mother could visit your grandmother who was dying. I remember you that way like it was yesterday, because it was just yesterday. Do you know what they call old men who take liberties, like do things with seven year old girls? I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
“But you just said I am far from seven, and you are becoming a very attractive young man. Isn’t there somewhere we can meet in the middle?”
“No. Stop it. Not now, not tonight. I don’t know.” He turned again to face the sink. “It is just how I think of you and me, fool that I am. I’m sorry.”
Mya started to cry, and after a moment, Nathan sat down beside her and held her. He could do that much. He never wanted to hurt her. It was breaking his heart to even think that he was hurting her. But what could he honestly do? She was weeping, holding on to him for dear life and wracked with tears, and he was crying right along with her.
At last, as always happens, the tears subsided for a bit and Nathan helped her to her feet. He practically carried her to the guest room where he pulled down the covers. “I think it would be best if you slept here tonight.” He said as he glanced at the clock. “It is almost eleven.” He said. “I don’t know about you but it is way past my bedtime.” Mya laughed once through her teary eyes. Of course it was way past her bedtime too.
“Mother would be very upset to know I stayed up this late.”
“Mine too,” Nathan agreed and then he explained before Mya could ask. “My daughter, Lisa. She treats me more like she is my mother than my mother ever did.” He sat Mya on the bed. “And I am her wayward son,” he added with a touch of his finger to her little nose. That made Mya smile, but it also caused her hand to go up and caress his cheek. She grinned, almost appearing happy again as she brushed his unruly hair behind his ear. “Now go to sleep,” he said and backed up to the doorway. “You think about it,” he said. “And pray about it,” he added. “And I promise I will do the same. Maybe in the morning we will be able to figure this out.”
Mya nodded. “Good night.”
“Good night,” he said and turned toward his room.
“Good night.” He heard Mya again, but he dared not answer her again.
Mya got out of her gown, not wanting to wrinkle it. She had already decided to sleep without it but was kind enough to wait until Nathan left before she got undressed. She found, then, that she could crawl under the covers, something she was not sure she could do, and she snuggled under the sheets and expected to get a good sleep.
Nathan also got undressed, but it was because he felt he had worn the same suit for two days and that was long enough. He left his boxers on, though, and crawled into bed. He was confused. He was more than confused. He was madly in love with the girl and he knew it. She was the most beautiful creature in his eyes that he had ever seen, and he lived a long time and saw a lot. What was his problem? God, what is my problem? He almost said that out loud as he closed his eyes for sleep. Then he had a thought, and apparently Mya had the same thought at the same time. The angel said they had two times a time between and a half time. He translated that as a half a day, two nights and one day between They had a half a day on the day of the accident, and then last night and the day. What if this was their last night on this earth? What if they were taken up in their sleep? What if they were separated and never got to see each other again? He was about to rise when he heard Mya at the door. She came over quietly and pulled up the covers, and then she crawled in and pulled up against him. She held on and laid her head in the crook of his shoulder. His arm went around her of its own volition. He could not help that, but he honestly thought it was best if he pretended to be asleep. All he knew was if he was going to be taken anywhere in the night he was going to do everything he could to take her with him, and she felt the same.
When the morning came, Nathan was the first to wake. He did not think anything special and did not immediately remember the past couple of days, being in his own bed and in his own place. He did wonder, though, who this immensely comfortable female creature was that was snuggled so tight against him. He heard her let out a little sigh or sound of utter contentment and it prompted him to look down. She had the most radiant, raven hair that came back easily to his hand and that revealed a face that was absolutely stunning with high, thin brows and rosy cheeks, long dark lashes which somehow he knew covered big, beautiful brown eyes. She had a little nose and sweet little ears and wonderfully luscious thick lips, but not too thick, he thought. Then he looked further and let his hand run down her back. She was young and masterfully made, slim in all the right places and well toned, and all her curves were perfect in every way, and she had the most utterly gorgeous bumps. He sat up like a rocket. Mya opened her eyes slowly at first. Nathan hopped out of bed and grabbed the clothes he had set on the back of the chair.
“So is it that bad?” He heard Mya ask, but he had already shut himself in the bathroom to try and get his racing heart to calm down. He could not help looking in the mirror. He looked to his own eyes to be about twenty-four, or anyway, not over twenty-five. He looked at the back of his hand and there were no spots or wrinkles, and not even a hint of such things. The skin was firm, but with the elasticity of youth. And he had abs, and a perfect hairless chest, and he could not help but lift his arm and making a muscle; but then all that time he was wondering if Mya would like it. He could not stop thinking about her. She was perfect. She was too perfect.
There was a knock on the door. “So was it that bad?” Mya asked through the doorway.
“No.” He shouted back. “It was that good.” It was too good. It frightened him, and what he felt frightened him even more. He was not going to be able to hold out very long. If he thought Mya was beautiful, absolutely attractive and sexy at eighteen, that could hardly describe what he thought now that she was twenty-two. Anyway, she was certainly over twenty-one. “I’ll be right out, and it was perfect, only I think we need to get dressed.” Nathan put his ear to the door for fear that he might hear her start crying again. He breathed because of the silence, and then he dressed in his slacks and polo shirt. He did not even realize that the suit was gone. Then he had a thought and promptly accused God. “You knew this from the beginning. You set this up. How could you?” He did not expect an answer, but he felt now that him being eighty-four and her being seven should no longer be an obstacle. In fact, it took a second for him to remember how old he had been and how old she had been.
There was another knock. “Are you coming out?” Mya was getting impatient.
“Hold on,” he said. He looked in the mirror again. He looked twenty-four and felt twenty-four, and he was thinking like a twenty-four year old and could hardly help it considering what was waiting for him in the other room. Then he realized that he was acting like a twenty-four year old as well, locked in the bathroom, scared out of his wits by the beauty of the woman.
He opened the door. She sat on the edge of the bed, mercifully dressed in a purple sundress with white flowers. Mya stood right up and he saw that the dress was quite short, and she was standing in high heels. Along with everything else, he was not surprised that she had incredible legs, and those heels. He bit his lower lip and noticed she was biting hers and looked at him with big eyes filled with trepidation.
“You look spectacular,” he said in complete honesty except for thinking that the word spectacular was not good enough so he added the word, “Awesome.”
Mya reached out and grabbed him by the arm. Only his head had been sticking out the door. She pulled him all of the way into the room and said, “Wow!” and rather loudly, and she made him turn around once so she could get the full view. “That does it, I don’t care what you say. You are my boyfriend and I am your girlfriend whether you like it or not. If I so much as catch another girl looking at you I’ll poke her eyes out.” Her mouth was open that whole time and Nathan had to reach out and tap it closed.
“Scratch,” Nathan said. “Women scratch each other’s eyes out.”
“That too.” Mya said with that irresistible smile and she stepped up, right into his arms. What could he do but hold her? She certainly did not mind. He noticed that barefoot, Mya topped out at his chin, but in those heels her eyes came up to where he could kiss both eyelids without bending in the least. He did that, and watched her flush. She pulled in closer, if that was possible, and raised her lips. He met her half way, and he thought all sorts of terrible, wonderful thoughts when he remembered her again as a child. He broke it off, broke free and turned his back like when he turned to the sink. He knew the issue of their ages was a sham. He had no excuse there. It seemed on that score they were designed for each other, and judging by her reaction to him, he imagined on looks they were equally designed for each other, and he knew in terms of compatibility, they were also designed for each other. He was already reading how she felt about things. It was how he felt. And he understood the way she thought because that too was how he thought. Yet there was one other thing, a small thing perhaps, but very important.
“No.” He shook his head sharply in denial. “It’s just. I can’t.” He paused because even he knew that was not true. He could so very, very easily. “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” He did not say anything about his own feelings of inadequacy. He hurt his mother when he married a Baptist. He failed to make Mildred happy. He failed with Lisa. He hurt and failed with every woman who ever loved him, and likely ever person who loved him. He would rather die than hurt Mya. He did not say these things, but it was in his voice. When he said “I just want you to be happy,” he might as well have added, “And I don’t believe that I am able to do that.”
Mya sat on the edge of the bed and sniffed just once. “But that is all I want, too,” she responded. “I mean, I just want you to be happy.” She sounded utterly sincere before her voice took on the sound of determination. “And I feel if the only way I can make you happy is to go away, then I will go away.” She sounded sniffly again with those last words, and then Nathan heard her crying, but softly, as if she was trying to hide it.
Nathan spun around to face her. “No. Don’t do that. That isn’t what I meant.” He lifted Mya from the bed so she could stand and face him, and he held tight to both of her hands while she sniffed back the tears and looked into his eyes. “I don’t ever want you to leave me. I would die if you left.” He was serious. He was afraid to be with her, certainly in that way, but he knew he could not live without her. “Please stay.” Nathan pleaded and he almost got to his knees to say it, and then he really looked at her and he saw the slow spread of Mya’s lips until she grinned at him like the Cheshire Cat. Nathan pulled back a little to look sternly in Mya’s eyes.
“I was hoping you would say that.” She spoke through her grin. “I really, really wanted you to say that.”
“Why you…” Nathan had to think for a second to come up with just the right word to get his revenge. “Why you woman.” He concluded and with that word, he surrendered.
Mya stepped up a little and put her arms up on his shoulders, clasping her hands around the back of his neck while he dropped his hands to her slim waist and slowly found them encircling the small of her back.
“You’re a Pinocchio, sort of,” Nathan said, now grinning as broadly as Mya. Mya laughed just a little, and it was no child’s giggle but a wonderful, warm and tender genuinely grown-up laugh. And she nodded.
And all this time they remained locked in eye contact. Then all at once the smiles vanished and Mya’s lips parted ever so slightly and they drew in to each other just as tight as they could and they kissed. Mya kissed him, not like a little girl might kiss her grandfather or even as a daughter might kiss her father, but as a woman who was absolutely and completely in love with this young man; and Nathan kissed her back like a vital young man who remembered, no, knew for certain what it was like to be on fire for the woman he loved. It was perfect, and they might have remained that way forever if not for the tug.
The lips parted first so they could look into each other’s eyes and note that they both felt some sort of tug on their backs. It came again, stronger than before, and became a steady pulling that wanted to separate them, pulling them in opposite directions, away from each other, and it was growing in strength. At first, they clung to each other and tried to hold on, but the pull became too much to resist. They held each other by the shoulders, then the elbows, then the hands as the room around them began to fade away to be replaced by a kind of gray fog. They grasped hands in mid air, their legs straight out behind them pulling ever so hard. They struggled equally hard to hang on to each other, Nathan finally called her for the first time by name.
“Mya!” And they parted, speeding up as Mya was pulled away, and she screamed her response.
“Nathan!” It echoed in the gray mist
As the mist faded, Mya felt utterly lost and alone. The fact that she found herself in a graveyard did not help one bit. When she looked down, she saw it was the grave of her own grandfather. There was a space beside him for her grandmother when she died, but Mya knew Grandma was still alive because so far the space was untouched. So why am I here? She asked herself. She could not see anyone around. It was a slow walk in those heels to get to the top of the little hill, but she made it without mishap and there she looked all around and saw that she was not far from a canopy tent. There were chairs set up there, and a little grave with the coffin waiting to be lowered to its final resting place. Mya knew whose grave it was before she saw the stone that would be set up. It was her own, and she tried to cry. She felt she should cry for herself, but she could not cry. She was much too happy about Nathan.
Nathan! That thought ran through her head like a shot. She had to get back to him, but just then cars began to pull up on the narrow, one-way gravel drive. People were got out and came to the graveside. Mya recognized a couple of her childhood friends, her best friends, her only friends. As a child with a crippled foot, she did not have many friends, and that did bring a tear to her eye.
Then she saw her mother and she ran to her and stumbled once because of the heels. That caused her to think before acting, and in the end she decided to accompany her mother from a little distance and again she cried because she wanted a hug so badly.
She stood a step back and watched the others come. Her relatives sat in the chairs. The others stood, making nearly a full circle around her little grave. Then the priest came and he talked about the love of God. She knew that was true, absolutely, and she lifted up her heart to the almighty in thanksgiving for Nathan. She realized then what Nathan had already figured out in the bathroom; that this whole thing was a set-up from the beginning. God knew all along that she and Nathan belonged together, but they never would have met if she had not missed the school bus, and they never would have even been close unless they died.
“Thank you,” she cried out to God. “Thank you.” And she felt then and there that she truly loved God even as he loved her and she felt warm and unafraid and never alone. Still, she understood that for those gathered around the grave, these were hard words to hear. If only she could tell them. If only she could assure them of God’s love; but then she knew that they would learn some day, even as she had, and she prayed for every one of them that was sitting and standing there.
She heard the priest talk about perpetual light, and she thought of the angel who glowed so brightly she could hardly look at him, and again she felt the love of God flow through her, and she reciprocated and loved God all the more, and then all at once she understood something she had not quite understood before.
The priest gave the benediction and Mya drew near to her mother, and she spoke, even knowing that her mother could not hear her. “Mother,” she said. “I know what love is. Mother. Do you understand? You did a wonderful job. You have nothing to be sad about. I know what love is, Mother. God is love. I am all grown up now, Mother, and God has given me the most wonderful man in the whole world to love. And I do love him, Mother, with all of my heart, but first I loved you, only I did not understand what that was.” Mya paused and reached out toward her mother’s face, but she did not touch. All the same she saw her mother turn briefly to look in her direction. “First with you, and now with Nathan, I know what love is, Mother. God is love.” And Mya watched while Sam, Mother’s friend, came up and placed his hand gently on her mother’s shoulder.
“Sam.” Mother reached up and patted that hand and then kept her hand there as if not wanting him to go away. “She would have made a beautiful woman,” Mother said. “I can almost see her all grown up and all filled out.” Mother tilted her head to the side a little the way Mya did once and though she was not looking at Mya she spoke this way: “I see her in a purple sundress and lavender heels to match, and she is lovely. No, she is beautiful.”
“I am so sorry.” Sam said as Mya leaned forward and kissed her mother on the cheek. Mother paused and put her hand to her cheek and then began to weep as Sam helped her back to her feet. Mya watched while Sam escorted her to the waiting limo, and Mya finally cried for her mother. She knew her mother was only twenty-seven and Sam was not much older. She hoped and prayed that they would be good for each other and she hoped and prayed that her mother would never forget about love.
“You did I good job, Mother.” Mya repeated herself. “I know what love is.” Then the cars pulled off and Mya thought to run. She pulled her heels off to run faster because she knew where Nathan would be and she felt if she did not see him soon, she would burst for the love of him.
Nathan found himself in a funeral home. He did not have to guess what was going on nor for whom the festivities were. Since Nathan was cremated, there was no need for a graveside ceremony. He listened from the door as the minister up front droned on in the funeral service. The man talked about the love of God, but he hardly understood what he was talking about. Still, he did get one thing right: that God loves us and he is merciful and giving, and right then and there Nathan changed his tune from accusing God of setting him up to thanking God for Mya. He felt he could hardly thank God enough.
This man also talked of perpetual light. Nathan could vouch for the light. He saw the angel and the old woman who knew all about loving God. Nathan knew that love was the key. He remembered the phrase about faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love, he thought to himself. And again, he knew that was true.
After the formal service there was a receiving line where everyone who attended, most of whom were church members or childhood friends of Stephen or Susan, could pay their condolences. Nathan got in the back of the line and he thought of everything he wanted to say.
He never knew what love really was until he met Mya. His mother was bitter from her childhood days in the war. His wife found him convenient for a time, and he thought he loved her, but now he realized he really did not. He was just grabbing at what he saw as a kind face that would feed back to him what he needed to hear. When she realized he was never going to be president of the company, she dumped him. But for a minister? Well. He shrugged it off.
He thought he should apologize to Lisa. He never told his daughter about love. He never taught her because it was something he did not understand himself. That was a terribly sad thing both for him and his daughter, but he supposed it could not be helped. Even sadder was watching her perpetuate the cycle of the lack of love. She drove her husband away, scum that he was. Nathan had no doubts about that. And then she proceeded to pass the same dysfunction on to her two children.
Susan was just like her mother, getting harder and crustier every day. Her two perfect children were perfect because they did not dare step out of line. Yet Nathan had learned something about human nature in the last day or two. Human nature was very resilient. God made it so. Nathan imagined in the years to come one or both of those children would become true rebels. He only hoped and sent up a little prayer that it would not be the self-destructive kind of rebellion that lead to everyone’s heartbreak and an early grave. He hoped something good might come out of it, like a new view of life and a real chance at love.
Stephen, on the other hand, had married a wonderful girl. It was too bad he was such a pin head. He was going to lose her, Nathan had no doubt, and with her his great-grand. She was the only child of his issue that maybe had a chance for real life. God, how he wished he could be there to watch her and help her grow along the way. He wished he could be there now since now he knew what love was.
The line shuffled forward slowly and Nathan came to realize there were more people there than he imagined there would be. He had supposed that it would be a very small affair. Most of his old friends were already dead; well, just about all of them, and the few survivors were in far-away places, mostly below the Mason Dixon line in retirement communities or nursing homes.
Nathan jumped, just because he could. He was twenty-something years old and he was so glad he would never see the inside of one of those nursing homes. Maybe that suicide bomber did him a favor, and he grinned and thanked God again for yet another thing. He felt the love of God very strongly at that moment, and he loved God right back just as strongly as he could. God is good. He kept thinking that, and he wondered if that was something he could tell Lisa.
Lisa, I am all right. God is good. Don’t worry about me. I have met the most wonderful girl, make that woman, and I am going to be with her, God willing, and happy forever. To be sure, God gave her to me and she is everything I ever dreamed of. She is twenty-something, but so am I now; but you know, even if she were seven, I think I would become seven just so I could be with her.
He paused. With that thought, he watched the last of his reluctance slip away. It did not matter if they were both seven or both eighty-four. He just loved her. He just wanted to be with her, and she wanted to be with him, and that was that.
Lisa, I know I will be very happy; and he did know it. I pray that you will be happy, too. He could only pray for his daughter.
Then Nathan hit on a thought. It was not the goodness of God that was Lisa’s problem. It was her trust. It was her inability to trust God or anyone else for that matter. It was her incessant need to be in control, to never let anything be out of control, to be in charge to be sure things stayed in control, the way that she wanted them to be.
Lisa, he wanted to say, there is so much in life, in this world that we cannot understand when we are in the middle of it. There is so much we cannot control, my own demise being exhibit “A.” You can’t be in charge of death, or the weather, or the way other people think and feel. At some point you just have to let go and let God, as the Baptists say. At some point you just have to trust in a God that is even greater than I can imagine, and I am standing on the cusp of running into him. At some point, and honestly it is at all points in life, you can only do so much and then you have to trust God to work things out; and, you know? If you will just give God a chance to be in charge, if you will just let God be in control, you may be surprised, like me, when he works things out in a way that is more wonderful and incredible than you can ever dream or imagine. Please, Lisa, just give God a chance.
Nathan thought all of these things and more, but then he came to stand before his daughter. He was flabbergasted when she reached out and shook his hand. She squinted at him for a moment as if trying to place him and even asked, “Do I know you?”
Nathan startled her by kissing her on the cheek. “Just in this.” He said. “That God loves you and wants the best for you if you will let him give it to you, and your father loves you, too, and he will always love you even if he never told you so.” Then he rushed down the line without speaking to anyone else until he came to Stephen’s daughter, little Emily. He kissed her smack on the forehead. “Be good and live a good life.” He told her. “And always remember that God loves you and your great-grandfather loves you too.”
“Grandpa Nathan?” Little Emily looked up at him and he winked and ran out of there as fast as he could. He knew where Mya would be and he did not want to be late.
Mya was the first to arrive at the scene of the accident. She ran the whole way and was not tired in the least. She never ran in her life before, her foot being the way it was. Now, maybe she was making up for lost time, or at least she never before had such a reason to run, and she grinned at her own thoughts.
She stopped just before she got to the gate and noticed something she had not expected. The young man and the suicide bomber were sitting side by side on the curb, talking quietly. She could not hear what they were saying, and she did not intrude, knowing that would be rude, so she did what she could. She said a little prayer that somehow they might find a way out of the pit they had thrown themselves into – that they might find a solution to the mess they had made of their lives. Her heart went out to them, but she could do no more.
Mya looked down and saw that her high heels had become flats, and she was grateful, knowing that she was going to have to climb up the grassy knoll that held the park bench. She stepped up to the gate and smiled. It was not that long ago she would have had to stand on tip-toes, and even then it would have been hard to open that big, heavy iron gate. Now, she simply reached out, and it was an easy thing to do. As she stepped on to the grass, she was filled with joy and gently closed the gate tight behind her.
She noticed right away that the park bench was taken. The minister was there with his newspaper neatly folded beside him, and she almost clapped to see the burly man beside him. The man’s arm looked fully restored, and most of his face was whole as well. “Thank you, thank you.” She lifted that prayer as well. Clearly, the minister still had some work to do, and just maybe he could add another name to that book of his in heaven. She thought it was good that everyone had someone, and she had Nathan, except right at the moment she did not have him. She nearly doubled up for want of him, and she cried out.
“Nathan!” When she heard no response she almost collapsed. She screamed, “Nathan!” It was as loud as she could, and then she heard an answering call.
“Mya! Mya!” He had come in the other gate and he was running to her. He was running! Mya jumped and started to run as well, but she did not get far before they were wrapped up in each other’s arms and he was kissing her everywhere on her face, on her forehead, eyelids, cheeks, ears, on the tip of her little nose, and he did not neglect her lips, and she kissed him right back before she finally pressed her head into his chest and shoulder. They were crying, but there were no more sad tears left in them. These were tears of pure joy. They had found each other and they held each other so tight it was almost as if they were trying to absorb each other into the depths of their souls.
“I am so happy. I am so happy.” Mya kept repeating her words into his chest, and he also kept repeating the same phrase.
“I love you. I love you.”
After a while, Nathan took a step back in order to look into Mya’s eyes where there was no hiding that special smile than showed everywhere on her face. Nathan returned her smile as they wrapped up in each other’s arms and kissed for a very, very long time. When the earth began to tremble beneath their feet, they thought it was only a result of what they were feeling. When that trembling increased, though, they thought they had better look. There was a hole opening up on the green between this world and someplace else, and they separated to stand side by side and watch in wonder, though they never quit holding hands.
Neither knew where that other place might be, though they both knew very well. All they could see was a brilliant light, pure and holy so it made them tremble, but warm and inviting so they knew they were welcome. As usual, Mya was the first to speak.
“Perpetual light.” She named it, but it sounded like a question so Nathan responded.
“Do you know how much I love you?” Mya asked.
“I do. And how much I love you?”
“I do.” Mya and Nathan squeezed each other’s hands. “But I was thinking, now that I know what love is, do you know how much I love the one who first loved us?”
“Exactly.” Nathan affirmed her feelings and confirmed his own. “With all your mind and all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.”
“That is the first commandment.” Mya looked up at Nathan once more to seek Nathan’s assurance, just in case she had gotten it wrong.
He nodded for her and that brought out her most radiant smile, and they turned and walked into that perpetual light, side by side and hand in hand, forever.