This short story won “Runner Up” in a contest in 2017 and is currently published on Short Fiction Break.
PLOT PROMPT: Autumn
WORD COUNT: 1,500 Words
“You still love her. Don’t ya?”
The voice was what I imagined God sounded like if God had been chain smoking unfiltered Camels for a few thousand millennia. I turned from the bus window to see who had broken the most sacred of society’s public transportation protocols and immediately wished I hadn’t. If the ancient face staring back at me belonged to God, he had clearly stopped giving a crap a long time ago.
“I’m sorry, what?”
The old man stood next to the vacant seat next to me. “No need for apologies, son.” His skeletal index finger hovered in front of my face. “I’ve been looking at that expression in mirrors since ’86.” The coughing fit that followed the word “six” was filled with fluid and disease. It was obvious my unwanted guest wasn’t long for this world. “Mind if I join you?”
Without waiting for an answer, he dropped into the seat. Dozens of rude responses quickly queued up in my head before I settled onto the most socially acceptable one. “Do I know you?”
“You know my face.” He jerked a thumb toward his head, “This mug’s been staring back at you in every reflection you’ve seen since you lost her.” His sad smile was almost as awkward as the conversation. “God knows I’ve been trying to kill this thing for the last thirty years.” Another coughing fit. “Looks like I’ve finally succeeded.”
I stared at his weathered features trying to think of a response that wouldn’t add to the ridiculous situation. He ended the silence with a question that upped the awkwardness ante. “So, when did she leave ya?”
It had taken me three months of counseling to begin learning how to compartmentalize my memories. Three months of work was in danger of evaporating with the old man’s question. I could feel the muscles in my face tighten.
I assumed reading body language wasn’t one of his strengths, “Look, I don’t know who you are or what you want from me but I’m not going to discuss my personal life with a total stranger.” With that, I returned to my view of the rush hour traffic and prayed for solitude and silence.
Unsurprisingly, my prayers went unanswered. “Mine stuck with me for forty years.”
He leaned into me as he reached for his back pocket, his bony shoulder digging into my arm. When I turned to let him know what I thought of his social skills he was holding a tattered wallet that looked as ancient as its owner. Before I could say a word, he pulled out a faded black-and-white picture of a young woman and handed it to me. The look on his face tore through my frustration and found a hidden cache of compassion I had no idea was still there.
I studied the picture a moment before reluctantly mumbling my assessment. “She’s lovely.”
His eyes glistened. “That’s Mabel. Met her in England in ’44, two weeks before we invaded Normandy.” His smile was filled with memories of better times. “She was a USO showgirl. They’d stopped by our camp to put on a show and when I laid eyes on her …” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Well, I knew she was the one.”
I handed the picture back to him and managed a weak smile. “I can see why. She’s a beauty.”
Sadness seemed to flow out of him as he took the photo. “Yeah. Mabel had me from day one. She’s the reason I made it through that hell.” The picture disappeared back into the tattered leather. “Carried this wallet and that photo all over France and Germany. Never doubted for a second that I would make it back home, back to Mabel.” He returned the wallet to his pocket and settled into his seat, his eyes disappearing behind their lids.
I watched the old man for a few seconds before returning to my window, but my mind was a buzz saw. Questions started to pile up like sawdust until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Against my better judgment I turned to the old man. “So, what happened?”
The atmosphere in the bus seemed to darken around us when he answered, “I made some stupid decisions after I came home from Germany, the worst one being my choice to try to drink that damned war away.” He took a handkerchief out of his front pocket and wiped his eyes. “After four decades of my bourbon-fueled abuse, she’d finally had enough. Left me in October of ’86, three days after our fortieth anniversary.”
Debra’s face hovered in my mind as he spoke, fracturing whatever was left of my heart. “I’m sorry.”
He returned the handkerchief and locked his pale blue eyes onto mine. “There are two days in a man’s life you never forget, son. The day you win her and the day you lose her.” The pain in his eyes dwarfed my own heartache. “Both were beautiful autumn days, just like today. Crisp, cool air filled with sights and smells that only come once a year, y’know? The first day was perfect, full of all the good things in life. But that second one …”
All I could do was nod. Memories of better times paraded past my mind’s eye before stopping at the last time I saw Deb.
The old man’s voice broke through my agonizing journey. “So, can I ask what happened with your lady?”
I closed my eyes. “I was stupid.”
He chuckled. “We’re all stupid, son. You’ll have to be more specific.”
I sighed and stared into his misery-stained eyes. “I took her for granted. Assumed she would always be with me no matter what I …” Images from our last fight choked off the words.
The old man waited until I had collected myself before he spoke. “I’ll be 92 in a week. It’ll be my last birthday. So, for my final birthday present, mind if I share something with you?”
“Do you still love her, son?”
I let her face dance in front of my mind’s eye one more time before nodding again.
“Then win her back. Don’t do it for me. Don’t even do it for her. Do it for yourself. Because if you don’t,” he pointed at his face, “you’ll be looking at this ugly mug until the day you die.”
I smiled at the strange old man. “I wish it were that easy. The stuff I said to her … I was incredibly stupid.”
“So, stop being stupid and call her.”
I turned to the window and envisioned her reaction to seeing my phone number popping up on her cell. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
The old man’s cough brought my attention back to him. He was visibly weaker by the time he regained control of his body. “I’ll tell you an even worse idea. Learning the very hard way that life is far too short to spend it with heartbreak and regret instead of the love of your life.” He pointed towards the window and I impulsively followed his gesture. “Don’t let another season end with you watching the world pass you by in misery. Stop being stupid, Lee, and save yourself and Debbie from a lifetime of regret.”
I stared at the window and noticed the bus slowing as it approached my stop. The old man’s words echoed in my mind until I realized …
“Wait, how did you know our na…” I turned to face him only to find an empty seat.
A recorded announcement blared over the bus speakers. “Now arriving at Beechum Center Park-and-Ride.”
I stood, expecting to see the old man stumbling towards the front of the bus. Instead I found an empty aisle.
“What the …”
The bus slowed to a stop, its air brakes exhaling their announcement that it was time to leave. I stood frozen in place watching people gather their belongings. I barely remember gathering my own bag and moving into line to exit the bus. My entire being was focused on finding some sign of the old man’s presence. By the time I stepped off the bus, I was seriously considering checking myself into a psych ward.
I was still in a daze when I reached my car. I’m not sure how long I sat behind the wheel replaying the strange meeting in my mind but the sun had long set over the parking garage by the time I had mustered up the courage to call her.
I could almost smell her scent when her voice came over the phone. “Lee?”
My heart was racing with the vision of her blonde hair cascading perfectly around her flawless face. “Hey, Deb. Hope I’m not bothering you.”
Her tone caught me off guard. “Oh my God, Lee! This is … this can’t be a coincidence.”
I frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re not going to believe this, but I had the strangest conversation about you at lunch today with the sweetest old man.”