I.J. Sarfeh - Medical Fiction

Out of the Chestnut Tree

OUT OF THE CHESTNUT TREE

 

March 1950: Tehran, Iran.

Father’s voice boomed from behind the closed door of his study. “He’s a timid little girl!”

“But he’s a ten-year-old boy, my dear husband. He’ll be fine when he grows up.”

“He needs to be away from you and your cretin sister. An English boarding school is where he belongs. That’ll teach him how to fend for himself.”

My ear to the door, I imagined the fire in Baba’s eyes, the sad in Mama’s eyes. I prayed she would fight to keep me home, but deep down I knew she couldn’t possibly win. Baba was as powerful as Allah—even more, maybe. After all, he was a general in the Shah’s army.

“Won’t you reconsider, my dear husband? He will be so far away, so alone.”

Something crashed to the floor. “Dammit woman, stop annoying me! My decision is final.”

Tiptoeing back to bed, I couldn’t hold back the sobs. Moments later, Mama crept into my room and sat at the edge of the bed. “You were listening, weren’t you, Ahmad-jan?”

I nodded. “Please don’t let him send me away, Mama.”

She kissed my brow. The butterfly touch of her lips and the jasmine of her hair warmed me all over.

“You’ll like England, my dear son.”

“No I won’t. I like it here.”

She frowned and said nothing.

“Don’t you want me to stay here with you, Mama? Please?”

She wrapped her arms around me, pressing me into her as if to absorb all my pain. After embracing me for a long while, she pulled back and gazed into my eyes. She wiped the tears off my cheeks and said, “Oh my sweet, precious child. Of course I want you to stay, but…”

“But what, Mama?”

“Your father believes leaving home will make you—stronger, more confident.”

* * *

September 1950: Gloucestershire, England.

Between the makeshift goalposts of two school jackets, the boys surrounded me. Ruling over his kingdom of thugs, bigger and scarier than all of them, Yellow-hair leaned into me. “You stupid Arab. If it hadn’t been for you, they wouldn’t have scored that goal.”

I had tried hard to blend into the background, into the dandelion fields, classroom walls, oak-paneled corridors, but failed. Wherever I was, the thugs were too, taunting, teasing, threatening. That day, they had forced me to join in their soccer game—I was sure they wanted to mock my lack of skill.

“But I no understand soccer how to play,” I now said to the mob. “And please, I am no Arab. I am Irani.”

Yellow-hair reached back a leg. “This is how you play soccer, Arab. You kick!” The toe of his shoe smashed into my shin.

A chorus of cheers and jeers.

I ran off crying, wishing Baba and Yellow-hair were dead, wishing I was home, playing hide-and-seek with Mama and Ameh Shireen, my aunt.

* * *

Mid-morning recess: Yellow-hair again leading his thugs. “Hey, Arab. Where’s your camel?”

Head bowed, I started walking away. Yellow-hair booted me in the rear. “Stand still when I’m talking to you, Arab.”

“My name, it is Ahmad.”

“Your name, it is stupid.”

I broke into a sprint, heading toward the lone chestnut tree in the middle of the playing fields, now shrouded in fog. The mob chased me, but I was much faster and disappeared into the haze. I stopped before the tree, an island of heaven floating above the undying fires of my jahanam—hell. It was easy to climb, and I quickly reached an upper branch. I could hear Yellow-hair shouting after me. “Where are you, filthy Arab coward? Eating camel dung again?”

Gazing into the misty heavens, I sat motionless, wondering if Allah hated me as much as Baba and Yellow-hair did.

* * *

As soon as the children filed out of class for afternoon recess, I ran onto the playing fields. The chestnut tree embraced me in its arms, and I sat at the same branch as before. Two bluebirds, the color of Mama’s nightgown and my dreams, perched at the far end of the branch, eyeing me nervously. I smiled at them. “Don’t be afraid, little ones. I will never hurt you.”

They flew away.

I wished Allah had created me as a bluebird, playing in the sky and trees with my bluebird mother and aunt, beautiful, gentle creatures in a world where hateful fathers and thugs were forbidden.

The sound of snapping twigs startled me.

Yellow-hair’s voice: “Are you up there, Arab filth?” He hurled a fistful of chestnuts at him. “Look everybody! There’s a brown mouse up the tree. A girlie mouse with a big nose.”

I held my breath. More chestnuts flying, more voices taunting:

“Hope you fall, Brownie.”

“Into camel shit.”

“Be careful; he could have a dagger.”

“Good. Brownies are stupid, so he’ll stab himself.”

Laughter.

Yellow-hair again: “Come down and fight me, Arab. Scared?”

I didn’t answer.

“I’m climbing up and throwing you down, then. Your arms and legs will break, and you’ll never drive a camel again.”

My chest tightened, vision blurred, mouth dried. And the bladder cramps began.

As the cramps invaded my whole belly, I shouted, “Please go away. I need piss-room.”

“Come down or do it in your pants.”

Trembling, I climbed down. Yellow-hair stood before me, hands fisted. “Did you wet yourself, Arab?” Without warning, he smashed a foot into my groin. “That’ll make you piss more, won’t it?”

All at once, my world collapsed into the grinning mouth spitting venom at my face, teeth perfectly white, perfectly even like piano ivories.

At that instant, the bladder cramps and fear vanished.

Blinded by the fog of rage, I attacked. My fist crashed into the perfect set of teeth. Yellow-hair reeled back, covering his mouth. I shoved him to the ground, dove on top, and let my fists avenge all the misery, the loneliness of my first days at Ullenwood Manor Preparatory School For Boys.

When my rage was spent, I stood up, sickened at the sight of his bloodied, whimpering nemesis.

Someone said, “Tough little bugger, that Iranian kid.”

Flash Fiction

From time to time, I will post here short stories derived from my participation in a past Flash Fiction contest. Some of you may not know what Flash Fiction is. It is a short story written about a prompt, which could be a word, a phrase, or a picture. I thoroughly relished participating in the contest that stirred my imagination to unlimited heights. Hope you all enjoy the series. Please feel free to contribute your own short stories through my email.

My fool brother

NEEM OIL

 

            My twin brother—nowhere near identical, thank God—is into schemes. You know, the get-rich-quick kind. His name is Lou. I call him Looney because he’s usually off-the-wall.

            Our dad died when we were four-year-olds. He had liver problems, Sir-osis or something. In between working as a pharmacist’s helper, Mom raised us in a South Milwaukee apartment, which was next to McDonald’s and reeked of burnt meat and onions. When we turned twelve, Looney fell in love with money. He found some in a gutter—that’s what he said, anyway—and spent it on two cartons of Mars bars. We tried selling them at school for double the price, but no one bought any, so we ended up with tooth cavities. All that’s beside the point, though. The main point is that Looney often managed to drag me into his stupid schemes. Having his way with me was fairly easy because of his size and age: twenty pounds bigger, thirty-six minutes older. In any case, I didn’t like hurting his feelings—whenever I turned him down, he’d throw me this Bassett-hound look.

            After we graduated magna-cum-nothing from high school, Looney said we’d make a killing in the ice cream business. He had found—that’s what he said, anyway—an ice cream maker and a collapsible stand. On a Saturday morning, we set up shop at the local bus shelter. While he peddled vanilla ice cream, I minded the cash register, a metal toolbox exactly like the one in Finnegan’s Garage on Pint Street.

            Everything was dandy for the next three days. Then on Tuesday afternoon, the sheriff’s deputy stopped by to yell at us for selling ice cream without a license. He ordered us to leave—actually, he growled, “Get your asses outa here.” Looney was mad as hell and ended up in jail after calling the deputy a mother-f***er.

            Mom got sick and quit work after that—hormone troubles caused by depression, the doc told us before feeding her to the shrinks. Now, we had to find steady jobs to pay the rent and medical deductibles. My first job was at the pharmacy where she worked before the meltdown. I did stock-taking and floor-sweeping and all-round gofering. Looney worked at a supermarket until the manager discovered four cases of Budweiser were missing. So Looney was out of a job, and at home we had lots of beer, which he drank in the evenings and with cornflakes. I’ll say this, though: he was generous with the beer because he’d hand me a can of the stuff when I got home from work. Afraid of getting Sir-osis, I didn’t drink mine, so he drank it for me.

            A couple of weeks after he was fired and a day after the Budweiser ran out, Looney came to the pharmacy as I was organizing the stockroom and putting away a container of neem oil.

            “What’s neem oil?” he asked me.

“It kills aphids.”

“What the f*** are aphids?”

“Pests, I think.”

That night, he looked up aphids on Auntie Vera’s ancient computer, and suddenly he was an expert.

            For the next three days, Looney visited me at the pharmacy every evening just before closing time, and then he stopped coming. He told me he had landed a sales job at Weeb’s Gardening Supplies. After working there for a week, he quit. That’s when he started L.A.F.—Lou’s Aphid Fighters. Despite the title sounding like his fighters were aphids, I reluctantly became the weekend warrior of the two-man squadron. He now owned a spray can, clippers, and a container of neem oil that had vanished from the pharmacy and I never told the owner about it.

            Mind you, I don’t condone pilfering, but when it comes to ratting on my twin brother, well…

            On a sunny Sunday morning, we loaded all we needed into Mom’s elderly Toyota, including the beekeeper outfits Looney had found—he was terrified of bees ever since a swarm attacked his nose and he looked like Rudolph. We drove to Franken Street and the home of Mrs. Von Troop, who, according to my brother, was a widow with a ton of money and aphids. We rang the bell, she opened the door. He announced he was a world-famous aphidologist—I think he invented the word—and did she know that a gazillion aphids were about to murder her plants and flowers? She said her gardeners would take care of them, thank you. He said for a mere two-hundred dollars he would save her garden from the plague. His actual words were, “For just two C’s, we’ll wipe out those little shits gobbling up your backyard.”

            Mrs. Von Troop, who seemed taken to me because people say I have a catchy smile and angel’s eyes, hired us to de-aphid her place. We put on the beekeeper outfits and went outside. As we walked under a trellis, a fat cat perched on top hissed at us. Looney took off a glove and raised his middle finger at the animal, which reached down and clawed the rude finger. He lost control, shoved the cat off the trellis, and chased after it. The problem was, he chased it all the way to the end of the garden and straight into the arms of Mrs. Von Troop’s cousin.

            Can you believe this? Her cousin turned out to be the deputy sheriff who once arrested Looney for accusing him of incest.

* * *

            After spending a week in jail for vomiting filthy language all over an officer of the law, my far-from-identical twin was volunteered to leave town. A year later, he phoned me from Evanston, Illinois. He was starting a fishing business, and did I want to join him? I asked him where and how he’d get the fish. He said he found this big rowboat off Lake Michigan and…

            I still live in South Milwaukee, looking after Mom, managing a delicatessen, praying Looney doesn’t fall into a tub of neem oil.

Out of View

Prompt: OUT OF VIEW

 

 

The operation to remove a liver cancer was almost over. The abdomen was halfway closed when I glimpsed a flash of metal. Instrument or illusion? Now began my struggle to inform the surgeons—during major operations, medical students were bound by the not-even-a-squeak rule.

Two more stitches, and my mouth was bursting to squeak.

I looked at the chief surgeon, a big man with an attitude. “Dr. Krabowski, sir?”

            He glared at me. “What?”

            “I—I saw this shiny object.”

            “Congratulations. The O.R. is full of shiny objects, so now we know you can see as well as speak.”

            Laughter.

            Despite the overdose of intimidation, I pressed on. “I hope the object inside the abdomen won’t harm your patient, sir.”

            He leaned into me. “Inside the abdomen? You think we left an instrument behind?”

            “I don’t know what it is, sir.”

            “Are you certain it’s there?”

            “Well, I…”

            Silence.

            “Speak up!”

            “It—it’s in the right upper quadrant, sir. Hidden from view.”

            “Do you realize we must reopen the whole abdomen to explore that area?”

            Three hesitant nods.

            Krabowski cut off a few stitches, groped around inside, pulled out his hand. He brandished a shiny forceps.

            “Well done!” he yelled.

            Applause.

            “Name?”

            “Wheat, sir.”

            “What is surgery, Wheat?”

            Blank stare.

            “Give me the definition of surgery, man!”

            I cleared my throat. “It’s the art and science of—”

            “Bullshit! Surgery is courage. In your case, the courage of persisting despite fear.”

            At last, my courage was out of hiding.

Blue Monday

Prompt: BLUE MONDAY

 

Monday, January 26, was the worst day of my life.

            I was late for English Lit because of a hangover. After throwing up, I felt better and walked into the classroom to the stares of everyone there. The stares were strange, as if my classmates were disgusted at the sight of me.

The professor, Mr. Lincoln whose only resemblance to Abe was his stupid beard—add a few breadcrumbs or specks of cottage cheese—glared at me. “Jones, you’re to report to the president immediately.”

“The president of the United States?”

“The college president, as if you didn’t know. Always the smart-alecky one, aren’t you? Now go at once.”

He didn’t like me; neither did most of the other professors. My social studies professor tolerated me because he was a football fan, but that didn’t stop him from giving me rotten grades for the pop quizzes he loved to spring.

Trying to look nonchalant in the face of trouble looming ahead, I strolled with a swagger into the office of the Manchester College president, Dr. Sun Foo. Everyone called her Dr. Snafu, which some say stands for Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. Her doctorate was in psychology, which bothered me because I was sure she’d try to psychoanalyze me, and for some reason that scared the hell out of me.

The office was as sterile as an incubator. Not a dust speck, not a coffee smudge; not even a crushed beer can. Her eyes ablaze, she rose to all of her five-foot-and-a-micron inches. She gazed at me from behind her desk, kind of a curious gaze as if studying a rare zoo animal. Her desk was under a wall-mounted painting of a street scene somewhere in China, maybe Hong Kong, but I wasn’t any good at geography.

            “Sit down, Mr. Jones,” she snapped.

            I flopped down on the leather chair in front of her desk and stretched out my long legs. “How’ve you been, Dr. Snaf—uh—Dr. Sun Foo?”

            She remained standing, her gaze fixed on my outstretched legs. “We will dispense with the pleasantries—and with your disrespectful manner.”

            I drew in my legs and sat up. No point in pissing her off any more than she already seemed.

            “You must know why you are here,” she said.

             “No clue, Miss.”

            “Please address me as doctor. Understand?”

            “Okay, Doc.”

            Doctor!

            “Right, Doctor Sun Foo. So am I in trouble?”

            “That’s an understatement. Last night was the pinnacle of your achievements at our renowned college.”

            “Huh?” I didn’t remember much about last night.

            “I’m talking about the incident at the soccer team bus.”

            “What about it?”

            “Were you too drunk to remember what you did?”

            “Could be. But then, maybe it was a concussion. See, Mosey Weiner was swinging a baseball bat in the dorm, and then—”

            “I do not wish to hear about that. You were drunk and disorderly. Where did you obtain the alcohol?”

“I found it in a fridge. After I took care of Mosey Weiner, then—”

“We are here to discuss you and not Mr. Weiner.”

“So tell me what I did wrong, Dr. President.”

            “Kindly refer to me as Dr. Sun Foo or Madam President.”

            “Sorry, Madam Snaf—uh—Sun Foo.”

            She rolled her eyes. “You stood on top of the bus.”

            “What’s so bad about that?”

            “You—relieved yourself on the unsuspecting trainer, Mr. Radcliff.”

            “You sure that was me?”

            “There were seventeen witnesses.”

            “You counted them?”

            “Mr. Radcliff did, but that is beside the point. Not only did you humiliate him, but then you pulled down your pants and…”

            “Then what?”

            “You threatened to, you know…”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You know very well.” Her face flushed and she studied her toes. “You threatened number two.”

            Oh Shit! “I didn’t go through with it, did I?”

            “The players pulled you off the bus.”

“I must’ve been trying to be funny.”

            “To paraphrase Queen Victoria, no one was amused.”

            “How come everyone here is so serious?”

            “Because they are trying to acquire an education and to succeed in life. Unlike you, I might add.”

            “So my humor was a crime?”

            “Relieving yourself on another human being is a crime. If the players hadn’t dragged you to bed and kept you there, heaven knows what you might have done next.”

            I was a bench warming freshman on the varsity football squad, which was fast gaining on the college record for most consecutive losses. The previous late afternoon, I had been drinking with the rest of my teammates, who were trying to stick together in the postseason. When the second keg of beer transformed to urine, the captain of the team told the freshmen players—all nine of us—that we had to do something outrageous. Actually, he said something like, “I want you guys should go out there and raise some fucking hell.”

He gave each of us a jug of wine that probably cost over fifty cents.

I remember calming down Weiner, who was completely sloshed on no-name vodka, and then ending up at the soccer team bus—it had just come back from some losing match somewhere. The soccer team was as lousy as our football team. Anyway, I also remember walking up to Radcliff, the trainer. He was leaning against the bus and doing nothing useful. I didn’t think he knew anything about his so-called profession, and he’s the reason I have this upside-down-smile jagged scar on my chin. I got gashed during practice because I was in a fight with a senior nose-guard. The guy was bullying one of the freshmen who was fast on his feet, a wimp, and couldn’t protect himself. Anyway, the fight was even until the nose-guard carved a gash on my chin with his cleats. Radcliff said he could fix the gash so no one would ever know I had been cut, and I didn’t need to see a surgeon. He taped it up, and now, three months later, my chin looks like it was transferred from Frankenstein’s little boy.

Back to the bus scene. I remember staggering up to Radcliff and asking him where he got his diploma, and him telling me to get a hold of myself. So I climbed on top of the bus and got a hold of myself. The rest is a blank.

            Madam Snafu wagged her index finger at me. “You are no longer enrolled here, Mr. Jones.”

            “You mean I’m suspended?”

            “The correct word is expelled.”

            “You’re kidding, right?”

            She rolled her eyes again. “Kindly pack up and leave. And don’t think about Coach Reston coming to your rescue. He agrees wholeheartedly with my decision.”

            Coach Reston? He was known as the players’ staunchest defender—in spite of the won-lost record.

            I stood up and asked Madam Snafu, “I don’t get another chance?”

            She shook her head. “If you had contributed even a tiny amount to this college, I might have been more lenient. But no. You are the most obnoxious freshman we have ever had the misfortune of enrolling at our noble institution.”

            “So I’m obnoxious because of one stupid prank on a bus?”

            “I would be pleased to list for you all your beyond-stupid pranks. But I do not have all day.”

            “Give me an example.”

            “Who set up the fishing hook contraption that dangled from a classroom ceiling? And who used the contraption to remove Mr. Knapp’s toupee during his philosophy class?”

            Oh, shit!

Everyone at the college wondered if Mr. Knapp wore a bad hairpiece or just had bad hair. So I answered the question.

            I shrugged. “How come you’re blaming me for that?”

            “After class Mr. Knapp found a fishing hook and a spool of fine thread in your desk. And one end of the thread from the contraption ended near your desk.”

            “If he thought I was guilty, why didn’t he get on my case?”

            “He was too humiliated to take any further action.”

            “All the same, removing his toop helped him.”

            “And how did it help?”

            “He quit wearing the piece. Some of the chicks here—”

            “Young women.”

            “Some of the young women here say he looks better without it.”

            Shaking her head slowly, Madam Snafu pointed to the door. “Please leave now. We will write you a formal letter of expulsion.”

            “Don’t I get a hearing and a trial? I mean, this isn’t Communist China.”

            I thought her eyeballs were about to catch fire.

            “Get out of my office and out of my sight! And see what you can do about growing up.”

            “But I’m six-foot four and—”

            Get out!

* * *

As soon as I left Madam Snafu’s office I felt sick to my stomach. And it wasn’t the hangover. Floating in my head were images of Father blowing his fuse and Wicked Stepmother, Lucy, egging him on. “Useless boy,” Father would shout. “He can fricking well go to hell and make his own fricking living.” He would stand toe-to-toe in front of me, and vomit a litany of my behavioral crap since childhood. Then he’d pop open a can of Budweiser and tell me to get the frick out of his sight.

By the way, frick and fricking were his favorite words—or non-words.

“Yeah, get a job,” Lucy would add with a sneer.

She and Father were married a year after my real mother ran off with a lawyer from Duluth. I was six years old when Lucy shitted into my life. It was hate at first sight. I wished I was in Duluth with Mother and her lawyer with the BMW roadster and designer clothes. Bad home life, I had. Maybe the attitude had something to do with getting attention, trying to stand out because I’d be a nobody without the wisecracks and pranks. But what did I know about psychology?

            Anyway, as I headed to the coach’s office next to the gym, the whole campus seemed to ogle me. Huddled on the lawn in front of the gym, a dozen students cast me hateful glances. I heard one of them say, “I hope the jerk gets the axe.” Another called me a dick-head jock. Another yelled I should get a sex-change operation.

            I waved at the group—my middle finger, that is.

            The coach’s office was the opposite of the president’s. Scrap paper everywhere, dust everywhere, coffee stains everywhere. No empty beer cans, though.

            When I sauntered in through the open door, Coach Reston stood up and marched toward me. The big man with the pincushion buzz cut looked grim. “You’re out, Jones. A goddamn disgrace. We don’t need the likes of you on our team.”

            “Just because I fooled around on the soccer bus?”

            “A lot more than that, Jones, but I don’t want to get into it.”

            “I need to know, coach.”

            “For starters, you’re lazy and you’re useless.”

            “Is that all?”

            “Don’t be a wiseass.”

            “Sorry, coach.”

            “And you’re a pain in the ass with all your stupid pranks.”

            “My stupid pranks never harmed anyone.”

            “You don’t think you harmed poor Mr. Knapp?”

            Jesus, does everyone know about that?

I said, “It stopped him wearing that dumb toop, didn’t it?”

            “And what about the time you harmed the whole football team?”

            “How did I do that?”

            “Thanks to you, we lost our first regular season game. You put the glass wool down Jaeger’s football pants, didn’t you?”

            As the first-string quarterback and a straight-A senior student, Jaeger was the campus darling. He made me sick, especially since all the chicks—uh—young women in the college sucked up to him. I didn’t think putting a little glass wool down his football pants was a big deal, but the itching must have really bugged him. He dropped out a few minutes after the start of the game to shower and change his pants and jocks and cup. It took him a while because the team manager had to search high and low to find another pair of pants that fit Jaeger’s rump. So he was out for a quarter, and meanwhile the other team scored three touchdowns. They would have done the same even if he had been there. Did I mention he made me sick?

            I asked the coach, “How do you know I did that?”

            “Because all your teammates say you did.”

            “They don’t like me.”

            “Does anyone?”

            I scratched my head. “Let’s see, there’s Mosey Weiner and…”

            “Get out and grow up!”

 

Welcome Home

Prompt: Picture – <1000 words

 

WELCOME HOME

 

 

I do not know where or when my journey will end.

Starting in Dumfries, I hiked northbound for over two hundred miles, but now fatigue and aching hips threaten my progress. Even so, for reasons that elude me, I am obsessed to plod on, to continue heading toward uncertainty.

Perhaps this is my final journey.

* * *

My pulse hovers near the red zone, my breath sounds like a whistling kettle. Although another two hours of sunlight remain, I am done for the day.

The ruins loom ahead, forsaken to the desolate countryside, crumbling even as I approach. Pieces of mortar tumble from a ledge, as if warning me to keep away. A vague notion creeps into me that I have been here before. For a moment, I puzzle over the feeling but cannot explain it.

I squeeze past a tilted gate into the grounds and stand before the aged stone manor, much of its roof missing. Two chimneys stay doggedly perched over the skeleton, swaying to the structure’s moans and groans in the blustery Highland winds.

This is the perfect place to camp, I decide; no one around for miles. I will spend an evening of solitude here, yet again pondering how to squander my waning years without the woman who shared my life for half a century. Six gloomy months have crawled by since her death.

I limp into the ruins through a front entrance, its wooden door unhinged and rotted. After stumbling around an obstacle course of shattered mortar, I enter the north wing, its roof still intact. Inside is strewn with masonry debris, plumes of dust exploding under each footstep—too much for my smoke-damaged lungs to endure. I try the rusting, listing barn next to the wing, but it is overwhelmed with a maze of cobwebs and it reeks of sewage.

Lacking a roof, the south wing of the ruins comes with fresh air. I step inside, slip off my backpack, and spread the sleeping bag on the fractured stone floor. Weeds stick out between the cracks, much like the hair on my scalp—a few patches amidst a mosaic of cracked skin, survivors of past chemotherapy. After pouring four fingers of Glenfiddich into a plastic cup, I flop down onto the sleeping bag. I light a forbidden cigarette and sip the whiskey that has helped me through many an evening of grief over my dear, departed wife.

Cocktail hour: the best hour of the day.

The shadows are long when I finish my third and last cup of mind-numbing drink. Time for returning to reality; time for supper: pickled sausage, Cheshire cheese, Mars bar.

As dusk settles, I try to stand, to stretch my limbs before bedding down for the night, but the arthritic joints grumble in pain and do not obey me. I crawl into the sleeping bag and pray for a night without rain, without leg cramps.

* * *

A movement nearby startles me awake from twilight sleep. I open my eyes to the full moon, the air surprisingly cold for an August evening. Treading softly about the enclosure is a young girl in a uniform with a striped cravat. She is as pretty as they come. Enormous eyes, dimpled cheeks, and ginger hair in a thousand curls reminiscent of Orphan Annie. She seems unaware of me.

“Hello there,” I whisper so as not to frighten her.

She does not respond. I call out to her again, this time in my crackling baritone.

She stares at me for a few heartbeats, and her stare turns into a glare. “You mustn’t be here!”

Blurred in the lingering fog of whiskey, the surreal scene mystifies me. “Why can’t I stay here, wee lass?”

“Because this isn’t your home.”

I struggle out of the sleeping bag and stand up. “What’s your name?”

“Ailsa.”

Eyeing her uniform, I ask, “Are you a Girl Guide?”

She nods, and her curls bounce in assent. “Yes, I’m a guide.”

“It must be quite late, Ailsa. Shouldn’t you be home?”

She shrugs. “You must leave here at once.”

“Where do you suggest I go?”

“I’ll show you. Come with me.”

“But what about my things?”

“You won’t need them.”

Driven by curiosity awash in muddled thoughts, I follow her without retrieving my gear. On the way out of the ruins, I trip and fall flat on my face. I look up to see her standing over me, squinting at me.

She says, “You’re awfully old, aren’t you?”

“Not awfully. Seventy-six, to be exact.”

“That’s awfully.”

I clamber to my feet and swat the dirt off my clothes. “Lead the way,” I tell her.

She walks on and I stumble behind through heather and uncut grass. Some hundred paces beyond the ruins, we approach a mound cleared of all vegetation.

She suddenly stops, her arm extended, index finger pointing straight ahead. As I look to where she points, an icy current surges through me.

At the top of the mound is a gravestone. The moonlight lends an eerie glow to the inscription.

 

Robert Ian Purcell

1935-2011.

 

I collapse onto my knees, strength waning, vision fading, mind failing.

She smiles at me. “Welcome home, Mr. Purcell.”