|Thomas stared wide-eyed as he walked slowly through the town of Stoneham. He had left at age seventeen, and now on his return at age seventy-seven the whole town looked as though it had been abandoned on the day he left. The street was littered with leaves and debris so deep that he couldn’t find the pavement when he dug in with the heel of his shoe. Trees erupted from the street in many places, making it difficult to find his way. He recognized the old town library, with its portico missing and the front columns fallen over like rotten trees. The roof sagged, and the white siding was green with moss. Not a single window was left intact.
Using the library as a guide, he reoriented himself and set off in the direction he remembered as being toward the home of his youth. Along the side of the road sat old-man Suthers’ Buick, with its hood pried open by the trunk of an elm. Suthers loved that old car and would be heart-sick to see it now. As he walked by, a pair of squirrels scurried into it by the broken windows. Apparently, it made a good home for someone.
His hips and knees ached abominably, but he kept up his pace. He was close now, and his heart beat like hammer blows in his chest. When he reached his family’s old house, he stood on the sidewalk staring in fascination. The stream-fed ravine behind the house had advanced on the structure year-by-year until it had undermined the foundation. The house leaned away from the street, seemingly ready to make the final plunge to its destruction. As he watched he heard a sharp crack like a gunshot, and the house seemed to tremble on the edge of decision. He turned away, unable to bear witness to the ruin of the place he considered home, even though it hadn’t been home for many years.
He looked toward Emma’s house, three doors down on the opposite side of the street. Unlike everything else in town it was in perfect condition, with bright yellow paint, a manicured lawn, and blooming gardens. A silent tear rolled down his cheek, and he touched it in wonderment. He felt odd, detached from reality.
He shook himself. How could an entire town be left to rot into oblivion, but one house be left pristine? It made no sense. Then again, the whole rotting town thing made no sense. Where had everyone gone?
He trudged to the house. A clean, white picket fence surrounded the small craftsman home. A covered front porch spanned its entire width. He stood at the front gate, his heart aching with the memory of Emma. This was her family’s house. At age seventeen she had been diagnosed with Leukemia. The repressed memory hit him like a blow, and he leaned on the gate for support. Whenever thoughts of Emma surfaced, he forced himself to think of other things. Eventually, the habit became so ingrained that he could almost function normally.
Something creaked, and he looked up to see an old, white-haired woman smiling at him from the porch swing. She said, “Well don’t just stand there Thomas, get your sagging butt up here so that I can get a good look at you.”
He looked around as though there might be another Thomas behind him, and then chuckled at the absurdity. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I seem to be a bit confused. Do I know you?”
“How else would I know your name? Come on, come on. Don’t keep me waiting.”
He reached down, unlatched the gate, and walked stiffly to the porch steps. She looked somehow familiar. He climbed, eyeing each step as though it might bite him. “I can’t quite place you. How do I know you?”
“Why Thomas, you told me once that you’d never forget me. It’s only been sixty years. Have I really changed that much?”
“The girl I knew here was named Emma, but you couldn’t ---“
He looked up and sucked in his breath. Emma sat in the swing, just as he remembered her at age seventeen. Long brown curls with an elfin face and a crooked smile. He stared, his jaw momentarily working without sound. “But, you - you died. I was there, I mean here, when it happened. I put roses on your grave.”
“Yes, I know. My favorite Red Intuition roses. Thank you for that.”
“I’m either hallucinating, dreaming, or, or---“
“Deceased?” It came out in a hoarse whisper.
The world seemed to swim in his vision as the weight of her words struck him like a physical blow. He swallowed hard. “For a dead guy, I feel awfully alive. I can feel my heart beating. Pounding actually.”
“That will fade with time. Sometimes I can still feel mine.”
He sat down on the swing next to her and smiled. “You look great Emma. I must be in heaven. But why do you look like that, and I still look like a dried up old prune?”
She laughed. “This isn’t hell or heaven either for that matter. You look like that because it’s your self-image. It’s how you see yourself. Here’s the trick: Close your eyes and think about what you looked and felt like at seventeen.”
He closed his eyes and said, “Now wouldn’t that be great.”
When she gasped, he opened his eyes. He looked down at his hands and saw smooth ageless skin. Emma reached out, touched his cheek, and said, “You always were a looker, and you didn’t even know it. If I still had a heart, it would have stopped just now.”
A tear rolled down his cheek. “Emma, I tried hard to forget you. But every once in a while I swear I could feel you with me.” He reached out and embraced her, their cheeks touching.
“You weren’t imagining it, Thomas. I came and visited whenever I could. I wanted to make sure you were happy. And you were.”
“Then you know I married, right? We had two girls, Ashley and Andrea. My wife Sara died two years ago.”
“Yes, I know. Sara’s a lovely person. We’ve met actually.”
“How is she? Why isn’t she here?”
“She’s fine, and she’s looking forward to seeing you. Just remember that you’re not married anymore. That whole ‘until death do us part’ thing is quite literally the truth.”
He gazed out past the picket fence in silence for a long moment and then changed the subject. “Just where the heck are we?”
“Well, we sure aren’t in heck. There’s no word in the English language that fits perfectly, but the best is probably ‘purgatory.’ You’re one of the departed now, but you haven’t moved on yet. People with strong emotional ties to a person or place, or in your case both, make their own purgatory. Don’t ask me why this little town of yours is rotting away. That’s all in your mind.” She chuckled, “It’s a bit morbid, but that’s probably fitting.”
He cocked his head. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but why are you here, in my purgatory?
She didn’t answer at first and looked down at her lap. “No one gets out of purgatory without help. I’m your guide.”
“So you were sent?”
“Not quite. A guide can only be called by the love of a human heart.” She eyed him with a crooked smile. “Thomas, my dear young love, you called me.”