Some journeys take a lifetime ... (A Short Shots Winning Entry)
"Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple." ~ Dr. Seuss
Ralf stared at his reflection on the metal paper towel dispenser with a photographer's eye. He resisted lifting his hands to block out a shot. Greying hair; steady, intelligent blue eyes behind the glasses; nose a bit crooked from high school football. Character. Yes, it was a face filled with character.
He sat on the table, shifting uncomfortably as the cold numbed his backside. I wonder if they refrigerate these things? A small laugh escaped his lips. "Way to go, Ralf. Here you are, facing uncertainty, and you're worried about the temperature of your butt!" His chuckle drowned out the rustling of his paper gown.
The examination room door opened, and Dr. Seymour walked in. "Did I miss something?"
Seymour ... butts. The juvenile connection leapt into his mind. Ralf tried to contain himself but couldn't; his laughter poured into the sterile space. His eyes began to tear but, with a gasping effort, he finally brought the outbreak under control.
"No Doc, it's not hysteria," he reassured the staring man. "I'm not crazy either. It was just one of those silly moments that you get caught up in."
The doctor smiled. "Actually, it's a great way to relieve stress. You've had quite a bit over the past few weeks, and I'm glad to see you can still find something to laugh at," he said, a subdued note in his voice.
"So, the news is that bad, huh?"
The doctor pulled up a chair, and began to shuffle through Ralf's records.
"Doc!," he said sharply. "Paper is for the insurance company. I don't need charts and graphs, just the information. What's the verdict?"
Dr. Seymour looked up. "The short answer is that we've found an inoperable tumor. There are still options ..."
"But, none of them are good, and their outcomes are marginal at best, right?"
The Doctor stared, then nodded his head.
Ralf got up and began removing the gown.
"I'm going home, Doc."
"The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time." ~ Abraham Lincoln
"In one-half mile, keep right onto I-wa-tree-ferty, then proceed ..."
Ralf reached for the GPS touchscreen and tapped Cancel Route. "I think I can find my way from here, Maddy." He had named the device for her maddening repertoire of mispronounced names. A green sign announced the exit, and he guided his car off the main highway.
It had been two weeks since his final doctor appointment. Sixty-three years of existence wrapped up in a neat package in less than fourteen days. Ralf shook his head, then frowned as a stab of pain went through him.
Up ahead he saw the skeletal structure of the bridge that led to Clearwater, Iowa. He smiled, noticing the worn sign welcoming visitors, locals, and those who've lost their way. Why else would anyone come here? "Welcome home, Ralf," he muttered without conviction.
It had been forty years since he left, and during that time he had been back once – to bury his mother. He wasn't sure why, exactly, he was returning now but somehow, it seemed right. Full circle? Ying and Yang? Scene of the crime? The last made him smile. The only crime he had ever been accused of was not coming home after college. Well, Mom, this should clear my record.
Approaching the bridge, he noticed the small dirt road that was almost lost in the vegetation. "I'd almost forgotten. Lover's lane." He slowed and made the turn. The rutted road showed recent use. "Well, it appears some things haven't changed," he laughed. He came to the clearing that overlooked the river, parked, and got out, leaning on the hood of the car.
"That settles it. Scene of the crime." He remembered getting his first Brownie camera and coming to this spot. Where others saw a chance for romance or a river for skinny dipping, he saw the beauty of nature and the magical play of light as the sun wound its way across a summer sky. The ability to see what others couldn't was his gift, and Clearwater, Iowa was too small to contain his vision. The Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, however, offered a chance for him to see the bigger world. He never looked back ... until now.
The sound of an engine broke his reverie; glancing over his shoulder, he glimpsed the black and white colors of a Clearwater police car picking its way up the lane. "Excuse me, sir. Is everything O.K?"
"I was just sitting here, thinking back to the time when a friend of mine was trying to make out with Molly Waters. He forgot to put the car in park and darn near rolled over the cliff."
Silence followed, finally broken by, "Well, I'll be damned! Is that you Ralf? Really? After all these years?"
Ralf turned around in time for a bear-hug. Both men broke into laughter. "Hi, Billy. It's been a long time."
Bill Matheson just stared. "I can't believe it. I heard you'd died!"
"I believe it was Mark Twain who said, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." At least, so far, Ralf thought ruefully.
"Well, ghost or not, it's good to see you. We've got some catching up to do. Are you just visiting or?" Bill left the question hanging.
"I think I can safely say I'm back for good, Billy."
"Well that's great news. Where are you staying?"
"I've got a room at the hotel and probably will stay there until ... I get settled. Haven't checked in yet, though."
"Well get a move on then. I know Molly will be excited to hear you're back. We'll have to have you over to the house soon."
Ralf grinned. "A home cooked meal? I'm glad you both didn't roll into the river."
Bill burst out laughing and clapped him on the shoulder. "Our kids are probably happy about that too. O.K. I need to get back on patrol. I'll let you get settled and give you a call."
"I look forward to it." Ralf clasped his hand. "It's good to see you again."
Bill turned and waved. Climbing into his car, he yelled, "See you soon," as he navigated the big Ford in a circle and headed back toward Clearwater.
Ralf followed and soon was driving down Main Street. The town hadn't changed. There was the Rexall Drug Store. I wonder if they still make those great Root Beer floats? Halfway up the block sat Lombardo's Grocery. He smiled, remembering the penny candy counter. It's probably up to a quarter now. He slowed as he passed The City Grill, the hang-out spot of his youth where the all the possibilities of life had been discussed.
It's like looking at a fly in amber. Maybe that bridge is a time machine. "Well, I stand corrected," he blurted as he drove by the town square. The trees had grown, spreading out over the neat line of brick columns that skirted the park. A breeze rustled through the branches and the leaves sparkled in shades of green with their new foliage. The trees ... I wonder ... He pulled to the curb and parked.
"You have arrived at your destination. Route guidance is now complete," Maddy intoned in a self-satisfied voice.
Ralf jumped. "What the hell? Maddy? I turned you off," he accused, then realized that he was talking to a machine. "You haven't gone sentient on me, have you?" He waited a moment but no answer came.
Ralf shook his head, and opened the door. He inhaled deeply. It was a beautiful summer afternoon like the ones he remembered from his childhood. He looked down the sidewalk. "I wonder if it's still there." With a smile, he glanced at the car but Maddy was still silent. A stab of pain made him wince. Mostly, the pain stayed in the background but every now and then it reminded him of why he had started this journey.
He looked at the line of columns stretching down the street and noticed a older woman walking toward him. He was sure she hadn't been there a moment ago. She must have come out of the park. I hope it's no one I know. How do you explain that you're just here to visit a tree? The thought brought a small laugh to his lips.
His mind went back to the day before he had left for college. He had taken his camera and walked around the town, capturing final memories. He ended up in the park. It was a hot day and a particular young oak invited him to sit in the shade. Well, invitation may be a bit of exaggeration, he chided himself but, the more he considered it, maybe not too much. He sat there and told the tree about his hopes and dreams. No one else would listen. It made sense at the time, he thought defensively. Before he had left that day, he had carved a small heart with his initials in it "to leave my mark on this town," he had explained to the tree. He recalled that he had hugged the tree and said farewell as his final act. Such is the insanity of youth.
"Welcome back, Ralf."
The soft voice broke into his reverie and he looked up, a bit surprised. He hadn't been aware that he was walking as he recalled those final days. "Why thank you ..." His voice trailed off. She was an attractive woman, about his age he'd guess. Her hair, dancing with silver notes, captured the sunlight. She seemed familiar but he couldn't quite place her. "I'm sorry. Old age, I guess. I don't remember ..."
She laughed, her voice a shimmering sigh. "I'm not surprised." She walked up and gave him a long hug. "We were never formally introduced. I'm Erica."
Ralf's felt his cheeks grow warm. "I'm pleased to meet you officially." He looked around, smiling. "Not much has changed since I left," he began, trying to cover his awkwardness.
"I think that depends on how you look at things," she said. "Some people have a gift for seeing things that others overlook or simply can't see."
Her words caught him by surprise. "I, uhhh, well yes," he managed to get out.
She laughed once more. "Well, I know you have some place to be. I just wanted to welcome you home. I think we're even now."
"Well, it was nice meeting you Erica," he finished lamely. He walked a few steps before her words registered. Even? Even about what? He turned but she was nowhere to be seen. He stepped off the sidewalk and looked down the line of trees. Nothing! How weird is this day going to be? My car talks to me without prompting. I meet women who appear and then disappear. This is getting too strange.
Another jolt of pain shot through him, this time bringing tears. Wiping his eyes, he found he was standing by "his tree." There, neatly carved, was the heart he had left so many years ago. A small placard was sitting at the tree's base which read, "Species: North American White Oak." The genus had faded but he could make out "Quercus" erc? Erica?
He folded to the ground. His mind whirled but none of the puzzle pieces came together. Finally, he just laughed. "O.K. I give up. Nothing makes sense today any more than it did forty years ago. Then I was ignorant. Evidently, that hasn't changed over the years."
The sun, fading in the west, sent its last light weaving through the leaves. Its gentle warmth made him close his eyes and peace settled over him.
At last, it did all make sense. His journey was over. He was home.
An entry for the May 2014 round of "Short Shots: Official WDC Contest"
Prompt: Write a story inspired by the image prompt.
Word Count: 1975