THE QUICK-RISING, breath-stealing frigid water in the drainage tunnel probably should have concerned him, especially since he didn’t know how to swim, but Oliver felt it was karma finally coming to exact its revenge. Others would argue he didn’t deserve it, but he felt it was long overdue. Sure he had suffered in different ways over the years, but not in any one way that lived up to his guilt or equaled the horrendousness of his crime. They were just the precursor, the appetizer so to speak, to the main course.
Coldness, like he couldn’t have imagined, seeped into his bones, seemingly bypassing the barriers of his clothing and skin. It wrapped itself around the calcium-laced supports and settled in the very marrow, spreading from extremity to extremity.
Oliver tipped his head back until it rested on one of the metal wrinkles of the tube. There was no longer feeling in his feet, and he knew it was only a matter of time before that numbness crept up his legs, over his stomach, and into his chest to finally lay to rest his broken heart. His eyelids fluttered, slowly closing as he welcomed his impending doom.
A lighthearted joy suddenly skidded through him as he realized that his ending would reunite him with those he’d lost. Oliver only hoped that if they met him at the gates, they wouldn’t turn him away, making his afterlife as painful as the earthly existence he would be leaving behind. How does one survive a tortured eternity?
Maybe it would be his ultimate penance.
Maybe he wouldn’t even get to go to the place he imagined they were.
His head dropped forward, chin meeting chest. It would be what he deserved. There was no forgiveness, only pain.
THREE MONTHS and some odd days earlier….
“Help, I’ve fallen!”
And you can’t get up? The thought flitted through his mind before turning toward the sound of distress. There in the dirty gutter lay the crumpled figure of a little old blue-hair. Bright red bloomed through the granny’s tan pants. Dirt and grime were smudged on her adorably wrinkled face.
“Are you just going to stand there while I lie here, bleeding to death, or are you going to help an old lady up?”
Oliver looked over his shoulder to see who the snippy old bat was talking to, and saw there was no one else there.
“Boy, you look like you’ve been rolling in mud. Do you have dirt in your ears? I’m talking to you.” She pointed a slightly shaking finger in his direction.
“Me?” Oliver asked, echoing the gesture to make sure the lady, who may have hit her head on the way down, was truly speaking to him.
“Yes, you!” Her voice was full of exasperation. “Do you see anyone else? Quit dawdling and come help me up.” Her frail arm wavered in the air, reaching toward Oliver’s frozen form.
“O-okay,” Oliver finally said, uprooting his feet from the pavement. In a few long strides, he was grasping the cool papery hand in his own, bending to wrap his other arm around the lady’s tiny frame. It wasn’t much of a struggle to help the petite woman to her feet. Oliver walked her to a nearby park bench, which she sank down on with a long drawn-out sigh. Unsure what to do next, he just stood there, towering over her.
“Um, are you all right?” Oliver kept looking from the woman back to the pile of meager belongings he had left behind when he came to assist. “Do you live near here?”
“I’m not far,” the woman said while looking down at her knee. She tsked about cleaning out the blood under her breath.
“Do you… uh, do you think you could make it? Or do you need help?” He hoped for the former.
“Oh! Help would be lovely, dear, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Oliver sighed. He knew he couldn’t leave the woman to hobble back by herself. His father would be terribly disappointed in him if he did that. Biting his tongue, he motioned that he’d be a minute before turning to jog to his pack. Slinging it over his shoulder, Oliver took his time walking back, studying the woman as he went.
Even though the frame was small, the woman seemed to radiate a kind of power. Well dressed, short of the bloody knee, she screamed money: coifed hair, pearls around her neck, and rings on her fingers. Laugh lines radiated from the corners of two still-bright blue eyes. While her tongue was sharp, the many wrinkles gave her a friendly appearance, like one of those shar-pei dogs.
When she saw Oliver approaching, she got to her feet, listing to one side. Oliver sped up to reach her. He wrapped an arm around her back to steady the woman who was doing a fine impression of a wobbly top winding down.
“Whoa there.” Oliver adjusted his stance to help keep the woman on her feet. “Are you sure you’ll be okay to walk?”
She waved him off. “Of course I’m sure. I’m old but hardly helpless.”
Oliver raised a brow but said nothing as they started off down the sidewalk.
It was slow going, but after a couple of blocks, a quaint Victorian came into view. It was white with bright purple trim that should have looked garish but ended up giving the home a welcoming kind of charm. There were flower boxes at each window, a riot of bright, blooming colors. A waist-high, black, wrought-iron fence surrounded the lush lawn and disappeared behind the back of the house. The wrap-around porch was graced with wooden rockers painted in vibrant blues and greens and yellows.
Oliver thought it looked like it came out of a fairy tale, the kind of place where wishes would be granted and comfort could be found for the night. A sharp pang sparked in his chest at the thought of a night of warmth and safety. He shook his head slightly, as if to dispel the idea. It wouldn’t do him any good to think of things that couldn’t be.
They reached the gate, and the woman gestured for Oliver to open it. It swung away from them with silent grace, no rusted squeaking to announce their arrival. As they made their way up the cobblestone walk, the front door opened and Oliver found himself staring at a mirror image of the woman clinging to his arm. They were practically identical down to the orthopedic shoes they wore, the only difference being in the color of their outfits. The styles were the same, but the woman at the door wore pastels rather than the neutral tones her sister sported.
“Oh, Tude! What happened to you?” The other woman wrung her hands and fretted from her position at the door.
“Tude?” Oliver questioned, looking down at the woman he was still supporting.
“It’s actually Gertrude, but that’s such a mouthful, don’t you think?” The woman patted Oliver’s arm before letting go, walking up the stairs with a surprising amount of spring in her step.
Oliver’s eyes narrowed as he began to realize the woman had played him. He watched the pastel lady fawn over her not-so-injured sister, unsure of what to do next. When they turned for the door, Oliver was surprised by the wave of disappointment that washed over him. While he wasn’t expecting any kind of compensation for helping, a thank-you would have been nice. He was surprised by their lack of manners. As he turned to walk back toward the park, his head dropped, sad to think of what the coming evening held for him. He sighed before looking up at the sun. It was probably close to five o’clock, maybe he could catch some commuters on their way home to buy some of his pieces so he could get something to eat, half a sandwich at least.
“Aren’t you coming in, dearie?”
The voice caught Oliver off guard and he nearly tripped over his own feet turning to face the speaker. Pastel lady was holding the door open, waving him inside. Gertrude was nowhere to be seen.
“Why?” Oliver asked, suddenly suspicious.
The woman’s eyes widened. “Why? For dinner of course. It’s nearly time, and it’s the least we can do for helping poor Tude get home.”
“I’m not sure she really needed my help….”
“Oh, of course she did, dear. We’re just a couple of frail old spinsters who need assistance with a multitude of things, like finishing all the food I cooked for dinner. Please, come join us.” The woman’s warm voice and smiling eyes chipped away at Oliver’s wary nature. His growling stomach sealed the deal. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a home-cooked meal.
“I guess I could….”
“Of course you can, dear. Now come inside and get washed up. We don’t allow for dirty hands at the dinner table.”
Oliver climbed the steps and tried to peer inside the dark interior before stepping over the threshold. He couldn’t see much, but the wafting scent of cooked meat set his mouth to watering. He followed his nose, no longer caring that he had been tricked. Food won out over pride.
THE INTERIOR of the house was like a well-organized yard sale. Knickknacks lined shelves and windowsills. They were free of dust and many had small white tags hanging from them that blew in the breeze Oliver made as he headed toward the bathroom, which had been pointed out to him. He stopped to admire a porcelain seahorse. It was washed in pale colors, the edges gilded in shiny gold. It seemed incredibly detailed and delicate, as if it would crumble to pieces if touched.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Pastel’s voice came from behind him. Oliver, who had been lost in his own world, spun and nearly knocked it off the shelf. Wrinkled hands reached up to rescue the article.
“S-sorry!” Oliver stuttered, his face flaming.
“No bother, dear, accidents happen. Would you like me to put your name on it? I’m sure Tude wouldn’t mind.”
Oliver’s brow furrowed. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he admitted.
The older woman pointed to a nearby figure of a pig in a bonnet carrying a basket of flowers. One of the small white tags was hanging from its empty hand. Upon closer inspection, Oliver saw the name Mary in a tiny neat scrawl on the tag.
“When people like something in our home, we mark it for them so when we move on, they can have it,” the woman explained.
“Move… on?” The angry butterflies came to life in Oliver’s stomach as he started to get the idea.
“Yes! When we move on from this world. We wouldn’t want to see anyone fight over our things so we label them now to keep that from happening.”
Oliver felt himself start to sway at the woman’s casual talk of her own death. He mumbled an apology and dashed into the bathroom, a hand hovering, ready to throw over his mouth. There was nothing in his stomach to come up, but he dry heaved for a few moments while his pulse raced. The topic of death was never an easy one for him, but it had gotten worse over the years. He hoped his actions didn’t insult the nice old lady.
Once his breathing was back to normal, he pushed a sweaty strand of dirty blond hair off his brow. Pumping some of the potent flower smelling soap into his hands, he scrubbed at his face with vigor, as if the strong scent could wash away more than just the dirt. After splashing cold water on his face, he looked up and recoiled at the sight of his stubble-covered but otherwise clean pink skin. It had been a while since he had seen himself dirt-free. His eyes still looked old, but without smudges and dirt settled into tired creases, he looked more his age of eighteen.
He finger-combed through his tangled locks and pulled the strands into a quick messy ponytail. Better than nothing. There wasn’t much he could do about the state of his clothes, but at least he looked somewhat presentable from the neck up. Taking one last look in the mirror, Oliver tucked a wayward piece of hair behind his ear before leaving the small room to find both women waiting for him.
“Everything all right, dear?” Pastel asked.
Oliver looked at them, eyes wide, surprised they were there. “Fine…?”
“Took you long enough. Let’s eat,” Tude said, turning away before Oliver could respond.
“Don’t mind her. She gets cranky when she’s hungry,” the twin said, tucking her hand under Oliver’s arm. They followed the other woman to a dining room where a long table was elaborately set.
A chandelier hung from the ceiling, its drops of glass spitting pinpoints of light throughout the room. The walls were covered in a combination of dark wood paneling and cabbage rose wallpaper. The table was far too big for just the three of them, but each place was set as if its occupants were royalty: silver utensils, fine china, and heavy crystal goblets.
Oliver felt as if he had stepped into a different dimension. Who were these crazy old ladies?
Large silver platters sat on the table, gleaming covers hiding their contents. A cut-glass pitcher filled with water and slices of lemons, limes, and oranges sat just beyond the food, sweat running down its side.
When Tude lifted the lid off one of the platters, Oliver nearly swooned as the smell of roast chicken drifted his way. His stomach growled loudly in response. He slapped his hands to his navel as if to stop the sound from traveling, but the surprised looks on the old biddies told him he wasn’t hiding anything. Oliver just hoped he wasn’t drooling like a teething babe.
“Sit already, would you?” Tude grumbled, laying the cover on the sideboard behind her.
Oliver pulled out the heavy chair and sank into it, unable to take his eyes from the veritable feast before him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had more than a cup of soup or half a sandwich. It had to have been before the accident….
He reached a hand out to touch the heavy silverware and noticed the women had their hands folded and their white heads bowed. Snatching his hand back, Oliver dropped his head, following suit if only not to upset the women. He wasn’t religious by any stretch of the imagination, but he could fake it if it meant getting to taste the food in front of him.
Their heads popped up in unison, and Pastel started to dish out heaps of steaming vegetables onto Oliver’s plate. Across from him, Tude began sawing through the chicken with a knife as long as his forearm. The women served their guest before themselves, and Oliver remembered his manners well enough to wait until everyone had food before he began.
Once he started, he found it an incredible struggle to eat like a human and not shovel the food in by the forkful. Feeling eyes on him, Oliver looked up and realized, by the twin stares, that he probably wasn’t as successful at acting “normal” as he thought.
“Sorry,” he mumbled after struggling to swallow a mouthful of food without choking.
“Quite all right, dear. Please, eat as much as you’d like. As you can see, there is plenty,” Pastel said, patting Oliver’s hand. Tude glared before putting down her fork.
“Don’t you have a name?” the grumpier of the two women asked.
Oliver flushed a bit when he realized he had never even introduced himself to the women who graciously invited him in for dinner.
“S-sorry!” he stuttered, unused to having these kinds of encounters anymore. “I’m Oliver. Oliver Sutton.”
“Lovely to meet you, Oliver,” Pastel said with a warm smile. “You know Tude, and you may call me Vera.”
“Vera? That’s a nice name,” Oliver replied, enjoying the old-fashioned names.
“Bah. Her name is Guinevere, but since I had a nickname, she wanted one too,” Tude said, rolling her eyes.
“Gertrude and Guinevere?”
“Westling,” Vera said. “Gertrude and Guinevere Westling.”
Oliver gave them a genuine smile. “Nice to meet you both. Thank you for dinner. It’s… it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
“Ever?” questioned Tude.
Oliver flashed back to a memory of a Christmas dinner years ago, remembering the juicy turkey and homemade cranberry sauce. It was one of the few good memories that hadn’t been wiped away.
“Well, maybe not ever, but it’s definitely made the top three.”
Both women beamed at him as if he’d handed them the Nobel Peace Prize.
Oliver patted his distended stomach and hoped all the food he ate would stay down. He shouldn’t have gorged himself, but not knowing when his next good meal would be, he couldn’t help it.
As the food settled in his stomach, a great exhaustion fell over him. Oliver blinked rapidly, trying to keep from falling into a carb-induced coma. He attempted to push up off the overstuffed couch the women had led him to and suddenly found his face full of soft fuzzy fabric. Batting at it, he realized it was a velour blanket. Tude grinned at him while Vera held a pillow in her hands. Oliver cocked his head to the side, wondering what was going through their heads.
“I don’t need this,” Oliver said, his voice quiet as he started to fold the blanket.
“It gets cool in here at night,” Tude told him while nudging her sister to hand over the pillow.
“Yes, quite drafty. We wouldn’t want you catching your death,” Vera chimed in after placing the pillow at the end of the couch.
Oliver shook his head and held the blanket out to them. “I don’t need this because I’m not staying.” His voice was no nonsense, his spine suddenly pin straight. He was grateful for the meal, but he wouldn’t intrude any further, and he certainly couldn’t stay the night. If they knew who he really was, what he had done, they wouldn’t want him there either.