“Which one is yours?”
Lizbeth emerged from the depths of her worrisome thoughts and turned with a start. An old man stood beside her bench, leaning on a cane. His white, unruly beard gave him a wild appearance but he dressed warmly and in the kind of shoes physicians recommend for swollen or tender feet. His smiling blue eyes were fixed on the jungle gym in the distance where children played. The oldest child among them was Lizbeth’s son, Liam. The eight-year-old screamed at the top of his lungs, pushed the other kids aside, yanked on pigtails, and tossed wood chips into the air as he ran past.
Lizbeth sighed. “Mine is the one terrorizing the rest.”
The old man chuckled. “He’ll grow out of that in time. He needs a firm hand is all.”
“He needs his father,” Lizbeth murmured. “But God only knows where Jared is now.” She’d spent the latter half of the month looking for him but, after exhausting all of her old contacts and his old friends, she’d finally given up.
The old man’s face pinched with concern when he looked at her. “Is he in trouble, your son’s daddy?”
Lizbeth gripped the holy metal around her throat and averted her gaze. “I don’t know.”
The gentleman eased onto the bench beside her with some difficulty and laid the cane across his lap. “I don’t mean to pry, but I know when I have a troubling matter on my mind it always helps to talk to a stranger about it.”
Lizbeth let out a choked laugh. “Don’t trouble yourself. It’s my own fault I’m where I’m at.”
His bushy brow fell flat. “Oh, I don’t believe that. Nice girl like you couldn’t carry all the blame for—”
“How can you be so sure?” she snapped. “You don’t know anything about me.”
He watched her thoughtfully and said nothing.
Lizbeth cursed under her breath and hastily wiped at her stinging eyes. “I have cancer, all right? I’ve been drinking and smoking since I was thirteen years old. I tried to turn my life around about six months ago but it was too little too late. It’s in my liver and in my lungs. The doctors say I have three months, tops.”
The old man nodded very slowly. “And there’s no one else who could look after your boy?”
Lizbeth sniffled and dug around her purse for a tissue. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe my brother would take him in if I begged him but he lives out in Virginia. I couldn’t ask him to fly down here for my son. Plane tickets are expensive and I don’t have the kind of money to make the trip easy for them.”
“What if I gave you the money?”
The words were a miracle. She narrowed her eyes at him from above her tissue. “What’s the catch?”
The old man shrugged and looked back at the playing children. “No catch. I don’t have a wife or children who depend on me for income. I’m on disability but I’ve managed to put some money away in case of an emergency. This sounds like an emergency to me.”
Lizbeth shook her head and crumpled up the used tissue in her hand. “That’s very nice of you, sir, but I can’t ask you to do that.”
The old man gave her a sideways smile. “You didn’t. I offered.”
Lizbeth stared at him, hopeful and terrified and light-headed all at once. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
The old man rose, grimacing in pain. “Come back in two hours and I’ll have a check ready for you.”
Lizbeth watched him limp away from her, her own personal miracle, perhaps the first and the only one she’d ever receive. She gripped the holy metal again and wept.
Lizbeth sat up as the old man approached the bench. “I thought you might come back.”
He smiled. “You were right.”
She reached for her purse and the envelope inside. “The tickets didn’t cost nearly as much as I thought they would. I brought you the leftover money.”
The old man waved a withered hand at her. “Keep it. It was a gift.”
Lizbeth paused, still hunched over her purse, incredulous eyes fixed on this stranger that continued to amaze her. He sat down next to her and laid the cane across his lap like last time.
She abandoned her purse and leaned back. “Thank you…again.”
“How is Liam liking his new home?” the old man asked.
Lizbeth sighed, suddenly tired. “He’s not. He’s only been gone a few weeks but he calls me every day to tell me how much he misses being here. I keep telling him it’s for his own good. I can’t say it’s because my brother can’t stand the thought of taking care of me.” She shook her head. “My brother’s house is huge compared to my apartment. He makes better money than I ever did. I can’t imagine why Liam wants to come back here.”
The old man’s mouth curled upward just slightly. “Home is home.”
She nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
They lapsed into silence as they watched the trees sway. It was officially winter now and too cold to play outside. The jungle gym stood stoic and lonely at the center of the field of wood chips. The swings squeaked as they were pushed gently by the wind. Lizbeth burrowed deeper into her jacket.
“How’re you feeling?” the old man finally asked.
“Tired,” she admitted. “Sometimes it gets hard to breathe and my abdomen hurts. And other times I feel perfectly normal.”
The old man nodded as if he’d expected this. “Your apartment isn’t too quiet for you?”
“Yes but…I know sending Liam away was the right thing to do.”
“Keep busy,” the old man said. “Don’t give into despair. It’ll only make things harder.”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes, wondering not for the first time, who this stranger was and how he seemed to know exactly what she needed to hear. But she kept her questions to herself. She’d been disappointed by people too many times to count. Maybe it was better if her new friend remained a mystery.
A soft knock made Lizbeth open her eyes. The old man stood in the doorway of her hospital room. Despite the fatigue, the pain, the nausea, the fear, Lizbeth smiled. “Hello again.”
He shook a little as he ambled over. It was getting increasingly difficult for him to walk. Lizbeth sat up, ready to ask him if he needed help. She bit back the words when she realized how silly she was being. He groaned a little as he settled into the chair by her bed. Once the cane was sitting in its usual place across his knees, he folded his hands and just looked at her.
“Well,” he said after a time. “Here we are.”
Lizbeth nodded, blinking back tears. “Here we are.”
His cheerful demeanor was gone in an instant. He leaned forward and gave her frail hand a squeeze. “You’re almost there, Liz. It’s almost over.”
“Do you think there’ll be benches in heaven?” she asked with a sniffle.
A ghost of a smile tugged at his mouth. “I guarantee it. Find one sitting by a beautiful view and wait for me, won’t you? I won’t be far behind.”
The sunset turned the clouds orange. Lizbeth took a deep breath and smiled. She’d chosen the glass bench by the babbling brook, overlooking the edge of the glen dotted with white and pink flowers. The endless backdrop of swirling clouds completed the scene that was by far the most beautiful she’d ever seen. She hoped the old man would agree. It was hard to measure the passing of time here but Lizbeth wasn’t too concerned with that. She was content to sit and watch the clouds and wait for her friend.
Edited by: Nicole Burdge