The Last Day
Brody Weinert 2014
There was a time ago when the old man used to enjoy this weather. The smell of rain lingering in the air, the warm breeze gently coming and going in tides. There was a something about this weather that both frightened and excited him, as if the world had changed entirely. It was a long time ago when he didn’t mind, but now he loathed the feeling. Pulling his coat tighter to himself, he continued down the empty streets. It was never supposed to be like this.
The night sky, littered with countless stars, glowed faint compared to the yellow street lamps that illuminated the concrete floor. One could see that time had eroded this place, yet left untouched by the people who built these walls. Fixing his hat over his head, he forced his eyes to remain open. He started to drag his feet along the ground, eroding the sole of his shoes.
During his walk, the old man came across an alleyway. He had noticed it many times before, but there was something different this time. The darkness swirled deep within the depths of itself. It existed as it was, never escaping beyond its boundaries. The old man stared into it for a while, lost. The rustling of cardboard boxes next to him were enough to snap him out of it. Startled, he paused to see what had frightened him.
He saw that the cardboard boxes were neatly organized. Stacked beside each other creating enough space for one to sleep. He also saw a pink jumper, retreating. With an old, confused sigh he stood there wondering. He knelt down to peer into the contents of the box.
There was a young girl inside, barely old enough to be wandering the streets alone. She was curled up towards the end, her arms turning purple and white. She was freezing cold, hair knotted and unkempt, eyes fixed with terror on the old man. He knelt there, still confused as a draft blew from the alleyway. Wasn’t there anyone else? To know that there is a young girl left alone, cold without any form of protection? He stood up, walking onto the grated pathway. There was no one. Not even the sound of life could be heard except for the stray dog and passing cars in the distance. How could this be?
He looked back towards the cardboard box; the young girl retreating once again into the depths of the cardboard box. Hobbling back he knelt down again as the young girl tried to avoid his weary gaze. He did not say anything; instead he took off his long coat and held it in front of himself. The girl looked at his coat, then to the old man. He nudged the coat forward, gesturing it to her. She took it with caution, inspecting it as she wrapped it around herself like a blanket. He stood up and made his way to the adjacent wall. Leaning his back against the brick wall, he slowly slid down onto the cold concrete ground. The old man was panting and wheezing heavily, like a drowsy dog thirsting for water. The young girl looked at him, not sure what to do. She simply observed for a time.
“What are you doing?” She asked quietly.
“…I’m just old, that’s all.” He replied. Silence lingered in the air.
“Do all old people do that?” She asked.
He grinned, laughing lightly while shaking his head. “…That’s a nice house you have built.” He asked, trying to keep the conversation flowing.
“Really?” the young girl said, thrilled that the old man noticed.
“Did you build it all by yourself?”
“Yep, all by myself.” She said nodding.
“Why did you build it here and not at home?”
“This is my home.”
The gentle silence flooded the alleyway now. The dog and the cars had disappear from existence. The old man had started to put the pieces together. He understood why she built her home here, hidden from the world. Out of sight, out of mind. The young girl, now starting to feel sad curled up, remembering memories best left hidden too. “…Where are your parents?”
From a distance, the conversation seemed odd. The old man was leaning against a brick wall, deep in conversation with the cardboard boxes. He would sometimes say a few words. Only a few before listening again to the story the cardboard boxes was telling. Stroking his chin with his left hand, it was only after some time he had stopped. He paused in thought. Standing up, he walked towards the pathway. The young girl peered out of her home, tears in her eyes. The old man looked back towards the young girl, gesturing her to follow him as he started too disappeared down the street. The young girl, not knowing what to do, ran after him, the coat tail dragging behind.
The young girl followed the old man through the crowds that littered the streets. The ocean of people, weaving in and out of each other, bustled with noise and excitement. She looked up towards the faces, seeing the differences between each other. Some were passing alone, trying to get somewhere. Others were talking with friends, mingling with the opposite sexes, picking fights with the same. She then looked at the old man’s face. He did not blend in with this crowd, nor this city. His face was worn away as the youth celebrated around him. She did not understand why.
Walking a few steps behind the old man, she tried to not step on the cracks on the concrete pathway, arms out to balance herself. She bumps into the old man, not knowing that he had stopped in front of a building. Looking to her right, she saw they were at the front of a restaurant. The bright, white light softly fell out through the windows, the stone walls illuminated by the city lights. To the young girl, it felt like magic that only the night could bring. The crashing of waves could be heard nearby, behind the restaurant itself. As she took her time gazing at the building, she noticed that the old man had disappeared. She panicked, until she saw him holding the front door wide open; the sound of cheers and vibrant conversation escaping out into the warm air.
Entering the restaurant, she took her time to adjust her eyes to the light. The smell of light cigarette smoke lingered in the air as the aroma of fettuccini, lobster and garlic bread carried itself pleasantly across the room. The old man standing next to her took off his hat, scrunching it up before putting it in his back pocket. The receptionist, a young beautiful waitress dressed nicely in her work uniform, greeted the two friendly.
“Welcome to Charity’s Italiano & Seafood restaurant, will you be dining with us tonight?
“Yes. But can we please have a view of the ocean too please?” the old man inquired politely, pointing towards the back table.
“Let me check… the table towards the end?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The waitress lead the two through the dining tables, filled with many people who seemed to be having a great time. The old man and young girl did not mix into the restaurant crowd, as their dull clothes did not match the glamour of its inhabitants. And yet the strangers exchanged smiles with the two, forgetting the difference’s that separated each other. The young girl felt a bit tingly inside.
They reached the table; there were red velvet chairs with wooden frames. The table was fitted with a pristine white cloth accompanied with red and white flowers; salt and pepper on either side. The wall of glass showed the outside world; the balcony, the beach, and the ocean stretched out into the unknown horizon. Is was peaceful, to put its beauty simply.
“Thank you.” The old man said to the waitress.
“No problem.” She said, handing out the menus.
“By the way, my name is Cindy, and if you two need anything at all just give me a call.” She said, grinning like she couldn’t help it. The young girl leapt into the chair, stretching out all over the chair. Cindy leaves the two as the man hands the girl a menu.
“I’ll be straight back.” The man says to the girl. Wondering what he is doing, he wanders off into the crowd, towards Cindy.
The young girl rested back into the red velvet chair, satisfied; her pasta bowl empty in front of her with lick marks everywhere. It sat next to the crumbs of the Garlic bread as that sat next to the old man’s plate. He was finishing the last bite of his club sandwich, savouring the taste for as long as he could. He rested into his chair, joining the young girl. They both smile with great health. As they look towards the ocean, the lights start to dim as the noise of the customers fell quickly. The young girl was wondering what was happening. She looked around the room trying to discover what was going on. The old man just sat there, looking at the waves crashing into the bay.
From the kitchen, the doors swung wide. Cindy, along with 4 other waiters and what appeared to be the plump head chef, held a large cake with fireworks on top. As they made their way through the restaurant, the crowd started to sing.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOUUUUU!” They sung with such enthusiasm, approaching the young girl with speed. They rested the cake in front of her; the young girl was in bewilderment.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR EADEN…”
The young girl’s expression changed from surprised to pure excitement. She could not believe the size of the cake. The smell of the candles delighted her as she looked at the old man. He was grinning too, gesturing towards the cake.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOOOOO YOOOOOOO! HIP HIP HORRAY! HIP HIP HORRAY! HIP HIP HORRAY!” She blew the candles out with a strong puff, the crowd cheering. It was as if everyone forgot their problems for a time.
As the old man was slicing the white cake Cindy tried to grab the attention of him and the birthday girl.
“Smile,” Cindy said as the flash went off. The young girl was looking into the camera as the old man continued to cut a slice with her name on it. “Perfect.” Cindy said once, looking at the smiling girl and the fragile man.
The old man paid Cindy with the cash in his back pocket. $88 it rounded up too, plus tax. Cindy took the bundle of cash, putting it in the till as the register seemed to be overflowing with it. As she was doing this, another waiter was inserting the birthday photograph into an envelope.
“Will you be dining with us again?” Cindy said, her grin still sitting on her face.
“No.” The old man said.
“Here you go Eaden. A birthday gift from us to you.” The waiter said, handing the crisp envelope to the young girl. She looked at the envelope with excitement, as if she was expecting to find a pony inside.
“Thank you!” The young girl said, barely standing still.
“No, thank you. For letting us celebrate your birthday.” The waiter said. The old man was drifting in and out of thought, wondering. From the back kitchen the plump head chef could be seen.
“Happy Birthday Eaden!” He yelled lustily. The young girl waved back, acknowledging him.
“We hope to see you again.” Cindy said as the man and the girl walked out into the city again.
Embracing the warm breeze, the old man led on as the young girl followed; now being a few steps behind the old man. She looked out towards the beach, seeing a couple walking along peacefully. She tugged on the old man’s shirt, pointing towards the ocean.
“Do you want me to hold onto the envelope?” the old man said.
She handed the envelope to him as she ran on the sand, which was cool but not cold.
The old man fiddled with his wallet, flipping it back and forth as the young girl cartwheeled across the sand, screaming with joy. The gentle tides and cheering crowds from the city streets could still be heard, but did not disturb the two of them. He finally stopped playing with his wallet. He gazed at the young girl. She was dodging the waves, splashing the water about. He smiled slightly and started to chuckle a bit. It reminded him of something. His chuckling turned into a heavy, wheezing cough. He held it back, making sure the young girl wouldn’t notice. Once his throat had settled he stood up, joining the girl in her game.
After the old man tried to wash the grime off his feet, the young girl put her thongs back on, her feet now clean. They both set back into the neon city, the lights glowing brighter than before. The crowd started to die down a bit as some of the people started to walk back home. The girl was walking closer to the man, her steps matching his. She looked around the city, the lights and cars flashing before her eyes. The man continued at his pace, staring forward.
As they made their way through the city, the young girl noticed the carnival beyond the park. Again, she nudged at the old man’s shirt, his coat still dragging behind her. He looked at it, wondering why it would still be open at this time. He checked his heart, then his pulse. The young girl waited for the man to finish what he was doing before saying yes.
He didn’t expect the entrance to be so big. The mouth of the carnival was fretted with ribbons and balloons, golden plated letters reading ‘Arcadia Fun Grounds’. The girl ran ahead as the man tried to catch up, cautious about falling over. The entrance was filled with customers and clowns, magicians and other wonderful delights. The rides themselves towered over the people; rollercoasters swirling in and out of the park, the Ferris wheel spinning slowly around. The young girl raced towards the worn Dragon Tide, a ship that goes forward and backwards in a semi-circle arc. After waiting in line they hopped aboard the boat. They sat at the front to the left next to a younger couple. The girl said that it was the best spot because it’s the highest point of the ride, and that it felt like you were flying up into the sky.
As the ride started, the old man held on tightly to the bar, his knuckles changing colour. The ride sped up, the passengers lifting their hands up in the air when the ship swung to their side. The young girl was screaming in joy; the old man still trying not to scream himself. When the ride reached its peak, the girl held onto the man tightly. He looked at her and saw something that he hadn’t seen in a long time. She was smiling; but it was a type of smile that someone had when you were with someone you trusted, someone that made you feel safe and relaxed. He loosened his grip, letting the weight of gravity do its job.
Once the carnival started to close down the old man and the young girl came across a merchant, trying to sell his wares. He was selling many things, assorted treasures and trash. The old man approached the merchant, starting up conversation with him.
As the girl danced on the gutter, the man argued and bargained with the seller. It was only after some time that the old man pulled out his money. The merchant pulled out from his cart a small Swallow, tucked underneath the other stuffed animals. After the deal had been made, the old man handed the toy to the young girl. She cradled it, holding the bird in both arms. The merchant wished them farewell, as the three of them walked off into the night.
The cool breeze, now rougher than before, was blowing the leaves off the trees as they strolled along. The young girl follows beside him; the old man leading her to the unknown location. The young girl constantly asked the man questions.
“Do you think the trees are roots from the Earth? Do you think that the wind is telling us secrets?” She asked the man. He didn’t know how to answer. He never thought of odd questions like that. She swung around the trees, Swallow in hand. The sound of life could not be heard over the calm wind, as no cars passed this way. It was very dark, appearing abandoned.
As the young girl was nearly about to ask him where they were going, he stopped; the young girl accidentally bumping into him. He was staring at a building across the street, his wrinkles casting slight shadows across his face. She followed his gaze towards the bleak building. ‘The Lorienda Orphanage’ the bronze plaque read on a pillar.
“…Why are we here?”
The man did not respond.
He walked over to the building as she followed behind.
Knocking on the door a young woman met the two. Her face was kind, innocent. Her completion blended in with the outside walls.
“Hello.” She said to them in a voice that was quiet and hushed. She invited the two into the lounge room, being wide and spacious. The girl was confused. Why were they here? What are they doing? They walked up to the reception table; the young woman taking a brass key off the shelf. The young girl kept on looking at the old man. His expression was slowly starting to frown. As she walked around the table, the young woman approached the old man.
“I will give you two a moment.” She said to the old man. She then kindly smiled at the young girl, who was gripping onto the Sparrow, before walking down off into the hallway. The old man bent down with a heavy sigh, turning the young girl around.
“This is where we must part ways Eaden.” He said with a soft, crackling voice. She did not understand.
“Why are you leaving?” She said.
“I have too. I cannot care for you.” He said.
“Because Eaden. I am an old man. I cannot provide a home for you.”
“We can live in the one I built. There’s plenty of room for the two of us.”
“That is not what I mean.”
“…Can you visit me?”
“…No. I cannot.”
“You may understand when you’re older. But for now you are young. You need to live your own life. You need a home, friend’s your age,”
“But you’re my friend. Why can’t you stay? Why do you have to go? Please don’t go.” She said, starting to cry. The old man didn’t know how to explain the things he felt and thought to her. He didn’t want to do this again.
From his back pocket, he pulled out his wallet. The leather bounded casing held many cards and folded pieces of paper, barely being able to fold itself together. The young girl looked at the old man, folding and flipping the wallet apart. Two clear pockets unfolded down, revealing pictures. He turned the wallet around, showing the photographs. It was the picture from the restaurant, the old man slicing the cake as the young girl looked into the camera. It was just above the picture of a couple, who seemed like they were from separate worlds.
“This is for you.” The old man said, handing over the wallet. She took it in both hands; the Sparrow nestled underneath her arms. “For whenever you want to remember that you are not alone.” The young girl stood there, looking at the picture, then to the old man, whose face was smiling. They stayed as they were for some time, looking at each other.
The girl lunged forward, embracing the man in her arms. She hugged him tightly, as if she was trying to accumulate the future hugs she will never have. The man held her, softly saying it’s alright. It’s alright. After a while, the girl let go. She slowly moved her arms away from the man’s shoulders. He picked up her things and handed them to her. It was as if she didn’t know what to do with them. She wanted to say something. She wanted to say goodbye, just something else. But she couldn’t. She could only stare at him. The social worker came to take her away, for caring. The social worker led her, down the hallway. But she never turned her gaze away. She kept looking at the man. She tried to imprint the image of him onto her mind. She just wanted to remember his face. The man, sorrowfully, watched her go.
But after seeing the smile on Eaden’s face, he felt a heavy weight lift off his shoulders. The young girl drifted off into the darkness of the hallway before turning right. The young woman approached the old man, smiling that one smile.
“I’m glad that there are still people like you in the world.” She said whispering.
“…It was her birthday.” He said, still staring into the darkness. There was a gentle silence between the two. Something like peace.
“…Thank you. Again. It’s truly wonderful what you’ve done.” She said, once. She offered the old man some tea or coffee, but he declined. Saying his farewells, he headed out the door. The night was all he had now. He simply wandered down the street.
He traced the path that he and Eaden had been on. Passing the colourful carnival, the lonely beach, the once bustling restaurant and the empty streets, he made it back to the alleyway the young girl once called home. He did not mind the scraping of his shoes, nor did he mind the weather. He was not cold. He didn’t even notice his hat blowing off. He stared into the alleyway for a moment, and then up towards the city heights. He contemplated about something before moving on.
He had been traveling for a while now. There was no sound of life to be heard anywhere. The street was dark; nearly pitch black. But the old man knew his way. He had been down it to many times before. Walking some blocks away, he reached another alleyway. It was smaller and out of sight, out of mind. He made his way down to the end. Striking a match, he lit a newspaper and threw it into the rusted barrel. He piled old timber wood and other dry things onto the fire as it removed the darkness. The old man could see his bed, his canned food, his broken writing desk and his chair. He stood in front of the barrel, making sure that the fire was lit properly. He dragged his chair in front of the fire before making his way to the bed. He put his hand in the slit that he made, and grabbed the plastic bag within. ‘Columbia’ was written on the bag in black, smudged marker. He put the left over money into the bag, and left it on the desk.
He rested with a tired sigh. He checked his heartbeat, his pulse. He waited.
The fire was warm. He felt his face warm up. He watched the embers float into the sky before disappearing. He got out of his chair, and walked over to his desk. Under it, the old man opened the secret compartment he had built. He took the book out of it, and wandered back to the chair. Placing the book on his lap, he opened it, revealing the pages.
There were photographs of kids. They all came from different backgrounds. Some had disabilities. Others were badly wounded. But in each one the kid was smiling with the old man. Some were in hospitals with the doctors and nurses, bandaged and healing. Others were at parks and festivals. A few were with families once lost. And others were in the Lorienda Orphanage. He turned the pages slowly. He took his time to remember every single memory, every moment. One by one, he remembered their smiles.
He made it to the last page. It was blank. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the slightly crumpled envelope. He had made sure to not ruin it throughout the night. He slowly removed the picture inside, careful to not create anymore creases. He saw how happy she was with him, and how they were enjoying the atmosphere of the restaurant. If only he had noticed before. He remembered her face when he told Cindy about Eaden. About how it was her birthday. About her parents. She printed out two photographs, to make sure the old man could remember the night forever.
He closed the book, and continued to look at the picture. He tucked it into his breast pocket on his shirt, careful not to tear or ruin the memory. He stared at the fire once more, smiling. He breathed in the air, filling his lungs before letting out one long sigh, as the fire slowly faded away.