The Mission – By Lisa Kessler
His mission started with a forgotten Valentine.
Gary found the tattered old card at the bottom of a box of military mementoes his daughter had dropped by the retirement home. Home was a very subjective word, more like a jail for old folks whose kids didn’t want to deal with them anymore.
He sighed and waved back to his daughter Sarah as she drove away. Ok, maybe all the kids weren’t to blame, but either way, since he broke his hip he needed more help than his only daughter could give. She had three of her own all under ten years old.
He didn’t really want to be her fourth, very wrinkly and way-over-ten-year-old kid.
Nah, it was better this way. They could keep pretending that he was getting better and that eventually he’d be out of the nursing home and back on his own again. At least Sarah hadn’t sold his house yet. She did find a renter, but technically he could still move back home. Someday.
But today he had other plans.
He carefully lifted the back flap of the envelope. The yellowed paper cracked and groaned, but it didn’t tear. His fingers trembled as he drew out the card. The front had a faded red heart with a Zeppelin that read I’m up in the air over you! A smile crept across his ashen face. It seemed like lifetimes ago since the big zeppelins were making transatlantic flights from New York to Europe, but holding this tiny card in his hand brought it all back.
Memories that might be better left in the past.
He looked around the lobby, and once he was certain none of the other residents were around to pepper him with questions, Gary slowly lifted the front of the card to reveal the ornate handwritten script inside. His heart clenched in his chest when he saw her name at the bottom.
All My Heart Always,
Lifting it to his face, he sighed. The scent of her perfume was long gone, but remained vivid in his mind. She always
smelled like roses, and all of the notes he received while he was in Korea with the Air Force carried her scent.
He thought he had gotten rid of all her letters decades ago, but apparently he missed this one. This one forgotten Valentine.
He closed the card and tucked it back into the envelope, staring at the return address. Why didn’t he go to her when he got home? Surely she would have still loved him. She pledged all her heart to him always in every letter.
But that was before he was injured. Before shrapnel peppered his face and took off part of his right ear. Rather than face her rejection, he spared himself more wounds and broke up with her.
Only he never actually told her anything. He just stopped answering her letters.
He shook his head and started toward the dining room with the Valentine safely stashed in the pocket of his brown polyester trousers. The walk down the long hallways leading to the large community room used to fill him with dread. He could still hear his walker scraping against the tile floor, after his hip replacement, announcing his approach a good ten minutes before he arrived.
He had a cane now, but he was still pretty slow.
Heaving a sigh, Gary picked up the pace, fighting to keep his loafers from shuffling. He made his way into the dining room and wrinkled his nose when the smell hit him.
Ugh he hated fish!
Old Bill Plugman was waving an arthritic hand at him. Gary nodded and hobbled over to their usual table.
“We’re having fish,” Bill bellowed. Gary had told him a hundred times that he could hear just fine, but Bill saw what was left of Gary’s mangled right ear and he screamed at him anyway.
Gary finally gave up trying to shush him.
“I could smell it in the hallway.” Gary sat down, grimacing more from the scent of fish than his creaking hip. “What kind is it?”
Bill shouted, “I think it’s trout, but I guess it could be bass.”
Marion tottered by and muttered, “It’s catfish ya ol’ coot!”
Gary shook his head. “Whatever damn fish it is, I’m not eatin’ it. I’ll fill up on vegetables and Jell-o”
All the chatter died away once the food was served. Plenty of soup slurping and clanking of silverware filled the silence, but Gary didn’t hear any of it. He was lost in the dusty corners of his memory.
Abigail’s voice filled his mind. He could hear her smile in her voice. And she always had a smile for him. They met at the corner market after boot camp. He’d come home for two weeks of leave before he shipped out to flight school. The last thing he had expected was to find the other half of his heart. But there it was, right there in Abigail’s smile.
“Didja find everything you needed?” She chimed as she punched buttons on the cash register.
“Yep I sure–” Then their eyes met and he was lost. “Did.”
He watched her slender neck as she swallowed and her cheeks flushed with color.
“Good,” she said. They stood there, frozen in that moment that seemed to last forever before she giggled and looked at the register. “That’ll be two-fifty.”
Gary handed her correct change, her fingertips brushing his, and the electricity from that touch surged through his veins. “What time are you off tonight?”
“Can I meet you here and buy you a soda or a malt or something?”
She nodded, and Gary was fairly certain he floated out of that store that day. He and Abigail ended up spending every free moment together. They talked, danced, laughed and even kissed. She cried the day he had to leave. Gary had bought her a tiny rose pin and carefully attached it to her sweater.
“I’ll come back for you Abigail.”
“You better.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “You be careful, Gary.”
He drew her into his arms and whispered, “I will Abby. I promise. I love you.”
He drove away, watching her grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and he clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth to hold back tears.
Bill’s screaming yanked him back into the present. He frowned, “What is it, Bill?”
“I been talking to you, an’ you been vacant old man. I thought you was losin’ it. I almost called the nurse.”
Gary shook his head. “Nah, I’m okay. Just been thinkin’.” He pushed his plate back and gripped the edge of the table. “I’m finished here. I’ll see you later Bill.”
He heaved his body up until he was standing upright, or as upright as he got these days. Bill was still yelling something to him, but he wasn’t paying any attention. He needed to be alone.
He needed to look at that Valentine again.
Safely away from the dinner melee, he sat on the bench in the entryway and pulled the envelope out of his pocket. He stared at the return address as a plan formed in his mind.
An insane plan.
She couldn’t possibly still live there. She might not even still be alive.
His heart clenched a little at the thought. He’d rather not know if Abby was gone from this world. He started to tuck the card away again, but stopped himself.
Could he let her slip through his fingers for a second time?
This card turned up now for a reason. This wasn’t some crazy coincidence. It couldn’t be.
He set his jaw and gave himself a nod. He was going. Gary got up again and lumbered toward the welcome desk.
“Good Evening Mr. Woods, can I help you?”
“Yes, please call me a taxi.”
The large nurse behind the desk lifted a brow and looked up at him over her glasses. “Where do you need to go at this time of night, Mr. Woods?”
Gary could feel his blood pressure rising. He was committed to this mission now, and no big nurse was going to get in his way. He may be over eighty years old, but he was still a man, not a child.
He stared right into her eyes. “That’s not really any of your business. Last time I checked, I didn’t need your permission to go someplace.”
She stood up. “No need to get upset, Mr. Woods. It’s my job to be sure you’re well taken care of. How can I do that if I don’t know where you’re going?”
He rolled his eyes, “I’m goin’ to see a friend. Now please call me a cab or give me a phone and I’ll call myself.”
“Let me clear this with the Director. I’ll be right back.”
Gary watched her waddle down the hall, and then hobbled to the front doors. He’d find a cab himself. The automatic doors slid open and Gary was free. He liked the sound of his cane on the sidewalk. It clicked against the concrete, and his shoes didn’t squeak. He wasn’t in a nursing home. He was on his own.
On a mission.
But he’d never make it on foot. As he started to pass the park and ride lot, a carpool van parked and the driver hopped out. Gary looked over at him and, with nothing to lose, he called out, “Can you take me across town?”
The young man turned around and smiled, “Only if you’re on my carpool route. Sorry about that.”
Gary nodded, leaning on his cane to rest his hip. “That’s fine. Can you help me find a cab? If I try to walk across town, I’ll be ninety before I get there.”
The young man chuckled and checked his watch as he headed over toward Gary. “I guess I’m a little early, I could probably make one more run. Where are you headed?”
“Ash? How’d you get all the way over here?
“Oh I live over there at Shady Oaks, but I’m going to see a friend on Ash.”
The kid looked past him over at the home before meeting Gary’s eyes again. “They know you’re going?”
Gary shrugged with a crooked smile. “More or less.”
“Does this friend know you’re coming?”
“I promised her I would, fifty-eight years ago. I figure I’ve made her wait long enough.”
“Good luck with that Old Man.” The kid smiled. “She’s gonna be pissed.”
“I reckon she might be.” Gary nodded and made his way over to the van. Twenty minutes later he was on her street again for the first time in over fifty years.
“You want me to wait for you?”
“Nah,” Gary replied, pulling out his worn leather wallet.
“No charge for the ride.”
The kid nodded, “Yeah, this one’s on the house. Good luck…”
Gary nodded, sliding his wallet back into his pocket. “Thanks. I probably need it.”
The van pulled away and Gary wheezed in a deep breath. Come what may, this was a mission he needed to complete. Abby deserved no less. Even if he couldn’t find her or anyone who knew her, he would at least know he tried.
He struggled up the two steps to her porch, or the porch that used to be hers, and stepped forward to the front door. The house was gray now, instead of the yellow he remembered, but other than that, it looked relatively unchanged. He stared at the doorbell for a moment and finally summoned up the courage to press the button. He held his breath and waited.
Just when he thought no one was home, the door creaked open.
“Can I help you?”
It took him a moment to remember why he rang the bell. He stared at the young woman at the door before he found his voice again.
“Abigail Brown? I’m looking for Abigail Brown.”
Her brow furrowed and his heart sank.
“Brown?” She shook her head. “My Grandma is Abby Sinclair.”
“Sinclair? Is she here?”
“Who’s that at the door Savannah?” A woman called from the other room.
Gary’s eyes welled with tears. He knew that voice.
“Tell her it’s Gary.” He could hear his old ticker pounding in his ears and added, “Tell her sorry it took so long.”
The girl looked at him like he was insane and closed the door. He could hear her footsteps as she walked away, and he leaned on his cane, waiting. Would she see him or would she send him away?
God, just hearing her voice again tore him up.
He’d loved his wife. They’d been together for nearly forty years before she passed away, but he had never been swept away by just the sound of her voice. She was a wonderful woman, and their love was a solid foundation in his life, but it had never been all-consuming or passionate.
Until now, hearing Abby’s voice again, he’d never recognized the distinction. She awakened the part of his soul that existed only for her.
When the door opened again, the young woman stepped out onto the porch with him. She stared at him for a moment and then took his hand in both of hers.
“I don’t know who you are, but Grandma Abigail seems to. She wants me to bring you out back. She’s on her favorite porch swing.”
His heart skipped a beat, which would normally worry him, but now, he hardly noticed. Gary nodded and let the young woman help him inside.
“Grandma’s nearly blind now, so after Grandpa passed away I moved in to help her.”
“Your Grandma is an amazing lady.”
She nodded and gave him a stern look as she walked him through the house. “You bet she is. You be good to her, Mister.”
He gave her hand a squeeze and stepped through the back door.
There was Abby. Her silver hair swept up into a bun, with wisps of loose hair falling down to frame her face. She turned at the sound and smiled.
He could hardly breathe. Pinned to the collar of her blouse was the rose he gave her decades ago.
“It’s about time, Gary.”
“I’m sorry I’m late.”
He made his way to the porch swing and carefully sat down beside her. She brought a hand up to his face, tracing the edge of his jaw, before she slapped him.
“You broke my heart, Gary.”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t come back.”
He lifted her hand up to his right side, tracing his scars and finally up to his right ear, or what was left of it.
A tear rolled down her cheek. “I wouldn’t have cared.”
“I was a coward, Abby. I wanted you to remember me like I was.”
“I loved who was in here.” She pressed her hand to his chest. “I didn’t care about the package you came in.”
He nodded, clearing the emotion blocking his throat. “I’m so sorry I hurt you. You were the last person in the world I wanted to hurt. I thought you could do much better than a deformed soldier.”
“Bah.” She waved her hand in the air. “Why are you here, Gary?”
He took the forgotten Valentine out of his pocket and placed it in her hand. “Because I found this card, and I figured it was time to see if I could find the girl who promised me her heart.”
She smiled again, and in spite of the wrinkles, she looked like an angel. “My heart has always been yours.”
She slid her hand inside his and their fingers entwined like they’d never parted. He placed his other hand over hers and whispered, “I’ve missed you Abby.”
And for the first time in over fifty years, Gary and Abby kissed.
“Welcome home,” she whispered.
Gary embraced her and closed his eyes. His life was finally complete.
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