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The Bench

A young man learns that life isn't always what we have planned, but what we are given

Any time of year in the south is normally hot, but the summer I turned eighteen, was as if Hades himself had come up from his depths and brought with him the skin scorching, water vaporizing torment to lay to waste on our little South Carolina town. I remember that summer with vivid detail as it was the summer my life would be drastically changed forever, and find a different course then what I’d mapped out for it as a kid. Fantasies of freedom from my parents and the town I’d grown up in continuously danced through my mind with every passing second, as I anticipated leaving for College.

The hour was late when I finally arrived, well past supper time. Mr. Cruthers home stood out as much as a lone black sheep in a crowd of white ones. If this were the Amazon, I would’ve feared I’d be lost forever. If the yard looked as such, there’s no telling what the house itself looked like, but given there was not a sliver of light radiating from anywhere on the property, I merely shivered at the thought of what ghosts or ghouls might jump out at me at any given time.

With a grunt, I climbed the cobbled stairs of the porch and lifted an unsteady hand in aim for the doorbell. Thanks, mom!

“Hey, son. I’ve been waiting for you.” A heavy weight landed on my shoulder.

“Huh?”

An illuminating glow blinded me as I was forcefully ushered inside his home, hearing a click sounding somewhere behind me. Once my vision adjusted, I noticed a mountain of a man standing right in front of me; old man Cruthers. His snowy scruff encapsulated his face top to bottom, with a lopsided nose and deep foamy green eyes exposed.

Digging my feet out of the quicksand they’d been lost in, my heart slowing; I traced his steps and entered a room with deep blue walls bleeding into a starry sky. He gracefully moved into the room and I watched as he approached the only piece of physical furniture and laid a soft hand on it.

There, growing from the floor was a bench. The bench was almost like an abstract painting, that held no angles; black ink on a page, flowing in circular motions with no end, divine, endless spires, encasing its story in its maw. It was so magical; I didn’t want to look away.

“What is this?” I asked in whispered tones, afraid I’d disturb time itself.

In a rush, he said, “Do you not remember when you painted this room for your sister, while she was away in Spain making her music? You had this replica bench made for her and put here, hoping she’d come home and see how willing you were to make up for things.”

Before I had a chance to respond, I was blanketed in the brightest black I’d ever seen; small pebbles running across my skin as bone music shrilled throughout the entirety of my body. Not knowing what to expect, panic gripped me like a shrink-wrapped cloak. Silence an eerie mystery, heightening the senses.

What had I gotten myself into? If I got out of this, my mom would be getting an earful for having volunteered me to help this old weirdo.

Once my vision adjusted, I found Mr. Cruthers seated on the bench, looking upward at the glowing stars. Without a stumble, I found my seat and followed his example.

I looked down in time to see his hand softly settle on the remains of a thick dark outline of something long since left to become one with the bench, a solitary letter; M.

“Your sister is so talented, and I’m so very proud of her.” Tracing his fingers over the M on the bench, as if it held a secret, he quietly continued. “Everywhere she plays, people dance. I always enjoy sitting and watching the spectacle it creates in the evening when there’s not much more than the starlight casting it’s light on her as she plays. She is coming home soon for a visit from Valencia.” addressing me as though he was talking to his son.

The conversation I’d had with my mother about Mr. Cruthers earlier that day, came to mind. Growing up, my mother would torture us five boys by forcing us into community service. Normally, we’d all argue our reasons why we were putting our foot down, and beat our fists against our chests as to why we refused to do her bidding.

That summer, however, I humbly seceded, exhausted from the constant battle against my mother.

“If it will make you happy mom, I’ll do it.”

“That’s wonderful of you,” She smiled, “I should tell you that Mr. Cruthers has dementia.” She turned to the sink.

Us boys had learned long ago; our mother wasn’t clever at concealing her emotions. When I looked at her though, I saw a reflection of myself, bright blonde hair, sparkling sapphire eyes and diamond shaped face; the only differences were my tall lean frame, which I inherited from my father.

“I don’t even know the man. Why would it matter to me if he has dementia?” I quipped.

Placing the dish towel down, she turned around carefully, no doubt giving her time to think about her words. “He refuses to be seen by anyone other than a few people from church, or my office. He could use the help, you know, if anything… just someone to talk to.”

“So, you want me to babysit an old man?”

“Yes,” my mother said firmly

“Great, I guess I’m Oldman-sitting then?” uncrossing my legs and re-crossing them again, I did not dare look at her, I knew she’d be looking at me with a frown.

“Do you really have to say it like that?” she sighed, “Look, he shouldn’t give you any problems. Just visit with him and let him talk while you listen, okay! We have nurses scheduled to take care of pretty much everything else.”

Rubbing my temples and closing my eyes, I shrugged my shoulders, “Fine.”

“Good! Be there tonight after dinner," she said and started walking out of the kitchen.

“Tonight, really?” Bursting out before I could catch myself, “I have plans.”

“Reschedule.” I heard from the living-room. I swear I could hear her shaking her head as she moved through the house.

“That’s great sir, but I’m not your son…” turning my attention towards him, I thought I could see a confused glare coming from his careful eyes, but it was gone before my mind registered I’d seen it.

He shifted beside me then and I noticed him pulling a piece of paper from his pocket. “She left you this the last time I went to see her. She wanted you to have it. She thought it would help you understand what happened.” He passed me the paper, “I had always hoped that the two of you would settle your differences, maybe this will help that to happen,” then he refolded his arms over his chest and lay his head back upon the bench.

I fiddled with the paper, not knowing if I should open it or not, it felt like I was staring through a window I hadn’t been granted access to look through. A weight the size of the universe lay in my hand, clothed in sunburst yellow. Screw it!

I opened the paper with the skill of a surgeon to reveal a letter written with careful script along with a picture of a beautiful dark-haired girl with sea green eyes, possibly a bit older than me standing in front of a bench. In the background was an outdoor auditorium, packed full with people. The girl was holding a violin in one hand like a mother holds a child, head tilted a fraction, heart stopping smile etched on her face, wearing pride as if it were a halo. Along the bottom of the picture were the words, Maria, Spain 1989, Orchestra Concert, in the same script as the letter.

Holding my breath, I meticulously set the picture down on the bench to read the words begging my attention:

Cesar,

My sweet brother, if you’re reading this, then it means you’ve finally made accepted the decision I made. It had nothing to do with you, it was something I knew I had to do. I know it broke your heart for me to leave, after what you felt was a foolish ambition, but I had to take the chance. I had to do what made me happy. As kids, life was so simple, but you knew even then, that music captured my heart the way nothing else could.

Sweat began breaking out on my forehead, the Kentucky Derby raging inside my chest. This was not intended for me, yet it didn’t feel that way. I looked over to Mr. Cruthers, he hadn’t moved.

I think of you every day. Had I not followed my heart into that grey area, I never would’ve lived life to its fullest. I would not have embraced my reason for being and learned who I was before I left. Take care of Papa for me, he will need you there. If you learn one day that living in more than black and white is a good thing, it will be one of the greatest moves you could ever make for yourself. Sometimes the life we think we want for ourselves, is rarely the life that is best for us. Find who you are, I know you can.

M.

Swallowing hard, I felt as though what was up was down and vice versa. My brothers and I had bickered and fought, but never to the point that we’d go longer than a few days without speaking to one another.

Our mother, although she was a doctor, had done her best to teach us that family was all that any of us had and to appreciate that and one another. We all supported each other no matter how much we might disagree with what the other was doing.

This letter baffled me, but also gave me a glimpse into a much different sibling dynamic. The perspective was enlightening.

A door slammed shut and I jumped off the bench dropping both picture and letter.

“Mr. Cruthers, it’s me, I’m here to help you get ready for bed.” A blonde girl with short curly hair, came into the room wearing bright blue scrubs with a name tag that said, Hayley. She looked at me surprised, “Oh, I didn’t know he had company tonight. You would be?”

I walked towards her and said, “Clive,” a bit louder than I wanted to, extending my hand.

“Oh, okay. I remember Lucy saying something about you being here this evening, you’re her son, right?” She set her bag down on the floor just inside the room and shook my hand.

“That would be me. You’re from her office right… I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

“I just started last week, transferred from Greenville. Mr. Cruthers here is my first patient.” Smiling proudly she turned from me and walked over to Mr. Cruthers briskly. “How long has he been like this?” Eyeing him with wide eyes.

“Maybe twenty minutes. We were talking and he handed me these,” I bent down to retrieve the items I’d dropped, showcasing them for the nurse with shaking hands. I wet my lips, “he’s been sittin' there ever since.”

Kneeling in front of the old man, she placed a light hand on his knee and gave an easy shake. “Mr. Cruthers, it’s me, Hayley. I’m here to tend to you.”

There was no response, he didn’t even bat an eyelash or nod his head in acknowledgment. I held my breath as she repeated herself a couple more times, before shaking him a bit more aggressively. She looked at me, face ashen. “What time did you get here tonight?”

“9:30, why?”

“He was good all that time?”

“Yeah, he seemed fine.” My breath quickened and my heart beat wildly in my ears.

She placed a tremored hand to his neck, and waited before moving to his wrist.

My mouth was empty of saliva and my eyes burned. Going rigid, little hills rippled their way across my arms and back and I couldn’t fight the urge to swat them away.

With a sigh, she stood, leaving Mr. Cruthers where he was. “He is gone. I’m sorry.” Her eyes full of sympathy. “Is there anything you need before I call your mom?”

What could I say, I was an adult male. If I said I needed my mother how would that make me look? Sure, call my mommy for me cause I’ve never seen a dead body before. “No, I’ll be okay. Is there anything I can do though?”

She straightened herself and set her chin high, “Just stay put. Excuse me while I make a call.” She rushed to her bag, grabbed her phone, then left the room.

When she left the room, I placed my body weight against the wall opposite him, sliding down slowly, never taking my eyes from him, pulling my knees up to my chest as my rear end met the floor. In the short time it took for me to read the letter he’d given me, he’d closed his eyes and found a starry filled tranquility he’d never come back from.

Later that evening, while they carried the old man away, I’d asked Hayley about Maria and shown her the picture, she’d shrugged her shoulders and said that Mr. Cruthers didn’t have a Maria in his list of contacts for when he departed.

My life was irrevocably changed that moment forward. I went home and did some intense thinking about what I truly wanted. A few weeks later, I left for College and never looked back; my purpose set before me.

I always wondered if Mr. Cruthers knew what he was doing that night, if it was some plan of his or if he looked down from the twinkly nights that followed and had one good laugh.

Every summer since finishing college, I had visited Spain, committed to tracking down Maria, to tell her about her father. After twelve years, I still couldn’t find her, nor the place in the picture.

I was on the precipice of giving up before deciding to look one last time. Now as I stood in this park in Valencia, I considered my cause. I’d traveled all of Spain, optimistic that I would find Maria; I had to.

With a determined step, I went through the park, taking in every bench, blade of grass, tree, and cracks in the pavement. Stopping to take a sip of water and wipe the sweat from my brow, I closed my eyes to let the subtle breath of summer relax me. Silently, the swirls drifted from around me, urging me in the direction it chose for me.

When I opened my eyes, I saw a scene always and forever stained on my mind. All at once I broke out in chills as my heart skipped to a tune it never forgot. What I’d pictured this moment being, was a disillusion, a fantasy. My mind was feeble stricken as the sight before me sat on display before me. After all this time!

There before me, was the bench with the auditorium in the background, only now, beside the bench was a statue of a girl holding a violin an inscription written under her feet.

Maria Cruthers, 1990.

The likeness of the scene from the photo sent a tidal wave of joy and anticipation through me. With a swirling head, I sat on the bench, tracing my hands over the coolness of it and as I did, I felt a scar of something. Registering with my mind first, my eyes followed my fingers with careful calculation, spying what my fingers had touched.

To M. Love C.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright © 2018 by Vina Kent. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher or author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher or author, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below. vkent1022@gmail.com

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