It had started in a bookstore, over a pile of half-price books, many of which had seen better days. We both had reached for the same dog-eared book at the same time only to find us each having one side of it. Our eyes met; we sized up one another's determination to have what we each held, then grinned sheepishly at one another.
"I had it first--spotted it first, so please let me have it!" I had told him as he stood there still grasping his part of the book. "I've been looking for this particular book for, geez, a few years!"
"I don't give things up easily," he had replied as he pulled the book towards him, making me tumble forward into the bin while losing my grip on the book. "Sorry about that," he had added as a strong hand clasped me about the arm and righted me onto my feet again. "You alright?"
I saw the concerned glint in his eyes before I slid my eyes to the prize he held. "My book!" I said emphatically as I pointed to it. "Give it back!"
A soft, short laugh answered me. "I say we have a cup of coffee and discuss just whose it is, shall we?" His eyes twinkled mischievously as his eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch while he waited for my answer.
And I had answered, "Yes."
These days though, contact between us had become few and far between. Occasionally, I get a call in the middle of the night. "You alright?" he always asks. He has an uncanny ability to know just when I'm in trouble, almost as if he can read my mind.
Maybe he can. I can't explain it but he always knows what has been happening in my life. As my children were born and started to grow, there would be times he would show up out of the blue at the playground, just to watch them and to talk with me. Or a phone call when things were really hard and almost too painful to live through.
And so it's at the playground again, where I am sitting now watching my kids play, enjoying the sunshine, and waiting until it is time to go home once more.
A soft, familiar voice whispers behind me, "You alright?" making me startle at the sound of it. The shadow that spills upon the ground is one I have known before; I hurl myself around to face my inquisitor.
"Connor!" I squeal in all surprise and delight. "What are you doing here?" I look at him, noticing the wind-tousled hair, the inevitable tee, faded blue jeans and white Nikes. Jumping up, I hurl myself at him into his arms and squeeze him as hard as I can. "Oh, Connor!"
He hugs me hard in return for a very long time, it seems until all we can do is break away to stare at one another before hugging one another once more. "Miss me?"
I can only nod my head yes. "It's been so long!"
He shrugs while glancing over the playground, watching the children play. "They're here?" he asks as he sweeps his eyes once more over the children before pointing at one child sitting in the sandbox. "Is that--?"
"Yes. And the other one is--" My eyes glance over the crowd of children all huddled about the swingset. "There!" I gleefully point at one of them. "That's him!"
A low whistle of surprise slips from his lips. "He's gotten so big--so has the little guy!"
With pride, I nod then grasp his hand as I lead him to the park bench. "Sit, talk to me!" I order him and wait until he complies before I follow suit.
And so we talk as if we had never stopped the last conversation we had had, a very long time ago. He tells me of his travels, of what he has seen and how things have changed for either the better or worse. He is not an eloquent speaker; indeed, he is fraught with long pauses as well as long silences but I don't care. "He's here, he's really here, but most of all, he is alive!," I silently tell myself over and over. Considering the life he leads, it means that at least for now, mankind is in good hands. Such good hands that even the best of all mankind doesn't know about him. As I well know, that is what he prefers and fights for.
He stops talking, glancing off into the distance before peering at his watch. He shrugs then grins at some of the children's antics as he watches them play. "You have something to tell me."
How does he know that? I am always astounded by him--he constantly amazes me---it's eerie in a way, but when asks how he does it, he leans over and softly whispers one word into my ear.
I squirm as he sits patiently waiting to hear what I have to say. His eyes seem to be able to see through you and deep into your soul--when he looks at you, he can either make you wish you were somewhere, anywhere else or make you warm instantly. Gathering up my courage, I tell him that which I have kept a secret for a long time.
"Connor?" I begin to say, stumbling upon my words. He patiently waits until I have gathered my composure again. "I want to say thank you."
He frowns. "Thank you? For what?" His face still holds his cocked, ready to fire grin aimed directly at me.
Brushing my hair out of my face I look at him, mentally shaking my head at what is before my eyes. "You haven’t changed a bit!" I exclaim as I run my fingers up and down his arm, kneading at the hidden strength underneath the flesh. "Not a bit!" I search his face with my eyes and lopsidedly grin at him. "I’m jealous!"
"Did you want to see me just so I could become a beauty queen contestant in your eyes?" he asks, with a bit of a bite to the words. Reaching up, he plucks at the strands of my hair. "You’ve gotten gray—has it been so long?" He frowns for a moment before looking down at the ground as he contemplates how long it has been since we had seen one another. Kicking a small pebble away from his feet, he softly remarks, "Maybe it has…" We both become silent as we think of past times together, both of us almost in simpatico with the other. After a few minutes of silence, his blue eyes slide sideways to look at me. Softly, he tells me, "I’ve missed seeing you and your children too."
I clear my throat and shrug, not saying a word to acknowledge his. There isn't a need to say anything. We both know what remains and always will remain unsaid between us. Breaking the silence, I say his name, only to have grin at me. His grin, since it doesn't often appear, never fails to render me speechless when he does it unexpectedly at me. I don’t know if I’m being teased or if I should be wary of what he might do from then on.
Merrily twinkling eyes widen for split second before he grabs my hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze as he does so. "So tell me. "
"What?" I ask him, suddenly confused, until I finally gather my wits and voice together again. I instinctively I scan over the children playing to see if they are still in sight and are safe. "Oh! Yes. Thank you," I tell him gratefully, hoping he will know what I am talking about.
He blinks then frowns in consternation. "Thank you? For what, for God’s sake?"
Oh drat--he hasn't a clue! "For saving my life and for teaching me a valuable lesson."
He shakes his head and frowns. "I never saved your life." He stands, stretched his arms above his head, showing off how lean he really is.
"You did, but you don’t know it." I tell him emphatically while admiring the view. "I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you."
A burst of laughter flies from him at my words. "Bullshit. Yes, you would. You’re a strong woman." He settles down upon the bench again as he watches me carefully to see if he can judge where this conversation was leading.
I wasn’t—not always. And he knows that.
"What lesson did I ever teach you that you have to thank me for?" he asks as he grabs my hand again and begins to wiggle my fingers, one by one. His face reflects a dispassionate interest, but it doesn’t fool me a bit. I know he is listening intently to everything I have to say.
"You taught me how to hide my heart, my dreams, everything I hold precious and dear in a deep space within me where no matter the pain I was going through or the circumstances, no one could ever touch them or make them go away."
"Ouch!" He hisses the word, sharply drawing in his breath at the same time, flinching at the words. Dropping my hand, he stands again, jamming his hands deep into his pockets and began to pace. "Not necessarily a lesson I would want to teach anyone," He speaks in a voice that seems old-far older than what his appearance is. Hesitating for a moment he replies softly, "I never meant—"
"But it was a good lesson for me to learn at the time, Connor!" I interrupt him, hoping that he can see what I was saying from my point of view. "If I had never met you, there wouldn’t be who I am, and what makes me, well…me!" I hold my hands out to him in entreaty. "If I had continued in the way that I had been I might be dead today. And you wouldn’t be here, on this day, at this playground, watching the newest generation becoming mankind’s hope for the future!"
He turns at the words to face me, almost confrontational in his stance. I think as I look at him about the words he once told me someone had told him long ago: "There are generations, born and dying…" His eyes darken; his voice lowers. "I never once came to help you when you needed it most—when you were beaten so black and blue that you wouldn’t step foot outside your door because you were afraid that someone might find out what was happening behind closed doors." A hand brusquely flies through the air with fist clenched. "I knew then but I didn’t do anything."
"Because I told you not to," I softly reply as I think back to the one time he came to my door. He had knocked; I was too afraid to answer it. Too afraid, too sore and too stiff to move from the beating I had gotten just hours before from my husband. Despite my reluctance to answer the door, the knocking continued, insistent that the door be answered.
When I finally reached the door and opened it, my shock at seeing him was too much for me to contend with. I fainted. A short time later when I awoke, I found myself being rocked as if I was a small child in the large rocking chair, cradled gently in his arms. He was softly humming something I couldn’t identify. It was soothing as was his finely boned hand gently pushing my head down upon his shoulder. When I tried to raise it, he bent his head down and whispered into my hair, "Sleep. I’ll watch." His voice, with its odd cantering accent, seemed to rumble through his chest and echo in the destroyed room. "Shhh," he had crooned at me as his hand stroked at my hair. "You’re safe."
I blink rapidly to hold the tears back which threaten to spill down my cheeks at the memory. "Connor-" I hold out my hand to him. "Sit."
He ignores me as he sometimes does. He watches those around him before finally asking, "Do you ever think you’ll get married again?"
I counter him as he tries to change the subject. "Do you?" My eyes raise to his in challenge.
A small bouncing ball smacks into his feet. With a swift gliding motion, he sweeps it into the air, juggling it between his hands absently as he considers the question.
"Mister, can I have my ball back?" a small feminine voice asks him.
Gentleness stills his features as he kneels down to speak to the little girl whose ball he has. Quietly, he shows her the ball. "Are you sure this is your ball?" When she nods vigorously, he asks as he looks the ball over with an impish grin on his face. "I don’t see any name on it. How do I know it's yours?"
"Because it is!"
"Oh, I see." Holding out the ball with one hand, he brushes some of her hair away from her face that has escaped from a barrette. "What’s your name?"
The girl snatches the ball from his hand and backs away from him so she can look at him. Tilting her head one way, then another she considers her answer. Her eyes light up as she tells him, "Heather!" as she spun away in the direction she had came from originally.
I watch him swallow hard, rapidly blinking at the name while watching the little Heather go back to the other side of the playground. He holds the position for a few moments more before slowly rising and coming back to sit silently beside me.
I clear my throat again as I answer him, "Never again will I marry. I’ll be forever alone and that is how I think I prefer it!" I cross my arms against my chest as if to reassure myself that my decision is right.
He leans over to whisper softly into my ear. "Forever is a very long time to be alone. Remember that; think about it." Pulling back upright, he looks seriously at me. "Everyone needs someone to love them."
"Even you?" I ask as I glance off in the distance, trying to mask the lump in my throat at his words.
Shrugging as if it doesn’t matter, he answers, "Perhaps, even me."
"Sentimentalist!" I chide him with a big grin on my face.
Pursing his lips, he shakes his head "no." "You must have me mixed up with someone else. Have you been talking to that librarian again?"
"Which one?" I ask him, now utterly confused once more as to exactly what he is talking about.
"You know, the one who fills your head up with all those romantic poems and books."
I straighten up, indignant at his words. "I happen to like that kind of thing!"
"I thought you had better taste than that," he answers in a disappointed tone of voice. As his eyes trail off to the playground again, he suddenly jumps up then races off to where the gaggle of boys are still huddled, leaving me behind with my mouth agape.
How. Dare. He!
I watch as he scoops my youngest up from the sandbox and throws him into the air, making my child giggle and shriek in delight. Time and time he is thrown up and deftly caught on the way down. My son loves every minute of it, and, judging from the delighted glow on my old friend's face, he does too.
I can't help but smile at their antics as my indignation melts away at the sight of them together. He must have been a great father to his kids, I find myself thinking absently as I watch him finally put my son back down before turning his attention to my older boy.
In a matter of moments, Connor has all the children lined up ready to do something. In his voice, I hear, "One!" which drifts to my ears through the air. A moment later I hear, "Two!"
In chorus, all the children scream, "THREE!" as they all take off in a foot race across the open green with Connor racing right with them, exhorting them to go faster, farther, to beat him if they can. Again and again, they race across the grass, sometimes all together, sometimes by twos until finally all tumble down to giggle and rest after all their efforts.
Giggling along with them, I shake my head. For such an old man, Connor gets around quite well.
If only I could say the same, I sigh to myself enviously.
Disengaging himself from the children, he makes his way towards me, wiping at the sheen of sweat on his forehead with one arm, chuckling and shaking his head. As his eyes catch mine, he shouts, "They're great, aren't they!"
I nod as a wide smile splits my face. "When are you going to grow up?" I look at him then realize he doesn't have his jacket. "Where's your jacket?"
He winks as he falls down beside me on the bench. "When the time calls for it." Patting himself down, he raises his hands. "You know, children can be such curious creatures." He slowly smiles as he looks directly at me then tells me, "First rule of parenting: Never leave sharp objects where they can be found." Not waiting for my answer, he glances again at his watch then back at me as he pulls his wallet out from his pocket and begins to thumb through it, in search of something.
Finally, he withdraws a business card with a phone number on it. "Call this man. I've made arrangements for you. Keep this card safe-you may need it someday." His breathing has already returned to normal, unlike some, who would otherwise be still huffing and puffing from exertion.
I read the card, and look at him, instantly concerned. "You all right, Connor?" I ask him as I silently read the name of the attorney listed on the card again.
He turns his face away and doesn't answer. Finally, after a long silence, he pulls a small, rectangular-shaped object from his back pocket. "Read any good books lately?" he flippantly asks me as he stands once more to toss it upon my lap. Leaning down to trail his fingers gently across my face and jaw, he softly tells me, "I have to go--I have an appointment I have to keep."
He pauses then motions at the bundle in my lap. "You can open it if you like-but wait until I'm gone." A gentle smile crosses his lips once more before he turns to go.
I watch him until he is out of sight then begin to pull at the wrapping of the object he had just given me. It tears easily, revealing a tattered book that had seen better days. I flip open the book only to find an inscription in my old friend's elegant handwriting and read the inscription:
I believe this belongs to you. -CMcL
I flip back to the cover and run my hands over it before beginning to laugh as I read and re-read its' title: "'Do Immortals Walk Among Us?'"
Oh, yes, I tell the author silently. Oh, yes!