by Linda Reid
A Second Chance is an original mystery short story by Southern California mystery/SciFi/fantasy author Linda Reid. This is the first time it has ever been published.
The dreams blanketed Helen with increasing frequency. Aunt Mollie was one of the first, then Bella, then Olga, one by one in the order of their death. When the welcoming arms reaching out of the brightly lit doorway became her mother’s, Helen struggled to turn away, waking up shivering in the darkness of the bedroom she had once shared with her beloved husband.
Fifty-eight years of marriage had blended into one resplendent day. Helen’s appetite stirred: she could almost taste the crisp barbecued corn, juicy stuffed peppers, and sweet, smooth freshly-melted chocolate ice cream. And no mosquitoes. A perfect half-century. The six months of her husband’s illness had washed away all but the happiest memories of their life together. Helen strained to sit up on her lumpy mattress. If only the welcoming arms in her dream had been his.
Dressing took almost an hour. Helen chuckled to herself. That was the real secret to retirement-the tasks of work would be replaced by the tasks of living, tasks that used to require as little thought as breathing, and now required as much effort as trying to achieve a deep inspiration-without the confidence of complete success. She wondered if heaven would soon give her back another gift besides her loved ones: youth.
After her breakfast of green tea and strawberry yogurt—with “added fiber”, Helen set off for her morning walk. There was a bench in Palisades Park halfway between her apartment and the senior citizens’ center that gave her an excellent view of the sunrise. She would hang her cane on the back of the slats and, once seated, push off a shoe and run her toes through the soft grass under her feet. She’d managed running well into her 60s, but, like climbing, hiking, riding a bicycle, and walking up and down steps, the feel of the wind through her hair was now only a memory. Necessary losses. Unconsciously, she ran her fingers through her thinned gray tresses and smiled.
The first rays of dawn were creeping over the Pacific as she reached “her” bench this crisp morning. Approaching from the back, Helen started as she saw a tattered quilt covering a grizzled man supine as he slept on the unforgiving wood. Rare for them to be this far up the Park, she muttered, calling him by the term “hobo” with which she had grown up. The homeless shelter was at least a mile down the road, and breakfast was probably already on the grill.
Helen resisted the temptation to rap the man’s feet with her stick. She’d never been afraid of anyone until her strength had waned. She would not yield her freedom to the ravages of age, but freedom didn’t justify foolishness. Mental illness deserved a wide berth.
The gruff voice came from behind her, from her bench. Helen turned to see her ‘squatter’s’ face peeking over its back slats, proffering a yellow-toothed smile.
“Overslept. It’s your bench now,” the man continued, as he gathered the tattered quilt and staggered up from his berth. His open palm invited her to sit.
Helen looked at her feet and smiled. “Thank you.” His pungent scent pierced her weary nostrils and she lowered herself onto one end of the bench, her gaze focused before her on an ocean of tall grass gently waving in the dawn breeze. “I’m Helen,” she added, not expecting a reply.
* * *
He’d dropped out of high school to help support his family by working in the fields. He’d hoped to become a doctor, but military service had sidetracked him from so many of his ambitions. His muscled arms were a testament to his sacrifice, Helen admitted, not daring to imagine them wrapped comfortably around her waist and shoulders. For her, love was no longer a possibility, not even a dream.
“When did you lose him?” His deep voice was gentle. How did he know?
“I’m all right” was her response. “I’m not the first or the last.” Cry-babies had no dignity.
His arresting eyes met her gaze. “You deserve better.”
Helen felt a shiver race up her spine. How could he know?
* * *
It feels like there’s a literal spring in my feet, Helen thought, as she prepared for her morning rendez-vous. She shook her head and chuckled, chiding herself for those months of thinking that the door to happiness had been permanently locked. Dawn came later and later each morning as November neared, but Helen still awoke well before the sun, eager to make her way towards the assignation that had re-lit the fire in her heart.
He was there, at the bench, waiting for her every day. The ocean breeze had grown crisper, but, nestled against his chest, Helen only felt sheltered, injected with strength and courage to face another day. They had talked about everything these past few weeks, about the past and the loves each still mourned, and, to Helen’s amazement, about their nascent future. A future unforetold by her daydreams and her nightmares.
He extended his sturdy hand to clasp hers and guide her gently down onto the splintered wood. She lowered her torso slowly, scanning his face and taking in the affection clearly displayed in his azure eyes with a childlike wonder.
I love you, too, she returned without saying a word.
* * *
Helen wrapped a shawl tighter around her shoulders. It was the first day of winter, and the journey towards her soul’s home was bitterly cold. How does he brave this weather in only a shirt, she marveled, wending her way to their tete-a-tete as quickly as she could. As she neared the bench, she couldn’t help but notice him trembling on this chilly morning. He doesn’t need to be strong for me, she resolved to let him know. Thanks to him, I’m back.
Helen slipped the shawl off her shoulders as they sat down together. She gently placed it across his thick neck and over his goose-pimpled biceps, before cuddling by his side.
“I have something to tell you,” he began, his voice cracking.
Helen felt the shiver bathe her body once again. “Yes, Rich?” She squeezed his hand, unwilling to let go.
His words were few, only the ones needed. “Helen, will you marry me?”
Her world exploded with a resounding joy as she fell into his arms.
* * *
After a moment of hesitation, the officer pulled back the sheet to reveal the woman’s tranquil features. The man gripped the gray hair adorning his temples and gasped, “Yes, that’s her,” before turning away to hide unwelcome tears.
His next words were only a whisper. “We tried to put her in a home. She wouldn’t budge. We tried…”
“Can I go now?” the homeless man whined. “I told you, I didn’t see nothin’ different today.”
The officer flipped the pages on his pad, stopping to skim his scribbled notes. “Okay. Charles Johnson. ‘Between San Vicente and Wilshire.’ ‘Comes every morning at 6, sits on that bench, talks to herself.’ ‘Mental.’” He frowned at the unkempt man, tried to ignore the scent of sweat and alcohol. “You sure you never talked to her, Charlie?”
“Charles, man, don’t nobody get it right? I even told her, but she still called me rich.” Gathering his stained and torn quilt from the base of the tree and tossing it into the rusty cart, he snorted. “Rich. Yeah, I’m f***ing Bill Gates. Mental.”
A hoarse voice sounded behind the officer’s shoulder. “My father’s name was Richard.”
The policeman spun around to face the woman’s son, whose eyes were glistening, and jotted the question on his notepad. Tears…or twinkles?