A college-age female in a pink sweat suit passed by Grant Decker as he hobbled along the path; if he hadn’t needed his cane he would have swatted her with it. He knew he was being irrational, but that still didn’t take away the irritation at being passed by a woman, even if she was – what, fifty years his junior? Why in his day he’d,… he’d… There were so many things he could have done back then, but hadn’t. Too late for regrets now.
He was feeling winded already, and grateful that the benches were positioned just far enough apart to make the trip a challenge for him.
He sat down to catch his breath and admire the view. One of the things he liked about living with his daughter Jenny was how her house butted up against the park; it reminded him of the woods in their old neighborhood. He especially enjoyed walking in the fall, when the leaves were turning, and the colors were not only on the trees, but on the ground as well. His wife Mary used to adore the leaves, would gather them up into bouquets as they walked back home. God, how he missed her.
“She’ll be out here any minute,” a voice said.
It sounded like his own voice, but he had heard that voice often enough lately that Grant knew it wasn’t his. He looked around, partly to see if someone was fooling with him, but mostly to make sure there wasn’t anyone to see him making a fool of himself before he answered. It wouldn’t be good to be seen talking to himself in public, especially at his age.
“Don’t be absurd,” he answered. “Mary died three years ago, tomorrow.”
“What? Don’t think things like that,” the voice said. “She told me she’d be out here after she finished talking with Jenny on the phone.”
“If Mary was still here she wouldn’t need the phone,” Grant said. “Jenny was in the kitchen last I saw.”
“No, she won’t come for her visit until next week,” the voice said. “Ahhh, here comes Mary now.”
“Where?” Grant asked, looking back down the path toward Jenny’s house. Then he looked up the path the other way, where the pink jogger had disappeared. There was someone coming his way, but his eyes were blurring and all he could make out was a smudge of bright blue. He rubbed his eyes and stared at his wife, holding a spray of maple leaves and smiling as she sat on the bench next to him.
“It’s all set,” she said as she leaned into him. “Timothy will be coming with them for Thanksgiving.”
“He got leave after all?” Grant asked. “They don’t let you go just like that.”
“You talk like he’s in the navy already,” Mary said.
“Well he should be,” Grant said. “Our grandson needs to learn to make a decision and stick with it.”
“Not until he graduates next year,” she said, and patted his hand. “You can’t keep anything straight. Sometimes I worry about you.”
Mary always worried about him. She meant it in the nicest way, but the fact was he was more and more worried about himself. Just moments ago he thought he’d been hearing voices, and that Mary was dead. But here she was, and he knew there was no point talking to her about it – he didn’t want to upset her.
“Aren’t these pretty,” she said, spreading her maple leaves in front of her face like an Asian fan.
“Not as pretty as you.”
“You old flatterer!” she laughed, and batted her green eyes at him over the tops of the leaves. Those eyes were the first thing he’d noticed when he saw her in the cafeteria at college. Even now they made his heart flutter.
Mary stood up and tugged on his hand. “Come along, Mr. Decker. We need to get the house ready.”
Grant stood and held Mary’s hand in his left as they walked up the trail and back toward their house. He squeezed her hand every so often, and she reassured him by squeezing right back.
I don’t know what I’ll do if I ever lose you, he thought, and then he lost his grip as that infernal pink jogger rushed by and knocked his hand aside. There was a moment of uncertainty where Grant rocked forward and back on his feet trying to keep his balance, before gravity took over. He fell down on the indignity of his butt with a loud “Hey!” before he flopped onto his back. He lay there staring up at the sky through a gap in the maples until the girl in pink blocked his view.
“Sorry, Gramps, I didn’t expect you to swing your arm out like that,” she said, crouching above him. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “Where’s my wife?”
Grant strained to push himself off the ground, but couldn’t quite manage it on his own, so he let the girl help drag him to his feet.
“Mary!” he shouted as he staggered in a circle. “Mary!”
“What caused it?” Jenny asked. “Did he hit his head when he fell?”
Grant lay on the bed in the emergency room, feeling more foolish and useless than ever as he listened to her talk with her doctor about his condition. What hospital was this, anyway?
“No, there are no signs of concussion,” Dr. Grayson said. “Did either of his parents have memory problems?”
“Grandpa Joe died when I was twelve,” Jenny said. “I think he was having trouble remembering who we were there at the end.”
“Of course, I would need to run some tests to be certain, but it could be a form of dementia,” Dr. Grayson said. “Maybe Alzheimer’s.”
There’s nothing wrong with my mind, Grant thought. He hated it when they talked like he wasn’t there. Dr. Grayson wasn’t even looking at him. Dr. Meyers would have never done that.
“Why aren’t we talking to Dr. Meyers?” the voice asked. “He’s closer to my age than this kid.”
Dr. Grayson and Jenny turned toward Grant, and he realized he had spoken out loud.
“Daddy, be nice,” she said. “Dr. Grayson is a good doctor – he’s just trying to help.”
“That’s all right, Jenny,” Dr. Grayson said. “It’s perfectly natural that he wishes he had his old doctor.”
“He is my doctor,” Grant said.
“Daddy, Dr. Grayson has been your doctor ever since you moved in with me.”
“Why would I move in with you? Your mother and I have our own place.”
“Mom…” Jenny started, but she stopped when Dr. Grayson shook his head.
…is dead, Grant thought.
“No, she’s not,” the voice said. “We were just out walking…”
“Who’s saying that?”
“Saying what, Mr. Decker?” Dr. Grayson asked.
“What am I doing in this hospital bed? I was just in the park.”
“Where’s Mary?” Grant asked.
“She must have gone back to the house. Why isn’t she here?”
“Stop confusing me!” Grant shouted.
“I’m going to give him something to calm him,” Dr. Grayson said.
Grant was sitting at Jenny’s backyard patio table, eating his toast. He could feel her watching him from the kitchen window. He hated being cooped up in the house, but since he’d lost it in the park, and then at the hospital, this was the most outside she would allow him. At least her husband wasn’t sitting out here with him today; Mark was okay and all, but right now it would just be too many jailers.
“So I’m – we’re not losing our mind?” Grant whispered, “It’s not dementia?”
“More like dimensions,” Grant 2 said. “Or timelines. There are so many decisions we make throughout our lives. We spin-off more and more instances of ourselves at every fork in the road.”
“But if our others have been there all along, why weren’t we aware of them until now?”
“Let’s face it – we’re all getting pretty close to the end – we can only live so long, and more and more of us are finishing up. Maybe those of us who are still alive are losing our hold on our present and our own bodies as we all come back together.”
“Isn’t that supposed to wait until we die? Because I don’t feel anywhere near that yet.”
“I know, but our bodies are failing. Different processes we used to be able to count on don’t hold things together like they used to. Maybe whatever keeps our soul attached is failing, too.”
“So how are we able to talk to ourselves?”
“The way I figure it, you and I don’t have that much separating us. We’re the same age, and aside from the fact that your Mary died, there’s surprisingly little different in your timeline. So it’s easier for us to connect. It seems like it’s the same deal between me and a couple of the others.”
“How many of us are there?”
“Millions, I guess, maybe all the way up to infinity, but that doesn’t matter,” Grant 2 said. “I’m dealing with only three or four right now, and that’s hard enough not to get lost in.”
“But I only have you.”
“And I only had you at first – the others started later. Maybe you’re at the far end of some continuum of us, and I’m connected to more instances because I’m closer to the middle. Or maybe it means my body is closer to the end and my barriers are breaking apart sooner.”
“Well, whatever it is, Jenny needs to know. I can’t have her cooping me up here just because she thinks I’m crazy.”
“Don’t go and tell her what we’ve figured out,” Grant 2 said. “If you don’t want her to think you’re crazy, you’re going to have to pretend that you’re not.”
“Pretend? There’s nothing to pretend,” Grant said out loud.
“Are you okay out there, Daddy?” Jenny called from the window.
“Fine. Just fine,” Grant called back, then muttered under his breath. “I’m not pretending.”
“You’ll get the hang of it.”
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Mary asked.
“I don’t need you backseat driving me. I know exactly where we are,” Grant said. He continued driving their old Lincoln down the interstate and wondered why he didn’t recognize the terrain. They should have taken this trip when they were both much younger.
“There’s a gas station,” she said, and pointed up ahead at the Texaco. “I have to use the necessary room. And you can ask directions while I’m in there.”
“I don’t need to ask directions,” he grumbled as he parked.
“Of course you don’t,” she said, and petted the back of his hand. “I might be a while.”
Grant watched her disappear beyond the RESTROOMS sign at the corner of the building before he got out of the car and wandered into the store. He needed to buy something so he would have an excuse to approach the station attendant. He settled on a Snickers bar; Mary wouldn’t give him a hard time if he came back with her favorite.
He waited in line behind a couple of scruffy skateboarders, all of fourteen years, and tattoos, and pants falling off their butts. He watched them leave the store and wondered what on earth was wrong with their parents, letting them look that way…
The young girl behind the counter snapped her chewing gum and interrupted his thoughts. “You want anything besides that candy bar, mister?”
“Uh, yes, this highway out here,” Grant said, pointing out the window and trying to gather his words. “If I keep following it where will I…?”
“Dallas,” she said as she pressed keys on the register.
Dallas? Why am I driving to Dallas? he thought. He tried to remember how the trip started, and had an odd image of car keys left on the counter in Jenny’s kitchen. Now why would I…
“That’s a dollar-seventy-five,” she said, holding her hand out. “Is something wrong with you?”
“I’m fine,” Grant said. He dug two dollars on the counter and took the Snickers back out to the car to wait for Mary.
He sat there for what felt like forever, trying to ignore the clerk’s stares. What was wrong with her, anyway? You would think she had never seen old people before. He couldn’t wait until Mary came back so they could leave.
At dusk, a Smith County Sheriff’s car parked alongside Grant’s Lincoln. The officer stepped into the store, spoke briefly with the girl, and then came back outside and took note of the Lincoln’s plates, then made a call on his walkie. He motioned with his finger for Grant to roll his window down.
“Is there a problem, officer?”
“Are you Grant Decker of Hot Springs?”
“There’s a missing persons report on you. I need you to come to the station to wait for your family.”
“But my wife and I are just heading to… heading to…”
Grant’s skin and jumpsuit flapped as he broke through the cloud’s droplets. The air chilled him, but his heart was pounding so hard he was sweating. He pulled the ripcord and was jerked upward as the chute opened above him, and then resumed a slower descent. Grant stared down as he floated toward the grid work of fields and farm roads.
“I never had the nerve to try this,” he smiled.
“Try what, Daddy?” he heard Jenny ask, but then how could he? She wasn’t up here with him.
“It doesn’t matter,” Grant 8 said. “You won’t miss anything; none of us does. We get to live it all.”
“Can’t you see, he’s not here,” Mark said. “At least he’s happy.”
“He’s not your father,” Jenny said. She sounded like she might cry.
Grant remembered that he wasn’t really sky-diving. He was sitting in his recliner in the corner of Jenny’s living room. Mark was sitting on the sofa in front of him, reading from his iPad, while Jenny leaned toward Grant against the arm of the sofa, concern etched on her face.
“Glad you’re back,” Grant 17 said. “Better tell her not to worry.”
“If you’re not careful, your face is going to freeze like that,” Grant smiled.
Jenny’s face relaxed into a sad grin in reaction to the nostalgic phrase from her childhood.
“Daddy, I just wish you wouldn’t go away like that.”
“I have to, Jenny,” Grant said. “I have so much more to see.”
Grant shared 33’s agony; it chewed into his depths, like the cancer had actual teeth to crack every bone and suck out the marrow. He wanted to clench his jaw, but he knew that would only make it worse. All he dared do was squeeze his eyes closed against the searing pain as Old Dr. Meyers checked his pulse.
“Please, can’t you give him something?” Mary asked.
Dr. Meyers pushed a needle into the IV line, and Grant felt the blessed, numbing warmth as the morphine flowed into Grant 33 and the tension eased.
“How much time do you think he has left?” Mary whispered.
“Sometime tonight,” Dr. Meyers said. “You should call the family together.”
Grant’s eyes were closed, but his ears weren’t; lately they didn’t seem to consider that.
They left Grant alone in the room with Grant 33’s thoughts.
“Tonight? We’ll see about that.”
Not that Grant 33 minded them talking about his imminent demise. He knew he was dying. He’d been stuck in the rented hospital bed in his room for the last two weeks, once the pain of the catheter had replaced the pain of trying to reach the toilet on his brittle, old bones.
“Sometimes I think it would be better if they would just let me fall to my death, rather lying here waiting for it,” Grant 33 said.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Grant said. “The trek to the bathroom is a far cry from Mount McKinley.”
“Still a lot further than either of us can manage, now,” Grant 33 said.
“At least you have Mary to help you,” Grant said. “It’s so much harder without her.”
“Don’t we know it,” Grant 33 grimaced. “This isn’t going to be easy – You can check out any time you need to.”
“I’m staying to help you through this,” Grant said. “I wouldn’t want to miss a thing.”
Grant’s focus reasserted itself from near the summit of Mount McKinley and back to the hospital bed Jenny had rented. His own bed was more comfortable, but he understood that the hospital bed made it easier for Jenny and Mark to take care of him when he couldn’t take care of himself, so he didn’t complain.
Tim was sitting next to the bed in the padded armchair Grant had brought with him when he moved in.
“I just don’t know what to do, Grandpa,” Tim said. “I wish I could talk to you.”
“Well, who do you think you’re talking to?” Grant said.
“I’m sorry. You come and go so much, it’s hard to get used to you not knowing who I am.”
“Don’t be ridiculous – I know who you are. I’m just not sure which you you are. I know you’re not the Timmy who died in a freak training accident, but I still don’t know if you’re one who went into the Navy, or one who didn’t after all.”
“That’s easy,” Tim said. “I’m the one who didn’t.”
“That’s easy for you to say. Even knowing that, things still run together. Which of those Timmies do I belong with? Is it my memory, or something from one of the other Grants?”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“Someday you’ll understand,” Grant said. “Now, what do you want to talk about?”
“They want to give me a promotion and send me to China,” Tim said. “I’ve been thinking of proposing to Laura. But if I go, I may lose her.”
“Tough choices,” Grant smiled. “It will be interesting to see what you decide.”
“But what should I do?”
“You have to live your life, Timmy. All I can tell you is you can’t do it all, at least not in this life. You pay your money and take your chances, and things work out.”
“Don’t you have any regrets?”
“I did,” Grant said, “but not so much, anymore.”
Grant saw Mary’s face appearing as if out of a mist.
“In the end, it all comes back together,” Grant said as Timothy and the room faded away. “You’re not going to miss anything.”
You can connect with William Mangieri, see the full list of his works, his writing blog, and links to his current promotions on his WordPress writing page at https://williammangieri.wordpress.com/Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in