The Old Man

He appeared out of nowhere.  Gray hair, shoulder length, pulled into a pony while wild, rebellious wisps waved in the breeze.  His wrinkled face, hardened by the years of life out here in the middle of the desert, crinkled into a smile as he approached my bench.  I'd been waiting for the bus and it was due in an hour.  He quietly sat down next to me, observed my luggage and asked, "Long trip?"  His voice was cracked and dry, gravelly.

                I nodded my head, pursing my chapped lips together.  He shifted to get fully under the eave of the building, hiding from the scorching sun.  Sweat glistened on his brow, and I could see the front of his button up, long sleeved shirt was plastered to his sweaty chest.  He looked tired, tired of life, maybe.  His eyes shone brightly though, like he still had life to live yet.

                He licked his lips and wiped at his brow.  "Where you going?"

                Though he didn't say anything, I could tell he was wondering where I was going without my parents here to see me off.  Where were my parents?  At home, probably, thinking that I'm off in the hills playing with Emily.  But I'm not and Emily is dead.  It seemed strange, that I didn't cry, that I didn't feel anything.  She died yesterday; her dad's stallion trampled her.  I'd only found out that evening, her brother came and told me.  He'd been a mess.  Weeping loudly, as if life itself had just come to an end.  Maybe for him it had, and it should have for me.  Perhaps, I just didn't realize it yet.  I tried to comfort Billy, but didn't know what to say.  What should I have said?  It's all right?  It didn't fit, Emily was dead, and it wasn't all right. 

I didn't tell my parents.  I sought comfort, and comfort was a million miles away, at least it seemed that way.  He'd always seemed to know me, even if we'd never met in person.  Only over the Internet did we communicate.  It was a deep connection, me living in my hick town out in the boonies and him living in a big city somewhere along the western coast.  Always, almost everyday, or whenever we chatted, he ended the conversation with: if you ever need me, you know where I live.  That comforted me.  I had someone to go to.  Someone who knew me better than anyone, well, with the exception of Emily, she gave me a peace, but Nat, he gave me a sense of hope.

                The old man regarded my silence with wise, gray eyes.  "You should cry, you know."  He smiled, slowly, sadly, with a bit of pity.  I didn't ask how he knew.  I nodded my head.  Yes, I should cry.  But how could I?  It didn't seem right – no, it did.  I was afraid.  Afraid if I started, I wouldn't be ale to stop.  I wanted to wait until I'd gotten to my destination.  Where my comfort was.  It was what I needed.

                "I can't," I whispered, feeling an emotional block come up.  I would feel nothing.  I couldn't feel anything, not until…. 

                The old man looked out to the dusty road that stretched out to the horizon, where my future was, a straight line heading west, with clouds of sand billowing toward the sky.  "You mind telling me what happened?"

                I nodded my head.  "It's to fresh."

                "A death?" The old man said it, but it was implied that he wasn't asking.  His expression bore no confusion, just a quiet knowing and a smug expression hid underneath everything, like he knew all.

                I nodded my head curtly, feeling my shoulder length hair fall into my face.  The man shifted his weight and I felt his weather worn hand graze across my cheek, pushing the unruly hair behind my ears.

                "Someone close to you?"

                I squeezed my eyes shut.  Very close. 

                With a flash I was somewhere else, the sweet smell of spring wafting under my nose.  The dry prairie grass was singing in the breeze and crunching under the horses' hooves. 

                Emily laughed and pointing between her horse's ears she said, "Look at that coyote!"  She giggled.  "His ears are to big for his little head."  She began laughing again, just howling.  She always did have a good sense of humor.  She saw something funny in everything. 

                I was feeling bold in that moment.  The sunshine, cool, yet warm, the grass turning green, the smell of horse sweat and her laughter, I just felt, alive, good about everything.  I wanted her to know that, to know that she made me feel better, better about everything.

                "I love you, you know that?"  I said quietly, drawing a silent gaze from her.  She smiled wide.  "I know.  I love you, too.  We're like sisters with a bond so strong, it could never be broken.  Not by distance, whether it is hundreds of miles away, or in an other world."

                "I was supposed to say that," I said, lazily twirling the soft, well-worn leather reins in my hand.  "You make me feel better about everything.  We have to promise never to drift apart."

                She nodded her head in agreement, joy and sorrow flitting across her pale features.  Joy, I'm sure that it was impossible to think we'd ever drift apart, and sorrow because it could happen.  We were only ten, who knew what the years ahead held?

                We pulled our horses to a stop.  She hopped off first, letting the sorrel mare lower her head for a snack.  I followed suit, watching as she picked two long, perfect weeds of grass.  She bound them together, giving one end to me, and another she held in her own hand, between thumb and finger. 

                We both closed our eyes, and knew what to say.  "Over distance, we shall overcome, never will we part."

                The old man laid a gentle hand on my shoulder.  He squeezed gently, offering a comfort that wasn't going to come.  Or at least, that's what I thought, but when he removed his hand, I felt better, like Emily was here with me.

                He rose to leave, but I didn't want him to and stopped him.  "Who are you?"  He stretched lazily and pointed to the bus station grocery store.  "I'm the manager.  I run the place."

                Moving to leave again, he squinted his eyes.  "You should have told them, Kathy."

                He could have gotten my name off the suitcase.  It was there in plain view, for anyone to read.  That wasn't what bothered me about what he said.  He'd said, you should have told them.  He knew I knew that them was my parents, but how had he known?  He stood there, waiting for my response, shielding his eyes from the sun.

                "Who are you?"  I asked again.  He was strange.  That aura he displayed, one that seemed to know everything, nothing would surprise him because he would have seen it coming. 

                "My name, you mean?  It would be hard to tell you who I am.  That would take a while.  And your bus will be here in a moment."  He chuckled at something known only to him.

                Curiosity about the man momentarily forgotten, I glanced down the rode to see a large billow of dust, not created by the wind.  It was steadily growing larger, moving fast.  I glanced at my luggage and gathered them close to me, making them ready to grab.  But then, I remember him.

                "What is your name?"

                "I am."

                I cocked my head.  "I am…" I persuaded him to finish, but he only smiled and turned his back to me, heading for the store.

                The bus was slowing, breaks grabbing the tires with an almost deafening squeal.  The billow of dust settled on the dry ground.  Tired faces stared lazily out the windows.  A few stood and meandered to the exit.  The bus driver called, "Ten minutes!"

                A bus boy, he didn't look like a boy to me though, at least ten years older than myself, putting him in his mid- to late twenties, helped me load my things.  I didn't plan on coming back for a while.  Nat's promise swirled in my head.  He'd always be there, and he was there now.  I was going to him.

I felt confused toward the old man, who was he?  Why hadn't he said his name?  Or was that his name?  Had he been a mirage?  A dream?  Had I fallen asleep?

Once I'd boarded the bus and we were on our way, I realized, through the confusion, that a strange peace had settled over me.  I felt better, better about everything and I didn't know why. 

The blue sky with its wispy clouds, the shining sun, and the dust that gathered on the dirty bus windows, it all seemed perfect.  For a moment, everything was right, good, and wonderful.  I almost had myself convinced if I glanced to my left, she would be there.  She wasn't though, but that didn't change a thing.  I felt good, leaving everything old and boring behind me.

As it was, I made it to Nat's and collapsed into his arms, crying myself to sleep while he rocked me, speaking soothing and comforting words, bringing me even more hope and happiness.