I met him officially around this same time last year, but the weather that day was much different. As I'm writing now, it's dreary outside. The sky is a ceiling of gray, tumbling clouds; no sustained showers yet, just intermittent drizzling, which I don't like. I want it to either rain or not rain; to have the sun shine or not shine. This present world is something dismally in-between: overcast, bleak, and sad.
But the day I first spoke with Vernon Hudspeth was absolutely beautiful. I woke up early that Monday morning, a good half-hour before dawn, and got out of bed quietly so as not to wake my wife, Amber. Normally I would have stayed under the covers, trying to rest a little longer, but for some reason I wasn't as drowsy as I normally am in the morning. The moment I opened my eyes, I was fully awake. And I didn't even want to go back to sleep. Taking great care not to disturb Amber, I rose, performed my morning routine, and dressed. Then I went downstairs, unlocked the back door, and stepped out onto the deck of our small house, to sit in my lawn chair and welcome the dawn. Amber and I each have our designated lawn chairs on the deck, sort of like Archie and Edith Bunker...well, just like Archie and Edith actually. And it's to this much-favored chair that I often go to sit, to think, to try to make sense of work and play and love and life itself.
The cool air was moving fast, its currents ebbing and flowing, sweetened by occasional notes of birdsong. I breathed deeply this fine air, let it out again. With my hands behind my head, I watched the first shafts of sunlight begin peeking through the trees. I was in much too good a mood for this to be Monday. It made me wonder what would go wrong.
Breakfast for Amber and me consisted of some microwave waffles. That was our normal fare. We had tried alternating cooking breakfast before and it just hadn't worked: one of us always had an excuse to get out of our turn. So eventually we gave up and threw our stomachs on the mercy of the Winn-Dixie freezer section.
"You were up early," Amber remarked, pouring a cup of coffee at the kitchen counter while I drank a cup of my own at the table.
"Yeah, I just felt like getting up for some reason," I said. "I don't know why. Did I wake you up?"
"No. I just woke up and saw you weren't there."
"Did you look to see if my suitcase was gone?"
She glowered at me. "Don't joke about that."
"Gee, I'm sorry." I shook my head. "It was just a joke."
"You make those kinds of jokes a lot, though. I don't like it."
I sighed. "Okay, I'll try not to do it anymore."
Lately there had been some tension in our relationship. It was seldom at the forefront; rather, it lurked in the dark corners of the conversations we had with one another, a crouching, ugly thing ready to spring at the slightest provocation. We had long been told we were a beautiful couple, and when I looked at our wedding photographs, I could almost believe it: both of us twenty-three years old, with Amber petite and blond; me, darker, taller. But I don't think it was just physical attractiveness that made people say so (though I hardly minded if it was); no, I think it was the way we lit each other up in those good early days, an effect so powerful it was noticed even by those around us. But something had changed recently. Arguments are a part of any relationship, but I had preferred it when ours were fierce and brief; now it seemed that, while we might still have a quick skirmish, what followed was not a passionate makeup, but a lengthy, hostile ceasefire. It worried me. It worried me a lot.
I exited the front door of my house at eight-thirty, walked out into a day in which all the elements seemed in perfect balance. There was a breeze rising in the southeast, cool and brisk, strong enough to tousle your hair without messing it up, crisp enough to sweep your skin clean without stinging it. Even this early, the sun was powerful, bright. Its rays had blended into the wind, rushing with it through the moss-draped branches of live oaks, swirling about the tops of pine trees, soaring over azaleas blooming pink and white. The world today was all breath and light and color, and I thought it a shame that, because there were bills to pay, I would only get is a little taste of it: now, during my lunch hour, and tonight when I left work. But at least I had a job. I supposed, given the state of the economy, I should just be grateful for that.
So off I went, to take my place among the ranks of the Gainfully Employed.
The first half of the day started like any other, with me greeting co-workers and engaging in some post-weekend banter, and afterwards I was at my desk: checking emails, reviewing items, researching, following up...the normal grind of work.
Then it was noon.
I have several regular lunch spots, eateries I visit on certain days of the week. On Mondays the place is normally a little hamburgers-and-fries cafe just down the road from our building in downtown Summerville. Good food, nice owners, pleasant atmosphere.
All that, plus Vernon Hudspeth.
I had run across him a few times in this same place: an older guy but not elderly, maybe in his early seventies, patchy white hair, thicker than he should have been yet lacking the pot belly or jowls found on a lot of other fellows in his age bracket. Most of the time he was leaving as I was coming inside, and if I showed up fifteen minutes earlier than usual I would often see him sitting by himself at a table for two with a cup of coffee and a newspaper, his solid-black drugstore glasses perched on his nose. I figured he came in around the same time each day, ten-thirty or so, killing time here in the cafe until a quarter of twelve or so, and then picking up his newspaper so he could go off and kill time someplace else.
I had adopted this little restaurant about six months ago, and since then I had seen Vernon, oh, maybe ten or fifteen times. I didn't know his name and I had never tried to converse with him, but I also made sure that, if our eyes met, I offered him a smile and maybe even a quiet "Hello." And he always responded in kind.
But today something different happened. I had taken a seat, given my order to Melissa, who nearly always waited on me, and was sipping a glass of ice water with lemon. My gaze was on the newly restored, yet still quaint storefronts of downtown Summerville. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the outside edges of a tan windbreaker and some plaid pants. I looked over and found that this old man, whose face I knew, had ambled up to my table.
"We've seen each other so often in here," he said, "I thought I should introduce myself. Vernon Hudspeth."
He extended his hand; I shook it, rising halfway out of my chair in a show of respect. "Glenn Lockwood," I said, sitting back down. "It's nice to meet you, sir."
"What do you do, Glenn?"
"I work for the County. Civil planning."
"I see. I retired from the power company five years ago."
I nodded, not really sure what to say next. He took a seat at the empty table adjacent to mine. That struck me as odd. Didn't he normally leave before noon? Why was he staying? Was it to talk to me? I could tell he wanted to keep the conversation going, but that made only one of us.
Oh, boy, I thought, here we go. Some old codger wants to sit down and tell me how the world's falling apart and if we just listened to old codgers like him who have all the answers then everything would be fine again. And what's sad is he's probably right. Not only that, but I'll bet he's a really nice guy too. He's just lonely. He's lonely and he's bored and so he's going to insist that I donate some of my time to listening to him. Yeah, I'm sure he'll let me get in a word here and there, mainly for him to pause and catch his breath. But here's the thing. He's got twelve to fifteen hours to do with as he pleases. Me, I've got a job that takes eight to ten hours, and all I'm allowed is this one hour smack dab in the middle to scarf down some food and then get back to work. So, with all due respect, Mr. Vernon Hudspeth, please don't talk to me any more than you already have. Please don't.
"You from Summerville, Glenn?" he asked.
So much for that. "Yes, sir."
"Me, too. And you said your last name is Lockhart?"
"Lockwood. Okay, I got it now. Not sure if I know any of your people, though."
Gee, what a loss for my people.
The best plan, I decided, would be for me to give as little response as possible. As long as I didn't feed into the discussion he was trying to carry on with me, he'd have nothing to work with; in other words, I would starve him conversationally. I hated to do it but I had very little time during the workday that was my own, and not much more that was mine even after I got home, so what time I had I guarded jealously.
Vernon looked down at the wedding ring on my finger. "How long you been married, Glenn?"
"Is your wife from here too?"
"St Marys," I answered. "Her dad was in the Navy."
"I see. Any children yet?"
"I never got married or had children," Vernon said. "The power company was my family, I guess. Not much of a family, but there you have it."
I felt terrible sympathy for him. I had thought he was fleeing down here to get away from his wife; now I realized he was fleeing an empty house...an empty house that, at this stage of his life, he stood little chance of ever filling.
"Well, I won't bother you anymore," he said, getting up from the table. I guess he could tell he was annoying me. Either that or he'd said all he wanted to say. "Nice meeting you."
"You too," I said, softer in my view of him now, but still grateful to be left alone again.
Standing, Vernon asked, "Can I give you a piece of advice before I go?"
"I just want to tell you that, if you've got something you want to do in life, don't wait until you think the time is right. That's what I always did. I kept waiting for the right time. But as it turned out, it was always the right time. Now I look back and I think, 'Why didn't I do this?' and 'Why didn't I do that?' So whatever it is you want, Glenn, whether it's having kids or taking a big trip somewhere or anything under the sun, do it as soon as you can. You don't want to be old, looking back and wishing you could do it all over again." He smiled. "Okay, well, that's enough of that. Take it easy."
"You too," I said, watching him as he shuffled out the door.
A moment later, Melissa came over. She was a tall pretty brunette in her early thirties, always attentive, and gifted in the art of making a customer feel special. She asked me, "Did you get the free advice from Mr. Hudspeth?"
"Yeah," I said.
"He gives that same speech to everybody in here sooner or later," she said. "I feel sorry for him."
We watched through the tall window as Vernon opened the driver's side door of his black, late-nineties model Lincoln Town Car, slowly got in; maybe it was my imagination, but he seemed to be in physical pain.
Morning again: a much plainer one than its predecessor. Amber had the bathroom first and took a longer shower than normal. The only other bathroom we have is just a half, with a toilet and a sink, which meant that unless I wanted to skip a shower altogether, I would have to wait. And wait I did, fuming as I sat on the corner of our bed.
When Amber finally emerged, wrapped in a gigantic purple towel, I said, "It's almost ten minutes 'til seven. I'm going to really have to hurry."
"Sorry," she said, "I lost track of time." Her tone was flat, perfunctory.
"Yeah, well, I hope I'm not late because of it," I said, going in. "Is there any hot water left?"
I closed the door behind me, not expecting an answer.
"Can you find something to eat on your own tonight?" Amber asked as we prepared to leave for the day. I was tying my tie in the half-bathroom; she was in the dining area, gathering up her keys along a few letters to mail on her way to work. She was employed by the local Economic Development Authority and the Post Office was on her way.
"Sure," I said, poking my head out with my tie half-done. "Why, though?"
"Because I'm going out for Angela's birthday party tonight, remember?" she said. "I told you Friday that we'd been planning a girls' night out for her"
"Oh, right." I went back in the bathroom, to finish with my tie. "I forgot."
"Well, try to pay attention." I could not see her now, as she had remained in the dining area, but she didn't sound happy. "Okay?"
I purposely made no response.
"Glenn? Did you hear me?"
I poked my head out of the bathroom again. "I'm sorry. Did you say something?"
She gave me a sour half-smile. "Nice."
Tuesday turned out sun-shot and pleasant, but the lovely bright wind was gone. I arrived home about six-thirty in the evening. I had swung into the Dairy Queen drive-through and was looking forward to finishing my bacon cheeseburger and fries in perfect solitude, with total control of the living room television (visible from our dining room table) for the rest of the night. From time to time in our short marriage, Amber and I had gone through periods during which we got on each other's nerves. This looked to be one of those times, but fortunately they didn't happen often and they never lasted long. The best cure, I had found, was to spend a brief period of time apart: not long, just an evening when she headed out with the girls or I headed out with the guys, or a morning when I went hunting or fishing, or she went shopping. Then we would return to one another and things would go on fine. That was the pattern I knew and I was confident we would follow it again. So maybe Angela's birthday party tonight was just what the doctor ordered.
Anyhow, I got out of the car with my Dairy Queen bag and started for the front door. I was almost there when I heard a car pull up in the driveway. I looked back and saw a familiar black Lincoln Town Car. The car shut off and the driver's side door swung open.
Out he came: Vernon Hudspeth.
But as I looked more closely at him, I thought: Wait a minute. Something's different.
He had lost some weight, was no longer thick in the middle. His hair had gone the opposite route. Still thin, nevertheless there was more of it, with greater fullness and buoyancy. It had darkened too.
He walked towards me, a big smile on his face, and I realized that he was moving pretty quick for a man his age. But what was his age? Vernon Hudspeth was still getting on in years, but he didn't look like someone in his seventies anymore.
"Hi, Glenn," he boomed, stopping a few feet away. "Do you notice anything different?"
I glanced at the top of his head. "Did you start using Grecian Hair Formula?"
"It worked, Glenn! It worked!"
"What, the Grecian Hair Formula?"
"No, no, no," Vernon said, laughing. "Forget the Grecian Hair Formula. I'll never need anything like that again. I've lost ten years already. I was so excited I just had to tell somebody. And so I thought, 'What about that nice young fellow I met at the restaurant yesterday?' So I followed you after you left the County office building today. I even waited in the Dairy Queen parking lot while you got your food."
"I know, I know. I shouldn't have done that. But I just thought...well, I just wanted it to be you. I don't know why. Maybe you reminded me of myself when I was your age. Serious, nose-to-the-grindstone type."
"Mr. Hudspeth, I..."
But Vernon was already backing away. "Don't worry, I'm not going to stay and bother you because I know you're tired after a long day at work. I just wanted to stop by and tell you about this extraordinary thing. I mean, it's incredible. I just woke up this morning and looked at myself in the mirror and realized...I had changed!"
"Are you sure this is..." My voice trailed off.
"It's real, Glenn. It's as real as the nose on your face. Well, look, I won't keep you any longer. You have a good night." He turned and dashed back to his car. I stood there at my front door, watching the Lincoln as it pulled out and then trundled down the road.
For a moment, just for a moment, I believed.
Then I thought, Nah.
But I have to be honest with you: the encounter left me uneasy. I wondered what sort of lunatic I had brought into my life simply by being courteous. Maybe Vernon had gotten up and decided to color his hair that morning; then, thanks to a mini-stroke or an attack of dementia, he'd forgotten about doing this and convinced himself that his hair had darkened up on its own. Add to that the way his back or knees or whatever wasn't hurting him as much as normal, and suddenly you've got a guy who thinks he's magically getting younger. At least he hadn't stayed, though. I didn't like the thought of being followed, and I hoped this was the last time I would see him, whether at my house or at my Monday lunch-spot. No cool points for having a seventy-year-old man as your stalker, even if he thought he was sixty.
I went inside, was able to finish only half my burger.
Sometime after midnight Amber came in through the front door to find me sitting in the living room, clad only in my boxer shorts. The television was on but I wasn't even sure what I was watching. I had spent most of the night so far pondering my earlier meeting with Vernon Hudspeth. I had made a decision not to tell Amber. I didn't feel like talking about it anyway.
"Hey," she said, tossing her car keys onto the dining room table. She was buzzed, smiling. Obviously she and the girls had enjoyed themselves. "You're still up?"
"You didn't have to wait up for me." She sounded pleased, and under normal circumstances I would have honed in on her good, almost playful mood. For some reason, and I couldn't begin to tell you what it is, girls' nights out have a funny effect on Amber. Well, to be blunt, they make her horny. It's happened enough times that I really think there's a connection between her going out with the girls, then wanting to come back and jump on top of me afterwards. And I don't think it's just because she usually comes back intoxicated.
Any other night, I might even have planned on a little quality time after she got home from one of these events. But given our recent coolness toward one another, and especially the Vernon Incident, I hadn't thought about it. And before I could catch myself, I gave Amber a truthful reply:
"I wasn't waiting up..."
Then I realized what I had said, and how badly it must have sounded. I looked at her, opened my mouth to add something, anything, to improve my answer.
Amber's smile vanished. "Oh." She turned, headed for our bedroom.
I stood. "Amber, wait."
"No, that's fine," she said, disappearing down the hallway. "I'm glad you weren't worried.
I closed my eyes.
The bedroom door slammed.
Well, I thought, this sucks.
I sat back down on the sofa, tried to think of a strategy to repair the damage from that one poorly worded remark. I listened to the shower start, run for awhile, and then stop. I gave her another fifteen minutes and then went into the bedroom, to join her.
It was dark. Amber lay on her side, away from me. I pulled up the sheet, slid in next to her.
"Goodnight," I said. I kissed her on the cheek but she didn't move. I doubted she was already asleep but I decided not to say anything more. I lay on my back, watched the ceiling fan spin.
At three in the morning I was still awake.
He was fifty years old when I saw him the following night. That was the night I started to believe. I really had no choice. Whether I wanted to believe was irrelevant.
My heart had not really been in my work today, and assignments were starting to pile up on me; by Friday I would be underwater. But on Wednesday things hadn't gotten bad yet. I would get home ahead of Amber for the next three nights because a major manufacturing company was looking to locate a plant in Summerville. Amber and the other staffers at the Economic Development Authority were working hard to make sure our County put its best foot forward with the corporate representatives. Just as well, really, because when I got home I found I had company.
Vernon Hudspeth was sitting at the base of the magnolia tree in our front yard. A bicycle was propped next to him. He got to his feet as soon as I pulled in the driveway.
"Hi, Glenn," he said, walking up to my car as I got out. "I thought you'd be home around now."
I looked at him carefully. It was Vernon, all right. He hadn't regressed to the point I couldn't recognize him, but, man, he was getting close. He had a full head of hair now, and it was almost all dark but for some graying at the sideburns. His skin, while still a bit loose, was not that of an old person. He was lean now, turning into a fit and handsome man.
My voice was a stunned whisper. "Mr. Hudspeth," I managed, "is that you?"
"Who else would it be?" he thundered, clapping me on the shoulder. "I thought I'd ride my bicycle today. It's been in the garage for years, and I hadn't ridden it in so long that I thought I might have forgotten how. But, Glenn, it came right back to me. I've been riding since this morning and I haven't fallen off once. Anyhow, I just thought I'd swing by and see if you were home yet."
I had barely heard anything Vernon said. "How is this happening?" I asked, studying his new face.
"Oh, I can easily tell you that," he replied. "My wish was heard. And granted."
"But your wish," I sputtered, "was something that could never come true."
Vernon nodded. "That's what I thought too. But look at me, Glenn. It has come true. It's unbelievable to us because it doesn't fit with our knowledge of the laws of nature. But who are we to say we know the laws of nature? We may understand the basic stuff, all of us human beings, but what about the subsections, the addendums, the special circumstances, the amendments, the exceptions, the whys and the wherefores? The universe is vast, Glenn. You know that. It's vast and complex and there isn't enough brainpower in all of our heads put together to figure out how the whole thing works, at least not exactly how. It's an enigma to us, and will be for as long as we're here to contemplate it. Who knows, my boy? Maybe somewhere in the Great Cosmic Encyclopedia, buried deep in a tucked-away volume that Man has never so much as peeked inside, there are a few lines that say something to the effect of, 'If your name is Vernon Hudspeth and you were born in May of 1940 in the town of Summerville, Georgia, and you're old but want to feel what it was like to be young just one more time, well, you'll get your chance...provided you make your wish at the right hour on the right day in the right year.' That's all I can figure."
I swallowed hard. "Mr. Hudspeth, would you mind seeing somebody about this? A doctor, maybe?"
"I don't need to see any doctor. I'm fit as a fiddle! Can't you tell?"
"I can tell."
"Okay, then. Well, I've kept you long enough," Vernon said, turning and going to his bicycle. He popped in the kickstand and climbed on, rolled away from me. "See you tomorrow, maybe?"
"Sure," I said, watching him go.
I must have stood on my front lawn for thirty minutes after he left, looking at the street down which he had disappeared.
This isn't happening, I thought.
I had made a promise at work and failed to keep it; fortunately, thanks to a gentle reminder from my supervisor, I completed the task. But the work was late and later on it turned out I had made a few oversights, a couple of mistakes; nothing terrible, but for someone who prides himself on doing a good, thorough job, it's embarrassing and it hurts. That Thursday was no exception, but I could hardly tell anyone the reason I was so distracted.
"See, everybody, there's this guy I know. He's traveling back in time right in front of me, and it's really freaking me out."
No. I had to keep it to myself.
Vernon Hudspeth was a young forty when I got home Thursday evening. I had made a mental note to tell him that, no matter what, he wasn't to have any interaction with Amber; that if she got home first, he was to stay out of sight until I arrived. It wasn't that I thought Amber had anything to fear from Vernon Hudspeth, but I had no idea what he would say. Best, I thought, to keep two of them separated. I was confident Vernon would agree to my request.
So I got home and there he was, once again sitting at the base of the magnolia tree, the bicycle standing next to him like a faithful old horse tied to a post. He rose as I opened my car door, got out. Even from a distance, I could tell how much he had changed since yesterday. His skin was taut now; the graying sideburns had turned black. His eyes had more vitality than ever.
"I must be Merlin," he said as we approached one another.
"You ever read The Once and Future King, Glenn?"
"Yeah, in high school," I answered as we stopped, shook hands.
Vernon asked, "Do you recall how Merlin was born at the wrong end of time, and said he had to live from front to backwards, whereas most people live backwards to front?"
"Maybe something like that," I said. "I don't really remember. It was a long time ago."
"What, for a young fellow like you? Not long at all," Vernon said. "Blink of an eye. That's what it was."
"I guess you're right."
"Sure I'm right. And in the blink of an eye I'll be in high school again, or at least high school age. Then it'll be time for junior high. Do they still call it junior high?"
"It was middle school by the time I went through."
"Oh...well, same thing, more or less."
"Yes, it is."
Vernon put his hands in his pockets, looked up at the sky, and then back down at me. "Twenties, late teens...all pretty good ages, I'd say. Early teens? Not as keen on those. Awkward time, kind of scary. I felt like I was thirteen forever. I wonder if it'll feel that way again. What do you think?"
"It may not be so bad the second time around," I ventured. "At least you'll know what to expect."
Vernon laughed. "I suppose so. Well, I just wanted to say hi. I've got plans tonight."
"Really?" I smiled in spite of myself. "What are you going to do?"
"I thought I might go out on the town. You want to come with me?"
"You don't have to if you don't want to."
I threw up my hands. "Mr. Hudspeth...I'm sorry, but it's just so strange, what's happening to you. I'm not sure if I could do anything but stare at you the whole time. I'm really sorry. I can't help it."
Vernon smiled. "I understand. I'll come by tomorrow night, if that's all right."
"Sure," I said, "absolutely."
I had forgotten all about my mental note. Maybe it didn't even matter.
Vernon got on his bicycle, waved to me as he headed down the driveway and into the street.
"Have a good time," I said, but I didn't think he heard me.
On Friday it all came to a head. Things that needed doing a day or even two days earlier hadn't gotten done, and it was entirely my fault. The last couple of nights at home had been unpleasant too. Amber and I seemed to be navigating around each other; our interactions were brief, businesslike.
But if there's one advantage I have in life, it's the ability to work well under pressure. Slowly, doggedly, I turned things around at work. I would still have to labor twice as hard on Monday to get caught up, but at least I could leave on Friday feeling I had made good progress.
That left me with just Amber to worry about.
Well, and there was still Vernon. But at least my relationship with Amber made sense to me. Vernon made no sense at all.
That evening, in the usual spot, I found a young man of thirty waiting for me. He grinned widely as I pulled up, was at my driver's side door before I even had a chance to turn off the car. Once I'd gotten out, we shook and I noticed the warmth, the strength, in his grasp.
"Hi, Glenn," he said, "you doing okay?"
"I'm doing fine, Vernon," I said. "How about you?"
"What are your plans for tonight?"
"I think I'm going to go out again. Not sure where yet. What about you, Glenn?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. When my wife gets home, we'll decide. We may just stay here."
"Well, whatever y'all do, I hope you have as good a time as I did last night."
"I'm sorry, I forgot to even ask."
"That's okay. No, it was just really good being out in the world. Being with people. I'd forgotten how wonderful that felt. At any rate, I guess I'll be going. I hope it doesn't bother you, the way I keep stopping by."
"Not at all," I said.
"Well, just let me know if it ever does. Otherwise, I'll see you later." He started for his bicycle.
He turned around. "Please, Glenn, call me Vernon. We're almost the same age now."
"Sure. I just wanted to say...take care. Okay? Take really good care while you're...out on the town tonight."
"I will, Glenn. You do the same."
He jumped on the bike, pedaled off.
"Come back tomorrow," I called after him.
All day Saturday I worked in the yard: front yard, back yard, sides of the house. I mowed the grass, trimmed the edges, raked. I needed to be outside and I needed to be doing work that was both active and solitary. Too many things were weighing on my mind.
He appeared on his bicycle about three-thirty in the afternoon.
"Hey, Glenn," Vernon said, coming up into the driveway as I raked up the last of the hedge clippings. "What's up?"
I almost didn't recognize him.
"Well, Vernon," I said, leaning against my rake, "look at you."
I found it hard to believe that he had never found a woman with whom to share his life and bed, not if he originally looked the way at twenty that he looked now. His dark hair was shaggy, with a slight curl to it; his skin was tan, shining and healthy. His arms and legs had a smooth, natural muscle tone. He wore a plain white T-shirt and khaki shorts.
"Don't worry, I won't be here for long tonight," he advised me. "I met some other kids on the beach today. Other people, I should say. They're still kids to me. But now I'm a kid too, so..." He laughed. "This is so weird."
"You're telling me."
"One of the girls gave me her cell phone number," he said conspiratorially.
"Good for you, Vernon."
"I had to use a different name with them, by the way. I told them I was Kevin. It sounded more modern. I don't know too many twenty year olds in 2012 named 'Vernon.'"
"I like the name 'Vernon,'" I said. "Besides, it's the person, not the name. But you do what you want to do. You're old enough to make those kinds of decisions for yourself."
Vernon laughed again, much more loudly, spontaneously. His superb white teeth flashed. "Old enough. Yeah, right." He paused. "They invited me to come out with them tonight."
"So are you going?"
"Yeah, I said I'd meet them later. But there was something I had to do first."
"What was that?" I asked him.
The answer moved me. "I'm glad you did."
"Yeah, so now that I've seen you..."
"Of course you can go," I chuckled. "And you need to go, Vernon, or Kevin, or whatever you want to call yourself. That's your group now, those kids. I must look like an old man to you."
"No, no, never," he assured me. "But seriously, you're not offended that I'm running off so quick, are you?"
"No, Vernon, not at all. Go on and have a good time."
"Okay, thanks. Really, thanks a lot."
"Let me give you my number. Just in case. You can call me anytime tonight, doesn't matter how late." I went inside and got my wallet, pulled out a business card with my cellular phone on it, and took the card back outside.
"Thank you, Glenn," he said as I handed it to him. "I really appreciate the way you...care about me."
"You're welcome, Vernon," I said. "Have a good night."
"You too." And he cycled away.
Always in a hurry when they're at that age, I thought, and went back to work.
Amber and I normally went out on Saturday nights, but we stayed home that evening. I had worked late in the yard and tired myself out; Amber too was weary, in her case from dealing with the company looking at Summerville as a home for a new manufacturing facility (the deal later went through, in case you're wondering). So we made a meal of grilled hot dogs and grocery store potato salad. Turned out to be pretty good eats.
"Who was that guy you were talking to earlier?" Amber asked me as we wolfed down our food.
I didn't want to lie, but I didn't know how to tell Amber the truth either. So lying won the day. I put down my hot dog and said, "Just some kid looking for a house for him and a buddy to rent for the summer. He wanted to know if there were any places in this neighborhood like that. I told him I didn't know of anything."
"I'm not sure if I want a bunch of kids moving in here anyway. Even if it's just temporary."
"Listen to you," Amber said, lightly kicking my leg. "You sound like such an old man. 'A bunch of kids...'"
"I'm just saying," I protested, but seeing the humor in my words and deciding to play along, "that you and I are getting to be an age where we want things quiet. What's wrong with that?"
"I just hate to see you old at twenty-six."
"You're two months older than I am. Remember?"
"You know what I mean: old in the mind. That's where it starts, I think. I don't mean like getting senile. I mean when you stop being flexible, or you just think that everything always has to be the same and nothing should ever change. That, to me, is the first sign of someone getting old."
"Yeah," I said, "maybe you're right."
"By the way," Amber said, kicking my leg again, "I'm glad you told him there wasn't anything here."
"So you want things quiet too. Am I right?"
"Yeah, but only because I need my beauty sleep."
"You're beautiful no matter what," I told her.
She didn't say anything, just took another forkful of potato salad. I thought I'd hit it out of the park with that wonderful response.
"You just want to get laid tonight," she said.
My mood darkened. "Actually, I was just trying to pay you a compliment."
"Okay, well, thanks. That was nice of you."
"Yeah, no problem," I grumbled.
"It's just been a tough week, Glenn. I'm kind of...frazzled."
"Fine." I started on my hot dog again. "Don't worry about it."
She got up and dumped her plate in the trash, and then rinsed it off in the sink.
I did not look at her, just kept eating, as she went to the bedroom, where she remained for the rest of the night. I joined her after midnight, guessing correctly that by then she would be asleep or doing a good job of faking it.
"Amber," I said on Sunday morning when she came into the living room, "I'm sorry about last night."
I had been up since four-thirty, and had gone out to lie on the sofa. She would not awaken until eight.
"So am I," she responded. "That wasn't nice, what I said to you."
"Yeah, well, I haven't been all that great to you this week so...let's start again, okay?"
Summerville, Georgia, pretty much shuts down on the Sundays. Everything in the town proper is closed, so we decided to head out to the Cracker Barrel near Interstate-95 for a good meal and a chance for Amber to look at some of the things in the little country store that's attached to the restaurant. We had a nice time, actually, just talking for the first time in what seemed like a good long while. But even though he was nowhere in sight, Vernon Hudspeth was very much with me. Five-thirty became six o'clock and then six o'clock became six forty-five. I wondered if Vernon had stopped by the house yet. I wondered if he would stop by at all, and how I would know either way.
Finally, at seven, we started for home. I must have been growing uncommunicative, because about halfway there Amber said to me, "What is it, Glenn?"
"What is what?"
"You seem distracted. Did you hear what I just said?"
"No, I'm sorry. What was it?"
"I said they're supposed to start roadwork on Main Street. So you're going to have to leave the house earlier to still get to work on time."
"Oh, right," I said. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," she said, shaking her head.
We arrived home to find a ten-year-old boy with brown hair and large dark eyes sitting on our front steps. His round white face shone in the gloom of late evening.
"Who's this?" Amber asked, peering through the windshield.
"I don't know," I said. "I'll find out."
Actually, I need time to invent a good story, well, lie.
We got out of my car, walked up to the boy on the steps. He stood at once.
I saw no sign of the bicycle. Then it occurred to me that Vernon was now too small to ride it. He must have walked here. I wondered how great the distance.
"Oh, I know you," I said, winking at Vernon and hoping that he would play along with whatever nonsense explanation I came up with for his being here. "You're Kevin's younger brother, aren't you?"
I nodded and the boy, catching on, nodded too. "Yes, sir," he said.
Now I looked at Amber. "This is the brother of the guy who came by here yesterday, looking for a place to rent."
"Oh," Amber said. "Well, it's nice to meet you. What's your name?"
"Vernon, right?" I suggested.
"Yes, sir. Vernon." He held out his hand to Amber. "Nice to meet you too, ma'am."
Amber, taking his hand, smiled down at him.
"Vernon," I began to say, desperately trying to think of a plausible reason for his presence, "Vernon is interested in playing for the County baseball team when it starts up in the summer. And when Kevin and I were talking yesterday, I mentioned that I had played baseball in high school. And Kevin told me that his little brother here...I'm sorry, Vernon, he told me his younger brother might want to meet with me so we could talk shop. And I said to send him on by. And that's why he's here. Right, Vernon?"
"I see," Amber said. "I'll just let you guys talk, then. It was good to meet you, Vernon."
"You, too," the boy said, watching her as she went inside. Then he turned his attention to me. "I wanted to come see you, Mr. Glenn."
"I hoped you would," I said. "How did it go last night?"
"It went great. We had a really good time. But then the one girl asked me if I would be able to see her tomorrow night, and I said no, on account of I knew I wouldn't be the same. I'd be like I am now."
I took a deep breath. His language had become much simpler. I realized now the extraordinary transformation that Vernon Hudspeth was undergoing touched all aspects of his being. It was a complete regression. As the adult body became that of a child, so too did the adult mind become a child's mind. It made perfect, tragic sense.
"And it's getting faster now," Vernon said, looking at his hands and then showing them to me. "I can tell. They're changing, like, every few minutes. But that's probably on account of that you grow faster when you're younger. So I'm getting younger, faster. Or something like that. You know what I'm saying?"
"Absolutely," I said. "How do you feel?"
"I feel fine," he answered, and I believed him. But that did not stop the tears from forming in the corners of my eyes.
"Sure," I said, wiping my eyes. "Sure, I'm fine."
"Say, how did you know I liked to play baseball?"
"I didn't know. I just guessed."
"When I was a little kid, my dad and I used to throw the ball."
"That's what my dad and I did too," I told him. "I think I've got a baseball somewhere around here. We can go under the streetlight and throw it for awhile, if you want."
"Yeah," Vernon said, "that'd be great!"
"I'll be right back," I promised, and ran around to the small shed in our backyard. I undid the combination lock, rummaged about in the darkness until I found the old, oily catcher's mitt and a tattered baseball.
When I found him in the front yard again he looked younger to me, eight years old instead of ten. His limbs had become skinny as toothpicks; his skull was delicate, like that of a bird. Had all this happened just in the minute or so I was gone?
No, more like a clock face, I thought. You glance at it and the hour hand is in one place and the minute hand is in another; look again, just a bit later, and they've moved. That's how it is with Vernon.
"Okay, buddy," I said, "let's go where we've got some light. You can use the mitt."
We could only back so far away from each other. Night was falling fast; stars glimmered into life across the dark-blue celestial firmament. But the street lamp was brilliant and gave us all the illumination we needed. I tossed him the ball; he caught it easily, threw it back. We established a rhythm almost right away.
The ball to him, then to me. To him, to me.
"I'm not sorry I did it," he said.
"Did what, buddy?"
"Wished for this. You know why?"
"'Cause I'm happy."
"This whole week has been just, you know, really great."
"For me too, Vernon," I told him. "For me too."
"These have been, like, magic days."
"Magic days," I repeated. "I like that."
I noticed that Vernon's throws were starting to fall short, and he seemed to have more trouble catching the ball. I began to adjust the height and velocity of my throws to him. I had to, you see, because as the minutes rolled by Vernon was getting shorter, weaker, and less coordinated. We also moved closer together, to make it fairer, easier, for him. At this point he appeared to be about six years old.
"I like talking to you," he said.
"I like talking to you too, Vernon."
At last he caught the ball and said, "I think I want to sit down now. My legs hurt."
"Sure," I said. "Want to go sit on the steps again?"
"Yeah." He walked over to the front door, plopped down. I took a seat next to him, patted him on the knee.
"I've got a question for you, Vernon," I said. "Where did you get these little boy clothes from?"
"I bought 'em a couple days ago, for when I'd need 'em."
"I see. You were planning ahead."
He didn't answer. Maybe he hadn't understood me. It hardly mattered.
What happens at the end? I wondered. My heart was thrashing in my chest, though I tried to remain calm. Will he become an embryo, a fetus, an egg? This could be terrible.
But I would have to deal with it. My role was to bear witness to the remarkable journey of Vernon Hudspeth. I would not abdicate it. I owed him fealty to the end.
After a moment, the five-year-old child beside me asked, "What do you think it'll feel like?"
"How what'll feel?"
"When I disappear."
"What makes you think you'll disappear?"
"Well, I just keep going back, you know? I'll be a baby pretty soon. But before I was a baby, I wasn't here, right? I wasn't anywhere. So I'll disappear."
"We don't know that," I said, even as I saw the validity of his statement. "Maybe you'll change into something different. We'll have to wait and see."
"It'll be soon," Vernon told me. He was perhaps four now.
After a moment, when Vernon became three, he pointed at some trees across the street. "Lightning bugs," he murmured, and grinned up at me. It was a child's grin, yes, the kind that starts at the mouth, reddens the cheeks, and lights up the eyes. I stroked his dark hair as I scanned the underbrush for signs of fireflies, and was pleased to spy a few of them hovering in the darkness.
"Lightning bugs," I said. "Sure enough."
I felt his head grow smaller beneath the palm of my hand. I looked down and realized Vernon probably wouldn't be able to sit up on his own much longer.
He was still smiling, though, just a big happy baby. He reached up for me with his fat little arms. He made a gurgling sound.
"Yes, sir," I said, taking him in my arms. "I'll be glad to pick you up."
I cradled him against my chest.
"It's been a long time since anybody held you, hasn't it?"
Vernon was now very tiny. The kid-clothes he had been wearing were suddenly white cloth, wrapped around a body that could not have weighed more than six pounds. Only a few tufts of hair were on the little round head. He lay upon me warm and still, his eyes tightly shut.
"I'll be right here with you, baby boy," I said, tears running down my face. "Right here until the end."
A wind rose in the south. I kissed the child once, on top of his head, and waited.
It didn't take long.
The infant in my arms began to sparkle. It started at the center of his body and then spread out to his arms, legs, head...it was like a wellspring of miniature galaxies, more and more of them with each passing second, until finally they enveloped little Vernon Hudspeth and there was no weight at all to be held in my arms, just this fabulous white light. The light rose into the night sky, drifting above the trees and power lines, and rather than dispersing, as I thought it would, it streaked away, toward the western horizon: a gleaming form, beginning its voyage to...someplace else.
Maybe it became a gleam in a someday-father's eye.
Collecting myself, I moved the ball and the catcher's mitt off to the side of the door, where no one would trip over them. I would get those items in the morning; I couldn't handle putting them away right now. This done, I got up and went inside.
"Did you and your little friend have a good chat?" Amber asked me as I walked into the living room, where she lay sprawled on the sofa. She had already changed for bed.
"Yes, we did," I said, standing before her.
"He's out awfully late, isn't he?"
"Yeah," I agreed, "pretty late."
"Do you think he'll be all right getting home?"
"He'll be fine," I assured her, wanting to believe my own words, hopeful I would succeed eventually, "just fine."
"Yeah, I'm okay. I'm just...tired. I think I'm going to go to bed early tonight."
She got off the sofa, came and embraced me. "I love you."
"I love you too," I said.
I took a quick shower and got in bed. It wasn't even nine o'clock yet but I was sapped.
What did I see tonight? I asked myself. It could have been anything.
Or maybe it was everything.
I must have dozed off, because I remember opening my eyes when Amber climbed into bed next to me, and feeling confused, jolted, as I often did when abruptly wakened. But that was all right. I could tell she was trying to be quiet. No harm done. None at all.
We lay in silence, in darkness.
I have a wish too, I thought, if this is the wish-granting season.
I wish Amber could know, if she doesn't know already or if she's begun to doubt, how much I love her. That's all I would ask. I'm not worried about yesterday or tomorrow, only now. I need a sign that we still complete one another, the way we did before.
I closed my eyes.
Several minutes passed.
Her hand came onto my chest, like a dandelion seed landing amid the soft blades of a verdant springtime lawn. The palm of her hand lay over my heart.
I placed my hand over hers.