THE JOURNEY ISN'T LONG
The old man crept up the stairs, a firm hand clasping the gnarled cane as he made his ascent. His feeble left hand clung to the rail, only letting go from its ironclad grip the moment he reached solid ground. Boris grimaced, his eyes gazing past the old clock his grandfather gave him ninety years ago. From the position of its dark wooden hands, he’d turn one hundred in a mere five minutes. He uttered a pained, almost dejected sigh. In his younger days, the thought of becoming a centennial would have brought him joy. He and Alfred always claimed they’d reach one hundred. For Alfred, that hope died five years ago. Now that he had become one century old, it didn’t harbor the same glamor as Boris thought it would.
Boris frowned and sat upon his bed. The low creaking of the ancient mattress went ignored. Perhaps he’d have higher spirits if other members of his family still lingered. His wife, Venessa, died two years ago while their son died the year before her. To this day Boris believed Steven’s death caused Venessa’s deterioration. Of his plethora of siblings, Boris alone remained living, despite his youngest brother being twenty years his junior.
Boris removed his spectacles and gazed across the room with his weary, strained eyes to a picture of himself, Venessa, and Steven that dated back to Steven’s college graduation. To think the young athletic boy would die of a heart attack at seventy-four while his parents clung to each other, unable to help their dying son.
He uttered a low, pained sigh, his hand planted upon the top of his cane as if it alone kept him alive. Sometimes he felt it did, that the treasure he held for so many years kept him going in this cold, lonesome world. His great-great-niece carved the cane for him years ago out of an oak tree he planted. Soon after, she left with her husband to Europe and never returned. He pursed his lips. But no, now was not the time for bitter resentment. He’d be turning one hundred in just a couple minutes. No need to not think of the delicious chocolate cake he purchased that would arrive tomorrow. Those trivial comforts such as wonderful food and the occasional funny television show kept him going, or so he liked to delude himself into believing.
In solitude he’d eat his cake, as he did the last several years. He had the urge to turn the television on, so he could complain to himself about the horrible events happening around the world. To think he once thought he could make the world a better place. He grumbled. As he aged, he grew to loathe the bad news that dominated the world. If any news channels could give but one hopeful or happy story, he’d be content. Most days, he watched old movies from his youth, or would scrounge through his and Venessa’s many photo albums. So many memories littered those pages. Even now, when he had nothing but his thoughts, those cherished nostalgic memories brought a rare smile across his wrinkled face. They alone offered him a small sliver of hope, comfort, and perhaps contentment in these last years of life.
With a final mournful look at the picture of his department family, he reached for the bedside lamp. When the light clicked off, he pulled the sheets tight against his chin, humming Happy Birthday to himself, and closed his eyes for what he felt, or perhaps even hoped, would be the last time.
He shot up, his back creaking from the sudden lurch. No sound but the faint hum of his air conditioner. Just his imagination. He fiddled with his sheets, about to lie down once more when a voice whispered, “Boris.”
He fumbled for his lamp. “Who’s there?” He asked, trying to sound as intimidating as a worn one-hundred-year-old man could.
He flicked the light on, expecting to see his empty room before him and confirm to himself that he had stayed up too late and the voice had been nothing but a byproduct of his exhausted mind. Instead, he saw a ghastly specter of a young man standing before him, his well-kept dark hair an odd contrast to his lazy eyes.
Boris gazed at the ghost, expecting it to fade away when his mind cleared, but something about the twitching hands and uncertain smile caused his mind to click. “A—Alfred?” Boris shook his head. I didn’t drink today, did I? He scanned the recesses of his mind, but couldn’t recall drinking any beer or whisky before going to bed.
Boris shook his head and yanked the sheets tight against him. The ghost of no, the hallucination of his old friend peered at him. “Boris, it is time to go.” Alfred reached out a hand. Boris blinked and examined the youthful face of the young man standing before him.
“I—” he shook his head. “You, you weren’t that young when you died!” A silly thing to say. While true, the retort proved nothing. If Alfred came back from the grave, he’d be the frail old man he and Venessa said goodbye to five years ago.
Alfred lowered his hand. Boris thought the figment of his imagination would dissipate. Instead, he said, “Where I come from, the passage of time has no value. I appear as I did at the prime of my life, as you will too, my old friend.”
Boris shook his head. “When you died you weren’t visit by ghosts.” I must be insane. Some sort of dementia that just sprung up, or my brain is ready to die. Yes, that has to be it, one of the two. He shook his head, but instead of making Alfred disappear, he looked more translucent.
Alfred frowned and sat at Boris’ desk. “My loved ones surrounded me when I departed to the afterlife. Now, we came to take you home.”
He craned his neck. “We?”
Alfred nodded. Boris followed his gaze to the far wall of his room, to a picture of the two of them on their ninetieth birthday. Alfred had looked so spry in that photo. Well, five years could do a lot to someone their age, but Boris couldn’t believe the smiling bald man died before he had.
Boris lost himself in the picture, immersing himself in the old memory when Alfred said, “They are coming now.”
Again, Boris craned his neck, but this time, he saw her. A young woman wading down the hall into his room, no, their room. Venessa looked just as he remembered her when younger. A tall, happy woman with thick curly brown hair. As always, her bright blue eyes brought a smile to his face. She approached the bed, giving a small smile to Alfred as she passed him.
“V—Venessa?” Boris had no reason to doubt her arrival. Alfred still peered at him from the chair and yet, seeing his wife once more gave him chills.
“It’s me,” she said. “Come, get up. Steven’s on his way.”
“Steven too?” He asked, his jaw clenched with a confusion he wasn’t sure he should have.
“Of course,” Venessa said. “He wanted to see you to the afterlife with us. Now get up.”
He wanted to, but Boris laid there, his eyes wide as he scrutinized both of them. He opened his mouth, but didn’t respond when a young man entered the room and joined them. From the broad shoulders and comically large ears, he could be just one person.
“Steven,” Boris said, allowing the last trace of doubt to leave his voice. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Steven stood beside his mother. “I missed you too, Dad.”
Alfred smirked and stood with them. “Well, are you ready to go?”
Boris looked over them, over their smiling translucent forms. “Do I just get up?” He asked.
“Yes,” Venessa said. “Stand up and we will ascend together. The rest of our family is waiting for us.”
Well, he hated to keep them waiting, but he still felt alive. Or perhaps that feeling came from seeing those he loved once more. Boris always believed in God and the existence of an afterlife, and yet, he never expected to be thrust into the afterlife like this. But what did I expect? That I would go to sleep and wake up dead?
And so, he pushed himself from the bed and stood, almost tripping from how easily his body moved. No more wobbling or creaks from his joints, but a swift movement. He reached for his cane, to find his hands now smooth and free of wrinkles. Even so, he grabbed it. The moment his hand would have touched the top of the carved hunk of wood, it phased through.
Boris blinked, turned, and stared at himself lying peacefully on his bed. No longer did his chest rise and fall, and the wheezing of his breath he had become associated with for so many years now went silent. Boris reached out with a shaking hand to touch his wrinkled brow and the remaining tuffs of his gray hair, but like with the cane, his hand phased through.
He inhaled and forced himself to turn away from his corpse. Alfred, Venessa, and Steven still stood before him, all now opaque. Boris peered down at himself to confirm that he too didn’t have a translucent form. With a quick look into his bedside mirror, he saw his reflection watching him with an apprehensive frown. Like the other three, he too looked like a young man in his late twenties. His frown turned into a smile.
“I thought it would be harder,” he said.
“Many do,” Alfred said. “But the journey is easier than riding a bike.”
Venessa took his hand in hers. She smiled, the same bright smile she did on their wedding day. Boris hugged her, Steven, and Alfred then grabbed his wife’s hand one more time as before them. A light shined from the hallway.
“Should we go, Dad?” Steven asked as he pushed open the door to let the light engulf them. “The journey isn’t long.” Boris nodded and followed his son and Alfred. He squeezed Venessa’s hand, and the light swallowed them, sending the four spirits toward the heavens.
A heavy thud emanated from the wall when his feet slam against the floor. Boris gasped, peering up with confusion at the knock coming from the door. He blinked, climbing from his hands and knees to a standing position when the door opened.
Inside stepped a lumbering man wearing a long trench coat. His face ragged with wrinkles. In his skeletal, outstretched hands he held a large box. “For you,” the man said, his voice soft.
Boris blinked, his neck creaking as he strained to look around him. No sign of the others, or the light of the afterlife. He fidgeted and backed up as the man approached him, his black coat making him appear to glide across the floor. Boris gulped when the man handed him the box.
Boris accepted the box and opened in. Inside was a dark chocolate cake with white letters saying, ‘Happy 100th Birthday!’ Boris groaned. So I’m still alive. Boris looked at the man, his face despondent.
“Thank you,” Boris said, his voice as soft as an utterance.
The man turned and glided out the house just as he entered. Boris slid the door shut behind him, not noticing the loud click on locking the door. He took the cake and carried it to the table. Well, he had reached one hundred years old. He took out a plate, knife, and fork and indulged himself.
He ate in his usual silence. His hundredth birthday cake almost stale to his mouth. But he had done it. He reached the milestone he and Alfred yearned for. He chewed his cake and dropped the knife to cough, his hand thumping against his chest to dislodge the piece of cake.
From the corner of his eyes, he swore he spotted four figures watching him, all draped in black like the reaper.
— Zach Kuhl