This story is by Hannah Custer and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
In Sacred Heart Care Center, there was an old man who slept in the corner room on the fortieth floor. The walls were eggshell white and the curtains were a dull cream. The cold linoleum floor squeaked against his loafers. His leather armchair had seen better days. The divot in the leather arm looked barren without his tortoiseshell cat napping in the afternoon sun. Handmade paper snowflakes hung from his windows and on the wall by his bed, someone had tacked up a red felt stocking, with Grandbaba written across the top in a six year-old’s handwriting.
Charles Norton’s hands shook most of the time and he could barely feed himself anymore. He was alone, except when his daughter came to visit or a friendly nurse would check on him to make sure he was still there. Charles would look out of his window but do little else.
It was a normal Christmas Eve when his daughter came to see him. Her name is Anjali. Even when he barely responded to her chatter, she still came. She fixed her father’s sleeves, quickly revealing their differences. Even his tanned skin from years of travel could not compare to her natural caramel tones.
Anjali got up from her seat on the bed and said. “Now Baba, I will be by to pick you up in the morning and then you will have Christmas with us. I’ve brought you a present and I will not take it back. I don’t expect anything in return.”
Charles balked at her insistence but said nothing. He folded his arms across his chest and pouted with his chin to his chest until he saw the gold and green embroidery of his daughter’s long Punjabi sleeves from the corner of his eye.
Anjali kissed him on his balding head and said. “I will see you in the morning.” She walked out the door of his room with her purse in hand. She told him. “Main tumse pyar karthee hoon.” I love you.
He fumbled over the Hindi words but he managed to reply. “Main tumse pyar kartha hoon.” I love you too.
Anjali grinned and left him.
A few minutes after, Charles was settled into his normal spot. Then turned to look at the present she’d left him. He ripped open the wrapping paper and stared at an old photo journal. It was crackled leather with many years of wear and tear. A solitary photo drifted from the pages and settled somewhere beneath the bed unnoticed.
He opened it briefly and scanned the first page. It was elaborate cursive lettering that he could barely read but it reminded him of his beloved wife. He turned a few pages looking for more legible words. He caught familiar places and dates. After a few pages, the only words he recognized was ‘My Charlie’. His heart stopped as he realized out loud. “This was her’s. ”
Charles’s first thought was to shove it away but instead he reached to tear apart the first handful of pages.
“Don’t you dare Charlie!”
He looked up and dropped his hand in fright at the sound of a familiar voice. “Svetta?”
A middle aged woman appeared at his door step. She had long silver blonde hair and snow white skin. She wore a fitted cream dress he could swear he’d seen before, with red poinsettias along the neckline. She wore red bangles on her wrists. They jangled together as she closed the distance between them.
Charles instinctively looked at the wall where his most prized possessions stared back at him. In the midst of his granddaughter’s school pictures and his daughter’s wedding photos, a photograph of a younger Charlie stood apart. He knelt in a group of seven others as they played with children on the streets of West Bengal. With him stood a young woman with long blonde hair and the brightest green eyes he’d ever seen.
Svetta stepped up behind him and asked him. “Do you remember India?”
Charlie replied. “Yes.” He ran a trembling hand through his thin hair.
Svetta asked. “What did it smell like?”
Charles replied, deadpan. “Campfire smoke. Chai tea. Goats…”
She whispered in his ear. “Take me there.”
The spectre touched his hands with hers and instantly he felt his tremors stop. His hands were young again. Asleep, his head fell onto his chest. Svetta reached up her hand to brush away the black curls hanging limp on his forehead, damp with humidity. He treasured the feel of her hand on his face. “Careful now Charlie. Don’t fall asleep. We have to catch our train.” The roar of the approaching train flooded the dimly lit station and all the cluttered bodies waiting around them shuffled to their feet. Charlie looked up to see a member of their team sneak a picture. Flash!
They passed out a banana and a biscuit to every person in a community of lepers outside the city of Purulia. They were quickly eaten and forgotten when the children found out their new found friends loved to play. Svetta warned him as over ten kids from the age of four to ten years old with bright eyes and dark hair looked up at them with expectant smiles. “Steady now Charlie. Don’t get heat stroke.” The warm sun beat down on his sweaty back but he lifted those kids in the air over twenty times each. He caught Svetta looking at him from the corner of his eye, with her camera. Flash!
A group of fourteen stepped into a dark alleyway littered with trash and broken glass. Charlie led the way for the rest of their team into one of the largest slums in Asia. He asked. “We’re not going too far in, are we?” Their guide bobbled his head from side to side and said. “We are going only a little ways.”
Charlie fixed his sweat-stained shirt and yelped as an army of bugs erupted from his collar. Svetta laughed from just behind him. “Steady now Charlie.”
The walls were made with concrete, tin sheets and wooden boards. Clothes of every color hung to dry between homes. The bubbly suds overflowed and made their escape down the alleyways. High above, they could look down and see bright blue tarps transformed into makeshift roofs and walls. The color popped amongst the trash and rubble. Charlie raised his camera to get a better look. Flash!
Svetta appeared at his side, just the way she was so long ago. Her blonde hair had turned silver and cut just above her shoulders. Her form-fitting dress turned into a blue sari with holly leaves on the fringe. He pleaded. “Stay with me.”
Svetta pressed her hands to his mouth to shush him but he kissed her hands gently instead. Her fading figure told him. “Sthir ab, mere priye.Yaad hai aur khush ho.”
Steady now, my beloved. Remember and be happy.
When Charlie woke up next morning, he was in his own bed, surrounded by photographs. He picked up each one with tender care. “New Delhi,” He murmured.
He picked up another. Surrounded by children in the leper colonies of West Bengal. Remembering faces and all the places he’d been. “Purulia.”
Two little boys playing in the trash. “Mumbai.”
He noticed one of the photos fell under the bed and went to pick it up as his door opened.
A small girl with long dark hair whisked into the room. An excited squeal interrupted his thoughts just as his granddaughter ran into his open arms, toppling him over. “Grandbaba! Merry Christmas.”
Charles laughed deeply from his chest. “Merry Christmas Nahtin.” Granddaughter
Anjali stepped into the room with her husband in tow. She asked, frightened. “Are you alright Baba? Did you fall?”
Charles got to his feet with a small tremor. His granddaughter tried to help.
Anjali saw a new spark in his eyes as he showed her the picture he held in his hands. It was Svetta in a bright blue sari with red leaves along the trim, surrounded by family and friends. In her arms was Anjali on her adoption day.
Charles told her. “I’ve traveled most of my life. I’ve been to beautiful places, seen majestic things. These things mean nothing if I’ve forgotten what is most important. You are my greatest adventure.”
Anjali felt tears spring to her eyes but she couldn’t say a word.
Charles whispered. “Sthir ab, meree Anjali. Main ke lie banaane ke lie itana hai.” Steady now, my Anjali. I have so much to make up for.
The nurses on duty came out from every nook and cranny to watch in shock and delight as the quiet man from the corner room on the fortieth floor checked himself out for the day. His son-in-law pushed him out the door in a wheelchair, his granddaughter in his lap. She cried out to the world, “Alavida! We’re off on an adventure.” Goodbye