This story is by Christa Meola and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He crossed each item off his grocery list.
Still at his desk, he sorted a handful of pens and put them into two separate cans labelled: Work. Don’t Work.
Pushing the scissors and tape aside, he swept the unread magazines into the bin and removed his two pairs of doubled up reading glasses. He rose from the desk – not an easy task these days. Daily wear had compacted his cheap winter puffer coat into half its former volume, yet it still dwarfed his now skeletal figure. As he trudged over to the fan dragging the chair behind him, dirty worn-thin long johns sagged off his body revealing an adult diaper gaping around his hollow belly.
He turned the fan on high and aimed it at the kids, knowing how much they enjoy the breeze. He watched them dance with joy in the circulated air, letting out a faint chuckle as he tickled the youngest under her chin. Wearily, he patted Junior’s head, not up to singing the ritual lullaby. Easing himself back into his chair, he let them play longer than usual.
Dusk turned the small apartment blue and dim.
It was quiet now except the comforting hum of the fan.
He was ready.
He shuffled into the kitchen, never lifting his slippers off the floor, and reached into the near-empty fridge. The untouched pan of lasagna that his niece brought on Christmas- months ago now- was still there. He remembered answering her question “Do you like it here all alone?” by saying “Yeah. No crowds.” But he didn’t want to think about her. Or anyone. No, he preferred it this way. It’s easier on your own.
Still standing in the light of the open fridge, he shook off the memory and grabbed the package of baloney and shut the door. He never had an appetite anymore, but decided to bring a former favorite snack with him just in case.
In the bedroom, he placed the meat on the windowsill, and methodically changed into a clean undergarment out of the box near the bed. Keeping his coat on, he got under the covers and laid down. He turned to make sure Dolly was still asleep next to him. She was.
He looked up at the red emergency call button on the wall just a couple feet above his head and wondered who would find him.
He turned his head toward the window’s closed blinds and shut his eyes.
Two weeks later, his niece arrived with the building’s maintenance man, an elderly black man in a navy jumpsuit and silver beard. He unlocked the door. The niece walked inside.
The apartment was even more spare than when she had last visited. Gone were the shelving unit and smelly couch. The desk, folding chair and a standing fan were all that remained.
Of course the magazine clippings were still there on the wall, hundreds of them now. Cut outs of advertisements with kids smiling, laughing and playing – all flapping in the breeze and clinging to the wall with yellowing tape. A dozen or so had fallen to the floor.
The maintenance guy cleared his throat from the doorway, “Oh, I uh, turned the fan back on after they removed him. This is exactly how it was when I found him. I wanted it to be how he left it. For you to see.” He shrugged sheepishly.
“Thank you,” said the niece. And she meant it.
She stepped into the bedroom alone, and stopped in the doorway, struck by the scene before her. A play doll still in the original packaging was placed next to the bed with a hand towel tucked over her as a blankie.
“He never pressed the emergency button,” the maintenance guy projected from the other room.
“Yeah. I know,” the niece said quietly to herself as she picked up the unopened baloney from the windowsill and sighed.
She had tried to talk him into moving in with her family. Tried to visit as often as possible. Growing up, she remembered him as a fun and fiery uncle. He babysat her and her brothers when they were little, watched cartoons together, played in their backyard badminton tournaments, and sometimes would get really angry and chase them with the broom. Dad said the war made him a bit crazy.
“Why didn’t you ever get married, Uncle Nick?” she asked on her last visit. “Why didn’t you have a family and kids?”
“If you have no money, then you have no honey,” he replied with a big toothless smile and a shrug. “I was always broke. I’m a veteran so I can live here for free, but what was I gonna do? You gotta have money to take care of a family.”
He turned on the fan and sang to his cut out kids on the wall. They seemed to come alive with happiness. Mid-song, he turned back to his niece and said “I know what I’m doing” and smiled.