Merrows by Alan Bray
The staff had his father dressed in slippers and creased pajamas, and wrapped in the red plaid robe Sam had given him for his last birthday. He sat in the recliner by the window, looking, not at the day outside, but at the bare, white wall three feet in front of his nose. Above his head, the hands of a round clock beat time.
“You’d say some things weren’t meant to be, but I can’t accept that,” Sam said, his words accelerating, colliding with each other like aimless sparks. “We’re ready, everything’s set. Elena would make a great mom, don’t you think?” He stopped and stared down at the empty face, the white wall behind it, the window full of light.
There was no response. There was never any response. The old man’s eyes were dry and unblinking; a silver stubble wrapped around his chin like a mask. Talk to him, the doctor said, maybe he actually understands you — deep inside. Of course, his father had always been quiet, and Sam remembered many occasions when he’d had to fill in both halves of a conversation, but a year ago his father had stopped speaking completely. This new silence had a different quality, an emptiness that was almost too painful to bear.
Sam watched the clock, telling himself, I’ll stay till five o’clock — no, five-o-five. At five-ten, he walked into the space between his father and the wall and kissed the old man on the top of his head. The emptiness had to be warded off, wiped away like the sensation of the kiss. He felt guilty over the relief of leaving.
The shortest distance between the nursing center and his house was the road that went over the mountain. It was a familiar route; twice a week he’d take it after work to see his father. He knew all the houses and driveways, recognized some of the trees, and drove slowly, thinking of Elena.
The doctor said there was no physical reason why they couldn’t get pregnant, but their efforts and love had had no result. The absence of a child left Elena quiet and sad. Sometimes he felt he no longer knew her, nor could he know her because the sadness was like a second skin that blurred her form. If only there was a way to break through it, pierce it; even if it closed up again behind them, at least they’d be together.
In his own secret depths, Sam feared the fault was his, that he lacked something essential.
He was close to the ridge when he saw a break in the trees and slowed down. Where the trees were most dense, a path had been cut into the woods. Someone must have built a new house.
He pulled off the road and got out of the car, surprised that, passing by so often, he hadn’t noticed the bustle of logging trucks and construction equipment. A narrow bridge spanned the ditch, but the path across was barred by a thick, green rope suspended between two posts. From the forest, the smell of damp and pine was overlaid with the scent of a burning hearth.
Sam pressed forward across the rope and the bridge. Two hundred paces further, he faced a wall of restless branches. The path led to the left and turned again in the same way. Then, straight ahead, back among the spruces, walls of dark wood draped a small house crowned with a cap of blue tin. A plume of silver smoke stretched out toward the low-hanging clouds where a hawk flew, making a darker shadow against the blackened sky. He watched until its shape passed out of sight. Then he stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door.
It swung open, and as if he’d been waiting just inside, a man appeared in the empty space. He was shorter than Sam but broad-shouldered, with alert, green eyes behind round spectacles, the front of his head gleaming bald and surrounded by a crown of long, red hair. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved, white cotton shirt dyed in strips of many colors.
“Hello,” Sam said. “My name’s Sam Robinson. What a great house — did you just build it? I used to come around here when I was young.”
The man stared at him. “You’ve never been here before,” he said.
“Well, no. Of course — it’s new, isn’t it?”
“I’d say you’re new, Robin’s son. I’m Merrows, Bob Merrows. You’d best come inside.”
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