Mike found himself standing on a well-manicured lawn. Not a blade of grass was taller than another and the color was of a vibrant green. He took a moment to savor the softness that greeted his feet. It was comforting. It was familiar.
“Hello, Mike,” a voice, calm and free of emotion, greeted him.
Mike tore his attention away from savoring the splendor of the grass and towards the source of the voice. A man, dressed in a simple gray suit and an even darker gray shirt, acknowledged him with a nod. The man might have been in his late forties or early fifties. He had the face of someone who was likely older than he looked.
Did this man just appear out of thin air?
“Vincent?” Mike asked, a little unsure and a little curious.
The man nodded slowly.
Vincent was slightly taller and (judging by how well the suit fit him) in much better shape than Mike who, in his late fifties, wasn't in horrible shape but was always told he could shed a few pounds. Vincent’s dark hair was styled fashionably and his equally dark eyes revealed nothing and yet were hypnotizing at the same time. He looked like a man who had stepped off the runway of a fashion show.
“Are you ready?” Vincent asked plainly, stretching out his hand in a gesture urging Mike to follow.
And Mike did.
They made their way to the side of the house, a two-story brick home painted white and accented with a dark blue. Mike and Vincent walked past a tree that stopped just short of being as tall as the house. It was oak or something. Mike couldn’t remember. Perhaps it didn’t matter. The tree looked as healthy and well-maintained as the lawn.
The two came to a large window that allowed them to peek into the home. Mike recognized the room though the memory seemed distant and hazy. He knew this place. He had been here before. As he looked further, the memory became a little clearer. He remembered every piece of furniture because each was as difficult to assemble as anything from IKEA. Four hours on a coffee table wasn’t what he considered to be a fun Saturday afternoon.
The two inched closer, separated from the window by a two-foot high bush serving as a bodyguard letting them know that where they stood was close enough. Mike looked to the far right and couldn’t see more than what was in the window. He looked to the far left expecting to see the kitchen and he couldn’t. He might as well have been watching a television screen.
At that moment, a girl with dark brown hair that fell to the middle of her back walked into view. Mike felt his heart skip several beats and his knees buckle. This had been the first time Mike had seen her in—he didn’t know. He didn’t have a sense of time anymore.
“Jenna,” Mike exhaled. He took a handful of the leaves from the bushes and squeezed as hard as he could. The branches dug into the palms of his hands triggering a pain strong enough to distract him from the even greater pain of missing his daughter.
Jenna was reading a book, the title of which Mike couldn’t see. Her face was deep in concentration. The book was either extremely important or completely engrossing. Or both. She loved to read and walk. It was the oddest of habits but she said that it helped her concentrate better. She had phenomenal grades so Mike was in no position to question her.
This was his daughter and yet she was more. Mike noted how she paced with an adult’s purpose as opposed to an adolescent’s uncertainty. But she was always seemingly more mature than her friends. Kids her age were trying to figure out who they were—their personalities, the way they carried themselves, their point of view—but Jenna looked as if she was already certain of the woman she was to be.
The gray sweats and oversized sweater with HARVARD printed across the chest made her smaller and younger than a fourteen year old. But Mike remembered that she often dressed for comfort rather than style. He didn’t mind. He would always see her as his little girl.
Jenna took her book and sat at an old fashioned roll-up desk. Her father’s. It was where he worked whenever he was home. Mike remembered purchasing the desk at a garage sale. Though it didn’t match anything in the living room, he enjoyed its character. He remembered an argument about the desk, the details of which seemed faint. What little he could recall felt elusive. Apparently he won because, well, the roll-up desk remained. And now the desk was where his daughter chose to do her work.
Mike noticed that amongst the papers strewn about the desk stood a framed black and white picture of him, taken at his surprise 50th birthday party. The look of surprise and joy as he entered the door greeted by family and friends was memorialized within the silver frame. He remembered the occasion as well as the picture.
Deep in thought and with a pen ready to write, Jenna suddenly pulled her attention away from her paper and looked around the room. She was...searching?
Can she? Mike wondered, looking over at the man in the gray suit.
Vincent nodded, “No.”
Jenna turned her attention to her father’s picture. Something had grabbed a hold of her. It was as if it had called out and pulled her in. She stared deep into the picture so powerfully that Mike felt as if her eyes were boring a hole into his chest. Suddenly, Jenna began to scribble furiously onto one of the sheets of paper. Then onto another sheet. Then another. A smile formed on her face. Inspiration had apparently struck her.
“Thanks, Daddy,” she said, not looking up from her paper. Her voice didn’t have the depth and experience of an adult but the purity and innocence of an adolescent.
As she wrote the final word on the paper, Jenna tossed the pen on the desk and spun around in the chair. As she made her turn back towards the desk and came to a complete stop, she grabbed the picture of her father. Jenna closed her eyes tightly and pressed the picture to her face as if the touch of the cold frame was a substitute for the touch of her father’s familiar skin. Tears began to slowly cascade from her eyes and down her cheeks.
“Mike,” Vincent said calmly.
Mike nodded and took a couple steps away from the window. This was nice, he thought.
At that moment, Jenna whipped her head towards the window, the tears still slowly flowing from her eyes. Mike paused. The two locked eyes and held one another for what seemed to be several minutes when it was really only a few seconds. Mike, feeling as if his heart was about to burst, watched Jenna slowly turn away and return to work.
“Now you know,” Vincent said calmly, resting his hand on the father’s shoulder.
Mike, again, found himself on the well-manicured lawn. The sun had just set. The two-story white brick home with the blue accents stood before him. He took several steps towards the house but stopped. There was something slightly different this time but he couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
It was Vincent. Again, it seemed as if he appeared from nowhere. Mike was only moderately startled.
“Vincent,” Mike said softly, nodding at the man in the gray suit. Vincent nodded in return.
“Are you ready?” Vincent asked in a steady, monotone voice while stretching out his hand in a gesture urging Mike to follow.
And Mike did.
The two walked towards the side of the house and passed the tall tree that looked like a sentinel standing guard. They came to a large window that allowed them to peek into the living room. Mike recognized the furniture. He even recognized the roll-up desk. There were no books or writing instruments. The desk was a gathering place for memories imprisoned in picture frames. He noted a picture of him taken from his surprise 50th birthday party.
That was a fun time, he thought.
Mike looked at the other pictures with great curiosity. There was one of a young woman with dark brown hair, stretching out her arms as wide as the smile on her face. A multi-story red brick building loomed behind her. Another was of the dark haired young woman standing with several other young women, each holding a letter that spelled HARVARD. She was the ‘A’. Lastly, there was a picture of the dark haired young woman dressed in a navy blue business suit, shaking hands with a gray haired man who looked to be someone of importance. The expression on her face was much more serious than in the other pictures.
Mike looked about the entire room. On the coffee table empty glasses, crumbled napkins, and used paper plates surrounded the remains of a chocolate cake. A number of folding chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around the coffee table. Apparently the celebrating had already been done.
Mike noted a banner, desperately clinging to the wall, that read, “Congratulations Grad!”
“Well I’ll be damned,” Mike commented, which drew a smile across Vincent’s face.
Mike scanned the rest of the wall and saw, “Harvard” in big letters, flanked by balloons whose color was the trademark Harvard crimson.
“She graduated from Harvard!” Mike exclaimed. With a beaming smile of pride, he looked to Vincent whose slow nod of approval felt empty. No matter.
The pride in Mike’s heart couldn’t be measured. He loved sitting with Jenna and talking about her future. You could be anything, he would always tell her. His daughter’s promise and potential excited him because he wanted nothing but the best for her. One year they took a family trip to Boston, which included a walking tour of Harvard. Jenna was awestruck by the campus and its history. When they returned home, she dove into learning more about the university. The following school year, she met with guidance counselors and advisors and began the process of identifying what she needed to do to gain acceptance into the Ivy League school. Mind you, she was only 12.
And now she was able to make one of her many dreams come true.
At that moment, a dark haired woman walked into the room wearing a black dress and her dark brown hair drawn back into a ponytail. She carried a pair of high heels, which she immediately dropped on the floor.
“Jenna,” Mike mumbled under his breath.
His daughter had a look that was of both exhaustion and relief. What was more startling was how she had grown. This was no longer a teen who acted like a mature woman. This was an actual mature woman.
Jenna took a seat at the roll-up desk. The back of the chair essentially supported the weight of all the stress, relief, frustration, and euphoria that came from her graduation. Jenna undid her ponytail, the hair falling to just past her shoulders. Undoing her hair always felt like one long, satisfying exhale that was borderline orgasmic.
She looked at the picture of her father.
“We did it, dad,” Jenna said matter of factly. “We…did…it.”
You did it, Mike thought.
“I guess you’ll be going to Harvard, too,” Jenna laughed to herself. “Both of our dreams are coming true.”
Your dreams, he smiled to himself.
Jenna stood and took the picture of her father into her hands much like when she used to read while walking around the room.
“Remember when you said that it was gonna happen? That I was gonna do it? Geez, I didn’t believe you. But! I looked you in the eye—“ Jenna held the picture so that it was eye level. “—and told you that I got this. That I knew I was gonna do it. Man, that was a big lie!”
Mike hung on her every word.
“I was scared shitless,” she spoke directly to the picture, which only smiled back. “It wasn’t if I was gonna be smart enough or talented enough. I didn’t know if I was deserving enough. Stupid, right?”
Jenna paused to hold back what felt like an inevitable stream of tears.
His daughter always seemed to have a steely resolve that he attributed more to her mother and that side of the family. He couldn’t have been any more wrong. She was every bit as sensitive, self-conscious, emotional, doubtful, and insecure as he was at her age. She was more similar to him than he had ever thought.
“But you—“ Jenna smiled, jokingly pointing an accusing finger at her smiling father in the picture frame. “—you believed. I don’t know if you believed it yourself but you made me believe in myself. You would talk me up. And now I’m going to Harvard!”
Jenna suddenly raised the picture up in the air with both hands, facing it downward towards her as if she was hoisting a baby for flight.
“We did it, daddy. We did it!” Jenna exclaimed. She giggled as if she was 14 again.
Oddly, she felt a tinge of guilt. Here she was celebrating and the man partly responsible wasn’t there to celebrate with her. Jenna quickly composed herself. The joyous moment fled like a wave retreating back to the ocean.
“We did it, daddy,” she said again, this time a bit more reserved.
You did it, Mike thought to himself.
“I wish you were here,” Jenna sighed, her shoulders slumping.
Me too, Mike thought to himself.
“Mike,” Vincent’s calm, impassive voice broke the moment.
Mike tore himself from his jubilant daughter and looked at the man in the gray suit. His eyes begged Vincent for a moment longer. But he knew it wasn’t to be. His head dropped in resignation.
“And now you know,” Vincent said plainly.
Mike looked down at the familiar grass that felt soft to the touch. A warmth filled him. He looked up at the home. It felt different but it was a good different.
Lining the front of the house were flowers of varying shades of pink, purple, and yellow. Mike found them very uplifting. They had an energy to them. Small flags were staked into the ground, each with a unique design. One was a collage of multi-colored hearts with the words, “Love Lives Here”. Another had cartoonishly drawn people with smiling faces standing behind the word, “Family”. One other had a house with a white picket fence and the words, “Home Sweet Home”. There was even a pinwheel, spiritedly spinning courtesy of the gentle evening breeze. The house had a whimsical and welcoming feel.
“Hello, Vincent,” Mike declared, not bothering to look over to the man in the gray suit who had been standing in silence waiting for him.
“Hello, Mike,” Vincent replied, his voice sounding empty and hollow.
Mike slowly turned to face the man in the gray suit.
“Are you ready?” Vincent asked, his voice numb and apathetic, stretching out his hand in a gesture urging Mike to follow.
And Mike did.
Mike and Vincent walked to the side of the home and under the huge tree. Was it an oak? It didn’t matter. Nestled in its branches was a finely constructed treehouse, painted white to match the two-story brick home. It even featured the blue accents.
Mike was genuinely impressed. He was not someone who was good with his hands but he was able to recognize fine craftsmanship. Perhaps a professional put it together. Or, the homeowners are so skilled that they are the ones who put it together. Regardless, the treehouse wasn’t why he was here.
“I’m here for a different reason, right?” he asked Vincent.
The man in the gray suit smiled, his thin lips curling to the edges of his face. Vincent then nodded towards the large window from which came a dim light. Mike slowly approached the window with apprehension. Why was he nervous? There was no reason to be.
Mike looked through the window and into the living room. His eyes focused on the roll-up desk, which he immediately recognized. The rest of the room, like the exterior of the home, was familiar and yet unfamiliar. New furniture? New decorative pieces?
His eyes then fell upon a dark-haired woman, sitting on a dark leather sofa cradling a child. A boy. He had dark hair like—who Mike assumed to be—his mom.
“Jenna,” Mike breathed. He looked back at Vincent who nodded in affirmation.
The little boy—likely no older than four—looked up endearingly at Jenna much in the same way Jenna had looked up at Mike when she was his age.
“Tell me, mama,” he asked her. Mama. Mother.
Mike looked over at Vincent, who again nodded in affirmation. He had a grandson.
The boy not only had Jenna’s dark hair, but her dark eyes and bump of a nose. He actually looked like a carbon copy of Jenna. She smiled down at the boy, running her fingers through his hair. Mike used to do the same when she was a little girl and they cuddled on the couch together. Sometimes Mike would read her a story. Other times he would tell her stories about his childhood. In all truthfulness, she preferred that he run his fingers through her hair because it helped her fall asleep.
The boy clasped his hands together and begged his mother. Jenna gave in.
“But then bed time,” she negotiated, feigning seriousness. The boy enthusiastically nodded.
“Your grandfather was…” Jenna struggled to finish, her voice cracked slightly. Her son felt something was wrong and sat up to face her. Apart from the age difference, they were mirror reflections of one another.
Jenna recovered, a smile spreading across her face as she composed herself.
“Your grandfather was a goofball,” she told her son mischievously. “He used to think he was so, so funny. He told the corniest jokes and then he’d laugh like it was the funniest joke in the world.”
It usually was, Mike thought to himself.
“Tell me a joke!” the boy asked excitedly.
Jenna took a moment and searched her memory bank for one of her father’s trademark jokes. There were so many that it was hard for her to pick just one. But then her eyes brightened. Got one, she giggled to herself.
“Why don’t eggs tell jokes?” she asked.
“Because they’d crack each other up,” Mike mumbled.
The little boy was so excited for the punchline that he could only shrug.
“Because they’d crack each other up!” Jenna replied.
The boy laughed hysterically. Jenna looked down at him and smiled lovingly. She felt the warmth of the memories from her father telling the joke. Now her own child was experiencing the same.
“That was funny, mama,” the boy told Jenna, who looked down at him with love and pride.
“Your grandpa used to think so,” Jenna teased the boy.
Because it was, Mike thought with a smile.
“Do you miss him?” the boy asked innocently. Mike’s eyes darted to his daughter.
“Everyday, Bud,” she said, squeezing him tightly in her arms. Jenna pulled him close until their faces were only inches apart. “I miss him everyday.”
“Does it make you sad?”
Jenna didn’t skip a beat. “I’m more sad that you didn’t get to meet him. You would’ve loved him.”
“But you miss him?”
“I do. But I know that he’s where he’s supposed to be.”
Mike looked back at Vincent and was surprised to see him smiling. The man in the gray suit seemed to allow himself a little bit of pleasure.
“Daddy said that sometimes you talk to grandpa,” the boy said timidly. It was as if he wasn’t supposed to know and he was embarrassed that he did.
Jenna looked down at her son lovingly.
“I do,” she said, rubbing the boy’s hair. “Know what? If you really mean it and you really want it, you can talk to people even if they’re no longer with us. But it has to come from your heart. When I talk to grandpa, a part of me knows that he really can hear me. I know that he’s listening. Even though he’s not here with us, he is. And it makes me feel a lot better.”
“Really?” he asked with a look of awe.
“Oh yeah,” Jenna assured him. “He watches and he listens.”
The boy, struck by what his mother had just told him, began to look about the room a little nervously. Jenna laughed. Even Mike had to laugh.
“Ok, bud! Time for beddy bed!” Jenna announced.
Jenna plopped the little boy on the ground and he scooted out of the room. Mike followed the sound of the boy climbing up the stairs, through the hallway, and into his room.
Mike returned his attention to Jenna, who was gathering toys that were scattered on the floor. She was a mother. And from what he witnessed, she was a wonderful mother.
Jenna walked over to the roll-up desk and picked up the picture of her father that was taken at his surprise 50th birthday party. She looked at him and closed her eyes softly. She was whispering something that Mike couldn’t hear but as she spoke, he could feel his body begin to warm. It was soothing. It was reassuring. It was filling.
At that moment, the little boy yelled something down to Jenna, who opened her eyes and gently placed the picture of her father back down on the desk.
“Michael, you better be in that bed when I come up there or I’ll use the tushy pincher!” Jenna playfully yelled back, walking out of the room and up the stairs.
Mike took a step back from the large window.
“Michael,” Mike said in a quiet surprise. “She named him after me.”
Vincent nodded slowly.
Mike could feel himself begin to tear. His grandson was named after him.
Vincent slowly walked over to Mike, who was still processing the discovery.
“Mike,” Vincent said calmly.
“A couple more minutes,” Mike pleaded. Vincent wore no expression but Mike knew his answer. It wasn’t one that he wanted.
“And now you know,” Vincent said calmly.
Mike looked down at the lawn. It wasn’t so well cared for. The grass was brown and rough as if it had not been watered for some time. Typically you would want a lush, vibrant green. This was a sickly brown. A series of jagged twigs lined the front of the home and looked like they had once been adorned by beautiful flowers. Not anymore.
Mike looked to the white brick house with the blue accents. It also looked as if it had seen better days. Dirt and mildew stained parts of the exterior. Spider webs filled the corners of the home. Overall, the property had been sadly neglected.
Something was very off and it felt extremely unsettling. He rushed to the side of the house before suddenly stopping.
“Vincent!” Mike barked at the man in the gray suit and the blank expression. “There’s something wrong!”
Vincent would only look back at Mike with no response.
“Are you ready?” Vincent asked in an emotionless tone, stretching out his hand in a gesture urging Mike to follow. Mike looked at Vincent’s hand dismissively and rushed off without him.
His hurried steps crunched the dying, brown grass as he made his way to the large window. A feeling of dread continued to overtake him. What was it? Mike didn’t know but something inside him was telling him it was urgent. And so he ran faster until he reached the side of the house. His heart pounded in his chest as if he had just run a marathon.
Mike reached a large tree that looked about as healthy as the lawn. There was a large chunk of space in the tree that was missing. Something was there before. Mike couldn’t recall what it was, but he knew it was rather important. It was gone now.
Mike made his way over to the large window. Mike peered inside and his eye was immediately drawn to the roll-up desk. The room was sparse except for a dark brown leather sofa where an old woman lay under a heavy white blanket. Her eyes were shut and she looked to be in peace. Mike watched the ever so slight gentle rise and fall of her chest.
A tall man with dark brown hair and equally dark brown eyes walked into the room. He sat in a chair next to the old woman and began running his fingers through her thin, grayed hair, looking lovingly upon her with each gentle stroke.
The woman slowly opened her eyes, saw the familiar face of the man, and smiled weakly.
“My boy,” she said.
“My mom,” he replied.
The man’s voice was steady but it bore the weight of pain and sadness. He loved this woman.
“Tell me a joke,” the woman spoke feebly. The man gave a short, muted laugh. He would do anything for her.
“Why don’t eggs tell jokes?” the man asked.
Mike felt a sudden sharp pain in his chest and every bit of breath left his body.
“Because they’d crack each other up,” the man finished. The woman laughed. Though it brought on a stabbing pain throughout her body, she didn’t care.
No, no, no, Mike thought to himself. He didn’t want to believe it.
“Jenna,” Mike said softly through his overwhelming rush of sadness.
Looking passed the gray, thinning hair and beneath the aged, wrinkled face, Mike could see his daughter. The vitality of youth and health had long left her but the soul of the young woman was still there. Even when she struggled to smile and laugh, Mike could still see her.
“Michael,” Jenna asked, struggling to get the name out. Mike realized the man was her adult son. “Can you get grandpa for me?”
Michael, obedient and dutiful, nodded.
Mike wanted to pound on the window, but he couldn’t.
Michael walked over to the old roll-up desk and grabbed the framed picture of his grandfather, which was taken at his surprise 50th birthday party. He returned to his mother and gently placed it on her chest so she could stare into the smiling face of her father. She missed him. She always missed him.
Seeing the pain in her face, not from what was ravaging her body but from the pain of loss, Michael took his mother’s free hand and squeezed it gently. There was no dosage or combination of painkillers that could beat back what she was feeling at the moment. Michael did not enjoy seeing his beloved mother this way. It had been a long three months.
“You’ll both be where you’re supposed to be,” Michael said to Jenna.
“Soon,” she replied, looking up from the picture and to her son.
Michael carefully placed his mother’s hand back on her chest and rose from his seat. He smoothed out her heavy blanket and tucked in wherever it had come loose from her body. He wanted to do whatever he could to make her feel more comfortable. From how she had been declining so rapidly, Michael did not expect her to last through the night. In fact, there were already many nights where he expected her not to last through the night. Thankfully, they had already said their farewells weeks ago.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Michael said to his mother, a feeling deep inside of him knew that there would be a time where she wouldn’t see a next morning. It was better than saying good-bye, which felt final. At least, “see you in the morning” made things feel like their time together was going to continue, even if their time together on Earth had concluded.
Jenna strained mightily to just simply nod to her son.
“Soon,” Jenna said to her son.
“Soon,” Michael whispered back.
Mike, tears in his eyes, spun to face Vincent. The man in the gray suit stood before him, arms at his sides and a bottomless, empty expression on his face. Mike knew that Vincent wasn’t going to spread his arms and embrace him or offer words of comfort. Vincent was every bit as cold as the color of his wardrobe.
Suddenly, the dim light in the living room went out. Mike turned around only to be greeted by an infinite dark and his reflection in the glass of the window. He could see nothing. There was probably nothing left to see.
“Will I see her?” Mike asked, not bothering to turn around to face Vincent.
Vincent didn’t reply but Mike took the silence as the answer to his question.
“Will she be...here?” Mike asked, afraid of the answer.
“No,” Vincent said with absolute finality and permanence. There was no expounding on why. It was just so. And that feeling sunk to the bottom of Mike’s stomach.
Jenna was a good person. What had she done that she didn’t deserve to be here? She was the best of him, a version of him that even he could never be. Mike felt a rage rising within him.
“What kind of heaven is this, Vincent?” Mike asked forcefully.
He would have his answer.
“It isn’t,” Vincent replied.
Mike stumbled backward against the tree, almost falling to the ground. The softly spoken words echoed loudly in his head.
It isn’t. It isn’t. It isn’t.
Rather than receding in volume, the words continued to rise to a crescendo.
It isn’t. It isn’t. It isn’t.
Mike cupped his ears trying to block out the words. He couldn’t.
“And now you know,” Vincent said calmly.
Mike was standing on a familiar green lawn that surrounded a white brick, blue accented two-story house. It felt familiar.
“Hello, Mike,” a voice greeted him calmly.
Mike turned to find the source of the voice. A man, dressed in a simple gray suit and an even darker gray shirt, acknowledged him with a nod. A thin smile crawled slowly across the man’s face that Mike found strangely familiar and unnerving.
Mike wondered if he had just been so distracted that he didn’t notice this man at all or if he simply had appeared out of thin air.
“Vincent?” Mike asked, a little unsure and a little curious.
The man in the gray suit slowly nodded.
“Are you ready?” Vincent asked softly, stretching out his hand in a gesture urging Mike to follow.
And Mike did.