Last Wish

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A lonely winter's day...

Last Wish
by Erin Halfelven

I pulled the wool cap down low enough on my bald head to cover my ears. No use being uncomfortable. With that thought, I pulled the flask from my coat pocket and took another sip. It wasn’t Tullamore, but it would have to do, I thought wryly. It wasn’t even Irish whiskey, just cheap supermarket Canadian, tasting of kerosene and caribou piss.

I’d given away everything I could over the past year, selling some of my possessions for money and giving that away, too. At the end, I didn’t have enough cash to buy a better tipple and settled on a half-pint of the cheapest 90-proof I could find. All I really needed was enough to wash down the pills I’d brought along.

The forest above Angelus Oaks looked inviting, with thick, heavy ponderosa and towering sugar pine trunks growing dense enough to create the impression of walls. The snow from a recent fall frosted each limb with an almost Christmassy beauty. It wouldn’t be a bad place to die.

Not my first choice, though. I’d intended to drive deeper into the woods to Jenks Lake, where I had spent some summers long ago, but the road to the campground by the lake had been closed for the winter. So I’d turned around and driven back down the mountain and parked the beater Oldsmobile in a wide spot of pavement still a mile or two above the town.

It took a bit of care to climb over the berm beside the parking spot and really get into the woods, but I didn’t want to be found too quickly, so I needed to get away from the road. I took care not to leave too obvious of a track, but it was impossible to obscure my starting point completely. The snow took footprints too well.

I trudged into the forest, angling away from the lake, mostly uphill into the more rugged terrain. About a quarter-mile away, I spotted someone’s rustic cabin down a snow-covered road. It didn’t look like anyone had been in or out in days, so I decided to ignore the possible neighbor as an unlikely witness to what I intended to do.

The winter day had that stark beauty that suited my mood perfectly as I picked my way further into the dimness of a natural cathedral. I avoided the drifts but even so, my feet were soon soaked as snowmelt worked its way into my inappropriate boots. Who in Southern California owns proper footwear for trudging through snow, other than perhaps the species of lunatic called weekend skiers?

I worked my way further into the forest, my feet getting colder by the minute. Soon enough, I’d be colder all over. I took out the little flask again to borrow a bit of its false warmth. When I put it back in my pocket, I felt the shape of my other bottle. I rested a moment, contemplating my own resolve.

But yes, I was doing the right thing. With any luck, my body would not be found until summer, my bones cleaned by the little foresters’ sanitation crew. Perhaps a coyote would take a femur home for the pups to gnaw on. The idea amused me and I was smiling when I noticed something gleaming in the grey and brown winter leaves.

It looked like—jewelry? Partly covered by wind-drifted snow under the boughs of a misplaced oak tree, it gleamed in the semi-darkness. I stepped closer, my curiosity not as moribund as my other organs. I sat on my heels to peer more closely at the object.

A ring? A brooch? A bracelet? No—a tiara. A circlet of gleaming metal still tangled in the raven locks on the head of a small girl.

I stood straight up in shock.

I bent back down immediately, casting aside any thought of how she might have come to be here, deep in a winter forest. I had to find out if she were alive. One hand went to her neck to try to find a pulse, and I held the other hand near her nose and mouth in search of breath.

I couldn’t be sure she had a pulse, perhaps because my own was hammering in my ears, but she did seem to be breathing, a faint whisper of air moving against the back of my hand.

Her cheeks were icy white and cold as the snow that lay partly atop her. I didn’t waste time with more investigation right there. I remembered the cabin I had seen, perhaps half a mile away. I had to get her there as soon as possible.

I picked her up, terrified for her well-being when I discovered her nakedness. She weighed almost nothing at all, but I immediately saw she was not a small girl but, really, a tiny woman, with delicate, pointy breasts and a whisper of dark pubic hair.

She went inside my jacket. It was a battered old leather-and-sheepskin thigh-length coat two or three sizes too big for me since my weight-loss due to the cancer. My belly was distended by my disease, but I wrapped her legs around me and put her delicate hands into my armpits before zipping the coat back up. Her head rested on my breastbone, and I folded the collar around her face.

Then I hiked quickly back to where I had seen the cabin, following the trace of my footprints in the snow so I could not get lost. Her frigid skin warmed slowly, and though I am not a religious man, I think I must have prayed.

I know I talked to her as I half-ran through the woods. “You’ll be all right,” I crooned, hoping I wasn’t lying to her. “We’ll get to the cabin. I’ll build a fire. There will probably be canned soup in the cupboard. Do you want some soup?” And similar nonsense. I babbled, consciously and deliberately, knowing that with her head on my chest, she could likely hear my voice.

If she were still alive.

I saw the cabin at the end of its snowy, unmarked drive and tried to double my effort at hurrying. I went down once, tripping on some hidden hazard but catching myself before my weight could land on my burden. Did she stir a bit as I struggled back to my feet? I couldn’t pause to check, so I kept talking.

“We’re here, honey,” I half-sang, covering the final yards to the door in a stumbling lunge.

Of course, it was locked. I didn’t hesitate. I took a half-step back and executed a twisting side push kick like I had learned in martial arts class forty years before. This gets about as much of the body’s strength into a small area as possible. It’s supposed to strike an opponent in the chest and knock him back, possibly onto his ass. It works great against doors, too.

The impact landed just above the door lock, tearing the bolt and receiver out of the door frame, and yanking the door off its hinges. I followed the falling door into the interior, looking around in the light through the now-open doorway.

Probably no one had been inside in more than a month. A full-size bed stood in one corner, with a set of bunk beds against the opposite wall. Kitchenette through an interior doorway and probably a bathroom through a closed door. In the middle of the main room stood a large cast-iron stove like a free-standing fireplace. A quick glance confirmed that the firebox contained split wood and kindling.

A nearby wooden box held paper and the long fireplace matches. I blessed the thoughtful thoroughness of the cabin’s owners as I quickly got a fire burning. I stood as close as I dared to the stove, partially unzipping my coat to allow my passenger to feel the warmth. She stirred, and my heart leaped.

I had propped the front door back up in the opening, using a slender piece of kindling to hold it in place. “Keep the wind out,” I babbled. “Nice and cozy.” Soon, I had her nestled in an upholstered chair facing the fire, wrapped in my coat and a blanket I had taken off one of the beds.

Shivering a bit in shirt sleeves, I explored the kitchen, finding lots of canned goods and packed-away staples. I’d continued talking to her as I busied myself. “You just get warm,” I told her.

I found a can of chicken and homestyle noodles and a pan to cook in, but the kitchen stove top was propane-fueled and probably turned off outside at the tank. I didn’t want to deprive her of my already warm coat, or leave her alone to go outside, so I carried the pot full of soup in and set it on the top of the cast-iron heating stove.

“Soup, beautiful soup,” I crooned cheerfully, smiling at her and getting, for the first time, a response—a weak smile in return, her pink, cupid’s bow lips curling up at the corners.

I grinned like a Labrador dog I used to have.

I continued talking to her, pausing now and then to stir the soup. “I’m Dave Margolis. I used to build houses, and before that, I built stuff in the army. Airports, bridges, dams, things like that. I have three kids who live about as far away from me as they can. One in Texas, one in Florida and the girl in Washington State.”

I laughed at what I was saying. “I haven’t told them I’m dying. They’re not over their mother passing just a couple years ago now.” I made a face and took a spoonful of soup out of the pot to drip on my wrist to see how hot it was. More stirring. “Hannah would criticize my cooking if she were alive to see me using canned soup.”

I grinned goofily at the girl in the soft chair and got another smile back. Her eyes were the blue of winter sky I noticed, with misty depths. Her smile curved up enough to make her eyes twinkle. The pale gold of the tiara she still wore gleamed in the firelight.

I held another spoon of soup up and asked her, “Can you tell me your name?”

Those blue eyes seemed to widen. “Seren,” she whispered.

I held the spoonful of soup to her lips, and she slurped it down as daintily as could be done. “Warm,” she said.

I nodded and continued feeding her soup until she turned her face away after half a dozen spoonfuls.

“You found me frozen in the snow,” she said. “You brought me to your fire and fed me. You offered me your name without being asked, and I have returned that by offering you one of mine.”

I would have wagged my Labrador tail if I’d had one. “You saved my life,” I told her. “It’s the least I could do.”

She looked confused, that perfectly smooth brow crinkling up with the mildest of frowns. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Surely it is you who has most likely saved my life?”

I turned my eyes down, feeling modest and maybe even humble. “I came here to kill myself, and you gave me something else to do,” I said. “I’m dying, you see and feeling impatient with the process.”

She gave me the slightest of nods, solemn as a very young child.

I continued. “It’s New Year’s Day, and I made a promise to myself to not live a day in this new year.”

“You are breaking your promise in order that I should live,” she said.

“Umm,” I responded. “I guess I can put it off a day or two. I should get you back to your family. They must be worried about you.” My own family, my children living far away, my brother and sister I had not seen in years after an argument when my father died. Would they worry about me? I didn’t want to think about that, I didn’t even know if either of them were still alive since they were older than me.

“Never,” she said. “They know I can take care of myself.”

I had lost the thread of my own question and it took me a moment to grasp her meaning. Then I didn’t know what to say to her answer. She had been too near to dying in the cold, the very death I had selected for myself.

“I summoned you to save me, didn’t I?” she said as if pointing out something obvious.

“Summoned?” I said.

She nodded. “I smell that somewhere in this coat you have the water of life. Shall we share a taste of it in celebration of having saved each other, in a manner of speaking?”

A wider smile showed dimples in her cheeks as I fumbled the small flask of whiskey out of its pocket. This action required me to touch her but she did not flinch and I soon had the little bottle in my hand.

A drawer in the kitchen turned out to contain several shot glasses. I picked two for us at random and filled them full of the ill-regarded liquor.

Her glass was decorated with a starburst and mine incongruously with a daisy. She took hers from my hand careful not to spill a drop and when we both were ready to drink, she said, “As we drink this libation in recognition of your sacrifice, I would grant you a boon.”

I looked up, startled. Her tiara seemed to have sparkled in response to her words. “A boon?” I asked.

“A wish if you like,” she offered. “Do you have a wish?”

I surely do have a wish, I thought.

“You don’t doubt that I can grant wishes?” she said, perhaps marveling at my credulity.

I shook my head. “No, I don’t doubt.” The conviction had slowly grown on me that I was in the presence of some sort of supernatural being. An angel, a fae, perhaps a demon.

“Do you wish to live? Do you wish to die? Do you wish to see tomorrow or to have no more yesterdays?” She almost chanted. “What is your wish?” It wasn’t a demand, but it had the force of one.

Had I thought of a wish? Perhaps I had.

“Granted,” she announced, and we both drank.

* * *

I woke up alone in the cabin in a darkness that seemed about to break. The fire had gone out, but the stove retained heat, and I lay in the big soft chair wrapped in a musty old blanket and a man’s ragged coat.

I put out a hand and examined the delicacy of my fingernails. Had the wish been granted? It was a very old wish I had remembered.

I smiled.

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A Diamond

joannebarbarella's picture

Of the finest water.

reminds me a bit of its a wonderful life

in order to stop the main character from killing himself, the angel makes it appear that he is in distress.

hopefully, the new made woman can have a wonderful life as well.

great story hon, and you snuck under the deadline to boot. Huggles!


So Subtle

Why not?

Clarence -- without the alcoholism and homophobia.


Angela Rasch (Jill M I)

One of the best stories

I ever read. So much expressed with so little words. This really made me cry.

Thx for an excellent story^^

Though I'm still curious

Though I'm still curious about how the girl ended up in a snow covered forest. This might be stuff for another tale. ;-)

Nice story, sensitively written

Columbine's picture

The story is sensitively written. It has lots of loose ends which may lead on to other stories, but then maybe it is enough on its own?

Deserving of a wagging tail

Nicely done. To be perfectly honest I didn't grasp Seren's similarity to Clarence until others pointed it out in comments. I was simply taken away by the fully formed textures of the scenes and characterization of Dave. Then add in the Labrador simile and the rapid but perfect ending, I was blown away.

There have been so very many fine entries in the New Year contest that I had become selective about the ones I had time to read. With a birthday last week and feeling overwhelmed by all the retirement benefits offerings the Senior/60+ tag led me to this treasure. I'm not ill like Dave but my S.O. is doing poorly; so I think I'll continue to go to the office where I am entertained by my work for a couple more years. And I'll try not to dwell much on wishes of a more curvaceous me that might have been.

>>> Kay

Snow Fae- or Winter Sprite

It doesn't matter. It's what made the story, so sweet and heart warming.
But she was definitely sent to spoil your intent. Some things defy logic,
and being a kindly man. He had to respond, and the gift he got in return was special.
Yes! I agree this is well up there with the top contenders.

Polly J

Thank you

erin's picture

I'm glad the story touched someone. :)


= Give everyone the benefit of the doubt because certainty is a fragile thing that can be shattered by one overlooked fact.


terrynaut's picture

You thawed me just a little with this tale. I really enjoyed it.

Thanks and kudos (number 87).

- Terry

Thanks, Terry

erin's picture

Sometimes we all need a bit of warming up. :)


= Give everyone the benefit of the doubt because certainty is a fragile thing that can be shattered by one overlooked fact.


Emma Anne Tate's picture

It seems to me that Dave didn’t seek the quiet death of the winter snow because he was ill, but rather, because he felt useless. Unnecessary. He came alive the instant he saw someone who needed help. I found thoughts of Tennyson running through my brain — “Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are . . . .”

The ending was perfect, Erin. Just what was needed to be said, without anything more, a delicate fingernail illuminating the entirety of the boon.


Thanks, Emma

erin's picture

There is certainly something of what you say in the story, for what are we without purpose?


= Give everyone the benefit of the doubt because certainty is a fragile thing that can be shattered by one overlooked fact.