Walden found Jon sitting alone in his room. He was in the old frayed armchair brought from his house; his Snorri book open in his lap. Jon was leaning over the arm, speaking quietly to empty space. He wasn’t aware that Walden stood in the doorway; Jon was in his favorite chair and Harriet was beside him listening to him talk about stories in his book. He told her that it was like he was dreaming that he was in another place, in another time, hundreds of years ago and he was actually Snorri, the very person that he had studied all those years, that he had researched and written about and that he was probably more expert on than anyone else, at least in this country. He paused, listening intently, nodding his head in agreement then gave a small chuckle at Harriet’s wry humor. He was relaxed, contented, things were all as they should be.
Walden wondered what to make of his grandfather talking to ‘nobody’.
“Excuse me,” came the voice of an old man behind Walden.
“Can you let us through?” came from another older man.
Walden turned to see Rudy Wernbacher with his arm in the crook of Mr. Z’s arm, leading him forward. Slow going; Mr. Z had a new cane, refused to surrender to a walker.
“We’re going to need another chair,” Rudy told Walden. “See what you can find.” Rudy waved Walden aside and the two elderly men slipped through the doorway and into Jon’s room.
“What’s going on?” Mr. Z asked Jon. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Jon motioned to the empty space beside his armchair, where he imagined Harriet to be sitting, listening. She always listened and let him talk until he was ready to let her join in a conversation. He loved that about her; he knew that she was indulging him, especially after he was given retirement and no longer had the lectern and a body of attentive students to share his knowledge with. It had been like he was a preacher with a captive congregation, they all wanted to be there, had come just to listen to him speak. Then there was just Harriet, and Lady, until poor Lady was gone. Until poor Harriet was gone as well. Harriet faded like fog rolling back into the distance, waning, lifting and then she was gone. Rudy Wernbacher and Mr. Z stood beside him in the empty space.
Jon’s face sank as he realized there was no Harriet.
“I loved her from the first time I saw her and I love her still,” Jon choked out.
“What’s going on?” Mr. Z asked again.
“That boy has gone for a chair,” Rudy said. “Looks like we’ll need a couple. Maybe a third if you think that boy is going to hang around too.”
“He’s fifty years old,” Jon said.
His disappointment was clear; resentful that Rudy and Mr. Z had filled her spot in the empty space. The cold wind of realization was a slap in his face; to know that she had never even been there, that he had been talking to nobody, that his own mind was betraying him.
“Nothing going on,” Jon said. “I was just having a little daydream. You know how it is.”
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Z agreed. “I get that all the time.” He leaned close to Jon and whispered. “Sometimes I even get those really juicy ones, still.”
Jon’s eyes lowered to the book in his lap. “She told me to hold on,” he said.
“Yes, I know,” Mr. Z said. “They do that.”
He was a young man, only seventy four, way too young to have come to The Lodge. He seemed reasonably fit and mobile, especially with his new cane, though he was a bit chunky around his middle. It was unusual for someone to have such a deeply tanned face; it made his thick white hair appear even brighter than it was. It made him look wise, ‘like Moses’, Jon thought. Perhaps Mr. Z had spent many years in the desert. Perhaps he had been an Israeli freedom fighter or an ancient Hebrew slave dropped here across a bridge of time. Seventy four yet wise beyond those years. He was kind and thoughtful and always had surprising insights and profound intuition. Mr. Z was one of a very few people that Jon paid attention to and thought he might actually know what he was talking about. He was a quarter century younger but yet he knew so much about life. The same age that poor Magnus had been.
Mr. Z had lost his will, for a time. His daughter Lydia had passed away suddenly in a tragic accident while on vacation. With his wife Ruby by his side, they supported each other through the tragedy, enough to survive the most heartbreaking thing that can happen to a parent. But Ruby’s heart gave way last year and at just sixty eight was taken by a heart attack. Mr. Z was alone and came to The Lodge, to give up.
“It’s my knee,” Mr. Z said. “Got water on the knee. You’d think I was an old man, like you, but at least my brain is clear still.” He pointed at Jon.
“No,” Jon said. “It’s nothing, I was just talking to Harriet.” Jon waved his hand at the empty space again. “But she’s gone now.”
Mr. Z pointed at the same empty space. “Don’t worry about it. Ruby’s gone too. They’re probably off somewhere together talking each other’s ear off or shopping. I’ll sit there beside you as soon as a chair comes.”
“Do you think they’re together?” Jon asked. “I mean you and your wife are Jewish. Harriet was supposed to be Atheist like me, though I think she was a closet Christian.”
“Makes no matter. We’re all the same in the end. All mixed together in the same pot of soup.”
“In the Singularity, together,” Jon said.
“Singularity. Never mind.”
Wooden chair legs scraped over the hard waxed linoleum of the hallway as Walden dragged a chair all the way from the Sunroom.
“Sorry,” he said as Mrs. Krantz came to her doorway and scowled at the noise. She shook a crooked finger at him as he passed.
Walden pushed the chair into his grandfather’s room positioning it in the empty space. Mr. Z sat with a sigh of relief, rubbing his sore knee. Rudy gave Walden an expectant look and motioned to the space beside Mr. Z’s chair. Walden left in search of another chair.
“You are a stout ally,” Jon said to Mr. Z. “I can see we are in the same corner, of the same mind.” His throat was dry and scratchy. The constant story telling was taking a toll and his voice seemed to lose a little bit more of its strength each day, with each tale of Snorri to his Lodge neighbors. He didn’t want to admit that any had become friends, although Rudy and Mr. Z and Peter van der Groot were close. And there was Karl, though Jon had not given up all his suspicion of the Veterinarian, just in case he was being duped and the dog doctor was actually the one snuffing people.
‘Perhaps this is my band of warriors,’ Jon thought as he looked at Mr. Z and Rudy. ‘And Karl too I suppose, for now.’
“You have the same jaw line and nose as Oraekja.” Jon said to Mr. Z. ‘My son,’ was the thought that slipped into Jon’s mind. Mr. Z’s hollow cheeks and longish nose morphed into the plump jowls and bulbous nose of Jon’s late son, Magnus, then continued to transform like reshaped wax into another face, ruddy and crevassed with a deep old scar down the left cheek. ‘Yes, Oraekja,’ Jon thought.
But Oraekja, Snorri’s loyal son, sitting where Mr. Z. sat, stretched and bubbled, reshaping himself until once again Harriet sat beside Jon.
“I wish we were just at home,” Jon said. “Just you and me, like before. With Lady. Just the three of us. I don’t like it here, it’s cold and lonely and people are falling like flies and everybody is old.” He could see her clear as day. Harriet, in her own favorite chair, beside him, tilted towards him so they could easily speak to each other without the others listening in on their private talk. “I don’t know these people, even though some of them try to be my friend.”
‘They’ll all be gone soon,’ Jon thought. ‘Like you.’ His throat tightened, his gut bubbled, threatening to explode from him like a volcano. ‘Like I will be too, but not until my birthday.’
She smiled, consoling him, assuring him that she understood what he meant. Harriet seemed to grow younger as he looked at her. A day, a month, a year, until she was the lovely young woman he knew when they first met with her soft pink skin and innocent laugh, the adoring look she gave to him, as if he was the bearer of all knowledge, even though he too was young. They had the world then; everything else were props in their life play.
Then she aged gently as he watched her, adoringly, as she had watched him in their youth. She aged a day, a month, a year, slowly before him until she was the Harriet he last knew, just before her end.
“It comes for you,” Harriet whispered. “Like it came for me.”
And then she was gone again.
“You weren’t supposed to go before me,” Jon said.
“Are you talking to me?” Mr. Z asked.
He looked at Rudy to share the unspoken thought that Jon Magnusson’s mind was slipping, that he had succumbed to talking to himself or to phantoms. Rudy shrugged.
“Maybe it wasn’t her time,” Jon said. “She went too soon. Maybe somebody stole her from me, like all these people here are being stolen before their time. Murdered. I must find the killer and avenge the stolen lives and my poor Harriet.”
“People are waiting for you to come to the Sunroom,” Mr. Z said. “It’s story time.”
“Murdered,” Jon said, staring at the space where Harriet should be.
Walden arrived dragging a pair of side chairs.
“Won’t need those now,” Mr. Z said. “Nobody is murdered and its story time.”
“What?” Walden said.
“There are no murders, just an old man’s wandering thoughts. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us,” Mr. Z said.
“I am not an ‘us’,” Jon complained. “I am not like these people.”
‘Yes you are,’ Rudy thought.
“What about the chairs?” Walden asked.
“Won’t need those now,” Mr. Z said. “We’re going for story time.”
“Harriet,” Jon said. Leave a chair for your grandmother.”
“What?” Walden scratched his head.
Jon liked Mr. Z’s calm, reassuring manner. He knew about life and could counsel Jon on his concerns around the dubious happenings at The Lodge. He was like a father, even though there was a wide chasm between their ages. He knew things, had life experiences that Jon didn’t have.
Jon turned to the empty space where Harriet had been. “I like him,” he said.
“He seems like a kind man,” she said.
“He knows things. He knows what is good for me and what I should do. It has been a very long time since I had someone that could give me advice. It makes me calm, like there is someone taking care of me, like the way you used to.”
“He’s a good man,” she said.
“He wants me to go now and read to the group some more. It’s like he wants me to get the whole story told before it’s too late.”
“Too late for you?” she asked.
“Too late for any of them. We’re all so old here, any of us could go anytime.”
“It will all be okay,” she said.
“That’s what Mr. Z said too.” Jon smiled at the empty space.
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