As I rattled my truck down the ill-maintained roads of rural Oklahoma, I couldn’t deny the deep sense of dread I carried about the visit. I had somehow drummed up the courage to visit my Grandpa in that tired nursing home, swallowed up in the bowels of a rickety small town called Engle. Dayspring, the home was called. I never liked the place, but Engle was home for him, and my mom thought it was good for Grandpa to be as close to the familiar as possible. I left work later than expected, so by the time I crunched to a stop in the unmarked gravel parking lot, I could already see moonlight glazed across the worn shingles of the nursing home. 

I took a deep breath and tried to push all the memories of last year’s visit out of my mind. I looked over at the birthday present resting squarely in my passenger seat. Hand-curled golden ribbon criss-crossed over shiny blue wrapping paper, its edges neatly taped down around a gilt copy of The Old Man and the Sea. Above that, a frayed olive fisherman’s hat hung from the headrest like a jester’s crown of thorns, its upper rim adorned a tangle of glinting hooks curving out from a menagerie of ribbed jigs, tufted spinners, and glossy spoons. There were twelve lures in total, one for each year my Grandpa and I went out on the lake.

I picked up the hat, my gaze settling on a red-and-white spoon. A soft smile streamed across my face as I remembered the August haze where my Grandpa gave me that lure. I was ten and had never fished before, so my mom insisted I go fishing with him one evening during my summer break. I begrudgingly agreed, though the thought of doing nothing but simmering over a lake in an aluminum jon boat seemed like the worst possible way to spend my evening. Yet, when we were out in the center of the lake and Grandpa abruptly cut the motor, and all I could hear was rippling water lapping against the bow as we lurched into a delicate drift…I felt the calm of the lake to be my own. Calm was a rare emotion for me that summer — it was the summer of my parents’ divorce, where my entire inner world was a knotted mess of tension, sadness, and confusion. While I oriented to the unfamiliar calm granted by the lake, Grandpa stood and rummaged in the back storage compartment of the jon, his slight shoulders rolling beneath an oversized flannel. He turned and plopped a brand new olive-green fishing hat on my head, then handed me a rod baited with a red-and-white spoon without saying a word. I watched the impaled bait swaying beneath the spoon with apprehension, then stared back up into his pleasant, wrinkled smile. With the sunset illuminating his eyes he told me,

“Cast on out.”

I shrugged, and did what I’d seen in the movies. I swung my rod back with an exaggerated motion, then whipped it forward. To my disappointment, the lure spiked into the water directly next to the boat. He chuckled and said, “Watch how I do it.” Then in a single elegant motion, he swung back his rod and released it, sending the line scrawling through the air and landing with a soft splash far from the jon. I tried to emulate his motion, but again spiked my lure. I got frustrated and threw the rod down. Grandpa walked over, lifted the rod, and placed it back in my hands. He enclosed his hands over mine, and guided me through the motion. “Like this,” he said before stepping back. I tried again, remembering the way the motion felt in my arms, and to my joy and surprise the line flew! The lure splashed into the lake at about half the distance his did. 

I turned, beaming, and asked, “How do I reach yours?” 

He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Keep casting out.” So I did, and with each cast of the fishing line I tugged that tangled mass of feelings I carried a bit looser. By the end of the evening, I had almost reached his lure's distance. I looked up at the sky, my heart brighter than any of the countless stars that shone above, and lighter than the cirrus brushed softly across them. 

Shaking off the nostalgia, I donned my fishing hat as I stepped out of my truck and into the brisk autumn air. A slight breeze carried the musk of damp, decaying leaves. I walked up to Dayspring’s smudged glass door and swung it open, stepping into the foyer. The foyer was small and opened directly into the main hall, which was humid and almost entirely dark. The place smelled of heavily sanitized wood, so much so that I could taste it. 

“Can I help you sir?” came a familiar, sterile voice from my left. 

“Hi, I’m here to visit James Fitzgerald?” I said, looking straight at Nurse Cathy. “Visitation hours ended at seven —,” she began, but I interrupted: “I already made an appointment.” She looked taken aback, and craned over to her computer with a perplexed look. Her keyboard clicked and clacked loudly for an elongated minute. 

As I waited, I recalled last year’s visit. I remembered skidding in the chalky gravel as I half-ran into the nursing home, excited to see my Grandpa for the first time since he’d been admitted to Dayspring. I swung open the glass door (still smudged) and leapt into the foyer. Through the dimness of the main hall I could see the silhouette of an elderly man seated at a small square table, his frail back facing me. 

“Can I help you, sir?” came a peremptory voice from my left. I turned and saw seemingly the only source of light in the whole building: a single, harsh fluorescent bulb anchored to the ceiling. Beneath that I saw a lumpy woman in light purple scrubs with her face screwed into what was almost a scowl, framed behind a plexiglass screen. 

“My name is Conner Fitzgerald, I’m here to see my grandfather, James Fitzgerald?” I replied shakily, leaning toward the glass. 

“Visitation hours ended at seven pm,” the nurse said, gesturing toward a faded hours posting taped to the inside of the glass, “and if you need to make a visit outside of hours you’ll have to schedule an appointment,” she finished. She then swiveled in her worn office chair so that in the light I could see her scalp showing beneath her moussed crop of curls. 

“But — it’s his birthday,” I said. 

“Sorry sir,” she replied, swiveling again to face me, “we maintain very strict schedule requirements for all Alzheimer’s patients in an effort to maintain their mental health as much as possible. You’re welcome to come back tomorrow.” This time she didn’t swivel away, and I glanced down at her nametag glinting in the light. It read ‘Cathy’. 

“Look, Cathy, I only get to see him once a year, so if you could please make an exception just this once —”, I began, frustration overtaking the apprehension in my voice. My words were interrupted by a shrouded movement in my peripherals; Cathy and I turned to see the man who was seated at the square table when I entered now standing next to me, half-protruding from the inky shadows, his face chiaroscuroed in the lurid light. The man’s lips worked at mouthing something, but all that fell from them was a strained whimper as he grasped toward me. In his eyes was an existential terror; or perhaps it was a reflection of my own when I realized who it was I was looking at. 

“Grandpa? Hey, hey, it’s me, Conner,” I said, involuntarily stepping back from his grasp. “Who — what — wha…” Grandpa stammered, before his voice crescendoed into an awful wail. I could do nothing but stare at him through tearful eyes, and gape with speechless lips. 

Meanwhile, Nurse Cathy had emerged from her plexiglass fortress and hurried into the foyer. As she passed me she hissed, “This is why we schedule visits.” Then, placing her arms around my Grandpa and speaking in a comforting tone I hadn't imagined she was capable of, she said, “Jim, let’s go get you laid down honey, it’s going to be okay, it’ll be okay.” She then nodded toward me and said, “this is your grandson, Conner, okay? He’s just here to say happy birthday, that’s all honey.” Grandpa gave a shaky, bewildered nod, and turned with truncated steps as Nurse Cathy guided him gently toward the interior darkness of Dayspring. I didn’t wait for Nurse Cathy to return. I just left. I collapsed into my truck and broke into sobs, my tears pattering grey circlets across my jeans. 

The keyboard stopped its clattering. Nurse Cathy clicked her tongue and without turning toward me said, “I see your appointment here. Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, Jim’s dementia episodes have escalated. It’s Dayspring protocol to provide a nurse as accompaniment during the visit for your safety as well as his in case of any episodes.” 

“Sure,” I said curtly. Nurse Cathy then picked up her radio and called for someone to cover her post.  We were joined shortly by a burly male nurse who relieved her, and we walked toward Grandpa’s room without saying a word.

Nurse Cathy knocked lightly on the door while turning the handle, and cooed through the crack, “Jim, there’s someone here to visit you. May we come in?”

“A visitor? Yes, yes come in,” came my Grandpa’s hoarse response, before breaking into a light cough to clear his throat. Nurse Cathy opened the door and ensured she stepped in before me. I followed, and was instantly awash with gladness. There he was, huddled in a cushioned corner chair, the amber light of an old lamp washing over an open bible in his lap. He was smiling. 

“Hey Grandpa,” I started, “happy birthday.” I smiled, but realized I was white-knuckling his gift. Nurse Cathy cut in abruptly, “Jim honey, this Conner, your grandson.” “I know my Grandson when I see him,” Grandpa replied through a grin, “I’m not that far gone yet.” He paused and grunted slightly as he worked himself out of his chair and into a low stoop. Nurse Cathy swooped over. “Jim, don’t overexert yourself. Let me help you.” Grandpa waved her away. “I’m fine. Let me…let me hug my grandson now.” He stood up as straight as he could and began shuffling toward me. I moved toward him, or at least I wanted to. Yet I couldn’t. I was anchored; every limb was waterlogged. I felt an immeasurable gulf open up between us, saw him as one sees the setting sun, distantly dwindling beneath a shadowed horizon; he shuffled toward me with that same steadiness, that same inevitability, that same finality. Then, without warning, he wavered; the setting sun fixed in place as the world ceased its spinning.

I saw it, the retreat in his eyes. The Grandpa I knew receded like a gust of wind and collapsed into an empty void. He stopped moving. I stopped breathing. Nurse Cathy tensed. Grandpa began to shake his head slowly, deliberately, and as he did I saw his lips tremble and his eyes widen. I could see it coming, the wail, and Nurse Cathy could too, and before we knew it he was shuddering in place, fixed to the spot like a lone lighthouse in the midst of a violent storm, his voice its terrible siren. I felt myself transported back to that moment a year ago, when I stood before him, powerless in the face of his suffering. I didn’t know what to do then, and I didn’t know what to do now. Nurse Cathy had no such reservations, however. She sprang into action, doing her best to calm Grandpa down while easing him toward the edge of his bed to sit down. She managed to get him seated but he was still sobbing, his voice dissonant with sorrow. She stood and swept toward me, motioning for me to leave the room. Everything in me wanted to leave, to turn my back on this nightmare version of my Grandpa and preserve him in my memories as the gentle man smiling in the middle of the lake, testing me, encouraging me, loving me. But the anchor, the anchor wouldn’t lift. 

“Conner, you need to leave. You being here is not helping him.” 

“What are you going to do with him?” I asked, tears pushing their way through my voice. 

“We’ll assign someone to watch him and make sure he doesn’t harm himself.” 

“So he won’t be alone?” 

“No, not until he’s calmed down and ready. Now, please, you need to leave,” she urged, and made a gesture to usher me out the door. 

“But I don’t want to leave him like this. Please…please just let me stay.” 

“I’m sorry sir, but Dayspring protocol will not allow it. Please leave now so we can de-escalate the situation.” 

“I’m not leaving,” I stammered. “This isn’t right — he needs me.” 

“No, he needs to calm down and be in a safe space,” Nurse Cathy said, her voice raising. “Please exit or I will have to call to have you removed.” 

I pushed past her. Behind me I could hear her radioing for support, but I ignored it and crouched down in front of my Grandpa, whose sobbing had faded into jagged whimpers. I grabbed his trembling hands, and looked up into his face. Terror had faded into confused apprehension. I smiled up at him through my tears, doing my best to channel the same gentle strength behind that warm, smiling face I had seen so many years ago on our first fishing trip. 

“Grandpa remember this? You gave me this, the first time we went fishing together, remember?” I asked, holding the cap up for him to see. He took the hat from my hands and held it, the loose skin trembling along his jaw as he stared at the quivering lures. Suddenly, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. 

“Sir, you need to exit the room,” boomed the burly nurse I had seen just a few minutes prior. He began steadily pushing me toward the door. As I tottered backwards, I yelled, 

“I’m his family! You can’t just cast me out god damnit, I’m his family!”

“Chuck, wait a second,” Nurse Cathy said. The burly nurse removed his hand from my shoulder as we both followed Nurse Cathy’s gaze toward my Grandpa. He was staring at us both, one arm outstretched, hand grasping the empty air. 

I realized then, watching my grandfather shudder alone at the edge of his bed, tears raining down upon those arid peninsulas of gaunt cheekbone, how alone he truly was. I think Nurse Cathy realized too. Her rigidness softened into an ashamed slouch, and her hand braced over her mouth, chest heaving. James Fitzgerald, my Grandpa, Jim, newly seventy-six years of age, father of three, grandfather of one, widower, Alzheimer’s sufferer — Nurse Cathy and I knew all of these things about him, and in that moment he knew none of them. He knew only that there was once something which gleamed, precious and alive, and that somehow it had left him, stranded and ceaselessly searching. Yet despite that he still reached forward, grasping at the ghosts of what he once knew and loved. I no longer saw a man who was a shadow of himself. The man I saw now was radiant, glowing with the final fire of the sun amidst the burgeoning darkness, fingers spread like rays of light stretching as far and as full as their last moments would allow. Yes, he was stranded and searching; but no longer alone.

I strode past Nurse Chuck back to the edge of the bed, grasping my Grandpa’s outstretched hand as I sat next to him. I embraced him, cradling his head against my chest. I felt the warmth and strength of his spirit as we wept together, and he whispered: “Cast…out. I remember…I remember I told you to keep casting out.”

May 20, 2022 17:07

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K. Antonio
19:27 May 24, 2022

Hello, Kris. Hope you don't mind my commenting. - I really thought you did a good job constructing a great first line. It instantly drew me in and made me wonder what was happening/what would happen next. - I enjoyed the prose. The word choice and the descriptions were nice. You showed a lot of precision when describing certain scenes (ex: like when the MC and his grandfather were fishing). I thought overall there wa a good balance of showing and telling. Some of my personal favorite lines were: "Hand-curled golden ribbon criss-crossed ...


Kris Hawkins
01:39 May 26, 2022

Hey Antonio, Thank you so much for taking the time to read the piece and write such a thoughtful response. I appreciate the praise, and especially the constructive criticism. I'm always looking to hone my craft, and you gave me some very good advice to chew on and apply to my future submissions (especially the structure bit about the flashback in the middle, I agree it could've been executed much cleaner or replaced with a different device altogether). Also, I'm honored you recommended me for the shortlist/win! Again, thank you so much. Th...


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Olivia Snead
18:57 May 26, 2022

I loved your story. It was the most riveting story I've read recently. It gripped me and held me captive. Thank you for a wonderful ending, also. I love miracles. The miracle of life. This is a winner.


Kris Hawkins
20:13 May 26, 2022

Thank you for reading, and for the kind words Olivia!! And I agree, the miracle of life is a wonderful thing :)


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