The old man shambled down the sidewalk at his usual time. Walking hunched over, he pushed his walker before him. On one handle of the walker he had a cup holder, and on the other a bell, similar to the ones children had on their bikes in decades past. As slow as he moved, it seemed unlikely he would need to warn anyone to get out of his way.
He always dressed the same – baggy khakis, runners that had once been white, and, despite the warming morning, a tattered Carhartt coat. Atop his white shaggy-haired head he wore a greasy Seattle Mariners ball cap.
He turned into Starbucks and after a time exited with a cup of coffee in the cup holder. He chose a table in the sun and turned his face to it for several long minutes. It had been a trying, wet winter in southern British Columbia and he relished the opportunity to warm his bones. Fishing a newspaper out of his walker and reading glasses out of his jacket, he commenced to read.
When he looked up, he noticed an ancient, wrinkled woman at the next table who was staring at him. She had brilliant blue eyes that did not fit with her otherwise weathered face. A loose flowered-print dress hung on her gaunt frame like an old curtain. She smiled exposing tiny, white, perfect teeth and nodded at him. The man gave an almost imperceptible nod, took a swallow of the coffee, and returned to reading.
When he looked up again, he noticed a young, slender woman approaching, pushing a baby stroller. She was dressed in the young woman’s uniform of skin-tight black leggings, tight black top that exposed a slice of skin, and black knee-high leather boots, with a Kate Spade handbag slung over one arm, and Chanel sunglasses. She held her phone in her right hand with flashing thumb on the screen as she deftly navigated the stroller with her left while entering the Starbucks. As she came out, she took the adjacent table, holding her decadent iced mocha Frappuccino concoction, faced the child away from the sun, and extracted her phone from her purse. She began texting, ignoring the child. She kept pushing her unruly blonde hair back. The old crone muttered, “High maintenance.” The old man looked up at the blonde to see if she had heard, but she was completely absorbed in her phone.
The child was perhaps one or one-and-a-half years old with pale pink skin and light brown hair. His eyes were the same dazzling blue as the old crone’s and were gazing directly into the old man’s eyes.
“Happens to you a lot,” said the crone.
“What?” replied the old man.
“Young children stare into your eyes all the time.”
To which he responded, “How would you know that?”
“I know things. They look deep into your eyes to examine your soul,” she replied. The old man looked up and the mother was texting, paying no attention to the infant who was still staring into his eyes and smiling.
“Oh, I get it,” the man replied. “The eyes are the windows to the soul, or mirrors, or something.”
“It’s windows, according to the Bible and the ancient Greeks,” the crone informed him.
“Ok, but why would a child, a baby really, be interested in my soul?” he queried.
She replied, “Oh, think about it.”
The mother took a last gulp of coffee, slipped the phone into her purse, and rose. She wheeled the stroller around and the child turned his head for a last look at the old man. When he turned back to talk to the crone, she was gone.
The next morning, as the old man exited the Starbucks, the crone sat at an empty table and nodded at a seat across from her. He maneuvered his walker around the empty chairs and sat with a groan. “I’ve been thinking about what you said and wondered why a small child would want to see my soul.”
Her blue eyes twinkled and she replied, “To see if it is a good one.”
He shook his head. “So a child that cannot even talk is going to make judgements about my soul, my character?”
“That’s absurd. It seems far more likely they are looking to see if I am a threat. Maybe it’s a vestigial thing from caveman days. Maybe the men of the cave are unsuccessful hunting for a couple of days and the kid starts looking like a tasty supper.”
The old crone gave a wrinkled grin and replied, “Sure. That’s the logical explanation, but incorrect.”
“Why do you claim to know this stuff? Who are you anyway? Where are you from?”
“My name is Aristillia and I come from a place and time as ancient as the Earth and the stars.”
“Oh, bullshit lady! You’re nuts and likely escaped from some mental hospital!”
“I am not crazy, Charles.”
“Hey, how do you know my name?”
“I know a lot of things, Charles. I know about the lump in your chest and I know the diagnosis of that cancer.”
He took a sip of the coffee and stared at her. “Have you been talking to my doctor?”
“Doctor Chang? No, never met the man.”
“Then how……?” He frowned and his bushy white eyebrows nearly touched.
“Charles, I know you have lived a good and honorable life. Good to your wife and generous with your friends and the church. I know that you and your wife were unable to have children, but you volunteered as a coach and Boy Scout leader. You are very honest. In short, Charles, you have a good soul.”
He sat gripping the coffee cup but not moving. “So why are you here talking to me?”
“I am your guide. I will guide your soul to a suitable new home with a young, worthy child. It’s a common assumption among all religions. An “afterlife” gives people comfort. You’re good, you go to heaven, but if you’re bad you go to hell. It encourages good behavior in society, or at least it used to.”
“So, you’re saying that souls don’t go to heaven or hell but are…er…recycled? Isn’t that reincarnation?”
“No, societies that believe in reincarnation believe that your soul, your essence can come back as an animal, a bird, or even a slug. What I am telling you is that your soul goes to another young human. In your case, a worthy one.”
“Maybe like that kid that was staring at me yesterday?”
“Unfortunately, no. You have heard of nature vs. nurture right? It takes both to produce a righteous human and that child, unfortunately, doesn’t have enough of the nurture to weather the misfortunes that are coming his way.”
“How can you possibly know this kind of shit?”
“I told you, I know a lot.”
“Are you saying that a good soul or character cannot overcome bad nurturing?”
“Sure it can, but it’s longer odds.”
“Let me ask you a question. Does everyone get a ‘guide’?”
“Obviously not. People die suddenly in accidents, in wars or murders. Those souls go into a pool and are randomly given to newborns. The number of people who get a guide is extremely small.”
“But, why me?”
“Well, as you might have guessed, a lot of people lead good lives and have good souls, but you were exceptional. Caring for your wife all those years with her dementia counts for a lot.”
“I didn’t think it was anything but my duty, and I loved my wife. Remember that ‘through sickness or in heath’ vow?”
“Of course. But she would not have known in the last couple of years if you had simply put her into a home.” The old man had his head down and the baseball cap covered his face. When he lifted his head, she could see a single tear creeping through the silver stubble on his cheeks.
“We better not be on candid camera or something. If this is a hoax I am going to be seriously pissed. There better not be someone filming us.”
“I promise you it is not a hoax.”
“Do I get to choose the kid to get my soul?”
“Yes. It’s rare, but you’ve earned it.”
“Ok, then I choose that kid that was here with the blonde mother.”
“I told you, he is going to have a very difficult youth and young adulthood. There will be divorce, abandonment, and abuse.”
“I guess he’ll need good character to survive it. How do I designate him?”
“Wait here. The woman will come back with the child and all you need to do is put your hand on the top of his head.”
“That’s it. Just wait here every morning at your usual time and she will show up eventually.”
“What if I die before she shows up?”
“Don’t worry–she’ll be here. Remember…I know things.”
“Will I see you again?”
“No, Charles. My work here is finished. I have others to guide.”
“Well then, goodbye and thanks.”
Several months later, two months after Charles had passed, the crone visited the Starbucks again. As chance would have it, the high maintenance blonde was there with the boy. As the crone sat, the boy gazed into her eyes, smiled, and gave a distinctive nod.
I wrote this story after reading the book ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King.
His technique is to just sit down and start a story with no real idea where it’s going. I tried it with this story.
Thanks to Bud and G.G. Dreon and, of course, daughter Karen for their suggestions and editing. This my first short story in awhile so let me know if you like it.