I can’t reasonably take credit for taking this picture, since it was taken at least six (and maybe seven) decades before my birth. But I can take credit for scanning it; the two men in the photo are brothers, and the one on the left is my great-grandfather. I can also take credit for the following short story, “Old Friends.” Originally inspired by one of Shane Francescut’s images, I thought this one could also go well with the story (which is pure fiction and in no way relates to either of the men in this picture or the one that originally inspired the story, or to anyone else, for that matter). I hope you’ll enjoy it. Have a great weekend!
It had been years since John had seen Caleb, so many years that he probably shouldn’t have recognized his old friend. And yet, strangely, Caleb looked exactly the same.
It was more than a little unnerving.
Caleb saw him almost immediately, of course, and before he knew it, his old friend had wrapped him in a bear hug. “John! Man, it’s so good to see you! What’s up? How’ve you been?”
“Oh, you know – same shit, different day. And you?”
Caleb laughed. It was the same easy laugh he remembered from before. “Same here, man, same here. But it’s not so bad – the food’s great, the weather’s perfect, and there’s always something to do.” He paused, as if unsure about what to say next. “Man, you still look the same as you did twenty-five years ago. I can’t believe it.”
“I was just thinking the same thing about you. Is it like that for everyone here?”
“Usually,” he said, clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder and steering him down the street. “Not always, though. Last week a woman arrived looking every second of her hundred and two years. She’d been misdirected and arrived here by accident.”
“Misdirected? How often does that happen?”
“Not often; don’t worry, you’re in the right place.” Caleb laughed again, but his eyes lacked the mirth that his voice struggled to convey.
John stopped near a tree. “You all right?”
“I was just thinking about Bianca. How is she?”
“Ah. I wondered how long it would be before she came up.”
“Look, I screwed up. Royally. You know it and I know it.”
John raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yeah. I’ve had a lot of time to think about things, and I don’t know what I could possibly have been thinking back then.”
“Okay, who are you and what have you done with Caleb?”
They both smiled. “Hey, I know you just got here, but have you seen the library?”
“No, I haven’t,” John said. “Why?” And what does the library have to do with Bianca?
“Oh, man, the library here is killer. Bianca would absolutely adore it – they have everything! They even have personalized media rooms.”
“Personalized media rooms,” Caleb repeated. “They’re these little rooms where your life is stored on video. You can review anything you’ve ever experienced. If you’re brave enough.”
John shuffled forward a bit, and his one-time best friend matched his pace. “Anything, huh?”
“Yep. Anything. Just as long as you experienced it, not someone else.”
“So…you sat there and watched her heart break until you realized you were wrong?”
Caleb grimaced. “Something like that, yeah.”
“What do you mean, something like that?”
“Well, it wasn’t my idea, see. But I met her mom. And, well, she didn’t like me very much. Bianca is so much like her, dude, it’s crazy. But the whole thing made me wonder, you know?”
“You met her mom?”
“Well, yeah. She’s been here for ages.”
They walked in silence for a while. John wasn’t quite sure what to make of his ethereal surroundings, and Caleb’s presence was completely unexpected. Perhaps he’d been misdirected?
“So…You met her mom.”
“Yeah. It was pretty intense.”
“And she didn’t like you?”
“Not a bit. She said I was a complete ass and she couldn’t understand what Bianca had ever seen in me.”
“Hmmm.” John picked up his pace a little, thinking how much he liked Bianca’s mom already, even though he had yet to meet her. Finally, just as Caleb opened his mouth to speak again, John’s face erupted in a huge grin. “Well, she’s right. You are an ass.”
“No, I was an ass. It just took me a while to figure that out.” He paused. “So…About Bianca…”
John sighed. “What about her?”
“Did you two keep in touch? Is she happy?”
He stopped, turning to face his companion. “Look, if you’re asking if she was okay after you left, then you’re not just an ass, you’re a stupid ass. If you’re asking if she ever got over you, the answer is no. She didn’t. But if you’re asking if she moved on, the answer is yes. She did.”
Another big sigh. “Yes, with me. It just sort of, I dunno, happened. She said one day that you’d ruined her for love, that she was sure her heart would never heal. I told her to give it time, that one day, she’d find someone new, and that love was a risk worth taking. And then I set out to prove that she could love again.”
“You always did love her.”
“Yeah, well, that took me a while to figure out. We never went behind your back.”
John blinked in surprise. “You do?”
“Of course I do! You’re too good a guy to do something like that to anyone, especially if that someone was your best friend. And Bianca is the same.”
Caleb ran a hand through his hair, sighing heavily as his hand fell to his side and slapped his thigh. “You’re right. I’m sorry, John. I was an ass, and a stupid one at that.”
He studied the man standing next to him. For all he appeared to be the same, something about him was different. “Really?”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Let’s just say that you weren’t the only one Lavinia cheated on and leave it at that, okay?”
“Okay,” John said, smiling. He couldn’t help feeling a twinge of satisfaction. Serves you right, ya sorry sucker.
“Was Bianca…happy…Was she happy with you?”
Uncertainty was written all over Caleb’s face. Odd – he’s always so certain of everything, John thought. Is he worried she was happier with me than him? Or is he questioning whether he really wants to hear the truth?
“Look, Caleb –”
“Just tell me the truth, man. Whatever it is, I need to hear it.”
“All right, then. Yes. We were happy. I never knew a person could be so happy until the day she told me she loved me. But, even though she was happy, she wasn’t the same after you left.”
“But she was happy?”
Caleb let out a long, slow breath; he hadn’t realized he’d been holding it till he exhaled. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You know, were you happy, that kind of thing. I mean, it’s not like we kept in touch after…”
“After you took off with my wife?”
Caleb winced. “Yeah. That.”
“Did you really think we’d stay close after that?”
“Well, no, but…” Caleb shoved his hands into his pockets. “Shit, man, I dunno. After Lavinia left, I couldn’t stop thinking about you guys, but I didn’t know what to do. I mean, how do you come back after something like that, you know?”
“You don’t.” Where the heck is this going?
“Exactly. So I didn’t even try. I mean, I knew I’d messed up, but the magnitude of what I’d done didn’t hit me till I found myself here.”
John glanced around at the beautiful tree-lined avenue. There were no houses, no storefronts, just streets flanked by trees as far as the eye could see, and all of them led to the same place.
Ahead of them stood a towering gate, at once both elegant and imposing. Just ahead of the gate was an ornate building which could only be the aforementioned library. But how could it contain what Caleb had suggested? Surely it was much too small for that.
John looked over at his friend, whose face now wore an expectant expression, and realized he’d been spoken to. Clearly Caleb was awaiting an answer, but an answer to what?
“I’m sorry; the library up ahead distracted me,” John said.
“So you have been there.”
“No. But what else could it be? I haven’t seen any other buildings around.”
“Ah. Right. Anyway, so are we cool?”
“Hey, I forgave you a long time ago, man. I even thanked you at the wedding reception – I’d have never met Bianca if not for you, and the last fifty years would have been vastly different if you and Lavinia hadn’t run off together.” He closed his eyes, and a series of happy memories flashed before them. He smiled. “Yeah, man. We cool.”
When John opened his eyes, he found himself in front of the gate that had seemed so far away only moments before. A regal old man stood behind the largest lectern he’d ever seen, pen in hand, poised and ready for heaven only knew what.
“Ah, Mr. Webster! Right on time, as usual.”
“Excuse me – have we met? And have you seen my friend?”
“No. And yes. Your friend, Mr. Larsen, is just inside. Are you ready to join him, Mr. Webster?”
“Why, in heaven, of course.”
John considered this for a moment. “If it’s all the same to you, Mr.…”
“You may call me Petros.”
“if it’s all the same to you, Petros, I’d like to wait for my wife. If that’s okay.”
Petros scanned the large book perched atop the lectern in front of him. He frowned. “I’m afraid your wife isn’t due to arrive for another twenty years. Are you sure you want to wait?”
He nodded. “Absolutely. She’s my best friend.”
“But what about Mr. Larson?”
“I want to be the first person Bianca sees when she gets here and if that means I have to wait on a bench for twenty years, well, then so be it. Caleb’s not going anywhere.”
Petros smiled as he closed his book. “Very well then, Mr. Webster. See you in twenty years.”
(c) 2014. All rights reserved.