Joseph wobbled through the backyard, jabbing his cane into the soft, grassy earth. His breath left in short, desperate gasps. Finally, he reached the tree at the back of his property. Fifty-three years ago he planted it himself, alone, when it was but a sapling. Back then it had been vulnerable … tiny … and virtually unnoticeable. Likely, no one would have noticed had it disappeared.
Like Quinn disappeared.
But Joseph made sure it thrived. He covered it with sheets during the cold, buckets in the hail, chicken wire when the vermin were flush. He kept the neighborhood children away, made sure the lawn service men were careful, and decreed no pets could move within a twenty-foot radius.
For the first several years of the oak’s life, Joseph spared no effort to thwart every dangerous factor imaginable. The oak had to persist at all costs.
He did for the tree what he could not do for Quinn.
Joseph flung his cane aside, dropped to his knees in front of the tree’s wide base, and then placed his palms against it. His eyes closed as his head lowered.
He heard the birds singing above, the children playing at nearby houses, a mower a block away.
Joseph’s eyes shot open and he craned his heard toward the source of the sound. The sudden movement discombobulated his sense of balance, and he teetered sideways before a young man with the eyes of Joseph’s wife gently took him by the shoulders and eased him to the plush turf.
Joseph whispered, “Quinn?”
Joseph’s eyes glistened in the sunlight peeking through the oak’s leaves. He gasped, “How?”
“A last request,” Quinn replied. The smile he wore upon his face made Joseph’s heart swell.
“I prayed …” Joseph stammered, “… I prayed every night. Every night I prayed that I would get to see you … at least once. I wanted nothing more … It has been my …”
“Your dying wish.” Quinn took Joseph’s hands in his own and said, “You don’t have long.”
“I understand,” Joseph answered as he stared into Quinn’s face. “That’s why I came out here … I wanted to die next to you … your tree.”
Quinn continued to smile, but Joseph noticed the young man’s throat hitched a little.
“Most people,” Quinn began, “they’d mourn, but they’d forget. You could have wished to see anyone—your wife, your other children, your own parents.”
Shaking his head, Joseph rebutted, “I knew I’d see them again.”
Quinn raised an eyebrow.
“I know, son. I know. I wanted to believe I’d see you, too, but I couldn’t be sure. No one could tell me. I talked to our priest, I asked theology professors, I did everything I could to get an answer, but no one could give me one. So I prayed, and I wished, and I hoped for mercy.”
“And now you have it,” Quinn replied.
“So you were a boy,” Joseph chuckled. “Your mother was right.”
“You use ‘Quinn’ because of the neutrality. This is how you’ve always imagined me.”
Joseph lurched, grabbed his chest, and then eased forward into his child’s arms. He said, “I loved you the moment I found out about you. I never stopped. Not once.”
Quinn rested his chin atop Joseph’s head, looked at a caterpillar upon a fallen leaf, and said, “I know.”
Joseph leaned against the old oak, his heart finally at rest.
Copyright © 2017 by Scott William Foley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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