A short story based on a picture prompt from Writers Unite! (There is a 3K word limit for these prompts)
Tommy O’Dell settled himself into the seat of the airplane with a relieved sigh. A small groan slipped out as he shifted to tuck his tattered backpack under the seat in front of him and then another as he lifted arthritic shoulders to wrangle in the seatbelt then snap it shut. He turned eyes, once bright blue but now rheumy and red-rimmed with age, to the young woman next to him. The smile he gave her was sad and his lips trembled a bit with the effort. When he spoke, his voice held hints of its once deep baritone and whispers of his native Ireland.
“Growing old is not for the faint of heart lass. Enjoy your youth while ye can.”
The pretty red-head returned his smile. “Oh, I am sir. Though Mum thinks I enjoy it too much at times. Is Ireland home or are you just going for a visit?”
“A wee bit of both I suppose. And you?”
Her face lit with an excited smile. Ah, how much she reminded him of someone else. “I’m going to visit my nan on my dad’s side. It’s my first time there. Mum and Dad moved to America when I was just a little baby. I’ve spoken to my nan on the phone loads of times and we’re supper good friends. Mum and Dad surprised me with this trip as a graduation gift. I know they couldn’t really afford it and that makes it even more special. I plan to pay them back when I can.”
He couldn’t help but smile back, her enthusiasm was contagious. “How splendid for you my dear. I’m sure your nan is just as anxious to see you.”
They chatted off and on for the whole flight she because she was unable to contain herself and he because her pale skin, red hair, and bright eyes brought back cherished memories of a girl with those same traits. He learned her name was Aileen after the very woman she was on her way to see and she was going to be in Ireland for all of her summer break between high school and college. He told her only that he was visiting old friends.
When the plane touched down in Dublin, she helped him navigate the ramps and he helped her with the sometimes-intimidating process of going through customs. They parted ways with a hug.
When she hurried off toward two women, one with hair the color of hers and the other a beaming elderly woman with hair of grey, Tommy relaxed with the knowledge she was safely in the arms of family. He leaned heavily on his cane and scanned the area for Shamus Doyle. He’d met Shamus almost a decade ago when he’d come to Ireland for the very same purpose he was here now. Shamus was a taxi driver who’d become a friend and kind of surrogate son over time. Each year he took time off work to pick up Tommy and take him anywhere he needed to go. After the first couple years they’d grown so close he’d invited Tommy to stay with him and his wife Molly each time he came.
The two men spotted each other at the same time and lifted hands in greeting. Shamus came to him pushing a wheel chair. He’d been uncertain about bringing it afraid he’d offend the older man’s pride, but he was glad he had when he saw relief flit through his friend’s eyes.
Shamus wrapped an arm around Tommy’s shoulders and tried not to notice how thin he’d gotten. “Now I know you’re a strong, proud man Tommy, but you’ve lived a good long while and the way I see it is you’re deserving of taking a load off when you can.”
Tommy flashed him a smile. “Right you are, Shamus. Right you are. Did you bring me a pint as well? I’ve built up quite a thirst on my journey.”
“I’m not sure I could get away with that even for the likes of you Tommy O’Dell. We’ll stop at Manny’s place on the way to my home and get you one though. And a nice hot meal to boot. You’ll be longing for one of Donovan’s famous pasties I’m sure.”
They made the stop as promised. While they ate and drank and caught up with what had happened over the last year, people who’d come to know them both stopped to chat or extend the offer of another pint.
With the meal finished and good-byes said, Shamus drove them to his home where his wife Molly met them at the door, her pleasure at seeing Tommy again obvious in both her smile and the hug she folded him into.
The next morning dawned sunny and clear. The beauty was marred though by a strong wind that blew its cold breath across the green hills and verdant valleys. Shamus and Molly sat at their small kitchen table talking quietly while their elderly guest slept.
Molly took a furtive glance toward the hallway that led to Tommy’s room before she spoke. “He seems so fragile this year Shamus. Eighty-five is too old to be traipsing around and climbing over rocks and up hills to visit old ruins. Are you sure it’s wise to be making that trip today? It’s a cold wind that’s blowing out there.”
“I have to Molls. Ya know I do.” Shamus shook his head, his expression sorrowful. “I agree with you about his condition but going to the castle is why he’s here. Today is his Rose’s birthday and he’ll be takin’ her flowers and spending a few hours talking to her just like he always does when he comes.”
“I don’t understand why he does it though. She died at those ruins Shamus. Such a terrible, terrible accident. And at such a young age too. They’d only been married a little over a year. She was just a child really when you think about how young they married. How can it bring him any kind of joy to be there?” Tears shimmered in her blue-green eyes. “I hate it so much. I’ve come to love him just as if he were my own flesh and blood. We both have. We can’t let him do it. We just can’t.”
He stood and went to her pulling her up and into an embrace. “You’re right, I do love him and that’s exactly why I have to take him. He left Ireland after Rose died Molly. Traveled the world and never settled. Never wed again. This one trip here a year for his Rose’s birthday is the only time he allows himself to come back to the homeland he loves.” A door creaked open down the hall and they looked into each other’s eyes. They both felt it. That sense of foreboding. A knowing that this trip was somehow different than the years before. Shamus used his thumbs to wipe the tears from Molly’s cheeks then kissed her softly. “You’ve such a kind and caring heart Molly me love, it’s one of the reasons I adore you the way I do. Now dry your tears and let’s make his beloved’s birthday as special as we can.”
Molly made a big breakfast of all the things Tommy enjoyed the most and kept the conversation lively and light. Both she and Shamus took every opportunity they could to let Tommy O’Dell know just how much they cared about him and how happy they were he’d become such an important part of their lives.
When the time came for them to leave, Molly hugged the old man’s thin form as tightly as she dared. “I love you Tommy. I hope you and your Rose have a wonderful time today. I’ve packed you and Shamus a lunch and gathered up a big bunch of wildflowers for you to take. I’ll have a hot supper waiting when you get back.”
Tommy hugged her back with more strength than seemed possible. “I love ya too lass. I’m more blessed than an old fool has any right to be. The two of you are like the children my Rose and I never were blessed with. I’ll be forever thankful for that day Shamus answered the call to the airport.” He kissed her cheek then whispered so softly that only she could hear. “You take care of that wee babe you’re carrying, and if you’re of a mind to, name her Rose.”
Molly drew in a breath. How could he know? She hadn’t even told Shamus yet. The old man pulled back just a bit and winked. “Don’t you be worrying, I’ll be keepin’ your secret.”
Shamus loaded the wheelchair into the trunk just in case and then helped Tommy into the passenger seat before he hugged and kissed Molly.
“We’ll be back before nightfall. I love you.”
The trip to the ruins of the O’Dell castle was long and mostly on unpaved roads. Shamus kept a sharp eye on Tommy as he drove and they talked. The old man seemed even older and more fragile today than he had the day before.
When he’d driven as far as he was able, he turned off the car and went around to help Tommy out. He looked up at the ruins. All that remained now was a small bit of one wall and a single window. The hill to reach it, though not too steep, seemed like an impossible task for the man standing next to him.
“I’ve brought the chair Tommy. It’ll take some work, but I can get you up the hill.”
Tommy patted Shamus’s shoulder. “You’re a good lad and your offer of help is appreciated but this is something I need to do alone. I’ll make it just fine. Knowing my Rose is waiting for me up there will give me all the strength I need.”
Shamus nodded his understanding and pressed the bouquet of flowers Molly had gathered into the old man’s hand. “Right ya are then you tell yer Rose happy birthday from me and Molly too. I’ll be waitin’ right here for you. If you find you haven’t the means to make it back down when you’re done just give a call out and I’ll come get you.
Shamus watched Tommy’s progress up the hill with a heavy heart. He’d aged so much recently. His once erect and proud posture had become the bent over stoop of an old man. Each June he came home to make this same trek up the hill to the ruins of his ancestral home. No one had lived in the place for years. Centuries probably. Time and vandals had slowly taken their toll on the once grand castle. When he’d first started bringing him, there’d been parts of three walls each with their own glassless cathedral window and breathtaking view. Now all that remained was the small portion of one wall and its window.
He stood rigid, willing himself not to rush to Tommy’s side. To do so would do more harm than adding a decade to the man’s life. When Tommy finally made it to the top and sank down onto a low place in the wall, Shamus let out the breath he’d been holding. After a couple more minutes of making sure Tommy was set and safe, he went to the car, kicked back the seat, and closed his eyes. He’d take a short nap while Tommy talked to his Irish Rose.
Shamus’s eyes shot open and the breath caught in his throat when the realization that night had true and completely fallen filtered into his sleep addled mind. When he leapt from the car, an unnatural wind, playful and full of odd energy yanked at the legs of his trousers and took his cap on a merry jaunt across the grassy hill. Clouds skittered through the sky blotting out the stars and moon then moving on only to be followed by more. Tommy! Good God in heaven, where was Tommy?
“Tommy?” The wind whipped his shouted words away. He raced up the hill stumbling over rocks and nearly breaking his ankles in unexpected dips. “Tommy, can you hear me? Where are you man? Give us a shout out now so I can help you down from your blasted hill and into the warm car. Molly’s going to be worried sick about the both of us.”
The sound of laughter floated to him on a gust of wind and small shadowy figures danced in and out of random moonbeams. Shamus shook his head to clear it, clinging to the certainty that sleep still dulled his senses causing him to hear and see things that weren’t actually there. Damn this place. Why did that hard-headed old man insist on returning here year after year?
Shamus had spent his whole life in Ireland. Most of it here in the shadow and spell of the ruins of the O’Dell castle. He’d been raised up with a Mum and Aunties who’d prattered on and on about how the ruins were filled with magic and fairies and wee people who meddled in the lives of humans who dared to visit them. He’d listened when he’d been told not to as they’d spoken in quiet tones of restless spirits who walked the earth searching for lost loves or wreaking havoc on those who’d wronged them. There’d even been tales that at these ruins the veil between worlds was thin enough to cross. In his youth he’d mocked it all and gotten his ears boxed for the effort. As he’d grown, he’d learned to keep his mouth shut and then had done so until the day he was able to go off to university and be away from all their nonsense.
Laughter rolled over him again but this time there was a familiarity about it. He’d not heard it often, but he’d swear on his nan’s grave that the laughter was that of Tommy O’Dell. Oddly though, it wasn’t only the deep, rich tones of the old man he heard. There was a woman laughing with him, a bright and beautiful sound that warmed the heart. A sudden gust sent clouds over the moon and he had to fumble his way to the top of the hill in total darkness. He needed light to find the old man. Why had he not brought his phone? Not that there was any signal in these hills for him to call for help, but at least it had a flashlight on it. His foot hit something solid. No, solid wasn’t quite right because it wasn’t stone he’d run into. With his heart hammering in his chest, he knelt and reached out a hand. Tears instantly filled his eyes as he shook the shoulder he’d found.
“Tommy? Are you okay? Tommy, can you hear me?” He called to him, but he knew. He and Molly had felt the shift but neither had put a voice to the words.
He was suddenly surrounded by the titter of what seemed like hundreds of tiny voices and the tinkle of childlike laughter. Trepidation filled him and he shook the old man harder, tears now flowing freely down his cheeks. He froze when something feather-light landed on his shoulder.
“Open your eyes Shamus Doyle. Believe. Tommy isn’t in that tired old shell your shaking anymore. Look up and rejoice. He’s with his Irish Rose at last and it is such a sight to behold.”
Shamus drew in an unsteady breath and looked up. The wind moved the clouds and a bright beam of moonlight illuminated the scene. There in the silvery path of light were a young and devilishly handsome Tommy O’Dell and his beautiful red-haired Rose dancing the jig Tommy had boasted about being so good at countless times over the years.
“Look Shamus,” Tommy called. “I’ve found her. My beautiful Rose. I told you she’d be waiting, now didn’t I. Still pretty as an Irish sunrise just like I told ya she was. I’ll be leavin’ you now Shamus. A million thanks to you for taking such good care of me and bringing me this one last time. May the path you walk be forever blessed. Farewell my friend. Farewell. Give our love to Molly.”
They both waved and Tommy’s Rose blew him a kiss before they turned to walk the beam of light. Just as they were shimmering forms half of this world and half of the next, Tommy turned around one last time.
“It’s the magic Shamus my boy. Always believe in the magic.”
And then they were gone, and the night grew still and quiet. Shamus stood there in the light of the moon staring after them with tears on his cheeks and his heart bursting with the freedom that only comes when one opens their heart to the impossible.
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