Tim blinked groggily as the nurse’s voice woke him from his nap. He was sitting in his normal chair, facing the window. He slowly pulled his chin away from his neck as he emerged from his sleep.
“Mr. Winters,” the nurse said again, “there’s someone here to see you.”
Tim passed his hand over his face, feeling the deep creases.
“Okay.” When he spoke, his voice sounded thin.
“Can I send him in?” The nurse’s syrupy voice frustrated Tim.
“Yes, fine. Okay.” Tim didn’t take his eyes off the bland pastel curtains that framed his view. His window looked out over a residential street. Nothing too exciting, but it was better than the whitewashed walls that reflected the fluorescent lights. Tim stared at the trees lining the street. The leaves were all red and had begun to shrivel and fall. Tim wrung his hands.
Tim heard footsteps behind him. Someone cleared his throat.
“Hi, Mr. Winters.” It was the voice of a young man, low and tentative.
“Who are you?” Tim snapped. He didn’t recognize the voice.
“My name is Sal.”
Tim waited. Nothing. Still his back faced the boy as he watched the suburban street. “Well, Sal?”
“Who are you? Why are you here? I don’t know you, do I?”
“Oh, uh, right.” Sal stumbled over his words. “Well, I’m a high school student. I’m doing community service.”
Tim snorted. “How does standing in my bedroom serve your community?”
“Um, well, I’m here to spend time with you. Didn’t they tell you I was coming?”
Tim tried to remember. He couldn’t. He shook his head, his hand curling into a fist on his knee. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Oh, well, uh. I’m here, so. What do you want to talk about?”
A man on the street below strolled past with his wife on his arm. They were smiling. The sun was shining on them as brown and orange leaves floated to the sidewalk under their feet.
“I don’t know.” Tim watched them walk. The silence filled the air. Tim heard Sal fidgeting behind him.
“Are you still standing?” Tim didn’t turn to look.
“Oh, yes. Um, I am.”
“Sit down. Take that chair.” Tim gestured to a metal folding chair in the corner of the room. Still his head faced the window.
“Thank you, Mr. Winters.”
“Yeah. Fine.” Tim watched two boys ride past on their bicycles. They weren’t wearing helmets. “You’re not much for conversation, are you, Sal?”
“Yeah, exactly.” Tim leaned back in his chair and took a peek at the light clouds drifting in the blue sky. He could tell there was a crisp autumn breeze. “So where do you go to school?”
“Chesapeake Academy.” Sal’s response was automatic, as if he was always expecting to answer this question.
“What is that? Some fancy private school?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess. It’s not that fancy, really. Just school. But more expensive, I guess.”
“So that’s why they make you come here, huh? So you don’t live your entire life as a sheltered wealthy kid?” Tim hadn’t meant to sound angry, but he quickly forgot.
“Yeah, basically.” Sal sounded unaffected.
Again silence stood between them. This time Sal broke it.
“So are you from around here?” Tim shook his head.
“No, I lived in the city for most of my life.”
“You like Chicago?” Sal seemed at least somewhat curious.
“It’s my home.” Tim’s forehead and mouth tightened in a regretful gesture as he thought of the busy streets of the city.
“So how’d you end up here?”
“I had a bad fall. The doctor told me the city was too much for me. He thought I should move somewhere quiet. He recommended this place.”
“Oh. So your family didn’t put you here or anything?”
“No.” Tim stared at the bleak branches of the trees that were slowly being stripped of their leaves.
“You have kids or anything?”
“Oh. A wife?” Sal kept fishing.
“No. Never married.”
“Wow.” Sal had clearly run out of small talk. He tried again. “So, you like it here?”
“It’s fine. They give me food. They leave me alone, most of the time,” Tim said pointedly.
Sal seemed to notice. Either that or he had run out of ideas again. Tim watched a young woman jog past with a stroller, a bundled-up baby bouncing inside it.
“So what did you do when…” Sal trailed off. “Um, when you worked?”
“I was a pilot.” Tim glanced back up at the sky again.
“No way! That’s awesome! Commercial or…?”
“Eventually. I started out flying planes for the Air Force, but moved into commercial aviation after awhile.”
“Whoa! That’s so sick!” Sal’s words came quick and naturally. “Man, I want to do that. Did you fly in a war?”
“Vietnam.” Tim squinted. He didn’t see the street anymore.
“No way. Was it scary or anything?”
“Terrifying. I feared for my life every single day.”
“That’s so badass!” Sal sounded as though he could have been talking about an action movie or a sports game.
“Not really.” Tim’s head dropped and he looked down at his liver-spotted hands, then back out the window. “I mean, maybe it was at the time. Yeah, I got to fly planes. I got to help in a war. I dropped bombs. And now look at me. Just a sad old man in a nursing home.”
“No, dude!” Sal’s feet hit the floor. He must have uncrossed his legs and was now leaning forward. “You lived your life! You got to experience something so rare and powerful! That’s amazing!”
“What I did there,” Tim spoke slowly, his voice slow and deep, “was not living. I stared my own mortality in the face daily. I took away the lives of others. I was always afraid. I was too afraid. That’s why I had to leave. I quit the service, I started flying commercial jets, and I’ve done nothing important ever since.”
“But what you did do was amazing! You made a real difference! So many people have never done anything like that.”
“Did I?” Tim’s body was stiff as a board. “I don’t feel like I made any difference at all.”
Sal seemed to have run out of words again.
“Do you think it was brave?” Tim’s voice was quieter than before.
“Do you think what I did was brave?” Tim’s eyes drifted across the branches swaying in the breeze, more of their leaves being carried off with every gust.
“Even if I was afraid?”
“Especially because you were afraid.” Sal sounded like a parent. His chair scraped across the floor as he scooted closer to Tim’s back. “Are you afraid now?”
“Of what?” The clouds had covered the sky and Tim stared at the gray mass.
“Of what you were afraid of before. Of dying.”
A young man in a suit crossed the street, jogging quickly across the pavement. Tim admired the briskness of his steps.
“Yes.” Tim’s voice was barely audible. The word hung itself across their shoulders.
Tim took in a deep breath as his lungs reminded him that they had done this too many times before. “No
one is going to remember me. No one was ever going to remember me. Maybe that’s why I left the Air Force.
I knew that if I went down in Vietnam, my name may be printed in some newspaper or etched into some
memorial, but it would be glazed over. No one would weep at the sight of it. My parents were gone, no siblings.
Some a few distant relatives, but no one I’d even spoken to in years. I had no one to care. I have no one
to care.” Tim instinctively ran a hand through his thin, wiry hair. Tim felt a hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll remember you, Mr. Winters.”
“Tim. Call me Tim, Sal.” He stared out at the trees.
“I said to call me Tim.” His voice was filled with confusion.
“Mr. Winters!” The voice was high and sweet. It wasn’t Sal’s. Tim’s head snapped up as he woke up. He whirled around. The room was empty. The metal folding chair was tucked in the corner. A nurse stood in the doorway.
“Oh good, you’re awake. It’s dinner time.” She moved on to the next room.
Tim couldn’t look away. He watched the spot where Sal should have been. He waited. Nothing. There was only nothing. There had been only nothing.
Tim slowly turned himself back around, his eyes passing over the blazing white walls and the drab salmon curtains. He looked outside, but it wasn’t autumn.
It was winter, and the snow was falling. The bleak, barren branches of his trees reached up for the white sky. Tim leaned back in his chair and sighed, waiting.