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By AJ Avila

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Desmond Sceller, one hand clutching a vellum scroll printed with gothic lettering, dipped into a pants pocket for his keys. Flipping through the ring, he located the right one. He inserted it into a lock and eased the door open.

Pungent antiseptic hung in the air; a heart monitor bleeped. Within the room lay Barclay Whitford, age 94, an IV dripping a solution into the back of a gnarled hand. Under his nose a plastic line supplied oxygen. Sunken cheeks and a nearly bald head outlined the skull of a man who had lived years beyond his normal life expectancy.

Sceller merely glanced at the blonde nurse who was monitoring him. She nodded, rose, quietly exited the room, and closed the door behind her.

"Are you ready?" Sceller asked Barclay when they were alone.

Barclay gasped for air. "I need a pen."

"My dear Mr. Whitford," Sceller said in his elegant British accent. "I told you the conditions before I drew up your contract."

"I really have to sign it in blood?" he wheezed. "Don't you think that's overdramatic?"

Whitford peered at him with a gaze Sceller could classify only as pure envy. Of course that was how he felt. Barclay was a pasty skin-clad skeleton while he was muscular and young. What little fuzz the old man still sprouted on his head was gray whereas he flaunted a mane of thick black hair. One hovered near death, the other had years upon years to live.

Sceller said, "Signing it thus is a surety you are committed enough to shed your lifeblood." He drew back the scroll. "Of course if you'd rather not . . . ."
Hands straining for the document trembled as if the parchment were life itself. "I'll sign!" he rasped. "But I usually have my lawyers check everything first."

Sceller laid the scroll on his lap. "You do understand why that's not allowed."

"Yes, yes, but signing over my entire media empire, my entire estate to you, well."

"I might point out, my dear Barclay, that you will lose those either way."

"True. There is not a man or woman alive who wouldn't want what you offer, Mr. Sceller." Lungs racking for air inhaled deeply. "I wish I could see the faces of those greedy bastards I call my family when they find out they're getting nothing." He spread the yellowed parchment and read its contents. "I bind myself," he quoted, ". . . hereby vow to obey all orders without question . . . and so on and so forth. It seems pretty straightforward. But it has to be blood?"

Sceller withdrew a stiletto from his vest pocket. "You will allow me my little quirks."

The old man raised his right index finger. "You know," he said while Sceller pricked the tip, "if you and I went into business—ow!—selling your product, we would be the richest men in the world."

"I'm afraid that is not possible," Sceller said, squeezing the old man's finger. Blood beaded on the tip. "One of the primary ingredients is quite rare. You should consider yourself fortunate."

"I am more than grateful," Barclay gasped.

The one drop was not sufficient even for the capital B in his first name, and Sceller had to squeeze the fingertip many times before the task was accomplished.

"When do I get it?" Barclay asked.

"Ah. Payment first," Sceller reminded him as he bandaged the wound. "You might also recall I allowed you to witness the procedure before I offered it to you. I would like to allow someone else the same opportunity. After all, my dear Barclay, you must admit this is not something a person is likely to take my word on."

Barclay said, "Just give me a phone. I'll contact my lawyers. The papers are already drawn up and signed. Once my lawyers have them, everything I own is yours."

"Yes," Sceller said, handing him his cell phone. "Everything."


Peter Long slid the top off another box. "What's in here?"

Packing crates abounded in the living room, most with "For Charity" scribbled on them. One large trash container brimmed with years of discarded belongings. Peter also had a couple of cartons bulging with items he had inadvertently left behind when he had moved out of his childhood home.

His grandmother Marie, seated on the sofa, peered into the musty box. "Oh my. I haven't looked at these in years." Thumbing through the contents, she muttered, "My high school yearbook. And this . . . this is the tassel from my graduation. Red and green, those were our colors." She withdrew a flat book. "I don't know if you've ever seen this. My mother made it when I was a baby." The cover flipped open. "So many memories. Some old photographs, a lock of my baby hair, and . . . oh! See these tiny handprints?"

Peter grinned in an amused disbelief. "Granny, those aren't yours?"

"Actually, they are." She laid her right palm over the corresponding print in the book. "Guess I've aged a bit."

"May I see?" She handed it to him, and he leafed through the pages. "Is this you?" he asked, pointing at an old black and white photo. "Wow, Granny, you were quite a looker!"

"I was a model, you know."

Peter sat on his heels. "You've told me that, but after going through almost everything you own, I still haven't found any magazine pictures."

Granny let out her breath. "I destroyed them."

His jaw dropped. "You what? Why?"

"They weren't exactly . . . times were tough, work hard to find. I was on my own, and those pictures, well, back then they were kind of risqué."

Peter's eyes widened, his jaw dropped farther. "You're kidding. You?"

"Oh, nothing indecent like you have now. I had on more bathing suit than most women do tanning on the beach today. What you call cheesecake. I actually was a pin-up girl for a while." She stared into the distance as though gazing into the past. "It's not a time I'm proud of. I drank a lot and partied and was kind of wild, but then . . . ." Her eyes refocused to the present day. "Then I met your grandfather and he got me pointed in the right direction."

He stared at her a moment, finding it hard to believe this gray haired woman, neck skin drooping like a turkey wattle, veins bulging on the back of her hands, could ever have been glamorous. The girl in the black and white glossy could have been a pin-up, but not his grandmother. The difference was so extreme it defied credibility that they were the same person—except for her eyes. Even behind thick glasses, her dark blue eyes twinkled with vitality.

He handed the book back. She tossed it into the trash.

"Granny!" he gasped, digging it out of the receptacle. "What are you doing? That's a keeper!"

"Petey—" she began.

"Aw, don't call me that. C'mon, Granny, I'm twenty-five, not three."

"Peter. I can't fit everything into such a tiny apartment. Some things have to go. I hadn't looked at that in years anyway. Besides, who's going to want it once I'm gone?"

"I will," Peter said. "It's history, family history. I'll hand it down to my kids some day."

"If you ever have any," she teased. "Just when are you going to settle down and give me some great-grandchildren? And don't tell me a handsome young man like you has trouble finding a wife." She laid a hand on his cheek. "You look so much like your grandfather. Same wavy brown hair, same determined brown eyes." She sat back a bit, appraising him. "You inherited his broad shoulders too. And his smile. When he died, I thought I'd never see that smile again, one so in love with life. Your father didn't have it. But somehow . . . well. I'm surprised the girls aren't lined up, begging to date you."

"I'd love to get married, Granny." He kissed her forehead. "But I can't seem to find a young lady as wonderful as you."

She brushed him aside. "Oh you! Petey, you want the book, it's yours. Now, is this the last box?"

Peter nodded. "Yup. And don't call me that." He rose and glanced around. There was the staircase he'd climbed to his bedroom every night. From here he could see the kitchen table where he'd wolfed down Granny's cookies. This room was where he'd watched television and played video games with his friends.

"Granny, I wish you weren't doing this. Can't you reconsider selling the house? I kind of hate to see the old place go."

"This old place," Granny said, reclining on the sofa, "is too much for one old lady to take care of. In fact, this old lady is too much for one old lady to take care of. You know how expensive Assisted Living is. Where else will I find the money?"

"I know. I would buy it if I could afford it."

"Don't be upset about that. Some day you'll find the right girl, and she'll want to pick out her own place." Granny checked the clock. "Goodness, it's after six. I should have taken my medication an hour ago. Would you bring me my pills?"

Peter strolled into the kitchen. "The yellow ones?"

"You only have two left." He placed one in her hand and gave her a cup of water.

"I forgot to pick up my refill. See, that's why I need Assisted Living."

She began to rise, but Peter yanked on his jacket and said, "I'll get it. Gainer's Pharmacy?"

"Yes. Do me a favor. Take my car. It hasn't been driven a while, and I hear that's bad for the engine. Can't sell it if it doesn't run right."

"Okay," Peter said, grabbing her keys. "Need anything else?"

Slipping off her glasses, she yawned and lay down on the sofa. "A nap."

Peter smooched her forehead. "Be right back."

"Thank you, Petey."

"Granny, don't call—"

"—me that!" she finished for him.
The line at the pharmacy wasn't long. Fifteen minutes later, prescription in hand, Peter eased into Granny's car. As was his habit, he flicked on the radio. Bing Crosby was crooning "Swinging on a Star." The familiar melody sparked a pang of guilt. How often Granny had sung this to him, usually as a lullaby when she'd tucked him into bed. Already widowed, she'd taken him in when he was orphaned at the age of three. She'd seen to it he'd gotten through school, graduated with enough honors to get accepted at a major university. And somehow, God only knew how, she'd managed to pay what his scholarship hadn't covered. She'd rooted at his Little League games, hosted his birthday parties, bandaged his knees.

She'd always been there for him, and now that she needed someone, where was he? Peter squeezed eyes shut. Sitting there, car idling in the parking space, he knew he really should move back home and take care of her. After all, he was a freelance writer. He could work anywhere.

She wouldn't want that, he told himself, easing his conscience a bit. Besides, you're young. You want to experience life. You don't want an old lady holding you down, not now when you're in your prime. C'mon, how much are you reasonably expected to sacrifice?

Peter shifted into reverse and backed out of the space. Yeah, it would be great to bring a girl home, and there's Granny napping on the sofa. He told himself he'd never get married and give her the great-grandkids she wanted under those conditions. Couldn't ask a girl to marry him if it meant she'd have to live with his grandmother and help take care of her.

Crosby ended his song. A youthful Shirley Temple began "Animal Crackers." Peter snapped the radio off and motored down suburban Santa Candida avenues. Overhanging trees granted shade, lawnmowers hummed. He cruised by the church, observed a line of people waiting at its soup kitchen. Granny had volunteered thousands of hours there, and at the homeless shelter. Now that she was the one who needed to be cared for, he thought, she had to pay strangers to do it. You give so much to the world, and what do you get back? You get old, wrinkled, and weak. You're left with nothing but death staring you in the face.

He parked in the garage and switched the ignition off. Motes of dust trickled through a shaft of light spilling from the window above the door. An image surfaced in his mind: the little boy crying over the loss of his Mommy and Daddy, asking why God would allow them to be taken away. Then Granny's arms snuggling him, rocking him in her lap and repeating over and over "God works in mysterious ways. God works in mysterious ways."

Peter let out his breath, a cold uneasiness in the pit of his stomach nagging him. All the rationalizations in the world didn't erase the fact that she had been there for him but he was refusing to be there for her. Torn by the usual human dilemma between doing what he wanted and what he should, Peter made up his mind that he would, at the very least, propose moving in and taking care of her. Then, once she rejected the offer, he wouldn't have to feel even the tiniest bit guilty.

"I'm back!" he announced, opening the door and shrugging off his jacket. "Got you a full bottle of—" He frowned. She'd left the sofa. Peter set the prescription on the coffee table and glanced into the kitchen. No Granny. He climbed to the second floor and checked the bathroom and bedrooms. They were empty. Re-entering the living room, he noticed her glasses were gone.
"Granny?" he called, heading outdoors. A quick search revealed both front and back yards were deserted.

Must have gone to the neighbors, he realized. Peter sprinted to the house next door and rang the bell.

"Betty," he said to the blonde woman who answered. "Is my granny here?"

Her eyes widened. "I thought you knew. I saw your car outside, so I thought you went along."

"Wait. Knew what?"

"An ambulance took her. I guess it was serious, they had the siren on."

"Oh no. How long ago?"

"Uh . . . ten, maybe twelve minutes."

"Thank you!" he said, dashing for his red Mustang. Why didn't she call my cell? he wondered, zooming down city streets with no regard for the speed limit. Let her be okay, he prayed. God, please.

After an unbearable wait at a stoplight, he arrived at Emergency. Keys were barely out of the ignition before he was darting for the entrance. Double doors swooshed open.

"My grandmother was brought in," he told the admitting nurse, a middle-aged woman with her blonde hair up in a bun. "Marie Long."

She typed at her keyboard. "We have no one of that name."

"Well, you have to. She's eighty, about five foot three, came in by ambulance just a little while ago."

The nurse squinted at him. "Sir, nobody's arrived by ambulance for several hours."

"That can't be," he said. "Her neighbor said an ambulance took her."

"Sir, could she have requested another hospital?"

"No! She wouldn't. She always comes here. This is where her doctor and her records are. Besides, there's not another hospital for fifty miles. Could someone else have admitted her?"

"I have been at this desk since noon, and I am telling you nobody has come in by ambulance since then. Perhaps the neighbor was mistaken. Perhaps she's in the waiting room."

That didn't seem likely, but Peter jogged to the waiting room just in case. The only patients it held were a kid with a bag of ice on his arm, a screeching baby, and an obese man clutching his stomach.

"She's not there!" he complained when he returned to the nurse.

"Well, sir, I have no idea."

Peter yanked his cell phone from a jeans pocket. "I am calling the police."

"Perhaps you should, but you can't use that in here. Please make your call outside."

Sliding glass doors swished open. His teeth gritted with worry and frustration, he stomped outside and dialed a number he had stored on his phone.

Two rings later, the other end was picked up. "Sergeant Byron."

"Zane, it's Pete."

"Hey, buddy, how's it going?"

"Granny's missing!"

"What? I don't think I heard you right."

"I said Granny's missing." Quickly he informed his friend of the situation. "You're a cop, do something!"

"All right, Pete, calm down. It's probably just a misunderstanding somewhere. Let me check on this, and I'll call you right back."

"Okay." Peter disconnected. Clutching the phone, he glanced at what seemed an ordinary day. On nearby trees, wind fingered leaves. A mother wheeled a baby stroller. Cars idled in the parking lot.

Through the glass of the sliding doors, he observed the admitting nurse answering her phone. A moment later, she shook her head. It was Zane calling, he realized, checking the story like any good cop would. The nurse hung up, and almost immediately his cell rang.


"You sure the neighbor said it was an ambulance?"

"Yeah, I'm sure! Think I'd miss an important detail like that?"

"All right, look. Meet me at your grandmother's house. I want to interview the neighbors myself."

"Okay." Sliding his phone shut, he mumbled, "This can't be happening. It just can't."

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