The day started with a cold waft from a freezing night in the middle of March, as the warm light from the slowly rising sun filled the old but well-kept house of Mr. Parnell with brightness. It crawled from the kitchen sink over every cupboard to the empty wooden dining table and the flowered armchair in the lounge, paved its way to the frayed carpet in the small hallway and revealed the outlines of the main door, an inconspicuous iron gate, covered with branches and tendrils.
Although the house included a few more rooms, you could never see through the heavy drapes behind the windows, falling gravely from the curtain rods. Neither Mr. Parnell nor his little girl ever used the rooms, which were filled with antique furniture, old paintings, sculptures, and various collectables. Every little piece had its proper place, well ordered but in their sheer multitude simply unfathomable. The narrow basement, which was mostly used as a storage room for groceries, had another tiny window, but it was nothing more than a vent and way too small to let any light in or out.
Occasionally, you could see Mr. Parnell moving sedately outside the front door. Some might say an aging man like him, who has lived and seen enough, would not need to lock his door three times when grocery shopping, but he did. He always bought enough supplies for a few days; at times, his neighbors wouldn’t even catch a glimpse of him for over a week. Some of them were asking themselves what he spent his time on, all alone in a house that was way too spacious.
Merelyn had constantly given him more reasons to participate in what the neighbors call “the local dayovers,” including several outdoor activities in various locations for people of their kind. But Mr. Parnell had grown tired of the routine of seeing the same old people’s skin getting more and more wrinkled, just like his own. He was even more fed up with the same old stories of grandchildren and family meetings – they were too much, like the ones he’s always dreamed of telling. “There is no beauty in an old man’s face,” was what he used to shout at Merelyn on a very moody day, marking the point for her to give up any ambition of getting him outside the house. On those days, there was no hope in his eyes for any spindly flower to flourish and wave its blossoms in the wind. Just his aging skin with no youth or freshness at all.
“Do you want some more peas and carrots?”
She just stared at her plate on the table in front of her, holding the fork tightly in her right hand, forming a fist.
“Hey, are you deaf?”
“Says the old man,” she replied without even looking up.
“Oh, don’t be like that. Not now, not today. I really tried my best, ya know.” He pulled over his chair and sat down at the small table. “Don’t you think a little sign of gratitude would be… appropriate?”
There was no reply, so he placed another portion of peas and carrots on her plate. They waited a few seconds, and as the clock struck one, she started to pick up the peas mechanically, one at a time, like there was nothing else to do.
After a long period of silence, he sliced another part of his steak, shoved it behind his lips and started to chew. He looked at her, scrutinized her long brown hair, falling flatly from the top of her pale forehead over her thin but graceful upper arms, leading to those frail shoulders. She noticed his piercing glance from the other side, but just kept on picking her peas from the plate, accompanied by the smacking sound of his false teeth masticating the meat.
“Merelyn used to love this dish, ya know. She always cleaned her whole plate when I cooked for her. Till the very last smudge. She said I was a great cook, better than most of them in these rundown shacks in town, claiming to be restaurants. They’re using too much salt there,” he said derisively, slicing another piece of meat and starting to chew again, “coming from school, forced into line, just heating up frozen junk all day long. It’s a shame. They’re just losing touch, the sense for freshness. You ain’t findin’ no meal like this nowhere, I tell ya it’s…”
“I like it.” She interrupted him in whispers, knowing it would make him stop talking, wondering why he would jabber so much at all.
After lunch, his little girl was granted permission to leave her seat. Just like any other day, Mr. Parnell cleared the table and carried the dishes upstairs into the kitchen. He filled the sink with hot water, scrubbed the plates and cutlery and rinsed the cups. He cleaned the frying pan and the other bowls last, then dried and stowed them above the fridge. There were never any leftovers because the old man knew precisely how much to prepare for his little girl and himself. The other dishes had their exact place next to the costly tableware in the old crockery cupboard, right beneath the empty dining table in the lounge. He stored three pairs of knives and forks, as well as three plates and cups in the shelf and closed the cabinet door without taking his hand from the grip.
Suddenly, he lost every urge to walk away or even move, and so he just stood there, staring at his blurry reflection in the yellowed cabinet window. What was there left to do today? His little girl had eaten her lunch – the one Merelyn always loved the most. The kitchen work was done. Everything else had been taken care of in the last couple of weeks. Is there really no other task to complete?
The old man tried to grasp the outlines of his face in the window, but his tired eyes kept losing focus. He felt a great weariness coming over him, settling on his eyelids and shoulders, weakening his limbs and enclosing his mind. No thought ran through his head, and he could not feel his fingers or feet anymore. Neither a warm nor a dark veil embraced him, just a white cloud made him hover above the floorboards, transcending the ground with every dusty little thing hidden somewhere in boxes, connected to a fixed place in his slowly dissolving memory. Time became a word and lost its meaning, and so he stood there like a statue, frozen and petrified. “I can’t let her go,” he mumbled, “I want her to be happy… happy… I can’t…”
Abruptly, his breath started to speed up, and the sensations in his head compressed to a vanishing point. He opened his eyes and stared into the distorted face of a ghost, looking right through him from behind the cabinet window. Shocked and filled with panic, he stumbled across the living room and collapsed into the old armchair, where he rested almost paralyzed before falling into a deep and bottomless sleep.
As the sun slowly went down, the old house was covered in darkness. A long period of silence filled the living room, and not the slightest sound could be heard. A dog barked in the distance as Mr. Parnell winced and opened his eyes again. He did not know where he was and could not see the end of the room. Without thinking about it, he reached out to the telephone next to his armchair and dialed.
Years later, on the morning of her 19th birthday, she walks towards one of the large windows and opens it wide. Her medium-length curly brown hair waves gently in the morning breeze as it fills her bedroom with cold, fresh air. She could stay there for hours, just watching the treetops bend with the wind while the clouds first conceal and then reveal the sun again. No curtains cover the windows of her room in the house she now lives in. Nothing should keep the light from floating around. It is allowed to stay or leave the house as it pleases, knowing that it will always be welcomed.
She turns around and walks downstairs into the kitchen where all of her family wait to sing for her. Blowing out the candles on the cake, she thinks of nothing in particular, simply looking forward to the days and years ahead, no longer a little girl. As the clock strikes one, all of a sudden a cold shiver runs down her back as she lifts her head, only to look into the caring eyes of the people she loves the most.
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