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She did not understand why the man had such anger in his heart. Spitting on the ground, he would often drag his weary feet through the streets as though weighed down by his own discontent. Wrinkled fingers dangling from dry palms, the left hand mourning the loss of its thin golden friend; the arthritis did not sympathize with human sentimentality. His right arm hung crooked in that sad way a bone broken but not healed properly will hang. Sweaters hid his scars from strangers’ eyes more efficiently than his face ever could, and his knobby knees often clacked together. She did not like the sound they made in the early mornings when he slogged past her with a haughty expression that contradicted his tortured gait.
In the forest that shielded the town from a river’s roar, one might find a log cabin. In this log cabin, if one were to investigate, one might notice an abandoned wooden rocking chair on a sagging porch. Upon moving closer, one may take a moment to appreciate the fine craftsmanship of the chair, and observe the grooves under the rounded legs where many a night was spent gazing at the sky’s unreachable stars. If one were truly a curious soul, they may venture up the steps, chastising the creaks that moaned of years under the rushed footsteps of a young man and his eager ambitions.
The door could be unlocked, but unless one were truly and adventurer, they would only go so far as to peer inside the unguarded windows. There is not much to see, unless one were to analyze the view before them intently: they may notice the difference in color on the walls where picture frames once hung, tacked up with affection and an idealistic eye for the nostalgia they would bring one day. A worn down Persian rug, the quality undeterminable from this angle but obviously trodden enough to leech the vibrant colors it must have once held. Two doors lead to what could be presumably a kitchen and a bedroom, but by this time on may have checked their watch and realized they had spent an inappropriate amount of time invading on the life of a recluse.
She has been to the cabin. She has hidden in the woods and watched with rapt anticipation as he sat upon the rocking chair and gazed at his hands. The older children described him in such a way as to paint him like a monster that stole little kids and gobbled them up for dinner; but her observations had led her to a different conclusion. She found him quite boring. All he ever seemed to do was sit in that darn chair and stare. He might stare at the sky, or at his hands; his eyes may drift to the forest, and when this happened she made sure she was near a tree thick enough to hide her from his startlingly sharp eyes.
And yet despite her anticlimactic visits to the man’s cabin, she still returns day after day. But today is different than in the past. She swore she saw him trudge up the porch, the groaning stairs indicating his actions. The difference between today and other days, however, is that he has yet to leave. To worry about a strange old man seems silly to her, but fear grips her heart lightly. Should she approach and see if he is alright? Should she wait? Or perhaps she should run to the grownups in town and tell them?
Heart beating erratically, she breathes deeply and takes advantage of her naivety, stalking toward the porch. Her outings to the cabin have enlightened her to the volume of the porch. Light feet do nothing for her, and as soon as her toes touch a step the stair cries out in anguish. Her head feels heavy but her mind is light and dizzy as she waits in fearful anticipation for him to leap out at her with outstretched, arthritis-ridden hands. He does not come.
She glances back at where she came from. She could still run. He would never catch her. But her time spent watching him has given her a sense of duty toward the old man; and though unexplainable, it drives her to walk briskly to the door. She knocks once, twice, three times. Her heartbeat quickens exponentially with each bang on the door. No answer.
Tiny hands grasp the knob firmly and twist. The door gives, swinging open to reveal the living room with its sad Persian rug and two doors behind which she knew not what lay. Channeling her inner jungle cat, she pads quietly to the door on the left. It is ajar, and she gathers what little courage she has left to propel her hand forward as she inches it open.
On the floor lie the old man, his eyes closed, and his chest rising and falling shallowly. Her throat is dry. “Are you alright?” she squeaks, feet shifting nervously.
He does not reply.
“Mister, are you okay?” Her voice betrays her inner fear of the frail body on the ground. She bends down and gets on her knees, hands fidgeting by her side.
Still, he does not reply. His breathing is steady.
Her hand creeps against her own will toward his. Small, soft skin brushes dry, rough skin. His eyes do not open but his hand jerks, as though it cannot decide whether it should flee or embrace the warmth of a caring heart.
“You should not be here.” She gasps. His words are clear enough, but his voice, so steady, contrasts the shivers wracking his body.
Now it is her turn to sit in silence.
“Don’t you know it is rude t’ intrude on a man’s peace, girl?” he continues, opening one crystal clear eye to peer at the curious creature at his side.
She nods slowly, gaining confidence. “What were you doing?” she asks.
“I was remembering the day my sunshine went away,” he replies simply. She does not understand what he means. If he wanted the sun, all he had to do was open the curtains.
“Is that why you are so unhappy? Because you don’t have a sunshine anymore?” Hardened fingers grasp hers in a firm grip, startling her.
She kneels closer, noticing a tear sliding down the weathered cheek of a man burdened with a terrible pain.
“Your hand is warm,” he whispers. “Memories can be warm. But they can also be cold. Sometimes, when I’m feeling cold, I like to remember the warm ones. My sunshine was warm, but now she’s gone. So all I have are the warm memories.” She is not sure what he is saying, but she does not let go of his hand.
“I can give you sunshine,” she says sweetly, and stands up, letting his fingers slip out of hers. She pulls back the curtain, and a wave of gold illuminates his withered body. He smiles and she puts her small fingers in his. She does not know why he is smiling. It seemed a simple solution to her. Perhaps his mind had gone with age.
Two weeks later he was found in his cabin, dead. He died in his sleep according to the authorities. The little girl reported it after noticing he had not come outside since before the day she gave him his sunshine.
The officer who wrote up the report on his death read it over, face drawn with the exhaustion brought on by the infinite finality of his job. He perused his work, reading it under his breath. “Robert Donahue, age 78. Widowed. Lived in one bedroom cabin in southeast woods, three miles from town. Was found in bed, with one hand grasping a photo of deceased wife. Written on the back: “Keep me in your heart, forever and always. Love, your sunshine.”