Don tugged at the brush and pressed his face in to the opening, completely oblivious to the pricks coming from the thick briars. When the first two numerals were visible, he sneered,
“This is it and there is no one here to stop me.” He steadied the flask against his numbed lower lip and sucked the last drop of Benadryl and bourbon from the stainless steel container. Hurriedly he shoved it back into his rear pocket and resumed his mission.
When he had burrowed out a space big enough to accommodate his shoulders Don Crowley scrambled through to the clearing to the other side.
The land bore no resemblance to his fond memory. He studied the bleached bovine skull that hung before the forgotten alley, the alley that would lead him to the entrance of his dreams.
The door was not near as beautiful as she had once been. The paint was all but gone and so was much of the wood. Termites had loved the timber as well, though not in the same way Don did. The brass appendages were tarnished and blackened, the frame was mildewed and rotting and she looked naked without her gable to shade her from the elements. But her lips were still a bright red.
The man ran his trembling fingers over the smooth rounded lines of cherry color and whispered,
“Hello door number four. I’ve thought about you for a long, long time.” He gently petted the mottled brass before curling his fingers into a fist then paused, “I don’t have to, but it seems only polite.” Holding the cold sticky metal against the tips of his fingers he savored the moment, inhaled deeply, wet his lips then, Clink… clink… clink.
The dull tapping brought tears of joy to his eyes, tears mingled with watery mucous because Don was allergic to mold as well as every other spore and pollen in the universe.
He stood on the cement landing, shaking his head in confusion. Was it the antihistamines and allergens causing him to imagine the voice or did Mr. Levin just invite him in?
Don stared down at the swaying concrete… the old porch had been a pier and beam foundation with a beautiful terrace above… could it be possible he had the wrong house? Looking back up he assured himself it was the right house, but so much had changed. He caressed the painted numerals to calm his fretfulness.
“It’s you… it has always been you.” he said placing his mouth against the deteriorating surface.
Bolstering his courage, he pulled back, stood as straight as he could and wiped the mustiness from his mouth.
Blood? He mused at the crimson wetness in his palm before wiping again. Paint? The iron taste confirmed his first guess and the dripping number revealed its origin. “What the hell?” he stammered bracing himself against the framework of the once glorious mansion.
“Wake up Donald.” The familiar voice commanded.
“I can’t see you.” Don moaned as he struggled to open his pus-filled eyes, “Where am I?”
“Exactly where you wanted to be.” Came the answer immediately followed by the sound of p’thu-p’thu “Now rub that in.”
“Did you just-” His words were cut short by an icy cloth slammed against his swollen face. It felt like a dozen hands on him, rubbing the warm spit into his eyes, pressing the cold rag to his lips and reaming his nostrils with ointment.
“Shut up!” the voice ordered pressing harder against his mouth, causing him to snort and choke as he inhaled the vapors of the salve.
Don briefly considered fighting the man that stood over him but there was no desire to. Despite the fact that the fellow had spit in his eye, forced a wet rag into his mouth and shoved something up his nose, he felt grateful. Frankly, he could not recall the last time he had felt so good, so calm and never in his life had he felt this strong and healthy. Don submitted and let the smell of tar and green mint carry him away.
When his breathing was slow and steady he felt the once chilled rag lift and the voice commanded him, “Pull yourself together and come on in to the kitchen when you can see straight.”
“Yes Sir Mr. Levin.” Don replied as he sat up and watched the man exit the dim parlor.
Slowly he scraped the thick balm from his face, picked the bits of crushed mint from his teeth and sniffed at the medicinal material.
“What’s in this?” he asked, studying the white cloth with nothing visible other than a few green specks caught in the cotton fibers. “You ought to sell it to one of the pharmaceutical companies.”
Mr. Levin never acknowledged the question or the suggestion but quietly shut the door without looking back.
Donald stood and stretched, marveling at the smoothness of his own skin and the indescribable vigor he felt.
Testing his newfound health he spread his legs, sprang upward and swung his arms over his head. He counted with each clap and two hundred jumping jacks later, his pulse and respirations were unchanged. Though dust covered everything in the area, he was unaffected.
He skipped around the massive room oblivious to any cares until the kettle whistling distracted him and he remembered Mr. Levin was waiting.
“This place is amazing,” he yelled toward the kitchen, “There must be a million dollars’ worth of antiques in this room alone.” Donald waited but the old man gave no response. If he had spoken, the younger man would not have heard as his focus darted to the nineteenth century Bosendorfer standing quietly in the corner. Don migrated to the antique piano and caressed the aged wood before letting his fingers come to rest on the ivory.
“Uh-uh!” The voice playfully warned before he had a chance to strike the key. It was her. Donald turned in every direction but there was no one to be seen. IIII flashed before his eyes and seemed to smile. The red lips over glossy white teeth, the IIII he remembered from his youth. But this smile was a cautious one like a mother gives her child; like the warning that precedes punishment.
“Yes ma’am.” He muttered as he shook the chill from his spine and hurried to the kitchen.
The room was just as he remembered it. Though he had spent only seconds inside before being chased out, the image had been stamped on his brain like a photograph.
“She called you didn’t she?” Mr. Levin asked without looking up.
Don understood the question but avoided answering and watched as the old man rubbed the rim of his cup. “I thought you were just a nosy little brat. Heck, you had snooped inside every house in the county; it weren’t like you were in love.” His voice trailed as he shifted in his seat; “Guess I should have saw it coming. Would you like a cup?”
“You haven’t aged a bit in fifteen years.” Donald answered staring at John Marcus Levin, “How is that possible?”
“I haven’t aged a bit in over fifty years boy, that’s part of it.” He answered dryly, still refusing to make eye contact.
Don watched the hot black tea flow as if in slow motion from the tarnished pot. He could count the drops as they splashed against the walls of the white china cup one at a time and without hurrying. He was totally mesmerized by the collapsing molecules of what was steam a millisecond ago; so much so that when the table shook he nearly fell out of his chair.
“Look! Look at yourself!” Mr. Levin growled banging his fist against the table and pointing toward the silver platter that held the tea set. “Do you like the way you look?”
“I have never looked better.” Don smiled stroking his flawless face and admiring the healthier version of himself. “No puffiness, no hives… I always wanted a smaller nose but yes, I like the way I look.”
“Good.” The old man replied in a softer tone, “Because that is the only face you’ll ever have.”
“Hell you make it sound like bad news when most people would give anything to stop the aging process. Do you know how many billions are made in the cosmetics industry every year? ”
“There’s no way to make you understand, not today anyway.” Mr. Levin sighed, “Not in my life time but in fifty years or so you’ll start to wonder and when the wondering fails to amuse you, you’ll grow weary and you’ll wish…”
Mr. Levin shook his head slowly, his loose flesh rippling with each turn until a bead of moisture broke loose from his cheek. Don studied the tear as it hovered then followed it to the table where it exploded on impact leaving a microscopic rainbow where it landed.
“I’ll wish what?” he asked, gently tilting the man’s face upward.
“You’ll wish you never loved her.”
Get the rest of the story from your favorite e-book store for only 99¢ USD