I looked outside my tiny window and saw the beautiful grassy park, a playground with a forest behind. There were teeter-totters and swings, slides and bars, but most of all, there were children. Like ants at a picnic, these smiling boys and girls crawled over everything, inventing new ways to entertain themselves. I looked around my small room and sighed. Four dusty brown walls stared back at me, broken only by an unfriendly door and the small portal that gave me a view of life as it had been for me. I looked down at the thin, wrinkled hands folded softly in my lap and I cursed God for my age.
I got up from my cot and shuffled to the door, tired of my daily ritual of self-pity. After a struggle with the knob, the door creaked open and I stepped out into the dreary hall.
As I slowly made my way to the activity center, I counted the doors that lined the hallway. Each of those thirty doors contained it's own wretched tenant, some looking out their own little window at a world that they no longer lived in.
My eyes would have teared, but I had ran out long ago with too many nights of crying. I crawled past the front desk where a young woman sat, marking charts that gauged our progression towards death. "What's wrong, Oliver?" she asked, but I did not answer. She could not possibly understand how it felt to be entrapped in a cage made of weak threads and have neither the will nor the strength to break free and escape.
I breathed heavily as I crossed the threshold of the activity room, only a few dozen yards from my own door. In my youth, I could have completed the trip in fifty easy steps, but now it took five minutes and countless tiny shufflings.
I slowly looked up and surveyed the room, dimly illuminated by four lanterns hung from hooks in the ceiling. There had been electric lights in my manhood, but my old age was filled with the smell of oil smoke. It was yet another reminder of my present position in society: prisoners had better quarters than the old.
My only friend, Bill, was happily gluing together a box that sat on one of the tables. I came to sit beside him. "Hello." I toned morosely.
"Why, hello, mate!" Bill gave me a bright smile and motioned toward his creation. "What do you think?"
I looked over the curious assemblage of wooden pieces and shrugged. "I don't think it will hold up."
"What?" He slammed his strong hand down on one of the shelves and it held. "Why, this box should serve me very well!"
I nodded slowly. "What are you going to do with it?"
He smiled and said, "It will go right by the wheel, mate. On the deck."
I shook my head slowly and pitied the old sailor. The longer that he stayed here, the more insane he became. He had taken up the idea that he was building a boat. "How is the project going?" I asked, playing along with his imagination.
"Very well! I should be done by the end of the week." He was admiring his creation when a thought came to him, exciting him so much that he clapped his hands. "I'll take you out to see it tonight!"
He had never offered to show the boat to anyone before so I was quite startled. "What? We can't go outside!" I looked around suspiciously at the other residents, fearing such plans might be reported. "What if we get caught?" I began to shiver at the thought of breaking one of the rules.
"Nonsense. I've never been caught and I've been to the ravine plenty of times." He gave his box another sound hit, making me jump nervously out of my chair, and a part of the conglomeration bent. "Oops! It looks like I need a bit more wood." He spryly leaped from his seat and began rummaging through a pile of wood in a corner of the room.
"The last time I tried to go outside," I said with fear in my shaky voice, "I had to stay in my room for a week!" with a great deal of effort, I finally got a hold of myself and calmed down. "No, I can't go."
It was all just a dream in his head. He thought he had spent the past three months building a skiff in the dry riverbed that ran behind the Home. "Well," he replied, "suit yourself."
"Aren't you afraid that a flash flood will hurt it, Bill?"
The man looked up from his search, his eyes gleaming. "No." He walked back over to me and sat down, his excitement quite obvious. "I am going to use the flood to get me on my way!" He spoke quietly to protect this secret that he kept from the staff. "I'll ride the crest of the wave all the way to the sea!"
"You frighten me," I said with a grimace. "I don't want any part of this." I turned and practically crawled out of the room.
He had gone mad. It happened to some people who could not face the reality that they were here to die. Mrs. Trader dreamed that she had a little invisible baby; Thomas the actor, that lived next door to me, told us of the many fan letters that he pulled out of his empty mailbox nearly everyday. They all chose to live in dreams to combat the realization that they had been forgotten and that they might as well resign themselves to their fate. Bill was becoming just like the rest.
I was just about to drift off to sleep when Bill carefully opened my door. He quietly tip-toed into my room and knelt beside my prostrate form. "Mate..."
I turned away from him, laying on my side and facing the wall. "I'm trying to sleep," I croaked. "Go away."
My back prickled at all the anticipation being thrust at it by the old sailor. "There is plenty of time for sleep later! You have to come and see the boat! It's nearly done!"
I turned back over to face him. "Bill, there is no boat!" I whispered hoarsely, trying to be a little kind, but failing. "It's all a figment of your imagination."
"What?" He gave me a quizzical look that turned to anger. "You think I've lost my marbles!"
I touched his arm as tenderly as I could. "No, I didn't say that. I just think that the Home is getting to you. It gets to everyone eventually." I paused and watched him calm down. "Just look at Mrs. Trader..."
"So, the woman thinks she has a baby. What's wrong with that?"
I looked deep into his eyes, hoping to bring him back to the here and now. "It isn't real. It is not good for her to imagine things that really aren't there." I licked my lips. "We need to face reality."
"She's happy," he retorted. "Which is more than I can say for you. At least she has that!"
"But..." I groped for something to say that would make the real world look more appealing, but I couldn't find anything.
The sailor shrugged. "Maybe I am crazy. But I'll tell you one thing, Oliver, I much prefer my dreams to your reality." He sighed and shook his head. "I guess this means you aren't coming with me."
I nodded and turned back over to face the wall.
"Fine. Have your sad little world, Oliver." Bill got up and tip-toed back to the door. "I hope you get what you're after."
As the old sailor softly closed the door behind him, tears welled up in my eyes. This was one of those times that I dearly wanted to see things through Bill's eyes. My greatest dream was to play in the park and be a boy again. But I knew old men weren't meant to play in parks. I was old and I could never be young again, no matter how much I willed it to be so.
It was late in the afternoon a week later and I was in my normal place, perched on my bed. I watched a storm gather outside and drive the playful children away from the park, upsetting me greatly. As the darkness spread, I knew instinctively that it would be a terrible night.
At the same moment that the huge raindrops began striking my window, I heard a struggle in the hall. I arose from my bed and went to the door as quickly as I could. I saw Bill struggling in the strong arms of two orderlies, biting at them and screaming.
"Let me go! I've got to get to my boat! It will leave without me!" The orderlies tried to pull him back to his room, but Bill threw one of them hard up against a wall. The orderly stumbled in surprise while Bill twisted the other's arm. Outside, I could faintly hear the sound of rushing water as the riverbed filled.
Bill ran like a madman toward the back door of the Home, pushing aside another man who blocked his way. He thrust open the door and met the downpour. He turned back to face those of us who were gawking down the hallway and the old sailor waved frantically, his eyes gleaming wildly. "Goodbye!" He sprinted to the now rising river and disappeared from sight.
Several orderlies attempted to follow Bill, but a crash of thunder frightened them back inside. Two wrapped themselves against the weather, slipping out the door, and the rest shut out the storm and herded us all back into our rooms.
I awoke the next morning and dressed myself, quicker than usual. I walked out my door and down the hall, much faster than the day before, stopping for a moment at the front desk. "What is the word on Bill?"
The young woman gave me a sympathetic look. "I'm sorry, Oliver. I'm afraid we couldn't find Bill last night. He must have been drowned in the flood and carried away."
I nodded and turned back toward my room. As I walked, I pictured Bill, standing at the wheel of a tiny make-shift ship at sea. I could distinctly see the joy in his face. I smiled to myself and realized that even if there was no ship out there to carry Bill away, he had died happy.
I took the doorknob to my room in hand and began to turn it. But then, I let my hand drop to my side. There was nothing in that room that I wanted.
I looked back down the hall. I ignored all of the doors except one: the back door at the end of the hall that led to the world beyond. I giggled to myself and began to walk down the hall, picking up speed. I past right by the front desk at a jog.
"Where are you going, Oliver?" the woman asked as I passed.
I yelled over my shoulder as I broke into a run. "I'm going to be happy!"
I turned the knob just as my shoulder struck the door, throwing it open. I tumbled onto the grass outside, still wet from the storm. My shoulder smarting, I took a deep breath and smiled. I laughed at those thread bars that had held me so long in the Home. My shoulder hurt but that didn't matter. I had escaped and I was going to be happy. I was going to do what I always wanted to do.
The wetness invigorated me and I rose, running toward the park before me. It was too early for the children to be there, but I would make do. I ran down the muddy bank of the riverbed and halted at its floor.
"Thanks, Bill!" I shouted downstream. "Happy sailing, friend!" I darted up the other muddy slope and ran toward the swings, mounting one.
As I pushed my body forward and backward on the swing, I babbled to imaginary childhood friends that were in the seats beside me. I raced to beat them in the height of my arc and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw two men coming to get me.
I braced myself and at the end of a forward swing, I vaulted myself from my seat, landing on the grass with a roll. The men were getting closer and as I got to my feet, I laughed at them. My invisible friends and I ran off into the trees beyond, vowing that we would never be caught.
It really didn't matter if I lived or died. I was doing what I always wanted to do. I was going to be happy.