The whooshing of the bus’s opening doors wakes him from his slumber. Sleep that the haggard man in the second to last seat so desperately needed. The last few days and insomniac nights have done little for Mark’s addled mind. More than once did his self-doubt rear its serpentine head, trying to devour his will. But he had decided weeks ago that he would go through with this, as he does every year, and no amount of worry was going to deter him. Ultimately he just slumps back into his seat careful to not blemish the meticulously wrapped box in his lap.
So many stops to ponder how bad today might go. What will he say? Will he be recognized? Will he accept the gift that Mark had so carefully wrapped? His fingers, still marred by the paper cuts, white knuckled in his balled fists.
The bus leisurely pulled off the curb in an unhurried pace, which mirrored the lethargic crowd that had just boarded. Somewhere in the distance a bell tolled reminding Mark that it just turned 3:00 AM. Still, there are many more hours till Mark can put the day out of his mind.
Rubbing this latest wave of sleep from his eyes Mark gradually noticed that the urban sprawl he was used to had turned into the rolling green hills of the countryside. The weathered watch that rested upon his wrist displayed a short hand being chased by its longer brother, 2:05 PM.
The next stop would be his last on this lethargic bus, inappropriately named after an agile dog. The brakes ease the bus to a gentle stop, it's casual manner in complete juxtaposition to Mark’s erratic heartbeat and fraying nerves. It's not too late to back out but, no, he won't he has made it this far so what is a couple more blocks. The short walk to the whitewashed complex felt like lifetimes.
Now Mark just needs to check in at the main office, it is one of the first buildings inside the gated complex. Once inside he is greeted by a nice man in what looked like his early thirties. The man, Greg, asks Mark the standard array of questions: who are you, who are you here for, are you expected. Mark answers the questions and is led down the hall decorated in faux home decorum to a room with the label: W. Stevens.
Thankfully, Greg isn't a fan of small talk otherwise Mark may have panicked and backed out of this plan. Only, by mentally battling the worries away, is Mark able to keep pace with the man, who must be at least a decade younger than himself.
The door and what lies beyond it terrifies Mark, but after the package is delivered Mark can get back to his busy life and move past his yearly trial. At the sound of Greg clearing his throat Mark realizes he is staring at the plain door. Greg asks, “Are you sure you want to do this?”, Mark’s nearly unseen nod is all the answer he can muster. Dropping the subject Greg steps back and waits for Mark to proceed.
After being forced from his internal war, Mark opens the door into the tiny room. It is decorated with classical paintings and heavy oak furniture. The landscapes shown of the passion Mark remembered from the past. Those passions have never died nor have they been forgotten.
The artist seems to be resting in his bed. The once burley man, made frail in his old age, only peers at Mark in confusion, no words said, no recognition. The bed is tilted forward so that the man, in his leisure may continue to paint. As Mark lays his eyes on the memory of a man, the hands holding the wrapped box begin to shake. Before losing the strength in his fingers, Mark places the box on the edge of the bed and turns to leave.
No one sees his tears as he retreats from the complex, at least the job is done. Now he can forget for another year.
“Who was that?”
“He said his name was Mark, did you know him Mr. Stevens?”
“Never seen him before. What's with the box?”
“He said he had to give it to you and that you would know what it is when you open it.”
“Fine, hand me the knife over there would ya?”
“Here Mr. Stevens”
“What a weird man, who just stops by without saying a word and leaves only a box? At least he has good taste.”
“What is it, sir?”
“A tube of thalo blue oil paint and a note.”
“What does the note say?”
“Just says Happy Birthday, love your son? But I don't have a son. Oh well, if you see the delusional man tell him thanks.”
“Will do Mr. Stevens, now don't forget to take your pills, we wouldn't have another scare like last week, now would we?”
“Oh, I can take care of myself Greg. Now go, don't you have some old people to take care of?”
“Have a good day, Mr. Stevens.”