Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2020 finalist, Maren Hofman! Maren finished 8th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Turning Point.” Maren told us that she likes the lessons her characters learn from each other.
At seventy-six, Harold’s memory was starting to fade, first growing foggy like a window that hadn’t been cleaned in a while, then dripping away like a leaky faucet that had yet to be fixed.
He remembered the small things, a new baseball cap, a late trip to McDonald’s, a warm pair of brown eyes. He could see those clearly, but the significance was lost, tickling the back of his mind, a spider crawling through his memory, waving a thick web over everything that seemed important.
The days had started to blur together, but Harold thought it was a Saturday when he was moved to a new nursing home, Lazy Springs. If Harold was a young boy, he would have snorted at the title, but he wasn’t a boy anymore and he just sleepily blinked as a nurse rolled his chair into the lobby, which was yellow and light green. A few people were milling about, the patients in street clothes, the nurses in purple uniforms.
The nurse pushing his chair stopped near a plushy, maroon couch. A man was sitting on it, flipping through a newspaper, a look of concentration etched onto his forehead. His face was wrinkled deeply, and his hands trembled slightly as he turned the pages, but despite all that, there seemed to be a quiet strength thrumming throughout his body. Harold caught a glimpse of the date as the man folded the paper over, Wednesday, March 23, 2016.
“You wait here, Mr. Howard,” the nurse said calmly. “I’m going to go talk to the front desk about your arrival.”
At Harold’s last name, the man looked up. His eyes were brown and sharp, warm and marked by crow’s feet near the edges. They triggered something in Harold’s memory, the tickle growing stronger, until a name escaped from the dredges, hovering in his brain a second before fading away. Diego.
“Harold? Is that you?” the man asked, setting the paper down beside him. His gaze was attentive, like an eagle’s, and thick, grey eyebrows only enhanced his focused look.
“I’m sorry,” Harold apologized, his memories growing transparent again. He tapped his cheek. “I don’t know you.”
The eyebrows furrowed, then smoothed out in understanding. “My name is Diego Lopez, and we met when you were ten.”
The tickle grew even more persistent, wriggling like a caterpillar. This time the memory that came to him was of an old, beat-up guitar that, despite its age, played wonderfully.
Tears budded in the corners of Harold’s eyes. How long had it been since he remembered something from that time? Fifteen, twenty years?
The man watched Harold’s reaction carefully like he understood Harold more than Harold did. His hands were clasped in his lap, shaking.
Any more speech was lost on Harold as he stared at this man who claimed to have known him during the darkest part of his life.
Diego’s wrinkled face smiled, lines growing deeper, eyes crinkling.
“It was sunny and I had just lost my job…”
Diego groaned, dragging one tanned hand down his face. It had been a horrible day, full of mistakes that had led to one big collapse. Twenty-four and jobless. How was he going to pay the bills now? Perhaps he could ask his dad for help. He had only left the house around six years ago.
Shaking his head, he dismissed the invading thought; he couldn’t bother his dad, who had already done so much.
He turned his head up toward the sky, closing his eyes as the fading sunlight washed over his face. How long had it been since he had allowed himself to enjoy the small things in life? For as long as he could remember, the feeling of stress had been the only thing driving him.
The light strumming of a guitar drew his attention from the sky to the street, or, more accurately, the boy leaning against a building, beat-up guitar in hand. He was small and thin,
with a sallow face and stringy brown hair. His fingers were skinny, but they played the guitar well. A tattered baseball cap sat next to him, a few bills and coins weighing it down.
For some reason, Diego felt a deep sense of familiarity towards this boy, who appeared to be homeless. Maybe it was because he himself had once been in a situation like that, but he approached the slumped figure and made an offer.
“Would you like to get dinner with me?”
Harold’s mouth dropped open as the man in front of him told the story. The tickling in his mind pushed forward a grainy memory of that day to the front. That offer had changed his life eventually.
“I remember that.”
Harold’s voice cracked as the tears spilled over, a dam breaking. Suddenly, his brain wasn’t so foggy, and he could think clearly for the first time in so long.
“Do you remember what happened next?”
Diego smiled again, blinking once as he recalled the events. “You said something that surprised me.”
“No, thanks, mister. I’m not as naive as I was before. How do I know that you won’t take advantage of me like the others did?”
Diego stared at this kid who had just uttered that horrible sentence so casually, feeling his heart break a little for the predicament of such a young person. He stuttered and fumbled his way through his next sentence.
“A-are you sure, I promise I won’t… I-I would never-”
The kid sighed, looking up and meeting Diego’s eyes evenly with his own, which were green and watery, like sea glass rolling onto the shore.
“My answer is final, mister. Thanks for offering.”
His fingers curled around something behind his back, and, for the first time, Diego spotted the sharp rock the boy was hiding. Arguing would be no use, the kid would fight and run before Diego could reason with him.
“Fine. At least take this.”
The kid stared at the two, crisp fifty dollar bills offered, fingers twitching at the prospect of food and water. He didn’t take it, though. Instead, he said, “You know I’m not going to come with you, even if you give me this.”
The kid took the money, clenching it tightly in his hand as if he thought Diego would suddenly try to snatch it back from him.
Diego walked away, a flurry of emotions battling inside him. On one hand, he had lost his job, and he was just handing out money? On the other, the kid might just have a chance now. That thought curbed his regret.
“You had just lost your job?” Harold asked, “and you gave me a hundred dollars?”
That information squeezed Harold’s heart as he thought back to what his mindset had been like. He was such a broken, angry person, and this stranger had offered him money, even though that stranger had just lost their job.
He remembered going into a convenience store with that money, picking as much food as he could carry. The cashier had stared at him suspiciously when he handed a fifty dollar bill to her, eyeing his dirty clothes and matted hair, but she rang him up anyway. Never in his life had he eaten so desperately, but, after, he was finally full for the first time in months. His mother had cried when he brought home the remaining money and leftover food.
Another memory surfaced, like a whale breaching the surface. Harold looked back to Diego. “Didn’t you call the police on me?”
Diego frowned, eyebrows raising. “I did, and you ran. I didn’t see you for a week and you were skeleton-like when you came back. You said that if I called the police, you would run again, and who knows what would happen then.”
“What happened next?”
Diego shook his head, his eyebrows pinched together like it was difficult for him to recall. “It took you two weeks to say yes to my offer for dinner.”
Diego paused near the corner again, and the boy glanced up from his guitar. His cheeks were hollowed, and his arms looked much scrawnier than before.
Diego had been giving the kid as much money as he could spare, but the lack of payment had tightened his wallet a bit. Still, every time he passed the boy, he made the same offer.
“Would you like to get dinner with me?”
Usually, the kid sighed heavily and replied, “No, mister,” but today he paused, placing a hand on his stomach, which growled in protest at the lack of food.
Diego waited for the usual dismissive response and was surprised when the kid said, “Actually, yeah, I would.”
They walked to McDonald’s, and Diego ordered the kid a burger, which was immediately inhaled. So he ordered the kid another one, and they talked, exchanging stories.
Diego learned Harold had asked around about him and received positive feedback from all of his contacts. It was what had changed his mind about Diego’s offer for dinner.
Diego told Harold about the stress he’d felt ever since his mom had passed away due to breast cancer. It was nice to have someone to talk to.
Harold told Deigo about his dad, who had left before Harold was born, leaving nothing but a guitar that was nearly broken.
It was dark when they finally went their separate ways, Harold promising he had a place to stay as Diego fretted about leaving him alone.
“Don’t worry. I live with my mom, but she can’t provide for me very well, so I go out and play to try to help earn some money.”
Diego was speechless as he watched Harold’s small form retreat into the blackness of the night. This kid had gone through so much, it sounded like, and he was doing all he could to make it better. Maybe he could take a page out of the kid’s book.
Harold was silent, his mind whirring and clicking, the gears finally shaking off their cobwebs and rust. How could he have forgotten that night? It was the turning point for the rest of his life. He tapped a finger against his cheek, a habit he had since he was a little boy.
Diego chuckled. “You still do that?”
“What? Oh, yeah.”
They sat in silence for a while, a pondering, soothing one, before Harold spoke up.
“Could you tell me more about when you and I were friends?”
A grin split Diego’s face.
“Hey, I was thinking,” Diego began, “I’ve been taking you out to McDonald’s for the past few weeks for dinner, but I was wondering if tonight, we could do something special. I just got a new job, and I was thinking that you could come back to my apartment and have dinner with me?”
Harold was silent for a couple of beats, and Diego rushed to take back his words.
“Or not. If you aren’t comfortable with that kind of thing, I don’t want to pressure you. If you are okay with it, then great, but if you aren’t, that’s fine, too.”
Harold looked up to meet his eyes, adjusting his battered baseball cap. “I’d like to.”
Diego’s breath rushed out, his limbs finally regaining feeling. “Okay great. How does pasta sound?”
“Pasta sounds great.”
Harold closed his eyes, tapping his finger on his cheek. The feel of Diego’s apartment came back to him, the jokes they shared, his food, all the little quirks about the kitchen that Diego thought were annoying, but Harold liked.
“I remember. I came to your apartment and you were fussing about the grimy windows and the faucet that leaked because you didn’t have time to fix it,” Harold said. “I compared you to an ostrich because of your eyebrows.”
Diego’s eyebrows drew together into one, thick, grey line. “I recall that. Then, I compared you to a small, lost puppy.”
They chuckled, a nostalgic, wistful sound that spoke of familiarity tinged with the slightest bit of regret.
“I still have that baseball cap you gave me,” Harold said, “I don’t think you quite know how much it meant to me, you giving me that.”
Harold stared at the gift offered in Diego’s outstretched hand.
“I can’t take that.”
Diego tossed the new, blue and white baseball cap in the air, catching it neatly.
“Please do, I hate baseball.”
“But you’re going to want something in return, I just know it,” Harold worried. “I don’t have anything to pay you back with.”
Diego raised an eyebrow. “When did I ever give you the impression that you have to pay me back for everything? You don’t owe me anything.”
Harold glanced down at his shoes. “Everyone wants something. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from begging for money, it’s that people just… aren’t good.”
Diego groaned. “Not this again. Come on.”
He walked into the kitchen, grabbing his car keys and sliding on his shoes.
“Where are we going?” Harold asked, curiously.
Diego clapped the baseball cap onto Harold’s head. “I want you to meet someone.”
The “someone” he had wanted Harold to meet was a young woman in a wheelchair. She was small (though that could be due to the chair), with long, brown hair. One of her eyes was green, the other a milky white.
“Harold, I want you to meet Danielle,” Diego introduced, placing a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Dani, this is the kid I told you about.”
Danielle smiled, tilting her head to keep Harold in her line of view as he shifted nervously. “Nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” Harold squeaked. “C-can I ask…” He trailed off, realizing how rude the question would sound.
“You want to know what happened to me.” Dani said. It was statement, not a question.
Harold’s face flamed and he nodded sheepishly, tapping a finger on his cheek so he would have something to do.
“Two years ago, I was taking a walk near the beach. It was dark, and I didn’t spot the car until it was too late. It hit me, and I flew back thirty feet, broke two mailboxes, and dented a car. Shards of glass and wood partially impaled my left eye, leaving me partly blind. The doctor said I had internal bleeding, along with many broken bones. The car who hit me drove away as I lied there.”
“That’s awful!” Harold exclaimed, turning toward Diego. “How is this supposed to convince me that people aren’t bad?”
Dani smiled sadly. “That driver called 911. He saved my life and turned himself in two days later. He truly regretted what he did, and helped pay my medical bills, along with apologizing profusely. He isn’t a bad person, he just made a mistake. Sure, I kind of hate him for it, but he never wanted to hurt anyone.”
Harold sat there, many emotions flowing through him, each battling to be felt.
He was silent the whole car ride home and collapsed onto Diego’s couch, finger tapping madly against his cheek. An accident didn’t make that man bad, did it? Everyone made mistakes, and he had done his best to fix it.
“You okay, kid?” Diego asked.
“No. Yes, I guess. Why are people so hard to figure out?”
Diego sat down next to Harold. “That’s ‘cause we are complicated creatures. I make it a policy not to judge people based on their worst mistake. Maybe you should, too. The world isn’t black and white. It would be so much easier if it was, but it’s not, so we have to think.”
“Those words changed my life,” Harold said softly. “I was just this small, seething ball of hatred until I heard that story. It was the turning point in the conflict inside me. You and Dani really helped set me on the right path. What happened to Dani anyway?”
Diego looked away, and, when he spoke, his voice was choked, as if he was fighting back tears. His eyebrows dipped low, and his eyes glossed over. “I married her. It was a beautiful
ceremony with only a couple of our close friends. She looked so gorgeous as she rolled down the aisle, I-” His voice broke, and it took a few beats for him to be able to speak without bawling. “She passed away fifteen years ago. Breast cancer.”
The same thing that took Diego’s mom from him. Harold swallowed the lump in his own throat. “I’m so sorry. She seemed like a great person.”
Diego rubbed a hand over his eyes. “She was.”
Silence weighed heavily between them as Diego sucked in deep breaths to calm the stinging in his eyes, the thick lump in his throat. It had been a while since she had passed, but he couldn’t forget Dani; he loved her, and she was there in his laugh, his dreams, his heart.
Once the pain had slowly subsided, like the tide rushing out, Diego spoke up again. “Did you have a special someone in your life?”
Harold nodded. “His name was Thomas. We broke up—wow has it really been that long?—twenty three years ago. It just wasn’t working out.”
Diego shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Seems like we missed so much in each other’s lives since you went to live with your aunt in Paris.”
Harold moved his head in agreement. “Oui.”
The day was finally here, and tears were pouring down Diego’s face, though he had promised himself he wouldn’t cry. Harold was holding back his own emotions as his aunt loaded the rest of his stuff into her car.
“I’m going to miss you, Harold,” Diego said, embracing the kid.
“I’m going to miss you, too, Ostrich.” Harold laughed through his tears, which were beginning to fall, racing each other down his cheeks like raindrops on a windshield.
Diego chuckled, pulling back, and wiping his face with his shirt sleeve. “Have fun in Paris, kid.”
“Oh, I will,” Harold assured him, “I’ve been practicing my French.”
A quietness fell between them, each wanting to say much more, but not knowing how.
“You ready, Harold?” his aunt called, shutting the trunk on the dusty, red car, brushing off her hands on the blue overalls she was wearing.
Diego patted Harold on the shoulder. “Stay in school, make lots of friends, and don’t do drugs, please.”
“I will, I’ll try, and I won’t.”
Harold gave Diego one last hug, before making his way to his aunt and her ride. He climbed in and shut the door, waving through the dust-blackened window.
Diego rubbed at his eye one last time, waving until the little red car turned a corner and was gone.
“You know,” Harold began quietly, not wanting to disrupt the somber atmosphere, “there was this one kid, in college. He… he, um, he was having a rough go of it, and I asked if he wanted to hang out with me. Years later, I learned that he was seriously considering suicide, but
didn’t go through with it because I had become his friend. I don’t think I would have reached out if you hadn’t done the same to me.”
There was a slight lull in the conversation as the information was absorbed.
“You know, I actually asked Dani out because of you.” Diego grinned, the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes deepening.
“Yeah. Watching you go after what you wanted persuaded me to take a chance. She laughed and said ‘what took you so long?’ when I popped the question.”
“I-I don’t know what to say,” Harold stuttered, realizing just how much they had impacted each other’s lives.
“I missed you, Harold.”
“I missed you, too, Ostrich.”
The two sat in silence; there wasn’t much more to say. They were there now, and that was enough.