Ita strode into the medical ward. Choking back tightness in her throat only seemed to push it down to her chest, and the sight of half a dozen terminal patients lying in beds on either side of the room increased the sensation. Most were accompanied by monitoring equipment.
The only other person present was an elderly nun in a light blue habit. She looked up from an emaciated girl whose hand she grasped, then murmured something to the patient before stepping toward Ita.
“How may I help you?” Her voice was thin yet warm, like a shawl offering comfort on a cool summer evening.
“I’ve come to see Oswald Taggart.” As her eyes swept across the room, Ita spied her grandfather on a bed near the far wall.
The nun nodded as her gaze matched. “He’s weak, but coherent. The priest has already been here. Unless there’s something you’ll need, I’ll leave you be so you can visit.”
“Thank you.” The significance of the nun’s presence flashed into her conscience. Mere hours ago the evacuation to the space ships began. People all over the world discovered there was an escape plan, a last-ditch effort to elude once and for all the enemy that had hounded them for decades.
But the plan also had to address the reality there would be individuals too weak to embark upon such a journey. Volunteers stepped up to minister to the dying, and to remain behind to ultimately die with them.
No sooner had the evacuation begun than Ita received word her grandfather had collapsed. Leaving her own duties in capable hands, she sped across a quarter of the globe to reach him. It was probable none of her aunts, uncles, and cousins had time to visit Oswald in his final hours. They had to escape quickly … before the enemy Elite caught up.
The blankets failed to disguise how he looked thinner than the last time she saw him around three months ago. Work on this project, a job he’d handed over to her, had kept her away for too long. If only she had been better about staying in touch….
“What brings you here?” His eyes opened upon her approach, and he smiled.
Only then did she notice the audio sensor attached near his ear. Oswald had been deaf for over a decade, but he must have consented to using this device in order to artificially hear what others needed to say to him.
Ita sat on the bed’s edge and grasped his hand. “I came as soon as I found out, Grandpa.”
“It seems our journeys will be separate now.” His voice was weaker, but his speaking still had the flat tone that developed after he became deaf.
“No, we’re supposed to travel into space together.” Ita leaned closer to him. As the youngest child of his youngest child, she always remembered him with gray hair, but until now he’d always been strong. It was difficult to see him this way now.
But the glint of oil on his forehead suggested the priest had been here more recently than she’d assumed, offering an incomprehensible consolation. Its shimmer was subtle, a reminder that humility was a potent charm and strength surged far beneath the surface.
“I always wanted to see the stars in their own element.” Oswald closed his eyes, but his smile deepened. “Though it seems I have other business to attend to. And where I hope to head now will be even more spectacular.” His eyes opened. “When we see each other again, which I pray we will, you can tell me all about it.”
Her own eyes burned as she squeezed his hand. “It won’t be the same without you.”
“Just pretend that Deuce is me.” His gaze locked on her face, and his smile grew crooked. “You have refrained from shooting him, haven’t you?”
She couldn’t resist smiling back. “I nearly did, once. But since then….” She hesitated. Oswald didn’t know about the bomb Deuce insisted be implanted in his chest. The Elite had gotten wind of their evacuation plans, and in order to keep the project protected, he had to insure they never captured him and discover information that would bring ruin to everyone.
The willingness to sacrifice himself began altering Ita’s perception of him. He once numbered among their enemy, and she considered him to be only a cold-blooded killer. But lately she started admitting he exhibited appealing qualities, like discipline and humility, she’d hitherto ignored. In fact, if he didn’t have his hands full with overseeing security to encourage success in launching the ships, he’d be here with her.
She decided to not worry Oswald about Deuce’s predicament. “I forgave him.”
“And that right there is proof that miracles do happen.” His eyes closed again, and his next breath staggered a bit. When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse. “Ita.”
“I’m still here, Grandpa.”
His eyes opened, and she could have sworn they blazed with the wonder of a child on Christmas morning. His smile matched, and the decades seemed to slough off as though he were a young man again, the fullness of life ahead of him.
“Don’t be afraid … we are surrounded by light.”
She was so focused on his smile that she didn’t notice the radiance of his eyes dim until realizing his hand no longer clasped hers. Ita felt her own breath shudder as her eyes began burning again.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” The nun’s warm voice must have come from behind her, but it seemed to travel from every corner of the room. “I’m aware of your grandfather’s work, how it will save all these people. He’s brought great blessing to us all.”
Ita glanced at the woman destined to die with this remnant, and nodded. As her attention returned to him, she appreciated his peaceful expression, and noticed again the oil on his forehead.
The chrism continued to shine.
So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this round was Charm. With a word like that, there’s bound to be some delightful stories, so be sure to check them out!
If you’re new to this serialization of short stories I’m compiling in a novella, you can find the previous installments on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.
Charm … such a nice word to end an interesting year on…