Something Rare and Beautiful by Lisa Fox

The old woman sat on a weathered park bench, a multi-colored shawl draped over her hunched shoulders. I watched as her gaze fixed on the crows gathered around her. They squawked and pecked about, flying off when they realized she had nothing to offer them. She tugged her wrap, swaddled like a newborn longing for the womb.

Harry looked up at me from his plastic dinosaurs, half-burrowed in the mound of dirt he’d dug up amid the patchy grass. He stopped his play and pointed toward the bench.

“What’s that, Daddy?”

“An Elderly,” I told him. “A special sort of being. Very rare.”

Her kind only existed in museum exhibits and history books. I tried not to stare at the wrinkles etched into her skin, patterned like tree bark, or at the way the hollows of her cheeks sunk beneath her defiant, protruding cheekbones. A halo of white hair, cloud-soft, framed her face. Through heavy lids and sparse lashes, her eyes twinkled, blue as a midday summer sky.

I’d never seen a creature more beautiful.

A curt breeze swiped dead leaves from the grass, lifting them in a crackling eddy that whirled toward her. Dusk danced at the edges of the horizon. Yet she sat, immune to the sinking sun, to the winds that taunted her, rocking to the cadence of her own quiet humming.

Harry scratched his head, turning to watch her. His four parallel marks peeked out from beneath the collar of his standard-issue shirt. Glowing red through his pale skin, they ran adjacent to his carotid artery and just as deep, sustaining life in their pre-programmed allotment. Only five years old, Harry had a near-full lifeline. The dull heat of the one remaining mark on my neck reminded me that I had but one decade left to raise Harry on my own.

I felt a familiar pinch in my gut. Worse than any hunger, it was the pang of absence. In those rare moments when I considered my own mortality, I missed Adrienne the most. My wife expired far short of the forty years The Order allocated all humans from the moment of our birth.

It was the amount of time deemed statistically sufficient to maximize our contributions to society’s “greater good.” All that was full and productive and useful contained within a forty-year span: time beyond that was superfluous as the body initiated its physical decline. A human’s vulnerability to alterations in its cellular composition or to any number of pestilence outbreaks after the calculated peak period was expensive, the cost for life maintenance misaligned with any potential benefit.

“Can I talk to it?” Harry pointed toward the woman, regarding her with wide, green eyes. Like Adrienne’s, they held a glimmer of promise in a tedious world.

“Her,” I corrected, lowering his hand. “Can you talk to her.”

Harry scrunched up his face and tilted his head. “An Elderly is a person?”

I glanced over at the woman, who tugged her shawl closer as her body shuddered in the breeze. She didn’t belong here. I wondered how she’d managed to evade The Order and survive on her own for as long as she had.

“She is a person, Harry. Like you and me, just…” I struggled for the word. “Malfunctioned.”

Harry lowered his head, pushing his toe into the ground.

“Like Mommy.”

Nodding, I rested my hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“Like Mommy,” I said. “But different.”

The last time I saw Adrienne, we were finishing our evening Order-issued rations, laughing over the mundane wonder of our respective days, when she froze, the fork halfway to her lips. It crashed to the plate, and she was gone. I hadn’t noticed the absence of her markings that night, but then again, I had neither been looking for them nor thinking about them. I was looking at her, thinking about how the cadence of her laughter was sweeter than any birdsong and how blessed Harry was, each night, as she sang him a lullaby.

My wife, and the life I knew, dissipated into the stale kitchen air, as if neither had existed. We were simply living our lives when her body self-destructed, erasing her from Harry’s world when he was but a toddler, leaving me as his sole life guide.

I tried my best. But Adrienne would have done so much better.

“Can I talk to it…? Her? Please?” Harry looked up at me with hopeful eyes and a protruding lip. The same look he gave when his children’s-issued cookie ration just wasn’t enough to satisfy him.

The generation before my parents endorsed The Order’s edict that human beings were never designed to be a burden, that youth shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice—ambitions, livelihoods, dreams—for the sake of a generation incapable of productivity. They stood in line in a show of nationalism, unflinching as their own markings were implanted beneath their skin. They didn’t question the ways of The Order, even as their own children were marked from the moment they entered this world: the tracks of a defined lifeline carved and embedded within each infant before the cord was cut to liberate baby from mother.

Who was I to question their vision?

Yet this woman defied the life we were guaranteed, just as Adrienne had. On the day after Adrienne’s expiration, an Agent of The Order visited, citing our residence with a Level Three Programming Error—a premature halt of the markings’ integral clock. Adrienne’s death was deemed classified data; I was never to speak of it, or of her, to anyone. But I told Harry everything I could about Adrienne, painting her in the vibrant hues that colored her life. Inconsistencies did not exist, according to The Order, but I knew differently. The probability that we’d randomly encounter another in the park, on this day, was incalculable.

“Please, Daddy?”

Heat teemed through my cheeks as an icy vulnerability crawled over me, paralyzing as a centipede’s march over prey. Under The Order’s edict, it was our duty as productive citizens to report any unusual or suspicious activity to the authorities. Defying that order was a punishable crime. I didn’t want to think about the penalty for consorting with someone who wasn’t supposed to exist.

“No, Harry, it’s too dangerous.” I scanned the sky for hovering drones or the telltale flash of surveillance devices hiding in the treetops.

“But the Elderly is little! She can’t hurt us!” Harry said. “Besides, you said she was like Mommy.”

“I said she’d malfunctioned like Mommy—”

“—And that makes her special. Because Mommy was special.” Harry crossed his arms and pouted.

I glanced past my son toward the woods beyond and a memory of Adrienne beaming as she retrieved a small, gray kitten from beneath a pile of leaves. Despite my admonitions, she’d handed it to Harry, who squealed with delight as it squirmed in his arms. Pets were viewed as an unnecessary encumbrance, forbidden by The Order, yet Adrienne kept the cat hidden and safe beneath our porch until the day it left us, shortly after she’d expired. Somehow, I think it knew she was gone, and it missed her almost as much as we did.

In that moment, I knew what Adrienne would have done.

“Harry, do you know what serendipity means?”

“Seren-what?”

“Never mind. It’s like when Mommy found our kitten in the woods. Do you remember?”

Harry shook his head. Again, I felt a twinge as I thought of Adrienne’s smile when she snuggled the tiny forbidden creature to her cheek, and how Harry had reached his dimpled hand to touch it, to touch his mother.

Recklessness was forbidden by The Order.

I held my breath. A shiver of lightheadedness consumed me as if I were underwater, on the cusp of breaking through the surface. Neither Harry nor I would ever have an opportunity like this again.

“We’ll go talk to the woman. But for just a quick minute.”

Harry grinned. He pumped his small fist in the air, which I caught and promptly lowered. “And only if she allows us to.”

Harry let go of me and trotted toward the woman with sure and rapid steps. As we approached, I wondered if my own mother would have resembled this being, had we lived in a different time. I’d never had the opportunity to say goodbye to her; she’d faded in her sleep, the imprint in her rumpled sheets still warm.

The woman looked up, gasping at us. She shrank into her shawl.

“Hi! I’m Harry.” He extended his hand.

Trembling, she glanced from Harry, to me, to Harry again.

“My Daddy says you’re special.”

Her expression relaxed; the tense wrinkles framing her eyes smoothed as her lips struggled for a smile. She released the grip on her shawl and reached out to Harry.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m afraid your daddy’s wrong. There’s nothing special about me. I’m just a relic with a broken timer.”

Harry and I knew, all too well, the heartbreak of malfunction. As she sat alone on that bench in a world that didn’t want her, I supposed the woman did, too.

Her eyes widened as she regarded my son, his tousled blond hair, his bright eyes. Rumpled play clothes. Dirt embedded beneath his fingernails.

“But you, young man,” she said. “You’re remarkable.”

“Re-mark. Ubble.” Harry giggled. “What does that mean?”

“You’re the first person to talk to me in four hundred thirty-seven days. Most folks passing by pretend I’m not here. They walk away when they see me. I think they’re afraid of me. Or, they’re afraid of…” Her voice trailed as she looked up at me, then, both of us recognizing that, without Harry’s intercession, I would have remained a silent observer, too. Or worse.

Harry frowned. “That’s not very nice.”

“No, it’s not,” I said.

“Why would people do that, Daddy?”

I rested my hand on his shoulder, again glancing toward the sky and the trees. The longer we spoke to this woman, the greater the risk for us all.

“When people are afraid, they often do things that aren’t nice,” I said.

I thought about how The Order was born of necessity in the aftermath of the Five-Year Scourge, when scientific and financial resources were exhausted for a “greater good” intended to preserve humanity’s eldest and frailest from a plague that targeted them. With little left for the youth that powered humankind, some say our society bled out and even died in those years; the Order’s edicts revived and revitalized us, marking humankind with hope.

“Besides,” the woman said, “The Order prohibits engagement with people like me.”

“Well, I think that’s dumb,” Harry said. “I’m not afraid.”

Turning toward the woman, Harry cupped her gnarled hand between his palms gently, as if holding a baby bird. I bowed my head, overcome by the empathy that flashed over my young son’s face. “My Mommy had a broken timer, too, but she died when she was twenty-four,” Harry said. “Her name was Adrienne—”

“Harry,” I warned.

The woman glanced at me, eyes soft, eyebrows raised, as if sharing our secret.

“I’m so sorry about your mother, Harry,” she said. “You must miss her terribly.”

He nodded, blinking back tears.

“What’s your name?” Harry asked.

“My name is Dorothy.” She smiled. “Funny, I can’t remember the last time I said that. My friends used to call me Dot.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Dorothy,” Harry said.

“Dot,” she corrected.

“Why are you here all by yourself? Don’t you have a family?”

As she fidgeted with her wrapping, Dot drew in a ragged breath. Flashing red pulsed beneath her sagging skin. I stiffened; her countdown had initiated. Noticing my stare, she rested her hand against her neck, massaging it. The flashing stopped. The remnants of her marking faded in and out, her one line as faint as an errant scratch. She didn’t have much longer.

“They moved on a long time ago, once I—” She paused, and her eyes changed: pupils dilated, black encroaching over blue sure as night consumes day. “They’re probably long expired by now.”

Coughs exploded from deep within Dot’s chest. Spasms wracked her body, leaving her gasping. She covered her mouth, her eyes bulging. Before I had the opportunity to help her, Harry reached out and patted her back, tapping until the choking subsided and she regained color.

“Today, we can be your family,” Harry said.

“I’d like that,” she said, her voice raspy.

Dot’s smile warped to a grimace. She pitched forward, her body stiffening.

“Daddy!” Harry screamed.

I grabbed the woman’s shoulders to stop her fall; her frame was nothing but brittle bones. As Harry began to cry, Dot looked up. Trembling, she wiped his tears.

“You have given me a gift, Harry, so beautiful and rare.” She smiled at us. “I’m not alone, now.”

Harry and I watched in wonder as the woman’s marking dissipated into her skin, time ultimately devouring the final vestige of her lifeline. Its dull glow diminished as it was absorbed, like the light in her eyes, the glimmer of her existence eclipsed by the vacancy of death. Her face turned gray as ash; the shadow crept across her body with the stealth of a thief, her form flashing and pixelating in and out of the night until nothing remained of her but a pile of tattered clothing.

We stood for a moment, frozen. Harry stared at the empty bench, his eyes pooling with tears. I held my breath, waiting, wondering if The Order had taken the old woman, or if it was some cruel trick of timing that we happened to be standing here at the moment her malfunctioning markings finally aligned to their intended purpose.

Perhaps she had just been waiting for something—someone—to see her. To validate that she existed, that she mattered, outrunning the destiny The Order had dictated for her, and for us all. It was the ultimate act of defiance, and somehow, I loved her for it.

I’d never known a time before The Order. My mother and father rarely spoke of their own parents, never revealing any knowledge of the world as it once was. I’d heard forbidden terms such as grandma, grandpa, and senior citizen passed only in whispers, and my childhood curiosity on such ideas was met with a stern glance and a firm hand. The Elderly, The Infirm—they were simply an enemy who sucked the marrow from bones that framed a world I was born into but never knew. According to The Order, the markings saved us from ourselves—once our final line faded, so did we, in a cloud of self-destruction such that even in death, we would not be a burden.

I glanced toward the trees and the darkening sky, cognizant of my posture—crouching over Harry, perhaps even cowering, as I waited for The Order to materialize. The silence hinted toward our safety, however fleeting, and I breathed in deep, pulling my son to me. Harry buried his face into my chest, my shirt dampened by his sniffling. It would have been safer for both of us if we had allowed the old woman to stay a mysterious relic, a lonely thing mingled with the crooked, weathered trees that populated the park.

“I’m sorry you had to see that, Harry,” I said. “But we should go now.”

Dot’s shawl lay atop her pile of clothing, fallen like the last stubborn leaf from an oak tree in autumn. Reds and yellows and blues intersected in a repetition that reminded me of the certainty of days, of hours. Of years. Yet, it was the small flaws that commanded my gaze—an errant stitch. A pilling in the fabric. Color that had faded with time and wear. I wondered if she had crafted that shawl with her own hands, and how long it took her to weave simple fabric into a complex and cohesive whole. As her knitting needles clacked against each other and her mind and hands busied themselves with her creation, did she offer a fleeting thought to her markings, to the time she knew remained or the time that lingered in question—undeserved by The Order’s standards but nothing less than a miracle.

Harry picked up the shawl and hugged it close. “I wish we’d had more time to talk to her. She was a nice lady.”

He rolled the soft yarn between his fingers, much as he did when he was a smaller boy, comforted by the feel of the blue blanket Adrienne draped over him as he drifted off to sleep each night.

“She was a nice lady,” I whispered, still thinking of Adrienne. The best.

“I won’t forget her,” Harry said. “Ever.”

A soft breeze ruffled Harry’s hair. As his curls shone under the streetlamp, I wondered how long it would take before this old woman faded out of his consciousness. How much Harry remembered of his mother, outside of the portrait I’d painted for him. Could he still see Adrienne’s face when he closed his eyes at night? Or did she exist in flashes, her features hazy as a dream?

I saw Adrienne’s eyes in every sunrise; the fire of her hair flowing in every desperate sunset. I heard her voice in the song of the wood thrush perched on the sycamore tree outside my bedroom window, hopeful, yet melancholy, hidden deep within the lush foliage. How I wished Harry could remember the trill of her laughter, as rich and melodious as the music we’d danced to, the three of us, barefoot in the kitchen, our small family relishing the life we’d been promised.

But a child’s memory is as fragile as a fallen leaf crunching into dust.

I kissed the top of his head, just as Adrienne had, heavy with the knowledge that he’d never know just how much she loved him.

“That woman is part of the night, now,” I said.  “Just like Mommy.”

“Just like Mommy.”

I’d never questioned The Order. I feared it. I accepted it. It was the only life I knew. Yet, a new feeling surged over me, sure as the churning night wind that prickled my skin. I felt larger: my breaths deeper, each step firmer than the last. It was something like change.

Something like hope.

Although The Order limited the number of days we spent walking the Earth, they could never ration our ability to love. To show compassion for other humans.

Harry wrapped the shawl around his shoulders, a testament to the stranger who defied the certainty of life programmed within all of us. I thought of Adrienne, and how a deviation from certainty led to the anomaly of her passing.

I glanced down at my son, who scuffed his shoes and yawned as we marched on. Harry would not realize the magnitude of the day’s encounter until he was older—the enormity of the risk we took, and our own act of defiance.

Perhaps, it would be the first of many.

For nothing was guaranteed, even when it was.


Lisa Fox is a pharmaceutical market researcher by day and fiction writer by night. She thrives in the chaos of everyday suburban life, residing in New Jersey (USA) with her husband, two sons, and their couch-dwelling golden retriever. Lisa’s work has been featured in various publications, including Metaphorosis, New Myths, Luna Station Quarterly, and The Satirist, among others. You can find Lisa on Facebook, on her author website, and on Twitter.