Dreams, Diversions, and One Last Goodbye

Sometimes, you DO get one last chance to say goodbye.

At the age of near 80, and me being 35, my Adult Friend -- the man who practically raised me -- was killed in a freak accident. There are few out there who can understand the love of a man for a boy that is not his son. Sometimes, it goes beyond friendship; beyond family.

©2002, BK Lawson / Paolox31@hotmail.com

`What am I doing here? I wonder if I'm asleep and dreaming, or not?' The boy thought, staring into the dancing flames of the huge fireplace. `Why else would I be HERE?'

He sighed and leaned back against a large blue antique vase, knowing that it was far too big and heavy for his slight weight to tip over. His dark brown eyes, reddened from crying and the dry winter air, followed the orange flames up and down for what seemed like hours. He yawned, and still wondering -- and hoping -- that he was indeed asleep, glanced over at the dwindling woodpile. He shook his head, his brown hair cut in a short crewcut style, and tried to remember where his jacket was. He got up, stretched, and stepped down from the broad brick ledge.

The red brick fireplace took up half of the eastern wall of the great room, a room so big that he could ride his bike around it all day if need be. It was the same tight patterned red brick that the exterior of the house was done in, and there was an 8x8 beam stained dark brown that served as the mantle piece just above his head and almost -- but not quite -- within his reach. Upon that mantle were various items, strange antique things and knick-knacks that his friend had collected over the years. He finally located his coat in the dining room near the front door, hanging over the high back of an ornately carved wooden chair.

Right where he had left it.

As he was pulling up his hood and tying it, the Grandfather clock struck something. He cocked his head. The famous chimes that every Grandfather clock always plays rang out their same familiar melody, but strangely enough, there were no BONGS following the short little tune that indicated the turn of the hour. He glanced at his own watch in confusion. The seconds hand wasn't moving.

Crap, it's stopped again, he muttered. He'd forgotten, as usual, to wind it.

He shook his head and pulled the heavy door open, trudging down the long sidewalk into the cold night air. The walk was swept, but the path to the woodpile was ponderous at best. Very carefully, he stepped into the building made of large orange cinder blocks, struggling to close the door as the wind pulled at it. He scooped up an armload of wood, as much as his undeveloped muscles could carry, and headed back to the house. He paused to kick the whitewashed door shut, glancing at the small hole bored neatly in the center of it. It was beginning to snow again when he stopped to stare at the sky.

The moon was shining in the east from behind a bank of thin clouds, but the snow was moving in fast from the west. He figured that by the time he reached the house again, the dim light would be gone. He smiled. He hadn't been to school in over a week thanks to the snow, and the Weatherman was calling for even more! He thought of his sled, the death-defying trips down the long and steep hills to the east of the house, and the excitement of hoping that he would make it across the small frozen pond at the end of his descent. Of course, his friends would be there too, if not all afternoon, then for a while at least. There would be cold noses, frozen ears, and numb hands and feet.

That was IF the ice didn't break on the shallow pond underneath the sled rider!

There would also be hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies too, however, for when they were called in to defrost.

A rather large piece of wood fell from his thin arms and he yelped as it struck his foot. His green boots with the yellow foam inserts might be warm, but they weren't steel toed!

"Yow!" He cried out in surprise, jumping back a bit and dropping most of the rest of the wood.

Carefully, he picked it all back up and decided to use the back door. It opened into the great room off to the far south side, and that was much closer than the front door that he'd come in through. He did that, having to set most of the wood down again to open the door, and tossed it in one piece at a time. He then shut the door, stripped his layers of coat and gloves off, and fed the fire. He then returned to his lonely perch on the ledge, dangerously close to the fire, his small and long-fingered hands outstretched to warm them.

If it's a dream, he thought, I hope I never wake up.

Yet something wasn't quite right.

He stared at the flames for a while longer, listening in puzzlement to the strange clock that chimed but didn't strike the hours. He looked around, and saw that the Christmas cactus was all-abloom in red flowers at the north window. He gazed out that window, a "picture window" they called it, but could only see to the sill and the snow that was piling up on it. Very carefully, he removed his outer clothing and socks so that he could place them near the fire to speed up his drying out process. He flexed his toes and laid back in his white thermal underwear, resting his head on a stack of old newspapers. His position was reversed, and he was now staring at the old vase. Almost absently he pulled out a paper of comics from the stack, bright colored and large images of Snoopy, the Phantom, Blondie and Dagwood, and many others.

He read them all, wondering why anyone would draw something like Rex Morgan or Apartment 3-G.

Very soon, it seemed, the odd Grandfather clock chimed once more. He listened as it played the melody for the hour again and shook his head. He listened to the silence for just a bit longer, and then it hit him.

"I'm all alone," he said aloud, listening to it echo through the great room. "Why am I here all alone? I don't even live here. I'm going to be in so much trouble!"

He ran around the room, barefoot, feeling the deep shag carpet crush under his small feet. He circled the pool table, exited the great room and looked down the hall. No one in the dining room. Kitchen empty, as well as the utility room. He ran on down the hall, finding all three bedrooms empty, as well as the two baths.

Very slowly, with head hanging low, he headed back to his fire. He scratched his head once, sighing and wishing that they'd let him grow his hair out like the rest of his friends. Everyone made fun of him for the haircut that he'd always had, and he hated it.

Once again, he took up his lonely vigil at the fireplace and waited.

After a while, he pulled his knees up to his chin and held them there, rocking himself a bit in confusion and worry.

He didn't know what to do, and had anyone stared into those wide and deep brown eyes, they would have seen a lost and haunted look.

Those eyes began to sting as he trembled a bit, fighting the urge that was fast overtaking him. "I'm too old to cry," he whimpered to no one, his soft voice echoing in the empty room.

A knot in one of the logs popped, sending a shower of sparks into the chain mesh curtain that hung in the fireplace opening. He yelped and jumped. It was dark in the house, he suddenly realized, and the shadows cast by the ever-moving flames danced on the wood paneled walls. Strange shapes jumped and moved this way and that, frightening him and filling his imagination with unspeakable terrors.

He gasped and pressed himself tightly into the corner formed by the bricks and the antique china cabinet , curling up as best he could and hoping that someone -- anyone -- would notice him missing from his bed and come looking for him. Surely they'd know where to look.

Certainly, HE'D have known where to look.

But would they even look for him? Probably not.

And that was even IF he was supposed to be in bed. He wasn't really sure. He looked at his stopped watch again, out the dark window, and listened in fear as the creepy old clock rang out again. The fire kept burning, the shadows kept dancing, but he wasn't really warm.

He was confused and frightened.

He was a boy with no idea of where he was, what was happening, or why he was even where he was. He couldn't be sure if he was asleep, or if it was all a dream. Sleep wasn't something that came easily for him, and when it did it was generally fraught with bad dreams and constant waking up. He'd seen many sunrises in his short life, and many dark midnights as well.

"I'm all alone," he cried softly, head pressed against his knees, "I don't wanna be alone."

And finally he gave in as his eyes filled and overflowed.

"You're not alone," a low voice then echoed from across the great room. "You've never been alone. You're never going to be alone."

He jerked his head up sharply, sucking in a sharp breath and staring at the dark silhouette standing in the only doorway to the great room. It was much larger than he was, and it was moving closer. He blinked and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, relief flooding through him as he jumped up and ran towards that familiar voice.

Then he was caught up in a pair of strong arms that scooped him up effortlessly off of the floor and pulled him into a tight embrace. He felt those arms close around his ribs and the small of his back, as his short legs wrapped around a broad waist and his arms locked themselves about the man's neck. He felt a large hand that covered the whole back of his closely cropped head pressing on it, and he let himself be guided by it.

He buried his face in the man's shoulder and sobbed as if the weight of the entire world were falling from his own slight shoulders.

They were moving, he could tell. He was being carried back to the warm fireplace, but he was still shaking. Outside, the wind howled. Sleet pellets pecked against the glass of the north windows as the fire popped and crackled. He listened, but didn't open his eyes. He felt the heat of the fire again, and knew that they were sitting down on the broad ledge.

"Nice fire," the man commented.

The boy pulled his head back and stared into the face that he knew so well. He ran a small hand over the balding head, and looked deep into the eyes behind the glasses. There was a smile waiting for him there, just like there always was. Perfect white teeth, all in a straight row.

"I didn't mean to," the boy explained, "I was just here and it was so cold and ..." Suddenly he realized that it was at that point where his confusion began. He didn't know why he was there, so he couldn't very well explain it.

"I don't mind," the man said reassuringly, "I see you brought more wood in," he observed, reaching out and placing both of his hands over the boy's ears. "Your ears are cold," he said.

The boy nodded. "It's windy outside," he explained, "And I was thinking, you know, about the hill and school and the sleds,"

The man nodded back at him. "You'll have plenty of time for sled riding," he agreed, "All the time in the world."

His words were a comfort, but they still didn't explain to the boy why he was sitting in front of the fireplace in his friend's house in the middle of a cold and snowy winter night all alone. It didn't explain the oddly blooming Christmas cactus, nor the very strange behavior of the Grandfather clock. Suddenly, despite the man's presence, the boy was very frightened again.

"Y-you'll be th-there?" he asked in a choked voice.

The man smiled and nodded. "I'll always be here," he reassured the boy, smoothing his short hair down and softly kissing his cheek. "I think we need something from the kitchen," he decided, moving the boy from his lap to the brick ledge.

He then headed off towards the kitchen, and as he vanished through the doorway, the boy jumped up to follow him. He stopped just shy of the kitchen door, however, listening to the sounds of glass and china clinking and water running. He then heard the sound of a silver spoon clanging against the side of a cup, and he smiled, racing back to his position and trying his best to appear as if he hadn't moved.

A few minutes later, the man reappeared carrying a tray in his hands. He was smiling, as usual, and as he placed the tray between them on the brick ledge. There were two steaming mugs of hot chocolate, a small pot with more in it, and a very liberal pile of GINGER SNAPS cookies. The boy, as all small boys are prone to do, attacked the pile of cookies.

"Slow down, son," the man laughed, shaking his head, "Slow down before you choke. You know, you're the only kid I know who'll eat those things."

The boy shrugged his shoulders and sipped his hot chocolate, promptly burning his lip. He flinched.

"That's hot," the man advised.

"Thanks," the boy said dryly, "NOW you tell me!"

They both laughed for a bit, then the man stood up.

"What's the matter?" the boy asked, blowing at his hot chocolate and sipping at it again.

"Something's not right," the man replied, heading out the great room and towards the front door. He walked with a slight limp, one that the boy had been told that he unconsciously imitated. When he reached the front door, he pulled it open. A blast of cold wind and snow blew in on him, and he whistled.

He waited for a few moments, and then whistled again.

The boy watched, his head slightly cocked in puzzlement. He realized what the man was doing -- calling for the dog -- about a second before a cold and wet mass of orange and white fur shot through the door. He slammed the front door shut, but not before the dog shook and sent a shower of slush and spray all over him. A second later, the dog was dashing across the great room. The boy's eyes widened, and he almost time to move the plate of cookies before the mass of a full-grown Scottish Collie knocked him off the ledge and pinned him to the floor. The dog barked happily at him once, studied him for a moment, and promptly fell to licking his face and neck.

He tried to cover his face but the collie, practiced in the art of mauling, expertly used his broad front paws to knock the boy's hands out of the way. He growled and snorted happily as he collapsed himself on top the boy, the last bits of snow and slush melting out of his long fur and leaving them both damp. The boy groaned.

"Thanks a LOT, Ladd," he said acidly.

Ladd wagged his tail and cocked his head. His tongue lolled out as if laughing.

He'd been named after a Collie in a series of old books that the man had given the boy to read, and the boy glanced up to see those books in a neat row on the mantle behind a large yellow candle. The dog then sniffed the air and spied the plate of cookies. He momentarily lost interest in his young captive.

Then his friend was there with a towel and a brush. The dog licked his chops and whined. "Get over it," he said, handing the boy the brush as he dried to dog. One toweled while the other brushed, and in a bit the dog was neat and dry. The man then looked at his young friend and raised an eyebrow. "You're wet," he advised.

The boy pointed at the dog, stretched out in front of the fire. "It's HIS fault!" He explained, as if this remedied the entire situation. His friend laughed at him.

The boy's face flushed a bit, and he raised his arms as his damp thermal undershirt was peeled off and hung up over the fireplace. He then sat down on the floor and leaned back as his drawers were peeled off as well. The man looked from the fireplace to the near naked boy and back. He laughed again. "THAT should be enough to scare Santa Claus away!"

"Santa Claus doesn't look for long underwear, he looks for stockings!" The boy countered, then tried to jump up and run when he saw the look in his friend's eye. The man moved towards him, hands outstretched, and the dog got up. He slowly wagged his tail back and forth. For as fast as the boy moved, the man moved faster. In one quick move, he had the boy pinned to the floor and held his legs down. He pulled off the small white socks and began to tickle his feet.

He giggled and squirmed and tried to break free, but it was no use. It didn't take long for those tickling hands to move up his legs and find his stomach and ribs. He struggled as he laughed, but his efforts to get away really weren't genuine and his friend knew it. He squealed and rolled, trying to get some advantage, but every time he broke away from one tickling set of fingers, the other found him in some other delicate spot. When he felt his chest beginning to tighten after a while, as it always did, he called in his only defense. Besides, he felt like he was about to pee in his shorts and it seemed to be a good time. "Save me, Ladd!" He called to the dog, who immediately tackled his tormentor and got him by the back of the pants. The dog pulled him off of the giggling boy, grunting and snorting in his rescue attempt.

"Cheater!" The man accused, taking dog in one strong arm and boy in another. The boy coughed, trying to catch his breath. The dog licked his face and he pulled the boy closer. "Here, wrap up," the man said in soft voice, reaching towards the floor near the sofa. They'd rolled halfway across the great room in their horseplay.

He shook out a large, soft blanket and wrapped the boy in it. Very slowly, he got up and stretched, a few joints popping. He sat down in an old recliner with a sigh. "I'm just about too old for this," he stated, holding out his arms. The boy went to him, curled up in his lap, and was enfolded in a warm embrace. His friend kissed his cheek and directed his head to his shoulder. "Better?" he asked. The boy nodded.

He was warm, his stomach was full, and he was in the safest place in the world. He felt his eyes growing heavy again.

The dog padded over to the adjacent sofa and laid his head over the armrest with a loud "whoooof" sound. "There's no room for you in the chair too!" The man told him. Then the boy felt that familiar touch on the back of his head. "It won't be long, you'll be too big for this," his friend sighed, pulling him just a bit tighter.

The Grandfather clock rang out again, but failed to chime the hour.

The boy raised his head suddenly and looked about the room. The fire was still burning, the wreckage of the cookie and cocoa tray was still there, and his long underwear was still hanging up. There was some other light coming from behind him, though, and he could smell something fresh and strong. It smelled like pine. If anything had felt wrong before -- and it had -- something was even worse now.

"Something the matter?" his friend asked.

"What do you mean when ya said it won't be long?" the boy asked, his voice trembling.

"Everyone grows up," the man said sadly. "But that's not all, is it?"

The boy shook his head. "The clock ..." he began, but couldn't finish the sentence. Somehow he knew what he wanted to ask, but he just couldn't put the words together.

His friend nodded and the dog whined. "There's still time yet," he reassured him, easing his head back down and tickling at his neck.

"But ..."

"No `buts' or `what ifs'," his friend replied, kissing his cheek just in front of his ear.

The boy's reply died on his lips, and he closed his eyes and began to drift off with the sound of the crackling fire in his ears and the smell of fresh pine in his nose. Something really wasn't right, that much he knew, but he was simply too happy at that moment to pursue it.

As the flames painted both man and boy orange and red with soft light, the boy drifted off to sleep.

He awoke the next morning on the couch with the Collie next to him. The dog licked his face and he sat up, rubbing at his eyes. He glanced around the great room and gasped when he saw the large and undecorated Christmas tree in the middle of the south wall. He knew that it hadn't been there the night before. He stood up and retrieved his warm and dry clothes, dressed, and headed for the kitchen. The soft morning light was pouring in through the windows, and the fire had gone out sometime in the night. The boy's small feet no sound on the shag carpeting as he followed his nose, and he found his friend making breakfast. He stood in the doorway and watched, the dog beside him, for quite some time. His stomach growled.

The man turned around and gasped.

"Don't sneak up on me like that," he gasped.

"Sorry. I should probably be goin' home," the boy replied sadly.

The man looked at him with concern on his face. "Why? There's no one there, son, and she's not coming back. If anyone misses you, they know where to look."

Tears welled up in the boy's eyes, but his friend took him in his arms and held him until the crying stopped. He wiped the boy's eyes, and then turned back to the counter where breakfast was getting cold.

"I'm not real hungry," the boy said glumly.

"Liar," the man replied, smiling and handing him a plate. The dog sniffed, wagged his tail, and promptly made off with a sausage.

They laughed. "If I was taller, he couldn't do that," the boy explained.

"Don't rush it," the man advised.

They ate in the kitchen and the clock began to chime when they were finished. Still, it struck no hours. The boy felt a chill pass through him. "Somethin's wrong with that clock," he advised.

His friend nodded. "Let's do the tree. There's not much time," he replied.

The boy looked at him, his mouth open and his brown eyes wide. Hadn't he just said the night before that there was plenty of time? He felt as if something were badly wrong, as if someone were watching him again. He couldn't voice his thoughts, however, yet somehow he knew that he should be able to. Then he saw the boxes on the floor by the tree, and his attention was captured by them and the treasures that lay within. His fears, while not totally forgotten, were at least not on his mind as they trimmed the large tree.

When they were finished, he looked expectantly up at the mantle of the fireplace. His friend stepped back from the tree and looked at it. "Good enough!" He announced, "Now go get my Grandmother's tree topper from the box on the mantle. And be careful, that thing's over a hundred years old!"

The boy smiled, already after it. "You say that every year," he replied, running to the brick ledge and reaching up to take the small box in his hand. He jumped back down and carefully walked back to the tree where a small stepladder was waiting for him. He frowned at it. Then he looked at the box in his hand and back at the fireplace.

`But I can't REACH the mantle,' thought, confused.

"Well, climb up," his friend told him, taking the box.

"You always lift me up to put it on," the boy said.

"You were a lot smaller last year, too," the man replied.

The boy laughed and climbed up, placing the tree topper in its usual spot when it was handed to him. He glanced out the window as he began to climb back down, and froze in place on the ladder.

The snow was gone, the sun was shining, and the spring flowers were in bud. He jumped down and ran to the window as the clock began to chime again. "Come look!" He shouted, "What's this? This isn't right! What about ..."

He stopped in mid-sentence when he turned back around. The tree was gone and the windows were all open as the fresh, warm air blew through them. The clock chimed again and a sudden pain shot through his head just above his left eye. He took another stumbling step, but his left knee gave way as he fell into his friend's arms.

"You're not supposed to get excited or move around," the man admonished, "Not with a concussion!"

The boy looked up, but not as much, at his friend then down at himself in surprise. He was wearing short pants and a white T-shirt instead of thermal underwear and his left knee was wrapped in a padded gauze bandage. His left arm was braced and wrapped, and he realized that he couldn't see out of his left eye. He felt bandages there, covering the left side of his face. He began to tremble. He shook his head, and again the pain hit him.

"C'mon, lay down. You can't expect to be up and running around again today already! For God's sake, you were hit by a car yesterday, remember?"

"No," the boy replied, "Yesterday I was bringing in wood and the Christmas tree and ..."

"You hit your head harder than I thought," his friend interrupted him. Again, the clock chimed but failed to strike the hour.

"What's wrong with that stupid clock?!" The boy demanded, suddenly very afraid as Ladd walked over to lick his face.

"Time's short," the man replied, his face concerned, "But you'll be OK."

"Something isn't right," the boy almost screamed, "None of this is right. What's going on?"

"Now you just settle down before you start bleeding again," his friend ordered. "You can drink some Redpop, but you're not getting anything else to eat until tonight, so no sneaking food!"

He then got up and headed for the kitchen, leaving the boy alone with the collie. "Ladd, something's wrong here," he told the dog. Ladd whined.

When his friend returned, he handed him the glass bottle of Redpop and watched him drink a bit of it. "Let's have a look at those ribs," he said.

Feeling as if he'd done it before, and almost sure that he had, the boy pulled his white T-shirt off. Very carefully, his friend removed the gauze from his left side and gently poked his ribs. The boy winced and stared at the red, moist abrasions. His ribs hurt. "You're lucky none of them broke," his friend told him, softly rubbing some ointment on his wounds. "So what can we do to keep you awake now? We don't a repeat of yesterday when they let you go to sleep."

"I ... I ... I d-don't know," the boy replied, as the old clock began to chime again. He jerked his head up and looked out the window to see the orange summer lilies in bloom and the grass green in the sunshine. He sat up, and his feet touched the floor. His friend took his hand and helped him to his feet.

The boy gasped. The night before, the man had picked him up and held him. That morning, he'd been too big to pick up to decorate the Christmas tree, and now he his feet were touching the floor when sitting in his favorite chair! When he stood, he was looking his friend right in the chin. He glanced up with his eyes, and saw him smiling and reaching out a hand.

"It's not the clock, son," he said sadly.

The boy reached out his own hand, his right, but it was wrapped and set from fingers from to wrist. It burned and throbbed. He felt at his forehead, but the bandages were gone and his left arm was free and fine.

"Thirteen stitches," the man said, shaking his bald head. "What is it with you and firewood?"

"What's going on here?"

His friend shook his head again and looked down at his watch. "Noon already," he sighed. "Let's take Ladd for a walk to the creek, shall we?"

Confused, the boy nodded. He felt several moments of deja vu during the walk down the road, and when they passed a certain spot near the guardrail in front of the small pond at the base of the sledding hill, he stopped. He stared up the next hill around the corner.

"Thinking about that time the car hit you?" his friend asked.

The boy nodded, but they kept walking. It was almost evening when they reached the creek, and by then he had some idea of what was happening; he didn't mention it.

They waded barefoot into the cool waters and explored under the bridge as they'd done a thousand times, and when they arrived home, the sun was setting and the leaves were turning all yellow and red and orange. The bandage was gone from his hand, and as he turned to ask his friend about it, he came face to face with him and looked him in the eye. His hand hovered above the brass doorknob of the brick house, and he was reluctant to go in.

"Take a picture of it, son," the man asked, pointing towards the old fence across the road where an odd ladder-like wooden frame was built into the fence. A sugar maple leaned down over that fence, and its leaves were on fire with the reds of autumn. His friend handed him a new Nikon SLR F-series camera.

"This isn't your camera," the young man said, taking it in his hands and suddenly realizing that he knew how to use it. He zoomed the large lens out and shot a few images. "I'll miss it."

"They don't make the old roll-film for mine anymore," his friend replied.

From inside, he could hear the clock chiming as he realized what was happening.

Sadly, he lowered the camera and let it hang about the strap around his neck. It bumped and clinked against something, and he looked down at himself to see what it was. He was dressed in his Boy Scout uniform, and a small pewter Eagle hung from his left breast pocket on a red, white and blue ribbon. The rest of the uniform was garnished in enough patches and awards to make any 5-star Army General jealous.

"Let's go in," his friend whispered, "Time's short."

They entered the house, and turned on a few lights. It was odd seeing the house lit this way, the young man thought. `Wasn't it just last night I was so little and laying in front of the fire?'

Ladd followed them in, taking his usual place near the hearth on the old sofa. He stretched out and sighed, and the young man noticed the thinning fur. It wasn't as shiny and orange as it had been that morning, and Ladd had some difficulty getting onto the sofa. The dog stretched again, sighed, wagged his tail once and lay still.

"We'll bury him under the big sugar maple near the pond with Smoke and Ginger," the man mused, "If you're here, that is. I know you're busy with college and work and all." There were tears in his eyes.

The young man shook his head. "I wasn't here. I mean, I can't be here. Or was I? No, this is all wrong. You buried him and Kris helped. I was at work." The young man found his own eyes tearing up again, realizing that he'd missed the passing of his favorite dog. But he hadn't missed it this time.

The old man shook his head and sighed. "That boy sure didn't turn out very well did he?"

"It wasn't because we didn't both try," the young man replied, looking out the window to see snow falling in the waning light. The last of the leaves, dry and brown, were blowing away across the vast front lawn as the wind picked up and the snow fell harder. Again, he caught the scent of fresh pine and smelled hardwood smoke. Something nipped at his ankle, and he saw a playful and tiny collie pup romping there, attacking his shiny black boot. The highlights of the polished leather, wet from dog slobber, reflected the warm orange light of the fire.

"Stop that, Brand," the old man told the pup, limping over to pick him up. His back popped and he groaned.

"You should have gotten a poodle this time," the young man observed as the pup bit the hand that stroked as his soft fuzzy coat.

"He'll grow up," the old man replied, "They all grow up."

"I know," the young man answered, taking the camera in his hands. He raised it up, touched the lens, but the camera sprang to life on its own as its on-board computer found perfect exposure and snapped an image. He turned it over and looked at the face of it. The `F' was gone, replaced by a `N'. It was an 8008s model.

Again, the clock chimed.

This time, however, it BONGED loudly.

The young man jumped and gasped.

"We're out of time," the old man told him in a sad voice.

The young man nodded, setting the camera aside. He sat back down in the old chair, stared into the fire, and listened as the Grandfather clock struck eleven, twelve, thirteen ... he smiled, remembering being held in that very chair the previous night until he had fallen asleep. `I don't want to leave,' he thought.

He heard footsteps behind him.

The fire suddenly blazed up as he swung his stocking-clad feet back and forth. They didn't touch the floor yet, and he wondered when they would. Then the man was there, smiling that perfect smile at him. He returned a smile that was missing most of his front teeth. The boy then held his slight arms up, and his friend took him into his own and spun him around. The boy laughed and spread his own small arms out in delight.

He imagined himself flying, the paneled walls replaced by blue sky and puffy white clouds. Yet all the time he was up there, so high above the floor, he felt those familiar hands holding him around the ribs, holding him up so that he couldn't fall.

He came back to Earth some time later, feeling -- for the last time -- the same kiss on his cheek in front of his ear. He smiled and looked out the picture window at the deepening snow, the moonlight reflecting off of it and making it almost as bright as day. There was a car pulling up in the long white rock driveway, but he couldn't tell who it was. He felt his ribs tickled again, and he laughed, trying to pull himself up on the windowsill for a better look.

Reluctantly, he turned to face his friend. He was looking him in the eyes.

"I have to go," the young man said, his voice choked.

"So do I," the old man said.

"Thanks for everything," the young man offered, holding out his hand and noticing the white scars on the palm and fingers.

They shook hands, both grips strong.

An eternity passed before they let go.

The clock was still striking the impossible hours as he pulled on his boots and headed for the door.

`It's only next door,' the young man thought, `It's always been that way.'

The man turned back to look again at the cold and empty fireplace. The mantle was empty, all the collectables gone. His favorite old chair and Ladd's sofa were gone as well, and someone had drawn the thick drapes closed. Only his friend remained, standing alone in front of the huge brick fireplace with an old dog that wasn't Ladd at his side.

Silently, he thanked that some Greater Power that had given them this one impossible last chance.

"See ya later," the old man called out, waving, as his voice echoed across the empty great room.

"See ya later," the young man replied, realizing that in 30-plus years, neither of them ever said goodbye to one another. It had always been that phrase -- never `goodbye'.

"I'm sorry for ... for those last few years," the young man offered, not knowing what else to say.

"So am I," the old man replied, reaching down to scratch the collie's ears.

The young man turned to face his friend one last time. He was, however, more than just that. He was one of those rare people that sometimes come along who go beyond friendship, beyond family.

He had been the man who'd taken a lonely little boy in and loved him when no one else did.

"Sometimes there's always that last chance, or even a second chance for one last `goodbye'," the old man said mournfully. "Goodbye."

And then they were gone, taking a part of the young man with them.

The old clock continued to madly strike the hours, as if trying to make up for lost time. The young man turned the brass doorknob and stepped out into the snow. The heavy front door closed behind him, and the clock fell silent.

He stared out into the whirling snow and pulled his collar up. He shivered. "It's just next door," he said aloud, starting across the front yard and walking past the FOR SALE sign on his way home. He was just coming around the chain link fence and up his own walk when he heard the sound that made him turn around and look back. His heart was heavy, his tears almost freezing on his face, but still he paused. The car had parked in the driveway, and a lump rose in his tightening throat.

Running up the long sidewalk and past the orange cinder block building was a little boy ... ... ...