Ivan Cestney listens to “Jingle Bells” echo down the hallways of Lovely Acres Convalescent Home as he makes a wish to the Home’s Christmas tree. The tree’s lights twinkle at him; the boughs close around him in a pine-scented hug. Wish granted. With the tree’s blessing, he tapes a twist-tie wire to the alarmed side door. He escapes into the night.
The cold pierces his sweatpants and slippers. He feels a sharp pain in his right leg, a war wound that never healed quite right. He limps across the frozen ground, light from the Home’s windows reflects off the icy patches he must avoid. The ground slopes, and headlights now light his way. The headlights of Ivan’s black 1970 Chevelle SS 396 parked in the road.
Its engine purrs. Ivan climbs into the car. Inside, a wool blanket and a thermos wait for him.
“Grandpa, you made it!” His grandson, Lenny, nineteen, drives toward the highway.
“I told you I would. Nell’s waiting for me.” Ivan covers his shoulders with the blanket and sips coffee from the thermos. “You know how to get there?”
Lenny flashes his phone at Ivan. He has Ivan’s black hair, blue eyes, and smile. “GPS. It says we’re forty-three minutes away.”
“You kids and your technology.” He searches the back seat for a garment bag. “Got my things?”
“Yes, sir. I had a hell, um, heck of a time sneaking them past mom. She’s gonna be pissed, you know. At both of us.”
Lenny tells Ivan about his college and his new girlfriend, and Ivan tries to listen, but his mind is filled with thoughts of Nell.
Ten minutes later, Ivan blinks his eyes against the harsh neon glaring through the windshield. ‘Htel Yabrgh’ the neon letters announce. The cracked paint and potholed lot are in as much disrepair as the sign. “Perfect.” Ivan says. “We spent our honeymoon here.”
Lenny lets them into a room 206 which smells like cigarettes, whiskey, and mold.
Ivan hurries to the bathroom as best he can, calling over his shoulder, “How much time we got?”
“I’ll get a move on.”
Ten minutes later, Ivan has changed from pajamas to suit. His blue eyes twinkle. Excitement runs its fingers up and down his body, though his wedding jacket hangs from his shrunken shoulders and his pants puddle around his polished shoes.
“You’ll trip on those pants, grandpa,” Lenny says. “Let me fix them for you.”
Ivan fidgets while Lenny hikes up Ivan’s pants and changes Ivan’s belt for his own, a much smaller size.
“Let’s go,” Ivan says. “I can’t keep Nell waiting.”
“These are for Nell.” Lenny hands him a dozen red roses.
“Nice touch, boy.”
They drive. At 11:55 Lenny snaps the chain hanging across Landcroft Cemetery’s driveway. The grave lies six rows down, four headstones in, beneath a dogwood, Nell’s favorite tree.
Lenny pulls over next to the correct row. He runs around the car and opens the door for Ivan. He takes Ivan by the arm. Ivan shakes him off.
“Stay here. I have to be alone.”
Lenny kisses Ivan’s forehead. “I’ll wait right here, grandpa.”
The moon reaches its peak. It is time. Ivan kneels in front of the gravestone, places the roses in the empty cemetery urn. “Happy fiftieth, my love.” He says.
The icy ground grows warm under his feet. The ground trembles. Steam swirls around him, growing denser. It takes Nell’s form. She is wearing her lace wedding gown. His hand shakes as he reaches for hers. Feels it coalesce in his palm. Her satin shoes touch the ground in front of him and he draws her towards him, lifts her veil. She is young again. He stares into her deep brown eyes and kisses her lips. ‘The First Noel’ drifts on the air from the Chevelle’s open window. Ivan places his hand on the small of her back and leads her in their wedding dance.
“I’ve waited thirty years for this dance,” Ivan says.
Nell rests her chin on his shoulder. “I know. It shows.”
He pulls back and looks at her smiling face. “That bad?”
“You just have a few miles on you. And you’re skin and bones.”
Ivan laughs. “Well, you haven’t changed a bit.”
She giggles and pushes him away. “Always the flatterer,” she says. They dance until the song ends. A cloud drifts over the moon.
“I’ll always love you,” she whispers.
He feels her unbecoming, swirling into the wind. His legs weaken, and he kneels once again.
Lenny comes to him, helps him to the car. Sweat glistens on Ivan’s scalp.
“I saw her, grandpa,” Lenny’s hands grip the steering wheel. “She was beautiful, just like you said.”
“Yes, she is beautiful.” He stares at Nell’s grave and makes a second wish to the tree, hoping it will hear him even though it is miles away.
Lenny says, “Did you hear that? Someone just whispered, yes.”
“I heard.” Ivan pats Lenny’s cheek. “Though I won’t leave without your blessing,”
Lenny’s eyes show fear for the first time tonight. “Leave without my blessing? Where are you going?”
“To heaven.” Ivan pauses. “I’ll miss you.”
After a long minute, Lenny nods. “You have my blessing, Grandpa. Give grandma a kiss for me.”
Ivan holds Nell’s hand under the dogwood. His suit fits just as it did on his wedding day. He waves goodbye to Lenny. Lenny waves back, and drives into the darkness.
“It’s finally time,” Nell says, and leads Ivan into the light.
Susan Sabia is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction can be read in Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, Havok, and several other publications. She writes literary, horror and fantasy short fiction.