The Golden by Christopher O’Connell

Michael Kenseth was sitting on a bench. He realized where he was and looked in both directions. This bench had nothing around it, and the land looked empty for miles in either direction. The ground was snowy with the occasional patch of grass and nothing else. The horizon was flat, and the only break was the long, straight road laid out in front of the bench. Michael stood up and after a long moment of thought and decided to walk west.

The air wasn’t that cold, and Michael wasn’t tired so he just kept walking.

Michael Kenseth entered the coffee shop and instinctively scanned the patrons currently seated around the area. There was a large, bald man and a large, bald woman. A young couple was sitting with their backs to Michael with not but an inch between them. An old man was sipping coffee in a deep-seated armchair while reading a book.

Michael went up to the counter and ordered his usual light and sweet. After receiving sass from the older barista, Michael stood next to the counter and waited for his coffee. Seeing the coffee shop from a different angle, Michael noticed a table hidden next to the door with two tall stools and a small round table in between them. Seated in the right stool was the most beautiful woman that Michael had ever seen. She had short, blond hair and had her nose buried in a tabloid.

The older barista shouted to get his attention, and Michael took his coffee from her. He stood in the center of the shop for what felt like an eternity, quietly sipping his coffee and thinking of something to say to her when he finally worked up the courage to go over to her.

“You can’t actually be reading that,” was the line Michael used when he arrived at her table.

The Girl was obviously startled, but she looked up and saw Michael smiling down at her. She couldn’t stop a smile from creeping across her face, with the edges of her mouth dancing underneath the rims of her glasses. She had blue eyes, but he only saw them for a second before she nervously looked back at her magazine.

“Oh… yeah; I kind of love celebrity news.”

“Kind of?” Michael asked.

“Okay, I’m really addicted,” the Girl said, before laughing.

“It’s like an illness,” Michael told her, also laughing.

She showed all her teeth when she laughed and took short breaths in between each small laugh. They both stopped laughing and the Girl looked back down at her magazine, nervously breathing. Michael smiled again.

“Do you mind if I sit down?”

The Girl looked up at him and shook her head.

Michael Kenseth had arrived at a city and was walking down a street before something caught his eye. Looking through the window, Michael saw the most beautiful…

“I know her,” Michael said to himself.

“Yeah, you do,” Peter said, suddenly standing next to him.

Michael didn’t jump, because he knew Peter as well, even if he didn’t know from where.

“Who is she?” Michael asked.

“Beats me,” Peter told him, shrugging his shoulders. “You just looked like you knew her from that look you shot her.”

“Yeah,” Michael said smiling. You can’t actually be reading that.

Peter put his arm on Michael’s shoulder and led him away from the window, with Michael resisting a small amount. They continued walking down the street, and a question was plaguing Michael so much so he asked this new friend.

“Where do I know her from?”

“Beats me,” Peter repeated. “But, in my opinion, you should stay away from her.”

Michael shot Peter a confused look. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Peter jerked away and stopped walking.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah… yeah,” Peter said, continuing to walk beside Michael.

“Why do I have to stay away from her?” Michael asked.

“Because,” Peter told him. “The last time you knew each other… it didn’t end well.”

Michael stopped walking. “What are you talking about? I don’t even remember that girl!”

“Probably best that you don’t,” Peter said. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a piece of paper, and handed it to Michael. “I need you to go to this address and follow the instructions on the paper.”

“What?” Michael asked.

“Just trust me,” Peter said soothingly. So, Michael did.

Michael Kenseth and the Girl walked into the upscale Italian restaurant just down the street from the coffee shop where they had met two days earlier. Michael led the Girl to their table and pulled the chair out for her. He went around the table and sat down in his own seat. His eyes moved over her blood red dress and he found himself stunned.

She had brushed her hair so it was curling upwards at the ends, and she was wearing a bracelet that clinked as she leafed through her menu. She looked up, saw him smiling at her, and smiled back.

“Sorry about that, Michael.”

“Don’t be,” the Girl told him. “I don’t know if you knew this, but we women love to be stared at.”

“Oh yeah; several disgusted looks and angry slaps I’ve gotten in the past attest to that.”

The Girl laughed again and Michael smiled wider than he ever had. He loved her laugh. Michael ordered them a bottle of wine and took a piece of bread.

Several bottles of wine later, the Girl was laughing even more and Michael was even happier. They had talked about their families, their favorite movies and other things they had forgotten about.

“So, Michael Kenseth,” the Girl began. She said his name. “What do you do for a living?”

“Oh, I’m an Alien Bounty Hunter.” Despite the fact that it was a dumb joke, the wine forced more laughs out of them for a good thirty seconds before they settled down. Michael looked at her and saw genuine interest in her eyes. “I’m a writer.”

“Wow,” the Girl said, sipping at her wine. “Fiction?”

“Yeah,” Michael told her. “But, I try to draw my writing from my real life experiences. It makes it easier to write.”

“Anything that’s been published?”

“Yeah… I wrote a book called Red Man Down.”

“Haven’t read it,” the Girl told him.

“No one has.” They both started laughing again.

“How do you keep doing it if no one cares about what you do?”

Michael smiled. “Because there are still stories I need to tell, and I’m sure that I’ll find one person who will want to read them.”

“That’s really nice,” the Girl said, placing her hand on his.

They stayed like that for a long moment before the waiter placed the bill on the table. Michael and the Girl laughed as he took out his wallet.

Michael Kenseth was standing still outside the upscale Italian restaurant as he felt like he had been there before, but the feeling was quickly gone, so he continued down the street.

Michael Kenseth entered his apartment and His Girl was waiting for him. She was smiling, but he wasn’t. He threw his coat over a chair and collapsed onto the couch. She went over to him and sat down. She started stroking his hair and Michael closed his eyes. They stayed like that for a long time. It felt like hours, but soon Michael got up and went over to the table.

He hated his job. He hated his job. However, until he wrote something that mattered, this was the only way that he was ever going to pay off his bills. The stack of letters on the table didn’t have any bills in it. Michael sighed heavily and turned around.

“Where are the bills?” Michael asked, exasperated.

“You shouldn’t look at them now,” His Girl told him.

“Goddamn it, I need to see the bills!” Michael shouted, slamming his fist on the table.

“Don’t yell, Michael.”

“Why would you hide them from me?! Like I’m a kid? I need to pay those!”

“You work incredibly hard for us,” His Girl told him. “They just make you look defeated, and I hate seeing you like that, Michael.”

“Well, that’s great,” Michael said, turning away from Her. “I’m so glad that you feel that way, but guess what? I need to feel that way! I need to feel that way and I need to pay every motherfucking bill that comes through this apartment!” Michael rested his head on the back of the couch. He breathing was shaky.

His Girl slowly went over to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. She slowly lowered herself so her head was resting on his back, and she closed her eyes. They stayed like this until Michael stood and wiped the tears from his red eyes.

“I need to do this,” Michael said. “I need this job so I can give you the life you deserve. I’m sorry that I’m always so… on edge, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid if I’m not able to treat you as you deserve, that you’ll leave; and I don’t want that. I don’t want that.”

His Girl smiled at him. She started to say something, but stopped and brought Michael in for a kiss. Within an hour, he was asleep on the couch with his head in Her lap. She was stroking his hair and smiling.

Michael Kenseth was passing through a part of town that seemed vaguely familiar. He seemed to know where the address was that Peter had given him, so he was just going where his feet led him. Then, after rounding a corner, he spotted her.

The Girl was coming out of the cemetery and wiping her eyes. Michael stopped where he was and watched her open the door to her car. She stopped before she got in and stared in his direction without saying anything. Michael locked eyes with Her, but didn’t say anything.

Michael wished he had, because she got into her car and drove away. Michael started to follow her. He needed to ask her so many questions about who she was and how Michael knew her, and what Peter had said meant. However, he stopped and remembered what he had promised Peter, so he continued towards the house.

Along the way, he bumped into someone else he knew.

“Michael?” the woman asked.

“Yes?” he answered vaguely remembering her face.

“It’s me; Penny!”

“Oh, hi, Penny. How are you?”

“I’m doing okay, Michael. Just running a few errands. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, the same thing,” Michael said, flashing the note Peter had given him.

Penny smiled and pointed to the paper. “Did Peter give that to you?”

“Yeah,” Michael said, puzzled. “How did you know?”

“That guy is always asking people to do stuff for him. He’s trying to finish, like, a laundry list of chores and so he brings other people to help him do it. Have you looked at the note yet?”

“No,” Michael said, realizing he hadn’t bothered to look at the note.

“Well, who am I to tell you how to live your life?” Penny said smiling. She hugged Michael. “I hope everything goes well for you, Michael. I really do.”

She stepped away and looked up and down the street. Deciding she had enough time, Penny hurried across the street in front of a car. Michael almost looked at the note, but decided not to.

Michael Kenseth was smiling broadly, as he drove His Girl through the neighborhood. She was wearing a blindfold and giggling with excitement. He swung his car into the driveway and got out of the car to help Her out. She nervously held one hand out in front of her and had the other clenched on Michael’s arm.

“Where are we going?” She asked. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Oh, we’re here. Did I not mention that?” Michael smiled as His Girl squealed and threw the blindfold off.

The two-story house in front of them was made of red brick with a large window at the front and two garages to the side.

“This is the house that Moonfall bought,” Michael told Her.

His Girl descended into tears before tightly hugging Michael. He didn’t want her to let go, but she did and dashed inside the house. His new book was a huge success, and now he could finally see His Girl happy. She was getting the things that she deserved, and Michael was more than happy to give it to her.

Michael watched his breath rise above him in the cool air as he stared at a large red brick house. There were two garages at the side. Michael looked at the address on the note again. He turned around and saw the house he was supposed to be at across the street. Michael quickly shot a look of confusion at the red brick house again before hurrying across the street.

The house was equally impressive with a large SUV in the driveway. Michael opened up the note and read what Peter had scribbled; PLACE THE ROCK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DRIVEWAY. Michael looked to the side of the driveway, saw a medium sized rock, about the size of a fist, and went over to it.

He picked it up, expecting something. What, he wasn’t sure, but something. Nevertheless, as it turns out, it was just a rock. Michael placed it in the middle of the driveway and stood there confused for a long moment before his cell phone rang.

Michael had forgotten he had it, and he answered it.

“Michael? It’s Peter. Did you do it?”

“Um… yeah. Is that it?”

Peter laughed on the other end of the line. “Yes, Michael, that is it. Now, I’d like to meet you. Can you meet me outside the Penny Walsh Memorial Hospital?”

“Sure,” Michael said, and he hung up.

Michael Kenseth took his place at the front of the group of people. He was standing solemnly, but His Girl was smiling at him from the front row. He forced a smile, but quickly lost it as he prepared himself to speak to the press.

“Hello ladies and gentlemen, I am Michael Kenseth and I believe you have some questions for me, concerning my newest book?”

A man stood up. “Yes. Rich Kaplan, Editorial Weekly. What is your reaction to the scathing reviews currently circulating about West and Life?”

“Um… I haven’t read any of the reviews of my novel.”

“I have a few quotes here,” Rich Kaplan said, leafing through his notebook. “’Kenseth’s recent attempt at creating literary artwork like his previous novel, Moonfall falls painfully flat.’ Another says, ‘Full of tired clichés about love and an uninteresting narrative, West and Life might be the blandest book of the year.’ Um… I have one more… ‘Even Kenseth’s barely passable Red Man Down is a healthy substitute for this incredibly boring novel.’ What are your reactions to this?”

“My novel is obviously not for everyone, and I think-”

“It’s not for anyone!” shouted a voice from the audience, getting a laugh from the people.

“I think,” Michael continued. “If people just wait for me to finish my next novel, they will read West and Life in a different light.”

“They shouldn’t read it at all!”

A painful half an hour later, Michael and His Girl got in their car in silence. She looked at him and saw that he looked pained.

“Honey, you can’t let the critics get to you like this. You are writing from your heart, and you can’t ask for anything more than that.”

“What if I die tomorrow?” Michael asked. “You’ll have nothing. I need to finish my next one so our family will be okay. I need to finish it.” Michael put his head against the steering wheel.

“Honey,” His Girl repeated. “You can’t let the critics hurt you. They hurt people professionally.”

“No,” Michael said, letting out a pained breath. “I’m really in a lot of pain.” He looked at Her. “Something’s wrong.”

Michael collapsed and she quickly called 911.

Michael looked into the empty room of the Convention Center through a window outside as snow slowly danced down the glass. He felt hurt standing there, but he couldn’t remember why, so he kept walking.

He eventually happened upon another restaurant, but he wasn’t hungry, so he was going to pass it until he spotted The Girl sitting at a table inside. He stopped and stared at her. It was getting painful that he couldn’t remember who she was. She was sitting alone until her cell phone rang and she started outside to take it.

Michael didn’t want her to see him, so he tried to hurry past the door, and just barely made it past her when she came outside.

“Sorry,” he said in a slightly lowered voice.

She didn’t hear him. She was preoccupied with her phone call. “What do you mean you’re not coming? You are constantly standing me up, Hal! I don’t want to hear it! What? That is such bullshit! A rock just appeared in your driveway?!”

Michael’s heart skipped a beat.

“You know what, Hal; I’ve wanted to say this for a few weeks. I just never could, but this is the last time! You are always missing dates, and Julie told me that two weeks ago you slept with her! I didn’t say anything because I wanted to work at it, but now it’s obvious that you don’t care! We’re done, Hal!”

A man slid by her towards the door before he stopped and turned around. He came back outside and The Girl spotted him as Michael stood out of the way.

“Oh, John!” she said, genuinely surprised. She wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry you have to see me like this.”

“Are you okay?” John asked.

She went to nod, but the tears welled up and she shook her head. John took her by the arm and led her into the restaurant. Michael felt a knot in his stomach. He wanted to do something but he couldn’t because he couldn’t remember who that Girl was. Michael started to cry and he couldn’t figure out why.

Michael Kenseth sat nervously, alone, in his hospital room before the doctor entered. Michael sat up quickly, but cringed in pain. The doctor set his chart down on the counter and went over to Michael. He placed his hand on Michael’s abdomen.

“Good news, Mr. Kenseth. The pain is just from an ulcer.”

“Oh thank God,” Michael said, smiling. “Can you bring my wife in? I don’t want her to worry.”

“No, Mr. Kenseth,” the doctor said. He sat down on a stool. “The pain is just an ulcer, but the scan revealed something else. Something we weren’t expecting.”

Michael Kenseth was crying again, standing outside Penny Walsh Memorial Hospital. Peter walked up and stood next to him. Michael went to say something to Peter, but Peter stopped him. Peter led Michael across the street to the cemetery that Michael had passed earlier.

They walked to a headstone and Michael nodded.

“Is she happy?”

“You made sure of that,” Peter told him. “You stopped her from being with the wrong man.”

“Who is John?” Michael asked as the snow gathered in his hair.

“That’s her neighbor. Don’t worry. He’s a good man.”

“Why am I here?” Michael asked.

Peter sighed and smiled. “Sometimes… when people go… there are things that need to be taken care of. People that need to be watched over.”

“I love her,” Michael said quietly.

“Yes you do,” Peter said, patting Michael on the shoulder. “Very much.”

“I don’t want to leave her.”

“Well, that’s not really up to you, is it? It’s not up to me, either. You wanted to give her everything she deserved, Michael. You did that. I can promise you that the time you two had together was the best time of her life. Now, you made sure that the rest of her life will be happy too.”

Michael didn’t say anything.

“Your book was smash hit, though,” Peter told him.

Michael and Peter laughed. Through tears, and for the first time in a long time, Michael truly laughed. He looked up when he had finished and saw The Girl get out of a running car and make her way over to the headstone.

Peter and Michael stepped out of the way, and she took her place in front of it. She said nothing for a long time, but finally smiled as tears fell to the snow.

“I met someone, Michael. He’s a real nice guy. Really. I just wanted to tell you that… and I… I wanted to tell you that I really miss you.”

“I miss you too,” Michael told her. She didn’t hear him.

“Anyway,” the Girl said, wiping her eyes. “It’s pretty cold out here, so I’m going to go. I love you Michael.”

The Girl hurried back to the car and got inside. John smiled at her as he put the car in gear and pulled away.

Michael was standing alone. “I love you too, Michelle.”

Michael walked back to his bench. The snow was getting higher, so Michael brushed what he could off the bench and sat down. He was smiling. Michael looked up and down the road before sitting back and closing his eyes.

For the first time in what felt like an eternity, Michael felt at peace.


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