Chapter 1: Debt or Death

R. James Miller
23 min readJun 19, 2022

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Writer’s Note: This is the rough draft of the first chapter of a novel I’m working on. I’ll be completely honest, I’m posting this on Medium to use the text-to-voice feature to check the flow of my writing and because it helps with proofreading since I’m not ready to present it to any of my friends or family yet. Because it’s a rough draft, it might not be up for long. I don’t love putting out unfinished work, but if anyone does have thoughts or feedback I’m open to it. ~James

Ron listened to the humming of the fluorescent bulbs a few feet above his head. Somewhere outside of the sterile office, a door closed. Two nurses were having an indecipherable conversation down the hall.

He hated sitting in this room. It was the only time in his life when things were almost completely quiet. Out of habit from the bygone time when cell phones weren’t allowed in hospitals, he refused to even look at his iPhone while he waited, which only made the silence worse.

“Albert J. Alford…bestowed…Doctor of Medicine…” Ron mumbled aloud to himself as he read portions of Dr. Alford’s medical school diploma from the wall. Alford had appeared on his ex-wife’s phone tied to his text messages as “AA Sponsor”, a not-so-subtle nod to where she claimed to be when she was actually fucking him.

Ron didn’t think typical AA sponsors ever sent dick pics to the person they were sponsoring. The stethoscope pressed to his balls in the picture Ron stumbled across seemed almost as self-indulgent as following it up with “Bet you can’t wait for Dr. Feelgood.” After reading the message, Ron was left wondering if Dr. Alford meant to refer to himself as “Dr. Feelgood” or if this was the nickname given to the genitalia popping up on his wife’s phone.

As he was pondering the true meaning of “Dr. Feelgood” for at least the thousandth time since he discovered the message on the phone of the woman he loved, Dr. Alford interrupted the hum of the fluorescent lights. He strode into the room with Ron’s test results in his hands.

Ron watched the smug son of a bitch peer over the test results. He’d always disliked Dr. Alford even before seeing his stethoscope-adorned package. Something about him just never sat right in Ron’s mind. Maybe it was the way he always ensured his glasses dangled millimeters from the tip of his nose while he read any medical document. There was no reason for it. Ron knew he could read the chart with the glasses in a position any normal person would keep the frames. Yet Alford insisted on keeping them low enough to force a squint from his already mousy eyes.

“Hello, Mr. Walton.” Dr. Alford said.

Ron hated being referred to as Mr. Walton. No one called him that. It sounded so pretentious. He felt like he was being lectured by a particularly stern high school principal. However, he also didn’t feel like telling the prick who had been screwing his wife to call him Ron.

“I was afraid of this.” Alford said as he pushed the glasses back up the bridge of his nose.

“What’s going on?” Ron asked.

“That swelling you’ve been feeling in your neck…”. Alford stopped for a second. He hated this part. Not because he felt sorry for his patients, more because he knew he’d have to deal with the emotional response the next words would elicit.

“Well, Mr. Walton…everything I’m seeing makes me fear it might be cancer. Potentially, Hodgkins lymphoma. The swelling is the lymph nodes in your neck.” He paused and looked into Ron’s eyes, making his best effort to portray a sympathy he was no longer capable of feeling for his patients.

Ron Walton looked back at Dr. Alford with a completely blank stare in his eyes. He blinked a few times as he appeared to process the information. Dr. Alford was nervous the tears were about to flow. He wondered why he hadn’t thought to have a nurse in the room with him. An empathetic female presence could save him from the awkwardness of trying to respond to his patient’s forthcoming emotional outburst.

“Is it terminal?” Ron finally asked.

“Well, the good news is the five-year survival rate for Hodgkins with treatment is quite high, Mr. Walton. With chemotherapy, we may be able to destroy the cancerous cells and get you into remission.” Dr. Alford replied.

“Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it kind of seems like you emphasized ‘good news’. As in, there must be bad news too.” Ron said.

“I suppose I should tell you that part now. As you probably know, treatment like this is expensive. And, well…” Alford hesitated. “Well, Ron, I agreed to see you today because I felt I owed it to you because of our…umm…history.”

Ron wasn’t sure which part of that statement he hated more, Dr. Alford switching to first name basis or his decision to refer to banging his wife as their shared “history”. It took him a few seconds to realize neither of those things should have affected him as much as what Alford wasn’t saying. Alford was trying to tell him he was going to die because he was broke and didn’t have health insurance.

To Dr. Alford’s surprise, a wide grin crossed Ron’s face. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Ron asked with a slight chuckle.

“Umm…unfortunately…yes, I am. You will not survive this without treatment. As a private practitioner, I cannot afford to provide it for you without insurance. I can get you the names of some nonprofit hospitals that can provide care. You’ll be responsible for the full cost of the chemo.”

“Ha. Isn’t that something?” Ron replied.

Dr. Alford was stunned. He had never had a patient respond so almost unemotionally — no, make that practically giddily — to a death or debt choice.

“Ron, I know you promised Kelsey you would pay for her to go to college. I know you don’t want to dip into the savings you set aside for her, but Janette and I can take care of it.

“Never say my fucking daughter’s name in my presence again.” Ron snapped back. “She’s my daughter. I am her father and I am going to be the one who ensures her life ends up better than mine.”

“I’m sorry. That was out of line on my part. What if you started a GoFundMe page? Maybe your friends or family or good samaritans could help with some of the costs.” Alford said. “You might even be able to declare bankruptcy after a while and start over. If anyone could use a fresh start, it’s you.”

Just as Dr. Alford was running out of things he thought were comforting to say, Ron let out an enormous sigh of what Alford could only consider relief.

“Oh fuck! Thank God! Thank you so much!”

“Wha…what?” Dr. Alford stammered.

“Thank you so much, Dr. Alford.” Ron responded. “I’ve always thought you were a pretentious asshole. I can finally tell you that because you’ve given me the one thing I’ve always needed. Maybe it’s the one thing I’ve always wanted too.”

“Mr. Walton, I hate to be so blunt, but I’ve basically given you the worst news of your life. How can you say these things?”

Ron chuckled. “Don’t you see? I’ve spent my entire life paralyzed by fear of the future. Doctor Alford, what you’ve just given me is complete freedom.”

“Freedom?” Dr. Alford responded indignantly. “Ron, I just told you cancer is going to permanently alter your life and even possibly end it. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, I got it.” Ron said. “So, doc, I’ve always wondered. Do you have a special stethoscope you use just for dick pics or is it the same one you use on your patients?” He smirked.

“What?” Alford replied.

“I saw it. You fucking asshole! I saw the pictures you were sending Janette. I know you two didn’t get together after our divorce. I know you were fucking her for months before she finally left. I can tell you that now, because I just don’t care anymore. I can tell you I think you’re an asshole and I thought that about you from the moment I met you. Yeah, I thought you were an asshole before you screwed my wife. I think you’re a bigger asshole because you screwed my wife. And guess what? I’ll still think you’re an asshole when she screws someone else and eventually leaves you too. Before today, I might have felt the slightest tinge of regret saying these things to your face. But you, Dr. Albert Alford, my ex-wife’s ‘AA Sponsor’- yeah, I knew that too — have set me free.”

Alford stared in stunned silence. He never expected that kind of outburst from Ron Walton, the mild-mannered, former cuckold, of the woman he now called his wife. He was angry about the things Ron had called him. Alford was a well-respected oncologist. Yet, here he was, in an exam room, getting verbally berated by an Uber driver.

The doctor clenched his fists, contemplating taking a swing at the man standing in front of him. He told himself he was above resorting to physical violence. Yet, deep down in the darkest places of his psyche, he knew Ron was right about everything he said.

“Today, you gave me the freedom to tell you all of this to your face. I think you and Janette deserve each other. You are the two most despicable people I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing. I hope you both destroy each other.”

Ron stood to walk to the door. Alford flinched, thinking maybe he was finally going to get what he deserved for ruining this man’s marriage. Ron laughed at the sight of the doctor cowering.

“I’m not going to hit you, Al. Two years ago, you took everything from me. My wife, my daughter, my manhood, you took it all. And now, your diagnosis took my life, which is one thing I’m okay with losing. Without the things you stole, life just really hasn’t been worth it anymore. You put me out of my misery.”

For the first time in a long time, Alford finally felt something toward a patient. It wasn’t sympathy or empathy or even pity. He was angry. It angered him to see his wife’s ex-husband in a good mood for the first time in years. He didn’t know why it upset him to see this man happy, but for reasons he could not explain, it really, really did.

“Don’t worry about the contact info for the other hospitals.” Ron said as he opened the exam room door. “I won’t be needing it.”

The instant Dr. Alford told Ron Walton he had cancer, it was as though the final tether connecting him to the life he was leading had snapped. None of his previous problems or concerns mattered anymore. Why should he care if his ex-wife had married a man she had cheated on him with? What did it matter he had lost his job? Not a single bit of it needed to be a concern now.

As Ron walked out of the doctor’s office, he absolutely did not care Janette had cheated on him. He did not care that the fallout had caused him to lose his job. It was the first time in two years he did not care about his past at all. What did the past matter when one conversation with a doctor left him staring at no future?

No future? What a strange concept. Ron spent his entire life worrying about the future when he wasn’t regretting his past. He was now fully aware there were very few moments in his life when he appreciated the present.

He had always envied people who could truly focus on the present. He had dabbled in meditation a few times over the years. As much as he tried to concentrate on his breath, his mind always returned to his stresses. Although he was told over and over this was common, he couldn’t help but become frustrated with himself. No matter how many times he tried, he would eventually give up meditating after only a few days.

Right now, Ron was present. Standing outside the office, he was acutely aware of the brilliant blue Arizona sky, graced by wisps of clouds reminding him of a Bob Ross painting. He felt the warm spring sun on his face as he basked for a moment.

The sounds of chirping caught his attention. In a palm tree in the medical complex courtyard, two rosy-faced lovebirds rubbed their beaks together living up to their namesake. The strange, non-native parrots had been one of his favorite Phoenix oddities.

He used to be on the lookout for lovebirds anytime he was outside. He did not consider himself a birdwatcher, but his Instagram account could easily be mistaken as a dedication site to the birds. He and Janette had spent entire afternoons rolling out a blanket at different parks around the city, just hoping to spot a flock. They even called each other “Rosy” as a pet name.

As he stared at the affectionate duo, Ron realized he hadn’t appreciated this kind of beauty in at least two years. He had stopped noticing the lovebirds at the same time he stopped noticing anything good in his life. The day his Rosy left was the last time Ron was aware rosy-faced lovebirds existed in his universe.

He sat down on a curved stone bench near the palm and watched the birds. He pulled out his phone and began taking pictures. Why? What good are pictures now? He thought. Does it matter if one or two people like the pictures on Instagram? Or a year from now, when his organs were ravaged with cancer, was he going to pull out his phone to look at the pictures? Pictures were the epitome of living in the past. There was no need for them in Ron’s life any longer.

Aside from their chirping, the only other sound was flowing water from the courtyard fountain. When was the last time he stopped to listen to a fountain? Ron thought. It was like a world he once knew and thought he would never see again had suddenly reemerged. Everything was so beautiful!

Ron was running now. He had no clue when it started or why. Moments ago, he was sitting in the courtyard watching rosy-faced lovebirds and listening to water trickle down the side of a marble fountain. Now he was running along a canal.

He hadn’t gone home to change into workout clothes. He hadn’t even gotten into his car at the doctor’s office. He remembered heading toward the car in the parking lot, but somewhere in the short walk, his mind just shut down. His feet and legs took over.

If there was anyone near the canal, the sight of an overweight, 38-year-old man going for a jog in jeans and a polo shirt probably seemed odd. Ron wasn’t sure if there was anyone else around. He could have passed dozens of people for all he knew, but if he did, his brain didn’t register their presence. The only thing he was aware of was the air flowing in and out of his lungs, the rhythmic scraping of his shoes over rocky dirt, and a burning in his calves. He hadn’t felt that kind of burning in a very long time.

When he was training to run marathons, he used to tell himself his body was only a tool used to move his brain during a run. This perspective allowed him to get lost so deeply in thought, he could push the pain to the back of his mind. Yet on this impromptu run, there were hardly any thoughts distracting him. The burning in his lungs and the pain in his legs were very noticeable. This time, the pain was the distraction from his thoughts.

Where was he going? He thought, as his consciousness slowly started to return. The area seemed familiar, but why? He hadn’t been in this part of the city in at least a decade. Where had his primal urges taken him?

As he turned up the sidewalk coming off the canal path, he saw a row of murals lining the street. He knew immediately where he was, although he did not know why his body had taken him there. Before his appointment with Alford that morning, no part of his conscious mind would have even realized he was only a 10-minute jog from The Row.

He and Janette spent dozens of Friday nights in The Row Art District before they were married. They browsed the street vendors, visited galleries, and spent almost as much time in the bookstores as in their apartments. They also drank wine and laughed. My God, how we laughed! Ron thought.

She was everything he ever wanted in a partner: fun, spontaneous, smart, beautiful, encouraging, loving, and so much more. When he started dating her, he felt like he was part of something more than himself. A perennially lonely child, who moved 2,000 miles from home for college, becoming an even lonelier man, wasn’t on his own anymore. She didn’t just make him feel love; she made him feel like part of a family for the first time in his life.

Here he was on a Tuesday afternoon, his shoulder-length brown and gray hair glistening with sweat, reconnecting with a life he had almost completely forgotten. He ran his hands through his hair and then down through his equally long beard, attempting to dry the sweat. Now he realized he hadn’t gotten a haircut or shaved his beard since she left. How many things had he completely stopped doing since that day? The list was already getting long, and he was less than a half-hour into his reawakening.

As he walked The Row, one particular mural attracted his attention. It depicted a Hispanic man and woman. On the left side, the man stood on a beautiful hillside dotted with saguaro and organ pipe cacti. To the right, the woman, who Ron assumed was his lover, stood on a very similar hill. They were looking at each other with a clear path of vision. However, in the valley between the two hills, there was a winding road bisected by a black vertical-slatted fence.

Ron understood the artist’s intent was to make a statement about immigration policy or the ugliness of human-created borders, but that’s not what he saw today. He saw two people madly in love, with no clue about the obstacle soon to come between them. He saw himself and Janette, young and clueless about what was to come.

Ron then thought about recreating the painting to reflect the current nature of their relationship. The man would still stand alone, staring at the opposite hill, but there would be no one there. Instead, behind the other hill, there would be a house with a huge window and three people sitting down to dinner: Janette, Dr. Alford, and Kelsey. The man on the hill could not see the house, but he knew it existed, which was enough to make him even lonelier.

The mental image of the new painting instantly made the original hideous in Ron’s view. He supposed it was a perfect parallel to how he viewed their relationship now. Something that was beautiful became ugly, and now it was impossible for him to see it any other way.

He turned away from the mural, seeking a distraction from the pain. Looking down The Row, it felt the same as it did when he was younger, but the businesses were different. He didn’t see any of the bookstores he used to frequent. Everything was newer, cleaner, almost professional looking. The artistic feel was still there, but modernization removed much of the sentimentality he had been feeling.

He walked down the street looking in some of the shop windows before deciding to check out a second-hand bookstore displaying a wooden sign with bold letters proclaiming “Coffee and Tea” hanging in the window. Having run at least two miles, coffee didn’t sound very appealing, but a cup or two of iced tea would be great. He could sit down at one of the little tables to rest his legs and rehydrate.

The store was cozy and clean. Even books that were probably rarely touched didn’t have a speck of dust on them. The shop layout was comprised of about ten rows of light brown oak bookshelves, with just enough room for one body to fit comfortably in each. If someone else was in the same row, you would not squeeze past without an incredibly awkward interaction. The book rows were to the left of the shop entrance. To the right, there was a small coffee bar for customers to order drinks to take to the tables at the rear of the store.

Aside from the drink counter, the store reminded him of the Liberty Elementary School library in his rural Indiana hometown. It was just as quiet as the school library, but Ron assumed even after decades away from Liberty, the people tending the library would not be two women in their early to mid-50s covered in tattoos on every inch of visible skin except their faces. Although the women with their short spiky hairstyles, one gray the other jet black, would have terrified the fine folk of Liberty, Indiana, they seemed warm and inviting to him.

The woman with the gray hair was working diligently dusting books in the first aisle next to the coffee bar. Ron guessed she must be at least a part owner of the store because she removed and dusted each book one by one. There is no way an hourly employee would ever be that meticulous, he thought.

The woman with the jet black hair was behind the coffee bar. She greeted him with an excited, “Welcome in! Can I get you something to drink?” She was clearly happy to see a customer. Ron thought they must not get a lot of business.

He ordered a cup of iced tea from the counter and walked to the tables at the back of the store. He barely sat down before he finished the tea. He considered returning to the counter to order a second, but figured his thirst might concern the women. The last thing he wanted was to have someone else worry about him now. After all, that’s how he ended up in Dr. Alford’s office this morning.

If he hadn’t let himself get dehydrated enough to pass out at Kelsey’s basketball game, no one would have known there was anything wrong. She did not know he was there or that he’d come to every game this season. If she had known, she would have yelled at him to leave. She wanted nothing to do with him anymore.

He always found a corner to duck into behind her team’s bench so she wouldn’t see him. He was standing in a small gap between the bleachers and gymnasium wall when he collapsed. Luckily, only one of the other parents saw him go down. Not-so-luckily, the other parent knew Janette and went to get her after helping Ron into the hall outside the gym.

If he hadn’t passed out at the game, he would have never ended up being driven to the hospital by his ex-wife. If he hadn’t gone to the hospital, the nurse would have never asked about the swelling in his neck. If Janette hadn’t been there, she would have never asked her new husband to see him. Ron would have never sat in that awful exam room this morning. He would still be completely clueless about the gigantic obstacle ahead of him.

If none of this had happened, he absolutely would not be sitting in a second-hand bookstore on The Row trying to decide what to do with what little life he had left. He’d be driving an Uber, going home to his shitty one-bedroom apartment, and waiting for death rather than knowing it was coming for him much faster than he expected.

“Oh my, you already finished your tea.” A woman’s voice said. “You must have been really thirsty.” It was the gray-haired woman. Now he noticed her kind, sapphire eyes. Ron knew she must be concerned, because she left her dusting work to check on him. She had probably noticed he was still dripping with sweat when he walked into the shop.

“Lil, can you bring our guest another tea?” She called to the front of the shop.

“Sure thing. Give me a second.” The other woman shouted back.

“We don’t get a lot of customers in here on Tuesday afternoons, and definitely not a lot of straggly haired, long-bearded, middle-aged men soaked in sweat. Were you running from the cops or something?” She chuckled as she pulled up a chair.

“I guess it wouldn’t be the first time I ran from cops in this neighborhood.” He smiled, thinking about the time he and Janette had to hide in an alleyway after shoplifting a bottle of wine, which a store clerk refused to sell them after hours. “But I was young and dumb then.”

“So, you’re old and smart now?”

“No, still dumb. I’m just older and probably couldn’t outrun a cop if I wanted to now.” Ron chuckled, surprised by his own joke. He had been in a complete haze minutes ago and now here he was, holding a cordial conversation with a stranger. It was the first time a stranger, who wasn’t a rideshare passenger or a fellow drunk at a bar, had started a conversation with him in longer than he could remember.

She laughed at his joke. “Well, thank you for clearing that up. Lillian probably dialed 9–1 on her phone and was waiting to press the second one.” Her smile was warm and disarming.

“You’re damn right I did.” Lillian laughed as she emerged with an iced tea and two coffees.

Ron realized they were going to be joining him for more than a passing conversation. Normally, this would have made him uncomfortable as a self-proclaimed hermit, but not now. Today, the prospect of having people to talk to felt good.

“I’m Dana and, as you heard, this is Lillian. We own the store. Before you make any assumptions about two butch old ladies owning a bookstore in an art district, she’s my sister.”

“I think I should be offended she always feels like she needs to clarify that. Am I not beautiful enough to be your lover?” Lillian feigned indignation.

“You know you’re not my cup of tea. I like my women dainty and proper.” Dana replied.

“That’s fine. I prefer my partners have rock hard pecs and something dangling between their legs.” Lillian shot back, evoking a slap on the wrist and hearty laughter from Dana.

“You’re disgusting and so inappropriate.” Dana blushed slightly.

“Someone has to provide the entertainment around here.” Lillian replied.

“If you aren’t hiding from the police, what brought you in here looking like you just ran a 5k?” Dana returned her focus to Ron.

“It is a long story and I don’t think I should burden you ladies with it.”

“Oh, you’re so considerate. We’re clearly way too busy to listen to a long story.” Lillian replied sarcastically. “Lay it on us, or she’ll have to go back to dusting every one of our books for the hundredth time this week and I’ll have to resume staring out the shop window.”

“Yes, we certainly have time for a long and burdensome story.” Dana chimed.

“Well, a few weeks ago I was at my daughter’s 8th grade basketball game…”

The women listened intently as Ron detailed the events of the last two weeks that led him to their shop. He told them about the hospital visit, the nurse recommending further tests, his ex-wife asking his mortal enemy to help her ex-husband, the pretentious asshole telling him he was too broke to live, sitting in the courtyard after he learned he was dying, and running to The Row out of pure instinct. He even mentioned the mural. Although, they assured him it was absolutely a depiction of cross-border immigration rather than an obstacle-obstructed love story.

When he was done, he realized these were the only two people in the world, aside from Alford and probably his ex-wife, who knew what he was going through. If they had not sat down to lend a kind ear to a stranger, he would have told no one. He would have sat at the table, sipping iced tea, looking through his phone contacts, longing for just one person he could call.

He couldn’t call his daughter. There was no way he was ready for that conversation yet. He lost the few friends he had in Phoenix, either because they sided with Janette during the divorce, or because he was a sad sack they didn’t want to be around during the aftermath. He didn’t have the type of relationship with friends from his childhood to discuss something this serious. His parents had passed years ago, and he had no other close family.

Talking to either of his parents would have made him feel better. They always made him feel like he could overcome anything. When he lost his mother almost a year after getting married and his father a few months later, he became completely dependent on Janette for emotional support. There was no way he would reach out to her in this time of crisis.

Talking with these two bookshop-owning sisters, he met minutes ago, was the first time he felt like anyone cared about him since his world fell apart. It felt so good just to talk to other people, even if it was about something absolutely terrible. When he finished telling them his story, a tightness in his chest he hadn’t realized was there was suddenly gone.

“That’s horrible, hun.” Dana said. “But it’s gonna be okay. It’s not the end of the world. We’ve known people with cancer who got treatment and lived long lives. Right, Lil?”

Lillian nodded in agreement.

“That’s the problem. I’m not going to do the treatment. I mean, I can’t do the treatment. I don’t have health insurance.”

“So what? They have to treat you. No hospital can deny you life-saving treatment!” Ron’s statement clearly upset Dana.

“That’s true. It’s exactly what the doctor said. They can’t deny me treatment, but without insurance I’m responsible for the full cost and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s still not even guaranteed I’ll survive.”

“So you go a few hundred thousand dollars in the hole and declare bankruptcy. At least you’ll be alive to watch your little girl grow up.” Lillian said.

“If I do that, they’ll take everything I set aside for her. Every penny I had left after the divorce, I put into an account for her. I don’t care if she uses it for college, or to buy a house, or whatever she wants. I just want her to get the leg up in life that I never had.”

“If it’s in a college fund, that’s got to be protected from bankruptcy, right?” Dana asked.

“It’s not in a college fund. I didn’t set it up that way because I didn’t want her to feel forced to go to college. I want her to do whatever makes her happy.”

“Why not put it in one or just give the money to her now?” Lillian asked.

“It needs to be in a college fund for at least two years to be protected from bankruptcy. Maybe I can push things off for that long, but I refuse to risk her ending up with nothing or worse, her mother finding a way to take it.”

“I admire your love for your daughter, but I think you’re wrong about this. I think she’d rather have you around. Whatever’s going on between you, I’m sure she’ll get over it one day and when she does, she’d rather have you than any amount of money.” Dana said in a tone so soft and gentle it reminded him of his mother.

“It’s all I fucking have to give her. She hates me. This is it! That money is the only thing I can give her so that someday she knows her dad loved her and was willing to do anything to give her the best possible life.” He was fighting back tears as he spoke.

“Obviously, you have strong feelings about this. I doubt two strangers are going to talk you out of it.” Dana continued to be the more actively involved sister in the conversation.

“You’re right. Since that’s settled. What would the two of you do if you knew you would not be alive much longer?”

The question lingered in the air for a few seconds. It was the sort of thing everyone thinks about occasionally. The sisters had each contemplated it more than a few times. However, they never imagined the question would come from someone who actually found himself in that situation.

“Wow. That’s tough. I suppose I’m the sort of person who believes in signs from the universe. I’m not overly religious, but I think there are forces helping to guide us. So, I guess I’d just look for a sign. When it was given to me, I’d listen.”

“I’d try to see as much of the world as I could.” Lillian followed up very matter-of-factly.

“I like the way you both think. Thank you so much for listening. I guess I should be going. I’ve got a lot of living to get done.”

Ron finished his drink and stood. As he was getting up to leave, Dana hugged him tightly. Lillian quickly joined the embrace. Before he knew what was happening, he felt tears streaming down his face onto Dana’s shoulder. When was the last time someone had hugged him?

He thanked the women once again. Lillian handed him a store business card and told him to call anytime if he needed anything. He promised he would.

As he headed toward the front entrance, by chance, he walked down the aisle marked TRAVEL. He had no intention of purchasing a book today. However, as he passed through, one of the few books displaying the cover instead of the spine caught his attention: National Geographic’s The Complete National Parks of the United States.

He thumbed through the slightly beaten up book. The spine and dust jacket had seen better days, but the pictures inside were beautiful. So these are the kinds of places I’ve been missing, he thought.

“Take it.” Dana shouted. She and Lillian were sitting at the table with their backs to him, consoling each other.

“But you don’t even know what I’m looking at.” Ron called back.

“If it caught your attention on a day like today, then you know it’s important. It’s yours. Don’t worry about it.”

Maybe both the sisters were right. Maybe this was the universe’s way of telling him to see as much of the world as he could. What other reason could there be for him ending up at this bookshop, with these women, and this book?

“Thank you for everything.” He said, as he reached into his wallet to pull out several twenty-dollar bills. Before either woman could turn around, he slid the bills into a nearby book. He was sure Dana would find the money within a day or two while running a feather duster over every book in the travel section.

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R. James Miller

Mental health, emotional wellness, opinion, & travel-focused writer. Writing about my weight struggles, personal growth, and wanderlust.