Kenneth M. Briggs is a writer, speaker, and all around square peg with a passion for truth and a vivid imagination. A writer of devotional, inspirational, and technical articles, he prefers Sci-Fi and other fiction genres. He’s a member of ACFW, the Scribes critique group, and is an alumnus of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and the Autumn in the Mountains Novelist Retreat. He currently resides in North Mississippi where he volunteers his time twice a month at a local retirement community. Check out his blog at www.kbspeaks.com.
Anita Hodges, R.N., awoke to the sound of her alarm clock. She had slept at least seven hours, but why did it feel like less?
She stopped by her daughter’s room on the way to the kitchen. Precocious four-year-old Jennifer never ceased to amaze Anita.
“Wake up, sweetheart. Get dressed while I fix your breakfast.” She turned and headed out of the room.
Jennifer sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Hey, Mom?”
“I ’cided what I want for my birfday.”
“Really? And what would that be?”
“A heart neckless.”
“A heart necklace? You want a necklace shaped like a heart?”
“Noooo, Mom. It’s a neckless with a heart on it that holds pichures. You know.”
“And just what kind of pichures would you put in there?”
Jennifer looked at her with big, brown eyes. “Of us, ’course. You always put pichures of who you love in hearts.”
Anita wrapped her arms around her little princess. “How silly of me not to know that.” She kissed Jennifer on the forehead. “Well, get dressed and we’ll talk about that later.”
Beep, beep . . . beep, beep.
The heart monitor registered only sixty-five beats per minute. Blood pressure was 84/40. Blood oxygen saturation was 82 percent, and core temperature was 94 degrees. Patrick Vanderhauf knew he was dying soon, very soon.
As he lay there with his eyes closed, he heard soft footfalls on the tiled floor. Someone entered his cubicle, walked around the bed, and checked his I.V.
“You don’t have to walk on eggshells, Anita.” Patrick opened one eye slightly and gazed at her. Golden hair and a heart to match.
Anita smiled. “Well, Mr. V, if you wouldn’t play ’possum so much, I wouldn’t have to.”
“Aw, who’s playing?” Patrick opened his other eye to get a better view. “And how many times have I told you to call me Pat? You make me feel like an old man with that Mr. V stuff.”
“You’re ninety, you crazy coot. You are old.”
Patrick chuckled, then began to cough. Anita placed a straw to his lips. After a few sips of water, the coughing subsided.
“Thank you, dear,” he said. “For the water and the laugh. I tell you, sweetie, I wouldn’t turn the clock back for anything, but looking at you makes me wish I was twenty-five again.”
Now she chuckled. “Mr. . . . Pat, you mean to tell me you have no regrets?”
“Nope, not a one.”
She leaned on the side rail. “There’s nothing you’d like to go back and fix? Nothing you wish you’d done but didn’t?”
Patrick considered a moment. “Well … got a few minutes?”
“For you, sure.” She sat in the visitor’s chair.
“Years ago, back in the late fifties, I seriously considered trying to get into the astronaut program.”
“Really? You had the right stuff?”
“Yes, I did, pretty lady. I was in the Army Air Corps in World War II and later in the Air Force. If it had wings, I could fly it.” He paused to take a few breaths. “I loved flying. Being in the sky and looking down at the earth . . . I thought maybe that’s how God sees things. The whole picture, you know?”
Anita placed her hand on his.
“As a kid, I was always looking up at the sky. During the day it was wishing I could fly with the birds, and at night it was wishing I could fly among the stars. The war was a terrible thing, but it gave me my chance to be up there. I said if I ever got the chance to head for the stars, I’d take it.” He sighed. “But when it came, I never did.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“My wife, Gloria, was supportive and wanted me to try. But I believed God wanted me to do something else. I wrestled with it for quite a while, but finally gave up the dream.”
She squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, no, hon. Don’t feel sorry for me. I have no regrets. I still wonder sometimes how it would be to soar around the moon, but God’s been good to me all these years. He provided challenges and rewards far beyond anything I could have experienced as an astronaut. And He let me do it all with Gloria.” He winked. “You remind me of her. Especially with those big, brown eyes.”
“But it seems unfair you had to give up your dream.”
He shook his head. “God knows what’s really important. It only seems like a sacrifice until you realize what you’re getting in return is much better.”
Anita patted his hand. “I know a lot of the stuff we want isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. And I’m sure they seem small to God. Take my four-year-old’s birthday gift. She asked for something I can’t afford.” She looked back at Patrick. “But your dream was a life-altering decision. Wasn’t that big enough for Him to work out?”
Patrick smiled. “You have to understand, God doesn’t consider anything too big or too small when it comes to us.” He stopped for a couple of breaths. “What I thought was important at the time, He knew really wasn’t, that I’d be far more satisfied with something else. As for your daughter, you ask God for exactly what you want, no matter how insignificant you think it is. He’ll provide the absolute best. God definitely cares about the little things.”
Patrick awoke to the voice of the eleven-to-seven nurse coming from the hallway. Hearing her speak meant it was late. He debated whether to stay awake or to try to go back to sleep. He looked toward the nurses’ station and saw two people busy at computer monitors. His gaze swept to the foot of his bed. A tall fellow in an orange flight suit stood there.
Patrick blinked several times but the figure was still there.
“Who are you?”
The young man walked around the bed to Patrick’s left. The name tag said Aries. He snapped to attention and saluted.
“Lieutenant Colonel Aries, sir. I am your escort for your final flight.”
“Your escort, sir. My Commander in Chief has instructed me to escort you on your final flight. I have your flight suit and boots ready.” He motioned toward the end of the bed.
Patrick raised he head a bit and peered down toward his feet. Sure enough, an orange flight suit lay across the end. The toes of two shiny boots protruded from under the bed.
He laid his head against the pillow. “Young man, I’m in no condition for any flight. This old body of mine is headed downhill fast. Any moment it could reach bottom, and I’ll be gone.”
The young man smiled. “I am well aware of your condition, Colonel. As I said, I am your escort for your final flight.”
“Final . . .?”
“You’re telling me you’re an—”
“Angel. Yes, sir.”
“Hmm.” Patrick looked at the beeping monitor. “I’m dead?”
“Not yet. Lift-off is oh three hundred, T minus twenty-five minutes and counting.”
“Whew, I’m confused.”
Aries took Patrick’s hand. “It’s very simple. You didn’t give up your dream. It was only postponed. God cares for the little things.”
Patrick felt warmth and strength he hadn’t felt in years. “Forgive me, I’m at a loss. Wh-what do I do?”
Aries pulled Patrick into a sitting position. He removed the I.V. and monitor clips. “We need to get you into your flight suit.”
Patrick pushed himself off the bed and found he could stand on his own. He climbed into the flight suit, and Aries helped him with the boots.
“An astronaut if I ever saw one. Shall we go, sir? We’re at T minus twenty minutes.”
“One second.” He walked to the bedside table and scribbled a note on the pad lying there. “Good to go.”
“This way, sir.” Aries led the way out of the cubicle and down the hall. Patrick squinted as the dim corridor light grew dazzling. The tapping of their boots on the tile floor changed to metallic clanging, and suddenly they were walking along a gantry toward the open hatch of a shuttle orbiter.
“Just step inside and climb the access ladder. You’ll be in the pilot chair on the right. I’ll join you as soon as I secure the hatch.”
Patrick scrambled up the ladder and inside. His newfound strength made everything wonderfully easy.
Aries joined him and sat in the commander’s chair. They put on their helmets and communication equipment.
“Okay, sir. You’ll be speaking with Launch Control. They’ll walk you through each step. Here’s your throttle control and the switches for computer control.”
“We’re at T minus fifteen seconds and holding,” said Aries. “When you’re ready, close and lock your visor and inform Control.”
Patrick took a deep breath and blinked to clear the tears. A tingle ran down his back and arms. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach. He turned to Aries. “Thank you.”
“The privilege is mine, Colonel.”
Patrick grasped the control stick and pulled the trigger. “Launch Control, Orion. Secure for departure. We’re go for final countdown.”
Anita arrived early for her shift. She wanted to spend a few minutes with Patrick. She stopped short at his cubicle.
A nurse came up behind her. “I’m so sorry, Anita. Eleven-to-seven said he died a little after three this morning.”
Anita gazed into the empty cubicle. “They didn’t take much time cleaning out his things.”
“That’s the strangest thing. Nightshift said they had instructions to call Mr. Vanderhauf’s lawyer if he died, no matter the time. He showed up almost immediately and gathered Mr. Vanderhauf’s things. He asked about you.”
“What did he want with me?”
“Don’t know, but he’s in the waiting room.”
She walked through two sets of double doors to the reception desk.
A voice spoke behind her. “You must be Miss Hodges.”
Anita turned to see a handsome gentleman holding a small gift bag.
“Yes, I’m Anita Hodges.”
“Patrick was right. You do have big brown eyes.” He stuck out his hand. “Thomas Aderholt. Patrick was more than a client, a second father, actually. He told me about you, your kindness to him, taking time to talk. That meant the world to him. Thank you.”
Anita shook his hand. Tears welled up. “Oh, you’re very welcome. He was so kind and quite a character.” She laughed a bit to keep the tears in check. Thomas stood there smiling. Anita felt her cheeks growing warm. “Is that all?”
“Actually, no. Patrick instructed me to meet any needs you may have and to check in on you from time to time.”
Anita’s jaw dropped. “I . . . I don’t know what to say. Th-Thank you. That is so sweet of him.” It became harder to hold back her tears.
“If it’s not an inconvenience, could you—and your daughter—meet me for lunch or dinner this week to discuss the details?”
“Sure. But how did you know I have a daughter?”
Thomas’s eyebrows lifted. “Patrick said you had a daughter who was having a birthday, and he wanted to give her something.” He handed her the gift bag. “It belonged to his wife. He mentioned your daughter is rather young and may not like it now, but you could always hold it until she was older.”
Anita reached into the bag and pulled out a small hinged box. She lifted the little lid and gasped. She could not keep the tears from escaping.
“Are you all right?”
As tiny rivers ran down her cheeks, she looked away. All she could do was nod. Inside the little box was a heart-shaped pendant. Her hands trembled as she opened it. A tiny note fell out.
DEAR ANITA. FOR YOUR DAUGHTER. SOMETHING TO HOLD WHAT’S IMPORTANT. TRUST ME, HE REALLY DOES CARE ABOUT THE LITTLE THINGS.