by Ashley Hancox

Wow, she's beautiful. Matthias couldn't help but stare as he walked to class surrounded by a crowd of fellow students. On his very first day of graduate school, he had fallen for her-- hard. She wasn't just good-looking; she was intelligent and genuinely kind. Matthias had previously refuted the theory of "love at first sight," but now it seemed as legitimate as the Universal Law of Gravitation. The fluttering feeling in his stomach certainly didn't feel contained by gravity, however. Save the physics for class, Matthias. He refocused himself on the very subject of his gaiety only to find that the woman had walked out of sight. She was undoubtedly in a hurry to escape the chilly spring air outside. He shook his head with a smile and continued to trod onwards. In Matthias's opinion, this was the most beautiful area on campus. Different shades of red brick checkered a wide pathway lined with green benches and oak trees, the latter forming a tunnel of sorts. A swift breeze whipped its way through the extensive arch of trees, sending shivers down Matthias' body. In response, he reluctantly dragged his hands out of his pockets and zipped up his navy blue windbreaker. He threw his head back to glare at the gloomy grey sky, as if to scold it for the unpleasant weather conditions.

WHACK! A sharp pain shot across the front of Matthias' thighs. He jerked his head downwards to search for the source of affliction. A stick? He moved his eyes down the wooden shaft carefully in an effort to divulge its origin. It soon became apparent that this was not simply a stick, but a well crafted wooden cane. At the other end of a cane was an old man seated alone in the middle of a park bench. He was dressed in a suit, complete with a newsboy cap and a lavender bow tie. The outfit presumably looked quite dapper when both it and the wearer were younger, but the color of the jacket and pants had grown vapid and the fabric

sleazy from years of washing. Matthias wearily shifted his gaze from the clothing to look upon the elderly man's face. He expected to encounter hostility after receiving such a blow to the legs, but the old man wore a lighthearted expression.

"Ah, young man, come rest your bones with June and me!" The man on the bench insisted that the younger man join him. Matthias examined the park bench, looking for the other person the old man had mentioned, but he was utterly dumbfounded-the elderly gentleman was unaccompanied. Who's June ... ?

"Please, have a sit, young man! There's room for the three of us, now. Don't you worry, we can squeeze." Three of us? Matthias was confused, but he consented to sit down instead of remonstrating with the old man. He slid his unwieldy satchel off his shoulder and took a seat on the right end of the bench.

"Um, thank you for the hospitality, sir, but I really should be on my way to c1as--" Matthias stopped midway through the last word of his sentence. All at once, he completely repudiated any previous notion that the man was mentally sound. This guy is insane. The elderly man was staring over the other side of the bench, hands clasped. It was almost as if he was holding an imaginary person's hands, looking deep into her eyes.

"June, my love, this is a nice young man named ... Er, what's your name again, son?" The elderly gentleman made no effort to make eye contact, but continued to stare at who Matthias inferred was "June."

Mat---Matthias. I have to leave now." Matthias felt guilty for leaving, but class started in a few minutes. He hastily gathered up his satchel and stood up to depart, but the old man took notice.

"Going so soon, are you?" The sorrow in the man's eyes melted Matthias' heart, but, ignoring all the etiquette precepts his mother taught him, he merely gestured towards the distant university buildings, spun on his heel, and began to walk away. A few steps later, regret overcame him. He turned to look back at the park bench. To his surprise, the old man's disappointment was transient. He had a gentle smile upon his face and was further conversing with "June." Matthias circled around once more to face the university buildings, shaking his head as he attempted to sort through his muddled thoughts of this strange encounter.

For days on end, even as Matthias took a different route to class, the memory of the bizarre old-timer reverberated in his mind. Feeling conflicted about rudely leaving the gentleman, Matthias decided he ought to go back and apologize. He conceded to walk the usual way to class: through the oak tunnel. Upon reaching the park bench, Matthias extended his hand to introduce himself again. To his astonishment, the elderly man's memory was in working order.

"I remember you, boy, no need to tell me your name twice. Call me Steve. Please, sit with us!" he said, patting the right side of the bench. Matthias sighed, but sat down. Here we go again ... Steve was once again too preoccupied with "June" to pay much attention to Matthias, so the graduate student began to observe people walking by, searching for someone in particular. Nope, not her ... there she is.

"Go say hello. June says it's obvious you have something special for that girl there." Matthias jumped, unaware that the man had leaned in close to whisper to him. Steve laid his hand on the young man's shoulder, and in one great motion, shoved Matthias into the pathway, just behind the woman. When Matthias looked back at him, dazed, the old man gave a reassuring nod. The young man awkwardly introduced himself and sauntered back to the bench, grinning. "Steve, that was simultaneously the best and the scariest thing I have ever done."

The next day, Matthias swaggered through the archway of oaks and took a seat on the right side of the bench without invitation. He looked over at the old man and greeted him with a goofy smile. "Hey there Steve. You'll never believe what I did yesterday." The old man looked indignant, and Matthias quickly corrected himself. "0h, hello to you too, June." Steve's expression softened into a smile once again.

"Now what have you gone and done, Matt?"

"I asked her out."

"You did what?"

"She said yes."

"Well, my boy, this is cause for celebration!" Steve stood up and grabbed Matthias by the forearm, pulling him to a standing position. He then took June's hands and began to dance and whistle an old, lively tune. Matthias was hesitant to dance in the presence of the people walking by, but before he knew it, he was snapping his fingers and keeping in step with the older man. He was having so much fun that he lost track of time. Matthias looked down at his watch and panicked-class had already started!

"Iíll see you tomorrow, Steve! Thanks for everything!" His voice grew fainter as he bolted away at full speed.

Day after day, Matthias sat down to have a chat with Steve on his way to class. The park bench became an immutable safe haven in a world of chaos and the old man, once a stranger, became an endearing friend and mentor who watched the young man grow in character and marry the woman he loved. In reciprocity, if any fresh passerby tried to ridicule the older man, Matthias quickly jumped to his defense.

Two years had passed. The third year graduate student quietly hummed his favorite song as he made his way down the pathway, the shelter of the great oak trees overhead protecting his pale face from the fierce rays of the sun. Wordless, Matthias took his place on the park bench next to the old man and let out a long sigh. His face was contorted into a look of confusion and amazement all at once. Steve broke the silence. "What's wrong, Matt?" That was all it took. Matthias explained the whole situation facing him and his wife, the words gushing out at impeccable speed.

"And that's it. I'm afraid-afraid that I won't have what it takes to be the father I should be when the time comes."

"Well my boy, sometimes you must dive in, not knowing the outcome of the situation, but trusting that the Lord above is good and that everything will be okay. June gave me some words of advice years ago," Steve gave a smile of acknowledgment to his love, and then continued. "She said to live in the moment. And when the going gets tough, take life twenty seconds at a time. When you don't think you'll make it any longer, count to twenty Mississippi's, and you'll find you lasted twenty seconds longer than you thought you would." Matthias nodded, contemplating the words perspicacious beyond his years. "Oh, how I miss her." Steve stared into the distance, transfixed with thought. You could almost see the slide show of black and white memories running across his glazed eyes.

"Miss who, Steve? June?" Matthias had been convinced the elderly man was consumed by the delusion that his lover was still alive, but he had just acknowledged her death. Maybe Steve pretended she sat next to him on the bench everyday to comfort himself, in a vain attempt to keep her close when she was far gone. Either way, Matthias would never find out the truth.

It was March18th. Matthias could hardly contain his excitement as he shuffled down the pathway, pink envelope and photographs in hand. The weather didn't mirror his enthusiasm, however. A sepulchral fog loomed over the entire campus, and the air had a piercing coldness about it. Once a few yards from where Steve would await, Matthias began to run, run like a child for the tree on Christmas morning. He stopped short, noticing the bench was vacant. Matthias didn't understand-Steve was always there. Could he have forgotten? No, Steve was always there. Unless ... Matthias felt like he had been stabbed as he slowly realized his friend was gone. He shook his head vigorously in disbelief. No, no, no .... All of the energy drained from his body. With a sobering expression, he lowered his trembling body onto the right side of the bench. Matthias, get yourself together, man. Think Mississippi's. One, two, three, four ... Matthias didn't want to live in a world without a cheery old-timer with an invisible wife delusion who sat on the same park bench every day. Matthias didn't want to live in a world without a Steve. Choking on tears, he cleared his throat and began to speak. "Hel-hello there Steve. Bow tie's lookin' mighty fine today. I--I have some wonderful, great, wonderful news ... " He paused to take a quivering breath. "It's a girl. It's a girl, and her name is June."