#1 Amazon Bestseller Coming of Age, Literary Fiction, and Biographical Literary Fiction
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"An emotional story that will leave readers meditating on the life-saving magic of kindness." -IndieReader
With all his family and friends gone, one-hundred-year-old Murray McBride is looking for a reason to live. He finds it in Jason Cashman, a ten-year-old boy with a terminal heart defect and a list of five things he wants to do before he dies. Together, they race against the limited time each has left, ticking off wishes one by one. Along the way, Murray remembers what it's like to be young, and Jason fights for the opportunity to grow old. But when tragedy strikes, their worlds are turned upside-down, and an unexpected gift is the only thing that can make Jason's final wish come true.
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Murray McBride Lemon Grove, Illinois Twenty Years Earlier
Bran Flakes. Every morning for longer than this old brain can remember. Since Jenny died, anyhow. Chalky and bland and disgusting. But I'm not one of those picky folk who need the most expensive caviar for every meal. Never have been.
I stare at the Bran Flakes like they're a worthy opponent. I'll attempt to chew and swallow and they'll try to kill me with a lack of flavor. May the best man win.
It's my birthday — the Big Ten-Oh — which does nothing but remind me I have no one left. No family, except a greedy grandson who rarely visits. No friends, except the grocery check-out clerk with the pierced nostril — a sparkly hoop I can't help but stare at. I'm not proud of it, but I want to include my Internist, Doc Keaton, on that list of friends. Why else would he insist on a birthday physical? A glance at the clock tells me I'll be late for the appointment, but what do I care? Get to be my age, and people don't expect much out of you.
I crush my pill up good — I only need one. Not one of those old-timers who has to take twenty pills a day. I mix it into the Bran Flakes and slowly win the battle, though not without a good fight. Guess I'll live another day. Doc Keaton'll be happy about that, at least.
I've been dressed since 4 a.m. because sleep doesn't come as easy as it did, once upon a time. Seems backward, you ask me. A man my age should be able to sleep the day away if that's what he wants to do. Figure I've earned it. And kids these days can sleep like a baby, right when they're supposed to be in the thick of their lives. I once saw a lad — looked about twelve — sleep through an entire Easter Mass. Made me curse under my breath and I had to confess it to Father James later that day. But the good Father just laughed. Now I'm not one to question a man of God, but that didn't sit too well with me, to tell the truth about it.
I only live two blocks from Doc Keaton's office, so I'm able to walk there in about a half-hour. They put me in a room by myself and Doc sweeps in a few minutes later. Seems happy to see me. He asks how I got here and when I tell him I walked he about bounces off the ceiling. "It's just walking," I tell him. "The day I can't do that is the day I go meet St. Peter."
My legs dangle over the examination table, same way they did at doctor's offices when I was 8, and 38, and 88. Same old, same old.
"Surprisingly healthy," Doc says over and over. "Heart of a fifty-year-old."
He conveniently forgets to mention the lungs that are only kept working by my morning ritual of Bran Flakes with crushed, life-saving-pill. Sometimes toast and jam on the side, if I'm feeling adventurous, but that happens less and less these days. Too much damn work.
"I'm thinking of the twenty-second," I say. I don't need to explain. He knows I'm talking about the pill. In truth, I would've stopped taking it a year and a half ago if I didn't feel like I was letting Doc down. I hate to think how bad he'd feel. Probably blame himself. But that doesn't mean I'm not serious about it. I've known for a while I won't live to see the new century. Just turns out I won't live to see 1998. What's the big deal?
"Don't joke about that, Murray," Doc says. "We've talked about this, remember? If you don't take your pill, fluid will build up in your lungs in a hurry. You'll suffocate in a matter of hours. Does that sound like what you want?"
I try to give him the answer he wants. Really, I do. But nothing comes out except a grunt and maybe a bit of gas down below. "What about work?" he says. "Has Brandon been calling? Have you had any shoots recently?"
"A fair few," I say. "A lightbulb company a few weeks back. Couple different advertisements for oatmeal. One other, too, but I can't think of it. Oh yeah, shampoo. Can you believe they wanted me for a shampoo ad?"
Doc straightens his tie and stifles a smile. Way I see it, doctors still ought to wear white coats. It's only proper. He eyes what's left of the wisps at the side of my skull. "What did they need you for?"
"Just wanted me to stare at some young lad with thick, black hair. Took about a thousand photographs of me sitting there looking at the fella — told me to act more 'longing.' As if I could look longing at a man's hair! Then they gave me two-hundred bucks and told me I was free to go. If you were looking to convince me not to take my pill, that there was almost a clincher."
Doc puts his hands up in surrender. "All right, Murray. No more shampoo ads. But listen. We've got to get you some socialization. Physically, you're doing miraculously well, but ..." He looks at me in that way so many people look at me these days. With pity.
"But what, Doc?" I say, daring him.
"How long's it been now? Eighteen months?"
I try to keep my eyes down, but they glance up over my bifocals at the bulletin board Doc has covered with Christmas cards and baby pictures and people's grandchildren. It's a shrine, that's what. Patients sharing their lives with Doc Keaton. Pinned right to the top is a picture of yours-truly planting a kiss on the cheek of the most beautiful woman who ever lived. The two of us are right below the headline Local Couple Married 80 Years. I swallow hard and blame it on the dry Bran Flakes. "Eighteen months next Tuesday."
"I'm sure Jenny would have wanted you to be happy. To have friends. Have you met a single new person since she passed?"
I pick at the corner of my nose, because I'm old and no one cares if I do stuff like that these days. "There's a checkout clerk at the grocery," I say, studying the fleck on my finger. "She always smiles at me, even when I stare at the ring in her nostril, or when I'm counting out change and there's a line behind me. Why doesn't anyone use money anymore?"
Doc Keaton ignores my question. And my answer, for that matter. "There are organizations for retirees, you know? Or maybe you could join that group that meets at McDonalds for coffee every morning. You get up early enough to get there by seven, don't you, Murray?"
Seven? What I wouldn't give to sleep until seven. I don't know how to answer in a way that isn't insulting to my own kind, so I just tell the truth. "Everyone there is too damn old."
I'm not sure what's so funny about that, but Doc has a good, long laugh. "And you want to be surrounded by youth," he says. "People who are the same age as you in spirit, if not body. Am I understanding that correctly?"
"My spirit's not so young these days," I say. Youth, I realize, was ... my old brain's not quite as quick as it used to be. Invigorating. That's the word. Youth was invigorating.
Doc reaches under his desk and brings out a cupcake with a single candle. He lights it with steadier hands than I've got these days. "One candle," he says. "For my favorite one-hundred-year-old."
It's a nice gesture. He didn't have to do that for me. I could be just another fifteen minute check-up before he moves on to the next old bag. But I'm not. I actually mean something to him. Still, I can't muster the energy to paste on a smile.
I inhale all the air I can force into my lungs, and let it out all at once. It's still not enough to blow out the candle, but fortunately a bit of spit flies out of my mouth and lands right on the flame. "Youth was a long time ago," I say over the sizzle.
My words drift out the window and dissolve into the humid summer air. Clean air, too, since Lemon Grove is a good twenty-five miles from Chicago.
"Well, I have a message for you," Doc finally says. "From Brandon. He says you haven't returned a single call since the shampoo shoot and that it's not polite to ignore your agent. Not to mention it makes me look bad since I'm the one who set you two up." Doc looks at me like I'm a kid about to be sent to the corner. "Although I don't intend to become your secretary, he also says he has something else for you. A Community Education art class. Could be what you need, Murray. It's today, later on this afternoon."
He hands me a piece of paper with a building name and room number on it, which I take and stuff into my front shirt pocket. "I'll think about it."
That makes Doc scowl a little bit. He leans forward, elbows on knees. "All right, let me give it to you straight, Murray. If something doesn't change — and I mean soon — you're going to die a pathetic old man. Sad and alone."
I'll say this for Doc, he doesn't sugar coat. I'd have preferred he said something like "You've had a good, long life," instead of "pathetic, sad, and alone." Those words don't sit so well. Actually makes me want to do something about it — I've always been a problem solver. But this problem is a doozy:
How can a man as old and washed-up as me possibly find a reason to live?CHAPTER 2
I think about whether I should go to Doc Keaton's art class later in the evening. I really do consider it. But the thought just makes me tired. And I realize all over again I'm just a broken down sack of bones. Pathetic, sad, and alone. That's the only thing Doc Keaton got right about me.
So I've made a decision. I'm not waiting around until the twenty-second. If this world's got no use for me anymore then I've got no use for it. Don't know why I've held on this long, anyhow. When Jenny passed, I thought about not taking my pill the very next day. Between her and Doc Keaton, well, I couldn't do it. But Doc would get over it and Jenny's long gone now. Only thing I want is to see her again, and that's not going to happen as long as I stick around this joint.
So I've decided to die. Only problem is, not taking my pill doesn't work the same as using a gun or a rope, and I can't use either of those because suicide's a sin. So I still have to stick around until tomorrow, waiting for my body to do the deed. In the meantime, I figure I should do what Doc said, just so I can have a clean conscience about it all. So instead of going back home with most of the day still to get through, I stand outside the clinic and consider what to do with my last hours on earth.
Sure, I could sleep them away and then go to the art class. But I can't help thinking about Doc's whole youth thing again, and it gets me brainstorming ideas. I could volunteer at a place where kids are looking for parents — orphanages, they used to call them. But with just one day left, I'm not going to be anyone's father. Didn't do a very good job of that the first time around, anyhow. I could visit a playground, that'd be nice and temporary. But the phrase "Dirty Old Man" didn't come from nowhere. I could do without the stares from overprotective parents.
Maybe a hospital — the children's hospital. It'll be full of kids with loving parents, so it won't matter when I don't show up tomorrow. And since the kids are all sick, it would stand to reason the parents could use a little support. They just might welcome some help while they sneak a quick nap. I always did enjoy reading, back when my eyesight was better. I never read to my boys, I'm sad to say, but every now and again to my grandkids. Big picture books with beautiful illustrations and funny stories. I especially liked when they got old enough to listen to "The Secret Garden" or "Sherlock Holmes." Books in English, with no newfangled words or kid's phrases.
Course, I won't actually go into a hospital room. That's something I'll never do again, and wouldn't even if I was going to live another hundred years. But hospitals have nice gathering spaces now. Real roomy, some of them, with books on shelves and pictures on the walls. I remember that from Jenny's time before she passed on.
So I hop on a city bus and take it toward the hospital. Well, "hop" probably isn't very accurate. I don't know why they make those steps so big. Who do they think is taking the bus, Long John Gee? I lean on the railing and it takes all my breath to get to the top. I wipe my brow so no one sees the drop of sweat and plop down on the first seat I see.
There are two teenage girls nearby. Talking so loud I can hardly hear myself think. Using profanity, too, which never would have happened in my day. I consider giving them a piece of my mind, but then I think better of it. It's my last day on earth. What do I care if the damn world goes to hell in a hand-basket?
I try to ignore the girls, and the stabbing pain in my knee every time the bus hits a pothole. You'd think with all the taxes I've paid I could get a decent ride across town. But here I am, dealing with shooting pain because the city council can't get its act together. Some representatives we have.
When I finally get to the hospital I go straight through the front doors and rest my forearms against the information desk, doing my best to look casual, not spent.
"Heart ward," I say to the young woman behind the desk. Maybe she's not young, but she's a good generation younger than me.
"The cardiac floor is on level six," she says, and she gives me a look like I should know it's not called a heart ward anymore.
I do. I just don't care.
I take the elevator to the heart ward and step into a room with paintings of mountains on the walls and a bookshelf chock-full of books, just like I pictured. I don't really have a plan, but near the back there's a little boy, looks maybe six years-old, playing a video game on the biggest television set I've ever seen. Must be a good two feet wide, that thing.
The kid's plopped on a beanbag of some sort, his legs splayed wide like he's been there a good long time. And as I approach I see he's not playing the video game, he's just staring at the screen. His eyes are half-open — his mouth is, too, with a bit of drool on his chin. And he's holding an oxygen mask inches from his lips, like he fell asleep between breaths. I think about letting him sleep, but it's my last day. I don't have the luxury of time.
"What are you playing there?" I ask.
He jumps awake and slurps the drool from the side of his lip. He cranes his neck and looks at me through big brown eyes. The eyes are normal, but the rest of him looks ... can't rightly think of the word. Deflated maybe. Like he's a tire that's run out of air. His skin looks almost blue until he sucks another breath from his mask, then it seems to whiten a bit, although it could just be my cataracts. Something in his cheeks makes him seem older than I first thought, but even plopped on his bean bag I can tell he's tiny.
"Shweetness!" he says. His body might look my age — swollen-looking legs and bags under his eyes — but his voice is surprisingly spry. From the beige carpet, he grabs a plastic controller of some sort and tosses it to me. It bounces off my chest and clatters to the floor before I move a muscle. There was a day when I'd have snatched it out of mid-air, but that was a good long while ago now. The boy looks from the controller back up to me. "Dude, come on. Playing alone sucks. I need someone to distract the aliens."
"The name's not 'Dude,'" I say. "It's Mr. Murray McBride." He tilts his head and the light shines through a space in the shirt of his hospital gown. It catches a scar on his chest which tells me two things: one, this kid's pretty familiar with the heart ward, and two, his body hasn't cooperated right from the first pitch. I shuffle my weight left and right until I'm low enough to sit in the bean bag next to him, then take the controller from the floor. Don't know how I'll get up, but I suppose I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. "This a game?"
He snorts like it's a funny question. That's me. A regular comedian.
"All-Powerful Gods and Bloodsucking Aliens," he says. "Last year's version."
It's not much of an answer, least not one I can put into any context I'm familiar with. But this here's a skill I've developed over the past many years — if I don't understand something I just grunt a little and things tend to move along just fine. At first that made me feel like my hanging around this life didn't matter. No one would even notice if I was gone.
Well, still makes me feel that way a bit, I suppose.
I take the controller and try to make heads or tails of all the nobs and buttons. No dice. There's motion on the television, but I just watch.
"Come on," the boy says under his breath. He's more energetic than I thought he'd be at first sight. Course, his energy couldn't have gone much lower than asleep and drooling in a bean bag.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Five Wishes of Mr. Murray McBride"
Copyright © 2018 Joe Siple.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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