Summer was coming to an end, and the dog days of sprinklers, barbecues, and sunburns were already waning. Seafoam Park carried rolling hills, with plenty of open lawns and shade trees. Kids played football and soccer on the open fields, while young couples shared romantic picnics in the meadow. Sam brought himself to a more remote corner of the park; under the live oaks he found a bench that was well hidden.
Cracked lips touched the glass. Warmth met his throat as cold wine infused his palette, a red wine he couldn’t pronounce properly. It was Sam’s birthday, and he saved for a good while for something nice on this day. He was wearing a well-worn gray suit, a yellow shirt (his father’s favorite color), and a black tie (his mother’s favorite color). The wine tasted sharp, almost bitter, but it took the edge off of everything. Sitting back on the bench, he took the green in and for the moment enjoyed himself.
“A fine day, wouldn’t you agree?”
An older man began to speak from behind Sam, catching him off guard. He walked with a cane, sporting a casual suit and thinning hair.
“Oh, I uh, suppose so.”
“I’m sorry if I disturbed you. I see you enjoying a fine Sangiovese. A fine choice, but I have a feeling that you chose it randomly. How much do you know about wine?”
“You might see about five major varieties of wines – reds, whites, sparkling, rosé, and desert. But there are thousands of grape varieties, each with their own specific characteristics. Every corner of the world has its own variety of wine, and each will evoke a different emotion in you. What do you feel right now?”
“Hey man, I just wanted to spend this time alone. I’m sorry but-“
“You’re homeless, and you’re a drunk. Drunks don’t spend money on expensive alcohol, so today means something to you. This is your idea of celebrating, so let me ask you this again: what do you feel right now?”
“I want to be happy again.”
The older gentleman grabbed his cane and sat next to Sam.
“I can help you to be happy again – you are not alone. I am a doctor of sorts, and can pull you through this slump you call life. Come with me, and I’ll show you a place that will change you.
Keaton Place was a multi-story complex covered in red brick walls and English ivy. Through the front doors, visitors and guests were greeted by the Lady, a marble statue of a beautiful woman, forever indulging in the scent of a flower. Sam and the older man walked through the door and stopped to meet the stone figure.
“This is the Lady, she greets everyone who walks through these doors, and blesses those with pure intentions. She is our benefactor, and gives us the power to achieve what we do. The Lady is our symbol of hope and our pillar of strength. Her beauty inspires the fire in our hearts, and it is that fire that fuels everything we do.”
Dr. Methusda led Sam through the facility, discussing the history of the building and the different rooms. It was an old hospital that was renovated and outfitted for the current sanctuary. Dark red tapestries lined the halls, with sconces providing secondary lighting to the large windows that opened above a jungle of exotic orchids and flowering vines. A young lady was relaxed in the garden, surrounded by small shrubs carrying strange purple and yellow flowers. She glanced at him as she infused her face with a pink rose.
Ministers walked by dressed formally, holding leather-bound books and discussing matters Sam couldn’t make out, but it was calming in a weird way. He felt safe for once, that he could let his guard down; most importantly, he was actually greeted by the people that walked by, and being acknowledged by other human beings hooked him. Sam’s eyes widened at every new revelation, at all the possibilities he was never offered in his life. As they returned to the front corridor, he gazed at the statue that greeted him earlier, and was mesmerized.
“So, how do you feel?”
“This is a lot to take in. But, I have one question.”
Dr. Methusda nodded.
“Why me? There’s a catch, and I ain’t gonna like it.”
“Sam, we want to help you earnestly. You have a heart, and it’s a crime to let it rot away at the bottom of a liquor bottle. Our job is to raise you up and stand you on your feet. You’ll be the man you always dreamed to be.”
“Still haven’t answered the question.” Sam spoke with a bite in his words.
“Let us do our work in changing your life, and at the end, you have the option of leaving or joining our cause to help others such as yourself. We ask that you essentially donate your soul to the goodwill of man, to lift up the weak and downtrodden. Lastly, what do you have to lose?”
The first month is always the most difficult. A zero alcohol policy was difficult on those who did not remember how to live without it. Addiction is more than just quitting; Sam had to learn how to replace what was missing. To that end, he found absolution in the gardens; he turned obsessions of pain killing into lessons of self-control. He discovered the act of creation in growing Iris Pseudacorus, otherwise known as Yellow Flag. From the seed to bloom, he had to learn the intricacies in nurturing a living organism – between watering too much and watering too little, Sam also saw this same balance in his own upkeep.
Sam met with the girl of the flowers on several occasions – she was gorgeous in person and she carried herself with a sophistication Sam had yearned for in a mate. Although, he never quite made it close to her; the girl of flowers kept herself locked away and built a wall that no wit or charm could break. Once, Sam had brought her a bouquet of beautiful assorted roses from the gardens, and upon receipt, the girl had taken each individual stem and placed them back among their kinds. She was very strange, and eventually he had to acknowledge this and accept it. He was here to change himself, and not others.
Sam underwent physical training and saw himself progressively becoming younger. The skin that once held loose to his body became more taught, and energy possessed him that he had not seen in many years. His hair was kept short, with short stubble kept for charm; the biggest change for him was the easily accessible personal hygiene. So many countless days had a shower not even passed his mind, and now he could feel as clean as the soul Dr. Methusda was grooming.
“Isn’t it funny how we consider sagging skin and wrinkles a negative sign of age? Every laugh and every smile adds to our age. We wear ourselves down in happiness, and turn around and call it a bad thing. There are people who spend so much money on looking youthful, and in old age, a taught face is an unused face, a waste of life. If you spent your life without a reason to gain wrinkles on your face, I believe it is a life wasted and being wasted.”
“I think I wasted a good deal.”
“Don’t tear yourself down at any point. Don’t forget you are now in control – what is important now is how you choose to spend what time is remaining.”
Behind Keaton Place was a large open field, abloom with wild flowers in the spring. Sam found himself barreling through the knee-high growth, careless and free. The days that he regretted waking up were behind him and the sun warmed his heart once more. Golden rays of sunlight at dusk made his skin glow, bringing a smile to his lips and slowed his speed to a halt. Today, he was a free man – nothing would stop him from determining his future anymore.
“I’m glad you could join us, Sam.”
Sam attended the evening at Dr. Methusda’s request, wearing the required formal dress of a black suit, black tie, and blood red shirt. He shook hands with Dr. Methusda, and greeted the two women who joined them that evening. One woman he had never seen before, and the other was the girl of the flowers – they all sat at a candlelit dining table in a dark room that he had also never visited.
“Sam, I am very excited to see where your progress has led you. In such a short time, you have conquered yourself and set yourself up for future success. In some areas, only time will smooth the rough edges, but I believe you are ready to be let free. A toast, to love and happiness.”
They met their glasses of red wine; glasses of Sangiovese filled their hands and met their lips. The mystery woman spoke next, as if the night were rehearsed.
“Tonight is very special, for we have the honors of being in the presence of one who has the strength to conquer all odds. Sam, I know you. Tonight, you may make the decision to leave us, and spend your time doing as you please, but you should also remember that there is another option. I trust you will make the correct decision – my life is in your hands, and I offer you my blessing to fight for what is right.”
The Lady gathered herself, and walked from the table into the darkness of the room. Sam looked to Dr. Methusda for the next cue.
“Make your decision now, Sam. You cannot change your mind, but also remember that you still have nothing to lose.”
Sam got up from the table and met an already standing Dr. Methusda, who proceeded to tuck a maroon-colored handkerchief into Sam’s jacket pocket, and shook his hand.
“I knew you would make the right decision. Tonight, you will begin a path that will shape the rest of your life, and the first step is to take care of our guest, the girl you had become acquainted with in the gardens. She is a Daughter of the Lady, an enemy of peace and a travesty to us all. Tonight, you will take care of her in the only fitting way.”
Dr. Methusda placed a strange gun in Sam’s hand – a hand-crafted, golden double-barreled 1911 pistol. A fire was building in his hand.
“Paradise comes at a price, Sam.”