The sun was slowly setting behind the towering skyscrapers that touched the clouds high up in the sky, and the air had become cool, the way it does when the humidity disappears into the night. The small park was populated with birds that sang songs only they knew the words to, squirrels on a mission to find food for themselves and their family, and a diverse group of people, some meandering among the trees, some feeding the ducks in the small pond, and some sitting alone on benches. A game of chess was being played quietly between two strangers. As the light faded into dusk, a boy maybe five or six years old wandered into the park, carefully carrying an old camera. He had been to the park many times and lived only a block away so his mother had let him make the adventure by himself today.
Running up to a tree, he excitedly said, “Charles, look at this tree! The leaves are as big as my hand!” He held up the camera and took a picture of the tree, the flash illuminating the leaves. Charles was his imaginary friend, the product of loneliness. Growing up in an empty house without siblings wasn’t always fun.
The boy had found the camera in an old dusty box in the attic. He knew that it was a box full of Grandpa’s things because he had seen his mother pack up the box with tears in her eyes, her usually bubbly chatter absent. This is why the boy made Charles pinky promise not to tell his mother about the camera.
The boy continued to explore what, to him, seemed like a very large park. He had wanted to explore before the ducks went to sleep for the night, but his mother made him help with the dirty dishes after dinner. Not wanting to bother the sleeping ducks, he instead took a handful of photographs of the giant trees. As he got bored of taking the same picture of the same trees, he turned to look around and saw an old man sitting on a bench alone.
The man’s grey eyes, filled with knowledge and pain, hid behind thin wire framed glasses. His skin was folded and bunched into wrinkles that lined his face and hands. His hair, which had been strawberry blond when he was young, was now as white as a fresh snowfall. A few scars were hidden among his wrinkled skin, souvenirs from the harder times in his life. Some were external, like when he had a liver transplant and when he was shot in the side, a bullet lodged in his lungs. The doctors had asked him if he wanted to keep the bullet but the man could hardly look at the metal object that had caused this much pain. Other scars were internal, tormenting his brain with constant images of the things he had seen, though he gave no outside proof that, in his mind, the war was still raging on.
The little boy realized that his grandfather had had white hair and glasses, just like this lonely man. He even sat how his grandfather had at family dinners, his back straight as a rod, as if he just couldn’t relax and get comfortable.
Hesitantly, he walked up to the man. “Excuse me sir?” His mother had taught him how important manners are. “May I take your picture? You just look a lot like my grandpa and this is his camera so I thought…”
The old man, surprised to have company as people normally steered clear of him, nodded. “Of course.”
He sat up as straight as he had stood for roll call in the war, and looked straight into the camera. The boy fumbled for the flash, and then snapped the shot.
“Thank you sir.”
The boy turned away, whispering to Charles who had just made a comment about how it was getting dark and he should get home soon or his mother would start to worry.
“Hey, who are you talking to?” The old man called out gruffly. He was used to teenagers walking past whispering to themselves about him. He was aware of how old he looked and how outdated and poor his clothing looked, but he could still hear just as he used to. The war never injured his hearing.
The boy, not picking up on the harsh tone of the man, simply said, “Oh just my friend Charles. He follows me everywhere.”
Having had children long ago, the man knew what this meant, that Charles was a figure of this boy’s lonely, creative mind. Hearing the name Charles transformed him, opening him up like a book that had long been overlooked on the shelves collecting dust.
“I once had a friend long ago named Charles.”
“Are you guys still friends?” the little boy asked curiously, slowly walking back towards the man.
He shook his head, and looked down at the ground beneath his worn brown loafers. Quietly, he replied, “He passed away.”
The boy, as young as he was, understood what that meant. The man’s friend was gone forever. “What happened?” he asked as he sat down next to the man.
The man felt as though he had gone back in time, when he had to explain to his little boy what happened when daddy was away for so long. He tried to keep it in simple terms. “Do you know anything about World War Two?”
The boy shook his head, “Nope, but the big kids at middle school learn about it so it must be a pretty bad thing.”
The old man nodded, a sad smile on his lips. “It was a pretty bad thing, as you say. Everyone was mad at everyone else and the only way to fix it was a war. My friend Charles marched next to me every day until one day when we were ambushed.”
“Ambushed?” The little boy asked, unsure of the word. He had never heard it before. The only thing he had learned in school so far was the alphabet and how to add numbers, which was slightly difficult for him.
The man nodded, recognizing the confused look on the child’s face. “Yes, it means we were attacked by surprise. Anyways, he got hit trying to protect some of the young men with us. They couldn’t save him.” His voice got caught in a rise of sudden emotion, and the man stopped talking.
The boy, in his childlike innocence, wrapped his small arms around the old man. He knew that when he was upset, his mother would hug him until he felt better, so maybe it would work on this man.
“Oh sir, I am so sorry! Maybe we can share my friend Charles. He is very nice!”
The old man grinned as a tear rolled down his cheek. Of all the days he had struggled to get out of bed and make the short journey to the park, passing the cat on the stoop who loved to be pet and waiting for the light to turn green to signal it was safe to cross, this was by far the best day.