He walked among the market stalls, pretending to ignore the whispering and giggling women. His relaxed demeanor, handsome features, and ready smile meant no female in the town missed his weekly sermons and the church’s coffers were overflowing of late.

Feeling a touch on his sleeve, he turned and his smile disappeared. Looking first left and right, he angrily spat, “I told you to never speak to me again!”

She blinked, her long lashes brushing her cheeks, and said, “But, I need to talk to you.” Leaning closer, she paused, and lowered her voice. “You see, I’m…”

(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)

He walked among the market stalls, pretending to ignore the whispering women. They were drawn to his handsome features, his sad smile. They filled his church coffers, even as his words rang hollow.

Feeling a touch on his sleeve, he turned, a furrow creasing his brows. Looking first left and then right, he angrily spat, “I told you to not speak to me again!”

She blinked slowly, her thin, wrinkled eyelids closing over the top of faded blue eyes. Her lashes, once long and dark, were short and gray as they brushed her cheek. She brought her knotted, arthritic fist to her pale lips and coughed gently. Her old bones rattled.

“Please,” she said, leaning in closer and lowering her voice. “You see, I’ve…”

“I know who you are and you can’t help me,” he stated briskly.

“But I’ve lost someone, too.”

He winced as though he’d been struck. He didn’t like thinking about his wife. He wanted to. He wanted to every day, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t look at other women. He couldn’t stand to hear the way they laughed, or to watch the way they put on their lipstick, or tuck their hair behind their ears, or apologize bashfully after sneezing too loud. He didn’t like that they wanted him to move on so that they could move in, move in to the bed where his wife slept, to hang their clothes on her hangers, to tread barefoot on the carpet where she curled her toes late at night during scary movies. He inhaled deeply and then exhaled in a rush, his eyes burning at the thought of her.

“Can I just show you something?”

He swiped at his eyes and stiffened his lips.

“Come, just a moment,” she said, painfully straightening her stiff, bony fingers just enough to guide them along the hem of his shirt and onto his cold elbow. She led him away from his cart, up the aisle, past where the women coyly batted their thick lashes, and over to a lonely claw machine filled with plump, stuffed creatures. There they stopped. The pastor waited.

“Do you know who I am?”

“I know you’ve lived here your whole life. You’re a pillar of the communó”

“That’s horse crap,” she coughed again, “A pillar is just someone who’s not dead yet. Yes, I am a pillar, but do you know why I still live here? Do you know why I come here every day?”

“No,” he said, staring at a small bear in the corner of the machine. He bit back tears again. He scolded himself for getting lost in his head, for thinking about her, for thinking about the things she had wanted out of life, the baby she had wanted so badly. He balled up a fist and pounded the side of his leg, punishing himself for her loss. The old woman smoothed her fingers over his tight, strained muscles. She could feel his anger.

“I still live here,” she began, “because my son died fifty three years ago. He was so little but he was my world. He was everything to me.” Her wrinkled lips turned up in the corners as her eyes welled with tears. “He went off with these two older boys and I never saw him again.” She took a deep breath, before continuing. “But whenever I took him grocery shopping, here, I always told him ëif you get separated from me, you meet me by the big claw machine’. That’s what I told him. And that’s what he doesó”

“This is ridiculous!” he hissed, pulling away from her caress, but not away from her.

“I come here,” she said, reaching out again and tentatively setting her hand back on his shoulder, “and I get a shopping cart, which isn’t easy,” she chuckled, “with these hands because the carts are always stuck together. And I wait by this machine so that he can climb into the seat like he always did when he was still with me. And then,” she smiled, “when I feel the warmth of him lying his head against my jacket and his little fingers on my hands, then I ride him around the store, talking to him, sometimes for hours. And afterwards, I buy a loaf of bread or a carton of eggs so they don’t think I’m crazy.”

“They think you’re crazy,” he sighed wearily, “I think you’re crazy.”

“That’s okay,” she reassured him.

The pastor stared at the machine silently and then his eyes travelled down to the metal cart in front of her. He watched her knobby fingers move slowly and tenderly about the handle.

“Is he here now?”

She looked down at the front of her jacket where she could feel little fingertips playing with her buttons. She smiled and dusted a tear from her lower eyelid.

“How do I,” he started, but couldn’t finish.

“How do you find her?”

He nodded, his voice trembling, his eyes glistening over.

“She’s right here,” the old woman whispered. “She watches over my son.”

The pastor sobbed and quickly cupped a hand over his mouth. He felt a familiar presence, a warmth, move alongside of him and into the palm of his hand, interlocking his fingers.