A streak of red flashed in corner of Oscar’s eye. The wrinkled, withered man’s focus was on the TV until something caught his eye. He was so used to different shades of whites, greens, and pinks passing his doorway that the bright crimson color demanded his attention. He turned in time to see an elegant, lithe woman in a red dress with gold polka dots walking by. Oscar gasped in surprise. As much as a nearly hundred-year-old man could; he weakly inhaled with a ragged breath.
“Follow the woman in the red dress with the gold polka dots,” the mysterious voice echoed in his memory again. The first and only time he heard it was when he was eight years old. No matter how often he tried to talk himself out of it, something in him was convinced the voice was real. Almost every day for 90 years he considered the words but never found the woman. Now he was bedridden in the hospital expecting to die any day; he couldn’t walk. And, she just walked by.
“Hey!” He tried shouting, but his lungs couldn’t push out enough air to get a decent volume. Thinking quickly, he frantically pressed the call nurse button. Oscar felt lucky when a nurse showed up at his door suddenly, as if she was just passing by.
“Everything okay?” She asked as she stepped into his room. Oscar pointed out the door.
“I need to talk to the woman in the red dress!” he said as loud and clear as he could manage. She gave him a confused look, but Oscar continued pointing out the door. “Please!” She nodded then stepped out in the hall and turned the direction Oscar pointed.
He was surprised when the nurse returned with the woman in the red dress. He half expected her to have disappeared by the time he got the nurse’s attention.
“Here she is, Mr. Woods,” the nurse said with a smile. “Was that all you needed?” The old man nodded.
“Thank you, Nurse,” Oscar turned his attention to the woman as the nurse left. She did not seem put-off. She smiled at Oscar with warm, friendly eyes but she did not say anything.
“90 years ago… a voice told me to follow you,” Oscar said. At 98 he knew any of his words could be his last; he wanted to get right to the point.
“OH SHIT!” the woman cursed as if she’d left the oven on. She immediately rushed to Oscar’s bedside and sat down. “I’m sorry!” She reached for his hand and squeezed it gently. “Its too easy to lose track of time,” she said with an apologetic tone. “I didn’t mean to make you wait this long.” Oscar felt strength returning to his body; it seemed to be coming from her.
“Wait this long for what?” Oscar asked. “What’s going on? Who was that voice that told me to follow you?” The dim hospital room seemed to grow brighter; everything looked sharper. Oscar could now see individual strands of her short black hair. He spotted a small green leaf tucked in her hair. “How did you lose track of 90 years?” he asked.
“By not getting caught up in the details,” she replied. “90 years is nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“Nothing?” Oscar asked. “Look at me! I’m old and wrinkled and I’ve completely missed out on whatever I was destined for after I followed you.” He did not expect to be so angry. Having her show up on his death bed was worse than her not showing up at all and it was a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that she was real somehow highlighted how much he wasted his life hoping she was.
“I don’t appreciate being yelled at,” the woman said. She pushed at Oscar with sudden, unexpected strength and he spilled out of his hospital bed onto the floor.
“WHAT THE HELL!” Oscar yelled as he stood up from the floor. He angrily marched around the bed to yell in her face; but, he stopped before any more of his anger spilled out. He stood in place and shifted his weight from leg to leg, almost dancing. He looked at his hands and fidgeted his fingers; then he turned them over to look at the back. All the wrinkles were gone; his hands had the same taut, supple skin of his early 20s. “What the hell?” he asked her, but instead of waiting for an answer he rushed into the bathroom. “OH MY GOD!” Oscar screamed from inside the bathroom then dashed out again. “What are you?” young Oscar asked. His wrinkles were gone, the steel-grey horseshoe around his bald his was filled in completely with thick dark hair.
The woman smiled and walked toward him; she reached up to her hair and pulled the small green leaf out of her hair. Once she was in front of him, Oscar caught a whiff of fresh peppermint from the green sprig.
“I’m a recruiter,” she said while she affixed the peppermint to his hospital gown. “I’m a bit late, but you’ve been recruited,”
“For what?” Oscar asked. The woman finished pinning the peppermint to him and stepped away. Oscar immediately felt a warm, friendly sensation in his mind. His mind began to fill with thoughts, though none of them seemed to be his own. He felt as if he were sitting alone in a library his whole life, but now his friends finally showed up. Bits of conversation murmured in his mind while he tried to get a grip on the sensation. Then, the voice from his childhood spoke again.
“Ah, there you are,” the voice said. All the other conversations in Oscar’s mind died down. “Welcome to Peppermint’s Forest,” the voice sounded in Oscar’s mind; louder and clearer than his own mental voice. “You must be happy to join us,” Oscar felt warmth and pride swell in his chest. He wasn’t entirely sure if it was the voice or his own thought, but it didn’t matter. Oscar felt happy to join them.