After You’ve Gone

The nurse drew the curtains closed. It was almost night.

“Oh, and you have some mail, Ms. Peggy,” the nurse said to her patient. 

The old, fragile-looking Ms. Peggy straightened with hope. But a few bills were laid on her bedside table.

“Goodnight. And Merry Christmas.” And the nurse left the room.

The elderly woman turned toward the window, where her wrinkled face and listless eyes reflected back at her.

“Happy birthday, Peggy Darling,” she whispered.

Of course, it was complete nonsense that she had to be born on December 24th. It merely served as a double reminder that there was no one to care that she was a year closer to her grave or that she spent another Christmas trapped in this prison of a nursing home.

Maybe it was her own fault. Maybe? Of course, it was. It was her fault she was a lonely, crabby, rich old hag. That’s what she called herself. Because she knew, she just knew, that others had long thought of her as such. 

What would happen to her money when she died? It would go to her creditors, she supposed. To her retired partner at the firm. And maybe some distant, very distant relative would squabble with her lawyer for it. What would she do with herself until then? What would become of her old, bitter soul after death? She wasn’t quite ready to die. But she didn’t want to be alive either, to exist in this deathtrap with three meals a day, a TV, and her daily, pointless promenades around the grounds.

She looked at the mail and lazily pushed around the envelopes. Lawyer, funeral expenses, and… What’s this? A hand written address. She knew that writing! Didn’t she? Maybe it was a scam for money. But a strange nostalgia made her pick it up. Her name and address were in a bold, scratchy hand. She knew that hand! And the address, well, that wrenched at something inside her. The address was the home of her childhood. She flipped the envelope, looking for a return address. Nothing. 

Then she felt silly, that the little thing had so gripped and enchanted her. She took a breath, relaxed her shoulders, and casually tore open the envelope.

She pulled out an old, yellowed paper. It read:

Hey Peg – Happy birthday, kid. Me and the boys pulled together a little something for you at Pop’s old barn. Six o’clock sharp. I want you to meet someone. He’s swell and likes to dance, so come prepared. All my love – Jimmy.

Peggy tore her gaze from the little note.

Memories of her brother flashed through her mind: His smile, how proudly he wore his new uniform, the news of his death during the war. January, 1942.

This note was an old one. She remembered it.

The party her brother had written about, back in Christmas of ‘41, was an event she’d failed to attend, due to a big interview with the newspaper company she was then bewitched by. To this day, that party remained one of her heaviest regrets in life. Unbeknownst to her, the day of her interview was Jimmy’s last day at home. He sailed the following morning. Goodbyes were never said, and she had never seen her brother again.

Peggy didn’t want this memory replaying in her mind. She folded the note and stuffed it back into the envelope. How could this painful little note resurface in her mail, after all these years? She didn’t remember packing it amongst her things when moving from place to place.

The envelope – it was stamped with a recent date, this month, this very year! That didn’t make sense. Why, how could someone send her this note, her brother’s note, on her birthday? And who would do such a thing? Who could possibly? No, it was some sick joke! It made no sense. It was – 

Her attention was stolen away, by a sound. A distant, lovely, haunting sound. Music. Familiar music. Who would be playing music so loud at this hour in the night? She looked at her clock. “6:00” it read. Six o’clock? No, the clock was wrong. 

That distant music. It stirred something in her. Peggy raised her head, straining to catch the sound. A piano, a gentle jazz band blended together in song, but with the crackle of an old recording, with the notes of… What was the song? Oh yes, “After You’ve Gone”. 

She listened, and the melody seemed to speak to her, only to her.

She rose from the bed. Her stockinged feet touched the floor. Her heavy-laden body leaned on her walker. And she followed. She followed that ghostly sound. Down the corridor, round the corner, and to the dark end of an empty hall.

Leaves fluttered along the floor and around her stockinged feet. The music was here, behind that door, at the end of the hall. Dare she open it? She had to. She must. Even if she merely found a CD playing idly to an empty room. She must know what strange activity so drew her very soul from her. She pushed open the door.

A flash of light, a blast of cold air, she stumbled through the door, and suddenly before her – 

A flock of people moved to greet her. A room, warm and buzzing with activity. And Peggy suddenly felt more alive and more awake than ever before.

The crowd accosted her with, “There’s the birthday girl!” and “Where’s the birthday boy?” while they closed in on her, making Peggy retreat in panic.

She recognized these faces! Young men and women she knew somehow.

But even more startling: she looked down at herself, at a yellow, silk dress! Her hand, slender and softer than silk! Her foot, a minute ago in thick socks, were small and pretty in a pair of heels.

Her head spun. She nearly fell over.


She looked around at the crowd.

“The party can’t start till Georgie’s here!” 

And another shouted, “George the Gentleman! Fashionably late, as usual!”

“Now you just go find him, Peggy! Don’t come back without him, ya hear? We won’t let ya.” 

Then Peggy was pushed, or yanked, back through the door. Her foot passed over the threshold. And old Peggy tripped over her walker, her knees buckled, and she tumbled to the cold floor. The old woman coiled in pain and propped herself up on her elbow. 

The pale hall of the nursing home was quiet and hollow around her.

Peggy examined her old, weathered arms, her stockinged feet, then she looked up at the door. Had she really? Could it be? She must have dreamt it! Well, if she had, she must dream that dream again.

She grabbed her walker and got on her knees, although they screamed in pain. Then she pulled herself up and commanded her legs to stand under her. Once again, but now with faster heartbeat, she pushed the door open, to behold – 

The room, warm and buzzing with activity. A flock of young people, dancing, laughing.

Peggy moved forward, and her stockinged feet stepped into high heels. Her young, slender hands smoothed the yellow silk dress. And her lungs filled with a fresh and exciting vitality.

“There she is!”

The crowd closed in on her. The music, no longer crackly and distant, came from a jolly live band. The room was festive and beautifully old-fashioned. The barn door was ajar with crisp, cold air and leaves floated in.

“There’s the birthday girl!”

“Where’s the birthday boy?”

“Party can’t start till Georgie’s here!”

And another shouted, “George the Gentleman! Fashionably late, as usual!”

“Now you just go find him, Peggy! Don’t come back without him, ya hear? We won’t let ya.” 

And though she didn’t know how, she was pulled or pushed, back through the door.

She was back in the empty hall. She was old, and weary. And determined to get back into… whatever it was.

Behind the secretary’s deserted desk, old Peggy flipped through papers and tore through registers. Her finger traced down and down a list. Finding a certain entry, she stopped.

Room 23. She entered and shuffled with her walker to the bed, where an old man lay sleeping. She couldn’t see his face enough to guess anything about him. Was this he? They said she couldn’t go back without him. Was this crazy? Yes, it really was. Should she go back to her room? Certainly not. To sleep and waste away? All the time wondering about the dream at the end of hall?



She shook the old man’s arm. “George!”

His eyes opened, and he rubbed his face.

“Are you George?” she said.

He clicked on his light, squinting and huffing and puffing.

“What’s on your mind, young lady?”

Peggy first wanted to know, “Is today your birthday?”

He chuckled with a gurgle in his throat and had to cough before he could say, “Yes, yes, I suppose it is. So what?”

Peggy didn’t quite know how to get into it. “It’s mine too.”

“What do ya know,” his voice gurgled, and he coughed again. “Well, that’s kinda cute. Happy birthday, now go back to bed before you catch your death.” And he pulled the covers up to his chin.

Peggy was a little irritated by his dismissal of her. 

“Don’t you ever get sick of that bed? Of this place?” 

She was impatient to escape it herself.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to talk to strangers?” said George. “You might be a crazy old woman for all I know! Now goodnight.”

“I need your help!” said Peggy.

“I don’t do favors for people who interrupt my sleep.”

With that, he clicked off the light. 

Peggy clicked it back on.

Muttering to himself, George rubbed his nose and looked around the room for reinforcements. He pointed to something beside his bed, a string with a red handle at its end.

“You see that?” he said. “If I pull this little string, the authorities-that-be will come and take you back to your little prison cell. Now, I don’t wanna see you dragged away by your pigtails, so, I suggest you go quietly. Wake me up when you find a way out of this deathtrap!”

“I found a way out!” Peggy was beside herself with the thrill of the dream. “I tried! And I can’t get there without you.”

Something in her voice, in her eyes, made George pause, and he seemed to forget about the string with the red handle. Maybe he believed her. Maybe he wanted what she was overflowing with.

He pointed to Peggy’s elbow. “You’re bleeding.” 

She noticed the wound. “Oh. Rough landing leaving my birthday party.”

“You fell down?”

“I had a fall.”

“Had a fall. ‘Had a fall’ does sound more dignified.”

Peggy was planning her next move. She had to know. Was this the man they spoke of? 

“Did they call you ‘Georgie the Gentleman’?” she said.

George stiffened. “Alright. What is this?”

Peggy didn’t know the answer to that question. She could only guess.

“Maybe a second chance.”

“Second chance?” George laughed. “Sister, I need a pocketful of those.”

“What if… What if I told you – ” But she couldn’t tell him. He must see for himself.

He finished for her. “That you had the keys to the city? That we could sneak past the guards and shake the dirt of this jailhouse off our feet for good?”

He seemed to hold his breath, as if wishing, willing the answer to be ‘yes’.

Peggy couldn’t promise anything, but the hope of something caught in her throat.

“Maybe,” she whispered.

George nodded slowly and sensibly, but his eyes sparkled with mischief.

“You’re talking mutiny, my girl. First class insurrection.”

Peggy’s old heart beat hard, and a tremor shot through her.

“Sound like fun?”

He winked at her. “I’ll get my dentures.”

With George’s wheelchair to lean into, Peggy abandoned her walker. Slowly, weakly, she shuffled through the hall, wheeling George along while he pretended to complain but really seemed to enjoy an outing with another person.

Peggy stopped. 

They had reached that unforgettable doorway, in that most enchanted empty hall.

“What?” said George. “A closet?”

“That’s our back door.” She mustn’t show any doubt, any fear that what she thought she’d seen might not happen again.

“Alright,” said George. “Help me up.” 

Peggy did what her old body could do to help George out of his chair. She knew that all she needed to do was open that door and let George breathe in the music and the warmth and the magic.

And so he did. In the open doorway, the old man stood gawking and stammering for a few breathless moments. He finally got out the words, “What is it?”

“Care to step in and find out?” said Peggy.

George’s old feet shuffled forward. He stepped over the threshold, into black dress shoes, fine slacks, and a smart suit jacket. His back was straight and strong, and his dark hair clipped and combed. 

Peggy beheld this transformation with wonder. So, it was real! She hadn’t dreamed it up after all. Or if she had, now someone else was dreaming it along with her.

George stumbled backwards. And the old man fell into his chair, panting. He stared at Peggy, his eyes ablaze with questions. Peggy patted his shoulder, like one might do to a tired little kid. George kept panting and blinking and shaking his head, for so long that Peggy worried he might have a stroke or an aneurysm. But George was an easier believer than Peggy had been. His eyes filled with a deep determination, like a soldier charging to his death. He shoved his old body out of his chair. As he struggled to stand, Peggy took his arm. And the two old people stepped into the light and out of their reality.

In the cheerful glow of the party once again, Peggy was beautiful and poised and full of life.

George was tall and sharp in his dark suit, and his eyes were brilliant and spirited.

The two young people didn’t speak but drank in their surroundings. 

Soon the crowd noticed them and cheered and came and shook their hands, wishing them both “happy birthday” and “merry Christmas” and “hope they like the party”.

Peggy seemed to be floating, while some of the young people dragged them to a table of gifts and cake and punch. There was an odd little Christmas tree, probably chopped down from the woods where Peggy played as a girl. The ribbon and decorations that dressed it were like what her mother might’ve used on such a tree.

The band was playing a tune that made Peggy’s old heart sing like it used to in olden days. The music, the voices, the fashion, and the old barn were so familiar and friendly to her.

One of the girls who had taken her by the arm said, “I’ll tell Jimmy you’re here, hunny! You stay right there!”

Jimmy! He was here. So, this was it, the party she missed. She had another chance.

She turned to the window behind the gift table, and her pretty reflection stared back at her. She remembered that girl, that young face. Peggy Darling, the young reporter, brilliant and important and fearless. If only that girl had known what an unimportant, fearful, desolate old spinster she would become.

George joined her and interrupted her thoughts.

“Well! You’re the prettiest old lady I ever saw.”

Peggy was annoyed by this unfamiliar presence.

George caught the sight of his own reflection. 

“Oh, and there’s her Prince Charming. Gosh, what a good-looking kid.”

“I’m positively awestruck.” 

Peggy was irritable now, because the thought of Jimmy had given her the jitters.

“I remember this!” George took a deep breath as he marveled at the room. “This day. The party, the people. My buddy Jim made such a fuss over my birthday, I didn’t know why.”

At Jimmy’s name, Peggy squirmed and felt a little hot.

George had caught Peggy’s strange behavior. 

“But I don’t remember you,” he said.

“I – played hooky.” Peggy felt ashamed and regretful all over again. “I should’ve been here.”

Her heart seemed to stop when she saw –

A tall, wiry young man, bright smile, easy confidence, towering above the crowd. It was Jimmy.

“Peg!” He was making his way to her. 

Before she knew what she was doing, Peggy had pushed through the crowd and had reached him and thrown her arms around him! It was really him, her Jimmy. He felt sturdy and bony and strong and all that she knew so well. 

He set her back on her feet. “Peggy, hunny, you look sensational!” When he looked into her face, he softened. “What gives? You got tears in your eyes.”

She laughed. Peggy Darling never had tears in her eyes. She petted his suit jacket. “It’s just… This is marvelous, darling. Thank you.”

“Well, I had to dance with you before I go.” Then something teasing came into his voice. “And I’d feel better while I was away if I knew there was someone to look after you. So, I had him come so you could – Well, he’s swell! And I think you ought ‘a give him a chance. Boy, wait till he sees you!”

“Who?” She didn’t care about all that. She just wanted to talk to him. “Jimmy – ”

“Oh, you’ll love him, Peg! He’s terrific!” 

Then he saw something behind her. “Say, there he is! Peg, I want you to meet…”

Peggy turned around.

“My pal George!”

George was standing with his hands in his pocket. 

“George, this is my kid sister, Peggy! Peggy, this is George!”

Jimmy grabbed George’s hand and shook it heartily. “How are ya?”

“Hello, Jim.” George smiled but his voice was solemn, and his eyes lingered on his friend’s face.

Peggy was dumbstruck. This was the guy her brother had wanted her to meet?

“You,” she said under her breath.

George shrugged stupidly. “Me.”

Jimmy caught something in the exchange. “Hey now, don’t tell me you two have already met!”

Peggy gathered herself. “Oh, you see – ”

“You see,” George jumped in, “you could say we’re old friends! Couldn’t you, Peggy?”

“Uh, yes, very old.” Peggy was a little annoyed to be sharing a private joke with him.

“Very old,” George emphasized. “We met about an hour ago. She picked me up.”

Jimmy went back to being delighted. “Well, that was swell of you, Peg! Say, you kids like the little party we cooked up?”

But one of the other guys was calling for him.

“Yeah, give me a minute!” Jimmy hollered back. Then to Peggy, “Keep him busy, would ya, Peg? He’s a swell dancer!” Then with a kiss on her cheek, “Don’t leave without saying goodbye, ok?”

“I won’t.” She meant it.

Then he was gone.

Peggy was left with George standing beside her. Who was this George? A friend of Jimmy’s, it appeared. And Jimmy wanted her to get to know him. But Peggy didn’t want to get to know anyone. She wanted her brother back. She wanted this night to go on forever, for him to never go off to war.

George was watching how her gaze followed Jimmy till he was lost in the crowd.

“Jim always talked about you,” he said. “He was, well, he was a good guy. I always thought he’d have quite a sister.”

The band struck up the melody, “After You’ve Gone”, which tune was painful to Peggy as only long-lost songs can be.

George offered his hand. “Care to?”

“I don’t feel like dancing.” She felt more like crying, but he mustn’t know that.

Peggy Darling couldn’t go back to die in a nursing home. But she wouldn’t stand here and watch her brother march off to his death. Should she persuade him to stay? Why would he listen to her now when he didn’t back then? And why was she here if she couldn’t change any of that?

“What am I doing!” she said under her breath.

Then she remembered her companion and turned abruptly to him. 

“I’m sorry, neighbor,” she said. “I woke you up for nothing it seems. You got your exit plan. You can do what you want now.”

And she walked away. She hardly knew where, just away.

She strode out into the crisp, cold night, the crunch of pebbles under her feet, and snow flurries touching her face.

“Peggy!” George was coming after her.

He caught up to her, and Peggy turned resignedly.

“I wanted to go with him,” George began. “With Jim. I couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me enlist.”

Peggy softened, to think that maybe this man felt responsible, regretful at least. She would never blame any friend of Jimmy’s for his death. But perhaps he blamed himself.

“Day after my birthday,” George continued, “our birthday, after today, I mean, all the boys sailed to France. When I heard about… what happened, to Jim, his whole unit, I got pretty low, I guess. Drowned it out best I could.”

For the first time, in how long she didn’t know, Peggy felt a kinship, a similarity, something that connected her to another person.

George went on with care. “That Christmas, tomorrow, Jim left home. He never came back. What happened to you?”

The memory of those days of fresh loss was a bitter thought to Peggy. 

“I worked. I threw myself into my work,” she said. “I took any assignment I could, and I climbed the company ladder. Until I was the most formidable creature in the newspaper business.”

George kicked at the snow. “What happened tomorrow? Back then, what’d you do after today?”

“I got promoted.” She could almost laugh at how petty it was now. “I never made tonight’s party. I had an interview I couldn’t miss. I was an hour away…”

But she was here! Right now. Not at the interview.

Confused, she wondered aloud, “I couldn’t make it back in time for the party, so I… shouldn’t… be here today.” 

She finally pieced it together.

“I didn’t make the interview.”

Peggy shut her eyes, feeling the relief she never thought possible. The old guilt sank away as she realized: No promotion lay in her sights. Today, this magical, new today, had begun without that worst of regrets. The day was rewritten with what she long wished she had chosen instead.

George was watching her sort these scattered thoughts. 

“Funny,” he said. “Like a second chance.”

“Yes. I suppose it is.”

They noticed the snow was falling thicker and faster now. Peggy looked up into the sky. 

There were no stars, only bright, gray clouds moving fast.

“So, this time,” said George, “what do you do next?”

Peggy didn’t have to think about it.

“Say goodbye to Jimmy. If it must be goodbye,” hoping it was not. “Forget the job, I don’t care. I’m going to see him off tomorrow.”

A little breeze made George wrap his arms around himself.

“Could I – ”

But he stopped.

Peggy waited.

“Could I go with you?” He shrugged. “Wouldn’t want you to be alone.”

Peggy wasn’t used to such sentiments anymore, so her impulse was to play it off.

“I’m used to being alone,” she said.

“Yeah, well, me too,” said George. “Maybe we shouldn’t be. Maybe Jim was right.”

An old habit warned Peggy to stop now before some commitment was asked of her, which would have hidden costs and would demand some virtue on her part.

“Listen, George – ”

“Look, I’m not,” he looked down at his shoes and smiled to himself. “I’m not asking you to be my girl, or to go out to the movies with me.”

Peggy felt a little exposed, wondering if he could see all her stinginess and self-preservation.

“But, Peggy,” he said. “We know what happens at the end of the story. I don’t know about you, but I’m not that excited at the prospect of dying alone. You?”

Peggy shook her head. In fact, she was terrified of it.

“Listen,” he said. “Maybe this doesn’t last more than tonight. Maybe we can’t change what happened to Jim. But what do ya say, you and I could be friends?”

He waited a moment and then must have thought he sounded desperate, because he added,

“And if we find we don’t like each other, I’ll just be your ol’ geezer neighbor again, we’ll go right back to where we started. I might just ask you to play Bingo with me now and then.”

Peggy couldn’t help a smile.

“What do you say?” said George. “Would you give me a chance, Peggy Darling? Be a dear and say yes.”

This last plea was sincere, not that of a lover, but of a lonely old man. As Peggy searched herself, she realized a kinship with his plea. It was not only a second chance she’d been aching for, or even a goodbye for Jimmy. She had long been starved of this as well: a friend. And maybe George could be that friend. What’s more, maybe she could be that for him, here in this wonderland if it lasted, or back in their gloomy existence, which now didn’t seem all that gloomy anymore.

She let a smile give her away, and she gave a little nod for her answer.

George’s face lit up. “That’s a good girl.”

Peggy’s spirits had lifted, and she noticed her toes were freezing. She breathed in the cold air and shivered. Stepping over to George, she took his arm, with a kindness and warmth that was strange to her but sincerely felt. If they were to be friends, she would keep her side of the bargain.

“Actually,” and a teasing delight glinted in her eyes, “I don’t know how to play Bingo.”

George laughed. “Well, I hope you remember how to dance! I’m pretty spry for an old man.”

And they walked back to the barn together.

Christina Fait

Christina Fait

Christina Fait

Christina spent early childhood in a little desert town in Arizona, and did the rest of her growing up in Fredericksburg, Texas, the peach-growing tourist town she now calls home. After high school, Christina worked, studied screenwriting, and wrote for competition. She later attended a Torchbearers Bible center for a refreshing two years and returned home to her family and Christian community in Fredericksburg. She is part of a machining business in town and writes part time. Christina writes speculative fiction of all sorts, often with hints of time-travel and even friendly ghosts, but she also has a soft spot for period drama. She loves writing about smalltown life during WWII, inspired by her collection of black and white American films. She is currently writing a middle grade series.

  • Kimberly Barlow Cook
    10:41 AM, 1 April 2024

    Great story — really pulled me in. This is a great encouragement to people at a later stage of life who find themselves alone, looking for connection and purpose. God will always provide these opportunities if we look for them and invite them.

    • Christina Fait
      6:25 PM, 3 April 2024

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Kimberly! Yes, what a great point. God is so kind to give us chance after chance.

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