The paperwork clutched in my hands fluttered in the soft autumn breeze. I had memorized every single word, but I still read through them again anyway. Under the circumstances, it was hard keeping all the words in my head when conflicting emotions kept trying to wash them away. I knew it was important to remember those words, as well as my duty.


After carefully folding the documents, I slipped them into my shoulder bag and took another look at the small, weathered shack. The sun-bleached wood of the clapboard siding was mottled with layers of peeling paint. Dry, dead weeds choked what may have been a large yard at one time. The shutters covering the windows rattled when the breeze picked up.


Everything about this place felt abandoned. Even the chicken coop I'd found in the back was silent. The only sign of life was the bluish-gray smoke drifting out of the battered tin chimney. That meant someone was still living here, which in turn, meant I had a duty to fulfill. As much as I hated this part of my job, it was better than letting these squatters remain ignorant of what was about to happen until the bulldozers showed up.


Just as I raised my hand to knock on the door, a raspy voice called from inside. "Door's open. Come in if you've got a mind to."


Feeling just slightly flustered, I managed to get the rusty doorknob to turn. The heavy door creaked as I pulled it open. When I peeked inside, all I could really make out was a shadowy figure hunched over a small fire at the far end of the room. The figure turned to me and waved. "Don't just stand there lettin' the cold in.Get yer butt inside an' close the door behind ya."


"Beg your pardon, Ma'am," I said as I followed the instructions. "I didn't mean to intrude, but I have these papers I need to--"


"P'shaw! You ain't intrudin'. Nobody finds me 'less I wanna be found, an' today I was in the mood for company. Why don't ya find y'self a seat at the table?"


By the time I had made it to the ancient, formica-topped table and found someplace to sit, my eyes had adjusted to the dim light. I took a closer look at my host, and realized I may have made a mistake. "Umm, should I have said sir instead of ma'am?" I asked, hoping the question wouldn't make me sound too foolish.


My host picked up a cast iron kettle with a folded dishcloth before turning to me with a long, searching look. "I've been called a lot of things, and sir or ma'am have been the most polite ones." Deep lines crinkled around ancient eyes that sparkled in the dancing firelight. "If it makes ya more comfy, you can call me ma'am, 'though I'd prefer Ron."


Feeling a bit off kilter, and slightly confused, I grasped for the first thing I could make sense of, which was the task that had first brought me here. "Ma'am ... err ... I mean Ron, there's something I really think I should let you know."


Ron slowly poured steaming hot water into a pair of delicate china cups, holding onto the strings attached to the teabags in each one so they wouldn't slip in. "Oh, I've known this is my last day here."


"Actually, you have sixty days."


Before I could root through my bag and pull out the paperwork, my host rested a thin, wrinkled hand on my shoulder. "Girl, I don't need a bunch of fancy words all written up nice and legal to tell me when it's my time to go."


I was almost certain we were talking about two different things, but I still asked, "What do you mean?"


Ron folded the dishcloth in half, rested the kettle on top, then carefully settled in the chair across from me. "I mean, today's my last day before I pass on."


My heart ached with grief when I saw the absolute certainty in those lively, gentle eyes. "Oh god, I'm so sorry."


Ron reached across the table and patted my hand. "Don't worry y'self. Ya couldn't have known."


"What can I do?"


"Well, if you'd like, stay and have some tea. Listen to an ol' biddy talk 'bout days gone by. Most important, remember me."


I stayed. I listened.


The fire had turned to embers when Ron fell silent. It took me a minute to realize what had happened. Tears were streaming down my face as I burst out the door and started running across a silvery field under a sky with too many cold, bright stars. I tripped and fell into the thick, scratchy weeds, then rolled onto my back and screamed with rage at the unfairness of ... everything.


Eventually, I managed to pull myself together and slowly made my way back into the house. Ron was still sitting with the most peaceful expression I had ever seen. Carefully, I lifted the feather-light body up and rested it in a sagging, narrow bed. After pulling the covers around Ron's body, I whispered, "I promise, I'll always remember you."