Short Stories

Short Story: The Scent of the Universe

Every morning, he sat there at the common living area, being grumpy and glowering at everyone who passed, especially me, as I went upon my duties. He would muter things like rusted nails inside a brown polyester bag and wrinkled his nose. Other times he would almost smile when I brought him his morning tea and say stuff like forgotten Sunday wrapped into a purple silk kimono, and I would get startled and quickly move on. No one in the nursing home liked to take care of him or be around him. So whoever was on the bad side of the duty nurse got him. It was often me.

One day suddenly, he stopped me hurrying out of his room by saying, “You read, don’t you?”

I stammered but managed to say I do.

“Seven hundred seventy-eight books,” he said, and I just stared at him, unable to say anything intelligible.

“Don’t just gape there. Bring me that orange cake they are serving at the nurses’ station.”

I didn’t find it in me to say no even when I should have. All I could think was that how did he know. Just yesterday, I had dusted and cleaned my bookcases and arrived at that exact number. So I left and got him a slice of the cake and handed it to him with my hands trembling.

He didn’t smile. He just took the plate and glanced up. “508M46 black ink on standard notepaper.”

“What?” I asked, feeling like an oaf. The way he made everyone experience around him.

“That’s what your hands smell like. I preferred the seven hundred seventy-eight books. It’s still there, but that black ink with the paper is dominant now.” He took the cake and stuffed it into his mouth, barely chewing as he gulped it.

I stuttered something ineligible like I’m sorry, but I don’t understand, still feeling stupid, as if someone was playing a trick on me.

“I prefer your lazy Sundays when you listen to your vintage records, drink tea, and stay in that kimono of yours all day,” he said as if any of it should make sense. When I only gaped at him, he added, “That’s why the head nurse dislikes you. He can smell it on you, that you can enjoy life. It pisses him off as when he goes home, he sits on his fake green velvet couch and watches reruns with his wife, who sucks menthols none stop. He can’t explain it, but he smells it and hates you. That’s why you get me.”

I couldn’t help myself. I sat down on the visitor’s chair, which never got visited, and stuttered out something along the line that he couldn’t, but he interrupted me and finished my sentence.

He said, “Know that. No, I don’t know it, but I can smell it. And if I have to choose a scent, it is definitely Saturdays at a new museum exhibition while the nearby cafes are just opening. Try it. It will change your life.”

Still, I felt like a fool being played.

“Better yet,” he began. “Free me from this hellish place and take me there, and I’ll show you it’s a life worth living.”

Finally, I had an answer that made sense. I insisted that I couldn’t take him. It was against the nursing home policies, and he once again cut me off by saying, “Bleached paper number forty-three laminated on the station wall seven years and twenty-one days ago plus seven hours and fifteen minutes almost to the dot.”

I shook my head and uttered that he couldn’t know that just by the smell.

“Of course, I can. I have a very sophisticated spectroscope in my nose, and it can detect atoms and all their combinations. You have one too, but someone forgot to activate it.”

I refused to believe him, insisting he was speaking nonsense, that he had no machine up his nose.

“Of course, I don’t have some rinky-dinky human-made steel tool up there. I have the original design made out of flesh, the olfactory system with its G-protein receptors and the rest. You have one. I have one. And it can smell everything from naturally made to scents yet to be discovered. Now before you are summoned in six minutes and thirty-four seconds, close your eyes and tell me what you smell.”

His voice was so compelling that I did it, and nothing has been the same ever since. I closed my eyes as he told me to ignore the obvious. Then it came to me that the moment smelled like afternoon sun on a day where everything goes wrong, but it is okay as everything has been wrong all along. And there we were smelling the smell together when after six minutes and thirty-four seconds, the duty nurse waltzed in and shouted his lungs out.

I got fired from my job, and since then, every Saturday when a new exhibition has been opened, I see him just when the cafes have baked their buns and brewed their coffees, and he teaches me to the scent of the universe.

Thank you for reading, have a happy day ❤

© K.A. Ashcomb

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