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The Riddle: A Short Story


The idea for this short story came from the song “The Riddle” by Five For Fighting. I even borrowed my favorite line from that song for this story. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Visit

I hate nursing homes. To my mind, they are where the living go to die. Perhaps not a fair summation, but there you have it. So my mood was sour that day, several weeks ago, when I visited my mother, residing at Peaceful Glade Rest Home, on the downslope after a ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s. Her heart had run out of summers, the end was near, she had no idea who I was, why I was there, or perhaps that I was there at all.

I spent an hour there, as is my norm, a busy man allotting precious time for the woman who had birthed him, raised him as a single parent, sacrificed so much. I told her of my life, the past week, the important matters facing me, the upcoming divorce, all matters flying unhindered in one ear, out the other, no matter at all that I could tell, no hope of being heard, or understood, the magic lost, gone forever, the sparkle of her blue eyes clouded, no seeing.

I told her I loved her, promised to return in a few days, kissed her forehead, began to rise when suddenly she reached out, grabbed my hand with strength I did not know existed, and looked at me. She had not spoken a word in months, but she spoke that day, one sentence.

“I have a riddle for you, Peter my boy.”

That was all. No riddle arrived. Simply a declarative sentence of an impending arrival, a riddle, but the next logical step in the progression did not happen. Her eyes once again clouded, her grip relaxed and then ended altogether, and she returned to her secret place, a place I was not invited to visit.

I waited five minutes, ten, fifteen, in vain, no follow-up, so I rose, kissed her forehead again, and left her room. Paula Lincoln, the floor RN, was coming down the hall, towards me. I stopped her with a smile I did not feel in my depths.

“Has my mother spoken lately?

“Not at all, Mister Sinclair. The nursing staff meets each morning, discusses each of our residents, and no one reported your mother speaking. To my knowledge, she hasn’t spoken a word in months. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Hope, I guess. Thank you for your time.”

Why hadn’t I told her of my mother’s short speech? I’m still not sure, today, as I retell the story. Perhaps I thought I had imagined it. Perhaps I was simply out of hope.

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The Riddle

I spent three days attempting to hold my life together, a full-time job since the separation, lawyer meetings, condo-hunting, far too many cocktails in lounges meant for the lonely, a patchwork quilt of desperation for a man known by many as a pillar of our society.

The nursing home had not changed by the time I returned. Sadness engulfed it, smothering it, not releasing its grip until the last breath was taken. I nodded to Paula Lincoln as I walked down the hall, and entered my mother’s room suddenly very weary of life.

Another hour spent, another one-way conversation, tears mixed with bravado, the time to leave finally granting me reprieve, when Mom reached out again, looked at me, and again spoke.

“I have a riddle for you, Peter my boy.”

“Yes, Mom. Tell me the riddle.”

Her grip increased in strength.

“The meaning of life is known by a puppy and by a kitten, but not by you. What is the meaning of life that they know and you’ve forgotten?” And then she left me once again, her disease smothering coherence, nobody home at that residence, perhaps never again.

So vibrant at one time, the woman before me now had once been the lifeblood of any social gathering, the focal point, not through any effort on her part but by sheer force of nature, laughing, teasing, playful, energetic, snatch any adjective you want to describe a woman who absolutely loved life, who squeezed every ounce of pleasure she could, joy found in the simplest of things.

A cruel joke by the divine. No other way to describe it. No explanation for it, random bullshit, pick one to thrive, pick one to deteriorate, and Peter, your mom drew the short straw.

A puppy, a kitten, and me.

I drove directly to The Last Call Bar & Grill, a place where everyone knows your name but don’t care enough to say it in conversation, the patrons far-too removed from social standing to even make an effort at niceties.

“Scotch on the rocks, double, Susan,” I told the bartender, twice-divorced, tough as nails, sharp wit, black-dyed hair atop a weary head, thirty pounds over fighting weight, forty looking sixty from sampling far too much of her own product.

“Double the man wants, double the man gets. Tough day, Pete? Why don’t you ask me out for dinner and I’ll make an honest man outta ya?”

“It would take more than a dinner to accomplish that, Susan, but thanks for the offer.”

A puppy, a kitten, and me.

Find the answer

Find the answer

That Damned Riddle

I made it home that night, had a couple more doubles, slipped into oblivion.

The next morning, shaved, cut myself doing so, wolfed down a cup of coffee, stale donut, made it to the office in time to be tossed into a maelstrom of business decisions, all crucial, all demanding instant solutions, jittery from too much coffee, jittery from the booze leeching out of my skin, a constant juggling act of responsibility and the blessed journey down the rabbit hole.

A puppy, a kitten, and me.

The meaning of life? You were born, you worked your ass off, you retired, and you died. The Buddhists understood . . . suffering is inevitable in life . . . nice, succinct, wrap it all up in a nice, neat package, say a few words at the poor bastard’s funeral, and that’s it, no more curtain calls, no last call at the bar, just eternal rest, thank you very much.

A puppy, a kitten, and me!

Final Call

The phone rang at three that afternoon, Delores forwarding it to me, her disapproval of me evident in her tone.

“Your mother on Line Two, Mister Sinclair!”

My mother? Calling me?

“Hello? Mom?”

“I have a riddle for you, Peter my boy. The meaning of life, known by a puppy and a kitten. You’ve forgotten, my darling son, but you knew it once. Can you recall what the meaning of life is?”

“Did I ever know it, Mom? I don’t know what you want me to say.”

There was a pause as she caught her breath.

“You knew it when you played with your friends, went to the park, hit the ball around. You knew it when you rode your bike. You knew it when you would catch lightning bugs in a jar, so proud you were, always ran inside to show me. You knew it when you went to the county fair, ate cotton candy. You knew it when you first kissed little Becky Armstrong, back when you were ten. And when you went fishing down at the creek. Don’t you remember, Peter my boy. Try hard, Peter my boy. Try very hard. It’s so very important, my son. I love you, and I want you to remember.”

And the line disconnected.

I dialed the nursing home number, asked for Paula Lincoln, waited a minute while they tracked her down.

“Paula speaking!”

“Paula, it’s Peter Sinclair. I just received a phone call from my mother. How is it possible that she called and that we had a coherent conversation?”

My question was greeted by thirty seconds of silence.

“Mister Sinclair, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but your mother passed away fifteen minutes ago. I was just getting ready to call you when you called. Mister Sinclair, are you there? Hello?”

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 16, 2021:

Thank you Devika! I appreciate the encouragement. Have a wonderful weekend!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 16, 2021:

Thanks Rodric! I'm very happy you enjoyed this. Yes, a cautionary tale indeed, for all of us.

Have a great weekend, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 16, 2021:

That was very kind of you, Vidya. Thank you very much. I will give you more stories, as time allows. With that kind of encouragement, how can I say no to you?

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on July 16, 2021:

Hi Bill I have heard lots about Alzheimer's, however, your story is just in detail. Loved the riddle and you should plan more stories. I like your way of telling one and certainly is something to think about more in this life.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on July 15, 2021:

This article, short story is great! I loved the build-up and the unexpected, expected end. He forgot the meaning of life, being too busy, caught up in the mechanics of life. I feel you presented a relatable character who is a cautionary tale. Thanks for sharing this, Bill. If we could still vote up, I would vote is up!

VIDYA D SAGAR on July 15, 2021:

You are truly a gifted story teller Bill. This story kept me riveted till the end. There is a beautiful message in the riddle too. That's why we need to spend more time with pets and children to get back the joy we have lost in our lives. The ending was a surprise. Please give us more such stories. Have a great day my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

Thank you Mohammad! I appreciate you taking the time to comment about my story. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

Lora, I always appreciate you popping up to comment on my stories. Truly I do, and you always take the time to leave a detailed comment. Thank you for that as well. Take care, be safe, and enjoy your summer.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

Thank you so much, Bobbi! Oh, I can conjure up some sadness when I want to; not very often, because I no longer want sadness in my life, but it's there for the asking. :(

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

I'm very sorry for your loss, Flourish. This disease has touched many of us, and it is an ugly disease for sure.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

Brenda, my mind is wiling but the body won't respond to being a kid again. lol But thank you, and I'm very happy your mother enjoyed the story.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

Joy ain't a bad guess, Marlene. Truth be, I wanted a variety of answers, to see what each person thought it might be. I'm so glad you enjoyed this story.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

I really appreciate that, Denise. I am humbled and I'm always embarrassed by that type of praise, but thank you very much, and blessings always.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

I do too, Meg! Life's too short to waste. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

Thank you Becky! I like your take on the secret. It's hard to find fault in that. :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2021:

Linda, I'm so sorry for your losses. Yes, it is an ugly disease. I can't imagine a worse way to lose a loved one, quite frankly. :(

Mohammad Yasir from India on July 15, 2021:

Personally, I know no one with Alzheimer's. Perhaps that is why this story gripped me so much. It captured the struggles of life and combined them with the impending doom of a loved one about to leave this realm.

There is a mystery and curiosity associated with each line of the story that keeps the reader in its grips. Awesome work.

Lora Hollings on July 14, 2021:

An ingenious little story, Bill, that said a lot in few words. To me, the answer of the riddle was a puppy, a kitten and a child live life with abandon. They are so involved with playing that they don't have time to have problems. As adults, we let life become a burden instead of a joy which is very sad because it is so short. We become so encumbered with our problems, that we fail to see all the good that there is in life and it is a miracle to be a part of it. I also really liked the ending of your story where you invoke the idea of his mother giving him this profound message after she passes away. I loved it!

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on July 14, 2021:


I left you a comment, but my Internet is going off and on. I said this was a sad story and I did not know you had it in you---but I liked it very much--write some more stories.

You are so talented--love your work.

Bobbi Purvis

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 14, 2021:

I like Peggy's answer to the riddle. What a sad story. My great uncle just died of Alzheimer's last week.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on July 14, 2021:


I read this story outloud while visiting my mother & it brought her to tears.

You definitely know how to tell a story.

Sometimes we all need reminded that we are only here for a short while...we should live our life without worry.

Just learn to let things be...we have no control & our endless thoughts only bring us down.

They take all the joy away from our hearts.

Awe...to feel that feeling like a kid again.

Just be happy.

Great ink here. Thanks for sharing my friend.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on July 14, 2021:

Oh, what mystery you have in this story. I am going to go with Becky Katz's answer. Kittens and puppies always act like they are filled with joy. I was thinking, "Joy!" With all of the recollections, joy was the bottom line for me.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 14, 2021:

Oh, that made shivers run down my spine. I love that you can do that. To touch people with words must be the greatest gift I have ever heard of! You are a master (in case no one told you recently).



DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on July 14, 2021:

Another great story. It was odd, him getting a phone call from his mother at the end but you explained it perfectly. I wonder if he acted on his mother's last message to him: I hope so!

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on July 14, 2021:

The answer she was looking for was joy. Without joy, life isn't worth living. I am rediscovering joy now. My grandson is reminding me. Life is tough and that is the only way to get through it. Beautiful story.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on July 14, 2021:

Bill, this was a tough one to get through. Alzheimer's has visited me too many times in my life, robbing me of my Mother, my next-door neighbor, two sisters, and my best friend.

I know it has touched you too. What a dreadful disease, that long, long goodbye.

You have a gift for giving us a snapshot of the characters in your stories. We not only hear their words, we see their faces and feel their hearts. Well done, dear friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

Greg, we all have to let our guard down from time to time. Tears are cleansing, or at least they are for me. I cry almost daily at the damnedest things. lol But if feels good to do so, so there you go. Thanks for your very kind words. You made my day.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

I really appreciate that, MG! Thank you for your kind words. I'm so glad you liked it.

greg cain from Moscow, Idaho, USA on July 14, 2021:

Bill - once again you demonstrate your gift for showing, telling, spinning a yarn. This one was so good, and I knew it was going to be good when I read that line “her heart ran out of summers…”. It was at that point I put my own heart on guard, too. Silly me, though, I let my guard down and wound up with tears in my eyes at the end. We will all get our own message out of The Riddle but the one I received was this: if you’re here, be here and not somewhere else. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back and wishing you’d been here instead of wanting to be somewhere else. It’s a vicious thing. Anyway…thanks for the really great read this morning, Bill. I’ll be pondering it all the livelong day.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on July 14, 2021:

What a beautiful story, so touching. You captured my heart Bill, I look forward to more such tales.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

I believe you might be correct, Peggy! Thanks for taking a stab at it.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

It is always my pleasure, EK! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

Intrigue and feel good, Manatita! What better way to start your day, eh? Thanks my friend! Stay well and safe.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

It could indeed, John! It could indeed!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

I'm happy to hear about your granddaughter, Pamela. Enjoy those moments. They are special....the riddle?

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

I'm glad you liked it, Irish! Thanks for taking the time to read. Hi to the Mickster!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on July 14, 2021:

Thank you Rosina! Glad you liked it.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 14, 2021:

You surely know how to spin a tale! Alzheimer's is such a cruel disease. Getting a message from the "Great Beyond" seems like a fitting ending. Living in the present, I believe, is the message.

EK Jadoon from Abbottabad Pakistan on July 14, 2021:

That was an interesting and engaging read, Bill. I hope he would understand what her mother wanted to say. I was feeling sad when Paula told him about his mother's death. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

Stay safe and healthy...

manatita44 from london on July 14, 2021:

Gave me a great chuckle. What an awesome story. A lot of the intrigue lay within the dialogue with Peter and mom. Quite cool, I think. Sweet! You engaged us well in other aspects of the story too. I keep wanting to do a story, but I need time. I'm back to work now. A Vaccinator! So tired! Excellent end, Bro!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 14, 2021:

What a rivetting story, Bill. So glad that song by Five For Fighting inspires you to write this. The Riddle...could it be ‘live for the moment, and just enjoy your time.” Thank you for this great read.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 14, 2021:

What an interesting story, Bill. Alzheimer's is a cruel disease, but the point of the story is the riddle. The answer may be something like live a moment at a time and enjoy life. Be loving like our cats and dogs are may be another answer. I enjoyed this story.

My husband and I are enjoying life in TX with family. The joy of a granddaughter is sweet.

suzettenaples on July 14, 2021:

Wow! What an impactful story. I was glued all the way to the end with this. Love the ending. (Not the death)

Rosina S Khan on July 14, 2021:

A puppy, a kitten, and Peter Sinclair: The Riddle. Great story, Bill. Loved it. Thank you for sharing.

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