Short Story: The Man Who Read

Important people walked around the hall with champagne glasses in their hands while their diamond watches reflected the chandelier light in all direction. A permanent smile was slapped across their faces. These men and woman gathered each year in order to expand their network but in reality, it was a celebration of riches. This was the time to show off their hard-earned suits and dresses, leather boots that clicked each time they made contact with the marble floor and cufflinks that were worth an average man’s salary and jewels that would put to shame the Kings and Queens of old. Here was the ideal situation for Abraham Hart.

‘What do you do sir?’ a tall man asked him. He had slicked back hair and one hand was in his front pocket while the other carried a drink. Just by the smell of him, Abraham knew he was some lawyer who had made a fortune before the age of thirty.

‘I am a doctor of life, sir,’ Abraham replied. The man was looking around for a higher class person to talk to as Abraham was the only man dressed in a plain black shirt, black trousers, and running sneakers. It was embarrassing to the man to be seen with Abraham but the peculiar answer caught his interest.

‘Interesting. Interesting choice of dress too.’ He was not sure yet if Abraham was plain crazy or if he was to be tonight’s entertainment. A jester to make them laugh like the old times.

‘Nothing interesting about it,’ Abraham replied, ‘it what I wear everyday for you see, by wearing the same pairs of clothes each and every day it allows me to save three minutes from my decision making capability which, like a man of your capacity can calculate pretty quickly means that in a years time I shall have saved one thousand and ninety-five minutes of decision-making time, one thousand and ninety-five minutes which I can spend on more important and more responsible things.’

The lawyer raised an eyebrow and the side of his mouth twitched up for a smirk. He extended his hand and introduced himself, ‘I am Douglas Hanson, I own the Hanson firm’ He said.

Abraham shook his hand and said it was his pleasure.

‘And you are?’ he asked as if he were speaking to a child, still confused whether or not the man was really all there in the head or not.

‘Oh, you do not know me?’ Abraham replied with an air of shock as he looked around as if Douglas Hanson was the crazy one.

‘I am afraid I do not, although you look familiar.’ Abraham knew it was a lie. The two of them had never met but the simple fact that he had made himself important had caused the lawyer some discomfort for not knowing who Abraham was. The power shifted and Abraham acknowledged it.

‘You must have heard about my experiment?’ It was a good sign to see the lawyer keep his other hand out of his pocket and to see his fingers fidget with the bottom of his suit jacket.

‘I’m afraid not sir.’

‘Oh well I am Abraham Hart and for the last twenty-one years I locked my self in a room and consumed the knowledge of the world trying to find the meaning of life.’ His long hair that reached down to the mid of his back and his gray beard that settle on top of his chest were taken as signs of a man who would do something like that, a man who would dedicate his life to learning and without questioning the lawyer put down his drink and cupped Abraham’s hand with both of his, shaking with excitement.

‘Of course, sir, of course, now I remember, I feel such a fool for not knowing right away.’

By now few of the others nearby had stopped their conversation and began to listen.

‘Your experiment was truly remarkable, I could not believe it when I first heard about it but here you are in the flesh. A living proof.’

‘Believing everything one hears is a poor quality in life so I must congratulate you sir for having some doubt about my work,’ the lawyer beamed as Abraham praised him for something he had not done.

‘Tell me one thing, sir, how did you even think of such an experiment?’ someone asked. More people had joined in on their conversation. In the distance music lightly played and people who had not heard of what was going on here kept on drinking and networking.

‘My parents passed away when I was young, leaving me in the care of an orphanage,’ people gave sympathizing nods and looks, ‘so my childhood was filled with unstable changes and constant hardship, the whole while I fell in love with books and in them I found my sanctuary and in them I found my quest so when it was discovered that my uncle left me his fortunes in his will, I at the age of twenty-one decided to venture on in my quest to find the meaning, a quest as of a month ago I have completed. In fact,’ he looked around at the perfect faces of his audience with a smile under his bushy beard, ‘this is my first social gathering in twenty-one years,’ a few applauded while more people stopped doing what they were and joined at the edge of the ever-widening circle of admirers.

‘Well, what’s the answer then? ’ someone asked in the back and all eyes stared at Abraham waiting for him to speak.

Abraham continued smiling and he spread his arms wide, ‘what’s the hurry, my friends, if there is one thing being alone in a single room teaches you, it is patience. And another is the sweet climactic release after a long build-up, if you know what I mean, my quest took me twenty-one years, twenty-one years of build up until finally I saw the light so please, humor me and ask not what I learned right away for that knowledge shall come in time but first ask how I remained sane all those years, is that not a better question? Would you acknowledge the answer if it came out of a madman’s mouth? Is it not better to question first before believing?’

The silent crowd broke into different pockets of buzzing, each pocket discussing what the old man had said. Abraham looked on, studying the curious faces closely until finally someone said, ‘how did you stay sane, sir?’

‘Who said I am sane? HA!’ he cackled looking around at the rich attired folks with expressionless faces for they were used to getting quick and straightforward answers but now, he made them wait and earn his wisdom. Abraham ran his fingers through his beard and cleared his throat.

‘Isolation is said to be the worse punishment a human being can go through,’ he continued, ‘for physical pain comes and goes and we as evolved humans can adapt to receive pain and even adapt to physical pain but when it comes to metal struggle and torture tools that dig into a man’s psyche well then things get interesting, my friends but there is always a solution.’

‘Dr. Frankl summed it up the best, if you have hope and if you have the will and a clear goal in mind, us humans can do anything. Dr. Frankl survived the terrible Nazi occupation and their camps because he had a mission and so did I, mine was to figure out the meaning of life and that excitement of actually moving towards that goal kept me going the first year of isolation. In that year I read the history of our world, everything from how our planet and universe came to be to how first societies began, when the first societal conflicts arose, the effects the Greek and Roman’s had on the future generations, the impact of the Golden Horde to the greatest scientific inventions that changed how we live and think to the last great world war. Everything that has ever been written on our human history,’ he pointed at his head,’ is in here.’ He cracked a smile once more at the astonished looks he saw.

‘So my sanity survived the first year and the second and the third for my goal was clear and I moved towards it each day and that’s all I cared for. And in those years I learned how lucky we truly are and how there is no difference between the poorest man in the world and the richest in terms of intelligence, the only real difference is their natural habitat, the richest was born on a higher rung and was exposed the tools that would allow him or her to climb while the poorest was born at the bottom rung and was never taught how to climb. This showed me that meaning of life cannot be ones riches for it is all subjective.’ More people were listening now and his claim that riches do not matter in the grand scheme of things had them whispering angrily to one another for the goal of riches had been their ultimate end for as long as they could remember. But none of them spoke up and disagreed instead the whispering and buzzing of the crowd quieted down to hear more from the old man.

‘But the fourth year of my isolation tested my will like nothing before. My eyes had grown tired of reading and my mind begged for rest and my body hoped for the comforting touch of a fellow man or woman. I do not exaggerate when I say that I clawed at the door which was locked from the outside, I peeled away the brown paint until the wood underneath poked out and I further attacked it. I do not know what took a hold of me but I had become a savage. My hair tangled and messy reached to my lower back, my nails grew and gathered dirt, even a tooth fell out,’ he opened wide to show a missing tooth in the back of his mouth, ‘I could not tell you why all of this happened. Perhaps it was reading our violent history where since the beginning of time we have killed one another and as time has gone on one thing that became certain was our efficient and effective kill rates and now, even though we live in a time where the crime rates is lowest and the quality of life at the highest, our ability to kill a fellow man has never been better. Perhaps at the time, I believed the meaning of life is to simply die for that is a singular thread that weaves throughout our human existence. And that thought must have depressed me to the point that I wanted to get out of the room and run towards an incoming bullet and end our miserable existence.’ The air in the room thinned and the music stopped for even the band players wanted to hear the old man, their saxophones and flutes and violins hung uselessly from their hands. The somber room waited eagerly for Abrahams next words and he chose them purposely.

He clapped his hands the sound of which vibrated around the room and startled some of the listeners and he cracked his smile again and said, ‘that’s when I discovered the joy of philosophy and my hunt for the ultimate meaning kept going, not believing my previous conclusion for it could not be true, I just knew it could not.’

The tensed up faces of people who for a second believed the meaning of life was to die, relaxed, relieved that there was some other point to this existence. A few even clapped for they dreaded the former notion so much.

‘How do we know all of this really happened and that you are not lying?’ someone in the back spoke up and it was a valid question in Abraham’s mind but before he could defend himself, the lawyer spoke up.

‘This is the world famous Dr. Hart you are talking about, haven’t you read his research?’ said the man who had not known who Abraham was twenty minutes ago but the embarrassment of not knowing Abraham and his research shut down the fellow dissenter and he did not retaliate further.

‘Please go on, sir.’ Douglas Hanson said bowing his head slightly.

‘Here is where my isolation ended for these philosophers were with me, it was as if I was back in school just a little kid looking up to my teachers as they opened my mind and put in information that changed my life. I truly felt like I was sitting cross-legged on the floor while Plato or Montaigne or Hume sat on my chair and taught me a lesson or two. That joy of learning was the happiest I had been in my life. it was incredible and it is something I wish all my fellow men and woman to enjoy.’ Nodding heads met his words, all of them most likely making mental notes to find their philosophical teachers.

‘With these great minds I had discussions of free will, of societal norms, of religion and science and the need of us humans to create self-boundaries and self-rule, a code of a sort to allow us to reach our full potential, or like Seneca said to find four or five people we wish to be like, aspire to be like and when the time comes for decisions or you find yourself at a crossroad think and ask yourself what those individuals would have done at this point, how would they have handled this problem, this situation. It was wonderful discussing with them the materialistic life we now so enjoy and the disconnect with our self, our self that is so emphasized in the eastern philosophy which has been drowned by our need for desires. Our life should be about balances like Aristotle believed, do nothing in excess for it just hurts the soul and we should always be a student like Socrates preached I know nothing, that was the motto I lived by at the time and opened my mind up for further suggestions and once I reached the end of the philosophical spectrum, five years had passed and I discovered the true meaning of life.’ Abraham made them wait a moment longer as the crowd visibly leaned closer not to miss the answer. ‘Meaning is to find what makes you happy and just do that everyday not worrying about being the richest or being the smartest or being the strongest, worry about being the happiest.’

Before the crowd could discuss this revelation and revelation it was for these people had not once cared to find happiness but instead spent their lives in a vanity race, Abraham continued.

‘For me, my true happiness laid in reading and even though I had come to the ends of my goal, I stayed in isolation for I was surrounded by what made me happy, books.’

He stopped and took a sip of water. People talked amongst themselves and above all were the discussion of what made them really happy but most of them replied with ‘I don’t know.’

Abraham continued, ‘the next two years I devoted to reading everything from the classics and the giants of literature to the newest released detective novels and my personal drug of choice, fantasy. There I no longer lived in my room and in a way it was cheating that I was allowed to read fiction for I spent time in middle earth, I traveled from Paris to Spain to see bullfighting, the next I bore witness to the creation of a magical village that spanned four generations, I went and lived on different planets not just Earth and so a glimpse of our future and then I came back just in time to see a seven hundred foot tall wall and a boy with his wolf from where I hitchhiked across America and sailed down the Congo river and countless others adventures. I considered myself a well-traveled man having not left my room for about twelve years now.’ The crowd smiled and laughed with the old man who remembered the happiest of his days.

‘But for some odd reason, something kept poking me, something hidden down in my stomach kept me awake at night and no matter how much I read or wrote, that feeling that there was something missing in my life was still there, a constant reminder that I had fallen in a trap of my own illusion so I did not have to suffer more in my quest, a divergent path from my true goal and one day I snapped.’

‘My sanity, which I had kept strong for the past twelve years finally came crumbling down and at the moment when I was the happiest I began to cry, more like weep, and started tearing apart all my books and writings and notes,’ he waved his hands wildly around and the people closest to him took a step back worried that they would in the way of his anger, ‘which I had so methodically gathered in the past twelve years, all gone, pieces of random paper littered my room and each step more paper crumpled under my weight,’ he stepped on imaginary paper lifting his knee to his chest and stomping the marble floor so that the sound echoed in the quiet ball room and the on lookers looked at one another with confused glances thinking the man was truly insane, ‘and I almost broke away from my quest, penning a letter to my servant who brought me food and books each day to let me out that I cannot bear the burden of my mission that no man could carry the weight of it on his weak shoulders but my servant knew me better then I knew myself and he refused to let me out. He is the reason that I stand before you all for if I had been let free I am sure my grief at my failure would have led me to the nearest cliff and I would have jumped to end my misery,’ he jumped where he stood with a smile on his face but none of the others were smiling at the sight of him falling down to his demise, ‘but like an addict, that feeling of missing something came to an end when I found something to plug up that whole. In my case in my rage to tear up all of my books and curse my servants name as I did so I stumbled up a box of books labeled religion,’ he instantly calmed his animated motions and his arms hung down his sides, ‘and the sight of those words calmed my nerves and I took a deep breath hoping that this was the final test.’

‘Here I was confronted with some deeper issues, issues of what is good and what is evil. In my philosophical phase, these issues had risen but I had subconsciously steered away from them because I did not feel I was mentally capable of discussing them and perhaps my reading of literature was a distraction from this big picture but now all of that was over and I was faced with the questions that now I know I had purposely avoided.’

‘By learning and discussing the teachings of Gods from different walks of life it gave me a different, a unique kind of perspective on my previous conclusion of the meaning of life. I started to believe that life cannot just be about self-happiness. It is a great feeling that of being happy and that is a good life but now I believed more than ever that one should give up part of their happiness in order to make the world better and one way to make the world a better place is through love. I cannot tell you how many times I converted to a different religion believing my quest has led me to this faith or the other but in the end I found that the best faith is the one you make for yourself, in other words, I began to follow a religion I created a religion that I constructed through all that I had read and learned in my years of isolation and it was wonderful. In my religion, it was the utmost importance to love, to be happy and to leave our world one percent better than we first got here. I lived by this for a few years, molding the laws and rules to my liking and what I thought would be the best way to accomplish my goal. And now I look upon your faces and I know that you do not believe me, that you think I lie to you all that the meaning of life is to create your own world that best helps our current one and I would say to this,’ he paused and the room held its breath for a moment, ‘is true. All of this was bullshit, excuse my language, but it was for these idealistic notions rarely come true in the real world and so after seven years of faith-based living, I gave it all up and I gave up reading for good.’

The room buzzed louder than ever. Their whisperings were more out of annoyance than anything else. The moon had risen to the top long ago and by now the old man had been speaking for two hours but Abraham did not care, he continued to study them as he combed his beard with his fingers until finally, one person spoke up and said, ‘what is the meaning already, stop philosophizing and just tell us already.’

They had learned nothing so far, not an ounce of patience from a man who had patiently sat in one room for twenty-one years trying to follow his quest. 

‘We are almost at the end my friend. You all with your riches must mean that you are smart intelligent people right? Well if so then you shall know that nineteen years have passed since I first began to tell you my story, a story you asked for, which means only two more years are left, friend, so if you please, I will tell you what happened in those two years first.’

He did not wait for their approval and continued speaking after a quick breath.

‘When I gave up reading I picked up the pen, my head hurt from all the things I crammed into it and slowly all the information packed into my mind flowed down to my neck and then into shoulder and down my veins of my forearms and my hands and into the black and blue ink of my pen and I wrote everything. I swear, I have written the greatest of novels in that time and I have comprised the greatest of encyclopedias of all fields, for such was the baggage that I carried. As I wrote the more I knew I was heading towards the end when finally one month ago from this day I reached the conclusion of my quest and I simply informed my servant who agreed I had accomplished my mission and let me out and here I am, gentlemen and gentlewomen, a man who spent twenty-one years in a room, following an experiment that nearly killed my sanity but in the end rewarded me with the ultimate truth.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘Simply, it is to see and if not get a dog, then you shall see.’

At this the room exploded in a round of angry discussion and amidst the rumbling, the old man slipped quietly away but not before hearing people ask one another “what is it that we are supposed to see” or “see what” or “how would I know if I have seen it?” and some even asked what kind of dog.

Abraham did not waste any time, he left behind the rich dinner party that was full of confused and angry people. He drove to his house and the light coming out of his bedroom told him that his wife was awake. He peeled off his wig and placed the long gray hair sat on the head of the staircase as he climbed the steps.

‘Yes….how many?….okay I’ll make the appointment.’ He heard his wives voice say through the cracked bedroom door.

When she saw him, she pulled the telephone away from her ear and held her hand over the bottom part so whoever was on the other side could not hear, ‘you won’t believe it Abe but I keep getting calls for adoptions. I swear at least twenty of my puppies will have a new home by tomorrow.’

Abraham merely smiled and stretched his back so that it cracked.

‘All that standing up really takes a toll on the body,’ he muttered.

His wife hung up the phone after confirming the person’s appointment.

‘By the way,’ she said as Abraham climbed into the bed with her having changed his clothes, ‘how did your research go?’

‘Oh wonderful dear, another success in the field of human naivety. I swear people believe anything you say no matter how many times you tell them not to.’ 

His wife got another phone call by another person that Abraham knew was present at the dinner, another person who had taken Abraham’s words to be true without doing any thinking of their own.

Short Story: The Toy Store

When’s dad coming home? I asked mother.

Soon, dear, she replied. Her back was towards me. I heard the knife jabbing into the cutting wood and the sound of paper being torn but it was not paper she was cutting. She sliced the apple into five pieces and placed them on a plate and set it in front of me.

I have to eat this today too? I asked.

She smiled but did not answer.

I took a bite of the apple slice and the juices flooded into my mouth. When I bit again, I snapped with my teeth, making a loud cracking sound and I watched mother from the top of my eyes to see her reaction but she did not react.

Can I go out and play? I asked.

After you’re done eating.

All of it?

Again she did not reply.

I finished two slices and asked her again when dad would be home and she replied the same way.

Soon.

And then we’ll go to the store?

Yes dear.

And I can pick out as many toys as I want?

Finish your food first.

I’m not hungry.

She pulled the plate towards her and poured some salt on the slices from the salt shaker.

Here now, be a good boy and finish your food. Your seven now, boys who are seven don’t fuss over their food.

I didn’t know what to say so I ate another slice.

Will there be cake tonight? I asked her.

Don’t worry about that, dear, your father will get some.

Chocolate right?

She didn’t reply.

Does dad know I want chocolate one, I said again.

He knows, she said.

I took a bite of the apple and the taste of the salt made it tastier. I rubbed the half-eaten slice on the plate where the salt had missed the fruit and quickly finished it.

I thought of the toy store as I played around with the last apple slice. I saw myself walking through the door, the doorbell ringing as the glass door pushed open inwards, the white light illuminating everything inside, all the toys, the row of bicycles, I wanted a new one, one that made a little jingle when you rung the bell, one that was red because red things were faster and after that I would go up the stairs to the second floor where all the action figures and the toy cars were and I would need to get at least four or five action figures seeing two of mine already broke and I needed another three cars to finish my collection, then there was the matter of getting the parachute toy, I had seen the advertisement for the toy just a few hours ago and it was a small figure of a soldier, all green holding a gun in his hands and a parachute was attached on his back so when you threw it in the air the parachute opened and he slowly drifted back down to the ground.

I hadn’t noticed but I had finished the last slice and I was free to go now. I showed mother who said I can go play now and I went out to the front yard and found the little hump of dirt that I had made and using my fingers I clawed at it until the head popped out of the figure I had buried. I pulled it out, the dirt falling apart on either side. Once he was free of his bondage I tossed the figure in the air and watched it come crashing down. I did it again and again until one time its leg snapped off and I picked up the broken leg and buried it in the ground but after that, I got bored quickly of the game. I buried the entire figure back, using my hands to even out the dirt on top.

I went to the front gate which was closed and I climbed the wall that ran along the side. Now I could look over the gate and I stood there, watching the road, waiting for father to come home.

As I watched I saw a little boy walking alone. He was covered in dirt. He wore slippers on his feet which were coming apart from the side. His jeans were torn at the knees, perhaps from having fallen down too many times. I knew my own jeans had ripped like that but for some reason, I didn’t think his tore from playing. The cream-colored shirt he wore was lost in the dirt and dust that was embedded in the shirt. The shirt hung loosely around him as if he had lost a huge amount of weight in a very short interval. His face looked hardened. Baked by the sunlight, mother had told me that once. Stay out of the sun she always said. There was crust on the side of his lips and underneath his nose which he seemed to be unaware of. He walked dragging his feet, looking at the ground.

I knew the boy. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him. He was often caught trying to steal things that were left out in the front yards of homes. He saw me looking and he stopped walking. We stared at one another and I noticed a bruise beside his eye. I figured it was from being caught stealing. He had one tried to take two chairs that were set out in our yard and my father had caught him. Instead of hitting him like all the other people did, father gave him some water and some biscuits and told him not to come back here. He never did. The boy was still staring at me and I felt something for him but didn’t know what it was. I just wanted to give him some water like my father did or some food. I even thought of giving him the action figure that I had buried in the ground but then again, it was broken, missing some part of itself, and it was not its fault. The boy started walking again, staring at the ground in front of him. There was sweat on the back of his neck which was being stung by the sun. He went by without looking up, dragging his feet as he walked, his already scuffed sandals getting marked further. I watched him until he disappeared down the street but that feeling inside me was still there.

Father came when I was in the backyard playing with my toys. I had two wind up racing cars. One red with white stripes down the middle and the other was black and made a zooming noise. You had to pull them back and the tires would click over and over as you pulled until they reached their limit and then you let them go and the cars would race off. I was doing that on the tiled veranda when father entered. The red car that I didn’t like as much slithered off to the side and fell into the grass. The black one came to a stop when it hit the leg of the chair nearby. I cared little for it either. I ran up to father and wrapped my arms around his waist. He picked me up so I was taller than him for that moment and he asked how my day went so far.

When are we going to the store? I asked.

He laughed.

I’ve been hearing that you’ve been bugging your mom about that all day.

She was standing at the veranda door leaning against the door hinge, smiling too.

I felt a bit of shame even though that wasn’t what my father intended. I was older now. That’s not how older kids act.

My father sensed what was in my mind and he laughed again.

Okay, let’s go, he said as he set me down on the ground.

We were at a stop light. Mother and father were talking about something. I was lost to their words. The tune from the radio played quietly in the back. I was looking out of the window at the two children walking down the middle of the street, maneuvering their way around the waiting cars. The older one had a bundle of plastic toys in one hand. The toys were long and thin and I had seen them before. They looked like a whip and came in different colors and when you moved them rapidly back and forth they would light up and make different musical sounds. The older boy was holding the hand of the younger one. The younger one had one of those toys in his hands and was whipping it back and forth showing the people how the toy worked. The two of them stopped beside our car and the older one was saying something which I could not hear but I knew he was wanting me to buy the toy. The younger one kept on waving the plastic around. Both of the boys were hardened too. 

The light turned green and my father went. I watched the two boys walk to the divider in the middle of the road and stood there waiting for the light to turn red again.

So, tell me about all the toys you are going to get today, my father asked.

Short Story: A Warm Summer Evening

The ceiling fan lifelessly groaned as the warm summer air came through the open window. The fan leaned heavily on one side as if it were giving way to some burden and the electric wires curled and twisted from the socket from which the fan was attached to the ceiling. He had meant to tell the landlord about it but he hesitated in case the landlord asked questions. Instead, he opted to close the window and forget about the fan.

Outside, people were already busy. The sun had barely risen but man was always awake. No rest for those who think and man cannot stop thinking. If only he could go down like the sun and forget that he had ever risen. He dressed for work, wearing the same shirt, the same trousers, and the same boots. The belt he chose was the same one as well. The brown leather belt that had been with him for too many years now. It had changed as he had changed. Now the last hole of the belt strained as he buckled it around his waist. There was a time when the second did him fine. There was a time for a lot of things however, that time was different and this time was what he had left.

He adjusted his trousers so he could get some more breathing room. The ceiling fan lay motionless now and so did everything else in the small room. It was everything he had and he did not mind it. The small possessions of his were his own and he knew them by heart which made the small great because each piece meant something. Perhaps this was why he had not gotten a new belt. This one had been with him for too long to throw away like some piece of rotten food. Even it had a purpose still, just the same as him. His purpose, for now, was to open the shop and sweep the floors before the customers came.

The shop was hidden behind the new stores that were built the year before. At least that’s how people described it. The little shop that looks out of place. It may have been old and out of place but it was still fine. People still came through the doors and the little bell still rung and the customers still appreciated the food.

At least the same people did. It seemed as if only the old remembered the shop for it was always the same people that came at the same time for the same food and said the exact same words. He greeted them the same as well and asked them the same questions. Robert, who worked as a server had noticed this and made a joke, saying that whenever he came into work it was like he was living the same day again.

“I could go about the day blind and still see,” Robert said. “I don’t know how you do it, man, I’ve been here for like two months and I’m going mad, you’ve been here like ten years—”

“Fifteen.”

“Fifteen? That’s even worse, I don’t know how you ain’t gone mad.”

“It’s not that bad. I don’t mind the everyday.”

“This ain’t for me, man, I’m trying to get out when I can.”

“You should. You can do much better.”

“Franz you always be telling me this and you’re a good man for it but you should take your own advice.”

He shook his head.

“I don’t mind it here.”

The little bell went off and it was time for Mr. Friedrich to come. He was an older man, older than Franz but he still had a full head of grey hair. He walked slowly, leaning on one side because of the wound he had suffered in his leg from the war that still bothered him. It had bothered him more with each passing year. It bothered him the most now for he could not lean upon his wife anymore.

Mr. Friedrich sat down at the corner table by the window. He liked to feel the warmth of the sun. Although he never said as much Franz figured it to be true. The elder hands always rested where the sunlight fell. Robert went to greet him.

Franz already knew the order and had the eggs and bacon ready to cook. He also had the orange juice waiting for Mr. Friedrich. Robert came back and told him what he knew and Franz started cooking. Robert leaned up against the kitchen counter and folded his arms. He whistled himself a tune as Franz cooked, rhythmically tapping his foot on the tiled kitchen floor which was swept clean by Franz hours before.

“Why do you think he comes here every morning?” Robert asked.

“Mr. Friedrich?”

“Ya-huh”

“Maybe he likes my cooking.”

Robert laughed and his laugh made Franz smile.

“I heard he’s well to do.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Meaning he ain’t need to come to a small little place like this. He could go to a fancier one, better one and have grub there.”

“Mr. Friedrich has been coming here for years now. He used to come with his wife before. I’ve even seen him come with his daughter.”

“She good looking?”

“Out of your league, son.” He chuckled.

“You’d be surprised, Old Fran, I can make plenty of things work.”

“Yeah, yeah. How about you make yourself work first and take this to Mr. Friedrich”

The store got less busy when the afternoon came. It was just how things worked around here. The warm sunny days made people slow and relaxed. They much rather walk the coastline or lay by the beach and watch the waves come and go instead of being stuck in a small five table shop in the corner of the town. Franz liked this part of the job. Afternoons were what he looked forward too for he could step outside the kitchen and have his smoke under the sunlight. He sat on the curb in front of the shop and watched the quiet streets. In the big cities, you could not find such peace. It was the kind of peace one could discover at any moment of the day. In the big cities, peace like this only came at home, if that, but here, all he had to do was close his eyes and have his smoke and he would be at peace for the town was at peace.

He looked at his left hand and no longer was there any mark that changed its disposition. With time, the sunlight had branded over his previous brand. Now, it was concealed as if there was never anything on his finger. The sunlight fell upon his chest as well. There was no concealing what was inside there. A branded heart cannot be rebranded. If only the smoke and the sunlight could calm the memories. Amidst the peace was disorder but only he felt his disorder, the rest of them did not see it, but he knew the rest were disordered as well, but he did not see it. He wondered how peaceful the town really was.

The little bell rang and Robert came out of the shop. He sat beside him on the curb and Franz passed him the smoke. Robert was a good boy. He complained a lot but he always did his work and soon he’ll move on like the rest of the kids do but another will come to take Robert’s place and Franz hoped he would be as good as Robert too.

In the evening Mr. Friedrich returned. He never came back in the evening however, Mr. Friedrich did take his usual seat by the window. He ordered some whiskey but Robert informed him that they didn’t serve alcohol like that. Mr. Friedrich asked for it again and when he asked for the third time it sounded as if he were on the verge of begging, the proud man’s voice quivered as he failed to look Robert in the eyes.

Franz gave Robert some money to run down the street and get the whiskey from the liquor store. Mr. Friedrich sat quietly holding the piece of newspaper he had brought with him. He did not read it until Robert came back with the whiskey. Franz put three cubes of ice in a glass and drowned it with alcohol. He set it on Mr. Friedrich’s table who just nodded. He took a sip from the drink and then unfolded his paper and began to read.

“Odd fellow ain’t he?” Robert said to Franz as the two watched from the kitchen. “Made  a big deal about the drink and now he’s barely drinking it.”

“It’s not about the drink,” Franz said.

“What you mean?”

“Think he just didn’t want to be alone.”

Robert turned back to study Mr. Friedrich.

“You think?”

“Night can be too long when you are alone.”

Mr. Friedrich finished his drink slowly. He did not ask for more. When he tried to pay for the whole bottle, Franz told him not to worry about it. Mr. Friedrich was a proud man and he did not take the service for free so he left a good tip on the table. Franz let Robert keep the tip for himself.

“You deserve it,” Franz said, “never seen you run that fast.”

Robert laughed and the two of them shared another smoke. Robert suggested that they might as well have some whiskey too while it’s here and Franz agreed. Franz did not talk much but Robert did, he never stopped talking, Franz simply sat there smoking and drinking until he felt a little light headed and he wasn’t sure if it was the drink or Robert’s word that made his head feel that way but he was glad for Robert and his words because otherwise, it would have been him and his own words.

When Franz got home, he sat down at the edge of his bed and took off his shoes. Afterward, he undid his belt and he felt his stomach thank him. He laid the brown leather belt beside him and went to open the window. The warm evening air came through, slightly moving the cream colored curtains. He stood by the open window and had another smoke. The landlord wouldn’t like him smoking indoors but he felt if he did it by the window, it would not be that bad. All he could see from his window was the quiet back street where a cat lay curled up. He often fed the little cat and he called it Franny.

Once Franz finished his smoke, he grabbed the wooden chair from his study table and set it in the middle of the room. He went to his bed and picked up his brown leather belt and looped the belt through the buckle and tied it at the last loop which had been strained by the weight of his belly. He stepped onto the chair and lowered his head slightly so that it would not hit the ceiling fan. He put the belt through the somewhat dusty arm of the fan until the belt was centered. Franz needed to get on his tippy toes to get his head through the loop. Once around it, he balanced himself on the chair, his toes scraping the wood. Here was where his coward came out. Always here. At the edge of it, he was always to cowardice to jump, to plunge into the nothingness and be brave about what happens next. But his heart wasn’t built like that or it may have been built like that but he had drowned his courage and now all that remained was the coward. He swallowed his spit and took a breath and pushed the chair away. Slowly the disorder went away.

Franz awoke on the floor. The chair lay on its side and he unknowingly mimicked its stance. The belt still hung on the ceiling fan but it was no longer circular but rather it hung, limp. Franz rubbed his tender throat and even inhaling stung. He should have known better to take a deep breath. The warm evening air came through the open window and he lay there. After some time he slowly got to his feet and set the chair in the middle of the room again. He climbed up it and reached for the leather belt. He saw the loop had finally given way and was ripped.

He liked that belt. It had been with him for too long. He placed the belt in his cabinet and the ceiling fan leaned a little more or so he believed. Outside, the cat meowed and he forgot that he didn’t even feed Franny and so he went out into the warm evening to do that. While outside, he decided to have another smoke. At least this time he had made progress.

Short Story: The Bus

How long will it be, I asked mother. I was standing beside her and I had the three tickets in my hand. Her hand was on my shoulder and just her touch alone made me feel better. My brother kicked a rock that was on the ground and looked around for another one. Mother told him to stop because he was dirtying up his shoes.

Four hours, she said to me.

Four hours, I said back to her, but I don’t want to go in there.

This is was the fourth or fifth time I said that and mother had enough, she did what she always did when she was frustrated.

Remember what your father said, be a big boy now.

Four hours, I repeated back more to myself than to anyone else.

I leaned closer to my brother, my mother’s hand left my shoulder as I did that.

Are you nervous? I asked him softly so that only he heard me.

He was staring at the side of the bus, reading the advertisement for Pepsi that was painted on it.

I poked him from behind to get his attention and he swung his arm around, striking my hand away.

Mother told us to stop.

The bus doors opened in a mechanical fashion as if it were just going through the motions and made a yawing sound, tired of working. The conductor, who wore a buttoned up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbow, stepped down from the bus. The other people quickly formed a line and the three of us fell into place. I stayed close to mother, sheltered by her hip. My brother led the three of us and I felt as if I should be like that too. I edged my way by my brother’s side.

You think it’ll be fun, I asked him.

He shrugged.

Mama said they play a movie now. What movie do you think it’ll be?

Probably some boring one.

You think so?

He didn’t reply. He was older than me by three years and this was his first time too. I wanted to ask him if he was nervous again but I didn’t. He was like me but he was older so I followed him.

We stopped in front of the conductor. He put his hand out for the tickets and mother grabbed them from my hand and gave it to the man. He looked at them for a second and then nodded, handing the tickets back and motioning us through.

We followed my brother in.

Go to the back, mother said.

The school bus I took I usually sat in the front because you could get out quickly when you got to the school. The first five rows were double seated most of them were already taken by adults. All the seats were painted blue and you could see the white plastic underneath the peeling paint every now and then. There was a red and black cushion set atop the seats and particles of dust shot in the air when one sat down on it. The seats in the back of this bus were wider. They seated three at a time and the last row could seat ten people.

I asked my brother how many could sit at the way back and he said probably ten but I knew twelve could fit if they wanted to.

My brother stopped at the first set of three seaters and didn’t look over at mother to see if it was okay. He began to scout inside, going to the window seat.

I quickly turned to mother, you said I could have the window seat.

Does it matter, she asked.

You said I could have it.

She let out a deep breath. Let your brother have the window seat, she said in a tired voice.

My brother looked to protest but before he could mother raised her hand and I knew I had won. He threw himself onto the middle seat.

As I walked by him he stuck out his leg and tried to trip me but I knew that was coming and I stepped over it. I smiled at him, letting him know I won. When I sat down he leaned over and pinched me under my arm where mother couldn’t see. I cried out to her but she ignored the two of us. It was a daily or more accurately an hourly occurrence between the two of us.

I looked out of the window, rubbing my arm where my brother had pinched me. It was like a school bus, I told myself. I had been in plenty of those. Every morning at eight I waited for the bus outside my house along with my brother. I rode the same bus back in the afternoon. So twice a day…for…I tried to count how many times I had ridden the bus in the past five years but I ended up settling on a lot. I’ve been in a lot of them. The door closed and the bus started, jerking us all back and the uncomfortable cotton covered seats already were making me sweat. The windows only cracked slightly at the top, just enough for the heat to escape but not enough for the cool wind to come in.

Mother was right however, there was a television at the top corner of the bus, straight ahead. When it came alive it played some bootleg movie that was still in theatres. One could still see the silhouettes of the heads of the people in the movie theatre watching the movie and occasional a shadow stood up and sat down. My brother was right too. It was boring.

How much longer, I asked my mother.

Almost halfway done.

So two more hours?

More or less.

My brother was asleep. His head tilted back, his mouth slightly open, arms crossed over his chest. I suppressed my laughter. I looked out of the window again. So far the bus ride had been uneventful. Apart from the occasional fit of cough from one of the older people on the bus, there had been the usual sound of the movie playing and people snoring. I had played my game most of the ride. The game was simple. Whenever the bus got near the shadow of the trees I would unclench my teeth and imagine the bus jumping over the shadow and when we were past the shadow I would clench my teeth again which meant that the bus came back down on the road. Then, once more I waited for the next opportunity to jump. I always played this game on the school bus.

The bus was slowing down. I asked mother what was happening. She told me not to worry. The bus came to a stop at the side of the road.

Mother asked If I needed to use the bathroom and I shook my head. I did need to go but for some reason, I felt as if I left the bus it might leave me and I would be left alone on the side of the road. Such a thought came after, once mother had left along with more than half the bus. I stood up and leaned over my brother to see where everyone was going. There was a restaurant on the other side of the road.

My brother woke up and he elbowed me in the chest and told me to get off of him. I sat down rubbing my chest. He saw that mother was not here.

I told him not to worry, mama will be right back. She just went outside.

He stood up to leave as well.

I called his name and told him to sit down. Mama said to stay here and not to move.

Mama said…

He left.

I sat alone gripping the metal railing in front of me, trying to look outside the window to see where my brother was going. I saw him get out and he disappeared from my view. I wanted to go after him but mother said to stay put. I wanted to go find mother and let her know that he left and that we should find him because what if the bus left without him. It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t leave. It might leave. It might leave now, without him and without mother. It could. I would be alone then. Alone in the seat. Where were they? Some of the people had returned and took their seats. Where were they? The conductor came back and I wanted to go up and tell him not to leave. He was talking to the bus driver. Mother said not to leave the seat so I stayed put. I kept an eye on the driver, watching his hands to make sure he didn’t put them on the wheel. I felt as if with my thoughts alone I could stop the bus from going. More people came back. It looked as if everyone was back. I saw the conductor looking, counting the people. I tried to draw attention to the two empty seats beside me. I felt like going to the bathroom right there. The feeling reaching deep inside of me and the thought of it made my ears burn and I wished the windows would open some more. I stayed rooted to my seat. My foot on top of my other foot and both my hands on the railing now, looking at the driver.

He turned the bus on. I felt my body shaking but didn’t know if that was from the inside or from the motor of the bus. I thought harder hoping it was enough.

An older man came up the steps and the conductor helped him. Behind him was my mother and I stopped shaking. Behind her was my brother, drinking from a juice box, holding a bag of chips in his other hand and I sat back, letting go of the railing. I looked out of the window as if I had been doing so the entire time.

Mother came and sat in the middle seat. She opened up her purse and took out a juice box for me and she was smiling. She always brought the same juice box for me. She knew it was my favorite. I took it without giving away what had just been in my head. She also set a bag of chips on my lap and then leaned back in her chair, watching the movie as the bus got back on the road.

I tried not to think about the thoughts I just had but they kept creeping back into my mind like thoughts always did, especially the bad kind, the kind which kept imagining what will happen at night if the closet door is left open, I wanted to stop thinking and thinking about that made my ears burn again for I felt embarrassed by these thoughts. I was older now. I should be more like my brother. Like my father said.

There was a thin layer of sweat on my mother’s forehead as she leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes. My brother watched the television screen, gently rocking back and forth with the rhythm of the moving vehicle. I had finished my food and washed it down with the juice box. I placed my head against the cool window and watched my breath fog onto the glass. Outside a truck rushed past us, almost grazing the side of the bus and I felt it was a good thing the windows didn’t open all the way.

When I woke up it took me a moment to realize the silence that lay inside the bus. It was almost crushing if anyone spoke it would bring it crashing down upon us and I knew this instinctually for when I awoke I grabbed my mothers arm and asked her with my eyes what happened and she slowly shook her head.

We were no longer moving. My brother was gripping the metal railing in front of him with one hand. Outside the only thing that was still unconcerned were the leaves of the trees. They kept going with the gentle wind. The uneasiness inside the bus made me want to move around. I felt the same whenever I took a test at school. The quietness of classrooms always made me more nervous as if everyone could hear or sense the little boy in me. I wasn’t a little boy anymore, I reminded myself.

I heard then the squeaking of metal chain. In the quietness it spoke loudly, otherwise, it would have gone unheard. An older man rode his bicycle down the side of the road. He was hovering slightly above his seat and he was not looking ahead of him but rather at the inch of concrete directly in front of the rubber tires. I still remember those unblinking eyes. He disappeared.

The bus door opened. A family of three walked up the steps and the conductor did not bother checking their tickets. In fact, he looked to be frozen in his chair. The family stood still for a second at the front of the bus, like new school children waiting to be told where to sit by the teacher. The father’s face resembled the color of his white shirt which was neatly tucked into his trousers except for this one part at his hip which was coming out as if he had been leaning to the other side for too long. The mother was holding the daughter’s hand and she was looking straight ahead but not looking. My mother put an arm around my shoulders. The daughter wore a pretty blue dress and her hair was done in the style of a ponytail which was held together was a butterfly pin. The mother held the daughter tightly. Both her hands were gripping the daughter’s shoulders as if she let go, the little girl will float away like some ballon you buy at a fair. I noticed then the tears from the mother’s eyes. Even they fell in silence. The father put his hand on his wives back and motioned her to go to the backseat. The three of them were in unison as they walked down the aisle, heads turned to watch them from the back. When they passed us my brother stared at the ground and so did I. My mother kept her arm around me. There was something haunting about them. It was as if we feared to look at them because whatever haunted them could haunt us too.

People made room for them in the back. Giving them plenty of room as if they were also aware of the haunting thing that accompanied them. The mother sat in the corner and then the daughter and the father beside her. The father leaned in towards his daughter and wife and kept a tight hold onto them. I could see the part of his shirt that was undone.

The bus jolted in motion. The television started once more but the conductor turned the sound down. Peoples heads turned towards the windows as we went past the scene. First, the back end of the bus came in view and soon after, too soon, the front. The bus had been compressed as if its inside had been taken apart, accordion-like it stood, with its shattered glass sparkling on the ground, it looked so pretty, the sun glinting off the glass, fallen stars. Where the front of the bus ended, the front of the truck started and my mother made me look away.

I looked back and I saw them too. The white cloths covering something on the side of the road. So many white cloths covering the same thing I was. Those people were, but I was, and am still. The family was still but they were not anymore. I was and I felt a part of me was not for whatever haunted the family had come onto me, at least a small part of it was in me. The cloth peacefully fluttered with the wind and above them, the leaves of the trees still moved, unconcerned and above it, the sun was shining. So bright. So wonderfully. I was older than.

Short Story: The Wrong Wave

They named her Mary after Meredith’s mother. His granddaughter played with her mother’s braid but for the life of him, he could not remember the mother’s name. One night Meredith had told him he was a grandfather. He had never seen her but here she was now, his granddaughter and she looked exactly like Meredith. Those green glassy eyes and soft brown hair. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Stephen coming back. He had grown to be a fit man. He looked away from the baby and her mother as Stephen took a seat beside his wife.

Miss Dorthy stood up and made her way towards him. She and the rest of the gossiping pack would hopefully leave him alone now that there was no reason for them to come by the house. Dorothy wasn’t too bad but he couldn’t stand the constant rumors and judgments that were given light each time they met with his wife and those rumors and judgments would fill Meredith’s head and late at night, as they lay in bed, he would have to hear everything. He put on a sad smile as Miss Dorthy wrapped her arms around him and said how sorry she was for his loss.

“Thank you, Dora.”

“If there’s anything you like, anything, just let us know.”

“That’s kind of you but I think I’ll manage.”

“We don’t mind. We’ll be happy to do it. Mary was like a sister to me that means you’re my brother. So don’t hesitate to call.”

“She would have been pleased to hear such kind words. However, I’ll manage.” He repeated again. Miss Dorthy nodded quietly and squeezed his hand before leaving.

The priest looked over and asked if he wished to say a few words before the ceremony began. He cleared his throat and slowly the hushed conversations died down and the room was silent.

“I want to thank everyone that came out today. Meredith would have been very happy to know that she was loved by so many people. It is sad times that unites us at the moment and I’ll like to say that Mary was a fine woman, a good wife, and a great mother. As you all can attest to this, Mary had a short temper,” he smirked and a few in the crowd smiled too, “but no one I have known had a bigger heart than her. I’ll miss her dearly.”

He looked over at the Priest and nodded to let him know he was finished.

“Beautifully said, Jonathan.” Priest said. “Now if everyone may close their eyes and bow your heads so that we may pray for good Meredith to have a safe journey.”

He zipped up his jacket to the very top and raised his shoulder up to his ears as the wind picked up outside. The clouds were still threatening snow but had not delivered and he stared at the gathering clouds as his breath turned to mist. His son and his family came through the revolving doors and stepped outside. For a moment they all looked at one another. His son’s wife was clearly uncomfortable for she stared at the ground, carrying their baby in her arms. It seemed like Stephen wanted to say something to him as he cleared his throat or perhaps expected his father to say something first. But the two men remained quiet for the brief moment and that period of uncertainty passed and Stephen turned on his heel and made for his car, his wife and daughter beside him.

He wanted to ask him how old Mary was and what his wife’s name was and how his son had been all these years but he couldn’t manage to get the words out. Damn thing, it is, this thing in him, that won’t even allow him to apologize to his own son.

The doors opened again and this time Mr. and Mrs. Manson came out. Mrs. Manson had her fur cap on tight over her head and Mr. Manson told her to wait in the car.

“Sorry for your loss dear.” Mrs. Manson said to him before crossing the parking lot towards the black Chevy truck that was parked at the very first parking spot.

“Tough times eh?” Mr. Manson said. “It’ll pass. Believe me, they pass.” Mr. Mason was nearly eighty years old and if anyone knew about dealing with the loss of loved ones it was him. He had stood by and watched all the people he had grown up with slowly leave him, one by one. His own daughter had died in a wreck just four years earlier.

“How are you holding up?”

“Fine.”

“How’s work been? I imagine you won’t be returning to the office for a little while eh?”

“I’m going there tomorrow.”

“They didn’t even give you any time to grieve?”

“They offered me a few days to myself but I rather work.”

“I see. Maybe that’s for the best. Get right back into the daily grind of things.”

The two of them shook hands and old Mr. Manson waddled towards his truck.

The thought of greeting each person one by one as the day grew colder was awful and he sooner leave than hear another consoling remark. Besides, it was Sunday. Every Sunday he had lunch at the cafe on 6th street, today was no different. Why should it be? He got in his Volvo and headed to the cafe.

Sundays were sacred to him. Every moment of the seventh day of the week was planned out and it was a day of solitary adventures. He woke up at seven in the morning and he made two packets of oatmeal and drank a cup of coffee. At eight he took his dog for a walk. After the hour walk, he came home and took a shower, shaved, read the morning paper as he had another cup of coffee and then, exactly at ten he went to his study to make ready the documents and papers he needed for Monday morning. He had failed to do any of this today as the circumstances were special. He decided when he got home after the cafe he would skip the evening news and use that time to prepare his work for tomorrow. Normally after he dealt with his work duties he would take an hour long nap before heading to his study once again to do some reading.

Meredith knew not to disturb him when he was in there but she would always knock around two to offer some tea. None of these things had happened this Sunday. But his obligations were over and now he was free to continue the rest of his day. Free. The watch let him know that it was almost three in the afternoon which was hard to tell from the heavy clouds. If it wasn’t for the watch he would have assumed it was already evening.

On his way to the cafe, the first drops of snow fell down from the sky onto his windshield where they melted and took shape of raindrops. He turned the wipers to cast aside the unwanted water. The snow grew heavier as he continued to drive until a thin layer of white could be seen on the dead grass of houses that flanked the roads on either side. He remembered how much Meredith loved to ski and how they would go to Austria every January for two weeks for that’s where the best snow rested and the best skiing happened. They had gone last year and stayed at the same hotel they always stayed at and each morning they woke up and got ready for the day’s activities and all morning and afternoon was spent cutting through the snow, going down the hills and the face of the mountains.

He had twisted his ankle the last time they went and he had to cancel his skiing plans just after two days. Meredith went on her own as he stayed back and enjoyed his books by the fireside. He knew she was seeing another man in the resort and his sprained ankle had given him the ticket out so, he didn’t have to put on a face in front of her and he could now enjoy his lonesome time. His ankle, even after a year, still hurt when he put too much pressure on it. Meredith had told him to go see a doctor and said he was too stubborn for his own good. This year he would go alone even though he didn’t enjoy skiing that much but he did like the countryside view and the people in Austria treated him kindly and there is really nothing like the blanket of snow that covers the fields which end where the white mountains rise. He wished to see that view a few more times before his time came. Besides, going skiing every January had become a part of his life, it was natural now and he had to do it.

Italy always interested him. The ancient beauty left behind attracted him to it but he had never been. Meredith preferred Austria for that businessman was there at that time of the year. She did not know he knew but he had known for years and he was content with letting it happen for it made her happy and his love for her had long been gone and he felt little of the jealousy an average man would have felt. He thought perhaps this year he’ll go to Rome and see the Roman forum, sit inside the granite bowl where the gladiators fought, go see the sight of Caesar’s assassination, watch an opera dressed in his finest tuxedo which he would have to buy beforehand for he didn’t own one at the present, get a guide to help navigate through the museums explaining to him the significance of each marble structure and each stroke of brush but then again, he didn’t want to go alone, not to a new country where everything was foreign from the air to the roads, from their speech to their food. It scared him to go alone. He had made peace with the idea of the constant life. Life in which you live the same days and same months and same years over and over again. He had made peace with that many years ago, maybe even as long ago when he needed his mother to buy him sweets. Maybe that’s why he stopped loving her and she went with another man.

“Hello there Jon. Didn’t expect to see you here today.” Carlton Hesswood said. Mr. Hesswood was an old man, his hair having left his head a long time ago and from the looks of it, he enjoyed his own cafes cooking more than Jonathan did. With his stomach leading the way, Mr. Hesswood came over to the table by the window where Jonathan always sat. Jonathan shook the man’s hand and Mr. Hesswood did not wait for an invitation before taking a seat beside him.

“Awful hearing about Meredith. My condolences go out to you and your loved ones.” His large hand and even larger fingers heavily pressed down on Jonathan’s knee as he talked. Outside the snow fell calmly for the wind wasn’t strong enough to disturb its fall. “Did everything go smoothly?” He asked about the funeral.

“As smoothly as it can” Jonathan replied.

“That’s wonderful. Always a kind woman every time I met her.”

“That she was.” Jonathan looked over Mr. Hesswood’s shoulder to see the waitress coming his way with the menu.

“He doesn’t need that.” Mr. Hesswood said smiling to the waitress. “The usual Jonny?”

“Yes.”

“Two roast beef sandwiches with extra mayo and some fries with extra salt on the side.” He winked at Jonathan. “Anything else?”

“Glass of red wine.”

“Ah yes of course.” The waitress, Sarah, had already written down the wine order. Jonathan thanked her.

“Didn’t think you’ll be coming in today if I’m being honest.”

“Why not?”

“Thought you’ll be too busy you know…with the arrangements and all that.”

“A man’s still gotta eat.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

Jonathan picked up the ketchup bottle and it was heavy enough for his needs.

“How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine.”

The snow had gathered on the brick wall outside the window so that a layer of pale snow filled the bottom border of the window. The snow fell quickly.

“It looks like its going to be a bad one.” Mr. Hesswood said watching the weather.

Jonathan nodded in response.

Cars passed back and forth, their arrival being headed by the cylinder light that protruded from the front and their departure waved by the faded red of their brake light.

“I gotta take care of a few things. Give me a moment and then I’ll come back and talk some more.”

He didn’t care if he came back, he preferred he didn’t but he simply nodded. He looked across the window, at the brightly lit restaurant and a couple in their finest clothing entered through the dark stained doors. He had always meant to eat there sometime. The food was supposed to be expensive and one was expected to be dressed nicely and he had never eaten there before even though it was the best place in town to eat. Meredith went there with her friends and she raved about the steak. Maybe someday.

The waitress came shortly after. “Heard about Mary. I’m sorry.” She said. Her fingers fidgeted with the fingers of her other hands. She looked around not knowing what else to say.

“Thanks,” he said. He wondered how many times he had said “thanks” today. He had dealt with the passing of many people before. This was nothing new to him.

“Could I get you anything else?”

“Not now.”

She smiled her sad smile the same one everyone at the funeral house gave him. She went to a different table where an elderly couple sat shoulder to shoulder. He could only see the back of their heads. There was something about seeing an elderly couple that always caused him to wonder if the two people still loved one another after so many years and if so, how did they manage to keep that love alive?

But he wasn’t even sure if he ever loved Meredith. Cared for her? Sure. Loved her?

The roast beef sandwich tasted exactly how it tasted each Sunday. The extra mayo covering up the undercooked roast beef while the onions, tomatoes, and the mustard masked the taste of the stale bread. He shook the fries to get rid of as much salt as he could so that on the plate there was a thin layer that resembled the pale snow on the windowsill which had grown since the last time he looked outside. He washed it all done with the wine. The wine was cheap, bought from the local liquor store on 17th street but for some reason, the cheapness of all the foods combined satisfied his taste. If he had gone to a different restaurant, one known for its quality he wouldn’t have been satisfied but it was odd, as if his taste buds adjusted to the standard of the incoming food, for knowing that the food served here was mediocre at best, it still filled him the same as a Michelin star restaurant. As he finished up the last piece of the sandwich Mr. Hesswood came back carrying two glasses of whiskey. 

“Let’s have a drink for Meredith.” Mr. Hesswood said sitting the whiskey down in front of him. He didn’t want to but he couldn’t say no. It always irked him when he had to deviate from his normal schedule. Whiskey wasn’t the part of the program but today was a special day so he made an exception.

Mr. Hesswood raised his glass and said, “To a lovely wife and mother.”

The warmth from the hard liquor flowed from his throat all the way to the pits of his stomach. It had gotten quite dark outside, darker than before. He no longer could make out the falling snow without the aid of the street lamps. He checked his watched and saw that he was behind schedule. Normally he and Mr. Hesswood only exchanged pleasantries. To his despair, Mr. Hesswood was still seated beside him.

“You know Jon if there’s anything you need you can always ask me, my man.”

“Thank you.” He wiped the corner of his mouth with the napkin and laid it down over his plate.

“Anything. Don’t hesitate to call. In fact, why don’t we do lunch tomorrow afternoon.”

“I work tomorrow.” He looked over Mr. Hesswood’s shoulder again and caught Sarah’s eye as she picked up the empty plates from a table where a family of five had been sitting. Jonathan mouthed the word “bill please” and she nodded.

“Ah, they got you working so soon. That’s bad luck.”

“It seems so. Perhaps another time.”

“Anytime. Just come on by you know where to find me, heh.” He smiled

Sarah came over with the bill. He already knew it was going to be fifteen thirty-five and then a three dollar tip meant eighteen dollars and thirty-five cents. He reached into his wallet and took out exact change. He shook hands with Mr. Hesswood, telling him he had to go.

“Ah come here.” Mr. Hesswood wrapped his big arms around his slim figure and squeezed him tightly. He felt the tips of his ears go hot and he cleared his throat, as he patted the big man on his back. He was glad when Mr. Hesswood finally released him.

He heard his dog barking as he stood outside his front door fumbling through his keys. His front yard was covered with a white blanket. He opened the door and immediately something came flying at him, weeping and jumping on its hind legs, its white tail flailing around, hitting his legs as he shuffled inside and shut the door behind him.

“Okay, okay, calm down now, Ralphy sit. Sit. Sit.” but the dog didn’t listen. Inside it turned around and ran towards the cabinet where his food was kept.

After taking off his boots and jacket, he went and poured Ralphy’s food in his bowl and as the bowl touched the tiled floor of the kitchen, the dog’s snout was already inside it and he was vacuuming up his food.

He passed the spotted couch that his wife had picked when they first moved in together and climbed the wooden staircase to the second floor where his study room was. He fumbled through the set of keys again and found the matching one and opened the door. The smell of leather met him as the leather seats on one end of the room flanked the fireplace. On the other side was his table and three chairs, two for visitors that rarely came and one his own comfortable leather chair that over time had contorted to meet his figure. Beyond it was his leather-bound copies of textbooks and other books that were neatly placed by alphabetical order in shelves that his wife had bought. He sat down and the dog came in after him. Ralphy curled up in its usual spot on the rug in front of the unlit fireplace. He opened the drawer to his right and pulled out a briefcase which had his work documents. He replaced the ones that he didn’t need with the ones he needed and ordered them from the most important to the least. The most important being Mr. Benjamin’s tax returns, with whom he had a meeting early tomorrow morning. He made sure the three blue pens and two black pens were in their proper place and that he had exactly twenty business cards inside. He then briefed himself with Mr. Benjamin’s documents so that tomorrow the meeting could go as smoothly as possible. Mr. Benjamin was a property owner looking to purchase a strip of land. He required all his tax papers so that he could present them to the bank for a loan of twenty thousand dollars. It was a pretty simple case. The kind he dealt with on most occasions. Still, he prepared for he always did so. It was part of who he was.

Normally he heard his wife cooking at this hour. Today there was no sound. The house was dead. He had never thought his life would turn out this way. He closed the briefcase and stared at the empty fireplace. When he was little he didn’t think he would be alone in his fifties having wasted his life, for all the things he thought mattered, didn’t, and all the things he wished to do, he failed to do them. He had an excuse for everything, though. Each moment of his life he had an alternative reason for why it didn’t pan out the way he had wished. Now, with gray in his hair and an empty home, he had ridden that false wave and that wave was coming to an end and there was nothing he could do about it.

He thought of his granddaughter and smiled to himself. She was so beautiful.

Ralphy yawned and stretched its front legs and then the back ones. His tail wagging. He snapped out from his thought and his chair scratched the wooden floor as he stood up. He didn’t even know where those thoughts came from.

“Come on then,” he said to the dog who followed him out the door and back down the staircase.

He had an odd feeling that in some way he was trespassing in some other persons home. The house was in mourning and the still air and lifeless sounds made him carefully descend the stairs, making as little noise as possible in order to allow the wooden walls their moment of peace. His watch showed him that it was a quarter to eight and he made his way to the kitchen to prepare his green tea which, he had every night before bed. Usually with Meredith who also enjoyed the hot beverage especially in the winter time. As he crossed the living room something caught his eye. It was a picture frame whose glare had struck him. The nearby curtain was slightly parted so that a slither of light came in and lit a perfectly straight path from the window to the picture frame. He was pulled into the room which he hadn’t entered in years for the smiling face of his son called him.

He picked up the picture frame whose thick borders were decorated with little yellow and red flowers and inside the frame was his son, wearing bright green board shorts, smiling his toothless smile as he sat on his shoulders, his little hand waving towards the camera. Beside them was Mary. She wore a white sundress which was tied down at the waist with a leather belt. She was holding her sunhat with one hand and by the way her hair was waving out, the wind must have been something special. Her other hand waved at the camera just like Stephens did. The sand on which they stood, glittered in the picture for the sun was strong that day and could be seen behind them, lighting the waters. A wave must have just broken for the sand around them was dark and the water was far away. Beyond that, another wave was on its way.

It was Sunday then too. Prior to his surrender of life. Or maybe he had already given up. He could see the old man with the brim hat and Hawaiian shirt that took that picture for them. On his shoulders sat his last hope. His son, in years to come, to take the burden off of his back and take it on his own younger, stronger one. He believed he still loved Meredith then but he couldn’t be sure. He had yet to meet that woman at the bar of the Atlantic Hotel with whom he realized his love for his wife had long ago drifted away as the sand drifted into the ocean behind them. He never really loved her. She was just there and she was there for him to take care of. She served as an excuse for pretending to love his life. But he did love his son. Still loved him after his expectations of what his son would do for him never came about. He was glad that his son took a different path. Glad that he had kicked him out the house, all those years ago. Glad that his boy was different. Otherwise, he would be stuck too. The endless moving ground and all you do is lift your legs up and down as the ground underneath you keeps on moving and its the same thing, over and over again. He was going to ride it out.

He put the picture down and his son’s face lit up once more by the light sneaking in through the parted curtains. He saw what the picture was seated on. The cover had a thin layer of dust and he wiped a clean streak with his forefinger which, he cleaned on the side of his leg. He rolled the cover back and dust flew in the air and settled on the picture frames. After all the years of disuse, the stainless black top that protected the keys looked up at him. He lifted it up and it creaked. The dust had gotten in somehow and the white keys were coated with it and so were the black ones.

He sat down on the stool in front of the piano and squared his shoulders, resting his fingers on the white keys. He pressed his forefinger down and the house was quiet no more. The ring of the tune stayed in the air long after the key had settled in its original spot. Ralphy looked up with his head twisted sideways. His fingerprint clearly visible in the dust. He pressed the fingers of his right hand, one by one. First the thumb. Then the forefinger. Followed by the middle and behind it the ring and closing it out with the little finger. He pressed them over and over again and the tune played without rest, filling the mourning home with life. Now his other hand had joined in and the black keys with their heavier tone mixed in and blended in with the quicker and lighter tunes of the white ones and he played the songs his father had taught him, which somehow his old wrinkled fingers still remembered and he felt himself sitting straighter, he could feel the blood flowing from his heart to the tips of his fingers which were youthful once more as his arms moved on their own hitting keys which they knew would produce the right sound and he didn’t feel the mourning house or his companions death or the barking dog, as it barked at the foreign sound emanating from what it must have thought to be a dead piece of furniture and he didn’t feel his fingers pulsing, aching from the restless playing or his foot tapping on its own and the vein on his neck bulged as his trance continued, with his eyes closed, letting instincts take a hold of him, the same Instinct that was buried in him deep for they were of childhood days when life was still cast with white light and dreams seemed close enough to grasp in his hands and a trickle of sweat slid down the side of his face but he didn’t feel it but the song was coming to an end but he didn’t want to stop but he had to, for the end was necessary to the brief life of the tune for without the end it would be incomplete, without the end it would be unnatural, without the end it would be purposeless and the end came.

He stopped playing but the music continued in his head and for a moment he sat there with his eyes closed. There was dust in the air and dust on his black pants and all over the picture of his son and wife and the other framed pictures that decorated the top of the piano. The scene of the crime had his fingerprints all over it as the last ember of the tune died away and the house fell silent once more. The silence was worse now than it had been before. It was as if hope dying had a noise and that noise was quietness. He cleared his throat and looked over his shoulder, expecting to see an audience in black suits and bow ties and women in their finest gowns and for a second he thought he heard someone clapping but only his dogs lolling tongue met his sight and the empty room beyond it. He shook his head and quickly stood up causing the stool to screech backward and toppling over, alarming the dog, who jumped backed and barked at the swaying stool which aimlessly rolled from one side to the other, eventually coming to a rest. He put the keys back in their coffin as he shut the top forcefully and pulled the cover over them. The house mourned another life. He turned and picked up the stool and placed it by the piano and hurried out of the room. His dog followed.

Two clicks and the fire came alive. He placed the pot of water with the green leaves already inside it. As he waited for the water to boil he went over to the cupboard and grabbed an almond for the dog. He failed to get the dog to sit and after four or five tries, he just tossed the almond at Ralphy and it bounced off his snout as he tried to get it in the air. It was half past eight and he stared out of the frosted kitchen window and watched the snow fall. It fell lightly now and it would fall all night and in the morning he would have the shovel the driveway before leaving for work. He wished he had taken that time off now. The thought left him. He thought he heard someone applauding once more or maybe whistling in appreciation only to realize it was his teapot that whistled. He tore himself away from the mesmerizing grace of the peaceful snow and lifted the pot off the flames and the whistling slowly died off. He poured the green tea into his cup. He turned the stove off and placed the pot in the sink to wash later. He was already behind schedule. It was his fault. He had allowed deviation in his routine.

“Let’s go to bed.” He said to the dog. His green tea steaming leaving behind a trail for the dog to follow as the two headed back up the wooden stairs, this time he kept his eyes straight and didn’t look at the glare that still came from the picture frame. He placed the tea on his bedside table and made himself comfortable in the bed. Ralphy curled up by his feet. He took a sip of the tea and felt warm. He read each night for an hour before bed and today was no different. He opened up the thick leather-bound copy of Gibbon’s history of Rome. He had read it before many times and each year he read it again. It was like his bible. It reminded him how important continuity is in life and how hard and long the fall can be when one introduces a multitude of variants in one’s life. As he read, however, he found it difficult to keep his mind on the task at hand. The words of Gibbon that normally brought him so much joy for the words he read played in his mind a moving picture of events long past with men dressed in strange attire holding so dearly to what they have known their whole life but today those pictures didn’t move in his mind.

Instead, all he could see was his son on his shoulders and his wife beside him. Behind them the wave. The wave that had slowly risen, larger and faster until it reached its peak and then, began to descend, naturally without a mark of interference, it weakened and lessened and slowly came towards them, breaking and flowing on the already darkened sand, darkening it some more as it receded just behind their feet, pulling away the sand and pebbles with it into the ocean and becoming lost. The once strong, weakened. The once tall, broken. The once alive, dead. That was life and he knew he had ridden the wrong wave, his peak was the wrong one and now his wave had broken and was receding and he knew also that he could do nothing about it.

He finished his tea and crawled out of his bed to wash up. He turned the light off and he laid down on his bed, setting the time on the alarm for six in the morning so he could repeat his life until he was pulled all the way down to the ocean floor.

Short Story: Older Than Older Brother

They rode by the familiar farmlands and he knew he was almost home. He often thought about home and when that thought burned in his mind he put it out. He was dead. They told him that was the only way to get through it. But they never told him what to do if he found himself alive again.

The sun blinded him and he closed his eyes and allowed its warm touch to stay. He felt the train slowing down as they approached the station.

Mother was so old now. She waited for him on the platform along with his father who stood with his hands behind his back like he always did. When the train came to a halt he stayed seated and a part of him wished to keep going west. She studied the faces that were getting out of the carts looking for the one she knew so well. She stood on her toes and tried to look into the train windows and he wondered if she would recognize him still.

His own mother was not his mother. She was once his mother. Her hair had turned grey, last he saw her it was black as night but now it was painted with grey locks and she looked so little like she had shrunk within two years and she saw him and her face broke into a smile and she began to cry. She tugged at his father’s sleeve and pointed at him her finger shaking.

She still knew him. His mother could still see him.

“Oh Henry, oh Henry,” she cried embracing him. His cheek wet from where she kissed him and where her tears marked him.

His father’s handshake was firm but not as it used to be.

“Good to see you again,” his father said. His eyes lingered on the side of his face for a few seconds before he cleared his throat and looked away.

His mother was glued to his side as if he was still a little boy and if she let him go he will get lost, never to be found or maybe it was the other way now. She walked with a slump the little cross that hung around her neck weighing her down. She glanced at his face a few times thinking he did not notice.

“Oh my handsome boy,” she said rubbing his hand, “handsome little boy.”

Her hands cradled his wrist and she smiled at him. Those capable hands which fixed everything he and his brother needed fixing and now what needed fixing could never be fixed with such hands or any other hands, all these hands could do now was to come together in prayer which fixed nothing.

His father was still the same. He walked slightly ahead of them in a plain white collared shirt that was neatly tucked into his trousers which were steam pressed that morning and his brown leather boots clicked on the ground, polished right before they left home. His hair had thinned in the past two years but he imagined that was natural unlike his mothers greying.

Something beeped on his father’s belt and he looked at it and then placed it back on his leather belt.

“He just got that thing,” his mother said, “apparently its the new thing to have. Did you see anything like that in Europe?”

“Sure ma.”

“Its the devil I say, always beeping,” she laughed, “its bad enough his patients come and go in the house all the time but now they even come and go when we aren’t there.” She lowered her voice, “don’t tell him but I know he feels like a big shot ever since he got that beeping device.” She laughed again.

“That’s nice.”

They lived in a small town in Illinois so small that even the railroad had forgotten to come there. It didn’t matter much anymore, not as much as it did when he was younger when only the Robertsons had a car. His father briefly explained why he bought the Ford as they left the station behind, he heard the train leaving. He told him about the Fords reliability and its efficient gas mileage and he sounded like a car salesman himself.

“That’s nice, pa.” He said.

His mother sat in the back for she had insisted that he sit in the front. She talked for talking sake talking about all the things he had missed while he was away. All two years worth. He listened and didn’t talk much. His father didn’t talk much either but he did look at him every now and then as if to make sure he was still there.

“They’re renovating the school down the road. It’s going to look real nice. Maybe we can finally get a station there too. Wouldn’t that be nice? We wouldn’t have to make this drive if we had one there but then again it’s not like you will be leaving any time soon right?”

“No ma.”

The old house was new. Surprise Henry, his mother said, do you like it, we had some extra savings and thought it would be worth fixing the house up a little. You like the paint and see how the steps don’t make any noise now, remember how you were always scared of the creaking at night but you don’t have to worry about that anymore, she laughed, Debra, he’s a grown man now, his father said, he won’t be scared of nothing like that anymore. I’ll show you the new barn, he said, come around, you still remember the way, he laughed, of course, he does, his mother said, it hasn’t been that long. I was joking, he said, look, Henry, isn’t she beautiful, remember how that storm that year tore it apart, how you and Stephen, he cleared his throat, how you were heartbroken over it but look now, its brand new, fixed and everything. You want to go inside?

“Maybe later, pa.”

“Oh yes, of course,” his father cleared his throat again. “Must be tired.”

“Come on you two.” His mother called from the front porch.

The apple tree in the front yard, its branches dipping as if it were bowing, rotten apples littered the floor for the good ones were picked off by the dogs. Mother wasn’t lying, the stairs didn’t creak and there was a wind chime besides the front door and it sang a tune with the help of the breeze. Front door wore a new green coat as the older one’s seams had been coming apart. The screen door was oiled so that it didn’t squeal when his father opened it and he remarked at how smooth it was now.

He coughed walking inside and his mother asked him if he was okay. Her hand jumped to his forehead and started feeling his temperature and he gently pushed it away.

“I’m good, ma.”

“Debra I said not to leave these candles burning.”

“Oh, I thought Henry would like it. Do you like it?”

“Sure.”

  Mothers candles had impregnated the wooden walls and the couches and floorboards. The new aroma couldn’t be escaped and he knew it would be on him too.

He looked around at the pictures. His own face looking back at him in most of the frames. Open box with the medal inside was placed on the pedestal and the picture beside it caught his attention for he had been seeking that face in the other frames.

Mother saw him looking and she said, “Oh Henry its so good to have you back.” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him away.

He remembered something. Something that he had been looking forward to for a long time now.

“Wheres Charlie?” He asked.

“Poor Charlie.” Mother said.

“He was a good dog.” His father said.

That’s all they said and he didn’t want to know how for he knew enough.

“Why don’t you go freshen up. Take a nap. Your mother will get the dinner ready.” Father said and he did as he said.

He carried his luggage up the stairs careful not to hit the walls his father hated that. He passed by the closed door that would remain closed and into his old room. Right away he noticed something. A cross hung above the bed, above where his head would be. On the cross was a wooden figure of Christ, nailed, bleeding, looking down at where his head would be.

He put the bag at the foot of the door. The bed was neatly made his mothers touch evident in the folds. He sat at the edge of it disturbing it as little as possible. The soft mattress folding under his weight and sinking him deeply. He had gotten used to the dirt fields and stone beds and now the comfort was uncomfortable and he stood up.

He straightened out the blemishes he had made on the mattress and it looked as if he had never been there. He sat down on the wooden chair by his study table. He leaned back into it and folded his arms across his chest and stared at the cross above his bed. He watched it as he tried to put together what his life used to be here but he couldn’t find all the pieces anymore and perhaps that was a symptom of dying. He wondered why he only remembered the things he wished to forget. He was relieved from that thought when his mother called his name.

They prayed before dinner. They had never done that before but he did as his mother wanted and he felt his father did the same as they all held hands and his mother whispered and thanked the good lord for bringing him back home, thanked him for the blessings and thanked him for the food. After they said amen, she kissed his cheek.

“Handsome boy.” She said. Her fingers crept up the side of his face and the tips brushed over the scared ridges and he grabbed her wrist and moved her hand.

“You’ve been quiet, Henry, is everything all right?” His father asked as he cut into his steak. The knife slicing through the flesh and the blood spilling out.

“I’m fine.” He replied.

He wasn’t hungry but ate nonetheless. His mother watched him eat and took satisfaction as if every bite he ate filled her up. His knife gently piercing the tough skin of the meat and the blood drizzled out onto the plate and tried not to look and his knife scratched the bottom of the plate.

“What took you so long to come back? Summers boy came back two months ago.”

Henry took a sip of his whiskey. His father had poured him some and it was the first time his father ever saw him drink. It was a cause of celebration his father had said as he handed him the glass.

“Just difficult getting back, you know, there were so many of us.”

“Did you ever get to see Paris?” His mother asked.

Henry shook his head. “‘Fraid not.”

“Oh, what a shame, it’s so beautiful, your father and I went there for our honeymoon, didn’t we?”

“I imagine its not so pretty at the moment.” His father said.

His mother slowly nodded understanding what he had said “maybe not. That’s a shame.”

“We went by it,” Henry said. “On the train, I think I heard someone say that the smoke was coming from Paris but I’m not sure. I guess I shouldn’t say we went by it.”

His father studies him closely and he felt his eyes on him so he took another sip of his whiskey and then stabbed at the steak in front of him trying to seem busy.

“Get any sleep?” His father asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you sleep well enough at night?”

“Sure.”

“Cause if your not you know I can help you.” His father could always tell when he was lying or at least when he was masking the truth.

“Sure thanks.”

“Summer brought her boy to see me the other week. He had been having a nightmare-”

His mother interrupted. “Is it necessary to talk about things like that at the dinner table?” She smiled as if her smile could take back what they were all thinking.

His father observed him some more and then went back to his steak. He stabbed at it, ripping it apart, blood spilling out and he lifted the torn flesh and chewed on it and then used the whiskey to wash it down.

“We should all go on a vacation someday.” Mother said. “Lord knows we deserve it.” She touched her forehead and then her chest and then either shoulder. He had seen that so many times and he had seen dead men do it just as the living did it and he didn’t see any of it doing anything for either side.

The grandfather clock in the corner of the room ticked and filled the void of silence and the scratching of knives flooded in where the clock failed. He wished to be alone. Be back in his room. The thought of being alone in his room rooted him in the chair and he was glad he wasn’t alone but seeing his fathers eyes staring at him and his mother watching him eat made him wish he was still on that train, running across Europe, the war done with, people celebrating as the news came that they were all going home and that they had made it, survived for another day and perhaps now they can survive till they were old and grey but so many of them slept the endless sleep in some dirty, muddy field and he wished it hadn’t ended so he could sleep with them. He still couldn’t figure out why he was home or why he was sitting at the table and on the chair that he had grown up on and he remembered wishing for this moment when he was freezing in the Italian mountains, the snow makings joints rigid and perhaps it was that wish being granted now but he had wished for so many other things, so many things and why not have any other wish come true, he saw the empty chair beside his father, so many other wishes but he was here now and he had wished to be here and now he wished he wasn’t and he didn’t know what he wished for.

“Henry?”

He realized his mother was talking to him and he quickly finished the last of the whiskey.

“Yes, ma?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah…I was just thinking about something…sorry.”

His father watched over the brim of the cup as he took another sip of whiskey.

“I was saying that I almost forgot about the letter that came for you.”

“For me? What letter?”

Maybe it was all a dream and he would be called back and that the Germans weren’t really gone and they needed him back again and he didn’t know he could do it again, he didn’t know if he could stay whole again but he wasn’t whole and he hadn’t been whole ever since those uniformed men had come with the medal and the flag.

She looked at his father and smiled as if the two knew something he didn’t and they had planned all along to surprise him with something delightful and that look erased his fears and the thought of those fears made him ashamed.

“It’s from a Mr. O’Hare.”

“Jack O’Hare?”

“No, no, Alfred O’Hare of the Evening Times paper. Wait a moment I’ll go get it.”

Of course, it wasn’t from Jack. Jack was one of them whose prayer didn’t go as well. Jack was still alive. Jack was alive because he thought about him. He hadn’t thought about Jack for a little while and that killed him. He thought about Jack now and that meant he was alive. He thought about his brother too.

His mother handed him the letter and stood by the shoulder. “Sorry, dear that I read it. I couldn’t help myself.” She rubbed his shoulder and laughed. His father said nothing.

Henry read the letter and it was what he thought it would be. He folded it up neatly and placed it on the dining table.

His mother allowed for a few seconds to pass before she squeezed his shoulder and asked, “well? What do you think?”

“I think I need to go to bed now.”

His father leaned back on his chair with the drink in his hand. He took a sip as the grandfather clock continued ticking. Henry stood to leave.

“I suppose sleeping on it is a good thing.” His mother said. “Come here.” She had to stand on the tip of her toes to kiss him on his cheek. “My handsome little boy.”

“Goodnight then.”

He heard his parents talking as he went upstairs. They seemed to be arguing. He walked to the room that was to stay closed. He stopped in front of it for a moment and then started again. He washed his hands. He kept the lights off as he turned on the sink and the water flowed out. Cold water rushing down, washing over his hands as he rubbed them together and stared at his own dark reflection. He could still see it in the dark. His wet hand skimmed over the side of his face. He could still feel it. Jack couldn’t feel it. His brother couldn’t feel it. He felt it and he felt ashamed of feeling it because he could still feel it.

He went to his room.

He sat down at the edge of his bed and read the letter again. He read three lines in particular over and over. Provide living quarters in the city. Be happy to offer a position on the staff. Could use a man of your substance whose done so much for our nation.

There was a time when reading those lines would have sent him into a euphoric state and had him running around wild, showing the letter to everyone he could. Mother had always said he had too much life in him for his own good and the thought of living in the big city, working for a newspaper, these were the things he had wanted and them coming true would have brought all his life out of him.

He realized how much life had bled out of him. It must have gone out of him slowly, drop by drop, perhaps at night when he was asleep so that he didn’t notice the life leaving him as he dreamt those dreams that belonged to someone else and now he sat on someone else’s bed and read the letter that belonged to someone else and he could feel the life leaving him.

  His hands trembled as he leaned forward on his elbows that dug into his thighs. The letter fell to the floor. He didn’t think about crying or know why he was but the tears came without invitation and they wet his wrist as they fell from his face. He made no sound. He heard the floorboards creak outside and his mother’s voice saying good night.

He laid down on the bed, fully clothed, a sliver of the moon visible from through the cracks of the curtains on the window beside his bed. Cool air drifted through and a dog barked outside and he could only think of one thought.

He was older than his older brother.

 

Short Story: Alexander

He woke up with the nurse standing beside him. Her blonde hair was the first thing he saw and the sound of her long nails tapping the tablet in the palm of her hand was the first thing he heard. She was reading the foreign language on the monitors from which several wires snaked out and burrowed themselves into him, some spilling liquid in him others taking it out.

“I see your finally awake Mr. Alexander.” She said not taking her eyes away from her tablet. She typed with a practiced rhythm of someone who had lived this moment many times. “Feeling better?”

“I can’t feel my leg.”

“Of course not. Like we explained earlier, the gel is taking shape inside your femur and molding itself in the bone and very soon you will feel a burning sensation which means that the gel is fusing itself with the femur.” As she said this, he began to feel the heat in his leg. “And then,” she continued, “shortly after that you will feel this need to scratch at your shin hence the cast around it, its more for the protection of the procedure rather than your protection and after that a little bit of rest and then you will be back on your feet like nothing ever happened.”

She flashed a smile that was as practiced as her typing.

“Any questions?”

“Where is my phone? I need to check something.”

“Unfortunately your mother took that with her when she left.”

“Can I borrow that?” He gestured at the tablet.

“No, sir.” She shook her head. “This is hospital property.”

“It’ll only be a second.”

“I’m afraid I can’t be of any assistance there. You’ll just have to wait.”

“I’ve got to know right now. It’s been twelve hours since I last checked. I need to see what my numbers are like.”

“That can wait Mr. Alexander. For now, the only concern on your mind should be to rest. That was a nasty fall you had. I would say you were darn lucky to just get a broken leg and a concussion. Speaking of which,” she reached into her pocket and pulled out a tinted yellow container whose insides were filled with pills. “You’ve got to take two of these every two hours. It will help with the headaches.”

She twisted open the cap and rattled out two pills and held them out for him. He reluctantly accepted the pills in his palm and tossed them into his mouth and took a sip of water from the glass on the bedside table.

“Well, I will come back and check up on you in a little while. Please try and get some rest, unlike last time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She smiled another practiced gesture before leaving him alone in the room.

There was a knock at the door and before Alexander could say anything, the doorknob turned and the door slowly opened. An oddly shaped round head poked through with a bright purple cap on that further exaggerated the roundness of the hat.

“You alone?”

“Of course I am. Come in already and shut the door.”

Herb didn’t need telling twice. He moved quick for a large boy and he fastened to close the door behind him, slowing down when the door was an inch from closing and then easing it into place.

“Hurry,” Alexander said, “you got your phone with you?”

Herb waddled his way to his bed. “Even better.” It took him a second to get his backpack off of him but once he did he opened the front pocket and took out Alexander’s phone.

“How’d you get that?” Alexander asked taking it and scanning his thumb. The phone opened and a voice said welcome, Mr. Great. Herb was explaining how he got the phone when he went to Alexander’s house with his mother and saw the phone on the kitchen counter and decided it was worth the risking cause he knew how much Alexander would be craving for it.

Herb tried to throw in a flair of heroic struggle by describing how he had to wait and be patient and bide his time for the right moment before snatching the phone as if the mere act alone would trigger some self-defense mechanism and the floor would open up and swallow him whole. As Herb said this, Alexander let out a series of curses under his breath and tossed the phone across the room where it smacked against the wall and clattered to the ground.

“Barely went up a spot from that little stunt.”

“Yeah but that makes you sixth in the rankings.” Herb went over and picked up the phone. He cleaned the face with his shirt and brought it back to Alexander.

“Who cares about sixth. I might as well be last. You know it was going well until I fell. I saw the numbers climbing. People were liking me like mad but then everything went downhill.” 

“Including you.” Herb chuckled but quickly stopped after seeing Alexander’s glare. “Come on Alex, it ain’t so bad. You still gained some.”

“Not enough.”

“To be honest your not far from King. He’s only got about five million more than you. Actually eight thousand, four hundred and twenty six…eight nine…five hundred…” Herb was looking out the window where the giant face of King floated in the air, a crown a top of the squared head and a smile that showed the perfect row of teeth. Beside him a number count that slowly increased. “He sure is good looking.” Herb said.

“That’s the only reason he’s ahead of me.”

“I mean and he’s funny and he’s got a nice car. On the way over here I was watching his stream he was showing that new Champbell 300 you know that electronic one that hovers, my god that thing was fast not to mention how quiet…” He stopped again when he turned to face Alexander who was half way out of his bed trying to figure out how to get the tubes out of him.

“What you doing?” Herb rushed over and tried pushing Alexander back on the bed. “You need rest. I heard the nurse say so.”

“Every second I’m here is a second that he gets further and further away.”

“But the nurse—”

“She’s just being cautious, you know how they are. Doctors and them always love being cautious so that they won’t get sued. Help me get this thing out of me.”

Herb hesitated and looked back at the door to make sure it was still closed.

“What about your mother Alex?”

“What about her?”

“She’ll have me skinned if she found out I helped you get out.”

“Don’t worry. Once I’m number one I’ll be rolling in so much gold that I’ll pay for you to get another skin.”

“That’s comforting.” Herb said softly. 

“Come on then help me out why don’t yeah? I’ve got the perfect idea too. I know it’ll be a hit.”

Herb got one of the tubes out.

“What is it?”

“I’ll tell you later.”

He got both the tubes out and Alexander popped up to his feet and immediately fell back onto the bed clutching his casted shin. Eyes shut and face wrinkled, each fold of skin at the corner of his eye magnifying the pain he was in.

“Now you’ve done it.” Herb checked the door again. “I told you it was a bad idea.”

His leg was burning now just as the nurse had said. That meant it was still going good and he hadn’t messed anything up. He eased himself to his feet this time and used Herb’s shoulder for support. “Come on. Get your backpack and grab those pills and let’s get outta here.”

King gained another hundred followers on him and he watched the sun’s light reflecting off of his teeth and his giant face hovered above the roads where like ants people moved along all busy doing their menial work, trying to be done with so that in the evening they could catch up with all the uploads from their favorite streamers and there were some out there that were hoping to see his content when they got home and he was going to give them a show that would break all the records, most important of which was the follower count. First person to reach seven billion followers. The most in history. That would cement him forever.

“Check if anyone is out in the hall.”

Herb quietly opened the door as if he were in a church and stuck his round head out.

“Clear.” He whispered.

Alexander put an arm around Herb and limped out of the room.

“Your cousin still got that plane of his?”

“Yeah, why?” Herb asked.

“Call him for me.”

 

A girl came up and asked for a picture and Alexander obliged. She thanked him and giggled and rushed back to her table where her friends were and showed them the picture she had taken.

Alexander went back to his phone and continued his voice message. “At seven pm sharp I will be doing by grandest and most dangerous stunt yet. You won’t want to miss it cause this one is for the history books and it’ll never be repeated again.”

Herb sipped on his green tea because he had read online that it was healthy. He took a big bite out of his creamed donut and washed it down with some more tea.

Another girl came up and asked Alexander for a picture and he nodded. She asked him about his leg and he said it was fine but in reality, he wanted to scratch the skin off and then the bone. He smiled nonetheless. The girl asked him what this new stunt would be.

“Oh, you heard?”

“Of course.” She showed him the phone and his own face stared back and then he heard his voice repeating what he had said before. “Never be repeated again.”

“I’m dying to know.” She said. “So are my friends.” She pointed at her table where the girls were all staring at him. They smiled and waved when he looked.

“I can’t tell you, you know that. It’ll spoil the fun but be there at seven.”

“Come on just a little something.”

He thought for a moment. He knew whatever he said would be spread across the net in a second and then quickly be manipulated and exaggerated to whoever’s delight.

“It involves a plane.” He said. “Herb’s cousin owns one.”

Her eyes grew larger and looked at Herb who nodded with a mouth full of the last bit of doughnut.

“A plane.” She repeated softly.

“Like I said no one will ever do it again. Once in a lifetime moment and I’ll break the seven billion mark with it.”

Herb coughed and choked on the doughnut and bits of it landed on the table.

“You will?” She asked slowly.

“I guarantee it, in fact, I’ll quit if I don’t that’s how confident I am.”

“Wow…seven billion…you’ll be great then.”

“I know.”

The plane was older than he had expected. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter. People would only be seeing the inside of it. It was one of those older models that still had wings on the side and still used a propeller. It was painted yellow as if the sun itself had baked its face onto the metal. There was a large bullseye on the single door that opened out instead of sliding in. If anyone saw the outside of this then he would be a laughing stock.

Herb read his thoughts and said “its Stephen’s first one. He bought it himself.” He added.

“It’ll do.”

Stephen was standing by its wing cleaning the bird dropping off with a dirty rag. He waved as they came towards him. Just like his plane, he too had been kissed by the sun, nothing like his paler cousin.

Alexander and Herb shook hands with Stephen and Stephen said he was a big, big fan and couldn’t believe he was actually meeting Alexander.

“All this time I thought Little Herby was lying to tell you the truth.” He slapped Herb on the shoulder who winced in pain. “He’s always going on about how he knows you and all that and we just figured we’ll play along with him.”

“Stephen please.” There was some color coming into Herb’s face. Alexander nodded barely registering that he was being spoken too. He was on his phone the data he had requested had finally come back. He laid the phone on the plane wing and said something to it that caused a hologram to come forth, birthing from the screen were different graphs and charts and numbers along, bars filling up, arrows climbing and dropping, altogether some eight different graphs stretched out towards the clear skies.

Stephen scratched his head trying to make sense of the numbers. Herb was reading the closest one to him that showed the activity level of Alexander account in the past twenty four hours. There had been a dip a significant one when Alexander was put under the knife for the operation and then a significant surge from when Alexander released his voice memo.

“Just as I thought.” Alexander said more to himself than anyone else.

“What is it?” Herb asked.

Alexander shook his head and said, “don’t worry.” He said something and then in a flash all the graphs and data vanished, sucked into the clear screen. He pocketed his phone and asked Stephen how much longer before they can take off.

“About twenty minutes. These old ones need a bit of starting up time.” He patted the plane as if it were his dog. “Where we going anyways, Herb never said.”

“Up.” Alexander replied.

He sat crossed legged on the ground with his phone in his palm. Behind him, the plane was coughing into existence, dying every now and then and coming back alive. Stephen was in the pilot seat pressing buttons on the archaic machinery. Not even a single voice command feature. Herb came and sat beside him. He was sipping on a juice box.

“Want some?” He asked.

Alexander shook his head.

“King’s gone up ten thousand on me.” He said.

“Don’t worry Al you’ll get him one day. Just need to keep chipping away.”

“I need to get him now.”

“By the way, you never told me what we were going to be doing?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Alexander stretched out his leg. It had begun to throb but so far everything the nurse had said had come true so he figured the gel had done its job. Not that it would matter.

“I am worried though Al. Last time was pretty scary. You told me not to worry before that too.”

“That was just an accident.”

“Was it?”

“The ledge was slippery.” He had been climbing up the building fine before that. Scaling it was his bare hands and just a little bit of chalk with three different cameras capturing his every step and streaming it for the world to see and he had come up to a window and as he tried to grab the wooden ledge he lost his grip and fell nine floors and was lucky that the trash bags underneath the apartment building were there to cushion his blow. “It was like there was oil spilled onto the ledge. That’s the only reason I fell.”

“It was really scary. You could have died.”

“So?”

“What do you mean so?”

“So what if I died. Isn’t that why they watch me? Cause I might die one of these days.”

“Don’t say something like that. It’s bad juju.”

Alexander laughed.

“Only you would believe in something like that.”

They heard what sounded like a gunshot and they twisted around to see a puff of black smoke coming out of the rear end of the plane as it vibrated standing still roaring so loud that Alexander could hear it in the deepest parts of his thoughts. Stephen waved at them from the pilot seat telling them to come on in and that it was time to go.

“You’re going to be safe right whatever it is your about to do?”

“Of course Herb ain’t I always?”

Herb wanted to discuss it further but Alexander quickened his pace towards the plane leaving Herb behind to chase him like always.

Herb helped him with the cameras. Three different angles it was what people had come to expect of him. He was still asking what Alexander had in mind as he fixed the angle of the camera on Alexander’s shoulder. It was ten minutes to his stream. He noticed a steady increase of activity on his channel about an hour ago and right now people were flooding in by the hundred.

“I’m going to scale the plane.” He said.

“What! that’s crazy Al even for you. No. No. No.”

“Don’t worry it’ll be alright. I’m going to circle around it and come back in through the door.”

Before Herb could say something else Alexander went into the cockpit and told Stephen what he planned on doing and there was clear hesitation on his face but Alexander persuaded him by telling him he’ll give him a shout out while doing it.

“Okay, I’m going live five minutes.”

“You shouldn’t do this Al. Please its too dangerous.” Herb’s foot was tapping on the floor.

“That’s what they want to see. Too dangerous is the line we’ve got to cross.”

“Who cares what they want maybe its time to end this and stop trying to be the greatest. I think it’s getting to you.”

Alexander smiled and patted Herb on the cheek.

“What a silly thing to say.”

Alexander waited by the door watching this phone slowly inch towards the seven mark. Once it got in the seconds he pulled open the door and the wind rushed in blowing him back a few steps. He regained his footing and Stephen adjusted the height of the plane.

“Welcome my people.” He said to his phone screen where millions of people were now tuning in. “I said that this would be once in a lifetime event and I don’t plan on making you wait. Today I will be jumping out of this plane and you will watch something that you have never seen before.”

He looked over at Herb whose eyes widened and Herb tried to take a staggered step towards Alexander but it was too late.

He stepped out as if there were a staircase there to receive the bottom of his sole and his foot sunk down and his leg followed, no longer hurting and his entire body plunged out of the plane. If the plane wasn’t so loud he figured he would have heard Herb’s cry but again the wind that was deafening him might be the reason why he heard nothing, not even the plane.

He fell facing the sky the wind pulling his skin back. Arms extended in front of him and his phone in his hand watching the numbers. They were climbing as he was falling, going up as he went down the sheer force of the fall shaking his arms as they bent further and shook more and his numbers kept going and he kept going and he was second now and then first but still not at the seven billion mark, close as he got closer and his arms gave out and the phone snatched away as if someone had pulled it out of his hands with a string and his arms spread out either side of him and he imagined what the people were thinking he couldn’t move his head to either side to see the camera he wanted to smile to the people for he was their king now and not King. He was number one.

He was the great…then nothing.