Short Story: A Hero’s Welcome

The falling snow slowly drifted side to side with the help of the wind, coming to a halt on the ground where it first covered the footprints of men, women, and children that had gone before him and after that, it melted, wetting the stairs which he climbed towards the open doors of the Branchwood community center.

Once inside he handed his coat to the boy working at the front desk who quickly went in the back and through the glass window in the wall, he saw the boy deposit his coat into a locker and came back with a red slip in his hand with the number twenty-two written on it. He thanked the boy who stared at his uniform and the patches on his right arm with wide eyes barely acknowledging his words for the uniform spoke louder.

The boy said ‘you’re welcome, sir.’

As he stepped through the main door of the hall, his ears were filled with the sound of drums and a saxophone and the deep voice of the man singing in the corner of the room. No one was on the dance floor yet except for little children dressed in their Sunday best. They looked like little grown-ups and not by their choice. The open hall was lit by the various chandeliers and also by candlelight, one candle placed in the center of every table around which people gathered, drinking and conversing.

Before he could take another step into the hall a hand reached out towards him and he shook it. The man introduced himself but he quickly forgot the name. He was mesmerized for a moment by the man’s thick grey mustache as he thanked him for his service and said something about how proud he had made them all. The attention drawn by the mustached man caused a small queue of people to quickly surrounded him. Some of them wrapping their arms around his shoulders as if they were long-lost friends but his friends were all long lost. He looked over the head of the little black-haired man who owned the butcher shop to see where his mother and father were. He spotted them standing beside the Mr. Felmond the president of the community. They saw him and waved. His mother’s tiny hands were kept warm by the gloves, she always suffered badly during the winter. 

He excused himself from the others who were still surrounding him and made directly for his parents. Before he could get to them, he found his path blocked once again and this time the touch was gentler and the perfumed scent of cherry wood brought back memories of his sister and he remembered he had one and he embraced the woman tighter.

“How have you been?” He asked her as he took her in. She wasn’t a girl anymore but to him, she was too him. She wiped her eyes, green like those shattered trees broken into pieces by bullets and artillery, their evergreen branches sticking out of the snow-covered crowd, limbs of wood, limbs of flesh and the green of the trees reminded him of his sisters eyes at first but slowly he had forgotten those eyes and now they were staring into his own. She mumbled something trying her best to hold back her tears and he simply nodded as if he understood her. He hugged her again and together they went up to their parents. 

“Oh!” he heard his mother say before she buried her head in his chest.

“Let me get a good look at him.” His father said and his mother reluctantly let go. “You’re a man know aren’t you. Look at you.” His father studied him from head to toe as his mother and sister stood side by side. He wore the black boots that were given to him when he first entered the service, they were only to be worn during special occasions which came far and few during the war but now that was all he wore because ever since the war ended he had been chaperoned from one dinner to the next. His pants were simple and navy colored with no a crease on them for he had ironed them himself and under his uniform, he wore a button up that was too big for him and the coat was too big around his shoulders as well. He stood with his hands behind his back holding his officer’s hat, his thumb tracing the brim of the cap, his hair neatly parted to one side. He tried his best to smile and for once he didn’t find it difficult for his father and mother were there in front of him. His sister was taller than his mother now, he had missed so much. His father grabbed his shoulders and squeezed them, the man was old but his grip was still strong and his father laughed, as his eyes grew brighter. He looked away and wiped his eyes.

“He’s a man know.” He said again this time to his mother who nodded in agreement. “It’s good to have you back.” The two of them shook hands awkwardly. He hadn’t known his father to be emotional. When he left for Europe three years ago his father had shaken his hand then too and told him he was proud of him. It was the first time he had heard his father say those words.

“You made us all proud.” He said as he let go of his hand.

It was Mr. Felmond’s turn now to touch the man of the hour. He had turned to expect a handshake but instead found Mr. Felmond’s arms wrapped around him.

“Welcome home, welcome home.” Mr. Felmond said. “You look too thin. What were they feeding you over there.” He smiled looking around at his parents. “Don’t worry now, son, you’re going be begging us to stop feeding you by the time this nights over.”

He merely smiled and nodded. His throat was dry. The shot of whiskey he had in the car had left him desiring more and he could feel the weight of his flask in the inside of his uniform and also the letter. His father had never seen him drink so he felt guilty doing it in front of him. Even now, after all that he had been through, he could not gather the courage to reach inside of his uniform and take out the flask so he stood there as Mr. Felmond and his parents talked about how proud they were of him.

“Are you hungry?” His mother asked.

“I could eat.” He replied.

“I’ll show him where the food is,” his sister said driving her arm in between his right and holding him tightly in fear of losing him again and he liked that. She led him away from their parents and Mr. Felmond.

“That Felmond still talks too much.” He said and his sister laughed.

“Would you mind grabbing me a plate? I wished to listen to the music a little while. Its been too long.” She left as he sat down near the band. Even mediocre sounds sound wonderful once deprived of music. His ears were used to the shouts of his commanding officers, the untimely cries, loud claps that mimicked thunder, whistles that impersonated trains and the unsilenced silence.

He preferred the old man who sung now over anything he had ever heard. To him he was as good as it gets. He hoped that at night it would be this old man’s voice that meets him in his dreams but those hopes were shallow ones for he knew what awaited him when he closed his eyes.

He reached inside his uniform and turned his back to everyone that was looking at him. Watching the man play the saxophone he took a deep gulp of his flask and the whiskey washed down his throat and his thirst subsided for now. He put away the flask and closed his eyes momentarily. When he opened them again his sister was there with her green eyes and a plate of food and a cup of juice.

“I saw something very interesting while I was over there.” His sister said.

“What might that be?” If his father had said those words his mind would have jumped to the flask and he would have felt guilty having his father see him drink. His sister was different. She would understand but at the same time, he didn’t want her to see either.

“That Jessica Owens can’t keep her eyes off of you.” He slowly turned around and glanced at the table where four women sat in the center was Jessica Owens who quickly looked away when she saw him looking and then slowly brought her gaze back to him and hesitating for a moment before waving. He turned his back to her and went back to his food.

“What’s wrong?” His sister asked. “Go over there and talk to her.” He was used to taking orders but for once he didn’t have to follow them.

“What’s the point? Besides I’m not in the mood.”

“Not in the mood! I thought you liked her too.”

“That was years ago.”

“What’s so different now?”

He quickly drank his juice and stretched back watching the drummer play with his eyes closed as he saw through his fingers and the tips of the drumstick. 

“Tell me about the war.”

His sister was leaning in towards him with her chin resting on the palm of her hand. “What did you see? How pretty was France? I always wanted to go there. Did you go to Paris? Is the Eiffel Tower like the pictures? I bet its even better in person right? I can’t wait to see it.” She stopped to take a breath and waited for his response.

“Only saw Paris briefly and yes the tower is better in person.”

“I’m so jealous. I wish I could have gone too.”

“I didn’t go there to see the sights.”

“I know but they were there. I bet you’ll never forget them.”

“No. I’ll never forget.”

He felt a hand on his shoulders and heard Stephen Cornberry’s voice. He shook hands with the man he had known before. Stephen lived on the same street as him when they were kids and the two had grown up together.

“It’s been too long.” Stephen took a seat beside him. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting.”

“No, not all. You two catch, for now, I’ll have him later.” His sister said rising from her chair and leaving the two of them.

For a moment neither of them said anything. 

“How have you been?” Stephen broke the silence.

“Good. And you?”

“Can’t complain. I work for a bank now you know, as an accountant.”

“Is it good money?”

“Can’t complain about that either.” He looked the same as he did before but just taller. Stephen adjusted his glasses and swiped the hair on his forehead to one side. “Man I wish I had a drink right about now.” He said.

He reached into his uniform and pulled out the metal flask and handed it to Stephen who let out a short laugh. “You always had the answers.” He said before undoing the top and taking a swig.

“Later some of us guys were going to go out. You should come along.” He took the flask from Stephen and looked to see where his father was and when he saw him talking to his sister he took a sip himself and put the flask back inside his pocket. “What do you say? It’ll be on me. I know you can’t turn down a free night.” He smiled and patted him on his leg as if the two knew each other.

“I’ll think about it.” He said.

They sat in silence. Stephen’s foot tapping along with the beat of the music. There were a few more people now on the dance floor and Jessica Owens was one of them. The two of them caught eyes once more, her eyes, her lips, her look, her hips, all calling him to come join her.

He looked away again.

“Heard about poor Barry. His parents are here somewhere.”

He clenched his jaw, watching the windows behind the drummer fog up, it looked like mist.

“What was he? 19? 20?”

“18.”

“Terrible. So young. A good boy I guess, good man I should say.”

He stayed quiet.

“I always envied the two of you. Here I was sitting in a classroom while you and Barry had an adventure of a lifetime a real mans journey you know. Nothing like it can be duplicated from inside a four-walled room with some old man teaching you about numbers you know what I mean?”

“Suppose so.”

“You’re braver than I’ll ever be that’s for sure. I could only dream of going over but you and Barry did.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t call me brave.”

Stephen raised his eyebrows and sucked in his lips. “Whatever you wish.”

The music played and people talked and laughed around him and he watched the snow fall.

“How was it over there?” Stephen asked once the music stopped the players took a quick break to rest their hands and throats. A waiter brought them each a drink on a silver tray and the people dancing also rested their feet with a slight glisten of sweat on their foreheads and back of their necks. “I mean…how are you really doing?”

“Fine.”

“Good. That’s good to hear. I met another veteran on a business trip not too long ago and to tell you the truth he seemed a bit off if you know what I mean. It was his eyes really. They were hollow. Drawn in. Lost.” He noticed Stephen was staring at the cloth that was spread over the table rather than looking at him. “Even the way he talked was different.”

“I’ve seen it too.” The same eyes stared back at him each morning. “It’s different now for them. For us. Things are different but they’ll get used to it.” Used to the beds and the food and the peaceful sounds of life.

“Yeah. Come out with us tonight then. Get back to the normal. We’ll show you how we do things now.” He patted him on the shoulder.

“I’ll think about it.” He said again.

“Anyways,” Stephen let out a belly full of air as he got to his feet, “have to make some time for the wife before we go out.” He said. “It was nice catching up and make sure you think about it okay?”

He nodded and the two shook hands and Stephen left.

The snow fell sideways now as the wind picked up causing it to slant away from him as he stood near the footsteps of the community center with his jacket unzipped so that his uniform was still visible in the middle. The smoke of his breath mixed with the smoke of the cigarette and together it drifted towards the dark skies before being cut through by the wind. The mist leaving him and not crawling, inching towards him. One thing he liked about the war was that at night he could see the stars. Standing outside now he couldn’t see anything but the pale that fell and the dark that blanketed them. He used to count the stars when he was on gunner duty at night. He would count them over and over again distracting his mind so that it would not hear the mercy cries of the soldier wounded in the middle. They cried not for help or rescue but for simple death.

He had gone over wishing that he would make it back with stories of grandeur. Then he wished to simply stay alive, then he was content with his passing as long as it was a quick death, then he prayed for a painful one and now for a simple one.

Beside his flask, he felt the letter he had written filled with false excuses of why he didn’t make it. But the look of disappointment on his mother’s face formed in his mind as he wrote the lies and he couldn’t bear to let her down. He had come after all but now he wished he hadn’t because each time he heard someone praise him he saw the suffocated face of Barry Andrews.

The door of the community center opened and he turned his head to see who it was and he found himself surprised to see Jessica Owens in her red dress the same as her lips and her black heels that clicked on the wet concrete the clicking soon stopped as she stepped on the thin layer of snow at top of the final step where he was standing smoking.

Am I interrupting?” She asked.

He let out smoke from the corner of his mouth away from her.

“No, ma’am. Just getting a little smoke. Would you like one?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Oh.”

They stood there, as snow fell away from them neither talking both waiting for the other to say something. He just wanted to smoke in peace but even that was taken away from him.

“Aren’t you cold ma’am?” he said looking at her bare arms.

“Its Jessica. And no. Dancing always makes me hot.”

He nodded, confirming her statement.

“Can I ask you something?” She said.

“Sure.”

“How come you didn’t come talk to me?”

He was glad that he had his coat on. His uniform would not have hidden the redness around his neck.

“Was I meant to?”

“I suppose not. I guess it must be difficult getting back into the norms of things because from what I know when a pretty girl smiles at you it usually means she wants to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry. I guess we’re talking now.”

“That we are. So, ask me how I’m doing. That’s the normal thing to do you know.”

“How are you doing?”

“Not well for a while but better now that I’ve finally got this man’s attention.”

He finished his smoke and dropped the last nub on the ground where she crushed it with the heel of her shoe.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?”

“I’m not much of a dancer.”

“I can teach you.”

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Its nothing. I teach kids and I’m sure you’ll be easier than a five-year-old.”

“I think you’ll be surprised.”

She laughed. He managed to smile to and for once it didn’t feel forced.

“You know I am getting cold now.”

He made to take off his coat but she stopped him.

“No, it’s all right. I’ll be going inside now and I expect my dance Mr. hero.”

He didn’t say anything.

She leaned closer and kissed him on the cheek. She wiped the red lipstick stain left behind with the palm of her hand before walking back. The clicking sound returning and for a brief moment the muffled noises grew to coherent tones and the door closed and with it, the muffled sounds returned.

She was sitting with her friends and the band was playing a new song. Faster than the one before. He looked around for his mother and father. He spotted Stephens talking to a woman who he assumed was his wife. Beside them was a little boy, their son he thought. He found his sister with a group of girls chatting and drinking wine. At last, he spotted his mother and father. For the first time, his parents were alone. They were seated in the front of the hall under the bright lights of a chandelier eating steak by the candlelight. He was making his way towards his mother to let her know he wasn’t feeling well and that he had to leave when he heard his name called. He turned to see where the sound came from and when he did see, he felt his throat close up. Mr. Andrews called for him, and his wife Martha was there too. Without willing, his feet carried him towards the old married couple. Mr. Andrews’s white hair was neatly combed to the right and his black suspenders were visible underneath his white shirt over which he had his unbuttoned coat. His wife stared at him through her large glasses and Barry did too for the mother and son both shared the same blue eyes the ones that he saw the life fly out off but not the accusation. She had a sad smile on her face as she leaned on her walking stick having broken her hip a month before or so his mother told him over the mail.

“How are you?” Mr. Andrews asked as he sat down beside the tired couple. There was a dark ring underneath Mr. Andrews’s eyes.

“Very well sir.” He said staring at the flickering candle flame.

“Its good to see you again.”

“You too sir.”

“Samantha and Lenard must be so happy to have you back.”

From the corner of his eyes, he saw Mrs. Andrews raise her wrinkled hand to her face.

“What are you planning on doing now?”

“I haven’t thought much about it, sir.”

“I hope you’re still reading son.” He had once been his English teacher in another lifetime.

“I’m afraid I have fallen behind. But I’ll do so now.”

“That’s understandable. You always had the eye for a good sentence.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“If you need anything you can always come to us.”

“Thank you.”

“Barry wanted to be a fireman.” Mrs. Andrews said softly.

“Yes dear. He did.”

“He would have been a good one too.”

“Yes dear. He would have.”

He swallowed hard the spit in his mouth and it hurt going down his dry throat. He wanted his flask and whatever was left inside.

“You know he was given a medal for his service.” Mrs. Andrews said proudly.

“I know ma’am.”

“Was he a good soldier?”

“Come on dear. Don’t ask such things.”

“I just…wanted to know.” He saw her raise her hand to her face again. Mr. Andrews took a deep breath and asked him how the roads were coming here and he told them they were fine.

“He was a good soldier and a brave one too ma’am.”

The elderly couple lamented over those words. He was sure they rather have the boy here with them and be called a coward instead of being buried in a nameless grave on some piece of dirt in France with a bravery tag to his name. But in the end, they had to find contentment somehow and if it made them content that their boy was a good and brave then so be it.

“Is it still snowing?” Mr. Andrews asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh dear, maybe we should leave before the roads get any worse.” Mrs. Andrews said.

“Would you mind walking us out to our car? I imagine those stairs are awfully slippery and Martha with her hip…”

“It’s not a problem.” He stood up and without looking at Mrs. Andrews he helped her to her feet and the old woman clutched to his right arm as she walked with her walker in the other. It was a motherly embrace he had known of it from his own mother and he dared not look at either one of them.

“You know we always liked you, son.” Mr. Andrews said. “Barry did too.”

He wished they would stop calling him son.

“When we heard that you were coming back we were so happy. Tell him, Martha. We were happy weren’t we?”

“Yes dear, very happy.”

The elderly couple got their winter coats from the front desk. The wind was harsher now and he carefully helped Mrs. Andrews down the steps and over the slippery sidewalk and the wet parking lot floor to their black Volvo.

“Be sure to come by now.” Mrs. Andrews said squeezing his hand and he stared at the black shinning concrete ground and nodded.

“We are your family too okay? Don’t forget that.” Mr. Andrews said through the open window of his driver’s seat. “Come by anytime.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you hear dear he said Barry was a good soldier and brave too.” He heard Mrs. Andrews say once the old couple was inside.

His neatly combed hair was stuck to his head as the melting snow lay wet on it and he could not feel the tips of his fingers or the top of his ears for the cold came harshly now that his mind was no longer concerned about the old couple. He reached into his uniform for warmth and found it as his hands wrapped around the cold metal of the flask and the warmth spread through his mouth down his throat and reached even as far his toes as he placed the empty flask back in his uniform. He felt the letter beside it and took it out. Here was the clear evidence of his cowardice. The reason why the medals that were given to him or the officer’s cap did not belong to him. Why bravery was a term left for the dead for the likes of Barry Andrews. He crumpled the page in his fist and threw it aside and watched it get wet as the snow fell on it.

He made his way back up the concrete steps, wet and slippery so he had to use the railing to carefully climb them. He wanted to tell everyone what had actually happened. What he had actually done over there. He had to tell someone.

As climbed the last step the hall doors opened.

“Oh, here you are, my man, we been looking for you,” Stephen said putting his arm around his shoulder. “Did you think about it yet? We’re all going now. Come on man, join us.”

He looked at the faces of the other two men who were with Stephen and he knew the men but he could not remember their names.

“It’ll be like old times. You, me, Abe and Marshall together again. Just come and have a drink with us.”

Abraham Donovan was a tall man with broad shoulders and his tie was loosely hanging around his neck. “We won’t take no for answer.” He said smiling his toothless smile. The front tooth knocked out when he was thirteen and he broke his fall with his mouth outside of Stephen’s house. Since than Abraham had left it broken because he preferred the way he looked in the mirror.

Marshall Hannigan, on the other hand, had his shirt neatly tucked and his tie properly worn and he took off his glasses and wiped them using the brim of his overcoat and put them back on his face. “What do you say? Old times sake.”

“Hell Marsh is even coming and you have no idea how hard it is now to get this old man out of his house. Or should I say his wives house.” Stephen and Abraham laughed and before he knew it he was walking back down the steps that he had so carefully climbed moments before along with the three men.

“I should tell someone that I’m leaving.”

“I already told Anne,” Stephen said. “She said to take it easy on her brother and I told her I can’t promise nothing. So don’t worry about it.”

He was trapped. On one side Stephen held his arm and on the other Abraham. Marshall led the way down the sidewalk as snow swooped sideways crashing into the side of their faces and all of them walked with their heads tucked slightly looking to their right. Marshall flagged down a cab and they all jumped inside. Marshall sat in the front beside the driver and told him where to go.

“Things have changed mighty since you left,” Abraham said when he asked them where they were going. “We’ll take you to a nice little spot a bit outside the town. Don’t worry. It’s great.” He winked at Stephen who smiled and looked outside.

“Tell us something then, how many Germans did you kill?” Abraham asked.

“Don’t ask him things like that,” Marshall said from the front seat.

“I don’t know.” He answered.

“But you killed some right?”

“I guess so.”

“Goddammit, I knew I should have gone too. You got no clue how boring this town is.”

“And you got no clue how horrible war is,” Stephen said.

“And you do?” Abraham said.

“No, but I’m no fool either. Hell, I rather be here than be there. Don’t be delusional Abe because if you went there you wouldn’t be here.”

“Enough about that already,” Marshall said.

“You’re right. Instead of asking him about killing we should really be asking him about the French women.” Stephen nudged in the side with his elbow. “Are they as beautiful as the pictures?”

“Depends on the picture.”

“HA!” Abe slapped him on the knee “there’s the old boy we knew. You still go it.”

“They must have been throwing themselves at your feet. Hero from far away lands come here to save them and all.”

“It was nothing like that.”

Stephen failed to hear him. “You’re a lucky dog, my man. If only we had what you and Barry…”

The cab fell silent and the slight patter of wet snow hitting the windows could be heard.

Abraham cleared his throat and asked him if he saw Barry pass and Marshall protested once more to Abraham’s questions. 

“I did.” He said.

“Was it peaceful at least?”

“It was not.”

“Yeah.” Abraham shook his big head. “We read about Ypres. The gas. How awful. Damn those German bastards.”

Stephen mumbled something that sounded like what Abraham had just said.

“I have killed only one man who I know of and probably others too but with all the shells flying I could never be sure if it was my shot or someone else’s that made the boys across from me fall. Damn the Germans but they were no different from Barry and I and damn them and damn us and damn the whole thing.”

“I hear that,” Abraham said looking out through the dark window.

“You think much about what’ll you do now that the wars over and done with?” Marshall asked.

“Yeah, some.”

“We’re always looking for new workers at the mill,” Abraham said.

“I don’t think I’m much suited for that.”

“Come work with me at the bank,” Stephen said. “Good job. Good pay. Respectable. Besides I’m sure I can get you in.”

“Yeah maybe.”

“No one is going to deny a veteran. Once I tell Mr. Pressfield everything you did overseas and your promotions and the medals you won I’m sure he’ll be begging me to get you.”

“Yeah? I’ll think about it.”

“We’re here.”

In flashes came the memories of that night as he climbed the wooden staircase led by a woman who held his hand. Everywhere he went they told the bartender who he was and what he had done and they were all given drinks on the house. He had failed to take out his wallet at all the whole night as the other men at the bars offered to buy him shots and he could not refuse the offers for it helped him forget why they were buying him the drinks.

The woman smelled nice and he heard others downstairs talking. They came upon a hallway and he passed a door that was still ajar and he saw Abraham inside it with another woman. He felt hot. Snow fell as he passed a darkened window. He saw himself taking his uniform off to show the shrapnel scars on his left arm to a group of men crowded around the dim light of the Irish pub. That had gotten him enough drinks to forget that he had ever stepped foot in France.

Whatever this place was it smelled heavily of perfume so much so as if it too was hiding its true scent, masking it with a false aroma. He heard Stephen voice through a closed-door and he called out for his acquaintance. Right in here, sweetie, he heard the woman tell him and he followed her hips inside the room. I need to take a bath he told her and she made no protest as if she had been asked such services before. That’ll be extra she said and he didn’t know why a simple bath in his home would cost him money but the headache erased any thoughts of protest.

“Come right in here General,” the woman said, “and take off your boots.” He took them off and then his socks and he felt the coldness of the bathroom tiles and he heard the tap squeal and rush of water drain into a white tub.

She undressed him. First taking off his uniform coat and hanging it over the bathroom door. After, she proceeded to untie his tie and unbutton his buttoned shirt. Both went over the coat and he wanted to tell her that’s not how his uniform is meant to be put away but the soft touch of her lips on his made him forget everything he was thinking. She twirled her finger around the crisscrossed pattern of the shrapnel scar left on his arm and she asked if it hurt when he got it and he nodded. Very much he said. She got on her knees and began tugging on his belt and he told her he could do the rest but she batted his hand away. Not every day do you get to service a war hero she said smiling and for a moment her red lips reminded him of Jessica Owens and he asked her if she was Jessica and she said she can be whoever he liked. He asked her if she can be his mother and she hesitated before replying. I didn’t take you for a man with such requests but can’t say I haven’t had that one before she said. Mother, he called out for her, as he stood bare in the middle of the bathroom. He looked himself in the mirror and noticed how frail he looked. He held his mother’s hand as he carefully stepped into the bathwater that was lukewarm and slightly steaming. The warmth spread this time from his toes to his neck as he submerged himself up to his ears. Mist rose from the bath. He saw the red lips moving but only heard muffled noises until he sat up.

“I never slept with a hero before. The closest I ever got was this one man who said he saved his nephew from a fire but I don’t believe him.” His mother stroked back his hair.

“I’m not a hero, mother.”

“Of course you are dear. You’re mommy’s little hero.”

“No. No. No.”

“Don’t be so stubborn. Of course, my boy is a hero.” She felt his scar on his back this time. “Proof right here. Here too.” She touched his arm.

“No. No. No.” He shook his head each time. “I’m just a coward, mother.”

“You’re friends told me that you’re a general or something.”

“Captain.”

“Well, would they make a coward a captain?”

“They did.”

“Here sit up straight so I can wash you’re back.”

He did what his mother asked him.

“I need to talk to God.”

“What’s that dear?”

“I have to talk to someone. Make a confession of my cowardice.”

“There’s a Church not far from here. The old Priest comes in here every now and then trying to save our souls as he puts it.” His mother laughed. “Never leaves until we save his first.”

“Is he coming in today?”

“Who knows. Maybe.” The palm of her hands made circles on the mid of his back. Soft hands for what she was. The hands moved up his back and caressed his neck.

“I hope he comes. I must confess.”

“Confess to me, dear. I am your mother you know.” He tilted his head back and saw her red lips grow as she bent down to kiss his forehead.

“Okay.”

“Tell me what you wish to tell God.”

“You remember Barry, mother?”

“Of course dear.”

“I saw him die.”

“Well, that doesn’t make you a coward.”

“I saw him die because I was too cowardly to die myself. I took his, no I stole his mask I had to please believe me I had to. The mist was coming and he was going to die anyway. A had been struck in the stomach and in the leg and maybe the shoulder too. He was going to die anyways but why should I die too? Those bastards shot my gas mask and forced me to do it. Please understand. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. But the mist was coming.  We needed the masks and Barry had one. He was going to die anyway. Why should I die too? I took his. I pried it from his hands. He begged, mother, he begged for his life and I begged for my own and he was hurt, bleeding bad, the green around us stained with his blood he was going to die anyways mother please believe me. I took the mask from him and he crawled towards me and I crawled away from him and he clawed at my boot and I kicked him away. He kept staring at me as the mist came towards us and he still stares at me at night and I need God’s forgiveness to make those blue eyes close and the pain behind them go away, I need him like Barry needed that mask when the mist took us. Those pained eyes grew larger still and he clawed at his throat this time trying to breathe. I should have shot him but remember, mother, I am a coward. Useless. He was going to die anyway he was bleeding worse now. He scratched open his throat and I see it mother, at night I see it again I see it ever since. He talks to me each night but he can’t talk no more for his throat is closed from the chemicals but his eyes talk still. Disappointed. Coward. Murderer. They call me but he was going to die anyway, mother. Please. Make him go away.”

The water was cold and his mother had left him long ago. He was alone with the sound of his tears dripping into the puddle of water his drip creating a small ripple that he watched grow and disappear just for another one to take its place. His knees were stuck to his chest and his arms wrapped around it a babe lost and scared looking for his mother waiting for her to return.

Outside the snow drifted silently with the dead wind gone. It buried the pathways and the roads and the prints of those that came before. A fresh blanket but underneath it was the same grey streets.

He got out of the bath and dried himself. He got dressed and left the money on the dressing table for the woman was asleep in the bed. The church bells rang. Snow fell on the brim of his officer’s hat and on his uniform and he walked until the sound of the bells died away. There would be no sleep tonight but he hoped for some one day.

Short Story: Senior

The day of the promotion Junior felt a surge of excitement which he had not felt in a long time. Last time might have been when he was accepted into his college program, which he still hoped to complete one day. He still kept the acceptance letter in his desk drawer at work, occasionally taking it out and reading it over again, thinking about how it would have felt if he had been able to graduate. Now, however, he had another letter, one that informed him of his promotion. He carried that with him in his breast pocket so he could show his father.

He knocked on his father’s door and waited. No one answered at first so, he knocked again. This time he heard his father’s footsteps which fell upon the floor with authority, whose verdict he heard under his own boots, as he felt his father come closer. The steps were not hurried. They were always in control. The door sprang open and his father stretched across the gaping door. Junior could tell his father had dressed quickly for he simply wore his robe with no undershirt and he could see his father’s broad chest and specks of grey hair that covered it. Junior found himself lowering his head as if he were bowing, a natural reaction in the presence of his father.

“Is it Friday already?” His father voice was deep and his lips barely moved. There were hints of facial hair on his father’s chin.

“No pa, it’s still Wednesday.”

“Of course I know what day it is, you think I’m that far gone?”

Junior smiled, embarrassed at taking his father’s question literally. His father often joked and asked questions that didn’t need answers but he found himself answering them anyway.

“I thought you only came to see your old man on Friday’s?”

His father stepped back, allowing Junior space to come inside. Junior squeezed past his father who closed the door behind them. His father was a big man, Junior had to look up to speak to him. His shoulders were still strong for someone his age, his chest still stuck out further than his belly even though men his age often had a fuller belly. But his father had always taken care of himself. His father pulled him in for an embrace. There was a musky smell to him as if he had just been exercising. His father let him go and like a little child, Junior found himself staring up at his father.

“So, what’s the special occasion?” He asked.

Before Junior could answer his father started for the kitchen and Junior hurried to keep up with his father’s long strides.

“I was just making some coffee. You want some?”

“Sure.”

“You like sugar in it?”

“Two teaspoons.”

“I don’t have any. The doctor said to lay off so I’ve been having it black. It might be too bitter for you.”

“I think I can handle it.” He said.

“You sure? I guess you’re a grown boy now.”

Junior sat down on the kitchen table and watched his father pour two cups of coffee. He felt for the letter in his breast pocket and waited for the right time to show his father.

“How’s Emily?”

His father joined him at the table, placing a cup of coffee in front of Junior.

Junior felt the warmth through the mug as he lifted the cup to his lip. His father was not lying when he said the coffee was bitter but he could see his father watching him so he took another sip and acted as if it was good.

“Better now, she’s almost over her cold,” Junior said, lowering the cup down to the table.

His father spread out on the chair and faced towards Junior. Junior felt as if he was back in school, in the principle’s office having to answer for something he did wrong. That feeling quickly passed but before he could bring up the letter, his father spoke.

“I have been meaning to thank her for letting an old man like me stay with you for those few months.”

“Oh, there’s nothing to thank. It was the least we could do.”

“I must have been a real nuisance for you to get rid of me so quickly.”

His father smiled before taking a sip of his coffee.

Junior could not meet his father’s eyes as he stared at the table top where his coffee cup was, watching the steam rise. Although his father had been a difficult house guest for he needed so much attention, Junior could never bring himself to tell the truth to his father. Instead, he had told his father that it would be better for him if he had his own place, a sense of independence. Of course, his father must have seen through the partial lie as he often hinted at the truth.

“No, it was never like that.” Junior’s voice was soft, barely above a whisper, it was as if his father’s gaze could change his tone, manipulate his words, cause the letters to come out quickly, in a hurried manner as if he were out of breath.

“Come on, I’m only joking,” his father’s strong hand struck Junior on the shoulder, “we can joke with one another, can’t we? That’s what men do. Your mother never understood it but I told her that it’s all play between us.”

Junior replied with a smile and a soft, “yes,” that was barely audible and sounded more like a deep exhale.

“But I must say, I would like to see my boy and his bride more than once a week, you know, I’m an old man now, not much left for me in this life, if I can’t even get my blood to come to see me, what am I still doing here?”

The truth in those words could not be ignored. They were true because they were Junior’s own thoughts. He had often felt as if he had not been doing enough as a son. His father had done so much for him that he felt a sense of debt to his father which he was not sure he could ever pay back.

Junior always felt the burden of his father’s shadow. He carried in his heart the notion that he had failed to live up to his father’s sacrifices. He had watched his father slowly change as he lost his youth, working, taking care of Junior, waiting for the day Junior would be able to take care of him. But that day had taken too long and in the meantime, his father had become wasted. He still recalled the day when his father got sick and could no longer work. He had a bad heart and the doctor told him he needed long periods of rest. Junior offered his help, he felt obliged to do so after all his father had done for him. Junior understood his father’s hesitation to quit his work. How could his boy run when he had never even learned to walk?

Which was why the new promotion meant so much to Junior. With the new promotion, he felt as if he had finally arrived in life. He had concrete proof that his father’s sacrifices were not for nothing. More so, it was proof that he could do something good with his life. He had often wondered if he was capable like his father if he could work as hard as his old man, for he had never been much of a worker. It was a comfort that his father had provided him. In such comfortability, he felt softened. Such thoughts had plagued Junior’s mind for a long time.

“I know pa, I’ve been meaning to come more often but work’s got us busy—”

“Ah yes, how are you liking my old job?”

“About that—“

“Do they still talk about me or have they forgotten about the old workhorse?”

“They remember, pa, how can they forget someone like you?”

“What good is a horse if he can’t gallop,” his father said, his voice flat and toneless as if he were making a statement to himself.

Junior had quickly found work as a manager in a company. It was the same company his father used to work at. The workers often talked to him about his father. At first, they simply asked about his father’s health but as they started to know Junior and get comfortable around him, they would tell him about how intimidating his father was. This often happened once they had a few drinks after work. One of the workers, George, even said that his father had made him cry one day. Many recalled his father’s stare when the work wasn’t done properly. The workers were glad Junior was not like his father. However, Junior, upon hearing such complaints felt he needed to speak on his father behalf and he told the workers that his father was just under a lot of stress especially after his mother had passed away.

At work, Junior quickly gained the reputation for working hard, something that he had desired for he was not sure he had such a trait in him. For two years he sacrificed his vacation times and most weekends to put in extra hours at work. He felt as if he owned the company that which had been generous enough to provide him with work when he was desperate. However, such sacrifices came at a cost. His wife had to take a back seat to his ambition. However, Junior felt as if his ambition was not selfish. It was a selfless ambition to make his father’s life more comfortable and also his wives.

His father finished his cup of coffee.

He stared at Junior’s almost full cup, knowing he had been right about his son’s taste. He took his own empty cup to the sink and started to rinse it.

“I can do that for you,” Junior said, joining his father at the kitchen sink.

“I’m not that old yet,” his father replied.

“I didn’t mean that,” said Junior whose voice was drowned by the flow of the tap water. His father shut it off and placed the cup to dry on the side of the cloth placed beside the kitchen sink.

“So they still remember the old bull?” He asked.

“Oh, very much, in fact, Mr. Johnson was talking to me about you just this afternoon.”

“My works got you looking soft,” his father poked Junior in the belly. “Here, look at mine, still solid,” he slapped his own stomach with an open palm, “now you must know how hard I used to work to keep in shape.”

“I guess Emily’s been keeping me too well fed,” Junior smiled.

“That’s no excuse. A man has to stay tight. Softness is an illness to his character. How can you expect others to follow you if they see this belly of yours? You can’t lead men if you can’t even control what you put in your mouth, son.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“Of course I’m right, I’ve been doing your job much longer than you have.”

“About that—”

“I saw the doc the other day and you know what he said?” His father didn’t wait for an answer although Junior opened his mouth to reply. “He said I’m in the top percentile of his patients when it comes to my physique. I told the doc I’ve never missed a day of exercising. Every morning I exercise. You should do that too or else you’re gonna fall apart when you become a geezer like me.”

There was a hint of a joke in his father speech and so Junior smiled, weakly. His father patted him on the shoulder and said, “don’t worry, boy, you’ve got plenty of time to straighten up.”

“But listen, pa, I got some good news for you.”

His father turned towards him, leaning onto the kitchen counter, arms folded across his chest.

“What’s that?”

Junior reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the letter from his supervisor.

“I’m being promoted, pa.” He said, presenting the letter to his father.

His father did not accept it.

“About time we got that position.”

He turned his back to his son and picked out a glass bowl from the cabinet above. “The son always eats the sweet fruit of his father’s labor,” he said, as he poured cornflakes into his glass bowl.

“I am very grateful, pa.” Junior’s arm hung beside him now, his hand still holding the letter.

His father spoke, as he poured mike into the bowl, “I suppose that is what the purpose of being a father is. I lay the foundation, build upon it, make it nice and pretty for you to come and see further than I ever did. Congratulations son.”

“Thank you.”

His father took a spoonful and aggressively shoved it in his mouth, some of the milk dribbled down his chin which he wiped with the back of his hand.

“I was thinking,” Junior said, “this new position can allow me to hire some help to look after you the days I can’t come.”

His father chewed, his jaw flexing and relaxing, his eyes staring right at Junior and Junior’s own shifted back to the tabletop, where his coffee had lost its steam.

“So you’ll be coming to see me even less?” His father asked.

“No, no, nothing like that, pa, I just felt it’ll be good for you to have someone around to talk to and be with.”

“Why can’t that someone be my own boy?”

Junior felt his voice soften. “These past few months I’ve been neglecting Emily too much and I just thought the two of can spend more time together, maybe go on a trip.”

His father did not reply. Instead, he quietly finished his bowl of cereal, the metal spoon scraping the glass bowl after each bite. Once the bowl was empty, he let out a sigh and leaned back into his chair.

“It makes sense, more time for your bride and less time for your old man. Don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon, you’ll have plenty of time after that.”

“Please don’t talk like that.”

“All these years I spent working, I only did that so I could see my boy do good in his life. So, I’m happy for you, son and now, if it means to watch you from afar, then I suppose I’ll do that, I’ll clap for you from the stands.”

He stood up, towering over Junior, “you do what you think is best, after all, you’re the man of the house now, right?”

Junior looked down, staring at his father’s strong legs and feeling the weight of his father’s touch as he lightly patted him on the cheek. His father picked up the coffee mug and carried it with the empty bowl to the sink. He poured out the coffee, which was cold now, into the sink and rinsed out the cup before cleaning the bowl as well. He left both the cup and bowl to dry beside the other mug.

He seemed to be waiting for Junior to say something, perhaps apologize, to take back what he had said, thank him for the promotion but Junior stayed silent, his voice caught in his throat.

“Well you must be a busy man these days,” his father said, “I shouldn’t keep you away from your bride much longer.” He started for the door and Junior stood up without a word and followed his father’s strides.

His father held the door open for him and Junior stepped through.

“It was good seeing you.” His father said.

“Pa, listen, I would come more often if it wasn’t for Emily and the work—”

  His father smiled, quieting Junior with his look.

“Your grandfather would not tolerate such words, in fact, I think he would hate you for saying such things. I’m different than my father, I don’t judge like he used to. He would have judged you to be a lousy boy, inconsiderate. He was a hard man from a different time but I still loved him and took care of him because that’s the duty of a son. But I me, I don’t judge you. You do what you think is best and send my regards to my workers and also to Emily.”

The light from the sun cast his father’s shadow upon Junior whose gaze was fixed upon his father’s feet, unable to raise his head and meet his father’s eyes.

“I’ll try to make it work.” He said.

“You do what you like, son, you’re the man now.”

His father closed the door.

Short Story: Remeber To Run

I run a lot. A younger me would never have believed I would be a runner one day. It’s funny how things work out. When I was younger in P.E. class we had to run around the soccer field every Monday morning. I hated those Mondays because I hated the cold but even more, I hated to run. Ten steps into the run my lungs would start to burn and with each breath I would feel a sharp pain in my chest and with each step my mind would tell me how awful this was and that I should simply stop running. I would think that I was breathing too loudly and the kids around me will look at me like I was weird. I also thought that my strides were too short and I looked awkward running and the girl I liked would see me or I would think that if I stopped everyone will know I’m a loser, so it’s best I kept going. Those were simple days when nothing really mattered.

But now, a quick lap around a field doesn’t seem enough. I could go round and round till my legs begin to shake and still, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. It’s not until I am mindless that I find running to be worth it. Although that can take a long time and some days I never reach that point where there is a void in my thinking. Those days I feel like a P.O.W. my mind acting like a prison and my thoughts as torture devices, depriving me of rest. Those are tough runs but I know I’ll have another shot at escaping next morning and that keeps me sane.

A younger me would have never believed that I would kill a man one day either. Of course that me didn’t know anything about the world or how it worked. He was too busy thinking about if Jemmy had seen him looking at her in class or if he’d get that red bicycle he wanted for his birthday so he can show off to his friends. He had just seen war on movie screens and in his mind. The younger me loved killing in his mind. That me always imagined himself as a soldier, as he played with his toys, and when the toys fought, in his mind he was fighting too, he killed and the toy soldiers fell down, easy and bloodless death but real death was never that pretty. Those were fun times, especially when my brothers and I played together. If only that younger self knew that one day his hands would know the grip of a real gun, the familiarity of the handles, the understanding of the trigger, the sight of men falling as their consciousness leaves them, the sound of men crying as they claw at the dirt trying to stay alive, trying to stop their dreams from leaving them, that younger me wouldn’t know anything of that and he will never know. That younger me still lives a peaceful life, playing with his toys.

I am a runner now. I wake up early, before the sun most of the time. I make sure not to disturb my wife as I get changed into my running clothes that I had laid out the previous day. A pair of black shorts that I had worn for years now which my wife got for me for my birthday when we first started dating. She had got me a shirt to go with it but that had been used and discarded by now, yet, the shirt I did wear looked years old. Along with that, I had my socks, my gloves, my cap and my cd player with the cd already inside it. I changed quickly and went downstairs to the lobby where my running shoes were waiting for me at the front door.

Most days I put them on without a thought and then I was gone. Somedays I stared at the shoes thinking why I am not in my bed with my wife, hearing her snore peacefully as the warmth took me back to some dream that I once had. Those days are rare but they do come and every time they come I stare at my shoes, distracting my thought by forcing myself to remember how long ago I had bought these particular pair of shoes. I would even imagine myself walking into the running store and purchasing them and I would recall how snug they felt the first day I wore them for a run. I had worn these particular pairs of shoes for sixty-two days and the threading had started to come undone in the front and the shoelace was beginning to lose its tightness. The ones I had previous to this pair had lasted me eighty-two days before the sole of the shoes broke. Sometimes these little tricks is all you need to overcome that initial weakness, tricks to occupy the mind, after which, I put on those shoes and leave my house.

I know the exact day when I became a runner. I had come home from work and my wife sat me down. I knew it was something serious by the way she spoke to me. She usually spoke in a soft and quiet manner, something the doctors had told her to do but that time, she could not hide the anxiousness which she was feeling, she wasn’t able to cover up the possible effect her words could have on me. She told me my mother had passed away. A letter came in that morning while I was away and it said that she had died peacefully in her sleep and the funeral will be held in three days time. I thought how could they decide when to bury my mother?

My wife was pregnant at the time and she could not travel so I went alone. She kept on asking me how I was feeling and I found that to be odd. My mother had just passed away and I felt nothing, nothing good, nothing bad and the more my wife brought it, the worse I felt about my nothingness.

At the time I used to go running every now and then, whenever I felt like it, which was not often. The doctors had told me that strenuous exercise might trigger bad memories. So that was a comfortable excuse to stay in my bed or on my couch. But, for some reason, I brought along a pair of running shoes when I went to go see my mother. They were old, just a random pair that I had bought from the store one day, I couldn’t even recall how old they were.

Mother spent her last few years living in a home with her friends and others like her. My wife and I had tried to accommodate her with us but it was difficult when you took into consideration her condition. She had never been the same since my brothers passed away. After that, she would often look at me and call me by my brother’s name. First my older brother and then my younger brother and then a blend of both of them and finally she’ll remember who I was. She’d smile and say how much I looked like them and how I reminded her of them. At the time father was around and he could take care of mother but then he passed too and his name got added to the mix of names. Soon she started to forget more things than just my name. One time we found her walking down the side of the road near our home, still in her morning robe and slippers. She said she was just going to go see my brother off at his school. It was after that we decided to put her in a home where she could get proper care.

I took a bus which left the city at midnight. My wife came to see me off. I figured it’d be easy to just sleep the night and wake up in a different town but that wasn’t the case. The cool air that leaked in from the windows kept me awake. It was as if a fan was blowing cold wind right above my head. Instead, I tried to remember the last time I went to go see her and nothing came to my mind. I remembered riding the bus down another time but I couldn’t remember meeting my mother or talking to her. I remembered the small field outside of the home where the rose petals were and I could see the gardener watering the plants in his green overalls but I couldn’t see her there, nor hear her, I couldn’t even remember her.

There was a man waiting for me at the bus stop. He worked at the home and he tried to carry my one small suitcase for me but I told him I could manage and I placed it in the trunk of his old Volvo. The brown leather seats were cracked and the air conditioning didn’t work. We rolled down the windows. The man offered his condolences and that was kind of him. He asked me if my brothers were coming too. I couldn’t blame my mother for wishing they were still here. I just shook my head and told the man that they won’t be able to join us.

At the home, they settled me into a nice room. I could tell it had been cleaned that morning. The bedsheets were perfectly laid out and the pillows arranged in order, I felt as if I would be doing a disservice by sleeping here, by ruining their constructed image. A man came up and ushered me down to the hall where my mother was. Everyone was dressed in white, those were the mourning colors here, not black but white because they believed death to be pure, a part of a process, something one shouldn’t be sad about. For them, death was cleanliness and order because it completed one’s life, without death life would be incomplete, a singular wrinkle on a bedsheet that is otherwise perfect, that single wrinkle drawing everyone’s attention to the incompletion of the task, or something like that I guess. I suppose that is the attitude you have to have when all your residents are waiting for completion.

My mother lay on a white bed at one end of the room. White cloth covered the floor and the metal chairs, there was a narrow path in between the set of chairs so one could walk directly up to my mother. Few people sat on the chairs silently and I thought that to be odd. Couple of the women sat at the front row, crying without making a sound. I took a seat at the back and watched the side of my mothers face. The bed bent due to her weight in a manner that I could only see the tip of her nose and her forehead which was partially covered with her greying hair. I figured her hair would be greying, my own was but for some reason, I felt as if that was wrong. She shouldn’t be this old. I was but she should be younger like she was when she was waving us goodbye at the train station.

One of the women from the front turned around and saw me. She was old too. She came and sat down beside me.

“You look just like your mother.” She said.

I just smiled.

“I’m sorry for you and your family. She really was a great woman, always making us laugh. You can see how loved she was with all these people here. Not everyone gets the same attention.”

“That’s nice.”

“Would you like to go see her?” She asked.

“No, thank you.”

My answer seemed to surprise her.

“In a little bit,” I added.

She pretended to understand, “okay, take your time honey.”

She went and joined the other women at the front.

I waited for a while and a few more people drifted in, all wearing white. They said their condolences to me, some asked where my wife was and I told that she couldn’t travel, many asked where my brothers were and I told them they couldn’t travel either. After some time I decided to go for a run. People didn’t notice me leave and I went to my room and put on my shoes. The home was a gated lot but the watchman at the gate let me out for I didn’t look like I belonged there just yet.

The run was simple and easy. I kept the pace light, there was no need to rush, I had nowhere to be and the path was simple as well. Flat and straight with the occasional little dip or small incline, nothing that I couldn’t handle. It took me a little while to get my legs loosened up and once they were loose I felt my strides lengthen and my lungs stopped to burn and rather, they took pleasure in inhaling the cold fresh air. I tried to think of nothing when I was running but I didn’t know how to do that at the time. I didn’t know how to get to the edge of the cliff and carefully run alongside it and wait for the perfect moment to step off and fall into the void. Now I had a better hold at getting to the void. The void was emptiness, it was without thought and without feelings. It was just alive and it took pain to get there.

At the time, I was just trying to be thoughtless. Whenever a thought came to my head I let it pass through like one of the cars on the road that seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. There were no lights or stop signs for thoughts in my mind, it was an open highway for them to keep on going. It was the void that I was trying to reach but at the time I didn’t know that. Now, when I run I don’t think of anything and with it, I don’t remember anything either.

Like Bean, I don’t remember him either. Bean, that boy who I fought with, who was still a boy. His life already completed. He would tell me stories about his mother all the time. He would tell me how she had him young, too young and how she didn’t know anything about raising kids and she would slap him when he did something wrong and then she would give him sweets to make up for it. Bean would tell me how his mother shouldn’t have been a mother yet, she couldn’t handle the responsibility, she was a kid herself. Just like us, he would add. Bean would tell me how his mother was his best friend. How the two of them would tell each other everything. They would watch movies together, they would go on walks together, she would do his homework for him, he would do the dishes for her and the two of them were one. Bean talked about his mother until he was killed. Then, I remembered his mother. I remembered his mother when I saw my own. When I saw my own mother, I saw Bean’s mother and when I saw Bean’s mother, I remembered Bean and with it I remembered that look of surprise he had on his face when his life was completed. What I remembered afterward doesn’t let me dream anymore.

I kept running that day. Easy, comfortable pace and soon all I thought about was the sky or the tree that I passed by or the crack on the pavement.

Short Story: Could Have Been A Boxer

Jack was leaving. He wasn’t dying or anything, he had just got another job in a different city and all of us were going to go have some drinks later and say our goodbyes. I didn’t care much about Jack. He talked a lot but he was a good guy, I guess. I rather go home but I had gone home one too many times and now they insisted I should come. Besides, its good to see people off, I heard.

I waited for the clock to let me out. My thoughts are so meaningless, I think. They are always the same ones and I try to think of different things, try to imagine a different life, a life in which I did not rest as much but then soon, my thoughts regress and settle back to what I want for lunch. That question took up much of my time, especially when the work becomes tiresome. I can sit in my work chair and stare at the same spot on my desk and think about all the different things I could eat for lunch. The forty-five minutes that I have to eat. I thought those forty-five minutes to be so precious before I got to them but when I get to them, those minutes seem to go by so quickly, as if I forgot to use them. But before I get there, I think and think of what I want to eat and always after so much of my time has been wasted, I settle on the same meal and then I go on with my day.

I eat with my coworkers. Usually the same three. They would talk and I would sit there and eat, occasionally agreeing with something one of them said. It was not that I did not like them but rather, I could care less if they were there or not. Either way, I was always thinking. I thought of all the other things I could be doing with my life. I thought of the work I still had to do. I thought of how much I hated my work and how much I hated myself and my life and I thought that I should have gotten something else to eat. At least the bar had the television working and I could stare at the men playing football or tennis. Sometimes the television showed the news and I would read the lips of the anchormen as the news headlines crawled at the bottom of the screen.

The clock told me I could leave and Jack and the guys put on their winter coats and stood talking to one another by the exit. When I approached them, Jack confirmed with me the time and place and I nodded.

Glad you can make it today, he said.

Wouldn’t miss it for the world, I replied.

Jack patted my shoulder and he and the others left.

I waited a few moments, pretending to have forgotten something on my desk so I didn’t have to walk with them and keep the conversation going. When I was sure the guys were far away, I followed their path to my car.

My coworkers were good people. At least I thought them to be good. None of them had killed anyone or anything like that so, they had to be somewhat decent. I always thought about what they really thought. I heard them speak about clothes and who slept with who and who bought what and heard them make jokes that weren’t that funny but people smiled anyways because why not, better than not smiling but then, I would think, what did they think about when they were alone?

I thought when I was with people and maybe that’s why people didn’t really like me. They could sense that I was never there. But these people were there. They were engaging one another, building upon the conversation, being human beings. But when they were all alone, driving home, taking the bus, walking, whatever, whenever it was just them and their thoughts, did they hate themselves too? I didn’t hate myself because I didn’t achieve what I wanted in life. I learned long ago that there was nothing that I really wanted in life. Of course, money is good and expensive cars are nice but I didn’t work hard enough to get them, so, I didn’t really want that stuff. These people were living the same life as me so, did that mean they were as hopeless too? If they were hopeless then why did they talk so much?

Perhaps what is my permanent, is just there temporary. They were not like me. They were better and that’s why Jack was leaving. I was here because what else was I going to do with my life? You had to do something.

I thought about the bar we were meeting at later and I thought about how crowded it would be because it was Friday. I thought about the drinks and I stopped thinking.

They called me the silent type. At least one of my coworkers did. He had read some personality test and forced the rest of us to take it too and I got the silent type and they all agreed that the test must be accurate but then, some of the others got told they were something that they were not but they believed it because they wanted it to be true. I thought then that either I was too honest with my test or that I was even more disconnected with people than I had believed myself to be.

But because the test proved what they all thought of me, they did not bother me much when I didn’t talk. They probably thought I was just being me. However, I wasn’t being silent for the sake of silence. I didn’t know what to say. All I thought about was how I wish I had done something different in the past. No, that’s a lie too. That thought came and went but it never lingered. What lingered was my memory of me hitting the punching bag. I did that every morning and then, the rest of the day I would think about myself and visualize myself hitting the bag as if I were watching tape on myself. I would imagine my foot twisting, my hips turning, my fist connecting with the bag and feeling the bag wrap around my strike and then hear the metal chain creak as the bag swung and I hit it again and again. I don’t know why but I thought of this often. I thought of the different combination I can throw, about my foot placement, about my head movement and all this shit that didn’t really matter but I couldn’t get it out of my head. The one-two combination, I told myself I needed to use my jab more, use it to set up the combination and don’t forget the body, you never dig those hooks into the body, you gotta start practicing that, getting better at that. It always came to me. When I showered, when I drove, when I worked and when there was silence. Always these useless memories of me playing some game or doing nothing and a thousand different ways to become better at being useless. Yet, when I did improve, when I did strike the bag better, I felt some surge of accomplishment.

This accomplishment was just a joke. I would think how pathetic my life must be to feel good about something so useless. I should be doing something else with my time. Getting more work done. I should care about my future. I should be a good boy and overachieve so I can get promoted and make more money and move to a better neighborhood and make my parents proud and buy Anne some nice diamond earrings. She would be working late tonight and sometimes I thought she was cheating on me and I don’t even know why I thought that. It just came to me when there was silence and then I would start hitting the bag in my mind.

That evening I joined my coworkers at the bar. Jack embraced me like we were old friends, the kind who knew everything about one another but I barely knew his last name. I suppose leaving does that to people. Or perhaps it was just what his personality test told him. Maybe it said he was a hugger, a good guy, so he’s playing his role. I thought I should play mine so I started drinking.

I didn’t think much that evening for the liquor kept on coming and when I drank I did not think. That was a good night. We drank and we laughed about things that I can’t recall and then when it came time to say our goodbyes, Jack took me aside and said that he can get me a job at his new place as well. To think, he had seen me staring at one place for hours and believed I was hard at work the whole time. He listed the benefits, the pay increase, the better neighborhood, the school district, he said he knew Anne and I want children someday and I thought how the hell did he know something I didn’t even know.

I said I would love it and I thanked him.

When I got home, Anne was already asleep. I thought even if she were cheating on me she’s still a good person. Most cheaters keep their partner up all night worrying about where they are but not mine, mine is sleeping safely. I went downstairs and had another drink and when the drinking stopped I started to think again.

My life wasn’t so bad. I had a good house, Anne was good, had some friends and work wasn’t overbearing. I thought how it would be if I went to the new city. What if Anne couldn’t make any new friends there? What if she made too many new friends? Then, the new house would need new furniture and I liked the furniture I had for it knew me and I knew it. I also liked the painted walls and the wooden floors, I had gotten used to the creaks of the floorboards, I knew which ones to avoid in the middle of the night when I went out for a quick smoke so as not to disturb Anne. I also was used to the work. It was the right amount for me to spend most of my time thinking and dreaming.

Here people already knew me. They knew not to talk to me. They didn’t think it odd that I didn’t talk much because they knew I was the silent type. Everything was routine here to my liking. Then, why did I hate it?

I turned the television on and switched to the sports channel. They were playing some old boxing match. I vaguely remembered seeing it and I knew who won but I watched anyway. I turned the volume down so Anne would not wake up. I got another bottle out from the fridge and sat back and drank as I watched these two men beat on one another for my satisfaction. Once the bottle was finished I was on my feet. I thought I was one of them. A fighter that came from nothing who had everything going against him and yet, he made it through, he fought through it all and won. That man was prideful. He had accomplished something and I mimicked the footwork of the boxer and I threw a jab when he did and I ducked when he did and I put up my guard and eyed my opponent over my knuckles, eyeing my opponents movement and I slipped and countered and I slipped and countered and I was thinking how great I am, that this man doesn’t know me, that I got some fight in me and he could never match my fight.

The round ended and the channel cut to a commercial break. I was breathing hard so I sat down. I thought about how I should have gone for the body.

Short Story: The Servant’s Son

He stood in front of the mirror and put his hand out by his shoulder. He was this tall the last time he saw him. This time he might be…he couldn’t see how tall his boy could be for the mirror was not long enough for him to see his own face if he stood up straight.

You’re so old now, he will say to his son. No longer a boy but a man, he will tell him when he sees him. He will praise his boy for graduation as he was the first one in his family to do so.

How many years has it been? No, he won’t bring that up. That isn’t something one should talk about. He went back to his bed where his boys’ letter lay. By now he had it memorized but he still liked to see his handwriting. It was so neat and professional. It resembled the writing of his sir. He picked up the letter and folded it neatly and placed it in the drawer beside his bed, on top of the other letters from his boy.

He will see his boy get his diploma. The first one in the family and it’s all thanks to sir.

The sun was rising, its morning touch fell upon the fresh-cut grass which still had the dew from the night showers. He went downstairs and proceeded to go outside to the front gate where the morning paper lay. Sir liked to read it with his cup of coffee. He dusted the paper off and brought it inside and laid it neatly at the breakfast table. He went to water the bed of flowers outside sirs room. The water sprinkled onto the flower heads, they bowed their heads each time the drop fell upon them.

He’ll get him a new shirt. For the longest time he had sent him my own size but by now he must have outgrown it. Maybe that’s why he asked him not to send him shirts anymore. He’s a good boy. He must think it a burden for him to do something like that. This time it’ll be new, the newest in style, what every young boy wears, no, what young men wear. A nice white shirt. Collared one too, look professional to match his handwriting.

He rolled up the garden hose and tucked it away in its proper place. Sir liked everything clean. He checked the watch sir had gifted him and it was time to make coffee. Sir never got angry or upset if it was late, he was understanding but when a man is that understanding you don’t want to take advantage of it especially when he has been so good to you and your family. That’s something his boy ought to know too. He needs to be understanding. He can tell this lesson in person. That is something one needs to hear not read.

He made the coffee as sir liked and also got a cup of almonds and other nuts and set them at the table beside the paper. He knocked on sirs door. He slowly opened the door and sir was at the study table, reading like he always did. The dim hum of the electric fan interrupted the rhythm of the pages or the ink on paper.

Coffee is ready, sir, he said.

Sir closed his book and placed his pen and paper in the drawer where it belonged. The wooden chair scratched the floor as he rose, book in hand. He pushed the book into the cabinet, in its proper place. He held the door open for sir as he walked to the breakfast table and sat down.

He went into the kitchen and waited for sir to call.

He knew the exact store where he would go to get that shirt. As sir slept in the afternoon, he would go make that quick trip and while he’s out, he’ll even check to the bus prices. He’ll ask the store owner for what is in style and get the nicest one for his boy. Maybe they can wrap it in a nice wrapping paper too. Giving a gift in person means more than giving one over mail. There is something about mail that just makes people acquaintances, just above strangers but in person, one can show love and feel love and his boy was so loving. Not a month goes by where his letter does not come. Even if he doesn’t write back straight away he never forgets.

Sir called from the breakfast table and asked for some oatmeal and toast both of which he had already prepared and he quickly brought it out for him. He stood by for a second waiting for the time to tell him about his boy but it was he who asked first.

How is your son doing?

He could not help but smile as he stared at the table.

Really good, sir, he said.

Sir nodded. He asked for some water and I went and got him some.

He is graduating, he said as he poured the water.

Who is?

My son, he’s graduating next week.

You must be proud.

Yes sir, very happy. It’s all thanks to you for getting him into the school.

That was simple. Learning is the hard part and he did that on his own.

He only smiled.

He felt it was not the right time to ask if he could go see him graduate next week so he took his place in the kitchen and waited for sir to finish. Once sir was done, he cleared the table and afterward, he ate his breakfast in the kitchen.

He made sure to remember to include in his letter sir’s praise of his boy too.

He went upstairs to his room and read the letter once again. His handwriting was so neat. After he went to the store on his bicycle, which was old and made a creaking sound each time he peddled but it did its job. At the store, he looked around at the collections of shirts they had and he asked the store clerk for the most popular one and if he could get it in white. The price was higher than he had expected but his boy was graduating so he bought it and thanked the clerk.

Before going back he stopped at the bus station and asked for the ticket prices next weekend and he got an estimate. It was also more than he had expected but he figured if he asked sir for an advanced he would get it. He was always understanding.

He got home just before lunch and sir was still sleeping. He made his favorite meal, beans, and rice along with a potato dish and he had it ready by the time sir woke up. Sir washed his face and hands and took his seat at the table. He served him the meal and as he ate he stood by, looking for the moment to ask for a leave.

Sir was the one to start the conversation.

Is there something the matter?

I shook my head realizing that he usually sat in the kitchen and waited and how odd it must look for him to break that routine.

Well, he said, there was something I like to ask.

Sir nodded as he ate a spoon full of beans.

My son’s graduation is next week,

Yes, you already told me this.

And he is the first one in our family to graduate and I was hoping if I could get some time off so I can see him in person.

Next weekend?

Yes, sir.

Sir thought for a moment and then shook his head.

Next weekend is the gathering, have you forgotten.

He had but he didn’t tell him that. He slowly nodded.

That is next weekend, he added uselessly.

I need you here for that.

That was that. He nodded once more and refilled his cup of water and went back to the kitchen. Once sir was done eating he had my own meal and he didn’t realize when he had finished eating it. His mind was set on finding the proper words that would allow him to see his son. They seemed so lifeless now. Nothing he came up with revealed anything of his boy. The words were just words and they couldn’t form his son’s shape. What did his eyes look like? How was his face shaped? What did his hair feel like? What did he smell like? How strong was the grip of his hand or his embrace? How tall was he? The words he tried to make up could never answer any of those. All they would do was comfort a formless thing. If he saw him he would be real. The pictures he had of his boy were lifeless too. He wanted to see life and words and still images couldn’t help him.

Sir called me into his room. He had a few shirts laid out on his bed along with two trousers and a pair of old boots.

You can have these, he said, or give them to your son. I figured these shirts should be his size and maybe the boots too.

He gathered the shirts in one arm and picked up the boots.

And take this, sir gave him some money, it will cover the cost of the shipping.

He thanked sir and took the boots, shirts and the trousers and brought them all to his room. The new shirt was there too. Still in its packaging. He folded the shirts and the trousers and laid the new shirt on top of them. The boots on the ground. He tried to imagine the figure that would fill them all out but it only seemed to be a shadow of a being. Something but not someone. He took a piece of paper and wrote, that he will see him soon. He hoped he didn’t remember the past times he wrote that.

He looked at the watch sir had given me and saw it was time to water the plants in the front yard.

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.