Authors: D.E. Stanley
Letter to Reader
Most of my stories I find in distant foreign lands, but this one found me only a few hours from where I grew up, on a pier by the sea. It was the first story I ever noticed (although I’m sure I missed many) and it was this story that started my quest for other stories. So, I think it only appropriate it be the first I share. If I am honest I will admit that it is my personal favorite and that I couldn’t wait to tell it.
After reading, if you are wondering how such a tale could have been found on a pier in Mississippi, then we share the same curiosity. My only guess is that it was put there by someone who had been watching me and was sure that if I found it I would tell it.
A House & Its Boy
There once was a boy with frozen hands and a soon to be frozen heart. His name was William, but no one ever called him William, only Will.
Will stood on the outside of a chain-linked fence by a mailbox in the snow. He was staring at his house, trying to catch his breath, and was quite puzzled at the lack of smoke billowing from the tip of his chimney. No smoke was no good, especially in this weather.
Winter had snuck into Will’s tiny town, named Nameless, and chased all the residents inside. Piles of cold lay everywhere and every frozen puddle from school to Will’s mailbox remained solid and unbroken. Not a soul stirred up and down the brick streets; not a sound could be heard. Everyone was hiding indoors, huddled beneath the dancing warms of their fireplaces. Everyone but Will and three magi who had secretly crossed into the world of Earth.
The youngest of the three magi was at that moment leaping from light-pole top to light-pole top, rushing back to a portal; the next was holding a wrecked eighteen wheeler together with his mind as he drove madly through Nameless’s icy streets; and the eldest was invisible and crouching behind a frozen tree, watching Will.
Today was Will’s thirteenth birthday and the last day of school until the new year. To celebrate, his parents had arranged for him to check-out early. They were suppose to be packed and ready to leave for a winter/birthday vacation. Will had no idea where they were going; it was a surprise, but they promised he had never been there before and the destination would be warm. Will was especially thrilled about the warm part. How he hated the cold! He wasn’t made for such weather. A month away was just what he needed. Goodbye piles and piles of snow. Goodbye shoveling sidewalks. In his excitement he had rushed out of the classroom (forgetting his gloves in his desk) and ran all the way home. He couldn’t be late. His parent we’re making this birthday a really big deal.
“When a boy turns thirteen,” his father said continually, “they step on the path to becoming a man.”
Will didn’t know what that meant, but he did expect some nice presents.
Before going inside Will opened the mailbox to check the mail. It was empty. He hadn’t really expected a letter, but still he checked (just like every other day). Throughout his life his father had written him from the four corners of the world. Some envelopes came with foreign money, some with pictures of mountains and cities, and all with long handwritten letters. It was their private tradition: Dad wrote the letters; Will waited for them. More than once his dad had beaten his own letters home, and since his father had just arrived from yet another extended business trip it didn’t hurt to check.
Will snapped the mailbox shut and tucked his face into his scarf just as another gust of Winter said hello. The wind seeped through his red jacket and into his bones, chasing a chill from mid-back to fingertips. He could no longer feel his toes, his nose felt like someone was pinching its end, and his hands were pouting because they were naked and completely numb from the cold (a very good reason to be upset). He even felt a strange tingle in his eyes, a brain freeze without the pain or the slurpy.
Will started through the annoyingly squeaky chain linked gate, but then, from a few feet behind, came the deep clearing of a throat. “Ah-hem.”
Will stopped and turned around. He looked up and down the street. There was no one there. “Hello?”
The only reply was a faint siren in the distance and the roar of an approaching vehicle, still hidden in the fog. The roar grew louder, then quite suddenly a blue 18-wheeler, too large for the little street and driving too fast for the neighborhood, came screaming out of the fog with both driver’s side wheels sliding wildly on the icy sidewalk. Will jumped back just as the truck blasted by, blowing its horn until it swerved back onto the road and disappeared around the corner.
“Geez! What’s your freakin problem?!” yelled Will once the truck was out of sight.
The magi behind the tree was now peeking from around the corner of the house. He had just avoided being seen.
Will turned and pushed open the squeaky gate, but stopped once again. He backed up. The mailbox was open and inside lay an envelope.
“What the heck?”
A moment before the mailbox had been empty, he was sure of it, or at least he was almost sure he was sure. Will took the envelope and examined: no street or return address, no stamp or postmark, just old looking writing on an old looking envelope. On the back was an actual red wax seal stamped with the image of a lion in front of the sun, and on the front only two words were written:
A birthday card full of money
, thought Will as he stuffed the envelope into his jacket pocket and started trudging through the snow to the front steps of his shivering two story house. He’d open the card inside where it was warm. Besides, he had figured out why the chimney was turned off; they were trying to trick him, of course. It had to be a surprise party.
“SURPRISE!” yelled Will as he burst in the door.
You could almost hear crickets chirping.
“Mom, I’m home! Hello?”
Again, no one answered. Nothing moved. Nothing spoke: not the twin chairs and fat cushioned couch, not the family portraits in perfect checkerboard formation, not the green plant snickering in the corner, nor the large brick mantle taking up an entire wall. Even the fireplace sat silent, which was very unusual for this time of year. It was quite quiet, which made it feel quite colder than it really was.
Will dropped his jacket and scarf, wrapped up in a blanket, and knelt at the fireplace. He grabbed a few pieces of kindling pine and a box of matches, brushed away the ashes, lit the pine, threw in a few sticks of wood, and topped the pile off with a pine-cone. A few moments later, after some huffing and puffing, the pine-cone began to glow a thick wet orange, then it ignited and burned from the outside-in as if someone had flipped on the burn switch. For good measure Will tossed in a few extra sticks of pine (although he had been continually told not to use so much). Once the fire burned healthy enough to be left alone and he had regained the feeling in his fingers, Will grabbed the envelope from his jacket pocket, dropped the blanket (which I am sure felt offended), and walked into his father’s little library.
To Will the library always felt a little warmer than the rest of the house, thus it became his favorite winter place. Every year he ventured into these stacks of books, disappearing in the stories of spaceships and superheroes zooming and zipping through the air; of worlds of titans and submarines and pirates, with a hook for a hand, a stick for a leg, and a patch for an eye, who were bad but somehow good at the same time. Even during those dreary school days he secretly imagined his math teacher, whom he called
, as an evil pirate that kidnapped children and forced them to learn the evil art of pre-Algebra.
The library was a rectangle room with a long skinny table set in its middle. On the two long walls stood bookshelves and on the far end opposite the door, just above a roll-top desk, hung a painting of a fiery yellow mulberry tree. Behind the painting hid a secret safe Will had never seen open. Again and again his parents told him he’d be shown what was inside when he was older, but still he had tried to open the safe at least a hundred times when his Dad was traveling and Mom wasn’t looking. There were just two problems. One: Will couldn’t find the key, and two: there was no keyhole (Both major obstacles when trying to crack a safe). After so many failed attempts Will had finally accepted he was no locksmith, but perhaps thirteen qualified as
when you’re older
Will sat at the end of the long table and held the envelope up to the light. Inside he could see a folded piece of paper. On the back the red wax seal was stamped with the silhouette of a lion turned broadside, all four legs visible, in front of a strange and dull yellow glimmer, as if the beast were walking in front of the sun.
Will pressed with both thumbs until the seal broke. He pulled out a piece of old parchment, unfolded, and read:
Happy thirteenth Birthday.
First, let me tell you I am sorry for your loss. This is a difficult time for you, and I know you are hurting. I know about the fire. I know about your parents. I know how the terrible accident happened. I know what she said to you in room 14. I know you are angry and alone and miserable. I also know that right now you are asking yourself many loud questions. I can hear them as clear as a voice.
First, the most obvious question, which you have already attempted to answer by glancing at the closing of this letter: “Who am I?” The second question is, “How did I know these things would happen?” And the third you are asking is, “Am I responsible?”
Today, in this letter, I offer no answers, but I do offer them. Tomorrow, get on the 3:30 train. Go south. Get off at sunset and walk deep into the Eastern woods. Knock on the door of the only house you come across.
I know this brings up a fourth question, which is the most important: “Am I good; can I be trusted?” This question you will have to answer on your own. This is my offer. I urge you to accept, but it is your choice. After tomorrow you will not find the house.
King Mel Masih
P.S. Answer the door.
BANG, BANG, BANG
! sang the front door. Will jumped so hard he fell out of his chair.
Was this some sort of birthday prank?
BANG, BANG, BANG!
“Who’s there?!” called Will as he stood and peaked out of the library doorway. Through the glass at the top of the front door he could see a very tall, very black, very broad shouldered, very square chinned police officer. Will engaged the chain lock before he cracked open the door.
“Can I help you?”
“Are you William?” asked the officer.
“I’m Officer Andy. I’m afraid I need you to come with me.”
“Why?” Will took a step back. “Am I in trouble?”
“No. It’s about your parents. They’ve been in a terrible accident.”
The Slow Flow of Time
When Will sat in the patrol car it read 3:27. “What happened?” he asked as soon as both doors shut.
Officer Andy glanced to Will then back at the road. “The accident occurred around 2:50,” the officer said. “I’ve been looking for you since. We’re going to the hospital now.”
Will’s heart leapfrogged. “The hospital? How bad was it? Are they okay?!”
Again, Andy paused before he spoke, his eyes darting from point to point along the side of the street. “A blue semi-truck ran a red light. The driver fled the scene. That’s all I know.”