Thankful for Something

The door to the small, dark cell opened, and a guard threw a tray of food on the floor. “Happy Thanksgiving.” His gruff voice was the first sound from another human I had heard in a long time.

“Is it really Thanksgiving?”

The guard shrugged. “Maybe. What do you care? You’ve got nothing to be thankful for.” Done with me, he slammed the door shut and left.

Once more, the light shrank to whatever filtered through the small, barred window on the door. Still, it was enough to see that the food was the same gruel trying to pass itself off as stew. I ate every bit of it because there would be nothing better. The guard had probably lied about it being Thanksgiving.

Besides, he was right, what did I have to be thankful for? Left in this underground cell to rot, the only light coming from a low-watt bulb in the corridor. The food barely deserved to be called that. No human interaction. I wasn’t even certain I remembered what crime I had committed to be thrown in here. Nobody even bothered to torment me. I was certain I was fed only when someone remembered I existed. That’s how I would die; they’d just forget to feed me, and I would starve.

Still, it was tradition. Surely I could think of something to be thankful for. I was alive. I had a roof over my head. Food in my belly. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t muster any thankfulness for any of it. The food was horrible, and the roof felt more like the lid to a coffin. And frankly, I wasn’t certain I was even alive.

“I think he was lying about Thanksgiving.” The voice seemed to come from the wall behind me.

“Who…?”

“I’m in the cell next to yours, I think.”

There had never been anyone else in here. “Are you real? Or am I imagining you?”

“Good question, but I’m real. Are you?”

How do you know if you’re real? Except for this disembodied voice, and the occasional grunt from a guard, no one had acknowledged my existence for as long as I could remember. Maybe I wasn’t real…

“Hey! You there? You know I can’t hear your thoughts. You gotta talk out loud.”

“Sorry. I think I’m real. Why haven’t I heard you before?”

“Same reason I hadn’t heard you until that guard talked to you. No reason to say anything.”

That made sense, I supposed. “How long have you been here?”

“Six months? Maybe. I was brought here in January, so I don’t think it’s November already. How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know. I’m not even sure when I came here anymore. Pretty sure it’s been longer than six months.”

“Wow.”

Silence came rushing back in, much louder than before. I tried to remember how to have a conversation, to keep the other person talking. I didn’t care about what, and that made it harder to think of something to say. But I needed to hear a human voice, even if it was just my imagination.

“How… Why did you get put in here?” I asked the first question that popped into my head.

“Boring story. You don’t want to hear it.”

“I do. Really. Even if it’s boring.”

A pause before the other spoke again. “Okay, but I warned you. It started with a broken headlight…”

Judgment Day

“So on Judgment Day,” he could hear the preacher pronounce those capital letters, “God will confront you with all of your sins. Only those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior will be admitted into Heaven. Everyone else will be condemned to Hell for all of eternity.”

On the way home, he kept thinking about what the preacher had said. Finally he asked his mom about it.

“Mom, am I going to Hell?”

She looked at him in the rearview mirror. “No, honey. You’ve been saved. You’ll go to Heaven. You don’t have to worry.”

“What about you?”

“I’m saved, too. We’ll be together in Heaven.”

“Is Dad saved?”

There was a pause before she answered. “No, honey. He isn’t. But that’s why it’s important to witness to him, so that you might get saved some day.”

“Oh.” He didn’t ask anymore questions after that. But he also didn’t stop thinking about it.

Later that night, he made up his mind. When Judgment Day came, if his dad wasn’t saved, he would insist on going to Hell in his place. It was the best solution his eight-year-old mind could come up with. The only worry he had was that God would allow it, but insist that the person whose place he would take had to be randomly chosen. He would still make the trade, he decided. If his dad wasn’t going to be there, then he didn’t want to be there, either.

Last Night

It snowed last night.

It hadn’t snowed in years. We had been told it wouldn’t snow again, but last night, Mother Nature managed to eke out another inch or two.

The kids went outside to play in it with a sense of wonder. Almost intuitively, they made snowballs to throw at one another. They even attempted to build a snowman like the ones they had seen in story books, but there really wasn’t enough snow to make anything very big. Even though they had to come in after about an hour because their t-shirts and shorts weren’t enough to keep them warm, they had a grand time.

I stayed up all night watching it fall as the whole world slowly turned white. It took me back to my childhood, and I recalled even having school canceled once because of it. But that had been years ago, and those old memories paled next to the visual treat I witnessed last night.

The sun burned away every trace of snow when it rose in the morning. The kids, excited to have been outside the night before, asked if they could go out again. I had to explain that the snow was gone and the sun was back, so it wasn’t safe to go outdoors.

The looks on their faces nearly broke me. It had been cruel, I realized, to be given that taste of how things used to be, only to have it snatched back right away. Still, I hoped it would be a memory they would cherish. And someday, they could tell their children that they had seen real snow.

The Offer

There was a knock on the door just before it opened. A middle-aged man walked into Jacob Lott’s office.

“Hello, Jacob. Good to see you again.” He extended a hand.

Jacob took the man’s hand and shook it before inviting him to sit down. “Have we met? I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”

The man chuckled. “You did have a lot to drink last night, so it isn’t surprising that you might forget.”

“Last night…” Jacob vaguely remembered going to a bar, but much of the rest of the night was a blur. “I don’t really…” His memory finally dredged up something. “You… were sitting next to me…”

“Indeed. I listened to you most of the night.”

“… While I complained about the state of the world, the mess it’s in. The way we’ve screwed up the planet, ourselves, and society.”

The man smiled. “For as drunk as you were, you were also very articulate. Until you passed out.”

“Very sorry about that. It’s been a rough week.”

He waved away Jacob’s apology. “I could tell. Happy to lend an ear.”

“So… how did you happen to come by my work?”

He pulled a small white card from his pocket. “You gave me your business card.”

“Oh. So you have work for me?”

“No… Well, not exactly. I have a proposition for you. I can give you the tools you need to make the world a better place.”

“Well that sounds… implausible. You shouldn’t start your sales pitch with such grandiose hyperbole.”

“It’s not a sales pitch. And it’s not hyperbole. I really listened to you last night. You seem to genuinely care about this world. I want to help you set it right.”

“And how would you do that.”

“I can give you power. Resources. Whatever you need.”

“And the price for all of this?”

“None. You just have to try to fix the world. I think that’s price enough.”

Jacob eyed the man sitting across from him. He didn’t trust him, but he couldn’t figure out his angle. What was he after? He just sat there, a mild smile on his lips as he waited for Jacob to respond.

“What’s your name?”

“I’ve had many names. At the moment, I go by Lucas.”

“Lucas? But your original…”

The phone rang.

“You should get that.” Lucas stood to leave. “Think about my offer, Jacob. And I am very sorry about your sister.”

“What about my …?” But Lucas was gone before Jacob could finish his question.

The phone rang again, and he picked it up. “Hello?”

“Jacob. This is mom.” Her voice sounded weak, as though she had been crying. “There’s been an accident.”

“An accident?”

“Yes. Your sister. She’s been…” His mother started sobbing.

Haunted House

No one ever saw the couple that lived in the old house at the end of the street, but every year they put out an amazing Halloween display. And they gave out the best candy. Despite all the effort they put into decorating, though, they always wore the same costumes: just simple white sheets over their heads to be basic ghosts. Everything else about their would-be haunted house was perfect, so no held the rather uninspired costumes against them. Indeed, the house was the highlight of the holiday.

This year had been no different. Jack-O-Lanterns were displayed in every downstairs window. Ghosts and demons – incredibly life-like – peered out of upstairs windows. The porch was covered in cobwebs, and the lawn was covered in a mist, allowing only hints of the beasts that seemed to roam the yard. 

Inside, however, the spirit of the season was rather absent.

“I hate this time of year,” he complained. “All this work, and for what?”

“You know very well for what,” she chided. “People appreciate the house. Doing this pacifies them into leaving us alone the rest of the year. Do you want people coming by all the time?”

“No!” The terror is his voice was obvious. “That would be worse.”

“Exactly. This gives us the peace and quiet we enjoy the rest of the time.”

“But the kids frighten me.”

“I know. Still, one night a year is better than the alternative. You can manage.”

Just then, the doorbell rang.

“You don’t have to say anything. Just put on your sheet…”

“I know, I know.”

He stood up from the chair, walked over to the door, and grabbed the sheet from the coat rack. He threw it over his head before opening the door and placing candy in each child’s bag. Just the sight of them scared him, and he barely heard their thanks. He replaced the sheet and slumped back down into the chair.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“It was horrible. You didn’t see them.”

She sighed but said nothing more. He would be disagreeable all night, just like every year.

The doorbell rang again.

“I can get this one,” she offered.

He waved her down. “No, you’ve already done so much. I’ll get it.”

Picking pieces out of the bowl near the door, he opened it find another group. As he went to place the candy in their bags, one of them let out a scream of terror. They all ran from the house.

The sudden shriek made his blood freeze, and he slammed the door closed. He wanted to run and hide.

She came into the entry way from the living room. “What was that?”

Trembling, he managed to say, “I don’t know. They screamed and ran. I told you I hate this. We never decorated and gave out candy while we were…”

“You didn’t put on your sheet.”

“What?”

“You forgot your sheet. All they saw was floating candy. Of course they got scared.”

He looked down and realized she was right.

“Oh no.”

“Don’t worry. They probably just thought it was a trick. I’m sure no one will think there are actual ghosts here.”

“What if they do?”

“They won’t. Just be sure to wear the sheet next time.”

Moving On

Without a doubt, I was dead. It was as obvious as it could be. My body was in the most unlikely and uncomfortable position. I say uncomfortable because it looked very… well… but I was not experiencing the discomfort, for I was no longer in my body. Perhaps I should have started there, since that evidence is likely more compelling for the conclusion that I was dead.

I was standing and looking down at where it had collapsed in the middle of the restaurant, leaving me feeling rather naked. Luckily, no seemed to notice me as everyone was staring at the flesh that used to be me.

Being dead didn’t seem that bad, upon reflection. The aches and pains in my knees and back that had become nearly constant companions were gone. Indeed, the years that had begun to pile up were lifted, and I felt more alive – if you’ll pardon the expression – than I had in quite some time.

When the ambulance came to take away the newly abandoned corpse, I tagged along out of a sense of obligation. After all, it had been my home for many years, and it seemed disrespectful to leave it alone so quickly. But when we arrived at the morgue, I realized how silly that was. No one would know if I just left, and even if they would, it’s mine. I shouldn’t have to stay if I don’t want to.

As I began to leave, a faint outline of a person suddenly appeared to block my way.

“Where are you going?”

I hadn’t really considered where I was heading, so I simply replied, “Away from here.”

“But this is where your body is.” The voice sounded as though not only was this fact obvious, but it was equally obvious that I should stay.

“I know. But my body and I have parted ways. No real need to hang out with it any longer, is there?”

“Don’t you want to know why you died?”

“Well, I’m no doctor, but I assume it has something to do with my heart stopping.”

“Obviously. But why now?”

“Why should that matter?”

The figure had become more distinct, and he was wearing a frown. “Knowing that information provides peace of mind. It helps you to move on.”

“Move on to what?”

“To what’s next.”

“Right now, the only thing preventing me from moving on is you.”

“But your body…”

“Is no longer mine, is it? I’d say you have the problem moving on from this. So unless there’s something else…?”

He shook his head in defeat.

“Excellent. I’ll be leaving now. But you’re welcome to stay for the autopsy if you like.” And so I left him standing there. My only regret is that I never asked him who he was.

Memory

For as long as I can remember, I have had a strong aversion to being waved across the street by a motorist when I’m walking. I do not know when this started or why. If I come to a corner and a car stops there, I try to avoid making eye contact with the driver and wait until she or he goes through the intersection before crossing myself. I may even wait for several cars to go through, pretending as though I’m waiting for someone or going in a different direction. I’m not afraid to cross; I merely am uncomfortable with cars waiting for me to do so.

That was the not the only quirk I picked up as a child. Again as far back as my memory goes, I’ve noticed and memorized license plates. It was in part a desire to be responsible, so that I could give the information to the police in case of an accident. It was also, in part, paranoia. In case the owner of the car followed us home or something. Honestly, when you’re six, you don’t really have great reasons for the things you do. An idea gets into your head, and you try your best to follow it to its logical (and completely bizarre) conclusion.

I was around nine or ten years old and was walking home from school. Well, not exactly. We lived about 4 blocks from my school, but I wasn’t headed there. My dad worked with his father out of his parents’ house. At the time, I was too young to stay home alone, so after school I would walk to their place, about 10 blocks or so in a different direction, and wait for my dad to finish work.

My route took me east for a ways, and then north. I came to the corner where I was going to turn, and I saw a car headed towards the four-way stop. So I turned around and looked at the house behind me. The sidewalk was set back from the street a bit, so I thought it would be easy to look as though crossing the street was the last thing on my mind. I waited to hear the sound of the car pulling away.

Instead, I heard a man’s voice calling, trying to get my attention. He was white and scruffy and driving a boat of a car, probably an Oldsmobile. The large passenger-side window was rolled down, and he had an envelope in his hand. Across the street to the east was a mailbox. He wanted me to take the envelope and mail it for him. One thing I remember very clearly, I could see no address or stamp on the envelope. 

This was many years ago. Kids played outside long into the summer evening without adult supervision. They walked home from school alone. But we weren’t completely naïve. Just about every school year, a fireman came to the school to talk to us about fire safety. We were told how one in every three homes experiences a house fire and we needed to have a plan just in case. I don’t remember how many times I heard variations on this, but the house burning down was one of my big childhood fears. The other one was being kidnapped. (Well, there was also something about vampires behind my headboard, but that’s not relevant here.) Just like the fireman, a police officer would come regularly to talk to us about the dangers of kidnapping. (The drug talks were after my time. That’s how old I am.) He told us how to be safe. Mostly it was admonitions not to go the bathroom by yourself when you were out in public.

So I was constantly expecting my house to burn down. And to be kidnapped. That latter fear came rushing forward, and I started making excuses as to why I couldn’t help him. My mother was waiting for me, and I was already late. Obviously, that was a lie since I didn’t live with my mother, and I wasn’t headed home. But he couldn’t know that.

He repeatedly pointed out how close the box was, and it would be easy for me to mail it. But I continued to refuse. It wasn’t even that I was stubborn. I was terrified and all I could do was continue refusing; the thought of running away or calling for help never occurred to me. I just kept repeating that I couldn’t do it, that I had to get home. Exasperated, he drove off, squealing his tires as he raced right past the mailbox.

I finished walking to my grandparents’ house where I told my father. (I thought about not telling him. I didn’t want him to be mad at me, but I thought I should say something in case he tried to kidnap someone else.) He told me that unless I had his license plate number, there was nothing we could do.

And that’s how terrified I had been. I had completely forgotten to note his license plate. This thing I always did, I had forgotten entirely. This quirky habit that I have to this day, vanished when I could have used it the most. So we didn’t do anything. And I never saw the man again.

In the intervening years, I’ve had many occasions to think back to that day. (I still don’t like being waved across the street.) Maybe the envelope was addressed on the other side? But the envelope seemed rather flimsy, as though it was empty. And why didn’t he stop to mail it himself? Sure, it was less convenient, but if it was important enough to ask someone else to mail it, it needed to be mailed, didn’t it? Did he kidnap someone else?

I have no answers to any of these questions. But I doubt I’ll ever forget that day, and I’ll always wonder how close I came to being just another statistic.