By: Brady Frost
Andrew looked through the lightly frosted window at the man inside, a shiver of cold rippling down his spine. He pulled his ragged jacket tighter around his skinny frame and rested his forehead on the glass. His breath created circles of fog which faded and reformed with each exhale. Soon the magic would begin.
Each night, as the last ray of sunlight slipped behind the busy city buildings, Andrew would make his way to the old man’s house to stare into the thinly paned window and wait, watching ever so quietly in the darkness. That old man, that wondrous magician who he had come to admire in secrecy, was once again preparing something magnificent. He entered his study in the usual manner, walking to the closet and shedding his olive green dinner jacket. He placed it neatly on a hanger and closed the door softly. His old fingers were wrinkled and tired, weary from a lifetime of tinkering at the sewing factory where he had tuned and repaired the machines that never quit. It was here in his study each night where he could finally escape the noise of the factory, where he could finally listen to the thoughts swirling around in his head.
Andrew shivered again and smiled as the old man sat down at his desk, his back to the window. He bent down and picked up the shoebox sitting next to him on the floor. He lifted the lid and pulled out a hardbound book and his special writing pen, just as he had for countless evenings. Clearing his throat he opened the book and thumbed through his earlier entries until at last he’d reached a blank page. There weren’t many left these days.
“Tonight,” announced the man, “we shall begin with the softest of ocean breezes.”
His pen touched the paper, and he took great care with each word as he wrote. A slight breeze blew around him, causing the papers on his desk and the notes tacked to the wall to flutter restlessly. Andrew took in a sharp breath and smiled. He’d never seen the ocean.
“The sky, lightly clouded, and almost as blue as the cresting waves,” the man continued aloud and the ceiling rippled and faded into the most beautiful sky Andrew had ever laid eyes on.
“No, not blue.” The sky jittered, the boy’s brow furrowed, “A perfect sunset!”
Andrew gasped in delight as the crackling blue twisted and turned, finally disappearing into the most wondrous oranges and reds. And so it continued until the man sat at his desk, not in the small house just outside the factory district, but on a beach, staring off to where the cool ocean met the burning sky. He leaned back in the creaky, old chair and closed his eyes, wiggling his toes in the wet sand. After a few moments of relaxation the man leaned forward and closed the book. The cries of the gulls and chorus of waves lapping at the sand faded away, then the room melted back into an old man’s study.
On the way home, Andrew trudged through the snow, still thinking about the magical beach and the waves that had washed away his cares. A harsh wind tore him from his daydream and he pulled his worn jacket tight, put his head down and scurried homeward. His mother would be waiting.
“Aye boy, and where have you been off to this evening?” She chided in her sweet, motherly voice.
Andrew smiled and motioned for her to come near. “A beach Mum!” He whispered, his face beaming with delight. “A real beach!”
She smiled back and turned, “Help me out with my strings.”
Andrew blew warmth into his cold hands and set to work at untying his mother’s apron. Her eyes had looked especially tired this evening.
“Pa’s home, isn’t he? Andrew asked.
She glanced behind her and then nodded. “Wash up,” she said. All traces of her smile faded.
They sat at the table in uncomfortable silence. The only audible sound was the occasional clanking of dishes or utensils. Andrew stared intently at the cabbage and potatoes on his plate, focusing on not making eye contact with the gruff man across the table.
His father was often described by his friends as a fearsome coal miner, loyal friend, and the best damn drinking fellow if ever there was one, but here at the dinner table he was sullen and easily irritated. Andrew had grown to appreciate the weeks his father was on shift, but felt like a prisoner in his own home every third week when Benjamin Carter was on outward rotation. It was during these weeks, just as the purples and blues on his mother’s cheeks were beginning to fade to a sickly green and yellow, that they would again regain their color. The last time his father had come home he’d brought Andrew his own purples and blues. It had been to toughen him up, he’d said. He did not like the idea of his son staring into the window of an old man’s study. Benjamin Carter was a coal miner; his father had been a coal miner, and his father before him. It was tough enough raising a family on miner’s wages, especially when you drank like a Carter.
“Been stayin’ away from that old man?” He peered over the rim of his third pint.
“Yes Pa.” Andrew lied.
“You lying to your old man?” His father glared dangerously.
Andrew’s eyes dropped to his cabbage and he poked it with his fork.
Later that night as his cheek burned against his pillow and the swelling felt fit to break skin, Andrew’s thoughts were with his mother. She was taking the brunt of his father’s drunken rage now and he wished he could shut out the yelling, wished he could take her away with him to the old man’s study where magical things happened. Maybe they could run away, maybe they could escape. He closed his eyes and wished he had magic of his own.
He did not return to the old man’s window until his father had left for the mine again. Instead, he took on chores from Mr. Parker, the man who owned the newspaper he sold papers for. The extra wages paid for a few trips to the pub for his father and saved any additional trouble at home. No one asked about his blackened eye or his split lip; he was a Carter, they all knew better.
It was Saturday evening and Andrew hid behind a large, old oak. He waited impatiently for the man to walk down the narrow lane. Had it been a whole week since he’d last spied upon the enchanting magic that sprang to life inside that window? It seemed as if he’d been waiting for ages before the man came down the darkened street, but as he drew near, Andrew couldn’t help but notice a new spring in his step. He seemed particularly happy to be headed home this evening.
Shortly after the front door closed to the cold, Andrew quietly made his way to the window, careful not to arouse the suspicion of nosy neighbors. The man was already hanging his jacket in the closet. Something was different tonight; the man seemed very relieved, as if a large weight had been lifted from his chest. He nearly pranced as he made his way to the chair. Andrew couldn’t help but smile at the comical sight and let the warmth of the window glass on his forehead melt the turmoil that had built in his heart during the previous week.
The man sat at his desk and picked up the old picture frame he often looked at while writing. Andrew never could quite tell what the picture was, but he was sure it meant something special to the man. He set the frame back down, adjusted it slightly, and leaned over to grab the old shoebox by his side. He removed the lid and held up the book within. It was as old and worn as he was, and Andrew suspected it brought the man as much comfort as it did to him, perhaps a little more. He rested the book on his forehead a moment, seeming to tune his thoughts to its wishes, and set it on the desk in front of him. There were few pages left in the volume and Andrew found himself wondering what the next book would look like when this one was finished, but he was soon whisked away to a crowded city street and let the thought slip from his mind.
It was midmorning in the small study and he could hear the sounds of traffic through the sheet of glass. A large commuter bus rolled across the room and came to a stop. When it drove off into the distance a man and woman were standing behind the bus sign. She wore a fancy black dress with a yellow umbrella. He couldn’t help but think how beautiful that dress would look on his mother. She’d be at home now after pressing clothes all day in the Laundromat. She’d be tired but she’d be starting dinner without complaint. He closed his eyes and imagined her tying her apron strings before rolling noodles on the counter. She could have been that woman, Andrew thought to himself, if only she’d chosen a different life.
When he opened his eyes again the man was talking to her. He appeared very businesslike in his tan trench coat.
“A private investigator,” Andrew whispered aloud.
“Might I interest you in brunch?” the investigator asked the attractive lady. A street vendor selling fruit materialized out of thin air behind them.
“Thank you.” She answered.
The investigator turned to the vendor, and when he’d paid the man, he tossed her a shiny red apple. She nearly dropped it in surprise; she obviously wasn’t used to such crude behavior.
“A mystery…” Andrew sighed. The weight of the past week was still heavy on his mind.
The man stopped writing and the city froze in place. He glanced at the picture on his desk once again and drew a line through the text, making a small correction.
“Might I interest you in brunch?” the investigator asked the attractive lady. The street vendor looked up from his cart and smiled.
“Thank you.” She answered.
The investigator turned to the vendor, and when he’d paid the man, he tossed her a banana. She nearly dropped it in surprise; she obviously wasn’t used to such crude behavior.
Andrew smiled, “A comedy!”
When the story finished, Andrew wiped the tears from his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed so hard. The old man leaned back in his chair and took a deep, fulfilling breath. He placed his writing pen neatly into the shoebox and closed the book. There were so few pages left, enough for perhaps one last story. The box slid into its familiar place on the floor beside him and Andrew snuck off, away from the light of the window.
While walking home he wondered again what the next book would look like. Would it be the same leather bound cover or would it be something new? What new stories would lie within its blank pages? His stomach rumbled in the darkness and he suddenly realized how terribly late it was. He broke into a sprint and didn’t stop running until he reached the door. He walked inside, still breathing heavily, and removed his coat and boots. His mother was sitting at the table with her head in her hands. Her apron was already hanging on the nail and his soup was sitting on the table; tendrils of steam still weakly swirled from its surface.
The air was thick with a tension he’d never felt with his mother before. She seemed more tired than he’d ever seen her, broken somehow. Without a word, he washed his hands and sat in his chair. For a moment he sat in silence before looking up at her. She was crying.
All at once he realized that she wasn’t crying because he was late for dinner, no, this was something bigger. Maybe Pa died, Andrew thought, but quickly pushed it from his mind. He stared at his soup in silence.
“You can’t go there anymore, Drew.” His mother’s voice startled him as it broke the eerie quiet.
“Mum?” he asked.
“No more beaches, no more cities, no more mountaintops. You sell your papers and you come home,” she said with tears in her eyes. His father’s handy-work still showed plainly on her beautiful face.
He didn’t know how he knew, but he did. Things would never be the same between them. Never again would she ask him to help with her apron strings and never again would his heart leap to see her. That night he didn’t sob into his pillow like he had the week before, but he cried harder than he’d ever cried; silent tears that signaled the shedding of his boyhood skin.
The next day, while selling papers, Andrew couldn’t stop thinking about the old man on the lane. This man, to whom he’d never spoken, now seemed to be his only friend. It was with a heavy heart that he walked past the empty house and his familiar waiting spot behind the ancient oak. He’d never watch the last story of the book unfold, never see the cover of the new book or the new adventures it might bring. He pulled his jacket tighter around him and walked home, stopping only once to look back.
Dinner that evening was as quiet and awkward as it had been the night before. Afterwards he went to bed early and thought about the last story that he had missed that evening. In his dream he was the old man in his small study in the industrial side of town. His back and fingers ached after a long day in the factory; his ears still rang with the clanging of machinery and the drumming of hundreds of sewing needles. He sat at the desk and pulled out his magic book and his writing pen. There were so few pages left. Feeling an uneasy sense of being watched in his subconscious, he slowly turned around, the book still in his hand. It fell to the floor with a thump and Andrew lurched upright in his bed when he saw the face of a young boy pressed against the window pane with little circles of fog forming around his mouth and nose.
The next day Mr. Parker asked him to help move the printing press once he’d sold his papers, already a double load. When Andrew had looked a little unsure, he’d even offered to stop by to tell his mum he’d be helping at the shop while he was on the rounds. At this Andrew had agreed, as long as she knew he’d be at the shop instead of catching a glimpse of the old man’s new magical writing book.
He didn’t quit working until late that evening. The old man would be sitting in his chair at this desk by now, writing beautiful stories. Unable to resist, he turned down the lane on the slight detour that had become habit over the weeks. He still remembered the first night he’d made that detour. Mr. Parker had asked that he make a special delivery to an old friend. He’d made it worth his while, the trip had earned his father a night at the pub and probably saved his mum a purple and blue.
He’d walked down the lane and up to the step of the small house and placed the paper against the door, just as Mr. Parker had instructed. It was then that he’d heard the clanging of swords and the battle cries from within. When he’d crept over to the window under the cover of the bushes, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Now, for the first time, the lights of the small house were off, no battles waged within, no one was laughing or crying, it was just another house that created a lonely silhouette against the dark sky and polluted haze. Something was wrong.
Andrew crossed the street and snuck up to the cover of the bushes. Inching his way through the branches, he looked into the darkened room through the cold glass; no warmth met his skin this evening. Everything seemed to be in its place. The closet door was shut, the chair neatly tucked in, the picture frame still on his desk, and the shoebox… the shoebox sat in its place but the lid was askew. Something inside him told him that the book would not be there. He stood in the light of the moon, losing all sense of time. His last friend, the one he’d never even spoken to, would never again return to his study to write in his magical book. A tear stole down his cheek, followed by another and then another, until his eyes stung with grief. As he wiped the salty streaks on his sleeve he noticed his many footprints from weeks of standing, watching. Then, just as he was about to turn away, he saw it; a shoebox beneath the windowsill, tucked under a limb of one of the bushes.
He knelt down and pulled the box into the moonlight. His fingers fumbled at the lid; he was shaking now. Inside he found a black leather-bound writing book, a pen, and a small note: To the boy in the window.
He sat down hard, his head dizzy. This only seemed to confirm what he’d already suspected. He would never see the old man again. His shakes turned to shivers, but he didn’t care. The old man had known he was there all along, but how? He pulled the book from the box and stared at the cover. It was different than the one the old man had written in. The leather cover of his had been brown.
As he cracked it open a tiny sparkle escaped and floated upwards. Andrew watched it with wide eyes as it drifted towards the sky until it vanished. He stared back down at the book in his lap and opened it now so it lay flat upon his legs.
Then, just like that, he was no longer hiding in the bushes outside the old man’s home, instead he found himself in a dingy waiting room. He smiled as he realized that this must have been the old man’s last story. Somewhere in another world he was still outside in the cold, but none of that mattered now as he stared at the room that had grown around him.
“Mcdurmot, Phineas Mcdurmot?” A fellow in a white coat had stepped into the room.
The old man had been in the corner, hiding behind the pages of a well-read book. He nervously slid a small piece of paper into the fold and tucked it into his pocket as he stood.
“Yessir?” He asked.
“I’m Doctor Livingston, I’ve been going over your test results,” the man said.
Phineas looked at the doctor expectantly.
“I’m afraid I have bad news.”
The waiting room dissolved and the two men were gone. Andrew was now sitting in the study. Even though he knew it was nothing more than an illusion, he felt strange finally seeing it from the inside, as Phineas had seen it. He walked over and touched the glass. The cold of the night threatened to come in, licked at his fingertips, but the warmth of the air around him kept it at bay, for now at least.
Startled by the sudden sound of a closing door behind him, he turned to see Phineas at the closet. His eyes looked defeated and weary, much as he’d seen his mother’s eyes look whenever his father was home from the mine. He sat on the floor and watched as Phineas removed the scrap of paper and place the book he’d been reading in the waiting room on the shelf, watched as he moved to the desk and stared at the picture frame. Andrew could see now that it held a picture of a cottage surrounded by waves of grain and a boy he presumed to be Phineas as a child. He sighed and sat in the creaky old chair. After a moment’s pause he reached down and pulled the writing book from its shoebox on the floor
When his pen touched the paper it began to rain inside the study, it was bitter and cold. The roar of hooves on the sloshy battleground surrounded them and the first clangs of steel upon steel rang out. The men in dark armor were overpowering the haggard knights on their own battlefield. Their king was now surrounded but fought valiantly onward, desperate to save the lives of his men.
Andrew realized this was the part in the story that he had heard from the doorstep. The familiar face of the warlord emerged from the ranks; his voice triumphed over the clashes of battle.
“Lord Phinfaer! You will be defeated this day, this glorious dismal day! No one will remember you or your kingdom! These lands now belong to The Brotherhood!”
The king fell to his knees as an arrow pierced his lung. The man leapt forward.
“Cousin,” Lord Phinfaer coughed, “why have you done this?” He raised his sword in weak defense.
The man knocked the blade to the ground and the fighting ceased around them. The sounds of battle were replaced with silence; victory and defeat were now at hand. He pulled a long, curved dagger from the scabbard on his belt and grabbed Lord Phinfaer by the hair. The tip of the dagger stopped short of the king’s throat and he shouted to the masses. “Because I can!”
The battle cries of his men were deafening. Phineas stopped writing and glanced back up at the picture frame. To his surprise he saw the dim outline of a boy’s face pressed into the window behind him in the reflection of the glass. His eyes were wide in dismay. It felt strangely welcome to once again write for an audience. The pen touched the paper once more and the triumphant smile on the man’s face melted into an expression of shock and disbelief. Lord Phinfaer had seized that very moment of vanity to plunge his own dagger, his last resolve, into his murderous cousin’s unprotected side. He might very well die on the battlefield, but at least his men would be saved. They would always remember him as a hero. He would never be forgotten.
Phineas closed the book and returned it to its box. He placed the pen inside and returned the cover. When he looked back into the glass of the frame, the young eyes were gone.
A few more episodes played out in the study, memorable events where Phineas had studied the boy’s expression in the reflection. Each passing day left fewer and fewer pages in the book, the metaphysical story of his life. In the end, Andrew realized, Phineas had needed a friend just as much as he had. The story concluded and he found himself back outside the quiet house. His hands and feet were freezing and the pages of the book were now blank. He closed the cover and placed it back into the shoebox. He no longer felt frightened or alone. He had stopped shivering now and for a moment he considered leaving it all behind, underneath the branches of the bushes where he had hid on so many cold nights. Taking a deep breath, he stood and turned toward home in the darkness with the shoebox tucked securely under one arm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
BRADY FROST is from Utah, USA. He is the author of “Hunting the Muse: A Creative Writing Blog”, a blog about writing, short stories, poems, and many excellent articles.
“Brady Frost started writing from a very young age, his first story “The Lion and the Turtle” was ‘published’ on Mrs Shupe’s 1st grade bulletin board outside the classroom for the entire school to read. His stories often focus on a brief snapshot of the human condition. “
Here’s what he says about himself:
“I’m 29 years old and live in Utah with my wonderful wife and three beautiful children. I’m an aspiring writer dedicated to the pursuit and perpetuation of Creative Writing. Journey with me on a literary adventure, we’ll discuss subjects such as writing habits, advice, contest submissions, and ongoing work to name a few!”
His articles about writing, like “Writing for Love” is a brilliant piece. It shows he’s a good father and a loving husband.
Visit his site to read more.