My Storybook Life (Free Fiction)

My Storybook Life

A.J. Brown

I had never seen the guy before. Not once on the streets or by chance at the mall or a fast food joint where he took my order, or maybe, placed an order beside me. For the life of me, I can’t even remember what he looked like. Was he young or old? Ugly or attractive? Did he have hair on his head (and if he didn’t, did he have hair on his face)? I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to.

What I can tell you about is what he did for me.  

Like I said, I’d never seen the guy, so when he walked up to me and held out the box I was caught off guard. Maybe I looked at him with an expression of shock or maybe I took a step back and regarded him with suspicion. Yeah, I think that’s how I looked at him, with slightly squinted eyes and lips stretched into a tight line.  The backward step was more revulsion than reaction—yeah, sad to say, but it’s true.  

As I sit here now, thinking about it, I believe the guy was homeless. I think he wore a tattered long coat and black shoes that probably had holes in the soles (and maybe he had a hole in his soul—or was it me?) and gloves missing the fingers. And if my mind keeps imagining things, then the guy had more hair on his face than on his head and that hair was dirty gray and black. His face was gaunt, as if he had lost a lot of weight too quick for his own good.

In those gloved hands he held a rectangular box, like something a shirt would come in at Christmas time or a birthday. He held it out to me, his ancient, colorless eyes begging me to take it.

“No, thank you,” I said and tried to go around him.

He sidestepped with me, the box still held out.  “Please,” he said. “You need this more than I do.”

I laughed. Do you understand that? I laughed at a homeless man. Listen to me.  My mind may have imagined his looks and probably the stench wafting off him or even what color he was, because in truth, like I said earlier, I can’t remember any of the finger details of his appearance. But I can tell you this for certain, I laughed at a homeless man, right in his ancient, dirty, face.

“I need something more than you do?” I asked, the laugh still in my voice. “I doubt it.”

I think he smiled beneath his beard (again, the old imagination told me that’s what he did). Still, he held the box out to me.  

“Take it,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

I don’t know why I reached out, but I did, and I took the box. I looked at it hard. It was, indeed, nothing more than a shirt box. YOUR LIFE was scrawled on it in black marker in a childish script that could have been drawn by a three-year-old.

“Your life?” I chuckled. “Why would I want a book about your life?” I looked up at him, but he was gone … just gone.

An eerie chill swept over me and my skin danced as if I had been jolted by a current of electricity. I scanned the street, the cars that lined it, the buildings, the benches near bus stops and street lamps that would soon shine yellow light down in cones along the sidewalk. I thought, maybe, I would see him hurrying away, cackling like one of the wicked witches. I didn’t see him. Just like he appeared in front of me, he vanished without me really noticing.

Slowly, I walked off, the box held out in front of me as if it were a snake and I was terrified it might strike me at any moment. I almost tossed the box in the trash but stopped short of doing that. I’ve never been all that superstitious, but I was scared to get rid of it. 

Back home, I set the box on the table—it was nothing more than a card table I had picked up off the side of the road one day—and went to the kitchen sink.  I filled a glass with water and drank it down, then I reached into the refrigerator where a case of beer sat on the bottom shelf with nothing else around it. The box had been torn open at the top and my hand slid into it, found a one of the cans and pulled it free of its prison. I popped the top and drank it down, stopping only to wipe my chin. I crumpled the can and tossed it at the trashcan near the stove, missing it altogether. It clattered on the floor and the sound felt too loud. I looked at the box, expecting it to scold me for making such a racket. 

I reached back into the refrigerator, grabbed a second beer. Another one followed it.  

Three. I stopped after the third beer and walked over to my fold up table. I sat in the lone chair. It groaned beneath my weight, and for a brief second, I thought it would give way and spill me to the floor.

With breath held, I touched the top of the box, traced my fingers along the words YOUR LIFE. I could almost feel the letters beneath my fingertips. I laughed nervously as I thought of the man who gave it to me. Was he dressed in a suit and tie? Maybe he was a skateboarder with tattoos and wearing Converse shoes and a shirt that said Dookie on it. Maybe he was a she? I can’t remember. I don’t think I really wanted to.

Open it, my mind whispered.

“No,” I whispered back.

It’s a gift, Stewart.

“Is it?” I wasn’t so certain it was. What if it was a trick, a joke? What if there was a snake in the box?

Just open it.

My hands shook as I flipped it over, expecting to see tape holding it closed, but there was none. I flipped the box back over and lifted the top off. Even with shaking hands it came off easier than I expected. There, in some old shirt box some bum found on the street, was a book. It wasn’t a fancy leather-bound thing, just a regular book, with a hard cover and no dust jacket. On the front of it, written in that same three-year-old’s script were the words: The Story of My Life.

book-657630_1920I shook my head. All my fears of what could be in the box and the strange person who gave it to me were suddenly unfounded. The man—if that is what he was—had given me a book about his life. I shook my head and pulled the book free. I tossed the box on the floor among beer cans and take out food wrappers and dirty clothes. Since he had me worked up, I figured I would, at least, look at the book and see what all the urgency was about. Then I would throw the book in the trash, or maybe burn it, and be done with it.

I almost screamed when I opened the book and the front page simply read: The Story of My Life, by Lawrence Stewart Anderson. My chest tightened. For a few long moments I lost the ability to breathe. My mouth became dry and my head was light.  

I closed my eyes, focused on breathing and regained my composure. When I opened them and looked down at the book, the page had been turned and I stared at a picture of me when I was a baby. I sat in a diaper, no shirt or shoes and probably no service either, a chocolate Easter bunny in one hand, its head shoved into my mouth.  

I can’t say I lingered on that photo for a long while or a short while, but it was a while before I turned the page to see a picture of me in first grade, a cow lick Alfalfa would have been proud of jutting from the top of my head. The next page was from third grade and I was missing a tooth on the bottom row. The page after was fourth grade and I wore the same shirt as the year before, but I was no longer missing a tooth. I flipped through the book, the years passing by. That was when I was eleven and playing for the rec league basketball team. There was one when I was fifteen and on crutches and another one that was taken on the day I graduated high school and that one was when I … when I got married and … and that one was the anniversary in the mountains and …

The pictures flipped by until there was one left. Me, my eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed, hair a mess, five day stubble on my chin, skin waxen and sweaty. It had been taken on the day I had been arrested for DUI, and no, the redness of the lids wasn’t because of the alcohol, but because of the accident I had caused and the injuries that resulted.

My head fell into my hands as tears flowed down my cheeks. Images of my wife in the car, her face bleeding, eyes closed; images of the police as they hauled me away and as I screamed for them to help her; images of my wife in the hospital bed, her face and body battered; images of lawyers—criminal and divorce—laying out my options; images of me leaving a home, a marriage, a job … a life I had made for myself … and ruined. 

I wiped the tears away and looked down at the book. There was one more page. I must have missed it. I frowned. There was no picture on it. I looked around my shabby apartment, the trash that littered the floor, the clothes all over the place, dirty dishes in the sink. Back down at the page and it looked the same except …

At the bottom of the page were these words, written in that childish script: turn the page. It reminded me of a book from my childhood, The Monster at the End of This Book, starring Grover from Sesame Street. I had loved that book as a kid, but right then, thinking on it, I found I couldn’t turn the page. As much as Grover tried to keep the reader from turning pages and reaching the end of the book, all while using ropes and bricks and nails, the reader always made it to the end and the monster at the end was always Grover, but he didn’t know that. No, Grover didn’t know that and his fear (in my childhood memory) was as palpable as mine was then.

My lips were dry and I that tightness was back in my chest. My hands trembled as I sat looking at the page in front of me, at the words that kept me from getting to the end. I laughed, this time out of nervousness. Then the irony hit me. The guy in the tuxedo and top hat had said I needed the book more than he did and I had thought him an idiot. Who was the real idiot? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.

A deep breath later and I did as the words told me to, and what greeted me on the next page? A mostly blank page. At the top were the words THE PAST IS THE PAST, TIME FOR A NEW BEGINNING. It wasn’t written in that childish script, but in handwriting I knew all too well: my ex-wife’s beautiful looping cursive script.  

I stood from the chair. There was no chance my ex would want to see me. And for the first time in years, I was okay with that. But I still needed to see her. If anything, I wanted to apologize for screwing up, for hurting her so badly. I picked up the book, looked around my apartment. It was nasty. Disgusting. Not what I envisioned for myself. I left the apartment, not bothering to lock, or even close the door behind me. I wouldn’t be back. I knew that then as I know it now. I will go see my ex, and after that, I’ll check myself into a clinic. But along the way, I hope to find the angel who gave me the book.

__________

Occasionally, social media can provide the right inspiration at the right time. Back in 2014, Chuck Wendig posted to his Facebook page where he said: *Hands you a box* I GIVE YOU A GIFT. YOU TELL ME WHAT THE GIFT IS THAT I HAVE GIVEN YOU. That led to My Storybook Life. 

I hope you enjoyed this story. Please like, share and comment on the post. Thank you.

AJB

A Picture is Worth More Than a Thousand Words

To most people it’s just a picture. To me, it’s so much more.

My dad called me one Saturday and asked if I was coming over. I gave a simple, ‘yeah, in a bit,’ which was true. I was about to head over there.

“Good,” he said. “I have something for you.”

Something for me? What could it be? Honestly, I didn’t think too hard on it. I have learned that when someone says they have something for you, don’t think on it too much. You could get your hopes up and have them dashed. I prefer to not dwell on it. If it’s something good, it would be a pleasant surprise.

In this case, it was a surprise. One that made me pause and think for a while later that night and on many nights since then.

I walked in the door, my kids in tow. They darted off toward their cousins, talking and laughing and doing the cousin thing, whatever that is. My dad walked into the room and smiled that Dad smile. The one where you’re not sure if he’s up to something good or mischievous. He pulled out the picture, handed it over.

“This look familiar?”

“Wow,” I said. “Yeah, it looks real familiar.”

It was a snapshot of four young men. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but those four males were at a rest stop somewhere between Columbia and Charlotte. Behind them sits a snack machine to the left and a coffee machine directly at their backs. They stood behind the metal bars that were usually closed and locked—the bars that the vendors put up so no one could tip the machines or take the money out of them. I guess someone left the gate open on that day. It was a mock prison scene.

The two guys on the ends were adults, both in their twenties. The two in the middle were teenagers and part of the church youth group. It was an outing to Carowinds in Charlotte that had that quartet (and others not in the picture) at the rest stop. I think the girls—yes, all of them—had to pee or something.

I gave a chuckle. The one on the right… yeah, that’s me. The kid beside him in the Carolina Panthers shirt and blue jeans holding tight to the red and black Nerf football was Chris. We tossed that football about all day long when we weren’t in the car (yes, we threw it while in Carowinds, much to the dismay of a couple to several dozen folks).

The picture had been taken in the summer of 1995. About three months or so later, Chris was dead. He was fifteen. I won’t get into the details right now, but it was a senseless murder that claimed my young friend.

Chris had been at the beginning of a downward spiral, hanging out with the wrong kids, smoking and from what I gathered from folks later on, dabbling a bit in drugs. On that day you would have never known. That day was a good day.

We road roller coasters and picked on the girls and ate at the joint with the big hockey player as its mascot. I can’t remember the name of the joint to save my life. We talked a lot. Mostly about girls—well, he did most the talking, since he was crushing on one of the females in the group—and we threw the football. Boy, did we throw that football…

As I stood looking at the picture, at the two teenage boys between the two twenty-somethings, I couldn’t help but wish I had known then what I know now; that Chris would become a brooding teen with haunted eyes and an even sadder smile; that another guy with the same name as his would be instrumental in a lot of Chris’s decision making; that that guy would be the end of my friend—a kid who looked up to me, who I taught how to draw cartoon characters and who liked to play practical jokes on me and Steve (he would be the other adult in that picture).

I thanked my dad for the picture and told him I had been looking for it. That was the truth. I had been looking for it and wondered what became of it.

After I got home I showed my wife. She and Chris had been close friends. I remember holding her at his funeral as she cried into my shoulder. I remember the tears tugging at my own eyes, but fighting them back.

Be strong—you’re a man and you don’t want her to see you cry, do you? Not crying doesn’t make you a man. It doesn’t make you strong, either.

Two things before I go, since nothing seems to be flowing the way I want it too and all my thoughts seem incoherent in my head as I write this.

First, the four of us stood behind those bars, pretending we were in prison. I find that ironic now. We were pretending to be in jail. I even made this crazed face (which isn’t all that hard for me. Have you seen this mug?). A few months later another Chris would really be behind bars and, well, I already told you about my friend and where he would be. Someone really went to jail. And someone died…

The other thing, and I leave you with this: That picture sits on my desk. I can see it right now. It saddens me greatly to think that trip to Carowinds was one of the last times I saw Chris really smile and really enjoy life. It was one of the last times I spent any significant time with him and my heart sinks at the thought of that. I didn’t cry when I found out about his death. I didn’t cry at the funeral. I didn’t cry in the privacy of my room that night or any other night. That didn’t make me strong. Now, a lifetime later when you consider Chris’s life was cut short at fifteen, I wish I would have…

(Herbie’s Note: Chris died on Halloween night of 1995. We heard the sirens of the fire trucks as they raced to the place where a trailer burned with his body inside. The fire trucks passed us as they hurried to what turned out to be a crime scene. I remember my wife to be (though neither of us knew at the time) saying, “I hope everyone’s okay.” Everyone wasn’t okay. But, that’s for another day. For now, I spend this month of October in honor of the young boy who died way too soon. And if you will, spend it with me in let me rememeber my friend with words.)