Short Story by James Strauss
The child, who was not a child, crouched with his back to the warm window. It was below zero in Wisconsin, but not in the deep window well. A mouse looked up at him, its puzzled stare demonstrating no understanding, but also no willingness to back down. The child smiled. He looked down at his fellow traveler, but did not extend a hand. He knew about wild animals. Wild animals survived. Wild animals fought and died over territory. He was in the mouse’s territory, but he wouldn’t fight. They could not be friends. Wild animals had no friends. He knew that, at eight years of age, for he was a wild animal himself.
His name wasn’t Zack, but that was the name he called himself. His real name didn’t matter. The police couldn’t do anything with Zack, because he’d made the name up. A couple of times he’d been fingerprinted when he’d been remanded into the custody of youth authority. Each time he’d said his name was Zack. He’d taken the name from a cartoon he’d seen somewhere. The window was warm on his back. He turned his head to study it. The basement light was unaccountably on. If someone was in the basement he would be visible, but Zack had seen no one in all the hours he’d been there. The lock to the window wasn’t fastened. Zack pushed very gently, as he applied sideways pressure to the multi-layered glass. He didn’t have gloves. The glass at the bottom of the window well was very cold, even though it was much warmer than the temperature outside. The window moved; an inch; then a few more. Warmth cascaded out of the opening, filling the entire well. Zack checked back for his companion, but the mouse had disappeared. Zack was not disappointed. Everyone disappeared in Zack’s life.
He didn’t try to open the window far enough to enter the basement. He wasn’t stupid. If he went in and got caught the cops would be back quickly. If he stayed in the well he could jump out and run if he was somehow noticed, or lights started blinking in the distance.
The window was open about four inches when the cat appeared. A gray cat. Big. Sitting there in the basement, having come seemingly from nowhere. Zack felt a pang of fear. The cat was nearly a fourth of his own size. If it had claws it could hurt him, he knew. The cat stuck its head through the window, its eyes wide open, unblinking, as if in question. The cat stopped only when his muzzle was inches from Zack’s face. Zack stared. He didn’t know what to do. He’d never had a pet. Cats ran when they saw him. Dogs too. But not this one. Unable to stop himself, Zack reached out one dirty hand to pet the cat’s head. The cat did not react. It blinked once. Zack patted its head several times. When he stopped, the cat stepped all the way through the window, and then curled up on a spot of cold detritus made up of autumn leaves and junk that had fallen into the window well earlier, before the snow had come. Zack knew from that move that the cat was not a normal cat. Cats preferred warmth.
Zack stuck the fingers of his right hand into the cat’s gray fur. The cat looked up at him, but made no move. The boy’s hand felt wonderful. The cat’s fur was warm and it seemed to draw his fingers in welcome. Zack sighed deeply. This night was the best he’d had in a week, no matter what. Sleeping in the fields, even under rolled crops or piled hay, was pretty terrible. But that was before the colder temperatures. When it was as cold as it had become now, there was no sleeping outside. Zack intrinsically knew that. Falling asleep in the fields in such cold was to risk dying, and he didn’t want to die. So he’d come to this house. The lights on the trees had attracted him. There were other homes about, but they were all dark. He knew he would have been safer from discovery in one of those, unless it had an alarm, but the promise of warmth inside the home with the lights on, had drawn him in.
The lights were Christmas tree lights. A single tree, down the hill right, in front of the house, glowed. Across the back yard was a row of five more trees all lit up, as well. Only one tree, at the end of the five had colored lights. The rest were little white and yellow ones. Zack wondered why the one tree was colored. Deep snow covered the trees so the lights glowed in their colors.
Zack loved Christmas. Not for the presents. He’d never had a present. His family had not been a family at all, just a collection of people working together during the daytime and then laying around in different states of sleep at night. Zack loved Christmas because people were nicer during the Christmas season. They gave him money, sometimes. That didn’t happen during the rest of the year. But Zack wanted a present. One Christmas present would be okay. Zack sighed again. He didn’t know anybody. He’d run from where he had been weeks before. He’d only gotten out to the country because a drunken man had picked him up by the side of the road. He’d wanted Zack to drive for him, not understanding that Zack was only eight years old. Zack hadn’t minded the drunken drive. The car wandered all over the road but it had been kind of fun, probably like carnival rides he’d heard about but never experienced. A boy appeared in the window. Zack froze in terror. The boy called softly, not looking through the window.
“Harvey, Harvey, where are you?” The boy said the same words over and over, looking up into the basement rafters, then at the many boxes stacked along the concrete walls.
Zack looked down at the cat. The cat had to be named Harvey, but the cat didn’t move. Zack gave him a gentle shove toward the open window. The animal just looked up at him, as if he was smiling in pleasure at the other boy’s inability to find him. The boy, who appeared to be about Zack’s own age, turned to the open window, noticing it for the first time. He saw Zack. They stared at one another for a full minute.
“What are you doing with Harvey?” the boy asked, pointing at the curled up cat. The cat ignored the boy, remaining on the cold ground next to Zack’s foot.
“Nothing,” Zack whispered, truthfully, through the opening.
“It’s cold out there. Why are you there? It’s warm in here. Come in here, and bring Harvey.”
The small boy crossed his arms, waiting for his orders to be obeyed. Zack crawled through the window after pushing it open. He didn’t touch the cat. The cat seemed to know that he was supposed to follow, so he did. Both of them stood to face the child, once they were in and the window closed.
“You don’t look happy,” the little boy said, “but Harvey seems to like you. Do you live around here? I didn’t know there were any kids around here. All the rich people go back to Illinois at this time of the year, and they take their kids with them. Not that those kids like me anyway. I don’t have any friends.”
“I don’t know,” Zack said, hesitantly.
“You don’t know what?” the boy responded. Zack’s face grew red. He didn’t know what to say.
“I think I need to go before the police come,” Zack forced out, turning to look back at the closed window.
“Why would the police come?” the boy said, “Are you a criminal?”
“I don’t know,” Zack responded truthfully. “I don’t know what a criminal really is, but I may be one.”
“No, I don’t think so,” the boy replied. “I think you’re here because of Christmas tomorrow. I asked God for a different Christmas gift this year. I didn’t want a sled, an electronic game or a scooter. I wanted something interesting, like a real friend. My parents don’t understand me. So God sent you. Do your parents understand you?”
“I don’t really have parents, and I don’t know about God. I went to school, but only for a year. I’m not sure why. I learned to read, but I don’t have any books.”
The little boy reached out one small hand.
“I’m Clark, and I live here. You learned to read in one year? I can read now, but it took me three years. Maybe you can’t really read. Maybe you’re just saying that.” Zack shook the serious little boy’s hand. “That box over there says ‘Maytag, this side must always be up,” he intoned, pointing. Clark followed Zack’s gaze, then nodded.
“Okay, you can read,” Clark agreed.
“Why are you down in the basement?” Zack asked, tentatively.
“Harvey,” the little boy replied, instantly, picking up the big cat, but not for long. Harvey twisted and jumped down. The boy laughed, delightedly. “Harv’ is my only friend, but he runs away from me and hides. He likes the basement.”
“What time is it?” Zack asked.
“Almost midnight on Christmas Eve,” Clark responded. “My parents are asleep. They ‘over-served’ themselves a bit. That means they drank booze. That’s why all the tree lights are on again. I kind of like it. I can do whatever I want. What do you want?”
The question caught Zack off guard. He almost said that he didn’t know, but held back. He thought about what he really wanted.
“I’d like a present,” he said, smiling for the first time.
“Cool,” Clark said. “I’ve got lots of presents. Let’s go upstairs and check them out. They’re all wrapped but I’ve opened every one without Mom or Dad knowing about it. Maybe you can guess what’s in the boxes.” Without another word Clark walked to the stairs. Harvey followed the boy, then turned to look back. Zack realized that the cat was more like a dog than a cat. He liked that. He moved to follow the boy and the cat up the stairs, brushing the dirt and leaves from his clothes as best he could.
The house was warm. Clark led Zack through a hallway at the top of the stairs and into a front room library. A decorated Christmas tree stood against the outside window, its lights blazing with reflections of the lights in all the many decorations hung on its branches. In the distance, out the window, Zack could see the softened light of the snow-covered tree in the front yard. Clark and Zack moved presents about until they’d handled every one. Zack had not been able to guess any of the presents correctly, but he loved trying. There was only one flat box left.
“This is from my crazy grandpa. He’s crazy, but I love him. I never can guess what he’s going to give me. My Mom says that’s because he’s crazy. But that’s okay. Old people can be crazy and still love you. My grandpa taught me that.”
Zack handled the wrapped box. It was wrapped with some kind of bright gold paper. He shook it. “Gosh it’s pretty,” he said, delaying his guess.
“Yeah, my grandpa is colorblind so he goes for the wildest colors possible. He has no clue. That’s why the one Christmas tree outside is colored. It’s for grandpa. But he’s crazy, so it doesn’t matter. He makes believe he knows it’s colored just for me.” Zack nodded, as if he understood. He had no grandfather that he knew of. But the crazy grandpa sounded pretty neat to him.
“You can have it,” Clark said, out of the blue.
“What?” Zack asked, in puzzlement.
“The present. If you can guess what’s in it then you can have it.”
Zack set the box down and then slowly turned to leave. It was too much. He knew he could never guess what was in the box. It was like the rest of his life. He was never going to understand any of it. That was just the way it was. A tear almost rolled down his face. He grimaced. He would not cry. He could not cry. He was in the best Christmas place he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to crawl under the beautiful tree and sleep. Then wake up and live there.
“You don’t have to guess,” Clark said, somehow guessing what was going through Zack’s mind. Here, it’s yours. Merry Christmas. Grandpa is so crazy he’ll never know his gift isn’t there when he comes tomorrow.” Clark pushed the box toward him.
Zack fought his tears back, knowing that Clark knew he had almost cried. He liked the boy for ignoring it. “He’ll know. You’re not telling the truth. I can’t take it if he’ll know.” Zack slid the box back.
Clark sat back on his knees, staring at Zack. “Okay. You’re right. But grandpa is different. When he comes I’ll take him aside and tell him that there was this boy who came in the night and needed a present. Grandpa is the only person in the world who will understand. I just know it. He’ll just shake his head, smile, and like me even more.” Clark pushed the present back to Zack.
This time Zack grabbed the box and tore the wrapping off. It was a small model train. Inside there was a tiny transformer. He opened the box very carefully. The train was from Switzerland. Zack sounded out the word and liked the sound. Both boys worked to set up the tracks in an oval. They connected the transformer and plugged it in. The train ran. Zack couldn’t believe it. The present was a marvel of wonder. A small light illuminated the engineer in the engine compartment. They ran the train around the oval many times. Finally, Clark told Zack that he had to go to sleep. Carefully, they packed the train back into the well-formed box. Zack followed Clark upstairs to the bedrooms. Clark showed Zack his sleeping parents. Both of them snored gently.
“My Dad is kinda’ serious when he’s awake,” Clark said, “but he’s a great dad. He wears an expensive watch called a Breguet, which I’m not allowed to touch, but I do when he’s in the shower. Mom acts silly, but she’s not; she’s real smart; even though she’s a blond. She’s okay.”
Zack made believe he understood. They moved to the last bedroom on the floor. Clark climbed into his bed, and then pulled the covers up to his neck. A small blue blanket was on the pillow next to his head. He reached for it, inserting part of it into his mouth.
“Mom says I have to give up my blanket soon. Dad calls my blanket a rag and says it’s unhealthy.”
“It’s okay,” Zack said, standing next to the bed, with the train box under his arm, wondering what it would be like to have his own blanket.
“Will you be gone when I wake up?” Clark said, his voice beginning to grow sleepy.
“Yes,” Zack said, gazing down upon the boy.
“Are you the friend God sent me?” Clark asked.
“Yes,” Zack replied, not knowing why he said it.
“Will you come back again? You can live in the basement. Nobody will know. And then we can play every night when my parents are asleep. Harvey can play too.”
Zack stared at the boy. Clark’s eyes closed, then his breathing slowed, although the blue blanket never left his mouth. Zack reached for the light switch, and flicked it off. He stayed for a few more minutes, watching his sleeping friend.
When he was back inside the window well he crouched down. His back was to the glass, which felt icy cold. He would sleep until just before morning light and then go. The train set, his first Christmas gift ever, was clutched tightly under his right arm. Harvey lay stretched across his left ankle. Zack thought of Clark, in the bedroom way above him, as he waited for sleep to take him into the coming Christmas dawn.
A very nice day after Christmas read. I can’t believe that a major publishing house hasn’t taken you on. You’re a very gifted writer. I wonder if somehow I’ve lost touch with The Cowardly Lion. Haven’t seen a chapter in quite a while. How’s it coming?
No, I stopped for a bit, in the writing of TCL. I am back at it this afternoon though.
The big publishers, like Hollywood studios, publish friends, family, relatives and people who pay them to publish. Mostly,
you do not see anything else published, especially from unknowns. It is not meritorious.
Thanks for the interest and care.
Another great story.Thank you sir.
You are most welcome Christopher!
Love it LT. Merry Christmas
Glad you liked it Harold.
Thank you for making my Christmas complete. Your short story really touches my heart.
It was my pleasure to ‘reach’ you on this Christmas occasion.
Thanks for telling me about it.
Another wonderful story. I can see myself as either of the young boys. Many thanks for writing, and for posting the link to Susan’s blog spot.
If you ever need an edit, James (LT!), you do have my email address.
Nice comment here Craig and I really appreciate this kind of personal compliment…
Wonderful story he said with tears. Thank you. God bless.
Thanks so much Vern. Means a lot to me.
As always sir your story telling ability draws me in do deeply that I am in the room,or in the mud or edge of a river. Thanks for something so touching and warm.Semper Fi.
Thanks John, good to hear from you with respect to the story and your high compliment about it.
James, I liked your story and hope Zack will have a real life in the future. I grew up in a Children’s Home and can relate to some of your story.
Also I have kept up with your Vietnam memories. Is your filming based on your VN experiences?
Keep up all your writing and I am forever thankful I did not have your experiences there because of being in an Engineer HQ.
Thanks, Jim, for following the story along and reading Zack makes me smile.
It is a good story,
thanks for the compliments written within your words…
I’am taking a liberty James, the Gunney was right you have a gift!
Thanks James. I figured out the Gunny was right about so many things. The leadership
thing? Still goes down hard aftdr all these days…
A gift of a friend arrives to leave with the gift of a friend. I like the in-betweens, the empathy. I’m a real fan of Charles Schulz. You remind me of him as an author and honestly, I haven’t a clue as to why, I’ll figure it out. I do hope you understand I’m not attempting to compare! I like to think I’m searching for an appropriate way to compliment you, without gushing! For the sparse words on meaningful things, often answered with nothing more than an illustrated look through heavy-lidded eyes, to silence.
A child that wasn’t a child, a cat more like a dog, you got me at the top of stairs with this one James…Warm regards,…Thanks for the gift.
Thanks Dennis. Yes, I live and breathe through the children. through the half formed ideas and thoughts of children can come so much in the way of restful contemplation.
Thanks for the compliment and I am so happy you like the depth in those stories…
Dennis Hayes has aptly described the essence of this story. It was the first such I have read; I found it truly engrossing. The careful choice of wording was informative, with a subtle quality.
Hayes is brilliant and his own great talent as a writer. I much enjoy reading everything he writes on here.
Knowing him, I can completely understand why he is so taken with The Present.
Sir I am barely 21 years old and I just found your writings today through a facebook add oddly enough and I’ve been reading your stories all night long and I can’t stop. First of all thank you for your service for a government that didn’t and still doesn’t in my humble opinion give a shit about the young people they send off to fight wars over money and oil and overall greed. it is very brave and honorable of you to put down such often painful im sure memories with the hope of helping others I have many friends who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan and the vast majority never mention anything about their time their (granted I never ask out of respect) except for the odd often inebriated moment when they will randomly tell me a story about their service often in little statements and with that dead, vacant look suddenly returning to their eyes. I once was legitimately frightened by one of my own friends when he randomly took me to his safe room were he kept his weapons and started drunkenly swinging a rifle around while telling me he was going to teach me how to be a man (I was 16 at the time he was at least a decade or so older) and also telling me that “killing people was about as easy as killing flies”. I convinced him to put the gun down that day but the look in his eyes and his words still give me chills to this day. That was the only time he ever told me anything about his time in the war. I can only imagine the horrors you experienced and am very grateful that you have the courage to write it down so mere civilians like me can have a little glimpse of what you guys go through. Your talent for writing in general is amazing your stories are impossible to put down once you start. Again thank you sir and I wish you all the best in your life today and onwards, hell if anyone deserves it it’s those like you that sacrificed so much. Godspeed and best of luck in all your future endevours.
Your drunken friend was wrong about the killing of people, comparing it to the killing of flies.
Nope. Humans die hard. Hit with a whole magazine of 16 tracers and laying there talking about his wife
in Vietnamese and making me promise through the interpreter to write her a letter.
I did, but where did it go?
He took all night in the dying. Some die easy, on both sides, but many do not at all…
Thanks for the lengthy and really neat comment. And your loyalty.
Please go to amazon and leave a review of
the book if you can.
Thanks a million,
I’d have to agree with you there sir when he said that I couldn’t tell if he was a psychopath or simply not able to cope with the reality of having killed or seeing others killed and was making the comment in a failed attempt at bravado or trying to convince himself he wasn’t bothered by it. Whatever it was the look in his eyes gave it away though it was like all of a sudden he was right back there in Iraq and everyone in the house was his potential enemy that’s what scared me the most although I understand that that is common among those who have been to war zones and seen death up close and personal. I have thankfully never been to a warzone but I still vividly remember the first man I ever saw dead I was 16 and was turning onto a street when I got a call from my friend who lived on the street saying shots shots someone just got shot don’t come get out of here but I was already on the street by then and I remember the kid lying there in the middle of the road for some reason I remember that he was wearing a white shirt and the contrast of the blood pooling around him is stuck like a photo in my mind I still have nightmares of it sometimes. The second time I saw a body was when I was around 17 and my girlfriend at the time asked me to go check on the man in the car next to us in liquor store parking lot we were pulling into. I got out and walked over to his window which was halfway down and he was laid back in his seat mouth wide open with grey skin and I remember instantly seeing the flies around his mouth and I knew there was nothing I could do (I guessed at the time he probably had died of a drug overdose because there was no obvious trauma) so I just walked back to my car without saying a word and left. I still feel guilty for that that was someone’s son brother father maybe abd if I had told the police maybe they could at least have some closure but that was years ago nothing I can do now. Il never forget that image either. Anyway thank you very much for responding it really means a lot to me and I will go write a review tonight when I get home. Hope you had a great day sir and thank you again for your service and your response it’s an honour.
PInaki. It’s hard not to answer heartfelt and totally sincere correspondence, such as your own.
In life, if you’ve noticed, we don’t get a whole lot of that. At the coffee shop I go to every day
the conversations are never like that. They sort of patter along, skipping on the surface of life’s every day waters.
But not here. I have been so struck by the willingness and trust so many have demonstrated, as you have, in discussing things
they don’t discuss almost at all with anyone. Yet, here we are, laying our lives out…in some cases, finally, for all to see.
My own comes out every few days in the segments. At home they have the effect of people looking at me and talking to me a little differently.
A bit more skeptical, I think, of the creature that might lie at the bottom of this expressive multi-tasking character they’ve come to think they
know. Both good and bad. Like all of life. Thanks most sincerely for the comment and for saying things that have true meaning, not just to you
but the people who read what you write.
I like it. I almost wish there was more to the story or a sequel to the adventures of Zack (or maybe the adventures of Clark.) As it stands, it is satisfying that something good happens to Zack on Christmas. I was a little distracted here and there by some spelling and grammar errors, although I hate to nitpick. I wanted to give you my positive comments first. 🙂 “Quick” should be “quickly.” A few times, you used the possessive “its” for “It is.” I’m sure these are just typos. It should be — “It’s cold out here.” “Gosh, it’s pretty.” “It’s okay,” Zack said … The placement of the comma in the first sentence really distracted me to the point that I read the sentence over three times before continuing. It may just be a comma, but it affects the flow of the reading and even the meaning.I think you should add another comma after the first mention of “child”, so you have set off a phrase modifying your subject. The child, who was not a child, … Right now, it seems like the comma is just inserted between the subject and verb. I mean to be helpful to you and not merely critical. I hope this helps.
Your comments and direction for editing are well received, Susan. Thank you very much. Come back and see if a left any ‘mistakes’ not yet corrected.
Publishing our weekly newspaper keeps me on my toes and my personal writing and blog publication is sometimes not the same editorial priority.
We will be publishing collections of Zack’s adventures, along with the Adventures of Arch Patton. Currently have plans to start filming Down in the Valley on location in Hawaii in 2016.
Again thanks you for your input.
Enjoyed reading your post on Christmas Eve,
Christmas Eve with Bishop, Bailey and the Band
By the way a few photos do not show up on your Blog?
Beautiful story and much like many of your stories, it makes you wonder what happens next. The very best to you James and may the new year fill your head with more heart warming stories to share.
Thank you Marion for your comment. Appreciate your support.