It’s been a while since I’ve posted any original fiction. This story was published at BewilderingStories.com in Issue 612, and was an Editors’ Choice in the 2015 First Quarterly Review. And one of these segments actually happened!
The Joy in Forgotten Objects
by Bob Welbaum
It’s a small, round white stick, made of sturdy pressed paper, four inches long, about an eighth of an inch in diameter, with a watercolor-red stain an inch long around one end. It has been laying in the gutter for who-knows-how-long, now looking more spotted grey and brown than white, almost covered by dirt and leaves, passively awaiting its fate.
What is it? How did it become forgotten gutter trash?
* * *
“Trick or treat! Trick or treat!” The chorus of voices were more of an excited squeal.
“My, my, what have we here?” the elderly woman exclaimed with mock enthusiasm for the thirty-seventh time that evening. But when you’re widowed and live alone, Halloween can mean as much to you as it does to the kids. “A cowboy, a princess, a pirate, and… what are you?”
“A superhero!” came the excited cry. “See my cape?”
“Oh, yes,” the woman chuckled, “now I do. Okay, for having such clever costumes, you each get a handful of candy.” She thrust her right hand into the large mixing bowl she was cradling to her waist. “Here you go.” A full handful went into each opened bag.
“Oh, wow!! Thank you, thank you!”
“You’re welcome. And no tricks now, okay? Goodbye.”
The door slowly closed as the gaggle of kids shut their bags and turned away.
“Pretty neat, huh?” said the princess.
“Yeah, I remember her from last year,” replied the pirate. “C’mon, we’ve got three more houses on this street.”
Three children broke into a run through the yard toward the next porch light. A fourth, the cowboy, yelled a quick “I’ll catch up.” Then he walked at a deliberate pace back down the ribbon of stones set in concrete that led from the front door.
On the sidewalk under the streetlight stood a middle-aged woman, bundled against the cold in a worn cloth coat, a faded scarf tied under her chin. Her hands rested on the handlebar of a wheelchair.
The chair was kid-sized, well-padded with large rear wheels that resembled tires. A heavy blanket was draped over a form that sat motionless, completely covered except for a head that tilted to the right side. A knit hat covered the top of the head, so all that could be seen were eyes that rolled slightly upward, a nose that perpetually glistened with mucus, and a mouth that was always open with a tongue that always showed.
The woman smiled as the boy approached. “Sounds like you did okay there.”
“Yeah, we did.” He slowed, then stopped in front of the wheelchair. “Amy, are you keeping warm?”
There was no answer, but he didn’t wait for any. “We did pretty well at that house.” His hand went deep into his bag, and out came a red sucker. “Here, you can have this. Your share.” He looked at the woman, who merely nodded.
Setting the bag down, he quickly tore off the cellophane wrapper and gently laid it on Amy’s tongue. “I think it’s cherry. You like cherry, don’t you?”
Amy’s tongue reflexively withdrew into her mouth, taking the sucker with it. Only the white stick was visible. The eyes remained fixed on the sky, but then came the smile.
The woman’s smile followed. “Thank you, Jason, for being so thoughtful of your sister. Now you’d better catch up with your friends. We’ll follow on the sidewalk.”
The boy turned and grabbed his sack all in one motion, then wordlessly, determinedly was running toward the next house.
* * *
In all her eight years, Cathy had never seen anything like it. The nice, quiet street in front of her house, the same street her mommy and daddy drove on, where the school bus came to pick her up and drop her off, was filled with people running.
She had been standing there for what seemed like an hour. First there had been a couple, running by themselves. Then a few more, and now the whole street was filled. Some were zooming by, determined looks on their faces.
Most were doing a slow shuffle, a few were walking fast. She leaned out over the curb and looked both ways. Nothing but people running, as far as she could see in both directions.
And the colors! Cathy looked down at their feet. She saw black shoes, orange shoes, blue shoes, shoes such a bright yellow they must glow in the dark. They were wearing t-shirts of every color, some with short sleeves, other sleeves were long. There were baseball caps, knit caps, no caps. Black gloves and white gloves and funny mittens and nothing on their hands at all.
Cathy was not the only one watching. Other people were there too, on both sides of the street. Some were yelling, though Cathy didn’t always understand what they said. Some extended their arms out into the street, palms open; once in a while a runner would come over to slap palms. A few held signs with names of people Cathy didn’t know.
Then Cathy saw a man just up the street from her holding a large bowl. When a runner came close, he would hold the bowl out and the runner would grab something out of it. Some runners were in such a hurry they would miss and whatever-it-was would fall out onto the street. Cathy looked closer. It was candy! That gave her an idea.
Quick as a flash, she ran into her house. In a moment she was back standing at the same spot on the curb, holding a sucker in her left hand. Would anyone want her sucker? She looked down the street.
Here came a tall, thin man close to her side of the street. He wasn’t young. In fact, he reminded her of Grandpa. He was running at a nice, steady clip with his head slightly down. She shyly, cautiously held out her hand just over the curb, about shoulder high.
He wasn’t looking toward her, he was thinking about something else, he was going by…
He looked in her direction… took four steps… looked back… suddenly stopped and glanced directly behind him. Nobody was there, so he quickly came back to where she was standing. “Is that for me?” A touch of wonder was in his voice.
He looked so tall. And so strong! He was so close she could see the droplets of sweat all over his face. Ten seconds ago he was in a hurry, determined, concentrating… Now he was looking right into her eyes, a gentle smile on his face.
She simply nodded and extended her hand up as far as she could reach.
He took it from her carefully. “Looks like cherry. My favorite!” He tore off the cellophane wrapper and popped the sucker into the corner of his mouth. “Thank you.” Their eyes met again for one second, two seconds…
Then he turned and started running again at a nice, steady clip with his head slightly down.
And Cathy leaned out over the curb and watched for as long as she could see him.
* * *
The chime of the bells above the door announced his presence. His entrance was met with a hard stare from the man behind the counter. Will tried not to look back. He could almost read the man’s thoughts. What are you doing here? You come in every day and you haven’t bought anything yet. I should kick you out right now. I don’t need this.
Will surveyed the scene around him, everywhere but behind that counter. He had his own thoughts. Damn you, old man, I can come in here like anybody else. I do as I please. If you don’t like it, call the cops.
Ducking behind a greeting-card display in the middle of the room, Will paused to take a deep breath. Chocolate! Lemon! Cherry! They were all here. No doubt about it, this is where he wanted to be.
School? Will hated school. Too many people telling you what to do, where to sit, what to learn. What do they know? Bet he’d never use any of that crap they were trying to teach him anyway.
Home? So his drunken, deadbeat dad could take a swipe at him? He’d have to eat whatever came out of whatever can his mother happened to open that night, then be nagged about chores or homework or whatever she was mad about that day until it was bedtime. Then get up the next morning and do it all over again.
But here… So many enticing smells and colors. Of course I don’t have any money, idiot! But I can look around, can’t I? Just give me fifteen minutes of peace. Then I’ll be gone… until tomorrow.
Will looked around. He was the only one here… at the moment. He made a mental inventory. Loose chocolate by the pound in the counter where the old bastard stood guard, candy bars under the cash register at the end of the counter, packaged hard candy and greeting cards on circular stands in the center of the room, gummies in serve-yourself bins against the opposite wall, plain suckers in a big jar on the shelf under the back window…
What was this? A red sucker on the floor? Somebody sure was careless. Guess no one wants it. At the end of the day, it’ll get swept up and put in the trash. Such a waste! Unless…
Will quickly glanced around. Yep, he was being watched. He’d have to wait and hope for a break.
Then he heard the chime as the door swung open and two, three, no, four giggling girls rushed in. “Hi, Mr. Crane. What’s new?”
Perfect! As the conversation continued, Will slipped over to the other side of the room. Bending down and pretending to tie his shoe, he deftly slipped his hand over the sucker. When he heard the beep-beep of the cash register, he pinned the sucker to the palm of his hand with his thumb. As he stood up, he thrust both hands deep into his pockets and kept them there.
The girls left, and so did he. Nothing wrong with walking with your hands in your pockets, was there? No eye contact; he ignored Mr. Crane’s stern gaze as if he didn’t exist.
Without so much as a glance back, Will walked quickly up the street. He was two blocks away, almost in front of his apartment, when he finally examined his prize. The cellophane wrapper came off, quickly into the mouth. “Cherry! My favorite!”
* * *
What stories may be found in forgotten objects?