Snowflakes fall and his breath swirls in the cold winter air as a boy stares through an old man’s window and the magic of words come to life before his eyes.
The man closes the book and the images fade. Andrew realizes he’s late for dinner and rushes home to tell his mother of the fantastical images he was able to see.
Things take a turn for the worse, however, when he realizes his drunk, abusive father is home from the coal mines and waiting for him when he gets there. Now Andrew must face the consequences of giving in to the temptation of dreaming of another kind of life.
Just when it seems that everything good has crumbled to ash before him, Andrew realizes he has the power to choose. If only he can find the courage to step out from his father’s shadow.
The Boy in the Window
Written by: R. Brady Frost
© R. Brady Frost, 2008; All Rights Reserved.
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Andrew peeked into the frost-rimmed window at the man inside. A shiver of cold rippled down his spine. He pulled his ragged jacket tighter around his skinny frame and, once he was sure he wouldn’t be seen, rested his forehead on the thin pane. His breath created circles of fog which faded and reformed with each exhale. Soon, the magic would begin.
After the last rays of sunlight slipped behind the busy city buildings each night, Andrew would make his way to the old man’s house and wait. He’d watch in darkness as the wondrous magician he’d come to admire in secrecy created the magnificent.
The man entered his study in the usual manner. He walked to the closet and shed his coat. Every movement, steeped in ceremony, was slow and deliberate, even the small act of placing the garment on the hanger. His fingers were wrinkled and tired, weary from a lifetime of tinkering at the clothing plant where he tuned and repaired machines that required his constant attention. Andrew imagined that it was only here in his study at night that he could escape the noise of the factory.
The man sat at his desk with his back to the window. The ritual had been the same for countless evenings. Andrew held his breath in reverence as the man reached for the shoebox on the floor, lifted the lid, and pulled out a hardbound book and a writing pen. He cleared his throat, opened the book, and thumbed through his earlier entries until he reached a blank page. There weren’t many left in the hallowed tome.
“Tonight,” the man announced to the empty room, “we’ll begin with a soft ocean breeze.”
His pen touched the paper like a paintbrush. Each word was an artist’s stroke, filling the canvas as he wrote. The papers on his desk and the notes tacked to the wall fluttered and flapped. Andrew took in a sharp breath. He’d never seen the ocean.
“The sky, with a trace of clouds: 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, and Andrew’s brow furrowed, “A perfect sunset!”
Andrew gasped in delight as the crackling blue twisted and turned, dissolving into the most wondrous oranges and reds. So it continued until the man sat at his desk, not in the small house just outside the factory district, but on a beach where he stared off to where the cool ocean met the burning sky. He settled back into the creaky, old chair and closed his eyes as he wiggled 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; the room melted back into an old man’s study.
Andrew was still thinking about the magical beach and the tumbling white-crested waves that had mesmerized him from the other side of the window. He could barely hear the muffled splashing of water through the glass pane, but the magic lingered. A harsh wind tore him from his daydream, and he put his head down against the cold and scurried homeward. His mother would be waiting.
Aye boy, 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 beamed 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 looked especially tired this evening.
“Pa’s home, isn’t he? Andrew asked.
She glanced behind her and nodded. “Wash up,” she said and 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 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, a loyal friend, and the best drinking fellow if ever there was one. But at the dinner table, he was sullen and irritated from his tour at the mine. Andrew had grown to appreciate the weeks his father was on shift. He felt like an unwanted shadow 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 didn’t much like the idea of his son staring into the window of an old man’s study. Rumors fell fast from drunken lips at the pub. Benjamin Carter was a coal miner; his father had been a coal miner, and his father’s father before him. It was tough enough raising a family on miner’s wages, especially when you drank like a Carter. No father should be so embarrassed by the behavior of his son.
“Been staying away from that old man?” He peered over the rim of his third pint.
“Yes, Pa,” Andrew mumbled.
“Are you lying to me?”
Andrew’s eyes dropped to his cabbage again, and he poked it with his fork.
Later that night his cheek burned against his pillow, and the swelling felt fit to break skin. Still, 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, that 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 more chores from Mr. Parker, the man who owned the newspaper for whom he sold papers. 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 where he waited 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? An eternity had passed before the man came down the darkened street. There was a new spring in his step; he appeared particularly happy to be headed home this evening.
The front door closed to the cold and Andrew 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; he looked relieved and all but pranced his way to the chair. Andrew couldn’t help but giggle at the comical sight and let the warmth of the glass on his forehead melt the despair he felt inside.
The man sat at his desk and picked up the old picture frame he often looked at while writing. Andrew couldn’t make out what the picture was, but he was sure it meant something special to the man. He set it back down, adjusted it slightly, and leaned over to grab the old shoebox by his side. He removed the lid and emptied the contents. The book was as old and worn as he was and he rested it on his forehead a moment, tuning 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 if the next book would look the same. The thought slipped from his mind when he found himself whisked away and suddenly standing in a crowded city street.
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Despite the lack of light outside, it was midmorning in the small study and Andrew could hear the sounds of traffic through the sheet of glass. A large commuter bus rolled across the room and came to a stop. A man and a woman were left standing on the walkway in a cloud of black soot when it roared off down the street. She wore a fancy black dress with a yellow umbrella. Andrew 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, exhausted but starting dinner without complaint. He closed his eyes and imagined her tying her apron strings before rolling noodles on the counter.
He opened his eyes again. The man was talking to the woman who now held her umbrella in front of her like a tiny sentinel, protecting her from any unwanted advances. 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 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 dropped it in surprise; she wasn’t used to such crude behavior.
“A mystery…” Andrew sighed. The burden of the past week still weighed 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 scribbled correction.
“Might I interest you in brunch?” the investigator asked the 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 dropped it in surprise; she obviously wasn’t used to such crude behavior.
Andrew smiled, “A comedy!”
He wiped the tears from his eyes when the story finished. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed so hard. The old man leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. He placed his writing pen 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 away from the light of the window.
While walking home, he wondered again about the next book. Would it be the same style, with a leather-bound cover, or would it be something new? What stories would fill its blank pages? His stomach rumbled in the darkness, and he 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 heavy, 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. His soup was sitting on the table; tendrils of steam no longer swirled from the bowl.
The air was thick with a tension he’d never felt with his mother before. She was more tired than he’d ever seen her, broken somehow. Without a word, he washed his hands and sat in his chair. It was a long while before he could look up at her. When he did, she was crying.
“I’m sorry, Mum,” he said, but she didn’t budge.
All at once he realized she wasn’t crying because he was late for dinner. No, this was something bigger. Maybe Pa died, Andrew thought but pushed it from his mind. He stared at his soup, struggling to understand.
“You can’t go there anymore, Andrew.” His mother’s voice startled him.
“Mum?” he asked.
“No more beaches, no more cities, no more mountaintops. You sell your papers, and you come home,” Andrew’s mother said with tears in her eyes; his father’s handy-work still showed on her beautiful face.
Things would never be the same between them. He didn’t know how he knew, but he did. 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.
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, was now 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 would bring. He walked home feeling alone, stopping only once to look back.
Dinner that evening was as awkward as it had been the night before. He went to bed early and thought about what story he might have missed that evening. With the sort of power the man wielded, the possibilities were endless.
In his dream that night he saw himself as the old man in his small study on 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 the writing pen. There were so few pages left. Feeling an uneasy sense of being watched, he turned around with the book 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 looked unsure, his boss offered to tell his mum he’d be helping. At this, he had agreed.
He didn’t quit working until late that evening. The old man would be sitting at his desk by now, writing his beautiful stories. Unable to resist, he turned down the lane on the slight detour that had become a 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 bruise or two. That night 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 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 miserable silhouette against the dark sky and polluted haze. Something was wrong.
Andrew crossed the street and snuck up to the cover of the bushes. He inched his way through the branches and looked into the darkened room through the cold glass; no warmth met his skin this evening. Everything was in place. The closet door remained shut, the chair tucked in, the picture frame still on his desk, and the shoebox. Tt sat in its place, but the lid was askew. Something inside him told him that the book would not be there. Had it been stolen? Had something terrible happened to the old man?
He stood in the light of the moon, losing all sense of time. His last friend would never again return to his study to write in his magical book. A tear burned down his cheek, followed by another and then another until his eyes stung with grief. He wiped the salty streaks on his sleeve and stared at his many footprints from weeks of standing and 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.
His head felt dizzy, and he sat down hard. The words 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 used. The leather cover of his had been brown.
He cracked it open, and a tiny sparkle escaped and floated upwards. Andrew watched it drift towards the sky until it vanished. He stared back down at the book in his lap and opened it, so it lay flat upon his legs. Then with a whoosh, 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 it didn’t matter. Fascinated, he stared at the room that had grown around him.
“McDermott, Phineas McDermott?” 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 slid a small piece of paper into the fold and tucked it into his jacket pocket.
“Aye?” 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 on the other side of the glass. Even though he knew it was nothing more than an illusion, he felt strange seeing it from the inside as Phineas had. 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 like his mother looked whenever his father was home from the mine.
He sat on the floor and watched Phineas remove a scrap of paper and place the book he’d been reading in the waiting room on the shelf. He no longer had the desire to finish it. 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 woman with her arm around a boy he presumed to the man as a child, or perhaps a son of his own. Phineas sighed and sat in the 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. Men in dark armor were overpowering the haggard knights on their battlefield. Their king was now surrounded but fought valiantly onward, desperate to save the lives of his men.
Andrew realized this was the part of the first story he had heard from the doorstep. The familiar face of the glowering 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 me!”
The king fell to his knees, stunned by an arrow that pierced his lung. The man leaped forward.
“Cousin,” Phinfaer raised his sword in weak defense, “why have you done this?”
The warlord knocked the blade to the ground, and the fighting around them ceased. The sounds of battle faded to silence; victory and defeat were 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 were deafening. Phineas stopped writing and glanced back up at the picture frame. To his astonishment, he saw the dim outline of a boy’s face pressed into the window within the reflection of the glass. The boy’s eyes were wide with dismay.
It felt strange, but welcome, to write for such a captive audience again. The pen caressed the paper and the triumphant smile on the man’s face melted into an expression of shock and disbelief. Lord Phinfaer had seized the moment of villainous gloating and vanity to plunge his dagger, his last resolve, into his murderous cousin’s unprotected side. He might very well die on the battlefield, but they would always remember him as a hero. He would not 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.
Each passing day left fewer and fewer pages in the book, the metaphysical story of his life. A few more episodes played out in the study, memorable events where Phineas had studied the boy’s expression in the reflection. In the end, Andrew realized, the dying man had needed a friend just as much as he had. The story concluded, and he found himself back outside the empty 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 considered leaving it there underneath the branches where he had hidden on so many cold nights. His father would be furious if he found it. The rejection from his mother had made the magic so sad and distant, a reality that could never be his own; one he could never share with her again. Here it was, a fork in the road: one branch lead to the coal mine of his heritage, the other unknown.
Andrew felt so confused and torn between his dreams and what he felt could be nothing other than responsibility. In that sad moment, the pieces to a riddle he hadn’t recognized began to form and fit together in his mind. It all fit. Mr. Parker must have planned their strange meeting from the time Phineas had was told of his terminal illness. He wondered how many of the old man’s stories had found themselves onto his boss’s heavy printing press. It was a life of magic, but not without pain. One thing was certain; the choice to accept the gift would come with consequence.
“I won’t forget you, Phineas,” he said, then turned toward home with the shoebox held tight beneath his jacket.
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