Dear Free State: A Short Story for the Holidays

katie guyot, co-editor-in-chief

In honor of the inspiration issue, I decided I’d spare you my usual sarcasm and write a short story instead. The first draft was too depressing to be read during the season of several major holidays, and the second was a real bore, so here’s my third and final attempt at optimism. In January, I’ll be back to my usual, glass-half-empty self.

Until then, have a great winter break.

The moon still owned a faint watermark in the sky when the first clang shattered the silence of the cul-de-sac. Eli squinted through the dark curtains of his eyelashes at the clock on his bedside table, which, blurred through the sticky grit of sleep rimming his eyelids, could have read 6:29, 6:39, 5:38, or some other combination of transposed numbers that implied sleep deprivation.

As another clang sliced through the window, he buried his face in his pillow and pulled the covers up over his ears. It was his policy as an eight-year-old never to wake up before seven on any day except Christmas.

Clang—schoop. Clang—schoop. The clanging and schooping became almost rhythmic now, like the chugging of an overnight train. He could feel the gentle swaying of the wheels on the iron tracks, kicking up glitter behind the caboose and easing him into a light doze.

Eli was just boarding the train to dreamland when a fierce beep-beep-BEEP yanked him back into his bedroom, which had become uncomfortably noisy for a Saturday morning in the dead of winter.

From across the hall, his mother’s footsteps kept pace with the dial tone of the phone.

“Jane? I didn’t wake you up, did I?” she asked. Eli assumed this was the Jane What’s-Her-Face who lived in the beige house across the street.

His mother paused to let Jane speak, or at least to take a breath. “Simply unbelievable, isn’t it? At six thirty on a weekend. I doubt he even knows what year it is, let alone the day of the week…

“Oh, to be sure, he’s practically senile. Completely unapproachable. Rarely leaves his property. In fact, I’m a little concerned…”

As his mother proceeded to describe the signs of Mr. Albright’s condition—watching midday television, not attending block parties, refusing to buy Girl Scout Cookies, etcetera, etcetera—Eli wrapped himself in a blanket and inched into his parents’ bedroom.

He bypassed his father, who was snoring upright against a pile of pillows, and crawled under his mother’s elbow as she peeped through the blinds into Mr. Albright’s yard, which was mostly brown aside from the black garbage bag sitting in the dead grass. The old man was using a splintered shovel to round out a hole in his yard—clang, schoop, clang, schoop–and tossing the dirt haphazardly over his left shoulder.

Eli jumped into the elbow hovering over his head when his mother hissed into the receiver, “Do you think so? I wasn’t going to say anything, but—oh, goodness, you’re right. Oh, gracious. It could certainly fit a body. It’s the perfect shape. His dog, maybe? Or his wife? We’ll need to be sure before we call–”

She stopped with her tongue still pressed to her teeth, slowly turning her gaze down to meet Eli’s.

“Eli, honey? Would you do me a huge favor?”

Naturally, Eli was soon trudging out the door in his Power Rangers pajama top and his Spongebob bottoms. When he arrived at the invisible line between their equally brown yards,  Mr. Albright was still knee-deep in the ground, methodically scooping up small shovelfuls of dirt and depositing them beside the garbage bag.

“Mr. Albright?” he asked, balling his hands behind his back for courage.

The old man continued digging. “I’m Mr. Albright.”

Eli fiddled with his fingers as he glanced back toward his house, where his mother’s silhouette hovered in the window, narrating the scene to a similar silhouette visible in the beige house next door.

“If your mother sent you to ask me to go back to bed,” Mr. Albright grunted over his shoulder, “you can tell her I’m almost finished here.”

Flushing, Eli stuttered, “I–I was just wondering–Mr. Albright, what’s in the bag?”

“A time capsule.” Another pile dropped to the ground in a poof of dark dust. “You know what that is?”

Eli shook his head.

“You know what time is?”

“Yessir.”

“You know what a capsule is?”

“Something you put stuff in.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Medicine and stuff.”

“Exactly. A time capsule is like medicine for time. In better times, you bury things that will make people happy in worse times–like books, artwork, photographs.”

Glancing at the bag, Eli asked, “What are you burying in your time capsule, Mr. Albright?”

“Why don’t you take a look?” he offered.

Eli crouched down to peer inside the capsule’s mouth. The treasures were cradled in silver wrapping paper that bounced the sunlight onto the black walls of the bag like stars in space. Each was dotted with a golden bow, and some were tied with ribbon.

“You’re Santa Claus,” Eli laughed as he stood to his full height of three-foot-nine.

“A tired Santa Claus,” Mr. Albright sighed with a mighty stretch. “I might need an elf to help me bury it all.”

He fished around in the bag and eventually reeled in a oblong lump of silver wrapping paper, which he placed securely in Eli’s tiny hands. “That was my son’s when he was your age. Used to build sand castles with it when we went to the beach. Go on. Consider it an early Christmas gift.”

The paper crumbled away to reveal a worn but sturdy toy shovel, nearly identical to the one Mr. Albright was using, but plastic where his was metal. As he hopped into the hole and began digging, Eli imagined his mother groaning into the receiver. Then he shrugged, smiled, and sent soil showering over his left shoulder.