This story is by Sara Rottbøll and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Silence was the king of my father’s house and I never knew of any other ruler. We didn’t own a TV and the radio was never on. When we talked we spoke with hushed voices. My father was a quiet man, a reading man, a man who collected stamps and could linger over the tiny squares of blue, red and green for hours on end. I spent my childhood standing in doorways looking at the back of my father’s head, wondering if what I had to say was important enough to disturb him.
We never had any visitors. Then one Saturday the doorbell rang. It took me a minute to figure out what the sound was and then I ran to the front door, not sure what to expect, but more excited than I had been in a long time. On the stoop outside stood a man.
“Welcome!” I shouted with the animated energy of a playful puppy and the man grinned.
“Oh my,” he said. His hair was black and shiny and he had a big gap between his front teeth. He was carrying a suitcase. It looked very heavy. “If I got this kinda welcome every time I knocked on someone’s door, it would make things a whole lot easier.”
“My name is Sally,” I said.
“Well, hallo Sally, my name is Hal. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.” I didn’t know what to do next. What do you do when a visitor comes by? Invite him in? Offer him a snack?
“Would you like an apple?” I asked offering the only thing I remembered being in the fridge. Hal’s laugh was deep like thunder.
“That’s a good one!” he roared. I had no idea why he found the question so funny and I looked with great intensity at his shoes waiting for the laughter to stop.
“Say, Sally,” he finally said. “Are your parents home?” Before I could answer, my father came up behind me in the doorway. “Good morning, Sir,” Hal said. “I wonder if I might steal a moment of your time?”
“My apologies then, I certainly didn’t mean to bother you.”
“Well you have.”
“You haven’t bothered me,” I said and Hal smiled.
“Sally, go back inside,” my father said.
“Goodbye Sally,” Hal said.
I waited in the living room with my ear pressed up against the door to the hallway trying to decipher the muffled voices of my father and Hal. My father sounded angry. When I heard the front door slam shot I jumped back and a moment later my father entered. He headed straight for his armchair without looking at me, and although I knew exactly what that meant, I couldn’t contain my curiosity.
“Who was that?” I asked. My voice was too loud, too eager. My father turned around with a mixture of surprise and annoyance curling the sides of his mouth. He had probably forgotten that I was even in the room.
“Nobody,” he said and sat down.
“You didn’t know him?”
“No.” He unfolded his newspaper.
“But what did he want?”
“He wanted to sell something.”
“You can’t sell lies,” I said. I was usually never this bold around my father, but Hal’s magical appearance at our door had ignited something in me. He was like a messenger, letting me know that this quiet house wasn’t in fact placed on some isolated planet far away from the rest of the world. That it could actually be reached. But my father took a deep breath in and that was my final warning. When he exhaled King Silence filled the space between us. After that, there was no more talking.
About a week later I saw Hal again. I was walking home from school and Hal was walking ahead of me on the sidewalk. At first, I thought he was heading for my father’s house, but then he turned a corner and went in a different direction. I followed him. He walked briskly and I was struggling to keep up. My backpack was getting heavy and my feet felt tired, when Hal finally slowed down and entered a house at the end of a cul-de-sac. I had never been in this part of the neighborhood before and I realized that I had no idea how to get back. Before I could think twice I was standing in front of Hal’s front door pressing the doorbell. I could hear it chime away on the other side of the door, it sounded silly and joyful like a small child playing a xylophone. Then I heard footsteps and the door opened. I expected Hal but in the doorway stood a woman with a toddler resting on her hip. Her cheeks were flustered. The toddler was wearing a diaper and a wide smile. He reached out his arms trying to touch my hair.
“Oh, Sammy,” the woman said adjusting her grip, so the boy couldn’t wiggle free. “This one is always trying to get away from his mama, but I won’t let him.” She laughed and cooed at the boy. “No, I won’t, I won’t let you get way.” She kissed him and then looked back at me. “Are you okay, sweetie? Can I help you with anything?”
“Is this Hal’s house?”
“Yes it is. Do you need to talk to him?” I half shrugged, half nodded. I had no idea what to say to Hal, but I didn’t want to go home. The woman pursed her lips as if contemplating something. “I think you should come inside, sweetie,” she said taking a step to the side to let me enter. “You look like you need to sit down and rest those feet, maybe have a glass of hot cocoa. Do you like hot cocoa?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.
“Good. And you can call me Ada.”
The kitchen was small and cozy. The radio was playing and something was boiling on the stove – it smelled spicy and mouthwatering. Ada put Sammy in a highchair and gave him a piece of banana. Then she pointed to a chair and said:
“Now you sit and relax. Just put your jacket and backpack under the table there. Hal’s out back fixing the fence, but he’ll be in soon enough.” She filled a small saucepan with milk and put in on the stove. “So, do you have a name, or do you just go by sweetie?” She winked at me.
“Oh, Hal told me about you. You live with your daddy in the big house on Poplar Street.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. Ada smiled at me, but she suddenly looked sad. She stirred the milk and put the cocoa powder in. Hal entered the kitchen holding a pair of bolt cutters and a piece of chicken wire. He stopped dead in his track when he saw me, but then he smiled.
“Hallo again, Miss Sally.”
“Sally came by to see you,” Ada said, placing a big mug of steaming cocoa in front of me.
“Is that right?” Hal put down the wire and bolt cutters and picked up a piece of banana that Sammy had dropped on the floor. “Does your dad know that you are here?”
“Yes,” I said staring at the cocoa.
“There’s no lying in this house,” Hal said softly.
“Then no,” I said.
“Okay, then you need to call him, let him know where you are.”
“We don’t have a telephone. But he’s not worried, I promise. He probably hasn’t noticed I’m not there.”
“Of course he has, sweetie.” Ada looked at Hal. “You better take her back right away.” She gave me a big hug before we left. Her skin smelled like cinnamon.
As we walked back to my father’s house, Hal said:
“Your daddy is a difficult man. I hope you don’t mind me saying that. He has a reputation. People are not quite sure what to think. But you, you have to respect him.”
“I do,” I said.
“I know you do, that’s what I’m saying. That’s something you have to do ‘cause you are a kid living under his roof. But one day you’ll be all grown up and then he can’t tell you what to do anymore.”
“What did you talk about when you came by?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing important. Nothing you have to worry about anyway.”
Hal said goodbye to me at the corner and watched me walk the rest of the way to the front door. I turned around and waved. He waved back. It was a crisp autumn day. High above us an airplane drew a white line across the clear blue sky. Before I went back inside I thought of the people up there looking down. To them my father’s house was just a dot in a giant landscape. If you wanted to, you could pick it up and squash it between your fingers.