This story is by Justin Zoller and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The boy swiped the last piece of pizza from the dinner table. He did not necessarily care for another, but he was fine to eat it. Finishing the pie meant the end of dinner. And the end of dinner meant that mom would retire to her phone and dad would retire to his scotch. This was a time when the boy could escape to the woods and hike and be free to talk to the birds and the trees, and more importantly, to be free from the cabin.
They had stayed in the same cabin last year. And the year before. It was quaint and decent sized, especially as it was chosen for a family of four, which was now a family of three.
He remembered his favorite trails and started along them, picking up sticks and throwing them at specific trees he had picked out in his mind. He celebrated when a stick landed with precision and broke upon the fallen autumn leaves. He and his brother used to launch branches through large gaps in the tree lines just to see who’s would break into more pieces. His brother could throw them farther, but he knew he had more precision, a talent his brother never quite let him own fully.
As he picked up broken parts of branches and proceeded to launch them accordingly, the boy noticed a new path he had not ventured down before. Without hesitation, he jumped to the new rout and checked the sun’s presence. Still an hour or so of daylight. Plenty of time for a new adventure.
A few hundred steps and a half dozen broken sticks down the path, the boy heard a voice from the jagged corner of a moss-covered boulder.
“Have you anything to offer an old man besides the discarded remnants of the dying trees?”
Timid, the boy stared blankly toward the moss-covered boulder.
There was an elderly man, small and hunched with age, sitting on a log and glaring at the boy with penetrating white eyes.
“Have you anything to eat or share with a humble stranger in need of something to spare.”
The boy, with his granola bar in his pocket and his stomach full, lied to the man with a simple twist of the tongue.
“I have nothing for you, beggar. Fend for yourself, like we all do.”
“You are not a kind boy,” replied the old man, “your brief time and experience, however harrowing, has made you untrusting and untrustworthy.”
“I am kind! And I am trustworthy!” The boy shouted. “I just don’t trust old beggars.”
“Sure” the old man said, “sure.”
“I’ll prove it,” said the boy, “I’ll be back another day and I’ll bring you something to eat and drink, since I have none with me now.”
The boy had taken a step and a half in the beggars direction with the conviction of an honest young man.
“It is a hopeful thought,” the old man replied, and he turned and disappeared behind the mossy boulder.
Determined, the boy returned there very next day with a sandwich and water, but the old man was no where to be found. He waited a significant amount of time. Then he returned to his family at the cabin. Then he and his family returned home.
The following year, in the fall once again, the boy and his parents returned to the cabin, the very same one as last year and the year before and the year before that. They sat down to dinner at which very little conversation was had. As his dad approached the bottle of scotch, his mother retired to the sofa, phone in hand. The boy tied his shoes for a walk in the dusk.
When rounding the second bend, he saw the same path he had taken before. He had packed a granola bar and a bottle of water in the far chance that the eery old man was in the area once again.
As he walked, casually throwing sticks the way he used to with his brother, he approached the moss-covered boulder. He saw no one. As he passed by, he glanced behind the sharp corner of it. Emptiness. He continued, glancing for another stick. After a couple dozen steps, he heard the eerily similar voice.
“Have you anything to offer an old man besides these broken twigs?”
The boy jumped around. Startled for a moment, he was genuinely surprised to see the old man still in this place, still the exact way he remembered him.
“Yes I do, old man. I have a granola bar and some water for you.”
The old man received the goods with open and feeble hands.
“I told you,” the boy lashed, “I told you I was kind and trustworthy and that I would bring you something.”
The old man, without a change in disposition, replied quickly, “You are neither kind nor a trustworthy young man. You brought food and drink this time to prove against me that you were right, but you had the very granola in your pocket last time but refused the generosity in which I questioned. That makes you neither kind nor trustworthy. I thank you for the meal.” At that moment, he turned and disappeared behind the boulder.
The boy, rife with disappointment at his lack of credit for this gesture, stomped off along the path, breaking sticks and throwing rocks.
Another year passed. The boy and his parents returned yet again to the very same cabin by the lake and the very same day in the fall. The boy’s experience in the woods had not been forgotten, and he eagerly awaited the end of the always subtle and boring dinner. As mom’s phone made a noise, dad quickly excused himself towards the glasses and the ice and the scotch. The boy picked up the plates and put them in the sink, giving his parents a nod on the way out the door. Even older now, he did not have the same play patterns as he did a couple years ago. But when in these woods, he still searched for throwable sticks and launched them with great pride and accuracy.
As he found his footing along the new path, he again did not expect to see an old man deep in the woods. This time, however, the old man was waiting, gathering and sharpening sticks in front of the boulder.
As the old man was opening his mouth to say “Have you anyth…” the boy interrupted with, “I have something for you, old man.”
“Yes. Its a book. One of my favorites. I figured, a granola bar and a bottle of water will get a person through a day or so, but an old man that continues to be here year after year doesn’t need my help getting through a day.
A book, especially if its the right one, will get you through a lifetime. My dad read this book to my brother and I on our first camping trip out here years ago.”
The boy paused and waited for the old mans reaction. He just stared and waited for more.
“My brother drowned in the lake out here that evening while he and I were fishing. Its why we come back. Its why I’m out here and not in there. I love this book and maybe you will too.”
With that, the boy turned around and walked back from the direction he came.
As another year passed and the anniversary of his brothers death approached, he thought of the old man and the standing appointment he seemed to have with him. That evening at the cabin, dinner was wrapping up and the boy left the table early with a new book in his hand. As he reached the boulder, he saw no old man. He waited for several minutes, but no one appeared. As he glanced around, he saw on the boulder that moss had been removed and words were etched in its place.
“The world is neither kind nor trustworthy. It is our job to be those things.
You have proven yourself to be both.
I enjoyed the book and the granola.
Many thanks. – Beggar”
The boy read it several times. And then again several times.
Upon his return to the cabin, a moment of clarity and warmth came over him.
He approached his mother on her phone and said, “mom, what is so interesting on that phone?”
“I like to read digital books on my Kindle, son. Thats all.”
“Excellent. Will you please read one to me.”
“Yes,” his father replied.”
“I’d like some scotch.”