He could still hear the bell ringing as he walked outside. Fifty minutes to kill until recess ended. All the other children ran ahead eager to make the best of their limited time. The kid took a deep breath and walked over to the red brick wall on the side of the building. No one really came to that area. There wasn’t much room to play. But this particular child wasn’t going to be doing any playing. Rather, he used to walk over there every day and wait for recess to end. He stood there with his arms folded and his eyes fixed on the gravel.
“Isn’t gravel supposed to be black? Why does it look so gray? It must be really old.” He thought to himself. As the boredom began to set in, he began kicking around a broken piece of rock on the playground.
One of the other children approached him. He was chubby boy of average height, although his bad posture made him look shorter. His brown uncombed hair dangled over his eyes as he approached with his skinny sidekick.
“Hey that’s my rock!” shouted the chubby boy.
“No, no it’s not. I found it.” The kid responded timidly.
“I put it there yesterday for safe keeping. You stole it.” The chubby boy continued to shout.
“Okay fine, just take it.” Said the kid. He knew the chubby boy was lying, but he did not like confrontation nor was the rock worth anything to him. He started to walk away.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going!” The chubby boy was still shouting. He picked up the rock. He raced forward and struck the kid in the head.
The kid fell over. “OUCH! What did you do that for!?”
The chubby boy laughed, “Because thieves have to be punished.”
The kid, “I didn’t steal anything. Maybe if you’d get your stupid hair out of your eyes you could see clearly and stop being so stupid all the time!”
The chubby boy turned red.
“Are you just gonna let him say that?” Asked the skinny boy.
“Of course not. I’m gonna clobber him.” The chubby boy was no longer shouting. He grabbed the kid by the shirt and raised his fist to punch him. But the skinny boy was too fast. The chubby boy got a face full of knuckles and toppled to the ground. He began crying.
“Just leave me alone. Take your stupid rock and go away.” Said the kid.
That is when the hall monitor arrived on the scene. “What happened here? Are you okay?”
“He hit me, he hit me!” Shouted the chubby boy.
“He did, I saw!” Yelled the skinny boy.
“Alright, you’re coming with me.” The hall monitor said glaring at kid.
“But he hit me first!” screamed the kid. “Look I’m bleeding!”
“Okay, I’m going to take you to the nurse, then we’re all going straight to the principal’s office.”
Not long after, the kid found himself sitting across from the chubby boy in the principal’s office. The principal was the most generic man you could possibly imagine. He was everything a textbook principal should be and look like; or at least that’s how the children perceived him.
The principal had been talking for quite a while. The kid had not been paying attention.
The principal continued, “You will both receive in school suspensions for a week. We have a zero-tolerance policy on violence. This is completely unacceptable and I am very disappointed in both of you. Both of you need to learn to behave. Whatever problems you both have can be solved in a more appropriate manner. Again, I am very disappointed in both of you. You are dismissed.”
As the students stood up to leave the principal looked to the kid, “Are you smiling? You want to tell me what is so funny?”
The kid answered, “Nothing. I’m just happy recess is over.”
I stared across the table at the unfinished burger. There were two, maybe three bites left. He was taking his sweet time.
I looked up at him, “Will you hurry up? We’re going to be late.”
He looked back at me, “Don’t rush me. You’re not supposed to rush while eating okay.”
I was getting annoyed, “We’re going to miss the prayer.”
Taking another bite he said, “Google says it’s a five-minute walk. We have ten minutes until it starts.”
“You’re disgusting, don’t eat with your mouth full.” I responded.
Finally finishing up his food now, “Alright lets go.”
We left the building and started walking towards the mosque. I could see the sky fill with shades of orange and red as the sun began to finish its descent. I could hear my friend’s voice behind me as I began to walk faster and faster, “Wait up. Don’t walk so fast man. I just ate”. I slowed down a little allowing him to catch up.
“Have you ever been to this mosque before?”, I asked.
“Nope, In this city for the first time, same as you”, he answered.
We kept walking. While I was looking for the mosque, my eyes happened to catch the scene of a man sitting on the curb in front of an unremarkable building. As we hurried passed him, I heard his voice, “You don’t wanna go that way. That’s not the place you’re looking for.”
My friend looked at me, “That was rude. He was talking to you.”
I answered, “I don’t have time to talk to some guy on the curb. We are going to be late.”
My friend shook his head, “You need to chill.”
I saw the mosque in front of me now. It was an ordinary building with only the Arabic writing on the door to set it apart. A strange feeling came over me as we walked in. Still in a hurry though, I did not want to waste time figuring it out. I put my shoes on the shoe rack and hurried into the prayer hall. The feeling became stronger. Something really wasn’t sitting well and I felt a strong urge to leave. I could not ignore it now. Suddenly, I felt my friend’s hand on my shoulder.
I turned to him and he whispered, “Dude, why are the women in here?”
I looked around to see that he was correct; there were women everywhere. My first instinct was to think that we were in the wrong place, but I also saw men everywhere. The men’s and women’s prayer areas should have been and are normally separate.
He whispered again, “Let’s just leave.”
I nodded in agreement and we started walking out. As we approached the exist a young woman stopped us, “hey! Where are you going?”
I answered, “Oh we just had to…”
I was interrupted by a young man accompanying her, “They’re leaving. You know.”
She rolled her eyes, “Well I thought so, but I just don’t like to make assumptions. You think you’re better than us so you won’t pray with us. Is that it?”
I was never good with confrontation and I had no idea what to say. Luckily my friend answered, “If you don’t like to make assumptions then don’t. We don’t judge you. Don’t judge us. Excuse us.”
With that he grabbed my arm, and we rushed out. I stared at the floor the whole way out, still trying to shake that strange uneasy feeling.
I heard the door closing behind me followed by my friend’s voice, “I guess we can just go back to the hotel room and pray there.”
I nodded. Then, I saw him again. That same man stood up from his seat on the curb and said, “Oh, I see you guys are back. I told you not to go in there. Come on now, everybody’s waiting for you.”
My friend and I exchanged confused looks. He answered the man, “Who exactly, is waiting for us?”
The man smiled, “Everybody. I asked them all to wait to start the prayer because I knew you’d be back.”
Thoroughly confused, my friend asked, “Who are you?”
The man grinned as he motioned towards the “unremarkable” building behind him, “Asalaamuwalaikum, I am the Imam of this mosque.”
There was nothing abnormal about that night. The world had fallen into routine. Everything was tediously normal. The boy lay awake in his bed as if to protest the day ending without an unfamiliar occurrence. As the door began to inch open the boy turned his head to see a familiar face with an unfamiliar expression.
He sat up, “Donnel, what is it? What’s wrong?”
Donnel took a deep breath, “Prince Rolf, why are you awake?”
“Donnel, tell me.”
Donnel took another deep breath, “I am sorry, your grandfather [pause] has left this world. The court requests your presence.”
The next thing the prince knew, the door was shut and he was getting dressed. It all felt so repetitive. It was a similar night when Donnel had opened that same door and informed him of his parents’ demise. Every night since then, he could hear Donnel’s voice delivering that news all over again, “Prince Rolf, your father and your mother will not be returning from the war. They have given their lives for our country.”
As Prince Rolf moved towards the door, he stumbled over his wooden practice sword which he had left lying on the ground. As he picked it up, his thoughts drifted to memories of rigorous training sessions. The king would sit and watch as Prince Rolf learned the basics of swordplay from a legendary sword-master.
There was a knocking at the door. A strong and deep voice called, “Prince Rolf, your presence is needed.”
The prince set the sword down on his bed. He had never used a real sword before and he wondered if he would ever actually be able to bring himself to strike an opponent in real combat. He knew the day would come when it would be required and he dreaded the day.
The prince opened the door to find Donnel standing there with the esteemed knight-captain, Marcus. Marcus, in a full suit of armor with his sword at his side while standing straight and tall as ever, “My prince. Are you prepared to go? The court awaits you.”
“How did he die?”, asked the prince.
Donnel responded softly, “In his sleep. He had taken rest in the garden while tending to his plants and…”
Rolf interrupted, “Lets go.”
As they walked, Rolf’s thoughts consumed him. What was to happen? He was not ready to be king. Wishing he had payed closer attention, he tried to remember all the words of wisdom his grandfather had imparted to him over the years.
They entered the royal courtroom. The room was in an uproar. The prince recognized many of his uncles, cousins, and other high ranking nobles arguing and shouting.
“Quiet!” Called the prince. No one seemed to hear him. The crowd remained uncontrolled.
“Silence!” Boomed Marcus. The room fell silent almost instantly.
The court herald announced, “The prince has arrived. I will now read a portion of the king’s appointment of the next king.” He cleared his throat and continued, “Ahem, if you are reading this, then it means that I have passed on. I have pondered long and hard on my successor and it is my last instruction to you as your king. I do not believe the decision will come as a surprise to any of you. I have selected my grandson Prince Rolf son of Prince Shinon to be the next king. Prince Shinon, my eldest son, and his wife Princess Sanaki, whom I regarded as my own daughter, fought and died in the great war. Following with tradition, the right of succession moves from Prince Shinon to Prince Rolf. It has become evident to me that Prince Rolf has the makings of a great ruler. However, before Prince Rolf ascends to the throne, two conditions must be met. He must have completed his studies and he must have reached the age of 21. If both of these conditions are not met, then a steward will rule in his place until they are met. The steward will be selected by Prince Rolf himself.”
The room fell into a noisy chaos once again. Voices began shouting names of people they thought would suit the throne. That is when Prince Rolf’s eldest uncle, Prince Siegbert, made his way up to the throne. Siegbert was a burly and confident man; your cliché warrior prince. Prince Rolf stared up at the throne. He could see the look of desire in Siegbert’s eyes. This man covets the throne, my grandfather’s throne, Rolf thought to himself. He turned his gaze a little to the left to see his grandfather’s sword still leaning vertically on the armrest. It was a simple sword, well built with no extra decoration and a reddish-brown leather sheath covering the blade. The late king was not an extravagant man.
Siegbert spoke, “I will take my nephew’s place until he has grown into a proper king.” The court fell silence as to accept his proclamation.
However, the look of satisfaction on Siegbert’s face was quickly broken by a voice from the crowd, “I believe that decision has been left to Prince Rolf.” It came from the legendary sword-master himself. He was an elderly man who taught swordsmanship not only to Prince Rolf, but had also taught Siegbert and all the other royals. He had no royal blood, but through his service and skill he had gained the respect and honor of the kingdom.
He approached the throne and held his hand out towards Prince Rolf, “Right this way Prince Rolf.” Prince Rolf, Marcus, and Donnel climbed up the stairs to the throne. Rolf stared at the maroon velvet cushions and golden armrest of his grandfather’s seat.
The sword-master put his hand on Rolf’s shoulder, “I think it would be best if you sit.” He was reluctant, but he sat down. From his heightened position, Rolf could see the entire hall. The room looked entirely different from the throne. The seats on either side of the room seemed so far away that Rolf wondered if they would be able to hear him from the throne. The red carpet which often lead him from the grand doors to the throne now seemed to be the only path leading him away from his seat. Prince Rolf began to think…
A lot of work must have gone into this hall. It’s always so clean even after so many people walk in and out but I’ve never seen anyone clean it. I always knew that building and maintaining the castle was a huge task but….
His thoughts were interrupted as the sword-master leaned in, “You will have to make a selection, sooner is better than later.”
Rolf took a deep breath, “I will hear from the candidates and then I will make my choice.” The sword-master nodded in approval.
Marcus faced the crowd and announced, “Prince Rolf will hear from each interested party, following which he will make his decision.”
A handful of royals and nobles from the crowd began calling out to have their say. Prince Rolf announced, “Keeping in with tradition, since my uncle Siegbert is the oldest living heir of my grandfather, I will allow him to go first.”
Siegbert began, “An excellent decision nephew. As you all know I am the late king’s eldest living heir. I have proven myself to be loyal to this kingdom and I have proven myself an excellent commander and warrior.” It was true. Siegbert was renowned for his exploits in the great war. Rolf had heard one of the stories so many times he could picture it in his head. Siegbert had found that while he had more units than the enemy, they vastly outnumbered him in terms of horses. Siegbert managed to find and capture four wolves which he released into the enemy camp just before first light. The horses, in their resulting frenzy, created chaos in the enemy camp which was then swiftly attacked by Siegbert’s forces.
Rolf had always found this story to be surprising and it always stuck out in his mind. He had always seen his uncle as somewhat of a brute; incapable of a strategic thought.
“Who is next?” Asked Rolf.
Many of the initial volunteers were now silent, possibly intimidated by Siegbert’s grand presence. The next man to step up was well dressed in a blue and gold robe. This was the late king’s youngest child, Prince Soren. He was known to wear baggy robes that hid the fact that he was thin and unathletic. He could be identified from a distance by his long silky black hair which fell seamlessly onto his shoulders. Many of the nobles and officials would often tease him in his youth about how long and “womanly” his hair was. Over time however, Prince Soren proved himself to be a cunning and brilliant tactician for which they all began to fear him. Rumors had begun to circulate that Prince Soren was, in fact, a vengeful magician who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
The Uncle Soren that Prince Rolf knew however, was an entirely different man. Kind and caring with a wonderful sense of humor, Uncle Soren often took Prince Rolf for trips around the kingdom. Prince Rolf could recall hiding in Soren’s office on multiple occasions to escape his studies.
Prince Soren began, “Apologies older brother, but we are not looking for someone to eliminate an enemy army. We are looking for someone to keep the kingdom in order until our respected nephew is able to assume his position. In his old age, I was fathers right hand in all his affairs. I am the minister of finance as well as a judge in the high court. I am also a member of the King’s Council. I achieved these positions of my own merit. It only makes sense that I hold the position in our nephew’s place.”
Siegbert and Soren locked eyes. Prince Rolf could see the fury in Siegbert’s eyes. It was obvious he wanted to say something. Rolf glanced at Soren then back at Siegbert. Soren had a slight smile on his face; a symbol of his victory. This worried Prince Rolf. Siegbert was not a man who would be easily intimidated or silenced. Perhaps he did not know his Uncle Soren as well as he thought. Perhaps there was something very dangerous about him.
A third voice called from the crowd, “Don’t forget about me.” It was a woman’s voice this time. The late king’s daughter Princess Elincia made her way to the front of the room, “I will make a better ruler than either of my brothers.” She was an athletic, beautiful, and independent woman. The ladies of the court had a saying, “The week is not over until Princess Elincia has rejected a suitor.” She rejected any man who did not meet her standards, and although she was getting older she refused to compromise this in the slightest. She would say, “Time does not determine when I get married, I decide when I get married.”
Siegbert began laughing, “Sister, you? A ruler?!”
Elincia responded, “And why not? I have just as much a claim to the throne as you or Soren.”
Siegbert, “Ha! We need a strong king, not a weak little girl!”
Elincia, “A weak little girl? I seem to remember a grown prince hiding behind his little sister because he was afraid of a few wild dogs.”
The room burst into laughter. “She’s got you there brother!”, Soren said laughing. Prince Rolf stood up and the room slowly fell silent.
“I will hear her”, he said sitting back down. As Princess Elincia began speaking, Rolf felt himself getting more comfortable sitting on the throne. He felt his back sink into the cushion while his hand sat comfortably on the armrest, just inches away from the handle of his grandfather’s sword.
“I have proven myself to be a skilled warrior and commander. I am a judge in the high court, same as Soren. I have served as acting governor in two parts of the kingdom. And, I have just as much of a right to the throne as my brothers.”
Prince Rolf called out, “Is there anyone else?”
A man stepped forward, “I would like to request consideration Prince Rolf.” It was the late king’s adopted son, Prince Inigo. Inigo’s parents were low born merchants who passed away while Inigo was still very young. In an attempt to carry on his parents’ legacy, Inigo continued to run their shop as best he could. Impressed with his manners and resolve at such a young age, the king saw fit to adopt him. As Inigo grew up, his business flourished until he became a wealthy businessman in possession of many shops. He had earned the admiration of the people as an honest businessman. Inigo had also been appointed to serve the King’s Council. Insecure in the fact that he was not a “true prince”, Inigo always made an extra effort to appear “royal” in the presence of the court.
“You?!” called out Princess Elincia, “Our father adopted you, you are lower than a bastard!”
Elincia always felt a rivalry with Inigo. She felt his position on the King’s Council should have been her position. Inigo was also somewhat of a ladies’ man, something which Elincia did not approve of.
“I was as much a son to him as Siegbert or Soren. And I am your brother.” Responded Inigo.
Elincia answered, “That may be, but you have no claim to the throne.”
Rolf could feel the anger pulsing through his veins. They were all brothers and sisters until they wanted something, then they fought like savages. Without thinking Rolf stood up and shouted, “The decision is mine! These insults you all insist on trading serve no purpose except to defame yourselves! Prince Inigo, please make your case.”
Prince Inigo began, “Thank you Prince Rolf. You are all aware of my service on the King’s Council, my success in business, and my service during the great war. In fact, I stood with Prince Siegbert in most of his battles including the famed wolf incident. I have unquestionably proved my loyalty and devotion to the kingdom and the royal family. If selected I will not fail you Prince Rolf.”
Prince Rolf addressed the court, “Very good. Is there anyone else?” The room was silent. “Very well, then I will return to you with my decision tomorrow at sunset.”
“That is not acceptable, we need an answer now.” Shouted Seigbert from the crowd.
Intimidated by his uncle, Rolf fell silent. The sword-master answered, “If Prince Rolf says sunset then sunset it shall be. That will be all. This meeting is adjourned.”
As the room cleared out and Rolf walked away he noticed his grandfather’s sword still leaning on the throne. Marcus and the sword-master took their leave while Donnel walked Rolf back to his room. Before Donnel could leave, Rolf grabbed his arm and said, “Donnel, remind me again how my parents died.”
“They died in their camp, killed by enemy assassins.” Replied Donnel.
“Thank you Donnel, good night.” Said Rolf.
“Are you all right Prince Rolf?” Asked Donnel.
“I’m fine, I just need some sleep.” Said Rolf.
“Very well, call for me if you need me.” And with that Donnel took his leave. Rolf couldn’t sleep that night. He felt his mind crumbling under the pressure of the decision that lay before him. His grandfather decided he wasn’t old enough to be king, but he was old enough to decide who would be king? How did that make sense?
Unable to sleep, Rolf found himself wandering towards Prince Inigo’s room. As he approached the room, he saw Inigo sitting in front of his bedroom door, “Prince Rolf, you couldn’t sleep either?”
“No.” Replied Rolf. They talked and shared a few laughs. After an hour passed, Inigo turned to Rolf and said, “You should probably get some sleep. You have a big day tomorrow.”
Prince Rolf replied, “Yea, good night.”
“Good night.” Replied Inigo.
Rolf began to walk away but suddenly he turned back around and asked, “Uncle Siegbert wasn’t really with you when you set the caught the wolves was he?”
Before he could speak, Rolf added, “Don’t lie to me, I know he wasn’t there. He isn’t smart enough to come up with that sort of plan and even if he was, a man who hides behind his sister because he is afraid of wild dogs doesn’t think to use wolves in a battle strategy. What I want to know is, why did you let him take the credit.”
Inigo sighed, “The idea was mine. I told Siegbert and when Siegbert told the men, they assumed the idea was his. I did not see a point in correcting them, and I did not want to insult my brother. Prince Siegbert thought he could overcome his fear and assist me with the plan. At the last minute, however, his fear overwhelmed him and he told me he was going back to camp. When I was returning to camp with the caged wolves three days later, Prince Siegbert was waiting for me. He had hidden out in front of the woods instead of going back to camp. He wanted to avoid embarrassment. I did not want to embarrass my brother either. The credit did not matter to me. I was happy enough to be a member of the family, so I let everyone think the plan was his and that he captured the wolves with me. When the day of the battle arrived, I set the wolves loose and Siegbert lead the army into battle.”
Prince Rolf was a bit surprised. He suspected a similar story but hearing it out loud was still shook him. “You captured all the wolves on your own?” He asked.
Inigo replied, “Well yes, I had built sophisticated wolf traps. All I had to do was set them up and wait for the wolves to take the bait and be captured.”
With that, Rolf bid his uncle good night and walked away. After wandering the castle halls for some time, he found his way back to his bed and finally his exhaustion allowed him to fall asleep.
The next morning Rolf woke up to the sound of Donnel knocking at his door.
“Come in Donnel”, said Rolf. Donnel entered with a tray of food.
“I brought you your breakfast Prince Rolf.” Said Donnel.
“Donnel, who do you think I should pick to be king?” Asked Rolf.
“I beg your pardon Prince Rolf but this is decision you must make.” Replied Donnel.
Rolf sighed and looked away, “I know Donnel. Thanks anyway.”
As Donnel left the room he turned to Rolf and said, “Prince Rolf, you are not selecting a king. You are the king. You are selecting a steward.”
The words hit Rolf like a slap in the face. It was something he knew all along but when Donnel said the words, it occurred to him that this is the first decision he would be making as king. It was at that moment that he knew what he needed to do.
Rolf made his way to the throne room well before sunset. He sat on his grandfather’s throne with thoughts of how he would make his announcement repeating in his head over and over again. As sunset approached the room filled up. Marcus, Donnel, and the sword-master stood with Rolf in the same manner as the previous day. The court herald announced, “Sunset is upon us and Prince Rolf will now make his decision.”
Prince Rolf stood up, “I have considered this very carefully. My decision is my uncle Prince Inigo. I am certain he will serve the kingdom well as he has done in the past.”
Prince Siegbert shouted in a rage, “This is outrageous! The throne is mine by right! He is a child! He cannot make such a decision!”
Prince Rolf looked at Marcus, “Seize him.” Marcus motioned towards his knights. Two knights took hold of Prince Siegbert. As he struggled, one of them struck his chest causing him to fall to his knees.
“What is this! Release me!” Shouted Siegbert.
Rolf picked up his grandfather’s sword and walked down the steps until he found himself face to face with his Uncle Siegbert, “It’s over uncle. I know what you’ve done.”
Siegbert scowled, “Whatever you think you are doing, stop this at once and I will let this go on account of your stress and grief.”
Prince Rolf answered, “Do you desire the throne so much that you would kill your own brother, my father.”
The room fell silent. Siegbert was silent for a minute before he responded, “Prince Rolf, your father died at war. You are horribly mistaken.”
Prince Rolf spoke calmly, “I always thought it was strange that an enemy assassin found his way into one of our camps and killed the prince and princess. It was you. I know it was you.”
Siegbert answered, “It, it was not me. I..”
Rolf interrupted him, “Where were you when Uncle Inigo was capturing the wolves. That was around the same time my parents were killed was it not?”
Siegbert’s voice quivered, “I do not know, I did not hear of my brother’s death until after…”
Rolf interrupted him again, “Stop this act. You should know you are not smart enough to scheme something like this. Uncle Soren is the smart one. Did you really think you could deceive Uncle Soren? He has discovered undisputable proof of your guilt. You may be a strong warrior but you never could outmaneuver the mighty Prince Soren.”
Enraged, Siegbert shouted, “Soren! You treacherous snake! You always were the thorn in my side. How! How did you do it this time!”
Soren replied, “I did not. I wish I had seen this years ago, but I did not. I did not then, and I did not now. It appears the king has fooled you into a confession.”
Prince Rolf unsheathed the sword. He felt his hand tightening around the handle.
He could see Siegbert’s reflection in the steel blade, scowling at him, “What do you think you’re going to do with that, boy.”
Prince Rolf replied, “Uncle, in actuality, the throne is MINE by right.” With that, Rolf plunged the sword deep into his Uncle Siegbert’s chest with all his might. Blood began to seep out from the wound. The life faded from Siegbert’s eyes as he struggled to breathe. His body fell limp.
Rolf pulled the sword out, and without pausing he took the sword with him as he exited room.
That night Donnel knocked on King Rolf’s door.
“Come in Donnel.” Said Rolf.
Donnel asked as he entered, “Are you alright your highness?”
Rolf replied, “Just fine. Thank you.”
Donnel paused for a minute and then asked, “If I may, your uncle Inigo was an excellent choice, a very qualified man.”
Rolf looked at Donnel, “They were all qualified Donnel. I picked Inigo because he has no claim to the throne.”
The sales clerk fidgeted restlessly in his chair wondering why he woke up so early every Monday morning to open a store that never got any business until late afternoon. He glanced around the store trying to find a gadget or trinket that he hadn’t yet used to pass the time. People can only be bored for so long before they have to start feeling something else. Unable to find anything, he started to feel the anger building up in his gut. Too much time to think is not a good thing for some people. Their minds take them to strange places. This man’s thoughts took him to an angry place.
His thoughts were interrupted by a small jingling noise as the door slowly opened and a woman entered the store. She stood at the entrance and stared at her shoes for a minute before making her way to the counter.
“Can I help you Miss?” asked the clerk.
Her gaze wandered about the room as if to avoid eye contact.
“I need um; I need a knife to cut meat.” she responded quietly.
“Oh okay, no problem. What about this one?” he asked as he pulled out a large stainless steel knife with a wooden handle.
She answered quickly, “Um no, that’s too big and it needs to be sharper. And a stronger handle with a good grip please. And I prefer it be retractable.”
“Well I don’t think I have anything like that, but I might be able to special order something.” he suggested.
“Um sure, when would it come in?” she asked.
“It’s still early. I could get it in tomorrow. Take a look.” he said, presenting an image on his computer screen. It was a 7-inch switchblade knife with a black rubber handle.
She examined it for a minute, “That will be fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then she hurried out of the shop as if being chased.
Some time later, a group of children passed by a parked car on a driveway. A woman was sitting in the driver’s seat; her gaze fixed on the steering wheel.
One of the kids remarked to the other, “She just sits there like that every day.”
She did. She sat in the driver’s seat and stared at the steering wheel lost in her thoughts. At first she just thought about her day. In the end, though, her thoughts ultimately drifted to one topic, how much she hated her husband. She pondered on how she hated every little thing about him; how he walked, how he talked, how he always sat there reclined in his chair, every little thing. It started out small. At first she’d sit in her car for a few minutes thinking about their last fight or something he did which angered her. Then as the weeks passed, five minutes turned into ten, and ten turned into twenty. A few thoughts about one or two odd occurrences mutated into a systematic evaluation of every invalidating aspect of his person.
The man sat alone reclined in his chair, exhausted from a day’s work. He looked up at the clock. His wife was late coming home again. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His drift into sleep was interrupted by the sound of the front door closing.
He looked up at his wife, “I’m sorry, I was too tired to cook so I ordered a pizza. It should be here any minute.”
She looked back at him, “I’m not hungry. I’m going to go to bed.”
“All right then, good night.” he said as he shut his eyes pretending to not notice her disgruntled expression. The ensuing argument was cut short by the sound of the doorbell. As he left to pay the pizza man her mind trailed off again.
She sat there on the floor with her arms folded around her knees. She could hear the birds chirping outside. “If I was a bird, I could fly away” she said out loud. She looked over at the wooden knife-handle sticking out of her husband’s chest and reminded herself of how she put it there. She relived the moment.
She heard his voice, “Where is my phone. I can’t find my phone. Where did you put it? Why do you always lose my things!” It was at that moment that she decided she could no longer wait for her special ordered knife to come in. She took the first knife she found in the kitchen and called out, “I found what you’re looking for!”
She waited for him next to the kitchen entryway. As soon as he walked in she came at him from the side and stuck the knife straight into his chest. Years of laziness and poor eating habits had made his bones weak and brittle. Still, there was more resistance from his ribcage than she expected. As he struggled to speak she pulled out the knife and again…and again…and one more time. Finally, he lay lifeless on the floor and she examined the wooden handle sticking out of his chest.
The man sat in his reclining chair eating his pizza. His wife had decided to join him. He looked over at her, “I knew you’d take some. You love mushrooms on pizza.” She looked back at him, “Did you hear? Some lady killed her husband in their house. They say she stabbed him multiple times.” The man continued eating, “Yeah, I heard that. Some people are crazy.” She reached to get another slice, “You know, I think about killing you sometimes.” He looked down at the empty pizza box, “I know, that’s why I make sure to order the mushrooms.” She took a sip of her water, “They’ll keep you alive, for now.” They both laughed and she said, “Thanks”.
The sound of every hundred raindrops hitting the car was quickly drowned out by the sound of the next hundred. I could barely see the road ahead of me. I kept driving in search of a place to stop. Ten minutes may not seem like a long time but in this storm every second holds the potential for a wreck. So in a long ten minutes, I came by a somewhat nice looking hotel in the midst of all these open fields. Of course, considering the current visibility, my “nice looking” observation did not mean much. I parked in what I hoped was only one parking space and rushed to the front door. I paused to push the wet hair off my face before ringing the doorbell. I took a step back and waited. I started thinking, how many hotels have a doorbell? But how many houses have a parking lot? Just then the door opened to reveal tall man dressed in a navy blue suit and an unnaturally large smile.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes, I’d like a room please.” I answered.
“A room?” and he began laughing.
Confused, I asked “Is something funny? You have to have at least one room open. I need some place to wait out the storm.”
The overly joyous man responded, “You’re the third person to make that mistake today! This is not a hotel. This is my private residence.”
“Oh, my mistake.” I said. I was a little unsure of what to do next. I still needed a place to stay, but I didn’t want to intrude. Not only that, but with every passing second this man seemed stranger and stranger. He must have sensed my uncertainty. His enormous smile somehow became even larger as if his smile was smiling. Then he said, “You are welcome to stay here until the storm clears up. Like I said, you are not the first person. Two other guests are already inside.” I glanced over at the parking lot and sure enough, there were two other cars parked there. I decided I was better off taking my chances with the overly joyous man than with the storm.
“Thank you so much,” I said as he stepped aside to let me in. I stood on the entrance mat reluctant to move. The floors were well-kept and I did not want to get rainwater on them.
“Allow me to take your coat,” said the man. I handed him my coat and responded “Thank you mister um…”
“Barnaby is the name! And who do I have the pleasure of meeting today?”
“My name’s Quinn. Nice to meet you too.”
He looked at me still smiling, “Right this way young man.”
Young man? I hadn’t been called that in a few years. I vigorously wiped my shoes on the entrance mat and followed him down the hallway into an elaborately furnished room where two other guests had made themselves comfortable on the couches. The house was kept scrupulously tidy. The only thing I could see that was out of place was the unnaturally large set of keys placed on the side table next to the lamp. The key ring held more keys than I could count and in fact had several rings attached to each other with more keys on each ring. Why would anyone other than a medieval dungeon master need so many keys? He offered me a variety of refreshments that were readily available, as though he had been expecting company. As the night progressed, the other visitors and I used the time to get to know each other. Meanwhile our gracious host observed silently, interrupting only periodically to ensure we were all comfortable. There was the African American police officer named Finn who had taken some time off to visit his relatives in the next town over. Then there was the young college guy named Seth who was on his way back to school. Seth didn’t talk too much either except to make the occasional joke. Like most young people, he spent most of his time on his phone.
As the night progressed, Barnaby stood up and said “Gentlemen, it does not look as though the storm will come to an end any time soon. It appears as though you will need to stay the night. The guest rooms down the east hall are ready for you. Please select whichever you like and do make yourselves at home. I only have one request; down the west hall passed the furnace room is another room with a lock on the door. Please stay away from that room as I do have some personal effects stored in it. With that I bid you good night.” He then rushed off as though he had some important business to attend to.
I stood up. “Well I should be getting to bed as well.” The other two followed my lead. We all said good night to each other and headed into the separate rooms. I took the farthest room, Finn took the next farthest, and Seth took the first room in the hallway. It was a simple yet nice room. Across from the queen sized bed I noticed that the fire place had already been started. I noticed the fireplace in the previous room but I didn’t think much of it. Many houses have a fireplace, but who has a fireplace in each room? Especially in the modern day? The construction did not appear to be old at all. In fact, I would guess it was a new construction not more than ten years old. I laid down on the bed. I wasn’t ready to sleep yet. The place wasn’t sitting well with me. I stared out the window into the darkness. I couldn’t see the storm in the dark, but I could still hear the raindrops hurtling down with all the vigor in the world. I needed a way to pass the time. My mind wandered to the one place it was not supposed to go; the locked door passed the furnace room. I remembered the keys on the lamp table. I waited a few minutes to ensure that everyone would be asleep. Then I slowly opened the door, peeking out to make sure the hallway was clear. I could hear Seth snoring as I walked passed his door. In the center room, the light from the fireplace gave me enough light to see the keys still next to the lamp. I walked over and picked them up. I used the light from my phone to guide me down the west hall. I went passed the furnace room and to the end of the hallway where a massive lock was placed on a small door. One by one, I tried all the keys until one of them opened the lock. I stepped inside the room and pulled the string above my head and the lights turned on. It was a closet. There were rows of shelves on the right and left and straight in front of me was a mop and bucket. I quickly began looking through the shelves for anything interesting but all I found was cleaning supplies, towels, soap, detergent, cleaners, sprays etc. I did notice one semi-interesting thing. On the top shelf on the right side I found a large very carefully crafted dagger. The blade was approximately 16 inches long and very sharp. I could almost see my reflection in the steel. That’s when I heard footsteps. I turned off the light. I put the dagger back where I found it and quickly shut the door. I fumbled with the lock. It wouldn’t lock. The footsteps kept getting closer. I struggled with the lock a bit more until it finally locked. I rushed over to the furnace room and twisted the doorknob only to find that it was locked. Now I could see the small light emanating from the phone in the hands of a man who was making his way over. As he got closer I breathed a sigh of relief as I noticed it was Finn.
“Finn you scared the hell out of me!” I whispered.
“Sorry man, but you’re the one who is some place he’s not supposed to be.” He responded.
“Well that brings me to the question, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Same thing you’re doing here my friend. So did you take a look in the room?” he asked curiously. I took a minute to explain to him that there were only cleaning supplies. He didn’t believe me. I showed him the closet and although we both found the dagger intriguing, we were still disappointed in the whole “adventure”. I placed the keys next to the lamp and we headed back into my room. We began talking about what could have been in that room. In the end, we were just bored and trying to pass the time. While the man and his “private residence” did seem strange, we were both adults. As adults we both knew that more often than not, strange just meant strange. There was probably nothing crazy or news-worthy going on. Finn did say one thing to me that made me think. It was something his grandfather told him, “Sometimes, when we want to find something, we see it even when it isn’t there.” I suppose, maybe that’s what happened to us tonight, or maybe we really were just that bored.
At some point I fell asleep. When I woke up, I noticed the sun was shining through the window and Finn had fallen asleep in the corner.
“Hey Finn, wake up, the storm is over.” As he woke up and rubbed his eyes; it became obvious to me that he hadn’t gotten much sleep.
We headed out of the room and down the hall back into the central room. That is where I saw Seth standing over a dead body in a navy blue suit. The dagger from the cleaning closet had been relocated into Barnaby’s neck. Blood was spilling out in every direction from wound site. I made eye contact with Finn and then looked over at Seth.
“I didn’t do it. I found him like this. I swear! I know what it looks like but it wasn’t me.” The words spilled from his mouth like vomit.
I turned to Finn, “Do something. You’re a police officer!”
He looked back at me, “I lied. I’m not a police officer. I just said that to make this a safer environment. Nobody tries anything with a police officer around.”
I looked back at the body, “You sure about that?”
Finn stared at the body for a minute before he said, “Nobody move, I’m calling 911.”
While we waited for the police to arrive I looked over at the lamp and noticed that the keys were gone. I looked around the room but I didn’t see them anywhere. I noticed a cut on Seth’s arm. When I asked him about it, he claimed it was from playing basketball earlier in the week but tossing and turning in his sleep had caused it to open up again.
When the police finally arrived they took all of our statements and information. They allowed Finn and I to leave but took Seth with them. I reached into my pocket to get my phone and noticed it was not there. I notified one of the officers who allowed me to go back into my room to look for it. On my way to the room, I wondered what really happened. Why would Barnaby kill himself? Just because a man has a secret cleaning room doesn’t make him suicidal. But why would Seth kill Barnaby? It made no sense. Then again, I really didn’t know anything about Seth. But what about the cut on his arm? Then something strange hit me. The fireplace in every room was always on. So why was there a furnace room and why was it locked? Perhaps the furnace was broken? Whatever it was, the police would figure it out. I walked back into the room and noticed my phone on the night stand. As I passed the window on the way out I saw something that was hidden in the dark rain. Outside my window, a sign had fallen on the grass. It was still attached to its post which was weathered and broken from the storm. The sign read, “The Countryside Hotel. Visitors welcome” …
Upon opening the newspaper, the following week, I found all the answers I was looking for. There was a note found on the inside pocket of the navy blue suit.
“I did it. I killed the owner of this hotel and hid his body in the furnace room. I had no choice. The man was hiding dangerous chemicals under the guise of cleaning supplies; chemicals with which he made and sold drugs. You see, I am a heating repair man. An employee of the hotel had called me to work on the heater. As a result of the storm, only the owner was present that day. When I arrived, I informed him that I was there to look at the furnace. He must have had me confused with one of his drug-trafficking associates because he took me right to the furnace room which to my surprise was actually a miniature laboratory. It became very clear that I was not who he thought I was. He was ready to kill me when the doorbell rang. Using the distraction, I grabbed the dagger located on the table and killed him. I quickly changed into my navy blue suit which I had brought with me. I intended to change into it at the hotel after my work was done to attend a dinner party afterwards. I answered the door and it was a young man seeking shelter from the storm. I could tell from his eyes that he knew something was amiss. He suspected me. I thought if I told him it was my private residence; it would deter him from staying but the storm was fierce enough that he stayed anyway. I remember turning on all the fireplaces so that the place would stay warm and no one would attempt to go to the furnace room. When an African American police officer arrived claiming to seek shelter from the storm, I knew the young man had turned me in. He was on his phone all day and now a police officer has shown up. As soon as the storm ends, I know he will search the area and arrest me. A third young man arrived and I sincerely hope he does not get involved in any of this. I attempted to keep my composure for as long as I could but as night approached, I found that I was no longer able to sit with the guests. In the night I heard noises down by the furnace hallway and I knew they had figured me out. So now, regrettably, I see no other option for myself. I have done a terrible thing and from this there is no escape. I will do this out in the open so that they will all walk out and see me at once and no one will be accused of my murder should this letter not suffice.”
I did not go home this weekend. I like staying at the apartment on weekends so that I can sleep eternally with no one to bother me. The roommates all went home leaving the apartment to me. And in my eyes the entire place is just a giant bed. So the question was; why am I awake? Wakefulness is such a giant waste of a weekend. My beard was getting itchy. This is the body’s natural indicator of shaving time. That’s when I heard a knocking on the door, but before I could say anything, the door swung open and she paraded in as though she was welcome.
Me: “You know the purpose of knocking is to see if you are allowed to come in.”
Lana: “Yea but I’m always welcome.”
Me: “who are you?”
Lana: “Hardy har har.”
Me: “No really, what’s your name? I don’t remember.”
I knew exactly what her name is. I just like to play stupid all the time to annoy people; especially first year undergrads because they annoy me and I should get some entertainment out of it.
Lana: “How can you not remember my name?”
Me: “Is it Larry?”
Lana: “No that’s a guys name! Try again!”
Me: “I got nothin.”
Lana: “How can you sleep so late?”
Me: “Easy, annoying girls get out of my room, and I fall asleep.”
Lana: “Rude! I even brought you breakfast.”
Me: “Great, bring it back say in 4 hours when I’m awake.”
Just then my roommate, Zachary, came into the room with his normal gleeful and stupid look. Yes, I equate the expression of happiness with stupidity.
Zachary: Dude, free pizza in the common room! We should go.
You see Zachary was one of these people who were obsessed with free food. They’re known as every college student other than me. I used to really enjoy the free food the same way he did but during my final years of undergrad, I decided it wasn’t worth the crowds.
Me: Yes, both of you go get free pizza, and I’m going to go salvage what’s left of my morning.
I locked the door this time, and then I hit the pillow face down.