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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


            The guests saw night through cracks in the barn wall, they heard the whistle of the wind through that night, but they felt no draft as they waited for their host to descend the ladder from the loft to the hay-bale throne at the head of the table. The guests sat upon more modest hay-bale seats. They heard him clumping around up there, the host, his heavy footfalls sprinkling his guests with dust.

               Hunter, a 34-year-old man in a fur-lined tan leather coat, sat to the right of the host’s vacant throne. He was not tall, but he sat tall at the edge of his seat, and his shoulders were not broad, but they were nice and square, not sloping at all in the way of most narrow shoulders. He had red hair combed back and tucked behind his ears, which were a different shade of red. He squinted at the other guests in the cumulative light of four lanterns positioned at the four corners of the heavy table, each lantern hissing at a different frequency.

               Gentry, a 26-year old woman, sat to the left of the host’s seat. Her coat was dark green, ankle length, buttoned and belted. Her black hair was pulled up under her hat, not a stocking cap though certainly a winter hat. She chewed a pink toothpick with her delicate front teeth. Some people wouldn’t know where to get pink toothpicks, but Gentry knew exactly where to get them.

               Sam, a 41-year-old woman, sat at the foot of the table. She wore a new coat, a Christmas present she had presented to herself very early in order to maximize its usage for the year. She wore thin blue cloth gloves with grippy snowflake shapes on the fingers and palms. Her long hair bunched inside and around her coat’s collar, the glittery lavender-colored frames of her glasses sparkled cheaply.

               Each guest, upon their arrival at the barn, had presented his or her invitation to a man they had taken for their host’s servant. After all three had been escorted to their seats, the servant climbed the ladder to the loft above, and that was the last they’d seen of anyone but their fellow guests for nearly 15 minutes, now. The guests did not know each other and did not speak to each other, fearing to reveal that they were less far along in the unraveling of this mystery than their fellow guests. The table was long, wide, and sturdy, a substantial means of physical separation.

               The loft ladder shook. Feet made their way onto the rungs followed by legs, torso, hands, and head: the whole host came down. He had white, wiggish hair and wore a rumpled gray suit. His shoes, which the guests saw a lot of while he navigated the ladder, were in need of a polish. After reaching the barn floor, the host stood next to the hay-bale throne and smiled at each of his guests in turn. First Hunter, then Sam, then Gentry. “You may not believe it,” he said. “But I assure you, it’s true.”

               After a long silence, Sam said, “What is?”

               “I’m the same man,” said the host.

               “Which man?” asked Hunter.

               “The man who accepted your invitations and guided you to your assigned seats,” said the host.

               Each of the guests peered across the table at the host, and each came to realize that what he said was true.

               “So you weren’t fetching the host when you went up the ladder,” said Gentry, her speech slightly garbled by the pink toothpick in her mouth. “You were becoming him, in a way.”

               “I’m glad you added that ‘in a way,’” said the host. “Because in another way, I always was the host.”

               The guests nodded. The concept wasn’t that difficult.

               The host took his seat, sitting back on his throne in a way that warned everyone that definitive answers to their questions were not imminent. He reached into his suit coat’s interior pocket and produced a notecard. He angled the card toward the lantern on his right and, after taking a moment to read it silently, he looked up and said, “Hunter.”

               “Yes?” said Hunter. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table’s edge.

               “What are you most thankful for?” asked the host.

               “My health,” said Hunter. “My job. My family.”

               “No!” shouted the host. “You think I invited you hear to spout clichés and vagaries? Think about your life, Hunter, the things that have happened to you, the people you’ve known. Look deep inside of yourself. I chose you to go first because I want you to set the example, Hunter. I want the other guests to hear your account of that for which you are most thankful and feel inspired to rise to your level. I want you to set the standard. I want you to be specific. You know what you’re most thankful for. You’re hesitant to share it because it’s strange. But don’t be hesitant, Hunter. Your purest, most sincere gratitude, that’s what I want to hear about.”

               “In that case,” said Hunter, “I know what to tell you.”

               “Then tell me,” said the host.




               My cousin Selene came to stay with me and my wife. It was a long visit, almost a month. Selene needed to get out of her hometown for reasons I shouldn’t go into here. But maybe those reasons matter. She needed to get out of her hometown because her son won a poetry contest at his school and the school shared the poem on social media and in the poem her son revealed that Selene bought his birthday pie – he prefers pie to cake – using a credit card that belongs to her church and is only supposed to be used for church expenses. It’s never supposed to be used for personal expenses like a pie – or even a cake – for your son’s birthday party. And there was a big uproar in the community – they live in another state, I don’t know if the reaction would be the same here for something like that – and she felt the best thing to do was to just leave town for a while to let things cool down.

               She came to stay with us. We put her up in the guest bedroom we have in our basement. It sounds weird to say “put her up” when she was in the basement. But it also sounds weird to say “put her down.” Worse, actually. The basement bedroom has a TV, a bed that’s smaller than the bed my wife and I sleep in, yes, but more comfortable, in my opinion. It’s got an egress window in case of a fire. And if a tornado came through overnight, she was on the safest level of the house, whereas my wife and I were on the least safe level: the ground floor. It’s a one-story house. The one bad thing about the basement bedroom is that the door doesn’t really latch. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that means our dog can open it if she wants to. And she usually doesn’t want to. In fact, prior to my cousin staying with us, I’d never known my dog to push that basement bedroom door open for any reason. She likes to sleep down there in the basement, but she’s not interested in the bedroom. She sleeps in a dog bed next to the sectional sofa in the…whatever-you-call-it, the main basement room.

               Selene had been staying with us for three days, and then on the morning of the fourth day she came upstairs for breakfast looking troubled. Tired and troubled. She kept shooting looks at our dog while she ate her breakfast and my wife noticed that Selene’s hand was shaking while she buttered her English muffin. And I could tell from the way she discreetly pointed it out that my wife wanted me to ask Selene if she was OK. I happen to think that it’s fine for a wife to ask her husband’s cousin if she’s OK if the cousin’s staying with them as a house guest, but my wife wanted me to be the one to do it. So I asked Selene what was wrong. I asked her if she was feeling all right. I asked her if she’d had trouble sleeping.

               I don’t know if I would have had the boldness to answer all these questions directly if my answers had been the same as Selene’s answers, but she did answer. She said she hadn’t slept well, that she wasn’t feeling all right, and that it was all because the dog had come into her room in the middle of the night and asked her what time it was.

               I don’t think I told you our dog’s name before. Our dog’s name is Maisie. She’s nine years old, some kind of mutt, weighs about 70 pounds. I don’t know if you think those characteristics would make it more likely for a dog to ask what time it is or less likely for a dog to ask what time it is or have no bearing on a dog asking what time it is, but there they are. For me, I think the biggest thing that made the situation troubling wasn’t any of Maisie’s specific characteristics, but more just that she was a dog in general. That was the main sticking point for me. That it was a dog asking what time it was.

               So when Selene said that Maisie had come into her room and asked her what time it was, I was probably about to say something, although I don’t know what it would have been, but my wife spoke up first and asked Selene how she had answered Maisie’s question. Which makes it sound like my wife wasn’t surprised or disturbed by what Selene was saying, but she told me later that she was trying not to alarm Selene.

               Selene said that she hadn’t told Maisie anything. She said that instead of answering our dog’s question, she had just started pinching her arm to either see if she was awake or wake herself up, I’m not exactly sure why people pinch themselves to see if they’re dreaming, I don’t know what it’s supposed to prove. Then Selene showed us her arm, pulling back the sleeve on her checkered pajamas, and there were bruises all up and down from her elbow to her wrist, so she had clearly gone overboard with the pinching, she really wanted to know whether or not she was awake. Or really wanted to wake herself up. Whatever her intention was. And I guess in the end she decided the pinching and the bruises confirmed that she was awake because she told us the story of Maisie’s question like it really happened, not like she was recounting a strange dream.

               Taking her story at face value, or appearing to, I asked Selene what happened next. She said that Maisie waited around for an answer, then left. I asked how long Maisie had waited for an answer and Selene said she wasn’t sure, but that it was probably about a minute or two. So I asked what time all this had happened. There’s a small digital clock on the nightstand next to the bed and the numerals glow in the dark so there’d be no reason for Selene to not know what time this encounter had taken place.

               But instead of answering my question, Selene looked at the dog, who was not paying attention to us at all, she was eating her food slowly like she always does, looking at the wall in front of her bowl as she chewed. I could tell Selene didn’t want to talk about the time in front of the dog. Or rather, she didn’t want to talk about that time. Selene had decided Maisie should not know what time it had been when she had asked for the time.

               Later, when I discussed it with my wife, we agreed that though Selene had been very convincing, she was probably having some kind of nervous breakdown because of the stress of her whole hometown finding out about her improper use of her church’s credit card. But the next morning, Selene told us the same thing had happened again. That sometime during the night – she would not say what time even though Maisie was outside because she feared that with her superior ears she’d still hear us – Maisie had come into the room and asked Selene what time it was. This time, Selene had told Maisie she wasn’t going to tell her, rolled over, and after getting over her aggravation at Maisie’s sense of entitlement, fallen asleep. I asked Selene what asking someone the time had to do with entitlement, and Selene said it wasn’t asking the time, it was coming into her room and waking her up in the middle of the night to ask the time, especially when there was a clock on the cable box hooked up to the TV in that main basement room. I pointed out that dogs probably don’t know how to read clocks, not even digital ones, but Selene pointed out, rightly, that they don’t know how to audibly ask what time it is in English either.

               To my wife and me, it didn’t seem like Selene was crazy in any other obvious ways, so we asked if she would let us put a baby monitor in her room during the night so we could maybe hear Maisie ask Selene what time it was if it happened again. We’ve never had kids, but we have a baby monitor because we had a garage sale and we let some friends put some stuff in the garage sale, and then we had a terrible time getting those same friends to take back the stuff that didn’t sell. Anyway, we put the baby monitor in the guest room and went to bed.

               For some reason, I woke up a little before two in the morning. The baby monitor was crackling a little, I could hear Selene’s breathing, and I was just dozing off again when I heard the creak of the guest room door opening coming through that little speaker. So I sat up in bed and nudged my wife awake and gestured for her to be quiet. But it wouldn’t have mattered if she had been a little noisy because we heard Maisie, our dog, ask Selene what time it was with perfect clarity.

               And this wasn’t one of those baby monitors with a video component. But I recognized the voice as my dog’s, as Maisie’s voice. My wife and I both did. We’d never heard her speak before, but we’d heard her bark and whine and, well, we could just tell it was her. We also heard Selene, all angry, telling Maisie that she would never tell her the time, and then we were out of bed, throwing our robes on, running down to the basement. Maisie was in the guest room when we got there and turned on the lights, but she didn’t repeat her question, didn’t speak at all, just looked at us like she always looks at us when we’re behaving abnormally. Like she’s curious about whether or not this odd behavior is going to result in treats.

               I was disturbed. Deeply bothered. My wife took it more in stride, like it was a cute miracle, but I let it get to me. See, for my wife, it stopped at the talking. She was amazed that Maisie could ask what time it was, but once she accepted that, it just became like those dogs who surf or those dogs who get elected mayor. But for me, it was like, why does Maisie want to know what time it is? And why only in the middle of the night? Where was this coming from? We wondered why she specifically asked Selene what time it was, but it turned out it was just the door thing, the fact that Maisie could push it open since it didn’t latch. Selene started sleeping on the couch upstairs so Maisie wouldn’t bother her, so I slept in the guest room one night, and sure enough, Maisie pushed the door open, sauntered in, and asked me what time it was. This time it was almost 3 a.m. and I told her so. She didn’t thank me, just turned and walked out of the room. So I thought maybe she’d been satisfied, that it was all over, but just to make sure, I slept in the guest room again the next night, and this time she came in before 1, it was only 12:47, and asked me what time it was. I asked her why she wanted to know but she just stared at me, so I told her the time, and she turned and left. She didn’t know how to close the door behind herself, either, which was annoying. So the next night, I slept in my own bed again, and I wondered if she’d bother Selene on the couch, but she didn’t. It seemed like she wanted to know what time it was, but not if it meant coming all the way up the stairs.

               But I’m telling you, I was thrown for a loop. I didn’t know how to deal with all this. It started to affect me. I was distracted all the time. Like I said, my wife got over it. Once Selene moved to the couch, she mostly got over it, although she still wouldn’t say the time in front of Maisie, she said it wasn’t a proper thing for a dog to know, which I thought was pretty rich coming from someone who used a church credit card improperly, but I guess people have different standards of degrees of impropriety.

               Sometimes I would sit out on the back patio with Maisie and I would try to talk to her, to ask her why she wanted to know the time so bad, sometimes, and why she wouldn’t ask other questions or say other things. I’d ask her if she loved me. But she wouldn’t respond. I tried looking up dog clocks online, but all I found were either clocks with pictures of dogs on them, clocks where the numerals were replaced by paw prints, or clocks which would dispense treats at pre-set times.

               It’s hard for me to explain, but all this became the biggest problem of my life. Maybe you’ll say that I had a sheltered life, and OK, maybe somewhat, but I’ve had parents die, I had a friend die, I’ve been fired a couple of times, I’ve had my heart broken. But all of those are expected, to a certain degree. It’s rough when you’re going through them, but they’re easy to contextualize. You hear about those things happening to other people all the time. But you never hear about someone’s pet dog asking them what time it is in the middle of the night. Never. But that’s what my dog did, and it freaked me out. It made me feel like anything could happen, but not in a good way, and not even in a bad way, but just in a completely unpredictable way. I don’t want to give examples. You can imagine the examples, or the kinds of examples. But how can you function like that, how can you live a normal life? You need predictability. Even the unpredictability has to fit within a fairly narrow range. Right? I couldn’t live with this problem. Not that I was suicidal, but I just knew it was going to eat me up, somehow, that there wouldn’t be enough left of me to call me “alive.”

               So I took Maisie to a psychic for pets. His name was Dr. Tuss. Maisie didn’t talk to him, but I guess she didn’t need to because he was a psychic and he could read her thoughts. She seemed comfortable with him. The office wasn’t much to speak of. I was surprised at how nice the carpet was because you’d think pets would have accidents while having their thoughts read, but when I asked Dr. Tuss about it, he said that he psychically prevented all pets from having accidents in his office.

               I thought he’d put Maisie up on an examination table or something, but nope, he just sat in an un-reclined recliner and had Maisie sit on the floor in front of him facing the far wall where a giant television screen displayed a kind of static I’d never seen before. Maisie seemed very relaxed. She kept yawning and licking the air. Behind her, Dr. Tuss sat with his legs crossed and nodded every minute or so, sometimes arching his eyebrows like he’d just discovered something interesting, that’s how I interpreted it. Eventually, he gave a sort of final nod, then told me what he’d found.

               It turned out, he said, that when Maisie asked what time it was, she didn’t actually care. The initial relief I felt at hearing that Maisie had never wanted to know what time it was for her own purposes was quickly replaced by an even deeper dread when Dr. Tuss told me that Maisie had in fact been inquiring about the time on behalf of another party: a mouse that lived in our basement storage room. In some ways, a mouse wanting to know what time it was and using an intermediary to find out was worse. I felt myself slipping into despair, but Dr. Tuss assured me that if I could bring the mouse in to him, he could then find out more. Feeling that this would be my only hope, I resolved to try.

               I stopped at a hardware store on my way home and bought a live-trap, which I set up in my basement storage room. The next morning, I found a mouse inside. Not knowing for sure whether or not it was the mouse who had, on a few occasions, asked my dog what time it was, I took it to Dr. Tuss. It turned out that fortune had been on my side, that this was the mouse I had sought, but after Dr. Tuss spent a few minutes reading the mouse’s thoughts, he informed me that the mouse had also been acting on behalf of another. He said that a roach had been the one asking the mouse what time it was and that the mouse had then asked my dog who had then asked Selene and myself. I felt worse. I felt like my spirit had shrunk to the size of a dried cranberry in the middle of my brain, beset on all sides by this poisonous mystery.

               So I caught the roach. I actually caught a few roaches, but not knowing which roach was the correct one, I brought them all to Dr. Tuss. The first roach whose mind he read was the wrong one, but he was able to use what he found in that roach’s mind to find the right roach. And through the psychic interrogation of that roach, Dr. Tuss saved my life. He discovered that the roach had also been asking what time it was on behalf of another, but that other was a wild man who was living, unbeknownst to me, in my crawlspace, and he had wanted to know what time it was because he treated his feral early-morning scrounging like a job with strict hours as a way of clinging to his humanity.

               This was a huge weight off of my mind. I was liberated. And so, for me, what I’m most thankful for is Dr. Tuss, the brilliant pet psychic who guided me out of the darkest period of my life.


               As Hunter concluded his story, his voice laden with much emotion, the host and the other guests sat in silence.

               Then, without speaking, the host rose from his throne, returned to the ladder, and again climbed up to the loft. When he had disappeared from view, Hunter looked at Sam, then Gentry, and whispered, “Did I offend him?”

               “I don’t think so,” said Sam.

               “What happened to the wild man living in your crawlspace?” asked Gentry. She had moved on to a fresh toothpick, also pink.

               “I put a clock in there,” said Hunter. “Powered by batteries.” His eyes zipped loft-ward at the sound of shuffling above. Some of the loft’s boards bowed under the host’s weight. Then footsteps marked his path to the ladder and he again descended. But was it him? He looked so little like the host, but he didn’t look like the servant either. His shoes were clinical white, his pea-green pants loose-fitting and pleated, a billowy purple shirt tucked into them. His hair was a wispy salt-and-pepper. He wore bifocals.

               “Dr. Tuss!” cried Hunter.

               The host smiled as he regained the floor. “Yes,” he said. “It is me. It was me the whole time.”

               “But which is the disguise?” asked Hunter.

               The host chuckled. “All of them.”

               Hunter, overwhelmed, accepted this. “I never thanked you properly,” he said, rising to his feet. “You gave me my life back.”

               “Please,” said the host, raising a stern hand. “Retain your seat, please. There are others who have yet to speak.”

               “Thank you,” said Hunter, sitting. “Thank you so much, Dr. Tuss! But how did you know I would tell your story? I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you. But you looked so different! You have my gratitude, Dr. Tuss, you may have all of it, if you want.”

               “I do,” said Dr. Tuss. “I do want it. I accept.” It was as if Hunter’s face were a spotlight training its beam on the host’s face, who reflected that beam into the room, all light but no warmth.

               The host sat down. “Sam,” he said. “You’re next. You saw how Hunter responded to my question. It’s your turn to do the same, albeit in your own style. What are you most thankful for?”

               “I know what comes to mind,” said Sam. She de-fogged her glasses with the back of her gloved finger. “But…is that what this is about? You’re saying it was you? That our stories are all about you? That’s why you’ve gathered us three specifically? But that isn’t possible. Not in my case. It can’t be you. It can’t.”

               The host smiled with serenity. “Tell me,” he said. “Don’t worry about the outcome. Tell me the story you know is right. Tell me what you are truly most thankful for.”

               “OK, then,” said Sam. “But I don’t think this is going to turn out how you’re hoping.”




               I’m not the storyteller he is. Hunter, that’s your name? I’m not so long-winded. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just don’t know how to talk that much. I get self-conscious. But I hope you – none of you – think that means that I’m less grateful. I’m very, very grateful. But I’m also confused, because this happened so long ago. I was just a kid. So I don’t see how he could have been you? But you say not to worry about it.

               OK, then, I won’t worry about it.

               I was just a kid, like I said. I was eight years old. So that was, well, let me do the math, my birthday is in August and it’s almost Thanksgiving now and it was fall when this happened, a little earlier in the fall, so I’d had my birthday that year, I’m 41 now, 41 minus eight is 33, so it was 33 years ago, so before you were even alive, miss, whatever your name is. Gentry? That’s a unique name. So before you were even alive, Gentry, I’ll bet.

               It had just rained. Which had knocked most of the leaves off of the trees. It was still overcast, everything was gray and wet, and I was walking home from my trombone lesson. Because I was small, I pulled my trombone to and from my lessons in a wagon. My trombone teacher was only a block-and-a-half away, not a long walk, but I was coming home, I was pulling my trombone in my wagon, and I was stamping through puddles. I guess I was being rebellious. My trombone teacher, Mrs. Geslynn, had scolded me for not practicing enough, and I was annoyed by that, so my childish response was to stamp through the puddles on the way home. My shoes and socks and my pants from the middle of my shins down were all soaked.

               I guess I’m stretching this out longer than I thought I would. These details keep coming back.

               But the big puddle was on the sidewalk two houses down from mine. It hadn’t been there when I’d gone to trombone lessons, but there had been more rain during the hour that I was there, so I assumed that was where it had come from. That’s what I assume I assumed. I honestly don’t know if, at the time, I thought about where the puddle had come from. I was just focused on stamping in it. In fact, I wanted to stamp in it with both feet, a big, flying stamp, I was imagining that giant splash.

               Does anyone mind that I say “stamp” instead of “stomp?”

               I stopped at the edge of the puddle, and then jumped into it with both feet. But when my feet broke the surface of the puddle, they kept going. You could say the puddle was deep, but that’s a little deceptive. The puddle itself was probably two feet deep, which is deep for a puddle, but what made it seem even deeper was what was beyond the puddle, which I don’t know if you’d say was part of the puddle or not. By the time my head had passed beneath the surface of the muddy water, my feet and legs had already passed through the bottom of the puddle and into a cavern, a small cavern. This happened fast, but I still noticed it, the sensation of my upper body being underwater and my lower body emerging from beneath the water. I didn’t know it was a cavern that I was passing into until I passed all the way through, falling another five feet to the cavern floor, which was rocky. Well, it was made of rock. It was rock.

               The fall itself didn’t hurt much, I think the puddle slowed my fall, but what hurt more was that I had still been holding onto the handle of my wagon when I jumped and I’d pulled it into the puddle after myself, so it came through the puddle behind me. Since I still had a hold of the handle, I was able to push the wagon aside as it fell so it didn’t land on me, but my trombone case came out of the wagon and hit me square in the chest and knocked the wind out of me for a minute.

               After I regained my breath and started to come to terms with what had just happened, I looked around. There was light in the cavern, but it came from nowhere. It was just there in the cavern like I was, like the light had fallen through the puddle and gotten stuck like I did. For a while, I tried to jump up into the puddle and swim back up to the sidewalk, but with all my leaping, the best I could do was splash my hands into the underside surface. Then I got the idea to throw something up through the puddle so that it would pop out the top and someone who happened to be passing by would be drawn to investigate. But there was nothing to throw. The wagon and the trombone were too heavy. Although the cavern was made of rock, there were no loose rocks lying around. I could have tried throwing my shoes, maybe, but I was afraid to be without them. I’m still afraid to be without them. Notice how I’m not without my shoes tonight? Well, neither are the rest of you, and it’s cold, we’re in a barn, probably no one would want to be without their shoes in a situation like this, but still, even if the conditions were perfect for shoelessness, I’d be wearing them. I’m afraid to be without them unless I’m in my own home, the home of someone I trust, or if I’m getting a pedicure. Or if I’m swimming at a pool or a beach, although beaches make me a little nervous to be shoeless.

               Anyway, I decided to look around the cavern. Since the light didn’t come from anywhere in particular, there were no shadows, no dark corners. It wasn’t bright in that cavern, but the distribution of light was very even, I’ll give it that. The cavern was egg-shaped, I suppose, but if the inside of the egg’s shell was rough. It was about the size of a small house. The ceiling, I think I mentioned, was only 5 feet high, but since I was little, I didn’t feel too crowded. But there wasn’t much to find or see. The only thing I found was a single key on a keychain shaped like what I now know was Lake Wellwash, but at the time just looked like a blue blob. At first, finding the key made me hopeful because I thought I’d find a hidden door that would lead me out of the cavern, but it didn’t take me long to realize there were no doors, no keyholes, nothing. Not knowing what else to do with it, I put the key in my pocket.

And when I realized there was no other way in or out of the cavern except through the puddle, I started to get scared. What would happen when the puddle dried up? Would there be a hole in the sidewalk so people could find me? Or was the puddle itself the portal to this cavern, and when it dried up, would I be trapped in here with no way out at all? I started to fear that this was my punishment for my bad attitude, for my rebellious puddle-stamping. Wasn’t that how I got here? Trying to stamp in a big puddle, which I knew my parents would not want me to do, which I knew was bad for my clothes and bad for my health?

               I’m not saying I’m a clever person. I don’t think of myself as being very resourceful. But I guess the panic made me a little sharper than usual. I remember thinking clearly, like, OK, what do I have to work with? And that was a pretty easy question to answer. I had my wagon and my trombone.

               By setting my wagon upright on its wheels underneath the puddle, I was able to stand on it and get my head almost to the level where the water began. The floor of the cavern was rough enough that I didn’t have to worry too much about the wagon rolling out from under me. I reached up into the puddle and felt for the sides of the hole it was in, but they were slick and I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself up anyway. So I got back down off of the wagon, got my trombone out of its case, and assembled it. Then I got back onto the wagon, pointed the trombone up into the puddle, and extended the slide as far as I could, stretching my arm up into that cold, gross water. Then I just swished it back and forth, back and forth. It was too murky for me be able to tell for sure, but my hope was that the trombone slide was sticking out the top side of the puddle far enough to attract someone’s attention. I had no idea if it would, and even if it did, I didn’t know how to communicate the next part of my message: that I was trapped underneath the puddle and needed someone to pull me out. It seemed impossible. I would need someone who was ready to make some pretty outrageous guesses about what was going on.

               Wow, I guess this story is longer than I thought. I guess I’m better at telling it than I thought. I thought for sure I’d have told it all by now. Well, I’m almost done.

               I don’t know how long I waved that trombone around through that puddle, but I know my arms got so tired and I almost fell off of the wagon more than once. It felt like a long time, but I was a kid, maybe it was only a few minutes, or maybe it was an hour. My shoulders ached, my neck ached. My main hope was that when my parents noticed how late I was getting home from trombone lessons, they’d come looking for me, see the trombone, and…and…well, find me, somehow, get me out, somehow.

               But that isn’t what happened. And I don’t know if it would have happened like that, but something else happened first. I was just about to take a short break from waving the trombone in order to preserve my stamina when I looked up and saw a dark shape coming toward me through the puddle. Then it popped out the underside of the puddle right next to my face and I saw that it was the head of one of those four-pronged walking canes like the kind my grandpa used after his second stroke. It waggled around like it was trying to attract my attention. In my excitement, I dropped my trombone on the floor of the cavern, grabbed onto the cane, and gave it two short tugs. I thought, I guess, that the tugs would communicate something to whoever was on the other end. Nothing in particular, just that I was there, that I saw the cane, that I could reach it. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Maybe the person would lower a ladder, a rope. Maybe they’d have to go home to fetch whatever they needed, to get help. These ideas made sense to me, I understood they were strong possibilities, but when the cane began to go back up into the puddle, I couldn’t let go. I clung to it like the cane itself was my only chance of escape.

And I went right along with it. I rose up through that puddle so smoothly, it took no time at all, and when I broke the surface out into the gray evening I’d fallen out of, I saw that there was a man on the other end of the cane, pulling me up with perfect ease even though he looked so old, wrinkled, his bald, spotted head, his flimsy bathrobe and slippers, he rose from his knees to his feet as he lifted me out, and he set me on the sidewalk next to him. His car, with the driver’s side door standing open, was idling at the curb a few yards beyond the puddle.

I didn’t know what to say or do. I wanted to give him something, but I had nothing to offer. I realized then that my trombone and wagon were gone. I knew where they were, but I couldn’t go back for them. To do so, I’d either have to re-enter that cavern or send someone else, and I couldn’t imagine doing either of those things. It was then, looking around at my regular world, standing at the edge of the puddle, that I noticed the bumper sticker on the man’s car. It read “Beautiful Lake Wellwash” and it had a blue blob on it shaped exactly like the keychain I’d recovered from the cavern. This seemed like a sign, to me, so I reached into my pocket, pulled out the keychain, and offered it to the man. He looked shocked. I remember how wide his watery, red eyes opened. Then he took the keychain from me, hobbled to his car leaning heavily on his wet cane, and slid the key I’d just handed him into the lock on his trunk, popping it open. Then he leaned his cane against the bumper of his car and reached…reached…

Sorry, this part makes me cry. Not that I tell this story to people, but when I think about it, I start crying.

He reached into his trunk and pulled out a trombone case.


               Sam stopped talking. To her, it seemed, the story was over. The rest was implied. She narrowed her eyes at the host.

               The host met her gaze. “And that is what you are most grateful for?”

               “Yes,” said Sam. “The rescue. The replacement trombone. But that couldn’t have been you. He was so old. You’d have to be, I don’t know, 110 years old.”

               The host rose from his throne, winked, and headed for the ladder. Up he went.

               “There’s no way,” said Sam. “There’s no way.”

               Gentry clapped in excitement. “I can’t wait to see this one. I can’t wait for my turn.”

               “He was feeble even back then,” said Sam.

               “You said he lifted you out of the puddle with ease,” said Hunter. “Maybe he was young then, but in disguise as an old man?”

               “No,” said Sam. “It wasn’t a disguise…was it? I always thought he’d had a surge of adrenaline, like those mothers who lift cars off of their babies.”

               From the loft above came the usual shufflings and thumpings, but there were new sounds: scrapings, snappings, clangings. It took a long time. More than twenty minutes. But the guests weren’t bored. The strange sounds, the passing time, Sam’s insistence that the host could not have been the old man who rescued her and gave her a replacement trombone, all of these things only built the suspense to thrilling levels of intensity.

               When the host finally returned to the ladder, and began to creep his way downward, unsteady and slow, Sam gasped. “It can’t be! But you’re no older than you were then. You look the same, the same.”

The wrinkles, the spots on the bald head, the bathrobe and slippers, they were all there. He even had the four-pronged walking cane, doing his best to keep hold of it in his left hand while navigating the rungs of the ladder at the same time. When he was two thirds of the way down the ladder, the host slipped and fell to the barn floor with a horrific thud. “Stay in your seats!” he cried in a weak voice. The guests watched with concern as he set his cane upright and clawed his way up it until he was on his feet again, more or less. At last, he turned to face Sam directly. “Do you accept now that he was I?”

Tears spilled from her eyes. “I swear my parents taught me to be polite. I knew how to be grateful. I was just…stunned at everything that had happened. But you…you are what I’ve been most thankful for almost my whole life now. You don’t even have to ask. You have all my gratitude. All, all, all my gratitude.”

The host received the gratitude as it was offered, completely, absorbing it as-

“My turn!” said Gentry. She had half-chewed pink toothpicks pinched in each hand. “I already know who you were. In the story of what I’m most thankful for, I mean.”

The host’s smile was strained. “All right, but be patient, take a moment to appreciate-”

“I know,” said Gentry. “It’s just that I already know which one was you. And it’s so crazy that that was you, I can’t wait for them to hear. It’s blowing my mind just thinking about it.”

The host was no longer smiling. “I understand that you’re excited, but interrupting is not-”

“I’m not interrupting,” said Gentry. “She finished her story.”

“You’re interrupting me,” said the host. His elderly appearance enhanced his displeasure, but Gentry didn’t notice.

“It’s fine,” said Sam. She used the fingertips of her fuzzy gloves to dab the tears from her face, soaking them up. “Let her tell her story. After Hunter’s story and my experience, I’m eager to hear more.”

“Very well,” said the host. He lowered himself onto his throne, now wincing at the same way his body had before bent without effort. It took him a few moments of stiff shifting to settle. “Now,” he said, and it was clearly just an introductory word to a more complete thought, but Gentry couldn’t wait any longer. She was off and running.




               I know who you were! I never would have thought it could be you, but now that I’ve seen how you were the main person in these other people’s stories, I know who you were! You were the one in my dream, you were the blue jay in my dream who told me not to try to have a career in speech therapy! And I am so grateful, you have no idea, my best friend went into speech therapy and she hates it. She likes helping people, yeah, but everything else about the job, no. And you saved me from that!


               Gentry sat grinning at the host, her eyes flickering between him and the ladder. “And take your time,” she said. “If it took you that long to make yourself look like an old man, then I imagine the blue jay will take even longer, especially since it was a normal-sized blue jay. I don’t know how you’re gonna manage that.”

               The host blinked at her as if there were glue on the insides of his eyelids. “You think I was a blue jay in a dream you had?”

               “You were,” said Gentry. “Because that’s what I’m most thankful for!”

               “No, no,” said the host. “Hold on. That was not…look, don’t try to guess who I was or anything, just tell me what you’re most thankful for. What you’re most thankful for.”

               “Did you send the dream?” asked Gentry. “Even if you weren’t in it? Or were you hiding in the dream, watching from somewhere I didn’t notice?”

               “Not the dream!” snapped the host. “Something that happened in real life.”




               Oh. Ohhhh. Oh! I know who you were! It was so obvious that I guess I thought it was too obvious, but yes, now it makes sense! My dad raised me, he taught me how to swim, he taught me how to make good guesses on multiple choice tests, he fed me, he let me make the dance playlist for the wedding when he married my stepmom. And that’s you! My dad has actually been you this whole time! Thank you!


               The host looked startled for a long time, then pained. “I am not your father,” he said. He looked at Hunter and Sam for support. They weren’t sure how to give it. Giving their gratitude, that had been easy, natural, but how to support him? They were not privy to his plans. They didn’t know his motives, his goals. Surprised as they were to discover the important role he had played in their lives, they didn’t see why he couldn’t have been the blue jay from Gentry’s dream. Or her father.

               The host returned his attention to Gentry. “Please,” he said. “Do not try to puzzle out my involvement in your story. I would have had to have been around you your whole life, every day, it doesn’t…just…I’m starting to think I should have had you go first. But, no, that wouldn’t have worked for the reveals, there wouldn’t have been the proper escalation...” He trailed off and sighed.




               I know it! I solved it. You were the woman who told me not to eat that pretzel that I dropped on the ground because you said that it had been on the ground. You could have been nicer about it, but still, I guess that means I would have died if I had eaten it? Thanks!


               The fact that the host looked so old and frail in his role as Sam’s rescuer made what Gentry was doing to him all the harder to watch. The guests could see that he was wrestling with a decision. At last, with a look of resignation, he lurched up from his throne and hobbled to the ladder. He left the cane behind, but still, his climb was frightening to behold. The memory of his fall was fresh in the guests’ minds.

               “What’s he doing?” asked Gentry. “Do you think he’s changing into the woman who told me not to eat the pretzel off of the ground?” She was not as excited by the prospect as she had been by her earlier guesses, especially the blue jay, although her father would have also been amazing.

               Hunter shrugged.

               Sam said, “I don’t know.” She cleared her throat. “Were any of you under the impression that there would be food here?”

               It took the host almost an hour to change, but unlike before, there were no sounds from the loft. Whatever he did, he did in complete silence. The guests speculated that he might have left, somehow, but none of them believed it enough to leave themselves.

               When the host did return, his entrance was much more bombastic than his previous entrances. This time, he slid down the ladder like perhaps a pirate would, leaping to the floor with a dramatic twirl from the same height from which he’d fallen as the elderly man. He wore shiny black trousers and a shirt with a deep neckline which revealed the inside edges of his well-developed pectoral muscles. His hair was gelled and shaped into a style both unruly and outdated. He strode to the throne, and instead of sitting on it, he sprang up onto the seat and stood with one foot up on one of its hay-bale armrests. “Now you see!” he said, his arms spread wide.

               “Are you talking to me?” asked Gentry.

               “It’s me!” said the host. “You know me! It was I the whole time!”

               “No,” said Gentry. “She was probably 55 years old. Um, animal print dress of some kind. A woman.”

               “Who?” asked the host, deflating.

               “The woman who told me not to eat the pretzel that I dropped on the ground,” said Gentry. “She said I shouldn’t eat it because it had been on the ground?”

               “That was not me,” said the host. He dropped his arms to his sides. His hands made a sad flopping sound against his hips.

               “But I’m supposed to recognize you now?” asked Gentry. She gestured at the host, taking in his current get-up. “You did something for me looking like this?”

               “How can you possibly not remember?” asked the host. He shot uneasy glances at the other guests.

               “Well, what did you do?” asked Gentry. “Can you give me a hint?”

               The host held his head in his hands. The guests saw him consider sitting down, but no, he appeared to decide this could still be salvaged.




               You were in high school. You were preparing to audition for the school play. You and a friend went to a coffee shop to rehearse your-


               “Oh yeah,” said Gentry, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “I remember you.”

               The host reeled from this reaction as if physically struck. “And…and you’re not…?”

               “Grateful?” said Gentry. “No! You’re why I almost tried to have a career in speech therapy in the first place! If not for that blue jay’s warning, you would have ruined my life!”

               “But how…?” said the host. “I don’t remember saying anything about speech therapy.”

               “It wasn’t a direct suggestion,” said Gentry. “But I could tell what you were hinting at.”

               “But we weren’t even talking about career goals at all,” said the host.

               “Which is what made your hinting all the weirder,” said Gentry. She produced a new toothpick, pink as its predecessors, from the pocket of her coat.

               The host reached into the neck of his shirt and pulled a notecard from where one would not have thought there was a pocket. He stepped down from the hay-bale throne and angled the notecard toward the lantern light. Though he looked young and strong, it was now easy to see that he and the old man that had preceded him were the same person. He flipped the notecard over as if he expected there to be more writing on the back, but the guests had seen that there was not.

               “I just thought of something,” said Hunter. “Were you the wild man living in my crawlspace?”

               “Yeah,” said Sam. “Pretty convenient that the key to your car’s trunk was down in that cavern with me, huh?”

               “Now wait,” said the host. “Don’t be like this. The world has ingrates enough as it is.”

               Hunter stood. “I retract my gratitude. All of it.”

               “Same,” said Sam. “And I mean it.”

               “Ingrates,” said the host like it was his least favorite word. He slumped into his throne and it disintegrated beneath him into a pile of moldy old straw. He lay upon that straw pile and wheezed. “Ingrates.”

               “What does that word mean?” asked Gentry.

               “It’s someone who’s ungrateful,” said the host. He lay clutching his belly. No one could see his face. He could have been anyone. Almost anyone.

               “So why isn’t it ‘ungrates?’” asked Gentry.

               No one answered.

               “Hello?” said Gentry. “Why isn’t the word ‘ungrates?’”

               “I don’t know,” said the host.

               “Well, then,” said Gentry. “Thanks for nothing.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think I’m grateful for the fact that because I put so many discussion questions at the end of the last Bedtime Story, now I don’t feel obligated to put more than one at the end of this Bedtime Story?