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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


            Alongside a slush-covered county road, the wind had formed an inviting snowdrift parallel to a fencerow. Olan, who had been wandering for three years and no longer remembered his home address, wandered across the field, over the fence, and into the drift where he sat and sunk down so that only his head and shoulders stuck out above the wet snow. Olan was tired, hungry, and cold, yes, but he wasn’t bored, sullen, fidgety, anxious, or any number of other bad things to be.

“Where are you going?” so many acquaintances had asked him, none of them understanding that his destination could only be known in the past tense, which was true for all of them as well, but he hadn’t been able to make any of them understand. Not that he had tried. But he wouldn’t have been able to make any of them understand. Would this snowdrift become his destination? Olan would only know if it didn’t. He pulled the hood of his coat up and over his dirty, gray stocking cap and wriggled farther down into the hole he’d made in the drift with his body. He leaned back, rested his head on the snow, and did the sleep exercise where he envisioned himself inside of a bucket being lowered into a well by someone far overhead, the only sound the creaking of the rope attached to the bucket’s handle.

                Olan woke up shivering. He was so hungry that he didn’t feel hungry at all, a feeling of which his time as a wanderist had taught him to be wary. It was a feeling that often preceded a faint. Wandering was not conducive to regular or adequate nourishment, which was no less a problem despite its obviousness. Olan knew he would have to stand up very slowly before wandering in search of food. He leaned forward and shifted his legs under him so that he could exit the drift in a crawling position. This caused his head to spin. His arms went jellylike, incapable of supporting his torso. Olan pitched forward onto his face, the upper half of his body protruding from the base of the snowdrift, and then he passed all the way out.


Olan woke up again, but this time an external source was responsible for his shaking.

                “How did you get here? How did you get here? How did you get here?” The voice belonged to a young woman crouching next to Olan. From his face-down position on the ground, all he could see with his foggy eyes were her boots, which were different shades of blue despite being otherwise identical.

                Olan, powered by embarrassment, rolled onto his back and looked up at the woman. She wore purple earmuffs and makeup. Her features, including her eyes, were all small in an OK way. Beyond her face was an evening sky of a familiar indecisive temperament.

                “How did you get here?” she asked again, but her tone had changed to account for the fact that Olan was now obviously awake.

                “I wandered here,” said Olan. Strangers usually accepted this as a form of brush-off answer, although it was not.

                “I thought you were dead,” said the woman, proving both her ability and willingness to say something other than “How did you get here?”

                “I was just asleep,” said Olan. He sat up and tried to smile, which was perhaps too much to attempt at once because his eyes rolled around in their sockets and he flopped back again, the blow from the ground to the back of his head jointly padded by his hood and the snow.

                “Why are you so dizzy?” asked the young woman. “Are you drunk? You don’t smell drunk.”

                “I’m not drunk,” said Olan, keeping his eyes closed. He folded his hands on his stomach like a casketed corpse.

                “Do you need help getting home?” asked the young woman.

                “No,” said Olan. “I’m a wanderist.”

                “Oh,” said the young woman. “Homeless.”

                “I have a home,” said Olan. “But I don’t remember the address. I’m a wanderist.”

                “Where are your gloves?” asked the young woman.

                “My coat has pockets,” said Olan.

                “You’re starving, aren’t you,” said the young woman. “You fainted because you need food.”

                “I’m not starving,” said Olan. “But my blood sugar may well be low to very low.”

                “Can you get into my car if I help you?” asked the young woman. “I know where you can get some food.”

                “Yes,” said Olan. “I believe that I can.” This was not the first time that his wandering had taken the form of being half-dragged into a stranger’s car and driven to a meal.


                “Do you know where you are?” asked Adalie. That was the young woman’s name. Olan didn’t know how it was spelled. She drove sensibly on the slippery roads.

                “More or less,” said Olan, grateful for the way the seatbelt contained his trembling. His body was doing its recent thing where it reacted to a little slice of comfort by immediately humiliating him.

                “I’m from Dalcette,” said Adalie. “That’s where we’re going now.”

                “Are you taking me to your house?” asked Olan.

                “No,” said Adalie. “I can’t take you there today. I live with my parents and I have to avoid them on Christmas.”

                “Today’s Christmas?” asked Olan. “Christmas Day?”

                “Yes,” said Adalie. “That’s why I came back to help you. When I first saw you, I just drove past because I was worried you’d try to bite me or spit on me. But then I thought, well, it’s Christmas, I should at least figure out how you got there and if you’re starving.”

                “Huh,” said Olan. “Merry Christmas.”

                “Thanks,” said Adalie. “Merry Christmas to you too.”

                “Why do you have to avoid your parents on Christmas?” asked Olan. The evening was now dark and it looked exactly like night.

                “They can’t have a good Christmas if I’m around the house,” said Adalie. “Because I look too much like my runaway twin sister probably looks now. We looked very similar before she ran away, so we probably still do. That’s what my parents think. So when they see me, it makes them think of her, and then that makes them sad and it ruins Christmas.”

                “I don’t understand how it’s better for them if both of their daughters are gone on Christmas,” said Olan.

                “Because,” said Adalie. “That way there’s no one around the house who looks like my runaway twin sister.”

                “Oh,” said Olan. There was nothing outside the passenger’s side window of the car to help him understand. “So what do your parents do for Christmas without you?”

                “I don’t know,” said Adalie, the first sign of irritation making an appearance in her voice. “How could I know if they do it without me?”

                Olan decided to change the subject. “Why are your boots different shades of blue?”

                “Only the left one gets direct sunlight where I store them when I’m not wearing them,” said Adalie. “So the left one is faded.”

                To Olan, this answer felt like bait for another trap, so he let his follow-up questions shrivel unasked on the back of his tongue. A few houses floated past outside, Christmas trees hulking in their front windows, strings of lights deployed about their yards according to the strategies of unstrategic minds. The fact that today was Christmas Day did not surprise Olan. It wasn’t any less likely than any other day. In fact, considering the weather, today was more likely to be Christmas Day than many other days. August 5th, for example, would have been a real shock. Holidays, of course, meant very little to wanderists, affecting them only indirectly, if at all, although in Olan’s case, the fact that today was a holiday might have saved his life. Had it not been Christmas, Adalie would have kept driving and he could have still been lying half in and half out of that snowdrift, or perhaps he’d be back on his feet but wandering in the direction of even less food rather than more food.

                “Do you like burgers?” asked Adalie. “Hamburgers? Cheeseburgers?”

                “Yes,” said Olan.

                “Because there’s only one place to get food in Dalcette that’s open on Christmas Day,” said Adalie. “Otherwise, we’d have to go all the way over to Multioak. You don’t want to do that, do you?”

                “No, burgers are fine,” said Olan. The thought of burgers, whether with cheese or without cheese, made his empty stomach spasm.

                “They have other stuff on the menu too,” said Adalie. “I order the same thing every time.”

                “You’ve never tried anything other than the burgers?” asked Olan.

                “Yes, I have,” said Adalie. “Many times.”

                “But you said you get the same thing every time,” said Olan.

                “No, I said I order the same thing every time,” said Adalie.

                Olan pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. She’d gotten him again.


                The restaurant parking lot was empty, but the lights were on inside and the sign in the window declared its openness. Adalie did not park the car in the closest spot to the door, for some reason. Olan didn’t ask about it. He knew better.

                “Can you walk under your own power?” asked Adalie.

                “Yes,” said Olan, hesitating just enough to make Adalie doubt him.

                “Maybe you should hold onto my shoulder, at least.”

                “OK,” said Olan. “I’ll be fine once I get some food in me.” Adalie helped him out of the car. His legs felt untrustworthy beneath him so he leaned on Adalie more heavily than he had intended to as they walked toward the restaurant’s glass front door. The wind cut across the parking lot and stung all of Olan’s exposed skin in passing. He looked up at the sign on the restaurant’s roof. “Newsworthy Burger? Is this a chain? I’ve never heard of it before.”

                “It’s not a chain,” said Adalie. “Dalcette has the only one in the world.”

                “And it’s good?” asked Olan.

                “Sometimes,” said Adalie. She pulled the door open and helped Olan inside. The restaurant was warm and deserted. The lights were on in the kitchen area, but there were no employees visible behind the counter.

                “Where are the workers?” asked Olan.

                “I’m not sure,” said Adalie. “Let’s sit you down first.” She maneuvered Olan into a booth in the window to the immediate right of the door and directly across from the front counter.

                Olan leaned his head against the cold glass, a similar posture to the one he’d taken during the car ride. He needed a few moments to gather himself. As he did, he took notice of the restaurant’s fancy light fixtures and the rugs on the floor. Olan had never seen a rug on the floor of a fast food restaurant before, much less several rugs. The unexpected incandescent light made his reflection in the window look less pale than he’d feared. There were also small TVs on each of the tables, although their screens were dark. Adalie had walked over to the counter and stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer into the back of the restaurant. “Hello?” she called. “Is anyone here? Can we get some service?” She turned to smile at Olan. “I may have to go back there and look for someone.”

                “Behind the counter?” asked Olan. The restaurant was silent.

                “Hey.” Olan and Adalie both jumped at the girl’s appearance from around the corner in the dining room seating area. She wore green jeans and an untucked black-and-red Newsworthy Burger shirt that was too large for her. The white sleeves of a thermal undershirt extended to her wrists from within the wider, shorter sleeves of her work shirt. “I was in the bathroom.” She pointed back around the corner from which she’d appeared. In her other hand was her cell phone, which she returned to the back pocket of her jeans. Her long, pale hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she wore a black Newsworthy Burger cap tilted back on her head. She was a small person.

                “Hey, Blair,” said Adalie. “Are you the only one here?”

                “More people were scheduled,” said Blair. “But only a couple showed up and they both left a while ago.”

                “Why didn’t you close up?” asked Adalie.

                “I need the hours,” said Blair. “I bet my boyfriend a thousand dollars that his fish would survive until Christmas Day, but it died mysteriously last night.” She walked around the counter and stood behind a cash register. “Did you want to order anything? Because basically everything is turned off so I can’t really get you your regular order. Or anything else, really. You’d be better off going somewhere else.”

                “Oh,” said Adalie. “Well, he’s starving to death, so I was hoping to get him something to eat.” She pointed at Olan.

                Olan waved at Blair in a way that he hoped didn’t look feeble and said, “I’m not starving to death. I’m just a little light-headed. Low blood sugar, I think.”

                “If we can’t order anything, then why are you still open?” asked Adalie.

                “Because,” said Blair. “I need the hours.” Her impatient tone betrayed an unspoken “I already told you.” Olan couldn’t help feeling pleased at Adalie getting a taste of her own medicine.

                “There’s nowhere else to go,” said Adalie. “It’s Christmas. Everything else is closed.”

                “I think we still have some cookies,” said Blair. “But you probably won’t want them. They’ve been here for a few days.”

                “You can’t cook something for a man who’s starving to death?” asked Adalie. “I found him lying on the side of the road. He was sticking out of a snow drift.”

                “I’m not actually starving to death,” said Olan.

                “See?” said Blair. “He’s fine.” She shot a look at the front door. “You should take him somewhere else. There really isn’t anything for him here.”

                Adalie sighed. “OK, we’ll take the cookies.”


                “The cookies,” said Adalie. “The old cookies that you said you’ve got.”

                Olan didn’t want old cookies, but he supposed if that was all there was, then he would eat them. He needed to put something in his stomach. He would not be mobile enough to wander in his preferred style if he didn’t get some calories to fuel him.

                “How many do you want?” asked Blair. Her eyes were fixed on the front door.

                “Um,” said Adalie. She turned around to see what Blair was looking at. Olan swiveled in his booth seat to look at the front door too. There was nothing there. Just a glass door looking out on a parking lot empty but for Adalie’s car. Adalie turned back to Blair. “How many cookies do you have?”

                Blair sighed. “I’ll just bring them all and you can take however many you want.” She almost ran back into the kitchen, disappearing from view behind silent, silver cookers, warmers, coolers, and freezers.

                Adalie came over to the booth where Olan was now sitting upright with his forearms wedged against the edge of the table for stability. “I’ll see if we can get something to drink with the cookies,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

                “OK,” said Olan. “I’m not worried.”

                “Has this happened to you before?” asked Adalie.

                “Sort of, yes,” said Olan. “Although this time is also unique. That’s the key to the wanderist lifestyle: doing the same thing in different contexts leading to different experiences.”

                “That’s why you ran away?” asked Adalie.

                “I didn’t run away,” said Olan. “I became a wanderist.”

                “Huh,” said Adalie. “I always assumed my sister ran away, but maybe she just became a wanderist.”

                Olan resented the way Adalie’s use of the word “just” implied that she considered becoming a wanderist a more benign form of running away, but he let it slide. In all his wandering, he’d never once encountered a person in any context who understood the basic idea of the wanderist lifestyle. Maybe he was just bad at explaining it. He was willing to accept that. Explaining what it meant to be a wanderist was not fundamental to being a wanderist. If he’d wanted to devote himself to explaining what it meant to be a wanderist, Olan would have eschewed becoming a wanderist in favor of teaching an adult class at his local library about wanderists.  

                Olan heard the front door open behind him. Adalie turned to look at whoever had come in and something in the way her face changed made Olan turn around in his seat to look for himself. There he saw a thin person dressed in a nondescript brown sweatsuit, thin gloves that looked damp, wet boots, and a white ski mask. There was a handgun in the person’s right hand, although it did not look real. The masked person looked at the counter for a moment, then turned to look at Adalie and Olan. “Where’s Blair?” The voice was young and male. Olan guessed that he was a teenager.

                “She’s in the back getting cookies,” said Adalie. She pointed at the gun in the masked boy’s hand. “What’s that for?” Olan wondered if she could tell that the gun was fake.

                The masked boy ignored her, reaching into the pocket of his sweatpants with his left hand to pull out his phone. He breathed heavily through his mask as he peered down at the screen and tapped at it with his thumb. “What…?” he muttered to himself. He seemed annoyed at something he’d discovered. He glanced at Olan and Adalie, then returned the phone to his pocket.

                Olan made a small motion with his hand to catch Adalie’s attention and then mouthed, “Should we go?”

                Adalie mouthed something back that was too long, complicated, and rapid for Olan to decipher, but he gathered that the answer was ultimately “no” because Adalie did not move from where she stood at the end of the booth.

                Blair came out of the kitchen with two handfuls of cookies in brown-paper sleeves. “OK, I just grabbed all of them, they’re pretty stale so you can just have them and leave, you don’t have to…” She trailed off. She and the masked boy exchanged a long, artificially empty look. “What’s going on?” asked Blair.

                “Well, uh, I’m robbing the place,” said the masked boy. “Give me everything from the cash register.” He did not raise the gun.

                “I don’t want any trouble,” said Blair, dropping the cookies on the counter. “Here, Adalie, just take these cookies and leave. There’s no reason for you and the starving guy to get mixed up in this.”

                “We’re not just going to leave you to get robbed by yourself,” said Adalie.

                “I’ll be fine,” said Blair. “I’m being paid to be here. This is part of the job. This robber probably wants you to leave. But he’s probably fine with you taking the cookies, which is all you wanted anyway.” She directed her gaze at the masked boy. “Right? You’d prefer that they leave?”

                “Uh, not necessarily,” said the masked boy. “They might call the cops.”

                “You can still go,” said Adalie. “You haven’t done anything wrong yet. You can just turn around and walk out.”

                “Well, but, I mean, I want the money in the register first,” said the masked boy. “That’s what I came for.”

                “You picked sort of a bad day to do this,” observed Olan. “There’s probably next to nothing in the till.”

                “We were busy at lunch,” said Blair. She sounded offended. “Busy-ish.”

                “Just give me whatever’s in the register and I’ll go,” said the masked boy. “I don’t care how much it is.”

                “What are you going to do if we don’t let you have the money?” asked Adalie.

                “There’s no ‘we,’” said Blair. “It’s my decision and I think it’s safest if I just give him the money.”

                “That’s smart,” said the masked boy. “Good decision.”

                “Is that a security camera?” asked Olan. He pointed at what certainly appeared to be some kind of camera in the corner of the ceiling over the counter.

Everyone looked at it except for Blair, who said, “Yes, it is, and that’s probably why he’s wearing the mask and plain-looking clothes.”

                “Seems logical,” said Olan. “But why is he using a fake gun?”

                Everyone was quiet for a few moments. The masked boy tried to hide the gun behind his back. “It’s not fake.”

                “Why would you try to conceal it if it’s not fake?” asked Olan. “Wouldn’t you want to let us see it better so we could see how real it is?”

                The mood in the room was becoming morose. “Blair,” said the masked boy. “This isn’t…”

                “How do you know her name?” asked Olan.

                “I’m wearing my nametag!” blurted Blair. She pointed at the place on her Newsworthy Burger shirt where she would have been wearing her nametag if she were actually wearing her nametag, which she was not, the realization of which made her blush.

                “You’re Blair’s boyfriend,” said Olan.

                “No one knows who he is,” said Blair. “He’s wearing a mask.” She said it how Olan had always imagined his teenage daughter would speak to him, which was one of many reasons he had chosen to become a wanderist rather than a father of a daughter.

                “Did you set this up to help settle the dead fish bet?” asked Olan. “Or were you just planning on splitting the money?”

                “Oh, wow,” said Adalie. “Now I get it.” Her small features blossomed with understanding.

                The teenagers said nothing. They looked at each other across the gulf between the front door and the counter and tried to combine their problem-solving powers from a distance, but the gulf was too wide. At some point, it became clear to the masked boy that he was not going to receive any transmissions from Blair, his girlfriend, so he turned on Olan and said, “How is any of this your business anyway? You’re not even from here.”

                “That’s true,” said Olan.

                “It’s Christmas,” said the masked boy. “Why are you in Newsworthy Burger on Christmas night? Why aren’t you with your family?”

                “I’m a wanderist,” said Olan.

                Behind his mask, the masked boy pondered this for a beat. “You’re trying to bait me into asking what the difference between a wanderist and a wanderer is. But I’m not gonna do it. I don’t care.”

                “That was not my intention,” said Olan. “In fact, explaining it bores me. Only in living it do I find fulfillment.”

                “He is starving to death, though,” said Adalie. “So neither of you kids should want to be like him when you grow up. I don’t want to be pulling you guys out of snowdrifts when I’m in my 40s or whatever.”

                The masked boy ignored Adalie’s object lesson. “Well, wanderist, you cracked the case. The gun’s not real, I know Blair’s name, and so on. What are you going to do about it?”

                “In all honesty, I regret becoming involved,” said Olan. He scooted to the end of the booth. “However, I feel better now, so I believe I’ll return to my wanderings.” He put one bare hand on the back of the booth and one on the top of the table. He pushed himself into a standing position, keeping the backs of his knees against the side of the seat for additional support.

                “Hold on,” said Adalie. “At least eat a little first.” She strode to the counter and selected a cookie.

As Adalie turned back toward Olan, he launched toward her from the booth, extending his hand to receive the chosen cookie, but as he did, he felt his brain turn to liquid in his head, his legs turn to cardboard, his stomach constrict to the size of a corn kernel. He passed out again and faceplanted on one of Newsworthy Burger’s surprisingly clean rugs, which was better than faceplanting on tile, but still bad for his face.


Olan’s senses returned to him after a series of fleeting impressions: hands lifting him, his sorry reflection floating toward him, the return of the cold, his feet bumping along salty, wet blacktop. “Where are we going?” He was in the back seat of Adalie’s car. So was the Newsworthy Burger employee, Blair. Adalie drove. There was a teenage boy in the front passenger’s seat. It took Olan a minute to realize that this was the masked boy without his mask. Olan could not get a good look at his face from the back seat, but the boy’s hair was a mess, drawn upward to the upholstery on the car’s roof by static electricity.

“We’re taking you to Hayes’s house,” said Adalie.

“Who’s Hayes?”

“I am,” said the teenage boy without turning around. He sounded irritable.

“Why are we going there?” asked Olan.

“You need food,” said Adalie. “And you probably have a concussion, so you need someone to watch you so you don’t fall asleep and die.”

Olan tried to absorb all this new information, but his figurative membranes were not porous enough; he asked no more questions. He was glad he had been unconscious for the argument that had turned these three strangers into a team dedicated to his survival. He was sure it had been tedious. Olan wondered how much money Hayes had ended up with, if any, or if the project of saving his life had derailed the heist completely.

Hayes’s house turned out to be Hayes’s parents’ house. Adalie and Hayes flanked Olan and hoisted him up the slippery driveway. Olan moved his feet to give the impression of doing his part. Blair opened the front door where they were met by Hayes’s father, a pot-bellied man in a red sweater who was sucking on one of those candy canes flavored something other than peppermint. The end of the candy cane almost poked Olan in the eye as he was transferred to Hayes’s father, who then helped Olan down a festive hallway to a kitchen where he was deposited in a chair at a table. Hayes’s mother appeared in the kitchen doorway and looked at Olan as if he were, well, the phrase that came to Olan’s mind was “a mute caroler.” Or was it “carolist?”

Hayes’s father put a plate of reheated Christmas dinner in front of Olan. The steam rose from the food and bathed Olan’s face. He felt watched and turned to see that he was being watched. Adalie, Blair, Hayes, and Hayse’s parents were positioned around the kitchen with their eyes pointed at him, unmoving, a concerned holiday tableau.

Olan turned the other way and saw a sliding glass door opening onto an unshoveled patio. The furniture on the patio was frosted with nearly a foot of snow. Far too much frosting. Next to the patio door was a fish tank. There was water in the fish tank. There was a toy school bus half buried in the colored gravel at the bottom of the tank, which seemed like a morbid choice. A light illuminated the tank. The fish, though, was gone. Dead under mysterious circumstances as of last night, perhaps flushed. Olan knew he should not derive any meaning from these observations. But what if something happened? What if he fell asleep and died here? What if the house collapsed or the earth opened up beneath it? What if he choked on this food or slipped in the graciously-offered shower and finally took a blow from which his head couldn’t bounce back?

Olan was overcome with the wrongness of his situation. This was not an appropriate destination, not for a wanderist. This was not wandering. This was not being a wanderist. This was letting the context dictate the action. How did he always slip back into passivity? Olan had been a full-time wanderist for three years, but he was constantly betraying his calling, and now he had done it again. He pushed the plate of food away from him and scooted his chair back from the table. No one moved as he staggered toward the patio door, fumbled with the lock, and slid it open. No one called out to him. He almost fell more than once as he crossed the patio, but by the time he saw the dead fish lying silver and ice-encrusted in the snow where it had been flung from the warmth of the doorway by someone who had probably not bothered to put on shoes, Olan was wandering again.

Discussion Questions

  • As a Christmas present to you and myself, you have no homework this month. Merry Christmas to all of us.