Cory always wanted to walk down the south side of Oak Street, even though he lived on the north side. He was tall and heavy and it seemed strange that he would be afraid of anything. Tommy knew it was because of the old, dilapidated house on the north side, but really, it wasn't very scary. He hadn't even noticed it much before this year. Short, wiry, red-haired Ryder didn't care one way or the other, so the three friends always went to and from the junior high school on the south side.
But Tuesday and Thursday afternoons Tommy walked home alone from baseball practice, which was mostly just conditioning in the fall. Then he deliberately walked down the north side, slowing in front of the old house. Behind the low picket fence the grass and weeds grew tall, with the odd wildflower or undefined lump hidden in the foliage. The fence itself had very little paint left on it and the gate hung crookedly open. But he liked to look at the yard, the only one on the block not fed, watered, mowed and edged to golf fairway status.
He never saw anyone there except on Saturday. He could see the old house from his bedroom window on the second floor of the two-story white Cape Cod house he lived in with his parents and sister. When the mailman delivered the mail, an old man would open the door and step shakily out on the porch to retrieve it. He undoubtedly picked it up every day, but Tommy was at school during the week.
Lights went on in the house in the evening, but the shades and blinds were always drawn so there wasn't anything to see except little bits of light around the edges of the windows, or a horizontal crack of light where a slat was broken or askew. The less Tommy could see, the more curious he became.
September passed quickly, and then October came and the weather turned too cold for outdoor calisthenics, so the baseball players were told to continue their exercises at home. The three boys walked together down the south side of the street again every school day. But Halloween was almost here, and Tommy really wanted to use it somehow to create an excuse to get closer to the old house and see what was inside. Surely there must be something inside to be seen, or why would the old man never open his blinds? What did he have in there--treasure, dead bodies?
On Halloween, Tommy dressed in his usual costume as a scary scarecrow in old, ripped clothes, his mother's straw gardening hat, and bits of straw shoved up his sleeves, pant legs, and under the hat. He used a package of cheap Halloween makeup to whiten his face and draw black areas around his eyes and a big, crooked red mouth across his lips and cheeks. Cory always dressed as a football player since he had a Bears jersey and wanted more than anything to be a lineman for his favorite team. Ryder was a vampire dressed in black jeans, tuxedo tee shirt, black plastic cape and plastic fangs.
They went around the neighborhood as the light faded. For candy, Cory didn't mind walking past the old house since the houses on either side usually had good treats. Tommy stopped them in front of it though.
"Hey, Cory," he said. "I dare you to go up and knock on the door."
Cory shook his head. "The porch light isn't on; we're not supposed to bother people if their porch light isn't on."
"Are you chicken?" Tommy challenged. Ryder shifted impatiently. They needed to keep moving if they were going to maximize their haul. At thirteen, this was probably their last year trick-or-treating. High school kids went to parties, not trick-or-treating with the little kids.
Cory retorted, "No. But if you think it's such a good idea, why don't you do it?"
That was what Tommy was hoping for--an excuse to go up to the house. "No, you're right, we shouldn't bother anyone without the porch light on, but just to show you I'm not scared, I'll go right up and look in the window."
Before either of the other boys could say anything, Tommy ran right through the gate to the house. He swerved over to a front window with a broken slat in the blind near the bottom, and peered in. But he couldn't see much, there was a pile of papers in the way. He moved to another window where the blind was off a little to one side and tried to see in along the edge. There were more stacks of paper blocking the view, but he was tall for his age and standing on tiptoe he could just see over the piles.
There was an old floor lamp behind the top of a stuffed armchair. Behind that was a bookcase filled with layers of books. Next to the chair were piles of what looked like old magazines, cardboard boxes, and lumpy plastic bags. Tommy backed away, disappointed.
He trotted back to his friends and motioned them on down the sidewalk.
"What was it? What was in there?" asked Cory.
"Nothing, just a bunch of junk. Let's hit the MacPherson's, they usually give away full-sized candy bars," Tommy replied.
When Tommy got home, his father took his bag of candy and rifled it, taking what he wanted. Jerry Graham was average height and significantly overweight, with dark eyes, lank brown hair and a small pug nose. He believed that since it was his house everything in it belonged to him, and the other members of his family should do what he told them.
But his son had learned long ago what to expect from his dad. All of Tommy's favorite kinds of candy were already crammed down in his pockets, so he didn't mind sharing the bulk of his treats. His older sister Jean and Mom would snack out of his bag too, but there was way more than he could eat anyway. He was glad he was lean like his mother, and had her green eyes and straight nose, although his hair was brown like his dad's rather than blond like his mother's.
The first big snowfall happened in late November. Six wet inches covered the neighborhood one Saturday morning. After breakfast his father got out the snow blower to do the drive while Tommy shoveled the porches and cleaned up what the blower missed. Most of the neighbors were out shoveling too.
When he finished, Tommy waved to Ryder two doors down from him, and they went across the street to help Cory with his driveway. His father didn't have a snow blower. What he had was a bad back and a big, strong son, so Cory usually shoveled alone until his friends came over.
When all three had cleaned all of their drives, they went out looking to make money. Mrs. Whitman always paid them to shovel for her, so they started there. They did two more houses after that, and then took a break.
By that time, most of the houses on the block were shoveled. The old house wasn't, but it didn't even have a driveway, just the sidewalk along the street outside the picket fence and one up to the front door. Cory and Ryder wanted to try over on Elm Street. Tommy let them go without him.
He felt a little guilty for spying on Halloween, and he knew voluntarily helping a neighbor for free was something his father would never do. Tommy didn't like his father very much, and didn't want to be like him. He trudged over to the old house and started shoveling.
When he'd cleared the walkways he finished up at the front porch and stood his shovel up in one of the snow piles he'd just created. Tommy looked for a doorbell but didn't see one, so he knocked. The sound was deadened by his gloves, so he waited a few seconds and knocked again louder.
He heard movement inside, and then the door creaked open. The old man was there.
"Um, hi, I'm Tommy and I shoveled your walk for you."
The old man peered around him at the walk and then said, "Oh, well, that's very nice of you. But I can't afford to pay you anything, I haven't very much money. I could give you some hot chocolate though; my brother makes the best hot chocolate anywhere. Would you like to come in?"
Tommy didn't hesitate. The guy was obviously harmless, and he was still a little curious about the house. "Sure, hot chocolate sounds great."
The old man opened the screen door and Tommy wiped his feet on the worn welcome mat and followed him inside. He was led down a narrow path through mountains of clutter. He had to maneuver carefully to avoid bumping into the piles, but finally reached a kitchen that was mostly free of it and looked clean. There was a second old man seated at a small table covered with cracked green oilcloth with four old wooden chairs around it. The boy looked back and forth between them; they looked very much alike.
"Are you twins?" he asked.
Both chuckled. "No," said the one who'd opened the door. "We're brothers; Jesse there is three years older than me. I'm Albert. Jesse, this is Tommy. He shoveled our walks for us, and I promised him some of your famous hot chocolate."
Jesse rose slowly from the table and said, "Well, it sounds like he earned it. It'll be just a bit." He got out a dented saucepan, poured in some milk, and lit a burner on the old gas stove with a match.
"Have a seat, young man," Albert said, and sat down himself. "You live around here?"
"Yes sir, just up the block," Tommy replied, trying to be polite. His parents never invited anyone over, his father didn't like entertaining, so he was a little vague on how a guest should act.
"Well, it's nice to meet you. We don't get visitors much, although we used to know lots of folks around here. They're mostly all gone now."
Tommy nodded and decided to ask what he wanted to know, even though it might not be exactly polite. "How come you have so much stuff?"
Jesse came over with three steaming mismatched mugs and sat down. Neither of he brothers answered for a moment and then Jesse said, "Long time ago I used to be a printer, and I like the old newspapers and magazines."
Tommy sipped his drink. It really was very good, dark with chocolate and rich with spices and marshmallows. But he really didn't believe the old man. He thought Jesse wasn't quite telling the truth somehow.
He noticed Albert and Jesse exchange a look. The Albert said, "Would you like to look around? We don't mind, just take care. Don't touch the stacks, some of them aren't very stable, and if one were to fall . . . well, that old paper can be quite heavy, it could be dangerous."
Tommy downed his last swallow and stood up. "I'd like that. It looks like you have a lot of interesting things here." In truth, it looked like a lot of junk to him, but then sometimes old junk was valuable.
He wandered back through the living room, found a small room off to the side with no furniture, just stacks of boxes and papers nearly to the ceiling with a narrow tunnel through it. He accidently brushed one stack and felt it shift a little, but it didn't fall. Tommy carefully backed out.
There was a bathroom with magazines stacked in the corners and two bedrooms. The bedrooms weren't as bad as the rest o the house, there remained room on the beds to lie down and dresser drawers that could be opened, although the tops of the dressers were full and there were stacks lining the walls.
In the corner of one bedroom was a door. Tommy thought it was a closet, and wondered if all the trash was out in the open, what would the old men store in a closet? He opened the door and was surprised to find just a neat row of clothing hanging to the right side with shoes lined up underneath. To the left was another door with a round, shiny brass knob.
The boy looked at that doubtfully and backed out. There was a window with a couple of inches along the edge unblocked that faced out where the door would lead. Peeking out, he could see it was just snowy yard there.
It didn't make sense. Why would there be a door to the outside in a closet? Tommy went back in and looked at the doorknob again. There was no lock on it either. Very odd.
He touched it hesitantly, then grasped it, turned the knob, and opened the door, expecting to be hit with a blast of cold air and see the back yard. It wasn't like that at all.
Inside was a huge room with a dark wooden floor. There were windows with sunlight streaming through on the left, and furniture placed haphazardly throughout the room. Dressers, chests, cabinets of all kinds with big drawers, little drawers, and various kinds of doors were everywhere, but the room was so large it didn't seem at all cluttered. There were no cardboard boxes, plastic bags, or loose newspapers or magazines anywhere in sight.
Tommy stood in the doorway. He knew the room shouldn't be there, couldn't be there, yet there it was. He looked back. The closet and the bedroom remained unchanged behind him. His curiosity rose up again and he walked forward, leaving the door open behind him. The old guys must know this was here; they'd lived in the house for a long time, hadn't they?
He wandered through, not touching anything. The room was actually a fat "L" shape, and when he rounded the corner he saw an area that was very much like a normal house. There was a couch and some matching chairs and tables, and a big screen TV. Past that was a nice dining set for six, and then a kitchen with modern appliances. Down a hall off the dining area were two bedrooms with queen-sized beds that shared a bathroom with a double sink, shower, and hot tub. It was like someone dropped a large, very nice house right into the ramshackle old place the brothers lived in. It was really much nicer than Tommy's own house.
But it couldn't actually be there. He must be dreaming, maybe he fell asleep while he was sitting in the kitchen. That could happen, couldn't it? Or maybe the brothers drugged his hot chocolate and he was hallucinating all this. But it seemed real.
Tommy walked back toward the closet where he'd come in. He noticed off to the side a chest that looked just like a pirate's treasure chest from a movie he liked. He had to look in that, didn't he?
It wasn't locked either. The boy knelt before it and lifted the lid, but it wasn't filled with pieces of eight or jewels. There were stacks of photo-type albums on the left side, and blue coin folders on the right. Tommy picked up the top album, expecting to find old pictures of Albert and Jesse.
But it was filled with plastic sheets of baseball cards. Tommy loved baseball cards and he gasped when he saw that these were the very oldest cards, and all in perfect condition. There was page after page of rare, valuable card, and the next album was more of the same, and so were the bottom two.
He reverently replaced the albums. The coin folders were similar. There were colonial coins, three-cent, half-cent, Indian heads, half-dimes, every U.S. coin through the newest silver dollars, and on the bottom were gold coins. Like the baseball cards, the coins looked like they had just been minted. But they weren't fakes; they were heavy, and very real.
Tommy put everything back as he'd found it. Now he was even more confused. That one chest alone was worth a fortune. The brothers should be millionaires, but they were living in squalor, and couldn't afford to pay him to shovel the walk. He must be dreaming or something.
He randomly opened an armoire, expecting to see old clothes. Instead, in the back there was a rack of old black-powder guns in perfect condition, with swords mounted on the sides of the cabinet. Tommy just closed it. He didn't want to see any more. What if he opened a drawer and found the crown jewels of England or something? He nearly ran from the room, back toward the closet.
And then he actually saw what was outside the room through the sunny windows--green grass, flower beds in full bloom, trees with their leaves gently swaying in a breeze, blue sky and puffy little white clouds. Outside this room it was summer.
The boy was scared now. What was happening to him? He swallowed once and moved slowly toward the door, watching the scene outside, but it remained unchanged. For a moment he thought the door had disappeared too, but no, there it was, still open. He hurried through, closing it behind him, and the closet door, too.
"Jesse! Albert!" he called, and ran to the bedroom door, and then stopped. He couldn't run through the maze of paper towers, he had to go slow. But he heard footsteps coming toward him and waited.
Both brothers appeared. "What is it?" Albert asked. Jesse added, "Did you find something interesting?"
"Interesting?" Tommy nearly shouted. "There's a whole room . . . a bunch of rooms, full of . . . in the closet . . . but . . ."
Albert put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "So the house showed you that, did it? Come back and sit in the kitchen with us, we'll tell you about it."
"But it can't be there," Tommy whispered.
"Oh, we know," Jesse said, leading the way back to the kitchen. "But it kinda is, isn't it."
They went in silence the rest of the way. Jesse offered more hot chocolate, but Tommy just shook his head. He couldn't sit sipping hot chocolate when that . . . that. . .
The younger brother spoke. "First, did you take anything from the room?"
"N . . . no. I wanted . . . there was . . ."
"It's okay boy, slow down," Jesse said.
"The house doesn't like things to be taken away from there," Albert said calmly. "It puts those things there for us to enjoy, but they belong to the house. What did you find?"
Tommy was a little calmer. "There were baseball cards, all the old ones I wish I had for my collection, and coins. I just have a little penny collection, lots of blanks in my folders still, but there was a pirate's chest and all the coins and cards were in there. How can a house own things? It's not alive, is it?"
Albert said, "We don't really know. But the house likes you, or you wouldn't have found the room. Most people can't."
"I suppose it's starting to think in terms of replacements," Jesse said to his brother, softly.
Tommy didn't like the sound of that. "I think I need to go home."
"All right," Albert agreed. "Don't mention the room though. Other people won't understand, and it won't be there if they look for it."
"They'll think you're nuttier than a fruitcake," Jesse added with a chuckle. "Believe me, we know. Albert thought I'd lost my mind when he first moved in and I told him, and he's my brother."
"Yep, the old place didn't let me see it for nearly a year. I guess it gave up hiding it when I didn't go away. Now it has lots of things for both of us. A big TV for me, and I can watch anything I want whenever I want."
"And an old console radio that gets all the stations from everywhere for me, and I listen to all the old shows I remember from when I was a kid," added Jesse.
"Okay," said Tommy, putting on his coat. Maybe they were all crazy, he didn't know, but he really wanted to leave.
"And that's why we keep all the old papers," Jesse said. Tommy stopped getting ready to leave, and asked, "Why?"
"The house," Albert said, "It likes those things. It knows everything in them, as long as they stay here."
"We keep it happy, it keeps us happy," his brother added. "It's getting a bit crowded in here, but we can always go into the other place when we want."
"Oh," was all Tommy could think to say. He started for the front door, the old brothers following him.
"Well, come back anytime," Albert said at the door. From behind him Jesse added, "The house likes you, so we know you're a good person. Just drop in, at least one of us is always here."
The boy hunched into his coat, hurrying home. He was late; his folks would be looking for him. But his mind kept going back to that room. Was it trying to lure him with things that he wanted? Stupid room, got it wrong anyway about the coins. Baseball cards, yes, but the coins he just saved hoping that by the time he went to college he would have something he could cash in. Hopefully he would get a baseball scholarship since he knew his parents would never be able to afford it, but he would still need some money.
Tommy put away his shovel and went in the back door as quietly as he could. But by the time he'd taken off his winter coat, hat, and gloves and made it to the stairs, his dad was waiting for him with his hand out.
"You've been gone long enough, must have made a lot. Hand it over."
Tommy reluctantly pulled the wad of crumpled bills from his pocket. Usually he split it into two pockets and only gave his father part of his earnings, but he'd been distracted thinking about the brothers and their house and forgotten. There went all his hard work.
It wasn't fair. Jean got to keep the money she made running a register at the supermarket. She had her own car, and she'd be graduating from high school in May and get to move out to her own apartment. Of course her check went straight to the bank so it wasn't right there in front of Dad's nose, but Mom stood up for her. She would say, "Leave her alone, she's almost grown and needs good clothes and a chance to go out. You want grandchildren, don't you?" And Dad would go off grumbling about how he was paying for everything and nobody gave him anything. But Mom never said anything when he took Tommy's money.
When he complained to her privately, she just said, "You live here, you can contribute. Jean used to when she was your age."
Tommy went to his own closet and pulled out his coins. No magic door there and collection looked even more pitiful after what he'd seen in the brothers' house. He put it away and did some of his homework. He needed to keep his grades up in case the baseball scholarship thing didn't happen. He just had to move out as soon as he could, and college would be a great escape. He could work in the summer, maybe even stay where he was going to school and just come back home for a short visit now and then. He'd have his own car like Jean, and he could do whatever he wanted.
By Monday he'd pushed the memory of the room to the back of his mind and went to school with Cory and Ryder just like he always did. Tommy wasn't entirely sure he wanted to go back to see that room again anyway. What if it was some sort of lure and he got trapped there? He didn't want to spend his life piling up papers in some musty old house and never get to go anywhere or do anything.
As the weeks went by, Tommy thought less and less about the brothers. Spring was coming and baseball practice was starting again. He was too busy to spend time listening to two old guys talking about some fantasy. He must have gotten turned around in the house, there was just a back part that they hadn't junked up, that was all, and what he'd seen were modern reproductions of old card and coins. That must be it.
The blow up came at dinner on a Tuesday. It was just the three of them; Jean was eating at her girlfriend's house. His father said, "Tommy, you're thirteen, it's time you learned some responsibility. You're going to get a job for after school and on Saturday."
"I can't, I'll have practice nearly every day, and the games are on Saturday."
"That baseball crap is kid stuff, stop dreaming. It's time to face reality. I told Jean to talk to her manager at the supermarket, and they can use a box boy. You start next Monday, no arguments."
"No! I'm a kid, I'm not supposed to work, that's your job. Besides, I could get a college scholarship playing ball and save you a lot of money."
"What did you say?" Dad asked, a dangerous note in his voice.
"I'm not going to be a box boy. Besides you have to be fourteen for that."
"You're a big kid, you can pass for fourteen and your sister already took care of it. You be at the supermarket at four o'clock on Monday ready to work, or else."
"Or else what?" Tommy demanded.
Dad's hand lashed out and Tommy found himself on the floor, his face stinging. Jerry hissed, "This is my house, and don't you ever forget it again. If you want to sleep here and eat my food, you do as I say. No more supper, go to your room."
Tommy got up slowly, holding his cheek. Mom had her head down and didn't say anything. The boy walked slowly, and paused out of sight on the stairs. He could hear his parents talking in hushed tones.
"Jerry, you shouldn't have hit him."
"I know, but he has to start growing up. And we need the money."
"Couldn't you get more hours? Or I could get a job."
"No. I would be ashamed if my wife had to work because I couldn't support my family. I've asked for more hours, but you know how it is. And Jean was already earning by babysitting at twelve. I won't have a lazy kid."
"He's not lazy, he's just younger for his age than Jean was at thirteen. Does he really have to grow up so fast?"
"He can't be your baby forever. He needs responsibility. End of discussion."
Tommy took the rest of the stairs two at a time. So his father had already decided on his future. He should just go to work, forget about an education, and work low-paying jobs like Dad the rest of his life. Well, he wasn't going to. He didn't know what he was going to do, but there had to be a way out, there just had to be.
He thought about the room. It had to be real, it had to be magic, and he needed magic right now. Maybe living in a place with a magic room that gave you everything you wanted wouldn't be so bad. Of course then he couldn't be a baseball player or travel around, and he'd have to keep stuffing the old house with newspapers. So maybe it wasn't so good, either. But he could give it another chance, find out more about how it worked.
The next day at school he told Cory and Ryder he had to do something after, so he wouldn't be walking home with them. Tommy dawdled in the bathroom until they were gone, and then went to the old brothers' house and knocked on the door.
Albert answered it and looked a little surprised to see him. "Haven't seen you in a long time, Tommy. We thought maybe you were a little scared of the house or something."
"No, I'm not scared, I've just been busy. Can I come in?"
"Sure, come on in. It's cool today, but still a little warm for hot chocolate. Would you like some lemonade?"
"Yeah. And I want to ask you some questions. Would that be okay?" the boy asked as they wended their way through the stacks of paper.
"You can ask whatever you want. Might or might not answer, though."
In the kitchen, Tommy took off his backpack and sat down. Jesse fetched the lemonade and the three of them sipped it at the kitchen table. Tommy asked, "What about food? Does the house give you turkey and steak and ice cream and things lik?"
Jesse laughed. "No, it doesn't quite understand food. It tried a couple of times, but it was all show, no taste. The water is good, but that's it."
"So you have to buy food and pay utilities, but that's all?"
"And taxes and insurance, transportation, medicine, doctor visits an so forth."
"Oh. So you still have to have money to live here."
"Some. We both have pensions so we're fine," Albert said, looking at Tommy closely. "Did you have something in mind?"
"No . . . it's just, my dad is making me get a job so I won't be able to play ball any more, and I was hoping I could get a baseball scholarship at least, maybe play pro ball. So I don't know what I'm going to do."
"Your folks need the money so bad?"
"Sort of. But it's also about me growing up and being responsible. I thought working toward a college scholarship was being responsible, but my dad doesn't see it that way."
Jesse spoke up. "Your folks know more than you do, Tommy, they've lived longer. You got to trust them. I'm sure they want what's best for you."
"Maybe," Tommy grudgingly agreed. "But mostly my dad seems to want what's best for himself, and Mom doesn't ever argue with him, she just goes along."
The old brothers didn't know what to day to that. Finally Albert said, "Well, you can come by here whenever you want. We're not your folks, but we'll always listen."
"Yup," Jesse said, "We can do that anyway."
Tommy looked off in the direction of the room. "If only I had some money of my own, enough to satisfy Dad and put me through college too, then he wouldn't care much about me working and I could concentrate on baseball."
"Son, the house don't like for things to go out of it, especially out of the room," Jesse warned.
"I know. But can I look at it again?"
Jesse hesitated, but Albert said, "Sure, go ahead. As long as the house is willing to let you in, you can go look.
Tommy walked quickly to the bedroom and opened the closet. The door to the room was there and he opened it and went in. This time he opened more of the drawers, finding all sorts of old things Some of them he recognized as things people collected like stamps, other objects he didn't know about like the old-fashioned toys he found. He supposed they were things Jesse and Albert remembered from their childhoods, but he didn't know if they were valuable and didn't really care.
He saved the pirate chest for last. The boy looked longingly at the gold coins. One folder would be worth the most money of anything in the chest, but there was no way he could explain how he got them, except by stealing. The baseball cards were a different story. He traded cards and bought cards from other kids, he could always say he got them from a kid but he didn't know the kid's name, so no one could ever prove differently.
Tommy hesitated. He didn't want to steal, he didn't want the house to be mad at him and he knew Jesse and Albert would be disappointed if he took them. He liked the old brothers and thought they liked him, too. But just one page would make such a huge difference in his life. One page, nine cards on each side, would be worth thousands of dollars. He could make a deal with his father to sell a card from his collection and split the money, and if it was over a certain amount then he wouldn't have to work. At least not yet, not until he was older. His dad would go along with it, believing his son didn't have anything worth nearly that much and the bargain wouldn't change anything.
Tommy whispered, "I'm sorry, I have to do this." Then he opened the album and picked out the page he wanted. He took it out of the book and slid it under his shirt into his waistband. With the light jacket he was wearing, it was invisible. He closed the album and put it back in the chest.
He went out of the room, and back to the kitchen. He had to get his backpack. In the kitchen, Albert was at the table while Jesse was washing their glasses. Tommy picked up his backpack, careful not to bend too much in case a corner of the plastic page showed its shape under his clothes and said, "I've got to get home, my folks will be wondering where I am."
Albert replied, "Why sure, you get along then."
Jesse finished at the sink and asked, "Did you find anything else in the room?"
"Just a bunch of old toys. Bye now." Tommy didn't wait for a reply but worked his way carefully through the piles of clutter. It was a little harder to hurry with the backpack, but he made it through okay and out the front door. Outside he trotted the rest of the way home and went straight up to his room.
He closed the door behind him, dumped his backpack and jacket down on the bed, and pulled out the plastic sheet from under his shirt. He'd been half afraid that the cards would be gone, or aged, or something, but they were still there just as perfect as they had been in the room. He put the page in the box with the rest of his collection with a huge sigh of relief.
That night at dinner he set the bargain with his father. If Tommy could sell enough cards to make a thousand dollars, he could keep half the money for college and not have to work until he turned fourteen at the end of summer. He could see his father was sure that there was no chance his son could make that much on baseball cards by the way he laughed at the idea; but he agreed.
Tommy enlisted Jean to help him after school the next day. He sorted out one of his best cards and picked one out from the house to sell. On line it was worth double what he would try to get for it, so he should net enough to satisfy his father. He would have to get it verified and the owner of the store he would go to was qualified to do that.
Jean drove him to the store and waited while Tommy had his cards officially verified as being originals and dickered with the owner. He ended up getting $1,200. It was a shame to sacrifice them for so little, but in the future he would just get other cards verified at the store and pay the fee for that service. Then he could sell them on line for full value. This time he needed the money fast.
His sister took him to the bank and helped Tommy open a savings account and rent a safe deposit box. No way was he leaving the special cards where his dad could get them while he was at school. He deposited half the money and put all the cards from the house and the best ones from his own collection in the safe deposit box.
He still had some cards at home that he could use for trades with other kids, but now the valuable cards were out of reach to anyone but himself and Jean, and he trusted her. Besides, she didn't care about baseball cards at all, no matter how valuable.
At dinner, Tommy produced six hundred-dollar bills and handed them to his father. "I don't have to work now, right?" he asked.
Jerry was shocked at first, but then questioned his son about the sale and his baseball card collection. Tommy could tell he wanted more money from it, and wasn't pleased when he learned most of the collection was now in a safe deposit box out of his reach. He finally turned to Jean for confirmation of Tommy's story.
Jean said sweetly, "Oh yes, I helped Tommy keep everything safe and get his money and valuable cards into the bank. That was the wise thing to do, wasn't it? He's quite the little entrepreneur, isn't he? I already told my manager that Tommy wouldn't be coming to work now, but maybe in the summer."
Tommy could see his dad slowly accept that he wouldn't be getting his hands on Tommy's collection or his half of the profits, especially when Mom agreed, "I'm so glad you put everything in the bank. Having something so valuable in the house would make me nervous."
His dad might pressure him again later, but now he had time to get more cards verified and sell them at full price whenever he needed to so he wouldn't be forced to give up his dream.
He was in a good mood the following Monday after practice. He was walking down Oak Street when he saw a lot of vehicles parked ahead, right about where the old house was. What was going on? Tommy picked up his pace.
When he got closer he saw there was an ambulance, police car, and a car with no markings parked in front and across the street. Alarmed, he tried to approach the house but a uniformed officer waved him off.
Tommy stopped and asked, "What happened? Is somebody hurt?"
"There's been an accident," the officer replied. "Move along now."
The boy started slowly walking backwards down the street, but stopped a house away. The policeman didn't seem to care, so he just stood there. After a while the front door opened and the EMTs came out with a stretcher. There was somebody on it, but he was completely covered with a blanket. Tommy was shocked; he knew what that meant, he watched television.
Another police officer and two civilians came around the side of the house with Albert in the middle of them. He had a blanket around his shoulders and seemed to be listening to the men and one woman on either side of him talk and gesture at him. Tommy saw his old friend shake his head a couple of times. The ambulance pulled out without lights or siren. Eventually the officers got into their squad car and drove off too.
The man and woman continued to talk to Albert for a few minutes until he went back in the house and the two left. Tommy wasn't sure what to do. Finally he decided this wasn't a good time to bother Albert and went home.
But the next day the incident preyed on his mind, and he just had to talk to Albert. After practice he ran most of the way to Oak Street and knocked on the door of the old house.
It took longer than usual, but Albert finally opened the door.
"Albert? Is Jesse okay?" Tommy asked, already pretty sure of the answer.
"No, he's not. Why don't you come in. You want lemonade?"
Tommy followed Albert inside. "No, thanks, just . . . what happened?"
Albert stopped and gestured to the side. Where there previously had been a path to the living room armchair through neatly stacked papers was just a mound of jumbled papers and magazines, some torn, wrinkled, and dirty.
The old man took a minute to get himself under control. Then he said, "Jesse was having some trouble with his balance. He was always so careful, but I guess he must have staggered or lurched a bit into the piles too hard and they fell on him. Ambulance man said it knocked him out, maybe killed him outright or maybe he suffocated. I tried to get to him, but I just wasn't fast enough, strong enough. I begged the house, but, well, it never does nothin' out here, just in the room."
"I'm so sorry, Albert."
"Me too. And now these other folks tell me I have to clear everything out of here or they'll take me away for my own safety. Come on in the kitchen so we can sit down."
Tommy sat at the table while Albert poured two glasses of lemonade. The boy didn't feel like drinking lemonade right then, but Albert either hadn't heard him say he didn't want any or was just too preoccupied to pay much attention. Tommy sipped at it, wondering if his theft of the baseball cards had anything to do with Jesse's death. He didn't believe the house couldn't have done something to help, it absorbed the information out of the papers and magazines throughout the house, so it must have some awareness in the living room.
"What are you going to do?" he asked Albert.
The old man shook his head. "I don't know. They told me how nice the place was they would take me, but I know better. I haven't got much money and those kind of places cost a fortune, at least the nice ones do. It would be some state institution and I don't want to go there. I want to stay in my house."
"If you got rid of all the papers and magazines . . ."
"I don't reckon the room would be there anymore. The house would be unhappy, you see, and take everything away. And then I would be left here with just an old ramshackle house, no TV or old radio, no comfortable furniture even. It wouldn't be a good life, all alone with nothing to do."
Tommy drank some more lemonade. There didn't seem to be any good solution for Albert, and Jesse had been killed. And maybe it was all his fault.
"Albert?" Tommy started crying. "I did something bad. I was thinking about myself, just myself, and I took some baseball cards from the room. I'm sorry, I didn't know the house would take it out on Jesse. I never meant for anybody to get hurt."
"Oh." There was a long pause while the boy wept quietly and Albert thought about what he'd said. Then the old man said, "You shouldn't have done that, but I don't believe it had anything to do with what happened to Jesse. Jesse lived here most of his life, the house liked him best, you know. It would never have hurt him for anything. There now, don't cry, Tommy."
Tommy wiped his face on his jacket sleeve and sniffled a couple of times. "I'm sorry, Albert. I sold one of the cards, but I'll bring the rest back, and I can add some from my own collection to make up for it. My cards aren't worth as much, but there would be more cards and maybe the house would like that."
"Why'd you take them?" Albert asked gently.
"I wanted to play ball, and the cards are worth a lot, so I sold one and gave my dad half the money. Then he didn't care if I worked or not so I had time to play baseball. I want to be a professional baseball player, but it isn't worth what happened. If I had known what would happen I wouldn't have taken the cards, I swear. It was just stupid and selfish of me, and I'm so sorry."
There was a long quiet pause while Albert thought about Tommy's words. Finally he said, "Fellow should have a chance at his dreams, Tommy. Taking the cards was wrong, but it's done and I think you should keep them."
"But won't the house be mad?"
"I would have thought so, but Jesse and I never noticed anything different after you took them, so maybe it doesn't care so much after all."
"You're sure that it didn't . . ."
"Like I said, the house wouldn't hurt Jesse if it was mad at you. Tell you what, let's go see if the room is there."
But the closet just had clothes in it, no door that led somewhere that didn't exist. Tommy was disappointed, but he understood. Maybe the house would never let him in the room again, and in that case he deserved it for breaking the rules. Albert just shrugged.
"Don't take it too hard. It's not always there for me, either. Without Jesse here, well, the room may never show up again. I just don't know, I don't understand the house the way my brother did." They went back to the kitchen.
"Albert, what are you going to do?"
"Don't know yet. They gave me thirty days to decide, so I'm going to think on it. I suppose you better get on home before you worry your folks."
"Okay. I'll come back later in the week. Thanks for the cards, Albert. It means a lot to me."
"That's fine, Tommy. I'm glad I could do something for a nice young fellow like you."
"You'll be okay here by yourself?"
"Oh sure, been taking care of myself for a long time now."
When Tommy stopped by two days later, no one answered his knock. He went away disappointed, but not overly worried. Albert would have to go out sometimes to get groceries and stuff, so there was no reason he should always be there.
The boy tried a couple of times the following week, but no one answered the door. He asked his mom if she had heard anything about Albert, but all she knew was what had been in the newspaper about Jesse's death.
Then the following week Tommy came down the street to find a big moving van out in front and men going in and out with dollies of paper. He ran into the open front door and asked one of them where Albert was. The man shrugged and said, "Nobody here. We just got the key and the order to clear out the trash."
Tommy went through all the rooms and checked the closet. No Albert, no magic room, but there were still clothes and shoes in the closet. Maybe Albert had decided it was better to live in the house even though it was mostly empty than go live in an old people's home, but didn't want to be there when everything was taken. That seemed reasonable, and he hoped that was what was happening rather than Albert going to live in some dumpy place where Tommy couldn't visit him.
He went back again a couple of days later. The mailbox was full of mail. No one answered the door, but he could peer through the broken blind and see the living room. The paper was gone, all that was left was a few pieces of old furniture. Where could Albert be?
The boy went around to the back. The screen door wasn't locked but the inner door was. Tommy knocked, then pounded on the door.
This was wrong. Albert shouldn't just disappear, he should be there. All the old paper and junk had been cleaned out; they wouldn't make him move anyway, would they? That wouldn't be fair.
Tommy felt he just had to get into the house. There must be a clue, a note, something that would tell him what happened. The door had nine little window panes in it and he could see into the kitchen, but there weren't any clues visible. He picked up a rock and broke the small pane of glass nearest the lock, knocked out the loose glass, put his hand through and unlocked the door.
Inside it was dim and still.
"Albert?" he called out. But there was no answer. Tommy walked around the house, looking for his old friend, half afraid to find that he had died too. But everything was in its proper place, and there was no sign of Albert. Tommy went back to the kitchen and checked in the refrigerator. There was a little bit of food there, but it was old and going bad.
He was a little afraid to look for the room. What if it wasn't there again? But maybe it was, and maybe Albert was inside watching TV or something. Tommy went to the bedroom and opened the closet door.
Half the clothes and shoes in the closet were gone, but the door with the shiny brass knob was there. Tommy reached out slowly, afraid it would disappear, but it didn't and he turned the knob and went in.
The room was different. It wasn't as big, and the part with all the chests and dressers was half empty. It mostly just looked like a nice house, and Albert was sitting on the couch snacking on chips and watching television. When he saw Tommy, he picked up the remote and switched it off.
"Hi, Albert. I keep coming by but you never seem to be here. I knocked and nobody answered. I'm sorry, I broke a pane in the back door to get in, I was worried you were sick or hurt or something."
"It's all right, I decided not to use that part of the house anymore since the house is fine with me living in this part."
"But you still have to get groceries and pay bills and stuff like that, right?"
"I bought a lot of different food and brought it all in here. It won't last forever, but the house seems to be copying it pretty good. I take this bag of chips out of the cupboard and eat them, and the next day the exact same bag of chips is there again."
"There's a lot of mail in the mailbox. There must be bills and stuff. Won't they shut off the water and power if you don't pay them?"
Albert patted the couch next to him. "Come and sit down and we'll have a little talk."
Tommy did, tossing his backpack down next to him. "Albert, are you okay?"
"I am. This part of the house doesn't run like the rest of it does. Here, I don't need anything from the outside. It's nice here, you know?"
The boy nodded. "But if there's nobody living in the other part, won't they knock it down or sell it or something? If somebody else is living in it, you can't just walk out of their closet someday."
"Tommy, it doesn't matter. You're about the only one I think I'll miss from out there, and I'll be sorry not to see you anymore. This will have to be your last visit."
"You're just going to hide in here forever?"
"Not forever." Albert stood up. "Come with me." He led the boy over by the windows. Like always, the grass was green flowers were blooming, and the sun was shining. But Tommy saw one thing that was different. Under one of the trees was a bench, and there was someone sitting on it; someone he thought he recognized, but who couldn't be there.
Albert waved to him through the window and Jesse waved back. Tommy half-heartedly lifted a hand, but was too stunned to do more.
Albert said softly, "You see, Jesse and me are together again. He can come inside here to this part of the house, but he spends most of the day out there. I can't go out; there's no door from this side. At least, not yet."
"But he's . . ."
"Sure, and I will be soon, too. I'm old, and I have nothing to stay in the world for. It's beautiful out there and comfortable in here. Jesse doesn't have arthritis any more. He can be whatever age he wants, and anything he wishes for he gets. It's a whole different world out there he tells me, but he stays close. He's waiting for me, you see."
Tommy went back and dropped down on the couch again. He felt like he was going to cry, but he didn't know why. Jesse was okay, and Albert was okay too, sort of.
"I . . . I'll miss you, both of you. How long . . .?"
"I don't know," Albert said as he came over and sat back down too. "That's not under my control. But I don't think the room is going to be attached to the house any more after this. It just stayed so you can say good bye."
Tommy leaned over and hugged him. A shadow fell across them, and the boy looked up to see Jesse standing inside the room by the windows. He looked like he always had, except he stood straighter and moved more easily than Tommy had ever seen.
Jesse said, "Do I get a hug too?"
Tommy stood and moved forward hesitantly. Jesse held out his arms and said, "It's still just me, Tommy, nothing to be afraid of."
The boy threw himself into the older man's arms and hugged him tight. He was right, he was still just Jesse. Then Tommy stepped back.
In a timid voice, the boy said, "Maybe I could stay here with you."
"No," said Albert. Jesse added, "You have a lot of living to do yet. Heck, you'll hardly even remember us when you're our age."
Albert continued, "You'll have lots of friends, Tommy, you don't need us."
Tommy protested, "But Jean will be moving out soon, and then it'll just be me and my parents."
"You won't be living with them for so very many more years. And you have Cory and Ryder, and if you look around, there are lots of folks who need friends," Jesse said.
"Sure," added Albert, "Just look for the kids who eat lunch alone, look for the old folks that nobody visits. They'll all be your friends; all you have to do is shovel their walk or sit down next to them at lunch, or just start by saying 'Hello'."
"And you might find you like your folks more when you don't live with them anymore and you're all adults," Jesse said.
"I don't know about that," Tommy replied, "But I guess you're right about making friends. I can do that. I'll miss you both, though, a lot."
Jesse smiled. "You're going to be more than all right, boy, I promise. I sort of know some things now. You're a nice fella' and smart enough to do just fine. Now it's time for you to go home."
"Okay," Tommy said, and picked up his backpack. "I guess there's no point in my coming back?"
Albert shook his head. Tommy gave them half a wave and went to the door. He opened it and took one last look at his friends, who both smiled and waved back. The boy went through the door and closed it. He walked out of the closet and looked back. The door with the shiny brass knob was gone.