The rusted train screeched to a stop as it reached the end of the railroad tracks, causing everyone aboard to groan in annoyance. The train made a horrible sound as the conductor pressed on the break, an ear piercing sccccrrrEEECHHHH. All the passengers covered the ears, including one curious little boy. He covered his ears with both hands, pressing hard, and looked at the people around him with probing glances. He wore a scruffy shirt with dirt scattered amongst it and matching dirt covered trousers. His mousy brown hair was hidden inside his ball cap, but a few curly locks had managed to escape.
When the train came to a complete stop and passengers removed their hands from their ears with irritated expressions, the young boy turned to the man seated beside him. “Papa, why are we coming home so soon? Europe was so much more excitin’ than North Carolina.”
His father followed the other passengers with his eyes, knee bobbing up and down impatiently. “Because, son, your mama and sisters are here. It’s time we go back to them; your mama ain’t happy we left.”
The boy bit the inside of his cheek. “Why did we leave, then?”
His father did not hear him, he was already up and out of his seat, heading towards the train doors. “Come on, Lawrence!” he yelled over his shoulder. Lawrence snatched his backpack off the ground and hurriedly followed his father.
The town was bustling around them when they stepped off the train, people travelling from one market stand to the other gathering vegetables and bread for their dinner. Lawrence had always had a certain wonder about the markets. While they were in Europe, the markets always contained wondrous artifacts.
As they continued walking, one market in particular caught his curious eye. “Papa, look!” Lawrence yanked his father’s sleeve and dragged him towards the stand. There was a leather-bound book with crinkled pages and a peeled back cover. “Papa, I want to see that book. It could make a fine addition to my collection.” Lawrence’s eyes sparkled as he reached out to stroke it.
“Boy, don’t touch that.” His father yanked his hand back, scowling. “You don’t need another useless knick-knack. Your mama ain’t gonna be happy if you come home with something like that.”
Lawrence nodded sheepishly, turning back to the road with his father, when a gruff clearing of the throat stopped him in his path. “Is that so?” the voice asked. They turned back to the stand to see an elderly man—shining white hair, wrinkling skin, and bony hands clutching a wooden cane in one hand and the leather-bound book in the other. “Is your father aware what kind of book this is?” The boy let go of his father’s hand, walking back towards the stand with wide eyes.
“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t know,” the father growled.
He grabbed Lawrence’s wrist, nearly crushing his bones, and yanked him back towards the road. But Lawrence did not move. Instead, he continued to stare at the elderly man clutching the book. The man held Lawrence’s gaze as well, as if urging him to stay. “What…what kind of book is it?”
The man smiled a wide, menacing grin. He grasped his wooden cane and limped around the stand to face the boy. He leaned in closely and whispered, “It’s a book of stories. Stories of travelers, stories of princes and princesses, stories of the poor, stories of little boys just like yourself.”
Lawrence listened closely and his heart expanded. Who even knew one simple book could contain such tales? “But my father won’t let me have it,” he whispered, fearfully.
“Oh, but I think he will.” The man straightened up slowly and looked fiercely into the father’s eyes.
“I already said I ain’t buying no silly book,” the father sneered.
“I will pay you two-thousand dollars for the boy. I see through your intentions coming back to this town. The boy will only get in your way. I pay you for the boy, the boy gets the book, everyone wins.” The elderly man’s voice was strong, hands clasped tightly in front of him as he stared at the father.
Lawrence’s heart pounded inside him as he realized the deal being made. Tears filled his eyes quickly and he reached for his father’s sleeve. His father, however, jerked his sleeve out of reach. His stare was blank and his eyes glassy as he nodded his head in agreement to trade his son for two-thousand dollars. The man gathered the money from somewhere deep below the stand and handed it to the father, grabbing Lawrence by the scruff collar of his shirt.
“Papa, no! Please don’t let him take me! We’re going back to mama; she’ll be so angry at you!” Lawrence screamed, tears leaking onto his cheeks in big, wet blobs.
His father simply pocketed the money, turned around, and said over his shoulder, “We were never here to see your mama. She doesn’t even know we’re here. You’ll be better off with someone who cares enough to buy you.” And with those last words, Lawrence was suddenly left without a family and had only a simple book for comfort.
Years went by as Lawrence worked for the elderly man. He was taught to refer to him as “Ol’ Art” and Lawrence obeyed. Ol’ Art never paid much attention to Lawrence, only giving him what he needed and sometimes letting him travel to other market stands to gather food. Lawrence isolated himself in the small shack most nights, clinging to the only source of hope in his life—the leather-bound book. He memorized the tales, sympathized with them, and thought of the characters as his friends. They taught him how to be brave and how to care for others. When he was not working for Ol’ Art, he helped the elderly market stands sell their produce.
One day, as he returned back to the shack in the evening, Ol’ Art was sitting at their grubby kitchen table, hands clasped in front of him. “Good evening, Lawrence,” he said.
Lawrence startled for a moment, reaching for a light-bulb to illuminate the dark shack. “Good evening, Ol’ Art. We had a good profit today.”
Ol’ Art nodded solemnly, looking anywhere but Lawrence’s face. “Sit down, boy. We need to talk.” He never had spoken to Lawrence that way, and it made his heart jump. “I heard word of your father today.” It was said so quietly that Lawrence was not sure he heard him right. His heart threatened to leap out of his chest and out onto the market streets.
“Your father, Lawrence. I heard of him and he wants you back. But we sure as hell are not going to let him get you. I paid two-thousand dollars and there is no way that man is going to take you away from me!” Ol’ Art slammed his fist on the table with so much force, it made his bones rattle.
“I don’t understand, why would he want me back all these years later?”
“He knows something,” he whispered, looking into the distance with wild eyes. He slammed a fist on the table again, then turned in the direction of Lawrence’s room. He went in and came back out with Lawrence’s leather-bound book. “We’re escaping, Lawrence,” he said with a malicious grin. Lawrence’s limbs trembled with fear as he watched his caretaker mutter nonsensical words and lay the book open on it’s back. He waved his hands, muttering gibberish over and over again.
And without warning, Lawrence and Ol’ Art were no longer inside their rundown shack. Instead, they were surrounded by people of no color, all staring at them with alarmed expressions. “Ol’ Art, what did you do?” he breathed.
“I just saved us, boy.”
Lawrence looked around at the faces he had read about so many times and realized that this was just the beginning of something far more numinous than the life he once knew.