Second-hand stores are uniquely magical places, especially for teenage boys like Benjamin, who fancied the endless shelves of discarded junk, the boxes of dusty books, and the racks of ancient clothing might just conceal hidden delights and secret treasures, just waiting to be discovered by anyone with the time and the inclination to search, such as he.
For this reason, Oddz ‘n Endz was Benjamin’s second favorite place in the world, after the library, of course. Both held for him a mysterious allure; a sense of impending wonderment as if the air itself was trembling with the expectation of the revelation of fantastical secrets.
At 15 years of age, he knew that such ideas were terribly childish. It was fun to pretend, but he was old enough to know he was hardly likely to stumble upon some hidden treasure in the old store.
Until the day, when whiling away the after school hours in Oddz ‘n Endz as was his habit when not hiding out in the library, he stumbled upon the holy grail.
It was not the cherished chalice used at the last supper, of course. No, as far as Benjamin was concerned, this discovery was of far greater significance than any holy relic. And far more valuable.
As he stared, awed by what lay atop the box in the back of the store, scarcely able to credit the incredible sight before him, Benjamin was struck by a profound sense of karmic justice.
The whole reason he divided his spare time exclusively between the library and Oddz ‘n Endz was these were the only two places he felt safe from the depredations of the outside world. The merciless taunting of the bullies at school couldn’t follow him into these hallowed halls, and, given that he was not only short and woefully overweight but also had a bad stutter, he suffered no shortage of bullying.
Sticks and stones….
Except, Benjamin had long since discovered the fallacy of that old saying. He knew that words could hurt, and frequently did, often far more than any physical injury. Although he’d suffered his fair share of those, too.
As bad as things were for him at school, home was, if anything, worse. His mother had remarried soon after his father’s death when Benjamin was just a baby, and his stepfather was given to liberal use of his fists. He wasn’t sure which hurt more; the blows or his mother’s seeming indifference to the abuse of her only child.
He bore these burdens with an equanimity that spoke to maturity far beyond his years and was able to do so primarily thanks to his secret belief that, one day, things would get better.
It seemed only natural to him then, that one of the places he frequently escaped to for safety, Oddz ‘n Endz, was where he would make a life-changing discovery.
It was only fair, after all, and Benjamin was still naïve enough to cling to the belief that fairness was the rule, not the exception, in the world.
Still, he was bowled nearly off his feet by what he found in the back of the old store. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, certain that when he opened them again, it would be gone.
It was not.
There before him lay an original, sealed, 1927 Captain Courageous comic book. One of the rarest and most valuable in existence.
Benjamin, whose favorite subject in school was history, thought he knew now exactly how the discoverers of the Rosetta Stone must have felt.
Pure, unadulterated exhilaration.
Benjamin’s primary joy in life lay in his comic book collection. He could talk on the subject for hours and would have done if he had anyone who would listen.
His father, of whom he had no memories, had been an avid collector, and perhaps in some subconscious effort to find a connection with the man, Benjamin had taken up the pastime with enthusiasm. His little collection had grown admirably over the years, with him adding to it every time his meager allowance afforded him the opportunity.
He never read any of them, of course. No truly dedicated collector would ever dare spoil his prized possessions by doing such a thing. Their value lay in their pristine covers, their unblemished pages, their unmistakable perfection.
Besides, there was no need. Benjamin knew that the hero always won, no matter how dastardly the villain. Simply possessing the pages wherein such fantastical tales unfolded was enough for him, and reinforced his vague, childlike notion that happy endings were possible.
He took comfort in the physical presence of the comic books in his collection. Their unalterable existence in a world so full of uncertainty was reassuring, as was the fragile connection they gave him to his father.
The only thing he loved more than marveling at his collection was adding to it.
He had nothing nearly as valuable as the Captain Courageous comic though. Few did. There were only a handful of copies still believed to be in existence - one had recently sold in an auction for a staggering $9 million.
That one hadn’t even been in the original plastic wrapper. The comic Benjamin had discovered was worth more. Much more.
Not that he would ever consider selling such a scarce item in the unlikely event he ever came to own one, of course. It’s value went far beyond any conceivable monetary figure, no matter how many zeros were attached to the end.
The comic book he’d discovered was, in a very real sense, priceless.
Just laying eyes on it was both a joy and a privilege, but Benjamin longed for more. He wanted, needed, to have it for his collection. This desire grew until it took on the proportions of fevered desperation; as irresistible as the urge to draw breath that must surely overcome one in the moments before drowning.
He had to have the comic book, no matter the cost.
With that thought, he belatedly recalled that he still had some money left from his allowance. He scrabbled through the pockets of his jeans, among the candy bar wrappers and other assorted debris, extracting the chocolate smeared coins that represented his entire net worth.
It came to a little less than $3.
Not nearly enough.
There was no way Mr. Porter, the kindly old man who ran Oddz ‘n Endz, would part with the Captain Courageous comic for such a paltry sum.
The beginnings of an idea were forming in Benjamin’s frantically churning mind. What if Mr. Porter didn’t know what the comic was worth? It was entirely possible, he reasoned to himself. The old man wasn’t a collector, after all, and to him, one comic book probably looked very much like another.
Besides, if Mr. Porter did know how valuable the item was, it would be proudly displayed, front and center for all to see, not relegated to some dusty corner in the back.
He, in all likelihood, had no idea what a sought-after prize lay amidst the rag-tag inventory of his old store.
If Benjamin could convince the old man that the comic had no special significance, he could bargain the price down to one he could afford, and maybe even have some money left over for candy on his way home.
He gingerly picked up the comic with the same careful touch one might ordinarily reserve for handling fine china, and made his way to the front counter, behind which old Mr. Porter appeared to be dozing.
Benjamin wasn’t at all certain his idea would work, but he was going to give it his best shot, regardless.
“What you got there, young man?” Mr. Porter was mightily fond of the boy who’d become a regular fixture in his store. As is typical in the case of one so advanced in years, he constantly despaired at the state of the youth today. In Benjamin, however, he saw hope for the future generation. The boy was delightfully well mannered and unfailingly courteous.
“Oh, you know, n-n-nothing much. Just this old c-comic book.” Benjamin forced a laugh, trying to sound casual. “I was just w-wondering…how much is it?”
“Oh, right, thought you might be interested in that. It came in just this morning, so I set it aside for you. As for the price, though, I haven’t the faintest idea. I figured you’d be able to tell me.”
There it was, the confirmation Benjamin had been hoping for. Mr. Porter was clueless as to the comic’s extraordinary value. An opportunity to get his hands on one of the rarest collector's items in all the world had just presented itself, all he had to do was reach out and take it.
Unfortunately, therein lay something of a dilemma for him.
He knew that lying was wrong and that misleading kindly old Mr. Porter was the kind of devious deed some other children might delight in, but he was not one of them. Benjamin had a finely tuned moral compass for one of only 15 years of age, and he strove always to do the right thing.
But if he told the truth about the comic book, Mr. Porter would never sell it to him. With his prize so close, such a thought was more than he could bear.
What harm was there in one little lie? It was for a good cause, after all….Surely it wasn’t so bad if it didn’t hurt anyone?
Taking a deep breath and crossing his fingers behind his back, he took the plunge. “This old thing?” he asked innocently, “it’s n-nothing special. Just a plain old c-comic book. Very c-c-common these days. You c-can find them anywhere, r-really….”
“That a fact? What a shame,” Mr. Porter said with evident disappointment. “I thought it was valuable, being so old and all. Oh well, guess you don’t want it then….”
“Yes! I mean no! I mean I do want it!”
“Heavens why, son? Surely you’ve already got a copy - ”
“It’s for Snowball, my c-cat,” Benjamin interjected, improvising frantically.
“Your cat reads comic books then, does she?” Mr. Porter seemed tickled by the notion.
“No. It's f-for her l-l-litter box.” Benjamin was blushing furiously, but he pushed on with his absurd lie. “ I usually l-line it with newspaper, you see, b-b-but she has a very sensitive b-bottom, and it makes her b-break out in an awful rash. So I f-find the pages f-from old c-comics work b-b-better, you know?”
“Why, that’s amazing. Never heard of such a thing before.”
“It’s actually very c-common for c-c-cats with allergies. Like Snowball. T-tearing the p-pages up is a b-bit of a chore, but it’s worth it for the sake of her….”
“Ass?” Mr. Porter suggested helpfully.
They both burst out laughing.
When their giggles had subsided, he continued, “Okay then, I guess you do need this comic after all. So, make me an offer, young man.”
“Uh….$2?” Benjamin held his breath, hoping.
“$2? Why that’s outrageous!”
The boy hung his head in defeat, but Mr. Porter wasn’t finished. “That’d be nothing short of highway robbery, son. No way I can charge you two bucks for this old thing. How about I just give it to you, free of charge?”
Bearly able to believe what he’d heard, Benjamin breathed, “You’d really d-do that?”
“Sure, why not? You’re a good boy, Benji.”
“Th…th…thank y…you Mr. P…Porter!”
“Oh, don’t mention it. I’ll tell you what, though. I’ve still got to turn a profit from this old dump at the end of the day. I just got in a whole box of those romance novels your mom likes so much. They’re over there,” - he pointed across the room - “why don’t you go pick one out for her? Spend your money on that? That way, I still make a sale, your mom gets a book and Snowball’s backside shall remain rash-free thanks to this here comic. Everyone wins. What do you say?”
“Great idea!” Benjamin yelled before dashing delightedly over to the box to ferret out a Mills & Boon for his mother, hardly able to comprehend what had just happened.
The Captain Courageous comic was his!
This was the best day of his entire life, hands down. And he knew that even if he lived to be as old as Mr. Porter, nothing could ever top it.
As the boy dug enthusiastically through the box of second-hand books, Mr. Porter regarded him fondly. He really did have a soft spot for the kid.
He knew that Benjamin had a rough time of it at school and home, he suspected, wasn’t much better. Playful banter aside, he’d planned to give the boy the comic book as soon as he’d seen how badly he’d wanted it. He’d secretly been hoping it was some rare, obscure volume. For the kid’s sake. If anyone deserved a break in life it was him.
But, alas, it was worthless. Mr. Porter shook his head sadly, but without surprise. With far more years under his belt than young Benjamin, he knew happy endings were the sole domain of comic books and Disney movies. They seldom happened in real life.
Reality, he knew, was a cruel mistress – evil often triumphed, bad things commonly happened to good people, and poor teenage boys didn’t simply stumble upon hidden treasures in dusty old second-hand stores.
Mr. Porter realized that he hadn’t been entirely truthful with the boy. He’d said ‘everyone wins’ of their deal, but that wasn’t quite right. Benjamin himself got nothing – the sole beneficiary of the comic book would be Snowflake and her troublesome bottom. If anything, the kid had only earned himself more work - hadn’t he claimed that tearing up the pages was a chore?
Why, yes. Yes, he had.
And, true to form, Benjamin hadn’t uttered a word of complaint. In fact, there he was, bent over the box of books, bobbing up and down with excitement as if he’d just won the lottery.
Mr. Porter suddenly had the irrepressible urge to do something nice for the boy; to find some small way to show him how much he was appreciated.
While casting about for an idea, his eyes fell upon the Captain Courageous comic still lying on the countertop, awaiting Benjamin’s return.
And just like that, he knew exactly what he could do.
Mr. Porter flexed his fingers, confirming that his arthritis had eased with the warming of the weather. Good. He should be up to the task.
He then took his pocket knife, carefully slit open the plastic cover, removed the comic, opened it to the middle, and began methodically tearing out the pages, one by one.
He was glad he could help the boy out in his own, small way.
Doing someone a kindness, his wife used to say, often carried a significance that went far beyond the act itself.
It’s the thought that counts, after all.