The Red House
The red house had been there for a very long time. No one had lived there in at least fifty years, and no one could even remember who owned the place. It was a three-story Victorian made of brick, blood-red bricks. The yard was overgrown and surrounded by a six-foot iron fence. The shutters were all closed tightly, except for the window on the widow’s walk, some claimed that they had seen weird lights in that window.
The townsfolk stayed away from the house except for the man that the city sent over to cut the grass three or four times each summer. The only one who would go was an old man named Larry. He was nearly 80 and had lived in Taylorville all his life.
One day in October of 2008, Larry was cutting the grass for the last time before winter. When he finished, he raked up the yard and put the cuttings by the curb. Then Larry loaded up his equipment and was just about to leave when he heard a noise inside the red house. “Crap,” he said. “Now I have to go inside and chase out hobos.” He quietly walked toward the back of the house; he put his hand on the doorknob and gently tried to turn it. To his great surprise, it turned easily and the door opened. He gingerly took a step through the door.
Larry found himself in what seemed to be a mudroom and he was very surprised to find that it was clean. All the dust and grime that he had expected were not there, he opened the door and entered the kitchen.
There was a soft light coming from the floor all around the perimeter of the room. The room itself was beautiful. He felt as if he were in an Italian villa, polished wood cabinets and stone flooring, herbs hanging from the ceiling, and a huge fireplace at one end. There beside the fireplace was a rocking chair and in the chair was an old woman. She looked at Larry and scowled, “Who are you and why are you in my house?”
Larry was stunned and it took him several moments to find his voice, but finally, he answered her. “Ma’am, I am very sorry to disturb you. I didn’t know that anyone was living here. The city sent me to mow the grass and I heard noises in here. I wanted to make sure that everything was okay.”
“Everything was okay, but now things are not okay at all!” shouted the mysterious woman. “And now I have an extremely difficult decision to make. You have no idea how complicated this situation is and now I shall be forced to deal with the consequences!”
Larry was beginning to feel a growing sense of alarm. “Ma’am, I can walk out that door and forget that I was ever here, you have my word.”
“Well sir, you will never know how much I wish we could do just that, but I am afraid that it is not possible now. Please be quiet, I have to think through the possible solutions to our mutual problem.”
Larry was gripped with terror; he turned and stumbled into the mudroom. He grabbed the knob and turned, but nothing happened. He pulled and pulled on the door but it wouldn’t budge. As he turned around to look for another way out, suddenly the old woman was standing in front of him. “You sir, are trying my patience. You cannot leave this building; I have already told you that. I do not want to do you harm, but if you continue with this asinine behavior I may be forced to do something that will be distasteful to us both.” She turned abruptly and went back to her rocking chair and sat down hard.
“I have come to a decision,” she declared after several tension-filled minutes. “And this is what I have decided will become of you. If you agree, I will tell you who I am and what I do. After that has been done, you will be required to become my assistant. There are benefits for you if you accept this position. You will no longer be subject to the aging process of Earth, and you will travel with me to various times and places throughout the universe. What is your decision?”
Larry thought for a few moments and then very slowly began to speak. “Ma’am, I don’t see that I have too many options in this situation. As I see it, my options are to become your assistant or lose my life here and now. Am I correct?”
“Well, I am glad to see that you can use your brain. You are partially correct. Your choices are to be my assistant or submit to a memory eraser that seems to have unpleasant side effects when used on you Earth beings. I am sorry that your choices were not made more clear earlier.” The old lady seemed genuinely remorseful over Larry’s predicament.
“Well, now that my situation is so much clearer, why could you not tell me who and what you are, and if I don’t like it, you can try your scary memory eraser on me? That buys me some time anyway.” Larry found a chair and sat down.
“What a clever creature you are turning out to be. I love Earth sarcasm, I don’t completely understand it, but it is fascinating. Yes, I can tell you my story and then let you choose, that seems to be an agreeable solution for now. But I am quite afraid that I will become too fond of you to risk harming you if I spend too much time in your company.”
All this time Larry’s mind had been working overtime. His truck was still out there in the driveway and he was supposed to be at his granddaughter’s house at six for dinner. If he could stall long enough, there would be people looking for him and maybe he would be rescued from this nut case.
“Well, ma’am I am real anxious to hear your story, but if it wouldn’t be too much trouble could I have a glass of water? I’ll get it myself if you will just point me to the glasses.” Almost as soon as he said the words a soft glow began hovering just above his lap and a tray with a glass of water appeared. For the first time in his 78 years, Larry felt as if he might faint. This was not just some nut case he had stumbled on, but he did not even want to contemplate what the truth might be. Now he hoped that his granddaughter wouldn’t come looking for him. Please God, just let her think that I forgot.
The old woman was truly alarmed by Larry’s sudden loss of color. “I did not mean to frighten you; I always forget how primitive things still are on this planet. What can I do for you?”
Starting to recover from the shock, Larry grabbed the glass of water and drained it in one gulp. “Well, do you have anything stronger than water?”
The woman seemed relieved to see Larry recovering and she said, “Name your poison.”
In spite of himself, Larry had to chuckle. “You been watchin’ old westerns on TV, I wouldn’t have thought you the type. If you have any, a shot of tequila might be called for about now and maybe a beer chaser?”
The woman laughed, “I can get whatever you desire, what kind of beer would you enjoy?”
“I’ll take a Mexican beer with a lime wedge if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Larry said, after thinking for a moment.
The crazy glow started above his lap again and a tray with 3 shots of tequila and a Corona with a wedge of lime appeared. Larry expertly shoved the lime into the beer bottle, covered the mouth with his thumb, and quickly flipped the bottle over and back. Then he picked up one of the shots, poured it down his throat, and chased it with a healthy slug of the beer.
“Thank you, ma’am. I am feeling much better now,” Larry said, really meaning it.
The old woman had been truly entertained watching Larry partake of his refreshments. Now she felt he might be ready to hear the truth. She was really beginning to like this Earthman and she really hoped he would stay.
“Well, I guess I should introduce myself first. My name is Eleanor. I come from a planet several light-years away. I use this house as my home when I am on this planet. I have been visiting this planet for the last 180 Earth years. The owner of the house at that time traveled with me for several decades and then returned to Earth to live out her remaining time here.”
Larry absorbed this information slowly and then replied, “My name is Larry and I am from Earth, I have lived here for 78 years. My wife died five years ago. Our three sons live here in town and one of my granddaughters and her husband live here with her son.” Then he took another one of the shots, drank it, and settled back into his chair. He realized that he was beginning to like Eleanor and he was also beginning to think that maybe she wasn’t as scary as he thought at first.
“Well, now that we have been properly introduced, I can begin to tell you my story. Would you like some dinner while you listen?” Eleanor smiled at Larry.
“I could use a bite,” Larry said thoughtfully.
“Just say what you desire and it will appear,” Eleanor informed him.
After a moment of thought, Larry said, “I would like a filet mignon, medium rare; a baked sweet potato with butter, cinnamon, and sugar; a glass of sweet tea and a big piece of chocolate cake, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.” Almost instantly a plate appeared in front of him. “A man could get used to this,” he exclaimed.
Eleanor laughed with his pleasure at such a simple thing. When he finds out what I am I hope he will still be this easy to please, she thought to herself as Larry began eating his steak.
“Now that you are all settled, I will begin my tale.” And she began telling Larry her story.
“I was born the oldest daughter of the second son of the timekeeper of my village. This meant that I was to be the timekeeper when I grew up. My grandmother carefully trained me and watched over me. She said that I would be stronger than she was, stronger than any timekeeper she had ever met. As I grew older and stronger she took me to meet Eunice, the head of all the timekeepers of my planet. She told my grandmother that I was special and that I had a greater destiny than to be a village timekeeper. So I went to live with Eunice and study with her.
“I see that you look puzzled; a timekeeper keeps order in time. If someone makes a mistake that will affect too many others in a negative way, the timekeeper takes them back to the time when the error was made and they are allowed to change it. People can ask the timekeeper for this service, but the timekeeper decides if the request is to be granted or not. It is a big responsibility.
“So after I went to live with Eunice, I continued to become stronger and stronger. One day, while Eunice was away someone came to me to ask for help. I was not to act without Eunice, but I was young and very foolish. I chose to help the man. What I did caused much pain to many, many people. As punishment, I was sent away. I have not been allowed to return and I do not expect to ever be allowed to return." Here she paused and wiped the tears from her eyes and seemed to be seeing things that only she could see.
Larry wasn’t sure if he should say anything or not, so he just said, “I am so sorry, Eleanor.”
The sincerity of the words touched her deeply and she was overcome by grief again as if it had all happened yesterday, instead of a thousand years ago. When she was able to compose herself she said very simply, “Thank you, so am I.”
They both sat quietly for a long time, each thinking about the losses they had endured over the years. Larry thought about his wife, Sarah. They had been together since he was 14. He missed her every minute of every day. He thought about the son who had died as an infant and his own parents and grandparents. How Eleanor must have suffered to lose everyone she loved at one time. His heart was broken for the pain she must carry with her.
“So, what is it that you do now?” Larry asked quietly.
Eleanor was grateful to him for breaking the silence with an easy question. “Well, instead of fixing things for individuals, I fix things for nations and species and planets. My gift seems to sense trouble in time and I can go and fix errors that have been made, most of the time.”
“So what is it that you want me for? I certainly haven’t got any powers that you could use unless you want me to mow the grass or something,” Larry said.
“You possess powers that you do not realize. You possess kindness, humor, common sense, and companionship; all things that I lack being alone,” Eleanor explained sadly. “Since my last companion retired, I have been very lonely and very ineffective as a timekeeper.”
“So all you want me to do is hang out with you and keep you company?” Larry skeptically replied.
“Well, that is part of the job. The other part is to help me decide if I should repair an error or leave it as it is. When I am alone and have no one to confer with I often make regrettable decisions. When my last assistant was with me, I seemed to use much better judgment.” Eleanor hoped her words conveyed the depth of what she felt.
“Why did your last assistant quit?” Larry asked.
“She was tired. Your race was not meant to live on for thousands of years and while her body was preserved and did not age, her spirit grew tired. She asked to come back to Earth and allow her body to catch up to her spirit. I refused for a while, but she became more and more unhappy and I could no longer refuse her legitimate request. With great sadness, I brought her back here to die. All of her family was gone, no one was left that she had known in life. We stayed here in this house and it did not take long for Earth to reclaim her as a daughter. I miss her.” This was stated as simple fact and Larry accepted it as such.
“Well, let’s see. I can hang out with you and eat like a king, stop mowing grass, and working my tail off; or I can let you use your scary mind eraser thingy and become a vegetable. Hard choice.” Larry’s humor overtook his attempt at sarcasm.
“So, I assume I need to retrieve my eraser?” Eleanor said with a warm smile.
“Do I hear some sarcasm? I thought you didn’t understand sarcasm?” Larry said, returning Eleanor’s smile.
“Maybe you have taught me something already?” There was a hint of hesitation in her voice, almost like she was afraid to hope that he would stay.
“Geez, I hope this isn’t the tequila talkin’, but I think I’ll hang around. Will I get to visit Earth’s past sometimes? There are some things that I would like to see.” Larry had a very serious look on his face as he said this.
“When we are not busy fulfilling our duties, we are free to visit and travel as we wish and I would be willing to let you witness any history that you chose. However, there are rules for these excursions. You must not interfere with these events and you may not interact with the people on more than a superficial level. We don’t need to create our own messes to clean up; we have enough to clean up as it is. If this means you are coming with me, I am delighted.” Her smiled seemed to brighten with the knowledge.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m goin’ with you. Can I leave a note for my granddaughter? My sons and the rest of the family seem to forget I exist unless it is a holiday, but Maggie has taken good care of me since my wife died. I would hate to cause her worry.” Thinking about hurting his beloved granddaughter caused a look of great pain to cross his wrinkled features.
“Of course you may. You may leave word for anyone that you would like. Just be careful how you chose your words. So it is decided! How wonderful, I am so glad I made this stop.”
Larry finished his dinner and wrote only one letter. He told Maggie that he had decided to travel for a while to get away from his memories. He told her that her grandmother always wanted to travel and she had always wanted to see Italy, he thought he would begin there. He signed the letter and gave it to Eleanor.
To his surprise, Eleanor did not read the letter. She did her magic and the letter disappeared. Somehow he knew it went to Maggie’s house. With this done, he was ready to begin his new life and he knew that nothing would ever be the same again.