(Warning: this story has themes of drinking and death)
It was not uncommon for people to stumble drunkenly into the small inn on the corner of Central Avenue and Stone Street, but when they asked for the largest room there was and did not count out the hundreds of dollars in cash they put on the counter, it tended to catch the attention of those who saw.
Harold Randall stood up from where he was sitting, looking at the man in disbelief as he counted out one-hundred, two-hundred, three, four, five-hundred dollars.
“Sir, this will pay for at least a weeks stay. How many nights?”
The man leaned forward, and Harold could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Ah, it’s no biggie. Keep the money, kid. I’ll be outta here in a day or- or-” he paused as if he had lost track of what he was saying, then he shook his head. “What’s your name?”
“Yeah? Do you not have one?”
“Harold Randall, sir, but most people just call me Harry.”
“Ain’t that a stupid thing,” the man muttered, shaking his head, “Harold’s a good, sturdy name. Don’t let them change it. It’s what your father named you, ain’t it?”
Harold straightened, frowning. “Well, yeah. Him and my mother.”
The man nodded, his eyes drooping, presumably from the alcohol. It seemed he was about to pass out.
“Alright, then.” Harold stooped below the counter to get a key. “Room 12, sir.”
“My name is William Gregory MacDonald,” the man said without anyone’s asking. He tipped his cap down. “That’ll be a name you’ll remember.”
Harold nodded, unsure of what to say. Luckily, William Gregory MacDonald was stumbling off down the hallway.
Word spread quickly of Mr. Macdonald’s arrival. Rumors wove themselves throughout the small town and soon everyone had heard whispers about him. He was a foreign member of an old royal family, he was a member of the government posed as a normal civilian, he was a criminal who had robbed a bank and was hiding out from the police.
But the truth was, nobody really knew anything about William Gregory MacDonald. Since he had first stumbled into the inn, he had not emerged from his room. It would be going on thirty-four hours. He had to run out of food sometime, didn’t he?
Though the man had confused Harold, he found himself awaiting a second conversation with him. Maybe he would not be quite so drunk, and he would explain himself. There was something intriguing about him- he was a puzzle that needed to be solved, a riddle that needed to be answered.
When Mr. MacDonald did, at last, converse again with Harold, he was perhaps even more drunk than he had been before.
“Harold? Harold, is that you?” he squinted through tears, then smiled.
“Sir, are you alright?”
“Hm?” the man wiped his eyes, then stared at his hand and frowned. “Oh, yes, I’m just fine. I heard a wonderful story about a- ah, nevermind. It was real funny. They don’t tell stories like that anymore.”
“I don’t think they do,” Harold agreed.
“Do you want me to tell you a story?”
Harold, caught off guard, opened his mouth to say something, but Mr. MacDonald cut him off.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy. He was about your age- what are you, thirteen?”
“Seventeen, sir,” Harold corrected, turning a little pink.
“Right. Anyways, this boy was a real nasty little kid. He yelled at his parents so often, they were afraid of him! In fact, they were so scared of telling their little boy off that he grew up and got worse and worse. Nobody could stand to be around him he was so rude. Best part is, he never realized his attitude was the problem. He went on thinking that there was somethin’ else wrong with him. He dropped out of school and started drinking, ‘cause what else was there to do? He sure didn’t have any friends.
“One day, he had drank so much, he became invincible. At least, that’s what he thought. ‘Cept, he wasn’t. This nasty little boy became a vicious teenager became a bitter old man. And what can bitter old men do but die?”
Harold waited for him to go on, but he didn’t. He just stared off into the distance.
“What can bitter old men do but die?” he repeated, but softer. He turned to Harold, his eyes glittering. “Huh? What’re you staring at?”
Quickly, Harold looked away.
“Do you know what the moral of this story is?”
Careful not to look at him, Harold replied, “parents shouldn’t allow their children to grow up like that?”
“Ah, but was it really the parents fault? Or are monsters destined to be worse monsters, no matter their environment?”
No, that wasn’t right, Harold thought, it wasn’t the kids fault. But he didn’t argue with William Gregory MacDonald, because he didn’t seem like someone who should be argued with.
“I feel awful sorry for the boy,” he said instead, purposefully not answering the question.
Mr. MacDonald didn’t seem to notice, but he did respond with new intensity. “You shouldn’t. He doesn’t deserve pity. He did it to himself, didn’t he?”
“Well, yes, but-”
“Ain’t no ‘but’s’ about it, Harold,” the man smiled. There was something off about his smile, as if a piece of it were missing. “That boy deserved everything he got. The moral of the story of this: when nasty little boys do grow up, and they become nasty old men who drink too much and hate everything and love nothing. It’s better to die young than live like that. Remember that, Harold Randall. It’s better to die young.”
Harold searched for words to refute what the man had said, but something had changed in his face. He turned around and went back to his room.
This time, he emerged just an hour later. “Make sure it’s you that cleans up my room, kid,” he said. Then William Gregory MacDonald let out a whoop and ran out into the night.
A day later, he had not returned. Harold decided it was time to clean his room, for he guessed he wasn’t going to return to the inn. He didn’t know then how right he was.
In Mr. MacDonalds room, there were very few things. Two large beers, both empty, a pair of shoes- Harold had not realized that he had been barefoot when they last spoke- and a folded piece of paper on the bed, addressed to a Harold Randall.
He unfolded it and attempted to make out the hurried scrawl written on it.
Don’t know if you guessed, but that story I told you was true. Truth is, the kid should have died young, but the best thing he can do right now is die old. You seem like a good kid. Keep being a good kid. Don’t grow up to be like me. If you do, it’s best not to grow up at all. Thank you for listening to an old man’s story. I’m leaving this for you, but don’t tell no one, ‘specially not the cops, because there’s probably some legal rule I have to follow.
That was all it said. Along with it was a huge wad of cash, all big bills. There was probably over five thousand dollars in total, but Harold didn’t count.
He had pieced together the puzzle that was William Gregory MacDonald at last, and he knew deep down that his story had ended. He knew that the next newspaper he would open would tell the story of how a strange man entered a small town one day and never left. They wouldn’t know his story, but they would know his problems.
That didn’t seem fair to Harold. Everyone would know that he had drunk too much and made too many bad decisions, but they wouldn’t know that maybe he wouldn’t have turned out like that. They wouldn’t know that he had thought his only options were death or a life of misery.
But Harold also felt lucky. He was lucky that he had seen both sides of Mr. MacDonald, even if he had only known him for a few days. He felt lucky that even if no one else would, he would remember the story of a uncontrolled boy who grew up to be a desperate man who sought a way out.
The man had been entirely correct when he said that Harold would remember the name William Gregory MacDonald.