Billy sat beside his best friend Jeremy every day on the bus ride home. The two boys had been best friends forever. After school they both went home to do their homework and then met at one of their houses to play. Billy liked Legos the best, and Jeremy liked playing with action figures. Standard stuff, really. The bus rolled along and the boys, 11, talked about which girls were gross and which were cute, without much thought to the world beyond their small sphere. The bus pulled up to a stop light and Jeremy, who had the window seat looked outside at the car next to them and noticed something strange.
Dude. That man in the Lambo is weird.
A Lambo?! Sweet!
Seriously, Billy, look at the guy!! Forget about the car.
Ugh. You think everyone is weird, Jeremy. Remember you thought Mrs. Sanders was eating a fake sandwich.
Jeremy groaned in frustration as only a child who isn’t taken seriously can.
You didn’t see it! It totally looked like Styrofoam or something. Dude, she chewed and chewed like it was a real freaking sandwich. But look, I’m serious! Look at him! It’s like he’s blank.
This piqued Billy’s interest and he leaned over his friend to peer out the school bus window. The Lamborghini’s windows were tinted, but he saw exactly what Jeremy meant. The man’s face was blank. His head had shaggy brown hair, but there were no other features. No eyes. No nose. No mouth. He wasn’t sure about ears. The hair covered where those would be. The boys looked at each other with wide eyes. The light had turned green, and the car raced away before they could turn to take a second look.
… the actual fudge?
Just then Jeremy got hit in the back of the head with a balled-up piece of paper. He turned just quick enough to see Marcy Hayworth punch Brad Miller square in the nose, resulting in a torrent of red that flowed over his lips and dripped onto the floor of the bus.
That was my math homework douchebag!
Marcy’s outrage at the use of her homework as a weapon was quickly drowned by other children’s cries of disgust about Brad’s bloody nose.
The bus stopped and Jeremy stood. The boys fist-bumped. Billy watched Jeremy get off the bus and wondered about the faceless man. It must have been a Halloween mask, he decided. The holiday was just a few weeks away, after all.
The bus pulled up to his stop and he stepped off the bus, his goldendoodle Charlie there to greet him with a slobbery pink tongue. Billy laughed and the two headed down the sidewalk towards the picturesque bungalow.
He stepped into the foyer and was engulfed with the aroma of baking cookies.
Of course silly, its Friday, isn’t it?
His mom smiled at him and Billy smiled back. She always made cookies on Fridays. He couldn’t believe how lucky he was sometimes. It seemed like his life was perfect.
Can Jeremy come over to play then stay for dinner?
Of course, honey!
Just as Billy finished his last math problem, he heard Jeremy downstairs talking to his mom.
Mrs. Mattigan, why do you have all these cookbooks? I never see you use them when you cook.
Why, Jeremy, you ask the most intriguing questions! I just like to cook as though its an art rather than a science. Those old cookbooks were Mark’s mothers.
Mrs. Mattigan made a funny grimace.
Don’t tell Mr. Mattigan, but I don’t think I’ve ever even opened those dusty relics.
She gave him a conspirational shh sign with a finger across her lips.
Don’t tell Mr. M my secret and I’ll give you an extra cookie.
Jeremy gave her a wink.
You got it Mrs. M
Taking a bite of the warm chocolatey delight, Jeremy sat in front of the bookshelf and pulled a cookbook onto his lap.
I bet people a long time ago ate boring stuff. Don’t you think, Mrs. M?
Don’t you get chocolate or grease on that cookbook Jeremy Reynolds! As for what they ate back then, who knows. I bet it was roasts, jello salads, and the like. That’s the sort of thing my own mother made when I was a girl.
Jeremy opened the book to a picture of a roast with a blank page after it. They boy and woman looked at each other with furrowed brows.
Well sometimes back then I think that they couldn’t print a picture on one side and words on the back of a page, maybe?
But why is the next page blank?
My goodness Jeremy, I’m just not sure. I guess a printing error. What’s on the next page?
Jeremy turned the page to another blank page, then another, and another. He flipped through the pages, and they were all blanks for what must have been at least 50 pages until he came to a picture of a neon orange glistening, translucent, jello salad shaped like a Bundt cake and filled with what appeared to be grape halves, pineapple chunks, and maraschino cherries. Behind the glorious salad, another blank page. Jeremy looked up at Mrs. Mattigan, who seemed just as confused as the boy.
The two exchanged perplexed looks and without a word Jeremy picked up another cookbook. It too was filled with page after page of a variety of jello salads and roasts. Beef roasts, lamb roasts, pork roasts, briskets, and so on. Jeremy’s stomach growled.
Jeremy, would you like to stay for dinner? We’re having…um…a roast leg of lamb.
I’d love to Mrs. M, but if you say we’re also having jello salad I’m gonna freak out.
She let out a nervous laugh and wiped her palms on her apron.
Haha! Aren’t you a funny boy! No, I only make jello salads for holiday gatherings and potlucks. We’ll have some nice roast potatoes and carrots. Now leave those books alone and go find Billy! I need to get rid of those anyway and have a little indoor herb garden there or something.
Jeremy ran upstairs three at a time to tell his friend of the oddities discovered downstairs.
Dude. Downstairs your mom has a bunch of old cookbooks with like no recipes in them, just pictures.
That’s weird. Maybe they’re just to like, give people ideas and then they just kind of figure it out based on already knowing how to cook? My mom never uses recipes. Does yours?
Umm seriously Billy? You know my mom only cooks stuff that comes in cans or boxes. She wouldn’t know a recipe if it bit her in the…
Young man! Don’t you use that language in my house. I am sure your poor mother does her best. It can’t be easy raising you and your brother by herself.
You’re right Ms. Mattigan. I’m sorry, my Ma works a lot, but she loves us and does her best.
You boys go and wash up then come set the table. Mr. Mattigan will be home soon, and dinner is almost ready.
The boys stood in front of the bathroom sinks washing their hands.
Jeremy spoke up first.
Look Billy, this is weird. That dude with the blank face today….
Oh! I was thinking about that! Don’t you think it was probably just a really creepy Halloween mask?
Well, I guess it could be but, then the books with all the blank pages too? I mean what’s with all the blank stuff?
I don’t know, but I’m sure there’s some logical explanation.
Mrs. Mattigan called to them from downstairs and they both turned off the water, dried their hands, and raced down the steps.
Last one down smells like turd! Billy yelled.
They both went so fast they tumbled down the last couple of stairs into a twisted mass of giggling boys at the bottom of the staircase. Mr. Mattigan arrived home just as the boys arrived at the bottom of the stairs and they slid back against the wall as he pushed the door open, perplexed at the force required.
After a delightful dinner the boys offered to clean up and the adults retired to the living room. As soon as they left the room the boys exchanged glances and rushed to the bookshelf. All of the cookbooks were the same.
What about all those books that are in your dad’s study? Think they are real or blank?
I dunno J, but we can check it out after we get these dishes washed up for Mom.
Once the task was completed the boys crept back up the stairs and into Mr. Mattigan’s study. The room was considered off-limits to Billy and he couldn’t remember the last time he had been in there. His dad strictly forbade anyone from entry so that his files didn’t get messed up. The wood paneled room held a heavy wooden desk, a couple of leather desk chairs, a cozy leather loveseat, and built-in shelves full of books. Lots of books. Which was a little odd given that none of the Mattigan family were avid readers.
The boys were wide-eyed at the sheer number of books and nervous knowing they weren’t allowed to be there. Billy was frozen with anxiety about getting caught, but Jeremy walked right over to the shelf behind the desk and plucked a thick book from the shelf. He showed the cover to Billy.
Look! War and Peace. I’ve heard of that.
Jeremy opened the book and there was text, and lots of it, some 1,200 pages that seemed to be the real deal. Next, he grabbed Moby Dick, also the real book. Then 1982, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby. They were all real. Both boys sighed in relief. It seemed their imaginations had just gotten away from them after all. They turned to leave the room, but just as Billy was about to switch off the light he noticed a title that intrigued him and reached for the book.
Umm, dude that book has your name on it. “The Fantastic World of Billy Mattigan.” Where did you get that? Is it one of those books parents send off for that’s not like a real book, but its all cutesy cause it has the kid’s name?
I’ve never seen this before. Billy whispered and opened the book to the middle.
Jeremy moved in close and read over his friend’s shoulder.
When young Billy Mattigan started fifth grade that year he looked forward to being at the top of the elementary school totem pole. He also looked forward to asking Marcy Hayworth to the dance, but there was no way he could know he would discover the secrets of the universe.
Billy shivered violently and Jeremy let out a loud whoop.
You like Marcy Hayworth?!! Freckle-faced Marcy?
Billy turned beet red with embarrassment.
How could this stupid book know that? Of course I don’t like her.
Its cool man. She is getting kinda pretty. What else does it say in there?
Jeremy reached for the book. Billy pulled it away from his friend’s reach and went to sit in one of the chairs. He flipped to the end of the book. It was full of blank pages. He flipped to the beginning of the book which told of his fall from the monkey bars in kindergarten and subsequent broken arm. It told of his grandpa Bert’s death from cancer and how much Billy missed fishing with him. Every word of text was true. It was like it was the story of his life, but the back was all blank, just like the books downstairs.
Billy, this is so freaking weird. Why aren’t there words in the back? What is going to happen to you? What does the last page with words say?
Billy took a deep breath and read silently for a few minutes then looked up at Jeremy.
It’s exactly what happened today. The last sentence says, “The two boys talked for several minutes about what this new revelation could mean and then took the book downstairs to see what Billy’s parents knew of their discovery.”
Dude. I have this weird feeling like this can’t be real. Like my head is telling me that maybe nothing is real or something. It just doesn’t make sense.
Oh, I’m real Jeremy, and so are you. We’re talking to each other right now. But maybe we somehow got trapped in the book world and just have to ask my folks how we get out. Come on let’s go talk to them.
The boys ran down the stairs once more, a little more carefully this time. Billy’s parents looked up at the boys’ sudden appearance. Then Mrs. Mattigan saw the book in his hand.
Have you boys been looking at more of those books? You know I asked you to leave them alone.
Sorry, Mrs. M. This is probably my fault but now Billy is really freaked out about that book he’s holding.
Billy walked over and handed the book to his mother.
We’re just characters in a book mom! We aren’t real. I’m not real. Nothing matters. In fact, it seems like my story ends today!!
The poor boy burst into tears and Jeremy’s eyes welled too.
Billy’s mother gave a reassuring smile to both boys and wiped her son’s tears.
Don’t be silly my child. Think about it. When you write a story do you know what is going to happen from start to finish?
No. Usually ideas come to me as I go and the story grows as I write it.
And where do you think those ideas come from? They come from the characters themselves. The boys and girls you write about are in charge of their stories, just as you are the master of yours.
But what about the man with the blank face, Mom? Or those blank pages in the cookbooks?
Oh, that man just was an unexpected part of your story. Suddenly you saw a flashy sports car, but didn’t have any details about the man, so he was a blank. Just like those cookbooks.
So, what happens to all of my blank pages at the end of my book?
That isn’t for me to say Billy. You write your own story. You determine what path you follow and where the story leads. Each of us is a work in progress. You’ll make some mistakes along the way, but grow from those mistakes, and don’t wallow in them. There is no such thing as happily ever after, but you can make the most of life by being kind to others and true to yourself. You alone can make it truly the fantastic world of Billy Mattigan.