The Gift

This story is available in the anthology “From Their Cradle to Your Grave” from Cruentus Libri Press on Kindle or Paperback.

Underneath the old stone bridge, in the summer heat, I first met my friend. I’d come to this spot beneath the bridge for as long as I could remember, following the small creek in our backyard down through the farmers’ fields, and behind the roaring freeway. Beneath the bridge, the dirt was still cool, even in the hottest noonday sun. I’d come to the bridge to think, to play, to cry, and to press my pale chubby fingers into the blessed cool soil, digging deep depressions in the damp earth.

The creek trickled by, but my father had told me never to go in the water; it had a thin scum on the top that reflected the light in an odd, shimmering way, like the shell of a beetle. I’d disobeyed him once when I was younger and the rash that boiled up on my legs had scabbed and bled for a week. Now, I was content to sit among the pale and drying reeds, to hold tight to that primal cold in the place where the sun couldn’t reach.

On the day he was first there, the cottonwood trees were shedding their seeds, bright white silken clouds that drifted in the air like snow defying the sun. The air was thick with heat and exhaust from the freeway, buzzing over the rise like an angry hive. He lay stretched out on the other side of the creek, his body half covered by the shadow of the old stone bridge. At first I saw only a pile of ragged clothes, capped with a wide-brimmed and frayed hat, but then I saw the long, bony fingers steepled across his chest, and his calloused and blackened feet.

Tied to his big toe with a perfect bow was a thin line of fishing wire, and I saw the toe twitching, tugging on the line. The hat covered his face, but beneath it, I caught the quick dance of a frayed stick or root, grasped between his teeth, sliding back and forth under the shadow of the brim. I watched him for an hour, nothing moving but his toe, the stick, and the slow rise and fall of his chest.

I didn’t move, or make a sound that I was aware of, but soon, the stick stopped its rhythmic journey and tilted upward, tucking under the brim of the hat. I saw the outline of his pale lips and teeth, as they dug in and pushed the stick upwards, lifting the filthy hat upwards like a cellar door.

He peered out, straight at me, and blinked in the sunlight; the rest of his body lay still. He was gaunt, and hollow-cheeked, his skin weathered and tanned like leather. As his bright sunken eyes met mine, his mouth split into a wide grin, showing a row of perfect and polished white teeth clamped around the twig.

It was infectious, and I found my own face stretching into a smile. I could have stayed there, smiling with him until the day went dark. I felt content. When he relaxed his mouth and allowed the hat to drop back over his face, it was so slow that I hardly noticed the movement until the shining coals of his eyes vanished beneath the brim.

As soon as the hat obscured his bristled chin, it began to rise again, revealing cheeks puffed out like a trumpet player and eyes crossed tight together. I laughed out loud, feeling a warm wellspring of happiness inside me. The hat dropped and rose again, this time his face was puckered, like he’d eaten a lemon. I laughed harder.

After a parade of distorted faces that left my lungs sore from laughing, he leaned forward and rose to a crouch. He removed his hat, running his hands through a thick mop of unkempt black hair. He smiled again at me, chewing on the twig, and began to twirl his feet around each other in a little waltz, coiling the fishing line around his toes.

The hook slid out of the water, dragging with it a little sparkling tangle of gold that caught the sun and ignited. Once he’d drawn the hook up to his feet, he reached down and clasped his hand over it like it was a bug. His face took on an exaggerated impression of fear, as he pretended that it was leaping in his hands, trying to escape as he struggled against it. I couldn’t help myself and I burst out laughing again, and my friend flashed his wide smile. He mimed throwing underhand until I understood and held out my hands, cupped and expectant.

The little tangle of gold sailed in an arc across the glistening filthy water, and landed perfectly in my hands with a sound like shifting sand. It was a beautiful necklace, with a tiny golden gross encrusted with sparkling green stones. I looked up, and my friend winked, the skin around his eyes crinkling and pulling, and he raised one thin bony finger to his puckered lips. I understood, and looked back to the beautiful little gift.

When I looked up again, he was gone.

I didn’t know the girl who was missing, but she was my age, and I must have seen at at school.

It made me angry to see people who didn’t know her crying and carrying on like they were the best of friends. I tried not to scowl at the little bawling clusters of kids in the hallways, and fingered the little gold chain in my pocket. I was dreaming of summer break, a scant two weeks away, and thinking about my friend when I fell, my fat clumsy feet wrapping around each other, pitching my body forward in a wave of inertia. I threw my hands out, but only succeeded in throwing the little gold charm and bending my fingers back against the hard marble floor.

It didn’t take long for the little crowds of mourners to break their stage-play of grief to laugh at me, sprawled on the floor with watering eyes. All except one dark haired girl with puffy wet eyes. She was staring at the necklace on the floor, with a look that I didn’t understand, blank, yawning and broken. Then she looked at me and screamed.

I understood then, but even as the principal and later the policemen questioned me, I played dumb. I told him I’d found the necklace outside of school that morning, repeating the story with clever little details I made sure to keep consistent. My friend had given me a gift, and I owed it to him to keep the secret. I wasn’t like the pretenders in the hall. I don’t care about some missing girl I never knew about, and who would have never cared for me. I care about my friends.

It was months before I saw him again, in the beginning of autumn; he was perched on top of the old stone bridge, his filthy feet swaying like an excited child. I hadn’t been let outside for the whole summer, trapped in the dry air conditioned dark of the house as my father drank and my mother cried at each new disappearance.

Most of the missing meant nothing to me, but those few whose names I recognized made me smile in secret. They were the worst, the ones that beat me, taunted me, and called me names. The ones that laughed. And I knew that I would be safe.

It made such perfect sense, that I wanted to share it with my parents, to assure them that it was only the bad people. That it was all okay. But I saw in my mother’s blasted eyes the same lying phony grief from my school. I saw her taking someone else pain and using it to plug the holes in her own emptiness, and it made me sick. When I finally felt like I was going to burst, so angry at them all for not recognizing the gift, I snuck out into the evening cool, leaving my snoring father and hollow mother and racing along the creek.

Somehow, I knew he would be there, but my heart still leapt to see him. His clothes were the same, if only more tattered and dirty, and he appeared to have the same wet and shredded stick tucked between his thin lips. He smiled wide at me, and I sat beneath the bridge in contented quiet, relishing the company of someone who simply understood and asked no more.

In wordless conversation, he showed me how he could crack the knuckles of his toes, just by shifting them quickly, playing a crackling little rhythm of pops and ticks as his feet shuddered and wiggled. I laughed as he juggled a pair of apples and a large dusty stone, taking a bite out of each apple as it passed his mouth, and miming a painful bite from the rock. The sun set and the stars pierced the sky. He was showing me how he could fold those long fingers into the shape of a flying bird, when I heard shouts, crying my name far in the distance.

My friend turned to me with a little wink and then dropped from the bridge, landing almost silently in the dirt beside me. He crouched, his shining smile and papery skin just a few feet from me, and I smelled a sweet, warm smell like cloves and cinnamon. His hand darted out towards my ear like a striking rattlesnake, and his face was a clown’s mask of surprise and shock. He twisted his hand with a flourish to reveal a key ring, packed with bouquet of dozens of keys, brass, silver, chrome, shining in the starlight. The key ring fell into my outstretched hands, and as I turned it over again, I thought how lucky I was to have a true friend at last.

Then, he was gone, and my father’s hands were on my shoulders, shaking me and yelling. A group of a half a dozen men, my fathers friends and important men in town, clustered around him, gripping lanterns and rifles, huddling close together, their wide faces reflecting fear and moonlight as their eyes darted at each noise.

I wanted to laugh at them, feeling that warmth in my chest as I saw what it looked like when bad people were afraid, at last. So much is changing for the better, and I have my friend to thank for it. The key-ring was heavy in my pocket, hidden from them and my father’s drunken anger. I clasped it tight, so that it was perfectly silent, a reassuring weight in my stubby fingers.

Later in the night, as my father and his cowering posse combed the countryside for what I knew they would never find, my mother covered me in crocodile tears and breathless constrictor hugs. It was only the little weight of the gift in my pocket that kept me from being sick with contempt.

When the winter came, the roads were blocked and no one could have left town if they’d wanted to. The food grew scarce and soon there weren’t enough of my father’s friends to patrol the town, and the vanishings and disappearances spiked. I confess that I was surprised at how truly rotten the town must have been, but I trusted my friend. He knew what was right.

The keyring kept me alive. While my mother and father doled out the last portions of dried rice and beans, I passed unseen through the silent white town to find a treasure trove of locked larders and pantries. My friend was wise, as well as benevolent. I considered sharing this gift with my parents, but if they were meant to be chosen, my friend would have let me know. So I stayed warm and fed, and my parents grew thin and drawn.

One morning I awoke to the pure silence of winter, the snow robbing the world of all sound. The usual movements and shuffle of my parents were gone, and even the creaking bones of our old house were silent. There was a sudden swell of happiness in me, like a youthful Christmas morning, before I was told it was all a lie.

I danced through the empty house, no longer trying not to smile. No longer holding back my joy, because I knew: the gift was complete now. I pulled on my snow boots and jacket and burst out into the silent world, purged of evil, emptied of predators, cleansed of all that was wrong.

My friend was at the bridge, sitting cross legged in the cobblestone road. He was covered in snow, it hid his entire hat under a broad cone of white, and it crested up against his sides like frozen waves. His broad shining smile rivaled my own, and his skin was flushed with warmth. When I approached him, he stood, slow and elegant, like a tree growing in front of my eyes, and I noticed for the first time how very tall he was. When he’d risen to his full height, he stretched, in exaggerated pantomime complete with a yawn that stretched the corners of his wide mouth. Then he leaned forward and pressed something into my hands, something cold and hard, and his long fingers wrapped around my little hands like a spider. I clenched it tight, not wanting to take my eyes off him, knowing that his work was done, and this meeting would be bittersweet and final.

He smiled warmly at me, winked one last time, and hoisted a filthy burlap sack to his shoulder. A few feet down the road, he turned and tipped his hat to me, sending a little flurry of snow down that obscured his face, and then he was gone, swallowed up into the swirling whiteness.

I opened my hands slowly, watching the bluish fingers curl away from the last gift, and my heart’s warmth flooded through my body, and hot little tears formed at the corners of my eye. My parents wedding bands, tarnished and simple, lay in my hand. The rings were somehow, impossibly, linked and intertwined.

I stood in the unbroken quiet and perfect drifts of snow, and looked out at the world. The silence, the freedom. The perfect and beautiful loneliness. This was the true gift. This was my friend’s work. And he asked nothing in return. All I can do, is to someday, try and return the favor.

Here’s a little sketch I did of the Vagabond.


24 thoughts on “The Gift

  1. I’m not one of those kinds of people that can analyze what is good or bad in a story that I like – I just know I like it. That said, I just discovered your work a couple days ago and I’ve read through everything you have posted. I love all of it. I just wish you had a good long book I could read.Count me as a fan.

  2. W-O-WI truly loved this one. I especially enjoyed that the boy’s friend never turned on him – that it was a true, unspoken friendship between them. And aside from a spelling or grammar hiccup once or twice, I was completely absorbed into the story.I would most definitely watch this if it were ever made into any form of a movie, be it short, TV-film, or major motion picture release. Again, extraordinary story

  3. Personally, I think the setting of this story could be elaborated on. It seems to take place in some sort of small town from the past, but at the same time the creek sounds as if it’s contaminated from some chemical plant.I got the distinct impression that this takes place in some sort of post-apocalyptic world.

  4. Hello.A question.What is it that compels you to put such effort forth in order to write these tales?I am curious.If you would answer, I would be most appreciative.My gratitude would know no bounds.

  5. Ah yes. Mr. Welldone.I write the sort of stories I wish I could read.I write because there is no campfire to cluster around and to tell stories; the glow of the computer screen makes an acceptable proxy.Most simply and selfishly, I write because it pleases me to write. And then I share, because it pleases me to know that strangers read.Perhaps not the most compelling answer, but it is the honest one.

  6. A belated hello to you, Josef!I know you missed me lurking in your comment fields, nitpicking my way through your stories, but fear not! I have returned.Right, let’s get down to brass tacks, the mechanics:”lifting the filthy hat like upwards like a cellar door.”-Extra ‘like’.”As his bright sunken eyes met mine, his mouth split into a wide grin, showing a row of perfect and polished white teeth clamped around the twig.”-Rather than ‘showing’, try ‘exposing’. Tinker with it, showing seems too passive.And that’s all I found.Now, story-wise. The vagrant (and I’m sure you may have noticed this) reminds me very much of King’s “The Man in the Black Suit”. The long, bony fingers, the row of perfect white teeth, the tall stature… and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just that for me, as a writer, I don’t want my reader to say “oh, that reminds me of someone else’s work”. Maybe I’m a bit overzealous in drawing that connection, but it stuck out to me, and it’s something to watch out for, especially in this genre. It’s very easy to slip into a cliche (something you are very adept at avoiding).Secondly, voice. Your narrators consistently have very well-developed, three-dimensional voices to them. You can absolutely use that to explore the human psyche a little more. After all, horror isn’t so much about exposing the grotesque around us as it is about revealing the capacity for evil within each of us. The narrator’s inner monologue helps develop that theme–punishing the wicked, purging the world of evil; noble ideals, but how far is too far? I think you could do a little more to develop that idea early on by indicating that the missing girl had done something to wrong the narrator. As it stands, his first victim seems rather innocent, or at the very least, neutral. Make that descent into madness even more subtle by making him somewhat justified in his actions.That said, the story as a whole flows very nicely–almost too nicely. The pacing, at times, seems too consistent, and thus, boring. Now this is getting REALLY picky, but sentence structure is something to keep an eye on. I noticed several sentences that “read” almost exactly the same as the one before (not content-wise, but rhythm-wise). I think it was Joyce who demanded that each sentence must be 7 words longer or shorter than the preceding one. That’s a bit extreme, but if you’re in a rut as to how to chop up and splice your sentences to add variety, it’s a good rule to shoot for.Again though, the fact that I have to stretch so far to find anything wrong with your works is yet another testament to their quality. Fantastic job, sir.I look forward to deconstructing your next piece.–EdwardP.S. I see we’ve elicited a response from the infamous Mr. Welldone! It would seem your popularity is growing. 😛

  7. Mr. Josef, Have you abandoned us? Your stories are definitely among the best the internet has to offer right now. I can’t say I don’t miss them, sir. I hope all is well!

  8. No need to worry, William.I’ve been working on cleaning and editing my favorites from the last year, and working on one longer story (a narrative, if not thematic, followup to “Zero”) and one novel length project. I may share some portions of these shortly, just to keep the pilot light on, as it were.And Edward, it is wonderful to have your fine tooth comb back in action. I need it now more than ever as begin to edit and finalize earlier drafts.

  9. Mr. K, I would like to thank you for writing these stories. You have inspired me to write as well, though I write cheap fanfiction. I hope for the day when your stories are turned into a film or television series.

  10. I'm constantly looking to recreate that delightful sensation I remember having as a wee thing reading my collection of ghost stories late at night. Your stories are the only ones that have let me do that. Love 'em.

  11. Well, good sir. I would like to congratulate (spelling? Haha.) you on this amazing story. This is one that I truly fell in love with. i love the idea of some guy, just sort of appearing, making everything right, and leaving. I think it was the mysteriousness of him that I liked so much. There was no reason for him to be so nice to the kid. It made me happy just to read. I was excited to read the end, even though I predicted what would happen. (Wow, I like to ramble. ^—)Excelent job, good sir. Excellent.

  12. I wouldn't have commented again so soon (in fact, I hadn't been planning to, and just waiting till your next story was posted), especially so soon after my last comment (and for that spectacular cock-up with the posting system I am very sorry), but something about this just jumped out at me.Reading through the comments, I feel a little different to the reactions of everyone else. All the time I was reading, I felt a sense of Manevolence from the Vagabond. An Evilness about him that really distanced me from the Perspective of the young boy. He reminded me of the Long Armed creatures you use often. Simply speaking, I felt that he was Evil. He wasn't doing what he did for this boy, and I dont think he was doing it for some other motive, but for the fact he could. Since he was so unchanging throughout the story, which seemed to take place over the course of perhaps half a year, he gave me a feeling of apartness. I dont think he was a human being.And, thinking about the story after now, he has surely doomed the boy as well. He killed everyone in the town, and left a young boy alone in a snowed in village, to die a slow death as food and warmth evaporates around him.But still, an excellent read

  13. Your writing is simply heart warming. I discovered your works on creepy pasta, but it is not the element of horror in your works that makes them so wonderful to read; it is perhaps the truly beautiful imagery, and the way that we can all identify with the characters in the story. Whether it be Eddie from “Dust”, or Patient Zero from “Zero”, they exhibit a peculiar humanity that asks us, “Would I have done the same.” This story just made my morning, and the rest of the day will be filled with memories of the small town I used to live in Iowa, with it’s creek, and school, but perhaps for the best, without a friend.

    Thank you, Joseph.

  14. Mophead

    Interesting, didn’t scare me though. But a good story nonetheless. I like the vague feel about the fact that we don’t know what the friend does to the people.


  15. Pingback: el regalo | Nocturna

  16. Pingback: The Simply Scary Podcasts Network | Scary Stories Told in the Dark – Season 2, Episode 24 – “Fearsome Finales”

  17. Pingback: The Simply Scary Podcasts Network | Scary Stories Told in the Dark – Season 3, Episode 1 – “Paranormal Perception”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s