The Man With No Name

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A ribbon of pipe smoke curls into the air, and not for the first time, I think of my grandpa, who would sit at the back of a musty kitchen, puffing his pipe, pondering a world that passed him by long ago. The memory is vivid, visceral, and it almost sends me sprawling into the distant past.

The man who sits before me now, The Man With No Name, is not my grandpa. He died eleven years ago. Though The Man With No Name would have been around when my grandpa was still alive, as well as when his grandpa was still alive. He gestures to me with his pipe before returning it to his mouth.

“Sit, Michael.”

I do as I’m told. I have no idea why he’s summoned me. I only know I was home, heading upstairs for bed, and when I reached the top I realized I was no longer ascending the wooden steps in my house, but the ancient wrought iron steps that lead to his personal chambers. Yet I’ve learned in all our dealings not to ask questions but to listen. He always has his reasons, and my family and I have come to trust them.

The candelabra that hangs from the high stone ceiling glows a dim flickering orange. It makes me feel as if I’ve crossed the threshold into another world, and for all I know I have.

“Michael, I’m going to get right to the point. I’m dying.”

Dying. It took a moment for the meaning of the word to resolve.

“But how?” I can’t believe what I’ve just heard.

“My kind live long by your standards, but contrary to what you and your family may believe, I am not immortal.”

I feel as if everything I’ve been taught has been a lie. All of Grandpa’s stories about The Man With No Name, about how he helped the family, once poor, prosper and succeed. He was not just a saint to us, he was a god. Now, I’m learning that even a god can die.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

I must have been staring. I gaze down at my feet, crestfallen. The world falls apart around me. I feel like throwing up.

“I served your family long before it had a name, but now my life draws to a close and I’d like to put things in order before I go.”

“But, what will we do without you? We’ve relied on you for so long. I don’t know how we’ll survive.”

The Man With No Name leans back. A grimace sours his features like rancid milk.

“I spoiled you. I should have been more discerning in my aid. Ah, well, that’s love. Michael, there comes a time in every person’s life when they have to leave the protection of their parents and strike out on their own. This is true of children, and it is also true of families. I’ve been with your kin for more than a thousand years, teaching and guiding. Now, it’s time to take what you’ve learned and make something of yourselves.”

“You can’t leave us.”

“I have no choice. My time in this world is finished. I’m ready to flee the shackles of my body and discover what lies beyond.”

Shock begins to thaw, and despair begins to take its place.

“Make me proud, Michael. You and your family are capable of great things. You no longer need my help, and you haven’t for a while.”

“But I don’t want you to go.” My voice cracks.

“I know.”

The Man With No Name opens his arms, and I find myself running into their embrace. I cry. The arms close around me.

“Goodbye, Michael.”

When I pull back, I’m standing once more at the top of my own stairs. For the first time in my life, and in all the centuries of my family’s life, I know what it truly means to be alone.

Caleb

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I was ten the year Caleb disappeared.

We were sitting on his porch, sipping lemonade beneath a pallid morning sun. He was showing me his rock collection, teaching me about all the different kinds of minerals, how and when and why they were formed.

“The Earth has so many stories to tell,” he said with the wisdom of someone much older, and he gazed into a piece of smoky quartz as if it were the solution to some profound primordial puzzle.

He had a way of making the ordinary extraordinary. I didn’t know half as much as he did, but it was enough just to listen to him talk, to absorb even a fraction of his knowledge.

Then he got quiet, and when I asked what he was thinking he told me he had a secret.

“You have to promise not to tell anyone.”

“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”

He paused. “Dad and I are going away.”

“On a trip?”

Caleb shook his head.

“Where? For how long?”

“I don’t know. Forever, I guess.”

The words formed a fist that punched me in the stomach. I almost doubled over. My best friend was leaving. Tears welled at the corners of my eyes.

“Why do you have to go?”

“I don’t know. Dad just said the world’s changing, that it’s time to move on. He said we’re leaving today.”

I was shocked. I stared at the street, silent and still, until Caleb spoke again.

“Dad says you can come inside to say goodbye. But you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

Caleb opened the door.

I followed.

The inside of his house had always been off limits. In spite of my pain, I felt a distant thrill. I was doing something that until that day had been forbidden. I expected the interior to be different somehow, like the threshold between Earth and some alien world. But it was only an ordinary living room, with a TV, a lamp and a couch. Just like my own house.

“Hello, Daniel,” said Caleb’s dad, emerging from the hallway with a leather suitcase. He was wearing a black suit and tie, with a matching fedora on his head. “We didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.”

“Will you visit?” I asked in desperation.

Caleb glanced up at his dad, who smiled and said, “Maybe. If we can.” Then he looked down at my best friend and asked, “Are you ready?”

Eyes downcast, Caleb said he guessed he was.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “Maybe I can write.”

But Caleb only shrugged and took his dad’s hand. “Bye, Daniel. I’ll miss you.”

They began to fade.

At first, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I blinked, closed my eyes, expected it to be some trick of the light. But when I looked at Caleb again he was transparent, only a ghostly apparition in place of the boy he’d once been.

“What’s happening?” I thought maybe I was dreaming, that I’d wake up to the familiar relief of my blankets and pillows, secure in the knowledge that Caleb wasn’t leaving after all.

“Remember,” said Caleb’s dad, hardly more than a glimmer, “You have to keep this a secret. We’ll visit if we can.”

Then they were gone.

In the months that followed, they were the talk of the neighborhood. What had happened to them? Were they okay?

“Caleb was your best friend,” Mom asked me once. “Did he tell you anything?”

I shook my head. Caleb was my best friend and I promised to keep his secret.

The house is abandoned now. The paint has begun to peel and the yard is a jungle of overgrown weeds. I wander by from time to time, childhood memories passing through my head like phantoms, wondering if someday he’ll return. But deep down, I suspect he’s moved on, and I wonder if he would even recognize me if our paths ever crossed again.

Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s having an adventure. I only wish I could have joined him.