The day had finally arrived, twelve-year-old Timmy O’Reilly was old enough to have his own paper route. How he’d envied those other boys with their pockets filled with change, buying the latest comics books or stopping for a treat at the ice cream parlor. He was, at last, a working man.
He had thought of nothing else that day in school. He got his knuckles rapped twice by his teacher, a nun with a very sour disposition, for not paying attention to the board work. But all he could think about was the stack of papers that would be waiting for him when he got home that afternoon.
He ran all the way, crisp autumn leaves crunching beneath his shoes, the crisp wind turning his cheeks pinks and blowing his hair off his face. Taking the front steps two at a time, he dashed through the front door calling to his mother, “Are they here yet?”
Coming from the back of the house, his mother smiled at her eager son. “Yes, Timmy, they are,” she said. “Now, why don’t you take a moment and study your route, then we can fold the papers and pack them in your bag.”
Timmy shook his head. “No, we have to fold them right away,” he replied. “The circulation manager told me that I had to be real quick. So, let’s fold them and I can learn the route on the way.”
Shaking her head, but allowing her son to lead the way in his new business venture, Mrs. O’Reilly sat on the living room floor and began to fold the papers and pack them neatly in the large canvas bag with the paper’s name emblazoned on the side. With both of them working, side by side, the bag was soon filled and Timmy was ready to go. With the canvas bag handle looped around his shoulders and the bag resting on his back fender, he straddled his bike, route addresses in hand and started off. “Bye Mom,” he called, his face glowing with excitement. “I’ll be home for supper.” He only said that because it was something his father had said and it made him feel like a real working man.
“Good-bye dear,” she replied, biting back a smile. “Good luck with your route and remember, you are representing the paper.”
Pushing off and pedaling into the street, he thought about his mother’s last words. He was representing the paper now. He wasn’t just Timmy O’Reilly; he was part of the Chicago Beacon. He needed to be sure he remembered that.
He biked the four blocks to his first street. It was like all of the streets in his neighborhood, tree-lined and residential, with neat little Chicago bungalows lining the street. The porches already had decorations in place for the celebration of Halloween at the end of the week. The jack-o-lanterns were carved and stared at him with dark, vacant eyes and smiles, awaiting the candles that would light them up. Ghosts, scarecrows, and witches also shared the porches with the carved pumpkins, awaiting the ghouls and goblins with the bags for trick or treating. Timmy already had his costume planned; he was going as a policeman, the only costume he ever wore.
Slowing at the porch of the first customer, he realized it was the home of a classmate. Jenny Callahan, one of the cutest girls in the seventh grade. She stood next to the railing and watched him. He felt sweat pool between his shoulders and his hand got a little clammy. If he messed this one up, the whole school would know about it. Taking a deep breath, he reached for a paper and threw it on the porch. He’d been practicing his throw for several weeks, and it paid off when the paper hit the porch and slid to land next to the welcome mat near the front door. “Cool,” he said, his grin broadening. “This is going to be great.”
Jenny smiled at him, then bent and picked up the paper. “Wait, Timmy,” she called, walking into her house. Confused, he waited. Did he do something wrong? A moment later she walked out and came down the stairs. She handed him a shiny dime. “My mom always tips our newspaper boys,” she said.
Timmy smiled back at her and stuffed the dime in his pocket. “Wow, thanks,” he said. “Thanks a lot.”
Yeah, this was going to be a great job, Timmy thought as he pedaled away from Jenny’s house. He continued down the street, each paper landing precisely where he wanted it to go. And as he continued his route, the sky darkened, the streets became less occupied and he could tell that night was settling in. The final street on his route was a dead-end, so he decided he would deliver to one side of the street, then the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, finish with the other side of the street and finally go home.
The trees on this particular street were spaced closer to each other and their overhanging branches formed a tunnel down the middle of the narrow street. The sidewalks were in disrepair and often leaned to the side or were crumbled in the middle. He rode his bike carefully, not wanting to fall over. Timmy glanced quickly down the sidewalk, he couldn’t remember ever coming down this street before.
As he approached the first porch, he picked up the next paper, waited until the next porch came into range and fired it off. Slap. Slide. Perfect hit. Even in the dimming light, he had good aim. He continued with the next six houses and then came to the last house at the dead end. The sidewalk here was nearly non-existent and the house was set away from the street, so he couldn’t see the porch. He laid his bike against the tall, black wrought-iron fence at the edge of the property. Weeds, bushes and dried chrysanthemums encased the fence and nearly swallowed Timmy’s bike. Pulling a paper out of the bag, he walked to the tall gate, pushed it open and froze.
The old house reminded him of the sidewalk, leaning and dilapidated. The windows were dark and what was left of the porch was leaning dangerously in the opposite direction of the rest of the house. He started to step back, away from the gate and back to his bike. But then he remembered his mother’s words. He was a representative of the paper and it was his job to deliver the news.
Swallowing his fears, he took a deep breath and walked forward towards the house. The leaves under his feet crunched with such noise he wondered if they were really corn flakes instead of leaves. The air around him seemed to be still and heavy. It was harder to breathe, but that could have been because his heart was beating so quickly.
As he placed his foot on the first step he heard a rustling sound in the overgrowth next to the house and he nearly stepped back. Then he looked down at the paper in his hand and placed his next foot on the step. Looking around the porch, he tried to find a safe place to put the paper. But where the porch was not rotted away, it was covered with spider webs or thick vines. He had no other choice than to deliver it in person.
The wooden screen door lay haphazardly against its frame, the screening hanging loosely down the side. He put this hand through the hole and knocked on the old front door. A dim glow appeared in the windows next to the door and Timmy breathed a sigh of relief. Good! Someone was home.
Timmy counted to sixty three times before the knob on the other side of the door rattled and the door slowly opened. A thin, wrinkled face peeked out from the narrow space between the door and frame. “Hello?” the parched voice whispered. “What do you want?”
Clearing his throat several times to get rid of the panic, Timmy took his cap off his head to be polite and finally said, “I’m here with your paper.” Lifting the said object up for the thin man to see.
Eyes almost too wide for their sockets followed the movement. “Paper?” he croaked.
Nodding eagerly, Timmy handed it to him. “Yes, it’s today’s copy of the Chicago Beacon,” he replied. “I’m your new paperboy.”
A long, thin hand reached out and grasped the paper, slowly pulling it back into the house, but at the last moment, the paper slipped from his grasp and tumbled to the floor. Dropping his hat, Timmy dove for the paper and caught it before it disappeared into one of the holes in the porch. “Here you are,” he said, offering the paper again.
The old face stared at him for a moment longer and then nearly cracked in half with a wide smile. “Thank you, boy,” he whispered.
“You’re welcome, sir,” Timmy replied. “Um, have a nice evening.”
The old man nodded slowly and then closed the door.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Timmy walked down the stairs and stepped onto the sidewalk. The rustling in the overgrown lawn intensified and all he could imagine were big, hairy rats waiting to grab hold of him and pull him under. Tossing caution to the wind, he ran down the sidewalk and pushed the gate closed firmly behind him.
Pulling his bike from the bushes, he hopped back on it and hurried down the street, delivering the rest of the papers. When he got to the very last house on his route, he reached in the bag and, to his surprise, found no more papers.
There had to be a mistake. He had enough papers for every house on his route.
Pedaling his bike next to a streetlight, he pulled out the paper with the route. He counted the addresses on the street; there was one less subscriber than houses on the street. Studying it, he realized the old house with the iron fence had not been a subscriber. He’d given them a free paper. He thought for a moment about going back there, but only for a moment. There was no way he was going back through that yard in the dark. But, it was his fault, he hadn’t checked his route before.
He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out the shiny dime. He knew what he had to do. He rode out of the dead-end street and over a block to a metal newspaper box on the corner, inserted his dime and pulled out the paper he needed. In a few minutes, the paper was delivered and he was on his way back home.
“Hey, Mom, I’m home,” he said, walking through the front door.
“How’d it go?” she asked, looking up from setting the dining room table for dinner.
“Good,” he replied. “But there’s a lot to this newspaper business.”
She smiled at him. “I’m sure there is,” she agreed, and then she paused and looked at him. “Where’s your hat?”
He moaned and closed his eyes. He knew exactly where he’d lost it, on the rickety porch when he’d dived to catch the paper. “I left it at one of the houses on my route,” he confessed. “I’ll leave early for school in the morning and get it.”
Maybe the house wouldn’t be as scary in the daytime.
The following morning, Timmy rode his bike back down the route from the night before. It does make a difference coming during the daytime, he thought as he pedaled down the dead-end street, things look a lot less scary with sunshine on them.
Although he had to admit, the fence at the end of the street didn’t look a whole lot better. He leaned his bike against the fence again, as he had done the night before and walked over to the gate. But this time he saw something he’d missed the night before. A large sign was attached to the middle of the gate. “Condemned – Do Not Enter”
How did he miss that?
He hated to ignore the sign, but his hat was in there and, besides, it really hadn’t been all that bad last night.
He pushed the gate as far as he could, this time there was a chain around the gate and the post, and he slipped through. He walked a couple of steps and froze. The house was gone. All that was left was charred remains. The porch was lying on the ground in pieces. What few windows that were left were shattered and there was no roof, only a burnt and gaping hole.
Timmy shook his head. He could tell by the vines growing up the side of the house, the fire had happened a long time ago, not since last night.
He took a step back, towards the gate, when something hanging on a post near the house caught his eye. His hat. Someone had placed his hat up where he could find it. It took him a moment to get his legs to move, but when he could he ran, grabbed his hat and sped back to the gate.
As he pushed himself back through the narrow opening, he was sure he felt someone touch his shoulder and whisper, “Thank you, boy.”
For more stories like this one – read one of the “Tales Around the Jack O’Lantern” short stories by Terri Reid.