Authors: Kevin Henkes
WO OF THE THINGS
Benjamin Hunter received for his twelfth birthday took him completely by surprise: a room and a letter. The room was from his parents. The letter was from his uncle.
The room was on the second floor of the house, in the tree-shaded corner of what until a few months earlier had been a musty, unused attic. Ben's parents had reclaimed the attic by having it remodeled to add extra living space to their small, cramped bungalow. Two dormers had been raisedâone on the front and one on the back of the houseâand three rooms had been built. The largest room was for Ben's mother to use as a weaving studio. The other good-size room was for Ben's father; he had been dreaming for years of a quiet space all his own where he could work on his poetry and listen to his jazz CDs. And the third room, long and low roofed, had been planned as a reading room with a comfortable overstuffed chair, a skylight, and plenty of shelves to accommodate the overflow of books that seemed to multiply in stacks all over the house, starting in corners and spreading to end tables, countertops, and ottomans like some persistent growth.
Ben had watched the progress of the renovation with great interest. Seeing the exposed structure of the house fascinated himâthe beams and wires, the ancient plaster and lath stripes. The crew working on the house, he thought, wasn't unlike a surgical team performing an operation. At the height of the project, the house was a body, skin peeled back to reveal muscles, bones, veins, arteries, and organs.
When the work was completed, the reading room seemed to have been forgotten. The shelves and chair never materialized. Ben just assumed that his parents were both so consumed with setting up their own private rooms that the reading room was temporarily abandoned. They would get around to it eventually, but obviously it wasn't a priority.
Soon thereafter, on his twelfth birthday, when Ben's parents coaxed him from bed before dawn and led him upstairs, the door to the reading room was bound in stiff, blue velvet ribbon. The bow in the center was as big and round as a basketball.
“Happy birthday,” said his mother as she straightened a curled length of ribbon hanging down from the bow. Her voice was mild, with a trace of first-thing-in-the-morning hoarseness. Her eyes moved from Ben to the ribbon and back, and she smiled with parted lips.
“All yours, bud,” said his father. He opened the door, and without looking, reached around the jamb and flipped on the switch for the overhead light. He nodded, inviting Ben to enter.
Ben stepped into the room. His eyes tightened against the brightness. The room was empty. “I don't get it,” he replied.
âit's yours,” his mother explained. “An art studio.”
“What about the reading room?” Ben asked.
“Forget the reading room,” said his father. “You're an artist. You need a place to work.” He went past Ben to the opposite side of the room to look out the skylight. There was nothing to see but darkness.
“We'll get you an easel or a drawing table,” his mother told him. “Whatever you need.”
“Wow,” Ben said, faking enthusiasm. He blinked. “Thank you.”
His mother had been standing on the threshold. When she walked into the room, the pocket of her thin bathrobe caught on the doorknob. The door was pulled along behind her until it was only open a crack. “If you could paint
among all the clutter on the kitchen table,” she said, readjusting her robe, “just think what you can do here.” She nudged the door wide open again.
Ben nodded. He could tell how pleased his parents were with the gift. Because he was a lark and his parents were owls, he knew that they had made a great effort to rise early to present their gift before he had had the chance to wake and discover the decorated door on his own.
“Wow,” Ben said again. He didn't want to disappoint them. He loved his parents more than he could say. “Great. This is so great.”
The room smelled new, of fresh paint. Glossy white beadboard covered the walls. The look and feel was like that of the inside of a cottage.
His mother kissed his cheek and his father kissed the top of his head, and they both hugged him at the same time, encircling him with their arms, making what they used to call a “Ben sandwich,” but because he was thinking of
and the empty room and what it meant, he barely felt the embrace. He kissed the air twice, once for each of his parents, which was the closest he'd gotten to actually kissing them in months.
Ben's father yawned noisily like a lazy dog. “I desperately need coffee. And you,” he said, facing his son as they broke away from one another, “you need your birthday breakfast. Twelve. I can hardly believe it.”
Ben could hardly believe it either. But, whereas his father couldn't believe how quickly the last twelve years had spun by, Ben couldn't believe how long it had taken to turn twelve. In another slow year, he'd finally be a teenager.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, Ben blew out twelve candles stuck into a stack of blueberry pancakes. His parents sang to him and toasted him with orange juice. The three of them ate, while out the window the birds awakened, then chattered and called from the heavy branches nearby and beyond.
When he had finished eating, Ben made stripes on his plate by dragging his fork through the remaining maple syrup. He drew a rectangle. A door. His door. In the seconds before the birthday-room door had been opened, Ben had shivered, one small shiver of excitement. The prospect of what wonderful thing or things could be concealed behind the closed door had made his mind race, guessing. It had to be something too large to put in a regular box and wrap in a normal way. A new bicycle? A big-screen TV? A CD player with giant speakers? A year's supply of cream soda? When he had fully realized what the gift wasâand wasn'tâhis excitement vanished as quickly as the flames on his birthday candles had when he blew at them.
Now swirls and wavy rows like a plowed field completely decorated Ben's plate. He laid the fork down diagonally across the pattern. Little beads of syrup shone on the tines.
“A masterpiece,” his mother said lightly, leaning over the table, eyeing the design on the plate. She winked.
Composition with Fork and Syrup
by Benjamin Hunter,” said his father. “He's a genius. He doesn't even need a pencil, a brush, or canvas. Just give him a fork and a dirty dish and let him loose.”
“You guys,” said Ben, a bit embarrassed.
“When interviewed,” his father continued in a deep, mock-reporter's voice, “his parents, Edward Hunter and Julie Benjamin, admitted to being so proud of him they feared they might burst.”
Ben's mother raised her hand to her neck. The edges of her nails were rough. After clearing her throat, she asked, “Do you really like it? Is it the world's best gift, or a dud?” Her look was penetrating, as if she were trying to read tiny print inside his head.
“World's best,” Ben lied.
“Yes.” Ben smiled, a crooked smile, and dropped his gaze. Absently, he opened his hands and flexed his nine fingers. He composed his face. “It was such a big surprise. Maybe I'm kind of in shock, or something. It's a big thing to get a whole room.”
Ben's father chuckled.
Soon the tableâthe end where they had eaten, the end that was not hidden by books, newspapers, pens, postage stamps, recipe cards, laundryâwas cleared and wiped, the dishes stacked in the sink. As they left the kitchen to shower and get ready for the day, Ben's father said, “So, big guy, do you feel different? Changed?”
“Hmm,” Ben breathed. “Not really.” He swallowed. “Not at all.” But that wasn't exactly true.
He followed his parents down the dim narrow hallway that divided the house. He turned into his bedroom, then turned back abruptly. I lied, he thought, steadily watching his parents walk away. I lied to you today.
Later the same morning, the letter arrived. Ben's parents were at work. They owned a store called Just Books on State Street near campus, where they sold exactly thatâjust books. No coffee, no magazines, no newspapers. Because it was summertime, July, Ben usually went to the store to help or to simply hang out. He had grown up at the store, as had several of his friends. On this particular morning, Ben had lagged behind at home, waiting for the mail to see if his grandmother, Lucy, had come through with her customary birthday giftâa crisp two-dollar bill for each year of his life.
Gramma Lu was Ben's one and only living grandparent, his father's mother. She was a resident in a nursing home in northern Wisconsin, a five-hour drive from Madison, where Ben lived. Gramma Lu had diabetes. Three years earlier, her right foot had been amputated due to complications of the disease. Since then, Ben had felt connected to her in a new, strange way. When he had seen her footless leg for the first time, he was wide eyed, but not frightened at all. Usually, though, there was nothing out of the ordinary to see during their visits; Gramma Lu always covered her legs completely with a tightly knit, unusually long, mint green afghan she'd made herself that collected on the floor in a bulky heap, hiding everything.
The mail came. The money from Gramma Lu was there, wrapped in a plain sheet of paper marked with a big shaky
and a small misshapen
, nothing else. The paper, the twelve bills, and the pale yellow envelope smelled strongly of lilacsâher perfume.
Ben liked receiving the two-dollar bills because they seemed rare and notable, and worth so much more than their face value. Each year he saved at least one in the dilapidated leather pouch he kept in the back of his sock drawer.
Ben counted the money twice, then flipped through the other pieces of mail. There were catalogs, a magazine, advertisements for stores, and a business envelope he nearly missed.
The envelope was addressed to Mr. Benjamin Hunter. The postmark read Eugene, Oregon. The return address on the back confirmed what Ben had somehow already guessedâthe envelope was from his uncle, Ian. Just holding the envelope made Ben's knees go hollow. He wanted to open it, and he didn't want to open it. He wanted his parents there with him, and yet he was grateful to be alone.
Minutes passed. The electric clock in the kitchen hummed. The screen door shifted on its hinges in a slight breeze. A cat screeched somewhere outside, somewhere close. And then there was the sound of the envelope being ripped open.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Dear Benjamin,
I've rewritten this letter too many times to mention, trying to get it exactly right. Even if I didn't do thatâget it exactly rightâI hope I got it right enough.
First offâhappy birthday! Twelve is certainly a big deal. I can only imagine how you've grown since I last saw you. You were really only a baby then, and I called you Benjy.