S H O R T S T O R Y
THE HOMELY CHILD
b y r i c h a r d c o d y ~ o r l a n d o , f l o r i d a
Hector was a homely child and was often ill. His parents rarely spoke to him but engaged his older sister, Claretta, in idle conversation at every opportunity. On the infrequent occasions when his mother or father did trouble to address him it was usually to inquire why he had been so long absent from the dinner table. They had not seen him taking supper, they would say, in quite some time. In fact, they might agree between themselves, they had seen him nowhere at all in quite some time.
"I have not missed a meal since I was ill with Treptococchea last winter," Hector replied to his father’s latest inquiry. "I sit every night at the end of the table opposite you, father."
Hector’s father -- the president of a large metropolitan bank by profession, and a money counter by nature -- raised his great dark eyebrows and clicked his tongue. "You ought to speak up, my boy, and join in the dinner conversation."
Hector was accustomed to this response. It was the same bit of advice, word for word, that his father offered whenever he questioned the boy regarding his whereabouts during the evening meal. "Yes, father," he replied as always, "I will make a concentrated effort to speak up."
"Yes, yes, that’s a good boy," his father would harumph, his attention already wavering, turning to his wife or daughter.
No matter how he tried, however, Hector found himself consistently unable to join in meal time discussions. The reasons for the boy’s inability to participate were few and simple. Hector, a reclusive and intellectually intrepid child, rarely found anything of interest upon which to comment in the banal discourse which so excited the members of his family. Occasionally, amid the dull talk of his sister’s shallow romances or the endless mantric recitation of his father’s figures and balances, there might surface some passing remark that would catch his ear and stimulate his mind. Such instances invariably came to nothing. When Hector attempted to raise his voice in speech he found the clatter of silverware and the chomping of hungry mouths to be an impenetrable wall of sound.
So it was that Hector sat every night in his lonely chair at one end of the oblong dinner table. His father, with wife and daughter on either side, reigned over the opposite end of the oblong. Night after night the homely child would sip his soup, nibble his pork roast or leg of lamb, and watch the three of them eating and talking, talking and eating. The three of them, so engaged, scarcely noticed the son and brother who sipped and nibbled just a few feet away.
It was under these conditions that Hector, his mind sharpened and twisted by the isolation he endured, began to plot. In the beginning, his machinations were nothing more than mischievous. He took great delight, for example, in switching the dinner time beverages of his family as soon as the drinks were placed on the table. Conveniently for Hector, all libations in the household were served in identical silver goblets and, subsequently, the fact that the liquids had changed places would often go unnoticed until someone put one of the shiny metal vessels to their lips. Each member of his family favored a different beverage and the sputtering frowns of distaste which followed the initial sip of a misplaced drink provided great entertainment. His father’s mustache stained a frothy white after gulping down the milk meant for Claretta. His mother’s lips puckered and twisted comically as she sipped his father’s beer. Claretta’s face crinkled sourly as she swallowed their mother’s heady wine. These things were sheer joy for Hector.
Another source of happiness for the sickly boy was the discovery, made during his first goblet switching endeavor, that he was capable of moving among his family unobserved! His parents and sibling had grown so accustomed to ignoring the homely child that he had become invisible to them. This was an invisibility far more literal than anything Hector had thus far experienced, a condition so profound that the boy could switch the goblets of his dining family directly under their noses and still remain unseen. Hector did not mourn this development and it surprised him not at all.
"They never really saw me anyway," mused the homely child to himself.
It was, of course, completely true.The members of his family had so seldom acknowledged Hector during the course of his short life that he was practically a stranger to them. Birthdays were usually forgotten and he could not remember the last time he had found a gift addressed to himself beneath the tree on Christmas morning. The quality of invisibility which he now enjoyed seemed a natural progression in the events of his solitary existence.
And Hector did enjoy his imperceptible state. Invisibility was an obvious asset in the accomplishment of the pranks he had taken to committing. These pranks remained harmless for some time. When his family finally took to inspecting the contents of their goblets before drinking, thereby ending one source of joy in the boy’s life, Hector devised further schemes to annoy them. He would, for instance, cover the food upon their plates with red pepper and substitute hot mustard for mild when frankfurters were served at lunch on weekends. Out of sight and out of mind, Hector was never suspected as the culprit behind such spicy pranks. His parents were inclined to hold his older sister, Claretta, responsible. Hector would watch with glee as they accused her of spicing their food inappropriately. Claretta’s argument that she would be unlikely to sabotage her own meal was far too obvious to hold any weight with their father.
"It is an obvious ploy," stated the patriarch, "to dislodge suspicion from yourself, Claretta, my dear."
It was only when Hector discovered a particular family photo one gray afternoon that his pranks took a fatal turn. The homely child, due to his frail health, attended no public or private school and was supposed to be instructed at home by his mother. The lessons, however, had been forgotten long ago and the lonely boy spent his days in idle pursuits. He found the photograph, for example, while searching for lost coins beneath the cushion of his father’s easy chair. It was a tattered snapshot and it drew an astonished gasp from young Hector’s lips, for it was a rarity indeed! It was, in fact, the only photograph ever taken of Hector in the company of his sister and parents.
"The four of us together in one photo!" marveled Hector. "But what is wrong with me?"
The photograph in Hector’s hands was many years old. Within the sepia-toned boundaries his parents stood tall and rigid beside one another while his sister smirked from a wooden chair placed before them. Hector himself, many years younger and unphotogenic at best, squatted in the far right hand corner of the picture. The image of the younger Hector appeared to be fading and this was the cause of the older Hector’s consternation.
"I’m vanishing," he whispered to the empty room. "I’m vanishing because they’ve completely forgotten about me!"
Hector studied the photo a moment longer, comparing the transparent image of himself to the opaque forms of his family. He was dim and translucent while they were thick and solid, they were substantial and real while he was vague and ghostly. It was almost more than the poor boy could bear, to think that he was being erased from the slate of existence! With wide eyes and pounding heart he leaped to his feet and dashed through large rooms and twisting corridors to the entrance hall of the immense house, placing himself before the full length mirror which reflected there.
A considerable amount of time had passed since Hector last looked into a mirror. In fact, he had not so much as glimpsed his reflection in the countless weeks since discovering his invisibility. At the time of that momentous discovery he had consulted this very glass, proving that he was visible to himself if no one else. Now he frowned as he gazed into the mirror. Was there not a hint of erosion in his countenance? Was that not the floral swirl of the wallpaper at his back peeking through his middle?
"I won’t let them do this to me," Hector informed his diminishing reflection. "I won’t let them erase me."
Standing there in the entrance hall before the mirror, Hector studied his fading photograph and increasingly wispy reflection. Looking from one to the other, comparing and contemplating, he became convinced that his family was responsible for his corporeal disintegration. It was their inattention, he knew, that was at the root of his transparency. Suddenly the invisibility he had enjoyed for so long was no longer a blessing but a curse, a curse that might very well prove his undoing. If he could force his family to take notice he might have a chance. If he could contrive to make them laugh at him or cry about him, to acknowledge him in some small way, then he might save himself from oblivion. Hector realized this after only a moment in the hallway. His young mind, however, inflamed by the injustice of the situation, fixed upon another means of salvation.
With grim determination the homely child abandoned the entry hall and made his way to the basement. There, in a damp and darkened corner, his father kept a convenient supply of rat poison. "I won’t let them erase me," he repeated.
At dinner that night the disturbed boy, moving unseen around the long table, placed a liberal dose of RAT - B - GONE in the meat loaf and watched his family die. The very next morning, after the most restful night of sleep he had enjoyed in recent memory, Hector was relieved to find his homely reflection solid and robust in the looking glass. He was further heartened upon inspection of the old photograph, for the younger Hector squatting in the corner was once again salient.
"Now that they’re not around to ignore me," observed the homely child, gazing at his family in the photograph, "I am whole again."
It was the end of the second week after the poisoning when the police arrived. The employees of the bank formerly managed by Hector’s father had grown fretful about his unexplained absence and had notified the authorities. Now several burly officers of the law stood pounding at the thick front door and ringing the bell. After a moment of deliberation Hector admitted the policeman and answered their questions to the best of his ability.
"My parents?" said the boy in response to one query. "My parents are in the dining room with my sister."
The servants of the law were dismayed to find the rest of the family in various states of decomposition at the dining room table. Hector confessed to the murders gleefully and, happy to receive recognition for something in his life at last, assisted the officers in every detail. The men, bewildered and dismayed, soon took the homely orphan away.
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