Mark stuffed the last of the rolled newspapers in the canvas bag hanging from the handlebars of his battered bicycle and picked up the remaining copy, folded as it has come from the press, placing it carefully between pieces of heavy cardboard and pushed it into the back of the bag. He leaned down and wiggled the prosthetic foot knowing that it would never fit comfortably on his stump, no matter what he tried. Resigned, he pulled on his fur-lined gloves and pushed off on his bike, throwing papers close to the doors of the houses he served. He paused to look up as the first flakes of snow drifted down, and to cover the remaining papers with a sheet of plastic.
Now, only the protected paper remained. Mark pushed back the sleeve of his jacket to glance at his watch - nearly six. He peddled furiously to cover the five blocks beyond his regular route, which ended at the city limits, stopping before a brick walk leading into a grove of trees. He dismounted and pushed the bike carefully up the winding walk, setting it on its stand before the shingled cottage. He removed the paper from its protective covering, climbed the two steps, and pressed the bell. By the time the chime had struck the first note of its unusual peal, Mark had slipped out of his muddy shoes and pushed the door open, letting his stockinged feet sink into the deep pile of the carpet as he crossed the room to the waiting cushion on the raised hearth.
He laid the paper on a low table by the wingchair and sank back on a cushion to warm before the fire. It had taken him a while to believe that the soft pale fabric of the cushion was plastic, unharmed by his sometimes wet clothing. He looked about the room. It never changed, yet there was always something new to be seen.
Shelf after shelf of books lined the walls, broken by an occasional painting. A Beckstein concert grand filling the far end of the room and a few well chosen pieces of occasional furniture were all, giving the room a spaciousness beyond its modest size. Beyond the closed door near the piano, he knew, a tiny hall gave to a small kitchen, two bedrooms, and a small bath. Mark loved the house. He remembered grumbling on the first day because the paper had to be delivered so far from the others; how he'd been early and stood listening to the piano through the open door. When, at last, the man had seen him, he'd beckoned him in and shown him the instrument, letting him, that single time, pick out a tune with one finger.
The silence was shattered by a vicious whir from the kitchen. Mark smiled in anticipation and sat until he became aware of hands extending a small tray toward him. He took it, set it carefully on the hearth beside him, and lifted the fragile china cup, letting the hot chocolate warm him. If only mom would make it this way, milk instead of water, and frothy from the blender, a sprinkling of miniature marshmallows on top, melting their sweetness into the creamy richness. He took a large thin cookie from the plate, oatmeal, his favorite, especially when thin and crispy, lumpy with raisins like these. Mark raised his eyes to smile at the slender dark-haired young man seated in the wingchair before him, aware that all that time he had been watched with that slight smile. It had been creepy at first, but now, any change in that expression would mean that something was terribly wrong.
When he had finished the chocolate and cookies, Mark pushed back his sleeve to look at his watch, knowing the man's smile deepened as he did so. He stood and went to stand before the chair in response to the beckoning finger. A finger under his chin tipped his head back slightly as dark eyes flicked across his lightly freckled nose and gazed into his blue eyes. The hand touched him on the cheek for a second, then fell away as the smile vanished, replaced by a look of longing.
Mark shrugged into his jacket, pulled the zipper up, and turned, surprised to see that the man had also arisen. His finger motioned for Mark to wait. He disappeared into the bedroom and returned holding a pair of fleece-lined boots.
Mark sat on the cushion and pulled them on. "How'd you know my size?"
The tall man smiled down, winked, and pointed to the front door.
"Oh, you got my size from my shoes."
A nod. The man moved to the Christmas tree and took the only gift from beneath it. He handed it to Mark and went to the piano. The thunderous tones of the Beckstein filled the room. 'Silent Night.' Mark shivered in the excitement of hearing his favorite carol from this magnificent instrument at last. The man had always refused to play it before, despite Mark's begging. The last chord was held until the strings ceased their vibration.
The man's hands were almost rough on his shoulders as they pushed him toward the door. Mark picked up his shoes from the mat and looked up. The man suddenly bent and placed a soft kiss on his cheek. The door slammed shut.
Mark stood for a moment, his gloved fist scrubbing furiously at his kissed cheek. He felt tempted to rip off the boots and throw them in the snow. He flung the beautifully wrapped package to the walk and jerked his bike from its stand. Damn! The guy was peculiar, but ... Mark paused at the end of the walk, set his bike up, standing in confused indecision. The guy had always been straight with him before, and the presents were something special - things he really wanted that mom couldn't afford. Conscience in turmoil, Mark walked slowly up the walk and retrieved the package, its elegant paper now stained from the wet snow, and jammed it into his pocket. Like the watch, the silver ID bracelet, and other gifts from the man, he'd have to hide it from mom. She'd raise hell if she knew he'd taken anything like that. Tips from people on his route were okay, but things like these were forbidden. He removed the watch and ID, slipping them into the pocket of his jeans, wondering what treasure the small box contained. Maybe mom wouldn't get too up-tight about the boots. He wiggled his toes in the warm fleece.
"Mark, where'd you get those boots?" His mother asked when he returned home.
"Ken - Mr. Prentice gave them to me."
"Is he the one you deliver special?"
Mark nodded, holding the boots out.
"You know I don't approve, but you need them so badly I'm going to let you keep them. Be sure you thank Mr. Prentice."
Mark started to turn away, but his mother's voice stopped him. "What's that in your pocket?"
Mark frowned until he remembered the package in his jacket pocket. "Just something one of my customers gave me." He held out the small box.
She looked at it and shrugged. "It's too small to be much. Probably somebody wrapped their tip. Put it under the tree for tomorrow."
Mark slipped the box under the meager table tree and switched on the TV.
"Good night, Mark."
"'Night, mom." The figures moved in black and white across the small screen unheeded, Mark wishing that tonight of all nights he did not have to be alone, but knowing that the money mom would make from her tips as a cocktail waitress would mean good food and warmth for a month as well as a payment on his hospital bill. He thought once of riding his bike back to Ken's house. Maybe he'd be home and let him watch TV in color and give him some more of that fantastic chocolate and cookies. Mark started to rise, but slumped back on the old sofa. Mom would be wild if she found out, besides, how could he explain the visit to Ken? He'd never even called him Ken to his face, though the man had written the name on a pad, pointing to himself many times, nor had he taken the offers to go hiking or bike riding, or spend time reading, though he did occasionally listen to him play the magnificent piano. Finally the offers had ceased. Mark accepted only the gifts at Christmas and the drink and cookies that awaited him each day, summer and winter alike. He had come to accept Ken's sitting, watching him with that faint smile.
Mark lay in bed wondering what mom's and his life would be like if he hadn't been so stupid as to take the dare Johnny and Bill had given him two summers before. They had had a nice flat, his mother not working because his father worked a well paid job, but then the accident - the box car beginning unaccountably to roll along the short track. If he had been one second faster the car would never have gotten his foot.
It had all come apart then. His father had disappeared without a word, the hospital and doctor's bills quickly taking the money his mother had prudently set aside whenever she could. They could no longer afford the flat near the park, instead they had moved into this old building because the rent was low enough to leave them money to buy groceries, pay the utilities, and a little each month to the hospital. The money he made from his paper route eased some of the burden, but luxuries were of the past.
Mark put the coffeepot on, turned the oil heater higher to cut the chill, and ate his breakfast of cold cereal. He sat looking at the forlorn tree and the few packages under it. He reached for the one Ken had given him, regretful of the water stains that marred the wrapping, still resentful of the kiss. He'd better open this one before mom got up and maybe she wouldn't remember it, just in case it was something she wouldn't allow him to keep. If she asked, he could always say it had been a couple of bucks as a tip. He slipped the paper off and opened the lid. A brass key lay taped to a sheet of folded notepaper. He opened the note. 'Call 333-3300. Give the name Kenneth J. Prentice to whoever answers. May this be your best Christmas ever, Mark.' Mark dropped the key and note back in the box, slinging it carelessly under the table. It was a joke. Disappointment flooded him. What a dumb present.
"Merry Christmas, honey. Get me a cup of coffee, would you." His mother dropped down to the worn sofa with a sigh. Her face, devoid of make-up, was lined with the worry of each day.
"Want something else?"
"This is all," she said, taking the mug. "Want to open your gifts?"
Mark shrugged. "I guess so." He picked up a square box and ripped it open, grunting at the flannel shirt.
"I hope you like it. It should be nice and warm."
"Yeah, it's okay." He reached for another. Heavy cotton socks, not wool like the pair Ken had given him one time when his foot was wet and almost frozen. Those were soft and warm and didn't hold moisture like cotton. Why couldn't these be the same?
His mother opened the small box he handed her. The gold colored ballpoint pen glittered cheaply in the cold light from the window.
"I thought you might use it, mom."
"Oh, sure. I needed one to write orders with." As she leaned back, she remembered. "What was in the box your customer gave you?"
Mark picked up the forgotten box from the floor. "He must have been joking."
For three days after Christmas there was no open door, no light, no answer to the chime. The papers lay in plastic wrap as and where Mark had placed them. He mentioned it to his mother on her night off.
"Ain't this the first time?"
"Where's the note he gave you Christmas?"
"You put it on the mantel."
"I'm goin' to call the number and find out what's goin' on."
The next morning, following the instructions given to her on the phone, Mrs. Adams was seated in an awe-inspiring office listening to the imposing silver-haired gentleman. "All right, Mrs. Adams," he concluded, his clear blue eyes looking straight into hers as he thoughtfully massaged a deep wrinkle in his brow, "bring your son in Wednesday morning and we'll see."
That evening, she confronted her son. "Mark, what do you know about this Mr. Prentice?"
"Nothin'. I mean he sometimes gave me something to drink and a cookie, but that's all."
"He never acted funny around you, did he?"
"What 'cha mean funny?"
"Oh, hell, you know what I mean. Did he touch you or anything?"
Mark paused, lying was not something you did to mom's face. His hand touched his cheek. "When he gave me that present on Christmas Eve, he ... well ..."
"He kissed me."
"Oh, my God! He didn't do anything else, did he?"
"No. Just that."
Wednesday morning, Mrs. Adams and Mark met the attorney to be whisked in a limousine to the cottage. No fire blazed on the hearth as Mark took his usual seat on the cushion. The furnace battled the cold in the room, the Christmas tree drooped wearily. Mark handed the key and the note that were the gift to the attorney and sat back.
The attorney read the note and looked back to him. "How old are you, son?"
"And how long have you known Mr. Prentice?"
"I've carried his paper for three years."
"I see." He set the long narrow metal box he had brought with him on the table before the sofa, opened it, and handed a sealed envelope to Mark. "Read this letter first."
Mark broke the seal and unfolded the closely written page.
'You hold this note because I choose to give you the key, Mark. I know that I was different and that is why, perhaps, you didn't wish to spend more time with me, though you have your own difference also. But you brought me perfect papers every day, unrolled, the way I like them, and you spent a few minutes of your time with me and let me give you something to drink and cookies which you appeared to enjoy. There were so many things I wanted to tell you, but as I could not, I let my piano talk for me. You love Silent Night, but it is too painful for me to play. Though you have some interest in music, I wonder if you understood what I was trying to say. I can tell you now that the piece I played so often was the theme from the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, better known as 'None But The Lonely Heart.'
I must close now. Judge Harrington will explain everything else to you when the time comes. But before I close, I must thank you most of all for never laughing at me.
With my deepest love,
"What does he mean different?" Mrs. Adams demanded.
The judge silenced her with a sharp glance and spoke to Mark. "Did he ever try to speak to you?"
Mark nodded. "Once, but it was just noise. After that, he always wrote notes."
"Mark, Mr. Prentice was mute. An operation for cancer five years ago took his voice. He was unable to learn esophageal speech and knowing that he was dying, he shut himself away. It was the end of a brilliant beginning as a concert pianist, the end of one of the most delightful people I have ever been privileged to know. Other than you, Mark, I suppose I am the only person who ever saw him. I regret now that my calls were few because the silence was more than I could bear, unless we played chess or he played for me. So you, then, were his only companion, his only friend. This key, which I'm sure you thought a poor gift, fits the door of this cottage. It and all that is here now belong to you, along with a sum of money which is designated for the best prosthetic foot available, with the rest to be invested toward your education."
"But where's Ken?"
The judge looked at him thoughtfully. "A note he left for me tells of a young man who was kind, thoughtful, who gave Ken Prentice the only friendship and love he had these three years past. Mark, Ken Prentice died Christmas morning."
Mark, at last, had a gift for Ken - his tears.