The little mining town of Bellview, population 1,693, eventually got used to Henry Tingle. Since he was old enough to walk, stares followed him and whispers travelled quickly down sidewalks, passed through homes, and around stores aisles about his strangeness. Henry learned early how to pretend not to see or hear them.
Still, he saw and heard.
Henry was born fifty-nine years ago with a creative imagination, a love for animals, and a disfiguring cranial anomaly that left his parents searching for answers. There was a name for it–Treachers Collins Syndrome; where the head grows large, the eyes huge, eye sockets sag down toward the cheekbones, and the ears malformed, tiny, if present at all. Adults would frown, their eyes would grow big and they would scurry away as if just by talking or getting too close to him, the disease would jump ship and land on them. But it was the adolescents who were the cruelest, with their ugly name-calling and mimicking faces twisted into odd shapes that hurt the most. And after that one character from the 80’s movie, Sloth was one of the kinder names that stuck.
Being friendless as a child, Henry created his own world, reading science fiction comics and slapping green finger paint on his face every day after school so he could be an alien. With Henry’s deformed features, he actually looked very alien-like as neighborhood children watched him build misshaped spacecrafts out of tin scraps and wood in the front yard. Henry decided he was invisible to them and they were only watching a hammer, nails, nuts and bolts float mysteriously through the air, building without a care. The thought made him laugh.
When his father left, Henry was never sure if the man was just so repulsed by a bug-eyed, pimply, big-headed scrawny boy he was forced to call son, or if it was simply the alcohol convincing him that he deserved a better life with less hardships. Either way, Henry and his mother, Margaret Tingle, was better off without John Tingle.
His mother would watch from the porch as Henry spent day after day playing outside–alone. So, one birthday, she bought him a friend. A Basset Hound he called Happy, with eyes as sad and droopy as Henry’s. They were inseparable throughout the years. Happy didn’t care what he looked like and waited at the door everyday for him to come home from school, licking Henry’s lopsided face with sloppy vigor.
After graduating high school, Henry was hired as a janitor in the school system. Days turned into years and as the years passed, they took Happy and Margaret Tingle with them. Henry mourned dreadfully and even thought of moving, but knew that would mean enduring new stares and whispers. Eventually time healed, as it does, and strangely enough, it was the town of Bellview that reached out and gave him comfort.
The Chamber of Commerce asked Henry to participate in the yearly Halloween Haunted House fundraiser. “You would make the best monster,” they’d said. “No offense,” they’d said. That led to becoming Santa Claus, a very hip, well-covered Santa Claus with lots of white facial hair and a pair of dark round-rimmed glasses. Then he became the Easter Bunny, hiding the eggs for the children at the park by the town square. Henry jumped on every opportunity to hide under a costume. He even had a green leprechaun suit, and an Uncle Sam suit, too. Being in the town’s limelight raised Henry to celebrity status, and made him feel if not loved, at least liked and accepted for the first time. But more than that, it made him feel normal.
Life went by uneventfully, as Henry waited for various holidays, and while that was fulfilling, he was lonely. He missed coming home to someone. It was while ironing the cloth edges down on the square name-tag of his janitorial uniform one day, thinking about Happy, that a revelation dawned on him. Why had he not thought of this sooner?
The very first time he went to the shelter, Henry was lost. The animals looked up with faces as unloved and lonely as himself. Henry finally knew his purpose in life and bought them all that day, cats and dogs alike. He laughed at their exuberance, jumping, licking, and purring. But truth be told, he felt the lucky one. The look on their furry faces was what had been missing in his life.
So, Henry’s day job allowed purchasing a family of his own; albeit, one of the four-legged and feathered variety as cats and dogs, sometimes birds, hamsters or rabbits found their way into Henry’s home. Most he kept, but some he found a good home. Naturally, the three-bedroom house he grew up in was soon overflowing.
Neighbors began noticing. Then town officials noticed. The city told him he would have to get rid of nearly all of them. But one kind neighbor told him if he wanted to keep his pets, there was a way. He’d have to move out of the city limits, though.
That was just what Henry did. He found some acreage, with nothing around for miles but trees and a small brook flowing through it. It had a small farmhouse that would need expanding upon almost immediately. And eventually a barn would need building, but he could make that happen. The construction appealed to Henry’s creative side, anyway. What else did he have to spend his money on?
The care of his large family was no small feat. Henry used his talents and made contraptions for each room; a trough system for feeding and watering, all set to timers. The divided feeding basins, suspended close to the ceiling with plastic tubes, ran the wall’s length to the floor allowing different feed to fall down on timers. The animals learned the timed sequence for their individual feedings. He built a fence around the house and put doggy doors in every room.
And he continued to gather more pets.
It didn’t take long before Henry knew the employees of all the nearby animal shelters by first name basis, and they him. He would receive calls in the night, rescuing animals almost daily. Rules were bent and heads would look the other way if money was tight for the month while Henry waited for his next paycheck.
Life was good and Christmas was just around the corner.
Soon, it was the last day, marking the beginning of Christmas break. Before work that morning, Henry climbed into the attic for Christmas decorations. The box was full of lights, tinsel stars, a stocking, a tree skirt, handmade ornaments he’d made as a child and his mother had kept, and even an ornamental picture of Happy.
Stuck under a bottom flap of cardboard was a three-inch red velveteen stocking, given to him as a Christmas thank-you gift by a little girl at school his first year as janitor. The stocking had held a small candy cane. He recalled her name had been Maggy, like his mother’s, and she had been a special needs student. She had died the next year from pneumonia, if he remembered correctly. She’d had a smattering of freckles across her nose, red curls bouncing with each step, and eyes that sparkled with untold wisdom as she smiled.
He rubbed at the velvety softness between his fingers and felt something inside. He dug in a finger, pulling out a small folded piece of paper. Henry frowned. Had this always been here, he wondered? It was yellow and delicate from age. He unfolded it carefully. It looked like a coupon, of sorts, carefully written in red pencil.
It read; “Doog rof eno samtsirhc hsiw. evol, Yggam Nosimaj” Henry frowned, baffled, then smiled, remembering Maggy read and wrote everything backwards. Henry concentrated, deciphering her words. “Good for one Christmas wish. Love Maggy Jamison.”
Henry smiled and tucked the paper in his pocket. It would be fun to think more on this hypothetical wish throughout the day as he mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms, and emptied wastebaskets.
Snow fell all day long keeping the children inside. The school halls became electric, charged with children’s excitement as the last day before Christmas break drew to a close. Henry had two more hours left in his shift after the halls were quiet.
He turned off all lights, locked up the doors, hauled trash to the dumpsters, then trudged to his old Plymouth just as the darkening twilight peeked through the blustering white wind. The snow, a foot deep already, was falling fast. He scraped the windows while warming the car.
Henry drove slowly. The bright multi-colored Christmas lights hanging downtown were blurry twinkles in the whiteout conditions. He turned carefully off the main highway onto the dirt road leading home, worrying that Bone Creek Bridge might be pretty slick and give him problems. He rubbed at the condensation on the windshield, then gripped the steering wheel tightly. Thankfully, not many vehicles were out and about in the storm.
But soon, one set of headlights broke through the dark horizon looking like two small flashlights in the snow-hazed distance. He hoped they would turn so he wouldn’t have to meet them on the narrow road. The headlights grew, though, as Henry watched the vehicle drew near barreling and skidding through the snow in a white cloud without a care for safety. Henry flashed his lights bright, then dim. He rolled down his window and uselessly waved his arm. Henry could hear loud music coming from the truck, then laughter as kids hollered “Chicken” sticking heads and arms out of both windows.
Henry rolled up his window and muttered, “Teenagers. No idea how dangerous a blizzard is. Dang drifts are over five feet already.”
And their truck wasn’t slowing, let alone sharing the road. They were heading straight into him. Panicking, Henry swerved to the right just in time. The truck sped by in an explosion of snow from the huge tires. Henry missed the truck, but also missed the entrance to the bridge, as his car veered down the side of the embankment toward the river. Icy tree branches whipped by and scraped the metal, the snowdrifts reached the top of his windows as the car slid down the hill. The old Plymouth came to a jarring stop, crashing into a huge sturdy boulder at the water’s edge. The impact tossed Henry into the windshield.
The car hissed and steam bellowed. Then all was quiet.
Henry moaned touching his head as he slunk back down into his seat. Blood, bright and thick, stained his gloves. His ribs hurt. Groggily, he opened his eyes and tried to open his door. It was jammed shut. He tried to start the car, but it just made a grinding noise.
He thought of his animals. He could walk the other five miles. If he could just get out of the car. They needed him. His focus turned to the passenger door. It was crunched inward. Holding his ribs, Henry, maneuvered as best he could to kick at the passenger door. His attempts became weaker and weaker until spent, Henry had no energy. Neither door would budge. His large girth did not allow him to crawl over the seats to the back doors. But then, the snow covered the windows there, too.
Sweaty from exertion, the cold began seeping in. He felt it all the way to his bones and began to shiver uncontrollably. After a while, he wasn’t sure if he was warming, or was becoming numb. Whichever it was made him sleepy. He thought again of his pets. Would they have enough food and water until someone found him? It would be at least until mid-morning before anyone might head to town. Or longer, if all were snowed-in.
It was completely dark outside now and Henry fought the lull of sleep. He thought of his Mother, her smile, their house filled with the smell of baked cookies. He thought of getting his Santa suit ready. He thought of the newest rescues from last week. His eye lids fluttered.
Stay awake. He tried to sit up straighter. He concentrated on the pain in his head and ribs. His teeth began chattering. So cold. He blew into his hands.
He thought of the barn he was going to build in the summer. He thought of the Christmas lights and his decorations on the tree. He thought of his father and realized he couldn’t remember what John Tingle looked like anymore. He wondered if his father ever thought of him. He could even have remarried and had more kids.
I may have a brother or sister. That thought was eye-opening for Henry.
He thought of the Christmas coupon in his pocket and adrenaline spiked a little in his bloodstream. What could it hurt to wish?
Thinking about wishes would help him stay awake. They started out simple then grew outlandish as he imagined what to wish for. Maybe he’d wish just for someone to go by and feed his animals. Maybe he’d wish for his barn to already be built when he got home. Or maybe wish for one the size of Noah’s Ark. Or maybe just lots of money. He could buy more land. Buy a boat as big as an ark. He could buy all the animals–help them all!
Then he would start on helping people. If they would let him.
But people are fickle, he rambled.
Henry knew he leaned a little on the superstitious side, believing not in magic per se, but in the Universe listening to spoken words and watching actions, and believed it gave back as much, or as little, as one puts forth in life. And he believed there was truth in the old adage ‘be careful what they wish for’. And of course, he knew Santa Claus was a fictional figure, but he did believe in the spirit of Christmas and helping those in need. And in the power of believing. He knew there were many people who needed help. And many of them were in his town alone. His heart went out to them.
He thought of his earlier years as a young man with a new job. He was saddened by what he saw at school. He saw poverty on a daily basis from some of the little ones, and from those standing in line with no coat waiting to see Santa, and from the ones carrying a plastic bag at the Easter egg hunt instead of an Easter basket. It broke his heart. So he’d tried to reach out to the parents, but no one had ever seemed to want anything to do with him. He never knew if it was his off-putting appearance, or whether they were just too proud to accept his help. It made him extremely sad.
But then came his sweet animals, filling his life completely, giving him purpose. His wonderful, unassuming pets, gave him reason to get up each day. He thought of the unconditional love and adoration in their eyes and Henry’s eyes started to water.
All playfulness aside, Henry felt uttered wishes were not meant to be trifled with. To say them aloud the Universe heard and they stood a chance of becoming real. He closed his eyes and knew what he wanted to wish for. He could selfishly wish for a way out of the car, or he could wish for something that would truly make a difference. He was ready to make his wish. Maybe, just maybe, it would come true.
The wind rocked the car with each forceful gust and the motion had become almost soothing to Henry. He was so incredibly tired. His breath had fogged up the windshield long ago, and outside the frosty glass had a thick snowy blanket piled on top now.
Henry summoned his strength to talk and with with a foggy breath, he voiced aloud his wish.
“I wish for … a world that …” It hurt Henry to breathe, let alone speak. His soft words trailed to silence inside the snow-cocooned car as the snow whorled around him outside. He closed his eyes. Maybe just sleep for a min …
Henry fell forward, slumped over the steering wheel as cold oblivion pulled him deeper into it’s depth.
* * *
A car horn was blaring. It sounded distant, swallowed by the howling blizzard, then it was louder and annoying. Henry’s head jerked up. He looked around in confusion.
Where was he? Struggling for clarity, he rubbed his head and winced.
The crash. Blizzard. Stay awake.
The wish. I didn’t finish it.
Henry spoke the wish hurriedly in one breath so it wouldn’t hurt so much and before he fell unconscious again. His words were came out in quick puffs of frosty air, plumes of clouds.
“I wish … a world … respectful … ” Henry held his side and gasped erratically between painful breaths. “… of all life. No animal … no human … suffer. Love … compassion … exist harmony …. peace … forever.”
His halted wish was barely audible and yet–carried by the wind–someone heard.
* * *
“Henry Tingle, wake up.” The child-like voice whispered to him. Henry’s eyelids fluttered open.
“Come, Henry, they’re waiting for you.” The small voice sounded like a tiny bell, compelling him to wakefulness.
I know that voice, he thought.
Suddenly, metal groaned and the car door gave way, pushing several feet of snow aside as if weighing nothing at all. It opened on it’s own accord. The night was still and black and welcoming. The snow had stopped falling, the air brisk and silent. The midnight blue sky was filled with hundreds of stars twinkling like tiny crystal beads far away.
Something stood by the bridge. A shadow of a figure. Suddenly, a single beam of light pierced the darkness from the night sky above and the form turned into a white mass, sparkling with iridescence, as it churned and shifted and moved inside the light. His eyes trained upward following the ray far into the heavens, until he could see it no more.
I must’ve died. I feel no pain, Henry thought. This must be the light he heard talk about. People who die then recover on operating tables.
The ethereal form took shape as he walked closer to the bridge. It manifested into a female in a flowing blue gown, long wavy red hair, pearlescent white skin. Warm green eyes smiled at him.
She held out a hand to him. Unafraid, Henry took it and stepped into the circle of light. The beam blanketed him in warmth and he felt his feet leaving the ground. They surged upward together, swiftly. Above the treetops, they rose. Into the night sky, they were pulled farther and farther into the void of space. Henry watched his car become tiny, then non-existent.
He laughed at the pain-free weightlessness. It felt like being vacuumed by some invisible sweeper, traveling through it’s hose to the dark expanse. Space. It was beautiful; velvety black, unending, littered with more stars than he could’ve ever imagined.
He had no idea how long or far they journeyed, but after a while, one large planet was singled out. The closer they floated toward it the larger it became. How strange is was! The barrenness looked to be covered in certain areas with white round objects.
The tunnel of light encircling Henry and his ghostly companion gently deposited them onto solid blue ground. Grouped in clusters, the white round pods glowed with fluorescence and were the size of houses. They resembled large connected bubbles, like … bubble wrap. The sky was pale green, and the ground an aqua blue. Three small orbs shown brightly overhead like moons.
Hoards of biped alien beings, much like the ones portrayed in his comics, began scurrying out of the pods like ants. Their bodies were willowly, heads overly large, big sagging oval-shaped eyes, and each one had different bright colorful skin. Henry felt like he was in the middle of a penny gum-ball machine.
It was amazingly beautiful and refreshing.
His female companion spoke to the crowd in a language Henry did not understand. Then she turned and spoke directly to him.
“Welcome to Anavrin, Henry Tingle. I am Ecarg,” she said. “We,–you, I, and others–have been watched on Earth and similar planets for many years. We are brought here to teach on this planet.”
At Henry’s confused and shocked silence, she continued. “The Anavrinians are pleased at what they have seen from us. While this society uses logic, has superior intellect and technology, it realizes it is still … emotionally lacking. They hope to learn from positive traits from all worlds. They wonder if you will stay and help.”
“I am honored, Ecarg. And I … would love to help. But, you see, I have these animals at home …” Henry’s voice drifted. “Please. I need to get back to them. They need me…” His eyes pleaded and his voice trembled with the thought of his furry family left alone at home–scared, hungry, and waiting for him.
Ecarg smiled and said, “This world–the one you wished for–is very real, Henry. In fact, your idea of a perfect world matches what we have been striving to create here.” Ecarg outstretched a thin arm toward the colorful world in front of them. “Anavrin’s size is ten times that of Earth’s and as you can see, it has has room to grow, Henry Tingle.
“Anavirin will need many more animals than just those you have collected, I’m afraid. Everyone here will learn about compassion and the true meaning of love through your teaching and caring of your domestic animals. Show them the way, Henry, and in turn you will learn from Anavrin.”
“I–still don’t understand, ” Henry said.
Suddenly, a soft hum filled the air and grew louder and a flat saucer-like spacecraft appeared from above. It had a what looked to be a billion tiny lights covering it, but was actually tiny windows with inside light shining out. Henry could only stand with his mouth wide open, shuffling backwards with the masses as the circle they were in widened, clearing a path for the ship. It landed close to where he stood.
A large panel lifted and the light emerged from the ship in a blinding stream.
Henry waited in suspense and gulped. Did they think him unappreciative and cone for him? Did he overstep his bounds by needing to help his pets first? Was he to be punished for coming across as uninterested?
Soon, a shape appeared in the doorway. It was small standing in shadow from the backlit brightness. Then more dark forms appeared. All began moving at once, coming quickly out of the ship.
It was an attack! Henry looked around ready to bolt, but noticed every alien was planted in place and … smiling. And they were creeping closer to the ship, as if for a closer glimpse.
It wasn’t long before the shapes became clear. Into the circle ran Henry’s beloved pets. Each one trotting, galloping and flying right to him. And they were led by a half-corporeal, Happy.
Henry couldn’t believe his eyes!
He knelt down, his eyes pooled with tears as he hugged his old friend, Happy. Soon Henry’s beloved flock gathered around him nearly knocking him backward as they began jumping and licking and barking for his attention. He called each one by name, touching and petting them all. The cockatiels preened having lit atop his head.
“Is this real? Or am I in heaven?” Henry stood and asked Ecarg.
“A little of both, I suppose,” she said, “Now will you now accept the our offer?”
“Yes. Oh, yes I will. And thank you!” Henry breathed the words, ecstatically dumbfounded. Tails wagged, tongues panted and wings flapped and purring commenced.
“We have given you well-stocked dwellings, complete with food and anything required to make yourself and the animals comfortable. Your land is equipped with seasons and different landscapes, both can be changed with the touch of a button.”
She paused to let her words sink in, then continued, “After training, you will have your own ship to fly for the rescuing of animals as often as you wish. You’ll be able to pluck them directly from shelters or … bad environments. Once healthy, the animals are to be your teaching vessels for every Anavrinian on this planet. They will become pets for all to learn to love and enjoy. And you shall teach the Anavrinians.”
“I-I don’t know what to say. This sounds impossible. Wonderfully unbelievable. Perfect. But, why me?”
“You have not guessed, have you, Henry Tingle?”
“We were chosen, you and I. We are the Ambassadors to this new world, working together. I search–digging underneath the layers and years of hatred and hurt, for even an ounce of goodness left in a single soul.”
She bowed her head in sudden sadness and said, “Many are beyond saving … ” She tilted her head and added, “You and I were considered odd on Earth, were we not, Henry Tingle? Yet here we are–beyond special.”
Henry was overwhelmed. He didn’t know what to say. “Pardon me for seeming dim-witted, but I knew you on Earth?”
Ecarg of Anavrin smiled warmly, but did not answer his question right away. Instead, she turned to the crowd and continued, “There are still good hearts no matter the race, creed, whether they are rich or beggars, intelligent or … ” her voice dropped softly, “challenged. I shall find them. This is my promise to you.” She turned back to Henry and said, “And you, Henry, you know of the joy animals can bring. Animals deserve love from these good souls I will bring to live here and good souls deserve the healing joy from the animals you rescue.”
Henry ducked his head, both from the praise and the precious gift given to him. He was speechless.
Ecarg smiled warmly. “By the way, your new given name here is Salohcin of Anavrin.”
“Salohcin of Anavrin,” he whispered, letting it roll off his tongue. How about that, thought Henry, leaning down to rub Happy. With his pets to care for, and the means to rescue as many as he wished, Henry was in love with this place. It was the home Earth had never felt like. He now belonged.
Suddenly, Ecarg’s ghostly form began to change. She was shrinking into a small human. She had the appearance of half-ghost, half-real, like Happy, as her skin became firmer. Hair bright red and curly. She became half-corporeal.
“Sometimes, I like to pretend what I may have looked like all grown up,” she sighed. “You knew me as a little girl, once. Remember? Welcome home, Mr. Tingle.”
“Maggy? It’s you! You saved me with your wish coupon.” Henry dropped to his knees in gratitude and hugged her. He was humbled beyond belief.
She smiled, nodded, and took his hands in her small ones.
“You used your wish, and I heard.”
Henry thought back to that school day long ago. He realized Maggy, like himself, was not handicapped at all. We were just trying to live in a place that didn’t understand or readily embrace us for who we are.
Henry thought of of Maggy’s coupon written backwards so many years ago.
Wait a minute!
Henry reversed the letters of his new name and homeland in his mind.
Salohcin of Anavrin. His eyes grew wide … Nicholas of Nirvana!
Henry’s mouth formed an “O” looking to Maggy. Quickly, he deciphered Maggy’s name, Ecarg … Grace.
“Yes, Henry.” She said, reading his thoughts, “But, who’s to say what is backwards and what is not? Ugly or Beautiful? And … unlike St. Nick spreading good will just one night every year on Earth, we do it here every day.”
Henry grinned widely, uncaring that tears ran down his cheeks. He was finally whole, accepted as just himself, without costume or paint, for the first time in his life. He was an alien and proud of it.
Henry Tingle–Nicholas of Nirvana–Salohcin of Anavrin was home.
Written December 2014, edited and rewritten December 2018
by Ronda K Reed