The mining town of Bellview, population 894, eventually got used to Henry Tingle. Since he was a child, stares followed him and whispers travelled quickly down sidewalks, passed through homes, and around stores aisles about his oddness. 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 adoptive 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.
Being a friendless 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 odd features, he actually looked very alien-like as neighborhood children watched him build odd-shaped 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. 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 had to call son, or if it was simply the alcohol talking to him about a life with less hardships. Either way, Henry and his mother, Margaret Tingle, was better off without Joseph Tingle. His mother watched from the porch as Henry spent day after day playing outside – alone. So… she bought him a friend. A Basset Hound, he called Happy, with eyes as sad and droopy as Henry’s.
After graduating high school, Henry hired on as a janitor with the school system, days turned into years and as the years passed, they took Happy and Henry’s mother with them. Henry mourned dreadfully and even thought of moving. Time healed, but it was the town of Bellview that perked him up, finalizing his decision to stay.
The Chamber of Commerce asked Henry to participate in the yearly Halloween Haunted House fundraiser – “He would make the best monster,” they’d said. “No offense,” they’d said. – as well as being Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for the children during holidays at the town square. Henry jumped on the opportunity to hide under costumes. It made him feel normal, loved, accepted.
And life resumed, uneventfully, as Henry waited for a holiday. It was while ironing the cloth edges down on the oval 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 of adoration and unconditional love on their faces was what Henry’s life was missing.
So, Henry’s day job allowed purchasing a family of his own; albeit, one of the four-legged variety. Cats and dogs, sometimes birds and hamsters or rabbits found their way into Henry’s home. Naturally, the three-bedroom house he grew up in was soon overflowing.
Neighbors began noticing. Then town officials noticed. The city told him if he wanted to keep his pets, he’d have to move out of the city limits. So he did. He found some quiet acreage with a small farmhouse that would need expanding on, but that appealed to Henry’s creative side.
The care of his large family was no small feat. Henry used his talents and made a contraption; 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.
It didn’t take long before Henry knew the employees of animal shelters in surrounding towns 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 of school, 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 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 candy cane then. 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. Unfolded, 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 backwards. Henry concentrated, deciphering her words. “Good for one Christmas wish. Love Maggy Jamison.” With a smile, he thought it looked fun. He tucked the paper in his pocket to think more on this hypothetical wish as he mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms, and emptied wastebaskets.
It had snowed all day and the school halls became electric, charged with children’s excitement as the day drew to a close. Henry had two more hours left in his shift.
He turned off all lights, locked up
the doors, hauled trash to the dumpsters, then trudged to his old Plymouth, just as darkness peeked through the blustering white wind. The snow, a foot deep already, was still falling fast. He scraped the windows while warming the car.
Henry drove slowly. The bright multi-colored Christmas lights twinkling throughout the town were hazy in the near whiteout conditions. He turned carefully off the main highway to the dirt road leading home, worrying that Bone Creek Bridge might give him problems. He rubbed at the condensation on the windshield, then gripped the steering wheel tightly.
Soon, headlights broke through the darkness, looking like two small flashlights muted in the distance from the blustery conditions. They were going to meet him on the narrow road. The closer it got, blurry beams of a large vehicle barreled through the snow in a white cloud without a care for safety. Henry flashed his lights, then rolled down his window and uselessly waved his arm. Henry could hear loud music from the large truck echoing in the darkness, 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 three feet already.”
The truck wasn’t slowing, let alone sharing the road. Panicking, Henry swerved to the right just in time. The truck sped by in a burst of snow. Henry missed the truck, but also the entrance of the bridge as his car veered down the side of the bridge toward the river. Snow-covered tree branches whipped by, drifts reached the windows as the car slid down the hill. Henry crashed into a large boulder on the edge of the water. The jarring impact made a hard stop, tossing Henry into the windshield.
The car hissed, bellowing steam. 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 the crunched door. It stuck.
He tried to focus and thought of his animals. They needed him. The passenger door was crunched inward. Holding his ribs, Henry, bumped, beat and kicked at each door weakly until he had no energy left. Neither budged.
Exhaustion hade made him sweat, but soon the cold seeped in tenfold and made him shiver uncontrollably.
The cold was numbing and made hum sleepy. He thought of the Christmas coupon.
He was not a superstitious man, nor did he believe in magic, but he did believe in the spirit of Christmas and helping those in need. He was sure there were many people in need of help, but no one had ever seemed to want anything to do with him. Except animals, his sweet pets. Henry Tingle closed his eyes and tried to whisper his wish…
“I wish for a world that …”
Henry’s soft words trailed into nothing inside the trapped car, cocooned in snow. He couldn’t get away from the pain in his head and ribs. His teeth chattered. So cold.
Soon, he fell forward, slumped over the steering wheel. He heard the car horn blaring steadily as oblivion pulled him toward darkness …
* * *
The honking sounded distant, swallowed by the howling winds of the blizzard, but it was enough to jerk Henry back into consciousness. Reopening his eyes, his head was fuzzy, disoriented, as he struggled for clarity.
Stay awake. The crash. Blizzard. My pets. The Christmas wish. I must…
“I … wish … a world… free … and respect … for all life. No animal … no human … suffers. Only love … and compassion … unconditional … harmony …. peace … forever.” Henry said, gasping erratically between painful breaths. The words came out halted, the wish barely audible – yet, carried by the wind – someone heard …
* * *
“Henry Tingle, wake up.” The child-like voice whispered to him. Henry’s eyelids fluttered.
“Come, Henry Tingle, they’re waiting for you.” The small voice sounded like a tiny bell, compelling him to wake.
I … I know that voice, he thought.
Suddenly, metal groaned and the car door gave way, opening. It was very dark and cold and quiet. The snow had stopped falling, leaving the air crisp and silent. The midnight blue sky filked with stars blinking like hundreds of twinkling crystal Christmas lights.
Something stood by the bridge. A single beam of light pierced the darkness from the night sky above. A white shadowy form, a shifting mass sparkled, enclosed inside. His eyes trained upward following the light far into the heavens, until he could see it no more.
I must’ve died. I feel no pain, Henry thought.
The ethereal form took shape as he walked closer to the light radiating down to the bridge. It manifested into a female in a flowing blue gown, long wavy red hair, pearlescent white skin, green eyes smiling 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. Henry felt his feet leaving the ground. They surged swiftly above the treetops, rising into the night sky, like a vacuum, going further and further into space. His watched his car become tiny.
He laughed at the pain-free weightlessness. It felt like being pulled by some invisible magnet through the dark expanse. 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 a large star or planet came into view. The closer they floated toward, the bigger it got. It looked as if completely covered in white bubble-wrap. He glanced back to Earth, now a small blue ball.
The tunnel of light encircling Henry and his ghostly companion gently deposited them onto strange solid ground, full of – not bubble-wrap – but white fluorescent half-moon shaped buildings, pods. The sky was pale green, and the ground an aqua blue, and there were three small orbs glowing 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 one had different colorful skin. Henry felt like he was in the middle of a penny gum-ball machine. It was beautiful.
The women 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 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 …”
“Please, my animals. I – I need to get back to them. They need me.” Henry interrupted. His eyes pleaded and his voice trembled with the thought of his furry family left alone at home, scared and waiting for him.
“This world, what you wished for, is very real. In fact, being much larger in population, Anavrin is ten times that of Earth’s and has room to grow.
“Anavirin will need many more animals than just those you have collected, I’m afraid. Everyone here will learn about compassion and unconditional love through your teaching and caring of your domestic animals. Show the way. You, in turn, will learn from Anavrin.”
“I – I’m not sure I understand.”
Suddenly, a soft hum filled the air. A flat saucer-like spacecraft blinking lights appeared overhead. Henry could only stand with his mouth wide open, shuffling backwards with the masses as a circle widened, clearing a path for the space ship. It landed close to where he stood.
A large panel lifted.
Henry’s beloved pets trotted, hopped, and flew out. Led by Happy, they flocked around him. Henry’s eyes pooled with tears as he hugged his old friend, touching and petting them all.
“Is this real? Or am I in heaven?”
“A little of both, I suppose. Now will you now accept the position we offer?”
“Yes. Oh, yes I will.” Henry breathed the words, ecstatically dumbfounded, as tails wagged, tongues licked and birds lighted on his shoulder.
“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 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 love and enjoy.”
“I-I don’t know what to say. This sounds impossible, beautiful … and unbelievable. But … why me?”
“You have not guessed, have you, Henry Tingle?”
“Guessed? I’m afraid not. What?…”
“We were chosen, you and I. We are the Ambassadors of this new world, working together. I search – digging underneath 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. “But, I still don’t understand.”
Ecarg of Anavrin smiled warmly and said. “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. And you, Henry, you know of the joy animals can bring. Animals deserve love from these good souls I will bring, and good souls deserve 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 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 already loved this place. It was the home Earth had never felt like.
Suddenly, Ecarg’s ghostly form began to change, getting smaller, forming into a human, with real skin and hair, she became 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, Henry Tingle.”
“Maggy? It was you! You saved me.” Henry dropped to his knees.
She smiled, nodding, taking his hands.
“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 really accept us for who we are. He was humbled to be chosen by such a wonderful humane place.
Henry thought of of Maggy’s coupon written backwards so many years ago. 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, this is a parallel world, Henry.” She said, reading his thoughts, “But, who’s to say what is backwards and what is right? Ugly or Beautiful? And … unlike St. Nick spreading good will just one night every year, we do it everyday.”
He grinned widely, unaware tears ran down his cheeks. He was finally whole, accepted and loved by all as just himself, without costume or paint, for the first time in his life.
Henry Tingle – Nicholas of Nirvana– Salohcin of Anavrin was home.
Written December 2014
by Ronda K Reed