For Mom and Dad. Thank you for reading to me.
A Hundred Easy Lessons, and these have shaped me most.
On my fifth birthday, Mom gave me an imagination.
It was made up of dusty pages from old books, broadsword sticks, gun-shaped sandwiches, and sound effects. She boxed it up in a little package, and set it on the kitchen counter — a bright red bow tied on top.
I tore it open — scattering wrapping paper on the kitchen floor — and gaped when I saw inside.
Mom stood by smiling. “Happy birthday,” she said.
Minutes later, a horde of pirates with smoking beards and glinting cutlasses broke through the front door with a roar, and I only just had time to get Mom to safety before they reached the kitchen.
Eventually, I forced them out, and barricaded the entrance with our kitchen chairs.
“How does it work?” Mom asked.
I grinned, panting hard. “Great.”
But it was also exhausting.
It wasn’t that I minded saving a little girl from a three-eyed monster on the playground, jumping from my bed to avoid the beast beneath, or even telling Dad to swerve one night when we almost hit a werewolf. But it was taxing, always seeing things that others couldn’t.
On Halloween, I stumbled on a banshee hovering over our garden, and had to cover my ears and force myself to laugh until it glided away. When Dad came outside, asking what was the matter, I tried to explain, but eventually gave up when he couldn’t understand.
“Use your imagination,” I said.
“I lost mine at work,” he replied with a shrug.
Most adults seemed to be like Dad, always losing their imaginations at work. So I sought out friends who still had theirs.
In the summer my best friend Brian and I went down to the creek by Farmer Dean’s fields. There, the grass was long and the water was cool. We were building mud castles when a squad of Indian braves ambushed us in the shallows.
“Run!” I yelled, and we spent that afternoon fighting them off. The cool clear water grew murky with the mud.
As High School approached, Dad expressed concern.
He noticed how I spent our evening meals staring off into space, and afternoons after school running around in the backyard with Brian, and he formulated a solution:
“This summer you need to get a job,” he said one evening at dinner. “We didn’t raise you to be a daydreamer, Jack.”
Later, I heard him talking to Mom about responsibility. The whole thing annoyed me, so one April night, when Dad had to work late, I consulted with Mom. We sat on our front porch, the rain whispering softly in the front yard.
“I don’t know why Dad cares so much,” I told her. “People who get jobs just lose their imaginations. They don’t have any fun.”
She smiled at me, in that same kind way I had seen so many years before.
“There should be a balance,” she said. “Your imagination should never distract you from reality. It should enhance it — help you see things others can’t.”
I sighed. It felt as if no one understood. But I looked for work all the same, and found a job at Sumpter’s Hardware downtown. Brian and I both applied. We started at the beginning of June.
As frustrated as I was with Dad, it was a fun job, made far more bearable thanks to Brian. We worked hard for Mr. Sumpter, who perpetually wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a white mustache. After a few weeks, he said he trusted us enough to let us close the store by ourselves, information that caused my parents to beam with pride.
Closing was my favorite. While Brian swept the floor, I watched packs of velociraptors, bears, and even aliens smash through the front windows, bloodthirsty and dangerous. But every time, I forced their retreat, just like I had done for my mother with the pirates so many years ago.
It was a muggy evening in late July when I found the balance.
As usual, Brian was out on the floor, sweeping between the aisles. I stood behind the cash register counting the money.
Mr. Sumpter walked in, massaging his wrist. “Any big weekend plans, boys?”
I shook my head. Brian said something about mowing the lawn. Mr. Sumpter chuckled.
“What about you?” I asked, glancing up at him. His face was caught in a grimace, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him lying on the floor, clutching at his chest, filled with a failing heart.
“You should get that checked out,” I said, nodding to his hand. “Could be bad.”
Later that night, long after Brian and I had each gone home, the phone rang. Dad answered it, mumbling something about telemarketers, but when he hung up, he was silent.
“Mr. Sumpter had a heart attack,” he said.
“The doctor said they caught it just in time. He said the only reason Mr. Sumpter went was because you told him to go, Jack.”
That night, I understood. A gift is something to be used. A responsibility.
Now I am old. With a wife and two kids, this present reality is difficult to see beyond. It almost takes effort to see the things others cannot, like a herd of triceratops rumbling through the parking lot outside my office building, or the secretary, grieving silently over her divorce.
I think of the days when Brian and I were dodging Indians’ arrows down by cool creeks, and the reality of this world was but a shadow. I see those Indians still, but there is nothing quite so vivid as through the eyes of a child.
So every night before bed, I sit down to read with my own two children, crafting their imaginations. We add yellowing pages from old books, sticks that are broadswords, and a healthy dose of responsibility.
JT Gill’s work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion Science Fiction, previously in Every Day Fiction, and The Molotov Cocktail, where he won the 2015 Flash Fool Contest.