A happy scene: A family is gathered around a large, wooden table. A woman is laughing next to a smiling man. Two boys are talking and joking alongside a little girl giggling with red cheeks and baby blue eyes. Suddenly they are aging. The man’s hair is thinning and the boys are getting taller. The little girl is no longer a little girl. And then the two boys are in uniforms with grim looks on their faces and the man, woman, and girl, are looking at them with tears in their eyes. The boys leave. A letter comes. There are only three at the table now. There is no more laughing. Then the girl begins to cough. No doctor can prescribe the right medicine. Beads of sweat are on her forehead and she is too weak to stand. The fever burns. Until she is gone. There are only two at the table now. Two weak, sad, parents-no-more. It isn’t over yet. The woman has gone mad. Three children gone in one year. A knife blade in the heart and it’s all over. The man sits at the large, oak table now. Alone.
Sorrow is a horrible, twisted thing. It can change a person drastically, turn fire to ice, and change light to dark. Gnaw into a person’s heart and flip it inside out leaving behind a gaping hole that no matter how hard you try to fill, it always stays empty; a hole that feed on sorrow. This is what sorrow had done to Daniel Berg, from 283 Tillman Lane. The man with the bounce in his step and the grin on his face had transformed into a hollow, hunched-over man, who shuffled with his head bowed down. Daniel Berg had lost the will to live.
How do I know? I saw it all. I lived right across the street. I’d been friends with his daughter, Madeleine, and always had admired his sons. I had talked to him before, and they’d had my family over for dinner a couple times. I was there when the ivory white letter came announcing that not one, but both his sons were dead. I was one of the first to know that his wife had committed suicide, and I had cried with him when his daughter had passed. In fact, I’d been the one holding her hand when the last breath seeped out of her.
On April 12th, two months after his dear wife died, my mother sent me over with a home-made pie, hoping to comfort the man. I rang the door twice before it opened. I could hardly recognize him. He had dark bags under his eyes and his hair was almost white. He was hunched over, so much that I was afraid he might fall. He resembled a zombie. He’d gained twenty years in barely two.
He accepted the pie with many thanks and I stood awkwardly before making up some excuse to leave. You may think I said a word of comfort, but I couldn’t. My tongue was tied—I could barely speak. I felt bad, sure, but what could I possibly do? Questions filled my mind: How can you cheer up a man who’s lost his entire family? How can you cheer up a man who’s lost the will to live?
I had no idea.
I spotted it in the store window of a little shop down the street, three or four weeks after seeing him: A box of 24 different paints, ranging from mouse grey to violet purple, with three different paintbrushes. There was a thin, tiny paintbrush, for details; a medium, average-sized one for most paintings and a large, thick one for painting in large spaces. It came with thick cream colored paper—10 sheets. A red ribbon kept the paints in place. Two golden clasps would keep the box closed. A leather handle with careful stitching made for easy carrying. I read the small sign next to the box. It read, “Feeling lost? Overwhelmed? Express your feelings with the deluxe acrylic paint set (with vintage oak box and real leather handle) brought to you by CastlePaints!” Then, in smaller print, “$59.99”.
I knew, in these moments that this paint box was meant for Daniel Berg. Yet I couldn’t stop staring at the price. Sixty dollars?! Sure, it was good paint and a nice box but was I willing to spend that much on a gift for someone else?
I looked at the box once more and entered the shop. It was an art shop of some sort, I guessed. The golden letters on the awning were so faded they were illegible. A little bell rang as I entered and an elderly woman with whitish hair and misty blue eyes approached me and smiled.
“Welcome to “Arts Away!” where artists can buy their supplies with complete confidence. Unsatisfied? Money back guaranteed,” she recited.
“I want to buy a paint box like the one in the window, the one from CastlePaints,” I said with confidence.
“Ah, the CastlePaint box! Those have been flying off the shelves! Let me go check but I think we’re out.” She hobbled over to the back of the shop, her shoes tapping the hard floor. Clip-clop-clip-clop-clip-clop, but in just a minute she was back empty-handed. “Yes, just what I though! None left, I’m sorry. We do have water color pencils, charcoal erasers, washable dye, crepe paper, double sided—”
I cut her off. “When are you receiving a new shipment?”
“Unfortunately CastlePaints has stopped manufacturing that exact box of paints. However, they do have the same one with 48 different paints and 5 brushes in a larger box and with even more paper.”
“How much does it cost?” I asked.
“Oh, well, double the paints, double the price.” She smiled.
I winced. I could not spend over one hundred dollars. No way. An idea struck my mind. “What about the one in the window? Could you sell me that one?”
The lady shook her head. “No, that is not for sale. It has already been opened and some of the original packaging has been removed.”
“I don’t care!” I exclaimed, “Please sell it to me. It’s for a man who’s lost his entire family—his two sons, daughter, and wife—in less than two years. This may be the one thing to make him feel better!”
“Well…in that case…” She looked troubled.
I took advantage of her hesitance. “Really, the poor man is so alone. And I can’t afford the bigger set! I’ll pay full price for the one in the window. The packaging really doesn’t matter. Please, let me have it.”
She bit her lip. “Well, I can’t refuse that. Let me go get the box. But don’t tell Mr. McMahon, the manager of this place. He would never approve.” She walked over to the inside of the window and carefully, very, very carefully, closed the golden latches on the box before removing it from the stand it had been leaning against. She walked over to the cash register, scanned it, and placed it in a bag with the words “Arts Away!” written in big gold letters.
“Thanks!” I paid her the sixty dollars, took the bag, and walked out the door. The little bell rang and I smiled; I couldn’t wait to give the paints to Mr. Berg at 283 Tillman Lane. I was excited, frantic, and exultant. I clutched the bag tightly and raced down the street.
Drrring! Drrring! I couldn’t help but tap my feet as I rang the bell. At last the door opened and the hunched over man that used to be Daniel Berg greeted me. I asked if I could come in and he said yes, of course. He led me to a small table with two chairs and we took a seat.
“I have something for you,” I said.
“For me?” he asked. I reached down and took the oak box out of the bag and placed it on the table. His eyes widened in surprise.
“It’s a paint box,” I explained, “It comes with twenty-four paints and ten sheets of paper. When I saw it, I thought of you. I remember Maddy saying you could draw really well. Here, look.” I flipped the latches and opened the box. The man gasped as he saw the neat rows of paint with the red ribbon and the paper, paintbrushes…
“It’s beautiful. Thank you so much. You didn’t have to do this for me.” He reached forward and with very delicate fingers lifted the red ribbon and removed a paint bottle, a green one. Or “fresh meadow” as the label indicated. “Thank you,” he repeated. I didn’t regret buying the paint set for one moment. Seeing him like this was more than I’d ever hoped for. He seemed almost… happy.
“You’re welcome,” I said. Looking at him, I could sense that he wanted to be left alone. “I really have to go. My mother will be expecting me and she gets worried so easily.” I lied, pretending to be rushed.
“Oh, go ahead. Thank you ever so much,” he said, waving me away in a friendly gesture. I walked out the door just as I heard him say, “And come back anytime! You are always welcome here.” I smiled. I knew I would come back.
And two weeks later I did. I was excited to see if he’d painted anything yet. I hoped so. When he opened the door, I smiled at him and asked, “So?” He looked at me and put his index finger in front of his mouth.
“Shh! It’s a secret. I’ll show it to you when it’s done. Come back in one month.” A whole month? I shook my head to show I understood (though I didn’t) and came back thirty days later. “Come on in!” I smiled and entered. We went into a small room, where an easel stood center. A cloth hung down, covering the painting that lay beneath.
“Where did you get the easel and canvas?” I asked.
“Well…Maria bought them for me as a birthday present. I was waiting for the perfect occasion to use the canvas. The paints you gave me—they work wonders!”
“Please let me see the painting!” I couldn’t wait any longer.
“Alright, alright!” He pulled off the cloth and I gasped. A young woman with blushing cheeks and green eyes sat center at an oak table. She was the sun; her eyes radiated joy. At her right sat a man, with short brown hair and laugh lines. Two boys, one slightly older sat with a giggling girl with bouncing yellow curls and light blue eyes in between them. Every person was smiling with glints of happiness in their eyes. The details were amazing: The light reflecting off the table, the glint in their eyes, the creases in the boy’s shirts. But what was most amazingly startling was the fact that Daniel Berg had painted his dead family.
“It’s so… beautiful,” I whispered. I couldn’t help but stare at Madeleine. In the painting she was young, only six or seven, but she still looked the same as she had just last year. Seeing her brought a fresh wave of sadness. “It doesn’t make you sad to see… them all?”
“Oh, no, it makes me happy to see them happy. It helps me remember the good times.” And for the first time in almost two years, Daniel Berg genuinely smiled.
Lucie Boulet-Gercourt, Age 13, Grade 8, MS 51 William Alexander, Gold Key