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The Odd Case of Mr. Thornback
Edward Thornback was his name, and I still see his tweed suit; his vintage black shoes that gleamed every time he moved; I can see his yellow bowtie and the yellow handkerchief with navy freckles; and, of course, the black wooden cane that he always carried with him; it had a golden wolf’s head as the handle, with its mouth slightly open so one could see its glinting fangs. Thornback was always waltzing around town with his cane and never let it out of his hands—he even once told me that it was his most prized possession and that he cared for it more than anything in the world. Nobody dared touch his cane, especially not after the incident. It was September 8, 1933, when Thornback went to the barbershop to trim his hair and, as usual, he brought his cane with him. But the barber's apprentice, unfortunately, took it with him to put it in the cabinet where Thornback’s coat was resting. When Thornback had finished his trim and couldn’t find the cane, he threw a tantrum and began to rampage violently through the entire shop. He was flinging accusations at the men for stealing his property when the apprentice came scrambling up to him with his cane, stuttering about how he had placed it in the safe cabinet where all of his other belongings were. The poor guy was trembling with fear as he stood before Thornback, who was vituperatively threatening him and bellowing. Thornback, out of spite, knocked out the apprentice’s two teeth, and shattered the glass door on his way out and did not speak to anybody for at least two days.
But that was four years ago, and I was only six years old when that happened. People move on from the past. Otherwise, Thornback was a benevolent, although mysterious man. He was always smiling at people around town, and swinging his cane in a nonchalant manner. He would sometimes hum any tune and tap his feet. Although nobody knew where he lived or why he would even bother to come to town each day, they all adored him—when he would drive to town every morning at 7:00 AM sharp in the splendid, black Duesenberg J Derham Tourster, joy would be cast onto the people. The powerful engine would awaken the sleepy town and Thornback would step out with his black crocodile skin shoes, check his leather watch, and take his top hat through the car’s window, place it smartly on his head, and begin his day with his cane.
On December 1, there were no invigorating roars of the engine. I woke up at 7 o’clock that day, and unusually, the town was silent. I pulled open the curtains of my window and peered through the glass. It was lightly snowing and a thin blanket of white veiled the ground. In some areas, the snow was slushy and brown. Nobody was walking outside, but I could see people gradually looking outside their windows with bewildered looks on their faces. I glanced at the clock beside my bed. It was 7:03. My confusion grew; Thornback was never late, even for a minute. The puzzled atmosphere of the town spread every second.
Maybe he’s just can’t come to town today, I encouraged myself.
That reason made sense to me and I felt the ominous, confused atmosphere melt away like the snow. I departed from the window and resumed my day.
At approximately 3:20 in the afternoon that day, I heard the familiar growl of Thornback’s car. I was walking towards my home after the monotonous day of school when I stumbled across Thornback’s sleek car. I stopped in my tracks to observe the twinkling silver grille when Thornback himself opened the door in his usual crocodile shoes and yawned. He stretched out his lanky arms and spotted me awkwardly standing beside his car.
“Well, good afternoon, miss.” Thornback peered at me through his wire-framed glasses.
“Hello, Mr. Thornback! Say, do you remember me? We had a small chat—which really only consisted of me asking you about your cane there, sir, and then you answering about how it was the most precious thing in the world? Around a few months ago?” I was pouring out these words and I quickly ran out of breath.
He looked up to the sky and seemed to be racking his memory.
“Yes, yes, I seem to have a very vague memory of you.” He looked down at me and smiled kindly. “What brings you to me today?”
“Oh nothing, sir, I just came over to see your car just now ‘cause it’s just so shiny and pretty and I just couldn’t help but go over and admire it, you know. And I also heard the engine just a few moments ago and I just knew you had come to town, sir, and I thought it was real strange that you didn’t come this morning like you usually do and the entire town was real puzzled, but everyone just went on with his or her business and all’s fine now!” I managed to squeeze in a brief smile.
“Say, why weren’t you here this morning at seven like you always are?” I inquired innocently.
Thornback waved his hand dismissively and rolled his eyes passively.
“Oh, nothing terrible happened. Just a little snow makes my car get all rusty and old. But he’s back to normal now.” He patted his car lovingly.
I nodded sympathetically, before asking:
“Say, Mr. Thornback, why do you even come to town? You don’t seem to have a reason to come here.”
Thornback’s mouth dropped slightly for a rapid moment and picked it up again into a firm smile.
“Well, it grants me the peace and tranquility that I cannot get from where I live. And, of course, the people are far more generous.” He gestured to the street and the small buildings and houses with an outstretched hand.
“I may not have business here, but I thoroughly enjoy every single aspect of this beautiful town. And surely you do, too.”
I thought for awhile. The town was rather boring and eventless. Each house was white or beige, the stores were tan or ivory, and the streets were grey. Everybody knew everybody, and it would be rare for an outsider to visit. A few drabby brown cars lined up by the streets, a hat store sagged in the corner, the barbershop drooped in the middle, and a local restaurant wilted at the other corner.
“Well… ” I slowly uttered as I took in the unattractive surroundings.
“This town is worth more than you the price you give it!” He grinned mischievously.
Thornback then reached inside and fished his silk top hat. I looked in awe as he placed it on his head swiftly. He adjusted his grip on his cane and began to walk with a straight back and swaying arms.
“Well, I believe I must say farewell, miss. I have some things to take care of now, and I don’t want to keep you waiting for me here in the cold. Goodbye, and have a fabulous day!” Thornback swept his hat off and bowed down low enough so that his head grazed his crocodile skin shoes. Then, in a single move, he rapidly turned around and sped away.
I tried to scurry to his side, but he was already in the distance with his tailcoats flying in the wind and legs pumping energetically.
I believe it was around 5:45 the next evening, when I fortuitously bumped into Thornback. I remember that day perfectly: the sky was a deep indigo, and sudden gusts of wind bit my nose. I dug deeper into my wool scarf until my entire face, besides my eyes, were protected from the cruel December weather. The snow had slightly melted in some areas, but most had turned into fragile ice overnight. I spent time skating on them; oh, I loved the feeling of my warm leather boots gliding on the smooth ice! I even dared to jump up into the air like a ballerina and land on the ice with such swiftness and talent! But like all good things, it came to an end and all of the glory died when I slid across the ground and tripped over a fat chunk of snow that lay there in my way, as if that were its duty: to kill my splendor.
I had just picked myself from the ground and was patting away at the white powder than had clung onto my jacket and scarf when I saw good old Thornback leaning against the dark green street lamp. He was a black outline from where I stood, but he glowed from the light above him. I could see his nose and the frame of his glasses perched upon it. He was speaking with a square man and occasionally, he swept off his hat, rubbed his head in an irritated manner, and adjusted it again on his head before repeating those steps. Curiosity dominated me and I slid closer to the two men as a wily and stealthy spy. I stood only a few feet away, but I remained invisible behind the red brick wall of the local restaurant. A rush of adrenaline gushed my body, and I was revived from the cutting cold.
I attempted to control my rapid gasps as I gripped the wall with my mittens. A large window was beside me, and I reckoned I would be quite conspicuous to the people dining, but I wasn’t worried; they’d probably think I was a little child playing hide-and-seek.
I observed the shorter man over the crevice of the wall; a wooden pipe dangled in his hands and grey smoke hovered over his head. His face was scrunched up like a bulldog’s and his eyes were gleaming, black beads. A brown hat covered half of his face; a tan overcoat slumped lazily over his wide shoulders with upturned collars. His black leather shoes tapped impatiently on the snow. A golden flash embellished his thick finger and it caught my eye instantly. I inched forward so I could hear more and I froze in my uncomfortable position to snatch fragments of the conversation.
“—I just can’t.” Thornback raised his distressed voice slightly before pulling it down again.
The friend scoffed and murmured. Thornback continued:
“Why? You know perfectly well why!”
My heart climbed to the edge of my throat at those words and I shifted closer to them. I felt as if my neck would snap since I was stretching it so much. I saw the stubby man smirk:
“Just stop, for once in your lifetime!” He inhaled deeply and held in his breath for a few seconds, before releasing it with a big huff. “You’ll regret it.” His voice was agitated.
Thornback spat into the snow. “I’m not stopping, Robert. I’ve made up my mind and you can’t change it.”
Robert looked hurt, but the scowl returned to his square face and I could see his mouth move as he inaudibly scorned Thornback, with his wooden pipe between his fingers.
Then he turned around and waddled away until he vanished from view.
I remained where I was, bewildered, yet astonished by the conversation. My muscles tensed as I was about to approach Thornback, but I was overcome by a churning feeling of unknown uneasiness and decided that approaching him wouldn’t make me a very great spy. I slid away from the peculiar setting, and departed with apprehension in my stomach.
It was a few days later when things began to change. We were casually strolling down the street when Thornback checked his brown leather watch at precisely 2:33 in the afternoon. His eyes grew tremendously large and he yelped—his hat jumped up into the air like a frantic alarm clock.
“What is it, Mr. Thornback?” I asked, startled by the sudden change.
Thornback glanced at me as if he just remembered that I was scurrying beside him the entire time. He peered back at his watch.
“Oh, I just realized that I must be going somewhere right now. I’m afraid that I must leave you in a hurry, miss.” He was still gazing at his watch and his crocodile-skin shoes tapped the ground like an impatient bunny. “Have a fantastic day; I’ll speak with you another time!” With those words, Thornback bounded away with ultra-long steps.
As I stood in the middle of the empty street, suspicion built up inside of me once again, and my yearning for an adventure grew—everything was just so dreadfully unexciting. With hesitation, I turned around towards my home.
Yet while I was shuffling along the empty sidewalk and listening to the deafening quiet, I saw the window of the hat boutique and I paused in front of it. A gust of wind bit my nose and neck. I shuddered from the iciness, so I turned up the collars of my wool coat, dug my mittened hands into the pocket, and fit my fuzzy hat over my ears. Then, I smartly turned on my toes and began to run in the direction the way Thornback went. My eyes slid this way and that, and my ears, although it was snuggled behind my cozy hat, were attentive. I added a little skip from my exhilaration and I had to continually retain myself from prancing—because I was a spy—and not a musical star.
I rushed to catch up with Thornback as fast I could, but when I looked here and there, and peered this way and that, he had completely vanished from view. My soaring heart plummeted and I came to a stop. Disappointment engulfed me and with a heavy and frustrated heart, I headed back home.
I had nearly forgotten about the mysterious episodes until I heard the roar of Thronback’s Tourster for the first time in weeks. I glanced out the window, and sure enough, there he was, with the same unconcerned smile and swinging cane. I observed him as he strolled down the street; he was tipping his hat to everybody he saw and greeted each body that he saw warmly. An urge to demand answers swelled in my heart.
I stepped out from my warm home. The snow had melted and the ground was once again the beige hue of the rocky concrete. Mainly, thoughts about the man standing under the streetlamp and Robert were prancing within my brain; I was a nosy little one, but I just couldn’t help but ponder about the unfamiliar Thornback. Yet I was sucked out from the deep pit of my thoughts by a dreadfully familiar voice.
“Good morning, miss. How are you?”
I lifted my head slowly from my shoes and saw the jubilant face of Thornback in front of me. A sudden cloud of anxiety surrounded me; then curiosity sprouted as I remembered the tension in Thornback’s voice—it opposed his euphoric face.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I replied tentatively. “How was your week?”
“It’s been great, so far.” He walked over to a random window and adjusted his hat. Once he was satisfied, he flashed his white teeth at himself.
“What have you been up to, child?”
I opened my mouth in anticipation to tell him about my adventure last week, but then I hastily snapped it shut after I remembered whom I was talking with.
“Nothing much, sir.” I lied coolly.
Thornback turned from the window and sauntered down the street while swirling his cane in his usual way. I stayed behind and curiously scrutinized him. He was still the same Thornback— the beloved, respected Thornback. But what about the other Thornback—the one who was entwined with the dark business that he could not escape? Wonder clutched me tightly and this time, I couldn’t shake off the unforgettable scene below the street lamp. I was a prisoner of curiosity and I hastened beside Thornback. Impatience swelled within me; my big mouth could no longer restrain the thirst for the truth. I inquired boldly:
“Who’s Robert, Mr. Thornback?”
A look of disturbance crossed his serene face as his eyes widened just slightly; his mouth parted just enough for me to see a narrow line of white of his teeth; his constant smile faltered and his cheeks twitched from the almost undetectable movement; his pupils glided to the side to see me; his cane’s left-to-right routine was disturbed ever so lightly. But then just like that, all these signs vanished as if they never existed. Instead, Thornback tilted his head in an effort to express his confusion. I felt anticipation escalating within me and my palms grew damp as I waited for his answer. But with the same voice and tone, he spoke:
“You must be specific, child. There are so many Roberts in this world, I can hardly know which one you’re talking about.”
I frowned—I had absolutely no idea what Robert’s full name was. But nevertheless, I persevered and blew more of my cover away.
“The ‘Robert’ you met with under the streetlamp last Saturday at approximately 5:45 in the evening,” I said in a matter-of-fact way.
Thornback’s face lit up like a round light bulb, but his eyes shifted to the left and right. “Oh, that Robert! Why, he’s an acquaintance!” He added a quiet laugh at the end.
Doubt lingered in my mind.
“Say, miss, how could you possibly know who Robert is, and when I met with him?” Thornback’s voice curled smoothly. “Why, I believe there was nobody around us when we spoke.”
I shrugged my shoulders and I felt his eyes glued onto me. I refused to look back at him.
“Did you follow me, miss?” Thornback’s eyes gleamed suspiciously and he squinted them slightly.
I shrugged again and when I peeked at Thornback’s dark expression, I felt worry seep into me, and the sudden realization that confronting him was a rather ridiculous choice.
By my second shrug, Thornback’s face was stormy and grey; his eyes grew hard and unforgiving. But nevertheless, he still smiled—although unpleasantly.
“Well, that’s a strange thing to do, to follow people like that!” He cleared his throat. “Why did you even bother to follow me, miss?” That last question sidled out from his mouth slyly.
I frowned at Thornback, and for the first time, I felt anger. Raw anger and frustration overwhelmed me as I looked at the man who bore the same smile as before—as if he were blessed with the goodness of life. I bit my lower lip and decided to reveal the truth of the epic missions I had so far.
Thornback raised his eyebrows in a challenging manner. I teetered back and forth between confrontation or secrecy.
“Well, Mr. Thornback, you’re quite famous in this town for being, well, slightly mysterious. And, in order to satisfy my curiosity… I…well, I guess I followed you several times. And I suppose I suspected something wrong was up.”
I added cautiously: “But, surely, you can understand why I thought that way, sir. But you just always seem to slip away into the distance and seemed awfully suspicious, and I just wanted adventure, you know, because everything is so boring and dull.”
Thornback muttered inaudibly and shook his head.
“Because you wanted adventure and a little bit of fun, you decided to invade my personal business and accuse me of my own actions?” He fiercely shook his head again. “That is absolutely ridiculous. “
I responded brazenly, but with caution. “Well, I didn’t mean that I would be accusing you right away, sir, but the more I studied you, the more suspicious I got of you…” I bit my lower lip and immediately regretted the words that flew out of my big mouth.
Thornback fumed: white smoke exploded from his ears, and the whites of the eyes turned rosy. I could already see my future: my front two teeth would be knocked like that poor apprentice’s and I would finally see the latent wrath of Thornback. I swallowed as Thornback opened his mouth to speak.
“Suspicious? A little girl thinks I am suspicious? And what would you know about a suspicious man?” He scoffed condescendingly. “Perhaps your little fantasies originated from childish films or stories?” He waved both hands in a semicircle and wiggled his fingers.
Any anxiety or caution I had before was wrenched from me as I listened to his words; irritation and rage erupted within me. My suspicions were not a fancy, but he denied to acknowledge that because I was a child. Before I could restrain myself, I replied with equal fire:
“They are not fantasies from movies or stories; they are the truth. Do you call disappearing after suddenly running away not suspicious? What about the conversation with Robert, which, mind you, took place at night, in the dark? What about when you punched the apprentice just because he misplaced your cane? And why is your cane so important anyway? Also, sir, there is no reason to get so upset about me observing you if you have nothing to hide in the first place!” I ranted in a high voice. I was jabbing my finger in the air every time I made a point against Thornback.
I watched with satisfaction and slight concern when Thornback’s face morphed into a fat tomato; his top lip was slightly curled; the bottom left eyelid trembled; he was breathing heavily now, and I could audibly hear his huffing and puffing.
“You have no right to accuse me of wrongdoing when you are the one who invaded my privacy!” He barked viciously. “It is not your duty to dig your nose into my business!”
By now, he was pacing back and forth with wringing hands flying here and there. His eyes were bulging, in an almost manic way, and I suddenly felt insecure around this newly emerged beast. His voice was no longer melodious; it was trenchant as he bellowed at me. I stepped away from him but shoved my head in his direction to evince my invincible resilience. I was barely listening to the new Thornback, but I surfaced back into the present situation when Thornback’s head suddenly snapped in my direction. His eyes were pink almonds, and his hands were clenched behind his curved back.
“How much do you know?” His voice quivered. “You followed me, so how much do you know?” he repeated.
He staggered towards me. I shook my head vigorously.
“I don’t know anything,” I replied, bewildered by the abrupt turn in the situation.
But Thornback didn’t accept my answer. He asked the same question several times; each time was said fiercer than before. He struck the ground with his cane each time he asked the question with so much force, I thought it would snap into two pieces.
“I don’t know anything!” I insisted in an exasperated tone. I stomped my foot and crossed my arms. The confusion fled me just as fast it came, and I felt impatience rise once again. I wanted to escape this conversation as soon as possible; I was exhausted and weary and frustrated concurrently. I no longer wanted anything to do with this new Thornback—a slightly dangerous, impatient, and angry Thornback. I wanted to flee the dark, entangled world of this man pacing before me like a trapped animal in a cage, and for the first time in my life, I desired to return to the familiar monotony of my life. I watched silently, contemplating my next move, as my eyes followed Thornback. Then, with a smart turn of my heel, and an irritated twinge in my heart, I headed towards my home and left the pacing man to himself.
It was a month since that failed confrontation occurred. My mornings were the same: school, sleep in school, back home, dinner, sleep at home. Except the fact that I had graduated from the silly adventures I had last month and no longer included Thornback in my daily routine. I haven’t spoken to him ever since that incident; vexation and anxiety would arouse within me whenever I spotted his dark eyes—I only saw the man with a murky past, and mysterious secrets.
Each day continued without an interruption from Thornback, and gradually, he began to fade from my mind. He eventually diminished: each week would go by, and it was months later when I first realized that he didn’t even show up to town anymore. My fancies and adventures as a child dissipated with Thornback, and my life continued with ease without them. But there are the rare drops when the old days surface in my memories, and I remind myself that I will never be able to crack the odd case of Mr. Thornback.