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Homes of Strangers

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Author's note: I like odd things---I feel like this qualifies as odd.
Author's note: I like odd things---I feel like this qualifies as odd.  « Hide author's note
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Homes of Strangers

Outside the Hanzle residence, Morning Birds flitted from tree to tree, diving onto the lush green grass below whenever a worm was suspected to be hiding beneath the soil. Flowers along the residence’s and surrounding houses’ front yard yawned, stretching their petals toward the morning’s cool, damp air. The Eastern sun began to break through the horizon, spilling over the suburbia of Wilfred & Abbington as it chased away the dew.

And outside the Hanzle residence, at seven o’
This is a "short" story, and contains no identified chapters.
clock on the dot, the newspaper boy coasted down the road, hurling a crisp, clean copy of the day’s paper onto the welcome mat. Precisely five minutes later, Professor William Bosworth Hanzle opened the front door, stooped down in his green cashmere rob, and picked up the paper to carry it inside, just as he had always done.

At the same moment, just as he always did, Sampson Kallis eased from his hiding place behind the Hanzle’s front lawn bushes and crept across the lawn to the large bay window of the mansion’s living room. The Hanzle’s butler had already drawn what Sampson imagined to be the most luxurious, softest curtains he had ever laid eyes on. The Kannings down the street had curtains that looked soft, but were actually quite rough and almost nauseating to the touch. The other neighbors called the Kannings new money because of their lack of taste in curtains.

The curtains that had hung, years ago, in Sampson’s own home hadn’t been much to talk about, either. But back then no one spoke about such nonsense as the quality of one’s curtains. Yet, then again, the people Sampson had been surrounded with weren’t the same type of people he placed himself among these days.

Just then, Sampson heard the voice of Professor Hanzle calling from somewhere in the living room. “Darling, have you seen my cufflinks lying around?” His voice sounded close enough that perhaps Professor Hanzle was standing even just beside the window Sampson was peering into. Sampson tried to press his big nose against the glass to find out, but he could hardly see anything beyond the bundle of green, chiffon curtain material.

“Which pair are you searching for, love? I believe I recall spotting the silver ones on the armoire.” Mrs. Hanzle’s voice was sophisticated, highly educated, and sounded like liquid silk as it floated out to Sampson’s ears. Surely she had to have been the most enchanting woman in the neighborhood, if not the most striking. Occasionally, as he worked his way down Pearl Street, he would catch an intoxicating whiff of the Hanzle Kitchen’s early morning special; a meal that smelled so divine, Sampson had no other choice but to believe it had come from deep within the golden twirls and twists of Mrs. Hanzle’s delicate-yet-ever-so-potent mind; a mind so complex that it not only housed intense creativity, but fierce logic.

Sampson wanted nothing more than to one day ring the Hanzle doorbell and request to speak with Mrs. Regretta. And when the she finally came sweeping down the stairs—spectacles hanging at the end of her nose from reading—Sampson would first gaze upon her soft, salt-and-pepper curls as they headed into the main living room. And when they were alone, Sampson would gently grasp Mrs. Regretta’s faintly spotted hands between his own, take a single deep breath, and confess his love for her.

“I assumed the pair Elice gave me for Christmas last year would be best with my suit today. That speech isn’t going to get lucky all on its own,” Professor Hanzle paused, chuckling. “Who would’ve thought cufflinks with those Looney Tune fellows on them would give a man such courage?”

“Only a man that is just as mad as the characters he dons on his clothes, my love.” Mrs. Hanzle said with a laugh, gliding through the doorway across the room. Sampson’s heart, God bless it, stuttered and picked back up only to begin racing—far more than his doctors would have recommended, Sampson was sure. But he was hopeless! It was as if Mrs. Regretta was the switch to his circuit of calm; the instant she completed it, all fuses and resistors disappeared and everything went haywire. But it was worth the distress for Sampson; without her, his life would be very much dull, and perhaps even meaningless.

“Let’s not forget: you are the one that married me!” Professor Hanzle joked. “Anyone who marries someone mentally unkempt is naturally just as unstable, if not more.” Suddenly, the conversation turned commonplace.

“Oh, my,” Mrs. Hanzle commented, clutching her chest in worry, “imagine the heartache and loss those poor dears must go through! The how does one live with another who is as rational as segregation?”

“Aha! I, Mrs. Gretta, am going to get to the bottom of that question tomorrow afternoon!”

“What’s that Will? You’ve a conference?” Mrs. Hanzle played along. “Whenever did you land such a feat?”

“Why, a year ago of course! And a short year, at that. Twelve months is hardly enough time for one to prepare the biggest speech of his lifetime. No to mention: the biggest speech of a nation’s lifetime.”

“So long as while we’re gone, that grotesque burglar doesn’t come lurking around the neighborhood again…”
“Oh darling, don’t worry yourself with such nonsense. That is the committee’s job. And besides, the man’s been in the dark for months.” Professor Hanzle continued, “Probably fell off the face of the earth, as any such lowlife should do.”

“That lowlife, dear, took my necklace. The one you gave me for our anniversary, remember?”

“It’s missing? Darling, why didn’t you say something? Are you sure one of the jewel cleaners simply didn’t misplace it?”

“I’m sure. I’ve asked all of the keepers to look for it, and that was two months and two weeks ago. Almost three weeks.” Mrs. Hanzle’s cheeks turned pink in frustration, her hands rising to grip her hair. Professor Hanzle strode across the room, gently pulling her fingers from her hair.

“Now, now, darling. Remember our motto: third times the charm.” He assured, chuckling. “By week three, your necklace will be found. I promise you.” Mrs. Hanzle was swept into the arms of her husband, held close like Sampson would have done, and the two danced around the room.

Sampson had to admit: even without music to encourage them, they were beautiful dancers.


****


The following morning, the beginning of Sampson’s fifth consecutive day visiting the Hanzle home, something threw him for a surprising loop. At precisely seven o’ clock, the paperboy drifted by the home, not troubling himself to hurl a paper onto the welcome mat. Instead, Professor Hanzle and his wife strolled hand-in-hand through the front door, climbed into the back of their sandy Rolls-Royce (that had been waiting for exactly two minutes and fifty-three seconds just outside their front door’s redbrick walkway), and eased away from the residence.

Could it be that the day had arrived early? Or had Sampson simply lost track of the calendar?

For precautionary measure, Sampson gave himself ten minutes extra of hiding behind the lawn shrubs. The thing he wanted most—more than gaining entry itself—was not to get caught. From previous experiences around Wilfred & Abbington, Sampson had had a fairly successful track record. Fairly because there had been one or two near-discoveries—discoveries that, Sampson took care to admit, had been mostly due to his error. But all that had been behind him for weeks now, if not months. Sampson couldn’t remember.

When the sprinklers had finally ticked their last and died down, Sampson pulled himself up from the damp, cool ground and glanced over his shoulder to check for witnesses. Seeing it was clear, he hurried across the lawn as quickly as his joints would allow. Reaching the front bay window, Sampson continued down the side of the house, checking the coast every few steps to assure himself of his clearness.

Hours seemed to have passed before Sampson reached the back of the Hanzle residence, but in actuality, it hadn’t taken him any time at all to arrive at the elegant, white wrought iron gate that led into the Hanzle backyard. A gate—for which Sampson could feel his very blood pressure drop—that had been left unlocked.

The Hanzle’s butler had been serving as the chauffeur that morning, so he wouldn’t be inside. The maids had come yesterday. And with that known, Sampson suddenly realized the reason for their extended stay; they had been deep cleaning, of course! Sampson could only think of the blissful feeling of freedom he was experiencing as he slipped through the gate, strode—with a habitually cautious, yet still confident gate—across the backyard, careful to avoid the seemingly endless edge of the Hanzle’s in-ground pool.

The water inside glistened and sat so blue that, had he not known any better, Sampson would have taken it for being clear. He wished it was clear—clear in the sense that it held no water at all. Pools, whether in-ground, above ground, or literally buried beneath six feet of soil, did not settle well with Sampson. First of all, they were of no use personally; he couldn’t go swimming because swim trunks chafed his soft waist. Secondly, the only pools he had ever been in were community pools; he didn’t like the idea of swimming in other people’s dirt, and he especially didn’t care for swimming with other people. The way he saw it, bathing suits were really just like an extra layer of skin—in that sense of mind, swimming became more like bathing.

Sampson grunted as he passed the pool, shaking his head. “Might as well pour some dish soap in, too.” And then he chuckled to himself. “Someone pass the loofah…”

The universe must have been smiling upon Sampson that morning, because the Hanzle’s back door clicked open without any difficulty (not that Sampson had the means or knowledge to surpass any locks or dead bolts). Cautiously, he pushed the door further inside and followed suit himself, ears wide-open for any sound of movement other than his own.

He had stepped into the small mudroom, as his experience from other explorations around the neighborhood had told him to expect. It was white: glossy white titled floors, white walls, and of course a white ceiling. It was clean and organized: three or four various pairs of boots and shoes were lined against the east wall, and a single, black decorative stand sat beside the entryway to the hallway.

The hallway was opened by the tall ceiling and near lack of wall space. It branched off into the kitchen and dining room, both of which were stylishly painted and decorated. Sampson walked straight, however, saving the two rooms for later. The wide-open, also-high-ceilinged living room lay dead ahead, seeming to burst with airiness and an overwhelming sense of serenity. With one look at the shiny, black grand piano, overstuffed (and overly-comfortable looking) furniture, plush rugs, smooth, cherry wood flooring, and the bay window’s extravagant curtains, Sampson knew without a doubt the Hanzle residence was the most superb, the most magnificent home in the entire Wilfred & Abbington gated community.

On the far wall of the living room were framed photographs and certificates. Professor Hanzel and his wife seemed to be equally matched in the number of honors, awards, and degrees earned by each of them. According to the wall, neither was more intelligent, dignified, or appreciated than the other. But of course, Sampson did not believe that for a moment. He knew the truth; the truth that Mrs. Hanzel was far superior to her husband—even if it was wrong to think such a thing.

The photographs were a familial matter, having nothing to do with superiority or the educational ladder. Formal shots of a large number of people, perhaps seventy or more, hung one above the other. Casual ones were arranged sporadically, as if the prints themselves refused to adhere to the strictness of formality.

Sampson took a long look at the Hanzle family: the sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren. He even spotted a few ancient-looking folks, older than himself, that could have been aunts, uncles, or parents.

It all hurt.

Sampson did not care for the idea that, though the Hanzles were different, they had a family that bound them together so tightly that nothing could separate them. Family, Sampson knew, was the source of happiness. With it, a person could do unimaginable greatness, acquire inconceivable success, and be utterly and impossibly content with life. Somehow, with family, a person always had a home and sustenance.

Sampson knew this from experience.

He turned from the wall of photographs, shuffled across the room, and found his way into the kitchen. The sandy title, Sampson realized, was supposed to look like sand. And the light blue walls were supposed to be the beach and sky. Of course, the wall painted with palm trees and beach houses was a bit of a hint—but Sampson hadn’t seen that wall until after he decided the kitchen was actually a beach.

Gadgets he had never seen—not even in the Kanning’s kitchen—rested on the white countertops, gleaming sleek and silver. Some of them had bowls attached, or strange hooks. Some had blades, or even wires for heating.

The refrigerator was practically a goldmine to Sampson’s empty stomach, but he didn’t touch a thing, closing the door as quickly as he had opened it. Sampson prided himself on the fact he never stole anything. Material objects weren’t what he was looking to gain.

Sampson skipped the dining room; they generally didn’t hold personal objects. It was one of the rooms that people tended to have simply because they wanted to put on a show for others. Everything was imitated in dining rooms, and Sampson didn’t care too much for shams.

Several minutes later, Sampson found himself grunting with effort as he struggled up the white, winding staircase. “The…Kannings…had an…ele-…vator,” he said to himself. “That much…I’ll give…them.” His heart pounded, his wrinkly hands shook, and he could feel little drops of sweat beginning to form on the top of his nearly bald head. But at last, he reached the top, feeling as though he had reached the summit of a majestic mountain. Chandeliers hung evenly spaced along the wide balcony. The warm light streaming from it bounced off the white walls, white carpet, and the tall, white ceiling to create a mighty glow. Black and white photographs of famous landmarks hung between the doors that dotted the walls. From above, Sampson peered down into the living room, seeing again the wall of photographs. Instantly, he decided he much preferred the second story.

Just behind dining rooms, in all their uselessness, were guest bedrooms. The Hanzle’s had three, which left five other doors for Sampson to explore. One of them was a spacious bathroom, a communal area for the three guestrooms. Inside were two private showers, one private bathtub, and three private lavatories.

Sampson had always seen private as meaning surrounded by a cheap, wooden stall (or perhaps a pigpen). But, once again, he had to remind himself that the Hanzle’s lived above expectation. “Separate rooms,” He said in awe. “Specially separated rooms. With tiled floors and walls. And…what’s this?” Sampson pulled off his large-framed, thick glasses to peer at the edge of the door, running his index finger over it.

“A rubber seal?” He wondered. “All the money in the world, and you’re worried about a few drops of water leaking…” Sampson straightened (with a bit of effort, as his back and leg muscles were stiff with age), stretched lightly, and continued to gaze around. “At least the doors open outwardly; Mr. William and Mrs. Regretta combined haven’t got enough clout to get themselves out of legal trouble.” In the passing second, Sampson caught the sound of the air flowing through the room. And then he heard a voice. A voice that wasn’t his.

“Legal trouble?”

Sampson froze. He felt his thinned blood drain from his cheeks. His papery skin grew goose bumps, damp with a cold sweat. He had been caught.

The voice, the voice sounded too pure and too small to belong to an adult. So, with a deep breath, Sampson slowly maneuvered himself around to face the room’s doorway. Under it stood a little girl. To Sampson she appeared to be no older than seven, with long, wavy, dirty blonde hair and large grey-green eyes. Her clothes—a dark blue, long-sleeved tee shirt and what looked like miniaturized men’s work kakhis—hung loosely on her; somehow they appeared dirty and disastrous, but clean and calm. The faint freckles dotting her baby face made her look wise, nearly omnipotent.

Instantly, she reminded Sampson of the sea—wild and free.

“I—I, uh. Err…” Sampson scratched his head absentmindedly, trying to figure out how he could get out of the house as swiftly as possible.

“Legal trouble,” The girl prompted, taking a step forward. Unbelievable! She wasn’t afraid. Sampson nearly assumed the little girl didn’t know she should be afraid. Maybe she was a bit slow-minded?

But here she was, asking about legal trouble for Heaven’s sake!

“Maybe you should ask your parents about that,” Sampson forced himself to say. He wasn’t convinced that the girl wouldn’t do something rash, if she heard him speak. He was terrified himself. A part of him wanted to say nothing more and shuffle to the safety of his hut beneath the train station. But the other part? The other part of him wanted to continue speaking, because it had been an awfully long time since he had held a conversation with anyone other than himself. And the last one he had had was the one and only conversation he wished had never happened. So maybe speaking now would erase it? And maybe now, Sampson could start all over?

“I can’t,” the girl said, taking two more steps forward.

“Now why not?” Sampson asked, still feeling his damp skin. The girl took a couple steps more.

“Because,” She said, taking a step. “They’re gone.” She took one last step to reach where Sampson stood. Without shaking or going pale, she looked up at Sampson, who stood at least a good two feet taller. As the two stared at one another, the girl changed the subject. “I’m Olivia,” She said. Cautiously, Sampson reached out to gently shake her tiny, outstretched hand. It felt like butter melting inside his calloused, sausage hands, and until that moment he had forgotten what a child’s beautiful skin felt like. “What’s your name?”

“My name? Oh, you can call me Sampson. Just Sampson.”

Olivia grinned, an upper tooth missing from her bright smile. “I used to have a goldfish named Sampson.” Suddenly, Sampson’s mouth went dry and his tongue stuck to his dentures. He tried to swallow.

“Used to? Did he die?”

Olivia shook her head and giggled a sweet, enchanting melody. “No, I set him free.”


***


An hour or so passed by the time Olivia finished pulling Sampson from room to room, telling him all about the most priceless of pieces. In a way, getting caught was far more helpful to Sampson than his being able to look around by himself. Olivia seemed to pick out the cream of the crop, and with each item Sampson felt closer and closer to not only the Hanzles, but also society itself. The Hanzles were society. Maybe that was why he loved Mrs. Regretta so desperately, and why she could never love him in return.

They were sitting in the living room—Olivia on one of the rugs and Sampson on the edge of the plush sofa. He was lost in his own thoughts, thinking about Mrs. Regretta when a noise pulled him back to reality. “Sampson?” Olivia asked suddenly, shattering the wall between them. Unsure of what to expect, Sampson tried to disguise his fear.

“Yeah?” He grunted.

Olivia beamed up at him. “Can we go swimming?” Sampson shook his head immediately.

“No, I don’t want to.”

“But I want to! You can just sit outside and watch…”

“If I’m just going to watch, if I’m old and slow-moving, you might as well go swimming alone, without me. Earlier.” Sampson crossed his arms over his chest, hooking them under his armpits in a stubborn protest.

“But no one was home then.” Olivia argued. A moment passed, and Sampson could hear birds chirping outside the bay window. “I can’t go swimming unsupervised.”

“How old are you?”

“…Seven, almost eight. But I’m a strong swimmer…”

“No, no. That’s not the point--.”

“Then get to it, it’s nearly noon. The water’s just getting warm.”

“The point is why you’re home alone…”

At this, the fire in Olivia’s eyes died and she ducked her head, looking at the floor beneath her. “I could’ve asked you the same thing, Sam.” Sampson shook the sharp ache in his joints loose, ignoring how Olivia had addressed him. Not since Elisabeth, he thought.

“I’m here because I wanted to be.”

“Gram went with Papa. She’ll be back any time now,” Olivia pressed. “You’re either accused with being a sweet old man or…” A slow smirk spread across Olivia’s face, and Sampson sensed this was the devil in her coming out—the manipulative b-side of the sea. “Or breaking and entering.” Suddenly, Sampson felt the zest leave him, his body threatening to lose all control of muscle support. He couldn’t afford any injuries, and couldn’t be caught in the home of a stranger without due reason. So, mustering all his strength, he pushed himself onto his feet and dug his hands into his pockets.

“I broke nothing, and I took nothing. The door was unlocked--.”

“Fine, trespassing, then. Either way,” Olivia leapt to her feet, standing toe-to-toe with Sampson, her hands on her hips. “Once Gram is home, you can either swim or drown. There’s no blood on my hands.” She turned on her heel and started across the room toward the stairs.

“Wait,” Sampson called after her, “wait…please.”

Olivia stopped, slowly turning around as she stood on the bottom step of the staircase. On her face was the same smirk she wore before. “Yes?” She answered. “What is it?”

A long moment passed as old man and young girl looked at one another in silence. So many decades separated them, but something so strong linked the two that it was as if each made up for the other’s shortcomings. They were vastly different, yet no more identical than two yield signs fresh from the factory.
Sampson took a breath. “Quid pro--.” The front door’s lock rattled. Sampson and Olivia whirled around; they glanced from themselves to the door. Footsteps sounded outside. A car door shut. Voices exchanged dialogue. Sampson’s heart raced, his breathing went shallow.

Olivia had paled. Her eyes darted around the room, desperately searching for an escape. They landed on the back door. “Quick, out the back!” She whispered fiercely, arriving by Sampson’s side faster than he could blink. “Go, go, before she finds the key!” Olivia pushed Sampson across the room, nearly knocking him down in her too agile movement.

As quickly as Sampson tried to move, his stiff muscles had begun to ache halfway down the hallway. He slowed down, waving Olivia to ease up. “You’ve gotta get outta here. Gram won’t like--.”

“Olivia?”

Sampson and Olivia froze, faces going cold and pale.

“Would you like me to bring the bags in first, or put the car away, madam?” The butler asked, his voice as passive and patient as a loyal canine.

“Bring the bags, if you would, Alswell. I know your ankles are giving you trouble today.”

“Thank you madam, you’re too kind.” The sound of a shutting door floated across the room a moment later, followed by footsteps and the typical movement of arriving home.

“Olivia!” Mrs. Hanzle called again. Sampson saw Mrs. Hanzle’s shadow darken as it closed in on rounding the corner into the hallway. “I’ve arrived home, dragonfly.”

“Comeonthisway!” Olivia whispered, not stopping to punctuate herself. She moved to push Sampson into the mudroom, but stopped suddenly, her eyes locked on the opposite end of the hallway.

Sampson looked around, his eyes meeting Regretta’s. She was as beautiful as ever, with a business skirt and jacket on. No matter how frail she may have looked, no matter how elegant, her outfit proved otherwise. And just when Sampson thought maybe Heaven had opened its gates, Mrs. Hanzle opened her mouth. And out came a scream.

“WHO ARE YOU?! And WHAT do you THINK you’re doing in my HOUSE with MY little GRANDCHILD? GET OUT, GET OUT GET out! Right now! I’ll have the police on you faster than you--.”

Sampson never heard Mrs. Hanzle’s threat. The room went black before she could get it out.


***


“Sir?”

“Gram, his name is Sampson.”

“…Sampson? Can you hear me, Sampson?” Mrs. Regretta’s voice first filled his senses, and then he opened his eyes, and her gorgeous face drowned out her voice. “Oh, are you alright? I am so very deeply sorry for startling you as I did. Here, try sitting upright. Olivia dear, please go and fetch Sampson something to eat.”

“Aw, Gram, can’t Alswell do it? He’s the butler.”

“Olivia,” Mrs. Regretta repeated, “please do as I ask.” Olivia frowned, shifting her focus onto Sampson longingly.

“Oh alright, Gram.” She turned and dragged herself across the room, disappearing down the hallway.

A moment of silence passed. Sampson slowly became aware of Mrs. Regretta’s hand grasping his as she sat on a chair beside him on the couch.

“Sampson, while there is some privacy, we need to have an honest discussion.” Mrs. Hanzle took a deep breath. “Now, I don’t know what you were doing in my house, but I’m not going to press charges. Olivia vouched for your being a good, reliable person. And I trust her judgment; she’s got quite a head on her shoulders.”

As he could barely sit upright on his own, it took all of his energy for Sampson to give Mrs. Hanzle a genuine smile. “I didn’t mean any harm,” He replied, pulling his hand from Regretta’s. “I just--. I…can’t explain myself.” Not only was Sampson convinced the woman wouldn’t understand his reasoning, he was far too embarrassed by the entire ordeal to even try. Getting caught was one thing, but getting caught by Mrs. Regretta herself? He would never let himself live it down.

Mrs. Hanzle gazed at the wall of photos for some time, until a single note of laughter glided through her lips. “You know, when I first saw you, I thought for a moment that you were the criminal that’s been sneaking around the neighborhood and breaking into the residents’ homes.” Sampson felt himself go pale, the blood draining from the surface of his skin.
Panicked, he fumbled his words. “What—what’s that now?”

Mrs. Regretta’s eyebrows furrowed, her head titled to the side as she stared at Sampson in confusion. “You mean you haven’t yet heard of the neighborhood’s criminal activity; the Bellasios stolen teak kettle from Sweeden; the Sanchetti’s missing rug from Belize? Maybe he’s keeping to one area of the community, then? Now that I think of it, all the homes that have been broken into are quite near here. No wonder my necklace went missing!” Mrs. Regretta cried, leaping to her feet as if she were as young as Olivia. But for an instant, her outburst was quelled by a question that seemed to have presented itself before her.

“Sampson,” She asked, turning to face him, “you don’t live around here, do you?” Again, Sampson found himself sinking into a panicked shock. He wasn’t sure which way was up and which was down. So he closed his eyes and let himself fall.

“No,” He said as casually as he could, shaking his head. “No, I don’t.”

“Oh, that’s good to know, dear. What with your not being in this shameless thief’s radius of destruction.” She paused for a moment, setting her finger to her lips in thought. “Would you excuse me? I believe I need to call my husband.” She quietly crossed and disappeared from the room.

From inside the kitchen, Olivia’s voice floated out to Sampson. She was talking softly, and with his bad hearing he was surprised he could hear her at all. Several minutes passed as Sampson sat alone on the couch. He thought through the entire past week and realized he had never expected it to turn out anything like it had.

Glancing up at it, he still felt a bit of envy towards the wall of photographs, and perhaps even Olivia as well. After all, she had her own bedroom in the Hanzle house! She was closer to the Hanzles than the people in the photographs were.

“She’s talking to Papa,” Olivia said, appearing at the end of the hallway. She held a plate in one and a glass of milk in another. “Do you like Brie?” She asked, holding up the plate as she started across the room.

Sampson raised an eyebrow, observing the strange, oblong slices of darkened bread that sat on the plate. “Never heard of it.” He wasn’t so sure of the bread, either.

Olivia’s jaw dropped, her eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. “What’s wrong with you?” She asked, handing him the plate as if she were about to shove it down his throat. She seemed bent on convincing Sampson that this oddly named food was worth her hassle. “Gram says this cheese is imported from France.”

“French cheese, eh?” Sampson said, lifting the sandwich to his nose. A big sniff told him the bread was something stronger than Wonder. “I’d’ve been just fine with American.” He grumbled.

Olivia sighed, pulling herself onto the couch to sit beside Sampson. “It won’t be what you’re expecting,” she said, “but just try it anyway. Gram always says Papa works hard so he can have nice things.”

Sampson choked, forcing himself to swallow what he had bitten off of the sandwich. “Nice? He has a grand piano, a huge home, and the man imports cheese that tastes like a ripe-worn hat and has the texture of an apple pie gone bad.” But Sampson didn’t return the sandwich—as he quickly would have before he met Olivia and Regretta. Instead he eyed it, and with a leap of faith took another bite.

This time, the strong, nearly overbearing taste had abated just barely. And Sampson realized this French-imported cheese wasn’t half bad.

“Well?” Olivia asked, eyes gleaming and a curious smile on her face. “Should I tell Gram you’ve settled in?” But before Sampson could answer, Mrs. Hanzle strode into the room, hands clasped in front of her.

“Olivia,” She started, “perhaps you should go and make yourself something to eat as well?”

With a moment’s look between grandmother and granddaughter, Olivia opened her mouth. “Alswe--!”

“I’ve dismissed him for the day.” Mrs. Hanzle stated, a clever smile stretching across her lovely cheekbones. Her smile reminded Sampson of Olivia’s.

With a roll of her eyes, the girl dropped to the floor and took off at a run across the room, disappearing almost instantly. In the quiet, Mrs. Regretta swept through the room and took a seat on the chair beside the couch. “I’ve spoken to my husband.” She began, her tone making it clear Sampson wasn’t to interrupt. “Of course, I did not pay him much mind when he spoke, but I did manage to intake some of what he said. And all of it was positive…

“Mostly, however, what filled my thoughts while he spoke were all the times I’ve taken trips into downtown, Sampson. For some reason, I started to think of all the sites I see along the journey: the trees; the bucolic, suburban homes; the coastline; the bridge over the water. And then…I remembered seeing you, Sampson.” Mrs. Regretta paused, and the old woman and the old man stared into one another’s eyes without the faintest speculation of what might be coming next. “So I’ll ask you again: you don’t live around here, do you?”

Sampson looked at the wood floor beneath his worn-though, dirty, black shoes. His gaze slid upwards, seeing the frayed hem of his patched-up slacks, his filthy, trodden leather coat, his white dress shirt that was no longer white, and the remaining part of what had been quite a handsome tie, hanging loosely around his neck. Sampson was a sight, even for energetic eyes. He had watched as his utter lack of life and exuberance grew so consuming that it fed off the liveliness of others. He felt like a parasite. But that was the very last thing he wanted.

“No,” he finally answered.

“You live beneath the bridge,” Mrs. Regretta stated. “In that dilapidated cardboard box by the water’s edge. I’ve seen you leaning against the wall, consumed by the bridge’s shadows.” Mrs. Regretta paused, looking at the floor herself. She swallowed before lifting her head and eyes to Sampson. “I’ve seen you, but I don’t know anything. Who are you, Sampson?”

Sampson looked away, questioning whether or not pulling himself to his feet was worth the ache he would suffer in his joints later on. Upon looking back at the day’s events, he decided his body had been through quite enough. So he remained sitting. “I was Sampson Kallis,” he said quietly, “a contractor for a big construction crew. Married. A father.” Sampson chuckled. “A grandfather, even. But… that was decades ago.”

“What happened?”

“Olivia!” Mrs. Regretta scolded. Sampson and Mrs. Hanzle looked up to see Olivia standing beneath the entryway to the living room, clinging to its frame in a sort of nervous fascination. “What have we taught you about eavesdropping?”

Olivia sighed, dropping her head in disgrace. “It’s wrong.”

“And what have you to say for yourself, young lady?”

“I’m sorry…”

Sampson glanced at Mrs. Regretta, unsure of what his reply should be. “Apology accepted.” A long moment passed then, as the young girl and the old woman exchanged a long, knowing look.

“Sampson,” Mrs. Regretta began, breaking her focus on Olivia. “It’s…not official yet, but…how would you like to live with us? The professor, Olivia, and myself?”

“Li--. Live? Here?” Sampson was shocked beyond belief. Shocked nearly speechless, as all he could manage to utter were partial sentences. “Are—joking? Can’t. Got fine home.”

“Oh, absolutely not, Sampson. I can not allow you to live beneath that bridge, now that we’re friends. And I certainly can’t bear the thought of you shivering in this awful winter we’ve had this year.” Friends, thought Sampson, is this a dream? “I’ve committed my life to helping people who are in desperate need of lifestyle improvements. Usually it would be strictly a project of community service, of course. But you’ve made it personal.” Mrs. Regretta sighed, casting a long look at the spot where Olivia had abandoned. “Olivia is a very special child, Sampson. And she’s just lost her parents, her only family except William and myself…”

“She’s…living here then? Permanently?”

Mrs. Regretta nodded, biting her lip in concern. “Yes. And you could, too. I’ve already spoken to the professor. He’s asked to speak with you himself, naturally; but he’s agreed to let you stay here temporarily until he returns from the conference he is attending, and then we will…cross that bridge when we reach it.” Mrs. Regretta chuckled lightly at her joke, pushing herself to her feet.

“So what will it be, Sampson? Would you like to spend a few days in an environment where the people all care for and love you?”

Care for? Love? Sampson’s heart nearly melted at the sound of those words on Regretta’s tongue, those words that flowed like warm milk and honey from her voice. If he had been asked to compare the two, without hesitating Sampson would have declared that being accepted by Mrs. Regretta was far more satisfying for his heart than confessing his undying love for her would have ever been.

“I--. I don’t know what to say, Mrs. Hanzle.”

Mrs. Hanzle chucked, holding out her smooth hand to assist Sampson to his feet. “Please, call me Regretta.” She said. “Come on upstairs, and Alswell will help you get settled into one of the guest rooms.”


***


Just after nightfall, Sampson lay in one of the luxurious Hanzle guest room beds, reading by bedside light. But instead of focusing on the story of that ugly duckling, countless thoughts and questions drifted in and out of Sampson’s mind. Could the outcast truly be accepted by the others? What made him belong instead of simply accepted among the other folks? Or were the two the same? What if he had belonged and been accepted at one point in his life, but not later on?

And what about Sampson’s knack for life not turning out quite like he had imagined or hoped for? Good goes bad, bad goes good—the two seemed rather interchangeable to him.

A sudden, gentle knock on the door pulled Sampson from his ocean of thoughts. “Sampson?” Regretta asked through the door, “May I speak with you? I’m sorry for the disturbance.”

Sampson hauled himself from the bed and shuffled as quickly as possible across the room, opening the door.

“Oh good, you’re awake. Um…” Regretta glanced away as if unsure of how to work her thoughts. “Alswell found this in the pocket of your coat.” She said, pulling from her skirt pocket an immaculate pearl necklace. “It’s the one that had been stolen.” She continued. “Why was it in your pocket?”

“That’s…one reason I was here today.” Sampson swallowed. “I’ve been trying for months to stop that burglar you mentioned earlier today. Well…not stop really. But return the stolen items to their rightful owners. You see…my daughter and my granddaughter believed the items inside a person’s home reflected the person’s being. So even if that person isn’t physically home, a part of them still is.”

Regretta was silent for a long moment. And then finally she spoke, “And do you believe this?”

It was Sampson’s turn to be silent. “…I try.”

“So…for someone who believes possessions capture a person’s being, why don’t you have any for yourself, Sampson? Why do you live beneath the bridge in a cardboard box? Is that your being, then, a cardboard box?” Regretta’s brow furrowed, her hand gripping the door’s frame. “I do not tolerate liars, Sampson. It would have been better for all of us if you simply came clean, instead of making up all of these whimsical stories… Alswell has your clothes washed and re-patched, Sampson. I would appreciate it if you left my home now.”

Good to bad.


***


The dirty coastline’s water lapped at Sampson’s shoe, chilling him to the bone each time it washed over his toes. The snow fell over his still body delicately, blanketing him beneath a pure, white cruelty. Occasionally, a car would slowly pass overhead, cautiously navigating the icy bridge. And for the first time ever, Sampson desperately wished that each and every one of those cars would slide over the edge and tumble into the icy abyss.

He hadn’t bothered to look for anything to eat in days, and drank only enough to keep himself clinging to the fence between life and death. There, he figured, was where he deserved to be: life was too painful, death far too giving of an escape.

The problem, he had decided, was neither society nor himself but rather the setting of the universe. Society didn’t necessarily want to be rejecting, and Sampson sure didn’t choose to isolate himself. It was simply the way the dice fell; no being controlled it and not a soul could change it.

But suddenly, seeming to sound from nowhere in particular, a man’s voice spoke through the falling snow. “Mr. Kallis?” Sampson heard footsteps as the stranger approached where he lay against the bridge’s wall. He recognized the voice as belonging to the professor, Professor Hanzle. And the luggage that came with that recognition only made Sampson more miserable.

“Mr. Kallis, is that you?” Professor Hanzle asked. He knelt down beside Sampson, gently resting a hand on Sampson’s shoulder. “I’m Profess--.”

“I know who you are, Professor,” Sampson interrupted. “The smartest, wealthiest, happiest, most-admired man in the city. You have countless family members, a loving wife, children who adore you, and a particular grandchild who has never and will never have to fear losing faith in you.” Sampson paused, trying to hide his wince from the professor as the frigid water further numbed his foot. “A man like you has no business barging into the life of a man like me.” Sampson turned away from Professor Hanzle, tightening his arms across his chest.

Seconds passed, and the water continued to wash against the shore. The snow continued to fall and the professor continued to kneel beside Sampson. “My wife Regretta…she tells me sometimes that I’m mad,” He chuckled lightly, appearing to ignore Sampson’s grim mood. “Mad, of all things! And she calls me irrational. Which…madness and irrationality is somewhat of a blessing in disguise,” the professor paused, “wouldn’t you think, Sampson?

“You see, Mr. Kallis, if I weren’t as mad as my wife claims, I’m sure I would never have taken the trip down to your bridge this morning. And, Mr. Kallis, if I weren’t as irrational as my wife—who is indeed madder than myself—claims, I wouldn’t have taken your word quite as seriously.

“I called the Wilfred & Abbington committee together yesterday, and with the help of Olivia, managed to sort through each and every resident until, voilà, the culprit was found! It happened to be a couple of our very own neighbors, stealing priceless items from the homes surrounding their own. But, luckily we caught them before they were able to pawn anything off. Everyone got his or her artifacts and possessions back; all were repaid in full, Sampson. And a man of my nature has a strong desire to repay a man of such nature that initiates such a success… Catch my drift?”

Sampson was beginning to think his entire outlook on the Hanzle family had been wrong; they were all crazy. But if they knew they were crazy, how insane could they actually be? And in that case, perhaps there was some truth after all to what the professor had suggested?

What did he have to lose? His cardboard box? His breezy, damp shelter? All the people he didn’t have to love? Sampson turned to the professor, looking him directly in the eye. “I catch your drift,” He said. Professor Hanzle smiled, straightening to his full height.

“Care to catch the car back to our home, as well?” He asked, glancing around Sampson’s shoddy living quarters. “If you’ll accept, both Mrs. Hanzle and myself would be more than happy to welcome you with open arms.” He paused. “Olivia, too, of course.”

Within minutes, Alswell had arrived on the scene and led Sampson Kallis from the bridge and into the back of the idling Rolls-Royce. As the car crossed the old bridge, professor looked over from beside Sampson.

“Olivia mentioned you wouldn’t supervise her swimming the other day,” He commented. “She said you seemed a little discouraged when you declined… May
I ask why that might have been true?”

Sampson thought about Olivia, the professor, and Regretta. He thought about all that he, unexpectedly, was somehow being given back: his wife that lost her patience and trustworthiness, the family that had abandoned him, his granddaughter that had been regretfully lost to the water. His home, his age, his compassion and zest.

The Hanzles were somehow willing to help him get it back. Maybe the world wasn’t such a terrible place for one to live in after all?

With his eyes stinging from the first, truest happiness he’d felt in decades, Sampson met the professor’s kindhearted gaze. “I was afraid history would repeat itself,” He said. “But now I know it’s just giving me a second chance. And that’s something I can live with.”
Chapters:  


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