By Vaishnavi Gornale, ’24
Near the very end of the unsettled but quiet United Kingdom, there was a small town — small even for a small town, for it was only made up of 15 houses, and in each house lived precisely five people. Of course, that was true in all but one house. It had walls the lightest shade of pink, curtains with the lightest shade of blue and a stone door that was dark and burgundy. And the villagers could have sworn it creaked.
This was a small town and as any self-respecting small town, it had discipline, it had order and if you were to live in such a town, there were certainly things you simply had to know. For example, you had to know Mr. Seltsam, a man with a shabby white bush on his chin that somehow stretched to the other end of his cheeks and curled at the very tip, was the oldest and, therefore, the wisest man in all of Klein Town. You had to know his favorite saying was, “Perception changes things, my children,” and his favorite thing was his silver pen, which he patted his pockets for every 52 seconds. And of course, you had to know that one could not tell if Mr. Seltsam was blessed or cursed, for the old man had never been seen outside his home in 50 years. This was common knowledge, even for Cory Gliech, who never cared for such details. Especially Emma Elizabeth Anders, who only cared for such details.
Emma Elizabeth Anders carried a book in her back pocket and a pencil in her hair, who — as the bane of her existence claimed — had a nail for a nose and eyes that looked like her lips, a narrow straight line that never quite changed. Who was a self-proclaimed detective who kept tabs on everybody. Especially Mr. Seltsam — because, well, she was certain he was blessed.
“Mr. Seltsam,” she asked, the night of winter solstice when the townspeople were hidden behind their blankets and when no sane man would open his door to this frightful little girl. But with cold insistence and a thousand knocks, the girl finally got one old man to open. “What is your age, Mr. Seltsam?”
“Is that not a bit strange to ask, Miss Anders?” The man frowned at her.
“Not at all.”
“Oh! Well, in that case Miss Anders, I’m 503.”
“And why exactly” — she went on, unperturbed, rapidly scribbling away in her notebook — “Are you alive?”
“God’s will, I suppose,” he said simply. Perhaps too simply.
“Hm,” she murmured. “And what do you do, Mr. Seltsam?”
“I am an old man, Miss Anders, who enjoys solitude.”
“And what, Mr. Seltsam,” Emma asked, “do you do while you follow the life of a hermit?”
“Write,” he said. “I’m a writer — Miss Anders, do you not have parents?”
Emma grinned at him. “I do, in fact.”
“I see.” Mr. Seltsam pursed his lips.
“Hmm,” she continued, nodding her head. His answers matched up with her own observations. He was not lying. Yet.
He could not escape her. Surely, he knew that.
She opened her mouth to question him on his beard when she caught the twinkle in his eye. Odd, she thought. Mr. Seltsam was the kind of man who frowned far more than he smiled. His eyes shouldn’t be laughing.
“What else do you do, Mr. Seltsam?” she asked slowly. His frown deepened and blinked at her.
“Nothing else, Miss Anders.”
“Truly?” she asked nonchalantly. “Nothing else?”
“Yes, girl,” the old man said, his face contorting into a nasty scowl. He tapped at the window through which he was looking. “Now if you’ll get off my porch, I need — need to — sleep. I must sleep.”
He turned around, his shoulder hunched. But then she said, “What does that pen do, Mr. Seltsam?”
“What?” he asked, twisting around far too fast for the age he claimed. There was another twinkle in his eye. Though this time, Emma didn’t notice it. Nor did she realize that it was not the same as before.
“You hoard it like a jewel,” she said. “Surely, it’s special.”
“It is just a pen,” he said through his teeth. “It will do you good to leave me alone, little girl.”
“Hmm,” she murmured — if only to add to Mr. Seltsam’s irritation. “We will find out soon enough, we suppose. Good day, Mr. Seltsam.”
“Good riddance,” he muttered as she sauntered off onto the street. He paused, his hand on the window, staring off until the girl disappeared from his sight. “Good riddance,” he murmured, a thought circling his mind. He remained silent for a moment, tossing the thought around. It was an unfortunate thought.
But the right one. For she was on a dangerous path. He knew it. Perhaps the girl knew it too.
So when night fell, never had the town of Klein felt colder.
The next morning, the whole town erupted in whispers. Something extraordinary had happened. Mr. Seltsam, who did nothing but scowl out his window as anyone who dared look his way, had carefully walked down the sidewalk with his mud-colored overcoat, stretching to his ankles. He stopped in front of a light blue door and knocked once. The lady who opened the door was frail, the outline of her bones visible on every inch of her skin.
“What is it you want?” she rasped, rubbing her eyes.
“This is the Anders’ house,” Mr. Seltsam stated.
The woman glared and repeated, “What do you want, old man?”
“I’m looking for Emma Elizabeth Anders,” he said. The woman blinked.
Mr. Seltsam leaned forward. “A little girl who walks around with a pencil and book?”
The woman squinted. “Who in God’s name is she?” she asked, her lips stretched over her crooked teeth. “Don’t go around making up names as you please, old man. And for everyone’s sake, stop wasting our time with your wild imaginations.”
She slammed the door and the bystanders jolted once. Then, again, when they noticed a smile creep onto the old man’s face. Parents ushered their children down the street and others hid them behind their backs as they scurried past. Smiling. The old man was smiling.
And only he knew why. For the previous night, Mr. Seltsam, with his strange eyes and hidden face, who was most certainly cursed, whose life only one girl had bothered ever dared to venture into, had lifted his silver pen with his unstill hands and began to rewrite. Writer. Rewriter.
For that day, history had changed: Klein Town had two strange houses. Both houses had the wrong number of people. And, of course, Emma Elizabeth Anders had never been born.