Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: The Manuscript (04/29/10)
TITLE: The Secret
By Beth Muehlhausen
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Mr. Peabody is a retired university professor who lives with two black Scotty dogs in an old two-story house made of rusty-colored paving bricks. In his prime he taught British literature, but upon retirement shifted his focus to his real passion: creative writing. While some people continue to wait with confident expectation for a volume to show up in print, others see his bluff. They assume he wants to avoid social encounters, and so hides behind a smokescreen: the pseudo-image of an author.
“Sorry, I won’t make the neighborhood picnic,” he responds to well-meaning neighbors who cordially invite him. “I plan to work on my manuscript Saturday; chapter six is gaining momentum! Maybe some other time?”
His clipped speech and proper demeanor are indicative of his British heritage. However, he wears dowdy brown trousers hiked up to his armpits with elastic suspenders. Untamed strands of gray hair refuse to submit to his comb-over style and instead stand straight up as if crackling with static electricity. He’s definitely some sort of dichotomy.
Alfred and Fletcher, his dogs, greet anyone bold enough to come near his unkempt yard full of weeds and grass that have not seen a mower in years. The dogs’ hoarse yip-yippy barks suggest the poor creatures need a long vacation from any sort of verbal expression. “Boys, boys,” Mr. Peabody often says while standing on the porch shaking a bony pointer finger toward them. “You mustn’t be so talkative! Don’t you know quiet contemplation is good for the soul? Now come inside, let me read to you, and we can meditate together.”
On a certain Saturday afternoon in September a teenager named Rachel hesitates outside the balding picket fence. The dogs barrage her with a series of high-pitched woofs, but she boldly opens the gate, strolls up to the massive oak door with its peeling paint, and knocks tentatively. The door swings open on creaky hinges.
“Hello. Mr. Peabody?”
“Yes. That’s me.”
“I’m taking orders for oranges as a fund raiser for the high school choir. Would you like to buy some?”
“Oranges. Hmmm. Well, yes, I would. I like oranges, don’t I boys?”
“Yip, yip ow-ow-ow,” says Alfred, and “Yap-yap, bow-a-wow,” says Fletcher, as both dogs run past them into the shadowy interior of the house.
“Here’s the form. You just sign here – and mark the quantity there.”
As Rachel waits for the old man to scribble in the blanks, she dares to ask a question.
“Well, Mr. Peabody … are you really working on a manuscript? Lots of people say you are. But some people think you aren’t. I want to know the truth.”
He gazes deep into her pupils with his own clear-blue, guileless eyes.
“Of course I am.”
“Well, I thought so.”
“But it’s not the one I was working on last year.”
“What do you mean?”
“Or the year before that!”
“Oh! You have several in progress, then?”
Mr. Peabody steps back, ushers Rachel inside, and gestures toward a bookshelf in the adjoining library - a room defined by an imposing brick fireplace and massive roll-top desk. “See that top shelf of books? There are seven published volumes there, one for each year I’ve been retired. I authored them all under a pen name. So, you see, no one knows.” He looks at her with one bushy eyebrow raised in a sharp arc. “Can you keep my secret?”
Rachel stares at the hunch-backed old man. “What is your pen name, then? Can I see those books? Are they fiction, or non-fiction, or….?”
“Ah, I knew this day would come – eventually.” Mr. Peabody rubs the whiskery stubbles on his chin, as if to recognize the inevitability of public recognition. “Perhaps you would like to borrow one and read it yourself? And as for my pen name, it is Alfred Fletcher.”
Hearing their names, the dogs run to his side with affirmative little yips.
“Could I? I mean, do you mind?”
“I wouldn’t have offered if I minded, now would I?” He grabs a book and hands it to her along with the completed order form. “Bring it back when you deliver the oranges and tell me what you think. Now you’d better move along to your next sale.” He winks a sparkly eye and waves her into action with the back of his hand. “Shoo – go on with you! I have work to do, you know; my manuscript is waiting.”
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