Monday, January 15, 2024

A New Short Story for the New Year!

    Technically, this isn't new - I wrote it last fall.  But it's a fun story that I haven't shared online before, so I hope you enjoy it.  It's about a loyal son, a dying father, and a quest for a magical (?) artifact that goes spectacularly wrong.  Let me know what you think!

                   “YOU MUST FIND IT!!”

                                                 A SHORT STORY BY

                                                     Lewis B. Smith


          Roger’s father, Morris, was dying.  The cancer had come back, and no treatment seemed to slow it down.  Morris had been in hospice care for a month now.  The morphine kept the worst of the pain at bay, but it also left him delirious much of the time.  Roger and his siblings took turns sitting with him at night so their mother could get some rest.

          Each evening, there was about an hour after the morphine wore off, but the pain was still suppressed.  During these times Morris was clear and lucid, and Roger enjoyed these fleeting chances to talk with his dad. This particular evening Roger was sitting trying to read a book as Morris dozed.  Roger had eaten a sandwich, but Morris could only sip protein shakes through a straw.  Even that left him nauseous some of the time.

          “Son?” the old man’s voice quavered.  “Roger, is that you?”

          “I’m here, Dad,” Roger said.

          “Of course you are,” Morris said.  “I’m sorry, my vision is going.  Now I see you.  Son, there’s something very important I have to tell you.  The pain is building again, but I need to say this before I get more drugs.”

          “Sure, Dad, what is it?” Roger said.

          Morris tried to pull himself upright and groaned as the tumors in his abdomen pressed against his stomach.

          “Sumbitch, that hurts!” he groaned.  “Getting worse all the time.  It’s gonna eat me up soon.  What was I saying?”

          “You wanted to tell me something important,” Roger said.

          “That’s right.  Gotta hold it together here,” Morris mumbled. “OK, son.  Listen.  Crystal ball.  She lost it again.  You have to find it!  Don’t tell your Mom, whatever you do.  But you must find crystal ball!”

          “Crystal ball?” Roger repeated.  He’d seen all of his parent’s knickknacks over the years – they collected oddities from all over the world – but he’d never seen a crystal ball in the collection.

          “She needs to have it back, or she’ll destroy everything!” Morris rasped.  “Oh, dear God, this hurts, son.  Can I have morphine yet?”

          Roger looked at the clock.  It was a half hour before the next dose was due, but did it really matter at this point?  He took the syringe from the shelf where the nurse had put them and injected it into the bag of saline solution, then hung the bag and attached the tube to his dad’s IV.

          “Here you go, Dad, this should give you some relief,” he said.

          “Thanks, son.  Remember: find crystal ball!  And . . .” Morris sighed as the first of the morphine hit his veins.  “Don’t . . . tell your mother.  Oh, that’s better.  I think I can sleep now.”

          “You just rest, Dad,” Roger said, kissing his father’s forehead.

          He sat back down, his book forgotten for the moment, pondering what his Dad had said.  A crystal ball?  A woman who would “destroy everything” if it wasn’t returned?  And why couldn’t he tell his mother?  He would have dismissed it as a morphine-fueled fantasy, but Dad’s eyes had been clear when he said it, and he’d seemed very earnest.   But why couldn’t he tell his mother about it?  Was there a real danger to his family?

          Roger thought about it for the next two hours.  At nine, his sister Amy came in to relieve him, and he pulled her aside for a moment.  Amy was six years older than him, and might remember things he didn’t.

          “Did Mom and Dad ever have a crystal ball?” he asked.

          “No,” she replied. “They had one of those ‘Magic 8 Ball’ things when I was little, but Jerry broke it open to see how it worked, and they threw it out. Why do you ask?”

          “Dad got all worked up earlier about a crystal ball.  He said if I didn’t find it that ‘she would destroy everything,’ whatever that means,” Roger explained.

          “Who did he mean by ‘she’?” his sister wondered.  “He wasn’t talking about Mom, surely!”

          “No, in fact, he made me promise not to tell Mom anything about it!” Roger explained.

          “You might try Aunt Carol,” Amy suggested.

          “That’s a good idea!” Roger said.  “She’s a night owl, so maybe I can catch her.”

          Carol was Morris’ older sister, and lived a couple of hours away, in Cleveland.  A spry seventy-five-year-old, she loved to read till midnight and get up around ten the next morning.  Roger walked across the street to his house and dialed her as soon as he got home.

          She picked up on the second ring, and her voice betrayed her anxiety as she answered.

          “Roger, sweetie, is Morris. . . ?” she began.

          “He’s resting comfortably,” Roger reassured her.  “The doctors say he has a few weeks left, give or take.”

          “That’s cold comfort when your baby brother is dying,” she said.  “I know they mean well, it’s just so – so cold of them to put it that way!  Well, what do you need, sweetie? You didn’t call to listen to an old woman ramble about the shortcomings of for-profit medicine!”

          Roger chuckled.  His aunt was an unrepentant 1960’s flower child liberal; his Dad a MAGA Trump supporter.  Roger himself hated all politicians equally, not least for making his family’s holiday gatherings so combative.

          “No, I didn’t, Carol,” he said.  “I called because of something Dad told me tonight.  Do you remember Dad ever owning a crystal ball?”

          “A crystal ball?” she asked. “Let’s see.  As a boy, he collected toy cars, fossils from the creek, arrowheads from the fields across the way, and baseball cards.  His room was like a cut-rate junk emporium!  But I don’t remember him ever having a crystal ball or anything that resembled one.”

          “Well, he must have at some point,” Roger said.  “Because he asked me to find it, and made it sound pretty urgent.  He said ‘she’ll destroy everything if she doesn’t get it back!’ – and that’s a direct quote.”

          “Who she?  Your mom she?” Carol asked.

          “Not Mom,” Roger said.  “In fact, Dad specifically said not to tell her about this.”

          “Hmmm,” Carol mused. “Morris was stationed in Okinawa back in his Navy days, and I know he continued to collect all sorts of oddments while he was over there.  He had this one Navy buddy that he shared an apartment with off base back then. That fellow might know. What was his name – Thackery or Tackery or something like that. . .”

          “Tadbury!” Roger exclaimed.  “I think Dad got a Christmas card from him last month.”

          “Yes, Dennis Tadbury, that was it!” Carol said.  “He might know about this mysterious crystal ball!”

          “I’ll find his address in the morning,” Roger said.  “Mom never throws cards away!”

          The next day Roger went over to his mom and dad’s house and waited till his mother was busy trying to get Morris to eat.  He then went to the drawer where she kept the family Christmas cards, all bundled by year.  The most recent set hadn’t been bundled yet, and flipping through them, he quickly located one from Dennis Tadbury.  He snapped a picture of the return address on his phone, then went back over to his house after making sure his mom didn’t need any help.  Once there, he looked up Dennis Tadbury on the internet and found that the Navy veteran lived in Buffalo, NY, but didn’t have a listed phone number.  Roger thought about it for a bit, and then remembered the urgency in his Dad’s voice.   He called the local airport and booked a commuter flight to Buffalo, which would leave later that afternoon. He called Amy and Jerry to ask them to cover his shift with Morris that night, and drove to the airport.

          Roger wasn’t wealthy, but he had won a half million dollars in the lottery a couple years before and used it to clear all of his debts. He’d banked the remaining money and let it earn interest, while continuing to work his job as a travel agent. Since he was divorced, with no children, he had more disposable income than any of his siblings. That, he thought as he drove to the airport, was probably why his Dad had asked him to find the crystal ball.

          He had a rental car waiting for him in Buffalo and drove to the address on the card after grabbing a quick meal at the IHOP near the airfield. The house was neatly kept and the yard mowed, and the name “Tadbury D, USN” was printed neatly on the mailbox.  He rang the bell, and after a short delay, Tadbury answered.

He was a spry, white-haired man of seventy years or so.  He wore a grey cardigan and a bright green bow tie.  Morris thought he resembled an extra from a Hallmark Christmas movie.

          “Can I help you, young man?” he asked.

          “I’m Roger Hendrick, son of Morris Hendrick,” Roger began.

          “Of course!  You look just like Morris did when I knew him!” Tadbury exclaimed.  “You Mom told me Morris has cancer.  He hasn’t passed on, has he?”

          “No,” Roger said, “but the doctors have told us it’s just a matter of time.  He’s eaten up with it.”

          “Damn!” Tadbury said.  “That’s terrible news.  But what brings you out here, young sir?  I appreciate the update, but there has to be more to it than that!”

          “Well, sir, you know how my Dad always collected all sorts of eclectic junk,” Roger said.

          “Oh yes,” replied Tadbury.  “Our little apartment on the Ginza was overflowing with all the stuff he bought or found in Okinawa!  Shells, Japanese carvings and porcelain, bits of uniforms and weapons from the war, you name it!”

          “Did Dad ever have a crystal ball?” Roger asked.

          The old man thought for a long time.

          “Not that I know of,” he finally said.  “He had a lot of weird things, but I don’t recall ever seeing anything like a crystal ball, or even hearing him talk about it!”

          Roger slumped with disappointment. The old man patted him on the shoulder.

          “Come on in and have a cup of coffee,” he said, “and we’ll try to figure it out.”

          Roger sat down in a comfortable recliner and explained his father’s cryptic request as he sipped the rich dark brew that Tadbury poured him.

          “You know, your Dad did have an interest in occult items for a while, after he got out of the service,” Tadbury said.  “He wrote me about it all the time while he was in college.  He had a fellow he roomed with at MIT that shared his passion.  What was that guy’s name?  Ledbetter – no, that’s not it, but close.  Just a second.”

          Tadbury got up and went over to his desk. After a bit of digging, he produced an ancient manila envelope filled with old letters.  He dumped them out on the table and began flipping through them and skimming, humming a Rolling Stones song as he did.

          “Here it is!” he said. “Leddenfelter! Such a weird name, I remembered it forty years later!  Well, sort of remembered, anyway.  Arthur Leddenfelter.  He and your Dad got in some trouble over a collection of shrunken heads they were caught with, back around 1980 or so.”

          “I think Mom mentioned that once,” Roger said.  “She made him get rid of a bunch of that stuff.”

          “Well, if your Dad ever had a crystal ball, my guess is that Arthur Leddenfelter would know about it,” Tadbury said.

          “Do you have any idea where Leddenfelter lives these days?” Roger asked.

          “No, but that can’t be too common of a name,” the old Navy man replied. “You should be able to track him down on that Facey-gram thing that everyone raves about.”

          “Not a fan of the digital age, I take it?” Roger asked.

          “Not in the least!” the old man replied.  “All it seems to have done is given all the stupid people in the world a place to band together and reinforce their idiocy.  And everyone knows there is nothing more dangerous than stupid people in large numbers!”

          “Thank you, Mister Tadbury,” Roger said.  “You were a huge help.”

          “Glad to do so, for your Dad’s sake,” Tadbury replied.  “Give him my best wishes, and I do hope you’re able to give him some peace about this.”

          “I will,” Roger said.  “He still has his lucid moments.”

          “And when the time comes, please let me know,” Tadbury said.  “I’d like to come and pay my respects.”

          “I will,” Roger promised, and headed out to his car.

          When he got back to the hotel, he plugged up his laptop and did a search for the name Leddenfelter.  Tadbury was right – it wasn’t a common name.  There were only fifty Leddenfelters in the entire United States. Only two of them were named Arthur.  One of those was a sixteen-year-old TikTok star, so that ruled him out.  The other one lived in Spokane, Washington, and was seventy-two – only three years younger than Morris.  Roger saw with some relief that his number was actually listed, and after calculating the time difference, he dialed it.

          “This is Arthur Leddenfelter,” a quavering voice said on the other end of the line. “May I help you?”

          “I certainly hope so,” Roger said. “Were you a college roommate of Morris Hendrick?”

          “I certainly was!” Leddenfelter said, with considerably more energy.  “He and I were quite the young terrors back in our day!  We haven’t spoken in several years – I’m afraid his politics came between us.  How is he?”

          “Not well, I’m afraid,” Roger said.  “He has terminal cancer.  But I am his son, and he’s asked me to track down something of his.  I don’t think his mind will be at rest till I find it.”

          “Well, he left a lot of his occult stuff with me when that gal of his made him get rid of it,” Leddenfelter said.  “So there’s a chance I can help you.”

          “Do you remember a crystal ball?” Roger asked.

          There was a long silence on the other end.  For a moment, Roger thought that perhaps his phone had dropped the call, but then Leddenfelter gave a sigh.

          “I’m sorry, young man,” he said, “but I was in a car wreck ten years ago that damaged some of my long-term memory and left me with mobility issues.  I don’t recall a crystal ball, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.  Problem is, those boxes of your dad’s are up in my attic, and I can’t do stairs anymore.  You are welcome to come out and search for it.”

          Roger swallowed.  Spokane was on the other side of the country, and he had already missed one night with his Dad.  Who knew how many nights the old man had left?  Still, as he recalled the anxiety in his Dad’s voice, he decided that he had to do it.  He called Jerry and Amy and told them what was going on, asked them not to tell his Mom, and then booked his flight.

          The next morning he flew across the country, arriving in Spokane late in the afternoon.  He took his rental – a grey Toyota – to the address Leddenfelter had provided.  The house was a large but decrepit bungalow-style dwelling with a circle drive up front.  Roger parked his car, mounted the steps, and knocked on the door.

          “Come in, Mister Hendrick,” the voice he had heard earlier sounded through an intercom. “The door is open.”

          He entered the front hall and found a wizened old man in a wheelchair waiting to greet him.  Leddenfelter smiled and offered his hand.

          “You look a great deal like your father,” he said.  “I know you probably don’t want to be away from him for long, so there’s no need to stand here and make small talk. Upstairs you’ll see a pull cord that brings down the ladder to the attic. There’s a light switch to your left.  Your Dad’s boxes, as I recall, are all at the far end, on the right side.  Take as much time as you need.  I hate to think that my dying friend is troubled because of something that I’ve held onto for thirty years!”

          “I can’t say how much I appreciate this,” Roger told him.

          “Think nothing of it!  Now go start digging,” Leddenfelter said with a cackle.

          Roger needed no further encouragement.  He mounted the steps and found the pull cord, then climbed the ladder into the attic and switched on the lights.  At the far end, he found a pile of eight boxes with his dad’s name neatly printed on their lids.  One by one, he dug them out and went through them.  Some of what he found was amusing, some disturbing, and some just plain bizarre.  But even after emptying all eight boxes and going through everything in them, there was no sign of a crystal ball or anything resembling one.  After diligently digging for two solid hours, he gave a sigh and packed everything back up.  He stacked the boxes the way they had been and came back downstairs.

          He found Leddenfelter seated at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of soup and sipping a cup of coffee which appeared to have been fortified from the open bottle of Jim Beam next to it.

          “No luck?” the old man asked him.

          “Not a crystal ball, a baseball, or a football!” Roger said.  “I really thought this would be where I would find it, too.  Is there any other place where some of my father’s stuff might be stored?”

          Leddenfelter thought for a long moment, and then brightened.

          “There’s an old junk store down the road,” he said. “I remember now, right before the accident, I was clearing out some things.  There were a couple of boxes your dad had sent me later on, stuff he said wasn’t as important to him but he thought I might like.  I had so much clutter already, I called him a few months later and asked if I could take those boxes to the junk store, since I was getting rid of some of my stuff, too.  He said it would be no problem, he was better off being rid of those things.  So I took six boxes down there, but I’d printed his name on those two, just like on the ones upstairs.  So that’s where they wound up.”

          “Blast!” Roger said.  “Who knows where they are now!”

          “Probably still there,” Leddenfelter said.  “Old Oscar that runs the place is as crippled up as I am, and he had a ton of inventory he’d never unpacked.  I’d bet those boxes are still there.  Thing is, he only opens three days a week nowadays.  You might could catch him in the morning.  Oscar Forrester is his name, and the store is called ‘Forrester’s Junk Emporium.’  If this mysterious ball isn’t there, I don’t know where it is!”

          Roger sighed and thanked the old man, and then drove back to the Best Western where he’d booked a room for the night.  The bed was hard and lumpy, and the room smelled of stale Cheetos and beer. But Roger dropped off to sleep almost right away when he turned the light off. In his dreams, he chased a glowing crystal ball down the steep slope of a mountain, but it always rolled just out of his reach, no matter how hard he ran after it.

          The next morning he called Forrester’s Emporium, and the recording informed him the place would open at ten o’clock. Roger packed his bag, checked out of his room, and put his suitcase in the car.  Then he ate a small, wrinkled apple and a fresh -cooked waffle that constituted the hotel’s “Continental Breakfast,” and read his book until ten.

          The location was about ten miles down the road, and Roger got there just in time to see an old man on a walker unlocking the front door.  He got out of his car and followed Mr. Forrester – he assumed this was the proprietor – into the store.  Once there, he explained his errand and asked for permission to search for his dad’s boxes.  Forrester was reluctant at first, but a twenty dollar bill improved his disposition, and he unlocked a back room where he said all of his “recent inventory” was stored.

          “I keep thinking I’ll unpack all those boxes when I sell of some of this junk,” he explained, “but business is slow, and people keep bringing me more things, so I never got to those boxes old Leddenfelter brought me.  They’re still where I put them ten years ago.”

           Roger groaned when he entered the storage room – it was piled to the ceiling with boxes of junk!  It took him an hour of searching and moving stacks to find the two boxes with “M. Kendrick” written on the outside in black marker.  He pulled them out and emptied them, going through the contents and finding nothing.  But as he sighed in defeat, he noticed a small pile of junk behind where the shelf where the two boxes had been. One of the box lids had been open – could it be that those things had fallen out?  He used a broom to pull the pile towards him and saw to his delight a dark sphere in the miscellaneous junk.  He reached under the shelf and grabbed it.  It was covered with dust and grime, but there was no doubt about what it was.  He carried it in triumph out to the shop and asked for a rag to clean it with.

          It was a hideous thing, about six inches tall including its pedestal.  The crystal was a muddy amber color, and embedded in its center was a disturbingly realistic glass eye.  It looked like a cheap horror movie prop, but Roger was glad to have it.

          “That’ll be fifty bucks!” the old man said when he saw what Roger had.

          “Fifty buck for this piece of junk?  I already paid you twenty just to look for it!” Roger said.

          “And it’s exactly what you came for, so fifty more bucks is a small price to pay for your dad’s peace of mind, now innit?” the old man cackled.

          “Forty and not a penny more!” Roger said.

          “Fine!” the old man snapped.  “Now get out of here!  You’re so filthy you’re going to scare away my customers!”

          Roger stared around the empty store and chuckled – you had to admire the old man’s optimism!  But he looked at the tawdry globe he held in his hand and breathed a sigh of relief.  Now his dad could pass away knowing the crystal ball had been located!  Of course, he still had to find out who ‘she’ was, but hopefully his Dad could tell him in a lucid moment.  He slapped two twenties down on the counter, and then after a moment’s reflection, he dropped another ten down.

          “You really were helpful,” he said.  “So I guess I’ll be OK with fifty.”

          He changed clothes in the airport bathroom, ate a huge lunch in one of the terminal restaurants, and by sunset he had boarded his flight back east.  It was about nine the next morning when he claimed his baggage and picked up his own vehicle from the lot where he’d left it three days before.  A snowstorm had come in, and after he got home, he took a long hot shower, and then bundled up in a thick coat before walking over to his folks’ house.  The crystal ball was a dense, heavy weight in his pocket.

          His mother was standing by Morris’ bed when he got there, and his dad was sleeping quietly.

          “Roger!” she said.  “It’s so good to see you back!  What was this mysterious business that called you away?”

          “Something Dad asked me to find,” he said.  “But he didn’t want me to tell you about it.”

          Katie Kendrick rolled her eyes.

          “Son, he’s only had one or two waking moments since you left,” she said. “Honestly, he’s slipping away fast.  You had better tell me; I don’t know if he will wake up again before the end.”

          “OK, Mom, I guess I will,” Roger said after thinking for a minute. He pulled the globe from his pocket.  “Dad sent me to find this, and I’m supposed to return it to someone.  Thing is, I don’t know who. He just said I had to get it back to her, or she would ‘destroy everything,’ in his words.”

          Roger’s mother stared at him for a long moment, her mouth frozen in a perfect ‘O’. 

          “Tell me exactly what your father said,” she demanded. “Word for word, please.”

          Roger closed his eyes a moment, trying to remember his dad’s demand verbatim. 

          “He told me ‘Crystal ball – you must find it!  She’s lost it again, and she’ll destroy everything if she doesn’t get it back. Don’t tell your Mom!’  That’s as near as I can remember it,” he explained.

          Katie’s reaction stunned her son.  She threw back her head and laughed, a hard, long belly laugh such as she hadn’t had since before Morris got ill.

          “Please tell me you didn’t have to travel too far to find that monstrosity,” she said.

          “It was in Spokane, Washington,” Roger said, feeling suddenly stupid.

          His mother laughed even harder at this, so hard she had to reach for a chair and sit down, holding her sides as she shook with mirth.

          “What the hell is so funny?!” Roger finally demanded in frustration.

          Katie took a few deep breaths and dashed some tears of mirth from her eyes.

          “Crystal’s ball,” she finally said.  “That’s what he told you.  Not ‘a crystal ball!’ Crystal was our cat, back when we were newlyweds.  She had a hollow metal ball with jingle bells on the inside that was her favorite toy.  She would bat it around and chase it all over our little apartment.  But every now and then, she would hit it to some place where she couldn’t reach – down the grate or under the fridge.  And she would go absolutely nuts!  She would shred curtains, pee on our bed, knock every dish off the shelf, and generally trash the place until we got her toy back. Oh, Roger, son, oh my!”

          With that she collapsed into another fit of laughter.

          “Then what is this thing?” he asked in frustration.

          “I have no idea,” his mother said.  “I’ve never seen it before in my life!”

          “Roger?”  came a weak voice from the bed.  Morris Kendrick was awake again, his eyes clear.  “Did you find Crystal’s ball?  That cat will destroy everything if we don’t get her ball back to her, and your mother will kill me!”

          Roger turned to face his dad, still holding the crystal globe in his hand.

          The old man’s eyes widened slightly when he saw it, and then his brow furrowed.

          “Son,” he said, “What on earth is that hideous thing?’

          But Roger could not answer over the sound of his mother’s laughter.




Monday, December 18, 2023

A New Short Story for Christmas - THE UNIVERSAL REMOTE

       I saw a FB meme the other day in which a man expressed his disappointment that the Universal Remote he had purchased did not, in fact, control the universe.  I got a chuckle out of it, but then I thought - wait a minute!  What if it DID???

   This was the result of that thought. 



                                                         A Short Story


                                             Lewis B. Smith


          “I want a Christmas present for my Daddy,” six-year-old Samantha said.  “But all I have is ten dollars!”

          “I see,” said the shopkeeper.  He was tall and skinny and had a grey beard, with white hair that stuck up in funny tufts on either side of his head.  “And what would you like to get for your father?”

          “Something nice!” she said.  “Something to make him happy, because he works all the time and is always tired.”

          “A noble sentiment,” the old man commented.  “And what about you, young man?”

          David rolled his eyes, not too happy about having to take his little sister shopping. 

          “This is her gift,” he replied.  “I already bought Dad something from me.  I’m just the chauffer and chaperon on this expedition!”

          “A kind thing to do for one too young to drive herself,” the shopkeeper said.  He reached across the counter and extended a long white hand.  “I am Mister Cain, proprietor of this establishment.  Who might you be?”

          “David Simmons, sir,” Dave replied. “I’m a junior at Hamilton High.”

          “Eleventh grade, is it not?” Mr. Cain asked.  “A challenging year, but an enjoyable one, or so I have heard.”

          “That sums it up,” David replied.  “I’m taking all honors and dual credit courses, and I have a lot of homework!  But it’s nice to have a car, and playing on the varsity team is way better than JV.”

          Cain lowered his glasses and looked out the window at the 2015 Toyota the siblings had emerged from.  It was clean and well-kept but had seen better days.

          “An old car for a young man,” he said. 

          “It was what we could afford,” David replied.  “Dad helped me pick it out, and I work part time on weekends to help with the payments.”

          “Tell me about this father of yours,” he said.  “Both of you, if you don’t mind.  That will help me pick out an appropriate gift for him.”

          “He’s the bestest daddy ever,” Samantha said.  “He reads me stories and carries me piggy-back and got me a puppy for my birthday!”

          “He does sound like a fine father figure,” Mr. Cain said with a wry smile.  “What can you add to that, young man?”

          “Dad’s pretty cool,” David said.  “I mean, he’s kind of a geek, but he’s a good geek, you know?  He knows all sorts of stuff about history and science and animals and loves to tell funny stories and lame jokes.”

          “Does he like to drink?” Mr. Cain said.  “I have some fairly nice wines I could let go of for a reasonable price.”

          “Oh no,” David said.  “He hates alcohol!  Doesn’t like the taste or the effect, is how he puts it.”  He looked down at his little sister and leaned forward, lowering his voice to a whisper.  “Our granddad was a mean drunk when Dad was little,” he explained.

          “That will sour any man on the joys of the vine,” Cain said soberly.  “Does your father have any other vices, or is he a straight arrow all the way around?”

          “If he were any more square, he’d be a Rubik’s Cube,” David said with a laugh.  “But, honestly, I like him that way.  He’s good to my Mom, even when she’s a pain, and he’s patient with me when I get a case of the stupids.”

          “And he taught me how to ride a bike!” Samantha piped up. “He’s super smart and knows how to fix computers and stuff!”

          “He sounds like a most admirable man,” Cain commented.  “What is his profession?”

          “Well, he used to be a science teacher at our high school,” Dave replied. “But he got really angry about standardized tests ‘dumbing down the curriculum,’ as he put it, and quit when I was in fifth grade.  Now he works as a manager at a computer store and does some freelance PC repair on weekends.”

          “Mommy works at the mall in the jewelry store,” Samantha added.  “But they keep slicing her minutes!”

          “Cutting her hours, silly,” said David.  “She isn’t making as much as she did last year, and it’s been hard.”

          “But this is for Daddy!” Samantha said, waving her ten-dollar bill.  “Now I want you to find him something NICE!”

          Mister Cain threw back his head and laughed at this, his thin body shaking with hilarity.  His teeth were crooked and a bit yellow, but there was nothing mocking in his laughter. In fact, David found himself laughing, too, without knowing exactly why.

          “Well, it sounds as if this paragon of manhood certainly deserves a nice gift, young lady,” he finally said, drawing a worn handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his eyes.   “Let me rummage a bit.  I think I have just the thing.”

          He turned and disappeared into the recesses of the shop, and they heard boxes being shifted around in the back room.  David studied the place while they waited.  The building had been empty ever since he could remember, but the windows had been obscured with shoe polish several weeks ago, and last weekend a large sign had appeared over the battered wooden door that read ‘CAIN’S JUNK EMPORIUM – WE’VE GOT JUST WHAT YOU NEED!’  A few days later the windows had been freshly washed, and a new OPEN sign was hung out on the front door.   David had been curious about the place, but this was the first chance he'd had to browse.

          There was a huge bin full of ancient VHS tapes on one side of the counter, of all genres and ratings – a battered copy of THE LAND BEFORE TIME rested on top of a luridly illustrated case containing a movie called THE MICROWAVE MASSACRE.  There were DVDs, too, as well as several shelves of books – some new, some old.  A frame of Indian arrowheads hung on the wall between a black velvet painting of Elvis and a print of some trippy Renaissance artist whose name David couldn’t remember. There was all sorts of glassware too, from old medicine bottles to decorative angels, as well as sleeves of collectible coins, baseball cards, and furniture that looked like something George Washington might have thrown out.

          “Here we are!” said Mr. Cain suddenly, and David jumped.  He had been so focused on the contents of the shop he hadn’t heard the old man walk back up to the counter.

          “What is it?” asked Samantha.

          “It’s a Universal Remote,” the shopkeeper said.  He was holding a rectangular black box about eight inches long, and as he held it out, David could see the label on the side with the slogan underneath – ‘Makes Everything Work the Way You Want!’

          “What does it do?” asked Samantha, staring at it.

          “It will control everything in the house,” said Mr. Cain.  “Your Dad can use it on the TV, his computer, the air conditioning and central heat, you name it!”

          “How does it work?” she asked.

          “Dear me, I don’t know,” the old man said.  “I’m not what you call tech-savvy.  But the one I have at home works wonderfully!”

          “Can I see it?” she said.

          He opened the box and slid out an electronic device that was covered in buttons, dials, and knobs.  It was enclosed in a clear plastic bag.  There was a small booklet rolled up inside the box as well, that slid halfway out. David could make out the word ‘Manual” at the bottom.

          “One thing I do know, though, is that your Dad must be the first one to take it out of the plastic and touch it,” said Mr. Cain. “Otherwise, it won’t work at all.”

          “How is that possible?” David asked.

          “I think it reads fingerprints, maybe?” Cain replied.  “All I know is that it will only respond to the first person to touch it.”

          “I want it!!” Samantha exclaimed.  “How much does it cost?”

          “For you, my dear child, I can offer a discount,” Mr. Cain replied.  “A loving gift from a sincere young heart will cost you $9.99.”

          “But all I have is ten dollars!” she wailed.

          David laughed out loud, and then took her ten and handed it to Cain.

          “Nine dollars and ninety-nine cents is one penny less than ten dollars,” he told her.  “But is there any tax?”

          “Already built into the price,” Cain explained. “Young lady, here is your father’s gift.  Let me donate a proper Christmas box to put it in!”

          He ducked below the counter and came up with a festive red box that sported a large bow on top. He took the lid off, placed the black box holding the remote inside, and then handed the box to Sam.

          “I hope your father enjoys all the benefits of his new, universal remote, as well as the blessing of a little girl who loves him so much,” he said, smiling benevolently.

          “Thank you, Mister Cain!” Sam said excitedly.

          “Thank you, sir,” echoed David – but after his little sister turned to the front door, he whispered: “That better not be a piece of useless junk you just sold her!”

          “I assure you, my dear lad, that it most certainly is not useless!” Cain said with a wink.

          David wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he drove Sam home and helped her write a label for her gift – she knew how to write her name but often got her letters reversed – and then they placed it under the tree with the other presents.  About that time his cell phone rang and seeing that the call was from his girlfriend Denise, Dave ran up the stairs and almost forgot about his sister’s gift until Christmas morning.

          It was a pleasant Christmas – the family didn’t have as much to spend on each other as they had in previous years, but everyone made an effort to be as cheerful as possible. As Dad read the Christmas story out of the Gospel of Luke, Dave thought that money wasn’t really the key to happiness many people thought it was.  He was glad that his parents were still together and obviously in love, and while Sam could be annoying, like all little sisters, he had to admit she really wasn’t the spoiled brat he pretended she was.  In short, David Simmons loved his family, and they loved each other. In light of that, who cared if the presents were cheap this year?

          “I wonder what this could be?” Doug Simmons said as he lifted the gift box containing Samantha’s present.

          “I got it for you, Daddy!” she said.   “Mister Cain said it was a very nice gift for an executed father figure!”

          “I think he said ‘exemplary,’ Sam!” David explained, but Dad was already doubled over with laughter.  He went red in the face, and Mom, who took their reduced financial status harder than he did, got caught up his mirth as well.

          Finally, Doug caught his breath and looked at his daughter with joy in his eyes.  Sam had not been an expected baby, but she was a treasured one from the day she was born.

          “And who is this Mister Cain?” he asked her.

          “He’s the funny man at the junk shop,” she said.

          “That new emporium that opened downtown,” explained David.

          “I see!  Well, now I am very curious to see what he thought would be a nice gift for me,” Dad said, and untied the ribbon.  He took the lid off the box and saw the smaller box within.

          “A black cardboard box!” he exclaimed. “Thank you, Samantha!  I was just thinking I needed one of those.”

          “It’s in the box, silly Daddy!” she said.

          He turned the black box over and saw the label.

          “Ah, a universal remote!” he said.  “I don’t recognize this brand, though. It doesn’t look like anything we sell at the store.”

          He pulled it out of the box and studied the buttons and toggles on it through the plastic wrapping.

          “Odd - I don’t even recognize some of these,” he said.  “I mean, PLAY, PAUSE, FAST FORWARD, REWIND, those are pretty standard.  But there’s a button here that says LESS and another that says MORE.  Here’s MUTE, and another that just toggles from a smile emoji to a frown.”

          “Mister Cain said that you have to take it out of the plastic yourself and hold it in your hand for a couple of minutes to activate it,” David said.  “He said that after that it will only respond to the person who activated it.”

          “That sounds high-tech! Did he say what all it works on?” Dad asked him.

          “He said it will let you control everything in the house,” David replied.

          “Well, I’ll play with it later,” Dad told him.  “Now, you open your gift!”

          David got a signed copy of Stephen King’s newest book – Doug had stood in line for three hours at the Barnes and Noble in Chattanooga to get it autographed – and Sam got a large dollhouse which David and Doug spent the next two hours assembling in her bedroom.  Mom was not forgotten – she opened a small package to find a diamond tennis bracelet which was worth more than everything else under the tree combined.

          “Doug, we agreed to spend less than a hundred each on ourselves!” she exclaimed.

          “I did,” he said.  “I spotted it at an estate sale last fall, mixed in with some costume pieces.  You’ve taught me enough about jewelry that I realized it was a good piece right away.”

          “A costly mistake on their part,” his wife said, admiring the bracelet.

          “I tried to tell them that it was worth way more than they were charging for it,” Doug said, “but the lady thanked me and said I could have it for the marked price, for being honest with her.”

          “My paladin,” Vicky Simmons said.  “I may have an extra present for you later!”

          “Do I get to unwrap it?” Doug asked, arching an eyebrow.

          “DAD!!!  I want to have an appetite for Christmas dinner!” David groaned.

          “Why shouldn’t Daddy unwrap a present?” Samantha asked, and her older brother decamped to his room, red-faced.

          Later that afternoon, Doug sat in the recliner while Vicky bustled about in the kitchen, washing the dishes from their family dinner.  Seeing the black box under the tree, he opened it up and looked at the plastic-wrapped remote. Sam was up in her room, entranced with her new dollhouse, and David had his nose buried in the new King novel.  He figured this was a good time to try and figure out his new device.  He used a pair of scissors to cut away the clear plastic and dropped it into his right hand.

          Doug dealt with electronics every day, but he’d never felt any kind of controller like this one.  Its exterior was soft but firm, and it seemed to mold to the contours of his hand immediately.  It was warm to the touch, feeling almost alive. As soon as he gripped it, the black remote vibrated gently two or three times, and a red light began blinking at the top.  Underneath, in tiny letters, it read INITIALIZING: DO NOT PUT DOWN.  The red light continued to blink for a few minutes, and then went out and a green light next to it came on.  The letters under it read: ACTIVATED.

          The television in the den was on, even though no one was watching.  Doug pressed the red button labeled OFF; the TV immediately went dead.  That was fast, he thought to himself.  Remembering the manual in the book, he pulled it out of the box and began to skim through it.

          “Welcome to the new Universal Remote!” the first page said.  “We put the world at your fingertips.  Just remember, a remote this powerful can only have one master.  Once you have activated it, the remote will respond to your touch only for as long as you have it.”

          Fingerprint technology? he wondered to himself, and then read on.

          The True Universal Remote will not only control every electronic device in your home, but it will also remotely start your car, lock your house for you, and even move objects around at your request.  Study the buttons very carefully; use them sparingly at first until you’ve had a chance to learn their effects. The True Universal responds differently to each person, so the effects described in the book may not be the same as the ones you experience.  Just remember, for good or ill, this magnificent device is now YOURS.  Use it wisely.”

          What an odd introduction, Doug thought, and turned the page.  The next page was blank, as were all the others after it. He shook his head in wonder.  Was the manual misprinted?  He studied the remote and saw a green button labeled ON.  He pointed it at the television, which immediately came back on.  He glanced at the book and saw that an entry had appeared where only white paper had been a moment before.  It read: “The ON button instantly activates whatever electronic device you aim it at.  The scroll button next to it will allow you to browse channels, adjust thermostat settings, set oven temperatures, and browse your internet bookmarks.”

          Doug blinked several times.  He could have sworn that page was blank, but the letters were clear as day.  He must have skipped a page, or something.

          “Doug!” Vicky called from the kitchen.  “Get in here, please!”

          The TV was blaring loudly enough that he had a hard time making out her words, so he looked at the remote and found the MUTE button.  He punched it and the sound disappeared.

          “What do you need, dear?” he asked.

          “How many times do I have to tell you what shelf the drinking glasses go on?” she asked sharply.  Vicky Simmons was a bit of a neat freak and couldn’t stand it when things were put away incorrectly.  She came to the door of the kitchen and stood there, her voice taking on that correcting gone that Doug couldn’t stand.

          “Plates on the bottom shelf, saucers and bowls on the next, drinking glasses above that!” she said. “It’s a simple, workable system that you should be used to by now.  Why you can’t -”       

          Suddenly her voice cut off abruptly. Her mouth was still moving ninety miles an hour, but no sound was coming out.  Doug stared at her in wonder, then looked down at his hand.  He realized that he had involuntarily pressed the MUTE button when he turned to face her.

          “Are you pranking me?” he asked, and her mouth continued to move soundlessly, even as her expression grew more frustrated.  He glanced at the manual and saw that a second entry had appeared beneath the first.  He wanted to read it, but Vicky was growing more frustrated by the moment.  At least, she seemed to be, judging by her expression.  Doug looked next to the MUTE button and saw another labeled PAUSE.  What the heck, he thought, and pushed it.

          Vicky froze in place, her mouth wide open in mid-rant.  Doug stood there in shock for a moment, then looked down at the manual again.  There were three entries where he had seen two before.  He sat down heavily and read them.

          The MUTE button will silence any television, computer, car alarm, cell phone, or any other noisemaking device it is aimed at.  It can also silence the human voice for up to five minutes at a time.  Pressing the button a second time will immediately turn the sound (or voice) back on.”

          “The PAUSE feature will freeze your favorite TV program, internet video, radio song, live news, for up to ten minutes at a time.  It can also pause time itself when aimed at a person, animal, or moving vehicle.  Its range is limited, but in the bubble it creates, all motion except that of the remote’s owner is frozen for up to five minutes. Pressing the button a second time will resume the program or cause a person to resume what they were doing when the button was pressed.”

          “This is impossible!” Doug shook his head.  “No device can do this!”

          But his wife was still frozen in place, her mouth wide open.  But it was more than that – as he listened, Doug realized the entire house was dead silent and still.

          “I think I’m losing my mind,” he said to himself.  Then he stood, faced his wife, and hit the PAUSE button again.

          “ – you need to put your new toy down for a minute and listen to me!” she said.  “I know you think I’m anal retentive, but stuff being put away wrong bothers me a lot!”

          “I know it does,” he said, “and I am sorry.  Let me put them away correctly, and then I’ll help you finish the kitchen.”

          He set the remote down hastily and went to help in the kitchen.

          “Why were you looking at me so strangely just then?” Vicky asked.  “I know I was a bit wound up, but you looked really freaked out – almost scared!”

          “I just kind of zoned out for a minute,” he explained.  “That new remote is more complex than I thought.”

          “Well, let’s finish this and you can go play with it some more,” she said, and they did. Once all the dishes were washed and put away, and the leftovers safely encased in Tupperware and placed in the fridge, Vicky went for her daily walk, and Doug sat down again with his remote. As he picked it up, he saw a small stack of mail that he hadn’t gone through yet.  He flipped through the envelopes, discarding the junk mail and setting the bills aside.  All three credit card bills had arrived within a day or two of each other, and he opened them and scowled at the charges. Might as well take care of these, he said to himself, and moved to his computer chair.

          Opening his online bank account, he saw that his balance in checking was $4,559.10 - about a thousand dollars less than the combined total of his card statements. That was the case more often than not these days.  He didn’t get paid again till after the new year, and he needed to spare enough money for groceries and utilities. He was trying to figure out how much he could afford to put on each bill when he glanced over and saw the remote on the table next to his recliner.

          “Not possible!” he said to himself.  But the itch was there now, lurking in his brain, urging him to try it.  He got up and grabbed the remote and the manual, and then sat back down in front of his computer screen.   Pointing the remote at his bank statement, he put his finger on the button that said “More” and clicked it once.  The screen blipped, and suddenly the balance in his account jumped up to $45,5910! 

          Doug gasped and stared at the new figure for a moment.  He refreshed the screen, but it didn’t change.  He logged out of his bank account and logged back in, but the figure remained ten times higher than what he knew he had in his account.  Hands shaking, he picked the remote up and clicked the button again.  The screen flickered, and his balance was $455,910.  Again. $4,559,100.  Again. $45,591,000.

          Doug realized he was hyperventilating at this point. He looked at the remote’s manual and saw a new entry:
          “The MORE button will increase the volume or value of whatever you aim it at – you can increase your wealth, the amount of groceries in your pantry, the value of your vehicle, or anything else.  The LESS button will reduce the desired amount in equal increments that the MORE button increases them.  Use these functions wisely.”

          “I don’t need forty-five million dollars,” he said to himself.  He clicked the LESS button until the amount dropped back down to forty-five thousand. He stared at the screen for a long time.  That much money would let him pay off every debt he had and leave him with about ten thousand to tuck into the kids’ college funds.  Still, how would he explain having that much extra money so suddenly?  Doug Simmons had always prided himself on being an honest man, and this seemed too much like cheating for his taste.  He also knew that he and his family would be all right, despite the current hard times.  He sighed and clicked the LESS button one more time, and then paid a thousand dollars on each of his credit card accounts from the money that he and Vicky had earned.  He figured if something unexpected happened, he could always use the remote’s power to create enough wealth to deal with it.

          For the next half hour, he tested the remote’s settings and interactivity with every device in the house.  It was indeed a universal appliance, and a very handy one, but its other properties defied any rational explanation.  Somehow, he thought, Samantha had given him a real-life magical artifact for Christmas!  Just for kicks, he pointed the MORE button at the Christmas tree and clicked it. Suddenly the tree was a foot and a half taller, and the number of ornaments on it doubled!  Lights in colors that Doug had never seen blinked in a gorgeous display.

          “Where did all that come from?” Vicky asked.  She must have come in from the back door after her walk, because Doug had not heard her enter.  She was staring at the tree in surprised delight.

          Momentarily panicked, Doug hit the PAUSE button and Vicky froze in her tracks. He then pointed the remote back at the tree and hit LESS, reverting it to its original state. Then he turned to his wife, his finger on the button. But before he could hit PAUSE again, he paused.  Curiosity gnawed at him. Vicky was standing in the kitchen doorway, still wearing her navy-blue hoodie, her face flushed from her afternoon walk, and her eyes sparkling – still as beautiful as ever, after twenty years of marriage. Doug hit the MORE button to see what would happen. 

          In a flash, Vicky was bundled up in a parka and hood, with fur-lined boots and a heavy scarf.  She looked like an extra from a movie set in the Yukon winter! He hit LESS and she instantly reverted to her sweatpants, hoodie, and high-topped Nike jogging shoes.  Doug hit LESS again, and then she was standing in front of him in nothing but her underwear.  He admired her figure, then chuckled for a second and took his finger off the LESS button.  As with his bank account, this just seemed too much like cheating!  Besides, how would he explain it to Vicky when the PAUSE effect wore off and she was standing there, sky-clad, in the kitchen door?  He hit MORE again, and her attire returned to normal.  Then he hit the PAUSE button a second time.

          “All of what, dear?” he said sweetly.

          “The Christmas tree!” she said, but then gave a little gasp.  “Wait, where did it all go?”

          “What do you mean?” he asked.

          “I swear, for a second the tree looked twice as big and beautiful,” she said.  “I mean, I must have imagined it, but it was so real!  There were lights that looked brighter than any I’d ever seen, and the star was nearly touching the ceiling!”

          “That sounds beautiful,” he said, “but I rather like our tree as it is.”

          “Me, too,” she said after a moment.  “But that surely was weird!  I think I might need to lie down for a bit.”

          “Want some company?” Doug asked.

          “That might be just the thing,” she said, and he left the remote on his desk as he followed her upstairs.

          Early the next morning, Doug came down and picked up the glossy black device again.  There was a button in the lower corner that he hadn’t tried yet. It simply read FIX.  He went out to the garage, where his riding mower sat, the motor disassembled after it had broken down earlier that fall.  He didn’t have the money for a new engine, but the pistons on this one were damaged and Doug had not been able to order replacement parts yet.  He pointed the remote at it and clicked the FIX button.  Instantly, the motor was reassembled and re-installed.  He walked over and turned the key. The Cub Cadet started with a roar.  This time, he didn’t undo the magic.  Fixing the mower was necessary and felt right. 

Then he looked out at David’s car, pulled up by the curb.  He knew that driving an eight-year-old vehicle was not something any teenager wanted, and he’d felt bad they couldn’t afford something nicer for his son.  He pointed the remote at the car and hit MORE.  The 2015 Corolla shimmered for a second, and then in its place was a much nicer 2020 model.  It looked sharp, he thought, but how would he explain it to David?

“Hey Dad,” his son said, “I see you got the mower running again!”

“Yeah, I woke up and felt like tinkering,” he said.  “How are you, son?”

          “Slept like a log, although Stephen King gave me zombie dreams,” David said. I may drive over to Denise’s house later – she said her parents had a gift for me.”

          “I’m sure her parents’ gift is the ONLY reason you want to go over there,” Doug quipped.

          “Hey, I’m just glad her folks like me,” David said.  “But it won’t be for a while.  Hey, you want to toss the football around before I go?”

          “Sure thing!” Doug replied. “Let me set this thing down.”

          David looked out at his car.  “You know, I’m so glad you and Mom got me this newer one,” he said.  “That 2015 you nearly bought me really was an old junker!”

          Doug laughed silently – that was one problem solved!

          As he carried the remote back to his chair, David looked at it curiously.

          “Does that thing even work?” he asked.  “I was afraid Sam was getting ripped off when she bought it for you.”

          “It works insanely well,” his dad said. “Better than anything we have at the store.  Now grab your football!”

          It was a bright, clear day, and the morning frost was melted off by the winter sun.  They tossed the ball back and forth, getting further apart with each pass.   David loved the sport, as did his father, and he had been a star receiver in the season that had ended a month before with his team making it to the second round of the division playoffs.  Doug was a decent passer but didn’t run as well or as fast as he once did, so he stayed in one spot as David ran back and forth, catching the ball on the run.

          They had been working out for about a half hour when Doug threw a hard, fast pass, leading his son as David sprinted parallel to the street.  But the teenager stumbled slightly, and the ball flew past his outstretched hands into the street.

          “I’ve got it, Dad!” David cried and ran after it.

          As he darted into the street, a U-Haul truck going far faster than the posted thirty mile-per-hour speed limit came roaring up the street. Doug opened his mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late.  David barely had a second to realize the danger before the truck struck him full-on, throwing his body forward and then rolling over him with both tires.  Too late, the driver slammed on the brakes and tried to swerve.  The truck hit a parked car, rebounded, and rolled over on its side.

          Doug ran out to his son’s side, his mind unable to process the horror. Half of David’s face had been torn off, broken ribs projected from his mangled chest, and his right arm was shattered and crushed.  As his father helplessly watched, David Simmons twitched spastically two or three times, spat out a gobbet of blood, and died.

          Doug stared in shock at the ruined body of his son, barely registering the fact that his wife had come running out of the house and was screaming David’s name over and over.  He was dimly aware of screams coming from the overturned truck, where the driver’s arm had been pinned between the door and the pavement.  All he could see was the ruin of his happy life lying before him, and the prospect of endless days and nights of grief stretching forward into his old age.  If only he could take it back! If only there was a way to stop his boy from running after the errant pass. . .

          Suddenly, Doug pushed his screaming wife aside and ran back into the house, grabbing the universal remote. Samantha was on the stairs, a curious expression on her face, but he could not spare a second for her.  He ran through the yard and up to the street, where Vicky had David’s broken body cradled in her arms, his blood staining her favorite blouse.  Hands shaking, Doug pointed the remote at the scene and hit REWIND.

          Suddenly, Vicky got up and ran backwards into the house.  He could see himself in the street, rising and backing away from Dave’s body.  The truck ran over his son in reverse, passing over a crushed and bleeding form and retreating from a David that was alive and unharmed.  David sprinted backwards into the yard, and the ball began to follow him.  When his son was ten feet away from the street, Doug hit PAUSE.

          The football was in the air, just out of Dave’s reach.  Doug walked past his own form, arm still extended from releasing the ball, and positioned himself between his son and the street.  The U-Haul was still about forty feet away from the spot where David’s death was waiting to happen.  Doug braced himself, and then hit the PAUSE button again.

          The ball sailed past him, and David cried “I’ve got it!” and turned towards the street.  Doug launched himself with all his strength and will, wrapping his arms around his son’s waist, and bore him away from the street to the ground.

          “Dang, Dad, when did you get so fast?” David said as he sat up.

          At that moment the truck ran over the football, squashing it beneath the front tires with a loud pop that echoed down the street like a rifle shot.

          “Holy crap!” David said.  “I was about to chase that thing right into the street!  You saved my life, Dad!”

          “That’s how I got so fast, son,” Doug said, embracing his boy, relishing the feel of those strong, unbroken arms returning his hug.  “I saw that truck coming and all I could think about was keeping you safe!”

          “Well, you did that all right,” Dave said.  “I guess I need to change before I head over to see Denise.  Um . . . can we not tell Mom about this?”

          “She won’t hear a word from me,” Doug said.
          “A word about what?” Vicky said from the door.  “Your playing tackle ball with your Dad when I have told him over and over again that he’s too old for that nonsense?  You’re going to break Dad’s leg out here one of these days, David!”

          “It was my idea,” Doug said, rising and heading into the house.  “Are you off to work?”

          “Oh yes,” Vicky said.  “A thousand gift returns await the weary jeweler!”

          Doug kissed her then, a long, hard kiss, and said: “Be careful out there, babe!  I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

          She laughed and kissed him back

          “I’ll be fine, as long as I know that my family is waiting for me to come home.  Enjoy your day off, dear,” she told him, and climbed into her car.

          Doug went upstairs to the privacy of their bathroom, threw up the bagel he’d had for breakfast, and huddled on the bed crying for the next hour.

          Finally, he got up and retrieved the Universal Remote from the floor where he’d dropped it.  He changed clothes, washed his face, and drove downtown until he spotted the brightly painted sign of Cain’s Junk Emporium.  He pulled into the angled parking, and then saw the CLOSED sign hanging on the door. He knocked anyway, but there was no answer.  Dejected, he returned to his car and stared at the remote, turning it over in his hands.

          “I don’t want this thing,” he said to himself.  “It’s too much power for any one man to have.  I’m glad I could save my boy, but I hate this thing!”

          “I will admit, that is a most unusual response,” a calm voice with a faint British accent broke the silence.

          David looked up in shock and found that an old man in a tweed suit with unkempt grey hair was regarding him with a calm gaze.  He took a deep breath and looked down again at the remote, then back at the stranger sitting in his passenger seat.

          “You must be Mister Cain,” he finally said.

          “That is quite correct,” the man replied.  “And, as I said, your response to the True Universal is quite unusual – extraordinary, in fact!  All previous owners have used the device for selfish purposes, to enrich themselves or to manipulate others to do their bidding.  You used it unselfishly from the moment you discovered its abilities, and now do you truly wish to disown it?”

          “Absolutely yes!” Doug said.  “I’m just a man, not a god, and I don’t like having the powers of one!  I could literally hear a voice whispering in my ear of all the awful things I could use this for, and it was so tempting to listen to it!  I’m afraid if I keep it, even with the best of intentions, that voice will ruin me.  This thing will turn me into the very kind of person I cannot stand if I keep it.  Please, take it back!”

          Cain regarded him with a combination of amusement and disbelief.

          “A true paragon,” he said.  “There are very few men like you in the world, Douglas Simmons.  Your son and daughter both told me of your moral rectitude, and I will admit I was skeptical.  But what will you tell Samantha when you no longer have the gift she got you?”

          “I don’t know,” Doug said. “I’ll tell her I dropped it and broke it or something!”

          “I liked that little girl,” Cain said.  “She has a sweet, innocent heart and loves you dearly.  Therefore, I will save you the difficulty of having to lie to her.  I will take the True Universal Remote back and give you this in its place.”

          He handed Doug a smooth black device, similar to the one Sam had bought for him but with fewer buttons.

          “This will control all the electronics in your house,” he explained, “but nothing else.  No magical powers, no instant wealth, just the ability turn on and operate your appliances.”

          “Thank you,” Doug said.  “Who are you, exactly?”

          “Oh, just an old peddler, giving people what they need – or what they think they need!” Cain said with a chuckle.  “Mainly I enjoy watching what people do when they are given power.  Power, after all, is the most potent and addictive drug there is.  Those who can resist it are few and far between.”

          “What happens to those who don’t?” Doug asked.

          “Usually, their own desires destroy them,” Cain said.  “People are, after all, selfish beasts.  You, my dear sir, are a glorious exception to that rule.  Now, is there anything else you would like to use the True Universal for before I take it away forever? This is your last chance.”

          Doug thought for a moment about the $1400 left in his checking account, and remembered watching those numbers jump up at the push of a button.  Then he swallowed hard and faced Cain.

          “No,” he said.  “I never want to see that thing again!”

          Cain clapped his hands.

          “Splendid!” he said.  “You, sir, have restored my rather small faith in human nature.  Well, I shall save the True Universal for its next lucky owner then, and I wish you a long and happy life.”

          He opened the door and got out of the car, fumbling with a ring of keys.  Just before shutting the door, he leaned back in and looked at Doug.

          “I know that you and your family are struggling financially,” he said.  “Let me offer one last gift – nothing supernatural, no hidden strings.  Take this five-dollar bill and go buy yourself a scratch-off lottery ticket at that store across the street.  Any five-dollar ticket will do.  When you get home, you will find that you have won a hundred thousand dollars.  That should be enough to square your debts and set aside a nice amount for your children’s education fund.  Consider it a parting gift from one who holds you in the highest of regard.”

          He dropped the bill in Doug’s lap, and then closed the car door and walked up to his shop door.  Cain let himself in, closed the door behind him, and disappeared into the recesses of the shop.  Doug stared at the five for a long time, then got out of his car and walked over to the convenience store that Cain had pointed out.

          “What the heck,” he said to himself, and then bought a ticket.

          When he came out, the brightly painted sign that marked Cain’s Junk Emporium was blank, and the shop was boarded up, with nothing to indicate it had ever been there at all.