by Bo Balder
Olivia looked up from grinding corn. A telltale puff of dust huffed up over the ridge, where Route 65 still ran. A traveler. No matter how hard the times, a traveler was always welcome. He’d be here in a couple of hours. She could finish the corn and heat up the soup, toast last week’s bread in time for his arrival.
“Corngirl, come here and set the table!” she yelled.
The girl gave her a death stare but slouched over after a proper amount of letting her mother know it was an imposition.
Every now and then Olivia looked up to watch for the traveler. It couldn’t be the merchant who walked back and forth between Kansas City and Springfield, he’d already been by a couple of weeks ago. Who else could this be?
She finished her corn and shaped the weekly batch of dough for proving. She set Corngirl to stoking up the ovens for the weekly baking. Boys from other farms walked in with their trays of loaves. Everybody lingered, because she wasn’t the only one who’d spotted the approaching traveler.
He was very, very slow. It took him almost three hours to reach her yard from the top of the rise.
A small bent figure turned the corner by the Williamses ranch. He looked hunchbacked, but it had to be his pack. She stirred her soup and helped the boys get the loaves of bread into the oven.
Finally he shuffled into the yard. A tiny old man who seemed to use his stick to pull himself forward.
“Corngirl, Jackboy, go help him with his pack.”
The man’s wizened face broke into a smile, but turned pained as soon as the pack was lifted. Olivia winced in sympathy. You could get so used to your burdens that relaxation could turn into agony. Like when her downy child had died. He’d been a burden, she’d thought for a long time, but the loss of that burden had hurt more than its presence ever had. Almost all of the burden was called love.
As he inched closer on his gnarly bare feet, his chunky necklace stirred an old hope in her brain. Those bright, square blocks of plastic, hadn’t she seen them before? When she was a little girl, not long after the Burst? It couldn’t be the same man, not after all these years.
But her heart wasn’t listening. It radiated painful joy. Yes, it was the LEGO Man. With his smile folding his eyes into wrinkly pools, his wispy beard, his hair now gone.
Olivia sprang up. “Corngirl, quick, where is the LEGO jar?” It was a long-cherished object, filled with grubby pieces found in abandoned houses and malls. Back when she and Jolie, before his accident, had gone scavenging most summers. The kids didn’t play with it; she’d never understood why.
The LEGO Man had come by when her mother had just died, almost forty years ago. Her father had been a man alone in the ruins of the world, not knowing how to console or entertain a five-year old. Then the LEGO Man had stepped into their yard, against the backdrop of the smoking towers downtown. He was young, slight, already balding. He’d knelt by her and showed her a LEGO Transformer.
“I’m so sad,” he’d said. “I’m missing a few pieces from my Transformer. Do you have any?”
Olivia had been sad too, so she understood. She’d run into the playroom and heaved out her box of toys. She knew there had to be LEGO in there somewhere. Bits and pieces of birthdays and Christmas gifts, mostly pink and girly. The LEGO Man rummaged through it, his thin fingers sorting out LEGO from Playmobil and Barbie stuff with amazing speed.
“You have most of an Ice Castle,” he said. “But not all of it. If you want me to take it and find the missing pieces so it’ll be complete again, I will. I’ll give it to another girl and make her happy.”
Olivia nodded. Making a little girl happy sounded like a really great idea.
The LEGO Man hesitated. His dark eyes rested on the Transformer in his left hand. “I found one missing piece in your box, but he’s still one short. Otherwise I’d give him to you.”
Yeah. She wasn’t ready to be made happy by a piece of LEGO yet.
“Take the Ice Castle,” she’d said. “I’ll wait. Promise to bring the Transformer to me when it’s complete?”
They’d shaken on it.
She had waited for him for years. The idea of the promise arriving just over the horizon had made it easier to get through the motherless, hungry times. Until she got old enough not to expect returns on promises and other miracles.
And now he was back.
She waited until he’d eased his old bones onto her ancient picnic table and was dipping a slice of toast in her good soup. She sat down across from him, quelled the children with one of her looks and took a deep breath.
“Here,” she said, and brought up the jar with LEGO pieces.
The children sitting around them hushed. They could feel it, too.
He squinted his eyes, reluctant to look up from the soup.
She shook the jar.
His head went up like a hungry blackbird’s. “LEGO? You’ve got LEGO for me?” His light voice had been sanded almost into oblivion.
“You promised to bring me some, last time.”
She could tell his eyes and hands wanted to have at the LEGO, but he kept his eyes on hers, not like before. He’d changed. Become more human.
“We’ve met before?”
“What did I take, and what did I give?”
“You took an Ice Castle that was almost complete, and you promised to bring me a whole Transformer.”
His eyes closed and his hands went to the bright necklace. His lips murmured as his hands danced over it. There was order to it, five blues to one yellow, like the necklace her Gran had had.
Olivia blinked away a tear at the glowing memory that rose up. She’d forgotten she’d ever been on Granny’s lap, safe and warm, watching thin white fingers dance over the necklace. Praying.
The man had given her a gift already.
The children still sat spellbound.
“I gave the Ice Castle to a boy in Denver, five years later. It made him very happy. Those poor kids in the Children’s Camps really needed something to play with.”
Olivia nodded, the children too. Everybody knew how that had turned out.
The LEGO Man tiptoed his fingers over the necklace again.
Corngirl slipped her hand in Olivia’s. That hadn’t happened in a long while. Olivia squeezed as lightly as she could without letting go.
“Yes, I’ve got it!” The LEGO Man’s creased face corrugated further into a big smile. He rummaged in his pack. He brought something out in his cupped hands. Very large hands for so small a man.
The hands descended onto the table. Olivia’s chest felt tight and tingly.
On the LEGO Man’s palms stood a yellow and black Transformer. Olivia kept her face in the same hopeful, smiling constellation as before. The original one had been red and blue. He didn’t remember after all.
“Is this the right piece?” the LEGO Man asked, his smile wide and hopeful.
The children around the table held their breath. Corngirl’s eyes shone and her face glowed.
Olivia understood what the answer had to be. “Yes, yes it is, I can’t believe it! You remembered all this time!”
Corngirl gasped. The other children laughed and clapped their hands.
Olivia held out her hands to the LEGO Man. “Thank you so much.”
She meant it. Sometimes a lie was a gift.
The children, Jackboy and Corngirl and Madison and Betty and the little ones, reached out for the LEGO jar for the first time ever.
A sharp smell intruded on Olivia’s happy thoughts.
“The bread!” she yelled. “The bread is burning! Quick!”
A disaster. The whole village’s bread supply for a week was in there. She ran over to the oven to try and save as much of it as she could. Jackboy and Corngirl mucked in without protest.
A few loaves had been burned too bad to be even scraped down into edibility, but all in all the damage was not as bad as she feared.
When she returned to her picnic table, full of empty soup bowls and scattered pieces of LEGO, the LEGO Man himself had gone. All that remained of his presence was a puff of dust on the road.
And the Transformer, unnaturally yellow and black and shiny against the worn wood of the table. Olivia righted it.
Hope had come calling, and it was up to her to make it welcome.
Bo is a freelance writer who lives and works in the ancient Dutch city of Utrecht, close to Amsterdam. When she isn’t writing, you can find her madly designing knitwear, painting, and reading anything and everything from Kate Elliott to Iain M. Banks or Jared Diamond. Her short fiction has appeared in Penumbra, Electric Spec and quite a few anthologies. Her sf novel The Wan will be published in 2015 by Pink Narcissus Press.