Palo Alto Weekly 28th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Young Adult

Then and Now

By Zach Cherian

About Zach Cherian

I moved to Palo Alto when I was 6 years old from Lexington, Massachusetts. I attended Walter Hays for elementary school and am now a sophomore at Crystal Springs Uplands School. Ever since I can remember, I have loved reading and writing, and some of my fondest memories in childhood are reading for hours and exploring the new worlds.

 

Judge's comments

The young writer of "Then and Now" captures middle-age boredom and loneliness and then gives his character just what he needs to move forward in life. The story is wise and charming.
— Ellen Sussman

The day was drab. Pale light from a distant sun did what it could to pass through the clouds, but its effort was in vain for those very same clouds happened to be remarkably obstinate. As a consequence, the sky, and everything below it, seemed a uniform shade of somber gray. Yet, Caleb thought, it always seemed to be this way, no matter the season. Dull, dreary, bleak, these were all words that came to Caleb's mind if someone were to ask how it looked outside. In fact, if pressed to be particularly descriptive, Caleb's favorite phrase to use was "decidedly apathetic." The residents of Farmshire Country would not have it any other way.

This morning, Caleb was on his way to work. The yellow stripes of his Camaro were the closest anyone would come to the sun all day. One of Caleb's pastimes was to talk back to the radio, especially the weather reports. As he pulled up to a stoplight he heard the familiar drone of Jim Duncanson, the town's meteorologist: "The forecast today looks to be overcast and--" Caleb grumbled. "Gee thanks, Jimmy. A Christmas miracle is what it is, a regular blue moon. Couldn't have said it better. Why doesn't this damn thing tell me something I don't know?" He switched the station and hammering rock came on, exactly the same as yesterday's car ride home. With a heavy sigh, Caleb turned the radio off, if only for the novelty of the action. The route to the shop was littered with remnants of the life Caleb had lived in the small town, he passed his high school on the right every morning, if he looked closely he could see his old biology class, where he sat in the back with Mary, his lab partner. "Things really were different back then," he mused to himself, "at least they looked different."

Caleb was right, things were different to him when he was in high school. He still remembered the way everything seemed so enchanted, so different than how it was today. If he searched back through his memory far enough, he could remember playing football on the field he drove by now, sun filtering through the leaves, the team's star wide-receiver. The seasons then were beautiful, with leaves turning bright red and yellow in autumn, which were then traded in for the glistening snow of winter. Spring and summer were justifiably incredible in their own right, but it was always the drastic change of autumn that Caleb loved. But that was twenty years ago, and time had taken that all away. The seasons blended together now.

Caleb pulled right up into the shop, between Martin and Charlie's cars. Eight-o-three and their first job was already waiting. "And who does this fine car belong to? Looks like it says right here a Ms. Borel?" Caleb said. "You got it Caleb, right on the money." Martin yelled out from under the car. Lethargically, Caleb popped the hood of Ms. Borel's car and peered at it, like a doctor assessing his patient.

"Hey Marty, you already take a look at this one?" Caleb questioned.

"No, I was waiting for you. The Ms. Borel said she left a note for you under the hood." Martin huffed while changing tools.

Caleb saw the sticky note, and crumpled it right away, putting it into his back pocket. Probably just a new billing address. The acrid smoke from the engine curled up, causing Caleb's eyes to smart. He could tell this was not going to be an easy fix. After searching through every wire, overturning every washer he finally came to his conclusion. "Looks like our Ms. Borel is gonna to need a whole new transmission, and she ain't gonna like it." Caleb yelled to Martin, who was still busy plugging away at the underbelly. A transmission like the ones they had on Ms. Borel car--automatic and top of the line--could run her up a couple thousand, easily. Good for the shop though, Caleb thought, yet felt no satisfaction in it. "Call her in, will you Marty?" Caleb ordered, already unwrapping his usual sandwich: turkey with swiss on lightly toasted rye.

The rest of the workday flew by. Caleb pushed paper until six, aimlessly filling out form after form. Insurance papers to file, money to be paid, bills to open and cash. Yet none of it mattered to Caleb, he had no emotional interest in any of it, and without that, he could not focus. Martin caught him napping at his desk around six thirty. "Caleb! Wake up! Ms. Borel will be here any moment to sign the papers, and you need to go help her out." A strange sense of annoyance gripped Caleb as he realized this would keep him past closing time. Caleb acquiesced, "alright then, I'll have to join you and the guys a bit later then, I'll meet you at the alley ‘round seven thirty. Sound good?" Caleb asked, and Martin nodded in the affirmative. Right then the bell rang, and Ms. Borel entered the front of the shop. "Better go see to it, then." Caleb walked very slowly over, carefully rationing out his last moments before a presumably angry client.

"Caleb! How nice to see you again!" Ms. Borel exclaimed, excitement in her eyes.

Caleb stopped dead in his tracks. Ms. Borel was none other than Martha Borel, his eleventh grade biology partner, who had moved out of the state years ago with her family. Caleb had not heard from her in over two decades.

"Martha? How...Why are you here?" Caleb sputtered, unable to come to terms with the woman who stood before him.

"It's kind of a long story actually. As you know, I started my own business as a boutique florist in New York, but--" Martha was stopped mid-sentence.

"I didn't know that actually. You haven't sent anything my way in over twenty years, ever since you moved out. In fact, we never got to finish the lab we started together, something ‘bout genetics or evolution or something like that. It doesn't matter now though, you're here." Caleb muttered.

There was a lasting silence between the two. As the seconds stretched into minutes, Caleb's brain searched for the only thing he could think of, and that was Ms. Borel's new transmission.

"So about your car, it's gonna need a whole new transmission, automatic. Thing's gonna cost you right around a couple grand." Caleb attempted in a professional tone of voice.

"That's fine, just bill it to me. Listen, I've got to go now, but I'll see you around, okay?" Martha said hurriedly. With that, she left as quickly as she had come, the revolving door already swinging sooner than Caleb could comprehend what had just happened.

That night Caleb walked to the bowling alley with a sense of purpose. He was going to tell his friends the decision he had made in the parking lot just ten minutes before, in the same parking space he parked in every Tuesday night. It was practically reserved for him now. I'm going to leave this town, go to a big city and start whole new life, Caleb quixotically thought. At least that way something will be different. May not be better, in fact could be a lot worse, but at least it'll be something different. All that was left was to break the news to his friends, Martin and James, Charles and Danny. They were what he would miss the most. For with the unchanging times that Caleb's hometown provided him came its ups and downs. One of the ups of a town that never changes were that his friends were timeless in every sense of the word: funny, witty and loyal. It was too hard for Caleb to break the news, and so being a straightforward guy, he did not. Instead, he sparked the ignition, reversed out of the space, and drove in the direction of Kansas City, the biggest one he could think of.

I'm going to do this, I'm really going to get out of here! Caleb thought, excited at the prospect.

Suddenly as he stopped at a stoplight, right on his town's border, all of a sudden the leather interior of his car seemed to close in on him. The rip in the back seat upholstery seemed to grow twice as large as it was before, and he felt as if he were falling in to it. Nauseous, and barely able to breathe, he had to get rid of all the weight on him. It was weighing him down, remnants of his past life, and he opened the window so he could get them out of the car, out of his life. Quickly, he emptied everything in his pockets, spare change, keys, paper all on to the floor. Yet there was one piece of paper that he did not normally carry with him, it was Martha's billing note from the shop. It seemed far too small to be a billing note, so he opened it up and read it: "Dear Caleb," it read, "How amazing it is to be back in town! I can't believe how much I missed this place, I don't think I really knew how much I did until I came back this morning. Is there any chance you're around for coffee? I'm thinking of staying in the area, I love being back home."

And then it hit Caleb on the head, clear as ice water, what he was going to do. He made a U-turn, and drove back into the receding light of the Farmshire county. Abruptly he realized that there were beautiful leaves of all color: golden, red, orange. Autumn was back, and for the first time in twenty years Caleb was noticing it. With a small smile, he turned radio back on.

"Jim Duncanson here on Channel 102.3, looks like a beautiful bright day here in Farmshire County."