THE GASLAMP BALL – Matthew Steven Birt

It was the evening of our most recent Gaslamp Ball that I found myself shirking behind the curtains, hiding from a boy who had been putting me on my heels for the last half a year. It wasn’t that I resented him. More like he disconcerted me. I would step onto the porch and catch him staring from two houses down, stationary beside a bush or on his haunches tracing the sidewalk with a stick. If I returned his gaze, he averted his eyes and carried on down the street. He saw me, and I believe that’s what bothered me so.

There was still plenty of light to observe the growing communion of the ball, and so there I stood scanning from behind the window. By decree, the day was christened The Gaslamp Ball, though it wasn’t a ball at all. One week before Halloween, all residents of the village were ordained to escape their homes and gather under their neighborhoods’ lampposts. By dark, each streetlight was to have under its halo a huddle of people. Nothing else was expected but to commune in the light and be counted by the Gaslamp Leader. In the days that followed, the Leader was to report the headcount to the constable. Those uncounted could expect a visit from the man himself and at least a stern talking to. Perhaps a little more.

I spotted the boy as I made my way into the street. He was seated on a strap of leather on a rope swing suspended from the arm of the nearest lamppost. I noticed a small shoulder bag gripping his side and a glass jar upon which he was focused. He was talking softly to himself, oblivious to all under his feet. I attempted to avoid his attention and the crowd, content to pass the time observing my shoes. After some time, I looked up and he was gone.

Suddenly, I sensed him at my side. His sandy pageboy and aquamarine eyes made him appear younger than he was. I expected to be startled, but I wasn’t. I held his gaze and raised my eyebrows to implore, but he said nothing. Instead, he reached into his bag and withdrew a plastic container. It was red and heart-shaped. He handed it to me. It was packed tightly and I couldn’t gather what was inside. Before I could speak, he disappeared into the crowd.

The belltower struck half-past-eight, and I was free. I moved through the crowd, onto the sidewalk, and down my pathway to the porch. Inside, I sat in my dining room. I placed the gift on the table and removed the lid. Within were hundreds of beads of polished glass: reds, yellows, blues, greens, and ambers. I rushed to the window to see if he was at his perch. The swing remained, but the boy was gone.

I returned to my seat, spilled the beads onto the table, and began sorting them into color-coded piles, counting softly to myself.