When the doorbell rang, shattering the silence of his contemplation with its insistent two-tone summons, Nick almost laughed. It had been too perfect. The crackle of the newly lit fire at his back with its promises of warmth, security, and possible destruction of evidence, should he decide to go that route; Gran’s absence, attending a fund raiser for the animal shelter she volunteered at; and of course, the three acceptance letters spread out in front of him. There had been an intuition, a feeling that he was poised on the edge of something significant, but he had tried to discount it. Almost, he had convinced himself that he was being melodramatic.
What college, if any, would make his personal cut? How many high school kids asked themselves the same question every year?
Bending over the coffee table, he shuffled the scattered pages of the three letters he had received into a single stack, and then stopped, holding the misaligned pile at arm's length. Common sense said that the person waiting outside couldn’t have anything to do with the choice he was trying to make—had made?—but he knew better. The empty house, the fire, the papers in his hand were all just stage props, his way of throwing down the gauntlet and defying their manipulation.
Challenge accepted, and now what? Hurl the collected college entreaties over his shoulder into the flames? Queue up some tunes and blast them at a sufficient level to drown out the doorbell, no matter how many times it rang? Sneak out the back?
Experience had showed him that there was no limit to the variety of people and scenarios they could create to influence his actions. The person waiting on the front porch could be a girl scout selling cookies, a dude pushing Direct TV installations, or a neighbor, although one he’d certainly never see again, searching for a lost dog.
Tossing the papers back on the table, he headed for the front door.
When he opened it, the man on the porch had his hand raised, as though Nick had caught him in the act of reaching forward to ring the bell again. He was wearing a dark suit that was noticeably rumpled, as though he had ignored his alarm and avoided getting up that morning until the last possible instant, and then grabbed yesterday’s discarded clothing from the floor.
“Oh good,” he exclaimed, dropping his hand and offering Nick a wide smile, “I was afraid no one was home. This is the third house I’ve tried.”
“Can I help you?” Nick asked, making no attempt to hide his irritation.
“My car’s engine died,” the man explained, waving vaguely over one shoulder with the abortive ringing hand, “and I forgot my cell at home this morning. Can I borrow your phone?”
There it was, the hook they’d devised to get this guy inside, and as usual, the staging was perfect. Looking at him, Nick could easily picture the scene, imagine him desperately rushing around his bedroom in an attempt to not be late, and, of course, leaving his phone behind. Now, adding insult to injury, the poor dude’s car had died on him. How could anyone deny such a reasonable request?
“No,” Nick said, and began pushing the door closed.
“Hey!” the stranger squawked, flattening his ringing hand against the door, and wedging a foot in the narrowing gap. “Have some compassion.”
“Not going to happen,” Nick retorted, pushing back as hard as he could. “When you get back to the Matryoshka Handlers, tell them I’m done with you guys.”
“Mary what?” the guy screamed, pulling his foot free.
“The people who make you wind up dolls,” Nick shouted, making certain the door was firmly closed and securing the lock.
The man was now slumped against one of the entry’s outer columns, his abused foot cradled in both hands.
Nick turned away, and triumphantly retraced his steps back to the living room with its welcoming fire. This time, absolutely no one was going to push him down a path he didn’t want to take. This time, he would make his own choice and live in a future he alone had created.
When he reached the coffee table, the pile of acceptance letters he had left behind seemed shrunken, a pitiful mockery of the accumulated pages he had formerly held. He swept up the remaining sheets, and frantically began counting.
There was only one letter.