Brother Consky was an old, bent man with deep wrinkles and feathery white hair. He lived down our street in a small, beat-up house that seemed kind of spooky to us kids. Big strips of red paint had peeled off the outside walls, and ugly weeds grew wild everywhere. Once in a while Brother Consky pulled his curtains back and peeked out at us as we played, which made him seem spooky too. We decided to keep clear of him.
We would have done just that if it hadn’t been for Mom. “Boys,” she called to my brother, Jeremy, and me one day. “I need you to run dinner over to Brother Consky.”
Jeremy and I stared at each other in wide-eyed disbelief.
In the kitchen, we pleaded our cause. “Mom, we just can’t go. We’re in the middle of a very important scientific discovery (watching a spider devour a fly). We’ll miss the whole thing!” Our argument sounded good to us, but I guess it wasn’t very convincing to Mom.
She gave us that “if you know what’s good for you” look and handed us a couple of plates.
“It will only take a minute. Brother Consky is ill and can’t get his own meals. Dad has just been assigned as his home teacher, so you’d better get used to going over to his house. Besides, he could use your smiles. He doesn’t have any family to care for him.”
“Well, I’ll take the food,” I grumbled. “But I won’t promise a smile.”
Mom gave me another look and marched us out the door.
We walked slowly down the street and hesitated at the broken-down gate in front of Brother Consky’s house. It squeaked as we opened it. We stopped for a minute, then forced our trembling legs to walk through the scratchy weeds to the front door.
Jeremy slowly raised his hand and knocked timidly.
“Come in,” a raspy voice called out.
I hadn’t counted on going inside! I turned the doorknob and shoved Jeremy ahead. When I was sure it was safe, I followed him. For a moment I couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Then my eyes began to focus, and I’ll never forget what I saw.
The room was empty except for an old gray couch where Brother Consky lay looking dull and sad. The floors were bare and cold, and the curtains torn and stained. There were no bright autumn leaves in vases like Mom put in our house. But worst of all were the walls. Green paint had faded and chipped, leaving great big spots of moldy gray plasterboard. It was a cold, dreary place, and I was glad when we were finally out in the sunshine again.
From then on, Jeremy and I took food over to Brother Consky every Wednesday and Sunday. Each visit was the same. We sat in the dark, moldy room, answered a few questions, and waited for our release into the bright world outside.
Fall passed slowly into the first week of December. Christmas trees and bright lights appeared in other homes but not in Brother Consky’s. One Wednesday he didn’t answer our knocks.
“Try the door,” I said. “He’s always up waiting for us.”
I knew that if we returned home with plates still full of food, Mom would send us right back.
The rusty knob turned, and the door clicked open.
“Brother Consky?” I called. “Are you here?”
The house was dark and still except for the eerie humming of the refrigerator.
“Brother Consky?” I called again as I walked down the hall and into the bedroom. Then, “Jeremy!” I yelled. Jeremy came running into the room. Brother Consky was hunched up on the floor. “Run and get Mom and Dad.”
My heart pounded faster as I sat there and waited and watched. As much as I had complained about going to Brother Consky’s every week, deep down inside, I liked him. I didn’t want him to die. Tears stung my eyes, and I quickly brushed them back as Mom and Dad hurried into the room.
“What happened?” Mom asked.
“I don’t know. I just found him like this.”
“Quick, Ken. Call the ambulance.”
Soon I heard the whining siren. In a matter of minutes Brother Consky was lifted onto a stretcher and taken away.
Two weeks passed. Each Wednesday and Sunday Jeremy and I walked to Brother Consky’s and stood outside the broken gate.
“I wish he was here for us to visit now,” said Jeremy glumly one Wednesday.
“Me too.” I also wished that I’d never complained about going to his house.
The next night Dad announced that Brother Consky was getting better and would be coming home the day before Christmas.
Jeremy and I jumped out of our seats and cheered.
Later that night Jeremy and I lay wide awake trying to think of something special to give Brother Consky for his homecoming.
“How about bringing in a Christmas tree and decorating it for him,” suggested Jeremy.
“Great idea, but it’s not enough. It has to be something really neat.”
“Good night, boys,” Mom called upstairs. Somehow she always knew when we were whispering.
Jeremy rolled over and went to sleep, but I was too excited. I thought of Brother Consky cooped up in his house. I remembered when I’d been sick how awful it was to stay inside all day, staring at the same four walls. I had felt like a prisoner caged in a cell, and I’d desperately wanted to escape the walls that held me in. The walls—that’s it! The perfect gift!
The next morning, before I could even gulp any breakfast down, I told my family about my plan.
“Dad, I need your help on a special project.”
“Sure, James. What is it?”
“Jeremy and I want to give Brother Consky a welcome-home gift, and I have the perfect idea—newly painted walls! You’ve seen his house. How would you like to lie in bed staring at those ugly walls?”
I ran on excitedly, “We have over a week before he comes home. If we all pitch in and paint, it will be done and we can bring him into a bright new room!”
“That’s a great idea, James. We’ll get the paint and start on it tomorrow.”
I saw him wink at Mom.
Later, as I was rounding up paintbrushes, I heard Dad on the phone: “No, Stan. We won’t need the elder’s quorum now. Two Christmas elves beat you to the idea. We’re going to start tomorrow.”
Early in the afternoon on the twenty-fourth, Dad wheeled Brother Consky into his newly painted home. The walls glowed with fresh paint. The new curtains Mom had made were parted to let the sunshine in. A Christmas tree glistened with lights and tinsel. Outside, last summer’s dead weeds had been cleared away and the fence fixed. To Jeremy and me, it looked like a castle.
Brother Consky sat there stunned. For a moment no one spoke as his eyes wandered from wall to wall. Then a smile cracked his lips. He looked at Jeremy and then at me. I saw tears in his eyes. He reached out a shaky hand and took my hand and squeezed it. I moved closer than I’d ever been to him and threw my arms around his neck.
Jeremy and I still visit Brother Consky. Only now we don’t go just on Wednesdays and Sundays. We stop off almost every day on our way home from school. He likes to hear about what we’re doing, and he even helps us with our math. Best of all, we just like being there with him, listening to his stories.