First-Place Fiction
It was an odd little shop anyway. And when he put on that first hat, things really got strange.

The last of the rain that had let up an hour ago ran down the gutters, carrying leaves, papers, and other debris along with it. The air smelled clean and fresh, but Ian Rollins didn’t notice it as he drove slowly along the empty streets. Neither did he notice the distorted reflection of neon lights in the puddles on the ground as dusk came on, or the rising moon peeking through storm clouds. He just drove, not paying any more attention to where he was going than to the post-rainstorm outdoors. His thoughts and concentration were wrapped up deeply in more pressing matters.

Driving was what he did when he needed time to think, and this October night, there was plenty for him to think about. His birthday was coming up in a couple of months, his 19th birthday, to be exact. And something he had not thought about in a long time, had put off thinking about, had suddenly appeared—going on a mission.

His parents certainly wanted him to go. Their comments and questions about what he thought of a mission had become more and more frequent until, that evening at dinner, he informed them that they might as well stop bugging him about it because he didn’t know if he even wanted to go. “Why?” they had asked, as he knew they would. And the worst part about it was that he couldn’t tell them what he didn’t know himself. The best way he could put it to himself was that he didn’t want to think about a mission, and that meant it wasn’t for him.

On another level, though, another thought would surface briefly. Maybe it was really skepticism that kept him from wanting a mission. It was hard for him to believe the returned missionaries who said a mission was the best two years of their life. Maybe there were better things to do with his time. No matter how he tried to explain it to himself, though, he always got a feeling of emptiness and misdirection when he put thoughts of a mission away.

Tonight Ian was determined to convince himself one way or another by thinking out the pros and cons while he drove. He continued to wrestle with his thoughts as he absently turned right onto a dark side street. Then something caught his attention and he looked around.

Most of the lights on the street were out, but one neon sign glowed blue light into the darkness. “Hats,” it said, and the sign underneath it in the window said “Open.” Ian had never seen this small shop before, and with a bit of curiosity that surprised him, he parked his car and crossed the street to go in.

Inside, he was confronted with what seemed like a mountain of hats, all shapes and sizes. Hats were piled on tables, stacked three or four deep on plaster mannequin heads, hanging from hooks on the walls the whole length of the shop. For such a small business they were well stocked, but that made it look more like a rummage sale than a hat boutique. Even the counter where the cash register sat had hats scattered on it. On the wall behind the counter was a sign that simply said, “We’ve got what you need.”

I doubt that, Ian thought sarcastically to himself. You don’t even know what I need. He was still curious about the place, though, so he began to browse.

The first thing he found was a score of baseball caps advertising various musical groups. He picked out one from a group he liked and took it to a nearby mirror to try it on. He stuck it on his head, and suddenly a strange thing happened. He was no longer in a quiet little hat shop. He began to hear a great roar, and the temperature in the room got hotter, and abruptly he saw a crowd of people bathed in glaring lights. Then he realized he was in an arena, and he was there to sing to all those people. He was the lead singer of the group, ready to step up to a microphone and belt out the lyrics to a top-ten hit. All the same, he knew he was still Ian Rollins, with the same indecisiveness plaguing him. That didn’t change, no matter how vivid this illusion was. He pulled the hat off, and slowly the image faded and he was back in the shop.

No hat had ever had that effect on him. He stared at it, trying to see what had made it do that, but in his hands it looked and felt as normal as any other hat. He was still contemplating this when a voice from behind startled him.

“Need any help?”

Ian turned, and behind the counter was an old man with curly white hair and a gray mustache. He was dressed in a white shirt and gray vest that struck Ian as old-fashioned for some reason. He peered at Ian through round, wire-rimmed spectacles.

“No, thanks,” Ian said, “I’m just looking.” The old man nodded. “How late are you open?” Ian asked.

“As late as we need to be,” the old man answered. “It varies from time to time.”

Ian turned back to the hats, shrugging off the strange answer the man had given. The next hat he tried on was a dusty old top hat. As soon as it was on, the cluttered shop became a spacious ballroom, and he was dressed in a tuxedo and shiny, black shoes as well as the hat. His arm was linked in the arm of a beautiful young woman. Her hair and clothing were styled in a way he had seen in old movies and in the pictures of his grandparents when they were young. The orchestra struck up a waltz, and the woman smiled at him as he led her onto the dance floor. But Ian still felt hollow and confused, and he removed the hat. Immediately he came back to the real world.

It had done it again! When the illusion was happening, it all seemed perfectly normal, but when he took the hat off and reality came rushing back, he realized that he had been dreaming or something. He looked at the old man, who was still behind the counter. He didn’t act like anything strange had occurred. He was sitting there, reading a book. Ian almost asked, “Did you see that?” then thought better of it. He didn’t want anyone thinking there was something wrong with him.

This is all very nice, Ian thought. But I still haven’t figured anything out, and it’s getting late. Even so, he decided to try on one more hat, just to see what it would do. After looking around a bit, he found an old, brown derby. Ian didn’t think very much could be interesting about such a nondescript hat, but he put it on anyway.

Before he even saw anything, he was suddenly very hungry, and his feet hurt like they did when he went on Boy Scout hikes. Then he saw where he was, on a dirt road lined with trees that were laden with leaves colored by autumn. A cool breeze made an occasional leaf float to the ground. He was walking down this road, and alongside him was another man slightly taller than he, dressed in a dark suit and carrying a briefcase. Ian himself was carrying a Bible and a Book of Mormon bound by a leather strap. Suddenly, he heard himself say, “Do you think they’ll put us up tonight?”

The other man answered, “I don’t know, Elder. They don’t have much. You know that the father was killed last year at Belleau Wood, and they’ve been struggling ever since. We may have to go on to the next house after we talk to them, and ask for board there.”

Ian sighed. The next house was two more miles away, and he’d been walking all day on the oatmeal he’d had for breakfast. His feet hurt, but at the same time he was happy, because they were finally going to see the Kilminsters, with whom they’d been trying to make an appointment for weeks. Now that they’d consented to see the missionaries …

Ian stopped walking. He knew where he was this time. He was on a mission in a rural area around the end of World War I, a time when missionaries had no cars, no bikes, no apartments, no money. They walked to their contacts and took food and bed where they could get it. In spite of all that, Ian felt no sense of hardship or deprivation. He only felt calm and peaceful, as he knew he was in the right place. It was a good feeling, and it did not diminish with the visual imagery as he took the derby off. It replaced the confusion that had filled him. Tears came to his eyes as he stared at the hat without really seeing it. It was selfish of him to think that he couldn’t go on a mission today and reap rewards as great as those who went years and years before, fighting personal hardship to bring the gospel to God’s children. Ian knew now what he wanted. He took the hat over to the counter.

“How much is this?” he asked the man.

“Five dollars,” he answered. “Bit dated, ain’t it? Nobody wears ’em anymore.”

“I don’t know that I’ll wear it, but I kind of like it.” Ian paid for the hat, and the old man put it in a box. Ian hurried out to his car, eager to get home and talk to his parents.

The old man watched him through the window as his car pulled away. Then, with a smile, he turned the sign to “Closed” and flipped off the lights.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Snow