Bravery, as a concept, is a strange and confusing topic for a twelve year old boy. Every boy knows they're expected to be brave, even at ten, even at eight, even younger. The movies demand bravery, and reward it handsomely. So do the TV shows, and the cartoons. Lord, even the commercials expect boys to be brave. But what twelve year old is truly brave? No doubt, there are more than a few that don't understand the consequences of their actions. Those boys look brave, but are actually more foolish than courageous.
Jack knew all this, even though he probably couldn't have put it into words. Jack also knew he wasn't particularly brave, but he was definitely smart enough to figure out the consequences for cowards who just tried to act brave. That path led to failure and shame. Find a seventh grade boy who couldn't tell you that.
Which is all a drawn out way to say that Jack was still standing in front of the advent calendar the day after the twin girls had visited him. Jack had done a lot of thinking, but little else. The intellectual route seemed safer than taking the more simple and direct path toward being brave. He had thought about the calendar, about what the girls had said to him, about the candies. About the new photo.
The photo the twin girls had given him yesterday was pretty simple. If it was a puzzle that he needed to figure out, Jack wasn't getting it. It was a picture of the older sister. The girls had called her Clarice. In the photo, Clarice was standing outside a building. The building itself was sort of gray and dingy. It was hard to tell what it was meant to be; maybe an apartment building. Clarice had on tan shorts and a thin, white cotton shirt. Her brown hair was cut short, her eyes dark and serious. But in this photo, there was one subtle difference in comparison to the first photo: Clarice was smiling. Well, a half-smile anyway. She wasn't really looking happy, but at least hopeful.
Jack thought she was quite pretty when she smiled.
Jack held the picture in one hand and two candies in the other hand.
He had opened Door 5 of the advent calendar yesterday, more to satisfy his curiosity than anything else. And sure enough, there was a candy hidden away in the compartment. Then he tried the fourth door, which he had not wanted to open the day before. It opened fine now, even a day late, but it was empty. Jack set the candy from Door 5 on his desk and took a walk outside. He hadn't picked up the candy again.
That was yesterday.
Today, Jack opened Door 6. Again, a candy. Now he had two candies. Jack figured he could collect hundreds of candies from the calendar, but their collective weight still wouldn't somehow cause him to become brave enough to put one in his mouth. Shame from your peers and family could work wonders on issues of bravery, but sometimes it was difficult to shame yourself into it - Jack knew full well he was a coward, and frankly didn't see a huge amount of shame in it.
Jack tried a couple other doors, "23" and "24," even though he knew they wouldn't open. They didn't.
So now he stood in front of the advent calendar, holding the photo of Clarice in his left hand and two candies in his right.
Jack had a horrible, sinking feeling. He had mixed the candies up. He opened his hand up and stared at the two candies sitting on his palm. There was no way to tell them apart. I am just so stupid, Jack thought. What if he was supposed to eat a particular candy? What if he had to eat the one from Door 6 on the sixth of December? What if he ate the wrong one and it killed him or something? How could he have been so dumb?
Jack looked at the two candies. He looked at the photo. Clarice smiled at him. She had no idea how dumb he was, or she wouldn't be smiling.
He thought, if I were truly a brave person, I would just toss one of them into my mouth.
Jack tossed a candy into his mouth.
And the world shifted around him once again.
Clarice stood in front of the gray apartment building and stared at Jack. She smiled a half-smile.
Jack was confused. She was wearing tan shorts and a thin white t-shirt. The building was dreary and lifeless. It was all so familiar. Jack glanced down at the photo, then glanced up at Clarice again.
She nodded at him. "I'm real," she said.
Jack nodded back. He thought about saying, "I'm real" back to her, but...well, it was obvious, right?
"I'm so glad you made it," Clarice said. "You're the only one who can help us now."
To which Jack thought; when I'm the last hope, you're really at the bottom of the barrel.