Lottie shook the wooden box back and forth. It’s rattle reminded her of a rain-stick or a maraca. She rattled it up and down a few times before shoving it into her sock drawer. Lottie had been hiding her box in her dirty clothes hamper since she was five years old, except on Tuesdays. Tuesdays are laundry day, so she would wedge the container in the back of her sock drawer until Tuesday night.
With her treasure safely hidden, she grabbed the orange, mesh laundry hamper and dragged it downstairs. She pulled the hamper across the kitchen floor and stopped at the top of the basement stairs. She took a deep breath in and counted to three. 1… 2… 3… Then let it out. 1…2.. 3… She took another deep breath and…
“What are you doing?” said a voice behind her.
Lottie jumped at the voice. She whirled around to see her younger brother, Bert. He cocked his freckled face to the side as he looked up at her. She noticed he was holding a small brown paper package.
“It’s Tuesday.” Lottie said pointing to the hamper.
“Then why are you standing at the top of the stairs?” Bert said as he rumpled his hair.
“I’m not, I’m, uh, I’m…” Lottie struggled to find the words.
Bert took the hamper, shoved his parcel into her hands and stomped down the plywood stairs. Lottie watched him disappear into the darkness of the basement. She saw the light flicker on. She took one step down on the stairs and stopped.
“I can put it all in, but you’re going to have to turn it on.” Bert yelled up.
Lottie’s mom had taught her to do the laundry last year but she still struggled to go into the basement to do it. There was something creepy about the cold concrete floors, exposed wooden beams, and dark window wells. The spiders spinning webs in the dim light of the windows gave her the heebiejeebies. She often waited until someone else was heading downstairs before following them down with the laundry but today Dad and Mom were both busy painting the kitchen cabinets.
Lottie held her breath as she ran down the stairs and didn’t let it out until she got to the laundry room. Bert stood on the stool throwing clothes into the washer machine. Lottie set Bert’s box on the dryer and grabbed the large tin from the shelf and pulled out a soap pod. She tossed it into the washer. Lottie showed Bert how to arrange the clothes around the drum of the washer. She shut the lid and turned the knobs. Dad had put colored dot stickers to remind her where to turn the knobs.
“Are you afraid of coming down here because of the spiders?There aren’t any black widows, Dad caught the only one and I watched him kill it. It was AWESOME!” Bert said closing the lid on the washer. “I don’t get why you don’t like bugs, or snakes.”
“What’s in the box?” Lottie said changing the subject as she picked the cardboard container up.
“Oh, Uncle Wendell gave me some stuff. A few old remotes, an old fan, even an old cell phone!” Bert shook the box, making a loud clunking sound.
“Do Mom and Dad know you went to Uncle Wendell’s?”
“They don’t care. The whole point of moving here was to be around him.” Bert rolled his eyes and left the laundry room.
Lottie began picking at her upper lip, a nervous tick of hers. She followed Bert up the stairs, turning the lights off as they went. They continued outside through the backdoor. Their house backed up to a large grassy field with scattered trees and a creek. A rope swing hung from the tree nearest the creek. The large tree on the other side of the creek was where their Dad had fixed up the old tree house.
Bert raced down the slope to the creek. He picked up as much speed as possible before reaching the rope swing. As he neared the tree, he jumped and grabbed the bottom of the rope and kicked off. His momentum swung him across the water and to the opposite bank. He fell onto his knees, picked himself up, rubbing each knee before continuing to the tree house. He climbed up the branches to the deck and let the rope ladder down. By the time he had lowered the rope, Lottie had reached the other side of the creek, after taking off her shoes and wading across the sandy stream.
She carried Bert’s shoe box to the base of the tree, her shoes resting on top. Bert was lowering down the bucket for her. She put the box in the bucket before putting her shoes on again. Bert had already hoisted up the bucket by the time Lottie was climbing the ladder. She closed her eyes and counted the rungs as she climbed. Once she reached twelve, she knew she had gotten to the top. She opened her eyes and pulled herself up.
The tree house was old. It was well built. Dad had patched up a few places here and there and reinforced this and that before they were cleared to play in it. Uncle Wendell told them it was from the previous owner. After fixing it up, he had painted it the same color as the house. Inside, it was one large room with a ceiling fan. The walls were lined with shelves full of odds and ends. There was a ladder that led up to a loft that had mattresses and blankets for sleepovers.
Lottie sat down at the yellow desk in the corner and pulled out sheets of paper and craft supplies. Bert had already settled in with his box. He had three partial sets of domino’s out, an old hot wheel track, and a jar of glass marbles. He used books, boxes, and twine to set up his track. He weaved the track, domino’s, and odds and ends around the room. His contraption started in the far west corner and wrapped around the tree house to the southeast wall. Bert hummed to himself as he carefully placed each domino upright. He made swirls and letters with the domino’s, reaching the tower of Lego’s he had previously built, with a flag on top.
Bert opened his shoe box and pulled out a faded blue and orange battery powered fan. He had sneaked over to Uncle Wendell’s that morning before Lottie had even gotten out of bed. Uncle Wendell’s house was the closest one, at the bottom of the street. Uncle Wendell was a bit of a pack rat. He had hidden treasure troves of old whatsits and whosamabobs and would part with them in exchange for stories.
The contraption was set. All the dominoes in a row. He tip-toed carefully over to the top of the track and gently pushed the matchbox car down the ramp. The car ran into a marble on a ruler. It rolled into a domino holding back a nut on a string. It swung back and forth until it hit second marble on a ruler. Just like that, a chain of events occurred. Each part triggered another part of the elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. When the final domino dropped, it triggered the fan which blew a paper plane into the air and smack! It hit the back of Lottie’s head.
“Hey!” she growled, grabbing the plane and crumpling it.
“Sorry.” Bert smirked turning the fan off. “It worked!” He gestured to the mess around the room.
“Great.” Lottie rolled her eyes and turned back to the desk. “I hope you’re going to clean all that up.”
“What are you working on?” Bert said tossing some dominoes into the a tin box.
“I’m writing a letter.” Lottie set down her pencil and pulled out the stickers.
“To who?” Bert said, rushing to the desk before she could hide it.
Lottie tried to hide the letter with her arm, but Bert was too quick. He pulled the paper free from her grasp, crinkling it in the process. Bert scrunched his face as he read the penciled letters.
What is it like being you? How long have you been doing this? Is it lonely? Do you have a family?
My name is Lottie Gubbins. I am ten years old. My mom told me about you when I was four.
I have always wondered about you. How do you get in and out of houses? How do you visit
so many people in one night?
I should like to meet you. My brother Bert thinks you’re probably a bad guy seeing as you
mess up everyone’s hair every night. I’m not so sure. Would you take me with you some night?
I would like to see how it all works.
“You’re writing to the Night-Hairdresser?” Bert said, handing the letter back to Lottie.
“So what?” Lottie said, taking the letter and smoothing it out.
“Why?” Bert said.
“Why not? Don’t you want to know more about the guy that messes our hair each night?”
“What’s to know? Mom says he sneaks in while we’re sleeping and gives us a unique hairstyle. He may not even be real.”
“What?!” Lottie stood up from the desk.
“I mean, the only person who’s heard of him is Mom… and us. I think Mom made him up.” Bert turned back to cleaning up his mess.
“But what about the lemonade? the brownie?”
“Mom could have eaten it and drank it. Lemonade is her favorite drink!”
“But what about the bracelet?”
“What bracelet?” Bert looked back at her.
“I made him a boondoggle bracelet back in March. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I had the same doubts. I put it on my pillow with a note and the next day it was gone.” Lottie folded the note carefully and taped it shut with a star sticker.
“It still could have been Mom.” Bert said folding his arms.
“Well, keep the letter a secret! I mean it, Bert. Do not tell Mom. Who knows what will happen?” Lottie said as she pocketed the letter and headed for the rope ladder.
Bert bit the inside of his cheek as he cleaned up the mess. His sister might be obsessed with an imaginary person, but what if he was real? Bert knew he had to get to the bottom of this. He put away the last items and pulled up the rope ladder before climbing down the maze of branches. He rushed across the creek and down the street and back to Uncle Wendell’s house.
Uncle Wendell’s house was by far the coolest house Bert had ever seen. Each room seemed dedicated to a different type of object. The front room was filled with books. Bookshelves lined the walls, stacks of books were stuffed in every corner, and even next to furniture. The makeshift coffee table was made out of a giant wooden spool, each section stuffed with books. Along with the books, all sorts of chairs were everywhere. There were beanbag chairs, rocking gamer chairs, dining table chairs, an old, wooden, rocking chair, an ancient, golden, stuffed armchair that swiveled and rocked, tall throne looking chairs, Lazy-Boy recliners; chairs ugly and old, shiny and new were everywhere. Uncle Wendell sat in the tan, leather lazy boy, fully reclined, reading an old book. Bert sat in the lime-green beanbag chair across from him.
“Ah, how lucky am I to have two visits in one day from my grand nephew.” the old man smiled down at him, showing his gummy, toothless mouth.
“What are you reading?” Bert said smiling back.
“Just an old book.” Wendell tucked the book between his lanky body and the arm of the chair. “Did you bring me a story?”
“Yeah, the fan worked great!” Bert proceeded to tell his uncle about the elaborate Rube Goldberg machine he had made just moments earlier.
“I am so glad you put those old whatsits to use.” Wendell adjusted the wire framed glasses on his nose. “But surely you didn’t come back just to tell me about your contraption?”
“Lottie’s at it again.” Bert blurted out. “She’s obsessed with Ralph… She wrote him a letter.”
“What makes Lottie think he’ll write back?”
“She thinks the disappearing gifts are a good sign.” Bert frowned. “I think she’s crazy. Either that or she’s trying to trick me.”
“Or maybe she’s brilliant.” Wendell tucked in the foot rest as he leaned forward. “Can you grab that book for me?” He pointed to a worn leather bound book.
Bert climbed up the step stool next to the bookshelf that it rested on, careful not to knock over any other books. The leather was old, and smelled almost moldy. He squeezed it under his arm and carefully made his way back to his great-uncle. Wendell thanked him as he took the book. He flipped past pages of hand drawn pictures and loopy cursive handwriting, until he reached a page towards the back of the book.
An almost teenage boy with long black hair and a mischievous smirk was water-colored on the page. It took Bert a minute to read the cursive words: Ralph the Night Hairdresser. Bert looked from the page up to his uncle. Wendell gave another toothless smile.
“What is this?” Bert asked, eyes darting back to the book.
“This book has been in our family for years. Your great, great, great, great,… I forget how many greats, Grandma Minnie came by it when she was a girl. It has been passed down for years. You can tell because it’s smelly and falling apart.” Wendell chuckled.
“Is this how Mom knows about Ralph?” Bert asked, looking closer at the page, failing to read any of the written text.
“I’m sure this is a small part of it. Your mom is an adventurous spirit. Me, not so much. I like collecting stories. You’re more like your mom.” Uncle Wendell handed the book to Bert, who took it carefully.
“Is that why you always ask me to tell you a story?” Bert asked without looking up from the page.
“Mostly. I like a good story, but I also write down what is important.” Uncle Wendell pulled out a blue journal from the stack of books next to him.
“Look at this.”
Bert took this book and read the first page. It was the first story he had ever told his uncle: the one about having to share a room with his sister, even though they were in a bigger house. Bert flipped through the book. Each page was a different story he had told his uncle. Bert realized he needed to be more careful with the stories he told him. Especially if it was going to end up in a journal.
“Are all these books stories people told you?” Bert asked gesturing to the room.
“Some are, some are just good stories, novels, classics, and enjoyable reads.” Uncle Wendell said standing up.
His bones creaked and popped as he got out of his chair. Hunched over, he hobbled over to the shelf nearest the would-be dining room and grabbed a red book off the shelf. He turned and half waddled, half scooted to Bert. He handed him the red book. Bert flipped it open. It was empty.
“That’s for your sister. If she’s writing letters, I’ll guess she’s more of a story collector too.”
“Can I borrow this one?” Bert asked holding up the leather bound book.
“No, unfortunately. This one is too important.” Uncle Wendell gently took the book back from him. “If your sister gets a letter back from Ralph, will you let me know?” Uncle Wendell asked sitting back in his chair.
Before Bert could answer him, his eyes were closed and he was snoring. Bert carefully picked up the red, hardback book and tiptoed out of Uncle Wendell’s house and headed home.
After dinner, Lottie had a hard time waiting for bed. Bert challenged her to a game of checkers. After letting him win twice, Bert didn’t want to play anymore. He took out a puzzle and did it on the desk in their room. Lottie pulled the letter out of her pocket and set it on her pillow. She looked at the clock: 7:45 pm. Was that too early to go to bed? The problem with sharing a room meant that Bert would have to go to bed too. She sighed and went into the closet to change into her pajamas. When she came out, she noticed a red book sitting on her pillow.
“What’s this?” She said, picking up the book.
“Uncle Wendell asked me to give it to you.” Bert said, not looking up from his puzzle.
“Mom said we need to leave him alone.” Lottie said putting her hands on her hips.
“He likes it when I come over. I think he gets really lonely.” Bert looked up from his puzzle. “He showed me a strange book today. It had a picture of Ralph in it. It was hard to read though.”
Lottie’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped.
“What do you mean that the book has a picture of Ralph in it?”
“Just what I said. He showed me this old book. He opened to a page that had a drawing of some guy. It was labeled Ralph the Night Hairdresser.”
Lottie sat down on her bed. She wanted to sprint over to Uncle Wendell’s but she was sure that Mom and Dad wouldn’t want her to go over there. Even less so now that she was in her pajamas. She looked over at her letter.
“Still think Ralph isn’t real?”
“I don’t know what to think. I’ll wait to see if he writes you back.” Bert said turning back to his puzzle.
Lottie felt annoyed that Bert was refusing to believe what was right in front of him. Rather than fight with him, she stuffed the letter in her pillowcase and headed out of the room and downstairs. Her parents were sitting on the couch together watching a movie. It didn’t look too bad so she plopped down on the love seat and watched the rest of the movie.
It was an older movie. The special effects were super cheesy and it was full of boring dialog. Lottie tried to stay focused, but there was so much talking and weird clothes.
She must have fallen asleep, because the next thing she knew, she was waking up in the dark, in her own bed. Something crinkled in her pillow. She sat up and pulled out the letter. She put it on her head and closed her eyes, trying to sleep. She felt butterflies in her stomach. She began picking at her upper lip. She took a deep breath and held it, counted to four, then slowly let it out and counted to four again. She repeated the process until she calmed down.
Unable to fall back asleep, Lottie put the letter on her pillow and walked down the hall to the bathroom. She brushed her teeth, washed her face, and went back to bed. The letter was still there. She took a deep breath and plopped into the bed. Lottie stared up at the slats of Bert’s bed above hers. She counted the slats. She counted the space between the slats. She counted them twice more until she finally nodded off.
Lottie woke up to sunlight pouring in through the window. Bert was still sleeping above her. Her letter was on the floor, next to the bed. She sighed. She was glad Bert was still asleep. She wasn’t ready to hear “I told you so.” She turned the folded paper over and realized, there were no stickers. Her heart raced. She had a hard time keeping her hands still. She took one of her calming breaths before her hands stopped shaking enough to unfold the paper. It wasn’t the same letter at all.
I have been doing this for longer than I care to admit. I wouldn’t say I am a bad guy, after all, most of the popular fashions throughout history were started because of me. Take powdered wigs, for example. That was my first big hit. You are a very curious girl. Thank you for all the trinkets you have been leaving me. I especially appreciate the lemonade.
Lottie Squawked with excitement. She could hardly contain herself. This letter wasn’t in either of her parent’s handwriting. This letter was the real deal. She read it twice more and pinched her arm between each time to make sure this wasn’t a dream. He had written back. Ralph was real.
“What’s with all the noise?” Bert yawned as he sat up.
“He wrote back!” Lottie jumped up and shoved the letter in Bert’s face. “Do you need me to read it to you?”
“Ok, so he wrote back. Now what?” Bert said pushing the letter away from him.
“I… I don’t know….” Lottie looked down at the paper.
“Well do you want to keep exchanging letters, or do you want to meet the guy?” Bert said kicking off the blankets.
“How could I meet him?” Lottie said, still holding the letter.
“I think I have a plan.” Bert said, jumping down from the top bunk.