a little story

Doc Burford
5 min readAug 27, 2023

When I was a boy, I would often play in the river, sailing paper boats, fishing for catfish, catching — and running from — snapping turtles. Wasn’t much to do in a small town like ours but sit by the river.

One day, I made a friend.

My friend didn’t speak. My friend simply watched me from the other side of the river bank — no matter what side I played on, he was always opposite me. He would only visit in the evenings, after the sun had set, as the light was dying.

Even now, I recall his long, black hair.

Sometimes, he was a boy like me. Sometimes he was a dog, big and watchful. Quiet, like big dogs are, with no need to bark. Other times, he was a crow. You would think “how could he be my friend?” and the truth is, I could not tell you that our friendship was like others.

One day, I left my lunchbox and the candy bar I’d been saving to eat while reading one of my novels about youthful adventurers solving mysteries. (yes, i was scolded for leaving it behind) I found it the next morning. In the box, a candy bar — not the one I’d paid for.

Alright, alright, you must be thinking, that could have been anyone.

My friend tied it up in a nice little bow. He appeared that night. He waved to me — the most animated I’d ever seen him — and showed me his big, white teeth.

We started leaving little gifts for each other after that. Late one summer, he gave me a book, one I didn’t understand, the words were too big. I traded that to someone for another mystery story.

I didn’t see him for months. Racked my brains, tried to figure out what I’d done.

I realized it was the book. How stupid I’d been. Tried to track it down, offered to do anything, anything at all to get it back.

I couldn’t find it.

I was inconsolable. And then my heart ached. And then, just as the grief at losing my friend began to fade… there he was.

“Where have you been? Are you alright?” he pretended not to notice me.

“I’m sorry about the book!” I shouted.

Silence.

He was looking at me.

“I can’t read that good!! I didn’t know what it said.”

INTENTLY.

“Escha… I don’t know the word! I tried to get it back!! I’m sorry.”

Then he was a bird, and the bird was gone.

I was worried he was still upset with me, but the next day, when I returned to our usual spot, I found a neatly wrapped box, a nametag with my name on it — I hadn’t told him my name — and in it, a mystery book. One appropriate for my reading level.

I looked up. He waved.

The years passed, and I saw him less and less. At some point, I came to a realization that I liked girls, and a few of them liked me. It was alright, we’d go weeks at a time without meeting, but when we met, always the same.

And then my family had to move. So I went to the river. I went every day. I left things — the next day, they were untouched.

Was he angry with me? Had I upset him? Was he alright? Could I help? What if I had to leave without telling him? Would it hurt him? I didn’t want to hurt him, I didn’t even want to leave him, but I had to tell him goodbye.

Then, that final night, as the sun’s light faded until it was just the faintest green and yellow on the horizon, as the trees shook in the wind, I realized with an acute realization that I was alone.

Well,

so did he.

I almost didn’t catch him, but the light of a passing car caught the glint of his eyes. There was no moon that night. I waved to him. I think he saw me. I shouted across the river, “Hello, friend! There’s something I have to tell you.”

Silence. Waiting. Go on.

“I’m moving. It’s not my choice, but there’s nothing I can do about it. If it were up to me, I’d stay. But I can’t.”

Still staring.

I told him my name.

Attentive.

“Before I go,” I said, finally screwing up the courage, “I’d like to know your name.”

The light was gone from the sky.

At a funeral, when I was ten or so, an uncle noticed me roughhousing with the other children in attendance. I was rambunctious and irritable, having had to put on my Sunday best and attend the funeral for some old person I didn’t even know.

My uncle put his hand on my head.

Up to that moment, I’d been tearing around, yelling and playing make believe, but when he set his hand atop my head and said, simply, “be still,” I was, somehow.

That night, it was as if someone had put their hand over the entire world.

“Be still.”

The wind had died, the trees no longer shook. I could hear no cars, no sirens, nothing.

Except… except a sound beneath the sound, something low, low, low frequency, lower than I could hear, something I could only feel. Maybe the world felt it too.

MY NAME

His voice was too loud, a voice on the radio, just a little too loud and my head jammed up next to it.

MY NAME IS AN EQUATION

He was not on the opposite side of the river. I looked around. He was nowhere to be seen.

WHEN MY NAME IS SOLVED, THE CHOIR OF THE HEAVENS WILL SING THE DIRGE FOR YOUR PLANET.

MY NAME IS MY PURPOSE.

MY NAME IS AN INEVITABLE DECREE.

“Oh.” My voice, so small, did not hang in the air. It ended almost as it left my throat. I didn’t know what to say — how could I? Could anyone?

YOU HAVE BEEN A GOOD FRIEND.

MY NAME WILL GO UNSPOKEN.

“I don’t want to say goodbye.”

It sounded silly coming out of my mouth. I don’t think he wanted to say goodbye either.

He waved, and was gone.

And now, here I am, my life coming to a close. I’ve seen miracles in the years since, led a happy life with a family more wonderful than I could ever have imagined. I’ve retired; no more research for me, no more teaching. The university says they’ll name a hall after me.

And all I can think about, in this waning hour… Is how all of this, everything I’ve done… the doctorate, the labs, all this scientific discovery and progress… was thanks to him.

And if I wanted to — if I really wanted to — I could see him again.

I’ve got a notebook. I understand him now, what he is, where he comes from. But I don’t understand why he stopped. I’ve wanted to ask, I must ask… and in that notebook, if I could… if I just finished it…

All I need to do is write out that last line. And then I can see him again. My friend.

One draft, about 1200 words, posted on twitter on August 27, 2023. Do not worry; if you come here for my regular writing, I’m not changing anything, nor will this replace the article for the month. Someone simply asked to read it out of twitter, so here it is.

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Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.