Once upon a time there lived a boy named Carl. Carl lived with his Father and Mother in a nice, but rather small house. Carl was the kind of boy that grownups call a “nice boy.” Carl did well in school and he got along well with other kids, but he didn’t have a best friend. Sometimes, especially on rainy days, Carl felt a little lonely.
Carl’s parents were very nice people. They were the type of grownups that kids could actually talk to. Carl and his parents did talk quite a bit about lots of different things, but their favorite thing to talk about was Carl’s uncle. His uncle was very rich and lived in a great big house someplace far away. Carl didn’t know how far away it was because he had never been there. Even though his uncle wrote lots of letters to Carl, he had never once sent an invitation to come visit him. So Carl has never met his uncle, but he knew he was a very nice man. Carl and his parents, who had never been invited to the uncle’s house either, would talk about this uncle say how splendid it would be to get invited to his house and they would dream about all the nice things they would eat there and think that maybe he would give them lovely gifts- and not just on their birthday, but on every Tuesday and oh, my, how they dreamed about that house!
One Thursday afternoon when Carl came home from school ready to show his Mother his report card ( if you remember I said he did well in school so you can bet there were a lot of good marks on it) his Mother told him some surprising news. His cousin, Karen, was going to come live with them for a while. Carl had never met Karen and he wondered what she would be like.
“It’s too bad she’s not a boy,” he thought, “ we’ve could’ve been best friends.” But Carl decided that he was going to be very nice to Karen anyway. Carl was that sort of boy.
A few days later Karen arrived. Carl was surprised! He hadn’t thought his cousin would be so fun! Carl and Karen liked each other right away. Karen had such ideas about fun things to do and amazing games to make up and play and change the rules halfway through and all sorts of things that Carl had never thought to do before. Sometimes Karen did things a little backwards and thought Carl was being silly for wanting to do things the normal way.
Karen loved to splash in puddles during a rain storm. Carl had always been told that he should never go outside when it was raining or else he’d catch a cold, but Karen said that was just something that grownups have to say and no one really believed it. So every time it rained Carl and Karen were outside splashing around like their lives depended on it.
Carl was never lonely now. He almost forgot what it was like to be alone. He and Karen did everything together. It seemed that everything they did and every game they played was better because Karen was with him. She somehow made the sky bluer and the rain wetter and the air was always sweeter when it whipped her hair about. She would tell Carl stories about how trees were really people in disguise and Carl knew she must be right because when she told him where to look for their eyes and noses and fingers he always saw them right where they should be.
“Karen,” said Carl one day after they had been singing with an old maple tree, “ Will we always be best friends? No matter what?”
“Oh, Carl,” said Karen, “Of course we will. No matter what.” And they shook hands on it.
One day- quite a long while after Karen had first come to stay- Carl was walking home from school carrying a large rock that he had found at the playground and he knew Karen would love it and get very excited about it. The rock was rather heavy and his arms were getting tired, but he didn’t mind at all. He couldn’t wait to give it to Karen and see her eyes light up as she thanked him. And then she’d drag him to the backyard and show him exactly where to put it and tell him that it was the most beautiful rock she had ever seen. Carl was thinking about all this as he walked in his front door. His Mother met him in the entryway with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Carl, Karen isn’t here anymore. She got an invitation from your uncle to go and live with him and she had to leave right away.” Carl was stunned. He dropped the rock. It fell on his left foot, but he didn’t feel it. He turned and ran out the door. He climbed their favorite tree and cried for a long time. Eventually he went back to his house for supper even though he wasn’t hungry.
As the days passed Carl tried to get used to not having Karen with him anymore, but as hard as he tried he couldn’t do it. Nothing was the same without her. The trees hid their faces and didn’t talk to him anymore and when it rained the puddles didn’t ask to be splashed in. Carl tried to jump in a few, but he just got wet. He tried to not be mad at his uncle for taking Karen away. After all, he could invited whomever he wanted. But it just didn’t seem fair. Carl remembered when he and Karen would sit by the pond and talk about how nice it would be if they got invited to go to their uncle’s house together. Karen had always heard about their uncle the same as Carl had and they both thought that his house must be the nicest place in the world. And now Karen got to go live there and Carl didn’t.
One day Carl had to stay home from school because he had a headache. He tried not to think about the fun games Karen would have thought up to keep him from getting bored while he was sick. Instead he looked through all the letters his uncle had ever sent him and read and reread all the parts that talked about how nice his house was. Carl’s Mother came into his room holding a tray with his lunch on it. She set the tray on his bed, kissed his forehead, asked if he needed anything else and left the room. Carl started to eat his lunch and was surprised to see an envelope sitting on his lunch tray. It looked like a letter addressed to him. It was from his uncle! He ripped it open thinking that just maybe it had some news about how Karen was and if she missed him and if she was coming back soon. Imagine his surprise when he saw that it wasn’t a letter at all- it was an invitation! A plain white card with nine words written on it: “Come, my boy, it is your turn at last.”
Carl jumped out of bed not even noticing that his headache was gone. He ran to get his suitcase from his closet and then suddenly realized that there wasn’t anything he wanted to bring with him. He ran downstairs to the front door and throwing it open, he ran outside.
The next thing that happened was very strange. Instead running on the sidewalk in front of his house, as Carl had expected to be, he was running across a grassy field and his neighborhood was nowhere in sight. Instead there was only one large house some distance away and it was toward this that Carl was running.
As Carl was running he started to notice the strange new surroundings. The grass he was running on was softer and greener than any grass he had ever seen before and the sky above him was bluer and closer than the sky he was used to. There were small ponds scattered around with lush exotic looking flowers surrounding them. The house Carl was running toward was bigger than he had thought at first- it was more like a mansion really, but not stuffy and stern like some mansions can be. This mansion was airy and friendly and when the sunlight hit it the house looked like a bright cloud floating in the blue sky.
The other thing Carl noticed was the enormous amount of people that were walking about and talking in small groups and some were sitting by the ponds dipping their feet in the cool, clear water. As Carl got closer all the people stopped whatever they were doing to look at him and they all smiled and waved. Some even called things to him, but he wasn’t quite close enough to hear what they said. A couple people started cheering when they saw him, but he had no idea why. And then he didn’t care why because there, straight ahead, running toward him with her hair streaming, was Karen. He started running even faster and in less time than it takes to write it all down he was hugging her and she was hugging him and saying, “You’re here at last! It’s even better than we imagined it! The trees here dance and the flowers smile all day long! Look at this rocks here- did you ever think it possible? Even the pebbles look like diamonds! Carl, I’ve made something for you! Come on, let me show you-”
But she broke off what she was saying because walking toward them was the owner of the beautiful house and the gardens and the stones that looked like diamonds- their uncle.
As his uncle got closer Carl could see that he was smiling. And it wasn’t that polite smile that grownups sometimes do, but a real smile, the kind that hurts your face if you do it for too long. Carl knew that smile was just for him. Now he knew why he had wanted to come to this house so much. It wasn’t the house or the nice things and it wasn’t even Karen. The real reason Carl had wanted to get to this house was to see that smile. Carl walked slowly toward his uncle and sank to his knees, burying his face in grass before his uncle‘s feet.
“Thank you,” Carl whispered, “thank you.”