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MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT
I had to write a report on the greatest American president. We’d gotten the assignment on Monday. It was due on Friday. Right now, it’s Thursday, an hour before bedtime. And, yeah, I’m just about to start my report. I kept putting it off. And my parents, who normally ask me about homework, had been real busy. Mom was starting a new job. Dad was traveling.
Did I mention it had to be three pages long? Right now, I didn’t even have three words. Okay. I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to get started. I figured it would be easy to do George Washington. I mean, he helped America get independence. He was the father of our country.
I sat at my desk and started typing.
George Washington was the greatest American president …
I paused to decide what to say next.
The words startled me enough that I let out a shout.
I looked up at the guy standing next to me. Then I looked farther up, because he was really tall. And he was wearing a hat that made him look even taller.
“Lincoln?” I asked.
He smiled and nodded.
I managed to ask the obvious question. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to keep you from making a mistake,” Lincoln said. “Don’t pick George. He wasn’t all that great.”
“Are you kidding?” I felt I had to defend my choice. “He was the father of our country.”
“He had wooden teeth,” Lincoln said.
“That’s a myth,” I said. We’d learned about that in school.
Lincoln shook his head. “It’s not a myth. You should have heard him try to talk. I had a really hard time understanding him.”
“You didn’t talk with him,” I said. “He died before you were born.”
“Are you sure about that, Blake?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’m positive!” I blurted out. But then I paused. I wasn’t totally sure at all. But it sounded right. I ran some historical dates through my mind. The revolution was in 1776. I had no idea how old Washington was at the time or how long he lived. The Civil War was somewhere in the middle of the 1800s. I could never remember exactly when. And I had no idea how old Lincoln was at that time.
I realized none of that mattered. “Who cares about his teeth? That’s not important. And it doesn’t take away anything from him being great. Really, who was greater?”
Lincoln pointed at himself. Then he listed a string of his accomplishments. Somewhere along the way—it was a long list—my mind wandered and stumbled right into one thought that would totally end this conversation.
“Mr. Lincoln,” I said, holding up my hand to stop him from talking.
“You say you’re the greatest president?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“But I think that rules you out. Anyone who is so full of himself that he thinks he’s great probably isn’t as great as he thinks he is, especially if he thinks he’s the greatest of all.” As the words spilled out, I realized that was a pretty deep thought. And a true one. I waited to see whether Lincoln would try to argue with me. I knew he was a great debater. But I felt my argument was solid.
Lincoln laughed. “Nicely stated, Blake. And you’re right. If I really believed that I was the greatest, I wouldn’t be great at all.”
Now, I was confused. “Wait. So you don’t believe you’re the greatest president?”
“No. Not at all.” His smiled faded. “I was just a man trying to do his best at a very difficult time in our history.”
“So why did you say all that stuff?” I asked.
“I was just messing with you. George wanted to thank you himself for picking him. But he’s pretty busy right now. There are a ton of kids writing about him this evening. So he asked me to help him out.”
“And I am a bit of a joker, which you would know if you’d studied me at all,” he said.
“Maybe next year,” I said.
“Maybe?” he asked.
“Either you or Herbert Hoover,” I said, picking a random president I knew absolutely nothing about.
Lincoln stared at me and frowned. “Hoover? Are you kidding me?”
“Yup.” I let out a laugh. “You aren’t the only joker in the room.” And then I got back to work, because I wanted to get good grades so maybe I could grow up to be president, too.
Imagine a thousand pencil sharpeners grinding the tips of a thousand pencils. Now, imagine that all the pencils are made of steel. Then totally forget what that would sound like, because what I heard was a whole lot worse.
I was up in my room, sitting on the floor, wrapping the Christmas presents I’d bought for my parents. That’s when the screech shot through my closed window. The floor shook beneath me. I stood up, trying to figure out what was going on. The noise was somewhere outside. I was alone in the house. My parents had just headed out for the supermarket.
I ran out the front door. The sound got louder when I reached the porch. I stopped and listened. It seemed to be coming from the back. I went through the gate in the fence and headed for the backyard.
There was someone—no, something—sawing away at the foundation of the house, right at the corner. The thing was about two feet tall. He was shaped like a person, as far as having arms, legs, and a head, but his skin reminded me of that white bark that peels off birch trees, and his limbs were as thin as sticks.
Despite that, he must have been incredibly strong, because the saw was almost as long as he was tall. And it was a serious saw. Not one of those little plug-in ones my dad has in the garage. This was the kind of gasoline-powered beast that can cut through steel and concrete. I saw proof of this in the slash he’d already made through the cinder blocks that supported the house. Cement dust coated the ground at his feet.
The feet, by the way, were bare. Above them, he wore knee-length brown pants and a brown vest.
“Hey! Stop!” My shout was no match for the roar of the saw’s engine or the screech of its blade, and I’m the loudest girl in my class. At least, that’s what my teacher claims.
The thing kept cutting. He had sawed into the corner of the foundation and started to move along the back of the house. He obviously hadn’t heard me. I didn’t want to get close enough to tap him on the shoulder. If I startled him and he turned, that saw would swing in my direction.
I looked for something to throw to get his attention. Just then, he glanced over his shoulder.
I shouted again. I was still drowned out, but I figured he would at least see my mouth move. I waved my hands for added effect.
The thing pulled the saw from the cut. The awful screech dropped to the tiger-purr rumble of an idling engine. “What do you want?” he asked. He had a pretty deep voice for something so small.
“Are you kidding? You’re cutting up my house!”
The thing shrugged. “Seems fair. You cut down my house yesterday.”
That was crazy. “No, I didn’t.”
He glared at me. “Yes, you did. You cut it down, dragged it away from where it belonged, tied it on top of a car, and drove off, singing cheerful songs like you didn’t have a care in the world or a stump where your home used to be. It’s a good thing I was out at the time.”
“You’re definitely out of your mind,” I said. “All I did yesterday was go get a tree.”
“All you did?” The thing stared at me and spread out his hands, one of which still clutched the saw, as if to say, “Now do you get it?”
“Wait…” I thought back. “The tree?” We’d gone to one of those places where you cut down your own Christmas tree. I’d thought it was a lot of extra work, when there were dozens of places where you could buy a tree that was already cut, and lots of stores where you could buy a fake one that would last forever, but Dad seemed to think the experience of hiking through muddy fields and selecting the perfect spruce would make a great childhood memory for me.
“That tree was my home,” the creature said.
“Your home?” I tried to imagine living in a tree. That was fine for birds and squirrels. But not for anything with two arms and two legs. “What are you?”
“A tree gnome,” he said.
“I’ve never heard of that,” I said.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Never heard of you. And yet, you exist.” He revved up the saw. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do. I’ll say this for you people—you build sturdy homes.”
“But you can’t do that. That’s my house. I live there.”
Copyright © 2019 by David Lubar
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Bill Mayer