CHAPTER ONE—REPORTS FROM FARAWAY
“Did you see the morning paper, Sam?” Liam, red-faced, held up the early edition of the San
I shook my head. “No, I haven’t had a minute since we’ve opened,” I said, standing on
the second to the top rung of the sliding wooden ladder, and reaching overhead to put away the
back stock of coffee beans.
“The headline says,” he began, lowering his voice, trying to sound like one of our
teachers from school, “JUNE 6TH, 1898—REPORTS FROM FARAWAY LAND, WHERE THE EARTH
SEEMS LINED WITH GOLD.”
“Wow, that’s something,” I said, trying to sound interested, and pointed to the bags on
the floor. “Hey, Liam, do me a favor and hand me one of those.”
Liam put down the newspaper, bent over to grab a ten-pound burlap sack of beans, and
lifted it up to me.
“Sam, we should go to seek our fortune. You’ll never get rich working in the store for
your dad, and I’ll never make a living slaving away in that saloon, cooking and cleaning tables
for those drunkards.”
“Sounds good, Liam,” I whispered, “but please stop talking about it. Father doesn’t like
conversations unsuitable for customers.”
Liam looked around. “There’s no one in the store,” he said, picking up the newspaper
again. “It says people are flocking to Alaska by the thousands. So far they found more than a ton
“You believe that crap?” I said, climbing down the ladder, and grabbing a broom to
sweep up the errant coffee beans scattered across the floor.
Liam tapped the paper with a finger, and said, “If it’s printed here, it must be true.”
I shook my head and exhaled. “You’re naïve.”
“Doubt me at your own peril. But when I’m rich and living in one of those mansions up
on Nob Hill, you’ll be stuck here helping customers.”
“That’s right, Liam. But you’re forgetting that this will be my store when Father retires,
and maybe, if you’re nice to me, I’ll give you a job sweeping the floor when you return from
your silly dreams of seeking your fortune.”
Just then the bells on the front door rang. I raised my eyebrows to Liam, and whispered,
“I’ll see you later.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Hawthorne. How may I be of service,” I said, keeping my gaze
upon Liam, and jerking my head toward the door, encouraging his departure.
Liam smiled at the schoolteacher, and said, “Good day, sir,” and pushed the front door of
Rothman’s General Store open, and exited onto Market Street.
Mr. Hawthorne glared suspiciously at me, and said, “Good morning, Master Samuel.”
I leaned the broom back in its corner and approached Mr. Hawthorne. “How may I be of
“Do you spend much time with young Liam?” he asked, removing his hat and placing it
on the counter.
I furrowed my forehead at the derogatory phrase young in front of my friend’s name—
after all we were the same age. “Liam and I are buddies,” I replied with an honest shrug.
Mr. Hawthorne leaned over, bringing his hawk-shaped nose close to mine, and wagged a
finger at me. “Stay away from that boy, Samuel. You have a future. I assume that one day this
store will be yours, and your buddy will work for wages, somewhere in the city,” he said,
flicking his fingers, like he was dismissing a servant.
I forced a smile, and said, “Is there something I can help you with, sir?”
Mr. Hawthorne squinted his eyes to emphasize his words. “You’re seventeen years old,
Samuel, and graduating high school in a few days. It’s time to think about your future, not
fraternizing with people beneath your station.”
“Good morning, Mr. Hawthorne,” came the words from my father, Benjamin Rothman,
who was walking down the wooden staircase from our rooms above the store.
“Ah, Benjamin, I was just telling your son about socializing with people who can help
elevate his position in life.”
“I heard what you said, John, and I would appreciate if you would stick to your subjects
of schooling, and leave his life’s lessons to me,” Father said.
“Of course, Mr. Rothman,” he replied, with reddening cheeks.
“Now, please tell me how I may be of service,” Father said with a smile.
Just before I took my seat among the sea of wooden chairs, I scanned the audience
beyond the rows of my classmates, searching for my parents.
“Do you see them?” asked Liam, who was also gazing outwards, hoping to glimpse his
I shook my head. “No, but I’m sure they’re out there, somewhere.”
“I don’t see my father either. But he wouldn’t miss this for anything. He insists on visual
proof that I’m graduating.”
Once seated, our school principal, Mr. Lionel Bullworth, stood before the podium and
began. “Parents, siblings, relatives, and friends, this has been a rewarding year for our students.
They’ve worked hard, and every one of them has earned the right to step upon this stage and
receive their diplomas,” he said, gesturing to the wide wooden platform, where the tenured
members of the faculty were seated, trying their best to look like learned scholars.
Mr. Bullworth smiled, and added, “But before we do that, I’m pleased to have the honor
of introducing a special guest to offer a few inspirational words to our graduates.” He turned and
gestured to a young man seated at the end of the stage. “I trust that many of you who were in Mr.
Hawthorne’s reading class will recognize this man’s name. You have read several of his short
stories this past year, and as I was told, much to your delight,” he said, with a smile. “Our
commencement speaker is not only a writer, but he’s also an explorer. Just last year he journeyed
into the wilds of Alaska with his brother-in-law, to join the Klondike Gold Rush. I’m sure his
future stories will draw upon his once-in-a-lifetime experience from those exciting adventures.”
Liam elbowed me and nodded quickly with his eyes opened as wide as his mouth. I
patted Liam’s knee and smiled.
“Students, parents, friends, and faculty, I’m pleased to introduce: author, explorer, and a
native of our great city, Mr. Jack London,” he said, to a robust round of applause.
Jack London rose from his chair, and pulled down on his brown linen jacket, trying to
smooth out the stubborn creases. He wore a black silk cravat, tucked into a white shirt that
seemed to have yellowed over the years. He hurried across the stage and reached out to shake
hands with Mr. Bullworth. His blue eyes looked over the audience, and he took a calming breath
before he began.
“I was born just a few blocks from here,” he said, pointing in the direction of his
“Did you know that?” Liam whispered to Sam.
I shook my head.
“I’m curious. How many of you have ever ventured beyond the borders of our great
A few hands rose in the audience. Neither mine nor Liam’s among them.
Mr. London nodded slowly. “Graduates of Mission High School, you’re about to embark
upon a new chapter in your lives. Actually, many new chapters.” He smiled at his writer’s
“Once you step through those doors,” he said, pointing to the back of the auditorium,
“free to roam the world, what will you do with your life? Will it be worthy of an adventure story,
or will it be another sad tale of a wasted life?” He paused, allowing his question to marinate,
before he continued. “Perhaps you’ll make do by reading about a life worth living through my
books, instead of experiencing a full and exciting one of your own.”
I glanced over to Liam, whose right leg was bouncing up and down.
“I had a rough time of it in the Klondike. I developed scurvy. My gums became swollen,
and I lost four teeth. And I have replaced them with these,” he said, opening his mouth and
tapping on his false, brownish-colored teeth with a finger.
A buzz of conversations washed through the audience.
“I have a constant pain in my hips, and in my legs, that reminds me of my struggles,” he
said, patting the source of his apparent discomfort. “But if you ask me if I regret my decision of
venturing into the unknown, my answer would be a resounding no. I’d do it again, even knowing
what I know now. Life’s too short. We need to squeeze whatever we can out of it.”
Mr. London paused and turned to look at the faculty seated behind him. “What I’m about
to say, may sound blasphemous to the adults in the room. But I believe that when I’m dead, I’m
dead. And I believe that with my death, I am just as obliterated as the last mosquito I squashed,”
he said, smacking his hand hard onto the wooden podium, giving me and the audience a jolt.
“Perhaps some of you will find my words inspirational”—he shrugged and continued—
“and others may find them upsetting. But either way, it doesn’t matter, the result is the same,” he
said, and pointed with an outstretched arm. “Wake up before it’s too late and live a life worthy to
With that, Jack London nodded, and returned to his chair. The faculty, most likely
expecting a more traditional speech, such as one expounding upon the virtues of hard work, sat
stunned, with near-identical expressions of shock, while the students rose to their feet and