short story

'The Dylan Project'

Photo credit:  Hein Boekhout

Photo credit: Hein Boekhout

By Megan Cassidy Hall

Josh Barrett was typically cool under pressure. In fact, he considered this to be his defining quality. It was this same unflappable charm that allowed him to bluff his way through high school and date nearly anyone he desired. However, after graduation a mere eight days prior, he found himself thrust out into the real world to search for a job. And this may have explained why, for the first time in his life, Josh Barrett was anxious.

Josh looked about the austere room, waiting for the interviewer to return and trying to convince himself there was no reason to be nervous. After all, he rationalized, the head-hunter had called him. But then again, Josh knew, there had to be a host of other candidates with more experience. At this thought, his heart beat erratically and his palms began to sweat. He might have experienced a full-blown panic attack, but just then the interviewer, an older, startlingly handsome man by the name of Alex Green, came back into the room.

During the first portion of the interview, Green’s good looks and intense gaze had unnerved the young man. However, the researcher’s demeanor now seemed drastically altered as he smiled and handed Josh a cup of coffee. Josh noted with pleasure that the cup was ceramic instead of the usual paper or Styrofoam, and this small gesture of permanence immediately calmed the young man’s nerves. He flashed Green his usual charismatic smirk. The interview process may have been rigorous, but the job was clearly his.

“Well, Josh,” Green began, “we’ve finished the initial questions, and I can say with some certainty that we’ll be asking you to stay.”

Josh smiled slightly so as not to appear too eager. Green mirrored the gesture, “Just sign these confidentiality forms, and we can tour the facility.”

Josh filled out the paperwork and followed his new employer down a sterile white corridor. “This is our inception room,” Green pointed to an area filled with tubes. “These days, it’s merely monitored to guarantee everything keeps running smoothly.”

“I wouldn’t be working here then?” Josh sighed. He thought he could fake it, but he had no experience and had copied off a girlfriend to pass his last few science courses.

Green gave him an odd look, but continued walking, “Of course not. Only a few lab techs work here. This part of the process was finalized nearly forty years ago. Research began long before that with the Adam model, but the Adams had a defect written into the original coding. Most weren’t able to last more than ten years.”

As they stepped into an elevator, Green continued, “The Bryans came twelve years later. They lasted, but there were slight flaws in the replication process, so only a few sets of Bryans were created. A few years later, the process was entirely perfected in the Caleb models.”

Josh interrupted, “And what will my role be?” His previous job had involved selling insurance. Before that, he worked in a mailroom. He’d been fired from both positions and wanted to seem interested in this job, even though he was already tiring of Green’s speeches.

“We’ll get to that,” Green grumbled. “As I was saying, the Calebs were a bit too perfect. At that point, we were unable to alter physical characteristics without changing major genetic sequencing, and the Calebs were far too unique for mass production. So, the line was terminated, though for obvious ethical reasons, the company did not recall the models.”

They arrived at a windowed room. Turning toward it, Josh looked into a nursery with three identical infants lying in three identical cribs. Green smiled warmly at the babies squirming in their tiny beds and whispered, “It’s a two-way mirror, so they’re not distracted by any outside visitors. This is our Dylan Project. The female equivalent, the Diane Project, produces models monitored by our sister facility.”

Green straightened his lab coat, “The Dylans have proven to be most satisfactory—not as bright or handsome as the Calebs, but with average intelligence and easily adjustable features, they blend into a crowd. Wonderful for long-term production.”

“And you’ve been getting away with this for decades?” Josh probed.

“Well,” the researcher opened a door leading into a room of screens monitoring the infants’ movements, “cloning was controversial in the early days.”

“And banned now,” Josh snorted.

Green turned away from the monitors and glared, “Banned by private enterprises, yes. But, our company has full government backing and conducts research under strict ethical guidelines.”

“You’re not organ harvesting then?” Josh asked.

This time, it was Green’s turn to smirk, “Of course you would think of that. No, Mr. Barrett. We are not organ harvesting. Nor are we creating soldiers for a secret militia, or treating the clones like bodies without souls.”

Josh opened his mouth, but Green continued, “I know. I’ve been calling them models. They are that, but more importantly, they are individuals, which is the very basis of our research. For example, I myself am a Caleb.  It is rare that one of us returns to the company, but it can happen.  Like my adoptive parents, I developed an interest in the sciences, and like the other Caleb models, I possess a high level of intelligence.”

Green led Josh back to the office. Once seated, the researcher pointed to a stack of folders on his desk. “The Dylans have been in production for about 40 years and most live normal everyday lives. For example,” he lifted a sealed manila envelope, “Dylan 32.1 was the first of two children born his year. He is now Samuel Prendergast, an active eight-year-old living in Iowa. He enjoys baseball and reading, just like his father.”

He held another file, “This is Dylan 20.2, the second of two babies born in his year. He was placed with his twin, Dylan 20.1. Both boys have embraced their mother’s love of music, and have taken lessons since childhood. Dylan 20.2 has a gift for stringed instruments and studies musical theory.”

“Then your work here is philanthropic? You’re just a specialized adoption agency?” Josh tried not to sound annoyed. He’d rather harvest organs than do something this foolishly sentimental.

“The philanthropic side of our work is secondary,” Green sipped his coffee. “Our primary goal is psychobiological research. We study abnormalities. I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of Sir. Francis Galton?”

Josh nodded and was displeased when he saw Green bemusedly purse his lips together. “Ah, well, to refresh both of our memories, Galton was an early genetics researcher who discovered that twins offer a unique way to distinguish genetic traits from those traits developed through nurture and the special circumstances of our lives,” he paused. “Do you understand now?”

The question seemed slightly condescending, as it was most likely intended to be. Josh spoke slowly, trying to appear thoughtful, “So, this is similar to the studies done before they cured schizophrenia? The ones where they studied twins, one with schizophrenia and one without?”

Green beamed in acknowledgement, “Quite so! The Bryan model was considerably valuable in discovering the cure, in point of fact. Our company’s sole aim is to study nature versus nurture. We have identical genetic material placed in homes throughout the world. To prevent flooding the market, we only create two to three children every other year, trading off opposite years with the Dianes. And, as I mentioned previously, we change the physical sequencing so the clones do not appear identical. Though genetic duplicates, the children have surface variations in skin tone, hair, and facial features.”

“And how are they monitored once they leave?” Josh wondered.

“Cameras,” Green waved a hand about his head. “There are so many these days. And we employ field researchers—not parents, of course as that would taint the study, but teachers, neighbors, even employers, once the children reach maturity.”

“And you’re the ones who cured schizophrenia?”

“Yes. We study other things as well—anything that could be either genetic or influenced by outside factors. It’s fascinating work. For example, on the whole, the Dylans have a propensity to be personable and easy-going. So, when we have one who becomes a cut-throat CEO, we examine how his upbringing may have influenced him.”

“Or if one develops cancer at an early age?”

“Precisely,” Green slapped the desk. “We’ve produced exactly forty eight Dylans. To date, none have cancer, even with high-risk environmental factors such as smoking.”

“Age could be a factor,” Josh supplied, trying to play the valuable team member.

“Which is why this is a longitudinal study with built in control groups. Will some develop cancer, or is there something in the Dylan’s genetic sequencing, which provides natural immunity? Can we replicate that immunity? If some develop Alzheimer’s as they age, what environmental factors can we correlate with the disease, and how can we eliminate those factors? That’s what we’re doing here.”

“And you’ve really never had any incidence of cancer,” Josh attempted to sound impressed, even though he felt bored.

“No. We’ve never had a Dylan with cancer, or any kidney or liver dysfunctions. We’ve had a few suffer from slight depressive episodes, but none with major depression, bipolar disorder, or sociopathic tendencies,” Green paused, “until now…  and here we come to your role in our project, Mr. Barrett.”

Josh was glad they had finally come to the point. He swallowed his irritation and flashed Green a charmingly toothy grin, “My role? Do you need another field researcher to follow someone?”

“Quite the contrary, though you do have a propensity for following people, Dylan 10.3.”

“What?” Josh gripped the chair, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. For the second time in his life, his palms began to sweat.

Green pulled a file from his desk, “We want to know… what went wrong.”

He began reading, “Age seven, the subject sets his mother’s cat on fire. Cat goes missing. Dylan 10.3 is not suspected.”

He flipped to another entry, “Age nine, Dylan 10.3 bullies female classmate until she is forced to transfer schools. Parents contacted. No other actions taken.”

Flip. “Age fourteen, female classmate accuses Dylan 10.3 of rape. The school gets involved. No official charges filed. The subject is allowed to continue high school undisturbed.”

Flip. “Age seventeen, Dylan 10.3 strangles his girlfriend and disposes of her body.”

Here, Green flopped the folder onto the desk in front of Josh. Pictures, apparently taken with a satellite camera, clearly showed Josh’s hunched over form as he shoved a blonde corpse into the trunk of his car.

“It’s been almost a year, and the girl’s parents are still looking for her,” Green said.  “We’re looking for an explanation.” Green looked over Josh’s head, and the young man realized there were three others behind him—one in a lab coat identical to Green’s, two carrying weapons. Josh’s mind was racing. He fell silent, trying to control himself.

The tactic must have worked because after a few moments, his breathing eased.  He shrugged nonchalantly, “That’s not me.”

Josh moved as if to leave, but the guards behind him moved in as Green pointed to a photo in which the young man’s face was clearly visible, “Let us not lie to one another, Josh,” he said. “I’ve told you everything that goes on here—very top secret stuff, and there’s nowhere for you to run. We’re doing research here, as I said. Just tell us exactly what happened.”

Josh licked his lips, his eyes darting from side to side looking for an exit. He thought that perhaps Green did only want him there for research purposes. Perhaps he would be free from any repercussions. He might as well be frank, given the fact that there seemed no alternative. With this in mind, Josh leaned back in his chair and answered coolly, “Linda was a lying cheating idiot who got what she deserved.”

Green’s lips formed a thin white line. “Then, you claim that it was Miss. Evans who precipitated the attack?”

Josh rolled his eyes, but said nothing. Still trying to seem relaxed, he could feel a drips of sweat beginning to trickle down the back of his neck as Green leaned forward, “And, what of the childhood incidents?”

This question was met with a harsh laugh and another shrug, “Well, those are just the kind of sticky situations every guy finds himself in now and again.”

“Many men, are violent,” Green acknowledged, “but our Dylan models are typically friendly and easygoing. Was there any history of abuse or neglect we may have overlooked?”

Even though Josh’s heart had begun beating wildly, he blinked twice, removed all trace of emotion from his face, and simply replied, “No.”

Green made a note, “It would be difficult to detect lying with your personality, so I will unfortunately have to take your word for it. Typically, we would know about and prevent any maltreatment, but we have been known to make mistakes.”

When Green was greeted with more silence, he pressed further, “Now, this incident with Miss. Evans. In your mind, precisely how did she provoke the attack?”

“She lied to me,” Josh’s chest began heaving with ragged breaths, “and she slept with the captain of the baseball team, and the sensation of my hands around her neck was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever felt in my entire life, if you really want to know.”

 “You note the lack of shame or remorse,” Green said to his colleague.

The other researcher nodded and placed three additional photos on the desk, “Which is why we do not believe this to be an isolated incident.”

“I didn’t kill anyone else!” Josh shouted, completely dropping his cool façade.

“Only because our field researchers began monitoring you twenty-four hours a day since the first incident,” Green interrupted, pointing to the first two photos. “When you stalked and attempted to assault this young woman in the park last month, we surreptitiously intervened moments before the attack.”

Josh’s mind reeled as he recalled following the same path as the slim jogger for months, planning how to approach her in just the right way to seem both menacing and friendly.  Just as he had run up behind her, a second jogger had come around the corner calling out, “Sarah, I think you dropped your wallet back here.” 

Startled, Sarah had turned around, only to see Josh a few inches from her face.  She jumped back in surprise and Josh knew she would always remember what he looked like.  She would be on guard and he would not have the chance to surprise her again.  He tried to control his anger at the realization that his carefully laid out plans had been thwarted by these low little men in their ugly white coats. 

“Interesting,” the other researcher said, turning to Green.  “You see now that he is finally showing some emotion, though he tries to hide it.”

“Anger born of selfishness,” Green nodded as his colleague made a notation.  He turned back to Josh, “This,” Green tapped the final photo “is one of our researchers, posing as a decoy. You have trailed her movements for the past two weeks, just as we have trailed yours.”

Green’s colleague cleared his throat and added, “One is an isolated incident. Two is a coincidence. Three is a serialized pattern.”

“I’m not…” Josh jumped to his feet, but one of the armed guards firmly pressed him back down into his chair.

“As I explained previously,” Green stood, “above all else, our process is ethical. We must discover what brought on this abnormality in personality and psyche. If it is not environmental, it must be physical. The other two young men of your birth year have shown none of these symptoms or behaviors but are becoming, like our other Dylans, happy productive members of society. You are, Mr. Barrett, a clone who appears to be entirely unique.”

Josh smirked at this, but his face fell as Green continued, “And that is why we have chosen to terminate your program.”

“You’re going to kill me?” Josh felt his bladder give way.

“No. Of course not,” Green said, as the two security agents lifted Josh to his feet. “As I said before, you’ll be staying here.”

Josh roared in both terror and fury, “You’ve got the photos! Why not just send me to prison?”

“Ah, but then we wouldn’t have any tissue samples,” Green answered, as if this were obvious. He inclined his head toward his colleague, “Dr. Albert has never performed a lobotomy, as they have not been standard practice for quite some time, but we believe this form of tissue extraction to be sufficient, both to control your behavior and to conduct our research.”

Josh began flailing his arms and legs, trying to strike his captors. He felt his fist make contact with Green’s jaw and felt a momentary surge of adrenaline. But then a long syringe was thrust into his arm, and his knees went weak as he was lowered onto a waiting gurney.

Green stood over his prisoner, “We’ll have to keep you for observation, but you shouldn’t be too much trouble. When we need more tests or further samples, I’m sure your new, sedentary, infantile personality will happily comply.”

The drugs had nearly alleviated the last remnants of Josh’s anxiety, but then just before falling into a hazy, drug-induced sleep, he heard Green say the last words he would ever fully comprehend, “Dr. Albert, procure as much tissue as necessary, as long as he stays alive. If he wakes up during the procedure, which he certainly will, don’t give him any further sedation. You saw the pictures.”

Screaming, Josh fell into oblivion.

 

Megan Cassidy Hall is the author of SmotheredThe Misadventures of Marvin Miller, and Always, Jessie. She is also the co-owner of 50/50 Press. You can follow her on Twitter @MeganEileenC

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

Original Fiction Archives

‘River’

Photo credit: formulaone

Photo credit: formulaone

By Forrest Brown

It was one of those miserable summer days in Creek County, Tennessee, the kind where your bare legs stick to the vinyl seats of your car. You wouldn’t be outside for more than five minutes checking the mailbox, and you could already feel the sweat running down your back. The thermometer read 85 degrees, but the air was so humid that the sweat never evaporated from your forehead. The air simply couldn’t hold any more moisture without coming up a downpour.

The river felt refreshing when Isaac Johnson first stepped into its waters that summer day in Creek County. It had been a wet July, and the heavy rains made the water feel like ice around his feet. He had just finished mowing the grass at the Douglasville Church of the Holy Redeemer like he did every Saturday morning, and he watched as the little flecks of grass that were stuck between his toes gently floated away as the water washed over his feet. He waded out deeper, taking it slow to allow his body to adjust to the water gradually. The first nearly unbearable point was when the water was above his knees, then his belly button, then his chest.

It was freezing, and he was breathing heavily for a short time while his body got accustomed to the ice bath. He stopped there, with the water right around his chest.

Before Isaac’s daddy died, he had always told Isaac never to go any deeper than his chest when swimming in the river alone. It wasn’t safe. In some of the deeper places the current got strong and could knock a grown man off his feet. Isaac’s body was cool, but he could still feel the sun singeing the back of his neck and the crown of his shaved head. He dunked himself under the water, came back up, and was wiping the water from his eyes when he heard a cheery voice call from the bank.

“Good morning, Mr. Isaac!”

Isaac whipped around to see Pastor David standing on the bank. Pastor David was wearing neatly ironed khaki pants with leather shoes, a short-sleeve button-up shirt, and the big, rounded wire-frame glasses that were popular for businessmen in the 50s.

He looked like he should be burning alive, but as far as Isaac could tell he hadn’t broken a sweat.

“Hi, Pastor David,” Isaac called back.

Something about the man made him want to stay as far away from him as possible. He took a step back even though he was a good twenty feet away.

Pastor David gestured behind him with his right thumb.

“Lawn looks nice. You sure do a good job of keeping it looking pretty.”

“Thank you, sir,” Isaac replied. “I just finished up about ten minutes ago. I thought I’d cool off in the river real quick.”

“It is mighty hot out,” Pastor David replied. “Say, mind if I join you? I’m sorry to say I haven’t been river swimming since I was a boy.”

Isaac shivered. “Yes sir, of course. Water’s a bit chilly but it feels good once you’ve gotten used to it.”

“Oh, I think I can handle it,” Pastor David replied as he began to unbutton his shirt. “I may be old, but my body still does a fine job of keeping itself in check.” He finished stripping down to his boxers and stepped slowly into the river. “Ah, now that’s nice.”

Pastor David’s face and neck were tan from many sunny days such as this, but underneath where his shirt usually covered his skin was so pale it almost hurt Isaac’s eyes to look at him.

“I learned about how people’s bodies stay warm in biology class,” Isaac replied. “Most people’s temperature stays about the same most of the time, usually right around 98 degrees. My momma taught me that last part.”

He talked more when he was nervous.

“My, aren’t you a smart boy? I bet you’re almost too smart for school. They probably let you teach the class, don’t they?”

“No sir, not quite yet. But I might teach classes one day.”

“Really?” Pastor David was up to his belly button in the water by now. “That sort of career choice usually requires some sort of higher education, usually at least a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. Have you thought at all about continuing your education after you graduate from high school next year?”

“Yes sir, I have. I’m looking at a few schools already.”

“You don’t say! What schools would those be?”

“UT Knoxville, Arkansas, UNC, and UCLA.”

“UCLA! That’s mighty far away, Mr. Isaac. Not too many people of faith in California either, now. They’ll try to tell you that we all evolved from monkeys! You don’t believe that you evolved from a monkey, now do you, Mr. Isaac?”

Isaac blushed. “No, sir, I’m a Christian.”

Pastor David was up to his chest in the river now. He didn’t gasp as Isaac had when the water reached his chest.

“That’s right, Mr. Isaac. And I don’t care how you try to spin it, the Theory of Evolution is simply incompatible with Scripture! The Bible says very clearly that God created man and woman, not ‘God created monkeys that evolved into man and woman.’”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, college is mighty expensive. Say you do get accepted to one of these fancy schools you applied to and you do want to go there– how might you pay for that exactly? I know Mr. Herb gave you this job helping take care of the church property, but surely that wouldn’t be enough money to cover four years of tuition at one of those prestigious universities.”

“I’m not quite sure yet, sir. I’ve been looking at a bunch of different scholarships, so maybe I’ll get one of those.”

“Well, maybe so, but you can probably imagine how many other boys and girls are also looking at those scholarships! I thought I heard something one of the elders was saying about a college fund through the church…you wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Mr. Isaac?”

“Yes, sir, I think I’ve heard something about it.”

“It would seem that Mr. Landry…you know who Mr. Landry is, don’t you, Mr. Isaac?”

Isaac nodded, taking another step back in the river.

“Well, the Lord has been very good to Mr. Landry, so in return Mr. Landry made the extremely generous offer to pay the entire sum of tuition for an intelligent young man or woman, given that they are a baptized Christian. Have you thought about looking more into that scholarship, Mr. Isaac? That could be a really good opportunity for a bright young man such as yourself, and just as you said, you are, in fact, a Christian. Isn’t that right?”

“Well, see, that’s just it, Pastor David,” Isaac said. He could no longer back up for fear of being caught in the rapids on the far side of the river and being swept off downstream.

“What do you mean, Mr. Isaac?”

“I do believe in God and in the Bible and in Jesus, Pastor David, but I’m not a baptized Christian.”

“Well, you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for your sins, don’t you?”

“Yes, it’s just that I haven’t been baptized yet.”

“Well, how come?” Pastor David replied, as if teasing a confession out of a small child.

“I don’t know, sir, I just haven’t. I really wanted my daddy to be the one to do it, but as you know he passed away when I was a little boy.”

“Well you want to go to heaven, don’t you, Isaac?” He paused for a moment and said in a deeper, quieter voice, “I sure would like to see you in heaven one day.”

At this Isaac was nervous. “Yes, sir, I do. I guess I’m just waiting to see what God wants me to do.”

“Well, I can understand how a boy would want his daddy to baptize him, but it’s written in the Scriptures that baptism is necessary for salvation. Even Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist. You don’t think you’re better than Jesus, now do you?”

“No, sir, I just…”

“Well, what are you waiting for? I can baptize you right here and now! God accepts all who accept the gift of Jesus on the cross. All you need to do is repent and be baptized.”

Pastor David stepped closer toward Isaac and he was almost within arm’s reach. “Come on, Isaac. You want to be saved, don’t you? I can take you into His Kingdom.”

A strange look came across Pastor David’s face, and Isaac could see the devil in his eyes at last.

“No!” Isaac screamed and Pastor David lunged forward. Isaac ducked his head underwater, kicked off from the riverbed, and swam back towards the bank as fast as he could.

When he finally did reach the bank he grabbed hold of a tree root sticking out of the water and came up to catch his breath. Perhaps only a second had gone by before he noticed the muffled screams coming from the far side of the river. Pastor David had stepped off into the deep end when he lunged at Isaac and was swept off in the rapids.

Isaac looked on in horror as the current flung the pastor’s body against massive boulders and dragged him underwater between cries for help.

Breathing heavily and on the verge of a panic attack, Isaac made his way back up to the shore where his and Pastor David’s clothes lay in a heap up on the grass. He dragged himself out of the water, grabbed his clothes, and was about to take off running for the church when he nearly ran right into Mr. Herb. He was standing behind a honeysuckle bush, staring off through a break in the branches. Isaac followed his gaze to catch the last glimpse of Pastor David’s still body floating down the river. Isaac’s eyes darted back to Mr. Herb.

Mr. Herb turned his head slowly to look down at Isaac. Everyone always said that Mr. Herb was mostly blind, but Isaac knew from the way he looked at him that he had seen everything.

“Mr. Herb,” Isaac said, feeling the onset of hot tears at the corners of his eyes, “It was an accident. He…Pastor David…stepped off the deep end and…”

“…and nothing,” Mr. Herb said slowly in his quiet, deep voice that could silence a room.

He was standing so that his wide-brimmed straw hat blocked out the sun, and it looked like the rays were emanating from his skull. His cataract-misted eyes contrasted against his almost pitch black skin gave Isaac an uncomfortable feeling, like he could see right into what Isaac was thinking.

“Pastor David agreed to baptize you in the river. You lost your footing since the rains have been so heavy and the water is so quick, and in the process of trying to save you, Pastor David regrettably drowned. You just ran up to the tool shed and informed me, whereupon I went to call the police.”

Isaac stood in awe, his mouth wide open.

Mr. Herb slowly turned his back to Isaac and started walking towards the church to find the telephone. Within thirty minutes the police were taping off the area, and a crew was on their way to come drag a net up the river for the pastor’s body. Isaac sat on the bumper of his mother’s old Buick LaCrosse, watching from a distance as she talked to the police. Mr. Herb stood over by the front door to the church, catching some shade while the July afternoon sun beat down hellfire.

Isaac stared at him, and Mr. Herb eventually looked back at him. This time it was different though, as if he were looking at something behind Isaac. His gaze shifted to follow a bird flying overhead. He hadn’t seen Isaac staring at him after all. The bird flew over where Isaac sat and landed on a white oak branch beside the church, near Mr. Herb. It ruffled its feathers and looked down at Mr. Herb, as if in admiration. Mr. Herb looked up and nodded his head, then he went right back to looking straight ahead. Isaac cocked his head sideways in puzzlement—it was the first time he had seen a dove, white as glory, in Creek County.

Isaac remembered learning in Sunday school about the story of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. Even though Jesus asked John the Baptist to baptize him, John the Baptist had refused because he said he wasn’t worthy to baptize Jesus. Jesus insisted, and after John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the river, a dove came and landed on Jesus’ shoulder. The Sunday school teacher said that the dove was a sign from God that he was pleased with Jesus. Isaac wondered now, looking up at that dove near Mr. Herb, if maybe God wasn’t telling Mr. Herb that too.

The Pharisees were also there when Jesus went to be baptized, and Jesus had called them a “brood of vipers.” They were religious leaders, just like Pastor David. Isaac had always been taught to respect Pastor David, but now he couldn’t shake the thought of how much Pastor David had looked like a snake, like the devil, back there in the river. Jesus said every tree that didn’t produce good fruit would be thrown into the fire. Isaac couldn’t help thinking Pastor David was trying to drag Isaac down with him.

Isaac’s mother came back over to the car where Isaac sat, pondering the events of the afternoon.

“Come on, honey, let’s go home.”

 

Raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the outskirts of Metro-Atlanta, Forrest Brown grew up mostly unappreciative of the musical and literary traditions of the South until high school. After a brief stint in the music industry, Forrest returned to doing what he loves most– writing fiction informed by his love/hate relationship with the region he calls home. Forrest Brown currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @frrstbrwn.

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

Original Fiction Archives

'Stink Bait'

By David Joy

 

For Uncle Butch

 

In all honesty, my father probably had it coming when he bolted a three-foot bar off the side of my mother’s ragtop Park Avenue to get a mirror far enough out to see around the twenty-foot Travel Mate. Then again, his decision was a matter of safety. 

The water pump was out on his pickup, the part he’d ordered hadn’t come, and, though I wouldn’t call him cheap, my father wouldn’t pay five times what it’d cost him to fix it himself for some glue-sniffing teenager at the Jiffy Lube to spend half a day on an hour’s work. Mama’s car wasn’t ideal for hauling the pull-behind, but we were headed out of town. The family reunion was in two days, and, like always, the old man made do.

But Dad’s making do didn’t make a damn to my mother who peddled cosmetics to family and friends, bored housewives, church secretaries, PTA committee members, Bojangles cashiers, and anyone else who considered it rude to blow her off entirely when she moved into her pitch. We’d be walking through the Food Lion and she’d stop some lady with a buggy full of groceries and say, “You know, I hate to bother you, but you’ve got absolutely gorgeous lips. You ever think of adding just a touch of lip-gloss? Maybe Sassy Fuchsia, or, no, no, I think Shock Tart might be your color.” She’d hand her card to the stranger and I’d try to avoid eye contact, walk behind kicking those cards under shelves so Mama wouldn’t chase the strangers down and try to hand off another when she found the card she’d given tossed on the floor. My mother was blind to a lot of things. She really was. But one thing she saw clear as day was how that mirror my father bolted onto the side of her car was going to be the final nail in her Mary Kay coffin.

“You think anybody’s going to buy product from a woman in a car like that? You think anyone’s going to take me serious with a trailer mirror bolted five foot off the side of my car?”

“Three feet seven and three-eighths inches,” my father said. He’d had me hold the tape eleven times to make sure he’d measured correctly, that extra three-eighths being just enough for him to see around the back of the trailer from the steering wheel. “I’ll take it off just as soon as we get back.”

“What about the holes, Tom? You don’t think the holes where you bolted that thing on are going to hurt the resell? Take that mirror off the side of my car.”

“I don’t think we’re going to be making any trades," he said as he tilted the mirror a few inches in then nudged it back an inch or so out. "And I’ve already told you. I’ll take it off when we get home.”

If we get home,” my mother yelled. “What if this thing breaks down in the middle of nowhere?”

“Then I’ll just underpin the son of a bitch and we’ll live out the rest of our days right there where the universe decided to set us,” my father said, finally looking up. “Hell, we’ll open up a hotdog stand, Grace, maybe sell boiled peanuts right there on the side of the road. You like boiled peanuts, don’t you? That'd suit you just fine.”

“It’ll buff out,” I said, trying to ease the tension just a hair to keep all that blood in Mama’s face from blowing her head up like a hand grenade. 

“Be quiet, Henry. Just go in the house and see if your sister has her suitcase packed.”

“I really don’t think—” I started to reason.

“I said go in the house,” Mama barked.

So I set the tape measure down on the driveway and went inside like I was told.

***

If my little sister Anna hadn’t gotten into Mama’s product halfway between home and hell, I imagine my mother would’ve wrapped her hands around Dad’s throat and squeezed till his Adam’s apple shot north or south. The Buick wouldn’t plane off with all that weight on the back so the exhaust ground the pavement till a flurry of sparks followed behind us like the tail end of a comet. It was the tailpipe, muffler, and everything meant to hold the exhaust in place that finally broke free just as we crossed the state line. The Travel Mate hopped over what fell off and Mama turned to look behind only to find Anna smeared with Purple Eclipse eye shadow and Peach Pop cheek stick like some sort of six-year-old carny with lipstick on her teeth. My father never was one for praying, but folks who do always talk about a merciful God and to me that’s exactly what this was, mercy.

We must’ve reached the campground some time in the middle of the night, because I was asleep. I don’t remember my father parking or him moving me from the backseat of the Buick into the camper. I just woke up in the Travel Mate and stepped out that next morning beside a catfish pond with a few dead channel cats circling around a floating fountain that was anchored with white rope a hundred feet off the bank. 

Dad’s cousin Larry came to give us a ride. My grandfather couldn’t drive anymore, and, ever since my grandmother died, Larry was the only one in the family who would volunteer to take the old man grocery shopping or to the doctor or across the county line so he could buy beer on Sundays. Grandpa told Dad to call Larry. When Larry came, we loaded up and hung a right by a sign that read Turtle Creek Campground with a giant smiling turtle holding a stringer full of fish, and Larry drove south on a state road as broken and crackled as a dried out snakeskin. 

“I hid your daddy’s keys inside one of those spice boxes in the kitchen,” Larry said when he pulled in front of my grandfather’s house. “You know the ones I’m talking about that got roosters painted on ’em, those wood boxes that all fit inside one another: the tea in the coffee, the coffee in the sugar, the sugar in the flour, and so on?”

My father nodded.

“Well, the keys are in one of them. The sugar one maybe,” Larry said. “That truck ought to fire right up. I crank it and let it run for a little while about twice a week, drive it out to the grocery every couple of trips. Still runs good.”

“Thank you, Larry,” my father said. “For everything.”

Larry nodded. 

“I’ll see y’all here in a little bit,” he said, then backed out of the driveway and sputtered down the road.

A pair of beagles bawled when we went inside, but my grandfather didn’t stand to greet us. He didn’t say hello, good to see you, or drop dead and die. He just shouted over his shoulder from where he sat at the kitchen table, “You’re late,” and went right back to shoveling cold oatmeal into his mouth. He wore a gray woolen coat with two stars on the collar, and a pair of sky blue trousers the same heavy material as the coat. A battered and worn kepi lay on the table next to his bowl of oatmeal. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a museum.

Our family reunion was centered on one of Dad’s cousins, a woman named Sherry who spent a year of her life in a mental hospital, having discovered the grave of one of our Confederate ancestors. She was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary and headed up the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and had stumbled onto some diviner who used dowsing rods to track down the unmarked graves of long lost relatives. For $300 this woman would wander around a field till those rods crossed and then she’d stop, raise her hand to God, and right there would be the grave. According to Sherry, this lady was batting a thousand, never once came back empty-handed, and so Sherry ponied up the $300, the lady went to work, and now here we all were to dedicate the grave of Alphonzo A. Roseman who was discharged from the Confederate Army on May 16, 1863 and died without a penny to his name. 

My father’s share came to $27.32. Sherry said this over and over on the phone like he wasn’t good for it. Dad asked how much his father owed and she said that totaled up to $42.67. Dad asked if that was for both of them and Sherry said, no, that they each owed separately, so he rounded up one penny to $70 when he wrote the check, said it would all come out in the wash. That Saturday Dad shoved that check in an envelope and muttered something under his breath about brain cells and well water. He licked the envelope closed then sucked back on his Coors so hard that the can crumpled. I rode with him to the post office where he dropped another fifty cents for a stamp with Elvis on it.

“Well, are y’all going to sit down and eat, or just stand there drooling on yourselves,” my grandfather said.

“Are those steel-cut oats?” Anna asked.

“No, they’re Quaker Oats,” he said. 

“Mama makes steel-cut oats.”

“Well, these here are Quaker Oats. Are you too good for Quaker Oats?”

Anna shook her head and shuffled a little to the right to hide half of herself behind Mama’s leg.

“Wilford Brimley used to be the spokesperson for this oatmeal, and if it’s good enough for him then I reckon it’s good enough for any of us,” my grandfather said. “Wilford Brimley was in ‘Cocoon.’”

“What’s ‘Cocoon?’” Anna asked.

“He has diabetes,” my father said, pronouncing it like “beat us.” 

“Diabetees,” my mother corrected him.

“Diabeetees. Diabeetus” my father said. “However you say it, Wilford Brimley has it. Now he’s on commercials for insulin or something.”

“Suit yourself,” my grandfather yelled. He hammered his fists against the table and the spoon jangled against the rim of his bowl. “Picky eaters have starved to death in this house.”

We held still for a moment or two and waited for my grandfather to go back to eating. Stay still, be quiet, and don’t look at a bear, and it will usually just mosey on about its business. When he did, my mother took my sister into the back to get her ready for the reunion. Dad sat down next to his father, and I sat next to mine.

“I don’t know why y’all couldn’t just stay here,” my grandfather said. “There’s plenty of room.”

“I know there is, but Anna’s allergic to dogs.”

“That’s nonsense,” my grandfather said then knelt down to pat one of the two beagles on the back. “A person can’t be allergic to dogs.”

Dad shook his head. 

“How are you holding up?” He asked.

“Hot dogs make the gout flare. Liver mush makes the gout flare. Cube steak makes the gout flare. Hell, even beer gives me fits anymore. Sometimes I just want to take out my pocketknife and chop that big toe right off. Can’t get around anyhow. And what don’t bother the gout gives me the diarrhea, so how’s that for—”

My father had stood up and was halfway to the coffee pot when he interrupted. 

“No, Dad. I mean how are you?” 

He was trying to ask how my grandfather was holding up since my grandmother died. That first month or two after we drove down for her funeral, Dad called his father every night to check on him. Months went by and the phone calls turned from once every couple of days to once a week to once every “I’ll get around to it” actually got around to it back to just birthdays and holidays. Grown-up chores weren’t all that different from childhood ones.

“I wish I could tell you it gets easier everyday, but it don’t,” my grandfather said. “It just don’t. That ain’t the way life works.”

Dad poured a cup of coffee into a camouflage Waffle House mug. He took a sip, spit that sip back into the mug then took the pot over to the sink.

“That’s two days old,” my grandfather said. 

“Well then what in the world you saving it for?” my father asked as he dumped what was left down the drain.

“Cause I’ll still drink it.”

“Ain’t no wonder you got the shits, Dad,” my father said and I snickered.

“You can make a pot of fresh if you want. Coffee’s in the cabinet.”

My father washed out the pot and carried the old filter and grounds over to the trashcan with those beagles circling his ankles, tripping him up like he was going to give them a slice of cheese. He grabbed a tub of JFG from the cabinet and started to make a fresh pot.

“While you’re over there, look in the freezer and grab that trash bag for me,” my grandfather said.

Dad reached into the freezer as the coffee maker started to percolate. There were patterns of icicles that looked like Queen Anne’s lace frozen on the black plastic, and the bag seemed to steam when my father set it on the table. 

“What is this?”

“Your old uniform,” my grandfather said. “I thought Henry here might want to wear it to the dedication. He looks about the same size you were.”

“No, Dad,” my father said.

“What uniform?” I asked.

“This is the uniform your father wore when he was your age. We used to travel around doing reenactments. He ain’t ever told you about that?”

I shook my head.

“I don’t want—” my father started to say.

My grandfather pulled a folded uniform the same colors as the one he wore from the bag and continued to talk over my father. 

“How old are you, Henry?”

“Twelve,” I said.

“Then this ought to fit you just right.” He slid the uniform across the table like he was passing bread.

“Why’d you have it in the freezer?” I asked.

“Because it stunk and I didn’t want to wash it.”

“I don’t want him wearing that thing, Dad,” my father said.

But my grandfather wasn’t listening and I was intrigued.

“What do you know about the War of Northern Aggression, Henry?” my grandfather asked.

“I don’t want him—”

“Have y’all covered that in school?”

I didn’t know what my grandfather was talking about and I shook my head. Dad kept trying to say that I wasn’t going to wear that uniform, but my grandfather kept right on talking. When I tried to unfold the britches, the wool, frozen solid, crunched in my hands. Dad poured two cups of coffee and carried them back to the table. He pushed one to the old man, hoping, I think, that the coffee would shut him up. I sat on the edge of my seat and listened to something I didn’t know the first thing about, just waiting for that uniform to thaw, waiting for my father to give me permission to try it on.

***

Lesson number one, wool doesn’t breathe. I learned that halfway through the service. There were about a dozen of us in uniforms, probably sixty or seventy people in all, crowded in a fenced-in cemetery that was just two degrees shy of catching fire. My father kept staring at me during the service. He looked disappointed and I wasn’t sure if it was with my grandfather or with me, and he finally just quit looking altogether when the crowd sang, “Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.” 

Lesson two was that Cousin Jeff was always remembering something, like how my grandfather purged a ’possum for two weeks, feeding the animal nothing but sweet corn and buttermilk, to get all of the gaminess out of the meat, or how one of his and Dad’s cross-eyed cousins, Robbie Gipe, played the guitar solo from Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” on a busted accordion to win the eighth grade talent show, how Robbie’s mom sang funny in church because of her cleft palate, or how Aunt Betty wasn’t always Aunt Betty, but when they were real little was Uncle Bert, though no one ever talked about Bert anymore and so really it was like he’d never been born at all. 

“Me and your daddy used to go squirrel hunting,” Jeff said. “We went everyday after school and every weekend that I didn’t have to go see my dad. Your dad was a crack shot, Henry. See a squirrel. Bang. That fast.” He shook his head with amazement. “I bet you’re the same, ain’t you? Y’all do a lot of squirrel hunting where you live?”

“No,” I said. “I ain’t ever been squirrel hunting.”

“You ain’t?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s a shame,” Jeff said. “I bet you’re a natural.”

I’d never met Cousin Jeff before in my life.

My father stood with my grandfather under a sweetgum in the middle of the cemetery, and my mother was just a few feet away from them twirling Anna beneath her fingertip like a windup ballerina. Some relative I hadn’t met came over and asked Jeff if he’d gotten his license back or if he still had to drive a moped to get back and forth to the plastics plant, and, while Jeff explained that he didn’t work at the plastics plant anymore, that he’d taken a job driving a school bus, I tiptoed away.

“You hot yet?” my father asked when I walked over.

“Itchy,” I said. 

Dad laughed.

“A lot of soldiers died of heatstroke on long marches because of these uniforms, Henry,” my grandfather said. “None of our ancestors, of course, but families like Sibleys and Powells and Browns, hell, them sissies killed off in droves.”

A fat redheaded woman in a black pencil skirt that was shaped more like a pear than a pen popped out from behind my mother and said, “Tom, I want to introduce you to Mrs. Galloway.”

I learned from context that the redhead was our fat cousin Sherry who spent a year in a mental hospital and money on nonsense. 

“Mrs. Galloway here’s who found the grave,” Sherry said.

Mrs. Galloway held out her hand. “You can call me Perline,” she said.

Perline Galloway didn’t look half as crazy as any of our family. Petite and kept, she wore a pale yellow pants suit that brought out the green in her eyes.

“How’d you go about finding this grave?” my father asked. 

He never was one for mixing words. My father shot straight and didn’t care whether what he said came out sarcastic and dry because that’s exactly how he meant it. That was just his sense of humor.

“Well, it was awfully hard with all of these power lines,” Perline said, looking overhead and waving her hand about like she was shooing flies. 

“Come again.”

“I said it was awfully hard with these power lines,” Perline repeated, stressing each word as if it might’ve been her accent that caused his confusion. “All the electricity makes it difficult.”

“Say those dowsing rods were spinning like helicopter blades, huh?” Dad laughed and shook his head. “Say you lifted right off the ground?”

“No,” she said. “No, Mr. Roseman, that’s not what I said at all.”

“You can call me Tom.”

“You ever think of wearing a little eye liner, Perline?” My mother stepped forward and rummaged through her purse for a card. “A little touch of Mint To Be around those eyes and you’d have men lining up to buy you supper.”

“You’d be surprised how much of a demand there is for finding graves, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. She glanced at my mother long enough to take the card, snapped open her hand purse and slipped the card inside, and my mother, sensing a tough sale, took Anna by the hand and walked toward a group of women who were smoking cigarettes behind a minivan. “I get two or three calls a week,” Perline said.

“Really?” my father asked. 

“Really,” she said.

“You ever run any specials?” 

“Excuse me?”

“You know, specials: buy one get one, half off during hunting season, a free Dairy Queen Blizzard. Anything like that?”

My father stood staring at Mrs. Galloway with a slight grin on his face, and I think he wanted her to laugh with him, I honestly do. I don’t think he meant to hurt her feelings though it was obvious he did. For my father, laughter made things bearable. But Mrs. Galloway didn’t share his sense of humor, and, for that matter, very few people I ever met did. My father always came off in a way that he didn’t intend.

“Family is still important to people around here, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. “But I wouldn’t expect you to remember something like that.”

Perline Galloway turned and walked away and Sherry stood red-faced and huffing like she was having an asthma attack. When Sherry stormed off, my grandfather looked at my father for what seemed an eternity. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. And once forever had come and gone, he shook his head, turned his eyes to the ground, and walked away.

We were alone, my father and me, and I stared to where a group of headstones rose from a parched patch of land, the red clay cracked and grassless. There were trees in the cemetery where we were and there were trees further in the field, but none of the trees could cast shade onto that place. It made no difference where the sun was in the sky.

“Who’s buried over there?” I asked.

“Where?”

“Over there.” I pointed. “Outside of the fence.”

“That’s a black cemetery,” my father said.

“Oh,” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I’d never really thought about one cemetery being any different than another. Six feet deep is what they said on the old Westerns my father watched on Saturdays. All graves were that deep, one no different than the next. “I don’t understand,” I said.

“I don’t either.”

A moment passed.

“Did anybody in our family ever own slaves?” I asked.

My father stared to the place I’d pointed.

“They did,” he said.

“How come?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Henry.” He didn’t look at me, but he squeezed my shoulder so hard that it almost hurt. “Some things don’t have a good answer.”

***

There’d been around seventy family members gathered at the gravesite and that number was nearly doubled now that there was free food. They circled the buffet like a wake of buzzards. The way they pecked and fought over fried chicken and frog legs, white potato salad and yellow potato salad, fruit salad and ambrosia salad, every kind of salad except real, honest-to-god salad, green bean casserole and squash casserole, broccoli casserole and macaroni casserole, quartered pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread, quartered peanut-butter-and-jellies on white bread, Aunt Fay’s homemade persimmon preserves on white bread, and plate upon plate of deviled eggs, oh, the way they pecked and fought and snarled and pulled pocketknives made it hard to deny we were family. The same blood that coursed through their degenerate bodies coursed through my own. We were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, no matter how you cut it kin. Blood kin. And it was my mother, sister, father, and I who butted our way to the front of the line.

The adults ate together at long tables that stretched the length of the fellowship hall. They crammed all of us kids into a Sunday school classroom that still had Vacation Bible School decorations taped to the walls—a giant smiling Jesus in a bathrobe with all of these laughing children playing ring-around-the-rosy around his legs—though my cousin Austin said Vacation Bible School had been over for over a month. That’s who I sat beside at a table that was no more than a foot off the ground, Austin and his little brother Odell, the three of us crouched in preschooler chairs with our knees up to our ears. 

Austin was seven months older than me and he must’ve learned a lot in that seven months because he seemed to know more than any kid our age ought to know about things like sex and income taxes and how to check the transmission fluid in a ’94 Astro van and why Uncle Richard was missing those two fingers so that it looked like he was signing “I love you” the way deaf people do when he waved. Austin had a mud-colored birthmark that looked like a horse standing on its hind legs that ran from the corner of his mouth up and over one eye. Odell was a year younger than me and he and I had the same birthday though Austin had to tell me because Odell never said a word. 

“Most folks think he can’t talk at all, but he can talk if he wants to, can’t you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell nodded his head up and down with a big, wide smile on his face.

“He just don’t want to talk. Don’t like to talk, do you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell shook his head no. Austin said Odell hadn’t said a word to anyone except him since their mother died in a house fire. He said this over and over while we ate, “Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Our mama breathed too much smoke and now she’s up in heaven with Jesus. Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Now she’s an angel.” 

Austin knew most of the other kids in the room because he lived just down the road and they’d all grown up together. When we finished eating, he called over our cousin Ricki, a girl named Ricki, who wanted to audition for "America’s Got Talent" with this trick she’d taught herself to do with a ball chain. Ricki reached into her pocket and pulled out a long stretch of ball chain like you might hang dog tags on, or cut short and use for a key ring. She tilted her head back and ran that chain down one of her nostrils and started snorting back about two inches at a time. When there was a pile of chain gone, she coughed and choked and shoved her hand back in the back of her mouth till I was sure she was going to be sick, but she didn’t get sick. Ricki pulled the end of that chain through her lips so that it ran up her nose and out of her mouth then stood there with one end in each hand, her eyes crossed, and her tongue out saying, “Ahhhhh,” like she was in the doctor’s office. 

“Bet you ain’t ever seen nothing like that have you?” Austin asked. I hadn’t and neither had Odell, and we sat there wide-eyed shaking our heads.

After lunch, all of the boys were headed down the street to one of our cousin’s houses. His father had built a paintball field in their backyard with piles of worn out tires and busted pallets stacked up for bunkers. According to Austin, this kid’s dad got ten dollars a head to let local kids shoot the hell out of each other with high-powered paintball guns. According to Austin, this kid almost lost one of his eyes after a boy named Ty, who wasn’t kin to us at all, froze his paintballs for an entire week inside a meat freezer then came and almost killed half the JV football team with paintballs as hard as marbles.

I didn’t think my father would let me go. I told Austin that I couldn’t mess up my grandfather’s uniform, and, seeing as I didn’t bring a change of clothes with me, I wouldn’t be tagging along. Austin said he could scrounge up some clothes and for me to go and ask my dad, and, though the truth of the matter was that I was scared to death and didn’t want to go, I couldn’t think of any good excuses so I took my plate to the trash and went to track down my father.

I found him standing with my grandfather outside of the church by a thick hedge of boxwoods. My father’s back was to me so he never saw me standing there. My grandfather glanced in my direction, but turned his attention back to Dad. He didn’t seem to care that I was there. Maybe he even wanted me there to hear what he had to say. He was yelling about how my father made Sherry cry. He jabbed his finger into my father’s chest and talked so sternly through clenched teeth that his words broke apart into spittle. He glanced down at me again then asked if my father thought he was above his raising, if he was embarrassed of where he came from, of who he came from, and, if so, why in the hell hadn’t he just stayed home. My father stood there staring at his shoes, shaking his head, and didn’t say a word until the old man was finished.

Later that night, back at the campground, I would listen to my father explain things to my mother, while they thought I was sound asleep. I would lie awake in the Travel Mate and eavesdrop through the opened trailer window as she listened to him the way that she always did when he needed her most. My father would say that he knew the Civil War was about more than slavery, that it was also about economics and land and states rights, but that regardless of what his ancestors may or may not have fought and died for the war was about one thing now, 150 years afterward, the war was about one thing, slavery, and that it was a waste of time to try and amend how the history’d been written and taught, that it was a waste of time to try and convince others that it was about something else, that if it all boiled down to one thing and that one thing, whether it be true or not, was slavery then that was nothing to be proud of. 

That very next summer when three lunatics tied a black man behind their pickup truck in Jasper, Texas and dragged his conscious body down the asphalt for three miles before he struck a culvert, the murderers towing what was left of him another mile after that, I watched my father cry as he stared at the television and listened to the story. He prayed those first few nights, something he didn't think anyone saw, and, afterward, something I never saw him do again. A few years later, when the NAACP rallied at the Statehouse to have the Confederate flag removed from the capitol building, I watched my father rip a six foot by four foot flag off of a seventeen year old kid’s pickup truck as he spun donuts around a black mother and her two children in the Ingles parking lot one Sunday. I watched that kid slam on brakes, climb out of his truck, and tell my father that that flag was about heritage. I listened as my father told that boy he didn’t know a thing about heritage, that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he needed to name names, he begged the boy to name names, and when the boy said he didn’t know their names but that his dad told him he had ancestors who fought and died for the Confederacy, my father told that boy that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he’d show him graves. He’d take him to the monument for Alphonzo Roseman or the grave of Quintus Curtis Patterson who was imprisoned as a POW or the grave of Robert Franklin Smith who was wounded at Gettysburg, taken prisoner, and later died in a prison camp in Point Lookout, Maryland. My father would scream that that was our heritage, that that was our family, that that boy didn’t know a goddamn thing about nothing. 

But right then outside of that church, while I waited to ask my father if I could go let my cousins shoot my teeth out with paintball guns, my father didn’t say any of that. My father just looked at his dad and told him how much he loved him.

*** 

We stayed at Turtle Creek Campground the rest of the week and only saw my grandfather once more when he agreed to let my father take him out for the Wednesday night buffet at Shoney’s. Cousin Larry leant my father two fishing rods and a tackle box. I took a handful of quarters and bought a tub of red wigglers from a vending machine that sold live bait by the campground office. I was trying to catch catfish and my father was trying to catch a buzz. All I caught that was of any account was a bluegill shaped like a saucer, and a shellcracker that had a giant tumor growing out of the side of its head. My father got drunk.

There was a black man and his son fishing just around the lake under a giant pin oak that had catalpa worms tangling its limbs with webs. The man had cut two sticks shaped like Ys and whittled the bottom ends into points with his pocketknife then jabbed those sticks in the ground to hold his fishing rods. He had a small copper bell clamped to the end of each rod and every couple of minutes one of those bells would get to ringing and his son would run down the bank and set the hook on another fish. They had an entire stringer of catfish, and, in between setting hooks and reeling in fish, the boy would walk down and pull the stringer up out of the water to count how many they’d caught while his dad re-baited the hooks and cast again.

“Why don’t you go ask what they’re fishing with?” my father asked. “I bet they’re using chicken livers.”

“They didn’t have any chicken livers in the vending machine,” I said.

“Or stink bait. They might be using stink bait.”

“They didn’t have stink bait either,” I said.

All of a sudden one of the bells rang and a fish yanked so hard that the rod holder ripped out of the ground and the rod skipped down the bank toward the water. The man jumped out of his chair, tripped over his tackle box, fell, and had to scuttle on his hands and knees those last few feet to grab ahold of the handle just before the fish drug his rod, reel, and all into the lake. The man came up with the rod doubled over and waving high in the air, and he tried to regain control as the drag screamed on his Zebco. Once he had his footing, he handed the rod to his son, and my father chugged the last half of his beer, crunched the can in his fist, stood, and said, “Come on, Henry.”

We were right there when the boy finally managed to reclaim enough line to get the fish within wading distance of the bank. The man had already rolled up his pants and taken off his shoes and socks. He waded into the lake with a trail of bubbles marking each step he took. When the fish came close, the man yelled instructions for his son to move a few feet to the left then a few steps to the right so that he might have a chance of getting his hands around their trophy. He knelt and cradled his arms in the water as the fish swam into him, and, when he had his catch in his hands, he carried the fish up the bank as if he were carrying a drowned child. 

“My God, would you look at that,” my father exclaimed, his words almost breathless.

The fish was three feet long with scales as big around as fifty-cent pieces. Its barbeled mouth opened and closed for air, but its golden body was too spent to move.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A carp,” my father said.

The man and his son looked up when they heard my father’s voice.

“Y’all want this thing?” the man asked.

“What for?” my father asked.

“To eat.”

“To eat?”

“I thought y’all might eat these things,” the man said.

“What do you mean y’all?”

The man suddenly looked like he was about to choke on what he’d said and he stuttered, believing that he’d offended us. My father held his expression long enough that even I started to believe that the man had, but then he cracked a smile. Dad burst into laughter and the man looked confused for a second or two before he too started to laugh.

“You got any pliers?” my father asked.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Right there in that tackle box.”

My father lifted the trays from the tackle box and when he found the needle-nosed pliers he carried them over and knelt beside the man and the fish.

“These things got mouths like rubber,” he said. He worked to get the hook loose while the man held the fish against the ground. “You know I had an uncle who used to eat these things. He used to go catch them with some kind of dough balls he made in his bathtub. He used to put all kinds of things in that dough, everything from garlic to Kool Aid. He’d fillet all the bones out, cut out that mud vein—they’ve got a nasty mud vein running all through the meat—and then he’d smoke them.”

“I’ve got a cousin who grinds them up and makes carp burgers,” the man said.

“Poor’s poor,” my father said. “My dad brought one home one time when he was between jobs, but my mother wouldn’t let him bring it in the house.” He set the pliers on the ground and looked up. “There,” he said. “I think that’s got it.”

The hook was out of the carp’s mouth and the man grabbed the fish by its gills. He carried it down to the water and set the carp in the shallows. The man’s son was around my age and we stood together in silence watching the fish lie on its side, its flank out of the water, one fin rowing the air.

“You want a beer?”

“No. I better not,” the man said.

“Come on now,” my father urged. “Just a beer. Just right over where those chairs are. We can watch the boys fish.”

The man agreed and their voices softened as they climbed the bank and walked around the lake to my father’s cooler.

“What’s your name?” the boy asked.

“Henry,” I said.

“Mine’s Marcus,” he said.

We watched as the carp rocked its head side to side and before long the fish had righted itself. Marcus and I stayed put and watched as the carp slowly recovered. The fish lay there, its gills opening and closing, catching its breath and we did not say a word. All of a sudden, the surface exploded, water dripped from our smiling faces, and our wetted shirts clung to our chests. We looked at one another and keeled over in laughter. Marcus shook the water from his hair and I turned back to where the fish had been. Mud swirled the bottom and the water lapped the shore. And just like that, like the final act of a magic show, the thing we’d been watching was gone.

***

When we left Turtle Creek Campground, I didn’t know when I’d see my grandfather again. I didn’t understand what had happened between the two of them and I couldn’t foresee the day when my father would get a call and we’d drive down to bury his dad, just as we had his mother, beneath that scorching sun. 

What I knew was that, come Monday morning, I’d start sixth grade at Smoky Mountain Middle School. I knew that I’d have Mrs. Hedgepath for Language Arts and I knew that was going to be a bad thing because everyone knew she was a bitch. I knew that I’d go out for basketball that fall, that I’d probably wind up riding the pine, and that, given the way I already felt, I’d more than likely fall in love with Jenna Gilmore.

That was the thing about twelve years old is that there was only black and white. There was no distant past and there was no far off future. There was only one way to think of time.

Mama’s Park Avenue blew a tire and lost the back left hubcap just as we came into town. My father didn’t blink and my mother didn’t say a word. He hobbled the camper home, threw the car in park, and the two of them walked inside the house holding hands and slept for two days straight. I kept Anna and me alive on Chef Boyardee, Cool Ranch Doritos, and fruit snacks until that Sunday night when my parents stumbled out of their bedroom and my mother asked if we were hungry.

I asked my father when he was going to take me squirrel hunting. 

I told my mother I felt hungry forever.

 

David Joy is the author of the critically acclaimed Where All The Light Tends to Go. Check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @DavidJoy_Author. Also check out our interview with the author, his novel’s appearance on Bruce, Bourbon, and Books, and Joy's drunken playlist

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

Original Fiction Archive

'Across Seas'

By Elizabeth Nicklis

The Pilgrims

The wind, the rain, the water, it was all the same. The pilgrims had been seeing the same landscape for the last two weeks: the rolling waves, the occasional blue sky, the clouds, the boat, and the people. There were more than 100 people on board, and it was very crowded. They had all been excited and ready to leave so they could live according to their own beliefs without a king to boss them around. It was a brilliant dream, but many were getting pretty tired of the boat and were growing anxious and grouchy. Two people had already died—one drowned, the other got sick—and everyone was getting restless. 

The Storm

Stephanie was very tired of the boat. The closest person to her age was Olivia, who was only nine. Stephanie was eleven, one of the oldest children on the ship. She had dark brown hair worn in braids and a pretty pink and blue calico dress. She was cheerful and had rosy cheeks and a voice like a lark. 

The captain walked by. He, too, seemed to feel the toll of this journey. 

“Captain,” Stephanie said. “How much longer to shore, may I ask?” 

“A good while. A storm’s brewing,” he said in a gruff, gravely voice.

Another storm, Stephanie thought. Great.

Stephanie noticed that the boat had begun to rock and the sun was hidden from view by dark, ominous clouds. The waves were big and choppy. The whole scene was scary and promised death. The rain began to fall and people rushed to get under the cabin's protection.

However, Stephanie stayed on deck to see the stunning storm. The waves crashed onto the deck, soaking her skirts. The rain came in torrents. Thunder boomed and lightening flashed in great shows of light. The boat rocked violently side to side, the boards screaming. A yell went up followed by a splash and commotion. A rope was thrown into the sea. Stephanie watched with horror as a man was pulled up wheezing, shivering, and dripping wet. 

“Oh my,” she said softly. 

A towel was placed on the shoulders of the man and he was brought to the cabin. The boy next to Stephanie suddenly fell over the railing and tumbled into the sea. Stephanie gulped and made her way to the waiting comfort of safety. The storm was over as quickly as it begun and people filed out of the cabin in rows.

A Baby

Three more weeks went by. Week after week of everything being the same. But then, Stephanie heard it, a thin wail spread across the boat. A wail of life. Men, women, and children rushed around a young woman. She looked tired. She had deep circles under her eyes and her skin was pale, but she was smiling proudly and her eyes shone. A bearded man, whom Stephanie recognized from around the boat, was kneeling next to her holding out a bundle. If Stephanie had any doubt of what was in there, it dissipated when a tiny pink face peeped out from under the wraps. The baby gurgled and cried.

Stephanie approached the mat where the boy lay. His blue eyes sparkled when he looked at her and he smiled adoringly at her glowing face. 

“He likes you,” the mother whispered, smiling. 

“What is his name, ma’am?” Stephanie asked. 

“His name is Oceanus, for he was born on the sea,” the mother said. “And what might yours be?”

“My name is Stephanie,” she said shyly, blushing. 

“What a beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”

Stephanie’s cheeks flushed again. She slowly backed away from the crowded area. She went to her cabin and sat smiling until sleep arrived.

Land

As the days went by, more and more sickness overtook more and more people. They were little more than seventy-five people still alive. Hope was needed, and badly. One woman threw herself off the boat in a crazed state. Stephanie’s family had perished tragically and they all were resting under the water. Stephanie was grieved and lonely. Then the call went up,

“Land! Land ho!” 

Those that remained excitedly gathered around the deck to view land. The idea that the horrible journey was over was bright in people’s minds. A majestic, dark mound rose out of the mist, but then…they went through it. The boat just simply cut through the huge cloud and all hope was dashed. People, even more discouraged than before, solemnly walked back under cover.

Is There Enough?

The food rations were smaller and smaller. Survivors could only have meager meals two times a day. Stephanie stared at her plate. Dinner consisted of dried fruit, some corn, and dirty, unfiltered water. Her stomach growled more and more often. Rumors spread that there wasn’t enough food for everyone and that sacrifices had to be made. And on top of that, people were getting angrier. Their leaders had promised land. Where was it? The brilliant sea voyage on shining blue waters, happy people, enough food for a feast every day? The ribs showed on the animals and nobody smiled, laughed, or joked anymore. Stephanie was lonely, hungry, and alone.

Home at Last

“Land ho!” the booming voice sounded again. 

Three months after they left, the pilgrims had finally reached their destination. Preparations were made and people gathered their things in celebration. Everyone crowded against one another to see land, and this time they were sure it wasn’t a cloud. The trees, rocks, hills, and flowers were definitely real. The waters glistened and the sand sparkled in the sun. Women cried and children shouted. 

The long journey was over!

Well, not quite. They had to sail for two more weeks to get past the large, spiky rocks. In December, they finally docked in Plymouth. 

Plymouth Rock marks the spot, Stephanie thought. 

People poured out onto the hot sand, weeping and praying. The minister gathered everyone ‘round to join together in an earnest prayer to God for delivering them safely. Little did they know that in one year, they’d host the first Thanksgiving for the Native Americans who helped them through hard times.

But all Stephanie cared about now was that she was home. She was finally home at last.

Elizabeth Nicklis is a homeschooled 11-year-old who is crazy about writing. She hopes to some day make more money than her Uncle Daniel. Also read her first Thanksgiving tale, "A Tragically Hopeful Thanksgiving."

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Holly'

Photo courtesy of  Diana on Flikr

Photo courtesy of Diana on Flikr

By Gary Almeter

Holly’s curiosity about the contestants never waned. Sometimes, as the contestants were pondering how much the big screen television cost, or as Bob was explaining how to play Cliffhanger, Holly would wonder a variety of questions. “Who does this person love?” “Who, if anyone, does she wake up next to every morning?” “What did your mother call you as a baby?” “Are you a good girl?” “How do you treat your wife?” “Do you drink too much?” "What kind of man was your father?"

 

Holly had red hair, that brilliant iridescent rusty orange color, which both belied its humble Texas origins and solidified her unique girl-next-door-meets-Hollywood-glamour charm. She came to be known as the clumsy one; the one who provided comic relief. While she understood the need, she grew to resent this role because she wasn’t really that clumsy. Task anyone with parading up and down a sleek and highly-illuminated sound stage in an effort to transform ordinary household items into concupiscent objects of desire and that person will drop an item or two in a decade. So yeah, clumsy was a misnomer. That notwithstanding, she did recognize that her name by itself did connote a certain frivolity and effervescence since it was one of the plants most associated with the Christmas season and also the first two syllables of “holiday.”      

The house where Holly grew up, the house that her father built, is still there, on the corner of Hacienda and Magnolia Streets. The manager of a fast food restaurant lives in it today. Aluminum siding has replaced the cedar shingles and a closed in porch has replaced the veranda where they used to sit. Holly likes old words like that—words her grandparents used to say like veranda, foliage, rubbish, and shears. The shed and the fence and the barn are all gone as are the shade trees and the adjacent fields, upon which dozens of houses, split-level ranchers clearly built in the 1970s, now stand. Without the tall elms there are unobstructed views to the backyards, the clotheslines, the swimming pools, the trampolines. Where Holly grew up, people decorated their yards with big rocks and drove big trucks and believed that when they talked to God he listened to them exclusively.  

The first time Holly saw snow she was 12 years old. She was brushing her recently washed hair and for inspiration, had a little transistor radio tuned to a Top 40 station. She was using her hairbrush as a microphone and singing along to Petula Clark’s “Downtown” when she heard her mother jubilantly exclaiming from downstairs that it was snowing. Holly rushed outside. Everyone else on their street spent the next half hour or so gazing upwards with tongues outstretched, taking running starts and sliding on the street pavement, and generally frolicking about. Holly was also staring up when Larry Cooper, a new kid a grade above Holly in school who had just moved to their street from Atlanta and who Holly thought was fresh, came over and old Holly that he was in love with her. The snow didn’t stick at all. In the midst of making a snow angel, Holly saw that her still-wet hair had frozen which, when considered in conjunction with Larry Cooper’s proclamation, made her laugh. Her mother had freshly laundered dungarees on the clothesline and those had also frozen. 

As it turned out, Larry Cooper’s mother was sick so his parents sent him to live with his aunt. One day Larry asked Holly to the movies. After some efforts and orchestrations on the part of Holly’s mother and Larry’s aunt, it was agreed that they would go see “Beach Blanket Bingo” starring Frankie and Annette. Larry’s aunt, who everyone fancied a suppressor of such exuberance, had advocated they go see “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which chronicled the life of Jesus Christ. At the movies, Larry told Holly that his uncle had lost his job and that he was likely going back to Atlanta. When at the theater, which in its day was one of the nicer ones, Holly had difficulty not focusing on the marble black and white checkered floor, gleaming brass railings, and red velvet ropes embellishing the lobby. Holly remembers Larry telling her that he was moving back to Atlanta and thinking only that the red plush on the chairs had balded to such a degree as to render them almost unusable. 

Holly’s mother was Miss San Antonio Bexar County Outstanding Teen in 1948. She did not have iridescent rust colored hair but did have the same iridescent smile that she passed down to Holly, but she was a real beauty. She had brown hair with glimmers of bronze in it and blue-blue eyes that held within them an infinite capacity for chastisement. To chastise Holly she did not have to speak, her eyes did it all with one piercing gaze. But when she approved of something that Holly did, everything about her seemed to soften. The stream of bluish light emanated from her eyes was like a melting delphinium. Holly recalls being five and watching her mother get ready for an evening out. Her mother wore a silver-fox fur piece and a white kettle hat and a silk dress and her father wore a tuxedo. Holly’s mother dabbed some Chanel on Holly’s wrists.

 

If I don’t like it here I can always leave, Holly had thought when she first arrived in Los Angeles.  

Leaving San Antonio was the first time she had ever left anyplace without feeling totally bereft at the departure. The only thing that terrified her about living in Los Angeles was thinking of her parents’ demise, that her parents would die while she was away, that they would die alone (which was ridiculous in light of the fact that they had a sizable family nearby), that they would die before Holly would have kids. They would go about the minutiae of their daily lives thinking that Holly had moved to Los Angeles as a means of escape rather as a destination.  

The rental agent who showed Holly her first apartment was named Mr. Voltura. He spoke with a slight British accent and taught mathematics at the community college at night. He told Holly that he was not supposed to show the apartment as its former tenant had just died and the entire contents of the apartment was part of an estate that still needed to be appraised. He said he was making an exception for her. When they entered it, the apartment looked like it had been ravage. All the drawers were open and there was grime on top of every single surface. As Holly walked around the entrance and what would soon be her living room, the decedent’s brother emerged from the bedroom and told them that he was trying to get things in order. He told Holly that his sister, the former tenant, was a nurse and that her friends and patients were always giving her things to thank her for things that she had done for them. The brother, who Holly pictured sleeping atop the sofa covered with invoices and old financial documents, told Holly that if she wanted anything she could take it. 

Her first roommate J.D. was an enthusiastic production assistant for a company that made pornographic films. Holly saw his ad for a roommate on a bulletin board. He would come from work wearing a carpenter’s belt repurposed and filled with porn accouterments: dildos, lotions, lip balms, towels, lubes of varying scents and viscosities, hair brushes, and spray bottles. He would sometimes wash and disinfect the dildos while the two watched television. Holly got her own place when she got the role on the show.

Holly never married. She had a number of lovers and a less significant number of boyfriends while she lived in Los Angeles, including one of the stars of “M*A*S*H” who I won’t name because that would just be poor form and I generally don’t like to gossip. They dated before the era of omnipresent paparazzi so no one knew about it. Her singleness made the on-air flirtation with the contestants, especially the ones in the military, that much more endearing. Her mother said that Holly never had any taste in men. Holly broke up with the only one Holly’s mother ever liked shortly after she told Holly that she liked him. As justification, Holly told her mother that he was dull. The thing is, Holly had really liked him too but such an admission would have felt like acquiescence to her mother who had not wanted her to move to Los Angeles. The boyfriend—his name was Denis—was Russian. His family had moved from Latvia where his father had worked in a Riga Autobus Factory when the factory was destroyed in a war of some sort.

She kept a pile of paperback books on her nightstand. The book tower featured Russian literature mostly, “The Brothers Karamozov” and “Anna Karenina” among them. Denis went to Tufts University and majored in Russian Language and Literature. He had also been a member of the Tufts Beelzebubs, Tufts University’s premiere all-male a cappella group, and frequently regaled Holly with stories of their a cappella triumphs. She had heard him speaking Russian once and it made her feel so naughty. She dated him during the xenophobic Reagan years. It was so unlike her on-screen persona. 

 

After Holly had to literally push Bob off of her, she filled out a sexual harassment complaint form. By the time she had sat down in the offices of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman she had lost her nervousness. Mr. Goodson lifted the pink sheet of paper and shook it at her.

“Do you recognize this?” he asked. 

“Yes,” she said.”  That is the sexual harassment complaint form I filled out.”

“It would appear to name Bob on the complaint,” Mr. Todman chimed in. 

“Yes,” Holly said.

They went on to explain everything that Bob had done for people and what a nice guy he was and how everyone looked up to him and how sometimes innocuous things like remarking on someone’s clothes might be construed as sexual innuendo when in reality, there was no such innuendo attached.

Holly wanted to say that this was far greater than mere innuendo and that she was often scared to come to work. Bob had made his intentions quite clear and that really the police should be called. All she said was, “I’m sorry.” She twisted her lips, as if she had tasted something foul that he just had to spit out , and walked out of the office.  

She used to resent the other two ladies with whom she was, and would perpetually be, associated. With the help of her therapist, that resentment has now dissipated. She thinks about them with some frequency and with fondness. Nonetheless, in light of geography and the passage of time she rarely sees them and was surprised when Dian called her and asked if she and Janice could visit for a few days. They were both still in Los Angeles and doing well. 

She bought the home that she now lives with the money she got in the settlement. “Millions,” she told Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today Show” after telling Ann how she lost everything during the decade-long court battle. She had to fill the home from scratch and while so doing would, with great frequency, happen upon products she once coyly caressed on national television. She reveled in it—walking up and down Best Buy and gingerly massaging the Whirlpool refrigerators, the Amana washers and dryers, the GE self-cleaning ovens. With great flourish she walked through the Bed Bath and Beyond at the Alamo Quarry Shopping Center and caressed the Hamilton Beach coffee maker, the Cuisinart blender, and Kitchen-Aid toaster before she put them in her cart. She even bought a Michael C. Fina diamond necklace for herself just because. She stocked her pantry with foodstuffs she never would eat—Chef-Boyardee ravioli, Sue Bee honey, and Jif peanut butter—as a celebratory and defiant punctuation mark to the years she spent shilling that shit on the show.

She rarely watches television so, when in need of ambient noise to fill the home, she listens to The Beatles. Her parents, Beatles devotees, listened to them non-stop when she was growing up. This made them anomalies in San Antonio where most people listened to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She can’t think of her father without picturing him with a cigarette in his mouth. She recalls the smoking and the cigarettes fondly in a good, 1950s, “we are an indomitable species” sort of way. He had rust colored hair too. Holly has also inherited his mannerisms. He was both elated and disappointed when she told him she was going to Hollywood. She also pictured her mother with a dishtowel in her hands.

 

Holly found herself slowly drinking coffee in her kitchen with the two women mentioned earlier. She notices that Dian’s tits are less perky and Janice’s skin isn’t as luminous, but that is of no consequence to these old buddies who each secretly suspect the feeling they have for each other is more akin to what veterans might feel. They are remembering the past, talking about Bob, Rod, and Johnny as though saying their names would summon them from the dead. They all had issues with Bob. Holly was prudent and judicious, and had no patience for any sort of wrongdoing. After her complaint, she had simply tried to disassociate herself with what was happening until he asked her to lie with respect to Dian’s suit against him. They sat outside and drank mimosas remembering contestants they abhorred or adored or for whom they felt profound sympathy. They recalled those t-shirts with iron-on fuzzy letters evincing the contestant’s devotion to Bob, and how Bob would make people who guessed the price of the item up for bids with precision dig deep into his pocket and pull out a hundred dollar bill. They did this all day.

That night after dinner, they sat on the terrace and watched the sun set. Barrels of bright orange poppies separated the flagstones form the lawn that sloped down the hill to the lake, where it ended abruptly as if it were a scene in a child’s coloring book. 

Holly gathered up the dishes, carried them to the sink, sprinkled them with dish soap, adjusted the water. She let it run while she took some paper towels from the dispenser next to the sink and wiped the kitchen table down. Janice and Dian were upstairs packing. It was almost time to drive them to the airport and Holly wondered if she would drop them off at the departing flights gates or park her car and walk in and wait with them.

For the first time since she has known these women, the threat of betrayal is not widely felt, does not seem to invade every conversation and every meal. They had survived the chronic and perpetual threats that come from being models in Hollywood and the perpetual litigation that came as a result of Bob. For several years there was no communication whatsoever and at court dates and depositions and hearings they would sometimes not acknowledge one another and studiously look the other way. But they were still intimately bound up and to one another. Holly noticed how their posture as each of them sat in their chair—leaning forward arms on knees—made their bellies bulge. This would have made Holly sad at one time but currently didn’t. She couldn’t even recall when she last felt sad. 

 

People recognize her with some frequency when she is out and about in San Antonio. Sometimes people see her and point and say “Holly!!” or “Come on down!!” Other times people will say something akin to “I know you from somewhere” and then go through their mental Rolodex until they get it. Most of the time she feels people stare, wonder, and point. Her thirty-pound weight gain was well documented in public court documents. She wanted it that way. She’s in her 60s now.

It’s hard for a woman of limited means to plan her own demise. She learned that during that time she lived in her car and would entertain thoughts of suicide at odd times. Not when she was sleep deprived and gazing up at the stars when parked outside Concepcion Park; not when “Eleanor Rigby” came on the oldies radio station she usually listened to and she had to simultaneously think about how lonely she was and about her father playing the record in happier times; not when she was hungry. Depression is mean. It hits you when you least expect it. It hit her at times like when she saw kids jump roping. Or the tree that reminded her of the tree in the backyard of her childhood home.

But what could she have done? Her car was not reliable enough to accelerate to a speed that would guarantee her death if she tried to wrap it around a telephone pole at 110 m.p.h., and she could not afford prescription pills. She could neither afford nor tolerate the idea of putting a gun in her mouth. She wasn’t going to jump off anything because that method invariably gave you seconds of lucidity to regret what you had done. So she stuck with it, the lawsuit and the living. 

Oddly, the worst thing about living in your car after losing your home while in the midst of a protracted lawsuit with a beloved game show host and a television network isn’t the actual living. It was actually quite cozy. You get accustomed to the contours of the seats and figure out how precisely to arrange your jean jacket against the window to achieve maximum support. You figure out which parks and Wal-Mart stores to get to and when to get them to guarantee a safe spot underneath a street lamp of some sort. The tough part of living in your car is getting out of your car. The toughest part was walking into a gas station restroom with your toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant in a plastic bag so that onlookers could only assume that you were living in your car. Moving about in the presence of other humans feeling the exposure, the humiliation, the embarrassment. Otherwise, you were shielded by a roof and four doors.

 

Holly stops with some frequency at the Neiman Marcus at the Shops at La Cantera and buys bags for people. Holly likes the Tory Burch tote bags. They’re luxury items and probably impractical but she feels that you need that sort of stuff the most at hard times. She delivers them to the Battered Women and Children’s Center. Holly will also stop at CVS and buy enough toothpaste and deodorant and lotion—the good brands—to fill up the bags.

Now and again, she will pick up a product once featured on the show.  Holly will secretly hold the item, as if to a camera, and smile before she defiantly and triumphantly drops it into her shopping basket.    

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short stories "The Love Song of JFK Jr.," "Goodbye, Buster Bucheit," and his writing playlist

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Fire and Ice'

(Photo credit:  Dagmar Nelson )

(Photo credit: Dagmar Nelson)

By Anne Leigh Parrish

They sat on six acres, so there was plenty of room. And since getting laid off, he had plenty of time. When the cement plant was hiring again, he’d gotten a phone call from Dodd, his supervisor there for more than fifteen years. Clarence said no thank you, he was doing just fine in retirement. Sandy needed a second cup of coffee for that one. Clarence was forty-seven years old. Who the hell retires at forty-seven? Especially with five years left on the mortgage and the salary from her job with the school district not exactly plush?

Sandy’s mother advised her to button her lip.

“The man’s in bad shape,” she said.

Sandy knew all about his bad shape. The hunting accident had happened more than four years before, but Clarence was in those damned woods every day, walking silently as he’d been taught to do by his own father, waiting for the buck, holding perfectly still, taking his time, then very gently squeezing the trigger of the 30.06. Poor Lucas had to get his ass in the line of fire at the wrong moment. Well, not his ass, his left arm, which was probably better since he was right-handed. Not that he used either hand for anything gainful, living off his little sister his whole adult life. Lucas was in the hospital for a while, learning how to deal with a shattered humerus, enjoying the morphine and the kindly touch of his nurses.

Really, he’d taken the whole thing a lot better than Clarence had. Lucas was proud of his arm’s gnarly surgical scar, even of its shrunken muscles, and the way it dangled by his side while he gestured wildly with the other one.

No matter how many times Sandy told Clarence that things could have been a whole lot worse, because after all Lucas was alive and well, he got all dark and distant.

And then the lay-off came. While Sandy put pencil to paper and figured out how they were going to make it on his unemployment and her salary, Clarence sat in front of the television set with the sound off, his feet on the coffee table, arms folded across his round stomach. When he looked up from the screen, he seemed not to recognize his surroundings.

He needed to pull out of himself. So it was ironic that the vehicle for that action was Lucas, the one who’d shoved him down inside in the first place.

Lucas had a car with a bad carburetor. He’d rebuilt it four times already with no luck. Maybe his funky arm and hand made the job a failure, maybe it was because he’d always been a few bricks short of a load anyway, but he just couldn’t get it to work. So Clarence told him they’d go out to the junk yard and look for the kind of car he had, a 1980 Buick Le Sabre.

The junkyard was under new management. Clarence didn’t know Foster had sold out. The boy behind the counter told him so. Not much of a boy, really, at well over six-feet with the tattoo of a dagger on his forearm. What threw Clarence, but not so much Lucas because Lucas had had a bunch of weirdness in his life, was that the guy was knitting a baby sweater with tiny needles. Doing it well, too, as far as Clarence could tell. Sandy was an occasional knitter. The boy, Glen, explained that his wife was expecting and had wanted to knit a bunch of sweaters, hats, and booties for the coming winter but had very bad arthritis, the kind you get when you’re a kid, so Glen said he’d learn and do it for her. His mother showed him how, and then asked him flat out if he had a thing in general for girlie stuff.  He wasn’t offended. It seemed like a fair question. He liked to knit, he realized, but it made him reluctant to handle auto parts, on account of the grease and grime, so the customers did their own picking and carrying.

Clarence digested this information and said what he was looking for. Glen nodded. The GMs were in row three, more or less. His father—the new owner—had been trying to get the place organized. That guy Foster had had a screw loose when it came to keeping order, but then that made sense, didn’t it, owning a junkyard. Get it, screw loose? Old cars? Glen put his knitting in his lap and laughed until his face turned red and his eyes watered. Clarence had to hand it to him. Being able to crack yourself up was a worthy talent.

Clarence and Lucas made their way down the wide, dusty row. The drought was in its fourth month. Burns, Oregon was naturally dry anyway, and now it was even drier. Clarence wanted to move somewhere wet, with sixty inches of rain a year, like the Olympic Peninsula, maybe, or the east side of any island in Hawaii. He used to have quite a thing for geography when he was a kid. He’d picked up a lot from his mother’s old books. He didn’t figure he’d be able to talk Sandy into moving. She didn’t love her job, but she was dedicated to it. She was the secretary for the whole school district. Okay, it had maybe four hundred students in it, but someone had to keep all the paperwork straight, and that was her.

After forty-five minutes no Le Sabre was to be had, so they took the carburetor out of a Monte Carlo instead. Although the Le Sabre had a bigger engine, a V-8 versus a V-6, Lucas was pretty sure the carb would work. And it did. Lucas was delighted.

Clarence wasn’t. He was agitated. Something had woken up inside him, and wasn’t being at all quiet about it. He’d never been one to believe much in second chances, but his was staring right at him. He wanted to bring old cars back to life, thereby bestowing a second chance upon them too.

Sandy said a hobby was fine, a hobby was good, as long as it didn’t end up costing them a lot of money. Clarence removed his baseball cap and scratched the back of his head. Clearly, the thought of money hadn’t occurred to him. Salvage cars were cheap, not free. He begged her to take a closer look at the books and see if there a little funny money he could have. Sandy brewed another pot of coffee and stood, listening to it drip. Clarence had three more months of unemployment coming. He could use half of it. That was the best she could do.

The first was a 1975 Camaro. He got his buddy, Brewster, to tow it home for free. Brewster didn’t have much to tow in the summer. Winter was when everyone broke down or skidded into ditches, so he glad for something to do.

The wreck itself only set Clarence back seventy-five dollars. In good condition, the car would have been a collector’s item, but it was missing both bumpers and the passenger seat. And the radio. And the back lights. It lacked a windshield, too. Clarence listed all these drawbacks in his head while he circled it lovingly on the dead swath of grass where Sandy once had had a flower garden.

Every morning he was up to beat the midday heat. He took things off and put them back on. He went again and again to the junkyard, prowled the rows looking for what he needed. Sometimes he found it. Usually he didn’t. Glen was still knitting. He’d stopped making baby clothes, and was now working on a scarf for his dad.

After a week and a half, Clarence gave up on the Camaro and was jonesing for a sweet little Ford Galaxy. It had no steering wheel, but the leather seats were intact. So were two of its whitewall tires. The paint must once have been red. It was impossible to tell. He got it for a song because Glen had just taken a phone call from his wife. His side of the conversation made it clear that some medical issue had come up, and he was clearly worried. He let the Galaxy go for fifty.

By the first week of September, roughly nine weeks from the time the first injured car had made its appearance on their property, there were six rusting carcasses outside Sandy’s kitchen window. Clarence spent every daylight hour, even in the heat, under them, inside them, on top of them, poking, prodding, in an obscene display of affection that bordered on sexual.

There was fire in his eyes, and a cool steadiness in his hands. Even the way he sat on the porch when the day was done and watched the sun sink beyond the distant rise spoke of man standing firmly in the center of his own heart.

After another week, Sandy was back at work, using the ancient computer system to update enrollment records, vaccination records, absenteeism among both students and teachers, and the roster of licensed substitutes. Then she met with the head of the PTSA, a toad of a woman named Emeline Dorn, about her plans for fall fundraising. This was an annual headache, because residents of Harney County weren’t exactly knee-deep in riches. Bake sales, rummage sales, and sending a troupe of six-graders door to door with a canned speech about needing to buy new sports equipment (when the district really needed to invest in technology) were going to produce about the same number of dollars that year as in all the years before, somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and fifty. Emeline really wished Sandy could be a little more enthusiastic. Sandy suggested Emeline consult with the principal, Alvin Crockett. Alvin’s father-in-law owned the local radio station. Sandy made this suggestion every year, and Emeline acted upon it every year, and every year the principal’s wife wrote a check for over a thousand dollars just to make her go away.

In the middle of the second week of school the new high school science teacher was accused of inappropriately touching Marla Mayvins on the buttocks. The teacher was a young man, in his late twenties, and Marla was fourteen going on thirty. The usual hysterical uproar ensued, and he was put on leave without pay, pending an investigation. Sandy was reminded again how little true justice there was in this world. She’d crossed paths with Marla a number of times over the years because her attendance was so spotty and her mother had no interest in urging Marla to get up in the morning and get on the damned school bus. Why Marla had gone to school that particular day, when the science teacher, Roy Randall, was supposed to have goosed her, was proof that the thread holding all things together was unfair, corrupt, and basically stupid.

It was this sour mood that Sandy returned home to find that Clarence’s latest acquisition was blocking her access to the driveway. She had four bags of groceries to unload. She found him around back, sitting on an iron bench he’d also brought home from the junkyard, drinking a diet Coke, and staring happily into space. He offered to carry the bags in for her, if that would help. What would help is if he got rid of some these useless relics, called Dodd, and went back to work. The merry light in his eyes turned cold. He was sorry she’d had a bad day, but that was no reason to take out her problems on him.

You and those fucking cars are my problem, she almost said. Keeping those words to herself was the most painful thing that had befallen her in a long time. She wished then that she had developed a taste for liquor.

Glen’s baby was born and he took time off to help his wife at home. He told Clarence to take whatever he wanted from the yard, that they’d settle accounts later. Clarence and Brewster transported four more cars and parts of cars, particularly tires which Clarence had become attached to. Sandy’s yard looked like its own salvage operation, and she told Clarence he should go into business for himself. He didn’t understand. He didn’t bring the cars home so he could resell them. He had them to work on. Only he didn’t work on them the way he had. He seemed to have come to the end of his already limited expertise. Sandy said he should look for work at a service station. Maybe one of the guys there could teach him about cars. They were certified mechanics, right? Clarence couldn’t possibly mix commerce with art. He hoped she understood. Fine, she said, then call Dodd and see if he’ll still take you back. Clarence wasn’t ready for Dodd, either.

Another day, Sandy came home to find Clarence welding car parts together. He’d been a welder when he was younger, and still knew his stuff. As to what he was making, he couldn’t really say. There was just something so beautiful about how the metal could come alive under the heat, bonded, and become something else entirely. Sandy felt like she was losing her mind. Roy Randall, the science teacher, had been let go, and Marla Mayvins was playing the downtrodden but plucky victim for all it was worth.

She didn’t mean to break down and cry, because she wasn’t a crier. But it was just too much. She needed him to help, to earn some money, it didn’t matter how. Would he possibly think of selling his pieces? She knew people who did that. One of the English teachers at school crocheted hats for cats. She posted pictures on the Internet, and people actually bought them. The cats looked cute with their ears all bundled up. Clarence realized she was coming unglued, and brewed a nice strong pot of coffee. As she sat, huddled, still sobbing quietly, he regretted that he wasn’t a drinking man.

The weather turned cold. Clarence gave up working on the cars, and longed for a large, heated garage. What would it set them back to build one? Sandy didn’t answer. The set of her chin said he should probably not bring it up again.

The day that Clarence’s last unemployment check arrived, it snowed for the first time that season. Gorgeous fat flakes drifting all around. Sandy usually loved snow and how cozy it made their home feel. Now their home was a trap, with Clarence always in it, doing nothing but silently wishing for what he couldn’t have.

She supposed it was inevitable, really. She’d read cases of people who’d reach the end and become desperate. The spare gas container they kept out back had just about three gallons in it, which was plenty to douse all the cars, and parts of cars. She was careful not to get any on the tires and pulled them out of reach because she didn’t want to smell burning rubber. She also moved the welding equipment, which might have some future value. Clarence had fallen asleep in front of the television when she went out in the twilight with the matches in her pocket. For a moment she wondered if the flames would reach the house, and if so, would she wake Clarence up and drag him to safety?

The noise, smell, and dancing light woke him up. He stood beside her, with his hands to his head saying, what the fuck, what the fuck? She told him to shut up and appreciate how pretty it was, the flames and snowfall, like some ancient scene or reckoning. A true clash of opposites, she said. Fire and ice. Does that make sense? She asked. He could find no words at the moment, though he agreed wholeheartedly that it made complete and perfect sense.    

Anne Leigh Parrish is an author based out of Seattle, Wash., and recently published her first novel What Is Found, What Is Lost. To learn more about the author, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @AnneLParrish. Also read her short story "Smoke" or check our interview, In the Business of Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Anne Leigh Parrish.

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'The Thing With Battles'

Photo courtesy of  Davide Seddio on Flickr

Photo courtesy of Davide Seddio on Flickr

By Marcus Morales

It was New Year's Day in Chenogne, Belgium, and there were scattered Germans fighting Americans in the misty, snow-dusted forest. It had something to do with gaining control of the strategically desirable and architecturally adorable port city of Antwerp, but the soldiers had all but forgotten that there was a point to this game. The Germans were bad and the Americans were good, so you know who to root for.

PFC Carver and PFC Walton took cover behind a dead Panther, but they were certain it was a dead Tiger. For six minutes they had been firing at a broken up battalion of Germans and ducking behind the bulk of the vehicle in turns. They were good on ammunition, so they decided it'd be better to pick off as many enemy combatants as possible from cover before advancing.

But they were getting awfully comfortable behind that tank.

Carver scratched his nose and peeked out.

"All I'm saying is that if Patton slapped me, I'd shove my fist up his ass, turn him into my little meat puppet."

"No you wouldn't."

"Yeah, I know," he sighed. "Man, I've been trying to kill this one kraut for about five minutes, but he's still movin' and shakin' and up to something."

"Who? That one hiding behind that tree straight ahead?"

"Yup."

"Shit, buddy. That one just got Murphy," Walton said as he wiped away frost from the barrel of his rifle.

"Oh yeah? Never much cared for that spud-eating mick anyway."

"Yeah, well, he owed me a sawbuck. Now I ain't ever getting it back."

"He wouldn't of paid you back if he survived. Micks are delinquents."

"Yeah, I s'pose."

Carver licked at his cracked lips.

"Man, I am sick of this fuckin' battle. It's damn boring. Honestly, I wish one of these krauts would just pop one off into my thigh so I can pass out and get some decent shut eye."

"I'm sick of this war in general. I wouldn't mind if a jerry popped one off in my brain."

"Yeah, but I wouldn't want a headache before kicking the bucket. But yeah, I ain't a fan of this Europe. If I was running the show, I'd let the krauts keep it. I'd throw in Canada and Alaska if they promised to quit being troublemakers."

"It might work. They seem to not mind freezing their sacks smooth."

"I should'a been a diplomat."

Walton began to rise from snow ground seat.

"My turn."

"Stay put and save your rounds. I'm gonna kill this one tree kraut."

"Okay, but—"

"Charge!"

They heard Captain Papanikolis' proclaim with staunch abandon.

They turned around and saw the superior officer fifteen yards away near a creek. He was suffering from sustained head trauma and dead set on going out with gusto.

"Where the fuck does that blowhard think he is?" Carver asked.

"Little Bighorn."

"He probably thinks he's at Thermopylae. The oily Greek son of a goat." He then put his hand beside his mouth and called out, "You charge, Jason! We'll phone the Argonauts!"

Walton grinned.

"Good one."

Captain Papanikolis charged ahead with three subordinates foolhardy enough to follow orders from any mad dog who outranked them. They were all shot.

The subordinates survived their flesh wounds only to die of more serious ones later, but the good captain took one in the heart and was done as dinner.

"You think he heard my barb?" Carver asked in a lighter tone. 

"Nah."

"Goddamn."

There was a moment of silence for the wasted barb.

"Don't you think we should advance already?" Walton asked.

"Yeah, yeah. I just got to kill that shit-assed kraut hiding behind the tree. He's run out of ammunition. He's gonna make a run for it so he could catch up with all his little buddies. I'm gonna get him from here.

"I have a feeling that if I don't do it right now, he'll catch up with me later, and skewer me with a bayonet like breakfast sausages. It's the ones that frustrate you that end up killing you."

"Yeah, it'd be the pits if you went out with a blade in your belly."

"It'll be the double pits if I'm knifed by that one particular kraut."

A bullet whizzed past Carver's ear.

"Whoa."

Walton laughed. "You wanna borrow my helmet?"

"Jesus, shit," he said with a wave his hand. "I'll pass on the lice."

"But, hey, you almost got your wish."

"No, no. That was your wish to get popped one in the head. I told you, I can't put up with headaches. Even for a second."

"But it wouldn'ta been with a knife and it wouldn'ta been by the hands of your tree-lurkin' jerry."

"True. Goddamn, I really want to kill that particular kraut. More than anything."

"More than you want to drink a nice bottle of Kentucky bourbon?"

"Yup."

Walton's head cocked.

"Really? Hmm. More than you wanna be deep in your brother's wife's snapper?"

"Yup."

"Damn it all. You're serious, aren't you?"

"Yup."

Walton stopped asking questions. They waited for something to happen.

***

GEFR Lamprecht and GEFR Mundt were lying on their bellies behind the propped up corpses of lesser soldiers. Earlier Mundt joked that the men were more resourceful dead than they were alive. Lamprecht didn't laugh, but he grinned so Mundt was certain that what he said wasn't in poor taste.

Conversation between the two had died down after they shot the imaginary horses out from under that saber-rattling officer and his three-piece cavalry.

Mundt decided to break the silence.

"Where's Rommel when you need him, hm?"

Lamprecht cleared his throat.

"He's playing tic-tac-toe with Otto von Bismarck in hell."

"You really think Rommel's in hell?"

"Everyone goes to hell."

"A comforting thought. Tell me more about all the things we can do in hell after we're killed by cowboys."

Lamprecht scratched his ear and took a deep breath before speaking.

"Well, first thing I'm going to do is put my name on the waiting list to play chess against Napoleon. I think I could hold my own for a while, and he'll have to resort to one of his filthy tricks to get my king in the end.

"Then we'll catch a play by Shakespeare. He's been writing consistently down there, and I hear his modern stuff really takes the cake." 

"Ooh," Mundt said, clicking his heels. "That sounds good. I hope he's written a play about American gangsters."

"He has. It's about Al Capone and the Valentine's Day Massacre, but he’s waiting until Humphrey Bogart dies so that he can play lead."

"I hope that happens soon enough."

"Hopefully. Then we'll play doubles tennis with Fredrick the Great and Peter the Great. We'll get trounced, but it'll be nice. They're gracious winners.

"Then we'll have drinks and a lovely seafood medley with Joan of Arc and Cleopatra. The latter has taught the former to be quite the blow job artist so if you play your cards right, you might have something to brag about to Rommel over tic-tac-toe."   

"I'm sold. Let's have the cowboys send us to hell already so we can be nice and warm, hm."

Lamprecht shook his head.

"No, I don't think so. I couldn’t just let someone kiss me off unchallenged. They'd really have to earn it. Besides, we wouldn't want to let down the Führer."

He raised a mischievous grin.

"Fuck Hitler," Mundt spat. "We'll see him in hell soon enough. I'll kiss Freud on the lips in front of him before beating him silly with leberwurst. The vegetarian cunt."

"No, you wouldn't."

"Yeah, I know," He sighed. "It looks like our dear comrade Spengler is going to wait there until the tank yank gets out and chases him out from under his favorite tree."

"That's likely. He's been eyeing Hermann's 42 for some time, but it seems as though he's become shy."

"He should try to come to us. The bonesaw can't have too many shells in it anyway."

"Yeah, he can use us for protection if he survives, and we can use him for protection if he dies."

"True enough." Mundt put his hand beside his mouth. "Hey, Tarzan! You can't live in that tree for the rest of your days! Come join us! We have warm cognac and your Jane is tugging us off like your mother ape taught her!"

They smiled at each other and waited for a response.

"Did he hear my joshing?" Mundt asked in a deeper tone.

"Go fuck yourself!" Spengler yelled.

They laughed and Lamprecht nudged his friend with an elbow.

"I think he did."

"I should have said it in English so the cowboys would see that we're in good spirits."

"You speak English?"

"Yeah. My French isn't too bad either."

"Good for you. I speak English some, but I'm not very confident in it."

"Let's see," Mundt said in English. "Speak some English to me, old man."

"Piss off." Lamprecht continued to speak German. 

Spengler called out, "Do you have any extra weapons? Or some ammo for a Sturmgewehr 44?"

"No, you're fucked in that regard, soldier," Lampbrecht said. "You might as well run over here. Either we'll protect you and you'll live, or you'll die among friends."

Spengler sighed, and then they heard him muttering prayers.

"You haven't told him the cold hard facts about the afterlife, have you?" Mundt asked.

"No, and I don't think I will."

Spengler made a run for it. Carver hit him twice: one in the lung and one in the kidney. 

They heard Carver shout, "Hell yeah!"

Spengler howled and fell to his knees.

"For the Fatherland!" He said before his head hit the snow with the grandiose grace of the white swan.

"What a dramatic death," Mundt said.

Lamprecht shrugged. "Well, he knew he had an audience."

A lot more Americans began pouring from the wood work. They were still a fair distance away, but they'd be too close before anything could be done about it.

"Are we surrendering?" Mundt asked.

"Not me. I'm not in the mood to surrender. Besides, like I said, I'm insecure about my English. I don't want to be taunted by yanks."

"Okay. Hopefully, we'll be lucky."

"In battles, it's best not to care too much about what will end up happening to you, either way."

Carver and Walton came from behind the Panther and charged toward Lampbrecht and Mundt the way Papanikolis would have if his head had been screwed on straight.

Both parties opened fire.

There were a lot of missed opportunities, but Lamprecht shot Carver square in the forehead.

Walton felt a brief pang of jealousy before rattling off three bullets along Mundt's twisted torso. He hopped onto Lamprecht. They struggled some, but he eventually pinned Lamprecht's shoulders to the ground.

Walton shouted, "You shot the wrong brain, jerry!"

He shoved the bayonet attached to his rifle into Lamprecht's neck twice. The first plunge was deep, the second was shallow. The sound of Lamprecht choking on his own blood made Walton's stomach drop. 

Walton continued to advance, leaving Mundt to bleed out without company.

Mundt saw his fellow soldiers made prisoners be taken up a hill, lined up like cattle, and mowed down with machine guns by some of the Americans.

He looked over to his friend's corpse.

"I just saw a New Year's Day massacre," Mundt said. "It's not Shakespeare, but it was fun to watch anyway."

It almost looked like Lamprecht was grinning, but it was just the blood crescent dripping along the corners of his mouth.

Marcus Morales is a Chicago-based writer. He is currently working his next project.

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Goodbye, Buster Bucheit'

Photo credit:  Tim Hetrick

Photo credit: Tim Hetrick

By Gary M. Almeter

Buster Bucheit died on May 20, 1980, the 199th day of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Arnold’s Little League team had been slated to have a game that evening and had to forfeit when neither Buster, nor his son Chuck, showed up. Arnold went home that evening, turned on the news and saw a poster board, rudimentary by today’s standards, which said “Day 199” behind John Chancellor’s right shoulder. Arnold thought the numbering odd, more like the price of a Broyhill recliner on “The Price is Right” than a standard by which people measured days. 

Iranian militants had nothing to do with Buster’s demise, nor did any of the other international skullduggeries or domestic crises that peppered that era. Buster was not a character in Watergate or ABSCAM and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, had never met Jim Jones. Buster’s death was an accident, insofar as no one was ever criminally charged or civilly sued. Arnold always suspected that Buster, a man he genuinely liked, was more likely than not the victim of something more nefarious than mere negligence but something falling below any criminal standard. Something in between what happens when country folk operate sophisticated equipment and a sort of vicious hazing.

Buster wasn’t his real name. It was Charles. Arnold thought that Charles just didn’t suit him, so Arnold started calling him Buster. To himself and then to his family. Buster was his Little League coach—the first coach of any type Arnold had ever had and his first introduction to the concept of teamwork.  

Arnold was ten years old in 1980, the minimum age for little league in his small town, and had only just met Buster at the first practice that March. It was odd to see someone new in a town as small as Auslandersville so at the outset Arnold was intrigued by Buster. There were no tryouts because only eleven kids signed up. Arnold had done so reluctantly. His mother read about the league in the church bulletin, wanted Arnold to be part of a team, told Arnold he was playing, and dropped him off at the diamond behind the church. There was Buster, talking baseball. 

Years later, Kevin Costner would make playing baseball in cornfields look poignant and nostalgic. Noble even. It was none of those things to Arnold at that age. Cornfields bordered two sides of the Auslandersville diamond. At that time of year, they were newly plowed and freshly manured. An over-the-rickety-wood-plank-fence home run meant retrieving a ball that had more likely than not landed in a pile of fresh cow shit. Smells also included piss and fecal residue of deer, skunks, woodchucks, and every other animal that country folk deemed acceptable to dwell.

The baseball diamond also abutted the church cemetery.  It was still cold in March, but not cold enough to keep the playing surface from being muddy. There was no backstop, just the old shed where in the old days they used to park the congregation’s horse and buggies. Neighboring farmers mowed the grass whenever they had a hankerin’.

Before the days of Under Armour and the proliferation of moisture wicking fabrics, kids like Arnold’s teammates wore jeans and hooded sweatshirts with unyielding iron-on patches declaring their allegiance to International Harvester tractors or Dekalb corn seed. They hung those sweatshirts, jackets, and the batting helmets on the crosses that sanctified and adorned the concrete headstones. Arnold invariably wore his “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” sweatshirt and his “Mork and Mindy” suspenders to the first practice and kept to himself. 

There was a lot going on back then in Auslandersville despite being just as removed from the international skullduggeries of the day as Buster. There were lots of countries that were pissing righteous Americans off, and folks like those in towns like Auslandersville relished and reveled in their ability to feel part of the zeitgeist by hating along. As much as they prided themselves on being separate and apart from the world, the townspeople also yearned to be included, to be both immune and relevant. 

Auslandersville was located about 40 miles west of Buffalo, an odd little city which was becoming even smaller and sadder with each factory closing and steel mill downsizing, and the subsequent loss of each tavern and family that supported those factories because “the goddamned Japs” had figured out a way to make the steel cheaper than God-fearing red-blooded Americans. Arnold listened while grown-ups got drunk and played cards. He heard snippets of portions of remnants of this talk evincing something that teetered between bewilderment and disdain.

This was also mere weeks after the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice. Those “commie bastard Russians” were defeated just a few hours north in Lake Placid. The Cold War was in full swing and a man named Ronald Reagan was in the midst of a near sweep of GOP primaries, promising a return to greatness which, underneath the polish, was a cowboy’s country swagger. 

It was also around this time that people kept track of how many days a country named Iran was holding American hostages. Fifty-two in all. Nick Pfenning’s son joined the Marines and was stationed in the Middle East somewhere. Nick could spare a son or two on the farm as he had eight sons in all. After church Nick would educate people about what was happening. It was also around this time that folks began seeing a nefarious looking truck driving through the town. It was hand-painted brown with the sort of leftover paint that one would find in a barn. Old beaten-up pick-up trucks, like Chevys or Dodges with rusted doors and hand-made wooden flat beds on the back, were not uncommon in Auslandersville. What was unusual about this one was that it had a crude representation of the finger, or “bird” (five humps, spray painted white, with the middle hump longer than the two on either side of it) painted on one side and the words, “Hey Iran,” spray painted on the other. Kids called it “the finger,” but Arnold had no idea what that meant. Arnold asked his mother and she told him it was a “very bad insult” and that Arnold should never to use it.       

It’s astonishing how kids are expected to navigate the world with what little information they have. Arnold knew so little about everything. We all know so little. Especially about what other people go through. What other people are going through. What other people have been through. The shit through which other people routinely go. The shit through that one must traverse.

The “Hey Iran” truck, incidentally, belonged to one of the Muhlfeld boys.

Buster was new in town and, even at ten years old, Arnold could tell that Buster was a man perpetually out of place. Buster was a larger man, overweight but not quite obese. His girth was anomalous in Auslandersville, a town of men who were perpetually fit from a perpetual regimen of plowing fields, harvesting alfalfa, chasing cows, and lifting tractor tires and sacks of grain. He drove an itty bitty little Datsun in a town where everyone drove balls-out Chevys and Fords. And, what’s more, he didn’t even fit into the tiny car. He would open the door, hold onto the hood, set his feet, and then do this pivot and lunge move to get his ass in the car. He used a piece of twine to fasten the muffler of his Datsun onto its undercarriage in a town where people instinctually took to their welders to fix such a thing. His too-blue Wrangler jeans, work boots, and burgundy Members Only jacket looked nothing like what they saw Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, and Tony LaRussa wear on television. His last name, pronounced “Boo” (like what a ghost says) and “kite” (like what Ben Franklin used to discover electricity) neither looked nor sounded like the names in a town filled with German farmers. You know, names with too-prominent consonants like Armbruster, Geissler, Vogel, and Keiffer that make everyone sound constipated. He made jokes and played baseball in a town where people chewed tobacco and took weather, corn, and tractors and the analysis thereof very seriously.

Buster was well suited for his role as coach though. He could hit a baseball over the fence consistently. He showed the boys how to stop ground balls by putting a knee on the ground. When Arnold misread a fly ball and caught it with his eye, Buster stopped practice, led him to the bench, and got some ice. The next practice, Buster brought in a pirate’s eye patch for him. Buster was goofy in a town that neither appreciated goofiness nor engaged in it. He had a round jolly face, tight curly hair, floppy jowls, a hearty laugh, and a friendly wavy moustache. But he also had a bumper sticker that read, “They Will Get My Gun When They Pry My Cold Dead Finger Off the Trigger.” He was like a friendly pachyderm that had just joined the Charlie Daniels Band. 

Buster’s son Chuck was also on the team.  Arnold had never seen him before because Chuck went to a school in the city near where his mother lived. He looked like the kid in a story about a kid and his wooden shoes and windmill that Arnold’s aunt had brought him from a semester abroad in Norway. He had blond hair, blue eyes, and perfectly square, symmetrical features. Chuck had an enthusiasm and boisterousness that Arnold both envied and resented. Though the resentment eroded somewhat when Arnold saw him take an envelope of Big League Chew out of the back pocket of his too-tight jeans, take out a large handful, and stuff it in his mouth.

“Do you have to chew like a pig?” Buster had asked when he saw the bulge in Chuck’s cheek.

This was not the sort of talk between father and son to which Arnold was accustomed. Chuck turned red and spit the wad of gum into the cemetery. It was the first and only time Arnold saw Chuck look embarrassed.

At that first practice, this kid asked Buster,

“Where do you work?”

 “I used to work at the steel mill,” Buster said. “But have been out of work for the past few months.” 

Buster was also, therefore, not a farmer, like everyone else. Arnold couldn’t help but picture Buster with a bandana on his head next to his best co-worker friend, putting his baseball glove on a bottle of Schotz Beer, and waving goodbye to it as a lively song about making Buster’s dreams come true played over the factory PA system. Arnold wondered to myself if Buster was more Laverne than Shirley or more Shirley than Laverne. He concluded that Buster was definitely more of a Laverne—neither polished nor apologetic, fiercely loyal, and prone to mischief.

“The Japs put an end to that,” Chuck replied in an effort to curry favor with his father.

Arnold’s resentment was reignited when Chuck started to play catcher, a position for which he was uniquely and inarguably suited. Like Buster, he was large. He could throw to second while squatting and could hit the ball over the fence with frequency. Chuck was a favorite of the guys on the team, the new kid, a natural leader, a good teammate.

“I don’t need a cup to protect my balls,” Chuck has said when Buster told them about how they had to get a cup to protect their ten-year-old balls. “I need a Tupperware bowl.”

Everyone laughed.

As the season dragged on, Arnold grew to vigorously dislike Chuck. Arnold rolled his eyes at Chuck’s “Dukes of Hazzard” discourse and was disgusted by his "Dukes of Hazzard" t-shirt with the General Lee on the front, his aluminum bat, and his cool, mesh Yankees cap. On the bench, Chuck would try to engage him in conversation about the game, favorite television shows, and the weather. Arnold would ignore him or move down the bench. Chuck spat when he talked and was about twice as big as Arnold was, so that his meaty arm and leg engulfed Arnold’s. 

Arnold preferred reading to playing baseball. Or doing anything outside. He was ambivalent about the Miracle on Ice and was neither a leader nor big enough to exert any influence and inevitably resented those who did. Arnold couldn’t understand the notion that he didn’t live with his mother. Arnold imagined him and Buster waking up every morning face-down on the sofa, each in last night’s clothes, one leg drooping above a carpet strewn with ice cream containers and empty bags of Fritos, a crust of spit caking the throw pillows under their snoring, tobacco stained mouths while the late night test pattern on their television filled the room with a multi-hued glow.

Arnold was jealous of his name, the monosyllabity of it, its simplicity, the way it connoted toughness, the way it was a synonym for the word throw, the way it rhymed with words like “buck” and “truck”—mighty things to which mighty boys should aspire. Arnold was named after a great-grandfather who passed away a week before he was born. And in 1980, his name suffered the rare double-defect of being the name of the then-omnipresent precocious fish-out-of-water black kid on “Diff’rent Strokes” and of being one of those fucked up words like orange or purple that literally rhymed with no other words forcing kids to new depths of mean spiritedness. Note this was also before Arnold Schwarzenegger became a household word synonymous with toughness, which would have offered some redemption. 

So kids said “Arnold” with a tone, almost like they sang it, but one you sing with disdain. Arnold had an aversion to Chuck because he fit in so effortlessly even though he went to a different school. He wrestled with teammates and talked about the nuances between a GMC and a Ford F-150. He was boisterous, confident, and made friends easily. Chuck squatted over home plate to assume his position as catcher and his butt crack showed. Some kids laughed, but he didn’t give a shit.

Arnold discovery of hate led him to believe that it was common, perhaps even expected, for people to hate easily and hate often for reasons that clearly required no reasoning. As such, Arnold started developing his own aversions; kids who wore digital watches, kids who didn’t catch on in math class as quickly as he thought they should, kids who could make their fingers do the Mork thing like when he said, “Nano, Nano,” and kids whose parents eschewed tenets of nutrition and gave them Reese’s cups in their lunch. 

The Sunday following that inaugural practice was Easter Sunday. Arnold’s church was hosting the cantata, and churches from all over the region were coming to sing songs about the resurrection. It was odd seeing Buster, who just days prior had taught Arnold and his teammates how to protect their scrotums, standing at the altar in a white turtleneck singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” It cemented Arnold’s devotion to him. It was as though Butch Cassidy was singing with the Osmonds.            

The baseball season proceeded smoothly. Chuck played catcher and hit home runs. Arnold was, to his own amazement, rather adept at baseball and played second base, a coveted infield position that he played in a surprisingly authoritative manner. Whenever someone tried to steal second, Chuck would throw the ball to Arnold, and, more often than not, they would get the runner out. While trotting off the field Chuck would make it a point to say, “Hey nice tag Arnold.” Arnold usually said, “Thanks,” or nothing at all. He certainly never said, “Great throw,” or anything to acknowledge Chuck’s efforts.   

The thing is, Buster and Chuck both really liked Arnold.  When it was time to travel to games, Buster usually offered to drive him. Once when Buster drove Arnold to a game in a similarly small town, the trio got into the tiny Datsun that smelled of sweat, baseball leather, and dirt, and Buster, with a flourish that belied his embarrassment, quickly threw away a Burger King cup filled with spit and chewing tobacco. 

On the way home from that game they stopped at Judy’s Dairy Shack for ice cream cones. 

“Coach Bucheit, I don’t have any money,” Arnold had said. 

“Don’t worry about it,” the coach had replied.

When they got to the dairy shack window Judy herself was in there smoking a cigarette by the soft serve dispenser.

“Arnold order whatever you want,” Buster said.

“I’d like a small dish of maple walnut in a dish,” Arnold said timidly. 

Chuck, who had ordered a large twisty cone and was standing behind Arnold licking it vigorously and looking appalled at his selection.

“Maple walnut? Who gets maple walnut?”

Arnold ignored him. 

“Maple walnut? What are you an eighty-year-old man?”  

Funny how a person questioning your choice of ice cream can make you hate them. Don’t these ice cream questioners know this? When has such a question ever garnered a positive reaction? When has the person fielding the question ever thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the questioner’s analysis and switched ice creams?    

 “I just like it,” Arnold said, capitulating.    

The boys got back in the car while Buster paid Judy. The driver’s side door opened and in lurched Buster with a large twisty cone with sprinkles and off they went.

“Dad, have you ever heard of a kid getting Maple walnut ice cream?” Chuck asked, eager for his father’s approval.

“Jesus Christ, Chuck,” Buster replied. “Not everyone has to like everything you like.” 

Arnold was taken with the notion that Buster got sprinkles. Such an indulgence for an unemployed Little League coach. So very colorful for a man perpetually in Wrangler blue jeans and a white t-shirt. Like a large mustachioed Johnny Cash replacing Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Arnold thought about Chuck many years later when the senior Senator from Utah’s chief of staff looked at Arnold’s veggie burger as they ate lunch together in the Russell Senate Office Building and suggested Arnold was trying “too damn hard to mollify PETA.” 

At the night of the night, as a parting “fuck you” to Chuck, Arnold left his dish and plastic spoon in the back seat of Buster’s Datsun in the hopes that Chuck would have to clean it. The following week, Arnold’s mother gave him $1.75 to give Buster at practice. When Arnold approached him with the money in his outstretched hand, Buster politely refused. That forced Arnold to sheepishly tell him that his mother told him to “not take no for an answer.” Arnold was relieved when Buster accepted. The fat rolls rode up his wrist as he wedged the three quarters into his Wranglers. Arnold wondered then if Buster was poor, something he hadn’t considered because the vision Arnold had of Buster always had him surrounded by candy wrappers.    

At some point in the early part of May, Buster started working for the town highway department. Though he arrived at practice far more exhausted, and maybe a tinge defeated, than when he didn’t have a job. His job was to fill in potholes. Arnold would sometimes see him on the town’s half dozen or so paved roads as Arnold road home on the bus and happened to look up from whatever book he was reading. Buster would walk behind a large dump truck and shoveling hot asphalt into the numerous and sizable potholes that had materialized during the upstate New York. It looked torturous. The other men on his crew were usually smoking or sleeping in the cab part of the truck while Buster sweated like a motherfucker. 

Arnold woke up on the morning of May 21, walked downstairs to get breakfast, and found his parents sitting at the table. They told him that Coach Bucheit was dead. His father said that he had been pinned by a dump truck on Centerville Road. Arnold neither asked for nor sought any additional information, but it was all the kids on the bus that morning would talk about. An authority on such matters said that he was shoveling the asphalt into potholes on Flanders Hill Road when the brakes of the truck from which he was shoveling gave out and ran him over. Someone else equally knowledgeable about such things said that his father told him that the truck had tipped over and a truckload of hot asphalt had spilled over and onto Coach Bucheit. It didn’t matter really. All Arnold could think of was the men in the front of the truck snoozing while Buster worked and died.

A few days later, Arnold was once again part of a reptilian parade of yellow buses that winded its way down the town’s Main Street at 3:15 p.m. on any given weekday. Arnold saw Chuck standing outside the Hillcrest Funeral Home.

He leaned against one of the pillars there and wore an ill-fitting blue blazer. It was hot outside, so the bus’s windows were open. A few kids yelled, “Hey Chuck,” or give him a Fonzie thumbs up. Chuck smiled, nodded, and returned the thumbs up. Arnold saw this play out a few times as the buses passed by.

Chuck saw Arnold. Arnold saw Chuck. And then Arnold gave him the finger. A big-old, motherfucking, ten-year-old middle finger. Chuck, on the steps of the funeral home, just looked at him with sad and bewildered eyes. Arnold looked down at the metal “Happy Days” lunch box on his lap, coated with purple glaze from the purple drink that had exploded, feeling simultaneously slightly ashamed and slightly triumphant.  

If Chuck told anyone that Arnold gave him the finger while he was standing on the front steps of the funeral home, Arnold never heard about it.    

Chuck went to live with his mother in Buffalo and didn’t play any more baseball for Auslandersville. For the remainder of the season, no one talked about Buster or his accident. Buster was technically an outsider, so it wasn’t as though they had lost one of their own. Nick’s father Jim, a farmer who could spare evenings since he had plenty of sons who could assume evening cow milking duties, took over as head coach. Jim was unlike Buster in most ways. He was a thin man, which prompted Arnold to think about calling him Slim Jim. Arnold decided against it and never gave him a nickname.

Arnold didn’t see Chuck for more than twenty years.

***

When he did see Chuck again, Arnold was thirty-one and working in Washington, DC for a Senator (who we should ostensibly keep anonymous but whose identity will be apparent to anyone who read or heard anything resembling news in the last decade; especially in light of the fact this narrative relies on the fact he is from New York).  The Senator promised his constituents and his wife (who, a formidable politician in her own right, was really fucking pissed) and the party leaders that he would, in exchange for their support and in an effort to regain their trust, seek treatment for undisclosed addiction and personal issues after being found in a hotel room with a Brazilian hooker, her dead pimp, and a bunch of cocaine.

Arnold’s capacity and general propensity for loathing had diminished about zero percent in the decades since, so the Senator, as a boss and a person, was the target of a great deal of his hatred. This was the summer before 9/11 when people had an insatiable appetite for this type of shit. A summer littered with such scandals that precipitated a wave of pessimism, ill will, and the presumption that people, thanks in no small measure to the heralded Senator, were generally rather shitty.

But Arnold liked the ancillary parts of the job. It paid well and afforded him access to people and a modicum of prestige. And a means, he thought, to fully an irreversibly extricate himself from whence he came.    

Some years prior, Arnold left Auslandersville for Princeton. The admissions committee actually cited his origins as a contributing factor for his acceptance (cementing Arnold’s idea that Auslandersville was more like a third-world country than a place suitable for human habitat). Arnold flourished at Princeton and, as they say, rarely, if ever, looked back. It was there Arnold met and befriended the Senator’s son and when Arnold needed a job the Senator hired him as a speechwriter jack-of-all-trades sort of thing. 

Of the many degrading things that Arnold was tasked during that tumultuous summer of 2001 was arranging the Senator’s smooth transition to the treatment facility, which had to be done in days to minimize the fallout. The Senator chose Creekside Behavioral Health and Addictions Center because it was in New York State, about 40 miles south of Buffalo in an old mansion on Lake Erie that had once been a summer home for one of the captains of industry who had prospered in Buffalo in the 1920s. It was far enough away from his native New York City to minimize paparazzi. Arnold was tasked with making sure that the Senator would have as much privacy as possible. Since a big part of Creekside’s program was trips off campus to serenity inducing hiking trails and nature preserves, Arnold needed to make sure that the van windows were appropriately tinted and paparazzi proof. That was his job. To tint the Senator’s fucking windows. 

The Senator had two sons. Tap (Yale) and Tanner (Princeton). Both douchebags. The Senator was the sort of person who would (and did) buy a Yale Lacrosse windbreaker and a Princeton Lacrosse windbreaker, pay a seamstress to cut each in quarters, then switch and resew the quarters so that he was left with two windbreakers each composed of two Yale quadrants and two Princeton quadrants so that he could wear it to the one fucking annual meeting of the two schools and walk around New Haven like he owned the fucking place and cheer on his son Tap for one half of the game and then cheer for Tanner for the other. This was the pinnacle of douche. Arnold secretly took the fucking half-Yale-half-Princeton-all-douche windbreaker from his office and sneaked it into the bag the Senator would be bring for his thirty-day stint at Creekside to further amplify the Senator’s imminent demise.  Also sort of douchey. 

Anyway, Arnold found a place, the ridiculously named “Falcon’s Auto Painting and Custom Upholstery” to tint the windows. It was near Creekside, and the owner, the ridiculously named Herman Falcon, assured him that he had enough High-Performance Charcoal Window Tint in stock and that he could coerce “one of his bozos” to work overnight so the Creekside vans would be ready for the Senator’s arrival the next morning. 

Arnold flew to Buffalo, took a shuttle to Creekside, met their director, and made sure their facilities were adequate and adequately prepared for whatever media attention they might get. He then had to stop by Falcon’s to make sure at least one of the vans would be ready for him to pick the Senator up from the airport early the next morning. 

Falcon’s seemed far from everywhere but was only about a fifteen-minute drive from Creekside. One of the Creekside workers drove him east, away from Lake Erie, through some sort of town center, past a bunch of abandoned houses and storefronts and an old brick library, then out of the town center and over to Falcon’s. The road out of town was lined with apple trees and overhead waterfalls of flowering towering shrubs of some kind, fragrant sweet pepperbushes probably. In a few minutes, the paved remnants of the old lake side town gave way to a wide sleepy road lined with corn stalks and not long thereafter they pulled into the dirt driveway of an old shop with an old painted sign that said “Falcon’s.” There were three of those vintage Mobil gas pumps out front, like in an Edward Hopper painting. They were rusty, had broken gauge windows, and were clearly not functional, though one could discern they were once red and noble and as such, still commanded a modicum of reverence. Like heralded robot ghost sentries, retired but still standing at attention, to protect the auto repair and upholstery place from invaders.

Getting out of the car driven by the Creekside liaison was like stepping out of the present and into that Edward Hopper painting. It was around 9:00 p.m. when Arnold walked in and found a fleet of four white Creekside passenger vans spread out like patients etherized on an operating room table. It was hot as fuck, especially for that late at night, way too hot to be without air conditioning, as Falcon’s clearly was. 

As Arnold took off his jacket and loosened his tie he heard someone apologize for the heat saying that the AC shut down automatically at 8:00 p.m. Arnold turned around and saw a large man with a “Chuck” patch on a blue and white striped collared shirt that had grease stains up and down the front. They introduced themselves though Arnold knew right away who it was.  If Chuck recognized Arnold or if his name rang any bells, he didn’t show it. Chuck had the same perfectly square, symmetrical face, as though he had worn his catcher’s mask throughout adolescence and his head and grown into and around it.

“Ordinarily, the window tinting process was a simple one,” Chuck said. “You measure the window, cut the film with an X-Acto Knife, stick it on the window, and then squeegee it smooth. Under ordinary circumstances I’d be done in a few hours, but in light of this goddamn humidity, the tint is bubbling like a motherfucker so I gotta squeegee the fuck out of it and it’s gonna take a lot longer than usual.” 

“Of course it is,” Arnold said.

“The override for the AC timer was in the boss’s office,” Chuck said, as perspiration dripped off his forehead and onto a piece of the tinting film that he was cutting which he wiped vigorously with some sort of chamois cloth. “I was lucky he let me keep the radio on.” 

Chuck went on to explain that when doing big jobs like this one he liked to do all the back windows at one time, then all the driver side rear windows at one time, then all the passenger side rear windows until he had worked his way up to the front windshield. This, he said, was so he didn’t have to take the same measurements multiple times. It made sense but it also meant Arnold was going to have to stay there until the job was done. So clearly both men he had no choice but to sweat and squeegee like the compliant motherfuckers they were. 

Arnold took some papers out of his briefcase probably worth more money than Chuck made in a week. Chuck kept working, cutting, squeegeeing, and pasting. And the country radio station played something by Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, or whoever the fuck it was.  

Something happens to a place at night. The shop, which flourished by day, seemed strangely forlorn. The daytime jingle-jangle of metal tools and the omnipresent whirring of air compressors were replaced by nothing but intermittent grunts and late-night country radio. The shop walls, covered with motor oil signs, girlie calendars and license plates belonging to a different era, certainly fostered Arnold’s sense that he was far from home. Shadows made from the one streetlamp on the wisteria ivy growing frolicked on the windows, opaque with decades of dust and repair shop residue during, as though taunting the two men stuck inside.   

They did not speak much to each other for the first several hours. Arnold made some phone calls. Chuck took a break around 1:00 a.m. and there was some country song on the radio apparently sung by Faith Hill.

“What I wouldn’t do to be Tim McGraw,” Chuck said. 

Arnold looked at him, annoyed, perplexed, and only slightly amused. 

“Tim McGraw is married to Faith Hill you know,” Chuck explained. “I wonder whether Tim eats Faith’s pussy. Of course he does because how could you not eat such great pussy. I bet Tim just goes to town on Faith’s motherfucking pussy and goddamn what I wouldn’t do to Faith Hill’s pussy if given the chance to eat that shit myself I would tear that shit up.” 

Given the forethought Chuck had clearly expended on this issue, it would seem that such conversations were neither anomalous nor cause for embarrassment at the shop. 

“I don’t have any comment on that Chuck,” Arnold said.  And having exhausted the discourse on Faith Hill’s lady-parts, they resumed their work or more accurately, Arnold did his work while Chuck did his.  On the cusp of disgust, at his companion and at the state of things in general, Arnold realized he had heard similar conversations about the ferocity with which one might eat another’s pussy, though such conversations were conducted in far more refined, even heralded, settings.

Chuck, who had been diligently applying window tint all night in an effort to preserve the Senator’s ego, broke another silence some time later. 

“My dad used to tell me that people don’t change,” he said.  

Arnold looked at him with nervous puzzlement and said, “I wouldn’t disagree with that.” 

Chuck went back to his sweaty window tinting. 

“You were such a dick to me when we were kids,” Chuck said a few stupid country songs later. He said this in something between an inexplicable southern drawl, further slowed and muffled by a mouthful of chew and exhaustion, and a kid’s aggrieved pronouncement, like in that commercial when the kid says, “you sunk my battleship.” But it was a grown up’s voice so it contained a sufficient amount of grown up intolerance so was delivered in a tone akin to, “You sunk my fucking battleship you fucking prick.”  

While the boisterousness and confidence Arnold loathed so readily in the spring of 1980 had diminished, Chuck still didn’t give a fuck about what anyone thought. And hadn’t changed.  He spat when he talked. You could see his butt crack when he squatted over the rolls of window tint and cut out his shapes. And he didn’t give a fuck. 

“It’s not okay to call me, a paying client, a dick,” Arnold said.

“It’s also not okay for you, whether a paying client or a kid, to be a dick,” he replied. 

Such truth from the mouth of Chuck. 

Arnold looked at him and shifted in his seat a little bit but couldn’t muster anything to say to question or combat Chuck’s assessment. It was jarring, being recognized, and acknowledged after luxuriating in presumed anonymity for so many hours. Arnold dealt with fucking senators for fuck’s sake but nevertheless somehow felt smaller than Chuck, this ghost from the past. Arnold gathered up the papers upon which he had been working, timidly closed his briefcase and sat up in an effort to appear larger.   

“I’m sorry,” Arnold exhaled. “I was.”

“You was what?” Chuck asked.

“An asshole. A dick. Mean,” Arnold replied. 

“We were kids. That was a messed up time for me anyways,” Chuck replied, with kindness, in a voice that belied the scope of how messed up that time was. Bo and Luke Duke’s perpetual skirmishes with Boss Hogg were messed up; losing a parent is incomprehensible.    

“I think I just hated that town, Chuck,” Arnold said. “And I took it all out on you.  Because you let me. “ 

“You were dad’s favorite,” Chuck said. 

“I don’t know about that,” Arnold said. “I know that some people love small towns. I don’t. I get that everybody knows everybody and there’s a real community that you can’t and don’t get in other places and people take care of each other and all that John Cougar Mellencamp bullshit. If you’re like me, though, and don’t fit in, a small town can be a prison.” 

 “That’s why dad liked you so much,” Chuck interrupted. “You didn’t fit in.”    

“Why did he even live there?” Arnold asked. “Why’d he let people treat him like that?”

“It was cheap,” Chuck said. “And he was tired of the city. He loved Auslandersville.” 

“I get that,” Arnold said. “Though it’s tough for me never understood why people loved small towns. And why I was constantly told I was supposed to. I hated the idea of knowing everyone.”    

 “People were always real nice to me,” Chuck said. “I loved it there.”   

“It showed. And that bugged me,” Arnold said. “I could never understand how you were from somewhere else, and went to school somewhere else and yet fit in so effortlessly.

“What can I say?” Chuck asked through an impossible wide smile that revealed teeth slathered with chew. “I’m just a natural born leader.”            

Arnold could not physically go back to the cruddy baseball diamond in his cruddy hometown in 1980 and start a conversation with Chuck. Or to the tiny, silver Datsun outside the ice cream place and ask him what his favorite truck was. Who is favorite singer was. His favorite episode of “Dukes of Hazzard.” He also could not go back to the bus ride home and stop himself from giving a bereaved Chuck the finger. But Arnold asked Chuck to sit down and as he did so, Chuck became the young person with a baseball uniform t-shirt, muddy pants, and a catcher’s mask who was squatting behind home plate brusquely and loudly uttering baseball batting heckles and coating the bars of his catcher’s mask with spit. Through the cacophonous memories, Arnold apologized to him. And it occurred to him that every single moment of someone’s life is a crucial one. 

“Do you remember that night we got ice cream cones at that rat infested shack?” Arnold asked when he was done with the first van.

“Sure,” Chuck replied. 

“So do I,” Arnold said. 

Had it not been 2:00 a.m., Arnold probably would have asked Chuck if he wanted to get some ice cream. So Arnold just signed a carbon invoice on a greasy clipboard, got the keys for a van, shook Chuck’s hand, and drove away.

***

So that was the day when Arnold was sitting in a repair shop, feeling annoyed but omniscient, when, in a break between two worlds, a memory came to him and rebuilt some months. Months during that Iranian Hostage Crisis that, unlike the current skullduggeries of today, Arnold thought had receded. Arnold realized that the fact Buster died during the Iranian hostage crisis was more significant than one might suspect. It seems to have been the beginning of an era, probably every generation has one, wherein he learned how to hate and hate well. 

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short story "The Love Song of JFK Jr." and his writing playlist

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ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Toronto, October'

Photo courtesy of  Tim Corbin

Photo courtesy of Tim Corbin

By Alexander Brown

1

The young pharmacist’s assistant had placed the prescription on the counter in a way that suggested I wasn’t the right person for the medication, that there had been some kind of mistake.

“Are you sure you’ve taken these before?” The faceless girl had wondered. “Sir, hello?”

I muttered something before heading back out into the snow.

It was October in Toronto, the city I grew up in and still called home. Winter had come early, and I wasn’t sure why. The previous night the news was on in the background of another bar, but I hadn’t the energy to tune my ear. I was busy working on another highball of bourbon.

“This is going to sound ridiculous, but we’re out of ice. If you want to go somewhere else, I totally understand.”

The young bar-back had shared with resignation.

Lucky for him ice was no longer a luxury I cared for. It slowed me down. There was work to be done.

Back in the cold the car started slowly, as if it hadn’t been ready for the weather either. Thunderclouds formed in my head, and I struggled to open the bottle resting in the passenger seat. The lightning began to strike, and I closed my eyes, gripping the steering wheel with frozen fingers. The world was a raw nerve.

I washed the Naltrexone down with sour coffee left over in the cup holder, and I turned on the radio. Some pop group was regurgitating the same old song and for a moment I laughed to myself. I had already become the grumpy old man that hated what was on the radio.

I was all of thirty-five imperfect year’s old.

Those years had passed like exits on a highway.

2

Spadina Road was crawling north. The soccer moms had forgotten how to drive in the snow once again. It was a distinctly Torontonian ritual. 

I was hitting every light and the storm in my head had started to roll away. It wasn’t the Naltrexone, that was just to help with the cravings and sensations – part of the “program”—but the thought of doing something, anything, would often help.

I had been sober eight hours, and it felt like a lifetime.

The stale coffee sat on my lips, and the radio was off now. Before me through the oscillation of the wiper blades lay walls of snow. The city had disappeared.

I arrived at my office on Eglinton, parking in another garage below another building. The engine in my meek import evaporated with a whimper with the turn of the key, and I sat in the darkness for a moment or two. The digital clock on the dash told me I had five minutes to spare.

When I startled back to life on the couch of my single apartment at dawn I had been very close to calling in sick. At some point it had caught up with me. There were no details but I knew I had done some damage. The past was an impenetrable blur.

I came in though. Mostly because I knew he would be here today: my first appointment. A boy I cared for very much. A boy I desperately wanted to help.

And the only one who could possibly help me.

3

I was a psychotherapist of some regard. That could mean anything, but I partnered in on a practice and an office with an older woman I rarely saw, with a name I still can’t pronounce. It might have been Czech or even Greek. She lost me at the ninth vowel.

I had gone to two schools: one on the ocean, one in the heart of Middle America. I was indifferent to both but I still remember the waves. And now I was back home, in a place I always loved, but I always doubted the feeling was mutual.

The boy’s name was Adam, and he wasn’t much of a boy at all. He was twenty-five and I had been seeing him ever since I had started two years ago. He wore a kind look that blended nicely with his dark, handsome features. He had the build of a former athlete that didn’t take it seriously enough, and he wore his long, wavy brown hair just barely off his face.

But above all his most striking feature was his eyes. They were large, almost Disney-like in scope. And they were black. So black you could often make out your own silhouette from across the room. It was an abnormality I had never even heard of and one even he would laugh about. Even though there was power to them—an uneasy melancholy.  

I often found myself awake at night, wondering if the light could pierce them.

And now he was in my office, with a smile on his face. The same honest smile he always wore. Sitting forward on the couch as always. The only sound between us was the faintest ticking of a clock.

It would be the last time I ever saw him.

4

That morning the dawn had been ugly, the sky a sickly hospital grey. The air hung thick as napalm. The light and the cold had cut through the recesses of my brain, flooding the cavernous darkness with unwelcome light.

I had no use for blinds. Sleeping off a hangover was a luxury reserved for college kids. I preferred the penance of a waking nightmare. There was always work to be done and lessons to ignore.

The drinking had started as it often does. There had been no trauma, but an undiagnosed mental illness grew deep roots in the years in which I should have been free. Instead of cutting loose, having fun, making friends, I was trapped. My mind and body wound so tight there were times I had to pry my trembling hands open so I could do something as simple as answer the phone.

In time I started to see the right people, and I grew fascinated by the human brain. I considered mine a lost cause, but, as the psychology electives in college continued to mount, I realized I had made up my mind in regards to a career. Something I never thought I could do. The proverbial they say that depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder leads to an emotional flatness, making routine feelings inaccessible, and real decisions near impossible. I was lucky then to discover that the instrument of my ennui had become my one true interest. 

Drugs and alcohol came into the picture then, though they never interfered with my studies. I self-medicated daily, but I was disciplined. I respected the power of the clock. Class at nine a.m.? Bottle down by midnight. No exceptions. It was a bruised, beautiful system. It never failed.

It was a lie. One I carried with me into my thirty-fifth year.

I had told myself the work was fine.

Trust the system.

It’s gotten us this far.

You wouldn’t quit now.

You can’t. I know you can’t.

The work wasn’t fine. The thing most drunks will tell you is that in the depths of whatever fresh hell you’ve introduced to yourself, time has a way of melting. Moments and mornings disappear. Hours are days. They’re right. I told myself I’d never miss an appointment, and I hadn’t. But I was getting close. And with that had come a fresh, lingering feeling that had taken root in the marrow of my bones.

I needed to go. This place was different now, every room a lesser version of itself. I had become nothing more than a shadow, darkening everything I touched.

I needed the road.

Trust the system.

You can’t go.

Bottle down at midnight.

It still works.

You wouldn’t.

But I had to.

Just not yet. I needed to speak with him.

5

He was late again, that therapist of mine.

A few minutes had turned into ten, ten into fifteen.

It was October then, and I remember the early snow. In the months to follow I remember the ice and how it blanketed the city. I ended up spending Christmas in the dark, but I spent most of my time wondering if he made it out.

I never saw him again, and I had wondered if he was happy. I had thought it strange at the time when we didn’t schedule our usual follow up, but it felt inevitable. I visited once, a month, maybe two, later. His office had been all boxed up. A kind Greek woman told me he had left, and that it was for the best.

“He seemed happier,” she had said.

And I believed her.

In my previous visit I had told him of my trips to the doctor. He had known about the depths of my psychoses when I went away to college— also to the sea—but I always left the specifics out.

This time I had told him a story. In it was a boy who was very sick, who visited the school doctor once a week, each time requesting a different kind of blood work, each time asking for a new referral. If it wasn’t a tumour then it had to be organ failure. If it wasn’t organ failure it had to be a parasitic disease. The days felt like dreams and the nights were alive. He would count the tiles above his bed over and over again, making sure they hadn’t changed in the night. He would chew on cough drops because his tongue would burn, and he would keep ice packs on his hands to numb the clenching of his muscles.

As the weeks turned to months, the doctor, a kind man who said little but wore his compassion with ease, began to suggest that perhaps there was some other force at work.

“Maybe,” he had put gently, “it’s all in your head.”

That’s not possible.

I’m sick. I know I’m sick.

When graduation came and it was finally time to go home. The boy went home with a smile on his face, relieved that he would no longer feel alone, but even in his own bed he found himself now counting the cracks in the ceiling. Wherever he went, there he was. There I was. And I hated it.

Then I found Nick. Referred to me briskly and off-hand by a pre-occupied family physician.

From the moment I first set foot in his office I sensed a connection. Like some unforeseen hand had pierced a hole in the world, giving us just enough time to find each other before all the noise swallowed the city once again.

He was empathetic and charming, and he wore every one of his thirty-odd years on his face. He had lived and loved and told stories of his own struggles often, always with a laugh. Only recently had that light faded. The years were catching up to him.

I would often catch him looking at his reflection in my own eyes—once a defect, now a peculiarity I’ve chosen to embrace—tilting his head as if he was exploring the very curve of the earth itself, wondering if he was on the right axis, seemingly never happy with the result.

His smile had faded but I hadn’t let mine go. I could still see him trying to muster up the energy to help. The gears were still turning, but there was no one left to pull the levers. He had to go, and so did I. It was time to let Winter come for someone else. We would be okay, the two of us, even in spite of ourselves. He was the family I never had. 

6

Free of Toronto the earth becomes electric. For every rock a tree, and every tree a stream. The breeze carries sweetness. Its touch is soft. The light is pure.

It feels like a lifetime since I’ve seen the boy. It’s only been years.

Long, good years.

It’s October again and I am sober. When you give up the drink time unravels like a garden hose. If you use it wisely, those small, lucid moments become the greatest gifts. A reward you never knew you could receive.

I went north, and now I’m here. Life is quieter and the lake is my hole in the world. No storms can touch it. This time of year the air is cool and charged with caffeine. The smell of the dying leaves clears my head.

The weatherman said it should be a fair winter, and I’m inclined to believe him. There’s been no unwanted snow, no ice to strangle the trees.

At dawn I bundled up and took my old birch canoe out on the lake. The surface was glass.

I still see him in my office, Adam, telling me it will be all right, that both of us will be fine. Just a young man with eyes of black, already so wise beyond his years—the father, brother, and son I’ll never have.

I wrote him a letter last year around the holidays that was returned to sender. It worried me then, but less so now.

In the letter I had listed off every little thing that I had ever punished myself for: the depression, the anxiety, the emotional distance, the drinking, the fear, the doubt. All things I couldn’t change—at least not then. But there is a now, a beautiful, wonderful now, that exists far removed from all that weight and all that pain. I told him I would see him there one day, and that it was the thing I looked forward to most.

You’re not sick, he’s not sick.

And I believe that now. Wherever he may be.

Back on the lake the sun had burned through the clouds, opening a hole in the world, and the light crashed down upon the glass. It blinded me at first, but then it began to dive, deep down through the darkness. 

I thought of the boy with eyes of black and smiled. I knew the light had pierced them.

Alexander Brown is the editor-in-chief at Tracer Publishing. You can follow Alexander and Tracer Publishing @alexbrown17 and @TracerStories.

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Evergreen'

By Sean Tuohy

All the evil that happened started when Amanda Molina, a fifth grader from Davie, Florida got snatched off the street while walking to school one cool November morning. Within an hour she was reported missing by the school, her parents notified, and a report was sent out to local police, state troopers, and the media. Robby Hanes, a three-time loser with a meth habit, took Amanda. He grabbed the nine-year-old black-haired girl off the corner violently, leaving behind one scuffed pink tennis shoe, and threw her in the back of his Ford pickup. He slapped and punched Amanda, giving her a black eye.

Robby was no sex-predator. He had no thrills for little girls. He liked them young, but not that young. He knew two Cubans who would buy Amanda for a cool nine hundred bucks. Robby could care less what they did with her. He needed the green, nothing else. He set up a meeting at the Evergreen Motel on North U.S. 27, a single-story flop house built in the 1960s in the middle of the Everglades. The neon road sign had been smashed years before. All the rooms smelled of mold, and the parking lot was made from loose gravel. The rooms were all by the hour.

By the afternoon thick brooding rain clouds rolled in from the northwest and threatened rain. The sky rumbled with thunder. Robby paid for his room at the Evergreen and dragged in a sobbing Amanda. Once inside, he tied her hands together with zip ties and pushed her on to the soiled carpet. Robby, to make sure she wouldn’t try anything, kneeled down and shoved his face into Amanda’s. She repelled back in disgust and terror as Robby spoke.

“You fuckin’ run,” Robby threatened, “I’ll kill your family. Got me?”

Amanda released a whimper, which was enough to satisfied Robby.

He flopped down on the dusty bed and flipped on the television. The Cubans would be here shortly.

* * *

Detective Eli Cohan didn’t hear about Amanda Molina because he had his radio flipped off. He drove his unmarked Ford with one hand; the other was busy unscrewing a nip bottle, which he downed in one gulp. Cohan had been a Broward County sheriff deputy for nine years. Six of those years were spent loaded. He liked pills. He needed pills. His shoulder was three types of messed up after Haitians loaded up on angel dust threw Cohan against a brick wall. The doctors all said the same thing: the pain will always be there. Cohan popped pills morning, afternoon, and night. When he couldn’t get pills, he drank. Cheap vodka worked the fastest. That had been his third nip of the morning.

Cohan pulled onto 27 and gunned the engine of the Crown Vic down the two-lane blacktop. He raced around lumbering trucks and slow moving cars. He tapped fingers against the wheel. He was jittery. He had run out last night and couldn’t get a re-up until this morning. The night had been hell; cold shakes, vomiting, and nightmares. He had shit himself. Blinding sunlight glared on the windshield, making Cohan groan and fumble for his sunglasses. Soon after, rain clouds bullied their way in and blocked out the sun. Cohan was thirty-three, small, and lean with a swimmer’s build. Brown, shaggy hair and three days of growth on his face. He was a Florida Jew, but hadn’t believed in God since high school.

The Ford spun into the Evergreen motel parking lot kicking up dust. Cohan parked at the far end, away from the manager’s office. Cohan rubbed his temples, which felt like they were about to implode. He grinded his teeth as he kicked open the door. The Glock 23 clipped to his jeans clunked as he stepped out.  The air smelled of rain. Cohan took in the parking lot; a rusted Ford on its last leg was parked four spaces over with a BMW double parked behind it. Through the rear window Cohan could make out the head of someone in the passenger seat.  Cohan walked over to the room marked number 11. He slammed a fist against the door. Behind the door he heard a television go mute, movement, rushing bare feet coming toward the door. The door opened slightly, the security chain clanking into place.  Buggy formed in a crack in the door, his long thin face, scabbed dry lips, and sunken eyes glaring at Cohan.

“You’re late,” Buggy said quickly.

Cohan remained silent; he didn’t want this to last any longer than it needed. He slipped over the bills. Buggy shut the door. Rustling behind the door followed by more bare feet. The door was ripped open and Buggy handed over a bag with six pills.

“Enjoy,” Buggy said, slamming the door.

Cohan dry swallowed two pills and strolled back to the Ford. He pocketed the baggy. He went back to his car and noticed movement from the right side. The BMW’s passenger door opened and a heavy Cuban wearing sunglasses and a purple button-up got out. He opened the rear door and waited. The Cuban was watching the motel.

Cohan stopped and without realizing his hand dropped to the butt of his gun.

The door to the motel room the pick-up was parked at opened and another Cuban, overweight and in a pink shirt, hurried out with a little girl missing a shoe in his grasp. In the door frame, a lanky meth head fella watched.

This was all bad mojo.

“Hey!” Cohan shouted.

Pink Shirt halted and looked toward Cohan. Meth Head, startled and spooked, spun around to find Cohan. Purple Shirt at the car was swearing in Spanish.

For half a second there was no movement, no sound, nothing at all but the rumble of thunder.

Pink Shirt, holding the girl, bolted toward the car. Meth Head dove into his room and disappeared.

Cohan moved toward the BMW, now gripping his Glock in his hands.

“Freeze!”

The Cuban threw the girl’s small frame into the back seat and slammed the door shut. Purple climbed back inside while Pink raced to the driver’s side.

A gunshot echoed and the bullet slammed into the ground at Cohan’s feet. Cohan skidded to a stop and pivoted with the gun leading the way toward Meth Head, who stood in a weak stance in the doorframe with an ancient .38, smoke curling from the barrel.

“Drop it!” Cohan warned and then fired three quick rounds. Two went wide and slammed into the doorframe causing wood to splitter and fly. The third caught Meth Head in the chest. His dirt-smudged shirt bloomed red and he stumbled back into his room.

Tires crunched on gravel and Cohan spun back around to see the BMW speeding away leaving a trail of dust.

Cohan fired at the tires. Bullets pinged and panged off the metal rear. The rear left tire exploded and the car dropped. Pink lost control, and the car fish tailed into a cloud of dust and ran against the motel.

Cohan rushed forward, gun held low, toward the now stalled out Beamer. Overhead lighting cracked and on cue fat raindrops began to fall.

Cohan was five feet from the driver’s side when the passenger side door was kicked open. Purple’s wide face popped into frame. He held a silver MAC-10 over the roof of the Beamer.

“No,” Cohan said to himself and fired a single round.

The wall of the motel was painted red with a splat. Purple Shirt’s head snapped back violently and fell out of sight behind the car.

As Purple Shirt’s brains spattered on the wall, the driver’s door was pushed open and Pink Shirt stepped out. Cohan saw something clasped in Pink Shirt’s hands and Cohan fired three rounds into the driver’s side door. The door window shattered and Pink Shirt let out a yelp as he crumbled to the ground.

Cohan was breathless. His heart pounded so loud he could hear nothing else. He stood for a moment in the roaring silence that comes only after a gun battle. The manager’s office door opened and a frail looking man poked his head out.

“Call the police!” Cohan barked at the man as he moved toward the BMW.

“I did!”

Cohan ripped open the rear door of the BMW and felt pain shooting up his right side. He winced and gritted his teeth. Cohan looked down to find his black polo shirt moist with blood. A bullet had gotten him. Cohan fought the pain and looked into the back seat.

Amanda sobbed, tears raining down her brown checks, eyes blood shot. Cohan and Amanda locked eyes, and he could see the fear.

“I’m a cop,” Cohan said softly and held out a hand.

Amanda reached out with her bound hands. Cohan grabbed her and yanked her out of the car. He hoisted her up, winced again in pain, and hurried away from the BMW just as three BSO squad cars screamed into the Evergreen motel’s parking lot.

The bullet had grazed Cohan without hitting anything major. He was losing a lot of blood and went into shock. Purple Shirt had gotten a round off before he lost his brains. Amanda and Cohan were rushed to Broward General. The media caught a tearful reunion of Amanda and her grateful parents.

They found the pills both in the pocket of his jeans and pumping in his veins. Cohan was locked up at Broward General in a private room. He had a view of the rooftop. The rain had come, soaked everything, and was now gone.

Sheriff Albert Kinney stepped into the room in full uniform. Into his third year as Broward’s sheriff, Kinney had lost what was left of his hair. He was an imposing man with a thick grey moustache parked on his upper lip. Kinney wasted no time.

“You’re a pill head,” Kinney said matter-of-factly. 

Cohan began to speak but Kinney held up a palm for him to stop, “Report came back. You’re goddamn high.”

Kinney sat down in an empty chair against the bland-colored wall and let out a deep breath.

“The whole country has heard what you did” Kinney said. “CNN picked up the story an hour ago. You are a hero for the next fifteen minutes, Cohan, and then shit is gonna hit the fan.”

“You need me to say something?”

“No, I need you to not be a pill head,” Kinney snapped back and fell silent for a long moment. “The pills we found on you are in the trash, the report is in my hands, and we’ve told the news that you were following up on a tip.”

“What happens next?” Cohan asked, trying to hide the building fear that was growing in his voice.

Kinney looked at Cohan with a pair of dead grey eyes and said,

“You get clean.”

* * *

Rehab nearly killed Cohan. He was sent up to a place in the panhandle under a false name, Kinney had set it up. While Cohan got the poison purged from his system his face was featured on every news program.

Hero cop saves kidnapping victim….

…Justice served by hero…

The hero was laid up in a bed shaking, weeping, and wishing for death. He walked out clean and sober. He was welcomed with open arms and cheers. Reporters calling and begging for an interview. The Molinas wanted to meet and thank the man who saved his daughter. Cohan said no. They sent a card and Cohan tossed it. Amanda sent a card she wrote, the lettering done nicely, and Cohan kept that card at his desk.

He was put on light desk duty, paper work, and he welcomed it. He sat in his office and kept his head down. He wanted to be left alone.  Cohan spent hours at his desk recalling disgraces in his life.  Pills swallowed. Drug money slipped into his pocket. Roughing up tweekers for the hell of it. Cohan hated himself for a long time. With each new memory brought back to the forefront Cohan knew he was scum. He attended meetings that told him he wasn’t, told him to embrace his misdoings and to carry on with life.

That’s what he planned to do.

It was a hot May morning when Cohan got the call. It was Friday and Amanda Molina, now entering high school, ate breakfast and went to school. Cohan thought about her often; how was she? Did she remember him? Did she think about him as much as he thought about her? He never reached out to her. He kept his distance.

That morning, Cohan sipped lukewarm coffee and scanned reports. His office was in the rear of the detective’s bureau and over looked the bullpen. The morning frenzy had not swooped in just yet and Cohan enjoyed the silence.

His cell phone chimed; the number on the screen was blocked.

Cohan answered, cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder, and scanned reports.

“It’s the hero cop,” the jolly voice said.

Cohan cocked an eyebrow.

“Long time no talk, big man,” The voice carried on. “I never see you no more. I miss you. You miss me?”

The voice clicked with a memory bank in Cohan’s brain.

“Buggy?”

“I like to go by James now, “ Buggy told Cohan. “Because Buggy didn’t fit me.”

Cohan’s heart raced. He hadn’t seen the pill pusher since the Evergreen Motel shooting. There had no mention of Buggy in any of the reports. Cohan felt a wave of dread wash over him in that moment.

“Got time for coffee?”

“Coffee?” Cohan stammered.

“Yeah, look we got to talk, we got to talk about the motel.”

There it was, Cohan thought.

“The motel…”

Buggy chuckled and said,

“Yeah, you know the motel. I remember it. Do you?”

“Where are we meeting?”

They met at Express Coffee, a coffee stand painted in faded neon blue on Andrews. Cohan pulled into the parking lot and found Buggy, now James, waiting for him. Buggy must have cleaned himself up. The long narrow face now had flesh and color. He wore jeans and black t-shirt while leaning against a battered sedan with tinted windows.

Cohan got out of the car slowly; he brushed a hand against the holstered pistol.

Buggy smiled from ear to ear. Cohan felt an explosion of anger in his head.

“Good to see you, Detective,” Buggy said.

“What do you want?”

“No small talk?” Buggy smiled wider. “You never did make time to talk. What do I want? I want you to listen to me.”

“That’s what I’m doing,” Cohan said.

“You killed three guys while high. I know this and you know this but the news don’t know it. They called you a hero cop. Big hero who was high out of his mind.”

“Old news,” Cohan said. “I’m three years clean.”

“Good for you. I’m on month number seven. Got locked up in Polk County for a while. I got to say being sober is not bad.”

Cohan glared at Buggy and asked,

“Are you here to threaten me?”

Buggy waved Cohan’s comment off.

“Naw, I just want to know what you are going to do to keep me silent. I got an idea what you-“

Cohan launched himself at Buggy, grabbed shirt collar, and slammed him against the Saturn.

“You got nothing but—” Cohan said through gritted teeth.

“Fuck you!” Buggy shouted. “Got your deed to rights, motherfucker. I got you buying pills off me. I got you taking pills in front of me. I go to the news, I share my story, and you find yourself in the dead zone.”

Cohan’s grip grew tighter. Three years of clean and sober. Three years of living the good life. Three years gone down the drain. Cohan loosened his grip and stepped back slowly.

“How much you want?” Cohan asked in defeat.

“Last month BSO snatched a hundred pounds of pills that they found in Miramar. Good stuff. I want it.”

They sat in Buggy’s car; Cohan in the passenger seat and Buggy behind the wheel. Cohan thought about yanking his Glock and plugging three bullets in to Buggy.

“Suspect approached with the intent to cause me harm which forced me to use my weapon,” Cohan thought. No go. BSO would investigate and find his story was filled with holes.

“The pills are locked away.”

“I know that, Detective, I know that but you can get them. You walk in, get me the pills, and we call it even.”

“You want me to steal for you?”

“You score me the pills and I go away forever.”

Cohan’s hand drifted back toward his gun and the idea of killing Buggy grew stronger.

“I got a girl,” Buggy said after a long moment. “She knows what I know too. Something happen to me and she makes the calls. She will take you through the shit so don’t get smart.”

“I can’t walk out with a hundred pills,” Cohan said. “No way. Not even the Sheriff could do that.”

“Get some of them,” Buggy said with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “I don’t need all of it but I need some. Get me a couple grand’s worth and we’ll be even.”

Cohan’s head was splitting. The bullet wound from the Evergreen ached suddenly and all Cohan wanted was pills to take away the pain.

“Give me a day,” Cohan told Buggy and then got of the car.

The evidence warehouse for Broward’s sheriff office was located on Sunrise Blvd behind a chain link fence. During the day two deputies were on duty, normally a rookie or elderly dog close to pulling the pin. Cohan sat in the office with the latter of the two as the elderly deputy squinted at a computer screen.

“I’ll find it,” the senior told Cohan over his shoulder while he squinted at the screen.

“You know I can find it on my own,” Cohan began to rise from his chair.

The cop waved Cohan to sit down.

“I’ll find it just give me a damn—” The cop squinted harder and leaned in close to the screen and then smiled brightly. “Look at this!”

The senior officer led Cohan between the stacks looking at a slip of paper. Cohan was a few steps behind.

“You put those three down at the motel?” The cop asked over his shoulder.

“Yeah,” Cohan said noncommittally.

“That was the Lord’s work you did that day sending those three to hell.” The cop stopped and looked at Cohan. “You believe in God?”

“I’m Jewish.”

The cop thought about this for a long minute and nodded deciding that this was good enough for him.

“Your drugs are over here.”

They walked deep into the warehouse and came to a stop before a metal shelf that held several hundred pounds of pills. Cohan stared at the bags and the urge came back. He wanted those pills, needed those pills. He suddenly imagined himself shoving fistfuls of bright colored pills in his mouth like mad dog. Cohan gulped, suppressed the urge.

“Is this it?” The cop asked. “Is this what you’re looking for?”

Cohan nodded slowly.

“Yeah.”

* * *

“Who the hell is this?” Cohan asked, his right hand falling to his gun butt.

Buggy stood ten feet away hands up in the air. Behind him a stubby man with tree trunk size arms stood. The man had a shaved head and a nasty frown. He had trouble stamped on his forehead.

“This guy?” Buggy said. “This guy is my friend Bishop. He’s cool.”

“I’m cool,” Bishop croaked.

“I don’t care if he’s cool,” Cohan snapped. “I don’t know him and I don’t want to know him. He comes close I pump him full of lead.”

Cohan’s gaze was hard and his fingers were now gripping the butt tightly.

“Look, Detective,” Buggy said. “This here is my business partner. He just wants to hear your idea.”

“I’m here to listen,” Bishop echoed. “That’s all.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t need to like it. You just have to give us your idea.”

Cohan fell silent. His shoulder pulsed with pain. He began to rub it but stopped suddenly.

“There is no way I can get it out without getting caught,” Cohan told the pair.

“Then how do you get it to us?” Buggy pushed.

“I don’t bring it to you,” Cohan told him. “I bring you to it.”

* * *

Cohan rented a single-story family house in Dania Beach near Fort Lauderdale Airport. The whine of jet engines rocked the night sky. The house was void of anything personal and many of the rooms sat empty. Cohan sat hunched over the kitchen counter that evening, the hum of the air conditioner filling the background, scribing a letter. He wrote three lines in crooked black ink. Pleased with the message, he sealed the letter in an envelope.

* * *

That night, the heat was thick and hung in the air like a wet towel. Despite the AC turned to full blast, Cohan was sweating. Buggy and Bishop ducked down in the back seat. Cohan felt hard metal prodding him through the back of his seat.

“Try something smart,” Buggy warned in a whisper. “I’ll pump buckshot into your back. Got me?”

Cohan said nothing.

They arrived at the warehouse just past ten. Cohan was buzzed in and pulled up close to the front door. Cohan took a moment to gather himself.

“Camera is placed just above the door,” he said over his shoulder. “Once the door opens you come busting in. Make sure you make this look good.”

Cohan stood at the door, one hand on the handle and his head craned up toward the camera. He gave a short wave. The door buzzed open. Cohan pulled it open and got slammed from behind. Cohan flew inside and skidded to the floor. Rushing feet past his head. A boot caught Cohan in the midsection and he lost his breath. Cohan hacked on the cold floor. He looked up as the two figures of Buggy and Bishop hurried past him toward the glass walled office. Bishop, the bigger of the two, kicked open the door and strode in with the shotgun leveled at his hip.

At the sight of the barrel, the old cop guarding the place put his hands up in the air. Bishop yanked the old timer out of the chair onto the floor by the collar.

“Don’t move!” Bishop shouted into the man’s ear.

Buggy came back and helped Cohan up on to his feet and dragged him to the office.

“Where is it?” Buggy asked, poking Cohan in the side with his pistol.

Cohan sucked air through gritted teeth as he showed Buggy through the stacks. Bishop stayed with Old Timer.

“Why’d you kick me?”

Buggy shrugged.

“Got make it look good, right?”

They turned the corner and came to a stop before the pills. Buggy went wide at the sight and smile crept on to his face slowly.

Buggy threw the plastic baggies into a black leather bag. He filled it quickly. Cohan leaned against a stack rubbing his ribs.

“You are good, Detective,” Buggy said over his shoulder.

“Hurry it up,” Cohan said. “We’re gonna need to call this in.”

“What are you gonna say?”

“That two masked men jumped me outside of my house and forced me here at gun point.”

Buggy stopped and then slowly moved toward Cohan, the pistol down at his thigh.

“You gonna give them names?”

Cohan shock his head.

“No. I just need you gone. Gone for good.”

Buggy smirked.

“Sure thing, Detective.”

A shotgun blast shook the walls. Cohan and Buggy snapped up and look back toward the office at the same time. They bolted back down the stacks and came into the office. The air smelled of gunpowder. The windows of the office were splattered with blood and fluid. Bishop stood in the doorway, smoking shotgun at his hip, staring at his handy work. Cohan shouldered past Bishop and found his heart stopping.

The old man’s chest was a mess of blood and guts. He stared blankly at the ceiling. His legs and arms spasmed. The smell of voided bowels filled the cramped spaced. Cohan’s legs gave out and he fell to the floor.

Buggy slapped Bishop out of his giddy daze.

“What happened?” Buggy snapped

“He made a move! He made a move against me! I put him down,” Bishop growled.

The couple began to shout at one another, their voices rising and carrying. Cohan stared at the corpse in front of him. Cohan noticed the old timer’s piece, a battered old Sig 226, on the counter next to the phone. Cohan dragged the body to the phone and snatched up the gun. He pressed the phone to his ear and leveled the gun at Bishop.

 “What the hell are you doing?” Buggy said.

The line picked up.

“Officer down at the—” Cohan began but never finished.

Bishop brought up the shotgun. Cohan dropped the phone to the floor and fired two shots. They went wide and chewed up the doorframe.  Bishop and Buggy ducked out of the way.

Bishop blindly fired into the office. Buckshot shattered the windows. Cohan hit the floor hard and rolled while firing. His ears rang. Clouds of smoke filled the room.

Cohan scrambled to his feet breathlessly and carefully moved toward the door, pistol leading the way. He found Buggy spread on the floor at the door lying on his back. A hole in his head and baggies of spilled pills carpeting the ground beside him.

The door to his right banged open and Cohan pivoted toward the sound. He covered the ground quickly and crashed through the door into the parking lot. Bishop was at the car’s driver side door. He spotted Cohan coming out the door and brought the shotgun up to bear.

Bishop and Cohan pulled their triggers at the same time. Cohan rapid fired and emptied the clip into Bishop. The round cut Bishop’s legs out and he crumbled to the ground.

The door absorbed Bishop’s buckshot.

Cohan stood rigid in the parking lot, empty gun in his white knuckled grip. He took in a breath. Pain washed over him. Cohan went weak and his legs gave out. Cohan fell like an aged oak tree. He landed with a thud and found blood oozing from holes in his chest.

Cohan craned his head up toward the night sky and took in the twinkling stars and smiled.

* * *

Amanda Molina loved Eli Cohan. Her heart, all of it, belonged to the man. She thought about him once day. She wondered what he was doing, eating, thinking and whether he thought about her like she thought about him. She wrote to him but heard nothing. The doctors, and there had been many since she had been taken, told her to move on and release her hold on the past. Amanda didn’t want to release Eli Cohan.

The day she found a letter with her name for her in the mailbox after school she didn’t think much of it. Like most teenage girls she rarely received mail, and with her birthday around the corner she assumed it was a card from a relative she didn’t see often. Amanda carefully opened the envelope and pulled out the lined paper from within. She read the single line over and over again.

Amanda, You were the only thing that I ever did right in my life. Eli

 

Sean Tuohy currently resides in Boston, Mass., and is working on his next screenplay. His love of pop culture and films scares small children. Tuohy once worked as a professional clown.

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Aftercare'

Photo via Photobucket

Photo via Photobucket

By Carol Reid

The nurse narrowed her eyes and said,

“Your father is going to need some help.”

Caddie hadn't seen headwear like this charge nurse's stiff white old-school cap since her teens.  She wanted to reach out and yank it off, maybe a bit of scalp with it.

“He'll be coming home with me,” Caddie said.

She'd taken herself off the call list at work and settled it with Dan on the way to the hospital. She slept on the sofa bed last night to test it out, and with the mound of pillows at her back, the new television and remote control in easy reach on the side table, and the length of the entire house between her husband and herself, it had been the best seven hours in recent memory. Her father would be as comfortable as a man could be with a cut-line from shoulder-blade to rib and just one remaining lung.

A younger nurse pushing a wheelchair came into her father's room. Caddie shook out and folded his pyjamas into his small suitcase and slipped in the sheaf of aftercare instructions. He came out of the bathroom clean-shaven, dressed in creased slacks, pressed shirt, and carefully knotted tie as if he were heading to the office. He handed her his shaving kit and toiletry bag. The younger nurse helped him slip on his jacket.

“Bring the car around,” he said. “I'll be down in two shakes.”

“Dan's got it. He's watching for us.”

The white-capped nurse gave her a look that said “go.” It seemed to Caddie that her flinty eyes softened just a bit.

“I'll be at the gift shop,” Caddie said.

She headed the wrong way down the hall at first and had to walk past her father's room again before she found the elevator. No worries that her father or the nurses would notice her mistake. They were a circle of three, deep in conversation. She punched the down button and bumped the suitcase with her knee.

For her mother, Caddie had made endless batches of egg custard, every few days discarding the watery uneaten portions, replacing them with fresh ones. Time was counted in rows of little glass dishes lined up in her parents’ fridge. Her father had taken long solitary walks during her visits, or wandered through the aisles of the grocery stores, list in hand, mapping out his wifeless future.

 “‘Do I want some grapes,’ he asks me. Now, he asks what I want. There is nothing he can do,” her mother said, waving away the tray set in front of her.

Caddie felt the downward plunge of the elevator car in her stomach and pressed her back into a corner. Her father would just have to put himself in her hands for the couple of weeks ahead. Her sainted brother lived a thousand miles away, with a nervous wife and three nervous children.

“You and your brother are apples and eggs,” her father had said during the muddled conversation in his kitchen ten days ago. “I can talk to him.”

“You mean he talks.”

“He's convivial.”

Caddie added “convivial” to the long list of her brother's virtues.  Her father handed over a large brown envelope.

“If I pack it in, you'll have my pension while you take care of things. It's all here.”

Dan told her to put all that paperwork away until it became necessary. Dan’s father had died when he was thirteen. He'd been talking about it more than usual while Caddie's dad was in the hospital.

The gift shop was full of breakable things, coffee mugs and praying hands paperweights made of an opaque glass. A china thimble hovered at the edge of its narrow shelf. Caddie placed a bet, and fall it did. It rolled intact under the legs of the glass display case of knitted toys and baby blankets.

Those must be what people steal, Caddie thought.

All she wanted right then was to hold her young son, but it was right to have left him home. His megawatt smile when she told him he'd be staying next door with Denise left no doubt. He'd come back from Denise's with tales of quinoa and kale for supper and the remnants of face paint on his chin and cheeks. For a moment, Caddie felt warm.

The two nurses and her father emerged from the elevator. He stood out of the chair immediately, and the charge nurse took his arm. He patted her hand as if they were old friends.

“All right, Dad?”

“Right as rain,” he said, and tottered down the walkway with Caddie at his heels. Dan had the car running in the pick-up zone, and two other cars idled in the lane, waiting to take the space. He got out and pulled the suitcase out of Caddie's hand, but she shouldered him away when he tried to help her father into the car. They ran a red light to get onto the bridge and Caddie wanted to smack him.

It was twilight by the time they crossed the strait on the big ferry and moonlit dark as they travelled the slow road up the peninsula. Her father dozed on and off, slumped in the back. Near Roberts Creek, he gasped and said,

“Slow down. When you see Greyfriars Road, turn left. Old Hugh Branford has a house down there. I want to see if he's still alive.”

They made the turn onto the narrow gravel road, but it was dead dark right down to the bottom. There was a car in Branford's driveway, not new but looking operational, and a Boler fifth-wheel sagging at the side of the woodshed. A flashlight beam poked out of the bush behind the house. Caddie recognized the tall, barrel-chested man moving into the clearing with a small dog on a leash.

Dan cut the engine and turned on the radio.

Caddie got out and waved.

“I'll just help my dad out of the back; he wanted to say hello.”

“Well!” The big man shouted. “Are you planning to get home tonight or were you looking for a bed?”

The little dog circled its master's legs and sat down.

Her father was having trouble turning his body to get out of the car. He gripped the doorframe and groaned to his feet.

“Heading for the last boat,” Caddie said. “He just wanted to say hello.”

“How are you, Branford?” Her father managed to ask.

“Better than you, I reckon. You look done for.” The two old men shook hands and shrugged at each other. “I think I heard your Rina died, is that so, Jock?”

“Yes,” he said. “Three years already.”

The two old men traded banter about the state of Branford's property and her father's health. There had always been so much talk whenever her dad met up with his friends. His face and voice changed when he was with them, everything lifted and brightened. Her mother had disliked them all.

“We should be going,” Caddie said. The worst part of the road was ahead, all blind corners and hairpin turns until they reached the cove where the small ferry would take them the last leg up the coast to home.

“I'll come and see you, Jock,” Branford said. “Not many of the old guard left anymore.”

“Not many,” her father agreed, and the two men shook hands again.

Caddie had to step between them to help her father get re-settled on the seat. She thought she felt cobwebs brush her face but it must have been a stray hair or two falling from someone's head. Surely they had not stayed long enough for even the most industrious spider to spin her threads around them.

A big raccoon leading her kids crossed in front of them as they drove up Greyfriars Road. She rose up on her hind legs in the beam of the headlights and challenged the car to pass. Caddie loved the chittering sound they made, although, unlike Dan, she was never fool enough to want to tame one.

“Mr. Branford was principal of my school, before we moved right into town,” Dan said as he turned back onto the dark highway.

This was new to Caddie and mildly interesting. Her father perked up at the sound of Dan's voice.

“Wildwood School? So he was, just before he moved up to the board office. Not an easy school.”

Caddie would have preferred her father stop talking. His voice was phlegmy, and his breath was short.

“He took a bunch of us to Vancouver Aquarium in seventh grade,” Dan said.” First time I ever saw the polar bears. Best thing that happened that year.”

“You could have said something to him just now,” Caddie said. This was the most Dan had said to anyone since they left the house that morning.

“Like what?”

She couldn't trouble herself to answer.

“Good chap, old Branford.”

Caddie could hear her dad's breath wheeze in his half-empty chest.

“That's what people say to me about you these days. They stop me in the street.”

Caddie rubbed her tired eyes.

“Rest now. We'll be there in about half an hour. You can get yourself a chili dog on the boat.”

It was an old joke, her dad and his chili dogs with a Scotch chaser. Her stomach began to churn, and she put both hands on the dashboard.

“Sorry, sorry,” Dan said as he took a corner hard.

Caddie wished he would let her drive, but that would bring along its own aggravation. Dan turned around to check Caddie's father.  No complaints were forthcoming from the curled-up form in the depths of the back seat.

When she was next aware, they were parked on the open car deck and a chill salty breeze was seeping through the cracked window. The sound of the water sloshing through the ferry engines rose and fell out of time with her father's slow, shallow breathing. Coast people are tidal creatures, she thought in that way she had of complicating things. Just as well Dan had gone upstairs. He didn't care for her imaginings, and as the years went by she began to get guilty pleasure out of sharing them. This needed to be a healing time for her father. Each of them, Dan, their son Evan, Caddie herself, had a part to play. For two weeks she could keep her nasty side to herself. More and more she was getting like her mother had been, full of poison darts.

Within a few minutes, the ferry was bumping up against the dock, and Dan came back to the car smelling of coffee and Old Port cigar. There'd be no more cigars for him for a while, no more clever remarks for Caddie. And Evan would have to be less of a boy until her father was up to going home.

She felt a familiar surge of energy as they drove up the long hill from the terminal and reached the straight stretch. Dan left the rest of the ferry traffic in the dust and they were in their driveway at ten to midnight. The nap had charged her up. She wanted to scrub floors and baseboards of every speck of grime, maybe clean out a closet or two. But there was nothing that needed cleaning. She wished she could run next door and wake up Evan, but he had school in the morning. Denise would get him fed, ready, and to the bus stop just as the sun rose.

She went inside and put on the kettle to boil while she helped her dad to his bed. He was as bright-eyed as she, but she felt the lack of strength in his body.

He sat on the edge of the mattress, working his feet from his shoes.

“One thing you could do,” he said. “Fetch those two bottles of Scotch out of the cupboard at my house. The rotgut and the good one.”

Dan came in with the trash from a day spent in the car and Caddie plucked the keys out of his hand.

“Just running over to Dad's.”

“I've got dayshift,” Dan said.

“I'll make your lunch when I get back. Go to bed.”

She went back into the kitchen and took the kettle off the stove.

“Does he want tea?” Dan said.

“Ask him,” she said, then took a calming breath.

“I won't be long.”

She found the good scotch where she'd last seen it, still in its canister, seal intact. The rotgut was next to the sink, a sticky glass beside it. There were maybe two fingers remaining, enough for a healthy nightcap. Next to the breadbox were a half-shredded plastic bag and couple of dry crusts torn into ragged pieces.

She picked up the bottle and swirled its contents, back and forth. She would not bring him cigarettes, no matter how many times he asked. Her father had given up his Craven 'A's only when the doctor threatened to cancel the surgery. The house still smelled powerfully of smoke; the drapes and carpet were thick with it. She grew up in a cloud and at twelve didn't hesitate to accept the first smoke offered her, but the habit never really took. Her mother had never smoked tobacco in her life, but she had gone first, and not easily. Caddie needed her mother. The strength of it shook her. She was the grownup, the caregiver, now. She put the bottles in a cloth bag and drove slowly back home.

Her father had changed into his pyjamas and lay atop the sheets, watching the television with the sound turned off. She set the cloth bag beside him.

“All's well at your house,” she said. “The mice, too.”

He took out the sealed canister and admired it.

“Thank you.”

Caddie blinked.

“All right. I'll get a glass.”  

From the kitchen she heard the vacuum pop of the lid being released. She put the heavy tumbler beside him on the end table. He held the bottle with both hands, supporting it as one would a newborn baby.

“That scotch is almost as old as I am,” she said. 

He twisted the cap and the seal cracked open. With the first few drops came that singular scent of earth and heather that made Caddie want to hold her breath.

Her father leaned back and sighed, holding the glass against his breastbone. Caddie went back into the kitchen, took out bread, meat, biscuits, fruit, and made her husband's lunch.

Her father was groggy when she went in to say goodnight. He poured himself another drink and stared at her.

“You know, your mother would have walked out if she could have. Taken you and your brother both. If she’d had money.”

“I can’t imagine why you’d want to talk about that now, Dad. I need to get to sleep.”

“She was an unhappy woman, Caddie. There was nothing I could do.”

Caddie crossed her arms and pressed her lips together. She took the glass gently from his hand as his eyelids fluttered closed.

Dan crept out of bed at five. She'd barely slept. He sat back down on the bed when she waved a limp hand at him.

“I'm going to Dad's place to set out traps today. He can't go back to that.”

“Wait ‘til I get back from work.”

She turned over and pressed her face into her pillow.

“Evan will be home by then, you can't watch both of them.” 

“You’re lucky to have him around, Caddie. My dad was gone so fast and I was just a kid. You’ve had him around all these years.”

He tugged at a strand of her hair.

“That’s what you should be thinking about right now. Right?”

“You’ll be late,” she said.

Dan closed the bedroom door behind him. The purr of his truck engine warming up lulled her to sleep, as always.

Her passage from sleep to waking was a shuffle-fall of memories, like a deck of cards. Her mother in the hospice bed, eyes black with pain. Her own feet slapping the linoleum to the nurses' station, the ward nurse stern and ugly in her denial. The long walk back to her mother's room, the short, useless apology. Her mother's smile, the worst thing.

Caddie opened her eyes to pale October light. She could hear the television chatter at the far end of the house. She put on her robe and raised the blinds. Spider silk laced the outside of the bedroom window, tiny flies caught among the filaments. She slid the window open and the web came apart, strand by strand.

Her father looked thinner in daylight. He hadn't put on his glasses, so she picked them up off the end table and handed them over. He was more himself with his specs; the way he raised his eyebrows to keep them set on the bridge of nose made him appear always a little startled, more alive. But the bottles visible at this time of the day gave an air of ruin, so she picked them up too and tucked them in a corner of the hutch.

“Best try to eat,” she said, “I've got your corn flakes.”

He ate some, holding the bowl on his lap, dipping the spoon with great care.

“I need to go into town soon. You'll be all right on your own for a while, eh?”

In her head she worked out configurations of traps, glue boards, and chunks of bait.

“I might call Stella,” her dad said.

When her mother was still at home someone had thought it a good idea to send a hospice nurse to the house, “to help.” Her mother had come to raging life at the sight of her. Death was the enemy, and this was death's serving girl. Caddie had sent her away, but her father had gone outside and talked with her for a long time. Not just that once, apparently. This Stella had phoned the day of his surgery, asking for news. The call could have been intrusive, but her voice on the phone was warm, low.

“I really like your father,” she'd said.

Caddie didn't remember much else about it.

She brought him the handset.

“Don't trouble yourself if it rings. Sure you'll be all right?”

“Yes,” he said.

Caddie picked up what she needed at the feed store and carted it by the armful into her father's house. She set everything down on the kitchen counter and pulled open all the curtains. A tired pallor had settled over the place, after just the past two weeks. Or had it been gathering since her mother's illness? She knew her dad had a service come to clean from time to time. Didn't he? For a few minutes she stood and listened. Where were they? Nowhere and everywhere, little secret creatures.

Just off the kitchen was the windowless pantry, fitted with dark wood shelves still laden with jars of preserves dated five years previous and big sacks of flour and oats. A mouse hotel if ever there was one. She pulled the string of the bare bulb overhead, hoping that if they were there and they jumped, none would land on her.  The dim light revealed nothing, just more shadows and a smell of dust burning on the hot surface of the bulb. She baited the traps and set them on either side of the flour sack, which had a small tear on one side. The glue board went on the floor, pushed up against the inside wall.  She hoped they found the trap. A fast kill would be easier than slow, for them and for her. In her head she practiced the hammer blow to the ones she found alive. Even in her head, she pulled back.

She went from room to room like this, sizing up the dark corners. In the living room, she remembered the skinny Christmas trees of her childhood, heavy strands of hot lights making their needles drop by Boxing Day. She wedged a trap in between the wall and the piano.

She thought she could smell them in the closet in her parents' bedroom where her mother had once scattered her high heels, where all the skirts and dresses so quickly disappeared after she was gone. She remembered the rustle of the fabrics her mother took such care in choosing for her party clothes–brocade, heavy satin, silk–almost like the sound of wings.

Her father's old clothes hung in a clump, as ever, taking up barely a third of the space. Caddie swept her hand between the hangers: no mice, just unaired wool and Dacron with no room to breathe.

She stood in the doorway for a minute or two, listening for a snap or a squeal, then locked up and left.

There was a blue Public Health van in the driveway when she got home so she took Dan's space beside the carport.  She slammed her car door, but it was no more than a soft thunk and her house was built solid. They wouldn't have heard her from the living room. She walked around the side of the house and tried to keep her eyes on the ground but a crow dropping walnuts on the roof got her attention. Through the side window she saw them, sitting together on the edge of the unmade sofa bed. Her head was on his shoulder and she was talking, whatever she was saying made both of them laugh. Caddie turned back and went to the front steps. She was still sitting there when Stella came out of the house.

“Hey, Caddie,” Stella said.

She'd gone quite grey in the three years since Caddie had seen her. Her blue eyes and smile lines seemed intensified.

“So great that you can have your Dad stay here.”

He'd probably like it better with you, Caddie thought.

Stella sat down beside her, letting the silence settle between them. She heard her mother's voice in her head, her mother's words almost on her tongue, and didn't trust herself to speak.

“I'd like to come visit again, if it's all right.”

Stella, too, appeared to be struggling with something in her throat.

“Your dad and I are friends, but you're his daughter. He's grateful, Caddie. He thinks the world of you.”

It was as if Stella were speaking a foreign language. Her words had nothing to do with the way things had always been between Caddie and her father. She said,

"Do you remember my mother?”

Stella nodded and rubbed her forehead.

“She told me not to come back. Putting it mildly.”

More crows flew in and gathered on the roof. Caddie could hear the scrape of their beaks prying moss from between the shakes.

 “Is he afraid?”

“I don’t think he is,” Stella said.

“Why not?”

“Can we talk about it?”

Caddie expected Stella’s arm to snake around her shoulder, or her hand to squeeze Caddie’s arm. But she kept still, and her hands stayed folded. Caddie got to her feet.

“Okay,” she said. “When you come back.”

“Mum!”

A dust devil tore up the driveway toward them. That time already? Evan had run down the hill from the school bus by himself and the thrill of it was all over him. He flung himself into Caddie's arms and the half-eaten apple in one hand stuck in her hair.

“Hi!” He shouted at Stella.

She laughed and said, “Hi to you!”

“Grampa's friend,” Caddie said.

Evan waved as Stella got into her van. He tried to squirm out of Caddie’s arms but she caught and held him again until the van was out of the driveway. He looked up and clapped his hands hard at the crows until they scattered.

“Where's Grampa?”

 “Resting. So you've got to get all your wiggles out before we go inside, okay?”

She flung him over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes and swayed back and forth until she felt him relax against her.  For the first time she wondered if bringing her father here in this condition had been a bad idea. Evan had been barely two when her mother became ill. She couldn't bear to have her grandson near her, as if the hand of death might brush him with its fingertips.

Evan flinched, and she realized she was squeezing him too tight.

“Down you go,” she sang, and set him on his feet.

Her father’s eyes were closed when they went inside so she tip-toed Evan into his room, and they worked a puzzle together on the floor until the backdoor slammed open. Dan soon peered around Evan's bedroom door.

“He's awake and wondering where you all are,” Dan said.

Caddie got up off the floor.

“Go talk to Grampa, sweetie.”  

She caught Evan's sleeve as he began to bolt.

“Slow speed, okay?”

He nodded and started to walk down the hallway toward the living room.

“When's supper?” Her husband asked. “I want to change the oil in the truck before dark.”

He was already walking away.

“Hang on,” she said. “Just stay here a minute.”

He stopped and turned to look at her.

She tried to sound sensible.

“My dad might not get better.”

Dan shook his head.

“That's pretty negative, Caddie.”

He was itching to get outside, she could tell.

“If you need help with supper, call me.”

 Instead of going into the kitchen, Caddie went upstairs. She closed the bedroom door. Then locked it. She took the long brown envelope her father had given her weeks ago out of her desk drawer and pulled the string from around its seal. The expected documents were there, birth certificate, will, pension transfer, house title. She unfolded the will and looked it over. A simple split between Caddie and her brother and some small bequests, one to Hugh Branford for a large bottle of bad scotch. Separate from these was a small, flat bundle tied with a narrow blue ribbon. Letters addressed to her mother in her father's hand. She opened one, then another, and tried to read bits of each but had to close her eyes.  She had never witnessed the love held in these scrawled words, but she saw it now like a flickering newsreel playing in her spinning head. She refolded everything, tucked it away.

From the hall, she heard the rattle of Lego pieces spilling and her son giggling. The living room carpet was awash with yellow, red, blue cubes and headless Lego people.

Her father stood at the edge of the rocky multi-hued sea holding the lid of the bucket.

“Grampa dropped it,” Evan said. “You better pick this all up, Grampa.”

“We'll pick it up,” Caddie said. “Sit down, Dad, before you fall down.”

She put her arm around her father's waist and let him lean on her a little as he lowered himself into Dan's easy chair.

He pulled a handkerchief out of his trouser pocket and held it against his forehead. After two ragged breaths he cleared his throat and appeared to relax.  Evan gathered up an overflowing handful of blocks and Caddie knelt down and raked the remaining Legos into a mound. 

“How long are you going to live here, Grampa?”

“We want Grampa to stay until he's all better,” Caddie said.

Evan nodded and put his arm around her neck.

“Day or two should do,” her father said.

Caddie leaned back on her heels. 

“Dad,” she said. “I want you to stay.”

“We're ruled by women, lad.” he said to Evan. 

He crumpled his handkerchief into his pocket. A spot on his trousers caught his attention and he tried to rub it away.

"Fetch me a drop when you get up, Caddie."

“Well,” Caddie said, “Maybe I’ll join you in a small one.”

His eyebrows rose.

“Will you? The good one, then. I’ve grown a taste for it.”

In the kitchen she poured out a couple of tots of the good scotch and took a sip. It warmed all the way down. She brought her father his drink and sat down on the carpet beside his chair. Evan circled them, hopping carefully on one foot then the other. Her dad tried to cross his legs, sighed and leaned forward a little.

“Does it hurt, Dad?”

“Somewhat,” he said.

They sat quietly until long after their drinks were empty. Evan built a Lego fence around them. When it was complete, he went to the back door where he stood like a guard against whatever was out there waiting to get in.

Carol Reid lives on the west coast of Canada, close to the north end of Highway 101. Her short stories and micro-fiction have appeared in many print and online journals over the past thirty years. Carol is the current fiction editor of MadHat Lit.

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ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'The Love Song of JFK Jr.'

Photo via Flikr

Photo via Flikr

By Gary M. Almeter

She wore a shimmery yellow sundress, with a thin orange belt and orange shoes, slipped on quickly in the few minutes she gave herself to get dressed. Shirin tended to overestimate the time she had remaining to get ready on these quiet Saturday mornings. So after having a cup of coffee and yogurt and walking the dog, she always ended up rushing through her shower and make-up regimen.

She would typically arrive around seven on those mornings when she was tasked with opening The Singing Mermaids before a busy Saturday. The day had started out like any other on which she had to work. Navid had not been in bed next to her when she woke up. Today he was in Bahrain but it was just as likely that he would be somewhere on the Maryland Country Club’s front nine or at his uncle’s restaurant near the Inner Harbor.

She passed two Starbucks on the ten-minute drive to the Singing Mermaids, but she usually stopped at Dunkin' Donuts, picked up a box of munchkins for the staff , her coffee, and chatted with Sagar, who was always finishing up his overnight shift around 7:00 a.m.

There was a time when she would have detested the artless tasks required in preparing a hair salon for a day of shampooing, beautifying, highlighting, cutting, spraying, and teasing. But in the aftermath of their move from Iran, she grew to enjoy and even find some amusement in such seemingly inconsequential tasks. Savoring the small pleasures of life was a learned behavior, the near-pulmonary rhythms of the salon she created by turning on the lights and the washing tubs and the drying chairs provided tranquility before the tumult of the day began. She flipped the drying chair hoods up so they stood at attention like war horses lined up and rearing, readying themselves for battle. She segregated the curlers by size, replenished the gels and sprays and mousses and pomades, and detangled the cords of her curling irons and blow dryers.

She found the preparation soothing; a nice respite before the onslaught of vanity from her customers, some of Baltimore County’s most refined ladies, began in earnest. Their overly high expectations regarding their metamorphoses could be grating, and Shirin rarely thought of herself as a transformative figure.

Despite the perpetual presence of colleagues and customers, this was a lonely job. People imagine that women who work in shops like this are closer than they really are, imagine them opening up like they can’t do with their husbands, talking about fears and hopes and aspirations and disappointments. But they don’t. Conversations were about George Clooney and sales at Nordstrom and hair trends and Jennifer Aniston and shoes, like a People magazine come to life.

The opening protocols included preparing the salon’s reception area: straightening the magazines, lighting a few of the scented candles, replenishing the mints jar, and turning on the television. That’s when she heard the news.

Shirin sat down on the leather sofa, turned the television to CNN, and watched the hovering helicopters make hypnotic ripples somewhere in the Atlantic. She sipped her coffee as she watched the news in the salon reception area. Her first appointment was not until nine. Then she had a wedding party coming in at ten for a spate of up-dos.

*          *          *

Some miles away, Andrew was waking up. The left side of his face and most of his body were stuck to the vinyl cushions of the sun-porch glider, as though, overnight, the cushions’ bright orange hibiscus flowers had secreted some sort of adhesive. But it was just sweat. And a little bit of drool. As the story of that evening wended its way through the narrative of his personal history, what he did would be described as passing out. He had been drunk the night before, drunker than a man should be on the eve of his wedding. But the decision to sleep on the glider (his grandparents called it a davenport) in the sun porch–that hybrid of a room which was neither a porch nor a full-fledged room, equally tethered to the lawn and the living room–was a conscious and well-reasoned one. His grandparents were staying with them for the wedding and had taken his room. His mother had made up a twin bed in the spare room, but, at the end of the night, he just didn’t feel like going upstairs and seeing his grandparents’ health and beauty aids scattered around his bathroom–the plastic denture cases, the denture adhesive, the creams and the odd medicinal, menthol, ether-ized scents they emitted. His grandparents were lovely. Their presence, however, felt invasive. And their health and beauty aids were a reminder of mortality’s slow and perpetual march, its chronic imminence.

He woke with that jarring sensation of not knowing where he was for a few seconds, like stopping on a Ferris wheel mid-revolution; you look for a horizon line of some sort and noting that, albeit for a second, and you realize your location is a precarious one in light of the whirring sound of the under-greased set of iron gears and the fact that a carnival worker in a Black Sabbath t-shirt and a self-administered Ozzy tattoo on his knuckles is in charge of your fate. The whirring in Andrew’s head was from lots of wine and some vodka gimlets at the rehearsal, which he had drunk as a declaration that he had outgrown beer. These were followed by lots of beer on the back deck of his parents’ house and, after ignoring his brothers’ warnings about Elaina’s disappointment with a hung over groom, a few shots.

He had no idea where he was until he saw the familiar drape of the beige canvas sheet covering the 1964 Jaguar MKII behind his neighbor Quinn’s garage. The cover, while it protected the pristine turquoise paint, also rendered the car less like the sleek driving machine it was (or was meant to be) and more like a cord of firewood or old propane tank or some other discarded backyard accouterments. Mr. Quinn was outside watering the row of hydrangeas that ran from his driveway, past his 64 Jag and along his garage. As a result, he was only about seven or eight feet from Andrew, who could hear him whistling Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak.” He wondered if this was Quinn’s retribution for having been kept awake the night before, retribution of the passive aggressive sort favored by people from good stock–too well bred for confrontation but self-important enough to make their displeasure known. They had been loud the night before, doing funnels off the porch, the volume of the music increasing in direct proportion to their increasing drunkenness, with his buddies dropping more than a few F-bombs. Quinn could clearly see him this morning. Andrew wondered if Emily Post could have predicted such a scenario, a man waking up hung over and remorseful in a fishbowl on his wedding day stuck to tropical vinyl foliage, and what she might have suggested would be the appropriate salutation to a neighbor watering his hydrangeas.

Like a Ferris wheel making its slow descent to drop him off, the previous night and the day’s forthcoming events came into view. A wedding. His wedding. No less jolting than an abrupt Ferris wheel stop.

Andrew was a lucky man; if one were able and inclined to assess the ratio of his angels to his demons. Such an assessment would yield a clear surplus of angels, of gifts, of assets, of things which can only be given and not learned. Despite his good fortune, he had an overarching vision of himself as something different, something more significant, more the result of impatience than ability, adeptness, or ambition.

Everything about the room he was in confirmed his good fortune: the smell (a familiar potpourri of chlorine, grass, booze, and leather), the Persian rug on the fieldstone floor, the photo of his grandfather shaking hands with Orioles manager Earl Weaver hanging over his head, the wicker chair with a cushion made of the same hibiscus vinyl to which he was currently stuck, and the built-in book cases against the wall with the set of obsolete encyclopedias. A breeze came in through the open window and it became apparent that this morning was one of the most temperate and gentle days the mid-Atlantic region had ever conferred.

Not one to enjoy breezes or be affected by blue skies, he, realizing he was waking up later than he had wanted to, stood up and walked into the kitchen. His dad and his grandparents were seated around the breakfast table watching the helicopter make ripples in the waters off

Martha’s Vineyard. His mother was cutting peaches at the kitchen counter.

“No way,” said Andrew as he came to understand what was happening. “No fucking way.”

He and his fiancée, Elaina, had been everywhere together for the last ten years. They went to classes together in high school. He went to her house for holidays. She went to his. They went to the prom together. They went to the mall, football games, basketball games, lacrosse games, the movies, the 4th of July fireworks together. They went to Princeton together. They got jobs in Baltimore together. They went to happy hour, went to the new Camden Yards, went to parties at apartments of kids who had taken jobs at Johns Hopkins, Legg Mason, and T. Rowe Price. He asked her dad for permission to marry her while the two played tennis. Andrew had won. He orchestrated a proposal at an Orioles game and had invited scores of family and friends. They were slated to honeymoon in Hawaii. Surely the first of several such beaches they would visit together in their married life.

“That poor woman,” Andrew’s mother said when a file photo of Caroline and her three children appeared on the news.

“Poor me.” Andrew said. “This is all I am going to hear about for the rest of my fucking life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Andrew’s father asked in the chiding voice he used when Andrew was being melodramatic.

It had nothing to do with Andrew’s use of “fuck.” While not encouraged, its use was tolerated.

“I guarantee you right now Elaina is talking about how this has ruined her wedding day,” replied Andrew. “In her condition there is no way she will be able to cope with this.”

“What condition is that, sir?” His father asked condescendingly.

“Just perpetually on the cusp of a nervous breakdown with all this wedding bullshit.” Andrew replied.

“I think you might be exaggerating just a little bit,” his mother said, defensively.

He regretted having to badmouth Elaina on their wedding day. He was sorry to have cursed in front of his grandmother. He didn’t want to be labeled a jerk. He knew that he would be there for her no matter what. But why did she have to be so goddamned self-centered all the time.

The only good thing about this epiphany–that he’d be dealing with a sullen bride for the next few days–is that it seemed to diminish the intensity of his hangover. Both, however, diminished the day.

*          *          *

Shirin had just finished giving a fairly standard perm when Elaina and her bridal party walked into the Singing Mermaids, looking more melancholy than a bridal party should.

Elaina had been a plain girl, nearly ugly but not quite, but had emerged from puberty looking like a kind of imperfect movie star. Her mother once told her that she looked like Michelle Pfeiffer had Pfeiffer been a few sizes bigger with a more oblong head, closer-set eyes, and redder, less perfect skin.

Andrew loved her nonetheless. Because of her “independent spirit and hearty laugh” he often said. She couldn’t tell when Andrew’s disinterest began. There is so much to say in a courtship, but so much unsaid. Andrew and Elaina were the sort to assume that there would always be other times, other occasions, other years. She thought it something shy of apathy but something more insidious than mere naiveté. And wondered if his nonchalance was merely the byproduct of momentum. Maybe he already knew the answers to questions she wished he would have asked. A slow and inevitable decline that began that unidentifiable first time he felt contained.

This feeling of second-ness continued that morning as the Singing Mermaids buzzed with news of the lost hunk. Elaina greeted Shirin who looked at her sympathetically. She took a seat and sat silent amidst the cacophony as Shirin began to replicate the up-do they had practiced last week. Ladies approached Elaina and commented on how beautiful she and her bridesmaids looked and extended their assurance that “it” was no big deal. Some lady next to Elaina was talking about how she had been to Martha’s Vineyard once; another said that she had shaken Robert Kennedy’s hand when he visited her college in upstate New York in 1968.

Elaina, her own legs stuck to the black vinyl of a swiveling salon chair, knew she was not that type of bride who had fretted and nagged and cajoled and demanded spotlights or obsessed about shoe colors and grosgrain ribbons; she let Andrew pick music and agreed to have photos taken at Camden Yards. But sharing her wedding day with a cataclysmic event seemed too significant. A day of events, one in her life, one in theirs. One she had planned, and one they had not. Though there was a kind of inevitability in both. What had each been travelling to? One to a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. The other to her own wedding and a life of ease, of sunsets and dooryards and sprinkled streets.

But how easy would life be with Andrew? He was talking about getting his MBA. It was clear they’d never be leaving Baltimore. And at times he treated her with what resembled disdain.

One woman, with a mud mask and cucumbers on her face, lamented the loss of the hunk. The older ladies talked about his father and where they were when they heard he had been shot. Elaina closed her eyes as Shirin released another torrent of hairspray and could picture nothing but boats bobbing up and down, hoping, wandering through the sound in a state of more panic and sorrow than summer typically belied. She could hear sound bites on the television, “son of the assassinated president,” “approximately a dozen aircraft involved in the search,” “passengers in the missing plane” mixed with sound bites from those near her, “a little higher here,” “a little less Kim Basinger and a little more Grace Kelly,” “redder lipstick,” “smokier eye.” Elaina suddenly felt no affinity for any of them. There wasn’t a single person in the entire place with whom she felt a thing in common any more. Toward most she felt nothing but disdain.

On the large television screen fastened to the salon’s wall, there was a photo of the couple, now presumed dead, walking out of the church on their own wedding day, that picture where he is kissing her hand as they emerge from that church on Cumberland Island. Its memory now clouded by calamity. As Elaina’s wedding soon would be.

Elaina recalled the days when her life with Andrew seemed happy, when their world had been small, and building a life together meant navigating social milieus with proficiency and agreeing on what music to listen to in the car. But she also recalled the constant battle in her heart even then. How she felt drawn to this conventional happiness, how she felt that she loved Andrew more than she had ever loved anyone in her entire life, how the life toward which she was headed was possible, that she might actually be able to do it. And yet, she was also perpetually aware of the other, more deeply seated part of her nature that wanted to run away, not out of fear but out of an eagerness for adventure. A part of her believed that it was not possible after all, that it would and could only end in catastrophe.

She had never looked at Andrew the way Carolyn looked at John when they walked out of that church. And to the best of her recollection he had never looked at her like that. His eyes generally told her that she was part of the formula. She thought of that line that said the greatest hazard of all was losing one’s self, how it can occur very quietly in the world as if it were nothing at all. In the midst of this lost plane. How their loss had been noticed. How hers had not. Then she thought of them unbegrudgingly, saw them riding seaward on the waves without regret, thought of the allure of flight, and the spirit that prompted the flight in the first place. She thought of this man who had been scared of nothing–or was more afraid of that which waited for him if he spent his whole life with his feet on the ground.

There was a moment, the sort of moment that creates a juncture between the before and after, but not even really a moment, more of just a flicker of a modicum of recognition, that happened between Shirin and Elaina. Amidst the mirth and chaos and sadness and incredulity that was happening at the Singing Mermaids that morning. While Shirin was teasing and pulling and spraying and twisting, her eye caught Elaina’s in the mirror. Shirin’s face, perhaps involuntarily, provided a look, one that told Elaina that the hole created by isolation gets bigger, meaner, and more inescapable, with each passing day. It creates this hole where most emotions and feelings just keep vanishing soundlessly and irretrievably.

Elaina stood up and hugged Shirin then ran from the Singing Mermaids. One strand of hair had escaped from her up-do and flowed behind her in the breeze her running created. She left the bridesmaids and the ripples and Andrew behind her, along with that which she had been trying not to imagine.

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle.

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ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Smoke'

Photo courtesy of roycewdove on Photobucket

Photo courtesy of roycewdove on Photobucket

By Anne Leigh Parrish

Ten years ago, you got four, maybe five fires a season, but that month alone there'd been ten. Global warming was to blame. Some insect had moved north and killed off the Douglas fir. When lightning struck, those dead trees burned right away. A healthy, living tree was harder to ignite. 

Most fires were small and insignificant, in remote, unpopulated areas. Now the three dotting the mountains over the Methow Valley had merged. Five thousand acres scorched, then seven, then ten. The sky dulled; the haze thickened; all views obscured, even from the Lodge, up at 1,800 feet.

Guests were disappointed. Every morning there was an updated smoke map posted on the front desk. After studying it intensely, many checked out. The business group that had booked months in advance complained, asked for a discount, or better yet, free drinks, then went on with their seminar. They were there to talk about trends in resort properties, where the market was hot, and where it had cooled off. Right on schedule, three times a day, they showed up in the dining room, wanting to be fed. They looked out the insulated floor-to-ceiling windows at the valley. Those who'd been there before remembered the green sculpted hills, and the trees lining the river bank around the bend and out of sight. Now there was only the smoke. 

Jordan had served in that dining room for the past three years. She was lucky. Valley kids didn't have many chances for a paycheck. Summer was the high season. When the forest wasn't aflame, families came to raft down the river or put their little ones on gentle, old horses to be led around the paddock. When the kids got shunted off into any of a number of Lodge sponsored activities that were well supervised—never mind that episode before Jordan's time when the camp counselor lit a joint and shared it with whomever of his young charges was brave enough to try—Mom and Dad could drink champagne at the spa or whatever mindless pastime appealed to them. Winter was more quiet. The few families that came were excited at first. They pretended to know how to cross-country ski and to enjoy the freezing sleigh rides with bells on the horses, no less, but then the thrill of snow and icicles quickly wore off and voices turned high and whiny.

Then there were the hard-core athletes, skinny men and women of all ages, who carbo-loaded at breakfast, skied twelve miles, collapsed in their soaking tubs, and took over the bar until it closed at two a.m. By that time Jordan was long gone, down the winding road to her grandfather's ranch and the back room she'd occupied since the age of eight, when her parents went down in a tiny plane on their way to Montana. 

As a young person in the valley, she was one of a dying breed.

Many left for Seattle. Then the recession hit, and it made more sense to stay home. Now the city was in the middle of another building boom, thanks to Amazon. Restaurants and bars were really picking up. Jordan often thought of joining them. Her grandfather, Pete Parsons, said over his dead body. He had no use for liberal thinking and big government ways that was rife west of the Cascades.

Once, Jordan sought to enlighten him. She pointed out that it was, in fact, the rural counties in the rest of Washington State that received more federal tax dollars per capita than in the Puget Sound region. He wouldn't hear of it. This country was built on self-reliance, not government control. Jordan remembered a time when her grandfather could discuss just about anything calmly—except certain boys she might be interested in or a local initiative to limit access to handguns. But over the last year or so, his mind had stiffened as badly as his arthritic hands, and his words were always short and cross.

"You really should take him to a doctor," Trevor, her on-again-off-again boyfriend said. 

"He's been. Nothing to say. Just getting old," Jordan said.

That wasn't entirely true. Dr. Nate, as he was called, had suggested to Jordan in private that her grandfather's memory problems—forgetting where he put his keys or what day of the week it was—might be completely normal for a seventy-four-year-old man, but bore watching.   He didn't have to use the word Alzheimer's. Jordan had been considering it for a while.

They were on Trevor's porch. His parents' home sat high on a hill. Their view wasn't as good as the Lodge's, especially now with all the smoke, but stirring enough. Trevor's father sold real estate, big parcels to rich people from the city who wanted weekend getaways. He single-handedly had turned the valley into a vacation retreat which made some people happy and enraged others. Jordan's grandfather was one of the cranks.

“Those pinheads, coming out here in their fancy SUV's,” he’d say. “People like that, who don't get their hands dirty, wrecking the whole damn place.”

Anyone who owned a restaurant or pub loved having them, though. Money was money, and it didn't matter where it came from.

Trevor sipped his beer. His was tall and broad, a basketball player who'd tried football and dislocated his shoulder the first semester at college. That had set a bad tone; he lost interest in his classes, dropped out after two years, and came home to do essentially nothing. Finally, his father thought to teach him the basics of real estate, starting with property appraisals. There were some appraisers who played ball, and some who didn't. You had to know who was who. Same with mortgage bankers. Since the crash, they'd gotten awfully fussy about checking a person's credit right down the bone. One late utility bill could throw the whole deal.

Trevor was soon desperately bored. He took to riding his dirt bike over his property, which worried his mother and made his father say he needed a good kick in the pants. Then Trevor had the smart idea to apply for transfer to another school, out of state. He'd been at WSU in Pullman. Party Central, he called it. Majoring in business was easy, but he felt if he continued he'd end up working for his father, which he couldn't stand. He was bright, and had good test scores. He put an application in at Stanford. In his essay, he said his time off had been spent learning the ins and outs of his father's business, which he loved, but soon realized that true success in life must be founded on completing his education. He got accepted.

Jordan knew his going to California would probably be the end of them. That was okay. When she struck out on her own, it would be better to travel light. Her dream was to go to Seattle and act…or recite free verse in coffee shops…or anything else that would let her pretend she was someone else. She could be from anyplace else where people's boots weren't always dusty, the sky held the promise of rain not drought, and the noise of traffic filled the deadly quiet she had come to hate, except when the wind blew, because that was the sound of longing and thirst, which she knew so well.

"I hear they might have to close Highway 2," Trevor said.

"Really?"

"Fire jumps the road, they won't have a choice."

Highway 2 was one of the few roads through the mountains. People liked it better than I-90 because it was more scenic, except now, of course.

In the distance the sound of a forest service helicopter cut through the gray air. 

"You'll be stuck here like everybody else," Jordan said.

"Nah. School's weeks away. It'll all be under control by then."

It had already been a month, and the burn area was growing every day.

"If you say so," Jordan said.

"You just don't want me to go."

"Sure I do."

"You'll miss me."

"Of course."

"Liar."

Trevor lit a cigarette.

"As if the air's not bad enough," Jordan said.

"Tell Grandpa that."

"Deaf ears."

Pete Parsons looked upon smoking as an inalienable right, along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He'd smoked for fifty years and said he never felt better. He coughed constantly, especially first thing in the morning. His long, syncopated hacks that made Jordan cringe. Sometimes he couldn't catch his breath and wheezed so roughly Jordan was sure he'd hit the floor. His fingers were yellow, the walls of their ranch home stained and streaked. The smell was in Jordan' clothes, her hair, and deep in her nose. No air freshener lifted the stench. And now, with the fire drawing near, the smell of his cigarettes, rather than being blended or masked, only became sharper and more vile.

Trevor finished his cigarette, and dropped the butt into the top of his beer can, where it made a quick, satisfying hiss.

"Gotta go. Meeting the guys in town," he said.

"Okay."

He stood up. Jordan did, too. She went on her way.

As she drove down one side of the valley and up the other to the Lodge, she thought about the wrangler who'd asked her out. Dwayne was the real deal, the kind of guy her grandfather loved. He'd been around stock animals all his life, grew up right there in Central Washington with a stint in Iraq—another thing that would win him points with Grandpa, which Jordan actually called him—and seemed gentle and kind. The horses loved him, at any rate, as did the petrified riders he took out on the trail. And he sang at the cowboy camp dinners the Lodge put on twice a week. He had a deep yet twangy voice made for country music. 

Jordan hated country music. All that cheap sentiment over and over again.

Grandpa listened only to right-wing talk radio, which she couldn't stand either. She already had enough hate in her heart without being encouraged to carry even more.

A week later, she accepted Dwayne's invitation.

His idea of a first date wasn't exactly as she hoped. She imagined a white table cloth at Yvonne's, the Valley's finest. Yvonne herself frequented the Lodge. She was from California, the Bay area, with ties to L.A. Short and slim, she had the energy of a rushing bird in the bush. Peck-peck-pick-pick.

Dwayne cooked for Jordan himself instead. His place was small, a one-bedroom cabin in the woods with the sound of the river through the open windows, and, of course, the smell of smoke. His kitchen table was covered with a red and white oilcloth. It belonged to the Lodge, one of many used on their popular cowboy camp dinners where guests could travel either on horseback or in a horse-drawn wagon along the creek to a quiet, green clearing and eat steaks, beans, corn, some sugary dessert, and listen to Dwayne strum his guitar and sing songs of the Old West. The plates were borrowed, too, the same blue speckled tin used by those rich, bored guests. Jordan had worked a number of those dinners herself. She studied people from the shelter of the cooking shed. The adults looked at their watches while Dwayne sang. The children fidgeted, then broke free from the picnic table and ran around.

Jordan politely ate her fried chicken, paid many compliments, and thought herself an idiot for expecting anything fancy. Then she felt bad for denigrating Dwayne in her mind. She wasn't used to anyone doting on her, she decided. No one ever had. Except her dog, Larry, a fat yellow Labrador who looked at her with vacant, loving eyes. She felt bad when she remembered him. He died the year before.

As to Grandpa, well, he was a case. Not exactly the doting kind. Dwayne wanted to know all about him. As Jordan predicted, they were kindred, if, as yet, unmet, spirits.

Yes, he'd served his country. In Vietnam, to be exact. And he'd been married over thirty years, until his wife died. Dwayne was fascinated by the idea that Jordan had been more or less raised by her grandfather. Did she remember her parents at all, he wanted to know, with a suddenly sappy expression which suggested he'd had too much beer.

“Not really,” she said, although she did. Especially her mother, Pete's daughter.

“Watch out for that old fuck,” her mother would say with a laugh, a beer in hand, a sway in her hips when Jordan's dad was in the room and they were alone. They usually were on their own in the cabin at the end of the property. Grandpa, in his grief over his daughter's death, tore the cabin down.

Dwayne reckoned her in that moment, a child with no memory of Mom and Dad, and found himself deeply moved. He kissed her cheek gently, as if she were about three years old.

Jordan spent the night. She knew beforehand that she would. Dwayne must have known it, too, because he made it a point to mention that he'd put clean sheets on the bed. The sex left her cold, though Dwayne seemed to enjoy himself enormously. Maybe it was gratitude, Jordan thought, that made him clutch her so desperately. He fell asleep right away, and she lay awake a long time. Just before she finally relaxed enough to drift off, it occurred to her that he might be in love with her.

The white flower in a glass at breakfast proved her right. He said he'd loved her from day one. Jordan didn't understand. She wasn't the kind of woman men fell in love with. When she said so, he looked baffled. He had a dish towel slung over one shoulder. For a moment it looked like he might go down on one knee. 

"Do you doubt me?" Dwayne asked.

She shook her head, and he placed the flower behind her ear. He danced her across the tiny room, and held her a little too hard. 

He drove her home, and came in with her. He introduced himself as Jordan's boyfriend.

Grandpa was delighted. He'd never liked Trevor.

"Maybe now I can marry her off," he said with a chuckle, exhaling a plume of smoke, followed by a wrenching hack.

Dwayne turned red.

"Don't worry, he always jumps the gun," Jordan said.

Grandpa waved her away. The wooden arms of his plaid easy chair had smoothed to a high shine. The whole room was like that, old and worn. Every time someone came to visit Jordan saw it in that unflattering, miserable light. The carpet was stained black in places. The curtains were missing a number of hooks, making them droop across the sagging rod. In the kitchen, where Jordan opened a couple of beers, the linoleum had lifted in several places, and was cracked in others. As a child Jordan seldom thought of the house and how it looked. Then, it was just a house. Over time she grew to hate it, particularly the way it smelled, not just of smoke, but something stale and damp, even though the climate was for the most part fairly dry.

She knew the house would be hers one day. Grandpa said so often enough. Whenever she complained about how it looked he'd say,

“When my time comes you can fix it up any way you like. Then you'll quit your griping.” 

Jordan liked to think she had an eye for decorating and design. When the Lodge was renovated just the year before, she asked the consultants a lot of questions. The ones who took time to answer taught her a lot. If she had her way, she'd knock down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room to make one open concept space. A bright paint color on the walls would do wonders. And no more drapes, slatted shutters were the thing. All of this assumed that she could live there with the memories. The memories she denied and which took pleasure in burning through her defenses.

Grandpa talked to Dwayne about the fires. They were still raging, every day seemed worse than the day before. The Lodge would have to close if the wind shifted enough. No sooner had one blaze been killed off then another—always from a lightning strike—took off. Men were coming in now from all over the west to fight. Their trucks lined the winding mountain roads.  The faces of the men going up were clear and tense. The faces of the men coming down were sweaty and smudged. Jordan thought they were thrilling, those men. Fighting fire took a lot of courage, certainly a lot more than raising cattle or singing cowboy songs.

Jordan went out into the yard to be alone with her thoughts. Grandpa and Dwayne were getting along just fine. 

Like a house afire, Jordan thought, then felt stupid. She was not an original thinker.  She'd been told this before.

“You're as dumb as a fence post,” Grandpa was fond of saying. What passed for affection from some folks was a true mystery. She could count on the fingers of one hand the people who had been truly nice to her. 

One, her mother. Her father never joined in because he wasn't mean, just absent. He worked on a fishing boat out of Seattle. Her parents argued about it. Apparently her mother didn't like the long time away. 

“You could ranch with my dad,” she had said, then immediately took it back. Jordan's mother always wanted to leave, and move to the other side of the Cascades and never got the chance.

Two, Lorna, the housekeeper at the Lodge. She was a cheerful waddler, with swaying arm flab. Sometimes Jordan went with her to make sure the maids had done their job right. When they didn't, Lorna said,

“Well, I'll be a son of a sea cook!” 

Lorna was from Wyoming and claimed that she had never seen the ocean. Once, when Lorna found Jordan crying, she said tears were drops from the river of Heaven, whatever that was supposed to mean.

Three, Sandy, the bartender. He was down to three fingers on one hand. An accident with a skill saw when he'd had one too many. 

“Too many, two few, get it?” He’d say.

It didn't slow him down one bit. He made a mean margarita, Jordan's favorite. Once, when she was done for the night, she leaned on the bar, which was made of a single plank of fir, and told him she hated her life. 

“Lots of things you can hate in this world, but not life,” he had said.

She had so much to drink, he told her to come home with him and sleep on the couch, as she hoped he would. Grandpa was being particularly difficult at that point, and she needed some time off.

Four, and last, Trevor, no longer on-again-off-again after she texted him that morning about Dwayne. His text back said,

“Good luck. You'll need it.”

As Jordan listened to Dwayne talking to Grandpa in that run-down excuse of a living room, she experienced a savage twinge of regret about Trevor. She'd had those twinges before, many times, about many things. She knew they always passed quickly enough.

Five days later, on a back porch at the Lodge as the fire smoke swallowed the daylight and stung their eyes, Dwayne put his arm around her. She tensed. She'd kept to herself since their first night, and wasn't used to him yet. He didn't sense it. He leaned in closer, and gently brushed her hair from her face.

"You are a quiet little thing, aren't you?" Dwayne asked. 

He smelled of sweat. He'd been out on the trails all day with guests, and hadn't showered yet. Jordan noted how much one man's sweat smelled like another. Grandpa wasn't the keenest bather, and he was often ripe.

She shrugged in response.

"See what I mean?" He asked, kissing her. "Not that I mind, see. A talky woman can get on your nerves."

"That would be a tragedy."

"Did I do something to tick you off?"

She shook her head.

They sat and smelled the smoke.

A siren sounded from far down the valley.

"Another evacuation," Jordan said.

"Probably."

"Where are they going to go?"

"Dunno. Wenatchee, I guess. Maybe as far as Yakima."

Indian names, as if calling a town after a tribe could make up for anything.

"You know, you should get your granddad packed up, just in case," Dwayne said.

"He won't go."

"Might not have a choice. Police have the authority to move anyone out of the way, if they deem it necessary."

Jordan could tell how much Dwayne enjoyed using these official sounding words. Maybe he'd practiced them in front of a mirror. Once again, she scolded herself for not being fair. She studied his profile. It wasn't bad, except for the earlobe. He told he'd once worn a small gauge, then decided it didn't suit the rest of his image, so he removed it. The lobe had stretched the way it was supposed to, and now sagged stupidly.

“You're a hard one, Miss Jordan.”

Which teacher had said that?  Someone left over from the old days, who didn't believe in unnecessary kindness.

"You'll need to set him a good example," Dwayne said. "If you like, I can help."

"Help what? Pack?"

"Sure."

"You don't need to do that."

"Look, I know you're just putting on a brave front."

"What do you mean?"

"With your granddad. Trying to cover for him, you know."

"No, I don't know."

"His mind. He's not all there."

"Oh."

"You're probably used to it. But I couldn't miss it for the world."

Jordan grew uneasy. She flexed her toes inside the tips of her comfortable black shoes. She'd had to buy them herself. The Lodge had supplied the uniforms the wait staff wore, a blue top and khaki pants for breakfast and lunch, and black shirts and black pants for dinner.

"What did he say?" Jordan asked, after another minute. The air thickened.

"Stuff that just didn't make any sense."

"Like what?"

"Like what you're like in bed."

The sound of someone crying in the kitchen reached them. Probably Adele. She was a sous chef and had boyfriend problems.

"I figured he was talking about his wife. She died a while back, right?" Dwayne asked, his arm was still around her.

"Yes."

"I hear that when old folks start to lose it, they can remember stuff that happened long ago better than stuff that happened just the day before."

"Uh, huh."

Jordan edged out of his embrace, and stood. She held onto the smooth wooden railing, wishing to meet a splinter or a notch. Dwayne continued to sit.

"Anything else?" Jordan asked.

"Huh? You mean your granddad? Oh, the usual nutty stuff. He said Nixon was doing a great job."

A few moments before, Mount Robinson had been visible. Now it was gone. The smoke was coming closer. To her left, Jordan could see it flowing into the valley and up the opposite rise where her house was.

"Look!" Dwayne was on his feet. Flames had topped the rise from the other side. They were orange, not yellow, as Jordan thought they'd be.

It's time, she thought.

Barry Johnson, the Lodge's manager called up to them from the outside landing.

"We're closing up! Best get a move on!"

Dwayne and Jordan went down the stairs. Dwayne offered to drive Jordan home, and stay until she and Grandpa were on their way to Wenatchee. Jordan said she didn't want to leave her car at the Lodge.

"Then I'll follow you," Dwayne said.

"What about your place? You better go get yourself cleared out."

He nodded. She could see that he hadn't really been thinking about that. His devotion to her was astonishing. Also annoying.

He's just trying to latch on because he probably can't stand being alone, she thought, although she had no specific reason for believing so.

He followed her down the winding road from the Lodge, then turned left at the stop sign. Her house was to the right. When she arrived, Grandpa was at the kitchen table, working his way through a bottle of whiskey.

"Know what that imbecile told me? That we had to go. Damn fool. Still wet behind the ears, that one," he said.

Jordan thought he was probably referring to the new Sheriff's deputy, Matt Finch. He was a year younger than Jordan. They'd been in school together. 

"He's just doing his job," Jordan said.

"As if there's any way I'm gonna leave the house I built with my own two hands and let it burn!"

"Nothing you can do, Grandpa."

Jordan knew for a fact that the house had been standing when Grandpa bought it.

"The hell you say!"

Grandpa poured himself another drink, and lit another cigarette. A siren sounded further down their road, sped past their property, and went on, distorted and elongated. Grandpa put his cigarette on the corner of his glass ashtray and missed. The cigarette rolled onto the table. He'd had quite a lot to drink, Jordan saw. She put the cigarette in the ashtray. It stayed this time.

He went on grumbling. She found his vial of sleeping tablets in the medicine cabinet, prescribed at her request during a phase when he was particularly active and bothersome at night.  She dissolved four of them into a fresh glass of whiskey and gave it to him. He drank from it willingly. Twenty minutes later, his head was resting on the table. He snored. She packed her things. She had little. She included a photograph of her parents. She did not include a necklace Grandpa had bought her for her birthday some years before. She thought about stripping her bed, then decided that the flames, when they came, would do away with the whole structure.

The place where he'd taken her against her will and then with her frozen silence which he took as acceptance. And which it was, really, when you didn't fight back, or struggle, or utter a single sound. 

But fire made noise. It whooshed, and sighed, like an old man gone in the head and a girl desperate with loneliness and self-hate.

Well, this is what it all came down to. A pile of ash where a nightmare once stood.

She'd have to line things up, though. They'd want to know why she left without him.

He told me to go. He saw that I was afraid. He'd said he'd be right along.

And you didn't argue? You just went?

I never argue with my grandpa. I wasn't raised that way.

And then there'd be a pause, time to consider the situation. Grandpa's mental state might come up. 

Your sense of obedience is admirable. Yet the fact remains that you left an old man with memory problems alone in the path of a fire. Didn't you think he might get confused, and not know what to do?

He wasn't confused at all. He was very clear. He told me to go and be safe.

Then she'd cry to demonstrate the depth of her loss. She'd offer the hope that he did make it somehow, and just hadn't checked in.

The burned out shell of his truck was there. It's not likely he left on foot.

Maybe someone came and got him. Maybe…oh, I don't know!

Or perhaps none of this would happen, because the fire would take everything out, the valley and the hills and anyone who would ask questions. Maybe they would all be gone.

Only she would be left to stand on the beach for the first time in her life and watch small stones roll in the surf, where the wind, fresh and strong, lifted her hair and carried the smell of water and salt, not smoke.

Anne Leigh Parrish is an author based out of Seattle, Wash., and recently published her first novel What Is Found, What Is Lost. To learn more about the author, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @AnneLParrish. Also check our interview, In the Business of Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Anne Leigh Parrish.

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

A Tragically Hopeful Thanksgiving

The Pageant of a Nation, painted by  Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The Pageant of a Nation, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

By Elizabeth Nicklis

Crick, crick, crick. 

Sarah awoke to the sound of birds chirping. It was sunrise; she would have to hurry if she didn't want to get a scolding for being idle. 

Ugh, she thought. I hate this new so called, “America.” 

She lived in Plymouth Colony, and she didn't like it one bit.  

“Morning,” she said to Ma in the kitchen. 

“You're quite late. Go and fetch us some water.” 

When she was out near the well, a boy named James came up to her. He was lean, strong, and capable of doing a grown man's work. He was tall and had shaggy blond hair with bangs on the right. He had a dimple and liked to laugh and make other people laugh. 

“Good morning Little Bird,” James said.

Little Bird was his pet name for her. 

“Good morning,” Sarah said. 

James had been visiting her often now so she wasn't surprised at him being here. 

“Late to work as usual, I suppose,” he teased. 

“Oh yes, and what are you supposed to be doing lazy boy?” Sarah snapped back. 

James for a moment looked hurt.

“I came to see you before my morning chores.” His face reddened and Sarah instantly felt bad. 

“I'm sorry James,” she said. “I guess I am just not happy here.” 

“Hm, how about you finish your chores quickly, and then I can take you for a walk around this America you hate so much and show you how beautiful it is?” 

Now it was Sarah's turn to blush. 

“Well, I…I…I will ask Ma.” 

“Great, I’ll see you around!”

James then jumped the fence and was gone. 

“Well goodbye to you too,” she murmured under her breath. 

When she got back to the house, Ma was waiting. 

“Where were you? You took forever.” 

“She probably was out kissing that boy James at the well,” said Mary who had just come from the bedroom. 

“Shut up Mary.” Sarah said to her younger sister. 

“Watch your words,” Ma said. 

A little while later a knock sounded outside. Sarah froze. What if it was James? Then she'd be busted for sure. Ma opened the door. 

“Hullo Mrs. Hannah,” said Mr. Boston stepping in through the door.

“Why hello Mr. Boston, do you bring news?” Ma asked anxiously. 

“You can call me John, Hannah.” 

“Why?” asked Ma. 

“Because we're neighbors!” John Boston's laugh rang through the whole house. 

“Is that the only news you bring us?” asked Sarah who had been quiet this whole time. 

Mr. Boston looked down with surprise.

“Well, hullo beautiful flower.” 

“Hello,” Sarah said back absentmindedly. 

Beautiful? She thought. I certainly don't think so. 

Sarah had messy brown hair, a small nose and mouth, and round brown eyes. To top it off, she had a patched up, black and brown dress with a white apron. Ma brought her manners back by nudging her side. 

“Thank you sir,” she said wincing. 

Ma glared at her and Mr. Boston looked confused. Then she realized he had asked her a question! And she had answered with thank you sir! No wonder why he looked so lost.

Poor Ma, she thought. She is probably ashamed of me

“I mean, what did you say?” Sarah countered.

“Um,” Mr. Boston said, clearly recovering from his shock. “I asked if you have seen that boy, James Adams?”

“Why, did he do something bad”” Sarah asked with concern. 

“Well, the boy took a chicken promising to weigh it and bring it back, but he never did.” He took a deep breath, “And so now I'm looking for him and my chicken.” 

Sarah gasped with horror. 

“So you've seen him?” Mr. Boston asked. 

“Yes sir, by the well, we were going to go on a walk together,” Sarah said.

Ma looked down at her very much surprised. 

“I'll tell you this: either don't go because that boy is trouble or get my chicken back!”

John Boston stomped away without another word. 

“My goodness!” Ma cried. “Make sure when you meet that Adams boy, you get that chicken, or else we'll have a cranky neighbor for life!” 

“You mean you'll let me go?!” Sarah asked. 

“Yes, but fetch your cloak first.” 

“Thank you Ma!” Sarah said as she embraced her mother. 

“All right, all right, now go get ready.”

Sarah ran up to the loft and came down with the purple shawl. 

“Goodbye Ma, goodbye Mary.”

Then she was off.

Sarah found James leaning on a tree by Turtle Brook and ran to meet him. To her dismay, there was a bucket resting next to him that held John Boston's chicken! 

“Whatcha got there?” She asked. 

“Pickle,” James replied. 

“Is Pickle Mr. Boston's hen?”

James smiled sheepishly. 

“Yeah, I'm supposed to be weighing it.” 

“I heard. He’s real mad about it.”

The pair started walking down the path. 

That afternoon, when she was walking home, Sarah had Pickle in her arms. Ma was at the door when Sarah got home so she swiftly dumped the bird in her arms.

“Here, tell grumpy Mr. Boston that Pickle is fine.” 

“Pickle?” Ma asked with a raised eyebrow. 

“That's the hen's name.” Sarah said. 

“Oh, I'll tell Samuel to go to his house tonight after he finishes milking Daisy and Bella,” Ma said. 

Samuel was Mary and Sarah's Pa. He was tall and strong with short brown hair.

“Yes ma'am.” Sarah moaned.

She had been hoping she could present Mr. Boston with Pickle herself. After all, she had rescued the stupid hen. 

“Ma?” she asked.

“Yes, what do you need Sarah?” 

“I…I'd like to bring Pickle to Mr. Boston please,” she said. “I got it back for him.” 

Ma looked doubtful.

“I'll ask Samuel,” she said. 

A little while later Pa came in. 

“Do you think we should let Sarah go to Mr. Boston's house to return his chicken, Pickle?” Ma asked. “It is a long way.” 

“Well,” Samuel said slowly. “If you think she's mature and responsible enough, I'm okay with it.” 

Sarah's fingers and mind did a little happy dance. Sarah drew herself up to her full height and tried to look older and more mature. 

Come on Ma, She thought. Come on. 

“Um, I think she is mature,” Ma said.

“What about responsible?” Samuel asked. 

“Well, she did get Mr. Boston's chicken back so I say...” Ma paused and Sarah held her breath.  “Yes.”

“Oh Ma! Oh Pa! Thank you so much!” Sarah cried. She wrapped her arms around them saying over and over “Thank you. Oh thank you!”

As she walked down the path, Sarah could not stop thinking about how lucky she was and what a good Ma and Pa she had. But Sarah would have to hurry if she wanted to get there and back before dark. The sun was already pretty low and dim.

As she turned off of Horse Farm Road, she was standing at the edge of the Great Forest. It was also called the Indian Forest, so she kept a sharp lookout for any strange noises, sights, or smells that came near. Once, she almost threw a stone at an innocent bunny rabbit. She went on until she got to Clover Hill and looked up. It was almost sunset; she would have to be quick. She turned onto Cotton Lane and went to the third door on the left. She shifted Pickle to her other arm and knocked on the wooden door. 

Mr. Boston's servant opened the door, took her cloak, and led her inside to the living room where he and his wife sat by the fireplace. Sarah put Pickle behind her back and went in. 

“Um, Mr. Boston?” Sarah asked. 

“Who? What? Yes?” Mr. Boston answered lost in thought. 

“I saw James Adams this afternoon.” Sarah tried again.

Those words seemed to have brought John Boston out of his thoughts.

“You did, huh? What did that little rascal do with my hen?”  Mr. Boston snapped. 

“I have it right here sir” Sarah told him with a smile.

She brought Pickle out from behind her back. Mr. and Mrs. Boston joyfully rushed over to grab the chicken. 

“Thank you dear Sarah,” Mrs. Boston said. “Thank you so much”

Mr. Boston nodded his agreement, and then asked suddenly,

“Did you see the start of our new house?” 

“No sir” Sarah answered.

“Well, on your way home, about a street down from your house, is Waving Field. That’s where the skeleton of our new home is.” Mr. Boston said. “We're even going to have a brick chimney! Now I'll give you some cookies and you should march home you little returner. It's almost sundown.”

As she neared the Waving Field, Sarah could see the logs and bricks forming the skeleton of the Boston’s new house. Sarah could also see the lights of her warm house up ahead. Stuffing the last bit of cookie in her mouth, she took off running. When she got there is was about dark. A tangle of hugs and kisses were waiting for her from Ma, Pa, and Mary.

“I'm so proud of you Sarah!” Ma said wiping away her tears. 

Sarah was tired, but she told her family about what had happened; the bunny, the cookies, the house. Everything.

A few days later, James Adams came to call and Sarah accepted. 

On Sunday, the Sabbath day, the day of no work, Sarah could not go to service.  She had recently become deathly ill. No doctors could find a cure. They didn't even risk bleeding her (a process that involved cutting into her vein because the doctors thought diseases would flow away with the blood). The only hope was that her strong body would fight the sickness and she would heal. 

As Sarah was trying to recover, the colony suffered through the starving time. No one could get enough to eat. More people became ill and many people and children died. This was a tragic time, but Sarah's body held on to the last hope of life. She was still alive, but struggling. 

After about a week, miracles began occurring! Hope was restored. The Indians gave food freely, crops grew ripe and ready, streams flowed through land, and many people (including Sarah) got well. The Pilgrims decided to hold a feast of thanks to the Lord and Indians. They called this Thanksgiving. The colony's leaders invited Massasoit to the feast and all colonial families were invited. Everyone donated something. Sarah's family donated rice and corn. Some families provided ham, turkey, and bacon. They set up games and races and had fun!

But then Massasoit came. He had not two, but 10, 20, 40, 60, 80, 90 Indian braves with him! The Pilgrims were fearful. There wasn't enough food! Massasoit settled that matter. He sent many warriors into the woods. They came back with at least four deer slung on their backs. Thanksgiving was saved! Sarah attended the feast, but was too ill to play and too weak to eat. The celebration lasted three whole days! Imagine, three whole days of fun, games, races, eating, and talking! 

Sarah had little fun. She was ill again. Her last words were, “Thank you everyone, Happy Thanksgiving.” 

She then breathed her last breath and went to meet Jesus.

To submit an original work of fiction to Writer's Bone, visit our submissions page

ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE