Dirty Laundry

Millie sat on the back porch unzipping pods and thumbing the peas inside into the metal pot she held between her feet.  She smiled: The peas made a satisfying thunk in the bottom of the pot. 


“Afternoon, Miss Millie.”  Etta Mae stood on her own porch, a wicker basket of laundry held against her hip.  “Hot enough for you?”

Miss Millie nodded.  “I got some lemonade in the icebox, if you want to set a spell.”


“I don’t got to shell no peas, do I?”


Millie laughed.  “Naw.”  She liked shelling peas; liked measuring the progress of her afternoon by the speed at which she could cover the bottom of the pot.  She liked watching the peas climbing up the sides; predicting how full the pot would be when the empty shells lay in the colander at her side.  “I’m freezing them tomorrow.  Do you want me to save you a quart?”


Etta Mae smiled.  “That’ll be fine, Miss Millie.”


Millie nodded.  She envisioned the peas, tucked carefully into the deep freeze.  ‘Course she would set some by for tonight’s dinner.  Earle loved peas swimming in butter and salt; a bit of ham on the side; a couple of biscuits, if it wasn’t too hot to bake. 


“Just look at these shirts, Miss Millie.”


Millie looked up.  “What’d Junior do, roll around in the dirt?”


Etta Mae shook her head; reached into the pocket of her apron and stood on her tiptoes to peg a clothespin over the shoulder of one of her husband’s tee shirts.  “I swear, Junior’s no better than a little boy.”  She sighed and hung up the last shirt.  “I believe I’d like that lemonade now if you don’t mind, Miss Millie.”


Millie nodded.  “Come on over.  You know the way.”  She went into the kitchen and poured two tall glasses of lemonade; pressing one against her forehead to take away the heat, if only for a moment.


“Here you go, Etta Mae.”  Millie set the glasses on the porch and resumed her shelling.  Etta Mae, as Millie had predicted, absently grabbed a handful of peas and set to work.  

“Junior’s driving me crazy, Miss Millie.  Been driving me crazy for near forty years now.  Went and got his salary docked on account of another fishing trip.”


Millie laughed, exposing chipped and broken teeth.  “That’s men’s jobs, ain’t it?  To drive their wives crazy?  Least, that’s where they pick up after the kids have gone off.  Soon’s I got the last one to college, Earle started acting all child-like.”


Etta Mae nodded.  “When do you get completely used to a man’s presence in your life?”


“Never.” Millie hooted and scratched at a scab upon her knee.  “You spend all your time cleanin’ up after ‘em; sweeping up after ‘em; running away from ‘em when they’s feelin’ frisky.”


“Miss Millie,” Etta Mae whispered.  “Did you ever wonder why you got married in the first place?”


Millie nodded.  “Least once a day, Etta Mae.” 


* * *


Three weeks later to the day, Miss Millie and Etta Mae both lost their husbands.  Earle was out plowing the fields across the street when he was surprised by a heart attack.  Everyone was astonished: Earle had always been the model of health.  Junior had waded too deep into the pond to go after the trout he swore lived smack-dab in the center of the pond.  Junior never was much of a swimmer.


In order to save the Ladies of the First Baptist Church an extra day of cooking, to save the pastor an extra day of preaching; to save the choir another day of singing in the heat of the summer, Miss Millie and Etta Mae decided to have a joint funeral.  It was nice, they realized, to have someone else to depend upon in this time of decision-making, paper signing…in this time of absence. 


Eventually, the houses of the mourners emptied: sons and daughters gathered up the grandchildren and returned home; the Ladies of the First Baptist Church cycled through each of their twenty-seven members and quietly ended their visits.  Silence settled all around them. 


And despite their constant complaints about their husbands, each found they missed having another person in the house: a person to feed; to lecture; to scoot out of the way of the silverware drawer so a set of dry spoons could be put inside.  Who would Miss Millie shell peas for, now that Earle had been tucked into the ground?  Whose collars would Etta Mae scrub, if not  Junior’s?


“Etta Mae,” Miss Millie said, taking a sip of her lemonade, in the middle of August.  “I believe the funeral went quite well, don’t you think?”


“Very well, Miss Millie.”  But then, having spoken of their troubles with their husbands for so many years, Miss Millie and Etta Mae fell into a silence. 


Miss Millie scratched at her elbow.  “Etta Mae,” she ventured.  “What do you say we combine households?  We can rent out one house and share the other?”


Etta Mae nodded; looked out over the horizon as if she could picture it out there somewhere.  “I think that’s a fine idea, Miss Millie.  We’ll live in my house, of course.  It’s got a bit more room.”


“But my house has been…”  Miss Millie searched for the words that wouldn’t offend.  “…updated.”


Etta Mae waved her hand at this comment.  “Too modern.  Besides yours will rent easier.  We’ll get more cash.”


Millie nodded.  Etta Mae had a point.


* * *


“Miss Millie, I am tired of eating peas,” Etta Mae said, that December, as one year closed and another prepared to open.  “You put too much salt in them.  And the butter?  Oh, my Lord, woman, ain’t you never heard a’ cholesterol?”


“Earle liked my peas just fine.”


Etta Mae raised her eyebrows.  “Probably sent him to a early grave with them peas.”


Miss Millie  stood; tossed the bowl of peas at Etta Mae.  “At least I didn’t send my husband to his eternal rest with ring around the collar!”


Etta Mae glared.  “I did no such thing!”


“You did.”


“You just jealous, that’s all.  Me and Junior had something special.”


“I ain’t jealous of your dirty laundry.  Woman, you can’t even fold the towels proper.  I swear if you was a man, you’d leave the toilet seat up.”


“Get out of my house,” Etta Mae shouted and pointed.


Millie stormed out of the house and headed next door.  There were lights in the house; welcoming lights.  They were the lights of the tenant.  She headed back.  Knocked on Etta Mae’s door.

Etta Mae opened the door.  “You all don’t have to knock, Miss Millie, you live here now.”


Millie nodded.  “I guess we’ll just have to make the best of this-here arrangement.”


“I miss Junior,” Etta Mae said, dabbing her eyes on her sleeve.


“I miss Earle, too.”


The two looked at each other through tear-filled eyes and laughed.


“What do you suppose we do now, Miss Millie?”


Miss Millie cleared her throat.  “We must live it, now, a day at a time and be very careful not to hurt each other.”


Etta Mae nodded.  “Hemmingway.”

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Michael challenged me with “‘We must live it, now, a day at a time and be very careful not to hurt each other.’ –Ernest Hemingway” and I challenged Kit with “A potter at her wheel; a photographer behind his camera.”

Hero

Harv Brewster rubbed at the grizzled whiskers dotting his withered chin.  He spat tobacco juice into the dry dirt at his feet.  A cloud of dust rose in response, like a miniature nuclear explosion.  He looked at the horizon, saw the setting sun.  Nodded to himself in confirmation of a fact that everyone in town knew without saying: The football game was due to start in about twenty minutes.  He may as well head down.  Nothing else to do, except sit here and spit in the dirt.
He paid his admission: three bucks and a dented can of baked beans for the local food pantry.  He’d bought the entire inventory of the scratch and dent cans from the Shop-N-Save last winter.  Hadn’t opened a single can of them beans.  Delia didn’t care for him all that much when he ate baked beans.
And he cared for Delia a whole lot, he sure did.
Harv walked up the metal stairs; sat himself on the bleachers, still warm.  The grass was thick and green and inviting.  Pristine, and made that way by hordes of parents who had to believe in something.  And when there was nothing left to believe in, you put your faith in high school football.  By playoffs, the field would be covered in snow.  Them prissy band members would be wearing plastic bags, of all things, on their feet to keep them warm and dry, high stepping across the field with cold metal instruments pressed against their lips; locked in a passionate kiss.  But Harv Brewster didn’t want to turn his mind to winter and darkness and lips 
of ice.  Not now.  Not yet.
There was a smattering of applause for the visiting team.  Across the field, their band took up two rows of bleachers.  Behind them, scattered here and there like flakes of red pepper on Delia’s fried chicken were a few spectators: die hard parents.  He smirked and crossed his arms.
Two cheerleaders, encased in spandex and glitter and bright red smiles, pranced across the field carrying a paper banner affixed to two long poles.  They reached the field house doors and unfurled that banner; held it up so the entire crowed could take a gander at it.  It was a slap-dash job—blue and green background with each boy’s name painted in black.  Harv imagined the paint was still tacky to the touch.  But nobody cared.  
The sign would be destroyed momentarily and that, really, was the best part.
The home team was introduced and the crowd leapt to its feet.  Quarterback Stump Stephens burst through the paper.  The cheerleaders smiled and stumbled a bit and stood there uncertainly, holding two signs now, not one, while the rest of the team passed between them.
And then the cry began.  The crowd turned Stump’s name into a two syllable affair; decorated it up a bit to show off to the opposing team’s fans: “Stu-ump!  Stu-ump!  Stu-ump!”  They pumped their arms in the air for emphasis; punctuating their joy and elation.  And Harv joined in, too.
Every town needed its hero, he supposed.  Especially a dying town.  A dead town.  A town spinning lazily upon its axis of oblivion like a late fall fly, spinning half dead upon the flaking window sill. 
Yep. 
Every town needed its hero.  And Stump Stevens was theirs.  Stump’s arm was legendary.  As a freshman he’d taken the team to the state finals.  As a sophomore, he’d won it.  When Stump was a junior, the scouts started sniffing around.  This year, Harv knew, this year Stump would be picked up by the NFL.  This was the year Stump Stephens would put this old dead town on the map. 
And everything would change.
Walter Dean had already started printing up commemorative Stump Stephens tee shirts.  Mayor Jaffries had ordered brochures and tourist materials.  Hell, he was even making up a web site.  Right now, all it had was local weather and a few feeds from the newspaper.  But soon enough, the tours would begin.  Stump Stevens Industries was about go public.
Harv grinned.  He saw Delia approaching, probably just off work at the beauty parlor.  Well, Harv, corrected himself, parlor wasn’t the correct term for it, seeing as Delia worked out of Kristi Lee’s kitchen, clipping and washing and setting curls, while Kristi Lee chewed the fat with her customers.  Homecoming season was approaching.  Delia would be busier than normal.  She’d tuck that money aside, and Harv would tuck aside what money he made changing oil and sharpening blades and painting weathered houses.  
And then, come November, he and Delia would get hitched.
It’d taken the two of them long enough, people said.  They’d been together twenty-two, on-again; off-again.  
And then one day, when Mrs. Nattie Nelson had a heart attack under the hair dryer and died right then and there, Delia came home and said she wanted to get married the next day.
Harv told her to wait a bit; let them save up enough money to take a little vacation.  They decided on November.  A Thanksgiving wedding.
The visiting team kicked off.  Harv watched Stump settle himself on the bench and lean forward to watch the game.  Stump was the kind of kid who studied every aspect of the game; every nuance; every detail.  Stump was…Well, Stump was Stump. 
“Hey, Harv?”  He felt a nudge.
 “Yep?”  Walt. 
“You seen Delia?”
“She’s just down there…”  Stump looked at the track, where he’d last seen her.  There was a crowd of people; an ominous circle.  “Where isshe?”
Walt took his arm and together the two rushed down the metal bleachers, Harv barely resisting the urge to shove people out of his way.  The whistle blew.  The football teams gathered at the sideline, staring at the widening circle.  Harv shoved his way to the center.  Delia lay slumped upon the ground.
Stump, Harv knew, had just becomea volunteer paramedic.  “Stump,” he shouted, waving his arms. “Hey Stump!”
Stump met his eyes. 
“Help her!”  Harv knelt on the cinder track.  Took Delia’s hand.  “You’ve got to help her, Stump!”
People began echoing his cries.  “Help her out, Stump…Come on, Stump, you can do it…You’re the hero, so act like one.”
Stump’s eyes widened.  He shook his head.  He backed away.
Late that night, Harv said goodbye to Delia.  He touched her hands.  He touched her face.  He touched her lips of ice. 
Two weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, the game was replayed.  Stump Stevens passed for two yards. 
The team didn’t made it to the playoffs.
Stump Stevens ran the Dollar Store for three years before sneaking out of town in the dead of night. 
A year later, in early spring, a new family moved to town. 
Walt and Harv watched the father and his boy tossing the football around in the front yard.  Walt nudged Harv.  “He ain’t bad.”
Harv spat in the dirt; watched a little cloud of dust rise up.  He stood and walked into his little house.  He opened a can of baked beans and ate them, cold, from the can.
    

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Stefan challenged me with “You’re a hero, so act like one. ” and I challenged Jake Durkin with “To remain anonymous among strangers or to reveal oneself among friends?”

Ophelia

I slip into the black dress; smooth it over my hips. 

“What Mommy doing?”

I glance in the mirror.  “Getting ready for work.”

“Why Mommy work now?”

Because my friends tell me I’m wasting my life, I think, applying eyeliner.  “To help Daddy pay for college.”



“What that?” Lauren points to the mascara. 

“It makes Mommy look pretty.”

She wrinkles her nose.  “Mommy pretty already.”

I smile.  “Thanks, Lovey.  But my boss won’t think so.”  I tie the apron on and kiss my children goodbye.   My mother-in-law tells me I’m making a mistake as I hand her the baby, blinking back tears.

* * *

At the hotel, I vacuum and dust and change sheets; I scrub toilets and empty trashcans.

A woman emerges from room 232.  She presses a pamphlet into my hand.  “Reject Satan,” she whispers before padding down the hallway to summon the elevator.  I knock at her door; call out “maid service” before using my passkey and wheeling the vacuum into the room.

The door slams shut.  I whirl around to face her husband. 

“It was your fault,” he tells me later, dragging me down the back stairs and out the hotel’s emergency exit.  He shoves me into the back of his car and drives to the river. 

He binds my arms; fills my apron pockets with stones.  “I’m sorry to do this,” he says “but I can’t afford the scandal.” 

“My kids…”

He pushes me in.  “I’ll write a suicide note and leave it on your cart.  I’ll tell your children you love them.”    

Like Ophelia I float on a river of expectations.

Unlike Ophelia, I am not mad.

I slip my arms from their bindings; remove the stones from my pockets; swim to shore.  The water drips from my hair, smears makeup into my eyes.

I return to the hotel and use my passkey to enter his room.

He is sleeping.

I make it eternal.

I will plead insanity.

He, of course, will receive a Christian burial.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kameko Murakami challenged me with “Like Ophelia, I float on a river of…” and I challenged Grace O’Malley with “No one knew where it began and where it ended.”

I also used this piece for this week’s Trifecta Writing Challenge.  The word was scandal.

The Place Where Memories Began

The fires lasted for fourteen months.  For fourteen months, we watched flames engulf and devour the houses while their owners looked on, screaming.   

It seemed as though we were always running.

We started, each of us, with our most favored possessions: Carrie, the child from next door, lugged a gigantic teddy bear.  Had it had a skeleton, solid bones to support the weight of stuffing and fake fur and a flopping head and those plastic staring eyes, it would’ve easily stood five feet tall. 

My father carried his box of tools—screwdrivers and a measuring tape; awls and hammers and the chalk line which he used to mark a neat border along the flowerbeds every spring, my brother holding one end, my father the other, arranging it just so before snapping it against the ground to leave a purple guide. I carried the stacks of scrapbooks my mother’d pressed into my hands.  She carried my sister—too young to walk far on her own.



One day bled into the next; the red and black obliterated the blue and white of the sky.

Our possessions become less important.  Three weeks in, my father opened his toolbox and withdrew an awl and two screwdrivers. He hid the toolbox behind some rocks and told my brother not to worry, they’d be back for them.  A man is defined by the tools of his profession as easily as a woman is defined by her children. 

One evening, after we’d scrounged for food in the dumpsters and alleyways, my mother took a scrapbook into her lap.  She turned pages slowly, narrating the pages aloud.  “Never forget the stories,” she told us.  “Your stories are your greatest possession.”  And then, she removed one picture before throwing the scrapbook upon the fire.

“Stop that,” my father shouted.  “You’re feeding the enemy; providing more fuel to further their cause.”

My mother shook her head.  “Perhaps happy memories can destroy the evil,” she said.  Then she tossed the remaining scrapbooks into the fire as tears streamed down her cheeks.

The fire raged on. 

As children sickened and weakened, mothers left them behind, tucked, like my father’s toolbox, behind various rocks.  Unlike my father, they didn’t make any promises to return.

Carrie’s parents succumbed to the heat and exhaustion.  We buried them quickly before moving on.  Carrie’s bear grew soiled.  There were holes along the bottom of its feet where it had been dragged across pavement and through the forest.  One ear was perpetually damp from tears.  “Get rid of that thing, child,” my father said.

Carrie refused.

And then one day, Carrie disappeared.

My father’s eyes were hooded; he refused to speak of it. 

But he didn’t need to: We all knew the truth.

You may judge us.  Mock us if you will: In the time of the fire, there were no guidelines of chalk telling us what to do; where to go.  We were confused.

We were frightened.

We each believed it would be over soon.

We each were wrong.

Two years after the fires ended, I decided to return.  My father forbade it, no, not because he loved me.  Love had drifted away to become an abstract thing then.  As clan leader, my father needed me.  He needed me to gather roots and berries.  He needed me to help tend the elderly.  And he needed me to find a mate because our clan was diminishing quickly.  He thought we should stay—live as best we could where we were now.  I thought we should return to the place where memories began.

I sneaked away in the dead of night and walked for days.  Nights, I hid among rocks or in the few structures that had made it through the fire unscathed—a house here, a barn there.

For months I didn’t meet a soul.  Then, suddenly, there was a man upon the eastern horizon.  He shouted.  He hailed me.  He urged me to stop.

I’d learned not to trust. I quickened my pace.

A noise split the air.  I recognized the sound as gunshot.  I broke into a sprint and ran for hours.

Ahead there was a house.  It was missing its roof.  The front door hung open crookedly.  The windows were tired eyes, weary of watching the emptiness unfold before them.  I ran inside, down the hall.  It felt strange, after living outdoors, to be confined by two walls; outdated rules and expectations of human construct.  There was a room to the right.  I ran inside and held my breath.  Surely the man hadn’t seen me.  He was too far away.  And I’d run far.  He wouldn’t catch up.  I waited, hoping…praying…wondering.

After two hours, judging by the changing position of the sun through the windows, I felt the danger had passed.  I stood and prepared to leave.  Then I saw it: There was a dark shadow crouched in the corner of the room.  It looked human, but how could I be sure?  I approached it slowly.  Prodded it with my foot.

It did not move.

I knelt before it. 

I recognized it.

It was Carrie’s bear, dirty and black, head lolling.

Grasping it from behind was Carrie’s skeleton.

I screamed and gave myself away.

And I heard the man enter the house; heard his footsteps in the hall.

And I knew not whether this man was friend or foe.

I know not still.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Cheney challenged me with “There was a dark shadow crouched in the corner of the room. It looked human, but how could I be sure?” and I challenged The Lime with “Today only: twenty percent discount.”

Harvest

These days, people even wanted to choose their eye color.  Years ago, when he first got assigned to this position, people were happy just to have their vision back.  Now they had demands other than health.  They wanted to live forever.  And they wanted to look good doing it.  Only then, would they be happy. 

He supposed he was a merchant of happiness.  But, by nature, he was also in the business of its corollary.  Wherever he brought happiness, he left sadness strewn behind him like drying petals of a yellow rose, crumpled and lost and forgotten.

He crouched in the bushes, a hundred feet from the entrance to the restaurant and settled in to wait.  Sometimes he waited for hours; sometimes minutes.  He didn’t mind.  The job paid handsomely.  He could afford a home in a gated community.  He had an in-ground pool and an indoor tennis court.  Every morning, he had his choice of seven cars, though he usually took the Jeep.  Less conspicuous that way.  He had everything that money could buy, and nothing that money could not. 

There was no woman in his life.  No children to make him feel young again.  His mother was the only one who loved him and he suspected that was more out of duty than affection.  He thought of his mother and father: Their love ran strong and deep; so deep he often wondered how he fit into the equation of their love; whether there was room for him.  He’d always felt a little lonely, surrounded by the love of his parents.  He’d always felt a little lost.

The door of the restaurant opened.  He sat up, peering intently.  This was the guy.  He held up the gun.  His aim was impeccable.

There was a cry and a scream and the wife fluttered to the ground after her fallen husband. 

The databanks indicated that Frederick T. Kissell would be a good match.  The client had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.  And the government would be happy: Frederick T. Kissell had recently been convicted of bribery.  The statistics indicated he was likely to be a repeat offender. 

The police came screeching in.  He sent a code to their pager so they’d know to take Frederick T. Kissell directly to the transplant unit. 
* * *

His mother picked the same restaurant for dinner that night in celebration of his birthday.  She waited until after dinner to pick up the threads of the conversation she’d been teasing apart for years.  “Don’t you feel guilty?” she asked over coffee and apple pie—his favorite dessert.  Unfortunately, he’d had to cut back on sweets.  Doctor’s orders.

“I’m nearly done.  One more job and I’m out of this business.”

She patted his hand and he noticed the skin was withered and thin.  Skin like that wasn’t often seen these days.  “I’m glad,” she said.  “I’m proud of you for getting out.”

Truth was, he loved the business.  Loved the excitement and mystery of it.  Every time he got a call from the government with an address and a name he felt a little thrill charge through his body.  But a diet of fast food and coffee and travel had taken their toll.  At forty-five, he looked more like ninety.  “The doctors said to slow down, to find myself a wife.  Thing is, I have no idea how to love.”

“You will, dear.  It’s just the nature of your…”  Again, she patted his hand.  “I do wish you’d gone into something less stressful.  Something kinder.”  She sipped her coffee.  “Find yourself a young girl.  Give me some grandbabies before I die.” 

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mother.”

She glanced up.  She saw the gun held in his hand.  The color drained from her face.  “What?  Why…?”

 He hated being this close up.  Hated seeing the confusion and the sadness. 

“I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I know it.”

“I’m an old woman.  I can’t be of use to anybody.”

“I need a heart.  And I need it soon.”

“My heart is old and weak.”

He shook his head.  “The heart that loves is always young.”  Today’s hearts were jaded and weary.  Today’s hearts were immune to love.

“But what will you do with my heart?  Will you learn to love?”

His aim was impeccable.  “Perhaps.  Perhaps not.”

“I love you,” she cried.  “I forgive you.”

And he sent his signal to the police department and waited to be transported with his mother to the transplant unit. 

And he wondered whether this new heart would help him to understand love.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Leo challenged me with “The heart that loves is always young…” and I challenged SAM with “Those little yellow flowers you dug up from the banks of the creek are blooming in my garden.”

Note: After reading my posting, my husband sent me this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/world/asia/china-moves-to-stop-transplants-of-organs-after-executions.html?_r=1

King Me

“Let me see the child, my queen.”

Regina smiled serenely at her husband.   “There are two, Phillip.”

The king gasped.  “A boy and a girl?”

No, Regina replied.  “Two boys.  First…”

“No, Regina.”  He shook his head.  “If I know which is to succeed me, I will treat him differently.  I will train him harder; I will have higher expectations for him.”  He gazed at the boys, small and clean and new.  Full of promise and hope for the kingdom.  “Both boys need to know discipline.  Both need to learn leadership and weaponry and defense.” 

“Yes m’lord,” Regina said, secretly overjoyed.  She didn’t want either of the babies to receive preferential treatment.

He looked at her.  “Who else knows which is first?”

“Only the midwife.”

Phillip turned to his advisor.  “Kill her.”

* * *

The king’s advisor found the midwife in the forest gathering herbs and roots, tucking them into the basket on her arm.  “Midwife,” said he.

“Why are you here?”  She laughed.  “No man of the king visits these haunted forests.”

The advisor was a shrewd man.  Before he slew the midwife, perhaps he could learn the truth; truth he could tuck away like so many herbs.  “The king wishes to inquire as to which of the babes was firstborn.”

“His wife was there.  Surely she can tell him.”  She pulled some sorrel, lush and green.  These would make a fine spring tonic.

“Mayhaps he doesn’t believe her.”

“If a man cannot believe his woman, he’s got no cause to believe in the words of the midwife.”

“Tell me.”

She shook her head.  “I shant.”

The advisor pulled his sword from its scabbard.

Again, she laughed, pressing a hand against her chest, as if to contain the laughter there.   “Really, sir.  Threats won’t extract the information from me.”

 “You want to know the truth, witch?  The truth is, the king doesn’t want to know which child was born first.  The king wants to treat them identical-like.”

She nodded.  “A wise king have we.”

“Only two people know the identity of the true heir.”

She nodded.  “I’ve told no one.”

“The king is afeared you will.”

She spied some chives nestled among the rocks.  They would help with spring birthing.  “A midwife takes many secrets to her grave.”

“That’s what the wise king had in mind, midwife.”  The advisor lifted his sword above his head and prepared to strike.    

“Curse King Phillip and all his filthy progeny.”

The advisor paused.

“Your curses will truly kill?”

The midwife stood.  “My curses never fail me.  You slay me and the king and his descendents will die before the moon next reaches her fullness.”

Satisfied, the king’s advisor struck down the midwife.  He left her body among the forest; her herbs scattered across the path.

King Phillip died first.  They said it was the sudden shock of having not one, but two children after all these years.

After a suitable amount of time had passed, the shrewd advisor sought out Regina in her chambers.  He pretended to be concerned.  “My queen.  It is time.  We need to know the heir.  Which of the babes was born first?”

“Leave this place,” the queen replied, pointing to her door.

The king’s advisor smiled to himself.  Nightly, the moon grew fuller in the sky.  Soon, he told himself.

Soon.

He woke that night, feverish and disoriented.  He wrapped himself in blankets.  He threw the blankets aside.  He sat.  He stood.  He paced the floor.  He grew weak.  He called to his wife who brought him water and sent for the doctor.   

He heard a door open. 

“Is that the doctor?” The king’s advisor called.

“It’s Queen Regina,” his wife murmured. 

“What ails you?” The queen demanded.  She carried one of the newborns in her arms.

“The babes, Queen.  They’ve been cursed.”

The queen shook her head.  “You cannot curse innocence.”

“Just before she died, the midwife cursed King Phillip and all of his descendents.”

Regina smiled.  “I’ve got no cause for concern, then.  These babes are not Phillip’s.”

“Could he not…?”  The advisor’s wife said.

“Oh, indeed, yes.  He has a son.”  Regina looked at the king’s advisor.  “You are he.  You are the true heir to the throne.  Phillip never knew.  Midwives take their secrets to the grave.”

His death was quick.  Painless.  Complete.

His wife ran from the room to check on their children.

The chambers filled with screams.

Queen Regina looked at her babe and smiled. 

She took the throne and ruled with a kind and gentle heart.

Surprisingly, she remarried soon after the death of her husband.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Jester Queen challenged me with “The king has died and nobody knows which of his twins should inherit the throne, because the healer who delivered them has long since passed on and the Queen won’t answer the question of who was delivered first.” and I challenged Lance with “The silence that had come between them was thicker than ice.”

Home, Safe?

The doctor lifted the sheet and peered at the injury on the boy’s leg.  It appeared to be a bullet wound, deeply infected, oozing yellow and green.  But, still.  I could’ve been worse.  He would mend.  “Looks like you’ve had some luck.”    Carefully, she turned the leg to the side. 

The boy winced. 

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “It hurts?”

“Of course it hurts, Doctor.”  The father frowned at her, as if she were responsible for the boy’s condition. 

She nodded.  Was the bullet still lodged inside?  And why had the parents taken so long to get the boy to the hospital?  “Although I’m not sure what I see.” 







“You see a severely damaged leg.”

This part of medicine, she hated: The anger.  She could heal the physically wounded, but she couldn’t diffuse the anger that was sometimes directed at her.  Maybe it was stress and frustration.  Perhaps it was her accent or her skin coloring.  Maybe it was the economy, she didn’t know.  Anger stressed her, though.  She felt more pressure.  She was more liable to make mistakes.  She tucked the sheet back into place and looked at the boy’s parents.  “And I might be too early.”

The father jumped to his feet, arms clenched at his side.  “Too early?  We’ve been here for two hours waiting to be seen by a doctor and now you tell me you’re too early?” 

Eighteen years in this country.  She prided herself on her English.  But every so often, it failed her.  What was the word she’d wanted?  Not early.  No…She searched her memory banks.  Hasty.  That was it.  She smiled.  “Sometimes my words mix themselves up in my mind.  I’m sorry.  What I meant was…”

 “You know something, Doctor?”  The father got close to her now—closer than what was acceptable in either of their cultures.  “You want to practice medicine in the United States, you’d better start speaking American.”

“Hank.”  The mother stood and put a hand on her husband’s arm.  “Calm down.”  She looked at the doctor.  “I apologize for my husband.  He’s just worried.”

The doctor asked the nurse to start the boy on a course of intravenous antibiotics.  She checked his eyes.  Prodded his skin.  Still…The doctor looked at the boy’s mother.  ”Your son will be fine.”

“How can you tell?  You’ve barely even looked at him.”  The father again, neck veins throbbing.  “This is serious!”

The doctor turned to the boy’s father.  “Sir, when my brother’s legs were blown off by a bomb and I had to stitch him back together, while my mother held him down against the pain, that was serious.  When my husband was murdered before my very eyes, that was serious.  This…”  She gestured to the boy.  “This is nothing.”

After, she stitched up the boy’s leg.  The pull of thread through skin reminded her of the way her mother used to lace up a stuffed chicken before tucking it into the oven.  She felt the tears well up in her eyes.  Blinked them back. 

The boy was watching her.  “Why are you crying?”

“I miss my mother.”  She smiled. 

“Did she die?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I had to leave my country very suddenly.  I left everything behind.”

The boy blinked.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

She patted his leg—the good leg.  “You know what I wish?”

“What?”

“I wish I could stitch up a fractured country as easily as I did your leg.”  She pulled the thread through and knotted it. 

“You know what I wish?”

“What?”

“I wish my father would stop hurting me.”

She nodded.  “I wish that, too.” 

She wished her husband were still alive.  She wished to see her mother and her brother again.  Most of all, she wished she could go home. 

“Home is supposed to be safe,” the boy said.

Again, the doctor nodded.  “I know.”

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, SAM challenged me with “Write a story based on this line from Patricia Coldwell’s Cause of Death: “Looks like you’ve had some luck,” I said. “Although I’m not sure what I’m seeing. And I might be too early.” ” and I challenged Kirsten Doyle with “Write a story from the perspective of someone just entering or just about to leave earth (or life).”

This has also been linked up with this week’s Yeah, Write Challenge.

Freefall

Just before my husband pushed me, he’d whispered in my ear.  “A Roman emperor used to throw visitors he didn’t like over the cliffs and into the sea below.” 

I felt Phillip’s arms at my waist. 

And then, I felt nothing. 

I began to fall, the pressure of my husband’s fingertips only a memory.

As I fell, the memories flew by, faster and faster until it was all I could do to grasp at them; as if by holding onto them, I could gain purchase on my life again.

I thought of the day I’d agreed to marry Phillip.

“Don’t go,” he’d said to me, the week before I was to leave on a mission trip.  “You can help people here—in the United States.”

“This is important to me, Phillip.”

He took my hand.  “The rainforest is full of dangers.  You’re terrified of snakes.”

I lifted my chin.  “I’ll learn to overcome my fear.”

He released my hand.  “At least come camping with me before you go.”

Phillip killed the snake that I’d found curled inside the tent.  And then, holding the snake by the head, he looked me in the eye.  “There are bigger snakes than this in the rainforest.  Marry me, Jules.  I’ll keep you safe.”

Within a year, I’d given birth.  I busied myself with bottles and diapers and doctor’s appointments.  As I began to navigate the waters of motherhood, my confidence increased.  I became aware of my power as a person.

And then, the baby got sick.

“It’s not your fault, Jules.”  But Phillip’s were eyes dark and angry as he turned away and knelt to pray in the hospital chapel.

The baby recovered.

My confidence did not.

There was an accident.

I totaled the car.

There was a dinner party.

My food sickened the guests.

But Phillip was there every time, to pick up the pieces and pat them back into place like a clay figurine, raw and unfired and malleable.

From this height, I could see the way the earth knit itself together.  The fields were anchored in place by pristine farmhouses and pretty red barns.  The roads crisscrossed here and there; so many places to get to where you are going.  So many paths to take.  Further off, the interstate cinched itself around the ever-expanding waistline of factories and malls and discount stores.

My mind returned to the snake, the baby, the accident, the party.  All of those events, I realized, were linked: Phillip had put the snake inside the tent.  Phillip had sickened the baby and slit the tires and poisoned the dinner.  And every time, Phillip was there to rescue me.  Now there was this; Phillip’s birthday present to me, ostensibly to help me overcome my fears. 

Phillip had cinched a belt around my confidence.

I wondered how he intended to save me now. 

I pulled the rip cord.  My chute deployed. 

Time slowed.  

I relaxed. 

So this was what it was like, I mused, to be weightless.  This was what it felt like to be free of worry.  This was what it felt like to be full of confidence.  This time, Phillip’s plan to rescue me had backfired: When he pushed me from that plane, Phillip had set me free. 

I studied the gentle swell of the earth rising up to meet me.  I was here.  I had arrived.  And as soon as my feet hit the ground I was going to ask Phillip for a divorce.

Post script: Phillip had cut the cord on the parachute he’d intended for me.  But just before the jump, while Phillip was in the front of the plane, the instructor switched chutes.

Apparently my husband had planned to save me mid-air.

No divorce proceedings were necessary.


For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Eric Limer challenged me with “Write something where the viewpoint character is in freefall for the duration of the story’s timeframe. (Your POV can, like, think back on things, but he/she should be in the air at the beginning of the story and in the air at the end.)” and I challenged Chimnese with “You’re given the opportunity to meet your mother or father at a point before your birth. Who would you meet? When? What would you talk about?”

Dog Days

 Momma burst into my bedroom, an accusing look on her face.  “Billy, you take Brutus out yet?” 




“Mmmph.”




“Billy, when we got that dog, you promised me you was gonna’ take care of him.”  Momma began enumerating my sins upon her fingertips.  “You was gonna’ feed him.  You was gonna’ walk him.  You was gonna’ pick up his doo from the yard.” 


I rolled onto my stomach; returned to my video game.




“You mark my words, child.  You gonna’ come back as a dog in your next life.  Then you’ll see what it’s like.”




“Catholics don’t believe in reincarnation, Momma.  You’regoing to go to hell.”







Momma’s voice softened.  “I ain’t going nonesuch place, Billy.  I was just fooling with you.”




I grinned.  Momma didn’t like talk of hell and sin. 



“I’ll tell you one thing, though, that dog’s going to pee right on my brand new-carpet and thenyou’ll see me angry.”

“After I finish this game.”




Momma grunted.  “You don’t start taking care of that dog, Billy, I swear I’ll take him to the pound.  Let someone responsible take care of him.”




“You can’t take Brutus to the pound, Momma.  No one in their right mind would adopt that crazy dog.  He’d just…They’d give him the needle, Momma.” 




“Wouldn’t be my fault, now, would it?”  Momma nodded and crossed her arms.




I rose from the bed and went to the garage for the leash.  Brutus skittered into the kitchen and began whirling around in circles.  He barked twice and continued spinning. 




Momma laughed.  “Looks like he’s tap-dancing out a message in Morse code on them yellow tiles.  When’d you feed him last, anyhow?  He’s acting hungry, too.”  Momma crossed the kitchen to Brutus’s water bowl.  “That poor dog.  Nothing to drink, neither.  Billy, it’s the middle of summer, what are you thinking?”




I snapped the leash on his collar and headed out.  Despite the dark, it was still hot outside.  I yanked on Brutus’s collar to speed him along down the sidewalk.




When I returned, Momma was sitting on the living room couch, a pile of mending beside her, the eleven o’clock news on low in the background.  “Night, Momma.”


She glanced up, pulling the needle through the fabric of the shirt on her lap.  “Good night, son.  See you tomorrow.”



* * *



“Brutus!”  Momma’s voice was livid.  She shook her finger at the mess on the floor.  “I told that boy you was gonna’ pee on my new rug.”  She looked around the house.  “Now where did that boy get to, anyway?  Billy?  Billy!”  She shook her head.  “I got me a lazy son, is what I got, Brutus.”  She snapped a leash to the collar around my neck and gave a tug.  “I’m taking you to the pound.  See if I care if you get the needle.”




I braced my front legs. 




Momma pulled.  “Oh, no you don’t.”  Momma dragged me across the yellow tiles and out the front door.  She hauled me into the front seat of her Chevette.  She backed out of the driveway and slowly drove to the pound, determined tears streaming down her cheeks the whole time. 




And as hard as I tried to tell Momma it was me; it was Billy who sat beside her, my words came out as a series of of strangled and desperate barks.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Billy Flynn challenged me with “You wake and find yourself transformed into an animal. Close your eyes and listen to Blitzen Trapper’s “Furr” if you’re needing a little inspiration http://www.spin.com/audio/download/33803/03+Furr.mp3″ and I challenged Tara Roberts with “You’re the janitor at the local school. Tell me what you think about when you clean up after the kids.”

This post was also linked here:

On the Head of a Pin…

The entrance to the diner opened, sending in a blast of cold air.  Bitsy frowned.  “Lilly Jean, you know we don’t open until six o’clock.  I can’t keep letting you in or everyone else will be coming in for their morning coffee before we get it brewed.”

 “Bitsy, I…”

“I know you and Spank are sweet on each other now.  But that doesn’t give you special privileges.” 

Lilly Jean walked behind the breakfast bar.  She reached underneath the bar and grabbed a filter.  “Regular or decaf, Bitsy?”

Bitsy stiffened.  Of all the nerve.  But the call for coffee was stronger than her indignation.   “Regular.”  Lord, she needed a jolt.  And decaf wasn’t going to do it.    

Lilly Jean tore open the packet of coffee and poured it into the filter.  She nodded to the kitchen.  “I hear Spank’s got his music on again.  How he can listen to that shit is beyond me.” 

Bitsy sighed. She’d have to talk to Spank; tell him to keep his girlfriend in line.  She studied Lilly Jean as she took out two coffee cups from beneath the counter.  Seemed to Bitsy that Lilly Jean was acting pretty fast; hooking up with Spank when she was still married to Daddy Sheriff.  Coming into the diner like she owned the place.  “Lilly Jean…”

“Cream?”

“Why do I feel like a guest in my own diner, Lilly Jean?”

“Cream?”

“Please.”

Lilly Jean tore open a creamer and poured it into one of the cups.

“Sugar?”

“No.”

Lilly Jean emptied three packets of sugar into the other cup.   “I come to help, Bitsy.”

“I don’t need help.”

“You lose your best waitress, you need help.” 

“And how will people get their stamps today?”

“Not my problem.  I quit.”

“Why?”

“Daddy Sheriff got me that job.”  Lilly Jean shivered.  “I’ve washed my hands of that man.”  She picked up the coffee pot and poured out two cups.

“So you just burst in here, looking for a job?   I’m losing customers right and left.”  She’d been a fool to end her business relationship with Jonathan.  She’d never expected it to backfire the way it had.  “I can’t afford to hire you, Lilly Jean.” 

Lilly Jean shook her head.  “I ain’t lookin’ for a job, Bitsy.  I’m here to help you.  As a friend.  Now where do you keep your aprons?”

“In the kitchen, with your boyfriend.”  Bitsy sighed.  The last thing she needed was Lilly Jean mooning over Spank, keeping him from his work. 

Lilly Jean pushed through the swinging door and returned a second later, trying an apron around her waist.  “Put me to work, Bitsy.”

“Lilly Jean, I…”

“Tell me everything that needs done before opening.”

Bitsy began counting on her fingers.  “Tables need to be set.  Water glasses filled with ice.  More coffee made.  Baskets lined with napkins and filled with sweet rolls…”

“Holy, shit, Bitsy.  How many things you got to do every morning?”

Bitsy sighed.  “How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?”

“Oh, don’t go getting all spiritual on me, Bitsy.  I’ll start with the tables.”  Lilly Jean grabbed a stack of placemats and began setting them neatly upon the tables.  “Well, go on,” Lilly Jean said, casting a glance over her shoulder.  “I reckon a woman knows how to set a table without a body watching over her.”

Bitsy nodded and pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen. 

A moment later, she returned to the dining room.  “Hey, Lilly Jean?”

Lilly Jean looked up.  “Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

Lilly Jean nodded.  “Happy to do it, Bitsy.”  And she returned to her tables, humming along to Spank’s music drifting in from the kitchen.

And for the first time since Ellie left, Bitsy allowed herself to smile.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kurt challenged me with “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and I challenged Jay Andrew Allen with “I’ve just made a horrible mistake…”