A Place Called Disney

“Mother,” I asked, “what is a cell phone?”

My mother screamed and dropped the wooden tray of vegetables she was carrying to the table.  My siblings left their seats and began crawling on the dirt floor, gathering up the vegetables—carrots and parsnips and turnips—and holding them to their parched lips.

My mother approached me, hand raised.  She smacked me across the face.  “Never ask such questions, again, True.”

Later that night, after my siblings and I were tucked into the bed we shared, I listened to my parents through the cloth curtain my mother had woven and hung to separate our sleeping alcove from the rest of the hut.  “True’s got the gift, Seth.  You see that, don’t you?”

“Ain’t no gift, Mercy.  It’s a curse.  Throw her to the wolves, is what I say.  If we’re caught…”

I slipped from the warmth of the bed.  Padded across the cold floor in my bare feet.  Peeked through a slit in the curtain.  “No, Seth.  True is our child.  She cannot help if she…”

“Keep her quiet then, wife.  If you have to cut out her tongue to do it, then for God’s sake, do it.  If the government finds out we have a reader-of-the-past among us, we’ll be banished.  And Mercy…”  He shook his head.  “Cutting her tongue out would be a kindness.”

I felt my eyes widen in the dark.  I wondered what it would be like to have no tongue; no cushion upon which to balance my words and my food.  Nothing to taste the wind.  Nothing to catch the blackened snowflakes as they reached for the earth. 

My father stopped talking to me that day.  And thereafter, my mother watched me intently.  She kept me within her sight always.  I no longer attended the school in the village with my siblings.  I was no longer permitted to play with my friends.  I became known as the village idiot. 

Day after day, I sat upon the bed and called back the man who called himself Daniel.  In my days of darkness, he was a cheery sort: Red cheeks and spectacles.  A full beard of white.  He was thin and tall like me and wore a blue shirt with a line of white things he called buttons.  He wore heavy-looking pants he called jeans.  They were nothing like the one-piece garment my father wore.

Daniel loved to laugh.  Daniel loved to tell me stories.

And I loved to listen.  What else was a girl of eight to do to occupy her mind when she was locked behind a woven cloth curtain; hidden away from the world like a poison?

Daniel called himself my great-great grandfather.  He said I had the gift.  The gift came every hundred years, he said, to one person in the family.  We were linked, he and I: he to the present, I to the past, bound together by an invisible link of time and space and genetics. 

I told him about the floods and the disasters.  I told him about the government takeover and the confiscation of land.  He scowled then, and shook his head.  “Is there no…technology in the future?”

“I do not understand, Daniel.  What is technology?  Is it like your buttons?”

He laughed. 

He told me the most wonderful stories.  Stories about things called books: words bound together between hard covers.  Stories about things called computers: words and pictures traveling invisibly through the air.  He told me about cell phones and refrigerators and television sets and cars.  He told me of a place called Disney. 

He painted wonderful pictures.  I nearly believed him.

One day, as my mother was foraging for greens in the forest, Daniel came to me.

“Daniel,” I whispered.  “Am I crazy?”

He shook his head.  “There is a stone, child.  Beneath your bed.”

He watched as I shifted the bed from the wall.  It was dusty there.  And, as Daniel had said, there was a large stone.

“Lift it,” he said, standing and coming to my side.

The stone was heavy.  “Can you not aid me?”

“I cannot.  My strength cannot cross time.  Only my spirit.”

Bit by bit, I moved that stubborn stone.  Underneath, there was a hole. 

“Reach inside,” Daniel said.

“Will there not be rodents?”  Nevertheless, I reached in my hand.  “There is something hidden here, Daniel!”

“Take it out.”

It was a box.  I picked it up, blew the dust from the cover.  Hands shaking, I opened the lid and withdrew something square and blue. 

“It’s a book of sorts, True.  A book of memories.  Open it.”

I folded back the outside cover and gasped.  There was an image—a picture—of Daniel.  Beneath the image there were strange marks. 

I pointed.  “I cannot understand these markings. What are they?”

“Those are words, True.”

“Tell me what they say.”

“Diary of Daniel Gray Smith.” 

“You tell me, Daniel, that you come from the yesterdays.  Are you certain you don’t come from the tomorrows?”

He nodded.  “I am certain.”

I sat upon the bed.  “Why are you here?”

“I’ve come to teach you to understand the words, True.  And then my mission will be complete.”

Every day, while my sisters were at school and my father was hunting our food and my mother was going about her chores, I sat with Daniel.  Bit by bit, I learned to read.

* * *

The day of the Counting, my father was in a foul mood.  He pointed to me.  For the first time in two years, he spoke to me.  “You’ll stay home.”

“We cannot leave her at home, Seth.”

“It is too dangerous, Mercy.”

“It’s more dangerous to leave her here alone.  They’ll suspect something.”

“We’ll tell her she died.”

“No.  She comes with us.”  With tears in her eyes, my mother slapped me again.  “Keep your mouth shut, child.”

For eight hours, we walked in silence.  When we reached town, I noticed something I didn’t notice at the last Counting: Words.  Words everywhere.

Words everywhere and no one to read them.

I ran my hand along the stone surface of a wall.  Fitted my fingers into the letter T.

“What is that, True?”  My sister asked.

“It’s a sentence.  It says…I read slowly.  Carefully.  Haltingly: Technology…destroyed… this… society.

I was seized roughly by the shoulders.  My father dragged me up to an officer.  “She has the gift.  She can read the markings.”

I was taken to the gallows immediately.  My family gathered at my feet.  Others began circling, watching and pointing.

The officer placed a rope about my neck. 

“Any last words?” he said.

I looked at my father.  “And what will you have me tell your great-great-grandchildren?”

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, M. Hunter challenged me with “Every 100 years, someone in your family spontaneously develops the ability to see and speak with one other person in your family with the same ability, usually dead or not yet born. This time, it’s you.” and I challenged Brad MacDonald with “He slept until noon. When he woke, it was completely dark outside.”

Sinners and Saints

“Well, ain’t just you the little saint, Howard Heacock?” Daddy Sheriff sneered.  “Always doing the right thing, the good thing.  Paying for the child’s education.  Working your ass off for Jonathan Fowler and never spending a dime of it.  And always obeying your father, just like I asked you to.  You ever do anything bad in your life, boy?”

Howard nodded, once and neatly.  Daddy Sheriff knew he had.

“You think you’re proving some kind of point with all your goodness?  Well, I got news for you, Howard: You need me.”

No.  Howard had no need of his father.  He remained with Daddy Sheriff to punish him.  To remind him, every single day, of what he’d done.  Every time he looked upon his face, Howard knew, Daddy Sheriff was taken back to that night.  Every day that Howard kept his mouth closed, he shouted guilty.

 “You and all them other do-gooders in this world need people to do bad.  Sinners need saints, Howard.  Good needs evil.”  Daddy Sheriff lit a cigarette.   “It’s a balance, y’see.  Sinners screw up.  Saints scurry around behind ‘em with their little dustpans of goodness, sweeping up the mess, counting on their rosary beads; saying their prayers; shaking their heads and thanking their lucky stars for the lives they’ve been blessed to lead.  Makes you saints feel good, you know.  Gives you a purpose to life.”

“Stop talking nonsense, Daddy Sheriff,” Lilly Jean shouted.  “The weather’s on.”

“Shut up, woman.”  Daddy Sheriff waved his cigarette in the air.  The ash threatened to spill onto Lilly Jean’s new shag rug.  Howard watched warily. 

“Where would all you saints be, Howard, if there was no evil in this world?  What would all you little bright spots of sunshine do, if there were no more shadows?” Daddy Sheriff grinned.  “What in the world would you do, Howard, if I was a good man?”  He laughed.  “You may think saints are helping the sinners, Howard, but you know what?  I think you got it backwards.”

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Sir challenged me with ““What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” ? Mikhail Bulgakov” and I challenged Janey with “A million drops of water.”

Anything But Science Fiction

Howard put the broom into the shed at the back of the diner and tossed the bag of leaves into the dumpster before heading for the IGA.  What the hell was Bitsy thinking, sending a man down to the store to buy plants?  Couldn’t she have sent Ellie?  Or did Bitsy believe, like many of the residents of Medford, that he’d gone soft in the head?  Howard frowned at the thought.  Just because a man didn’t talk didn’t make him stupid.  Bitsy of all people ought to have understood that. 
Inside the Laundromat, one of the Ransom boys stuck a finger into the coin door of the pay phone, looking for change.  His brother stuck a hanger inside the cigarette machine and worked it around furiously.  Their father Travis sat on the washing machine, looking exhausted and defeated.  Raising those boys would take the life out of anyone, Howard thought. 
Travis raised a hand in greeting, which Howard returned.   Many times Travis had sat beside Howard at the breakfast bar, chewing on tobacco and jawing about the difficulty of raising boys without a mother.  “Count yerself lucky, Howard Heacock,” Travis would always say, shaking his head.  But Howard would have given his eyeteeth for children of his own, even if they were like the Travis boys.
“Morning, Howard.”  Eloise Dimkowitcz stepped out of the pharmacy, clutching a lottery ticket in her left hand.  Howard nodded and continued down Main. That pharmacy had driven Tank Jones out of business.  When they were in high school, Tank’s reputation as a nose tackle spread throughout all of Ohio.  Tank went to college on a football scholarship, got his degree in pharmacy and set up shop.  Less than ten years later, one of the big guys came in and took him down.  Tank knew he couldn’t compete with that.  He sold the store and put on one of the company badges and put himself behind the counter, dolling out prescriptions but surrendering the day-to-day operations of the business to a young manager who apparently knew better.  Every day that Tank worked behind the counter of another man’s business, he appeared to get a little smaller.
Andee Miller better have those plants all picked out, that much was for certain, Howard thought, as he found himself standing at the entrance to the IGA.  The doors slid open and he stepped inside.
            “Hey, Howie.” Andee Miller looked up from the store’s sole cash register where she was ringing up Hank Delacroix, the town barber.  “You here for them plants?”
Howard nodded.
“I got them wrapped up.  Just bring your truck round back.” 
Truck?  How many plants was she expecting him to take?  No, Howard would just carry them up the hill and if he couldn’t carry all of them, he could just borrow a cart from Andee and wheel them there.
“You got your Bible verse memorized, Hank?”  Andee Miller firmly believed she was in charge of single-handedly saving all of the lost souls of Medford.
“You know I don’t, Andee.”
“Save ten percent, Hank, if you can just give me your verse.”
“I got my coupons, Andee.  That’ll save me just as much.”
“Hank, it’s right there on the sign.  Just read it aloud to me.”
Hank patted his shirt pocket.  “Damn.  Forgot my glasses again.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Hank.”  Andee closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  “’For wherever your treasure is, there also will your heart be.’” 
“I ain’t got no treasure, Andee.”  Hank thumped his chest.  “And my heart’s right here, where the doctor tells me it’s supposed to be.”
Andee frowned.  “I’ll give you the discount anyway.  But this is the last…”
“Thank you, Andee.”
Howard sighed and headed down an aisle to kill time.  He found himself in the baking aisle: flour, sugar, cocoa and chocolate chips and dusty jars of maraschino cherries lined up on the shelf.  There was a little display of Halloween cookie cutters and tubes of orange and black frosting.  Howard didn’t understand how people like Annie Fowler and Bitsy could take all these independent ingredients and combine them into something better than they were alone.  What was it they did that other women couldn’t do? 
“Now where did that Howard get to?  Did you see him leave the store?”  Andee said.
“No, ma’am,” Hank replied. 
“Well he sure ain’t here anymore.”
“Howard’s a strange one, that’s for sure.  Beam me up, Scotty,” Hank said.
“You hush yourself, Hank.  There ain’t nothing wrong with Howard.  ‘Sides,” she continued, “some of us like the silent type.”
The doors slid open   Another customer entered.  “Hey, Wally,” Hank called.  “I ain’t seen you in weeks.  What brings you to town?”
“Come to pay my respects to a dear friend.  Town’ll never see a teacher the likes of Wheezy Hart again.”
“It’s a real shame,” Andee said.  “No wife.  No family.” 
“Remember when he used to live outside of town?”  Hank said.  “Whatever happened to that property?”
“His daddy sold it to the Fowlers, after they learned about Wheezy’s asthma,” Wally said.
“And now,” Andee said, “someone’s trying to buy the farm off of Jonathan.” 
Howard was surprised by this news: He hadn’t heard it before.
“You ask me, he ought to sell out.  Lord knows we could use the influx of people.  On a good day I have eight clients,” Hank said.  “That’s not enough to keep a man in bread.”
“Jonathan loves that place,” Andee said.
“Yes,” Wally said.  “But we love this place too.  That farm is land we could build on.  The developer wants to put up thirty houses and a couple of nice stores, too.”
“Stores that will likely put me out of business.  Fancy houses bring fancy people who want prettified stores,” Andee said.  “Besides, what a man does with his own land is his own business.”
“Not when it affects more than the man.  Jonathan’s sitting on a gold mine,” Wally said.
“Jonathan Fowler never has two cents to rub together, Wally and you know it.”
“He sells that place and he’ll have more than two cents.  Hell, he doesn’t even pay Howard Heacock a decent wage.  Howard’s on the far side of thirty and he still can’t afford a place of his own.  And that girl what works down at Bitsy’s.  He’s got her working her fingers to the bone on the farm.  Probably doesn’t pay her a dime neither.”
“Jonathan’s a fair man, Wally.  And Howard…Where is Howard, anyhow?” Andee asked.  “He was supposed to take his truck out back and pick up those plants Bitsy ordered.  Oh, Lord.”  She walked to the window and peered out.  “I promised ‘em to Bitsy before the funeral.”
“Me and Wally will run ‘em up, Andee,” Hank said.  “It’s not as if I have any customers waiting for me back at the shop.”
“Thank you, Hank.  Could you help us load up, Wally?”
Howard watched while the three headed to the back of the store.  And after they’d left, their arms full of plants, he sneaked out the entrance.  He knew what Bitsy’s and Annie’s secret was: Both the women cooked the way they lived their lives: with love and not malice.  Howard swore he could taste the love in their food.  And Jonathan Fowler cared for the land in the same way—with a heart full of love; a love that no builder would extend to the farm, should he get his hands on it.  No.  Howard shook his head.  The only thing a builder would love about the farm is the money it would generate.  He hoped—for the sake of the Fowlers and Ellie and, yes, for himself—that Jonathan wouldn’t sell the farm that had been Howard’s true home for the past eighteen years.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Dili challenged me with “take a good quote you like from something sci-fi, and use it to make something that’s anything but sci-fi” and I challenged Chaos Mandy with “The sun winked out and the skies went black. What happens next?”

Conveyed

Cameras were outlawed when the Transition Time came.  Cell phones, too.  Computers.  Even the ancient things: iPods and iPads.  Blackberries.  Nooks.  Kindles. 
The government no longer trusted its citizens with technology.  Officials went door to door in blood-red uniforms, tearing apart houses, gathering up digital devices and taking them away in great boxes.    
They took everything. 
And the people no longer knew what to do with themselves.
Joseph supposed he’d lucked out: The officials took one look at his 35 millimeter Nikon and burst out laughing.  “Keep that piece of junk,” they spat.  The camera wasn’t a threat to them: Film was no longer available. 
Or so they thought. 
For years, Joseph had been hoarding film, picking it up wherever and whenever and however he could, hiding it throughout his apartment—some stuffed into the government-issued bag of beans.   Some tucked into his regulation-white socks.  Some hidden in the cinderblock walls of the apartment basement.  It was easy enough to chunk out a piece of the wall.  Easy enough to put it back just so.  No one—not even Joseph—could tell from a distance that the wall had been tampered with.
Every Sunday, after the proclamation, Joseph switched off the two-way television; pretended to go out for his mandatory run.  Instead, Joseph sneaked to the basement.  Joseph sneaked off to his darkroom.
Joseph liked working in the dark, doing things by feel.  He liked pulling the film from the canister and threading it onto a reel.  He liked the pungent smell of the chemicals; the clock with the glow in the dark numbers. 
On Mondays, after mandatory inspections, Joseph would sneak to the basement and print his film.  And then, when he put the paper into the developing solution, the magic would happen: Where there once was only white paper, an image would appear.
Developing film, printing pictures, was what kept Joseph sane.
You might say that pictures kept Joseph alive.
* * *
But on this particular Monday, Joseph couldn’t print his film.  This particular Monday after inspections, Joseph had his mandatory physical. 
The conveyor took him to the office and stopped.  He stepped and waited.  The doors whisked open.  The conveyor took him to the elevator which had been preprogrammed to take Joseph to the top floor.  No music played.  No buttons glowed.  There was just the slow, mechanical sound of the elevator heading to the third floor.  The elevator stopped.  The doors opened.  The conveyor moved Joseph to a white plastic chair.  He sat.
 “Joseph Schmidt?”  A nurse appeared at one of the doors, clipboard in hand.  The conveyor led him to the back.  He stepped off at the scale. 
 “Oh, that won’t be necessary.”
Joseph frowned.  “But it’s required.  Every year.”
She shook her head.  “Not this year.” 
The conveyor took him to a windowless room.  Joseph sat upon the examination table.  The white paper crinkled beneath him.  He rolled up his sleeve.  “Don’t bother, Joseph,” the nurse said, leaving the room on silent shoes of black.
The doctor entered, carrying his laptop.  Doctors, being employees of the government, were permitted computers.  “Hello, Joseph.”
“Hello, Doctor.”  Joseph stopped swinging his legs.  Sat a little straighter.  Again, the paper crinkled noisily.   
“Let’s see.  Stitches.”  The doctor clicked his mouse.
“Just two.  A minor cut.” 
“Vision disturbances.”  Click.  “Tremors.”
“You must have the wrong file, doctor.  The computer…”
The doctor glanced at Joseph.  “Obesity.”
“I’m underweight, doctor.  I never miss a day of mandatory exercise.”
“The population is getting too high, Joseph.  The government needs us to Eliminate.”
“But…”
“You missed two days of production, Joseph.  I’m going to recommend Elimination.”
“But you can’t…”
“I can.  Doctors are quite powerful, you see.  We can save lives.  And we can…”  He shrugged.
 “I’m thirty-eight years old.  It’s…”
“I’m sorry, Joseph.”  The doctor leaned in.  “Unless…”
“Unless what?” Joseph whispered.  He could feel his hands shaking in his lap.  Could feel the sweat rolling down his back.
“I would consider a small payment.”
“How much?”  He held his breath. 
“Ten thousand.”
Joseph’s heart sank.  “I don’t have that kind of money.”
The doctor shrugged.  “My report is due at the end of the week.  Once you have the money, call this number. “He scratched a twelve-digit number on a blank piece of paper.
“Where am I supposed to find a telephone?”
The doctor smiled.  “I had one installed in this building.  For emergencies onlyI’d say, Joseph, that this is a bit of an emergency.” 
“But where…?”
“When you have the money, walk to the back of the building.  Go up four flights of stairs.” 
“This building has three floors.”
“It’s so easy to deceive people who have fallen asleep.”  He smiled.  “You commoners and the government.  I keep all the contraband up there, Joseph.  My music.  My movies.  I have cigarettes and potato chips and all the money I need to keep me in illegal goods forever.  I’ll be waiting, Joseph.”
That particular Monday, Joseph skipped mandatory inspections.  What were forty lashes when one’s life was in danger?  He grabbed his camera and a roll of film from the bag of beans and he headed back to the doctor’s office.  Joseph went to the back of the building, stood before a non-descript double door that refused to open for him.  Joseph wedged his fingers between the doors, forced them open.
He stood there for a moment, getting his bearings.  He was in the back of the building, facing a metal stairwell.  They startled him: Besides those he’d discovered in his apartment building, Joseph hadn’t seen stairs in years.  He glanced at the corners of the ceiling.  No cameras.  No listening devices.  The area was silent as death.
Joseph tiptoed up the stairs.  At the second floor, he paused to listen; to strain his ears in the silence.
Nothing.
Again he continued up the stairs, more quietly this time.  More slowly. 
Again, nothing.
Third floor.  The floor that contained the doctor’s office.  He paused, hand on rail. 
Nothing.
Joseph took the last flight two stairs at a time.  At the top there was a red door marked Danger.  Toxic Chemicals.  Next to the door there was a telephone, also red.  Joseph grasped the door handle.  Locked.  He glanced at the telephone.  Picked it up.  Listened to the dial tone. 
Joseph stood back.  Kicked at the door. 
The door held.
Again, he kicked.  Again and again, not worried about the sound he was making. He was, after all, one floor above the doctor’s office.  And the office—like all governmental offices—was soundproofed. 
His foot throbbed.  His ankle hurt.  Again, he kicked.
Finally, the door opened.
Joseph stepped in.
He gasped. 
There was television—an old-fashioned one way television—in the room.  And a stereo.  He counted three computers and a plush purple couch—a color outlawed ten years ago.  Joseph went into the kitchen.  Opened an old refrigerator and found food—real fresh food—inside.  Apples and oranges and carrots and lettuce. 
Joseph made his way to a back room; a bedroom.  There was a shelf full of books, also contraband items.  Joseph grabbed one and flipped it open at random, reading, soaking in as many words as he could.  His watch beeped.  It was dismissal time.  He had to make it home quickly before the authorities checked the streets
 Joseph went from room to room, snapping pictures as he went, opening drawers, searching for anything that could help him. 
The watch beeped again.  He was supposed to be home now.  The doctor…would he be coming up the stairs tonight?
He continued searching, looking beneath cushions, rolling back rugs, think, Joseph.  Think.

And then, just as he was leaving, he found it, sitting in plain sight.  A book of records.  A column of dates.   The names of patients he had bribed.  The money received and the corresponding date.  And then a fifth column: Date of Elimination.  Each patient had been Eliminated one day after the money had been received.  The final name on the page was his own.  Joseph raised his camera.  He snapped one picture before the film ran out.  He ran from the room, not bothering to close the book; not rolling back carpets or fluffing up cushions.  He didn’t even bother to close the door behind him.
* * *
 At mandatory bedtime, Joseph sneaked to his darkroom.  He developed his film nervously, clumsily fumbling with the roll.  Slow down, Joseph.  Relax.  He pretended his was at work.  Did what his boss told him to do: He forced his mind from the process, let his body take over: film, canister, water, developer, water, fixer.  Hands shaking, he held the negatives to dim lights.
He held his breath. 
He squinted at the last picture.
It was good.
He printed two sets of the pictures and hid one in the cinderblocks of the basement.
In the dark, Joseph walked to the doctor’s building.  He walked up four flights of stairs. The door, he noticed, was still open.  He picked up the red telephone hanging upon the wall.
“You work quickly, Joseph.”  The doctor said into the telephone.  “Bring the money to my office tomorrow at nine.  I’ll rearrange your schedule.”
* * *
“I’ll wait here,” Joseph told the nurse the next day.
“He won’t come out here.”
Joseph smiled.  “I’m betting he will.”
The doctor emerged from the back rooms.  He wore a frown on his face.  “This is highly irregular Joseph.”  He extended his hand. 
Joseph gave him the envelope.   “You might want to count it.”
The doctor opened it.  Paled. 
“I have another set of those hidden away.”
The doctor glared at him.  “I could make you disappear right now.”  He flashed a syringe held in his left hand.
“Three people—three entirely unrelated people—know about these pictures and where to find them.  I disappear; those prints go to the Governor.  You see, Doctor.  Pictures are powerful, too.”
“Get out of here,” the doctor snarled. 
“I want your reassurances.”
“You’re completely healthy.  You won’t be Eliminated.”
Joseph smiled and turned aside.  He refused the conveyor and instead took the sidewalk on foot.
From the belt of the conveyor, a passerby glanced at him.  “You’re limping.”
Joseph glanced at his foot.  It was swollen and, now that he thought about it, it hurt.  He remembered the door he’d kicked in.
“You really should see a doctor,” the passerby said over his shoulder.
“I’m good.”  Joseph smiled.  He continued walking along the sidewalk, feeling more alive–and awake–than he’d felt in years.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kat challenged me with “Use these words in your story: doctor, roll of film, stairwell, telephone” and I challenged The Lime with “What if Socrates didn’t drink the hemlock?”

No Map and No Directions

Robert Hayes stared out the window listening his partner tell the new admin some lame joke; listening to her laughter, bright and thin and so utterly expected.  Part of the requirements of the job, he supposed.  Nothing like the laughter of his mother. 


He smiled and took a sip of his tea, thin and green and disgusting.  Celeste had forced him to abandon coffee.  And meat.  And dairy products.  He wondered what his wife—in ever pursuit of eternal life—would press him to give up next.  What would be the next thing to drop out of his life completely?


If he were to examine the facts—and that was his job, wasn’t it?  To sort through the facts and find some Truth within them?—he would have to admit the fault was his.  He had allowed it to happen.  Had started it, actually; had set things in motion all those years ago. 


He put his mind in reverse, reeling backwards a single frame at a time, each important moment a snapshot in his memory: The purchase of the Lower East brownstone.  His Columbia degrees—three in all.  His move to New York.  His mother, the day of his high school graduation, pushing him out the door towards town.  “Go, Bobby Joe,” she said.  “Go and make something of yourself.  Go and make me proud.”


Just before leaving, he took one last look around that cabin—except for the bathroom, one main room, with beds all around the perimeter.  No decorations, save the calendar tacked to the wall and his various paper awards, yellowed and curling up at the edges: perfect attendance certificates—twelve in all; his National Honor Society card; his name printed upon the honor roll year after year after year.


After he left, he never looked back.  As his awards grew, as his brain expanded and filled with Important Things, he found his family—his past—his history—embarrassed him.  He discovered that it was easy enough, to change one’s name; to lose one’s parents in a tragic accident.  With enough money, it’s simple to invent a life.


And one day, Bobby Joe Jones died.  And Robert B. Hayes was born.


But inventions were often illusory and realities pressed deep.  It didn’t take much to call memory back.  Sometimes all it took was a laugh to bring back the memory of his mother and his siblings. 


Momma had grouped them, for the sake of convenience: The Little Ones, the youngest boys.  Twins.  The Middles.  Also twins.  His sisters.  Two by two, twins marched from his mother’s womb. 


Except for him. 


Oldest. 


Oldest was alone.


Oldest was expected to Know Better, but often he didn’t.   


* * * 

It had been meant as a joke.  The Little Ones were always trying to introduce a bit of levity, to fill a situation with enough hot air to lift the tiny cabin from its formidable foundation and move it, on the trails of their laughter, to a happier place.  To a Someplace Else.  To that place everyone wanted to find.


There was no map.  There were no directions.  And yet, it was a place everyone sought.  A place that to this day everyone seeks.


Momma finished the breakfast dishes and then poured herself another cup of coffee from the blue spatterware pot that boiled nonstop on the woodstove.  She wore her thin threadbare nightgown that ended just above her knobby knees.  Her feet were jammed into fuzzy pink slippers.  In one hand she carried her cup of coffee.  In the other, a bottle of dollar store lotion.  Once a week, Momma would bathe and then rub that lotion over her tired sagging skin, the only luxury she’d ever known, in an attempt, Robert supposed now, to smooth away the harsh realities that were her life.


Momma walked into the bathroom.  Shut the door behind her.  They could hear her humming.  Could hear the shower curtain drawing back.  They started at one another, biting upon their lips and pressing grubby hands against dirty faces to keep the laughter inside.  Bobby Joe wondered whether the Little Ones had gone too far.


A moment later, Momma emerged, hands on hips.


“Do y’all mind ‘splain’ how the hell our donkey got into the bathtub?”  She paused.   Crossed the room to the kitchen area and parted the curtains with one hand.  “That isour donkey, ain’t it?”


One of the Middles giggled.


Momma laughed then.  “Well, at least it ain’t a elephant.”  She sank her bony self into a wooden chair and for an instant Bobby Joe got a profile view of his twin brothers growing in her womb: Last Ones.


Momma laughed long and hard, and her laughter gave them the permission they needed to laugh also.  They all joined in and that little cabin, deep in the mountains, surrounded only by trees and abandonment and hopelessness, filled with laughter.  And despite the fact that the house remained resolutely upon its foundation, Bobby Joe felt them travel to that place that had no map and no directions. 


***
Robert looked out the window and watched the people on the sidewalk, thirty floors below.  The rich rubbed shoulders with the artists who rubbed shoulders with eager interns, all of them taking care not to spill their coffee as they stepped with eyes averted  around the homeless woman who begged at the corner every day.


Every day, he, too, averted his eyes from the face of the woman, so as not to see the truth of the facts contained therein.  But today, as she’d turned to a woman with a designer dog and held out her torn paper cup, Robert had noticed the gentle swell beneath her shirt; the roundness of her hips.  He wondered whether the child within would be Oldest or Last One.



He stood and slipped on his coat.  The new admin, the laughing, briskly efficient admin removed her glasses.  “Where are you going?”


 “Can you cook?”  His voice was harsh and impatient.


She reddened.  “I didn’t realize that was a job requirement.”


“Can you stone a squirrel, gut it and fry it up for dinner all within the span of an hour?”


She blanched.  “I’m a vegan.”


He sighed.  Another one.  He tried another tactic.  “If I dropped you off on the side of a mountain, how many days would you survive?”


“You mean like one of those reality shows?”


“No.  I mean like reality.  Hold my calls.”


He took the stairs, thirty flights of stairs, because that would be faster than the elevator at this time of day.  He walked to the corner, drawing his coat up closer, wishing for his thick scarf.



He went up to the woman.  Smiled tentatively.  “Are you hungry?”


She stared.  Waited. 


“Come with me,” he said.


“I’m no hooker.”


“I’m not looking for one.”  Robert removed his coat and wrapped it around the woman’s bony shoulders.  “When was your last meal?” 


“Tuesday.”


“That was two days ago.”


 “I can count.  I’m homeless, not stupid.”


“I’m taking you home.”


“I’m not a stray you can take home to your momma.”


Robert cringed.  He hailed a taxi and flashed the driver a hundred dollar bill.  He saw the driver curse as he pulled to the curb.  But even in New York, a hundred dollar tip was a hard thing to come by.


Robert opened the back door, helped the woman slide across the vinyl seat, dull and green, yellow foam pouring through a hole in the center.  He sat beside her; gave the driver his address and leaned against the back of the seat. 


Neither of them bothered with seatbelts. 


The driver pulled up to the brownstone.  Robert helped the woman from the car.  He felt the curious eyes of nameless neighbors upon him. 


He unlocked the front door, led the woman inside. He removed his coat from her shoulders and hung it in the closet.  He studied her fingernails, blackened and bruised; her sunken eyes still holding a touch of pride; her mouth, slack and harsh and challenging.


His cell phone buzzed.  His admin.  “Excuse me a moment.”  He stepped into the library, the library full of books nobody had ever bothered to read.  “Hello?”


“Robert, where are you?”


Before he could respond, there came a scream and a shattering of glass.  He dropped the cell phone, returned to the door.  His wife stood there, perfectly made up, blond tints, muscles hardened by her daily jogs in Central Park and weekly yoga sessions.  There was a shattered vase upon the floor; a packet of florist flowers wrapped in green paper.


“Robert, there’s a homeless person in our foyer!”  She pronounced it the French way, faux-plump lips tripping across the word, expanding it into three syllables rather than two.  Foyer.  A foyer the size of his mother’s cabin. 


The homeless woman sighed and sank her bony frame into a chair.



“You’re sitting on Louis XIV!” Celeste had the ostentatious habit of slipping in the names of their fancy furniture whenever she could, quick as a lemon drop and twice as sour: What Celeste called Louis, Robert simply called expensive.  “Get off of Louis!”

The woman grabbed the arms of the chair.  Hauled herself up.  Gave a neat little bow to the seat.  “Begging your pardon sir.  I didn’t see you there.”  Then she doubled over herself and laughed and laughed.


Robert!


“Celeste, I want a divorce.”


Then Robert laughed, too.  And the laugh was loud and mighty and for an instant Bobby Joe Jones thought he could feel the house rocking upon its fine and stately foundation.


For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week,Lance challenged me with “explain how the donkey got in the bathtub”.  I challenged SAM with “frostbitten fingers on a ninety degree day.”

Don’t Ever…

Behind the counter, Billie-Jo stocks candy, setting bars of Snickers and bags of M&Ms neatly behind plate glass.  Billie-Jo smiles to herself:  She likes to impose order on things.  An ordered life is a safe life. 


She hears the tell-tale ding and looks up to see a car pull into the station.  She shields her eyes and squints.  It’s an unfamiliar car; a rusted-out car; a car is full of dents and dings, certain proof of the uncertainties of life.  She tucks a final candy bar into place before heading outside.


The driver—a boy no older than nineteen—has rolled down his window.  He nods in time to his loud music. 


She notices the interior of the car is a mass of balled-up fast food bags and empty cans of pop.  

She resists the urge to reach inside and neaten things up.  “Help you?”  She has to raise her voice to be heard.   


He smiles and turns down the radio.  “I guess you better fill it.  I rode in on fumes. ”  He stares ahead.  “Who knows when I’ll find another station?”


“You need to be careful.  What would you do if…?”  But he smiles that smile that only the youth seem to wear and dismisses her concerns.  She puts the nozzle in the tank and begins cleaning his windshield.  It’s mud-splattered and grimy.  Billie-Jo wonders how the child can see to where he’s going.  “Where you headed?”


He points down the road.  Names a destination three towns distant. 


She pulls the map from her back pocket, spreads it open on his trunk.  “Come ‘ere a minute.”

He gets out of the car.  Stretches his lanky frame.  Billie-Jo notices the holes in his tennis shoes; the patches on his jeans. 


He walks to the back of the car and points to the tears along the fold lines of her map.  “How can you read this?”


“I been here her all my life.  I know these roads like the back of my hand.  I don’t need to read it.”


“But this map,” his voice is incredulous.  “It’s ancient.  What if there’s something new?”


“Ain’t nothin’ new around here.”  She traces a finger along a network of black lines, throwing out road names as her finger veers west then north then east again. 


He shakes his head.  “That’ll take me twenty minutes out of my way at least.  I’m planning on heading due north.”  He indicates the route on the map.


She shakes her head.  “Don’t ever go that way.”


 “Why?”  He tosses her a little smile. 


“No one goes that way.”


“Why?”  Again that infernal smile.  She feels small and silly.  But there’s something else too: She feels challenged, and this angers her.  Who is this boy, to question her?


“It just ain’t right,” she says.


He laughs out loud.


The pump click off and he hands her a fifty.  She peels two three singles which he carelessly waves away.  “Keep it,” he says, getting back into his car.


“Whatever you do,” she says, tucking the change into her pocket, “don’t go north.”


“OK,” he says.  “Thank you.”


She nods, satisfied, and folds her map.  She heads inside and put the money into the cash register.


She looks up and sees the tail lights of the car.  And she realizes that the car is going north.  For a moment she feels a pang of regret.  A stab of jealousy.  Perhaps he will find a new way.  Then she shakes her head and dismisses the thought.  She feels a flash of anger.  The youth are always challenging the order of the universe. 


At closing time, she wipes invisible fingerprints from the glass countertop.  She counts the money and put it into the safe.  She closes down the pump and locks the gas station, testing the doors once…twice…three times.


She looks north.  She shakes her head.  No.


In the morning, she will open the gas station and straighten her candy bars and wait for another wayward stranger looking for direction.


For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Amanda challenged me with “Don’t ever go that way.” I challenged Chaos Mandy with “Each of your passwords no longer works.  All of your cell phone contacts have been mysteriously erased.  Your social security number, your credit card numbers, your health card number, your bank account, your address…all invalid or unrecognized. In the world of bits and bytes, you no longer exist. What do you do now?“.

The Names of Things

Tall grasses dance and wave in the breeze.  From the trees, Peter hears birdsong that he cannot identify.  He regrets this.  Too busy with the day-to-day responsibilities of owning a newspaper, he forgot to learn the names of the things that surround him.  He will go to his grave with only a nodding acquaintance with the trees.  All the various types of clouds will be just clouds.  He doesn’t know what to call the weeds and the grasses and the insects.  And this thought saddens him.  It weighs heavily upon his mind and darkens the day. 
“What is that bird, do you think, Ellen?”
She scowls.  “Does it make a difference, Peter?”
The sun slants through the trees and, squinting furiously, he tries to determine the hour.  He gives up the endeavor easily enough and instead glances at the watch he wears upon his wrist.

In his right hand, he carries a picnic basket; a basket full of Ellen’s favorite things to eat: prosciutto ham on crusty rolls with a hint of Dijon mustard; potato chips and a fruit salad, even though he hates fruit salad for what it does to her.  Truth be told, it gives her gas something fierce.  But she likes it, and it’s not every day you get to celebrate fifty years of marriage. 
With his left hand, he reaches for Ellen’s elbow.  “Careful, now.”
She jerks her arm away.  “I’m fine.” 
“It’s a bit rocky here,” he says.
“I have eyes.”
He feels silly still holding out his arm.  He wonders what he ought to do with it now that she has rejected it.  He remembers the picnic basket.  He pretends it’s getting heavy.  He switches it to the other hand.  “I’m just trying to help…” 
“You try too hard.”
“But…”
“I’m not incapable.”
“I know that, Ellen.”
“You’ve always been so overprotective of me.  I am not a child, Peter.”
“I never said you were a child.”
“For fifty years, you’ve been protecting me.  But I’ve got news for you, old man.  I don’t need your protection.  I’m going back.”  She turns and begins picking her way up the hill, leaning into the slant of it.  Her legs are white spindles.  She never did like the sun. 
He puts a hand in his pocket, fingers the diamond band he saw her admiring last week.
She turns.  “Are you coming or not?”
He considers this question; the same question she asked him fifty-one years ago.  Ellen had met him after work one day; told him that his fiancée had been seen at the movies with Billy Humphries, the wildest boy in town.  Everybody knew Billy was an improper boy.
Peter had broken the engagement immediately.  A year later, he married Ellen. 
“Peter.”  Ellen’s tone is sharp; she’s aggravated.
“Yes?”
“I asked if you were coming.”
He smiles.  “No.  I don’t believe that I am.”
He turns and continues down the hill and into town, smiling at the sharp cries behind him.   
He remembers the way as if it were yesterday: Left on Maple.  Right on Green.  Another right on Lawrence Street.  Then three houses down.  A white Victorian with red shutters. 
He takes the stairs two at a time.  Presses the doorbell.  Waits.
But it feels improper for him to be standing here on the porch fifty years after he last stood here.  He leaves the porch and waits on the sidewalk.  He hears footsteps in the hallway.  And it seems his heart beats in time with those steps. 
The door is opened.  And there, before him…“Lydia.”
“Peter.”  She smiles broadly and steps out onto the porch.  She walks down the stairs and onto the sidewalk.
“Careful.”  He reaches a hand out to take her elbow.
“You were always such a gentleman, Peter.”
“Am I too late, Lydia?”
“Never.”
Again he hears the birdsong.  He turns.  “What is that bird, do you think?”
She turns to the sky.  Holds up a hand to her eyes and squints.  “I believe that’s a sparrow.” 
* * *
The next day, Ellen slips and falls while out walking with her old high school friend Lydia.  An unfortunate, yet fatal, accident. 
At least that’s what the newspaper called it.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, MrMacrum challenged me with “setting: outside.  A conversation ending acrimoniously.”  I challenged Lilu with “should have learned from the Romans…”


Somewhere Between Here and There

She pauses in her buffing to glance out the window.  The snow is falling heavier now, thicker.  Maybe he’ll let her go early tonight.  Not because he’s concerned about her getting home to her family on Christmas Eve, but because he wants to make sure she gets back to him tomorrow:  If she gets stuck somewhere between here and there, she won’t be able to serve Christmas dinner to his relatives.  And without her serving, how will he impress his family?

She studies her work.  The bathroom faucet gleams.  He won’t find water spots on it tonight.  This time, he won’t find a reason to dock her pay.  Twenty cents for each water spot on stainless steel.  A dollar for a missing button.  Every perceived grievance is fined: too much salt; bread that didn’t rise properly; towels misfolded; bed made up with incorrect sheets; a book placed upon the wrong shelf.  Every mistake costs her dearly: an immunization foregone; her mother’s pills cut in half; an empty space where the Christmas tree ought to be.  Over fifteen years, he has docked her pay by over nine hundred dollars. 


She picks up damp towels from cold bathroom tiles and puts them in the laundry basket which she lugs downstairs to the basement.  She dumps the basket over; un-balls the socks flecked with discarded skin.  She sorts the laundry, darks and lights.  She treats the stains, undoing his mistakes and hoping she doesn’t make one herself.  She shoves the whites into the washing machine and precisely measures the liquid. 


In the kitchen, she mashes his potatoes and checks the roast.  She sorts his mail and opens the package Fed-Ex delivered that afternoon.  She studies the return address – it’s from his most recent ex-wife, the only woman who’d ever been kind to her within the confines of this bitter house.  She opens the package and takes out a small vial, an envelope with her name on it taped to the side. 


She looks behind her.  She tears open the envelope.  She slips out a piece of paper lightly scented with lavender, a fragrance he despises.  She opens the note and begins to read.


I know you still open his mail.

I know he still treats you badly.

I can help you escape, as you once helped me.

Take the vial.  Pour it into his food.  No one will know.

Be free.


She shakes her head.  Crumples up the note and jams it deep in the pocket of her apron.  The vial and the box and the note will go into three different dumpsters on her way home tonight.  She may hate the man, but she is no murderess.


She hears a bell.  Her signal.  She picks up his salad and takes it to the dining room.  Sets it down before him.  “You’ll be staying tonight,” he says.  “You’ll never make it back tomorrow morning.”

But, Sir…”  She keeps her eyes down, as he has taught her. 


“This salad has too much vinegar,” he says in reply, setting down his fork and picking up his newspaper.


“It’s Christmas Eve.” 


“I can ruin you,” he says.  “One word from me and your home, your husband and children…”  He snaps his finger.  “Gone.”


For fifteen years, the judge has held her offense over her head, threatening her with it whenever he finds it convenient.  She drops into a curtsy.  “I’ll make up the guest room.”


“You may take the salad.”


She returns to the kitchen and slices the roast beef and dishes up his potatoes.  She considers the vial on the kitchen counter.  She picks it up, studies it.  She unscrews the lid and sniffs cautiously.  She hears the bell.

“Coming,” she calls.


“One dollar,” he says calmly.  “And another dollar for every second more you make me wait.  One…two…”


She thinks of the note; thinks of the look of joy upon the ex-wife’s face when she finally made it out of the house for good.  Be free.


For far too long, he’s controlled her life.  For fifteen years, she’s had to atone for her simple mistake.  For fifteen years, he has abused her with his power.


She dumps the vial upon the potatoes and fluffs them with a fork.  Hands trembling, she carries the plate to the dining room and sets it before him. 


He picks up his fork and takes a bite.  “These potatoes are cold.”


She smiles.  She shows him her teeth.  Her last words to him are, “you know what they say: Revenge is a dish best served cold.”


He frowns.  “Drop your eyes, girl.”


But she refuses.  She watches him on his journey, somewhere between here and there.  Then she reaches into his pocket where he keeps his money in a silver clip.  She counts out nine crisp hundred dollar bills and returns the clip to his pocket before leaving the dining room forever.


In the kitchen she picks up the box and the vial.  She makes a note to stop at three dumpsters before picking up a Christmas tree that night. 


For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Lisa challenged me with Her last words to him were, “you know what they say…revenge is a dish best served cold.” I challenged ChrisWhiteWrites with I’d like to build a house of straw.

Coming out of Retirement

“What’s wrong, Daddy Sheriff?”  Lilly Jean sat on the edge of the bed and watched her husband even out the straps of his Bolo tie.  The stone was green turquoise and, truth be told, was what had initially attracted Lilly Jean to her future husband.  She liked a man with an interesting past and Daddy Sheriff claimed he could trace his family back to the Navaho.  Naturally, she’d believed him.  She sighed.  She’d always been a sucker for a good tale.
Daddy Sheriff glanced at her.  “I could ask you the same question.  You’ve been setting there sighing for ten minutes.  You didn’t even know Wheezy Hart all that well.  What are you so sad-faced for?”  He shook his head. 
Those first months with Daddy Sheriff, before he’d brought out that diamond solitaire and ruined it all, those had been the best months of her life.  She looked at that ring on her finger, now joined for eternity by a thin elegant band.  The rings were beautiful.  But she found them too tight upon her hand. 
She found they strangled the life out of her.

“Are you going like that?”  Daddy Sheriff nodded at her outfit; an outfit she’d picked with care to honor the memory of a man she did not know outside of her dealings with him at the post office.  She’d selected a modest skirt and a tasteful sweater.  She knew the outfit hid too much for Daddy Sheriff.  Her husband liked to parade her around like a prized possession. 
“I think so.”  She lifted her chin slightly.  
She’d given him her finger.  She’d given him her vow.  She refused to give him her pride.
He raised an eyebrow and returned his attention to the mirror.
She was glad she’d also refused to give him her name.  At the very least, Lilly Jean intended to keep a small sliver of herself apart from her husband, a man she found she despised just a little more every day.
 “That kid.  Ellie.”  Daddy Sheriff spoke to his reflection.  Smoothed down his hair with a comb.  “You know her?”
“I see her around from time to time.  Mostly at Bitsy’s.  Sometimes at the Post Office.  What about her?”
“Just before he kicked off, Wheezy Hart told her that her daddy was here.”
Lilly Jean looked around the room.  “Where?”
“Here in town.  In Medford.”
“So?”
He turned and glared at her.  “For being the town crier, you don’t know much, do you?”
“Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Her father skipped town just as soon as he learned his girlfriend was pregnant.  And her mother is useless.  Just sits around all day watching soap operas while Ellie works at the diner to pay the bills.”
Lilly Jean felt her heart sink.  She leaned against the headboard of the bed.  Ellie.  She was alone in this world.  And Lilly Jean knew what that was like: All her life, she’d been jostled about; moved from place to place by her father, who always seemed dissatisfied with his lot in life. He was convinced that there was always something better out there, just out of reach.  He could smell it, taste it.  He’d ignore the call, resist it as long as he could.  But eventually the pull would be too strong to resist and he’d pack up the family in the old Ford Fairmont and speed away on balding tires and the cycle of new jobs, new schools, new everything would begin again. 
People said moving builds character; makes you a better person.  Interesting.  Intelligent.  Strong.  Ha, Lilly Jean thought, striking a match and bringing it to her cigarette.  The tip glowed red and satisfying.  She sighed.  People who thought moving built character hadn’t gone through the process.  At least not as many times as she had.   
It’s strange, moving, Lilly Jean thought.  Unsettling.  Just when you’ve got your life rearranged in some semblance of order, just when you’ve learned the rules of a place and set out tentative shoots, you’re grabbed and yanked and shoved into new dirt.  Unfamiliar dirt.  Dirt that’s too dry or too sandy.  Too weedy or too wet.  Dirt that just doesn’t feel right.  Yeah, you adjust.  Eventually.  You look at someone on the street and recognize them.  And just when you work out how you know them and you’re headed up to speak to them, to extend a hand and say, My Lord, it’s been years, you realize, no.  No.  I knew that person in another time; in another place.  The person before me is not who I was thinking of, not who I once knew.
After the fifth move, Lilly Jean’s mother had had enough.  She ran off with an Army deserter to Mexico.  The moves came quicker, then, rapid-fire.  Lilly Jean would just figure out the kitchen of the little apartment and her father would be packing her up and taking her to a new place.  Sometimes he didn’t even bother to enroll her in school. 
Lilly Jean had learned not to settle, not to trust in the truth of a place.  Lilly Jean Jacobs had learned to create her own truths.
She took a drag on her cigarette and coughed lightly.  Talk.  Big talk.  That was the sum of Lilly Jean’s existence.  Her eyes filled with tears.  She was eight years old when her mother left her.  Even now, years later, she felt the pain of that absence.  That hole in her life.  That missing piece that would never close up.  All she’d ever wanted was to talk with her mother.  My Lord, the questions she would ask.
“What’s your problem, Lilly Jean?”
She shook her head, wiped those damn tears from her eyes.  She understood Ellie’s pain; her aloneness.  There was so much history that she didn’t know.  So much history she was entitled to.  No one would bother filling in the blanks, Lilly Jean knew that much.  Maybe, she thought, crushing out her cigarette, maybe every time she thought she recognized someone on the street, what she was really hoping was to recognize her mother.  Or maybe, when she recognized someone, it was just another lonely soul.  Maybe it wasn’t the person she recognized.  Maybe it was the pain.  “That poor child.”  All Lilly Jean had ever wanted was a child of her own.  But she knew that she’d never had Daddy Sheriff’s child.  Not in a million years,
“Are you kidding me?  She’s got it made, living off the charity of the entire town.”
She looked at Daddy Sheriff with disgust.  Lilly Jean Jacobs was alone.  Just like the child.  All her life, Lilly Jean had seen herself as merely an outline, a person to be filled in, fluffed out, by the expectations and definitions of others.  Now, she pictured Ellie ten years hence, lying next to a man in a loveless marriage, a man she’d hitched herself to in order to give herself some definition, to fill in the empty spaces in her heart and soul.  Pictured her pretending to everyone else—even the husband she despised—that she was happy.  Pictured her crying herself to sleep at night with the realization that, once the veneer had been lifted, the shell of herself contained only emptiness. 
Lilly Jean wouldn’t allow that to happen to Ellie.  If her life was to be worth anything, she had to do something to make the child’s life better than her own had been.  Lilly Jean ashtray, rose from the bed, and planned her next move.  Ellie’s life would be a good one.  Ellie would find a husband—a good one.  They’d have a nice little house and scads of children.  Ellie would be happy.
“Shake a leg, woman.  If we don’t step on it, we’ll miss the calling hours.” 
“Be right there.”  Lilly Jean watched her husband leave their bedroom before getting up off the bed and closing the door behind him.  When she’d married Daddy Sheriff, Lilly Jean had promised him that her meddling days were over; that she’d quit trying to fix people’s problems and just let them solve things on her own.  Well, Daddy Sheriff had made promises too, and he hadn’t kept them had he?
Lilly Jean stretched out her lower lip with her teeth and applied a generous portion of lipstick.  She rubbed her lips together then blotted away the extra lipstick on a tissue.  She smiled at herself.  “Daddy Sheriff,” she whispered.  “I’m coming out of retirement.”
For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Amanda challenged me with “I’m coming out of retirement.”  I challenged The Drama Mama with “I’m on thin ice.”

Jonathan

The barn was warm and filled with the gentle sounds of the animals awakening.  This was the time of the day Jonathan loved best.  It was a peaceful time.  A quiet time.  A time when the animals he knew and loved and trusted greeted him.  The plow horses nickered their hellos from their stalls.  Jonathan rubbed their velvet muzzles and pulled a couple of sugar cubes from his pocket.  He held his hand flat and waited for each horse to take a cube before moving on to the cows.  They nagged at him, mooing intently, reminding them that their bags were full.  The cats rubbed up against his ankles, eager not to see Jonathan, but for the milk that they knew was forthcoming.  Howard was there, already lifting the basket of eggs to the counter.  Jonathan smiled.  Of all the animals, Jonathan found he could never warm up to the chickens. He couldn’t stand their wild eyes and their cockscombs flopping about; the way they all ganged up on the weak ones.  The way they high-stepped on those dinosaur legs and then sat upon the shells of their own offspring and cracked them.  “Those hens like that wind, Howard?”

Howard grinned and shook his head: No.  Years ago, Howard Heacock would talk the leg off of a chair.  He was always going on about stars and planets and the galaxy, things Jonathan didn’t understand.  Jonathan’s work was here, in the small, close world of the farm.  He understood the farm; understood when to plow and start the crops.  He understood how to gather eggs and milk the cows.  He knew the perfect time to pick apples and peaches. 
Jonathan didn’t understand out there; didn’t understand why people had to look outside to find what they needed; didn’t understand why the Howards of this world had to look elsewhere for their satisfaction.  God planted you where he planted you for a reason, Jonathan believed.  And an apple tree sure as sure can’t survive in Manhattan. 
But eighteen years ago, Howard had stopped talking about the stars.  Eighteen years ago, Howard had stopped talking altogether.  And one morning, shortly after he’d sealed his mouth shut, Jonathan found him gathering eggs in the henhouse; tears streaming down his cheeks.  Jonathan hadn’t questioned him then: Everyone’s lives had been turned upside down and you were as likely to find Howard in the henhouse as you were to see Andee Miller break out in tears at her cash register.
“Annie’s working on breakfast.  Why don’t you start the milking while I clean these eggs?”
Howard nodded and turned to the cows. 
That first day, Howard had followed Jonathan around the farm like a stray pup.  Of course he and Annie let him stay on, paying him as much as they could scrape together.  And in time, Howard learned to farm.  In time, Howard became a valued member of the farm.  Jonathan paid him a regular salary—paid him enough to be able to afford to buy a small house, yet Howard still insisted on staying at home with Daddy Sheriff.   “Don’t know what I’d do without you, Howard,” Jonathan called.
Howard turned and smiled; lifted his arm in what Jonathan took to be thanks.  But Howard’s smiles never reached his eyes.  Howard’s heart wasn’t in the farm.  Deep inside, Jonathan knew, Howard still dreamed of stars and planets and galaxies far distant.
He wondered why Howard didn’t get away; why he didn’t up and leave the way his mother did.  Why did Howard stay with his father?
Jonathan took an egg and ran it under warm water.  Birthing was messy, and many of Jonathan’s customers preferred to ignore that end of the business.  He held the egg to the light, examining it carefully for cracks before nestling it carefully in the carton and reaching for the next one.  When he had finished, he had ten dozen eggs.  He would repeat the job again that evening. 
Once he got the eggs away from the chickens, he liked this job. He liked the perfection of an egg—practically the same every time.  He liked watching a just-laid egg shimmering on the straw harden and thicken and solidify.  He liked the repetition of cleaning eggs; the reliability of it:  You could count on a chicken laying an egg as much as you could count on the corn sprouting in the spring and the apple trees bearing fruit.  “Howard, I’m heading in,” he called and he walked back to the house, one carton of eggs tucked beneath his arm.
Annie met him at the door, smiling, her blue eyes radiant, their argument for a time forgotten.  She took the eggs.  “Wash up.  Breakfast in five minutes.”
God he loved her.  He wished…well, where to begin wishing in a life, in a love as fragile as theirs?  Occasionally, he held their love to the light, examined it for fractures, the way he had the eggs just moments ago.  It wouldn’t take much, he thought, to shatter it. 
“How’d the chickens treat you this morning?”  She asked, once he’d returned to the kitchen.
“Howard got to them before me, thank the good Lord.”  He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the table.
“Can’t stand all those women squawking without a male to set them straight?”  She raised her eyebrows, amused. 
He chuckled.  “I’ve grown used to the squawking of women.” 
“Is it the shit?  Childbirth is messy, Jonathan.”
He knew.  Good Lord, he knew.  He looked at Annie, now sitting across from him.  “No, it’s just…Hell, I’ve dealt in shit my whole life.  It’s…”  He fell silent for a moment, rubbed at his brow.  How to explain?  “I just hate that pecking order business.  The way one always has to be on top all the time.”
She nodded.  “It’s their nature, Jonathan.  Maybe it’s nature’s way of keeping order.”
“But… Why can’t they all be equal?  They remind me…”
She smiled and took his hand.  “They remind you of humans.  Those humans who so deeply disappoint you that you decided long ago never to have more to do with them than was absolutely necessary.  I know why you farm, Jonathan Fowler.  You trust those animals more than you trust people.”
“Annie, you know that’s not true.”
“And now, you find out that humans are simply animals and that animals, perhaps, are a tiny bit human.”
He felt his frown deepen.  He stirred cream into his coffee.  “You’re reading too much into it, Annie.  I just don’t like gathering eggs.”
“It’s a woman’s job, right?”
The woman was merciless.  “I was thinking more like a child’s.” 
They fell silent at this, each immersed in their own thoughts.  Jonathan longed to have a child following him around the farm learning the ropes, starting with the simple jobs, of course; weeding, feeding, gathering eggs.  But there were no children here to learn farming.  Jonathan reached into his pocket and felt the piece of paper there, folded over multiple times, as if, by folding, he could reduce it to nothing and pretend it didn’t exist.  But the smaller it got, the larger it loomed in his mind.  “I am an old man, Annie.”
“And I am an old woman.  And look at what we have done with our lives, in spite of everything.”
The lace curtains billowed inward.  The October wind was laced with ice.  “My God, Annie, this place is beautiful.  Look in any direction and all you see is the land.” 
“No humans in sight, except for us.  Just the way you like it.  And all those generations of Fowler men.” 
And none, Jonathan thought, coming after me.   
 “It’s sad, Jonathan.  Frightening even, to know that you’re the last.  When we’re gone, there’s nobody.  No children.  No grandchildren.  Nothing.  Old Matthew must be rolling in his grave, to see that the line ends with us,” Annie continued.  A rare sadness crossed her face, a shadow Jonathan knew he couldn’t penetrate.  He could only wait until the shadow had passed. 
He looked outside again. 
“You love it here, Jonathan.”
He did.  He loved the remoteness of it.  He loved the fact that it was his and Annie’s to work.  No, that was wrong, he thought, because he didn’t work the land, it was more that they and the land worked together.  A partnership, if you will.  He sighed.  Partnerships come to an end when one party dies.  And Jonathan wasn’t getting any younger.
“I’m afraid, Annie.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Pretty soon, I’ll be buying milk and eggs down at the IGA just like everyone else in Medford.”
Her eyes softened.  “That’s a long time off, Jonathan.  We can work this farm a good while yet.”
“How long, Annie?  What comes after we can’t work it?  Soon enough, I’ll be in a wheelchair, wide-eyed and bloodied, cocking my stupid pecked head to the side to ward off the blows of the health care workers.  I’ll be worthless, Annie, producing nothing.  Taking up space.”  He’d sooner die than live like that. 
“Why must you produce something to be worth something?”  She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb.
“What is the point of living otherwise?”
She shook her head.  A disappointed look crossed her face.  “I think you’ve missed the point of life entirely if you can’t answer that question.”
“What is the point of life, Annie?  To produce.  To re-produce.”
She fell silent at this and he regretted his words immediately.  “I’m sorry, Annie.”
She pulled her hand away, shook her heads.  “I’ve got to tend to the pies.”  And she pushed away from the table and returned to her kitchen to produce her daily quota: fifteen pies and a couple dozen cookies for Bitsy’s Diner.  Even Annie, although she refused to admit it, had to produce something to feel valuable. 
“Ah, hell.”  He drained his cup and left it on the table.  He went to his wife and hugged her from behind.  She turned and entered his embrace.  They stood that way, husband and wife, for a long time, each of them afraid of letting go.  Each of them afraid of holding on too tight, of breaking one another with the fragility of their love.