Wednesday, October 23, 2013
William Dillinger believed the only way to live was unmarried and unencumbered. That is, until he reached the age of seventy two with a criminal history. Regret over how he lived his life mires him in daily doldrums until his high school girlfriend suddenly reappears in his life. Hope is seeded that the remainder of his life does not have to match his past. But, he only has one day to find out.
Friday, October 18, 2013
To all friends and their friends, the first two chapters of "Annie's World: Jake's Legacy". Please read and enjoy
Just When Life Seems Pointless…
Foot pain interrupted Jake Henderson’s rambling thoughts on the world as it was. Boots pulled off a corpse a few miles back had little sole remaining, but more than on the ones he now wore. The pair he swapped for wasn’t much better. Add the reshaping process and he wondered if it was an improvement at all. Foraging for food must wait while he rested. A fallen tree would make a good seat while rubbing circulation into hot tired feet. He yearned for a cool breeze to tickle bare skin.
Dropping the frayed knapsack slung over his shoulder to the ground, he sat heavily on the log. As his butt touched, he grunted and sighed. It was such a welcome relief to simply sit. While wrestling a boot off, he looked to the remnants of a nearby building sheathed in rusted corrugated metal—a barn once upon a time. It must be less than a hundred years old, given its condition. “Humph.” Probably built when some farmer thought things would get better. He pulled the other boot off and looked to wiggling toes, and then propped a foot on his knee to rub it as eyes drifted back to the barn.
Suddenly, a locust slashed across his view in a darting flight for his life from a mocking bird. “Don’t let it get away, pal,” he muttered to the bird.
The gray bird deftly plucked it from the air.
“Yeah!” He winked and nodded approval. “That’s how it’s done.” Jake felt kinship with the bird spending most waking hours in search of food, too.
Pushing shoulder length sandy blonde hair back over an ear away from a beard the same color, a sudden streamer of air, a cool breeze, on that now-exposed sweaty neck eased anxieties for the moment. The sky appeared pristine blue, but scarcely worth a glance. The morning spring in his step had become an afternoon plod. The day wore down—so did he. Ill-fitting boots only compounded an existing problem.
With an analytical eye, he looked again to the ramshackle building. It seemed structurally sound in the front, a broad entryway centered. If doors had ever existed they were long gone; the back wall and roof, sometime in the distant past, had collapsed. He wondered what use it might serve—shelter for the night perhaps. As quickly as the idea hit, it was dismissed—too much daylight remained for foraging regardless of fatigue. Food trumped all. Nevertheless, he considered potential usefulness. He might pass this way again.
Judging by the odor, a thorough foot airing was overdue. He switched feet and propped the other ankle over a knee and gave that one equal treatment. He moaned enjoying the sensation.
The guttural sound of pleasure stopped abruptly in his throat when he noticed movement at the back corner of the collapsed building.
A form appeared.
He sat still and made no sound.
At first it appeared apelike but as it cleared the brush between trees he saw that it was a man skulking about. The scraggly beard, long hair, deteriorating clothes and grimy face indicated he had been victimized by this world, too. The man had not noticed him and Jake wanted it to remain that way. Something held the guy’s attention inside that portion of the structure still standing. Why did he creep about like that? Why didn’t he announce his presence? Jake was leery of people. This odd-acting man did nothing to improve on that.
As the world regressed, continuing a downward slide that began some two hundred years ago, there was no law enforcement and no doctors. No one remained alive he depended on—no family no friends. The walls of the prison he lived within were mortared with distrust, shunning everyone. If he were noticed by a man that clearly had nefarious intentions, the outcome could not be good. Toward whom he didn’t know, nor why and didn’t care, but was curious. He watched as he slowly began to rub his foot again.
Whatever went on inside that building held the man’s attention. The guy sneaked to a rusted out hole in one of the corrugated metal panels and watched for a time.
What, in God’s name, was he so intently staring at?
The man pulled away and searched the ground snatching up a jagged shard, possibly a piece of the metallic skin of that old barn.
Jake finally got a good look at the man’s face. The guy smirked; rotating the rusting metal in his hand, feeling for the better grip then turned and glided high on his toes disappearing from sight around the back corner of the dilapidated structure.
Jake heard an angry male voice coming from inside but nothing he understood. Was it the intruder or another man perhaps? Quite suddenly, he was immensely curious and had to know what was going on inside that old barn.
He pulled his boots on then sprang to his feet. He ran to the same rusted hole that the man had used but stopped to the side of it. As slow as a slug on a wall he moved laterally until he saw the goings-on inside.
The man had confronted a pretty wisp of a woman with long blonde hair, about twenty-five, he guessed. There was nothing about her appearance that indicated she could protect herself.
“I’m not tellin’ ya again! Give me the sack!” the man bellowed thrusting that metal shard menacingly.
The woman didn’t seem the slightest unnerved. “I can’t do that,” she replied in a friendly manner. “It’s all the food I have, but I’ll share with you.” She smiled.
Although calm of voice, her stance was defensive, legs spread and arms crossed over her chest blocking his view of the cloth bag on the ground behind her. Clearly, this wasn’t the first time she had been challenged.
How can she be so calm? That guy has crazy eyes, Jake thought. People get killed for less every day.
She was smooth-skinned and feminine and certainly did not convey the appearance of a fighter. The man stood more than a head taller.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Last chance, gimme the sack!”
“Sorry. I can’t do that.”
He lunged with that jagged piece of metal leading the way to her abdomen.
She spun sideways stabbing a boot heel into the wrist of the hand holding the weapon.
His fingers sprang apart and the strip of metal slammed clanking into the wall. He roared and grabbed his wrist.
Resuming an at-ease posture, she let her arms fall limp and then held hands out in a show of acceptance. “Look, I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t even want to fight you. Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing in that sack worth your life or mine. Let’s try this again. What’s your name?” she asked, almost pleading.
From between hair-covered lips the man bared crooked yellow teeth, snarled and charged the woman.
With uncanny speed she went airborne, prone, nearly six feet off the ground and locked her legs around his head twirling to the ground. His spinning body followed slamming the ground in an explosion of dust.
The woman rose and dusted her brown denim vest over a loose-fitting lighter brown shirt. “Now look what I’ve done. My clothes are dirty. I just washed them yesterday.” She clucked her tongue. “For heaven’s sake,” she said eerily nonchalant slapping dust from her pants.
Jake looked on, surprised and awed by what he witnessed. She was marvelous. A fine-boned woman incapacitated a much larger man with speed that boggled his mind. Now the wretch lay on his side semi-conscious.
She squatted next to the man resting arms over the points of her knees. Jake became enamored. Her hair caught afternoon rays through the wide doorway glistening and dancing over her cheeks in the breeze. Such femininity, grace and beauty just didn’t fit. She was neither angry nor scared.
Examining the man head to toe, the young woman drew a breath then released it in a nasal snort. In lackadaisical fashion, she shoved him onto his back.
He moaned and reached for his head.
“I sure would like to be your friend.” She patted his stomach then rubbed tiny circles on it almost as if she petted a puppy. “But we can’t even begin until I know your name. So, what’s it gonna be? Do I get your name and we get chummy or shall we dance again?” She patted his stomach a final time.
He rolled over onto his side then onto his stomach and pushed up onto hands and knees. He fell sideways to a sitting position. Powdery dust drifted away from him. “Baker . . .” he said then grimaced and grunted, “. . . Hiram Baker.” He held his drooping head in both hands.
“Do you always force your intentions on people, Hiram Baker?”
“A man has to eat.”
“True. But there’s plenty to be foraged in the countryside. By chance you’ve had a bad day, a person, as myself, might share with you. We all have those days.”
She stared at him for a second longer then stood. “Oh well.” She sauntered to the cloth bag that started it all. “If you insist on acting like a lunatic you’re going to be a high maintenance friend for sure.” She snickered. “We have to do something about that nasty temper, Hiram Baker.” The young woman then looked at him and smiled as if he were a pal from way back. She then turned away. The warmth of her smile and glint in her eyes indicated she already knew they’d become friends.
She knelt and sat on her heels in front of the sack, flipped back the flap on it and produced a small handful of berries and what appeared to be a piece of dried meat and a few mushrooms.
The man came to his feet. Without taking his eyes from the woman he retrieved the metal shard and in one giant step came from behind as she remained down on her knees looking through the bag.
Jake’s breath hitched as he prepared to scream a warning. His face distorted into what should have been a yell but suddenly, he was conflicted. Survival instinct kicked in and prevented him from warning her or doing anything at all. His head overrode his heart and made no sound whatsoever.
Still rummaging through the sack, “I think I have plenty to keep you going until you can find something on your own and, if you like, I can help—“
The man reached for the hair at the front of her head and yanked flipping her chin up ramming the pointed piece of jagged metal into her neck. Blood gushed in spurts from the jugular wound. Still holding her hair he dragged her away from the sack then tossed all she had removed back inside it. His disregard for the woman was absolute.
She writhed in the spreading dark red pool, strength fading.
Jake stood, mouth open but paralyzed, as if he still considered yelling.
A young girl leaped from a darkened corner and ran to the squirming woman pathetically grabbing at her throat. The youngster wore pants too short under a threadbare top too large. Her shoes didn’t match and her light brown hair blended with the color of her face.
The man took his prize and marched to the space created by a missing panel at the rear of the building where he’d entered. The brute looked over his shoulder and snarled, “Bitch.” Then he was gone.
Jake stepped through the doorway at the front of the building. The woman arched her back then collapsed. She moved no more—eyes fixed and vacant. Limp fingers draped the end of the makeshift weapon protruding from her neck. The young girl dropped to her knees on the dirt floor and cried. Jake heard no sound, just a raspy push of air from the youngster’s throat.
He stepped around the grieving girl looking into the woman’s lifeless eyes. He dropped down onto a knee. I’m no better than that guy. I should’ve warned her.
The youngster paid his presence no mind.
Jake didn’t speak to nor touch the youngster. He let her mourn. The woman was likely her mother but the youthful appearance indicated an older sister perhaps. Regardless, the woman had been the girl’s caregiver and now she was gone.
He rose and walked outside.
Still, the girl ignored him.
He continued on to the log where he’d rested. With an exhausted thud, he collapsed onto it. Shame and guilt exhausted him more than the day’s work had. The face of that little girl burned an indelible image. He wondered if he should help her. After a time and several conjured points of view: Best not get involved. It’s safer. Vigorously rubbing his face, he washed his conscience of complicity.
He rested elbows on knees. Loathsome thoughts swarmed him on how the world had gotten into this mess. Four generations had passed since the decline began; passing of the fifth lay in the near future. Four generations of Texans in his family had come and gone since that fateful decade almost two hundred years ago. Texan was an empty label. Texas had not been a state or member of any union in over a century, just a name for the place he lived. There had not been a United States of America in many decades. Nowhere in the known world existed a stable government. Texas had reverted to what it had been before given the name.
Dissolution of central governments worldwide brought economic evolution to a halt in a single generation some eighteen decades ago. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? World economies collapsed followed closely by governments—a domino effect—simple and pure, leaving in its wake the world as it was—chaotic and primitive.
Now, coming out of a cold winter, the warm spring of 2208 he welcomed, but it only marked another season of surviving. The after effects of that drunken orgy of excess those many years ago worsened with time.
Jake harbored no delusions of his insignificance—an irrelevant cog in a broken gear. Still, he fanned flickering hope that an answer lay waiting to be discovered. Maybe there was a way to piece it all back together; but how and by whom? The savage death of that young woman took a sizeable chunk from hope; just another vile cruelty which there seemed to be at every turn. What he’d just witnessed stood as proof. People died everyday over small bits of food. Life had become cheap and devaluation continued.
He glanced again to the collapsing corrugated metal building and wondered a final time about the young girl but selfishness ruled. He had to fend for himself. So would she. And that was that. He looked skyward taking it to its inevitable conclusion: The world is about survival, nothing more.
Slapping his knees, he came to his feet while adjusting his knapsack. I’ll not forget the name Hiram Baker though. He resumed his journey.
After walking for a time, he began a gentle descent. Trees increased in number as he swished through lush spring grass. A river lay somewhere just ahead. It can’t be more than a mile, he thought.
Although he had made the decision and made it firm, guilt simmered as he wondered about the wisdom of leaving a helpless youngster alone—a death sentence for someone so young. Non-action made him the executioner, just as it did her mother. Rampant cruelty so hated about the world, he came to realize, was as deeply ingrained in him as it was in Hiram Baker, just cut from a different cloth is all.
Bubbling remorse finally boiled over. The weight of conscience won out. He threw his hands into the air and shouted, “Damn it all!”
His walk slowed to a shuffle and, finally, a full stop. He dropped his head, frustrated by inability to harden his heart and turned to go back. There, barely a hundred feet behind him was the young girl. Well, I’ll be . . . His face relaxed into a faint smile. Okay kid, I’ll let you follow me but you’d better stay out of my way.
After half an hour over uneven terrain and increasing brush to dodge, Jake stopped to mop sweat from his brow.
The little girl had begun to close the gap. She stopped walking when he did maintaining a safe buffer between them. She continued to cry, wallowing a tiny fist into her eye.
Jake stood on a knoll and looked away from the expected river to a valley that gently sloped to the crumbling remains of some nameless city in the distance, inhabited by cannibals—people who knew no other way to survive. Stories were common that all large cities suffered the same fate. He didn’t care to find out if it was true. Open countryside was the safer choice, even with people like Hiram Baker lurking about.
From that crumbling skyline, he looked at other remnants of technology littering the landscape. The wide trail he walked had been a thoroughfare once paved in black. Rusting lumps dotting the countryside, returning to the earth, had been motorized vehicles that rolled on this blacktop at unimaginable speeds, or so the stories went, told him as a child. Corroding remains of machines swallowed by time lay mangled and strewn—mountains of twisted and rusting steel. He had no idea what purpose it had served, none of it; just more things becoming lost to time. He picked up a heavily oxidized and pitted metal object that might have once been a hand tool. But what had it been used for? He tossed it aside and kept walking.
It became habit to look back and check on the girl. She was getting closer with each glance.
Intellect existed but systems of education and willingness to share know-how did not. Intellectually superior persons, able to think and reason, fear those who would manipulate them for greedy advantage. Jake did not view Satan as some wraithlike spirit. The devil stood for all to see as exploitation of man—an undercurrent in this world of disjointed societies where people with intelligence were sought as a perverse form of wealth. Jake wanted to make a difference, but how? What could he possibly do to change something so large and so broken?
When governments crumbled so did urban life. People fled into the countryside. Some tried maintaining a semblance of society by forming “corporations”. But the reality was stockades—walled forts housing people that stole and forced their will on “independent consumers”, those who chose to remain free of structured society.
Disease and desperation left virtually entire cities vacant. Crumbling metropolitan centers remain occupied. Like rats in a flood they bunched together devouring one another. Cannibalism, it was said, had become a way of life, places to be avoided.
In the countryside, competition for basic resources made peaceful interaction on a broad scale implausible. From an era when commerce and doing business had become Godlike, the concept metamorphosed into something darker. “Corporations” preyed on “independent consumers”. Jake counted himself among the I.C.s.
All forms of long distance communication went away over a hundred years ago and transportation now depended mostly on how well a person’s legs worked. The luckiest have horses but even those animals were often used as food and rare.
He fondly remembered having seen a working bicycle last year, a marvelous contraption. He’d never seen one or even heard of them before. He committed it to memory. It, too, would eventually return to the earth. In time it would become legend and dismissed as a bedtime story.
It was as if he played poker and knew the hands in advance, yet, had no chance of winning. Regression was an unstoppable wave. He feared it would not end until the entire human race hit the equivalent of stone-age man without language and eating one another.
It seemed as plain as the holes in his clothes and the grime streaking them that everything evolved, but in reverse. The average span of a man’s life had been reduced to fifty years, maybe less. I haven’t seen many as old as I am in recent months, forty-three . . . I think. He lived within his thoughts, figuring it safer than conversation with strangers—people angling for advantage.
He readjusted the knapsack to hang at his side instead of behind and renewed his gait. As he hastened his step, he glimpsed the girl breaking into a trot, gaining on him. So what if she is only a child; should I trust her?
The World As It Is, Plus One
Walking at a steady pace, Jake looked down at the girl now at his side. “You’re spunky. I’ll give you that.”
The day was warm but comfortable. To look at the youngster’s face, it could’ve been sweltering. It wasn’t. She struggled to keep up. The end of the day neared. Her chin hung loose bouncing with each step. Another mile just wasn’t in her. Short legs chopped three steps to his one yet she doggedly matched his speed and had for two days; no complaints, nor words of any kind, nary a grunt. It wasn’t only his pace she matched. Distrust of him and lingering wariness of her were close to even, too. Still, her desire to keep up was tenacious.
At the beginning of the day, when he woke under an open sky curled on a patch of tall grass having fallen under its own lush weight, he saw the youngster appear between parting eyelids—knees drawn up surrounded by skinny arms. She stared unblinking as if she expected him to vanish if her eyes closed even once. He didn’t know how long she’d been sitting and watching but he figured a long while considering how she fidgeted.
The end of another day was upon them. A place to spend the night approached the top of the daily priority list. The child’s stumbling behavior indicated a place to rest a short time might have to come first. Sneaking glances, Jake began to admire the youngster’s resolve not to fall behind. He figured that he, too, might need a short breather. Another quarter mile came and went. The time had come to sit for a while, anywhere. Jake fared little better than the youngster—every joint ached.
He kept to an odd sense of schedule like a genetic appointment calendar was inside him. What once had been a mysterious urge, Jake eventually defined. Things done according to an agenda hadn’t made much sense at first. During a rare moment of philosophical clarity, it occurred to him that schedule, even a vague one, equaled purpose and plan. It kept him motivated and a step ahead of hunger and, almost always, under shelter by dark when the weather turned bad. In truth, no timetable existed, no place to be, as long as he had a dry place to sleep and something to eat by day’s end. Every day the same—forage, eat, sleep and then move on.
If only I could stay in one place and make a home. He puffed air into his cheeks then huffed it away as he looked down at the little girl. But, survival is key. That goes doubly now.
Rounding a bend in the path an overgrown cemetery came into view off to the side. No one made headstones so ornate anymore. It had to be a century old, likely older. Many had fallen and those still standing were mostly askew. One stood out as just right to sit on. He cleared tangled vines from its mildewed, gray and pitted top. A name was revealed: Carol Leann Flannery. He wondered what her story might have been. Beneath the name, the span of her life had been chiseled: 2016-2073. The epitaph read: “She made a difference”.
He shuddered. Her age at death had not been much older than his present age. In all his rambling thoughts on the state of the world, mortality rarely crossed his mind. When it did, he ignored it. But lately, and with increasing frequency, it found a way into his head. Still, the length of his life stood in a dark shadow of those four words: “She made a difference”. Goose flesh rippled his arm as if hit by a chilled wind. He’d made, and was making, no difference for better or worse on his small corner of the world he touched. Jake Henderson, he feared, would disappear from the earth without ever having made a mark. Dying unknown and unremarkable terrified him.
Nagging internal voices often tested him. But, this new one strummed an off-key note that knotted his heart and lumped his throat. If it weren’t for the young girl at his side, he would’ve cried. He had to control the urge. The girl, he chose to call Annabelle, depended on him for survival. Emotional outbursts of any sort had to be contained.
Centering his aching butt, he moaned as he dropped exhausted onto the gravestone. The harsh realization that he’d someday pass without notice intensified fatigue.
Annabelle stepped in close at eye level, a frail young shoulder inadvertently nudging him.
The warmth of human contact felt nice. He examined her profile. She can’t be over ten. She remained speechless. Could she talk and refused to, or did she genuinely have no voice? The mind’s eye visual echo of the child crying over the woman he assumed to be her mother had branded deep. It haunted him. He grappled with personal accountability to the young girl.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover that talking to someone and not just aloud to himself or lost in thought added clarity; a clear improvement over traveling alone. Earlier in the day he detected what he believed to be a smile. He glanced often wanting to see it again. Why do I care?
He wriggled his butt until he hit a sweet spot of comfort atop the gravestone then swiped sweat from beneath shoulder length sandy blond hair long enough to curl at its tips.
After a quiet moment, he again spoke. “Showing sympathy for a stranger can be dangerous. Did you know that? I’ve lived my life avoiding it.” He glanced sideways at her standing near him and crinkled his nose. “It’s safer. If you understand, it’d serve you to remember it. Trusting people will get you killed. Don’t ever, ever forget that.”
A flash of embarrassment reddened his cheeks. Even a speck of trust would’ve saved the youngster’s mother. Conviction in the shared advice wavered. “Look, Little One, trust is almost as precious as food and water . . .” He lifted an eyebrow, “. . . but . . . not quite.” The truth of it was suddenly questionable. It seemed less credible spoken aloud for some reason.
He examined her dirty face and tangled mop of hair that should’ve been straight. “Hungry?” He pulled a partially eaten turnip from his tattered knapsack and held it out to her. With doe eyes set sunken in a sallow face she stared at him. The distrustful gaze then shifted and locked onto the shriveled vegetable in his hand. As he moved the hand around, her eyes followed. Only then did he realize how hungry she was. “Go on. Take it.”
Once in her grasp, Jake yanked his hand away or risk bitten fingers. Watching her eat, his heart ached. For the first time, he noticed how poor this child’s condition was; ratty dusty blond hair, face streaked with filth, and snot dried and crusted on her upper lip.
Her pants had been crudely fashioned and stitched from several types of cloth, as was her shirt. Both were dirty and frayed, likely to disintegrate if laundered. The girl’s mother may have been a fighting phenom but she was certainly no seamstress. Then again, maybe the child was simply outgrowing clothing faster than her mother could renew it. He considered embracing her and telling her that people were still around that cared, but couldn’t muster the courage of such pretense. How could he? He had no faith there were—anywhere. I wonder if her generation will fix everything the past five could not. He continued watching her, thinking, chewing the inside of his cheek, giving her time to eat the last of the food.
The wide trail ahead appeared as a ribbon through the woods that the flora had mostly reclaimed. The cemetery where they rested was situated about a hundred feet above the river paralleling the old roadbed. Trees grew in the middle of it, pushing up disintegrating asphalt-encrusted gravel. He imagined motorized vehicles whizzing by at great speeds.
A beetle crawled across the cracked leather of his boot. “You, my tiny friend, have been blessed with inability to worry.” He looked sideways at Annabelle. “Yet, here I sit with something new to worry about.”
Having always ruminated on the bleak future of the world, Annabelle’s presence had moderated those views, now becoming less radical. It seemed to be happening exceptionally fast. Her presence might complicate things but it occurred to him she could also be an unexpected blessing.
He remembered a snippet of wisdom handed down from his father. “Knowledge, son, is what it will take to fix this broken world. To think, ponder consequences, and then act rationally with compassion is the key to humankind’s survival. Always remember that what this world will become begins with you.”
The advice seemed sage but aches and hunger kept it hollow over the years. Nevertheless, it was all he had to pass on. Having no son, Annabelle had become his heir by default. She gnawed on that leathery turnip. Annabelle may be my last chance to make a difference—my legacy.
“I want you to know what I know. Okay?”
The girl paid him no mind, focusing on the shriveled vegetable in her hands; the strong smell of turnip filling the air.
She seemed inattentive but he thought it worth trying. “It’s said that, once upon a time, harmony existed among diverse groups. But you and I know that could never happen.” A wry grin widened, spreading his hairy cheeks. “I’ll assume you agree.”
Annabelle relaxed and sank to her knees next to the grave stone he sat on, eating, seemingly oblivious to his commentary. The tone of voice must have comforted her.
“Small groups have formed that believe a genius, a savior, would emerge from among common people to save us from ourselves then guide us back to a peaceful technologically functioning society. I know this because I’ve seen them. Last week I walked past a group standing before a rusting electrical transmission tower, wishing so hard for a return to a functional society that it sounded like a prayer complete with a worshipful gaze up it. Can you believe that?” He laughed. “They were actually worshipping a rusty ol’ tower . . .” he shrugged shoulders “. . . or, so it appeared.”
His smile wilted away. He straightened and went silent. The opinion made less sense than it did while hovering in his tired thoughts. Maybe it wasn’t preposterous. After all, what would life be if there was nothing to believe in and no hope for a better future. Was exhaustion to blame for questioning the long-held belief? Or, could this be another example of cynicism abating simply due to Annabelle’s presence?
He pushed a tangle of hair away from the girl’s eyes, ensnaring his fingers—board straight except for the knots, darker in color near the roots. A smattering of freckles beneath the smudges across her nose hinted the beautiful woman she’d eventually grow into.
She grunted and rolled her head away from his touch. Trust had not caught up to her level of need.
“My grandfather told me stories about how the world was put on a competitive course over two-hundred-fifty years ago, in the nineteen-fifties, throwing the industrial machine into overdrive. That’s when Corporate America came to be. The industrial complex flourished. Here, in what used to be the United States, growth seemed boundless. Complacency rose during the nineteen-sixties. A war that was not a war was waged in Indochina and split the nation ideologically.” He scratched his chin then tossed out a hand flippantly. “I’m still not sure what ‘war that was not a war’ means... or, where Indochina is.” He looked away and thought on that for a moment. “Oh well, neither here nor there. We were no longer homogenous Americans, splintering into Afro-Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Angry White Men Americans, Feminist Americans, Jewish Americans, Christian Americans, Muslim Americans and so on. We drifted apart. Misinformation became acceptable as the nineteen-seventies introduced high-level trickery to politics.”
He snapped a twig between his fingers and flicked it. “By the nineteen-eighties, lying went mainstream to form public opinion. I call it lying. They called it “spin”. I suppose it made an unpopular notion seem right and noble. I bet the public even laughed about it, like . . . like it was some kind of joke! Can you believe that, Annabelle? No one cared.” He attempted stroking her head again.
She snapped a startled look at him then ducked from under his palm and leaned away. Only a bite of that turnip in her hand remained.
“Nearing the end of the twentieth century, people controlling corporations had grown obscenely wealthy and powerful—strong enough to manipulate whole governments that had become inconsequential and subordinate to them. Countries worldwide had become “corpocracies”.
Affairs of government had become simply lesser divisions of big business in the twenty-first century, just another door down the hall of home offices sandwiched between the janitor’s closet and the restrooms. Government’s only function had become the printing of unsupported paper currency and making speeches on behalf of companies. Companies merged and grew until only one remained. America was one big company vacuuming money and resources into glutinous piles for self preservation while the country hungered.
Now squirming on the uncomfortable hard stone of the grave marker, Jake leaned over and rested elbows on his knees. He snickered under his breath then flipped his hands palms up and shrugging lazily. “That’s right, governments were the puppets of business, plain and simple.”
Jake sat up, just then realizing how low the sun had sunk in the western sky. About two good hours of daylight remained. He wondered about the summation of that legacy passed down to him. “‘To think and ponder consequences’,” he said slowly, exaggerating every syllable. “How can that be the key, Annabelle? The only consequence I worry about is starvation and the only consideration is how to prevent it.”
As he spoke, Annabelle chewed the last bite of turnip, juice trickling down her chin—pulp decorating the corners of her mouth.
“Oh well . . . are you ready to find a place to spend the night?” He didn’t expect an answer but increasingly compelled to ask questions. Someday, I hope to hear you speak. He kept empathetic leanings to himself—selfishness deeply ingrained having lived alone for so long. He was comforted by her presence. Someone to talk to was novel. He slapped his knees and rose. “Come on, let’s see what’s down the road.”
Annabelle . . . Annabelle. He rolled the name over in his mind as he walked. He liked the way it sounded. He’d considered calling her Waco, but only because he remembered it as the only distinguishable word remaining on a sign almost totally corroded away. He didn’t know what the word meant or its origin. He just happened to see it near the outskirts of a decaying deserted town the day before he discovered her. But it had a hard masculine ring, whereas the name Annabelle had softness to it. It did make him wonder just how feminine this grimy little creature would eventually turn out to be. He settled on Annabelle, his mother’s name who died before he was two.
He recalled a time his father shared memories of her. What he remembered most about that day had nothing to do with the story of his mother, the tale of a woman he never knew. Resting in a crumbling movie theatre, the remnant of a stylized picture encased in glass caught his eye in an alcove protected from the passage of time. While his father told the story of the first Annabelle, his eyes fixed on the remains of that picture. It was the birth of opinions on the world he struggled to survive in.
After walking only a few yards, before leaving the cemetery behind, Jake stopped. Thoughts boomeranged to the present. He looked upon the headstone a final time that had provided a few precious moments comfort. Goodbye Carol Leann Flannery, whoever you are—were. I hope someday I make a difference, too. “Come on, Little One. It’ll be dark soon.”
“You know, Annabelle, as a youngster I saw a poster for something called a motion picture, a movie. I’ve heard stories they still exist somewhere far to the northeast of here but I’ve never actually seen one, someday maybe.” He paused and looked down at her. He hoped to see animation of expression, but did not. “Anyhow, what was left of that picture depicted a world in shambles breaking into warring tribes. It was popular back then, or so I’ve heard, to believe humankind might be destroyed by an exchange of powerful bombs, leaving only a few to start over. I think those bombs were called nucular or nuclea, something like that.”
He abruptly stopped walking. “You know what? It occurred to me that if those bombs really did exist, they’re out there somewhere. They never exploded.” He scratched his head and wrinkled his nose. “At least, I don’t think so. Even so, I don’t want to think about that. I sure don’t need that worry heaped on top of all the rest.” He walked on.
Annabelle stared straight ahead marching like a miniature soldier as though she traveled with purpose. If so, he wondered what that might be. If she feared he’d leave her behind again, that troubled him. But he bore the weight of fault on his conscience. He had, after all, walked away leaving the child in grievous pain over the blood-drenched body of her mother. It would have been a condemnation of death by neglect on someone as young and fragile.
“What was I saying? Oh yeah. No one realized back then that a collapse of order could be a slow decline that, once begun, couldn’t be stopped. It followed such a logical path; family decay followed moral decay then greed that brought on corruption. Oversimplified?” He pushed out his lower lip. “I guess so, but that’s what happened . . . minus embellishment of course. How can something so obvious not have been noticed? Now it’s unstoppable, like my rotting teeth. If we—“
Annabelle stumbled hard to her knees after stepping into a shallow depression. She winced.
“Hey, be careful!” he barked then squatted to lift her up.
She quickly returned to stoicism, as if she had something to prove.
Growing affection for the child frightened him. “Are you okay?” A trickle of blood appeared through a hole in the knee of her dirty pants tattered at the bottom. It was only a scratch. There were no doctors or medical facilities, only a few people with knowledge of healing herbs but he wasn’t one of them.
“Doggone it, girl! Watch where you’re stepping!”
Annabelle recoiled. Tears filled her eyes.
“Wait. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” He stepped toward her.
She backed away.
He took another step.
She again moved to create a new buffer between them.
“Come on, don’t do that. You scared me, that’s all.”
Fragile trust shattered. She didn’t rejoin him at his side and again followed from the perceived safety of a few steps back.
He needed to stop worrying about the child. The only way to do that was think about something else.
Greed accelerated at unprecedented levels, becoming global in one generation nearly two hundred years ago. The world’s wealth concentrated into fewer and fewer hands—the early stages of the New World Order. Countries no longer existed, only land and property holdings by individuals controlling all the world’s economies. Once consolidated, growth stopped and that left the door open for economic incest. Desire for greater power and wealth turned ravenous; economic war raged. A sucker punch born of gluttony became the stone in the worldwide pool that rippled with destructive radiating waves—a tit-for-tat on a global scale became the straw that broke the back of the world’s economies.
Jake wanted Annabelle to know this history. But, he resigned to the notion she wouldn’t comprehend and chose to save this part of the story for a later time. And then he wondered aloud, “Why do I care? I can’t even guarantee it’s true, for God’s sake.”
Only after it was already out there echoing back from the trees did he realize he wasn’t alone and glanced to see fresh trepidation in Annabelle’s eyes. “Not to worry, just talking to myself, Little One.”
A severely listing deserted farmhouse came into view as they topped a rise in the road. In another year it’d be collapsed. “Come on. Let’s see if there’s any fruit on those trees out back.”
She trotted to catch up and clutched his leg. Two windows on the front of the house looking like big rectangular eyes and a severely tilting door between them left the appearance of a yawning monster.
“It’ll be okay. That old house may give us shelter and protection for the night.”
Before taking a step, she gathered two fists full of his pant legs and held him.
He peeled filthy frightened little hands off, squatted, and held scrawny arms to her sides and looked into her eyes, realizing he could talk until sunset and still not convince her there was nothing to be afraid of. As their eyes remained locked, he smiled. He noticed that the smile seemed to offer more assurance than anything he said.
As he gazed into disheartened blue eyes, he wondered about the child’s mother trusting that man she’d bested in hand-to-hand combat. Turning her back on a murderous stranger had been the ultimate faith—and stupid. What that man did should never have happened. Why did she so willingly give up the advantage? He hoped Annabelle knew and might share it someday.
He continued smiling at the youngster. Her expression did not change but her body language did. She stroked his long bushy beard with tiny fingers on each side of his face, as if petting a puppy.
Harboring so many fears of his own, how could he not sympathize with hers? Nowhere in the known world existed organized law enforcement. Corporations protected shareholders and their possessions while independent consumers protected themselves. Existing law were only those of nature and a few arbitrary ones set by greedy and powerful people meant for personal gain. All that remained was a personal sense of right or wrong, usually hinging on desperation. Jake remained ever mindful that, as ominous as the world had become, it could be worse.
He pulled her sweat-moistened hands from his face, rose and began walking toward the rear of the old farmhouse. “Stay here. I’ll be right back . . . promise.”
Approaching the remains of an orchard, he stayed within view of the girl but moved closer to the trees. Gangly and bore-infested, most of the trees barely alive and hard to see within the overgrowth of Johnson grass taller than the trees in places.
He glanced back to Annabelle. She held her ground but fidgeted with each step farther he took.
Determination drove him closer to the trees to see if one of them possibly bore fruit. He counted thirteen trees scattered over an area once covering a half-acre or more. He felt kinship with the trees—proof that life would find a way. He searched every limb.
Jake shoved weeds and brush aside checking every green branch of each stunted tree, some close to the ground. His search came up fruitless.
On his way back to Annabelle, he stopped to check the last four trees. He saw her wringing her hands, and then something beautiful, not one but a cluster of four apples on the same branch of a sickly tree—red and ripe.
As if someone might challenge him, he ran and plucked them claiming rights to dinner for two. He held the fruit in his cupped hands, staring, disbelieving such good fortune. For days all he’d eaten were leaves, a few berries and a couple of turnips. And now to have the crown jewels of dining, apples, seemed too good to be true. With a burst of enthusiasm, he trotted to Annabelle.
Look, Little One! Look what I’ve found!” He held them high, two in each hand. She didn’t appear enthusiastic. No matter. He knew they’d sleep well with nourishment.
Annabelle followed as he pushed aside weeds and vines that led to the concrete porch of the old farmhouse. He sat and waved her over as he shined an apple on a ripped sleeve then handed it to her.
An old man and woman abruptly appeared from around the corner of the house.
Startled, Jake snatched a rotted tree limb from the ground and leaped to his feet. As if it were a sword, he held it extended defensively.
The couple made no aggressive moves, no moves at all. Then the old lady wobbled. She went down. The man knelt beside her. Lines of hard living creased both their dirty faces. They were no threat just hungry—lives and ability to survive spiraling down to a predetermined conclusion. Jake saw himself in their forlorn faces not far in the future.
Even before he lowered the limb, Annabelle walked past him to where the woman lay and handed her one shiny apple. The old lady took it then clutched it in both trembling hands. She wept.
Jake couldn’t very well hold on to his extra apple. Tentatively, he gave one to the old man.
Annabelle smiled—first at the couple then at him.
It occurred to Jake like a bolt from the blue, “Ponder consequences . . . act rationally.” Then he said, “This is what my father was talking about.” As soon as it cleared his lips another thought struck: That’s what Annabelle’s mother was trying to do. As the revelation jelled he began to slowly nod then faster while muttering, “If the world has a chance, it has to begin with Annabelle and me.”
Monday, October 14, 2013
DANIEL LANCE WRIGHT
WHISKEY CREEK PRESS
WHISKEY CREEK PRESS
Whiskey Creek Press
PO Box 51052
Casper, WY 82605-1052
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Lance Wright
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copy-righted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Cover Artist: Gemini Judson
Editor: Marsha Briscoe
Printed in the United States of America
“Make it stop!” She sprang awake in a heartbeat. Sleep abruptly ended for Samantha Echols. The seventeen-year-old again endured a psychologically scarring episode. Sexually abused by her parents at the age of twelve imprinted her with a nightmare a night for five years and counting, coloring her world with broad strokes of anger-tinged sadness.
Long straight copper red hair stuck to dampness across her forehead. She gathered a double fistful of the sheet and pressed it to her face. “God, please make the dreams go away,” she muttered.
A defining life’s event hardened her heart, maybe irreversibly. Like all mornings, her skin crawled, feeling unclean. She pushed around and sat on the edge of the bed. As her feet touched the cool tiles, it comforted. She became grounded—something solid and in the present.
Again denied a restful night, Saturday was off to a bad start, but no worse than other mornings. She pushed sticky strands of hair from her forehead, wrapping them around her ears. Pulling the sweat-soaked oversized t-shirt away from breasts dappled with pale freckles, she let it spring back, hugging the contours. It chilled her. She shivered. Quickly, she pulled it over her head and tossed it across the room.
Pressing heels of her hands into closed puffy eyes, she clenched her jaws and growled, grinding her teeth, throwing her head side to side, as if the seared image might be shaken from her memory. She whimpered. If God can’t help me, who’s going to?
Her parents remained in prison for what they had done. She knew where and that knowledge tugged at her, keeping the sordid affair in a strange perspective. It circled at the fringe of anger. They were her only family, regardless how badly they’d treated her. She clung to hope that a happy Leave It To Beaver world was out there somewhere and someday it’d be hers. If—no, not if—when that happened, she wondered if her parents would be part of it.
A sharp rap on the bedroom door startled her.
“Hey, Sam,” came a young voice. “Breakfast is ready.”
She pushed her leaden body up and stood. She swayed, still sleepy, wanting to drop back into bed. “Whatever,” she replied to the young voice on the other side of the closed door.
She teetered, contemplating sneaking back under the blanket for a while longer. She swiped a trickle of perspiration from her chest as it snaked down off her neck then noticed dim light through the cracks of the window blinds.
She stepped to the window and poked a finger between metal slats of the blinds, pulling one down. She peeked out.
Rain! Give me a break, for Christ’s sake. She chewed the in-side of her cheek, straining eyeballs far left then right, then up, looking for the tiniest patch of blue. There was only socked-in gray.
That meant confinement indoors, maybe for the entire day. Not so bad under normal circumstances but The North Texas Home for Children was not ordinary. This cottage housed eight pre-teens that screamed loudest when they couldn’t play outside—not to mention three other teens that bickered incessantly.
She shuffled toward a pile of dirty clothes in a corner, rescuing a faded pair of blue jeans from the washing machine for one more day. Falling onto the bed, she pulled both legs on at once—buttoned them, zipped them and back on her feet before the bed stopped bouncing.
Lightning flashed, luring her back to the window. She gazed at the cottages across campus. Thunder rattled metal blinds. Hers was cottage thirteen of thirteen—an appropriate complement by her reckoning. Sheets of water ran off roofs of featureless brick boxes. No character, no charm—a state supported institution she called home.
Thinking back to yesterday, Friday, she’d stared out the window during English class, chin propped on palm, admiring the sunny day, eager for that day to end and the weekend to begin. The plan was simple, the pleasure tremendous—stay outside all day. That’s all she wanted, to be alone under a sunny sky on a mild October day. Despite cynicism, she allowed hope to snake its way in that that was how Saturday would go down.
As she looked to the dreary skies, searching for that elusive sliver of blue, it became obvious she needed to work harder at preventing optimism. It betrayed her time after time. Great day for frogs and funerals, but… She snickered, letting the blind slat snap back with a sharp metallic pop.
She pulled her long copper-red hair into a ponytail then bound it with a rubber band while hunting for a shirt. As she flipped from one hanger to the next in the closet, nothing looked appealing. So, it was back to the pile in the corner. She snatched up the first shirt she saw, sniffed it, screwed up her nose and pitched it back onto the heap. Digging deeper, she uncovered a favorite oversized button-up man’s flannel shirt. She fanned away accumulated mustiness and put it on, then rolled the sleeves up to the elbows.
She yawned. I should get laundry over with early. But why? It’s not like I have anything else to do.
As she finished buttoning the shirt, there came another rap on the door.
“It’s Saturday, for Pete’s sake!” she shouted. “Go away!”
“Sorry, Sam,” said the muffled young voice. “Mrs. Blanchard told me to get you. We’re all waiting for you in the dining hall.”
“What’s the big deal?” she yelled, then muttered, “It’s just breakfast.” She closed her eyes and summoned calm, realizing the attitude was nothing personal against Mrs. Blanchard or her husband, just the situation. They were cottage parents, the enforcer and the fixer. It’s sort of like assembly-line parenting. She smirked.
Her parents had been convicted by a court and confined for their crime against her but that same court might as well have ruled against her, too, because her situation was no bet-ter. Inevitability of the near future had been cast, the daily ritual continued—complaining, hoping, giving up, then moving on.
Concern for Mr. And Mrs. Blanchard was genuine. They had twelve children to look after—not an easy thing to do. It had been a willing life’s choice. It showed heart. Samantha admired them.
Moving to a mirror mounted in a substantial chromed steel frame securely bolted to the wall, she attempted smoothing wrinkles from her shirt. At five-foot-eight and the tallest resident of the cottage, aside from Mr. Blanchard, she had to stoop to see the top of her head in the mirror. She primped, but that didn’t provide even a moment’s escape from reality. She noticed things that shouldn’t have given her pause, the trickle of perspiration on her temple, the stark glossy gray wall, even the ugly utilitarian nature of large bolts holding the mirror to it. Her bedroom had no more warmth or charm than a service station restroom.
“Just one more year, Sam,” she said to her reflection. She palmed perspiration from her face and headed out to the dining hall for breakfast. Opening the bedroom door, she stepped into the hall, muttering, “Just one...more...year.”
Two younger residents ran by, giggling, cutting her off and compromising balance. She fell against the wall. “Hey, Munchkins, watch where you’re going!”
“Sorry, Sam,” one of the little girls said over her shoulder. “Mrs. Blanchard said she had important news and wanted everyone in the dining hall right now.”
She couldn’t care less, sauntering, yawning, and scratching her head with every finger of both hands.
When she turned into the dining room, she stopped abruptly. Something was different. It was quiet.
Squinting against the glare of multiple rows of fluorescent lights bouncing off glossy and featureless light gray walls, she shuffled on in. The stark ambiance punctuated the less-than-homey atmosphere. One long table split the room, surrounded by fourteen chairs. No one was sitting. Everyone stood. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Mrs. Blanchard said. “Since you’re the oldest I thought you should hear what I have to say. I don’t want to repeat it, even for you.” She smiled at Samantha, but it wilted away. The old lady turned solemn.
The serious expression suited the old lady and seemed natural, more so than smiling. Appearing happy had to be in her job description, but way down the list around number twenty-two, or thereabouts. She may have a heart of gold but the scowl was priceless, right down to the rows of vertical wrinkles in permanently pursed lips. To Samantha, the old lady appeared as if she might be constipated when that expression showed up.
The younger children looked up to Samantha as they would an older sister or even a mother figure. The little ones migrated to her as she stepped in nearer Mrs. Blanchard. “What is it, Mrs. B? What’s wrong?”
The children crowded around her legs. One little girl reached for and held Samantha’s hand. Having grown accustomed to such attachments, she never denied a younger cottage mate a touch or a hug. A small boy wrapped his arm around her leg on the opposite side. The young ones stood so close, she dare not take a step or risk smashing a tiny foot. Like Samantha, they sensed something was wrong. One of them stepped on her bare toe.
“Ouch! Come on, y’all, spread out and give me some room.”
The only ones not crowding her were the other teens, standing together on the opposite side of the long table, fif-teen-year-old Aaron Branagh, sixteen-year-old Rebecca Andrews, and sixteen-year-old Amanda Plunkett.
“Don’t get angry, Sam. They’re just little kids,” Amanda said. “They’re curious.”
“Whatever,” Samantha said, cutting a warning glance at the skinny girl with the short, straight mousy brown hair, in no mood to be challenged and not awake enough to debate. Embedded in a yawn, she said, “Mind your own business.”
Mrs. Blanchard abruptly clapped her hands twice. “Children, what I have to say is difficult but it’s better you hear it from me than through the gossip-mill.” The old lady’s face tensed.
As the pause lengthened, kids whispered.
Finally, she asked, “Did any of you have a chance to know Janet Kaminski?”
No one spoke.
“You know, that new fifteen-year-old girl in Cottage Seven. She’d only been on campus about a week.” The old lady’s eyes swept the group.
Samantha didn’t know her, hadn’t even heard her name before now. She looked around the room and saw clueless glances exchanged.
Irritated, Mrs. Blanchard said, “Surely, one of you knew her…or at least who she was. Are we doing that bad of a job staying acquainted with our neighbors in other cottages?”
“I…said hi to her on the school bus,” Aaron said. “She wasn’t very friendly. Kind of sad I think. But she did tell me her name. Is she in trouble?”
Mrs. Blanchard hinted a smile. “So you at least knew the one I’m talking about?”
“Yes, ma’am. What kind of trouble is she in?”
Mrs. Blanchard lowered her eyes. “She wasn’t in trouble. She—”
“Why are you speaking of her in the past tense?” Rebecca blurted. “Did she kill herself?”
Snickers randomly went up.
The old lady stood straight and took a deep breath. “Yes...sometime last night. I’d hoped to find a gentler way to tell you but I suppose it’s better to just put it out there. She hung herself from a pulley in the bus maintenance garage. She used a belt from one of the boys’ closets.”
Giggling and jostling stopped. Talk ceased.
Rebecca piped in, “It’s no big deal. She just decided to take a deeper nap than...well, deeper than any of us would.”
“Shut up, Becca,” Samantha hissed, shooting the chubby girl dressed in black an accusing stare.
“That’s enough! Both of you be quiet, please,” Mrs. Blanchard said, her voice descending to uncharacteristic softness, reestablishing respect.
“And to you, too,” Rebecca whispered to Samantha with an icy stare.
Forcing her lips tight together, Samantha wanted to fire a verbal barrage at the tattooed twit but held her tongue in deference to Mrs. Blanchard. Again, Rebecca challenged Samantha’s leadership role within Cottage Thirteen. Samantha vowed long ago to never let anyone gain an advantage over her again—anyone, ever. For now she confined response to narrowed eyes and a warning finger at Rebecca.
“Come on, guys,” Amanda said, “stop arguing.”
Aaron glanced approvingly at Rebecca and stepped closer to her.
Rebecca held that challenging stare on Samantha.
Aaron admired Rebecca in profile, smiling at such tenacity.
Finally, she broke the stare-off with Samantha and turned to Aaron. She grinned and winked at him.
Samantha shifted the warning stare to Aaron.
He noticed and ceased the amorous gaze at Rebecca, averting his eyes, lowering them to the floor as fast as possible.
As Mrs. Blanchard explained the circumstances of the suicide and how to deal with trauma, Samantha’s anger at Rebecca simmered. You fat little freak; you can do anything you like next year, but not while I’m still around.
* * * *
Rebecca refused to let Samantha threaten Aaron. She pulled her brow into an angry frown until Samantha’s accusing eyes shifted from Aaron to her. She held that cold look until Samantha seemed to show signs of discomfort. And then, with calculated precision, she drew a broad grin, showing deep dimples. She winked at Samantha.
Samantha simply resumed staring down Aaron.
Rebecca loved antagonizing the redhead. Samantha con-trolled the kids in cottage thirteen by intimidation, sort of like an over-manipulative mother. Rebecca had no intention of allowing that kind of influence over her.
She noticed Samantha seemed reluctant to release Aaron from her angry spell. That witch! She’s trying to make him back away since she can’t intimidate me. She put her lips to the skinny boy’s ear. “Don’t pay her any attention. Sam just has top-dogitis. She’s harmless...really.”
He looked at his toes then to Samantha in quick flicks then whispered sideways, “Okay.”
Mrs. Blanchard continued the speech on suicide, death, mourning, and all things related. The drone of it caused Rebecca’s mind to drift. Is death really that bad? I wonder if it’s not better to be the master of our fate...like that Kaminski chick. Her head tilted as she considered it. Maybe she was just practical about it, like me.
Rebecca didn’t think of herself as abnormal but did everything possible to set herself apart. Raven’s black curls hung like Halloween crepe paper across overly made eyes darkened with liner and mascara, drawing attention to red lips, extending back to pale, dimpled cherubic cheeks; and this after having been forced to tone it down by Mrs. Blanchard.
In the year she wandered Houston streets, alone and homeless, she’d accumulated body piercings—ears, nose, tongue, eyebrows, bellybutton, and one other she thought it best not to share with anyone, certain that that piercing choice would not be understood. She didn’t understand it either. At the time it just seemed rebelliously cool. She also sported numerous tattoos. The most obvious, a blue lightning bolt outlined in red on the right side of her neck, beginning below the jaw, extending down to the collarbone.
Mrs. Blanchard said nothing to her about the ink but re-fused to allow body jewelry on the children’s home campus or at school. Then the matriarch changed the only other thing she had control of—over-the-top makeup. Ever the rebel, Rebecca kept jewelry jangling in her black cargo pants ready to insert in the appropriate holes and slits.
Although hardened by time alone, she harbored a weakness, unable to control a soft heart—an aggravating distraction, a battle the world never knew she fought. She struggled against pesky tenderness. Regardless how tense a situation might be, she fell short of becoming rude or cruel time after time. When emotion lumped her throat, she’d back off and resort to snappy verbal gaffs and crude humor that implied toughness. Watching Aaron stare at his feet, she smiled. The little guy is cute in a cowardly way. She winked and playfully puckered her lips. I’ll take care of you.
He glimpsed the come-hither look. His eyes snapped back to his shuffling toes.
Rebecca didn’t share with anyone her fondness for Aaron. Instead, she jokingly referred to herself as his body-guard. “Somebody has to protect him,” she’d say.
She threw her hair back provocatively, flicked her eye-brows and licked her lips, trying to regain his attention. She found it amusing.
“Ahem,” Mrs. Blanchard said, her brow sinking in the middle, hands on hips. “Is there something about all this that’s funny to you, Miss Andrews?”
“Uh, no, ma’am.” Cheeks reddening, she rejoined the group in facing Mrs. Blanchard, the enforcer.
As the cottage matriarch spoke, the pitch of the woman’s voice rose. The elderly gatekeeper of decorum and good morals announced that a memorial service had been scheduled at the church for Sunday afternoon and a brief graveside ser-vice Monday morning, attendance mandatory.
Janet Kaminski. Rebecca rolled the name over in her mind. I don’t have a clue what she looked like. She came, she went…end of story.
When breakfast ended, the children dispersed, quiet and subdued, the antithesis of how the morning meal had begun. Rebecca noticed the robotic appearance of the kids. We’re good little orphans and keep thoughts neatly tucked away. She leaned over to Aaron. “Come on. I’m going to the water well shed out back; keep me company.”
Together, she and Aaron nonchalantly left the dining room, picked up the pace down the hall, then turned into the kitchen and trotted to the back door. They stood for a time on the back porch, watching it rain. “I don’t know why I should be so secretive,” she said. “Everyone knows why I go out there.”
“I wouldn’t advertise it, if I were you.”
“True. If ol’ lady Blanchard knows what I’m doin’ and keepin’ quiet about it, I don’t want to force her hand. It’s best that I just keep my mouth shut and let that ol’ dog sleep.” She looked to the soggy skies.
Rain streamed in a sheet from the roof extension over the porch in front of them. She wondered if it might let up long enough to run to the small freestanding building across the yard without getting drenched. Even the cotton field be-yond the fence behind the well-house blurred out in the driving rain.
“You really should quit smoking though.”
In no mood for a lecture, Rebecca grabbed Aaron’s hand and yanked him out into the torrential downpour. “Okay, but not today.” She sprinted with him in tow to a small structure that housed a well pump about fifty feet from the back door of Cottage Thirteen.
Soaked, she slung the door open and shoved Aaron in first, crowding in after him. She stood close, as much for warmth as lack of space. The October rain was cold. They stood pressed together between the wall and the pressure tank. Water dripped from Aaron’s nose, ears and chin. She thought it comical and chuckled.
Aaron grinned and then swept cobwebs off the tiny window at his side. He blew the haze of dust from it, kicking up a brown cloud.
Rebecca coughed. “Hey, stop that,” she said, waving the settling particles away. “All I want in my lungs is good clean smoke. I don’t care to add this God-awful Texas dust to it.”
“Sorry.” He rubbed a spot clean and looked through the dirty window, surveying the soggy campus toward the maintenance garage. “It’s really comin’ down,” he said, speaking up to be heard over rain pelting the low corrugated tin roof over their heads. Absently, staring out the window, he wiped water from forehead to chin and slung it to the floor.
Rebecca shook her head like a dog. Water sprayed across Aaron’s front. “Good grief.” He wiped the fresh spray from his face.
She grinned as she reached deep into the right leg side pocket of her cargo pants and retrieved a flattened pack of cigarettes, pulling from it a well-mauled but unbroken one. She carefully straightened it between her fingers. As Aaron pulled the string on the bare light bulb above, Rebecca lit it and took a deep drag.
Aaron went back to peering across campus to where the girl had taken her life, the corrugated metal maintenance building that stood dark and empty. “Do you think that Kaminski girl was sad or…what?”
“Can’t say for sure...but not necessarily.” She took another puff, inhaled, and then let it out slowly over the top of his head.
“I don’t understand. Why would she kill herself? Crap! She was only fifteen.”
Rebecca filled lips and cheeks with air, tipping her head slightly. She then blew it out. “Let me ask you a question; if you were at a party and didn’t want to be there and the peo-ple you met seemed to be wishing you were somewhere else, too…” She drew deep on the cigarette, blowing a smoke ring into his face. “Would you stay?”
He waved the smoke away and hacked. “Shoot no.”
“There ya go. Janet Kaminski was tired of this party and it was her only way out. That’s all.”
“Aren’t you scared of dying?”
“Look, Aaron,” she said, crushing the cigarette butt to a sizzling death on the dampened concrete floor, “you can’t go through life scared of every little thing. You had no say in be-ing born; you’ll have no say in dying. But you were and you will…somewhere, someday, somehow. There’s no if to it. It’ll happen.” She playfully put her finger on his forehead. “If you insist on worrying about it, you might forget to live in the meantime.”
Annoyed, Aaron pulled his head away faster than she could push.
She reached for his shoulders and pulled him close, forc-ing him to connect with her. “Promise me you’ll remember to live before that happens.”
“Not good enough. Put your hand on your heart and promise.”
“Okay, okay.” He put his hand over his heart, rolling his eyes. “I solemnly vow to live a little.”
The capacitor on the pump motor clicked.
Aaron flinched as it whirred to life, replenishing water that serviced their cottage in the adjacent pressure tank.
“You’re a skittish little rabbit, ya know that?” She laughed.
“I can’t help it.”
“I know.” She popped his arm with a soft fist. “Come on. Let’s get back in the house. It’s cold out here.”
* * * *
The rain had let up. Trotting behind Rebecca, Aaron studied her. She ran slower, allowing time for an admiring look. I don’t care if Becca Andrews is overweight or dresses funny. I like her. Watching her chubby behind roll as she jogged toward the cottage, he tingled. A juvenile sense of decency kicked in. What am I doing? She’s like a sister!
As they came through the back door into the kitchen, Samantha and Amanda stood across the room, whispering. Amanda nervously toyed with a spatula.
Samantha seemed to be lecturing her but abruptly stopped when he and Rebecca appeared. “Is that smoke I smell?” she asked with a catty smile.
“If your upper lip’s on fire then I suppose that’s possible.” Rebecca puckered and kissed the air in Samantha’s direction.
Feeling insulated from Samantha’s intimidation, Aaron chuckled.
“Come on, guys,” Amanda said, pointing the spatula at one then the other. “Why don’t you two try getting along for a change? We all have to live together you know.”
“Quit your whining and go plunk yourself,” Rebecca said.
“Shut up, Becca!” Samantha snapped.
Rebecca recoiled in mock horror. “Ooh, sorry, Sam.” She bowed to Amanda. “I offer my sincerest apologies, Miss Plunkett.”
Aaron never had a bad thought about Amanda. Her tenacity was of a different stripe, always with pure heart and intentions. She worked at keeping peace. He was sympathetic. Her easy-going manner drew jokes and ridicule. She seemed to ignore it, but it bothered him.
I wish I could be as comfortable about this place as Amy. I wonder if she even remembers her family.
“Come to think of it, Amy’s right,” Rebecca said. “We do live here together. No choice there for sure. Maybe we should do something…for togetherness-sake, something to get the adrenaline flowing just for the heck of it, maybe even a little dangerous. Whaddaya say?”
Dangerous? He didn’t like that word at all. He shook his head, muttering, “No, I—I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh hush, you gutless wonder,” Samantha said. “You can’t know if it’s a good idea or not. We haven’t heard it yet.” She then looked suspiciously for some time at Rebecca and then finally folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Okay, Becca, what do you have in mind?”
If Samantha were hesitant to agree, Amanda would not go for any shenanigans. But Rebecca’s use of the word “dangerous” baited Samantha whom, he knew, would never cower from a risky proposition. Rebecca clearly worked that angle. Samantha might even twist it around as her own idea. Al-though Rebecca challenged Samantha’s leadership role, she didn’t want the title, preferring to manipulate the tall red-head. Rebecca usually got what she wanted even if Samantha did most of the talking.
Rebecca put a finger to her lips and paced in front of Samantha and Amy. She stopped and faced them. “How about we sneak out of the cottage at midnight, walk to the truck stop across the highway, and get hamburgers?”
Aaron watched three sets of female eyes dart from one to the other. A dare had been offered—a gauntlet thrown down. Even Amy bore an adventuresome look.
“Let’s do it,” Samantha finally said with a clap.
Aaron looked to Amanda. Her jaw slackened, thin lips parting as if slowly going into shock. But then she did the strangest thing; she smiled.
Aaron hoped that that was at the absurdity of the idea.
Then the unimaginable happened. Amanda’s smile broadened into an impish grin. “Why not? It may be against the rules but it sounds like a better way of spending Saturday evening. We’d only be gone for...what...about an hour?”
“Sure. We’ll be back snug in our beds in no time,” Samantha said.
“If I have to spend another Saturday night watching a feature-length animated cartoon with the little ones,” Amanda said, “I think I’ll go crazy.” She slapped her forehead. “Duh, I forgot...I do! I deserve this.”
So certain was he that Amanda would vote against it, Aaron stood shocked. He thought he’d simply have to cast the tie vote and the issue would die a peaceful death. Suddenly out-voted, he regretted not voicing his opinion first. Now he couldn’t say anything or risk being the weenie Samantha believed him to be anyway.
Rebecca gave him a patronizing pat on the shoulder. “It’ll be okay. If we’re caught, the worst that’ll happen is we’ll be grounded for a couple of weeks.” She snickered. “And, good grief, we don’t leave the cottage anyway except to go to church or school; that’s not gonna change.”
Aaron fingered his ear, tugged his earlobe, and scratched his nose as he looked to the floor.
All three stared at him.
“Okay, okay. I guess I’ll go, too.”
As though it were a typical Saturday morning, the girls walked away to begin chores, chattering and laughing. Even Rebecca and Samantha suddenly seemed to be best friends.
He stood dumbfounded. I can’t believe I just agreed to that.
He looked to a pot hanging from a hook over his head and asked it, “What have I gotten myself into?”
He trotted to catch up.
“Becca, say the blessing please,” Mrs. Blanchard said.
Six children on one side of the long table and six on the other joined hands; Mr. Blanchard on one end, Mrs. Blanchard on the other completed the circle.
“If you don’t mind, Missus B, let’s let Amy do the prayin’ chores. Me and the Big Guy have sort of been at odds lately.”
Annoyed and reluctant, Mrs. Blanchard turned to Amanda and nodded.
Good grief, Becca... The cavalier attitude toward God miffed Amanda. She glimpsed Rebecca’s half-smile and wink as she bowed her head. Her tight face relaxed. She closed her eyes and recited a quick blessing, ending with, “…and thank you Lord for the wonderful food we’re about to receive. Amen.”
Rebecca and Samantha snickered.
“What’s the matter?” Mrs. Blanchard asked. “Doesn’t dinner look good enough for you two?”
Samantha and Rebecca glanced at a bowl of steaming spinach with sliced boiled eggs covering the top, emitting a faint sulfur smell, a platter loaded with meat, pork chops maybe, drowning in some kind of tomato sauce, and next to that a bowl of plain boiled potatoes that had no smell at all and likely no taste.
Amanda frowned at them as she tried to get their attention. She repeatedly flicked her chin toward the old lady—a subtle warning of Mrs. Blanchard’s building anger. They responded by sneaking glimpses at one another, stifling snickers.
“Becca… Sam…that’s enough! Eat!”
Amanda shot burning stares at both of them. Acting like that will get us caught for sure. She questioned the wisdom of going along with the daring plan to sneak out for a while. Still staring at them, she snorted softly and stabbed the pile of spinach in her plate. She lifted the fork and watched it sag like pond scum. She suddenly had no appetite.
* * * *
Lying in bed, Amanda read a well-worn Nancy Drew mystery by lamp light. She glanced at the glowing red digits of the alarm clock. It showed eleven forty-eight p.m. Her eyes flowed over the words of the novel but retained little of what she read. Anticipation kept her mind occupied else-where.
A sudden rasping scratch on the window screen startled her. She flinched and drew a quick breath then looked up into the grinning face of Samantha looking down at her from the bushes outside her window.
Amanda leaped up onto her knees and pushed the window up. “Y’all are early.”
“So what? Come on. I’m starving.”
No need to respond to such sage wisdom. Amanda put on her jacket.
Pulling the tabs to release the screen, she crawled through the open window. The chilled October night held moisture from the day’s rain. It smelled clean and was exhilarating. She drew a deep satisfied breath and blew it out. “Let’s treat ourselves to somethin’ good to eat.”
The foursome walked abreast up the dimly lighted paved street splitting rows of identical cottages. It resembled a sub-urban neighborhood of tract homes. They chatted in hushed tones, giggling, feeling devilish.
Abruptly, Amanda stopped walking.
“What’s with you?” Rebecca asked.
“What if that waitress, Connie… Connie—”
“Connie Morris? Is that who you’re thinking about?” Aaron asked.
“Yeah...her; y’all realize, don’t you, that she works nights at the truck stop? She and Mrs. Blanchard are friends. You know that, too, right?”
Smiles faded. The potential impact of big trouble loom-ing struck them all at the same instant.
“Well crap! I want a hamburger,” Samantha said. “I didn’t eat much dinner just so I could enjoy it.”
“Me too,” Rebecca said.
Aaron sighed. “I was so lookin’ forward to it.”
Spinning around in a huff, marching a couple of steps back toward Cottage Thirteen, Samantha stopped. “Wait! I know what we can do? Let’s borrow old man Neville’s pickup truck. It doesn’t belong to him anyway. It belongs to the Children’s Home maintenance department.”
Amanda saw the truck parked near the maintenance building.
Samantha took off in that direction.
“Wait just a doggone minute. Are you sure about this?”
The old truck was a dedicated work vehicle that Neville, the groundskeeper, used every day, no rear bumper, filthy, lots of dents. It set parked beneath one of only three street-lights on campus, as if under a spotlight. Amanda jogged to catch up. She hissed, “That’s stealing, Sam.”
Rebecca caught up to Amanda. “Don’t get bent out o’ shape, Amy. It sounds like a plan to me. We’ll drive to town to the Arrowhead Drive-In, have a good ol’ greasy hamburger and be back before anyone notices.” She snapped her fingers. “Easy-peezy, we’ll be in bed in less than an hour.”
Samantha didn’t wait for a consensus. She ran to the old truck and opened its door. Squeaky hinges echoed off the corrugated metal of the maintenance garage.
“Do you think we’re far enough away from the cottages?” Aaron asked. “This thing is noisy. The muffler’s busted.”
“I bet the maintenance garage will shield the noise,” Samantha said. After a quick search, her eyes landed on some-thing dangling from the ashtray. “Aha, the keys...our luck is holding.”
“Lucky? I’m not so sure about that,” Aaron said.
Rebecca threw an arm over his shoulder and pulsed a hug. “Don’t worry so much.”
Samantha jumped into the driver’s seat, inserted the key and turned. The engine struggled to turn over a single time. “Well, maybe we’re not all that lucky after all.” She tried again. The engine managed another slow motion spin then another. Finally, it fired and started with an angry rumble. She gunned it. It roared.
“Don’t do that,” Amanda said, as she stood by the open driver-side door.
Samantha rolled her eyes. “Shut up and get in.”
If caught, this kind of trouble would get them more than grounded for a couple of weeks, but Amanda rationalized it. Someone had to keep Rebecca and Samantha out of trouble after all. “Okay...but let the record show I’m against this.”
“If I ever find the record book I’ll write it down for ya,” said Samantha. “Now get in and let’s go.”
Rebecca hurried Aaron into the passenger side and shoved him tight against Samantha. She jumped in and pur-posely butt-bumped him. Amanda was last. They crowded the single bench seat. The skinny girl slammed the door. “Ouch,” she said then whined, “there’s a bare spring pressing against my butt.”
“And to think…I was so worried you were going to be lonely tonight,” said Rebecca.
“Shut up,” Amanda said but then grinned and giggled.
Samantha laughed as she ground the gears. The old truck lurched forward in jerks. Finally smoothing, she stabbed it into second gear. “Not bad, considering I’ve only driven this standard shift once before and that was only from one end of campus to the other.”
Amanda held her nose against the odor of stale cigars, motor oil and gas fumes mixed with a musty layer of Texas dust on the dashboard. “Whew. It stinks in here.”
Rebecca laced her fingers behind her head. “Smells like heaven to me.”
Samantha suddenly sat straight. “Crap!”
Rebecca dropped her hands into her lap.
Amanda looked behind them, thinking someone might be following. “What is it? What’s the matter?” The Home was receding behind the old pickup truck as they drove past a field of bare stalks from a recently harvested cotton crop.
“Dadgummit!” Samantha rapped a fist on top of the steer-ing wheel. “The gas gauge is on empty.”
“Ya think it works?” Rebecca asked.
“I don’t know, but we’d better not ignore it.”
After a couple more miles, Samantha wheeled into the driveway of a darkened and closed service station, rolled to a stop and then killed the engine.
“Okay, guru of great ideas, what now?” Rebecca asked. “We certainly can’t fill up here. The pumps are off.”
Samantha tapped her teeth with a fingernail. “If we pool our money we can drive across town to that all night convenience store and fill up there.” She sighed. “But then we wouldn’t have enough money left for burgers. We’d just have to chuck it and go back to the Home and call it a night. Or…”
Her eyes brightened.
Amanda looked across Rebecca and Aaron to Samantha. In a slow drawl, she asked, “Or, what?”
Samantha looked up the highway to the lights of town illuminating the night sky then back toward the home. There were no headlights in either direction. The road was deserted. “Or, we take that hoe and rake out of the back, pry open that soda machine over there and see if we can hit the jackpot.”
Rebecca reached across Amanda and opened the passenger side door and pushed the skinny girl out. “Then let’s get it done before someone comes along.”
“Stop right now! I didn’t agree to this. Y’all are out of your ever-lovin’ minds!” Amanda pointed down the highway from where they’d come from. “Take me back to the Home.” She then crossed angry arms over her chest and stood belligerently stiff.
Samantha didn’t seem interested in addressing her demand.
“Right now, I said! I want to go back this very instant!”
“Sorry, not gonna happen. Why don’t you stand over there out of the way,” Samantha said, pointing to the edge of the parking lot next to the highway. “That way you can hon-estly deny you had anything to do with it. Just be your sweet self until we’re finished.” Samantha jumped out and retrieved the two garden tools from the bed of the truck.
Amanda backed to the edge of the property near the blacktop. She twisted strands of short hair in tight spirals, skittishly bouncing on her toes, muttering, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” Like a bobble-head doll, she looked up and down the highway.
Samantha held out the hoe to Rebecca. “Here. You look like the ho’ type.”
“Shut up.” She snatched it from Samantha’s grasp.
“Stick the blade between the case and the door above the lock so your handle is to the right,” Samantha said, “and I’ll shove the tines of this rake beneath the lock but my handle will be out to the left. I bet if we bring the handles together this door will pop open like an oyster.”
As the girls struggled, Rebecca’s hoe provided the most leverage. Samantha drove the tines of the rake deeper. “Aaron, get over here, gutless; help me push.”
Aaron added the weight of his slight frame to the rake handle and the door indeed popped open. “Well, would you look at that,” Rebecca chirped. “Finally, one of Sam’s ideas worked.”
“Put a sock in it.” Winded and huffing through her nose, Samantha studied the mechanism of the change box. She found the release lever and pulled the container out. The weight surprised her and she readjusted her hands quickly to not spill the coins.
Amanda couldn’t hear. The three others held their heads in a tight triad, looking down into the metal box. Curiosity overcame her. “What is it? Whaddaya see?”
“A jackpot,” said Samantha.
“And a reason to dance,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Aaron and yanked him to her.
“But there’s no music,” he said.
“Then you’d better start hummin’, buddy.” Rebecca laughed and slung the skinny boy in a circle, holding tight to both his hands. She then yanked him into full body contact and put her arms around his neck. “I don’t hear any hum-min’,” she whispered then stuck her tongue in his ear.
“Hey! Stop that.” He yanked his head away and slapped at his ear.
Rebecca twirled him around one last time and let him go. He stumbled away.
Even Amanda joined the laughter. She moved into the blue luminance of the mercury vapor streetlight and looked down into the change box from the soda machine, brim full of nickels, dimes and quarters.
“I’d say the plan to get hamburgers is back on,” Rebecca said. “Let’s go. Dancing makes me hungry.”
Samantha snickered. “Dancing? Or that stuff you were doing with Aaron?”
“Quit bein’ a wise-butt and load your pockets.”
Amy watched Rebecca and Samantha fill their pockets with coins then Samantha replaced the box. Rebecca pushed the front of the soda machine closed.
“I don’t care if you did leave most of the money, it’s still stealing,” said Amanda.
Instead of remorseful words, she received grins followed by laughter.
Amanda shivered and pushed hair behind her ears but it was too short to stay there. She overlapped her jacket in front and hugged herself. They’ve stepped in it now.
Her breath hitched.
Wait a minute! I’m the one up to my knees in it just by being here.
She looked up to the full harvest moon and thought about the stupidity of what they were doing, and the night wasn’t over.