Afternoon Eddies

Some short fiction, a palate cleanser from this year’s NaNo.  

Pine needles, so many pine needles, poking and sticking and filling the air with a seductive calm musk of forest, of danger, of plants grown legion. Jack winced, using one arm to clear the branch in front of him, the other idly brushing away the needles that probed his pants and the tough skin underneath.

This path was familiar, though overgrown now; in the halcyon days of his youth, his almost daily wild trek through this stretch of forest kept all but the heartiest vegetation at bay.  In the half century since, the nettles and the pines and the small weeds that now constellated the ground had fortified the reclaimed territory, had set barbs and thick branches to stave off intruders.  Jack returned here as to a scene of forgotten glory, each labored step through the brush an achievement, a small mote of progress in his reconnaissance of his boyhood haunt.

A needle jabbed through the knuckle at the base of his thumb, breaching the skin and finding purchase in the soft tissue between bone and ligature.  Jack gasped, feeling the thick pine and pollen dust racing into his nostrils and settling in his chest.

-why have i come here?-

A wind announced its arrival, rustling the tops of the trees before enveloping Jack.  Leaves and dirt rose in its wake, tickling his ankles, the cold, sweet air startling him and breaking the pace of his progress.

It was getting late, the afternoon sun angled too low to counter the chill breeze.  Shadows long and eldritch danced as their progenitor flora swayed to the wind. Jack knew he should go back, to find his aunt; if he came in before sunset, she was apt to bedevil him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and reward him with a cookie.  She used maple syrup in the cookies; they squished under the smallest pressure of his jaw and melted into molasses behind his teeth. Jack could taste them now, could feel the warm, familiar smell rise into his nose from the back of his mouth. Aunt Millie’s cookies.  Aunt Silly, he had called her.

But no, Aunt Silly- Aunt Millie- had died, years ago.  That house had been sold, and with it, any claim Jack and his clan held on the vaguely titled plot of forest.  So why was he here?

The wind intensified.  The pitch of the rustling trees deepened as the tallest trees bowed lower, acknowledging the passage of air and weather.  Clouds poured above, a celestial river of white that gave way to dark gray. Jack felt like an earthbound raft traversing river rapids, hoping the sky above stayed white and fluffy, mentally steering his patch of ground away from the dark, treacherous sprinkling of storm clouds overhead.  

All at once, Jack was wet.  He hadn’t felt the rain fall, but he could hear it, a susurration above and all around him.  It seemed to be everywhere, a thousand points of barbed water dinging and careening off everything in the forest.  He couldn’t see the rain falling, though, and looked around for some visual confirmation of the storm.

The forest aroma intensified, pine and decaying leafs misting around him.  It was a pleasant smell, though somehow sad, even wistful. It was the smell of yesteryear, of careless youth, of seasons changing and passing, rolling forward, always forward, into the next.

Jack put a hand to his hair: it was soaked.  The loud but invisible rain had drenched him.  Above, few white fluffs remained, the sky now overrun with menacing dark leviathans that filtered out the diminishing light of the fast-setting sun.  

At once, brilliant white forks appeared overhead, and three distinct claps shook Jack’s ears and caused him to start.  He closed his eyes, feeling drops of warm water fall from their lids, glancing off his legs. When he opened them, the storm was gone- the sky was clear, it was mid-day, the sun surging warm waves over his wet body.  A bird chirruped somewhere above him. The ground was dry.

-what on earth?-

Three claps, louder than the first, stirred something deep in his breast.  He closed his eyes again, and this time they opened slowly. Jack was prone on his back, his face and hair dripping wet.  Sunlight and shadows swapped places on the ceiling above him as the blackout curtains rustled in the breeze from the window.  Jack felt a pillow under his head, touched his brow. It was damp. Dropping both elbows beside him, he lifted his body a few strained inches, feeling the wet sheets pull away and turn instantly cold as he relaxed back down onto them.  

His hand went to his leg: no pine needles.  No bird sounds. No forest scents, only the antiseptic smell of the humidifier, and the sour, vinegar odor of his own sweat.  Three sudden claps caused him to jump- they were knocks on his door. With considerable effort, Jack sat up, swinging his legs to the floor, feeling the pins and needles ebb and vanish as the blood started to flow.

Jack stood using a hand against the wall for balance as the other swept the curtain aside.  Below, standing just outside his door, were two men in suits. One had brown wavy hair; the other was starting to bald.  Jack knew why they were here. He had long expected them, dreaded them. They were from the army, come to deliver sad and solemn news.  Jack had a premonition about this, knew they would come. He knew what they would say, and how he would react. It was as though he had rehearsed this very moment a dozen times in his mind.  

Jack slowly walked to his closet, pulling out a long robe to cover his sweat-through night clothes.  He closed the closet door and stopped, disconcerted. This was wrong; he wasn’t wearing a robe. It was a white shirt, with a blazer and a loosened tie, as though he had just come home from work, was still making the transition into casual clothing.  The officer had even remarked on his tie, some inane compliment. And- more darkly- it was this tie he would invoke in his passing consideration of suicide, a momentary thought of hanging himself from the ceiling fan. He would never do that- would never even give the thought a proper name- but he remembered the tie, of that he was certain.  

Jack opened the closet again.  There was a white shirt, slightly wrinkled, but serviceable.  He quickly pulled it over his arms, buttoning from the top down, aged fingers made deft by decades of muscle memory.  The tie, though, if only he could remember the correct tie! Jack worried for a moment that his visitors would give up, would leave before he was ready.  

“I’m coming!” he yelled, voice unsteady, in the direction of the window.

Perhaps the tie wasn’t important.  At least, the type of tie. It just had to be a tie, any tie worthy of remarking on.  Jack found one of black and white gingham and pulled it loosely around his neck, knotting it without tightening.  It was perfect.

As he left the bedroom, Jack ticked through all the details of this encounter.  He would open the door, and the younger of the two men would call him sir, would confirm his name.  Then the older man would say that Michael had died, that he was honorable, and use other nice adjectives that Jack would scarcely hear and soon forget.  A rare and frightening tightness would grip his chest, and, searching for any acceptable words to speak, Jack would invite them inside. Karen would make ask who was there from the kitchen, and Jack would tell her to bring waters, that they had two guests.  

Karen would bring the water and a small plate of cookies, still oblivious to the nature of the visit.  She would blanch when she saw them sitting on the sofa, all starched uniform blue with explosions of medals on the breast.  She would shake, spilling one of the waters, they would call her ma’am, she would start to sob before they could say anything else.  

Jack paused on the staircase.

-i should put a hand towel in the den, to clean up the water.-

He turned at the bottom of the stairs, away from the door and towards the inside of the home.  This was wrong. Karen wasn’t here, she had died, not so very long ago. There would be no spilled water, no spilled tears.  Michael had a gravestone in a large cemetery in Virginia; Jack had visited there, had laid flowers on the grave. It was all wrong, it was out of place on the timeline.  Jack was angry as he reached the door and flung it open.

“You’re too late!” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the visitors.  

The two men stiffened up.  Their army uniforms were wrong, too.  They looked like businessmen, in neat white shirts and black suits.  They scarcely even looked like men; Jack would be surprised if they were a day over twenty one.  Their only medals were shiny name tags that Jack had to squint to read. He glanced back and forth between the baby-faced visitors and the incongruous word Elder on the badges.

“Um, good afternoon, sir,” said the taller of the two.  “How are you today?”

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  The visitors glanced at one another.

“My name is Elder Brown, and this is Elder Lee.  It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jack,” he said, definitively, extending a proud hand.  Elder Brown took the hand and shook, then passed it to Elder Lee, who did the same.  

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about faith?  We are taking a survey in this neighborhood, and asking some questions about God and our place in the world.  Do you ever think about those things?”

Jack considered it.  He did think about God, all the time, but those were private thoughts, and some part of him knew that his musings were not safe for public airing.  

“Oh, from time to time,” he demurred.

“That’s wonderful!” Elder Brown said, as both visitors broke into wide grins.  “Would you mind if we step inside?”

Jack glanced over his shoulder.  Inside, that’s where they want to come.  To his place, his sanctuary. Of course, he has visitors all the time.  The den is usually immaculate, not one item out of place. In the middle distance, he saw the sofa, covered in balled-up newspaper and dirty clothing.  The coffee table, spackled with used dishes, would need tidying before guests could be admitted. Karen would have his head if he didn’t clean up before having company.  

“My, uh, place isn’t very tidy, I’m afraid,” said Jack.

“Oh, we don’t mind!” Elder Lee cut in.  “The truth is, we’ve been walking for several hours, and it would be good just to get off our feet for a few minutes.”

Unable to think of a counterargument, Jack stood aside, gesturing admission, and the elders crossed his threshold, waiting patiently for him just inside the door.  

“You can, uh, sit over there.  I’ll make space,” Jack pointed towards the sofa, and staggered in its direction.

“We can help with that, if you like,” said Elder Brown.  “Here, let me fetch those dishes for you. Do you want them in the kitchen?”

It was moving too fast for Jack.  The young men- boys, really- flitted to and fro in a whirlwind of activity.  Dishes and refuse were swept up in their wake, re-deposited out of sight. It was over in an instant, and the room looked almost tidy.  

“Would you like a glass of water?” Jack said.  The elders were seated on the sofa now, their eddies of motion evidently spent.  

“Yes, please!” said Elder Lee, with boyish enthusiasm.  

With a nod, Jack retreated to the kitchen, where he searched the cupboards for clean glasses.  He needed to pour the water carefully, and bring it to the den without spilling. He mentally checked through the constituent parts of the task, determined to be more careful this time.  

-why are they here?-

It must be another volley from his daughter.  They were here to convince him to move into a new place, to give up his home.  The nerve of these people, to barge in here and tell him he couldn’t live alone!  They talked over his meek objections. When he spilled the water- just a careless tangling of his feet!- they made much of it, wielding it as proof positive that he needed to leave.  The destination was hazy, but Jack could see through them. They wanted him in a home, not in his home, but a home for people at the end of their days, who couldn’t be trusted to live unsupervised.  It was a second childhood, he remembered thinking, and he was not going softly.

Jack filled each cup only halfway.  This time, he would not spill it, would measure each step slowly, deliberately.  They would see that he can still function, can still do the mundane tasks of life that silently delineate between those worthy of independence, and those whose vitality is spent.  He would show them!

Both cups in hand, Jack began his perilous trek, shuffling his feet just an inch off the floor, finding a stable rhythm.  In twenty strides, he reached the coffee table, and began to lower the cups, feeling the strain in his back as he hunched towards the landing pad.  Elder Brown reached out and intercepted the lander before touchdown, passing one to Elder Lee and snatching the other for himself.

“Thank you,” Elder Lee said.  Jack stood, half-hunched, frozen, slow to realize that his mission had been an unmitigated success.  He smiled and nodded, easing himself upright and rounding the table to the easy chair, into which he sunk majestically.  

“Do you ever think about what comes after?” Elder Brown said, sipping his water.  

Right to the point, then, Jack smirked.  It is time to do battle.

“I think that I stay here.”

The elders exchanged glances.  “I mean, what comes after you leave here?  What comes next?”

“There is no next!” Jack raised his voice.  “I stay here until I die! And I’m not going anywhere else.  I make do just fine on my own.”

Elder Brown looked at Elder Lee again, who shrugged.  An awkward moment passed.

“After we die, I mean,” said Elder Brown.  “Where do we go then?”

Jack thought about this.  Perhaps he had misjudged the situation.  Come to think of it, these boys didn’t look like they came from a nursing home.  Religious folk, then. Come to spread the gospel. Only they were so young. Maybe he should put them in touch with Pastor Abrams, he liked talking about theology.  His sermons always went long, Jack remembered counting the minutes while his stomach rumbled its lunchtime protest.

“I don’t know about that,” Jack said.  “Maybe you’d like to talk to Pastor Abrams, I could introduce you.  He loves talking about heaven and hell. In fact, at his funeral his wife told this story about him getting out of a speeding ticket by telling the officers that he would need to give an extra tithe to make up for the violation of the law.”

Once again, the elders exchanged looks, this time with concern.  

“So, he has passed on?” said Elder Lee.  

Jack stopped, considering.  Yes, that sounded right, he had been at Pastor Abrams’ funeral.  He wouldn’t be available to talk shop with these young people.

“I suppose so,” Jack conceded.

“You live here alone?” Elder Brown ventured.

“I do,” Jack said proudly.  “I have a girl who comes by each week to take care of a few things, since I move more slowly these days.”

The words spilled out of his head before he could catch them.  He had a girl? Who was that? It sounded right, but he couldn’t place her.  Natalia? Tatiana? Something that sounded Russian. When had she last been here?  When was she expected? Jack could never keep it straight. He was seized by worry, that these young people would see his confusion and do something to upset his safety and routine.  

“That’s nice,” said Elder Brown, smiling his acceptance.  “Elder Lee and I are helping people, too, by spreading the good news about Jesus Christ.  Do you believe in Jesus?”

“I do,” said Jack, relieved.

“Wonderful!” Elder Lee clapped his hands.  “Our church believes in spreading Jesus’ teachings, and showing people how faith can transform their lives.  Would you like to join us in a small prayer? Since this is your home, maybe you can say something appropriate, or we can, if you prefer.”

Jack mentally braced against the onslaught of words.  They wanted him to pray? Praying for Jack was not a performative act, it was a silent reflection that belonged in a church.  

“You can go ahead,” Jack said, suspiciously.  

The Elders bowed their heads.  “Our father, who art in Heaven…”

Jack knew this one, tuned out the familiar words, his eyes closed.  He remembered the lilt of the prayer, hearing it echo through the chapel at Karen’s funeral, the sad timbre of the pastor, using the benediction to plead with their maker to treat Karen’s soul with kindness and mercy.  The realization that, when this day of ritual was complete, he would be alone, left by himself for the first time in decades. Imagining waking up in bed, with Karen not there. Tears flooded his eyes and leaked down the deep crevices of his cheeks.  

“Are you okay, Jack?” one of the boys said.  Jack opened his eyes, feeling a rush of water escaping down his face.  

“Yes, uh, I just need a moment.  Excuse me, please.”

Jack stood with considerable effort, and moved towards the staircase.  “I just need to fetch something,” he muttered, using his arms on the railing to propel him upward, towards his bedroom.  Below, the boys sat with their water, watching him with intense interest.

Jack reached the bedroom, and sat on his bed, taking a tissue from the nightstand to his wet face.  He could smell his own sweat on the pillow case beside him. That smell reminded him of deep sleep, of the surreal experience of waking, of the warm embrace of the blankets.  Unthinking, he lifted his legs and tucked them under, feeling the weight and pressure of the comforter on his body. He blew his nose, and then set his head down on the pillow, staring blankly at the ceiling.  

Time must be passing, Jack thought, and there was something he still needed to do today.  It was something to do with Michael, and with Karen, or maybe Pastor Abrams. He searched the ceiling for answers, but the dancing shadows and reflected sunlight held no answers.  The room grew dimmer as his lids half-closed. His body sank into the mattress inch by inch, the soft foam taking his torso into a slow embrace.

A creak on the stairs.  “Are you okay, Jack?”

It was a young voice- one of the boys, the elders.  So they were still here. Jack ran through a checklist of actions needed to see them off properly.  It seemed daunting.

“I’m in bed,” he called down.  “You can see yourself out.”

“Do you need anything?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just a bit tired.  Thank you for the prayer,” Jack said.  Out of his peripheral vision, he saw the face of one of the boys- which one, he could not tell, the name tag concealed by the door frame and too far off to read in any event.  Jack shut his eyes, performing sleep, hoping the youngster would leave him be.

After a moment, he heard a renewed creaking on the banister, and muffled voices from below, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing again.  

Jack was still dressed in the white shirt and loose tie, but the bed was a comfort, and there would be no harm in taking a nap.  He allowed himself to sink deeper, to begin to drift, his thoughts swirling back to the taste of molasses, his cheek wet with the unwanted kisses of his Aunt Silly.  

-AG

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Published in: on December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ahead of the Rain

This is a short story I published in July 2016.  I am currently using it as a prologue to a longer work.  This story was first published in Flash Fiction Press.  All rights reserved. 

Town by town, she kept moving, always bound for the south, always, it seemed, one step ahead of the rainstorm. The country here was empty, no people to be seen. There were few roads, if these dusty, meandering trails through the brush could even properly be called roads. No matter, they were useless for navigation. She knew to keep the sun on her left in the mornings, and on her right later in the day. She did not travel at night.

When she could, she slept in a barn or, less frequently, on a couch or a bed begged from the local population.

-Please, I’m heading south. May I sleep here tonight?

Some people looked at her with kindness, empathy even. A few responded with contempt.

-Get off my property. Now! Don’t make me call the law!

Most, though, simply nodded with grave understanding. This silent majority accommodated her as best they could, but without warmth. They didn’t like her. They didn’t want her there. But they understood her reasons, and made space for the night.

She was tired, more tired than usual. The past night she spent under a tree. The only man-made structure in sight, a decrepit silo, she figured more likely to collapse in her sleep than to provide any sort of worthwhile shelter. The night had been cold; she slept poorly.

It was her fifteenth day on the road. The air was blowing, west to east, the air thick with moisture. There were clouds rimming the sky near her to the north, passing her by on their eastward journey. She hoped to stay ahead of them. She was not outfitted for the rain.

The sun was making its downward arc in earnest; there were only a few hours of daylight left. She could see smoke rising over the horizon, a town like as not, and she walked faster, hoped to get to shelter before stopping for the night.

Within an hour, she saw a large unpainted barn, and a small house nearby. Civilization, or its nearest approximation in this stretch of the plains. She walked up towards the door, pausing to run her fingers through her hair, to clear some of the dirt off her face. First impressions were everything.

The door opened before she even knocked, catching her off guard. A large man, white, middle-aged, in overalls, looked at her with surprise.

-Can I help you?
-Please, sir, I’m heading south. May I sleep here tonight?

He frowned and considered it a moment, then pointed to the barn.

-The back corner stays pretty warm. If it starts raining, move under the loft near the hay. I’ll fetch you some blankets.

He walked back into the house without inviting her to follow. She stood there, relieved and frightened. He returned in moments.

-Here’s some blankets. They’re old, I was gonna donate them to the church anyway. You can keep them if you want.

She nodded her thanks.

-I ‘spect you’ll be wanting some dinner, too. My wife’ll fetch you some after we eat, won’t be too long now. There’s a water pump out back. Do your business in the outhouse, not in the barn. And don’t steal nothin’.

He walked past her, still frowning. She wanted to ask him where she was, but kept silent. She took the blankets and made for the barn. The door opened easy and wide. It was smaller than it looked from the outside, home to some forgotten farm vehicle that hadn’t been used in the past decade, judging from the rust. There were no animals she could see, just dirt and hay and various farming implements.

The back corner was already cleared. Straw had been neatly placed in the shape of a small human. A trace of body odor lingered; she was not the first to rest here. She dropped her blankets and her satchel. A few photographs, a letter from her mom, some official-looking papers whose significance she didn’t understand, but that she judged too important to discard. A single change of clothes. All her belongings in the world. She sighed.

She tucked the satchel under the blankets and left the barn, walked around back, found the water pump. She pulled the lever a dozen or so times until a trickle of water came out. She cupped her hands, splashed and scrubbed at her face, watched the dirt and the grime turn the runoff brown. She picked at her fingernails, trying to clear the stubborn black filth under them. The road had dirtied her entire body, but the nails were the only part that really bothered her. Made her feel less feminine. Less real.

After five minutes or so she stopped. There was still plenty of cleaning to do, but she didn’t want to overtax the pump. The sun was setting, the day was spent. She went back into the barn and laid down. An hour passed. Dinner never came. Her stomach was angry and loud, but she wasn’t starving. She could find some food tomorrow, in the town. She fell asleep.

She woke to find the straw next to her damp. Had the rains come at last? No, it was only the morning dew, condensation dripping on her from the boards above. It was already light; day was wasting. She bundled her things together, looked over the ratty blankets. They weren’t much, but they weren’t heavy, and you never did know when such things would become needful. She wrapped them up and took them along, left the straw sleeping place for its next occupant.

As she was closing up the barn, the house door opened and she caught the eye of a middle-aged woman, who set down a broom and walked over to her.

-Hello. Does Jim know you’re here?
-Yes ma’am. He told me I could sleep in the back corner of your barn. Sorry to startle you.

The woman sighed.

-He didn’t mention it to me, or I’da brought you supper. You hungry now?

She thought a moment. The sun was already up, and she needed to get some miles covered. But she needed food, too, and better to take it early and sure.

-I’d appreciate it.
-C’mon in.

She followed the woman into the home. It was small, cluttered. There were just two seats in the kitchen, and a small card table between them. The woman cracked some eggs.

-Jim’s in town, probably won’t be back for a few hours. I reckon you got to get back to the road?
-Yes ma’am. What town are we near?
-You’re in Lincoln.

Damn, she thought. I drifted west. I wonder how many days this has cost me.

-I need to get south, tryin’ to stay ahead of the rain.
-You’re the third this week. Ain’t just our house, either: they say there’s a brown river flowin’ south. Not meanin’ any offense.
-None taken.

The woman dished up four scrambled eggs and put them in front of her.

-Just stay clear of Wichita. They’re givin’ folks trouble there. They won’t kill ya, but they’ll delay ya.
-I only got three weeks.

The woman nodded gravely.

-We don’t know what’s gonna happen then. They always talk that stuff to get votes. I don’t figure they’ll actually do any of it. He ain’t said much since the election…

The eggs were dry, but some salt made them passable. Besides, she was hungry. She scarfed them down while the woman watched her with sad eyes.

-I’m just sayin’, a politician’s word ain’t worth much. Why, they’d promise everyone a tractor if they thought it’d get them elected. Doesn’t mean they’re gonna do it. And they prob’ly won’t do nothin’ bout y’all.
-I ain’t stayin’ to find out.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.

-You, uh, need anything? It’s a long way down there.
-Thank you, ma’am, but I think I’m all set up. Thank you for the breakfast.
-We’re Christians here. We help how we can.

She nodded and went on her way, measuring out a south by southeast direction with the sun. Behind her, just barely, thick gray clouds pushed from west to east. An occasional distant rumble reminded her of the storm that now surely raged on the path she had been on just hours before.

She couldn’t hear the rain, though. Maybe it was one of those dry storms so particular to the plains, all roar and no soak, as her mom used to say. Silly to be scared of a storm like that.

Of course, by the time she found out the difference it’d be too late to stay dry.

-AG

Published in: on April 11, 2017 at 7:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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