by Rebecca A. Smith
Part One –Runaways
Every story must have a beginning, and this one is no exception. I suppose the proper place to begin is with an introduction, but if the truth is to be told, I do not want to tell this story at all.
Why? There seems to be no point. For posterity, Mary Ellen would tell me if she were here. But it seems to me that most of our “posterity” couldn’t give a rat’s ass about my life, or its story. It is their own lives, and their own stories, that they will be concerned with. But Mary Ellen is still nagging me to tell this story, so I guess I will. For her, if for no one else. Yes, she’s dead and has been these past twenty years and more, but she’s still nagging me. She nagged on me for fifty years in life and you would think that would be enough, but no. She still nags me even though she’s dead and gone. I may sound cross about it but I’m not. I’d give both my legs and my arms too if she could still be here to nag me. It never really bothered me, though I groused about it enough at the time. Still do. Sometimes I think I hear her calling me, you know. Usually when I am about to drop off for a nap or when I’m trying to get to sleep at night. I’ll be almost asleep and then I will hear her voice and jerk awake. I look around, expecting to see her walk through the door, and only then do I remember she is long gone.
What was that? Oh, the story. Have some respect for your elders, young man. Kids these days. (Laughs.) No, sorry. I don’t mean that. Every generation from the cave men on down has railed against the younger. It’s the way of the world, I suppose. But at my age I’ve earned the right to ramble if I wish. I’ve outlived all of my contemporaries. Far outlived, in most cases. I guess I’m just too stubborn to die. When I was a kid my Grandpappy used to say I was as ornery as any mule ever born, and it’s true. Believe you me. I’ve known a lot of mules in my time.
But where was I? Oh, the story. I’ve got a lot of stories. Mary Ellen wanted me to tell them all, and have them written down. That’s your job, boy. I’ll do the talking and you do the writin’. I’m running out of time, I suppose, and I promised Mary Ellen on her deathbed that I would do this. It sure took me long enough to get around to it. (Laughs again.) I’ll start with the first one, I suppose, and I can work enough of the back story into that to give you the picture.
But first things first. In case anyone ever reads this who actually gives a hoot, I am Edna Jean Davis, and I am a hundred and three years old, but back then I was still young…
Approximately 50 miles north and east of Huntsville, Alabama, near Elvis* and Blackberry* Tennessee.
“I want to see the ocean.”
The remark came out of the blue one warm, late spring day. It was hot, despite the fact that we were not yet into June. Every year it seemed like the heat came sooner and left later. We were on our grandparent’s land, planting sweet potatoes, my brother Tim and I, when he made this odd remark. Tim was always making odd remarks. He always had his nose buried in a book or his head up in the clouds instead of on the ground where it belonged. Had I known how much trouble that simple sounding remark would cause, I would probably have turned around and clocked him then and there. I should point out that Tim was my brother by blood and not just by raising. Not that it matters, but I still haven’t figured out how our parents managed to produce two children as different as the two of us.
“Ed?” Tim called when I didn’t answer after a moment.
“Did you hear me? I said I want to see the ocean.”
I felt a surge of irritation towards the boy and choked it down. He was only sixteen –ten years younger than I –after all, and all boys are prone to make stupid remarks occasionally. Particularly when they are between fifteen and twenty. Not that I haven’t made plenty of stupid remarks in my time, but nothing like teenage boys are prone to do. That Tim was more prone to do it than most was just a function of his personality.
Suddenly I realized that this one was probably my fault. How many times had I told him of the trips our family had taken to Gulf Shores and Panama Beach when I was little?
We were almost finished with the sweet potatoes. Tim had just finished putting the last starts in the last row, and I was close behind him with the hoe, which I used to fill in the trench. One person could have handled the job but it was easier and faster with two. You learned to minimize labor when you had to grow all your own food.
Finally I stopped working for a moment. I took my hat off with my free hand and transferred it awkwardly to the hand that held the hoe. Then I took my handkerchief out of my front pocket and wiped the sweat from my brow. After that I took a long swig from the water bottle at my belt. I took my time, rolling the water around my mouth to wet my parched tongue before I finally swallowed.
Tim was still looking at me expectantly.
There was no help for it.
“Yes.” I said finally. “I heard you.”
“Well?” He replied. “Do you have anything to say?”
“Like what?” I let a bit of my annoyance show as I resumed hoeing.
“So you want to see the ocean. Great. I want to ride in an airplane. Both are about as likely to happen. And so what?”
“That’s not true. The ocean is still there, but no one has an airplane anymore. Or if they do they don’t have any fuel.”
He had me there, I had to admit. It had been at least five years since I had seen a contrail. Maybe six or seven. I tried to remember when the last time had been and gave up. It hardly mattered.
Tim was still talking.
“We could still get to the beach. It’s not that far, maybe not as far as it used to be with the way sea level has been rising.”
“We’re hundreds of miles from the ocean, Tim. You’d have to walk. You don’t even like walking to Elvis. And who knows what’s between here and there these days?”
I was thinking of all the rumors about Huntsville and Birmingham, in particular, but did not say what I was thinking aloud. Maybe I should have. But then, Tim had always been the sort who thought no one would ever try to hurt him. I doubt he would have listened.
“So? We could do it in a summer. Me and Bobby were thinking-”
“Hold it right there,” I stopped hoeing again and gave him The Look.
You know the kind a parent turns on a child who is in trouble. Tim was my son as much as my brother, as I had most of the raising of him.
“Timothy Joseph Davis the Second, I don’t give a rat’s furry ass what you and Robert Earl have been thinkin’. Put it out of your mind right now.”
“Don’t ‘But Eddie’ me. The last time you two got to thinking together you both got hurt and I got to drag your butt to Sharkey’s on a litter and then walk all the way to Elvis to get the Doc. No more ‘buts’. Stop thinkin’ whatever it is you’ve been thinkin’. Now get yerself over to that well and get the water to do the sweet potatoes. Ya hear?”
“Yes’m.” He muttered, almost too low to hear.
“What was that?”
“Yes ma’am.” Tim repeated, this time much louder.
“That’s better. Now get on with you.”
Tim turned and shuffled off, muttering rebelliously to himself. Only a teenager could manage to look that sulky. I finished planting the sweet potatoes and headed back to the house. Tim passed me on the way, a full watering can in each hand.
He glared at me as I passed. “Aren’t you going to help?”
“I’m going up to Sharkey’s. Water the tomatoes and beans when you’re done with the potatoes.”
The boy said some words as I moved off, none of them very nice. I chose to ignore them. He was still small enough for me to wash his mouth out with soap if I chose but he was getting close enough to being a man to speak his own piece. ’Sides, I knew it would help him to cool off and the sooner he cooled off the sooner he would get back to work and wear himself out enough to get the foolish notions out of his head.
Walk to the beach, indeed.
Maria and her daughters were in the strawberry patch picking the last of the berries. They waved and called “Hola!” as I neared. I took off my hat and waved back. “Hola! How are the berries?”
“Good, good!” Maria assured me, as her children chattered at me in a strange patois of English and Spanish that I had gradually gotten used to. She had seven girls, though only two were hers by birth. She and Miguel had had four of their own, counting the boy, until the fever that had also taken my parents. Miguel too had been carried off that winter, along with many others. Including the parents of her adopted girls. Like Sharkey she had taken in as many of the orphaned children as she could care for. Three of the girls weren’t even Hispanic, and the other two were Guatemalan instead of Mexican.
That hardly mattered, either. We were well past the time of the riots.
Twelve people shared my grandparent’s house back then. At one point we’d all been crammed into Sharkey and Mama Jo’s place like a basketful of puppies but as we’d all grown we’d felt the need to spread out. The day I turned eighteen Sharkey handed me the deed to the land and house. “It’s yours now.” He said simply. “I took care of it like I promised but now it’s yours.”
I looked at it and back at him. “What the hell am I supposed to do with it?”
Sharkey shrugged. “Move over there with some of the folks? You won’t have to walk so far to tend the fields and we need the room.”
So we did.
Beth was sitting on the back porch, sewing. Her feet were propped up on an ottoman and she had a glass of peppermint tea at her elbow. Cold, since we had enough power from the solar panels to run the fridge and ceiling fans, if not the air conditioner. A fan was turning lazily overhead. She was so big with child she could hardly walk. Her two-year-old slept on the porch swing nearby. The boy had his thumb in his mouth. He was the spitting image of his papa, and I was glad for Beth’s sake. Joey had been killed by a stray bullet over the winter.
A supposedly stray bullet. He had been on his way back from visiting the Amish community and cut a little too close to Blackberry. Jeremiah and his crew knew Joey and Beth lived with me, and he might have been trying to send Sharkey and me a message. But I had no proof, and I wasn’t about to do anything without proof.
No matter how much I wanted to.
“You all right?” I asked as I came up the porch steps.
Beth nodded, smiling. “I’m fine. Sister Ruth is coming out to check on me this afternoon. She reckons to stay here until the baby is born. That all right with you?”
I nodded. The unassuming young Amish midwife was always welcome, and I certainly didn’t want to have to try and get the truck going or ride Sharkey’s damn horse pell-for-broke in the middle of the night to fetch her. The Amish didn’t have any of the shortwaves. One of our girls was her latest apprentice, just as another was apprenticing with the Doc. There were certain skills we daren’t lose.
“The Doc’ll be on call, I take it?”
“He’s taught her fine how to do a Caesarean, Eddie.”
I jutted my chin out in my most stubborn manner. “I still want the Doc on call.”
“Fine. But I’ll be okay. I’ve done this before. What do you think?”
She held up her work for my inspection. It was a tiny dress, just the right size for a newborn girl. I stared at it in bewilderment.
“Hell Beth, we have enough baby clothes for all of Tennessee and half of ‘Bama between what we’ve got here and the stockpile up at Elvis. What are you making more for?”
She shrugged, still smiling. “It’s a new baby. I figure she should have at least one new outfit.”
“Your call. Not mine. I’m going over to Sharkey’s. Keep an eye on Tim for me, would you?”
“Sure. What’s he up to now?”
“Jesus only knows. Not me.”
“Well, tomorrow’s Monday so he’ll be back in school and out of mischief then.”
Frankly, I thought having so much school was part of his problem. Sharkey may have taught me everything else he knew, but he somehow infected Tim with his love of books. I stopped inside long enough to have a glass of tea and then walked the quarter-mile over to Sharkey’s. There weren’t as many people packed into the house and the two trailers as there had once been but there was still plenty of people about, most of them around my age or even younger. Most of the household was out working before the heat really sat in for the day. Sharkey had gone into town for a trustee’s meeting and Mary Ellen had gone with him. But Todd, Mary Ellen’s husband, was there and I explained what Tim’s latest foolish notion was. He rolled his eyes.
“Those two! They’re the devil’s own children, I swear. We’ll keep an eye on Bobby, don’t worry, if ya’ll will keep an eye on Timmy. They’ll get it outta their heads soon enough.”
I nodded, and that was the last I thought of the incident, save for keeping a closer eye on Tim for a few days. Two weeks later I had forgotten about it completely. So when he asked to sleepover at Bobby’s I didn’t hesitate to say yes. School was out for the year and he’d been good all week, so I didn’t have any reason to say no.
The trouble was, he didn’t come back the next morning.
Stay tune for Part Two!
About the author:
Rebecca Smith is a writer, activist and small-scale
organic farmer who lives on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Her
previously published works include the novella Crossroads, published last
year in Fantasy Gazetteer. She is currently working on her first novel.