by Stacy Thowe
He ran so fast his chest ached of exhaustion. The echo of his footsteps could be heard in the night air. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He turned his head quickly to see if they were watching. But they weren’t.
His mother had tears in her eyes as she handed him some food rolled up in a paper bag. The food consisted of sandwiches, fruits and a chocolate bar. She knew how he loved chocolate. His father turned away from him after pointing toward the door. At fourteen, the year had been a hard one, food sparse. The electricity had been turned off twice. The heat came from an old pot belly stove that sat in the middle of the living room.
Switches and blades of grass ripped at his face as he ran not knowing where he was headed. The tears stuck the blades of grass to his already reddened cheeks. He knew he shouldn’t cry. He had to be a man now. But he couldn’t seem to help it. He felt sick. He suddenly stopped dry heaving on the side of the road. The cold fall air started to rip through him as he looked around the darkened sky.
“The lights out here sure glow bright,” his father would say.
Warren stared out to the open sky. He thought about how he used to lay out on the grass and try and count the stars that lit up their small farm. Too many, he would always think. He would stop as soon as he realized he was counting some of them twice.
“Just can’t afford to feed you anymore, Boy,” his father said as he held open the door. Warren looked at his mother with a blank stare.
She looked away toward his father. She began to walk toward Warren, but his father grabbed her arm. His mother struggled to get past him as his father stepped in front of her blocking her way. He grabbed her tighter, giving her a stern look. She covered her eyes. Whimpering, she fell to the floor. He then turned to Warren.
“Well what are you waiting for?”
“Sir?” Warren responded as he had been taught, year after year, crop after crop.
“You best get goin’. It’ll be dark soon.”
“But where will I go?”
“You’re a man now, Son. You’ll have to make your way like the rest of us.”
Warren ran faster as he thought about the coldness in his father’s voice. He ran down the rock road and fell into a pasture. Hidden from the light of the stars he fell into the darkness. There he wept and wept until the tears would no longer come. He felt a rage building inside him. He pulled at the remnants of the crop he had helped his father harvest. He picked up the dirt heaving it into the wind. He screamed hoping that they would hear him. He screamed hoping that they would come. But they didn’t.
He and his sister Sarah would get up early in the morning completing their chores before heading off to school. Sarah wasn’t there when he left. They had sent her to their grandmothers. Sarah would have let him stay. She would have snuck him in after they had all gone to bed. He thought about waiting around until Sarah got home, but hadn’t the strength to head back. He had already run so far.
The wind picked up and he began to shiver. He looked around and screamed out into the silence of the night. An owl hooted. Warren picked up a rock and threw it as hard as he could toward the sound. It only made the owl hoot louder.
“Shut up!” Warren screamed out. “Shut up, shut up.”
He fell to his knees and looked toward the sky. He lifted his fists toward the night air and screamed out, “Why!” The sound of his voice echoed all around him as the owl continued to hoot.
He fell to his knees and laid his head face down on the ground. His arms covered the top of his head. He screamed out into the silence, “Help me! Someone help me.”
Just then Warren saw a light down the road he recognized. It was coming from the Johnson house. Warren worked at their farm every now and then when they needed an extra hand. The Johnsons had a larger farm, more acreage. They also raised cattle. He went to school with their daughter. She was a year younger than he was and a year older then Sarah.
Warren stood up. He wiped off his tears and began to walk toward the light. He felt weak. He didn’t even know how he was moving. He seemed to somehow place one foot in front of the other. The wind pushed him along. He swayed from side to side on the road as if he were drunk. The world seemed to blur as if he were behind a frosted glass. For a minute Warren thought he might be dreaming. He tried to pinch himself and felt the pain from the pinch. He wasn’t dreaming.
There was a light in the front room, so he knew they were still awake. He began to brush his hair back behind his ears by licking the palms of his hands. He dusted off his shirt and tried to clean his face with the bottom of his dirt-covered shirt. The shirt only seemed to add to the layer of filth on his cheeks, so he gave up. He dragged his bags behind him, and he headed for the kitchen door.
Warren was startled by Benny, their black lab. He started barking uncontrollably. Warren backed up and considered running off when Mrs. Johnson came to the door.
“Well hello, Warren.”
“Evening, Mrs. Johnson.”
“What can we do for you?”
“Well, um…I was kinda hoping I could talk to you and Mr. Johnson.”
“You certainly can. But isn’t it awful late for you to be roaming around?” Before Warren had time to answer, Mrs. Johnson had him halfway in the kitchen. “Come on in. Have you had your supper yet?”
Mrs. Johnson was always pleasant. Warren couldn’t remember a time she hadn’t greeted him with a smile. He liked Mrs. Johnson. She reminded him of his mother. Mr. Johnson was nothing like his father.
Warren’s father was always cursing when they were out working. Warren never quite understood what he was talking about. Things were bad for everybody, but it seemed to strike his family even worse. His father became even more moody and angry with each bad season. The crop they had worked so hard on all spring and summer only produced half of what it should have, thanks to the drought.
“No ma’am I haven’t eaten,” Warren responded.
“Well, you come right in here and let me fix you a plate. Mr. Johnson will be in here soon and you can tell us whatever you need to after you have eaten. Come on, sit down now. My you have a lot of stuff with you.” Mrs. Johnson then looked around the room. “Just set it there in the corner.”
Their daughter, Cindy, walked with a limp. She had walked with a limp ever since Warren had known her. Some of the kids would make fun of her at school, but not Warren. He figured she couldn’t help the way she walked. He would always take up for her at school. He didn’t think she knew it, but he didn’t care. He would have done it anyway. Ain’t no use in making fun of someone for something they couldn’t help he always thought.
Warren sat down at the table and Mrs. Johnson brought him over some chicken soup. Everyone had it hard these days. All the families in the area were making do with what they could get by on. The Johnson’s were lucky that they had a great deal of land and cattle to work with. Mr. Johnson would hire on hands to help take care of it every now and then. He would let Warren work with him at times in the heavy season. Warren was a hard worker. He always gave Mr. Johnson his very best and Mr. Johnson knew this.
Just then the screen door slammed and Mr. Johnson walked in placing his hat and coat on the coat rack.
“Well who do we have here, Warren?”
“What are you doing out this time of night?”
“He was just about to tell us, honey. Warren said he needed to talk to both of us.”
“Oh…well, just let me wash up here Warren and I’ll be right with you.”
Warren began to wiggle in his chair. His idea didn’t seem all that great as he sat there looking around their home. He thought about just taking his things and leaving. Maybe he could catch a train and travel from town to town. Surely he could find work along the way. Maybe get a place of his own. What would he need to finish school for anyhow.
Just then Mr. Johnson walked back into the kitchen.
Warren gulped as he struggled to get the words out.
“Is something wrong Warren? Is it your family?” Mrs. Johnson asked.
Warren sat there trying not to cry. He knew real men wouldn’t cry in front of one another and he didn’t want Mr. Johnson to think little of him, so he took a large gulp and stood facing Mr. Johnson.
“Well, Sir, I don’t have no home anymore.”
“What?” Mr. Johnson said.
“Let Warren finish dear,” Mrs. Johnson said.
They both stood facing Warren.
“My Pa says they can’t afford to keep me around. I thought about taking a train to the city, but I know it’s against the law to jump trains. I ain’t afraid to do it. I just, you know, don’t want to get in trouble with the law. But seein’s I have no other choice.” Warren looked down for a moment. “But then I gots to thinkin’ how I work for you every now and then. I gots to thinking maybe I could work for you full-time. I would work for just food and a place to stay. I could stay in the basement and you wouldn’t even know I was here.”
Warren took a moment to look into the Johnson’s faces. They looked blank.
“Well, Warren are you sure your father said for you to leave?” Mr. Johnson asked.
“Yes, Sir. My Pa doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean. He said I was a man now and had to find my own way bein’s that we have so little food and all.
“Well, I’ll need to talk to your father then. You wait here Warren. I’ll be back.” Mr. Johnson then grabbed his hat and coat. Mrs. Johnson and him whispered in the corner right before he walked out the door. Warren sat in the chair now unable to eat. The foods aroma which had enticed him just a few minutes ago was now making him sick to his stomach.
“Aren’t you hungry, Warren?” Mrs. Johnson asked.
“Yes, ma’am. I appreciate the supper and it is mighty fine. I just can’t seem to get it down.”
“Well, why don’t you go wait in the living room with Cindy. Maybe you two could play a game together. Cindy has some board games in the closet.
“Yes ma’am.” Warren answered, as he dragged himself off the chair and took his plate to the counter. He began to run water into the sink when Mrs. Johnson came up behind him.
“Go on now. I’ll take care of this.”
“Yes ma’am.” Warren moved into the living room where Cindy was sitting playing with some cards.
“You want to play go fish?”
“Nah…” Warren answered.
“How about checkers?”
Warren loved checkers. He and Sarah would play most nights. He always beat her so she had to be coaxed into playing with him. He would have to make the game interesting. Sometimes he would even let her have some kings at the beginning of the game. But then he would still beat her. “Okay," Warren finally said.
Cindy began to set the board out on the cushion. She had to skip over to the bookcase to get the bag of checkers. She did it with such grace, Warren thought to himself. It looked almost natural on her. No one would have ever been able to tell she had a lamed leg.
They played in silence, Cindy only speaking when she succeeded in taking one of Warren’s pieces. Warren wasn’t concentrating. He watched the kitchen door and jumped every time he heard a sound coming from outside. Mrs. Johnson poked her head into the room to watch them every now and then.
“You aren’t very good at this,” Cindy suddenly said.
“I am too. I just ain’t concentrating right now.”
“Just got things on my mind.”
“Things. You wouldn’t understand.”
The two sat looking at each other.
“It’s your move,” Cindy said. “Are you going to move or not?”
“I am. I’m just developing a strategy.”
“Yep that’s what I said.”
“All right. I’ll wait.”
Suddenly lights flickered across the window. Warren sat up and looked toward the kitchen.
“It’s just my dad. Are you goin’ home soon?”
“I…I don’t know.”
The door opened and Mr. Johnson walked into the kitchen. Warren stretched to hear what they were saying, but they were whispering. You could hear them uttering and sighing in soft voices aware that Warren was just in the next room. Warren wondered what his father had told them. He hoped he hadn’t told them about the time he accidently set the barn on fire. Or the time he forgot to put the milk cows back into their pen and they went roaming down the road. Warren sat waiting, wondering what they had decided.
He thought about his options. It was getting a might dark outside. He hoped they would at least let him stay the night. He figured he could start out early in the morning. The trains may be better to jump at night though. Maybe no one would spot him in the dark.
He thought about heading west. He always wanted to see California. He thought it would be nice to live near the ocean. Maybe he could find work picking fruit. He had heard people do that kind of work out there.
Just then Mr. Johnson came into the living room.
“Cindy, why don’t you go get ready for bed.”
“Oh, but dad, we haven’t finished our game yet.”
“It’s okay. You can play again later. Now go on.”
“Yes, daddy,” Cindy said making her way up from the cushioned ottoman. She leaned down to whisper to Warren. “I would have beat you.”
Warren’s attention wasn’t focused on Cindy as he stood and turned toward Mr. Johnson.
“Come on in the kitchen Warren. I’d like to speak with you.”
Warren stood and wondered what Mr. Johnson would say. He tried to prepare himself for the various outcomes. Would he be allowed to stay? Would he be sent away? After all his family sent him away, why would the Johnson’s feel the need to keep him around. Warren tried to hold his head up as he stepped onto the square tiles of the kitchen floor.
“I talked with your father. Seems you were right. He did ask you to leave.”
“Yes, Sir he did.”
“I guess you probably weren’t expecting that.”
“You know you have worked for me for dang near three summers now and you’re a good worker if I say so myself.”
“Well I’ve been talking to Mrs. Johnson and you’re more than welcome to stay here if you’d like to. We don’t have much, but what we have we are willing to make available to you under certain conditions.
Warren’s eyes raised for the first time as the words of Mr. Johnson began to echo all around him.
“Yes, conditions. First off, you’ll have to continue to go to school. That is not negotiable. You will have to help with chores before school and after school as I am sure you are used to. In return we will make you a room out of our pantry downstairs and you will be treated as a member of the family. Free to come and go. We will try to pay you something every week for work above and beyond that which is required.”
Warren looked around at Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. They stood awaiting his response. They stood knowing that Warren had probably just had the worst day of his life. They tried to make the decision his.
Warren looked around the kitchen and suddenly had to sit down, almost collapsing into the closest chair to him.
“Warren are you all right,” Mrs. Johnson said as she walked toward him.
Warren reached before him to stop her. “I’m fine. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I promise you. You will get a fair amount of work from me. I won’t be a nuisance. I’ll do whatever you ask…”
“Warren…” Mr. Johnson stopped him.
“Yes…Sir.” Warren mumbled.
“You can stay as long as you like. This will be your home as long as you need it to be.” Mr. Johnson said. “You will be helping us out. I need the extra hands. Always have. In a way you are what we’ve been praying for.”
“Yes, you Warren.”
Mrs. Warren then moved forward and grabbed Warren’s hand. “You are a gift Warren. Mr. Johnson and I couldn’t have any more children after Cindy, and well, I think God has opened a door for us. A gift is exactly how I would put it.”
“I…don’t know what to say,” Warren said.
“We know. And the door is always open. If things change with your family we would certainly understand. But for now, you are welcome to stay as long as you like as a member of our family,” Mrs. Johnson continued.
Warren thought about his family down the road. He thought about Sarah. He wondered what she was doing at that moment.
“Come along. Why don’t we get you settled in. We have a cot down there right now, but I think we can manage to get you a bed,” Ms. Johnson said.
“No, ma’am a cots more than enough.”
“Well, you just let me worry about that.”
Warren followed her to the pantry which was at the bottom of the stairs. The walls were made up of rock. A small window sat to the west. The moon was shining into the room. Mrs. Johnson went to making up Warren’s bed right away. Warren stood placing his things on the floor. There were canned goods lining the many shelves.
When she was finished Mrs. Johnson turned toward Warren taking his small chin into her hands. “Will you be all right?”
“Yes, ma’am. I will.”
“All right. We will be right upstairs if you are needin’ anythin’.”
Warren stood and watched her close the door behind her. He looked out the window and saw the blades of grass bounce against the window. He stood looking at the stars.
“A gift? I ain’t never been called that before.”
Warren then laid down onto the cot and tried to count the stars from the window. Exhausted he fell into a deep sleep, dreaming that he lived once again in the farm house that stood down the old rock road.
Bio: Stacy Thowe is a published poet and short story writer. She writes about what moves her and hopes to capture the heart of the reader in such a way that they take a piece of the work away with them. Please feel free to visit her website at stacythowe.net, and send her an email so she knows that someone besides her family is interested in her work. You can also find her as a contributing writer for the blog, www.creativewritersoutlet.blogspot.com.
A CHRISTMAS PAST
Linda Thornton Peterson
The rain just kept coming, after all, it was winter in Louisiana, but the temperature was in the fifties, colder than usual. Christmas would be nice and chilly, she thought, making it seem more like Christmas in New Orleans. She walked along Royal Street beneath the wrought iron balconies, hugging the store fronts trying to avoid getting too wet. It was a dark, gray day and she wondered why she’d decided to go shopping, but then one day was just like another this time of year. If she could finish the last of her Christmas shopping, she’d go for dessert at The Court of Two Sisters.
She went into the Royal Street perfume shop; the flower scented perfumes were made by the proprietor, a French war bride. The collectible glass bottles, no bigger than a quarter with tiny corks, were decorated with blue papier- mache flowers. The lilac scent was her favorite, but her friends would be happy with the bottles regardless of the scents she chose.
Next, she would buy pralines packed in a box made to look like a cotton bale for her friend’s little girls in Colorado. After the candy was gift wrapped in gold paper with a silver ribbon, she was ready for her own sweet treat.
It was late now; the rain continued and she heard the muffled sound of fog horns from the river. As she walked toward the restaurant, the street lamps came on. She stopped at a softly lit window decorated with red velvet and strewn with shimmering crystal beads simulating snowflakes. A display of antique rings caught her eye. She looked closely at a ring with a diamond surrounded by a weaving of delicate platinum in an antique red leather case. Maybe she’d go inside and take a closer look. Maybe try it on.
She entered the store, asked to see the ring and the jeweler took the case from the window. She admired the case’s unusual shape as he gently laid it on a black velvet pad. It reminded her of a small conch shell. So fragile looking, she hesitated touching it, fearful it might crumble. She asked the jeweler to take the ring out and as he did, he tilted the diamond solitaire to catch the light—it glistened. He told her that the diamond was cut in the European style commonly used in the early 1900’s—giving the diamond an extra sparkle. He slipped it onto her finger—it fit. She held out her hand and looking at it, decided she had to have it. But, when told the price, she knew that it was not going home with her.
“Maybe Santa will put it in your stocking,” he said as he put it back in the window and off she went for dessert.
During the weeks before Christmas, whenever she was in the French Quarter, she stopped at the window to admire the ring. She especially liked to see it at night, the way it sparkled under the lights. She didn’t mention the ring to her boyfriend; he teased her about liking the decorations in that shop’s window.
Then, Christmas Eve, on their way to dinner at Antoines, she insisted they stop first at the window. When she looked in, her mouth fell open slightly, she caught her breath and went silent—the sparkler was gone.
The Court of Two Sisters was filled with the hum of Christmas. In the absence of snow, twinkling white lights hung from the courtyard trees and inside, on each table, white candles reflected off crisp white cloths. Red and green wrapping paper added color to the scene as gifts were opened. It was a holiday tradition to dine at The Two Sisters and she’d done so for fifty years.
Alone now, she sat at her candle lit table in one of the small dining rooms. Looking out of the window, a street lamp shone faintly through the rain and fog.
Her café had been refilled several times since she’d finished her crepes Suzette. As she reached for her cup, the candle light caught a sparkling object—a snowflake? She lifted her hand and there was the sparkle again. Then she remembered a Christmas past, a Christmas when her own dear Santa had left a tiny gold-foil wrapped box in her stocking. Remembering, she smiled, tilted her hand and the diamond antique ring now encircled by a worn platinum wedding band, sparkled.
Bio: Linda Thornton Peterson, a Louisiana native, retired from Northern Illinois University as a psychotherapist and teacher. Six of her short stories and two poems have appeared in The Greensilk Journal. Poetry publications include: The Hanging Moss Journal, the Western State Colorado University Journal and a Northern Illinois University Journal. She won an NIU faculty poetry award and is a founding member of two DeKalb writers’ groups. As a former art teacher and stringer photographer with the Associated Press, she continues to exhibit her art as well as write.