Thursday, June 29, 2017

What Remains, part 9

The county coroner came to the residence. There were mumbled voices interspersed with Janice's sobs. She had been inconsolable.

Jim stayed in his room with the door open, listening distantly to the sounds in the front room. He felt broken, something in him had also snapped when Rachael died. But his was the knowledge that his daughter wasn't really his daughter anymore. Whatever this was that lingered over this house, over the family, had now invested his own flesh and blood.

Lisa's shadow had appeared, but lingered distant and silent.

The coroner collected the body with accompanied by a female assistant who appeared to know Janice. There were some consoling words, but Janice no longer spoke. The van drove away and the house was draped in a thick silence.

Jim was exhausted. It had been a long day, but he wouldn't be able to sleep even if he wanted to. After staring at the ceiling for some time, and not hearing Janice move from the front room, he swung his legs off the side of the bed and stood shakily. He walked to the front room.

Janice sat absolutely still in the same chair that she sat in just days earlier, inviting him into her home. He couldn't help but feel responsible, but he didn't know how.


He waited a moment and she looked up to him, tears reddened her face, but anger was what darkened her countenance. Jim braced, feeling the anger reach toward him.

"She left me. She left me." She bit down on the words, then tears again leaked from her eyes.

Her face pinched and she bowed her head again.

Jim sat across from her and rested his hand on hers. She tugged away, her hands into fists, turning white with her grip.

"No, you're not going to do this." He said.

He felt his tears return and he moved toward her, kneeling on the floor. He wrapped his arms around her and held her until her stiff frame relaxed, tears flowing freely.

"You didn't let me go through it alone," he said, "And I won't let you."

They sat in the embrace while the wall clocked ticked away. Jim withdrew.

"You're a good man, Jim. Lisa was right to fall in love with you."

"I'd like to think that was a little bit my fault." He said, giving a sad smile.

He stood.

"Let me get you some water." He said.

He snatched a cup from the kitchen then moved into the bathroom. He rifled briefly through the medicine cabinet finding some ibuprofen and filled the glass. He passed, seeing Lisa standing in front of the bedroom door. It was unnerving that she was lurking like this, and it brought a chill each time he saw the shadow out of the corner of his eye.

He handed the medicine and water to Janice. She took the medicine then drained the glass.

"You're going to be dehydrated." He said, standing to refill the glass again.

"No. Stay," She said, resting her hand on his arm, "Please sit."

He looked down at her, his heart ached with her expression, it was a reflection of him. He wondered why she was so distraught. They had somehow defeated death, but that didn't seem to matter to her. She's lost her best friend.

"I want to speak to you of Lisa," She said, "We knew she was special from the moment Sarah brought her home. She was born out of wedlock and her father was both dangerous and solitary. Sarah had come here to hide her daughter and herself."

"Rachael and I, we took care of Lisa while Sarah found work. I couldn't understand why she wanted to be away as much as she did, but it was clear that she never saw herself as a mother. However, that gave Rachael and I a chance that we would never have for ourselves." Janice smiled at the memory.

"Lisa was that, and we raised her like we would have raised our own. I like to think we helped get her where she was, maybe even helped get her to you."

Jim swallowed, fighting the lump in his throat.

"She was her own. She was always been a force to be reckoned with." He said.

Janice smiled at his words.

"Her mother's indomitable will tempered by kindness, love, and a caring home." Janice said, "I hope that was us. But it's also true that she left because of us."

She sighed.

"Our heartbreak was complete when news of our lovely Lisa..." She paused, her voice catching, "And it all happening so far away."

Jim understood why, now, but he held the thought close.

"Now, I am the last. Rachael gave up. And only I remain." She said, her eyes probing Jim's own, "Only Abigail and Daniel remain as the last of our blood."

His thoughts turned. He could see Abigail reaching toward Rachael. He turned his head, avoiding the memory.

"The gift you gave to Abigail. It was originally intended for Lisa, wasn't it."

It wasn't a question. He said it with a quiet ache.

Janice looked surprised, but did not speak.

Jim read the expression, understanding what it meant. He stood looking down on Janice.

"You should rest." He said, "And so should I."

He moved to the hallway.

"Jim. It wasn't supposed to be like this." Janice said, her eyes widening, a hint of panic creeping into her voice.

He turned to face her.

"Tomorrow we'll talk," he said, he felt a smolder of anger lending an edge his voice, "Then we can talk about what this means to my Abigail."

Jim turned down the hallway and turned the corner, struggling to hold the emotion back. He pushed through the door. He dropped to the bed and began to sob. Lisa's silhouette stood at the foot of the bed.

"Abigail will be fine." The shadow's voice whispered, her voice pitching uncharacteristically high.

The memory of his little girl replayed in his head again, seeing her help Rachael pass to the other side and he did not feel fine.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What Remains, part 8

Jim sat in the driveway, listening to the ticking of the engine as it cooled. The shade of Lisa was still there, her silent company was both healing and unnerving. He was afraid she would slip away, again, but as often as he'd seen her.

It was almost eleven at night when they drove up, and they had sat for a moment longer, in silence, listening to the children breathe. He had the windows down and could feel the breezes picking up as the night cooled. The moon was near full, now, and it made the plains shimmer as the swaying grasses reflected the light.

He looked at the attic window, then noticed pale light coming from beyond the children's room.

"It's a little late for Janice and Rachael to be up." He said.

"I'm not sure. It is probably Rachael, she keeps odd hours." Lisa paused, "You did shake them up a bit. If you could help them calm down, it would mean a lot to me."

Jim nodded.

"I'll get the kids inside," he said.

He leaned into the car door and moved outside.

"Oh, that's just weird." Lisa's voice murmured from the front seat.

"What's weird?"

There was no response.

He looked through the window and Lisa had vanished. His brow furrowed and his heart sunk a little. Then he realized he should roll up the windows in case any bugs decided to make the car their home. He opened the door and the shade jumped as he sat in the seat.

"Oh! You're back."

"I didn't leave, you... disappeared."

He turned the key to start the car, then rolled up the windows.

"I disappeared? Huh."

He opened the door again and watched the shadow as he backed out of the car, there was a moment where the cohesion of her image started to blur and all he saw was the doll sitting in the seat. He moved back in and the darkness coalesced again.

She let out a yip as he moved back in.

"Now that is scary." She breathed, "What are you doing?"

He wasn't sure, but there was a tug in his memory that told him it made sense.

"I'll tell you about it when I make sense of it." He paused, "So, uh, is that you?"

He reached toward her, pressing his hand through her darkness, in response, she let a disconcerted grunt.

"Please don't do that." She said with aggravation, "I feel unreal enough as it is."

He gripped the doll and pulled back and Jim looked it over. On the back of the doll was a small stitched name.

"Lisa." He read in the moonlight.

They were silent for a moment.

"It's not a very good likeness, is it." She said quietly.

Jim shuddered as realization hit him.

"All of the dolls? All of them?" He pressed his hand to his heart, feeling its tempo throbbing in his temples.

"I had an interesting childhood." She said.

"You sure did a good job at not saying anything about it." He said, incredulous.

"Would it have made a difference? Being crazy doesn't really reel in the guys." She said, sullenly.

He nodded at that. The reasons why she left were coming together. It made him think of how this would also affect him.

"I'm afraid to take this out of the vehicle. Do you think you'll be OK?" He asked her.

"It was how I got in, wasn't it?" The shade shrugged against the moonlit backdrop and Jim responded in kind.

He tucked the doll under his arm and stepped out of the vehicle. He leaned in and picked up Daniel first. The boy stirred warmly against him as he moved through the night air and opened the front door. As soon as he stepped through the door and Lisa's shade appeared to meet him, standing uncomfortably by the stairway, but she said nothing.

Jim moved upstairs, and saw the light from the hallways, where the Aunts kept their room. Janice's head was up and looking into the darkness of the hall and Rachael was laying back in the bed, wearing her usual nightgown.

He moved quickly into the bedroom and laid Daniel down, the moved back down the hall to where Rachael lay.

"Is she OK?" He asked.

Janice dabbed at her eyes and looked up.

"She collapsed shortly after you left. She's resting now, but I'm worried for her."

He looked over her features, she seemed barely more than skin and bones. He'd noticed since the first day that she had an uncharacteristically waif-like build to her.

"Is she sick?" Jim asked.

Janice shrugged, but didn't elaborate.

"I have to go get Abigail, she's in the car. I'll be right back."

She nodded and turned back to her sister. There was a mix of emotions, but a sense of loss bubbled above them all.

He unbuckled Abigail from the seat. Her dark hair spilled over her skin and the freckles that splashed across her nose and cheeks and darkened more from playing in the sun. He breathed deeply and pulled the string of her necklace up until it lay he could look at it more closely.

Then slipped his hand around the stone and squeezed it. He waited for a moment, stroking the stone between his fingers, but he felt nothing untoward. He thought back to Adam, and how it nearly stopped his heart. Jim could almost believe it was coincidence, but, likely, there was more to it. He let the stone slip from his fingers and gathered Abigail from the seat.

Abigail stirred.


The word sounded odd to Jim. He looked at her, concerned, the word sent a chill down his spine.


"Rachael needs me." She said, leaning back and looking up at me.

The moonlight caught her eyes, and they appeared darker than her usual bright blue.

"What can you do for her?"

"Be there. That's all." She said, then pulled into me, snuggling under my chin.

Jim's nerves jangled as he pushed through the front door and carried her up the stairs. She struggled a little as they neared the top and he set her down. She turned, without looking back, and put her hand to her chest. She fingered the red stone unconsciously as she down the hall toward Janice and Rachael.

Janice cupped her hand over her nose and mouth and tears began to stream over her hand. She shook her head as she watched Abigail come close to the bed side.

"No. Not yet." Janice said, heartbreak trembling in her voice.

Jim turned at and sat at the top of the stairs, he turned and watched quietly from the darkness.

Abigail spoke, but barely above a whisper, and Janice began to sob. Jim's earlier chill coalescing into goosebumps and his hands began to shake.

She put her young hand over Janice's that leaned against the bed. She removed the necklace and put it into Rachael's hand and they held it together.

Rachael shuddered, her form tensing for a moment. Her eyes fluttered opened and her back arched, then she slowly settled back, her eyes closing as she sunk into her bed as if she were sleeping. Jim watched for a moment. Rachael's chest was now still.

There was silence until Janice's voice, sounding thin and reedy, began to wail.  She dropped to her knees at the foot of the bed, gripping the quiet Rachael's feet through the sheets that lay over her.

Abigail took the necklace, replaced it on her neck, then leaned into Janice, where they both shook with sobs together.

Tears filled Jim's eyes, but he wasn't sure if it was for the loss of Rachael.

It was now impeccably clear that whatever was in that room was not his daughter.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What Remains, part 7

The sun was setting as they left the city limits. Thoughts flew through his mind. He tried to talk to Abigail, but she seethed with an intensity that made his skin crawl. His jaw tensed and he watched her in the rear view mirror. Daniel was concerned at first, but the activities of the day had worn him down and he was drawing slow, long breaths before long.

He kept trying to find words, something that would reach her, but didn't know where to start. He needed to talk to someone, and she was very, very far away. He felt like he was losing his little girl.

Lisa would talk to him.

He sighed.

"I'm terrified, Abby." He said, looking at her through the mirror, "I need you to explain this to me."

She folded her arms and looked out the window. There was a gloss to her eyes, she was nearly in tears, but she didn't budge.

He watched ahead as the light began to fade as they drove. Soon, Abigail's own breath matched Daniel's in rhythm. Jim glanced back again, he could just make out that Abigail's eyes were closed and her mouth slightly open as she leaned against the door.

Jim reached back and put his hand on her knee, squeezing it gently. He then reached behind the seat and did the same to Daniel. He bumped something on the way back, gripped it and looked at it. It was the doll the Aunts had sent along with Abigail.

"You want to ride with me, girl? You can take the front seat here." He said quietly, with a weary smile, "Maybe you'll talk to me?"

He positioned the doll in a sitting position. He was considering putting a seat belt on her, but felt that'd put everyone in more danger than the role play would be worth.

"It's just you and me." He said to the darkness.

"Just you and me." Lisa's voice repeated.

He caught his breath with surprise and the steering wheel wobbled.

"Steady, cowboy." She said carefully, "No point in having me die twice."

"Lisa. What the hell." Jim's eyes widened forward and his jaw clenched.

"C'mon, Jim. Language."

"They're asleep anyway," Jim hissed.

"Yes, which is good because we need to talk."

He grimaced, he flicked his eyes toward the passenger seat. The silhouette was there, but the glow of the dashboard didn't touch her. The fear from last night, the fear of seeing something he didn't want to, began to slowly subside, but it didn't stop him from trembling.

"OK, we need to talk. But first, how do I know I'm not going crazy?"

She chuckled dryly.

"Oh, there's no easy way to make sense of this. Hell, I didn't realize you'd be so flighty." She said, sounding disappointed.

"Language, Lisa." He said instinctively, "And you were always worse about that then I was."

"Your words."

Her response caught him off guard. Emotion was building in his chest with the banter. Tears began to fill his eyes, but he was smiling. He let out a sob-lined laugh.

"Oh, Lisa, I miss you. I miss you so much." He choked out the words, then ran his hand over his face, but the smile remained.

"Hey, stop it. I'm sitting right here."

There was humor in her voice, but it was also touched with emotion.

"Then, explain it. Because I lost you and I'm devastated and there's no coming back." He said, his smile fading.

She sighed, the sound coming through the darkness.

"I tried be subtle, but it just threw you off." She said, "So, this is the direct approach."

"That doesn't explain anything." Jim said, bemused.

"No, but it explains me. And I want you to know that I had no intention of hurting you and I'm sorry if I did."

Jim nodded. His emotional palette was painting with all the colors, leaving purple and brown puddles of chaos. He breathed deep, trying to arrange the incredulous with the implausible.

"No, you haven't. You didn't." He paused, "And ... I don't really know what to say."

There was a visible shrug against the moonlit plains outside of the car.

They sat in silence for a moment. Headlights from an oncoming car bathed the cab for a moment. Jim risked another look and saw that the light did not reflect.

"I know. It's weird." She said.

"Yet, you're doing it."

"Being it. Doing it is something else."

Jim suppressed a laugh.

"No, no. C'mon, Jim."

He could almost hear her rolling her eyes.

"No, being whatever this is, what I am. I literally have no idea how it works." She said, sounding exasperated, "There are times I can see you. I can, uh, for lack of a better word, manifest."

"Was that you in the barn?" Jim asked.



"Oh, sorry, I was nodding."

"You were in the barn, and that was about an hour after I arrived. What do you remember?"

She let out an exasperated sound.

"OK, let me rephrase, I don't know why it works. But how it works...?" Her voice tapered off.

"But ... what?"

"Jim, maybe this is too quick."

"What do you mean?"

"Coming to terms with this reality, whatever this is." She sounded unsure, "I know how you are. You want to know everything, right now. I think we need to take our time with this."

Jim sighed and shook his head.

"The more I understand, the more I know," his head bobbed erratically as he searched for the words, "Perhaps the less crazy and less scared I'll feel?"

"But you might not like how this all works."

He contemplated that, then spoke.

"You'd only say that because there's something you know I wouldn't like about it."

"Yes and no," She said carefully, "And not for why you'd think."

"Wow, took the long road around that one?" He said, rolling his eyes.

"How about this," She said, letting the words hang as she mulled over the thought, "What would you consider 'evil'?"

"Did I hear air quotes in there?"

"Jim. Really. What do you consider evil?"

"Anything that intentionally hurts others," he thought for a moment, "And, uh, enjoys it?"

"Then, what do you think of when you think witches?"

Jim paused.

"Are your Aunts witches?"

"No... not as much."

"Then, what the hell, Lisa? Just say it."

"And you said I was bad."

"Just. Say. It." Jim said pointedly, getting frustrated.

"You read June's journal, right?"

"Yes, but only a little bit." He said with a shrug.

"You only needed to read a little of it."

"I'm not sure," Jim said, confused then thought of his walk, "Wait, is this that 'piece of them' thing."

"Yeah, what did you think about that?"

"Yes. Wait, you can't read my mind or anything, can you?"

There was silence, but he swore the shadow glowered at him.

"It's a no, then." He stated.

"No. I can't read your mind." She sighed heavily, "This is not a superpower."

He nodded and fell into quiet thought. She made a polite noise then spoke again.

"So, then, what did you think of that?" She asked, prodding.

"Well, I didn't think much of it at the time. At first I thought it was just oddly phrased. it was eerie. Then I remembered the lock of your hair." He swallowed hard and then continued, "And Missy's."

There was a moment of silence.

"I saw her." She said, emotion catching her again, "Missy. She's beautiful."

Jim grip on the steering wheel tensed again.

"Sweetie, this is why we should probably ease into this." She spoke after a moment, filling the silence.

"So, you're saying your Aunts have something to do with you being here. They're not witches but they know how to do this. Whatever this is."

"Pretty much." She said simply.

He looked in the back seat again. Abigail sat, listening, she glanced up at the review mirror meeting his eyes. Jim's eyes widened with panic.

"They knew before you did." Lisa said, "The children. Well, not exactly before, but they had accepted it and weren't nearly as distraught as you were when I visited them. Probably one of those drawbacks of being old."

"Maybe we should take this slow, after all," Jim said with a sigh.

"I know it's against your very nature, but it might be best we did." She said softly, "I don't want to lose you again."

He nodded, his chest tightening with her words. He reached over and put his hand tentatively out to hold Lisa's. There was a coolness that pooled around his skin, and he looked over with a pained expression, seeing his hand engulfed in the eddying darkness.

"I'm going to miss your touch." He said quietly, his heart slowly breaking.

"Me, too." She whispered.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What Remains, part 6

The entry of the store was a typical pawn shop. One wall with a wire mesh cage contained numerous firearms ranging from lever action 30/30 with highly intricate scrollwork to modern high impact plastic designs.

"Welcome to Wyoming." Jim said to himself with a chuckle.

He had a child holding each hand, Abigail looked up to him, then at the guns.

"That's a lot of guns." She said with a knowing nod.

"Don't I know it." Jim said.

He made a short laugh, then began to look around then got down to his children's level.

"OK, here's how it goes. You can look, but you can't touch. If you find something you like, come get me and we'll look at it," he said, letting go of their hands, "Got it?"

They both looked up at him shaking their heads, eyes wide.

"And, Daniel, I'm watching! The limit is five dollars for each of you." He called to them as they began to look through the long building.

A tall, whiplike man watched the exchange with a craggy smile. He leaned forward on the counter and looked up at Jim.

"Does that work?"

"Surprisingly well, actually. Set expectations, the rest will follow." Jim said, shrugging.

"It's an enterprising idea. Wish we all got here with a similar set of instructions. Maybe we'd do as well." The man said with a fatherly smile.

A moment passed and Jim watched the children track separately for a second then Abigail called out to Daniel and they both ooo'd and ahh'd at her discovery. I was suddenly wary, and gave the man a sidelong look.

The man waved his hand dismissively. He had long gray hair capped with white fringes. It looked like he wore a hat often, but now his hair just looked hat shaped. His eyebrows and mustache matched the long feathered hair, but his chin was bare and he had a button of a dimple right in the middle.

He was, quite possibly, the most manly looking man he'd seen in a very long time.

"I take it you aren't here for a gun." He said.

Without waiting for an answer, he moved from behind the gun counter and set across the store. Sweat dampened the shirt between his shoulder blades. The store was using cooled using an evaporative fan and was doing a passable job, but certain areas were warmer than others.

They reached the other counter, further back in the store. He beckoned Jim with a wave of his hand and moved to a glass case. He settled into the same forward lean, his hands on the metal edge of the display case.

"You just have that look about you." He said thoughtfully, then added, "And you looked at those guns with wonder, not need."

"Many people come in here needing a gun?" Jim asked.

"Not often, but sometimes. I have had most of those guns for a very long time and people usually work in trade, not cash." He said, nodding at the caged case, "I've had some of those guns before."

"Huh," Jim said, with a smile, "Like a library for guns?"

The man nodded, pointing a finger of agreement at Jim and said, "Exactly."

"Now these," he pointed at the case, "These are unique. No stone is the same."

Jim looked at the arranged stones. There were pebble sized rounded stones of turquoise, smooth cut agates, highly polished crystals, palm sized geodes that sparkled with purple and white. The display case was absolutely full of stunning treasures. Each price tag had Jim gulp slightly. The palm sized geodes, had a small tag showing one hundred and fifteen.

Abigail said something that set Daniel to giggling. I stood up and watched them for a moment. then turned back to the display case.

"Is that a bloodstone, right there?" Jim said, pointing to a polished green stone with flashes of red, "I don't usually see them with the red. I guess that's why they call them bloodstones?"

"Especially if you're color blind." The man said dryly.

Jim let out a surprise laugh. Then put his hand to his mouth, subduing his own mirth.

"This is an odd side business you have, here." Jim said, looking at the grizzled man, "A tad schizophrenic."

"You do what you know, then you do what you love. If you can do them both, you'll be a happy man." He said.

"And you love rocks."

He cringed a bit at the words.

"You can get rocks over at the gravel pit. These are stones." He said, "Pawn and Stone, after all. We just made the 'and' really small. The wife said it would be clever."

"And you agreed, I'm sure." Jim said with a smile.

"Oh yes, and you'd know why." He said, looking at my wedding ring.

A pang hit Jim's heart and stomach at the same time. The man looked at his eyes and saw the shift, but he didn't turn away or change the subject. He regarded Jim for a moment, then nodded.

The children giggled again, and it gave Jim an opportunity to seek them out. He felt vulnerable.

"What are you guys doing?"

They still giggled. Daniel was looking incredibly shy, but Abigail was pointing at a Zippo lighter with a topless girl on it. Then she looked up at him and silently mouthed the word, "Boobs!"

Jim ran his hand over his face, suppressing a laugh, then rolled his eyes.

"Come on, you need to see this." He said, "They have stones here."

They both followed him over and he positioned them in front of the counter. They were his own little counter-adult shields. He began to focus them in on the various stones in the case.

"See, that's a bloodstone." Jim said to Abigail, then turned to the man, "Sir?"

The man looked at Jim, incredulous.

"Name's Adam." He said, waving his hand in front of him, then chuckled to himself, "Heh. Sir."

"Hello Adam, anything you can tell me about this stone?" Jim said.

He lifted the jeweled necklace from Abigail and she yelped and grabbed at it. Her eyes were wide with panic.

"Honey, I'm just... letting him see it." He was fending of her hands snatching at the necklace, "Hey, stop, it's just..."

She howled, infuriated and thrashing. He got an arm around her and held her close until she stopped struggling. Her heart was racing under his grasp, and she panted, eyes fixed on it. He put the necklace on the counter out of reach of Abigail and nodded to Adam.

"He's just going to tell us what it is, honey," Jim said, exasperated and still holding her fast, "What's gotten into you?"

"Very pretty, very even coloring. It doesn't look like a stone, though. It looks organic, like amber, but, ya know, more red." He said.

Adam lifted a magnifying glass and slid a piece of white paper under it allowing the light to reflect through the stone. After looking at the edges and focusing on the core of it, he touched the stone.

In a heartbeat, the man drew his hand back with a jerk and let the magnifying glass clatter to the display case. He sat up, gulping for air and rubbing his hand where he'd touched Abigail's stone. He stared at it, beads of sweat springing up on his forehead. Jim's grip loosened on Abigail and she darted forward, snatching the stone from the counter and bolted to the front door. Daniel looked confused and called after her, then quickly followed her.

Jim watched his children leaving and looked to the shaken man. He could hear the door open and slam as Abigail ran out to the car.

"Wait, I need to talk to you. I need to..." Jim said, his head bobbed between his children and the man, then he bolted toward the exit.

He burst from the shop and ran out to the car. Abigail was wearing the necklace again, shaking, and then turned, scowling at her father. He felt his heart shudder with the look. Daniel made his way to the opposite door and got settled in his booster seat. Jim opened the driver side door, started the car, and cranked the air conditioner.

"Stay here," He said, gulping with a mounting fear, "Please, don't ... don't touch anything."

He ran back to the store. Adam had made his way to the front of the store. He stood by the door. Keys were in his hand. Jim pushed the door and the man held up his hand.

"I'm going to close up." He said.

Jim was dumbfounded.

"But I need to understand what's going on!" Jim shouted, then quickly backtracked, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I don't mean to yell."

The man shook his head slowly for a moment, looking introspective. He took a deep breath and checked his pulse briefly.

"Stones have power. You could say that each stone has a specialty." He said slowly, "Stones can pick up certain vibrations and patterns, some would even say that can store energy, or catch thoughts."

"What does any of that mean?" Jim said, his brow furrowed.

"Well, stones pick up the energy around it, but that doesn't only apply to stones. It can apply to old buildings, books, containers, things that have a certain structure, a place for energy to reside. While that isn't a stone, it's something with structure that I ... hadn't experienced before. Not sure what it is. But whatever it is, it's not for you, and definitely not for me. It's hers." He bobbed his head toward Abigail in the car.

Jim's shoulders slumped.

"I have a heart condition." Adam replied, "It isn't in the best shape, and that did a number on me. I know you have questions, but, son, I wouldn't have any good answers."

Jim slipped through the door.

"Good luck." Adam said, that melancholy touched his face again and he nodded.

The lock slid into place.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Remains, part 5

The bustle of the mornings activities were well underway when he finally walked in through the front door. Jim was on the ragged edge. An eerie pressure settle back on his shoulders as he walked through the door. The fear he'd been fighting all night had turned into a smolder of anger.

His eyes moved between the Aunts.

"I'm not sure what's going on here," his eyes were draw and his jaw flexed, "But I think you do."

"Jim, did you not sleep well?" Rachael spoke, stepping forward with a sincere look of concern.

"No. I did not."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Janice said with an edge, responding to my sharp response.

"I don't know what it is, but this feels like a trap," he said, after a moment, "It feels wrong."

Rachael swallowed hard, but Janice's face remained blank.

"I can't stay here. I... I need to go." He said, gruffly, "I'm taking the kids into town."

Rachael looked irrationally hurt while Janice looked almost hostile. She narrowed her eyes at Jim, but he returned a hard look as a challenge.

"C'mon kids," Jim said, trying to keep his tone light, "We're going to explore a bit and get some breakfast in town."

Daniel smiled, but Abigail hesitated. Turning toward the aunts. Janice nodded in response to the look. Jim suddenly felt a bone deep hurt, Abigail was in on it. He clenched his jaw then held a hand toward Abigail, beckoning.

Janice recovered, gaining her footing.

"You shouldn't explore without snacks," she said, her voice shifting to be more lively following Rachael's usual cadence, "Let's send you off with some water and perhaps some trail mix?"

"Why not?" Rachael tried to respond cheerily, but her guilelessness amplified her sudden pain.

Jim knew there was something going on, but felt it was all way above his head. Maybe Abigail could shed some light on what felt so wrong, since she seemed to be in on it. Perhaps this was what drove Lisa so far away? Something that seemed so perfect was a well framed manipulation.

Jim moved into the room where he'd slept and a chill ran over him. They must have thought he was still asleep or the bed would have been made. The leather journals were on the bedside table, too. He pulled out the cardboard box he'd brought the journals down with and secreted them away. He'd have to return them later.

He stepped out of the room and shut the door behind him. Rachael was in the far room of the hall, folding a blanket over and over again. She glanced his direction and their eyes met for a second. She looked back down to the blanket quickly, looking sheepish.

He took long steps into to the hallway, then turned left.

"C'mon kids. I am not going to ask twice. " Jim said loudly as he pushed through the front door.

Daniel teetered with a glass bottle full of water and a bag of granola. He had a small knapsack that they'd tossed on him, but hadn't managed to fill in the time. The boy looked adorable in the over sized bag. The thought softened Jim slightly, but anger flared up again as Abigail lagged at the door, likely being fed words by the aunts. It infuriated him.

She came out wielding nothing but a doll. Jim's brow furrowed. She had never even liked dolls. And she was too old to be carrying one. The aunts came to the door and waved briefly as he spun the car around and pulled away in the the early morning light.

The dirt road gave way to paved and soon they were cruising South down a two lane highway toward the town of Afton.

Miles passed before Jim started to feel a certain clarity set in. The tension drained from him and his hands held loosely to the steering wheel. He hadn't been aware of angry he was until he started recognizing the beauty around him. He began to point it out to the children, calling out birds, horses, and the frequent roadkill.

Daniel engaged, his eyes watching the endless march of fence poles flit past the cars. Abigail looked tense, her grip on the doll was suffocating and the red stone was just visible from under her shirt. She looked him in the eyes through the rear-view mirror, her facing holding an unreadable expression.

"Abigail?" I asked, "What's up?"

Her gaze didn't waver. She played a loose shrug.

"I just needed to be somewhere else," I said, with a pained smile, "I think I am beginning to understand how mom felt."

Abigail looked hurt, by that, "I like it there."

"I'm sure you do." I said, somberly, "I'm sure you do."

Mountains, fields, and the occasional passing car offered a distraction. There were dozens of ranches and small clusters of houses the lie just off the road. Some properties held a variety of gutted cars while others were neatly maintained farmhouses. Big agriculture business likely made being a local farmer unlikely. Most of what he was seeing, he expected, were likely people who had retired and continued as they saw fit.

The sun crested the mountains as they turned into the valley that overlooked the quaint town. Small clusters of houses gave way to industrial buildings and the speed limit began to drop as the same highway they came in on turned into the main street.

The first place that looked like a diner felt a bit more commercial than Jim was expecting and it left him feeling a touch dissatisfied. They ordered their food and he sipped at the coffee. Daniel was drawing on the place mat with a marker while Abigail avoided her father's gaze.

"What did they tell you, Abby?"

She shrugged again and Jim shook his head.

"That doesn't work for me. You need to tell me what's going on. I am tempted to call off this whole trip." He said, the heat coming back to his face.

Abigail was young, sure, but he'd talked to both of his kids like adults since they started to communicate. Daniel was still a bit early, but Abigail responded to challenges with a spirited tongue. He could see her working out what to say and waited patiently, sipping coffee.

"They want us to stay. They miss mom and they want to get to know us." Abigail said, with some struggle.

"I get that, but there's more going on. I can feel it pulling at me every time I walk into the house," he said, scrunching up his shoulders, then leaned his head forward, "And for some reason, I think you know. What is going on?"

There was a glimmer of fear in her eyes, her grip on the doll loosened. Then her eyes sparkled fiercely.

"They're afraid you're going to take us away from them." She said, her usual self now peeking through, "They have a gift for you, but it's a surprise and it won't be ready for another couple of days."

Jim's mouth drew into a tight line and he thought for a moment.

"I wish this secret didn't feel like something they were doing to me instead of something they are doing for me." He mused, mostly to himself.

Abigail nodded, she wore a weary look of consternation; a look that didn't fit her child's face.

"Two more days," Jim said, "Then we say our goodbyes."

At that point, he let it go, feeling that the decision was now a weight off of his shoulders.

Jim drove around the small town after they finished up at the diner. As they drove, he would use them as a way to gauge his own interest. Daniel would give a thumbs up or a thumbs down and Abigail relaxed and got in on the game, too. Everything was more fun when they were having fun, anyway.

Jim eyed a pawn shop, and nearly dismissed it until he saw that they had a large display of cut rocks and gemstones.

"You guys want to look at some pretty rocks?" Jim asked.

Both Abigail and Daniel gave an excited thumbs up.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

What Remains, part 4

Jim awoke with a start.

Something had touched his hand. He sat in the darkness for a moment, his heart pounding.  He looked around groggily, seeing the well kept room. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Moonlight pressed against the curtains and bathed the room a soft, blue light. He moved his hand and felt one of the leather bound journals, it must have slipped down and bumped his hand. With a calming breath, he reached for the light.

"Don't, Jim." Lisa's voice slid from the darkness, quiet and almost breathless.

He paused. His pulsed raced, with both mind and heart giving different suggestions. It took everything for him to return to his position, laying back against the pillows. He chanced a look and the silhouette was there, just like in years past. Her shadowing laying in bed, facing him in the darkness.

He took a deep breath and let it out, his voice shaking.

There was a warm, familiar chuckle.

"So dramatic. One of many things I was ... that I am fond of about you."

While it had been a statement, the thought ended like a question. It made the hair stand up on Jim's neck. He couldn't think of what to say, any words he attempted got caught in his throat.

"I'm new to this. I've seen it from your side. But this," She said, her voice thoughtful, "This is very strange. I'm not sure how it works."

He carefully pulled the journals from his lap and began setting them on the bedside as quietly as possible, wondering if the voice would fade or the apparition would disappear if he made a noise. There was no motion from the shadow, just her voice.

What would I see if could? Her lifeless with sunken eyes? Her emaciated form, ravaged by cancer?

His thoughts ran wild. They made him tremble again. Tears began to form in his eyes.

"Oh, no, Sweetie," she said, her voice suddenly caught with emotion, "I didn't meant to upset you. I thought it was time. I thought I could..."

Silence blanketed the room as he began to weep. To hear her voice was everything, but he couldn't comprehend what he was experiencing. It had been wonderful, but now the implications were unsettling. Talking to himself or, perhaps...

He wouldn't let himself complete the thought. He pressed his hand to his chest, trying to press out the grief that was driving this. He dared not look toward the sound of her voice. It cut him open every time he heard it.

After a moment of silence, he chanced a look back and the shadow was gone.

"Lisa." He whispered, then pressed his hands to his face.

Tears rolled over his fingers and scattered down his clothes. He had fallen asleep just after putting the children down for a nap. He rested on the comforter, his shoes and socks sat loosely by the bed.

Swallowing hard, he looked around again. None of the shadows looked out of place. He finally reached over and thumbed on the light. It hurt his eyes for a moment, but now everything was in focus. He swung his legs out and leaned over the bed, resting his right hand on his face.

Time passed as shuddering sobs rocked through him until they began to slowly subside. That pressure reset itself again. He wiped his hands down his face, feeling both heartbroken and frustrated.

Jim looked to the journals, trying to remember what he'd read. His head was full of thoughts, but he needed a distraction, a focal point to shake whatever had gripped him. He was well rested and doubt he could even attempt to sleep, much less what for his mind to spin yet another tale.

He put on his shoes and crept to the door. The floor creaked with each step, but not another soul in the house stirred. He pulled the door gently and a note fell from the door jamb.

You looked comfortable. Janice and I took care of the children. Rest well.

There was a artfully penned capital R at the bottom of the note. He rubbed his fingers across the paper and nodded, thankful. His eyes narrowed and he looked at the script R. It resembled the flowery A journal addressed to Abigail in the trunk upstairs. There was a twinge, but he couldn't understand why it unnerved him as it did.

He moved toward the kitchen then slipped out the back. The moon waxing, last night was the half moon. With the lack of light pollution in the area, it was surprisingly bright and he had no issues seeing the wide prairie around him. The stars were magnificent, he felt he could likely see just as clearly if the moon hadn't been out at all. He crunched down the drive to the road. Then paused to decide which way he would go. He turned North and began to walk.

It was an unconscious thing for him, to walk and think. Moments like these, he would collect his thoughts and walk for miles. All of his most important ideas had come from this exercise. Out here, it was a vastly different environment, but the process was the same. Crickets blended with the breezes. When the breezes lulled, the warmth from the surrounding land would rise up again. The world appeared calm; with everything drenched in the wholesome blue light from the moon.

Jim recalled what he'd read from June's journals. Reading through the diaries was difficult in many ways. Her education was thin, at best, making it difficult to grasp what she was saying. The dates were clear, however. A series of dates from the 1850s dotted a few of the more comprehensible pages.

The first of the numbers were when she had immigrated from England with her family. There were some other dates with month and year that were associated with names. It was some time before Jim realized that these were death dates. There were state names scribbled in, which took some time sounding out. Illinois being the most difficult to decipher.

June's writing became clearer, more thought out just after this. She began to write complete thoughts and her spelling became better. There were descriptions of the days activities and, while brief, notes on her disposition. A man entered her writings, his name was Roane, then a child, then both were lost. She went through a dark time, writing infrequent and anguished entries.

Jim sighed, and stopped walking. It fallen in line with Lisa's own experience. She'd been terrified after Missy died, clingy and wanting. It was disconcerting, since Lisa was so very independent then immediately wanting me closer, to stay home from business trips, and from driving long distances. It now made sense, like she had been curse with her family's own past.

And it made sense why she found old self after Abigail was born; then Daniel came along. It broke the past that held her in an icy grip. He nodded with the comprehension, feeling like he had worked out what he needed to. She had shrugged off June's legacy.

He felt he'd walked nearly three miles by then. He looked up at the moon on it's way to the horizon, then turned on his heel and began walking back the Aunts' house. Shadows flit by at the edges of his vision. The road itself seemed to churn and crawl at a distance and the motion deeply unsettled him. He was sure it was an artifact of the moonlight and the residual heat rising from the sun-baked ground, but he wasn't sure of much anymore.

June's sadness crept into him, though. She had mentioned keeping a piece of Roane and her lost daughter with her. The phrasing was odd and it brought an odd thought, but then he thought of the locks of hair that Lisa had placed in her own journal; one from Missy and one from herself. Jim thought about it and wondered if this had been a fixture in their family?

Jim always felt that loss was a fact of life. Whatever you gained, you eventually would lose. To him, it didn't make sense to hold all of this. Forgetting and being forgotten was just the way things were; life as he knew it. Death is what it is and, while you didn't have to like it, you had to accept it. For those before you, for those around you, and eventually for yourself. Fighting it was a fools errand, to say the least. But everyone had the ability to go gracefully and Jim was willing to take that for himself when the time came.

It was a hollow perspective as he wasn't a religious man. Yet he could see that satisfaction that came from belief in things that would persist past death. The hope of a continuous path where experiences were saved from the past and brought forward so that it would never be lost. Protecting the past from the future. Keeping experience from dissolving through hundreds, thousands, or millions of years.

From a long ways off, he saw a light on in the attic window. He turned down the drive to the house, the crunch of the rocks echoing distantly from the house. The light flickered like a candle and it made him shiver. It hadn't been there when he left, he was certain that he'd turned to look at the house when he walked away.

Was he certain? A flickering flame in that attic could spell trouble and he began to move more quickly toward the house.

Then the light went out and the window went dark.

He caught his breath and goosebumps rolled over his body. He stood, looking up at the window, then sat down in the dirt driveway next to his car. He watched, quietly, each disturbing thought danced in his mind, but he refused to acknowledge them.

Jim sat in the driveway until the sun began to lighten the sky.

Friday, June 23, 2017

What Remains, part 3

Jim woke with a start, his heart racing.

"Lisa." He said, his voice cracked with sleep.

It was light outside, sun shining full through the windows. The house was warming quickly with the sun's rays and Jim found himself sweating even with a single layer top sheet. He tossed the sheet to the side and picked his clothes from the floor and groggily put them on. He felt as if he was trying to recall a dream, but was having a hard time bringing it back to focus.

He stood and moved toward the door, but then froze, looking back at the mess he'd made of the bed and sighed. He loosely pulled the blankets up and flopped them back into place, tucking here and there to give the appearance of being made.

He grimaced as he looked at his half measure of effort from a distance, leaning to and fro, before deflating in disappointment and walking out of the room.

Breakfast was served with cracked wheat pancakes, thick cut ham, and eggs. The sisters provided maple flavored jellies that they spread over the pancakes with a knife. The kids were especially riled. Jim felt ready to face them as a father again.

Jim spent the morning exploring the area with Daniel and Abby. They set out through the fields first where he showed them the barn he'd stayed in earlier. He felt closer to being himself than he had for some time. Perhaps even before he'd lost their mother and she was struggling under her fight with cancer. There were still moments where Abigail paused with a distant sadness, but it slowly faded under the bright sunlight.

After exploring the immediate grounds, they jumped in the car and drove for a bit. Jim sat, enjoying the car's air conditioning. His eye's sparkled as he saw the ditches that ran along the sides of the road. They were filled with water from the irrigation fed into the neighboring farms.

Around mid-afternoon they came home, soaked and exhausted. Jim shook his head as he looked at the sunburned children and spent some time with a washcloth, cooling their sun touched skin then putting lotion on them. He hoped that he'd gotten to it in time.

They'd missed their usual afternoon nap, so he quickly stripped them down in the bathroom and followed them to their room. It was the first time he'd seen it. He wondered whose stayed in this room all those years ago. He looked around at the decor and found it similar enough to his own space, but with a much smaller bed. Abigail and Daniel were content to share. The house was warm, but with the shades pulled, it gave the illusion of being cooler than it was. A standing metal fan helped by pushing a calm breeze over the bed.

While they settled in, Jim took a seat near their bedside and picked up a book that sat there on the table. It was a leather-bound journal. He'd almost mistaken it for Lisa's, but this one was well worn, and the pages bulged with use.

He thumbed at the leather strap and opened it up. On the introductory page, in a controlled, but unpracticed hand was the name...

"Abigail," he whispered to himself.

Lisa had chosen the name for their daughter because of her ancestor. It was strange to have such a direct connection as what sat in his hand. He ran his hand over the thick parchment paper, tracing the curves of the name with his finger. He started to open the book further when he heard quick footsteps coming up the stairs and the straight-backed Janice walked in.

"Oh, that's where that went." She said, catching her breath.

"Were you looking for this?" Jim said, speaking in a hushed tone, closing the book and thumbing the strap back into place, "Lisa talked about Abigail a lot."

He held the book in his hands, the looked up at the expectant Janice.

"You'd think she'd met her, as much as she'd said about her, but she was..." He paused for a moment, searching for less painful words, "She was gone before Lisa was born?"

Janice's lips with compressed into a thin line, she nodded and reached toward Jim with an upturned hand. He handed it to her, but was pained to do so.

"Yes. It was a very long time ago." She said, visibly relaxing with the book.

She looked to the children and the straight line of her lips turned into a smile. Janice held the journal in front of her, rocking on her heels like a young woman with her school books. There was a moment of silence.

"Our family comes from a painful history." She said quietly, her eyes moving over the room before settling on Jim, "Come with me. This is a history as important to you as it is to us. You are part of our family, after all."

Jim stood up from the chair quietly. The children had lulled to sleep and did not stir. He stepped from the room and followed Janice. At the far side of the hallway, he could see Rachael, still in her nightgown a noon, brushing her long hair. She looked incredibly thin. She looked up and him and smiled, her eyes sparkled.

Jim returned the smile.

"Here." Janice said, pointed up at the ceiling.

There was an inset panel with a thick string hanging from it. The string itself was bound to the wall to keep it from hanging in the middle of the hallway. She unwound it and pulled down with some effort. The door swung down and a retracted set of steps revealed themselves. She carefully folded them out, being silent so as to not wake the children.

He immediately felt the heat from the opening and grimaced. The sun baked the roof, turning the attic into something of an oven. Janice led the way and Jim followed with his misgivings.

Light from the East facing window lit the attic easily. Recent cardboard boxes gave way to wooden trunks and footlockers painted a military green. Some of the footlockers were yet older, plain oak with riveted leather bound edges. The hand painted numbers and names were worn away and illegible.

Jim trembled in spite of the heat. He saw nearly two dozen dolls, boys and girls, and varying levels of quality set up in a semi-circle, just out of the sun. Half a dozen toy soldiers made from folded metal, lacquered, and painted were in a pile in the vicinity. Remnants of where Abigail and Daniel had played the night before.

He felt his own children's excitement in this place. The thrill of discovery, wanting to upend boxes and see all that he could see. His family felt like they had left all their cultural history behind, firmly planted in the present. He knew very little about his own grandparents much less his parents. They had left no story, no real legacy. It made him wonder about the future he would leave for his own.

"This is our history." She said.

She made a motion around her, standing, but staying bent at the waist to avoid hitting the rafters.

"If you do remove anything, please return it. I have a system, if you couldn't tell." She gave Jim a self-aware smile.

Jim moved around on his knees, looking over the boxes.

"Oldest are toward the middle and packed tightly to keep the heat from getting to them too much. I had to move many things into the cardboard boxes. Don't depend on how old the boxes look to determine how old they are." She said.

Jim looked around. She smiled at his obvious delight.

"It's good to finally meet you, Jim," her eyes sparkled as she said it, "I'm going to get out of this heat."

She dabbed at her forehead and let out a breath as she turned and went down the steps to the floor below.

Jim read the careful handwriting and started moving through the boxes, like a kid at the foot of a Christmas tree, looking for the first gift to open.

From the movement of dust on the floor it appeared that one of the heavier footlockers had been moved to the back. He followed the lines and removed other cardboard boxes that were stacked on top of it, clearing a path. It had a small lock on it, but the lock itself was one of those simple cross keys. He took his own bundle of keys and pulled a small folding tool free from it. One twist and the lock fell open.

He opened it and the smell of must and parchment oozed from the footlocker. Jim's eyes widened. Stacks of small leather journals very similar to both Lisa and Abigail's. They varied slightly in design and color. Some in the top left of the box were far more rustic, with thick twining threads through the spine. Each of them had the same leather strap with the formed metal post to hold it shut. He thumbed through the diaries. Some had a name and date, while others were hidden. He considered where to start.

"Janice has a system, right?" He breathed to himself, "Let's go back to the beginning."

He looked for signs of age and, predictably, the journals were stacked from oldest to newest in columns, moving left to right, then row upon row putting the newest in the front right. He tentatively reached to the last and picked it up. It appeared to be recent, in comparison to all of the others. He thumbed the strap and turned to the first page.

Written in a precise, flowery handwriting, "To Abigail. From all of us."

The words sent a chill down his spine. He wasn't sure what to think of it, but it seemed eerily prescient. He put the diary back into place and then moved back to the top left. The stack was nearly six deep. He looked to the first page and saw the name June. He continued paging through the different books, finding a total of eight belonging to June before the name Geraldine showed up.

He pulled the journals from the footlocker and secreted them into a box that had a small jewelry box and very little else in it. He closed the footlocker, clicked the lock, and replaced the boxes from where he'd pulled them, leaving no trace. He moved down the steps carefully, then dutifully returned the steps to the ceiling, replacing the cord.

Jim brought the box into his room and grabbed a glass of water, then began to read the words of June.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What Remains, part 2

Jim spent hours walking the fenced edges of the ranch. The hot Wyoming sun leeched the tears from him, giving him a release for the grief. Pain was a welling pressure, like a bleeding wound. Without changing the gauze or releasing the pressure, he found himself angry, volatile, and sinking into despair. As he wandered through Lisa's childhood, he was able to release it by degrees. Letting go and allowing the healing process to begin.

She hadn't said much about this place. She had always spoken of it like she had desperately wanted to leave it behind. He'd had a hard time understanding her motivations. There was some fear or unspoken concern that she avoided at all costs. To Jim, everything looked like a picturesque painting of the perfect childhood from where he stood.

He could imagine rushing through the tall golden grasses that spread out infinitely, head barely tall enough to find your way. Easily hiding just by dropping to ground. The only indication that those tall grasses didn't continue on forever were the mountains that stood around him, looking like a backdrop from movie.

The fence was weathered, some had even started to buckle, but none of them had fallen. It was a testament to the quality and effort that had been spent when they were first put in place. Like the fences, an abandoned barn stood between the fences. The long boards forming the walls had warped with time, pulling slightly from the sturdy supports underneath. He moved inside, tentatively, making sure it was safe. He could smell the age and sweetness from long dried manure and the sun cured wood. Patches of grass had grown here and there, following the cracks of light that fell to the floor.

There were a series of small fenced areas with a loft that still had the leavings of windblown hay from ages back. The vertical timbers stood strong. He was surprised to see names etched on one of them. There were a series of height markers etched into the wood and a patchwork of names, each vying for space on the wide piece of wood. Janice and Rachel were among the names, as well as a boy's chiseled less precise hand showing the name Sully. They were very old, blackened by time and stained by the oils left by the animals that had rubbed against them. None of the markers appeared taller than four feet.

On another support, Jim found Lisa's name. Hers appeared almost fresh, showing up after the animals had gone. It was isolated and apart from the others.

"Maybe there was something to that," Jim said to himself.

It changed the story if she was a lonely child, the older generations having very little in common with their grand niece, and she remained trapped by miles of freedom.

He slid to the floor and leaned against the support, Lisa's name just over his head as he sat there. He put his hand around and reached into his pocket. He pulled out her wedding ring and looked closely at the tiny row of diamonds that dotted the outer edge. It was a simple, elegant reminder of their union, tiny in his palm. It could barely fit over the first knuckle of his ring finger, but it went over his right pinky finger where it fit snugly. He still wore his own wedding band, not knowing if or when he would ever take it off. He lifted his arm and gripped the support behind him and closed his eyes. She had been here. Ages ago, sure, but it was something.

"I never planned to lose you," he said to the barn walls and that lingering sweetness.

"I never planned to be lost," her voice echoed in his head.

He shuddered, tears pressing to the surface again. He let his bone shaking sobs take him, again bleeding off more of that pressure. He'd held it for so long in order to keep things together for his kids. He was pretty Abigail had seen through it. It was unfortunate that his melancholy had made him blind to theirs. Daniel was probably just young enough to be hurt by it, being about the age where his first indelible memories started. Abigail, was nearly eight and Jim was sure he didn't know what he could do for her to lessen the damage.

"I hope that I can, someday, convey how wonderful of a mother you were." He said softly to himself.

He loosened his grip and dropped his hand to the floor below and closed his eyes, breathing in the summer heat with long breaths.

"They'll know, love," her voice echoed again, then she whispered closely, "dinner's ready."

He gasped, feeling himself wake up as he heard the peal of a bell. He drew a ragged breath and looked around the barn. His heart raced. He leaned against the back of the support, then pulled himself to his feet.

He bowed his head to the childlike letters and brushed his hand over them.

"We'll talk later," he said softly.

Jim kissed his fingertips and touched them to her name.

The ringing bell had stopped. The sunset drenched the valley in a soft red glow. He walked through the grass that was now a rich, coppery color. The heat was still there, but the breeze made gave it a gentle touch.

He saw the large bell at the back of the house and marveled at it. Tarnished with age, but very well built. He'd have expected to see it on the bow of a ship. A weather blackened cord stretched back to the back door that opened into the kitchen. Jim smiled at the antiquity of it.

The table was set and Janice motioned for Jim to sit. The children were already in place, poised over their food, but held back by either words or threats. He smiled to himself, fascinated by the propriety.

The meal consisted of a hearty meatloaf, sweet corn on the cob, and fresh baked rolls. The bread steamed as Jim pulled them apart. He looked to Janice and shook his head in disbelief.

"This is amazing." He said, his mouth still full.

She gave him a reproachful look, then let it fade into a smile. Abigail and Daniel had been talking back and forth giving a pleasant backdrop for the meal.

"How are you doing, Abby?" He asked, leaning in with a tired smile.

"It's great!" She started, excitedly. Her bright blue eyes wide, her dark auburn hair tousled and erratic.

"They have so many dolls in the attic!"

"And toy soydurs!" Daniel said, stumbling around the word 'soldiers'.

Rachael walked in and leaned delicately against the doorway, listening in. This was the second time he'd seen her since he set foot in the house. She whisked the children up stairs and left him with Janice almost immediately. Her eyes sparkled at the sight of the children.

"You should eat, sister." Janice said, a tad more firmly than seemed necessary.

"I'm not hungry, sister," Rachael said, her tone a slight challenge, but she still smiled.

Rachael turned to him.

"They are beautiful children, Jim. Lovely in every way." She said.

She put a hand on his shoulder, and her eyes shone brightly with a barely contained joy.

Janice and Rachael looked similar, but it was clear that Rachael was some years younger, she had a lighter complexion and seemed to have a dusting of freckles that had spread wider with age. Her hair was a light brown that draped down her back. It was held together loosely with a red ribbon. A subtle light gray touched her temples which was a stark contrast to Janice's uniformly dark gray hair pulled tightly into a bun.

Jim looked to each of them, Janice looked on Rachael with some annoyance, but Rachael seemed completely unaffected. Doubtless, being together that long would make for some strained company.

"Oh, daddy! Look at this," Abigail held up a small necklace that had a large, deep red stone in a metal clasp.

It seemed to light up at her fingertips, amplifying the dim light from the kitchen fixture.

"It's mine. She gave it to me."

I smiled to Rachael, who remained focused on Abigail, her eyes glossy with emotion.

"Did you say thank you?" I asked her.

"Yep!" Abigail beamed, "It's called a blood stone."

Janice had a look of disapproval.

"Hmm, I'm not sure," I said, looking closely at it, "Bloodstones are usually green, not red."

"It looks like blood to me." She said with a shrug, looking closely at it.

Jim felt weariness pulling at him. Even with the brief nap in the barn, he'd had a lot of sleepless nights to make up for. Janice seemed to recognize this and all traces of the disapproval had vanished.

"You need to rest, dear," she said, "let me show you to your room."

"I'll ready the children for bed," Rachael said, and stooped to their level, "Daniel, Abigail? Are you ready to see your room?"

Both of them lit up and Rachael flagged them along, toddling playfully from the room with them close on her heels.

"You'll have to forgive her," Janice said with a sigh, "She had always wanted children. She's mostly a child herself."

"I can relate," Jim said with a smile, "Any reason she didn't try?"

"Oh, work to be done. I'm sure you understand," Janice said, elegantly dismissing the question.

"Thank you, again. I appreciate the time. I, needed a moment to collect myself." He told her, feeling a tug at his again.

"I'm not sure I could describe how much this means to us," she said, "We're happy to help."

Janice led him to a hall from the front room that ran parallel to the stairs going up. Ended in the bathroom with a hallway continuing down either side. Immediately to his right was another door that he assumed went into the cellar.

"That was Lisa's room," she said, pointing to the room further to the right, "It's now a guest room, but it felt right for you to stay in it."

Jim thanked her and she nodded and began to step away, then stopped and turned back.

"The children are just above you. I'm sure Rachael will take care of them if they get upset during the night, but they should be easy to find." She said, then nodded, "Sleep well, Jim."

He nodded silently and twisted the knob. The room was small and boxlike. It had the same very tall ceilings like the rest of the first floor. The bed itself was a grandiose queen mattress, placed perfectly in the center of the room. It was layered with comforters and billowing pillows, smelling of a sweet perfume that resembled roses. The bed itself was immaculately made, with extra blankets at the foot. A small chest sat the foot of the bed. Underneath that was a large round rug protecting it from the polished wooden floors.

Opposite the door was a set of corner shelves, holding a variety of keepsakes and picture frames. Some were downright ancient. Near the top, a small antique lamp filled with a thick red oil. A vanity sat against the wall with a tall oval mirror. It stood between a set of East facing windows, three dolls the were positioned on the vanity, facing the South wall. A cubby with a folded curtain revealing a small closet.

Like the front room, it was maintained to an uncanny level of perfection with everything in its place and Jim felt awkward for what he was going to do next.

He lifted the blankets and put them on the vanity, careful to avoid knocking the dolls to the ground. He pulled back the comforter and let it hang to the floor and stripped back the next set of sheets until it was just a thin layer between him and the open air of the room.

He pulled the pillows from the bed and laid them on top of the other blankets and looked at the stripped down bed. He sighed at the work he'd be doing in the morning to try and regain that rigid order that Janice had, undoubtedly, put into place.

Jim switched the light off and laid on his back, listening to movement on the floor above him. The kids' rapid footfalls and Rachael's own following up. The soft sounds of Rachael speaking to those children exactly as a great aunt should. He smiled, his heavy eyes trying to close. The room was full of a soft glow from the moonlight spilling over the Wyoming prairie.

"Lisa." He whispered to the darkness, closing his eyes, "Why did you leave here?"

He could feel the heaviness of his thoughts lulling him to sleep.

"Some things are far too much for someone so young," her voice eddied around him, "But now I understand."

Jim attempted to wake himself with the response, a slight crease furrowing his brow. He cracked his eyes and saw the dark outline of her silhouette against the moonlight windows. He fought to keep his eyes open, but the effort was beyond him.

"Why? ... Lisa." he stumbled through the words weakly.

"Shh, dear. Sleep." She said.

His brow smoothed at her words and he succumbed.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What Remains, part 1

The voices of Abigail and Daniel trickled down the stairs and pooled around Jim's feet.

"They'll be fine up there." Janice said.

She motioned for Jim to sit. The old wood of the floor creaked as he hesitated then settled gingerly into an immaculately kept embroidered couch. The furniture was extremely old and appeared to be fragile. The side tables, other chairs, drapes and rugs were kept to a near museum level of impeccability. There were hand-stitched doilies gracing each side table and lace curtains hung from the windows.

Jim kept his hands folded neatly on his lap. He looked around, wanting to touch and exploring his surroundings, but his will was weak with grief.

He looked up at Janice and she looked on him. There was a tired smile on her face and sadness in her eyes.

"When we heard about Lisa," her voice caught and she lifted a polite hand to her mouth before continuing, "I never expected that we'd never see her again."

She dabbed at her eyes neatly with a handkerchief, her own antiquity reflecting that of the furniture.

Jim wanted to reach out and comfort her but his own weariness pulled him deeper into the couch. His own expression was pained and he could feel the welling up of barely restrained pain stirring just below the surface.

He shook his head, afraid that saying anything would start the flood again. Tears fell on the carpet as he leaned forward and rested on his hands. She reached forward and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Janice was one of two great aunts of his late wife. Janice and Rachael lived together in this home. Neither had married, content to keep each other's company. Lisa had said they'd been close, but she had never made effort to keep in contact. She had only expressed wanting to visit after she was already too sick to travel.

Jim picked up a leather messenger bag he'd brought with him, lifted the flap, and produced a small, unmarked leatherbound book. A worn leather strap kept the cover in place with a small metal peg. Janice lifted her hand to her mouth in shock.

"She remembered." She said gently.

Jim shrugged at it, "She hardly wrote in it, but the important moments are in there."

Lisa had only written the most poignant moments of her life in that journal. There were entries from her childhood, speaking of this very house he sat in. Sporadic entries dotted her teenage years. Then there was when she'd met him. She'd been sure of him well before he'd even known she was interested. The thought brought a smile to his face.

There were other entries, though. The darker times. Feeling haunted by her childhood. Their first loss, Missy, their stillborn daughter. Then, shortly after that, the death of her mother and the dark thoughts that chased her.

Until Abigail.

Abigail had reversed her darkness and brought light to both of them. Lisa had said she wanted to name her after one of the ancestors she'd felt closest to and we agreed to the name. Daniel came to them a little more than a year later.

It was about then that we realized that she had never fully recover from Daniel's birth. She was constantly tired. Shortly after that, she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. She clung to life as long as her will would allow, wanting the children old enough to remember her.

"Two days before she passed, she handed it to me with new entries and a lock of her hair. She wanted you and Rachael to have it." Jim said.

He handed the book to Janice and she nodded. She flipped to an earlier page and saw the lock of hair from Missy. She ran her fingers over the downy softness. Jim covered his nose and mouth holding back the ache of those memories. Tears streamed over his fingers.

She dabbed at her own tears, nodding, then closed the book, gently putting the leather strap back on the metal peg.

"I will get to work on this," she said, then stood.

His felt confusion at her words. They tried to mix with grief, but only one emotion fit in his heart.

"You are free to stay here as long as you'd like. Our home is your home," Janice said, gesturing around her, "The children are a delight to have here, too. They bring a new energy to this place that has long been absent."

Jim nodded, he still felt weak from keeping so much in.

"I haven't been good for the children. I hate them seeing me like this." He said, eyes misting over as he looked up a Janice, "I need a space to think. Work doesn't expect me to be back for some time. I'm hoping I can take the time to process."

Janice nodded.

"Take a walk around the ranch, then. It may help clear your head. Lisa had many memories here. Maybe you'll run into a few of them?" she said,"And don't worry, we'll take care of the children."

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Traveling Strangers, part 2

Max settled in, leaning back and stretching with a yawn and Hank continued with his forward looking gaze. It appeared that neither man had sensed Mae's panic.

"I didn't know if anyone would stop. Hitchhiking isn't what it used to be." Max mused, his voice just barely rising above the roar of the engine, "All this fear and worry. Seems unhealthy that we look on others as dangerous as we do."

Mae nodded absently. While her eyes were forward, all of her senses were focused behind her. The sense that she could feel his body heat. The pricking of her ears as she consumed every sound that he made. Every word that he spoke.

The quiet pressed in and it made Mae nervous, it was desperate to be filled. She cleared her throat, but her mouth was full of cotton. She leaned forward and pulled her glass jug of water, from next to her feet. She could taste the sweetness from the mineral springs from what used to be her home. She felt the cool waters and let it calm whatever fires had erupted at the sight of him.

"I don't think I'd seen a hitchhiker in years until you, just now." Mae said, her voice resuming it's light airy pitch.

She'd never seen a hitchhiker before. She'd never even been this far from home before. But he didn't know that. Max shifted in his seat in response, and the hair on Mae's neck stood, a slight chill wandered up her spine with the sensation.

"It's not so much that people don't, these days, you just have to find the way to do it. Begging for rides at truck stops isn't a romantic way to travel. You end up bartering whatever you have away and the conversation isn't all that great when you're a paying passenger." His voice held a smile as he spoke.

Mae smiled, too. Her heart fluttered again.

"Then, you aren't just out of money? Trying to get where ever you're going to get?"

"Nope. Just finding my way where ever I might end up. I started this with no real destination in mind." The seat creaked as he made stretching noises and his voice had a yawn in it, "I am pretty sure it'll end with a decision to move on with my life."

There was a twitch at Hank's mouth. He had something to say and it nearly had escaped, but he held it and continued his stony, forward facing gaze.

"Then where are you from?" Mae asked.

"Arizona. Land of both hot and dry." Max said with a chuckle.

"Hmmm, I don't know much about that." Mae mused, her voice almost lost in the engine noise, "I haven't been West of the Mississippi. Probably for the best, thought, it sounds downright miserable."

"Oh. Well, the stories of how hot it gets out that way are pretty dramatic. I find summers out here much, much worse. Take a hot shower here and you'll never dry off."

"Amen." Mae said with a smile. The thought of a shower caught her off guard and she suddenly blushed. The blankets she'd had bundled around her were suddenly too warm and she let them loosen and breathe.

"Well, where I come from, the place can feel like an oven, but the shade helps. As long as you drink plenty of water, it's not all that bad," he paused for a moment and smacked his lips, "Speaking of water. Would you mind? I was serious about being afraid no one would pick me up. I had expected some services on that road, but I didn't plan as well as I'd hoped."

Mae wasn't sure what to say. She trembled again, she could feel a drop of sweat roll down the right side of her face and she loosened the blankets further, thankful that the heater wasn't on.

"I'm not sick or anything. My germs are pretty safe." Max tested again.

Mae shrugged, "Sure. Uh, germs?"

He dipped his hand over the seat and Hank's eye flicked to the bottle as the man pulled it over the back of the seat. His eyes flicked back to the road and his expression didn't change. He shifted slightly in his seat, showing his discomfort.

Mae chanced a glance while Max leaned back, his mouth on the bottle. There was a wheezing sound as the air hissed around his lips while he drank. He stopped suddenly, his blue eyes thankful. His face wearing a warm smile. He capped it and slid the bottle back over the seat.

"Sorry, Didn't mean to get greedy." He said, coughing slightly.

"What will you do when you decide to go back?" Mae asked.

"I don't know." Max said with a sigh, another creak as he settled back in his seat, "Probably go to a bus station and buy my way back. When I'm done I think I'll know I'm done."

There was a quiver of loss that ran through Mae's belly at the mention of his leaving. He had just gotten here, after all.

"I thought of doing a tour of Europe. Maybe even someplace like Indonesia or even Nepal. But, honestly, how many people live in the United States and barely know what wonders are right in their backyards?" Max said.

"I haven't traveled much." Mae said, her voice bordering on wistful.

"What are you doing now?" Max asked.

Mae looked back and the man shrugged, but he continued to wait for an answer.

"We're moving North. There's work that way and Hank here can do it." Mae said, a touch of pride edged into her voice.

"See, that sounds like adventure," Max said bumping the back of the seat with the fleshy part of his fist, "What do you do, Hank?"

Mae cringed. She didn't know how Hank would manage. He was such a solitary sort, but it was suddenly apparent that it wasn't just his manly way. It was a raw, paralyzing fear.

Hank seemed to catch his breath then release it for a moment, readying himself to speak. It had been a direct challenge and the discomfort was obvious. Max still smiled pleasantly, acting as if he hadn't a care in the world, but he also wasn't going to let Hank not speak.

"Plumber." Hank said, his gravely voice louder than expected, "And an electrician."

Mae breathed out slowly at his finally putting the words together.

"That's honest, essential work. No doubt you'll find jobs in need of those skills." Max said, his head nodding in approval.

Mae was bewildered. This man seemed cultured and traveled to be so young. He also let Hank express himself and then spent the time to build him up. She shivered again and began to pay very close attention.

"How did you get into that business?" Max asked, his voice aimed at Hank.

Hank thought for a moment.

"Tinkering, mostly. I was good at figurin' what stuff goes where. Went to the applied college and got certified." Hank said, "I reckoned that electricity moved a lot like water through pipes. So, I studied that, too."

Hank had never, ever spoken like that to a complete stranger. Mae hoped her shock didn't reach her face, she turned to look out the window to hide it.

"It sounds like you have a knack for it." Max was, again, nodding with the words.

Mae looked to Hank. He'd taken the man's words in, sitting a little straighter, and the furrow creasing his brow had smoothed. It was difficult to mask her bewildered wonder as she looked back to Max. The man''s boyish smile widened just slightly, a few perfectly straight teeth shown through his narrowly parted lips.

His eyes fixed to hers then he spoke. A strange, knowing look shown in his eyes and she was suddenly worried.

"What's your plan when you get there?"

The question was to her, but his voice remained the same appreciative tone.

She faced forward and licked her lips as she thought.

"I'm going to take care of Hank?" She tried a smile, but it faded. The words felt wrong as soon as they left her mouth.

The silence stretched. Max had shrugged, but continued to look at her with gentle eyes, waiting. He was doing the same thing to her as he'd done to Hank and it brought up an anger she didn't expect.

There was more beyond that anger. His words made her think; made her reach down deep to pull at whatever notion had gotten her this far. What did she want? Children were in the plan, but it was unlikely that Hank would tolerate them. She didn't want to offer the same childhood she'd had. The thought brought an ache do the surface she hadn't known lingered there. She felt suddenly powerless.

"I don't know?" She finally said. The words felt like giving up.

"What would you want to do, then?" Max pressed.

This seemed to make Hank nervous and the furrow returned.

"Help other people?" She said, tentatively. The words felt better, but there was more. She knew there was more.

"C'mon, Mae. You help me all the time." Hank said, the gravel lifting from his voice. His eyes strangely nervous.

"But that's not enough, is it?" She looked to Hank, then looked to Max.

She sat forward, one hand laid in the other, and remained utterly still.

Max seemed to understand her silence and began to talk to Hank, who continued to open up, as this man easily unraveled his insecurities and protections.

Mae shook as her thoughts raced. She was feeling feverish; feeling utterly exposed. She was numb to the world around her. She looked to Hank, with consternation. His face was open and he glanced often in the rear view mirror, now actively engaging with Max. Their words were lost to Mae, though. The hours had passed like moments and the tunnels of trees gave way to towns, supermarkets, and gas stations while the sun sunk lower to their right.

She grit her teeth.

"I want to go to Arizona!" She hissed.

Their conversation froze in mid-air.

At that moment, all of that bubbling sweetness, that persevering wholesomeness, had evaporated from her. She could draw a line from where she sat right now all the way back when she was just a little girl. Her purpose was then as it is now; sating the rampant egos of these fragile men.

Why hadn't she seen it before? The placating, stroking, tolerating, and peacemaking. From violent moods to feeling outright worthless. She had given them all the control. Her father, her boyfriends, her husband, and his brothers. It was perpetuated by their wives, daughters, and sisters. Each falling into these same patterns. And she was there among them, but she was not them. She could never be them. It was obvious, now.

Obvious and absolutely enraging.

Mae furiously shed the bundle of blankets and tossed them to the floor. She cranked up the heat and looked for something else she'd had to just sit back deal with. She couldn't settle on anything, so she sneered. The trucked bobbed to and from on the road because of a startled Hank.

"I'm deadly serious." She said, pointing her finger like a knife, looking at both men menacingly.

"Mae? What's gotten into you?" He said, the words wore a tone of anger, but it came out weak. He was off balance and there was no way she'd let him find that ground again.

"What do I want to do?" She asked loudly to no one in particular.

Hank's look was nonplussed, the typical furrow forming whenever he felt vulnerable and was mad because of it. It was like a tell at a poker game. Max's boyish face retreated into his shoulders and he pulled back into the deepening darkness of the cab.

"How about whatever I God-damned please?" She had even said it without cringing, she even emphasized it.

"Mae. You need to get a hold of yourself." Hank's voice became dangerous.

She knew this tone and, before, it had struck fear in her. The same fear she'd carried for so long. But this was the fear of a child. And, while it would always be there, she was a woman now. And she needed more than this pallid excuse of a reason to live.

"I am done, Hank. What kind of man hits a woman because he can't control her?" Her eyes locked on his, the steely gray bent with anger, but also terror. "What kind of man are you, Hank?"

"This man poisoned you! You're only saying that because..." Hank's anger swept back to the cowering Max, who wore a terrified expression.

"Perhaps it's just a man being gentlemanly. But I don't need him either. I need me and I'm taking me back." Mae thumbed her chest, the anger she felt was giving way to a bone deep sorrow, but she wasn't going to let him see that. He didn't deserve to see her weak anymore.

Hank shut down, turning forward, and gripping the steering wheel. The engine began to roar. Max's eyes widened in panic as the engine roared.

"Oh, Hank. I truly do hope you find your way, because I'm not gonna be there to make it easier for you." Mae said loud enough to hear over the roar of the engine, her words dripping with a divisive sweetness.

She looped her leg around the shifter and pulled back again, but this time, Hank held fast. He pushed the gas further revving the engine higher. The needle inched up to 75 MPH. The lights of another town sped past.

Mae grimaced, tugging again, but he didn't let up. His knuckles were white on the shifting knob, holding it in place.

"If that's how it's gonna be." She said with a sigh, the words lost in the high-pitched rumble.

The glass bottle rested at her side. Mae, picked it up and brought it down on Hank's hand. The trucked swayed as Hank let out a howl of pain and released the knob. Mae wrenched the shifter out of gear the sound of ragged popping accompanied it. The engine revved dangerously. Someone flashed their high beams ahead and Hank jerked the decelerating truck back to his side of the road.

She yanked on the keys, as she had before, but then held on to them.

Hank shook as the now quiet truck trundled along the edge of the road.

"Oh, thanks, Sugar. Right here is just fine." She said, casually, as the truck wound down to a stop.

Hank thrashed impotently for a moment and then coddled his right hand, she wasn't sure if she saw his tears in the darkness of the cab. It made her heart ache, but they both had to move past this.

"Probably should get some ice on it. You'll need it for your job." She said, opening the door and sliding out of the cab.

Her blankets covered her right shoulder and it draped over the half full bottle of water in her hand. She tossed the truck's keys back in the cab next to Hank's leg.

"I may come back. I may not. I'll think about it." She said absently.

She pushed the door just enough for it to firmly latch and moved to the bed of the truck. She tugged an old satchel free. It held her clothes and her keepsakes. Mae then looked on the rest of the belongings tied in place with some disgust. She had never wanted any of it.

She looped the satchel over her other shoulder and began to walk back to the town they'd passed.

The rear door burst open and there was a jangling of buckles as Max moved up behind her. He slowed before reaching her, but she didn't look back.

"Mind if I join you? I think this is my stop, too." He said it loudly enough for her to hear over the passing traffic.

She lifted her head.

"Keep yourself to yourself, and we'll be fine." She said, still facing forward.

He moved along side her as she set the pace. Even though she was small, she had always been fierce. She was suddenly determined the find that again, and never let it go.

"I was thinking," Max said, "Maybe it is time to go home. I might have found what I was looking for."

"How's that?" Mae said with some salt, her voice sporting an edge that she'd never thought possible, "I get rid of one man, and you're obliging me by offerin' another?"

"Oh, no. It's nothing like that." He said.

She gave him a skeptical look and continued to push the pace.

"I've been looking for a partner. Someone friendly. Someone with good instincts."

Mae chuckled then looked sidelong at him.

"I'm not sure I'm buying what you're selling." She said.

Max went silent and then spoke carefully.

"Ever heard of a con artist?"

Monday, June 19, 2017

Traveling Strangers, part 1

Mae snuggled warmly into her seat, as the pace of long distances muffled the sparse conversation. She stared out the window watching the dense trees flit by. Thousands upon thousands packed tight enough to ensure you'd be lost in moments. They had traveled far enough North that the seasons were showing. Fall had broken through and the leaves dusted both the ground and road ahead.

She rolled down the window and let the potpourri that came with fall fill the cab of the weathered two-seater truck. She pulled a blanket around her as the cold crept in. Hank had complained about the heat, so she had turned it off, relying on the warmth bundled around her.

The highway that they traveled on seemed little more than a country road. The traffic coming the opposite way had been sparse and seemed to only be those packing campers and trailers. The implements of people who merely visited, but never stayed. She would watch as they passed, attempting to catch their eye, smiling her wholesome smile. This provoked sidelong looks from Hank telling her he didn't approve, but this was a new adventure. She would have to make friends where they were going. In this new place, she would not be hidden away along the winding dirt roads she grew up on.

Thoughts like this traced through her mind as the trees sped by the window. Often, moments came where she sighed softly at those thoughts, smiling.

"Roll up the window. It's gettin' cold." Hank said, the gravel in his throat grinding out his displeasure. Mae smiled at him leaning up to the window to scent the air while she cranked it shut.

She looked on him warmly. Hank was a gruff, but kindly man. Like her pa in many ways. He had his cantankerous moments, but that was just a man's way. It brought Mae to the realization that he needed her all the more. Softening his more sharp moments. Being the poetic David to his ill-tempered Saul.

The whiskers he wore were unkempt, wispy. Mae intended to do something about that once they had settled. It would take some effort to make him presentable. When he showed up at the work site, they'd all know that he was well taken care of. That someone loved him.

In Ohio, there were suburbs building up something fierce. And Hank specialized in plumbing as well as being a journeyman electrician. He had gotten tired of maintaining the rigged plumbing and old septic tanks. Plus, the money had run out of the area and things had ended up being pure bartering; eggs, chickens, greens, and loads of deer jerky. Sometimes the folks would offer up services, but they were hardly worth effort Hank had put into it.

With the chance he'd taken, their future looked brighter than ever. They were out of the deep woods and far from the dirt roads. Hank had been reluctant to change, but she would help. She would show him the way. His eyes were steely and straight ahead. A furrow dug straight down between his eyes, making him look thoughtful. He was gangly and strong, standing tall for his stock. The tallest of his brothers, even. None of them could look him straight in the eye. The youngest, Merle, who was twelve years his junior, about Mae's own age, could barely stand toe to toe with her Hank.

Her thoughts lulled again. They passed an intersection, and she could see miles down the road a brief second before the trees obscured her view again.

She turned forward, her slight smile warm and lazy. Her eyes traced the road ahead. She spotted a someone well in the distance, nearly blending into the trees if not for the bright orange that bulged from a tall backpack. The way it bobbled up and down, even at this distance, was mesmerizing. The man must have heard the rumble of the truck as he spun on a heel and put a hand out with his thumb up.

"Let's pick him, Hank. C'mon, it'll be fun." Mae said, her voice crooning softly as she drew out of her blanket to tug on his shirt.

He gave her a peeved sidelong glance, and shook his head slowly, his steely eyes on her with each wag. They were still at some distance, yet, and Mae felt that it was worth the risk of his fouler moods. This was a fellow traveler, after all, this would be their separate adventures mingling together. This was the Christian thing to do, sharing their blessings.

She hooked a leg around the shifter and, with a quick motion, popped it out of gear causing a brief fit of grinding. This sent the engine roaring in neutral. Hank's brow furrowed further as he shot her a dangerous look. The truck wagged from side to side. He worked the clutch and the shifter to get it back into gear. She reached over and killed the engine by turning the key backward while he was distracted.

"Whatever you're going to do comes later. But for now, you should give that boy a ride." She said as the truck wound down, coasting in neutral.

Hank pressed on the brake, pumping it to a stop in line with the wobbling backpack that had moved well off the road. The man's expression was priceless: wide-eyed and dumbfounded. It was hard to get a good look at him through the dirty windows. She cloud see his lips drawn taut, but as he spotted Mae, his body relaxed and he took a tentative step toward the truck. Hank hissed angrily, but bottled it up quickly. Mae wasn't looking forward to what would come of that anger. She intended to enjoy this precious time, while it lasted.

She reached behind her and unlocked the passenger side of the two-seater. The man had to pull twice on the door to get it to release. A flood of that autumn potpourri eddied into the truck as the man slung his backpack in, then again as he pulled himself into the seat.

"Much appreciated. I've been on that road for Lord knows how long." He spoke the words too easily. She flinched as he took the Lord's name and, at the same time, hoped it didn't show. Not many said His name in vain from where Mae came from. She hoped Hank wouldn't have heard, but she assumed he did. Hank grumbled as he struggled to turn the engine over.

"How do you do? I'm Mae. This is Hank." She said glancing back briefly. The man had moved to the middle of the back bench, his head bobbed out of sight as he pawed around for a seat belt that didn't exist.

"Say hello to the man, Hank." Mae said with a slight condescension. Hank let out a grumbled reply, his words lost as the engine caught hold. Mae wondered how on Earth he was going to find his way in this new job if he could barely put two words together.

The man gave up his search and put his hand on the seat toward Hank. Hank didn't look, but wiped his hand on his flannel button up shirt and gave the man a half-hearted shake.

"The name's Max. I appreciate the ride, Hank."

"And thank you, Ma'am." His attention turned to Mae.

"You are quite welcome." Mae said, turning to meet his gaze as he extended his hand to her.

There was a moment's reverie as she looked to him, her eyes seeking his. She trembled slightly as their eyes met. He was a handsome boy. No, well beyond handsome. Stunning. Penetrating blue eyes, light brown hair that feathered lightly to blond where it had been bleached by the sun. She broke eye contact, giving him a quick, aggressive shake, then turned toward the front of the truck.

She leaned forward twisting, hiding her face from Hank and Max. Pretending to arrange the blankets around her. Her mouth gaped for a moment as a flutter rose inside and swarmed her heart. She touched her face with the hand he'd shaken. She could smell autumn with subtle traces of sweat and the musk of his travels weaving through. She clenched her jaw, fighting down whatever seemed to be clawing to get out.

Mae cleared her throat, trying to find a comfortable position which there was no hope of finding.