SAMPLE STORY: "Homecoming"
By Carolyn Bennett Fraiser
Winner of 2010 Short Story Writing Competition
Country Roads Magazine
The black car rolled around the corner, arising from the Louisiana swampland just a few miles away. The headlights were dark, empty like the hollow eye sockets of the skeleton in Mr. Whitman's science lab. It followed each curve as if driven by a ghost, slowing to a halt in front of the old farmhouse at the end of the road. The driver's door opened. A dark shadow stepped out and stood silently, barely breathing. Exhaust fumes billowed behind him against the black, deserted street.
Jeffrey crawled closer to the corner of the tree house he had built with his uncle last summer. The boards were just far enough apart for him to see the man's silhouette across the dull gray lawn. The night was almost as hot as the day, but the man wore an overcoat that could haul a dead body. His feet sunk into the dried cracked mud at the edge of the pavement, but they didn’t move or even tremble. His gaze locked on the sleeping house solely lit by the night's half moon.
Scooting closer, Jeffrey's curiosity burned hotter than the August heat. Sweat dripped from his scalp. His dark hair curled, sticking to his already damp cheek. Even the mosquitoes didn't venture far from the swamps tonight. The surrounding trees reeked of decaying mold, and the air hung still, draping over his shoulders like a heavy woolen coat. Jeffrey’s breath caught in his throat.
The large cypress at the edge of the woods had been the perfect place for the tree house fort. Long intertwined branches held the platform sturdy in place. The walls rarely creaked, shielded from the road by a moss-covered curtain of leaves. From the west wall, Jeffrey could easily look down on the street yet still remain invisible. It was the perfect hide-a-way.
"Hey Taylor. Check this out." Willie's hoarse whisper cut through the heavy night air.
"Wha-?" Taylor's knee bumped the side of the tree house with a thump. "Ow."
"Hush up. Look at that tin can, will ya?"
The platform vibrated under Taylor's weight as he crawled across the rickety planks. "Who's that?"
"Don't know. Could be Jeff's old man."
"Nah. Ain't he dead or in prison or something?"
"Nobody's sure. Old Miz Barton says that Mr. Roland went crazy after Timothy - you know, Jeffrey's older brother - joined the war. Some say he done himself in right over there in the swamps."
"Man, you know Miz Barton flaps her gums too much."
Jeffrey lay still. No one ever mentioned Pop while he was around. Even his mother had kept quiet about it during the past three years. But he often caught her, watching him closely. He could always feel her eyes on him. Even when she smiled, there was a sadness in her eyes that hadn’t lifted since that day.
She never let him do things normal boys did – like go camping in the swamps or ride his bike down to the Piggly Wiggly. It was only two miles away. What could happen? But there were a lot of things that had changed. He had begged her for weeks to allow him to spend his birthday night in the woods with his friends. Of course, she said no at first to that too. He had expected that. So he pleaded with her every night, trying to change her mind. When she finally gave him, he was too excited to listen to her worried ramblings. It was all he needed. He'd prove to her that he was finally old enough to be the man of the house. After all, he was now 10 years old.
Willie and Taylor had moved to the house next door just before it happened. One year older, the twins were a bit wild for his mom’s standards, but Jeffery liked them. Willie would always boast about some adventure he and Taylor had been on. They never invited Jeffrey to tag along. But tonight was different. It was Jeffery’s turn.
The tree above them rattled as Willie yanked off a dried twig and began to roll it back and forth in his teeth.
"Know what I think? I think Mr. Roland went crazy all right: crazy enough to kill Timothy in those swamps. Just think about it. They were always yelling about something. Mr. Roland disappeared just weeks after Timothy supposedly left. He's probably in prison now. Unless they let him out and he's back to kill the rest of the family!"
"Shut up!" Jeffrey was surprised at his own outburst. "That's not Pop!"
"Cool it man." Willie tried to hide the shock in his voice. "He'll hear us!"
"We just thought," Taylor stuttered, "well, you see the way that man is looking at your house."
Jeffrey peered through the boards again. The man stood motionless at the road. The figure was slight, swallowed up by the overcoat. Pop had stood tall, broader than the cypresses growing in the Louisiana swamps. His hair was always tousled, usually dripping from the sweat of working in the cotton fields. He had always left stubble on his chin, even after a shave.
"I'd know it if it were him."
Taylor and Willie sat silently on the other side of the tree house, their expressions masked by the night. Only their rapid breathing betrayed them. The silence was deafening and still, like a tire swing full of rocks. Jeffrey wished he could send them home and run to his own bed. But no, he was a man now. He had to stick this out. Besides, they had all agreed to stay in the tree house until sunrise.
"Go back to sleep. I gotta take a leak."
"You crazy?” Taylor tapped on the tree house wall. “You wanna go out in those woods with him standing out there? He gives me the creeps.”
“Taylor, you’re such a chicken.”
“Then you go down there.”
Willie slid further into his sleeping bag and pretended to go back to sleep. “Nah, if he bumps Jeffery off, then it’s his problem.”
"I won't go far. I have to do this alone."
Jeffrey eased down the knotted rope, lowering one foot silently onto the ground. Above, the platform creaked and he could hear Taylor and Willie’s whispering. What did they know? Nothing. That's right, nothing. Pop worked hard. He would never, he could never. Ridiculous. All of it was ridiculous!
The moonlight fell through the dome of leaves into pieces on the dirty trail. Jeffrey tiptoed along the path to the road, slipping from shadow to shadow under the trees.
None of this was fair. He had only been seven the night his brother ran away – the night his mother's crying beckoned him from his bedroom into the midst of a war. He had followed the voices to the kitchen door and hid behind the cast iron stove to watch.
Pop was angry, that much he did know. He always got that look in his eye when someone was about to get a whoopin. He was yelling something about Roosevelt. He was the President. Jeffrey’s teacher had talked about Roosevelt that week at school, but he couldn’t remember anything about it. He had been too busy trading marbles with Ruthie. She had pretty green eyes.
Timothy paced in front of the window overlooking the distant marshes. His hands trembled. His face looked paler and tighter than usual.
"I can't Pop. Can't you understand? I just can't do it!"
Arthur Roland slammed his fist into the oak table and thrust his forefinger into his son’s face. "It takes a man to fight. If you aren't a man, you're a coward and a failure to your country!"
"I'm just 18. You know I've never been strong. How can you ask this of me?"
"Pop, you fought in the Great War. Your own brother took a bullet for you!"
Pop’s hand cracked across Timothy's right cheek. Jeffrey snuggled even deeper into the shadows as his brother stumbled and fell against the sharp edge of the broiler. His mother gasped. Jumping from her chair, she lounged toward him, but Pop blocked her path. Timothy pulled himself up, shaking even more. Blood dripped down his cheek from the gash just below his left eye. His nose was already starting to bleed again.
"I'm not asking you Timothy. Your country is telling you." Pop’s brow tightened. His chest heaved and rattled. He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. "If you don't do this, Son, you are no longer a part of this family."
"Arthur, no..." his mother grabbed the corner Pop’s threadbare cotton shirt.
"Keep your peace Marian." Without looking at Timothy, Pop grabbed a pack of cigarettes and kicked open the back door. "I've said mine." The door slammed shut and the house was silent except for his mother's crying.
Jeffrey stared at the ceiling in his bedroom the rest of the night. Just before dawn, his door creaked open. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Footsteps walked across the room and paused by his bed. Silence lingered for several minutes before the footsteps turned and walked towards the bedroom door.
"Good-bye Squirt." Jeffrey had never seen his brother cry, but Timothy’s voice trembled under his words.
By morning, Timothy was gone. For three weeks, Pop would not speak. One day he left for work and never returned. Mom cried for months. Sometimes he could still hear her at night, pleading for God to bring them home.
But God didn’t. Pop and Timothy never returned. Mom did her best. She took a teaching job at his school so she could be home with him in the evenings. But the cotton fields were left unattended and soon dried up. Some months, they only ate beans and rice. Every now and then, a neighbor gave them a piece of meat or some fruit. No, it hadn’t been fair. But now it was his turn. His turn to take care of things…and mom.
Jeffrey peered over the shrubs at the end of the trail. The idling automobile sat only twenty yards away. The man stood still, as if he was cemented to the earth. In the moonlight, his face looked almost bloodless, yet familiar. He leaned forward for a closer look.
Beneath his heel, a twig snapped. At first, the man didn't wake from his trance. Jeffrey froze, hoping he had not been discovered. He clenched his fist and kept his breath bottled tightly. Each second dragged on for years. The visitor turned slightly and dropped his jaw at the sight of him.
Jeffrey stared into his eyes for several minutes. No. It just couldn't be. The cheekbones were sharper than he remembered, his hair darker and longer, but just below his left eye was the dark shadow of a scar.
"Timothy." The whisper fell to the ground a few feet from Jeffrey's lips. He pried his feet loose and ran towards his brother. "You've come home."
Timothy shook his head as if he was trying to rid himself of the ghosts that rattled in his brain. "I'm afraid not, Squirt."
Jeffery’s feet suddenly became heavy. His feet froze in the mud just a few feet away from his brother. "But why?"
"I shamed them. Dad disowned me. I can't ever come home."
"But Pop took off. Mom's been praying...She, she forgave you long ago."
Timothy’s eyes dropped to the ground. He inhaled a deep breath. Lines creased his forehead. He turned and stared at the quiet farmhouse. "It's...it's just too soon. I'm not ready to be forgiven."
"No kid. Maybe, someday...maybe. I know you'll take care of her until then."
For what seemed like hours, the two stood there, staring at each other. In his mind, Jeffery begged his brother to stay, but when his mouth opened, only silence fell from his lips. Time had changed him, made him smaller somehow. But he recognized the same sadness in his brother’s eyes.
A mosquito or two buzzed nearby as strands of light began to creep above the horizon. Jeffery stood aside as his brother turned and walked back to the black car. Without another word, Timothy opened the door and disappeared into the darkness inside. The car turned around and vanished over the hill towards the swamp.
Jeffery looked back at the house. The grays became a little warmer as morning advanced. His eyes darted back to the tree house where his friends slept, dreaming up some adventure to share with everyone the next morning about the visit from the strange man. By noon, it would be all over town, thanks to Missus Barton.
But the house and trees looked different somehow, altered. He no longer cared what everyone would say. But he also knew that although nothing would change, it would never be the same again.