Short Fiction

The Strength of Love

Driving home after a ten-hour shift, Ronald did not feel sleepy at all as he unlocked the car door in the brisk night air of the parking lot. He thought about Laura and the kids snuggled safe and warm in their beds at home and smiled to himself. Multiple breakdowns on the line tonight had demanded his full attention, and his mind was still working at warp speed as he slid into the bucket seat of the old Falcon. He worried about Al, a fellow employee who had lost part of his finger in the cutting machine a couple of hours ago. He reminded himself to call the hospital and check on him when he got home.

Life was good for him and Laura. He had worked for the Company for eight years now, earning good wages and basking in the knowledge of a secure job. He and Laura signed the papers for their new house only a month ago, just a two-bedroom bungalow in an ordinary neighborhood, but it was a mansion to them after living so long in a cramped apartment. The kids were wild over the big yard, and Ronald thought about the swing set still boxed up on the back porch. He would get a few hours sleep when he got home and start putting it together as soon as it got light.

Chilled by the forty-degree temperature, Ronald turned on the heater and within minutes a blast of warm air ran up his cold legs, tickled his fingers on the wheel and brushed lightly against his five o’clock shadow. Remembering a little bit of coffee left in his thermos, he slid his hand along the other seat until he felt the cold metal cap that served as a cup. Bracing the thermos between his legs, he unscrewed the top and, keeping one hand on the wheel, he set the cup on the dash and poured the lukewarm black liquid into it. He felt the slight warmth of the metal on his cold hand as he tilted the cup and drained it. The tension from the night’s work flowed from his warming muscles just as the coffee flowed from the cup. He relaxed and settled in for his ride home.

Lebanon Road connected the industrial area, where he worked, to the residential area where he and Laura now lived. It was curvy, hardly wide enough for two-way traffic with one shoulder dropping off into the River. Clay deposits under the roadbed continually kept it in disrepair and this problem held traffic to a minimum, especially early on a dark, foggy morning.

Ronald turned the knob on the radio and hummed along as old blue-eyes sang one of his favorites. Lost in thought and comfortable from the warm air blasting out of the heater, Ronald’s eyelids drooped and his breathing slowed, exhaustion from his demanding shift overwhelming him. Overtaxed muscles refused to keep his hands clutched around the steering wheel.

Without a human grip, the bump in the road whipped the steering wheel hard to the right, catching Ronald’s left wrist, drawing it into the spinning circle and cracking the bones. For only a second, Ronald’s eyes opened wide, fraught with the unbearable pain. The Falcon plunged down the bank, sliding into the muck of the Murderkill, stopping abruptly as its nose met the sticky claylike underbed. Ronald’s face, unrestrained, bashed into the steering wheel, creating a hairline separation in his right mandible and loosening the roots of several teeth. Blood oozed from his nose and mouth. Minutes ticked by on the dashboard clock as the radio light dimmed into nonexistence. Water seeped into the car from holes in the vehicle’s floorboard and wet Ronald’s unmoving feet inside their workboots.

His motionless body lay crumpled over the steering wheel of the 1963 Ford Falcon, his left arm twisting through the wheel at an incongruous angle. The foggy night air seemed foreboding, mixed with the scent of gasoline and cut by the beams of two waning headlights. Murky water from the creek insidiously crept around the sinking tires, licking the rubber with faint lapping noises. After the impact of the crash, the silence became deafening. The lonely stretch of road curved along the Murderkill River, appropriately named for this night. A muskrat slithered close by but scurried off in the opposite direction as the oily film brushed its paws.

Reacting to the frigid wetness, Ronald’s body shook convulsively bringing him to an elusive state of consciousness. Even before feeling his discomfort, he thought of Laura and his children. He had to get home to put together that swing set still in its box on the back porch.. He envisioned Jess and Jenny swinging high in the air, he and Laura pushing from behind. Laura had a doctor’s appointment next week. She suspected she was pregnant. Life was not something he would give up easily. Aware of his pain and his desolate situation, messages surrepticiously crept along his nerve endings. His awakening brain calculated the zero possibility of a passerby finding him in the dark at the bottom of the bank. To have any chance of seeing his loved ones again, somehow he must get back up to the roadway.

The pain in his left arm as he tried to move it from the steering wheel almost made him black out again, but he thought about Laura and the new life that might be growing inside her. He struggled to slip his right arm out of his jacket. Dragging the sleeve over his right shoulder and across his chest, his trembling fingers captured the button on the left sleeve into the buttonhole on the right sleeve’s cuff, forming a makeshift sling of support for his useless left arm. He forced himself to sit still and take deep breaths, thinking of nothing but his goal of getting home to Laura.

Feeling his wet, cold feet, he inched them back toward him and realized nothing else was hurt. He twisted just enough in the seat to open the door with his right hand and lifted his left leg over and out, his boot sinking into water and mud. In excruciating pain from his broken arm, salty tears burned his torn lips as they tracked down his broken face. Concentrating on how he would put together the swing set, he mentally lifted the metal bars from the cardboard box, laying them out in their swing set design, focusing on which screw went where. He pushed the tortuous pain wracking his arm and shoulder behind the thought of home.

Fully turned to the outside in the bucket seat, he slid his right foot beside its mate into the water. Holding onto the car door, he stood on legs not yet supportable and fell forward into the watery mud and clay at the edge of the Murderkill. He lay there motionless for several minutes until the biting cold jerked him conscious again. Reaching out with his right hand, he grabbed for shrub, weed, anything to pull himself upward to the edge of the roadway. Sliding his knees up one at a time and digging in with his toes, he inched higher. Without a true sense of time, he could not tell how long his journey was taking, but he knew he was making progress because his feet were no longer in water. The next time he searched for something to grip, he felt the little cutting pebbles of the asphalt. He lay still and waited.

He heard the noisy muffler and smelled the oil burner long before he saw the bouncing headlights. Summoning all his remaining strength, he rolled onto his back and waved his good right arm as high as he could reach, casting a ghostly apparition into the beam of one of the oncoming lights. The vehicle stopped just inches before hitting him, piercing the night with the metallic squeal of worn brakes. Ronald listened to the noisy screech of the opening door and the sound of running footsteps on the asphalt The brim of a Philly's baseball cap swam before his eyes as the driver leaned over him. Only then did Ronald allow the peaceful sleep of oblivion to swallow him, satisfied he would see Laura and the children soon.

~~~~~

Quiet Time

Jenny heard the front door slam and knew he was home. Every muscle in her body tensed as she automatically began to tiptoe around.

“Hello, dear. Did you have a good day?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Sure, dummy. I had a great day loading and unloading rich people’s furniture. What kinda day you think I had?”

Bumping her on the shoulder as he breezed past, he headed toward the bedroom. “I gotta get some sleep, and you better keep the noise down. I don’t wanna hear a peep outa those kids today!”

“Don’t worry. They’re playing a game outside today, dear. Sleep well.”

As the bedroom door slammed shut, Jenny quietly sat down on an old brown chair with stuffing popping out all over. She looked around at her tiny, rundown apartment. With no room for storage, her children’s toys littered the well-scrubbed floor. She did have to give Doug credit for that. He wasn’t stingy about toys for the kids. Anything to keep them occupied.

Jenny walked to the window and saw her two children playing in the street. That Danny could really hit a baseball.

While daydreaming at the window, it happened. Glass shards soared through the air as the baseball made a path through the clutter of bikes, helmets, and roller skates coming to rest near a skateboard by the bedroom door.

Jenny’s hand flew to her mouth as she heard the bed creak. The outside handle fell off the door as Doug yanked it open. Jenny could see the veins pulsing in his beet red face. Cowering down on her knees, she prepared for the blow. She didn’t see Doug’s foot land on the baseball. Her head snapped up at the sound of the thud. All was silent as a little smile crept onto Jenny’s mouth.



~~~~~~

The Jazz Festival

"Okay, kids, get your stuff and get in the car. We're ready to go." Sheila lugged the cooler out the side door and set it down near the back of the SUV. She had finally talked her husband, Joe, into going to the August Jazz Festival on the waterfront, mainly because it was free. He normally refused since the temperature was always in the nineties and the park was so crowded. This time, though, with a forecast of the low eighties, he gave in but was still unwilling to contribute much help.

Sheila had packed the cooler with a feast fit for a king. There was fried chicken, potato salad, a cucumber and tomato vinaigrette and a gallon of unsweetened tea.

"Mom, Angie won't give me my Frisbee," Joey yelled as the screen door slammed behind him almost smacking Angie in the face.

"Joe, we are ready to go if you will put the cooler in the car for me. Angie, Joey, you two had better settle down right now."

Angie looked so cute in her little pink shorts and matching top with "princess" written across the front in bright sparkly letters. Sheila had fixed her blonde hair in two ponytails with matching pink ribbons. Having turned six a couple of months ago and ready to start first grade, Sheila suspected Angie was getting a sense of her own power over adults and her brother. Her cuteness drew oohs and ahs, and she was testing everyone's authority.

"Mommy, Joey hit me with the door on purpose," Angie whined as tears welled up in her big blue eyes.

Sheila realized Joey was at a loss to understand his sister. Angie used to be so eager to get along and play with him. He was eight, and he had always been the boss.

"Angie, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were right behind me," Joey said trying to make amends. It seemed to Sheila like he was always giving in to Angie lately.

Finally, everyone was inside the car and ready to go. Joey and Angie couldn't quit picking at each other so Sheila got into the back seat and had Joey sit up front, the normal routine on family outings lately. As the air conditioner cooled down the temperature and the vehicle began to move, the kids quieted down.

"I'm really glad we decided to go, honey. Sorry I wasn't much help, but I'll make it up to you when we get to the park. You can load me down." Joe was really a great husband.

Waterfront Park was around thirty minutes away, and traffic was always heavy in the city of more than 700,000 people. By the time they arrived in mid-morning, the Jazz Festival was well underway. Thousands of colorful blankets were spread over deep green grass with a few shade trees sprinkled here and there for cover for the lucky few. Lawn chairs of all shapes and hues dotted the landscape like growing plants. Moms and dads lounged while children spent their pent up energy throwing Frisbees or kicking soccer balls near the beach areas. Multiple entertainment grandstands graced the eastern end of the park with blankets radiating outward for new arrivals to take the next available space. Roberta Flack and Dave Brubeck were the main attractions with numerous local talent rounding out the program.

Sheila and Joe settled in a vacant area near a duck pond to soak up the sun and listen to the local talent now performing. Grabbing a container of bread Sheila had packed for the purpose, Joey and Angie headed toward the pond to feed the ducks. Sheila and Joe settled in their lawn chairs to enjoy the music.

~~~~~~~~


"Mommy, Mommy wake up. Some lady took Angie to get an ice cream. It's been a long time, and they haven't come back." Joey was frantically pulling on Sheila's arm. Having drifted off to sleep in the warm sunshine, Sheila and Joe woke with a start at Joey's commotion.

With a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach, Sheila asked, "What lady, Joey? Did you know her?"

"No, Mommy. Sh.she just seemed nice and wa..wanted to buy Angie an ice cream," Joey stammered as big tears started to roll down his cheeks. "When's Angie coming back, Mommy?" Joey started to cry in earnest.

"We'll find her, Joey. Show me where you last saw Angie," Joe said with fear creeping into his voice..

Joey quickly grabbed his dad's hand and pulled him toward the duck pond. As they all neared the water's edge, Sheila heard the sweetest sound she could have imagined.

"Mommy, Mommy, I'm coming." Angie's little pink-sandalled feet were flying over the grass toward her family. With a blotchy red face and ice cream stuck to her glittery "princess", she jumped into her mom's waiting arms. They all sank down on the sandy shore as the words tumbled out of Angie.

"Mommy, a lady got me an ice cream and then she wanted me to get in her car. I remembered what you told me about never getting in a car with strangers. I didn't even thank her for the ice cream. I just ran away. I was scared I couldn't find you." Angie started crying so hard she couldn't say anymore.

"You did exactly the right thing, sweetie. I know you won't ever go off with a stranger again. We love you, sweetie."

Sheila realized how lucky they had been and resolved never to take her eyes off her kids again when they were in public. Carrying Angie, Sheila, Joe and Joey walked back to their blanket and sat down. Sheila washed Angie's face with a cloth from the cooler, and soon she was the precocious little girl she had been before.

"I'm starved. How about you guys?" Joe asked as he dug out the fried chicken.

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