PIECES OF DESTINY
I awoke some hours later to find my arm lying across an empty bed. Travis had slipped away sometime during the night, apparently to get back to the farmhouse before morning.
I yawned and glanced at my Swatch wristwatch. It was 6:14AM. Technically, I still had about fifteen minutes before the Colts would awaken to have breakfast and get ready for church.
Oh, joy — another two hours of Reverend Abrams’ fine hellfire-and-brimstone sermons, I thought with a wince. That’s only slightly less entertaining than an episode of Hell’s Kitchen.
My chest and stomach resembled a glazed doughnut, the remnants of last night’s quickie with Travis. Definitely time for a shower. I slid down the creaky wooden ladder, then trudged out into the chilly morning air, grabbed two empty wooden buckets, and filled them from the water pump by the back porch. I shivered as I maneuvered the pump handle, then lugged the buckets back to the barn and closed the door behind me.
I stripped off, gritted my teeth, and dunked the first bucket over my head. I let out a soft curse and shivered as the water gushed down my back. Unlike Travis, who had the uncanny ability to look dazzling just by rolling out of bed, I needed a lot of finesse and tweaking just to look halfway decent. I reached for the shampoo and began to scrub. My fingers were still slightly sore from the punishment I had endured from Twitly in class two days ago, and I still had a few bruises and scuffs from rescuing Faith in the well, but they seemed to be healing okay.
Without thinking, I began idly lathering up my groin, and I was hard in seconds. I seemed to be horny all the time these days, and last night’s session with Travis had only whetted my appetite. God, he looked incredible. I gave a few tentative strokes, then jumped when I heard a noise behind me.
“Ya already havin’ fun without me?” chided a familiar voice.
“Jesus!” I said, pulling a towel around my waist as he closed the barn door behind him. “You scared the shit out of me, Travis! Don’t do that to a guy, especially this early in the morning.”
He laughed. “Don’t let me interrupt,” he said as he walked over to the cows’ pen and filled their feeding troughs. “Mama says she’ll have eggs and bacon on the table in five minutes.”
He looked at me and gave me a sly smile, his lips slightly parted.
“Stop doing that,” I said, adjusting my towel.
“Stop doin’ what?” he said, with a lopsided grin.
“That totally sexy thing you do with your mouth,” I said, walking up to him. “If you keep turning me on like that, I’m never gonna be able to leave the barn.”
Travis laughed. “I declare, half the time I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
I reached around his waist and pulled him to me. “And what about the other half?”
He smiled shyly and leaned his head closer to mine. “I know ya well enough.”
“So now you believe that I’m telling the truth?”
Travis let out a long sigh, then laid the empty feed box down on the sawdust floor and looked me in the eye. “I think you hit your head pretty damn hard inside that cave last week.”
“But I didn’t...”
“Hear me out,” he continued. “Whether you’re really from here or some other place...”
“...or some other time, like 2007,” I reminded him.
He rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say. I’ll give ya this much: I reckon you believe you’re tellin’ the truth, so as far’s I’m concerned, you ain’t lyin’. That’s enough for now. That don’t make me like ya any less.”
Before I could answer, Mrs. Colt clanged the bell from the kitchen door at the back of the house. “Travis! Jason! You boys come inside and get it while it’s still hot.”
I leaned over and kissed Travis. “Not as hot as you are,” I said.
He giggled. He darted outside and slammed the door, and I reached for the other bucket and began to rinse off.
§ § § § §
Forty minutes later, we were bouncing along the Old Country Road towards downtown St. Louis. The previous day’s light snowfall had melted, and the wagon wheels cut through the muddy slush.
“Now, what in the Sam Hill are you boys laughing about now?” Mrs. Colt admonished, as she adjusted Lem’s collar. “The way you two are carryin’ on... you best not be up to any foolishness. Hold still now, Lem!”
I grinned. Travis looked like an entirely different person when he smiled. He was usually so grim, as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. It was great to see him laugh. And he looked totally hot in his Sunday clothes — a striking change from his usual denim overalls.
I didn’t relish going along with the family again to church, but I decided to avoid risking the wrath of Mr. Colt. The five of us rode down the dirt road in the family wagon, Travis and I talking quietly in the back, trying to keep our voices low. He wanted more details about yesterday’s adventures.
“So, did Faith actually grab your John Thomas?” he asked in a low voice.
“Well, she got pretty close,” I whispered back. “One more minute, and let’s just say I might’ve had my hands on more Faith than anybody’s ever experienced inside a church.”
Travis let out a loud hoot.
“Settle down back there,” Mr. Colt warned. “I want no tomfoolery during this mornin’s service.”
“What’re ya’ll talkin’ about?” asked Lem, giving us a curious look. “You plannin’ on somethin’ for later?”
“You hush now, Lem,” snapped Mrs. Colt. “Read your Bible.”
Travis continued to prod me for details.
“I told you last night,” I whispered. “I’m into guys, not girls.”
He seemed perplexed. “But what you and me do... that’s just for fun.”
I shook my head. “To some people, it’s how they live every day. There’re millions of us back where I come from: whole areas with guys who go out with other guys, women with women, even getting married... or at least living together. They’re all just ordinary people. It’s not so bad in the right parts of the world.”
“Don’t sound natural to me.”
I sighed. “Well, it’s not accepted everywhere. They only just started allowing same-sex couples to go to the proms at my school. But it’s not nearly as big a deal as it used to be, at least in America.”
“Same-sex couples,” he said, lost in thought.
I let him mull that over for a while. I didn’t want to overwhelm Travis too much with the details of life back in my world. More than likely, his destiny was to stay here in the Missouri of 1864. For all I knew, he was probably meant to marry somebody — most likely a cute girl like Faith — and the two of them would have great-looking kids who would grow up and maybe someday do something important with their lives in the 1800s.
But not me, I thought. My place is back in 2007. And the sooner I got back where I belonged, the better. But how?
I leaned back against the rough wood of the wagon and glanced toward Travis as he stared off into the woods. I sighed, thinking back to our escapades in the hayloft. Last night was probably the first real kiss of my life — well, the first one where I was sure the other person actually loved me, anyway. I guess that was worth remembering.
It took us nearly an hour to reach the First Baptist Church, thanks to some fresh potholes, along with several flooded-out sections that threatened to turn the Old Country Road into a river. A crowd milled around the front of the main sanctuary as we arrived. I caught a glimpse of Faith in the distance, just as several people helped her limp up the steps and enter through the large white doorway.
We took our seats by the aisle, towards the back section of the pews. The air inside the cathedral was warm, giving the atmosphere a drowsy, misty quality. My slumber was occasionally broken when we stood to join in one of the gospel songs, with Travis and I sharing a hymnal tucked in a pocket carved into the back of the hardwood seats.
I dozed through Reverend Abrams’ sermon, jumping every so often when his voice suddenly blared out, emphasizing one phrase or another. Over the next couple of hours, I reflected on the events I’d experienced in Missouri. Today was October 23rd, which meant I’d been in 1864 almost ten days. I felt as though I had a foot firmly in two different centuries at the same time. But the world of 2007 was growing dimmer, and the reality of this world felt overwhelming.
As my mind began to wander, I began to drift off to sleep. I’m not sure how long I’d been unconscious — it could’ve been as little as five minutes or as long as a half hour — but I was suddenly aware of a dozen eyes staring at me from the nearest row. I looked up to see Reverend Abrams walking towards our row from more than twenty feet away, his eyes burning into me like laser beams.
“He’s talkin’ ‘bout ya, Jason!” Travis hissed, elbowing me on my left side. “Stand up!”
“Wha?” I said, dizzily getting up to my feet, grabbing the seat in front of me for support.
“This boy,” he blared, his voice thundering through the church, “Jason Thomas, is a stranger to our town. But he is not a stranger in the eyes of the Lord! This young man very nearly sacrificed his own life for that of another. By any definition, I believe Jason Thomas, nephew of our own recently-departed Olivia, is an angel upon this earth! The very epitome of unselfishness and heroism... a true Christian.”
Reverend Abrams suddenly leaned forward and smiled, revealing a neat row of teeth, but there was no smile in his eyes.
“Thanks to young Jason here, Faith Shaw is still alive and walks the Earth. For that, we owe you many thanks.”
I smiled meekly as several church members broke out into applause. Faith suddenly appeared in the aisle, hobbling with a white cane and aided by her mother and a young black servant girl. The reverend put his arm around Faith as she stood beside me.
“God bless you, Jason,” he said, gesturing his arms theatrically. “And may good tidings shine on you for all the days of your life!”
I nodded my thanks and waved to the cheering crowd. Faith looked slightly embarrassed. I gave her a little shrug and she giggled.
The choir broke out into song and we joined in. Faith’s voice was powerful and blended perfectly with the crowd, ringing through the church like a bell. She’s almost an 1864 version of a young Mariah Carey, I mused, only with a little more attitude.
§ § § § §
As we left the main hall following the service, Faith caught up to me and pulled me down a corridor and into a small room, then closed the door behind us.
“I’m so very sorry for yesterday,” she said breathlessly. “My behavior was absolutely horrid! I hope you can find a way in your heart to forgive me.”
“It’s okay, Faith,” I said. “No big deal. We were just lucky I was there to catch you.”
She stepped a little closer, her face slightly reddening. “And I’m also very sorry I acted so indecently. You... you haven’t told anyone what happened — the details, I mean.”
I grinned. “I’m flattered you liked me that much, Faith. But I’m already involved with somebody else.”
“I appreciate your honor. And your discretion.” She gazed at me, her eyes shining slightly. “I was wrong about you, Jason. You’re truly a gentleman after all. Your young lady is certainly lucky to have you... whoever she is.”
“Nice accessorizing,” I said, quickly changing the subject and pointing to the white ribbon on her cane, giving it a little tug. “Definitely a touch of glamour. Did the doctor say you were alright?”
“Oh, yes. I have a few cuts and bruises and I’ve sprained my ankle, but at least it’s not broken. It could have been so much worse.”
“Jason!” yelled a voice from outside the door. “You in there, boy?”
“That’s Colt,” I said, pulling away from her. “Gotta go.”
As I opened the door, Faith half stumbled, the cane slipping on the wooden floor. I caught her from falling, her face only a few inches from mine.
“Stealin’ kisses,” Colt muttered, as he reached in and pulled me into the hallway. “In a church, no less! Git along with ya, boy.”
Mrs. Colt clucked at us as we joined the crowd at the stone steps in front of the main hall.
“Should I be jealous?” whispered Travis, as we jogged along the path to Sunday school, Lem at our heels.
“Not unless Faith gets a sex change in the near future,” I said in a low voice.
Travis gave me an odd look. “You’re gonna have to explain that one to me sometime.”
“I mean, you’re safe as long as Faith stays a girl. It’s a joke.”
“I know a joke!” cried Lem, who’d caught up to us. “What has a bed, but doesn’t sleep; has a mouth, but doesn’t speak; and always runs, but never walks?”
“That’s not a joke — that’s a riddle.”
“I’ll tell you one,” Travis replied, as we started up the steps. “There was a man from Nantucket...”
“Ah, better not tell that one in church, dude,” I said, as we reached the class. “Save it for the R-rated ride home.”
§ § § § §
“But sir,” Travis began, “I did my chores all day yesterday, and I already got the hogs ready to take to town tomorrow morning. We’re only gonna be gone an hour or two.”
It was around 2PM. Mr. Colt eyed us both suspiciously. Travis and I had already changed clothes and planned to head out to what he called his ‘secret spot.’ Back in the barn, Travis had acted very mysteriously and would only laugh when I asked him for details.
Colt gave us a wary glance. “There’s still more work to be done afore supper,” he warned. He spat on the ground and pointed to the wet glob glistening in the afternoon sun. “You best be back home before that dries, hear?”
Thanks for the visual, I thought, as Travis nodded glumly and herded me down the dirt path that led out to the woods on the south side of the farm. The day had warmed up, the sun chasing away the chilly remnants of the late-October air. A low wind rustled through the trees, scattering the orange and brown leaves, which rained down like a curtain. The forest began to thicken, and I nearly tripped over an overgrown root that abruptly jutted out of the ground like a sidewalk curb.
“Where we going?” I asked, pushing my way through the bushes and branches, ducking just as a limb thwacked back. This was a part of the Colt farm property I had never been through before, well off the main road.
“You’ll see,” said Travis, taking a sharp turn to the right.
After about ten minutes, the ground began to slope upwards and we emerged from the trees and into the sunlight. Travis ran up to the top of a nearby grassy hill and held his hands out.
“Come see!” he shouted. “Quick, else you’ll miss it!”
I charged up the hill and stood beside him, half out of breath. Below was a majestic view of the vast Missouri River, the waves choppy with activity, the banks sprinkled with wooden platforms and port workers. Several large boats were tied up at the main dock about half a mile away, and we watched as burly men maneuvered large nets bulging with cargo. In the distance, a white-and-blue riverboat tooted its horn, shooting a white puff of smoke high in the air. The paddlewheels sliced effortlessly through the water, and I watched as deck hands scurried around on the bow.
Travis grinned ear to ear. “Ain’t it beautiful? Looks like the whole world’s out there.”
I had to admit, it was. “You come here often?”
“This was me ‘n Billy’s secret. We’d come up here and watch the boats for hours on end.” He gave me a slightly shy smile. “I never let anybody else up here before.”
I grinned. “I’m honored.”
Travis turned and pointed to a wide stream that led to the right. “That way yonder leads to the Mississippi River. Practic’ly all the way from New Orleans to Montana. Lotsa ships come through here, comin’ from everywhere and goin’ to anywhere.”
He paused, then nodded towards a large freighter that was pulling around the bend. I turned to see a dozen men frantically scurrying around on the deck, apparently concerned because a paddlewheel ship was coming close on the right.
“Mark Ta-Ree!” yelled one, yanking a long rope out of the water.
I felt confused. “Is that guy speaking English?” I asked.
“That means the water’s ‘bout eighteen feet deep out there,” he said. “It’s the sounding line. Look, they’re about to make a turn. Ain’t that somethin’?”
The freighter slowly slid to the left, giving the paddlewheel boat a wide berth. The steamboat gave two sharp toots in response and continued on its path.
Travis sat down on the grassy hill, then grabbed a weed and began idly chewing it. I sat alongside him and leaned back on my elbows. We stared out at the water, which was deep blue in the center, fading to a rusty color as it lapped against the muddy banks. A warm breeze rippled the trees in back of us, and the twin flags of the riverboat flapped in the wind as the ship roared down the river.
The boat was broadly decorated in red and white, and the center section was dominated by two enormous black cylinders that jutted up towards the sky. Three decks were crowded with passengers, many wearing fancy clothes and carrying umbrellas. I had seen a theme park replica of a ship like it at Disneyland a couple of years before — in my old life, that is — but that was like a movie prop compared to the real thing. A sign on the left side declared that it was the S.S. Westwind, owned by something called the Boonville Steamboat Company. Travis and I waved, and a couple of the passengers leaning on the railing waved back.
“Beautiful, ain’t it? Ya got any ships like that back home?”
I shrugged. “They’re different back in Seattle,” I said. “Mostly diesel freighters. I’ve seen some come in from China, Japan, places like that, bringing them into the Port of Seattle.”
Travis seemed impressed. “Ya’ll got rivers like this?”
“Better than that. Seattle’s right on the Pacific Ocean. More water you can imagine – all the way to the horizon. Goes on forever, once you get around Puget Sound, like 6000 miles to Hong Kong.”
“The ocean!” He let out a reverential sigh. “I’d surely like to see that someday. Must be mighty beautiful.”
“That’s nothing,” I said. “You oughta see Malibu and Santa Monica. I’ve been there twice — people having fun at the beach during the summer. That’s down in California. My father’s boss had a place down there, and we got invited a couple of times. Even waterskied, though I fell off most of the time. Still a lotta fun.”
Noticing Travis’ quizzical expression, I explained, pantomiming the experience. “Skiing is when you stand on two flat sticks and hold onto a rope. A boat tows you real fast and you sort of skim on the surface of the water, like skipping a stone. Takes some practice, though, and it’s embarrassing when you fall down. But it’s a lotta fun in the summer.”
“Summer’s over with here,” he said, staring at the steamboat, as it rumbled by, then arced around and continued further south down the river. “Gonna get colder soon.”
I wiped some sweat off my brow. “Weather feels warm to me at the moment,” I said.
“‘Tis for now,” he said, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of grass. “But it ain’t nothin’ but Injun summer.”
He nodded. “Yep. Mother Nature fools us at the end of October: gives us just one more taste of summer, then snatches it back just when winter comes in. It’ll be hailin’ and snowin’ somethin’ fierce before long. Kinda cruel, if ya ask me.”
We stared out at the riverboat as it faded into the distance, the paddlewheels churning the water into a murky white foam in the back.
“Me and Billy talked about runnin’ away on a steamboat like that,” Travis said, nodding at the sight in front of us. “Maybe get jobs on the deck crew. Even be captains someday.” He had a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes.
“Where would you go?” I asked.
Travis spat the weed out then picked another. “Anyplace but here, I reckon,” he said with a sigh. “My brother’s been gone almost a year now. Mama thinks he died in Atlanta. His letters stopped comin’ in April, but I think he’s still alive somehow. Maybe a Yankee prisoner at Camp Morton in Indiana.”
“The war’s not gonna last that much longer,” I said. “Six months, tops. Guaranteed.”
Travis snorted. “People ‘round here been sayin’ that for more’n four years now.”
I leaned on my elbow, my face only a foot or so away from his. “Hey, don’t think about the war,” I said quietly. “You’ve gotta hang on to the good things in life. Things can always be a lot worse.”
“That’s what my Grandma used ta say. I’m just tired of waitin’ for things to get better. I ain’t never gonna be nothin’, anyway.”
“Don’t say that.”
He looked away. “I think sodbustin’ is the only thing I’m ever gonna be good for. Ain’t gonna amount to nothin’ more than just a farmboy.”
I gently turned his head back and brushed his blond bangs out of his eyes. “C’mon. It doesn’t have to be that way, Travis,” I said quietly. “You could study, go to school... make something of yourself. Even be a doctor or lawyer or something. Just because you grew up on a farm doesn’t mean you have to stay here forever.” Hell, I thought. He could easily be a top model in 2007, on the cover of GQ.
Travis stared off in the distance. “Not long after Billy ran away and joined the Confederates, I ’member somethin’ that happened: I was cleanin’ out the barn by myself, with the doors partly open. Dang if a bird didn’t fly inside, right out of the blue. It looked mighty confused – started flyin’ this way and that, squawkin’ up a storm, thrashin’ about. Poor thing finally started smashin’ itself into the walls. It did it over and over again, just in a state, like it was tryin’ to kill itself.”
“What’d you do?”
He made a hapless gesture. “I tried to shoo it out, opened the barn door as wide as I could. But it could hardly see straight. It was like it was so panicked that it wanted to die. Once it believed it was never gonna be able to escape, it’d rather kill itself than live another day.”
Travis hesitated, then stared at me. “Sometimes I know just how that bird felt: like I’m trapped here forever and I ain’t ever gonna be able to get away from Colt’s farm.”
I shook my head. “No, no,” I said reassuringly. “Travis, listen to me. Your life isn’t that bad. You’ve got a roof over your head and a warm bed. You’re learning stuff in school. Your mom seems pretty nice. I know Colt is an asshole sometimes, but your brother’s a good kid.”
“Lem’s alright. But that man Colt is the devil hisself, through and through. And Mama...” He let his voice trail off and looked away. “She turns a blind eye to all the evil things he done.” He was nearly in tears.
“Come on, Travis,” I started. “It’s not that bad.”
“You remember him thrashin’ me, not a week ago?” he cried, his voice shaking. “She’s never lifted a finger to stop him! And there’s worse’n that.”
His face was full of anguish, and I reached out to his shoulder and gave him a gentle squeeze. Travis froze at my touch, momentarily panicked. By his expression I could see he was trying to decide if he should say more. We stood there silent for more than thirty seconds, but I waited to give him a chance to continue.
Suddenly, we were both startled as a steamboat about a hundred yards offshore sounded its mournful horn, sending up a tall column of vapor. That seemed to break the mood.
“We gotta get home,” he said, pulling away and letting my hand fall back. “Colt’s spit is prob’bly dry by now. He’ll give me a whippin’ for sure if I’m late.” He stood up and patted some of the loose grass off his overalls, then turned and started back for the trees.
I trotted up behind him and touched his shoulder. “Hey,” I said. “We might be able to come up with a positive solution here.”
“I got no options,” he said matter-of-factly as he brushed the leaves off his pants. “I’m a prisoner on that farm, surely as a slave tied up in chains. Nowhere to run.”
I followed him down the hill. “Nowhere to run to, baby... nowhere to hide,” I sang.
“Does everything have to be a song to you?” he snapped over his shoulder.
“Sorry — bad habit. One of my favorite oldies.” I caught up to him and pulled him short.
“What?” he looked angry, almost on the verge of tears.
“Travis, we always have options. Look, I’ve got some money... it isn’t much, but I’m supposed to get the rest of it once Judge Shaw rules in a few more months. Plus I got my job at the store.”
“How’s that supposed to help me?” he snarled.
I shrugged. “Look, if you’re that miserable with the Colts, you could always leave — live somewhere else. People do it all the time.”
“Tried it once before, more’n a year ago. That’s when Colt gave me this for my trouble.” He pointed to his nose. “Hurt like hell.”
I peered at it closely. Travis’ face was nearly perfect, with hardly a blemish or a freckle, and his blond hair glowed in the afternoon sun, naturally parted in the middle and slightly tousled as if it were expertly styled by a salon. His eyelashes were long, almost feminine, and his features were as good as any teenage model I’d ever seen — better, actually — but his nose was slightly crooked, and I could see a slight crease halfway down, showing where it’d been broken.
“It’s not that bad,” I insisted. “Hell, I know actors who’d say that gives them more character.” If anything, it actually did make Travis more handsome in some odd way. Though I bet a good plastic surgeon could probably fix it in twenty minutes, I thought.
“It weren’t just that,” he said, his voice getting louder. “He threatened to kill me if’n I ever try it again. And you know what?” Travis leaned closer. He was breathing rapidly, almost hyperventilating. “I know’d he do it, sure as we’re standin’ here. Colt don’t bluff.”
“We could get away,” I said, my mind racing ahead. “We could come up with a plan. I bet the McBillins would let us live in the little stockroom over their store. And once I get the Thomas estate money...”
“Ain’t gonna happen until you’re an a-dult,” he said, mispronouncing the word. “I overheard Colt and Mama talkin’ about it a few days ago. He’s already got plans for that Thomas farmland of yours, ya know. That man is pure crazy.”
Travis was beginning to sound a little nutty himself.
“Listen to me,” I said soothingly. “I think I might be able to convince the Judge to make me a deal. He owes me a favor now — he told me so yesterday, after I saved his daughter.” I pulled my face close to his. “We can get through this, I promise. We’ll find a way.”
“Just SHUT UP!” he screamed. “You’re just like Billy! He got all my hopes up... told me he would leave and then send for me a few weeks later. Only it never happened! Why should I trust you more’n my own brother?”
Jesus, I thought. Travis has got serious abandonment issues. “Look,” I said, holding up my hands in mock surrender. “I’m just saying we can talk about this. There’s gotta be a way to get you away from the farm, if that’s what you really want.”
“I don’t wanna talk about nothin’!” he cried, pushing through the trees. “You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!” He started to run. “Just get away from me! Hell with you and your damnfool nonsense!”
“Travis!” I cried. “Hold on!”
But he’d disappeared into the brush, moving at top speed. I heard twigs and branches snapping in the distance as he scurried through the forest. I tore after him, calling out his name, my face pushing through the underbrush, scratching my face and arms in the bushes. In less than thirty seconds, I came to a clearing and found myself completely alone.
“How the hell am I supposed to get back?” I called.
I let out a sigh and looked around at the forest around me. “Terrific,” I said out loud. “So now I’m starring in this week’s exciting episode of Survivor: St. Louis, 1864. At last, my network television debut.”
I picked one of the few obvious paths in between the close-knit trees, noting the flattened grass, and pushed my way through. With luck, it might lead to one of the many country roads that dotted the area, or maybe I could at least get a bearing using the sun as a guide. I knew the Colt farm was about five miles north, give or take. But which direction?
“What I’d give for a compass,” I muttered. A compass... I thought. Wait a minute! I felt around in my pockets and found something hard and metallic. For some reason, I had stashed my Swiss Army knife in my jeans when I’d changed my clothes after church. I pulled it out and fumbled with the blades.
Flat-headed screwdriver... nope. Bottle-opener... useless. After several unsuccessful tries, I finally remembered to slide a small metal clasp at the top. There was a satisfying metallic click and a half-inch wide round gizmo sprung up. Eureka!
The tiny compass sat at the top of the knife, glinting sharply in the dim forest light. I whirled around. North was directly behind me! My mom always said I had the worst sense of direction of anybody she knew. With my luck, I would’ve probably kept walking all the way to Arkansas and wound up in the middle of a Civil War battlefield.
I pressed on through the trees and low-lying scrub brush, hoping I’d eventually run into some familiar sights. There was one particularly tall tree on the Northern outskirts of the Colt farm, one that adjoined the Thomas property. If I could just make it to that tree, I thought, I’d have a chance to get home by 5:30PM. 6PM at the latest.
Half an hour later, I was beginning to lose hope. The stray sunlight coming through the trees was beginning to dim. I was sweaty, and my left arm was scratched and bleeding slightly from an encounter with a thorn bush a couple of miles earlier. I sat down on a nearby stump, brushed aside some ants, then consulted my compass again. I was annoyed to see that I’d managed to stray slightly off course, going a little southwest.
“Shit,” I muttered. “I knew I should’ve brought along a GPS for this trip.” I had left my Garmin Nuvi on my Aunt Olivia’s kitchen counter back in 2007, knowing it would’ve been useless inside the cave. “Like it’s gonna work with 1864 satellites,” I muttered sarcastically. I was screwed either way. What I needed was a miracle — either the Biblical kind or technological. I didn’t care which.
Just as I began to give up, my ears perked at the sound of a heavenly choir. “I was just kidding about the miracle,” I said out loud, half expecting angels to appear in a shaft of special-effects lighting. But nothing happened. I followed the sound through a thick clump of trees and bushes that led out to a wide clearing. Below, in a small weed-strewn valley, was a large brown shack, partly surrounded by a picket fence. The Gospel Hall Church!
At least I knew where I was now. The black church was only a few miles away from the Colt farm, just off the Old Country Road. If I really moved my ass, I thought, I could be home by dinner time for sure.
I made my way over to the fence. The voices were louder now, almost celestial, but with a bluesy feel.
“Wow,” I said, draping my arms over the fence’s top railing. I paused and let the voices wash over me. The front door was wide open and the sound filled my ears, echoing through the trees. The choir began to clap their hands, and I nodded along with the rhythm. I picked up the melody and hummed along, but couldn’t quite make out the words. Beautiful, I thought, half closing my eyes and smiling. It was the best thing I’d heard since starting my journey almost two weeks earlier.
“You there!” called out a voice over my left shoulder.
“We ain’t lookin’ for any trouble, now.”
I slowly turned and saw a figure carrying a shotgun. I slowly raised my hands.
“You move an inch, I’ll blow your fool head off.”
The man moved out of the shadows. As he approached, his dark face finally leaned into sunlight, his eyes shaded by a large floppy hat.
My mouth fell open. It was Rufus, the stock man from McBillin’s store!
“Mas’ Jason!” he said with a start, immediately lowering the gun. “Lord, I’m very sorry. We got word that somebody was gon’ be givin’ us trouble tonight at the church. Pastor Meachum put a couple of us on watch, jes’ in case the devil decides to pay us a visit.”
I slowly lowered my hands. “There’s no devils around here, Rufus,” I said. “Just me. I’m just trying to get back to the Colt farm.”
He dragged a hand across his sweaty face. “Man can’t be too careful these days. There’s lotsa enemies out in the world, some you can’t even see.”
A voice called out from the distance. “Rufus! You alright there?”
“Git back to your post, Jim! I know this white boy — Jason Thomas, Miss Olivia’s nephew. He’s alright.”
Before he turned back to me, I heard the church piano klink a few sour notes. “Hey,” I said with a wince. “If you guys can get me some tools, I bet I can get that piano in tune. Assuming all the strings are still intact, that is.”
The large black man arced his head towards the church then turned back to me and nodded. “Why, that’d be mighty kind of you, Jason. But ya best wait until later. If you can come back tomorrow, I’ll let ya in and will get you what ya need. We’d be most ‘preciative.”
I gestured to a dirt path just visible through a gap of distant trees. “That’s the Old Country Road, right?”
“That it is. Go west about three and a half miles, and you’ll wind up at the Colt’s. Straight as the crow flies.”
The man gently put out a hand to stop me and lowered his voice. “Mas’ Jason... you best forget you saw me with a gun. St. Louis got laws about niggers and guns.”
“What gun?” I said, raising my eyebrows and feigning innocence. “No gun here that I can see.”
He broke out in a wide grin, then clapped me on my shoulder. “Thank ya, kindly. Come by at sunset tomorrow.”
§ § § § §
“Where in tarnation have you been, boy?” snapped Mrs. Colt, who was clearly in a foul mood when I ran up to the back porch. She was busy with a cleaver, chopping slabs of meat on a wooden table, then placing them in a large box to the side filled with salt.
“Uh, Travis and I got separated out in woods...” I began.
She slammed the cleaver down with a loud thunk. “Never mind that,” she said, wiping off her hands. “Would you mind going over to the Harper’s farm? They’re having a birthday celebration for Lem’s friend Joseph — turns ten today. Can’t believe that boy is already ten. Anyway, see if you can have him home in time for dinner. Lem will surely forget, and it’s gettin’ dark out.”
I knew the Harper farm, since it was just past the Thomas property, about a half mile away.
She shrugged and gestured out to the back. “He and Seth are having trouble rounding up the rest of the pigs. I’d lend you the wagon if I could, but they’re still loading it up.” She picked up the cleaver and waved towards the dirt road. “Get along with you, now. Before you know it, I’ll have meatloaf and potatoes and beans on the table.”
I glanced to the west. The sun was blood-red and hanging low in the horizon. Despite the exhausting events of the day, the thought of a big meal gave me a fresh surge of energy.
“On my way!” I said, banging out the kitchen door.
Fifteen minutes later, I knocked at the entrance of the Harper farmhouse, but there was no answer. I heard a commotion off to the side, so I darted around to discover a group of about a dozen little kids, all about Lem’s age, gathered by a small fire. The remnants of a birthday cake and a few presents lay scattered on the ground nearby. The boys seemed to be playing some kind of game with small stones. Half of them groaned when Lem’s rock knocked another out of the ring, while several others cheered.
“Ha!” he cried. “I gotcha now!”
“Hey, Lem,” I called. “Your mom says it’s time to go.”
“Cain’t go until we tell stories,” insisted a black-haired boy beside him. “Lem’s got some great ones.”
“I heard ‘em all before,” piped up another kid. “Ain’t there any new stories?”
I caught up with the children, and in the flickering firelight I could see they were playing some kind of game with a handful of multi-colored marbles, not rocks, each about half an inch in diameter. I’d always heard kids did this in the old days, long before TV and video games, but it looked incomprehensible to me.
“Hey, Jason,” Lem said, tugging on my sleeve. “You got any stories from where you come from?”
I thought for a moment. “Okay, maybe a quick one. Lemme think for a second.”
The boys stared at me expectantly.
I took a deep breath. “Here we go,” I said. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...”
The black-haired boy stopped me. “What’s a galaxy?”
I pointed up to some of the early evening stars in the eastern sky. “See those pinpoints of light over there? Each one of those is a star, just like the sun. Some of them even have planets spinning around them like the Earth. A bunch of stars is a galaxy. Okay? So, there’s this farmboy named Luke, who dreams of fighting in a war against an evil empire...”
§ § § § §
“Why, I reckon that was the best dang story I ever heard,” Lem said breathlessly, as we hurried back down the road that led back to the Colt farm.
“And that was just the ten-minute abridged version,” I said, hopping over a muddy puddle. “The sequel was even better.” Well, some of the sequels, anyway.
“What happened to that Darth Vader man? Did he die?”
I grinned. “Oh, no. Darth’s a lot tougher than that. It turns out he’s actually Luke Skywalker’s father.”
Lem’s mouth fell open. “That cain’t be!”
“Yeah, that’s what Luke thought, too. But the Force told him it was true.”
The boy was silent as we made the turn down the road. The moon illuminated the road dimly, but one glance at my watch told me it was just a few minutes before 7PM. Not as late as I feared, I thought. At least under the circumstances.
“’Bout damn time you two got back,” called a familiar voice from the darkness.
“Travis! Jason just told me and my friends a great story,” he began.
“Ain’t no time for that,” Travis replied, jogging up to us on the road. “Colt’s gonna wallop all of us if you make him wait any longer for dinner.”
He ignored me, but pushed his brother faster, in the general direction of the farm.
“Best get movin’ along, now. Skedaddle!”
§ § § § §
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Colt met us with a scowl by the front door, but before he could begin lambasting the three of us, I stopped him.
“Sir,” I said, “can I have a word with you? I think we have some business to discuss.”
He frowned. “You got a good reason why I shouldn’t whip your fannies, the lot o’ you, for being damn near half an hour late for supper?”
“I had an idea about the Thomas property.”
Colt practically dragged me back out to the front porch. I quietly explained to him about Judge Shaw owing me a favor. Colt’s face noticeably brightened when I told him I suspected that the good Judge might be able to push through my land inheritance before the end of the year. I told him that I’d be willing to sell the property to the Colt family at a good price.
“How cheap?” he mused. “I’m not a rich man, y’know. Far from it.”
I told him I’d think about it. Inside, I grinned. At least I’d manage to disarm Colt for tonight. I figure as long as I could defuse his anger with money, I could use my inheritance as a defense. For the time being, anyway.
We finished our dinner in silence. Travis continued to ignore me but shot me an angry glance when I asked him to pass the mashed potatoes. Lem chattered amiably about my story and seemed fascinated by the Star Wars universe.
“Can ya tell me another story about Luke Skywalker?” the boy asked.
“Hush now,” Mrs. Colt said, as she cleared our plates. “Don’t bother Jason. Time you boys went off to bed.”
“Don’t make no nevermind,” muttered Travis. “Ain’t no such thing as flyin’ machines.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah?” I turned to his brother. “Hand me that piece of newspaper from the trash, Lem.” He did so, and I carefully tore a small strip off the back page — one that I was pleased to see had a new ad for this week’s specials at McBillin’s Supermarket. Using the edge of the kitchen table as a guide, I folded the paper into segments, made a few adjustments to the wings, then held it between my thumb and forefinger.
“Watch this,” I said, and let it go.
The entire Colt family stared as the plane looped a perfect circle, arced up to the farmhouse ceiling, barely missing a kerosene lamp, then zoomed around the room, and finally glided back down for a near-perfect landing on the kitchen table. They all seemed momentarily stunned.
“He shoots, he scores! Now, imagine a much bigger version of that,” I said, widening my hands above the glider. “Like with a motor. Trust me, it’ll happen someday.”
Lem’s mouth hung open in sheer astonishment.
Travis recovered quickly. “Why, that ain’t nothin’ but a toy,” he said.
I grinned. “Maybe so,” I said thoughtfully then turned to Lem. “But you gotta admit: it makes a great story.”
Lem grabbed the paper plane and tossed it up in the air like a ball, but it quickly plummeted to the floor. He looked crestfallen.
“No, no,” I said. “Like this.” I demonstrated the right technique and he immediately got the hang of it.
“I gotta show this to the other boys at school,” he said breathlessly. “Why, I bet I can get me two aggies and a cat’s-eye for this, easy!”
“Don’t forget,” I called after him as he dashed out of the kitchen in a blur. “You can always make more. It’s just paper.”
With that, I said my goodnights to the family. Mr. Colt made a grunt, while his wife kissed me on the cheek. I trudged back out to the barn. Travis caught up with me, but I was really getting tired of his manic-depressive attitude.
“I’m not gonna apologize,” I began. “I swear, Travis, I didn’t mean anything...”
“I know,” he said quietly. “I just got too much on my mind, is all.”
I felt exhausted. I’d been running around non-stop all day, literally since the crack of dawn, and I still had to memorize part of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” for class in the morning. Between dealing with Twitly and my after-school job at the general store, Monday was going to be a total bitch-and-a-half.
“I’m kinda tired, Travis,” I said, stifling a yawn. “Can we maybe take a raincheck?” To be more honest, I was still a little hurt by his attitude from that afternoon. It’d taken me nearly two hours to find my way home after getting lost in the woods by the Missouri riverbank, and I might still be wandering out there if I hadn’t run into Rufus at the church.
“’Sides,” he said, darting in front of me and forcing me lurch to a stop, “it’s me that should be doin’ the apologizin’.” He stared at me with those striking blue eyes and I melted. “I swear.”
“Alright,” I said, closing the barn door behind us. “But I’m not gonna look like a jerk in Twitly’s class tomorrow. And neither are you.” I picked up the 9th-grade primer, flipped to the section on Edgar Allan Poe and handed it to him. “Let’s go over this thing we have to recite from memory in class in the morning.”
“Ain’t nothin’ more foolish than poetry,” Travis grumbled as we sat down on a bale of hay. “Waste of time.”
I glared at him. “It’s useful if it could inspire me to write a hit song. Shut up and read.”
He let out a long sigh, then held the book closer to the lantern and began to recite. “‘It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea...’”
I think we already had our clothes off by the third stanza.
excerpt from “Nowhere to Run”
Words and music by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland Jr.
©1965 Stone Agate Music, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Written by George Lucas
©1977 and ™ by Lucasfilm Ltd.
All rights reserved.
written by Edgar Allan Poe
first published in Sartain’s Union Magazine (1855)
Feedback to the author is welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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