By Karen Brode

Sometimes it seemed like Momma only knew one word when it came to chores: 

“Margrit!” She always screeched it out so loud the whole neighborhood in their sleepy Texas town knew Margaret’s name. 

Margaret woke with a start. Had Momma just hollered? Or was that just a dream?  

She decided it must have been a dream. Otherwise, Momma would have burst through the door making a racket, waking up the whole house.

Margaret rolled over and edged as far as she could to the side of the bed away from Junior, her little brother, and the smell of his urine soaking the sheets. It didn’t help, though. The sticky dampness was on everything, including her legs, and it stunk. It was too much. 

She eased herself up and sat on the edge of the bed. She turned to look at her sleeping brother and wondered how she managed to sleep next to him night after night. Did other fifth graders have to sleep in the same bed as their brothers? Did other fifth graders wake up each morning in a pool of pee?

There wasn’t any use in getting upset about it. It’s not like she could do anything about it. It’s not like anything ever changed. Nearly every morning she was soaked. It didn’t matter that she rubbed every part of her body with a dingy wet washcloth every morning. She could smell Junior’s urine all day long and she knew other kids could too.

It occurred to her that, in smelling like his pee, she took Junior with her wherever she went, whether she wanted to or not. Sometimes he was even mistaken as her twin. Even though his mind was stuck at three years old, he was big for a seven-year-old, and much to Margaret’s dismay, people thought they were the same age. 

And Junior literally wanted to go wherever she went. He especially wanted to go to school. Looking at his fluttering, sleeping eyes, she remembered last week when she started out the door to school and he had been awake. He came trailing after her, pulling on her arm, wailing at the top of his lungs. 

“Sisser! Sister! Let me goes wit you today!” 

She spent the next ten minutes calming him down, reassuring him they could play school when she got back. Kids like him couldn’t go to school. It was 1962. There wasn’t a place for him. She felt guilty about it, but she was secretly glad about this. Even though she knew she would never be like any of the other girls at school, at least at school she wasn’t responsible for anybody else.

Margaret glanced at the small alarm clock she kept on the window ledge. It was after seven which meant she had about an hour to get ready and walk to school. The walk took her half an hour. 

She looked across the room to the cot where her five-year-old brother, Waynie slept. She moved slowly getting up from the bed. She didn’t want to wake either of her brothers because then she’d be late for school for sure. 

Once in the bathroom, she peeled her nightshirt off and hung it over the shower rod. She ran a dingy washcloth under the spigot of the sink and wrung it out. As quickly, but as thoroughly as she could, she wiped the sticky urine from her body. She knew it wasn’t perfect. She was sure the other kids could smell it on her no matter how long she took to wipe it off. When she was done, she slipped on the same clothes she had worn the day before and took the brush from the sink. She tried to tame her thick, wavy dark hair but it never looked nice. Her mother told her she had gotten her hair from her grandma, but Granny’s hair was silver and she always had it tamed in a bun on the back of her head.

Margaret took one last look in the mirror and decided there wasn’t anything else to be done. As quietly as she could, she tiptoed down the hall towards the front door. She glanced quickly into her parents’ bedroom. As usual, they were both still sleeping. 

At the empty kitchen, she closed her eyes and imagined a big breakfast of scrambled eggs and maybe some fried potatoes. She especially loved her granny’s fried potatoes. But Granny wasn’t there and her parents were still asleep. Besides, she told herself, there wasn’t time for breakfast. Her stomach grumbled. The truth was, there probably wasn’t any breakfast to be had, so it didn’t do any good to daydream about it. She picked up her books and quietly opened the front door. Once outside, she looked straight ahead, pretending not to see the neighbors who were outside tending their lawns. She made a beeline for school.

She got to school just as the bell stopped ringing. She was late. Again. She hated walking into class with all the eyes on her. She just wanted to be invisible. But her teacher, Mrs. Woodcut, wasn’t about to let that happen.

“Overslept again, Miss Teadley?” she asked.

Margaret slunk over the stack of schoolbooks in her arms and pushed a chunk of hair out of her eyes.

“Sorry, Mrs. Woodcut,” she said. 

There were titters all over the room as Margaret sat down at her desk. One of the boys mimicked the way Margaret had said “Sorry” and more laughter broke out across the room.

“Enough, class,” said Mrs. Woodcut. “Please open your history textbooks to page 35.” 

It didn’t take long before Margaret’s empty stomach started to rumble loud enough for the other kids to hear. She heard whispers and some quiet snorts whenever it gurgled. She put a hand on her belly and pressed to try to keep it quiet. It was only 10:30 but lunchtime aromas wafted from the cafeteria into her classroom. She was so hungry, but she couldn’t afford school lunch and she hadn’t brought any sack lunch with her from home. When lunchtime came, she would have to go without. Her stomach growled angrily. She tried not to cry.

After what felt like an eternity, the lunch bell rang.

“Settle, class. Soon enough,” Mrs. Woodcut said, waving her palms down to remind the children to stay put. “Those of you who brought your lunch, please go to your cubby now and bring it to your desk.” 

The classroom filled with the sounds of scraping chairs and murmuring children. About half the students had brought their own lunch. Margaret peered around the room at the sandwiches and thermoses that came out of different bags and pales. She longed for just a bite of one of the sandwiches. Just a crumb. She bet it tasted good.

“Now, children,” Mrs. Woodcut continued, “I must go down the hall to pick up the tray lunches. No one gets out of your seats while I am gone, or expect to meet with the principal after.” 

Mrs. Woodcut waddled out of the class in her diamond-patterned double-knit polyester dress and her gum-soled shoes. She had the same roundness that Margaret’s mother had, but Margaret couldn’t help compare the way the two women carried themselves. Margaret’s mother walked with her hips leading, her top half was slumped back a little, making her stomach appear bigger than it actually was. (And the worn elastic waist pants didn’t help.) Mrs. Woodcut pulled her shoulders up, as straight as her spine would allow, and although she had a sort of waddle like Momma, her whole body was upright and moved forward all at the same pace. 

While Mrs. Woodcut was gone, many of the children finished up their sack lunches. Several girls on the front row pulled mirrors and powder out of purses they had stashed in their desks. They held them up and dotted the powder on perfect skin. 

Behind her, boys giggled in a way that scared Margaret. If they all ganged up on her, she didn’t know what she would do. 

To distract herself, she took out a book and tried to pick up where she had left off the day before. She loved to read but rarely got a chance to do it at home. There were always things that had to be done. In books, though, she could disappear. She thought of the characters as her friends, her confidantes.

Finally, Mrs. Woodcut returned. She pushed the cart into the room and gave each child who had paid for lunch a steaming plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans. 

Margaret looked away. She couldn’t stand it. She knew if she thought about it too long, she would cry. So, she put her book away, folded her arms over the desk, and laid her head down. Maybe she could take a nap while the others ate. 

“Miss Teadley,” Mrs. Woodcut said, “kindly move your head so I can put your tray down.” 

Margaret sat up with a start and stared at the tray placed in front of her. 

“I, um,” Margaret began, but she didn’t know how to ask where the lunch had come from without the other kids hearing and making fun of her. She knew her mother had not paid for the lunch. But who? How? 

“No ‘ums,’ in this classroom, Miss Teadley,” said Mrs. Woodcut. “Please eat your lunch so the others are not waiting for you for recess.” 

Margaret was so hungry all the questions faded from her mind. To have this wonderful meal placed in front of her made her feel grateful, hopeful.  She took a bite of mashed potatoes and then a bit of meatloaf. She savored every crumb. She had even been given chocolate milk, her favorite.

For the rest of the school day, Margaret felt better than she had felt for a long time. She actually worked up the nerve to ask another girl in her class to play on the monkey bars—and she had accepted! With a full belly and a potential friend, she could believe things might be different. 

That feeling was with her all the way to the end of school that day. She practically skipped toward home. She noticed all the flowers growing and the perfectly groomed green grass lawns. She heard the birds singing. It’s a wonder what a good meal might do, she thought, smiling.

But her smile faded when she got to her block. Down the lane, she saw a bright clean van parked in front of her house. Even from half a block away, she had to squint at the sun shining off the chrome bumper. The newness of it unsettled her. Nobody ever visited their house, especially someone with a fancy van. 

As she passed other homes, Margaret noticed some of the neighbor ladies talking in their yards. They gestured toward her little four-room house, but when they saw her watching them, they stopped talking. Their brows furrowed and their lips curled into half-frown, half-smile. It was a smile of pity. Margaret knew it well.  

She was pretty sure she didn’t want to be a part of anything that was happening at her house, so she glanced around at Old Man Tatum’s house and saw his car wasn’t in his driveway and his curtains were closed. If he wasn’t around, she could sneak back behind his house and get to hers without being seen.

She looked behind her and noticed the ladies had moved into one of their driveways. They now seemed more concerned about a clump of weeds that had started growing alongside the edge. Margaret took the opportunity to duck behind the evergreens that lined Mr. Tatum’s driveway. Then she made a beeline to the back of his house. 

From the corner of his yard, Margaret hid behind a tree she had always thought of as The Christmas Tree. Mr. Tatum never decorated it but since she could see it from her house and her family never had a tree, she had imagined it being hung with streamers and lights and filled with gifts.

“Mrs. Teadley,” said a man Margaret could hear but not see. “The Rotary Club is happy to bestow you with a brand new washing machine.” 

Another man with a loud, goofy voice spoke next. “Yes. If you’ll kindly let me through, I’ll get it hooked up in a jiffy.” 

Momma giggled and Margaret heard the screen door open and close. She watched through the windows as Momma and her brothers led the men to the closet that was meant to hold a washing machine.

Through one of the open windows, she heard Junior ask, “Where is Sisser?” Her mother made some motion for Junior to hush and then she turned back to the men in the house.

Margaret felt her whole body burn with embarrassment. Her mother clearly thought it was great the Rotary Club was giving them a washing machine. But this called so much attention to her family, and not the kind of attention anybody wanted. 

She edged around the tree and spotted a familiar broken plank along the side of her house. She had discovered a few weeks earlier she could lift the plank and crawl underneath the house for some peace and quiet. She stared back toward the windows and noticed the men, Momma, and the boys walking to the front door. She needed to get to her hiding spot before they noticed her.

“Would you mind if we get a picture of you and your family for the paper, Mrs. Teadley?” asked one of the men. 

Margaret could just barely see him as he stepped off the porch onto the broken walkway leading up to their house. She could tell he was wearing a nice suit. Momma must be beside herself.

Margaret felt sick. She had to get to her hiding place and figure out how to live in that place forever. When she heard her mother make her loud, roar of a laugh, she made a run for it to the side of the house. She edged her way to the broken plank, threw her books inside, and slid into the small opening. Once inside, she felt like she could breathe.

“Is this your whole family?” asked the man in the suit.

“Naw,” Momma said. “We’re missin’ my husband who is out driving his cab. That’s what he does for a livin’. And I’ve got a daughter who should be home from school by now.” 

Margaret knew what was coming next. There were footsteps across the porch and then, “MARGRIT! Where are you?” 

Her mother lowered her voice with a giggle. “Where on earth did that girl get to?”

At that, Margaret heard Junior shuffle across the porch and onto the dirt yard. “Sisser! Sisser!” 

Margaret held her breath as Junior walked back and forth past her hiding place. 

“MARGRIT!” Her mother walked from one side of the porch to the other. “I don’t know where in tarnation that girl’s gone. It’s not like she’s got any school friends that’d keep her.” Margaret felt her face burn with embarrassment.

“Well, we could just get the three of you?” asked the man. He sounded impatient.

Through the cracks in the planks, Margaret could just barely see parts of Mr. Tatum’s backyard next door which led to the next neighbor and the next after that. Each one was green with a grassy lawn and dotted with bushes of flowers. They seemed to enjoy tending their lawns and flower beds. She had seen Mrs. Waxly give Mr. Tatum a bulb from her tulip bed and he had gone to plant it immediately into a special pot along the edge of his back patio that now bloomed with the long, green leaves of a tulip plant. 

The only neighbors who had a yard remotely as desolate as theirs were the Johnsons across the street. Their grass was lush all the way up until the summer when it turned yellow and died in the hot Texas summers.

She was pretty sure all those people owned their homes. She had heard her parents arguing over the rent for their house. Momma was proud that they could live on a nice street like regular people. But Margaret knew other children at school who lived in a housing complex for people like her family and she often thought that if they lived in a place like that, maybe they wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Children would wear tattered clothes that had been given to them from some agency and it wouldn’t hurt so bad when other girls laughed behind their hands because she’d have friends who understood her.

Finally, she heard the men telling Momma goodbye and loading up in the van. She heard her mother ask Junior and Waynie what on earth happened to their sister. Junior yelled for “Sissie” again. Before long, she heard the screen door open and bang shut and the shuffle of three pairs of feet overhead.

She sighed and laid down on the dirt floor. The day had gone so well up until then. Now she just wanted to go to sleep and dream it all back. 

Margaret woke to the sound of Junior and Waynie fighting over something and Momma yelling at both of them. She could hear them all the way under the house. It was amazing how loud they could be. She could tell from her hiding place that the sun was much lower in the sky. From the smells wafting in, she guessed it was almost dinner time. 

With the boys fighting and Momma yelling, she knew she could sneak out without being noticed. She was just about to walk to the front porch when she heard the dog whine in the backyard. He was tied to a post in the ground. There were no trees, no grass; just dried up ground. Margaret wondered why they had him. Nobody ever gave him any attention. He didn’t even have a name. And if he saw one of them coming towards him, he sort of cowered, hoping he would not be punished. In fact, she had seen her father kick the dog once when the poor thing strained at his chain so hard that he almost choked on his collar. 

Her father had never wanted him, though. “Another mouth to feed,” was all he said when Momma led him into their backyard to meet the new puppy. 

Margaret looked at him now. How many times had she almost unhooked him from his chain? She wished she could do it without fear of getting in trouble. Momma would never forgive her, even though she had never been out to play with the pup since bringing him home. His ribs showed beneath his mangey coat. No animal should have to live like that.

She looked around to see if anyone was outside. It was dark enough that she didn’t feel obviously seen. She set her books down by the corner of the house and carefully, slowly walked toward the dog.

It whimpered. She crouched a little and whispered, “Shh, it’s okay.” 

When she reached him, he rolled over on his back. It was the first time she had been this close to him. His bones stuck out all over. She scratched his belly and up near his neck. He stunk, but then she figured, so did she. 

“At least one of us should be free,” she said, her heart beating hard in her chest. 

She took one more look around and then gently undid the dog’s collar. 

At the click of his collar being released, the dog jumped up. He had a look in his eyes that told Margaret he knew exactly what was happening. He took a look at Margaret and snuffled, then sneezed. He shook himself out and, for a moment, looked almost healthy. His eyes sparkled. Margaret felt she understood him now, too. With that, he took off running for the woods in the distance. She almost wished she could go with him.

Margaret heard one of the boys yelling from the back part of the house. She jumped up and ran to her schoolbooks. She scooped them up and walked as nonchalantly as she could to the front door. She felt a little stronger now and her fear about letting the dog go disappeared as she thought about the look in his eyes. Plus, she figured nobody would notice for who knows how long.

“Well, now you show up!” said Momma when Margaret walked into the kitchen. “You know that you missed the newspaper men! They took our picture!” 

Margaret tried not to wince at Momma’s excitement. She sounded like Junior whenever he got over-excited about something. 

“I had to start fixing supper without you.” Momma stood beside the stovetop and cut into the bologna slices that were puffing up in the middle of a frying pan. “Grab the bread and set out enough for a sandwich apiece.” 

Margaret did as she was told. She set five plates out on the countertop—one for each of them and her father when he got home—and she laid two pieces of bread on each. The last piece of bread was the heel. Even though it wasn’t her favorite, she took it because nobody else in the house liked it and there wasn’t any more bread after that.

“Everyone gets one sandwich” Momma warned. “That goes especially for you, Junior! Don’t wolf your food down because there isn’t anymore.” 

Margaret handed off the plates of sandwiches to her brothers and set the other plates down where she, her mother, and her father usually sat.

As she took her seat, Momma walked to the table with the pan of bologna. Margaret thought again about how similar her mother and Mrs. Woodcut looked but how differently they held themselves. Momma led with her hips and, now that her pregnancy was starting to show, that posture was even more pronounced. 

Margaret knew she didn’t understand all that much, but she also knew another baby was going to need things they didn’t have. Momma was just happy to have a new baby coming. It was something to look forward to. It made her happy to be expecting a new baby, but Margaret could already see how things would be.

Momma sat down at the table and, while her brothers were inhaling their sandwiches and her mother was settling into hers, Margaret wondered if her mother had ever been beautiful. She noticed now that Momma had brushed her hair out, probably for the Rotary Club and newspaper people. When it was brushed out like that and certain light caught it, her mother’s red hair shone like stained glass. Most days, though, she didn’t bother to comb it. It just hung out from her head in a ratty mess. 

But then Momma belched and laughed. Margaret pretended to laugh as she tucked into eating her own sandwich. She lowered her eyes because she had caught sight of Momma’s teeth. They looked like they had rattled around in the palm of God’s hand before they were scattered like dice into her mouth.

Margaret swallowed her bite of sandwich and clenched her teeth together in a sort of grimace. She tapped her front tooth with her fingernail and remembered all the times she had lost teeth as a kid. It had been sort of a celebration at the time, even though the tooth fairy never came to give her money for them. The teeth that grew in made a U around the top and bottom of her mouth. They certainly weren’t straight, she thought, but they were all there. Had Momma’s teeth not all grown in? Or did people lose teeth as adults, too?

The next day, Margaret made a point to make it to school on time. It was show-and-tell and Carol Piper had brought her Barbie doll, complete with car and house and little hangars for Barbie’s clothes. During lunch, the children were allowed to play outside or take more time looking at the items from show-and-tell. Margaret was enamored with Barbie, so she chose to stay inside.

She had to wait until other girls had moved on to other items before she could spend time with Barbie, but it was well worth the wait. She marveled at all the intricate and perfect details. She had never seen a Barbie doll, but she immediately wanted one. She unbuttoned and rebuttoned Barbie’s blouses and unzipped and zipped Ken’s pants. Where had they found such tiny little zippers?  She wanted to keep looking at all of it, but the bell rang. As children filed in from outside, Mrs. Woodcut told everyone to take their seats. 

Margaret held Barbie in her hand just a moment longer. She touched her hair and then bent the doll at the waist to set her down against the wall in Barbie’s house. Margaret took the two, perfect little shoes and set them in a little pull-out drawer in Barbie’s bedroom and returned to her desk.

Margaret daydreamed about Barbie for the rest of the day and into the next. She hoped Carol had left the doll and all her possessions at school overnight. Margaret made a point to get to school just a little early with hopes of having a few more minutes to play with the doll.

How happy she was when she walked into Mrs. Woodcut’s classroom to see that Carol had left Barbie overnight! She started to walk over to the dollhouse but Mrs. Woodcut made a noise with her throat and gestured with her fingers for Margaret to take a seat at her desk.

That’s when Margaret realized that Mrs. O’Dell, the principal, was there. Margaret wasn’t sure how she had missed her. She was standing at the front of the room, and even in the hallways, Mrs. O’Dell was a formidable figure. She always wore heavy skirt suits, no matter what time of year it was. She wore glasses on a chain around her neck and bright red lipstick that scared Margaret. Everyone was afraid of Mrs. O’Dell. Even the toughest boy settled down when threatened with a visit to the principal’s office. From the very time Margaret was introduced to Mrs. O’Dell in first grade, she had made up her mind she would never do anything that would get her sent to the principal’s office.

Some of the children were looking down at their desks, but then Margaret realized some of them were looking at her. A cluster of little girls near the front had turned to glare at her. She felt her hands clutching the sides of her chair so hard that it made her fingers hurt. Why were they all looking at her?

“Carol Piper,” said Mrs. O’Dell, “Please come to the front here beside me.” 

Carol stood and walked slowly to the front of the room. Margaret feared for Carol. What could she possibly have done? It was clear she was upset, though. Her face was red like she had been crying and her shoulders slumped a little. Even so, Margaret noticed how almost like Barbie Carol looked—her long, chestnut hair pulled back in a smooth ponytail and her skirt bounced just a little when she walked.

Carol’s father was a car salesman at the ritzy car dealership downtown where all the rich people went to buy cars. At least that is what Momma had said. She said they wouldn’t be going there if they ever bought another car. Margaret could not imagine her parent’s going anywhere. They barely had enough money to cover their rent. Carol had everything she wanted. Margaret imagined she probably had French provincial bedroom furniture and pink walls. Margaret couldn’t imagine Carol ever having to sleep in the same bed as someone like Junior.

“We have a thief among us!” Mrs. O’Dell roared. Margaret sat up straight, shocked by the news as well as how loud Mrs. O’Dell could be.

“Carol Piper has told Mrs. Woodcut that someone has taken her Barbie doll’s shoes. She is pretty sure she knows who did this, but we would like for that person to come forward now of their own accord.”  

Margaret glanced around the room, trying to guess who might take Barbie’s shoes. As her eyes moved from one face to the next, she realized they were all looking at her!

Carol broke out in tears and pointed a finger. “Margaret took the shoes! She was the last one to have them!” 

Margaret felt her stomach shoot up into her chest. She thought she might faint.

“Me?” she asked in almost a whisper. “I would never.”

Carol cried even louder and Mrs. O’Dell pulled her toward her.

“There, there,” she said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Miss Teadley,” continued Mrs. O’Dell, “Please come to the front of the room.” 

Margaret stood up but held onto the desk out of fear she might fall over her feet. “I didn’t take the shoes, Mrs. O’Dell. Honest!” 

“Come, please,” said the principal.

Margaret shuffled to the front of the room and stood, shaking before the class. 

“Did you take Carol’s doll’s shoes?” asked Mrs. O’Dell.

Margaret swallowed hard. “No, ma’am,” she said. “I would never do that.” 

Carol sobbed into her hands. “She’s lying! She’s the last one to have them, everybody knows that!” 

Margaret shook her head slowly. Her mouth was dry. “No. I promise!” Her voice cracked. She felt even more lightheaded. “I put Barbie’s shoes in the little drawer in her bedroom.” 

Carol looked up from her hands and glowered at Margaret. She walked to the Barbie house and reached into the bedroom and opened the drawer. There were the shoes, just where Margaret had put them the day before. 

Mrs. O’Dell looked from Carol to Margaret and back again.

“Okay, then,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “If I am no longer needed,” she turned to Mrs. Woodcut and they nodded at each other. Mrs. O’Dell turned on her heel and, without looking at Margaret again, she marched out of the room. 

Carol turned to the class, holding the shoes out as if they were still evidence against Margaret.”Well,” she said, “she didn’t put them in the right place!”

Margaret didn’t know how long she was meant to stand there until Mrs. Woodcut told her to return to her seat. More than anything she longed to be at home under her house where no one could see her.

Karen Brode is the senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

The Funniest Thing

By Karen Brode

For the first time that day I felt really happy. I had a plan. I had my suitcase packed with coloring books and my Barbie and Ken dolls. I was going to be with my Aunt Winnie and it was all going to be really funny when I told her the whole story.

Even though the suitcase was heavy, I couldn’t help but grin the entire time I walked down the road toward Winnie’s house. Winnie’s neighbor, Mrs. Whitman, stood outside her front door, clutching her folded apron. She watched to make sure I got to Winnie’s house okay, but for that moment, I felt like I was on my own. In some small way I was free. At seven years old, that was a big deal. Especially since I was heading away from a day being shuttled around like a dog toward the home of one of my favorite people. And since I walked from Mrs. Whitman’s house, I could surprise Aunt Winnie and she’d have no idea how I got there.

In my mind, I decided that this might be the funniest thing I had ever done. I giggled as I dragged the suitcase up the front steps to Winnie’s porch. Then I knocked on the door. 

The look on Winnie’s face was exactly what I hoped for. Her eyes grew wide and, before she said a word, she took a step onto her porch to look for the car that had brought me.

“Heavens, Karen, how on earth did you get here?” Her face grew pale and her hand shook as she reached out for my suitcase.

“I walked!” I said, but it came out all wrong. I had meant to sound certain, to pull off the greatest joke I had ever managed. But I felt bad for causing my aunt to worry. It seemed like I was always causing people to worry. 

Winnie pulled me into the house and squatted down as much as she could to get eye level with me. She tilted her head and looked into my eyes. “Karen, how did you really get here?”

Why is it that wherever I went I caused people to worry?

Mother used to get terrible migraines. She had to lie quietly in her bed with the shades pulled down. I would go to her with a cold, damp washcloth and lay it on her forehead.

“You’ll feel better soon,” I’d tell her. I was careful to be as quiet as I could be so she could rest. Still, I had that niggling thought that surely she was sick because of me.

Those times when Mother was so sick, I sat on the floor in her bedroom and cut out pictures from the Sears and Roebuck’s catalog. I wanted to be as close as I could be to her without being a bother. I was extra quiet turning the pages of the catalog to look for images I could cut out as paper dolls. 

That catalog had everything you could ever want and all the people in it were always happy. It made me happy to look at them. There was the mother who waltzed through her kitchen because she got a new washer. A few pages over, there was a man fishing with his buddies—that would be the dad. 

My own mother became still as I worked. I glanced up at her several times. At one point, she was so still I got nervous that she had died. I couldn’t help myself. I had to check. So I touched her arm and she startled awake. 

“I’m sorry, Momma,” I said. “I…um…wanted to see if you needed anything.” I didn’t want to tell her I thought she had died. That would only make things worse.

That day I walked to Winnie’s Momma was feeling okay, but she had outdone herself for a visit from my oldest brother, Kenneth, and his wife Helen. They were only there a couple of days but Momma made all my brother’s favorite pies. She was a lot like my Aunt Winnie in that way—always wanting to make her guests happy. That morning she had gone off to work content with how the weekend had gone, but so exhausted that she had forgotten to figure out what to do with me once Kenneth and Helen left. 

This was not the first time in my life I didn’t know what to do or say, but for a while I was the only one who realized that when Kenneth and Helen left, I would be on my own in the house. It was only when their car was packed and they were about to lock up the house that they realized I was there. 

“Karen, did Momma tell you where you should go?” Kenneth asked as he and Helen stood at the front door. I could see they were both eager to get on the road. Helen was on the front porch and Kenneth had his hand on the doorknob.

“I’ll be okay here,” I said, hoping I sounded older and convincing.

He and Helen exchanged worried glances. He rubbed a hand through his brown, slick-combed hair. His brow had those creases I came to know as worry, frustration, or impatience in adults.

“We can’t leave you here alone,” he said. “You’re only seven.”

“I’ll be okay.” I held the Barbie I had been playing with up in front of me and combed her hair with a tiny brush. I hoped by looking busy Kenneth would get the hint and go on home. I didn’t want to bother anybody, least of all Momma while she was at work.

Helen whispered something to Kenneth that I didn’t hear, but I knew it had to do with Mother because, moments later he was on the phone with her.

“Is there a neighbor or somebody we could leave her with?” he asked into the receiver. “No, we told you we needed to get on the road before this afternoon, don’t you remember? Helen has to get back to her job tomorrow and we don’t want to be on the road all night.” 

Kenneth looked over at me and held out the receiver of the phone. “She wants to talk with you,” he said.

I took it and then took a deep breath. When I put the receiver to my ear, I tried my best to sound as adult as possible. “Momma, I’m okay here. Don’t you worry.”

“Oh, Karen,” she said, worry flowing out of every letter of my name. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how the wires got crossed. Pack an overnight bag with some coloring books, your Barbie and Ken, and Kenneth will take you by Poppa Morrison’s house in Bells. I’ll pick you up as soon as I get off work.” 

At these words I felt a knot in my chest grow tight. I didn’t want to go to Poppa’s house. He, like my Aunt Opal, never remembered my name. He called me Carol or Karee. He had no idea who I was or what I was about. He had so many grandchildren and I was one of the younger ones. By the time I was born, he had so many of us that the novelty had worn off completely. 

But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t like visiting Poppa. The last time I went there, he had positioned his rocking chair so that he could see if Nurse Nita walked by. Nita worked at the hospital where Poppa had his last surgery, and Poppa surely wanted to know her better. If Nita was outside, Poppa found some excuse to be out in his yard, too. It was uncomfortable watching him fawn over her.

I thought about the doilies on his chair and the little glass bowl of sugar mints on the coffee table. But more than anything else, I didn’t want to be in the same house with someone who used a spittoon. I gagged at the thought of it.

“Karen, let’s get going,” Kenneth said. My brother was nice enough but he always had an edge of impatience in his voice when it came to me. 

Reluctantly, I finished packing my little suitcase and handed it over to my brother. Helen took my hand and we walked to their car where I got in the back seat. 

The knot in my chest grew bigger with each mile we drove toward Poppa’s house. By the time we got there, Kenneth had to practically drag me out of the car and up the steps to Poppa’s front door. More than anything else I wanted to run far away, but I knew if I did I’d be causing even more worry than I already was, so I stayed put. Still, when Poppa opened the screen door, I froze.

“C’mon, Karen,” Kenneth said. “Go on inside with Poppa.” 

I looked up at Poppa whose tobacco lumped smile appeared more like a grimace.

“I can’t stay here!” I finally blurted out.

Kenneth glared at me. “Where is it you want to stay, then?” He looked over at Helen who was still in the car and shrugged his arms.

“I want to go to Winnie’s house,” I said. The words were so soft, he had to bend toward me a little to hear them.

“Winnie’s house,” he said with a sigh, staring out toward the endless road ahead of him. 

Poppa nodded. “Winnie’s house is good,” he said. He reached out and patted me on the head as if to thank me for saving us both. “You’ll be in good hands with Winnie.” 

Before we even turned to step off the porch, Poppa had closed the door and locked it. I imagined him wiping his brow with relief before shuffling off to a nap or sitting in his chair by the window looking for Nita and spitting snuff.

I felt the tension in the car as we made our way to Winnie’s house. It was just a 15 minute drive from Poppa’s, but it was clear that Kenneth and Helen were both weary of dealing with me. So, when we pulled up in Winnie’s driveway and saw the empty garage, Kenneth slapped his hand on the steering wheel and his face turned pink with frustration. 

“I can…I bet Winnie’ll be back soon. I can just go sit on her front porch,” I said.

Kenneth looked back at me and rolled his eyes. “You know I’m not going to let you just go sit on Aunt Winnie’s front porch,” he said. 

I bent my head down and looked at my thumbnails. They were ragged and worn from me biting them. It took great effort not to chew on one now but I knew adults didn’t like it when I bit my nails so I kept very still as Kenneth looked up and down the street for an answer.

“Mrs. Whitman,” he said, clearly pleased with an idea.

Mrs. Whitman was Aunt Winnie’s nearest neighbor. She and my aunt were very good friends. Her first name was Irene and her husband was called “Fat.” I don’t know why anyone called Mr. Whitman by the name “Fat” but I never asked. 

Mrs. Whitman had given up going to church years before. I had heard bits and pieces why she didn’t go—something to do with her son Andy dying of meningitis when he was 15 years old. I remembered going to the hospital with Aunt Winnie when Andy was there. He had all kinds of tubes coming out of him. Winnie held Irene as she cried in her arms. Andy wasn’t going to make it but the doctors had placed the decision for when to pull the plug on Mr. and Mrs. Whitman.

She cried hysterically to Winnie. I couldn’t remember ever seeing someone so upset. She screamed with anger and sadness, “How can I decide when I want my son to die?” 

Even then I knew that was not a choice any parent should have to make.

After that, Winnie baked a ham and a turkey and some pies for the Whitman family so they’d have something to feed everyone who came out for the funeral. It was a sad time, but as usual, my aunt ran to help make it a little easier to bear.

We pulled up into the Whitman’s driveway and Kenneth held my hand as we walked up to her front porch. He knocked and smiled down at me, his lips tight over his teeth, as if to say, “This had better work or we’re leaving you on the side of the road.” His smile melted into a genuine look of relief when Mrs. Whitman came to the door.

“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Whitman,” he said. “I’ve been in town visiting Momma with my wife Helen,” he pointed over to the car and Helen waved hello. “We’ve got to get on back to Houston now but we need to make sure Karen is okay. Mom didn’t realize we were leaving so soon and Winnie’s not home right now. Can she stay with you until Winnie gets back?” 

Mrs. Whitman wiped her hands on her apron and smiled broadly. “Why, of course she can stay here!” she said. “She can come play with kiddoes.” She looked over her shoulder at five of her six remaining kids all playing happily in the living room behind her.

I looked over at her kids and felt the pang of jealousy I always felt when I was around the Whitman children. They had each other and two sweet parents and they never seemed to worry about a thing. 

“Oh, thank you,” my brother said, pushing me a little too eagerly toward the door. 

Mrs. Whitman put a hand on my shoulder and hugged me toward her. I clumsily followed over the threshold and into her arms. “You come on, now,” she said. “We’ll get you something to eat.” 

“Thank you, again,” my brother said. He hopped off the porch, not even touching the steps in front of him. Helen rolled down her window and waved thanks to Mrs. Whitman. She didn’t look at me as they drove off.

As gently as I could I pulled away from Mrs. Whitman and said, “Thank you, but I’m not hungry right now.” 

“Alright then, you can just to play with the others.” She waved a hand toward her kids who were involved in some sort of board game.

I smiled and tried to appear appreciative, but the truth was I couldn’t wait to leave. It’s not that I didn’t like the Whitman family, I was just ready to get to the comfort of Winnie’s house. It had been a long morning.

So, I sat on the floor and stared out the window, sitting taller with every passing car, hopeful it was my Aunt Winnie.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Winnie drove by.

“There she is!” I yelled while getting to my feet. I had my hands on my suitcase and was at the door before Mrs. Whitman could get into the room from the kitchen.

Mrs. Whitman took off her apron and folded it neatly. “Just a minute and I’ll walk with you.” 

She started to walk back toward the kitchen, which made me panic. It was going to take too long for her to walk with me. 

“It’s okay. I can walk by myself,” I said. “It’s not that far.” 

I didn’t want to give her a chance to say no, so I turned the knob on the front door and rushed out onto the porch. 

Mrs. Whitman came to the door with her apron still in her hand. She had those creases in her forehead that I had seen on Kenneth earlier.

Suddenly I had it in my head how to make everything lighter. “It’ll be funny,” I said, smiling. “To tell Aunt Winnie that I walked there.” 

Much to my relief, Mrs. Whitman smiled back. She understood me. “Well, okay. but I’ll be down there in a few minutes.” 

I nodded and turned then stopped and said, “Thank you for letting me stay with you.” 

“Anytime, Karen,” she said, waving her apron at me.

I began walking toward Winnie’s house, smiling from ear to ear. It was going to be fun to see Aunt Winnie’s face when I just appeared out of nowhere. The suitcase was a little heavier but the excitement kept me moving toward her door. 

This might be the funniest thing I had ever done, I thought. 

Karen Brode is the senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.


By Karen Brode

Mother looked at the elevator and then at me. I clung to her arm and silently begged for her to take the stairs to the doctor’s office. Her eyes showed the worry I felt, although I was worried about the elevator and I knew she was only worried about me and my fears.

We traversed the small stairwell on the left of Bear Drug. My relief was short-lived, though, because I remembered why we were there—to see Dr. Fredericks about what was wrong with me.

What wasn’t wrong with me, I wondered. Over the last few months my shortness of breath had become worse. When I couldn’t breathe, Mother carried me out to our front porch and held me in her arms while she sat on the top step. I wished I could explain what was happening. I wished I could tell Mother not to worry, but I couldn’t.

It was odd because I didn’t always have shortness of breath. I inhaled and exhaled like any healthy child when I was playing in the yard with the other neighborhood children. It was only when I went to bed that I struggled to find the air I needed.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” I prayed this every night. It was required. “If I should die before I wake….” My heart beat faster. “I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I trembled inside but I tried hard to push it away. I wanted to go to sleep. I did not want to be a problem for my mother.

It wasn’t long after reciting those words that I ended up wrapped in Mother’s arms on the front porch trying to fill my lungs with night air. 

I didn’t think the visit to Dr. Fredericks was necessary. I knew I wasn’t sick, but Mother was worried and I would do anything to keep her from worrying about me. She had enough to deal with on her own since Daddy died.

Dr. Fredericks was scary. Everything was scary, except maybe when the sun was out and I was playing outside. The doctor wanted to talk to me—just me—so he asked Mother to leave the examination room. I sat stiff as a board on the edge of my chair, trying not to make eye contact with him.

“Why do you want to worry your mother so much?” he asked. 

I didn’t know how to answer that. My heart beat heavy in my chest. I could feel it, like it might burst out of my ribcage. Didn’t the doctor know I didn’t want to worry Mother? Didn’t he know that I worried about Mother? Didn’t he know that I worried I might lose her like I had lost Daddy?

My mind raced. Images of my father came to mind. The times we had together. I used to sit on his shoe and wrap my arms and legs around his leg. He would drag me along and I would laugh. And then he was gone forever.  

I looked at the picture of the doctor’s children that he kept on his desk. They were all smiling, such happy, sunshiny children at the lake. I glanced at Dr. Fredericks and then down to the floor. In that one moment, I knew he was glad his children were not like me.

Dr. Fredericks leaned back in his chair and made a steeple of his hands and fingers. I stared at the black and white floor. The white squares were sort of mottled, not pure white. It was shiny and clean except over in the corner where the custodian had missed a place.

I thought of Mother sitting out in the waiting room. Or maybe she was standing right outside the door. She was my whole world. I wanted to jump up and run to her, to grab her hand and run down the stairs out into the sunshine, away from this place. I wanted not to worry anymore, to not fear what might have happened to her when she was late picking me up at the babysitter’s house. I didn’t want to imagine her dead. I didn’t want to think about who would take care of me or where I might end up. 

A long silence passed and the doctor finally stood up and invited my mother back into the room. 

“Thank you for waiting, Mrs. Hawk,” he directed her to a chair next to mine. Then he looked over at me, his eyebrows furrowed. Was he angry with me?

He sat down at his desk and took a pen out of his breast pocket. On the notepad in front of him he wrote a single word. I couldn’t tell completely what it said but I knew it wasn’t good. 

“Keep her on those iron tablets,” he said, looking up at my mother. “Her anemia isn’t any better.” 

Mother nodded. “Did you find any reason for her…um…breathing problems?” It seemed like she was going to ask a different question but she paused and looked down at me before finishing her question. 

The doctor’s lips stretched into a thin frown. He rubbed his chin and looked back toward the wall behind us. As he stood up, he shook his head. Without saying anything, he indicated with his hands that it was time for us to go. Mother and I rose from our chairs and moved toward the door.

I was almost out of the room when he stopped my mother and whispered, “She’s just high-strung.” 

High-strung? What did that mean? And why did I suddenly feel guilty and ashamed? 

I clung to my mother’s arm as we left the doctor’s office together. 

We were almost to the door when the receptionist called out, “If you hurry you can catch the elevator!” 

Mother turned to smile back at the woman. “Thank you,” she said, rubbing my head with her free hand. “But we’re going to take the stairs.” 

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Opal’s War of the Worlds

By Karen Brode

It had been a particularly long Sunday afternoon for Opal. Bells Baptist Church had had a luncheon after worship. She usually loved after church meals with the entire congregation. Her church family felt almost like her immediate family, although truth be told, she never really felt she was much like any of them. Now, back at home, the day just dragged on.

Opal walked through the house to see if there might be anyone who could distract her from the drudge of the day. Her young sisters, Cleo and Jewel, busied themselves brushing and fixing their doll’s hair in different ways. Opal was twelve, only a year older than Jewel, but Opal already knew that Jewel was not going to be her intellectual equal. She watched her sister playing with dolls like a little girl. If she said the words “intellectual equal” to Jewel, her sister wouldn’t have a clue what she was saying. 

The youngest sister, Hazel, was asleep. Opal peered over the sleeping girl and sighed in the dramatic way she was known for. She begrudged her baby sister being able to fall asleep and not have to think about anything.

Opal left her sisters to play and sleep. She wondered where her brothers were. There was no telling. The boys were required to stay on the property, but there was a whole 160 acres the boys could roam around in without going off the property. There was no way to tell if they were on or off their land from the kitchen window. Opal bet a dollar that her brothers were in the farthest reaches of the acreage smoking. 

Finally she came to Poppa and Momma’s bedroom door. It was closed and she could hear her father snoring. It was their custom to come home from church, strip out of their church clothes, and take a nap before going back to church that night. Opal didn’t understand why anyone would want to take their clothes off just to have to put them back on again an hour or two later. What was the point of getting dressed and undressed and dressed again?

Come to think of it, she wondered why on earth there was even a need to double back to church on Sunday night. Why couldn’t they just say what they needed to say on Sunday morning? She could understand if they wanted to preach a little longer on Sunday morning and be done with it. She traced a finger along the ledge of a windowsill and sighed. It didn’t matter what she thought about these things, though. She’d been been told enough times that her opinion and a nickel might buy someone a cup of coffee. 

And speaking of opinions—Opal stared out the window and shook her head as she thought about the woman who had gone forward during the invitation song that morning. Each Sunday Pastor Bill stood in front of the congregation. His forehead glistened with sweat. His suit drooped as if he’d been in the trenches saving souls. And the only thing he seemed certain about was that someone in that room needed Jesus. 

The hymn wrapped up and the pastor held up his Bible to stop the singing. “Hell is still hot and Jesus wants to save you from hell.” His tone had a reverberation of urgency. “Remember Lazarus and the rich man. There is a great, uncrossable divide between the saved and the unsaved.”    

Opal was familiar with the end-of-services ritual. She knew Pastor Bill wanted everyone to repent of their sins and move forward into a new life. But standing up and walking down that aisle meant a lot more than just feeling guilty about something. It told the world you were less of a Christian than all the others who stayed in their seats. And those in their seats had the right to see themselves as better than those that went forward. Whenever someone came forward, there was a lot more judgment than forgiveness.

Opal thought about Hedley Miller, the woman who had finally come forward. She was tall and thin wearing the same dress she wore every Sunday. Her shoulders hunched forward and she walked as if afraid of taking another step. From where Opal stood, it seemed as if Hedley might just curl up into a ball and disappear completely. Opal thought even her dress seemed more worn than usual.

“I didn’t know he was married,” Hedley sobbed into her handkerchief.

“Sure you didn’t,” Opal thought to herself. She could see that everyone agreed with her. No one believed that someone would marry a man without checking if he was already married over in the next county. Opal crossed her arms for good measure and glared back at the woman without feeling an ounce of sympathy or forgiveness. It was the least she could do to help Hedley toward a more Christian life.

It usually made Opal feel superior to think back over the shortcomings of others, but for some reason this morning’s revelation did nothing to combat her afternoon restlessness. It worried her to feel so anxious about nothing. She prided herself on being the calm in the storm, the voice of reason. She was not given to emotional outbursts, not like her sisters. She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and tugged the front of her dress a little to readjust it.

From where she stood in the parlor, she could see the dining room. It filled her with a kind of peace the way the sunlight came in the window and lit up the old oak table that stood in the middle. It had been a wedding gift from her mother’s grandmother. 

She walked to the table and laid the palm of her hand on the wood. She knew every line of grain in that table. She was in charge of polishing it at least once a week. There were times when she didn’t want to polish it or be in charge of anything, but her grumblings only provoked severe reprimands from her mother.

“Opal if you want to move out and live somewhere else, go right ahead!”    

Opal cringed at this memory and she lifted her hand from the table. She knew her mother had not meant it. She only wanted Opal to appreciate the finer things in her home and the embellishments that many of her classmates did not have. Opal had never been hungry and not fed, she had never had to wear the same dress to school two days in a row. Mother thought Opal should meditate on the niceties that were offered to her and to be grateful for what she had. It was a lesson few people ever learned. But Opal learned it. She knew her mother was right.

Just then, Opal heard shuffling in the kitchen. She went to see who it was and saw it was just the person on her mind. Momma didn’t look well, though. 

“You need anything, Momma?” Opal asked. “Maybe a cup of coffee?” 

Her mother nodded and waved as she pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. Opal went to the stove and set up the percolator to make some coffee.

“You okay?” she asked.

Momma looked up, her face pale and tired. “I need you to pray that I am not pregnant again,” she said.

Opal felt sick. Surely her mother didn’t want her to actually pray about this. It would be like throwing away a gift from God. Still, her mother looked like the shell of herself slumped at the table.

The two were silent for some time. Opal fixed the coffee and set it before her mother.   

“I’m not going to church tonight,” Momma said. “I just don’t feel up to it.” 

Opal nodded. “Me neither.” 

“I reckon missing one Sunday night service won’t land us in hell,” Poppa said as he walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. 

The moment Poppa sat down, Momma was on her feet shuffling around to get supper on the table. Sunday nights were a hodgepodge of the last several days’ meals. There was enough spaghetti for two or three people, roast beef for one, fried hamburger meat for several, baked potatoes, ham for sandwiches. The children were expected to put their own meals together.

Things warmed on the stove and Momma sat back down as if she couldn’t stand another minute.

“Opal, why don’t you turn on that radio,” Poppa said. He looked over at Momma and continued with a little glint in his eye, “It might improve the spirits around here.” 

Opal looked over at her mother. She waited for her to take the bait, but she didn’t. Usually that kind of remark would have started an argument. Opal flicked on the radio.

“Find a channel to put your mother in a better mood,” Poppa said. He smiled this time and winked. 

Opal saw Momma’s color turn from ash pale to dark pink. She cringed wondering what might come of the evening if Momma started arguing with Poppa, but then the color drained out of her face and she propped her head on her hand as if she couldn’t even hold that up anymore.

The radio blared on. The noise of it raked against Opal’s own nerves. She couldn’t imagine what how it might feel to Momma. It seemed like an intrusion into the quietness of the afternoon. 

“Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity.

A large meteor crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.”

Poppa looked over at Momma, his face serious. “New Jersey is a long way from here.”

The radio was silent for almost a minute and then it continued.  

“Good heavens. Something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me. I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it…it…ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

The radio blared on with news about Martians mounting atop walking war machines and firing “heat-ray” weapons at the puny humans gathered around the crash site. They annihilated a force of 7,000 National Guardsman and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians released a poisonous gas into the air. Soon, it was announced that “Martian cylinders” had also landed in Chicago and St. Louis.

Momma’s head lifted from her arm. Her eyes had a patina of fear that Opal had never seen before. The look on her face terrified Opal.   

“We should have gone to church!” Momma said.

“What does church have to do with what’s happening on the radio?” Poppa asked. 

Momma shook her head and stood up. Opal noticed her mother’s hands were shaking. Her whole body seemed to shake. 

“We have to warn them,” Momma murmured. 

Poppa didn’t seem to hear his wife—he seemed intent on the radio program—but Opal watched as Momma went to the desk in the parlor. She pulled out a piece of her signature writing paper with the pale purple flower at the top and wrote something down.

“Opal, I need you to get this to the Pastor Bill at church,” she said, folding the paper and handing it over.

“Yes, ma’am.” Opal took the note without question and ran out the door. She didn’t pause to look at herself in the mirror or slip on a sweater, in spite of the early October chill in the late-afternoon. She had seen her mother frightened before—Momma always seemed frightened or nervous about something—but she had never seen her mother look that scared. Once out of sight from the house, though, Opal slowed down to read the note: 

“Pastor Bill and congregation, we have listened to the radio. We have heard the warnings that alien spacecraft have landed at various locations of the US. We are sending our eldest child, Opal, to warn the church. In Christian love, Mrs. Walter Morrison”

Opal shivered with fear. So, what the radio was saying was true. Aliens had arrived from Mars. 

What if one of those spaceships landed right beside her just then and tried to take her back to Mars with them? She did not want to live on Mars. She certainly didn’t want to be married up with one of those creatures described in the broadcast. 

Opal knew it was unladylike to run, but on this occasion, speed was of the essence. 

As she ran, Opal began to think of herself as a heroine. She saw herself saving her neighbors from utter doom, or at least letting them know it was coming. There might one day be a book about her someday, how she went out into the twilight fearlessly and selflessly to save her community. She wondered which school picture of her they would use in the book. Opal had never taken a bad picture really, so any one of them would be okay.

At the edge of the church yard, she slowed down and composed herself. She decided to walk down the aisle with the purpose and seriousness in which she was sent. She knew the congregation might be surprised at first, but then they would realize that she was saving them from the Martian’s death rays.

Opal opened the door and walked steadfastly up the aisle to the minister. She handed over the note and waited off to the side. Pastor Bill looked up and over at Opal. His face had the pallor of Momma’s. Opal felt heroic and nauseous at the same time.

“I’ve just received a note from Mrs. Morrison,” said the pastor. “According to the radio, Martians have landed on earth.” 

Gasps and whispers floated out from the pews. An electric sense of panic rippled around the room. 

Pastor Bill held up both his hands and said, “We are in the safest place on earth right now. God will take care of us. I have no doubt.”  

He laid the note on the podium and nodded to Opal. She had a sudden need to be home with her family, so without another word, she ran down the aisle and out the door.

Opal scanned the heavens as she ran. She was relieved not to see anything unusual in the sky. Closer to her house, she saw lights on through the windows. She also noted that Uncle Hiram’s car was parked by her house. Hiram and his wife, Lydia, didn’t visit often. She thought they must have heard about the Martian invasion, too.

Opal opened the back door and was surprised to hear hysterical laughter in the kitchen.  

She moved slowly into the kitchen and looked at her parents for signs of what was going on. Momma locked eyes with Opal and shook her head back and forth. 

“No” was what that meant. Opal felt confused.  

Uncle Hiram slapped his knee and roared with laughter. Even her mother smiled, although it was a weak smile, almost embarrassed looking. 

Momma cleared her throat and said, “How’s your friend, Jenny?” 

Opal looked back at her mother and then around the room. All eyes turned to her and she knew she had to play along or else Momma would have her hide later.

“Oh, um, Jenny was a little worried about the…news on the radio.” 

Uncle Hiram burst with laughter and the whole table rattled with the coffee cups and spoons. 

“Your friend believed it too?” he finally got out. “Poor girl.” He turned back to Poppa and said, “Can you all believe that people ran for their lives all over this country when they heard that radio broadcast?”  

When Uncle Hiram got revved up, Opal knew better than to ask questions, so she went to the counter and made herself a ham sandwich. 

“That Orson Wells is something else,” Hiram continued. “I feel sorry for the people who believed it was real.” He laughed and wiped his eyes with his fingers. 

Opal glanced at Momma but Momma kept her eyes on Uncle Hiram, as if avoiding Opal altogether. 

“Does anybody want something to eat?” Opal asked. She knew better than to fix herself something without asking about the others.

“No thanks, honey,” Aunt Lydia said. She fanned herself with the newspaper, her cheeks red from laughter. “We already ate.” 

“All those people taken in by such a stunt,” Uncle Hiram burst out laughing again.

“Well, I am sorry about the people who killed themselves afraid of the Martian invasion,” said Aunt Lydia, who became suddenly serious. “They were desperate souls who could not see a way out.”

With that, all the adults became serious. Even Hiram looked down at his lap in reverence. But before anything more could be said, Hiram got up from the table and pushed his chair back.

“It’s sure been fun, but I suppose we ought to be getting home,” he said. 

Lydia nodded and they all stood. “We have to get up early tomorrow.” 

Momma and Poppa followed them out the door and into the yard. Opal heard car doors slamming and, soon after, the sound of a car engine and tires rolling on the gravel road.

Opal, still slightly confused, waited for her mother to return to the kitchen so she could ask what had happened. But when Momma came back in, she leaned against a kitchen chair and whispered, “Not a word, Opal. Don’t you ever mention that note to anyone!” 

And with that, Momma went off to bed.

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

The Good Doctor

By Karen Brode

Opal traipsed ahead of her sisters in her white night-gown. She glanced back at Cleo and Jewel, who followed reluctantly.

“C’mon, slow pokes,” Opal whispered. She glanced up at the full moon and then back to the uncertain faces of her sisters. “It’s almost midnight and I’m not telling this story if we’re not at the cemetery by then.”

Opal had insisted that her story should take place in the local cemetery at midnight. She was 13 and almost an adult. She knew better than either of her sisters how to tell a good story. Jewel was only 11 years old and had lived in Opal’s shadow all her life. It was easy to get her to follow orders, but Cleo was her own person and she rarely let Opal – or anyone else – make her feel inadequate.

Come to think of it, Cleo was a tough nut all the way around. Of all the sisters, Cleo acted the most like a boy. She could climb trees and run faster than most of the boys at school. Although Opal tried to explain that boys weren’t attracted to girls who climbed trees and ran fast, Cleo insisted on doing it anyway. Her independence drove Opal a little nuts, but for now she knew she had both Cleo and Jewel right where she wanted.

“I’m so glad the moon is full tonight,” she told her sisters. “Why, it’s almost as bright as daylight.”

In Opal’s mind, the conditions were perfect for a story at the cemetery. Not only was it scarier because of what time it was, she could see the fear on Jewel’s face, as well as the annoyance on Cleo’s. Opal knew Cleo resented her needing to tell her story at the cemetery. She could see Cleo wasn’t afraid, but she also knew Cleo just didn’t like the whole idea and that was satisfying enough.

Opal leaned over to look more closely at Cleo’s face. Cleo pulled back and frowned. Opal saw the scratches where tree branches had scratched her sister’s face in several places. This made Opal feel even better. She knew Cleo and Jewel would have a time of it with their mother at breakfast when they tried to explain how they got scratched up, but Opal never had to explain a thing.

Just then an owl flew low and hooted, as if it thought the glow of Jewel’s blonde hair was a meal. Jewel grabbed onto Cleo’s arm and made a little squeal.

“They sound like women screaming,” she said. Her voice quivered as she spoke. Opal knew Jewel was near to tears but there was no going back now. They had reached the clearing right outside the cemetery where she would tell the story.

Opal sat down on the grass and, together, the girls formed a circle when Cleo and Jewel sat down facing each other. Opal’s eyes danced in anticipation of telling the long-awaited story.

She sat in silence taking it all in, building the suspense, until Cleo said in her deadpan voice, “Come on, Opal. Get on with it.”

Opal knew Cleo was just as curious as Jewel, so she said, “If you say one more thing, you are going to have to walk home by yourself and not hear my story!”   

Jewel grabbed onto Cleo’s arm. “No! I promise Cleo won’t say anything else.” Jewel’s big round eyes pleaded at Cleo. Her younger sister sighed and nodded.

And so Opal began.

“Do you remember the couple who lived over by the church for awhile?” 

Cleo shrugged. “Kind of. Didn’t something happen to them?”

Opal nodded. “Their names were Sarah and Tom.” Opal pointed in the direction of the church which sat on the other side of the cemetery. “They lived just past there.” 

“Sarah was pregnant that fall, but it didn’t slow her down in her canning and quilting and housework. She was happier than anyone had ever seen her! She felt the beginnings of life in her belly and nothing could make her sad.

“Her husband, Tom, worked all day at the rail yard. He came home at the end of the day so tired and hungry. Sarah often made a pie to celebrate how happy they were. It was fun to celebrate little milestones in Sarah’s pregnancy: the first time the baby kicked, the first time Tom was able to feel the movements of the baby through his wife’s skin. It brought them so close together that they almost seemed like one person. They finished each other’s sentences, they always knew what the other was thinking. It was an unusual relationship in that way.

“Sarah waltzed around their little house scrubbing everything until it glowed. A happy home and a happy husband, and a baby on the way! She felt as if she alone had been singled out to feel the cup of her life running over with love.”

Jewel let go of Cleo’s arm and seemed to relax.

“She sounds so happy,” she said. “I hope I have a husband like Tom one day.”

Opal nodded and continued.

“The town doctor then was Dr. Pendergrast. He came by and asked Sarah to lie on the bed while he listened to her stomach area with his stethoscope.

“He smiled and said, ‘That heartbeat is strong! The baby is going to be a winner, for sure!’ 

“Tom shook Dr. Pendergrast’s hand and even hugged the doctor at at the thought of what was coming soon into his already happy life.

“How long do ladies have to be pregnant to have a baby?” Jewel asked.

Opal frowned at the interruption but she enjoyed being the source of all information for Jewel, so she simply said, “Usually around 9 months.”

Jewel sat up straight and pressed her hands to her belly as if trying to imagine how it would feel to have another human inside her body. A few seconds later her face squinted into confusion and she shook her head. Opal, the knowledgable big sister, allowed her to have this moment before continuing on.

On a cold, January night, Sarah woke in great pain. She tried hard not to be loud and wake Tom up, but the pain became too much and she finally yelled out to him.

“What’s wrong honey?” he asked. 

Sarah looked at him in the dark. Her eyes were wide and full of fear.

Without hesitation, Tom jumped up and ran to get Doc Pendergrast. The snow was falling hard and thick, but Tom didn’t even notice.

Doc Pendergrast threw on his robe, grabbed his black bag, and headed back to Tom’s house with him. The doctor shivered along the way. It was so cold, but being cold took a backseat to saving Tom’s wife and baby. 

By the time they got back to the house, Sarah had fallen onto the floor and was bleeding. Tom ran to her. He cradled her in his arms and rocked her back and forth.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he said, stroking his wife’s hair. “The doctor’s here now. It’s gonna be okay.”

Doc Pendergrast got out his stethoscope. He listened to Sarah’s heart rate and felt of her swollen abdomen. Things were not good. He motioned for Tom to go into the next room.

“The baby is breech,” he said. “I’ll need your help. We have to get the baby turned around.” 

Tom fell to his knees and wept. The only thing he knew about breeched babies was what he had heard about others, and not a single one had survived that he knew of.

Doc Pendergrast bent down and shook Tom’s shoulders.

“You can’t do this right now,” he said. “Your wife is in the other room in pain. She needs your help now.”

The two men went back to Sarah. She groaned and cried out in pain. Tom ran to her and held her upper body but he felt completely useless and scared.

Sarah’s cries and writhing went on for about an hour. Dr. Pendergrast tried and tried to get that baby turned around. But after a while, Sarah stopped crying. Her body went limp in Tom’s arms. Slowly, Dr. Pendergrast looked up into Tom’s eyes. He reached for one of Sarah’s hands and felt for a pulse. He stood and pressed his fingers to her neck, willing her heart to keep beating. But he felt nothing.

The doctor placed a hand on Tom’s shoulder and he shook his head.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “She’s gone.”

Tom’s eyes became wild like an animal’s. How could his wife be gone? She was just here, moaning in pain.

He sat up and gently laid Sarah back on the bed, but he refused to believe she was dead. He kissed her on the lips. He shook her shoulders. He lifted her hand to his chest and begged her to wake up. He looked from his wife to Dr. Pendergrast and then he knelt beside her. 

“Please come back, Sarah,” he said. “I can’t live without you.”

Dr. Pendergrast knew Tom needed some time to get used to the idea that his wife and unborn child were dead, but it was early January and it was colder than usual. They had two more months of winter ahead. This meant that it was only going to get colder. The ground was only going to become harder. They needed to bury Sarah as soon as possible.

The doctor cleared his throat and tried to be as gentle as possible when he said, “Tom, I’m sorry to say this but we need to get Sarah buried as soon as possible.”

Tom looked up from Sarah’s body, his eyes red from crying. They looked even wilder than before.

“Buried?” He said, his voice rough with emotion. “No. I need more time.” He reached across his wife as if to protect her, to keep her from going anywhere.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “You can’t wait to do this. We’ve got a hard freeze coming. The ground’s going to freeze, too. No one would try to dig a grave in frozen ground.”

“A grave?” Tom stood up so fast that Dr. Pendergrast braced himself for a punch in the jaw, but just as quickly, Tom sank back and fell into the chair nearest him.

“You don’t worry about that right now, Tom. I’ll go talk with Demetrius and see if he can get started on a grave. You stay here. Rest a bit. I’ll be back soon.”

Tom put his head in his hands and wept.

Demetrius was the prime grave-digger in town. He was the only man who could dig a grave completely perfect in an eight-by-four rectangle in a short amount of time. He was was a rough and lonely kind of man. He lived alone in a box car out in the woods not far from town. The only company he kept there was the wooden caskets he built and stored in one end of his box car. Death and the business of death was what he knew best. It is also what put alcohol on his table.

The grave digger could usually be found at the seedy bar over on the east side of town around mid-afternoon. Any other time he was at home sleeping off whatever he drank at the bar. Rumor had it that Demetrius had ten children with a nice lady in the next town but they all hated him because of how he behaved when he drank.

Dr. Pendergrast had never been to Demetrius’ box car but he knew the general direction. He had hoped he could go his whole life without ever needing to visit the man, but now he was forced to go in the middle of a cold winter night. He took a deep breath and banged on the box car, yelling as loud as he could to try to wake Demetrius from his alcohol-fueled coma. 

It was a long time before Demetrius came to the door. When he finally did, his eyes were red and bloodshot. Dr. Pendergrast thought briefly about running away. The man looked like a demon in the night.

The doctor forced himself to stay put on Demetrius’s steps and he shivered—out of fear as much as cold—as he told Demetrius what had happened.

The grave digger nodded. His words were slurred and slow. “Yeah. Yeah. I understand you.”

He leaned to one said and, for a minute, Dr. Pendergrast thought the man might fall over. When he came back upright, though, he had a shovel in his hand. “Show me where you want it dug.”

As they walked through the snow, Dr. Pendergrast wondered how many drinks Demetrius had had before he went to bed. Not that he judged the man. No one managed to get through life without a little help. Knowing he was in good company, Dr. Pendergrast took a whiskey flask out of his coat pocket and took several swigs.

He led Demetrius to the spot near Tom’s house where the grave should be dug and then he told the grave digger about Sarah so he could pull a coffin from his boxcar to fit her. Demetrius started digging and Dr. Pendergrast turned to go help Tom prepare is wife for burial.

He fell in the snow twice on his way back to see about Tom. All of his extremities felt frozen solid but at least he had some warmth in his stomach from the whiskey. 

Walking along in silence, Dr. Pendergrast’s thoughts fell to Tom and Sarah and then on to his own marriage. His wife wasn’t anything like Sarah. She was judgmental and disappointed in him. But it hadn’t always been like that.

Lily had been the belle of the ball when he met her. Every boy in the county wanted to dance with her and escort her to parties. She looked at him sometimes with fluttering eyelashes as she was whisked off on some other guy’s arm. It had taken him a long time to get his courage up to ask her out, but when he did he realized that he was always the one she wanted. It had made him feel so good, so happy to know that a woman of such high social standing would want anything to do with him.

Things had been so good in the beginning. Lily stayed with him through all the hard years when he barely eked out a living while he was in school to become a doctor. Over time, though, she had come to see him differently.  She often looked at him like she didn’t recognize him. In his mind, all she did was judge and resent him.

His family was not wealthy like many of the other guys from medical school. He never took Lily or anyone else home to meet his family. They were all crazy, every single one of them. Everybody but him.

He thought back to his home. He hadn’t been back in decades. Back into his whiskey-muddled mind tumbled thoughts of his life back home. His poor daddy worked other men’s fields to try to put food on the table. His momma sat by a window in the parlor with a wad of snuff in her mouth. She kept a can nearby to spit in, but she didn’t always hit the target and she didn’t care either.

His younger sister really wasn’t right in the head. When he left home, she was 19 and still played with dolls, drooling food out of her mouth as she conversed with people only she could see. His parents tried to ignore it because there was no alternative. In school, he had learned about mental illness. It was then that he decided that they were all mentally ill, so he stopped going home.

When he got to Tom and Sarah’s house, Tom was sitting near his wife. He wasn’t crying anymore but he seemed to be in a state of utter disbelief.   

“Doc, I think I saw her move a little bit,” he said, his voice hopeful.

The doctor shook his head and put his hand on Tom’s arm to help him up. He needed to get the man away from his wife’s body.

“I’m sorry, Tom. That can’t be. Sometimes we want things so bad, our mind plays tricks on us.”

The doctor led Tom into the parlor and had him sit on the sofa.

“Listen, I know this is hard. I’ve asked Demetrius to dig a grave and prepare a casket. That snow out there is falling hard. We need to get Sarah to her final resting place before the ground is frozen solid.”

“She was just here, Doc,” Tom said. “We went to bed like nothing was ever gonna be wrong. We had our whole lives ahead of us. You saying you want me to just toss her in the ground now?” Tom stood up and paced to the other side of the room. “I need more time to say goodbye!”

Hours went by and the sun was beginning to crest the horizon. The doctor spent that entire time talking Tom into what was going to happen next. It wasn’t easy. At times, Tom was belligerent and angry. But by the time, Doc heard Demetrius outside kicking snow off his boots on the front porch, he was pretty sure Tom understood what needed to happen. 

“It’s time now, Tom. Nothing we do is going to bring her back and nothing good will come from you hanging onto her now.”

Before Demetrius could knock on the door, Doc went to it and opened it to let him in.

”I couldn’t get it dug more’n five feet down,” the grave digger said coming into the parlor.  He seemed somehow invigorated by the job he had just done, but when he caught sight of Tom, he bowed his head in respect. “Sorry, sir. I have the coffin waiting right near the grave, ready when you are.”

Tom wailed and fell to his knees. The doctor led Demetrius to Sarah’s body and, together, they wrapped her in blankets and a small rug. Tom couldn’t leave Sarah to go to her grave alone, so he followed behind.

As the doctor and Demetrius laid Sarah into the coffin, Tom tried to keep the men from putting the lid on top. To the doctor’s relief, Demetrius stepped in and gently lured the grieving husband back. Then he went to nailing the coffin shut and as the last nail was hammered, Tom turned away and sobbed.

It took less than half an hour for the burial to take place. When it was all over, Tom stared blindly at the mounded grave.

“Come along, Tom,” the doctor said. He patted Tom’s arm to try to wake him out of his shock. “Let’s go home and get you a hot cup of coffee.”

Tom shook his head and looked directly into Doc Pendergrast’s eyes.

“You don’t…,” he choked on this words and then cleared his throat. “You don’t have anything that could help me join her, do you?”

Dr. Pendergrast pulled away from Tom and shook his head. “Oh no, son. You don’t want to do that. You’ve got years ahead of you yet and you’ll feel better soon.” 

Dr. Pendergrast turned away to take a swig of his whiskey so he didn’t see Demetrius nod as if to tell Tom he had just the thing to take all his sorrows away.

Tom nodded and reached for Demetrius’ hand. “Thank you. I’ll get you your payment as soon as I can.”

Demetrius nodded with an extra knowing glint in his eyes. Then he turned and walked back toward his boxcar.

The doctor went back with Tom to help him get settled in. He stayed as Tom slept fitfully.  Eventually, Dr. Pendergrast fell asleep on the sofa but he awoke when he heard Tom screaming.

“Sarah!” He said, coming out of his bedroom. “I heard her calling to me!”

He ran to the chair where his coat had been laid and he started putting it on. “I need to go to her. I need to go get her!”

“No, Tom!” The doctor blocked him from the door and gently pushed him back toward the kitchen. “Sit down for a minute. It was just a dream.”

He went through the cupboards and found a bottle of brandy Sarah must have used in her cooking. He poured a glass for Tom and half a glass for himself.

“Here, drink this. You’ll feel better after.”

Thankfully, Tom was more tired than agitated, so it wasn’t long before the brandy had him sleeping again.

Tom woke up several more times, sure Sarah was calling to him and, each time, Dr. Pendergrast tried to convince him otherwise.

“Look, Tom, Sarah is too far away. Even if she was screaming, you wouldn’t be able to hear her unless you stood right next to her grave.” 

This went on for two days and Dr. Pendergrast was so worried for his friend that he stayed with him the entire time. Finally, though, Tom said he was going to the grave and he took the shovel.

Dr. Pendergrast knew the only way to convince Tom that his wife was indeed gone for good was to let him do what he needed to do. He followed Tom out into the bitter cold and watched as Tom dug through the foot of snow and the dirt.

“I just have to see, Doc,” he said as he worked. “I’ll never rest if I don’t do this.”

When he dug to the top of the coffin he pried off the top with the tip of his shovel. There, unraveled from the rug and blankets was his dead wife. Tufts of hair lay all around her, as if she had gone mad in the struggle to get out. The bottom half of the coffin was covered in blood and between his wife’s legs lay the baby, blue and frozen.

“Oh my God,” he said. “They were alive.”

Before Tom could say anything more, Dr. Pendergrast grabbed the shovel and hit Tom in the back of his head as hard as he could. Tom fell into the coffin on top of Sarah and the baby.  The doctor kept hitting Tom until he was certain he was dead.

Methodically, Dr. Pendergrast piled the dirt back on top of the coffin, and then continued to fill the space above with snow.  He bent down to make sure nothing looked out of place.  Then he went to Demetrius’s box car, and leaned the blood covered shovel against it.

He only fell once on the way back to Tom’s house, but he would have a tall one when he got there. Then he would sleep on Tom’s sofa as long as he wanted.

Lela’s Quiet Time

Lela Morrison went to sit in the dark parlor in her rocking chair. She could still see Walter and the children surrounding the kitchen table, though. Their voices were loud and demanding and unceasing. Lela closed her eyes and laid her head back against the chair. Oh, to be silent. To have time. To have peace.

Her life spun completely out of control the day she married Walter. She believed him to be the love of her life and she would have done anything to be with him. If only she could have seen what was down that road. Would she have still done it? She honestly didn’t know.

She was so tired. Nothing ever ended. She had done her part to keep her girls chaste little ladies. But Walter had dropped the discipline of his boys. He kept telling her they were good boys at heart. They would grow up, come back to the church. Nothing he said about those boys made her believe him. She had a bad feeling about all of them.

Lela knew that things could be much worse. She was reminded often about this whenever she complained about her life.

“Look at Mrs. Jacobs,” Mother would say, never looking up from her cooking or sewing. “Would you rather have Mr. Jacobs be your husband and never get sober? Would you be happier with no children?”

“Well, of course not,” Lela said in return. Still, it didn’t help her much. Just made her feel lonely. Whenever she had these conversations with her mother, she the walk back home seemed farther and what was waiting for her there felt heavier. But she always went back and put the bridle back on, and she tried to be thankful for a life that was wearing her down a little more each day.

Opal was the oldest of Lela’s and Walter’s kids. In the darkness of the parlor Lela heard Opal’s voice above all the others. Lela smiled weakly remembering how happy she had been when she learned her first child was coming. She wanted that baby. She could not wait to hold her in her arms and know that she and Walter, with God’s help, had made another human. And Opal had been such a treasure, such a pretty little girl. She had bouncing blonde curls and such a sweet personality. She was perfect.

Before Opal was weaned, though, Lela was in a family way again. This second baby was just the first of a long line of moments that felt overwhelming for Lela. At the news of this second child, she felt she might never get to just enjoy anything at all. Opal had been enough—at least for a little while—but now a new baby to care for was on the way and soon another and then another. Her life rolled out before her in an unending road of children needing something from her always.

Lela was praised far and wide for her needlepoint. It was one of the few things in her life that she enjoyed. Still, no matter how many hours she spent surrounded by women her own age at her sewing circle, she felt utterly alone. There wasn’t a soul there who would understand her exhaustion, her loneliness. Her world was bordered by the church, by Walter, by other women’s criticism, and the never-ending needs of her children.

Lela sighed in her rocking chair. She knew she couldn’t sit there for long. Life would not wait on her. She must run to keep up but it made her so tired.

She heard Opal trying to get her father’s attention. Walter never immediately acknowledged his daughter. That was the way he was. So Opal escalated the conversation until he did.

“Daddy this boy at school said he loves me!”

At this, the clamor around the table stopped. Lela pictured Walter looking at Opal in a new light. She has always been a little girl to him but now she was 15 and had just announced a boy loved her. Walter hated confrontation, but surely he would not be completely spineless

Walter cleared his throat. “Well, missy. Do you like this boy?”

“Not particularly,” Opal replied. Lela could hear the triumph in her daughter’s voice. “But it’s nice to have someone in love with me”

Lela sighed realizing that Walter was finished with his part of parenting Opal around this. He would ask her to handle it. She knew that when they were in bed he would turn toward her and ask if she had told Opal about men? He might even say that not all men were nice like him. If he said that, Lela thought she might have to hit him.

How on earth did Walter think it was nice to make her feel the way she felt? She so wished Walter, and all men, could walk through that dark valley of child labor. Lela was devoutly religious but in the worst of her labor pains, she would have gladly sold her soul to make it stop.

She wondered how it was that Walter managed to have the low tension inside himself to the point of almost being boring, and yet people always liked him. People, even the children, responded in a much different way to her. She was always on the edge of panic wondering when the next shoe would drop.

Walter had a good job as an accountant at the cotton gin. He went to college and did whatever college boys did. She was sure that he and his brothers had done things that she could never imagine Walter doing. Walter’s family had been wealthy. His brothers were still wealthy, but they were far out in West Texas in the oil fields, which suited her just fine.

Sometimes Lela tell Walter her fears and worries. Walter always reminded her that they could be very well off if he had joined his brothers in West Texas. Lela believed there was so much more to life than money, like the moral fiber of her children, but there were times that she wished they had more money.

She recalled the time she had to stop by the cotton gin to get some money from Walter. She had been overcome by the sound of the machinery, but in the center of it all was Walter, closed up in his glassed-in office working on the books. She was jealous of his peace and silence. It made her hate him more.

Mainly she hated him because he was a man. Men did not have to have their bodies split open in childbirth. Her womb had been opened seven times because he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She had done these things for him, for their marriage and yet come breakfast time, she wasn’t good enough to talk to. All he wanted then was to sip his coffee and read the newspaper. And he always got what he wanted.

Lela groaned low so no one would hear her. She decided as she rocked in her chair that there must be something terribly wrong with her. She had completely lost her desire for Walter. There was a time in their lives when he had been so exciting. He came to the door of her childhood home armed with a dozen roses behind his back. He had taken her for drives in his Model T on Sunday afternoons. Lela was so happy back then.

Lela’s mother was not pushy as a rule but once Walter Morrison came calling, even her mother had stars in her eyes. All of her girlfriends were eaten up with jealousy that he had not chosen one of them. And the thing was, Lela had not gone looking for Walter. Maybe it was her lack of being impressed with him that drove him to try to impress her more.

Lela’s mother had warned her that married life was never easy.

“After the new wears off,” she’d say. “Just wait and see.”

But when it came to Walter, Mother’s tune changed.

“You couldn’t find a better one than Walter.”

Her mother constantly listed off his attributes as if Lela needed reminders. He was clean and had no rude habits. He was a churchgoer, a tither, he prayed before meals, even in Lela’s house. Even before they were married the church elders were considering him to be made a deacon. The only thing holding him back was his marital status. They preferred that deacons were married.

Walter was no fool either. He brought little niceties to Lela’s mother; a box of chocolates, a new package of needles, perhaps a bowl of fruit from his mother’s house. It didn’t take long for Lela’s mother to make up her mind about Walter.

Lela wondered how other families were. She had no idea if anyone else felt the way she did. No one ever talked about their home life at the sewing circle at church. All of her friends went to church at the same place. They all smiled the same smile. Sometimes Lela would be recruited to help on a committee or to join another group to hem the infant’s blankets for new mothers.

Mrs. Henry was one of the few women Lela connected to at church. She showed Lela how to make an applique quilt. It was the only time Lela could recall having so much fun. Mrs. Henry was so talented and she was so easy to talk to. Lela started to think that maybe one day she could actually open up to her, so she undertook a huge quilting project.

Lela had not attempted to do any such undertaking in the past, but working on the appliqued squares gave her an excuse to sit with Mrs. Henry and work together. But before she finished them all, Mrs. Henry and her family moved away and she was left to work on it all on her own.

Lela heard chairs being pushed away from the table. She knew her “quiet time” was almost over. It was the only time of day she could call her own.

“Mother!” Opal called, “Did you iron my blue skirt?”

Lela stood up and brushed her apron back into place. She took a deep breath before answering.

“Yes, Opal. I ironed your skirt earlier today. It’s hanging in your closet.”

Lela walked toward the kitchen but Opal met her at the threshold of the parlor.

“Oh, thank you, Mother!” Opal wrapped Lela in a warm hug and squeezed tight.

Lela had to admit she loved that girl. She hugged her oldest daughter back. Then she felt a pang of guilt for not liking her other children like that. She and Walter should have stopped having children after Opal, but they didn’t.

As she and Opal parted, she wondered to herself why the others were so different from this daughter. How happy she and Walter had been when they saw her for the first time. From the first moment to this last one, Opal was so sweet. She watched her daughter hum down the hallway and she smiled. Opal was happy.

Don Michael Killed My Brother

By Karen Brode

When I heard that my nephew, Don Michael, had gotten out of prison I immediately thought of the unfortunate Clutter Family who were massacred back in the 1960’s by psychopathic ex-convicts.

Truman Capote wrote a book about the Clutters called “In Cold Blood.” If I remember the story correctly–my memory is not what it used to be–the ex-convicts traveled cross country to access the Clutter family safe sheerly on information told to them in prison by another inmate who had worked at the Clutter Farm before he went to prison. The inmate had told them there was a safe inside the house with lots of money in it–there was no such safe. The Clutters all died for nothing. 

All of the television crime channel stories start out the same.  It’s a sleepy little town where nothing ever happens; people don’t even lock their doors!  

I have always been a locked door enthusiast. Sometimes when I am almost asleep, I get up to check all the doors, just one more time. 

In those dreamy moments after I’ve checked the doors “just once more,” I imagine Don Michael bragging in prison about his Uncle Barry’s gun collection. If Don Michael began to really think about things, he could probably even be able to tell the convicts where the guns were kept.

Don Michael’s father was my brother. His name was Don. Sure, he was a con man and a crooked used car salesman, but I don’t think he was ever involved in any big crimes. His son, on the other hand, started his criminal career not long after my brother and his first wife divorced. Sharon got the kids, but neither she nor Don were equipped to handle children.

I remember all the times I rode in the car with Sharon and the children. There were two older boys from a previous marriage and I don’t think they were ever in control. Sharon screamed and screamed and then tried to spank legs in the backseat while she drove. If I had a nickel for every time she threatened to stop the car…. Let’s just say, I really wanted her to stop the car and do whatever she might’ve done but she never did. The boys thought she was funny.

This made Don’s job as a stepdad so much harder because her total lack of discipline made Don have to be in charge of all disciplinary measures. I tried not to laugh when I saw him sitting in his recliner with a belt in his hands. I never saw him use the belt, but it was there to remind the boys that it could be used, if needed.

Don Michael was my brother’s long awaited dream son. He had daughters but daughters were not sons. He longed for a son and when Don Michael was born it was a happy day for everyone.

I was at the hospital the night Don Michael was born. Sharon and Don has asked me to come, and I wanted to be helpful. Just as Don Michael was beginning to be born I had to leave the room. I had to sit in a chair in the hallway and tremble in fear at my own ineptitude. Why on earth had I thought I could witness a birth? I was out there only a few minutes, though, when Don ran out of the delivery room looking happier than he ever had.

It was a boy! Don gave his son his own name and vowed to put checkered pants on him and have him selling cars the following week. It was a good time for the family.

Don Michael was thirteen when he went to juvie for the first time. Each of the boys had a turn in some sort of correctional facility by the time they were teenagers.

When Don Michael was fifteen, Sharon sent him to live with Don because she could no longer control him. Don lived in Tulsa at that time and Don Michael fell into a gang of other boys bent on criminal behavior. Don Michael held up a convenience store with a knife and the clerk later identified him as the boy who had threatened her. Don was so disappointed.  

Don and Sharon went to his court days and listened to lawyers talk about his youth, his  impressionability, the belief that with the right kind of help, Don Michael could turn his life around. In the end, they decided not to give him a harsh sentence.

I received letters from Don Michael while he was in the youth facility. He swore he wanted to go to church with me, start a new and better life, and make his parents happy. It made me happy to think we could be a big happy family again, like when he was first born. But then he got out and I never heard from him. It turns out, church was the last thing on his mind by then. He and his girlfriend were pregnant.

Don Michael was sixteen when his first child was born. By then he had other girlfriends and I tried not to think of him. I heard bits and pieces of information about him, and I really didn’t want to know anything about him. Still, you live in a family and you’re bound to hear about your brother’s kids.

Don Michael was rounded up in a meth-cooking mess. He had run and tried to get away but the cops were smart enough to surround the place where the meth was being manufactured. He faced serious jail time.

Don Michael and his family lived in a tent down by the river when all of this happened.  He called a lawyer while he was in the county jail and told him that he had a box of money buried at the river. He promised he would go get the box and bring it back if the lawyer would get him out of jail.

I really have to wonder about the intelligence of this lawyer. He did as Don Michael asked and waited for the money. That kid was halfway to Las Vegas by the time the lawyer realized he had been played. 

All of these stories make me tired when I think of it. There were so many more arrests, so many more years in jail, so much more heartache for my brother. Don Michael moved among the upper echelon of criminals in Las Vegas, and the last time he was arrested he went to the Clark County jail in Las Vegas. 

By then, I don’t think anyone expected Don Michael to be anything but a criminal. I watched my brother cry and finally admit his son wasn’t a good person. I never thought my brother could be broken, but he was. Don Michael was his waterloo.

Don moved back to Texas near to where we grew up. I think a part of me knew he was dying. He had lost his will to live then and stopped taking all of his medications. He had diabetes but he said he felt better when he didn’t take the medication. I look back now and wonder how I could have been so blind. My brother killed himself in plain sight with all of us watching. 

It was a sunny day in September when we gathered to remember my brother. No part of Don was at that funeral. There was a box of something in the front of the funeral chapel, but it wasn’t him. The funeral director assured us that people did this all the time. It wasn’t necessary to have the actual body or remains at the funeral.

I glanced around the crowd of attendees and saw so many people that I didn’t expect to be there. May Felton from my church was there. It surprised me to see her there. She didn’t know Don and we weren’t that close. But then it hit me. She thought she would get the scoop before anyone else. She thought she’d be able to take something back to the ladies tea hour at church.

When my brother died, his son was back where it all started, the Mason County jail. We had been told that Don Michael could be given special permission to attend his father’s funeral if the family was willing to pay for two deputies to escort him in chains and shackles to and from his father’s funeral.

This is why May Felton attended my brother’s funeral. I looked around the chapel some more and wondered if maybe that was the reasons others had, too. There was not usually such drama and excitement in our little town.

In the end, I refused to pay two cents for Don Michael to attend his father’s funeral. I  didn’t want to see him or hear about him ever again. He had killed my brother. There was no doubt in my mind.  

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Finding Life When It’s Over

By Karen Brode

Stephen Garner felt a lot older than he thought he should. The years and the failures had caught up to him. He looked down at his work-worn hands. At 56 years old, his body was broken and his spirit wasn’t too far behind. If he had just been 10 years younger, he would have rallied. Once upon a time, those hands could have saved the farm. But nothing could help him now. He had lost the farm, lost everything he had worked for. And now his wife was dying.

The best he could do was to stay alive to take care of Ella. He was unselfish in his prayer for continued breaths. He knew his wife depended on him so much. She depended on him to say their morning prayers because she had forgotten them. She depended on him to bring her meals to the little room where they now lived in their daughter’s house. He fed her because she had forgotten how to eat. She depended on him to keep her warm in the night and to understand so many things that she could no longer understand.

And Stephen did understand. He loved Ella through all of it. He felt himself being used up, consumed by the situation, but he never wavered in his love for her. She had been that beautiful young girl who had just glanced across the church aisle at him when he was young and vibrant and well. She had waked in him all the love and devotion a young girl could cause a young man to have. They had been young and happy and their children had had enough to eat and life was good. Their life together had never been rich but they weren’t poor either. The Lord had always provided. By the sweat of his brow, he had helped the Lord provide for his family. And on Sundays, he and Ella and their three children took up most of a pew at church.

He rubbed the tight pain between his eyes and looked over at his wife. She was sleeping. She had forgotten all of those times but he remembered them. Sometimes he wished he could forget too so he wouldn’t really know how much they had lost.

Stephen and Ella were penniless. They had lost the farm. Stephen ached remembering the day the bank came and took the farm away. They just weren’t able to keep up on their payments. Now, he and his wife were at the mercy of whichever of child would take them in. Thank God for the generosity of their oldest daughter Lela and her steadfast husband Walter.

Stephen smiled at the thought of their kindness. It was a bittersweet smile. He would have rather been in his own home and not tucked in the corner of his daughter’s house. But his children were good to him and Ella. Walter took care of the roof over their heads and Lela made sure they ate. Stephen was sure there was never a better pair than those two.

Stephen’s thoughts were interrupted by a tiny knock at the door. He knew it was little Hazel, even before she turned the knob and peeked in.

“What you doin’, little girl?” Stephen asked, opening his arms and inviting her into his lap. She smiled and ran to him, giggling quietly.

She was only five, the youngest of seven children. Stephen could see her little heart, and it was as big as the earth itself. Unlike the other children, Hazel had a restless spirit. She longed to go to school with her sisters, but since the time wasn’t right yet, she always found her way to Grandpa’s lap with stories she had seen around her.

Sometimes in a sad moment, it would be enough for him to hold this little granddaughter in his lap and feel her hope and love. It gave him the strength to go on a little while longer.

“Mama’s in a fluster,” Hazel said after she was settled on Grandpa’s lap in the crook of his arm.

“What about this time?” He asked. With seven children and a husband who refused to get involved, his daughter was rarely not in a fluster.

“Opal’s got a date. She’s worried she’ll sit too close to a boy in a buggy.”

“Heavens,” said Stephen, “Is Opal old enough to date?”

Hazel looked up at her grandfather like she was shocked. “Well, she is 15,” she said. “She’s gotta get married soon so she can have babies!”

“Oh my word,” Stephen said laughing. “Where on earth did you hear that, my little girl?”

“Opal told me. She said she was the prettiest out of all of us and that she had to get married first.”

Hazel sat up in Stephen’s lap and pretended to brush her hair in front of a mirror. Stephen knew without her telling him that she had seen her older sister do this a hundred times.

“Heaven help that boy, then,” Stephen said. He knew what kind of woman Opal was going to be. She would be insufferable, but whatever boy would have her would never know it until after he had married her.

Stephen didn’t like to get into the parenting affairs of Lela and Walter, but he knew they struggled sometimes. For one, Lela spoiled Opal and gave her whatever she wanted. And on the other hand, Walter had a weak spot when it came to disciplining his children, especially the boys. He left everything to Lela.

Stephen knew, then that it was better for him and Ella to take their meals in their little room by themselves. Ella didn’t feel like eating much of the time, but Stephen knew that she just didn’t feel like talking or being a part of the chaos in the main house. So, they stayed in their room much of the time when the entire family was together.

There were times, though when Stephen went to the kitchen to sit with his daughter while she prepared the meal for the day. They talked often about the trials and tribulations of raising such a large family. Lela never relaxed. She made Stephen tired to watch her dart about her kitchen looking for ingredients to make a new meal each day. Lela was only 37, but she looked 50.

Stephen thought about her husband Walter and wondered if he might still be mad at Lela for not moving to West Texas when they were young. He had brothers out there who were successful oil barons and he had oven mentioned how much better off they might have been if they had lived there.

Stephen thought they had made the right decision by staying in East Texas, though. He didn’t think his daughter would fit well into Walter’s family. His brothers were fast talkers, fast dealers, and there was nothing Christian about them. It worried Stephen that his daughter and her children might be unduly influenced by these people and turn out to be infidels.

Stephen blinked into the darkness of the room and squeezed his little granddaughter to him. He was so thankful for that room and that little girl, who took after Ella in sweetness and smarts.

“Wanna go get the mail?” he asked her.

She nodded and slid off his lap. She waited patiently for him to rise out of his chair and then she took his hand.

“Let’s go, Grandpa,” she said softly.

As they walked down the dirt road together, Stephen felt the sun on his face and decided he should get outside more often. Hazel chattered away about the flowers and dropped his hand just long enough to stoop down and pick one.

“For you,” she said standing back up and holding a little flower up to her grandfather. “It was the prettiest one of the bunch.”

He was humbled and love filled his heart. “Thank you, Miss Hazel,” he said. He would later take the flower to Ella, but for now he stuck it in his pants pocket.

At the mailbox, Stephen went through the letters. His sister had written, but he would give that letter to Lela. Lela handled all of the family communication. Truth was, Stephen wasn’t too good at writing. He could never write down all that had happened to him. It was better not to talk about it or think about it.

He did open a letter from Washington, DC, though. He didn’t know anyone in Washington. Hazel leaned on him, tired from the walk, so he bent down and picked her up as he opened the letter.

“Well, Hazel, this letter is from the social security department, whatever that is.”

Stephen opened the letter and shook his head. “Wouldn’t you know it, Hazel? Those fat cats in Washington are asking me for money! That president in with all the money in the world is asking me for money!”

“What’s it for?” Hazel asked and leaned her head on her grandfather’s shoulder.

Stephen looked at his granddaughter and then back at the letter. It talked about some new program that was meant to help people get on their feet when they couldn’t work anymore. The idea of it struck home, made him wish something like that had been in place when he had been forced to leave his farm and livelihood.

“It’s meant to help people,” he said in a whisper.

“That can’t be bad,” said Hazel, looking at the words in the letter.

Stephen squatted down in the road and slipped Hazel down to his knee. He dug a dime out of his pocket and dropped it into the stamped envelope that had come with the letter.

“Wanna lick the envelope?” he asked.

Hazel nodded and took the envelope from him.

Stephen looked out into the distance to a future he would never know and he wondered if that dime might help some old soul like himself.

“It might not help Ella and me,” he said, taking the closed envelope back from Hazel, “but maybe it’ll help some other poor old feller at the end of his life.”

With that, he took Hazel’s hand and they started back to the farmhouse. They kicked at the dirt as they walked and the September sun shined hard on their backs as they laughed together.

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

The Story of My Father

By Grace Washington

Reverend Samuels let me out of his car at the edge of the road by my house. I leaned against the catalpa tree and watched him drive off.

I listened to the magical sound of the rain dripping off the leaves. The big rainstorm was over, but there were still clouds scudding across the moon.

I stood there for a long time trying to absorb what I had been told by my pastor. In a way, I wished he hadn’t told me anything. A part of me wished I would’ve never known that Ernest Washington, Jr. was not my father. If I had never known, I wouldn’t have to think about it. I wouldn’t have to look at myself and know that I was different.

But Ernest Washington, Jr. had been good to me. I had called him “Daddy” and now I felt like the biggest fool in the county.

I ran a list through my head of friends and acquaintances at church and in the community. They probably all knew.

The sound of the screen door squeaking and slamming against the wood frame broke my thoughts. Momma came running out of the house.

“Grace, why are you standing out here? Why didn’t you come inside first thing and tell me about Pearl?”

I couldn’t speak. Not yet. I watched Mother come down the steps and walk toward me with a purpose I hadn’t seen in her in years.

“Don’t you know I’ve been worried sick about all of you?”

I smiled, but it was more out of the sad realization that my mother worried so much about some things and cared so little about so many other things—like telling me the truth about my father.

“Why are you smiling? Is Pearl gonna be okay?”

Mother fussed with a handkerchief tucked into her sleeve. She started to pull it out and then shoved it back in again. She didn’t seem to know whether to blow her nose or wind her watch.

Finally, she stopped in front of me and sighed.

“Why didn’t you tell me Pearl was pregnant? You know how I hate secrets.”

I leaned my head against the tree and closed my eyes.

“Secrets,” I said, my voice cracking. “You talk to me about secrets, Mother?”

I opened my eyes and saw Mother’s looking right at me like I was crazy. In a flash, though, I saw her see my meaning. Fear brushed across her face and she bit her lip.

Just as quickly, though, she dismissed the thought with a shake of her head and a wave of her hand.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Grace Washington.” Her voice was weaker, less full of anger and purpose. Less confident.

“I…I’ve been worried sick,” she repeated, wringing the handkerchief she finally pulled from her sleeve. “I…Is Pearl okay?”

I nodded. “She’s okay. She’ll be okay. She’s got some healing to do. She lost the baby.”

Mother shook her head again and looked over at me like a shy child.

“Why didn’t you all tell me about her condition, Grace? I feel like such a fool not knowing.” She paused to blow her nose and then in a whisper, “I bet everyone in Milledgeville knows.”

“Like they knew about you?” I asked. The words left my mouth with a bitter taste.

Mother looked at the ground and all around her, but not at me.

“You talk about secrets,” I said, the anger and sadness churning up into my chest. “You never told me that you and Ernest had been married for only two months when I came along. I called him ‘Daddy’! I never knew that you were pregnant with me before you even met him. Talk about looking like a fool!”

Tears poured from my eyes at these last words. Now it was my turn to not know what to do. I felt like running screaming down the street but years of always being the responsible one rooted me to the ground. I bent over and sobbed.

Momma reached out a hand and placed it on my shoulder. I could feel her shaking through my coat.

“Oh Gracie, honey.” She was crying too. “I just wanted you to be happy. I never wanted to hurt you.”

I looked up at her and she dropped her hand to mine.

“Come along now,” she said, her voice quiet and trembling. She wiped her eyes and pulled me gently down the walkway to our porch. When she got there, she patted the top step for me to sit down and then she sat. We must have looked a picture of sorrow sitting there slumped together.

After some minutes, she said, “I thought it was best to do what I did, to not tell you. Life is complicated enough without all of this kind of thing.” She reached a hand to dab at my tears and then she lifted my chin. “You have been such a good girl, a fine girl. I’m so proud of you.”

“Momma,” I said, “Tell me about my father.”

Mother looked off and squinted, as if the past lived somewhere on the horizon.

“I was 16 years old.” She smiled weakly. “My Momma told me I had to quit school and help the family make a living. But I didn’t want to quit school. Still, I knew my Momma was tired and needed help. She was a domestic worker in one of the finest houses in Macon. She kept their silver polished to a gleam and nothing in their house was anything but the finest.”

Momma lowered her head and a fat tear splashed down onto the step below her.

“The people living there weren’t so fine.” She shook her head and dabbed at her eyes. “Even so, everyone envied me getting to work there because it was the home of the richest people in that town. I lived in their house Sunday through Thursday. They were that kind of rich. They denied themselves and their children nothing, but I couldn’t expect no favors. If I ever had any time that wasn’t taken up with polishing or washing or scrubbing, I was allowed to sit at the kitchen table for short periods of time and read the Bible.”

Mother sighed. “Mr. James Edward Peyton was the name of the man I worked for. He was not only a lawyer, but also a judge. He sat at the head of every table anywhere he went. People were always wanting him to come for supper, do favors for him. All the white folks in Macon thought it was good to have him for a friend. I didn’t pay no attention to him but I made sure his coffee was just the way he wanted it. He usually scanned the local newspaper as he drank his coffee and ate his eggs.

“I never thought he noticed me much either until the day he came up behind me while I was washing the dishes. He leaned against me and told me what a woman I had become. I tried to keep working, but he took the things out of my hands and dropped them back into the water. Then he turned me toward him and….”

Mother had a hard time going on. She sobbed into her handkerchief and I leaned over and hugged her.

“I never knew, Mother,” I said, rubbing her back. “I never knew.”

“I was so scared, Grace. In so many ways. He could have made my life miserable or even had me killed, so I did whatever he wanted.”

I pulled Momma to me and held her in my arms while we both cried. I was so heartbroken.

I didn’t need her to tell me more. I knew where things had gone.

But now that she was talking about it, it seemed she needed to purge it somehow. In a voice I barely recognized, she went on.

“It was every Monday night after that. He’d come to my closet of a room and do what men do to make themselves happy and then he would leave without a word.”

The shock of what my mother had endured sunk in and replaced any thought I had had about my real father. It wasn’t until we had both cried ourselves dry that I realized her story was over. She had told me about my father. My father was a monster. Hatred for the man who had caused my mother such pain burned deep within me.

“Now you know, Gracie,” my mother said. “I’m sorry.”

I wanted to scream. “Momma, how can you apologize to me? You did nothing wrong.”

Momma smiled and wiped her tears. “I’m sorry I never told you,” she said. “I wanted things to be simple. I wanted you to blend in and be like all the others.” She took my hand again and patted it. “But you’re not like all the others. You are sometimes so different. Sometimes so much like him.”

I didn’t want to be like him. I wanted nothing to do with him. But I knew she was right. I hadn’t been much like anyone in my family. I always thought it was because I was just different in general. I never knew that the difference I felt was because of a man who raped my mother.

Mother must have sensed the fear and sorrow boiling up inside me because she put her hands on my face, looked me straight in the eyes, and shook her head. “I don’t want you to ever doubt that you’re my daughter. You hear? You came from a different place than the other kids, but you belong to me. You got all the good things from your real father and none of the bad.”

Her earnest words calmed my soul. This was the first time in a while that I felt at home in my family. I took one of her hands and kissed it.

We sat in silence for a while, each of us sniffling old tears.

After a while I said, “Did Ernest know who my real father was?”

“Ernest was the best of men,” Momma said through more tears. “But I never told him where you came from.”

She flashed an anxious look up into my eyes. “Men can get crazy at times and I didn’t want to put any more burden on him.”

I nodded in understanding. If she had told Ernest, what could he have done about it that would have done any good? The man who hurt my mother was powerful and rich. Ernest was just a poor black man whose only recourse would have been violence—and that wouldn’t have done any of us any good.

I looked out toward the eastern sky and saw the beginnings of a new day dawning. I pulled Mother tightly to me. She leaned her head on my shoulder. After awhile, she went to sleep in my arms. It was what I wanted her to do. I would sit there with my arms wrapped around her until she woke. I loved my mother so much. I had always loved her, but I now I loved her more.

Grace Washington is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice.

You’ll Never Believe What Laurie Did

By Karen Brode

Hazel rushed to the front door as fast as her legs would let her get there. She was in good shape for a woman in her 60s, but her ankles and knees moved a lot more slowly than they used to.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” she called to the person who was banging on the front door.

“Hurry up!” Jewel cried from the other side.

Jewel was one of two sisters that lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Opal was the other. The two women were rarely seen without the other, so it was a surprise when Hazel heard only Jewel on the other side of the door. It was especially disconcerting because she was rarely demanding like that. That was usually a job left to Opal.

Hazel got the door opened, but before she could ask any questions, Jewel barged in with her suitcase, threw it on the floor, and hugged Hazel tight.

“I had to get here before Opal,” she said.

Hazel felt her sister breathing hard from the effort of the commotion.

When she pulled away from the hug, Hazel said, “It’s so good to see you, but you look as flustered as an old hen!”

Jewel let out a long breath, as if she’d been holding it for the entire six hours it took to drive to Denison.

“Opal’s not far behind me,” she said. “She brought her own car so she could stay a few days longer.” Jewel paused and raised her eyebrows with a look that said, “Sorry!”

Hazel laughed at the commiseration. They both knew how difficult Opal could be. They had known it their whole lives. You might say that having to deal with Opal gave them something in common. It had kept them close all these years.

Jewel put a hand on Hazel’s arm and looked straight into her eyes.

“I need to tell you something before Opal gets here,” she said. “That’s why I’m so flustered. I didn’t want Opal to hear me.”

Hazel nodded, waiting for the conspiratorial news.

“Whatever you do, don’t mention Laurie.”

“Opal’s granddaughter?” Hazel asked. “Is everything okay?”

Laurie was Opal’s favorite, above everyone else in the world. Up to this point, she had always been beyond reproach. In fact, most days, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise for all the talk about Laurie: Laurie had gotten a raise at her job. She had gone on a date with a medical student. She had attended the symphony with her church group. There was really no end to all the good work that Laurie was doing.

Hazel wondered what could be so bad that Jewel would race ahead of their sister in order to have a private conversation. Already, Laurie had stunned Opal by moving away to Dallas as soon as she graduated high school. Hazel couldn’t think of anything worse than that. She remembered watching Laurie grow up and Opal talking about her granddaughter’s future as if it were her own to decide. She would have a small house in Fort Smith and marry a Christian man who would emerge from the small house every morning with his briefcase with Laurie standing at the door with his coffee and a kiss. And then Laurie and her husband would have a sweet little great grandchild that Opal could cuddle in her arms. She had even talked of their living with Opal so Opal could be of assistance with the children. When Laurie moved away, it had stunned and hurt Opal deeply.

“It’s bad,” Jewel said, as if reading Hazel’s thoughts.

“My word,” Hazel said, putting her hand to her mouth. “Did she marry a Baptist?” Her eyes widened as her mind tried to guess what could be so bad. And then she gasped.

“Did she marry a…Catholic?” She could barely get out the last word and when she did, she whispered it. She knew that would be worse than anything in Opal’s mind.

Everyone knew how her sister felt about church and other churches. Hers was The One True Church, the church without instruments, the church without separate Bible classes. When anyone asked Opal about her beliefs about Bible classes, Hazel knew that Opal would consider those people as feeble minded. And she saw it as her duty to teach them.

“God did not say, ‘Go off and put yourselves in different places to worship me!’ He said, ‘Everyone must be together to praise me!’” She was quite passionate when she would relay this to anyone who challenged her on it. When pressed where in the Bible she got her information, she’d shrug and say she couldn’t remember exactly where it was, but she knew it was there and far be it from her to dispute the Word of God.

So, as her children had children, Opal made it clear that those grandchildren must marry within the church—her church. They should never even think about dating anyone outside the church. Marriage was hard enough without being unequally yoked, she’d say.

Jewel shook her head. “No. Laurie’s not married. It’s worse!“

A car drove by outside and both women jumped. They looked back through the front door as if expecting Opal to be standing there listening. Hazel was relieved to see that the car wasn’t Opal’s and she wasn’t standing there.

“Worse?” Hazel said. She stepped to the door and shut it, just to be on the safe side.

“It’s the awfullest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jewel said, tears springing to her eyes. “I knew Laurie wasn’t quite as white-washed as Opal always thought she was, but I don’t think I could ever imagined her doing what she did!”

Hazel felt the need to sit down. She guided Jewel over to the sofa and as they both sat, she grabbed a box of Kleenex from the end table and put it between them.

“Laurie called a while back and told Opal she had cancer,” Jewel said. She took a Kleenex from the box and dabbed at her eyes. “You can imagine how Opal received that news! It was terrible!”

Hazel thought back to all the loss her older sister had endured. First her son Bruce, whose death she somewhat blamed on her husband Lloyd, even though he hadn’t been within 50 miles of their son when the car accident took him.

Hazel remembered Opal recounting how, on the night of his death, he had called while he was on the road. She had wanted to say hello to her son, but she had been in the bath and, by the time she got out and dried off enough to go to the phone, Lloyd had hung up. She never got to say goodbye or anything. She had always wondered if Bruce had meant to confide something to his mother, something important that he’d never get to say. So she blamed Lloyd until he, too, died some years later.

Laurie was Bruce’s only child. When she came along, Opal took care of her on the auspices of helping out, but really she had wanted to be with her favorite son’s child. She could see Bruce in Laurie and that was as close as Opal would ever get to her son. It helped Opal cope with Bruce’s death, but Hazel knew that her sister had taken all the dreams she had for Bruce and pinned them on Laurie.

Hazel felt her own eyes misting up at the thought of Laurie having cancer. She knew how devastating this would be for her sister and, as hard as Opal was to have as a sister, she didn’t want her to suffer.

“Laurie started sending letters to the Fort Smith church last February,” Jewel said.

Hazel looked at Jewel quizzically. “To Opal’s church? But Laurie lives in Dallas, doesn’t she?”

Jewel nodded. “Opal went to Brother Bailey in tears and asked if the church could have a special drive to help Laurie with her cancer treatments. And he was quick to agree to it. He told Opal that’s what the church was for – to help in times of need!”

“That is so kind,” Hazel said. She warmed to the new minister’s generosity and thought maybe he had finally started filling the shoes of the previous minister. It had been hard on the congregation when Old Brother Leon had a stroke and it took a while for them to take to Brother Bailey.

“Opal was making plans to go to Dallas,” Jewel continued. “She wanted to take care of Laurie herself. They talked every night on the phone, so much so that Opal had to work out a payment plan with the phone company! Her phone bills went sky high!”

“Oh dear,” Hazel said. “She didn’t mention to me anything about Laurie’s cancer or going to Dallas.”

Jewel looked down at her hands. She seemed embarrassed or ashamed.

“Laurie didn’t want Opal to go,” she said looking up and blinking her eyes. “She said she’d rather call and give daily reports, which she did. It did such a number on Opal to not be there and know how to be helpful. She prayed, of course, but she was sick with worry.”

Hazel nodded. She could just imagine what that would be like.

Outside, they heard a car door slam and then the sound of a trunk slamming shut.

“That’s Opal,” said Jewel. “I have to tell you quick then. Opal found out last week that Laurie didn’t have cancer at all. Never had it! It was all a scam to get money!”

Hazel started to stand to go to the door, but she felt light-headed and had to sit back down again. The breath escaped her chest and she felt all the sadness, misery, and embarrassment that Opal must have felt this last week. She could barely believe that Opal’s own granddaughter would do such a thing!

“Poor Opal!” she said in a whisper because the doorbell had just rung. “How could Laurie do this?”

After the second ring, Hazel managed to get to her feet and shuffle to the door. Tears clouded her vision, so it took her a moment to get the door opened. Before Opal could even get over the threshold, Hazel pulled her into a big hug.

“I’m so sorry, Opal,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

Opal burst into tears herself and she practically melted into Hazel’s embrace. And then Jewel joined them. The three sisters stood in their familial triumvirate and wept in unison.

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.