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.