A boy seeking adventure… A world that’s dying… A war that may have no winners…
Thomas longs to escape the drudgery of farm life, dreaming of adventure and running away from his demanding parents.
Planet Remeon is on the brink of destruction, fighting a crippling disease that threatens to wipe out their civilization.
Thrust into their world, Thomas is caught in the middle of telepathic mind games between the Day Watchers and the Night Dwellers.
Alliances will be broken. Thoughts will be controlled. Will anyone survive?
Damn stupid old-fashioned rules were meant to be broken. It’s 1947, for God’s sake, Thomas Stewart thought, as he slid open the barn door with a grating squeak. Momentarily blinded by the darkness, he gave his eyes a few minutes to adjust.
Bessie let out a somber moo, objecting to the intrusion.
He moved quickly to her side to quiet and comfort her, whispering, “It’s okay, girl. I’m not here to bother you just yet.”
Shep rose from his blanket nestled in the straw and bounded toward Thomas, barking a hello.
“No, no, no. It’s not time to play,” Thomas said, reaching down to pet his dog, his eyes now accustomed to the low light. He heard the rhythmic back and forth thud of Shep’s tail wagging against the barn floor, and squatted to give him more attention, scratching behind each ear. “Listen up. Stay.… I can’t have you barking and carrying on. Pa will know something is up for sure.”
Thomas made his way to the back of the barn, focusing on his target just ahead. He and Pa had finished tweaking the transmission a few days ago. The used 1942 Harley had been calling to Thomas ever since. He smiled as he thought of the freedom he would feel when he hit the road, just a few minutes away. Thomas moved in closer, grasping the handlebars and releasing the kickstand as he made his way to the door, Shep following closely. “Stay, boy, stay.”
Thomas led the motorbike down the long hill to the road. A short walk later, the family farm no longer in his sight, he prepared to kick-start the bike. He bent down, opened the choke and turned the key. He mounted then, kicked down hard on the starter, pressed in the clutch, and popped the gear into second. As he gave it some throttle, the engine sputtered, then came to life, announcing itself with a low rumble. The Harley felt powerful underneath him, and he smiled with satisfaction. This was heaven.
Under the light of the half moon, in the rural Virginia town, he rode through the cool early morning air—very early in the morning—as it slapped his face and blew his hair, invigorating him. He breathed evenly now, releasing his pent-up tension as he escaped the farm, leaving behind his strict parents and his landlocked life, and followed along the dirt-filled path to the meeting place.
As he neared his destination, he slowed, pressed in the clutch, and downshifted, gliding to a stop. “Joe, where are you?”
“I’m here. Stop your bellowing,” Joe said, emerging from the trees. He took a long drag from the cigarette hanging from his lips, then continued. “You trying to wake the dead or just your ma and pa? They can probably hear you, ya know?” he said, laughing, as he threw Thomas the box of Camels.
“Aw, shut up,” Thomas said, giving his friend a shove.
“Now, now, you asked, and I delivered. Watch out. Be careful of the merchandise,” Joe said, revealing a brown paper sack, offering it to Thomas.
“That’s what I’m talking about.” Thomas reached in, pulling out a Budweiser. He grabbed his pocketknife from his pants and popped off the bottle top, then slid in beside his friend. “You got a light?”
“Looks like I’ve got some catching up to do,” Thomas said, as he noticed the empty slots of the six-pack. He cupped his hands and lit his cigarette, drew deeply, then exhaled slowly.
“We’ve got backup supplies, waiting in the wings,” Joe said, patting another bag. “Plenty left to get you toasted.”
Thomas gulped down several large swallows, then burped loudly. “Hey, how’s your money supply? You still saving for our adventure?”
“Some,” Joe said, taking another long swig. “Things are tight.”
“I know they are. My parents are always pinching pennies. Damn Depression. It really messed them up. But why do we need to keep hearing about it? It’s 1947. It’s over. It’s been over for like eight years now. But I’m still hearing, Things were different when we were young. Blah, blah.”
“Same here, except I have even less saved than you. How much do you have? C’mon, tell me. I know it’s more than me.”
“Um, close to thirty-five dollars. Not really enough to last us for long without jobs, which we don’t even have yet,” he said, polishing off his first beer. Thomas stood up and pointed at a tree. “Look there, Joe. That one up ahead about forty yards. You think I can hit it?”
“Well, I know I can’t,” he said, slurring his words.
Thomas did a mock windup and pitched the bottle hard, smashing it to bits. “And the crowd goes wild,” he said, prancing in circle.
“Ooh, aah,” Joe said in mock amazement. “Sit down, stupid, and have another beer. You’ll miss the next shot.”
As Thomas opened his second beer, he paused. “Are you still with me? We’re leaving town together, remember?”
“Sure, ugly. Always, together forever,” Joe said, laughing.
“Hey, serious up. I mean it. I’m leaving soon, even if I have to walk outta this boring lifeless town.” Thomas downed several long gulps of his beer, as silence fell over the pair. He took a final drag of his cigarette and stomped it out with his foot.
“Thomas, man, you know my parents lost everything during the Depression. They’re scared, and they’ll be scared ’til the day they die. Hell, they’re practically dead already. And I’m scared shitless that I’m gonna follow in their footsteps. Oh, and I’ve got about five bucks to my name and beer for brains.”
“Next thing you know, you’re gonna get all weepy on me. For real, I’ve got your back. Now, after I take a piss, I’m gonna need another. Can you handle that?”
“I’ll see what I can do to accom, accom, accom…mo…date.”
“But first another shot.” Thomas stood and grabbed his empty bottle, paused and took aim, and let the bottle fly. “The second in a row, yes! This boy is hot tonight,” he said, moving to the perimeter and unzipping his fly. “Aah.”
“Not so fast, Thomas. Look. We got company. Now, shhh.”
Thomas turned, then fell to the ground as he saw flashing red lights. “Where did he come from? Shit.”
“What? Now I’m the calm one?” Joe asked. “I can barely stand, much less take a piss—well, maybe piss on myself.”
“Shut up! If they find us, I’m dead meat. Why is he driving so slow?”
“He heard you, Jackie Robinson, hitting those trees. Now can you run as fast as Robinson too?”
“Run? I can’t run home and leave the bike. You are wasted.”
“Shhh, here he comes again. He’s making another pass,” Joe said, whispering.
“That’s it. I won’t be cornered like an animal. I can outrun him. I can.”
“Don’t be dumb. Just hush up and hide in the woods, wait him out, like I’m gonna do.”
“No way! Look. He’s parking. It’s gonna be light in a couple hours, and I need to be home well before that. My parents care if I come home at night.”
“Eat shit and die, man.”
“I’m getting my bike. I’ll walk it out, hugging close to the brush. Then, down the road a bit, I’ll start her up.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn ya. I’m heading for cover and taking a nap.” Joe moved toward the woods as Thomas reached his bike. “See ya tomorrow.”
“Yeah, assuming my pa doesn’t skin me,” Thomas replied. He walked the bike as slowly as his nerves let him, peering back at every shuffle of rock, just to be sure the police car was still stationary. “That’s gotta be about half a mile,” he said out loud softly, turning this time to gauge the distance. “It’s about an hour ’til sunup. I can’t waste any more time walking.”
Thomas mounted the bike and pushed down hard on the starter. From behind he heard the shrill sound of sirens, and his stomach fell. “I can’t let them catch me,” he said, engaging the clutch. He pushed into second gear and let out the throttle, careening through the rock and dirt as his tires found the road.
He knew the police car was following him. He still heard the sirens, but he didn’t dare look back. “It’s gonna be the long way home,” he said, as he veered off road, putting his foot down to keep his balance as he skidded toward the forest dirt path he knew so well. The trees and underbrush made the bike trek difficult, but soon Thomas couldn’t hear the sirens any longer. Just short of the estimated hour travel time, he saw his family’s barn in the distance. He exhaled a deep sigh of relief, cut the engine, and dismounted the bike, while he looked at the sky, then back to the house. Pa will be up soon and wondering where I am, he thought. And I better be busy milking Bessie.
# # #
Thomas stowed the bike, careful to park it in the back of the barn at the exact same angle as before. He ran his hand along the smooth olive-colored body of the Harley, pulling trapped twigs and leaves from his ride. Outside, he heard the familiar sound of the back door opening and slamming shut.
Thomas felt his heart beat in his throat as he moved into high gear. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, even though he had already cooled down from his recent escapades. He grabbed the milking stool and pail, and parked them next to Bessie, realizing he only had seconds to come up with a reasonable explanation for being here with an empty pail. Grateful that he had thought to change his clothes before going out, he noticed a large tear in his pants leg as he pulled the stool over, swung his legs around, and sat down. Barking and a muted conversation, coupled with the heavy thud of Pa’s boots crunching as they hit the ground, meant he was approaching the door. Shep must have gotten out, Thomas thought. A few seconds later, he was face-to-face with his pa.
“Thomas? Why didn’t you answer me?”
“Hi, Pa. I didn’t hear you, sorry. I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d come on out and get started.”
“Couldn’t sleep? You’re never early for chores.” He looked down at the empty bucket. “Doesn’t look like you’ve got much done. How long have you been out here? I’ve been awake in the house for a while, and I didn’t hear you come out.”
Thomas met his father’s eyes and realized his pa didn’t know, not yet anyway. At this point Pa was just confused. He wanted a reasonable explanation. After all, Thomas wasn’t ever early.
Then he felt a bulge in his back pocket and remembered what he had stowed there and suppressed a grin. As he stood, he reached around and pulled out his Buck Rogers comic book he had been reading before his ride and handed it to his father. Kicking intently at the straw around his feet, he continued. “I came out here a few hours ago to read since I couldn’t sleep.” Glancing up, Thomas waited for the moment of truth, gauging his pa’s reaction.
“Silly. What a waste of time.”
Relieved, Thomas exhaled, not realizing he had been holding his breath. “It relaxes me.”
“You could read lots of real books…books that might further your education, books where you might actually learn something,” he said pointedly, returning the comic book with a look of disgust.
Before Thomas could respond, he watched as his pa wrinkled his nose and turned to the side.
“What’s that smell? Is it gas?”
Thomas froze, unsure how to deflect his pa’s latest revelation. “I don’t smell anything,” Thomas added, watching as his pa moved to the back of the barn toward the bike. No, no, no. Don’t touch the bike. The engine might still be warm, Thomas thought. No.…
“Did we somehow spill gas the other day, while we were working on the transmission?”
“Yes, that’s it. We did,” he answered a little too energetically, surprising his father, who turned around. Thomas felt his legs go weak and reached out to Bessie to steady himself.
“What’s wrong, son?”
“Just tired, I guess. I should have been in my bed sleeping last night,” he said, being totally honest for the moment.
“That’s true, but you’re not getting out of chores that easy. And what’s that you have on? Torn pants and a T-shirt? No jacket? You came out here like that this morning? It’s cold this morning, son,” he said, shaking his head.
Relieved the focus had turned away from the bike, he said sheepishly, “Yes, Pa.”
“Go back inside and grab a jacket, and come right back out—and hustle. There’s work to be done, and I’ll not have you getting sick.”
“Yes, Pa. I’ll be right back.”
I’m only a farmhand to him, Thomas thought, as he walked to the house. The monotony of this place will surely kill me eventually, just the same as if someone pulled a trigger and shot me dead on the spot. This is just another morning, like all the other endless mornings I’ve endured up to this day. I’m free labor—a shit-shoveler, more or less.
As he opened the back door, his senses came alive, greeted with the familiar aromas of freshly baked biscuits, frying sausage, and strong coffee. The kitchen stove warmed him as he moved through the room.
“Thomas, I didn’t hear you go out.”
“Hi, Ma. I went out early, just coming back for my jacket. Colder than I thought,” Thomas added, as he tramped up the stairs. In his room, Thomas picked up a thermal shirt and pulled it over his head, then added a jacket. He returned through the kitchen, and his stomach growled. “Smells good, Ma,” he said, pulling his collar in closer around his neck before disappearing back outside.
He and his pa typically worked silently most mornings, but, as Thomas opened the barn door again and made his way to Bessie, he thought about possibly talking to his pa, maybe due to the boldness of the morning already. He decided to test the waters.
“I’ll be sixteen soon, and I’ve been thinking about my future.”
“Yes, good to know, and?”
“Spit it out.”
“Well…I’m not sure I’m cut out for farming, day in and day out.” There—he said it. Unable to look at his father, he studied bits of stray grass, waiting for a response in the awkward silence.
“Is that so? What are you cut out for then? You’ve been working on this farm ever since you could walk. It’s what you know.”
“It’s what you know, Pa,” Thomas corrected.
James turned toward his son, as he leaned on a shovel. “Sit for a minute, son.”
Shocked that his pa might actually hear him out, Thomas pulled up the milking stool and took a seat.
“Your ma and I have talked and thought you might be ready to handle more responsibility this season—learning the buying and selling piece of what we do. You’ve always been involved in the day-to-day planting, tilling, harvesting. Now it’s time to know more, do more. You can see how we actually make a living at farming. You can see the potential. Now you can understand it.”
Thomas sat completely still, afraid to speak, not wanting something awful to come out of his mouth, even though the words were on the tip of his tongue, fighting to be set free.
“Son, did you hear me? We think you’re ready. We can start soon. There is so much more to learn,” he said, his excitement evident. “One more year of school and then you could spend more of your day here and less time cooped up in the schoolhouse.”
“Pa, I…I…don’t know what to say,” Thomas said. He paused, his pa’s eyes boring a hole into him, took a deep breath, and decided to jump in with both feet. “I want to see the world, Pa. I want to learn about the world, not just this one little piece of dirt—maybe join the service.”
“Piece of dirt?” Pa said, spitting out the last word. “This piece of dirt is keeping our family afloat, with food on the table and clothes on your back,” he said, as his eyes grew bigger and bigger with each word.
Here it comes, Thomas thought.
“The service? Are you ready to fight for our country, give your life for our country? Explain to me how you’re ready for that when you spend your days reading comic strips?”
Thomas listened as his pa’s voice broke, and his eyes got misty.
James picked up the shovel he’d been leaning on, turned, and threw it against the side of the barn, sending an echo throughout the shed.
Shep darted out the door, and Bessie mooed, nervously shifting her hind legs.
“Go, son. Go take care of the chickens. I’ll finish up in here.”
“But, Pa, I didn’t…”
Thomas left the barn and quietly shut the door, petting Shep, who sat waiting for him outside the barn. “Come on, boy. Come with me. It’s okay.” If the only way out is to enlist, I’ll up and leave one night, and make it happen, he thought. Even with the war over, they still needed men. He heard the spiel in his head repeating over and over. Defend your country. Your friends are fighting. Why aren’t you?
Thomas walked into the chicken coop, ducking his head, and the hens flew excitedly from their nests. One by one he picked up the warm eggs and placed them in the wire basket. His empty stomach growled loudly. It had already been a long morning. His thoughts turned once again to food, and he picked up the pace. As he left the henhouse, he saw his pa out in the field, tending to the cattle and sheep. I wonder if he actually enjoys this life?
Back in the kitchen he handed off the eggs to his ma. “Perfect. I’ll fry these up in a jiffy,” she said, smiling at him.
By this time, he did feel weak from hunger, and the lack of sleep was catching up with him too. It’ll be a long day, he thought, as he moved to the sink to wash up.
Mary, his older sister, set the biscuits on the table in front of him. “You were up mighty early this morning,” she said, with a smile settling on her face.
Thomas threw a sideways glance her way. Did she know? She’s so bossy. Mary was the eldest and, at seventeen, very mature. Many young men found her attractive with her tall, slender stature and shoulder-length brown hair. She was actually quite stunning, when she wasn’t telling on Thomas.
His little sister, Belle, scooted into the chair next to him and attempted to push herself in.
Thomas laughed, happier to focus on her. She had shorter blond hair, with curls that bobbled as she ran. And, at age eight, she idolized both her older siblings, but especially Thomas, since they were closer in age. “Here, let me help you with that,” he said, as he moved her chair closer to the table. All present and accounted for, almost.
Breakfast would not begin without his pa seated at the head of the table. Thomas’s mouth watered as he squirmed in his seat, his eyes locked on the warm food in front of him. He willed his pa to walk through the back door. He was tempted to sneak a bite when the door swung open, and his pa walked through the door.
Pa washed his hands and took his seat, while Ma finished frying the freshly gathered eggs. Once she brought the rest of the eggs to the table and seated herself, he closed his eyes and said grace, which meant the eating could begin.
Someday I will miss this but not today…not today, he murmured again, as he dug into his first helping of biscuits and hot gravy.
# # #
As Thomas finished his breakfast, he thought about the day ahead. School is really for those who have nothing better to do with their day, and there is always something better to do. Figurin’, readin’, and writin’ are important to get along in this world—he knew that, especially since he had big plans to see the world, and escape the farm. He knew all that school stuff now, so what was the point of continuing? It had served its purpose.
Belle, his baby sister, interrupted his thoughts as she prodded, “Whatcha thinking?”
Thomas paused. “I’m thinking you better finish breakfast now. It’s your turn to help with the dishes, and you’ll get left behind if you don’t hurry.”
Thomas loved Belle dearly and would do anything for her, even though she could be a pest a lot of the time.
“You better not,” she said, jumping from her seat to start her chores.
“Oh, just hurry up,” Thomas spat out. “You are slow as molasses.”
With that comment, Ma looked at Belle.
“Belle, dear, Thomas isn’t ready to go yet either,” she said, giving him a stern look. “Move it along, Belle. You will be finished in no time. And, Thomas, you have one extra chore this morning. Take these scraps and coffee grounds to the compost heap, and make sure you turn the pile as well.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Thomas replied, glaring at Belle from the corner of his eye. From her contented smile, he knew she thought she had bested him.
Dishes and composting now done, Thomas and Belle stood by the door. Where was Mary? Thomas hadn’t seen her since breakfast, come to think of it.
Belle was special, despite getting on his nerves occasionally. Unlike the majority of younger children, she was comfortable just to be. She could say more with a glance or a touch than most people could with a mouthful of words. Even at age eight she was good at making people feel comfortable. Mary, on the other hand, was tightly wound, especially this morning as she rounded the corner of the hallway. Her eyes darted to the door, where Thomas and Belle stood ready to go, then she quickly whispered to Ma. Hushed tones ensued. Something’s up.
“Go on to school, Thomas and Belle. Mary has some special errands to complete today and will not be going with you.”
“Is she sick?” Belle chimed in.
“No, dear, not at all. Now run along, or you both will be late to school, and you know how Mrs. Martin loathes tardiness.”
Thomas took another cursory glance at his older sister, as the whispered tones between her and Ma continued. If she is telling on me, I’ll never forgive her. He kept watching. Something was definitely not right. He noticed her shoulders sagged, like she had the weight of the world resting on her. What could it be? Thomas thought as he opened the door. With one foot out the door, he turned back once more.
“Bye, dear. You both have a good day.”
Thomas set a rapid pace, ready to put some distance between himself and Mary.
“Hurry along now, Belle. You will be warmer if you walk quickly.”
“Yes, Thomas,” she replied dutifully.
With the sun peeking through the clouds, Thomas saw the sky come alive with bursts of orange and yellow and muted blue tones, and he slowed. The hills ahead seemed isolated from the rest of the horizon, framed by the colors of the sun. The countryside was coming alive. Spring was just around the corner. But, after the argument with Pa this morning, all Thomas could think about was how the sky reminded him of a scene he was reading in his Dr. Modar of Saturn comic book, hidden away in his back pocket.
It was only the last week of March, but with the arrival of spring would come much hard work on the farm: plowing, preparing the field, planting, and tending to crops. Thomas grinned, thinking of one bright spot—school would be over for him shortly. Pa would need him in the field, and, as with all young men his age, he would leave school early for the summer break to assist with chores on the farm. He wasn’t quite sure how many more seasons he would be around. Maybe only one. He had to get his plans together.
And he needed a job. Those were difficult to come by; times were tough. Thomas had seen signs of stress between Ma and Pa, and Thomas guessed the source had to be lack of money. Lost in his thoughts, he looked up to find they had reached the school. “Go on in, Belle. I’ll see you here after school.”
Belle cocked her head and looked at Thomas. “You’re not coming? Why not?”
“I’ve got some things to do. No more questions.”
“Okay, Thomas. See you later.”
She skipped inside, her tight blond curls floating in the air as she moved.
He heard the familiar sounds of school: kids playing and children laughing. Thomas took one step forward, then a tentative step back. His mind reeled with thoughts and concerns of the future, his future. He walked in the opposite direction from the way he had come, then walked faster, until he jogged at a steady pace away from the school yard.
Thomas ran until his breath came in heaving bursts. It was good to be out, away. He felt the weight lift slightly from his shoulders, and, if only for a few hours, he could just be. Confusion clouded his mind, as all his looming decisions vied for space in his head. He reached down and grabbed a stick from the ground, then thrust his other hand in his pocket, feeling his way to his pocketknife. While he whittled, thoughts continued to flow as a jumbled mess while he attempted to organize them into two sides, pros and cons.
Pros to staying just where I am? Well, there’s family. And it would make them all happy. Then there’s Pa. It is what he expects and has already planned for my future. I guess I’d learn something in the process, if I ever had to actually farm for a living. But really I think I could get by with the knowledge I have today on the subject actually. That’s about it for the pros.
Cons? I am miserable with farm life, and I only see that getting worse. Also how can I travel the world when I’m tied to a farm, with my schedule set and dependent on the sun, wind, and rain? No, I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Ma and Pa would say that sounds kinda selfish and immature. I know they would. But I want my life to be my own and not determined by someone else. And another big con: I don’t have the money to follow my dreams yet, and that is something I definitely need. It always comes back to money.
What would Buck Rogers do? He would never be in this situation; he is only the best action hero ever. Against all odds he always wins. Will I ever see any action? He considered his threat to join the service. It just might be the only option. He could prove his pa wrong. He was ready.
He dug into his pocket again and pulled out several Buck Rogers comic books. Thomas turned the pages, rereading each word that he had already devoured. He poured over the worn pages and imagined his life once again as the Buck Rogers. Wouldn’t life be grand to always win and never to have decisions made for you and to always get the glory? Someday my life will be grand, and someday I will have the glory, if only I could figure out the first step. Thomas absentmindedly groped for his slingshot as he watched a squirrel climb a distant tree. A smooth rock nearby caught his eye. He aimed and fired off a quick shot. It zoomed past the animal to the far right, and it scurried away. He collected a few more perfectly sized rocks close to the stream and shoved them in his pocket, then knelt to take a drink.
Thomas paused and turned toward the sound of the disturbance around him, diving behind the nearest tree.
“Thomas? Are you out here?”
Thomas poked his head out to see his friend Joe with his hands on his knees, panting, catching his breath. Thomas stepped from his hiding place.
“Yeah, I’m here. Why are you here?”
“Just…one…second…and…I’ll tell you,” he said, struggling to speak. “Not sure what you…see…in this place.”
Thomas laughed as he watched his friend’s heaving breaths slow and normalize once again. “Sure you do. It’s my place, and no one knows about it.”
Joe met Thomas’s eyes, and his face transformed into a broad ear-to-ear grin. “No one but me.”
“Yeah. You can’t get enough of me, I know. I barely escaped a shitload of trouble this morning, being out with you. My pa hates me, and I’m skipping school. My day isn’t getting any better.”
“Hey, you gotta admit it was fun, just chilling, until we had company. Then watching you hightail it outta there was priceless,” he said, laughing uncontrollably.
“Always glad to be of service. And you are here, why? You need to be at school learning stuff, idiot.”
“Hey, I take offense to that. I’m a smart idiot.” Joe pulled out his lunch pail and set it between them.
“Okay, and? Is it lunchtime? You came all the way out here to eat?”
Joe threw up his hands in an exaggerated motion and rolled his eyes. “And you call me dumb.… Open it.”
Thomas grabbed the pail and flipped open the lid. Immediately his eyes got big as his jaw dropped, and the pail slipped from his fingers. “What have you done?”
Joe looked back at Thomas, the spark of laughter gone from his eyes. “After our meeting last night I made some decisions. You forced me to take a hard look at myself. All we’ve been talking about for so long is about to come true. I’m not going back home. I’ve got a small bag behind the schoolhouse. We can leave tomorrow. I was going to tell you today at school, but, when you didn’t show up—”
“Wait now,” Thomas interrupted. “Slow down. Where exactly did you get this?”
Joe leaned down and picked up the pail and retrieved its contents. “I stole it. It’s my parents’ savings,” he said, as he arranged the bills in his hand for Thomas to get a closer look.
“There must be hundreds of dollars there,” Thomas said.
“Three hundred and seventy-eight to be exact,” Joe replied.
Thomas stepped back and ran his fingers through his hair and paced. “I can’t use your parents’ money,” he said. “It’s just not right.”
Joe threw the money in the pail and closed the distance between them. “Hey, this was your idea, remember? I’m just finally giving it wings so we can fly. You say you’re ready every day. You complain about your pa every day. Let’s just do it.”
Thomas looked into the eyes of his friend who he had known as long as he could remember, as Joe silently pleaded with him. Thomas heard the desperation in Joe’s voice. Thomas broke away and continued to pace, then abruptly stopped and sat down on a large rock, staring into the distance, his knees bouncing nervously.
Joe shook his head and went back to the forgotten pail. “You’re not coming are you? After all this, you’re gonna back out and leave me holding the bag.”
Thomas raised his eyes and smiled at his lame joke. “You stupid dumb-shit,” he said, laughing. “Yes, I’m coming with you, on one condition.”
Joe glanced up, a look of shock on his face. “No way. What is it?”
“I’m not touching any of that money. I’ve got enough for a bus ticket at home. We can get outta town and decide where to from there. Agreed?”
“We’ll play this any way you want,” Joe said, as he grasped Thomas in a bear hug. “I didn’t think you were gonna come,” he whispered, his voice cracking.
Thomas pulled away and studied his friend’s face. “Hey, together forever, remember?”
“That was a long time ago,” Joe replied.
“Besides, you need me, or you’d get hopelessly lost.”
Joe nodded his head in agreement. “Sadly that’s a true statement.”
“Let’s decide on a time to meet. I’ve suddenly got lots to do tonight,” Thomas said, energy bubbling just below the surface.
“At 1:00 a.m. at the schoolhouse. Ma and Pa are away for the night, visiting my cousin, but, as I said, I’m not going home.”
“We’re doing it!” Thomas said, as they clasped arms. “See you at one.”
Joe picked up the pail and flashed him a smile. “I just knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
“Never. Now you focus on you. I’ve got to…” Thomas looked at the sun as it hung low in the sky. “Oh, no, Belle.” The excitement of his recent decisions left him. He wouldn’t be at school in time to meet his sister.
Thomas set off in the direction he had come, hours ago now, at a fast run. Even with this new complication, he felt better about things. He would be free in a matter of hours. His mind raced in a hundred different directions as the adrenaline coursed through him.
When he neared the school yard, he listened for familiar sounds of shouting and children playing. But he heard none of that, just silence. The school yard was empty, and Belle was not waiting for him. His mood shifted as he quickly went from excitement to worry, then dread. Thomas realized what would be waiting for him when he got home. His pace slowed to a walk. No way around this. He was in big trouble. Belle obviously started home without him. She was probably home now, recounting the story of him sending her into school without him.
Thomas racked his brain to come up with an excuse. In spite of what was waiting for him at home, he actually felt better than he did this morning. Pa had basically ignored him, and now this would be their last confrontation. His hand found his comic books, and his fingers fanned the pages back and forth in his pocket. Someday I’ll have something to show for my hard work, something other than eggs, corn, or beans. My story may not be in a comic book, but I will find my own way, and, in my story, I’ll be the star.
# # #
James Stewart looked outside from his spot in the barn. By the position of the sun in the sky he judged it to be about 1:00 to 1:30 p.m., suppertime for sure. His day, thus far, had consisted of inventorying the equipment and supplies on hand for spring planting. All appeared to be in good working order, just a few maintenance chores here and there, easily taken care of. He mentally processed the annual planting cycle, as he did every year. He had been thinking for weeks that the time was close. A couple more weeks and we must be ready to plant our barley, beans, corns, oats, and hay, but the ground has to be prepared before that, and the time for that was now. James finished a few more items, checked them off his list, then went to the clipboard he kept on the wall to visualize his progress. All was in perfect order and on schedule. He was dependent on his son for help, and in a few weeks Thomas would be his for the spring and summer.
James’s dependence on his son and his labor grew by the day. As Thomas grew older and stronger, he became a more valuable resource; James knew this to be true. He thought back on the recent conversation he had had with his son. It had been unsettling for them both. Thomas doesn’t know what he really wants, James thought. Young men needed strong guidance and lots of physical labor to keep their hands and minds busy. Thomas performed well enough in school, and James’s dear Elizabeth saw to it that the boy attended church—well, all of them. God, church, and family—these edicts helped a family function and ultimately made a country strong. These will see my son through as well.
James closed the door to the barn and walked to the house. His thoughts turned to his wife, Elizabeth. Even now in 1947, times were still hard. But with the lean days of the Great Depression behind them, he felt confident about the days ahead. She deserved the best. She was an amazing woman and ran the house well, plus was a wonderful wife and mother. Hopefully this year’s crops would yield well, and they could buy some of the things they had put off for so long, with all the scrimping and saving just to make ends meet.
He couldn’t help but smile as he opened the door and witnessed his wife busy with her day, gliding from one thing to the next, the kitchen humming with activity. “I hope something in this kitchen is ready for me. It all smells wonderful. I’m famished.”
When Elizabeth heard him speak, she turned down the radio and showed him the pot of stew on the stove, ready and waiting for him. He kissed her on the cheek and walked to the sink to wash up, while Elizabeth pulled the cornbread from the oven. Daffodils brightened the room, complementing the table already set for two, complete with cheery checkered napkins. She served two plates, as her husband sat down. After grace and a few hungry mouthfuls, James paused and looked up at Elizabeth.
“We need to talk about Thomas,” James said, resolutely putting down his fork and clearing his throat. “Did you know—at fifteen years old—he’s been thinking of joining the army? With the preparing of the fields beginning any day now, I’ll expect a lot of him, and I need to know his head is in the right place.”
“I feel him struggling,” Elizabeth said. “He’s not a man yet and still has many childish ways. I believe he is trying to make decisions about his future. He’s a little restless and distracted, but isn’t that normal for a boy of almost sixteen?”
“I feel him struggling too. It’s called laziness and indecisiveness,” James said with a sarcastic tone. “This is where we need to take an even harder line.” He continued. “Damn it, Elizabeth, we need him here to make ends meet. He owes it to us. Without him we’ll be hiring some day-workers to help with the farm. It’s time for him to make a real contribution and have a stake in the process, carry some risk. He doesn’t even see the opportunity. That’s how closed-minded he is.
We should bring him into the planning and all the processes necessary to bring crops to harvest. If he could just see it and grab it, it’s all within his reach. He has done most of the tasks, but, if he is to be a farmer, he needs to be exposed to all facets of crop growing—planning, planting, growth, harvest, and bringing the crops to market to sell. Don’t you feel he’s ready to take on more?”
# # #
Elizabeth thought about Thomas. Her son at times seemed like a stranger. She realized this journey into manhood was not one she could participate in. James assured her that this was necessary for Thomas to realize his lot in life, and, through this process, he would emerge a confident, productive young man. She had acquiesced up to this point, deferring to the man she loved.
Elizabeth shuddered at the thought of Thomas enlisting. She recalled the stories from friends whose sons didn’t return from the war. It had been a dark time. Even though her family hadn’t had much, they got by; they were all alive still.
Elizabeth had listened intently to James, then reached out and took her husband’s hand in hers. “I do feel he’s capable and strong, but, James, he doesn’t want to farm. He could change his mind, yes, but you can see it in his eyes some days. He looks like a caged animal. After another year, what do we do? Keep him here against his will?”
James picked up his dishes, took them to the counter, and threw them in the sink with a loud clatter.
Elizabeth thought, What if their fears were confirmed, and Thomas, when cornered, actually runs away and enlists? What would happen next? Hopefully her instincts this time were wrong. The rift this would cause between father and son would be devastating to their relationship. James had never questioned that Thomas would follow in his father’s footsteps, and this year it seemed James wanted Thomas to invest more of himself, with James teaching his son more of what he knows about farming.
She stood up and walked over to her husband, placing her hands on his back. She could feel the tightness of his muscles straining against his shirt, and, when he turned around, she saw that same tension in the deep lines cut into his face. “Maybe it’s a phase. He’s young and impulsive. Let’s give him a few days, and we’ll both talk to him again.”
As she finished speaking, a wave of uneasiness flowed through her, and she felt a deepening sense of foreboding. Elizabeth turned her attention to the table, clearing the rest of the dishes. She tried to brush away the feeling, but, in her heart, she knew she didn’t believe it herself. “It will be all right.” She continued, assuring James. “Give it time.”
James shook his head in obvious exasperation, continuing on without missing a beat. “Why should we entertain his childish notions? What could he have to say of importance really, Elizabeth? He is almost sixteen and knows little of worldly things but what we have taught him. And he knows nothing of the horrors of war, yet he’s ready to jump into that blindly?”
Elizabeth felt a chill rush over her, and she shivered again. This event would shape these two and their relationship far into the future, and her optimism for a positive outcome was dwindling. The men in this family seemed like two ships on very different voyages, and they were destined for a collision.
A knock on the door interrupted them.
# # #
Thomas neared the house and saw Pa on the porch, standing there, waiting. When he got closer, it became clear Pa was even madder than Thomas had anticipated. His high from before was gone, replaced with a growing fear. He felt like his boots were anchored to the ground as he covered the last few yards to the porch steps with difficulty. Slowly making his way up, he avoided his pa’s glare. He had no doubt of Pa’s intentions.
His face was red, the muscles there taut, and they spasmed as he spoke. “Son, I’m disappointed with you. Take a walk to the barn.”
Thomas knew what was in store for him there. It wasn’t a place his pa took him when he was interested in his side of the story. Thomas sighed heavily and braced for the worst.
# # #
James pushed the barn door closed with a thud, then looked at his son as he walked to the opposite side of the barn with his head low. He petted Bessie, then lifted his eyes to meet his pa’s unwavering gaze.
“Thomas, I don’t understand you. Your little sister, she is your responsibility. How could you leave her? What were you thinking? Are you thinking at all?” James said, his voice growing louder with each syllable. “Mrs. Martin brought Belle home and told us how you weren’t at school today. Where were you? And what was so important to leave your sister behind? Discipline is a trait valued by the world, son. And we instill this in you every day. Where was it today? Son? I’m waiting!”
I know you don’t understand me, Thomas thought. No one does. “Pa, I just needed time. I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t stand to be behind those walls today.” Thomas glanced up to read his pa’s face. A quiet, seething anger registered there, unlike anything he had seen before. “Pa, I know I messed up,” he said. “I meant to be back to the school in time to walk Belle home. Time just…got away from me. You see I had important.…”
“Enough!” Pa said, waving his arms, silencing him. “Nothing is more important than your family and certainly not an afternoon stroll through the countryside. Remember our conversation this morning? What do you think they do to soldiers who leave their posts? It’s called desertion,” he said, not waiting for a reply but pausing to take a breath before plowing in again. “You would be shot on sight. And to think I was ready to give you more responsibility on the farm. I thought you were ready.… You’ve proved me wrong, son. Your actions were irresponsible and childish,” he said, shaking his head. “I expected more from you.”
Thomas met the cold stare of his father, who he didn’t feel like he knew anymore. His pa’s nostrils flared, and his breathing was loud and aggravated. It reminded Thomas of an animal about to charge. He wished he could disappear into the wood of the barn he was huddled against. “Pa, I…wait.”
“There is nothing you can say that will make this right.”
Thomas opened his mouth to speak, wanting to scream what was on his mind. But, knowing this wasn’t the time, closed it without saying another word. Would there ever be a time? he thought.
“You can expect a bigger share of the chores. If you have time to spend half your day doing absolutely nothing, then you have too much time!” Pa said, his voice forming a streaming hiss. “I’ve been too easy on you. That’s fixin’ to change. You’ll be a man soon, with adult responsibilities, and, like it or not, you need to take your place in this man’s world.”
“Pa, will you let me…”
“No. The time for talk is done.”
Thomas looked up at his pa again and knew he was beyond reason. His gaze was fixed, and his jaws clenched, as he stared unflinchingly at Thomas. Fear and dread paralyzed him as his feet turned to lead. He heard the belt whipped free from his pa’s trousers in one swift motion. Thomas couldn’t bear to see the look of disgust on his pa’s face, but his focus still remained glued there. His shoulders sagging, Thomas finally turned his face toward the wall, his fingers forming a tight fist, as he inhaled deeply, bracing himself for the first blow. One. Thomas yelled as the first one landed on his lower back with a loud quick snap. Two. Shuffling his feet, Thomas adjusted his position as he anticipated the next hit. Three. Then, in quick succession, four. He cringed and gritted his teeth as he struggled to catch his breath. He fought back tears as his fists pounded the wall, then slowly slid down as number five found its mark, and then, he quit counting. The stinging and burning consumed his entire backside. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks. His father stopped after what seemed like an eternity, even he was out of breath from the exertion. Thomas panted as he gasped for air, leaning into the wall, grateful for its support, not wanting to turn and face his pa again.
“Now go inside and up to your room,” Pa ordered, still breathing heavily. “Your mother will bring you leftovers later tonight. You’ll not eat with the family this evening.”
Pa left without another word, closing the barn door.
In the silence of the barn, Thomas screamed as he smashed his fist through the wall and crashed in a crumpled heap to the ground. The tears began again, and he impatiently wiped them away, his breath still coming in short bursts, his chest heaving. I can’t stay in this house any longer. I won’t. He began the slow, painful walk across the barn, then to the house. Every inch of his body hurt, and he knew tomorrow’s pain would be worse. His father would never understand. This is the last whipping I’ll ever receive without fighting back, he vowed. And tomorrow I’ll be gone.
Thomas caught his sisters’ glances as he entered the house. Mary averted her gaze, and Belle sat curled in the corner, whimpering. His eyes brimming, another wave of unshed tears fell, and his vision clouded again. Belle was upset, but this wasn’t her fault. The issues were much bigger than today. Thomas made his way up the steps. Slowly he closed the door on this day that had quickly gone so wrong.
In the closet Thomas found his small travel bag. From his drawers he pulled out three shirts, a pair of pants, and underwear, and set to work packing. A few minutes later, he had finished with the small items he wanted to take with him, then surveyed his room for anything he may have forgotten. So much time spent here and this is how it ends. He gathered his comic books from the shelf above his bed and, from his nightstand, pulled out all the cash he had in the world and placed it in the bag, then zipped it shut. He set his alarm clock for twelve midnight.
The pain of cuts large and small stung him when he pulled away his torn shirt. Pieces of cloth clung to his skin from the blood gathering there. Muscles he didn’t even know he had screamed at him in agony as he undressed and slipped into his bedclothes. He pulled back the sheets and crawled into bed, lying on his stomach. Not even the least bit hungry, he shut his eyes and tried to push from his mind the recurring scene in the barn. Despite the effort, every time his eyes closed, vivid pictures came alive in his head, taking on a life of their own.
Sometime later the door opened, and he heard his ma place food on the bedside table. He felt a light kiss on his forehead and a gentle pat on the shoulder. She then reached around and quickly dressed the wound on his hand.
“I love you,” she whispered, hugging him lightly as she kissed him on the cheek.
Thomas felt his face, now wet, not from his own tears this time but his ma’s. He buried his head under the covers, relieved to think no more, and gave in to the exhaustion that overtook him.
Thomas slept deeply at first and happily so, a welcome escape from the previous day’s escapades. He was glad in an odd way that he had had a confrontation with Pa, the final straw; now it was decided. Plans were in place, and Thomas would be leaving later tonight.
He pulled himself into the conscious world. His legs stretched the length of the bed and hit an obstacle. Thomas perched himself up on one elbow, and he saw Belle huddled at the bottom of the bed, curled into a little ball, fast asleep. She really is just the sweetest sister ever. I’ll miss her when I’m gone. Thomas squinted to see the clock on the night table. He picked up the clock to confirm the time. Just 11:00 p.m. Why am I awake? He put the clock back on the table, and his hand hit something rough and hard. In the dim light, he held it up and studied it with his hands, turning it over between his fingers to feel all the angles. He looked again toward the bottom of the bed and smiled. This must be from Belle.
A rock. Surely a special treasure. The perfect weight to fit in one hand and one hand could enclose it. Even in the darkness of the room Thomas could see reddish tones to the stone and could make out the shape of a crude heart with his fingers. A fiercely protective instinct ignited within him as he thought of his little sister. She must have really felt sorry for me. Thomas reached down and pulled a blanket over her shoulders, wincing as his muscles stretched, sending pain through his extremities again. He watched as Belle breathed in and out in peaceful even breaths and thought about how wrong he was for leaving her yesterday. Pa was right, Thomas admitted to himself. What kind of brother am I? Even at eight years old she knows what it means to be loyal.
Thomas reached for his trousers to stow the rock in his pocket, and his knees shook. He stood as a chill overtook him, and he shivered. A wave of nausea came over him next, and he began to sweat. He clumsily sat back down. Something isn’t right.
Why can’t I shake this cloud from my mind? Thomas rose with thoughts of going to the bathroom, then back to bed for another hour before leaving. He stood up again and took an unsteady step. His body propelled forward, but his feet didn’t keep pace. Thomas reached for the bed to steady himself, just a little too late. His knees buckled, and he collapsed loudly to the floor, hitting his head on the bed as he fell. His legs and backside throbbed from the whipping earlier tonight as expected, but this was different. Thomas gathered his stray limbs back under him, unsure why they had a mind of their own. Dazed, he sat on the floor, holding his head in his hands. “Why do I feel so awful?” he voiced this time.
Belle’s head peeked over the side of the bed.
“Thomas, what’s wrong? Did you fall outta bed?”
“Belle, something’s not right. Go get Ma,” he said, as his teeth chattered uncontrollably.
Belle rushed quickly down the stairs and a short time later reappeared with Ma by her side.
“Thomas?” Ma asked.
Thomas blinked, opening his eyes.
“Ma, my legs, they feel shaky. And my arms too. I don’t feel right, and I’m hot.”
Elizabeth faced Belle. “Belle, dear, you run along while I tend to Thomas. He will be fine, and you need your sleep too. Now, on you go, back to your own room. I will be down shortly.”
Belle looked tentatively from her mother to Thomas, her eyes wide and questioning, then she began her slow descent from the bed.
“I’m okay, Belle, really,” he added, when actually he was quite sure of the opposite. Thomas had heard that tone before in his mother’s voice, something he was rarely a party to, and his heart beat a little faster.
“You do seem to have a fever,” Ma said. “Let me help you back into bed, and let’s cover you up. I’ll bring you some water. I’m sure this is nothing a day of rest won’t cure.”
A day, he thought. I don’t have a day. But he didn’t have the strength to argue.
Thomas climbed slowly back into bed, leaning on his mother for support to reach the side and then rolling in the rest of the way. Exhausted by the effort, he looked at his ma, whose eyes wouldn’t meet his own. His body trembled and shuddered as his ma piled on blankets, but no amount of warmth stopped the constant shivering.
Helpless to control his ailing body, he fell into an uneasy, troubled sleep, struggling as he alternated between spells of shivering and sweating. Thomas twisted and turned, dreaming of hospital beds where rows and rows of people slept, all dressed in uniform. He saw himself asleep in one of those beds and watched as his family pranced by, waving to him, laughing as they left him there. He screamed, but his mouth didn’t move, and no words came out, yet he heard his own agonizing cry. In the recesses of his mind, he listened to the wordless chants of his sick roommates, joining in the terrorizing wail.
# # #
A paralyzing fear threatened to engulf her as Elizabeth soothed Belle back to sleep and woke James. Just too horrible to be true, she thought. Not this. She wouldn’t say the word; it was too horrible. Her mind raced on. There had to be another answer. Sure, special hospitals existed for people with the disease, but it had no cure. “And, if Thomas has it, we have all been exposed as well,” she said, exasperated. As James dressed quickly to get the doctor, she reached for him. Elizabeth saw the regret in his eyes and the sorrow buried in the lines of his face. Tonight’s earlier confrontation and what had transpired between him and his son would not soon be forgotten. She could see he felt horrible, even though the sickness had nothing to do with that.
She clung to him in the coolness of the night, each pulling strength from the other. “You better go, so you can get back faster,” Elizabeth said.
James grabbed his jacket to head out the door, then he stopped to hug his wife again and whispered. “Let’s not take this all on right now. We’re putting the cart before the horse. Try not to worry. Let the doc examine him, then we’ll know more.”
She silently nodded, worry, nevertheless, filling every fiber of her being. But she managed a small smile as he left for town and for the doctor who would bring much-needed answers.
# # #
Thomas opened his eyes and took in his pristine environment—all white everywhere. The walls, the sheets, the bed, even the people were completely dressed in white. It was still hard to get used to, even after being here for several weeks. The doctor says I’m one of the lucky ones, he thought, but how could having polio and being fitted for braces be lucky? He knew his parents would be here soon, for the fitting appointment, so Thomas closed his eyes for the moment and gave in to the exhaustion, which was still so much a part of his waking life.
Thomas only remembered bits and pieces of the entire first week at the hospital, as he had drifted in and out of consciousness. He couldn’t remember much of the following weeks either. He had felt isolated and afraid, and even his parents were only allowed a few minutes of visiting time each day. As a result he spent the majority of his time alone. Thomas endured day after day of a drug-induced sleep and dreamed peacefully, always the same recurring dream of people calling his name repeatedly. The weeks crawled by, filled with the blur of doctors and nurses, and snippets of hushed conversations that he wasn’t allowed to hear as they came and went, dispensing medicines and therapy to his diseased body.
After a soft knock on the door, the doctor opened it and entered. Then Thomas’s parents followed the doctor in quick succession.
“Hi, Thomas. How are you this morning?” Ma said, as she surveyed him from top to bottom.
“I’m okay, Ma.”
“Son, can we have a talk?” the doctor asked, approaching the bed with Thomas’s parents at his side.
Thomas nodded. “All right, shoot.” Even talking was tiring. And his eyelids felt like they were made of lead. He struggled to open them multiple times as he tried to tune into what the doctor had to say. But, as the doctor spoke, Thomas felt himself fading. His body was still already, but now his mind just shut down. Finally he couldn’t fight it any longer.
In the silence, he heard his name called. Then again, over and over. Thomas homed in on the voice. Not a family member. Not a familiar voice at all. It was no one he knew; he struggled to make out the words that came to him as a garbled random conversation but yet had a rhythm, almost songlike. The activity in his head lulled him into a peaceful limbo that felt comfortable and safe. And here he resided.
Thomas willed his eyelids to open, and he saw his ma in the chair, rocking as she sewed. “Hi, Ma. Where did the doctor go?”
“Hello there, honey,” she said, immediately setting aside her sewing and coming to his side. She smiled, grabbing his hand and softly squeezing it. “He’s come and gone several times. You have been completely out of it for two days.”
“Two days? How could that be? I closed my eyes for a few minutes. That’s all I remember.” Thomas felt a shiver as panic took over. “What has happened to me?”
“Calm down, sweetheart. The doctor said this can happen in some cases. It’s just your body trying to recover, heal, and conserve energy. As you regain your strength, these…lapses won’t happen as frequently. The good thing is, you’re on the road to recovery. The infection is now dormant, the doctors said, and your muscles will recover with time and special exercises.”
Ma stopped momentarily and studied her son, then placed a hand on his cheek. Seemingly satisfied, she continued. “Your sisters miss you so much. Three weeks is such a long time, and you know they haven’t been allowed to see you. They have been so worried, but we thought it best that they not come here. And the most wonderful part is,” she said, as she paused in anticipation, “you will be home in two days as long as the braces for your legs fit as they should.”
Thomas looked away, fighting the tears welling up inside. Yes, lucky. I know, everyone keeps reminding me but braces…? Funny, I don’t feel lucky. “Did the doctor say how long I would have to wear those…braces? I don’t remember much about what he said.”
“No, Thomas,” Ma replied as she sat on the bed. “We don’t know that just yet. But, as your muscles get stronger over time, we’ll know much more.”
Not trusting himself to look directly at his mother as he spoke, he continued. “That seems like an answer doctors say when they don’t know anything.” Thomas quietly stifled a sob. “I don’t want to be a cripple, Ma. And I’m really scared.”
Ma’s voice was calm and reassuring when she spoke next. “Thomas, you’re here and alive, and you are one of the lucky ones! You will still have some effects from the disease, but you will get your strength back. The weakness will eventually subside, and you will live a normal life.”
Thomas felt his ma’s warm embrace as his tears flowed that he didn’t try to stop. Rocking back and forth, he finally accepted his fate. And, knowingly this time, he let himself drift to sleep. “Ma,” Thomas whispered, “thanks for being here.”
“Where else would I be?”
“Night, Thomas. Sweet dreams.”
Thomas slept soundly that night and woke with the dawn. He knew the only way out was to get those contraptions on his legs. His energy returned. Thomas felt hopeful for the first time in weeks, and he was anxious to get the fitting done and over with. The sooner, the better. He glanced to the bedside table and noticed his comic books. Oh, I’ve missed these, he thought, as he grabbed one and slowly caught up on the latest. He combed through the pages, absorbing every word. A picture caught his eye, and he stared, astonished at its detail. Here was his hero, Buck Rogers, outfitted for space, and what was that on his boots? Yes, if one looked closely, his boots appeared to be outlined in metal or some form of brace. Thomas smiled. This is a sign. A sign things will get better. A sign from my hero that I can do great things.
His parents opened the door. “Thomas, you’re awake. How are you feeling this morning?” Ma asked.
“Better, Ma. Really I am. Let’s get this brace thing finished so I can go home. I leave tomorrow, right?”
His parents’ gazes locked, and they shared a smile. “Yes, the doctor feels you can go home tomorrow as long as you can show them some initial progress with the brace,” Ma said.
“Let’s go, Ma, Pa. I’m ready,” Thomas said energetically. “I’m busting outta this place tomorrow.”
Thomas laughed, feeling a little silly, but, as he watched his parents, he saw the proudest look he had seen there in a long time, and it was for him, just for him.
# # #
Belle tiptoed upstairs quietly so she didn’t wake Thomas. She paused, hand on the door frame as she peered around the corner. “Thomas…? Thomas, you awake?” she whispered.
“Yeah. Of course I am. Come on in, squirt.”
“Ma said you just finished up some exercises. You resting now? Did they hurt you?” Belle asked tentatively.
“No, I’m fine. Just a little sore, but I’m getting stronger. I can tell.”
“That’s good, Thomas. Can I come sit with you?”
“Sure, I’m just reading my comics for a while.”
“Maybe we could play cards?” Belle beamed.
Thomas smiled. She really was enjoying learning to “play” cards. They had spent a lot of time together, so Thomas had taught Belle a few card games. She already knew Go Fish. Now she was learning War and Rummy.
“Okay,” Thomas said, as he reached for the cards on the bedside table. “Let’s play War.” As he grabbed the cards, Thomas noticed his special rock, sitting by the lamp. “Belle, you never told me where you found this rock. And what makes it special to you?” he asked. “It’s really neat and kinda shaped like a heart. It even looks reddish.”
Bell shifted in her spot on the bed. “Oh, I found it by the creek. You know, on the way to school. It was close to the edge, and the water flowing over it in the sun made it look really beautiful.” Belle’s eyes sparkled with excitement as she spoke, then her face fell as she looked down. “It was really beautiful, Thomas. But something happened after I picked it up. I was flipping it over in my hands, to see the whole thing. I could make out the shape and red color, but it was still so slippery, it fell and hit another rock at my feet and broke in half.”
Thomas saw Belle’s eyes fill with tears. He didn’t realize this special rock had such a story. “But, Belle, it is still pretty. Look.” Thomas showed her the rock she had given him weeks ago.
“Yes, yes. I know. But that’s not everything, Thomas. See?” Visibly frustrated with herself, Belle dug into her own pocket and pulled out another rock. It was different but the same. Thomas reached for it and realized he held the mirror image of his rock. And it had broken in half. He took his rock and Belle’s, and fitted them together. Now he understood. It formed a perfect heart. The rock, now whole, looked much more like a heart, rounded and smooth with the noticeable V in the top center. Indeed almost faultless.
“Belle, don’t be upset. You never told me the rock you gave me had a companion. This is really neat. Two hearts made from one. I love it, and it’s even more special now that you have half.”
Belle’s eyes twinkled as she looked at Thomas. “I thought you might be mad if you knew I gave you a broken rock. But I loved it so much that I wanted you to have it. When it broke, I was really sad. But I still wanted you to have it, so you would know I loved you always,” she said, beaming back at him.
He was touched and thought carefully before speaking again. “You know, in a way these two pieces of one rock bind us together. I mean, we’re family already, but this is deeper, special. I’ll keep it with me all the time. I’ve never had anything quite like this.”
Belle grinned from ear to ear, seeing that Thomas was happy, happier than he had been in weeks, all because of something she had done. She reached over and hugged her brother until he squirmed. Now they had something that the two of them shared, theirs alone.
“You ready for cards?” Thomas asked.
“Sure,” Belle replied, “and maybe I’ll even win this one.”
“I doubt it, but you can try.” Thomas chuckled.
As they played, Thomas thought of his little sister, watching her as she dived into the game, so focused, intent on winning. We do truly have a connection. She is a special child, and seems to know what people need and how to comfort them. She instinctively realizes when people are in pain and works to ease that pain. And she has taken away part of mine.
Thomas felt a strange sensation. He looked over at his sister, still happily playing with her cards. His mind started to cloud, and his head swam, while he looked to Belle, trying to focus.
“Thomas, are you okay? You look funny.”
Thomas glanced at the deck of cards, and they faded in and out as his vision blacked out. Thomas was taken aback and shook his head side to side to clear this mind.
“No, Belle, can we finish later? I’m kinda tired all a sudden. I’m gonna rest a while.”
“Sure, I guess. Are you just doing this ’cause I’m finally winning?”
Thomas shook his head. “No, keep the cards as they are. Just put them on the table. We’ll pick up where we left off.”
“Okay. You betcha!”
Belle slipped off the bed, carefully placing the two stacks of cards nearby, then bounded from the room with a wave and a smile.
Thomas leaned back, as the wave of dizziness worsened. His arms and legs felt weak and unsteady. Where is this coming from? Thomas wondered. I haven’t felt like this since the hospital. Thomas let his eyes close, while familiar images flashed before his field of vision…and rows and rows of beds filled his mind. Where am I? Am I dreaming? Thomas thought. If so, why can’t I wake up? He scanned to the very end of the row and spotted again the vision of himself and others screaming out in agony. He strained to hear what was being said. Reading their lips, he made out one word. Run!
# # #
What a difference a few weeks can make, Elizabeth thought. Thomas has polio and our family, while grateful for his ongoing recovery, is distraught. Elizabeth was worried about her only son, worried that he was continuing into a depression that began with the knowledge of his disease—or maybe even before. How life has changed, she thought, as she reviewed the most recent weeks. In the two weeks since Thomas’s homecoming, the family had settled into a “new” normal. This “normal” involved more medicines than any one person should have to endure, endless exercising of weakened limbs, continual doctor visits, and daily battles with Thomas to interact with the outside world.
The school year now over for her son, not even that diversion was available for Thomas. Elizabeth’s face fell. She knew the doctors projected no less than a full year with the braces—most likely more—but she couldn’t bring herself to tell her son this, not in his current frame of mind. The treatment was promising, but to a fifteen-year-old, almost sixteen-year-old boy, a year was like a lifetime. In three short weeks Thomas would be sixteen. Elizabeth intended to make this a special day, filled with good food and a few select friends. She wanted to help him envision his future—one eventually without braces. His spirits must be kept high. He needs to see a path to his future.
“Ma?” Mary interrupted. “You seemed a lifetime away.”
Elizabeth picked up her coffee cup and took a sip from her drink that had gone cold. “Yes, I guess I was. It takes time to absorb all the changes our family has gone through,” she said, a smile pasted on her face.
“I’m sorry, Ma. Would you like for me leave? I didn’t mean to intrude on your quiet time. You have so little.”
“No, absolutely not. Sit down. I’d love to have some company,” she said, patting her firstborn daughter’s hand which had landed on her shoulder.
“How about I warm up your coffee?” Mary said, as she moved to the stove to retrieve the coffeepot warming there.
“Thank you, dear.”
Mary poured for her mother, then grabbed a cup for herself, sliding in next to her.
“Mary, I don’t think I’ve properly thanked you for all you’ve done the past few weeks,” she said. “Your father and I have been preoccupied with your brother, and we’ve left everything here at home to fall on you. That was quite unfair.”
“Ma, no. I feel so helpless. I just wish there were more I could do. You both have been where you needed to be.”
“More? Mary, you have worked in town, also taking care of Belle, preparing food, and keeping this household going these past few weeks. I’m amazed at all you’ve accomplished,” Elizabeth said, her weary eyes filling with tears.
“It’s okay to accept help, Ma. He’s my brother. I want to do all I can. Any small amount I earn, I’d like to go to help pay some of the hospital bills. It must be a lot of money, and my little bit won’t go far, but I want to contribute.”
Elizabeth gasped as she held back her tears, and Mary enveloped her in a hug.
“It means so much, Mary,” Elizabeth said softly. “These are not the things that should fill your head at this point in your life.”
A kerthumpty, thump, thump, broke through their somber conversation. Mary and Elizabeth looked at each other with a smile. Elizabeth wiped her face as Belle came bounding down the stairs and appeared in the kitchen.
“Hello, dear. How’s Thomas doing?”
“Okay, I guess. He said he wanted to rest. I think he needs to get up and move around.”
“He still does need a lot of rest. We must be patient,” Elizabeth explained.
“Don’t you think it’d be good for him to come down and be with us, just for a little while?” Belle whined.
Mary and Elizabeth exchanged a silent glance, and, after an imperceptible nod from Elizabeth, Mary rose.
“Let me go check on him,” Mary said. “If he’s not asleep, I’ll help him down the steps to the kitchen.”
Belle smiled back. “Ma, can we fix a snack for him?”
“Ah, so that is what this is all about. Sounds like the old Thomas. Did he put you up to this?”
“No, Ma, honest,” she replied solemnly, wide-eyed as she shook her head.
Elizabeth watched her youngest child intently. Her involvement in her son’s recovery had been every bit as real as the medicine he received. Belle’s devotion to Thomas was without exception and never-ending. She would do anything for him. No struggle too large, no problem too big to tackle. She was tenacious and a fighter on his behalf.
“Absolutely we can,” Elizabeth said, as she rose to prepare some refreshments. “Come give me a hand, will you?” Belle jumped up, eager to help, and followed her to the counter to retrieve the cookies they had made the day before.
It wasn’t long before they heard the clunk, screech, clunk, screech, that told them Thomas was headed down the stairs. The noise got louder as the two older siblings neared the kitchen. Elizabeth and Belle finished their preparations just as Mary appeared around the corner, her arm around Thomas’s waist, guiding him, shouldering part of his weight.
“Where are your crutches?” Elizabeth asked.
Thomas looked up, out of breath from descending the stairs.
“I just thought I’d give this a try, since I was only coming to the kitchen. Maybe that was a bad idea,” he said sheepishly.
“You’re okay,” Mary encouraged.
From the doorway where they stood, Thomas looked at Mary, then to his Ma. “Let me walk to the table without you guys’ help. I can do it. I made it across the room upstairs.”
Mary furrowed her brow and threw her mother a questioning glance.
“Okay, Thomas, go ahead,” Elizabeth said. “Mary will be right behind you. Just reach out to her if you need her.”
With a clank and screech, clank and screech, Thomas smiled with satisfaction, completing the first step. Mary held out her hand tentatively, ready to catch him, as Belle smiled encouragingly, waiting for him at his chair.
Elizabeth’s throat constricted, and she fought her tears, as she was thrown instantly back to Thomas’s first steps as baby. Unprepared for the raw emotion, she stifled a sob, and Belle gazed toward her, a look of concern on her face. Mentally Elizabeth wasn’t able to process this picture. Would they have this far to go all over again, from infancy to teenage years? It put everything into perspective.
Thomas navigated the final few steps across the kitchen to the table and plopped down, drained of energy. Mary, Belle, and Elizabeth let out a collective sigh of relief as Thomas landed safely in the chair.
“See? What did I tell you?” Thomas said, as he gasped for breath, worn out from his short trek.
“Great job, Thomas,” Elizabeth said. Belle clapped eagerly. “Now how about that food?”
“I’m ready,” Thomas replied. “See? I’m getting stronger.”
The foursome downed their cookies and coffee—milk for Belle—and Mary propped up Thomas’s legs on a chair as they continued talking.
“Thomas, would you like us to bring your comic books or the cards down here, so you can continue your game with Belle?” Mary asked.
“Uh-oh,” Belle said, as she turned her head toward Thomas. “Lookie there.”
Elizabeth and Mary checked Thomas more closely—with his head back on the chair, his arms loosely hanging over the sides, his breath coming in even bursts. His eyes were shut.
“Shhh. It’s all right. Let him rest there a little while. The short journey really took all his energy,” Elizabeth said.
“Pa would be proud,” Mary added, smiling.
“Yes, he would be,” Elizabeth added, wondering, indeed, if it were true if these little victories would matter to him.
Elizabeth was aware that her husband’s burden was heavy where Thomas was concerned. Their father-and-son confrontation earlier in the night before Thomas’s illness had presented itself had caused James endless days of heartbreak, but he was suffering quietly. She was keenly aware that her husband didn’t want to share this with her. However, James keeping this to himself caused both her son and husband to go down very similar paths, although also very divergent and confining as well. She worried that she was losing ground to a depression that threatened to isolate her from her husband. He had even taken on odd jobs in town on Saturdays, their only full day together in order to support their family and their growing debt. Elizabeth desperately prayed that they would find a way through this harrowing time. Her main focus and energy had to be on her children now. She and her husband had to take a backseat.
# # #
James surveyed the garden with a critical eye. From a distance he could see a carpet of green covering the field in straight lines that stood at attention, fighting the gentle breeze. It’s really progressing nicely. James admired the fruits of his labor, while he stood back and adjusted the wide brimmed hat low on his brow. The sun beat down on his sweat-drenched back, as he stooped down to check the tender young plant growth. Up and down again he walked, wearing down a path between the rows, determined to verify the health of his crops.
Lots of measurable rain in late April after planting early in the month had helped the growth process along. All indications were that the corn, beans, barley, oats, and wheat would come in right on schedule, God willing.
James worked in silence, tending and weeding the young seedlings. His thoughts turned to Thomas. This was not the spring I had planned. This was to be the year that Thomas and I worked as a team, the year that Thomas would really feel what it was like to do a man’s job and experience the ultimate reward when crops were brought to harvest. But this was not to be. Not this year anyhow. Hobbling around in braces in the field just wouldn’t work. He was simply too weak. It will take weeks and months of therapy for Thomas to be back up to speed for work on the farm, if ever.
James glanced at his hired hand. He only hired this one for the day, just to help with the weeding and fertilizing on the schedule. The less help to pay for, the better, but, for plans to come to fruition, timing was everything, and every step must be true to the master schedule. To a farmer, proper planning and timing were everything. Those were under his control. Mother Nature and life-altering illnesses were not.
In the heat of the noonday sun, James stopped for a drink of water that Elizabeth had brought to him earlier. He let out an exasperated sigh and wiped his forehead. As he shook his head back and forth, he struggled to concentrate on the tasks at hand. He could do nothing to make this better. I’m supposed to fix things. I make wrongs right, except in this case.
He was still plagued by the looks from the hospital staff after Thomas had been admitted that awful night, and they had seen the stripes on his back. His son had deserved to be punished. So why did he feel so repulsed by himself, so responsible for the whole horrible night?
He had not allowed himself to dwell too much on Thomas. It was too painful, too fresh. At first he was afraid for his son’s life. Then, as it became clearer that Thomas would pull through, James wondered what kind of life his son would have. Would he be confined to a bed, wheelchair, or some other apparatus? And what kind of life would that be? All their hopes and dreams for their son were destroyed.
James shielded his eyes, while he turned his head toward the sky, squinting in the bright light. Gauging by the sun, the day is half over. He waved the day-worker to follow him to receive his supper. James walked to the house, making a mental checklist of the chores to complete before the end of the day.
When he walked into the kitchen, his senses came alive with the blending of aromas and mingling of fresh ingredients that confirmed supper was ready. After a full morning of work in the field, he was famished. James washed up and took the plate and drink prepared for the day-worker to the porch where he sat, waiting, just as eager to eat, James knew, as himself. After filling the day-worker’s glass with water, James left the man to his supper and to relax in peace. James sat at the kitchen table and said grace, then ate his fill of the chicken casserole Elizabeth had made, slowly savoring each bite. In addition his plate was piled high with freshly made rolls and green beans seasoned to perfection. Cherry pie rounded out the meal.
“How is Thomas today?” James asked, helping himself to a second piece of pie. “I had hoped maybe he would come down to supper.”
“I believe he’s doing well,” Elizabeth responded. “He’s had a full morning of exercising and reading, then some cards with Belle. And I think he’s a bit tired at the moment. I’ll take him his supper in just a little while.”
Belle chimed in, “He’s just exhausted,” she said, with a broad smile forming on her lips.
James glanced at Elizabeth, expecting to see her enjoyment of Belle’s word choice, and knew he wasn’t mistaken when he saw worry on her face instead.
Even though most people couldn’t see how the extra stress affected her, James knew his wife. She shouldered a lot of the burden for Thomas’s care, and his ups and downs affected her immensely. He longed for the normalcy of their prior life.
I want all my children at the table. And I want Mary home with the rest of us, not working constantly. I want to be enough to meet our family’s needs. Me and that’s all. That’s the way the Creator intended it to be. James let out a heavy sigh as his anxiety got the better of him. He felt truly powerless. His inner demons gnawed at him, threatening to consume his waking hours.
Elizabeth’s voice roused him back to the conversation. “I saw Joe’s family in town yesterday as we did the shopping,” she said. “I think he’s planning to visit Thomas today. Won’t it be good for him to talk to one of his friends? It’s been more than a month since he has spent time with someone his own age, and, now that the doctors have said all danger is past with no more risk of exposure, I thought this would be great medicine for him. You do agree, don’t you, dear? He has missed his friends, especially Joe.”
James nodded. “Yes, yes, I think that’s fine, although his time might be better spent on his exercises.” James paused. “Maybe, Elizabeth, if Joe could get him out of the house and in the fresh air, possibly on the porch or even for a short walk, that might really do him some good after all.”
“That’s a great idea, James. We’ll try it. Outside it is. They won’t be far at all, and I’ll be close at hand. He’ll be within my vision at all times. Let’s see how Thomas feels about it.”
“I’m back to work, Elizabeth,” James said with a forced cheerfulness and a quick kiss to her cheek.
Hopefully seeing his friend would do his son some good, but, when it came down to it, his son needed the will to fight his way back to full health. And ultimately that was a fight that Thomas would do alone. Anything less than that would not cut it.
# # #
Thomas heard a knock at the door. He dreaded Joe’s visit. His ma told him how good it would be for him. Ugh. What a buncha bull. It’ll be the last straw if my best friend treats me like I have the plague. Thomas loudly navigated the unending trek down the stairs. Through the motions of a long drag, clunk, clunk, Thomas maneuvered each step with growing skill. He landed on the last step and moved around the corner just before he saw his ma put down her sewing to answer the door.
“Well, good afternoon, Joe. So nice to see you,” his ma said as she welcomed Joe inside.
“Hello, Mrs. Stewart. Uh, good to see you as well.”
Elizabeth followed Joe’s line of vision, as it honed in on Thomas, standing in the hall doorway with his braces.
Thomas spoke up first. “Yeah, take a good long look and get used to it, ’cause I’m apparently stuck with these for a while.”
Joe averted his gaze.
“Sorry, Thomas. It’s just that…I’m not used to being this close to someone who has polio, and my mom—she didn’t want me to come actually.”
“Well, I had polio. I’m not contagious anymore. I’m just dealing with the aftereffects now. And I will be for some time, so the doctors tell me. So just go ahead and leave if you wanna. It’s fine with me. Wouldn’t want to scare you or nothin’, you chicken!” Thomas imitated a chicken walk the best he could with braces on, arms flapping, then turned to leave. He caught the surprised look from his mother across the room and saw her trying not to laugh. This attitude was sickening. Everyone was afraid of him since he had returned home from the hospital.
Ma spoke up. “Joe, if you’re uncomfortable in any way, feel free to leave, but he isn’t contagious. We have confirmed that with the doctors. We do want our family to be safe and healthy as well.”
“Um, yes, ma’am, but I’d really like to stay. As I said, my mom feels that way, not me. Hold up, Thomas.… Can I come with you?”
“Do what you want. I don’t care,” Thomas said, as he started back up the stairs.
“Hey, stay down here a minute. We could play some cards or here, see? I brought some comic books for you. We’d have more room down here. And, just so you know, I’m not afraid. It’s just different that’s all.”
Thomas looked to see the comic books Joe was holding in his hands, and Thomas realized he really did want to see those—and maybe even talk to Joe, if he wasn’t being such an ass. “Well, maybe, if you think you can breathe the same air as me without falling over dead. You know, you might just not live through this encounter, you idiot.”
“Okay, I guess I deserved that. Now come on. There’s more room down here to spread out. And I wanna show you the newer ones I just got today.”
Ma let out an audible sigh.
“Yeah, you just want to make sure there’s plenty of room so you don’t have to sit too close to me, chicken shit,” Thomas muttered under his breath. “You, of all people.”
“I guess I deserved that too.” Joe crossed the short distance between them and came up behind Thomas, picking him up, braces and all.
“Here now, is this close enough, or do you want me to kiss you too?”
“Put me down, ugly, and, no, I do not.”
Joe put Thomas down carefully on the couch.
“It’d probably be the only kiss you’ve had,” Thomas added, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Actually you already know I’m pretty popular with the ladies,” Joe added in a wistful, dramatic tone as he plopped down on the couch beside Thomas.
“How about some pie for you boys? I have leftover cherry from supper.”
“I’ll have some, Ma. Thanks.”
“Me too,” Joe replied.
Elizabeth nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.
Joe and Thomas perused the comic books and talked in hushed tones.
Elizabeth returned with two slices of pie, then let them be, as the two devoured their dessert.
When he was sure she was out of ear shot, Joe piped up, his mouth full. “I was sure you had changed your mind and deserted me, you know?”
“I told you I wouldn’t do that.”
“I came here that night, the night we were to leave, when you never showed up. They were taking you to the hospital.”
“Yeah, I don’t remember any of that.”
“Well, what now? What are your plans?”
Thomas looked from Joe to his own legs and braces, not sure what to say.
“Did your parents ever find out? You know. What you did, the money?” Thomas asked.
“No, they didn’t. After I left here, I went home. I put it all back. They were still at my cousin’s house, so they never found out. I was hoping we could just delay leaving by a few days.” He gestured to Thomas’s legs. “Obviously that won’t happen.”
“Well, maybe we can still join up together. You know, the marines. You would just need…a desk job.”
“Sounds almost as exciting as farming,” Thomas said sarcastically.
“Or just leave and find a job. See parts of the world we would never see.”
“I don’t know. That all depends on these bum legs of mine,” Thomas said, as he pointed to the braces. “My plans haven’t changed. They just may be delayed somewhat. I’m saving my allowance, but that’s only small change compared to the money I’ll need to live while I look for a job.”
“My dad’s gonna pay me this year to work on the farm,” Joe replied. “He said, since I’ll be doing a man’s share of the work, then I’ll get a small wage. It probably won’t be much. But it’s a start.”
Thomas’s face fell. Well, good for you. You’ll be on your way then, and I’ll be stuck here, dependent on my family for everything. Thomas remembered the conversation he had had with his pa that now seemed like ages ago, that morning in the barn, followed by that awful night in the barn. Pa had wanted to give Thomas more responsibility. Possibly Pa would have considered paying Thomas a small wage as well. Maybe he had been short-sighted. Maybe more responsibility could have meant money which would help him reach his goal. He had really messed up that day, not that it mattered at all now. His whole world had changed later that very evening.
“You need to make plans without me. Who knows what I’ll be able to do? Doctors say I’ll be fine. They just don’t know how long it will be before all my muscle strength returns,” Thomas said dejectedly.
“Ah, let’s just wait and see how it goes,” Joe said, giving Thomas a shove. “It will take me a while to save money, a long while. My pa’s not gonna make me rich or nothin’. It will be just a small wage. But I’ll save it, and we can keep planning,” Joe said.
“Yeah. Sure. We’ll wait and see,” Thomas echoed, not looking Joe in the face.
It is just another thing in a long list of things that I can’t keep doing all because of this dumb disease. My life is on hold, while everyone else’s is moving ahead, even Joe’s. Where will I go from here? What exactly will I do with my life if I don’t get better?
A feeling of dread formed in the pit of his stomach, and his hands started to sweat as he thought about his future. My life will never be the same. He glanced back to Joe, who was still jabbering away, and then to the kitchen where his ma was. What am I going to do?
REMEON’S DESTINY by J.W. Garrett is available in both print and ebook at fine booksellers everywhere, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Waterstones, Indiebound, GooglePlay, Kobo, iTunes, and many more.
Also available for purchase through Overdrive for libraries.
Imprint: BHC Press/H2O
Genre: YA/Sci fi/Fantasy
Series: Realms of Chaos, Book 1
On Sale: 6/19/18
Available formats: Trade softcover (5.5 x 8.5) and ebook
Ebook price: $7.99
For more information on REMEON’S DESTINY and other BHC Press titles, visit the publisher’s website.