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Autumn Blue

Chapter One

If he came, it would be by the woods. It was always the woods. Even when it had been perfectly safe for him to lollygag along the street in broad daylight, Ty had always preferred a floor of decaying leaves and fir needles and a ceiling of sky or green boughs. 

The woodlands behind their house edged a gully formed by Sparrow Creek which meandered all the way to the edge of Ham Bone, wrapping around the town’s east side. Tucked between stands of trees were houses and pastures, churches and schools all snuggled against foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Surely by now Ty knew every square foot of his territory as well as the wild creatures that watched him come and go.

When her son was younger he returned from his adventures with wildlife specimens: mud puppies, red-legged frogs, little tree frogs with emerald skin as smooth and damp as avocado flesh. Ponds and streams held more treasure for him than fleets of Spanish galleons. He spent countless hours combing his fingers through murky water and mud in search of baby catfish or wading through lily pads, jeweled dragon flies circling above as his keen eyes scanned for bullfrog nostrils breaking the surface of the water. Long ago, she had learned to let him go. Having the instincts of a wild creature, he was certainly safer in his beloved woods than on the county roads. Sidney always knew her son was on his way home when the dog, panting and covered with burrs, preceded him to the back door.

She stood at the kitchen sink, a cereal bowl in one yellow-gloved hand, the other submerged in gray soapy water with a scrub brush. Through the window, her eyes skimmed over the dog run where the grass was as worn as the knees of Tyson’s old jeans, searching - as she had for days - the edge of the trees behind the house.

The landlord had not bothered much with landscaping. He simply cleared the lot and plopped a used mobile home in the middle of it with a For Rent sign in the front yard. Some grass just naturally filled in, seeded by overgrown pasture land on either side of them, but had not flourished due to a long, dry summer. The only shrubs were clumps of jagged Oregon grape and leathery salal spilling from the shade of cedar trees that formed the back boundary. The two dead azalea bushes in front didn’t count.  

Vaguely she heard her daughters’ laughter from their bedroom. She felt the dog streak behind her and didn’t notice until the girls ran past shrieking with delight that their brother’s German shepherd looked like the Big Bad Wolf disguised as a grandmother. He came through again, shaking his head to rid it of a pink doll-bonnet, limping every time he stepped on the shawl that had slipped around his neck. They would never get away with that if Ty was home. He had a thing about that dog.

“Come here, Duke.” Sidney pulled the wool scarf over his head, snagging the bonnet along with it.

“Mom!” Sissy whined. “Why did you do that? He likes it. Don’t you, Duke?”

“Look at his tail, Sis. See how droopy it is? That’s how a dog says he’d rather be anywhere but here right now. Rebecca put him outside, please.”

“Should I put him on his dog run?” 

Normally Sidney would have insisted on hooking the leash up to the long wire that ran between two posts out back. A dog should not be roaming the neighborhood free, even outside of town. Some cars still sped through pretty fast. Besides it wasn’t fair to the neighbors. Old Mr. Bradbury across the street would not be pleased to find his peonies trampled or worse yet, a pile of dog poop on his perfect lawn. “No. Just let him go.”

Rebecca giggled as she opened the back door. “Now look at him! He’s happy!” The dog’s brushy tail swung like a reaper’s scythe as he slipped through the opening and bounded into the yard. The girls went back to their play.

Sidney lingered at the window. If Ty was watching the house from the woods, contemplating coming home for a warm bed and a home-cooked meal, that dog would know it. They were normally as inseparable as twins. Duke bounded across the yard, sniffing and peeing here and there along the wire-fenced edges. Once he stopped, his nose lifted high into the wind. Her hopes rose. Then he turned and wandered off, not toward the woods, but on a haphazard trail with no apparent destination.

She had searched all morning, picking up where she left off the night before when darkness fell about a mile down the course of Sparrow Creek. She wondered as she trudged along trails made by animals and children, thrashing through thick tangles of huckleberry in less accessible spots, if she should have started upstream instead of down. Or if Ty had hidden himself far away from the creek in the deep, mysterious woods of the foothills or beyond.

A thin branch had whipped her face. The sting of it was all it took to bring on a good cry, one that needed to come. She had plopped herself down on a fallen cedar and let her sobs fill the woods. Bird songs fell silent as she rocked with her arms wrapped around her ribs to keep her heart from exploding. It was a lonely thing to raise a fifteen-year-old boy alone.

She rinsed a plate and set it in the draining rack while her eyes swept the terrain outside her kitchen window, across the rolling blue-green stands of evergreen trees to the east. Wherever Ty was, it was too far away. The tension she felt on that invisible cord that every mother knows is not really severed at birth was a constant, almost unbearable pain.

It was harder to cope on a Saturday. At the office her worries had been interrupted by phone calls, working up insurance premium estimates, and the usual computer work. But today she just couldn’t quell her imagination. He didn’t even have his jacket. 

Ty had been missing now for an entire week. On her lunch hours she had cruised the streets of town, checking the library, behind grocery stores, under bridges. The Winger County Sheriff’s Department was searching for him too and promised to call her as soon as they had any information. She hoped to find him first. Her angry, rebellious boy. Was he safe? She had a need to touch him, to apply her love like a salve to invisible wounds, to make everything all right. This need overwhelmed her desire to bend him over her knee for a good old-fashioned spanking. It was too late for that; he had grown almost as tall as she was. 

She finished the breakfast dishes and then without planning to, found herself cleaning out the fridge. She dumped the last of the broccoli lasagna into the garbage disposal. Tyson’s favorite. Well it wouldn’t keep forever.

“What’s for lunch, Mom?” Eight-year-old Sissy crawled onto a tall stool, plopping her pudgy forearms on the breakfast bar. She peered through long brown hair, uncombed as usual. She was still wearing her T-shirt from yesterday with flannel pajama pants that exposed her belly. It was not a fashion statement.  

“Didn’t you just eat?” Sidney had left fruit and cereal out for the girls in case they woke up before she returned from her search, which she had started just after dawn.

“That was a long time ago.” Rebecca joined her sister at the counter. Her lighter hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, a style she wore often since getting her ears pierced. All the other girls in the fourth grade had their ears pierced according to Rebecca, and Sidney had finally succumbed. She was learning to choose her battles wisely. Some things just didn’t matter in the long run.

“Okay.” Sidney began rummaging through the fridge. “How about egg sandwiches?”

“With tomato and avocado!” Sissy said.

“And onion.” Rebecca added. 

Sidney felt like a short-order cook, but didn’t mind one bit. The only thing missing was the third face that should have been lined up at the breakfast bar. It was their gathering place. The center of her family’s world it seemed, where the day’s stories and silly jokes were told, problems discussed, while Sidney sliced, chopped, sautéed and stewed. Ty loved to taste-test her concoctions, especially muffins straight from the oven and too hot to hold.

“Mom, don’t forget the fair tomorrow.”

Sidney wiped her hands on a towel. “Oh, Sis…”

“We have to go. Tomorrow is the last day! And you promised!”

“I did?”

“A long time ago. Don’t you remember?”

“But your brother might come home.” If he wasn’t home by then, she knew she had to be out combing his usual habitat, maybe above the bridge next time. 

Rebecca shrugged. “If he comes home he can just let himself in and we’ll see him when we get home.”

“He probably followed a wild animal way up to the mountain,” Sissy suggested innocently. The girls didn’t know the true circumstances of Ty’s disappearance nor their serious implications. Sidney didn’t want to frighten them. “Don’t worry Mama. He’s just having an adventure. He always comes home.”

Sidney busied herself with frying eggs, slicing tomatoes and toasting bread. She tried to banter with her daughters but every sentence fell flat. Would he come home today? Or slip into his bedroom during the night where she’d find him safely curled beneath the covers of his own bed in the morning? She could only hope.

The girls chattered about the fair while they ate their sandwiches. Sidney couldn’t say yes, but then again she struggled with saying no. She’d been neglecting them lately. When they finished lunch and scooted off to their room she felt relieved. 

With a deep sigh, she blew a strand of blond-streaked hair from her eyes, dropping her head back as if hoping to see the answers to all her questions through an open window to heaven. Instead she saw the dark crack that ran along the peak of the double-wide mobile home’s ceiling. The house was coming apart at the seams – literally. And yet, she couldn’t complain. It was better than their apartment in the old Victorian mansion in town on the corner of Elm and Prentice. At least here she had her own washer and dryer and the kids had a big yard to play in. They owed the move to the dog. The decision was actually made by their former landlord in response to complaints of a constant pounding – the sound of Duke’s heavy tail beating against the wall in Tyson’s room. 

Sidney had been thrilled to find this house. Miraculously, it didn’t cost that much more than the apartment and it was better for all of them, only a couple of miles from town and with a new stretch of woods for Ty to explore right from their backyard. The house itself would never grace the pages of Traditional Home despite Sidney’s talent for interior design. That was her intended major in college, before she got pregnant and dropped out to have Ty. No, about all she could afford to do with this place was keep it clean and try to have matching towels out for company when they came. 

She should have married Jack Mellon when she had the chance. That might have changed everything. Surely it would have. Jack and Ty had really hit it off, right from the start. Had it been two years since she broke up with Jack? He used to take her son to baseball games and taught him to fly remote-control airplanes in the pasture across from the elementary school. There were other boys Ty’s age there too, mostly with their Dads, and they all met down at the Pizza Barn afterward. Jack was a nice guy, a butcher. Looking back, Sidney realized there had been a sparkle in her son’s brown eyes that she couldn’t remember seeing since. 

The thought had been nagging at her for months now. So what if she hadn’t felt any chemistry with Jack? Was that a valid reason for depriving her son of what he needed more desperately than protein or Vitamin C or a good night’s sleep? What was it about her that wouldn’t allow the chemistry to happen? Was she waiting for another bad boy to come along? A man like Dodge? Someone who would keep her living on the edge? She shuddered. If she had it all to do over again, she’d marry Jack in a heartbeat.

She remembered Tyson as a small boy, the delightful sound of his giggles, the way he adored his baby sisters. He had been content to play alone for hours. Even while other children played tag nearby, Ty seemed to prefer the cave-like hollow beneath the big rhododendron outside their kitchen window, where she could hear the boy-sounds of rumbling truck engines while she peeled potatoes for dinner. Once she had waited for him at the edge of a stand of trees while he followed a brown rabbit into the underbrush. She heard him thrash through the dry leaves for some time and then a momentary silence before his tiny voice wafted through the low branches. “Mommy, where are me?” 

But Tyson was really lost this time. It was as if he had been swept out to sea beneath her very nose. It all happened so gradually that she hadn’t noticed how dangerous the undercurrent really was. By the time she realized how far her son had drifted there seemed to be no life-line long enough to reach him. He had slowly become a mere speck on the horizon - and then she couldn’t see him at all. 

Millard Bradbury’s eyes opened at precisely 7:45 a.m., right on schedule and without the benefit - or the curse - of an alarm. He swung his feet to the hardwood floor, where his leather slippers awaited parked side by side like a couple of polished brown sedans nosed to a curb. 

At the bathroom sink he shaved the face of a stranger. Pouches had formed under the blue eyes and lines arced away from the corners and down his cheeks like streams from a fan sprinkler. The mouth sagged downward as if it might soon slide right off his chin. He forced it up into a smile, searching the image in the mirror for any sign of the man he once knew. Gone. Not even a glimmer of recognition in the old man’s eyes.

He dressed and made up the bed, fluffing the fat shammed pillows and leaning them against the headboard along with a smaller, decorative one just like Molly used to do. His floor exercises were next: the back stretches his doctor had prescribed, some leg lifts, and a few push-ups. After a cup of instant coffee, (why brew a pot for just one person?) and a banana sliced onto a bowl of crunchy Grape Nuts (at least his teeth were still good) he retrieved the Winger Valley Herald from the front porch.

There was a slight nip in the air but the sky was blue. He leaned against the porch rail. According to the paper it was Tuesday, September 12. Could have fooled him. It felt more like Monday. But no, yesterday he did the regular crossword, not the Sunday edition, so it had to be Tuesday. That’s right. He had seen the neighborhood kids scatter after getting off the noisy school bus yesterday afternoon. 

Millard dropped the paper to his side. A red-wing blackbird emitted its liquid warble from the deep ditch at the edge of a vacant field on the west side of the house. From the woods beyond other bird voices twittered and sang. Molly could have identified each of them by their voices alone. She would have made him stop to listen - if she were there. He scanned his lawn as he did every morning for any sign of an invading dandelion having successfully parachuted over the picket fence into his territory while he slept. His grass remained like carpet, the plush, expensive kind, with precision-cut edges curving along neatly landscaped borders where perennial shrubs shaded broad-leafed hostas.

The Winesap apple tree strained under the weight of its dappled-red fruit. Hah! He had been right about pruning it back to only a small umbrella two seasons ago. Molly had wrung her hands and whined the whole time, warning that he was butchering the poor thing. Gave it a good military haircut, he did, and it was better off for it. What he would do with all those apples was a worry to him, though. His pantry shelves were still lined with jars of cinnamon apple sauce and apple butter, his freezer stuffed with zip-closed bags labeled Pie-Fixings in Molly’s flowing cursive hand.

A door slammed across the street. That lady from the trailer-house had emerged, arms full, bending at the knees while trying to lock the house up as her two girls headed down the steps and got into the car. He had met her at the mailbox not long after the family moved in and the For Rent sign was yanked out of the yard. She was a nice enough young lady, he guessed. No husband. Not much meat on her bones, but she dressed neat and wore her golden brown hair like she put some effort into it. Not at all like her yard, which was a downright eyesore to the neighborhood with patches of grass and weeds growing down the middle of the gravel driveway, a couple of scraggly half-dead azalea bushes clinging to the cement-like dirt, and a bent downspout hanging off one corner of the double-wide house. 

She had a boy too, a boy old enough to be out there mowing those patches of grass and getting up on a ladder to secure that downspout. But on rare sightings the kid had clattered down the blacktop road on a skateboard, baggy pants at half-mast, his tufted hair, even from a distance, looking as mangy as their lawn. Millard blew out a disgusted sigh, remembering how he had hoped the kid’s pants would slip down and hog-tie him. Why, when he was that age every boy he knew had chores after school, and there was no fishing or pasture baseball games until the chicken coops were clean, eggs gathered, firewood cut, fences mended and anything else that needed doing done. He shook his head, turning to go inside. Punk kids nowadays. Wouldn’t know how to do an honest day’s work if their life hinged on it.

He shook the paper open, pulled his reading glasses from his shirt pocket and sank into the worn blue recliner by the picture window. First perusing the obituaries (seemed like the only contact he had with old peers anymore, their entire lives summed up in a few neat paragraphs). He then worked the crossword until his daughter’s pale blue Chevy pulled into the drive. She pushed through the front door with a grocery sack in each arm. “Hi, Dad. How are you feeling?” She bent to kiss the top of his forehead. “You should be wearing a sweater. It’s not summer anymore. Where’s your gray cardigan?” She proceeded to the kitchen to begin her weekly ritual. He heard cupboards opening and closing. “Nicole has her first cheerleader gig Friday night; first football game of the season. I hope this weather holds. You know those girls are going to freeze their little tushies when it gets colder. And they just hate to bundle up and cover their cute little outfits.” 

“I need a six letter word for jump. Starts with a p.”

He heard the suction-release sound of the fridge opening. “Prance?”

“Pounce.” That’s right. Why hadn’t he thought of it? He penned the letters into the appropriate boxes.

“You haven’t even touched this squash, have you, Dad?” She sounded hurt that he had not appreciated her boiling and mashing the disgusting gourd’s flesh into a stringy pulp. “You know you need the vitamin A, Dad. It’s good for your eyesight. What are you going to do when you can’t see any more? No crossword puzzles, no Wheel of Fortune. That won’t be any fun, will it?”

Nine across had him stumped. He gazed out the window. Seven letters with a d in the middle, meaning inner substance. “I just saw a starling drop a bomb on that shiny blue car out there.” The splat on Rita’s windshield was purple. It was a good year for blackberries. They hung like grapes from tangled vines on the far side of the field next door. He might go out and pick another coffee-can full if he felt like it that afternoon. 

Rita came around the corner and peered out the front room window as if she didn’t believe him. She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Nasty birds.”  

“Well, don’t take anything for granted,” she continued. “Not your eyesight or anything else. At your age every day of good health is a gift.”

“Oh,” he said, “and everyone else’s are under specific warranty?”

“You need to take care of yourself, Dad. That’s all I’m saying.” Once Rita was on a certain track she was not easily derailed. She headed back to the kitchen and he heard her loading this week’s supply of frozen dinners - leftovers from her family’s meals divided into sections in plastic containers, onto the freezer shelves. “Which reminds me, Dad. It’s time to get your prostate checked again. What was your PSA count last time?”

He slapped his pen to the newspaper in his lap. So, his life had come to this. “I don’t remember.” Of course, he knew the moment the words escaped that they were grounds for suspicion of the onset of Alzheimer’s. “I peed twice today, so far. It was yellow as lemonade and I flushed both times. My bowels are regular, blood pressure maintaining at one-twenty-five over eighty. Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

Rita came out and stood over him, arms crossed, her face pinched. His pretty little girl was beginning to look middle-aged. Her throat had become minutely wrinkled like the pink crepe paper hung for her birthdays back when she was a child and he was clearly an adult. Had it been so long since the feet she stomped wore little Mary-Jane shoes? She tilted her head defiantly, clamping her hands on her full hips. “I’m sorry, Dad.” She certainly was not. “But these things need to be discussed, whether you’re comfortable with it or not. If Mom was here, she’d be the one asking, not me. But she’s not here and I’m all you’ve got. This isn’t easy for me either you know. I lost my mother, but I’m not sitting around moping and giving up on life. And it’s not like I don’t have anything better to do. I’m in charge of the Girl Scouts craft projects this fall. I’ve got play costumes to make, soccer practices, piano lessons, you name it.” She sighed, looking down at him like he was a hopeless cause. It was the resigned, dutiful sigh of a martyr bravely accepting her fate. 

Giving up on life. What was there to give up? “Then don’t worry about me,” he scowled. “I told you before you don’t have to dote on me. I can make my own suppers, for Pete’s sake.”

“But you won’t. You’d live on bologna sandwiches and corn dogs if I let you.” She sat on the edge of the sofa, leaning toward him. “As long as you live here in this big old house all by yourself, I’m just going to worry about you, Dad. I wish you’d reconsider about going to Haywood House. It’s a nice place. You get your own little apartment, so you’d have your treasured privacy, but there are other people just like you there. You can get to know them in the dining room at meal times, maybe meet some friends that like to play chess or put together jigsaw puzzles. And wouldn’t it be nice to know that there are doctors and nurses right there on staff?”

It would take the self-imposed pressure off of her anyway. He wished she would go now. Leave him before the last hull of manhood was shucked away, exposing only a withered pea, a nothing, with no higher purpose than to put together cardboard jigsaw puzzles until he returned to the dust from which he came. He already knew this about himself, of course. But it was a truth better left untouched, unexplored. It was best to keep to the rhythm of his daily routine, biding away the hours with pleasant distractions and the self-imposed orders of the day. His battles were no longer fought against Soviet MiGs, but airborne dandelion seeds that dared invade the air space inside the perimeter of his picket fence. Gone were the glory days of coaching the wrestling team at Silver Falls High School over in Dunbar – state champions six years out of ten. Not bad for a hick-town farm boy team. But now his greatest mission was to solve the before-and-after puzzle on Wheel of Fortune before anyone bought the last vowel.

He glanced at his watch and pushed up from his chair. “The mail should be here now.” He paused when he passed her to touch Rita’s soft red hair. “I’ll be good,” he promised, “as long as you don’t make me eat any more of that baby-puke squash.”

Sidney and her friend, Micki, steered their children through the crowded fair grounds toward the livestock exhibits. Attending the Winger Valley Harvest Fair was an annual tradition, one she couldn’t deny her daughters, though Sidney’s heart was not in it, to say the least. 

Today her girls wore matching pink denim jackets that their grandmother had sent from Desert Hot Springs last Christmas. Sissy’s had a gray streak across the front from rubbing it against the corral fence where they had watched a friend from school run her pony through the barrel race. Andy, Micki’s nine-year-old son, led the way down a row of wooden stalls to the Goliath of the hogs, a huge mottled gray blimp with legs. It tried to push itself up from the straw where it was sprawled, then seemed to think better of it, falling back with a breathy grunt. The children began to clap and chant as cheerily as Richard Simmons’ disciples, “Get up! Come on, you can do it. Get up!” 

The sow pushed up on her haunches, holding that immodest pose while she contemplated her next move.

Everyone laughed, including Sidney. “That’s why I don’t eat bacon,” she said. “Fat, fat, fat.”

“Oh, like you’ve ever had an adipose cell in your entire body.” Micki held out her bag of popcorn but Sidney shook her head. Her perky blond friend looked great despite the garbage she continually consumed. She was the receptionist for Leon Schuman Insurance, known for keeping a stash of chocolate in her desk drawer at all times. They sat on hay bales in the middle of the barn where they could see their children as they scrambled from stall to stall. “Now aren’t you glad you came? I told you it would do you good.”

Sidney pulled a bottle of water out of her straw bag and took a swig, her eyes roving the crowd on the slight chance that Ty might be among them. A handsome dad with one child straddling his neck and another held by the hand leaned over a gate and began making hog sounds. People around them laughed and joined in, though the pig seemed unimpressed. Sidney sighed. “That’s what I want.”

“What? A man who can grunt? They’re everywhere; trust me.”

“A man who spends Saturday with the kids. Look at that little boy looking up at him. His dad is his hero – and all it takes is a little snorting. He doesn’t have to be in a rock band, or send elaborate gifts to make up for all the visits that got postponed to some mysterious date out in the future.” Sidney saw a vision of Tyson watching expectantly for his father from the living room window, fidgeting, flopping from sofa to chair to floor, same scenario but different face as the boy grew from an excited six-year-old to a pre-teen whose eyes had grown dull from atrophied hope. At some point he had wised up, forsaking his post at the window and aloofly pretending he didn’t care whether his father showed up or not. Sidney’s soul tore open every time it happened, while Ty’s heart had seemingly formed such thick scars from the repeated wounds that it had hardened into a clenched fist. The girls had never bonded with their father enough to care much.

Sidney’s eyes began to flood again. She inhaled, filling her aching chest with the sweet scents of hay and cotton candy, forcing her eyes to focus on her daughters, Rebecca, a joyful and dramatic ten-year-old, thin and long-armed like her mother, and Sissy, still endowed with some cuddly baby-fat, pushing eight. 

“Dodge is going to be shocked some day to see that the girls aren’t babies anymore. He still sends them baby dolls for Christmas, if he remembers at all. Do you know what he sent Tyson when he was twelve? A truck. A big Tonka dump truck for a kid that was playing internet chess with guys from France. I swear he must have sent one of his groupies to get Christmas presents for the kids.”

Micki shook her head. “Time flies while he’s having fun. How’s he doing on child support?”

Sidney laughed. That was the least of her worries. “The band apparently has a new gig in a different town. Support Enforcement can’t find him again. I wish he’d just get famous so he’d be easier to track down. Plus he’d be rich and that couldn’t hurt.”

They got up, brushing hay from the backs of their jeans, and followed their kids out of the barn toward game booths full of cheap toys and stuffed animals.

“Remember Jack Mellon?” Sidney asked. “The butcher I dated a couple of years ago?”

“Sure. That was the Vegetarian-Meets-Beef-Every-Night-Guy chapter of your life.” Micki spoke through a mouthful of popcorn. “You found him intellectually unstimulating, as I recall.”

“Did I say that? Well, anyway I’ve been thinking a lot about where I’ve gone wrong with Tyson. What I could have done differently, you know? I try to remember when he became so moody and dark – and you know what I keep coming up with? It was right after that time. The Beef-Every-Night-Guy chapter. Jack was good with Ty. He took him to do all kinds of guy things, played with the kids out in the yard. Maybe I was just being too picky. I mean, what’s more important than finding a man that loves your kids?”

“Well, mutual attraction is always nice.”

Sidney sighed. “That would be good. What you and Dennis have. Your family is my unwritten standard, you know. You’re still in love after all these years, and Dennis is the perfect Dad. Oh, don’t roll your eyes! You know what I mean. So he brings Andy home dirty and late and full of junk food. Stand back and look at it from my perspective. I’ve pumped every known vitamin and mineral into Ty since he was a little squirt, but it’s not enough. It’s not what he needs most. He needs a Dad. One who actually loves him, I mean. So far my girls seem perfectly happy, but they never really knew Dodge so it didn’t mess them up when he left. But Ty has been through it twice. He was six when his father left and it devastated him. Then he finally connects with a man again and I pull the plug.”

“Jack still works at the Safeway over in Dunbar,” Micki offered. “At least last time I stopped in there. He was looking pretty good for a guy with blood stains all over the front of him.”

 Sidney made a face. “What? You think I’m going to drive twenty miles away for groceries and show up at his department for a slab of corned beef? I’ll bet you anything he’s married by now anyway. He definitely had marriage on his mind. That’s what sort of scared me.”

“Did the girls like him?”

Sidney shrugged. “Sure. But they didn’t connect with him like Ty did. It was a guy thing, you know?”

Sissy came running, stumbling at Sidney’s feet. She stood, giggling, wiping her dusty hands on her pink sleeves. “Mom, can we have some money for the rides?” Her youngest, though a beautiful child, had been compared more than once to the Charlie Brown character, Pigpen. Dirt was attracted to her like metal shavings to a magnet. If Sidney didn’t insist on it, a comb would never slide its way through Sissy’s long dark hair, which today was braided into a thick rope, loose strands already hanging across her puppy-dog eyes. 

Rebecca danced up to her mother, her jacket tied around her waist, and bowed. “Oh, queen mother, bestow upon us thy riches, we pray.” Her long slender arms were still tan (she had her father’s skin coloring, but dark blond hair like her mother) and her hands were clenched pleadingly at her chest.

Sidney reached into her pocket, pulling out a twenty dollar bill, enough to buy lunch supplies for a week the way she shopped. She hesitated only a moment before lifting her chin and smiling her most queenly smile. “Your wish,” she offered the bill with a flourish, “is granted.”

“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” 

Andrew had simultaneously made his own withdrawal from his mother. The three children ran toward an obnoxious looking ride, grotesque arms raised spider-like in the air while encapsulated victims screamed and spun in terror. Micki grabbed Sidney’s arm. “Come on, Sid. Let’s go on the rides!” 

“Are you nuts?” Sidney pulled her arm away. “People like me don’t go looking for panic. I’ve got enough stress in my life without buying tickets for it.” Micki looked disappointed. “You go. Get rid of some adrenaline. You know what I want to do? I want to see the quilts and the art exhibits, all those things that bore you to tears. Why don’t we meet up over there at the picnic tables by the taco stand after a while?”

Micki agreed and ran to catch up with their kids at the ticket booth.   

Sidney wandered through a crowd of familiar faces. She nodded and smiled from time to time, feeling like a bottom dwelling flounder in a school of happily darting perch. She didn’t fit in there. Not today. She stopped and stared at the white-washed building that housed quilts, rows of brightly-colored canned pickles and peaches, paintings made by students and old women, photos of long shadows made by fences and other attempts at black and white genius. It would be the same as last year and the year before and the year before that. She had won a blue ribbon at Harvest Fair once. It was for an old jam cupboard that she had painted with a toile fruit basket design on the front, and that was before she was even good at it. Of course, hers had been the only entry in the category of painted furniture so it wasn’t like she could take second place or anything.

Mary Hadley emerged from the exhibition building, making eye-contact before Sidney had a chance to turn away. Mary had lived next door to Sidney back at the apartments and her son had adoringly followed Ty from puddle to pond in the brushy lot behind the building searching for creatures to put in washed-out mayonnaise jars. “Hey, Sid. How are you? Gosh I haven’t seen you since you moved!”

Sometimes it was the things that people didn’t say that hurt the most. Mary asked about the girls. Was Rebecca playing soccer this year? What teacher did Sissy get? They chatted all around their overlapping lives, somehow never mentioning Tyson, the boy who had eaten macaroni and cheese at Mary’s table as many times as her boy, Ricky, had dined at Sidney’s. No, she didn’t need to ask about Ty because Ty Walker was the kid everyone in Ham Bone, Washington already knew about.

Sidney didn’t go in to see the quilts. Instead she said goodbye to Mary, ducking between the horse barn and the back side of the bleachers overlooking a dirt arena where a youngsters’ rodeo was going on to avoid running into any more old friends. She wandered toward the old log cabin set back by the outer fence. It had been part of one of the original homesteads there in Ham Bone, sitting on the county fair grounds now because the real estate it used to occupy had become a parking lot for the Cascade Savings and Loan. Members of the town historical society had restored it, redecorating the inside to look the way it might have back in 1879 when William Dangle, the town founder, lived there while mining for gold. Since that didn’t pan out so well for him, he began logging, making his fortune not so much from the timber as from the rich, mostly level farm land that was exposed. 

It was quiet there on the back side of everything. Most of the locals were no longer interested in the old cabin with a rusty crosscut saw mounted on the wall of the covered porch.

Beside the cabin was a new acquisition; a miniature white chapel, the one that used to rest alongside the state highway leading to Mount Baker before the road was widened. The old sign had been moved too. Weary Traveler, Stop and Pray. Sidney was curious. She had always wondered how many people could fit inside the tiny steepled structure. She stepped up on the creaky porch and pushed on the double doors.

Her girls would like this. It was like a play house, only it was a play church. There were four short pews, benches really, facing a small oak podium. If Rebecca were there she would be behind that podium in two seconds flat, preaching flamboyantly to an imaginary congregation. Sidney smiled. She used to take her kids to the community church in town. It was not long after the girls witnessed their first baptismal service that she saw them baptizing other children down at the public pool. There had been a plethora of repentant sinners that day, waiting in line while Rebecca, a white towel draped over her shoulders like a robe, immersed them “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, ‘til death do us part.”

She stepped around the pews and looked up to the pine boards on the vaulted ceiling. In the distance she could still hear the voice of the rodeo M.C. and an occasional cheer from the small crowd. 

The tears came unexpectedly, and she sank down onto the first pew, pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at the corners of her eyes as she stared at the patterns in the worn hardwood floor. She had lost him. Despite all her attempts to protect, to guide, to prepare her son for this world. As a newborn she had wrapped him tightly in soft flannel because the maternity ward nurse told her it made the infant feel securely embraced in his mother’s womb. Over the years she had buckled him into car seats, bundled him in warm jackets, held his hand so he wouldn’t wander into the street or get himself stolen at the mall. But it was all in vain. She had protected her son in body, but somehow failed to defend his vulnerable heart.

“Oh, God,” she whispered. “I don’t know what to do. Please bring someone to help me. Someone to help Ty. A father who will love him and the girls. I just can’t do this on my own.”

She sat still for some time, grateful for the solitude, a sense of peace settling over her. She felt calm as if God really had heard her cry for help and the angelic Coast Guard had already been dispatched, hovering over Tyson, preparing to rescue him, wherever he was, his head bobbing among the dark waves.

Autumn Blue
by by Karen Harter

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Center Street
  • ISBN-10: 1931722617
  • ISBN-13: 9781931722612