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Bleeding Kansas

Heat devils shimmered over the cornfield. It was late August, but the midday sun was still so hot that it raised blisters on Lara’s arms. It turned the leaves into green mirrors that reflected back a blinding light. Lara shut her eyes against the glare and held out her hands, trying to reach the edge of the cornfield by feel, but she tripped on the rough ground and fell, grazing her knees on the hard soil. She’d had plenty worse falls, but this one made her feel so humiliated that she started to cry.

"Don’t be such a baby," she whispered fiercely to herself.

She sat up to inspect the damage. Her dress had a long streak of dirt up the front and her knees were bleeding. She’d made the dress as part of a summer 4H project for the county fair. It was pink lawn, with a placket up the left side edged in rose scalloping, and she’d won first prize for it. She got up, her knees stinging when she straightened them, and hobbled the last few yards into the cornfield.

The corn was so tall that walking into the field was like walking into a forest. After a few dozen steps, she couldn’t see the house or any of the outbuildings. The rows looked the same in all directions, neat hills about two feet apart. If she turned around in circles a few times, she wouldn’t know what direction she’d come from. She’d be fifty yards from home, but would be so lost she could die in here. Probably she’d die of thirst within a day, it was so hot. Blitz and Curly would find her in October when they came to harvest the corn.

Lara lay down between the rows and stared at the sky through the thicket of leaves and tassels. The corn was as tall as young trees, but it didn’t provide much shade; the leaves were too thin, and they didn’t make a nice bower overhead the way bur oak would. She scooted close to the stalks so that leaves covered her face and blocked out the worst of the punishing sun. It was a close, windless day, but when she lay completely motionless, she could hear a rustling of the leaves, a sort of whooshing, as if they created their own little wind within the field.

Grasshoppers whirred around her. A few birds sang through the rows, pecking at the corn. The ears were almost ripe, the kernels at dent stage, and the smell was sweet, not like the icky fake-flavored corn syrup you got with your pancakes at the diner, but a clean light sweetness, before anyone took the corn and started manufacturing from it.

She lay so still that a meadowlark perched on the stalk right above her. It cocked a bright eye at her, as if wanting her opinion on the world.

"They’ll make the corn dirty," Lara told it. "Here in the field it’s clean and sweet, but then they’ll take it to their stupid factories and turn it into gasoline or plastic or some other nasty thing."

The bird chirped in agreement and turned to peck at one of the ears, trying to get through the thick husk. When Lara reached up an arm to strip the husk back, to help out, the bird took off in fright.

In the distance, she heard her father calling her name. She squinched her eyes shut again, as if that would shut out sound and sight both, but in a few minutes she heard the louder crackling of his arms brushing back leaves.

"Lulu! Lulu!" and then louder, closer, more exasperated, "Lara, Lara Grellier, I know you’re in here. Blitz saw you go into the field. Come on, we have to get going."

With her eyes shut, she felt his shadow overhead, heard his sudden intake of surprised breath. "Lulu, what are you doing down there? Did you faint, are you okay?" and he was bending over her, smelling of shaving cream, so strange, Dad shaving in the middle of the day.

It didn’t occur to her to lie, to say, yes, the sun got to her, she fainted, she was too ill and weak to go. She sat up and stared at him, imagining how she must look, covered with dirt and blood.

"I just fell, Dad, I’m okay, but I wrecked my dress. I can’t go like this, I wrecked my dress." She burst into tears again, as if the loss of a stupid dress mattered, what was wrong with her, to cry over her dress at a time like this, but she sobbed louder and clung to her father.

He stroked her hair. "Yeah, baby, you look like you decided today was mud-pie day. It’s okay, the dress’ll clean up fine, you’ll see. You run in the house and wash up and put on something else."

He pulled her to her feet. "No wonder you fell, wearing those crazy flip-flops in the fields. I keep telling you to put on shoes. You could step on a nail, get tetanus, ringworm, aphids could lay eggs under your skin."

It was a familiar litany and it eased the worst of her sobs. When they got to the house, he hesitated a moment before letting go of her arm. "See if your mom needs any help getting dressed, okay, Lulu? And don’t forget your trumpet."

Lara hunched over her desk, the day vivid in her mind, as if she were in the cornfield right this minute in her pink lawn dress, not in the classroom, in jeans, flip-flops, getting ringworm or athlete’s foot from the school’s dirty floors.

"Write about a day you spent this summer that stands out in your mind," Ms. Carmody had said. "Make me feel the weather, make me see what you saw, show me what makes it so vivid in your mind."

English period was half over and everyone around her was scribbling like mad. Only she sat, head in hands, not moving.

Ms. Carmody came and stood over her. "What’s the problem, Lara? It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even an adventure, it’s just a simple exercise to start you people writing again."

Lara liked Ms. Carmody: she was her Sunday school teacher at church, and was one of those adults that teenagers could talk to, but Lara felt furious with her right now, making her write this. She glared at Ms. Carmody and picked up her pen.

"The Day We Buried My Brother," she printed in large capitals at the top of the page. "A Day that Stands Out in My Mind." She felt a vicious pleasure at Ms. Carmody’s sudden intake of horrified breath, but didn’t look up. Ms. Carmody had been out of the country, seeing her stupid brother get married or something, when Chip died, so she had missed the memorial service at the church the week after the funeral. Apparently she’d missed the news about Chip’s death altogether, which was strange, since all people did at social hour was gossip about each other, and all spring and summer the Grelliers had been supplying more melodrama than a TV reality show.

Until Chip died, Lara had flinched from the sideways glances, the talk that stopped abruptly when she came into the choir room. After that, she stopped noticing or caring what the outside world thought.

Before they could bury Chip, they had to drive to Kansas City to collect his body, a process that stunned the whole family, because they assumed he’d be in a real coffin, and that someone would be standing at attention on the tarmac to welcome his body home. Instead, he’d been stuffed in a metal box in the hold of a cargo plane and the family had to fill out a bunch of forms and drive around to the back of the airport to collect him, picking his coffin out of a jumble of giant containers holding tractor parts and milk cartons.

Fortunately Blitz had driven over with them; Dad could never have managed everything on his own. Of course, everything was a shock, not just the whole summer, but the whole year had been one shock after another, really, everything in it, not only that enormous cargo hanger, with a couple of men who weren’t rude or mean, just over-worked and not able to take time to help the family. Out of the whole year, of arrests, illness, fire, the biggest, worst shock, was the afternoon Captain Wesson came to the farm.

It was the day after the fair ended, and Lara was writing Chip a long e-mail, about everything happening at the farm and the fair, especially the fair. "I see it’s like a hundred and twenty in Baghdad, and it’s about that hot here, so the animals at the fair really suffered. Junior Schapen was taking part in the hay bale tossing contest, and it was pretty funny, because he really thinks a lot of himself."

Curly, who’d gone with Lara to the fair, had said, "Junior and his old man are the kind of guys who love themselves so much they eat their own shit and like it." Lara added that in quotation marks, making sure Chip knew it was Curly speaking, that she wouldn’t say something so dirty, even if every time she thought it, she started to giggle. She knew it would make Chip laugh, although, come to think of it, Curly had probably said it to him a million times. Chip and Curly used to hang out. They smoked dope together, shot baskets --- even though Curly was thirty, a grown-up, he’d always seemed closer to Chip’s age than to Blitz or Dad.

"Anyway, when the platform was fifteen feet high, Junior tossed the bale and it landed on his head. It knocked him out, but even Big Arnie could see it happened because Junior was hot-dogging. They stopped the contest for a bit while they made sure Junior was okay, just a little concussed, but given that his head is pretty solid ear to ear, they really should have checked the hay bale for damage."

She had just hit the send button when the doorbell rang. Lara couldn’t place the sound at first, because in the country, no one ever went to the front door, or even rang a bell. Not just at their house, but every house in the valley, people always went in through the kitchen, and kitchens open onto the yard --- it’s the way farmhouses are built.

Lara didn’t even realize her house had a doorbell until that moment. When she heard the shrill sound, she thought it was the old black telephone, the one Gram used to have in her bedroom, because she couldn’t abide the new lightweight plastic ones.

Lara went down the hall towards the back bedroom, and then heard the sound again coming from the front door, except, of course, the front of the house was at the back, at the bottom of the big staircase, which the family also never used. She ran down the stairs, her hand automatically caressing the eagle head carved into the newel post at the bottom. She could see the outline of two men’s bodies through the white glass in the panel, but she couldn’t wrestle the door open, it had been locked for so many years.

"Come around to the kitchen," she shouted through the crack in the panels.

She ran through the cold formal parlor that her family also never used, into the dining room and then the kitchen, where she stood waiting for the men. As soon as she saw them, both in formal chocolate jackets, she knew Chip was dead. She didn’t say anything to them, but started screaming "Dad, Dad," and ran to the barn, to the combine shed, to the cornfield, before remembering her father had announced at breakfast he was working the oat field, two miles distant.

She was so distracted that she started to run along the train tracks that marked the south boundary of the farm, as if she could run in her flip-flops all the way to the Wakarusa river where the oat field lay, but Blitz, who’d been irrigating the corn, caught sight of her. He came after her in the small Cub tractor and scooped her up.

"It’s Chip," she said. "I need Dad, they’re from the army, they’re at the house."

Blitz didn’t say anything, but turned the Cub around to head back to the house.

"No, no," she shouted, pounding his side. "We have to find Dad."

"I’m going to do that, Lulu, but I want to get the pick-up."

When she kept pounding him and screaming, he stopped the tractor and grabbed her arms. "Listen to me, Lulu. We will get there faster in the truck than in this thing. Stop your yelling: your dad needs you to be strong for him, you hear me?"

There was something about Blitz. Even though technically he was a farmhand, a hired hand, like Curly, she never disobeyed him the way she did her own father, or ignored him, the way she could with Curly, or even her mom. Lara gulped down her screams and nodded.

When they got back to the house, the two men in uniform were still standing outside the kitchen door. One of them was holding his hat, turning it round and round in his hands.

Blitz went up to them. "You here about Chip, Chip Grellier?"

And the one playing with his hat said, yes, he was Captain Wesson, was Blitz Chip’s father?

"Mr. Grellier is in another field, about twenty minutes from here. You sit in the kitchen and wait. This here is his daughter; we’ll find him."

It was funny, in hindsight, that Lara hadn’t tried to find Mom, who was just across the tracks in the X Farm. Maybe Blitz thought of it, and decided it would be better to get Dad first.It wasn’t until they found Dad and were driving back in the pick-up, the three of them squeezed into the front seat, that Dad asked Blitz where Susan was, did she know about Chip.

"We don’t know anything yet, for sure," Blitz said.

But of course, that was what Captain Wesson and the other man had come to do, to say they were very sorry, that the Grelliers should be proud of their son who had given everything for the defense of his country, but he had been killed when a bomb was detonated on the road he was patrolling south of Baghdad.

Chip had been in Iraq for twenty-four days. He’d been a soldier for twenty-three weeks. He wouldn’t even be nineteen until November 6. Now he was dead.

It took twelve days for his body to come home. First it went to Germany, then to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, then to Kansas City. The army said he could be buried in a military cemetery, but Dad and Mom both wanted him to come home, to be buried next to all the other Grellier’s, starting with little Lizzie, 1852 to 1855, "The Shepherd has gathered up his Lamb and carried her to his bosom," her gravestone read.

Lara had often read the faded inscription when they’d gone to put flowers on her grandparents’ graves, the graves of her dad’s parents. The graves didn’t mean anything to her: Dad’s mother and father died when he was nine, so of course Lara never knew them. Even the later graves, for Grandpa and Gram, Dad’s grandparents who raised him and Uncle Doug, didn’t make Lara feel particularly sad. They’d been so old when she was little, they hardly seemed part of the same species that she and Chip belonged to.

But now Chip was going to be in the ground, for the rest of Lara’s life he would be lying there, all alone in the dirt. He’d been her big brother, he’d frightened her and teased her, but he’d protected her from bullies, and given her a canary for Christmas the year she broke her heart over one of the farm cats getting run over by the tractor. And now she’d get older than him; he’d be eighteen, going on nineteen, for the rest of his life, but unless she joined the army and went to Iraq and got blown to bits, she’d be old some day, old like Gram. The whole thought made her insides come together, as if her heart had disappeared and her chest collapsed on itself.

The army provided an honor guard at the funeral, but couldn’t give them a bugler to play Taps --- there weren’t enough to go around, Captain Wesson said, even though Ft. Leavenworth was only thirty miles away. Captain Wesson said he’d give them a CD they could play at the graveside, but all the Grelliers, and Blitz and Curly, too, agreed that would be disrespectful of Chip, to have a recording instead of real music, so Lara, wearing the blue seer-sucker suit that she’d made for last year’s county fair, with pantyhose over her scraped knees, stood above her brother’s body and played Taps on her trumpet.

Bleeding Kansas
by by Sara Paretsky

  • Mass Market Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Signet
  • ISBN-10: 0451224485
  • ISBN-13: 9780451224484