AUTHOR: Evonne Biggins
TITLE: “Gray Stones & Blue Fireflies”
GENRE: Short story (partial)
COMMENT: This story won second place at the IWL Conference last year… hope you like it, let me know.
Gray stones & Blue Fireflies
a short story by
I ignore scurrying spiders, reach under the loose floorboard, and grasp what my flashlight beam found; a key dangles from a ribbon, attached to a journal. Pressing the journal against my slamming heart, I close my eyes. Grief drifts like cement dust across my soul.
No one’s there to answer, welcome, or judge. No one but the house. I settle my butt on the hardwood floor, lean against the moving crate, and brush cobwebs from my mind and my find.
Some said that it was an eerie coincidence that the one hundred year old house, I’d called home for a portion of my childhood, came up for sale the same week I was in town for the funeral. But, I knew better. I’d rubbed elbows with fate, karma, and destiny; we bonded. I signed papers, wrote the check, bought the house.
I insert the key. The lock clicks; the journal opens. Seventeen years ago, the date had been neatly printed at the top, right corner of the first page, but I already know that. The cursive takes off like a newbie ice skater, cautiously, slowly, shakily. Abruptly, confidence, practice–and in this case–desperation sends the pen gliding, soaring, sprawling across the pages.
# # #
“Page One Of My Emotions List.”
Joey’s sweaty palm suctioned my sweaty palm. Like the desk pictures that forever sang “Cheese” but didn’t make a peep, my brother and I faced the man.
I smished my lips and ignored dumb tears tickling my cheeks. A dead-fish-pale glazed Joey’s suntanned face, and pink rimmed his eyes, like he‘d water painted around the summer sky blue parts. We stood beside each other–shoulders touching–and waited for Mr. Moore, the Child Protection Services guy, to seal our fates.
If he hadn’t run off, Daddy would’ve said, between Buckhorn guzzles, “Fate don’t give a hoot ‘bout a ten-year-old or a twelve-year-old’s choice.” Cigarette stench would hitch a ride on his beer breath and they’d wrap around our heads as he jabbed a jagged fingernail against our chests, first mine, then Joey’s. “Mark my words, boys. Kids are as dispensable as hell!” But, Daddy wasn’t there to speak to us or to speak for us. He was off somewhere’s tropic.
Though my heart smacked like it might burst from my rib cage and plop onto my sneakers, I told Mr. Moore, “We want to live together.” Imagining Daddy‘s palm clouting my head for forgetting manners, I blurted, “Sir!”
I figured that the two lurking sets of fosters were watching the pink creep up my neck and crawl across the rust colored freckles that Momma told me were angel kisses. I kept my eyes locked on Mr. Moore’s–so he could see my sincereness.
Mr. Moore’s eyes, like those round, cat eyes in animated movies, merged sky-grass colors and 3-D tears that sloshed and brimmed but never fell. He reached between paper stacks and held out two business cards. “Joey, Corky, you’ve been assigned separate homes. I’ll check on your progress. If you need to talk, call.”
I rubbed a fingertip across the tear-blurred name on the card, Jim Merrit Moore, and could’ve swore that I heard a rip–like a sound that a heart might make when it couldn’t hold in one more speck of sadness.
Joey pulled from my grip and flip-sailed his card to somewhere behind us. And in the most sorrowful voice I’d ever heard come out of him, he said, “Fall down to hell, worm!”
I let my card drift like a dead leaf.
Mr. Moore’s droopy-dog expression reminded me of Sheriff Hort’s the day he hauled me and Joey to Child Services. (Which took him ten full minutes to snag us and lock us in the back of his caged cruiser after we escaped from the front.)
Joey and I didn’t shake hands or say, “See you when we’re grown up or dead,” like we‘d planned, in case we got separated. We just turned our backs on each other and left with our fosters.
# # #
I pull my gaze from the journal’s page and aim it at the window; gray clouds smear gray sky. My emotions rise from somewhere ominous, like the spring we found bubbling from a finger-sized hole in the back pasture. For years, water gurgled from a deep, dark, cold part of the earth. It spread and made the ground mushy. I pull in and release a shuddery sigh and remind myself to see if I now own lake front property–and to breath and to read.
# # #
At my new home, my foster father patted my head, grabbed his briefcase, headed to work. Wherever that was.
My foster mother held out a book wrapped in a dead cow‘s skin. I peered inside. It was blank.
“Writing your emotions in this journal may help you understand them, Joey.” Mr. Moore’s business card peeked above the pages. My foster mother gave me a pen that glowed in the dark, which would’ve been a cool prize on any other day.
That first night, I couldn’t decide how to yank the swirly, dark emotions from inside me and slap them onto the book’s blank, white paper. Besides, my brain and my heart kept sucker punchin’ each other, so I didn’t open the journal’s smooth cover, attached to the skinny ribbon with its dangling key. The key was for locking emotions inside the journal. I wanted to keep my emotions buried in me; they were all I had left. But that all happened one month and one day ago.
Tonight, I’m smearing dark emotions across white pages as fast as I can ‘cause I need to save my little brother. My brain keeps whispering, I’m coming, Joey. I’m coming!
I sit cross-legged in my new tent and click-click my pen. From my foster parents’ kitchen window, my pen’s light–the exact color of Joey’s eyes when he’s scared–probably looks like a glowing, blue firefly trapped behind tent walls. I grip my fosters’ cell phone, and the one free card dealt to me peeks above journal pages. My brain wants to plop to its butt, to dig in its heels, and to scoot to Way Back, to the life chunk when my brother and I lived regular kid lives. Regular to us, anyway.
In Way Back, Momma cooked. Daddy worked. They didn’t laugh much.
Joey and I mostly slept in the Army tent we scrounged from the dump down the road. At night, we told spooky stories, swigged sodas, munched cookies, and gawked at Daddy’s naked-women magazines. In Way Back, me and Joey didn’t know how to be scared.
These days, officials dish out life changes; brothers cope with strange towns, strange homes, strangers. I guess that our new lives seem perfect from our foster parents’ views. Like yesterday.
Yesterday, on Joey’s birthday, my foster mother drove me to his foster home. My heart, excited as the rest of me, pumped so hard that I could her blood woo-whooshing past my eardrums as I slipped through the back gate. No abandoned junk heaps there. No trash odors saturating that freshly manicured lushness. My grin felt like it might split my freckled face in half.
Joey didn’t notice me, and while I watched him stand in the middle of that vast yard and raise his arms, fingers, and face to the sky, my grin paused, hem-hawed, and croaked.
Joey stood taller. Skinnier. A buzz-cut blanketing his scalp replaced the sunlit waves that had always reached to his summer-sky eyes. His skin was tanned like always, but I figured that behind that button-down shirt and under those white loafer socks, Joey looked dead pale. I imagined his fosters having to wrestle him down to yank those spanking new Bermudas over his thrashing legs and his scrawny butt. We’d always worn raggedy jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers belonging to at least one someone else.
“That’s fate’s choice,” Daddy had said, whenever he felt extra intelligent after drinking several beers.
But on this day, his eleventh birthday, Joey stood and stretched and reached, and he looked stoned. Not stoned like when Momma’s glazed eyes couldn’t focus on us boys or when she paused in mid-motion for almost forever or when she eventually collapsed to the couch or the bed or the floor. Not stoned like when her slurred words stumbled and her rubber face formed excuses for crunched cars and lost life chunks. And Joey didn’t look stoned like when Momma’s lies raised up and hit her boys like tsunami waves smacking unsuspecting seagulls. Joey looked like a gray, stone statue.
Way Back–before Momma gulped pills to hide from Daddy’s fake smiles and flying fists–we weren’t scared for her or of her. After she morphed to Stone Creature and Daddy forgot to mask his meanness, me and Joey got scared on all accounts.
Back then, Mamma pushed out mush words to Daddy like, “Yerdamnedsmashed!”
I didn’t know how to ask Momma what happened to Way Back because I envisioned her laser glares and her razor words slicing through my heart.
Thrusting fists and scowls, Daddy hollered, “Yer stoned! Zip yer lips, bitch!” Then, “Fetch me beer, boy!”
We boys ducked our heads in case a fist sailed our way and took turns fetching beers.
Sometimes Joey and I swiped Momma’s pills and poked her “medication” through our tent’s floor rips into spoon-dug holes. We trickled in Daddy’s stinky beers and figured that worms were croaking down in those dead grass roots. We chanted, “Fall down to Hell, worm!” And because that sounded so dumb, we cracked up behind cupped hands.
Whenever shouts sifted through window screens, rode on dark air, and bombarded our tent, we made spit vows to Never Gulp Pills, to Never Guzzle Beers, and to Never Yell Curses. When the hoopla from the house finally died and Joey slept–with eyes darting under pale lids–hopes of protecting him snapped in my brain, flowed with my tears, and rushed through my veins.
The night before The Worst Day Of Our Lives, we yanked sleeping bags to chins and listened to Momma and Daddy hate. Our flashlight’s golden glow trembled on tent walls. “Zap an invisible, steel net over us,” Joey whispered. “So their pills, beers, and yells can’t crush us!”
“You are Super Kid,” I said out loud because I knew our momma and daddy heard only themselves and not each other. “Your powers deflect hate projectiles.”
Joey gripped my hand.
My fingers numbed. “I’m not pretending,” I said, in my best convincing tone while wishing I wasn’t bald-faced lying to my little brother.
The next day, a hearse took momma. The sheriff took us. Daddy took off. He ran, “To Somewheres tropic, ‘cause that’s the one free card dealt to me. Like the card in your Monopoly game, boys,” his scribbled note had said. Trouble was, Joey found Momma and the note.