Stephen Doiron (1st place. Fiction. Fall 2011 Writing Contest)
Ann Childers pinched the spatula between the fingers of her right hand, rested the heel of it against her hip, and propped herself against the counter with her left arm. She arched forward and stared at the bald layer cake squatting on her kitchen counter, inspecting it the way her husband might search the engine cavity of his Allis Chalmers when, with forty acres of wheat to harvest, it decided not to start. But a squarehead’s taunt called her back, away from the counter, and as she unraveled her body, she siphoned the air, and accepted its tease: Enough thinking, Annie, some things just need doing.
Ann sliced the spatula through the bowl of white frosting, lifted away a dollop of the froth, and let the last of her scorn escape. “One thing’s sure, Annie girl, the thing ain’t gonna frost itself.”
Pie was the Childers’ family holiday tradition. Pumpkin for Thanksgiving, and mince for Christmas. They had been the staple ever since Ann Katrina Thorson married Edgar Fawlkes Childers. Oh, there was one year they’d strayed to apple at Thanksgiving. There had even been a lemon cream, but that had been fifteen years ago, back in ‘39, the year her brother Caleb finally quit the family farm over in Nebraska and moved to San Dimas, California, for the promise of a foreman’s job paying cash money. A box of lemons arrived from his packing shed, but they never came again. The war swallowed Caleb whole, only to spit him out again, broken, in `46, when he came back to try wheat, here in Iowa; but his first and only harvest failed.
Ann’s teeth cushioned themselves on the tip of her tongue while she searched back down the ten years since, trying to sift out something she might have missed along the way. But, she scolded herself, no time today for idle speculation. She turned back to the cake and its partially spread dollop of frosting. She pushed at the icing, but her thoughts would not follow, they remained fixed on the boy she’d grown up with, and how he’d become today’s gravel-throated old man wrestling against… what? She couldn’t figure, and she winced. Which experience had turned him? Was it his failure on the family farm, the loneliness in California, or the foul immorality of war? It was not a new question to Ann Childers. The only thing Caleb seemed capable of harvesting now was every last drop he could winnow from a bottle of Old Crow, like so many other men who had the sap baked out of them by the depression.
“Women too,” she argued, as she searched back to find the girl who loved to dance in her father’s barnyard, the lithesome girl with a sensual, long-waisted body barely hidden under a cotton shift. She reached her left hand up to pinch a strand of hair away from her forehead, to press it onto the widening patch of gray at her temple, and then silently laughed at the young girl dancing still in her fantasy. Nothing so delicate as you would be much use around here, she thought, and looked again at the cake.
Or you either, Ann thought. Nothing so eye-catching as frosting belonged in a house with three men rattling about. Dessert needed armor plating to fend off prying fingers or hastily placed tools. Pies hid easily in the new aluminum safe she kept secreted at the rear of the pantry where exploring fingers, dissuaded by tattletale brooms, mops, and buckets—noisemakers all, just like sisters they never had—kept male fingers at bay. A cake’s soft frosting, impregnated with shredded coconut, formed a siren call to anything just traveling by.
Ann’s tongue dug its way into the right corner of her mouth as she gingerly toweled more frosting against the near side of the cake’s lower layer, careful to avoid any contact with the platter. She traced the curve of the cake, then grinned at the bottom layer, fully coated, as she chucked the spatula into the bowl, stood erect, and reminded herself to breathe. She reached for the second layer and carried it towards its new foundation just as a small rattle sounded an alert from the stove. Ann smelled the air for any clues of mischief, a loose pot cover, or the smoke of a too dry roasting pan, but a renewed silence assured her things were as they should be, except for this beast in front of her.
She aimed another burdened spatula at the left side of the cake just as the hinges at the back porch storm door screeched a protest, and the surprise made her hand quiver, the spatula wobbled, and a streak of frosting fell in the trough between cake and plate.
As quickly as Ann’s annoyance mounted a protest, the door slammed into its frame, and Ann understood immediately, her outrage would be fruitless, for the interval announced the culprit.
How Ann Childers learned to measure whether man or child came or went by the interval between hinge and latch is lost somewhere in household history. But it is a fact; almost everything that moves or rattles in this house telegraphs its need for attention or, as in this case, scolding.
“Adam Childers,” she called without looking back, “there’s no place nor nothing for you in this kitchen. Get out of here with those muddy boots and wait till I call you in.” She smiled at the silence preceding obedience; it pleased her; she still had one of them guessing.
“I wanted something hot to drink,” Adam bleated. Even at twelve he had yet to find the logic that skirted her complete dominion over his behavior.
“Your father’s got his thermos of hot coffee and he’ll share some of that with you. Now scat!”
The door slammed a beat sooner than any interval Adam Childers would have made just a month before, and it jarred her internal sense of proportion. No doubt her son’s disgust aided the door’s travel, and that prodded a sudden sadness that tugged at her to relent. Adam was no longer her kitchen kitten, always welcome near the fire. She almost turned to call him back, one last time, but for her farmstead counsel; as with any calf or lamb, this weaning too would be heartbreaking.
It began in June when Edgar called Adam from his farmyard chores to take up men’s work in the field. She had argued, and with conviction, that she needed him still in the farmyard, but Edgar had foreclosed her influence by fixing their conference in bed, the one place in the house that confers equal footing. For, while the house was Ann’s domain, and every nook wore the scent of her influence over the Childers men, in the bed she shared with Edgar, there, they were equal partners.
“I believe it’s time Adam joins us in the fields,” Edgar said as he came to bed from his evening toilette. He spoke softly, closing the door to their room as he turned toward the bed. “We should use this summer to get him comfortable around machines.” He’d said it matter-of-factly, just as his head fell back onto the pillow. “That way, by harvest, he’ll be of some help to us.”
Ann knew her husband had already been over this terrain several times; she knew too, the confidence to speak softly underwrote his conviction. “After all, you know we’re going to be shorthanded this year, since…” he paused, and Ann felt the full weight of his disfavor, “…John Edgar left for Chicago.” The weight of his body sank lower into the bed as he admitted a fact he would rather not reveal; it was their unhealed sore; an open wound that would not scab over, or cease aching. Edgar had discarded his eldest son, near namesake, and ablest hand. And Ann Thorson had learned early, a farm wastes nothing. Unused machinery may litter the verge of a farm road, rusting from disuse, but it is never thrown away.
She had been sitting at the edge of their bed, plaiting her hair, waiting for Edgar to arrive before turning out the light. She turned her body to look down on him, his eyes closed, his mouth set in the same grim form it might take were dark black clouds crowding their fields in mid-September. A set that admitted but never accepted imminent disaster. She sought to free him from this self-sprung trap, to bring him back from scratching at the open sore. “I suppose if it must be,” she’d thrust at him hurriedly, as if casting a safety float to a floundering swimmer. “But there’s still chores, how’ll they get done?”
Edgar opened his eyes to look at her, considering whether to leave his hurt and join her, or, as he had on that dreadful night, wander alone in an unpleasantness she could not share. This time, he came back.
“All of us will pick extra work in the morning before we go out.” He turned and propped himself up on his right elbow, close to her face. She leaned over and held her lips on his a bit longer than normal. She lifted her left hand to smooth the hairs at his brow, drawing it across his face, then onto the mattress as she turned to put out the lamp. “And we’ll finish whatever needs doing when we come in for supper,” he said, rolling onto his stomach and curling his left arm around her waist. Ann moved a hand to her waist and measured the strength that hugged her body against his as an ointment for his wound.
It had taken her an hour to fall asleep that night. Now, Ann coddled again the ache in her heart for her first-born, John Edgar Childers, absent, ten months now, banished from the family table for this and she supposed, countless other feasts, until something, “oh dear God,” something came to heal her family.
Ann shook her head to wrestle herself back from this dilemma. “Not today, Annie girl,” she said, and reached for the bowl of shredded coconut, wondering once again if she shouldn’t have bought a second package. It was her dreaded early visitor every Thanksgiving morning: what had she forgotten or wanted more of? And what too, she wondered, inspired Edgar to ask for a coconut-frosted cake? Ann shook her head and continued to texture the frosting. I suppose it’s enough to keep him clean and fed without considering the why of him, she thought.
The door complained once more, and the interval before the inevitable clap announced her middle son Bernard. “Ma, Dad said to tell you him and me are driving over to Sloan for some gravel.”
Ann paused only a second before daubing a pinch of coconut against the side of the cake. Her long list of tasks elbowed aside an urge to correct him; instead, she continued daubing coconut shreds onto the frosting.
“What the world for? We’ve got dinner in three hours.”
“Dad says he’s got to fill a washout over near Hammond’s Ford or the water’ll wash away half an acre of topsoil.”
Her hand flattened against the counter as she calculated the need for it against her husband’s willfulness.
“Well, tell your father you all must be back here in one hour. I expect every one of you washed and clean for dinner. Hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” sifted through the spring’s strain.
“And take Adam with you,” Ann called, “I don’t need him in here making a mess of my kitchen.”
The door slammed, and the clatter tried to smother Bernard’s agreement, but that too had become a practiced divination from the past twenty-one years of training. It had begun with just one man, followed by man and boys, then boys becoming men, each of them crashing through her door the way they seemed to crash through everything else.
“At least they’ll be out from underfoot,” she muttered to her busy kitchen. “They’ll do anything to keep away from the civilization in this house.” Ann smiled at the image of her small knot of men, roaming about their farmyard, looking for anything needing mending; until her chest recoiled again from the sharp pain spiking in her heart, it halted her hand’s next daub of coconut. The back of her eyes filled with moisture, her vision blurred, and she had to make them dart past the cake, searching the kitchen for absolution. She begged for a healing but nothing came. Instead, another chip fell from the buttress strengthening her sense of family. She wanted to go off in search of it, to pick it up and press it back in place, but the pain immobilized her.
Twenty-one years of marriage to Edgar Childers had not always been easy, but the last one had been unbearable. Her belief in him was strong, built on years of defending their way of life. She’d witnessed him saddle a mule and ride against a threatening tornado, herding their cows to safety. She needed a way to send him in search of one of her own brood, but he would not, yet.
Ann’s restraint, the only reason she could not censure her husband fully, is that stubbornness is a farmer’s obligation here on Iowa’s northwest patch. Success on this rich, black land comes at a staggering price. If a drifting snow doesn’t crust into ice and condemn the winter wheat to a frozen grave, the Missouri River can flood at spring planting, or a summer’s drought might devour whatever winter or spring hasn’t already strangled. A man has to be as hard as weather to survive on the plains.
She did search his thin streak of compassion, the one that had braved last year’s flood to fetch the family dog, or made the long night’s drive to Sioux City and back for Adam’s medicine. But in the ten months since her precious first baby left for Chicago, banished from his family, she’d found no opening, not a crack, to enlist her husband’s help in returning their lost son, and the ache swelled in her.
Ann’s hands worked on mechanically while her mind swept through the inventory of years before hatred’s explosion scattered cinders of recrimination throughout their lives, including her marriage bed, and shook her confidence in a man chosen so easily twenty-three years ago; a choice not easily won.
Her father had planted the family’s roots among the Norwegian farmers of eastern Nebraska, men they called “squareheads”;—part curse, part envy—because of their unwillingness to assimilate, how they tenaciously held to old country ways and enforced scruples about thrift and honesty; and how they had little use for anyone outside their own.
Ann peeked through the window for signs of her returning brood, but there was no movement, and she pushed back an urge to worry. Instead, she turned into the center of her kitchen, rejoined the morning’s reverie, and chose this quiet time for herself, to make herself ready for the day.
Passing along the hallway toward the stairs, Ann bent to snag a wayward sweater, Adam’s by the size of it, shed in an eagerness to be like his father and brother, wearing just a wool shirt and jacket, indifferent to his mother’s fussiness. She folded it, and held it to her chest as she turned in the hallway and climbed the stairs, using the exertion to bend her chin onto the sweater, inhaling the scent of her last baby. The smell set her mind adrift, floating to her earlier times with Edgar and the life they’d made, a life now coursing through this boy’s body.
Ann paused before the hallway mirror and inspected the body that had served them all; a body that, twenty-three years ago, so loved to dance, and her mind served up the image of that young girl, fidgeting nervously on the edge of a chair as one prospective partner after another paused, considered, and moved on. It was a time before three sons and years of daily labor had softened it in places where she’d been firm, or chiseled it, muscle-hard, where, once, she’d been soft.
Ann slid onto the bench at her vanity, and she recalled that she had danced that night, eventually. She sifted through a clutter of pins, smiling as she put up her hair, how the relief at finally being asked sank into despair once she realized none of them regarded her with any genuine interest; just one more chevron on their evening sleeve. Ann dug her fingertips into a jar of cold cream and slowly spread it over her chin, trying to recall her system for determining ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and based on what?
She spread the cream to her forehead and temples, lifting away the makeup she’d worn to church and the oils that accumulated on her face at her stove, but the reverie tugged her thoughts, and her hand slowed as her mind drifted.
Edgar’s voice had scared her at first, made her jump slightly in her chair; she’d been so lost in working out her technique, she hadn’t seen him approach. “Would you like to dance?” he’d asked. She remembered how, on turning toward him too abruptly, she had forced him back a step. Ann’s fingers pulled surplus cream onto her upper lip, but very little in her consciousness supervised her work.
They both spoke at once. “Oh, my goodness, you scar…” she’d said, and “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to fright…” he’d said. They each fell into laughter.
There had been no measurement; her yes was out before her mind even calculated the question. They’d danced, then strolled, and danced again. Finally, they had drifted into a far corner of the hall, found two chairs, and sat for hours as he talked and she listened. She learned his name was Edgar, that he was three years older and just finishing his studies at the University of Iowa. His quiet manner matched her father’s, she knew how to handle that, and he looked solid enough to match her father’s measure too.
Ann’s trance begged for one last frame as she rose to find her dress at the foot of the bed and lifted it to her. She recalled the afternoon Edgar’s car made its way along the farm gate road to her father’s house, and how she had managed that too.
Ann lifted her work apron from its peg at the back of the door then quickly put it back. Instead, she opened her closet drawer and reached inside to finger through her holiday aprons. She paused on the one near the bottom then released it; it would not be wise, that one had permission only when she was alone. It had become her immediate favorite the day her son brought it to her, not as a gift, but an oblation to her alone.
“I saw this in a magazine,” he’d said, “and I knew it would please you, so I set about finding it.” He’d said this plainly to her, almost solemnly, all the while clasping his hands behind his back. They’d been alone in the house for most of the day, each at their own business. A winter chill had worked its way through the house, except for the kitchen where Ann’s provisions for Christmas scented the air and burdened her pantry shelves.
She’d called him in to coffee, eager to hear more news about his first year away at Ames. She’d set a table with cookies and some newspaper clippings she’d saved for him: a friend’s engagement, a former classmate’s photo from an Air Force training school, and a local girl claiming a blue ribbon at the holiday baking contest. Ann also planned to mention his dwindling supply of letters home.
“Well,” she’d mewed, “won’t it wait till Christmas morning?” But he’d only made a face and wrestled himself into his seat.
“I have something else for Christmas,” he’d said. “It’s just that this is, well, special.” His emotions, raw, almost out of control, barely hid themselves as he slid a cookie from the plate and made an effort to break it with undisguised precision.
Ann had studied him a moment, still holding the package in her hands, realizing this boy was now a man, and experimenting with new emotions; she was just his laboratory. She recalled how difficult it had been not to crush him in a mother’s love, the very thing a new man found overwhelming, so she unwrapped the present and ordered up her most flattering adult approval, standing to put it on and twirling to indicate her pleasure.
His reaction haunted her still. John Edgar sat as his father might; pleased with himself and the effect he’d created. Not just that she liked it, but how it affected her. She sat, enrobed in emotion, to examine this new man in her house, and missed the boy he’d replaced.
He’d told her of new friends and prospective classes, how his plan to major in Veterinary Medicine was wavering; that as a volunteer in the College Extension Service, he’d discovered the world of teaching. Ann knew that his squarehead heritage would contest this diversion; and she mollified herself with the promise that three more years remained until graduation; there’d be time enough to come to his senses. This was his first chance, and by any life she’d ever known, his only chance to experiment with life. She listened, smiled, and poured more coffee.
The sound of truck tires crunching across gravel was their first warning that they’d spent more than two hours talking. Ann jumped to her stove, inventoried, and quickly scheduled pots for waiting dinner platters. She called on John Edgar to help with table condiments and beverages while she ladled and then carried steaming food to the table. On her last trip into the kitchen, her husband, holding the door for his smaller boys to duck through, called to her. “Where is he?” Her surprise at his tone slowed her, but momentum carried her onward to the stove.
“You mean John Edgar? He’s busy setting table.”
“Send him out to me,” was all Edgar said before the storm door clattered in its frame just as John Edgar returned with an empty milk carton. Ann’s surprise still fastened on her husband’s exit as she spoke to her bewildered son. “Your father wants to see you, now. It looks as though he’s headed for the barn.” Then added, as the door slammed closed, “remind him dinner is on the table.”
She’d joined the boys, partly to keep them honest at a table laden with unprotected food, and partly to busy herself away from the apprehension about what was happening in the barn. She’d tried to imagine an infraction serious enough to warrant a quarrel out of earshot, while her mind rejected matters too grievous to lie at the feet of her incriminated son. She readied herself not only for a judgment, but a punishment that might fester throughout the holidays. As if from a far corner of the room, Ann watched herself, then, smoothing her new apron more than once, and wondered, now, if it had been an oblation to her in advance of his conviction.
Ann tried calming her two young buds, promising them it was only a minor calamity visiting their elder brother. “No,” Adam had said. “Daddy’s mad. He’s been mad all the way home.” Bernard agreed between mouthfuls, but when pressed for details, he shifted his shoulders in a shrug saying, “I don’t know. He didn’t say nothing all the way home.”
There had been yelling, she’d accepted that. But she had not expected to see her son stumble from the barn as though pushed, or worse, struck so hard he could not keep his feet. His father followed him, fists clenched, striding as a man committed for a brawl to the finish. Ann stood and rushed to the window, placing her hands against the panes, realizing anything she might do or say could not defray the action outside. She felt two smaller bodies wriggle in beside her, questions flying, questions she too screamed, though not out loud.
Edgar stood over his son, his left arm raised and pointed to the house, clearly yelling some command as his back arched with each lunge for new breath. And then it was over. The father steamed to his truck and climbed into its cab. He’d barely started the engine before it raged wildly over the farm road at breakneck speed toward the county highway. Her son lifted himself slowly from the dirt-encrusted snow, watching the disappearing truck before he turned to find the three of them frozen in fear at the window. Then he was gone too, running through the field stubble, vanishing into the twilight.
She had eased her sons’ fears as best she could, bathing them, reading stories at their bedside, promising them everything would be right in the morning, and wondering how she might believe this too. Through an unlit winter’s early darkness, she had cleared away the dinner table, stowed the mounds of uneaten food and pressed out the wrapping paper still lying on her kitchen table. Her husband returned just before nine, dazed, distant, and drunk. He knocked the snow from his boots when he came through the mud room door, stood for a moment, seemingly unsure he was even in the right place, then sat at her table and stared at the pattern in the oilcloth cover.
Ann waited, offering her friend an opportunity to explain the rupture he’d created in her world. But he remained silent, a silence that spawned resentment that stirred in her still. Beyond the damage done to her son, beyond the rent in all their lives, in his moment of greatest despair, her husband had stolen his pain for himself alone, content to cast her as an outsider.
“Well?” she’d said, and waited.
It was a drunkard’s confession and the muddle of it, the way he’d thrust himself down into the sludge of his consciousness to fend away whatever bore down on him, disgusted her.
“Our boy’s gone queer!” he snapped on thickened tongue through saliva-crusted lips, and his head dropped onto the table in a puddle of mumbles.
Ann had fought away all incredulity, struggling to disallow any emotion without more facts. She rose and walked to the kitchen sink, took down a dish rag, wet it and returned to wring it across the back of his neck. His head shot up, and she laid it across his forehead, then knelt beside him, and called to him through his alcoholic fog. “Edgar, listen to me. Tell me what you’ve heard. I want to know what started this.”
His hand flailed away from his body, collapsing again at his side. “All over the…” His mouth broke open to suck in a shudder of air. “… Big joke at the elevator this morning. Nordesty’s kid, come home with the story.” He sat straight up, and so quickly, it scared her. “Seen the two of ’em,” and his head fell onto a hand propped against the table by an elbow. “f’Chrisakes,” he rotated his head in the palm of his hand, looked directly into her eyes, though she wasn’t sure he actually saw her. “Holdin’ hands,” then, as a gasp, hissed out as if it were his last breath of life, “and kissing.”
Ann’s eyes filled again with tears, and her reverie crumbled. From the middle of her kitchen, she turned to survey the readiness of this Thanksgiving’s feast, then searched again through her kitchen window for the returning truck, suddenly exhausted with the season and this kitchen. She funneled air deep into her lungs letting it attack the ache in her stomach and tried to press away the remainder of that night’s image. How she’d left her husband slumped face down at her kitchen table to quarrel with his truck, trying to start it. How she’d searched country roads, then city streets before, at four in the morning, the sheriff’s office convinced her to go home and wait until they’d found her son; that it was just a matter of time, and it had been. Caleb called at six in the morning, rasping into her phone with an exhaustion born of a drunkard’s sleep. “Your kid’s here,” was all he’d said. That he’d said nothing else meant he too knew and disapproved. She listened to his silence with a growing revulsion until, with no plan of her own, she said, simply: “I’ll be right there.”
Ann found them honoring a non-negotiated truce. Caleb had found a new reason to squirm his way into a fifth of Old Crow while John Edgar sat at the far end of his uncle’s soiled sofa. She sat near her son, fingered his hair with one hand, and searched out a comfortable place for her purse with the other. Finally, she spoke the most non-controversial thing she could think of: “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea for you to come home just yet.” Her son sat in silence, staring at the floor, nodding his agreement.
“Are you all right?” she’d asked. “I mean, are you hurt?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m okay.”
The plan came on her as an inspiration from angels. She hunted for Caleb’s telephone and called Lester Koenig, their trusted Lutheran pastor, explaining only that she had a family crisis needing his attention.
Koenig ordered her to meet him immediately in his office, and, with her son safe in Koenig’s harbor, Ann made for the farm, still without a plan, grown tired now after her release from worry. Winding along the farm road toward the house, Ann spotted Edgar aboard his tractor, hauling winter fodder to the cows, Adam beside him on the seat, and Bernard on the trailer spinning out strands of hay to the traipsing herd. Habit conscripted her into removing their abandoned breakfast dishes before exhaustion pushed her into a chair where she dissolved into sobs of abject despair.
Edgar shuffled through the kitchen door after chores; he apologized for his drunkenness, and explained again, what was now common knowledge throughout the county. Frank Nordesty and his fiancé, in their effort to find movie seats for their own private pleasure, discovered John Edgar and another boy, one aisle to the front, and lost in an embrace. They’d watched in shock, Edgar said, but with enough indulgence so they could describe their discovery to anyone who’d listen.
Ann had privately begged for a mistrial all during her early morning search, even as Pastor Koenig patiently settled Edgar with his family for the day. Her husband’s calculated detail of the story left her with a fait accompli. She listened as her husband pronounced judgment, though its consequence remained blurred until weeks had passed.
They would no longer support their son at school. He was free to return to Ames if he desired but he could not remain in this house. She’d bothered to ask: “But where shall he go?” Just as quickly she realized, the father no longer cared.
“I don’t know where you’ve got him, but I can’t imagine he can stay anywhere around here for very long. Pack his things for him, give him a hundred dollars from our savings account, and help him find the bus out of town.” She did just as he’d ordered; very much, she thought now, as a bailiff escorts a prisoner from court.
She’d waited with her son at the bus station while Koenig explained how to negotiate downtown Chicago and find the Moran Residence Hall where they were holding a room for him. John Edgar promised both of them he’d remain fixed in the local church while he got his bearings. There had been a few letters, detoured through Koenig’s office, just enough to help her breathe; he was surviving.
Mechanically, but surely, it had taken her two months to rejoin Edgar in their bed, three to kiss him again, but she had not yet learned how to stop doubting him.
Ann’s passage out of reverie demanded a toll; and, as she placed the cake on the dinning room table, she sat; it was all one motion and the impact jangled silverware and glass. Reasoning grew in her, she wanted a place for her son at the table; he is a member of this family still, she quarreled, and carries me as a part of his body. But that act would only destroy another holiday, and she relented, rising instead to monitor her stove and scout for the truck’s return.
She heard the gravel complain of the truck’s weight, and Ann bucked up her spirits, intent on salvaging as much enjoyment as this day had to offer. Tattletale hinges sounded the first return as she bent to the open oven. Busy at preparing her admonition, Ann began calculating which recalcitrant returned first, but the absence of any resound surprised her. Were all three filing in on a line? She’d wait until the third set of feet crossed the threshold before hurling out her instructions.
“Mama,” the voice said simply, and Ann Childers’ world crushed in on her, driving her knees to the floor and her hand to the stove’s edge for support. A throat struggled to clear itself and smaller voices tittered with delight, impishly whispering something about, “she doesn’t know.” Ann Childers didn’t know, and couldn’t move and dared not turn for fear it would not be true; that is, until his hand clasped her elbows, and, as he bent near to lift her to him, as she began to smell him, not until then could she accept the truth. And then she wept. It was all she could manage, because, some things just need doing.