Now on to this week’s story excerpt. We’ve reached Part One. 8 & 9. of Soul Cages. Before today’s entries, Marian, John, and Henry had fled to a park to escape the stress at home. (This novel is PG-13.)
Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore
Published by Osuna Publishing
This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogue, and locales are either drawn from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, and locales is entirely coincidental.
Part One. Dreams in the Desert
On the bike trail, Henry stopped to study a cactus that reminded me of Ping-Pong paddles stuck together. He was more out of breath than usual on an uphill walk, and I had to admit I was too.
John said, “I forgot you two aren’t used to this altitude. Tell me if you feel dizzy. We’ll rest and drink some water—we’re halfway to the park.”
Henry pointed at the cactus.
“That’s a prickly pear cactus,” John said. “During the summer it will bloom, then produce purplish fruits. You can pick the fruit to make jelly.”
So far John seemed to enjoy sharing his extensive knowledge of the outdoors with Henry. He’d put up with a barrage of questions about pigeons, doves, turtles, frogs, and coyotes that would have driven my parents and Trent crazy.
A memory of Trent completely losing it rose in my mind, his voice ringing in my ears as he yelled at Henry, “Shut up! Just shut up!”
I should have dumped him right then and there.
I handed water bottles from my backpack to Henry and John and got one out for myself. The water was warm, but I drank large swallows as I realized how thirsty I was.
Henry gulped down his water, then stuck the half-empty bottle in his backpack. He pulled out his field guide, happily humming to himself, to flip through the pages.
“Do you need a break from carrying that backpack?” John asked as he handed back his water bottle.
“No,” I said. “It’s light.” I felt as if a tightness was loosening in my chest. John could be a friend.
John called Henry over. We climbed onward—with Henry slightly ahead as he zigzagged on the trail to hunt for lizards.
I reached the top of the bike trail’s latest incline and stopped to catch my breath. When I looked back, I discovered I had an unimpeded view across Albuquerque to the Rio Grande. Beyond the huddled trees next to the river was a western mesa covered with wart-like bumps.
“Are those volcanoes?” I asked.
“Volcanoes!” Henry echoed.
“Yes,” John said. Unlike us, he wasn’t out of breath. “They’re extinct. When it cools down in the fall, Henry might enjoy a hike on the trails there.” He pointed in the opposite direction of the volcanoes. “We’ve reached Piñon Park.”
Our trail crossed a small street, and on the other side was the park. The greenness of the grass looked surreal to me after so much concrete and desert.
Henry opened his mouth.
“Irrigation makes it possible to grow the grass,” John said.
He must have guessed right, for Henry closed his mouth again.
There were various pine trees, oaks, and a couple of odd trees with broad leaves, mottled bark, and golf ball-like seeds. Henry looked up the latter tree in his field guide, and told me it was an Arizona sycamore.
As we got close to the grassy field the air became noticeably cooler and moister. I held up a palm toward the field, and said to Henry, “Can you feel the difference?”
Henry copied my gesture. “Feels like swamp coolers.”
We left the trail to wander across the grass. The homesickness for Alexandria hit me like a mental slap. Think of running in the desert, I told myself. Or hiking in the Sandia Mountains.
Henry led us toward the swings on the far edge of the field. The swing sets were empty except for a lone girl and a teenager who pushed her.
As we got closer, I realized the girl (probably nine) had Down’s Syndrome. The teenager, a guy, was wearing a Jewish skullcap. Nearby, a dog tied to an oak tree ran back and forth as the girl’s swing moved.
Henry stared at the dog. I could understand his fascination, for the dog was a weird mixture of a beagle’s body with a bulldog’s head.
The dog stuck out his tongue in a panting smile.
The teen caught sight of us, and said to the girl, “Soon we need to go.”
“Bennn,” the girl said in complaint.
Henry ran to an open swing—close to the girl, but not too close—calling to me, “Push me.”
John said, “I’ll wait under those oak trees.” His animated expression was gone; numb was now the word to describe him.
I wanted to find out why, but Henry shouted for me. I watched John wander over to an oak tree near the dog—who went to the end of his leash to sniff at him. John held his hand out for the dog to inspect.
I gave Henry a strong push that made him whoop in joy. Ben’s white skullcap had a pattern of blue woven lines around the rim. He wore a T-shirt that had E=mc2 and a sketch of Einstein on the front. Why did people feel the need to put that equation on their stuff?
Henry said to the girl, “Swinging higher than you.”
The girl pumped her legs. She reminded me of a buttercup with her yellow shirt and shorts.
Henry said, “Higher!”
I gave another timed shove, and Henry flew up.
“Whoop,” Henry said. “Higher than you.”
“Ben,” the girl cried out, “higher!”
Ben took a deep breath. He shoved her high enough to send her into shrieks of laughter.
Henry called out to John, “Push me!”
I watched John struggle with whatever held him back. Then he shrugged, as if to say Enough, I give in, and came over.
I stepped away from Henry, and John took over with no break in the rhythm. He gave Henry a hard push that had my brother whooping in excitement.
Ben gave John a cautious look.
I said to Ben, “Hi, I’m Marian. This is my brother Henry, and our friend John. My brother and I just moved to Albuquerque.” I wasn’t sure, but I thought John got a hint of a smile when I said friend.
“Hi, hi, hi,” the girl called out. “Sarah.” Sarah tilted her legs up so that she could lean backward in the swing. Ben stepped back (since it was difficult to push someone by their head).
Henry copied Sarah’s leaning backward, and John was able to step back as well.
“I’m Ben,” he said to us, and shook my hand, then John’s. Ben said to me, “So, how do you like Albuquerque?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We just got here yesterday.” The homesickness gnawed at me. What I wanted to say was, It’s too dry and there are few trees. And I don’t like Gena and her husband and their church.
My tone must have given my homesickness away, for both Ben and John did the “I’m feeling uncomfortable” guy-thing of sticking their hands in their pockets and looking at the ground.
Ben said, “What school are you going to?”
“I want to go the public high school,” I said, “but I don’t know which one it is. My parents insist I go to the church school at First Beginnings.”
Perturbed, Ben studied John and me. Whatever he saw seemed to reassure him. He pulled out his cell phone. “I can look up which public school it is.”
While we were busy, John wandered off to sit down and scratch the dog’s ears. It took a bit of searching, but we finally figured it out.
“Juan Tabo High School,” Ben read off. “It’s a good place. I just graduated from there.”
“Congratulations,” I said. I was surprised, for Ben looked to be only sixteen or so.
Giggles from the swings made me look up from Ben’s phone. Sarah and Henry were twisting their swings up tight, so that they could lay on their stomachs on the seats and spin.
I grinned as Henry spun like a top. “He’s feeling better.”
“Has he been unwell?” Ben asked.
I winced at the recollection of Pastor Andervender’s fingers gripping Henry’s head. “My brother has Asperger’s. Some days are … hard for him.” Some DAYS? How about THIS day? What an understatement.
“Really?” Ben studied Henry. “I’ve never met anyone with Asperger’s. As you can tell, my sister has Down’s Syndrome.” I felt a sense of kinship with Ben—he knew what it was like to have a sibling with a disability.
The sun was hot on my back. I headed toward the shade of the two oak trees where John and the dog sat. The dog jumped up and wagged his tail at me.
“That’s Fermat,” Ben said. “He’s a Beabull.” Fermat ran over and put his paws on my sneakers. The dog looked up at me expectantly.
I scratched Fermat’s head, which made him lean against my legs with a deep sigh.
“Be careful,” Ben said, “or he’ll tip you over and use you as a pillow.”
Henry and Sarah came over to pet the dog. Ben gave Henry a dog biscuit, saying, “You can give this to him.”
Fermat sat up. Henry dropped the biscuit to the ground and the dog lunged for it. We watched Fermat gobble the biscuit down.
After Sarah had a turn giving Fermat a biscuit, Henry went back to the swings. Sarah followed.
Fermat waddled over to John, flopped down, and rolled onto his back, demanding that his belly be scratched. John complied.
I said to Ben, “Will you be going to college?”
Ben fingered the equation on his T-shirt. “Stanford. I’m probably going to major in mathematics. Seniors?”
“What do you want to do after you graduate?”
“Study occupational therapy. I’ve learned a lot about it from those who’ve helped my brother.” I felt self-conscious. My grades were mostly Bs and Cs, and OT didn’t have the prestige being pre-med did. Some people, after finding out I wanted to do OT, tried to talk me into doing medical school for the money.
“I’ve watched OTs work with my sister. They really seem to love their work.” Ben turned to John. “And what will you do?”
“Study theology.” John didn’t look at Ben, instead watched Fermat as he scratched the dog’s tummy.
I couldn’t figure out why John was being so curt. We’d all gone silent for too long. I floundered for something to say. “So, what does E=mc2 stand for anyway?”
Ben laughed. “They ought to provide an explanation on the back of the shirts.” He pointed a finger at each letter as he explained, “The equation has to do with energy (that’s E) being equal to mass (that’s m) and the speed of light squared (that’s c squared).” His enthusiasm drew both John and me in as he pointed at the sun. “Think about it—the energy from our sun and the stars—all related to this equation.” Then Ben’s cell phone beeped.
Ben flipped it open, read what was there, and called out to Sarah, “We’ve got to go. Mom’s waiting.” He said, “Sorry to rush off. If you want, you could give me a call. I can tell you about Juan Tabo—like which teachers to avoid.”
“I’d really appreciate that,” I said. “I have to take physics this year, and I need to get a good grade.”
Ben paused in thought. “I didn’t like the physics textbook we had to use. I can think of two books you might want to look at that do a better job of explaining stuff.”
We swapped phone numbers.
Then Ben untied Fermat’s leash while John stopped scratching Fermat’s tummy. The dog whined at John. “Fermat’d make you scratch him all day if he could,” Ben said to John.
John and I made our farewells to Ben, Sarah, and Fermat while Henry stayed on his swing. After Ben had driven off in a white compact car, John said to me, “I need to talk to you for a moment.” Agitated, he led me back to the two oaks and checked to make sure Henry was too far away to hear. “No one in First Beginnings can know Ben and Sarah are Jews.”
Surely I misheard him. My hands went up in a gesture of denial. This can’t be right.
John’s mouth flattened. “Dad demands we immediately testify for Christ to any Jew we meet. I didn’t feel like ruining Henry’s swing with a fight. Uninvited testifying gets tense … and ugly.”
“Why harass strangers?”
“Dad believes Jews are damned. As far as he’s concerned, the ends justify the means.”
I felt as if I’d been flipped upside-down. What sort of awful group are Mom and Dad dragging us into? I swallowed several times. “I won’t let anyone know. It’s unlikely Henry will say anything—all he’ll want to talk about are the swings and Fermat.”
“Good,” John said. He sat under the nearest oak and leaned back against it. I wondered if he’d get bark stains on his white shirt, and if Gena would have a fit about it.
I sat cross-legged on the grass under the oak’s shade. John peppered me with questions about Asperger’s as we tossed tiny pieces of bark at the sidewalk.
Henry swung as if he’d never stop.
Somehow we got to talking about my involvement in track. To my surprise I found myself chatting about Coach Lucas, and how he insisted I practice the discus throw and shot put, even though I didn’t want to compete in those events.
Then John blurted out, “Mom has been talking about you a lot to Matt.”
Ick. I didn’t think John was going to plug his brother as a possible date, but I braced myself just the same. Keep your mouth shut, and see what comes out.
John had turned a bit red, and his words were a little stumbled. “Dad thinks it would be good for Matt to have a girlfriend.”
“I doubt I’m Matt’s type. He’s not mine.”
John glanced at me, and then stared at the grass. “Huh.”
Henry got hot and joined us under the tree, lying on his belly to watch the ants and other insects, calling out their names.
After a while, John reluctantly lifted his arm to look at his watch. “It’s time to go.”
John said, “They’re expecting us back.”
“Don’t want to go.” Henry flopped over onto his back with his legs and arms sprawled out.
I suspected Henry wanted to avoid all the strangers at the house. “We’ll grab lunch plates and hide in the backyard under the apple tree.” I stood up.
Henry grumbled, but he got up instead of having a tantrum.
************** End of Part One. 8 & 9. *****************
See you next week, L.M.