Summary:A group of cousins gathered at Grandma’s house on Thanksgiving get into something they really ought not.
Author’s Note: This started out as my 2007 Nanowrimo Novel.
The Big, Old House in the Country (And the Old Garden Shed)
With a loud crack, the rusted padlock split open. Leland dropped the rock to the black dirt and it made a dull thud.
“Tut, Leland, why did you break that?” Nola asked her cousin while kicking at the heavy rock he had just dropped with the toe of her dress shoe, scuffing the it and making the rock roll a few feet.
“Just wanted to,” he explained. Then he kicked at the door to the shed, not bothering to remove the lock or open the latch, just to see if he could get it to give anyway.
“Wait, at least let me-” She stepped up to the door and tried to pull off the lock. Leland kicked the door again and Nola’s finger got pinched. “Ow! Hey, just wait, Lee. I want to get the lock off.”
“But I want to do it,” kick, “this,” kick, “way!” kick.
“Hey, Leland,” shouted Cole, their older cousin (he was twelve, almost like a grown-up in how he could lift heavy things and make really good plans for games and stuff). “Cut that out- you are going to hurt Nola.” Leland did not heed.
Cole reached them- coming from wherever else he had been in the yard, drawn by the sound of one of his younger cousins making trouble. Straggling behind him were Nola’s little brother Ricky and Rosalind, the youngest cousin. Nola had stepped back again, sucking on her finger and glaring at Leland, who was still kicking the door, making splinters fall from near the hinges and the still attached broken lock jump and clank against the door (kick- clank, kick- clank, kick- clank- it had a rhythm to it). Cole grabbed Leland by the shoulders the next time he stepped back to take another kick.
“I said, cut that out!” he commanded and the seven-year-old finally stopped.
“But I want to see what is inside,” Leland whined.
“Fine, we’ll look inside, just do not break the door down, okay?” Cole stepped across the damp black earth and worked the old padlock from the metal loop on the shed. The shed door swung open on its own with a loud squeak.
Ricky, five and invincible, was the first through the door and into the darkness of the old garden shed. It was rickety, it was damp, it now had a busted lock, the door hung wrong on its hinges, and it was off limits. The shed smelled like mildew and earth, like the rotting of fall and the long past. It tickled Ricky’s nose as he stepped inside. This was just Ricky’s type of place.
Earlier that day, before they had all been stuffed with turkey and cranberry sauce and Granny’s good stuffing with the sausages in it, before they came loudly tromping into the big, old house in the country- restless after their long car rides- ready to stretch their legs, begrudgingly kissing The Aunties hello, sneaking into the great big kitchen to try and get a taste of the sweet potato pie Granny was pulling from the oven, before they stuffed themselves into their good clothes and then into the cars along with their suitcases, before all that, Ricky and Nola had spent a good hour getting dirty and in trouble rooting around in the woods behind their house looking for late huckleberries (and fighting pirates). There were not any (of either the huckleberries or the pirates), of course, but that was not the point. They were not supposed to be there just then- that was the point.
As she had that morning, big sister Nola (nine years old, thank you very much) followed close on her brother’s heels when he was exploring- it was her job to look after him after all- she had done it since he was a babe. In the fading autumn afternoon light, she could make out a jumble of objects piled up all around the walls of the shed, on shelves and in strange pyramid-like heaps in the corners. There were boxes, all shapes and sizes, and jars of many colors and types, and bags and bins and baskets and any other odd sort of container you might put stuff in, also strange shapes that might have been other holders of things or maybe were things of another nature entirely- Nola could not tell, was not sure she wanted to know at all anyway.
Ricky had disappeared into the shadows behind one of the mounds on the left and Leland came shoving in, half trampling her to climb up on top of what looked like an old wagon that was missing three wheels and was loaded with falling apart cigar boxes and large rubber band balls. Nola rubbed at her knee where she had scraped it on something sharp trying to keep her balance as Leland passed.
“Ricky, where did you go, Rick?” Nola called. If it had been her brother up there on the unbalanced wagon trying to fall on his head she would have tried to get him down, but it was Leland and he never listened to her, instead he usually hit her, then Cole would yell at him and then Leland would (eventually) come down. Nola could see Cole coming in to fix Leland’s wagon good anyway, so she figured she could skip the part where she got hit by her cousin (again).
She found Ricky all the way back behind a whole bunch of large sacks that might have once held seeds, but now were just moldy lumps with hard corners of reedy fabric and parts of dark letters across the centers. “Look,” he said, pointing to something hard to make out on the floor. “Something dead.”
“Eww! Ricky, that is gross. You did not touch it, did you?” she scolded because he did that- touched gross things without thinking about how it would get him in trouble when he came in looking like he had been digging ditches and smelling like he rolled in something foul.
“No,” he paused for a minute, thinking. “Maybe we can get Lee to touch it.”
Nola laughed because, yes, that would be funny, but then she shook her head. “Nah, he’d get some crazy disease and then he’d tell The Aunties about how we made him touch it and we’d be in it then.” She said this because it was perfectly true- when Leland got anyone else hurt by his carelessness, he never got the blame, but if they did even the smallest thing to him, they were punished. It was a sad fact of their lives, but it was true none the less.
“No, you get down, Cole!” they could hear Leland shouting a ridiculous comeback. They peered around the sacks and saw that Cole was trying to get him come to the safety of the shed floor.
Leland was still atop the wagon, which had tilted so that he was standing on an angle and had to hold on to one edge to keep from falling. Cole was standing between the wagon and the door and in shadow so that you could not see if his face was angry, frustrated or maybe even laughing (all of which were just as likely when he was talking Leland down from something). Behind Cole they could see little Rosalind (Lindi they called her mostly because she did this funny little dance when she was happy) standing half inside the doorway, as if she was not sure if she wanted to follow the older children into the foolishness, and probably spider bites, of the forbidden shed.
Rosalind (almost three years old) did not really talk much. She seemed to be only a little bit more than a baby- in fact, The Aunties did not really want her playing out with the other children yet, but she would just wait until they got to talking over coffee or busy working at something and then she had slip out to join the others (Ricky had seen her do it once and taken notes). She liked to follow him around and he let her (maybe she only followed because he let her) which he did because she did that sneaking out thing and a few other things that he wished he could manage but really could not since The Aunties (and Nola) knew him well enough to watch for how him and trouble were kind of buddies (not best friends, just kind of buddies).
Just then Cole decided that he had had enough of Leland’s mouth (Come on and make me get down if you are so tough, Cole, you big bully, never letting me have any fun, always telling The Aunties on me and playing games I am bad at- you are such a jerk- wish you were not my cousin, wish you were not anything- never been born- then I would be the leader- oldest boy’s always the leader- I would be a good leader, not a bully and a jerk and stupid on top of that) Cole had had enough of Leland’s mouth and lunged for him. And the wagon’s last wheel gave out from how Leland jumped away from Cole and they both came crashing down in a mess of poorly bouncing (on account of how they were half rotten) rubber band balls and broken boxes and shredded paper bits (which seemed to be what was left of what was in the cigar boxes). Nola rushed forward to help sort out the boys from the trash and see if she should be sending Ricky back to the house to get The Aunties because someone was bleeding (and she bet it would be Leland bleeding and Cole getting the blame).
“Lee, you little piece of dirt,” Cole said as he pushed himself out of the clutter, wiping something nasty out of his hair. “Tell me you are not hurt, or I’ll kill you,” he threatened.
“I’m fine,” Leland grumbled back, getting to his feet and grabbing a broken piece of wood and holding it like a baseball bat. “Come on, come and get me.”
Cole took a large and dank breath, let it out and replied, “Do not be stupid, Lee. I am not going to really kill you. I’d just like to.”
“Uh, Lee,” Nola interrupted the bickering with a wince, “You are bleeding- there on your arm.” She pointed. “Also, you ripped your sleeve.”
And really, the cut on his arm was only part of the problem with Leland. It was not unusual for one or maybe all of the children to end up in trouble with The Aunties for ruining their holiday clothes when they were all out to play together at the big, old house in the country. But Leland- Leland was covered in black mud and dust and gravy (from dinner) and splinters (from the shed door) and paper shreds and now splots of blood from the cut on his arm. He would be lucky if The Aunties let him back out to play again that afternoon if they got a look at him. And the cousins knew that would all be in trouble for it. It was a strange fact about this particular generation of children in this particular family but, no matter how they might fight amongst themselves, once one of them was threatened by the wrath of The Aunties (even more if all of them were) once one of them was threatened with the wrath of The Aunties, they all banded together.
Cole looked Leland over and started giving out orders. “Ricky, go and see if the spigot behind the kitchen is still working or if it is frozen up from the cold weather yet. If it is working, then bring us a full bucket of water. Bring Rosalind with you in case you are caught- you were getting her a drink of water. Lindi, cry if you have to- The Aunties still can’t resist you.
“Nola, sneak inside and get my backpack emergency kit, also get Lee another shirt and,” he paused a moment to consider the soiled boy standing in the rubble, “get him some pants, too. Do not get caught- we do not have a back-up plan for you.
“Lee, come on, let’s get you out of there.” Cole offered him a hand as he scrambled over the mess that once was a wagon as the other children scattered to do their own tasks.
The spigot behind the kitchen was risky business because at any moment, one of The Aunties might come out the back kitchen door to put out some garbage or the compost or even just to sit on the back step to be out of the heat and the noise of the kitchen for a while. Ricky ran most of the way towards the house, Rosalind’s smaller hand slipping into his out of habit so they could stay together. They slowed to a walk as they got close and then stopped at the edge of the pricker-bushes that were maybe twenty feet from the back of the house so that they could see if anyone was around. Luckily, no adults were in sight, so Ricky strolled closer. As he passed the kitchen door, Rosalind pulled her hand from his and she stepped away. He turned to look for her, but she seemed to have disappeared.
He turned back to his goal. The spigot was nestled between another set of pricker-bushes (they grew roses in the springtime). The hose was not there, which might mean that the water was shut off for the winter, or might just mean that the cleaning up for the holiday had included it being put away somewhere. Ricky would not know which until he had turned the handle. The dirt below the spigot was dry and dusty- not a good sign, but Ricky tried it anyway. The handle turned with a squeal and an irregular pop before icy cold water gushed out wetting his left shoe. He hopped backwards before it could get the bottom of his dark pant leg. He looked around for a bucket, but there was not one anywhere close. He was just about to make his way around the house to look by the potting tables in the side yard for one when Rosalind rounded the corner dragging one that was almost bigger than her (at least bigger than she could carry by herself).
“Good, that will be good,” he told her as he picked it up for her. She just smiled back at him and followed him back to the ever increasing mud puddle that was forming next to the house. Ricky shoved the bucket under the stream of the water (splashing it up on both of them) and watched the level rise until it was full. Then he twisted the handle to the right to shut it off (which did not work). Then he twisted it to the left because he always forgot which way was on and which way was off (that did not work either). After another minute of twisting it one way and then the other, he realized that it was broken- it had to have been that popping when he had turned it on. He reached under the cold fall of water and yanked the bucket out.
Getting into the big, old house in the country was not any kind of problem for Nola- the children came in and out all the time to use the toilet or get a jacket or get a drink of water- things like that. Getting back out with Cole’s backpack (which The Aunties all knew was Cole’s) and clothes that were not hers either would be harder. It was not easy to fool The Aunties once they noticed that you were up to something. And, searching bags was the first thing they did if they had any suspicions. What Nola had to carry out would put all the children in trouble if The Aunties knew.
Even though getting in would not be any trouble, Nola decided to be as quiet as possible- stay under the radar for the whole mission instead of just for the escape. She went round to the front door because she knew there would be too much foot traffic near to the back. The front door squeaked if you opened it quickly, but was not so bad if you went really slow with it (which she did). Then she slipped off her Mary Jane shoes so she could tip-toe across the great tile mosaic in the front hall. It was a picture of a brown-haired girl with a pretty smile and bright eyes. The tiny uneven tiles felt funny under her stocking clad feet. She made it to the thick carpet that covered the stairs up to the bedrooms.
No one was upstairs, so gathering what she needed was easy- she even took a moment to change into play clothes. Then, in a flash of smartitude, she emptied her own backpack, stuffed the emergency kit and Leland’s clothes into the bottom of it and covered it with her big science book and her notebook. Hopefully, if she got caught, she could claim that she was trying to find a good and quiet place to study for the test she had after the school vacation was finished. She did tend to study enough that The Aunties might believe it. Maybe. Maybe it would still be better if she did not get caught.
Now in her sneakers, Nola was able to come down the stairs, across the tile floor and out the slow front door without anyone seeing. Then she raced back around the house and towards the old garden shed. She only hoped that her brother and Lindi had done as well as she did at not being spotted.
They were spotted. Ricky looked up from his struggle to get the spigot to turn off to see Uncle Woody walking slowly over from the back door. He had a steaming mug in his hand and a questioning look on his face.
“You need a hand there, fella?” Uncle Woody always called him fella, even though he had to know Ricky’s name by now. But, Uncle Woody was the type of uncle who would do that kind of thing just to get your goat. Ricky had learned to ignore it. Other than that, Uncle Woody was all right. He was not married, so he did not really have to listen to The Aunties the way the other uncles did. They were just his older sisters, not his wife or anything like that. Ricky knew that a boy could ignore his older sister a whole lot before it got to be a problem.
“It won’t shut off,” Ricky replied, trying not to let his teeth chatter much (he was really getting cold since he was pretty wet by now).
“How about you go inside and get dry. Leave this to me to fix.”
“I need the water- Cole wants it,” Ricky admitted.
“Ah. You kids making mud pies or something?”
“Do not worry, I won’t tell your mother.” Uncle Woody winked. “Here,” he took off his hooded sweatshirt and held it out to Ricky (who took it gratefully ). “Keep warm now. We would not want you to miss any school, now would we?”
And, Ricky was not sure if his uncle was really going to let them go, but Rosalind tugged at his sleeve (his very wet sleeve) to make him come on already, so he did. They arrived back at the garden shed with a three quarters full bucket to find the Leland half dressed (clean pants, and shivering in no shirt ) as they waited for the water.
Once Cole and Nola (the doctor and nurse fill-ins) had cleaned up Leland’s cut and covered it with a bandage, the children set to work at putting the shed back in order (sort of). More than cleaning up (only Cole and Nola were actually trying to clean) they mostly spent their time pulling random things out of the various boxes and glass jars to see what was interesting. Ricky and Leland were sorting through the different tools and fake dueling with the hand spades and short handled hoes, like they were Knights of the Round Table. And Rosalind had pulled out a large kitchen jar- the type people put up garden vegetables and jellies in- full of keys of all types and sizes. Some were old and rusted, the metal almost crumbling in her hands, and some were just dusty. If she spit on them a bit and rubbed them hard on her dress, they came clean enough to catch the light a little bit (Cole had set up his battery powered camping lamp from the emergency kit to make it easier to see what he was cleaning). She found one that was really old looking, but not all rusty, just dusty. She picked it up to give it a shine…
Nola looked up astounded at the sound of Rosalind’s voice, not because she was saying anything troubling- she was not screaming or anything- but because she was speaking so clear and strong. Rosalind was not a big talker, in fact The Aunties still called her The Baby because she was so quiet and so small, it was easy to forget that she was even out of diapers. But, if you watched her close, you could see that she really was not a babe anymore. Still, the way she was talking now, almost like a grown-up, was surprising.
“His name was Jonah, like in the Bible with the whale, and he was as tall as an oak tree (and twice as dark). I liked him very much, not really because he was tall or dark, but because he never did tell me what to do the way all the other adults did. And because he taught me magic. He was brought to South Carolina on a great ship from his village that was far away and in Africa. He used to say I reminded him of his pretty little girl that he had to leave behind there,” the small girl said to all of them or maybe none of them. It was hard to tell because she was just looking off into the yard through the still opened shed door (it probably would not close right ever again- Leland was so dumb).
“Lindi, what are you talking about?” Cole asked, putting aside the junk he was sorting and moving over to her.
“He was like a barn cat, only we did not have a barn at this new house in town, so he was more in the back shrubbery and, once I let him in the cellar (Father does not know it, but I have a key to the cellar door) which was better in the winter cold. Would not have been right to keep a man in a barn anyway, better he was in the cellar. I wanted him to come up above boards to the house proper, but he would not. He said I needed to let him be hid from them who would send him back,” Rosalind continued, not seeming to notice that Cole had talked to her.
“Is she okay?” Nola asked, coming over to look at her better, too.
“Not sure,” Cole responded, snapping his fingers by Rosalind’s face. “Lindi? You in there?”
But, Lindi did not notice. Instead, she went on, “First I thought that he meant they would send him back to where his pretty little girl was, so I did not understand why he did not want to go back. Then he told me about South Carolina and the beautiful fields and the warm soft air that smelled of spring and fruit trees, and how they called him like he was a cow or a horse and kept him in a barn and fed him with what the pigs would not eat because the pigs were worth more to them, and I knew then I would help keep him hid the best I could.”
“Do you think we should do something? Shake her or smack her, like they do in the movies?” Leland suggested, having noticed that the littlest cousin was acting strange.
“You hit Lindi and I’ll hit you!” Ricky said fiercely because he could not stand the idea that Leland would do that, even if they did do it in the movies. He gave a Leland a hard shoulder against his arm to make sure he knew Ricky was not joking (Leland would win if they fought because he was bigger, but things like that did not scare Ricky).
“Nobody’s hitting anyone,” Cole silenced them. Then he put a hand on Rosalind’s arm and gave it a little shake. “Lindi, you okay?” She gave a little start, dropped the key she had in her hand and started giggling. Then she sat down and started clicking some of the keys she had been playing with together again.