Andy Appleby’s Fireworks

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“I wonder if God ever just feels sorry for you,” I thought as I sat there soaking in the sweltering courtroom of the Migdon County Juvenile Justice Center during the summer of 1948.

     “State your name,” said the prosecutor, Mr. Kratt, with his pencil nose and icy stare.

     “Joshua Everett Wade, Sir.”

     “Do you go by any other name, Mr. Wade?”

     “Well,” I said, “Momma calls me Skunk-Butt when I’m in trouble, Sir.”

      Snickers rippled through the room and Kratt scowled slightly.

     “Enough,” he said to everyone. “And are you familiar with the defendant?”

     “Well sure, Sir. Me and Andy been best pals since third grade.”

     “Can you describe your whereabouts on Tuesday, July 2nd, between the hours of 10:00AM and noon?”

    “I was shootin’ marbles out back of Tuttle Grocery with Freddy McEntire and Skeet Johnson. Andy was there, too.”

     Kratt knitted his eyebrows together.

     “Mr. Wade,” he pronounced, “no less than four witnesses have already stated, under oath, they noticed Andy Appleby loitering in front of Cazban General during that time. Am I correct?”

     “I don’t know who they seen, Sir. Andy was with us the whole time, honest to God.”

     Freddy and Skeet sat on the back row with their sunburned faces, wide-eyed and heads bobbing.

     “So you admit,” came Kratt’s rejoinder, “that you were with Mr. Appleby during the time period in question, when over seventy-five dollars’ worth of fireworks were stolen from Mr. Cazban.”

     I didn’t much like the way this was going, and I fidgeted with the marble in my pocket, a neon green popper I won from Glass-Eyed Gus last summer. I shuffled it around as I pondered how much I should admit.

     Several moments passed.

     “Mr. Wade, you seem distracted. What’s in your pocket?”

     “It’s just a marble, Sir.”

     “Hand it over. I’ll not let the proceedings of this court be interrupted by a silly toy,” Kratt ordered.

     I slowly drew my prized popper out, but hesitated to place it in his pale outstretched palm. I looked at the judge.

     “Hand it over,” he calmly instructed.

     I rose up to surrender my contraband, and at this very moment Providence chose to play its hand.

     Sometime in 1932, it turned out, Judge Williams ordered every chair and table in that courtroom nailed to the floor. A scuffle had broken out one day, resulting in several breakages of furniture and décor, not to mention a couple of skulls.

     As I stood up, several things happened at once: I realized too late that in my fidgeting and squirming I had wrapped my foot around one chair leg. I promptly lost my balance and went crashing over the witness box banister.

      I still made an effort to plant the popper into Kratt’s hand, and he made a determined attempt to receive it. This only resulted in the marble bouncing through the air and landing in the exact center of court stenographer Alison Pennybottom’s emphatically burdened brassiere.

     Half the jaws in the room dropped and half the cheeks turned in shame as Alice shrieked and went diving for the offending projectile. She fished the shiny orb out only to see it escape her grip and go rolling toward the gallery.

     “Order in the court!” shouted the judge as the bailiff sprang into action to retrieve the renegade ordnance. Only he ended up kicking my poor popper and sending it through a small hole at the bottom of the bar. A slightly larger marble would have gotten stuck, and that would have been the end of things. However, in what my Grampy often called a plumb coincidence, the rocketing roller barely slipped through and on to the gallery pews where sat none other than Glass-Eyed Gus McCormack.

     Suddenly eyeing a chance to get his ace shooter back, Gus dove at the same instant the bailiff and several other well-meaning citizens also tried to capture it. The courtroom shook with a sound like a football scrimmage line a split second after the snap. Bodies went flying, Gus went tumbling, the bailiff flipped over and slammed his boots into Mr. Cazban’s astonished face, and in all the kerfuffle my marble kept rolling to the back of the courtroom where Freddy scooped it up and thrust it into his pocket.

     As the bailiff regained his bearings, he grabbed up Gus by his suspenders and shook him.

     “Blast it, boy! What did you do with it?” he screamed.

     Right at that moment, something fell from the chest pocket of Gus’s bib overalls and onto the floor a mere three feet away from Mr. Cazban with his bloody nose: a bright red jumping jack from the Nantucket Fireworks Company.

     “That’s one of my fireworks!” exclaimed Mr. Cazban. “I had just received them that morning. I hadn’t even put them out for sale yet!”

     Every eye in the courtroom lasered in on Gus’s bewildered face.

     “I don’t know where that came from! That’s not mine!” he stammered.

     But we all had seen it fall from his pocket. In short order, Judge Williams dismissed the case against Andy Appleby and closed the proceedings, detaining old Glass-Eye and dismissing the rest of us to go about our merry business.

     As we shuffled out of the courtroom, I locked eyes with Skeet Johnson and he gave me a quick furtive smile. Skeet was the best pickpocket in the county, and I was pretty sure I knew how a jumping jack ended up in Glass-Eyed Gus’s bib overalls that day.

     Several months would pass before the boys and I took our stash of firecrackers way out to Potter Falls, about ten miles away, where we told our folks we were going camping. We tried to light a few, but we ended up burying most of the loot. I guess we figured enough was enough. You can’t keep hoping the Lord will wink at you.

At Long Last

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Angela plodded slowly toward the cold stone slab that jutted from the brown grass, dried and withered by winter wind. She knew the path, every curve and rise in the ground as familiar as the small wrinkles of her son’s hand had once been.

Her son. It had been years since the accident, and for years she had hoped that somehow, she would see him at this solemn sanctuary, as impossible as it might seem to others. But he never appeared. Week after week, season after season, she made this trek against all common sense, against what others had repeatedly told her.

He’s not there, they told her. He’s far away where you can’t reach him.

“Far away where you can’t hurt him,” came a voice behind her.

It was her husband. She hated whenever he would “just happen” to show up here during one of her private visits.

“Go away,” she said coldly.

“Go away? Go where?” he spat angrily. “Where can I go that I don’t have to face this?” He was pointing at the grave stone. “Everywhere I go, I see this thing! Everywhere I turn I see it.”

“Then why do you come here?” she asked him.

“Because I want you to know what you did to me! What you did to us. You want me to walk away while you have your little pity party, when you’re the one who did this!”

“I know I did this!” she answered. “You think I can forget it, Rob? You think one minute ever goes by when I don’t think about it?”

“You’re a fool. Nothing you do here is going to conjure him up. He’s gone, and you are never going to see him again,” Rob continued.

“Is this what you want?” she asked. “To see me broken like this forever? To see me disappointed each and every time I come here? To torture me with something I can’t ever change? What do you want?”

“I want my son back!” Rob shouted. Angela knew he would have cried right then and there if he was capable of it.

She turned away from him and looked once again to the headstone in the dead ground. Twelve years had passed since the night she ran that stop sign late at night in the town where they had grown up, married, and raised a family. A family that was utterly broken now.

By now, Angela had accepted that Rob would never forgive her. But RJ. She wanted her son to forgive her for what she had done, somehow, some way.

“Mommy?” she heard a tender voice in the distance.

She glared at Rob.

“You brought her, too?” she hissed at him.

“She’s part of this, too,” her husband simply said.

Indeed, Sara had been coming to this place as well, throughout the long stretches of emptiness that had become their lives since that fateful night.

Angela and Rob had been arguing. As much as she had tried not to do that in front of the children, this one was a full rager, one where each one says things they don’t mean, in order to hurt the other one in ways they haven’t tried before. She didn’t even see the sign. In an instant their world changed forever and they were torn away from RJ permanently.

“Sara, honey, Mommy’s glad to see you,” Angela said.

“You don’t look glad, Mommy,” the girl said. “You never look glad.”

Angela felt her anguish welling inside her. Sara spent most of her days with her father. In the fallout after the accident, Angela had in some sense lost her daughter as well. She rarely saw her anymore.

They heard footsteps.

“Rob!” Angela gasped. “It’s him. I know it. It’s him.”

“Angie, that’s not possible. He is far away now and will never come to this place. Why can’t you accept that? Why do you have to keep putting us through this?”

“Rob, no, it’s him. Look!” she exclaimed.

Against all expectation, there he was, emerging from a fog and walking slowly toward the headstone around which they were gathered. He was tall, with long brown locks that spilled over his black silk suit. A young lady with sandy blonde hair and a green dress walked beside him.

“RJ, oh I’ve missed you!” Angela started.

“Quiet,” insisted her husband. “He can’t hear you.”

“Rob, I’ve been waiting for this for so long! I want to talk to my son. He’s finally here.”

“RJ, oh RJ,” she began. “Oh, I’ve missed you. I’m so sorry I did this to you. Mommy didn’t mean it, RJ. Please tell me you can hear me. RJ!”

The young man stood pensively over the headstone. There was no sign that he could hear his mother, or even that he was affected by the memory of her. He looked at the young woman next to him. She squeezed his hand.

“Go on,” she whispered to him.

“Mom. Dad. Sara May. I know you’re probably wondering why I’ve never come to this place since that day.” RJ could feel tears welling up. He hadn’t expected that. He continued.

“I’m sorry. But it was so hard after what happened. I didn’t want to see you anymore. I was so alone. I was so angry. But…” he trailed off for a moment, taking some effort to keep his composure.

“I’m here now,” he declared. “I don’t know if you can hear me.”

“We can hear you, son!” Angela shouted.

“Hush,” her husband warned her. “This might be the only time we ever see him. Please be quiet.”

“If you can,” RJ went on, “I just want you to know that I forgive you. It took a long time. Long years of growing up without a family. Long years of not knowing who I was, learning to make it on my own. I was so angry and hurt for so long when you went away.”

Tears were running down his cheeks now. Angela, her heart breaking all over again, reached toward him to wipe them away, but her touch did nothing.

“But then one day, I realized you gave me something. Something precious. Something that you couldn’t have anymore, but you had given to me. Life. I figured out one day that life is precious: my life is precious. And I knew then that I was going to live the best life that I could. For me…and for you.”

Angela was aware that for the first time in ages, her husband was standing next to her. Sara grasped her hand.

“I’m all grown up, now, Mom. Just like you said I would be. This is Lizzy,” he said, gesturing to the young woman by his side. “We going to get married. She’s pretty, just like you were, Mom. She makes me happy. And one day we’re going to raise a family, just like the one I had.”

Slowly, the agony in Angela’s heart began to melt, and in its place a tiny seed of peaceful hope took hold. She looked at her son and felt something other than sorrow for the first time in so many years; she felt proud of him.

“So goodbye, now. Don’t go feeling bad anymore. What’s done is done, like you used to say, Dad. You used to say that better is the end of a thing…”

“Than its beginning,” Rob whispered.

“Than its beginning,” RJ finished.

They all stood silent and still for a long moment.

“That was beautiful,” Lizzy said to her fiancé. “It’s what they would have wanted. I just know it.”

“I think you’re right,” he answered her. “I don’t know how, but I think you’re right.”

RJ took his Lizzy by the arm and they both strolled away, with each step fading into the fog and out of his parents’ sight.

“Goodbye, my son,” Angela called after him, knowing there was no way he could hear her.

“Let’s go,” she heard her husband say.

“Together?” she asked.

“Together, Angie,” he answered. “We’re a family.”

The Calling Stone

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Kirsten awoke to the sound of the wind moving swiftly through her window, billowing the sheer blue curtains and bringing the scent of fallen leaves to her nose. She wondered how long had she been asleep. It occurred to her that the moonlight shining into her room was brighter than she would have expected. The new moon had emerged just last week, but it looked to her like a full howling moon was bathing the world with an almost garish glow.

She pulled the coverlet back from her thin pale body and felt the coolness immediately through her flannel gown. It had been an unusually warm November night when she laid down in her twin bed, but now it felt chilly. She wondered if she had missed the weather report that day, if a front had blown in unawares. She trudged over to the window to close it, but first she craned her neck to look up at the night sky.

The moon was indeed full.

Impossible, she thought. It was a feeling not unlike dread but more like doubt that rose up in her chest as she contemplated what she was seeing. Hopeful doubt. This isn’t really happening doubt. Perhaps she was dreaming.

She began to shut the window and had it closed halfway when she heard it. A thin piercing whine, shrill and reverberating. She wasn’t quite sure she had heard anything, really. It was more like she felt it. She stopped to listen. Nothing. She started to shut the window further and the noise came again, this time perceptibly louder.

It was coming from outside. She poked her head out to listen to it more carefully, trying to determine the source. The wood shop. She was certain of it. The sound was coming from the wood shop and suddenly that made sense in a way she would rather not have comprehended.

*****

          The day before, Kirsten had been gathering the last of the wild berries that grew in the paths behind her house, which sat on the edge of a birchwood forest. This was something a sixteen-year-old girl could still do safely. There were stories of kidnappings and highway boogeymen that floated around from time to time; but in the quiet community where Kirsten’s family lived, nothing of the sort had ever happened. Except for one strange disappearance, nothing ever would happen.

In all of her gathering trips since she was little, Kirsten had seen every sort of animal one might expect to see, from rabbits to deer, skunks to opossums. She had never run into a stranger. Neighbors, yes; kids she had seen at school but perhaps did not know well, certainly. The woman she encountered that morning, however, looked like she had stepped out of fairy tale.

She was quite old, to begin with. She looked exhausted and uncertain, her head pivoting about here and there. She was thin and frail with skin darkened by decades of sun. Her silver hair flowed in long tresses about her head and over the back of her tunic, which was a deep purple that reminded Kirsten of starry nights. She wore silver chains and bracelets with jeweled charms dangling about, and she had faded leather boots that had seen better days. She smiled through closed lips and bright blue piercing eyes when she saw Kirsten approaching.

“Hello. Are you lost?” Kirsten asked her when she was sure the woman was within earshot.

“Lost?” the woman answered. “Now there is a hopeless word. I prefer words of possibility, young lady. I am, as they say in my homeland, in a state of high wandering.”

Kirsten smiled. As odd an answer as that was, she liked the old woman instantly.

“You just looked like you could use some help,” she offered the woman. “I’m Kirsten. People call me Kirstie.” She strode toward the woman and offered her hand to shake.

The woman looked at Kirsten’s hand for a moment, and then softly grasped it with both of her hands and held it gently while she spoke.

“Young Kirsten. You have a pure heart. I can tell that already. When you have walked the earth as long as I have, you learn to recognize a pure heart. They are not as common as they once were.”

Kirsten noticed two things simultaneously. The woman’s hands were as soft as if she had never worked a day in her life, utterly out of place with her hard scrabble appearance; and secondly, her hands were incredibly strong. Kirsten had the distinct notion that she could not have pulled her hand back if she had tried.

“I am Salome. People call me Salome,” she said with a softly cackling laugh. Kirsten obliged with a small chuckle of her own.

“Pleased to meet you, Salome,” she said politely.

“We’ll see, won’t we?” remarked the old woman, still smiling.

What an odd reply, Kirsten thought.

“As a matter of fact, young lady, I could use some help. I’m famished, actually. My last meal was the day before yesterday,” she went on to explain.

“There are still berries around,” Kirsten said. “Have you been outside this whole time? See here, I have some in my basket.”

“I’m not from around here, as you may have guessed,” the woman said. “I don’t know which berries are good to eat and which ones will put me in the ground.”

“Well these are perfectly safe. Here, have some,” Kirsten offered.

The woman smiled and stretched out her hand to receive the basket. She took one of the berries and nibbled on it, sucking the juice out of it. She closed her eyes as she did this and then she gazed outwardly, distantly, as if she were remembering something from the ancient past.

“These are good,” she said simply. Then one by one, she popped each berry into her mouth and chewed each one slowly. Kirsten didn’t mind. The woman looked near to starving and Kirsten waited patiently as she ate her fill of the dark blue morsels.

Finally, the woman handed the basket back to Kirsten.

“Thank you,” she said kindly. “Like I said, pure hearts are getting so hard to find.”

“Will you come to my house?” Kirsten inquired. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s getting colder every day. My folks could help you find a place or something.” Kirsten wasn’t sure why she was saying any of this. As kind as the woman appeared, Kirsten wasn’t sure that inviting a complete stranger to her house was a solid idea.

“No child. You are very kind. But I’m on a mission and you have helped me enough. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do for you? I have more food at the house. Can I bring you something?” Kirsten offered.

“No, indeed. You’ve done more for me than you can possibly know. In fact, let me give you something for your kindness,” the woman answered.

“You don’t have to give me anything,” Kirsten started.

“Child, I am an old woman. You can’t take things with you when you leave this world. Here, I want you to have this,” the woman said.

She rummaged through a leather satchel she wore around her shoulder. It was as rugged and wrinkled as she was. It was covered in markings that Kirsten had never seen before, not quite pictures, but not quite letters of any sort. The woman pulled out an object.

It was a carved green sphere of stone. It was unremarkable, something you might find at an antique jewel and rock shop, in a bargain bin. It was dull with gray veins and flecks of quartz.

“Oh I couldn’t take that,” Kirsten said, attempting to be polite.

“I know, child. It’s nothing special to look at. But I insist you have it all the same. For your kindness,” she added, holding out the stone to Kirsten.

Kirsten didn’t know what to do except to hold out her own hand. The old woman dropped the stone into it and immediately Kirsten noticed how warm it felt. It was utterly smooth, despite its plain appearance. Perhaps it was a finer gift than what she had first perceived.

“Thank you,” Kirsten said.

“You are very welcome,” the woman replied.

“I have to go, now,” Kirsten explained. “I hope you get to wherever it is you are going. It was nice meeting you.”

“Farewell, child.”

The woman turned and trudged off into the trees. Kirsten noticed that she looked more frail than ever, stooping now and laboring through every step, as if the berries had given her no nourishment at all. But the woman didn’t stop or turn back and soon she was out of sight.

Kirsten walked back to her house, foregoing the thought of picking any more berries that morning. As she ambled up her porch steps and reached for the front screen door she noticed that she still had the rock in her hand.

She pulled the screen door with her left hand and was about to step into the house when she felt the oddest sensation. The stone vibrated. She was sure of it. She looked at it in her hand for a moment. Suddenly, bringing it into the house didn’t seem like a good idea.

She wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was a gift, although reluctantly received. She walked over to her father’s wood shop at the end of the driveway. For some years now, she had her own little corner of the shop where she kept her set of carving tools and various little projects. She walked up to her storage cabinet where she kept odds and ends and pulled out one of the little drawers.

She dropped the stone into it and closed the drawer, strangely relieved to not have it in her hand anymore.

Kirsten went inside the house and set about doing her chores. As the day wore on, she thought less and less about the encounter in the woods. By evening the next day, she had almost forgotten it completely.

*****

          Now as the chilly air enveloped her blonde locks and coursed over her shoulders, Kirsten knew what was making the sound. She wondered if anyone else could hear it, it was getting louder by the minute.

She pulled her head back inside and shut the window. But she could still hear it. It was pulsing and piercing and it seemed to reside inside her own head as much as it came from outside.

She crept quietly out of her room and went down the hallway to her parents’ room. They always left the door open. She peeked inside and saw both of them sleeping soundly, a soft snore coming from each of them in turn, as if they were playing pitch and catch warmup.

The sound was continuing to increase in volume. Yet her parents seemed unaffected. She thought about waking them, but decided against it.

A feeling began in her mind at that point. It wasn’t fear. Nothing much scared Kirsten. At Halloween parties and teenage girl sleepovers, she was the one telling the ghost stories. It wasn’t quite dread, either.

She felt a mixture of annoyance and curiosity. What had this woman given her? She wasn’t even sure the sound was actually coming from the seemingly innocuous stone; it was tucked away in a drawer a hundred feet away. She had to know for sure. She had heard of tinnitus. What if this was just all in her head?

She decided to investigate. A quick trip to the kitchen to find a flashlight, and she was out the door, briskly approaching the wood shop to put this matter to rest once and for all.

She walked toward the shop entrance and opened the heavy oak door. It was never locked. As she swung it open, the sound leaped in intensity. Now it was pulsing hard, making her somewhat dizzy. At the far end of the shop, on her bench, she could see that one of the little drawers was glowing with a green sickly light.

She hesitated. Kirsten. She heard her name. Kirsten. Yes, she definitely heard her name. It wasn’t a fell voice from some ancient crypt in a cheap horror movie. It was soft and soothing and beckoning. It was coming from where the stone was glowing.

She stepped slowly toward her bench and heard her name twice more before she reached toward the little wooden drawer and pulled it open. The light shined brightly and now the sound had reached its apex.

Kirsten.

She reached for the stone and picked it up. It was warm, like before when the woman had handed it to her. It felt alive in her hand.

Kirsten, it seemed to say.

“I’m here, Salome,” she heard herself say.

You have a pure heart, Kirsten.

Kirsten clasped the stone in both hands, feeling its warmth course through her limbs. Soon it grew hot in her hands. She wanted to put it down, but found that she could not move. The stone grew hotter and hotter and Kirsten was sure she would be burned, but still she could not flex so much as a muscle. She felt the heat radiating through her body and as it did, the sound she had heard began to fade. Her whole body felt like if was on fire, but still she could not move. She couldn’t utter the scream that was building in her throat.

Finally, it subsided, and with it, the sound that had beckoned her.

She made up her mind to get rid of the stone. She would find the river and cast the stone in it. She should have never accepted it.

As she turned to face the door, she realized with a cold terror that something was profoundly wrong with her legs. They ached terribly, every bone and sinew protesting. She reached down to feel them and that’s when she noticed her back ached as well. Bolts of pain coursed down her spine as she stooped, and she realized immediately that getting back upright was going to be a challenge.

The flashlight was still on her work bench, shining at the wall. With some difficulty she reached out toward it to pick it up, but ended up knocking it down to the floor. Its beam now pointing toward her, she knelt down slowly to retrieve it and that’s when she saw her own hand.

It was shriveled and dark and ancient.

She tried to scream. But no voice was coming from her tightening throat. She wanted to run out of that room, but she could not pull herself up again. All she could do was crawl toward the door.

The stone, now cold, was still in her hand. She couldn’t open her locked fingers to let it go. She crawled desperately toward the open door and pulled herself through it with all of her dwindling strength.

As she inched her way over the path that led from the house to the wood shop, she heard footsteps.

She looked up and saw the silhouette of a woman gliding toward her in long easy strides.

In the bright moonlight, Kirsten could see that she was tall and had long flowing black hair. Her face was strong and proud, not unkind. She wore thick leather boots that thudded deeply as they pounded the ground beneath her. As she drew near to Kirsten, she looked intently at her; and even in the pale light Kirsten could see that her eyes were a bright shimmering blue.

“I’ll take that,” she said, stooping down and prying the stone out of Kirsten’s outstretched hand.

Kirsten looked up at her for a moment and formed a word with her dried lips: “Why?”

The woman looked at her for only a moment longer. She reached into her satchel, a leather bag with curious markings, and pulled something out. She held her hand over Kirsten and dropped a handful of berries on the ground in front of her. Then she turned and strode away down the path and toward the woods.

As the woman’s figure shrank away, the moonlight faded, until Kirsten looked up and saw that it was back to its first quarter shadow. She could feel her breaths getting shorter and shorter. Then the light faded out altogether.