Cooperative Cliffhanger – Part One

That day began like so many others in my youth. We lived in a poor town with poor people. It was quite the ordeal to gather food since my mother died. She had a knack for getting the things we needed. My father often argued with her when she brought home armfuls of food, but she always insisted she had to do what was needed to keep our family fed. More times than I can count, they went to bed arguing and yelling. When I was younger, I would cry myself to sleep hearing them fight. I was older that day and mother was no longer with us. I look back to those frightening nights – they were scary, but at least the comforting embrace was only a room away.

I had two older brothers and a sister. Kaleb was thirteen and Finn was sixteen. My sister, Madison, was eighteen, making me the youngest at ten years old.

My father did odd jobs – repairing furniture or digging projects. He had broad, muscular shoulders, but they seemed to sag after each day of work. He’d come home, demand dinner from the three of us, and fall asleep in a ragged chair in his bedroom. When mother was alive, that room was sunny and welcoming when they weren’t fighting. Now it’s empty of warmth like that cold December morning.

Like everyone else in my town we all wore threadbare clothes. Madison was quite the tailor, keeping our clothes more or less whole. We were all thin and hungry – not Madison; she managed to fill her clothes while the rest of us merely hung clothing on our frames like freshly washed linens drying on a clothesline. I never knew why father allowed her to select her food before anyone else. The rest of us always seemed so hungry. Our faces were sunken and our frames are wiry and thin. Madison was still thin, but I suspect she rarely went to sleep hungry. Sometimes I hated her for it; mostly I hated my father for favoring her above the rest of us. I’d never forgive his inability to protect mother before she died.

“Zachary, come help me with this table.”

I heard his voice from the back yard. The wooden slats keeping the winter chill away had many gaps. Madison always slept with four or five blankets, but I had only two. I saw my reflection in the cracked mirror in the room I shared with my brothers. I met the gaze of my reflection and wished I hadn’t. My eyes stared back, spidery with red veins. The whites more yellowish. I’d been told my eyes weren’t supposed to be yellow, but I didn’t remember them being any other color. Madison and I had blue eyes; Finn’s brown; and Kaleb’s green. Finn and Kaleb share whatever makes my eyes yellow; Madison’s eyes are white – I suspected her eating better than anyone else was the reason, but I dared not speak of this to my father.

I asked once why everyone has blue eyes except Finn and Kaleb. He smacked me across the face and told me to mind my own business. That night he and my mother had one of the loudest fights I could remember. It ended with him locked out of the bedroom, sleeping on the floor in front of the door like a faithful dog. Not that we had a dog – dogs made better meals than companions.

“Boy! What the hell is taking so long?”

“Sorry sir, I’m on my way.”

It had been less than a minute since he called. He had no patience, but responding in any other way earned you the back of his hand.

I rushed out of the room and galloped down the stairs. Madison sat at the kitchen table mending clothes. I brushed past her and out the back door. Kaleb and Finn were working over a log with a saw and axe.

Finn stared at me with his dark eyes and furrowed his brow. He was obviously angry – father would take out his frustration on Finn or Kaleb more than Madison or me. I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected Kaleb felt the same way about me as I felt about Madison. I ignored his scowl and rushed to father’s side. The smell of alcohol was like a slap across the face – just like the time I asked about the different eye colors.

“Hold this leg steady while I screw it to the table.”

I took my place under the table. This particular table belonged to one of the few people in the town who visited us regularly. I never understood why so many people avoided us. It was noticeable when running errands. Shopkeepers would refuse to look me in the eyes. Women would gather their children and cross the street to avoid walking near me.

Mother tried to explain it once. She said it had to do with our religion. She didn’t explain further, but said I would understand when I was older.

Sitting under that table, I closed my eyes and saw her sitting in a chair wiping my teary eyes and hugging me close. I remember her vanilla smell vividly. When she died, I snuck into her room and stole a scarf she liked to wear. The vanilla smell faded long ago, but I keep the scarf hidden in my bed. It made me feel better having it near.

“Open your eyes, boy. I need this leg to be perfect.”

Before I could respond, a voice sounded from the house. “Abraham! Io Saturnalia!”
Father put down the screwdriver and turned to face the newcomer.

“Io Saturnalia, Brother Victor! I’m not finished with your table yet.”

Victor grasped my father’s hand. I could tell something wasn’t right. He kept looking over his shoulder and talked quietly.

“Don’t worry about the table. I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Father motioned towards the house, “Step inside; we’ll discuss it over some vodka.”

“There’s no time. They’re coming for you.

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About Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degrees in Computer Systems and Applications and Applied Human Behavior. View all posts by Mark Gardner

4 responses to “Cooperative Cliffhanger – Part One

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