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Lynn :iconaragem:Aragem 0 0
Literature
Clover 2
The air was still rife with tension when Clover came tentatively downstairs.  When she peeked into the room, she saw Aunt Martha was sitting on the couch with her pink hands tuck between her knees and her eyes teary and red.  Mom was sitting beside her with a comforting arm around her shoulders.  Dad was still sitting on the couch as he was when they went upstairs.  Clover doubted that he ever moved at all while they were upstairs.  
She heard feet clamoring down the steps behind her.  Their noise drew the adults who all cast weary, irritated, and sad eyes towards them.  With Clover in the front with Charlie, Ivan, and surprisingly, Brian behind her, it seemed to come down on her to give the explanation of why they were downstairs.  
“We wanna play outside.”  She tried to sound confident, but it came out in a reedy voice as if she were complaining.  She cleared it and said steadily, “If it’s alright.”
The a
:iconAragem:Aragem
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Literature
Clover

Clover kept her eyes on the cartoony figures splashing across the small LCD screen of her iPhone.  With the earbuds snugged in her ears so she couldn’t hear nor see anyone trying to get her attention from the front seat.  They would have to reach back to get her attention in an already cramped car or have her brother get her attention and knowing him, he would punch her in the arm giving her an excuse to punch him back and starting a fight she knew her parents didn’t want.  So she was contented to be left alone in her own world of video game apps and the distant sound of car tires crunching salt and snow.  
It was a relief when her father was tired of the Chistmas Carrol CD he brought for the trip and had switched it over to the radio which droned on and on about an upcoming snowstorm.  Her mother was constantly worrying about it and her father reassured her that his parents had weathered many a storm i
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Mature content
Through the Snow part 3 :iconaragem:Aragem 3 2
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Through the Snow part 2 :iconaragem:Aragem 1 1
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Through the Snow :iconaragem:Aragem 17 14
Mature content
Emotions: Life :iconaragem:Aragem 0 0
Mature content
D9 Stained: Consequences :iconaragem:Aragem 2 0
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Green Past., Quiet Wat. 7 pt 2 :iconaragem:Aragem 0 0
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Green Past., Quiet Wat. 7 pt 1 :iconaragem:Aragem 0 0
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Short Bit :iconaragem:Aragem 0 0
Mature content
Candle Light :iconaragem:Aragem 3 1
Literature
Flower
Flower
Little one standing
In a world of green expanse
Small white face staring
Little one nursing from sun
Drinking deep sunlight
Small green grass looking upward
O you are a white queen
The sun loves your worshipping
Blades of grass love you
Wind seduces your body
Slim frame jostling
From his sweet strokes and lappings
You are a delight
You are set upon a throne
Held enthralled by small
Green subjects up lifting you
Your mother the Sun
Giving you your life with light
You lover the wind
Kisses the tops of the grass
Saving love for you
You live content on your throne
Your petals waving
Til the day you were kidnapped
A little one came
And saw your beauty so pure
And wanted you too
She plucked you from Father Earth
Stole you from your throne
Leaving your subjects mourning
For your white bright face
Mother wept, her Daughter rain
Made the world to weep
You died O little White Queen
The life left you be
Within a cell of water
And mocking clear glass
Your pale beauty bled away
To be assault
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Mature content
Green Pastures, Quiet Waters 6 :iconaragem:Aragem 0 0
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Green Pastures, Quiet Waters 5 :iconaragem:Aragem 0 0
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Green Pastures, Quiet Waters 4 :iconaragem:Aragem 1 0

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Activity


Sorry, it's been years and I had been occupied with long serious of being unemployed, working crappy end jobs, but finally I have something that'll keep me financially stable without me wanting to shoot myself.  

Big change.  I'm currently working on three novels.  Clover, Noel, and Lynn, yes all three have titular female leads.  I know its a big undertaking to write three novels at the same time, but I've been enjoying it so far.  What I post won't be the finished product, but will undergo changes and revisions as time goes by, but in the mean time, whatever feedback I can get will be most helpful.  
  • Reading: Cleo
  • Watching: South Park
  • Playing: Mass Effect 2

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Untitled by Aragem

When I woke up, it was to the sound of birdsong.  The chirrups were ripples of sound in my ears, both soothing and calling at the same time.  I was stirred to move and in moving I felt the tickle of heather and long grass along my arms and legs.  I opened my eyes and shut them quickly against the bright flash of light escaping from the green canopy above.  

Shielding my face, I ease my eyes open and took in my surroundings.  The forest stretched out before me, like something from a children’s picture book.  It felt like mid-morning as the air was cool without being too cold and the sun was making itself known by the dappling of shadows playing on the dress and on my skin.  And I noticed, much to my surprise and embarrassment, that the grass and heather were tickling places that no one clothed would expect to be tickled.

I was naked.  Bare naked.  I had not one stitch of clothing on my person and looking around, I found no discarded clothes to indicate that I had any articles of clothing before I fell asleep of wherever I was.

I had been sleeping on an overgrowth of grass and heather at the foot of a tall tree that had shielded me from the sun.  It’s roots had thick and raised above the ground, forming a wreath around me and the foliage that had served as a form of nest for me.  

I stood and stretched my back and limbs, feeling refreshed as one who had just had a good sleep and eager to begin the day.  Was I unnerve by waking up naked in the woods?  Yes, I very much was, but I wasn’t afraid.  It was as if I was covered in a blanket of calm practicality.

I checked myself and found no injury.  There were no scraps, scratches, bruises, or anything to indicate I was attacked or harmed in the slightest.  In fact, I was clean as if instead of sleeping on the ground, I had just stepped from clean shower.  My hair was clean and straight as if just brushed and my skin bore no marks or dirt.  

If violence didn’t bring me here, then why was I here?  Then I realized what I was missing and it went far beyond the clothing.  I couldn’t remember a thing from before I woke up.  I reached back in my mind for them, but the memories wouldn’t come as if they were trapped away by the back of my mind, just out of reach.  Yet, I was able to grasp one small tidbit of information about myself and it was possibly the most important piece of all.

My name.  Lynn.  I knew it to be my name as it came to being as being a precious and most recognizable.  It was apart of me and represented me and my being.  

Somehow, just having that much kept me from panicking and focus on my current need.  I didn’t wake up because of the birdsong.  I woke up because I needed to take a piss.

* * *

After taking care of my present need, I thought over my options of which I had two.  I could stay here and hope that answers of who I was and how I came to be here would come to me or I could leave and find those answers myself.  

Upon waking, I felt energetic like an overcharged battery.  I wanted to go, to do something, and waiting around for something or someone to come to me wasn’t appealing.  Yet, I felt a strong connection with this place; the nest that cradle me and the tree that looked over me as I slept.  Despite, my urge to leave, I would regret doing so.

I gave it all one last look before I departed and made up my mind not to look back in fear that doing so would convince me not to go.  

I was lucky as there was no were no briers or sharp rocks to hurt my feet.  The air was comfortably cool and the forest canopy protected me from the sun.  it would have been a comfortable stroll if not for the circumstances.  The birdsong filled the air and I saw a robin perch on a branch chirruping a mating call.  It’s breast was the brightest shade of red I had ever seen on any bird, at least in my current state of memory.  I paused staring at it until it flew off, alarmed by my presence.  My eyes followed it skyward and that was how I saw the trail of smoke through.

Shielding my face with both hands, I studied the smoke.  It wasn’t a large pillar of billowing smoke like from a house fire, but small dark wisp, like an afterthought of a fire.  Where there was fire, there had to be people, right?  A voice in the back of my mind reminded me that people could be dangerous and I was pretty vulnerable right now with no clothes or memory.  On the other hand, people could mean aide and answers.  

I had to stop several times to seek a break in the canopy to make certain I was going in the right direction.  I was worried the fire would go out and cease making a beacon for me to follow before I got to wherever I was going.  I found myself eager to get there, to find other people, as I didn’t fancy staying another night out in the woods and I would soon be hungry and thirsty.  If I had been a wilderness survivalist, which could have partly explained my predicament, I couldn’t remember it.    

And when I got to where smoke led me, I suddenly wished I had chosen the former option of not following.  What I saw was in a small clearing, shielded by a copse of trees and for the first time since I awakened, I was frighten.

Four men lay dead around a smoldering campfire.  I stared at them, hoping that eventually one of them would move or a rising of a chest would indicate some trace of life.  But they lay still, not moving as if they were stones instead of people.  Back then, I no recollection of any experience with death.  I reacted more horrified of the dead than I was of what could have happened to bring them to such a state.  

I couldn’t be certain of how long I stayed by the tree, too afraid to move.  But as the minutes crawled and nothing happened, my heart began to slow from the fast pounding and I was aware of the sweat beading my brow.  I approached them slowly, cautiously, studying them.

Two of them wore armor with swords at their belts and on the chest plate was embossed was white ring surround a black vortex.  One still had his sword in its sheathe and the others sword lay inches from his right hand.  The other two men wore white robes with the same white circle around a black vortex.  They were older men, but not venerable, as if they were used to traveling the road.  They were sprawl next together as if they had died in while conversing.  And as I drew closer, I saw how they died.  An almost straight, blood crusted, red line were across their throats, save for the man with his sword out.  There was a long slash that bit into the metal across his collarbone where blood had sprayed the grass where he fell.    

Whatever had happened or whatever caused this, it was long gone.  The blood was dried, almost flaking from cold skin and armor.  The fire that had provided me a beacon to follow was near dead and the food in the cooking pot was burned and spoiled.  I considered stoking it again, but saw there was no need.  I wasn’t cold and I wasn’t planning on staying any longer than I must.

I wanted to stay away from them, but I was nude without any food or water and these men had a bags set the side of camp that surely offered what I so needed.  Giving the bodies a wide berth, I went to the bags.  There were four, likely one for each of them, and a fifth bag made of a velvety material.  The four travel bags had travel rations: hard cheese, bread, and dried meat.  Full water skins, extra clothes, and other items of personal belongings for the deceased.  

There were books, blankets, travel cloaks, purses of coins, even a case with a pen and small ink bottle.  One of the bags contained a necklace with a piece of metal banged into a circle which I believed was supposed to be a heart and on it the word Mara.  Seeing this piece of keepsake sobered me.  I had been digging through the bags, at first hurriedly so I could go away as soon as possible, then out of eager curiosity.  

I held the necklace and looked back at the dead men and felt the guilt roll through me.  They had been living men and here I was going through their things like a thief.  I laid the necklace down top of the bag I pulled it from and reached for the velvet bag.  It was with reverence that I carefully opened it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened it as it was pristine and crafted from such fine material.  A bundle was wrapped inside wax paper and inside was a white satin dress trimmed in black at the skirt and sleeves.  A silken sash was tied loosely at the waist, serving as a decorative belt.  The dress was beautiful and so out of touch with my surroundings that for a moment I didn’t believe it was real.  It was cool to the touch and flowed like water through my hands.  I was sorely tempted to try it on as it looked to be in my size, but instantly told myself no, it didn’t belong to me and was likely a gift for a woman from one these men.  

Also inside was a pair of white soft felt slippers, an ivory necklace with the emblem of the same white circle around a black vortex, a silver circlet, and a tome full of poetry.  Not being a fan of poetry, I set it aside.  Definitely a gift for a woman.  I push the things back inside and tug the silk ropes to close it tight and set it aside.

Then I reached for the clothes.  They were several sizes too big and homespun, but they did the job in clothing me.  Just being clothed gave me a bit of courage and I turned to the men and eyed their boots.  Wasn’t there a superstition against stealing a dead man’s boots?  I could continue barefoot, but was sure to get blisters or hurt my foot on something sharp or jagged and I doubted the slippers were suitable for traveling by foot and I had no idea how long I would have to walk before I came across . . . something.  

To ease my reservations, I decided to think of the men as gentlemen who wouldn’t let a woman walk barefoot if they could help it and they no longer had any need for the boots.  Taking them was easier said than done.  I was still ill at ease about taking a dead man’s boots and also rigor mortis had already set in.  The heel refused to flex unless I pulled with all my might and even then the sick popping when I managed to bend it made me let go just before I slipped the boot off thus wasting my efforts each time.  By the time I was able to get them off the smaller robed man, I was relieved and tired by my success that I thought nothing of pulling them on.  They were still too big, but comfortable and felt good to walk with something between my soles and the grass.

Then I spotted the sheathed knife at his belt.  I eyed it, not wanting to go through the effort of taking it from this dead man, but too afraid not to take it with me.  I had tried lifting the sword and it was much heavier than it looked and I doubted I could carry it far with the bags and water skins weighing me down.  I tried to pull the knife and sheath free, but found it was on a loop around the belt.  I would have to undo the belt to thread it through.  

I held my breath to keep from smelling the coppery blood and did the belt.  It was thick and almost solidly refused budging to my fingers, but after a series of hard tugs, I managed to pull it free of the iron buckle and get my prize.  The knife was weighty in my hand and the blade’s edge gleamed at me when I slid it from the sheath.  I felt better, braver with it in my hand.  I didn’t have a belt so I took silk sash from the dress and tied it around my waist and tread it through the sheath loop.  It was a comforting weight against my hip and I would find that I developed a habit of gripping and touching the hilt to reassure myself.    

With that done, I carefully placed all the items I wouldn’t be taking with me back into their respective bags and placed each one with whom I believed was the owner based on the contents.  The ones with books I placed with the robed men and I laid the necklace and the bag of women’s clothes with the younger of the two armored men.  Then I collected the food into one of the bags and slung over one arm and the water skins over the other.  The water skins were heavy, but I knew that if I didn’t take what I could, then I would regret it later.    

Before I could leave, I felt I had to say a few words, some sort of eulogy.  Hearing my own voice, was startling, as I hadn’t had a need to speak since waking and couldn’t recall the sound of my own voice.  

“I’m sorry that you died.  I’m sorry that I can’t do more for you than just saying a few words.  I hate that I have to take from you, but I want to believe you would have wanted to help me if you were alive.”   Not knowing of anything to say further, I ended it with,  “I’m sorry and God bless you.”

I’m sure someone more attuned to religion and giving speeches would have done a better job of it than I.  With my eulogy given, I left the campsite.

* * *

Before the campsite, my fear had been packed away like some forgotten memory of a dream.  Yet, seeing the dead bodies brought the danger of being alone and vulnerable home for me.  Clothed, laden with supplies and water, and with a knife for protection, I felt better, safer.  Yet, I wasn’t foolish enough to believe this was enough.  I needed more than just answers for my predication, I needed civilization or some place I could find security and shelter.  

With no way or knowledge of telling the time, I had no idea of how long I walked.  The first hour was easy going, but by the end of I was sweating and walking at a slow gait.  Then by the second hour I was taking short breaks to catch my breath and taking small sips of water.  And by the third hour, I was taking longer breaks and had already gone through one of my four water skins.  

Likely, whoever I was, I wasn’t one for hiking or perhaps I had overloaded myself.  And on top of it all, the morning sun was getting higher and hotter as the day drew close to noon.  It wasn’t even half the day and I was already exhausted as if I had traveled for days.

I found a shaded thicket and decided I needed a good long rest before I continue and my stomach was growling.  As much as I wanted to conserve food, I had no idea when the last time I had eaten and perhaps if I hate some of it, it would be a lighter load to carry.  I chose a comfortable spot and sat in the shade and opened a bag.  The bread was almost stale, but broke easily between my hands.  I nibbled the crust before taking a bigger bite and then fumbled a hunk of hard cheese from the bag.  

It’s a shame I didn’t have butter or a skillet or I’d made a grill cheese, I thought to myself.  I munched on the bread and cheese between small sips of water.  I thought of how much I wanted a grill cheese sandwich and remembered stoves, both gas and electrical.  Then with that memory came a kitchen with granite counter tops and a stainless steel fridge with french doors.  

Okay, I could remember my kitchen, or a kitchen.  Maybe from there, more memories could come, but none came, then.  When I finished my chunk of cheese and bread, I resisted the temptation to eat more and rest longer.  It was close to noon and I had no idea how many hours of walking I had ahead of me before I came across my next supply of food or water.  

My legs had become stiff from sitting and after stretching them, I gathered my supplies and continued on my way.  

I came along the creek an hour later and I lay on my stomach on the bumpy rocks and drank from it for a long time.  It was nice and cold and I drenched my face and hair.  The cold drops rolling down my neck was instant relief as the shirt was beginning to cling to my skin.  I refilled my empty water skin and drank some more.  

Then I heard the baaing.  It frighten me as I didn’t recognize it for what it was until I heard it the second time.  I looked around and after hearing the cry several times I was able to pinpoint from where it was coming from.  Leaving the bags and water skins behind, I followed the sounds to a tall bank and using roots as handholds, I hauled myself up into a copse greatly shaded by a thick canopy.  

At first, I didn’t see anything until my eyes adjusted to the shade and then I noticed the white in the bushes.  The lamb baaed piteously at me though the brambles and I fell in love with her.

“Oh my God, you poor precious darling!”  I climbed up and steady my balance against the trunks, stepping over roots as brambles tugged at my pants legs.  The lamb struggled to stand and the briers tangled in its soft wool held it in place with legs splayed at odd angles.  I tugged at the briers and ended up with several scratches across my palm before I remembered the knife at my hip.  

I would have thought cutting through the briers would be quick work, but I had to hold the briers at the right angle to cut and the lamb shifting would end up having my hand scratched more or have the blade slip and nearly slice my fingers.  I made soft shushing sounds when she began to bay excitedly, sensing help and freedom.  When I cut away enough of the brambles, I reached in and pulled the lamb free and nearly fell backwards with her across my lap.  

I set her on her hooves and she tread the ground on uneasy legs.  I petted her and whispered to her in a sing-song baby talk.  “Aren’t you a pretty little girl . . .” (I looked, but couldn’t tell which so I was going off my own assumption).  “Where’s your Mommy?”  The lamb replied with another vague bleat.  

It was harder climbing down with a lamb under one arm than it was climbing up with both hands free.  I took my time, determine to get down without falling or dropping the lamb.  It was a lot of effort and I was relieved when my feet were on solid ground.  

I set the lamb down and she made stumbling steps towards the creek.  There was no telling how long she had been tangled in the brambles and with the scent of water just feet away.  I carried her to the water’s edge and watched her drink which made me thirsty again.

We both drank side by side.  I wiped my mouth on the back of one hand and decided it was time to go, but I would follow the creek as it provided a plentiful supply of water and I wouldn’t need to carry so many water skins.  I didn’t want to leave the lamb behind as I feared she could become caught in a bush again or, worse, be caught by a predator.  She didn’t seem willing to follow me as she were more interested in a picking at nibbles of grass near the water’s edge.

I took the knife and cut the strap from a water skin I was leaving behind and threaded it through the knife sheath loop and tied it around my neck.  The knife thumped against my chest as I took the sash from my waist and tied it to fashion a leash for Bliss, the name I had given the lamb.  With a gentle tug, Bliss followed along behind me, first resisting the unfamiliar sensation of being led by the neck and then trotting along on more balanced legs.  

* * *

Hours later, I found the bridge.  I found walking next to a creek easier as the water kept the air cool and I could stop and soak my feet whenever I stopped to rest.  I rubbed the soles of them, noticing blisters forming on the balls and the edges of my toes were chafing from the rubbing insides of boots that didn’t fit me.  I was tempted to go barefoot, but I knew that a minute I choose to go without the boots, I would step on something sharp and wished I had never taken them off.    

The creek had began to thinned into a stream with the bank becoming steeper and steeper.  I couldn’t walk along the water’s edge as the ground was sodden and more than once I nearly lost a boot to the sucking mud and poor Bliss’s wool was stained from mud.  When I saw the bridge it was a most welcome sight as I had begun to fear I had awaken many, many miles from any people.  The bridge was a single stone arch with vines and moss clinging to the rocks.  

It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning it’s descent downward.  It seemed like a good place as any for a rest and I just about collapse onto the ground with the stones supporting my back.  Bliss bleated as she nosed through the leaves and grass.  Well, it was going to get dark soon and I have yet to find anyone to help me.  I looked through my supplies and estimated I had enough to last me for two more days, that is if I ration it carefully.  The creek had solved my water problem, but now I feared it may be time I abandoned my water source.  

Bridges don’t build themselves so there had to be people nearby.  A village or a town, something within walking distance, hopefully.  There should be a path I could follow and my water skins were still full and I could get one more good drink before I left the creek and I should be good to walk for a while yet.    

Yet, my feet were aching and my body was just done for the day.  No matter how I tried to rise to my feet, but body rebelled.  I was just too spent to continue on and I wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow when my body would be sore and stiff.  

It seemed I was facing something I really didn’t want to do and that was spend the night in the forest.  It shouldn’t be bad, I had already done it, I told myself.  Yet, I still wasn’t feeling brave about it.  It would be dark and I had no means or any idea of how to build a fire.  At least, it was a warm night and I shouldn’t become cold.

Bliss nosed at my pants leg and I rubbed her head.  Stroking her head brought a wave of tranquility over me and all my worries abated.  I closed my eyes and let my exhaustion tow me to sleep.

* * *

When I woke up, it was night.  For a brief moment, I panicked until I looked up and saw the moon high in the sky and I remembered where I was.  Bliss was curled asleep on my lap with her nose tucked beneath a leg.  She raised her head alarmed when I shifted my legs and I soothingly petted her.  It was late night and the birdsong was replaced with the chirruping of crickets and the distant hoot of an owl.  Several fireflies glowed in bright yellow dots over the water.  

It wasn’t as dark as I believed it would be.  The moon was providing adequate light for me to see when my eyes adjusted.  I idly stroked Bliss, my finger tips rolling through her soft wool, as my mind went back to old questions.

Who was I?  Other than a name, I had no idea of where I came from.  I remembered a kitchen and other things were slowly coming back to me.  I now remembered what a car was and I wished I had one now.  Better, yet, a phone.  I could call 911 and have someone find me.  Yet, for some reason, I understood that neither of these were available to me, not because of their absence, but because they were far, far away, completely unattainable.  

I shivered, drawing Bliss against my chest in a cuddle which did little to comfort me.  Suddenly, I was very afraid of what could happen tomorrow, of what I could learn tomorrow.

* * *

The rumble of a wagon on the path above woke me up.  It was early morning and the cool air reinvigorated me.  My body was stiff, but I was able to move with new strength.  Bliss bleated at me from the soft grass she had made her bed.  As the sound of a wagon grew louder, I heard the clopping of horse hooves clopping on the path and a man’s voice singing a song I wasn’t familiar with.

I saw a pretty, pretty girl with pretty pretty lips

She sang pretty, pretty songs about love and family

And she sang of Gods and Kings

I weighed Bliss’s leash under a heavy stone and climbed of the hill on level with the path.  On the road was a wagon driven by a man in his fifties or sixties.  He was the one singing and when he saw me, he pulled the old gray mare pulling the wagon to a halt.  The wagon was covered with a canvas and I could see the curve of heavy barrels forming curvatures at the sides.  Pots and pans hung from the sides on metal hooks and I could see full burlap sacks stacked just behind the backboard

The man was wearing ragged clothes with brown feet in wooden sandals.  His eyes gave me a near sighted squint.  “What are ye doing on the road, boyo?”

His near sight mistook me for a boy.  My hair was cut short and I was wearing men’s clothing.  I supposed it was simple enough mistake and it was one that I decided not to correct.  A voice in the back of my mind said it would be safer to be assumed a guy traveling along than a woman by herself.  “I’m lost.  I was wondering if there was a town or city nearby.”

The man gave me a suspicious squint.  “From where do you hail, boy?”

Geez, did it matter where I came from?  I’m more concerned about where I’m going.  Why shouldn’t I just tell him the truth?  I woke up alone, naked in the woods and I came across four dead guys of whom I lifted food and water and clothes.  No, he wouldn’t believe it or if he did, he’d be suspicious and full of questions I couldn’t possibly answer.  “I come from the west.”  

Then the man rolled his eyes as if an unhappy revelation came over him.  “A refugee?  I knew they were going to come our way after a while.”

Again, I didn’t correct him.  Letting him come to his own assumptions may aide me more than giving him the full truth.  In fact, I had no way of knowing exactly what direction I had travel.  I’m pretty sure I had gone in circles a few times.  I said casually, “I’ve come a long way.”

His accent was off.  It reminded me of British, but it had a flavor to it that I was unfamiliar with.  “If you’re asking for a ride, then you’re out of luck.  I carry no passengers, paying or not, in my wagon.  I have no room and my cargo is heavy enough as it is.  I can give you directions if that helps.”

“Sure, I just want to go somewhere I don’t have to spend another night outdoors.”

“Well, the village is a few hours travel that way, but there’s a farm half a day’s travel from here.  Friendly folk, you’ll take you in if you’re willing to work.  They’re sheepherders though, and will set their dogs on any sheep thieves.”

Okay, it seemed I know now where Bliss came from and I may or may not be a sheep thief.  I could only hope that Bliss stayed quiet down below at the bank.  “How do I find them?”

“Follow the path back the way I came.  You’ll walk three miles, it’ll take you out of the forest, then you’ll see a smaller path branching off.  Follow that and you’ll come across them after a mile or so.”

I hoped my dismay at more miles of walking didn’t show on my face.  “I’ll see if the farm will have any . . . work for me.”  If I wasn’t cutout for hiking, then chances are I’m not worth spit in farming, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

The man gave me another scrutinizing squint.  “How far did you come to have speech such as yours?”

“Very, very far.”  I hoped he didn’t asked where exactly I came from.  I had no knowledge of the surrounding lands to make anything up.  

Thankfully, the man lifted the reins and gave them a dismissive flick.  “Not my business to pry into strangers’ business.  Head on to the Collums Farm.  If you’re a good soul, they’ll treat you well.  If you’re not then you’ll have Jace Collum and his lads to reckon with.”

I watched the wagon trundle over the bridge and climbed down the bank.  Fortunately, I had weighted down Bliss’s leash where she had plenty of grass and water to keep quietly happy.  My back ached and my legs were sore, but I was energize from sleep and now having a direction to travel and I wanted to be moving.  

Shouldering my bag and water skins and tucking Bliss beneath my arm, I climbed up the slope and started down the road.  It wasn’t exactly a road, per se, it was more like a path that had been formed by constant use through the forest by wagons and many feet.  I could see chips of cobble stones from when it had been a formal road.  Whether it was from age or lack of maintenance, it had relapsed into a dirt path.    

Bliss trotted at my heels, her tiny hooves kicking up small puffs of dust, sometimes with a bounce in her step.  She seemed to have enjoyed our time together and I hate to see it end.  I could knock on the farm door and tell them I found their lamb and I was returning her.

The problem was that I didn’t want to return her.  I had grown attached to Bliss to the point that I was making plans of keeping her as a pet.  I wasn’t sure where or how I lived, but I would make room for her if I could hold onto her.  I was almost tempted not to go the farm.  Searching my feelings, I knew I could part with her if I had to and if I was certain she was going to a good home.  And each time I looked at her trotting at my feet made the dread of parting with her stronger.

I focused my mind to other things such as why I decided to hide where I came from.  Something was wrong.  Other than my missing memories and waking up with no clothes in the forest, that is.  A beacon in the back of my mind was flashing over and over, alerting me that something wasn’t right, that something was out of place, and just wrong and I couldn’t figure it out what that could be.  At least, not at that moment.  That would come later.

Other than Bliss, I felt a sense of detachment from everything around me.  I was a part of my surrounds, but I was still apart from it.  Something wasn’t meshing together and until I figured out what it was, I would still become confused of what was going on and a bit distrustful of it.  Such as why I didn’t trust the man in the wagon.

Soon my hungry stomach demanded breakfast and I stopped beneath an oak tree in the shade to eat.  I gave Bliss a few bits of bread and rubbed her satin head.  Oh, yes, it was going to be a sad to part with what had become companion at a confusing time.

Walking on the path was easier than traipsing through bushes and over roots, but walking was still painful to my blistered feet.  I regretted the leaving the creek behind as soaking them in its cool water would have helped the pain.

A shade passed across the ground before me.  I thought it was a cloud passing over the sun or that I had walked beneath a thick part of the canopy, but a chill crept down my spine.  Bliss bleated, but it wasn’t her usual happy or curious baa.  She stopped and wouldn’t move despite my gentle tugs on the sash.  Standing as still as a small white statue, her nostrils flared in the air and small eyes flashing.  Then I noticed the silence.

Ever since I woke up, there had always been noise.  Birdsong, squirrels shaking leaves, rabbits disturbing bushes, just something alive making some sort of noise in the foliage.  Now there was nothing save for the rustle of leaves in the breeze.  I felt another chill roll down my back, between my shoulders.

I picked up Bliss and cradle her in my arms and began moving in a quick gait.  She wriggled, not wanting to be off her feet.  I kept feeling the chills spreading through my shoulders and back and frightfully feeling I was being watched.  

I told myself that I was being silly, that I was overthinking it.  That there was nothing there, following me.  Yet another part was warning me that there was something out there that was scaring Bliss was watching me.  

Wolves?  Would that old man have warned me if there were wolves out here?  Would a farm be out here if there were?  

There was a non-physical weight on me and I shivered.  It was the feeling you got when you know someone is scoping you from across the room and it wasn’t the sort that gave you a good feeling.  It wasn’t wolves and I found myself wishing it was.  

Ahead, there was a break in the trees and as I drew close I could see that I was getting close to the edge of the forest.  I swallowed, tightening my grip on Bliss and ready to drop the bags if it should come to it.  If I could break out of the forest then whatever it was following me wouldn’t have a place to hide.  The dagger felt heavy on my breast and if I should relinquish my bags, my next motion would be to draw it.  

Maybe it was my imagination borne from my anxiety of that moment, but I heard a twig snap behind me.  I took off.  Ignoring the agony in my feet, Bliss protests of being jiggled about and how the bag and water skins were weighing my down, I ran, my feet pounding the ground.  Over the clopping of my oversize boots on the ground, I could imagine hands or claws reaching behind me, to snag my shirt or shoulders.  

The bright sun greeted me when we broke through the edge of the trees and I nearly fell over my feet.  Bliss squeak as I dropped her during my stumbles and I managed to keep on my feet, bent double and heaving.  I wrench around to look at the edge of the dress and saw movement beyond them.  I held my breath, despite my desperate need for air and waited for whatever would come through those trees for me.  

Nothing came.

I nearly toppled over from exhaustion and lack of air and dropped to my hands and needs and came close to retching up my breakfast.  I was sorely tempted to just laid on the grass and just pass out, but I didn’t dare in case whatever was in those trees decided to come out.  I checked Bliss and she was fine through shaken and still nervous.  I let her walk with me from the end of the sash and left the edge of the forest with my feet punishing me for the sudden run.    

I had to stop and rest, nearly draining half a water skin to cool down as there was no more shade.  I was out in the open with slopes of hills around me.  The grass was short with bushes and foliage sprouting here and there.  Bliss happily ate from a clover patch and seemed more comfortable in the field than she was in the forest.  I had to admit I was feeling more restful out in the open despite it being warmer.

We soon came to the branching path the man had mentioned and the sun was high in the sky.  It branched off from the top of a steep hill and from there I could see valley spread out before me.  The path ran through like a drop of water along a smooth surface, winding this way and that.  But below, with my eyes shielded, I could see a white cloud on the ground that seemed to pulse and move.  It was a sheep herd.  I was getting close.

* * *    

The rest of the way was an easy downward stroll.  Since my destination was closer, I was walking with longer strides and forgoing breaks in my eagerness to get there.  Once again, I saw a finger of smoke the horizon.  With the sun beaming on my back, like a hand urging me forward, I made my way to the farm.

Bliss heard the calls of sheep before I did.  She paused in a stiff stance listening before she responded with her own bleating calls.  A dog was rounding the sheep up, urged on by a boy of ten or eleven bearing a shepard's staff.  He stopped and stared at me.

I must have been quite a sight, to be sure.  I was woman wearing men’s clothing too big for her walking a lamb on a sash leash.  He must be wondering if I’m some insane wretch come to steal the sheep starting with a lamb.  

I waved in a way that I hoped conveyed I didn’t mean any harm.  I walking over slowly, and much to my dismay, the boy took several steps back.  “Hi, my name is Lynn . . .” And despite how much I practiced my greeting in my head (Hi, my name is Lynn, is this lamb yours?) it fell apart until the luminous stare of wide brown eyes.  Instead, I settled for the tried and true greeting for any kid.  “Where’s your mother?”

His free hand raised to point down the path to where I could make out the outline of several buildings in the distance.  “Okay, thanks, I’m going down to visit her, alright?”

I could feel the boy’s eyes on me as I left with little Bliss skipping by my feet, likely happy to be home again.  Meeting the boy made me nervous as I wondered if I would receive the same reception of wide eyes and shocked silences.  I was having second thoughts about coming here, perhaps I would have been better off going to the village, but it was too late now.  Since I believed I was getting help soon, I had been a bit greedy with my supplies and water and I didn’t fancy going back into the forest to whatever had been following me.

As I drew closer, I made out more and more details of the farm.  A large farmhouse lay central of several small buildings.  Children of various ages were carrying large wash tubs from the barn under the supervision of a teenage girl holding a baby on her hip.  At the edge of the barn was a paddock where several cows rested while a small herd of goats grazed.  To my amusement, baby goats were climbing on and off a cow’s back.  

The girl with the baby noticed me first.  She stared at me for a moment and just I feared she was as struck dumb as the boy in the field, she beckoned one of the children over and after a quick whisper into his ear and pointing at the house.  He took off at a run calling for Mum.

A woman stuck her head out the door and saw me.  By the moment, all the kids were looking at me, curiously.  I stopped and held up my hands, one still holding Bliss’s sash leash, to show I meant no harm.  The woman bustle out of the house, letting the door slam behind her.  She was heavyset woman with blonde braids tied up away from her face.  Her skirts made low whooshing sounds as she strode to me.

Thankfully, this time I was able to make my greeting, “Hello, my name is Lynn and is this your lamb?”

The woman stopped and looked at Bliss, then at me and back at Bliss.  Then she tossed back her head and laughed.  Her laughter rolled from her, making her face and large breasts shake.  When the woman recovered, she wheezed, “I don’t know.  One lamb looks like any other lamb.  I suppose it could be as last month a wolf attacked our herd and being the dumb animals they are, they scattered to the four winds, some of them pregnant ewes.  Where did you find this one?”  She spoke with the

“In the forest, she was trapped in briers.”  

“Ah, it sounds like her mother gave birth out there and abandoned her when she was caught in briers.  They’ll do that, ya know.  Oh, well, it’s fine now, perhaps one of the other ewes will take her in and if not, she would not the first lamb we raised by hand.”

I was relieved to hear that Bliss would be cared for once we parted ways, which seemed to be now.  A boy, younger than the one herding sheep, came forward at his mother’s beckons.  “Cyril, take the lamb to the barn and finish setting up the tubs.  Mari, give me Krissi and get some onions from the garden for supper.  Rudolph, once you and your brother finish with the tubs, go fetch some water from the well and fill the washtub.”

With her orders dispense, the children scattered to obey save for Cyril who reached for Bliss, but then noticed the sash.  He touched it with a small, dirty finger and it rippled like water.  “I never saw cloth like this, Mum.”

“It’s silk, son, now go on and do what I told you to.”  The mother settled the baby on her hip and gave me a sharp look, “That’s a very expensive piece of cloth to use for an animal.”

I swallowed, suddenly feeling nervous and guilty under that critical eye.  “It was all I had at the moment when I found her.  It’s still clean,” I added defensively.  The boy gingerly untied the sash from Bliss’s neck and I held it across both hands.  It was clean, but had bits of grass clinging to it, likely from where Bliss had brushed against tall grass.    

“Ah, just never met a woman who rather use silk to tender animals than to wear,” the woman chuckled.  “Now come along.  I take it you’re tired and want a bath.”

Despite my sadness at seeing Bliss taken from me, it didn’t hamper the pure joy of having a bath.  Until she said the word, I had no idea of how dirty I felt.  I could feel sweat clinging to my skin and I bet I smelled bad.  “You have no idea.”

The woman looked me over.  “Yes, I do.”

* * *

The woman introduced herself as Sulara.  She and her husband have lived on this land, raising their children, since they wedded twenty years ago.  They had six children, Krissy, the baby, Rudolph, age 4, Cyril, age 6, Marlo (the boy herding the sheep), age 10, Mari, age 16, and their eldest son, Alan, I had yet to meet, age 19.  Outside, at the edge of the farm, was a small grave where her husband’s parents lay side by side among the smaller grave of their babies who had still birth or died within their first year.  

They were able to live off the land by their garden and the livestock, but their living came from the wool.  Spring shearing should have started last month, but due to the wolf attack on the flock, they had to push back the shearing to collected the scattered sheep.  Now they found most of the flock and with the village’s Spring Festival was only a week away.  It was when the villages and surrounding farms gathered to celebrate spring and to sell and trade goods.  Sulara’s husband, Jace, had gone to the village, Redwood, to borrow a wagon from a friend and hire on extra shearers to get the job done in time.  

She was telling me all of this as she led me into her home, sat me down at the table, laid the baby down in a cradle for a nap, then busied herself around the pantry to prepare a bowl of broth and piece of breath which she set in front of me on the table.  

“You don’t have to feed me.  I have food of my own.”  Though it hadn’t been long since I eaten the stale bread and hard cheese, the smell of the stew and fresh baked bread made my mouth water.  

“You brought one of our sheep back to us, so the least we can do give you a meal.”  The woman finally settled her bulk in the chair opposite me.  “Have a seat and we’ll have a chat while you eat.”

I sat and instantly felt how grateful my legs and feet were to rest.  I dipped the spoon into the stew and tasted it and melted.  It was so good, warm and more wholesome than the rations I had been eating before.  The bread almost sent me into a spiral of ecstasy, it was so good.  It was all I could do to keep from taking bowl with both hands and downing it all in one gulp.  

“Where are you from?”  Her head was tilted, her eyes giving me another sharp look.    

The question took me by surprise and it was odd that it was such a simple question I had foreseen, but still had no way of answer.  I couldn’t answer her question with the truth anymore than I could with the man in the wagon.  Something was holding back my tongue, keeping me from saying I had woken up naked in the forest.  

“From somewhere far away,” I said, settling on telling her what I told the man.

“Ah, and do you have any family?”  

I swallowed, suddenly feeling as if she had dropped a heavy rock in my stomach with that question.  “I . . . I don’t  . . .”  I don’t know?  I think I do, but I don’t remember them?  What do I say?

“No, you don’t have to answer.  Where you come from and who you’re family is, is of no business of mine.  I shouldn’t have asked.”  Sulara said, jovially, dropping her scrutinizing look, but there was a steadiness behind her eyes that told me that she hadn’t fully let this topic go.  “Do you at least know where you’re going to next?”

Again, another question I had no idea of how to answer.  Before, I had only thought of finding someone to give me answers.  Where had I come from?  Why was I out alone in the forest naked?  I thought that it would all come together if I found someone and all I get are questions to which I had no answers.  I gave her the truth, “I don’t know.”

Sulara looked at me, but not unkindly.  “We need extra hands for the shearing.  Alan can sleep in the barn and you sleep in his bed.  Then you can come with us to the festival and you can decide what to do afterwards.”

I was flooded with so much relief tears were pricking my eyes.  “Thank you.  I don’t know if I’ll be much help though.  I don’t think I ever helped out with sheep before.”

Sulara arched a brow, “I’m sure we’ll find something for you to do, dear.”

Then she got up and performed small chores around the house while I finished my meal.  One thing I would quickly learn about Sulara was that if she wasn’t talking, eating, or sleeping, she was working.  She was cleaning, cooking, caring for her children, gardening, tending to livestock, patching up injuries, and darning clothes.  And when she was too busy with one more pressing chore to do another, she summoned and ordered one of her children to do like a CO giving orders to soldiers.  And to their credit, the kids took off like a shot to carry them out.  

She and Mari carried the washtub to bedroom down the hall, Alan’s room and the boys filled it up with buckets from the well.  I wanted to help as they were going through so much effort for my sake, but I was just too exhausted and sore to offer my assistance.  I just thank Sulara and Mari and they left me to undress.

The boys and the baby had honey blonde hair like their mother, but Mari had her father’s chestnut brown hair which was gathered in a long braid down her back.  She looked like a younger, thinner version of her mother with a pert nose, soft bone structure, with large brown eyes.  However, instead of staring at me in curious awe, she was gave me suspicious glances and looked distastefully at my clothing when her mother wasn’t looking.  I feared that she could speak out against my staying and convince Sulara to send me away, but she held her tongue.  Her mother’s word was law.

Alan’s room was small, likely had once been a storage room or pantry.  There was room for a bed, a small crude set of drawers, and a shelf holding a few books.  I glanced at the titles and recognized none of them.  Then I undressed and laid the clothes across the bed.   The washtub was wooden with a high back for reclining and the water was heavenly to my sore muscles.  I set my feet on the edge of the tub and crossed at the ankles and sighed.  Every muscle relaxed and the tension that had gradually been building since waking in the forest eased away.  

The door opened and Sulara came in with a bundle of fresh clothes and toiletries.  “I have some old clothes that fitted me before I got big having children.  Though, the dress may still be a bit big, but it should fit better than men’s garments.  Oh, dear, your feet,” she noticed my feet hanging off the edge of the tub.  “they’re covered in blisters.”

From the horrified expression on her face, I could tell that it was pretty bad.  I was almost glad I was too sore to look for myself.  “That bad?”

“Very bad, but nothing I can’t take care of.”

Sulara had tended to countless injuries as a mother living on the warm.  She had tended anything from splinters to broken arms so blistered feet were nothing to her.  Though I had to question her when she returned with a salve and needle to lance the blisters.

“I thought you left blisters alone to heal on their own.”  I said, tempted to sink my feet in to the water to protect them from the suddenly lethal looking needle.  

“Yes, but if you’re going to help out tomorrow, then we need you on your feet.  Walking around tomorrow, you’re likely to burst them and infect them.  It’s better to do it now while they’re clean and with medicine.”

Having Sulara lance the blisters was uncomfortable, but wasn’t as painful as I feared.  I braced my heels against the edge of the tub as she pricked the blisters on my soles and drained them with a soft cloth.  As she worked, she talked to me.

“Have you traveled far?”  Sulara said casually, her eyes on her work.

I swallowed, still feeling nervous of the needle.  “Yes, I have.”  I must have walked at least twenty miles in the last twenty-four hours.  

“Hmm,” Sulara tilted her head in deep thought.  “Are those the only clothes you have?  You don’t have any women’s clothes in your bag?”

“Those were the only clothes I could get,” the words slipped from my lips and I instantly wished I could snatch them back.  

“Oh, I see,” she said.

My comfortable bath became the setting for a gentle, casual interrogation.  Sulara knew there was more going on than I was willing to share.  Again, I became cautious and guarded, unwilling to tell the truth.  And again, I felt that detachment I felt towards my surroundings, a wrongness that floated around me.  

“So you traveled alone?”

“Yes,”  I decided the less I said, the better.  

“It must be dangerous for a woman to travel by herself.”

“I can take care of myself.”  Then I wondered if I could take care of myself.  Other than the fright in the forest, I hadn’t came across anything dangerous, just its aftermath in the dead men in the forest.  A shiver ran through me as I realized that I may have dodged danger twice.  So could I have really protected myself?

“You must have come from very far away.  I’m not familiar with your accent.”

“I have.”  Then I decided to threw her off with a question of my own.  “I met a man in a wagon along the way.  He gave me directions to your farm.”

“Oh, that was Jenree.  He’s works the Morning Glory tavern with his brother.  He was returning from Tarlos with supplies for the Festival.  Blind as a bat, but he knows the way to Tarlos and back by heart.  Sometimes, he’ll deliver letters to my brother’s family for me.”

“What is Tarlos like?”  I wanted to keep her talking about herself and not be so interested in me.

“It’s a large town for these parts and it lies on the main road.  A lot of merchants and travelers pass through there on their way to the capital.  Were you on your way there?”

Ooh, a redirect.  Sulara was focused on finding out more about me.  Was it because she was worried about her kids?  No, if she was, she would have sent me on my way, not bring me into her home.  She wanted me around, but knew there was more to me than I was letting on.  

“It sounds like a nice place to go to.”

An eyebrow twitched and Sulara’s lips tighten in a small smile.  “Yes, I was born there.  My family thought I was crazy to marry a farmer and come all the way out here to live off the land and have a family.”

“How did you meet your husband?”  

“My father was an innkeeper as his father before him.  My brother runs the inn now.  Jace and his father came to Tarlos to buy sheep to add new bloodlines to the herd.”  Sulara straighten and set the needle on the table.  “They spent two days in our inn and I fell in love with Jace.  When they went back to their farm, I went with them, married to Jace.”

To marry someone after knowing them just one day astounded me.  “That’s a pretty sudden engagement.  How . . . how old were you?”

“I was fifteen years old.”

Then my mouth dropped open in horror.  I managed to recover quickly and asked, “What did you parents say?”

Sulara laughed, “They didn’t get a chance to say much of anything as Jace and I eloped in secrecy and rode away to his farm.  I wasn’t brave enough to tell them myself so I left them a letter on my bed and they refused to write or see me for nearly two years.  I was already promised to the son of a tanner and my family was religious and had wished to see me wedded in the Church before a priest and my dashing their plans by eloping with some farmer boy they had never met before.  I supposed it did help make peace with them that Jace and I went back to Tarlos and renewed our marriage vows before a priest, but I don’t think they ever truly forgave me.  My brother doesn’t hold it against me though.”

“That’s nice of him.”  I still couldn’t over it.  Fifteen and running off to get married to work a farm and have babies.  When I was fifteen, marriage was the furthermost thing from my mind.  I liked boys and I liked having sex with them, but I wasn’t going to marry any of them because that would mean being tied down for the rest of my life.  I hadn’t been a girl that fantasize about wedding bells and domestic bliss, I wanted to travel.

I didn’t realize I was remembering until Sulara spoke.  “I know it’s a strange to marry a boy I only knew for one day – are you alright?”

“I’m . . . fine.”  Was I fine?  

“You don’t look fine.  You look as if you seen a ghost.”

“I’m tired.  I have been walking all day.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have taken up your time with small talk.  I’ll leave you alone to finish your bath in peace and sleep.  I’ll have one of the children fetch you when supper is ready.”

“Yes, thank you.  You’re very kind,” I spoke like an automaton, my mind elsewhere.  I barely noticed when she left the room, quietly shutting the door behind her.  

With the memories of myself as a fifteen year old, came images of the home I grew up in, my parents, my school, and friends.  They weren’t clear images; it was like looking through a foggy window, I could make out the shapes and colors, but not the details.  I couldn’t distinguish eye colors, shapes of noses, or hair styles.  I could only see the figments of them and knew them for not who they were, but what they were for me, friends, parents, and even a couple of teachers.  It was like seeing a fish, but not knowing what kind of fish it was.  Was it a goldfish, a mackerel, tuna, or possibly a dolphin?  

I found myself mechanically washing myself and shook off the cloud the memories have brought and enjoyed my bath.  There was a bar of lye on the edge of a table within reach and I lathered my body with it and felt the layer of sweat and dirt rinse off.  The bottom of my feet were better without the pressure of the blisters.  

I toweled off feeling as if I had washed off a layer of skin.  Seeing the bed, I felt more tired, my limbs becoming heavy.  I didn’t bother with dressing and as soon as my head hit the pillow I was asleep.
The air was still rife with tension when Clover came tentatively downstairs.  When she peeked into the room, she saw Aunt Martha was sitting on the couch with her pink hands tuck between her knees and her eyes teary and red.  Mom was sitting beside her with a comforting arm around her shoulders.  Dad was still sitting on the couch as he was when they went upstairs.  Clover doubted that he ever moved at all while they were upstairs.  

She heard feet clamoring down the steps behind her.  Their noise drew the adults who all cast weary, irritated, and sad eyes towards them.  With Clover in the front with Charlie, Ivan, and surprisingly, Brian behind her, it seemed to come down on her to give the explanation of why they were downstairs.  

“We wanna play outside.”  She tried to sound confident, but it came out in a reedy voice as if she were complaining.  She cleared it and said steadily, “If it’s alright.”

The adults all looked at Grandpa and when he didn’t offer any opposition to this request, Grandma said kindly, “You go ahead, dears.  Just don’t be too loud.”

Clover noticed she didn’t say don’t stay out too long.  Whatever was going on wasn’t going to be resolved soon.  She wondered if it would last the whole week of their visit.  And for the first time, she realized she wasn’t feeling angry right now.  It was still there in the background, like a pesky sore that refuses to stop hurting, but can be ignored for more urgent matters such as whatever was causing the tension in the family.

They came out one by one.  Clover in her blue coat, Ivan and Charlie in their oversize jackets, and Brian storming out behind them. Then the four of them trooped out into the snow and they just stood there momentarily forgetting the original purpose of coming out in the face of the family strife inside.  

“Aren’t we building a snowman?”  Ivan asked softly, but it seemed that he had lost the enthusiasm he had for it earlier.  

“You go ahead, I’m going to go around the back for a bit.”  Clover spun on her heel and took off, kicking up snow behind her.

She heard snow crunching behind her and she saw Brian following her.  “What are you doing?”

“What are you doing?”  Brian muttered.  “You dragged us out here. . .”

“I didn’t drag you out here, you came out here on your own.”

“Tell me what you’re doing or I’m gonna tell Mom and Dad.”  Brian crossed his arms, not budging.

Clover leaned around him to look at the brothers.  Charlie was helping Ivan pack snow into a large ball to serve as the base of a snowman.  Assured they were distracted and couldn’t hear or see them speaking.  

Clover dragged Brian around the corner of the house by the sleeve and spoke in a low whisper.  “I think they’re not just here for Christmas.  I think their mom is here to ask for money.”

“How do you know?”

“Can’t you tell by looking at them?  They’re wearing old clothes not in their sizes and their car looks like its on it’s last legs.  I bet they’ve been sleeping in that car for the last several days.  Their mom doesn’t even own any gloves!”

Brian stared at her, “So?  Why is that such a big deal?”

“Because Aunt Martha came in looking as guilty as a dog that just peed on the carpet.  Something happened and everyone is mad at her for something.”  Clover smacked his arm in encouragement.  “Aren’t you curious?”

“Why are you so curious?  What does it matter if they need money or not or if Grandma and Grandpa’s so mad at Aunt Martha?  What does that mean for us?”

Clover threw up her hands, “I don’t know.  It’s something to do.”

“Then go do it, just leave me out of it.  I don’t wanna get yelled at again.”  Brian turned on his heel and headed back.

Clover watched him go, glowering at his back, but yet asking herself the same thing.  What did it matter to her if she discovered the true reason for Aunt Martha’s sudden appearance?  How would it affect their Christmas vacation?  

When she was more worried about what was happening, she wasn’t thinking about what she saw...

She followed the edge of the house towards a window.  A brief peek told her it was just the kitchen, she would have to go further down.  As she came closer to the second window, she could hear voices.  They were low mutterings, no words stood out for her to grasp.  

She could tell voices were being raised followed by a sudden hush.  The window was high, but she could see over the sill of she stood on tip-toe.  Then she halted, as she rethink her actions.  If the adults saw her, she would be in trouble, especially with Grandpa.  If he didn’t like kids who didn’t say yes sir or no sir, then he probably didn’t have any fonder feelings for kids who snoop.  Maybe she was making a serious situation worse and it would be better for everyone if she just turned around and built the snowman with her brother and cousins.  

Before she could make up her mind, she felt an icy wind blow across the back of her neck.  Chills rolled down her back and arms and from the corner of her eye, at the edge of the copse, a tall man was standing there, watching her.

She whipped around with her back to the house.  He made no movement, didn’t speak, or even raise a hand in greeting.  He simply stood as a dark statue in stark contrast from the white snow of the yard.  A black hood hid his face and his hands was down his sides empty and loose.  

She should say something, a greeting or a shout for help, but any sound died in her throat.  The cold was sinking through her coat and flesh and freezing the marrow in her bones.  Fear spiked through her heart and for the first time in a month, she desperately wanted her mother.  Then there was a shriek from around the house, where the boys played.  She whipped her head towards it and realizing that she shouldn’t take her eyes off the man, she turned back around and he was gone.  

Her eyes scanned the edge of the copse and looking back and forth.  He wasn’t there, he was gone, just like a figment of a shadow.  Her breathes came in spurts of white air and she kept looking for him until she was satisfied she was alone.  With her heart beating wildly, she ran back around the house.

The source of the shriek, Ivan, was laying in the snow giggling while Charlie and Brian, who had strike up a sudden friendship, were roaring at each other from behind grizzling looking snowmen heads.

“I am Rip Flaker, I will melt you with my Ho-Ho-Ho laser eyes!”  Brian was waving a head with a crooked stick for a mouth and red snow berries for eyes.  “And my legion on Christmas Elves will attack in droves with their Toy Piece Makers!”

Charlie thrust a head snowman’s head forward with twigs in the sharp of jagged teeth and wood chips for eyes.  “I am Elf Eater Snowsibar!  I will devour your legions of Elves and feed their corpses to my rabid Reindeer Hounds!”

They continued these threats from their respective snowmen heads while Ivan giggled and Clover looked around.  There were still no sign of the man at the edge of the trees or in the yard.  Where did he go or was he ever there?

“Brian, hey, Brian!”  She called repeatedly until he took notice of her.

“What?”  He snapped lowering his snowman head.  

“Did you see anybody around here?  I think I saw a guy back there?”

“Doing what?”  Brian said with a raised eyebrow in suspicion this may be a trick or a prank on Clover’s part.

“Nothing, just standing there watching me.”  Clover shivered at the memory.

“What kind of guy?”  Brian began looking around as well.  

“I don’t know!  Maybe the break-into-the-house-and-kill-us-all-in-our-sleep sort!”  

Brian furrowed his brows.  “I don’t believe you.  I think you’re making it up.  I don’t see anyone!”

“Because he’s not here right now!  I saw him over there!”  She pointed in the direction she came from.  “I think we should go inside.”

Before Brian could retort, Ivan  spoke up from where he had picked himself up from the snow.  “It might be a weirdo.  Mom says to tell her if we see any weirdos.”

“What kind of weirdos are you talking about?”  Brian said haughtily which failed to faze Ivan .

“The ones that smell weird and shake a lot.  Mom say to stay away from ‘em.”  

“Shut up, Mike.”  Charlie muttered.  “Let’s go inside.”

He took his brothers arm quickly to cut off any reply or further questions.  He strolled past them with Ivan  in tow.  They went back inside with the door slammed behind them.  Brian rounded on her.  “See what you’ve done?”

“What?  What did I do!?”  She exclaimed throwing her hands into the air.

Brian grunted and turned his back to her and headed back inside.  He kicked a trail of snow out of his way leaving behind a path in the snow.  She looked around once more, certain that this time, while everyone had their backs turn and didn’t believe her, that the man would appear out of spite.  Seeing nothing, she followed her brother.

Inside, it seemed the adults had come to some sort of intermission of the drama.  Grandma was washing mugs, Grandpa and Dad were still in their places in the living room still looking unhappy, and Mom and Aunt Matha were sharing a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.  Ivan was speaking animatedly to his mother about what Clover saw as if he seen it himself and making embellishments.

“He wore a big black jacket and Clover thinks he had a gun!”

Charlie, thankfully, was there to quickly correct any assumption on Ivan’s part.  “No, she didn’t say anything about a gun.”

But it was enough to have Aunt Martha’s eyes wide and concern.  Maybe she was rethinking the idea of coming here.  Even Mom was looking worried.

Clover didn’t know why, but she was suddenly sorry she said anything about the man.  Inside the security of the house, it seemed what she saw was just a figment of her imagination, maybe a result of her anger and worry.  

“Oh, that’s just Gus,” Grandma said from the sink.  She was drying her hands on a towel with a Christmas Tree image on it.  

With the confirmation of, ‘yes, you really did see a creepy man staring at you outside’, Clover felt the same chill she experienced outside creep down her back.  From the corner of her eye, she saw Brian’s mouth open and the cousins’ eyes go wide and almost fearful.  But that was nothing to match the mother’s horrified expressions.

Grandma took notice of the sudden hush in the room said nonchalantly, “He’s just a man that lives in a shack in the woods.  Don’t fret, he’s harmless.  He keeps to himself and only comes around sometimes to trade for some coffee or tea.  He probably heard the children playing outside and came to see what was going on.”

If that made anyone feel better about it, they kept it to themselves.  The mothers were still gawping at Grandma as if she said cancer was no big deal and the kids were sweating as if they had just fled a rabid grizzly.

Clover certainly didn’t feel any better.  She still felt the chill from seeing that man and knew that despite Grandma’s assurances, the man was more than harmless.
* * *    

When lunch was ready, Clover, Brian, Charlie, and Ivan were sent to eat at the kids table.  Brian fussed at the vegetables in the stew and Clover watched Ivan and Charlie eat.  They were eating as if they hadn’t eaten in a long time.  They fed spoonfuls of stew into their mouths before they even swallowed the last spoonful.  

Clover had trouble focusing on her food and it wasn’t just because she was amazed by how Charlie and Ivan were inhaling their food.  The man, Gus, still bothered her.  She could still see him as if where an afterimage on her retina.  It was how he stood there and stared at her and how cold and scared she caught sight of him.  She managed to eat a little, but pushed her bowl towards Ivan who was more than happy to finish it off.

She looked over at the adults eating and their table was quieter than theirs.  They didn’t speak or even looked at each other.  Aunt Martha was sitting between Mom and Grandma with her shoulders hunch and spooning food into her mouth.  Dad was picking at his food like his daughter while Grandma and Grandpa ate quietly with their attention on their plates.  

Her eyes accidentally met her Mom’s and she quickly looked away.  Her mother had offered her a small, heartening smile and Clover was angry at herself for the reassurance she felt seeing it.  A rush of anger came over her and she promptly stood up and asked to be excused.

Upstairs she sat on the bed, pulled her MP3 player and earphones from her bag and listened to music.  She was exhausted between Aunt Martha’s family sudden arrival, the secret family drama, and the guy in the woods, it had been an upheaval of emotions and it hadn’t even been two hours since their arrival.  Mom and Dad said that Aunt Martha and the boys were going to stay for Christmas.  It was going to be a tight fit, but there was room enough for three more.

Aunt Martha will room with Mom and Dad in Dad’s old room and Charlie and Ivan will share this room with Clover and Brian.  Grandma fished out a couple of old sleeping bags for the boys to sleep in.  Brian was adamant that he was going to have the bed, until Clover pointed out that he was going to have to share the bed with her, his sister, because there was no way old fashion Grandma and Grandpa were going to make her sleep on the floor.  So she was going to share the bed with Ivan.  She only hoped that he didn’t wet the bed as Brian nastily said was a possibility.  She’d just have to make sure he used the bathroom before bedtime.

There were a small knock on the door and Clover sat up, tugging the earphones from her ears.  “Yes?”

“Hey, it’s Mom.”

Clover’s stomach seized as if a heavy stone was dropped into it.  She sat up and stared at the door with hands clenched on her knees.  

“May I come in?”  The door knob rattled as if a hand was resting on it, poised to open if she didn’t get an answer quick.

Clover racked her brain for an excuse, anything to keep from being alone with her mother.  This was the last thing she needed right now and just as the knob jingle, Clover burst out, “I’m changing!”

The knob clicked from the sudden release.  “Oh, sorry, I just wanted to check on you.  You looked pale when you came in.”

“I was just cold,” Clover said tightly, wishing with all her heart that her mother would just go away.

“Do you want to talk about what happened outside?”  

Clover bit her lip as the temptation to maybe, instead of talking about Gus, she could quiz her mother on what was going on with Aunt Martha, but just as quickly as the thought came, she refused it.  No, if she was alone with her mother, then she may say or do something she would regret.  “No, Mom, I’m fine.”

Her mother continued to linger outside the door, likely searching for another means to talk to her.  Clover waited, hoping she would let the matter drop and leave.

“If there’s something wrong, you can talk to me.”

Then a fresh wave of anger washed over her and her eyes narrowed at the door.  Talk to you?  Talk to you!?  If I start talking to you, then I’ll start screaming!

Instead, she said with a raw voice, “I’m fine, Mom.  I’m tired.  I think I’ll take a nap.  Okay?”

There was a moment of silence.  “Alright, Clover, I’ll leave you alone.”

Clover sighed with relief when she heard her mothers footsteps fade down the hall.  She flopped back onto the bed, trying to ease the pounding of her heart.  She knew that she couldn’t delay being along with her mother forever and she could only hope she got her head on straight when it did happen.  

* * *

An hour later, she heard her name being called from downstairs.  She came down to see Brian and the cousins sitting on the couch side by side.  Grandma was standing before them holding a large basket.  It actually looked like a picnic basket with a lid that snapped in place with two curved handles.  

She greeted Clover with a beaming smile, “Are you finished with your beauty sleep?”

At first, Clover paused, uncertain of how to answer, believing that Grandma was mocking her, but realized that she was trying to kindly make a joke.  “Oh, um, yes.  I am.”

“Have a seat with your brother and cousins.  I have an important job for you.”

Clover glanced at the boys for answers.  Brian shrugged, Charlie frowned curiously at Grandma, and Ivan was looking expectantly at Grandma, completely taken in by the words ‘important job’.

Clover took a seat in the empty arm chair that had been occupied by Grandma.  Bran, with arms crossed, cast Grandma a look of suspicion.  “What are we going to do?”  If its one thing that Brian loathed more than not having wi-fi was doing chores.

If Grandpa got mad when Brian address his elders properly, how would he react when Brian outright refused to do chores?  

“Do you know about your Grandpa’s brother?  Uncle Jeb?”  Grandma said hopefully.  

Charlie raised his hand as if he were in class.  “Wasn’t he in the army?”

And like a teacher, Grandma beamed.  “Yes, he’s a veteran of the Vietnam War.”

Clover thought for a moment.  “Didn’t he try to enlist for the Iraq War?  They said he was too old so he drove to Florida to rent a boat so he could sail to Iraq.”

Brian furrowed his brow in deep thought too.  “Didn’t the Coast Guard arrest him?”

Ivan chimed in.  “And the army gave him shots that made him a super soldier!  Like – like Captain America!”

Grandma’s smile faltered, likely not happy with the fact her grandchildren were more familiar with her brother-in-law’s eccentricities then his service in the military.  She cleared her throat, “Those were just rumors, dears . . .”

“But there’s a news article about it online,” Charlie pointed out which Grandma ignored.

“Your great Uncle Jeb lives just down the road from us in his own house.  I think it would be a fun idea if you children visited him.”

The inquisitive faces of all four children faded into looks of disbelief and horror.  Clover said slowly, “Didn’t he plant land mines around his house?”

“Oh, no, dear,” Grandma said quickly.  “Not anymore.  The county police had them confiscated.”

Brian said, “Doesn’t he have a collection of Vietcong skulls?  Or was it ears?”

“No, I think he kept the shell casing of every bullet he used to kill a man.”  Charlie corrected.

Grandma stared at them, astounded.  “Where did you hear such things?”

All four children looked over to where their parents were sitting at the kitchen table sharing cups of coffee.  Dad shrugged, “Mom, remember that summer when he paid me to help him dig a fallout shelter because he believed – or still believes that Vietnam is going to get revenge on America by teaming up with Japan who aims to drop a bomb on us in retaliation of Hiroshima.”

Clover furrowed her brow in thought.  “Why would Vietnam seek revenge for a war they won?”

Dad’s eyes grew wide.  “Don’t tell him that.  As far as your great-uncle is concerned, America has won every conflict since the War of Independence.  And he thinks there’s going to be a British invasion spearheaded by Queen Elizabeth.”

And this was enough for Grandma.  Her smile was gone and her eyes narrowed dangerously, “Now hush!  I won’t hear another word against him!  You uncle lied about his age to join the war and he saw things that affected him for the rest of his life.  As a veteran, he deserves our respect and understanding and,” she turned to the kids, “you are not to mention anything of what you heard when you visit him.”

As if to prevent any further comments about Uncle Jeb’s past actions, she plowed through, “You will take the path through the forest to you Uncle Jeb’s house.  Your Grandpa usually goes, but since his foot is hurt, he can’t make the trip himself and it’ll make a nice Christmas surprise for you to visit him as he’s never had a chance to meet any of you.  In this basket is some dinner and his heart medicine.  Do. Not. Loose. This medicine.”  She spoke in a grave tone at this last part.  “Uncle Jeb has a very serious heart condition so when you visit him, try not to get him too excited.”

She passed the basket to Clover and with a wink, she said, “I’ll let Clover be in charge of the basket as girls tend to be a bit more responsible than boys.”

Clover forced herself to smile back.  Great, so I’m the pack mule for this trip.

From behind Grandma, she saw her mother pursing her lips.  “I don’t know if I feel comfortable with the kids out their by themselves.  What if they get lost?”

“They won’t get lost,” Grandma assured her.  “The path is a straight shot to Uncle Jeb’s place and these sweethearts will stay. On. The. Path.”  Again, she spoke in a grave warning tone.  

“Isn’t there a snow storm blowing in tonight?”  Dad asked cautiously.

“Oh, that won’t blow in until tonight and,” Grandma’s gaze slipped to Aunt Martha who was meekly sipping from a mug, “we have much more to talk about before then.”

Aha, now it makes sense, Clover thought, setting the basket on her lap and giving the adults a critical eye.  They’re trying to get rid of us so they can talk more about whatever it is that’s going on.  

Ivan spoke up with another concern, “What about Gus?”

Clover felt familiar chills creeping down her back at the mention of the illusive Gus.  It brought back memories of a tall figure standing in the copse.  

“Gus is harmless.  He won’t hurt you or even go near you.”  Grandma reassured them.  “If it wasn’t safe for you to go out there, then I wouldn’t let you.  It’s perfectly safe out there.”

From the corner of her eye, Charlie was face was bowed to his fidgeting hands and Clover knew that he understood what was going on.  It was frustrating that the one that could answer her question refused to speak of it and had put his brother under the same restriction.  

So they were bundled into jackets and coats, Charlie and Ivan were given her father’s old clothes from boyhood that fitted them better, but were old fashion plaid shirts.  Though Grandma confident in their ability to deliver food and medicine, she kept telling them again and again to stay on the path until it drove Clover crazy to hear it spoken each time.  

Aunt Martha kissed Charlie and Ivan and Mom kissed Brian and would have kissed her too, but she slipped out the door before she had a chance to reach for her.  Her named was called, but she pretended not to have heard and stood outside patiently with the basket in hand.  

Then the four of them walked side by side down the path to Uncle Jeb’s house.  

At first, the walk was quiet with nice scenery rolling by.  The trees were covered by snow as if it were icing and the ice crunching beneath their boots.  She took a deep breath of the cold air and felt it pinch her nose and let out her breath and watched the dance around her mouth and nose.

“What’s with you and Mom?”  Brian interjected into her peaceful moment.

“Nothing,” Clover snapped, irritated that of all things Brian would want to talk about it would be about her least favorite topic.  

“You’ve been treating her like she’s got Bubonic plague or something,” Brian persisted.  “What’d she do to you?”

Clover’s hand tighten around the basket handle and she almost – almost – told him what Mom had done.  About how she had used Clover, how she had betrayed the family, and what she had seen . . .

“Hey, look!”  Ivan piped up.  

Clover looked ahead to where he was pointing and on the side of the path was a snowman.  The four of them stopped, staring at it in wonder.  It stood nearly seven feet tall with each of the three balls of its body perfectly round.  A long green scarf hung down from the neck, draped over one of the branches used for its arms.  Black coals served as buttons down the middle and for the mouth.  The eyes consisted of two broken bottle bottoms gleaming in the sun.  And towering at the top of was a black top hat with a red sash.  It looked like a snowman from a Hallmark card or cartoon.  And it was so big, there was no way kids built this by themselves.  Yet, why would adults go through the trouble of building such a snowman all the way out here.  

It looked friendly with it’s charcoal dots turned up in a smile, but there was something eerie, even sinister of how it loomed over them.  The bottle bottom eyes seeming gleamed menacing at her, it’s long shadow shrouded her from the sun making her feel colder.  And Clover wasn’t the only one who felt this way as Ivan hid behind his brother and peered at the snowman from around his brother’s arm.  

Brian whistled through his teeth.  “Wow, what is this?  It’s made out of plastic, isn’t?”

At first, she wasn’t sure what he meant, then she realized it too.  The snowballs of the body were round, almost smooth, as if they had been scooped up by a giant ice cream scoop instead of packed by hands.  There were no indentations of pants or shoves, not one flake out of place.  And the snow was clean without a trace of soil, dead piece of grass or leave, or wood chips in it.  It was just too clean.

Charlie stepped forward and raised a hand to touch the snow, but then lowered it when he changed his mind.  “This is too weird.  Who do you think made it?”

“I don’t know,” Clover said.  “I think we should leave it alone.  We can ask about it when we get to Uncle Jeb’s.”

No one protested or said they wanted to look at it more.  They were all of the same mind to move on.  As they passed under its stare, the light in the glass eyes glinted, giving the impression the eyes were following them.  

They continued forward for several yards and halted when Ivan cried out.

“It’s gone!”

* * *

They walked forward in silence, all of them too unnerved to speak.  Ivan refused to walk, demanding to be carried, and Charlie, who would have complain and call his brother a baby, said nothing.  He bent down, let Ivan clamber onto his back, and trudged onward.

Brian was silent and kept looking over his shoulder.  Clover was too afraid to look behind her.  

Finally, Brian broke the silence.  “No way.  I saw it.  It was right there.  I know I saw it.”

“We all saw it,” Clover said through dry, cold lips.

“I say it fell over,” Charlie said in a weak voice and Clover knew he didn’t believe it himself anymore than she and Brian believed it.

When they turned around at Ivan’s cry, they all saw the snowman gone.  Now just gone as if I had fallen over and broken apart back into crumbled snow, but gone as if it had never been there.  The snow where it had stood save for their own footprints.  But it had been there, she was sure of it and she weren’t the only one.  They had looked along the path for any signs of movement, any breakages in the snow, but there was none.  

“Maybe it melted?”  Brian surmised.  

“How?  It’s freezing out here and the snow around it wasn’t even toughed.  And what about the carrot nose and charcoal?  Not to mention the hat, the scarf, and broken bottles?”

“Jeez, I don’t know!  I can’t have just vanished!  I mean, it was there!  I saw it!”

“So did we, Brian, no one is arguing with you on that.”  

“It was ghost,” Ivan whimpered from Charlie’s back.

“No, Ivie, it wasn’t a ghost, I promise.”  Charlie said quickly and gave Clover and Brian a meaningful look.  “Remember what Mom said, there are no such things as ghosts.  They aren’t real.”

“Yeah, not real,” Brian offered.  

But that snowman had been real, Clover thought.  It had been there leering at them from the side of the path as if it had been waiting for them.  And then when their backs were turned, it had disappeared with no trace.  She felt a familiar chill creep down her back and she instantly looked around for any dark figures watching them from the tree line whether it was in the shape of a tall man or a huge snowman.

* * *

When they arrived at Jeb’s house, they weren’t sure if it was his house or an abandoned house.  The front yard was covered in old cars, some wrecks and others so old they could see the rust peeking through the layer of snow.  Buckets of knickknacks was strewn among the cars.  The house was central in a clearing of the forest and looked to have been built from a barn with high windows and peeling paint.

Ivan stared at the house over Charlie’s shoulder.  “Is it haunted?”

“Yes, but not by ghosts,” Clover said taking in the dirty windows, one of which was cracked.  “By a crazy old man who still thinks the Vietcong is plotting revenge.”

“So . . . does that mean the place is booby trapped?”  

There was a beat of silence as all of them considered this.

“Grandma wouldn’t send us out here if it was dangerous,” Charlie said.

“Yeah, but I think Grandma has a blind spot for when it comes to her brother,” Clover replied looking the yard over carefully.  

“Didn’t he take some land mines as souvenirs?”  Brian rubbed the back of his head nervously.

There was another period of silence among them.

“Couldn’t we just leave the basket here?”  Brian asked.

“No, we can’t do that.  Because Grandma is going to ask how our visit was and what he said to us. Let’s just call him,” Clover suggested and no one objected.

It took them several tries, even counting to three and shouting together.  Just when Clover believed they were going to get out of meeting Uncle Jeb, the front door swung open, banging against the dented wall.  A grizzled old man stomped his walker onto the porch.  “Stop that shouting!  You’ll give away our position!”

They fell silent.  Somehow, Clover had been silently elected to be their spokesperson.  She held up the basket.  “Grandma said to bring you this!”

“Well, bring it over.  You expect me to reach it from here!”

They hesitated before braving the yard.  Someone, the boys fell behind, letting Clover take the lead and they each stepped in her foot print.  She tried not to show how nervous she was with each step she took, but she held her head high and kept going.  

As they drew closer to the house, they could smell earthy smell of a dirty house.  Uncle Jeb smelled sour, unwashed and the boys hung back from the back porch, letting Clover take the lead.  Clover surveyed Uncle Jeb as she mounted the rickety steps.  

He had been taller man when he was younger, but now he walked with a severe stoop.  He wore an old army jacket which he may have fit well when he had a taller and wider frame, but just hung around him like blanket.  His face was full of wrinkles as if someone had stretched out all the elastic in the skin of his face and let go.  And if any face red angry or irritable it was this face.  His white brows were at constant slant between his small beady eyes with which he regarded them disdainfully.

“You children wouldn’t survive when it happens,” he said nasally.  As if one of them asked of what he was talking about he leaned in and whispered (giving them an unwanted whiff of his sour breath), “When the enemy comes.”

Clover didn’t dare ask him to which enemy he was referring to.  It could be anyone from the English to Nazis, to the Vietcong.  Instead, she said reiterated their purpose here.  “We brought you a basket with some food and your heart medicine.”

He regarded the basket as if she had told him it was full of trash.  He took it from her, flipped open the lid, and looked at the contents.  The four of them waited with bated breath, almost afraid of what he would do if he didn’t like what he saw.  It was passable as he snapped the lip shut and then opened the door.  

“I guess I suppose I gotta invite ya in,” he sounded as if he didn’t wish to.

Clover was quick to pick up on it.  “That’s alright.  We should head back soon anyway -”

“Naw, c’mon in.  Virginia will give me hell if I leave her ‘precious’ grandbabies out in the cold,” he said precious as if he had very different opinion of them.  He went inside letting the door slam shut and she turned back to her brother and cousins.

None of them looked happy about staying.  Ivan huddled against his brother, gripping his hand tightly though the mitten.  “What if he goes crazy?”

Brian said, “If he does, we can at least outrun the walker.”

With that pointed out for them, they trooped up the porch, but Clover was the one who went inside first.  She nearly walked into a huge stack of magazines piled higher than her head or even her father’s head.  They was set nearly in front of the door, causing her to wedge herself to get inside.  The only one of them that had an easier time getting inside was Ivan.  

“Oh.  My.  God.”  She breathed when her eyes adjusted to the dim light.  What she could see in the house was filled with piles of trash.  No, not garbage per se, but filled from floor to ceiling with memorabilia and novelties.  There were a pile of folded clothes of all sizes and for both men and women.  A mountain of shoes and most without a matching twin.  And broken parts of furniture strewn across the floor midst the moutains of paraphernalia.  There was barely any space to move and walk without stepping on or brushing against anything.  How did Uncle Jeb get through here with his walker?

Her question was answered when Uncle Jeb poked his head through a doorway propped open by a splintered coat hanger.  “Ya’ll have a seat.  I’ll have something for ya’ll to eat in a second.”

When he went back inside, Brian whispered, “Sit where?”

Clover looked around and saw what looked like the shape of a couch hidden under a layer of newspapers and magazines.  “There.  Let’s move those out of the way and we can sit.”

When they moved the papers, they learned of a possible reason the couch was covered.  It smelled.  It smelled like sour dirt and something that Clover suspected was old urine.  Ivan wrinkled his nose and Charlie looked green.  Thankfully, the couch was a dark color or else they would see if there were the stains responsible for the smell.  They each took a fairly clean look newspaper or magazine and used them as a layer between their bottoms and the couch.  

Brian leaned towards her and hissed from the corner of his mouth, “When can we leave?”

Clover whispered back, “Let’s just wait until we see what he brings us and just talk with him for a few minutes, then we can say we gotta go before there’s going to be a snow storm tonight.”

Charlie nodded with eyes watering.  He was holding his breath to keep from smelling the couch.  Even Ivan couldn’t help but put his hand over his nose.  High above them was a ceiling fan that looked rickety from its downrod.  If it could spin it could cycle the air through her and make the smell more bearable.

Then Uncle Jeb returned with his walker over his arm and four packets tucked under the other arm.  Clover could see that he got around without the support of his walker by leaning against the towered garbage in his house as he stepped over the trash on the floor.  He tossed the packets at them and Clover managed to catch two, Brian snagged one, and Charlie barely kept one from hitting Ivan square in the face.  

“There ya go.  Might as well get use t’em now.  That’s all we’ll have in the end.”

They were MREs.  Clover recognized them from a war game she used to play online, but they were covered in a thick layer of dust.  On the edge of the packets were the date 02-17-1970.  

Brian made a face, “Are these from the Vietnam war?”

“That’s the good stuff lad before the government started listening to the health nuts up at the FDA and started pumping chemicals and preservatives into the MREs which had a bad chemical effect with the super serum they’ve been giving our boys,” Uncle Jeb muttered as he perched on the edge of an overturned chair missing all but one of its legs.  “That’s where mental disorders come from children such as PTSD and anxiety and depression our boys suffer from when they come home.”

Clover tentatively tore open the edge of her MRE packet.  “But wouldn’t they get those things from, ya know, the war itself?”

“Shucks, no girl,” Uncle Jeb slapped his knee indignantly.  “Americans are meant for fightin’.  Our boys can lick anybody in a fight.  The government just gotta feed ‘em right.”

Charlie had opened his packet and was taking out the cans and containers.  “Are these still edible?”

“I think the can food should be alright,” Clover said, not as willing to rip into hers.  

Ivan outright refused to touch his, giving his packet suspicious looks.  “I want something else.”

“Ain’t got anythin’ else,” Uncle Jeb grunted.  “How’s Virginia?  And how is . . .what’s her husband’s name?  And whose kids are you?  You can’t be all brothers and sister.”

“George,” Clover filled in.  “Brian and I are brother and sister and Fred is our dad and Charlie and Ivan are brothers.  Their mom is Aunt Martha.”  

“Martha . . .Martha . . .”  Uncle Jeb said thoughtfully.  “She ran away with that Andy, boy, didn’t she?”

Clover, who was contemplating opening what she believed was a can of peaches looked up suddenly.  “Ran away?”  

Uncle Jeb stuck a finger in his ear and twisted it around, “Yeah, Virginia and George didn’t care for the boy much.  His folks were living off welfare and wouldn’t work due to ‘disabilities’ though you’d seem ‘em walking along the street just fine and dandy.  The boy was as much trash as them, breaking into cars, causing problems at school, until they kicked ‘im out.  But Martha seemed t’ like ‘im just the same, despite what people said.”

Clover didn’t realized her mouth was opened until she licked her lips in anticipation of more news.  “And what happened next?”

Uncle Jeb pulled his finger out of his ear and examined the wax on the tip of it before wiping it on his jacket.  “Whattaya think happened?  Ya hang with trash, you become trash.  She got pregnant.”

Unable to stop herself, she looked at Charlie who was glowering into his can of mush.  His hands were gripping the can so hard they were trembling.

Their uncle looked up, scratching his neck thoughtfully.  “That was maybe around ten years ago.  A few years after Mike got married.”

Charlie couldn’t be any older than her.  Then it finally clicked together.  Why Martha looked came to her parents like a dog who just peed the carpet, why Charlie and Ivan wore such shabby clothes, and possible reason they arrive so suddenly for Christmas without giving word.  With the triumph of fitting the pieces together, came with the guilt at her glee.

Charlie noticed her staring at him and his face redden.  “Yeah, that’s right.  My dad’s trash.  He’d only work a job long enough to get unemployment checks and we bought all our groceries with food stamps.  He even got mad at Mom for getting a job because her income would lower his welfare checks.”

Clover icy pangs of guilt stab at her chest and arms.  Even more so when she noticed the tears glistening in his eyes.  His teeth flashed in a bitter smile, “He left us.  Said he was going out to look for a job, but instead he emptied out Mom’s checking account so we have nothing.  We got kicked out of our apartment and we got nowhere else to go so Mom brought us here because she’s hoping that Grandma and Grandpa will let us move in with them.”

He sniffed loudly, his tears falling freely down his face.  Clover swallowed, feeling her eyes tear up, knowing what it is to be betrayed by a parent.  “Charlie, you’re not the only one that has a crappy parent.”

There were as whistling surrounding them and the windows rattled.  Uncle Jeb, who had seemed casually uninterested in Charlie’s emotional outburst, too busy examining the contents of his, ear rose up.  “I think the storm’s hitting.”

It took some leaning over Brian to see only a corner of a window from the edge of a pantry with no doors.  White snow was pelting window causing it to rattle at them with an announcement of yes, the snow storm was here.

“But Dad said that wasn’t supposed to hit until later tonight!”  Brian moaned.

“Can we still get back?”  Charlie said trying to lean over Clover to see the window.

“I wouldn’t try it, kiddies.”  Uncle Jeb said while examining the interior of his other ear.  “You’ll freeze to death out there before you get to Virginia’s house, but it might do ya some good if ya wanna try.”

“How long does it last?”  Clover was already having a sinking feeling about their chances of leaving here before long.

“Usually all day and all night.  Good thing you kids got here in time.”

What would have been a good thing is if it started before we left for this junk yard of a house in the first place!  Clover thought bitterly.  

Uncle Jeb began his leaning and tilting journey towards what Clover could only assumed was the kitchen.  “I’ll phone your folks and let ‘em know you’re here and safe and I’ll be bringing you back in the morning.”

“Wait!  Where will we sleep?”  Brian bounded to his feet, almost slipping on the loose papers.

“Well, get up and I’ll show ya.”

They got to their feet and after helping him move aside furniture and clearing away the papers from the sofa, and then he unfolded a bed from it.  It creaked and whined as the metal components protested being moved after what could possibly have been years of inactivity.  With the bed unfolded, they could see there was a hump in the mattress that wouldn’t go down no matter how hard Uncle Jeb whacked it with his walker.  There was an ominous stain near the center near the hump and there was an old moldy smell wafting from it.

Brian held his nose, “Clover can sleep here.  What about the rest of us?”

Uncle Jeb arched a gray hairy eyebrow.  “There’s room enough for all four of you.”

Jaws drop and protests were made.

“I can’t sleep in the same bed as my sister!”

“I’m not sharing a bed with my brother!”

“Ivan wets the bed!”

“I do not!”

Uncle Jeb waved his hand silencing them, “You think sleeping with siblings and getting peed on is bad?  You shoulda camp out in the jungles of Vietnam when you hoped you get to wake up alive because the Vietcong, they sneak into camps and slit your throats if you didn’t have someone who could stay awake on watch.  So it’s either the bed or the floor, take your pick.”

They look at the floor.  It was dirty, covered in stains, and food crumbs.  A cockroach crawled near Brian’s shoe.  Then they looked at each other and knew they were going to have to work on sleeping arranges like an United Nations meeting.  

* * *

After an hour of hard negotiations and compromises, they agreed on the order of sleeping arrangements.  Brian would sleep on one end as he refuses to sleep beside Clover or Ivan the bed wetter.  So Charlie would sleep next to him, yet he refuses to sleep next to Ivan as he was adamant that Ivan regularly wets the bed despite the accused’s protests.  So Clover will sleep next to him saying it was prudent that Ivan sleep on the edge to limit the spread of pee and if he should wake up before urinating, he could find it easier to get to the bathroom.  So he slept on the edge of the bed with an old vase to serve as a latrine as the way to the bathroom wasn’t clear and the light bulb inside had gone out and Ivan was scared of the dark.

To pass the time, Uncle Jeb produced a deck of playing cards and taught them how to play poker, blackjack, and rummy.  Clover did well in poker, winning the most marbles they were using instead of money.  Charlie seemed to like rummy more and Brian was becoming board with all of it, bemoaning the lack of internet.  

The hours past and Clover found that for the last several hours, she had been feeling relaxed without any worry or anger hovering over her.  She was content for it to remain so until Charlie mentioned Gus.

“Hey, Uncle Jeb, do know about a creepy guy named Gus?”

Clover didn’t know what made him think of Gus and why he wanted to know more about the man, but she really wished he didn’t.  As soon as Gus’s name was spoken, Uncle Jeb changed.  He had been friendly, a bit rough around the edges, but alright to be around, but then his face scrunched up like furious glare, his hairy eye brows bristling like two angry cats’ tails.  

He fixed his gray eyes on Charlie as if he had spit at him.  “You seen Gus?”

Charlie looked scared with the cards in his hands quivering like a fan.  “I didn’t see him.  Clover did.”  He pointed at her so fast and so close he nearly poked her in the eye.

Way to go.  Throw me under the bus.  Cover thought as Uncle Jeb his hot gaze on her.  She said quickly, “I only saw him outside of the house back at Virgin – Grandma’s house.  She said he was harmless.”

“Bah!”  Uncle Jeb spat.  He turned his head and spit on the floor, actually spit on the floor near his foot.  “You listen well, kiddies, and you listen good cuz I’m gonna fill your ears with the truth.  That man ain’t what he appears t’ be.  He may have the folks around here fooled into thinking he’s some poor shy war vet messed in the head, but he ain’t.  Oh, I got his number and believe you me, it ain’t human.”  

The silence filled the air and Clover could only hear herself breathing.  Chills were rolling down her spine again and her mouth suddenly felt dry.  Ivan was staring at Uncle Jeb with eyes so wide, Clover wouldn’t have been surprised if they popped out of his head.

As if taking the silence for an invitation to explain, Uncle Jeb continued, “I knows cause I seen ‘em.  I saw them real him in the woods last year while I was coon huntin’.  I dropped my flashlight and it broke, wouldn’t turn on so I was in the dark so I had to find my way by the stars.  As I was pinpointing which direction was home, I saw this light.  I’m thinkin’ well, I ain’t alone and there’s help come, but the light was different, not no flashlight a’tall.  So I stay low and head to the light, watchin’.  There he was, Gus, surrounded by all this light floatin’ aroun’ ‘im.  The light got to be so bright it blinded me and I got careless.  Stepped on a twig and he turned to me and I got a good at ‘im and he ain’t human, I tells ya.”

They were all holding their breath, their eyes nearly as wide as Ivan’s who looked as if he were going to start crying.

Clover tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry.  She wanted to know what happened next, but Brian, thankfully, asked in her stead.

“What happened?  Did he say anything?”

“Nope, the coward took off,” Uncle Jeb groused.  “The light got so bright it might as turned the night to day and by the time I could see again, he was gone.  Ever since then, I’ve been keepin’ an eye on ‘im, t’ make sure he steers clear of these woods.  But the fella can’t seem t’ learn when he ain’t wanted, even after firin’ a few shots at him.”

“Have you ever hit him?”  Charlie asked astounded.

“A few times, I swore I got ‘im in the chest cavity, but he walks off as if I just threw a few pebbles at ‘im.  One day, one day, I’ll figure out what he’s up to or get my hands on ‘im and it ain’t gonna be pretty for him, I’ll tell you that.”

“But what is he?  If he’s not human.”  Clover heard herself asked, almost too afraid of the answer to ask.

“Alien,” Uncle Jeb said gravely.  “You think I’m worried about the upcoming wars on Earth, oh, I am, those are on the horizon, but the one that keeps me up at night, is the enemy coming from the sky.”

* * *

The night crept on then sooner than they thought it would.  It could have been the blizzard blocking out the sun to make it seem later than it was, but none of them had the mood to stay up.  They were of the same mind of the sooner they went to bed, they sooner they can wake up in the morning and head back.

Yet, sleep didn’t come easy for any of them.  They four of them lay side by side in the prearranged order and stared at the ceiling.

“Do you think it’s true?”  Charlie asked, his voice sounding small.  “That you saw an alien, Clover?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t really get a good look at him, but that’s what they do, right?  Look like human beings to fool people?”

A timid voice whispered, “Maybe it’s a ghost?”

Charlie was quick to say, “No, it wasn’t a ghost.  Right, Clover?”

“Right,” Clover promised and then remembered.  “Do you need to use the bathroom, Ivan?”

“I already been!”  Ivan declared.

“Just go ahead and try again.”

“But I already went!”

“Ivan, I swear to God if I wake up in pee I’m going to rub your nose in it and smack you.  Get up and go!”  Clover growled impatiently.  

Ivan huffed, but rolled off the edge of the bed.  “Don’t look.”

Clover rolled her eyes.  Yeah, what she always wanted to see.  Some little boy peeing in an old porcelain vase.  Thankfully the moldy smell of the bed masked the reek of urine.  However, she rolled onto her side away from Ivan and the vase and closed her eyes.  The wind was still whistling outside with the winds occasionally rattling in their frames.  She yawned, realizing she was more tired than she thought.

Just as she closed her eyes, Brian said, “Why did you say you what it’s like to have a crappy parent too?”

Clover opened her eyes and froze, her heart skipping a beat.  Oh no, she wasn’t ready to deal with it now and Brian was persistent when he wanted to know something.  “I don’t remember saying that.”

Charlie chimed in, “You said it to me after Uncle Jeb talked about my mom and dad.”

“Yeah.  Are you mad at Dad for bringing us out here with no WiFi?”

“Yes, that’s it.  There’s no WiFi so I’m mad,” she muttered, hoping this will satisfy him.  “Just go to sleep.”

“Wait, it’s not Dad,” Brian said with the lighted tone of epiphany.  “It’s Mom you’re mad at!  You’ve avoided her like she’s got the plague or something.”

Clover swallowed, staring at the ceiling and remembering everything that happened a month ago.  What she had saw and what she was unwilling to talk about now.  “I’m not mad at Mom.”

“Yes, you are,” Brian sat up, insistent in pursuing the matter.  “You don’t talk to Mom like you used to before you quit softball.”

“Shut up, Brian,” she said through her teeth.  He was getting too close and she couldn’t bear to talk about what she saw that day.

“Is she the reason you quit softball?  You get in a fight with her and it made you want to quit?”  Brian was sitting up now staring at me, his eyes squinted from deep thought.

“Just let it go, Brian, please,” she begged and hated herself for begging.

Hearing her beg really made him want to know what happened that day when Clover stalked into the house and threw out all of her softball fear announcing she was quitting forever.  His sister had been so devoted to the game and her team that was shocking even for him who, never cared for going to his sister’s games, to hear she parted ways from it.  

“Just tell me what happened and I’ll leave you alone.”

“Trust me.  You don’t want to know,” she said through gritted teeth.  

Charlie, who was sensing the fireworks in the air between brother and sister, tried to defuse the situation.  “Brian, let’s just go to sleep.”

Yet, Brian was not to be deterred from his inquiry.  “C’mon Clover, just tell me what happened.  Did Mom do something?  That’s it, isn’t it?  She did something.  What did she do?”

Clover felt as if every muscle in her body was clenched.  Her hands clenched so tightly her nails bit into her palms.  She didn’t trust herself to speak.  

“Did she get in a fight with one of the parents?  Or with the coach?”

Clover felt something in her head pop and a torrent of rage spilled out of her.  She sat up so quickly she startled the boys and Ivan who was urinating in the vase turned around creating a wet arc on the floor.  

Her eyes flashed and her teeth bared with barely contained fury.  In a voice she barely recognized as her own, she said, “Do you want to know what Mom did?  Do ya?  Okay, I’ll freakin’ tell you what she did or is doing right now.  She’s having an affair with my old softball coach is what she’s doing.”
Currently working to post the first chapters of my novels on Deviant art.  Also cleaning up my deviant page.
Clovertitle by Aragem

Clover kept her eyes on the cartoony figures splashing across the small LCD screen of her iPhone.  With the earbuds snugged in her ears so she couldn’t hear nor see anyone trying to get her attention from the front seat.  They would have to reach back to get her attention in an already cramped car or have her brother get her attention and knowing him, he would punch her in the arm giving her an excuse to punch him back and starting a fight she knew her parents didn’t want.  So she was contented to be left alone in her own world of video game apps and the distant sound of car tires crunching salt and snow.  

It was a relief when her father was tired of the Chistmas Carrol CD he brought for the trip and had switched it over to the radio which droned on and on about an upcoming snowstorm.  Her mother was constantly worrying about it and her father reassured her that his parents had weathered many a storm in their farmstead and this would be no different.  In fact, he liked it as it would give them all an excuse to spend Christmas indoors together like a family should sharing stories over warm cups of hot cocoa.

“Mom!  I can’t download any apps!”  Brian moaned from his seat on the right.  

“Honey, I told you that your grandparents don’t have coverage where they live,” their mother said without taking her eyes off the map in her hands.  Her father insisted that he knew the way by heart and had no need of GPS or maps, but Mom reminded him that it had been almost ten years since their last visit to his boyhood home.  

“That sucks!  Why are we having Christmas here?”  Brian didn’t like bad news nor anything that inconvenient him so he tended to either ignore or forget whenever news he didn’t care for was explained.  So information had to be given to him multiple times until it finally sunk it.  

Their mother sighed, “Because you haven’t seen your grandparents since you were little and they never had a chance to meet Clover.  They want to see you guys at least one more time before they pass away.”

Brian snorted, “Then they should have cell phone reception.”  

“Hey now, your old man grew up without any of these fancy gadgets around these parts,” their father looked at them through the rear view mirror.  His glasses caught the sun in a bright gleam, like flashing eyes.  “It won’t hurt either of you to be without the internet for a week.  It’ll bring us closer together.”  He ignored Brian’s breathed retort (“Yeah, right.”) and focused on her.  “It’s nice to see you back with us, Lucky.”

Uh oh, she showed too much interest in the exchange.  She quickly lowered her eyes, but it was too late.  Her mother was quick to speak, “Your coach asked about you.  He wants to know if you’ll come back to the team.  He’ll save a spot for you for the spring season.”

Clover’s hands tighten around her phone.  She wondered if he called her mother’s cellphone directly or their home phone.  “I’ll think about it.”

Her mother’s lips pursed and just when Clover believed her mother was going to say something else, she turned back to the map.  Relieved, Clover adjusted the earbuds and went back to her game.  When she quit the softball team last month, her parents had been bewildered by her decision and even more so by her answer to their questions of why she quit.  

It’s boring and I don’t want to do it anymore.

Even her friends pestered her to find out why she left the team and when she gave them the same answer, they became angry and frustrated until only Amanda, Clover’s best friend and ex-teammate, would speak to her.  One of the things Clover liked most about Amanda is she knew when to leave well enough alone and didn’t persist in questioning about her sudden resignation from the team.  

“Ah!  Here’s the turn!”  Her father announced, unable to hide the relief in his voice.  “See!  I know where we’re going.”

“Hmm-mmm, I think it’s because of the sign.”  Mom pointed at a wooden arrow sign at the edge of the road.  It was so crusted with ice and snow that Clover could barely read the words, Felmer’s Pond.

“Who’s Felmer?” she heard herself asking.  

“Dunno.  It was always called that since I was a kid,” Dad said slowing down.  The car trundle along the road dipping and rocking with the tires sinking in the snow covered potholes and crevices.  “It’s on Clover’s side if you guys want to see it.”

Brian almost pressed her against the door as he leaned over her to see.  “Is that it?”

Clover shoved him off and turned to look.  It wasn’t a large pond.  It was barely wider than a football field.  Snow banks around it were high as if someone wanted to keep snow off the ice.  In the very middle of the pond there was a hole, like an ice fishing hole.  It was dark, like a black smudge on the face of the white ice.  

“Cool!  Can we go ice skating on it?”  Brian leaned over her again, almost pressing his pull weight against her to press his face to the window.

“Oh, no.  It’s not on our property and the owner goes south for the winter,” Dad said giving the pond one last glance.  “You kids stay away from it.  Sometimes the ice is too thin for ice skating.”  He turned his attention back to the road.  “It’s just up this ways a bit and we’ll see the farm house.”  

At the end of the road, they finally came to the farm house.  It was looked like any generic farm house from a painting or Christmas card.  The house was two stories high with ice crusted windows and roof so covered in snow she couldn’t tell what color it was.  

As the car came to a stop just yards away from the front porch, the door was flung open and an old woman wearing jeans and a cardigan sweater stepped out onto the porch.   She came out with arms open wide and pulled Dad into a tight embrace.  She was small woman whose head barely reached Dad’s chest and he hugged her back so tight Clover was afraid the frail woman was going to break.  When the hug ended, she gave Mom a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek then she turned to them.

“Oh my Lord!  They have gotten so big!”  

Brian, who enjoyed attention, but hated being hugged and kiss like a little kid, was torn between stepping forward for a hug or stepping back to let Clover be the first recipient of affection.  However, Grandma was too quick for him.  She jerked him into a tight hug, kissing his face, and ruffling his hair.  “The last time I saw you, you were running around in diapers!”

Clover did some quick math in her head and smirked.  Brian was still in diapers when he was four!  She barely had time to hide her bemused smile when she was swept up in a hug.  The woman was stronger than she appeared as she squeezed the air of Clover’s lungs.  

“I’m so happy to see you, darling.”  She heard whispered in her ear.  

Clover swallowed feeling both nervous and warm inside.  “It’s good to see you too . . . Grandma.”  The word felt foreign to her.  It had been spoke before as a subject, but never towards anyone specific. Grandma had been a person who was far away and untouchable, like a thought or a memory.  Now it was here hugging her as if she were a lifeline.

When Grandma finally let her go, the woman urged them to go inside.  “You have to go see George.  He twisted his ankle and it gives him all kinds of fits in this cold weather.”

They were ushered into a warm living room where an actual hearth with a real fire was crackling.  A thin bone old man wearing overalls with a foot propped up on a stool greeted them with an endearing smile.

“What have you let in the house, Virginia?”  The man said jovially.

“No one special, I supposed.  Just your son and his wife and our grandchildren.”  Grandma teased.  

Another round of hugs starting with her father, then her brother, and lastly her.  The man’s hug wasn’t as strong as Grandma’s, but the deep affection was still there.  When he released her from the hug, he held her hand in his vein laced hand.  “You are prettier than your pictures, sweetheart.”

Clover blushed, never believing herself to be anything but, ‘not ugly’ as she and Amanda would have described her.  Her hair was a between shade of brown and blonde and her eyes were just some dull shade of blue.  The only good thing about her appearance is that she has yet to reach the teenage years of pimples and zits like her brother.  She shyly looked down at her feet and said a small, “Thank you.”

It was strange to be shown so much affection and love by two complete strangers.  Well, strangers weren’t the right word.  Just two people she knew of and never met.  She had seen pictures and spoke with them over the phone those rare occasions when they could afford a long distance call on their ancient landline.  It was nothing like meeting in person.  To hear their voices without the crackle of a phone and feel the warmth of their hugs.  They felt so much more real and it was intimidating.

Grandma went to make cocoa while they unpacked for their week long stay.  The house was of one level, but more space had been added over the years.  There were three bedrooms, a master bedroom and two extras for Brian and his sister Martha.  Clover and Brian would share one room while their parents took the other room.

The bedroom that belonged to her Aunt Martha was small.  Barely enough room for the queen size bed and a cheap dress with peeling paint and carved initials: MA + AD carved into the side.  As two kids with their own bedrooms, this looked to be a tight squeeze for both of them.  Already, the week was looking cramp and annoying.  

As Clover was squatting to shove her suitcase under the bed, the dresser was too small for all of their combined clothing, Brian was sitting on the bed fiddling with the smartphone again.  “Why can’t I pick up any WiFi?”

Clover rolled her eyes in deep exasperation.  “How many times does it need to be spelled out for you, moron!  They have no WiFi here!  There isn’t any WiFi for miles around because we are all the way out in the boonies.  You won’t find any WiFi here and  we’re out from cell coverage.  So guess what, idiot!  That means no internet!  No online games, no Facebook, no iTunes, no video streaming, nothing!”

She watched the gears flip over in Brian’s eyes as it finally, finally, clicked together.  Then the horror filled his eyes and his flopped back on the bed dropping his phone and pressed his hands over his face.  “Noooo!  You’ve got to be kidding me!”

Clover stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at him.  Why was it that Brian was so slow to absorb information?  He could remember game cheat codes and email addresses with no problem, but when it came to something he wasn’t interested in or didn’t care for, it was a constant gentle reminders from their parents until Clover herself had to send the message home.  

He looked at her like a man informed his life expectancy was short.  “What am I suppose to do?”

“I don’t know.  Just suck it up for the week and we’ll go home at the end of the week then you can Facebook and text as much as you want.”  She kicked the suitcase under the bed and the edge next to Brian.  Feeling her anger receding, she said almost kindly, “I’m sure you’ll find lots to do.  You do have some apps that don’t need the internet right?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Brian acquiesced.  “And we could look around in the woods or something.”

“Maybe.”  Clover stood and went to the window.  It was iced over with morning frost, but she could make out a shed near a path.  There was a pile of stacked wood covered in snow set against the edge.  And nearby, hanging from a low branch was an ice crusted wooden board swing.  It looked like something out of an old history book and she bet the shed had been there when her grandparents were kids.  Maybe back when their grandparents were kids too.  “Ya know what?  It might be cool to look around a little.”

Grandma was ladling hot cocoa into mugs from a saucepan when they came out with their coats and snow boots on.  “You going outside?”

“Yeah, is that alright?”  Brian asked.

They were startled when from the living room came a rough bark, “That’s yes ma’am!”

The two of them whirled around to see Grandpa giving them a hard look.  His kindly old eyes had darken into small pieces of flint and his mouth was set in a harsh line.  “In this house we respect our elders.”

Clover eyes switched between her parents.  Her mother, who was standing in the kitchen with a mug in both hands pursed her lips unhappily and her father was staring at Grandpa with a distant look that Clover didn’t recognize.  

Brian managed to recover enough to mutter, “Yes ma’am.”

Grandma’s spoke loudly, as if to fill the sudden silence.  “Don’t let yourselves get too cold and stay away from the shed.  Your Grandpa keeps his tools in there and we don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Sure – I mean, yes ma’am,” Clover cast a quick glance at Grandpa.  

She and Brian both beat a hasty exit out of the house.  When they were both out in the yard, Clover looked over her shoulder at the door and wondered aloud, “What was that all about?”

“I don’t know,” Brian muttered, looking as if he was getting ready to sulk.  “Why did he yell at me like that?”

Brian’s feelings had been hurt and Clover felt a sliver of the anger she carried move towards Grandpa.  Sure, she may have yelled at Brian just minutes before Grandpa did, but Brian was her brother and Grandpa was some distant relative she just met.  What right did he have to make her brother feel bad?  

“Let’s look around.  Maybe we’ll see some tracks.”  

“Tracks of what?”  Brian muttered.

“I don’t know.  Deer, moose, rabbit, just tracks.”  

They walked around the house, kicking clumps of snow and leaving their own tracks in their wake.  They did find some tracks by the barn.  Brian insisted they were deer tracks, but Clover had the suspicion they were actually belonged to a cow.  They looked in the barn and saw that though it was empty, it still carried the smell of horses and cows.

With Brian cheered up, he finally demanded they have a snow ball fight which Clover reluctantly agreed to lift his spirits.  They ducked and weaved between the cars pinging each other with hastily crafted snowballs.  It lasted until Clover felt some snow go down the back of her shirt and suggested they check out the swing behind the house.  Particles of ice clung to the old robe and the branch above creaked and dropped bits of ice and down on their heads when Brian gave the swing a jerk.

“Here, have a swing,” Brian offered with a leery smile.

“You’re hoping that branch will break and fall on my head,” Clover said dryly.  

“C’mon, I dare you.”

“No, I dare you.  You do it.”

“Nah, you do it.”

“Alright, fine, I’ll do it.”  Clover was feeling daring and happy.  She was gladden that Brian seemed to have gotten over being yelled at and that she can finally forget her anger.   “But you watch that branch and tell me if it starts to break.”

“Yeah, alright,” Brian smile switched from mischievous to almost admiration.  He stepped back watching the branch.  “It looks solid, go ahead.”

Clover turned, taking hold of the wet freezing ropes carefully lowered herself onto the board.  She slowly added more weight until the ice on the board seem through the seat of her pants and underwear into her skin.  She shivered and kept herself from springing up.  Then she lifted her feet off the ground and gave the swing her full weight.  When there was no crack of doom from above she gave it an experimental swing, then took a chance on a longer one.  The rope creaked benignly from the motion, almost like an encouragement to kick off and go higher.  

She enjoyed the cold wind on her face and the freedom of her body sweeping through the air.  Everything was falling back behind her with each heighten swing.  This was the happiest she been since . . .

The back door opened and Mom came out wearing her blue parka.  “Hi, do you want to build a snow man?”

Clover dug her feel into the ground, halting in mid-swing, leaving deep ruts in the snow.  She watched her mother carefully step down the icy steps and stood.  “I’m going inside.  I’m cold.”

“I’m not cold,” Brian said.

“I am,” Clover snapped.  

Her mother paused, “Clover, where are you going?”

“Inside.”  Clover didn’t look at her as she past.  Her mother called her name and she pretended she couldn’t hear as she let the door slam behind her.  

Grandma was still at in the kitchen preparing dinner and Dad and Grandpa were talking about people from Dad’s childhood.  What happened to them after he moved away such as who married who and who their children were and what they were doing now.  Clover quietly moved upstairs as to not attract attention and went back to their bedroom.  She stripped off her her coat and tossed it on the dresser and kicked off her boots and socks.  

She lay on the bed, her legs sprawled over the edge of the bed.  Clover didn’t close her eyes because she knew she would see the image she had been trying to get out of her head for weeks.  And whenever she saw it in her mind’s eye, she became angry all over again.  It had been fun swinging, to finally let that anger go and then just like that, it came seeping back in like water in a leaking flooding boat.  

Maybe things would make more sense once they were home.  She just had to get through this week and maybe at home she came sort out what she should do.  

She heard the crunch of tires on snow from outside.  She rolled got up and went to the window that faced out the front.  A car was coming up the long drive, following the trail left behind from their car.  It was an ugly old car with a cracked front window and scratches along the sides.  It was making a cranking sound as if it were a death rattle.  The car creaked to a halt next to their car, the one Dad bought last year, and in contrast with the newer model, it looked older and dingier.

The doors open and a dark hair woman in an old sweater stepped out.  She constantly rubbed pink hands together and Clover wondered why she wasn’t wearing gloves if her hands were so cold.  Then two kids got out, a boy who looked to be her age and a young kid maybe four or five.  They both wore clothes that didn’t seem to fit them and were shabby and almost out of date.  The older boy wore what looked to be a man’s size hoodie with the sleeves rolled up at the wrists.  The little boy was practically waddling in jeans that were too big for him.  

Clover noticed the woman was looking very anxious as if she was afraid to be here.  The more Clover stared at her, the more familiar she looked.  In fact, Clover dared to say that she looked a little like Dad.  Then she realized that this woman could only be Aunt Martha and their cousins, more relatives she had never met save for the occasional post card or Christmas card.  Her father talked about her, but not very often.

Clover went downstairs into a living room fraught with tension.  Grandma was standing at the front window watching Aunt Martha and the boys with pursed lips.  Grandpa was still sitting in his chair and his hands were gripping the arms tightly.  And if she didn’t know any better, Dad was holding his breath as if afraid of what was going to happen in the next few minutes.  She paused at the stairway feeling suddenly nervous as if she were stepping into an awkward scene so she stayed silent and listened.

Her father was the first one to break the silence.  “Dad, it’s Martha . . .”

“I know it’s Martha!” her grandfather snapped so sharply both she and Dad flinched.  “I just heard your mother tell me it was Martha!”

“She has the boys with her, George.”  Grandma turned away from the window with nearly tearful eyes.  “We can’t let them stand out there in the snow.”

Grandpa George stony face twisted into a deep scowl, but he relented, “Fine.  Let them in.”

It was a good thing he decided to let them inside as shortly after he had spoken, there was a knocking at the door.  As Grandma left the window for the door, Clover looked at her father.  He was sitting very still, his hands braced on his knees so hard the knuckles were white.  She couldn’t read his face.  It was a blank expression, but his eyes were hard, almost fierce.  She had never seen him like this before and it was disturbing her and making her more curious of what was going on.  Though Dad spoke little of Aunt Martha, he only said good things about her, never anything bad or to be angry about.      

When Grandma opened the door, it wasn’t with barely contained joy or arms opened for tight embraces.  She opened the door as if she were letting were politely welcoming a much disliked neighbor.  Aunt Martha stood there in the doorway with guilt and anxiety etched in her stance.  She reminded Clover of a kick dog.

“Hi, Mom,” she greeted tentatively.

The two boys were standing behind her holding hands.  The small was one trying to peer curiously around his mother’s legs and the older boy was watching the exchange between his mother and grandmother.

“Martha.”  Grandma replied softly.  

Clover peeked around the edge of the stairway watching.  From the corner of her eye, she saw her father’s were on the doorway while Grandpa kept his eyes fixed on the television, his mouth set in a hard as if he had just ate something nasty.  

Aunt Martha rubbed her hands together which still looked pink and cold.  “I decided to bring the boys over for Christmas.  You never had the chance to meet them.  Uh, this is – this is Charlie and Michael.  Say hello, boys.”

Only the little boy was earnest in his greeting.  He smiled, showing off small baby teeth and waved a mitten at Grandma.  The elder boy murmured hello under his breath and kept looking between his mother and Grandma.  

Clover could see her Grandma’s face soften at the edges.  “Come inside.  We can’t have the boy freezing out here.”

Though they were welcomed inside, Clover could still sense the unwelcoming atmosphere in the room and it was emanating from Grandpa.  As the mother and children came inside, Grandpa’s face became stormy and his mouth a bitter line.  Aunt Martha helped the boys out of their coats and gloves with her cold pink hands.  She was shaking and Clover couldn’t tell whether it was from being cold or being so nervous.  Once the boys were taken care of, she took off her own coat and Clover was amazed by how thin she was.  She had to be wearing two sweaters and they were all that was giving her any bulk beneath the overcoat.  With her being so nervous, she reminded Clover of a  timid mouse.

The backdoor opening and boots scuffing the rug filled the tense air.  Brian was in the back asking for hot cocoa and Mom tell him not to leave track snow on the floor.  Within minutes, Mom appeared at the doorway leading to the back and froze when she sensed the atmosphere on the room.  Her eyes roamed the room and landed on Aunt Martha and the boys.  Clover watched her eyes cross from curious confusion, then to recognition, then to apprehension.  

“Hello, Martha,” her mother said cautiously her eyes going to her husband who remained on the couch with his blank look.

Before Aunt Martha could offer a greeting in return, Brian trooped in with his coat sagging off his shoulders, “Hey, can I have some hot chocolate . . . who are they?”

Then just like that, as if Brian’s presence made her glow somehow, her father finally noticed her.  “Hey, Lucky, why don’t you take Brian and the boys upstairs for a bit while the adults talk.”

Clover didn’t want to go upstairs, she wanted to stay downstairs and listen to what the adults were going to talk about.  She wanted to know why there was so much tension in the air it felt like a mine filled with gas where one spark could turn it into an explosion.  Yet there was something in her father’s eyes, a silent plea and Clover realized that he really wanted to go upstairs with them too.  

“C’mon, Brian,” she said more sharply than she meant and beckoned for the boys to follow her.  

Just as Brian was about to come back with a snappy retort to being ordered around by a younger sister, but for once he noticed something beyond his own desires.  His father’s firm look and he too noticed the silent plea in them.  Brian furrow his brow in confusion and irritation, as he didn’t like when he didn’t understand something, especially when it was to his detriment.  He glowered in distaste, but went upstairs without a word and would have bumped Clover’s shoulder if she hadn’t had the foresight to step aside to let him pass.

Below, the two boys looked at her.  The smaller boy was looking at her curiously, shyly peeking at her from behind his brother.  The elder boy was studying her from behind his glasses which she noticed were held together in the center by tape.  He took his brother’s hand and led him up the stairs after Brian.  Clover  took one last look before following them up.

Her father maintained his stiff seating on the couch near Grandpa who was sitting like an angry king on his chair.  Granma was standing near the door as if she wanted to runaway and her mother stood nearby looking uncertain.  And in the middle of it, Aunt Martha was standing like a deer in the headlights.  

Clover would have given anything to be a fly on the wall for whatever conversation was going to follow.

* * *

Brian was sitting on the floor in the hallway toying with his smartphone.  It was something he did whenever he pouted or didn’t get his way.  The two boys stood nearby, holding hands and waiting for whatever could happen next to them.  The three of them looked at her expectantly when she appeared at the head of the stairs.  She ignored them and listened carefully.  Either the adults were speaking in low whispers or sound didn’t carry up the stairs as she could hear nothing of what was going on downstairs.  

She sighed resignedly and turned back to the boys.  Clover eyed her cousin’s linked hands and wondered what the hand holding was all about.  Sh hadn’t help Brian’s hand since she was small and that was only when they went out shopping with Mom and in parking lots.  They only did it because Mom made them so they would get lost or separated, but these boys seemed to do it because they were scared.  No, not scared, more like they needed each other or found comfort in being close.

“Uh, I’m Clover and this is my brother, Brian.”  She went ahead and broke the ice thinking that perhaps these boys knew about what was going on downstairs.  She didn’t think it would be tactful to follow up with ‘why is your mom acting like she’s coming back to a scene of a crime?’ or ‘why grandpa looked like he wanted to kill when she showed up?’  So instead, she said in a polite inquiring way, “So are you guys staying for Christmas?”

“Yeah!”  The little boy, Michael, piped up much to his brother’s dismay.

“Shut up, Mike!”  Charlie hissed.

Michael flinched, but screwed up his face, “But it’s what Mama said!”

Brian looked away from his game in sudden interest, “I thought Grandma and Grandpa were going to have just us this year.”

Charlie’s eyes flashed behind his glasses.  “We’re here now.”

Did Aunt Martha ever bring them here?  No, she didn’t.  Aunt Martha said it the first time they ever met their grandparents and their arrival was very unexpected.  “Why are you here?”

Michael wilted under the heated gaze of Charlie.  He stayed silent and let his brother answer.

“We’re here for Christmas,” Charlie said firmly.

There’s more to it than that, Clover thought, a lot more to it than that.  Grandma and Grandpa, who had been kindly and thrilled to see them, were cool and anxious around Aunt Martha, only letting her in so the boy’s wouldn’t get too cold.  Her eyes met Charlie’s and she could see the light scratches on the lenses and the tape holding his glasses together almost glisten in the light.  She took in their second hand clothing and remember the condition of their car and a picture formed in her brain.  

She chewed her lower lip feeling guilty for prying and relented.  “Wanna go outside and play?  Hey, Brian, weren’t you and Mom building a snowman?”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, let’s go outside and build another one with these guys?”

Brian gave her a strange look while Charlie gazed suspiciously at her.  

Only Michael seemed excited.  “Yeah!  Let’s go!”

Brian lowered his smartphone, “Why?  I thought you were too cold to build one with Mom and me.”

“Well, I warmed up since then.  C’mon, get your jacket on and let’s go.”

Brian got to his feet and made no move to grab his jacket from the floor.  “I think I rather stay inside.”

“Fine, stay inside.  I don’t care what you do.”  She turned to her cousin and said in a cheerier voice that sounded strain from being forced.  “I’ll meet you two outside.”

She pulled on her coat and went downstairs.
Sorry, it's been years and I had been occupied with long serious of being unemployed, working crappy end jobs, but finally I have something that'll keep me financially stable without me wanting to shoot myself.  

Big change.  I'm currently working on three novels.  Clover, Noel, and Lynn, yes all three have titular female leads.  I know its a big undertaking to write three novels at the same time, but I've been enjoying it so far.  What I post won't be the finished product, but will undergo changes and revisions as time goes by, but in the mean time, whatever feedback I can get will be most helpful.  
  • Reading: Cleo
  • Watching: South Park
  • Playing: Mass Effect 2

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Aragem
Cam
United States

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:iconcharletdukaine:
CharletDukaine Featured By Owner May 13, 2013
thanks for watching me! :-)
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:iconaragem:
Aragem Featured By Owner May 14, 2013
Keep up the great work! [link]
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:iconesau13:
Esau13 Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2010  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the fave!
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:iconnyhgault:
Nyhgault Featured By Owner Apr 2, 2010  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you for the favorite on Peacefulness! :)
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:iconaragem:
Aragem Featured By Owner Jul 31, 2010
No problem. It was a good piece.
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:iconnyhgault:
Nyhgault Featured By Owner Mar 21, 2010  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Hi! Many thanks for the favorite on The Kiss! I appreciate a lot! :)
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stripedwine Featured By Owner Mar 15, 2010
Thanks for the watch!
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:iconroguescarlett:
RogueScarlett Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2010
Thank you for the fave! =]
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:iconaragem:
Aragem Featured By Owner Feb 26, 2010
Hey, it's a good pic of my fave couple.
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:iconrazzlesnazzle:
razzlesnazzle Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2010
Thanks so much for the watch! It really means alot, plus it makes me feel all squishy and warm! :dummy:
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