Thursday, June 10, 2010

Original Fiction: Available

News, good or bad, traveled through Black Creek like June bugs on a skillet. So when the huge blue-and-white moving truck topped the road on Watchman’s Hill, the word spread quickly through the gossip lines. Maggie Brown phoned Delilah Winston at the beauty parlor.

"A moving truck’s been seen on Watchman’s Hill," Maggie told her. "It’s blue and white and headed straight for us." Delilah Winston informed all her customers.

 One of those customers sat quietly in the chair, and listened to every word. Seven-year-old Allie Pearson blew strands of blonde hair from her face as Delilah told everyone that a whole line of trucks was converging on Black Creek.

Newcomers to Black Creek! Nothing this exciting had occurred in her short lifetime. All sorts of questions filled her mind. Who were they, and where did they come from? Her tongue itched to ask, but she firmly bit it. Children were not supposed to interrupt their elders; all the grown-ups said so. Besides, she had the feeling that none of the grown-ups shared her curiosity. Postmaster Claybaum shook his fist so hard that Milton the barber had a hard time shaving the foam off his face with a straight razor.

"Darn city folk comin’ to invade our town," he grumbled. "They’ll ruin us, I tell you. I'll alert the fire warden and the sheriff. Reminds me of the Sugarmunny Invasion of '82..."

As soon as her haircut was finished, Allie dutifully passed the fee to Delilah. Outside the window, the truck crawled down Main Street. It made a right hand turn and disappeared down Johnstone.

"I wonder where it's going," Allie said. "I'm gonna find out!" She rushed out the door and ran across the street behind the truck. Dust stained her new summer frock and the gravel scuffed her black loafers. She impatiently kicked them off her feet and grabbed them with one hand.

"Alison Pearson, come back here!" Delilah shouted. She shook a hairbrush in Allie’s wake. "Your father'll be furious at you! You don’t even know who that is! And look at you–you’re such a sight! Your momma would be turnin’ in her grave!"

She flew by the post office, the school and the church. They all hovered over her in indignant disapproval. Allie imagined the white-painted buildings as ridiculous old men with droopy mustaches. She giggled and raced around the corner with the wind in her newly-cut hair.

Pearson’s General Store stood at the corner of Main and Johnstone. Allie burst through the door and flung it open so hard it nearly fell off its hinges. "Daddy, Daddy, I heard-" She froze when she saw the customer at the counter. Taffy Buckner turned towards Allie and glared at her in disgust. Allie's carefree courage left her like a retreating wave. Her face turned bright crimson, and she shrank back like a wilted peony.

"Well, I never! Your daddy and I are discussin' somethin' important!''

Richard Pearson looked up from his register. "It's all right, Taffy. This ruckus has everyone in a tizzy." He went over to his daughter and crouched down to Allie's level. "Your haircut looks pretty nice, Allie. I can finally see your eyes."

The compliment brought the smile back to Allie's face. Daddy always knew what to say. He smiled back at her and asked, "You heard about the truck?"

"Yes, Daddy, from Miss Delilah."

"What exactly did you hear?"

Allie recounted the discussion in the hair parlor, with a child's ear for details. Pearson's mouth quirked upwards at Postmaster Claybaum's words. He flashed Taffy an ironic look. "Now, Taffy, I don’t think the governor’s sending an army of trucks. That sounds too crazy to be true," Pearson said in his soothing baritone. He ran a hand through his unruly, sandy-blond hair. "Nothing happens here. Someone’s probably movin’ into town."

"But it ain't normal," insisted Taffy. She twisted a strand of black hair around her finger.

"Well, I suppose all we have to do is wait and see," he said. "C'mon, Allie, let's see what all the fuss is about."

He offered his hand to Allie, and left the store together. She had to run to match his long, loping strides, but she did not mind. She saw the fierce curiosity on his face. A sense of relief came over her. She wasn't the only one who wanted to know.

A crowd had already gathered at Old Widow Banner’s house. The truck alarm hooted as it slowly backed into the driveway. Small as she was, Allie had to elbow her way to the rotted picket fence. She peered above the slats and waited like everyone else.

The driver jumped from the cab. He waved his arms at the rubberneckers. "Stand back, folks," he ordered. "We don’t want anyone to get hurt. We’ve got some heavy items here."

The townspeople retreated across Johnstone Lane, outwardly offended, but silently relieved. Allie and a mere handful remained where they were. She looked up to see her father standing behind her. Allie reached for his hand. Pearson nodded and squeezed it.

The little girl watched, fascinated, as the movers unloaded the truck. These items held an aura of mystery, a wonderful change from the practical furniture she was used to seeing. An oval-shaped coffee table, gilded in gold and gleaming in the sunlight; a cherrywood writing desk with silver desk latches; a pair of drums from some African country, decorated with etchings of birds and exotic animals; and a statue of some strange deity, a man with the head of a jackal.

Allie sighed in admiration as a rack of satin dresses appeared at the foot of the loading ramp. They were the kind she imagined princesses and queens wore, in rainbows of colors, with scooped necklines and real pearls at the hems. Her toes ached from standing on tiptoe, but she forced herself to stay. There was too much to see. She imagined the new person, whoever it was, as a young, beautiful socialite.

She noticed a black steamer trunk on the driveway. "What’s in there?" she asked.

The head mover smiled and crouched down to answer her. "All sorts of treasures, at least that’s what I heard. Maybe you’ll look into it, someday." He patted Allie’s head and went off.

A hand dropped on her shoulder, and startled her. "Don’t let that man put all sorts of things into your pretty, little head," chided Delilah Winston. Her neat fingernails dug into Allie’s skin. "It’s probably just junk."

"Let the girl be," Pearson told her. He shrugged at Delilah. "Don't tell me you weren't young once."

It was an excess of wealth not seen in modest Black Creek. "Rich snob," sniffed Miss Delilah.

"Whoever it is–have they no shame?" echoed Miss Mildred. "No taste, whatsoever."

Taffy agreed, "You wouldn’t find that in my house!"

The comments buzzed like annoying flies. Pearson's hand tightened on Allie's, but he said nothing. Allie saw the accusing faces of the grown-ups, talking about someone they knew nothing about. How mean! She tried to imagine how she would feel if they did the same to her. She pressed her lips together and held back the words she really wanted to say.

After twenty minutes, the crowd dispersed and went about their daily business. After all, Black Creek did not stop existing, even when curiosity ran rampant. Only Allie and her father remained. He narrowed his eyes at the house, as if memorizing its contents. Finally, Pearson led her back to the store. Allie frowned at the distracted look on his face.

"Daddy, what's wrong?"

He shook his head. "Sorry, honey, I was thinking."

"About what?"

"Well, I thought I saw...never mind, it's gone now. It'll come back in its own time. Always does."

Allie refused to stay silent. "Daddy, why was everyone talking so mean?" she asked.

She felt his hand tighten on hers again, just as it did when the comments swirled around them. "Well, Allie, people are scared of things they don't know about, something new and different. When you get to know the new thing, it ain't scary anymore."

Allie nodded, but said nothing more about it.

As the days passed, no one saw the mysterious new occupant. Yet signs of new life appeared. The fence was repaired and coated with layers of new white paint. Purple curtains adored the windows. A set of wind chimes tinkled softly above the front door. Noah Brown delivered strange packages and magazines to the house, with addresses from Italy and Singapore. One day, a stack of purple envelopes appeared out of nowhere. Each townsperson received one.

Allie watched as her father opened his. He pulled a sheet of lavender-scented paper. A single word was carefully written on it: Available.

"What does it mean?" Allie wondered aloud.

"Someone or something's free to do whatever's next, I suppose."

"So what is it?"

"I've no idea," Pearson said, but his eyes told Allie that he might just have a guess.

The denizens of Black Creek speculated about the nature of their new citizen. A crazy New Age guru? A senile old lady with a penchant for unusual things? An eccentric and reclusive collector? Rumors spread, yet no one bothered to directly ask the source of their curiosity.

"Why don’t we ask?" Allie wanted to know.

They gave her a horrified look. "Because it ain’t proper!" they shot back. Whoever it is has to come to us!

No one asked the newcomer what "available" meant.

Two weeks after the move, Allie walked from the general store and down Johnstone Lane. She carried a basket of fruit that she had purloined from her father's store shelves. Her heart thudded in her chest as she neared the open front gate. The wind stirred the chimes, making it shimmer overhead. Her feet hesitated; perhaps this was a bad idea. Then she remembered her father's words about new people and things. She should not be scared. Allie squared her shoulders and knocked on the door.

"Hello?" she called in a timid voice. Then she cleared her throat and called louder. "Hello?"

A cheerful voice replied, "A visitor, finally! Come in! Come in!" An older woman shuffled onto the porch. Her silver hair flowed down her shoulders, her dress was of sturdy linen, and her broad face was wreathed in smiles. Allie found herself matching that smile.

"I’m Elizabeth," she said. "What’s your name?"

"Allie. My daddy owns the general store. I brought you this–" She offered Elizabeth the basket of fruit.

"For me? How thoughtful of you!" Elizabeth accepted the basket. "Thank you. A gift given is doubly blessed when shared. Will you care to share it with me?"

Allie’s smile lit up her face. "I will!"

Elizabeth showed Allie her new house. To the little girl’s surprise, the main room was cozy. Overstuffed couches and ottomans invited visitors to sit and talk. A gleaming tea service occupied the center of the oval, golden-gilded table. Allie noticed the odd jackal-headed statue next to the door, standing guard.

"Anubis," Elizabeth said. "He’s an important god to the Egyptians."

Allie cleared her throat; the concept was foreign to her traditional upbringing. Her eyes found other items she had seen during the move-in. "You have beautiful things in your house."

"Thank you. My husband was a foreign diplomat. That is, he traveled all around the world. Some of this was his. When he died, I kept it all and even added to it. I’ve always liked unique things."

Allie nodded, eyes wide at her matter-of-fact tone. "Why did you come here, if you’ve been all over the world?"

"I’m from here. Of course, this was before your time, Allie," she replied. Her dark blue eyes were shadowed with some memory. "I wanted to leave here, go places I’d only heard in stories. In the end, though, I decided home is the best place of all." Elizabeth chuckled. 
"Anyway, I wanted to see whether or not Black Creek had changed. It hasn’t, not a bit." She clapped one hand to her forehead. "Oh, I’m being inhospitable! Would you like a drink, Allie? I’ve mixed up some cool lemonade in the kitchen."

So began a happy–and educational–afternoon. Elizabeth showed Allie the souvenirs of a lifetime: the tables, the statues, the writing desk. She opened the steamer trunk to reveal a collection of Japanese dolls. Allie clapped her hands in delight and listened to the stories about the geishas. Elizabeth even allowed her to touch one of the satin dresses: a dusty rose one with a matching sash.

"My debutante dress," she explained, "for my coming-out party when I turned sixteen. My, that was long ago!"

As the day went on, Allie grew comfortable in Elizabeth’s presence. It seemed to Allie that all the rumors were untrue; Elizabeth was the nicest person in the world.

Someone else knocked at the door. Elizabeth turned her head. "Another visitor! Come, Allie, let’s see who this is!"

Richard Pearson stood on the porch, a basket of bread under his arm. "Hello? Is anyone here?" He froze at the sight of Allie, her hand in Elizabeth’s. "Allie?"

"Daddy!" she cried. "This is Elizabeth!"

"Elizabeth Martin, at your service," she said. You haven’t changed a bit, Richard Pearson."

Pearson’s mouth fell open. So did Allie's. She looked at him, then back at Elizabeth, then back at him. For the first time in her life, Allie saw her father speechless. ''Daddy, you know her?"

Pearson murmured to himself, as if trying to remember. "Elizabeth Martin. Elizabeth Collins Martin from Denbar Street? I can’t believe it! I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years!"

Allie shifted impatiently, for she did not understand. "Daddy?"

"Miss Elizabeth and your momma were neighbors. She used to cuff my ear when I was being pompous and foolish."

"'Open your mind, Richard,' I used to say. I'm glad to see you have, and your girl's the same.''

He grinned and offered her his hand. Elizabeth shook it with a firm grip. "I should’ve guessed it from your sign out there. ‘Available’, huh? Wanted to stir up the gossipmongers like you used to do?"

"Actually, that wasn’t my intention, Richard. I had a different reason."


She gave him a wink. "It means I’m now available for new friends and new places."

Allie grinned. What a clever way to advertise it! Well, Black Creek needed a shake-up.

"You’ve caused quite a stir in town, I must say," Pearson remarked, understating it a bit.

"I suppose I have," she replied, completely deadpan. Elizabeth glanced down at Allie. "Well, let’s not just stand here. Let’s see if Black Creek is as I remember it. Perhaps we can change some attitudes."

"Of course," Allie and her father said together. Pearson offered Elizabeth his arm and Allie slipped her hand back into Elizabeth’s other hand. The three of them went out to reintroduce their new friend to the crusty citizens of Black Creek, now that Elizabeth was "available" again.

Copyright 2006 by Annie Dameron

All writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2010

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