Sunday Stories features original fiction every weekend by Langley writers.
Written by Ryan Uytdewilligen
(continued from previous publication on Sunday, Feb. 9. Read last week’s installment here)
“Run,” Frank bellowed at Ellie, who was already twelve steps behind him at regular walking pace. Frank had already long ago sprung into action, casting his body forward in a sprint alongside the train track. Finally, he couldn’t believe their luck.
After hours of trudging over the dirt and gravel, thumbs stuck out to only three passing Chevys that all turned a blind eye, they meandered the lonely road west.
A passenger train had chugged along about an hour or so before; a bitter sight Frank couldn’t stand to bear for too long. He made contact with a couple pairs of worry-free eyes peering back at him through the window. Their curious gazes lasted only a split second, but the unintentional damage was long-lasting.
Frank kept his head down, making a point to stop Ellie from starring out any more train car windows to prevent any pain she might inflict on weary faces wandering in the adjacent ditch.
This train was different; no passengers to be had, or, coffee for that matter. Only closed cars of wheat and open ones stacked with boxes and crates; all of it, Frank figured, relating to agriculture in some fashion. The closed cars failed to perk up his mind, but a lengthy stretch of open ones gave him an idea.
Frank always wanted to catch a lift from a passing train, despite it being against the law and terribly dangerous. He had read about that action in many books before and something about riding the rails called to his adventurous nature. This train, what with its cargo and direction, looked to be that it’d get them just about to the front door of the dairy’s farmhouse; it was a gift from the heavens they could not pass up.
He tripped and slid over the dirt, but his pace kept up; they actually had a clear shot of climbing aboard; if, of course, Frank attempted in the next eight seconds. It was six or seven steps through the weeds and then one big dive into the car; the impedance of it all being Frank would have to lift Ellie and give her a jarring toss as she could never make that leap on her own.
That part of the plan made Frank cold with dread, but he knew he could do it. It was Ellie’s own landing skills that bothered him—he would be certain to warn her about keeping her head up and arms out.
When it came time to conduct the first phase of the maneuver, Frank took in a dusty breath, cracking his neck and shaking his arms as throw he was about to toss out a World Series pitch. “Okay Ellie, when I pick you up, I want you to get yourself ready for…” Frank trailed his instructions into silence as he turned to life his daughter.
She was nowhere near his side—not even a reasonable amount behind him. Ellie was boarding on a blur in the distance, gasping for air as her little legs pumped her along. Every few steps, bear was dropped into the dirt; causing her to have to stop, turn, and rescue the poor critter from getting left behind. The caboose quickly passed the girl by, a sight that kept her running forward at marginally faster pace; in Ellie’s mind, it was if she was shifting into a higher gear.
Frank waved his arms in a signal for her to run faster, but he only did so by swaying his hands several times through the air. The caboose was about to even eclipse him—open and almost empty cars, ripe for the riding, chugged along. Frank still had ounces of hope that they could make it; “maybe if he ran to grab her and then did the running for both of them?” he thought.
Logical snafus like if they would have actually gotten into the same car or if Frank would have even been able to climb inside the train at all after hoisting Ellie crossed his mind.
Doubts turned to defeat until finally, Frank’s legs stopped running. He hunched over to catch his breath—eyes glinting at the train that had now completely passed him by. Frank huffed and puffed, removing his hat to fan himself and side his sleeve against his brow. He breathed one long snort of anger before swallowing it all down to his stomach; determining it was a foolish idea to drag his daughter through something so perilous after all.
The train completely disappeared behind weeds and a lone knoll of grass and grain. By that time, Frank had caught up with his breath and returned upright. Ellie finally arrived, zipping right by her Pop and puffing along the roadside as she profusely waved him on—bear clutched tight to her chest with her other hand.
“What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
Ellie continued on the journey, stopping for several breaths before lunging on-wards for a few more steps. Frank smiled as he plunked his hat back on top of his head, watching Ellie stop and start and stop and start, calling his name in anger between every pace change. Frank sauntered on, catching up with his daughter after only a few casual steps.
He plopped himself down in a makeshift bed of weeds and hunkered down for a ten minute nap. Ellie kicked at him the entire time, tugging every limb while insisting that if Frank didn’t rise, they were going to miss the train.
# # #
“What am I going to do while you’re working at the dairy?” Ellie inquired as she and Frank walked further on down the road.
“Well you’re going to work right alongside me of course,” Frank rebutted without a beat.
“What? But I don’t know how to milk a cow,” she whined.
“You’ll learn,” Frank laughed.
“But… what if I don’t want to?”
“Don’t want to? Millions are out of work and you won’t do a job just because you don’t want to? What kind of girl am I raising?”
Ellie didn’t respond this time. Bear dangled down from her left hand; it’s fluffy paw falling occasionally low enough to drag along in the dirt. She gave a long contemplation about what her father had said before her belly let out a grumble louder than a real live bear could have roared. Of course, the pair smiled and instantly started to laugh.
“What if I’m too hungry to work?” Ellie inquired in a dead serious tone.
“You won’t have to work Ellie; maybe they’ll know a school teacher that can read to you. Maybe you can play out in the pasture all day. You leave the work to me, all right?”
“And the food?”
“You leave that to me too.”
Ellie’s stomach roared again.
“What about for now?”
That one stumped Frank for a little while; he gazed at the dry, crisp grain that seemed like it would wither any day now; missing out on its destiny of being a hearty loaf of bread. “Maybe they could chew the grain?” Frank thought.
“Maybe we could have a couple grasshoppers to tide us over till supper?” he said out loud.
Ellie’s eyes instantly went to the ground; everywhere they stepped, a grasshopper was sure to be. She felt bad, having killed at least twenty on their walk from the train stop. Deep down, she knew that’s why her stride had been so slow when she jogged for the train; each step at full force surely spelled the end of a grasshopper’s life.
She felt bad when she gave bear a couple shakes to knock off the ones that had landed on him. But, chewing up one of the jumpy bugs was a different story; it was nature—survival, after all…
No, she figured, sticking out her tongue after a dry heave. Their beady eyes and crunchy backs – wings and legs and orchestrated songs. No way could she eat a grasshopper. During all that contemplation, Frank had caught one in his hands.
“You won’t,” she said in confidence. Frank smiled and opened his mouth as wide as it could go. “I don’t believe you,” she said again—fixated on the fist that evidently held his lunch.
Slowly but surely, Frank lifted his arm, bringing it closer and closer to his face. Ellie shook her head, losing confidence that her father would in fact ingest the creature—but trying her best to keep a straight face so he could see she was too old to fall for his tricks.
When the fist got to Frank’s mouth, Ellie screamed and covered her eyes with bear. Frank gave a couple of exaggerated chews and one big swallow; the slimy noise latter was enough to make the poor girl gag.
“I won’t do it,” she protested. “Go ahead and eat the whole field full, I’m not putting a single one in my mouth.”
When Ellie opened her eyes, Frank’s mouth was back open. So was his palm, which still housed the grasshopper. Its wings spread and off it flew; proudly taking itself off the menu. Ellie frowned while Frank grinned. She had a few choice words for her father, scolding him for upsetting young lady’s stomachs and dragging poor innocent grasshoppers into cruel jokes.
“Wait,” Frank said, putting a finger to Ellie’s lips. “Look.”
A white wooden building that stood small but sturdy in the horizon was now on full display. A hanging sign over top the doorway swung in the gentle breath of wind while two gasoline pumps sat empty a few feet away, waiting for any oncoming traffic that might require a fill-up.
“That’s real right? That little service station there? That’s not just a house, right? I ain’t imagining things, am I?”
“I see it too, Pop,” Ellie assured.
“I’m willing to bet that he’s got milk for sale in there and a couple cookies sitting across a tray up on the counter,” Frank grinned.
Ellie’s stomach gained a new lease on life, un-knotting itself and forgetting any memory of grasshoppers. The girl jumped up and down, swinging bear every which way.
“Should we run?” Ellie asked.
“Well… you never know when he might close,” Frank said. “Come on, let’s eat.”
# # #
“What can I do you two for?” the aging gent behind the counter calmly inquired as he set his newspaper down. With bifocals that took up half his wrinkled face, a sheepherders hat, and a physique that told Frank and Ellie he was more malnourished than the two of them combined – their hopes remained small; figuring all he had for food and drink was gasoline.
“Were fixing for something to eat,” Frank said, catching his breath. “Think you can help us out?”
The attendant’s hand gestured towards a glorious rack of stale chocolate bars that, by the amount of dust settled on them, look as though they belonged in a museum. Ellie rushed over, of course, with a kid in a candy shop mentality—even though she recognized only one of the brand names. Always the optimist, she figured this was a chance to try something new.
“Go on,” Frank encouraged, “pick out what you want.”
Ellie nodded, settling for a McKenzie and Co. Nugget Bar for no other reason than its glistening gold wrapper and carefully designed cursive. Frank spied a couple of black bananas that he snapped up despite their condition; he figured he could talk the attendant down to at least half price. He quickly found an apple and a bag of saltines; there were even a couple cans of tuna fish for sale, and just for himself, a taffy roll.
“You got any cookies?” Frank said to the attendant, who curiously watched on at their every move. He just shook his head in silence. Frank and Ellie shared a look and a disappointed grumble. “How ‘bout milk? You got a fresh bottle sitting around in here?”
“Don’t sell milk,” the attendant grumbled. No matter, Frank and Ellie dumped their smorgasbord of snacks onto the counter, licking their lips and counting the second until they were fortunate to dive in and devour every morsel.
“Soda pops. You go and grab two soda pops too, won’t you Ellie?” Frank asked with an accompanying finger snap. The girl was on it, rifling through the selection of sweet syrupy beverages.
“Where you two coming from?” the attendant asked. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah, yeah… we’re doing fine,” Frank fibbed, though he knew the make-shift meal would lift their spirits in no time. “Got off at the last train station… sign said there wasn’t another one stopping here till Friday.”
“Train stops Tuesdays and Fridays… not too many people get on or off ‘round here.”
“So what? The train just goes on by Wednesdays and Thursdays?” Frank laughed in disbelief. The attendant nodded.
“Town of Bonneydale is just a mile and half north of the train stop. They cut back on account of not too many folks living there nowadays. Keep heading west from here and there’s Iron Springs… ‘bout sixty call that place home.”
“Well we’re sure in a need of ride. Can’t wait three days, that’s for sure,” Frank said, thinking to himself that he can’t wait to pay for his food either. The attendant showed no interest in tabulating the bill; he was far too focused on studying the unfamiliar faces.
“Where you headed?”
“2240 Hollis Rd,” Frank replied. “It’s a dairy.”
“Ah… Martin Brother’s diary.”
As Ellie plopped two sodas down on the counter, Frank found himself gripping the counter, pulling his face as close as the attendant would let him get.
“You know it?”
“Sure I do… one of the biggest dairies around these parts.”
Frank clamored for the advertisement in his pocket, forgoing that action about half way through when he figured he knew the words off by heart and didn’t need it to illustrate the reasoning behind their travels.
“They’re hiring! Looking for milkers and calvers and truck drivers I heard,” Frank explained, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible.
“Sure are. Having a heck of a time finding a reliable bunch too.”
Frank just about fell over, the weight of restored hope was too heavy to keep him upright.
“You’ve spoken to them? There’s still work to be had?”
“Yeah… well…” the attendant nodded. “Seems people aren’t too honest these days about their skills. Hired a handful already, Hollis Martin told me. Barely any of them milked a cow before, despite all of ‘em saying they had.”
Frank jumped, starling the poor attendant as he laughed and clapped his hands. As Ellie looked on, her father was sure to ruffle up her hair; an action she positively detested.
While the girl straightened herself back out, Frank pointed to the groceries as he cleared his throat. The attendant got to typing away on the register, coming up with a total that just about surpassed three dollars.
Frank wanted to ask the fellow just where in the world he got off for charging those kinds of prices, but hunger and impatience got the best of him. He dug deep into his pockets for the little roll of bills he had with him; discovering it wasn’t in his left or right pocket; not even inside where his newspaper clipping was kept.
“Hold on a minute now,” Frank said as he removed his coat and began searching ever possible crevice. “It’s gotta be here somewhere.”
Both Ellie and the attendant watched on as Frank dug and tore and shook and grabbed and rifled and fingered the entire parameter of his coat. He even checked in his hat and his shoes with no luck.
“Where’s the money, Pop?” Ellie asked with growing concern. “Don’t you have it anymore?”
“I… I… uh…” Frank repeated his search, clawing inside every pocket and corner for the fourth time.
“Could it have fallen somewhere?” the attendant asked.
Stumbling off the train platform… running alongside the gravel road… plopping down for a rest in the weeds… Frank figured the last of his bills could be any one of those places. While his feet carried him towards the door in a burst of passion to go carry out a search, the man stopped himself when he realized the most probable cause.
Some wealthy passenger must have noticed when Frank was serving up coffee, and helped themselves just as he was outstretched, passing around the cups.
Frank tossed his hat on the ground. He slapped the counter and stomped his foot a couple of times. Ellie kept silent, knowing full well that it was a rare moment to see her father in a fit of anger. Whenever it occurred, she wanted nothing more to run away and have nothing more to do with Frank—wondering deep down that if there hadn’t been a counter to slap, maybe it might have been her.
“Tell you what,” said the attendant, admiring the rare drama unfolding in his sleepy little shop, “I don’t get out the city too much and there aren’t a lot of folks that sell toys and whatnot for children. You trade me that there teddy bear for this whole lot of treats here, I’ll call it even.”
Frank turned to Ellie, who did nothing but grip bear tighter than she ever had before. Frank looked back at the food, already tasting hints of taffy and soda pop on his lips.
“I got a grandson about the same age as you little girl. What are you, six?” Ellie nodded as the attendant scooped the food up and put it in a convenient little brown paper bag. “He don’t got a teddy bear and I know he’d very much like to have one. What do you say? We got a deal?”
The attendant held out the bag of food, throwing in some peanuts and a couple napkins for good measure. Ellie looked down at bear, its beady eyes telling her nothing else but to never let go. When she looked up, trying her best to work up the courage to part with her best friend for the greater good, she found her father holding the door open.
Despite there being storm clouds visible in the distance, Ellie couldn’t help but get a little teary-eyed and smile from ear to ear.
“Come on Ellie,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”
To be continued… The next installment of Bear by Ryan Uytdewilligen will be published by the Langley Advance Times, Sunday, Feb. 23.