Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Fire: The Search

Warning: This is the third post of a four part holiday tale. If you're just arriving, part one is here and part two is here. But if that's too much work, just wait. It will all be over soon.

“I don’t know what to do. There’s no time and there’s no money.”
“He asks for so little.”
“He’s growing up. It’s time he understood.”
“But he’s still just a boy.”
“I know, but he needs to learn that life’s hard here.”

The kitchen clock’s monotonous movement ticked through the house.

“Maybe I’ll make him a special batch of snickerdoodles. He loves them so.”

The wind rattled the bedroom pane.

“Yes. Yes, he does.”

Nate, upstairs, buried his head under the pillow, unable to eavesdrop any longer, and, after a long, long time, fell asleep.

Christmas Eve dawned cold and clear, though the agitated yard birds hinted that fouler weather was on the way. Nate avoided Timmy all morning; not easily done in the confines of the small farmhouse. When he couldn’t get away from him physically, Nate simply pretended he wasn’t there.

After a late breakfast of cinnamoned oatmeal and dried granny smiths, Dad went out to the barn to drop alfalfa bales in preparation for the coming week and Mother wrapped up in her big woolen coat for a trip to Sweet’s dairy. She said that she needed a bit more butter for some special holiday treats. Once bundled against the cold, she kissed each boy on the head and started down the road. With their parents away, Nate settled near the fire, thumbing through his comics without much enthusiasm, while Timmy fluttered about, bubbling with Christmas Eve energy, seemingly unaware of how he’d ruined Nate’s life.

Timmy’s quirks were impossible for Nate to understand. His fixations with the family fire, his behavior at school, none of it made sense. Timmy didn’t even like to fish. Dad would take the boys out often, after the chores were done, and explore the small streams and ponds that littered the county. Dad taught Nate where to look for fish and how to catch them. More importantly, he taught Nate to appreciate them and to enjoy the simple pleasures of their pursuit. The lessons were wasted on Timmy.

Timmy didn’t have the attention span for fishing. He’d sit for a moment, then begin to dig, often prying up rocks or roots and pitching them into the water, spurring immediate and harsh responses from the serious anglers. Chastised, Timmy would wander away, soon to be out of eyesight in the streamside thickets, heavy woods, or surrounding hills. After a couple of scares, Dad found three whistles, each with a different pitch, and Mother had woven lanyards from coarse baling twine. The boys didn’t go fishing without them hanging around their necks.

Those times that Timmy would disappear or Nate would separate to fish around a bend, Dad would blow his whistle three times. The boys would respond, also with three blasts, and the far-flung parties would gravitate towards one another, tweet by tweet, like some odd flock of canaries. Timmy thought it was a game. But constantly finding him took time away from fishing, so it galled Nate all the more that he had destroyed the Tonka Queen.

As the morning wore on, Timmy clamored constantly for Nate’s attention, asking random, bothersome questions which Nate pointedly ignored. But the interruptions finally became too much. Nate spun on his little brother, wanting to blast him for the destruction of the rod, but knew, if he did, that Mother would find out. She’d know that he had been snooping again. “I can’t wait ‘till we get back to school,” Nate blurted instead. “I’ll help hold you down so Johnny Culver can beat the snot out of you.” Nate scooped up his comics and stomped up the stairs, away from the warm fire. Being in the cold was better than being with Timmy.

Lunch time approached, Mother returned from the dairy and Dad came in from the yard. Nate trudged down the steps, to be met with puzzled stares.

Where’s Timmy?

The rest of the day was a blur. Mother cried. Dad raced about, searching every inch of the homestead, then called the sheriff down in Mossy. Word got out fast. Concerned women came and went, wringing their hands and trying their best to comfort Mother. Loud men shouted instructions and raced off in their trucks along Highway 5 or set out on foot into the surrounding woods, only to return shaking their heads. Doors opened and closed. Doc Davis even brought his fancy hunting dogs, gave them a sniff of Timmy’s checkered pajamas, and turned them loose. But the hounds only added to the confusion by racing around the yard, barking and scattering the chickens while Doc yelled at them to hunt.

The day wore on. Dusk arrived. The temperature began to drop. Timmy was nowhere to be found. The search became more urgent, but darkness made it difficult. Everyone knew Timmy’s dislike of the cold and his habit of simply giving up when he was uncomfortable. He’d be a huddled small thing to find out there in the night. Hope slipped away with the sun and the searchers became more somber. The shouts turned to whispers.

And Nate knew that it was his fault. He’d driven his little brother away because of a stupid fishing pole. He didn’t want the Queen any longer. He didn’t want anything except for his little brother to be found. Nate sat frozen in Timmy’s place on the hearth, holding back tears and watching the fire burn to embers.

The forlorn triple-trill of Dad’s whistle echoed in the dark distance.

The story concludes, here...


cofisher said...

You've got me hook, line and sinker Mike. Can't wait for the finale.

Mike Sepelak said...

You're just an old softy, Howard. Guess I'd better get to writing. ;-)